A NOISE from somewhere in the darkness of the house startled Brett Taylor into a sudden, uncomfortable state of wakefulness. He lifted his head from his arms where he’d dozed off at—or rather on—his desk. He flinched away from the harshness of the lamp glaring blindingly at him, curling his fingers around the base as he twisted it so it would shine in the opposite direction.
Scrubbing a rough hand over his face, he wiped at his sleepy eyes and the dot of drool that had formed in the corner of his mouth. He slid his stiff body to a sitting position in his old leather chair, ears straining to find whatever noise had snapped him from his half-buzzed doze—or was it half-dozed buzz?
Brett was positive he’d heard the slamming of a door, but what the hell did he know anyhow with a half-pickled brain and a head so heavy he could barely hold it up? There didn’t seem to be anything amiss, and suspecting he’d merely been caught up in one of his booze-induced dreams, he didn’t bother hurrying to check it out.
Resigning himself to the fact he was too damn old to be passing out on his desk, he righted his skewed reading glasses then pushed himself from the chair and stumbled to a standing position. He clutched the edge as he fought the slightly spinning room and his wobbly knees until everything seemed less jellylike.
The yellow paper he’d been resting on caught his eye, the tip of his favorite pen still pointing at the last of the jottings on the page. He cursed at the tiny wet spot—his own goddamn drool—that had soaked and smudged the lines of ink near the top. His mind flip-flopped from moving to his bedroom, where he could sleep off the headache already niggling at the base of his skull, or rewriting the page and finishing it off. His decision was made for him when the voice behind door number three shouted loudly from the other room.
“Brett! Where are you, son? You’ve got visitors. Don’t make me come lookin’ for you.”
Brett groaned, screwing his eyes shut while his fingers swept through his tangled hair. What in the hell was his mama doing here in the middle of the goddamn night? He contemplated keeping quiet in hopes she’d just assume he wasn’t home, but his mama hadn’t raised a stupid child, and he knew there’d be worse hell to pay if he tried to avoid her. Plus, in his heart of hearts, he knew he could never do that.
“God’s tarnation, woman. Keep your knickers on,” he muttered before carefully placing the pad of paper in the long drawer of the desk. He traced a finger over the image in the small picture frame just beyond the desk blotter, a sad grin curling one side of his mouth as he picked it up.
“Guess I’ll have to finish up after I’ve gotten rid of her. You know how she is. I’ll be back, Darlin’.”
In the beginning, he’d been embarrassed, or maybe thought he was slowly losing his mind by talking to the photo when he was alone in the office. But those times had passed, and it wasn’t anyone else’s damn business if he talked to a photograph or to himself for that matter. If that was what he needed at the end of the day to fill some kind of hole inside him, he’d do as he damned well pleased.
When he heard footsteps in the kitchen, his mind hesitantly circled back to the present. He placed the photo carefully on top of the yellow paper before he shut the drawer again. One more swipe at his face to clear the cobwebs and memories from his head, and he exited the office to meet whatever the hell was waiting for him.
“Brett.” Her voice warmed when Brett came into view. “You look a mess, son. Didn’t wake you up, did we?”
“Just a little doze, Mama.” The irritated-as-fuck thread running through him thinned when he took in her familiar sweet smile and loving blue eyes. “Kinda late for a visit, ain’t it?”
“It’s barely ten o’clock. I swear you’re turning into your daddy with all your darn grumpin’.” Goddamn, he loved his mama, but he was positive she’d be the death of him one day.
The tension in his head eased a little as he quirked his lips into a self-satisfied smile and crossed his arms over his chest. He planted his feet shoulder width apart for balance, then winked at his grinning mama. “And just which daddy would that be, ma’am?”
Millie Taylor-Montgomery-Allan jutted out her hip, laying a ring-abundant hand over it while she narrowed her eyes at him. “You watch your mouth, boy. You’re not too big or old for me to hang a beatin’ on. You best remember that.”
His smugness turned into a full-out crooked smirk. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Now where’re your manners? Give your mama a hug and politely greet your guest.”
Brett’s adrenaline rose, involuntarily sobering him in a way he didn’t appreciate. He scanned the kitchen while he frowned and stepped into his mama’s embrace. Guest? He caught a slight movement from the corner of his eye and peered into the shadow of the doorway.
