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"C'mon, Ash, it'll be fun," Wyatt Fortune cajoled.
He was trying to coax his older brother out of the self-imposed shell he'd crawled into ever since his marriage had blown up on him. Six months had gone by since the divorce, and even a change of venue hadn't gotten Asher to move on. It was as if Asher's soul was locked up in a dark place. His brothers worried about him.
"You've gotta meet the neighbors sometime. Why not on your own terms?" Wyatt pressed. "Besides, most of the family's dropping by, including a boatload of cousins. You know you can't hide from all of them. They'll come looking for you," Wyatt said with a grin.
Asher was doing his best to be patient, but he'd never liked being badgered, even by the brothers he loved and had followed out of Atlanta to Red Rock, at the heart of Texas.
The reason for the latter had come about as a result of an unfortunate schism with their father, the mighty James Marshall Fortune, over his secretly giving away half the shares to JMF to some woman nobody had ever heard of. When it was clear that their father wasn't about to disclose any of the details, he, Wyatt, Sawyer and Shane had decided to join some of their relatives who were already living in Red Rock, Texas, and they just packed up and left.
Asher had really thought that giving up his position as Vice President of JMF Financial and becoming a rancher would help him deal with things. It didn't.
The idea was that all four of them would try their hand at ranching. To that end, they'd purchased one huge piece of property where they could all live separately without tripping over one another. So four houses were commissioned and constructed on what all four of them considered to be the new family homestead. They'd dubbed it New Fortunes.
And now, after months of building, the houses were all finally finished.
Asher felt no different than before. He couldn't shake the feeling of being swaddled in hopelessness.
The party Wyatt was currently trying to get him to attend was being held at Wyatt's house, and it was intended to be a housewarming party for all four of them, seeing as how all their homes had been completed at the same time. Having everyone in one place made it simpler.
"You mean on your terms, don't you?" Asher asked pointedly.
"Don't get picky on me, Ash," Wyatt warned, then in the spirit of the party-to-be, relented. "All right, technically, yes, it's on my terms and at my house, but that's just because you'd never agree to having it at your place. Besides, we all know that I'm the outgoing one in the family."
"You mean the one with the biggest mouth on him," Shane, the oldest of the four, corrected, managing to keep a perfectly straight face.
Wyatt shot his brother a knowing look. They were both seen as overachievers. Neither was acquainted with the word slacker. "I wouldn't talk if I were you."
"That's only because I can't get in a word edgewise once you start flapping that yap of yours," Shane countered.
Asher looked on in silence. He knew what they were doing. His brothers were playing off each other for his benefit, trying to get him to come around and join in the banter, the way he used to.
But nothing was as it used to be, not since Lynn had walked out on him and on Jace, terminating their marriage.
Terminating her membership to the parenthood club, as well, by cutting off all of her ties to their son. It broke his heart to hear the boy ask for her, wondering why she wasn't coming home. Since they'd moved here, though, Jace didn't mention her as much. Didn't ask where she was. It was as if this clean start out in the open air had muted the boy's memory.
Not so for him, Asher thought.
Still, his brothers had, in effect, thrown him a lifeline when everything in his life seemed to be crumbling, both on the private front and on the work front. His ordinarily sensible, if somewhat aloof, father acting so irrationally had been almost like a final straw for Asher. It was as if the structure of his whole life had utterly collapsed.
Who just up and decides one morning to give away half the shares to an empire before breakfast? Especially without discussing it, even in passing, with the family? Granted, their father was the man at the helm, but it wasn't exactly as if the move he'd made didn't affect the rest of them. It did, grievously. Especially their poor mother.
With all this turmoil going on, his brothers were trying to unearth a bit of sunlight to shine on them. He couldn't fault them. And he certainly didn't want to be the wet blanket dampening their plans.
"Okay, sure, why not?" Asher agreed with a careless shrug. "I'll stick around for the party."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Wyatt asked, glancing toward Shane.
But it was Sawyer, the charmer of the family, who answered him. "You mean that getting big brother over here to agree was just too damn easy?"
