Long time gone, p.2
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       Long Time Gone, p.2

         Part #16.5 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
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  “Don’t try and change the subject. You two seemed to be having a flirting contest.”

  “Oh, there’s no contest—Calvin McKay wins, hands down,” she murmured.

  “That’s because he has a lot of experience.”

  Kimi drew in another lungful of smoke and exhaled. “Is this where you tell me he’s too old for me?”

  Carolyn sighed. “Will you get mad if I say yes?”

  “Yeah, but I wanna hear your reasons why you think the man—who, at twenty-four, is exactly the same age as your fiancé—is too old for me.”

  “Because you’re almost two years younger than me!”

  “So?”

  Her sister’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “So, have you spent time with guys who aren’t high school students but have been out in the working world for several years?”

  “You’re kiddin’ me, right? I barely ever get to see any guys, let alone get to shoot the breeze with them in an unchaperoned situation since I live in a convent most of the year.”

  “Were you serious at lunch? When you said you wanted to drop out of school?”

  “No! I just like to tease Aunt Hulda since she’s footing the bill for our ed-ja-kay-shun. Of course Mom took the opportunity to jump on me for it and call me ungrateful.” It was just another indication that her mom had never understood her sense of humor—or anything else about her. “So don’t you dare say anything to her about me flirting with Cal.”

  “I’d never do that.” Carolyn said. “Did you know that Thomas tried to fix me up with one of his friends?”

  “A coal miner?”

  “No. A college guy.”

  “And?” Kimi prompted.

  “And I’d already met Carson. I couldn’t help but compare them. But there was no comparison. At all.”

  Kimi thought back to Cal’s sexy taunt. Get ready to understand the difference between havin’ a boy kiss you and havin’ a man devour you. “How do you think Cal compares? Bein’s he and Carson are twins?”

  “I don’t know Cal well. Yet. But even in the short amount of time I’ve spent with him, I’ve found him to be more introspective. He doesn’t seem prone to the same impulsive behavior that Carson deals with.”

  “So Cal isn’t a brawler?”

  “Only if he’s backing his fight-lovin’ twin,” Carolyn said dryly.

  “Well, I appreciate the concern, sis, but Cal is outta my league.” She sighed. “That’s not to say I can’t admire him and practice my flirting skills because he’s so good lookin’. Lord, his smile just lights up that whole handsome face of his. And those blue eyes…”

  “They’re something, aren’t they? The whole McKay family has that eye color.”

  “Maybe all your babies will too,” Kimi teased.

  Carolyn blushed. But she didn’t say anything else.

  After taking one last drag of her cigarette, Kimi flicked the butt out the window. The scenery flew by. Nothing changed here. The desolate landscape depressed her. It always had.

  Aside from Carolyn’s giddiness about her husband-to-be, it shocked Kimi that her sister had signed on to live in the vast void of Wyoming for the rest of her life. They’d both talked of getting out. Moving on. Kimi had selfishly hoped Carolyn would move to Chicago with her friend Cathy. Then she’d have a place to go when she finished her sentence at St. Mary’s, because there was no way in hell she was ever coming back here. No way.

  One more year. She could survive that. She’d taken extra classes the past two years so she could graduate a year early—not that anyone in her family besides Aunt Hulda was aware of her plans. Catholic school had been tolerable with Carolyn around as a buffer. Everyone adored her big sister and that admiration had provided Kimi with a layer of protection from the holier-than-thou girls populating the school. Now that Carolyn had graduated, the torture had already begun for Kimi during her summer classes.

  She hated her classmates’ judgment and supposition. They called her a fast girl just because she paid attention to the opposite sex when she had the chance. Kimi wasn’t fast or loose—as evidenced by her virginal status. But just to entertain herself, she’d adopted the attitude of a wild child. Let her classmates whisper and talk about her. It amused her that her only transgression had been detention for getting caught smoking.

  “Kimi? You all right?”

  She tamped down her melancholy. “I’m just tired.” She dreaded being left alone with her mom and dad while Carolyn and Aunt Hulda worked on the wedding dress. But she’d sworn not to cause any family problems. Her sister had enough to deal with. “This will be a quick trip for us.”

  “Does that mean you won’t see any of your friends while you’re here?”

  “What friends? I’ve been livin’ in Montana for six years. That’s longer than I went to school around here.”

  “I recognize that disjointed feeling,” Carolyn said softly. “Like you don’t belong here and you don’t belong there.”

  That startled Kimi. Carolyn never said things like that. She always looked on the bright side of everything.

  “But Carson changed that,” Carolyn said.

  “How so?”

  “Now I know exactly where I belong. With him.”

  Kimi reached over and squeezed Carolyn’s knee. “You are such a sap. Are you gonna cry during the wedding ceremony?”

  “Probably.”

  “Then I’ll make sure to tuck some extra tissues into my bra.”

