Authors: Jaci Burton
Brady stepped outside to draw in a deep breath of night air, and stared up at the moon, wishing he could somehow fly up there to get far away from those memories of Kurt that had settled over him tonight and refused to let go.
He walked up and down the alley, willing somethingâanythingâto enter his mind other than his brother.
But he could see Kurt's face right now, and that was all he could see, his memories firmly implanted in the past.
There had been a few arrests for possession, and Kurt had even stolen money from him.
Their parents had intervened, and Brady had gotten involved. They'd all begged Kurt to go to rehab, to get help. Brady had never been a demonstrative kind of guy, but he'd flat out told his brother that he loved him one night, that he was afraid he was going to lose him. He'd told him he'd be there with him every step of the way if he'd just get clean.
Kurt had laughed at him.
Wasn't the last time, either. Then there were the overdoses. Those he just couldn't handle. After the last one, Brady had had enough and left town. He couldn't bear to watch the slow disintegration of the brother he'd worshipped.
Shaking off the dark thoughts and the road he'd unintentionally gone down, Brady cleaned up his supplies and surveyed the work he'd done.
Yeah, Kurt would have loved this bike. He'd have laughed at the horror of it.
God, he missed his brother's laugh. They'd laughed so much together, all the damn time. Brady could still hear the echo of that laugh even now, especially at night when he worked alone and the silence was like a deep, dark cave.
It never freaked him out, though. He liked that it was here in the dead of night when he could still hear Kurt's laughter, could still hear his brother's voice.
It was the only thing about his brother that was still a comfort. And that kind of comfort was so damn rare.
He put his supplies away, stared at the bike one last time, then turned off the light and locked the door.
MEGAN STOPPED BY
Carter's auto shop the next day, ostensibly to talk to Molly, but also because she had a gift for Roxie. It turned out Roxie was occupying Molly's office, because Brady was painting and he didn't want the puppy exposed to the fumes.
She laid her bags down on the chair in Molly's office, then bent to scoop up the dog.
“She's kind of adorable, isn't she?”
Molly nodded. “She's made friends with everyone, from the office staff to the guys in the shop. She has a way about her.”
Megan scratched Roxie behind the ear. “Now you need to teach that making-friends thing to Brady.”
Molly leaned back in her chair and tucked her chin-length dark brown hair behind her ears. “Isn't that the truth? Carter and I have tried to engage him in activities, invited him to our place and out to the bar. We thought maybe we could get him to come out and play more often. So far, no luck.”
Megan laid Roxie on the floor and took out the little stuffed chicken she'd gotten at the pet store. She handed it to Roxie, who sniffed it, grabbed it in her mouth, and went to her blanket in the corner. Megan took a seat in the chair. “I had him over for dinner at my place last night.”
Molly's bright blue eyes looked at Megan with interest. “Really. That's amazing. How did you manage that?”
She shrugged. “We'd been talking about Roxie and then it just came up and he agreed.”
“Huh. So what happened?”
“Fried chicken happened.”
Molly laughed. “You know that's not what I'm talking about, Megan.”
“I know. Dinner was nice. We talked. He kissed me.”
Molly blinked. “Wait. What? He kissed you?”
“He did. It was a sudden thing. We were talking about his brother. I mentioned offhandedly that Kurt and I dated, and I think bringing up the subject of his brother upset him. He decided to leave, I walked him to the front door, and he grabbed me, kissed me, and then left.”
Molly leaned back in her chair. “Unbelievable.”
“I know.” She was glad to know someone other than herself saw it as a big event.
“So what does that mean?”
“I have no idea. I'm a little confused. But I brought him baked goods.”
She laughed. “Of course you did.”
The door to the painting bay opened and Brady emerged. Megan sucked in a breath as Brady, all sweaty, walked down the hall and into the break room.
“Oh, you are so interested,” Molly said.
Megan tore her gaze away from the hallway and put it back on Molly. “Is it obvious?”
“You might want to wipe the drool from the corner of your mouth.”
“Oh, stop it. I am not drooling.” But she did swipe at the corner of her mouth anyway.
Brady came out with a large bottle of water and headed toward Molly's office. As if she could sense Brady, Roxie scrambled off her blanket and rushed toward the doorway, her chicken toy still firmly planted in her mouth.
