Cowboy take me away, p.49
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.49

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  which was why she’d chosen it.

  When she’d told Carson she thought two weeks at church camp would be good for Keely, he’d argued, reminding her that she hadn’t had a choice but to attend Catholic school and he wanted his daughter to have a choice. But Carolyn had stood firm. The camp brought kids from all over the U.S. and their time was spent doing charitable works for the needy. As the baby of the family as well as the lone McKay girl, Keely could stand to learn some selflessness.

  Carolyn parked in front of the chapel offices. She smoothed the wrinkles from her khaki pants, fluffed up her shoulder length hair—it seemed she kept cutting it shorter every year—and added a quick coat of peach lipstick before she exited her Toyota 4-Runner.

  The nun manning the desk stood up and smiled, offering Carolyn her hand. “Welcome to Holy Rosary Church Camp. I’m Sister Beatrice. How may I help you?”

  “I’m Carolyn McKay and I have a meeting scheduled with Sister Grace.”

  The nun’s smile dried. “Of course. Follow me, please.” Her black robes swished as she led Carolyn to a small conference room.

  Keely sat in the corner, arms crossed over her chest, a mulish expression on her face. The wariness in her eyes disappeared when she saw her mother. Then her tough-talking cowgirl daughter threw herself into Carolyn’s arms and squeezed her tight. “Mom. I’m so sorry.”

  “You want to tell me what happened?”

  She shook her head. “I’m not allowed to tell my side of the story until the meeting. I wouldn’t want to sway you into believing I’m tellin’ the truth.”

  Sister Grace pointedly held the door open. “Ladies. We’re meeting in Father Bartholomew’s office.”

  They followed the nun single file; Keely in the lead, Carolyn in the rear. She froze in the doorway when she saw the woman sitting in the front row, next to a girl with a black eye.

  Edie Knapp. Or whatever her last name was now after her second—or was it her third?—divorce. Edie’s daughter—a carbon copy of her mother down to the tight-lipped sneer—gave Carolyn a critical once-over with the eye that wasn’t swollen shut.

  In that moment, Carolyn knew this situation—years in the making—was about to implode.

  “Now that we’re all here, I’ll make introductions and ask that we can keep this civil,” Old Father Bartholomew stated.

  Good luck with that.

  “Edie Shultz and her daughter Margo. Carolyn—”

  “McKay, yeah, we’ve met. Can we get on with it?” Edie demanded.

  The priest cleared his throat. “The allegations are that Keely has been harassing Margo since the first day of camp. The counselors have broken up shouting matches and near altercations several times. However, Margo says Keely attacked her this morning after chapel. When Amanda Peterson tried to step in, Miss McKay turned on her too.”

  That’s when Carolyn craned her head and saw Tammy Peterson sitting in the second row. Tammy and Edie’s daughters were thick as thieves? No surprise since those witches were in the same coven.

  Tammy glared at her.

  Carolyn had the oddest compulsion to wink and offer a finger wave because this whole thing was a farce.

  “Keely has a different version of events,” Father Bartholomew continued. “Keely claims Margo and Amanda have been saying inappropriate things to her and her cousins since the camp began. And she was only defending her family.”

  “Father Bartholomew,” Edie began in a simpering tone, “the McKays and the Wests have reputations for being loudmouths and brawlers. Part of me feels sorry for Keely. Obviously being raised in a household of boys she wasn’t taught the normal social graces and boundaries. Or how to act like a lady.”

  “Really, Edie? You going there?” Carolyn said. “Make sure you’ve grown thick enough skin to take it if you’re gonna dish it out.”

  Edie seemed taken aback.

  Good.

  Carolyn patted Keely’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me what happened, sweetheart?”

  Edie opened her mouth to object but the priest shushed her.

  “This is the first year my cousin Chassie West has been at camp. Chassie’s mom was Native American and since the first day Margo and Amanda have been makin’ fun of her, callin’ her squaw, Injun and chief. They’ve been tellin’ everyone she’s here as a charity case and too poor to even live on the rez. Today after chapel I heard Margo and Amanda brag they were gonna slice off a chunk of Chassie’s hair to see how she liked bein’ scalped like her ancestors did to the pioneers.”

  Margo leapt up. “That’s a lie!”

  Amanda leapt up too. “They’re liars, and skanks, and they make fun of us for having solid morals!”

  A snort echoed from the back of the room. “Oh please. You and Margo have been sneaking into the boys’ dorms since last year and have the morals of an alley cat in heat.”

  Carolyn turned and looked at her niece Ramona, sitting next to Chassie.

  “No one asked you,” Margo snapped.

  “Yeah, and you’ve got no way to prove it, either,” Amanda shot back.

  Ramona lifted a brow. “The guys you’ve been giving hand jobs to won’t rat you out, but the guys who you sneer at and call losers who aren’t getting the benefit of your slippery fists? They’re more than ready to tell all. In fact, they’ve jotted down the dates and times you snuck in, and exactly what you received for your pole-polishing expertise—”

  “Miss West! That is enough!” Sister Grace said.

