EXCERPT: The Bribe - Author Willa Nash

November 18, 2020

EXCERPT: The Bribe

Read the first chapter of The Bribe, book one in the Calamity Montana series.

Jade

“I hate you for making me do this,” Everly hissed.

“Me?” I whisper-yelled. “This was your idea, remember? I wanted to spend a weekend glamping. But no. You thought a hike would be a more memorable experience.”

She wasn’t wrong. We’d definitely remember this trip.

If we survived.

Her entire body trembled by my side. “Do you think they’ll come closer?”

“I don’t know.” I gripped her hand, clutching it as we huddled together on the trail.

Across from us, about fifty feet down the trail, stood a bison the size of a tank. He’d been farther away five minutes ago, but with every passing second, he inched closer, nuzzling the grass with his snout before taking another step in our direction. His charcoal horns tapered to piercing points, and his black, beady eyes seemed glued to our every move.

The bull snorted, causing both of us to flinch.

The minute we’d come upon the herd in this meadow, we’d nonchalantly retreated on the trail, but for every backward step we took, the animals—this one in particular—took three forward.

Everly unclipped the canister holstered to her belt. “Does bear spray work on bison?”

“I don’t know.” But if that thing came within firing range, we’d both unleash until either he killed us or we turned him into bison jerky—pepper spray flavored. “Come on.”

We eased back another foot, this time not drawing any movement from the beast. One foot became ten, then twenty. When the animal turned, whipping his tail over his ass in a silent fuck off, Everly and I slumped against each other in relief.

We were standing in the middle of an open plain in Yellowstone National Park. The path we were on was bordered by tall green grasses that stood above our knees and swayed in the slight summer breeze.

Everly and I had spent hours and hours doing research on trails after she’d convinced me to hike. This particular path wound through the Hayden Valley, and the online descriptions had promised an experience unique to the Yellowstone Plateau. If you wanted to see the heart of the park, this was the hike to take.

We’d been hiking since sunrise, traversing meadows and passing wide sections of pinewoods. Lunch had been by a small lake. Through it all, we’d enjoyed seeing the park’s wildlife from a safe distance. Birds squawked as they flew overhead. Deer and elk stared at us cautiously before bounding away in the opposite direction. They gave us a wide berth and we returned the favor.

That was, until we’d rounded a bend, emerging from behind one of the trail’s many plateaus and found ourselves much, much too close to the bison.

“At least it wasn’t a bear,” I said, doing a quick sweep of the area, making sure there wasn’t a grizzly in sight. “So what do we do? They’re blocking the trail.”

The only way forward was through the bison, and one close encounter was enough for my lifetime.

“Should we turn around? Head back to the trailhead?”

“We’ll never make it back to the car before dark.”

If my watch was correct, we’d hiked almost seventeen miles today and only had three to go until we reached the end. Three puny miles. Easy, if not for the blockade.

“Remember what I said about bison being majestic?” I asked. “I changed my mind.”

Until thirty minutes ago, I’d loved the animals. I’d bought a bison stuffy at the gift shop at Old Faithful yesterday. But given their sheer size, if one of the ogres decided to play chase the human, we’d be trampled and stomped to death in seconds.

“I don’t want one of those faces to be the last thing I see,” I said.

“What about bears? I don’t want to be bear food either. At least in the daytime, we can see them coming. I don’t want to be stranded out here in the middle of the night.”

“Shit,” I hissed.

Though the bison had taken us by surprise, we’d been prepared for bears. Everly and I were both packing three cans of bear spray and we’d been hyper bear aware with every mile.

If my choice was grizzly or buffalo, I’d take my chances with the bison. “We have to wait for them to move off the trail.”

We could try to walk around them but neither of us knew the area and the last thing we needed was to get lost. Like the park ranger had reminded us three times yesterday when we’d told him we were hiking Mary Mountain—stay on the trail.

So here we were. Stuck.

Beyond us, the grasslands spread for miles, eventually meeting the mountain foothills. The open wilderness had lots of space to run.

And not a damn place to hide.

Today’s journey had been one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of my life.

Maybe fate had intervened and brought us here. I was about to embark on a new phase in my life, and remembering this hike would help me keep things in perspective. If I could face down a one-ton bison and not pee my pants, I could move across the country and build a new life, no sweat.

We stood there, watching the animals meander through the meadow with no care for our urgency. The sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky, and though we were hours from sunset, eventually the light would fade and we’d become a tasty temptation for a passing grizzly bear.

Or a pack of wolves.

