Copyright © 2013 Lorelei James
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Dalton cracked one eyelid and cast a bleary eye at the alarm clock. Seven a.m. He yanked the quilt over his head and mumbled “f*** off” to Boden Hicks, the idiot beating on his door.
“McKay. I’m not f***ing around. This is an emergency.”
That hauled Dalton’s ass out of bed. He unlatched the old-fashioned bolt and opened the door. “What’s the emergency?”
Boden hustled inside but a gust of snow followed before he slammed the heavy oak door shut. He stamped his feet. “Damn snowstorm came from out of nowhere.”
“You better not have tricked me out of bed to complain about the goddamned weather.”
Boden shuffled over to the woodstove to warm himself, but it’d been a good ten hours since Dalton had loaded it up. “It’s like a damn freezer in here.”
“That’s because I was sleeping. In my own bed, after roughing it on an elk hunt, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember. I’m just glad the hunting party made it out before this storm hit.” Boden unzipped his parka and pulled out Dalton’s cell phone, still attached to the wall charger. “Normally I could give a crap if you stay in bed a week after a hunt, but you left your phone charging at the lodge last night. The thing’s been buzzing like crazy. When I unplugged it, I noticed you’ve got twenty-seven missed calls. So it’s gotta be something important.”
Dalton’s stomach knotted. Since he had little to no cell service in the mountains, he forgot he even had a cell phone most of the time. Few people had his number—just his brothers, his mother, his cousin Sierra McKay, his accountant, his banker and his investment guys.
“Gimme that.” Dalton scrolled through the missed calls. Twelve from Brandt, twelve from Tell, three from Sierra.
Had to be bad news if his family had reached out to him.
The family he hadn’t seen in three years.
“What’s going on?”
He glanced up at Boden. “No clue. I haven’t bothered to set up my voice mail on this phone so I’ll have to call to find out.”
Boden sighed. “Speaking of…I wanted to make sure your two-way is charged. Since you have an issue with technology that allows people to get in touch with you.”
“It’s charged. I laid in a store of food before the huntin’ trip so I can ride out the storm.”
“Good. We’re supposed to get a foot of snow today and maybe more tonight.” Boden crouched in front of the woodstove and chucked kindling in the cold embers before setting the torch to the pile. “Might be a couple days before you can get out, if you need to go home.”
Home. It didn’t have the same connotation it once did. When it was all he’d known. “I’ll let you know what’s goin’ on as soon as I know.”
Boden piled several small logs in the black box before he stood. “You worried?”
But Boden didn’t buy his act; he never had, which was why they’d become such good friends. “You want me to stick around?”
“Nah. I’ll put on a pot of coffee before I call my brother.” He smirked. “Get on back to the lodge. Bree would jam my nuts in a vise if you got snowed in with me instead of with her.”
“Your nuts ain’t ever gonna be anywhere near my wife’s hands, McKay.”
He laughed. “I know your kink doesn’t extend to sharing.”
“Damn straight.” Boden zipped up his parka and slipped on his gloves. “You need anything, buzz us. If we don’t answer right away—”
“I’ll assume you’re tied up. Or rather, you’re tying Bree up.”
As soon as Boden left, Dalton started coffee. Then he stripped off his long johns and took a cold shower. That ensured he’d be fully awake.
The main room of the three-room cabin had warmed up by the time he’d dressed. After downing two cups of coffee, Dalton stood by the window in the kitchen and called Brandt.
His oldest brother answered on the fourth ring. “’Bout damn time, Dalton. Where the hell have you been that you can’t return a phone call?”
No doubt Brandt thought he was f***ing off someplace. Little did he know how tiring it was leading a ten-day hunting party into the mountains. But Dalton no longer explained his life choices to anyone. “What’s goin’ on? I had twenty-four missed calls in the last twelve hours.” No one knew Sierra had his number. His brothers would be pissed if they knew Dalton kept in better contact with Sierra than with them.
“Dad had a stroke.”
Silence. Finally Dalton asked, “Is he okay?”
