Cowboy take me away, p.17
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.17

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  Since Bob was still swinging as he went down, Carson connected with a right cross to Bob’s ear and another one to his jaw.

  That was the last punch he got in before Bob’s buddies jumped him.

  Fuckers had him pinned down so he couldn’t fight back—but he sure as fuck wasn’t letting these pussies get the best of him. He managed to crack one guy in the nose with his head and the guy dropped to his knees, yelling about his busted face.

  He didn’t know how many hits and kicks he’d sustained—his head had gone woozy from the booze and the pain—when the guys pounding on him went flying.

  Someone hauled him upright to his feet by his biceps.

  Carson wiped the blood from his eye and spit a mouthful of red goo on the ground. He swayed and someone tried to bolster him, but he jerked away. He was on his goddamn feet. He didn’t need any help staying there.

  A loud roar sounded. He glanced over to see Cal, Casper and Charlie doling out punishment to Bob’s friends and a couple of other guys who’d stupidly tangled with them.

  A crowd had gathered to watch the show.

  Carson rested his hands on his knees, trying to breathe through the pain. Fuck. His ribs, his back, his head all throbbed. When he looked up, he saw three more guys rolling in the dirt and Cal and Charlie looming above them.

  Then Casper took an elbow to the gut, which spurred him to tackle the guy and whale on him until Charlie tapped him on the shoulder.

  “Anyone else?” Cal shouted, spinning in a circle.

  “The McKays starting fights,” someone yelled from the back. “Big surprise.”

  “And we always finish fights,” Charlie snapped back. “Come up here and say it to our face, coward.”

  No one stepped forward.

  “Anyone else wanna have a go at us? We’re ready.”

  For a moment Carson thought the entire crowd might rush them. But then they slowly backed away.

  “Not that it matters, but you wanna tell us what the fuck that was about?” Cal asked.

  Carson bent down and picked up his hat. “I was walkin’ by Bob and he made a crack about the McKays. Couldn’t let it slide.”

  Charlie said, “Dad is gonna rip into us when he hears about this.”

  “Let him.” Casper sneered. “Wasn’t like we had a choice. He’d yell at us just as bad if he found out we let the number one son get a beatin’ and we didn’t step in to save him.”

  “Fuck you, Casper,” Carson said. Even when Casper wasn’t being an asshole, he somehow managed to turn into one.

  “How bad you hurt this time?” Cal asked.

  “I’m fine. I just need to walk it off.” Sleep it off would be better. But even in his boozed and beaten state Carson knew the second he closed his eyes, he’d see Carolyn’s face. The torment in her eyes when she noticed he had his arm around another woman. The way she seemed to shrink into herself when she believed he’d used her and was discarding her.

  Rage roared inside him again. His fist might’ve connected with the metal hood of the car behind him if not for Cal lunging and knocking him sideways. “What the hell, Carse?”

  “He’s drunk,” Casper said.

  Not drunk enough. He didn’t know if there was enough booze in the world to numb the pain.

  “Leave him alone,” Charlie said. “Let’s go back into the dance. See if any of the ladies wanna get with us.”

  “Fine, but you ain’t drinkin’, pup.”

  They disappeared.

  Cal positioned himself across from Carson as they leaned against the doors of somebody’s cars. “You wanna tell me what’s really goin’ on?”

  “I can help with that.”

  Carson faced the guy, recognizing him as another one of Carolyn’s fuckin’ brothers. “If you’re gonna hit me, you’d better make sure you knock me the fuck out with the first shot. ’Cause I ain’t goin’ down easy.” Especially not for a West again.

  “Yeah. I saw that.”

  “Who’re you? Cal demanded.

  “Thomas West. Carolyn’s brother.”

  Cal snarled, “What the fuck do you want, West?”

  “To talk to Carson.”

  “You gonna talk to me like your brothers talked to me?”

  Thomas stepped closer. “What’d they do?”

  “Harland slammed me up against the barn and tried to choke me. Darren stopped by and said he’d drop a couple of diseased sheep into my cattle herd. Marshall said sparks from the railroad are known to start grass fires in prime grazin’ land. Stuart was the least creative but the most to the point. He said he’d beat me to death with a hammer if I ever came near Carolyn again.”

  “Jesus.”

  “When the hell did this happen?” Cal asked, dumbfounded.

  “Last two days.” Carson reached for his flask, but remembering he’d left it in his truck, he dropped his hand. “Don’t bother warnin’ me off your sister. I’m done with her.”

