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Copyright © 2011 Mari Carr and Jayne Rylon
Dry brush crackled under the hooves of Silas Compton’s roan gelding. It hadn’t rained in a while. He could tell it would be a long summer by the clouds of terra cotta dust rising in the wake of his brothers’ galloping horses as they raced across the mountain ridge.
Not that he’d know it where he was headed. Alaska would provide a total change of scenery. Exactly what he needed. Pain lanced his chest, causing him to tense in his heirloom saddle. Rainey’s ears flicked up. Silas patted the loyal animal’s neck, settling into the rhythm of their canter, and wondered how he would survive so far from the land that had been a part of him since he’d been born.
Somehow he would have to make it work.
He sure as hell couldn’t stay.
Like the three-legged dog they’d had as kids, he would learn to cope without an integral part of himself. If only he and his puppy had reined in their curiosity and avoided those damn traps…
But they hadn’t.
Lucy Silver, the veterinarian’s sweet daughter—who’d been dancing through his dirty dreams since he’d been old enough to have them—had spotted Silas making out with her boyfriend in the barn. It’d been like the day he’d watched his puppy scramble toward the razor-sharp jaws lying concealed under a pile of straw all over again.
Removing himself from the equation seemed like the only way he could halt imminent disaster and protect the two people he cared about most outside of his family. He’d already destroyed enough of Lucy’s innocence.
Christ, he couldn’t explain what had driven him to kiss Colby in the first place.
Impulsive. Rash. Reckless.
Qualities Silas didn’t value. The one time he gave in to the dark urges he wrestled, he paid a horrible price. But he’d caught Colby checking out his sweaty muscles as they’d worked together in the heat of the day. Desire had arced between them.
Irresistible. Delicious. Forbidden.
Until the agony on Lucy’s face had slammed him back to reality. Silas vowed to leave the couple to mend their fences and live in peace, without the threat of his interference ripping them apart. Lucy and Colby devoured each other with desperate gazes when they thought no one paid attention. It didn’t take a genius to figure out their love was the real deal.
He’d go, even if it meant giving up everything familiar and cherished, including his brothers and his two best friends. Because he sure as shit couldn’t stay and keep his hands to himself. Not with a double helping of temptation running wild.
Amber rays from the setting sun ignited the prairie below. The glowing grasslands seared into his memory. He’d never lose track of his roots. He’d never forget his heritage, Compass Ranch, even if he couldn’t accept his destiny as its head.
His brothers would pick up his slack.
Seth, a year younger than him, whooped then grinned over his shoulder as he spurred his mare faster. Wild as a mustang, he flew over the landscape to the spot they’d claimed as their own. The twins, Sam and Sawyer, followed suit.
They hadn’t discussed their plans for the evening. As soon as Silas had made his announcement to the family, the boys had glanced around the dining table—where all important family business was conducted—and nodded. They hadn’t objected to his desertion, but strain lined their faces, sorrow dimmed their eyes and the betrayal he feared flashed in the air a split second before they began planning how they’d support him.
Christ, their generosity had made him feel lower than the shit on the bottom of his muck boots because he hadn’t had the guts to admit why he really planned to leave. None of them would have been dumb enough to mess with something that wasn’t theirs. And if they had, they wouldn’t have lied about it on top. Such strong souls would thrive with or without him. But could he cut out something so essential to his being and live so wounded? So lost?
Cut adrift, he might not make it.
Silas gripped the reins too tight. He forced himself to relax his fingers.
One night. He’d give himself these final hours with his brothers to say goodbye to all he treasured. Tomorrow, he’d ride out. Forever.
The driving hoof beats slowed as they approached their destination. By the time they ducked beneath the shelter of the mountain cypresses, the rocky terrain forced them to walk their mounts. None of the teenagers would jeopardize the safety of their animals or their brothers.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to contain the agony lassoing his heart as he realized he’d never be close to the men they’d grow into, their families or the children who’d take their places in the tight-knit community like so many generations before them.
The last damn thing he wanted was to bawl like a sissy.
If his family caught on to his pain, they might not let him go. Luckily, he’d learned from the toughest sons of bitches in the west how to be a real cowboy. If that was the only way he could honor his legacy, he’d man up and do it. Somehow.
They dismounted, reverting to familiar patterns. Seth and Sawyer tied the horses as Sam gathered kindling for their bonfire. Silas patched the pit left from prior visits then dug some supplies from his pack, including hot dogs despite the fact they’d eaten dinner before they left. These days, the four of them could shovel in enough to feed an army.
Or so their mom said.
“Si, you’re bleeding.” Count on Sawyer to notice.
“It’s nothing.” Silas faced the youngest, by twenty-two minutes, of his brothers. The kid’s twin had already picked up on the vibe. Damn their weird-ass mental connection.
“It’s something.” Sam sidled up behind him to take a peek. “It’s too uniform to be a cut.”
“Did you do it?” Damn if Seth didn’t tip his hat and glare from beneath his dark brows. When Silas didn’t answer, Seth stomped over. “Holy shit. You did. You got a freaking tattoo. Without me? Without us? You asshole!”
