A COWBOY STAYS
A professional saddle bronc rider falling for the wrong woman.
A broken heart trying to move on.
Stay with the widow and the alpha cowboy.
Love ’em and leave ’em, but, it’s me they’re leaving. Always falling for the wrong woman. More times than I can count. This time, it’s different. I can’t compete with the rival, her late husband, a man she loved with all her heart. Comforting her, healing those gaping wounds, it’s all I want to do. But it seems like I’m waiting for a dream that’s never going to happen. Sometimes, walking away is the only answer. Even when the question wasn’t asked.
Broken and shattered, left alone with the shards of my past, destroying any hope for my future. Little by little, he’s putting the pieces back together. But he wants more, more than I can give. Clearly, he’s pulling away, away from us. Even though I’m not ready and don’t know if I'll ever be, can I ask this cowboy to stay?
It was another bad night, full of dreams about explosions, and fire, and pain. The nightmares were commonplace. She’d had the same dream so many times, yet it still rocked Bree to her core with the same intensity as it had the first time.
In it, Zack was reaching out to touch her face, tears in his eyes. She could handle the horrific images far more easily than seeing her husband’s tears. It only made the longing worse when she spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, unable to sleep.
She hoped a change of scenery would make a difference, but she knew better. No matter where she traveled, each place would have one thing in common with the previous one—Zack wouldn’t be there. He wouldn’t be anywhere. He was gone.
Jace Rice was gone, too. Not in the same way, but still…gone. Every day, Bree told herself she shouldn’t think about him. It wasn’t Jace she missed, it was Zack. Jace was a distraction, someone she allowed herself to think about when her subconscious refused to let her mourn her dead husband. On an intellectual level, she understood that the way she felt about Jace wasn’t real; it was simply a manifestation of her real grief over Zack’s death.
Zack Fox had been the light of her life. The word “soulmate” was thrown around too often, but in this case, there was no better way to describe him. Zack made her laugh. He made her feel safe, secure, confident, smart, and beautiful—all of those things. With Zack by her side, Bree could do anything she set her mind to. It had never occurred to her that, one day, she’d be forced to find out what she could accomplish without him.
Bree had just graduated with her master’s degree, something she’d started when Zack was still alive. He hadn’t pushed her into it, but he had encouraged her. He told her it was the right time to do it, before they started their family. He convinced her she’d be happy she’d done this for herself later, when there wouldn’t be time for it. Now she had all the time in the world.
Maybe she’d consider getting her doctorate. It wasn’t as though having a family was still in her future.
Bree had offered to babysit her nephew, Cochran, while her sister Blythe and Tucker, her sister’s husband, attended the opening of his show at a local art gallery.
Tucker was an artist who worked in many different mediums. He’d done sculpture, relief carvings, and block prints. Watercolor was his current passion.
Earlier this year, he’d painted landscapes in Black Forest, outside of Monument, Colorado, before a massive fire destroyed much of it. After the fire, he continued to paint the same landscapes. Blythe told her that the paintings in the show were both compelling and heartbreaking. Many of the vistas he’d painted days before became charred remains of what they’d once been.
She hadn’t seen Tucker’s recent work, only heard about it. She was afraid seeing it would make the nightmares worse. Instead of seeing the Black Forest landscape, Bree would see Afghanistan. Her imagination would replace the images of the burned-out forest with those of a charred convoy destroyed by an IED, like the one Zack had been a part of.
“Where’s that sweet baby?” she asked Blythe as soon as she walked in the back door of her sister’s house.
“Still sleeping, which means you won’t get a break tonight. He’ll be wide awake for his Auntie Bree.”
“I won’t be complaining.”
“I know, which is why I let him sleep. If we were going to be home tonight, I would’ve gotten him up an hour ago. Unlike you, I would want him to go back to sleep before midnight. And before you ask, we’ll be home long before then.”
There wasn’t much nightlife in Monument, Colorado. They’d probably be home by ten at the latest.
Between May and September, the historic town hosted an art walk once a month. Tucker was showing his work in the gallery of the winery that had recently opened downtown. While the other businesses would close up shop early, most folks would end up at the winery, which would stay open later.
“Stay out as long as you want,” Bree told her. “Take advantage of your last night with a regular sitter.”
“Don’t remind me. I can’t believe you’re going to be gone a whole month.”
“I need to do this, Blythe.”
Bree was leaving the next day for Stanley, Idaho. The trip was a self-imposed sabbatical, intended to give her time to grieve her husband’s death. In the fall, she’d be taking over a junior teaching position at the Air Force Academy while the tenured professor was on maternity leave.
They heard Cochran stirring through the baby monitor that was sitting on the kitchen counter. Even with as big as the house was, everyone always seemed to congregate in the kitchen. The back door led straight into it, and with windows on two sides, the views of the dense forest on one, coupled with that of Pikes Peak on the other, were jaw-dropping. Today was a perfect bluebird day, with billowing clouds resting just below the peak of the fourteener, only one of the fifty-three such peaks in the state of Colorado.
“Do you mind if I get him?” Bree asked.
