Claimed! by Vicki Lewis Thompson

By SMW Staff

“I thought you were her new boyfriend, Keller. Sorry.” Nobody had ever accused Jack of having unmitigated gall. Not many folks around Shoshone, Wyoming, talked that way. He’d been accused of having a hell of a lot of nerve, but never unmitigated gall.

Last Jack had heard, Alex was a DJ for one of Chicago’s drive-time radio shows. Stood to reason he’d have a big-deal vocabulary to go with his job.

“And what if I had been her boyfriend, hotshot?” Alex balanced on the balls of his feet. “You think you can dictate who she sees? Somebody needs to teach you some manners.”

Jack figured the guy could start swinging any minute. Although Jack had never had a sister, he could imagine how a brother might feel toward someone who had treated his sister the way Jack had treated Josie. He wasn’t proud of his actions, but at the time they’d made some sort of crazy sense.

He’d been in bed with Josie the morning his dad had called wanting his help to pick up a filly from a nearby ranch. Jack had put him off with the excuse that a storm was brewing, when actually he hadn’t wanted to leave Josie. His dad had gone alone, rolled the truck and died. Riddled with guilt, Jack had punished himself the only way he knew how. He’d told Josie they were finished.

No wonder Alex wanted to punch his lights out. Any brother worth his salt would feel the same. Jack had never been one to back down from a fight if he believed in the cause, but this time he was in the wrong and he knew it.

“I’ll just leave, then,” he said.

Josie relaxed a little. “Good idea, Jack.”

He started for the door and paused to glance over his shoulder. “I really did think he was your new boyfriend.”

She gazed at him with eyes the color of a storm cloud. “And that would bother you?”

His brain definitely wasn’t working, because he hadn’t realized until that moment how his caveman tactics had exposed him. “Reflex,” he said, trying to pawn the punch off as nothing more than habit.

“I see.”

“Pure knee-jerk reaction. See you all later.” It might have been a decent exit if he hadn’t tripped on the door-sill. He didn’t fall, but he came damned close to it. Face burning, he started down the wooden stairway to the street level. If Josie told anybody about this, he’d never hear the end of it.

“Jack, wait.” Josie caught up with him partway down and laid a hand on his arm. “You shouldn’t drive home.”

He glanced back at her. Her hair had come a little bit loose from her braid, and the porch light shone on the top of her head, creating a kind of halo. He knew for a fact she was no angel, but damn, she was beautiful.

“I’m okay,” he said. “Just clumsy.” He wasn’t about to tell her he had no vehicle at his disposal. He hadn’t intended to come into town at all tonight.

He’d been at the ranch quietly getting soused. It was his pathetic attempt to ease the crushing sense of responsibility he felt now that he was in charge of everything. He’d been interrupted in that endeavor when his youngest brother, Gabe, had come home devastated because Morgan, the woman he loved, had turned down his marriage proposal.

Jack had convinced him to drive back into town and repeat the proposal with Jack riding shotgun and giving moral support.

“Leave your truck here and let me drive you home,” Josie said.

“Sorry. Too humiliating.”

“Don’t be stupid, Jack. Your family doesn’t need another tragedy.”

A reminder like that still had the power to slice through him. “That’s a cheap shot.”

“Maybe, but I don’t want to find out tomorrow that you drove into a tree on the way home, so I’m willing to fight dirty. Your truck will be fine here.” She glanced down at the parking area. “Where is your truck, by the way? I don’t see it.”

Jack sighed. Gabe would pay for this. When Gabe’s second proposal had worked out, Gabe had disappeared inside Morgan’s house, taking the truck keys with him.

On his way in, he’d suggested Jack go knock on Josie’s door. Lured by his brother’s success with his woman, Jack had decided to go for broke.

Which had landed him in this pile of stinking cow manure.

“Josie, just go back inside and let me take care of my own problems, okay?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “No.”

“What do you mean, no? Are you planning to sling me over your shoulder and throw me in the back of your Bronco?”

“I mean that you owe me, Jack Chance. You owe me big time for the way you acted ten months ago. I don’t want things to get any uglier because you drove away from my place and got in a wreck. Your family already blames me for—”

“They don’t.”

“Not to my face, but it was because of me you didn’t pick up that filly with your dad. If I hadn’t been in the picture, he might still be alive.”

“Good God, is that what you think? That it’s somehow your fault?” Jack was stunned. He thought he had the corner on guilt, but maybe not.

“Logically I know it wasn’t my fault. You’re a big boy.”

“My point exactly. About that morning and tonight. Go back inside. I’m not your problem.”

She didn’t budge. “Logically I get that. But emotion-ally…that’s a whole other thing. I wish I’d kicked you out of bed that morning, Jack. I wish I’d told you to go help your dad trailer that filly to the Last Chance.”

“Wasn’t your call.”

“So you don’t blame me?”

He heard the pain in her voice and knew that he’d caused it. “I never did.”

“Then why’d you end…us?”

“Some sort of penance, I guess. Thought I didn’t deserve to be happy.” And he had been happy. They had been happy…

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