Cowboy take me away, p.18
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.18

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  him. He probably thinks you don’t have those core beliefs. Actions speak louder than words, remember?

  Carson shifted to get to his billfold when the usher shoved the collection plate in front of him. She dropped a folded bill in the same time Carson did and their fingers brushed.

  A jolt of awareness shot through her.

  When Carolyn didn’t jerk away, he considered that her approval to hold her hand.

  How much of a pushover are you?

  But she liked that he’d reached out to her—in more ways than one. Giving him the cold shoulder in church, where she’d learned to turn the other cheek, would make her a hypocrite.

  The service ended and people started to get up.

  She faced him.

  His eyes were so somber.

  “Carson, why are you here?”

  “To ask for your forgiveness.” He allowed a ghost of a smile before he winced in pain. “Figured I’d ask for God’s too while I was at it.”

  “I didn’t know you were Catholic.”

  “Baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church in Sundance. Both my mom and Dad were Catholic. Mom made sure we went to church pretty near every week. After she died… Then we stopped goin’.” His eyes searched hers. “We need to talk. You pick where that happens.”

  “Fine. It’ll be somewhere isolated so I can yell at you without everyone thinking I’m a crazy person.”

  Another slight smile was there and gone. “I deserve every bit of whatever you dish out.”

  They waited to shake hands with the priest, a fairly young guy. Thoughtful and kind, he welcomed Carolyn as part of the congregation even when she only attended services a few times a year.

  “Carolyn. I’m so happy to see you brought a guest today.” He beamed at Carson and offered his hand. “I’m Father Dorian.”

  “Carson McKay.”

  “Are you from around here, Mr. McKay?”

  “Sundance.”

  “Ah. I’ve filled in for Father Balough a few times at the St. Ignatius.”

  “I don’t know him. Father Summerall was in charge last time I went.”

  “That’s been a few years.” He paused and Carson seemed to tense, as if waiting for Father Dorian’s judgment on his poor church attendance. “Which means we’re very happy to see you return to the fold. God’s blessings on the day to both of you.”

  Carson kept his hand in the small of her back, steering her toward the door. He plucked his hat off the rack, settled it on his head and they stepped outside into the breezy summer morning.

  “Father Dorian surprised me.”

  “Because he’s so young?”

  “No. Because he seems happy bein’ a priest. I know from experience they’re not all like that. Some of ’em are downright mean.”

  “I’ve had a few old-school priests at St. Mary’s. But Father Dorian is just as wonderful as he appears to be. He comes out to the house to give my mother communion since she’s unable to attend services.”

  He led her to his truck and opened the passenger door, assisting her up since her skirt restricted movement. Unlike last week, he didn’t try and cop a feel or steal a kiss or make a suggestive comment.

  He was acting very un-Carson like.

  Then again, he hadn’t acted like himself last night either, so it wasn’t all bad.

  They arrived at Founders Park, which hadn’t been overrun with children yet. Again Carson was a gentleman, assisting her down the sidewalk to a picnic table beneath several large oak trees.

  Her mother used to bring her here with Thomas and Kimi. She’d watch them from the car, letting them run wild on the playground. Kimi was so little Carolyn wondered if she remembered that their mother used to do…motherly type things with them before the arthritis rendered her incapable of everything.

  “Whatcha thinkin’ about, Caro?”

  “Family stuff. What are you thinking about?”

  Carson was by her side in an instant; his hands gently framed her face. “I’m thinkin’ that I’m dyin’ to kiss you. I’m thinkin’ about what an ass I was to you last night. I’m thinkin’ I don’t even know where to start makin’ this up to you.” He paused. “Or if you even want me to try.”

  Somehow she kept her eyes locked on his and said, “Try the truth.”

  “I wasn’t with that woman last night.”

  “You had your arm around her.”

  “I know. But that’s all I did and only when you could see it. I dropped it as soon as you were gone.”

  “Why?”

  “To make you think I was a bastard. That I’d just used you, I was done with you and I moved on to someone else.”

  Her stomach dropped to her toes and she tried to break free from his hold.

  But he wouldn’t let her go. “You need to hear me out. It’s as hard for me to say as it is for you to hear.”

  “I doubt that.”

  Carson threaded their fingers together. “I’m sorry I hurt you. Really fuckin’ sorry. Afterward I punished myself by pickin’ a fight, but the pain I received wasn’t even close to the goddamn pain I saw in your eyes when I said the shit I did.”

  “Language,” she murmured.

  “See? You’re too good to be true. But I want that goodness in my life. I need it. I need you. I know things went a little fast between us last week. I was so tied up in knots over you that I wasn’t payin’ attention to see if anyone else might’ve taken notice of us spendin’ so much time together.”

