Frustrated over having to leave his pregnant mare and the lack of information Houston offered, Austin patted Rumor on the rump and stepped from her stall before following his brother to the house. As he passed through the kitchen, Austin was relieved that Beau—the spoiled superstar with an ego the size of Texas—hadn’t shirked his chores.
“We’re in here,” his dad called from the family room in his usual gruff voice.
As Austin rounded the corner, his dad shoved a tumbler of aged whiskey into his hand.
“I’m good,” he said, refusing the drink and attempting to give it back.
“Take it. You’re gonna need it,” he replied, handing Houston one as well.
The man’s ominous remark sent alarm bells clanging in Austin’s head.
“Go on and have a seat with your brothers,” his dad instructed, nodding toward the large sectional, where Dallas sat clutching a soda and Beau a tumbler of whiskey. Both looked as confused and concerned as Austin felt.
The unusual heaviness hanging in the air only served to multiply his angst. The last time he and his brothers were summoned to a formal family meeting had been three years, six months, and twenty-seven days ago when his mom had announced she had inoperable brain cancer.
Like a freight train, a rush of panic slammed through him. Austin’s heart rate tripled. His stomach twisted. And the saliva in his mouth vanished. Masking the ribbons of fear unfurling within, he pinned his dad with a dissecting stare and struggled to swallow the lump of terror lodged in his throat.
“What’s wrong, Pa? Please don’t tell us you have cancer, too.”
Sympathy softened his dad’s expression as he shook his head. “No, son. I’m fit as a fiddle.”
As relief swept through his system, Austin released the breath he’d been holding and nodded. “Good. None of us could handle losing you, too.”
“I’m not planning on leaving this earth any time soon, but I’m not gonna live forever.”
“None of us are.” He nodded. “So what’s this meeting about?”
“Take a seat and I’ll explain,” his dad patiently replied.
While Houston sat down on the couch beside Beau, Austin eased in next to Dallas.
Immediately, his brother leaned over and whispered, “Thanks, man. Though me and Beau were thinking it, we were too scared to ask that question.”
Austin answered with a nod as he watched their dad toss back the whiskey in his glass before refilling it again. The man might not be dying of cancer, but something equally worrisome was gnawing at him.
“Pa?” Austin prompted, hoping his dad would say something to ease the apprehension humming in his system.
With a grim nod, Duke downed the amber liquid, then strode toward the massive fireplace Austin’s great-great-great-grandfather had crafted with Texas limestone. Wearing an unreadable expression, he eased onto the seat of his well-worn leather recliner and drew in a deep breath.
“First, I want you boys to know how proud I am of the way y’all stepped up to keep the ranch and house running after your momma passed. She’d be proud, too.”
“We’re a family, Pa. We’ll do whatever it takes,” Houston assured, as Austin and his other brothers collectively grunted in agreement.
“I know. But I still want to say thank you,” he replied, eyeing the bottle of whiskey from across the room.
The gesture was unsettling. His dad wasn’t much of a drinker. He only imbibed on special occasions like Christmas and…
Suddenly, Austin remembered what day it was and clenched his jaw.
Son of a bitch.
“The night before your momma slipped into a coma and passed,” his dad began, “I stayed with her…sat beside her bed. We knew the end was near, so we spent the night talking about everything under the sun. We said all the things we needed to say to one another, or at least tried.”
As his dad paused to swallow down the thickness in his throat, images of those last precious hours with his mom filled Austin’s mind. He’d stayed up that night as well to check in on her and to provide what little support he could. When his dad refused to leave her side and get some rest, Austin had supplied him with coffee until the sun came up and his mom stopped talking.
His heart clutched with a familiar ache that time till hadn’t erased.
“I made a promise to your momma that night, boys. A promise I haven’t yet kept.”
“What kind of promise?” Dallas asked.
“This house has been in my family for over a hundred and fifty years.”
“We know,” Houston stated suspiciously. “You’re not thinking about selling the ranch, are you?”
“No. Hell no. This is Carson land. I’d never sell this ranch, and none of you better even consider it after I’m dead and gone, either.”
“We won’t, Pa. Don’t worry,” Austin assured, trying to tamp down the hope wending through him.
Though nothing in life was guaranteed, Austin had known from an early age that, if history repeated itself, by virtue of being the firstborn son—like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather—he would one day inherit the ranch. That time-honored tradition had been the fuel that drove Austin’s desire to learn everything possible about cattle ranching before the sacred Carson land was passed down to him.
Still, it was too soon for his dad to pass the operation over. While Austin was more than capable of running the ranch, there was no viable reason for his dad to pass the reins just yet. Duke Carson wasn’t a decrepit old man. He was only sixty-three…a vibrant, energetic sixty-three. He knocked out chores on the ranch like a prizefighter. He was the first one up in the morning. The first to brew the coffee and set the table for breakfast. The first to stride to the barn, saddle up his horse, and ride out to check the herd. And the last one to stride into the house at night.