Long time gone, p.3
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       Long Time Gone, p.3

         Part #16.5 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
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  Then Cal snagged her attention and they met in the middle of the room, where she swore she felt all eyes on them. “I need to get Carolyn’s stuff transferred into Carson’s truck. You wanna give me your car keys?”

  “You afraid tongues will wag if we head outside together?”

  “No, darlin’, I’m afraid fists will fly.”

  He had a point. “The suitcase is in the trunk. I didn’t lock the car since the lock always sticks.”

  “I’ll still need the keys.”

  She fished them out of her purse and handed them over.

  “I’ll be movin’ Carson’s truck out front so maybe it’s time to gather everyone out there for the sendoff.”

  Kimi approached her family. Four of her bothers had attended: Darren, Marshall, Stuart, Thomas. Harland hadn’t shown up, but his wife Sonia had, as well as Darren’s wife, Tracy.

  Darren spoke first. “What’d that other McKay want?”

  “To know where to find Carolyn’s things before we send the newlyweds off.” She looked at her aunt. “It’s about time to throw rice. Maybe you’d better get Mom into position outside.”

  “Where will you be?” her mother demanded.

  “Fulfilling my maid of honor duties,” she said evenly.

  A quick pit stop in the kitchen assured Kimi that the ladies’ auxiliary had packaged up the leftover German chocolate butter cake Aunt Hulda had made. Kimi grabbed the coffee can filled with rice, passing off the duty of handing out rice to her sister-in-law, Sonia.

  The priest was chatting with the newlyweds. Carson looked anxious—but so did Carolyn. Cal caught Kimi’s eye and smiled before interrupting the priest.

  “Carse, your truck is parked at the curb and loaded with your wife’s things, so you’re all set.”

  Carson kissed Carolyn’s forehead. “Let’s go home.”

  After exchanging a hug with her sister and new brother-in-law, Kimi opened the doors. Carson and Carolyn raced through a hail of rice. That bone-deep sadness reared its ugly head again. She knew being jealous was stupid, because she was happy for her sister, but the one person who tied her to this family…would now have a family of her own. It’d always been her and Carolyn facing the world. The West sisters standing up for each other, protecting one another, inside the family and outside.

  She’d never felt so alone.

  No one noticed Kimi sneaking back into the church. Around the corner in the sanctuary, she pressed her back against the brick wall and let the tears come full force—but in silence.

  Not long after she disappeared, a shadow fell over her. “Aw, hell, sweet darlin’. Those tears are killin’ me. C’mere.” Cal’s strong arm slipped around her waist. A solid chest cushioned her cheek and muffled her sobs. A gentle hand skated up and down her back.

  She accepted his comfort without question.

  He said nothing, he just held her until she calmed down.

  “I didn’t mean to lose it,” she whispered.

  “You didn’t. Not like you could have—throwin’ shit, screamin’ obscenities and swigging from a bottle of whiskey.”

  “There’s plenty of day left for that.”

  “And ain’t I the lucky one, for getting to spend the rest of it with you.”

  She managed a hiccupping laugh. “You sure you still want to do that?”

  “Yep. More than anything in the world, actually.”

  Kimi finally looked up at him. Butterflies took wing in her stomach again. This man was…all man.

  Cal curled his hand around her cheek. “You are a little whip of a thing.”

  “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about that, so watch it. I’m small but mighty.”

  His lips twitched. “Thanks for the warning. So I thought you could come over to my place.”

  His place? Like it was no big deal if she was alone, with a man, at his house? She’d never imagined that’s where they’d end up on this “date”. Since they were in a church, she felt the need to confess the truth. “I’m not a wild girl, Cal.”

  He lifted both eyebrows. “You’re tellin’ me this…why?”

  “I’ve been told I flirt too much, so I might’ve given you the wrong impression.” She tried to squirm away but he held tight.

  His blue eyes were hard as steel. “Seems you’ve been listening to your family run down the McKays. You assume I’m the type of man who’d take advantage of you?”

  Kimi didn’t back down. “That’s the thing—I don’t know what kind of man you are. I’m just letting you know what kind of girl I’m not. So if you want to change your mind…”

  “I don’t.” He touched her cheek. “I ain’t gonna lie, Kimi. There’s a pull between us. But acknowledging it and actin’ on it are two different things. I just want to get to know you.”

  “So this isn’t really a date?”

  He shrugged. “Call it whatever makes you comfortable. But I promise I won’t try and talk you into my bed.”

  “Okay. Thank you for bein’…”

  “For bein’ what, sweet darlin’?”

  A sudden burst of shyness had her dropping her gaze. “For bein’ cool about the fact I’m not cool. That I’m just a dorky teenage girl who has no idea what I’ve gotten myself into with you.”

  Cal chuckled. “You’re makin’ me feel old.”

  She looked up at him. “Will you take offense if I say you seem older than twenty-four?”