  “Someone saw us?” They’d been so wrapped up in each other that they’d rolled around on a blanket at a picnic area. They’d practically skinny-dipped at Keyhole. They’d gone at it half-naked against Carson’s truck—also just off the main road where anyone could’ve seen them. Then he’d come to her house. Specifically into her bedroom. And he’d parked in the front yard, bold as brass. “Who?”

  “Your brother Harland.”

  Shock froze her vocal chords.

  “Evidently he saw my truck from the road that day I stopped by and he saw our goodbye kiss. He followed me home. When he realized who I was… He returned when I was alone.”

  “Are any of these bruises from him?” she demanded.

  “His marks are on my throat because he damn near strangled me before I knocked him on his ass.”

  She twined her arms around him and pressed her cheek into his chest. She thought she’d cried herself out, but not so. A few stray tears slipped free and soaked into his shirt. “Are you okay?”

  “I’m getting there. Look. The short version is your brothers all showed up around my place and threatened me if I didn’t break it off with you. Then they threw a buncha shit in my face I’d done in the past, which combined with them extolling your virtues, went a long way in convincing me to break it off with you because I didn’t deserve a woman like you.”

  “All of my brothers did that?”

  “Except Thomas. He watched me get my ass whipped last night at the dance after you left. So at first,” a nervous laugh slipped out, “I thought maybe he was there to finish the job. Turns out he wasn’t and he had some advice that pointed me in the right direction.”

  “Which direction was that?”

  Carson tipped her head back and gazed into her eyes. “Straight back to you.”’

  Okay. So her knees went a little weak.

  He caught her. “I’m done hidin’, sugar. I’m with you. I don’t want to be with anyone else. So I want everyone to know I’m with you—and that includes your family and mine.”

  Her jaw dropped.

  He covered her mouth with his, gifting her with the sweetest, most romantic, most convincing kiss. Then he scattered kisses from the tip of her chin to her temple. “Please forgive me for hurtin’ you. I’ll do anything to make it right with you. Anything.”

  Carolyn clung to him, letting his soft kisses and promises bolster her courage. She’d never gotten into a fight with her brothers, besides the squabbling when they were kids. If she showed up at home with
Carson McKay on her arm…what would happen?

  “Caro?”

  She turned and her forehead bumped into the cut on his cheek and he hissed. “Sorry.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “No, it’s not. How many guys did you take on last night?”

  “A few.”

  She stood on tiptoe and placed her lips on the wound. Then the one by his eye. Then the bruise on his jaw. And finally his upper and lower lip.

  Wrapped in his arms, she was surprised to feel his heart pounding so hard.

  “Am I forgiven?”

  Carolyn arched back, locking her gaze to his. “Yes. But if I see your hands or any other part of you on another woman? I’ll do what needs to be done. To both of you.”

  “Won’t happen again.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “What were your plans for after church?”

  “I put a pork roast in the oven and told my family I’d be home to dish it up after church let out.”

  “Is there enough food for me?”

  She looked at him, seeing the wariness mixed with hope. “You’re serious.”

  “Very serious. I won’t be throwin’ any punches—unless I’m defending myself or you—but your family needs to know they ain’t scarin’ me off. We’re done sneaking around, Carolyn. Let’s do this. Meet each other’s families and make it official that we’re together.”

  Carson had on his brooding face as they drove to her house. But he kept contact with her, absentmindedly stroking his thumb over the inside of her wrist in a way that soothed her, yet awakened every nerve ending beneath that section of skin.

  When they pulled into the driveway, she noticed her brother Harland’s vehicle was there, as well as Darren’s. Strange. They never showed up for Sunday dinner.

  “Looks like the gang’s all here,” Carson said dryly. “You think Thomas might’ve tipped ’em off that I didn’t give a damn about their threats?”

  “Maybe. More likely is someone saw us together at church and called my mother.”

  “Sugar. You all right?”

  She looked at him. Really looked at him, this handsome man, who’d changed her from the moment he’d entered her life ten short days ago. Here he was, battered and bruised, but still willing to stand beside her. She kissed him very gently. “This won’t be easy.”

  “Nothin’ worthwhile ever is.”

  The front door slammed and her brothers filed out and spread out, arms crossed, poses belligerent. Her dad eased down the steps and waited in the center of his line of sons.

  “Stay put. I’ll come around and help you out.”

  Both hers and Carson’s palms were sweaty when they met, but Carson kept a determined lock on her hand as they approached the line of Wests.

