Cowboy take me away, p.29
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.29

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James

  work, I used my fists.”

  “Carson. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. What I meant when I said I couldn’t do this? I’m scared I’m losing you. You deserve so much more than the little you’ve been getting from me. Things are slipping out of my control and everything is falling apart and it’s too late…”

  That’s when she started to cry. For the secrets, for the misunderstandings, for the lies they told themselves and each other. For the realization she’d fallen into the pattern of her parents’ marriage: no communication, keeping her mouth shut and not causing any strife. Turning away from her husband instead of relying on him. Half-wondering if her father had manipulated her, knowing that keeping such a big secret would cause problems with her new husband.

  “Please let me be what holds you together.” Carson crushed her against him. “It’s not too late—never too late for us. We’ll get through this together, like we should’ve from the start.”

  “I love you,” she whispered against his throat. “So much.”

  “I love you too, sugar.”

  “Promise that we’ll never let things get this far out of hand again.”

  “That’s a promise I can make.” He rested his forehead to hers. “With all this family stuff between us, you caretaking your mom and me workin’ with my dad and brothers day in and day out…we have to learn to put us first. I’ll do that from here on out. Like your father should be doin’ with your mother. So I hope you understand that I can’t forgive your family for this, Caro. Don’t even ask me to try.”

  “Carson. They don’t know what’s going on with Mom.”

  “The hell they don’t. Don’t tell me Eli hasn’t blabbed to Harland and Darren about their mother’s condition. Don’t tell me they haven’t been sitting back like they always have and letting you carry the load.”

  “What do you want me to do? She’s dying. This isn’t a time for me to be petty.”

  “No, it’s not, but it’s time for your father to face up to the reality of his wife’s situation. You are not a nurse. What if something happens when you’re with her and you don’t know how to handle it?”

  Last week her mom had had a coughing fit that left her too weak to speak. She worried even if she called for an ambulance that it wouldn’t have gotten there in time.

  “I won’t have you livin’ with that guilt for the rest of your life—of our life.”

  More tears fell because she knew Carson was right.

  “Clara needs to be in a place with qualified professionals.” Carson framed her face in his hands. “The woman sent you away when you were a kid so you didn’t end up doin’ this for her. I can’t imagine she wants this for you now.”

  “She sleeps a lot. Sometimes I don’t know if she’s aware I’m even there.”

  “Then it’s definitely past time.”

  She touched the puffy skin beneath his eye. And the knuckle-shaped bruises on his jawline. His mouth had escaped punishment this time and she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “Thank you.”

  “We’ll get through this.”

  “I believe that now.”

  “Sweet Jesus, woman, I’ve missed you. Missed everything about you. About us.”

  “Show me.”

  Then Carson led her to their bedroom.

  Their reunion, emotional and physical, was beauty and passion and sweetness. It was love. It was a promise.

  It was perfect.

  And in the months that followed their reaffirmation of prioritizing their life together, and three months shy of their second anniversary, they created a new life.

  Before Carolyn saw the image of her holding sweet baby Cord, everything went black and she was sucked back into darkness.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Hospital, Day 2—late afternoon

  One thing about staring out the window? Carson saw some sweet moments.

  Like the young man who helped his extremely pregnant wife out of the car. Then they both disappeared into the main hospital entrance. But the guy had left the car parked half on the curb, with both doors open and the engine running.

  Carson remembered being that flustered when Carolyn had gone into labor with Cord. Both the terror and the thrill of it as she’d struggled for nineteen hours to bring him into the world. And the instant Carson had held that helpless baby—his son—in his hands, his whole world had changed.

  He’d celebrated Cord’s birth with his Dad, with his brothers, with anyone, really, who offered to buy him a celebratory drink.

  It’d shocked the hell out of him when Eli West showed up at the hospital to meet his grandson.

  Too bad Eli and Jed crossed paths in the waiting room afterward. Rather than taking the opportunity to bury the hatchet, the men had argued so loudly security tossed them out.

  So much for Cord being the healing bridge between the McKay and West families. It’d taken a tragic death to do that years later when a new life should have.


  He’d been so lost in thought, he hadn’t heard anyone approach. He faced his daughter-in-law, Macie. “Hey, darlin’, what’re you doin’ here?”

  “Checking up on you.” She set a brown paper bag on the chair. “Feeding you since I suspect you’re living on Dr. Pepper.”

  “It keeps me awake and satisfies my sweet tooth.”

  “Like father like son. Carter can’t get enough of the stuff either. And before you ask, Carter isn’t here. He went home for a few days since…”

  “Since I won’t let him see his mother.”

  Macie shook her head. “He supports your decision. I don’t know if you remembered him telling you that during the big blow-up.”

  “I remember. I just wasn’t sure whether he’d changed his mind and had thrown in with the others.”

