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Ten days. Ten go-rounds. One National Finals Rodeo Championship.
Jesse Cody needed to stay focused on his training in order to win the bull-riding championship. He didn't need this.
"Please," he said, staring at his father, who glared right back at him. "Tell me I didn't just hear what I think I heard."
His mother responded, instead. "We invited the Hansens to stay with us at the hotel. Your dad and I will be arriving on Wednesday. But we told Janie you would fly her and Abigail to Las Vegas Tuesday afternoon."
Jesse disconnected from J. W. Cody's flinty gaze and turned to face his mom. "Are we one big, happy family now? Kind of sudden, isn't it?"
"It's taken thirty damn years," J.W. growled.
"We have to adjust, son." Anne Cody put her hand on Jesse's arm and looked up into his face. "Mark Hansen is your father's son. I think the best way to deal with the situation is to accept the facts and move on."
"I" Jesse shook his head and tried again. "We" Speechless with frustration, he stepped away from his mom's touch and walked to the wall of windows in his dad's office, which looked out across the sprawling Cot-tonwood Ranch. Winter had descended on Wyoming, bleaching the prairie grass, defrocking the cottonwood trees of every last leaf and sending the tender plants in the gardens around his parents' house deep underground. The Thanksgiving holiday had ended and Christmas was just around the corner.
The holidays would come after the National Finals, of course, where he fully expected to win the championship in bull riding. That would mean defeating Mark Hansen, his archrival since they were in high school and, it seemed, his older brother. His bastard older brother.
Without turning around, he said, "I don't think Mark and I can live practically on top of each other while we're competing at the Finals."
Again, his mother answered. "You don't spend that much time in the room. I doubt you'll see each other."
"The Hansens actually accepted this invitation?"
"Your father and I had a long talk with Mark and Nicki at the Denver rodeo this past weekend, and they agreed this would be the best solution."
"I bet they did." Who wouldn't want to trade some cheap motel on the Vegas strip for rooms on the concierge floor at a first-class resort? Jesse wasn't surprised that Mark would agree to everything he could get out of becoming a Cody, but his wife, Nicki, had been Jesse's best friend since they were kids. Marrying Hansen had apparently put her solidly on the other side.
His tone of voice must have hinted at his thoughts. "Don't jump to conclusions, Jesse." His mother walked up behind him, took hold of his shoulder and urged him to face her. "As things stood, Janie would have had to stay home to take care of their mother. This way, we can hire a caretaker to keep an eye on Abigail while Janie gets to have fun and watch the Finals. You know she'll want to see Elly race."
"Not to mention Mark," Jesse pointed out. "She'll be root ing for him to win."
Anne grinned. "She can't always be right."
The best Jesse could do in reply was a snort. He looked over at his dad. "And you're okay with this plan? You're ready to welcome Mark into the fold?"
J.W. stuck out his chin. "I think I owe him the recognition."
"What else do you owe him, do you think? A job here at the ranch? In the cattle operation, maybe?"
"We haven't talked about it."
Temper rumbled through Jesse's gut. "I've been running things for eight years. Maybe you think it's time for a change."
"Jesse," his mother said, a warning note in her voice.
"That's bull." J.W. stepped out from behind his desk. "And you know it."
"And maybe you think he needs a spread of his own, to make up for all the years you ignored him. Would a hundred thousand acres do it? Not leased land, of coursejust some prime Cottonwood property. Then you could build him and Nicki a house of their own."
"You're acting like a spoiled brat." J.W. moved in close until his nose almost touched Jesse's. "You've had everything you wanted or needed for your whole life. Don't begrudge my son a little attention, maybe some help getting started in life."
Jesse shrugged. "Of course not. You're free to give him whatever makes you feel better, Dad. Even though Hansen hasn't worked a single day on this land, never squeezed out a single drop of sweat."
"None of you kids has"
"Now who's talking bull?" Hands propped on his hips, Jesse moved forward a step. His father retreated. "I've been working on this ranch since I was old enough to sit a horse. You've been ordering me around, telling me what I had to do, had to know, where I should be and how I should think for as long as I remember. There hasn't been a day I didn't feel responsible for every damn problem and solution going on at the Cottonwood Ranch. So don't tell me I haven't worked for what I got."