  “I’d offer to introduce you to my boyfriend, Carson McKay, but I’ve heard you’ve already met.”

  “You have a death wish showin’ up here, McKay?” Harland snapped.

  Her oldest brother had been born angry. Normally she tiptoed around him, but not anymore. “Why are you even here, Harland? You don’t live here. Who I date doesn’t concern you, so butt out.”

  “The hell it doesn’t! You’re my little sister and I’m protecting you. Not only that, you stepping out with a McKay puts us all in a bad light.”

  Carson’s hand tightened, as did his jaw, but he didn’t speak.

  Darren, her blond-haired blue-eyed bruiser of a brother, stepped forward. “We thought we all made it clear that you’re expected to stay away from Carolyn.”

  “Yeah, what we said to you weren’t suggestions,” Stuart tossed out. “But God’s honest truth, turn around and drive away from here or we’ll fulfill all of them promises.”

  “Times five,” Marshall added.

  Thomas said nothing.

  Carolyn held her breath when her father opened his mouth.

  “Go on and get in the house, Carolyn. We’ll talk about your lapse in judgment later.”

  “No. I’m not a child. You can’t send me to my room. I’m dating Carson. End of discussion. You all better find a way to deal with it, but if you can’t that’s your issue, not mine.”

  “Bullshit. You’re so damn naïve, Carolyn. You haven’t been around. You have no idea what kind of lowlife scum he is.”

  She glared at Harland. “You haven’t been around me either, so I won’t allow you to sit in judgment of me. Or him. Worry about your own love life and go home to the wife you have waiting there.”

  Her brothers huffed and puffed but didn’t retort.

  Then her father spit a stream of tobacco juice that almost landed on Carson’s boot tip. “I’m just supposed to accept you’re with him? No can do. I raised you better than this.”

  “Near as I can tell, you didn’t raise her at all,” Carson said evenly. “You sent her off to Catholic school to be raised.”

  “So we should’ve expected because she was sheltered that she’d fall for the first big, dumb cowboy to come along?” Harland sneered.

  Carson faced Carolyn. “Sugar, you didn’t tell me you were datin’ someone else before you met me.”

  She bit her tongue to stop the laugh.

  “See you got the same smart mouth as your father,” her dad said.

  Enough. Carolyn pointed at her brothers. “Move so I can get dinner on the table before it burns.”

  “You go on in. But him?” Her dad gave Carson the stink eye. “A McKay ain’t welcome in my home. Ever.”

  “That’s enough.”

  Her brothers and her father turned and looked at Clara West, venturing out the front door.

  Carolyn hid her shock. Her mother wore a dress and shoes—not pajamas and slippers. She’d fixed her hair and put on makeup. She leaned heavily on her walker but she was also smiling.

  “But Ma—”

  “Hush,” she said to Harland without taking her eyes off Carson. “Excuse my sons’ behavior. Perhaps we should’ve sent them off to Catholic school too.”

  Carson removed his hat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. West. I see that Carolyn inherited her beauty and gentility from you.”

  She ignored her brothers rolled eyes, snorts and hostility at the comment as she was focused on the pleasure shining in her mother’s eyes.

  “Carolyn is a fine cook. I’m pleased you’ll get a sample of that today. Please come in and share a meal with us.” She looked at her husband. “This is my home too and he is welcome in it. So bring another chair to the table.”

  “Won’t need it,” Harland said. “I lost my appetite and I ain’t staying.”

  “Me neither,” said Darren.

  Their rude behavior hurt, mostly because she didn’t understand it.

  Stuart and Marshall looked torn. They’d have to pay for food in town if they took off. Shooting a last look at their departing brothers, they started up the porch steps.

  Only Thomas offered Carson his hand. “Glad to see you came to your senses—even when it looks like most of them got beat outta you last night.”

  “Sometimes that’s what it takes.”

  Carolyn grabbed Thomas’s sleeve. “Why were Harland and Darren here?”

  “Father Dorian called to talk to Mom about you bringing such a nice Catholic man to church with you and Dad overheard the conversation. He called Harland and Darren for a family meeting. And he was pissed when he found out we all knew about you two seeing each other.”

  “Doesn’t matter now.” She tugged on Carson’s hand. “Let’s go.”

  Her mother sat at the dining room table, speaking in low tones with Marshall and Stuart. They both scowled at Carson.

  Great. She’d have to leave Carson in their company while she readied the food.

  “Only six place settings, Liebchen. Your father won’t be joining us.”

  His loss. If he didn’t eat now she wasn’t feeding him later.

  Carolyn couldn’t keep track of the conversation with the electric mixer whirring as she whipped the potatoes.

 
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