CHAPTER ONE “Happy birthday, Jesse.” Justin Cade raised a beer to his reflection then gulped half of the microbrew. He scrunched his face at the citrus tang, forcing down the rest.
“Bah!” He scraped his tongue with his teeth. “How’d you drink this fancy stuff? Fruit and beer? Might as well be a wine cooler.” He crumpled the can in his palm and chucked it at his bathroom’s wastebasket. “Here’s to us turning twenty-six. Or me, anyway.”
He frowned at his identical twin’s face, shrouded by Justin’s dark beard and mustache. A purple bruise from a barn brawl circled his left eye. Black stitches closed a jagged gash on his cheek caused by this week’s dirt bike crash. Despite the camouflage, Jesse still peeped through. “You should be here, dude.”
Yellow-green eyes, surrounded by a ring of brown, blazed back at Justin. He bared his teeth, stomped from the cubicle-size space then flung himself into the single foldout chair in his cabin’s combination kitchen-living-dining area. It faced an antenna-topped TV perched on empty feed crates from his family’s cattle ranch. A crammed gun cabinet, a wobbly card table and a sagging couch comprised the rest of his furnishings.
Mismatched sheets obscured the front windows and the dark night behind them. An ancient coffeemaker moaned as it dribbled thick, black brew into a glass pot. The bitter smell mixed with the woodstove’s aromatic hickory logs, a melancholy scent that reminded him of times spent chopping stacks with his brother, each refusing to quit until their pile topped the other’s in height.
A one-eyed kitten he’d fished from a storm ditch leaped onto his lap and purred louder than a combine engine. Since he planned on dropping her by the barn, he hadn’t named the scraggly black-and-white thing. No sense keeping her. He barely cared for himself, let alone a kitten that weighed less than a tissue.
His work-rough fingers stroked the quivering fur ball, rising as her back arched and her miniature tail flicked in contentment. “Don’t get used to this,” he grumbled, scratching behind her ears. She rubbed her whiskered face against his hand and purred louder.
He flicked on the TV, peeled off the chair then sauntered to the kitchen counter. Furball wove in and out of his legs. The peppy Monday-night football announcers grated on his ears. He grabbed his ringed mug from the sink and filled it with coffee. Time to clear his head. After herding cattle this morning, he’d dropped back into bed, fallen into an uneasy sleep, then woke even more exhausted. Too bad he hadn’t slept right through.
He eyed the loaded rifle over his front door.
Sometimes he wanted to stop the world and hop off it for a while. That idea was particularly appealing today.
Steam curled from the coffee’s dark surface as he raised it to his mouth. At the last minute, his stomach churned and he chucked it, mug and all, into the sink. A satisfying crash exploded. He grabbed a six-pack and a carton of milk from the fridge, freshened Furball’s bowl, then dropped onto the couch and popped the top off a Miller.
The hell with sober. He wasn’t going anywhere. Least of all to Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro or any of the seven summits he and his twin had vowed they’d scale before turning thirty. Before Jesse’s opiate addiction. Before he wound up murdered over it.
Justin took a long drink then flopped on his back. His boots dangled over the couch’s arm. A purring Furball sprang onto his stomach and needled her claws through his worn T-shirt, pricking the skin beneath. Drawing blood, he’d bet.
Not that he cared about injury.
He welcomed it.
Jesse’s passing had muted all feeling except pain. Pain reminded Justin that he still lived. It also reminded him that he should be six feet under—not Jesse. The woodstove’s flickering light gleamed on his shotgun’s barrel.
Jesse was the better twin. He’d dreamed while Justin made trouble. The fact that death took Jesse, who’d never hurt anyone besides himself, and left a reckless, sullen cuss like Justin behind proved the universe had no plan—or if it did, it sucked.
The kitten’s delicate pink tongue appeared in a wide yawn. She closed her eyes as Justin scratched beneath her chin. His gaze traveled to Jesse’s globe, covered with color-coded pushpins. Green represented places they’d been, yellow for places they’d hoped to see and red places they’d intended on scaling. Conquering. Their chance to view the world from above, riding it astride while it spun.