Why the hell was there a man—a stranger—in his house, and with his mama yet? He wound an arm around her waist, squeezed gently, then kissed her cheek before stepping back. He kept watch on the figure standing behind her.
Millie motioned for the shadow to step forward, wrapped her fingers around his forearm and pulled him into the light. Brett did a quick assessment, his gaze traveling from head to toe as he contemplated whether the guy was a threat in any way possible. Fisting one hand in the hem of his T-shirt, he forced back a protective growl that tickled the back of his throat.
It was a habit he’d never been able to completely rid himself of—protecting the woman who’d raised him and taken care of him his whole life. He guessed if there was one inbred instinct he’d never been able to shake, that was the best one possible to hang on to. Plus, he wasn’t accustomed to having strangers—or anyone—in his house.
The guy was young and around six feet tall, though his build was far slighter than Brett’s. He was wiry, but toned, if the ropey biceps and cut of his jeans were any indication. His dark blond hair was curly, falling just past his ears, messy and giving him a scruffy look that matched the stubble on his jaw and cheeks. His eyes were the color of brown velvet— almost black in the shadow of the overhead light—wide, deep, frayed around the edges with uncertainty. And, if Brett wasn’t mistaken, the kid seemed to be a little worse for wear if the bruising around his right eye and the redness beneath the stubble of the left side of his jaw were any indication.
People told Brett all the time that he looked younger than his forty-one years, but if this kid was any older than twenty-three, then Brett was surely ready for the old folks’ home in town. The purple shirt he wore had seen much better days, stained or maybe spattered with something dark—possibly blood from his cut lip—with a rip at the collar. It was snug across his noticeably toned chest and hung loose over the waistband of a very tight pair of black jeans. The black-and-purple-striped kicks completed the trying-too-hard city-boy category Brett automatically put him in. He hoped the kid hadn’t been doing any drinking in the local bars because, damn, he stuck out like a pinto in a herd of quarter horses.
“Brett, this is Johan Terrance.”
Brett’s suspicious nature eased up a bit while he hid his smirk behind his hand, and heard Johan groan low in his throat. “That his first name or last?”
“I think it’s his first—”
The kid—Johan, for Christ’s sake—finally spoke up, shifting from foot to foot as he cut Millie off. His cheeks were flushed and his tongue slid nervously over his lips. “JT Campbell. JT is fine.”
He held out his hand, and Brett had to give him points for having the balls to interrupt Millie. Of course, he didn’t know her all that well yet either, at least not that Brett knew of.
Millie slapped Brett’s shoulder lightly. “JT, this is my mannerless son, Brett Taylor.”
Brett let his mama’s comment slide off him. He wrinkled his forehead and gave her his best all-lips fake grin—practiced, perfected, and used often when it came to her. A fact of which she was highly aware. He shook JT’s hand, immediately noticing the softness of his fingers and palm—definitely city.
“Hey,” he said, his voice curt but firm. He glared at the kid, sending his own brand of “don’t you be moving too quickly or I’ll lasso your ass faster than you can say hogtied.” He eased off a little, quirking an eyebrow before moving to look at his mama and back again. “Now if it’s not too much trouble, could y’all tell me why you’ve come calling in the middle of the night?”
JT’s lips parted, but Millie was faster. “It’s ten. I swear you’re older than I am these days.”
Brett rolled his eyes, the action making the dizziness in his head slip back in for a stay. He leaned against the marble countertop, flicked his hair from his face, then crossed his arms over his chest again. The kid unsuccessfully stifled a half grin—bad move, since Brett didn’t think anything was particularly funny about the situation.
He shot fire at the kid, then turned to his mama. “Well, just maybe I am. And since you never answered my first question, how about telling me why the fu—” He paused at his mama’s stern look. “Why the goddamn hell… just tell me why you’re out driving on the highway in the dark with a stranger in the car. I’m assuming his politeness isn’t covering up some nasty business he’s trying to pull on y’all, ’cause I’ll nip that sucker in the bud before he knows what hit him—”
“Brett Samuel Weston Taylor!”
