One burned and broken man finds his way home. Can he find peace in the arms of a man easy to love?
Justin made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, battling domestic terrorism, never the man he really was, using hate to avenge the death of his best friend. The friend he'd killed.
What he doesn’t count on is getting shot, and if he's going to die he wants it to be on Crooked Tree soil. Home.
Sam is as much a part of Crooked Tree as any of the families, and the offer to buy into the ranch is a dream come true. But falling for a hidden, secretive, injured man isn’t the way to keep his head in the game.
- Cover art by Meredith Russell
- Edited by Sue Adams
- ISBN: 978-1-78564-050-6
- Word Count: 75,000
Book 1 - Crooked Tree Ranch
Book 2 - The Rancher's Son
Book 3 - A Cowboy's Home
Book 4 - Snow in Montana
Buy Links - eBook
Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK) | Smashwords | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Google Play
Buy Links - Print Book
Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK)
Diverse Reader - "....This is a hurt/comfort read that was phenomenally done and kept my interest the whole time. The drama part of the story was well told and made Justin’s disappearance and the fact that he stayed away believable. The man had been manipulated in his grief over the loss of his best friend. The passion between these two complex men is heat and love all rolled into one...."
|Click link to enlarge|
The Way She Reads - "....Overall this was an at times very hard to read, heartrending but ultimately fabulous and very satisfactory story that kept me on edge for longer than I’m usually comfortable with, only to lead me to the happy but not too perfect ending it needed. I can’t wait to read book four and spend more time with all of the Montana gang...."
Justin’s vision blurred as his head smacked against the wall, but he used the force of the blow, caught his attacker off balance, and pivoted to avoid the gun against his side.
They grappled for dominance, and Justin knew from sparring that he would have to push beyond his skill set to take Saunders down. Fucker wasn’t new to this, and he was a scrappy fighter with nothing to lose.
“No one leaves the team, you know that!” Saunders snapped. “You’ll fuck us all up.”
“You lied to me,” Justin shouted.
In answer, Saunders shoved him, but Justin sidestepped and pressed forward. He wanted Saunders to answer questions. Adam was alive, and Saunders had stolen Justin’s life. He wanted him unconscious on the floor, and then he could think.
Saunders grunted as Justin went limp, and Justin waited for the exact moment when Saunders’s center was extended, and then with the flat of his hand, he jabbed his boss right in the throat. Saunders didn’t go down, he didn’t make a fucking sound, but his focus was knocked for a second. Justin slammed him into the wall, kicking hard at Saunders’s wrist; the gun Saunders had pulled on him to “clean up the Adam mess” fell to the floor.
Saunders didn’t wait to be killed—he was fighting for his life, just as Justin was—but Justin had years of bottled up aggression, and he let it rip with a snarl. Saunders scrambled to get the gun, but as he bent over, Justin kneed him in the face. Dazed, Saunders stumbled back. Then, having control for a moment, Justin shoved him hard, pushed the heavyset man against the wall, and held him tight with his feet off the floor.
“You told me my family was in danger!” Justin shouted right in Saunders’s face.
“They could have been.”
“I was a kid.”
Saunders pushed him, but Justin ignored the frantic scrabbling of Saunders’s nails on his skin. Justin had strength borne from the temper and horror clawing inside him.
Saunders gouged at Justin’s face, snapping free with a slick move. Their foreheads connected and Saunders stumbled; Justin’s hold loosened enough for Saunders to use his weight advantage and slam Justin into the wall, his head taking the brunt of the assault.
Justin shook off the pain, and was up on his toes, forcing Saunders away, then crouched a little and swept out a leg to catch Saunders at the back of the knee. He shouted in pain and fell to one side, giving Justin a better advantage, pushing his knee to Saunders’s throat and levering his body to exert more pressure. For the second time Saunders scrabbled to get free, but Justin wasn’t shifting.
“Stop it, Justin!” Webb shouted over the confusion. The other operative had stayed out of the fight up till then, but he was stepping in as soon as Justin got the upper hand.
