She wasn’t particularly surprised he let her go. But she was surprised by how eager she was to get away from him.


Chapter Thirteen


“Where the hell is Colt?” Cord barked at Kade the next morning over the phone.


“Yeah, I know it ain’t your day to watch him. No. I’ll do it myself. I don’t got time to ride over there and haul his drunken carcass outta bed again.”


Cord clicked his cell phone off. “Goddamn, he’s lookin’ to get his ass whupped.” He threw his mug in the sink, noticing he’d forgotten to dry the silverware after AJ had left.


That was another screwed up situation. Things’d been going great guns last night. He hadn’t blamed his sudden tension on AJ’s admission that Keely knew about them. No, doing dishes together was what sent him into a belligerent retreat.


Cooking for her hadn’t been a big deal. But the second she started washing plates, knowing exactly where he kept his dishrags and dish soap, a funny feeling, sort of like hope had spread inside him. Had he tossed her out? No. He’d automatically reached for the dishtowel to dry. Like they’d done that household task together all the time. Like it was natural. Like it was the first of many times.


Damn. That kind of easy camaraderie could get a man in trouble. Big trouble.


Especially when he’d gone out of his way to avoid anything with any woman that smacked of domesticity.


Still, logic made him question how AJ’s thoughtfulness was a fault. She’d been raised that way. No different than her baking cookies and serving coffee to him and his folks at her mom’s place. Cord knew if his ma had been here after supper, she would’ve run a sinkful of soapy water and cleaned up too.


So why did it seem so much…more?


Because you could want more with AJ. She knows you, your son, your ranch, and your family. It’d be easy for her just to slip into your life, swoop into your house and want to play house for keeps.


“Like hell,” he said out loud. “She’s leavin’. End of story.”


When he returned home that night to a message from AJ telling him she wouldn’t be over for a couple of days, he was relieved.


As Kade pulled up in front of his house after another fantastic date with Skylar—


albeit, another date in which he hadn’t told her who he really was, Kade, not Kane, the blue and white lights of the TV flickered on the big picture window. Kade parked in his spot at the Boars Nest. Four other cars he didn’t recognize lined the drainage ditch. Colt’s truck was there. Kane’s was not. Dag’s was there too.


He kicked off his boots at the door and looked around. Jasmine and Colt were buck nekkid and passed out on the couch. The place was dirtier than ever. More beer cans.


Liters of the hard stuff, vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila, more whiskey, Jägermeister—all empty.


Pizza boxes were stacked on the floor. Bags of garbage overflowed in the kitchen.


Stinking clothes were piled on top of the washer. He sniffed and smelled pot smoke.


Fuck. Enough.


He tiptoed down the hallway to Colt’s bedroom—tiptoeing not out of a need to be quiet—but tiptoeing because of the bags of shit piled everywhere. Plus the hall light had burned out so he couldn’t see where the hell he was going.


The door to Colt’s room was cracked open and Kade poked his head in.


Holy fucking Christ.


Kade blinked because he couldn’t believe his eyes. If he’d imbibed tonight he’d blame it on booze, but he hadn’t had a single glass of wine or beer with dinner.


So what he was witnessing wasn’t a weird-assed dream. But his cousin, Dag, on his hands and knees, bare-assed, with another guy, spreading his cheeks wide and riding Dag’s ass like Dag was a pony.


Right then he knew the skinny guy he’d seen getting hammered the other night was Dag. And he knew it hadn’t been a damn dream.


A Goth kid—tattooed, hair dyed jet-black, couldn’t have been more than nineteen and resembled a girl more than a boy, but the big cock shuttling in and out of Dag’s butt definitely belonged to a guy.


And if that image wasn’t bad enough, another guy was on his knees in front of Dag, sliding his cock in and out of Dag’s mouth, holding Dag by the ears as he fucked Dag’s face.


Not that Kade wanted to look, but sweet Jesus, that wasn’t all that was going on. The crew-cut dude was in on it too. He’d somehow contorted himself to noisily suck Dag’s dick while the other two guys were doing their thing.


To his cousin.


His straight cousin.


Shit. Maybe Dag was drugged. He was blindfolded. Maybe he had no fucking clue what he was doing.


Kade made up his mind to break up the foursome, when the guy with his cock in Dag’s mouth whined, “I wish I could come on your face. You’ve got such a pretty face.”


Dag pulled back and slurred, “You say that every fuckin’ time, Max, and you know I’ll never blow you again without wearin’ a fuckin’ condom.”


“I’m blowing you without a condom,” crew-cut guy said, then returned to Dag’s cock, twisting his hand firmly from root to tip as he suckled the knob.