My stomach turned.

“They aren’t leaving,” Everly said.

“Nope.”

The bison herd clustered along the stretch of trail ahead, eating and leaving their shit pies where we’d planned to walk. I’d almost stepped in a ripe one earlier, which should have been my first warning to turn back, but I’d been too busy appreciating the landscape and keeping an eye out for carnivores.

“How fast do you think we can walk slash run seventeen miles?” I asked.

“Fast.” Everly nodded. “Really, really fast.”

“Good. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Amen.” We both spun around, ready to bolt, but froze when we saw something else on our path.

Not a bear—thank God—but a man.

“Uh . . . how long has he been behind us?”

“This is the first time I’ve noticed him,” Everly said. “I glanced back to look for bears but that was a while ago.”

“Maybe he’s a park ranger.”

“Or a serial killer following two idiot women from Nashville and he’s going to drag us back to his lair and turn us into human stew.”

“Eww.” I cringed. “Thanks for the visual.”

“Sorry. I’ve been watching a lot of Criminal Minds.”

The man’s long legs ate up the distance between us. His thighs bulged beneath his faded jeans with every stride. If he’d hiked the past seventeen miles at that speed, it was no wonder we hadn’t noticed him behind us.

He wore a backpack like ours, but the straps seemed tiny on his broad shoulders, and they stretched the navy cotton of his T-shirt tight across his muscled chest and flat stomach. The baseball cap on his head shaded his eyes from view, though even from a distance, the strong line of his jaw and the straight bridge of his nose were evident.

Neither Everly nor I spoke as we watched the man get closer, his features becoming clearer with every step.

Everly clutched her can of spray in a fist as he lifted an arm to wave.

I fought to keep my mouth from falling open at this unexpected and devastatingly handsome surprise.

Everly jammed her elbow into my side, forcing me to close my gaping mouth. “You’re drooling. Potential murderer, remember?”

I blinked, dropping my eyes to my feet for a long moment as I composed myself. When I lifted my chin, the guy was standing before us.

“Ladies.” He kept his voice low as he looked over our heads. “Roadblock, huh?”

“Yep,” I said. “And they aren’t moving anytime soon. We were just going to hustle back to the trailhead.”

“Seventeen miles?” He shook his head. “No offense, but you’ll never make it before dark. And this is not the place you want to be after nightfall.”

Everly and I shared a look. She knew what I was going to say and gave me a silent no.

I said it anyway. “Any chance we can tag along with you until the end of the trail?”

“Not a problem.” He nodded, his gravelly voice sending a zing down my spine before he took a step into the tall grass.

“But the trail . . .” I pointed to the narrow dirt path.

“That’s not the trail. That’s a bison path. They knock down trail markers a lot.” He lifted a hand and pointed toward the mountains in the distance. “The trail is over there. But you two looked lost, so . . .”

He’d come to rescue us.

Which meant the reason we were standing in the middle of a bison herd was because they’d lured us to them.

Sadistic creatures, buffalo.

“Come on.” He jerked his chin and took another step. “I won’t get you lost. Promise.”

“Sir.” Everly held up a hand, stopping him. “I really hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but how do we know you’re not leading us to your serial-killer hideaway?”

A slow grin spread across his face, and he shrugged off his pack, setting it down and dropping to a knee as he unzipped the front pocket.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Everly aimed her bear spray at his face.

“Easy.” He held up his hands. “I’m a cop. I was going to show you my badge.”

“That’s what all serial killers say.” Everly’s gaze narrowed. We really needed to find her another show to binge on Netflix.

“She’s just a little on edge.” I placed my hand on her wrist, pushing her arm down as I gave her a scowl. “Nature stresses us out.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Yet you’re in the middle of Yellowstone National Park.”

“We all make mistakes, Officer.”

He chuckled, flashing me a smile of straight, white teeth before he rifled through his backpack.

I fanned my face.

“Seriously,” Everly mouthed.

“What?” I mouthed back, feigning innocence.

She rolled her eyes.

In a different setting, Everly would be shoving me into this guy’s arms. He was exactly my type, tall and built with an unpolished and rugged edge that had always been my weakness.

He stood and handed me a wallet, opening the front flap to reveal a gleaming silver and gold badge. “Sheriff Duke Evans.”

Sweet lord, I nearly swooned.

He had a great name.

I’d always been a sucker for a great name.

Everly hovered over my shoulder, studying the badge. When she deemed it real, she relaxed and holstered her spray.

“What’s your name?” Duke asked, taking the badge and putting it away.

