Cowboy take me away, p.35
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.35

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  “Sugar, don’t cry.”

  “Get used to it. You know how much I bawl when I’m pregnant and hormonal.”

  “Never again. I’ll never give you cause to doubt me again. I promise.”

  “I’ve heard that before.”

  “I know. But I’m done. It’s past time I step up to the responsibilities of bein’ a father that our sons can be proud of. Be the kind of son my dad takes pride in. My priority is to make sure you’re happy above all else.”

  When the image wavered, Carolyn screamed no.

  The next part was the good part. Where Carson lived up to his promises and then some. Where their marriage became stronger than ever. Where they added to their family, a baby boy they’d named Colton who was the spitting image of his father.

  And like before, when she boomeranged back to the dark place, she questioned whether she’d ever really left it and if her mind was just playing cruel tricks on her.

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Hospital, Day 3—afternoon

  So Carson was thinking about sex.

  Nothing new there.

  But he wasn’t fantasizing about the hot and sweaty pulse pounding moment when bodies connected, but the importance of touch. How even in their most intimate moments, he had to have his hands on Carolyn. Feeling her skin and reveling in her reaction to how he touched her.

  So although he caressed her arm every second of those five minutes every hour, it wasn’t the connection he needed from her.

  Reciprocation.

  During his last hourly visit he’d barely spoken to her. He’d held her hand, willing her to squeeze it. He’d stroked her cheek, silently and stupidly begging her to turn toward his touch. He couldn’t lower his protective face shield to nuzzle her temple, hoping for just a hint of the scent of her skin or her makeup or her shampoo. A shower-cap looking apparatus covered her head from her eyebrows to the nape of her neck. It was a wound care protection that kept the wound draining and the area around it sterile.

  Today her stillness bothered him. It reminded him of the days following his father’s first heart attack. The doctors had kept Jed sedated and on oxygen. Back then diagnosis took much longer, so for those few days, he and his brothers had no idea whether their father would live or die.

  As hard as that wait-and-see time had dragged on for them, it’d had one positive outcome. When Jed McKay finally came to, he realized he wasn’t invincible. He understood changes had to be made to the existing structure of the McKay Ranch. So in the months that followed, Jed parceled out individual sections to all four of his sons. Carson ended up with the most land and cattle. Casper grumbled about it even when Jed explained the pro-rating system he’d been compiling over the years.

  So the bottom line was Carson’s hard work hadn’t gone unnoticed and he’d finally been rewarded for it.

  “Carson.”

  He snapped to. His eyes flew open and he realized his daughter-in-law was right in his face. “Channing. Warn a guy, next time, will ya?”

  “I said your name like four times.”

  He eased back and scrubbed his hands over his face. Three days’ worth of whiskers scratched his palms. His neck hurt, his eyes burned, his stomach growled, his hip ached. Hard to believe he slept at all when he felt like a caged animal. “Sorry. I’m a little out of it.”

  “That’s understandable. I’m assuming no change in Carolyn’s condition?”

  “Nope.”

  Channing backed off and perched in the chair across from him. She eyed the stacks of magazines. “I’m glad Quinn brought you a distraction.”

  “Is that why you’re here, darlin’? To distract me?”

  She cocked her head. “Not even close. But we’ll get to that in a bit.”

  “Now you’re scarin’ me.”

  “The almighty Carson McKay scared of little ol’ me?” She laughed. “That’ll be the day.”

  “So what’s on your mind?”

  “Besides the sad fact that the most thoughtful, generous, caring, sweetest, fiercest woman I know is lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life? That’s pretty much all that’s on my mind, and anyone else’s mind who loves her. And who loves you.”

  Uncomfortable, he looked down at his hands. “I know how Colby feels about her, Channing. But that don’t change nothin’. He can’t…” See her like that. He could at least admit to himself that it wasn’t only the threat of germs keeping everyone out of her hospital room, but the knowledge that Carolyn had always taken such pride in her appearance and she wouldn’t want people gawking at her like she’d become a science experiment.

  “I didn’t show up to browbeat you about the parameters you set for your adult children regarding your wife; that, as adults, they should accept without question and understand since they’re all married themselves.”

  He glanced up at her. “Well, that’s a relief.”

  “However…I am here to browbeat you about something else.”

  Shit. “What now?”

  “While I know you’ve not let your personal hygiene slide entirely, you’re skating on that thin line. You haven’t been home, which means you’ve been wearing the same clothes since you rode here in the ambulance…three days ago.”

  “So?

  “So, you need to go home and shower, shave off the raggedy beard you’re sporting, and put on some clean clothes.”

  He bristled—rightly so. “What part of I ain’t leavin’ her is confusing to you kids?”

  Again, Channing got right in his face. “What part of you smell bad, you look like a hobo, and after three days of constant wear, your dirty, germ-laden clothes might be putting your wife at risk is confusing to you? Not to mention that Carolyn would seriously kick your ass if she saw you out in public like this.”

  That gave him pause. Serious pause.