  “No. He’s working on a big commissioned piece that’s due the end of the month and he can block everything out when he’s got the welder going.” She smiled, but it didn’t warm her brown eyes like usual. “Though I doubt it’ll be easy for him to keep his head from spinning this time. He’s freaked out about this situation with Carolyn.”

  “Everyone is.”

  “How are you holding up? Really.”

  Carson plunked down and she settled into the chair beside him. He didn’t know Macie as well as his other daughters-in-law since she and Carter lived in Canyon River. What he knew of her he liked; she was passionately protective of Carter and had supported them financially through the lean years of Carter’s career as an artist. Now that his son had made a name for himself in the world of western art, as well as earned hefty commissions on his pieces that provided a high standard of living for Macie and their four children, Macie could’ve quit her job managing two restaurants. But she claimed she enjoyed the work and messing around in the kitchen—and that attitude reminded him of Carolyn. His wife still tried new recipes for him as well as cooked meals for shut-in members of the church, new parents, grieving families—anyone in the community in need.


  His gaze connected with hers. “Sorry. I’m prone to driftin’ off into a trance-like state without warnin’, which tells you how I’m holdin’ up. Poorly.”

  “What can I do?”

  “Tell me about my grandkids.”

  “They’re all healthy, so I’m not dragging some kid crud along with me.”

  “Is Thane helpin’ out his Grandpa Cash with the bull ridin’ school this summer?”

  “As much as my dad will let him and Ryder help out. Sometimes Thane comes to the restaurant with me. He thinks loading the industrial dishwasher is big fun.”

  “Caro’s trained me to do that. ’Bout the only thing I can do in the kitchen besides make a mess. What’s Parker up to?”

  “The kid loves baseball. I swear we could spend every weekend at the ball fields and he already practices three times a week.”

  “Me’n Gran-gran had planned to visit in a couple of weeks to watch him pitch. Has Spencer been bitten b
y the baseball bug this summer too?”

  “He’s all about the rodeo. He keeps warning us he’s gonna be a bulldogger.” She mock shuddered. “The thought of my child throwing himself off a horse onto another animal at breakneck speed almost makes me break out in hives.”

  Carson smiled. “Carolyn used to say the same thing. I’m pretty sure she closes her eyes when her grandsons do it. What’s my sweet little Poppy seed been up to?”

  “Rescuing critters. She found motherless kitties and a nest of baby mice last week. She put them all in the same box in the barn so they wouldn’t be lonely. It’ll be interesting to see if the mice become catnip. Carter wanted to tell her trying to make them one family wasn’t a good idea, but I said to let her be. If anyone could get kittens and mice to coexist it’d be our daughter.”

  “Sounds like the kids are all good. They to the fightin’ stage yet? I remember it drove Carolyn crazy in the summer when the boys were together all time and they’d start fightin’ constantly.”

  “That hasn’t happened. But sometimes I feel our kids aren’t as close as they should be. I hear all these fun stories about Carter’s growing up years and wonder if our kids will have those kinds of memories.”

  “I think the memories always seem better in hindsight. I know some of the stuff they reminisce about wasn’t the great time they make it out to be.”

  “As an only child I don’t have anything to compare it to. So I’m like, go outside and build a tree fort together! Make some memories! They just look at me like I’m crazy and ask if they can play video games.”

  “It’s a different world. Makes me an old timer to say that, but it’s true. And you can’t force your kids to like each other. You hope they do, but there’s gonna be times they can’t stand the sight of one another. If you’re lucky they’ll outgrow it. Sometimes we don’t.”

  Macie’s gaze turned shrewd. “You’re talking about you and Casper.”

  He shrugged. “I won’t lie. None of us particularly liked him, even from the time we were kids.” Carson looked down at his hands. He’d automatically clenched them into fists thinking about his brother. After Charlie had told him and Cal about the physical abuse Casper had inflicted on Dalton as a boy, he’d wished he could dig up that bastard so he could beat the fuck out of him one last time. He’d never hated anyone as much as he hated his brother in that moment. That old rage surfaced, tempting him to go looking for a fight. But he was pretty sure no one would take on a seventy-four-year-old man unless he cased the local retirement center.

  “I’m glad that Casper’s sons have overcome brother-hating issues.” She patted his arm. “I’m really glad that none of your sons feel that way about each other either.”

  “Me too. Luckily Colt’s got a forgiving nature or this’d be a different conversation, ’cause we screwed up with him even after he cleaned up his act.”

  “Carter hated that he wasn’t around for any of that.”

  “I’m glad he wasn’t. It put me, Cord and Colby in the judgmental asshole zone.”

  “But you straightened it out. As much as Carter loves having his own studio close to the house, I know he wishes sometimes we lived here, closer to his family.”

  When Macie looked away quickly, Carson said, “And you feel guilty about that?”

