Cowboy take me away, p.39
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.39

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James

  The baby didn’t move or open her eyes as they checked her out. Carolyn hoped that meant she’d be sweet and mellow.

  “She’s beautiful, Mama, like you. You done good again.”

  “I can’t believe we have a girl. The boys will flip.”

  “Everyone is gonna flip, sugar. She’s the first McKay girl born in this country. I’d have to ask my dad, but I don’t think his father had sisters in Ireland.”

  “Then she should have an Irish name.”

  “Agreed. Oh. Go ahead and contact that nunnery school you went to in Montana and get her enrolled now.”

  Carolyn laughed and kissed his cheek.

  But she suspected Carson wasn’t joking.

  They brought their daughter home two days later. There was enough food from well-wishers to feed even their hungry army of boys. Enough pink clothing and toys to warrant the girl getting her own room.

  Carson carried their precious bundle into the living room and sat next to Carolyn on the couch. She was exhausted and had spent a good portion of her time in the hospital sleeping. She suspected Carson had spent his time staring at the newest addition to their family with nothing less than awe.

  Carolyn unwrapped the blanket. “Come on, boys, and meet your baby sister.”

  The boys gathered around, staring at her.

  “What’s her name?” Colt asked.


  Cam and Colt exchanged a look.


  “That’s a dumb name,” Colt said. “Why didn’t you name her something cool like Farrah?”

  She heard Carson mutter, “Jesus. Farrah. Really?” and she elbowed him.

  “It probably ain’t too late to change it,” Colby suggested.

  “Her name is fine, don’t listen to them, Mom,” Cord said. “At least it don’t start with a C.”

  Cam leaned over and poked her belly. “She looks scrawny to me. I bet she cries a lot, huh?”

  “All babies cry. You cried a lot if I recall,” Carolyn said.

  Cam looked horrified.

  That’s when Carson noticed Carter had hung back. “Hey, Carter, come on over here and take a gander at your scrawny, bawlin’, baby sister with the weird name.”

  Carolyn elbowed him again.

  Carter pressed himself into Carson’s side. “She’s little.”

  “Yes, she is. And she’s lucky that she has five big brothers to protect her.”

  “I made something for her. Don’t go nowhere,” he warned and raced off.

  “Do you know what it is?” she asked Carson, since he’d been home with the boys at night.

  He shrugged. “No idea.”

  Cord, Colby, Colt and Cam had already disappeared.

  The back kitchen door slammed and Carolyn heard Carter huffing and puffing. He came around the corner carrying… Dear God, what was that? It looked like a gigantic bowl made out of mud. With bits of straw and twigs sticking out all over.

  “I made a nest for the baby! A big one like an eagle’s nest! And she can sleep in it in my room. I even used chicken feathers and picked all the worms outta the mud—”

  In his excitement, Carter tripped and the nest went flying. It landed on the carpet with a wet thud and mud splattered everywhere. Hay and feathers floated in the air while she and Carson sat there in complete shock.

  Then Carter started to wail about his broken nest. His crying startled Keely and she screwed up her face and began bawling too.

  “At least we know her lungs work,” Carson said over the escalating cries.

  Hearing the commotion, the older boys tore around the corner, pushing and shoving each other as they jockeyed to be the first one into the room, not paying attention as usual, so a jubilant Colt became airborne after his feet connected with the muddy nest. Then Cord and Colby skidded across the carpet, knocking each other down. Cam managed to avoid the dog pile, but he fell into the coffee table, launching a glass of grape Kool-Aid into the air in a cloudburst of purple rain.

  Carolyn closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then she pressed her lips to her sweet baby’s head and whispered, “Welcome to chaos central, baby girl. I’d tell you it’s not always like this, but that’d be a lie.”

  The light became dim again.

  No! Don’t send me back into that nothingness.

  Carolyn fought to remember what happened next as she waged a silent battle with the encroaching darkness…and lost.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Hospital, Day 4—morning

  “Ma’am? I’ll have to see what’s in the box.”

  A soft voice answered, but he couldn’t make out the words—or who the voice belonged to.

  Carson scooted forward and saw a tall, lithe blonde woman standing at the nurse’s desk while they inspected whatever she’d brought him. While he appreciated their vigilance, he was pretty sure he knew what was in that box and his stomach rumbled.

  Domini turned and faltered a step when she saw him staring at her. “Carson. I didn’t expect you to be right there.”

  “Not a lot of other places to go.” He eyed the package and felt a tug on his heart. The outside of the white box had been decorated in marker and crayon with hearts and flowers.

  “I see that gleam in your eyes and yes, these are for you. Liesl baked them all by herself. Oxsana and Sasha decorated the box.”

  Across the top they’d written, Love you, Grandpa!! Get Well Soon, Gran-gran!! Miss you!!

