After they’d checked the herd, they continued clopping along. The serenity of the scenery negated the need for idle chatter. Cord led; she followed.


“See that stock tank? Race—”


The second she heard the word race she was gone. He didn’t come close to catching her. “Maybe you should ride this horse next time, McKay. I’ve beaten you both times.”


“I won once.”


“Want to go best three out of five?”


“No. You have a daredevil streak, Ms. Foster. How come I never knew about it?”


“Because being a wild child was Keely’s reputation, not mine. I was too busy working in my dad’s stead to be wild.” After she realized what she’d confessed, she kicked her heels into Nickel’s sides and they were off.


Cord reined up beside her. “You gonna explain that, or are you gonna make me guess?”


She said, “Guess,” deciding he wouldn’t figure out what no one else had during those years.


“Let’s see. I moved back here seven years ago after bein’ in Seattle for two years, so you would’ve been fifteen. I don’t remember you chummin’ around with Keely until you were at least eighteen, after Ky was born and Marla took off. So durin’ those missin’ years you were—”


“Wow. Look. A red-tailed hawk.” AJ pointed to the bird circling in the vibrant blue sky off to the west.


“Baby doll, I could be sarcastic and list a buncha things you might’ve been doin’, but I’m askin’ you to be honest and tell me the truth.”


“And if I don’t want to?”


“Do it anyway.”


AJ met his hard gaze. “I was working the ranch. Daddy had a debilitating heart attack when I was thirteen. Mama and Daddy didn’t want anyone to know about his health problems, so all the doctor’s visits were done in Cheyenne.”


“So you’re sayin’? What? You did everything? Ran the ranch by…yourself?”


“I couldn’t do the haying. But I knew what else needed to be done, so I did it. End of story.”


Colt looked like she’d punched him in the gut. “You ran the ranch? From the time you were thirteen? Why didn’t anyone in the community notice? For Christsake, why didn’t anyone in my family notice?” He demanded, “Did Keely know this?”


“Not until a few years ago. She always teased me about being such a goody-goody.


But the truth was, I was too damn tired to care about being the belle of the county.” After she’d told Keely the truth, Keely had been suitably appalled by her own clueless behavior. She’d also been embarrassed by the McKay family’s tendency to take care of their own to the exclusion of all others. AJ had sworn Keely to secrecy and they’d become friends on a much deeper level than she’d ever imagined possible.


“You took care of the cattle? And the horses? And fixin’ fence and mowin’ ditches?


And breedin’ and brandin’?”


“After the first calving season Daddy started selling off cow/calf pairs. By the time I was fifteen all the cattle were gone. Dad told everyone he wanted early retirement and we leased most the grazing land. Then I just had to deal with the other ranch stuff you’re always talking about.”


“You didn’t ask my dad, my brothers, my cousins, or any of the McKays? You have to know that someone in my family would’ve helped you out—”


“Which family, Cord? Colby was rodeoin’. Cam joined the service. Carter was at college. You were living in Seattle, which left Colt. Your McKay cousins, Kane, Kade, Quinn and Bennett had to do all the rest of the work—except for Chase who was still in high school—and they had to hire out, remember? The McKay ranch is fifty times the size of ours. So your family couldn’t have helped us even if my dad hadn’t had too much pride to ask.”


“AJ—”


“I’m warning you, Cord, drop it.”


“Like hell.”


AJ reined Nickel the opposite direction, snapped the reins and raced back to the barn like the hounds of hell nipped at her heels.


Cord was right on her horse’s tail. But all thoughts of continuing the discussion were lost when she noticed Colby’s pickup screaming up the driveway as she reached the fence beside the barn. She jerked Nickel to a stop, causing Cord to do the same with Jester.


He snapped, “What now?”


“Do you want me to hide in the barn until Colby leaves?”


“Fuck that. I’m sick of this hidin’ shit. I think it’s time we told everyone the truth about us—”


“Cord!”


They turned to see Colby running toward them.


A sick feeling churned in AJ’s stomach. Colby. Running.


“You gotta come. Dag had an accident.”


“Dag? What the hell happened?”


“We ain’t sure.”


“He okay?”


Colby shook his head. “He’s dead.”


Shock hung in the air.


AJ said, “Go on, Cord. Be with your family. I’ll take care of the horses.”


Neither he nor Colby said another word as they climbed into Colby’s truck and roared off.


