Long time gone, p.5
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       Long Time Gone, p.5

         Part #16.5 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
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  is just upset that Carolyn married a man he didn’t approve of. He’s taking out his anger on your daughter. Are you going to let that happen?”

  “Eli’s decision is final, Hulda. I agree with him.” She wheezed. “When you leave tomorrow, Kimberly won’t be going with you.”

  Her stomach cramped. She felt the bile rise in her throat at the thought of being trapped here, in this house, for the next year until she could legally walk away.

  “I’m sorry it’s come to this, sister,” Hulda said softly.

  Kimi couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was the one woman she’d counted on giving up that easily? “Don’t make me stay here,” she pleaded. “I’ll run away the first chance I get and no one will ever see me again.”

  “I know, sweetheart. But they’re mistaken. They can’t force you to stay here.” Aunt Hulda glared at her sister. “In order to enroll your minor-aged daughters at St. Mary’s, you gave the school guardianship over them. So technically, St. Mary’s makes the final decision. And do you really think that they’ll agree to terminate Kimi’s education and their guardianship when neither of Kimi’s parents has bothered to set foot at the school even one time in the six years she’s been a student? No. I checked. And even if the school opts to remain out of the family issue, I can guarantee you I will not stand by and watch Kimi become an indentured servant.”

  “Feminist, hippie bullshit,” her father grumbled. “A woman’s job is to take care of her family.”

  “Then Mom failed at that pretty spectacularly, didn’t she?” Kimi snapped.

  “I have a parental consent form, signed by you, Clara, giving me guardianship on weekends, the summer and holidays,” Aunt Hulda stated. “If you cared so much about her, then maybe you should’ve read the paperwork the school sent, rather than just signing it without reading through it. Although now, I am so very glad you didn’t.”

  “You conniving witch,” her mother said.

  “I expected name calling from Eli, but not from my own sister.” She patted Kimi on the shoulder. “I was afraid something like this would happen, so I already put your things in the trunk of my car.”

  “This ain’t over,” Eli warned.

  “Yes, it is,” Kimi said. “Now that I know neither of you have any power over me? I won’t ever come back here. Ever,” she emphasized. She gave her mother, who’d started crying, a scathing look.

  “Kimi, I’m sorry.”

  “Yes, you are. Goodbye, Clara.” And because she was so upset, heartsick and disgusted, she looked at her Aunt Hulda and said, “Thank you for bein’ the mother to me that she couldn’t be. Now can we please go home?”

  She walked out of the house and didn’t look back.

  Chapter Five

  One year later…

  Carson showed up at Cal’s house an hour earlier than usual, so he knew something was wrong.

  Cal poured his brother a cup of coffee and waited for him to speak, knowing even if he asked Carson what’d happened, he wouldn’t talk until he was good and ready.

  After a sip of coffee, Carson said, “Clara West died last night.”

  That surprised him, even when he’d known Clara wasn’t in good health. “Sorry, man. How’s Carolyn?”

  “In shock mostly, even when we both knew this was comin’.” Carson finally looked at Cal. “I fuckin’ hate that I can’t go along and support my wife without makin’ it worse for her. The Wests don’t want me there while they’re deciding on final arrangements. It pisses me off that Eli will expect Caro to deal with everything because he’s gotten used to it in the last year. And all of the years before it. If I don’t go, I’ll be worthless around here because I’ll be worried about her. So I don’t know what the hell to do, Cal.”

  Cal scrubbed his hands over his itchy face. He hadn’t shaved in days. “You gotta go with her. If there’s stuff they don’t want you involved in, sit in the truck. But the bottom line is this ain’t about them. It’s about you bein’ close by when your wife needs you. Because we both know she will need you. And the Wests don’t got the right to keep you away from her.”

  Carson sighed. “Thanks for confirming what I already knew.”

  “Just needed to hear it from someone else?”

  “Yeah.” Carson stared into his coffee cup. “Caro asked me this morning how I got through Mom dyin’. I felt like a total shit because I didn’t wanna tell her I don’t remember much of that time, just the shock that she was gone. And the anger when Dad turned into a raging asshole because she’d died. And I sure as fuck can’t tell her that I was mad at him because I didn’t think he missed her—he just missed havin’ a wife to cook for him and make his life easier.”

  Cal bit his tongue against asking whether Carson had said that shit to their grieving father. His twin had the subtlety of a jackhammer and zero tact. Carson ruffled feathers and left it up to Cal to smooth them.

  “Dad learned to manage without Mom. Eli has been managing without Clara for long enough that caring for her father shouldn’t fall on Caro’s shoulders.” Carson clenched his fist. “Goddammit, I won’t let it. She’s done more for her family than should be expected.”

  “That’s what’s bugging you. You’re afraid you’ll get thrown over for Eli West.”

  “The son of a bitch did it once, didn’t he? Made Caro promise to look after her mother, while she was fuckin’ dyin’ and then made her also promise not tell anyone about it—including me, which caused problems between us.”

  “Whoa.” Cal looked at his brother. “Run that by me one more time?”

