“It’s bad form to get drunk at your sister’s wedding, right?”
“Since when has that ever stopped you, Cade?”
Amber Jameson leaned back in the folding chair and then checked to make sure the little purple bow tied to the back hadn’t fallen off and onto the grass. She’d spent too many damn hours tying those things on yesterday.
They were finicky. Finicky flipping ribbons. Almost as finicky as the bride, who, while cute as a button under normal circumstances, had had a bridezilla flare-up while they’d been decorating yesterday, turning Elk Haven Stables into a country-fairy-princess dream, and had gone around micromanaging said ribbon-tying.
She’d demanded ribbon curls in lengths that were impossible for mere mortals to achieve. If Lark weren’t the little sister Amber had always wanted, she would never have gone along with all of it. Not without attacking her with the scissors she was using to curl ribbons, at least.
But then, Lark’s life had been short on frills, being that she had been raised by two brothers and a dad. So Amber supposed she was entitled.
But then, Amber’s life had been short on this kind of thing too, and she didn’t feel at all yearny for it. Nope. Marriage and men and bleah. Not her thing. Not these days.
“It doesn’t usually,” Cade said, leaning back in his chair so that they were sitting at the same angle. “But I thought, since this is for Lark, maybe I should behave.”
She looked at her friend’s profile. Strong, handsome. Square jaw, roughened with dark stubble. Brown eyes that always had a glint of naughty in them. And today, he was wearing a suit jacket and a tie, along with a black cowboy hat.
Damn, damn, damn, he was fine. Sometimes it hit her, like a shit-ton of bricks, that her best friend was the best-looking guy in a five-hundred-mile radius. Or possibly the world. And it made her feel . . . things she didn’t want to feel.
Then he turned to face her head-on and offered her his very best smart-ass Cade smile, and the moment faded out as soon as it hit. Like driving on one of Silver Creek’s fir-lined highways and seeing a sunbeam peek through the trees. A brilliant shaft of light that colored the world gold for just a moment before racing back behind the dark green branches. Just a glimpse; an impression of something she didn’t want to explore.
“When did she grow up?” Amber asked, looking over at the dance floor, where Lark was currently holding on to her new husband, both of them swaying to the music without displaying any particular dancing skills. Quinn was a rough-and-tumble cowboy type, though he seemed to have a little more rhythm than his new bride. “It makes me feel old,” she continued. “Like an old cliché. Sitting here at her reception looking at this grown-up woman in a wedding gown and thinking . . . how is she not eight years old still?”
“Imagine how I feel,” Cade said, his voice rough.
“Yeah, I know.”
The Mitchells were a part of Amber’s cobbled-together family. She didn’t have a lot in the way of people who loved her, so when she found people who were willing to accept her, she clung to them as best as she could.
In her younger years that clinging amounted to some very poor decisions, but she’d matured past that. Especially after she’d realized that her grandma and grandpa weren’t going to just ship her straight back into the system. That they were going to let her stay in Silver Creek.
That she could stay, with them, in their home.
Since then, she’d built herself a solid foundation for her life. And Cade was the cornerstone. Had been since she was fourteen years old. She would never, ever do anything to jeopardize that.
Though, there was nothing wrong with infrequent, secret ogling.
“Are you having empty-nest syndrome, Mitchell?” she asked, nudging him with her elbow.
“Me? Oh, hell no. This nest isn’t getting emptier. Maddy runs around like hell on pudgy feet. That little beast cut holes in one of my work shirts the other day with those little plastic-handled scissors. And now Cole and Kelsey have the other baby coming in January. Nope, it’s just filling up over here.”
“But Lark’s gone.”
“She’s been gone. She’s been shacking up with that asshole I now call a brother-in-law for a year.”
She patted his thigh and pretended not to notice how hard and hot and muscular it was beneath those thin dress pants. “I know. But now it’s official.”
“Emotions don’t bite, Cade. Don’t run from your feels,” she said dryly.
“That’s pretty rich coming from you, missy.”
She made a face at him and earned a smile. “I don’t have to take advice to give it. I’m emotionally stunted and I know it.”
“That’s why we get along so well.”
“I thought it was because I’m such a good pool player,” she said, lifting her beer up from the table and taking a long drink.
“That’s not it. I’m a lot better than you are.”
“What do you think?” he asked. “Wanna dance?”
She eyed Cade. More specifically, his leg. The one she hadn’t just patted. “Um . . . really?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Okay, maybe not.” The grooves around his mouth deepened, and Amber felt an answering chasm deepen around her heart.
She hated that he couldn’t dance anymore. Hated that the man she knew as being so totally vital and energetic was hobbled because of a rodeo accident four years ago.
For a long time they’d all blamed Quinn, Lark’s husband, but they found out they’d been mistaken—which was hard for Cade to process, as evidenced by the fact that he frequently referred to his new brother-in-law as an asshole.
They were getting there, but they weren’t exactly best friends yet.
The dude-bonding process was not yet complete.
Now they didn’t quite know who to blame, except for a poor kid who’d been paid to sabotage the ride. The spike he’d put beneath Cade’s horse’s saddle had only been intended to end the ride faster, not send Cade to the hospital and cause life-changing, career-ending injuries. Getting hung up on your horse was never a good thing, but when the horse was that spooked? You didn’t walk away. You got carted away on a stretcher.
Quinn got to move on from it all. His name was cleared. He was reinstated into competitions. And the question of who’d sabotaged Cade was left unanswered.
And Cade would never be fixed. Even if they did find out who was behind it, Cade wouldn’t magically be healed, damage undone by justice. That hurt her. Always. Every day.
