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One night rodeo, p.23
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       One Night Rodeo, p.23

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  Two days later they’d just finished lunch when they heard a vehicle barreling up the driveway. Celia peeked out the blinds as Abe’s truck pulled up.

  “You ready for this?”

  No. “I guess.”

  Kyle kissed the back of her head. “I’ll let them say their piece, Cele, but I won’t put up with disrespect from either of them.”

  Ridiculous how fast her heart raced when she answered the door and saw her brothers standing side by side.

  “Hey, sis. Me’n Abe would like to talk to you.”

  “We understand if you don’t wanna invite us in,” Abe said.

  She spoke over her shoulder to Kyle. “You gonna throw any punches? ’Cause I’d rather not have bloodstains on our new carpet.”

  “Maybe we’d best do this in the barn. Just in case the conversation goes south.”

  Abe nodded and Hank wore a hangdog look she’d never seen from either of them.

  “We’ll meet you in a few.” Then Kyle shut the door in their faces. “Let’s pick up the lunch dishes. It’ll give you a little time to sort out what you wanna say to them.”

  Such a sweet, thoughtful man.

  Ten minutes later the barn door creaked, announcing their arrival. The barn was fairly dark this time of day. She glanced at Abe, leaning against the workbench, watching Hank pace.

  Hank stopped.

  No one said a word.

  The pause didn’t last long. Hank marched right up to her. “Lemme just say this up front. I’m sorry. I’m so goddamn sorry for the bullshit that spewed outta my mouth that day. I don’t…There’s no excuse for the way I hurt you. None. And I’m so ashamed of what I said to you, that it’s taken me this long to find the balls to face you.”

  She bit her cheek.

  “And it was a hard pill to swallow, realizing how dismissive I’ve been toward you. When we had that family talk a while back I figured you were just bein’ childish about not liking the changes around the homeplace. You asked me where you fit in the future of the ranch and I never responded. I shoved your concerns—and you—aside to focus on my family. Then you stopped coming home, didn’t you?”

  She nodded.

  “I don’t know how I forgot that you were my family too, Cele. But I did.” His voice wavered and he cleared his throat. “I don’t know if you need more time before we can mend what I broke. I just wanted you to know how sorry I am and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to fix it.”

  Abe ambled over. “I ain’t gonna make excuses either for bein’ a first-class prick. I hurt you. I hafta live with that the rest of my life. I also hafta live with the fact I was so wrapped up in my life and school that I hadn’t noticed you were avoiding coming home. Even before Janie and I got remarried. We’re all awful good at pretending everything is fine when it ain’t.” Abe’s eyes roamed over her face. “I look at you and see you’re a grown woman. But I also look at you, even now, and see that pigtailed little girl who relied on me for so many years. I let you down, Cele. I hurt you with my careless words. I’m hoping you can forgive me for that. I’m hoping we can wipe the slate clean. Not go back to the way it was, but be better than we were before. Have a real adult relationship and not keep sliding back into those older/younger sibling roles we’re used to.”

  Celia didn’t doubt her brothers’ sincerity. Their distress was painful to see. This wouldn’t be an overnight fix, because it’d taken a few years to reach the breaking point, but it was a step in the right direction.

  She started toward Hank and his arms were open before she reached him. He picked her up off the ground and squeezed her. “God, I’m sorry. I love you, sis.”

  “I know you do. I love you too. That’s why it hurt so bad.”

  Then she was being passed to Abe, who hugged her just as tightly. “We’re idiots. But we can be taught, to hear our wives tell it. I’m so sorry. I love you.”

  She wiped her eyes and watched as her brothers tried to discreetly wipe theirs. She looked at Kyle and knew the apologies were only half done. She held her hand out to him.

  His arm circled her waist as they faced Hank and Abe.

  “Christ, Kyle.” Hank rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know what the hell to say to you.”

  “Sorry, I’m a self-righteous dick who deserves to get my face knocked into the dirt would be a good place to start.”

  Hank didn’t crack a smile. “Not even that seems like enough. Not only did we treat you worse than some no-account loser, we…” He hung his head as if he couldn’t look Kyle in the face.

  Abe clapped Hank on the back in a show of support. “You’ve been a great friend to both of us. Been part of our lives for a long damn time. It just shocked us both that you up and married Celia without warning. Not that you needed our permission or that we’re offering an excuse, but we had no idea there was anything going on between you two besides nasty words and dirty looks. It’s been that way for years. For it to change overnight?” He shook his head.

  “Well, it hasn’t exactly been overnight,” Kyle said. “But I haven’t been lusting after Celia since she was a six-year-old girl, that’s for damn sure.”

  “We know that. We’re sorry for accusing you of bein’ some kind of user when we both know better,” Abe said. “If you make Celia happy…that’s all we care about.”

  “Marriage to me has tamed her wild ways. She’s the most docile, eager-to-please ranch wife you’ve ever met,” Kyle said, trying to lighten the mood.