  “Well, yeah. I get to see my dad every day. Dad’s kids with Gemma and our kids are growing up like cousins, but that doesn’t replace the connection we both want them to have with their McKay cousins. Carter had that growing up and he wants that for our kiddos.”

  “You’re visiting here at least every couple of months, and with your crazy schedules I’m happy your family can get here at all,” Carson pointed out.

  “It requires a lot of juggling, but it’s worth it.”

  “How many of my kids visit your family in Canyon River?”

  “Colt and Indy and their brood were the most recent ones. But since they have the fewest kids of Carter’s siblings, it’s easier for them to get away. Jack and Keely used to come more often, but it got harder for them after they had the twins. Colby is helping Dad out with the bull riding school for a week this summer and Channing and the kids usually tag along. That’s always fun. Total chaos with ten kids. Then Ryder, Ella and Jansen don’t wanna be left out, so they’re usually over too.”

  “Good thing you built that big house a few years back.” Carter and Macie’s sprawling ranch-style home was located on a beautiful vista on the outskirts of Gemma and Cash’s ranch and could easily accommodate all of the McKays.

  “It’s a big change from the tiny trailer we lived in after we first got married and had the first two boys.”

  “I remember them days. Only our first two boys remember livin’ in the trailer. Then again, we tend to play musical houses in the McKay family.”

  Macie’s eyes narrowed on the paper sack on the chair beside Carson. “I’ve been so busy yammering I didn’t let you eat your sandwich.”

  “I’d rather talk to you while I have the chance. Eatin’ alone don’t bother me.”

  “Has anyone from the family come to check on you?”

  “Dalton. And now you. I appreciate you stopping by. Tell the artiste—” a private joke between him and Carter, “—I’m glad he backed me.”

  “I will.” She paused again. “Carson, I’m asking you one favor on Carter’s behalf. Maybe it seems strange coming from him, but I promised I’d mention it to you.”

  “What’s that?”

  “If Carolyn needs physical therapy during her recovery, please ask Keely to work with her. Not only is Keely really good at her job, it’d go a long way in proving that your reasons for keeping Carolyn isolated were situational and short term.”

  That was something Carson hadn’t considered. He was just trying to get through each hour. It didn’t surprise him that Carter was trying to mend fences. He had so much of his mother in him: a kind heart, a fierce love and a stubborn streak. Sometimes as the youngest son his brothers had called him a mama’s boy, intending it as an insult. But Carson couldn’t think of a better compliment or a better person to aspire to be like than Carolyn McKay. “Not to worry. If Carolyn needs rehab, our daughter is the first one I’ll call.”


  “Although, that girl did torture me after my hip replacement surgery with all her blasted exercises.”

  “How is your hip?”

  “Better,” he lied.

  “Good. Take care of yourself. Know you and Carolyn are in a lot of people’s thoughts and prayers.”

  After she’d gone he tore the paper wrapper off the sandwich. Although he was starving, he savored each bite.

  Contemplations about sibling solidarity and rivalry had him thinking about Casper. How in all the years he thought he knew his brother…he really hadn’t. While he’d never excuse how Casper had treated his sons, Carson knew his brother’s life hadn’t turned out the way he’d expected. But as usual, Carson had borne the brunt of Casper’s bad decisions…

  Half the time Carson didn’t know why his dad summoned him for his help. The man grumped around like an old bear. Today was no exception. Carson had been delegated gate opener. With Cord propped on his hip, he shut the gate and walked over to where his dad unsaddled his horse.

  His father didn’t look up when he said, “Ain’t exactly handy carting a kid around when we’re supposed to be movin’ cattle.”

  “Carolyn was too damn sick to even get outta bed this mornin’. What was I supposed to do? Leave Cord bawlin’ in his crib?”

  “Shouldn’t she be over mornin’ sickness by now?” he demanded. “This is the second time this week you’ve had to drag Cord along.”

  Like Carolyn had purposely spent the morning throwing up because she wanted to inconvenience Jed McKay. “If she ain’t better by tomorrow I’m takin’ her to the doctor.”

  “So you’ll miss a day of work.”

  “Last I knew you had three other sons who could take up the slack for one damn day,” C
arson retorted.

  “Cow! Mmmooo,” Cord said, pointing to the cattle slowly making their way to the stock tank.

  “That’s right. A cow says moo. What’s a horse say?”

  “Giddy up!”

  Carson grinned. He loved that Cord had started to talk. “A horse says neigh. Think Grandpop will let you feed his horse some oats?”

  “Sure I will,” his dad said. “Get the bucket while I’m finishing this up.”

  “Down,” Cord said.


  Cord’s little booted feet kicked. “Daddy. Down.”

  “Do you wanna feed the horse?”

  He nodded.

  “Then you gotta stay close by me. I can’t have you runnin’ around and getting hurt, okay?”


  For all of Jed McKay’s blustering about having the boy underfoot, it amazed Carson that he was so patient with Cord. Showing him things
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