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One night rodeo, p.32
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       One Night Rodeo, p.32

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  Fletch swore. His dark hair fell across his face as he aimed his focus on the floor. He clenched his fists at his sides as if fighting for control.

  In that moment, Kyle realized just how big Fletch was. At six foot five in his work boots, with enormous shoulders and chest, the man was a monster. A monster Kyle had always considered a gentle giant unless he was crushing opponents on the football field.

  When Fletch finally looked up, his brown eyes were black and hard as stones. “We’ve been friends a long time, Gilchrist, so I ain’t gonna sugarcoat this.”

  Kyle nodded.

  “Your pride or stubbornness or whatever chip you’ve got on your goddamn shoulder about your inexperience as a rancher is what led to that animal dying. It’s your fault. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. That animal was in your care. Which means you suck it up and ask for help from someone who’s been through this type of birth before if you don’t have the first clue about what to do.

  “I don’t give a flying fuck if you and Celia had a big fight before you came out here. When you saw this heifer was in distress? The very first thing you should’ve done was slammed a lid on your pride and ran up to the house to ask Celia for her help. We both know Celia would’ve hauled ass down here had she been aware of the seriousness of the situation. But you kept that from her. Why? I didn’t think you had a huge male ego that doesn’t allow you to admit to a woman that something is beyond your skill set. Jesus. Don’t ever exhaust yourself to the point your inexperience kills an innocent animal when you have the chance to save that animal.”

  He had no response. He felt sick.

  “You are a smart guy. You don’t have to figure this shit out by yourself. Don’t let the macho attitude that comes from being a professional bull rider permeate this part of your life. You don’t gotta be the toughest one on the dirt here.”

  That stung.

  “You are responsible for the lives of a couple hundred animals. The only person who expects you to know everything about this…is you. That’s an unreasonable burden to place on yourself. And here’s a news flash. Even if you live to be a hundred you’ll never know it all about ranching. Listen. Learn. Ask questions. Ask for help. And quit using your feelings of inadequacy against Celia. She is your wife. Be goddamn grateful she is your wife.”

  “I am.”


  “Although it’s too little too late.”

  “For that animal. Not for the rest of them. I don’t envy you cleaning up this mess. And I’m gonna go against all my previous advice and suggest you don’t involve Celia in disposing of the carcass.” Fletch propped his hands on his hips and gave Kyle an arch look. “Any other questions while I’m here?”

  Kyle’s initial response was to say nope, but he bit it back. “So as far as the cleanup…I just get the tractor through the big barn door and scoop the cow into the bucket?”

  “That’d be easiest.”

  “And then I dump it? Where? The ground is too hard in most places to dig a hole.”

  Fletch ran his hand through his hair. “I suggest you dump it in the closest pasture the tractor can get to, that’s farthest from the herd.”

  Kyle remembered from a conversation with Josh that it was important to control where the coyotes would find the carcass to try to keep the nasty scavengers from the nearly helpless calves. “Thanks for the advice.”

  “Let’s get her out of the equipment.” Fletch pointed to the heifer, now dead.

  Fletch left, leaving Kyle to deal with everything alone.

  He loaded the cow without issue. Slow going on the ice, in the dark. Each bump and skid jarred the whole tractor with the heavy weight the front end carried. After he cleared the fourth gate, he found a spot by a steep incline. He lowered the bucket and rolled her out, over the fence into the ravine. Then he headed back. Two and a half hours had passed since he’d started the gruesome journey. One final check on the mamas close to the house, and the heifers again, and he closed it all down just as the very edges of the sky began to lighten.

  The house was quiet. Kyle stripped where he stood and stumbled to the bathroom. Not even the sweet scent of Celia’s shampoo roused him from the feeling of despair as he washed away the grime.

  Although he was exhausted, and naked, he couldn’t crawl into bed next to Celia yet. He stared out the bedroom window, wishing he could roll the clock back twenty-four hours.

  “Kyle?” she murmured sleepily.

  Funny how just the sound of her voice soothed him. Filled him with a feeling of shelter. Would he break down when he told her his pride had cost the lives of two animals?

  “What’s wrong? Omigod, are you hurt?” The covers rustled and her feet hit the floor.

  He didn’t deserve her concern. Not after the way he’d acted today. “I’m not hurt.” On the outside. On the inside? Different story. “Go back to sleep, sweetheart.”

  But Celia wouldn’t allow him to hide. She ducked beneath the arm he’d braced on the wall, getting right in his face. “Talk to me.”

  “I’m sorry.” He gathered her into his arms and held her against him.

  “Sorry about what?”

  “Everything. You…you deserve better than what you got from me today. I fucked up.”

  “Kyle. You’re shaking. What the hell is goin’ on? You’re scaring me.”

  So he told her. Without holding anything back. Without trying to put a spin on it so he didn’t come off looking and sounding like a stubborn fool. When he finished, his face was wet. His voice was hoarse. But his conscience was nowhere near clean.