He winced, his whole body tightening up. Letting his lids slide closed, he squeezed the bridge of his nose so hard he felt the pressure all the way down to his toes. She hadn’t even said it loudly, but goddamn it, he hated when she pulled out all his damn names. “Mama—”
“Please excuse Brett’s rudeness, Jo… JT. He’s always a little cranky when he’s been spending time with the bott—in his office.” Her voice smacked of sugar and vinegar at the same time, but Brett saw the disappointment in her face.
“Mama,” Brett hissed through clenched teeth. He couldn’t believe he’d lifted himself from a puddle of his own drool to put up with, well… this. He sought out the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the bar in the attached family room, his mouth watering for another shot. Hell, if she was gonna advertise his drinking habits, he might as well not disappoint her. Of course she interrupted his yearning intention before he could make it a reality.
She must have spotted his not-so-stealthy look because she nearly shot him straight to the fiery gates of hell with one of her own. “Quit fussing and fidgeting, Brett. I had that cancer fundraiser tonight and didn’t feel like listening to Dorothy yap about her arthritis and gout for the ride there and back.” She brushed her fingers over JT’s arm. “JT is looking for work, and I told him that was just the sweetest coincidence, since you were looking for help around here.”
Brett scowled as he shoved his reading glasses farther down so he could get a better grip on the bridge of his nose. He fought against the booze in his system to control the What the fuck! that really wanted to make its way past his lips. Why in God’s name had she taken some young buck to a goddamn fundraiser? And offering a job Brett didn’t have… what the goddamn fuck was going on?
“I’m not looking for—”
“You know that old barn is going to just fall over if you don’t give it that overhaul you keep talking about. It’s a darn health hazard and eyesore. And since JT has some experience in construction, I thought he’d be perfect to help you get it fixed up.”
Brett’s heart dropped into his stomach, his jaw twitching as he prepared his answer. Leave it to his mama to sober him up real damn quick. “I don’t think we ever talked about any such—”
“Three years is a long time to keep everything the same, Brett.”
With an irritated vibration to his voice, much the same as the one currently squeezing his guts, Brett growled, “Can I have a word with you, Mama, in private?” He was halfway across the kitchen, his arm looped gently, but firmly, around Millie before he remembered the kid standing still and silent behind him. “Um… JT, right? Go ahead and help yourself to something to drink or… yeah, whatever….”
He shut the door to the office behind him with a shaky hand as he released Millie so she could perch against the desk, arms folded across her body in a very familiar pose. Her brows knitted together, and despite her stance, worry clouded her features. “I didn’t mean to upset you, son.”
Brett opened his mouth but paused, sweeping a hand through his long hair, then taking off his reading glasses. He strode toward her, set the glasses on the desk, then tilted back against the wall, mirroring her position. Dipping his head, he looked his mama straight in the eye.
“I know you mean well, but I never said I was ready to do… that… yet.”
Millie returned the look, determination mixed with love and a little pain joining the concern that shadowed her normally bright eyes. “’Bout time someone said it for you, then. You need a little extra help around here anyhow. Ray isn’t getting any younger, you know?” Her voice softened when he didn’t answer. “It’s time, son. Would you push aside your stubbornness for a minute… unwind yourself a little and do this for me… and yourself?”
Blinking back the buzzing emotion behind his eyes—that surely had to be caused by the alcohol—Brett drew his mama into his arms before attempting to hug the stuffing out of her. “This isn’t about Walt’s foreman… my foreman, and you know it. Dammit, why can’t you just let this go? I’m a grownass man, Mama. I don’t need you always trying to fix things.”
She petted the back of Brett’s head in that soothing way she’d done since he was a child. Brett felt the tension melt away, the knot in his belly easing a little. “Don’t matter how old you are. You’ll always be my boy. Now stop being a jackass and give the kid a chance. Won’t hurt you to take him in for a bit.”
Brett pulled away, his heart lightening as he kissed Millie on the forehead before releasing her. “You’re a pain in the ass, do you know that?” She nodded with a knowing, but unapologetic, smile. “So just where did this miracle worker come from?”
She looked away for less than three heartbeats before peering at Brett again. But just as he couldn’t hide a damn thing from her, the familiarity went both ways.