Then Jesse’s addiction had snatched it all away.
Justin’s trigger finger curled.
Furball inched up his stomach and huddled against his thudding heart. He rested his chin atop her silky head. Growing up in Carbondale, Colorado, a small town smack-dab in the center of the Rocky Mountains, a place where cattle outnumbered humans ten to one, he and Jesse planned elaborate adventures while riding the old, familiar range. It’d never occurred to him that his twin would escape this place with a needle instead. Before drugs, they’d done everything together. The dynamic duo, their grandpa used to call them. Inseparable, their grandma had added. She never got their names straight—not that he or Jesse cared. They’d been a team. A unit. Two halves of a whole.
Now Justin escaped his own way, chasing thrills, the riskier the better, adrenaline his drug of choice. What did he have to lose? His life? It hadn’t amounted to much anyway. His older brothers, Jack, James and Jared, had found love and started families. His younger sister, Jewel, devoted her life to improving the ranch, and his ma had recently gotten a new lease on life with her grandchildren and a beau.
Him? His constant foul mood made him unfit company. His family would be better off without him skulking around, unable to move past Jesse’s death after three and a half years. His grief didn’t have an expiration date. Acting normal, happy, around others stressed him out. Living took effort, and sometimes, like today, he didn’t have the energy for it.
The shotgun drew his eye again.
Sooner or later, he’d even up the score and join Jesse. He’d reneged on his promise to his dying father to look after his twin. And his death would satisfy Carbondale’s rumor mill. Jewel reported that neighbors whispered about him behind raised hands as he roared down Main Street on his souped-up chopper.
“That daredevil will follow his brother to the grave and break his poor mama’s heart.”
“The boy’s like to lose his neck.”
“Got a death wish, that one.”
A wish? No. His extreme antics were a challenge. He dared death to come for him—like it had Jesse. And he experienced a grim satisfaction every time he cheated it. When he went, it’d be on his terms.
He stroked his eyes over the shotgun then leveraged himself upright.
A knock sounded. “Uncle Justin?”
Justin shoved the six-pack behind a couch cushion and stood. “Here.”Why had his six-year-old nephew sought him out on a school night? He flung open the door. “Hey, kiddo.”
His gaze roamed over Jesse’s son’s face. Almost two years ago, Javi and his mother, Sofia, had arrived at the ranch, upending the strict order his older brother James had imposed following Jesse’s death, and stealing James’s heart. They’d married ten months ago and now expected their first child soon, a cousin for Jack and Dani’s six-month-old boy.
“Grandma says dinner’s ready, and you should come up.”
Justin scratched the back of his head. Furball batted at the rodeo buckle encircling his boot—the buckle had belonged to Jesse. Why the invitation? Ma knew he didn’t leave his cabin much, especially on this day.
“Tell her I’m sleeping.”
Javi’s dark hair swished across his forehead as he cocked his face and perused Justin. Except for Javi’s left-side dimple, he took after his mother in every way. “You don’t look asleep.”
“Maybe this is a dream.”
“Then how come I’m awake?”
“Who says you are?” Justin put Javi in a headlock and they roughhoused, Javi’s laughter foreign in the bleak space of the cabin.
“Okay. Uncle! Uncle!” Justin cried after letting Javi twist his arm behind his back and crashing to his knees. “You win. Now go on home. I’m not the best company tonight.”
The shotgun glistened, beckoning.
Javi eyed him. “You do look kind of scary.”
Justin shoved a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “Good.”
Javi tugged Justin’s beard. “Like a bear. Except I’m not afraid of you.”
“Shoot.” Justin shrugged and stood. “Must be losing my touch.”
“Now will you come with me?” Javi wagged a finger at him. “Plus, you don’t have a choice.”
Justin’s lips vibrated with the force of his sigh. Marrying Sofia had tempered some of James’s controlling ways, but not all—not enough.
“He says he’ll drag you back himself if he has to…though I told him I could do it. See?” Javi pushed up his sweatshirt sleeve and flexed his biceps. The flat muscle twitched.
Despite his dark mood, Justin smiled. “Not bad. You’ve been eating your spinach?”
