Rode hard, put up wet, p.35
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       Rode Hard, Put Up Wet, p.35

         Part #2 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 
Page 35

 

  So what was wrong with him?

  Loneliness?

  Invisibility?

  Hell if he could pinpoint it.

  Somehow Carter managed to keep his sour mood hidden from the rowdy bunch. He smiled and listened to the conversations. He was part of the crowd, but set apart. No one seemed to notice his detachment. Not even Macie.

  Especially not since she’d gotten so chummy with his little sister and Amy Jo Foster.

  Lord, the three of them yapped like a pack of poodles.

  It just served to remind him about the gap between him and Macie. Not necessarily their ages, but…

  But what? But nothing. You’re looking for excuses because you’re pissed off she’s not sitting by your side like a well-trained poodle. You’re pissed off she’s paying more attention to your family than to you.

  Like that should be a big fuckin’ surprise in his life. He’d always been the McKay in the background. How many times had he heard: Who’s that one again? What’s his name?

  I don’t remember him. He’s so quiet.

  Carter wasn’t a rancher or a rodeo star or a special ops soldier or the county stud or the baby girl. Eight years away at school hadn’t helped him stand out in the McKay family and ensured his spot at the bottom of the McKay pecking order.

  It wasn’t as if he burned to be the center of attention tonight or any other night. But between Colby regaling the greenhorns with his rodeo exploits, Gemma chatting up a storm with Channing, Cash scowling at him, Macie ignoring him, he felt the urge to get really really drunk.

  Damn, he wished his buddy Jack was here. Jack wouldn’t put up with this shit attitude. Jack’s motto was: “Be a man. Find some pussy, get fucked up, pick some fights and pass out. ” Jack swore the only way to get out of a funk was to suffer through a debilitating day-long hangover. “Feelin’ like shit makes you appreciate the shit you’ve got,” was Jack’s other mantra.

  Man. He’d welcome an ass kicking from Jack. Feeling sorry for himself was an indication he’d spent too much time alone. Might make him a pussy, but he realized he missed his pal. It’d been a couple of months since they’d talked, longer since they’d hung out. After spending damn near three years together in graduate school, they’d parted ways after graduation. Work had taken them in different directions.

  Work. That’s what he should be doing anyway. Maybe he was just feeling guilty for leaving stuff undone. It’d be best all around if he slipped away and returned to work.

  Not that anyone believed being an artist was work. His family hinted that Carter the

  “arteest” sat around staring into space, waiting for inspiration to strike him. Then he’d paint furiously, finish the piece and wait for another visit from the muse.

  Right-o.

  He wished that damn elusive muse would hurry up; he was sweating this deadline big time. It didn’t help his time management issues that he’d taken two fairly substantial commissions, on the sly, strictly for the money. Yeah, he’d justified it by telling himself it was still art, his art, and he had a truck payment to make. Hopefully the next time the muse visited she’d bring him a bucketful of cash. That’d inspire the hell out of him.

  Macie giggled. Carter’s head snapped up and his gut clenched from the potency of her smile. When had he seen her so happy? Was his tendency to brood wearing off on her? Or had she been drawn to him because she had that same dark intensity and she understood it? Neither of them could be accused of a happy-go-lucky personality. Except when they were together.

  When was the last time he’d witnessed that side of her?

  She’d acted pretty damn playful that night in the car when she’d whipped out her vibrator.

  Not helping, thinking about what you want but can’t have right now.

  Carter eased out of the lawn chair and snagged a beer from the cooler. He kept his back to the fire and stared off into the darkness. Bits of conversations floated to him.

  Gemma said, “I did not. ”

  “You used to flirt with him shamelessly, Gem. I saw you. ”

  “With Trevor? Lord, Cash, you need glasses. ”

  Keely piped in, “Trevor Glanzer is a total hottie. I flirt with him every chance I get.

  I’d do him in a heartbeat. ”

  Choking sounds came from where Channing sat.

  Amy Jo said, “Keely! Omigod I can’t believe you said that. ”

  “Well, it’s true. I think every woman here would take a crack at him, am I right, ladies?”

  Silence.

  “Fine. You’re all lying to yourselves. ”

  “Keely, I’m havin’ Dad tie you up in the chicken coop when we get home,” Colby said dryly.

  “He tried once, said it was for my own good to save me from myself. Didn’t work.

