Cowboy take me away, p.53
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.53

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  His phantom conversation with her seemed so much harder on the seventh day. He’d happily relived a lifetime of memories in the last six days. Why was he struggling now?

  Because you’ve wanted it to be over and it almost is. And you’re scared to find out what happens next.

  So he kept babbling. “You’ve been so healthy over the years. You wouldn’t get so much as a sniffle when it seemed at least one of the kids was always sick. Your blood pressure is good, so’s your cholesterol. You didn’t smoke, you didn’t drink to excess. How’s it fair that you’re in here now…” It should be me in that hospital bed. I should’ve been exercising my own damn horse. I asked too much of you. I always have.

  Stop with the guilt, Carson.

  He really was losing it because he swore she’d whispered that in his ear.

  Get it together.

  Carson traced every bone in her hand. “I remember how worried you were that you’d inherited your mom’s arthritis. I’d catch you starin’ at your hands every once in a while, wondering if they’d turn on you like hers had. If you’d become frail like her. But again, you dodged that bullet. You are the strongest person I know, Caro.”

  Her sweet voice saying, I know that too, sweetheart, floated through him and his flesh became a mass of goose bumps.

  Carson felt her. This time he knew she was listening to him.

  “I was so damn disoriented when I woke up after surgery. Didn’t remember nothin’ about before. Nothin’ during.”

  “Mr. McKay?” the nurse said from the doorway. “Time’s up.”

  No. Don’t make me leave her.

  And for the first time in six days, Carson ignored the nurse and he kept on talking. “I don’t want that for you, not remembering. In the past seven days I’ve remembered so much.”

  “Mr. McKay. You need to leave now.”

  “I gotta go. But I’ll be here next hour. And the hour after that. And every hour until you open them pretty blue eyes and look at me. I love you, sugar. I can’t live without you. Come back to me. Please.”

  After Carson ditched the protective suit, he told the nurses he was heading down to the cafeteria. But once he saw the long line, he cut out the side door and stepped into the sunshine.

  Another hot, dry day. Be nice if they’d get some rain.

  Typical rancher; weather is always the first topic of conversation.

  Apparently that held true even when he talked to himself.

  He meandered to his truck and snagged the pack of cigarettes and book of matches. After firing up a smoke, he dropped the tailgate, forcing himself to ease into a sitting position.

  That’d been the hardest thing after his surgery, the lists of do’s and don’ts. Even a movement as simple as crossing his legs wasn’t allowed because of the pressure it’d put on the joint.

  Now he could admit the surgery two months ago had helped. Every day had been a struggle before that…

  Rain, shine, hot, cold, staying stationary or keeping active, nothing mattered.

  The pain in his hip was getting worse.

  And it was damn near excruciating when he was on horseback.

  It wasn’t his horse’s fault that he’d become a crippled up old man. It wouldn’t be so bad if the only time he was in pain was when he mounted and dismounted. But even a slow ride put him in agony. In trying to adjust his seat, he put extra pressure on his knee, which made that ache.

  Getting old wasn’t for pussies.

  Carson managed to stay on for an hour, taking in the beauty of the early spring morning. The weather had been great this year for calving—no brutally cold temps and blizzard conditions that stretched out for weeks. He’d helped Colt with the midnight cattle check. But riding on the four-wheeler had caused pain—and Colt had noticed. Carson jokingly explained it as the cold settling in his brittle bones.

  He’d been riding as long as he could remember—climbing on horseback had been a daily part of his life. But lately he’d only been able to ride once a week. His sons assumed he didn’t ride much anymore because he’d retired.

  His wife suspected something was up, but in typical Carolyn fashion, she hadn’t said anything—yet.

  He kept Sheridan at a canter as they headed for the barn. He was surprised to see Carolyn waiting by the fence for him.

  Shit. He’d have to dismount in front of her. Or…maybe he could pretend he’d just swung by to see if she needed something before he continued his ride. He plastered on a grin. “Hey, sugar. What’s goin’ on?”

  “Just getting some air. Wondered what you were up to. You’ve been out here a while.”

  “Enjoying the beautiful mornin’. Was there something you needed?”

  “Actually, yes. I’m having a devil of the time with the back door to the kitchen sticking again.”

  “I’ll take a look at it after I’m done with my ride.”

  “I thought you were done since I saw you heading toward the barn?”

  “Nope. Saw you standing there, pretty as a picture and came over to say hey.”

  Her eyes turned shrewd. “Carson McKay, you are such a liar. Get off that horse right now.”

  He raised an eyebrow at her. “Feelin’ a mite bossy this mornin’?”

  “Don’t pretend this has anything to do with me. I want to see you get off your horse.”

  “Caro—”

  “I mean it. Then as soon as you dismount I want you to mount me.” She paused and challenged, “But that seems to be a problem for you too, lately, doesn’t it?”

