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       Corralled, p.28

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James


  Lainie shook her head. “If Hank wants to go, tell him I’ll be fine here by myself.”

  “I think that’s why Hank ain’t goin’. Because you will be here by yourself.”

  “He thinks he’ll sneak in alone time with me?” She snorted.

  “Trust me. I won’t be in the mood at all tonight.”

  “Sex is not all we want from you, Lainie. Hank and I both want more. Surely you realize that by now.”

  With an irritated expression, Lainie slipped her arm from the lip of the tub and hunkered deeper into the water.

  Kyle wouldn’t allow her snit. Mostly because he’d been in one of his own for the last few days. “Talk to me.”

  “Neither of you expects more than a fling and that’s fine. That’s what we all signed on for. So when you guys say shit like that— which you both do— I don’t know if you’re trying to convince me or yourselves.”

  “That’s kinda harsh, don’t you think?”

  “Be honest, okay? If I said, ‘Kyle, let’s move in together,’ you wouldn’t yell, ‘Yippee!’ No. You’d balk. Backtrack. Suggest we take it slow. One, because where would we live? Colorado Springs? Rawlins? Cheyenne? Two, when would we see each other? I switch circuits, remember? I won’t always be assigned to the CRA.”

  “Can you ask to be signed strictly to the CRA?”

  “No. I’m part- time. Heck, I’d prefer no travel and stable nine to- five hours.”

  That floored him. “You would?”

  Lainie jabbed her finger at him. “Yes. And that right there is why it wouldn’t work between you and me long- term, Kyle. You’re just now getting your career back on track. You’ll be chasing eight for the next couple years, or at least until you get the demons out of your soul. Settling down isn’t on your itinerary. Maybe if you were forced out of the rodeo life, but I’ll bet you weren’t exactly pleasant when you were recovering from the blown- out knee that sidelined you for an entire year, were you?”

  Admitting he’d been a total jackass would put him in an even worse light. He hedged, “Probably not.”

  “Same thing with Hank. He’s killing time on the road with you, with the CRA, with me, waiting for that EBS tryout next week.”

  Kyle’s jaw dropped. “He told you about that?”

  “No. Celia let it slip when we were at the ranch. She assumed that as Hank’s girlfriend I’d know his future plans.”

  “But you haven’t said nothin’ to Hank about knowing?”

  “I haven’t said anything because it won’t change shit.”

  Drip, drip, drip, echoed as the condensation from the mirror hit the pedestal.

  “You wanna explain that?”

  “Hank will be pulled in a bunch of directions. I’d never add to that burden. No matter how much I . . .” She closed her eyes and gestured distractedly. “This is why I never date rodeo cowboys.”

  Lainie’s assessment was dead on. Kyle wasn’t ready to settle down, not even close to it. Not now that he was back riding bulls, winning money, and finding his footing after a year of struggle.

  You wouldn’t consider settling down with a woman like Lainie, who is everything you ever wanted?

  As the answer no shimmered on the surface of his subconscious, it was weighted with both relief and sadness. The hardest part was the realization that it didn’t matter— Lainie wasn’t his and never would be. She wasn’t in love with him. She was in love with Hank.

  The truth sliced his gut with the pain of a slow, rusty knife.

  Kyle swept his hand down the wet slickness of her arm and threaded their fingers together, knowing it’d be the last time he’d touch her like a lover.

  Lainie looked up at him, confusion puckering her brow.


  “I’ll let you finish your bath in peace.” He stood and leaned over to press a kiss on her damp forehead. “See you in the morning.”

  He made tracks for the camper to get his gear and was surprised to find Hank sitting in the swivel chair, his boots up on the table, drinking a beer.

  First thing out of Hank’s mouth: “Is Lainie okay?”

  Hank always thought of Lainie first. Always. “Tired. Still soaking in the tub.”

  “So you and she . . .”

  “Just talked.” Kyle dug through his equipment bag, checking the contents. Tape, gauze, rosin, a tube of liniment. Spurs, bull rope, a package of Tums. Extra tape, extra rosin, extra gauze, an extra jar of arnica gel. Spare spurs, spare socks, spare shirt, spare belt. Yep. He was good to go.

  “What did you guys talk about?” Hank asked.

  “Mostly about you. She knows about your tryout with the EBS. Celia mentioned it to her, because it was something you’d tell your girlfriend.”

  Confusion replaced his stunned look. “Why didn’t Lainie say nothin’ to me if she knew?”

