Chapter Ten
Brick opened one eye, glanced at the bedside alarm clock and groaned. It was 7:30 a.m. and he had overslept, although he had not done a great deal of sleeping that night. Thanks to another visit from the nightmare, he had spent most of the night awake, reading and thinking. He reckoned he had finally dropped off around four a.m.

He dragged himself reluctantly out of bed and down the landing to the bathroom where he ran the shower hard and cold, needing the shock of the water on his bare skin to clear his fuzzy mind and bring him fully back from the land of shadows.

It was nearly 8:15 when he entered the kitchen. Leigh was there with Harry and Rose, but there was no sign of the Levine party.

"Morning, Leigh. Where's everyone?"

"Bill and Jack took off early - they were going to visit an old school friend, I think. Cass stayed over at Jennifer's and I haven't seen Grant's party yet. I was about to send Walter to fetch them for breakfast."

"Probably sleeping off another hard night's clubbing."

"In Bend? They should be so lucky!" Leigh glanced around and looked him up and down, frowning. "Brick, are you sick? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine." He knew he looked like hell but had no inclination to get into a discussion about why. Leigh would only worry.

She shot him a penetrating look, he returned it with his best 'everything's okay' grin and after a moment, she smiled back.

Walter's head appeared around the door.

"Wish you'd told me last night you weren't going climbing after all, Brick. Wouldn't have spent hours getting all the gear ready."

Brick frowned. "We are going climbing. What are you talking about?"

It was Walter's turn to frown. "I saw those kids drive off about fifteen minutes ago. They said there'd been a change of plans."

Leigh shot Brick a concerned glance. "You don't think..."

Brick shook his head. "They don't know how to get there."

"Grant was in the den after dinner last night, looking through some of the walking books. Maybe he was looking up the route." Leigh walked quickly to the bookcase where they kept all the maps and guidebooks and emerged a few moments later with a map in her hand.

"It was open on the coffee table."

Brick studied the map and his heart sank. Someone has circled the Witch's Cauldron in red. An arrow line plotted the route there from the ranch.

"Damn Levine. He's even more stupid than I thought. They've gone to the Cauldron!"

Leigh paled. "You think they're going to dive it?"

Brick nodded grimly. "Grant will - he's been planning it all along. Listen, they haven't been gone long. If I floor it, I should get there in time to stop them."

"Brick - you can't go to the Cauldron on your own." Leigh's voice held a note of panic now, and he knew her concern was for him, not the guests.

"I have to, Leigh. No one else can get there in time."

"Should I call search and rescue?"

Brick shook his head. "We can't call them out unless we know for sure there's an emergency."

"At least let me call Dale."

"All right. Tell him to meet me there, just in case - I'll call in as soon as I can."

"Brick, be careful. Don't take any risks."

"I'll be fine, Leigh. I'll probably catch up with them before they get anywhere near the water."

He shot her a reassuring smile as he left, but inside his stomach was turning circles at the thought of what he was about to do.

Chapter Eleven

Brick was relieved that there were no patrol cars on the road as he floored the gas pedal on the drive to the small parking area beside an unmarked side road a few miles off Highway 97. As he had suspected, Grant's SUV was there, parked in the shade of a pine tree. Ironically, for such a dangerous natural landmark, the Witch's Cauldron was easily accessible from the road via an old bridle path and less than twenty minutes fast walking uphill brought him within sight of a stand of ancient pines. He knew that just beyond the trees the path rounded a bend and ended on the hillside above the Witch's Cauldron.

He paused for a moment, steeling himself to carry on. This was the closest he had come to the Cauldron since the accident all those years ago. His mouth was dry and his heart was beginning to pound, but he could not allow himself the time to stop or to think. He walked on resolutely past the pines, and within minutes was looking down on deceptively tranquil-looking, cerulean blue water.

Predictably, his mind flashed back to that fateful day when he was thirteen years old.

Even then, the Cauldron had been out of bounds and despite his natural inclination to take on every challenge that came his way, he had always heeded the strict warnings. On this day, however, he was in a particularly reckless mood and allowed three older boys to persuade him to play hooky from school.

He remembered his younger self standing in this self same place, looking down on the lake below, listening absently to the others boasting about the distance they each planned to jump. They walked on down the hill, ignoring the prominent sign warning of the dangers of diving and swimming, and climbed up to the high rock that formed a natural diving platform. Brick recalled every emotion that had coursed through him as he peered down into the inviting depths of the water: excitement and bravado quelling the nagging fear and doubts; exhilaration at the prospect of the dangerous dive and a kind of perverse satisfaction at doing something he knew his father had expressly forbidden him to do.

He was the last to dive. He knew now that his age and size had probably saved him; younger and weaker than the others, his dive landed him closer to shore in shallower water where the current was not so strong. Even so, the moment he hit the water and began to kick back up towards the surface, he knew he was in trouble. Fluid tendrils curled around his legs, dragging him down, and he fought frantically against the powerful pull, kicking with all his strength until his head broke the surface. Gasping for breath, he began to swim for shore. Then he heard the terrified screams. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Jordan Wicks and Terry Roswell near the center of the lake, arms flailing as they were drawn inexorably down by the powerful and deadly current. Without thinking, he turned to swim back towards them, heard someone screaming his name and then the current reclaimed its hold and dragged him back beneath the water.

The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital. Buddy Jennins, the third of the trio of fifteen-year-olds, had pulled him out of the water. They told him he had stopped breathing and that Buddy had performed CPR and saved his life. Wicks and Roswell's bodies were found later, claimed by the unseen monster beneath the lake.

If, in the back of his mind, Brick went to the Cauldron to get his father's attention, he certainly achieved his aim. Once he was certain that his son was not badly hurt, Jack had torn into him in a way he had never done before and grounded him for a month. The punishment was intended to demonstrate the stupidity of the venture, but it wasn't needed. Brick knew that he had made a big mistake; he knew better and should have tried to talk the older boys out of it rather than joining them in the tragic escapade. One part of him knew that they would not have listened, but that had not lessened the guilt he felt about his part in it, guilt that he still felt today.

Brick shook himself mentally and the images faded, even as the familiar symptoms of a panic attack began to manifest. His chest tightened, sweat broke out on his brow and his breathing quickened. No! He couldn't let this happen; if he lost control now more lives could be lost. He concentrated on ridding his mind of thought, focusing only on his breathing - slow it down, deep breaths - blocking out all extraneous sounds except that of his heartbeat. In a few moments the symptoms began to subside and he found himself breathing normally again.

Looking down, he could see three people standing on the pebble beach at the western shore of the lake. His eyes scanned for the fourth until he spotted movement on the diving platform. The sun reflected the blond highlights in the figure's hair; Grant Levine.

Brick began to run down the hill, shouting a warning. He saw Grant glance in his direction and raise a hand in mock-salute before he dived gracefully into the water.

Brick swore under his breath as he skidded to a halt beside the rest of the group.

"Are you all totally stupid? I told you it was dangerous to come here!"

Christian frowned. "Grant's friend said it isn't as bad as it's made out to be - that the warnings are just there to cover the authorities if someone did get hurt."

"Well, he's wrong. You think I'd lie to you?"

Brick anxiously scanned the lake. Grant was treading water and seemed unaware that the current was slowly drawing him slowly closer towards the center of the lake where the wicked underwater currents were waiting to drag him down.

"Grant, start swimming to your left, get to the bank," Brick shouted urgently, fear welling up inside as he saw history begin to repeat itself.

