Gemma spun in his arms. “I saw a good man with a good heart. I still see that.” She kissed his chin. “Neither one of us is perfect. We’ve both been rode hard by life; we’ve got a lot of miles on us. But we ain’t used up yet.”
“Thank God. The way I look at it, we have a good forty or fifty years left together.”
He waggled his eyebrows beneath his Stetson. “So, purty boss lady, you wanna mess around a little before we start chores?”
“Always. But there is one thing I want to talk to you about.”
“It is. I want to stop using condoms. I don’t like the damn things.”
Cash went utterly still before he leaned down and locked his gaze to hers. “What are you sayin’, Gem?”
“If I get pregnant, then I get pregnant. If I don’t, it wasn’t meant to be. I know I’m old and the risks are huge, but I kinda feel like this might be a second chance for both of us.”
“You humble me, winyan.” He placed one hand on her belly and one on her heart.
He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Now take me to bed or I’m gonna fire you for slacking on the job.”
The next evening
“It’s my last night here and I don’t want to be a wallflower at some street dance.”
“Macie, you promised. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Fun for who? I won’t know anyone.” A dance was the dead last place she’d ever see Carter McKay. Not that she’d be looking for him or anything.
“You’ll know me.” Amy Jo inserted her contact and blinked. “Keely always ditches me at these things anyway, so it’ll be nice for me not to sit by myself for a change.”
“You sure you won’t ditch me the second you catch sight of Cord McKay?
Especially when he sees you all tramped up?”
“He wouldn’t look twice at me if I rode into town buck-ass nekkid on the back of a purple longhorn bull.” Amy Jo snorted. “The only reason Cord would talk to me is to ask me if I’d babysit Ky.”
“And you’d ditch me in a heartbeat to do it.”
“Nope. As much as I love that little guy, my babysitting days are over. I’m officially a college coed so I’d better start acting like one.”
“Been watching Girls Gone Wild DVDs for some ideas, Miss Amy Jo?”
“No. I’ve been watching Keely McKay for years, which is better.” She grinned.
“And you’re supposed to be calling me AJ, remember?”
“My mistake, AJ.” Macie studied Amy Jo—AJ—as she applied eyeliner. AJ was dead wrong if she thought any man could overlook her. With her white-blonde hair, enormous gray eyes, pouty red lips, and long legs, she looked every inch a cool, sleek Scandinavian model—not at all like the Wyoming cowgirl in pigtails and dirty jeans that Macie had met just last month.
AJ adjusted her black silk bustier. “What are you wearing?”
Macie glanced down at her white eyelet camisole shirt and faded jean skirt. “What’s wrong with this?”
“Nothing. Oops we’re gonna be late.” Her smile seemed strained. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
“But I thought I’d drive so if I want to leave—”
“Huh-uh. You’re riding with me. Or I can call Keely. You choose. But I believe she said something about making an entrance on a Harley.”
“That was just plain cold, AJ.”
She spun the keys on her finger. “This is gonna be so great.”
Macie froze. A strange feeling rippled through her. “What?”
“You’ll see. Let’s go find us some cowboys to tame, girlfriend.”
Two blocks of Main Street were cordoned off. Macie and AJ wove through pickups and four-wheel drive vehicles lining the side street. Shouts sounded above the bass line of the Western song blasting from the loudspeakers.
Macie was having a hard time keeping up with AJ’s long-legged strides, mostly because she was dragging her feet. She wanted to go home.
When she’d left the Bar 9 last week, she had no destination in mind. She’d ended up at Kat’s apartment in Denver. While she’d been wallowing in ice cream, margaritas and Kat’s pierogis, Amy Jo Foster had called her. She and Keely McKay were headed for Denver to finalize a few last minute things and had a couple of questions on the metro-Denver area.
Neither Keely nor AJ asked why Macie was in Colorado instead of Wyoming.
Neither asked about Carter. Instead, they’d spent a few days together. She showed them around the city. Tagged along while they picked out furnishings for their apartment.