  “Not if you don’t take offense if I say you seem older than sixteen.”

  She smiled.

  His returning grin was decidedly boyish.

  She liked his charming side. She really liked that he knew when to use it and when to rein it in.

  “We’ll wait until everyone leaves and then you can follow me. It’s about an hour drive. So if you’re hungry we should stop and eat first.”

  “I’m starved.”

  Cal kissed her forehead. Then he stepped back. “Wait here. I’ll see if the coast is clear.”

  Kimi rested her shoulders against the wall and breathed a sigh of relief. With him, she wouldn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

  ***

  Both Cal and Kimi were surprised they’d lingered at the diner for an hour after they finished their meals.

  During the drive to his house, he kept checking his rearview mirror—almost obsessively—to make sure she followed him, because he knew he’d chase her down if she turned around.

  Even after only spending about three hours with Kimi, Cal was crazy about her. They’d had an instant connection—despite their age difference, despite their warring families, despite the fact they shouldn’t have anything in common besides that their siblings had gotten married.

  But they had similar tastes and opinions. He knew it sounded stupid, but she made him feel young—or, more accurately, closer to his own age.

  Sometimes Cal felt like an old man in a young man’s body. In addition to his growing ranch responsibilities, he’d been mediating between Carson and their dad for years, as well as Carson and their brothers. Cal rarely went looking for a fight, but he’d been in more than his fair share of them because Carson liked to mix it up and he always had his brother’s back.

  Most days being part of the “McKay twins” moniker didn’t bother Cal. For the first few years after they’d moved into their own place, he’d even been happy with Carson’s cast-off conquests. Carson had earned his love-’em-and-leave-’em reputation for a reason; he wasn’t interested in anything besides a one-time fuck. It never made sense to Cal, why these same women turned to him—the supposed “good” twin—after they’d already been dumped by his brother. For all he knew they showed up at the trailer hoping to get double-teamed by the McKay twins, which was really fucking creepy. But Cal wasn’t an idiot. If free, easy pussy was offered? He’d take it. He just had more tact than his brother when it came to letting the ladies know he wasn’t interested in anything serious.

  But he suspected local single women would be dropping by with “h
ousewarming” meals in the hopes that he’d be more open to settling down now that Carson had gotten married.

  Like hell.

  Cal shoved those thoughts aside and watched Kimi park behind his truck. He opened the driver’s side door of her car and offered her his hand to help her out. “I just had a load of gravel dumped here yesterday, so watch your step.”

  She scowled at the powdery orange dirt beneath her feet. “So much for my white shoes.”

  Grinning, he scooped her into his arms, carried her to the cement stoop and set her down. “Better?”

  “Why, thank you, kind sir, for rescuing my shoes from certain death,” she said in a southern drawl.

  “No problem, little lady. Need anything else outta the car?”

  “There’s a traveling case in the back seat.”

  Cal grabbed the suitcase and brought it to her. “Whatcha got in there?”

  “A change of clothes.”

  He slipped his finger under the collar of his shirt. “I don’t remember the last time I wore a suit, but I remember why I don’t like ’em.” He tugged at the ends of his tie until it loosened. “Felt like I was choking.”

  Kimi stepped forward and smoothed her hands down his lapels. “You sure look good though. You oughta wear these all the time.”

  Her casual touch tightened the muscles in his belly. “Thanks.” He kept his left hand resting on the small of her back when he reached over to open the front door. “Ladies first.”

  “You don’t lock your door?”

  “Nothin’ in here worth stealing.” When Kimi stopped just inside the entryway, Cal had a bout of nerves. “Place is a mess bein’s I just moved in.”

  “I remember Carolyn telling me you lived with Carson up until they set a wedding date.”

  “We bought this place recently and it wouldn’t have been done in time for the newlyweds to move in so he passed it off to me.”

  She wandered into the living room. “There’s a lot of room for a bachelor.”

  “Tell me about it. There’s an entire upper level, that’s been closed off, I haven’t even thought about. I’m just happy we put on a new roof in the main part of the house and fixed the windows.”

  Kimi looked over her shoulder at him. “You don’t have any furniture?”

  “Just a table and chairs in the kitchen. And a bed and dresser in my room.”

  “No TV?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Whatever will we do tonight, Mr. McKay?”

  Cal could name half a dozen things he’d rather do with her than watch TV. “Got a porch swing out back.”

  “That sounds heavenly.” She looked around. “Where can I change?”

  “The bathroom is the first door on the left down the hall.”

  She picked up her suitcase.

  After the bathroom door closed, Cal hustled to his room and kicked aside his pile of dirty clothes as he shed his suit jacket, tie, vest and long-sleeved white shirt. Off came his dress boots and suit pants. He pulled on his last clean pair of jeans. Since all his shirts were dirty, he’d be stuck wearing an undershirt, which always made him feel half-naked.

