Before he even left the parking lot Ry Morgan heard the bass booming through the walls, and the sound of heavy partying from the third-floor apartment. When he turned the corner, he almost walked into a squad car flashing blue lights, and a small crowd of agitated neighbors gathered around the door.
"Hell, not again," he breathed as one of the helpful neighbors pointed him out to the cop.
He held his ground as she came toward him and the noise from above suddenly shut off.
"Can I help you, Officer?"
She jabbed her thumb in the direction of the apartment block. "You live here?"
"I used to. I just stopped by to pick up my stuff."
"Are you HW Morgan?"
"Nope, I'm his brother Ry."
"You sure about that?"
Used to being mistaken for his identical twin, he cautiously reached inside his jacket, took out his wallet, and handed over his driver's license.
"Thanks." She studied it, made the usual face at his given name, and then handed it back. "Have you seen your brother recently?"
"Not for about three weeks. What's up?"
He asked even though it was obvious. The last time HW had thrown a party the police had been called. Maybe HW had learned something by not sticking around long enough to get caught in the aftermath. Ry's gut tightened.
"Is it okay to go up there? I just want to get my stuff and head out again in the morning."
"Wise decision." The officer looked at him steadily. "Maybe you can make sure the party doesn't start again."
"I'll do my best." He tipped his Stetson to her. "Thanks."
"And tell your brother that if he keeps this up, he'll be spending the rest of his evening with the Sacramento Police Department."
Ry nodded as he turned away and headed for the front entrance of the building. A police officer was escorting a group of partygoers down the stairs. There were others emerging from the two elevators, still complaining loudly about the abrupt end to their evening. Ry ignored them all. They weren't his kind of people. They stunk of booze, cheap perfume, and other substances he hoped the police hadn't noticed.
Wearily, he climbed the stairs, spoke to the building security guy who had lingered on the landing to make sure everyone had left, and went inside. The place was a mess. He shut the door and leaned against it, letting his backpack slide to the floor.
"Well, look who's turned up."
He raised his head to see Lally Goldstein glaring at him from his brother's bedroom doorway. She wore a halter top, which had silver spangled bits on it, and tiny blue shorts. Her blond hair was piled up on top of her head in a messy ponytail.
"You still here?" Ry asked. "I thought the cops cleared everyone out."
"I live here now."
"First I've heard about it."
She tossed her head. "You left. Someone had to look after your brother."
"HW knew where I was." He glanced around the wrecked apartment. "Where is he, by the way?"
"What's it to you?"
Ry didn't even bother to answer that, and stared her down. Eventually she gave an elaborate sigh. "He should be back soon. Paul and Araz took him down the stairs when the cops turned up."
"Protecting their assets, right?"
She crossed her arms over her chest, making her fake boobs jut out. "They've done more for him than you ever did — bringing him down, making him feel bad about himself — having to hold himself back for years because he felt sorry for you not being as good a rider as he was."
"Yeah?" Ry wanted to turn around and walk away from all the shit that was coming out of her mouth, but he refused to leave first. He hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder. "I'm going to bed."
"You can't —"
He spun around so fast she took a step back. "HW and I rent this place. Until I hear differently, I'm going to bed."
He unlocked the padlock he'd installed on his bedroom door, and went inside. Nothing looked as if it had been touched, which made a change. His twin tended to think that what was Ry's was his, but not vice versa. Not that Ry wanted anything his brother had.
With a groan he placed his hat on the desk and shoved a hand through his short blond hair. His stomach growled, but he wasn't going out there again to face Lally. If HW came back he could knock on the door, and be polite. Maybe Ry would talk to him.
He stripped off his shirt and jeans, and took a quick shower in the tiny bathroom attached to his bedroom. There was no more partying, but whether HW would come back Ry no longer knew. Sometimes his twin would stay away for days and return so shit-faced he'd sleep for a week and be as grumpy as hell if Ry tried to talk to him about anything.
He wasn't sure he cared anymore. Hunkering down on the rug beside his bed, he delved into his backpack, where his grandma Ruth had deposited enough food to feed an army. Just the thought of her lightened Ry's dark mood and gave him strength. He pictured his family at the ranch — his older brothers, Chase and Blue, and his father, Billy. They liked him for who he was. They loved him.
A knock on the door made him go still.
"Ry? You in there?"
He took out the bundle of food and placed it on the desk before slowly turning to the door and opening it. His twin stood there grinning like a loon and swaying slightly in his fancy cowboy boots. They were identical, so it was like looking at a drunk version of himself.
"Dude! You're back!"
Ry stepped aside and let HW in.
"Something smells good. Did you bring stuff back from the ranch?" HW wandered over to the desk and went to grab the container of food. Ry, who was stone cold sober, moved faster and blocked his twin's hand.
"What do you want, HW?"