"Exactly," Wyatt confirmed. He pinned Asher with a look. "You're not planning a disappearing act on me at the last minute, are you?"
The thought had crossed his mind, but he wasn't about to say so out loud, so instead Asher replied, "Wouldn't dream of it."
"Good," Wyatt agreed with a nod. "Because you wouldn't want that precocious son of yours to be permanently traumatized by seeing his father being hog-tied and then dragged to the middle of the house warming party right in front of him, now, would you?"
"You're an evil, evil man, Wyatt Fortune," Asher declared with a shake of his head.
"That's an honorary title I promise not to take for granted," Wyatt replied solemnly, even as the corners of his mouth fought to curve. "Party starts in less than an hour. You can either hang around here until it starts or go home and get yourself back here in sixty minutes."
"You're having the party today?" Asher asked in surprise. This was fast, even for Wyatt.
"It's today." Wyatt sighed. "I already told you that two days ago. But don't worry, you have nothing on your calendar," he informed his brother. "I checked. That means you have no last-minute excuse, no being called away for a 'family emergency.' All the family that can have any so-called emergencies will be at my house tonight. As will you and my nephew." Wyatt leveled what amounted to a steely look at his older brother.
"Right," Asher replied wearily and without any enthusiasm.
He opted to go home and change. Gone a total of forty-seven minutes, he received two calls from Wyatt, reminding him that he was due back.
The moment Asher crossed the threshold to the now noisy house, his son went flying to greet two of his uncles, Shane and Sawyer, as if he hadn't seen them in a year rather than earlier today.
Asher made his way to Wyatt instead.
Stopping before his brother, he spread his hands wide and announced, "I'm here, as promised." Although, for how long, I don't know, he added silently.
"Great," Wyatt declared, clapping his brother on the back as if to congratulate him for a monumental achievement. "Tell you what, why don't you pitch in and help Wendy set up?" he suggested, gesturing toward Wendy Fortune Mendoza, their cousin, who had just walked in behind Asher and his son, carrying a huge serving tray before her.
A full serving tray, Asher judged, if body language was any indication.
Wendy was closely followed by her husband, Marcos, who managed the local restaurant, Red, for his aunt and uncle and was responsible, in no small part, for its phenomenal success. People came to the restaurant in droves, lured by the excellent food and the heavenly desserts that Wendy created.
Red was the restaurant where Wendy had prepared the food that she and Marcos brought to Wyatt's party.
Between the two, scurrying in and out on her shaky, chubby little legs, was their daughter, MaryAnne. The toddler had a huge smile on her face and looked as if she didn't know what to get into first.
He could remember Jace at that age—except that back then, the boy had actually been tame, at least in comparison to now. At the age of just four, Jace had already managed to wear out five nannies in the six months since his mother had walked out on them. The boy went through the women as if they were so many single-ply tissues.
Nodding at a few people he recognized, Asher made his way over to his cousin, her husband and their little girl, who had just grabbed the edge of a tablecloth.
Horrified, Wendy carefully extracted the little fingers from the cloth before the union proved to be fatal for both the tablecloth and whatever dishes currently had the misfortune of being placed on it.
It was the little girl Asher focused on. "Your waitresses seem to be getting shorter and shorter these days," he commented. "Did you decide to do away with the height requirement?" he asked with a laugh, brushing a quick kiss to Wendy's cheek.
"Not quite." Wendy laughed. "MaryAnne is supposed to be off center stage," she confided. "But it seems that her babysitter is late." Still holding on to her daughter's hand to keep the child from grabbing something else, she bent over slightly so that her daughter knew she was speaking to her and said, "Look who's here, MaryAnne. Say hi to your cousin Asher."
The little girl flashed a wide smile of incredible wattage at him and then greeted him with an enthusiastic "Hi!"
"Hi," Asher echoed back. And then, straightening up again, he looked at Wendy as he nodded a greeting to Marcos. "Need any help?" he offered.
"Nope, I've got everything under control," she told him. She was gritting her teeth ever so slightly at the time as she carefully deposited the heavy tray she was carrying onto the table.
