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Maverick (North Ridge #2)(4)
Author: Karina Halle

A pitiful howl snaps me out of my musings. I glance up and see Chewie at the large windows overlooking the deck. She knows I’m home and if I don’t go inside and pay her some attention, there will be hell to pay. She’s not just named after Chewbacca (I dare you to think her barks, whines, and howls aren’t Wookie speak), she will literally chew her way through fucking everything and anything. I’m pretty sure Fox regrets the day I brought that pit bull home from the rescue, especially as she immediately ate one of his girlfriend’s bras.

I sigh, suddenly weary from the day, and trudge up to the house where I’m immediately greeted by Chewie who’s acting like she hasn’t seen me in months, her body wiggling all over the place and nearly knocking over the stack of winter boots by the door.

“Easy, silly girl,” I tell her, scratching her behind her ears as she does circles around me before she runs outside into the snow to do her business. As much as Fox gives me hell over her, at least she never expects me to take her on a walk in negative temps.

I look around the house. It’s clean, albeit a bit messy. That’s natural when you have two guys living together, both of whom are rarely home. In the summer and fall, Fox works as a hot shot, a wildfire fighter and smoke jumper, which takes him away from North Ridge and into little camps across BC and other provinces as he fights the blazes on the ground. In the winter, he works as a ski and snowboard guide at our local ski resort.

Chewie rushes back in from the cold and gives me one of those looks of hers that warms your heart before it breaks.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her as I head down the hall to my bedroom, stripping off the layers of work gear as I go. “I’d stay home with you if I could. But you know family. If I don’t go, I’ll look like an asshole.”

She snorts in protest, following me, trying her hardest to win me over with her damn sweet eyes. I’ve always been a sucker for the ladies.

It doesn’t take long for me to throw on a thermal and sweater, then distract Chewie with a Milk-Bone and head back out to the truck before she realizes that I’m gone. The snow is falling even harder than it was earlier and I fishtail in the truck for a bit as I head down the driveway.

The bar isn’t too far from our house, so I have barely enough time to put on my game face before I pull into the parking lot.

“You’re happy for him,” I tell myself as I park the truck.

And I am. Shane deserves all of this and more. As his brother, I couldn’t be more proud. I just have to shake off that tinge of self-doubt that’s clouding me and let it go. The truth is, and I know this, that I can’t even imagine settling down with anyone. And since that’s the truth, there’s no reason to feel anything but pure joy for my brother. And maybe a bit of relief that it’s not me who’s making a lifetime commitment.

Inside the pub, the celebration is in full-swing. Normally there’s just a few of us in here, ordering drinks to keep Delilah busy and in business while shooting the shit, flicking peanut shells on the floor, fucking around. Now it seems like half the town is crammed inside. Music from the jukebox is blaring Willie Nelson, people are dancing, drinking, yelling.

Some of them are yelling at me.

“Holy fuck, you finally showed up!” Fox yells, coming over to me with two bottles of beer in his hands, immediately handing me one. He’s drunk, which is a surprise since I don’t see him like this too often.

“I told you I was coming,” I tell him, taking the beer and having a tepid sip, knowing I’ll have to take it easy tonight since I’ll be the one taking his drunk ass back home.

“Actually, you didn’t,” he says, throwing his arm around my shoulder like he didn’t just see me this morning. Guess he forgot about the dog piss.

“John,” my father says, appearing at my side. My father isn’t a tall man, though all his sons tower over him, including me. I’m 6’3”, Fox is 6’2” and Shane is 6’ even. Even so, the man wrote the book on tough love and can side-eye you into retreating with your tail between your legs. For all my height and brawn, my father will always be able to put me in my place.

“About time,” he says gruffly.

I try to give him my most appeasing smile. Lately it’s been working on him, though I think it has more to do with him finding love again than it does with me.

“I worked late,” I explain, “not much I can do about that.”

My father narrows his eyes at me, seeking the truth.

“What?” I say.

“I know you’ve got a lot more on your plate now and the government keeps you on a short leash, but don’t forget that family is family. Now go give your younger brother a damn hug.”

He stalks off to the bathroom and I catch the eye of Vernalee, Rachel’s mother, waving me over to her stool at the bar.

Fox is already distracted by the dart board so I head toward her.

“Maverick, you came,” she says happily, a glass of sparkling wine in her hand. I know it’s sparkling wine because Del would never stock real champagne for the bar. This ain’t that kind of place.

I give her a quick hug. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. You must be thrilled.”

She gives me a wry grin. “I am. Though I know it’s a little weird.”

“Weird is good.”

Last year Vernalee was diagnosed with lung cancer (she’s fine now), which prompted Rachel to come back to North Ridge for the first time in six years. Their relationship was pretty rocky but they managed to repair it, while Rachel also found herself repairing her relationship with Shane. Obviously that worked too, a little too well.

But what was also happening at the same time was that my father and Rachel’s mother were falling for each other. I don’t like to dwell on the sappy shit too much, but the two of them are obviously happy. And while it is a little weird that our families are connected now in two different ways, this is the first time I’ve seen my dad with someone other than my mother. She died just after Shane was born and I was only five years old. As much as I can’t forget my mother, my dad deserves to find love again more than anyone.

I look over my shoulder and spot Shane, his arm around Rachel, both of them drinking and smiling with some of the locals. When I catch their eye, Rachel grins at me and Shane raises his drink. I raise my beer.

“So when do you think you’ll settle down?” Vernalee asks, not so innocently.

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