  “All that shit that went down after me’n Caro married? When I thought she regretted marryin’ me ’cause she was at her folks’ house all the time? That was because Clara was dyin’. She and Eli didn’t want anyone to know. So my new bride was expected to keep the secret.”

  “Jesus, Carse. They didn’t tell anyone?” Like Kimi? How mad would she be when she found out her sister and father had kept such a life-altering event from her?

  “Harland knew since he and Eli are thick as thieves. Then after Clara went into the nursing home last month—”

  “Did Carolyn keep that from her sister and brothers too?”

  “About Clara bein’ in a home? I’m not sure.”

  “Bullshit.”

  Carson’s gaze turned shrewd. “Why’re you getting pissed off?”

  “Because Kimi and her brothers had a right to know about Clara’s failing health. They would’ve had a chance to say goodbye.”

  “So what’s worse, Cal? Carolyn tellin’ her siblings their mother is damn near dead and none of them bothering to show up? Or Carolyn not tellin’ them at all?”

  “I don’t fuckin’ know, all right? I just understand how I’d feel if you made that big of a life or death decision without tellin’ me nothin’.”

  Carson stood. “I get that. It’s a fucked-up mess that’s liable to get worse in the next few days. Hate to say it, but I won’t be around much.”

  “I’ll tell Dad what’s goin’ on.”

  “Thanks.”

  At the door, Cal said, “When you see Kimi, tell her if she needs anything I’m a phone call away.”

  That caught Carson’s notice, as he’d known it would. “Something goin’ on between you and Kimi I oughta know about?”

  “We’re friends. We spent some time together after your wedding.” He wasn’t about to try and explain the immediate pull between him and the blonde spitfire either, when he didn’t understand it himself.

  “You keep in touch with her the past year?”

  Cal shook his head. He thought he’d see Kimi over Christmas break like they’d talked about last summer, but he knew from Carolyn that Kimi hadn’t come home.

  “I’ll pass it along to her.”

  “Take care. You need anything else, holler.”

  “Will do.”

  ***

  Kimi stared at her mother’s coffin as the priest droned on.

  She sat at the far end of
the pew in the second row between her brother Thomas and her Aunt Hulda. Her married siblings were in the front pew. Harland had parked himself right next to Dad.

  She’d barely spoken to any of her siblings since she’d returned to Gillette three days ago. They’d had to postpone the funeral two additional days to allow time for Stuart and Thomas to travel back home.

  Within an hour of arriving in Gillette, she’d been knee deep in boxes as she packed the few remaining items from her childhood. Her aunt agreed to store them indefinitely. Kimi hadn’t offered to help sort her mother’s things; she’d left that to Carolyn and her aunt. Most everything except for a few pieces of jewelry would be donated to the Catholic mission anyway. So as the two of them pawed through the few things that marked her mother’s existence, Kimi had hid in the tall grass behind the shed and smoked. She’d rather get eaten alive by mosquitos and pick ticks off her skin than be in the same room with them, consumed by anger that the two people she loved more than anything in the world had betrayed her.

  Aunt Hulda had known her sister was dying. That’s why she’d taken a stand last summer, refusing to let Kimi remain with her parents. Dutiful Carolyn had known about their mother’s failing health and she’d put her own life aside to care for their ailing mother.

  Kimi couldn’t find forgiveness for anyone for keeping that from her. She would—eventually—but not now, not until after she’d had time to process it all.

  The priest spoke, pulling her out of her brooding. Then she knelt, crossed herself and listened to the choir sing another song about eternal love and redemption.

  After that, everything was a blur. The trip to the cemetery. The repast in the church basement. She shook herself out of her reverie and reminded herself it’d only been thirteen months ago they were in this same place celebrating her sister’s wedding.

  The moment arrived. Carolyn and Aunt Hulda were surrounded by ladies from the auxiliary. Her dad and her brothers were holding court in the corner. She caught Carson’s eye and he nodded.

  No one paid attention to her when she hooked her purse over her forearm and headed upstairs.

  Her brother-in-law was less than a minute behind her and he stopped her just outside the door. “Kimi. Sweetheart, I’m not convinced you’re thinkin’ straight. You sure you wanna do this?” Carson asked.

  “I’m positive.” She brushed past him and headed to the parking lot. After unlocking the trunk of her aunt’s car, she waited while Carson unloaded the suitcases. He carried the big one, leaving the smaller one to her. Then she followed Carson to Cal’s pickup, parked alongside the curb.

  Her heart raced when she snuck a quick look at Cal. He wore his usual cowboy getup, jeans and a white shirt that stretched across his broad shoulders and chest. She couldn’t see his eyes; the bright sunshine forced him to duck his head, keeping his face in shadow beneath his cream-colored cowboy hat. The muscles in his arms rippled as he hefted the enormous suitcase into the truck box.

  Carson sidled in front of her. “After you’ve had some time to cool off, you call her and let her know where you are. Promise me.”

  “I will.”

  He offered her a brief hug, muttered something to Cal and then sauntered off.

  Before Kimi uttered a peep, he effortlessly lifted her off her feet and wrapped her in his arms. “Sweet darlin’. I’m so sorry,” he murmured in her hair.

