“Wow. Surprised that hasn’t made it into the McKay gossip channel.”


“Like the situation with Colt did?”


All eyes zoomed to AJ.


“What?”


“You were there. What really happened?”


AJ retold the story with as much detail as she’d remembered.


Channing took Ella to burp her. “Do you know what Colt said to Cord that’d make Cord act like that? Because Cord never acts impulsive.”


He’d acted pretty damn impulsive earlier when he’d had her naked in his truck. “No one knows.”


Macie, Gemma and Channing gossiped about other members of the McKay family.


AJ already knew most of it, since she’d lived in the county her whole life. Since she’d known the McKays her whole life.


So why did she still feel like the outsider?


The conversation swam back into focus.


“Dag and Chassie are brother and sister?” Macie asked Gemma, “Didn’t Dad team rope with Dag on the circuit a couple of times?”


“Yep. Dag roped with Trevor after Edgard went back to Brazil.”


Channing said, “I overheard Carolyn and her sister discussing Dag. Since he quit the circuit he’s been drinking. A lot. Even more than Colt.


“That’s why Harland West hired Trevor, to keep an eye on Dag. So it makes sense that’s how Trev and Chassie hooked up. I can’t believe Colby didn’t tell me that part.”


Channing kissed the top of Ella’s head. “She’s asleep. Want me to put her down?”


“Yeah. Ryder’s out too. I’ll come with and tuck him in.”


They left the room and AJ looked at Macie. “I think I’ll head home.”


“Why?”


Because I feel awkward and out of place. “I’m tired. I have a bunch of packing to do tomorrow.”


Macie stood. “Would you give me a ride back to Carter’s folks’ house? My car is packed with baby stuff and I might as well leave it here rather than unpack it.”


“Sure.” AJ and Macie said a quick good-bye.


Once they were in AJ’s Jeep, Macie sighed. “I’m sure they were glad to see me go.”


“Why do you say that?”


“Don’t get me wrong, Gemma and I get along great. She’s more than just a stepmother; she’s a good friend. But she still is sort of like my mother. Whereas she and Channing are great pals and they talk about everything. Gemma won’t discuss her relationship with my father when I’m in the room, which is completely understandable.


And Channing and I are still feeling our way around our relationship to each other and our places in the McKay family. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to already know all the ins and outs of this family.” Macie grinned at AJ. “Someone like you.”


“Doesn’t make me a part of it.”


“What’s going on with you and Cord?”


“Sex.”


“That’s it?”


“Yep. Great sex, not that I have anything else to judge it by, but the man definitely knows what he’s doing between the sheets.”


“And in the barn, and in the pasture, and on a horse if he’s anything like Carter.”


“Haven’t tried it on a horse.” AJ grinned and turned onto the paved highway. “Yet.”


“Does he know how you feel about him?”


“No. I’ll bask in his sexual attention and expertise for as long as I can. But we both know it has a finite end—when Ky comes home.”


“I worry about you, AJ, because I think you’ll take whatever little Cord McKay offers you just to be with him.”


“That might’ve been true if I hadn’t moved away last year.”


“But?”


“Even though this is my first sexual relationship, it’s opened my eyes about a lot of other things. I believed the sex was good because I love him. But Cord doesn’t love me and the sex is still good for him. Which shows me that I might have a skewed idea of what love is, now that I know sex and love aren’t intertwined.”


“That’s a bit cynical, isn’t it?”


“Maybe. Or maybe I stopped being naïve.”


“So if he asked you to marry him—”


“He won’t. His family comes first. His ranch second.” She wasn’t his family and he now owned her ranch.


A quiet pause hung in the tepid evening air.


Macie stared out the window across the moonlit fields. “It’s so beautiful here. I can see why Carter wants to divide our time and have the best of both worlds.”


At the McKay homestead, AJ said, “Drive safe tomorrow. Let me know when I can tell my mom your good news.”


“Will do. I’ll call you soon.”


AJ watched Macie disappear into the house. Cord’s truck was parked next to Colby’s. When she remembered what’d happened in that truck a few short hours ago…her toes curled in her flip-flops. She left before she found a reason to track Cord down for a repeat performance.


Jenn was still awake and sipping a glass of Jim Beam. Straight up.


“Is Mama asleep?”


