Figure it out.
“Why so glum chum?” Cam asked from the bottom of the stairs. “Why aren’t you playing games with the rest of your—” cousins, but Cam amended it to, “—buddies?”
Anton didn’t look up. “I don’t know how to throw a rope. How to hook something with a rope. How to tie something up with a rope. I don’t know how to do any of that ranch and cowboy stuff.”
“That’s all they’re doin’?”
“No. There was a foot race. I got third. Colt got first and Ky got second.”
Cam bit back a groan. Colt’s competitive streak would never go away. “Third is damn good.”
Anton finally looked at him. “You really think so?”
“Sure. What other games does Grama have planned?”
“Some pin chaps on the cowboy for the little kids and a three-legged race.”
Cam’s stomach did a loop-de-loop. Anything but that. He managed, “Do you want to enter that one?”
“Yeah, but Domini’s sick and she can’t do it.”
Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. You will fall on your ass and embarrass yourself in front of your entire family.
But Cam’s mouth opened anyway despite the warning of self-preservation. “We could partner up for it.”
“It’s okay. I know you don’t wanna do it and you’re trying to be nice to me.”
The kid’s dead-on assessment of his attitude stung. “Why would I offer if I didn’t mean it?”
Anton shrugged. “All grownups say things they don’t mean.”
The truth left shame coiling in his gut. Cam had sworn to Anton he was nothing like his father. But he acted just like Rex—he ignored the boy the same as Rex had done.
Hellfire and damnation. Cam wished he could erase the last two months. But since he couldn’t, the best he could do was to start fresh.
“Look, I could feed you full of crap, offering excuses on why I’ve kept my distance since you moved in with us. I could make promises about how everything will be ponies and puppies and sparkling rainbows from here on out, but you’re a smart kid. You’ve been burned by those lies before.
“So I’ll just tell you I’m sorry. I will do better, not try to do better, but I’ll actually be part of your life. Every day, not just at family picnics or when I’ve got no other choice because Domini is working. It’ll take time to prove to you I’m in this for the long haul, but luckily for us, neither of us is going anywhere any time soon.”
Anton ruffled his fingers through Gracie’s fur.
“I understand if you don’t wanna partner up with me, bein’s I have a peg leg and all, but I used to whup butt all the time in races when we were kids.”
That caught Anton’s attention. “You’re serious about being in the three-legged race with me?”
“Yep. We’re the ringers, no one expects us to compete so I think we’ve got a shot at winning.”
Anton smiled. Shyly. “Maybe we do.”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
The area in front of the pickups had been cleared. A section of orange rope was used as the starting line. The course curved and ended by the old outhouse. His family members had already paired off and were tying orange ropes around their “third” leg. Cord with Ky, Colby with Gib, Carter with Thane, Kade with Eliza, Buck with Hayden. Colt and Jack were helping Colby’s second son Braxton, and Carter’s second son Parker, get set up.
“Got room for us?” Cam asked.
Everyone stopped. All eyes zoomed to him and Anton. Anton half-ducked behind him. Damn. He knew just how the kid felt.
“Of course we do!” Carolyn said. She walked over with Miles cocked on her hip. “There’s the rope. Help yourselves.”
While they readied for the race, the crowd grew. His sisters-in-law, assorted cousins, aunts and uncles stood on the sidelines. But there was only one face he searched for: Domini’s.
When she smiled, her eyes shone, her face lit up as her gaze flicked back and forth between him and Anton. She gave them both a thumbs-up.
Once his and Anton’s legs were tied together, they took a couple practice steps. Shit. That hurt. He clamped his teeth together and rode out the pain. He’d done it before. For months. And months. He could do it for five more minutes. He forced a smile. “Ready?”
“Yep. Are you?”
Hell no. “Yep.” He wrapped his arm around Anton’s shoulders; Anton brought his arm around Cam’s waist.
Keely made a big production of starting the race with a long green scarf. “On your marks. Get set. Go!”
Cheers erupted and the race was on.
Cord and Ky took the early lead. Cam kept his head down and focused exclusively on his footing and the terrain beneath his feet. Heel first, step kept repeating in his head. Heel first, step. Heel first, step.
