“That’s not true. I care about her.”
“Care? Jesus, Cord. You care about horses, and cattle, and the ranch. If you care about a person, you tell them you love them. Hell, you shout it from the rooftops.”
All I wanted was for you to love me. Just love me.
“Why haven’t you done that?”
“I don’t know!”
“That’s bullshit,” Keely said. “AJ deserves better than you. Why should she have to be the one to convince you she’s worthy of you? You oughta be on your knees proving that you’re worthy of her. Instead, you’re here glaring at me, acting as pigheaded as every other man in this testosterone-laden family.” Keely opened her cell phone and whirled away.
He snagged Keely’s elbow. “What do you want me to say? I nearly lost my f**kin’ mind when I realized no one in my entire family knew what she’d been through all those years to keep that goddamn ranch when she was merely a girl? That I nearly wept with fear when I considered I could’ve lost her forever if she hadn’t been in my bed the night her house caught fire?
“Should I tell her that I can’t sleep, I can’t eat and I miss talkin’ to her? Or just sittin’ with her? That I miss the secret way she smiles at me? That I constantly think about the way she smells, the taste of her mouth, the feel of her skin, and the sound of her laughter?
“That she’s the only woman I’ve ever met who gets everything about me? My moods, my needs, my ties to the land? She sees the beauty in a patch of weeds out in the middle of nowhere Wyoming? That I love she can saddle and ride a horse faster than me?
That she ain’t as shy as she pretends? That she doesn’t mind muckin’ out stalls? And checkin’ cattle?
“She loves sunsets and bakin’ cookies and holdin’ babies and two-steppin’ and all that corny country shit? She loves my son, and how was I supposed to tell her how much I love her, when I was scared to death she’d leave me—and then that’s exactly what she did anyway?”
He was breathing hard and damn near tears. “You tell me how I’m supposed to deal with that, Keely, ’cause I sure as hell don’t know.”
The sudden silence was like more salt in his wound.
“You stupid jerk. You really do love her.” Keely all-but tackled him in a bear hug.
“She didn’t leave you.”
“Well, she ain’t here.”
“But she will be if you give her a reason to come back.” She tipped her head back and stared into his eyes. “You do realize how important it is for AJ to finish school? For herself? There’s so little she’s done for herself, like you, everything she’s done has been for her family.”
“Guess I didn’t understand. Guess maybe I thought school was a whim—”
“—like marrying a Wyoming rancher and hightailing it back to the big city when it didn’t work out? AJ is not Marla. But you will lose her if you don’t take the first step this time. She gave you her trust, it’s time for you to give her yours and toss in your heart to up the ante.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
Cord’s and Keely’s eyes swiveled her direction.
“Why don’t you ask your father? He’s had to grovel a time or two hundred. He’s got lots of pointers.” Her smile faded. “But if you really want to show Amy Jo she matters to you? Prove you listened to her thoughts and opinions, hopes and dreams over pillow talk or during dinner or while you were cleaning the barn. She gave you the map to her heart, son, you just gotta learn to read it.”
A gust of wind rattled the chimes on the porch, breaking the lingering silence.
Cord smiled and let the sage-scented breeze soothe his troubled mind. He could do this. He had to do this. “A map, huh? I can work with that.”
Four weeks later…
AJ was dragging butt after a long day of classes. She waited for the elevator, clenching and unclenching her fists. Her hands hurt. Had she given everyone in the free world a massage this week?
The apartment she shared with Keely was dead quiet. AJ let out a sigh of relief. As much as she loved her roommate, she needed some down time. Keely was a whirlwind of activity. When she wasn’t studying or working she had to be out doing things and she demanded AJ come along for the ride.
It hadn’t taken long for AJ to get back into the swing of school. Between the three extra classes and finishing an extra work-study course in four days, she was still on track to graduate right before Christmas.
Not that she had a clue what she’d do once she received the diploma. As much as she loved her mom and sister, she’d rather live in Denver than Billings. She’d filled out the paperwork for the Wyoming economic development’s no-interest loan, an initiative for opening her own studio in Sundance, but she wouldn’t have the final word on whether she’d received it until after the first of the year.
Every week different businesses would come to the college to recruit students. AJ
could probably pick and choose where she wanted to work—but none of the health care companies were in Wyoming. Where her heart was.
Her weary head fell into the couch cushions. For the first two weeks after her house burned down and she’d returned to Denver, Cord called her every day. Sometimes twice a day. She never picked up. The messages weren’t sweet and loving, but terse. Typical.
Then he’d stopped calling altogether.
AJ knew things were crazy at the McKay ranch. Colt had returned home after a month-long stint in rehab. Channing’s pregnancy wasn’t going smoothly and the doc put her on partial bed rest, which worried Colby. Carter postponed his art show to help out on the ranch since Kade was gone for the whole winter. Quinn and Bennett pitched in.
Macie ran into major remodeling snags with the diner, which required her constant on-site supervision.
And Cord…well, evidently Cord was the glue that held it all together.
So who held him together?
No one. She had no doubt Cord worked all day, came home and cared for his son, and fell into bed exhausted and alone every night.
Which made her heart hurt. AJ hadn’t stopped loving him, she was pretty sure if Cord could love any woman, it would be her. She wondered fifteen times every day if she’d done the right thing in walking away from him, when he’d offered her exactly what she’d wanted from him.
Wrong. You wanted his love. You didn’t get that.