  “You said yourself that nothing has changed with her condition and nothing will change for several more days. The doctors won’t attempt to wake her while you’re gone. So take a couple of hours. Get some fresh air. Clear your head and clean up, you’ll feel better for it. Plus, you left in an awful damn hurry so do a walkthrough of your house and give yourself piece of mind that all is safe on the home front. Get your cell phone charger since your phone is dead. And yes, I know that because my husband has bitched about not being able to get in touch with you. Not that you want to talk to him or your other kids. But at least if you had your phone charged you could check on cattle futures and play Farmville on Facebook.”

  Right. Playing games on his phone? Never gonna happen. The only reason he’d gotten a smart phone was so he could get pictures of his grandkids.

  But he could admit that itchy feeling between his shoulder blades had been building all day. Seemed a lifetime since he’d seen something besides these walls. He imagined filling his lungs with real air, not this sterilized oxygen.

  “If nothing else, grab some fresh clothes for Carolyn to wear home from the hospital while you’re there.”

  That cinched it for him. He’d go. Wait. He didn’t have a vehicle here. But Channing did. “You’ll lend me your SUV?”

  “I’ll go you one better.” She reached in her pocket and handed over his set of keys. “Good thing you ranchers are a trusting lot and leave your keys in your truck.”

  “Damn good thing. Did Colby take you over to our place?”

  Channing rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding? AJ picked me up and dropped me off. Your sons are being a special brand of difficult right now, so we’re letting them stew and following our own agenda.” She jabbed her finger at him. “Don’t you dare rat us out, Carson McKay.”

  “You have my word I won’t. Thanks. I…” His gaze moved to the door to Carolyn’s room, indecision tearing at him. Last night, Lissa, the nurse who’d warned him it’d be better if he didn’t leave the ICU waiting room for the duration, had recanted her original advice and told him to get some fresh air today.

  “Go,” Channing said softly. “I will sit right here in you
r spot until you return. I won’t let anyone in. I won’t go in myself.” She took his hand. “Let me be your fill-in guard dog for a few hours. Please. You deserve a break, and stinky man, you need a shower.”

  Carson squeezed her hand. “Bold as brass you are, girlie. I never woulda thought you had it in you. Then again, you gave me what-for when I asked about you and Colby that weekend we first met in Cheyenne.”

  “You are an intimidating man. I knew you didn’t think I was right for him, but you didn’t know me, and it just made me mad that you assumed.”

  “I remember. But you’ve proved me wrong over the years, and that’s gotta feel good.”

  When she cocked her head again, he knew he was in for it.

  “What?”

  “You may feel that way now, but after Colby’s injury, whenever I called to check on him, you didn’t deliver my messages. Why is that?”

  “Stuff like that needed to be said in person, not passed from you to me to my son.”

  “So you weren’t trying to keep me from Colby?”

  “Of course I was.”

  Her lips flattened.

  “But it didn’t work, did it? And darlin’, if I would’ve scared you off? Then you weren’t meant to be with him anyway.”

  “You sneaky-assed man. I hope Carolyn punished you good for your meddling. Colby said she could put the screws to you way worse than he ever could.”

  Carson thought back to the hours he’d spent digging Carolyn’s two new flower beds—in an area she knew was comprised mainly of rock, making it backbreaking work for him. She told him every time he looked at those beds of blooms in the future that he’d remember that given the right foundation and a lot of care, beautiful things could sprout from even the rockiest ground.

  In that moment he ached with how much he needed her; every bone, every blood cell, every breath, every fiber of his being.

  “Carson?” Channing rubbed his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

  He cleared his throat. “Seems I get sucked into memories pretty damn easily. After fifty years with her, there are lots of memories to scroll through.”

  “I imagine.”

  “Thanks for kickin’ my behind. Carolyn would be proud you done it in her stead. You’re a good woman, Channing. My son’s lucky to have you.” He paused. “So am I.” Pushing to his feet, he ignored the sharp pain in his ass after sitting in one place for so long. “I’ll be back. And when I get back, we’re gonna talk about why Gib is usin’ a second-rate horse for ropin’ when it’s obvious the boy has skills and needs to upgrade.”

  “Talk to his father about that.”

  “I’ll be talkin’ to you, bein’s that his father and me ain’t currently speakin’.”

  She laughed. “Anything else?”

  “Seems Austin has roped Beau, Spencer and Dimitri into tryin’ to convince me to take them all fishin’. Where’d they get the fool idea that I’m the grandpa who enjoys sittin’ out in the sun, slapping mosquitos and baiting hooks?”

  “Not from me. But Gib, Braxton and Miles tried to get Austin to remember the time you and Carolyn took all four boys camping in that motor home you had for what…two days?”

  “Don’t remind me. I’ll figure out something fun to do with them but it ain’t gonna be fishin’ or campin’. I learned my lesson there. How’s my youngest grandson?” Channing had suffered a miscarriage when Keely was pregnant with her first child. At that point both Colby and Channing thought they were done adding to their family. So no one was more surprised—or thrilled—than they were three years later when their little “oops” Duncan was born.

