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One night rodeo, p.34
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       One Night Rodeo, p.34

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Then where did you get that much money?” he demanded.

  Tell him it’s none of his business. “From Abe and Hank. You got your inheritance and they gave me mine.”

  “Were you going to tell me?”

  Celia stared at him, refusing to feel guilty. “It’s pointless now, isn’t it? You have your ranch and I have the means to go to school. We both got what we wanted.”

  “So we’re done? You don’t need my money, you don’t need me, and so you’re not sticking around? We played house for a few months and that’s it?”

  “What do you want me to say?”

  His eyes searched hers with such intensity she couldn’t look away. “Say that the time we spent together meant something to you.”

  No matter how upset she was, she couldn’t lie to him.

  You don’t have to be an idiot and blurt out the truth either.

  But Celia found herself doing just that. “Yes, it meant something to me, asshole.”

  Just like that, his miserable posture changed. He erased the distance between them with four angry strides. “You want to know the honest-to-God truth, Celia? I love you. For chrissake, woman, I’ve been half in love with you for the last two years and you haven’t even noticed! So what if we were impaired the night we got married? Marrying you was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life and I won’t apologize for it.”

  Her mouth dropped open. “Then why didn’t you just tell me that?”

  “Because I was afraid this would happen! You’d get pissed about the marriage license screwup and not believe me when I said it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to be with you anyway. With you as my wife. I’d decided to give myself every single fucking minute of those six months you promised me because that might be all I’d ever get with you.”

  “Kyle.”

  “I love you. Do you hear me? I love you.” He shouted the last part. “Only you. Only ever you, Celia. From the moment I knew I’d made pledges to you I’ve considered you my wife. Mine. Even now, when I know the rings aren’t legally binding, I won’t take mine off. Because it means something to me. You mean everything to me. You know in your heart that what we have is real. No little piece of paper should have the power to change that.”

  Now that he’d finally opened up to her, telling her everything she’d wanted to hear for months…she had to leave? But she had no choice. Tanna, who took great pride in not needing anyone, had begged her to come to Texas. And Celia wouldn’t let Tanna down when she so desperately needed someone to help hold her up.

  But what if her leaving at such a crucial time put everything with Kyle in jeopardy? What if he gave her an ultimatum?

  He must’ve sensed her indecision because his eyes were gentle even when his tone stayed firm. “I know you need to go to Tanna. I’m not asking you to slap your friend’s hand away when she’s reached out to you.” He paused. “But don’t slap mine away either.”

  She remembered saying that to him and it’d been a turning point for them.

  “I’ll stay here and hold down our ranch. Not mine, ours. I will be waiting in our house, sleeping in our bed, waiting for you to come home to me. You belong with me. You’re happy with me.”

  Kyle didn’t touch her. Didn’t beg her to keep in contact with him. He just looked her dead in the eye and said, “I’ll be waiting for you. As long as it takes, Celia. I love you.”

  Then he turned and walked away.

  Kyle had hoped for a declaration of love from Celia after he’d yelled out that he loved her in the parting lot of Bernice’s Beauty Barn, for chrissake.

  But somehow…her calling him an asshole was close enough to an admission of feelings to prompt him to come clean with her about everything. He’d laid himself bare for her. He hoped it would be enough to make this right.

  He just had to put his head down, keep the ranch running, and hope like hell she came back to him.

  Day one without Celia sucked ass.

  Day two without Celia sucked ass.

  Day three without Celia sucked ass.

  By day four without Celia, Kyle was ready to sell the whole damn ranch.

  So when his mother’s car pulled up to the house, Kyle was so happy to see her he opened the door even before she knocked.

  He watched her climb out of the car, the smart, strong woman who’d raised him on her own. She’d had no family, no one to count on but herself during her pregnancy and throughout his childhood. It’d always been the two of them. It’d always been enough.