“Fuck him harder, Leroy. Dag’s a bad boy who likes to pretend he isn’t one of us.


We all know he likes it hard. And rough.” Max rammed his meat back into Dag’s mouth with a childish pout. Dag groaned his approval when Leroy started hammering his hips harder into Dag’s ass.


Kade retreated.


He knew Colt was out of control, but to see Dag like that? Totally out of control too?


Maybe Dag was drugged, or drunk, or maybe he just liked being fucked and blown by a guy and sucking cock once in a while. Didn’t change the bottom line: Kade couldn’t live here anymore. The thought of moving back in with his folks at age thirty was more than a little humbling. Yet he preferred it to knowing what was going on down the hall.


Preferred it to wondering what the hell kind of kinky scene he’d stumble across in his living room in the middle of the night the next time.


He threw his clothes, boots, hats, CDs, electronics, and the few toiletries he owned in three suitcases. After grabbing his bedding, he stormed out, slipped on his boots, climbed in his truck and didn’t look back.


Two days later Cord clapped on his hat, loaded his pickup and drove out to check cattle before he started the dirty, daylong chore of haying.


But once he settled on the tractor, the problems of the day melted away. He focused on his task, allowing himself the secret joy of witnessing another cycle of Mother Nature.


Months back the winter snows melted, leaving what looked like barren ground. Then tiny shoots of grass poked up through the brown earth to make a living sea of green. Now he was cutting the first field of hay. He inhaled the pungent scent of alfalfa. Of hot dry dirt.


The smell of diesel and oil and overheated machinery and his own sweat.


This chunk of land was heaven on earth.


And the view. Lord, he’d never tire of the scenery displayed before him. White tufts of prairie asters and clumps of silver-green sage interspersed with cheat grass. The big sky ranging in hues from powdery blue to sapphire. The crested mountains in the background—towers of gray and black rock, shadowed stone. Ominous. Unyielding.


Constant. Comforting.


His gaze encompassed the treeless horizon only broken by scattered clouds and disappearing fences. This place was home. The only home he’d known, in truth, the only place he’d ever wanted to hang his hat. Took two long years of working on a fishing boat in Seattle to swallow his pride, mend fences with his dad and admit he longed to return to Wyoming where he belonged. The workdays were long. The winters were harsh. He’d never be rich even when he slaved every damn day. But he wouldn’t trade this life for anything.


Was AJ counting down the days to escape ranch work and the never-ending sink of time and money? Hours and days and years of being beholden to the weather and then to the cattle market?


Cord had little doubt she’d miss the land, the people, and the connection to both.


Folks who’d never had either would never understand that permanent sense of loss.


Once she graduated, would she settle down with a financially stable guy? Pop out a couple of cute kids? Entrench herself in the suburbs, drive a minivan and wear pastel colored tracksuits?


He snorted disdain. AJ was a horsewoman to the core. He couldn’t help but think marrying a man without her same love of the true Western lifestyle would be akin to a slow death. Would the lack of those necessary things in her life extinguish the light in her eyes and her soul over time?


Made him uncomfortable to think along those lines, but ultimately there was nothing he could do, besides offer to marry her. Right. Then she’d be more tied down than ever.


Despite her sweet words, he doubted she’d welcome a permanent tie with him—a thirty-five-year-old man with a kid. AJ was just starting her life and her career. She’d chosen him for a bed partner because he was safe. Experienced. And handy. It was inevitable their paths would diverge and veer different directions.


Somehow he managed to put AJ out of his mind for the rest of the grueling day’s work. Dissecting Colt not showing up again was pointless too. By the time he’d run the John Deere out of gas and bumped his way across the various pastures to the house, Cord admitted he and Colt needed a break from each other. Working with family was tough.


He and his father had been at loggerheads for years until Cord had left for Seattle.


Sometimes the best decision to keep the peace was distance. Literally. Luckily there were plenty of other sections on the McKay ranch for his brother to work.


Cord parked in the yard at seven-thirty. No sign of AJ. No message. No note. No doubt he’d think up a suitable penalty for her cheeky behavior.


After cleaning himself up, he slapped together a roast beef sandwich made from dry bread and washed it down with a Fat Tire beer. Ky was amazingly talkative and seemed to be missing him. By the time Cord hung up, he was surprised to see darkness had fallen and it was damn near nine o’clock.


He sat on his couch in his dark living room, bone tired. Knowing he had another full day of the same planned for tomorrow, the best thing would be for him to crawl into bed and rest up while he could.

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