And she did, Asher observed. Wendy always had everything under control.
The realization only served to make him feel twice as bad about his own situation. Here was his cousin Wendy, formerly regarded by all branches of the family as the official family screwup, and she not only was no longer screwing up, but had settled down, gotten married, started a career for herself and had an adorable child to boot.
A child who had both parents coming home to her.
It was all so perfect that it made him feel as if he were living inside a disaster.
He knew he had no one to blame but himself. When he found out that Lynn was pregnant, he'd pressured her into marrying him, convincing her that everything was going to be all right.
Except that now it wasn't.
Looking back, he knew now that there could have been so many different ways to play this, to support Lynn in whatever decision she would have come to on her own. But he'd been so certain that he could somehow be all things to her, to make her happy.
To make her be glad to be a mother.
He'd been too naive at the time to know that he couldn't make a person be happy just because he wanted her to be.
He had no control over things like that.
Hell, he couldn't even find it in his soul to be happy himself. Here he was, standing on the edge of an exciting new future, with a wonderful son and a family who supported him—for the most part. He wasn't about to let his mind stray to thoughts of his father. The next move belonged to James Marshall, not to him or the brothers who had moved out here with him.
Though he tried to rein them in, his thoughts insisted on straying again and again to memories of Lynn. He'd tried his damnedest to convince her that things were going to be fine. That they were going to be perfect.
But Lynn hadn't wanted just "fine" or even perfect. She'd wanted bells and banjos and the earth moving beneath her feet, not having those feet stuck to the ground because Jace had left a huge lollipop there, just lying in wait for her.
He had to face it once and for all. Motherhood had made her feel trapped.
He had made her feel trapped.
He needed to get some air, Asher thought. Needed to clear his head before it exploded.
Asher looked around for a way to make a quiet exit and found his path blocked by Wyatt. Again. His brother was frowning, as if he was about to say something he didn't want to.
"I didn't want it to come to this, Ash, but you leave me no choice. You've got to get on with your life, bro. Because Lynn has."
Asher looked at Wyatt sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?" he wanted to know. There was an edginess to his voice, an edginess that had completely obliterated his once oh-so-laid-back manner.
"Just what I said. She's moved on. Lynn's engaged to someone else, man," Wyatt told him, and it was obvious that having to be the one who brought the news to Asher cost him.
Asher felt as if his throat was closing up. "She's engaged?" he asked hoarsely.
"Yeah," Wyatt said quietly.
Asher felt as if someone had taken a razor blade to his heart and sliced it all to ribbons. "I guess it wasn't marriage that Lynn hated. It was marriage to me."
"Well, her loss," Shane said with feeling, joining them. "Remember, the best revenge is living life well," he reminded his brother, draping an arm around Asher's shoulders, as if to make sure he wasn't about to leave. "C'mon, you can be my wingman and I'll be yours," he coaxed.
"Hey, what am I, chopped liver?" Sawyer called out, overhearing.
"Nope, fraid you're not nearly as good-looking as pate," Shane quipped.
"Man, we've gotta get you a pair of glasses, Shane," Sawyer fired back, shaking his head. "You're pretty much legally blind."
"Ha, you should talk. Did you actually get a good look at that last woman you had hanging off your arm?" Shane wanted to know. "I've seen grilled-cheese sandwiches that were sexier."
"Stop," Sawyer pleaded, his hand to his stomach. "You're making me hungry."
Asher slipped away while his brothers were shooting quips back and forth, trying to top one another.
Now he definitely needed to get out and clear his head, Asher thought.
This seemed like the perfect evening for it. The air was crisp, clear and surprisingly not too cold, considering that it was March.
He glanced over toward his son. Wyatt's fiancée, Sarah-Jane, was holding Jace's hand, and the boy looked smitten.
He was in good hands, Asher thought. There was no reason to worry about the boy wandering off and getting into trouble. Sarah-Jane was as responsible as they came and he knew she'd look after the boy until he got back, as would his brothers.
But first, he thought, quietly weaving his way out the back, he needed to sort things out, to get his head on straight again. He could only do that in one place—atop his horse.
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