Branded as trouble, p.35
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       Branded as Trouble, p.35

         Part #6 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
Page 35

  A blast of sound and heat hit her when the front door opened.

  She froze.

  “Come on, it ain’t that bad. ” He kissed the skin below her ear.

  “Okay, that was a total lie. But I promise not to desert you. ”

  The huge kitchen was filled with people. Big people, little people. Women. Men.

  India half-expected everyone to turn and stare when she walked in, but no one noticed.

  Finally Carolyn McKay looked up from an enormous steel pan on the cook stove. “Colton! Do you think you can steer your brothers and your father out of here so we can get supper done?”

  “Sure, Ma. Where do you want them?”

  “Dining room. The table needs all the leaves. ”

  Colt squeezed India’s hand and approached the group in the corner.

  Macie descended on her. “India Ellison, you little devil. So, you and Colt are a couple, huh?”

  “I, for one, am not surprised,” AJ said.

  “That’d make one of us,” India said under her breath.

  “Oh pooh, you guys spend all your time together and have forever. It was only a matter of time before you realized…” AJ

  waggled her eyebrows. “The friends to lovers angle is so romantic. ”

  India’s face heated. Colt’s mother was right over by the sink.

  “How can you be so sure we’re…?”

  AJ laughed. Macie laughed. Channing laughed. Hell, even Carolyn had a grin on her face.

  “What?”

  Keely came from behind her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “We’re sure, because Colt is a McKay. ”

  “All McKay men are…territorial,” AJ said.

  “You mean virile,” Macie corrected.

  “Very virile,” Carolyn agreed.

  “Eww. Mom! TMI!” Keely said.

  Carolyn flapped a towel at her. “Oh, your poor virgin ears, Miz McKay. ”

  “Virgin?” AJ sputtered.

  “And don’t forget fertile,” Macie said, rubbing her belly.

  Channing added, “Yes, very fertile. ”

  All eyes zoomed to AJ. “What?”

  “Care to add anything to the ‘fertile’ pile?” Macie said sweetly.

  AJ’s mouth dropped open. “He told his brothers? Already?”

  “Cord told everyone already,” Keely said wryly.

  “But I’m like, barely a month along!”

  A dark-haired blur rammed into Channing’s legs. “Mama!”

  Channing bent to grab him but Keely intercepted. “Huh-uh.

  This ain’t your first rodeo, Chan. You know you’re not supposed to pick up Braxton or Gib when you’re pregnant. ”

  “I feel fine. ”

  “Mama!” The boy squirmed toward Channing.

  Keely passed him over. “Braxton, you are off the list as my favorite nephew. Where’s Parker?”

  “With Carter. ”

  “And Kyler took Gib and Thane outside, thank goodness. ”

  “Can you at least try and have a girl, AJ? Five nephews with two more on the way is a bit too much testosterone in this already testosterone-laden family. ” Keely shot India a sly look. “India has three darling little nieces to spoil and play dolls with. ”

  “Eliza would much rather throw rocks than throw a tea party,”

  India said.

  “That, I have to see. ” When Keely sighed and ran a hand through her hair, India noticed Keely looked really tired. Distracted.

  Not her usual full of mischief self.

  “I’m sure Kade and Sky would love it if you came over, Keely. ”

  “Me too. Because of my travel schedule I haven’t been home enough in the last year and it looks to be worse next year. I’ve only seen those sweet twins a couple times. ”

  “They are sweet. And not sweet. Thank God Colt came over and helped me take care of them when Kade and Sky went out of town. ”

  “He did?”

  “Yeah, the girls adore him. He’s so awesome with them even when I was pulling my hair out within six hours. ”

  Everyone turned and stared at her.

  “What?”

  “Nothing,” Channing said carefully. “It’s just, well, we’re surprised. ”

  “About what? Colt is amazing with kids. All kids. He helped me out at the community center, and I know he’s looking forward to being around Chassie’s baby. ”

  AJ, Channing and Macie glanced away. Carolyn gave her a curious look.

  “Doesn’t surprise me Colt is great with kids,” Keely said cheerfully. “He spoiled me rotten when I was growing up. He’s always been my favorite brother. ”

  Pause.

  Keely ducked as her sisters-in-law threw things at her. “I know when I’m not wanted. ” She snuck out the side door.

  “She just wants to go drink beer with the boys,” AJ said.

