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“Their relationship wasn’t great before that, but it got worse afterward. Luke had so much self-loathing for not protecting Dalton. He knew it’d further crush Dalton if he realized his older brother knew about the abuse. And since Dalton had stood up to Casper that day, in Dalton’s mind, he’d finally put a stop to it himself. Luke figured Dalton deserved to think he was strong enough to fight back, so he couldn’t ever bring it up with him or anyone else.”

“But Luke told you?”

“Yes. And he made me promise that it stayed just between us. Luke always felt it was his job to look out for you guys. To make sure Casper couldn’t destroy the love you had for each other and the solidarity Luke had tried so hard to build between the four of you.”

Brandt rested his forehead on Jessie’s shoulder and fell apart.

When he could breathe without it hurting, when he didn’t have any tears left, she kissed him, touched him and stayed strong enough for both of them.

“I’m so fucking tired of all this, Jess.”

“I know, baby. Come on. Let’s get you in bed.”

Once they were in their bedroom, Brandt pulled her into his arms and her body fit against his like it was meant to. “I love you. You’re the best thing in my world. And I’m glad that Luke didn’t have to shoulder that burden alone. I’m grateful he had you to talk to about it. Thank you.”

After a few moments, she said, “You don’t talk about Luke with me and that’s fine. I just hope you are talking about him with your brothers. He deserves to be remembered and missed.”

“Yes, he does.”

“You and Tell and Dalton…you will get through this.”

Meanwhile, just up the road, Tell sat in the driveway in front of his house for a long time before he climbed out of his truck.

Although Georgia had left the light on in the living room, he expected she’d gone to bed. Which was probably good because he planned to drink a helluva lot of whiskey. Then he could blame the sick feeling on booze.

He shucked his coat and kicked off his boots. He headed directly to the liquor cabinet, pulling out the bottle of Koltiska that Brandt had given him to celebrate Jackson’s birth. He remembered missing his baby brother that day. Dalton had been a part of damn near every milestone in Tell’s life so it’d seemed…wrong somehow for him to miss that one.

Tell didn’t even bother with a shot glass; he just chugged straight from the bottle.

How the fuck could Tell ever look at his father again with anything except disgust? With this…Casper had gone beyond alcoholic asshole unhappy with his lot in life and taking it out on everyone around him. The man was a fucking psychopath. An evil manipulator. A fucking puppet master. An evil sonuvabitch.

Casper McKay had pitted his sons against each other. He wreaked havoc with his own brothers and caused a rift in the family that’d taken years to repair. He verbally abused his wife. All of those things were bad by themselves.

They should’ve washed their hands of him years ago. Fuck that forgive and forget mindset. Fuck that honor thy father tenet.

There was no doubt in Tell’s mind that Dalton was Casper’s kid. No doubt. If Dalton had spoken to their mother, he would’ve learned firsthand that Joan McKay hadn’t been unfaithful. Yes, she’d left Casper once. She’d gone to stay with her family in Nebraska. But her aunt and uncle had convinced her that marriage was a lifelong commitment in the eyes of God and advised her to return to her husband and work it out. So she had.

Tell had accidentally overheard that conversation between his mother and mother-in-law one night last year when he’d been up feeding Jackson. They’d talked about their struggles with being more afraid to leave a bad marriage than to stay in it. How long it’d taken to muster up the guts to leave for good.

He thought of Jackson and got that warm surge of love. How could a father do to his own child what Casper had done to Dalton? Plant the seeds that his son wasn’t really his son and watch that kid cut himself off from his entire family?

Because he could. Because Casper knew Dalton wouldn’t tell anyone. Just like he hadn’t told anyone about the years of physical abuse he’d suffered at the hands of their father.

Fury boiled through Tell like hot lava.

What a fucked up mess.

The booze hit him hard. He shoved the bottle out of reach and cradled his head in his hands. If he felt this lost and miserable for Dalton, how had Dalton felt the last three years?

After Dalton had first left, Tell had reached out to him, but when Dalton’s response times got longer, it’d gotten easier to put off making that phone call. If he had any guilt, he’d quickly squashed it with the self-righteous reminder that the phone lines ran both ways.

Dalton had shut himself off and they’d let him. They’d fucking let him.

