How in the hell could either of them even consider that?
“Brandt. Do you need me to remind you that after Luke died he kicked Jessie out? Off the ranch? Out of our lives? He didn’t give a shit if she was homeless. What goes around comes around.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
Dalton looked at Tell. “You’re willing to have that man in your house, around your kids day after day even knowing what he’s capable of? For who knows how fuckin’ long because we all know the man is too goddamned mean to die?”
“Dalton. That’s not helping,” Jessie said quietly.
“Well, it needed to be said because it doesn’t seem like any of you are lookin’ at this from any angle besides guilt.”
“Fine. How would you handle it?” Tell asked.
Their skeptical looks didn’t deter him. “Casper still gets financial compensation from the ranch although he’s retired. If he gets kicked outta the rehab place then he’ll need to be set up in a long-term care facility where he’s not paying for expensive therapy he has no intention of doin’. The place might eat up every bit of his ranch income and anything he might’ve saved up, but it’s the most logical choice.”
“Finally the voice of reason,” Georgia said and reached over to squeeze Dalton’s hand.
Jessie nodded. “It’d be a different situation if Casper was a guy everyone loved. Heck, I’d be fine havin’ him live with us. But he’s not that man. And he’s not gonna change now. Like Dalton said, I suspect Casper will act a whole lot worse.”
“He can suck it up and start doin’ rehab, or he can live in a nursing home.” Dalton looked between his brothers. “So which one of you is gonna tell him?”
“Why you pushing this all off on us?” Tell demanded.
“Because I’m the youngest and he’d discount anything I said.” His phone vibrated. The caller ID read Rory. “Sorry, I hafta take this call.” He excused himself from the table.
Rory swore she wasn’t going to call Dalton. That’d teach Mr. I-Can-Kiss-You-Anytime-I-Want a lesson.
So why was her phone in her hand?
Because you’re a freakin’ marshmallow when it comes to Dalton McKay.
No, she wasn’t. Not anymore. But after the flashback, she’d wondered where he’d been the past three years. The jerk owed her an explanation. So she’d hear his excuses and move on.
She hit dial before another voice popped into her head with advice.
He answered with, “I knew you’d call me.”
“And there’s the reason I shouldn’t have.”
Dalton laughed. “Don’t hang up on me. Just a sec.”
Rory heard muffled voices in the background.
“Sorry about that.”
“Where are you?”
“At Brandt’s. And you timed this call perfectly because things had started to get a little heated. Anyway, are you working at the Twin Pines tonight?”
“Can I see you?”
She fiddled with the straw in her to-go cup. “What do you have in mind?”
“Dinner. Conversation. Friends catching up.” He paused. “Don’t deny there’s unfinished business between us.”
“I don’t. But I’d really like to keep the Sundance and McKay gossip mongers out of our…unfinished business or whatever it is.”
“Which is why I’ll cook for you. I’m renting a house on Royal Street. It’s baby blue with red shutters. Can’t miss it.”
“Aren’t you staying with your brothers or in your old trailer?”
“I gave the trailer up when I left. I’ve been on my own too long to try and follow someone else’s rules. So do you wanna come over right after work? Or do you need to go home first?”
Wearing her less-than-flattering work uniform would reiterate the friendship line. But part of her wanted to saunter in wearing a sexy outfit, even when that’d give Dalton the wrong idea.
“Sorry, yeah, I’ll need to go home, change and let the dog out.”
“You still have Jingle?”
“Yep. She’s getting up there in years though. Anything you want me to bring?”
“Just yourself. I’m really looking forward to spending time with you, Rory.”
When she almost admitted she felt the same, the angry girl who’d been taken for granted and taken for a ride by this man reared her ugly head and barked out: don’t fall for this because it’s an act; always has been, always will be.
So she said, “See you later,” and hung up.
The rest of the workday dragged ass. Rory wondered if she’d ever get out into the field and utilize what she’d learned earning her degrees. Given she hated this job, it’d be easy to spiral into the my-degrees-are-worthless-what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking school of thought.
