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       Roped In, p.1

         Part #6.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  Prologue

  Steer wrestler Sutton Grant knew the instant he threw himself off his horse he was in for a world of hurt.

  He’d miscalculated the distance and his rate of rotation. The last thing he remembered before he hit the steer was he could kiss this year’s world championship title good-bye.

  He woke up in the ambulance, his head pounding, unable to move any part of his body but his eyes.

  Fuck.

  Try and move.

  I can’t.

  Was he paralyzed?

  He couldn’t be.

  What if he was? He’d never hurt like this. Never.

  But the fact he could feel pain had to be good, right?

  Maybe the intense pain is your body shutting down.

  If he was paralyzed, who would shoulder the burden of caring for him for the rest of his life? He didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend. Would responsibility fall to his family?

  Oh, hell no. He’d put them through enough with his last rodeo mishap.

  Mishap? Don’t you mean accident that kept you out of commission for a year? Do you remember living at home and seeing the worry on your parent’s faces?

  That’d been worse than the months of physical and mental recovery. Then he’d had the added burden of seeing their happiness vanish after he’d healed and had informed them he planned to return to the sport.

  His mother’s voice drifted into his memory. You’re still going to do this even if it hurts, maims, or kills you? He’d responded, Even then.

  He still saw the tear tracks on her face, the subtle shake of her head. And he’d still gone off anyway, chasing the gold buckle, putting his body through hell.

  I take it back! I didn’t mean it!

  Right then and there, Sutton made a bargain with God:

  Please Lord, if I survive this with my body intact, I swear I’ll give up bulldoggin’ forever. No lie. I’ll be done for good.

  White lights blinded him and for a brief instant, he thought he’d died. A voice he’d never heard before whispered to him, promise accepted.

  Then darkness descended again. The last thing Sutton remembered was wiggling his fingers and toes and whispering a prayer of thanks.

  Chapter One

  Eight months later...

  “You ain’t supposed to be out there doin’ that,” Wynton shouted.

  Sutton looked across the paddock at his older brother and scowled. He tugged on the reins but his horse Dial wouldn’t budge. Damn stubborn horse; he had to be part mule.

  “I’ve got a ridin’ crop you can borrow,” his younger brother Creston yelled from atop the corral fence.

  “I’m surrounded by smartasses,” Sutton informed Dial. “And apparently I’m a dumbass because I never learn with you, do I?”

  Dial tossed his mane.

  After he climbed off his horse, Sutton switched out the bit and bridle for a lead rope. Then he opened the gate between the paddock and the pasture, playfully patting Dial’s flank as the gray dun tore off.

  Dial actually kicked up his hooves in glee as he galloped away.

  “Yeah, I’ll miss our special time together too, asshole.”

  Asshole. Man, he was punchier than he realized if he was calling his horse an asshole.

  Sutton sauntered over to where his brothers waited for him, surprised that they’d both shown up in the middle of a Friday afternoon—with a six-pack. Wyn and Cres both ranched with their dad, although as the oldest, Wyn had inherited the bulk of the ranch work decisions. It appeared he’d changed the rule about working a full day—every day, rain, shine, snow, come hell, high water, or wild fire.

  “What’s the occasion? You here to borrow money?” he asked.

  “Good one. Glad to see they didn’t remove all of your funny bone after surgery,” Wyn said dryly.

  “Hilarious.” Sutton quirked an eyebrow at Cres. “Got something smart to say?”

  “Yeah. You know you ain’t supposed to be doin’ anything that’ll further injure you. When we hadn’t heard from you all week, we figured you were up to no good. And I see we were right.”

  “It wasn’t like I was bulldoggin’.”

  “This’d be a different conversation if we’d seen you doin’ that.” Wyn handed him a beer. “We ain’t trying to bust your balls, but goddammit, Sutton. You almost fucking died.”

  “Again,” Cres added.

  “Well, I ain’t dead. But don’t feel like I’m alive, either.” He sipped the cold brew. Nothing tasted better on a hot summer day.

  “Should we be on suicide watch?” Wyn said hesitantly.

  Sutton had a mental break the last time he’d been injured, so his family kept an eye on him, and he knew how lucky he was to have that support. “Nah. It’s just this sitting around, healing up stuff is driving me bugshit crazy.”

  “The way to deal with your boredom ain’t to get in the cage with your demon and go another round.”

  Sutton squinted at Cres. “You callin’ my horse a demon?”

  Cres rolled his eyes. “No, dipshit. Your demon is the need to prove yourself. Regardless of the cost.”

  His gaze met his youngest brother’s. Growing up, Wyn and Cres joked about Sutton being the mailman’s kid because he was the only one of the three boys with blue-green eyes. Both his brothers and his parents had brown eyes. Sometimes he wondered if that outsider status is what lured him into the world of professional rodeo and away from working on the family ranch.

