“Least you got an heir. I thought I’d be married by now. Have a couple of kids. It ain’t really bothered me until recently. I figured there was time. Now that I’ve been livin’ with my folks, might sound sappy as shit, but I want what they have. I’m afraid I’m gonna wake up in ten years and be a grumpy forty-year-old man and be in the same damn place I am now.”


Was Cord an example to his cousin of the kind of man Kade did not want to become? Why’d that sting so bad? He wasn’t so set in his ways he couldn’t change, could he?


“Maybe things are gonna change.”


“Whenever you say that, it’s usually for the worse,” Kade said wryly.


“Lemme know when you’re ready to introduce your lady friend.”


“Like hell. She’ll dump me and go for you—the broodin’ cowboy with the wounded soul and the cute-as-a-button motherless son. Plus, you’ve got a bigger”—he grinned—


“section of the ranch than me. She’ll drop me like a cow pie.” Kade added slyly, “That is, if you ain’t already spoken for by your lady friend by the time I get up the gumption to bring her around.”


Right. His lady friend would be living in Colorado in a few short weeks.


Kade drove off and Cord trudged up the steps and into his house.


He wandered from room to room. Watched TV. Felt loneliness beating on him from all sides before he finally went to bed.


Chapter Twenty-three


Later the next following morning, AJ’s mother said, “You’re gonna wear yourself out.”


“Probably. But I’m used to working hard around here and it has to be done. I’m about finished with the bedrooms.”


“What’s in those boxes?”


“The clothes going to the mission on the reservation.” AJ dropped the box and dust shot up, making her cough. “Three more and I’ll take a break.”


Ten minutes later she carried two glasses of iced tea into the front room. “I might curl up beside you and take a nap this afternoon.”


“I’d welcome it. I used to love that you were such a cuddler when you were a little girl. Jenn never was. You would crawl right up on my lap.” Her mom fussed with the straw in the glass. “That was about the only time you were allowed to be a kid. I’m sorry we relied on you so much later on. Neither your daddy nor I wanted to admit his health was failing. For him to go from being so robust, to so frail.”


Mostly for him to spend years pretending not to be either.


AJ loved her dad, but like most tough Wyoming men, his pride overrode his common sense. From her thirteenth birthday until her father died when she was eighteen, she—in essence—had been their hired man. She’d done the chores in all seasons, except for haying, which they’d always hired out. She, her mom, and dad managed to muddle through that first calving season of her dad’s weakened state. At least he’d realized she couldn’t handle the livestock, so they’d quietly sold off all their cattle a few cow/calf pairs at a time and began renting sections to the McKays for grazing.


Yes, Floyd Foster’s reputation as a keen rancher had remained intact until the day he’d died.


Amy Jo Foster’s reputation in those years was nonexistent. She stopped participating in school activities, as she went home directly after classes ended to do chores. She’d morphed from an outgoing girl to a withdrawn young woman with more responsibilities than what clothes to wear to the next rodeo dance. Her classmates—including Keely McKay—believed she’d become a goody-goody, when in truth, AJ’d been too tired to be anything. She worked like a dog and she’d had few friends besides her horses.


She didn’t complain. It was tough on her mother taking care of her ailing father and the household, plus keeping a false face to the community. Jenn was too busy raising three kids by herself to help.


But Jenn had no problem demanding you drop out of school and come back here to help her.


AJ knew Jenn felt guilty about asking AJ to temporarily withdrawal from school, but the bottom line was AJ was here right away after her mother’s injury. Once again she was a daughter who did the right thing out of love. For her family. As she’d continue to do.


“You’re awful quiet. Is everything all right?”


“Just thinking, which always gets me into trouble. Can I get you more tea?”


“No.” Florence kept fiddling with the straw. “Since you were home last night, will you be out whoopin’ it up tonight during happy hour at the Golden Boot?”


“Maybe. We’ll see. I’m supposed to be helping Liza with her bachelorette party so I might head to her place to see what’s up.”


You’re going to Cord’s to see what pops up on him.


He’d be a little anxious after not seeing her for a couple of nights.


On second thought…“A nap might not be a bad idea.”


A few hours later, after she’d packed the ranch truck with boxes for donations, her cell phone rang. Caller ID said Cord.