Grant could obviously feel the pull of the current now and tried to swim against it as Brick had instructed. Brick heard the note of panic in his voice as he shouted back, "The current's dragging me back!"

Brick could see that Grant was not going to get out of this on his own. Refusing to think beyond the practicalities of what had to be done, he pulled a rope out of his backpack and scanned the shore for a suitable sturdy tree to tie it to. He picked one out near the edge - a graceful yet sturdy aspen. Quickly he tied the rope around the trunk of the tree, and then stripped down to boxers and T-shirt. The T-shirt would give him some protection against burns from the rope. He looped the rope securely around his waist, leaving a long end loose so that he could tie it around Grant as well, if he needed to.

He turned to Christian and the girls. "You're going to have to pull us back in - the current out there's too strong for us to swim back. Be ready when I tell you."

Without another word, he waded into the lake and began to swim in Grant's direction. The young man was in real trouble now, trying frantically to keep himself afloat as the current swirled around his body. Brick could feel its tendrils trying to take a hold as he swam, but he fought against them, kicking hard to keep himself above the water. It was in his favor that the surface current was moving him in Grant's direction; if he could just get a hold on the man, the others could pull them both in.

He reached Grant just as the other began to lose strength and sink beneath the water. Brick grabbed for him, hit solid flesh and maneuvered into a lifesavers lift. Grant began to struggle, kicking out. Brick grunted as a foot landed painfully on his thigh.

"Grant, keep still. I've got you. Just keep still and we'll get out of this in one piece."

To his credit, Grant seemed to understand and stopped moving to let Brick get a better hold on him.

"Start pulling!" Brick shouted over his shoulder as he began to kick for shore. He could feel the drag of the deeper currents and fought to keep both their heads above water. Even with Christian and the girls pulling together on the rope, he knew they were too far to the west, too close to an outcrop of rocks. A moment later, his body slammed against the first of the rocks. Pain shot through his upper back and shoulder, but he held on grimly to Grant. Again, the current smashed him against the rock and this time his head snapped back, connecting painfully with solid stone.

"Pull harder!" he screamed.

The next few minutes were a blur, but finally he felt the current weaken. Soon, hands were grabbing him and pulling him to shore. Brick collapsed on the bank, exhaustion taking control of his limbs. Beside him, he was vaguely aware of Grant breathing heavily. Brick closed his eyes and lay there panting for long minutes. When he opened his eyes again, Cindy was bending over him anxiously.

"Brick, thank God! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." That was a slight overstatement. His shoulder was throbbing and his head pounding, but he was alive and so was Grant and that was all that mattered.

He sat up slowly and saw that Grant too was sitting up, leaning back against a rock, Lori hovering anxiously beside him. The other man was pale, but looked unhurt. As he saw Brick's eyes on him, he got unsteadily to his feet.

Brick stood up slowly, biting back a groan as his back and shoulder protested the movement. He looked at Grant. "You all right?"

Grant nodded shortly. "You really didn't need to make a spectacle of yourself - I could have made it, you know."

Brick shot him an incredulous look, and he wasn't the only one.

"For heaven's sake, Grant, for once in your life admit that you got something wrong." Cindy was pale; it was clear that she, like Christian, knew how close they had come to losing her brother.

"She's right, Grant. You'd have drowned if Brick hadn't gone in after you," Christian added.

"Grant was doing just fine," Lori said aggressively, putting a protective arm around her boyfriend and glaring at Christian and Cindy. "Personally, I think Brick was just showing off, trying to prove he was right."

"Oh, yes, Hick's quite the little hero, isn't he." Grant's words were dripping with sarcasm.

Something inside Brick snapped. Since Grant's arrival, he had kept a rein on his temper and checked his inclination to deck this supercilious, mean-mouthed rich kid. Now, as the realization of how close they had come to death hit him with sickening force, he could no longer hold back three days of pent-up frustration.

With a snarl of anger, he closed the distance between himself and Grant in a run. Grant wasn't prepared for the left hook that slammed him back against the trunk of the aspen. Brick closed in, landing another quick punch before Grant got his wits about him and began to fight back. A lucky punch caught Brick in the mouth and he lost his balance, falling with Grant on top of him. Vaguely he felt hands grabbing his arms from behind, pulling him away from Grant and he struggled against them. Through the red fog that filled his vision, he could hear someone shouting his name.

Slowly he became aware that Christian was holding him back while Cindy and Lori were between them restraining Grant. Suddenly sapped of energy, Brick allowed his body to relax.

"Let me go, Christian, I've finished with him; he's not worth the time and energy."

Grant, too, looked like he had had enough. He impatiently dragged out of his sister's grip and sat down heavily.

With a pang of guilt, Brick realized he had not yet radioed base. Leigh would be worried. He grabbed his pack and pulled the radio out.

"Mobile one to base."

The radio was answered immediately.

"This is base." Leigh's voice was sharp and Brick could almost feel her underlying panic. Brick, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. We're all fine, Leigh. Everything's under control."

"What happened?"

"I'll tell you later. We're still at the lake, but we'll be back soon. Can you radio Dale and call him off?"

"He was never coming. The whole sheriff's department was caught up in a break-in. I was just getting ready to call search and rescue."

"No need; no one's hurt. We'll be back in an hour."

Brick turned the radio off. Rummaging in his pack he found a spare pare of boxers and a T-shirt. Silently he picked up his discarded jeans and went behind a nearby rock to change. Even though he was out of sight of the others, he knew he had to hold on to the icy control that had settled over him. He needed to get the party back to the ranch safely before he could allow himself to think about what had just happened.

Brick carefully removed his wet T-shirt, biting back an exclamation as his left shoulder protested when he raised his arm too high. He gingerly ran his right hand over the injured shoulder and back, hissing at the pain his probing fingers provoked. He was sure there were no bones broken; his back was just badly bruised. He wiped blood from his lip, dressed again carefully, drew a big breath and went back to join the others.

Grant was dressed and sitting on a boulder. He glanced up with an unreadable expression as Brick approached, but kept his silence.

Cindy looked up from her own perch nearby and stood up. "Brick, are you all right? You look a bit pale."

"I'm okay." Admitting he was hurt was only going to complicate matters. "Grant, are you up to the hike back to the parking area? I suggest we get back as soon as possible. I think it would be a good plan to get a doctor to check you out, just in case."

"He's up to it if you are!" Lori said immediately and Brick was surprised when Grant shot her a silencing look.

"I'm ready to go," Grant said.

"Come on then, Grant." Lori swung her pack onto her back and took his arm. "We'll meet the others at the car."

She marched off, dragging a compliant Grant with her.

Brick turned to Cindy and Christian. "Are you ready?"

Christian nodded and Cindy reached out and touched Brick's arm. "Brick, I'm so sorry about Grant's behavior. He can be such a jerk sometimes."

"A lot of the time, actually," Christian added.

"But you still hang out with him?"

Christian grinned sheepishly. "Grant and I are both studying law at Seattle University. I met Cindy when she came to visit him one weekend and we hit it off right away. So I kind of got to know Grant through her."

"He's not always like this," Cindy went on. "He can be quite sweet sometimes."

"I'll take your word on that," Brick said dryly.

"It's when he's with a crowd... seems to feel he has to prove himself," Christian went on. "And Lori doesn't help."

"He doesn't have to prove anything to me," Brick said.

Cindy shrugged. "Grant learned from our father that you can't be somebody unless you have a privileged upbringing and a lot of money. Meeting someone like you shakes his confidence in his beliefs."

