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       Corralled, p.18

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Hank made sandwiches. He ate light before an event, something he and Kyle had in common. They didn’t speak of what’d gone down with Lainie. No reason to rehash it when they’d both been there.

  After they finished the food, Kyle said, “What happened with Barclay?”

  Hank rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Somehow he got wind of

  the meeting I had with the EBS. It don’t take a genius- level IQ to see I’m thinking about jumping ship.” He sipped his water. “So will it bother you if I do get selected for the EBS bullfighting team?”

  “Nah. They’d be fools not to choose you. You’re damn good.”

  That gave Hank pause.

  “When you talked to Bryson Westfield with the EBS, did he ask if you’d competed in any of the ABA competitions?” Kyle asked.

  “Actually, yes, he did.”

  “Not surprised. Bryson believes those kinds of competition separate the men from the boys. The wheat from the chaff. The cream rises to the top and all those lame- ass sayings that he’ll bore you to fuckin’ tears with if you let him ramble on.” Kyle fussed with the brim of his hat. “Have you entered any of them bullfighting showcases?”

  “Yeah, I just don’t advertise it much.”

  “Because you lost?”

  “No. I’ve done well. It’s just not my thing.”

  Kyle frowned at him. “Why not?”

  Hank struggled to explain. “Don’t get me wrong. The guys I work with in the CRA are great. But I don’t live close enough to anyone to work out the details of competing as a bullfighting team when I’m running a ranch during the week. So that leaves me in the freestyle form. Not my fave.”

  “Am I to take that as saying Hank Lawson’s competitive streak has mellowed?”

  Fuck no. Especially where Lainie was concerned. “That’s another reason why I don’t like to compete in those showcases. For me, squaring off against a bull is business. I’m there to save bull riders. Period.”

  “Knowing the EBS, they’ll offer to pay you very well to save riders.”

  “I wasn’t hedging when I told Lyle Barclay I haven’t decided.”

  “Does Lainie know about the potential gig with the EBS?”

  Hank shook his head. He got the vibe that working the EBS circuit wasn’t her first choice.

  “Speaking of Lainie . . .”

  Hank’s head snapped up at Kyle’s not- so- casual tone. “What about her?”

  “Tomorrow night she’s mine. You had her in your bed for a night. I get equal time, remember?”

  “We’re still in Gillette tomorrow night. What am I supposed to do on your ‘special’ night with her? Sleep in the bunk with my iPod cranked? Pretend you guys ain’t even here? How about tonight? I could hang out with the guys for a few hours.”

  “No dice.” Kyle showed his teeth. “You had her to yourself most of the day yesterday and all night. I’d only get her from nine o’clock on after the rodeo ends. Plus, after me banging her earlier and then us double- teaming her just now, I want her to be fully alert and rested, not sore.”

  Hank’s smile dried up. “You fucked Lainie while I was at the sponsors’ meeting today?”

  “Is that a problem?” Kyle asked evenly.

  Fuck, yeah. But he’d be goddamned if he’d give Kyle the satisfaction of seeing his jealousy. His eyes flicked to the flowers and then back to his smarmy friend. “Did you gift her with posies before or after you fucked her?”

  “What do you think?”

  Before.

  Bastard had it all planned how he’d edge Hank out. Flowers, cozy domestic scenes, and the all- important time alone, where he’d probably do Kama Sutra–type sex shit to Lainie that Hank had never even heard of. Or some multiorgasmic tantric stuff.

  Fuck that.

  Kyle didn’t know how far Hank would go in this battle to win Lainie’s heart.

  Hank smiled. “Sure. She’s yours tomorrow night. Fair’s fair, right?”

  But the truth was, this was all-out war.

  Chapter XIII

  For Hank, the next day was a whirlwind of sponsor activity.

  He barely had time to eat with Lainie, let alone fuck her.

  Which made him cranky, since tonight was Kyle’s one- on- one time with her.

  But she wasn’t lounging in the camper wearing slinky lingerie, waiting for Kyle to take her to heights of sexual ecstasy. She was sitting in the stands watching the performance.

  In the ready room, Hank began the ritual of dressing. He dressed the same way every time. First he slipped on the spandexlike athletic shorts, which were lightweight, yet contained panels that offered additional protection from hooves and horns. Next he donned the vest crafted out of the same material as the shorts. The piece wasn’t as bulky as the vests required for bull riders. The formfitting, nonconfining vest allowed bullfighters to make the faster movements they needed.

  He dropped to a crouch. Leaped into the air, drawing his knees tight to his chest on the jump. Then he landed back in a crouch.

  Swinging his arms, letting his elbows lead the way as he loosened up his midsection. Side stretches. Elbow- to- knee crunches. Shadowboxing. Lifting his shoulders. Lowering his shoulders. Neck rolls.