He did a quick turn on his heel and headed for the door.
"You don't walk out of here without my permission."
Jesse heard his mother's gasp as he stopped in his tracks. He stared at the closed door panel for a few seconds, debating what to say.
Then, without another word, he reached for the knob, pushed through the door and strode across the foyer, past the life-size sculpture of a cowboy on his horse, to the front entrance. Another minute and he was in his truck, headed down the road at a reckless speed. He braked briefly underneath the wrought-iron sign announcing The Cottonwood Ranch, glanced in both directions and jerked the steering wheel left. Once on the paved county road, he pushed hard on the gas pedal, letting the big diesel engine whine.
He wanted a good stiff drink or four or five, however many shots it took to shut down his brain. And he wanted to drink alone, though not in private. Drinking behind closed doors only led to trouble.
But he couldn't think of anywhere in the whole state of Wyoming where he would be anonymous. Not in the closest little town, Markton, or even in Cody, a few miles farther on. Not in Laramie or Cheyenne or Gillette, where he had friends and knew competitors. He was an NFR finalist in bull riding, after all. Worse, he was a CodyJ. W. Cody's second son. Not much happened to the Codys that didn't become public knowledge.
And that was as good a reason for hard drinking as Jesse had ever come up with.
After working a full day at the Markton Feed and Grain Store, Janie still had errands to run if she planned to leave for Las Vegas tomorrow. In Jesse Cody's plane.
That thought alone made her stumble as she walked across the pharmacy parking lot with her four bags of supplies. Or maybe hunger tripped her upshe hadn't eaten since breakfast and her stomach had been growling for hours. If she planned to keep shopping, she should probably get some food.
Back in her truck, grateful to be out of the bitter wind blowing off the mountains, she headed for her favorite res taurant in Cody. Managed by a couple of her friends from Markton, Los Potrillos served well-cooked, authentic Mexican food. A quick bite would give her the energy she needed to spend the rest of the night packing her mother's bag as well as her own for the trip to Las Vegas.
Janie still didn't see how this trip could possibly succeed. Who in their right mind would take an Alzheimer's patient traveling? These days, her mother left their house only for doctors' appointments, and then spent the entire trip agitated and fearful. What would she think about an airplane flight? How would she react in a small private jet?
And what in the world would Janie find to talk about with Jesse Cody for two solid hours? Especially when the most obvious topicthe fact that her brother Mark was also his brotherwas too fraught with tension to discuss?
With her hands clenched on the steering wheel, she pulled into a parking spot at the restaurant, then kept her head down against the wind-driven sleet as she ran inside.
"Lousy weather," her friend Lila remarked, leading her to a booth for two.
"Nasty," Janie agreed, brushing ice crystals off her shoulders. "Some good hot food will help, though."
Lila smiled. "You know we've got that covered."
The waitress appeared to take Janie's order for coffee, water and chicken mole. Not many people had ventured out on a Monday night in bad weather, and the dining room tables were mostly empty. Janie wished she were home, too, eating canned tomato soup in front of the TV instead of planning to hit the superstore in Cody to find clothes for her mom to wear in Vegas.
Her mom the woman who had tempted J. W. Cody into an adulterous affair.
Janie couldn't stifle a sigh. If she'd ever had the ghost of a chance with Jesse, she felt sure that chance had now vaporized. Whenever he looked at her, he would be reminded of her brother okay, her half brother, but still Mark's new status as a Cody threatened everything Jesse had worked for in his lifethe respect of folks in town and across the country as J. W. Cody's oldest son, his place in the business at the Cottonwood Ranch and maybe even the title of World Champion Bull Ri der at the National Finals Rodeo.
"Here you go." The waitress set a huge platter of chicken with chocolate sauce, salad and tortillas on the table in front of her.
"Thanks." Janie flashed a smile, even though her appetite had all but vanished. Thinking too much about Jesse Cody always made her want to curl up into a ball and cry her eyes out.