He’d never felt more like a miserable fucking excuse of a human being as he did in that moment.

The floorboard creaked behind him. “Tell?”

He was too choked up to respond.

“Sweetheart, are you okay?”

He shook his head.

“What’s wrong?”

“Everything,” he said hoarsely.

A pause. “Talk to me.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Georgia draped her arms over his shoulders, hugging him from behind. “I’ll be right here, holding on to you until you’re ready.”

Tell took the strength and comfort she offered and began to talk.

After he finished, his beautiful, sweet wife rested her damp cheek against his. No surprise his tenderhearted love had shed tears for Dalton. “I’m sorry. What else can I do for you?”

“You’re doin’ it. Every day you do it for me. I’ve got so much…because of him. He’s the one who kicked me in the ass to tell you how I felt about you. He all but gave us this house. It’s fuckin’ killin’ me that he’s been dealin’ with this shit alone.” Tell didn’t bother to hide his tears. He just closed his eyes, held onto her and let them fall.

“You can be there for him now. You guys can get past this.”

“Why would he want to?”

“If he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t have come back.”

“He came back because me’n Brandt didn’t give him a choice. He’s staying here because of Rory.”

“Will Dalton go to her?”

“No. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t told her about any of this.”

“Tell. Baby. Rory deserves to know.”

“That’s not my call.”

“Then I’m making it mine.” Georgia retreated and unplugged her phone from the wall charger. She scrolled through her contact list and held the phone to her ear, sliding a notepad on the counter within reach.

“Georgia. What are you doin’?”

She held up her hand. “Hey, Rielle, it’s Georgia McKay. Look, I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I need to get in touch with Rory. No, it’s not an emergency. All I can say is it has to do with Dalton. Okay. I’m ready.” Georgia scrawled the numbers on the notepad. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I’m sure nothing is wrong, but I wanted to check in with her. Good-night.”

Georgia immediately dialed the number.

“Rory? Hey. It’s Georgia McKay. Your mom gave me your number. Have you heard from Dalton tonight? He went out with his brothers and Tell just got home. I wondered if Dalton drove to your place afterward.” Pause. “Don’t worry; they didn’t end up in a fistfight. And Tell…he’s a bit wrecked after what went down and he says Brandt is the same way. I don’t know how Dalton is faring, or if he planned to call you, but I figured you’d want to know. Uh-huh. As far as I know. I’d start there first. If Dalton needs anything, please call us right away—no matter what time it is. Thanks, Rory.” She hung up.

“Why’d you do that?”

Georgia set down the phone. “Whether or not Dalton tells her is his choice. But if they’re involved on the level I believe they are, it’s also Rory’s right to know if he needs her. It’s her right to be there for him.”

He closed his eyes when she wrapped herself around him.

“Come to bed.”

“In a bit. I should call my mom. She needs to know—”

“And you need some time to process this. Besides, didn’t you promise Dalton you wouldn’t bring it up with her?”

“No. We said we wouldn’t bring it up with Dad. I’ll honor that. But I won’t keep this from her.”

“You shouldn’t. But Joan will have plenty of sleepless nights after you talk to her. So let her have the rest of tonight.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

The porch light was off so Rory knew Dalton wasn’t expecting her.

She’d gotten a little freaked out by Georgia’s phone call. Whatever happened must’ve been bad.

Why hadn’t he reached out to her?

Because he’s always dealt with family stuff on his own. Rory wondered if he’d ever told his brothers or even his mother how often their dad had taken a strap to him.

She remembered the first time she’d found him after Casper had finished with him. Dalton had tried to blame his red-rimmed eyes and wet face on hayfield dust, but she’d known he’d been crying. She’d never seen the marks, he’d never talked about it, but she had seen how Dalton winced sometimes when he sat down.

Except the summer he’d grown several inches. They’d met by the creek and she’d been shocked by Dalton’s giddiness. Now that he was bigger than his dad, the man no longer had the advantage and the beatings were over. Rory had hidden her horror at hearing the abuse Dalton had endured for years—she wondered if he remembered the rapid-fire way he’d blurted the whole thing out, almost like he was in shock.

She recalled crawling into her bed and crying herself to sleep. When her mom had asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t tell her.