Cam and Anton built up a good rhythm. They weren’t winning, and Cam was in pain, but Anton seemed to be getting a huge kick out of it and that’s what mattered.
Then two things happened simultaneously. Parker and Braxton veered off course, directly into their path. While Cam attempted to avoid mowing over the little boys, he wasn’t watching his footing and the toe of his prosthetic foot caught in a gopher hole.
Panic and inevitability seized his lungs. If he landed on his nephews, he’d crush their bodies. Ditto if he hit Anton with his full weight. So he took the logical course of action and jerked to his left so he crashed on his hip and prosthetic leg.
The familiar agonizing pain assaulted him. Too much sweat caused the rubber sleeve covering his stump to loosen and slide down. The vacuum suction popped and gave way. Then his prosthetic was flopping around inside his pant leg. He was completely helpless.
It seemed dozens of hands touched him at once. Dozens of voices spoke to him. Cam gritted his teeth and kept his eyes closed. He didn’t want to see the looks of pity and concern from his family. He wanted everyone to leave him the fuck alone.
Her soft voice cut through the chatter, but he still flinched at the idea of his wife seeing him lying in a big goddamn pile in the middle of the fucking yard.
“I’m here. Look at me. Just me.”
He squinted at her even though her face was only inches away.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
Hurts like a motherfucking son of a bitch. “Bad enough. It detached.”
“Okay.” She moved back and quickly unzipped the section of his pants that turned them from pants into shorts.
“Let me see.” Keely bulled her way in beside Domini and dropped to her knees.
“Did you bring your crutches?” Keely demanded.
No. He’d forgotten them.
“Of course you didn’t. First we need to get it completely off.”
“I know. That’s what I’m doing,” Domini said.
“Has it been coming loose a lot lately? You need to trot your stubborn self to the VA and have it refitted. Bodies change. I think—”
“I think I’ve got this, Keely, thanks,” Domini said tightly.
“But do you know—”
“Yes, I know what my husband needs, so I suggest you back off so I can give it to him. Now.”
Keely’s hands went up defensively.
Cam was stunned when Domini took it a step further. She addressed his family. “Thanks for your concern. We’d appreciate it if you all gave Cam space right now.”
Everyone backed off. Including Keely.
Despite the stitch in his thigh, he shifted toward Anton, sitting cross-legged beside him. Tear tracks streaked his dirty face. Alarmed, Cam said, “Anton? Did you get hurt?”
Anton shook his head.
“Then why are you crying, sport?”
He whispered, “Because I’m sorry.”
“For making you do the race. You knew this would happen, huh?”
Cam wanted to toss off something clever, but he hurt too fucking bad to try. He hated the throbbing pain in the aftermath of a fall. Guaranteed his stump would be bruised and it’d be damn painful to walk for the next week.
“Did you get hurt?” Anton asked in a small voice.
“Nah.” He reached over and brushed dirt off Anton’s knee. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“I wish I could send you for my crutches like last time. That was a big help.”
“Maybe next time I could remember to put them in the truck for you when we go somewhere,” Anton offered.
“That would be great. I can’t seem to remember shit like that.” He looked up at Domini expecting her to spear him with a dark look because he’d cursed again.
“Wait a minute. What did you mean by last time?” Domini repeated. “What happened?”
“Cam fell down on the back deck. I got his crutches and helped him up. Then he showed me his fake leg.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You fell? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Cam exchanged a look with Anton. “Because it was no big deal and us guys gotta have some secrets. Plus, I was in a lot of pain and cussin’ up a storm. And I know you don’t want me swearing around him.”
“True. So maybe you’d better give us a minute alone, young secret keeper and crutches fetcher,” Domini said to Anton.
“Aw, I don’t think he’s gonna swear that much,” Anton said.
“Maybe I’m going to swear at him,” Domini replied coolly.
Cam muttered, “Shit.”
Anton raced off.
Domini didn’t bat an eye as she removed his stump from the socket. “Keely has a point, Cam. You’ve been having issues with the fit since before we got married.” She peeled the socks off. “You’re using five socks? Instead of two?”
“The damn sleeve is really slippery lately. I need the extras to mop up the sweat but it doesn’t help and it still hurts like a bitch.”