Rode hard, put up wet, p.11
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       Rode Hard, Put Up Wet, p.11

         Part #2 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
Page 11

 

  The double meaning in Cash’s words caused Gemma’s stomach to pitch again.

  “Sure. ”

  “Did you notice if the salt licks are gone?” Carter prompted. “’Cause it was damn close to nothin’ the other day when I checked on ’em. ”

  “Completely gone. I couldn’t find replacements tablets. ”

  “She keeps them in the cellar. ”

  “I’ll know where to look next time. ” Cash angled his chin at Carter. “Far as I’m concerned, you done everything I thought needed doin’, so there ain’t no reason for you to stick around today. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow. ”

  The two men stared at each other. “Fine. I’ll go. Just as soon as you tell me where she is. ”

  Cash laughed, a little harshly. “If Macie wants to contact you, she will. ”

  “And when she does? What then?”

  Gemma stifled a groan at Carter’s surety where he stood as far as Macie was concerned, after knowing her for one day.

  “If she does contact you, I’ll abide by her wishes. Until then, you’ll abide by mine.

  Stay away from her, McKay. ”

  “You forgot one tiny detail. I don’t think Macie wants to stay away from me. ” Carter retreated and loped to the barn. Before either of them said another word, Carter mounted his horse Deacon and galloped across the pasture, away from what probably would’ve been an argument as heated as the day.

  Cash swore.

  She tried to diffuse the situation. “What happened to you this morning? I woke up and you were gone. Was I snoring or something and chased you off?”

  “No. You looked so peaceful I let you sleep in. I woke up early to hang out with my daughter, but she’d already taken off. ”

  “Where is she?”

  His eyes narrowed. “If I tell you, you gonna blab to McKay?”

  “No. But if he asks me, I ain’t gonna lie. ”

  Cash sighed. “I called her cell when I couldn’t find her this morning. Evidently she found work at the Last Chance Diner. She’s cookin’ first shift today. ”

  “She already found work? I hope I’m not the reason she felt the need to get a job when I told her she’d have to earn her keep if she stayed here. ”

  “Don’t worry. Though your offer was mighty nice, ranch work ain’t her thing. ”

  “Glad to hear I didn’t chase her away. ”

  “Take more than that to scare either of us off. ”

  Gemma stepped closer. She had an overwhelming compulsion to touch the smooth skin on his cheek, which was still damp from the exertion of early morning chores. She settled for curling her fingers around the window frame. “Is everything all right? You seem…I don’t know…different today. ”

  “Just tryin’ to get the lay of the land, so to speak. I don’t want to disappoint my new boss lady. ”

  “Nothin’ you’ve done to me, or for me, has disappointed me so far, Cash. ”

  He grinned. “Good to hear. What do you say we get the rest of these morning chores done and head over to the diner for lunch? I’d like to see my girl in action. ”

  “Sounds good. I’ll grab the truck keys, and the salt, and meet you by the gate. ”

  Something between them still didn’t feel right. Rather than press the issue, she’d see if it resolved itself – or if it was unfounded paranoia on her part.

  Carter tried not to fume as his horse cruised across the pasture. Problem was, he suspected he was mostly mad at himself. He should’ve trusted his gut feeling and gone to Macie like he’d planned last night. From the looks of it, Cash and Gemma had been so wrapped up in each other Macie probably spent the night by herself.

  How often had that happened to her? Was that the reason for her reserve?

  It was a detached attitude, a purposeful distance he recognized. Hell, even his own family considered him aloof. Last night, in the long hours he’d spent alone, he’d attempted to draw Macie from memory. He’d expected that seeing her in the flesh would lift the veil stifling his creativity. It’d worked at first. By the time he’d finished with the half-dozen or so sketches of her, none of them to his liking, it was nearly three in the morning. He crumpled them up and managed to nod off. His dreams weren’t memorable, but on some level they’d disturbed him enough to rouse him from a light slumber.

  His sole desire when he awoke was to sculpt her. Dig his hands into clay and immortalize her, then cast her likeness in bronze. But again, rather than give his muse free rein, he literally had to rein in Gemma’s horses.

  Normally he loved working outdoors with animals. It gave him a chance to study their movements. The come-hither toss of a filly’s head. The way the stallion’s nostrils flared in response. The gleaming wetness of a horse’s coat after a vigorous ride. How the constant Wyoming wind stirred their long manes as they galloped, so the same horse never looked the same way twice.

  He figured Macie had as many different looks and moods. No wonder he was having a hard time capturing her likeness.