Javi scooped up Furball and turned in a circle, the wide-eyed kitty dangling at the end of his fingertips. “Yep. And I’m almost seven now. Mama says I’m getting big.”
Justin rescued the bristling puffball and dropped her gently back on the couch. “Guess
I’d better go quietly.”
“If you know what’s good for you. Hey! Can I tie up your hands, and you can be my prisoner?”
Justin shook his head at the imaginative boy. “I’ll come.” Not willingly, he added silently, donning his Stetson and leather jacket. Justin dropped his keys in his pocket and followed Javi up the path that led to his family’s homestead.
Built in the late 1800s by his silver prospector ancestor, the rough-hewn cedar structure sprawled at Mount Sopris’s base. The two story house’s windows were dark. Strange considering the hour and his mother’s dinner invitation. Had they lost power?
Starlight revealed the log pillars propping up a steep portico and the peaked gables breaking up the roofline. A swing rattled on its chains in the recesses of a wraparound porch. The empty corrals that led to newly harvested hay fields lay empty, the horses stabled, the longhorns grazing in one of the twelve pastures used on their ten-thousand-acre organic beef ranch.
Once the sight of his home, glimpsed after a long day in the saddle, had filled him with relief. Now dread settled heavy in his gut. He’d moved to one of the cabins after Jesse’s death to escape the memories and be alone.
His heavy boots tromped up the stairs.
When he pulled open the door, lights blazed, temporarily blinding him.
“Surprise!” his family shouted.
Javi ran around him chanting, “Happy birthday! Happy birthday!”
Justin backed up a step. “No.”
His mother, Joy, strode through the doorway. She shoved silver strands behind her ear and peered at him anxiously from behind frameless glasses. “It’s been a long time since we…we wanted to do something nice, honey… Wanted to celebrate…”
His boots dropped down one tread. “No.” He would not, couldn’t celebrate his life. Not when his twin brother lay six feet under, buried along with Justin’s broken promises, the ones they’d whispered to each other in the womb: fidelity, unity, brotherhood.
They’d always had each other’s backs, until heroin left Jesse addicted and Justin betrayed and furious.
“We baked a cake,” cajoled his pregnant sister-in-law, Sofia. A white kerchief kept her long dark hair tied back and contrasted with her tawny skin. A blue shirt stretched across her rounded belly.
Jared guided his legally blind fiancée, Amberley, through the door to join the group. His pressed shirt and crisp jeans made Justin squirm beneath his grubby Wranglers, frayed T-shirt and worn leather jacket.
“It’s your favorite! Chocolate!” Javi scaled one of the pillars then dropped at James’s frown.
A cool wind howled down from the mountaintops, rustling the leaves of the aspens dotting the property. Temperatures dropped fast at night during Rocky Mountain autumns; Justin zipped his coat against its bite and lowered himself another step.
“That was Jesse’s favorite.” His heart slugged hard, a battering ram in his chest. He couldn’t face their smiles, their cheer.
“We did one layer of chocolate and one of strawberry, the way we used to.” A pleading note entered his mother’s voice. “Please, Justin, come in. It’s time that you, that we—”
“Y’all enjoy it. I’ve got somewhere to go.” He spun, sprinted to his hog and jumped on its low-slung seat.
“Where?” James shouted.
“Can I come?” His sister, Jewel, hustled after him. Her freckles burned dark on her white face, and the moonlight trickled down the length of her side ponytail.
He shook his head, donned his helmet, revved the engine and mouthed “sorry” before letting out the throttle and ripping into the black night.
His family meant well. They just didn’t understand him or his unending grief. Jack, a bounty hunter turned Denver deputy sheriff, had moved on after he’d caught Jesse’s killers. James had healed once he’d opened his heart to Sofia and Javi. Jared kept busy managing his fiancée’s barrel-racing career. Even his mother has gotten on with life since the grandbabies came along and she began dating Boyd Loveland, of all people—their neighbor and patriarch of the family they’ve been feuding with for generations.
But him? He’d never let Jesse go. Who was he without his other half?
Not anyone good.
Jesse made up the best parts of them.
