Nolan just stared at him for a long beat, then shook his head.

“Do we have a problem?” TJ asked.

Nolan shook his head, again. “No. Not that I haven’t given thought to smashing your face in several times over the past week, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in it now, other than to make me feel better.”

TJ nodded. He understood the sentiment perfectly. He moved to the door. “I’m leaving town for a while. I just wanted to know that she’ll have a job if she wants it.”

“But you’ve offered her a job at Wilder.”

“Yes, but I’m not sure she’ll take it. She’d rather choke on her pride than admit she needs anything, especially that job.”

“Yeah. She doesn’t do need well,” Nolan said with a small smile. “But she does know what she wants. And if that’s this job, here with me, then it’s hers.”

TJ nodded and turned to leave.

“That also applies to the man in her life.”

At that, TJ went still.

“If you’ve screwed something up and the man she now wants turns out to be me, you’re going to have to deal with that.”

Slowly TJ turned back to face Nolan, who was suddenly looking a whole lot more alpha than his usual quiet, mild-tempered self. “I suppose I will.”

And hopefully before that happened, he’d be 3,000 miles away on an ice climb, out of cell range, out of radio range, out of heart-hurts-like-hell range.

When TJ entered the lodge kitchen the next morning, his brothers were already there, mainlining caffeine. In the very center of the room, built to be huge and airy, stood a large butcher-block table, sturdy and capable of feeding the masses.

“We’re working ourselves to the bone.” Cam had his head down on the table. Katie was rubbing his shoulders.

Stone groaned and stretched out his long legs. “At least we’re raking in the dough.”

“Great.” From his corner of the table, Nick looked as exhausted as the others. “We can retire early-even though we’ll all be too f**king tired to enjoy it.”

Emma, dressed for a day at the clinic in trousers, blouse, and doctor’s coat, set a large pitcher of orange juice on the table and sank into Stone’s lap, leaning into him as his arms came around her. “What are you supposed to do, turn clients away?”

“Of course not,” TJ said, but they were all looking at each other, and suddenly he felt like he was watching a foreign film without the subtitles. “What?”

“We could cut back a little,” Stone said slowly. “I’d be happy with that.”

“Me, too,” Cam said, giving Katie a small smile.

Nick nodded. Him, too.

“That’s because you want to travel,” TJ said to Cam, unhappy with the direction the conversation was going. “And you”-he turned to Stone-“have your house to renovate. I don’t have either of those things.”

“Yeah.” Stone looked at him for a long moment. “I guess I assumed that you’d be happy to cut back, too.”

“Yeah, well, why don’t you assume my foot up your ass.”

“Just think about it, TJ,” Cam said quietly. “We’ve worked so f**king hard for so long. Hell, since we’ve been kids. All we’re suggesting is slowing down a little, letting everyone enjoy themselves for a change. Taking the time to breathe it all in. Sleep late. Be lazy.”

“Easy enough for you to say.” TJ pushed away the food, having lost his appetite to the niggling pain in his gut. Or was that his heart? “You all have someone to sleep late with. Be lazy with.”

Nothing came from the peanut gallery except the proverbial chirping crickets.

With a sigh, he took in the shocked and dismayed faces of his family. “I didn’t mean that like it sounded.”

“Yes, you did,” Katie said gently. “We’ve been pretty sickening lately, I imagine.”

A corner of Cam’s mouth quirked. “The upcoming wedding isn’t helping.”

They felt the need to be nice to the poor single guy. Great. With an oath, he stood up. “Look, you guys do what works for you. Cut back. Hell, quit if that’s what you want. But I’m not ready.” He grabbed his keys. “I’m going for a ride.”

“A ride?” Cam asked. “Or an escape?”

“Shut up, Cam.”

“Oh good, a fight,” Annie said entering the room. She wore her usual jeans and angry chef apron, which today read:



2) SEE RULE #1.

She looked right at TJ. “Is this about Harley and whatever happened between the two of you last night at the party?”

“Nothing happened.”

“Nothing made you rip out there and go for a four-hour bike ride, where, I’m assuming, you rode all sorts of stupid trails by moonlight, since you came back muddy as hell.” When TJ just looked at her she lifted a shoulder. “I couldn’t sleep. I was on the front porch of our cabin eating a bag of chips when you drove past me to your cabin. At four in the morning.”

“Baby,” Nick said to Annie. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Because you were snoring like a buzz saw. Besides, I wanted the whole bag of chips to myself.” She looked at TJ again.

Everyone did.

He sighed. “Look, I’m leaving, and then so is she.” It was Harley’s excuse and it was a crappy one, but it was all he had.