“Indy said that? To Ma?”
“Yep. Caro was a little stunned. She was even more stunned when India said she agreed with Cam, that we’re all a bunch of idiots and hypocrites. Demanding you change and when you do, not believing that you have.” His dad picked up a rock and threw it in the pond. “I’ll admit that accusation threw me for a loop.”
“’Cause it’s true. ’Cause we’ve all been pretty selfish for years.
And yeah, I’m includin’ myself in that group. It pisses me off I was so busy judgin’ you, that I didn’t see what was happenin’ right in my own damn family. Saw your brothers had followed my lead and were wrongly judgin’ you too. It took Cam to bring it to a head.” He scowled. “Although, now that I think back, Keely mentioned something along those same lines, what’s the point in changin’ if no one believes you can.” He shot Colt a sidelong glance. “I’ll admit she was right. To you. Be no livin’ with that girl if I admit it to her.”
“Son, I’m just gonna say this flat out. You know I ain’t a spillin’ my guts kinda man. I’m better at showin’ my feelings than my dad was, but I ain’t nearly the father I oughta be. I know that, especially when I see how good Cord and Colby and Carter are with their boys. I’m damn proud of them. They’re good fathers and good men. I struggle with wantin’ to be more like that even now that you kids are all grown.”
Would his father gloss over and say something nice about him…just to have something positive to say?
“Yet, of all my boys, I feel I failed you the most.”
Thud. The other boot officially dropped.
“Not because you hit bottom. Not because of the alcohol.”
“Then why?” Colt demanded.
“Because you’re too goddamn much like me for your own goddamn good. You have been since the day you slid outta your mama, all wide-eyed, cooin’ charm and smilin’.” He paused. “Know the first thing Caro said to me after she gave birth to Cam? You must’ve been about two and a half.”
“Don’t let me love Colt more than the other boys. I thought it was some weird hormonal pregnancy talk, so I kinda patted her on the hand and told her it’d be all right. But she was insistent I understand. Musta been mother’s intuition because she knew from the get-go.”
“Knew that you’re a carbon copy of me. People say that of Cord, but it ain’t true. You look like me, you act like me, hell, you probably even think like me. Caro knew every time she looked at you…she’d see me. See my strengths and faults and want to fix the bad ones and bolster the good ones. Caro knew she’d play favorites.
She knew she’d let you get away with anything, so she left it up to me to even things up.”
Colt was absolutely tongue-tied.
“Now that I think about it, it chaps my ass, her passin’ the buck to me. I ended up bein’ harder on you than I shoulda been. Harder on you than I was on your brothers, that’s for damn sure. Expected more outta you too. And if you did something wrong, goddamn if I didn’t feel like I’d done something wrong. And when you did something right?” His laugh was bitter. “Well, I didn’t heap praise on you, now did I?”
“Lemme finish. As things changed, we expanded the ranch, you showed us all up by buyin’ land we all scoffed at and forged your own way. Then your brothers came home, and I shoulda taken you aside. Made sure you knew how important you were—are—to the ranch and to me. But I shoulda warned you too. I knew you were drinkin’ too much. I knew you were whorin’ around. Thing was, I didn’t know them things because I’d been listenin’ to gossip. I knew them things because I’d lived them.”
Not another back in my day lecture, Colt thought.
“Your uncles and I were the original McKay hellraisers. I was the worst of the lot. I drank too much, smoked pot, drove my truck like a fuckin’ idiot, charmed my way into the pants of every woman that’d have me—married, single, old, young, if they had a pussy they were fair game.”
Colt reached behind the log and handed his dad a bottle of water. The man’s mouth had to be parched with the way he was babbling on. It was as scary as it was fascinating.
“Thanks.” Carson took a long pull off the bottle. “Oh, and you’ll get a kick outta this. I told my old man to fuck off.
Repeatedly. Told him I didn’t give a shit about his stupid piece of Wyoming dirt. I just wanted to get the hell away from him because he was a mean, old bastard.”
“Jesus. What did Grandpop say?”
“Told me to get my ass back on the tractor and finish mowin’ the south hay field because I had no choice. The McKay Ranch was my only choice. I imagine you must’ve felt that way a time or two yourself.”
“You might say that.”