“He’s alive, if that’s what you mean. He’s havin’ difficulties talkin’. They’re not sure if it’s permanent. They’re not too sure of anything at this point. So we—me’n Tell—are asking you to come home.”
Dalton closed his eyes. He didn’t want to play nursemaid to the man who’d made his life hell. Especially not after the last conversation they’d had, which was the biggest reason Dalton had left Sundance for good—not that he’d told his brothers or anyone else about what’d gone down. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” Brandt demanded.
“Why do you want me there?”
“Hey, bro. Brandt put you on speaker phone,” Tell said. “Look, we need you to help us make some decisions about Dad’s care.”
Dalton let his forehead rest against the frosted windowpane.
“We haven’t seen you in over three years. It sucks that something like this had to happen for you to even consider comin’ home. But we do need you here.”
He pictured his brothers, Tell leaning against the window in the cab of Brandt’s truck, his restless fingers tapping on his leg. Brandt seated behind the steering wheel, his posture stiff, arms crossed over his chest.
“When did this happen?” Dalton asked.
“Brandt got a call from the hospital in Spearfish yesterday morning. They wouldn’t let us see him until late afternoon. Soon as we had some information, we tried calling you.” Tell paused. “You ain’t gotten any better at returning calls.”
“But I did return it. Not fast enough for you?” he asked sharply. Jesus. Within two minutes of talking to his brothers he’d reverted to the defensive guy he’d left behind. He exhaled slowly. “Sorry. Cell service here is spotty.”
“Where are you?”
Don’t feel guilty they don’t know. “Alder, Montana. We’re in the midst of a blizzard so it might be a couple days before I can make it out of the mountains.”
“Has the doctor given you a time frame on how long he’ll be in the hospital?”
“No,” Brandt said. “But when Dad is discharged, it’ll be to the rehab wing in a nursing home.”
That oughta make Casper even more the patient from hell. “Sounds like it won’t matter then if I’m not there for a couple of days. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way.”
“Sure. Will you be staying with one of us?” Tell asked.
“Nah. I’ve got it covered. Thanks though.”
Neither of his brothers asked where he’d be bunking down, although he sensed they wanted to.
“Okay, then. I guess we’ll see you when we see you.”
“Yep. Later.” Dalton hung up.
He stared out the window for the longest time, even though he couldn’t see sh** through the swirling snow.
But this storm wasn’t anything compared to the one he faced in Sundance.
The blizzard lasted two days. On the morning of the third day Dalton packed up his stuff, closed up his cabin and headed down the mountain.
Once he had a clear cell signal, he gave Brandt a heads up he was on his way. Brandt said they’d moved Casper to the rehab wing and to meet them there.
Then he placed a call to Sierra.
She answered with, “I swear every time I call you and I don’t hear back I live in mortal fear that you’ve disconnected from the world completely and you’re out in the forest running naked with woodchucks and sh**.”
“Not hardly. I returned the calls in order of importance.”
“So you’ve talked to your brothers?”
“Yeah. I’m on my way to Wyoming right now.”
“They giving you grief about…well, everything?”
“They both knew it wouldn’t take much for me to refuse to come back.” He flipped on the defroster. “How’d you find out about Casper’s stroke?”
“Keely. I knew your brothers would get a hold of you first, so my call isn’t about your father.”
“Then why did you call?” Dalton heard her take a deep breath and he went on full alert.
In a rush, Sierra said, “You’ve got to promise me that you won’t get mad at me for what I’m about to tell you.”
“No conversation ever ends well that starts that way.”
“True, but I want you to remember I was only following your parameters. And I kinda hoped someone else would tell you about this, so I didn’t have to. But then, you’d have to actually talk to someone who lives there, and we both know that’s a rarity, so I guess it falls to me.”
“You been drinkin’? ’Cause you ain’t making a lick of sense. Quit dancing around the subject, college girl, and spill it.”
“Rory is back in Sundance and working for Wyoming Natural Resource Council.”
Everything switched into slow motion. Dalton couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He had to pull onto the shoulder so he didn’t wreck his truck.
“You said Rory is livin’ in Sundance.”