Because whenever she had a problem Cade was there. He was always trying to fix things for her. Had been since they were in high school. But there was no fixing this for him. And she’d give her own leg to do it, so he could go back to doing what he loved.
She only used her legs to wait tables and help around her grandparents’ ranch.
She didn’t do anything like Cade had been doing. Watching him ride? It had always sent a flash of light down her spine. A spark that lit her up everywhere and sent tingles to places.
It was art with him: athletic grace and sheer masculine willpower. Straining muscles, gritted teeth, dirt, sweat and mud flying in the air.
Yeah, that flipped her switches like whoa.
Cade Mitchell on the back of a bucking horse was a truly orgasmic experience.
When he was through with a ride, he always shook. From his hands down to his boots. Adrenaline, he said. She shook too though, and it wasn’t always from adrenaline.
He scared the hell out of her. Watching his accident during the Vegas championships, on TV in her living room, had been the single most painful moment of her life.
Her best friend, her family, dragged around the arena like a rag doll, white as death and knocking on that door.
In those moments, she’d gotten a look at life without Cade. And it had been a yawning vacuum of empty cold. She’d always known he was important. Right then, she’d realized just how important.
Ironically, she would still give just about anything to get him back in the saddle, so to speak. Because he loved it. Even though she knew that after that accident she’d sweat off three pounds during those precious seconds he was on the back of one of those beasts.
Small price to pay for allowing him to have his passion. For giving him back the ability to dance, however badly, so they could go out on that wooden floor together on his sister’s wedding day.
But there was no going out on the dance floor for Cade. So they’d sat at the table and drank beer until the sky turned purple and the candles, strung over the tables in mason jars, lit everything with a pale yellow glow.
“Last dance,” Amber said, knowing that Quinn and Lark would be leaving soon, off on their honeymoon. “Wanna get out of here?” she asked.
“Are you hitting on me?”
“Hay-ell yeah. What do people come to weddings for but to hook up? Certainly not to see their BFF’s little sister tie the knot with a ridiculously handsome cowboy.”
“You think he’s handsome?” Cade asked, eyes narrowed.
She looked back at Quinn and Lark, who were still twined around each other like vines. “Uh, yeah. Have you checked that tat he has on his shoulder? Me-ow.”
“Hey, he’s my sister’s husband,” he said, grimacing slightly when he said the words.
“Don’t worry, I’m out of the game.”
“I thought we were gonna hook up.”
“Did I say hook up? I meant ‘Let’s get out of here so I can whup your ass at pool.’ How about that?”
“Sounds like more fun anyway.”
More fun than watching his little sister ride off into the sunset with a guy that Cade still had a tough time with in some ways. He didn’t say that, but Amber could read Cade’s subtext pretty well. Most often, said subtext was cheeseburger or breasts. But every so often it was a real, deep emotion that he was never, ever going to show to the public.
Or even to himself.
Which was when she made sure she was on hand to help him out.
“Yep. I’ll even buy you a beer because you look so damn purty,” she said, tweaking his hat.
“Well, shucks,” he said, that lopsided grin tilting to the left, tilting her stomach along with it. “Let’s get on with it . . . Can you play pool in that dress?” he asked, indicating her very abnormally feminine attire.
“If you can play in a tie.”
He reached up and grabbed the knot at the base of his throat and loosened it. “I think I can handle it.”
“But can you handle me?” she asked, quirking her brow.
“I guess we’ll see.”
* * *
The Saloon, so named because it had been around since that was the usual name for a place where drinking and carousing occurred, was packed. Not so much because it was a Sunday night, but because there was no other nightlife in Silver Creek. Nothing beyond a music festival that ran through the summer and attracted mainly the gray-hairs who only lived in town seasonally.
Not that Cade needed much of a nightlife. Not considering he hadn’t done any real “going out” since his accident. Not considering that, even if he did, he couldn’t dance.
He didn’t know why he’d asked Amber to dance at Lark’s wedding.
Ah, shit. Lark was married. That made him feel . . . well, it made him feel. And that was just something he hadn’t been prepared for.
But she was his baby sister, and dammit, no matter how unsentimental he wanted to be about it, he and Cole had practically raised her. Which really made Amber closer to the truth than he wanted to admit.
He had empty-nest syndrome. A thirty-two-year-old single man with commitment issues . . . and empty-nest syndrome. As if he wasn’t enough of a dysfunctional gimp-bag already.
He wandered up to the bar behind Amber and settled in next to her, his forearms resting on the wooden surface, which was scarred from years of use and misuse. Bottles broken in brawls and Lord knew what else.
There was a story on the menus about a shoot-out between a sheriff and an outlaw that had resulted in the outlaw giving up the ghost on that very bar top.
The Saloon was filled with history. And Cade had spent too many nights in it over the past four years, just soaking in the alcohol haze and absorbing the hormones of those more up to the challenge of getting laid than he was.
He’d become pathetic. And he didn’t have it in him to change it.
“Two Buds, please,” Amber said, leaning over the counter and catching the bartender’s attention a lot quicker than Cade would have.
“I wanted a hard cider,” he said. In truth, he would really like to have something that would knock him on his ass, but he tried to save the pitiful drunk trick for the privacy of his own home. In case he got maudlin.
“Too bad,” she said.
He was glad she was here. Because there was nothing she hadn’t been there for. Every hard thing he’d ever had to cope with. Finding out about his father’s affair, his mother’s death, his father’s death . . . his accident. Lark’s wedding.
Amber Jameson had been there for every-damn-thing.
“Beer me,” he said once she had the bottles in hand.
“Try again. I don’t speak frat bro.”
