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       Roped In, p.13

         Part #6.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  hissed, “Asshat.” Then she looked over her shoulder at Stitch. “Sorry. I’m pretty sure he’s been at the bar all afternoon.”

  “Oh. Well, then, I’m gonna git.” He sent Sutton an odd look then threw his shoulders back. “Treat her right. She deserves it.”

  Sutton growled something.

  London didn’t move her hand until after Stitch had paid for his trinket and left.

  They glared at each other.

  He opened his mouth and she held up her hand. “Me first. You really thought I’d start up with him again?”

  He loomed over her. “You were fucking hugging him, London. And it wasn’t a bro hug, it was a lingering hug.”

  “Lingering hug,” she repeated. “Wow. I didn’t know there was a scale that denoted what kind of hug it was by its length. And double wow that you have somehow memorized that scale.”

  “I know what I saw,” he said stubbornly.

  “Then you need fucking glasses.”

  “Hey, you two get outta here,” the woman behind the tables yelled. “You’re scaring off my customers.”

  “Fine.” London spun on her boot heel and stormed out of the tent.

  Of course Sutton followed. His hand circled her biceps and he turned her back around. “I deserve a goddamn explanation.”

  “And I deserve a goddamn apology for your lack of faith in me.”

  He laughed. “Lack of faith? Sweetheart, the only reason we ended up together was to make that man jealous. You succeeded. Every time I’ve asked you if you’d go back to him if he showed interest again, you’ve hedged.”

  “Because it’s a stupid question.”

  “No, it’s a legitimate question.”

  “No, this is a legitimate question. You really think the only reason I’m still with you, four weeks after we made the deal, is because I’m trying to lure Stitch back? Everything we’ve done and said when no one’s been around us was us playing a part? None of it was real?”

  “You tell me,” he said coolly.

  Just like that, London stepped back. “How about when you figure it out you come find me.” She stormed away from him.

  “How about I’d better find you in my damn corral, working with my horse,” he shouted at her.

  For the love of God. Seriously? They were shouting at each other like angry teens now?

  And she’d never understood the phrase the devil made me do it, but at that moment she was so mad that she lost control of rationality. “Don’t hold your breath because I’m done with your horse.”

  “Explain what the hell that means.”

  “Dial is as trained as he’s gonna get.”

  “And you just decided that right now when you’re pissed?”

  London shook her head.

  “How long have you been keeping that from me?”

  “Since the end of the second week.”

  Shocked, he said, “Why?”

  “Because I didn’t want to leave you, jackass,” she snapped. “I’ve been in this situation before. After you got what you wanted from me I figured you’d boot my ass out.”

  “You really think the only reason I wanted you around, four weeks after we made the deal, is because I want you to train my fucking horse?” he shot back.

  How dare he throw her words back in her face? “You tell me. If you’d bothered to come out and watch me work Dial, you would’ve known two weeks ago that I was done. But you stayed away because you never intended to get back on that horse and compete again, did you?”

  He bit off, “No,” with zero hesitation.

  “When were you gonna tell me?”

  “When I had some other things squared away in my life.”

  “Was I one of those things?”

  A muscle ticced in his jaw. “Are you gonna let me explain or just jump to conclusions?”

  “Like you did with Stitch?”

  “This is getting us nowhere. Can we—”

  “No. I need to cool down before I say something out of anger that I don’t mean.”

  “London. If we don’t do this now—”

  “Then we’ll do it later.” She jabbed her finger at him. “Don’t you give me an ultimatum, Sutton Grant.”

  “I’m not. But please wait.”

  She didn’t. She kept walking until she reached her camper.

  Once inside, it was tempting to break into her emergency bottle of tequila.

  Instead she breathed slow and deep to stave off her tears. Part of her expected that Sutton would come barreling into her camper, snarl about putting her over his knee to get her attention, but he didn’t show.

  She held out on checking her phone until after opening ceremonies—but no missed calls or text messages.

  In fact, she didn’t see him or hear from him that night.

  Or the next day and night.

  Or the next day.

  Since London had a key to his house, she headed there first after the rodeo ended Sunday afternoon. No sign of him. But she could tell he’d been there. She could tell it’d been at least a day since he’d tended to Dial because the headstrong gelding came right up to her. He didn’t make her chase him down.

  Once she returned inside, she punched in the code and entered his private domain, ready to read him the riot act if he was hiding from her. If Sutton had been in his underground shooting range, she couldn’t tell because the place was always spotless. Granted, she hadn’t expected Mr. Responsible to suddenly leave firearms lying about, but there wasn’t even an empty ammo box in the garbage.