“L— Jade.”

“Lajade?”

“No, sorry.” I blushed. One gorgeous man saving my life, and my tongue felt twelve sizes too big for my mouth. “Jade. My name is Jade Morgan. This is my best friend, Everly Sanchez.”

“Nice to meet you.” He rezipped his pack and shrugged it on. “Ready?”

“Definitely.” I nodded and stepped off the trail.

Then I blew a kiss goodbye to the bison as Everly gave them the finger.

***

“Are you guys camping out?” Duke asked as we walked.

We were on the real trail now, the bison encounter forgotten as we crossed an open meadow toward a cluster of trees in the distance. The only animals in sight were the birds soaring above in the big, blue sky.

“We’re staying at the Madison Campground. You?”

He shook his head. “I’m just here for the day. I had a buddy drop me off at the trailhead this morning. My rig is parked up ahead and waiting.”

“He didn’t hike with you?”

“I, uh . . . didn’t invite him. I like to hike alone.”

Which he had been until he’d rescued us. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m glad to help.”

I smiled at his profile, then turned my attention back to the trail so I didn’t trip over a rock.

Duke had navigated us through the grasses to the trail without any trouble. For the past mile, we’d had to walk single file and hadn’t spoken much. I’d stayed behind him, doing my best not to stare at his ass even though it was definitely stare worthy, while Everly followed behind me. When the trail had widened, Duke had hung back a step so I could move up to his side.

Everly, my beautiful friend, had stopped to tie her already tied boot and given us a little space.

“Where are you from, Jade?”

“Tennessee.”

“No accent.”

I shook my head. “I grew up in upstate New York. What about you?”

“Wyoming. I grew up in a little town about an hour from here.”

“Do you come here often?”

“Not as much as I’d like.” He pulled in a deep breath, his chest expanding as he drew in the clean air and held it in his lungs.

“This is my first trip.”

“No,” he deadpanned.

“Shocking, right?” I laughed, taking in the view. “We got in a little over our heads today, but this is truly a magnificent place.”

“Pure beauty.”

I looked up, expecting his eyes to be on the mountains, but his gaze was aimed at me.

My focus returned to the trail as I willed the flush out of my face.

I was the furthest thing from a beauty today. My black hair was a wreck because I hadn’t washed it in days, not since Everly had helped me dye it in our bathroom before we’d left Nashville. The thick locks were twisted in a sloppy braid that hung down the middle of my back and my red cap covered the greasy roots. The only makeup I’d put on my face this morning had been tinted sunscreen.

Maybe Duke was just flirting or being nice, but it was still the best compliment I’d had from a man in years because it had come honestly and without expectation.

We walked for a while without talking. Duke’s strides were longer than mine, but he held back, slowing so Everly and I could keep up.

I sneaked a glance at his profile every few steps, studying the color of his eyes and how perfectly it matched the blue, cloudless sky. His toffee-colored hair curled at the nape of his neck where it escaped the confines of his hat.

“You’re a sheriff,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a sheriff before. Do you enjoy it?”

“For the most part. I’m not crazy about the politics but I’m lucky. Most people in my county think I’m doing a good job, which means I get to keep doing it.”

“How long have you been a cop?”

“Since I was eighteen. I hired on as a deputy for my predecessor, then was elected sheriff two years ago.”

“Impressive.”

Duke shrugged. “At the time, there were some who thought I was too young for the job, but no one else would step up to take it. We’ll see if they reelect me when my term is up. I’m only thirty-three and sheriffs in larger counties are generally older and have more experience. But I live in a small community.”

“Something tells me you prefer it that way.”

“You’d be right.”

“Do you want to be reelected?”

“Yes and no,” he admitted. “Some days, I love my job. Others, it’s a pain in the ass. Guess you could say that about any job though, right?”

“Yep.” I’d had the job most girls could only dream of, but dreams weren’t always what you imagined them to be, and when there were more bad days than good, it was time to walk away. “What would you do if you weren’t a cop?”

“Be a cop.” He laughed. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

For his sake, I hoped that didn’t change.

Because turning your back on your dream, giving it up, was heartbreaking.

We rounded a curve and the trail narrowed, forcing us closer. I slowed to get behind him, but Duke slowed too, keeping by my side. The roped muscles of his arm brushed against my bare skin. His knuckles grazed mine and I forgot to breathe.

When I looked up, those blue eyes were waiting.

Damn it, I should have picked Wyoming for my new home.