  “Some things never change. ”

  The women chatted amongst themselves. India listened, but didn’t contribute much, either verbally or with dinner preparations.

  She felt like a fifth wheel.

  India wanted a drink something fierce. Stressful times like this made the crutch of alcohol more appealing.

  Just one wouldn’t hurt you.

  She peeked around the corner of the living room, looking for Colt. He held a sleeping toddler on his lap and was in deep conversation with Carter. Cord, Colby, Keely and Carson were congregated by the bay windows drinking beer.

  A half-empty beer bottle sat on the sofa table.

  A sense of urgency, a need to flee swamped her. She wouldn’t be missed if she snuck outside for a breath of fresh air.

  No one would miss that bottle. No one would know if you had a little nip of liquid courage. No one would blame you.

  India told the voice to shut up and practically ran outside.

  Kyler, Thane and Gib were racing in front of the porch, playing hide and seek between the pickups. The night air had become chilly and she shivered, wishing she’d worn a coat.

  The McKay family dynamics weren’t different from other families. Yet, she had a hard time figuring out where Colt fit in.

  With two older brothers and two younger brothers, he could almost be considered the middle child.

  The invisible child. The pleaser. The intermediary.

  But according to the way Colt described himself, he was the rebel, the bad seed, the black sheep, even before he’d become an alcoholic.

  India didn’t see him that way. And after spending just a short amount of time with his family, she wondered if any one of them saw Colt at all. The real Colt. The man she saw. Or did they still see him as Colt, the drunk? Colt, the charming womanizer? Colt, the screw up?

  Didn’t they see the man with the big heart? The quiet, contemplative man who’d learned from his mistakes? The sweet man? The helpful man? The man who dropped everything to run a race with his nephews? A man who helped out at the community center with kids he didn’t know, as eagerly as he’d volunteered to help out with his own family’s kids whenever he was asked?

  Colt would be a wonderful father. Involved. Caring. Loving.

  And not for the first time did she think he’d make an even better husband.

  “Whatcha thinking about so hard?”

  She jumped at the sound of Cam’s soft drawl drifting to her from the right side of the porch. “Cam. I didn’t know you were out here. ”

  “Yeah. I know you didn’t. ”

  “You enjoy sneaking up on people. ”

  “Habit. Although, I’ll point out I didn’t sneak. I was already here when you snuck out. ”

  “And when did you slink away, deputy?”

  “As soon as humanly possible. ”

  “Why?” It was weird having a conversation with someone she couldn’t see. Almost like he was a ghost. Or she was in a confessional.

  “My older
brothers are pissed off at me for some things I said.

  Dad ain’t bein’ real friendly either. I ain’t about to apologize. If pesky Keely wouldn’t have forced me to come by showing up on my doorstep, I wouldn’t even be here tonight. ”

  “You guys are still fighting? That happened a couple weeks ago. ”

  “How’d you know about it?”

  “That was the same night I called Colt to help me with Sky and Kade’s girls. I knew he was upset but he didn’t get into specifics. ”

  “Just as well. ”

  Kyler, Thane and Gib ran inside.

  The sound of sloshing liquid drifted to her. India recognized the sound of a half-empty bottle of booze and her mouth watered.

  “So you never answered my question, India. What’re you thinking about?”

  “I’m contemplating my place in the universe. Or my navel.

  Take your pick. They seem to be one in the same these days. ”

  “Smartass. ”

  “Sorry. I needed a second to clear my head because it is overwhelming. What are you out here thinking about?”

  “I’m a trained soldier. It isn’t my job to think. It’s my job to do what I’m told. ”

  “Is that why you went into law enforcement? Just another set of orders to follow?”

  “Maybe. You have to admit…the uniforms are sexy as shit. ”

  India laughed. “And every woman loves a man in uniform. ”

  “Loves. Right. ”

  Rather than quiz him on why he was so determined to keep Domini at arms length, she asked, “Do you miss being a soldier?”

  “Yes. ” More sloshing liquid. “And no. ”

  “Well, that cleared things up a whole bunch for me, thanks. ”

  Cam’s chuckle wasn’t particularly pleasant. “Welcome to my world. ”

  She shivered as much from his tone as the temperature.

  “You want my coat?”

  I want a drink of whatever you’re having.

  “No. Thanks, though. I should head back inside. Probably time to eat. ”

  “They’ll come looking for us. Or maybe I oughta say Colt will come looking for you. ”

 
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