Taken, Not Spurred (Page 54)

Taken, Not Spurred (Lone Star Burn #1)(54)
Author: Ruth Cardello

“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 from Evan and remained silent.

Putting the photo down, Evan looked 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 past five years.

Evan 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.”

Voice full of sarcasm, Evan said, “Sounds like a good burden for a guilty man to carry.”

Tony didn’t deny that charge. “I am guilty, guilty of arrogantly believing I could fix an animal that was clearly dangerous. Guilty of letting my confidence blind me to what I should have seen. Your daughter paid the price for that mistake, and I will carry that truth with me for the rest of my life. Words could never express how sorry I am for what I did.”

Suddenly unsteady on his feet, Evan sank into the chair near his desk. His face went white, and Tony took a concerned step toward him, then stopped. “Should I leave?”

With a harsh shake of his head, Evan looked down for a moment. “I’ve spent a good many years hating you, Carlton.”

“For good reason, sir.”

“I waited for you to pick yourself up and try to rebuild your career. I wanted to destroy you as you’d almost done me.” Evan looked up, referencing the office around him. “I used to care about all of this. I built a business and a reputation from practically nothing. What people thought of me used to matter, but I would have thrown that all away just to take you down.” He gripped the arm of his chair. “My men told me you were drinking yourself to death and hiding up in Fort Mavis. Sounds like you made your own prison.”

Tony met his eyes again and said, “I couldn’t live with the guilt, but I suppose I was too much of a coward to take my own life.”

The old man shook his head sadly. “Dying’s easy. It’s living that takes courage.”

“I haven’t done either particularly well,” Tony said quietly.

Pushing himself to stand again, Evan approached Tony and searched his face with sharp eyes. Finally, he said, “Not many people do. I need you to be guilty, Carlton, or I have to face that Kimberly’s death was likely my fault.”

Tony started to speak, but Evan made a sound deep in his throat and waved a hand to silence him. He picked up another photo of her from his desk, one from when she was just a toddler. “Kim was our only child, and she came to my wife and me long after we’d given up thinking we could have children. She was our miracle. I never said no to her. I should have, but I never did. Spoiling a child feels good at first, but you reap what you sow, and Kimberly was impossible to deny when she wanted something. People tried to tell me about that horse’s history and his reputation, but Kimberly wanted him. Hell, I fired the only man who tried to talk me out of buying him. Told him that if he didn’t have what it took to break that horse, I’d find someone who could. Looking back, Harmon was the only one brave enough to stand up to me when he disagreed with me.”

David Harmon? His manager? Is it possible that David had worked for the Statens and never said a word?

“The man I replaced him with hired you. So you see, I carry my own guilt.”

Normally a man of few words, Tony felt that Evan needed to hear something. “Someone recently told me that there are no winners in a tragedy, only people struggling to survive the aftermath.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever heard truer words spoken.” Evan nodded sadly and rubbed his hands roughly over his face. When he looked at Tony, he looked older, sadder. “Have you said all you came to say, Mr. Carlton?”

“Yes, sir,” Tony said, understanding the dismissal for what it was. He turned and opened the door, feeling there was more he wanted to say, but not knowing for sure what it was. When he closed the door, he saw Evan still looking down at the photo of his daughter and the sight touched his heart.

I wish to God I knew how to ease his pain.

Instead of immediately driving back to his ranch, Tony found himself pulling into a cemetery he’d considered visiting many times but never had. He knew exactly where Kimberly was buried. He’d always known.

With his hat in his hand, he stood before her headstone and softly spoke aloud. “I’m not a praying man and I don’t know if you can hear me, but there has to be more than this. It can’t all be about what we’ve done wrong and those we’ve let down. Your dad says he gave you everything, Kimberly. Give me something for him.”

There was no sudden breeze. No light from above. Tony replaced his hat and shook his head. What did I expect? If there’s anyone up there, why the hell would they listen to me? He returned to his truck and headed home.