He smirked at her hesitation, his pulse quickening despite his forced politeness. “Whatcha do, Mama? Pick him up from the pound or something?” He tried for light, but his heart twisted with instant worry at her hesitation.
Millie’s expression didn’t falter this time as she pursed her lips then spoke clearly, precisely. “I picked him up because he looked like he needed a mama’s love, and it was too late for anyone to be walking alone on the road, especially a nice boy like that.”
Brett’s mouth dropped open, his wisdom battling with the mountain of sudden explosive rage inside him. “You… you picked up a hitchhiker… on the highway… in the dark?” He forced himself to pause, struggling to lower his voice and contain his angry what-the-fuck tone. “Please tell me that is exactly what you did not do.”
“He wasn’t hitchhiking, just walking.”
For the love of fucking…. “He’s a stranger you let get into your car with you. How in God’s green earth—” Brett’s jaw ached from grinding his teeth so hard.
“I’d seen him in town a few times, so he wasn’t entirely a stranger. He’s perfectly harmless.”
“That’s what everyone says about crazy, serial-killer types too, Mama.”
Millie clucked her tongue. “He’s a nice boy down on his luck, Brett. Where’s your compassion?”
Flattening his palms over his thighs, Brett clutched at the material of his sweatpants, balling up the fabric between his fingers—it was the only thing keeping him from pounding the wall behind him. “My compassion is all caught up with the fact you picked up a goddamn hitchhiker in the middle of the night.”
She barely let him finish his rant. “Oh, get over yourself. I’m fine, and it’s not like I took him home with me. I brought him here.”
Brett’s eyes slid closed. He was fighting a losing battle, one he knew he’d never win, had never won when it came to his mama. He rubbed his hands over his face, pausing to massage his throbbing temples and loosen the cramps all the clenching and clutching had caused in his fingers. “You’re going to be the death of me, woman.”
Millie stroked her fingers across his bristly cheek, her hand lingering as she peered deeply at him. “That wouldn’t be natural, now, would it?” Brett managed a half smile. “Give the boy a chance, son. Give yourself a chance to heal, even just a first step? I love you, baby, but I still worry so much.”
Brett covered her hand and leaned into her touch. A quiet moment passed, his mama’s so-familiar eyes pleading with him as he struggled to hold her attention without letting his own emotion break free.
His brain said No… fuck it… the kid wasn’t his goddamn problem, and the barn was his business, not anyone else’s… just no. But his heart saw the love pouring off Millie, saw the sadness and worry creasing her face, saw through the haze of the alcohol and ridiculousness of the situation and recognized the truth in her words… the mournful, goddamn heartbreaking truth.
He pulled her into his arms, wrapping her tight to his chest while he silently thanked and cursed God for her persistence, meddling, stubbornness, and love. “It’s been a tough day.”
“I know. I saw Walt’s daylilies on the table, but sweetheart, you have to know that damn bottle ain’t helping you any. You know it’s not gonna take away the truth.” They stood awhile, letting the comfortable silence wash over them both after the rush of emotions cleared. Finally, Millie pulled back. She stroked a hand through his hair, a sad smile teasing her lips. “At least you having all this wild hair makes it easier for me to pretend I got the daughter I always wanted.”
Brett snorted and squeezed her again, thankful for the way she’d always had of trying to make things right between them. “That’s why I keep my shaving to a minimum, so you don’t start buying me frilly pink dresses or try to braid my hair with ribbon and bows.”
“You braid your own damn hair, Brett Samuel, so don’t bother denying it. I know everything there is to know about my baby boy.”
“I think most times that’s my biggest problem.”
Millie chuckled into Brett’s shoulder. “So JT can stay? You’ll give him a chance?”
He kissed the side of her head before releasing her and palming the air in a gesture of surrender. “Fine. There’s stuff around here long overdue for attention, and I guess he can stay in the bunkhouse. I think everything’s still in working order.” It wouldn’t really hurt any to have some extra hands around the ranch for a short while.
“Want me to go make the bed?”
Brett held back a chuckle. “Nope, I think between the two of us we can figure it out. All I want you to do is get home safely. Why don’t I drive and you can get your car tomorrow?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Millie flicked her hand at him. She turned toward the door, but Brett’s fingers curled lightly on her shoulder.
