“I’m not from around here, remember? What about you?”
“No one knows I’m here, remember?” He pulled back the living room curtain and froze. What the fuck was his brother Ben doing here? He grabbed Ava by the elbow and dragged her out of sight.
“What the hell are you doing, Chase?”
“Don’t shush me. Who’s here?”
Four insistent raps sounded on the screen door.
“Ava? I know it’s late but I wondered if you were still up? It’s Ben McKay, Kane’s cousin. Don’t know if you remember me, but we met at Kane and Ginger’s wedding.”
Ava smirked at Chase and yelled, “Of course I remember, you, Ben. Hang on, let me throw on some clothes and I’ll be right there.”
“Are you fuckin’ serious?” Chase hissed in her ear. “You cannot let my brother in.”
“Sure I can. And if you don’t want to be found out as my dirty little secret, you’d better stay in the bedroom.” Ava sidestepped him, slipped on her Juicy jacket and fluffed her hair. Then she made a shooing motion at him. “Go.”
“I don’t believe this,” he muttered, stealthily snagging his duffel bag. He left the bedroom door ajar, hoping the hallway had decent acoustics.
“Ben! Wow. You look great. Thanks so much for taking the time to check on this poor city mouse.”
“It’s no trouble. Just bein’ neighborly.”
Bullshit. Ben lived twenty-five fucking miles from here. Maybe Ben would see Ava was fine and skedaddle on home. Chase just hoped Ava wouldn’t offer him a beer.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Ava asked with entirely too much cheer for Chase’s liking.
“A beer would be great.”
Dammit. They sat in the easy chairs, which meant Chase had no way to see them and could only hear his brother making charming small talk with Ava.
“Kane and Ginger swung by today, and told me you’d seen my car out front.”
“Gotta admit I was surprised that we had a beautiful celebrity in our midst again.”
Jesus. When Ben spewed that lame bullshit, he actually got laid? Unbelievable.
“More like a fugitive than a celebrity since I’m on the lamb from my life.”
“I read about that nasty business with your ex. You okay?”
“Getting there. Needed time to clear my head and there’s too much smog in LA to do that, so I headed for wide-open spaces.”
“You’re not finding it too isolated out here?”
Why don’t you just come out and ask to spend the night so you can keep her safe?
“If you get bored or lonely, or hell, just hungry, call me. I’m a decent cook and I get tired of cooking for one.”
“Thank you, Ben, I may do that.”
Their voices dropped. All Chase could hear were Ben’s deep murmurs and Ava’s occasional trills of laughter. He fumed, wondering how Ben’s impromptu visit had turned into an extended stay.
Then Ben’s voice reached him, clear as a bell. “You might as well come out, Chase. I know you’re back there. I recognize that damn cologne you bathe in. And your boots are by the door.”
Chase wandered out of the bedroom and faced his older brother. Even as a kid Ben owned an air of fortitude. Since Ben smiled and laughed more than their oldest brother, Quinn, everyone assumed Ben was easygoing. Laid-back.
But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Ben had a level of intensity that could be downright scary. Luckily Ben hadn’t inherited the tendency to use his fists to solve problems, a trait some of their McKay cousins shared. He didn’t mince words, didn’t have time for bullshit or lies. When a man was defined by how hard he worked, Chase always thought of Bennett McKay first.
“Would you excuse us?” Ben asked as he stood. “I need to talk to my little brother outside for a minute.”
Ava tossed off a breezy, “Sure.”
Ben exited the trailer. He kept walking until they were by the barn. Then he faced Chase, hands on his hips, his tone as cold as steel. “What the hell is wrong with you? You come home and stay at Kane’s place and don’t let any of your family know you’re here?”
Chase’s brain started to form a lie, but his mouth wouldn’t give voice to it. “Sorry.”
“Sorry? You too good for us now? Do your country kin embarrass the big time PBR bull rider?”
Shame made heat flare in his cheeks. “Goddammit, Ben, no, I ain’t that way, you know that. I got kicked off the tour and didn’t want you guys to know because I don’t want any of you to think less of me than you already do.”
Ben stared at him. Hard. With such a mix of emotions swimming in his eyes that Chase couldn’t look away. Then he said curtly, “The truth about what went down. All of it. Right now.”
Chase relayed everything.
His brother walked to the fence. Gazed across the pasture. Walked back. “Okay. I believe you.”
