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       Corralled, p.19

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  of arguing with you anyway. Get your shit packed and get on home. Abe will hafta deal with you until I get back.”

  “No.”

  Hank froze. “What did you say?”

  “I believe she said no,” Lainie said behind them.

  Both he and Kyle turned around.

  Fucking great. He tried to calm down, if only for Lainie’s sake.

  “Lainie. Darlin’—”

  “Don’t you dare Lainie, darlin’ me, Hank.” Lainie glared at Kyle. “You either, Kyle.” She moved beside Celia. “You okay?”

  “Yes and no. Yes, because I won.” She held up the gold buckle.

  “No, because . . . well, you heard.”

  “Ignore them. Celebrate the good. It was a great ride. I videotaped it with my cell phone, if you want me to send it to you. I’m definitely sending it to Tanna.”

  “You are?”

  “Yes, but I’ll warn you it’s not the greatest quality—”

  “Wait a second. How did you know to videotape CeCe. . . ?” A fresh burst of anger erupted and Hank loomed over Lainie. “You fucking knew she was competing in barrel racing?”

  “Yep.”

  “How?”

  Lainie stabbed him in the chest with her index finger. “It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are being a complete and total dickhead to your only sister.”

  Hank’s mouth opened. Closed.

  “I’ll say this once. Celia is not a baby. She is a twenty-one-year old woman who you and Abe still treat like a girl. I watched you both do it, so don’t tell me I don’t understand where you’re coming from. I do. Believe me, I do. If you want to drive her away, by all means, keep it up. Continue to make all of her life decisions for her, because she’ll decide to leave, and that’ll be the best decision she makes.”

  “Hank and Abe only want what’s best for her, Lainie,” Kyle said.

  “No. They want to control her. But you’re in the same ‘she’s a little girl’ mind- set they are.”

  “Maybe if Celia started acting responsible, Abe and me would take her more seriously.” Right after Hank said it, he knew it was the wrong damn thing to say.

  Celia stomped up to him. “Responsible? Who does all the books for the ranch? Makes sure the bills get paid on time? Checks that our grazing permits and all that other federal, state, and tribal paperwork is filed in quadruplicate?”

  Lord. He’d really stepped in it.

  “I’ve always done anything you’ve asked, Hank. Both you and Abe. The one thing I wanted in my life? You guys denied me. For my own good. So yeah, maybe it was rebellious to keep up with my training. There were so many times I wanted to tell you, but I knew you’d react like this. And guess what? I wasn’t wrong.”

  Lainie rubbed Celia’s arm in a show of support that both inflamed Hank and endeared her to him.

  Kyle said, “What’s wrong is that you’re putting yourself at risk.

  It is childish not to give a shit that Hank and Abe both worry about you. It’s selfish as hell, Celia.”

  “You’re one to talk, Kyle. Didn’t you tell me your mama begged you not to get on the back of a bull again? After you were seriously injured? What did you do after a full year’s recovery time? Said ‘too bad, so sad, Mama, see you later; I got me some bulls to ride.’ So don’t you dare lecture me about selfishness and childishness.”

  Hank bet Kyle was sorry he’d opened his big trap too.

  Yet the man kept going. “Dressing like that ain’t helping.” He gestured to her clothing. “Don’t lie and say this whole thing is only about you wanting to race around a buncha barrels. It’s about you getting noticed by every damn cowboy in the place.”

  Celia shoved him. “You arrogant fucker. I caught you looking at my ass earlier tonight when you didn’t know it was me.”

  Kyle’s mouth dropped open. “I did not.”

  “Yes, you did. So what if guys notice me? It’s a nice goddamn change from the pats on the head I get from every man within thirty miles of Muddy Gap, Wyoming, who only see me as Hank and Abe Lawson’s baby sister.”

  Silence. But the glaring contest between all four of them could’ve started the hay bales on fire.

  Nothing would get resolved tonight. Hank knew a cooling- off period was definitely in order. “Look. Can we talk about this later?

  When I get back to the ranch? I’ll call Abe and give him a headsup—”

  “See? This is what I mean! I can talk to Abe. I don’t need you running interference— or interfering— in my life, Hank.”

  “Fine.” He threw up his hands. “Do whatever you want. I keep forgetting you’re a big girl. Are you gonna be pissed off and snap at me to mind my own business if I tell you to drive safe and call me when you get home?”