  After locking the door, she wandered into the kitchen. But she was too melancholy to fix herself food. Wasn’t long before anger replaced her melancholy. The man’s avoidance was ridiculous. Did he really think she’d just pack up and leave because she didn’t have a conversation on his time frame? Did he really believe she’d let this issue stand between them when she was in love with him?

  Wrong.

  She might be hardheaded but she wasn’t a fool.

  The man had one more day to come to his senses or she was calling in the big guns.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Sutton was running late—a rarity for him, so he hoped she didn’t give him grief for it. He scanned the tables in the restaurant. When he saw her, he smiled. There’d been a time when his pulse would’ve quickened, but now that his heart belonged to another, he just had a genuine sense of happiness at seeing her.

  He wandered to the back booth where she’d set up camp with a stroller, a car seat, and a diaper bag.

  As soon as he loomed over her, she drawled, “Forgive me if I don’t get up, but as you can see my hands are full.”

  “I see that. Will your bruiser of a husband punch me in the face if I kiss your cheek?”

  “He’s not here right now. He’ll be back in a bit, so kiss away, hot stuff.”

  Sutton kissed Tanna’s temple. “I’ve got you all to myself, Tex-Mex? Well, besides this little guy.” He peered at the face peeking out of the blanket. “Handsome papoose you birthed.”

  Tanna whapped him on the arm. “Papoose. With Fletch’s Native American background and my Mexican, August Bruce Fletcher has gorgeous coloring.” She sighed and stroked her baby’s chubby cheek. “He has gorgeous everything, doncha darlin’ boy.”

  He slid in the booth across from her. “So his full name is August Bruce Fletcher?”

  “After his daddy and his grandpa. But we’re calling him Gus.”

  “How old is Gus now?”

  “Three months.”

  “How are you doin’ with the new mom thing?”

  Tanna’s entire face lit up. “Fantastic. I had a rough pregnancy and ended up having a C-section because the kid weighed in at a little over ten pounds, but he’s such a good baby. Such a joy in our lives.” She looked away from Gus long enough to say, “If you think I’m smitten with our boy, you oughta see his father with him.”

  Sutton grinned. “I’d give anything to see the big, bad animal Doc baby-talkin’.”
r />   She snorted. “Not happening.”

  The waitress stopped by to refill Tanna’s coffee and take Sutton’s order. “Just a Coke,” he said, “but keep them comin’.”

  “Wild night?” Tanna asked.

  “Nope. Just a long one. Lots of tossing and turning.”

  “Well, you look good, if that’s any consolation. But you always look like you stepped out of a magazine ad trying to sell rugged men’s aftershave to men who have no hopes of ever lookin’ like you.”

  “Stop flirting with me Mrs. Fletcher.”

  Tanna laughed. “Sorry. Habit. So what’s up? Not that I wasn’t happy to hear from you, but I was surprised.”

  “I figured you would be. Is it weird I considered it a sign that you’d be in Denver visiting your brother right when I needed to talk to you?”

  “Not weird at all.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “I was lost and in an unhappy place three years ago. Thanks to you—and Fletch—I’m now happier than I’ve ever been. So anything you need from me, name it.”

  He squeezed her hand back. “I just need the same thing you did—to talk to someone who’s been there.”

  “What’s goin’ on? Start at the least confusing place for me.”

  “My accident late last fall? When I came to in the ambulance and I couldn’t move, I was scared out of my mind that I was paralyzed. I made a deal with God that if I didn’t end up a permanent cripple that I’d never compete in steer wrestling again.”

  Tanna whistled.

  “Obviously I recovered. I’ve been recovered for a helluva lot longer than anyone knows. My docs gave me the all clear four months ago. My family thinks I’m still on physical restrictions—because that’s what I’ve led them to believe. I’ve pulled through two bad wrecks and some heavy emotional shit, so yeah, I’m keepin’ my heavenly promise. But that’s left me in limbo, not knowing what to do with myself if I’m not bulldoggin’ for a living.”

  “I hear ya there.” The bundle on her lap squirmed and squeaked and she rocked in the booth. “What else?”

  “Dial has been shunted aside since the accident. I figured he’d be okay taking it easy for a couple of months. When the docs gave me medical release, I immediately took him out and tried to put him through his paces.”

  “How’d that go?”

  “Not well. Mostly because my brothers happened to come by and check on me, saw me racing hell bent for leather on my horse, and lost their minds. At that point I coulda told them I’d been medically released and I was fine to resume training. But in the back of my mind? That little voice reminded me training was pointless because I’d promised to give it up and I had no freakin’ idea what to do with my life.”

