He ground his molars together at being called sweetie. He was a freaking commando, for crying out loud, and had killed dozens, or maybe hundreds, of hostiles over the years. Only Miranda Morgan had the gall to call him something so childish and insulting.
“I’m fine. Thanks for coming up to check on me.”
She stomped up the steps like a freight train gathering momentum. Nope. Not gonna take the hint to go away. Dammit. She barreled inside the tiny cabin, filling it up with her huge personality. “This place is a dump. You really should have let me redecorate it before you moved in here,” she announced.
“It’s fine for me. I don’t need anything fancy. Just a roof over my head and a dry place to lie down at night.” What he did most nights didn’t actually qualify as sleep, truth be told. He tossed and turned in between nightmares that woke him sweating in cold terror, most nights.
“Is that what you’re eating for supper?” she demanded. “Come down to the main house and let Willa cook you a proper supper.”
“Willa Mathers? Hank’s daughter?”
“Correct. She helps me out around the house and does some bookkeeping and filing for your father when she’s not studying. She’s going to school, you know. Working on a PhD in counseling or something.”
Good for her. Daughter of the ranch’s longtime foreman, he remembered Willa as a skinny kid with long black braids and a magic touch with horses.
“Seriously, Brett. I’m not letting you sit up here starving yourself to death.”
“Do I look like I’m starving?”
“All this time you’re spending alone isn’t good for you. Come down to the house and eat supper with us every day.”
Brett’s voice went flat. “No.”
He was not putting himself in the way of his father on a daily basis. No way. John Morgan was a born-again son of a bitch, and he could do without his father’s judgment and condescending crap, thank you very much. Just because his father was a decorated war hero didn’t mean his sons had to be the same.
Hell, he didn’t know if he was a hero or a traitor, anyway, after that last mission. If only he could remember—
“You sound as stubborn your father when you talk like that.”
His gaze narrowed to a cold stare. He would take that as a compliment, this time. “Don’t push me, Mom. I’m only here until I figure out what I’m doing next. If you can’t leave me alone like you agreed to, just say the word, and I’m gone.”
Miranda scowled back at him, no less stubborn than him or his father. Silence stretched between them as Brett refused to be the one to give in, and Miranda did the same. Even Reggie felt the tension, for the dog eventually whimpered and came over to bump Brett’s hand. The mutt seemed to be looking for reassurance more than a scratch, so Brett let his hand rest on the dog’s back.
“Fine. Be like that,” Miranda huffed.
He didn’t deign to speak or to let her off the hook.
She flopped down on the ratty sofa and threw up her hands. “So what happened at Pittypat’s? Joe called to tell me you broke a guy’s nose and arm.”
He ground out, “The guy was a punk who tried to rob the place. I stopped him.”
“By half killing him?”
“Trust me. If I had tried to kill him, he would be dead.”
Miranda rolled her eyes, not fazed by the remark. But then, John Morgan was an ex-Green Beret who’d killed his fair share of Vietcong.
Brett picked up a knife and fork and dug into his meal, such as it was. He didn’t invite her up here, and he felt no obligation to entertain her.
“What about the waitress? Joe said she got roughed up but you saved her.”
He shrugged, but his shoulders felt unaccountably tight. It still pissed him off that the punk had slammed her into the counter like that. The fear in her eyes—he would be dreaming about that in his nightmares for days to come. And that other thing in her eyes… He could swear it had been a death wish. What the hell was that all about? “What about her?”
“Is she okay?” Miranda asked in exasperation.
“Of course. I saved her.”
“What’s her name?”
He didn’t want to share her name with anyone. He wanted to hold it close within himself. A secret. His secret. But Miranda was, well, Miranda. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth fighting her. He mumbled, “Larkin. Anna Larkin.”
“Didn’t she go to Hollywood a while back or something ridiculous like that?”
His gut clenched at Anna being labeled ridiculous, which was weird. He hardly knew her. It was none of his business what the locals thought of her. He shrugged. “How the hell would I know what she did? I’ve been overseas for ten years.”
Miranda tapped a front tooth with a short, neat fingernail. “I think she went west with a boy. Her mother was fit to be tied. Disowned her.”
Indeed? That sucked. Although, right about now, he wouldn’t mind being disowned by his own intrusive, pushy mother. He ate in silence, not tasting a bite of his beans and toast.
“Is she all right?” Miranda startled him by asking.
“Who? Anna Larkin?”
“Of course Anna Larkin. Was she hurt today? Was she struck? Did she fall? Hit her head?”
An image of her pitching off his porch earlier leaped to mind, and he winced at the memory of her hitting her head on the ground. He really wished she would’ve stuck around for a little while so he could’ve been sure she was okay. But it wasn’t like he could have bodily dragged her into his cabin and held her against her will.
“I wonder if she’s been to a doctor. She could have a concussion or broken ribs or something.”
“She would know if she had broken ribs,” he replied drily. Lord knew, he still felt his when he exerted himself too hard, four months after he’d broken them. Of course, he’d gotten off easy. Four of his men had died.
Apparently his scowl of self-loathing finally did the trick and convinced Miranda that he had no desire whatsoever to be social with her tonight.
“Don’t stay up here too long, Brett. You need people around you. Your family loves you.” She came over to force an unwanted hug on him, which he tolerated uncomfortably.
She left, and he listened to her truck retreat down the mountain. Blessed silence settled around him once more. He didn’t deserve a family. And certainly not one that loved him.
Grimly, he gave the leftover beans to Reggie, who lapped them up eagerly and finished with a loud smack of his lips. Dogs surely had the right of it. Live completely in the moment, no past, no future. Just the simple pleasures of right now.
He turned on the television for background noise but didn’t bother to watch whatever flashed across the screen. Instead, a memory of Anna Larkin’s sweet face came to him. Her smile. Her embarrassment when she’d spilled water on him. Her terror when that kid slammed her into the counter…and her bizarre disappointment when he’d come charging to her rescue like some damned knight in shining armor. Who the hell was he kidding? He was nobody’s good guy.
He was the jerk who’d let her go away without finding out if she had a concussion.
He downed a couple of beers but didn’t much feel like getting drunk tonight. Which was a first for him since he’d come home. Maybe all the excitement had taken more out of him than he’d realized. He should call it a night early and get some sleep. Except when he eyed the bed through the open bedroom door, fear came calling, ugly and insidious, crawling inside his gut and gnawing at his insides until he doubled over in pain.
The walls began to close in on him, and his breathing accelerated until he might as well have been running for his life.
And that was exactly what he did. He bolted outside, unable to stand being confined any longer. Reggie had already settled down on his fleece bed in front of the wood-burning stove for the night, so he didn’t go back for the dog.