  Celia stepped back, away from him. He didn’t blame her. But when she lovingly, sweetly ran her fingers down his arm to tug on his hand, he felt like an idiot again. He should’ve known she wouldn’t leave him when he was like this, no matter if he deserved it.

  “Come on. Crawl in bed and let me warm you up.”

  He allowed himself to be led like a child. Beneath the sheets he reached for her, resting the side of his face on her chest, his arms circling her waist.

  She pulled the covers up and locked her legs around his. Celia didn’t speak at all. Not to patronize him. Or chew his ass. Or add more guilt to the pile he already carried. She just held him and let him clutch her like the lifeline she was.

  The shakes stopped when he felt consciousness fading. “Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For showing me once again you’re the better person than me in so many ways.”


  “I’m serious. You’re intimidating as hell, Celia. You’re so freakin’ smart. Although I don’t tell you that twenty-four/seven, because I don’t want you to get a swelled head.”

  “Usually you’re the one with the swelled head. I ain’t talking about this one.” She tapped his forehead.

  “I’m too tired to do anything about that right now.”

  “That’s a first. Now get some sleep.”

  As he drifted off, he said, “Don’t leave.”

  “I won’t. I’m right here.”

  “No. Don’t ever leave me. Not now. Not in six months. Not in sixty years. Be my wife forever.”

  “Kyle. You’re exhausted and upset. You have no idea what you’re babbling about.”

  “But I do. I’m perfectly…capable of…telling you…that I…” He chased the thought until sleep overtook him.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  With the birth of the last calf, things slowed down some. If the first six weeks of their marriage had been a whirlwind, the last six weeks were a tornado. Losing three calves wasn’t good, but it could’ve been so much worse.

  It’d ripped her up, seeing Kyle’s devastation the night that cow had died on his watch. Hard lesson to learn, the importance of vigilance, but one he would never forget. She considered how different the season would’ve turned out if she hadn’t been here. If Kyle had had to muddle through everything on his own. What would he have done if she hadn’t been around to guide him?

As much as she’d made herself indispensable, she didn’t want her husband looking at her and seeing a ranch hand. She wanted Kyle to see her first as his wife, second as a good ranching partner. Especially after he’d begged her not to go when he’d said he wanted her as his wife forever. At the time she feared it’d been exhaustion talking. But over the last few weeks, things had changed between them again. Their bond had strengthened. She’d never been happier in her life and she wanted Kyle to know it.

  As Celia curled against Kyle’s side last night, content in the aftermath of his very thorough loving, she came up with a simple, small way to prove she wanted this marriage to be real in every sense of the word too—she would change her name. On her driver’s license and her Social Security card. She’d make it official.

  After checking the herd, Kyle jotted down a list of supplies. Normally Celia tagged along when he went to town, but she opted to stay home and he left after a late lunch.

  In the office, she pawed through the binder they’d started for keeping track of important paperwork. They would soon need a better system because papers and receipts were already getting jumbled together. She sorted through copies of their birth certificates, vehicle titles, Marshall’s will, and the land plat survey. But no marriage license.

  Hadn’t Kyle mentioned taking care of that weeks ago?

  What the devil had he done with it? Maybe he’d put it in a different place. They were supposed to keep everything together for easy access.

  So why is your bank statement still hidden?

  Why hadn’t she told Kyle about it? Because it was an escape hatch? Because she didn’t want to share the money with him?

  No. As Kyle’s wife she was entitled to fifty percent of his inheritance. So while the amount her brothers had given her was generous, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what this ranch was worth.

  She grabbed her bank statement and the course requirement printout from her hiding spot behind the stack of Cowboys & Indians magazines. She stared at the dollar amount, still shocked she had that much money. Leaning against the window frame, she looked out across the snowbanks, which had started to melt, revealing lots of fences to fix this spring. Other ranch and household improvements loomed. Kyle didn’t need this money to make those changes happen. Would he see her offer to put the money in a joint account as a sign she wanted to meld their lives together on all fronts? Yes.

  Celia set the bank statement and college information on the ironing board to keep it separate from the other paperwork. After a half an hour of fruitless searching, she figured Kyle had gotten so busy he must’ve forgotten about obtaining a copy of the license. She went online and tracked down the phone numbers to request that a copy of the marriage license be sent to their current address.

  Took ten minutes until a real live person came on the line. Celia explained the situation—twice—and bit back her frustration at being transferred again.

  “Miss Lawson? Sorry to keep you waiting. I did some checking and nothing has changed with regard to Trade Winds Casino since the facility was closed. Since the sixty-day grace period for permits had passed, unfortunately right before your ceremony, the marriage is invalid.”

  She froze. “Excuse me? I must’ve misunderstood. I heard you say the marriage is invalid.”

  “The marriage is invalid,” she repeated. “Just like I explained to Mr. Gilchrist when he called—”

  “What? Kyle has been in touch with your office? When?”

