Channing felt herself retreating. Becoming quietly observant as she faded into the background.
They’d found a tall table to stand beside and a round of fresh beers had miraculously appeared. Gemma talked loudly over the music and conversations. “Opening night of ‘The Daddy of ‘em All’. What do you think?”
Two cowboys went skidding past on the sawdust floor, fists and hats flying until some brave soul stepped in and broke it up and made them take it outside.
Before Channing could answer, a brunette placed her hands over Gemma’s eyes from behind and growled, “Guess who?”
“Justin McBride?” Pause. “Keith Urban?” Another pause. “Is it…Keely McKay?” Keely squealed and Gemma whirled around to squeeze the girl a big hug.
Even if Channing hadn’t heard the familiar last name, the family resemblance would’ve tipped her off. This dazzling, dark-haired woman with eyes the color of sapphires and big dimples was the spitting image of Colby—in petite, feminine form.
“Channing? This is Keely McKay, Colby’s baby sister.”
Keely shook Channing’s hand. “Baby sister. Everyone treats me like I’m twelve. I’m almost twenty-one.”
“You’ll be twenty-one in another two years,” Gemma corrected, and knocked Keely’s hand away from her beer. “Anyway, what’re you up to besides no good?”
“I came down with Mom and Dad to watch Colby compete.” She grinned saucily. “And to find a bad cowboy who wants to lead me astray.
Can you introduce me to one or ten to save me some time?”
“Right. Doesn’t Daddy keep an eagle eye on you, since you’ve been known to get into a fair amount of trouble?”
“Yes.” Keely’s smile vanished. “An eagle eye in the form of Amy Jo Foster. We’re sharing a room, which means I have to be very quiet if I want to sneak out at night.”
“What’s Amy Jo doing here?”
“Daddy’s attempt at matchmaking.”
Gemma glanced at Channing and then away quickly. Channing knew something was up. She didn’t dare ask, because she was more than a little afraid of the answer.
“Plus, she’s keeping the buckle bunnies away from him.” Her blue eyes widened. “Shit, here comes Daddy. You didn’t see me,” she said and squatted down, before she scooted away, ducking through the throng of people until she vanished in the crowd.
A tall, sturdy man sauntered over. He looked to be around sixty, ruggedly handsome with a square jaw, high cheekbones, those familiar compelling blue eyes. Dark hair beneath his cream-colored cowboy hat.
He flicked a quick glance at Channing and focused his attention on Gemma. “Where’d the wild child go?”
“Why, whoever do you mean?” Gemma asked innocently.
He rolled his eyes. “If you see Keely again, tell her I’m lookin’ for her.
I’ve survived raisin’ five rough and rowdy sons. That one little girl is gonna give me heart failure yet.”
“They say what goes around, comes around.”
“Her mama and me weren’t ever that wild.”
Gemma lifted a brow. “If you say so. Carson, this is my friend Channing Kinkaid.”
Carson tipped his hat. “Nice to meetcha, Miz Kinkaid.”
“Where’re you from?”
“Massachusetts.” Right then, Channing knew she couldn’t be more ostracized than if she’d answered Mars.
“Ah,” Carson said.
A moment of forced silence.
“Channing is also friends with Colby,” Gemma added.
Carson’s gaze narrowed. “You don’t say.”
Sweat dripped down her spine in the wake of Carson McKay’s accusing stare. She waited for him to quiz her.
But he decided to ignore her. He and Gemma started dishing dirt on other rough stock contractors. Channing’s feet itched to make tracks for the door. They’d only been here an hour and she was ready to leave.
A minute later firm male hands landed on her hips. “Dance with me.”
She turned and Trevor tugged her away from the table to the dance floor.
There wasn’t much chance to talk as Trevor whirled and twirled her through three fast songs. When the power ballad “You Look So Good In Love” began, she fully expected they’d exit the dance floor. But Trevor pulled her into arms, keeping her at a respectable distance as they swayed to the beat .
“Are you havin’ fun?” Trevor asked.
“No. Are you?”
“No. Bein’ here around my family makes me realize how much I love bein’ on the road.”
“It ain’t funny. Times like today I am tempted to pack up and move to Brazil.”
