It’s been a long, cold winter at Riverside Ranch, where Robbie has lived alone since his brothers moved away. Alone, that is, except for his three devious cats, four saddle horses, and the forty-eight mustangs that roam the ranch.
Robbie is preparing for yet another snowfall when he gets the last call he expected—a plea to pick up Lance Taylor from the county jail.
Lance wasn’t just his little brother’s best friend, he was a part of the family. Then, one night, after Lance asked Robbie for something Robbie couldn’t give, he ran away and never came back.
Lance was sixteen and heartbroken when he left his middle-of-nowhere hometown. Six years later, he’s at rock bottom with nowhere else to go, and no one to turn to but Robbie, the man Lance has been inconveniently in love with for most of his life.
When Robbie offers Lance a place to stay, Lance expects a guest bedroom and awkward silences. Instead, he finds himself sharing Robbie’s one-room hayloft apartment and its single bed, while realizing that the old flame he carries for Robbie might not be so hopeless, after all.
Long Winter is the first book in the Wild Ones series and has a happy-for-now ending. Robbie and Lance’s story continues in Signs of Spring.
Fourteen years ago.
It’s the first day of school, and Lance can’t find his new shoes.
He tries not to panic, but his mind is spinning. How could this have happened? He’d put them under the floorboards by his bed, the only place in the house where his father couldn’t find anything. He’d been determined that, when the time came to get on the school bus, for once he’d be wearing decent shoes. Not his worn-out boots, with their soles gaping apart from the toes like ragged tongues.
It’s not like the other kids don’t already have enough to make fun of him for. He doesn’t want to add his old boots to the list.
Lance fits the floorboards carefully back into place and stands up. The lace curtains, once white and now dingy gray, hang perfectly still over his bedroom window even though he pushed the bottom sash all the way up last night when it was so hot that he couldn’t sleep. There isn’t a breeze to be found on this sticky August morning. His throat is dry, too. He forgot to bring a glass of water in with him last night, and once his father had been home by the television, draining one can of beer after another, Lance had known better than to risk coming out of his room.
He doesn’t have time to keep looking for the shoes, and it would be pointless anyway. If they aren’t in the hiding place, then he knows where they are, and he won’t be getting them back.
Lance leaves his room cautiously, the way a cowboy on the black-and-white shows his dad likes would leave a saloon when shots have already been fired in the street. The house is small—a single-story box with a triangular roof, the way a child would draw one. That means Lance’s father is never far away.
From the narrow hallway outside his door, Lance immediately looks to the sofa in the living room. His father sleeps there in the summer, in front of the window-unit air conditioner which is the only thing in the house that can banish the summer heat. A couple of wadded-up pillows are the only sign his father was there. He must already be in the kitchen.
Lance only goes into the kitchen himself because he’s too thirsty to wait until he gets to school for a drink of water. The old, orange-ish carpet in the living room ends in one step, and the cracked linoleum of the kitchen and covered porch begins in the next. As Lance knew he would, he finds his father in a chair at the round table in the middle of the room, slumped on his elbows. The small fan on the countertop is plugged in and whirring, but the room still smells wet and dank. Nothing can beat the steamy heat of an August morning stuck between hundred-degree days.
Lance’s boots are set by the back door, next to the washing machine. The sight of them makes him miserable all over again, but he shoves his knuckles against his right eye before a tear can fall. He’s eight—almost nine. Almost nine is way too old for crying.
His father looks up at him. “The fuck are you still doing here? You miss that bus and you can walk into town. I ain’t driving you.”
Hating his father is a familiar feeling. But right now, it’s got substance and weight, his hate. It feels like an animal that’s barely contained by the cage of his body. He can practically feel it clawing at his chest from the inside, determined to get out.
But when he speaks, his voice is weak, almost a whisper. “Can’t find my shoes.”
He hates how soft his voice sounds. How scared it sounds. It’s nothing like the roar that angry animal in his chest would make if it got free, but although his body is a feeble container, somehow the hate doesn’t escape him. None of Lance’s feelings ever do.
He’s watching his father closely. Close enough that he notices his father flinch faintly at the word “shoes.” But that reaction is as good as a confession. He’d already been fairly sure his dad had swiped his school shoes, but now he’s certain. He wonders where he sold them, and for how much. Hopefully, it was close to what they’d cost new, at least; they’d still been in their box, with those wads of paper stuffed inside them to protect their shape. As soon as he’d tried them on, Lance had immediately packed them back up exactly the way they’d come, paper and all, and put them carefully under the floorboards.
His aunt had sent them. She sent him what she could—and what she assumed his father wouldn’t steal. Her gifts were never cash, which Lance suspected she knew would wind up in his father’s pocket. Apparently, she didn’t realize that a brand new pair of Nikes was just as irresistible to Paul Taylor.
“Waste of money, that fancy shit,” says his father, standing up to rummage in the fridge. “Sending that stuff—does she think you’re ashamed of who you are? Nothing wrong with those boots we got from Bill’s kids.”