Webb’s gun was trained on him, and even as Justin pressed harder on Saunders’s throat, he calculated how he could get the weapon away from Webb.
“You gonna kill me?” Justin snapped at Webb. “What lies did he tell you to get you to do that?”
Saunders was nothing but red tape and rules, even in a unit with allegedly zero accountability. Webb, on the other hand, was another enforcer, the one who’d trained Justin, shown him how easy it was to kill.
Justin pressed harder, and Saunders’s scratching and pawing grew less intense with each passing second. Webb wasn’t shooting, wasn’t pulling Justin off. What did he care?
The scrabbling stopped. Saunders was finally unconscious, and Justin had a split second of knowing that Saunders wasn’t dead, just passed out, but hell, he didn’t want to kill the guy.
A bullet burned its way by his body and thudded into the wall. Webb wasn’t letting him leave the warehouse alive. With no time to assess, and acting on pure instinct, Justin swung round. A second bullet caught him in the thigh even as he tripped Webb and made a calculated grab for the gun.
Saunders jumped him—freaking asshole hadn’t stayed unconscious, but Justin pushed back against him, twisting so Webb’s gun was at chest height. Saunders reflexively pressed the trigger, pumping a bullet into Webb. The O of surprise on Webb’s face was the last expression he made as he fell to the floor with a neat hole in his forehead.
Justin fought for control of the gun. He was next—and that was not how he was going to die. He still had a list to complete.
Saunders tried every trick he knew to take Justin down, but Justin wasn’t playing by the rules. He used every ounce of his killing side to fight dirty until he finally took the gun from the man he’d called the boss.
And then he turned it on Saunders.
“Justin, back off.” Saunders dropped to a crouch, his hands on his knees, his breathing labored.
“You lied to me,” Justin said.
“We had to, Justin, we needed you hungry. Needed men who were willing to die, who didn’t care about themselves.”
Justin didn’t even flinch, that was him in one sentence. But if he’d known Adam was okay, would it have been different? “You should have told me Adam was alive.”
Saunders held up a hand. “Justin, you were in so much pain you were giving up. You wanted to die, and Adam was in witness protection with a head wound and amnesia. Hell, kid, I saved you both.”
Justin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. That was some fucked-up thinking right there. If he’d had known that Adam had survived, maybe that would have just left guilt he could live with. He may not have even started on this journey; not killed his first man in this all-consuming need to pay for his sins, not caring if he lived or died. “The first thing you told me was that Adam was dead. You never even had to think about what to tell me.”
“There was so much confusion at the scene—”
“We had to put Adam in WITSEC. The DOJ said they’d keep him safe—”
“I saw something in you when you woke up. You had a fire in your eyes. I gave you purpose, trained you—”
“Turned me into a killer.”
“We gave you purpose when you were ready to give up.”
Justin tapped the gun on his knee. “Fuck you,” he said.
“Think of the lives you saved working on this team.” Saunders near screamed at him. He was losing control, and likewise Justin had to rein back his instinctive need to shoot the son of a bitch.
The team had stolen all those years from him, and whatever good he might have done couldn’t weigh up against losing his family. “We’re going to the ranch, and we’re explaining it all to Adam, to my family.”
“You know that won’t happen. You did this for your country. You tell anyone, and they’ll hunt us all down. You think any of this was sanctioned? Rob will have no option—protocols will kick in. You know they’ll get Rob to kill you, and then he’ll be gone as well.”
Justin didn’t care about any of that. Rob was just another hired assassin, same as him; there was nothing Justin feared from Rob. He crouched next to Saunders, the gun tight in his hand and resolve in his heart. “Do you know how many people I killed for this team?”
“For you, Justin. What about the extra list, huh? The ones you killed for yourself?”
Justin reared back. “They’re not part of this. I’m talking about the unsanctioned ops, the situations we were ordered into.”
