“Why don’t you boys go play? You can grill Uncle Dalton later.”
Tucker raced off, Wyatt and Jackson right behind him.
Dalton stood and looked at Brandt and Jessie. “How many questions do you answer a day?”
“Seems like a million. Let’s sit in the dining room.”
Jessie sliced up coffee cake and poured coffee. No one was talking so he looked around the room. How many meals had he eaten in here growing up? How many times had he tiptoed past Casper’s captain’s chair at the head of the table, hoping not to be noticed?
He glanced up at Jessie. “The place looks good. This house finally has a happy vibe.”
“We need to talk about Dad,” Tell said, “but I wanna hear what you’ve been up to and why the fuck we haven’t seen you for over three years.”
Georgia whapped his biceps. “That is not a good way to start a conversation, Tell, and you know it.”
Tell was giving Dalton the steely-eyed stare that reminded him a little too much of Casper.
“Sorry, Georgia, but I’m with Tell on this.” Brandt pointed with his fork. “You’re here, so start talkin’.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“The last time we saw you in person was a week after you pulled your runaway groom routine,” Tell reminded him.
“But the last time we actually saw your face was on TV a few months later when you were in the celebrity poker match with Chase,” Brandt added.
Dalton sipped his coffee. “So you, along with the rest of the country, watched me lose the million dollar pot?”
“Made me sick to my stomach just thinkin’ about gambling with that much cash,” Brandt said.
“The buy-in was a hundred grand, right?” Tell asked.
“Yep. Winner-takes-all tournament. Half the buy-in was my money. Chase’s sponsors put the other half up. I’m assuming everyone in the McKay family believed Chase lent me the money and I lost it?”
His brothers and their wives looked at each other.
Just another reason he’d gotten a cool reception from his uncles yesterday. “Due to confidentiality contracts, Chase couldn’t confirm or deny to anyone where the buy-in cash came from. My gag order expired two years after the event. So now I can tell you that I was paid to lose.”
“What? That was all faked?”
Dalton shook his head. “No, they’re real poker games with real stakes. But world championship poker is big business, lots of fans, turning players into celebrities. The operators specialize in holding tournaments in small casinos. Which means advertising dollars pay for most the revenue. A regular Joe can see how the pros do it.”
“How’d you get roped in?” Tell asked.
“Chase had been asked to play a trio of celebrity couple tournaments and the sponsors were expecting Ava, but she had to back out because she was scouting movie locations. I’d hung out with Chase at the poker tables in Vegas after the PBR World Finals. He’d seen me play and knew I had the cash for buy-in, knew I was traveling around, so he asked me to fill in.” Dalton grinned. “We thought it’d be hilarious if I showed up in drag—blond wig, evening dress, the whole nine yards—trying to look like Ava, but Ava nixed that idea.”
Georgia and Jessie laughed.
“Chase got knocked out early on. I kept playing the angle that I was his rube cousin from Wyoming. The crowds ate it up. Hell, I even had folks askin’ for my autograph, which was weird. An hour before the final round started, the TV producers and sponsors called a meeting with me. Said they wanted me to throw the game because my opponent, JT Judson, was riding the comeback wave and it’d make for better drama if he won.”
“Did you tell them to stick it?” Tell demanded.
“Nope. Luckily Chase was with me. He’s used to dealing with them TV types. He said I’d go all in if I got my seed money back and if they put me on the tour for at least a dozen stops. So basically I got to play in a million-dollar poker tournament for free. For the next eight months I ran the circuit. Then I’d had enough.”
Dalton nodded. “I’d had my fifteen minutes of fame and that was fourteen minutes too many.”
“Is that why you grew the beard? So you weren’t recognizable?” Tell asked innocently.
Brandt said, “What did you do after that?”
“Yeah, the I’m fine texts once a month and the occasional package from some weird place overseas really doesn’t tell us what you’d been doin’.”
“After I had extra cash I made a list of all the places across the world I wanted to go and I went there.”
“Bro, ever since you were a little kid you never liked doin’ stuff by yourself.”