Brick discerned the compliment and was grateful for it, but he was too tired to pursue the conversation. "We'd better get after them," he said and, without thinking, went to pick up his backpack, bending his left arm back to pull the strap on. Pain tore through his back and he dropped the pack with an exclamation.

"Brick? You are hurt, aren't you?" Cindy's eyes were full of concern.

"I'm all right," Brick answered through gritted teeth. "Just bruised my back a bit. It's nothing."

Christian raised a disbelieving eyebrow and silenced Brick's protests with a frown as he picked up the heavy pack. "You have one thing in common with Grant, though - a stubborn streak a mile wide."

As he followed Christian along the track, Brick had to admit that the redhead was right on that count.

Chapter Twelve

They caught up with Grant and Lori and completed the remainder of the short hike back to the parking area in silence. When they arrived, Brick refused Christian's offer to drive and followed the others back to the ranch.

As he drew to a halt he saw Jack standing outside, holding something in his hand, a look of thunder on his face.

He turned off the engine, closed his eyes and simply sat for a moment. Jack was obviously angry about something - undoubtedly something Brick had done wrong - and Brick knew he was in no shape to deal with it right now. He was exhausted from his exertions in the lake; his head was thumping and his back throbbing. But there was no avoiding Jack in this kind of mood so after a moment, he opened the car door and got out. The sooner he got it over with, the sooner he could get out of here and find some space alone.

Jack marched down the path, confronting him before he had taken a step.

"Of all the stupid, irresponsible... suicidal things to do!"

Close up, Brick could see that his father was white with anger. He frowned. "What?"

Jack stabbed a finger at the map. "The Witch's Cauldron. You took them there, didn't you? How many times do we have to have this conversation? You just can't take risks like that with people's lives!"

At those words, Brick felt his already fragile relationship with his father crumble to nothing. He had been expecting this moment, when he would finally have to accept that his dream of reconciliation was doomed to failure, but somehow, he had not expected it to hurt so much. Yet he was somehow unable to leave without one more try.

"Jack, you don't really believe I'd take anyone there, not to the Cauldron."

Jack glared at him. "The route's marked out on the map and you just drove back with them. What else do you expect me to think?"

All at once, the pain morphed into anger - a blinding rage towards the man who had the ability to create such powerful emotions in him.

"What else?" Brick was shouting now. "What else? I'd expect you to stop for once in your life and ask yourself if you have the kind of son would risk someone else's life in a place where he almost lost his own!"

His words seemed to stun Jack into silence. Brick saw Bill appear in the doorway and was vaguely aware of Leigh running towards them from the barn. But his whole attention was on Jack.

"Well?" Brick challenged, trying to control the waver in his voice. "What's your answer, Jack?"

Still Jack did not speak, and the emotion that crossed his face was unreadable.

In his father's silence, Brick read his answer. He spun around, climbed back into the truck and turned the key with a shaking hand. He revved the engine and the wheels squealed in protest as he turned the truck around and floored the gas. He vaguely heard his father calling his name, but blocked out the sound. There was only one thought only in his mind: to get away from Jack as fast as he could.

Chapter Thirteen

From his perch on a rustic log bench, Bill Patterson contemplated his old friend. Jack stood at the edge of the pond near the ranch house, his back to Bill, idly skimming stones across the water.

It was two hours since Brick's abrupt departure and in the forty minutes they had been down at the pond Jack had not spoken. Leigh had pulled no punches as she berated her father-in-law for jumping yet again to the wrong conclusion and it seemed to affect Jack deeply when he discovered his error. Bill had to admit that he agreed with Leigh. Jack's tendency to go off at the deep end without waiting to check his facts had landed him in trouble time and time again.

The Levine group had been less than forthcoming about their time at the lake, simply explaining that Brick had followed them and persuaded them not to swim there. Bill was sure that there was more to the story than that and knew that Jack thought so too; the bruise on Grant's jaw and Brick's cut lip was enough evidence of that. Bill persuaded Jack to let it go and discuss it with his son when he returned. If he returned. From his expression when he left, Bill was not at all sure that the young man would be home any time soon.

Bill knew Jack McKenna all too well; when something upset him he clammed up, refused to talk about it and behaved as if nothing was wrong. Therefore, Bill let him have his space until he felt the silence had gone on too long. Then he said quietly, "Am I going to sit on this uncomfortable bench all afternoon, or are you going to tell me what's going on between you and your son?"

Jack skimmed a stone and they both watched as a succession of ripples disturbed the stillness of the water. Finally, he answered gruffly, "We never did see eye to eye, Bill. You know that."

Bill let the understatement pass. "There's a lot more to it, and you know it."

"It just isn't working out between us the way I hoped, that's all."

"And why do you think that is?"

When Jack apparently chose not to reply, he went on, "Do you love Brick?"

That got Jack's attention. He turned from the water, eyeing Bill indignantly. "He's my son, isn't he?"

"That wasn't what I asked."

Jack looked searchingly at him for a moment, before admitting, "I love my son, Bill, you know that."

"Ever considered telling him?"

Jack's eyes narrowed. "I shouldn't have to tell him. I'm his father."

Bill regarded him carefully for a moment. "Well, it strikes me that Brick might have missed that particular memo."

"Don't start the business-speak with me, Bill," Jack said irritably. "Just say what you mean."

"All right then. It just seems to me that Brick doesn't know where he stands with you. You criticize him at every opportunity; you refuse to listen to any of his ideas about the business, even though most of them are sound. You're not behaving like a father who loves his son, Jack. You have an opportunity here to re-build your relationship with your only remaining son. The way I see it, what you're actually doing is your level best to drive him away."

Jack glared at him coldly. "That's what you think, huh?"

Bill was unperturbed by Jack's building aggression. "Just telling it how I see it."

"You know nothing about it."

"Maybe not, but it doesn't take a genius to see that Brick's confused. He thinks you don't love him, that he's failed you - just like he failed you all those years when Guy was alive."

Jack frowned. "That's ridiculous. He hasn't failed me. He's just - different. I guess I haven't always been the best father to him; I never really understood him and I didn't try too hard. I always thought he didn't care, that he wanted to go his own way."

Bill had some thoughts on why Brick had chosen that particular route, but felt that this was something Jack should figure out for himself.

"And now?"

"Now ..." Jack shrugged. "Something that happened when he first came back made me think that maybe we had a chance to patch up our relationship."

"So why are you being so hard on him?"

"You think I'm hard on him?" Jack snapped. "Well, maybe if he was less foolhardy, took fewer risks, I wouldn't have to be!"

"So the problem is that he's reckless?"

"Hell, yes. Let me give you a few examples." Jack was obviously agitated now, pacing as he began to count off Brick's misdemeanors on his fingers. "Last winter, he took on a job driving a truckload of explosives down the mountain in the snow. That's reckless in my book! He thinks I don't know about it - he certainly wasn't planning to tell me himself. He takes every opportunity to push himself to the limit - takes on the most dangerous runs, the most risky climbs. Only three days ago, he climbed one of the most dangerous mountains in the area. He was lucky he wasn't killed." Jack's voice was rising in volume as he got more and more agitated. "Sometimes I'm afraid to let him out of my sight in case ..."

"In case of what, Jack?" Bill prompted mildly.

"Goddamn it, Bill, I can't lose another son!" Jack roared.

Silence greeted Jack's confession. Bill held his friend's eyes for a moment and had no difficulty in identifying the shock and confusion he saw there.

Jack turned abruptly. "I'm not discussing this any more. You have no right to come here and tell me about my relationship with my own son."

