“I don’t need to hear your excuses. You took advantage of Macie and I ain’t gonna stand for it.”
“It’s not what you think. I love her.”
“You’ve got a piss-poor way of showin’ it.”
“You know, this is bullshit.” Carter staggered to his feet. “None of you have even seen the damn pictures. They are a tribute to her. And you’re—” he pointed at Cash,
“—actin’ just as immature about this as she did. Yes, they are nudes. So what? Macie didn’t get her way with me by forcin’ my hand, so she ran away, like I suspect she always does. You’re frustrated that she left you too, so you’re takin’ it out on me. I did nothingwrong but create beautiful art of the beautiful woman I love for the world to see.”
Gemma helped Cash stand. She swiped the blood from his face and murmured in his ear.
Cash looked at Carter. “You’re right, you aren’t anything like your brothers. The McKays I know have honor.” He limped up the porch steps.
Talk about a sucker punch.
“Cash shouldn’t have taken a swing at you. But you shouldn’t have expected any less from him either.”
“Macie asked me to keep the truth from him on what you’d done to make her leave.”
“Is she comin’ back?”
Gemma stared at him. “What do you care? You got what you wanted.”
“That ain’t fair.”
“Why are you doin’ this?”
“What’s the big deal? They’re just pictures.”
“Then put them in your bedroom. Or in your studio. Not on a public wall in an art gallery.”
“But they’re good pictures.”
“I imagine they are. What you can’t see, Carter, is that this isn’t only about Macie being naked. Maybe we are hicks, and we don’t understand your art, but we do understand that you do not exploit the person you love. Ever. You protect them. You go out of your way to shelter them, not to expose them.”
“I love her.”
“That’s not love. You took everything she freely gave you and used it against her to make yourself look good. And then had the balls to make her feel small for questioning your right to do it.”
“I see by the stubborn set to your jaw that you’re digging in your heels and won’t listen to reason. And you think we’re acting childish? Macie is hurting, Cash is hurting, hell, I’m hurting. You’re hurting everyone around you and the only one who thinks what you are doin’ is right, is you.
“Don’t bother to clean up the trailer before you leave. I’m givin’ you two days to clear out.”
Gemma turned on her heel and hustled in the house.
Carter stared at the slamming door, staggered by their accusations before he limped to his truck. Had he just lost everything he never thought he’d find? To hell with Macie and her father, and Gemma too. Everyone in the whole f**king world could go straight to hell. No one understood him. No one ever had and it was apparent no one ever would.
He snagged the bottle of whiskey from the passenger seat and chugged a mouthful of liquid fire. Maybe he’d discover the answers to his questions in the bottom of a bottle.
Four days later Carter was still half-drunk from his four-day bender.
He was sprawled on the floor in the barn contemplating studying the back of his eyelids when the door opened and a splinter of light gouged his retinas.
“Jesus, it stinks in here.”
“Yeah, like your barn don’t stink, Cord.”
“I’m just sayin’…”
Bootsteps shuffled, kicking up dirt and hay dust.
“Christ. He’s what stinks.”
“Think he’s dead?”
“Roll him over.”
“I ain’t touchin’ him.”
“Colt, you are such a pu**y.”
Carter grunted. “I ain’t dead.” He managed to roll on his back. He opened his eyes and squinted. The McKay Posse—Colby, Colt and Cord glared down at him.
“What the f**k are you guys doin’ here?”
“Thinkin’ about killin’ you now that we know you ain’t worm food,” Colby snapped off.
No mistaking it. His brothers were livid.
“Ma wouldn’t let you.” In the tense air Carter’s voice sounded rusty as old nails.
“Don’t bet on it. She was worried sick. No one could reach you on your cell. Your agent called their house. Then your buddy Jack called. The last straw was when Gemma called mad as hell because you were supposed to have cleared out. Instead, she found you passed out in the barn. Ma was halfway down the driveway with the shotgun before Dad stopped her.”
Colt hunkered down. “You’re lucky Keely distracted Dad while we were leavin’ this mornin’ and he ain’t here. Jesus. What’s wrong with your face?”
“Got into a fight.”
“Yeah, we sort of figured that,” Cord said. “Why is Gemma throwin’ you off the Bar 9?”
Carter slowly sat up. “Because Cash Big Crow looks about as bad as I do.”
“You took after Cash? I thought you had more brains than that, college boy.”
“He took the first swing but I probably deserved it. Probably deserved way more.”
“Cord, grab his other arm,” Colby said.
The two of them hauled Carter upright. Pain slammed into his head. Sorrow into his soul. How had he fallen so far so fast? This time last week he’d been on top of the world.
Now everyone knew he’d crashed and burned.
“I’m fine. You guys can go now. I’m sure you’ve got more important shit to do than babysit me for Mom.”
Talk about sounding like a whiny prick. Carter shook off his brothers’ hands and their help.
“Mom ain’t the only reason we’re here,” Cord scoffed.
“Yeah. You might be a total shithead, but you’re still a McKay. And you know we take care of our own, bro, no matter what,” Colby said.
Carter bit back the urge to bawl. His brothers were pissed off and sporting the gruff attitude they’d inherited from their father, but they were still here. If he’d been wrong about them, what else had he been wrong about?
Still, if they saw one grateful tear sliding down his bruised cheek, they’d cheerfully punch him in the face and give him something to really cry about.