  “I’m a lucky man to have the best granddaughters in the world,” he said huskily. “Tell my girls thanks and that me’n Gran-gran will treat them to ice cream when she’s feelin’ up to it.” He opened the box. “Oatmeal raisin. My favorite.” He snatched one off the top and bit into it. “Damn that girl can bake. Takes after her Gran-gran.” He finished the cookie in two bites.

  “I’ll tell her you said so.”

  After he realized his rudeness—shoving a cookie in his pie hole without saying hello to his daughter-in-law, he brushed the crumbs off his shirt. As he took a swig of soda, he gave her a quick head to toe inspection. No wonder Cam called her princess. Domini had a foreign look about her—delicate features, icy blue eyes and white blonde hair that spoke of her Ukrainian heritage. In addition to running Dewey’s Delish Dish, she was a cop’s wife, and dealt with Cam’s lingering effects from his stint in the army and his career—and nearly life-ending injury. Now she and Cam had six busy, rowdy kids. Not necessarily shy, but soft-spoken, Domini was the picture of calmness. It seemed nothing rattled her even in the sea of chaos that was their life raising a big family.

  “Domini, you’re lookin’ as pretty and happy as ever. I trust my son is takin’ good care of you?”

  She blushed. “Always. And I’ll say again, it’s obvious where your son got his charm.”

  He smiled and swigged his Dr. Pepper.

  “Any change with Carolyn?”

  “Nope. They’re still plannin’ on slowly bringing her out of the coma whenever the hell they deem it so.” That didn’t sound bitter at all.

  Domini gazed at the small space and his corner of the room where he’d literally set up camp. Those calm eyes bored into him. “What are you eating?”

  “Some stuff from the cafeteria.” When he remembered to eat. “I’m getting by.”

  “Have any of your children been by to make sure you’re all right? Or are they boycotting this place like Cam is?”

  “Haven’t seen any of them.” He reached for another cookie. “Is it an organized boycott?” Carson had a funny mental image of his grown children holding protest signs, marching in front of the hospital, shouting at passersby that they wanted their mommy.

  Getting punchy, McKay.

  “I have no idea. And no offense, but I’m just as mad at your other kids as I am at your son. So you can quit wondering if I’m here to plead for visitation rights on his behalf.”

  Carson bit into the cookie. Chewed. Swallowed. “Domini, darlin’, I don’t want to put you at odds with Cam.

  “I’m at odds with him because he’s a freakin’ hypocrite.” She rattled off a Ukrainian phrase he doubted flattered his son. “Anton and Liesl are steering clear of him after he went on a tear about his rights and they asked if he’d apply that same argument if I was in the hospital.”

  “What’d Cam say?”

  “Nothing. He just snapped at them. But Oxsana informed her father that if Grandpa wanted to ban everyone from Gran-gran’s room, that he shouldn’t argue because he’s supposed to honor his mother and father no matter what, no matter how old he is.”

  Touched, he said, “My little I-haven’t-found-a-rule-that-can’t-be-broken Oxsana said that?”

  “Yes. Evidently she’s been paying attention in Sunday school,” Domini said dryly. “And Dimitri told Cam he should listen to you because you know everything. And he emphasized everything twice.”

  Carson grinned. “Bet that put a knot in Cam’s shorts.”

  Domini laughed. “Yes, it did. I thought you ought to know your grandkids have your back.” Her smile slipped away. “That’s not to say that the kids aren’t worried about Carolyn. We told them what happened. And trust me, they’re all super healthy right now—” she knocked on the wooden chair leg, “—or even I wouldn’t have risked coming here.”

  “I’m glad you did. And not just because you brought me cookies.” He paused. “Why’d you call Cam a hypocrite?”

  “He made decisions after his war injuries about keeping his family away due to health issues that served his needs. Not just for a few days, but for years. He can’t fault you for making a decision that serves your needs first.”

  “He’d still be pushin’ us away if not for him findin’ you, darlin’, I fully believe that.”

  “Thank you. Cam is a strong man, but he’s a worst-case scenario guy. I don’t know if that’s because he’s in law enforcement or what. Even if he could see Carolyn, I’m not sure I’d want him in there because he’d be a Negative Nancy.”

  “Cam has been that way since he was a kid. One time he had Colt convinced that the mosquito bite on the back of his neck was filled with an egg sac and if he scratched it a hundred bugs would fly out and bite him a hundred more times.”

  “Good Lord. Now I know where Markus gets it.”

  Cam’s youngest boy was a serious little kid. A deliberate thinker. Oddly enough, he reminded Carson of Cord, not Cam. “What else is goin’ on?”

  “Anton is competing this weekend in Gillette. Since Cam is on duty, I’ll probably end up driving Anton and Gib to the event to get them registered. Channing and Colby plan to come later, depending on…”

  What happens with Carolyn.

  As far as Carson was concerned, he’d be loading up his wife and taking her home. “Tell the boys I’m sorry I won’t get to watch them compete. Anton has come a long way in his bull doggin’ skills this summer.”

