Cowboy take me away, p.28
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.28

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  “Do-Si-Do” started, requiring dancers on the floor to change partners. She danced with half a dozen different men. During the last minute or so, she ended up with a guy who was drunk. He kept trying to pull her closer and she tried to rip herself away from him entirely with a terse, “Let. Go.”

  “Sorry.” Instead of releasing her, he clamped his hand on her butt cheek and angled his head like he wanted to kiss her.

  Her reactions were slower than usual, courtesy of the booze, so she turned her head away.

  But the guy’s lips didn’t land.

  Because Carson had inserted his arm between her and Mr. Grabby Hands.

  “What the hell? Move it, buddy,” he slurred.

  Carolyn watched as Carson pushed the guy back. Then he punched him hard in the stomach and followed through with an uppercut that rocked the guy on his feet. When the guy didn’t go down, Carson hit him two more times until he did.

  Then he loomed over him. “You ever put your filthy fuckin’ hands on my wife again I will break every fuckin’ bone in your body. Every. Goddamned. Bone. And then I will make you bleed. Are we clear, you sorry son of a bitch?”

  The people who’d been on the dance floor had gathered around. A woman dropped to her knees beside the man and glared at Carson. “What did my husband do to you?”

  “He touched my wife.”

  “We were dancing, you moron—of course he touched her,” she snapped.

  But Carson hadn’t looked at the guy’s wife even once. He was too busy trying to set him on fire with his gaze of hatred. “Last I knew his hands on her ass and him tryin’ to lock lips with her wasn’t part of dancin’.”

  Carolyn touched Carson’s arm. He still didn’t look away.

  Charlie moved in and Carson immediately stepped between them, shoving Carolyn behind his back. “Don’t ever come up behind her like that.”

  “Because you’ll what? Knock me on my ass? Wouldn’t be the first fuckin’ time. You done with this now? Or you waitin’ till he stands up and then you’ll take it outside so you can keep beatin’ on him?”

  She froze. Carson wanted to keep fighting this guy?

  “I’m done.” Carson put his hands on her shoulders and steered her away.

  The murmurs and mutterings of what’d happened passed through the crowd.

  By the time they returned to the table, she knew Beverly had heard about the scuffle because she’d plastered on a fake smile. “Now that you’re back I can tell you happy birthday one more time before we leave.” Beverly hugged her and whispered, “Watch your step with Carson.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He’s never needed a good reason to start a fight. But now that you’re his wife? You’re reason enough.”

  “Beverly, Carson would never hit me.”

  “I know. But that doesn’t hold true for the men who are looking at you. And if they touch you? They may as well start picking their teeth up off the floor. The man has a possessive streak as wide as the state of Wyoming when it comes to you, Carolyn.”

  “You make it sound like a bad thing.”

  “A man wants you that much and wants other men to know it? Never a bad thing…as long as he shows you—behind closed doors—and it’s not all just male swagger in public.”

  “The swagger is entirely justified.”

  “Lucky you.” Beverly hugged her hard. “Take care. See you soon.”

  When she turned, she caught Carson staring at her. “What?”

  “You drank my whiskey.”

  “So? You weren’t here. And why were you gone for so long?”

  “Wasn’t that long.”

  “Almost an hour.” He frowned. “Yes, I was watching the clock. According to your brothers, you take off like that all the time.”

  “I was doin’ business, Caro. That happens.”

  Rather than chew him out in public, she put her mouth on his ear. “It used to happen. Now that you have a wife, you don’t get to disappear off to heaven knows where for heaven knows what. It’s rude to take me out on my birthday and ditch me. You know how I feel about getting ditched.”

  Carson adjusted his stance so he backed her against the wall, blocking her from everyone at the table and anyone in the vicinity. “How much have you had to drink tonight, sugar?”

  “A beer, your whiskey, Charlie’s whiskey and Beverly bought me a shot. Why? I’m not drunk.”

  “You are actin’ more belligerent than usual.”

  “Says the man who punched a guy four times,” she retorted.

  “I wanted to hit him more than that, so he oughta consider himself lucky.” He rubbed his cheek along hers. “I put the off-limits sign on you the second you started wearin’ my ring and when you took my name. He—and all the other assholes eyein’ you—needed a reminder that no one, and I mean no one, touches what’s mine.”

  “Then maybe you should take me home and prove that I’m yours.”

  “In a bit. Let’s stick around and celebrate your birthday. We’ve got years to act like an old married couple.”

  As it turned out, Carson celebrated her birthday harder than she did; she had to pour him into his truck, but not until after last call.

  Then once she dragged him home, he passed out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

  That night set the tone for their first year of marriage.

  Carson worked hard and played harder. They spent Friday and Saturday nights out. She’d insisted since he dragged her to the bar and the dancehall that he better not complain that she expected him to accompany her to church.