“Fuck you, Allens; you were happy to do it. Your fucked-up brain—”
“Let me think,” Justin snapped. He’d seen Adam in Chicago, seen him at Crooked Tree through the trees. Seen with his own eyes that he was alive. There could have been hope for Justin with Adam by his side, maybe he could have pulled himself back from the brink—
Saunders interrupted his thoughts. “For God’s sake, you know what we do. You signed up for the ops, killed to keep your country safe. You knew if we were compromised, we’d be removed. You shot Webb.”
Justin gestured with his gun. “Technically you shot Webb.”
“You think that’s going to go unnoticed?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Justin spat. “I’m out.”
“You can’t do that.”
“You’ll have a target painted on your back? You need to come in, and we’ll deal with this appropriately. There are procedures, rules to follow—”
“Suddenly there are rules? What happened to a free license to keep the country safe?” Justin asked.
“You fucked that up as soon as you started on your forays into revenge?”
“As well as getting the job done. I saved lives. No one knew what we’d done. We’re heroes, right?”
Saunders looked uneasy. “Clarke won’t like this—Webb down, you gone rogue. You know what will happen. He’ll ask me to deal with this before it all goes to shit. No one can know what we do.”
“Then explain to me why I shouldn’t take you out now, before you order me killed? It seems to me that without you doing whatever Clarke tells you, I’ll be a hell of a lot safer.”
Saunders must have read the intent in Justin’s eyes because he whimpered and crab-walked back to the wall, one hand in front of him. “Please,” he begged. “Don’t kill me.”
Justin grimaced. “Jesus, Saunders, I’m not going to kill you.” He noticed a lot of tiny details at that moment: Webb’s blood spreading to touch his foot, the scent of death, the way Saunders had a calculating look in his eye even when cowering—he probably had already called Rob for backup.
The team had made Justin into a weapon, and he’d been the good soldier, every minute of his day fueled by anger. He’d done everything to keep his country safe, everything to keep his family and friends from being hurt.
And in the middle of that he’d hunted down four out of the five who’d hurt him and killed Adam, dealt with the collateral damage, boxed away the fallout, and finally he had Saunders—the man who had taken the hate in Justin’s heart and turned him into a killer—begging for his life.
“What will you do?” Saunders asked, his chest heaving, his face bloodless.
Justin had to think. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He wanted to go home, but his head told him that wasn’t right. His heart, however, demanded that he explain, see his family. But that would put them in danger.
Webb was dead. Saunders crouched in front of him, and Rob? Who the hell knew where Rob was. Last Justin knew, Rob had finished the job in the Carolinas. They were an elite team: him, Rob, and Webb the blunt weapons, and Saunders the planner, and above them Clarke, who sat at his cozy Pentagon desk deciding on the order of people’s lives. Who knew who was above that and how far it went?
Justin had never asked, had signed up wholly to the concept that with terrorists on US soil, sometimes corners had to be cut to ensure their country’s citizens were safe. He cast a look at Webb, and something like remorse washed over him.
“If you kill me, Rob will have no choice but to take you out before you kill him.”
Justin chuckled darkly as he focused back in on Saunders. “I know my place, and I’ll eat a bullet before Rob has to kill me and my part in this is over. But you… if I let you live, what does that make me?”
Saunders looked desperate. “Compassionate?”
He kicked out at Justin, caught his knee, and Justin stumbled backward. Everything happened in slow motion: Justin pivoted to get his balance and Saunders reached for an ankle holster, pulling a gun, his movement sharp and desperate. He shot, but Justin had a grip on his arm and the bullet went wide.
“Stop it!” Justin ordered. “I don’t want to kill you—”
“Fuck you!” Saunders shouted and yanked at Justin, lifting the small pistol until it was aimed right at Justin.
Justin acted on instinct. He didn’t have a clear shot as he let his weight shift, falling back as he pulled the trigger. The angle was acute and the bullet ended up off-center in Saunders’s forehead.
Saunders was dead before his body hit the floor.
For a few seconds, Justin stared down at the man, guilt and adrenaline like acid inside him.
“Jesus,” he muttered. He waited for guilt to win, but common sense shoved it out of the way.
