Chassie’s thoughts flew to Cam. She couldn’t comprehend not ever seeing his teasing smile again. Or being a victim of his practical jokes. Or watching him lace up his battered running shoes before he took off on his daily ten-mile run. Cam’s life obsessions were working out and guns. No one had been particularly surprised when he’d enlisted in the armed forces. But his family was shocked when he’d made the military—not the McKay Ranch—his career.
She balanced the tin of cookies. She’d barely climbed the steps when her cousin Colt stepped on the porch.
No smile adorned his lean face and the lines around his eyes were drawn with worry.
His gaze zoomed to the bandage on her face. “Girl, what happened to your head?”
“Run in with a goat.”
“Looks like she bested ya, darlin’.” He pointed at the tin. “Whatcha got in there?”
“Sugar cookies for Aunt Carolyn.”
“Aw, it was real sweet of you to drive all the way over here. I’m sure Ma will appreciate the goodies once she’s feelin’ better.” Colt attempted to snatch the tin from her hands even as he blocked the door.
Chassie kept the cookies out of reach. “I’d rather give them to her in person.”
“And she’d love to see you too, Chass,” he inserted with his usual charm, “but it’d be better if you let her heal up first—”
“Cut the shit, Colt. Keely called me and told me about Cam.” Colt started to deny it but Chassie held up her hand. “Aunt C was a lifeline to normalcy after Dag and my dad died and I just wanna see if there’s anything I can do for her, okay?”
That comment stopped him cold.
Colt studied her, then led them into the house. The stone cold quiet house. The McKay household existed in a perpetual state of chaos and Chassie shivered at the eerie stillness.
She hung her winter jacket on the antique coat tree and dropped the cookies in the messy kitchen—whoa, Carolyn’s domain was never in disarray—and hung a right into her aunt’s sitting room.
The space, a merry mix of yellow and red, didn’t offer the usual cheer. Chassie’s heart hurt seeing her normally vibrant aunt subdued. Carolyn McKay always looked put together, whether she wore faded, dusty Wranglers and a Western shirt or a cocktail dress. Today was no exception.
But there was an edge Chassie hadn’t seen before. A sense that one wrong word, one wrong move, one wrong look, and she’d unravel like the skein of yarn in her lap.
Chassie watched Carolyn knitting feverishly. The result of her rapidly moving fingers was a pale blue lump piled beside her. Carolyn didn’t glance up when she said,
“Keely shouldn’t have told you.”
“I’m glad she did, Aunt C.”
Chassie crossed the room, her sock feet silent on the wooden floor. She sat on Carolyn’s left side. Click click click as the metal needles whipped the yarn into shape.
Neither one spoke for the longest time, which was fine by Chassie. She honestly didn’t know what to say.
Aunt Carolyn babbled, “I’ve been putting off finishing this baby blanket for Carter and Macie’s newest addition. You know she’s due any day, right?”
“The baby is a boy. Always a boy in this family, so I have every color of blue yarn you could imagine. I wanted something different for each of my grandchildren. Thane’s baby blanket is navy blue and Kyler’s blanket is turquoise. It’s so sweet Ky still needs that blanket every night before he can sleep even when he claims to be a big boy. Gib’s blanket is robin’s egg blue. Channing won’t let him have it in his crib anymore because she’s afraid he’ll tie it around the slats and use it to climb out.”
Chassie smiled. That sounded like the little wild man.
“I say what goes around comes around because Colby was my climber. Cord always stayed put, patiently waiting for me to lift him out. Colt persuaded Cord and Colby to break him out of his playpen soon as he could talk. Such a charmer at an early age and that hasn’t changed. And Cam. Cam rattled the bars on his baby jail until I feared he’d rip them out. When Carter was born I thought Cam would accidentally hurt him because Cam was such a big kid. But Cam was gentle with both Carter and Keely. And patient.
Lord, his size scared a lot of folks. Cam is strong and smart and he can’t be…there’s no way. No way. They’re wrong. They’re wrong.”
The clicking stopped. So did Chassie’s heart.
“Oh God. I can’t do this…I can’t…he’s not…not Cam…not one of mine. Not mine.”
Chassie gently set the knitting aside and circled her arm around Carolyn’s shoulder as she sobbed. Chassie cried silently right along with her, her emotions ripped into shreds.
A cracking noise sounded, followed by a grunt as Carson crouched in front of Carolyn.
Her uncle’s face wasn’t the usual blank mask, but pinched and pale. Haggard. He paid no attention to Chassie; his sole focus was on his wife. Picking up Carolyn’s hands from her lap, he kissed her fingertips. “Sugar?”
Carolyn met his gaze. “What?”
“Don’t you ask me if I’m all right or I swear to God I’ll scream.”
“O-o-okay,” Carson said evenly. “Maybe you oughta—”
“Don’t you dare suggest I go lay down either, Carson McKay, or so help me God I’ll—” A great gasping sob erupted.
“Hey, now, hush.” Carson tenderly kissed Carolyn’s palms and the tips of her fingers, then rubbed her knuckles over his razor-stubbled cheeks like her skin was the finest silk. His actions seemed to calm them both a little.
“Sorry,” she said. “What were you gonna say?”
“I thought you might wanna give your poor fingers a break for a bit.”
“I’m fine. I’ve gotta get this done.”
“I’m sure. But grandbaby number four ain’t gonna appreciate you bleedin’ all over his blanket any more than I would.”
Chassie should’ve excused herself. But this sweet, solicitous side of her brusque uncle staggered her. She’d never seen Carson McKay as an affectionate man, least of all with his wife. She hadn’t thought him capable, given what Chassie’s father said about Carson being the coldest, most calculating SOB he’d ever known.