Justin gazed at the full moon as he wailed around a hairpin turn. Heat waved up from the engine, and he breathed in the sharp smell of exhaust mingling with the pines lining this remote stretch of road. Sharp precipices dropped on either side of the two-lane rural route. At this hour, it should be deserted. He opened the throttle, and the speedometer ticked up until the needle vibrated on the hundred-mile-an-hour mark.
His body hummed, electric, alive, for the first time today. He gazed back at the road and glimpsed a moving van edging into the intersection. His pulse slammed in his veins. Too late to stop. He could either topple sideways onto the narrow shoulder and down the embankment or race to cross in front of the van.
He might make it, he thought, eyeing the lumbering vehicle.
Or he might not.
When it came down to it, what was the difference?
He’d joined the world today; this might be the right time to leave it, too… He pried his fingers from the handlebars and tipped back his head as the motorcycle rocketed downhill.
He’d roll the dice.
Let the chips fall where they may.
Thirty minutes earlier
“In one-third of a mile, turn left on Willow Brook Drive,” Brielle Thompson’s GPS droned.
“What? Where?” The moving van lurched as she shifted on the steep incline. The gears ground, then caught.
She peered at the lit screen then out at the dark, rugged terrain. Overhead, a full moon shone in a starry sky, illuminating Colorado’s mountaintops. Her headlights picked up fir trees, thick brush, a narrow, pebble-filled shoulder. No willow trees. And no brook.
No turnoff ahead, either.
She groaned and wished herself back on any of the army bases where she’d spent her childhood, places where streets were ordered and her structured life made sense.
The two sets of dog tags dangling from her rearview mirror caught her eye. Her heartbeat stumbled. There was one base she never wanted to return to. Kandahar. It haunted her still. Somewhere amid the dust, heat and blood of Afghanistan, the pillar of strength she’d always relied on to hold her up had crumbled.
Would she finally regain it here in Carbondale?
“We’re part of a long history of suffering,” she’d heard her commanding officer say sympathetically before handing over her honorable discharge papers six months ago. He’d severed her from the only life she’d known— the military—and abruptly ended her tour of duty as an army chaplain, her bout with depression forcing her to abandon her comrades when they needed her most. “Thank you for your service.”
The silent dismissed still rang in her ear.
Her fingers dug in a bag of soft sour candies and tossed them in her mouth. She sucked in her stinging cheeks and chewed through the pain. Lime. Lemon. Watermelon. Apple. Cherry. Orange. She ticked off each explosive flavor until they overrode her memories, shoving them down deep where they wouldn’t get her into trouble again.
“Coming up on Willow Brook Drive,” intoned the GPS.
She rolled down her window and the crisp, pine-scented air tore a strand from her bun and fluttered it across her mouth. A thicket of brush, scrub trees and conifers rose on one side. Opposite, the pines thinned and flashes of the starlit sky appeared through the spaces, revealing a drop-off. Not a stream or a willow.
This GPS made less sense than her civilian life. Her military world hadn’t prepared her for life without a uniform. She was struggling to fit in. The bombardment of choices in fancy coffee shops left her bewildered and stammering. Workdays at her first regular job, as a psychologist at a mental health clinic in Chicago, ended when the clock struck five, objectives unmet.
And it had filled her with restless anxiety.
As for her former coworkers, they’d kept to themselves, working independently. It was a different mind-set than the military, where you worked as a unit, brothers in arms, and had each other’s backs.
She’d discovered that the real world was a lonely place.
Not that she’d let herself get close to anyone again. Not after… Her eyes swung off the road and landed on the dog tags. Not in a professional capacity. Not ever again. It could trigger a PTSD episode, one she might not survive this time.
Her new position as the head of Fresh Start, a mental health and drug rehabilitation facility in the remote Colorado Rocky Mountains, was her second chance at regaining her footing.
And she’d better not mess it up.
If she ever found the place.
“Recalculating,” the GPS droned, sounding put out.
Brielle’s head whipped left. What? She’d missed the turn? She groaned. Even a cheap gadget could navigate the real world better than she could.