  “She figured if you’d wanted her to know you’d tell her.”

  “So why are you telling me now?”

  “Because I’m taking off. It’ll be the two of you alone tonight.

  Thought you might want to talk.” Kyle zipped up the duffel and faced his longtime friend. “If you wanna fuck her tonight, fine, go ahead. Just understand, it ain’t jealousy when I say your time might be better spent talking to her. There’s a little more than a week left before we part ways. It’d be good if you two hashed out your issues before then.” Now that I know where I stand.

  Hank drained his beer. “You’re right. It’s just that when it comes to her . . .”

  “I know.” Right then Kyle knew Hank loved Lainie. He loved her in a way Kyle never would.

  “Remember to come back and get us in the morning.”

  “That’d be a real hardship for you, Hank. Stuck up here alone in a romantic cabin in the woods with Lainie for a few days.”

  He grinned. “You’re right. On second thought . . .”

  Kyle punched him in the arm. Hard.

  “Hey! And here I was gonna warn you to be careful tonight.”

  “Especially since you won’t be there to be my hero and save me from the big, bad, nasty bulls?”

  “Kiss my ass, Gilchrist.”

  “Not in this lifetime,” he shot back. Tossing insults was easier than Kyle being pissy that Hank Lawson was a lucky bastard. He just hoped Hank was smart enough not to blow the best thing that had ever happened to him.

  Hank returned to the cabin. He followed the sweet floral scent of Lainie’s shampoo and lotion to the bedroom. She was sprawled facedown on the middle of the big bed. From the doorway he couldn’t tell whether she’d fallen asleep. He turned away, only to hear, “Hank?”

  “I’m here. Didn’t want to disturb you if you were conked out.”

  “I wish. I’ve got this sharp pain in my lower back and I just can’t get comfortable.”

  “The hot bath didn’t help?”


  Hank stopped at the edge of the bed. “I could rub it, if you want.”

  Lainie lifted her head and gave him a droll stare. “Really?”

  He raised his hands in mock surrender. “No strings. Thought I’d return the favor for all the times you worked out my kinks.”

  “Do you have all the kinks out of your system?”

  What a loaded question. He deflected. “Up to you, Lainie, whether you want my help or not.”

  “I’ll take it. Thank you.”

  He started to strip.

  “What are you doing?”

  “These jeans are dirty and constricting.”

  “Fine. But promise me no funny business.”

  “I promise. But I’m a little disappointed. I’ll just kick my clown shoes and rainbow wig under the bed.”

  She laughed. “Smart- ass.”

  Lord. Did he love the sound of her laughter. He’d gotten so used to it in the last couple weeks, he didn’t know how he’d live without it.

  Isn’t that the point of this night? You finally telli
ng Lainie how you feel about her?

  Once he’d stripped down to his boxer briefs, he tossed the pillows to the floor. “Scoot up so I ain’t falling off the bed.”

  As Lainie moved up, the towel came loose and she tossed it aside. Hot damn. She was naked.

  “I feel you eyeballin’ my ass, Hank Lawson, and I’m reminding you that I’m a little sore all around.”

  He swept his hand up her back and was mighty pleased when she shivered from his touch. “I know. But a man can’t help but admire the beauty of your body when it’s spread out in front of him like a feast for the senses.”

  “Sweet- talkin’ cowboy,” she muttered, and turned her face away.

  Hank grinned. He straddled her thighs and sat on his haunches, careful not to put his weight on her. But he couldn’t stop his greedy hands from following the delectable curve of her ass up to the equally delectable dimples above that fine, fine ass. His thumbs pressed into the skin at the base of her spine and worked outward.

  “Tell me where it hurts, darlin’.”

  “Up a little. There. Now move out away from— Jesus. Right there. Exactly there.” Her body went rigid.

  “Relax. If you tense up it’ll hurt worse, remember? That’s what you always say to me.”

  Neither said anything, beyond Lainie’s soft grunts of pleasure or sharply inhaled breaths when he worked her a little too hard.

  Since she didn’t protest, Hank massaged more than just her lower back. He did her shoulders, her arms, her hands, her spine.

  He massaged her butt cheeks, but he was careful not to dip between the tempting cleft of her ass or between her thighs.

  Just when Hank thought Lainie was relaxed enough to sleep, she murmured, “Kyle told you, didn’t he?”

  “That Celia spilled the beans about my upcoming tryout with the EBS? Yeah.”

