AVERY (The Corbin Brothers Book 2)


Corbin Brothers, Book 2



L E X I E    R A Y

Copyright © 2016


All Rights Reserved
. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Chapter 1

Chance was at full lather when I met him inside the barn, pacing as he pored over those damn cattle logs I had — or had not — been keeping. If he cared so much about them, he could keep them himself. It was brain-numbing work keeping track of each and every member of the herd.

My oldest brother’s eyes flicked up to me, and I realized that I was really in for it.

“What is this?” he demanded, slapping the clipboard he was holding.

“I’m assuming it’s the cattle logs,” I said, shifting the mail I’d just retrieved from the box under my arm.

“Wrong,” Chance said. “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at, Avery. If it’s the cattle log, I’m shocked. There’s no logging here. It’s either incomplete or incomprehensible. How are we supposed to know all the animals are getting their vaccinations?”

“All of them get their shots,” I said. “We all make sure of that.”

“I know all of them are supposed to get their shots, but I’d like to check and make sure in the cattle logs — which are nonexistent. You haven’t even added all of the new calves’ tag numbers to this, let alone their weight. What about the one we had to cull because of the broken leg? There’s no record of this.”

“It’s all in here,” I said, tapping my temple.

“It needs to be all in here,” Chance said, mashing his finger so hard against the clipboard it turned white. “This is the only way we can keep track of everything. I need to be able to look at this log and be able to track the progress of the herd. If I can’t do that, how can I know what’s right when I’m looking at our expenditures?”

“Ask me whatever you need to know,” I said. “I can recite the tag numbers by heart. I can tell you which calves need more grain than the others. And I still remember the weight of the one we culled — and the price we got for that veal.”

“That’s wonderful for you,” Chance said. “I don’t want to pull you down from your horse to ask you about a number when I need you out riding. That’s what the cattle log is for.”

“I hate the cattle log,” I muttered. “It’s ineffectual on paper — we should get an iPad or something to keep track of everything. There are apps —”

“Do you really think I would get you a tablet if I can’t even trust you to keep track of things on paper?” Chance glowered at me, all six-foot-three of him. “Of course this is ineffectual on paper when the records are incomplete. This paper would be better served wiping my ass than functioning as a cattle log.”

He threw the clipboard as hard as he could against the wall of the barn, papers fluttering out of order.

“I think someone else should handle the cattle log,” I said, staring at the papers spread across the dirt. “Someone who doesn’t disappoint you as much as I do.”

“Don’t be a shit, Avery,” Chance said. “Everyone has their own jobs. This one is yours. The cattle log is key to this entire operation.”

“Find me another job, then, if I can’t be trusted with the cattle log,” I said. I would kill for another job — particularly one away from this damn place.

“What would you suggest, then?” My oldest brother approached me, his physicality intimidating. “The horses don’t like you, you’re not interested in learning how to maintain the tractor or learning about growing seasons or baling hay, you’re hopeless at fence repairs, and you hate the cattle log. Should I put Zoe on a horse and have you keep house now?”

I scowled. “It’s not my fault that I’m not as good as the rest of you all at everything.”

“It’s not that you’re not good at things, Avery,” Chance said, relenting a little bit, looking like guilt set in at raking me over the coals like this. “It’s like you don’t even care enough to try. Do you want to be here or don’t you?”

And wasn’t this the ultimate question? I hated the ranch, hated living here, hated working here, hated how much of our lives it consumed. There were five of us Corbins, and people said ranching ran in our blood. It was true, in a way: The ranch itself had been in our family for countless years, a half-dozen generations, practically. But most of the time I felt like the passion that consumed the rest of my brothers about this place skipped me, somehow, that I was a genetically deficient Corbin because I didn’t like it as much as everyone else did.

