Branded as trouble, p.44
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       Branded as Trouble, p.44

         Part #6 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
Page 44

 

  India winced.

  “You wanna tell me what’s going on?”

  “Domini didn’t tell you?” After India talked to Bert, she’d called Domini. Usually India relied on Skylar for personal problems, but she was dealing with two sick babies and an equipment breakdown at the factory. The last thing Skylar needed was more stress.

  So India had sobbed on Domini’s shoulder for half the damn night. In addition to being a great listener, Domini gave practical advice. Which was why India had allowed a cooling off period before she set about making things right…only to realize Colt had all but disappeared.

  “No, I haven’t talked to Domini, besides when she swings by to refill my coffee. She’s been a little busy around here. ”

  “Why? Did Cat take off again?”

  “Huh-uh. Cat got fired. ”

  “What! When?”

  Cam beckoned her closer. “You didn’t hear this from me. But after Domini’s, ah, talk with you the other night, she was furious.

  She got Macie and Velma on a conference call and gave them what-for. Said she was sick of covering for Cat’s incompetence and sick of not being able to keep employees because no one wanted to work for, or with, Cat. ”

  “Holy crap. What’d Macie say? She and Cat are old friends, aren’t they?”

  “Were friends. Evidently Cat said some crappy things when she was in Canyon River and Macie was already upset. Coupled with the fact sweet Domini tossed out the ultimatum of keeping Cat and losing her, they fired Cat. Domini is the new manager. ” Cam grinned. “I’m so damn proud of her. I knew there was fire beneath that ice. ”

  “I’ll congratulate her later. ” Her eyes searched Cam’s face for clues. “So you really don’t know where Colt went?”

  “Nope. ”

  “I’m worried about him. Really worried. ” She held up a hand.

  “Not that he’s crawled inside a bottle, but I hate thinking he’s hurting alone. ”

  “Me too. ” Cam considered her over his coffee cup. “Did you cause that hurt?”

  India looked him straight in the eye. “Yep. I’m not proud of it.

  But since I caused the hurt, I intend to heal it. ”

  “I think you already have. ”

  That was a weird statement. “So what’s your advice?”

  “Talk to my mother. She may have an idea of where he’s gone off to. But don’t call her,” he warned. “Face to face is always best with her. ”

  “Thank you. ”

  Right. Talk to Carolyn McKay. Their last conversation had gone so well. But this wasn’t about Carolyn. This was about Colt.

  He was all that mattered.

  She closed the shop and drove out to the McKay homestead.

  Her bravado faded a bit when Carson McKay greeted her on the front steps. “Mornin’, India. Something I can do for you?”

  How had she not noticed Colt was the spitting image of his father? In another thirty odd years, Colt would look exactly like this man. Handsome. Regal. She couldn’t wait to watch the transformation take place as she and Colt grew old together.

  The truth of that statement pumped up her courage to meet that suspicious blue gaze—so much like Colt’s—dead on.

  “Yes, Carson, there is something you can do for me. I need to talk to your wife. ”

  Chapter Twenty-five

  “I’m thinkin’ about getting a dog. ”

  His horse, Laramie, snorted.

  “I’m serious. Maybe a blue heeler. He’d keep you in line. ”

  Laramie snorted again.

  Colt laughed. “Then again, I probably wouldn’t have any better luck keepin’ a dog in line, than I do keepin’ anything else in my life in line. ’Cept maybe for this fishin’ line. ” He chuckled again. “A great joke lost on a horse. ”

  If he didn’t know better, Colt would swear Laramie rolled his eyes.

  He shifted on the log. Time to move. His ass was sore. He tugged on the fishing line. Nothing. He walked over to where he’d ground-tied Laramie. “You ready to hit the trail?”

  After hiding out at his favorite fishing hole for three days, Colt was ready to head home. The pine-covered hills on either side of the small pond, and the rock cliff on the backside, made this site inaccessible, except on foot or horseback.

  Few people were aware of this slice of paradise. The terrain was too dangerous for livestock, which also meant nothing worth selling would grow on it. Wasn’t like the sage, rocks, cactus, and Lorelei James

  scrub pines were unique. Yet, for some reason, those elements served to hide this area well.

  He and Dag had discovered this place one year when they’d drifted off West land. They’d likened themselves to Lewis and Clark—explorers, discoverers, adventurers. Every year after that, they’d load up the horses, basic supplies and spend a couple days roughing it. Fishing. Bullshitting. Planning. Later in their teen years, they drank like fish as they fished, bullshitted, and bragged about their future plans.