  After they’d been married three months, Clara West’s health took a turn for the worse.

  Carolyn had just finished sewing the lace on a christening gown, when she heard a loud thump in her mother’s bedroom. She raced in to find her mother lying on the floor, hacking so violently blood spilled from her lips.

  Trying to remain calm, she picked her mother up and settled her back in bed. “Do I need to call an ambulance?” Or Father Dorian?

  Her mother shook her head.

  “Don’t tell me you’re fine, Mom. I know you’re not.” She paused. “Thomas told me what’s going on.”

  Her mother lay in her bed and wheezed for several long minutes before answering. “He shouldn’t have told you.”

  “You’re right. You should’ve told me.”

  “Why? There’s nothing you can do. Nothing anyone can do.”

  Frustrated, she said, “You can’t be left alone every day. You need daily medical care.” Why didn’t her father see that?

  “I sleep a lot, Liebchen.” She closed her eyes. “I’m tired now. We’ll talk later.”

  Her mother didn’t wake up for the remainder of the day. But Carolyn waited around to speak to her father, which would be awkward since they hadn’t seen each other or spoken to each other since before the wedding.

  She waited on the front porch so he couldn’t avoid her.

  Late afternoon, Eli West hauled his bulk out of his truck and stopped at the edge of the stairs; his eyes held an accusatory gleam. “You already leave that McKay bastard?”

  It took every bit of patience not to rise to his taunt. “No. How long are you going to let Mom suffer alone? She fell out of bed today. What if I hadn’t been here? And don’t lie to me, Dad. I know the arthritis is in her lungs.”

  “Why do you care? You left here—left her. Her problems ain’t your concern.”

  “They don’t seem to be your concern either.”

  “Don’t you take that smart tone with me.”

  “Do you want her to die? Because that’s how it’s coming across to me.”

  He raised his hand and it would’ve connected with her face if she hadn’t ducked. “As usual you don’t know nothin’.”

  “Put her in a nursing home where she can get the care she needs.”

  “She refuses.”

  The way her father looked away guiltily…something else was going on. “Or are you refusing?”

>   His angry gaze snapped back to her. “I can’t afford long term care for her, okay? Unless I abandon her as a ward of the state and then they make all the medical decisions for her. I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for my entire life. And you know what? I’d gladly give it all up, but she won’t let me. She says she’ll die in her home with dignity, not among strangers who only want to prolong her life to eke more money outta me.”

  Tears rolled down her face. Once again Thomas had gotten everything wrong. Their dad wasn’t the villain; he was a victim of his wife’s stubbornness and circumstance too. “What can I do?”

  She noticed his eyes were moist. His voice was so scratchy when he finally spoke. “Be here with her during the day until I get home from work. I can’t quit and lose my job and pension this close to retirement. But my boss said I can knock off two hours early until…”

  She dies.

  Just thinking about that was a knife in her heart. Carolyn swallowed the lump in her throat and said, “I’ll be here.”

  “Thank you.” Then his gaze tapered to a fine point. “I need your word that you won’t tell McKay about this.”

  “Dad—”

  “Your word, Carolyn. I promised your mother I wouldn’t tell you kids nothin’ about this. And McKay knowin’ that I don’t have the money to give my wife…” His voice broke. “Please. I need some dignity in this too.”

  None of this sat well with her, but she didn’t have a choice. Since Marshall had taken a job in Cheyenne and Stuart moved down south to build houses, she had no help—emotionally or physically—from any of her siblings. Taking a chance her father might rebuff her, she hugged him. “Okay. I’ll keep this between us.”

  He hugged her for a long time.

  Carolyn stepped back and wiped her eyes. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

  So her every-other-day visits became daily visits. She’d go home late in the afternoon, exhausted, wishing she could tell Carson why she was spending more time at the home she couldn’t wait to leave, rather than the home she’d made with him.

  Lying to her husband—a lie of omission was still a lie in her guilty mind—ripped her up inside.

  She thought about seeking solace and advice from Father Dorian, who visited her ailing mother every other week. But Carolyn suspected he’d remind her that she’d willingly taken on the burden of her mother’s care and her family’s secret—and it was her Christian duty to honor her father and mother.

  At first, Carson didn’t say too much about her absence because fall was a busy time. He’d crash right after supper and be up at the crack of dawn the next day. She’d come up with reasons why she had to be at her mother’s; canning and preserving food took up a lot of time, as did the extra sewing projects she’d taken in for Maxine. Their trailer was too small for sewing equipment so the work had to be done where her equipment was—at her mother’s.

  Eventually she didn’t have to create excuses because Carson stopped asking.

  Christmas rolled around and they exchanged gifts, then he went to his father’s house and she to her parents’ house because their family situations remained at an impasse.