There was a spark between us, and I hadn’t felt a crush on a man in ages. Duke might just be that something unexpected I’d been wishing for.

But our time together was up.

Before I was ready to part ways with this handsome and kind stranger, a wooden sign greeted us on the trail with an arrow pointing toward the parking lot where we’d left my car—a black Range Rover I’d purchased the day Everly and I had arrived in Jackson, Wyoming.

I’d driven it through Yellowstone while she’d followed in her rental car. We’d left the rental at the trailhead where we’d started today’s adventure. Our plan was to camp out tonight and cross into Montana tomorrow.

Then Everly would head to the airport in Bozeman, where she’d catch a flight home to Nashville.

And I’d continue on to Calamity and start this next chapter of my life.

There were only a few vehicles in the parking lot as we emerged from the trail. The moment Everly spotted my SUV, she sighed. “We made it. Let’s never hike again. Though I am kind of sad I didn’t get to use my bear spray.”

Duke chuckled. “I’ve been pepper sprayed twice, once at the police academy and another time for a training exercise. Trust me when I say you don’t want to use those cans unless absolutely necessary.”

“Thanks for not being a serial killer.” Everly held out her hand to shake Duke’s. “And thanks for rescuing us.”

“No problem.” He waved as she turned and walked toward the SUV, fishing out the keys we’d put in her backpack.

I scanned the parking lot, taking note of the trees and the signs, looking anywhere but at Duke until it was time for the inevitable goodbye.

“Pleasure to meet you, Jade Morgan.” He extended his hand, and I slipped mine into his grip.

Tingles raced across my skin as the rough callouses on his palm scraped against my fingers. I met his gaze, soaking up the azure blue. “Take care, Duke.”

He inched closer, not letting go as I’d expected. Instead, he held my hand, tugging me in as his focus dropped to my lips. Like maybe he was thinking of kissing me.

Maybe I wanted him to.

But then he blinked, the moment broken, and the heat of his hand disappeared.

I plastered on a smile to mask the disappointment.

It was better this way, right? Cops asked questions and I doubted Duke would be satisfied with partial answers. Over the next year or two, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. At twenty-eight years old, I was building a new life. The smartest thing for me to do would be avoiding men, especially a hot sheriff who was in the public spotlight.

But after just hours with him, I knew I’d wonder about Duke. I’d wonder what might have been. He was fantasy fodder at its finest.

“Drive safe.” With a tip of his green baseball cap, he turned and walked toward a large white truck parked beneath a towering evergreen.

I stood, rooted in place, as he climbed in and drove away.

“Goodbye, Duke Evans.”

That really was a great name.

***

“I can’t believe you won’t be home when I get there.” Everly sniffled. “This weekend went way too fast.”

“But I’m glad we did it.”

She wiped away a tear. “Me too.”

The two of us looked human again after long showers and sleep in an actual bed. While camping out two nights with a long hike in between had been an experience neither of us would forget, I wasn’t in a hurry to see the inside of a tent again.

When we’d arrived at the Madison Campground after the hike, we’d been exhausted. Everly and I had barely mustered the energy to set up our tent and sleeping bags before we’d collapsed. The next morning, we’d woken up early, packed our things and hit the road. After collecting her rental car from the trailhead, we’d driven to West Yellowstone, where a hotel room and spa appointments had been waiting.

I’d soaked up one last day and night with my best friend before we’d come outside to say goodbye. Everly was driving to the airport.

I was heading to Calamity.

“Call me when you get home?” I asked.

She nodded. “I will. If you need anything at all, I’m just a plane ride away.”

I hugged her, squeezing tight. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you too.”

My entire life, Everly had lived less than one block away from me. First as little girls riding bikes in our cul-de-sac. Then as women living together in Nashville for the past ten years. And now she’d be across the country, living her normal life, while I was moving to a new town, a new state and a new home, hoping to find a new dream.

Hoping to find that elusive peace.

“Thanks for this,” I said. “For the weekend. For coming out here with me. For keeping this a secret.”

“I hope it stays that way.” Her brown eyes filled with worry. “Are you sure about this?”

“No, but I have to try.”

“You know your secret is safe with me, but . . . at some point, someone is going to figure it out.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” I sighed. “If I’m lucky, I can hide here forever.”

And if not . . .

The doubts weren’t going to stop me from trying.

“Just take care of yourself, okay?” She hugged me again. “Love you.”

“Love you too.” I stood beside my car, watching her get into hers and drive away. It wasn’t until her taillights disappeared down the highway that I finally unglued my feet.

And started my new beginning.