  “Are you mad?”

  His hands stopped kneading. “Why would I be mad? I thought you’d be mad.”

  “Why would I be mad? I thought you’d be mad,” she teased.

  “It’s a great opportunity for you. When it comes to career stuff, I understand why you’d want to keep it under wraps until it’s a done deal. I would’ve done the same thing.”

  Hank frowned. “Really?”


  “Part of the reason I didn’t tell you is because we’ll still see each other regardless if I’m on the EBS or the CRA circuit.”


  When her lack of response lasted longer than he figured it should have, he prompted, “Lainie?”

  “Sorry. You’ve definitely worked the kinks out to the point that I’m almost comatose. I think I’ll crash for a little bit. If you’d shut the door on your way out, that’d be great.”

  Feeling dismissed, he rolled off the bed and left the room.

  Two hours later, Lainie sauntered into the kitchen looking like a million bucks in a green- and- white- checked sundress. She smiled.

  “Something smells good.”

  “Just burgers. You hungry?”

  “Starved. But you didn’t have to go to all this trouble for me, Hank.”

  “No trouble. To be honest, I like taking care of you for a change.”

  Lainie looked away.

  Bull’s- eye. Maybe the stubborn woman would get it through her head that he’d like to take care of her all the time. “You want to eat in here or outside?”


  After dinner they moved to the porch swing. The night was clear enough to see the explosion of stars above the tree line. A slightly cooler breeze reminded them that they were in the mountains. She shivered and Hank grabbed a fleece blanket from the living room couch.

  Then he hauled her onto his lap and tucked it around her.

  “This is a beautiful place. Why doesn’t your friend live here full- time?”

  “He’s usually on the road. When he has time to get away, he wants to go where no one can find him.”

  “And yet you’ve been here before,” she pointed out.

  “Me, Devin, Kyle, and the rest of the guys have been buddies most of our lives. Devin’s brought us up here to go huntin’, but we’re sworn to secrecy.” Hank whispered, “And you are now too.”

  “Why the cloak- and- dagger business? Is he a secret agent or something?”

  “Or something. Ever heard of Devin McClain?”

  “The country singer? Yes. My God. I love his music.” She grasped his meaning. “Whoa. This is his place?”


  “No wonder it’s so secluded, with every possible amenity. Ooh, just think, I’ll be sleeping in Devin McClain’s bed tonight.”

  Hank growled. “Not something I wanna imagine, woman.”

  Lainie’s laughter rang out and she lightly elbowed him in the gut. “Sucker.”

  For the longest time they rocked together on the swing. Hank could easily imagine spending every night of his life like this, Lainie on his lap, by his side, and in his bed. At times he suspected she might feel the same. But after seeing the dejected look on Kyle’s face as they’d been in the camper earlier, Hank had sworn he wouldn’t address his feelings or their future until the three weeks were up.

  When Lainie pressed a warm, sweet kiss to the side of his neck, he had the foolish urge to shout out his love for her, damn the consequences.

  She yawned. Again. “You guys wore me out today. How long is the drive tomorrow?”

  “Four hours. Kyle will come back and get us pretty early, so maybe we oughta get to bed.”

  “Mmm. Where are you bunking? Since I’ll be in Devin’s bed.”

  Hank gave her a light head butt. “Come on.”

  In the amber glow of the bedside lamp, Hank watched Lainie slip on a skintight white tank top and butt- hugging silver- and- blue boy shorts, which fueled his Dallas Cowboy cheerleader fantasy.

  Her eyes narrowed as she climbed into bed beside him. “What’s got you wearing that lewd smirk?”

  “Nothin’. But if you say, ‘Rah! Rah!’ even one time, I ain’t gonna be responsible for my actions.” He clicked off the light and lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling.

  Lainie wiggled to get comfy, like she always did. But instead of moving away, like she always did, she scooted next to him. Right next to him. Heck, she practically crawled on top of him. “Cold?”

  “No. I just feel like snuggling with you tonight. Is that okay?”

  I love it. I love you. “Yep.” He tucked the top of her head under his chin and pulled her closer yet, hoping his actions spoke louder than the words stuck in his throat.

  Chapter XX

  The roar of the crowd was infectious.

  Lainie watched two little girls, who were awestruck at the lineup of rodeo queens and dazzled by the rhinestone belts, tiaras, chaps sporting metallic fringe, and big satin sashes.

  Hank had scored her a good seat above the bucking chutes.

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