“Yep. The kids wore her out. Everything wears her out these days.” Jenn shoved the bottle across the table. “Join me in a drink. I could use the company.”


“Sure.” AJ grabbed a juice glass, ice, and a Coke to mix with the whiskey. “What’s got you drinking alone?”


“Alan and I met this morning. I wanted to talk about visitation rights, summer vacation and school breaks over the holidays, you know, normal stuff that most fathers should care about.” She sipped her drink and didn’t look up. “Not him. As I sat across from him, the man I’d been married to for the last twelve years, I realized I didn’t know him at all.


“He doesn’t care about me or the kids. It’s embarrassing to admit I’ve been living a lie, trying to make something work that should’ve ended years ago. So as I sat there, sensing his impatience and his desire to ‘be done with the whole goddamn thing’ I knew how wrong I was to push for marriage with him in the first place.”


“Why?”


“He didn’t love me, Amy Jo. He liked me. The sex was really good. I believed I could work with that. I could make him love me. Or I could love him enough for both of us.” Bitter tears spilled down her cheeks.


“Jenn—”


“I can deal with him discarding me. But how am I supposed to tell our children, his children, that their father is discarding them too? That they might not ever see him again and that is his choice? How do I look them in the eyes and break their hearts?”


“You don’t. It’s not your fault Alan is a selfish dickhead who’s leaving you no option but to pick up the pieces. The only thing you can do is what you’ve been doing.


Show Krista and Mason and Ariel you love them. We love them. We are a family no matter what. No matter where we live.”


Jenn made a sound between a gasp and a laugh.


“You are a great mother…and a great father too.” AJ went to her broken sister. Jenn wrapped her arms around AJ’s waist and sobbed in silent misery. AJ cried right along with her and felt like she’d aged ten years in the last ten hours.


After Jenn quieted down, AJ handed her a tissue.


“When did you get so grown up?”


“I’ve always been grown up. I didn’t exactly have a choice.”


“You did more things around the ranch after Daddy’s heart attack than you ever let on, didn’t you?”


“It had to be done. I didn’t know any different.”


“I wish I would’ve known. Makes me feel just as selfish as Alan.” Jenn blew her nose. She gathered up the glasses and put the whiskey bottle back in the liquor cabinet.


“Anything else you need tonight before I go to bed?”


“No, but since you’re dispensing advice, I’m gonna return the favor.”


AJ looked up. “What?”


“I know you’re seeing someone. I won’t ask who. I’d like to think if it was a serious relationship you would’ve brought him around to meet your family. You have a lot of years ahead of you in the dating scene. Remember this, when you find that special someone, whatever you do, don’t settle for less than a man who loves you completely.”


“I won’t.”


“Good. I’ll see you in the morning.”


“Night.”


Rather than heading upstairs, AJ snuck outside. She stood on the front porch staring at the stars, contemplating family dynamics and her place in the universe for a long time before she finally crawled into bed.


Chapter Twenty-two


“What do you mean you can’t come over tonight?”


“Jenn stayed with Mom yesterday afternoon when I was helping Macie. She has things to do tonight when she gets off work.”


“Christ, AJ, that’s two nights in a row. You’re supposed to be here every night. That was the deal.”


The phone went silent.


“What?”


“You know, Cord, I think it might be time to renegotiate the deal. If you’re gonna get pissy about me taking care of my mother because you aren’t getting a piece of ass, then maybe I’m done dealing with you. Maybe you can continue to be a jackass on your own time.” She hung up.


“Goddammit!” Cord was half-tempted to whip the cell phone at the wall. He snapped it shut and threw it on the coffee table. Great. He oughta go over there and set her straight. Right. How was he supposed to come to terms with the idea that he…missed her?


What the hell was he supposed to do with himself tonight?


Cord stared at the fan spinning lazily on the cathedral ceiling. Maybe he should take up a hobby. Bowling. League darts. Whittling.


He headed for the barn. The farrier was coming in the morning to shoe all the horses.


He might as well clean up the tack room.


Ky had made a mess of the place. Put him in a time warp to think he hadn’t been in here since Ky had left. Even more humbling was the knowledge he hadn’t ridden his horses for a couple of weeks. He’d have to rectify that tomorrow after they wore new horseshoes.

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