walked away to try a sense of balance.

Cord chased her down. “You’re damn lucky it didn’t happen to you and you weren’t here last night.”

“Maybe if I had been I could’ve saved something. Picture albums. Letters. My great grandmother’s tatting. Anything.”

“Goddammit, AJ. Look at me.” He grabbed her arm. “None of that shit is more important than your life.”

She jerked back. “Easy for you to say. You have everything in your life that I just lost.”

“Have you forgotten what I said this morning? I offered you everything I have.”

Everything except love.

“This—” he gestured to the rubble behind them, “—is gone. It sucks. I’m sorry. But now you can move on.” His jaw tightened. “Now you can move in with me.”

“Move on? Just like that? Forget about everything in my life going up in flames and move in with you?”

“I want to take care of you, baby doll. What don’t you understand about that?”

AJ looked him dead in the eye. “I don’t want you to take care of me, Cord McKay, because I’ve been taking care of myself my whole life. All I ever wanted was for you to love me. Just love me. What don’t you understand about that?”

He didn’t respond—he actually looked a little sick to his stomach. At the prospect of loving her?

Enough. She’d had enough heartache to last a lifetime. “Goodbye Cord.”

She climbed in her car and didn’t look back. There was nothing here for her anymore.

Chapter Thirty-two

Don’t let her go. Jump in your truck and chase her down.

AJ left him. Just like Marla had.

She would’ve stayed if you’d had the balls to tell her the truth.

What truth? That he nearly went out of his freakin’ mind because she could’ve died last night? When he wanted to hold her up she preferred his mother’s comfort and company to his? That she handled everything by herself again, when he’d offered to fix it for her, and added insult to injury by tossing his offer back in his face?

What did you offer her?

What she needs.

No. You offered her what you need. You don’t even know what she needs.

Me. She needs me. Why won’t she admit it?

Dammit. He hadn’t planned to handle it this way. He’d imagined approaching her about them getting hitched over a nice romantic dinner. Between Ky’s questions, ranch business—including Kade volunteering to head the cattle experiment up in the northeast section over the next few months—and his mother’s constant cell phone updates about Colt, he hadn’t had a chance to consider an approach about how he’d convince AJ to accept his proposal for her own good.

Now it didn’t matter because she was gone for good.


Two weeks later…

Cord was on edge, snappy with Ky, his dad, his mom, Colby and his cousins.

Seemed everyone was avoiding him and leaving him to his own devices.

Alone in his own damn house again. He paced to the kitchen for a beer to ease his frustration when he noticed the sinkful of dirty dishes. Dammit. Why did crusted eggs remind him of AJ? Why did everything remind him of her? Fuck it. He headed to the porch and his dad’s truck parked in the driveway.

Ky hopped out of the cab, followed by Cord’s mother and Keely.

What was Keely doing here?

His son bounded up the steps and Cord caught him in a one-handed hug. “Hey, where you goin’, slick?”

“Thought if I ran by you really fast you wouldn’t have no time to yell at me.”

Cord froze. “What? Why would I yell at you?”

“You been kinda grouchy lately. Aunt Keely says it’s ’cause you got your head up your—”

“Kyler! You weren’t supposed to repeat that.”

Ky grinned and ran in the house.

“I didn’t know you were gonna be around to corrupt my son, Aunt Keely.”

“I’m on break and have a couple of things to take care of before I go back.”

He wondered if AJ was on break too. He sipped his beer.

Keely sighed. “See, Ma? I told you. He’s the most stubborn of all of them.”

“Yep. Just like his father.”

“What’d I do? Why you gangin’ up on me?”

His little sister teetered on the tips of her boots and stuck her nose right in his business. “Why don’t you ask the damn question I see in your eyes, Cord?”

“Fine. Why ain’t she returnin’ my calls?”

“Because you’re a clueless asshole who doesn’t deserve her.”

“Keely West McKay,” Carolyn said sharply, “that isn’t helping.”

“I don’t care. She’s mooned around you for years—years! Why? She’s shouldered more responsibilities than anyone should, which is probably why she was so drawn to you in the first place, Mr. Large and In Charge—”

“Whoa, back up. Whatya mean mooned around me for years? She’s twenty-two.”