  Carolyn lifted one brow. “Extra? How is that different from how you dress every day?”

  “Hey! I’ve never stuffed my bra!” Kimi cupped her breasts and lifted them up. “No need to. More than a handful is a waste.” She paused thoughtfully. “Or do guys say more than a mouthful is a waste?”

  “Good lord, Kimi.”

  She laughed. “You started it.” She cranked up the radio. By the time the chorus to “California Dreamin’” started they were both singing along. She let her worries float away and embraced these last few days with her sister before both their lives changed.

  ***

  Kimi decided sitting in silence in the sun porch while Carolyn and Aunt Hulda sewed the wedding dress was a far sight better than being berated by her father as he sat in front of the TV.

  No surprise he hadn’t given her a hug when he’d seen her, even when it’d been eight months since she’d been back here. Sometimes she wondered how her mom had gotten pregnant so many times when her father never showed her—or anyone else—the slightest bit of affection.

  Her brothers didn’t say much to her—they mostly steered clear of the uncomfortable situation.

  Carolyn got up early Sunday morning to make the entire family breakfast, even though it was her wedding day. Aunt Hulda huffed about it but didn’t say anything when her nephews scarfed down the food with scarcely a thanks and walked away from the table.

  Kimi shooed Carolyn out of the kitchen, telling her to get ready while she tackled the dishes. She needed a moment alone to get a handle on her anger. This family expected so much from Carolyn—and Kimi when she was here—but gave so little in return.

  One more day. Thankfully she had her date with Cal McKay to look forward to tonight. Part of her had wanted to tell her father about it after he’d started spewing crap about the McKays last night. Part of her had wanted to ask her mother what was wrong with her for saying nothing in defense of her daughter’s future husband. But she knew it’d be a waste of breath. Plus, it’d make things worse for her sister, since Caro believed their mother had stood up to their father, when in actuality, she’d just shut up. Kimi’s responsibility as Carolyn’s maid of honor was to manage the stress and drama so the bride could focus entirely on the happiest day of her life.

  Her brother Thomas walked into the kitchen as she wiped down the last counter. Perfect timing; right when she’d finished.

  He leaned against the wall and studied her.

  “What do you want?” Kimi demanded.

  “Why are you
so defensive?”

  “It’s a habit, ingrained from the years I lived here. Besides, you can’t blame me for bein’ suspicious. You never track me down just to talk.”

  “That’s true. And I am sorry about that, Kimi. I guess that’s why I was hoping you’d stick around the rest of the summer. We could talk and stuff.”

  Kimi draped the rag over the edge of the sink and squared off against her brother. “It’s the ‘stuff’ part that bothers me, Thomas.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m pissed off that you, Stuart and Marshall manage to do all the household stuff during the rest of the year when Carolyn and I aren’t here. But the second we’re back, you guys turn into Dad.”

  “You calling us lazy?

  “No, I’m calling you selfish.”

  Thomas scowled. “You should talk. And you’re making a lot of assumptions that you’ll have a choice in this stuff that happens next.”

  “What’s that mean?”

  “Look, we both know Dad won’t show up at the wedding. He’s already left the house and gone to Harland’s.”

  Their oldest brother and their dad were best buds, which is why she didn’t get along with Harland. “That’s not a surprise. So?”

  Worry clouded his eyes. “So Carolyn is really okay with me giving her away?”

  “Yes. I know she’s grateful that one of her brothers is happy for her.”

  “I am.” He jammed his hand through his hair. “I hate this shit, Kimi. I really do. It eats at all of us.”

  She didn’t say, it eating at you hasn’t affected any of your appetites.

  “Anyway, what’s the plan for getting everyone to the church?”

  “I’ll drive Carolyn early so she can get ready. I assumed Aunt Hulda would drive Mom there and then back here afterward. And you, Stuart and Marshall would ride together. Why?”

  “Just wondered how long this would last.”

  Her brothers rarely went to church. “It’s a typical Catholic ceremony without mass. So probably forty-five minutes. Since there’s so few people invited to the wedding I doubt the reception will last long.” She smirked. “I’m sure the bride and groom are anxious to get to the honeymoon portion of the day.”

  Thomas returned her smirk. “I imagine they are. What are your plans for after the ceremony?”

  She shrugged. “I’m playing it by ear.”

  “Let me offer you some advice, little sis. Stay away from here until later tonight.”

  Not what she’d expected. “Why?”

  “Dad will come home from Harland’s drunk. I suspect it’ll be worse than usual due to Carolyn’s marriage. He’ll rant and rave at anyone who’s around until he passes out. I plan to be elsewhere, as do Stuart and Marshall.”

  “Thanks for the warning.” She pushed away from the counter. “I should get myself ready and see how the bride is doin’.”

  When she stood in the entryway to the sun porch, seeing Carolyn’s suitcase packed and waiting by the door, it finally hit her that this was it. Last night was the last time they’d share the same space as they talked of their hopes for the future and their favorite moments from their past.