  Thomas roared and grabbed the front of Carson’s shirt. Then they were nose to nose. “Just like that? You walk—hell, you fucking ran away from my sister because they told you to?”

  Carson pushed him back. “Shut up.”

  “I saw what you did to her tonight. Acting like you were with someone else. I just hope she made it home okay because she was crying so damn hard—”

  “I said shut up.” Carson stared at him, seething, thoughts of Carolyn driving into a ditch flashing in his brain.

  “So it is true. What my dad has always said. The McKays are scared of the Wests.”

  Cal got in Thomas’s face. “Bullshit.”

  “There’s your proof.” Thomas pointed to Carson. “Your brother is running scared. Being a jackass to my sister, breaking her heart because that’s what my older brothers want. What about what you want?” He gave Carson a sneering once-over. “I saw you beat the crap out of five guys tonight, McKay. Because you thought some guy insulted you. But you’re just gonna lay down like a whipped dog for my brothers after they gave you the ultimate insult? They told you that you aren’t good enough for Carolyn? So you’re going to prove it? You won’t take them on and fight for my sister?”

  “Why do you care? I thought you’d be happy. Ain’t you the one tryin’ to get her to move to Denver or Chicago instead of bein’ stuck livin’ here?”

  “I never wanted to make that decision for her; I just made sure she knew she had options.”

  “So I’m an option?”

  Thomas stared at him. “You were.”

  Fuck this “were” shit.

  “You screwed up bad tonight,” Thomas said. “You hurt her. I wanted to bust your balls for that alone. But I’m not like my brothers. Beating the crap out of you and threatening you…that’s not what Carolyn would want. And I’m only doing this for her.”

  “Doin’ what?”

  “Helping you. And before you get that ‘fuck you I don’t need your help, you piece of shit West’ look, listen up: you do need my help. You want to be with her, don’t you?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Prove it. You’ll have to grovel, bare your heart and soul and all that embarrassing, romantic crap women love, and fucking mean it for her to even talk to you. Words can only go so far.”

  Probably not a good idea to say that getting her naked would be the best way to prove it.

  Cal said, “So he’s supposed to march up to your front door and say, ‘Fuck you all, I don’t give a shit what threats you made or what you think, I’m takin’ Carolyn out on a date and you’d better get used to seein’ me around’?”

  “Yes.”

  “No way,” Cal said hotly. “He’ll have to show up armed with your brothers gunning for him.”

  “That’s your solution? He walks into my goddamned house armed?” Thomas shot back.

  “There’s no other way I’m letting my brother walk into a roomful of Wests.”

  “I’ll do it,” Carson said softly.

  “Carse—”

  “Cal. I’m not walkin’
away from her.” He looked at his brother. “Thomas is right. I’m actin’ like a pussy. I backed down because I thought…” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “That’s the problem. I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. I am now.” He locked his gaze to Thomas’s. “Think your dad sent his sons after me instead of comin’ for me himself?”

  “No. I don’t think my brothers have told our dad about you or I doubt Carolyn would’ve been allowed to leave the house tonight.”

  “She’s an adult. She’s been responsible for herself since she was twelve.”

  “It’s screwed up, okay? Our mom sent her away because she wanted something more for her. Yet when Carolyn comes home, things go back to her doing everything for us. I guarantee our father won’t be happy when a McKay shows up for his daughter.” Thomas’s eyes searched his. “Did you know that my dad and your dad crossed paths years ago?”

  “No. What happened?”

  “Words were exchanged, fists were involved and my dad put your dad in the hospital.”

  “Christ. I didn’t know about that.”

  Thomas shrugged. “I wouldn’t have known either if I hadn’t asked my dad’s friend Roscoe about it. My dad goes ballistic whenever the McKay name is mentioned.”

  “Any idea what prompted the fight between your old man and mine?”

  “Word is it doesn’t take much for the McKays to get pissed off and come out swinging. So I’m guessing, like father like sons—no offense.”

  “Fuck you. I am offended because I didn’t start this one; your brothers did. Who’s to say your dad didn’t jump my dad back then?” Carson demanded.

  “Seems like attack and retreat is the Wests’ style,” Cal said with a sneer.

  “You wanna stand here and speculate about shit that happened before any of us were born?”

  Carson shook his head. Motherfucker hurt.

  “Good. I’ve got a couple of ideas on how to get back in Carolyn’s good graces.”

  “What’s your suggestion?

  He zeroed in on Carson. Then he rattled off what he saw as the best course of action.

  As Carson listened to Thomas’s suggestions, the perfect way to prove his intent occurred to him. He was mired in thoughts on how to pull it off, when he realized Thomas was speaking to him again and he refocused.