***

“Oh, hell.” I glanced at my watch and abandoned my lazy pace.

Maybe tomorrow I’d learn how not to be perpetually late. Today was clearly not that day.

As I scurried down the sidewalk, I sent my landlord a text apologizing for being late and promising to be there soon. Then I tucked my phone away, pinned my purse beneath an elbow and ran toward my Rover.

Mom had always teased me for getting lost in my own head and misplacing time. Dad had been the same way.

Except I hadn’t been lost in my head.

I’d been lost in Calamity.

Located in the heart of southwest Montana, my new hometown had charmed me instantly. Calamity was nestled in a mountain valley surrounded in all directions by towering indigo peaks. There wasn’t much to the town itself, as the internet had promised—I’d driven from one end to the other in less than five minutes.

But I didn’t need a sprawling metropolis. After an hour of walking up and down First Street, I’d realized the quaint rural setting suited me fine.

I’d instantly fallen in love with the easy pace. No one rushed down the sidewalks. People smiled as you passed them. In every store I’d explored today, the clerks had welcomed me to town and asked for my name.

My landlord had promised Calamity was a friendly place. She’d boasted about the stunning, short summers and sunny, albeit cold, winters. How everyone would be so happy to have a young, fresh face in their community. I’d thought she’d been blowing smoke up my ass just to get me to sign the lease agreement.

Calamity was everything she’d pledged and more.

Which was why I’d spent much too long exploring instead of meeting her on time to pick up the keys to my rental house.

Sweat beaded at my temples by the time I reached my car and hopped inside, rolling down the windows instead of using the air conditioning. Then I reversed out of my spot like my wheels were on fire and raced down the road.

The air whipped through my hair. The sun warmed my face. And the smile that stretched my mouth had staying power.

This is going to work. I felt it in my bones.

Calamity was located two hours from the nearest town of any size. It would be easy for me to hide here, living as Jade Morgan. In all my wandering, I hadn’t seen a flicker of recognition on anyone’s face.

According to my internet research, there were roughly two thousand people living in Calamity and the surrounding valley. I could convince two thousand people that I was a nobody, just a single woman, new to Calamity, who’d rented a two-bedroom home on the outskirts of town. I didn’t have to find a job because I was planning on telling everyone I worked from home. I’d pay cash whenever possible and simply blend in.

My foot pressed the accelerator as I glanced between the road and my GPS. In one mile, I’d take a left and in less than three minutes I’d be—

The wail of a siren filled my ears. Blue and red lights greeted me in the rearview mirror. My foot lifted off the gas pedal, but it was too late. As I slowed and veered for the shoulder, so did the imposing police truck behind me.

This was bad. This was really, really bad. “Shit. Why am I so stupid?”

My heart pounded as I came to a stop, shoving the Rover into park. With trembling hands, I reached for my purse in the passenger seat and rifled through it until I found my wallet.

Why couldn’t I have just been on time for once in my life? A speeding ticket my first day in Calamity was not blending in. And if my name ended up in the local police report, my stay here would be much, much shorter than planned.

The officer’s footsteps approached my door cautiously. Through the side mirror, I couldn’t get a good look at his face, but I didn’t miss the black gun on one hip and shining badge on the other.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted the second he was close enough to my open window to hear. “I was late and—” The words disappeared as I looked up and saw blue.

“Jade?”

I blinked. “Duke? What are you doing here? I thought you were from Wyoming.”

“I grew up in Wyoming, but I live in Calamity.” He shook his head, clearing the disbelief from his expression. Then his gaze narrowed and intensified. “License, registration and insurance, please.”

“Right.” I pretended like the sharp, impassive edge to his voice didn’t sting.

Maybe I’d misread that parting moment in the park. Maybe he’d just been a nice guy helping two tourists to their car, and the attraction here was one-sided.

My fingers fumbled with the plastic as I yanked my license out of my wallet, and I nearly dropped it as I handed it over.

“I’m sorry I was speeding.” Please, please don’t notice. I gave him my most innocent eyes, silently begging for him to hand me back my driver’s license and forget this whole thing.

No such luck.

Duke studied my license, his eyes flicking between me and the plastic card. Then his jaw clenched and he put both of his hands on the windowsill. “Ms. Morgan. Lajade, right? Or should I call you Lucy Ross? As in the famous country singer Lucy Ross.”

I cringed. “I can explain.”

“Yeah. I think you’d better start talking.”

“Sheriff Evans.” I gave him my sweetest smile. “What would you say to a bribe?”

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