Nervous energy thrummed through Colton Kincaid’s hands as he turned his pickup onto the long driveway leading up to his family’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Prairie, Kansas. Ten years. Ten years since his big brother Travis had turned him out on his a*s without so much as an “I’m sorry.” Ten years since his next-door neighbor and the closest thing he’d had to a mother, Dottie Grace, had driven him to the Greyhound station in Manhattan, bought him a one-way ticket to a ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and given him a hundred bucks with the admonishment to spend it wisely.
The contents of his stomach churned, threatening to empty all over the inside of the cab. He should have known better than to mix truck stop coffee, beef jerky, and nacho cheese chips, but hell if he hadn’t been nervous making the ten-hour drive over from Steamboat. Colton Kincaid, rodeo star. Scrapper and hell-raiser. Nervous?
It shamed him to admit it, the power his brother still held after ten years of not speaking, of not calling even once to check up on him. So who was the fool? In about three minute’s time, he’d finally have the answer. Colton’s breath hitched just beneath his sternum as the truck crested the rise, a flood of memories hitting him as the old farmhouse came into sight. Someone had repainted the barn. The farmhouse looked ten years older, the paint faded and cracked. Some things never changed. The yard was packed with trucks and SUVs, maybe thirty in all. So he hadn’t missed the wedding. At least he didn’t think so. Travis’s messages had said three, and it was three-oh-five. Not that he’d been to many weddings, but they never started on time, did they?
Colton slid the truck in at the end of a long line and cut the ignition. A northerly breeze carrying the scent of withered prairie grass and fried turkey hit his nose as he hopped down. North wind in the Flint Hills always brought cooler weather, but for now, it looked like the perfect afternoon for a wedding. He jammed on his Stetson and wove through the vehicles, heart thundering more erratically with every step closer to the front porch. A vivid memory arose, of Travis standing backlit by the solitary porch light, arms folded, expression cold and unfeeling. Colton’s mouth went dry and a shiver ran up the back of his arms. It had been an early frost that night ten years ago, and Travis had turned him out with only a frayed jean jacket for warmth. The words they’d exchanged had been just as cold, but Colton had been too far gone to notice either until Lydia Grace had shaken him awake from where he’d let sleep obliviate him on her front porch. Ten years, and he could recall the burning look in her eyes like it had been yesterday. Would she be here? Surely her parents Dottie and Teddy would be.
He paused, boot on the top step. Maybe now wasn’t the time. Maybe he should turn tail and slink back to Colorado. To the life he’d built without Prairie, without family. Ten years was a long time for apologies to stack up. Travis’s last voice message jangled in his head. “I know it’s a long shot. But I promise you’re welcome here. No judgment.”
No judgment. But could Travis account for the thirty or forty-some pairs of eyes on the other side of the door? Travis might not judge him, but what about the rest of the town? Colton’s stomach churned perilously. Shaking his head, he reached into an inside pocket for a shot of liquid courage. He might not booze it up the way he had, once-upon-a-time, but if ever there was a time…
He twisted the cap off the flask and took a long draw of the rye whiskey he’d brought with him, wiped his mouth, and squared his shoulders. He could be a p***y about this or he could man up and face his past. If it all went to s**t, he could turn around and drive straight back to Steamboat. But if it didn’t? Wasn’t it worth taking a shot? Travis was the only family he had left. Steeling himself, he rapped hard on the door.
On the other side, a chair scraped, a muffled voice spoke low, but Colton could barely hear it over the pounding of his blood. After what felt like eons, the door creaked open and dozens of pairs of eyes turned on him, some with surprise, some narrowed. He searched for Travis and found him, gripping the elbow of a pretty young thing with big blue eyes in a simple white dress. This must be Elaine. And the boy next to her must be her son Travis had mentioned, Dax. Colton gulped and removed his hat, all the speeches he’d prepared vanishing into the ether. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
The startled silence unnerved him. Colton’s chest burned. He never should have come. But f**k it, he was here now, and he wouldn’t back down, not until this played out until the bitter end. He flashed a grin to the faces in the room, and his eyes collided with a blue-green pair in the back of the room. He’d know those eyes anywhere. But it had been so long, he couldn’t tell. And instead of long hair wrapped in a ponytail, it was sleek and short, swinging against her jawline. Lydia? Or her twin, Lexi? Back in the day, it had been easy to tell them apart. Lexi’d always been wrapped up saving animals, the environment, or some other crusade of the week, and hadn’t ever paid him much attention. Lydia had been the more buttoned-up of the pair, and had tried to save him. Sweet, good Lydia. He owed her an apology too. Judging from the way his pulse quickened, it had to be Lydia. But the look in her eye didn’t say buttoned-up. Not by a long shot.
Travis stepped forward, eyes guarded. “Colton.”
