Bad Boy Rancher(2)

By: Karen Rock



Then Jesse’s addiction had snatched it all away.

Justin’s trigger finger curled.

Furball inched up his stomach and huddled against his thudding heart. He rested his chin atop her silky head. Growing up in Carbondale, Colorado, a small town smack-dab in the center of the Rocky Mountains, a place where cattle outnumbered humans ten to one, he and Jesse planned elaborate adventures while riding the old, familiar range. It’d never occurred to him that his twin would escape this place with a needle instead. Before drugs, they’d done everything together. The dynamic duo, their grandpa used to call them. Inseparable, their grandma had added. She never got their names straight—not that he or Jesse cared. They’d been a team. A unit. Two halves of a whole.

Now Justin escaped his own way, chasing thrills, the riskier the better, adrenaline his drug of choice. What did he have to lose? His life? It hadn’t amounted to much anyway. His older brothers, Jack, James and Jared, had found love and started families. His younger sister, Jewel, devoted her life to improving the ranch, and his ma had recently gotten a new lease on life with her grandchildren and a beau.

Him? His constant foul mood made him unfit company. His family would be better off without him skulking around, unable to move past Jesse’s death after three and a half years. His grief didn’t have an expiration date. Acting normal, happy, around others stressed him out. Living took effort, and sometimes, like today, he didn’t have the energy for it.

The shotgun drew his eye again.

Sooner or later, he’d even up the score and join Jesse. He’d reneged on his promise to his dying father to look after his twin. And his death would satisfy Carbondale’s rumor mill. Jewel reported that neighbors whispered about him behind raised hands as he roared down Main Street on his souped-up chopper.

“That daredevil will follow his brother to the grave and break his poor mama’s heart.”

“The boy’s like to lose his neck.”

“Got a death wish, that one.”

A wish? No. His extreme antics were a challenge. He dared death to come for him—like it had Jesse. And he experienced a grim satisfaction every time he cheated it. When he went, it’d be on his terms.

He stroked his eyes over the shotgun then leveraged himself upright.

A knock sounded. “Uncle Justin?”

Justin shoved the six-pack behind a couch cushion and stood.

“Here.”

Why had his six-year-old nephew sought him out on a school night? He flung open the door. “Hey, kiddo.”

His gaze roamed over Jesse’s son’s face. Almost two years ago, Javi and his mother, Sofia, had arrived at the ranch, upending the strict order his older brother James had imposed following Jesse’s death, and stealing James’s heart. They’d married ten months ago and now expected their first child soon, a cousin for Jack and Dani’s six-month-old boy.

“Grandma says dinner’s ready, and you should come up.”

Justin scratched the back of his head. Furball batted at the rodeo buckle encircling his boot—the buckle had belonged to Jesse. Why the invitation? Ma knew he didn’t leave his cabin much, especially on this day.

“Tell her I’m sleeping.”

Javi’s dark hair swished across his forehead as he cocked his face and perused Justin. Except for Javi’s left-side dimple, he took after his mother in every way. “You don’t look asleep.”

“Maybe this is a dream.”

“Then how come I’m awake?”

“Who says you are?” Justin put Javi in a headlock and they roughhoused, Javi’s laughter foreign in the bleak space of the cabin.

“Okay. Uncle! Uncle!” Justin cried after letting Javi twist his arm behind his back and crashing to his knees. “You win. Now go on home. I’m not the best company tonight.”

The shotgun glistened, beckoning.

Javi eyed him. “You do look kind of scary.”

Justin shoved a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “Good.”

Javi tugged Justin’s beard. “Like a bear. Except I’m not afraid of you.”

“Shoot.” Justin shrugged and stood. “Must be losing my touch.”

“Now will you come with me?” Javi wagged a finger at him. “Plus, you don’t have a choice.”

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