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       Strung Up, p.1

         Part #7.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  Prologue

  Cres

  I believe that love is stronger than death.

  That had become my mantra, my focal point in the last seven days, ten hours, and thirty-four minutes since the highway patrolman had knocked on my door.

  I’m sorry to inform you that Michael Darby was involved in an accident and died at the scene. He listed you as his emergency contact.

  The rest of what he’d said had been a blur.

  At first I thought there’d been a mistake. Michael Darby and Mick Darby. I’d never called him Michael. He never called himself Michael. So maybe the cops had it wrong. Maybe there was another person’s life they should be destroying with this bad news that their lover was dead.

  So I argued.

  Then the officer calmly pulled Mick’s driver’s license out of the leather wallet I’d given him for Christmas.

  And then I knew it was true.

  Mick was dead.

  How could he be dead?

  How was that fucking fair? He’d survived four wartime deployments overseas during his military career. Four years in hell. Only to be killed by a jack slipping and crushing him beneath the wheel of a car.

  The injustice infuriated me. Mick being a good guy once again. The Samaritan who always stopped to help. Only this time his helpful nature had gotten him killed.

  I wanted to yell at him for being so stupid.

  But I’d never get to yell at him again. Or laugh with him. Or touch him. Or tell him I loved him.

  He knew. Because you reminded him of that every day.

  “Let us pray,” the minister announced.

  I bowed my head. But my focus wasn’t on the minister’s pointless platitudes. Instead I studied the shoes of the other four people in the front pew with me, all with one commonality—each pair was black. Mick’s father wore polished dress cowboy boots. Mick’s mother had opted for closed-toe pumps. Mick’s sister Aria had chosen wedges. Mick’s brother Sam had donned loafers.

  I had Mick’s favorite pair of boots on my feet. It’d been a joke between us that since we were the same size in clothing and footwear, we’d doubled the size of our wardrobes when he’d moved in with me.

  I’d felt the need to wear him today. His boots, his socks, his belt, his T-shirt beneath his white dress shirt. The suit was mine. The tie was his.

  Had been his.

  Fuck. Would I ever get used to thinking of him in the past tense?

  “Amen.”

  I raised my head.

  Music played behind us. The organ made the tune nearly unrecognizable until the singer started “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

  I closed my eyes. Please be a shitty rendition that’s way the fuck out of tune. Please garble the words so I can’t understand them.

  But short of jamming my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la…I couldn’t tune it out.

  It was beautifully sung. Poignant. I wouldn’t cry. Not because I thought I was too tough to publicly show that I’d had my guts and my heart ripped out. But because if I started to bawl, I might not be able to stop.

  Finally, the song ended.

  Then the service ended.

  I felt as if my world had ended.

  Everyone stood as the urn was wheeled out. Now we’d make the sixty-mile drive to the veteran’s cemetery in Miles City. Mick would have the military burial he deserved. Then we’d return to the Darby’s house for the repast with his friends and his family that I didn’t know, talking about “Michael,” the man I hadn’t known at all.

  Outside on the sidewalk in front of the small white church, I looked up at the steeple as the bell eerily clanged a death toll. Mick’s family had told me this was where Mick had been baptized and confirmed. They’d probably hoped he’d be married here. Instead he’d been eulogized.

  I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact Mick had decided on all of his funeral details prior to his first deployment. It didn’t matter that ten years had passed. It didn’t matter that I was his lover and partner now; I’d had no input regarding the ceremony.

  What would you have done differently?

  “Cres? You ready?”

  I glanced at my brother Wyn. Both my brothers and their wives had driven to Montana for this, even after I’d told them they didn’t have to come. But now, as I watched Mick’s family climb into the limo—they claimed there was no room for me—I was glad my family was here. I wouldn’t be forced to make the drive to Miles City by myself.

  If you were here by yourself you wouldn’t go to the cemetery. You’d jump in your truck and haul ass back to Colorado. Because Mick isn’t in that urn. He won’t know that you skipped out on the interment. Mick’s family would rather you weren’t there because then they won’t have to justify why they’re being handed the folded flag instead of you.

  But would he have wanted me to have it? Since my presence and my role in his life had come as a shock to his family?

  They believed—Mick had told them—that I was his roommate.

  His fucking roommate.

  The lie—his lie—had sliced a jagged cut to my soul that left a scar straight down to the bone.