His brother blinked big golden eyes at him. "That's harsh, Ry. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Ry leaned against the edge of the desk, folded his arms over his chest, and repeated, "What do you want?"
HW retreated to the bed and sank down on it, his expression disgruntled. "Some of Ruth's good cooking, but it looks like you've decided to hog it all for yourself."
"I'll gladly share the food with you after you've told me what's going on."
"You mean about the party?" HW hiccuped a laugh. "That was so sick, man. Those cops have no sense of humor."
"Those cops told me to tell you that if you host a party again they'll be taking you in and charging you."
"Not unless they catch me first."
"I think they'll manage it, especially if you keep drinking."
HW sighed. "Gawd, when did you become such a boring Dudley Do-Right, bro? I'm just having some fun."
"Yeah." Ry studied his twin. HW's pupils were too wide, his eyes were bloodshot, and his whole body was shaking. "You should go to bed. I'll talk to you in the morning, okay?"
"What's wrong with talking now?"
"Because you're too drunk, or high, or whatever the stimulant of the day is, to talk much sense."
HW rose unsteadily to his feet. "Don't preach at me."
Ry set his jaw. "I'm tired. I've got a lot to do tomorrow."
His twin took three lurching steps forward that brought him right in Ry's face. "Screw you. Talk to me about wussing out on me."
Ry straightened, almost overbalancing his twin. "I am not talking to a belligerent drunk! Get out of my space, or I'll be the one calling the cops."
For one frozen second, Ry couldn't believe what he'd said, and then he realized he meant every word.
"Get out, HW. I'll speak to you in the morning."
His twin mumbled something obscene and stumbled away, slamming the bedroom door behind him. In the stillness Ry waited until he heard his brother's girlfriend start in on him, and then there was comparative silence. He slowly let out his breath.
No regrets. He'd promised himself that he'd make a clean break, so tomorrow he'd tell HW what was happening, and leave. His hand clenched into a fist, and he sat down heavily on the desk chair. Now all he had to do was follow through with his plan, and this time make sure he stuck the landing.
* * *
It was almost eleven in the morning, and Ry had made good inroads into packing up the stuff in his bedroom. He had to fit everything in his old pickup truck, and was determined to make only one trip. He'd already decided not to take any of the furniture — most of it had come with the apartment anyway, or had been chosen by HW.
He stuffed four pairs of socks in his open duffel bag. Chase had offered him his pick of the ranch land to build his own place on, which was kind of cool. Not that he needed all that space yet, but it was good to dream.
"Ry, what the hell are you doing?"
He turned to see HW propping up the doorway wearing nothing but a pair of boxers that barely hung onto his narrow hips. He was also shading his eyes against the glare of the sun.
"I'm packing my stuff."
"What the heck for?"
Ry looked his twin right in the eye. "Because I'm leaving."
HW frowned. "We always fight, bro. You know I don't mean anything. That's just the way we are."
"No, it's the way we've become. I don't like it, HW, and I'm not going to play that game anymore."
"So, what? You're walking out on me?"
"I barely see you these days. You're either training, going to extra events, or"— Ry paused —"doing other stuff I don't enjoy."
"I've been working my ass off to qualify for the national finals, you know that."
"Yeah. I really hope you'll get there."
"But you're sulking because I haven't been spending enough time with you? Hell, Ry, that's half your problem. If you don't train hard and compete often, you won't qualify."
"I get that."
"So don't blame me if you haven't been dedicated enough to achieve what I have."
"I don't." Ry added another drawerful of underwear to the bag. "I'm just not cut out for this life."
HW sat on the bed, his bloodshot gaze fixed on the filled and labeled boxes. "We're identical twins. If I can do it, you can."
"But, maybe I don't want to."
"So you're going to disappear, and leave me here by myself?"
Ry faked a smile. "You're hardly by yourself. You've got Lally all moved in, a great snake of an agent, and a promotional exec hanging around to protect your ass."
"But they're not you."
Ry zipped up the bag and sat on the chair by the desk, swiveling to face his brother. "You'll be fine."
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the ranch."
"For good?" HW frowned. "You're seriously not coming back?"
He scratched his unshaven jaw. "We said we'd never do that."
"Things change. Chase is not as bad as BB painted him — hell, even BB agrees he was wrong, and that's saying something."
"But we've always been together."
Ry took a deep breath. "Yeah, I know."
"You and me against the world."
"As I said, things change. You're going forward into a successful career riding saddle broncs, and I'm ..."
"Yeah, what exactly are you going to do, stuck in the middle of nowhere?"
"Help Chase and Blue rebuild the ranch and make it into something special. I might not be a great rodeo guy, but I'm a damned good hand."
"Help them? What about me?"
"I don't think you need me at the moment, bro," Ry said as gently as he could. "You're doing great."