“Hey,” Brady said, scooping Roxie up in his arms. “Whatcha got there?”
“A gift from Megan,” Molly said.
Brady glanced over at Megan. “That was nice of you.”
“We had talked about her needing some toys and I happened to drive by the pet store on my way out to lunch today, so I stopped in.”
“Thanks.” Brady set Roxie down.
“I also brought you something from the bakery.”
Molly grabbed her laptop and got up from her desk. “If you'll excuse me, I need to run these invoices into Carter's office and have a chat with him. I'll talk to you later, Megan.”
“Oh, sure. See you, Molly.”
Megan stood. “I didn't mean to interrupt your workday.” She smiled at Brady.
“You didn't. I'm on a break after doing a paint job. I came in to take Roxie outside. You could come with me.”
He pulled the leash out of his pocket and attached it to Roxie's harness. As soon as he did, Roxie sat. He tugged, and Roxie resisted.
Megan's lips quirked. “She's still not in love with the leash, I see.”
“Mind if I give it a try?”
He handed her the leash. “Give it your best shot.”
She took the leash, letting it go lax. “Let's go for a walk, Roxie. Come on, baby, let's go.”
Roxie wagged her tail and followed Megan out the door, her stuffed chicken toy still in her mouth.
“Well, sonofabitch,” Brady muttered as he followed behind them.
Roxie was a little awkward, trying to walk ahead of her,
but Megan gave a slight tug on the leash, and the dog stayed in step next to her as they made their way up the street to the park.
“Care to share your secret?” Brady asked.
“No secret. Just give the leash a little slack, raise your voice in an excited manner, and she'll follow you.”
“Uh-huh.” He took a toothpick out of his pocket and slid it in his mouth.
Of course, that made Megan focus on his mouth, which reminded her of the way he kissed her last night, which made her stomach tumble and her body heat up. So instead, she turned her attention on the dog.
“She apparently likes that toy you got her.”
“I guess she does. I'm glad. There are a few more in the bag in Molly's office.”
“That was nice of you. And thanks for the baked goods. You didn't have to do that.”
She turned to face him. “I know I didn't have to, Brady. I wanted to.”
He looked down at the grass, then back up at her. “About last night. I'm sorry.”
“About what? About kissing me?”
His lips curved, and when the man smiled it was devastating to her libido.
“No. Definitely not sorry about that.”
“Good. Because I'd have been disappointed if you were going to apologize for kissing me.”
“I meant about leaving so abruptly. It was rude.”
“No reason to apologize.”
“We'll have to try it again.”
Now she smiled. “The kissing thing?”
He sucked in a breath. “You're very tempting, Megan.”
“Am I? Good.”
He stepped closer, as if he was going to try the kissing thing right there on the street. But then a horn honked and he took a step back.
“I should get back to work,” he said.
“Okay. Oh, are you coming to the McCormack ranch shindig this weekend?”
He frowned. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“There's a big baby shower for Des and Emma McCormack.”
“Definitely not going to that.”
“Everyone's invited. I'm sure you are, too. Carter and Molly are going. It's a coed celebration, just a big party.”
“Yeah, I think I'll pass.”
“No. You won't. I'm inviting you as my date.”
He gave her a curious look. “Are you?”
“Yes. So please come with me.”
“I don't do baby showers.”
She laughed. “Trust meâit's not a girl thing. It's all their friends, including the ranch hands and their familiesâbasically everybody.”
“Do I need to bring a gift?”
She shook her head. “Their families already had their baby shower, and Des and Emma said they have everything they need. This is just for fun.”
He paused for a few seconds, then finally nodded. “Okay.”
She grinned. “Awesome. Now get back to work. I'll text you with the details about the weekend.”
She laid her hand on his forearm. “Oh and don't forget to grab those baked goods from Molly's office before Carter finds them.”
He frowned. “He wouldn't steal those from me, would he?”
She shrugged. “You never know. See you later, Brady.”
Brady watched as Megan gave Roxie a quick pat, then wandered off down the street, her ponytail swinging back and forth.