“Amber,” he said, giving her his very best plaintive look.
“Fine. I pity you. Drown your sorrows in the way society has dictated men ought. Much healthier than expressing genuine emotion.”
“Can I interest you in a friendly game of pool wherein I use your sad, pathetic skills at stick-handling to make me feel more like a man?”
She arched a brow. “Sure, honey, if you think hitting balls into a pocket will make you feel more like a man.”
“I do,” he said, getting up from the bar and heading to the table.
Amber picked up a cue and started chalking the end. “Your balls are mine, Mitchell,” she said, the light in her eyes utterly wicked.
“Whose balls haven’t been yours?”
That taunt didn’t come from Cade’s mouth, and it had him on edge instantly.
Mike Steele. Standard Grade A douche who worked at the mill. They’d all gone to high school together, but he’d never been too big of an ass. He was drunk tonight though, and hanging out with two other guys from high school who fell on the wrong side of the jerk spectrum.
And for some reason, they were interested in letting their asswipe flags fly tonight.
Cade opened his mouth to tell them to back down, but Amber had already whirled around, the end of the pool cue smacking sharply on the floor, the tip held up by her face.
“Can I help you, Mike?” she asked.
“Just saying, is all,” he said, his words slurred.
“Maybe you should just say a little clearer,” she said, “because I didn’t quite take your meaning.”
“He’s just sayin’,” douche number two said, “you’re like the town mare. We’ve all had a ride.”
Cade saw red. Death and destruction flashed before his eyes, but Amber barely blinked.
“Come on now,” Amber said, her tone completely cool, “official rules say there’s no score if the cowboy can’t stay on for a full eight seconds. And if I recall right . . . you didn’t.”
“You stupid slut—”
And then Cade did step in, his fist connecting with the side of the other man’s jaw. And damn, it felt good. He hadn’t punched anyone since . . . well, since he’d broken his brother-in-law’s nose a year ago.
He was worried the other two goons might round on him, but they were too drunk to maintain a thought that went in a straight line, so they didn’t seem to key in to the fact that Cade had just laid their buddy out flat.
“Hey!” Allen, the bartender, shouted. “Cade, could you not bust faces in my bar?”
“Tell these assholes not to run their misogynistic mouths in your bar.” He looked around at all the people who were staring at him, agape. “Yeah. Ten-dollar word, I just raised the IQ of the entire room,” Cade shouted.
“Oh, Cade, for heaven’s sake,” Amber said. “Knock it off.”
“Like I haven’t heard it before?”
“I’m not going to listen to it.”
“There’s no point. And I don’t need you to step in and save me. I just wanted to play pool. Now you punched him and we have to go so he doesn’t call the cops on you.”
“I know the cops.”
“So what? Now I’m a spectacle, so thanks.”
“Are you . . . are you pissed at me for punching a guy who called you a—”
“Yes! I am pissed at you! Outside,” she said. “Now.”
They walked out the swinging front door of the bar and into the dirt and gravel parking lot. Dust hung in the air, clinging to the smell of hose water and hay, all mingling together to create their own unique scent of summer.
“What did I do? He was the one—”
She turned to face him, her cheeks red, her blue eyes glittering. “He’s not worth it. He’s got half a brain and a tiny peen. And all you needed to do was just let it go. I don’t need attention called to shit like that, Cade.”
“What do you mean ‘shit like that’? As in, it happens frequently?”
“I’ve never . . .”
“Because they’re normally too sober to do it in front of you. Why do you think I have no friends other than you?”
“Because I’m all you need?” he asked, knowing full well that wasn’t true.
“Because I came into town with a bang, no pun intended, sixteen years ago, and no one can forget it. Because a lot of the guys from high school and I . . . and now as far as the women are concerned, I’m that skank their husband screwed under the bleachers during free period.”
The blood was pounding in his ears, his heart racing. “I don’t think of you that way.”
“I know. But I didn’t have sex with your husband.”
A laugh rushed out of him, awkward and angry. “Obviously that will never be a problem I have with you. And it’s not like you slept with their husbands after they were married.”
“Granted. But it doesn’t seem to matter.”
“Who cares about that high school BS, anyway?”
“Everyone,” she said. “Everyone but you. Which is why we’re friends.”
“I did a lot of stupid things in high school. Nobody gives me crap.”
“That’s because you were never naked with them. Guys are dumb about that stuff,” she said, the lines around her mouth curving downward. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter, Cade.”
“No. It doesn’t. And don’t go punching people for me anymore.”
“Come on . . . you liked it a little.”
The previously noted grooves at the corners of her lips turned up a bit. “Fine. A little bit. But only because he so had it coming.”
“He really did.”
“I wonder if any of your former flames are going to come up and accuse you of being a man-whore.”
“Nah,” he said, “they won’t. But only because they don’t want anyone to know they slept with me. That guy’s just pissed cuz he’s not going there again.”
“I’m going to go ahead and take that as a compliment.”
“I would never mean it as anything else.”
“I know,” she said, looking down at her thumbnail. “I’m not the same person I was then.”
“Sure you are. You’re just more emotionally well-adjusted.”
That earned him a smile. “Is that what you call this? Shooting pool, drinking beer, bar fights?”
“If it’s not well-adjusted then we’re both screwed.”
“I think we’re screwed.”
“Good thing we’re screwed together then.” He slung his arm over her shoulder and they started walking back to her truck, the gravel shifting underneath his boots with each step.
“I guess so.” She pulled away from him and rounded to the driver’s side, climbing up inside the cab and turning the engine over.