"Jack..." Bill began, but Jack shook his head and his eyes flared.

"Leave it."

Bill could see he had hit a nerve - one which maybe even Jack had not been fully aware of. Yet as his friend stalked off, he was unable to let the moment go without a final comment.

"You need to deal with this, Jack - or you really are going to lose him, and this time there may be no coming back."

Jack stopped in his tracks and his back stiffened. Bill thought he might have gone too far, but after a moment McKenna strode on. Bill could only hope that he would calm down and do some serious thinking before he next saw his son.

Chapter Fourteen

Brick drove automatically with little awareness of the roads he was taking. He just needed to get away. When he finally became aware of his surroundings, he found that he had subconsciously headed for the place he always went when he needed to think. He was high up in the mountains, steering the truck along a narrow, rough forestry service road.

He pulled into a small parking area where the thick trees gave way to bald mountain, got out of the car and walked a few hundred yards along a narrow track to a ledge on the edge of the mountain face affording a spectacular view over the Three Sisters.

Brick sat down, leaned back against the comforting solidity of the rock, and closed his eyes. Now he was alone and no longer had any need to keep up the pretense that he was all right, he felt the energy seep from his body. It was probably nothing more than adrenalin that had kept him going for the past few hours and now shock began to set in and he found himself shaking violently. Tears pricked at his eyelids and soon began to flow unchecked as he gave in to the emotions he had been holding back for so long.

It was a long time before he took a final gulping breath and wiped away a remaining tear from his cheek. He felt drained, but peaceful, as if he had cried away all the anger and frustration and fear. Tentatively, he allowed himself to rehearse the events of the morning and found, to his surprise, that he could recall the whole incident at the Witch's Cauldron without the familiar stab of fear that always accompanied recollections of the previous incident. History had repeated itself, but this time without the resulting tragedy. Nothing would bring back those two boys who had lost their lives, but now he felt in some strange way that he had claimed a life back from the monster that had devoured them. For the first time, he began to believe that he could genuinely put the accident behind him.

He lay back, shifting painfully until he found a position that didn't aggravate his bruised back and closed his eyes, allowing the warmth of the sun to seep through him, warming him inside and out. He knew he had some hard decisions to make and that he could not put them off any longer.

He had left McKenna Outfitters three years ago looking for - something. What it was, he didn't even remember. At the time he had felt trapped and needed to get away: away from the shadow of his brother and the impossible relationship with his father. He knew that life out there must be more fulfilling than his life at the ranch and there had to be a place where he could finally be himself.

The longer he was away from home, the more he came to realize that life was not about where you were or even what you were doing - life was what you made of it. True, he became increasingly more and more frustrated with his job. It was difficult at first to accept that he was no longer a big fish in a small pond and that he would need a huge amount of good fortune and simple luck to fulfill his dream of being a racing driver. His job changing tires in the pit kept him close to the track but might have been a million miles away for all the good it did him. He didn't enjoy the hustle and bustle and constant movement of racing life as much as he had hoped and found himself homesick for the wilderness. Now that he was back, he understood why; this place was a part of him and always would be.

The news of Guy's death had been devastating. Even now, after almost three years, he found it hard to believe that his brother was actually gone. A hundred times he had visualized the accident in his head, wondering if it might have been different had he been there. Everyone told him that was garbage - Guy had slipped and hit his head. He was dead before anyone could get near him. Nevertheless, Brick never lost the feeling that if he had still been around, maybe Guy would not have been in that spot at that particular time.

His greatest regret was that the last words he had spoken to his brother had been in anger and he had never had, or made, the opportunity to make his peace. Guy died four months after Brick left home. During that time they had not spoken a word to each other, following a violent argument the evening before Brick left. Guy told him he was both throwing his life away and letting the family down. Brick's bitter accusations that Guy and Jack had all they needed in each other had been brushed off as emotional claptrap. Guy had never really understood how Brick felt about being the odd one out, the one who couldn't conform, the one who constantly failed to live up to his father's expectations no matter how hard he tried.

Guy was wrong about him leaving, Brick was sure of that. He needed to get away, if only to find some perspective and reflect on what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. To do that under Jack's hawk-like scrutiny would have been impossible. Yet during the remainder of the two years, he had known that eventually he would have to go back. He had failed to reconcile with Guy; he had to make one more attempt at making things right with Jack.

Time went on and he put off the trip back home, both unwilling and unable to face his father. Returning with the runaway Cassidy had forced his hand and the first few days had gone badly - as he had feared they would. Jack was as unbending and unyielding as ever and Guy was as great a barrier between them in death as he had been in life.

Then Brick's brush with death while saving Jack's life prompted an admission from Jack that he needed his son and began the process of tearing down the wall between them. It was all the encouragement Brick needed and he determined to work at the relationship. The going was tough and at times, he despaired of ever being able to communicate with his father. On other occasions, he felt they were making real progress. He was surprised and thrilled when Jack unexpectedly stepped in to help prepare his car for an illegal road race. Jack's solid support when Brick was arrested for the murder of Kyle Dawkins was unexpected but meant more to Brick than he could ever express. He had begun to think that maybe he had finally come home. He even dared to hope that his father really did love him - something he had not allowed himself to think about for many years.

Then, just after Christmas, everything had changed. Brick had wracked his brains repeatedly and with no success to work out what it was he had done to change Jack's opinion of him so drastically. All he knew was that Jack had withdrawn from him, until now they were back where they started.

These thoughts whirled around in his mind while his eyes traced the flight of an eagle, hunting in the valley below. The bird was so majestic, so free. Free. As he watched the bird soar through the sky he made the only decision that could be made.

The hours passed and still he sat, unable to tear himself away from the beauty of the wilderness. The sun sank below the mountains and the air grew chilly as storm clouds gathered to herald a characteristic late spring storm. He was oblivious to the rain as it began to fall, soaking through his sweater and T-shirt and chilling his body. It was as dark and gloomy as his mood when he finally rose stiffly from his perch and made his way back to the truck.

Chapter Fifteen

"I've had a lovely evening," Casey said warmly as Dale gallantly helped her on with her coat. "You're a really good cook!"

Dale grinned. "You sound surprised. Don't I look like the cooking type?"

"Honestly? I was expecting something in the 'can of beans and a slice of toast' line. You're full of surprises, Dale."

In Dale's view, it had been a close-to-perfect evening. The boeuf bourguignon was a spectacular success and he felt he had made a wise choice in sticking to a simple dessert of strawberries and cream. Conversation flowed naturally throughout dinner: they talked animatedly about everything and anything, finding more and more things they had in common - and a few they didn't, which added to the interest. By the end of the meal, Dale was walking on air, especially as Casey had responded enthusiastically to his tentative romantic advances.

Dale opened the door and peered out into the torrential rain. "It's like a monsoon out there. You sure you don't want to stay over?"

Casey smiled. "Nice try, Mr. Cop, but no - not this time."

Dale felt his face redden. "I didn't mean ... I meant, I can sleep on the couch."

She took his face between both hands and kissed him deeply. "I know what you meant. You're a real gentleman, you know that?" she whispered.

When she let him up for air, Dale cleared his throat. "So, I'm off Thursday night. Would you like to do something?"

"Pick me up at seven. I don't mind what we do - surprise me." She turned to go; a little reluctantly, he thought, as a truck pulled up beside hers. The occupant of the truck got out, slammed the door behind him and walked up the path.

"Isn't that Brick?" Casey asked.

