Carson trotted over to him. “Since we ain’t got space for a straight line, I’ll work the outside of the corral and keep the calf in the center.”

Colby nodded, already deep in competition mode.

They cantered to the far side of the corral and paused. Carson yelled, “Chute open,” and Cord cracked the gate.

The first calf came out and looked around but didn’t run. Still, Colby was immediately on the ball, rope ready. He tossed the loop, made the catch and bailed off Bart, piggin’ string between his teeth as he tied four legs together and threw up his hands.

Too bad they weren’t timing because that would’ve been a good score.

Colby untied the calf, it trotted off and he shouted at Cord to get the next one ready. In that moment Colby wasn’t a thirteen-year-old boy, but Carson saw him as the man he’d become. Methodical, determined and competitive as hell.

Yeah, maybe he’d better plan on getting that rodeo space ready sooner rather than later.

Once the calves figured out they were about to be roped and dragged, they kicked up more of a fuss. After ten run-throughs, Carson said, “You’re lookin’ better. You won’t have to adjust on the fly in an arena as you do here. But this practice showed you can do it.” He dismounted and handed the reins to Cord. “Thanks for handlin’ the chute.”

“And takin’ care of your horse,” he added sullenly.

God save him from surly teens. Scary shit to think he’d have three of them that age at any given time for the next decade and a half.

As he crossed the dirt, Carson noticed his kids were sitting on the bench like he’d asked. Then Keely’s beloved stuffed horse Buckles sailed over the corral onto the dirt. Just as he opened his mouth to yell at them to stay put, he’d pick it up, that little monkey Carter scaled the fence.

When Carter reached the top rail and turned around, most likely to taunt his older brothers with his derring-do, he lost his balance and hit the dirt inside the fence with a bone-crunching thud.

Carson was pretty sure he’d never run that fast in his life.

By the time he reached Carter, the boy was wailing. And Carson knew why; his left arm was at the wrong angle.

Fuck. Carolyn was gonna kill him.

Colt and Cam were shouting, Keely was blubbering about her horse, and a wide-eyed Carter, obviously in shock, tried to squirm away.

“Son. You gotta stay still.”

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!”

That sad, pain-filled voice sliced through him. “Ssh. I know. We’ll get you fixed up, I promise.”

Cord and Colby both rushed over.

“Holy f**kin’ shit,” Cord said. “It’s broke, ain’t it?”

“Yeah. We’ll have to take him into town. Cord, the keys are in the truck. Go get it and bring it around so we can get everyone loaded up here.”

“We’re all goin’?” Colby said.

“No choice. Now get them horses dealt with so we can go.”

Colby took off.

Fifteen minutes later they were on their way into Sundance, with Cord driving and Carter on Carson’s lap, curled into him. It was the quietest he’d heard the kids.

Not that it’d last.

Six kids in the hospital for over two hours? The staff was happy to see the ass end of them.

Too het up to worry about cooking, Carson had Cord stop at the grocery store and sent him in to buy frozen pizzas.

Glancing down at Carter passed out on his lap, he realized the pain meds had kicked in. He smoothed the boy’s hair back, grateful the injury hadn’t been worse. He noticed Carter clutched the black marker in his fist so his brothers could sign his cast.

Back at the ranch, Carter didn’t move when Carson carried him into the house and situated him on his bed.

By the time he returned to the kitchen, the boys had opened all ten frozen pizzas. No doubt they’d devour them without tasting them.

He went straight for the whiskey.

Keely refused to eat pizza so he gave her applesauce and cottage cheese—most of which ended up in her hair, which required a bath. In the tub she leapt up and smacked her forehead into the soap dish, leaving a mini goose egg that would likely be a hideous shade of black and blue by the time Carolyn came home.

He just had to survive the next two days. The worst of it had to be over.

Didn’t it?

Day four Carson ended up serving cookies for breakfast since they were out of breakfast food.

“What happened to all the cereal? There were five boxes when your mother left.”

“We ate ’em when we got hungry,” Colby said.

Which seemed to be all the damn time. Feeding these boys was a fulltime job itself.

Carson did a quick head count. Carter sleeping upstairs. Cord—in the bathroom again—Colby here, Keely here. “Where are your brothers?”

Colby’s eyes were glued to the back of the empty cereal box. “Haven’t seen them.”

“At all?”

“I saw them when I was comin’ out of the bathroom this mornin’,” Cord offered as he strolled in.

“When?”

“Like seven.”

That was an hour ago. “What were they doin’?”

“Didn’t ask.”

Two hours later, just as Carson was ready to call the sheriff, Colt and Cam ambled up the driveway like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, fishing poles slung over their shoulders and carrying buckets.

“Where in the hell have you boys been?”

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