“I’m not making any promises, Mama. There are plenty of jobs to do around here for sure, but the barn… just not gonna promise it’s in the cards, you know?”
“I know, baby, one step at a time. That’s what they say, right? Your steps are just smaller in some directions than others.”
AFTER ASSURANCES were made with regards to two grown men being able to reach an agreement and make a bed all on their own, Millie left. Brett watched the red glow of her taillights as her car climbed the winding gravel driveway back to the main road. His instinct was to follow her to make sure she got home safe, but he knew that would get him nothing but grief if she found out—and she always did find out. Besides, she’d promised to call when she reached her own house in town.
JT didn’t appear to have moved from his original position even after Millie had left. Brett frowned at the backpack at his feet. “That all you got?”
It took some time before JT seemed to realize he was being spoken to. “Um… yeah. I travel light.”
“And where might you be traveling from?” Brett tucked his hair behind his ears, then crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the counter again.
Brett whistled low. “Long way from home, kid.”
JT nodded, tilting his head toward the flowers on the table. “I hope we didn’t wake your wife. Your mom didn’t say anything about dropping in on you. I thought she was just talking to hear herself talk and would drop me off in town again, but I sure didn’t want to wake anyone—”
“I don’t have a wife.” Brett knew his words were cold and flat, but it was late and he was already losing a battle with unwanted sobriety.
The kid nodded again. “Look, I appreciate you going along with your mom, but you really don’t have to let me stay. I’m fine on my own.”
Brett shook his head. “Are you kidding me? Did you not just meet the woman who still treats me like I’m in grade school? Dammit, can you imagine the kind of shit storm I’d have to wade through if I didn’t keep my word to her?” He smiled a little too wide at JT’s chuckle. “Besides, Ray and I get tired of staring at each other all day long anyhow. Some new blood helping out around here can’t hurt, right?”
“Oh, okay. So you need your barn fixed up?”
Brett’s answer was swift and probably a little harsh. “Guess we’ll talk about that if the time comes.” He breathed deep, the tingle of feeling too damn sober when all he wanted to be was numb, making him ache even more. He forced himself to concentrate on his words so they’d at least come out normal and not all shaky, like he was feeling. “You don’t mind bedding down in a dusty bunkhouse, do ya?”
“As long as I’m not in anyone’s way.”
“You can consider it your private accommodations.” Brett pushed off the counter and held out his hand. “Welcome to the Sharp T Ranch, kid. We’re small, usually polite, and don’t stand on circumstance. If that’s good for you, then we can get you settled in.”
JT replied by slinging his backpack over his shoulder, causing a sharp grunt to tumble from his lips.
Brett raised an eyebrow. “You need anything before you bunk down? Water, supper, ice pack, painkillers?”
He flashed a reassuring smile at the obvious reddening of JT’s cheeks. How sweet was that? Maybe his mama was right, the kid needed some looking after. Not that Brett was offering to mother him, but a place to stay and a job were good places to start the healing—like he knew anything about healing.
Once it was decided that JT didn’t need anything but sleep, Brett gathered some sheets, a couple of blankets, a pillow, and a clean towel from the closet upstairs.
“There’s a toilet, sink, and old shower in the bunkhouse. Last time I checked, they all worked, but it certainly ain’t the Ritz Carlton,” he said matter-of-factly while he pulled his boots on and shrugged his bare arms into his jean jacket. “But if you need anything else, the door’s always open… and unlocked. Just don’t tell my mama.”
He winked, then led JT out into the night. He found himself involuntarily heading for the old barn, but veered the other way after a confused pause in his steps. JT followed wordlessly behind him, moving to stand beside Brett when they reached the bunkhouse and stepped inside.
“It’s probably dusty and dirty, but it’s sleepable. I can give it a thorough cleaning tomorrow but should be fine for the night, yeah?”
“It’s fine,” JT said softly.
Brett reached back to scratch his head before bundling his long hair in one hand and trying to smooth it over his neck. “Got your choice of beds. None of them probably too comfortable, but I’m guessing they’re better than the cold, hard ground.”
