“Between us? Three hundred.”
“Oh. That’s a lot.”
“Keeps us busy. We’ve had a couple of neighbors approach us about buyin’ them out too, but we gotta wait to see how our finances are when we start selling cattle in October.” He reached for her hand again. “I get plenty of ranch talk. I don’t want that with you.”
“Can I say something, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way?”
Hard not to bristle at that question. “I reckon.”
“You seem a lot older than twenty-four. Not with the way you look, because heaven knows you’ve been blessed there, but how you act.”
“My mother said God took an old soul and split it between me’n Cal in the womb. My dad…” Last week’s conversation with his old man pushed front and center. Jesus, son, what is wrong with you? You gonna be chasin’ skirts, getting drunk, starting fights and driving that truck like an idiot until you kill yourself with your own stupidity? Grow up. And get your damn chores done. I swear lately you’ve been worse than Casper.
“Your dad what?”
Carson refocused on her. “My dad and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”
“I know how that goes.”
“And he’s been a miserable jackass to everyone since Mom passed on.”
She squeezed his hand. “How long ago was that?”
“Six years. Me’n Cal had just turned eighteen. She had a stroke. Standin’ in the kitchen cookin’ bacon and eggs one minute and layin’ dead on the floor the next.”
The waitress served their meals and he was grateful for the interruption. He’d ordered biscuits and gravy with a side of sausage and pancakes. Carolyn ordered chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. He hid his smile. The woman could eat.
Probably because she’s the last to eat in her household.
“How long do I have you today?”
“I should be home by four to start supper.”
“Can I say something and hope you don’t take it the wrong way?”
Her blue gaze narrowed. “What?”
Carson wanted to follow the edge of her stubborn jaw with his fingertips, but he refrained. He’d never been into that touchy feely stuff in public. “You seem older than eighteen. Not with the way you look, although, sugar, you are the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen, but because you inherited all these responsibilities and you just accept them without question and you’re not bitter about it.”
She delicately wiped her mouth with the napkin and set it aside. “Some people tell me that just accepting those responsibilities means I have no backbone.”
“You’re too kind and too Christian to tell those folks to f**k off, aren’t you?”
She whapped his forearm. “Language.”
He laughed. “Come on. Let’s get outta here and blow off all responsibilities for a few hours.”
Once they were in the truck, he said, “Where to?”
“Cut through town and head south on county road 19. I want to show you one of my favorite places.”
The day wasn’t too hot and the recent rain kept the dust on the gravel road down.
Carson thought he knew all the nooks and crannies of Campbell County, but he’d never been here before. A wide meadow stretched to a line of trees. Given the healthy state of the trees he suspected a stream lay on the other side. “What is this place?”
“A picnic area.”
“How’d you find it?”
“On accident. I took a wrong turn and ended up here. I’ve been here half a dozen times and never seen anyone else around.”
He faced her. “You want to be alone with me, Caro?”
Her cheeks didn’t flush like he’d expected. Her direct gaze and bold statement, “More than anything,” burrowed right into the heart of him.
“Grab the blanket,” she said and hopped out of the truck on her own. She paused at the edge of the clearing and glanced down at her clothing and shoes. “I didn’t think this through.”
“Gimme a moment.” Carson tromped out in the field, searching for a flat place with no rocks. He kicked a couple of small ones away and spread out the blanket. Then he returned to her and lifted her into his arms.
Carolyn didn’t shriek a protest; she just curled her body into his and held on.
He gently lowered her onto the blanket. When he looked at her, she wore the oddest expression. “What?”
“That was the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Carson McKay should’ve just handed his heart over right then.
Instead he leaned over and kissed her. When he finally released her mouth to take a breath, he stretched out beside her, his head propped on his elbow.
She’d slipped her shoes off and sat in a tight ball with her arms wrapped around her legs.
“Do you think this is weird?”
“Us bein’ together?”
“Us being together on a blanket in a field out in the middle of nowhere?”
“I don’t know if it’s weird, but I can say it’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this.”
Her head turned so fast he wondered if she’d given herself whiplash. “It is? I mean, which part of it?”
“All of it. After I’ve been working outside all day I tend to stay indoors if I have free time.”