HW shot to his feet and took a short turn around the room. "This is because I've done better than you — isn't it? Lally said you were jealous, but I didn't believe her. But now? Maybe she was right all along."
Ry stood as well. It felt like his heart was actually trying to punch its way out of his chest. "Maybe I just want different things in my life right now."
"Because you're not good enough to have what I have?"
There was a combative note in HW's voice Ry had learned to dread. "I'm not as good a rider as you are. I never will be."
"True, but only because you won't take it seriously."
"Which is the whole point, HW. Can't you at least see that? I don't care about winning as much as you do. I just don't."
"Because you know you can't beat me." HW came closer. "Admit it."
"Sure, if it makes you happy." Ry shrugged. He really didn't need to argue about something that meant so little to him. They weren't in high school anymore. Sometimes HW seemed to forget that. "It doesn't change the fact that I'm leaving."
"Abandoning me right when I need you most."
Ry blinked. "What?"
"That's why you're doing it now, isn't it?" HW nodded. "Yeah, you're probably hoping I'll fail when you aren't around."
His twin was probably the only person on earth who knew Ry had a temper and exactly how to make him lose it.
"That's utter bullshit, and you know it. I'm leaving because you have surrounded yourself with a group of people I despise, okay? Is that straight enough talk for you?"
HW swung around and poked a finger way too close to Ry's face. "Those people are looking out for me, and my career. They care about me. You're just pulling this stunt because you're jealous."
"You've been talking to Lally too much. You're my twin. I've spent my whole life supporting you. Trouble is, you're not interested in what I have to say anymore, and that's fine because, trust me, I'm sick and tired of saying it."
HW took a step back and a deep, shuddering breath. "Look. At least stay until I find out whether I qualify or not."
"I can't. I promised Chase I'd be back this week."
"You promised Mom you'd always be there for me."
Ry met his twin's gaze head-on. "How about just for once, you let something be about me?"
HW looked down at his feet. "Do you need money? Can I pay you to stay?"
Ry marched over to the door. "Get out."
"What the hell's wrong now?"
"If that's what you've become — if that's how you think you keep a man's loyalty, then go back to that bunch of losers you surround yourself with, and see what happens when you can't pay them anymore."
"Screw you." HW walked out.
"Right back at you, bro," Ry muttered under his breath, and then turned to survey his pile of boxes.
He'd said things he hadn't meant to say out loud, and HW had ... changed beyond recognition. His brother was still caught up in being a rising star, and the better he did, the more hangers-on he'd acquire. He didn't need Ry. That was certain, but it still hurt.
They'd never spent more than a month apart in their entire lives, and now HW would be off competing in Texas next week, and Ry would be back on the ranch working with Roy. Unless HW followed through on his promise to attend Chase and January's wedding in a couple of months, he might never see his twin again.
He couldn't let himself think like that or he'd be chasing after his brother, begging to tag along for another few months. It was up to HW to get his shit together. He was not Ry's responsibility.
"Yeah, right. Thanks for loading that on me, Mom."
He checked all the drawers, picked up his hat, and propped open the bedroom door with his backpack. There was no sound of HW or his girlfriend in the apartment. HW tended to storm out when he lost an argument, so there was no surprise there. He hadn't even had a chance to tell his twin that their mom and baby sister might still be alive twenty years after disappearing from the ranch.
Ry picked up a stack of boxes, set off for the front door, leaving that ajar as well, and used his elbow to call the elevator. It wasn't too busy in the complex during the day as most people worked, so he had no trouble getting the boxes and bags down to his truck.
On his last trip upstairs he paused in the kitchen to grab a couple of cold water bottles from the refrigerator, and contemplated the silence. Neither Lally nor HW had made any effort to clean up yet. They were probably too used to him doing it. Not anymore. He checked his room again, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything, and then sat at the kitchen table to write HW a note.
Rent is paid until the end of the lease, which is up next month. I've contacted the leasing company about taking my name off, so I'm sure you'll be hearing from them when you renegotiate.
Ry sat back and contemplated what to say next. He wasn't going to drop the bombshell about their mom in a letter. That was something HW needed to hear in person. Ry still couldn't believe it himself.
Good luck in the saddle bronc events, and hope you make it to the finals in Vegas. Call me when you get a chance — you know where I am. Ry
He anchored the note under the salt and pepper and slowly stood up. There was so much he wanted to say, and so little his twin currently wanted to hear ... He had to remember that inside HW there was a good, kind, and amazing guy — the guy he'd grown up with and loved with all his heart. Someday that HW would resurface, Ry had to believe that.
He unhooked the front-door key from his chain, laid it on top of the letter, and walked out, his throat tight and his emotions all over the place. Part of him felt like he was abandoning his twin, but the rest of him?
Suddenly felt free.