Dale frowned. It was unusual for his friend to turn up unannounced at this time of night. "Sure is. Bit late for social calls, McKenna," he called, then stopped abruptly as he got a good look at his friend. Brick was wearing only jeans and a sweater, he was soaking wet and the bleak expression on his face sent shivers of apprehension through Dale.

Casey could obviously tell there was something wrong, for she gave Dale a final peck on the cheek and walked quickly to her car, smiling a 'hello' at Brick as she passed. Brick didn't even seem to see her.

"Brick, you're soaked, buddy," Dale said. "Where've you been?"

Brick looked at him blankly, then stepped into the open doorway and stopped. Under the electric light Dale could see that he was pale and shivering from head to foot. He also noted the fat lip that could only have been caused by someone's fist. He grasped Brick's arm and guided his friend towards the bathroom.

"You're dripping all over my carpet, hotshot. Shower. Now. There are towels in the cupboard in the bathroom."

Brick looked at him uncomprehendingly and for a moment, Dale wondered if there was something seriously wrong. Maybe he had slipped and hit his head, although the swollen lip was the only obvious evidence of injury. How his friend had come by that, Dale would get to the bottom of later. Then the blue eyes seemed to re-focus. "Thanks, Dale. Sorry to just burst in like this."

"Don't worry about that. Just get in the shower before you freeze."

A flicker of a smile crossed Brick's face and he disappeared into the bathroom without another word.

Dale waited until the bathroom door closed and he could hear the sound of the shower running, then picked up the phone and dialed the McKenna ranch number. His silent prayer was answered when Leigh rather than Jack picked up the phone.

"Dale? What's... have you seen Brick?"

She sounded upset.

"He just turned up on my doorstep, soaked to the skin - I've sent him to take a shower."

"Is he all right?"

"Depends what you mean. Doesn't look like he's been in an accident or anything, but there's definitely something wrong. Anything to do with what happened this morning?"

He knew from Leigh's earlier call that Brick had been to the Witch's Cauldron, and now listened carefully as she told him what she knew and about the subsequent argument with Jack. "If I'd only been in the house when Jack got back, I could have explained about the map."

"Damn that man! He should know better - Brick would never endanger guests like that!"

"Dale, I think it might have been the final straw for Brick. I don't know if there's any coming back from this."

"You think he's going to leave?"

"I'm not sure, but yes, I think so." There was a pause. "Don't let him go, Dale."

Dale felt the emotion behind those few small words. "Leigh, when did I ever stop Brick McKenna doing exactly what he wanted to do?"

"Don't sell yourself short, Dale. Brick respects you; he listens to you more than you might think. Please, make him stay. I... we don't want to lose him; Jack doesn't want to lose him, if he'd only come out and admit it."

Dale heard the shower stop. "I gotta go. I'll do my best; don't worry, Leigh - it'll all work out, you'll see."

He put the phone down, picked up some spare clothes from his bedroom and tapped on the bathroom door. "You finished? I've got you some dry clothes."

Dale couldn't help but laugh as Brick emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, damp hair standing up on end and swamped in Dale's sweats and pullover.

"What's so funny?" Brick growled.

"Ah! It speaks! I was beginning to wonder, there." His smile faded as Brick's eyes drifted shut and he swayed alarmingly. Dale grabbed his arm, guiding him to the nearest chair. "Whoa, there, buddy. Take it easy."

Brick sat down, resting his head in his hands. "Sorry, just felt a bit dizzy for a minute."

Dale regarded his friend quizzically. "You eaten today?"

Brick shrugged. "Breakfast, I guess. I'm not that hungry. I could use a whiskey, though," he added, looking up hopefully.

Dale was surprised. Brick was not a big drinker and when he did drink, it was usually beer - unless he had a lot of sorrows he needed to drown.

Dale shook his head. "You need some food inside you first. Eggs and bacon do you?"

Brick frowned, then nodded faintly, as if it was too much effort to argue, and that really worried Dale - he could think of very few occasions when he had seen his friend capitulate so easily on anything. Maybe a small drink wouldn't hurt; Brick looked like he needed something to keep him upright. Dale fished out the mostly unused whiskey bottle and poured them both a shot, then left Brick nursing his glass and headed to the kitchen to rustle up the food.

While he scrambled the eggs and fried the bacon in a pan, he kept half an eye on Brick through the half open door. His friend was lying back in the armchair, eyes closed. He looked dead tired. When the food was ready Dale had to practically drag him into the kitchen and force him bodily into the wooden chair. He didn't miss Brick's wince of pain as he sat down; it seemed a fat lip wasn't the only injury he had sustained today. Brick stared at the meal with indifference for a while, but once he reluctantly took a bite at Dale's stern order to start eating, he seemed to realize how hungry he was and wolfed it down in record time. He looked up at Dale then, and the familiar grin touched his lips. "You'll make someone a great wife one day, you know that?"

Dale sighed in relief at this small sign that the old Brick was still present in this unfamiliar, silent figure and gestured towards the den. "We're going to go sit down and you're going to tell me what's up."

He poured them both another shot of whiskey and sat down opposite Brick, regarding him thoughtfully. They sat quietly as Dale tried to work out the best way to handle the situation. In the end, it was Brick who broke the silence.

"Hope I didn't break up your evening."

Dale shook his head. "Casey was just leaving."

"Good. That's good." Brick knocked back the rest of the whiskey with a sigh. "Wouldn't want to screw up anyone else's life; I'm doing a good enough job with my own."

Brick held out his glass and Dale re-filled it.

"You gonna tell me what's eating you, or are we gonna sit here all night and stare at each other? No offence, but if I wanted to stare into someone's eyes all night, you wouldn't be my first choice."

Brick's mouth quirked. "Same here, buddy." He sighed. "You can probably guess."

"Another argument with Jack?"

"You could call it that."

"Want to tell me about it?"

"I guess. I suppose it started when Grant decided to ignore everything I'd told him and take a little trip to the Witch's Cauldron."

Dale listened attentively as Brick recounted the events of the day. Leigh had been hazy about the details and now he knew why; no one had told her the details of what really happened that morning. Even though Brick told Dale the whole story, his description of his rescue of Grant was sketchy. It took a lot of precise questioning for Dale to picture exactly what had happened and how close Brick and Grant had come to death.

He sat back when Brick finished recounting the details of the rescue, sipping his whiskey and contemplating what he had been told. It boiled down to this: not only had Brick made it to the Cauldron without having a panic attack, he had willingly gone into the water and saved Grant's life. Dale couldn't begin to imagine how much courage that must have taken. Typically, the way Brick saw it, it wasn't about courage - he had had no option, so it wasn't a big deal.

"I lost it with Grant afterwards, though," he finished. "I'd have beaten his stupid head in if Christian hadn't pulled me off him."

"That where you got the fat lip?"

Brick nodded.

"Pity you didn't beat his stupid head in," Dale remarked grimly and Brick grinned.

"Come on Dale, you don't believe in fighting!"

"Yeah, well it's different when my best friend almost gets himself killed rescuing a stupid schmuck who should have known better. He deserved a beating. I should arrest him for disobeying State laws."

"He's not worth the paperwork."

"Maybe. But it would give him a scare."

"Well, anyway..." Brick filled him in on the later confrontation with his father. He tried to make light of Jack's comments, but Dale could tell from the stiffness of his jaw and the emotion in his eyes that he had been badly shaken by Jack's accusations. Finally, he finished the story and looked up at Dale.

"Is he right, Dale?"

"Right about what?"

Brick's voice was so quiet Dale barely made out the words. "Am I really that big a loser?"

