“If you don’t wanna do that, I’m sure Cam’ll let you bunk with him for the duration.”
Cam wouldn’t look him in the eye.
And right then, Colt had enough. “I appreciate it, but it ain’t gonna be necessary.”
Cord frowned. “That’s a long damn drive. Especially with the weather bein’ shitty that time of year.”
“I’m sure you guys’ll handle the weather and the calvin’ just fine without me.”
Shocked silence. Then, Colby said, “Without you? What do you mean?”
“I ain’t gonna be here.”
“Where you gonna be?”
“I’ll be in Hawaii.”
His dad demanded, “For how long?”
“For a month.”
“What are you doin’ over there for a month?”
“Sittin’ on the beach, whale watchin’, surfing. Maybe I’ll learn to scuba dive. Or golf. Whatever people do when they’re on vacation.”
“Very fuckin’ funny,” Cord said.
“Might be if I was kiddin’.”
They all stared at him.
“You can’t just schedule a damn vacation durin’ the most important time of the year in the cattle business.”
Colt shrugged. Maybe it was childish, but he felt the need to push them. See if anyone would voice the questions and contempt he saw in their eyes. If he’d ever truly be forgiven or if they were waiting for the other boot to drop. Or for him to revert to his formerly destructive behavior.
Cam scratched at the label on his beer bottle.
Colby spoke first. “That’s just great, Colt. Once again you’ll be off fuckin’ around while the rest of us are bustin’ our asses.”
“Man, I thought you’d changed,” Cord said. “But we’re back to the same old bullshit.”
There it was. The word that damned him either way—change.
If he did change, it was wrong. If he didn’t change, it was wrong.
“Why’s it such a big deal for you to stay with Cam or at Carter’s? It ain’t like you’ve got a family to go home to every night.”
A beer bottle flew and crashed into the side of the barn, shattering the illusion of stillness.
All eyes zoomed to Cam.
“I’m so sick and tired of the ‘holier than thou’ attitude in this family. So Colt screwed up. Every one of us has screwed up at one time or another. How long are you gonna make him pay for it?
Jesus, he hit the skids over four years ago. He’s been on the straight and narrow for the last three. During which time, he’s been busting his ass on this ranch, despite having to listen to you berate him and complain about him, or ignore him, or belittle him. None of you have ever been lily white and you’ve got no business judging him.”
“You weren’t here, Cam.”
Cam whirled on Colby. “Guess what? Neither were you! You were off rodeoin’ and playin’ cowboy while Colt was here, actually being a goddamn cowboy, day in, day out, for twelve fuckin’ years.
Don’t forget you couldn’t do shit for months while you recovered from your rodeo injury—months in which, once again, Colt had to do not only his work, but your work.”
Holy shit. Colt had never seen Cam so furious.
But Cam wasn’t finished. He turned his ire on Cord. “Didja forget you got pissed off at Dad and left for a coupla years? Who picked up the slack then? It sure as fuck wasn’t Colby the rodeo king, or Carter the college boy, or Keely the baby girl or me.”
Without moving his angry gaze from Cord, Cam pointed at Colt. “It was him. But you forgot that little factoid, didn’t you? And isn’t it convenient that you all expect Colt to stick around, year in, year out, and do every shit job you don’t want to, because he doesn’t have a…family?” Cam faced Colby again. “That ‘you don’t have a family’ comment is the single shittiest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. Ever. You’re supposed to be his family. So are you.” He pointed to Cord. “And you,” he said to Carson. “And me. But when Colt really needed his family to support him and help him? Were any of you there? No. The only person who gave a shit about him…was Kade.”
“That’s enough,” Carson said.
“How could you all rally around me, offering me support, when you didn’t do the same thing for Colt? When he was hurting just as bad? When he’s the one who’s always deserved it way more than I ever did. Because he had no choice but to stick around and live this life, when I had the luxury of leaving it behind.”
Colt’s eyes burned. Leave it to the one-legged man to make a stand for him when no one else in his family ever did.
Ugly, thick silence lingered.
“I’m not surprised you’ve got nothin’ to say. You oughta be hanging your heads in shame. I’m outta here.” Fabric snapped as Cam jerked his coat off the fence. He limped to his truck. After he opened the door he looked at Colt. “Sorry, bro, I know you didn’t ask for this, but it needed to be said. It needed to come from someone with an outsider’s perspective.”
