Gentling the Cowboy (Page 53)

Gentling the Cowboy (Texan Nights Series #1)(53)
Author: Ruth Cardello

As they turned the pages of the album, Sarah said, “I remember how determined you were to teach him to walk. And then when he learned to, you were sorry because he followed you everywhere.”

Sarah stopped at one photo and smiled. She and Phil were in a wagon that Charlie had tied to the back of his bike and was pulling up and down the long paved driveway of their parents’ house. “I believe you had two shadows you couldn’t escape.”

Charlie looked at her sadly and said, “I did.”

“What happened to us, Charlie?” Sarah asked in a whisper.

His face tight with sadness and shame, Charlie said, “I don’t know. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to be as far away from all of this as I could get.”

“We all did. But running away from it never made me feel better. Pretending it hadn’t happened was slowly killing me.” Sarah hugged the album to her chest, her eyes filling with tears again. “Thank you for this. Ignore the tears. You’ve made me really happy by coming here.”

Charlie lightened the mood by referencing the mascara that was smeared across the lapel of his suit coat. “Does that mean this is the last suit Texas will ruin? My other one still smells like lemonade.”

Sarah gave him a playful swat. “You deserved that.”

A glimmer of a smile tugged at Charlie’s mouth. “That was one hotheaded housekeeper.”

Sarah sat back and slapped her leg as she realized something. “Oh, my God. You like Melanie.”

“No.”

“Do you know she’ll be here for dinner tonight with her son, Jace?”

“I’m not staying.”

“You’re going to run away because you like her. You think she’s pretty.”

“She’s not my type,” Charlie growled defensively.

Sarah laughed. “I know, that’s what makes this perfect. The business tycoon and the cowgirl. Both convinced they don’t need the other. Both determined not to change. Then wham, they fall in love and nothing else matters.”

Eyebrows furrowed, Charlie asked, “Did you hit your head on something?”

“No.” Sarah clapped and laughed again. “Even worse. I started writing romances.”

With a groan, Charlie reached for another album. “Let’s go back to why I’m here.”

The mood had been lightened with jokes; Sarah relaxed back against her brother’s side and opened the second album. “I think you need a woman who is not afraid to threaten you with a frying pan.”

“I think you need to drop it.”

“Okay, but if I’m right, you have to learn to ride a horse.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll make you that double-chocolate fudge cake you always used to ask for when we were little. I’m sure Mom still has the recipe.”

“I’d rather ride a horse. I’ve tasted your cooking.”

Sarah laughed. “That’s low, Charlie. Real low.”

He relaxed and laughed next to her, the first time she’d seen this unguarded side of him. “You’re all about facing the truth. Hurts, doesn’t it?” he joked.

No, she thought. It actually feels pretty damn wonderful.

Chapter Twenty-two

“Mr. Staten will see you now,” the secretary announced, leading the way to his office.

Tony adjusted the tie he’d worn for the occasion. He wasn’t one to dress up in a suit, but the older man deserved the respect that wearing one would pay him. This wasn’t a conversation Tony thought belonged in the workplace, but since it was the only place Evan Staten had offered, it would have to do.

Tall and white-haired, Evan was an imposing figure even in his late sixties. Tony stood in the doorway of the office, but his hesitation had more to do with the photos of Kimberly displayed throughout the office. Looking at those happy images reminded him of her joy the first time she’d successfully ridden the stallion that would later take her life. She’d been an intense young woman who lived a hundred fifty percent in the moment and he had to admit that the day he’d handed the reins over to her had also been a good one for him. He’d been filled with his own sense of accomplishment, having done what many had said was impossible.

“You coming in or not? When I heard you wanted to see me, Carlton, I wasn’t sure you’d actually have the nerve to show up.”

Tony stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He met the older man’s eyes and said, “I appreciate you seeing me.”

Evan stood and walked to the front of his desk. He picked up a photo of his daughter and looked down at it as he spoke, his face twisting with bitterness. “Do you know how many times I’ve imagined this moment? In the beginning, I used to fantasize about simply killing you—evening the debt. Only the love I have for my wife stopped me. She couldn’t have borne losing me along with Kimberly.”

Tony took a few steps into the room. He stopped several feet away and remained silent.

Putting the photo down, Evan looked across at Tony, his face set in harsh lines. “I would have ruined you, but you destroyed your own career. You cheated me from even that pleasure.”

Tony nodded, still giving the other man free rein to verbally flog him. It was the least he could do, considering what he’d taken from him.

“When I heard that you’d called, I thought about how many ways I’d tell you what a piece of shit you are. You should be rotting in jail. You don’t deserve to have a life after you took my daughter’s,” Evan snarled. “And you did kill her. I might not have been able to prove it in court, but it was because of your negligence that she died. Yet you sat there in court as if it had nothing to do with you. You couldn’t even look me in the eye. You know why? Because you’re a coward, Carlton.”

Tony inhaled sharply, but he met the older man’s gaze respectfully. His temper was fully in check because this was not about him. This was for Kimberly, and for the father who had loved and lost her. Besides, Evan wasn’t saying anything Tony hadn’t thought himself many times over the last five years.

Staten leaned back against his desk and folded his arms across his chest. “What would a man like you think he could possibly have to say that I would want to hear?”

Studying the photo of Kimberly on the wall behind Evan’s desk made what Tony had held in for so long easier to say. “Not a day has gone by since your daughter died that I haven’t thought of her, that I haven’t regretted ever agreeing to work with that stallion.”