He hadn't expected to find her in Molly's office when he'd come out of the painting bay. Nor had he expected to feel the excited twinge in his gut when he'd caught sight of her.
And now he was going to some party at the McCormack ranch this weekend.
He looked down at Roxie, who looked back up at him, that weird yellow stuffed chicken hanging out of her mouth.
He shook his head and bent down. “Ready to go back to the shop?”
He started walking, leaving the leash lax like Megan suggested.
Surprising the hell out of him, Roxie followed.
Okay, so that worked. When he got back to the shop, he cleaned up his tools while Roxie ran up and down the halls. He was grateful Carter and Molly didn't mind Roxie hanging out there. Otherwise, he would have had to keep her upstairs in a crate, and he really didn't want to have to do that. She seemed happy to be around people.
His phone buzzed and he pulled it out of his pocket, frowning.
He punched the button.
“Hi, Brady. We haven't seen you in a while.”
“Been busy with work and stuff.”
“Of course you are. I was wondering if you could stop by after work and take a look at your father's car. It's making a strange noise.”
“What kind of noise?”
“I have no idea, since I'm not a car person. Your father said it's a grinding noise.”
“Dad could bring it over to the shop here and one of the mechanics can take a look at it.”
Her mother gave a short laugh. “I mentioned that to your father, but he said there's no reason to do that when we have a mechanic in the family.”
He sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was visit his parents, but he also didn't want his father driving around with a screwed-up car. “Sure. I'll stop by.”
“I'm so glad. We're looking forward to seeing you.”
He heard the neediness in her voice and it pained him, but he still didn't want to go over there. For so many reasons.
“I'll see you after work, Mom. I gotta go.”
“Okay, Brady. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
For a day that had started out all right, he already knew it wasn't going to end well.
BRADY HAD DEBATED
on whether it was a good idea to bring Roxie with him to his parents' house, but in the end, he figured maybe they'd focus more on the dog and less on him, which would be ideal, so he slid her into his truck and drove over to their place.
He pulled the mail out of the mailbox and shook his head, going through it as he went to the door. Everything was for Saul and Rita Conners, just as he expected. He walked up to the front door, wishing there were a couple of pots of flowers like Mom used to keep out there years ago. Anything to brighten the place up. InsteadÂ .Â .Â . nothing. Just the old green door, which could use a coat of paint.
When his mother opened the door, her eyes widened. “You got a dog? Why didn't you tell me you got a dog?”
“It just happened. She wandered into the shop a couple of days ago.”
“Oh, she's precious.” Her mother held her arms out and took Roxie from him.
“Her name's Roxie.”
“Well, hello, Roxie. Aren't you just the sweetest thing?”
Grateful not to be the one to be smothered in the hugs and kisses his mother was currently bestowing on Roxie, he walked in and shut the door behind him.
His mother had already disappeared with his dog, so he followed the sound of cooing and excited talking. He heard his dad's voice, so he figured his mother was showing off Roxie to his father.
Maybe he could just leave Roxie with his parents for a few hours, come back later and pick her up, and then he wouldn't have to endureâ
“Oh, Brady. There you are,” his dad said.
Or, maybe not.
He walked over to his dad, his hand outstretched to shake his father's hand.
His father pulled him into his arms for a tight hug.
Brady closed his eyes and endured it, knowing his father needed this.
When his dad pulled back, he smiled. “You look good.”
Brady smiled back. “Thanks. So do you.”
He was lying. His dad was still too thin. So was Mom. They'd both lost weight since Kurt's death. And not the “Hey, we've been exercising and eating right” kind of weight loss. They were both pale and thin.
“So what's going on with the car?”
“Oh. Some kind of grinding noise. Might be the brakes or something. Not sure.”
His dad had never been a car kind of guy. He was an accountant, not a man hardwired for mechanics.
“Let's go take a look. Hey, Mom. Keep an eye on Roxie?”
His mother had Roxie on the sofa and was playing with Roxie's chicken.
“Of course. You two go ahead.”
They went out the side door to where his father's eight-year-old Tahoe was parked in the carport. His father handed him the keys and Brady started it up, listening to it idle. He didn't hear anything, so he gunned the engine. Still, nothing.