  Carolyn looked over at her. “What’s wrong?”

  Emotion overwhelmed her and her tears fell. “You are beautiful. Carson might faint dead away when he gets a look at you.”

  Her sister blushed. Then she lifted her chin. “I appreciate the flattery, Kimi, but what’s really going on? You’re not usually a crier.”

  Yesterday they’d moved all of Carolyn’s things into Carson’s trailer. She’d fussed and cleaned. Rearranged and added decorative touches, turning the place from his space into their space. Kimi had watched her sister flitting around, feeling a mixture of envy and repulsion. Envy because Carolyn had found a man who loved her for her. Repulsion because it seemed like her sister was settling down too soon. Carolyn wouldn’t get to do interesting things or travel to fascinating places. She worried her sister’s life would be just as mundane living in Carson’s house as it had been living in their parent’s house.

  Aren’t you projecting your goals onto her? Has Carolyn ever told you that she wants to travel?

  No.

  But now it wasn’t an option for her. And that was a little sad.

  “Kimi?” Carolyn prompted.

  Her gaze snapped to her sister. “Sorry. It’s a lot to take in. It’s weird seeing all your stuff packed up.”

  “More room for you to spread out when you come home.” Carolyn added another coat of mascara on her already ridiculously long eyelashes. “I pushed the beds back together for you.”

  “Thanks. Since no one is in the bathroom, I’ll grab my stuff and get ready.”

  Kimi planned to wear her hair up. Since she couldn’t find any bobby pins, she’d borrow some from her mother. She stopped outside her mom’s bedroom door when she heard her name uttered angrily.

  “Kimi doesn’t want to return to school, Hulda. You heard her.”

  “She was joking, Clara, and it proves that you don’t really listen to her. Besides, I wouldn’t let her drop out.”

  “That is not for you to decide,” her mother snapped. “Kimi is not your daughter.”

  What a nasty thing for her mom to say.

  “I love her and Carolyn like they are mine,” her aunt said proudly. “I’ll never apologize for that. I’ll never apologize for giving them options.”

  Kimi closed her eyes, but she couldn’t force herself to walk away.

  “I know you love them. I just didn’t expect you’d take them from me,” her mother said on a sob. “I wanted you to help them, not turn them into strangers and turn them against me.”

  “Oh, quit sniveling. I haven’t done any such thing and you know it. You stopped being a mother to them when you sent them away, even when you did it for their own good. Kimi’s been on her own longer than Carolyn. She comes home and doesn’t understand why all the work burden falls on Carolyn’s shoulders or hers, knowing when they aren’t here, their brothers manage just fine. So no, I don’t care what that husband of yours says—Kimi is not staying here as a fill-in servant. I need Kimi at the shop. Plus, she’s already missing two days of the summer session and she’ll have plenty of homework to catch up on when we return.”

  “Elijah is her father. He has a say in what happens to his youngest daughter.”

  No he doesn’t.

  “We’ll discuss this later.” The chair creaked, indicating her aunt had gotten up.

  Kimi recognized Aunt Hulda’s stalling technique, so she retreated to the bathroom, bobby pins forgotten.

  As she fixed her hair she wondered why her mother was pushing so hard to keep her here, when just Friday afternoon she’d pointed out that Kimi had no choice but to stay in school since her aunt was paying for it. Was it just a control thing? Letting her sister and her daughter know she could upend both their lives any time she chose?

  Like hell that’d ever happen. She’d run away first.

  Three sharp knocks sounded on the door. “Kimi? You about ready?” Carolyn asked.

  “Give me two more minutes and then we’ll go.”

  Kimi pressed a hand to her stomach. She had butterflies, which didn’t make sense since she wasn’t the one getting married.

  But it was her job to get the bride to the church on time.

  Chapter Three

  The wedding was short and sweet—except for the passionate kiss Carson laid on Carolyn as soon as the priest pronounced them husband and wife.

  Kimi’s eyes had met Cal’s across the altar and they grinned at each other.

  That’d been the only time during the ceremony Kimi had allowed her eyes to stray to the too-handsome cowboy, looking fine in a navy-colored western-cut suit. She’d known if she didn’t pay attention to the priest, she’d get lost in Cal’s eyes and remember nothing of the ceremony.

  While Mr. and Mrs. McKay greeted their guests downstairs at the reception, Kimi and Cal signed the marriage license
in the priest’s office. Cal acted circumspect while the priest was around, but the minute the holy man left…holy crap did Cal’s eyes roam over every inch of her.

  At least twice.

  He murmured, “Lookin’ good, little sister,” in her ear and gooseflesh broke out across her arms.

  By unspoken agreement they didn’t acknowledge one another during the reception. He stayed with the McKay guests; she stayed with the West guests.

 
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