“You’re breaking up with me?”
He hadn’t expected the level of intensity he heard in Brenne’s voice. “This,” he said, gesturing between them, “doesn’t really rise to the level of a relationship, so technically I’m not ‘breaking up’ anything, but I am ending our arrangement, yes.”
Her green eyes narrowed, and Alex took a step back. He’d known Brenne MacAllen for most of her life, so he could recognize the signs of a major blow-up on the horizon. He also knew the quickest way to avert a tantrum. “You’re not upset, are you? I guess most girls might be upset by—”
“I’m not upset,” she said, her voice frostier than the January gloom outside the barn where they stood talking. “But I am surprised. Why end it now?”
“Because your mother knows something. She has to.” Alex had seen Mama May giving him long, appraising looks any time he stopped by the farm. That woman knows everyone’s business before they know it themselves. “If we want to keep Jameson and the rest of your brothers from finding out about us and skinning me alive, then we need to go our separate ways. Now.”
“Coward,” Brenne muttered under her breath. “Fine. No one is holding you here.” She shoved her way past him and out into the mist that was just warm enough not to freeze. Alex turned to watch her go, fighting against the urge to follow her.
Instead, he sat down heavily on a bale of hay, wondering how he’d gotten into this mess in the first place. He’d known he was running a risk when he’d decided to take up her offer of a “friends with benefits” arrangement. Brenne wasn’t the type to take no for an answer, even when she was younger. Alex remembered how she had asked him to let her ride the horses he was rehabilitating. Most of them were more than half-wild, and she was barely twelve. She’d had no fear in her then, just like now.
“I should have never said yes in the first place,” he muttered to himself. It was almost a year ago when he’d run into Brenne at a party after her younger brother had helped cinch a conference win for the Texas Tech football team. Most of the town had been out celebrating that night. Alex hadn’t even bothered to try Johnnie’s saloon, knowing it would be packed to the rafters in a sea of red. He’d joined the looser celebration out on a patch of land that had been abandoned by its owners some years ago. There was a stand of trees with a meadow in the center, and kids from the local high school had made it theirs, throwing after-hours, underage parties there until the sheriff put it on his patrol list.
That night, however, the adults had taken over, decked out in red and intoxicated by alcohol and joy. They’d gathered around a large bonfire, drinking and celebrating. Music played and drinks flowed from a multitude of coolers. Alex had followed the crowd there, the line of vehicles making a caravan of sorts from Lubbock to Whiskey River. He’d watched as several had made the turnoff down the gravel road that led to the clearing, then made the turn himself on a whim.
Maybe he hadn’t wanted to go back to his cramped space on the land his family owned. Or his more spacious apartment in Lubbock that had started feeling too empty during the long winter nights. For whatever reason, he’d found himself standing at the bonfire, beer in hand, staring at the figure across the flames.
He’d recognized her of course. Brenne MacAllen would stand out in any environment. A year later, and he still remembered what she was wearing that night. A Texas Tech sweatshirt that had been cropped to expose a flat stomach clad in skintight red fabric leading to jeans that cupped her curves in ways he suddenly wanted to. She was forbidden fruit, and he’d longed for just one taste.
“I’m tellin’ you, my boy is a genius.”
A familiar voice brought him out of his revere. Alex started, turning around to see Elijah entering from the door on the other end of the barn, his twin brother, Evan, following. “Dude, you said Luke was a genius the first time his neck supported the weight of his head. You think every dang thing that boy does is a miracle.”
Elijah shook his head, his brow furrowing, before he froze at the sight of Alex. Evan, not paying attention, didn’t realize his brother had stopped and collided with his back, letting out a string of curses.
“Hey, Doc,” Elijah said, ignoring Evan and coming forward. “Wasn’t expecting to find you here.”
“I was talking to Jameson about a horse,” he replied. It wasn’t a lie. That was why he’d ostensibly come to the MacAllen ranch today. And he had spoken to Jameson, but as soon as he’d left the office, he’d headed toward the stables to look for Brenne, but he’d found her in the barn.
“Oh no, not another damn horse.” Evan shook his head. “You and my brother are going to put this ranch out of business in feed prices alone. You’re both soft as marshmallows inside.”
“Oh hush up, Evan,” Elijah said. “Jameson has made a good profit off a couple of those horses once he gets them back in shape.”
“What about the ones he can’t sell?” Evan shook his head. “Besides, you’re just as bad. Ever since you became a dad, you’ve gone soft too.”
“It will happen to you one day,” Elijah warned with a half-smile.
“Never,” Evan said with a brisk shake of his head. “Sadie and I have an understanding about that.”
“Life finds a way,” Alex said, fighting a smile. He couldn’t help himself from piling on. That was what the MacAllens did, and he’d spent enough time around them to know how strong their penchant for teasing was.
Evan looked him up and down, his lips pursed. “Speaking of strays, how come no one has put a collar on you yet? Your practice does good business, and you’re easy on the eyes.”
“Thank you,” Alex said, putting a hand over his heart. “If I didn’t already know you were taken, I’d think you were making an offer yourself.”
Elijah folded over with laugher while his brother’s jaw dropped. “That’s not—”
“Just kidding,” Alex said, slapping Evan on the back. “I was just waiting out the rain and got lost in thought. I better get going now. It’s not like I’ll melt.”