  Carter checked on her first thing after he’d arrived at the Bar 9 to find her camper empty and her car gone. Taking out his frustration by scooping manure had worked for a while. He knew it was a stupid move to take out the rest of his frustration on Cash. Then again, he suspected nothing he could’ve said or done would’ve convinced Cash to reveal Macie’s whereabouts.

  He grabbed a beer, a chunk of wood and his sharpest knife. Sometimes it helped clear his head to just have something in his hands to carve with no specific object in mind. Rather than secrete himself away in the barn, he plugged in his boom box and perched on the front stoop in the sunshine. A mixed CD of country tunes his sister Keely selected lightened his mood. As the wood shavings fell away, he thought of families, his family in particular.

  His oldest brother Cord kept himself on the brink of exhaustion since his wife had divorced him and left their son Ky in his care nearly two years ago. Colby, the second of the five McKay boys, gave up his dream of pro rodeo after a life-threatening injury. Last year Colby had settled into married life with Channing, a woman who’d softened his harsher edges. Between buying up every bit of available land around the McKay homestead, and chasing every rodeo queen within one hundred miles, his brother Colt made sure the McKay reputation for wild behavior remained intact. Although he and his older brother Cam were closest in age, since Cam had been stationed in Iraq, his visits to the ranch were infrequent. War had changed him. Cam was silent and serious; his infamous practical jokes non-existent.

  How did his family see him? The quiet, laid back one? Young and stubborn? Cord and Colt bantered those words back and forth his entire life. Carter had no idea if anything he’d accomplished put him on equal footing with the brothers he idolized.

  Which was part of the reason he’d jumped at the chance to work for Gemma. He wouldn’t be underfoot and under scrutiny as he prepared for the art show with the potential to change his future.

  Carter was relieved Gemma hired Cash Big Crow. Lately, taking care of the livestock sapped his energy and his creativity suffered. He’d finished half the pieces needed for the art show. The ideas were there, but the drive wasn’t. Now that time wouldn’t be an issue, could he focus on completing projects? Or would meeting his beautifully haunting muse prove an even bigger distraction?

  Just thinking about the sweet temptation of Macie…

  The knife slipped and he swore. He wiped the blood on his jeans and dumped a splash of beer on the cut. Wasn’t whiskey, but it seemed to do the trick. Disgusted the blob of wood in his hand was still a blob, Carter drained the beer and headed into the barn.

  Muse or no muse, he needed to get back to work.

  Chapter Nine

  Dog-tired after a busy day at the diner, Macie crawled out of a cool shower and flopped on her tiny couch. Not two minutes later two raps sounded on the camper door.

  She shouted, “Come in,” over the
din of the air conditioner.

  Maybe Carter deigned to stop by. Not that she’d been holding her breath for his appearance last night, but she was a tiny bit disappointed he hadn’t shown.

  Typical man. The sweet words were no more than sweet lies, Macie.

  Shut up, Mom.

  The door opened and her father stepped inside.

  She couldn’t hold back a smile. “Hey, Dad. ”

  “Hoka hey, Macie. What’s up? Is this a bad time?”

  “No. ”

  He paused on the threshold, looking…nervous?

  “Bet it’s weird knockin’ on your own door, huh?”

  “That it is. ”

  “Come on in. I appreciate you letting me crash here. It would be uncomfortable staying in Gemma’s house,” she added hastily, “not that she’s not nice or anything. ”

  “True. Plus, I imagine you’re used to your independence. ”

  “Also true. ” Macie was glad he understood. “You want a beer?”

  He grinned. “You drinkin’ my beer?”

  She grinned back. “Yep. ”

  “Glad to see it ain’t goin’ to waste. ”

  Macie pulled two bottles from the small fridge. A pop hiss echoed as she twisted the caps off and handed him a cold one.

  Her father slid into the bench seat of the folding table. She scooted in across from him.

  “So how was your first day on the job as foreman?”

  “All right I guess. Foreman’s a fancy title considerin’ I’m the only one workin’ for her. Gemma’s runnin’ less cattle than I assumed. There’s more broken equipment than what I expected. Lucky thing I’m a jack-of-all-trades, eh?” He lifted his bottle in a mock toast.

  Macie clinked her beer to his. “Very lucky. ”

  He sipped. She sipped.

  “Speakin’ of jobs. You found something pretty damn quick. ”

  “Yeah, I know. I wasn’t planning to work, but when I saw the help wanted sign, it seemed like a sign. And I knew you’d be busy and I didn’t want to sit around taking up space, waiting for you to pay attention to me. ”
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