He pushed his weapon into his jeans at the base of his spine and scanned the empty warehouse. The place was familiar to him, and he pushed open the first door with a rusting Staff sign, stumbling down corridors until he found the keypad, stopping to catch his breath. The minute he attempted entry, Clarke would know.
He imagined the interior, the steel framework, the desk, and the computer.
After quickly keying in the code and opening the door, he crossed to the office, pushed in the memory stick from his pocket, thankful it hadn’t been smashed in the fight. He dragged everything he could find on the PC onto it. Then he pulled down the container of C4, flipped the catch, packed the explosive around the room, set the timer, and gave himself just enough time to get away.
He needed to run, so he pressed his shirt to the wound in his leg, dragged the belt from his jeans, and used it to keep the shirt in place. Where it had been numb, there was fire in his leg, and he was pretty much fucked if he didn’t get the bullet out soon. He was halfway across the interior of the warehouse when he heard the single word.
Justin stopped. His hand automatically went for his weapon, but it was only Rob, using the ridiculous nickname that had been coined over one tequila too many.
Rob, the one trained killer who knew Justin way too well.
Justin didn’t even bother to take out his gun. If Rob were here to kill him, then he would have been dead already.
He turned. Rob had his weapon in his hand, but held loose at his side, not aimed at him. “Rob.”
“You’re bleeding.” Rob’s tone was steady, dispassionate; no empathy in his expression or in his flat tone.
Justin looked down at his jeans, at the tear in them and the damage the bullet had wrought, at the blood soaking into denim. “Flesh wound,” he dismissed, even though it burned like hell.
That raised a dark chuckle. “That’s what you said in Vancouver, remember? You nearly fucking died.”
Justin forced his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want a walk down a shared memory lane of undercover jobs. “I’m okay.”
Rob tilted his head to the warehouse. “What did you do?”
Justin shrugged. “What I had to do.”
Rob closed his eyes briefly. “Shit, Justin. Who?”
“Both of them?”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
He wasn’t going to explain that it had been Saunders who shot Webb; the technicalities weren’t necessary. Saunders and Webb were dead: the boss, the enforcer… and that just left him and Rob. He couldn’t even think about the pencil pusher above them, Clarke wasn’t important.
So, what should he say? I killed them because they fought back, because they carried on lying? Because they destroyed me, made me into something I was never meant to be?
He kept those words to himself. “It was me or them,” he said instead.
Rob winced. “And just us now.”
“And Clarke, and whoever he reports to,” Justin reminded him.
They’d had this conversation before, wondering how a unit like theirs could survive without someone above Clarke calling the shots.
“There’ll be a price on you now. Whoever the fuck it is, they’ll say you’ve gone rogue, and send me to kill you for what you did. You know too much.”
Justin stepped closer to the man he loosely called friend. “You’re a liability as much as I am. Come with me. We can find somewhere, anywhere, and be something else.”
“Like what? This isn’t some happy-ever-after scenario. We’re trained killers, Justin. We don’t know any different.”
Justin held himself steady, pushing away the insistent press of dizziness. “We could be something else.”
Rob laughed, and when he moved, it was to holster his weapon. Then he looked at Justin with deliberation in his icy green gaze. “You’d better hide well,” he said, and regret flashed in his eyes.
Justin nodded. “I’m done.”
Rob shook his head. “No you’re not; you still have one more on your revenge list. I know you.”
The list that Rob spoke of, the men who had hurt him and killed Adam, named five men—and four were dead. Only one more left to cross off. But his imperative to kill, that Adam was dead, was a lie. So, did that mean Justin had been wrong to end those responsible for Adam’s death? Even if he wanted to hurt them for what they’d done to him? Or, if they wanted to hurt others? A tiny amount of uncertainty pushed its way into his consideration, but it wasn’t enough for him to stop.
“One more.” He didn’t drop his gaze from Rob’s.
“You need to leave that list alone, Cowboy. It’s going to be the end of you.” Rob sighed heavily. “Clarke will send me to take you down after what you’ve done here. What you know, what we’ve done, we could take down the White House.”