  She clung to him, breathed in the scents of sunshine and shaving cream and Cal. She felt normal for the first time in a week.

  As much as she wanted to stay like that, they had to go before her family realized she wasn’t in the church.

  Cal set her down. Keeping her hand clasped in his, he towed her around the front of the truck and hoisted her into the driver’s side.

  She slid across the bench seat to her side.

  He got in and popped the truck into gear. “You really want me to take you straight to the bus station? You have got a few hours until the next bus leaves, right?” He eyed her black dress and heels. “Do you really wanna sit in the dirty terminal in them pretty clothes?”

  “Where else would I go?”

  “Come to my place. I won’t pester you to talk. You can sit out in the swing. I’ll even feed you.”

  “The next bus leaves at eight tonight.”

  “I’ll have you there in time.”

  It would be nice to just relax. “Okay.”

  Cal smiled. He picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles.

  The day was oppressively hot. She rolled down the window and let the air eddy around her, her mind blessedly blank. For once she didn’t mind the repetitive scenery.

  “You really just plan on leavin’ without a word?”

  “I wrote Aunt Hulda a letter and taped it on the steering wheel of her car. She had more warning that I planned to leave because I’d given notice two weeks before Mom died that I’d be hopping a Greyhound at the end of the month. Carson has the letter I wrote to Carolyn.” She’d kept both letters short.

  “That’s something, anyway.”

  Cal didn’t speak again until they’d parked in front of his house. “You got anything in them suitcases that could melt? Gonna get hotter than sin out here.”

  “Makeup.”

  “It’d be best if I set your suitcases inside the house.”

  As soon as Kimi’s feet hit the dirt, she heard yapping. She looked at Cal. “You have a dog?”

  “Yeah. It gets lonelier livin’ on your own than I imagined.” A sheepish look crossed his face and she wanted to hug him. “She’s good company. But watch out ’cause she’s still a puppy.”

  “What kind of dog?”

  “Australian shepherd-blue heeler mix.” Cal lifted the luggage as if it weighed nothing. “She’s in the backyard. You’d better change so she doesn’t tear your stockings and dress to shreds.”

  Kimi snagged the small case and once they were inside, headed for the bathroom. She stopped in the living room. “You have furniture.”

  “Well, darlin’, it has been over a year since you’ve been here. So why are you surprised?”

  “I figured you’d be the type to leave it empty until you got married and let your wife decorate it.”

  “Nope. I can’t go that long without a TV. And I have an aversion to a couch covered in flowers that I can’t sit on.”

  In the bathroom she changed into a pair of floral pedal pushers and a sleeveless blouse, not bothering to put on shoes. Wandering through the house, she paused by the screen door to watch Cal playing with his dog. He’d ditched the western shirt in favor of his undershirt. Lord. The man looked even more muscled than the last time she’d seen him.

  Then her attention was completely commandeered by a black and white and gray puppy bounding all over the place. The little dog would run toward Cal, stop, jump back, jump sideways. The puppy tore circles around him, yipping and barking until Cal was laughing so hard he had to rest on his knees. The puppy plopped right beside him, panting like crazy.

  A warm, sweet feeling flowed through her at seeing such an unguarded moment. The instant she opened the screen door, the puppy’s ears perked up. Then she emitted the cutest, most ferocious sounding barks as she raced forward to assess the threat to her master.

  “Gigi!” Cal shouted. “Sit.”

  Gigi ignored him and jumped up on Kimi, her paws leaving muddy prints on Kimi’s pants, her tail wagging crazily. “Hey, sweet girl.” Kimi felt Cal’s eyes on her. “You’re a pretty little thing. Even your dog has those gorgeous blue eyes like yours.” Stupid thing to say, Kimi. Trying to mask the awkward moment, she petted and praised the dog until the pup rolled over and showed her belly. She laughed.

  “I’m happy to hear that sound,” Cal said quietly.

  “So you’re not chastising me for laughing just a few hours after I buried my mother?”

  “Not my business to judge you.” He looked down at her hand on Gigi’s belly. “She likes you.”

  “Puppies like everyone.”


  “True. But not everyone likes puppies.”

  “I love them. We weren’t allowed to have pets, which I understand because they would’ve been neglected.” Just like I was. “I swore that someday I’d have as many dogs as I wanted. Now I’ve added chickens to the list of future critters.”

  Cal crouched down. “Chickens? Why?”

  “A friend of mine from St. Mary’s was from an Ag family. I went home with her one weekend and found out that her mom raised chickens. I thought it was the funnest thing, gathering eggs in the morning. Who knew chickens had different personalities? I went from knowing nothin’ about them to wishing I had my own flock.”

  “Maybe someday you will.”

  “Maybe.” Gigi whined and Kimi scratched under her chin. “Poor neglected pup. Are you hungry?”

  “Speakin’ of… Are you hungry?” Cal asked.

  “No. But I wouldn’t turn down a shot of Jack.” Kimi kept ruffling the puppy’s soft fur as she gazed at Cal. “You don’t have to worry that I’m a
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