  “What are you—?”

  “You haven’t touched me for two months. Two months. The last time we went that long was after one of my pregnancies. So start explaining why you’re suddenly acting like making love to me is repulsive.”

  That’s what she thought?

  Of course she would think that.

  “Sugar, that ain’t even close to the truth.”

  Her gaze narrowed further. “Are you gonna try and pass this problem off as you need Viagra because you can’t get it up and that’s why we haven’t had sex, let alone even been sleeping close together at night?”

  Dammit. He knew she wouldn’t buy that either. The woman saw too much for her own good and she never made a move until she was sure. So he had no idea how long she’d been lying in wait to jump him about this so he glared at her.

  “Huh-uh, cowboy. That squinty eyed stare won’t work on me.”

  Carson snorted. “When has it ever worked on you?”

  “Sweetheart. You don’t have to glare at me to scare me. Why you’re trying to hide the pain from me makes my fears ten times worse. Please. Tell me what’s going on.”

  “Fine. You wanna see?” Embarrassed, because yeah, maybe he’d rather she thought he needed chemicals to get his dick hard rather than the truth; that he wasn’t the agile man who could out-rope and out-ride everyone that he used to be.

  Holding onto the saddle horn, he shifted his weight forward. Then he threw his right leg over the back of the horse, trying like hell to balance on his left side, knowing the instant his right foot touched the dirt would be the moment of agony and there was no way he could hide it from her.

  His right boot heel hit the ground. Even with his left foot in the stirrup, he almost fell on his ass. The shooting pain was instantaneous. His vision went wonky even after he’d placed both feet on the dirt. He rested his forehead in the curve of his saddle.

  Sheridan stayed still as Carson regained his balance. Sometimes the grinding fire in his joint forced him to double over and spew out every curse word he’d ever heard—if the torture hadn’t caused him to stop breathing entirely.

  The gate clanged behind him. Then Carolyn wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed. “It’s okay. I’m here. Please let me help you.”

  He breathed through the pain and held onto the reins when Sheridan tried to shift sideways. “Steady, girl.”

  “I’m sorry. But I’ve been worried and you won’t tell me what’s going on—


  “Sugar, I was talkin’ to my horse.”

  “Oh.” She laughed. “Of course you were.”

  “I’m better now.”

  “No, you’re not. We can just stay like this until you settle.”

  Carson turned his head and nuzzled the side of her face. Feeling calmed by the words she’d so rarely had to say to him.

  After a bit she murmured, “Better?”

  “I’m always better when you’re near.”

  “What can I do? You want me to unsaddle Sheridan and deal with the tack?”

  “Nah. That’s the easy part. I got it.”

  “I’ll stick around and help you anyway.”

  “I’d like that.”

  After they’d dealt with his horse, they walked hand in hand back to the house in silence that wasn’t uncomfortable, just resigned.

  In the kitchen, Carson watched her busying herself getting them coffee and a slice of strudel cake. Then she watched him a little too closely for signs of pain as he took his usual chair in the dining room.

  “It’s your right hip, isn’t it?”

  Carson nodded.

  “How long has it been bothering you?”

  “Since Christmas.”

  Carolyn cocked her head as if she didn’t believe him.

  “Okay. Since Thanksgiving.”

  “And you didn’t say anything because…?”

  “At first I thought it might just be inflammation because I’d helped the boys more this fall than I’d done in a while. I figured it’d go away. When it didn’t, I remembered my dad had a harder time with his joints hurtin’ in the winter. But now that it’s started warmin’ up, it’s getting worse, not better.” He stared into his coffee cup. “I fuckin’ hate that the last time I tried to make love to you it hurt so goddamned bad that I just wanted to get it over with.”

  She scooted closer, took his hand and curled it around her face. “Why did you hide that from me? We could’ve tried some way besides missionary—”

  “It’s embarrassing. Two things I’ve been good at—keepin’ you satisfied in bed and ridin’—can’t do either of them anymore.” He sighed with pure frustration. “I ain’t a young man, by any stretch. But Jesus, Caro. When did I get so damn old? I hate this constant aches and pains shit.”

  “I know. But it’s not going away. So can we go to the doctor and see what can be done?”

  We. Always we. “Yeah.”

  The relief in her eyes shamed him; she’d been prepared for a fight. “I think—”

  “No more thinkin’. We’ll get it taken care of. Soon. But right now, I’m takin’ care of you.” He helped her to her feet and slapped her butt hard enough she yelped. “Repulsive my ass. You are still the sexiest damn thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.” He’d kissed her in the slow, patient, teasing way that drove her crazy. Then he spread her out on the dining room table and kissed her the same way between her legs.

  And it hadn’t hurt his hip at all.

  “Daddy?”

  Carson’s head whipped up. Lost in the memory, he’d forgotten about the cigarette smoldering between his fingers.