That stung. Ben’s first thought was he’d been lying? Right. Ben had caught Chase in lies more times than he cared to admit.
“But you don’t get to toss off the ‘think less of you’ bullshit comment because that’s a total lie. We’re all proud of you, Chase. But the fact is, you ain’t proud of yourself. And I get sick and tired of us—your family—bein’ dead last on your list of priorities. You should’ve come to us first.”
“Really? Last time I came home, I ended up staying with Tell because Mom was having the entire inside of the house repainted, Quinn and Libby’s kids were sick, and you had ‘plans’, so don’t give me that I should’ve come to you first crap. You don’t know what it’s like not to have a home you can go to whenever you feel like it.”
Ben seemed surprised by Chase’s explanation. “Regardless. Mom is worried about you because of the injury announcement, and you weren’t forthcoming about it.” He pointed at Chase. “Then no one hears from you for two weeks? Beyond the ‘I’m fine, more later’ texts you’ve sent to all of us. That’s bogus and you know it.”
“Yeah, I suck, I’m sure that’s a big fuckin’ shocker,” he muttered. “Are they pissed?”
“Not as much as they might’ve been in the past. A whole lot changed between them after Aunt Joan left Uncle Casper.”
His aunt and uncle being Splitsville after so many years of marriage was hard to believe. “Like what?”
“I dunno, I don’t…” Ben sighed and studied his boots. “It’s like they’re in a honeymoon phase. That sounds stupid, but whenever I see Brandt and Jessie, I realize Mom and Dad are acting just like them. Maybe it has to do with Dad retiring.”
Not realizing things had changed in his family made Chase feel guiltier yet.
“As far as you sneaking into Wyoming because you thought I’d judge you? Yeah, I probably would’ve chewed your ass. Reminded you that when things go to hell you don’t run from your family, you’re supposed to run to them. Reminded you that we talked about some of this distraction shit last year. You didn’t listen to me. Or Quinn. But I figure I’m entitled to givin’ you what for now, bein’s I’m the older, wiser brother and all.”
Chase grinned. “Thought I saw some new gray hair on that stubborn head of yours.”
“Bite me.” Ben’s smile faded. “I’ve said my piece. But there’s one thing I ain’t letting you off the hook for.”
He expected Ben to bring up Ava and braced himself. “What?”
“You’re gonna make a ‘surprise’ visit to Mom and Dad before you leave.” Ben frowned. “I’d call first just to make sure they’re not goin’ at it on the living room floor.”
“Thanks for that mental picture, bro.”
“Hey, I got to see the live version, so consider yourself lucky.”
“No. Way. Mom and Dad? Doin’ the nasty on the floral rug we weren’t even allowed to walk on?”
Ben nodded. “They didn’t see me and I backed away quietly when I saw them. Then went home and drank until I passed out. Quinn wasn’t happy I was worthless the next day. So I gave him a much more graphic version of what I’d seen than what I’m telling you. And while you’re out and about, stop and see Quinn, Libby and the kids.”
“I’m never gonna get outta town tomorrow,” he grumbled.
“I’m glad you’re leaving. I hoped you had a better plan than holing up in this trailer and spending the summer sulking.”
He knew Ben was worried, and the way he showed concern was to provoke him. Weird, but it always worked.
“Where you off to?”
“Cash Big Crow is gonna help me figure out what I changed in my ridin’ style. Guess I’ll be getting on a lot of bulls to try and fix it.”
“Smart. Then what?”
Chase couldn’t tell his “don’t lie” brother about his bogus PRCA card and his intent to ride as many bulls as possible in the next month. “Honestly? I don’t know. I’m gonna try like hell to stay off the radar. Maybe the PBR will commute my sentence.”
“Be interesting to see what happens. Just don’t keep me outta the loop, okay?”
He had the sense there was more to it. Was Ben somehow…lonely? “So. You been winning at the McKay poker games?”
Ben shrugged. “Some. Dalton’s poker face is for shit. Tell’s been working on his professional face since he became a licensed rodeo judge. Truth is, the games have tapered off, despite our married cousin’s claims they wanted to join in. Hell, even Brandt can’t be away from Jessie for a night of cards.”
“Whatcha been doin’ with yourself?”
“This and that. Spending time in Gillette. Building furniture. Got a bed and breakfast joint in Jackson Hole that ordered eight complete bedroom sets. But they want eight different designs, so that’s been a challenge.”