Bad Boy Rancher(10)

By: Karen Rock

Yet despite her brisk bearing and guarded expression today, he recalled the dark anguish in her eyes after the accident and her sudden fury just moments ago in the hall. She’d looked haunted, desperate, desolate—an expression he recognized. It often peered back at him in the mirror.

Was this godly woman possessed by demons, too?

After listening to the officer on scene’s testimony, as well as a brief statement from Brielle, Judge James steepled her fingers, her elbows planted atop her desk, deep in thought. The room descended into a tomb-like silence. A mother, failing to soothe her fussing baby, hustled up the central row of seats and out through the door.

“With a blood alcohol level of point oh nine—” Judge James waved the toxicology report a few minutes later “—your license is suspended for nine months.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Justin laced his fingers in front of him and rocked back on the heels of his boots, nodding. More than fair. Besides, he didn’t need a license to race dirt bikes or go mudding off-road. As for driving, he’d catch a ride with one of his siblings if he needed to go somewhere. Other than the pool hall and a weekly poker night, he rarely left the ranch anyway.

Since Jesse’s death, he found it hard to leave the place. Everywhere he looked, he saw Jesse. Walking away felt like he was abandoning his twin all over again. Besides, the wanderlust that’d once seized him had died alongside his twin. It’d be disloyal to explore the world without him. If Jesse couldn’t leave Carbondale, neither would Justin, no matter how many sunsets he watched…wondering what lay beyond the horizon.

“As for sentencing,” Judge James continued, “I’m prepared to offer two options for consideration before next week’s sentencing hearing. Six months in the county jail or…”

His mother’s gasp halted the judge’s words. Her eyes brushed past Justin to his parent and softened momentarily. Was she dialing into his ma’s worries? Did she fear Justin would travel the same dark road as his brother, sure he’d break her heart? Joy had already lost one son, and now she was losing another…

Justin’s body ran hot and cold. Jail. Hearing it out loud, in an official setting, brought home the reality he’d be forced to leave the ranch, his family, Jesse…

He’d done the crime and now must do the time.

Cowboy up.

Judge James lifted a mug to her lips, her expression shuttered. A tea bag string dangled over its side. After a long sip, she lowered the cup then circled the rim with her index finger. “Carbondale is now fortunate to have a rehabilitation and mental health facility, Fresh Start.”

A low grumbling broke out in the back of the courtroom. He glimpsed Brielle’s chin lift a notch. The facility’s opening had stirred up some recent controversy. He’d heard James mention the townsfolk worried about the kinds of “elements” a place like Fresh Start would bring to their little corner of the world.

Judge James banged her gavel, scowling, and the room quieted. Justin yanked his starched collar and tie, more loans from his brothers, from his hot neck.

“As we now have a top-notch facility in our community—” The judge shot a fleeting smile at Brielle before continuing, “The defendant may admit himself to this facility for the next six weeks in lieu of incarceration. I trust that would be acceptable to you, Ms. Thompson?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Brielle said heavily after a moment’s hesitation.

Justin shot her a quick glance but failed to catch her eye. After their heated exchange in the hall, did she not want him as a resident at the facility?

If so, that went double for him.

He didn’t have a drinking problem, unless you considered knocking back a few to fall asleep an issue, which it wasn’t. How else would he escape his thoughts long enough to get a few hours of shut-eye?

As for his daytime drinking, he always waited until after work. Who didn’t want a few beers while watching the game? Harmless. Normal.

A twelve-pack a night isn’t normal, a voice inside him piped up.

He shook off the nagging thought. He didn’t go through that amount every day, mostly just on weekends, which lately also extended to Fridays…and Mondays… Because who could face Mondays sober? But still, he was not an addict.

Also By Karen Rock

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