“Of course I don’t,” answered Blythe, tears filling her eyes.
“Oh, honey, please don’t cry. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Blythe waved her hand in front of her face. “I know, but I’m going to miss you so much.”
“Sweetie, I need this.”
“I know you do. I’m being selfish. Now go get your nephew before he climbs out of the crib on his own.”
“Is he doing that? At seven months?” Bree gasped.
“Not yet, but I expect he will any minute. That boy is his father’s son, and Carol told me Tucker and Jace started walking the day they turned ten months old. She said the twins skipped crawling entirely.”
Bree’s shoulders tensed, as they did whenever anyone mentioned Jace. She walked across the distressed wood floor that covered the surface of the great room, over to the carpeted curved staircase that led downstairs, to the bedrooms.
She stopped for just a moment, closing her eyes and letting the water that bubbled softly out of the twin sculptures Tucker had built into the stairwell soothe her. The two separate, yet identical pieces were made of bronze and copper, and sat on a base of river rock.
Bree continued down the stairs, willing the tension in her shoulders to release before she opened the door to Cochran’s bedroom.
She loved that Blythe and Tucker chose Bree and Blythe’s maiden name for their baby’s first name. With no boys in their generation, it was the only way their family’s legacy would carry on.
“How is Jace? Have you heard?” Bree asked when she came back with Cochran in her arms.
“Only that he’s settling into the life of a rough-stocker. I’m glad Carol and Hank are up there with him…”
Bree had heard the twins’ parents had partnered with Jace on a rough stock and cattle operation in Montana. The twelve-thousand-acre ranch had been part of the Beiman family holdings for years, but after the death of their father, the two sons decided to sell the Montana property to focus on their larger operation in Alberta, Canada.
“Lyric said she heard there was more to the story, though. Something about them having to sell,” said Blythe.
Lyric Simmons was the host of RodeoChat, and often heard industry news before anyone else. Blythe had been working for Lyric for close to a year, although she’d become more than a boss to Blythe; she had become part of their family.
“What did she hear?”
“She said the Beiman brothers got into trouble, smuggling Canadian bulls from Alberta into the States. Consequently, they made a deal to sell their US holdings, which included the Montana property. She heard Jace and his parents got a sweet deal because of it.”
Bree hoped so. Jace deserved to have something good happen in his life. It hadn’t been an easy year for him. His estrangement from his brother was the worst of it.
Last year, the brothers had a falling out. No one expected Tucker to stay angry as long as he had, but now it seemed as though he might never forgive his twin.
“Does Tucker ever talk about him?” Bree asked.
“Not really, but I know he thinks about him. I mean, he and Jace have always been so close. I can’t imagine not having you in my life, Bree. The truth is, as hard as it’s always been to get along with Brooke, it wouldn’t matter what she did. I couldn’t stay mad at her as long as Tucker has been mad at Jace.”
Bree understood. Brooke, their older sister, had never been easy to get along with, but she felt the same way. She was still their sister.
It was so much more than Tucker being mad at his brother, though. Jace had betrayed him by sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend. And after that woman’s death, Jace had kept the secret of their affair from Tucker for years. Bree understood that Tucker’s forgiveness might be a long time coming.
“He needs time.”
“Have you talked to him?” Blythe whispered, even though Tucker wasn’t anywhere near.
“Jace? No. I texted him a few times, but he never answered.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“There isn’t anything to be sorry for. I thought someone should send Jace a picture of this sweet baby.” Bree kissed Cochran’s forehead while he sat on her lap, quietly playing with her beaded bracelet. “You’re such a sweet boy, aren’t you?”
“He really is. I’ve been blessed with a very happy baby,” Blythe smiled.
“I’m sure Grandma Carol shows Uncle Jace plenty of pictures of his nephew. I should have thought of that.”
“I’m sure he appreciated the photos, Bree. I don’t know why he never answered you.”
Bree would never know. If she did see him again, which at this point appeared doubtful, she wouldn’t dream of asking why he hadn’t.
“I love seeing you so happy, Blythe.”
Bree never would’ve predicted her little sister would fall into motherhood as easily as she had. Tucker was a good match for her.
When they were growing up, Blythe was a brat if she didn’t get her own way. She was the baby of the family, and she played it well—until she met Tucker. He loved her just the way she was, and she blossomed because of it. He calmed her, settled her, centered her. He was her soulmate. Just as Zack had been Bree’s.
“I wish you could get him to talk to Jace.”
“I do too. He will, in his own time, Bree. In the meantime, Cochran is growing up so fast.” Blythe leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Aren’t you, big boy?”
It was a beautiful day for a ride. The blue Montana sky stretched on forever. When he rode the ranch, Jace was content. He felt at peace—even though it was solitary.
The ranch had two main houses. When the Beiman family had owned it, the old man lived in one and his oldest son lived in the other. When the deal went through, Jace’s parents insisted he move into the house that had belonged to the old man. It was closer to the center of the ranch, and it was the bigger of the two.
His mom said she felt more comfortable in the smaller house. After all, she told him, they were finished raising their family. She hoped, one day, Jace would fill the bigger house with a family of his own.
