Cord jammed the tobacco in his cheek next to his molars. He only chewed occasionally, and only when Ky wasn’t around.


Kade said, “Before you ask, no, I don’t know where your stupid brother is either.


Been busy after work with Ma’s side of the family. First Uncle Darren wanted my help.”


He sighed. “You know how our dads are about Uncle Harland, so I couldn’t exactly tell him I’ve been helpin’ out Uncle H since Dag went on another bender. Spent the last coupla nights at his place. Early this mornin’ I get to the northeast corner where we been fixin’ fence and Kane tells me Dag had enough of Uncle H’s naggin’ and me tryin’ to—


quote ‘be the son Dag could never be’ so he packed his shit and now he’s livin’ at the Boars Nest in my old room.”


“Uncle H tell you what went on to make Dag bail?”


“Hell no. Truth is, I don’t know why Dag’d move up there besides the free-for-all-anyway you want sex. The place is a fuckin’ pigsty. Kane and me cleaned it up a couple of times in the last month, Colt can’t be bothered, but we ain’t the ones makin’ the messes.”


“Who is?”


“Some of them people Colt has over every damn night.”


“People like that Jasmine chick?”


Kade’s gaze snapped up.


“I was there when she offered you and Colt a threesome, remember?” Cord watched his cousin closely and sure enough, Kade blushed. “Ended up bein’ a foursome or more, did it?”


“Yeah. I ain’t gonna lie, I thought it’d be hot as hell. Once in a while some variety is good, but it didn’t turn out as sexy hot as it does in porn flicks. Besides, Jazz and her friends are…”


“What?”


“Freaks. Squatters. The place is even nastier to live in than usual. Booze bottles and cans, condoms and food wrappers everywhere. Dirty clothes, dirty dishes, bags of trash.


My mama would faint if she saw it.”


“Which means mine would too. How much has Colt been drinkin’, Kade?”


“More’n I’ve ever seen. I ain’t so sure he’s not drinkin’ before work. Been signs of drugs around too. Pot, mostly. A couple of vials of other shit I didn’t want to know nothin’ about.”


Cord tried to rein in his temper and the underlying fear for his wayward brother.


“Come clean with me, no bullshit. Is Colt doin’ drugs?”


“I doan know. I jus’ know he’s a train wreck waitin’ to happen and I doan wanna be no place around when he finally goes off the rails.”


Cord drained his beer. “Too late. He’s here.”


“He alone?”


“Yeah.”


“That’s surprisin’.”


He watched Colt stop at the bar and knock back three shots of something before he carried two beers over to another table.


“Think he saw us?”


“Hell yeah he saw us. I’d avoid me too.” Cord stood. “Head on home. I’ll handle this.”


“Think I’ll stick around.”


The second Cord stopped in front of Colt’s table Colt said, “Look. I know you’re pissed off. You’ve got a right to be, okay? I had a rough fuckin’ night. I blacked out.


Woke up naked in my bed around four this afternoon, hungover as hell, no idea what happened. Don’t know why my cousins couldn’t bother to wake me up.”


“They ain’t your mama.”


“No shit. But it ain’t like I haven’t done it for them a time or two.”


He studied his brother’s disheveled appearance. Scraggly hair, bags under his eyes, marks on his neck. Incredibly swollen lips. “Didja get punched in the mouth last night?


’Cause it’s puffed up like a bee sting.”


Colt brushed his hand over his lips and frowned. “Not that I recall.”


“That seems to be the problem, bro. Even if Kane and Kade and even Dag would’ve been around to wake your drunken ass up, I’d’ve sent you home.”


“Why? ’Cause I had a little too much liquid fun last night? It ain’t like you didn’t do shit like that.”


“Wrong. I never once blacked out. I never once missed a day of ranch work because of drinkin’ and you’ve missed two this week alone.”


“I knew you’d be a self-righteous prick about this.”


Heavy pause. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”


“You heard me.” Colt deigned to look at him. “Precious Ky’s gone so you’ve got nothin’ else to do ’cept work. Some of us have a life outside of the ranch. Some of us are tryin’ damn hard not to end up like you: cold, cruel, a bitter woman-hater, a fuckin’ recluse, a workaholic loser with a stash of porn and a sore hand.”


Never in all the years that he’d been dealing with his overbearing family had he wanted to kill one of them.


Until tonight. Until now.