  Domini sighed. “It’s because he’s shot up four inches in the last six months. With this growth spurt I cannot keep enough food in the house for that boy.”

  “I remember them days.”

  “Dimitri, Oxsana, Sasha and Markus have art and science camp at the community center all next week. Oh, and Macie and I decided to go to a restaurant management conference in Denver for four days at the beginning of August. Which will leave Cam home with the kids by himself for the first time. I’ve already informed him that I expect him to deal with our children by himself. No passing off babysitting duties to Anton and Liesl. No dumping them off with Aunt Keely or with Grandpa and Gran-gran or any of his other brothers.”

  “Aren’t those decisions about what he does or doesn’t do with the kids when you ain’t around his choice?”

  She picked at a stray thread on the bottom of her shirt. “Normally I’d agree with you. Cam is a great father. He’s involved with every aspect of our kids’ lives. But sometimes he says things before he thinks them through.”

  Now it made sense. “Jesus. What did my thick-tongued boy spout off about?”

  “Something that made me want to punch him in his smart mouth. Hence the ‘no relying on your massive family and overly kind sisters-in-law’ to pull his butt out of the fire. He will deal with his children all by his little self if he thinks it’s so easy.”

  Carson laughed. “Give me the days you’ll be gone. We’ll ignore his calls. Though, I gotta say, I feel for him. Carolyn left me with all six kids for five days once.”

  Her look of surprise was there and gone. “Really?”

  “Yeah. Keely was…two. Cord was fifteen. Back then Caro did all of the house stuff. I mean, it wasn’t that she raised the kids by herself while I ranched, it’s just—”

  “Carson, it’s okay.” Domini patted his leg. “No judgment from me. So what happened?”

  “The better question is what didn’t happen?”

  She groaned.

  “So when Cam is feelin’ all kinds of cocky about how easy it is keepin’ six kids in line with no break from the other parent for days on end, ask him about the time his mother left me in charge because I guarantee he’ll remember.”

  Domini smiled. “Thank you. One of these days I’d like to hear what happened straight from the horse’s mouth. I have a feeling I won’t get the whole story from my husband.” She stood. “I won’t keep you. I do have munchkins to herd.”

  “Thanks for comin’ by, Domini.”

  She crouched in front of him. “I know you have a dozen people you can call. But if there’s anything you need, day or night, or even if you just need someone to listen to you, remember you can call me. Being married to Cam, being part of the McKays, has given me everything I ever wanted and if I can pay that back, even in a small way, let me know.”

  “I might take you up on that.”

  “I hope you do.” She patted his hand. “And if you want to eat all those cookies in one sitting? It’ll be our little secret.”

  Carson limited himself to two more cookies. The sugar buzz wore off and he started to crash. He stretched out, his mind flipping back and forth between what dumb thing Cam might’ve said to the mother of his children and that summer Carolyn had left him in charge…

  Five days. With all six kids. By himself.

  He could do this.

  Couldn’t he?

  You deal with five hundred head of cattle every day. Wrangling six kids? Piece of cake.

  Famous last words.

  Carson stowed Carolyn’s suitcase behind the driver’s seat. The boys were lined up by age on the walkway to the porch, as Mama McKay said goodbye to her cubs. At fifteen Cord was already taller than his mother. A gangly kid, all arms and legs, and a deeper voice, but not yet to the stage where his mother’s affection embarrassed him. At age thirteen Colby was almost the same size as Cord, with a stockier build, and he was obsessed with all things rodeo. Ten-year-old Colton was the instigator of the bunch, but he managed to charm his way out of trouble. The kid was also a brawler—such a chip off the old block; he and Cal had to bust up fights between Colt and Kane at least every couple of weeks. Eight-year-old Cameron and six-year-old Carter were still too young to be much help on the ranch, but they found trouble more often than not, which meant they were tasked with entertaining Keely.

  Oh, his two-year-old baby girl had her five brothers twisted around her chubby little fingers. All she had to do was bat those big blue eyes, flash her dimpled smile, toss those black ringlet curls or stomp her foot and her protectors came running.

  When Carolyn said, “Listen up,” Carson refocused.

  Carolyn picked Keely up and propped her on a hip. “You boys will bathe when I’m gone.”

  “Aw man, do we have to?” Colt complained.

  “Yes. And dunking each other in the stock tank doesn’t count.”

  Colby nudged Cord. Cord shoved him back, knocking him into Colt and Cam.

  “Boys,” Carson said sharply. “Quit horsin’ around and listen to your mother.”

  “You will be respectful to each other, to the
house, and most importantly you will help your father with whatever he needs.”

  “Hey, wait. Who’s cookin’ for us?” Colby asked suspiciously.

  “Dad is,” Cord said with a snicker.

  “Dad?” Colt looked horrified. “But he don’t know how to cook nothin’.”

  “There’s plenty of sandwich fixings and meals in the freezer.”

  “And cookies?” Cam asked hopefully.

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