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       Corralled, p.34

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Lainie’s defeat morphed into defiance. He continued, “I can deal with this if it’s too hard for you. And FYI, that wasn’t a suggestion. Either you call him, or I will.”

  “Don’t bully me, Hank.”

  He curled his hand around her neck, bringing her close, so she’d make no mistake about his intent. “Don’t confuse bullying with my ensuring that this matter is handled swiftly and properly. Do you have any idea what the thought of you being hurt does to me?”

  He foiled her attempt to look away.

  “It’s all I can do not to track that worthless fucker down and shoot him for the animal he is. Ace was stopped before he succeeded in his attempt to rape you. We could be dealing with a lot different— a lot worse situation.”

  “We?”

  “You can’t honestly believe I’d walk away and leave you to handle this alone?”

  “Hank—”

  “Don’t brush me aside. Not now. Not ever. You know how I feel about you, Lainie, even when you won’t let me say the actual words. But it doesn’t change them. Or negate them.”

  Lainie didn’t answer, but Hank hadn’t expected her to.

  “This isn’t something I can stand back and do nothin’ about. I’m here for you. No matter what happens. But one of us is gonna make that call. You choose.”

  Neither spoke. Neither moved. Finally Lainie closed her eyes and said, “All right. I’ll do it.”

  Thank God.

  Hank brushed his lips over her forehead. “I’ll be right here with you, if you want.”

  “I’d like that.” Lainie wriggled out of his arms. “In fact, I’ll call Dusty now. He’s harder to get hold of as the day progresses, and I don’t want to put this off any longer than I have to.”

  After Lainie hung up, she knew she’d done the right thing. Dusty was suitably appalled by the defection of the other medical personnel as well as Ace’s behavior. But when it seemed Dusty might balk at contacting Bryson Westfield about the incident, Lainie put the screws to him. She’d wait four hours for Bryson’s response and plan for disciplinary action against Ace, or she’d head to the police department and file formal charges against Ace Newharth before she left town for the next EBS event.

  Dusty’s reaction left her unsettled. She understood the EBS was half Lariat’s source of income, but wasn’t it hypocritical for an organization devoted to healing to turn a blind eye when one of its own workers was the injured party?

  Hank dragged her to the vending machine to load up on snacks.

  Back at the room, he tucked her against his big body so they touched from head to toe. He held her, constantly soothing her with his loving caresses while they waited for her cell phone to ring.

  “Whatcha thinking about?” Hank murmured.

  “I don’t want to get on a plane and fly to Salt Lake City.”

  “I don’t want you to either.” He stroked the bend in her elbow.

  “Given what happened to you, I expected Dusty would insist that someone besides you could finish this fill- in gig.”

  “He offered; I declined,” she lied, knowing Hank would be even more infuriated if he knew the truth: Dusty hadn’t mentioned finding her a replacement. There wasn’t anyone else in the company who could drop everything and fly off at a moment’s notice.

  Not because she was indispensable, but because she was cheap, she had no other life, and she wouldn’t say no.

  “Please reconsider,” he said gently. “I’ll drive you to Colorado Springs myself.”

  Lainie turned and looked at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Kansas City?”

  “Yes. But the CRA would understand.”

  “What about the EBS?”

  Hank hesitated. “I don’t know if I can—”

  Her cell phone rang. She disentangled from Hank’s arms and glanced at the caller ID. Not a number she recognized. “Hello?”

  “Is this Melanie Capshaw?”

  “Yes. Who’s this?”

  “This is Bryson Westfield of the EBS.”

  Her heart thumped and she scrambled to the edge of the bed.

  “I just got off the phone with your boss, Doc Bowman. He indicated you’d had an unfortunate incident with an EBS rider last night.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Can you explain what happened?”

  Lainie resented having to prove that she’d been attacked. She’d done nothing wrong except show up for work. After she finished, Bryson Westfield put her on hold.

  Five minutes later he clicked back on the line. “Thanks for holding. You said Ace Newharth was responsible? He wasn’t listed on last night’s docket of riders.”

  “I’ve treated Ace in a medical capacity, so I know who he is.