“Anyway, about that time, I met your mother. I ain’t gonna get graphic and gooey, but sweet baby Jesus, did I want that woman in the worst way. She was an innocent eighteen-year-old beauty. I was a hard-edged, twenty-four-year-old cowboy who got by on charm and looks and lived to raise hell. I convinced her to marry me, over her family’s objections, over my family’s objections, hell, over everyone’s objections.
“Sad to say, I didn’t change once we said them vows. I still drank. I still went to the bars and fought anyone who looked at me cross-eyed. And if they looked at your mother? I tried to kill them. I still did whatever the hell I wanted, whenever I wanted. Within three years we had one baby and one on the way, we were livin’ in a trailer, hand to mouth. She shoulda left me. Many times. I thank the heavens she didn’t because she’s the only one who could ever get through to me when I hit rock bottom.”
The idea of his staid, gruff, in control father, hitting rock bottom, startled Colt into blurting out, “No shit?”
“No shit. I’ve been there, son. More than once, sad to say.
Didn’t know that about your old dad, didja?”
“That’s because Caro’s pulled me up by the bootstraps every time I fell and covered my ass. ’Bout the time you rolled around, I’d gotten my ducks in a row, became the responsible man I needed to be. And ain’t it ironic that you were around that same age when you saw the writin’ on the wall?”
He took another drink.
“What I’m sayin’ is I’m proud of you, Colton. You’re a stronger man than I ever was. What you done, you done on your own. As much as I admire that, I wish it hadn’t played out that way.
I’m sorry. I wish I coulda been a bigger man and a better father and not let you deal with so much shit on your own.”
Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry. Be a man.
Fuck all if he wouldn’t shed a tear when he’d just gotten everything he’d ever wanted from the man he admired most in the world.
A gentle breeze wafted by, filled with the scents of sage and dirt, of horseflesh and water. Smells he’d always associate with home.
Colt didn’t look at his dad because he suspected the man wasn’t completely dry-eyed. He allowed a couple minutes to compose themselves before he cleared his throat. “Thanks, Dad. I needed to hear it as much as you needed to say it. We’re both livin’ proof that people can change. And it can stick.”
He kicked a clod of dirt. “Will you give us all another chance?
I figure, maybe it’s time we worked to earn your trust instead of the other way around.”
Colt didn’t mention his brothers had already come to that determination. “It’d be good for all of us to start fresh. It’s been a long time comin’.”
“Good. And if you wanna take a month off and go to Hawaii, then so be it. You’ve earned it.” His dad turned and smiled.
“’Course, part of me is hopin’ you’ll be there on your honeymoon with India. I like that little gal. She’s a spitfire. Gotta say, it takes real guts to confront mama bear Carolyn McKay about one of her cubs.”
“Or a deathwish,” Colt muttered. “What happened?”
“India said her piece. Caro said hers, something about India surpassing her expectations and being exactly the type of woman you needed. They both started cryin’ and carryin’ on and were best pals by the time I hightailed it outta there.” Carson stood and scratched his head. “Now I’m afraid I’m gonna come in from checkin’ cattle someday and hear my wife’s gone to town and gotten herself a tattoo.”
“Tattoos aren’t bad, but look out for the piercings.”
“Son, there’s just some stuff I don’t wanna know.”
Colt unsaddled Laramie and brushed him down. He was dragging the packs to the back door when he saw her motorcycle parked in the driveway. He dropped everything and tore around the side of the house.
India sat on the steps, head in her hands, looking lost.
But she was here.
Her head snapped up. “Colt!” She dropped the bundle in her hand, leapt to her feet and ran. Launched herself straight into his arms and peppered his face with kisses. “I missed you, you dickhead. I missed you so goddamn much. Don’t you ever ever ever take off and leave me like that again, do you hear me?”
He laughed. He laughed and swung her around until she started laughing too.
“Oh God, stop. I’m dizzy.”
“It’s okay. I gotcha.” He sat on the steps with India straddled on his lap. He picked up the bundle and it jingled. “What’s this?”
“A present. I realized I never did any romantic dating type crap for you. I didn’t bake you cookies, or surprise you with a picnic—”
“But the caramel incident counts as romantic. So does the whipped cream. And you showin’ up buck-assed nekkid except for a pair of boots counts as the height of romantic behavior.”