“Because I never had to. I always had you guys or our McKay cousins.” Or Rory. “When I got older, I had girls—” he flashed Tell a sly grin, “—not as many girls as I’d claimed.”
Tell gave him an odd look—as if surprised that Dalton had admitted that.
“I met a few people in my travels, so I wasn’t always alone, but the majority of the time, yeah, I was and I preferred it.”
His brothers wouldn’t understand why he’d chosen to redefine himself without his family’s influence. It’d been scary shit, being forced to do things on his own. No one telling him to feed cattle or move cattle or mow the hayfield. No one telling him to fix fence, or demanding explanations for how he conducted his social life. He’d been one hundred percent in charge of every decision he made every day. It’d been overwhelming at first, especially in countries where he didn’t speak the language—he’d almost turned tail and run home. But he’d stuck it out.
So he’d learned a few things about himself: he was adaptable. He was a self-starter—he could count the number of times he’d lazed in bed on one hand. It’d been easy to get up and start his day when he hadn’t a clue what the day had in store for him.
“Didja take pictures, play tourist, what?”
“Not really. I mostly wandered here and there. The reason I haven't tried to explain it to you guys before now is because I can’t. Not over the phone, not in person. Alls I can say is I had to go and I don’t regret a minute of bein’ gone.”
“So now you’re livin’ in Montana? What do you do up there?”
“Been a logger in the summer. I’ve been leading elk-hunting parties in the autumn during bow hunting season for the past two years.”
“So you really have become some kind of Montana mountain man? Hunting, logging, and livin’ off the land?”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” he answered Brandt a little testily.
“Just don’t seem like your kinda thing. Your social life was almost as busy as Tell’s. And now you’re just happily holed up in the middle of nowhere Montana?”
Tell leaned forward. “Ya ain’t on the run ’cause you killed somebody?”
“No. Enough with the questions about me. I’m here to talk about Casper, remember? I understood about half of what the doctor said yesterday.”
“Dad refuses to speak. But he won’t get better without therapy. So the doctor wonders if there’s anyone Dad will listen to about resuming therapy,” Tell said.
“What about the uncles?” Dalton had seen them briefly yesterday.
“He fakes sleep whenever they show up. They’d be the hardest ones for him to face with his stroke-altered speech issues.”
“Was the woman I saw darting in and out of the room a nurse or something?”
“No. That was Dad’s girlfriend. Barbara Jean.”
Dalton laughed. “Good one, Tell.”
“I’m serious. Barbara Jean and Dad have been together for over a year.”
“They met at church,” Georgia said. “She’s really sweet. She takes good care of him.”
“Casper has a girlfriend,” he repeated. “Is she deaf so she doesn’t care if he yells his head off at her?”
“Jesus, Dalton, that’s not funny.”
He looked between his brothers. Then his brother’s wives. “Am I missing something? Or did I stumble into an alternate reality where Casper isn’t a flaming asshole?”
“But what? He made some kind of amends with you guys, given how horrible he’s always been?”
“It’s not like that,” Tell said.
“Then maybe you oughta tell me what it is like.”
“It’s gotten easier.”
“Like you’re havin’ him over for supper kind of easy?”
Brandt shook his head. “He asks to see the boys and we meet. During that time he doesn’t give us ranch advice, or try to convince us to join his church. He ain’t allowed to run down Mom, or say nasty shit to our wives.”
“So the meetings last…under four minutes? Because that’s about as long as he can go without bein’ insulting.”
“Guess you wouldn’t know, huh? Since you ain’t been around him for three goddamned years?” Tell shot back.
Thank God for that. Dalton changed the subject. “Can he stay in the rehab wing indefinitely?”
“Guess that’s a week by week thing and we’re back to it bein’ dependent on how his therapy is goin’.”
“There’s no reason for them to keep him if he isn’t making progress,” Tell said. “So they’ll turn him out and make it someone else’s problem.”
“Meaning our problem,” Brandt said.
“Whoa.” Dalton’s gaze winged between his brothers. “Are you actually considering moving him into one of your houses?”