Authors: Em Petrova
Every Calhoun bowed their heads except Buck Jr. and Ryder’s little girl, Merry. She blinked at him with big, lash-thick eyes as Buck finished the prayer. Ridge braced himself.
Sure enough, every eye turned his way. He glared at everyone except his mother, Lane and West. They’d been the ones to drag him off that asshole after his bum ride, and they’d kept it quiet.
“When were you going to tell us, Ridge?” Wynonna asked.
He picked up the ribs and scraped his teeth against the bone, gathering enough meat in his mouth to keep him chewing and unable to speak for a while. Once they all realized he wasn’t talking anytime soon, they began to fill their plates. Buttery potatoes with the skins on were passed around, along with green beans and rolls. In the center of the table was a pot of strawberry jam.
Merry reached toward it, her fat fingers opening and closing like jellyfish tentacles. Joy asked for someone to pass the jar, and she put a small spoonful on the little girl’s plate. In a blink, it was gone, her mouth to plate as she sucked it clean.
Wynonna must have been watching for him to swallow his food, because the meat barely started down his esophagus before she jumped him. “Let’s stop ignoring the elephant in the room. We all saw that footage of you jumping that fan, Ridge.”
He didn’t bother wiping his mouth clean when he answered. “He was hardly a fan.”
“You know we’re all scrutinized for everything we do.”
“If Bella Roberts had said something similar to you, it’d be you on that footage, Wynonna.” Bella was one of her biggest competitors.
A dark shadow crossed Wynonna’s face, and she didn’t respond.
At the head of the table where Buck now sat in place of their father, in order to make room for high chairs and spouses, he cleared his throat. “We’ve gotta rise above the bullshit, bro.”
“I’d like to see you try if someone mentioned something painful to you.”
Buck looked to his wife, who was trying to encourage Buck Jr. to try his beans. But all he wanted was the jam Merry had.
“Pass that jam here,” Ridge said, grabbing a roll and ignoring his family.
“Ridge, we only want you to be happy, and it’s clear you’re not,” his mother added.
A cold deadness spread through his chest, and he stood up. At that moment, Merry started crying for the jam, so he picked up the pot, stalked around the table and pulled her from her highchair. With the little girl in his arm and her sticky hands around the jar he held, he scanned the room. “Merry and I are finished here.”
He could hear a cow fart way out in the barn, it was so quiet in the kitchen. He went onto the porch, dragging in a breath of humid air that was still better than the atmosphere inside.
He sank to the swing and tucked Merry against his chest as he pushed off. She squealed, and he let her stick her whole hand in the jam pot. She withdrew, dripping with red sticky stuff, and proceeding to suck her fingers and palm clean.
“Missed a spot,” he said, pointing to the back of her filthy hand.
“Mmm.” She looked up at him with adoration on her face. At least he’d be the favorite uncle. He wasn’t in anyone else’s good graces.
Merry stuck her hand back into the pot and wiggled it around, probably enjoying the feel of getting dirty.
“I know the feeling. I don’t care what anybody says—punching that guy felt great.” He flexed his knee, which was stiffer than ever today. He needed to get it to settle down before the rodeo season started in earnest. He couldn’t have more rides like that.
A giggle sounded, and he looked up—straight into Kashley’s mismatched eyes. “What am I missing out on here?” She spoke slowly, and Merry gave her a big jam-smeared smile.
“This is Merry.” He looked down at the imp in his lap. “Merry, meet my friend Kashley.” He glanced up in time to see Kashley’s smile dim a bit, but it returned a second later.
“I see somebody likes my momma’s jam.”
He made room on the swing for her. “You brought this up?”
“Yesterday. That tractor still in working order?”
He jerked his chin toward the field, and she followed his gesture to the field that was freshly mown. “If the rain holds off, we’ll have that in tomorrow.”
She nodded. They swayed. Merry sucked noisily on her hand and then leaned back against his chest.