  But of course Keely noticed it right away. “Since when have you smoked?”

  He lifted the butt to his lips, inhaled and slowly exhaled. “Since I was sixteen. It’s a stress thing, not a regular habit.”

  “Does Mom know?” She paused. “Of course she does. You two keep each other’s secrets.”

  Carson stared at his beautiful daughter. Sweet Jesus. She was doing a stellar zombie imitation. Dark circles hung under her eyes; her face was milky white. She wore no makeup; her hair looked like she’d stuck her head out the window zipping down the road at a hundred miles an hour. Even if Keely was only headed for the barn she took care with her appearance—a habit she’d learned from her mother. “Punkin, you look like hell.”

  “So do you.”

  “Yeah, well. I’ve been livin’ there the last seven goddamned days.” He sucked in another drag. Held the smoke in. Blew it out. “I ain’t in the mood for you to chew my ass.”

  “Don’t do that.”

  “Do what? Smoke?”

  “No. Don’t be a dick. I know you’re hurtin’, Daddy. I see it.”

  “You don’t know the half of it, girlie.” He slid off the tailgate, hiding a wince when the impact with the ground sent a sharp pain from his heel to his hip. He dropped the cigarette on the blacktop before he ground it out with his boot heel.

  “I do know how bad you’re hurtin’, because I’ve seen the other half.” Keely moved toward him, snaking her arms around his waist, burying her face on his chest, her shoulders heaving.

  His response was automatic. Ingrained. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. His sweet baby. She’d always be his baby no matter how old she got.

  “I’m sorry,” she said through choked sobs.

  And he’d forgive her no matter how bratty she acted. “I know you are.”

  Keely tilted her head back and met his gaze. In that moment she looked so much like her mother, his heart swelled even as it ached. “You deserved better from me. From all of us. I’ve never spoken for my brothers, and I ain’t about to start now. I’m sorry I thought my connection to her should mean more than yours. I know better. I saw it that day of your surgery and it freaked me the hell out.”

  “That what you mean by you’ve seen the other half?”

  She nodded. “You and Mom; you’re two halves of a whole. She knew. Right away. I told her to calm down, it was routine surgery, the orthopedic surgeon performed that procedure ten times a week and it was nothing to worry about.”

  In seventy-four years of life Carson had never been put under. As they’d wheeled him in to pre-op, Carolyn promised she’d be waiting for him on the other side. She had no idea how true that statement had been at the time.

  “The minute you coded on the operating table, she stood up in the waiting room and said, ‘Come back to me. I’m right here. Where I’ve always been, where I’ll always be. I love you. Please. Come back to me.’”

  That jarred him; what did it mean that he’d been reciting those exact same words to Carolyn every time he’d left her side the last week?

  That you are two halves of a whole.

  Carolyn had never told him what she’d said to yank him back. He had a vague recollection of being in a black void and then a sensation of floating away. Not that he’d seen people or places or a bright light or anything that defined his idea of heaven. He’d just heard Carolyn’s voice, pleading with him, and he’d battled his way back to find her.

  Then later—minutes, hours, he hadn’t been sure of the time elapse—he’d woken up in a hospital bed with his wife sitting beside him. One hand held his, her other hand rested on his heart. Carolyn’s tears sliced through him until he realized they were tears of joy.

  She’d whispered, “I thought I’d lost you.”

  “Sugar—”

  “I can’t… You died on that operating table, Carson. For two minutes you were gone. Gone. Away from me for good. Forever. You’re here and I’m so blessed.” She stood and kissed every inch of his face. The softness of her lips and the sweep of her breath on his skin, the scent of her shampoo and the occasional teardrop were a potent mix of love and fear and gratitude. So when her lips finally found his, when she looked in his eyes and said, “You are my life, Carson McKay, I’ll never survive a world without you in it,” his own tears fell without shame.

  “You’ve kept me grounded every moment of every day for the last fifty years. Only you could fight god and nature for me and win.”

  “Because I know you’d do the same for me.”

  And I have. Sweet Jesus I’d fight the devil himself to have you back with me, whole, because I’m half of nothing without you.

  “Daddy?”

  He blinked and realized he was outside, in a parking lot, with his daughter. What did it say that this flashback stuff no longer spooked him? Because he feared if Caroly
n didn’t pull through that’s all he would have of her? And he’d rather be lost in memories of his life with her and their past than face the reality of a future without her?

  Don’t think that way.

  He refocused on Keely. “What, punkin?”

  “I’m sorry for givin’ you grief.”

  “You’ve been givin’ me grief since the day you were born. But it ain’t all your fault. I tend to be overprotective of the women in my life.”

  “Gee, ya think?”

  Her gaze was so open and sweet that he couldn’t help but reach out and stroke her cheek. “Smarty-pants.”

 
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