  He sighed. “I appreciate your concern, I really do. I’m just frustrated. Makes it worse when I hafta deal with Dial. He’s a temperamental motherfucker on his best days. I don’t trust anyone to work with him after that last go around with the so-called ‘expert,’ which means he ain’t getting the proper workout for a horse of his caliber.”

  “A few months cooling his hooves shouldn’t have changed his previous training that much. Breeders take mares out of bucking contention, as well as barrel racing, when they’re bred. Sometimes that’d be up to two years.”

  “I know that. But Dial? He ain’t like other horses. Gelding him didn’t dampen that fire; if anything, it increased his orneriness.”

  “I’d be ornery too if some dude sliced off my balls,” Wyn said with a shudder. Then he looked at Sutton. “So that other bulldogger, the guy with the weird name...what happened the weekend he borrowed him?”

  “Weird name.” Sutton snorted. “That’s rich coming from a guy named Wynton.”

  “Fuck off, Sutton,” he shot back. “I think Mom was high on child birthin’ painkillers when she picked our names.”

  “Probably. You talkin’ about Breck Christianson? He tried to help me out during the Western Livestock Show in January while I was still laid up.”

  “Yeah. Him.” Wyn looked at Cres. “Don’t know if I ever heard you talk about what went down that week you were there with him and Dial.”

  Cres rested his forearms on the top of the fence and his hat shadowed his face. “It was a damn disaster in the arena. Dial wouldn’t do nothin’. Seriously. That high-strung bastard stayed in the damn chute. The one time he left the chute, he charged the hazer’s horse. Breck traveled to Denver specifically to get a feel for Dial before the competition, but he ended up sticking with his own mount.”

  “Huh. Surprised you stayed in Denver for the whole stock show since it meant you had to take care of demon horse while you were there.”

  Cres shrugged. “I never get to see the behind the chutes action for a week-long event. It was interesting and everyone was friendly.”

  “So Breck took good care of you?” Sutton asked.

  Cres choked on his beer.

  Wyn patted him on the back. “You okay?”


  “Yeah.” Cough cough. “A bug flew in my mouth.” Another cough. “Breck introduced me around.”

  Sutton nudged his shoulder. “Breck introduce you to his buckle bunny pussy posse?”

  Before Cres responded, Wyn interrupted. “Cres wouldn’t know what to do with the ladies. The kid is all work and no play. He probably spent all his time hidin’ in the horse trailer.”

  “I ain’t a kid,” Cress said tightly. “And don’t assume you know what I got up to because you don’t. Anyway, Breck knows everyone.” He looked at Sutton. “He introduced me to Saxton Green, that other bulldogger you get mistaken for all the time. He’s built like you, even looks like you, but he sure don’t act like you. That man is fuckin’ wild.”

  Sutton groaned. “Do you know how many times I’ve had to defend myself against something Saxton did? It sucks. That’s about the only time I don’t mind that the other competitors call me ‘The Saint.’”

  “Other competitors, and everyone else involved with the rodeo circuit, including the women, call you ‘The Saint’ because you’re the one who acts like a freakin’ monk,” Wyn pointed out helpfully. “Damn man. How do you turn down all that free pussy?”

  “It ain’t free, trust me,” Sutton retorted.

  “Wyn, leave him alone,” Cres said. “Stop acting like you’ve got it rough and ain’t getting your fair share of tail. Women are lined up in your driveway to get a piece of you.”

  Wyn smirked and raised his beer. “It’s good to be me.”

  Cres rolled his eyes. “Oh, and I also met the couple who raised and trained Dial before you bought him.”

  That piqued Sutton’s interest. “Chuck and Berlin Gradsky? Really?”

  “They were in the arena when Breck was having a hard time with Dial. Neither of them even tried to step in. They said the only people who had any effect on him was you and their daughter who’d trained him.”

  London Gradsky. He hadn’t thought of her in a couple of years. The surly brunette who’d thrown a shit fit when her parents had sold Dial to him rather than just continuing to let him compete on the horse. She’d accused him of taking advantage of her parents, caring about his career above the welfare of the animal. Then she’d launched into a diatribe about how self-absorbed he was for pushing to have the stallion castrated without considering the long-term gains for breeding. After calling him a dickhead whose belt buckle was bigger than his brain, she’d stormed off.

  Chuck and Berlin explained away her behavior, fondly referring to her as their headstrong filly. They were proud that she’d struck out on her own as a horse trainer rather than just expecting to get a primo position at Grade A Horse Farms because her parents owned the business. But still, London’s accusations had stung. What he wouldn’t give for her expertise now. Although it’d been three years since their altercation, he doubted the feisty firecracker would let bygones be bygones. “Well, it’s obvious I need help.”

  “What about that Eli guy?” Wyn said. “Didn’t you say he’s some kind of Native American horse whisperer?”

  “Eli is top notch. But Dial’s temperament is particularly bad around other horses. He took a chunk outta the alpha horse the one time I left him there—this was after Eli put him in a pasture by himself and he jumped the fence. So Dial is no longer welcome.”