  She lightly punched him in the gut. “Jerk.”

  Kyle laughed. “Not tamed, but still so damn easy to tease.”

  Abe looked at Celia. “Are we good, then? Because if you wanna talk some more…”

  “No. I’m ready to put this behind us,” she said.

  “Good. Now, Kyle…” Hank started.

  Please don’t ruin this by going all big brother again.

  “What the fuck? Marshall Townsend was your father?”

  Celia exhaled a sigh of relief.

  “Yeah. DNA verified and everything.” Kyle told the story for the millionth time and Celia tuned out the words, listening to the smooth, soothing cadence of Kyle’s voice. Letting the constant stroking of his thumb on her hand lull her into a happy place where this would all work out.

  Was that what she wanted? To live this life with Kyle for real?

  Yes. Because it became more real every day they were together.

  “Right, Celia?”

  She focused on Kyle. “Sorry. I was thinking about something else.”

  “I said I couldn’t do this without you.”

  Yeah. She definitely wanted this man all to herself. “Aw, listen to you tryin’ to sweet-talk me when I’m already a sure thing.”

  Kyle gave her a smacking kiss. “Maybe I’ll play hard to get tonight.”

  Celia snorted. “Like that ever happens.”

  Hank and Abe gawked at them like they’d morphed into alien life-forms.

  Kyle flipped the lights on and said to Hank, “As long as you’re here, can you tell me what the hell some of this equipment is?”

  They walked forward, leaving Abe and Celia to catch up.

  “So, Daddy Abe, tell me all about Tyler.”

  Abe grinned and whipped out his wallet. “I brought you a picture.” He passed it over. “He’s perfect. Got a full set of lungs, I tell you what. He’s fussy, except when he’s nursing. But I can’t blame the kid—buried in Janie’s breasts is a damn fine place to be.”

  Celia smacked him on the arm. “Janie let me hold him at the hospital.” She looked at the dark-haired infant in the picture. She honestly didn’t understand why parents showed pictures like this—the red-faced, openmouthed baby resembled an alien. A pissed-off alien.

  “She told me you visited. Sorry I missed you, but I am awful glad you went.”

  “I won’t hold an innocent baby responsible for his daddy bein’ a total jackass.”

  “Good to know. So how are things goin’?”

Busy. We cleaned a lot of shit piles out of the house. Marshall had been a widower a long time. Getting back into the swing of daily chores and dealing with all the stuff that goes along with raising cattle has been an adjustment for both of us.”

  Abe leaned close enough to look into Celia’s eyes. “But you’re happy?”

  “Yeah, Abe. I really am. I’ve never been happier.” She felt Kyle’s gaze and she looked at him to see a puzzled expression on his face.

  “We’ve brought a couple of boxes we’ve been saving for you,” Abe said.

  She fought a groan. She had hoped she’d dealt with her last box for a while. “What’s in them?”

  “Some of Mom’s stuff. I forgot we set it aside for you and I found it when I was in the attic last week.”

  “Now you’ve got me curious. Let’s go get it.”

  They left the barn. Kyle and Hank followed.

  Kyle carried the three boxes into the guest bedroom before he took Hank and Abe for a tour of the ranch.

  She fixed herself a cup of tea and surveyed the guest bedroom. They’d kept the wrought-iron bed and antique dresser. Like the other two bedrooms, this one had beautiful wood floors. She had the fleeting thought that it would make a good nursery.

  That’d come out of left field. Must be her brother’s fault—after all, he was covered in new-baby pheromones.

  Celia opened the first box. The scent of home drifted out. How could a box shoved in a dusty attic for years retain that scent? She focused on the contents. Her toys. Ready to be done with childish things, she’d shoved them in a box a month after her parents had died.

  Her baby doll, with shiny brown plastic hair and those creepy doll eyes fringed by fake eyelashes stared back at her. It was in perfect condition. As much as she’d thought she wanted a doll, she’d gotten bored with it within a week.

  She’d preferred to play with her stables set. With its twenty varieties of horses, pieces of white plastic fencing, a show ring, a barn, and stables. She picked up the three tiny barrels Hank had given her, so her plastic rider could be a real barrel racer.

  Easy to forget all the good times she’d had with her brothers when the last few years had been so difficult. They’d raised her the best they could, practically being kids themselves when saddled with the responsibility of an eleven-year-old girl. Even when all three of them fought like crazy, she’d never questioned their love for her. And she’d never admitted to them or anyone else that she barely remembered their father taking the time to teach her or just hang out with her. He hadn’t shown much of an interest in his only daughter. Not like Hank and Abe had. Even before they had no choice.

  Which made Kyle’s issues with Marshall so hard for Celia to understand. His mother loved him unconditionally. Wasn’t that enough?

  Fighting melancholy, she dug through the box, finding the only Barbie doll she’d ever owned. Western Stampin’ Tara Lynn. Outfitted head to toe in sparkly western regalia, Tara Lynn had a horse named Misty. Her red cowgirl boots left a trail of broken hearts across a piece of paper. Celia smoothed the doll’s dark hair and reseated her red cowgirl hat. Funny that the doll reminded her of Tanna.

