Ethan had sat in front of the computer too damned long again. That was the one thing he hated about managing the ranch; he’d much rather be outside working with the livestock. He looked up from the monitor as he heard a truck pull up the dirt drive and around the back of the house, then he listened to the autumn leaves rustling as someone stomped through them and onto the back porch.
“Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Damn!” Ethan frowned at the sound of John’s voice. The back door slammed, followed by the opening and shutting of cabinet doors.
That wasn’t good. Not good at all. The outburst of profanity was not unexpected. After all, John had always had a temper, but he had never sounded on the verge of tears before. In fact, he could only remember John crying once during the past twenty-six years, and that was when his mama had died three years ago.
Ethan saved his last changes to the herd record, then made his way into the kitchen to find out what was eating John, his friend since first grade. He supposed that the occasional emotional upheaval from your best friend was a small price to pay for having someone you could trust and depend on live only a bit down the road from you.
“Ethan! Are you here, man? Where is the fucking whiskey?!”
He walked in just as John’s tan Stetson slid across the kitchen table. Ethan caught it before it hit the floor. “Top of the pantry, there’s a fifth of Jack.” He padded barefoot across the room, got down two glasses and brought them back to the table.
John set the bottle down on the table, spun the ladder-back chair around, and straddled it. He didn’t look at Ethan, just crossed his arms over the chair back and laid his head on his forearms.
Ethan poured a couple swallows in each glass, then slid John’s to him. He knew John well enough to give his friend time. John would tell him what was up when he was ready; pressuring him would only delay the inevitable.
John glanced up, his blue eyes bloodshot, and tossed the whiskey back in one swallow. He brushed the back of his hand over his mouth, then pushed the glass toward Ethan, motioning for a refill.
Ethan poured some more and watched as John swigged it down, then grabbed the bottle. He sighed and took a sip of his own whiskey. Man, that burns. He propped his legs up on the chair next to him and waited for John to finish drinking.
Finally, John lifted his head, running his fingers through his short black hair, making it stand straight up. “Jamie is gay.”
Ethan’s eyes widened and he gulped down the lump in his throat. His feet slid off the chair and hit the wooden floor with a thump. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? He reached out and grabbed the rest of his own whiskey and drank it down.
James Killian. Jamie. John’s younger brother had always followed in their footsteps when he was younger. They hadn’t been able to go anywhere without the kid trying to tag along. Hell, Jamie was a good guy... even if he wasn’t exactly a child anymore. He’d turned twenty-one the past fall.
“He freakin’ walks in the office this morning while Dad and I are going over the books, sits down on the old leather couch, and says he needs to tell us something.”
“So... he what? Has a boyfriend he wants to bring home or something?”
John stared at him for a few minutes, then shook his head. “Don’t know. I don’t have any fucking idea. Hell, for a minute there, I thought he was just yanking our chain.”
“Well, what happened?”
“What do you mean what happened? He told us he’s gay and Dad kicked his ass out. He kicked Jamie out, Ethan! Out of the house, off the Quad J!”
Ethan blinked. Jamie was not only John’s brother, he was also the ranch foreman. Although their sister, Julia, had moved to San Antonio and was working as a nurse, the brothers worked on their family’s ranch, the Quadruple J. Jamie had stayed on to help John run the place when their dad, Jacob, had retired. John was ranch manager now, while their dad oversaw both their work. Jacob claimed he wanted to make sure they got it right.
“What? Isn’t that a little extreme? He’s family!”
John nodded and took another big swig from the bottle. “Yup, he told him to get ’is freak assth out.”
“What the hell are you going to do for a foreman? Shit, John! That’s just fucked!”
His friend shrugged, listed a little to the side before he jerked himself back up. “Well, whah can I do? I don’t know... jus’ don’ wan’ tink ’bout it n-now... anyway.”
Ethan could barely understand the slurred words. He stood up and paced. “What the fuck, man? He’s your brother! Where the hell is he gonna go?”
John lifted one shoulder and almost fell out of his chair again. “Don’ know... jiss hope hiss otay.”
Ethan rushed over to prop him up. “Have you had anything to eat today?”
John shook his head. “Jiss dis whiskey.”
No wonder he’d gotten so shit-faced so fast. Ethan pulled him up and steered him toward the living room.
John didn’t resist, but reached out and grabbed the bottle of Jack on the way past the table. “Where’s we go’n’?”
“To the couch before you fall over.” Ethan got John settled on the couch, then flopped down on chair next to it. “Damn!”
John’s head wobbled in what Ethan supposed was a nod. “Yup... ’S fuckin’ increb-ib-id-ble. My baby brubber... had no ’dea. Can you ’lieve it? And jis like you, the girls fuckin’ lub ’im. In’t that funn...”
Ethan shook his head, then looked up as the whiskey bottle slid out of John’s hand, catching it before it spilled. He put the liquor down on the coffee table, then sat back down in his chair, running his hands down his face. What a mess!
Ethan dropped his head into his hands. Jamie was a good man... a good-looking man, too John was right, his younger brother certainly had his fair share of women trying to catch his eye-- and probably men, too, for that matter. Jamie didn’t deserve to lose his family over something so... insignificant. Neither did John. His friend might be in shock now, not to mention drunk, but Ethan knew John would try to find Jamie once he had a chance to think straight... however the hell long that would take. Damn old man Killian! Stubborn, opinionated bastard!
Ethan knew better than most what it was like to be without family. He and his Aunt Margaret were all that were left of his. His mother had died in a car accident when he was three, he’d lost his older brother to Desert Storm, then his dad had succumbed to a heart attack five years ago.
John snored loudly, interrupting his thoughts.
Ethan glanced down at himself; he had on his gray sweatpants and white Toby Keith tee-shirt. He needed to dress and leave the house, get some air and time to think before he went stir crazy. But first he had to see if he could help John... and Jamie. He didn’t know what he could do... but he had to try something. Jacob Killian kickin’ his own son to the curb just didn’t sit right with Ethan. He had a ranch; the least he could do was offer the kid a job and a place to sleep in the bunkhouse. The Tin Star could always use another good cowboy.
Leaving his friend to sleep it off on the couch, Ethan went into his office and dug through his Rolodex of addresses until he found Jamie’s cell phone number.
Damn! He’d always been fond of the kid, but who’d have ever thought...