Bad Boy Rancher(9)

By: Karen Rock



“How about grateful?” she snapped, losing her patience with the mulish man.

“Nope. Not that, either.” His broad shoulders rose then dropped in a careless shrug.

Didn’t anything matter to this guy? His face was a slipping mask, and beneath it Brielle saw pain. “I’ve seen a lot of good men and women who cherished life lose it too soon. You’re lucky.”

He scrutinized her for a moment then laughed, a bitter, hollow sound. “Lucky? Good one.” He tipped his hat, pulled open a door labeled 8A, and disappeared inside.

Her eyes wandered over the entrance’s fake wood grain.

Justin Cade might have deliberately taken his hands from the handlebars after all. Maybe he’d wanted to die two weeks ago, and she’d prevented it. Or it’d been some twisted version of Russian roulette with his life.

Did he court death?

She smoothed her hand over her hair, yanked down her suit jacket and wrenched open the door. After the trial, she’d steer clear of Justin Cade.

He didn’t want to be saved, and those cases haunted her most.

* * *

“WOULD THE DEFENDANT please rise?”

Justin shoved back his chair and rose from the courtroom table slowly, ignoring the pain lancing through his side from his fractured rib. His heart drummed, and beads of perspiration broke out across his forehead. An overhead fan whirred in the expectant hush, and the room’s wood-paneled walls seemed to close around him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the woman who’d driven the van he’d hit two weeks ago. Brielle Thompson, a former Army chaplain from Chicago, he’d learned. She’d been hired to run Carbondale’s new rehabilitation and mental health center, Fresh Start, and had been headed there when they’d collided.

Now she sat beside the county DA, ramrod straight, her strong jaw lifted, her face impassive. Varying shades of blond hair, from platinum to honey to a dark gold, smoothed over her head and twisted in a knot at the base of her neck. Although she hadn’t glanced his way since the hearing began, he recalled her light green eyes in the hall and the way they’d seemed to look not just at him, but through him.

He didn’t remember much about that night, except the image of her stricken face peering down at him. He’d even dreamed of it, a reprieve from his usual loop of Jesse calling for him, insisting this time he’d changed, and Justin angrily refusing to believe until it was too late…

“How does the defendant plead?” asked County Judge Charlotte James.

Her daughter, Amberley, who dated his brother Jared, had warned Justin not to expect leniency on his DUI charge. Judge James had lost her sister in a drunk driving accident and imposed the maximum sentence when hearing these cases. She leaned forward, her forearms extended atop the tall bench, a gavel beside her right hand. Her black robe billowed around her tall, thin frame and the narrow oval of her face creased in disapproval. Gray threaded through her shoulder-length brown hair.

Justin cast a quick glance back at his family. James glowered while Jared mouthed “good luck.” Jewel chewed on a nail while his mother’s eyes glistened. Her lips pushed together so hard the color leached out of them. Regret settled sour in Justin’s gut. He’d caused his family pain.

Again.

Jail would get him out of their hair for a while. Behind bars, he’d also escape their pitying, anxious looks…their useless attempts to pull him from his grief. He squared his shoulders beneath Jared’s borrowed suit jacket. “Guilty, Your Honor.”

An annoyed huff escaped his family’s attorney, Chuck Sloan. A portly man with a thick mane of white hair and a perfect set of teeth, he resembled a well-fed cat used to pampering, not scrapping. He’d insisted they plead not guilty to provide better leverage in a plea bargain, but Justin refused. He’d chugged the beer before hopping on the bike. No one had put a gun to his head—a preferable choice, in hindsight, to driving under the influence.

His mind drifted as Judge James called for the accident report, witness statements and the toxicology reports.

He could have hurt someone, an unforgivable, selfish act. Granted, he’d believed the remote road would be empty and his motorcycle little threat to a moving van, but he couldn’t excuse his reckless disregard for another’s life. Brielle Thompson, by all accounts, was an exemplary person, a woman of the church, practically a saint compared to a sinner like him.

Also By Karen Rock

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