“With her fiancé?”
“No. She, ah, broke off the engagement.”
“Six months ago.”
This was not happening. Sierra had not kept this information from him about Rory for half a goddamned year.
“Dalton. I know your head is about to explode—”
“Jesus, Sierra, do you f***ing think? Why are you just telling me this now?” he roared. “Do you have any f***ing idea—”
“That you’ve been holed up in the middle of freakin’ nowhere moping because Rory got engaged to someone else? Why yes, I was completely aware of that little factoid, cuz.”
“Besides, you were doing your lumberjack gig and completely off the grid when Rory ended the engagement. I’ll remind you of your zero tolerance policy—me not talking about Rory or sharing information about Rory’s life was your edict, Dalton. I was just following your parameters. And now the parameters have changed.”
“Seriously not f***ing amused. Will you just get to the point?”
“I really have to point out that you and Rory will actually be in the same place for the first time in over three years?”
“Three years? Try ten years since she’s lived there. I’da been in Sundance six months ago if I’d known she was there without some other asshole’s ring on her finger,” he snarled.
“Whoa. Take a step back, wolverine. I’m telling you now because maybe you’re smart enough to handle it the right way this time.”
“This time?” Dalton repeated sharply. “Don’t make this out to be my fault. I offered her—”
“Don’t snap at me or interrupt me again or I will hang up, understand?”
“Yeah, yeah, keep talkin’.”
“Rory is my sister. You’re my business partner and one of the few people I trust. I hate that I’m pulled between you two. It’s time you manned up, Dalton. And don’t remind me that you did that once three years ago after you walked out on your own wedding. Even you can admit it was piss poor timing on your part.”
“But that bad timing didn’t stop her from giving me an edict, did it?”
“Like I’ve told you ten thousand times, that wasn’t an edict. Two years was a time line for Rory to finish grad school and a frame of reference for you to understand how important that was to her. You shouldn’t have taken it as gospel.”
“Then she shouldn’t have given me false hope.”
“Then you shouldn’t have turned tail and run again,” Sierra retorted. “Especially after you gave her false hope that things might finally change between you two.”
Like he needed that reminder. “Does she know about Casper?”
“Doubtful. She’s been out of town and she stays out of McKay gossip completely.”
Then Rory wouldn’t suspect Dalton was on his way back to Sundance. The element of surprise might work in his favor. “What’s the best way to approach her?”
“She bartends at the Twin Pines on the side. She’s working tonight. Anything else I can do for you besides making your day with this news?” Sierra asked sweetly.
Making his day? Hell, she’d made his life, because now he had a shot at getting the life he wanted. “Where are the keys for the house in town?”
A pause. Then, “Why?”
“I need a place to stay.”
Sierra heaved a put-upon sigh. “They’re under the back deck on a key hook. But there are two conditions before I’ll let you stay there. First, you don’t tell anyone I own it. No one.”
“Deal. And FYI, that’s why we have a silent partnership.” He’d supplied Sierra with some capital to start her own business last year and he also wanted it kept on the down low. “What’s the second condition?”
“I need a handyman to do some things. Okay, a lot of things. You’re handy, you’re there and voila—you’re selected. I’ll FedEx my repair list today but anything else you see that needs fixed just go ahead.”
“I’ll do it but I want to be reimbursed once a week for whatever I buy. You don’t get to pull that sixty day wait for payment bull crap like you money people usually do.”
She laughed. “That’s how we become money people. We hold on to money as long as possible. Be warned, some of what needs done will be major costs.”
“I ain’t a carpet installer,” he warned. “Nor will I put in windows.”
Sierra sighed again. “You are a handy handyman, right?”
“Guess you’ll have to trust me, huh?”
“I’ll be keeping tabs on you.” Another pause. “I’m sorry about your dad. If you need to talk about anything—except for Rory—call me.”
By the time Dalton crossed into Crook County hours later, he had a plan in place.
Patience. Perseverance. He would not blow this chance.
Rory Wetzler was his. His. She always had been, she always would be.
And he’d do whatever it took to prove it.