  “No. I’ll call you.” Celia muttered, “Asshole.”

  Lainie took Celia aside and they spoke so quietly Hank couldn’t hear. Which just added another layer of frustration to the already frustrating situation.

  Kyle leaned over. “When the fuck did they get so chummy?”

  “Fuck if I know.”

  The women hugged and Celia walked off without a backward glance.

  Lainie approached them, hands jammed in her pockets. She started to speak, but apparently thought better of it. Then she too wandered off without a word.

  Kyle grunted, echoing Hank’s sentiments exactly. They headed to the changing rooms.

  Most guys had already cleared out. The showers were empty, but Hank preferred the noise. Maybe he could block out the idea that his sister had lied to him for years. How had he not known?

  Because you’re so involved in your own life that you fail to see what’s going on around you.

  Not entirely true. Celia must’ve done a damn good job of hiding it, because Abe hadn’t known about her secret barrel racing either. He snorted. Secret barrel racing. Like it was some sort of crime. When he put it in that context it was almost funny.

  Almost.

  He half listened while Kyle and some other bull rider rehashed every second of Kyle’s ride. He hefted the shoulder strap of his bag.

  Those stories could go on forever, and Hank was anxious to talk to Lainie.

  He’d made it about twenty steps when Kyle called out, “Hank, wait up.”

  He stopped.

  “Don’t it just figure that it’s my night to be alone with Lainie and this happens.”

  Sad thing was, Hank couldn’t even feel happy about that.

  “Think she’s cooled off by now?”

  “I don’t know. She ever been mad at you about something?”

  “Nope. It’s only been half an hour.”

  They walked through the campground. It was eerily quiet. No groups sitting around drinking beer. No kids running about. No teenagers groping in the shadows.

  The lights were on in the back of the camper. Hank looked at Kyle, who pantomimed, After you.

  Lainie was in her pajamas, brushing her teeth. She didn’t acknowledge them besides slamming the bathroom door shut.

  Not a good sign.

  Kyle dumped his equipment bag and flopped in the chair by the table. Hank stood there like a dumb ass, waiting for her to respond to them.

  Screw that. He was a take- charge guy. And as far as he could tell, she liked it when he exerted control. He knocked. “Lainie?”

  “What?”

  “Can we talk to you?”

  The door banged open. Lainie’s gaze zoomed from Hank to Kyle and she snapped, “Nope,” ducking under Hank’s arm.

  Hank’s hand blocked the upper doorframe, kept her from slamming the bedroom door in his face. “Why’re you so pissed off at us?”

  “Because of what you said to Celia. I watched how all of you—you, Abe, Kyle, and your assorted buddies— treat her. I’ve been treated that way, so maybe I am overly sensitive on her behalf. I know what it’s like to have people who claim to love you try to keep you from doing something you r
eally want. But what bugs me is you don’t want to change. You expect her to.”

  Hank stared at her, openmouthed with shock.

  “I don’t want to get in the middle of your family issues. As you know, I have plenty of my own.”

  “Then why are you getting involved in them?” Hank demanded.

  There was the look that indicated he’d gone too far. Shit.

  “Back off, Hank. Go to bed and let me do the same.”

  “Fine. Let’s go to bed.” They could work out their issues between the sheets. When he started to enter the bedroom, Lainie held up her hand.

  “No way are you sleeping in here with me tonight.”

  Kyle snickered.

  Lainie peeked around Hank’s shoulder. “Don’t know why you’re laughing, Kyle, because you’re not sleeping in here either.”

  “What? Where the hell are we supposed to sleep?”

  “Not my problem.”

  Hank was so stunned by the turn of events that when Lainie put her hands on his chest and shoved him, he stumbled back.

  Then she slammed the door in his face.

  Unbelievable.

  He lifted his hand to knock, when Kyle spoke. “Let her be.”

  “Now, why would I do that?”

  “Because she asked you to.” Kyle stood and stretched. “She’ll probably cool down by morning.”

  “And if she’s still pissed off?”

  “I guess we’ll deal with it then. Looks like you ’n’ me are bunk mates.”

  “Fuckin’ awesome.”

  “Sucks worse for me, Hank. I thought I’d be snuggled up to soft, sweet- smelling curves and instead I’m stuck with you.”