“I took an oath….”
“But you’d be running for your life, and I know you as well as you know me. I’ll find you. Don’t make me do this.”
“Just give me some time.” Justin thought of the memory stick in his pocket, all the information he’d gathered about the fifth man on his revenge list.
“Hell, I don’t know how much time I can stall this.”
“I’ll do what needs to be done, and I’ll disappear.”
Rob scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked more than troubled, horrified maybe, almost certainly resigned. “Shit, Justin, this…. You have to drop this, go somewhere I can’t find you.” He shook his head. “Look, leave it, yeah? They’ll know what you’re doing. They’ll send me to track you down. Don’t make me kill you.”
Justin stepped closer, placing a palm on the flat of Rob’s chest. “I won’t make you do it.” He injected some of the familiar cockiness into his voice. “You’re my friend, Rob, as much as we can be in this fucked-up shit.”
“Then just hide, don’t let me find you.”
“Even if you find me, I’ll make sure to take myself out. I won’t let you have that on your conscience.”
Sadness replaced the horror. “Fuck, what did they do to us?”
Justin wished he had an answer. Wordlessly he turned and walked away.
In a sick, twisted way, Rob was the definition of his family, and what Justin had just done had made Rob his enemy.
It’s not like I deserve family.
He made it to his car, not even the noise of the explosion making him falter. With determination, and staying under the speed limit, he made it away from the city. Heading south he switched cars twice to older models he could hot-wire, avoiding cameras as much as he could.
He only stopped when his ability to focus began to fade. His head hurt, his thigh burned, and something was seriously wrong. He was nauseous and dizzy, and wasn’t going to make it much farther.
He wiped the steering wheel clean of the blood and his prints. Any CSI worth their salt would still find DNA in the car, and they would have all the information they needed for a profile, but the man who matched it wasn’t even alive.
Because Justin Allens had died when he was sixteen, and the man he’d become overnight was black ops, hidden so deep he wasn’t even sure he knew who he was anymore.
He closed his eyes as he stood beside the car. He’d driven south by instinct, pulled off the road at a lane that eventually led up into the mountains. Somehow his head told him the place would be safe until the fever broke.
Or until it didn’t.
Twenty miles west of here was where the Crooked Tree land started. The bleeding had stopped, but the pain had reached the point where he couldn’t breathe or move without cursing. The agony in his head was a band of fire, and his thoughts were a muddle of hell and hurt. He’d been slammed him so hard against the wall he likely had a concussion, and it was a miracle he’d driven that far in one piece.
Unless he went to a hospital and got some treatment for the leg wound, he could just bleed out, slowly and agonizingly, his brain swollen and frying in his head.
Maybe from here he could get to Crooked Tree. He crouched with difficulty and cursing to dig at the dirt, holding enough in his hand so he could feel its coldness, smell the dark loam. This was Montana soil, and dying here would work.
He glanced up and down the road. Who would find him? A soccer mom with kids? A man on his way to work? A bus driver minding his own business?
Justin didn’t have a choice. He pulled out his knife and tore at the jeans, sweat beading on his brow. He couldn’t see a fucking thing. The entry hole was small, but who the hell knew how far the bullet had gone?
He ran the blade of the knife across the wound, blood seeped, and he swallowed a scream. Blackness threatened, and he counted in his head, focusing on the numbers until he could look down at the wound.
He poked with the knife, finally finding the bullet, and as if he was doing it to someone else, he dug out the piece of metal, screaming in the safety of his car at the pain. His vision blurred but he was aware enough to ask was the bullet he’d removed intact? Had he got it all? I need to check.
He tightened the belt another notch; the wound was red and raw, but wasn’t bleeding so much. Thank God it appeared no arteries were involved, but there was enough blood that made him think he wasn’t going to make it out alive from this situation. Hell, what did it matter anyway? Even if he managed to get to a hospital, he’d be a dead man as soon as Rob got the order to take him out.