  Leaning against the wall, he shoved his foot into his work boot, eyeing his bedroom with disgust. He hadn’t made his bed this morning. Heck, he hadn’t bought a bedframe yet; the mattress was still on the floor. Carson had always given him crap about being a neatnik, but Cal had decided early on that being a bachelor didn’t mean he had to live in a pigsty. In the past week he’d dropped into bed with such exhaustion that he’d awoken twice to see he still had his work clothes and boots on. So his room being a disaster was a blessing in disguise—he wouldn’t be tempted to bring Kimi in here.

  He shut his bedroom door at the same moment Kimi exited the bathroom. She wore the shorts and blouse he’d seen her in the first time they’d met. How was he supposed to keep his hands off her tight little ass? And off those surprisingly long legs, so perfectly proportioned in such a petite package?

  Cal was beginning to think this was a bad, bad idea.

  “Cal?” she said softly.

  His gaze moved up her body, lingering on the swell of her breasts, before his eyes met hers. “Would you like a drink?”

  “Sure. What do you have?”

  Dammit. She wasn’t old enough for booze. “Root beer or milk.”

  A heavy pause followed. “Milk? Really?” Her eyes flashed. “Well, Daddy, I want cookies and a bedtime story if you intend to treat me like a child.”

  He bridged the distance between them with two steps. He traced the edge of her defiant jaw with the backs of his knuckles. “Sweet darlin’, I’m fully aware you ain’t a child. But I also know you’ve gotta drive home so you need to stay away from booze. So how about that root beer?”

  “You having one?”

  “Nope. I’m home for the night.” He stepped away and opened the refrigerator. He pried off the cap before handing over the bottle of root beer. Then he snagged a glass from the cupboard and poured himself three fingers of Jack Daniels.

  “Whiskey straight up? Not even on ice?”

  “I don’t have ice. And I never saw the point of diluting whiskey. If I wanted to taste water, that’s what I’d drink.”

  “That’s what my Aunt Hulda says too. She lets me have a nip of hers now and then. Although she prefers Irish whiskey to American.”

  “So does Carson. He got that from our dad.”

  “What about your brothers?”

  “Casper drinks whatever is cheapest. Charlie isn’t much of a drinker, but he’s young.”

  Charlie is older than Kimi, his conscience chose to point out.

  Kimi held her bottle of soda aloft. “To the happy couple. May the good times outweigh the bad.”

  Strange toast, but he touched his glass to hers anyway and said, “Amen,” before taking a sip.

  “So show me this porch swing. It’s not something I expected a bachelor to have.”

  Cal took her hand, leading her through the kitchen and out the back door. “It came with the house.”

  Kimi stopped on the edge of the cement patio. “Cal. This is so cool.”

  The brick house had been built after the First World War. It wasn’t like other houses in rural Wyoming and he’d been secretly glad that Carson had given it over to him so easily. The entire area behind the house, half an acre deep, was ringed with lilac bushes that created a natural fence. The grass back here wasn’t the weed-like variety that surrounded the trailer, but thicker and softer like the manicured lawns in town. Although water was scarce, the man who’d owned the place had rigged up a windmill and pump that hooked into an irrigation system. None of it currently worked but once things slowed down the next couple of weeks, Cal planned on fixing it. “You like it?”

  “I love it. It’s an oasis in the desert.” She pointed to the raised areas sectioned off with old railroad ties. “Are all of those flower beds?”

  “I guess some were vegetable gardens. The man we bought it from said he’d let everything go after his wife died because it was too hard to be out here in her domain without her. Even seeing it now, I imagine this place was really something.”

  Kimi got right in his face. “Promise me you’ll take care of it and get it back to the way it used to be. Even if you have to ask Carolyn to help you. She knows a lot about flowers and gardening.”

  “Maybe I don’t want her to see it, so she won’t get it in her head that she wants to move in, and I’ll be back in the trailer,” he retorted.

  She laughed. But then she grew somber. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

  Cal sipped his whiskey. “Yep. I’ve never had anything that was just mine. Carson and Dad were more interested in the Ag land to give the house and the barn more than a passing glance. They saw a sagging roof, busted windows and space that’d become a critter habitat. I saw more.” Why had he admitted that? And how did he know Kimi wouldn’t blab all this to her sister the second she got the chance?

  But she was int
uitive. Her gaze softened. “I promise your secret garden is safe with me, Cal McKay.” She tugged on his hand. “Let’s sit on the swing and you can tell me all about your plans for this place, because I know you’ve got them.”

  Nosy little thing. But he was amused by her insistence rather than annoyed. After they’d settled in the swing, she asked a million questions, offered suggestions and generally entertained the hell out of him. She was sweet and funny and real.

  Talk shifted to their families. Kimi spoke of her mother’s health problems with detachment, but Cal didn’t blame her. It sounded as if there’d been a disconnect between mother and youngest daughter for more than half of Kimi’s life. She said even less about her father. She did
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