  The other Lariat employees can verify that he was in the room with his friend Jake Nelson last night during the event.”

  More muffled sounds.

  “I assure you, Miss Capshaw, I don’t condone Ace’s behavior.”

  “But are you going to condemn it?” she demanded.

  “I’ll ask that you refrain both from filing charges with the local police department or from contacting your legal counsel until we’ve thoroughly investigated this matter. Naturally I’ll keep you informed of how the investigation proceeds.”

  Her mouth nearly hit the floor. “That’s it? Ace attacks me and he won’t be reprimanded at all?”

  “I didn’t say that,” he cautioned.

  “You implied it. At the very least I would expect Ace would be suspended from EBS events pending a full investigation.”

  Silence.

  Hank hopped up and paced in the small walkway between the beds, practically growling his displeasure.

  “I’ll oversee Mr. Newharth’s disciplinary action personally.”

  “Thank you.” But she didn’t feel relief; she wasn’t sure he wasn’t feeding her full of shit.

  “In the meantime, I’ll expect the usual discretionary measures.

  No media alerts.”

  “I’m not looking for publicity, Mr. Westfield. I prefer this to be handled as discreetly, expediently, and fairly as possible.”

  “Consider it done. Someone from my office will be in touch with you soon, Miss Capshaw.” And he hung up.

  Hank crouched in front of her. “What happened?”

  “They’re checking into it.”

  “What’s to check into? Ace attacked you. End of investigation.”

  Lainie rubbed the ache between her eyes. “Can we just forget about this whole shitty mess and snuggle up until it’s time for me to leave?”

  Emotionally drained, she rolled over and faced the wall. If she could just make it through the next two days, she’d be home free.

  The clerical job started Monday.

  “Talk to me. What aren’t you telling me?”

  “My position with Lariat is changing. Which is why it’s ironic that this happened at one of the last events I have on the road.”

  “Last events? Are you . . . quitting?”

  “No. I’ll be working in the Lariat offices full- time, not traveling the circuits.”

  “How long have you known?” When she didn’t jump right in with a response, Hank said, “Since Lamar. Dusty offered you the job and told you to go on vacation for three weeks before you started.” Pause. “When were you going to tell me?”

  “I’d planned to tell you. Things were going so great between us that I didn’t want it to end on a bad note.”

  End hung in the air like a dirty cloud.

  The mattress moved beneath them as Hank draped his arm over her side and pulled her flush to his body. His warm breath teased her ear. “Well, darlin’, we don’t have much time left today. I sure as hell don’t want to spend it fighting with you.”

  That was when her tears surfaced. This man was so unbelievably sweet. Thoughtful. Fierce. Loving. “I don’t want to spend it fighting either.”

  “Good.” He placed hot,
wet, openmouthed kisses down her neck. “When does your flight leave?”

  “Four.”

  “Mmm. That leaves us plenty of time.”

  Her body tingled from the eroticism of his mouth on her skin.

  “For what?”

  “For me to prove to you that this shouldn’t end. Ever.”

  And prove it he did. In the bed. In the shower. In the chair.

  Hank systematically left his mark on her body, her heart, and her soul. Their parting at the airport was bittersweet. When he whispered that he wanted more than three lousy weeks with her, she asked him to give her a little time to get her head together.

  Lainie felt more confused than ever. She kissed him and forced herself to turn away.

  Chapter XXIV

  Lainie figured the summons from Dusty on her day off meant he wanted the lowdown on what happened in River Bend— without interruptions. She rapped on his office door.

  Doc motioned her to a metal stool, the one piece of furniture not mounded with papers.

  His clinical gaze swept over Lainie. “How are you?”

  “Fine.” When he looked as if he didn’t believe her, she said,

  “Seriously. I’m fine now. But I won’t lie: Having Ace Newharth corner me scared the piss out of me.”

  “I imagine so. Have you called your mother to let her know what happened?”

  “I intend to. I took a three- week sabbatical from her too.”

  “So Sharlene and her husband don’t know what’s going on?”

  Since when did Doc care about her stepfather’s involvement in her life? She shook her head.

  “Good enough.”

  He tapped his fingers on the desk blotter.

