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       Roped In, p.14

         Part #6.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  “Which is?”

  “Even without the injury and the promise I made, I was ready to move on from the road to rodeo glory bein’ the only life I had.”

  Tanna said, “Aha!” loud enough to startle Gus. The baby screwed up his face and wailed. “Sorry my sweet.” She brushed her lips across his forehead. After the baby had settled, her gaze met Sutton’s. “Once you stop faking your injury, what are your options as far as a career? Ranching with your brothers?”

  “They’d let me be part of the operation if I asked.”

  “But you ain’t gonna ask.”

  “No. I like living close to family and having some acres to spread out on and helping them out in the busy season, but the day to day grind of ranching ain’t for me.”

  She raised a brow. “Still didn’t answer the question, bulldogger. What’s your college degree in?”

  “Business. Not ag business, just an associate’s degree in business administration.” He sighed. “My dad wanted me to have something to fall back on after I stopped chasin’ points and purse.”

  “And do you?”

  He shrugged. “Maybe.”

  “Don’t make me come over there and box your ears to get an answer. Beneath the baby spit up, I’m still a born and bred Texas cowgirl, ready to kick some ass.”

  “I never doubted that for an instant, Tex-Mex.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “A buddy of mine is waiting on whether I’ll pass the tests that’ll clear the way for me to come to work for him at his gun range.”

  “That’s great! See? You’ve got options.”

  “First I have to pass my range master certification.”

  “So? Eli told me you’re a deadeye with any kind of weapon.”

  “It helps when you have a shootin’ range in your basement,” he said dryly. “Not much else for me to do while I was laying around, lying about going to rehab and stuck in my house. I told myself I was killing time, but—”

  “You were preparing for the future,” she finished. “So get your shit together, Sutton. Talk to London. Talk to your family. Talk to your friend. Don’t put any of it off any longer.”

  “She givin’ you some of that tough love that you gave her a few years back?” Fletch said.

  Sutton jumped. How had he missed the big man approaching them?

  Fletch reached down and plucked the baby from Tanna’s arms—after he gave his wife a steamy kiss. A long, steamy kiss.

  Sutton laughed. “Still marking your territory?”

  “Always.” He cradled the bundle to his chest. “Hey, little man. You been good for your mama?”

  “An angel, like always,” Tanna said, smiling at her husband and son.

  “I can walk around with him if you guys wanna finish your talk,” Fletch offered.

  “Nah, man, that’s okay,” Sutton said, standing up. “Your wife set me straight, which is what I needed.”

  “You did me a good turn. I’m happy to pay it forward,” Tanna said softly.

  “Agreed. Anything I can do, just ask,” Fletch said. “I owe you, too.”

  “There is one thing...” He laughed when Fletch groaned. “Since my bulldoggin’ days are over, I’ll need to find a good fit for Dial. So if you know anyone who’s lookin’, send ’em my way.”

  Fletch pinned him with a look. “Chuck and Berlin Gradsky wouldn’t buy him back?”

  “Doubtful. He’d been a thorn in their side for a few years—before you castrated him—and since he and I were well matched they were happy to get rid of him.”

  A pause hung in the air. Then, “Sweet Jesus, that’s something else that London doesn’t know,” Tanna said. “That you didn’t pressure her folks into selling Dial to you. They wanted to get rid of him.”

  “Yeah, well, she wouldn’t have taken that well since she trained him. It’d be a double blow for her.”

  “Sutton. You have to tell her that too, when you’re telling her everything else.”

  “It’s not my place.”

  “It is. Does she know you’re planning on selling Dial?”

  “She does now that she told me Dial has been done training for weeks and the only reason she stayed around was because of me.”

  “Sounds like she loves you, which means this is fixable,” Tanna said, standing to hug him and then give him a quick shove. “So go fix it, dumbass.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  Barn therapy.

  That’s what she needed.

  London pointed her truck toward her parent’s place and drove. Half an hour later she was in the shed, slipping on waders, an apron, and gloves. She loaded her tools in the wheelbarrow and started in the stall at the farthest end of the barn.

  Two cleaned stalls later, she realized she wasn’t alone. She turned toward the gate and rested her arm on the handle of the pitchfork.

  Her mom hung over the gate. She smiled. “Barn therapy?”

  “Yep. Learned it from the best.”

  “When you’re done slogging through the shit—real and imagined—come on up to the house.”

  “Will do.” London returned to her task. After she finished another stall, she called it quits. She cleaned up in the barn bathroom. Since the barn at Grade A Horse Farms cost on the high side of five million dollars to build, it boasted cool amenities, including a full-size shower in both the women’s and men’s restrooms.