  “What? It’s the truth.”

  “Keely was standing up for me,” Chassie said softly. “She shouldn’t be punished for doin’ the right thing and callin’ Margo and Amanda out on their very un-Christian-like behavior. I’ve turned the other cheek, as instructed in the Bible, when they’ve called me names. But when me’n Keely and Ramona all heard those girls talkin’ about cutting me? I got scared.”

  “You have no way to prove we said anything like that,” Margo said. “Keely will make up any kind of lie to justify using her fists because she likes hitting people. I heard her say that and so did a lot of others.”

  A beat of silence passed.

  Edie spoke. “The fact of the matter is Keely caused physical harm to our daughters. She took matters into her own hands rather than discussing her concerns with the camp counselors. We want her removed from camp because of the threat she poses not only to our daughters, but to other campers.”

  “I did try to talk to my assigned camp counselor,” Keely protested. “But it’s the same one Margo has and she’s on her knees before him all the time, but she sure as shootin’ ain’t prayin’.”

  “Miss McKay! That is completely inappropriate!” Sister Grace said.

  “But it’s entirely true,” Ramona chimed in.

  Edie leapt to her feet. “I cannot believe that you’re not kicking these girls out right now for vulgar language! Not to mention the lies they’re telling about lewd behavior that can’t possibly be linked to my daughter.”

  “Why not? You know all about lewd behavior,” Carolyn said. “And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

  “I do not have to listen to this.”

  “I have to wonder how much of the nastiness directed at my daughter, from your daughter, has to do with our history, which I’m sure you wouldn’t like me to detail in front of Sister Grace and Father Bartholomew. Then again, since you’ve been divorced twice and married three times, you are not exactly the best person to talk about moral behavior.”

  “Ladies. This has gotten completely out of hand. While the allegations of inappropriate physical contact are disturbing, they don’t change the facts.” He looked at Keely. “Remember where you are, child, when I ask you this question. Did you use physical violence against Margo and Amanda?”

  “Yes, Father, I did.”

  “Then I’m afraid you have broken the rules. Even when defending a family member, violence isn’t the answer.”

  “I disagree. Sometimes the only way you can get you
r point across is with a hard right cross. Followed by a left hook.” Carolyn locked her gaze on Edie’s. “Christ bled for us for our sins. I’m not opposed to making someone else bleed for lies and sins against my family. I’ve done it before, Edie, and you know I’ll happily do it again. Am I making myself clear?”

  Keely gaped at her, her jaw nearly hanging to the floor.

  Edie crossed her arms over her chest. “I see you’re still the dowdy housewife defending the violent and deplorable actions of the McKays and the Wests.”

  “I see you’re still jealous about that.”

  Before Edie retorted, Carolyn walked to where Father Bartholomew sat. “I understand your reasons for Keely’s expulsion. I disagree with them, but we will abide by camp rules. She’ll be coming home with me. As will my nieces Ramona and Chassie West. Thank you for your time today. Don’t bother sending camp registration next year because they won’t be back.”

  All three girls followed her out of the room. Keely started to say something but Carolyn raised her hand. “Say your goodbyes to your other friends—quickly—get your stuff and meet me at the car.”

  They must’ve already been packed up because they piled in not ten minutes later.

  Keely wasn’t the first to speak, which was surprising. Ramona leaned over the seat. “Straight up, Aunt C, you are my hero.”

  Carolyn smiled.

  “But how am I gonna explain to my parents that I got kicked out of church camp?”

  “Good question. Because you know how my dad is, Aunt C. He won’t be happy,” Chassie added.

  “Yeah, Daddy will lose his mind on me,” Keely said.

  “You don’t have to tell them anything. There were only five days left. You girls can hang out at the ranch, watch movies, go horseback riding, bake cookies and do makeovers. Whatever you want. We’ll call it the Wild West Ranch Camp for Wayward Women.”

  They started laughing, and giggling, and high-fiving each other. Finally Keely said, “But we’re not really wayward, because we weren’t in the wrong.”

  “I know, sweetie, but that has a nicer ring to it than Catholic Church Camp Castoffs.”

  Carolyn should be used to the ripping sensation by now, getting torn away from the fabric of her memory, but it jarred her, confused her and frightened her just the same as the image shimmered and she fell into the black hole of nothingness.

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Hospital, Day 6—mid-morning

  Carson saw a flash of red out of the corner of his eye and looked up at his sister-in-law, Kimi, aka the blonde tornado.

  He’d wondered when she’d show up. He’d actually made a side bet with Charlie as to which day. Looks like he owed Charlie fifty bucks—Carson figured Kimi wouldn’t last two days without storming in.

  They stared at each other, sizing one another up.