  During the lull before calving began, Carson started hitting the bars three or four nights a week. He’d be gone in the late afternoon when she returned and he’d stay gone until after midnight. Sometimes he’d come home on his own. Sometimes Cal dragged him home, which always meant Carson had been fighting.

  Even the passion between them had cooled. The only time Carson reached for her was in the middle of the night. She welcomed his hands and his body on hers, but after the time she’d tried to seduce him and he’d passed out on her, she’d been too gun shy to try again.

  This wasn’t how she’d envisioned their life together.

  She felt them drifting farther apart. She’d stopped buying her groceries in Sundance because she’d run into ladies from church circle, or the women she’d met from the bars and the dancehall who knew her husband was out drinking and fighting, while she, the dutiful young wife, stayed home. Their looks of pity shamed her.

  When calving started, Carson all but moved in with Cal. Yes, she knew it was the busiest and most critical time of the year on the ranch, but she had no idea how long calving season lasted.

  So she let him be. She cooked for him and cleaned for him and tucked him in on the couch those nights he was too drunk or too tired to stumble to the bedroom.

  But the last straw was the night she’d gotten a phone call from the Weston County Sheriff informing her that Carson was in jail on a drunk and disorderly charge. He’d called Cal first to bail him out but his brother had refused.

  That’s when she’d had enough. They’d either fix this or end it.

  They made the ride from the jail home in utter silence. Carson had sobered up in the eight hours he’d spent behind bars.

  As soon as they were inside the trailer she confronted him. “Jail, Carson? Really?”

  “I didn’t start the fight.”

  “No, but you didn’t walk away from it, either.”

  “What’s your point?” he said coolly.

  “I’m sick of it. You’re out all the time, drinking and fighting. When will you stop with the fighting?”

  “When guys stop bein’ assholes.”

  “So never.”

  He glared at her. Then he said, “What do you care? You’re over at your folks’ place every damn day. I’m surprised you even noticed I wasn’t here.”

  “I’m gone during the day but I’m here at night. Every night. But you head out to the bar before I get back.” She tried to contain her anger. “Do you do that on purpose? Because it’s such a chore to hang out with me and you’d rather be with your bar buddies than your wife? If you wanted to lead the partying and fighting lifestyle, why did you marry me?”

  Another hard glare.

  “What do you think people are saying, with you being out at the bars alone?”

  “I don’t give a damn what other people think.”

  “That’s apparent because everyone thinks we’re on the verge of divorce.” She swallowed her rising tears. “How long before you find some woman…or have you already—”

  “Goddammit, Carolyn, don’t you go there. I made a vow to you and by God, I’m gonna keep it.”

  “Why? We never should’ve gotten married because we’re both miserable.” She shook her head. “I can’t do this anymore.”

  In an instant Carson’s hands were around her biceps and he loomed over her. “Don’t you even think about walkin’ out on me.”

  “But—”

  “No, you will talk to me before you take a single step toward that door.” He closed his eyes for several long seconds. “Please. Tell me what in the hell is goin’ on with you. I hear you cryin’ in the night, Caro, and it rips me in two. I hate that I’m the cause of them tears.”

  “You’re not the sole reason for my tears, Carson.” She took a deep breath and asked God to forgive her for breaking a promise. “I’ve been keeping something from you.”

  “What?”

  “The reason I’m spending so much time with my mom…” Her voice broke. “…is because she’s d-dying.”

  All the anger bled from his eyes. “What?”

  “She’s been going downhill for months. I found out late last summer she had about a year to live.”

  “Last summer?” he bellowed. “Why am I only hearing about this now?”

  “Because that’s how she wants it.” She closed her eyes. “Thomas told me right before he left for Denver. My dad made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone. Not my brothers, not Kimi, not my Aunt Hulda.” She looked at Carson. “Not even you.”

  “How bad is it?”

  “The arthritis has gotten into her lungs.” She blew out a breath. “She can’t go into a nursing home for a number of reasons.”

  “So that left you, Carolyn the dutiful daughter, to see to your mother’s needs as she’s dyin’. And that lets your father off the hook to care for
his wife on her deathbed. He can just skip off to work, knowin’ you’re shouldering the burden. And you’re keeping her secret from your siblings, which means they ain’t lifted a single finger to help you care for her, have they.”

  The way he phrased it didn’t make her sound noble, but like a chump. A doormat.

  “So you’ve taken this whole weight on yourself for the past few months.”

  She nodded.

  Carson started to pace. “In the fall I knew you were busy clearing out the gardens and canning, and I had to deal with sortin’ and shippin’ cattle. But after the first snowfall you kept goin’ over to your mom’s and I thought…”

  “What?”

  “That you regretted marryin’ me so quickly. So I took to feelin’ sorry for myself. Thinkin’ booze would numb the pain. And if that didn’t
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