“Let's take it for a drive,” Brady said. His father climbed
in, and they fastened their seat belts. Brady put it in gear and pulled out, taking it around the block a few times, then out onto the main road, making sure to hit the brakes hard at each stop.
He didn't hear any grinding noise, so when he pulled back into the carport and put the car in park, he left the engine on and looked over at his dad.
“Seems to be running okay, Dad.”
He got out of the SUV, opened the hood, and checked out the engine. Nothing was loose and it all sounded normal. He went over and shut off the engine and pulled out the keys, handing them over to his father.
“Brakes feel fine. Everything looks and sounds normal.”
His dad shrugged. “That's strange. I could have sworn I heard something for the past week.”
Uh-huh. He wasn't buying it.
“Come on inside and we'll get something to drink,” his father said.
They went into the house, and his father pulled out two glasses to fix them iced tea.
His mom was in the kitchen, and something was cooking on the stove.
“I made stew,” his mother said. “You'll stay for dinner, right?”
“Sure.” Somehow he got the idea this had all been planned. Something wrong with the car. Dinner already on the stove. But whatever. He was here. He could put up with dinner.
“Harold, go play with the dog,” his mother said. “She's just so sweet.”
There'd been no dogs since their dog Benjie had died eight years ago. He wasn't sure why his mom and dad hadn't gotten another dog.
Maybe it was because they'd been too busy focusing all their time and attention on Kurt.
While his mom worked on dinner and his dad played with Roxie, Brady took his glass of iced tea and wandered into the living room. He went over to the mantel above the
fireplace, where the family photos still stood untouched, as if no time had passed. There had been no new memories made since Kurt's funeral. No marriages, no grandkids, nothing new to replace the ones that stood there now.
There were photos of him and Kurt as kids, the typical sports shots from baseball and soccer. The grade school and high school photos had been framed as a collage, but the ones of Kurt were lined up on the piano like a goddamn shrine. He wandered down the hall and into the bedrooms. Mom had finally turned his room into a sewing and craft room. Kurt's room, though, still had his old bedspread and twin bed, and all of Kurt's trophies and ribbons and posters were preserved as if they expected him to walk through the door at any moment and hop into that twin bed.
Hell, Kurt had long ago stopped coming by the house, hadn't stayed in that room for years before he'd died, and his parents had still held out hope that they could somehow reach him, could somehow entice him to come back home, as if they could rehabilitate him on the strength of their memories of their sweet young son alone.
Yeah, that hadn't worked. And keeping this nauseating shrine wasn't helping them move on, either.
Not that he had much room to talk, since he wasn't exactly the world leader of the moving-on movement.
He went over to the small desk, remembering coming into Kurt's room to ask him for help with a math problem.
His damn brother had been a math genius. He could have done anything with his life. Kurt had decided against college, had gotten a job as an auto mechanic in Tulsa. It had been a good job, too. Until he'd lost it because he'd missed so much work due to his drug use. Then he'd wandered in and out of jobs. Hell, he'd mostly wandered, disappearing for days, sometimes weeks, only to resurface to hit up their mom and dad for cash.
At first they'd given him money, and he'd stay at the house for a while. Until he'd abruptly disappear again. Brady had told them to stop giving him money, that he was
using it for drugs. He'd argued multiple times with his parents about that.
He stared at the blue ribbon Brady had won for track his senior year of high school. He remembered cheering on his brother at the finish line.
He sighed. That was so long ago.
He flipped on the desk light in Kurt's room, remembering the night they'd found him passed out on the floor in here.
Mom had hollered and they'd all come running. She said they had to help him, that they had to rally around him and let him know they were there for him. Anything to keep him home, that he couldn't live on the streets.
Christ. What a clusterfuck that had been.
They'd gotten him into rehab once. He'd cleaned up after that for a few months, even gotten a job. He'd talked about going to school, getting a degree.
It had all been useless. He could have been anything.
InsteadÂ .Â .Â .
With a disgusted sigh, he turned off the light and left Kurt's room, running into Roxie. He grabbed her stuffed chicken out of her mouth and tossed it for her. She dashed down the hall after it.
He smiled, then looked up at the hallway walls. It was like the Walk of Kurt, his brother forever memorialized. More photos. Everywhere he turned, there were reminders of his brother.
