Bad Boy Rancher(4)

By: Karen Rock

He shook his head, donned his helmet, revved the engine and mouthed “sorry” before letting out the throttle and ripping into the black night.

His family meant well. They just didn’t understand him or his unending grief. Jack, a bounty hunter turned Denver deputy sheriff, had moved on after he’d caught Jesse’s killers. James had healed once he’d opened his heart to Sofia and Javi. Jared kept busy managing his fiancée’s barrel-racing career. Even his mother has gotten on with life since the grandbabies came along and she began dating Boyd Loveland, of all people—their neighbor and patriarch of the family they’ve been feuding with for generations.

But him? He’d never let Jesse go. Who was he without his other half?

Not anyone.

Not anyone good.

Jesse made up the best parts of them.

Justin gazed at the full moon as he wailed around a hairpin turn. Heat waved up from the engine, and he breathed in the sharp smell of exhaust mingling with the pines lining this remote stretch of road. Sharp precipices dropped on either side of the two-lane rural route. At this hour, it should be deserted. He opened the throttle, and the speedometer ticked up until the needle vibrated on the hundred-mile-an-hour mark.

His body hummed, electric, alive, for the first time today. He gazed back at the road and glimpsed a moving van edging into the intersection. His pulse slammed in his veins. Too late to stop. He could either topple sideways onto the narrow shoulder and down the embankment or race to cross in front of the van.

He might make it, he thought, eyeing the lumbering vehicle.

Or he might not.

When it came down to it, what was the difference?

He’d joined the world today; this might be the right time to leave it, too… He pried his fingers from the handlebars and tipped back his head as the motorcycle rocketed downhill.

He’d roll the dice.

Let the chips fall where they may.

Thirty minutes earlier

“IN ONE-THIRD OF a mile, turn left on Willow Brook Drive,” Brielle Thompson’s GPS droned.

“What? Where?” The moving van lurched as she shifted on the steep incline. The gears ground, then caught.

She peered at the lit screen then out at the dark, rugged terrain. Overhead, a full moon shone in a starry sky, illuminating Colorado’s mountaintops. Her headlights picked up fir trees, thick brush, a narrow, pebble-filled shoulder. No willow trees. And no brook.

No turnoff ahead, either.

She groaned and wished herself back on any of the Army bases where she’d spent her childhood, places where streets were ordered and her structured life made sense.

The two sets of dog tags dangling from her rearview mirror caught her eye. Her heartbeat stumbled. There was one base she never wanted to return to. Kandahar. It haunted her still. Somewhere amid the dust, heat and blood of Afghanistan, the pillar of strength she’d always relied on to hold her up had crumbled.

Would she finally regain it here in Carbondale?

“We’re part of a long history of suffering,” she’d heard her commanding officer say sympathetically before handing over her honorable discharge papers six months ago. He’d severed her from the only life she’d known—the military—and abruptly ended her tour of duty as an Army chaplain, her bout with depression forcing her to abandon her comrades when they needed her most. “Thank you for your service.”

The silent dismissed still rang in her ear.

Her fingers dug in a bag of soft sour candies and tossed them in her mouth. She sucked in her stinging cheeks and chewed through the pain. Lime. Lemon. Watermelon. Apple. Cherry. Orange. She ticked off each explosive flavor until they overrode her memories, shoving them down deep where they wouldn’t get her into trouble again.

“Coming up on Willow Brook Drive,” intoned the GPS.

She rolled down her window and the crisp, pine-scented air tore a strand from her bun and fluttered it across her mouth. A thicket of brush, scrub trees and conifers rose on one side. Opposite, the pines thinned and flashes of the starlit sky appeared through the spaces, revealing a drop-off. Not a stream or a willow.

This GPS made less sense than her civilian life. Her military world hadn’t prepared her for life without a uniform. She was struggling to fit in. The bombardment of choices in fancy coffee shops left her bewildered and stammering. Workdays at her first regular job, as a psychologist at a mental health clinic in Chicago, ended when the clock struck five, objectives unmet. And it had filled her with restless anxiety.

Also By Karen Rock

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