He didn’t see that happening soon, if ever, since he only fell in love with women who were in love with someone else.
There was one, but she wasn’t as interested in him as he was in her. Not that it would make a difference if she was. Her sister was married to his brother, and his brother never wanted to see him again.
Jace and Tucker had shared a tragedy when they were younger, after which, Tucker would often disappear for months at a time. Tucker’s part in the accident was public. He’d been as much of a victim as the girl who died. Jace’s role wasn’t only private, he’d intentionally kept it a secret. When that secret came to light, it was Jace’s turn to disappear.
He traveled the rodeo circuit for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it. After a few months, he knew he needed somewhere to settle, at least for a while. Even he didn’t know what that meant; he only knew he was tired of running.
The truth was, he’d been on the run since that horrible night all those years ago. He ran from himself, afraid of what he might see if he let himself take a good, long look in the mirror.
Owning up to what he’d done had been the first step. If he was ever going to be the man he knew he wanted to be, he had to take that long look and figure out what was inside of him that made him betray his brother in the first place.
Montana was where he settled. He heard the Beiman family was looking for help with the rough stock end of their ranching business, but in the end, it was more than help they were looking for. They wanted to sell. In under two weeks, he’d gone from having virtually nothing, except money in the bank, to having a lot less money and a lot of land.
Jace and his father learned the lay of the land and worked to get a handle on the rough stock business that had been part of the deal to purchase the ranch.
They had fifteen bulls and were looking to add more. It was common for their numbers to be down in the winter, when there were fewer events, but they were behind the curve for the spring and summer.
Jace offered to go out on the road, but when Hank insisted he be the one to go, Jace admitted he’d be glad to stay put. He knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be forced back out on the road. If they were going to make a go of this business, both he and his father would have to be out there, delivering bucking bulls to the rodeos that contracted them.
For now, he spent as much time as he could, riding the twelve thousand acres of the land that was now his, and caring for six hundred head of cattle.
As he rode up to his parents’ place, he saw his mother waving at him from the front porch.
“Join me for breakfast?” she called out to him.
“Would love to,” he answered, leading his horse into the corral. “Whatcha’ cookin’?”
“Huevos Rancheros. Go get cleaned up, and I’ll make you a plate.”
“You got any coffee brewin’, Mama?”
She laughed and shook her head. Yeah, that was a stupid question. Carol Rice almost always had a fresh pot of coffee going. His father was addicted to the stuff.
“It’s good to have you in my kitchen,” she said when Jace sat down at the table.
“Good to have your kitchen so close.”
Carol put her hand on her son’s shoulder and kissed the back of his head. “I love you, sweet boy.”
“You might be the only one who does these days. You and Daddy.”
She swatted his head, the place she’d just kissed. “Oh, Jace. That’s a load of nonsense and you know it.”
“I don’t know ’bout that, Mama,” he muttered.
“You got some amends to make, boy. Once you have, your life will come back together the way it’s supposed to.”
It wasn’t only his estrangement from his twin brother that troubled him. Jace was beginning to think he’d never find the kind of love his parents had. For a long time, Tucker believed he wasn’t worthy of love. Maybe it was Jace who wasn’t, and that was the reason he kept falling in love with the wrong women.
“Would you like to see some pictures of the sweetest grandbaby in the whole world?”
“You know I would.” Jace took the phone from his mother’s hand and scrolled through the latest photos from Blythe. His nephew was getting so big. As he swiped his finger across the screen, one photo made him stop. Blythe’s sister Bree held the baby on her lap. Her head rested against his, and her eyes were closed. Her arms were wrapped around him, and he leaned into her, as though it was the most comfortable place in the world for him to be.
Jace’s arms ached. He longed to hold the baby, but it was more. He longed to hold Bree, too.
It had been important that he be the one to tell her what happened with the accident. And, when he had, she accused him of wanting her to smooth things over between Tucker and him. That wasn’t it at all, but he hadn’t bothered to try to convince her otherwise. If she’d felt any of what he was feeling, she would’ve known that wasn’t why he told her.
When he closed his eyes, he could see those arms, the ones she had wrapped around baby Cochran, folded in front of her. She’d closed herself off to him that day. That was the reason he left the way he had. And never looked back.
Even when she had texted him pictures of the day Cochran was born, he didn’t respond. He couldn’t. If he did, he might be tempted to…to what? Ask her if she could forgive him? She’d think he’d lost his mind if he had.
Instead, he ignored her. He needed to get Bree Fox out of his head. He closed his eyes and started to hand the phone back to his mother, but he stopped and took one more look. He couldn’t help himself.
“I hear Bree is leaving Monument.”
“What’s that, Mama?”
“I talked to Blythe yesterday. She’s torn up about Bree leaving town.”
“What do you mean? Where’s she going?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe you should give her a call yourself and ask her.”
He shook his head. Was she kidding?
Carol sat down at the table, across from her son. “I’m serious, Jace. Why don’t you call her? I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.”
He waited until his mother went into the other room, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and scrolled through the contacts until he found Bree’s number.