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       Corralled, p.30

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  the front open to reveal his chest. A sheet twisted around his lower half. His bare feet dangled off the side of the hospital bed, giving him a childlike vulnerability. Her gaze landed on his chest.

  The bruised sternum stood out in stark misery.

  She slapped her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.

  She felt Hank’s eyes on her, but she couldn’t tear her focus away from his injury.

  “Lainie. Baby. Look at me.”

  Her tears fell unchecked.

  “Look at me. Only in my eyes.”

  Somehow she lifted her gaze to his face.

  “That’s it. Just look in my eyes. Let me prove to you I’m okay.”

  “I thought—”

  “I know what you thought, and I’ve been goin’ crazy trying to convince them to let you in here to see me. Come here.”

  Lainie wanted to move, but her feet failed her.

  Hank’s eyes darkened with fear. “Please. I think they’re gonna drug me up, but I’ve gotta make sure you’re okay before they do.”

  He held out his hand to her. “Come here.”

  She shuffled four steps and reached for his fingers. More tears spilled down her cheeks. She let her gaze drop to his chest again and whispered, “Costochondritis.”

  “You know how I love it when you use medical sweet talkin’ on me, darlin’.”

  Although she barely grazed his skin with her fingertips, she felt the heat and the swelling. “Does it hurt?”

  “Some.”

  Any admission of pain from Hank meant it was probably excruciating. “Why wouldn’t you let them give you a painkiller?”

  “Because you needed to see me awake and alert. Able to talk to you. Able to reassure you I was fine, not passed out cold, lying on some goddamn gurney. I’d never do that to you, Lainie. Never, ever. Not if I can help it.”

  Oh, sweet baby Jesus. The man was in a hospital bed and his first concern had been for her, not for himself. For her. He’d worried that after what she’d seen in the arena, she’d draw parallels between his accident and her father’s.

  Hadn’t you?

  “Talk to me,” he said softly.

  As much as she wanted to burst out with her deepest feelings of love for him, she’d do it at a different time and place. A time when he’d know for sure that she’d spilled her guts out of love, not out of fear.

  Her shaking fingertips traced the flattened line of his mouth.

  He was gritting his teeth so hard his lips had all but disappeared.

  “Now that you’ve calmed my fears, will you please let them give you relief from this goddamn ugly rodeo tattoo?”

  “Yeah.” His face was pinched with agony when he tried to swing his legs back up on the bed by himself. “Fuck.”

  “Let me help you or I’ll call your devoted nurse back.”

  “You’ve got a big mean streak for such a small thing.” He grunted. But he allowed her to help him.

  As soon as he was situated, Lainie pushed the damp hair back from his hot forehead. He practically purred. She touched him, reassuring them both.

  Lainie didn’t budge when the curtain was jerked back. She shot a glance at the woman wearing a white coat, not scrubs. She clutched a clipboard and scanned it before addressing them.

  “I’m Dr. Tortor, T-o- r-t- o- r, not Dr. Torture, as some patients have been known to call me.” No smile. “So, you fight bulls for a living? Seems this one fought back.”

  “It happens.”

  “How do you feel?”

  “Lousy.”

  “No surprise.” She examined him thoroughly, then said, “A horn to the chest resulting in a bruised sternum. The medical term is costochondritis.”

  Hank gaped at Lainie.

  “The CT scan came back with no brain swelling. Although, after being knocked unconscious for seven minutes, you’ve suffered a concussion. I’d like to keep you overnight for observation.”

  “No. Way.” Hank focused distressed eyes on Lainie. “Why can’t you take care of me? You’re a licensed nurse and an EMT.”

  Dr. Tortor faced her. “Is that true?”

  “I’m a sports med tech.”

  “You see injuries like this frequently?”

  “Yes, but I defer course of treatment to those with more medical training.”

  “That’d be me, and a stay overnight is what this doctor orders.”

  Hank groaned.

  “We’ll get the pain meds started and move you into a regular room.”

  “Thanks, Doctor,” Lainie said.

  “And no bullfighting for a minimum of one week. I know you won’t stay out of the ring for my recommendation of one month.”

  The doctor pressed the call button for the nurse. They conferred outside the curtain. Rather than eavesdrop, Lainie mapped the planes and hollows of Hank’s face with her fingertips. She bent to kiss his mouth softly, then nuzzled his ear. Thank God. He was here, whole and wholly hers.