  “Ain’t no snuggling between us, hoss. You touch me and I’m decking you.”

  “Same goes,” Kyle shot back.

  Hank flashed his teeth. “But at least you showered and don’t smell like the ass end of a bull.”

  “Ditto, buddy.”

  They undressed, Kyle down to nothing but skin. Even as a teen, Kyle had slept naked as a jaybird. After the threesomes with Lainie, it seemed prissy for Hank to ask him to put on a goddamn pair of underwear.

  In the upper bunk Hank was wide- awake.

  Kyle sighed. “I can hear them damn gears spinning. Whatcha thinking about so hard?”

  “The EBS. If my tryout goes good, how it’d leave Abe running the ranch, mostly by himself. Especially if Celia is off running barrels.”

  Kyle was quiet. Too quiet.

  “What?”

  “You’re a damn good bullfighter, Hank. I ain’t just sayin’ that.

  But don’t give up what you’ve got to chase something that maybe ain’t worth it in the long run.”

  “You don’t think bein’ in the EBS is worth it?”

  “Maybe. I know if I had what you already do, I wouldn’t be chasin’ this rodeo life so damn hard.”

  He’d always known Kyle wanted a place of his own in Wyoming, around their hometown and their buddies. The only way Kyle could ever scrounge up the kind of money required to put a down payment on a ranch was to keep riding bulls. So Hank already had the dream Kyle was working toward.

  “Just . . . be careful. You can get sucked— or suckered— into doin’ things with the EBS you wouldn’t do otherwise. It’s easy to overlook some of the behind- the- scenes stuff when the big paychecks are rolling in.”

  “Would you go back? If you switched to the EBS second- tier events and hit the top sixty again?” Hank asked.

  “I don’t know. Ask me when I’ve been in the CRA for more than a couple events.”

  Silence.

  “So what’re we gonna do about Lainie?”

  “I say we wake her up with an apology she’ll never forget.”

  Chapter XIV

  Lainie was up and dressed early the next morning. By the time she’d roused the sleeping men, she’d knocked back two cups of coffee.

  Hank stumbled down from the upper bunk. He wore the bleary- eyed look of a man whose routine had been interrupted.

  Served him right.

  “What’re you doin’ up so early?”

  “Says the rancher,” she replied dryly.

  “Funny. Maybe me ’n’ Kyle had plans for this morning.” He waggled his eyebrows.

  “Maybe you and Kyle should’ve gotten up sooner.” She sipped her coffee. “The early cowboy gets to stick his worm in the cowgirl and all that.”

  Kyle laughed. “We’ll remember that for next time, sugar.

  Hank, hand me my duffel, will ya?”

  He tossed it up to Kyle without looking away from Lainie.

  “You still sore at us?”

  “Nope.” She addressed Hank. “But figure out a different way to deal with Celia. Adult- to- adult would be a good start.”

  “That I can do.”

  “You guys want breakfast?”

  “Lainie. You don’t have to cook for us,” Kyle said.

  “I’m already cooking for me. Might as well add a couple more eggs to the frying pan. Scrambled all right?”

  “Sounds good.”

  “Count me in.” Kyle hopped down wearing a pair of surfer shorts. She had half wondered if he’d arrive at the table naked.

  Hank also looked relieved that Kyle had covered up his dangly man bits.

  Lainie cracked a half dozen eggs in the electric skillet. Hank set the table and poured Kyle a cup of coffee. Hard to believe they’d never done this domestic scene before. It seemed so routine.

  When they finished eating, Kyle flipped open his cell phone and checked the time. “Bein’s I’m on the day driving shift, let’s hit the road and get to Sheridan so I can check in.”

  “What’s after Sheridan tonight?”

  “Billings has an early afternoon performance tomorrow and Red Lodge has a performance tomorrow night.”

  “So we’re not actually camping anywhere for a couple of days?”

  Hank shook his head.

  “Hank, since you’re driving tonight, you gonna crawl back up in the bunk and get some more shut- eye?” Kyle asked.

  A look of challenge passed between them.

  “What’s going on with you two?”

  “Ask Kyle,” Hank said curtly.

  Lainie’s hands stayed curled around her mug. “Kyle?”

  Kyle shrugged. “At the ranch Hank had you in his bed all night. I want equal time. It’ll be you and me alone in the back of the camper on the way to Billings tonight.”

 
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