  I heard Mick’s justification in my head as clearly as if he’d been in our bed next to me, whispering it in my ear. What does it matter? You know who you are to me. You know what you mean to me. They are my past. You are my future.

  And so I’d forgiven him before I had a chance to be mad at him.

  After today, it wouldn’t matter. I’d never see Mick’s family again, so I didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought of me.

  “Creston? Are you ready?” my mom prompted.

  I shook my head. “I’m not going.”

  “Of course you’re going, sweetheart,” she said gently. “This final stage will be hard, but we’re all here for you.”

  “Fine. You go. I’ll meet you at the motel afterward. Or better yet, I’ll see you at home on the ranch.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous—”

  “Sue,” my father said sharply, “drop it. If he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to go.”

  Having my dad’s support meant everything to me. I looked at Wyn and Sutton.

  They nodded in solidarity.

  To keep myself from breaking down, I turned away and repeated my mantra.

  I believe that love is stronger than death.

  But I knew I’d never give love a chance to break me again.

  Chapter One

  Cres

  Two years later…

  “I don’t see why I need to go to this thing. It has nothin’ to do with me.”

  My brother Wyn paused long enough that I was forced to meet his gaze.

  I saw a hard look in his eyes and I knew I was totally fucked.

  “You are goin’ because more than half of your family is involved in this new venture. And you will show support for it and for your brother and sisters-in-law, Cres, if I have to hogtie you, prop you up in the corner and paint a goddamned smile on your face myself.”

  “Fine. Whatever. I’ll be there.” I slapped Petey on the rump and turned him out into the pasture to graze. I hefted the saddle off the fence and hauled it inside the barn. When I returned for the saddle blanket and the rest of the tack, I saw that Wyn still rested against the corral, his arms crossed, probably waiting to rip into me some more.

  I ignored him.

  Wyn followed me into the tack room.

  I continued to ignore him.

  I took my time putting everything away in its proper place, hanging up the saddle blanket to dry before I faced him. “What? I said I’d be there.”

  “Good. We miss you,” he said softly.

  “You see me every damn day, Wyn.”

/>   He shook his head. “I work with you every day. Outside of that, we don’t see you.”

  I turned away. “You’ve got your own life with Mel and your son.” I didn’t point out it was the same situation with our other brother Sutton, his wife London, and their little boy, Brennen. I was the odd man out—in so many ways.

  “I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”

  “I can drive myself.”

  “Nope. You’re goin’ with me. This is not negotiable.”

  Anger made me snap, “I said I’d be there. I don’t need a fucking escort.”

  “You brought this on yourself, Cres, since you haven’t shown up for any of the other family get-togethers in the past year after you promised you would. Not takin’ a chance this time. Besides, I need you to drive my truck back here. Melissa drove her car earlier today and we don’t need two vehicles there since we’re stayin’ overnight.”

  “So in addition to bein’ forced to attend this thing, I’ll also have to stay sober?”

  “Yep.” Wyn moved in behind me and squeezed my shoulder. “Clean yourself up. I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t make me come lookin’ for you.”

  I stayed in the barn until I heard my brother’s rig drive off. Then I grabbed a beer out of the fridge and headed toward the house.

  Clean yourself up. I had half a notion to stay in the same stinky-ass, manure splattered clothes I had on. Why did it matter what I wore? The shindig was being held in a barn. A three-million-dollar-barn, but a barn nonetheless.

  But showing up as the dirty, bedraggled, surly brother would bring unwanted attention to me. Better to clean up, blend in, and play the part they demanded.

  I stripped down as I walked through my house and was naked by the time I reached the bathroom. I stepped into the shower, letting the tepid water run over me for a long time. It’d been a hot and dusty day moving cattle and the cool water felt good. Keeping my eyes closed, I remained under the spray as I finished my beer. Then I grabbed the soap and lathered up. Rinsed off. Dried off. As I shaved, I figured any day now my mom would say I needed a haircut. Maybe I oughta just grow a beard and go with the whole mountain-man look.

  Don’t you mean hermit?

  Standing in front of my closet as I towel dried my hair, I scowled at my clothing selection. They’d better not expect me to wear a damn suit.

  My stomach bottomed out when I remembered the last time I’d worn one.

  Mick’s funeral.