  “Kimi. You’re lookin’ good.”

  “Wish I could say the same, but Carson McKay, you look like dog shit.”

  “So you’re here to insult me?”

  “Yes. No. Maybe.” She sighed. “I’m just so frustrated with the situation that I need to yell at someone.”

  “Poor Cal’s had enough of it and that’s why you’re here?”

  “Got it on the first try. And before you ask, I haven’t seen my grandkids since this ICU germ shit went down, so I ain’t Typhoid Mary.”

  “Bet you’re missin’ those kids.”

  Kimi plopped into the chair next to him. “But that sacrifice ain’t gonna get me in to see her, is it?”

  “Nope.”

  “You are so damn stubborn.”

  “You expected less?”

  “No. So I did some online research about this.”

  “Got your WebMD in the last couple days, did you?” he teased.

  She nudged him with her shoulder. “Smartass. I just needed to know more information about her condition for myself. Of course they stressed that every case is different and to listen to your doctor.”

  “No. Really?”

  “Knock it off. And if you get up and do an I-told-you-so dance, I’ll trip you.”

  “Then I’ll likely break my other hip.”

  Kimi leaned her head against his shoulder. “We used to crack sex jokes. Now we’re cracking old people jokes. What happened to us?”

  Carson put his arm around her. “Hate to break it to you, but we are old. The mind can fool us, but darlin’, the body don’t lie.”

  “I’ll stick with the mental image I have of myself when I was twenty-five, thanks.”

  Silence settled between them, not uncomfortable, just…there.

  “This sucks. I need a damn cigarette.”

  He smiled. “Got a pack in the truck if you’re serious.”

  “You too, huh?”

  “Yeah. It helped.”

  “You never were addicted to them like I was.”

  “True. Last time I bought a pack was after Keely’s emergency C-section with the twins. Caro never said a word. In fact she rustled up a pack of matches for me.”

  “She’s the best.”

  “No argument from me.”

  Kimi’s voice was so soft he barely heard it. “I’m scared for her.”

  “So am I.” Carson closed his eyes. “I’m scared for myself because I can’t imagine…”

  “Me neither. Besides Cal, she’s everything to me. She’s been there through it all. Watching over me at Catholic school, playing referee in our screwed up family situation, telling me that falling in love with Cal so fast wasn’t a bad thing. Helping me through pregnancy even when she was pregnant herself. Showin’ me how to be a good mother and bein’ a second mother to my boys, lovin’ them as if they were her own…” She sniffled. “Caro’s been a daily part of my life for so long that even when I know she’s here, I picked up the phone this mornin’ to call her. As the line was ringing, I’m lookin’ at my geraniums, thinking they never grow as good as hers and what is taking her so long to answer the damn phone…and then I remembered she wasn’t there.” She sniffled again and her voice turned hoarse. “Goddammit. I hate that she’s not there. I just wanna talk to her.”

  “I do talk to her,” Carson admitted. “From the moment I sit down in her room until the five minutes are up. In these last few days I’ve relived a lifetime of memories with her and it still ain’t enough. I want more time. I tell her that too.”

  “Has she responded at all?”

  “Like squeezed my hand or something?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Nope. The faceguard forces me to talk real loud, and I’m sure the nurses think I’m just an old fool. But I’m talkin’ to her as much for her as for me.”

  “In some of the articles I read online while I was getting my WebMD,” Kimi said dryly, “it said patients who were in a coma remembered things that happened in the room that they shouldn’t have been aware of. So you talkin’ to her is the best thing you can do.”

  “I hope so. It’s the only damn thing I can do.”

  Kimi lifted her head and looked at him. The fear in her eyes matched his own. “I’m sorry for bein’ so difficult. Thank you for lookin’ out for Carolyn above all else.”

  “Spent most of my life doin’ it, I sure ain’t gonna stop now.”

  “Cal’s been extra attentive to me the past few days. It’s helped. So I hope you’re not pissy that he’s been there for me and not for you.”

  “Nah. Only thing I’m pissy about is you didn’t bring me food. What the hell woman? I’m starvin’ here.”

  “Carolyn would kick my ass if I didn’t feed you.” Kimi reached into her oversized purse and pulled out a paper bag. “There’s a PB and J sandwich and a baggie of carrots. Satisfied?”

  “No cookies?”

  She lightly punched his arm.

  “Thanks, Kimi.”

  “You’re welcome. Now that you and me ain’t on the outs, can I come back another time and sit with you?”

  “You gonna get all offended and shit if I tell you I hope I
don’t see you up here again? Because that’ll mean Carolyn’s awake and we’re outta here.”

  “Fine. I hope I don’t have to sit up here with your whiny ass either.”

  He laughed.

  Neither spoke for a while. Then he said, “It’s been so quiet.”

  “That’s because your kids ain’t been yappin’ in your ear. And they made that choice to stay away. For what it’s worth, they’re regretting
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