  He shouldn’t have made sure I know my way around ropes if he’d intended to use them on me. ”

  “I’d save you,” one of the greenhorns said. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with speakin’ your mind. ”

  “Oh, Marky-mark, you are sweeter than ten pounds of sugar,” Keely cooed. “You remember you said that to me when I look you up in a few years, when you’re a world-famous bull rider, fendin’ off all them hot buckle bunnies. You probably won’t have the time of day for a little ol’ country cowgirl like me. ”

  “Aw shoot, Keely, that’d never happen. ”

  Carter snorted. Keely the cowboy conqueror had struck again.

  He heard the cooler lid open and slam shut. Macie sidled up to him. “Hey. ”

  “Hey. ”

  “You’re awful quiet tonight. ”

  He grunted.

  “You okay?”

  “Fine. ”

  Laughter erupted behind them. Conversations rose and fell.

  Carter looked up at the sky. “Hard to believe it was just last night we were layin’ on a blanket lookin’ at the stars. ” He drained his beer. “Seems a lifetime ago. ”

  She put her hand on his arm.

  He faced her. There was that punch in his gut again. “You look beautiful by firelight, Macie. So goddamn beautiful you make me ache. ”

  “Carter—”

  “I want so much to…shit. I can’t be here right now. ” He spun on his heel and pitched his beer bottle in the trashcan.

  He said, “See ya’ll tomorrow,” and half-heard the shouted goodbyes as he let dust devils and bad memories chase him home.

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Feeling stung by Carter’s behavior, Macie returned to her chair by the fire, anxiety replacing her earlier relaxation.

  The discussions among the group were less raucous. The four bull rider wannabes stumbled to their tent on the other side of the house. People were starting to yawn. The campfire burned to a pile of red embers.

  Suddenly Colby grabbed Channing’s hand and jerked her to her feet. “We’re goin’ to bed. ’Night. ”

  Keely snickered. “Didja notice he didn’t say they were going to sleep?”

  “I heard that,” Colby shouted over his shoulder.

  “Yeah, well remember we can all hear you. Keep it down tonight, Tarzan and Jane.

  Those two, I swear. Everyone in three counties knows when they’re doin’ it. ”

  “I heard that too, Keely McKay,” he barked again. “Get your smart butt in the camper before I whip it. ”

  “Fine. But I will remind you I am an adult. ” Keely and Amy Jo argued all the way to the horse trailer.

  Cash and Gemma doused the fire, said goodnight and disappeared into the house.

  Macie remained outside alone, but she wasn’t tired. She tilted her head and studied the night sky. It was as beautiful as always, something she’d taken for granted. She knew she’d never look at the stars the same.

  Carter. It’d surprised her he hadn’t shown up right away to welcome his family. She hadn’t seen him until supper. Even then he hadn
’t said much. He drifted into the background. No one seemed to notice his withdrawn behavior.

  Unless…that was his normal behavior with his family. The distant one. The quiet one.

  Now that she thought about it, it was kind of weird, Carter living on Gemma’s ranch, when the McKays owned tens of thousands of acres. Surely they could’ve found someplace for him to live and work. He had family there. Roots there.

  But were those roots strangling him?

  His words, I’m nothing like my brothers, echoed in the back of her mind .

  Along with, there’s no place for me on the home place.

  Even with all his family surrounding him, having a shared history, and a constant connection, did Carter suffer from the same sense of displacement she did?

  She never felt displaced when she was with him. She suspected he felt the same. But she hadn’t really been with him tonight, not like she’d wanted. Not like he’d wanted, apparently, since he’d left.

  Macie climbed in her car and drove to his place.

  The lights were off in his trailer, a glow spilled through the cracks in the wooden slats of the barn.

  He was working. Big surprise. He was always working.

  Well, the time had come for a little play.

  Rather than sneak inside his sanctuary, she shouted, “Carter?”

  No answer.

  “Carter, are you in there?”

  “Macie?”

  “Uh. Yeah. Can I come in?”

  “No! Shit. Hang on. Just a second. ” Unfamiliar shuffling, creaking, and crashing noises sounded, followed by, “It’s clear. You can come in now. ”

  Macie skirted piles in the darkened walkway and didn’t look up until she’d reached the main portion of the barn.

  When she saw Carter, her heart skipped a beat. He looked so…raw. A powerful male, his sweaty chest bared. Ripped sweatpants hanging from his hips, drawing her attention to his ripped abs. His hair was damp and curlier than normal. His lips were full, a little pouty, his jaw rigid, and his eyes…his eyes.

  Lord God almighty his eyes were absolutely savage.

  She couldn’t think straight.

 
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