When Carson took a breath, as if to keep going, Carolyn lifted her head. She crossed herself and said, “Amen.”

Her brothers and mother followed suit.

Her mother said, “Thank you, Carson, for such a lovely and heartfelt blessing.”

Carolyn glanced at her brother who’d offered the dare and smiled to see he’d been put in his place. But her smile dried when she realized she was sitting too far away from her mother to help slice her food into manageable bites. Her arthritis made it difficult to hold utensils and she ate everything with a spoon.

But her mother had a lot of pride which is why she rarely left the house, or ate meals at the table, so Carolyn couldn’t treat her like a child in front of company.

Stuart realized the predicament and dished her up potatoes before passing the bowl on. Same with the veggies. When the meat platter reached him, he quickly shredded the pork before he scooped it onto her plate.

Carson was too busy piling his plate up to notice. Neither did he pay attention when Stuart handed their mother a spoon. Only when Carolyn saw her mother eat several bites did she relax.

Not that the meal was overrun with chatter. Carolyn wondered what mealtime was like at the McKay table. She managed not to jump when she felt Carson’s hand on her leg.

As soon as Marshall, Stuart and Thomas finished eating, they left the table.

Even Carson threw in the towel. “Thank you for inviting me for such a delicious meal, Carolyn. You are one helluva cook. If you’ll pardon my language.”

She blushed. “Thank you.” Then she eyed the pile of dishes. It’d take an hour to clean this mess up—an hour Carson would be stuck with her family.

Her mother said, “I’ll keep Carson company while you get these dishes soaking before you take off. I’m sure you two have better things to do than stay around here on such a lovely day.”

At least she’d gotten a small reprieve.

There wasn’t much food remaining. She stored the leftovers and stacked everything by the sink. The pie she’d baked sat untouched and she covered it with foil to take to Carson’s father. Not much of a bribe but better than nothing. And her brothers and father didn’t deserve pie anyway. The jerks.

She considered changing out of her church clothes, but she still had to meet Carson’s family. She ducked into her room and fixed her hair and freshened her makeup.

Her dad sat in front of the TV. He didn’t look away from it as she crossed the room. He said, “You’re making a big mistake. You’ll choose him over your own family?”

“Only if you make me.”

She left and didn’t look back.

Chapter Twelve

Carson

Carolyn kept pinching the pleats in her skirt until Carson stilled the motion by placing his hand on hers. “Sugar. It’ll be okay.”

“You don’t know that.”

She had him there. But Jed McKay wasn’t the type to cause a scene—especially not with a woman. If he was displeased, at least in polite company, he wouldn’t say a word. Sure as shootin’ he’d light into Carson when they were alone.

He angled his chin to the pie sitting on the seat between them. “That’ll go a long way into sweetening him up.”

“I hope so. I’ve never done this before.”

“I’m glad I’m your first for a lot of things.”

She blushed and he grinned. He loved seeing that color on her cheeks because only he knew her entire body flushed that pretty shade of pink when she was naked.

He had to release her hand to downshift when they reached the gravel road leading to his folks’ house. Trees used as a windbreak obscured most of the three-story house from the road. He cut to the left and parked in front.

“Wow. This is…big,” Carolyn said, leaning down to peer through the windshield.

“My grandfather bought it from a bigwig who worked for one of the railroads. The guy started to have it built for his wife before they relocated from the east coast; evidently she demanded a big fancy house. But he died during a flu epidemic and she had no interest in moving here, so she sold it and the land for pretty cheap.”

“This place looks to have plenty of room. Why don’t you live here?”

“Dad didn’t approve of the way I was spendin’ my free time. He spouted off that while you live under my roof bullshit so I moved out. We can work together but I don’t gotta live with him. Me’n Cal pooled our money and bought the trailer. In case the back roads confused you, it’s about three miles across the way on McKay land.”

“Your land stretches that far?”

It stretched a helluva lot farther than that. “Yeah. We’ve been buying parcels as they come up for sale. Every little bit adds up.”

“But—”

“Can we talk about this later?” He curled his hand around the back of her neck and kissed her. “Let’s have a slice of that cherry pie with the old man.”

No surprise his father hadn’t greeted them on the porch. Carson opened the screen door and knocked loudly on the inner door before he opened it. “Dad? I’ve brought someone I want you to meet.”

“Where is he?” Carolyn whispered.

“Probably napping in the living room.” He led her past the staircase to the kitchen.

Carolyn set the pie on the counter and wandered through the space. “This is lovely.”

Carson moved in behind her and set his hands on her shoulders. “This was Mom’s domain. Seemed weird to be in here without her after she passed.”

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