Trevor danced her backward. She looked behind her to make sure she wasn’t about to plow over someone, when across the way she saw Colby, his hands clamped on the ass of a young, willowy blonde whose mannerisms and carriage screamed “real cowgirl”. They did the old bump and grind, oblivious to anything but each other.
Her breath caught and something inside her broke. Any secret stupid hope that she had about a future with Colby McKay evaporated like smoke.
Trevor noticed she’d gone rigid. He peered over her shoulder to the couple dirty dancing and froze. He whispered, “Ah hell. I’m so sorry, Chan.”
Breathe. She remembered Keely’s matchmaking comment. “Is she the one his dad brought here?”
“Yeah, Carson brought her. Her family’s ranch borders the McKays’
“Don’t tell me any more.”
Channing couldn’t stay on the dance floor, pretending her world hadn’t just crashed around her. When it felt like her heart was being stomped on by dozens of pairs of spiked cowboy boots. She stepped back away from Trevor so fast she stumbled into the couple behind her. Her clumsiness set off a chain reaction, which reached Colby and his new paramour.
Their eyes met. His registered surprise, then guilt. Hers, she knew, held nothing but desolation.
Channing fled. She thought she heard someone shout her name but she didn’t stop. She skirted the area where Gemma was fending off Cash and ran straight out the door. She didn’t quit running until she’d arrived at the horse trailer.
She madly packed the few personal items she’d brought with her. She dialed a cab company to pick her up and take her to the airport. She didn’t care where she escaped to as long as it was far away from here.
While Channing scrawled a quick note to Gemma, she sucked down a beer. She was totally unprepared for the vicious hammering on the metal trailer door.
“I know you’re in there, Channing. Open up,” Colby said.
She didn’t budge. She mouthed go away to him.
Several more ferocious knocks rattled the whole trailer. “Goddammit.
Open this fucking door right now or I swear to God I’ll bust it down. And you know I don’t make idle threats.”
Seething on the inside, but maintaining an outward calm, she opened the door.
Colby burst in like an angry bull out of the chute, nostrils flaring, eyes red, his bulky body shaking with rage. He latched on to her upper arms, jerked her against him and smashed his mouth to hers.
Channing fought him. Kicking, biting, digging her nails into his shirt, trying to claw his heart so she could rip it into shreds like he’d done to hers.
After she nearly bit his bottom lip, Colby swore, spun her around and braceleted her wrists in his hands behind her back. “Knock it off, you little hellcat.”
“No. Let me go and get out. I don’t want you here.”
“I’m not kidding. Stop manhandling me. Maybe your girlfriend likes it, but I don’t.”
Instead of releasing her, he tightened his grip and put his mouth right next to her ear, laughing softly with a hint of malice. “She is not my girlfriend. If you’d give me a goddamn minute to explain—”
“I don’t care about your stupid excuses.”
Colby hissed, “Sure you don’t, shug. That’s why you’re actin’ all jealous like this.”
Channing twisted her wrists in his rough hands. “I’m acting like this because I’ve got a cab coming any minute. I’m leaving. So let me go.”
“That sounds good. We’ll take the cab to my motel so we can hash this out in private.”
“We have nothing to hash out.”
He wheeled her around and cupped her face between his hands. He settled his mouth over hers, foregoing the earlier brutal kiss and giving her sweetness and tenderness that brought her tears to the surface.
Damn him. Channing realized she was starved for this man’s touch.
The way he alternately inflamed and cherished her. The way he instinctively knew which one she needed.
Yet, her breath hitched in her chest, reminding her of the pain that’d been circling her heart for the last day. She broke the kiss. “Colby—”
“Don’t leave me.” He tracked soft kisses up her jawline. “Please. I missed you, darlin’, something fierce. Stay with me tonight.” Over and over his lips brushed the hair covering her ear as he seemed to breathe her in. “Promise me you’ll stick around so we can talk this through, okay?”
A thick pause hung in the air.
Finally, she swallowed her pride and whispered, “Okay.”
“Thank you.” He hefted her satchel over his left shoulder, grabbed her right hand and they sprinted to the waiting cab.
Channing paced as she waited for him to unlock the door to the motel room. “How’d you get a room?” she asked, when she meant “Why did you get a room I didn’t know about?”
“My folks had an extra reservation because my brother Cord and his family were supposed to come. They gave it to me instead.”