Jarrett was dead.
Lucas Tanner stared at the letter lying on the table in front of him. The one from his brother's attorney, conveying the devastatingly grim news of Jarrett's death.
Dragging a hand back through his hair with a heavyhearted sigh, Lucas closed his eyes. Not again. Hell, his brother was only twenty-nine-years-old, five years younger than himself. Too damn young to die. But then he knew firsthand that death had no age requirement.
Forcing his gaze back to the neatly scrawled words, he read on. There had been no funeral. Just a small, private memorial service in remembrance of his brother. That was how Jarrett had wanted it.
Flexing his fingers, he slid them forward to cover the crisp white stationary, as if by doing so it would block out the finality of the word - dead. His fingers flexed and then dug into the letter, crumpling the sheet into a tight ball.
Three years before he'd heard that same life-altering word. Or in his case life-ending, because he'd pretty much stopped living the day his wife died. At least emotionally. And it was that same grief and the circumstances surrounding it that drove him away from Wyoming.
Despite his brother's urgings to come home Lucas had never returned. He couldn't. Not with so many painful memories waiting for him back in Eagle Ridge.
Regret over that decision swept through him now with a vengeance. Jarrett had been the only family he had left and now he was gone, too. All thanks to an icy stretch of road and the aging cottonwood that took on his brother's truck and won.
Lucas muttered a curse, his jaw clenching at the injustice of it all. While he'd been up in Venezuela seeing to a herd of horses, his brother had been laid to rest back in the states without any family there to mourn him.
Pushing away from the table, he dug his cell phone out of the front pocket of his jeans and punched in the number of his closest friend and employer, Alexandre Alvarez Reynolds.
Three rings later, he answered.
"Lucas," his friend greeted, just a hint of his Portuguese heritage coming through in his accent. The son of an American businessman and a Portuguese mother, Alex had inherited his father's height and solid frame and his mother's dark, refined features. His father was a successful businessman, investing his money into property throughout Brazil. But when Alexandre was 17, his parents died in a plane crash, forcing his friend to become a man overnight. And he had done so in a way Lucas was certain his father would have been proud of.
"Alex," he said as he paced the hardwood floor.
"For a man who's earned himself a much-deserved, work-free weekend, you don't sound too happy."
A long silence filled the connection between them before Alexandre spoke again. "Lucas... I don't know what to say other than I'm very sorry."
"I'm going to have to extend that weekend. I'm going back to Eagle Ridge."
"I never thought I'd hear you say those words," Alexandre replied.
"It's not by choice," Lucas admitted. "I have to go back to settle my brother's estate."
"Take as much time as you need, mi amigo. Fernando can see to things until you return."
"Thanks. I'll call you once I get to the states and know more."
"Safe journey, my friend."
Lucas snapped his phone shut and then looked down at the waded ball of paper in his other hand. Walking over to the hearth, he tossed it into flames. Moments later, the crumpled missive from Jarrett's attorney was nothing more than ashes.
* * *
Ellie Sanders straightened and placed a hand at the base of her spine. Her back ached from the long hours she'd spent on her feet that day waiting on customers. Now she was in the back kitchen of her coffee shop, baking sweets to serve the next morning.
Her days had become a never-ending blur. She moved through them with as much detached thought as possible. As it had when she was younger, keeping her feelings at bay that way helped her go on. And she had to go on. Her business wouldn't run itself. And the coffee shop was her sole source of income. Without it, she couldn't pay the bills or keep a roof over their head.
She looked down with a sad smile as her hand smoothed over the swell beneath the front of her apron. Not 'their', she forced herself to remember. Her child would have the life she'd always been denied. One with a happy, loving, financially secure family. One with two parents. And maybe even siblings to share childhood joys with.
Her decision to give her baby up for adoption had taken a lot of soul-searching. And now that she had finally made it she had to be strong. Had to do what was best for the child growing inside her. That meant not being selfish like her own parents had been, doing only what was right for them without considering what the ramifications of their choices would be for her.
No, she had to stay strong. Had to hold herself together no matter how many doubts crept into her mind over the coming months. The fear of the past repeating itself through her was too deeply ingrained.
Walking over to the oven, she slipped her hands into a pair of oven mitts and pulled the two remaining pans of banana nut bread out. Turning to the work island behind her, she placed them on the waiting cooling racks. Then she removed the mitts and tossed them onto the counter next to the freshly baked loaves of bread.
She glanced up at the clock on the wall with a frown. It was only a few minutes after six o'clock, but it felt like midnight. Oh how she longed to go upstairs to her old apartment and take a nap, but she had responsibilities back at the ranch to see to.
Jarrett had always tended to the animals. But now that he was gone, she thought, her eyes misting over, it was up to her to see to their care. Thankfully, his best friend, Blaine Cooke, had been coming by in the mornings to feed the animals so she could get into town and open up the coffee shop. She wasn't sure how she would have kept things going without him.
If she had hired someone on to help out at the coffee shop, she could have come and gone as she pleased. Take naps at leisure until the baby came. But hiring someone on meant paying out money she didn't have to spare. Especially now that she was trying to keep both her coffee shop and Jarrett's ranch afloat. So as it had been all of her life, she was on her own.
True romance is always an adventure...
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