"You're not a loser, Brick, and you know that," Dale replied immediately. "Jack knows it too. He's got some issues..."

"You can say that again," Brick interjected bitterly.

"...Which you guys are going to have to work out, but I reckon he's the one with the problem, Brick, not you." Dale went on. "Anyway, if you're a loser, what does that make me for hanging out with you?"

He'd meant the final comment as a joke, but Brick looked at him seriously. "It makes you about the best friend a man could have, Dale."

"Oh, come on, Brick," Dale said, uncomfortable with the honest admiration in Brick's voice.

"It's true, Dale. Jack - I just don't know what it is he wants from me. I've come to terms with the past as best I can. I understand why he loved Guy more than me and I can accept being second best. When I came back - I didn't plan to stay, but I thought that maybe... just maybe... now that it was just the two of us, we could have a second chance, you know? That we could work things out, learn to get along. And for a while it was going okay. It wasn't easy - I guess I couldn't ever expect it to be easy between me and Jack - but we were working things out. And then everything went to hell and now... I'm beginning to think that I imagined it all, that there's nothing there between us. I can't live with that. I've done a lot of thinking, Dale, and there's only one option. I have to leave."

Dale had known that was coming and had no argument against it, maybe because he thought that perhaps Brick was right.

All his life Brick had lived in the shadow of his brother, and for someone like Brick McKenna, it wasn't a comfortable place to be. Physically there had been a strong resemblance between the two brothers. Same dark hair, same piercing eyes, same resolute, square jaws. Guy was a few inches taller and broader than Brick, thought what Brick lacked in bulk he made up for in agility and speed.

But there the resemblance ended. Guy McKenna was steady, dependable and even-tempered. Brick was hot-tempered with a tendency to act first and think later. He had always been fearless - the kind of person who needed to push himself to the limit and take on every challenge that presented itself. This trait had landed him in plenty of trouble over the years and coupled with the rebelliousness of youth and his rocky relationship with his father, could easily have sent him over the edge as a teenager. Yet Brick always stayed on the right side of the line, refusing to have anything to do with the drug and alcohol scene that some of their contemporaries had embraced. Instead, he channeled his frustrations into sports and outdoor pursuits - and finally, the more dangerous road racing that had eventually led to his decision to leave and try his hand with the stock cars.

Now, tempered by experience and common sense, his life would best be described as adventurous. Brick McKenna wanted to live his life to the fullest, and Dale couldn't fault him for that.

It hadn't escaped Dale's notice that most of Brick's more reckless adventures had been the result of some altercation with his brother or father. Once he was old enough to understand what was going on, it upset Dale to witness Brick's constant inner turmoil. One the one hand Brick needed to be himself, to find his own way; on the other he couldn't help trying to win his father's approval. Jack McKenna was Brick's hero and always would be. That was the tragedy of it--he knew and Dale knew that the only way he could achieve that was to be more like Guy.

Dale, who had a close relationship with understanding parents, had never understood why Jack couldn't accept and love Brick for who he was. He had known from the first moment they met that Brick McKenna was a cut above the rest. Sure, Dale always played second fiddle to his friend - Brick got the pick of the girls, was the better sportsman, more popular in school. Regardless, Brick always stood by him, never intentionally made him feel second best, fought bullies on his behalf. Most importantly, Brick believed in him, never once made him feel that he was too slow or too scared to do anything and consequently Dale's confidence in himself grew. Brick had contributed a great deal to the man Dale was today. He was the best friend Dale was ever likely to have and Dale knew he could not stand by and watch him destroyed once more by his father.

"Brick, at least think about it a bit more," he said feebly, feeling obliged to at least to fulfill his promise to Leigh. "You can't just leave. What about Cass - and Leigh?"

Brick sighed. "I don't want to go, Dale. I have to go. I know Cass will be upset, but she'll get over it. Leigh - I don't know. I thought about asking her to come with me, but she's not ready for that kind of commitment. Apart from that, I don't even have a job yet - I couldn't support her and the kids. 'Sides, I'm not sure I'm ready to be a father."

"You'd make a fine father, if you had to."

"Maybe. But I think Leigh's better off without me. Anyway, I've been thinking about it, and I've decided to stay until the fall - unless Jack can find someone else to help out over the summer. But I was wondering if I could move in with you until I leave? I just can't face living at the ranch, knowing... I'll make myself scarce when you want to be alone with Casey."

"Of course you can stay, if that's what you want." Dale held Brick's eyes, seeing both pain and determination in their depths. "You're really sure about this, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

There was a lot he could say, but nothing he could think of that would change Brick's mind. Only Jack had that power. So he simply said, "You planning on going back to the stock cars?"

Brick shook his head slowly. "No. I made that decision last year when I beat Clint Emmens. This is my life, Dale; the Wilderness, introducing people to it, seeing how it affects their lives. I thought I might head over to West Oregon. I ran into Johnny Fisher the other day, he's working at one of the big Outfitters over there. Said he'd put in a good word."

Dale was silent. He wasn't sure how his friend would fare in that kind of set up, where he had no say in the running of the place and just had to take orders. Then again, how different was that from his current life?

"Gonna miss you, buddy," he said simply, swallowing past a sudden lump in his throat.

"Me too." Brick was silent for a moment. "You know it was you who saved me in high school?"

"What you talking about?"

Brick shrugged. "I know I was wild - don't know why you stuck by me all that time. I could easily have gone the same way as Brad Metzler."

Dale remembered Brad Metzler well. He and Brick had been rivals all through high school - in sporting achievements, with girls, in most everything. But while Brick had always drawn a line, Brad had set out to cross every line he could and by his senior year was heavily into drugs and alcohol. Dale had no idea where he was now - he had dropped out of school before graduation.

"Don't sell yourself short, Brick. You were wild, but you were never stupid."

"You have no idea, do you? Remember that time when Brad challenged me to a tequila drinking competition?"

Dale grinned. "Yeah, I remember. You won."

"Afterwards, I was throwing up in the rest room, met some of Brad's buddies sniffing dope. I was pretty far-gone. When they invited me to join in, you know what stopped me? The thought of the disappointment on your face if you came in and caught me."

"Brick..." Dale was sure it was the whiskey that was making Brick so emotional, but nevertheless his friend's words made him feel good.

"You're the best buddy a man could ever have, Dale. I wan... want you to know that."

Dale cleared his throat, terrified that his friend might just leap up at that point and hug him. "Well, I appreciate that, Brick, I really do, but I reckon it's time for you to turn in."

"Night's young, Dale. We could hit a club ..."

"I don't think so - not with the shape you're in. Bed, Brick. You've got to work in the morning."

"Ah, yes, work for the great Jack McKenna." Brick stood up, swayed, and Dale grabbed his arm firmly. "Well, wouldn't want to disappoint him, would I?"

Chapter Sixteen

Leigh put the phone down with mixed feelings. Her conversation with Dale had reassured her of Brick's safety but did nothing to quell her rising anxiety and confusion about the situation. She stood quietly for a moment, collecting herself, then returned to the den where Shannon Masters sat sipping a glass of wine.

During the year since Shannon had arrived in Oregon to open a guesthouse, she and Leigh had developed a close friendship. Their respective commitments allowed them little opportunity to get together, but Leigh looked forward to their meetings. There were few other women in the area with whom she felt as able to share her heart.

Shannon raised an eyebrow as Leigh sat down and picked up her own glass.

"Sorry about that," Leigh said.

"Everything all right?"

