Bad Boy Rancher(3)

By: Karen Rock

“Why’s that?”

“Pa’s orders.”

Justin’s lips vibrated with the force of his sigh. Marrying Sofia had tempered some of James’s controlling ways, but not all—not enough.

“He says he’ll drag you back himself if he has to…though I told him I could do it. See?” Javi pushed up his sweatshirt sleeve and flexed his biceps. The flat muscle twitched.

Despite his dark mood, Justin smiled. “Not bad. You’ve been eating your spinach?”

Javi scooped up Furball and turned in a circle, the wide-eyed kitty dangling at the end of his fingertips. “Yep. And I’m almost seven now. Mama says I’m getting big.”

Justin rescued the bristling puffball and dropped her gently back on the couch. “Guess I’d better go quietly.”

“If you know what’s good for you. Hey! Can I tie up your hands, and you can be my prisoner?”

Justin shook his head at the imaginative boy.

“I’ll come.” Not willingly, he added silently, donning his Stetson and leather jacket. Justin dropped his keys in his pocket and followed Javi up the path that led to his family’s homestead.

Built in the late 1800s by his silver prospector ancestor, the rough-hewn cedar structure sprawled at Mount Sopris’s base. The two-story house’s windows were dark. Strange considering the hour and his mother’s dinner invitation. Had they lost power?

Starlight revealed the log pillars propping up a steep portico and the peaked gables breaking up the roofline. A swing rattled on its chains in the recesses of a wraparound porch. The empty corrals that led to newly harvested hay fields lay empty, the horses stabled, the longhorns grazing in one of the twelve pastures used on their ten-thousand-acre organic beef ranch.

Once the sight of his home, glimpsed after a long day in the saddle, had filled him with relief. Now dread settled heavy in his gut. He’d moved to one of the cabins after Jesse’s death to escape the memories and be alone.

His heavy boots tromped up the stairs. When he pulled open the door, lights blazed, temporarily blinding him.

“Surprise!” his family shouted.

Javi ran around him chanting, “Happy birthday! Happy birthday!”

Justin backed up a step. “No.”

His mother, Joy, strode through the doorway. She shoved silver strands behind her ear and peered at him anxiously from behind frameless glasses. “It’s been a long time since we…we wanted to do something nice, honey… Wanted to celebrate…”

His boots dropped down one tread. “No.” He would not, couldn’t celebrate his life. Not when his twin brother lay six feet under, buried along with Justin’s broken promises, the ones they’d whispered to each other in the womb: fidelity, unity, brotherhood.

They’d always had each other’s backs, until heroin left Jesse addicted and Justin betrayed and furious.

“We baked a cake,” cajoled his pregnant sister-in-law, Sofia. A white kerchief kept her long dark hair tied back and contrasted with her tawny skin. A blue shirt stretched across her rounded belly.

Jared guided his legally blind fiancée, Amberley, through the door to join the group. His pressed shirt and crisp jeans made Justin squirm beneath his grubby Wranglers, frayed T-shirt and worn leather jacket.

“It’s your favorite! Chocolate!” Javi scaled one of the pillars then dropped at James’s frown.

A cool wind howled down from the mountaintops, rustling the leaves of the aspens dotting the property. Temperatures dropped fast at night during Rocky Mountain autumns; Justin zipped his coat against its bite and lowered himself another step.

“That was Jesse’s favorite.” His heart slugged hard, a battering ram in his chest. He couldn’t face their smiles, their cheer.

“We did one layer of chocolate and one of strawberry, the way we used to.” A pleading note entered his mother’s voice. “Please, Justin, come in. It’s time that you, that we—”

“Y’all enjoy it. I’ve got somewhere to go.” He spun, sprinted to his hog and jumped on its low-slung seat.

“Where?” James shouted.

“Can I come?” His sister, Jewel, hustled after him. Her freckles burned dark on her white face, and the moonlight trickled down the length of her side ponytail.

Also By Karen Rock

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