He got in behind her, slowly. Pissed that just climbing into a truck made him conscious of his limitations. Made him see the bad kind of stars—not the orgasmic kind, but lightning bolts of pain shooting up his thigh and crawling up his back, stabbing right at the center of his spine.
He settled into the seat and let out a long breath. For a second there he’d felt ten foot tall and bulletproof, punching that jackass in the face.
He didn’t want to know what that said about him. But maybe it didn’t matter, since he was back to feeling roughly six foot three and vulnerable to being trampled on by a horse.
Which he was.
He held on to the handle just above the passenger window and leaned out, shutting the heavy truck door.
“Do you feel like a man now?” she asked, maneuvering the truck out of the lot and onto the cracked two-lane road that led back to Elk Haven Stables.
“I’m riding bitch in your Ford, how much of a man could I possibly feel like?”
“Would you like me to throw you a raw steak when we get back to your place?”
“No. Tuck me in and read me a bedtime story.”
“Aw, poor baby.” She leaned over and put her hand on his thigh. Second time that night. Weird, but he seemed to be keeping a ticker on “number of times her fingers come into contact with him” that evening.
“She’s married and off on her honeymoon,” he said, resting his elbow out the truck window.
“Yeah. What do you think they’re doing right now?”
He whipped his head around to face her. “Playing Scrabble.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
He had no frickin’ idea what the kids were calling it these days. He hadn’t had it for four years. Four. Years. He half expected the League of Men to come and confiscate his dick after so much time off.
He grimaced. His thoughts had taken an unsanctioned turn. He didn’t like to think about his celibacy. His sister on her honeymoon was honestly preferable.
“Word games. In flannel pajamas,” he growled.
“Fine, Cade, whatever works for you.” She cleared her throat. “I bet Quinn got a triple word score.”
“No!” he said. “I punched a guy for you; don’t torment me.”
“You deserve it. You’ve given her enough hell.”
“I have not,” he said. “I’ve been a steadying and wonderful influence. Godlike, in many ways.”
“In what ways?”
“I have to think of examples.”
“No, I believe you.”
“She turned out in spite of me,” he said, letting out a heavy breath. “I’m well aware of that. Kind of amazing that Cole and I were able to turn her into a functional human being. Or maybe she just did . . . anyway.”
“Either way, you should be proud.”
“Damn. I am an empty-nester.”
“As you pointed out, you still have Cole.”
“Oh, yes.” Never mind that living in his older brother’s domain was suffocating as hell. Cole was a great guy, but when it came to the ranch, which they all owned equal stake in, he could be a control freak.
And Cade was usually happy to be in the backseat on decisions, because he liked to be a silent investor, so to speak. He’d put money into the ranch from his wins on the circuit, reaped profit in return, had a place to crash at when he was home, and mainly got to live on the road.
But now he was home. All the time. And having a brother who thought of himself as his boss didn’t really do a lot to help with their sibling rivalry.
Cade had been fine for a while, playing the dumbass and in general drifting along with whatever Cole said.
But now that this was starting to look like it was going to be his life . . . like he was never getting back in the saddle in a serious way . . . well, now he was starting to realize he was going to have to make a new success for himself.
Otherwise his glory days would be perpetually behind him. And never in front of him. Ever again.
What a nice thought that was.
“I only drank half a beer and I’m starting to get philosophical and shit,” he said.
“Uh-oh, better get you home then. I wouldn’t want to embarrass either of us by being present for this.”
“You really are a good friend,” he said.
She looked at him and smiled. “The best.”
“Pretty much the only one I have.”
“Because you’re surly.”
“Am I?” he asked.
“You just punched a guy in the face for offending you, so yeah, I’d say so.”
“I think it was noble of me,” he said.
“Noble and godlike in one conversation. If this is your version of being a sad drunk then I’d hate to be exposed to your ego when you’re feeling sober and upbeat.”
“You’ll be around me in that state tomorrow. Because now I owe you a game of pool.”
“I don’t know. I think I owe you for defending my honor. I didn’t need it defended, but nonetheless, I appreciate you risking bruised knuckles for me.”
“Anything for you,” he said. “You know that.”
“Oooh, dangerous promise, Cade Mitchell. You never know what I might ask of you.”
“I’ve known you for sixteen years and you haven’t shocked me yet.”
“That smacks of a challenge,” she said, giving him an impish smile. “You know I can’t resist a challenge.”
When Cade got home, Cole was sitting in the swing on the front porch his wife, Kelsey, leaning against him, half-asleep.
Maddy was undoubtedly upstairs in bed. Most of the guests were probably back in their cabins. A wedding at the ranch during busy season had everyone amped-up and exhausted. Lark had invited everyone staying at Elk Haven to the big day, and nearly all of them had taken her up on the invite.
Which probably accounted for the quiet now. Too much dancing. Too much drinking. And now, lights out by ten.
“Where have you been?” Cole asked.
“I went out with Amber.”
“You went out instead of seeing Lark off?” he asked, shifting Kelsey’s head to his shoulder.
“I figured she was in good hands. She didn’t notice, did she?”
“She didn’t say. I’m sure she didn’t really.”
“Yeah, so I figured I’d go have a beer.”
“We had beer,” Kelsey said, her voice sleepy. “And I couldn’t drink any, cuz, bump”—she put her hand on her stomach—“so there was plenty for you.”
“I just wanted to get some space,” he said. “I didn’t really want to watch her leave.”
“With Quinn,” Cole said. “Aren’t you over that?”
“I’m as over it as I can be. But I spent three years blaming him for what’s happened to me. And while I mainly think of him as a decent guy, I would sort of hate anyone who ended up with Lark on principle. For a while, at least.”