The rural route stretched beyond her headlights, not showing a decent place for her big van to turn around. A sigh hissed through her clenched teeth. The facility’s owner had texted her a half hour ago when she’d missed their meeting time.
Her. A no-show?
She lived by a schedule and was never late. As her army colonel father had bragged (when he used to be proud of her), Brielle was born on her due date, during the Army-Navy game’s halftime, the timing so precise he hadn’t missed a minute of the action.
So much for dependability.
She needed to message her new boss back, but she didn’t trust the road’s flimsy shoulders enough to pull over. Should she take a chance and text while driving? Was that legal in Colorado?
Given she barely knew how to drive a stick shift, or her whereabouts, exactly, she didn’t need to add to her distractions. But if she didn’t hurry, she’d lose another job, her fresh start over before it began. And then where would she go?
Not to her parents. After her breakdown, while she’d sorted out next steps, her mother had hovered and recited PTSD jargon she’d learned in online support groups. While her father ordered her to pull herself up by her bootstraps and loomed in her bedroom’s doorway each night, shaking his head when she’d spent another day under the covers.
“Turn left on Laurel Moon Road,” snapped the GPS.
Was it her or did the GPS lady sound snippy?
If so, she wasn’t the only one losing her patience.
Brielle’s beams picked up an unpaved road just ahead, no laurels or a street sign in sight.
At the last moment, she veered left, the van protesting as she downshifted on the narrow road. Here, the dark pressed closer still, dredging up old, remembered horrors of what lurked just out of sight. Her breaths shortened. Quickened. She flicked on her high beams and wiped her damp palms on her dress slacks. A split rail fence ran along either side of the road—if you could call it that, though path seemed more fitting. Hopefully no one approached from the other direction.
“Turn right,” the GPS directed.
“Where?” Cattle with long, deadly- looking horns lifted their heads as she neared. She couldn’t turn into a pasture. In fact, she couldn’t turn at all. Abruptly the road ended at a locked gate.
“Awesome. Now what?”
“Recalculating,” the GPS bit out savagely.
“Enough.” Brielle flipped off her navigator, applied the brakes then popped the truck into Park. Her burning forehead dropped to the steering wheel.
It’d been a dark night like this when a soldier stopped by to see her before heading out on patrol.
“I don’t believe in this war anymore,” Jefferson had told her. “Everybody’s angry. Crazy. Trying to kill you. Blowing each other up.” He’d paused, and his eyes burned into hers. “It makes no sense—who gets killed and who stays alive. Sometimes you mess up, and it’s okay. Sometimes you do what you’re supposed to and people get hurt.”
“You can’t control everything that happens,” she’d said. “You’re only in charge of your own actions.”
“No.” He’d dropped his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t even do that all the time.” His face turned hard. “Once I thought you could help me. But you’re a chaplain. Your hands are clean. You don’t know what it’s like to do what we do.”
She’d tensed up as if he’d struck her. True. She didn’t know what it felt like to take someone’s life, or any of the horrors these courageous soldiers endured, but she’d been trained to understand. To empathize. To listen. To minister. Still, no books, classes or seminars prepared you for the harsh reality she’d discovered during her first deployment.
“No one’s hands are clean except God’s,” she’d said slowly, as if convincing herself of her faith, her purpose, her mission. How did you spiritually minister to men who were still being assaulted? she’d wondered. “All we can do is pray He gives us the strength to do what we have to.”
A fleeting smile twisted Jefferson’s lips. She wasn’t sure she believed her own words, or any words at all. What did words matter in Kandahar, where death struck indiscriminately? Its nonstop toll was a drip, drip, drip on the heart of every service member, boring a hole straight through for some, hardening it for others.
“Look at my hands.” He’d shoved them at her, callused palms facing the ceiling, then he flipped them over and stretched out his fingers. “I look calm, right?”
“Are you?” Should she call his superior? File a report to request he skip today’s patrol? Not that her requests were honored except in the most extreme cases…
“I never sleep anymore,” he’d said. “But check out my hands—look at me. Look at my hands. It’s like I’m calm.”
