“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 f**kin’ 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.”

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