“Travis.” The tension wound around them, pulsing between them like a living, angry dragon. Someone coughed. A chair squeaked. The buzzing in his ears grew louder, drowning out the sound of his breathing.
And then – Travis stepped forward and pulled him into a bear hug, pounding him on the back. “You’re just in time.” He spoke hoarsely, like a sweetgum burr had lodged itself in his throat. “Just in time.”
A rush of hot emotions surged through Colton, taking his voice. Relief, primary amongst them. He returned the hug, awkwardly giving his brother a pat. They were the same size now, both men. Each hardened through the pressures of life. Colton cleared his throat. “I’ll just stand in the back.”
“Wait.” Travis laid a hand on his arm. “Stand with me?”
Had he lost his mind? Ten years gone, and the first thing he asked was this? s**t. Travis really did mean to bury that hatchet. Colton nodded once, keeping his face neutral. No need to let everything hang out in front of the assembled group. There’d be plenty of time down the line to hash things out. The room let out a collective sigh as he took his place next to his brother. Throughout the brief ceremony, Colton kept his eyes trained on a spot between Travis’s shoulder blades, hearing but not registering any of the words until the little boy next to him shouted. “Now I have a dad and an uncle.”
Laughter and applause erupted around him. This was too much. Travis turned back to him, his arm around his bride, and flashed him a happy smile. Colton’s throat grew prickly. He’d never seen Travis like this. Happy. It threw him off-balance. This was anything but the reunion he’d imagined. Chaos reigned as attendees spilled out onto the porch, and others began shifting chairs in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast to follow.
A hand tapped his shoulder. “Colton Kincaid, I never thought I’d see the likes of you again,” Dottie Grace gushed, eyes sparkling with pride.
The years had been good to her. She still oozed vitality. Her hair was streaked with gray. There were more wrinkles around her eyes and stress lines around her mouth. But still the same old force of nature. “Look at you. All grown up and devilishly handsome.” She shook her head, smiling. “I know it means so much to Travis that you’re here.” She wrapped her arms around him in a vice-like grip.
Colton’s voice grew thick as he tried to explain himself. “I always meant to contact you.” But he’d been too ashamed. And by the time he’d earned a little success, too many years had passed.
“Hush, now. We’re glad you’re home.”
Home? Maybe to them. Not to him. But no use in contradicting Dottie, especially on Thanksgiving at a wedding celebration. He scanned the room again, looking for the sassy pair of blue-green eyes. “Did I see Lydia?”
“You did. Home for the holidays.” Dottie’s tone of voice shut down further conversation. As if to say, I’m glad you’re home, but stay away from my daughter.
Huh. He guessed some things would never change. Him not being good enough for the likes of the amazing Grace sisters, at least one of them. Flashing Dottie the smile that always earned him a slice of pie from the diner counter, he spoke sincerely. “It’s good to see you, Dottie. And… thank you for everything you did for me… back then. I didn’t deserve half of it.”
Compassion filled the woman’s eyes and she cupped his cheek. “You didn’t deserve half of what was heaped on you either. I’d have done it for anyone. I’m glad you’ve made something of yourself. Made us all proud. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a feast to help set out.”
Someone handed Colton a beer, and he lingered by the mantel, feeling more like a stranger than a man in his childhood home. His phone vibrated in his pocket. Who in the hell would be contacting him on Thanksgiving? Of course… he didn’t even have to check his phone to know who it would be. The only question was which Carter would be interrupting him? When the phone buzzed again, he risked a look. A picture of him with some lady he vaguely remembered flashed across the screen along with a text from thorn-in-his-side, Samantha Jo Carter.
Really? Taking up with *married* women now? wtf?!?
Colton bit back a curse. Leave it to Sammy Jo to assume the worst just because some drunken wife had to hashtag the s**t out of a photo and slap it up all over **. How many times had he reminded his sponsors they wanted him to accept photo-ops from the ladies? Until it came back to bite them in the a*s. Colton struggled to remember that night, but came up short. He studied the face in the picture again. Wife of a competing sponsor? Maybe from Frontier Days? How in the hell was he supposed to keep track of every lady who bought him a drink or asked to dance? He couldn’t f*****g win. And he wasn’t dignifying any text from Sammy Jo with a response. Plenty of time to deal with her and her dad and uncle at the NFR’s. He’d be at their beck and call for most of that run anyway. No need to let them ruin his first trip back to Prairie.
But all thoughts of issues with his sponsors vanished as soon as he laid eyes on Lydia in line by the makeshift bar. She wore some kind of a clingy sweater dress that skimmed her knees and left everything to the imagination. Lydia Grace had always been cute. But cute wasn’t standing in front of him. Oh no, she’d matured into a luscious, curve-laden woman from the slender column of her neck, to her shapely hips, all the way down to her pretty ankles obscured by girly boots. As if feeling his gaze on her, she turned, and for the second time, their gazes collided with the force of a bull hitting a barrel-man.