  The first bit of niggling doubt surfaced.

  “You wondering why I called you in today?”

  “I thought it was about the River Bend incident.”

  “No. There are a few things we need to discuss.”

  “Pay rates for my new job?” she joked.

  Doc sagged back in his office chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, let me just say this straightaway.”

  Not good. Seriously not good.

  “I offered you something I had no right to.”

  “Is this is about the office position?”

  “Yes. I’m afraid the job’s already been filled.”

  Her hopes sank to the tips of her boots. “By who?”

  “A woman with previous experience in office management.

  She started last week. I’m sorry. It was out of my hands.”

  Bullshit. “When was this decided?”

  Dusty didn’t answer.

  She forced herself to remain calm. Forced herself to swallow the ugly reality. “You never intended to hire me for the full- time office position, did you? You used it as a carrot to force me to take vacation time, knowing that when I returned you could pull this ‘the position was filled’ crap on me.”

  He didn’t deny it.

  “After you talked to me in Lamar, I came back to Colorado Springs and quit my EMT job, thinking I wouldn’t need it.” She laughed bitterly. “How wrongheaded that decision was.”

  Dusty wouldn’t meet her gaze— an indication that this situation was worse than she’d initially believed. “Are you firing me outright?”

  “No. When we spoke in Lamar I told you the organization was being restructured, remember?”

  “The entire organization? Or just this office?”

  “Mostly this office.”

  Liar. Dusty could do whatever he wanted, hire whoever he wanted. Something else was at play here.

  “The good thing is, I can keep you on in your current capacity, part- time, as a med tech, but only on the CRA circuit.”

  Lainie was stunned into speechlessness.

  “We feel it’s best for our employees to stick with one rodeo organization, rather than switching back and forth between them like you’ve done.”

  Her disbelief expanded. “You’re penalizing me because of Ace attacking me on the EBS circuit?”

  “Not a penalty,” he chided. “We’re making a business decision.

  To be honest, sending you to the EBS wearing the ‘Mel’ name tag was a joke gone awry. I’m rectifying that mistake by assigning you solely to the CRA.”

  The EBS was blaming her for getting attacked. She’d bet money Ace wouldn’t even get a slap on the wrist. “So I’m being reassigned because of my gender?”

  “No. But Bryson did contact the Lariat corporate office questioning your medical qualifications.”

  “And?” she demanded.

  “His phone call brought up an oversight. So corporate revised the med tech standards for employees working in the Lariat Sports Medicine division, specifically relating to our professional relationship with the EBS. New criteria, effective immediately.”

  “Which is?”

  “A four- year degree in a health- related field. So, see, you don’t qualify with your CNA, LPN degree, and EMT certificate.”

  Shame, hot and thick, expanded in her throat. She couldn’t speak. She’d been so proud of her accomplishments. So confident in her ability. Certain Lariat Sports Medicine had hired her as a qualified medical professional on her own merits. When the truth was, Dusty had hired her out of pity, or worse, solely out of an obligation he felt to her dead father.

  Had her mother been right all along? Dusty used her, overworked her, knowing she’d be thrilled with any menial job in the rodeo world because it was a connection to her father? Knowing she wouldn’t complain about the shit wages?

  She’d never felt so betrayed. So heartsick. Her future was as much in shambles as the past she couldn’t get away from.

  “Do you have any other questions?” Doc asked.

  She shook her head.

  “Look. I can get you on the docket Thursday for—”

  “No.” Blindly, she stood. “I quit. Have corporate send my last check to the address you have on file. I should be there for a few more weeks until the lease on my apartment is up.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. So what if you can’t work in the EBS? The CRA doesn’t have the same rigid medical requirements. The CRA is happy to have you, Lainie. I’m happy to have you here.”

  “Because of what I do? Or who I am?” She whirled on him. “I believed you hired me on my own merits. I moved here and worked another job so I could keep this one. For what? The hours suck. The pay sucks. The travel sucks. Everything sucks. Why didn’t I see that before now?”

  “Lainie, you’re confused and hurt. I don’t blame you. But don’t make a rash decision and throw everything away until you’ve thought it through.”

 
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