“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.
“You’re a fighter. It’d be easy for you to say, ‘My father neglected me my entire childhood, so screw him.’ Instead you’re here, fightin’ to have a real relationship with him.
“Because you’re accepting. You don’t try to change people. You accept your dad for who he is now. And his feelin’s for Gemma never made you seriously question his feelin’s for you. Mostly, the accepting thing gets to me because you get me, the real me and accept me for who I am. You’ve taught me to accept myself. I’ve never thought I was worthy of the kind of love you’ve given me. And I want to spend the rest of my life lovin’ you, givin’ it back, times ten.”
When she still didn’t say anything he added, “And because you make the best goddamn pie I’ve ever tasted.”
Macie had never been so scared or so hopeful or so paralyzed by emotion in her life.
Carter began to walk toward her. “Be brave, Macie. Fight for me. Love me. Accept what I’m offerin’ you. Take a chance on me.”
“Carter—” He seemed upset she hadn’t thrown herself into his arms. She put one hand on his chest, stopping him.
“Please.” His eyes searched her face. “Oh, my sweet darlin’, why do you have that horrified look?”
She whispered, “Because the person you described? That’s not me. I’m not brave.
The thought of putting down roots scares me to death. Most of my life I’ve run instead of staying to fight because I’ve never had anything worth fighting for. I accept you, the real you, but will you accept me? The real me? The unsure, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person I feel like inside everyday?”
“Macie. Didn’t I just tell you—”
“Listen to me, Carter McKay. I don’t have huge ambitions besides living my life happy. I like working in a diner. I don’t aspire be a polished woman hanging off your arm at big, fancy art shows.”
Those blue, blue eyes flared anger. “I’m sorry, did I ever say I wanted or expected anything from you besides what you are?”
“Did I say, ‘Macie, go to cookin’ school’ or ‘Study this book on the influence of cubism on 20th century art’? Hell, what kind of ambitions do you think I have? Last time I checked, darlin’, I lived in a crappy rented trailer in nowhere Wyoming, and my income is close to poverty level.