Chapter Twenty-nine


Four days later…


Cord sat next to his brother Carter in the church basement after Dag’s funeral service. Everyone was somber, still in a state of shock over Dag’s death.


Sometimes a tragedy will pull a family apart. But it had the opposite effect with the Wests and McKays, by putting an end to the rift between them. Carson and Cal and Charlie McKay and all of Dag’s male McKay cousins—less Cam who was in Iraq—were pallbearers right alongside the eight West cousins.


The church had been packed with family, members of the community and lots of young rodeo cowboys. They’d all been holding up fairly well until Dag’s buddy Trevor Glanzer brought the traditional riderless horse to the funeral procession of cars headed to the graveyard.


In the last four days, Dag’s father, Harland, aged twenty years. He refused to let his daughter, Chassie, out of his sight. Cord’s mother shooed Chassie away to give her a much needed break from her father’s overwhelming grief, and Carolyn stayed beside her grieving brother. The only other time Cord had seen his mother so distraught was two years ago when Colby nearly died from a rodeo injury.


Cord’s gaze swept the table. Carter and Macie. Colby and Channing. Keely. Kane and Kade. Chase McKay and his older brothers Quinn and Bennett. Cash Big Crow.


Trevor. But Trevor went to comfort Chassie and they disappeared outside. Cord imagined it wouldn’t be much longer before he’d be hearing another set of wedding bells. Better that than the somber tones of a funeral dirge.


Colt was conspicuously absent. He’d been at the service and the burial, but no one knew where he’d gone afterward. No one said it, but everyone knew his brother was drinking someplace. And of all the stupid fucking things to do…drinking was what’d gotten Dag killed.


Dag had still been half-drunk from a hard night of partying when he’d started chores Saturday morning. The assumption was Dag passed out on the tractor, drifted into the ditch where the tractor flipped on top of him and crushed him. Luckily Trevor discovered Dag that afternoon, not Harland. God knows that would’ve killed his uncle and they’d be having a double funeral.


Ranching was a dangerous life. Fatal accidents happened all the time. Not in their family in recent years. And not because of a bad decision that could’ve easily been avoided.


A fucking senseless waste of a life.


Jesus. He couldn’t believe Dag was dead. None of them could.


Voices murmured. Cord loosened his tie and Keely caught him looking at his watch.


“What time do you have to leave?”


“In about an hour.”


“You sure you want to go alone? I could drive you.”


“Thanks, sis, but I’ll be fine. It’s gonna be a quick trip.”


“Did you talk to him today?”


“Yeah. He don’t understand and I’ve done a poor job explainin’ it to him.” By the time Cord decided to tell Ky what’d happened to Dag, his son had plain gone into hysterics and demanded to come home. Oddly enough, Marla agreed Ky should be with him. They’d changed the plane reservations and Cord was scheduled to leave on the last flight out of Cheyenne to Denver, en route to Seattle. As happy as he’d be to see his boy for the first time in a month, a layer of sadness dimmed his enthusiasm. Death changed everything.


Carter shoved his empty cup across the table. “Sorry I’m gonna miss seein’ the little squirt, but we can’t stick around.”


“My fault,” Cash said. “I doan wanna leave Gem alone with the twins overnight. She says she can handle them but she shouldn’t have to. We brought two horse trailers and we still need to load up the horses I bought from AJ before we take off.”


Cord’s stomach clenched at the mention of AJ’s name.


“That means you guys are leavin’ me to deal with Colt once I track him down?”


Colby asked.


Shit. Cord hadn’t thought of that. “Can it wait until I get back?”


“What am I, Colby, chopped liver? I didn’t get to knock some sense into Carter the last time we had a McKay fall out of line, so I’m entitled to let loose on another one of my stupidly clueless brothers.” Keely gave Cord a pointed look.


“What?”


“You know what.”


Kane said, “Don’t sweat it. Kade and I’ll be around.”


Quinn scratched his head beneath his hat. “Count me and Bennett in, if you give us enough warning so we can make the drive. Chase has gotta get back on the road too.”


“Where you competin’ next?” Cash asked.


“Wichita. Big purse. Lotsa points.”


“That’s a long way. You drivin’ straight through?”


Chase nodded.


“Good luck and be careful.” When Cash stood to leave, everyone at the table followed suit.

***

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