Bill is someone who goes to the bar almost as much as Lance’s dad, and he has triplets. They’re two years older than Lance, but they were bigger kids even when they were Lance’s age, so all of their old things fit him funny. Bill sends everything they outgrow home with Lance’s dad in black trash bags.
“They’re kinda getting worn,” Lance can’t help muttering, even though he knows it’s useless to argue. But he’s so angry—at his father for taking the shoes and at himself for not hiding them better. Or at least, he should have been careful to check that they were still under the floorboards before that morning. Now, he doesn’t even have time to try to tape the boots together.
So, worn-out boots with split soles, it is. He slips into them and flees the house as his dad delivers his parting shot in a low growl.
“We’ll talk later about what else I found.”
Lance had almost forgotten that if his father found the shoes, he also found the little odds and ends that always made their way into Lance’s pockets. Things that were bright or strange and that he thought no one would see him reach for—it was almost impossible for him to resist. Shiny beads; buttons; lost earrings; and once, in a moment that was one of the most thrilling in Lance’s memory but that also made him burn with shame, a page of glossy stickers from the display by the drugstore checkout.
Eager to reach the bus and the escape of a day at school, Lance runs harder. He hopes the shadow of worrying what his dad will do when Lance gets home won’t follow him all day.
The bus doesn’t come down driveways, not even the ones as long as theirs, so every school day, Lance has to make a quarter-mile trek to meet it at the road. He doesn’t mind. The steps put his dad and the too-small house behind him and let him be someone else for a while. Someone who doesn’t have to be as careful; someone who doesn’t have to hide.
The bus is already waiting for him, but the driver, Mr. Dale, sees him coming and doesn’t pull away. He’s an older man with a bald head beneath a flat-billed mesh ballcap, and his smile is always kind.
“Hey, sport,” he says cheerfully as Lance climbs up the big steps into the bus. As soon as Lance clears the accordion door, Mr. Dale pulls the lever so it whooshes closed.
“Hi, Mr. Dale,” Lance replies politely, and then he takes a deep breath and stares down the aisle at the seats, which are already more than half-full.
He does spy one empty seat, and makes a beeline for it like it could disappear. When he slides across the hot, sticky vinyl, a rush of air escapes him. The bus jerks as Mr. Dale puts it in gear, and off they go.
Lance rests his forehead against the window, staring out at the grass meadow bordering the gravel road, the blades beginning to burn red at the tips to signal fall. The bus sways as Mr. Dale takes the sharp turn just before the one-lane bridge. As they cross it, Lance holds his breath like always, sure the ancient boards and crossbeams will split under the strain of the bus’s weight. The river bridge looks like something built for horses and carriages, not heavy vehicles.
But like always, they make it. In reality, nothing is quite as fragile as it feels in Lance’s imagination.
As the bus rumbles over the gravel on the far side of the bridge, Lance sits up in his seat, anxiousness forgotten in favor of eagerness to see the Chases. Their driveway is winding and gravel-surfaced like Lance’s, but it’s also much better groomed—a level stretch of fresh white rock curving to disappear toward a house not visible from the road.
The Chases don’t walk out to meet the bus. Their brother drives them. They’re waiting in the bed of an old truck, its pale blue paint making it stand out like a robin’s egg on the backdrop of verdant oak trees that hedge the Chases’ long driveway. As the boys see the bus pulling around, they spill out of the back of the truck one at a time.
First is Danny, who’s Lance’s age, sliding off the tailgate. His oldest brother, Robbie, hovers beside him, his hands outstretched but not quite touching, like he’s worried Danny will fall. But Danny lands on his feet and bats his brother’s hands away.
Then, there’s Johnny, who’s four years older than Lance, and half the time drives the blue truck up the driveway. Today, he was sitting in the bed. He clambers out after Danny and tousles his hair, which makes Danny scowl.
The driver is Robbie, the eldest Chase. Unlike his golden-haired brothers, Robbie, the eldest Chase, has black hair and a black, untidy beard. He pushes his hands into his jeans pockets while Danny and Johnny rush the bus steps.
Lance doesn’t know why he’s so fascinated by the Chases. Maybe because he’s heard his father grumble about them since before Lance could talk. Maybe because, in class, Danny knows every answer and quickly becomes every teacher’s favorite. Which, incidentally, makes him most of the other kids’ least favorite. Maybe it’s because Johnny is so popular that even kids in grade school know who he is. He’s a football quarterback and plays some of the leads in the school plays. He can even sing.
But the main reason that Lance watches the Chases is for glimpses of their quiet older brother, Robbie; Robbie, who always seems a little sad and a little tired, but watches the younger boys with warm protectiveness. It’s an expression Lance has never seen anyone turn in his own direction. He watches Robbie Chase so that he knows exactly what to picture when he closes his eyes and imagines mattering enough to someone like Robbie Chase to get looked at that way.