Well, to be honest, I didn’t think anyone liked it very much right now. The ranch was in dire straits — worse than any of us could remember. I was of the opinion that there was never a moment in which the ranch didn’t seem like it was in dire straits. We worried if it didn’t rain, if it rained too much, if we had a freeze, if there was a threat of wildfire, if the cattle got sick or injured, whether they were reproducing, when they reproduced, whether the hay would grow, how much grain we might need if it wouldn’t, and a host of other problems. There was always something that needed to be done on the ranch whether it was related to the cattle or not. We didn’t do weekends, here, didn’t have social lives or love lives or anything.

Well, Hunter was the exception on those fronts. He and Hadley were using some of our money — funds we’d diverted from the ranch to Hadley for Hunter’s physical therapy — to build a little cottage down by the river, apart from the big house. Chance never bugged Hunter and Hadley about cattle logs, I was certain, or conserving energy or trying to find some way to scrape together money to try and buy a load of hay since ours wasn’t growing.

But that wasn’t fair. Hunter had been through a lot, and he deserved his happiness, which included both Hadley and the ranch. They weren’t married or even talking about it, but she’d already made it clear that what was hers was Hunter’s. We might need her help sooner rather than later, especially with the bombshell I was about to drop on Chance.

If I had anything else to do, anywhere else to go, anyone else to be with, I wouldn’t be here. That was what I was convinced of, even if I tried to hide it from the rest of my brothers — Chance, in particular. Our oldest brother had really shouldered the majority of the burden in keeping this ranch alive. To him, it was a lot more than a ranch; it was a legacy. It was our parents’ and their parents’ before them and so on — that kind of bullshit. To badmouth the ranch would probably earn me a punch to the teeth.

“You’d better look at this,” I said, peeling off an envelope from the bundle I carried.

“You’d better answer my question,” he countered, grabbing the letter. Then, his eyes widened, and I felt much more guilt than I thought I would being the bearer of bad news. I thought it would be fun to take Chance down a peg or two, but he fumbled for a chair and sat heavily in it, just gazing at the envelope, at those thick red letters on the front of it, and I felt like an asshole.

Foreclosure notice.

“This can’t be right,” he said finally, flipping the envelope open and nearly tearing it in half in his haste to open it. “I know we’re late on the loan payments, but I had it all worked out with Will Barnes. We were going to take care of it in installments — with interest. It wasn’t ideal, but it was all worked out.”

He read the single sheet of paper the envelope had contained, checked the back as if it might have some other explanation, and read it again.

“Well, fuck,” he said at last. “The bank’s trying to take the ranch.”

When I’d collected that envelope, part of me had been joyful. If the bank took the ranch, all of us could go our separate ways and make our own lives in the world. I hadn’t even been out of the state of Texas before, and there were lots of places I was eager to explore. But to see just how gutted Chance was, to understand that the rest of my brothers would be just as devastated, made me regret that initial happiness I’d had at the prospect of getting off the ranch.

Maybe I didn’t want to be here. But that didn’t mean I could wish this place away for everyone else.

“You still have all those numbers floating around up in your head?” Chance asked me, still looking at the letter.

“Pretty much,” I confirmed.

“Well, then, come on,” he said, crumpling the piece of paper into a ball and throwing it on the ground. “We have a meeting with the bank.”

The meeting wasn’t scheduled. That much was clear when we arrived. Will Barnes, the loan officer who Chance had dealt with on this thing in the first place, seemed downright shocked to see us, dusty clothes and all.

“We’re about to close, I’m afraid,” Barnes said.

“You’ll hear me out,” Chance said. “I’m sure you know what this is about. I thought we had a deal.”

“We did have a deal,” the banker said, working a finger underneath his collar.

“Did?” my brother repeated, emphasizing the past tense.

“Let’s just be honest with each other, here,” Barnes said. “You were never going to raise enough money to repay the loan in full.”

Chance drew himself up to his full height and leaned menacingly close. “Are you suggesting I would’ve tried to cheat you on this?”

“No, no, no,” Barnes said, cringing away from my brother. “That wasn’t what I meant to suggest at all. The only thing I’m saying is that I know how hard it has been for you ranchers.”