“She’s a beautiful little girl,” Kashley said, touching Merry’s bare toes. She was wearing a short dress and her diaper was beginning to feel suspiciously damp. She fussed a little, and he stuck his knuckle in her mouth.
“She’s teething,” he said with a sheepish look at Kashley. Today she wore her hair down. The heavy mass waved over her shoulders, close to Merry’s sticky hand. Ridge used his free hand to brush her hair aside, out of reach.
She went still for a heartbeat. They swung forward, back, and she was her normal animated self again. She leaned against the back of the swing, her shoulder snug against his. “Isn’t dinner inside? And why are you guys out here sharing a pot of jam?”
“They were ganging up on us, weren’t they, Merry?” At least he wasn’t under fire anymore, and he couldn’t hear them whispering about him. Plus, he was out of the spotlight. No cameras had followed him outside.
Merry bit into his knuckle, and he winced. Kashley laughed. “She’s a chomper.”
“That she is. She seems to have satisfied her sweet tooth for the day, though. Joy wasn’t letting her have a go at the jam, and sometimes all you need is a little more understanding, isn’t that right, short stuff?”
Merry’s eyes were looking heavy.
“I think she’s falling asleep.”
“I’m pretty sure she needs a diaper change.”
Kashley laughed again. It felt good to hear it. For a long time, he’d done nothing but irritate and wreak havoc around him. When he pushed off the porch floor to move the swing again, a sharp stab of pain hit his knee.
“When were you going to see the doctor about your knee?” she asked softly.
He jolted. An excuse jumped onto his tongue, but there was no use lying to her. “I’m trying some home remedies first.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. Please don’t rag me about it, Kash, because I’ll have to get up. I’m comfortable sitting here, and Merry’s almost asleep.”
“Is your family on you about your knee?” She toyed with the long ends of her hair, twirling them around her index finger and then unwinding it.
“I wish it were my knee.”
“The fight then?”
He groaned. “Did everyone in the world see it?”
“I’m pretty sure there are a few people in Wisconsin who haven’t, but only because their wifi’s out.”
He groaned louder and turned his gaze on her. She sat close, and he hadn’t realized how beautiful her skin was until now—peachy and clear as an angel’s. She didn’t wear makeup as far as he could see. He zeroed in on her brown eye, and realized with a heart flip how much he missed Anna’s brown eyes.
Damn, was he ever going to get over her?
* * * * *
Kashley wanted to put her arms around Ridge and draw his head to her shoulder and hold him while he got through this whole mess. She hated seeing him so strained, his jaw so clenched.
“You don’t need to talk about any of it with me, Ridge.”
“Good, because I don’t want to. I’m sick of thinking about it.”
The screen door opened, and a beautiful blonde woman came out. When she looked at the child nestled against her uncle’s chest, her expression softened and her mouth opened in an O.
“She fell asleep, the little dear,” she said, and then looked to the jam that was wedged between Kashley and Ridge’s thighs. “I’m glad you didn’t let her eat it all.”
“She has a sticky hand and face, but she got her fill pretty quick.” He pulled his knuckle from Merry’s mouth. Drool stretched between his finger and her rosebud lips, and two little teeth marks indented his callused skin. Kashley’s heart gave a little hitch of tenderness.
“Let me take her inside and lay her down.” The woman Kashley knew from the show was Joy, but they still hadn’t been introduced. As if realizing this, Ridge said, “Oh, this is Ryder’s wife Joy. This is Kashley.”
They smiled at each other and Kashley said hello. Then Joy took the child off Ridge’s lap. A dark circle of wetness was left behind on his jeans.
“Agh, I’m so sorry, Ridge.”
He waved her away, and she disappeared into the house, cradling the sleeping girl. He swiped the baby spit off his knuckle before he stuck his finger into the jam. As he brought the sugary gel to his lips, Kashley grew riveted. She couldn’t look away from that finger that was about to vanish in his mouth.
