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Three Brothers
Nicole Williams

IF I’D KNOWN then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with him. If I’d known at thirteen what I’d learned in the twelve years since, I’d have known that the people who need the most help either don’t want to be fixed or are past the point of fixing.

The people who seem to be making the biggest cries for help aren’t really crying out at all. They’ve accepted who and what they are, and it’s those of us who stumble along by them—wanting, needing, and having to fix them—who are the ones who need help when all is said and done.

At least that was my experience. In the seven years since I’d left Red Mountain Ranch, I’d found help in distance, independence, and reinventing myself as a competent, capable woman. I wasn’t the same scared, impressionable girl I’d been when I walked through those doors the first time. I’d never be that girl again.

But the closer I got to the place where I’d spent five of my most impressionable teen years, I felt the twenty-five-year-old woman I was shrinking away and the girl I’d once been shoving to the surface. It might have been the familiar gravel roads the cab was crunching over—the first time I’d traveled them in years—or it might have been the reason I was coming back after living with the impression that I’d seen my last of the jutting peaks and sweeping valleys of Jackson Hole. Or it might have been because in the call I’d gotten a few days ago, pleading me to come back before it was too late, I’d learned that he would be here. The he I’d toiled five years away trying to help—trying to fix. The he I’d wasted five years trying to fix.

My hands twisted in my lap as I worked to empty my mind because I needed a clear head for what was waiting for me. I needed a clear head to face him and make sure those same misguided feelings I’d had for him wouldn’t drain me of energy and hope as they had before. I needed the strong woman I was to be at her best from the moment I climbed the porch steps to the time I bounced down them when I left.

It was June. The days were long, but they had never seemed as long in that part of the world. My flight had gotten in a bit late, so it was closer to eight than seven when the cab took the left turn at the end of the road. Already shadows were creeping across the green fields. That was because of the mountain. By itself, it seemed monstrous in size, but Red Mountain didn’t hold a candle to the sharp, snow-capped spires of the Tetons surrounding it. But it was tall enough to swallow the sun early, so everything in the valley spent more time veiled in shadow than most places. It was the mountain’s fault the long summer days were cut early, and the owner of those fields and the thousands of acres stretched out around it claimed the mountain was at fault for just about everything that had gone wrong in his and so many others’ lives.

Maybe it was true that the mountain hadn’t been named Red Mountain just because the soil at the top was reddish, and maybe it wasn’t. But I had learned in my years spent in Jackson Hole that whether people used the mountain as a ramrod for tragedy or if it really was the origin, something was tragic about that mountain.

I turned my gaze away from the looming mass of rock and superstition as the car crawled to a stop. I was there. I’d spent more time away from that place than I’d spent there, but I’d learned that some places and people leave a deeper impression than others, regardless of time. That place and the people inside it had done just that—left an impression on me that went so deep that sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between where I ended and they began.

The driver was already unloading my luggage from the trunk and walking the bags up the very porch steps I’d been having nightmares of for three nights. Despite the nightmares, this place was the origin of more happy memories than unhappy ones. But for some reason, the unhappy memories had a way of towering over the happy ones, punctuating my time at Red Mountain Ranch. I hoped this visit wouldn’t be defined the same way. I hoped this visit would be different. Entirely different.

I wasn’t off to a good start though. My hands still twisted in my lap, my back pasted to the seat, my body almost clammy with fear . . . I was more that girl than that woman. I was more the same girl who’d first arrived at this place than the woman I’d spent years gritting my teeth to become. I might have been in a peony-pink eyelet dress then instead of the worn-in jeans and WSU School of Veterinary Medicine shirt I was in now, but the same nervousness settled in my stomach. I felt the uncertainty and fear of the unknown trickle into every corner and crevice inside me.

When the driver knocked on my window, I flinched, but by the time he pulled open the door, I’d collected myself enough to swing my legs out of the car and take my first step in the right direction. Or the wrong direction, if history was any indicator of my future.

After tipping the driver, I stood at the base of that porch. It led to a door as vast and solid as the rest of the place, which led to the rooms where I’d find the four men I’d spent my teen years with, one as a father-figure and the other three as brothers . . . in a way. John had been a decent enough father-figure, although I didn’t really have anyone to judge him against. Even though I’d never had a brother, I did know enough to accept that my “brothers”—one in particular—had behaved as much as a brother as they had not.

Chase, Chance, and Conn Armstrong—all strong, one-syllable C names. It probably should have taken me a year of calling them all the wrong name before finally getting it straight, but it hadn’t. Each of them was so unique—as different as the relationships I formed with each one—that I don’t think I got their names confused once. There was plenty of confusion in other areas however . . .

One of the few grains of wisdom I’d gleaned from my mom before she ended her life the summer I turned thirteen was that there were three types of men: The kind who appealed to our heads—the good guys who were safe, smart picks who’d never hurt us but would never really excite the hell out of us either. The kind who appealed to our hearts—typically the broken, damaged ones we couldn’t help but fall hard and fast for and the ones we yearned to fix. And then there were the kind who appealed to the below-the-belt region. Those were the guys with swagger in their step and a knowing glint in their eyes. They lit our worlds on fire, but like any fire that burned through its tinder, it extinguished as quickly as it had erupted. Mom had also said there was a fourth kind, although they were so rare they were more myth than reality: the kind who appealed to all three parts of a woman. She said if I ever came across one of those, I should tie myself to him so tightly, no matter what storm came, we’d never be ripped apart.

The three Armstrong brothers fit into those categories. Unlike the rest of the girls in Jackson Hole, I hadn’t fallen hard and fast for the hip brother who oozed unhealthy amounts of sex appeal. Chase was more the big brother meets aloof next-door-neighbor type to me. I did fall hard and fast for a different brother though—the youngest one, Conn. I’d gotten tangled up with the heart brother for so long it had taken me years of separation and determination to free myself. During all of that, the head brother, Chance, had been my best friend.

But that had been then. I’d let years of radio silence and isolation sever whatever bonds I’d formed with them all. It was the only choice I’d seen at the time, and I hadn’t given it a second thought.

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