“Well, it’s too late to hate him. They’re married now.”
“Well, get off my back, asshole,” Cade said, walking up the steps and toward the front door.
“What’s your deal, Cade?” Cole asked.
“My deal is that I feel like I just came home after curfew and Mom and Dad caught me. I’m a little old to be dealing with judgment from you on how I chose to spend my evening.”
“I don’t normally care what you do. Go snort some bath salts and have an orgy with the entire staff of Delia’s Kitchen for all I care, as long as you get your work done the next day. But half-assing Lark’s wedding? I’ll call you out on that.”
“I was there,” he said, gritting his teeth.
And he hadn’t been able to dance with his sister, or his best friend, and he’d run out on it because it had hurt. Because it had made him feel, again, like he was half a human being.
He would rather have his balls dipped in honey and stuffed in an anthill than admit that, but it was the truth.
He wasn’t telling Cole because . . . Scrotum. Honey. Ant-hill.
He didn’t owe Cole an explanation anyway.
“Whatever, Cade, I shouldn’t be that surprised at this point.”
“Boys, do I have to turn on a hose and spray you down?” Kelsey asked.
“Maybe just remind your husband of his place,” Cade said, pushing the front door open and walking into the main area of the cabin.
The front room was huge, with an L-shaped staircase that led to a mezzanine floor, vaulted ceilings and a wall of windows that overlooked the back pasture and the mountains that encircled the ranch. There was also a counter where they kept rolls, muffins, donuts, a single-serving coffee brewer and hot chocolate packets.
They were a motherfuckin’ hotel.
He stomped over to the bar and started running hot water through the coffeemaker before adding hot chocolate to it. He didn’t need more booze.
The front door opened and Cole and Kelsey walked inside. Kelsey scurried up the stairs and Cole stood there in the entryway, his arms crossed over his chest. Cade leaned against the counter, partly to affect an “I don’t give a shit” posture. And partly because his leg felt like it was being chewed on by rabid badgers.
He needed a hot bath with Epsom salt. And a horse tranquilizer.
Not a lecture. But it seemed he was about to get a lecture.
“Look, man, I’m sorry,” Cole said.
“You’re sorry? What the hell?” he said, letting his body form to the back of the granite countertop, taking as much of the weight off of his back and spine as possible.
“You’re right. Not my business. You make your choices about what you want to do with your life. Or not do with it. It’s not my business.”
“That is the worst damn apology I’ve ever heard. It was wrapped in an insult.”
“I’m not trying to insult you. I’m just saying, I have to stop expecting you to make the choices I would.”
“Back up. Explain.”
“You don’t have motivation.”
Cade slammed his mug down on the counter. “That’s bullshit.”
“Is it? Because I’m pretty sure that you’ve been living in the big house and working as a ranch hand for the past four years.”
He bent and grabbed ahold of his leg. “Oh, I’m sorry, did you want me to go and start running marathons in the name of Elk Haven Stables?”
“That’s not it.”
“You know what, Cole? This is pretty surprising considering I did have some ideas for you and you shot them down.”
“Cade, I don’t have room for bison. We’re focusing on the cabins, the lodge and the rodeo contracts, and you know that. We don’t have the funds for a venture like that.”
“No, we have Dad’s debt, Cade, or did you forget?”
“I didn’t forget. In fact, if you recall, I found out just how screwed we were a couple of years ago because I was going over our fucking finances, so don’t give me this ‘you don’t do anything’ shit.”
The worst thing about Cole’s accusations was the ring of truth to them. It was the fact that it was how Cade felt about his life.
Because he’d had his dream—success that he’d fantasized about from the time he was a little kid. Traveling, riding a horse for money. Doing the kind of dangerous stuff his mother had always said was giving her gray hair.
That had been his job. And it was gone now. Then he’d had to learn to walk like a baby, all over again, and now he was starting over.
The worst version ever of being born again.
To top it off, there was no resolution to it. Anger at Quinn had been concrete. He’d had someone to blame, and as small as it had been . . . there had been comfort in it. Now he had nothing. No clue who’d messed him up. No clue who’d ruined his life and stolen his career. And no lead on it either.
It made him feel aimless. It made his anger directionless.
Though right now, it was a little directed at Cole.
“That’s not it . . .” Cole put his hands in his pockets. “Okay, fine, I am sorry. I’m just a little messed up about Lark getting married.”
“You’d think that given we had a year to adjust to it we’d be fine. She hasn’t even been living here.” He was echoing the conversation with Amber, as if that might make it all true and fine.
“Yeah, but now it’s permanent. Now it’s just us,” he said.
“She still owns a third of the ranch.”
“Yeah, but she won’t do as much here.”
Cade cleared his throat. “I liked it better when you were being a jackass.”
“Feelings aren’t really my favorite thing either.”
“You’re more well-adjusted with them these days.”
“Eh. Wife. She makes me talk about them . . . You know, acknowledge that I have them, so . . .”
“Thank God I don’t have a wife.”
“They aren’t so bad,” Cole said, one side of his mouth turning up.
“I’ll let you have that joy all to yourself. I will be the favorite uncle to all your children and Lark’s children and maintain the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed.”
“Eating Doritos, alone in bed, in your childhood home?”
“That nacho cheese flavor is worth sharing the sheets with crumbs.”
“As opposed to . . . a woman?”
Cade took a sip of his hot chocolate. “You’re not allowed to comment on my sex life.”
“You’re standing in the living room drinking a cocoa before bed. I think we can safely assume you currently don’t have one.”
