“Because I had to,” he bit out before his voice softened. “When your momma told me the only regret she was taking to heaven was never getting the chance to hold her grandbabies, to see our legacy live on, I leaned in, sipped her tears and promised I’d take care of that for her. She thanked me, then thanked me for giving her the most magical thirty-seven years of her life. Thanked me for blessing her with each of you beautiful boys. And thanked me for loving her with all my heart. She said she was sorry she had to go but that she was leaving all the love in her heart here for all of us to share…forever and a day. After that, she asked me to kiss her one more time. When I pressed my lips to hers, she mustered enough energy to cup my cheek and whispered, I sure am going to miss you, my love. Then she closed her eyes for the last time.”
Heart aching and tears burning the backs of his eyes, Austin held back the sob clawing up his chest. No one in the room said a word as they each struggled to regain their composure and wipe the tears from their cheeks.
“I know what you’re all thinking,” his dad began in a raspy tone thick with grief. “And you’re right. If your momma were here, she’d call me crazy. It wouldn’t be the first time. But she’d also tell you boys to scrub good in the shower and put on your Sunday best before heading out to find your bride.”
“Which is exactly what I’m going to do right now,” Dallas proudly announced as he stood. “I’ll help you keep your promise, Pa.”
A glimmer of relief flashed in his dad’s eyes as Dallas raced from the room, and out the front door. Austin could all but see the bonehead sprinting to his house—a mere seventy yards away—to hop in the shower before hauling ass to Haven and find a wife.
“Dumb ass,” Beau mumbled under his breath.
Clearly, Austin wasn’t the only one who thought bribing a woman into marriage and motherhood had disaster written all over it. But in Dallas’s defense, five million dollars would pave a golden road for him to finally leave Haven and open the restaurant he’d always dreamed of.
Duke arched a brow at Beau who instantly shook his head.
“You still want to make five million bucks bouncing your ass on cantankerous bulls or do you want to make it the easy way?”
“I choose bulls. I’d rather make my fortune the old-fashioned way…earn it.”
“Suit yourself.” His dad shrugged.
Beau shook his head as he strolled away and climbed the stairs to his old bedroom.
Duke sighed before sending Houston a quizzical stare.
“Sorry, Pa. I’d like to help you out, but it’s a no for me, too. Making a promise to a woman I don’t love goes against the principles you and Ma raised me with.”
“Like I said before, I’m not asking you to marry a girl you don’t love,” Duke reiterated. “I just want you to start looking to see if she’s out there waiting for you.”
“Oh, she’s out there…somewhere, but I’d rather meet her when it’s my time, not yours. Besides, Dallas will find a wife way sooner than me.”
“Fair enough.” He nodded as Houston stood.
“I’ll see y’all in the morning,” he announced before striding from the room and out the door.
Austin wanted to bolt from the room and jog home. Like Dallas and Houston—who were now out from under the microscope—his sanctuary of peace and solitude was a stone’s throw away from the main house. As his dad pinned him with an expectant stare, Austin launched off the sectional and held up his hands.
“Save your breath, Pa. I get that Ma wanted grandbabies. I wish she’d been able to enjoy a whole mess of them while she was still alive. But like Houston said, Dallas is gonna find a wife before the rest of us. Which is fine. I hope he does because frankly I don’t have time for this shit.”
“When will you?”
“Maybe never,” he bit out, striding toward the kitchen. “If you need me, I’ll be in the barn.”
“I do need you, son. Need you to make time for yourself and your future here. You’re thirty-two years old.”
Austin paused mid-stride and turned. “What difference does that make?”
“There’s more to life than cows, horses, and ranching. I appreciate all the hard work you do. You carry the lion’s share of responsibility on your shoulders.”
“It’s my job, and I like doing it…just like I enjoy my life the way it is,” he assured though his brittle tone didn’t convey those facts.
“A good woman to love and share your life with might make you a whole lot happier, son.”
“It might. Then again, it might not. I have no interest in finding out right now,” he drawled before rounding the corner and strolling past the kitchen.
When Austin stepped out into the inky night, he was met with a chorus of crickets and tree frogs. Closing the door behind him, he was halfway to the barn when he stopped and peered up at the stars.
“Ma, if you happen to find a celestial two-by-four up there, would you please smack Pa upside the head and knock some sense into him? He’s completely lost his marbles. I don’t know how you put up with that stubborn man for so many years, but I’m damn glad you did. I miss ya, Ma…miss you something fierce.”
While the familiar ache of sadness expanded in his chest, he lowered his head and heaved a heavy sigh before trudging to the barn. As he entered Rumor’s stall, the mare snorted and stomped.
“Easy, girl,” he murmured softly as he brushed his hand down her back before patting her rump. “Everything’s all right.”
The words had no sooner left his lips than the report of a shotgun pierced the air. Austin jolted as Rumor snorted and began nervously prancing on the fresh hay he’d spread down before dinner. With a muttered curse he jerked his boots back to keep from getting stomped and placed both hands on her neck. Before he could open his mouth to soothe her, two more shots rang out.
“Son of a bitch. Raymond Nelson, you crazy, cantankerous bastard. What the hell are you shooting at this time of night?” he groused as another shot echoed from the adjacent land.
Like most of the ranches around Haven, the Carsons and the Nelsons had acquired their properties through land grants two hundred years ago. According to local lore, not long after both families settled in the area, there’d been a late-night poker game and one too many bottles of whiskey. Nelson’s great-great grandfather had bet his last dollar on what he’d been sure was a winning hand. But Austin’s great-great-great grandfather, convinced he’d had a better one, increased the bet. Unwilling to fold, Nelson scrawled a promissory note for fifty acres of land and tossed it on the table. After Carson won the bet and took ownership of the land, the families started feuding like the Hatfields and the McCoys. From an early age, Austin and his brothers had been taught never to utter the Nelson name or step foot on their land.
But as two more shots split the air, causing Rumor to start tossing her head wildly, neighing in fear, and nervously pacing the stall, Austin didn’t give two shits about the bad blood between their families. All he cared about was shoving that damn shotgun up Raymond Nelson’s ass.
He tried to calm Rumor, but when another shot sounded, Austin knew she was beyond placating. A string of curses rolled off his tongue as he exited the stall, sprinted from the barn, and climbed into his truck. Leaving a cloud of dust and gravel pinging in his wake, he turned the beefy F-350 onto the paved road, then stomped the accelerator.
Still cursing, Austin whipped his truck down Nelson’s driveway before jerking to a stop. As he tossed open the door and launched from the truck, another, much louder blast assaulted his ears. Digging his heels into the hard-packed ground, Austin ate up the distance to the back of Nelson’s weather-worn house, toward the sounds of the shots. But as he rounded the corner, he froze dead in his tracks and blinked at the fiery redhead wearing nothing but an oversized tee, holding a heavy antique shotgun to her hip, inside the sagging fence of a large chicken coop.