What had happened back at the warehouse was the beginning of the end for the Unit, and he’d broken every unspoken rule. He was dying either way, but he regretted that he may not live to kill the last man on his revenge list. Somehow he needed to find peace with that. He’d wanted so badly to make his revenge complete.
Maybe Jamie Crane would be the one who got away. The one man who’d actually won after what he’d done to Justin and Adam; the one who lived.
His vision dimmed a little and he blinked away the blurriness. He was going to die there on the side of the road.
Finding somewhere on Montana dirt to die wasn’t enough. If Justin was going to let the poison inside him eat away at his flesh, it had to be real and forever, back where it all started.
He wanted to find a small corner of Crooked Tree, and he wanted to die there.
Rob’s voice echoed in his thoughts. “Cowboy, don’t make me kill you.”
Justin wanted to go home.
Sam Walter stopped at the entrance to Crooked Tree. He’d only been away a week, but he already had the feeling that everything had changed. Over the past few years the Todd and Allens families, had worked hard to make the ranch more as it had been in its prime. Not to mention Adam Strachan, still rocking the memory loss but working with the horses.
He worked hard here, belonged here, deserved to be here. So, why did he feel like he wanted to stop and not go in at all?
He climbed down off the Ducati and wheeled its great weight over to the side, set it on its stand, and sat on the low wall by the ranch sign, attempting to get his thoughts in order. He’d sold his Harley two weeks back, and he kind of missed it.
“We never expected to see you.” Those were the words that summed up his last week. From his brother’s formal phone call advising their grandmother had died, to the moment Sam left after the funeral, he went against every single thing he’d promised. First off he’d gone home, which in itself was a miracle. Facing off to his parents—all smart suits, Chanel for his mom, Hugo Boss for his dad, and accents that reeked of money, and not to mention the Bentleys in the drive, was just the start of a miserable seven days.
“Why would you even think she’d want you here?” his mom had added the question to the stunned aura of disapproval from his dad.
Sam’s relationship with his grandmother had been as twisted and toxic as the one he had with his parents. Her last weeks had been ice-cold; the letter arriving two weeks ago said she expected him at her funeral but didn’t want to see him before that. He was, she said, abhorrent to God but he had to be there to present a united face to the rest of the world. Who even used words like abhorrent anymore, and what did Sam care about a God who’d made a family like that?
Samantha Eleanora Walter-Bridges, the woman he’d been named for, had been just as instrumental as his father in blocking him from their lives. She’d overridden Samuel’s mother small glimpse of compassion toward the son she’d always adored. That poor woman had never been strong, marrying into a family that considered public face more important than love.
His grandmother had been responsible for Dad cutting him out of his inheritance, even the money Sam had tucked away each birthday and Christmas.
No Walter-Bridges son is gay, she told him with icy calm in her quietest, tightest voice. A Walter-Bridges marries well, becomes part of the family firm of investment bankers, and fathers two perfect children. A Walter-Bridges son does not fuck the hired help.
Or, indeed, get his photo with said hired help in the society blogs that loved to kick a guy when he was down.
But Sam had gone to the funeral because she dangled money in front of his face and told him he was going to be well paid for attending and keeping up appearances. Well, not in so many words, but a quarter-million dollars wasn’t something to be sniffed at.
The letter ended with the suggestion that his family would forgive him for what he’d done if only he changed, and that maybe money could buy him a new life. She even suggested that if he attended, she could forgive him in whatever heaven she resided in for his gross ways.
Sam didn’t go to the funeral for money or forgiveness, he just wanted to make sure she was six feet under, and he hoped to God her ghost wasn’t around to haunt him.
“I don’t hate my family” was all he said at her graveside. “I want a family, just not this one.”
He didn’t care about inheritance. Sam needed his mom to love him; he needed his dad not to stare at him like he was dirt on his shoes, and he needed his spineless brother to back him up.
They never had. They’d listened to the one person who held the purse strings, the matriarch of the family.
His grandmother likely never imagined he would go back. No, she was probably convinced he wouldn’t. But he needed to be there for that moment when they dropped her into the ground.