  “And this tug of war has been goin’ on since that day?”

  “Yep.”

  “It’s gone beyond you faking a limp and constantly complaining about your sciatica to your family?”

  “I see you ain’t lost that smartass humor.”

  “Gotta take my shots when I can.” She smirked. “But I’ll behave. Go on.”

  “I hate that Dial became a problem horse because of my lie. I even went so far as to hire London Gradsky to help me get Dial back on track.” He didn’t want to tell her this next part, but in for a penny, in for a pound. “And I’ve fallen head over heels in love with the woman.”

  Tanna stopped moving and didn’t start again even when Gus fussed. “Are you shittin’ me, Sutton Grant? You and the horse trainer? I thought she hated you for convincing Chuck and Berlin to sell Dial to you.”

  “She did. But she’s a horse woman to the core, Tanna. She trained Dial in the first place. At first she had uh...other reasons for agreeing to help me.”

  “Should I ask about them other reasons?”

  “That’s more her deal than mine. But it was a deal I agreed to. Spending all our time together...she’s practically livin’ with me. She’s sexy, sweet, funny, and that girl has a mouth on her that don’t quit—evidently that’s a trait in a woman that attracts me”—he laughed when Tanna flipped him off—”and damn if I don’t like playin’ house with her. A lot.”

  “Does she know you’re in love with her?”

  Sutton smiled. “Talk about déjà vu.”

  “What?”

  “I asked the same thing of Fletch that day he came to watch you race around barrels at full speed.”

  “What’d he say?”

  “That you couldn’t be around him and not know how he felt about you.”

  Her brown eyes softened. “I was crazy in love with that man then too, but I wouldn’t admit it to him either. So the question is, has the tough babe wielding the horsewhip softened up some and is she in love with you?”

  “I have no idea. This all happened so damn fast. Who the hell falls in love in a couple of weeks?” Agitated because he didn’t do this spilling his guts thing, Sutton let out a slow breath. “Go ahead and laugh.”

  “Not on your life. But I am gonna play devil’s advocate for ‘The Saint.’”

  He blinked at her. “Okay.”

  “I have to err on the side that says the horse whisperer—or should I say horse whipper?—is madly in love with you too. How could she not be? You are the real deal, a genuine gentleman and one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known.” She winked. “Even if you are a little shy and reserved for my taste.”

  “I’da given my left nut to hear you say that to me years ago.” He’d been so crazy about Tanna, even when she’d been crazy about Fletch, but he hadn’t harbored illusions that they’d ever be together. That just reminded him he had a long history of betting on the wrong horse—when it came to women. Reading more into situations and relationships that weren’t there. So he erred on the side of caution. “I just…worry that if London had feelings for me, they’ll change like Charlotte’s did when she realized I’m no longer interested in living life on the road pursuing another championship.”

  Tanna angled forward. “You listen to me, Sutton. Charlotte was a star-fucker; she doesn’t deserve a thought beyond that. I take it London found out you’re putting ‘former bulldogger’ on upcoming resumes?”

  “We had a big damn fight and I didn’t even tell her that I knew in the hospital I’d never intended to compete on the circuit professionally again. She asked why I hired her. I saw it in her eyes, she thought everything was lies and manipulation—and she stormed off refusing to discuss it.”

  “Ever?”

  “No. She said she needed to cool down. Then I had to go out of town and everything is just fucked. Been a long couple of days.”

  Fuck. He needed to get the hell out of here. What made him think this was a good idea? He drained his soda and stood. “Sorry. Wasn’t fair to dump all this on you when you’ve got so much on your plate already.”

  “Sit your ass down, Sutton. Now.”

  He sat.

  “You came here because you want my advice, not to hear me condone or condemn what you’ve been doin’, right?”

  “Right.”

  She smiled at her baby when he grunted and squeaked. “My precious boy here has changed my life and the way I look at every little thang. So he was my promise to God, so to speak. Fletch and I tried for a year to get pregnant. I swore that if we were blessed with a child, I’d slow down. Take a year off from the circuit.”

  “Are you rethinking that?”

  “Right now, I couldn’t give a damn if I ever compete in barrel racing again. On any level.” Tanna looked up at him. “I have four world championships. The number of women who can lay claim to that can be etched on the head of a pin.” She bit her lip. “Okay, that ain’t true. I still tell tall Texas tales if I can get away with it. The point is, the deals we make with ourselves, the promises we break, all lead to one question: how many championship gold buckles are enough?”

  “My brother asked me that same question.”

  “Did you answer?”

  “Nope. Mostly because I was trying to downplay the truth.”

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