  “Lainie? Stay with me until the drugs take effect. Please.”

  Hank’s low, scratchy voice pulled at her, as did his hidden pride and the need he so rarely shared. She smooched his lips again.

  “Like I could leave you alone with Dr. Hottie, who, incidentally, was checking out all your nekkid body parts hanging out of this ass- baring gown.”

  A small smile. “All my nekkid body parts belong to you, baby.”

  “Don’t you forget it.”

  After Hank received the meds, he conked out. She rode the elevator with him to his room, chatting with the orderly as he maneuvered the gurney. She’d never worked in a hospital, except for dropping patients off in the ER, and sometimes she wondered if she was missing out on an aspect of her medical training.

  It wasn’t until her cell phone buzzed with a text message from Kyle that she realized she’d forgotten him completely. Shame heated her face.

  She stepped into the hallway to call him, but he didn’t answer his phone. Not that she blamed him.

  Chapter XXI

  Breck was sprawled in a lawn chair outside his horse trailer when Kyle ambled up. “Hey, Kyle. You look like you could use a beer.” Breck gestured to the blue cooler. “Help yourself, and pull up a chair.”

  “Thanks.” Kyle opened an icy can of Bud Light and sat on the picnic table bench seat. He sighed. “I needed that.”

  “I imagine so. What’s up with Hank? He okay?”

  “Concussion. Bruised sternum. They’re keeping him overnight.”

  “He’s damn lucky.” Breck leaned over and toasted Kyle. “Then again, so are you.”

  “Don’t I know it. Crazy man saved my life.”

  Breck shrugged. “I ain’t bein’ a dick when I say it’s his job and what he signed on for.”

  Kyle chose not to respond concerning what he saw as the differences between what most bullfighters did and what Hank had done.

  “What’s the diagnosis on your ridin’ arm?”

  “Sore as fuckin’ hell.”

  “So you’re ridin’ tomorrow night?”

  “Yep. Wouldn’t you?”

  “Yep.”

  Kyle sipped his beer and glanced at the mostly dark campsite.

  “Quiet night for a two- day event.”

  “Most people are grabbing shut- eye while they can. We’ll all be back on the road tomorrow night.”

  “Where you headed?”

  “Council Oaks, Idaho. Then Red City. There’s a good eight, nine days of action in Idaho and Oregon.” Breck pushed his hat up on his forehead a little higher. “What about you?”

  “We were gonna swing down through Jackson Hole. Pick up a few events in the western side of Wyoming and then Utah before we hit Colorado.” Kyle fiddled with the metal tab on his beer can.

  “Now I ain’t sure what’ll happen, bein’s Hank has to return to Muddy Gap to recover.”

  “No bullfightin’ at all?”

  “Guess not.” Hank had no stake in finishing out Cowboy Christmas. The rea
l payday for him would be getting selected to work in the EBS.

  “Still don’t answer my question. What’re you gonna do?”

  “Since it’s Hank’s rig and camper, I reckon I’ll go back to Wyoming. Figure out what to do from there.”

  “Or if you wanna keep up the winning momentum, you can hit the road with me,” Breck offered.

  Whoa. That’d come out of left field, as so many things had today. Not just getting hung up on the bull, or Hank’s going above and beyond to save his sorry ass. But seeing Lainie’s reaction to Hank’s injury. Mostly seeing Lainie’s reaction to Hank. And how Hank reacted to her. Like she was everything.

  When an hour passed and he hadn’t heard from Lainie after she’d gone to the exam rooms, Kyle had sweet- talked the nurse into letting him sneak back there. Damned ironic, after all the

  threesomes they’d been in, that he’d felt like a fucking peeping Tom, watching them together from a crack in the curtains.

  Kyle had left the hospital immediately afterward. At loose ends, he’d sat alone in the camper, contemplating his options before wandering over here.

  “No big deal if you’d rather pass,” Breck said, breaking Kyle’s melancholy.

  “It’s not that. What about Lee?”

  Breck sighed. “He’s already gone home. He ain’t won money in the last fifteen stops, so he’s hanging it up for this year. Feels guilty bein’ away from his wife and baby girl.”