  Blindly, I thrust my hand into the closet and grabbed a long-sleeved shirt. I slipped it on over my T-shirt and tucked it into my jeans. Belt on, boots on, dress hat by the door, I snagged another beer and parked myself on the couch to wait for my babysitter to arrive.

  * * * *

  Wyn arrived on time.

  After I hopped into the passenger side, I turned around to look in the back of the double cab, expecting to see my nephew Evan happily kicking his chubby legs in his car seat. But the car seat was empty. “Where’s the rug rat?” I asked my brother.

  “Mom and Dad are watching him and Brennen.”

  Brennen, Sutton and London’s son, was only two months younger than Evan. Our folks were in heaven with their two adorable grandsons. “So they get to skip this event? Shoot, if I’da known that was an option, I would’ve volunteered to babysit.”

  He snorted. “Standin’ around sipping beer and listening to speeches is a cakewalk compared to chasin’ after a couple of two-year-olds. Consider yourself lucky.”

  “How long is this thing supposed to last?”

  “No idea. They invited like a thousand people.”

  That shocked me. “A thousand people? Jesus. Why so many?”

  “Grade A Farms jumping into the rodeo school arena is a big damn deal. You oughta know by now that the Gradskys don’t do anything half-assed.”

  “When does the rodeo school open officially?”

  “Next month, I guess. They’re workin’ out the scheduling since they’ll have to utilize all three arenas on the property. They’re already near full capacity for enrollment. I’m betting that after tonight they’ll have a waiting list. They keep expanding operations and they’ll own the entire southeastern corner of Colorado.”

  The Gradskys’ main chunk of land, Grade A Farms, devoted to raising rodeo stock—both rodeo rough stock and horse breeding—was a hundred miles south of the Grant Ranch. “Why’d they build the school this far north? Wouldn’t it be easier to have the breeding stock in the same place as they were teaching students?”

  Wyn shot me an odd look. “Have you been payin’ attention at all the past year and a half?”

  I bristled. “What do you mean?”

  “Gradskys relocated all their operations to this location.”

  “Everything?”

  “Everything.”

  Shit. I hadn’t been paying attention. “Why?”

  “They outgrew the land faster than they’d planned. Plus, after London and Sutton gave Chuck and Berlin their first grandchild, they wanted to live closer. Their son Macon practices law in Denver anyway. And Stirling…”

  “What’s goin’ on with Stirling?”

  “She quit her fancy job and bought two hundred acres adjacent to her folks’ place. Crazy girl has started an organic farm.”

  I frowned. “We’re talkin’ about Stirling Gradsky, right? The corporate executive is giving up power lunches in Lear jets to dig in the dirt like a common farmer?”

  Wyn grinned at me. “Oh, don’t kid yourself that it’ll bother her to ruin her manicure. She’s savvy enough to hire all the right people. But she’s a control freak and has no problem doin’ the dirty work so she keeps more of the profits.”

  “What’s she growing?”

  “Pot. Wish I’d thought of that,” Wyn groused. “Now those commercial Ag permits are hard to come by. She skated in with all the applications the week that pot became legal in Colorado. She’s gonna make a fuck-ton of money.”

  “Rather see her successful at it than these out-of-state fuckers.”

  “Amen.”

  “What did the Gradskys do with their other place? Sell it?”

  Wyn shook his head. “Kept it. Turned it into a full-time cattle operation and a dude ranch. The Gradskys’ nephews Lewis and Clark are running it. They’re good guys. I feel bad their folks saddled them with those names. You met them at Sutton and London’s wedding. But maybe you don’t remember.”

  I didn’t. Because I met someone far more important than them: Mick.

  I got really quiet.

  “What?”

  “You’re right. I haven’t been paying attention to anything. It’s just…” How did I say this? “Why haven’t you all given up on me?”

  “Because you’re family, bro. All we can do is be here for you when you’re ready to pay attention again.”

  I scrubbed my hands over my face. “If I haven’t said so, I appreciate that none of you have nagged and told me I’ve been grieving long enough and it’s time to move on.”

  Wyn actually looked horrified. “Cres, that ain’t for anybody but you to decide. I wasn’t bullshitting you earlier. We miss you. All of us do. We thought it’d do us all good to be together tonight, no kids, no talkin’ about the ranch. Just the five of us hanging out.”

 
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