He was stalling, but he couldn’t figure out why. He certainly had better things to do, mostly get back to his bottle so he could regain the steady buzz he preferred to spend the evening with. Whether he understood it or not, he was curious. Best to get himself out of the situation before it actually became a situation.
“You can make a pot of coffee in here, but I’m not sure there’s any supplies since no one’s lived here in a while. ’Sides, coffee’s always brewing in the house anyway. The water’s drinkable too, and I’ll plug in that little fridge if you wanna keep anything cold.” He handed over the load of linens he’d carried from the house.
Brett scratched over his chest, his feet seemingly rooted firmly to the floorboards. Was he really that starved for company that he couldn’t resist the pretty face of a man now in his employment? Or was it the reality of heading back into his office to finish what he’d started?
Dammit, just move it, boy.
“Okay, well… I’m um… gonna head on to bed, then. It’s pretty quiet out this way, so as long as you don’t mind that, you’ll be fine. I guess we can talk about the job in the morning. I’m an early riser, so feel free to wander into the house when you get up. There’s usually coffee already made and food in the fridge. Yeah, okay… well, g’night, then.”
JT’s gaze seared his back when he finally walked out the door and headed to the house. He’d be damn surprised if the kid would even still be there in the morning since the whole night seemed so goddamn odd and fucked-up. No matter. Nothing would change whether he stayed or went, most especially anything to do with the barn, despite his half-assed promise to his mama.
AFTER SHUCKING his boots and coat, Brett parked himself at the old desk in the office. The open bottle of Jack Daniel’s he always kept there sat snug against his elbow so he forewent the glass because it was damn late already. He needed to get things rolling again after the interruption. He always slept better—usually in his bed not on the desk—with a belly full of whiskey. The numbing properties of the alcohol made his dreams stay away and his restlessness fall to the wayside. He rarely experienced any kind of hangover anymore, and assumed his body was just accustomed to the amount of liquor he fed into it a few days a week.
He slugged back a couple of shots, then stared at the full moon out the window before pushing his chair back a little and opening the long drawer in the front of the desk. He stood the picture frame up on the far side of the desk blotter, positioning it just the way he liked it, before reaching in for the stained yellow-lined pad of paper. He smoothed over the top sheet before he grabbed his pen, his left hand still wrapped securely, protectively around the bottle. Another couple of shots and the darkness outside didn’t seem as black… or lonely. His hands were steadier than when he sat down, something he realized was probably not altogether a good thing… but he didn’t give a crap.
With his reading glasses in place, he poised the pen over the paper and took a moment to peer at the face in the photo before dipping his head and closing his eyes. The alcohol whistled around his brain until he found his focus, regaining the train of thought that he’d been working on when he fell asleep, or, more than likely, when he’d passed out. He scratched the pen over the paper, not caring whether he stayed in the lines or how legible his writing was. He didn’t allow himself another drink until he’d finished. Once the words in his head were doused out onto the page—his former scribblings complete—he felt like he could breathe again.
The late night occurrences and urges had been getting fewer and farther apart as time bulldozed along without him. If he didn’t have to worry about Ray still being under his employment and now possibly some kid—he’d never need to know what time it was or what day or even what year. But he’d been trying to be at least a partially responsible man in the current life he was living.
For now, that meant keeping hold of the ranch and shoving aside his own need to be alone and to shut himself away with only his thoughts and the picture in the frame to hold court to. Plus, his mama would tan his hide if she caught him even considering such a thing. Damn woman still thought he was a rabble-rousing teenager not a forty-one-year-old man. But he loved her anyhow, and truth be told, it was her who kept him grounded in the world he wasn’t so happy to live in anymore.
Besides which, giving up the ranch would definitely add another layer of guilt to the heaping pile he already had.
Happy Anniversary. If you were here you’d shake your head and tell me I was being too sentimental, but we’d both know you were full of shit. You’d want to go out to eat but supper would already be on the table, then you’d give me some lovey-dovey card and a stupid bunch of flowers or some sappy gift. After we cleaned up, you’d pull me into that damn hot tub you love even more than you love me. We’d spend the night just making each other happy. If I was even home that is.
Dammit it’s been a hard day. I got you some of those daylilies you like so much just so you’d know I didn’t forget.
I miss you so much it hurts.