Cade shifted so that his middle finger was resting on the handle of the mug. A not-so-subtle suggestion for his brother. Who was right. Asshole.
“We’re not talking about that,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Reconsider the bison, Cole. I think we’ll make money doing it. A lot of restaurants are offering it as an alternative to beef, and I think we could really start something here.”
Bison had never been his dream. Riding saddle broncs, with the dirt kicking up around him, the crowd cheering and the cameras and lights on him? That was his dream. But it was gone, and he felt desperate to put his mark on something.
To have something that was his idea. Success he created.
“It’s too risky,” Cole said. “And it requires changes to fencing, a lot of space . . . I don’t think we’re in the position to do it. We don’t want to diversify too much too early.”
“Maybe you don’t but I do. And last time I checked, you weren’t the be-all and end-all here.”
“Maybe not. But I’m the one who spent his whole life here. This is my dream, Cade. This is what I’ve spent every moment working on. Since before dad died, and especially after. You went off and did the circuit, and that was fine. You’ve supported things financially, and yeah, technically you and I have equal ownership here. But the thing is? I’m the one who’s put in the physical work. I’m the one who knows how to run it. I’m not trying to be a dick, but I am the one who understands the way this place works, inside and out, better than anyone else.”
Cade tightened his grip on his mug. Sure, Cole knew the ranch. But Cade had known, always, about the truth of their life. About his dad’s debts. About what really needed to be earned to keep the place running.
Cole knew the ranch. But he’d only known half the story about what was happening beyond that.
“Fair enough, I get that, and yeah, I can concede that you know the place better than me,” Cade said. “But not if the end result is just going to be you acting like you’re the boss and I’m the laborer, and not part owner.”
“The problem is, I don’t think we’re ever going to want to do things the same. Two mules pulling the wagon in a different direction. It doesn’t work.”
“Nice analogy,” Cade said. “So that’s it? We can’t have two leaders so by default you call the shots?”
“Not by default. My sweat is in this place.”
“Not as much.”
“Are we going to measure? Try and see who has the most sweat? Maybe we should hurl logs and see who can throw them the farthest.”
“It’s late,” Cole said. “And I have more than Dorito crumbs waiting for me in bed, so I’m going to go.”
“And then we don’t have to solve the problem. Brilliant. Perfectly like us.”
“We’ll solve it. I’m sorry I was an insulting prick, okay?”
“It’s okay. You can’t help it.”
He shrugged. “The older brother thing dies hard.”
Cade thought about Lark, all grown up and married. “Yeah, trust me, I know. But that doesn’t make it any more fun for the person on the receiving end of it.”
“Let’s just put the bison on hold,” Cole said. “We’ll discuss it again in a year maybe? After we get through the busy seasons. After we have being a guest ranch down to a more well-oiled system. After we get the horse breeding program a little bit more solidified. That doesn’t seem too authoritarian of me.”
“No,” Cade said, setting his mug on the countertop. “Fine.”
Cole nodded and turned, heading up the stairs toward his room. Toward his crumb-free bed.
It was easy for Cole to put it on hold, because he had a life. Because he had a wife and a kid, and a ranch that he called the shots on.
Cade wasn’t sure he wanted any of that, ever, but he sure as hell needed something.
A year before they even broached the subject of the bison. A year before his only idea on contributing would be considered.
Another year in holding-pattern hell.
He wasn’t sure he could deal with it. But he wasn’t sure what to do about it either.
He was a take-charge kind of a guy. A doer, not a thinker, much to his mother’s chagrin all through his teenage years.
But his injury had taken his control. It had taken the charge right from him. He couldn’t do what he chose to anymore, and he had no idea what the hell he actually wanted to do.
Except sleep. Hell yeah, he was pathetic.
He would go to sleep. And tomorrow would be the same as every day that had come before it for the past two years.
Just. Fucking. Perfect.
* * *
Amber groaned and shuffled the stack of bills from the table to the counter. She sighed. Then she pondered putting them in the shredder.
But she couldn’t do that. Damned adulthood.
She wasn’t sure when she’d be able to pay them either. Maybe if she picked up another shift at the restaurant she could do it. But the medical bills from her grandma’s illness, the funeral fees, and the taxes her grandfather had forgotten to pay—they weren’t much on the fixed income, but two years of that was from when the farm had been producing decent income, and getting slapped with a back-tax bill at a self-employed rate was killer.
It was just dire.
She shuffled to the coffeemaker and picked up the carafe. Thankfully, it was on a timer, so she didn’t have to worry about making it while she was this bleary. She always tried to wake up before her grandpa, which meant getting up before the sun, so that she could bring him coffee and breakfast and get him set for the day before she went off to wait on strangers.
Waiting on her grandpa was definitely preferable.
She loved the old man more than anyone else. Except for maybe Cade.
She moved to the stove and fired up the gas range. The pan was greased and waiting for her already. Her grandfather was a man of habits.
Every morning she made him whole wheat toast, two fried eggs, hash browns—pre-shredded at the beginning of the week because she was not doing that at five thirty a.m.—and two strips of bacon.
Amber didn’t indulge in quite the lumberjack breakfast he did. Though he didn’t seem to have suffered for it. He was still lean as could be, though he had definitely aged since she’d first arrived.
He’d been old from the first moment she’d met him.
Fourteen, angry, terrified. Because she’d been uprooted, not just from the home she was living in—that was normal—but from her city, from the people she’d called friends.
Taken from Portland and brought out to the little pile of bricks rising out of the wilderness known as Silver Creek.
At first, she’d wanted to get sent back. Back to where she had access to her friends. To drugs and alcohol and all of the crutches she’d been using to deal with the pain in her life.