  Then he slipped on the long nylon basketball shorts emblazoned with the sponsor’s logo. At most rodeos Hank wore the Barclay uniform, although sometimes he wore the one from the Big J

  Rodeo Stock Company.

  Depending on the situation and previous injuries, he’d wrap whatever body part needed it. But tonight he felt good. No additional wrapping was required— even though Lainie would disagree about his needing extra protection over the contusion on his quad.

  Hank tugged on long athletic socks that ended below his knees.

  Tied his shoes. Strapped on his knee pads. Once he wore all his equipment, he repeated the stretching exercises.

  Some bullfighters smeared greasepaint on their faces, which was their choice. But Hank figured that, as most guys in his profession were still trying to change the public’s perception about the differences between rodeo clowns and bullfighters, donning greasepaint was a step backward.

  Hank ambled out and noticed the other two bullfighters leaning against the concrete waiting for him. “Peck and Strand!”

  Peck gave him a nod of acknowledgment.

  “Hank Lawson, you look like dog shit,” Strand drawled in his thick Texas accent.

  “Must’ve happened when I started hanging out in the Lone Star State.”

  “Har, har. You see the docket tonight?”

  “Didn’t have much of a chance to study it. What’ve we got?”

  “They ain’t limiting the number of contestants. Thirty- seven entrants. Don’t recognize half their names. So I’m hoping like hell it ain’t a bunch of rookies.”

  “Are there enough bulls?”

  “Appear to be,” Peck said.

  “Let’s head up to the corrals. I wanna take a peek so it looks like I did my homework.”

  Chaos ruled behind the scenes. Usually the excitement behind the chutes was enough to make him grin, but tonight his enthusiasm was a bit lackluster.

  “Only one thing puts a sour look like that on a man’s face.”

  Strand waggled his bushy black eyebrows. “Who is she?”

  He muttered, “She’s everything.”

  A tall, thin woman, decked out in a rhinestone shirt and skintight pants, brushed past them. She was surrounded by a group of cowboys, and every man hung on her every word. Hank stopped and stared after her. Something about her seemed familiar. Mighty familiar. But he couldn’t place it.

  Then she was gone.

  Huh.

  Hank wandered through the bullpens. While he waited for the bull riding to start, Hank watched the bulldogging. Normally he concentrated on limbering up. But tonight, Hank wanted to see the rodeo through a spectator’s eyes. Lainie’s eyes?

  Yes. Dammit. He hated that she was sitting
alone. She spent way too much time by herself.

  Music blared as the official rodeo sponsor truck rolled into the arena. Men jumped out of the truck bed, positioning the Coors barrels for barrel racing at the designated intervals.

  Sixteen competitors was a big showing for the field of barrel racing. Sometimes he wondered how Celia would’ve fared if he and Abe hadn’t insisted she quit after the disastrous fall that’d broken her leg and forced them to put her horse down. After losing their parents, he and Abe had gone ballistic; they couldn’t fathom losing Celia too. So they’d done the only thing to keep her safe— forbidden her to compete.

  And your job fighting bulls is so much safer?

  Hank blinked. It’d been a long time since he’d thought of

  Celia’s old argument. Did she resent them for making her quit the sport? Especially after Lainie agreed that they treated her like a child?

  The barrel racers were milling about on their horses. Hank limbered up as he watched. He half heard the announcement of the last competitor, CeCe Murray from outside Rawlins, Wyoming.

  The home- state girl raced to the best time and finished in first place with a damned impressive ride.

  As the barrels were pulled, Hank, Strand, and Peck waited across the arena from the chutes for their names to be called. National honors and winning bullfighting competitions were touted as each bullfighter made his way across the dirt. When the announcer boomed the standard, “Who’s ready to see some bull ridin’?” that same lackluster crowd went wild.

  Hank was oblivious to everything but the rider on the back of the bull. Not many of them lasted. One rider had gotten hung up in the rope and was taken for a ride before Hank freed the wrap.

  Kyle was up next. He’d drawn White Lightning Kiss, a Charolais/Brahman cross with a reputation for trying to pulverize riders into meat. According to the stats, White Lightning Kiss had been ridden only two times on thirty- two outs. Both those rides had scored ninety- three points.

  Come on, buddy. Stay on.

  After a last- minute adjustment on the bull’s back, Kyle nodded to the gatekeeper. Hank was right there. Close enough to the rider to offer immediate assistance if need be; far enough away from the bull to let the ride progress unimpeded. He didn’t watch the ride as much as think what could go wrong with it.

  Luckily, nothing did. Kyle hung on for the full eight seconds.

  After the buzzer sounded, Kyle released his rope. He sailed into the air and landed on his hands and knees before booking it to the fence.

  The boot stamping and clapping signaled the spectators’ opinion of Kyle’s ride. The announcers filled the time waiting for the judge’s decision. Finally the announcement came. “Ladies and gentlemen, how about a . . . ninety- one?”