But she hadn’t really looked, not closely, not like she’d had to do later the next morning, when he and the rest of his platoon returned to the base in pieces. She’d been asked to help identify some of the questionable remains.
Her skin shook over her bones as each blood-soaked horror cascaded in her mind’s eye. She’d seen too many brave troops lose their lives in defense of their country. And what’d she do? She’d succumbed to dark emotions and turned her back on her comrades when they’d needed her most, the deadly result one she’d never forgive herself for causing.
She screwed her lids shut, snatched up another handful of sour candies and chewed so hard she bit her tongue. Warm, metallic-tasting fluid mingled with the synthetic fruit flavors.
“Don’t think about it,” she whispered to herself, knowing the dangers of reliving her experiences, the drowning depression that’d occur if she let herself sink back into them.
“Complete your mission,” she ordered herself, then shifted into Reverse and headed backward from the dead end, her eyes trained on the rearview mirror, her mind compartmentalizing the way she’d been trained.
It only took one slipup.
The dog tags swung like a meat cleaver, ready to saw her in half.
Pain didn’t exist unless she let it, her father always told her.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one witnesses it, does it make a sound?
If soldiers die in the field and no one survives to tell about it, did they make a sound?
She flipped on the radio as she jolted back onto the main road, drowning out her friends’ screams. She heard them, often, when she wasn’t careful to keep her mind empty or forgot to take her Prazosin before bed.
Those mornings she woke exhausted, restless and anxious, haunted by nightmares. Hopefully out here in Carbondale, in the middle of nowhere, she’d lose her past, her old self, and become someone new. Someone who no longer carried the gut-wrenching responsibilities of her former job—the memorial services for soldiers, friends killed in action, the therapy sessions after contact with the enemy, the perilous excursions outside the wire to minister to remote posts while under enemy fire.
Carbondale seemed peaceful.
Would it silence her demons and let her lead a normal civilian life at last? Or was she doomed to never fit in—to haunt the edges of the real world, straddling the line between it and war, unable to leave her past to fully join the present? She’d arrived at her Kandahar assignment starry-eyed with a head full of jargon and a heart certain of its ability to save everyone. Twelve months later, she’d left with nothing, not even herself.
Her cell phone buzzed on the seat beside her. She risked a glance down at the number, recognized it as her new employer’s, then reached for it, slowing as she approached an intersection.
Her fingers closed on the metallic rectangle just as the dark shape of a biker raced into view, barreling straight at her.
Her pulse slammed in her veins.
Was he crazy?
She entered the intersection and had the right of way. Her heart jumped to the back of her throat, clogging it, stopping her breath.
Had he just lifted his hands from the bars?
Did he want to die?
She slammed on the brakes. Too late!
An explosion of metal colliding with metal boomed and then she heard the sickening thump of something softer, human, hitting her truck with maximum impact. She recognized the sound easily.
For a moment, she smelled Kandahar’s burned refuse, tasted the salty grit of its air, the blood, heard the screams, the groans, and she froze, hands over her ears, her curved body rocking.
Was she alive or dead?
There’d been times when she hadn’t known.
She felt her legs, her arms, her face. No injuries. But how? An IED should have torn the Humvee and her apart.
She struggled to remember.
This was a van, not a Humvee.
And it wasn’t a bomb, but a biker.
She straightened, scrambled out of the truck and raced to the passenger side. Her heart beat overtime, and her eyes stung.
A body lay crumpled on the ground, a man. Tall and lanky with a bruised, scraped face and a mop of dark hair. Beside him lay the twisted mass of his bike. His cracked helmet rolled a few feet away. She dropped to her knees and felt for a pulse just below his bearded jaw. A couple heartbeats later, it pressed back against her fingertips. Steady. She ripped off her jacket and covered him to stave off shock.
The stranger’s thick lashes fluttered. Yellow-green eyes gleamed at her. “Am I dead?”
A relieved breath whooshed out of her. “No.”
He closed his eyes again. “Crap.”
I hope you enjoyed meeting Justin Cade and Brielle Thompson, my favorite couple in the Rocky Mountain Series yet! Click on the images below to check out the book. It's available in print and digital formats. Thanks so much!