All of that had meant that once they’d landed here in Cedar Ridge, for the first time in their lives, they’d had a support system. Family. Carrie had been nearby in the home, and they’d had a roof over their heads and three squares a day.
And though he and Hud had taken an oath to leave together the moment they turned eighteen, to go off and explore the world and be all the other needed, Hud had taken to Cedar Ridge and their newfound siblings like a fish to water.
Jacob had tried. Or maybe he hadn’t. What he for sure had done was carry his resentment and anger over his father’s abandonment and the frustration of his mom’s health in the form of a huge chip on his shoulder. He’d been a punk-ass kid who’d deserved to get kicked out.
Instead, Char had been sweet and kind and mothering. Aidan and Gray had ignored his dick-ness. They’d treated him and Hud better than they’d ever been treated before. So had Kenna, their baby sister—from yet another woman of their father’s—who’d come to Cedar Ridge shortly after Hud and Jacob.
And yet still, when graduation had come, Jacob had packed as he and Hud had always planned.
Only Hud had steadfastly refused to leave.
When Jacob had insisted, Hud had let loose of his rare temper and said that if Jacob wanted to go, then he should. But if he did, they were no longer brothers.
Jacob’s eighteen-year-old bluster and ego had kicked in hard at that ultimatum, and he’d walked, breaking up the tightest bond he’d ever had with another living soul.
He’d gone into the army. In boot camp, he’d met Brett, who’d lost his family to a drunk driver. Very different from losing a family due to pride and stupidity. But the two of them had been each other’s support system and family through basic training, specialized weapons training, and several tours of duty.
And then Brett had died in a stupid roadside bombing they’d never seen coming. That’s when the “no man left behind” mantra had hit him hard. Really hard. He’d never have walked away from Brett, and yet he’d done just that to Hud.
He hated himself for it.
Which was the biggest reason he was here. He’d been wrong and had to tell Hud that. Had to tell everyone. He had no idea if he’d even be welcomed. But blood or not, family was family—or so he hoped. And he had to do right by his.
When he’d walked away all those years ago, he’d been a self-righteous, selfish prick. He didn’t want to be that guy anymore. He had no idea what kind of a man he’d be instead, but it was past time to find out.
Hud had stopped walking, just stopped on a dime in the middle of the hallway. Slowly. He pulled off his sunglasses and stared at Jacob, relief and joy evident on his face.
Jacob nearly hit his knees at that. With his heart suddenly feeling way too big to fit inside his rib cage, he took a few steps toward his brother.
Hud met him halfway, wrapping his long arms around Jacob, clapping him hard on the back.
For the first time since Brett’s funeral, Jacob felt emotion, hot and all-consuming, swell up and block his throat.
Arms still tight around him, Hud lifted Jacob off the ground—not easy to do—squeezing the hell out of him while he was at it. “Holy shit. How much does all this muscle weigh?”
Jacob shrugged. It was his job to be big and bad, which, yeah, was pretty much a complete turnaround from the too-skinny, too-scrawny kids they’d once been. Which reminded him all that was between them.
And given the look on Hud’s face, it’d hit him too. His twin schooled his features into a blank mask so fast Jacob’s head spun.
“What the fuck, man?” Hud said, taking a step away.
“Hudson Kincaid, you watch your language!” came a woman’s shocked voice, a voice that Jacob would know anywhere.
He and Hud turned in unison to the patient room where Hud had come from. Carrie sat on her bed wearing black leggings with bunny slippers and a huge bright pink sweatshirt that said NEVER STOP FIGHTING. Her hair was as it always had been, so light blond it looked like a cotton ball, the flyaway strands doing whatever they wanted. Eyes locked on both Jacob and Hud, she slowly set down her tablet. “It’s not a dream.” Her mouth fell open. “Oh my goodness, it’s not a dream,” she whispered, and her eyes filled. “Jacob?”
Jacob managed a nod. His voice, when he managed to speak, was low and rough. “Yeah, Mom, it’s me.”
She brought shaking fingers up to her trembling mouth.
He let out a breath, feeling like he’d been stabbed in the gut. “Please don’t cry.”