  Whistles, more clapping.

  “Our leader from last night proved it ain’t no fluke he’s on the top of the board. Only eight riders to go. Let’s see if the Wyoming cowboy can hang on to the top spot.”

  The rest of the rides went quickly as only one guy managed to cover his bull. Folks began to leave— which boggled Hank’s mind.

  Didn’t matter where the rodeo was held, few spectators stuck around for the award ceremony. Some people claimed handing out the money was less interesting than a rodeo participant getting handed his ass. But Hank believed that since most folks in attendance were ranchers, they just wanted to get on home. Since Kyle had finished big, Hank hung around for the presentations.

  Bareback and saddle bronc winners were announced first. Kyle bumped fists with a guy named Breck. Then team roping, tie- down roping, and steer wrestling. Barrel racing and bull riding winners were named last, in rapid succession.

  The strangest thing happened when CeCe Murray walked up to claim her Black Hills Gold belt buckle and her check. Kyle went rigid, then grabbed the woman by the arm and hauled her up to the tips of her ropers.

  Shit.

  The Breck guy intervened long enough for Kyle to get his buckle. Afterward Kyle continued to berate the poor woman with the misfortune of standing next to him in the awards line.

  Hank leaped the fence and raced across the arena to calm Kyle down. But when he arrived, he understood Kyle’s behavior. He barked the first thing that popped into his head: “Jesus Christ, Celia. What the hell are you doin’ here?”

  Holy fucking shit . . . this tarted- up woman was his baby sister? His plain- Jane baby sister? Who wore castoff men’s flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and the same damn ugly pair of work boots every damn day? Who was this beauty with the perfectly made- up face? The artfully braided hair? The skintight shirt that shimmered with beads and metallic thread and showed off her cleavage? Not to mention the rainbow- colored rhinestone belt and painted- on jeans that highlighted the curve of her hips? She was an absolute fucking knockout.

  And he’d knock out any man who looked at her. Lay him out cold. His eyes scanned the other winners, but the only guy paying attention to the outburst was Breck. His gaze was firmly glued on Celia’s ass.

  Hank stepped forward, between Breck and his sister’s butt.

  “What the fuck you looking at?”

  “Her.” Breck’s arms stayed crossed over his chest. “ ’Cause, hot damn, is she ever mighty fine. She yours?”

  “Yes, she’s mine; she’s my fuckin’ sister, asshole.”

  “Hank, knock it off,” Kyle snapped. “Breck, thanks for sticking around, but we’ve got this under control.”

  Breck sidestepped Kyle, addressing Celia. “Damn fine ridin’

  tonight, sugar pie. Any time you wanna get a beer or something, let me know.”

  “How about right now?” Celia asked through clenched teeth.

  He laughed. “Oh, I like to flirt with danger, believe me, but I ain’t getting in the middle of this. Later.” Breck winked at Celia and ambled off.

  “I really like your friends, Kyle,” Celia cooed.

  “You didn’t answer Hank,” Kyle reminded her sharply. “What in God’s name are you doin’ competing in barrel racing? Far as I know, sugar pie, you were banned for life from this activity.”

  “Not by any official organization, just my overprotective brothers. When I turned eighteen I made my own decision about what I wanted to do with my life and my time.” Her defiant chin kicked up a notch. “I get that you’re surprised—”

  “I’m shocked down to the bone,” Hank snapped. “So this has been goin’ on for three years?”

  “It’s been goin’ on for a hell of a lot longer than that. Did you see her ride? Jesus. She was amazing. No fuckin’ way did she get that damn good in such a short amount of time.” Kyle loomed over her. “You never quit, did you?”

  “I didn’t quit practicing. I quit competing. Big difference.”

  “No difference,” Hank retorted. “Where’d you get the money to start hitting the rodeos? Because I know it ain’t cheap.”

  “I earned it.”

  Hank laughed. “Doin’ what?”

  “What the hell does it matter to you? I pay my own traveling expenses. And my entry fees. I take care of boarding my horse. It’s my money—”

  “What horse you riding? It ain’t one of ours.”

  There was that stubborn look again.

  “Where’d you get a horse of that caliber, Celia?”

  She grudgingly said, “I bought Mickey from Eli as a cow horse.

  But neither of us knew how much natural ability he had until I started putting him through his paces.”

  Hank gave Kyle a look that promised he’d deal with Eli.

  A look Celia intercepted with a terse, “Leave Eli out of this. I mean it, Hank. You wanna piss me off worse—”

  “Piss you off? You wanna talk about torqued off, little sis, just how long have you been sneaking around behind Abe’s and my backs? Lying to us?”

  Her mouth flattened. Her eyes glowed with pure anger.

  “Answer him,” Kyle demanded.

  When Celia remained mum, Hank also got
in her face. “Fine. I’m tired
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