“Not hard enough to think about cheating the bank.” Chance was honorable in every way. The idea that he would just declare bankruptcy or do something else to avoid repaying the loan was laughable. But what was even more laughable was the idea that we would be able to repay the loan at all. Barnes was right. It was hard to be a rancher right now.

“The thing is, you’re already late on the repayments,” Barnes said, looking like it was painful for him to say it. He was probably just afraid Chance would send him through the wall. “You signed an agreement stipulating that once it was time to start making the repayments — with the increased interest, of course — that being late on these payments, already adjusted for lateness, would initiate foreclosure proceedings.”

“Can’t you have a heart?” Chance asked. “You said it yourself — it’s hard for ranchers. The money will come. I know it will. And then you’ll have your repayments — with interest.” It was hard to watch my brother wheedle and intimidate and negotiate and finally beg. He had too much pride for that, and I took no pride in watching the loan officer slowly break Chance down.
“Until when?” Barnes asked. “Until the next drought? The next disaster? The next loan?”

Chance raked a hand through his hair. “What would you have me do? Take out another loan to pay your loan? Get a credit card?”

“I don’t believe you could get either, given your current credit — and the credit of the ranch.”

“What can we do?” My brother’s big, dirty hands hung uselessly at his sides. “What can we do to try and hold off foreclosure?”

Barnes heaved a sigh. “I have nothing but respect for the work that you and the rest of your brothers do, Chance. Ranching is noble business. If there was a way for you to liquidate some assets, sell some machinery or cattle off and repay this loan in full by the end of the month, I’d call things off. But I’m not naive, and neither are you. Do you think you have the assets to liquidate right now?”

“Avery?” Chance turned to me, circles dark under his eyes.

I shook my head. There wasn’t enough machinery we could pawn, and if we sold the entire herd to relieve the debt, it would be a death sentence for the ranch. What would we do without cattle? Ride our horses around all day? There wasn’t any money in that.

“There might be one thing we could do,” I said hesitantly.

“Well?” Chance looked at me impatiently. “What the hell is it, then?”

“You’re not going to like it.” He really wasn’t.

“What makes you think I like any of this?” he demanded, gesturing at the loan officer. “Tell us.”
“We could parcel off some of the land to developers,” I said. “If we sold the cattle, we’d kill the ranch. Maybe if we carve off some pieces of it to interested parties, we’d be able to keep the rest and our business, too.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Barnes said, lifting his eyebrows at my brother.”

“That’s never going to happen,” Chance said, cutting the air with the side of his hand, his word apparently final.

“Cut off the hand to save the arm,” I tried again, but he wasn’t having it.

“That ranch has been in our family for hundreds of years,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I’m the first one to fail our family’s legacy. We’re not going to sell any of it.”

“I don’t have another solution for you,” I said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“I’m sorry, Chance. I really, really am. But if you can’t repay the loan in full by the end of the month, the bank will repossess your family’s ranch.” I could say this for Barnes — it looked like it gave him no pleasure to say those words. “Now, please. It’s past closing time. If you would like to discuss this further, we can set up an appointment.”

“No.” Chance turned toward the door, and I followed suit. “I think everything that needs to be said has already been said.”

“Have a good day,” Barnes called, but my brother was already shoving his way outside in his haste to get back to the truck. I cast a backward glance at the loan officer before leaving. The fact that the ranch’s demise was imminent should’ve brought me joy, but it didn’t. I only felt sadness.

Chance looked so defeated that I had to glance away.

“We’ll get this figured out,” I said, sounding like a fraud and knowing it. Us figuring out how to stave off this hostile takeover of our family’s ranch was about as likely as the skies opening up and pouring and ending this yearlong drought. At this point, getting our fair share of rain wasn’t even likely to change things much. We could stop buying extra feed for the herd, sure, but that didn’t mean it would suddenly rain enough money for us to repay the loan — and all of the interest — in full, all in one sweep.

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