  Celia rooted around and found girlhood trinkets that’d meant so much to her. Purple, red, blue, and white ribbons from 4-H competitions. Arrowheads and funky rocks she’d unearthed in the pasture. A corncob pipe she’d crafted. A book filled with wildflowers she’d pressed. A worn thimble that’d belonged to her great-grandmother. A jar of buttons and the button dog she’d made with her mother on a snowy afternoon.

  It’d been years since she’d thought of that day. The two of them sipping hot Russian tea. The strong scent of her mother’s Aqua Net hair spray as she’d bent her head next to Celia’s, patiently demonstrating how to make a button dog.

  At the very bottom of the box was her collection of My Little Ponies. She remembered her horror at seeing them strung up in a tree where she couldn’t reach, followed by anger because she knew exactly who’d done it.


  Her eight-year-old self would be appalled that she’d married him.

  In the second box were odds and ends. Fancy tablecloths and hand towels. A crocheted tissue box cover. Yards of lace and skeins of yarn. Her mother’s sewing box. More piles of fabric her brothers hadn’t thrown away. She closed the lid, just as unsure what to do with this stuff as they’d been years ago.

  Celia knew the last box wouldn’t contain her parents’ things because they’d given everything away, just another sad memory she’d buried.

  The door to their Mom and Dad’s bedroom had always been shut, the room off-limits to kids. It’d remained shut after they died.

  One afternoon, a few months after their deaths, Abe stormed into that room. He’d ripped their clothes out of the closet and thrown them in the hallway. Then he’d dumped out the dresser drawers in the hallway too. He’d removed every item belonging to them and ordered Hank and Celia to bag it up.

  She’d been resentful that she and Hank had to clean up the mess Abe had made. She’d stepped over the piles, intending to give Abe grief, but she found he was already grieving. Her invincible brother was on the floor in their parents’ closet, crying silently.

  Abe had been so gruff and emotionless after they died. She’d thought he hadn’t cared, but that day was when she understood how much Abe did care. How hard it was for any of the Lawson siblings to show emotion unless it was anger.

  How had she forgotten that?

  She’d never said a word about what she’d seen. She’d just quietly and quickly bagged up the leftover physical reminders of her parents’ lives. When Abe had claimed that bedroom as his, she’d moved downstairs. Because she couldn’t look down that hallway and pretend her parents were away for a while. She finally understood they weren’t coming back.

  She opened the last box. The wedding ring quilt from her parents’ bed. The fabric had been mended over the years, new patches sewn in where old sections had torn. This quilt had been passed through four generations of women in her family.

  Now it was hers. Celia knew she should feel something like pride or thankfulness about this heritage, but all she could muster was sadness. The first three women who’d slept under the quilt with their husbands had been widowed at a young age. Her parents had died far too young. She didn’t want to put this quilt on their bed and doom their marriage from the start.

  But that was kind of a moot point, wasn’t it? Hadn’t she doomed it by insisting that it end at the six-month mark? How did she even begin to bring it up with Kyle that she’d changed her mind so early on in their agreement?

  She unfolded the quilt, spreading it on the guest bed. It fit this old-fashioned room. She closed the boxes and carried them to the basement. Out of sight, out of mind.

  Kyle’s voice reached her in the basement. “Celia?”

  “Hang on.” She bounded up the stairs and found him alone. “Where are my brothers?”

  “Janie needed Abe to come home, so they said to tell you they’d be in touch.” He wandered to the guest bedroom. “What was in the boxes?”

  “Kid stuff. Things of my mom’s.” She pointed to the bed.

  “I remember that.” Kyle looked at her. “You sure you want it in here and not our room?”

  “I like our bedding.” It’s not cursed.

  He curled his hand around her neck and pulled her close. “You all right with everything that happened today?”

  “I’m glad they came to us and apologized. I was beginning to wonder if they would.”

  “Me too.”

  “Did they say anything else to you?”

  “Not really.”

  She narrowed her eyes at him.

  “I swear. We’re guys. They apologized. I accepted. End of story. But you…” His thumb stroked the pulse point on her throat. “Seem a little melancholy. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect cure for that.”

  “Which is?”

  Kyle brushed his mouth over hers. Once. Twice. Then his lips
slid to her ear. “It has to do with you handling some hard…wood.”

  “I’m up for that.”

  He slapped her on the ass. “Good. Get your warm clothes on. ’Cause there’s a pile of logs we need to split and stack.”

  “You sneaky jerk! I thought we were gonna get naked and wild.”

  He raised a brow. “During the day? When there’s work to be done? Surely an experienced ranch woman such as yourself knows better than that.”

  “You suck.”

  Another slap to her ass. “No sassing me. Get cracking.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  His wife was so fucking hot it was a miracle the snow wasn’t melting
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