Brothers of Cooper Ranch

By: Leslie North

"Careful, Dennis," Sawyer warned. "You might slip and start waxing about true love."

"You're too young to be this jaded," Dennis groused. "What are you now, eighteen?"

"I'm twenty-eight, and there's no way in hell you didn't know that," Sawyer said stiffly. He tried to ignore the fact that Tick, posted up against the barn wall with a fresh water bottle, was grinning from ear to ear at their exchange.

"Well, time to cowboy up and start acting like a man," Dennis responded. "A married man. From where I'm standing, Bella's the best thing that ever happened to you, boy."

Cowboy up. Couldn't Dennis see that's exactly what Sawyer had been trying to do before he decided tying his future to Bella's was a good idea? He'd lived his whole life up until this point following the cherished old edict and going it alone. It was only when he let his guard slip and relied on somebody else that it all came crashing down around him. Nothing that had happened to Bella was her fault—hell, Sawyer blamed himself, if anyone—but that didn't change the fact that she had left him up Shit Creek without a paddle. She was too fragile in her current state; she was to be protected, not counted on.

He would have to go it alone again.

"Besides," Dennis concluded as he spun his pitchfork, "I credit Bella for being the reason you decided to come home for a visit in the first place."

"I was comin' back to visit anyway," Sawyer protested. He hated that arguing with Dennis made him sound exactly like the boy the other man saw him as.

"Been a few years already," Dennis pointed out. "When were you planning on it?"

Sawyer hung his head. The fire that had previously fueled him to slam barn doors and bark orders at hands had diminished to a sad, guttering flame.

"I've been busy." His excuse sounded pathetic, even to him. He went on. "I know I've been out there in the world a bit, but you can't think my ties to the ranch are that undone."

Dennis laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. "I'm proud of you, son. You bet Robert's lookin' down on you from above, and he's proud of you, too."

"Dad would be pissed I got myself into this fix in the first place."

Dennis withdrew his hand and looked off across the barn at something past Sawyer's shoulder. "Agree to disagree," he said simply.

"Oh, come on, Dennis!" Sawyer argued. "Bella didn't lead me home, I led her here. And look at what happened to her! Everything that's gone wrong since we got here is my fault." He pinched the bridge of his nose furiously. "I need to take sole responsibility for everything going forward—but that doesn't change the fact that I never should have brought Bella here in the first place!"

The stable was silent, which didn't happen often in any of the ranch’s barns. Sawyer withdrew the vicious hold he had on his nose and unclenched his eyes. When he looked up, he noticed Dennis still staring past his shoulder. This time the man wore a helpless expression.

Sawyer guessed before he turned around who he would find standing behind him.



Bella was under strict orders not to stray from her bedroom—but considering she didn't really recognize this bedroom as hers, she had no problem slipping out of bed the first moment she was left alone.

She padded across the room and poked her head inside the adjoining bathroom. It was as gorgeous and rustic as the bedroom it complemented, with a claw-foot tub in one corner and a giant stone shower that looked like it had been built to house a private party rather than a single occupant looking to unwind. And…was that a door to a sauna?

"I live here?" Bella murmured to herself in wonder. Then she shook her head. "Ridiculous!"

But the sink revealed what she had been dreading: between two red marble basins, two toothbrushes sharing the same holder. Bella picked one up and spun it between her fingers. She squinted. It was the same brand of toothbrush, and the same purple color, that she had been brushing with for twenty years…but was it hers?

"I need answers," she decided as she dropped it back into its cup. Answers that Dr. Billson wasn't being especially forthcoming with. According to him, she needed to give her brain time to rest and heal—and that meant everyone was to avoid telling her exactly what had happened during her missing month. Bella had raised an understandable fuss. She wasn't a child, and she didn't want to be treated with kid gloves now, but her physician held firm. Her memory would return to her in its own time, he promised her.

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