  Channing sighed. “He’s the perfect baby. I am so lucky to have his brothers as my helpers because I’m so much more tired having a kid at my age than I was when I had Gib. Colby is a lot more mellow around him too, especially now that Duncan is six months old and doing cute baby stuff.” She nudged Carson with her knee. “Talia is still asking when you’re coming over for another tea party.”

  Carson smiled, thinking about Colby’s shocked face last year when he’d walked in on Grandpa and Talia having a tea party, complete with Grandpa wearing a rhinestone crown and a glittery purple feather boa.

  Colby had frozen in the doorframe, his mouth hinged open like a busted gate. “Dad? What’s goin’ on?”

  “Me’n Princess Talia are havin’ tea.”

  “B-but…” Colby’s wide-eyed gaze had winged between them. “Since when do you do that sort of thing?”

  Carson raised his eyebrow. “Since my last child was a girl who liked havin’ tea parties and her mama couldn’t always oblige her. And since I’ve been blessed with six granddaughters who are old enough to host tea parties, and three more girlies that’ll be of that age soon enough. Why?”

  “You did this with Keely?”

  “More times than I can count.” Carson pretended to sip his tea. “You oughta try it. Talia makes a mean pot of tea.”

  “Carson?” Channing prompted.

  “Sorry. Told ya I’ve been tripping down memory lane.”

  “It’s okay.” Channing settled in his chair with a stack of magazines. “Get going.”

  Carson walked out of the hospital in a daze.

  The sun shone from a cloudless blue sky. A soft breeze rippled the leaves on the trees ringing the parking lot. He squinted at the vehicles lined up in neat rows, searching for the familiar tailgate with the extended ball hitch.

  No sign of his truck.

  Where the devil had Channing parked it?

  Rather than wander aimlessly, he hit the panic button on the key fob and followed the bleating horn noise to his dusty Dodge.

  The interior was the same mess. He adjusted the seat and the rearview mirror and pushed up the sun visor.

  Carolyn’s sunglasses fell onto the dash. He snatched them up, staring at the black plastic dotted with rhinestones, overwhelmed by the absence of her. The little things might just do him in. Set him on that path of tears he’d managed to avoid. So far he hadn’t broken down entirely, not out of some macho need to show no emotion, but simply because he feared if he started crying he wouldn’t be able to stop.

  Get moving. The sooner you get this done the sooner you can come back to her.

  Starved, he hit the drive-thru at McDonald’s. After that, he stopped into a convenience store and bought a pack of cigarettes. Whenever stress got to him, he smoked. Carolyn never judged him—she’d always claimed she’d rather him smoke every once in a while than be a fulltime tobacco chewer. He hadn’t kicked that habit entirely either. Some days he needed a pinch of Redman—not that he told his wife that, but she probably knew anyway.

  The nicotine from those first few puffs gave him a head rush. But he’d made the trip from Spearfish on I-90 heading toward Sundance so many times over the years he could’ve driven it with his eyes closed.

  His thoughts jumped from one thing to another, but they never strayed far from Carolyn. If she had any awareness at all. If she was suffering any pain—despite the doctor’s assertions the medications handled that.

  He didn’t meet any vehicles on the road that led to the ranch. Out of habit he checked out the pasture on his left, even when he knew the cattle had been moved to different grazing areas weeks ago.

  Before Carson turned into the driveway, he pulled up to the mailbox and grabbed the stack of mail that’d accumulated over the past few days. Then he whipped a U-turn and headed up the gravel road that would bring him home.

  Home.

  He’d lived in this house most of his life. From birth until age eighteen. Then he and Caro and their oldest three boys had moved in after Jed’s heart attack and this place had become too much house for one man. As the oldest McKay heir, albeit only by a few minutes, he’d stood first in line to inherit. His only brother who’d complained about that was Casper—until their father pointed out that over the last decade, Casper, Charlie and Cal had received houses and Carson hadn’t.

  So their dad had taken over Carson and Ca
rolyn’s trailer and this had become their home.

  As he sat and stared through the dirty windshield, he remembered the day they’d moved in…

  They’d left the boys with Cal and Kimi.

  The back of his pickup was loaded down with boxes. Even after nine years of marriage, they didn’t have much stuff to move because they’d had no room for much besides the necessities in their cramped trailer. Carolyn hadn’t complained when her sister and both her sisters-in-law had actual houses; she’d just made do.

  She wouldn’t have to make do any longer. If Carson had his way, she wouldn’t have to make do with less than what she deserved ever again.

  After they’d pulled up, Carolyn hadn’t bounded out of the truck with the enthusiasm he expected. He glanced at her, sitting in the passenger’s seat, staring at the house with the oddest expression on her face. “Sugar, you okay?”

  “I don’t know. There’s part of me that can’t fathom this enormous house is really ours now.”

  Carson reached for her hand. “It is.” He kissed her fingertips. “So how about we go check it out?”

  Carolyn managed a wobbly smile, as if she was trying not to cry.
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