Cord grabbed Colt by the shirtfront and hauled Colt across the table. The second he had a free hand he punched Colt in the jaw hard enough Colt’s head snapped back. A beer can crashed and rolled off the table, spewing foam everywhere.


He cocked his arm and punched Colt in the mouth, feeling the scrape of his brother’s teeth on his bare knuckles. Before Colt’s nose met his fist, Colt landed a blow alongside Cord’s temple and nearly knocked his head from his neck.


Cord staggered back, taking Colt with him.


They crashed into another table. Bottles shattered and beer splashed on the floor.


Shirts ripped, flesh connected with flesh. Grunts, curses and groans of pain were intermingled with more curses, blood and crunching glass.


Kade intervened.


Cord forgot what a big guy Kade was until his younger cousin literally picked him up and set him aside like he was an eighty-pound hay bale, not a two-hundred-pound pissed-off man.


“Cord, what the hell is wrong with you?”


“That cocksucker said some shit that don’t fly with me. I called him on it.”


Colt laughed. Picked himself up off the floor. Fell back down in a pile.


Cord knew Colt wasn’t staggering because he’d thrown such accurate punches. His brother was hammered beyond all reason. Again. In public.


What were they gonna do? How had Colt gotten so hopelessly off track? How in the hell could he help him?


Once Colt made it to a chair, he spit a hunk of bloody saliva on the floor. “I ain’t apologizin’ for nothin’, bro. You’re a fuckin’ prick like Dad and everyone knows it—”


Sympathy vanished and Cord lunged for him and they were rolling around on the floor. Punching. Kicking. Bleeding.


By that time, the bouncers showed up and separated them for good. A crowd gathered. His dad’s and his uncle’s longtime buddies. The guy who owned the feed store.


He hoped his eyes were playing tricks on him and that wasn’t the family banker back by the jukebox.


So much for not making a scene. He scanned the crowd and his gaze caught AJ’s.


Hers was somber. Not full of pity or some mislaid compassion, but understanding.


For the first time he wondered why he’d put up such stupid parameters of no public acknowledgment of their relationship. And like it or not, it was a relationship, a relationship based on sex, but that didn’t change the basic definition of it.


Also didn’t change the knowledge that he, cold, bitter, woman-hating, reclusive Cord McKay would like nothing better than to walk straight into her arms. Right here, right now, right in front of Toots the bartender, Sam the banker, Bebe the town gossip and everyone else.


Kade took him aside. “He’s wasted.”


“Yeah. I noticed.”


“Says he wants to press assault charges against you.”


“I ain’t surprised.”


“Toots ain’t callin’ the sheriff. I’m gonna take him home.”


“Thanks.” Cord knew that wasn’t enough, so he repeated it. “Thanks, Kade. I really appreciate it.”


“No problem. But I will tell you that you’re gonna hafta come up with a way to deal with him, Cord, and I doan mean with your fists. I lived with the son of a bitch and I’d no idea it’d gotten this bad.”


“Appears he’s been good at hidin’ it up until now.”


“Appears so. But it’s out there now. Whole damn town’s gonna know about it by tomorrow. I doan envy you tellin’ Uncle Carson and Aunt Carolyn ’bout this. I’d call them right away before someone else does.” Kade focused on Cord’s cheek. “Get someone to look at that cut. You’re bleedin’ pretty good.”


Someone. Right. He had no one.


Cord made it to the exit when he smelled her behind him. He slowly turned around and wondered if he looked as pathetic as he felt.


“You okay?”


No. “Sore. Pissed off. Embarrassed.”


“I figured. You going home?”


“Yeah. But first I get to wake my folks up and tell ’em their son’s a drunk and caused a scene in public. Then I get to call my brothers and my baby sis and tell them the same damn thing.” He sighed. “What the hell am I gonna do about him?”


“I don’t know.” AJ looked right into his eyes. “I want to come home with you. No strings. I just really don’t think you should be alone tonight.”


“AJ—”


“Would it be so hard to let me take care of you? Just for one night?”


Cord stared at her, wishing his hand wasn’t bloody so he could touch her sweet face.


Wishing he could be a man instead of a shell of one.


“Cord?”


“I’d like that, baby doll. I’d like that a helluva lot more than you could ever know.


I’ll see you at home.”


Chapter Fifteen


Kade threw Colt in his pickup and he passed out before they hit the outskirts of town.


He had that same hollow feeling in his gut he’d seen in Cord’s eyes. Poor bastard.

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