So she’d done her best to make them hate her too. Since she was sure it would happen anyway. Like her mother had. Like every foster family had from the moment she’d darkened their door. Angry, sullen . . . crazy, as one foster mom had called her.
But her grandparents hadn’t let her do it.
In their mid-sixties, wrinkled and gray, the oldest people she’d ever been exposed to, they’d also been the toughest. They’d expected her to work. To collect eggs. To be home when they said and to dress like they told her.
And they’d never, ever given up on her. They’d opened their home up to her. They’d given her their name.
Eventually she’d stopped trying to get sent away. Eventually, she’d decided to pour everything into being the best granddaughter she could be, because they’d given up their quiet, drama-free years to deal with the child their wayward son had never even met.
Their love, and Cade’s friendship, was the thing that had pulled her off the path to what would have probably been an early grave, and she couldn’t even begin to show the full depth of her gratitude.
Though bacon-making was a nice, physical representation of that gratitude. As was getting up before dawn to make breakfast, and working extra shifts to make sure the ranch didn’t get seized by the government or a bank or something.
She would never allow that to happen. This was her home. The only place that had ever felt like home. The only place she’d lived for longer than a couple of months.
Sixteen years of her life had been spent here, and she wasn’t going to let anyone else take it.
She hummed while she prepared breakfast and did her best not to think about the bills. Then she piled all the food onto a plate and set it on the table just as her grandpa walked in.
His gait had slowed, and his brain didn’t quite hold on to everything the way it once had, but he still got up and about. Still made sure he walked around the property and checked on everything.
They didn’t have much beyond a small vegetable patch and some chickens anymore, but it was still her grandpa’s pride and joy.
“Morning,” she said, going back over to the stove to retrieve her egg, toast and coffee.
He sat slowly, a smile on his face as he surveyed the food she’d laid out for him. “Morning,” he said, his hand trembling as he raised his coffee cup to his lips.
“I’ve got an early shift today,” she said. “And I probably won’t be home until late. You think you’ll be okay?”
He put his cup down and waved his hand. “You know I’m fine. You act like a worried hen. Just like your grandma.”
“Well, I can’t help it,” she said, sitting in her spot across from him. “I need to make sure you don’t feel like I’m abandoning you out here while I work.”
“The other option is putting me in a home,” he said. “And I’d rather be alone than deal with scheduled board game nights.”
She laughed. He might be slowing down a little bit, but Ray Jameson still had the same curmudgeonly sparkle Amber had always found so endearing. He was a gruff old guy, but she liked that.
“Like being in hell, I’m sure,” she said.
“They do that, uh . . . what do you call the thing where they sing to the lyrics?”
“Yeah, they do that at those places.”
“It makes a good case for not going there,” she said, dragging her toast through her runny yolk and taking a bite.
“I’m old and wise,” he said.
“Yes, you are.”
There was a knock on the front door. Amber jumped in her chair and looked out the window. The sun was just starting to rise above the ridge of the mountains, a golden line illuminating the tops of the dark green trees. The air was still blue, night hanging on until the bitter end.
And no one should be knocking on the door just yet.
“I’ll get it,” she said, walking out of the kitchen and into the little entryway.
She looked out the top window of the door and saw a man’s brown hair, and nothing else. She knew it wasn’t Cade because he would call before coming over. At this hour at least.
She tucked her hair behind her ear and opened the door.
The man standing on the step was about her age, tall and decent-looking, a cowboy hat in his hand and a smile on his face.
She distrusted him. Instantly.
Mostly because not trusting someone was her default setting until they proved she had reason to do otherwise. But also because he was at the door at six in the morning, and he was smiling.
She just hoped he wasn’t from the IRS.
“Can I help you?” she asked, putting a hand on her hip and mentally calculating the location of the nearest rifle in the house.
“Sorry to come by so early,” he said.
“Then why did you?” she asked.
She’d never been one to play games. She wasn’t shy, bashful or easily shamed. And she would happily take the upper hand of this situation, thank you very much.
He, whoever he was, no doubt thought that showing up to do his business early and unexpectedly would put her on the wrong foot.
Too bad for him, that wasn’t possible with her.
“I was given the impression, by Ray Jameson, that it would be all right. This is Ray Jameson’s place?”
She felt her hackles lower a bit. “Uh. Yes. May I ask what your business is here and who you are?”
“Jim Davis.” His name rang some bells, but she couldn’t quite place him. Not this early. Two cups of coffee would be required before she was feeling that sharp. “I spoke to the bank earlier this week about the standing of Ray’s loan.”
“Why the hell was the bank giving you information on my grandfather’s loan?”
“I’m an investor. Well, part-time, anyway.”
“What are you the other part of the time?” she asked, leaning into the doorframe, making sure that he knew he wasn’t welcome inside—not just yet.
“A cowboy,” he said.
She could have rolled her eyes. “Interesting. Now what are you doing here?”
“You the typical welcome committee?” he asked, obviously getting annoyed with her now.
“Yessir, I am. If you’ve got a problem with that? I don’t have a comment card for you to fill out, so it’s just too damn bad. State your business.”
“I’d rather speak to Ray.”
“I’m the executor of Ray’s estate,” she said.
Once she’d discovered her grandfather’s forgetfulness with the taxes and several other bills, she’d gone and handled all that so that she could take care of all of the finer details of his life.
“Then you’re the person I want to see,” he said, smile broadening.
“I thought I might be.”
She still didn’t give an inch, still kept him on the porch.
She had a good sense for people. She’d been exposed to a lot of them growing up. And most of them hadn’t wanted anything good, in her experience. People in general wanted to use you to elevate them. That was about it.