  Dag had dreams of becoming a rodeo star. Living in California.

  Colt was one of the few who hadn’t laughed at Dag or his dreams because Dag might actually get to live his fantasy. Whereas Colt knew he’d never have that choice. He’d live on the McKay Ranch for the rest of his life.

  Thinking back on those times, Colt realized he’d been happy in that knowledge. That surety. He didn’t have to choose a career; his heritage had chosen it for him.

  So when had that security become a bad thing? When had he started resenting all he had? All he was? He wished he could pinpoint the exact moment. Attribute his sour attitude to an event, or a slight, or an epiphany. But he couldn’t. He’d just woken up one day, and his first thought wasn’t, I’d better get cracking, I have a lot to do, it was, Fuck this. When the hell did I sign on for manual labor, every goddamn day for the rest of my life? When did I decide I didn’t want to travel and see the world, but I want to view it only from Sundance, Wyoming?

  He hadn’t. And it’d been the first time Colt felt he hadn’t been given a choice. So he’d acted out. Not as a ten-year-old boy, but as a twenty-something man. Drinking, fighting. Resentful of his heritage. Resentful of his family. Feeling…inferior. To Cord, who’d had a kid. To Colby, who’d had a rodeo career. To Cam, who’d been a soldier and a hero. To Carter, who’d gone to college. To his sister, Keely, the precious, precocious, beloved baby girl. To his father, who’d seemed to prefer all his brothers to him.

  No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

  Easy to hear; hard to believe. All that counseling in rehab made a big deal about turning points. Colt experienced more than a few in his life. Some good, some bad, and he’d reached another one last night. A major one.

  As he’d laid on his bedroll looking at the gorgeous display of stars, listening to the coyotes’ mournful howl, the small animals rustling the underbrush, watching the antelope cautiously approaching the water’s edge, he had that moment of clarity: he was exactly where he wanted to be. He always had been. He was living the life he’d forgotten he’d wanted. Now he needed India in that life on a permanent basis.

  India. Man he loved that woman. Loved her like he never thought he’d love another person. They were great together. Good for each other. They were more than friends, even more than lovers.

  They were soul mates.

  So first order of business after he got home and rid himself of the stench of fish and the great outdoors was to sit down with India for a rational discussion about their future. Pregnant or not, he wanted his ring on her finger and her in his house and bed forever. It was that simple.

  Something startled Laramie and Colt reached for the lead rope.

  “Easy. ” He ran his hand down Laramie’s neck.

  Sure enough. The distinctive sound of hoof beats echoed in the canyon walls. Before he could yell out, Laramie shivered. He turned his head and fla
red his nostrils.

  Only one horse caused that reaction in Laramie: Sheridan, Carson McKay’s mare. The equine pair had successfully bred several times, until Carson took Sheridan out of the breeding program. A fact Laramie hadn’t forgiven Carson, as he tried to bite him or kick him at every opportunity.

  “Is that horse of yours gonna charge me, son? Or is he tied?”

  “I’ll tie him. ” Colt tied Laramie to a good-sized pine and ignored the stallion’s angry snorts. “I’m hopin’ you didn’t come lookin’ for me because there’s some kind of emergency at home?”

  “Nah. Everything is fine. ”

  “How did you find me? I didn’t tell anyone where I was goin’.

  Didn’t think anyone knew about this place. ”

  “You’ve always come here when you need some thinkin’ time. ” His dad didn’t look at him as he tied Sheridan to a tree, away from Laramie. “I’m probably the only one who knows this is where you spent that week after Dag died. ”

  Guilty. He’d never told anyone where he’d gone. It surprised him his dad had known.

  “So am I in trouble?” Jesus. Sounded stupid to say. He was a grown man, not a disobedient boy.

  “Guess that depends on your idea of trouble. ” His dad squinted at him. “Your India came to the house today. ”

  “Yeah? What for?”

  “She was lookin’ for you, but I suspect she came to give your ma what-for. ” Carson gestured to the log and they both sat facing the water. “Did you know your mother stopped in and had a chat with India at her tattoo shop this week?”

  Colt managed a terse, “No,” through clenched teeth.

  “I didn’t either. I doubt I coulda stopped her if I woulda known. That woman gets her mind set on something…” He huffed.

  “Evidently they had harsh words. India said she didn’t need our approval to date you. She didn’t see where Caro got off tryin’ to tell her what kind of man you are, when she doesn’t really know you. ”
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