When AJ heard about Macie’s new horse, she asked her to hang out and ride horses at the Foster ranch. Macie admitted the week went by faster than she imagined. The days did anyway. The nights were long, and the only time she allowed herself to cry over Carter McKay.
Right now, she just wanted to hop in her Escape and drive back to Canyon River and try to rebuild her life. She missed her dad. She missed Gemma. She missed Velma and the diner. She missed the ranch. She missed Carter something fierce.
Don’t think of him. Think of how next week, he’ll be plastering naked pictures of you in Jackson Hole.
It made her ache. She wasn’t wrong about her ultimatum to Carter, but it’d never hurt so bad to be right.
AJ stopped abruptly. “Damn.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Right now.” AJ started up the sidewalk to a small white building, with the words Community Center centered above the door. The windows were dark.
“AJ, I don’t think there’s anyone in there. The door is probably locked.”
“Hah. Nothing is ever locked around here. Come on.”
Macie followed her inside. The interior door creaked. The main room was pitch black so she followed the sound of AJ’s high-heeled boots clicking on the tile. Then the lights were flipped on. She blinked.
And saw him.
She blinked again.
Carter McKay was still standing in front of her.
“Macie. You’re here.”
She whirled around and saw AJ slipping out the door. Traitor. Her heart pounded like a bass drum when she faced him again.
Carter looked bad. Why did that made her feel good?
Why did her eyes drink him in like nectar anyway?
Macie waited, letting him know that a simple, “I’m sorry” or “I missed you”
wouldn’t be enough this time.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You did.” Her gaze zoomed across the scabs and bruises covering his face. “Looks like someone put the hurt on you.”
Carter rubbed his jaw. “Well, your dad has a wicked right cross, darlin’.”
“You got into a fistfight with my dad?”
“Yep. And he still didn’t knock any sense into me.”
Why hadn’t her father told her that he and Carter exchanged blows? “Is he okay?”
“He looks about the same as I do.”
“When did this happen?”
“Last week. When I came lookin’ for you.”
“Why did you come looking for me?”
“I was gonna demand you quit bein’ so stupid and childish and fall in line with my way of thinkin’. Then Cash told me you were gone, and I figured you were gone for good. And I…completely lost it, Macie. I lost my ever-lovin’ mind.
“I accused him of stuff; he accused me of stuff. It was ugly. In retrospect it was one of the most embarrassin’ moments of my life. Although, at the time I was mad as hell and bleedin’ inside and out, and I thought you were all wrong.” Carter took a deep breath.
“Turns out I was wrong.”
“But I was hurt by you, too. Not only by your leavin’, but because I wanted you to like the pictures. There was no ulterior motive when I started paintin’ you. I really did create them from my heart. And I was so damn excited from a professional perspective that I’d captured the pure essence of you. I was so busy pattin’ myself on the back, tellingmyself you’d come around and see the pictures the way I did…that I lost sight of the fact I’d lost you.”
Macie didn’t move outwardly, yet inwardly a small kernel of hope grew.
“I’d rather have the real you than just a half dozen static images of you lookin’ at me like you used to. After I sobered up—”
“Yeah, I kinda went on a bender after you left, and your dad and I rolled around in the dirt, and then Gemma kicked me off the Bar 9. My life was pretty much shit. My brothers showed up and showed me the error of my ways. Not with their fists for once, which my body is thankin’ them for profusely. Turns out I was wrong about them too.”
Carter finally looked her in the eye. “I destroyed the pictures, Macie. Not because you wanted me to. Because the thought of anyone ever seein’ you like that, not only naked, but with your heart and soul wide open tears my heart and soul clean out of my body. The right to share that or show it doesn’t belong to anyone but you. I hope I haven’t destroyed my chances with ever getting to see it again.”
“And your art show?”
“Still happening in three days. Turns out I have more than enough pieces without the pictures of you.”
They stayed in place, watching one another.
“Macie. Talk to me. I love you.”
She studied him. “Why do you love me?”
“You told me you loved me, but why?”
Carter stared at her, taken aback.
“Because you’re brave.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hand.
“Don’t bring up your fear of storms, darlin’. I’m talkin’ about you bein’ brave when it comes to livin’ your life.