  “According to the case file, over a month ago. Since your marriage certificate wasn’t the only one affected by the Winds of Change permit lapse and subsequent closure of the Trade Winds Casino, there’s an active file on it, and all inquiries are directed solely to me.”

  “So you’re telling me Mr. Gilchrist knew about this?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Kyle had found out their marriage wasn’t valid and he’d somehow forgotten to tell her?

  Bullshit. He hadn’t told her because he wouldn’t have made it through calving season without her.

  A very sharp pain stabbed near her heart.

  Was he really that calculating? Throw in the constant mind-boggling sex…

  “Is there anything else I can help you with, Miss Lawson?”

  “No. Thank you.” Numb, she hung up and wandered out of the office.

  She stopped in the doorway of their bedroom. Seemed foolish, her happiness this morning that he’d made the bed without prompting.

  She managed to keep her tears in check until she entered the living room. She’d been filled with so much pride that her first foray into home decorating had turned out so well. The comfy furniture, the carpet, the vibrant curtains. Even the western painting on the wall made the space so indelibly theirs.

  Celia clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the cry and dropped onto the loveseat. She’d thought of this house as her home the first week they’d moved in. Had she really believed she could shake hands with Kyle at the end of six months and walk away like they’d completed a business transaction? When they’d been as intimate as two people can possibly be?

  She loved him. So what was she supposed to do now? Confront him? Ask what he was waiting for and why he hadn’t told her about the invalidity of their marriage?

  There was that stabbing pain near her heart again. She had no claim on him. She didn’t care about having a claim to his inheritance if they weren’t married, but she’d really thought of him, and this place, as hers.

  She had no one to talk to about this. No one. Everyone believed their marriage was real.

  She’d never felt so alone in her life.

  Celia couldn’t face him. Not when her emotions were so raw. She went to the guest bedroom closet and found her duffel bag. Almost on automatic, she shoved a couple changes of clothes inside and added the toiletries she’d need for a night away, even when she had no idea where she’d go.

  Don’t run. Stay and fight.

  No. The old Celia would argue, accuse, talk without listening. The new Celia needed time to sort through this.

  With heavy footsteps and a heavier heart, she climbed into her pickup. She couldn’t look at her horses, standing by the fence. She’d have to remind Kyle to feed them tonight.

  At the Stop sign at the end of the gravel road she really seemed to be at a crossroads. Right took her to Rawlins. Left took her to Muddy Gap. Neither choice seemed right. Part of her wanted to spin around and head back to the ranch. Pretend nothing had changed. Because they were happy together. Weren’t they?

  But the fear that Kyle might look her in the eye and tell her it was over kept her from turning around. She needed to toughen up and prepare herself for that possibility.

  Ultimately she turned left. Toward Muddy Gap.

  Her stomach growled as she drove through town, but facing the diner regulars in her frame of mind wasn’t happening. The Closed sign hung on the front door of Bernice’s Beauty Barn, but Celia noticed the back end of Bernice’s Chrysler Imperial sticking out in the parking area, so she pulled in.

  Bernice opened the metal door a crack, and barked, “What?” at Celia’s knock before she poked her head out. Her scowl morphed into a smile. “Hey, girl, come on in. I was just catching up on orders.” She flicked her half-finished, still-smoking cigarette butt into the snow. For a second, Celia thought about diving for it to keep that precious tobacco from going to waste.

  Pathetic, Celia.

  “You comin’ in or what?” Bernice barked.

  “Yeah.” Celia let the door slam behind her.

  “What brings you to town?” Bernice rubbed her hands gleefully. “You finally gonna let me cut that hair? Or would Kyle have an issue with that?”

  She almost said, “Who cares what the fuck Kyle thinks? Let’s do it.” Facing a major life trauma was no time to enact such a huge change.

  Bernice led her to the sitting area. “So, sugar, not that I’m not happy to see you, but you don’t look happy. What’s up?”

, who prided herself on not being a crybaby-type of woman, burst into tears for the two-millionth time. Maybe not that many, but it sure seemed like it. She didn’t babble or blurt anything out, she just sobbed.

  Bernice handed her a box of tissues and didn’t speak until Celia’s tears subsided. “That first fight as a married couple is always the hardest,” Bernice said softly.

  Celia dabbed her eyes. That was as good an explanation for her hysteria as any. She expected Bernice would offer surprise that she and Kyle hadn’t fought before now. But Bernice said nothing along those lines, and Celia knew she’d done the right thing coming here.

  “I remember my first married fight with Bob. He’d said something stupid off the cuff because most men are clueless dumb asses and it takes a while to train them. Anyway, I thought my world had ended, even as I was wondering if I could get away with killing him for hurting my feelings.”

  “What did you do?”

  “I didn’t want to go home to Mama and give her reason to think the marriage was goin’ south so soon. It was summertime and so I went to my favorite fishing spot. Brought a sleeping bag. Planned to spend the whole
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