Goosebumps skimmed her forearms, and she hoped he didn’t notice.
“You’re cold? In this hot air?” He stuck his finger between his lips and sucked.
Kashley tried to keep her eyes from rolling back in her head, but it took every ounce of willpower she possessed. This was one of the things she loved about all the Calhouns—they were gorgeous, rugged cowboys who were oblivious to the reactions of the women around them.
“I’m not cold at all. So tell me about the rodeo. When’s your first event?”
“Two weeks in Kansas.”
“That’s a big one, right? Inter-state?”
“Yep,” he drawled, which only stoked her fires more. Suddenly, he got to his feet and paced across the porch. He ran his fingers through his hair, and from this angle she saw he had a trace of barbecue on his lip, which only endeared him to her further. But he was hurting, that was obvious.
She abandoned the swing and went to his side. He watched her come, and she quelled the urge to leap into his arms.
“Why are you here, Kash? Why are you sticking by me?”
“That’s what friends do,” she said quietly. She laid a hand on his arm.
“Everybody wants something from me right now.”
She shook her head. “Not me.” Well that was far from the truth, but he couldn’t know she wanted him to bend her over the porch rail and give her a screaming, shaking orgasm.
“My family wants me to toe the line and take everything people give out without so much as a bit of lube and a reach-around.”
His words made her bite her lip to keep from smiling.
He went on, “The crew wants me to explode so they get a good piece for the show.”
“You feel the pressure about your knee and the upcoming event.”
He nodded, his brown eyes like those of a big puppy’s, pleading with her to make things right. She wanted to—she would.
Squeezing his arm again, she said, “I’ll do some research about your knee, see if there’s something else—”
He swiped a hand through the air to stop her. She blinked up at him, waiting. “Something else, Kash. I’m getting marriage proposals.”
Her heart turned inside out, and she managed to say, “What?”
“Yeah, on Twitter. You know that stupid hashtag Calhouns? Well I’ve got my own now, it seems. Hashtag Marry Ridge. And the emails.” He groaned so low that her skin prickled with goosebumps again. “Women, complete strangers, emailing me with proposals. There are over four hundred in my mailbox right now, and new ones come in as soon as I delete them. I can’t keep up.”
“That’s insane.” She had that much competition? Women who were smarter, prettier, funnier, more successful than she was?
“One of them was from Taylor Freaking Swift, Kashley!” He whirled away from her and went to stand at the railing, head bowed.
Her insides quaked. She didn’t have a prayer with Ridge. She had to get over him. But she wouldn’t abandon him in his time of need either.
She pressed a palm to his spine. The muscles were taut, at a snapping point. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll log into your Twitter and email accounts and kindly decline all the marriage proposals. Except Taylor Swift, if you’re interested.”
That earned her a crooked smile. She pushed on. “We’ll work on getting your knee into top shape so when you go to Kansas, you’re ready.”
He looked down at her, his gaze so intense that she felt herself melting. No, she’d never get over this man. “And when I get to Kansas and beat the hell out of someone for mentioning Anna?” His voice grew hoarser on her name.
Kashley’s hopes went down in a ball of flames, but she smoothed her hand up his back to knead his tense shoulder. “I’ll come with you, Ridge. Keep you steady.”
“You’ll do that for me, Kashley?”
She nodded, and he turned. Before she understood his intensions, he enveloped her in his big arms, crushing her face against his muscled chest. He bowed his face into her hair and kissed her head. Tears formed in her eyes at the mere feel of him. She put her arms around him and squeezed back.
When he withdrew to stare down at her, she tipped her head up, waiting for the kiss that would never come. She was torturing herself and about to live through a hell of a lot more. But Ridge was her friend, and she’d be with him until he told her to go.
“You kept all those bullies away from me growing up. It’s my turn to run interference for you.”
This time when he smiled, his eyes reflected happiness.