  After London drove the mile between the training facility and the private Gradsky family home, she wasn’t surprised to see her mom waiting on the porch.

  “Would you like tea?”

  “That’d be great, Mom.” She flopped on the canopy swing and sighed.

  “I’d say I was pleasantly surprised to see you, but I haven’t heard from you in a while so I figured you’d visit soon.” She handed London her tea in her favorite rainbow swirl and polka dot glass.

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. Thank you for tackling those stalls. They always seem to need more maintenance than the others.”

  “Some kids do too,” London muttered.

  “Yes, your brother is always harassing me for legal advice for his toughest cases.”

  She smiled.

  “Talk to me, sweetheart. What’s the problem?”

  “Sutton Grant is the hottest, sexiest, sweetest, most wonderful guy on the planet.”

  Her mother sipped her tea. “Doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me. So I’ll ask how does this affect you?”

  “Because he’s also the most exasperating. And I’m kinda, sorta thinkin’ that I’m half in love with him, maybe a little bit.”

  “Kinda, sorta, maybe?” she repeated.

  London blew out a breath. “Okay. Completely, totally, hat over boot heels in love with that man.”

  When London kept brooding, her mom said, “London Lenora Gradsky. If you don’t start talking right now and give me every detail a mother needs, I will bend you over my knee.”

  She froze. Hard to believe how much she liked it when Sutton had spanked her. He’d been so...intense. So in tune with what she needed and wanted she hadn’t even had to ask. And then afterward, so sweet and loving.

  “I’m waiting,” her mom singsonged.

  Where to start? “After Stitch dumped me for that tiara-wearing terror, everyone thought I was suicidal. I wasn’t. Yes, I was pissed, but what kind of freakin’ jerk breaks up with the woman he’s practically living with via text? Jerks like him. I got tired of the pitying looks and wondered how I’d survive the summer since I’d see them every weekend, and then Sutton showed up at one of my seminars. He hadn’t been working Dial at all since he’d gotten out of the hospital after his accident.”

  “Dear Lord. I bet Sutton was fit to be tied because he’s all about that horse.”

  “He was and I initially told him no way because I hated how he pestered you and Dad to sell him Dial. Part of me was thinking ‘what goes around comes around, pal’ but another part of me was feeling cocky because he had come to me for help.” She g
ulped her tea. “This is where it gets tricky.” After she gave the rundown about their “deal,” she looked over at her mom.

  Berlin Gradsky wore a smile that scared London.

  “What?”

  “That’s my girl.”

  “You’re not...upset?”

  “That you used your brains to get revenge and make money and getcha some of that hot man honey?”

  “MOTHER!”

  “What? Sutton Grant is built, good-looking, thoughtful, and genuine. How could I be upset with you getting with a man like him? In fact, I’m thinking tears of pride and joy are gonna start flooding the table at any moment.”

  London rolled her eyes.

  “Keep going because I suspect we hit the problem part of this talk.”

  “Yeah. So he insists I move into his guest bedroom. He’s all cool and laid back, which bugged me to be honest. I wanted him to want me for real. So I put it aside and worked with Dial. And our first official appearance as a couple was so convincing that behind closed doors...” She sighed. “Sutton hasn’t forgotten how to ride entirely.”

  Her mom lifted her glass for a silent toast.

  “The more time I spend with Sutton, the more Stitch and that whole thing just fades away. It seems Sutton and I are headed into real relationship territory, but I feel he’s holding something back from me.”

  “I imagine he’s tired of that same old question of when he’ll start competing again.”

  London nodded. “He didn’t ask me how the training is going with Dial. Which I took as I wasn’t doin’ a fast enough job and he feels he can’t push me because we’re sleeping together. But now...the man admitted he won’t be competing again and he’s been having me work with his horse so he can get rid of it.”

  “Oh dear.”

  She drained her tea and chomped on a piece of ice. “He can’t sell Dial. I didn’t train his horse for someone else, I trained it for him.”

  Her mother shook her head. “I know you’ve got an independent streak, sweetheart, but there’s where you’ve stepped over the line. You trained Sutton’s horse. Period. Whether he sells it or rides it himself is immaterial. He’s paying you for a service.” Her eyes narrowed. “He is paying you?”

  “Of course.” Not that she’d cashed the checks.

  “There’s your answer for that part of the problem.”

  London locked her gaze to her mother’s. “You have no ill feelings toward Sutton at all for him demanding you sell Dial to him three years ago?”