Cynical, maybe, but she was better insulated against douche bags than most.
“I’m here to make an offer on the ranch,” he said.
“I want to offer on the ranch. The bank said you’d been in default, and that there were some other issues . . .”
“They had no right to disclose that information!”
“Regardless, I’d like to help out.”
“Mr. Davis, nobody just wants to help out. Everybody wants something, and it isn’t to help. So you want to buy all this?” she said, looking around.
“Well, too damn bad. I don’t want to sell it.”
“You haven’t heard what I’m offering.”
She thought of the bills on the counter, and all of the stress. And then she thought of what it had always meant to come back to this place.
“You say that because you have no idea what you’re turning down.”
“You could be offering me magic beans and a goose that lays gold freakin’ eggs and I wouldn’t say yes. This is our home. Our legacy. We aren’t going to sell.”
“Did I step into a heartwarming family film when I wasn’t looking?” he asked, arching a dark brow.
“Nope. You just stepped onto my porch. Now step off. We don’t need any more visits from you. Okay. Thanks, bye.”
She shut the door and bolted it, then went back into the kitchen.
“Who was that?” her grandpa asked.
“Damn vacuum cleaner salesman,” she said.
“Did you tell him we didn’t want any?”
“I told him we had a vacuum that worked just fine.” Their vacuum was possibly older than Amber, but her grandma had always insisted that nothing new was made as good as the old, reliable appliances that were made out of solid hunks of metal.
If it had really been a vacuum cleaner salesman she probably would have taken what he had on offer. She could really use an eight pound wonder instead of that forty pound beast that always sounded like it had just sucked up a cat.
“I thought maybe it was a boyfriend of yours,” her grandpa said.
She rolled her eyes and pulled her purse and sweater off of the counter. “I don’t have time for boyfriends.”
“I wish you did.”
She leaned down and kissed his cheek. “I know you do. But trust me, I don’t.”
“And when I die, who’s going to take care of you?” he asked, his tone gruff as ever, but with tenderness running beneath it.
“I’m going to take care of me,” she said. “But you’re not allowed to die,” she said, her throat getting tight, “for at least another thirty years.”
“I’ll be eating bacon from a tube by then. Best you let me go before that.”
“It’s too early to be this morbid,” she said. “And I have tables to wait. So if you’ll excuse me . . .”
“Have a nice day.”
“I will,” she said.
She dug her keys out of her purse before she went outside, just in case Mr. Jim Davis was still loitering. Happily, he wasn’t.
Then she got into the truck and started it. And her thoughts shot to Cade. Maybe because they’d just ridden together last night, and maybe because when he’d stumbled out of the truck last night at his house, something in her stomach had tugged hard, low and tight.
Because she knew he wasn’t in a good space, and she hated that.
And part of her had felt like maybe she should follow him in and hang out for a while, but . . . early morning and waiting tables and all.
She took a deep breath and shot him a quick good morning, how ya doin? text before throwing the truck into reverse and heading out toward town.
In spite of the weird start, she hoped the day would end up being normal.
The lunchtime rush was just starting to slow when Cade walked into Delia’s and spotted Amber, rushing around between tables.
She hostessed during the dinner hour, when they opened up the back of the building, but during the day she just ran herself off her feet serving three-egg breakfasts and giant burgers.
He seated himself on the red, glittery, vinyl-covered bar stools at the formica counter and waited.
“I’m here to see Amber,” he said, when one of the other waitresses paused near him.
She smiled and winked. “Sure, Cade, she’ll only be a minute.”
Everyone knew that he and Amber were best friends. He had a feeling a lot of people misconstrued the nature of their relationship, and he couldn’t exactly blame them. He and Amber had both cultivated a bit of reputation around town, and even though both of them had calmed down considerably since their teenage years, they’d earned the label of town hellions, and they’d done it with style.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to see Amber standing there. “What’s your poison, handsome?”
“Burger. You don’t happen to have buffalo burger, do you?”
She wrinkled her nose. “No. And you know we don’t.”
“It’s better for you.”
“And that matters to you?” she asked.
He patted his stomach, which was flat and hard thanks to the workouts he did to keep the muscles in his back as strong as possible. He’d always been into fitness. A strong core was essential to keeping your ass on a horse. But he’d had to really work at it since his accident.
It was the only thing that kept him mobile. If he put on weight and didn’t have the muscle tone to support himself, there would be no getting around at all.
“I’m a total health nut,” he said. “Now bring me a beer, extra french fries and a hamburger.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you sure they didn’t hollow out your leg during one of your surgeries?”
“Pretty sure all they did was leave a bunch of metal behind.”
“Well, either way, I’ll get your food. Just a second.”
“Do you have a break coming up?”
The bell above the door sounded and they both turned as a group of people walked in. “Probably not. I’ll just end up eating a sandwich over the counter in the back.”
“They have to give you a break,” he said.
“I know, but I need the tips. I don’t want to skip a table. And if you stiff me, Mitchell, so help me, I’ll stab your thigh with a butter knife.”
“I’m not going to stiff you,” he said, watching her walk to the door to greet the large party that had just come in. He turned back to the counter, his stomach growling.
It smelled like griddle grease, bacon and beef in here, and he was starving.
The bell above the door sounded again, and a man walked in wearing a cowboy hat. A man that Cade knew.
He slid off the stool and stood. “Jim,” he said, just loud enough to get his former competitor’s attention.
Jim saw him and his expression shifted from flat to a wide smile. “Cade Mitchell.” He walked over to the counter and extended his hand. “How you been?”