The younger Chase brothers pile onto the bus and Johnny heads straight toward the back, where a couple of boys are calling to him. Danny pauses at the top of the steps, his hand wrapped tightly around the straps of his backpack and his expression uncertain as he looks down the aisle.
Lance understands that look. It’s like he’s seeing himself—well, a shorter, blond version of himself, with freckles and really nice shoes—when he got on the bus one stop before.
The other kids don’t like Lance, and they don’t like Danny, either. That fact makes Lance lonely. Maybe Danny’s lonely, too.
“You can sit by me,” Lance says, before he can overthink it. Danny’s head jerks in his direction, and a pink blush flares behind his freckles.
“Okay. Thanks.” Danny ambles forward and drops onto the seat next to Lance. Their elbows touch when Danny leans forward and slides off his backpack. “Sorry,” he says, shooting Lance a look out of the corner of his eye.
“S’okay,” says Lance. He feels hot and itchy all over, the way he always does when he has to talk to someone who isn’t Mr. Dale or a teacher. He sees a pin on the pocket of Danny’s backpack, though, and blurts out, “You like The Team?” Their librarian, a young woman with purple hair, got the first set of the comics. Lance has had to read them in small doses, keeping them in his cubby in the classroom because he’s afraid to take them home.
Danny looks up, something sharp in his eyes. “Well, yeah,” he says, like it’s a stupid question, and then his voice softens and his eyelashes fall down to his cheeks. They’re dark gold, like autumn leaves turning.
“I got the new issue. Y’wanna see?” He pinches the zipper on the front pocket of his bag and looks at Lance again.
“Yeah!” Lance exclaims, wiping his sweaty hands on his knees. “Yeah, I want to see.”
The bus starts to pull away and Lance happens to glance up—a conditioned habit. He’s just in time to see Robbie Chase put on a battered straw cowboy hat and climb back into the truck.
“You got somebody you want to call?”
Lance looks up at the question, wondering how long he’s been staring at his shoes, far away in memory.
He’s sitting on a bench that’s bolted to the wall inside an otherwise empty cell on the third floor of the courthouse in Teller County—the same building that’s probably storing his original birth certificate, first driver’s license application, and who knows what else. When he left Nebraska at sixteen, he never intended to come back…but if he had, he would’ve pictured himself spending the night in the Moonlight Motel, not the jail.
The attendant, or whatever his title is, is a portly man who’s probably ten years older than Lance. His hair is thinning at the temples, his uniform too tight in the stomach and the arms.
“I get one phone call? Just like the movies?” Lance loops an arm around his knee.
“You can have more than one if you want,” says the guy, “but each one has to be fifteen minutes or less.”
“Really?” Lance frowns. “I thought that ‘one phone call’ thing was like…official.”
Now, the attendant looks a little nervous. “Uh, I don’t know? But I’ve worked here for eleven years and we always let people make calls if they want to. But each one has to be—”
“Fifteen minutes or less,” Lance finishes for him. The attendant nods. Lance sighs and admits, “I don’t have anyone to call.”
“Is it because you don’t have any phone numbers memorized? Because I can give you your own phone.”
“Really?” Despite having had the three longest and worst days of his life in rapid succession, Lance is incredulous. Maybe he’s just seizing on any distraction from the prospect of spending the night in jail, and the surrealism of being under arrest in the first place. He offers the attendant a lopsided smile. “They’d never allow that on TV.”
The attendant just shrugs. Lance lets his head fall back, all of the energy leaving him with the full weight of his next words even before he speaks them. “I still don’t have anyone to call.”
There are a few people he’s fairly sure would answer, but he rules them out one by one. His aunt would help him however she could, but he does his level best never to ask her for anything. He can’t bear to call her from a jail cell.
Maisie would hitchhike halfway across the country if he called her, ditching classes without a second thought even after busting her ass to get into her grad school program. But he’s not clear on what she’d be likely to accomplish if she were there, except yelling at a lot of people—Lance included—and possibly protesting his arrest on the courthouse lawn.
He thinks about calling Niall and demanding, What the fuck? He knew Niall was mad at him, but this? Seriously? If Niall had just called and demanded the car back, Lance would have returned it.
Probably. Eventually. He isn’t sure he actually checked his phone during the whole drive from Chicago to the Nebraska state line.
If Lance calls Niall, though, he’ll be giving Niall the ultimate satisfaction. It wouldn’t surprise Lance if that’s all this was to Niall: a ploy meant not to punish Lance, but to make Lance need him. Depend on him. That would be just like Niall.
Once, Lance knowing how Niall craved specific things from him had been useful—information that informed Lance’s approach to their eight-month relationship. Now, thinking of trying to pull Niall’s strings makes Lance’s skin crawl. It wouldn’t be worth it if Niall took the opportunity to get his hooks back into him.
Honestly, Lance would rather stay in jail. Even if the idea of being locked up in here for much longer is making his heart race. As the light has been fading outside the window, he’s begun feeling worse and worse.
And…there is one other person he could call.
“Actually,” he tells the attendant, “maybe I do.”