  “You somehow got your wires crossed because your father and I don’t give in to demands—be they horses’, kids’, or customers’. We sold Dial to Sutton because they complemented each other. Dial was a nightmare horse, sweetheart. I don’t know why you don’t remember that. We were over the moon that Sutton wanted to take him off our hands. Sometimes I think your father would’ve paid Sutton to take him.”

  London’s mouth fell open. “What? But I trained him.”

  “We’re aware of that.”

  “So you’re saying the reason Dial is such a nightmare is because of me? Of how I trained him?”

  “No.” Her mom set the glass on the tray and took London’s hands in her own. “You and Sutton were the only two people we’d ever run across who could control that horse. The only two. We even had Dial castrated in an attempt to change his behavior and that changed nothing. We were at a loss. You know how we handle a horse like that.”

  “You get rid of it.”

  “Exactly. Sutton offered to buy him and we accepted. We knew you’d take it personally, honey. But we all know that a well-trained horse isn’t always a well-behaved horse. That’s Dial. When he’s on the dirt he’s focused, a champion, ready to do what he’s been trained to. But the instant his hooves are out of the arena? He’s difficult. You would’ve kept trying to change that behavior to the exclusion of training other horses. We had to get rid of him.” She squeezed London’s fingers. “I know that situation was the catalyst for you to strike out on your own entirely. Your father and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

  “While I appreciate that...it is sort of embarrassing that I’ve been wrong all along.”

  “About us resenting Sutton Grant? Absolutely. You resented him. And I worry you’ve gotten sucked back into that cycle of trying to fix a horse that has limitations.”

  She’d never considered any of this and it sent her reeling.

  But didn’t Sutton ask you that very first day if he couldn’t utilize Dial after he’d been retrained, if you’d be willing to help find him a new home?

  Yes. But she hadn’t believed him. In fact, she’d done exactly what her mother claimed she’d done: she’d set out to prove Sutton wrong.

  “Damn. I am a fucking idiot.”

  “No. You just added the complication of love to an already complicated situation.”

  “What do I do now?”

  “Talk to Sutton. Tell him you know that we happily handed over Dial to his care. Tell him you’ll help him find another bulldogger to sell to who can handle a horse who performs well but won’t ever acclimate to a normal environment outside the arena.” She cocked her head. “What about Stitch?”

  “Oh sure, Mom, suggest that Sutton sell a horse with behavioral problems to my ex-boyfriend. There’s no chance that Sutton would oh, hope the horse would hurt Stitch because he hurt me?”

  “Sounds like Sutton is pretty protective of you?”

  “Yes. Which is sweet and sorta hot, in a Neanderthal way. Sutton and I had words about a freakin’ hug Stitch gave me. That’s when it came out he wouldn’t be competing anymore. I was mad; he was annoying as fuck. I asked for some time and I’ll be damned if he didn’t give it to me. It’s been four damn days! He’s not answering my texts or my calls. I don’t know how to fix it.”

  “He hasn’t been to his house?”

  “Not when I’ve been there.”

  “Does he still have that underground shooting range?”

  Again, London was shocked. “You knew about that?”

  “Of course. It’s his pride and joy. He invited your dad over to shoot.” A sneaky and slightly evil looking smile spread across her mom’s face. “I know one way to get a man back home, and you won’t even have to get on your knees.”

  “MOTHER!”

  “What? I mean getting on your knees to beg him. Good lord. You have as dirty a mind as your father. Anyway, call Sutton and leave him a voicemail.”

  “I’ve tried that.”

  “Ah ah ah. But you haven’t told him that you feel so bad about what happened between you two, and you know he’s upset, so you’ve decided to do something nice for him to open those lines of communication.”

  “Like what?”

  She paused for effect. “Polish all his guns.”

  “Oh shit.”

  “Then tell him you’ve used a Brillo Pad to shine up the metal parts, but you aren’t sure if you should use furniture polish or car wax on the wood parts. I guarantee you’ll get his attention.”

  “Mom. That is brilliant. Twisted, but brilliant.” Totally impossible to do with the biometric locks on the vaults, but it’d get her point across. London leapt up and hugged her. “Thanks for listening. But I’ll admit you scare me sometimes.”

  Berlin Gradsky delicately sipped her tea. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  Chapter Fifteen

  Shining his gunstocks with furniture polish?

  That woman had a warped sense of humor. Seriously fucking warped.

  Which was probably why he was seriously fucking in love with her.

  Sutton didn’t bother pulling into the garage. He parked on the concrete slab and barreled into the house. Shouting wasn’t his style, but
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