After she got home, she poured herself a drink. Standing in front of her tiny closet, she pondered clothing choices. A dress? Trying too hard. Jeans, hiking boots and a flannel shirt? Not trying at all. Rory slipped on her favorite khaki pants, a soft-hued angora sweater in heather brown, and drove into town.
She parked behind his pickup at the seen-better-days house and entered the yard through a chain link fence. She held her hand up to knock only to have the door opened immediately.
Dalton grinned so widely his beard moved. “Hey, gorgeous. Come in.”
Rory started to take her coat off, and Dalton was right there, helping her. “Thanks.”
“No problem. The kitchen is this way.”
The living area didn’t have a stick of furniture. At least the eat-in dining room had a table and chairs.
“After I invited you I realized I hadn’t been to the store. Since I spent most of the day at the rehab place in Spearfish, I picked up pizza, fried chicken and hot wings.” He headed to the fridge. “Want a beer?”
“That’s right. You’ve never been a beer drinker. Sorry, but alls I’ve got is Coke.”
“Coke is fine. But the food—”
Dalton got right in her face. “Please tell me you haven’t turned vegetarian in the last three years?”
Tempting to lie to test his reaction, but she shook her head. “I’m not a vegetarian. I tried it for six months but couldn’t stand a life without bacon.”
“That’s no kinda life. Let’s get this stuff moved to the table.”
“It’ll be easier to dish up here.”
“Good plan.” Dalton didn’t back off. He remained in that too-close-for-comfort zone.
“I thought about you a lot over the years. More than was healthy, that’s for damn sure. But those snapshots of you in my head didn’t do you justice. Here I am, standing in front of you. And honest to God, you are so beautiful I can’t think straight.”
Her stupid belly swooped. “Still the same bullshit charmer, I see.”
“No ma’am. I’ve told you that you’re beautiful before this.”
“I didn’t believe you then, either.”
Dalton followed her, step for step as she tried to retreat. “Don’t run from me, Rory. It’s long past time we both stopped running.”
His eyes were the bottomless blue that pulled at her like an ocean current.
He’ll suck you in, spin you around and spit you out.
That broke whatever weird hold Dalton had on her. She reached up and tugged hard on his beard. “Back off, Jeremiah Johnson.”
He laughed. “For now. But first, this.” He pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss that should’ve been chaste—but wasn’t. Not at all. He murmured, “I’m glad you’re here.”
This was the Dalton she remembered prior to the night everything had changed between them. As much as that comforted her—because she hadn’t seen this side of him in a long time—it also scared her; she’d never been able to resist this Dalton.
He backed off. “I’ll bet you’re starved after workin’ all day. Help yourself.”
“There’s a ton of food here.” She dished up KFC mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw, green beans and macaroni salad.
Dalton poured her a Coke. “It’ll tide me over for a couple of days. Livin’ where I do, there’s no fast food. I don’t miss it, except for fried chicken. The frozen kind from the store never tastes as good.”
Rory added a slice of pizza to her plate and a breadstick. “When I went to college I lived on the fast food I’d been denied in my youth. I packed on the freshman fifteen in no time. I lost it all after I returned to healthy eating.” Why had she blathered that? And why was she acting nervous and jittery like this was a first date?
“It’s good to indulge sometimes.” Dalton sat across from her, his plate piled high.
“So what’s going on with your dad?”
He gave her the basic rundown, finishing with, “Freaked me out to see him like that.”
“Do you have any idea how long you’re staying?”
“There are things I’ve been putting off that I’ll deal with while I’m here.”
That wasn’t an answer. “How’d you end up living in Montana?”
“When I returned to the States after my European jaunt, I intended to settle wherever…” He paused and looked away. “Those plans fell through, so I spent the summer workin’ as a logger. Then a buddy who owns a hunting lodge in Alder needed a guide for elk season. I stayed on through the winter and did odd jobs to earn my keep. Went back to logging in the spring and throughout the summer. Then autumn rolled around again and I was back on guide duty.”
They ate in silence for a while. But she couldn’t stop thinking about how things had played out between them. The lies. The lust. The moment when all of that had come to a head and altered their friendship beyond repair.