  “I would too. I ain’t gonna spend my life on the road, but after spending last year sitting out, I missed it. Guess that means I’m not done with it neither.”

  “Good to hear. So’s that a yes?”

  “Yep.”

  The pinched look vanished from Breck’s face. Smiling, he flipped open the cooler lid and fished out two cold beers. “Next case is on you, partner.”

  Hank snarled when fingers prodded his head, waking him up for the millionth time. He bit out, “Jesus, I’m fine,” and squeezed his eyes shut against the intrusive light burning his eyeballs.

  The nurse chuckled. “Open your eyes so I can check them and I’ll go away.”

  Muttering, he complied.

  “You’re due for more medication if you want it.”

  His entire body throbbed. As he started to deny his need for it, Lainie spoke.

  “Just give it to him. He’s been restless the last hour. And he won’t ask for it.”

  Hank looked at Lainie, sitting in a chair beside his bed, her fingers threaded through his. The poor woman was exhausted.

  Dark circles beneath her eyes were the only color on her pale face.

  But she still looked beautiful to him.

  She smiled wanly. “See? If I order it, you still get to be the macho tough guy.”

  The nurse snorted. “Cowboy, she’s definitely got your number.”

  “Goes with the territory,” Lainie said. She and the nurse chatted in medical jargon that made no sense to him. But Hank was just content to listen to Lainie’s soft voice. Content that she was here by his side.

  After the nurse left, Lainie stood. “I need to stretch my legs and use the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

  “Lainie, darlin’. That chair can’t be comfortable to sleep in. You don’t have to stay here all night.”

  She crossed her arms over her chest. “Then why did you ask me to stay tonight if you didn’t want me here?”

  He froze. “What? I asked you?”

  “You don’t remember?”

  Hank shook his head.

  Her eyes searched his. “What do you remember?”

  “You bein’ with me in the ER. Coming up here. Then the nurses waking me all the damn time.”

  “But nothing else you said?”

  “Ah. No.”

  Lainie smirked an I’ve- got- a- secret smile.

  “What? Did I say something . . . ?” A niggling sense of unease arose. Shit, had he been spouting poetry or something? A man under the influence of narcotics couldn’t be held responsible for what he’d said, could he?

  Fuck. Had he blurted out that he loved her? Body and soul?

  Straight down to the bone?

  That’d be embarrassing. Wouldn’t it?

  No. It’d be a relief. If she didn’t feel the same he could blame it on the drugs.

  She leaned across the bed. “So, you’re not going to fuck me until I can’t walk when you’re feeling up to it? Because I was kinda looking forward to it.”

  He attempted to keep it light. “Since I feel like dog shit, it might be a while.” After he said that, Hank held his breath, fearing she’d toss off something flip, like that Kyle could keep her motor running while Hank recovered.

  Lainie let her lips cross his in a sweet, lingering glide. “Lucky for you I’m a patient woman, Hank Lawson.”

  His eyes felt heavy, his body went limp, and then the lights went out.

  The next morning, after Hank’s discharge, they waited in front of the hospital for Kyle to pick them up. Hank crawled in the rear of the quad cab and stretched out across the bench seat. Fuck. It didn’t matter if he lay down or sat up; his body hurt like a motherfucker.

  “Hank, buddy, I’d ask how you’re doin’, but it’s obvious you ain’t back up to full speed yet.”

  “How’s your arm?” Lainie asked Kyle.

  “Fine. I iced it down last night. Put liniment on it this morning. Took some pills. I’ll wrap it tonight before I ride.”

  “So you are riding tonight?”

  “Of course. Different purse. More points.” Kyle stretched his arm across the back of the seat so Lainie could examine it. Then he looked at Hank. “I figured you’d take off for the ranch. So I’m joining up with Breck. He lost his traveling partner. Won’t be hitting the same rodeos we’d planned on, but going toward Oregon and Idaho.”

  Hank almost protested— but his greedy side reminded him that with Kyle gone, he’d be with Lainie. At home. For a week.

  That alone was almost worth getting injured for.

  He shifted slightly and stabbing pain shot through his midsection.

  The rest of the drive to the rodeo grounds was quiet. Hank was starting to relax and lose consciousness as the throbbing in his chest abated and the pain pill kicked in. Doors opened and closed.

  “Take care, Hank. You’re a lucky bastard.”

 
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