“You’re sweet but not that sweet, Alex Parsons.”
He turned his head, surprised to find Mama May standing just outside the open barn door Brenne had stalked out of.
“You MacAllens are such flirts,” he said, carrying the joke out with him as he passed the MacAllen matriarch. “I better go before someone does find a collar for me.”
“And a leash,” Mama May added in a teasing tone, arms crossed over her prodigious bosom. “Can’t let a good one like you get away.”
Alex tensed at her words that sounded too much like a threat. I swear that woman knows something. He turned back, pointing a finger at Evan. “Let Jameson know I’ll be back tomorrow with the horse.”
Evan groaned and Elijah chuckled, but it was Mama May’s eyes that followed him to his truck. Alex headed down the driveway, but relief took its time hitting him. He was halfway home before his heart stopped its pounding. He realized as he drove that Brenne had not an insignificant amount of her mother’s personality in her. May MacAllen was an intimidating woman to most, but a kind one. Alex had always had a sense that she knew more than she let on, and though he couldn’t point to anything specific, it felt to him like she’d had a hand in many of the choices her children made.
Time to put the MacAllens out of your mind, he told himself as he drove. It’s over with Brenne, and as she has as much a stake in keeping things quiet as I do, there should be nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, his muscles didn’t get the message. They were still tense when he pulled into the driveway of his family’s farm. His truck occupied the space next to an old tractor that had been in his family for almost a century. His father still tinkered on it from time to time, but mostly it served to grow weeds and rust. Alex climbed out and took a moment catching his breath next to the old behemoth. He tried to shake off the tension before heading into his parents’ ramshackle one-story farmhouse.
It was still there, but subdued, as he entered and bent to take off his boots. Alex knew the risk of tracking mud over his mother’s freshly waxed floor. He made his way into the kitchen, which was always ten degrees warmer than the rest of the house. He expected to find his mother there baking something. It was what she spent her hours doing, now that both he and his sister were grown. Despite the many hours she’d put into it, she still struggled to produce much that was edible.
But it wasn’t his mother standing at the stove today. Instead, his sister, Peggy, stood at the stove, dressed in shorts and an old T-shirt. She turned around at his entry. “I’m heating up water for tea. Want some?”
He shook his head, then slid into one of the chairs around the kitchen table. “You look comfortable.”
Peggy looked down at her attire and shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to Boston winters. January in Texas is almost balmy by comparison.” The kettle sang its song, and Peggy filled a mug with hot water, plopping a teabag on top before joining him at the table. “Besides, you’re the lucky one. You can wear casual clothing at work.”
Alex looked down at his chambray work shirt and jeans. “Don’t forget, in my practice in Lubbock, I add a white coat.”
Peggy let out a snort of laughter. “You’re there, what, twice a week? Pretty soon you won’t even have to bother with that.”
“What do you mean?”
Peggy stared at him hard. “The development, duh. Everyone in town is talking about it, even if no one knows exactly what’s on the horizon. Something big is coming to Whiskey River, though.”
Alex leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Peggy wasn’t wrong, but she’d only been here for a week. He should have expected to hear her parroting what the rest of Whiskey River couldn’t stop obsessing over, but he hadn’t. “Instant Gratification. That’s what’s coming.”
Peggy stopped steeping her tea, her arm frozen in midair with the teabag dangling just above the water in her cup. “IG? Are you serious?”
“Extremely. They’ve been talking about a green hub, and word is that they’ve worked out a deal with the governor. It’s only a matter of time before they officially announce.”
“Holy…” Peggy shook her head. “I thought maybe they’d build a new factory or something on the outskirts of town. Some new people, some new business opportunities. Enough of a population boom for you to move your practice permanently to Whiskey River and close your office in Lubbock. But IG? That’s going to be insane.”
“Which is why we hope to stop it.”
“How?” It was clear from the tone of his sister’s voice that she didn’t think they had a chance. “You’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar company.”
“We’re discussing our options.”
“Who’s we?” Peggy asked, then answered before he had a chance to. “Let me guess. We is Jameson and Jim.”
“They’re the ones who learned this little tidbit of information before anyone else, and got it confirmed.” Alex’s tone came out more forcefully than he expected.
“Those MacAllens,” Peggy said, shaking her head and taking a sip of her tea. “You scratch the surface of any disturbance in Whiskey River and you’ll find a MacAllen lurking beneath it.”
“That’s unkind,” he countered. “They’re a big family, and an important part of this community.”
“And you’ve been bosom buddies with them for ages. I know, Alex.” Peggy’s tone was playful. “They’re not a bad group. They just seem to find themselves at the heart of any drama in town.”
Alex shrugged as he couldn’t exactly deny his sister’s observation. “I seem to remember you dated a certain MacAllen brother.”
“Don’t remind me.” She rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe somebody actually married Johnnie MacAllen. He’d never seemed serious about anything in his life, especially a relationship.”
“You guys were practically kids. He still had some growing up to do.”
“I won’t argue with that. Still, can you imagine marrying into that family?” Peggy gave an over-the-top shudder. “Nightmare, right?”
“Yeah.” His thoughts went back to that night, to the image of Brenne MacAllen across the bonfire, her hips swaying slowly in a primal rhythm that had seared itself into his psyche. It’s over, he reminded himself. In fact, it never really started.
But that didn’t mean forgetting about her would be easy.