Scott Edison shoved his phone away and ran his hand over his hair. Not that he could do much with the short cut he wore during the hockey season but it was habit. Shit. Fuck. Motherfucking hell with a side order of son-of-a-bitch.
He’d gotten into town just that afternoon, looking forward to reconnecting with his guys. Hot, intense Casey and sweet, mellow Will. After a month with nothing but long distance calls and his imagination, he was finally back in Kansas, with three days carved out of his schedule to remind them all how good they were together. He wondered every day how he got so lucky.
But this apparently wasn’t his lucky day. Instead of losing himself in Casey’s strong hands, and then both of them heading out to see Will after evening chores, he was going to spend his rare free time breaking Will’s heart.
And way to go, making this all about himself.
Snorting in self-disgust, he pushed off the bed and stood up. He was half naked, his shirt open to frame his chest, a calculated display of some of the toned muscle that he knew Casey liked. Now he buttoned it with unsteady fingers.
The Slaters were dead. He’d been lucky enough at twenty-three to not lose anyone he cared for yet. It felt so unfair that Will, who’d lost his real family early in some painful not-to-be-discussed way, now had to face the deaths of the new family he’d adopted as his own.
Merde. Câlis. Tabarnac. The colorful swearwords of his French-speaking teammates didn’t help any either. He dug clean socks out of his drawer, found his sneakers under the bed, and headed out.
It was cold for the beginning of November, and before he’d even started the car, he regretted grabbing his lightest leather jacket. Habit, because he knew Will liked the way he looked in it, but that would hardly matter tonight. He cranked the heater, and practiced phrases as he drove.
“I have something to tell you…”
“Casey called me and wanted me to … asked if I would…”
“We should go inside and…”
Goddamned motherfucking hell.
The drive out to the ranch took about fifteen minutes. Long enough for him to decide that he wasn’t ever going to find the right words. Also long enough to decide that the first thing out of his mouth needed to be, “Casey is fine.” Because he’d bet that Will also had nightmares where someone showed up unexpectedly, looking stunned and sad, and said, “I have bad news about Casey…” Just like he’d clutched for a moment when Casey had said someone was dead, and stopped. For an instant he’d pictured life without Will, and it had been bleak and painful enough to feel like a punch to the heart.
Whatever bad news he was delivering, at least it wasn’t that.
The road past the gates of the Tri-Cross ranch was rough. With the ease of long practice, he pulled left around the washout by the big oak, and slowed near the hill for the potholes that got filled every spring, and washed out again in the rains every autumn. The bounce of the suspension was familiar. How many times had he done this drive in the last two years? Lots, but never enough.
There were still lights on in the barn and the bunkhouse. The big house was dark and quiet. It would stay that way now.
Scott pulled into the parking area and turned off the engine. For a minute he sat there. He could hear a couple of the hands in the barn, joking back and forth as they tossed down hay bales from the loft. The dogs lay in the long grass near the barn door, snoozing in the spill of yellow light. They barely glanced his way, familiar with the sound of his Camaro. The fluttering hum of the modern windmill, the soft whicker of horses, the creak of some hinge in need of oiling, all made a constant, warm backdrop to the scene.
He gave it one more minute. And one more. The last moments in time when all would be well on the Tri-Cross. Then the barn door swung wider, someone glanced out and yelled back into the barn, “Hey, Boss. Scotty’s here.” And time had to move forward. He unfolded his tall body from behind the wheel of the sports car, stood up, and closed the door.
Will appeared in the barn doorway. He paused for just an instant, silhouetted against the light. Despite everything, Scott felt a rush of want for that lean, wiry, perfect piece of cowboy. It had been far too long. But he suppressed the thought, as Will hurried toward him, his expression anxious.
“Casey’s fine,” he said, before Will could even ask.
“Then what are you doing here so early?”
“Casey asked me to come. To tell you…” He swallowed, but there was really no good way. “Graham and Annmarie were killed a little while ago in a car crash.”
Will froze, standing so still Scott wasn’t sure he was even breathing. Then he slowly swallowed, licked his lips, and said, “That’s not possible.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“No, you don’t understand. They’ll be back in a couple of hours. They were going out to dinner. It’s their anniversary. They should be back soon.”
“Will.” Scott’s chest ached in sympathy.
“We’re just finishing chores. Annmarie will want to see Thunder’s hoof before I turn him out for the night. They’ll be here soon.” Will turned, peering down the driveway as if he could make the old couple’s truck appear by the force of his stare.
“I’m so sorry,” Scott repeated. He really wanted to reach out and touch Will, but not here, where at any moment one of the men might appear. “Casey will come as soon as he can.”
Will shook his head. “No.”
“What can I do? Tell me what to do.”
Will pulled out his phone, fumbling, dialing with shaking fingers. “Casey? Scotty just pulled up at the ranch spouting this crazy piece of nonsense…” He froze, listening. “No. Oh God, no.” And then after a minute, “How? Was it … fast?”
Scott stood there, feeling useless, as Will pressed the phone to his ear. All Scott could make out was the bass rumble of Casey’s voice. After a few minutes, Will held the phone out to him. “He wants to talk to you.” He walked off, away from the barn, and leaned on the paddock fence staring into the darkness.
Scott kept his eyes on Will’s back as he answered, “Yeah, Case?”
“How’s Will? How are you?”
“I’m good, he’s … shaken.”
“No shit. Listen, you did good. You were there and you told him, straight out.”
“He didn’t believe me. He called you.” Scott hadn’t realized how much that had hurt until he said it. He worked his ass off to be an equal partner to the two older men, and now when something important happened, Will had immediately turned to Casey for confirmation. Like Scott didn’t know what he was talking about.
“I’m a cop, and I’m the one who was on scene. He needed to hear it again, first hand. If I’d just phoned him, he likely wouldn’t have wanted to believe me either. Now hang up and take care of him.”
“When will you get here?”
“A couple of hours yet. You guys hang tough.”
Scott tapped off the phone and walked slowly toward Will, making enough noise that Will would hear him coming. Will didn’t move as Scott came up beside him. Scott offered the phone. “Casey says two hours yet.”
Will didn’t look at him. “Okay.”
When Will didn’t reach for the phone, Scott slipped it into Will’s jacket pocket, taking the chance to give Will’s arm a squeeze. “We’ll both wait.”
There was a long silence. Scott shivered as the late fall breeze found its way down his collar, chilling his back. A cloud crossed the moon, darkening the barnyard to shadows. Behind them, there was a yelp of laughter, and something crashed lightly.
“How do I tell them?” Will’s voice came disembodied in the sudden darkness. “This is their home too, all those guys. Graham and Annmarie were special to everyone. How do I tell them they’re gone, that it’s all gone?”