“You sure you’ve got this?” Sterling Walker asked Jason Case as he handed him the list.
“How hard can it be?” Jason retorted as he glanced down at the list.
SILENT AUCTION ITEMS
Dottie’s Diner tees and gift certificates – from Lydia Grace
Toy box and poker cards from the Five-n-Dime – from Vangie Miller
Dressmaking gift certificate from Emmaline Andersson
Romance gift basket from Millie (organic grocery)
Jason narrowed his eyes, stomach lurching. “Is this some kind of a joke?”
Sterling’s mouth quirked and he shrugged. “Not at all. We need those items for the silent auction tonight.”
“Yep. The loveliest ladies in Prairie have banded together in support of Resolution Ranch.” Sterling jammed his hands in his pockets and grinned broadly. Unapologetically.
Jason fisted the list, shaking his head emphatically. “No way.” He’d come to Prairie to help an inaugural crew of veterans at Resolution Ranch, not speed date the locals.
“C’mon, man. When was the last time you went on a date? Or got laid?” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “You’ve gotta get back in the saddle one of these days.”
“Not here. Not now.” Not ever. He offered up the crumpled list but Sterling kept his hands in his pockets. “I mean it, Walker. Not today.” Sterling of all people should know why.
Sterling backed up. “I’m taking Emma to meet my parents.” He grinned broadly. “Thanks for doing me a solid. Catch you in an hour?”
“You should leave the matchmaking to the ladies, Walker.”
Sterling winked and turned around. “Consider it my thanks for helping me with Emma,” he called over his shoulder as he walked down the street.
Payback was a f*****g b***h, but he wasn’t going to pull a d**k move and leave the ranch in the lurch. Especially when he was the one responsible for underwriting tonight’s fundraiser. His family’s wrath had been worth it, just for the look on his father’s face when he’d seen the price-tag. But they owed him, and every single one of them knew it. At least now, something good would come from his messed-up family.
Jason smoothed out the wrinkled list, scanning it again. He had to credit Sterling for trying. But he didn’t get it. No woman in her right mind would ever take up with someone like him. Not in his condition. The knot in his sternum, the one that had been his constant companion since he’d awakened four-and-a-half years ago broken, disoriented, and in excruciating pain at Walter Reed, gave a sharp twist. As if to say, damn straight. Ignoring the low-level gloom that always bubbled underneath the surface when he was alone, he started down the street. The sooner he started, the sooner it would be over.
Ten minutes later, three of the baskets safely stowed in the back of his truck, Jason crossed Main underneath a giant sign with the words Grand Re-Opening. It had been Emma Sinclaire’s idea to pair the ranch’s fundraiser with Main Street’s grand reopening following the tornado that destroyed half the town about a year ago. Judging from the crowd gathered in the park across from Dottie’s Diner, and the tickets sold for the ranch’s events later in the day, the idea was a wild success. Jason wove through festival booths, balloon makers, and musicians, making his way toward the organic grocery store tucked on a side street a few blocks away. His phone buzzed, and assuming it was Sterling, he answered without looking at the caller ID. “Well?”
“Mother hasn’t stopped crying since you left.”
Jason swallowed a groan and stopped dead in his tracks. “Not my problem, Nico. Just because she chooses to stay in a gilded cage, doesn’t mean I have to.”
His half-brother’s voice took on the used-car salesman quality that made his skin crawl. “You just need to work harder to get along with them. You know dad wants to make sure the business is strong when he hands over control.”
“I’ve told you before. I have no interest in taking over.”
“Well, somebody needs to,” Nico snapped.
Jason could see Nico’s jaw clenching, hand raking through his hair, a habit he’d developed in childhood that always returned when he didn’t get his way. He unclenched his fist, reining in his rising temper. “So you can keep your wife satisfied with spa and tennis dates? Not my problem. Talk to your brothers.” Jason’s stomach twisted as bile rose in his throat, just like it always did when Nico was involved. “We both know there’s no place for me there.” There was no place for him anywhere, the voice in his head reminded him. Not in the army, or in the vineyard. Certainly not at the helm of Case Family Wineries.
“That’s not true.” Nico’s voice grew soft. “You know we love having you home, safe.”
“So you can ease your conscience by parading me around to Angelique and Ronnie’s friends from the club, hoping that one of them will pity f**k a wounded vet?” He shook his head. “No, thanks.”
Anger spotted his vision. “Don’t deflect. You know I’m right.” The last girl his step-mother and brothers had foisted on him had been home from college on Spring Break, barely old enough to order a glass of wine. Not mature enough or sophisticated enough to hide the revulsion when he’d stumbled on a patch of loose gravel and she’d realized he wore a prosthetic.
“You’re just not trying hard enough.”
“Bullshit.” He raked a hand over his face “Listen to yourself, Nico. I’m not trying hard enough? I’ve tried for over four years,” he shouted, then lowered his voice as people turned to stare. “Look, I’m done with all of it. Don’t call me again.”
“But Mom and Dad–”
“Can go to hell,” he growled. “Case Family Wineries will do just fine without me.”
Nico’s voice grew hard. “You’re going to regret this.”
“The only thing I regret is not leaving sooner.”
He’d said it.
Let his family stew on that. He never should have come home from Walter Reed to begin with, but in the name of family, he’d tried. Stupidly, because the family had already made their choice, and he’d been too blind to see it. Jason puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath. “Goodbye, Nico. Give my love to the fam. And one more thing,” he added. “Make sure everyone knows I’m done with the wine biz. I’ve always been more of a beer man, anyway.” He disconnected and jammed the phone in his back pocket and stalked off in the direction he’d been headed.
So his step-mother had been crying? Crocodile tears because she had one less person to manipulate. Had any of them cried over him when he’d lost his leg? Or cried over his buddy Gabe when he’d died? Hell, no. They didn’t do feelings. And they certainly didn’t do things like grief.
His family of choice had always been and always would be the good ole U.S. Army. Brotherhood forged through trial by fire, from shared experience, and yes – even shared loss.
Jason rounded the corner of Maxwell and turned south, spotting the grocery a few buildings up on the left. As he approached, a tiny woman with quite possibly the sweetest backside he’d ever seen, perched on the top rung of a ladder. Not that he admired backsides anymore. Frontsides either. His life was much simpler without backsides or frontsides. Still, he couldn’t help but stop. Her heart-shaped a*s was too sweet to ignore. The woman held the end of a sign and seemed to be reaching for a hook that was just beyond her reach. His breath stalled, as much from her luscious curves framed by smooth fitting denim jeans, as from her precarious position atop the ladder. Didn’t she know you weren’t ever supposed to stand on the top rung?
“Hold up a sec,” Jason called, moving with speed that surprised him. “Let me help you.”
Something like an unseen hand propelled him from behind, spurring him into action. He had to spot the woman, there was no way she could stretch another six inches without falling headfirst to the cement. Already, she was leaning out too far, and she’d break something falling from that height. She turned, looking over her shoulder at the sound of his voice, and the motion was enough to upset the ladder’s tenuous balance. The scene unfolded in slow-motion, ladder tipping and hanging suspended for one awful second before it crashed to the ground. She yelped, arms flailing as the sign pulled taut, then ripped under the weight of her fall.