  “So I’m asking you, McKay. You gonna do right by my sister?”

  “You can count on it.”

  Without another word Thomas walked off.

  Cal broke the silence first. “Some night, huh?”

  “I’ll be feelin’ it in the mornin’, that’s for damn sure.”

  “Maybe it’s best if we head home. I’ll follow you.”

  Carson pushed away from the car he’d been resting against.

  “Is she worth it?” Cal asked. “You’ve known her for little over a week.”

  “Yeah. But it feels like I’ve been waitin’ for her forever.”

  Chapter Eleven

  Carolyn

  Carolyn’s red-rimmed eyes nearly kept her home from church.

  At least her eyes weren’t swollen shut like the last time she’d spent the night crying, after her cat had died.

  But she’d never cried over a guy.

  That’s because you’ve never been in love before.

  If this was love, who wanted it? At least her cat hadn’t catted around on her.

  Maybe she should head back to Montana and enroll in the convent.

  During the miserable drive home she’d relived every awful moment: seeing him with that woman, witnessing the disinterested and dismissive expression on his handsome face.

  Was it typical lovesick behavior to scroll back through all the times they’d spent together in the past week, searching for signs she’d missed that indicated he intended to use her for sex and then move on to the next conquest? She’d come up blank. Or maybe she was too naïve to recognize the warning signs.

  Beverly had caught up with her as she’d dashed back to her car, tears already streaming down her face, the scream of pain and outrage stuck in her throat.

  Her friend’s look of pity made Carolyn want to crawl under the car. But with Beverly’s gentle urging, Carolyn had told her what’d happened.

  “Carolyn. Sweetie. He’s got a bad reputation. He isn’t interested in dating; he’s interested in screwing as many women as he can. And I’m sorry it hurts, I wanna march over there and punch him in the nose, but that’s why they call men like him heartbreakers.”

  “But I thought I was different. I was—”

  “Special?” Beverly inserted. “I’m sure he probably told you that in such a way you believed it. He’s very good at acting sincere because he’s used that line on so many girls before and it always works for him.”

  “So I’m just a fool?”

  “We all are. Heartbreak is a rite of passage.”

  Carolyn wiped her eyes. “Are you afraid Mike will break your heart?”

  “Every day. But I love him every day anyway. Maybe Carson will come to his senses.”

  Maybe Martians will land on top of Devil’s Tower.

  She snapped out of the memory when she realized she’d started to drift to the center line of the road.

  Much like she had last night.

  The church service was packed. Several people her mother’s age smiled at her as she slid into the fourth-to-last pew. She lifted out the hymnal and flipped to the first hymn. She loved these songs. It connected her to the past, imagining a church full of people across the world singing these same hymns of praise a century or two ago.

  The organ played the processional as the altar boys lit the candles. A figure paused at the edge of the pew before sliding in next to her.

  Carolyn looked over…right into Carson McKay’s blue eyes.

  Her mouth dropped open and she bobbled the hymnal.

  Carson steadied the book and softly asked, “Can we share this?”

  She nodded. Numbly. Dumbly. Her mind wasn’t on the music or anticipating the inspirational bits she could take from this sermon to sustain her throughout her week, but got stuck on the cowboy sitting next to her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Carson’s black hair looked damp. She caught a whiff of his aftershave. He’d donned a dark brown western-cut suit. Polished dress boots adorned his feet. And she knew the man was turning heads, even in church.

  The music crescendoed, signaling the start of the hymn. Carson adjusted the hymnal and she noticed his bruised and scabbed knuckles.

  Her head snapped up and she caught sight of his handsome face. Her insides knotted, seeing his swollen and cut lip, the gash by his eyebrow. Another slice on his cheek. He had a serious shiner around his right eye, and bruises on his jawline.

  What had happened to him last night?

  When she realized she was staring and not singing, she tried to focus on the hymn. But Carson once again distracted her, his voice a deep rumble as he sang quietly beside her.

  The hymn ended and the liturgy was recited. He didn’t need to read along as he seemed to have it memorized. He had no problem knowing when to kneel. He knew the prayers. His motions were automatic, as if he’d done it a hundred times before.

  Why hadn’t she known that Carson had been raised Catholic?

  She knew so many other things, hot and sweet and sexy things—please Lord forgive me for letting my mind wander to such carnal thoughts during church service, amen. But why hadn’t she asked about his core beliefs? When her religious beliefs were such a large part of who she was?

  Because you gave up your virginity to him within a week of meeting
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