Silas dodged his brother’s half-hearted punch toward the sore spot between his shoulder blades. The disappointment radiating from the guy in waves did more damage than his fist would have. After Silas’s sudden declaration of independence, this looked bad, but he couldn’t come clean and admit the craving he’d had to brand himself with some symbol of home before he took off. Not if he had any hope of escaping.
“I had a hard enough time convincing Snake to ink me. If I’d brought you guys with me, he never would have caved. He only did it because I’m eighteen now.”
If Silas had told Seth, they wouldn’t have been able to stop Sam and Sawyer from tagging along too.
“Well, I suppose that’s true. Plus he’s probably afraid JD will kill him if he finds out.” Sawyer let Silas off easy, as usual.
“Yeah, that’s why I took the bandages off. Didn’t want him to notice.”
Pride for their badass father glowed from the kid. Silas agreed. As head of Compass Ranch—the center of Compton Pass, Wyoming—JD Compton wielded vast financial clout but his personality made him larger than life and, most important, earned him respect by the acre.
“But you gotta let us see it at least,” Sawyer insisted.
“Sure.” Silas dropped a wedge of firewood on the crackling flame Sam had started, and then stood. All three of his brothers lined up behind him—Seth in the middle, the twins on either side—when he tugged his gray T-shirt over his head, wincing a little at the sting of his sweat in the open wound. The three usually raucous kids didn’t make a single peep when he revealed the artwork. “It’s swollen and stuff—”
“Whoa.” Seth broke the silence.
“It’s awesome.” Sam laid his palm to the right of the emblem, careful not to touch the raw skin.
“Sweet,” Sawyer agreed then added his hand on the left side of Silas’s back.
“Does it hurt?” Seth completed their connection, touching the area below the design.
“So bad,” Silas gasped, struggling not to drop to his knees.
“I’m still doing it. Next year. The minute I turn eighteen,” Seth whispered into the gathering twilight. “Exactly like this.”
“Me too,” Sam chimed in. “The compass design is fucking great. And the ranch brand is perfect. It matches the one we use.”
“I didn’t know Snake had this kind of shit in him. The shading is so cool. It looks 3-D.” Sawyer’s hand shook on Silas’s back. “I want one now. Like yours. But without the fancy N.”
“You’re only fifteen,” Silas barked. “Wait a while and make sure it’s what you really want.”
“I know what I want.”
“Things don’t always happen like you expect, Sawyer.” Silas felt the pressure of his brothers’ hands bracing him as he heaved a giant sigh.
“Is that why you’re leaving?” The high pitch of Sam’s question reminded Silas that even though his youngest brothers had started fooling around with girls in their class, and he’d busted them splitting a six pack they’d swiped from the bunkhouse, they still had more boy than man in them.
“Yeah.” He couldn’t give them more of the truth than that. It embarrassed him. Angered him. And threatened to drown him in despair.
“Well, some people might flip flop around. Not me. Not going to change my mind.” Sawyer stuck to his guns. He’d always been the most determined to prove himself despite being the baby of the group. Maybe because of it. “I’m joining the Coast Guard. Gonna see the world.”
“What?” Silas pivoted to stare at the kid, severing the connection with his brothers. He regretted it instantly, but he had to search Sawyer’s eyes for the truth. “You’ve been watching too many freaking commercials. Your place is here, on the ranch.”
“No, it isn’t,” the teenager whispered.
When the other two nodded in agreement, Silas staggered backward.
“You’re not planning to stay?” His forehead crumpled as he tried to understand. “None of you?”
“Don’t look at us like that.” Seth waved his hands in front of his chest. “I figured you’d understand. I need to get the hell out of here. Find my own place. Same as you. Not Alaska though, I hate winter. You’re crazy to take on all that snow. Somewhere warm. Maybe I’ll head down south. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. A fancy S instead of an N on my compass, bro.”
“What? No!” Silas couldn’t explain. “It’s not like that. I mean—”
“We understand, Si.” Sam smiled then nodded. “I’d like to go to college. Earn a degree, find a real job. Something where I don’t have to dirty my hands to rake in cash. I’ll have fancy clothes, a slick apartment and a kickass car. I’ll party every night with the hottest girls in the city.”
The relief washing over his brothers filled Silas with anxiety and left him reeling. Who would help their father with the ranch? Who would continue their family traditions? Who if not him? Or Seth? Or Sam?
“Oh, no.” Sawyer shook his head as he kicked a rock. “Don’t give me that look. I told you, I’m not getting stuck here. Fuck that. You think someone should hang around, then stay put. It ain’t too late to cancel your plane ticket.”
“And neither can we.” Seth slugged his shoulder. “Come on, start the dogs. I’m starving. Jake slipped me a couple Playboys for doing his chores last weekend so he could bang Misty Trelane.”
“Nice! Me first.” Sam managed a head start for their brother’s backpack as Sawyer launched himself after his twin.
Silas watched them wrestle, laugh and call each other names as though his entire world hadn’t been ripped apart. Then he pivoted and stared out to the horizon as the sun set on his childhood.