As the server headed toward the kitchen in the back of the building, somewhere behind Janie a man called out, loudly enough to be heard over the music.
With a fork full of mole halfway to her mouth, Janie groaned. Could she be this unlucky? As if her thoughts had conjured him, Jesse Cody sat at a table in the back.
"Excuse me," he said again when the waitress didn't turn.
Sauce dripped onto Janie's plate. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing him not to notice her.
Boot heels thudded on the tile floor, coming up beside her table. He passed, and Janie opened her eyes.
Broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, his short, silvery-blond hair gleaming even in the dim lighting, Jesse walked away from her, carrying an empty highball glass toward the bar. As she watched, he thumped the tumbler down on the counter. For years, she'd been imagining the strength of his muscle-corded arms around her, the rumble of his warm, smooth voice against her heart. Now, she shook her head. As if!
"Could I get a refill, please? Jack on the rocks. Make it a double this time."
He would turn back in a minute. She couldn't avoid being seen.
With the precision of a surgeon, Janie returned her un touched food to the plate. She took a gulp of water and wiped her mouth. Then she folded her hands in her lap and put a smile on her facea friendly, casual smile, she hopedthat said, "Don't let me keep you."
Jesse took a sip from his new drink while still standing at the bar. Then he pivoted and started back to his table. Janie witnessed the moment he caught sight of her, saw the surprise in his blue eyes, quickly followed by irritation, outright anger and then resignation. Just as she'd expected.
Her heart sank. She thought she might be sick.
To give the man credit, the negative reaction lasted only a second, replaced by his usual engaging grin. "Hi, Janie." His jovial tone suggested they were good friends. "What brings you to Cody for dinner?" He glanced at the empty seat across from her. "All alone?"
"Hey, Jesse." Her fingers curled into fists under the table. "Yeah, just a quick bite. I had some last-minute shopping."
He glanced toward the table behind her, then back at the empty seat in her booth. "I can keep you company a little while, if you'd like."
"Sure." As he sat down, Janie wondered how she would manage to swallow a single bite. "You're here by yourself?" Without meaning to, she looked down at the glass between his fingertips.
"Uh, yeah." Even as she watched, he took a long draw on the whiskey. "I had a discussion with the parents, and needed to loosen up a little afterward."
Janie could imagine exactly what was discussed. "That's how it goes sometimes." Then she thought about her own mother, no longer capable of ordinary family squabbles or any real relationships. "On the other hand, you miss them when they're not here anymore."
Looking back at her plate, she picked up her fork again, put the food in her mouth and chewed, even swallowed without gagging. When she lifted her chin, she found Jesse's gaze fixed on her face.
"Sorry," he said. "I guess we don't always appreciate what we've got till it's gone. How's your mom doing?"
She couldn't tell him the worst parts, not when they were supposed to spend a week in the same hotel. "Okay, I guess. She doesn't remember much. And she sleeps a lot." Maybe that would calm some of his fears about the upcoming trip.
Janie only hoped she was telling the truth.
"I, um, thought we'd leave about two, tomorrow afternoon." Jesse avoided her eyes as he spoke. "Will that work for you?"
She stared at him as he swirled the ice cubes around in his glass. Shadows rimmed his eyes, like bruises from a fist. Now that she considered, he looked like he hadn't slept in days. But she couldn't ask why not. "Shall we meet you at your airstrip?"
Jesse kept his plane on the ranch, taking off and land ing on the Codys' private runway. That kind of luxury made it possible for him to compete in the biggest rodeos around the country in order to earn the points and money required to reach the National Finals while being home during the week to work at the ranch. Mark, on the other hand, drove almost everywhere and competed constantly, which meant he was away from home most of the time.
Just one more example of the huge lifestyle gap between the rich Codys and the poor Hansens.
"Why don't I pick you up about one-thirty," Jesse sug gested. "You'll need some help with luggage and and stuff."
She wasn't sure if that would be better or worse than having her mother see him for the first time at the plane. "That sounds good. Thanks."