“Hey, AJ. How are ya?”


“Good. You?”


“Lonely and lookin’ forward to tonight.” Pause. “You are comin’ over later, right?”


Cord sounded…anxious. She smiled. “Far as I know. Why?”


“Just wanted to make sure you wear boots and long pants. No, baby doll, you don’t get to ask why.”


She paused.


“I’m sure hopin’ I hear a ‘but’ in your response someplace.”


“Don’t you think I learned my lesson last time?”


“I sure as hell hope not.”


Her belly fluttered. “Anything else?”


“No. Except to apologize for bein’ a jackass last night when you called.”


“Apology accepted.”


“Good enough. See you at six. Got somethin’ special planned.”


Lord. She hoped it wasn’t another one of his penalties.


Yes, you do.


***


Soon as AJ pulled into the yard, Cord didn’t cool his bootheels in the house like usual; he bounded out like an eager pup. He bent down and kissed her soundly, a mixture of sweetness, heat and gratitude.


He tugged her to the corral. “Come on. We’re goin’ ridin’. Mick put new shoes on the horses today. I haven’t been as vigilant about exercising them as I usually am.” His hot gaze flicked from her red ropers to her pink face. “Had more important things on my mind lately.”


“I haven’t put Lucy through her paces since that day—” She looked up at him.


“Say it.” He scooted closer and stared at her lustful mouth. “The day I…?”


“Tied me up in the barn and screwed me silly.”


“Complainin’?”


“God no. The way you make me feel, Cord, hot and needed—” She hastily added,


“Sexually speaking, of course.”


Cord wondered why she felt the need to qualify that?


Because this is a sexual relationship, dumbass. You shouldn’t be taking her riding.


You should be riding her.


“Come on, let’s get saddled up.”


“Did you pick a horse for me?”


“Nah. You had a chance to ride them all when you watched Ky, so you know which one you like better than I would.”


AJ picked Nickel, a quarter horse retired from barrel racing. Which just proved he’d been right in letting her choose her mount because he would’ve saddled up Borneo, a much older and gentler horse than Nickel.


“Whose saddle is this?” She walked behind Nickel to his right side and reached under his belly to fasten the cinch.


“I bought it for Marla right after we moved back here.”


“That’s why it still looks new?”


Cord grinned. “Uh-huh. Might be a little stiff.”


“I like stiff. I can work with stiff.”


Surely she hadn’t meant…he glanced over at her to see a big ol’ smile on her not-so-innocent face. “And I used to think you were so sweet.”


“Used to think?”


“Now I know under that sweetness is a wickedly naughty streak.”


“Complainin’?” she mimicked.


“God no.”


She returned to Nickel’s left side, unhooked the halter and let it dangle while she slipped on the bridle. Damndest thing. Nickel, who didn’t allow just anyone to slip a bit in his mouth, opened right up. She talked to him, slipped the bridle over his ears, undid the quick release knot on the leadrope and draped both over the hook on the fence.


“You gonna get the gate?”


He’d been so engrossed with her horsewomanship that he hadn’t readied his own mount. Cord followed AJ into the pasture. She’d climbed on while he’d closed the gate.


Damn. He’d wanted to see that very fine ass of hers in the air as she threw her long leg over the saddle.


Cord mounted up. “I thought we’d ride to the butte.”


“Okay. Fast or slow?”


Soon as fast made it out of his mouth, AJ took off. She handled Nickel like a pro, giving him his head but staying in total control.


He caught her, but he suspected she’d let him catch her.


AJ faced him and her smile rivaled the radiance of the sun. “These horseshoes seem to be fine.”


“Smarty.”


They ambled along through the sagebrush and rocks. Letting the horses lead them around scrub cedar and stunted pines.


She sighed. “I love how every time I ride through the fields some new wildflower has popped up.” She pointed. “See? That one wasn’t out two weeks ago.”


“Guess I hadn’t noticed.”


She reined her horse to a stop.


“What?”


“Cord McKay. How can you be out here all the time and not notice the flowers?


Can’t you see the daisies? The wild roses? The tiny purple starflowers? The yarrow? The lavender heads on the milkweed?”

***

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