“She has some crazy notion she’s been in love with you since she was five.”

“No,” he breathed, but the truth pummeled him from every direction as the things AJ

said came rushing back.

Because I’m definitely smitten with you.

I’ve had a crush on you for so long.

You’ve been my fantasy man since that day all those years ago.

Keely’s eyes burned with anger and tears. “You think it’s a coincidence she was untouched? No. AJ saved her virginity for you.”

I’m so glad I waited. Waited for you to be ready for me.

“I thought it was stupid, I still do. I tried to talk her out of waiting because I didn’t think you could love her like she’s dreamed of her whole life.”

Just like this. Love me like this, slow and easy and for a long time. Make it last forever.

“She’s the closest thing I have to a sister and I hate that my brother is just like every other man—taking what’s offered and giving nothing in return.”

“Cord West McKay. Is that true?” his mother demanded.

Cord’s cheeks grew hot. Partially because his mother was listening to the conversation; partially because he felt the need to defend himself. Keely was dead wrong.

“She came to me. So don’t you go blamin’ me for nothin’. I offered to marry her.”

“Like you were doing her a favor,” Keely snapped. “Like she was just one of the fringe benefits of taking over the Foster ranch.”

“That’s not true. I care about her.”

“Care? Jesus, Cord. You care about horses, and cattle, and the ranch. If you care about a person, you tell them you love them. Hell, you shout it from the rooftops.”

All I wanted was for you to love me. Just love me.

“Why haven’t you done that?”

“I don’t know!”

“That’s bullshit,” Keely said. “AJ deserves better than you. Why should she have to be the one to convince you she’s worthy of you? You oughta be on your knees proving that you’re worthy of her. Instead, you’re here glaring at me, acting as pigheaded as every other man in this testosterone-laden family.” Keely opened her cell phone and whirled away.

He snagged Keely’s elbow. “What do you want me to say? I nearly lost my fuckin’ mind when I realized no one in my entire family knew what she’d been through all those years to keep that goddamn ranch when she was merely a girl? That I nearly wept with fear when I considered I could’ve lost her forever if she hadn’t been in my bed the night her house caught fire?

“Should I tell her that I can’t sleep, I can’t eat and I miss talkin’ to her? Or just sittin’ with her? That I miss the secret way she smiles at me? That I constantly think about the way she smells, the taste of her mouth, the feel of her skin, and the sound of her laughter?

“That she’s the only woman I’ve ever met who gets everything about me? My moods, my needs, my ties to the land? She sees the beauty in a patch of weeds out in the middle of nowhere Wyoming? That I love she can saddle and ride a horse faster than me?

That she ain’t as shy as she pretends? That she doesn’t mind muckin’ out stalls? And checkin’ cattle?

“She loves sunsets and bakin’ cookies and holdin’ babies and two-steppin’ and all that corny country shit? She loves my son, and how was I supposed to tell her how much I love her, when I was scared to death she’d leave me—and then that’s exactly what she did anyway?”

He was breathing hard and damn near tears. “You tell me how I’m supposed to deal with that, Keely, ’cause I sure as hell don’t know.”

The sudden silence was like more salt in his wound.

“You stupid jerk. You really do love her.” Keely all-but tackled him in a bear hug.

“She didn’t leave you.”

“Well, she ain’t here.”

“But she will be if you give her a reason to come back.” She tipped her head back and stared into his eyes. “You do realize how important it is for AJ to finish school? For herself? There’s so little she’s done for herself, like you, everything she’s done has been for her family.”

“Guess I didn’t understand. Guess maybe I thought school was a whim—”

“—like marrying a Wyoming rancher and hightailing it back to the big city when it didn’t work out? AJ is not Marla. But you will lose her if you don’t take the first step this time. She gave you her trust, it’s time for you to give her yours and toss in your heart to up the ante.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

Carolyn snorted.

Cord’s and Keely’s eyes swiveled her direction.

“Why don’t you ask your father? He’s had to grovel a time or two hundred. He’s got lots of pointers.” Her smile faded. “But if you really want to show Amy Jo she matters to you? Prove you listened to her thoughts and opinions, hopes and dreams over pillow talk or during dinner or while you were cleaning the barn. She gave you the map to her heart, son, you just gotta learn to read it.”