How did his parents survive a day in this fucking house? It was like a mausoleum in here, stuffy and filled with memories of the dead.
His mother came around the corner.
“Oh. There you are. Dinner's ready. You should wash up.”
He nodded, then ducked into the bathroom, partly afraid he'd now find photos of his brother stuck to the bathroom mirror.
He washed his hands and went into the kitchen. His father was already at the table, and his mother had set
bowls of steaming hot stew at each place. He was surprised she didn't set a place for his brother.
Okay, maybe that was a step too far.
“Smells good,” he said, offering up a smile for his mom.
She smiled back at him. “Thank you. You know how much your father likes stew, and before the weather gets too warm I figured I'd better serve it up at least one more time.”
He settled in and took a taste. It was hot, but damn good.
“How's work?” his father asked.
“Busier than I thought it would be.”
“That's wonderful,” his mom said. “Have you found a more permanent place to live yet?”
“No. The space above Carter's shop is working fine for me right now.”
“But it's not long-term,” his father said.
“No. It's not long-term. I'm just saving up money by staying thereâthe rent's cheap.”
“You could move back home and stay with us,” his mother said.
“Thanks, but no. I'm a little old to be living at home.”
His mother looked disappointedâjust like she'd looked disappointed every other time she suggested he move home, and every time he declined her offer.
“Well, you know the door is always open.”
He ate in silence for a few minutes longer.
“Anything new on the dating front? Are you seeing anyone?”
And that was a topic he would not get into with his parents. “No. Just focusing on work right now.”
“And your new dog,” his dad added with a smile.
He looked down at Roxie, who lay at his feet. “Yeah. She was unexpected.”
“She's very adorable,” his mother said.
“You two should get a new dog,” Brady said.
“Oh, well, I don't know about that,” his dad said. “I'm
not sure any dog could compare to Benjie. He was one of a kind.”
“Still, it would give you two something to focus on. Dogs can breathe some new life into your lives.”
His mother glanced at his father, the two of them sharing a look.
“Oh, I think we're doing okay just as we are,” his mother said.
He wanted to shake both of them, to tell his mother to put the pictures of his brother away and start living again. She had stopped working after Kurt died, and he'd bet she didn't leave the house other than to go to the grocery store and to church. He wasn't even sure she went to church anymore.
And all his father did was go to work, come home, sit in his chair, read his paper, and do the crossword puzzles until he fell asleep in the chair at night, then shuffle off to bed.
It was as if when Kurt died, they had, too.
Brady might not be the life of every party in town, but at least he had continued to live after his brother had died. He got up every day and showered and worked and goddamn functioned. He couldn't say the same about his parents, who were like walking zombies.
And every time he came over here he felt like he was being pulled down into this well of grief with them.
It suffocated him.
He couldn't even talk to them anymore, because it was always small talk about his life and his work and they never talked about the giant dead elephant in the room that was his brother.
He might not like talking about Kurt, either. He got it. His brother had died and it sucked.
But the living had to keep on living. Or at least function at a normal level.
He really should say something to them.
But he didn't. Instead, he ate his dinner and made small talk, and then sat in the living room with them for an hour
or so after dinner until he could make a polite excuse and get the hell out of there.
And then he had to face the disappointed and sad looks on their faces when he said he had to go, which was always so goddamn gut-wrenching and left him with a sense of guilt that pissed him off.
“Are you sure you don't want to stay for pie?” his mother asked. “I bought a nice pecan pie at the store.”
“No, I really can't.”
“Well, if you can, stop by again soon,” his father said, his face sagging with grief and sadness and looking older than it should for his age.
“Yeah, I'll do that.”
He hugged his parents and scooped up Roxie, then made a beeline for the front door, dragging in a breath of fresh air when he stepped outside, as if he'd just escaped a deep, dark oxygen-sucking cave.
He climbed into his truck and started it up, staring at his childhood home, which seemed more like a prison now.
It wasn't his fault his brother was dead, and he wasn't going to be his parents' lifeline. He couldn't save them. Just as he hadn't been able to save Kurt.
He put the truck in reverse and backed out of the driveway.