  “I have faith you’ll figure something out that doesn’t entail you bein’ on the dirt with him.”

  Cres straightened up and moved to toss his bottle into the shooting barrel. “To be blunt, as much as we care for our animals, bro, they are tools. Tools are replaceable. You are not. This last time you nearly went into kidney failure, liver failure, and they talked of removing your spleen. Both me’n Wyn would’ve offered up a kidney or even a damn lung for you. You know that. We’d rather not have to face that choice again.”

  “We’re askin’ you not to do something that’ll put you back in the hospital for another six weeks followed by months of recovery.” Wyn gestured to the ranch house and the area around them. “You’ve got a nice place to hang your hat, money in the bank, the kinda looks that get any woman you want into your bed, and family nearby. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that life.”

  Sutton watched his brothers drive off. He put the three bottles left from the six-pack into the fridge in the garage, knowing he’d be less tempted to drink them all if he had to leave the house to get them.

  He changed clothes, flipped on the ball game for some background noise, and snagged his laptop. He typed London Gradsky in the search engine. The top result read:

  London’s Bridge To Training A Better Horse

  Seriously? That was the worst fucking business slogan he’d ever heard. He clicked on the link.

  Hers was a simple website. Contact info via e-mail or phone. Testimonials about her training successes. Links to horse brokers and breeders—no surprise Grade A Horse Farms topped the list—but nowhere did London list her lineage. Interesting.

  Lastly, he saw a page with a schedule of summer events.

  Sutton scrolled the page. Evidently, London put on training clinics on the weekends during the summer at local fairs and rodeos. For fifty bucks, she’d spend thirty minutes assessing the horse and rider before offering training recommendations.

  The cynical side of his brain remembered her cutting words to him and weighed in with: What are the odds she recommends herself as the horse trainer who can miraculously fix bad habits and riders?

  But his optimist side crawled out of the dark hole it’d been hiding in since the accident and countered with: Her business wouldn’t last long if she didn’t get results, and the horse training world in Colorado would shun her if she was a shyster.

  It looked to him like she’d been putting on these summer clinics for at least a couple years. And every time slot was booked, as well as several people on standby for an open appointment. He scrolled down to the current week’s schedule and his heart skipped a beat.

  Score.

  She’d be in Fairfax, Colorado, this weekend. That was only thirty miles from here. And score again. Her last slot of the day was still open.

  With zero hesitation, he typed in D.L. A-ride and hoped liked hell she had a sense of humor.

  And that she wouldn’t chase after him with a horse whip when she realized who he was.

  Chapter Two

  Worst. Morning. Ever.

  London Gradsky glared at the busted coffee maker. She’d spent twenty minutes fiddle-fucking around with the thing to try and get it to work. Giving it up as a lost cause, she’d chucked the whole works outside.

  No coffee in her cozy camper meant she had to go to the exhibitors’ and contestants’ tent to get her morning jolt of caffeine. Since she’d just planned on quickly ducking in and out, she hadn’t combed her hair, washed her face, brushed her teeth, or changed out of her pajamas.

  And motherfucking, son of a bitch if they weren’t there, Tweedledee and Tweedletwat. Making cowpie eyes at each other while people looked at them with indulgent smiles. She could almost hear the collective sigh of the women in the tent when Stitch gently wiped a smear of powdered sugar off Paige’s cheek then kissed the spot.

  Paige giggled and nuzzled him. Her tiara caught on the brim of his cowboy hat, which sent the newly anointed golden couple’s admirers scurrying forward to help them out of such a huge pickle.

  Of course no one pointed out how stupid it was that Paige actually wore a fucking tiara to breakfast. The man-stealing bitch probably wore it to bed. Then London drifted into a fantasy where Paige had donned the tiara when she gave Stitch a blowjob and it cut the hell out of his abdomen.

  “Sending eye daggers at her while eye fucking him ain’t smart, London,” her on-the-road partner in crime Melissa “Mel” Lockhart said behind her.

  “I’m not eye fucking him, I’m eye fucking him up.”

  “Doesn’t matter, because that’s not how anyone will see it. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

  London allowed herself to be led a
way. As soon as they were out of screeching range, she exploded. “How in the fuck am I gonna survive this summer, Mel? When every time I turn around I see them sucking each other’s faces off? What does he see in her?”

  Mel didn’t answer. She appeared to be hedging, which was not her usual style.

  “Just spit it out.”

  “Fine. That girl is a bonafide beauty queen. Everyone says she’ll be the next Miss Rodeo America and people treat him like he’s a prince—the heir apparent to take that All Around title at the CRA Championships in a few years. They are a match made in PR heaven. What don’t you get about that?”

  “I don’t get how that asswipe could dump me, via text message, after he does one fundraiser with her because it’s true love? Bullshit. No one falls in love in a night.” London paced along the metal fencing. “I wanna choke her with her stupid ‘Miss Rodeo Colorado’ sash and then tie it around his dick until it turns blue and falls off.”

 
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