The day had been sunny and bright, not storming as though the heavens were raging at her loss. People weren’t sobbing at her graveside. Some stood in quiet respect, but others seemed uncomfortable to be there.
Certainly Sam wasn’t sobbing, and he met every pointed stare with equal force.
He’d needed his family when he was sixteen. They’d turned on him. They didn’t deserve his respect.
But then it was done, and in his pocket was the payoff. The money she’d promised him as a reward for staying away and making a life that wasn’t a stain on the Walter-Bridges family, for making the move to become what she wanted him to be.
Yeah right, that isn’t happening.
It wasn’t much. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars out of an estate worth a hundred times that. Blood money.
Half of him had wanted to take the envelope from his brother’s hands and rip it in two. But he hadn’t. What would that prove to anyone? Nothing except that he could act hysterically, and he was fucked if he was giving his family any kind of emotion that day.
Benjamin watched him take the envelope. “You can always give it to charity,” he said, unable to look Sam in the eyes—probably because Ben’s eyes were dull, his face worn, making him look older than forty-three. The drugs and stress were close to killing him.
“Fuck you,” Sam said.
Then he took the linen envelope and pocketed it in his trademark leather jacket that he’d worn to the funeral. Fuck Ben, fuck his ice-hearted parents, and fuck the grandmother who’d told his sixteen-year-old self that he was a sinner who would go to hell.
Fuck all of them.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. He even held out a hand to shake, but he still wouldn’t look at Sam, even though he attempted a smile.
Sam ignored Ben’s hand, and left.
With his grandmother safely in the ground, Sam drove away from the mausoleum of a house, and the family that had rejected him.
And then he was home.
Because that was what Crooked Tree was to him. Home.
Up there, just past the bend, at the end of the long drive and over the bridge was his restaurant, Branches. Sam was master there, in charge of his own destiny, making something for himself. He had friends there, people who actually cared about him and had never once judged him for who he was.
A car left the road and turned into the drive, and he recognized the low hum of a Jeep Wrangler and knew who it was. Nate.
Part of Sam wished he hadn’t stopped there, hadn’t decided to have a meltdown in a position where someone could see him. The other half of him was damn pleased it was Nate who’d found him.
Nate pulled over onto the verge, killed the engine, and clambered out of the cab. “Hey,” Nate said a little uncertainly, hovering by the car.
“Hey, big guy,” Sam said in his usual flirty tone.
Nate ambled over; his thumbs in his belt hooks and his face a picture of unease. Nate wasn’t big on emotional scenes, which was one of the reasons Sam was relieved it was Nate getting first talk at “poor, bereaved Sam.”
“May I sit?” Nate asked and inclined his head to the wall.
Sam nodded. “It’s your ranch.” Although he wasn’t trying for cold, he probably sounded offhand, and regretted the way he’d spoken when Nate winced. “Sorry. Of course,” he amended.
Nate smiled awkwardly and then sat. A while back—a long while, before Jay landed in their laps—Sam would have loved a chance to climb Nate like a tree and make love until morning made them leave the bed. But Nate wasn’t into bratty chefs with a line in sarcasm, a fact borne out by the way Jay and Nate had clicked so quickly.
Sam loved the both of them, so he wasn’t complaining. He’d tried flirting with Jay, too, even though Jay was Nate’s, for no other reason than he loved to see Nate all riled up.
Nate asked, “How did it go?”
Well, that was a leading question, wasn’t it? Nate didn’t know Sam’s real name, or his family background, or anything of any importance. Because, hell, the name Walter-Bridges didn’t mean much outside of Tacoma. All Nate knew was that Sam’s grandmother had died and he’d gone home for the funeral.
Sam shrugged. “It was a funeral,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Nate sighed. “I’m so sorry, Sam. I didn’t get to see you before you went, but I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Sam murmured. A nice simple answer that didn’t leave any room for questions or comments.
Unfortunately, Nate was following the tried-and-trusted formula when it came to talking to the recently bereaved: Sorry for your loss, time heals all hurts, blah-blah.