"Yes." She didn't want to explain and have to go through the whole horrible story. She was afraid that if she started talking about Brick, her feelings would be obvious. So far, she had kept them hidden from everyone, even Shannon.

"So, did this call have anything to do with whatever it is you have on your mind?"

Leigh groaned inwardly. She had spent the whole evening trying to pretend that everything was fine, but she should have known that Shannon would see through her.

"It's nothing. Brick and Jack had an argument earlier; Brick left and we weren't sure where he was. That was Dale calling to say that Brick's with him. So everything's okay."

Shannon gave her measuring look. "You have a funny idea of 'nothing', girl. Jack's hiding in his study, you've been watching the door all evening, and Cass has been down three times to check when her brother's due back."

"We were a little worried, that's all."

"So, this has nothing to do with your feelings for Brick?"

Leigh started and spluttered out a mouthful of wine. "What?"

Shannon smiled. "I'm not stupid, Leigh. There's been something going on between you two for a while."

"There's nothing going on! I'm... he's..." Leigh floundered to a halt. She had thought she had been so careful, so ruthless in keeping her feelings in check. Dear Lord, if Shannon had noticed, what about Jack? No, that was impossible: he would have said something.

"So, are you going to tell me about it?" Shannon seemed unconvinced by her denial.

Maybe it was time to talk; she had kept her feelings bottled up for long enough. Slowly, haltingly, Leigh told Shannon about the fateful kiss on her birthday, how Brick had wanted to take things further, and the way her fears and doubts had held her back. How she had begged him to pretend that nothing had happened, to let them go back to the way things had been. How she had been trying to keep him out of her mind ever since.

"Well, you don't seem to have done a very good job of it," Shannon remarked dryly. "And where does John fit into all this?"

John. Leigh had not though about John in a long time. Looking back, the whole episode seemed surreal, like a dream. When he had dropped into her life five months ago, a stranger with no memory, she had been flattered by his attention and dependence on her. It had been a long time since someone had needed her in that way. She believed she was falling in love with him and when his identify was discovered and he left to pick up his old life, was sure that she would be devastated. Strangely, though, when he left, the feelings seemed to leave with him.

She felt herself flush as she thought about John and her behavior at the time.

"The time John and I had together - it seems like a dream, like a kind of madness. When he was gone, there was nothing left."

Shannon regarded her thoughtfully. "So, you're telling me that your feelings for John weren't real?"

"They felt real at the time. But..."

"But maybe you were just trying to block out your feelings for Brick by falling in love with someone else?"

Shannon had discerned in only a few moments what it had taken Leigh months of heart-searching to work out. She nodded mutely.

"Tell me, what's so bad about you and Brick together?" Shannon went on.

Wasn't it obvious? "He's Guy's brother, Shannon."


"So? It just - well, it feels wrong."

"Why? Do you think it's disloyal to Guy to have feelings for his brother?"

"I guess so."

"Don't you think Guy would want you to be happy?"

"Of course he would, but..." she wasn't sure how to explain. "I'm not really sure what it is that attracts me to Brick."

Shannon raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Apart from the fact that he's the hottest guy south of the Cascades?"

Leigh had to laugh. Her friend was nothing if not direct. "Apart from that."

"Does he remind you of Guy?"

Leigh had thought about that a lot. "In some ways. When he first came back, all I could think about was how alike they look, yet in character they couldn't be more different."

"So when you look at Brick," Shannon persisted, "do you see Guy?"

Slowly, Leigh shook her head. "Not now. Occasionally, perhaps, like in a particular movement, or expression."

"So, why are you attracted to Brick?"

"I... I guess it's his love of life, his spirit, his sense of adventure. He isn't afraid of anything, he'll push himself to the limit."

"And I'm guessing that these are all qualities that Guy didn't have?"

Leigh was stunned by this insight, was about to leap to Guy's defense, but realized in a sudden flash of clarity that Shannon was right. Guy was a wonderful person - he was strong, dependable, loving. He had a great sense of humor - that at least he shared with his brother - but he never shared Brick's sense of adventure.

Shannon looked thoughtful. "Sounds like the brothers were two sides of a coin."

"That's one way of putting it."

"So, maybe deep down you feel that it's a betrayal of Guy to fall for his brother, when he's so different from Guy?"

Leigh sipped her wine thoughtfully. "I'd never thought of it like that. Guy wasn't perfect - he was too much like Jack for that! He could be stubborn, judgmental, and self-righteous. It's the same with Brick. He can be reckless, thoughtless, and hot tempered."

"But you're still in love with him."

In love with him? Leigh had never dared to define her feelings in such direct terms but now, hearing the words, she knew she had been deluding herself in thinking that her feelings amounted to anything less.

"I think so," she whispered. "But it's so complicated..."

Shannon leaned forward, putting a hand on Leigh's arm. "It doesn't have to be, if he feels the same way."

Leigh ran her hands through her hair. "I still can't shake the feeling that it isn't right. I guess it's partly feeling I'm betraying Guy, partly what Jack would think, and the kids - Brick's their uncle!"

"So? They love him, don't they? You're already halfway there!"

"Can you see Brick as a father?"

"Can you?"

Leigh shrugged. "I'm not sure he's ready for that kind of responsibility."

"Have you talked to him about it?"

"We haven't really talked at all since - since it happened."

"It's up to you, Leigh, but I think you deserve to be happy. Be honest with yourself, and if you're really in love with him, give him a chance. And as for Guy... did he love Brick?"

"They had their differences, but yes, he loved him very much. Brick's his brother."

"Then I think he'd be happy that you were with someone he cared about too."

After Shannon left, Leigh sat for a long time in the darkness thinking about her friend's words and wondering, if she did decide to put aside her fears, if it was already too late.

Chapter Seventeen

Leigh was making breakfast when she heard the main door to the house open and close with its habitual creak. A moment later Brick walked in. She noted in concern that he was pale and the skin of his face was taut as if he was in pain.

He walked into the kitchen, silently picked up some plates and began to set the table. Leigh put down the bread knife she was holding and crossed the room to him. Laying a hand on his arm, she said, "Brick, are you all right?"

He turned and in that moment, she knew. She could see it in the defeated droop of his shoulders and the resignation in his eyes.

"Leigh, there's something I need to tell you," he began, but she interrupted.

"Don't say it, Brick."

Brick opened his mouth again but before he could speak, Jack entered the room. He started when he saw his son. Leigh watched as the two stared at each other in silence for a few moments, then Jack said quietly, "Brick, we need to talk."

Leigh felt a surge of hope. Jack had been very quiet since the angry exchange of words yesterday. She knew that Bill had spoken to him and since then Jack had spent most of the day and evening in the study. She had hoped that he was finally coming to his senses.

When Brick shook his head grimly, her heart sank again.

His voice was tight as he said, "I'm done talking, Jack. I might as well tell you now. I've decided to leave. I'll stay until September - that should be enough time for you to find someone else. I'll do my fair share of the work in the meantime, but I'll be bunking at Dale's."

Jack's mouth tightened and he looked as if he wanted to say something, then his expression closed. "It's your decision, son. Maybe it's for the best."

"How can it be for the best!"

They all turned, startled. No one had seen Cassidy come into the room.

"Cass, I'm sorry, I was going to tell you..." Brick began.

Cassidy ignored Brick, storming up to Jack. "You have to do something! You can't just let him go!"

"Cass, this is between Brick and me."

"No it isn't, it affects us all! He's my brother and I need him. This is all your fault, Jack. You've driven him away and I'll never forgive you. I hate you!"

Cassie stormed out of the room, pushing past Brick as he tried to intercept her.

