Carson McKay ambled across the yard, his pace measured as he surveyed his western kingdom on the high plains of Wyoming. Everywhere he looked he saw proof that he'd poured a lifetime of blood and sweat into this ranching operation. His slow gait wasn't due to taking time to smell the freshly mown hay, but mostly from his hip replacement surgery two months ago.
According to his doctor, the years he'd spent in the saddle contributed to the problem.
But the hours he'd spent on horseback defined him. To him the only thing better than a good horse was a good woman-although his wife would argue that point.
Speak of the devil.
Carson squinted at the image on the horizon moving closer. Since his doctor had ordered him not to ride for six months, his wife had taken over exercising his mare, Sheridan. Although Sheridan was getting up there in years, the old gal still had a spark of feistiness. But her attempts to show Carolyn who was boss had ended when Caro started carrying a riding crop. Just the threat of it kept Sheridan in line.
He kept his gaze on the horse and rider burning up the pasture. As always, Carolyn was a sight to behold astride a horse. Despite the woman not being born to the saddle, she'd learned to ride after they'd married. She defined beauty and grace no matter what she did.
And he was a lucky, lucky man.
He raised his arm to greet her but she didn't acknowledge him. That's when he noticed Sheridan was tearing across the field at a full gallop like the hounds of hell nipped at her hooves.
Why the hell wasn't Caro reining her in? Carson shouted, "Pull back!" but they kept coming in hard and fast.
Carolyn angled forward, desperately reaching for…?
Shit. Looked like the bridle had broken and Carolyn had lost the reins. Sheridan's Achilles heel was if she got spooked, she wouldn't stop until she'd reached the safety of the barn.
Just then Sheridan's ass end skidded out and she came to an abrupt stop.
Everything happened in slow motion.
Somehow Carolyn managed to hang on…until Sheridan reared up, throwing Carolyn off with the force of a bucking horse. In a blink of an eye, Carolyn hit the ground.
Despite the shooting pain in his hip, Carson started to run.
The panicked voice in his head screamed, why the f**k wasn't she moving? Even as logic dictated she'd probably gotten the wind knocked out of her.
Carolyn hadn't stirred by the time he'd reached the gate. Or by the time he'd closed it behind him.
His silent plea, please let her be okay, please let her be okay, repeated on a continual loop until he got close enough to see that she wasn't okay. Not at f**king all.
Carson fell to his knees in the dirt beside her. In shock, he couldn't do anything but stare.
Her eyes were closed, her face was slack, her arms and legs were akimbo. At least her neck didn't look broken.
It wasn't, was it? She was breathing, wasn't she?
Carolyn's phantom voice, urging him to stop gawking and do something, prompted him to press his fingers into the side of her throat, checking for a pulse.
Faint, but there.
He placed his hand on her chest. Shallow breaths, but he could feel her lungs laboring.
"Caro? Sugar, can you hear me?"
He pulled his phone out of the leather case hooked to his belt and dialed 911.
"Crook County dispatch. What's your emergency?"
"This is Carson McKay. My wife got thrown from her horse and she's not movin'." Dispatch asked a few more questions, which annoyed him and he cut the dispatcher off with, "Just send the goddamned ambulance." He rattled off his address by rote as he stroked Carolyn's cheek. Somehow he kept it together when he saw the blood seeping out from underneath her head. "And hurry." He ended the call.
Then he picked up her hand, pressing her palm to his face. When he heard Sheridan's distressed whinny, he forced himself to leave Carolyn's side.
Sheridan came right over when he whistled. He unsaddled her first and then removed the bridle. He didn't bother to check the bridle's malfunction; he just threw it beside the saddle and returned to his wife. She still hadn't moved.
"Stay with me, sugar." Needing to assure himself she was still alive, he rested his lips against the pulse point in her wrist, praying help arrived soon.
The ambulance took them straight to the Spearfish hospital.
Carson filled out the pages of paperwork-without complaint. But he did it by her bedside while the doctors assessed her. He observed from across the room when they shaved the back and top portion of her head. He kept one hand wrapped around the metal rail of her hospital bed when they wheeled her to X-ray. He reclaimed his chair when they returned to her room. He never said a word. He listened. He observed. He prayed.
Then the medical personnel gently but firmly removed him from her room. He paced in the waiting room for family members of trauma patients.
One hour stretched into two, into three, into four. When the nurses asked if he wanted to speak with his family members gathered in the main waiting area, he said no.
At hour six, two young doctors, Dr. Vincent and Dr. McMillan, the neurologist from Rapid City, scooted two chairs in the waiting room across from him.
"Mr. McKay. As you're aware, your wife hadn't regained consciousness since the injury. We know from the X-rays that the blunt force trauma of impact with the ground has caused her brain to swell. We've taken no course of action yet simply because we needed to observe her these past few hours. Sometimes patients come out of these incidents on their own. That is not the case with Mrs. McKay. During our observation the swelling in her brain has increased considerably."