“Were you close?” Nate asked.
Because that was what people did, they asked the same list of questions to frame the bereavement so they could understand the impact of the loss on the person they were talking to.
Emotions boiled inside Sam. Close? They had been, as much as a family mired in society could be, until just after his sixteenth birthday.
They’d been all cheek kisses and politeness on family occasions. But Sam hadn’t thought much of his grandmother’s place in his life until the embarrassingly clichéd photos of him with the gardener surfaced. And then Sam found out exactly how much control she exerted over her idiot son and his equally vapid wife. And, inevitably, her grandchildren.
“No.” Sam kept the response simple. No sense in adding anything to the mix; what was done was done. Another cliché, and wasn’t that what people said?
“Okay, then,” Nate said, breaking the awkward silence.
They sat for a few moments, Sam in his own headspace and Nate wriggling a little on the wall. The envelope was heavy in Sam’s pocket, and his backpack, with everything he’d taken to Tacoma, was weighing him down just as much. He hefted its weight and held it out to Nate. “Will you take that up for me?”
Nate nodded and took the bag. “I’ll put it in Jay’s office. He’ll keep an eye on it.”
A car pulled off the road and onto the ranch; a family in Western-style shirts stared at them as they passed.
“The Bennet family,” Nate muttered. “If I have to tell the dad once more that he isn’t John Wayne…. You back tomorrow?”
Unspoken was the question can we reopen Branches tomorrow?
“Yeah. Back to normal.”
Nate bumped shoulders with him. “You need time… or to talk….”
“What you doing now? You want to come up and get a beer?”
“Don’t you have the Bennet family to deal with?”
“Adam has them to begin with. I have a while.”
Sam looked into eyes filled with a sincere need to help. Nate was the kind of guy who always wanted to be there for people.
“Nah,” Sam said and gestured at his bike. “I’m switching rides and taking the dirt bike up into the hills.”
Nate nodded, gave him a small smile. “Don’t scare the horses.”
That was a moot point. Sam wouldn’t even be on the same side of the ranch as the horses or the clients who played cowboy there. He had his own places, and rushing up and down steep inclines and the freedom to race through empty trails was as near to nirvana as possible.
“I’ll try not to.” He watched Nate climb into his Jeep.
Seeing Nate was a steadying influence on Sam, even though he hadn’t wanted to go through that. Nate would report back, warn everyone up there that Sam was feeling introspective, and likely grieving, and probably should be left alone.
That way no one would think to talk to him or want him to explain his feelings.
The alternative—that he snapped and told them everything—was a horror he wasn’t prepared to consider, so he climbed on his bike.
Sam paused as yet another car entered, this one with a group of men, probably here for one of the ranch experiences on some kind of team-building day. Jay had it all covered in his brochures, selling Crooked Tree Ranch for all the good things a person could do there.
Including eating. Branches was getting more popular, not just as a place to grab coffee and lunch at an event, but catering for the team-building days.
Those guys must have been the Evans party, lawyers out of Missoula. They hadn’t wanted food, just a finger buffet of sorts, and Ashley had promised him she could handle it.
Sam didn’t doubt that for one minute.
He contemplated going back to work to give her a hand, but the nervous twitch in his right eye told him that would be a completely bullshit move. Nope, he was getting his other bike, and then he could shake the shit growing out of all proportion inside his head.
Back at Branches, in the space he used to park his bikes, Sam locked down the Ducati, switching to the off-road bike built for the forests. He should change into his old clothes, but he couldn’t be bothered. He had his leather jacket, he had his helmet, and he’d worn boots to the funeral, and he’d be fine.
Then, without talking to anyone, he deliberately turned off the main road and passed the staff houses, heading up past Ember Bluff into the wilderness beyond. Way past where people would ride, way out to the very edges of Crooked Tree, and with every second Sam was out there, the rush of air clearing his thoughts, he began to feel more at peace.
He was needed at Crooked Tree. He was important there.
He was home.