Brick looked helplessly at Jack. "I'm sorry. I was going to tell her later - she shouldn't have heard like that. If you think it would be easier for Cass, I'll leave right away."

Jack shook his head. "No need for that, she'll get over it. I'll drive into Bend this afternoon and put up a notice for a replacement."

"A replacement?" Leigh couldn't hold her tongue any longer. "A replacement?" This is your son you're talking about, Jack, not a new piece of equipment!"

"Leigh, don't. It's okay." Brick said softly.

It was far from okay, but she kept her silence.

After a moment, Brick turned away. "Count me out of breakfast. I'm going to take a shower."

Jack started for the door. "I'll go and talk to Cassidy."

"No, Jack." Leigh put out a restraining hand. "Leave her. I don't think she'll want to see you right now. Let me talk to her later."

For the past few months Leigh had been afraid that the deteriorating relationship between father and son would come to this and had known how badly Cassidy would take the news if Brick decided to leave. The youngster had been so thrilled last year when her brother returned and decided to stay; the two of them had always been close. When she was younger, he had stood up for her, allowed her to tag along with him, and indulged her. He understood her in a way her father and Guy never had and Leigh knew that he had always been Cassidy's hero. Now, as a teenager, she still looked to him for support in her frequent altercations with Jack. It was not that Brick always agreed with her, but he listened and explained things in a way Jack never could. Cass had been devastated when Brick had first left three years ago. Now she was losing him all over again.

Somehow, Leigh made it through breakfast, which was a somber affair. It was the final morning for the Levine party and they were all subdued. Bill tried his best to keep the conversation going, but received little reward for his efforts. When he left to visit some friends in Bend and the other guests headed to their cabins to finish packing, Leigh went upstairs. The bathroom door was still shut and as she passed, she heard a thud followed by a string of expletives. She knocked on the door.

"Brick? What happened?"

"Nothing," said a muffled voice. There was another thud.

"Brick, open the door."

"I'm fine."

"Open it, or I'll kick it down!"

After a moment, the door opened a fraction and Brick stuck his head out. "So which one are you, Starsky or Hutch?"

She smiled at the lame attempt at levity. "You're not fine; I could tell that earlier. Do I have to beat it out of you?"

"Promise you won't make a fuss?"

"I won't make a fuss."

The door opened fully, revealing Brick clad only in a towel around his waist. She hastily averted her eyes from his lean yet well-muscled body and looked into the troubled blue eyes.

"What's wrong?" she asked softly.

He turned around and Leigh gasped. The upper left side of his back was a mass of ugly blue-black bruises. Realization hit her.

"This happened at the Cauldron yesterday! You didn't get there in time, did you? My God, Brick, what happened? Why didn't you say something before?"

"I didn't get much opportunity, if you remember," Brick replied dryly. "It's not a big deal, Leigh. I had to go in to get Grant, got knocked against a rock. It isn't serious, my back's a bit stiff, that's all."

Leigh was shaken at the revelation and everything it implied. However, now was not the time to quiz him for the details. She debated telling him he should head straight for the doctor, but held her tongue, knowing that it wouldn't do any good. "Go and lie down," she said briskly. "I'll get you an ice pack."

"Don't tell Jack," Brick said urgently. "Things are bad enough."

After a moment, she nodded shortly. "You'll have to tell him sometime, but all right. I won't say anything for now. Go and lie down."

Fortunately, Jack was nowhere in sight when she snuck into the kitchen. She took a towel, filled it with a large handful of ice, and headed back upstairs. She found Brick lying face down on his bed, head propped up on one arm, the other at his side.

She sat down on the edge of the bed. "Let me take a look, just to make sure it's just bruised."

Brick grunted assent and Leigh began to run a hand gently over the discolored area, wincing as she felt him tense. She pressed a little harder and a sharp intake of breath was the only evidence of the pain he was feeling.

"You're right - it's just badly bruised, but I'll bet it hurts like hell." She positioned the ice pack over the worst of the bruising, maneuvering it into place with a gentle hand. "How does that feel?"


Leigh clicked her tongue impatiently. "Apart from cold."

He sighed. "Better, thanks."

After a moment, she said, "So, you're really going?"

"I have to, Leigh. I can't stay here any more. It's killing me. I'd ask you to come with me, but it wouldn't be fair to you and the kids - not until I have a job, at least - and I| know you're not ready for that. I understand how you feel."

"Do you? When even I don't understand it?"

He twisted his head around to look at her. "Maybe some time apart will help us figure this out."

"Maybe. I just... I can't imagine what it's going to be like here without you."

He was silent and after a moment closed his eyes, relaxing as the ice began to relieve some of the pain. Leigh leaned in and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. "Stay just where you are for a while. I'll give you a call in a bit and you can come and say goodbye to your best friend Grant."

"I can hardly wait."

Chapter Eigtheen

An hour later Brick was saddling his horse in the stable. He had decided on the drive from Dale's to ride out that morning; although he knew he was not really up to it, he couldn't face being around the house. When he was ready he walked back to where Grant, Cindy and Christian were gathered, loading luggage into the SUV. Cindy went up to him at once, giving him a quick hug and kissing his cheek.

"I'm sorry for everything that happened," she whispered.

"It wasn't your fault, Cindy."

"You know, my mother does volunteer work for a shelter in LA, working with underprivileged kids. It would be great if we could work it out so they could come up here. Most of them have never left LA."

Brick nodded. "That would be great. Talk to your mother; we'll see what we can arrange." He felt a pang of regret as he realized that he would not be here to see that happen.

Grant stepped forward then and said quietly, "Could we have a word, in private?"

Taken by surprise at the serious nature of Grant's tone, Brick found himself nodding and motioned for Grant to walk with him to the paddock. Brick rested his back against a rail. "Well?"

Grant looked uncomfortable, but he held Brick's eyes as he said, "I want to apologize for my behavior these past few days. I was way out of line."

Brick studied the well-bred features, looking for signs of Grant's usual sardonic expression, but it was absent. Unbelievably, he seemed to be serious.

"And yesterday - I know you saved my life. I just... I guess I wasn't ready to admit it."

Brick was silent, not yet ready to let Levine off the hook.

"I can be a real jerk, sometimes - just ask Cindy," the blond went on. "And Lori ... when she started coming on to you, I couldn't handle it ... I know you weren't encouraging her, but it still made me mad."

Brick weighed Grant's word, sensing the sincerity in them. "I can understand that," he said finally. "Look, it's all right. Forget it. Maybe you can come again some other time, we'll do a class four run and get in the climb you missed."

Grant's eyes lit up. "That would be cool, man." He held out his hand and Brick took it, shaking firmly. Grant nodded once, and walked back to the car. Brick shook his head in disbelief. Who would have thought it?

He re-joined the others. Christian and Cindy were saying their goodbyes to Jack and Leigh. Lori had appeared and was standing with her arm linked with Grant's She looked Brick in the eye for the first time since the incident in his bedroom.

"No hard feelings?" she said.

"Have a good trip home," Brick replied shortly, reluctantly taking her proffered hand. He tried in vain to interpret the strange expression in her eyes as she shook his hand, then she smiled sweetly and got into the car. He shook Christian's hand and then watched in relief as the car roared down the road.

Brick turned to Jack immediately. "I'm going to take a ride along the gorge trail. I'm planning to take the Wallis group there tomorrow, but I want to see if the rain's made the trail too dangerous."

Without waiting for a response, he strode off to the barn, mounted his horse with a degree of difficulty, and rode off.