“You’re not an outsider, Cameron. You might’ve been gone for a few years, but you’ve always been part of this family.”
All eyes turned to Carolyn McKay. No one had heard her come out onto the porch.
Cam shook his head. “Thanks for the invite to supper, Ma, but I’ve lost my appetite.”
She twisted a dishtowel in her hands, tears streaming down her face as she watched Cam drive away.
Great, his mother would probably blame him too.
Colt didn’t make eye contact with anyone as he climbed in his pickup and started the long, lonely drive home.
He’d hit the outskirts of Sundance, when his cell phone vibrated. He had half a mind to let it go to voice mail. Another confrontation today would do him in but he checked the caller ID
anyway. Kade and Skylar’s home number. “Hello?”
“Colt? Omigod, I’m so glad you answered. I was afraid you were still avoiding me, and—Eliza Belle! Get down right now!”
“Indy? Why are you callin’ from Kade’s house?”
“Sky and Kade planned a romantic getaway and Grama Kimi caught the flu. And rather than let them cancel their first trip alone since the twins were born, I said I’d watch the girls. Only they’re screaming, all three at the same time—” an ear-piercing shriek echoed in the background, “—and I can’t do this by myself! This is insane. How can anyone take care of a two and a half year old and six-month-old twins? Can you please please please come and help me? I’ll pay you, I promise I’ll do anything—”
“Yes—No! Eliza, do not put that in your mouth!”
Colt grinned for the first time in hours. “Take a deep breath, sugar, I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
“Oh. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I owe you. Big time.”
“Yes, Miz India Blue, you surely do owe me.”
He spent the remainder of the drive figuring out all sorts of inventive ways India could pay off her debt.
“I wanna cookie.”
“I wanna cookie…please?”
“No way, Eliza, the last thing you need is more sugar.” India had Shannie cocked on her left hip and Peyton screamed from her high chair.
A mulish look settled on Eliza’s face. “Mama—”
“Mama is not here.” Please, Colt, hurry. Surely it’d been longer than a half hour. She had no idea why her sweet nieces had morphed into monsters.
“I gonna call her,” Eliza announced.
“No!” India snatched the cordless receiver and put it on top of the refrigerator next to the other cordless receivers she’d confiscated. Eliza had already tried to throw India’s cell phone in the toilet in the guise of “washing” it.
Right. Eliza’s devilish smile belied her innocent baby blues.
The girl was the spitting image of her father in looks and her mother in temperament.
Peyton continued to scream. Shannie kept trying to pull out India’s earrings. Eliza stood on her booster seat and hoisted herself on the table, crawling toward the package of animal crackers.
“Oh, no you don’t, missy.” India scooped her up and set her on the floor. “No more. I mean it.”
Startled by India’s unusually stern tone, Eliza began to cry, which made Shannie start bawling.
“I heard there was a party goin’ on in here with four wild girls.
To be honest, I expected some of ya’ll to be wearin’ less clothes.”
India spun around and saw Colt leaning against the doorjamb.
She wanted to smack him for looking so damn good when she looked like a train wreck. She wanted to burst into tears for his good humor when hers was gone. Mostly, she wanted to kiss him for showing up and saving her sanity when she had no one else to call.
“Unka Cole!” Eliza jumped from the chair and ran toward him full bore. He barely managed to keep her from racking him.
“Hey, short stuff.” He picked her up and propped her on his hip. “Why the tears?”
Eliza, that shameless charmer, laid her head on Colt’s chest and sighed. “I hungry.”
Lord have mercy. The man was about four seconds from melting.
“Don’t fall for it,” India warned. “She is a c-o-o-k-i-e monster today.”
“Huh-uh, I not a monser,” Eliza said. “I jus’ lub cookies.”
Colt grinned. “She’s a smart cookie too.” He looked from Shannie to Peyton, who’d both gone quiet. “Seems you’ve got it all under control now.”
“A temporary delusion.”
“Have they had supper?”
“Miz Eliza has if you count the box of sugary disks she’s stuffed in her sweet face like a rabid squirrel. I was about to heat up the twins’ baby food, when I lost complete control of the situation and called you.”