  If he truly thought about it, he hadn’t been overly concerned about discovering the identity of his father growing up. Once in a while he’d ask his mother, never really expecting a serious response. He’d become obsessed with the male who’d given him half of his DNA only since he’d received the inheritance from that mysterious man.

  Genetically, Kyle didn’t know if he’d inherited any of his father’s features. He’d not found a single picture of Marshall in any of his belongings. So because he had only a fuzzy mental image of the man, he had no idea if he and Marshall had the same hands or the same eyebrow shape or the same shoe size.

  But Kyle knew what his mom had looked like as a child. As a teenager. As a young mother. He knew how she’d felt at all those different stages of her life. He knew he’d inherited her eyes, her mouth, and her good nature.

  Her work ethic.

  Her capacity to love unconditionally.

  Over the past few days, he’d had all the time in the world to think and no one to talk to about his realizations. Maybe revelation was a more apt description for what he’d finally grasped: Marshall Townsend had lost out.

  Kyle understood that he would not find a letter of explanation from Marshall in the boxes of papers about why he’d made no effort to get to know his son. He wouldn’t find a secret scrapbook Marshall had compiled with newspaper clippings of Kyle’s triumphs in the world of rodeo.

  At last count his mother had thirty-two scrapbooks. One devoted to every year of Kyle’s life. And she made an effort every day to be part of her son’s life.

  That’s what counted.

  Kyle could spend the rest of his life second-guessing a dead stranger’s motives, or he could do as Celia had suggested weeks ago. He could let it go. Be happy with his windfall. Be grateful Marshall had given him some land, cattle, and money. Be grateful his mother had given him so much more.

  Two weeks ago he’d authorized the lawyer to release the money Marshall had set aside for her, plus extra from his account. She’d called him immediately, completely in shock. When she’d started crying, he’d lied about having chores to finish and quickly ended the call. He’d had no idea how to deal with her gratitude.

  Looks like he’d have to come up with something on the fly.

  Sherry Gilchrist bounded up the steps and hugged him. “My boy.”

  He hugged her back. Hard. “Hey, hot Mama. Come on in.”

  “What’s this? You actually seem happy to see me.”

  “I am.”

  “So, how are you?”

  Lonely. “Hanging in there.”

  She glanced up. “Don’t lie to me, Kyle Dean Gilchrist. You look like hell.”

  “Thanks for the confidence booster.”

  “You’d be disappointed if I started sugarcoating my maternal responses to you now.”

  He grinned. The woman who’d given birth to him definitely had her own way of doing things. And he appreciated more than ever the easy rhythm to their relationship. “What brings you by?”

  “I’ve got appointments in Rawlins and I wanted to talk to you face-to-face so you couldn’t hang up on me.”

  “Am I in trouble for that?”

  “No. But I’m pretty sure I raised you better than that.” She kicked off her stiletto boots and wandered through the living room. “Oh, Kyle, just look at your home. It’s so nice. Not too fussy. Warm and welcoming. It’s perfect for you and Celia.”

  “Thanks. I owe all the decorating and stuff to her.”


  She sat on the love seat. “Where is your lovely wife?”

  “Texas. Her best friend’s mom had a stroke, so she went down to be with the family.”

  “That girl…She really is a sweetie, isn’t she? So thoughtful. So genuinely helpful.” Then she frowned. “Wait. She left you here to handle the ranch by yourself?”

  He only bristled a little. “We’re through with calving, which is the worst part. I’m just fine on my own.” Liar.

  “I’d hoped to talk to both of you on this family matter, but since I’m limited on time you’ll have to fill her in when she gets home.”

  If she ever comes home. Kyle took the chair opposite her, secretly pleased that his mom already accepted that Celia would be part of their little family. “Fill her in on what?”

  “A couple of things. First, I’m leaving Rick.”

  “About damn time.” Then his gaze turned sharp. “He didn’t hurt you or anything?”

  “No. He wasn’t particularly heartbroken about the breakup either. It just was easier to stay than to go for both of us. Second, I’m moving. Checking out places to live in Rawlins and in Muddy Gap.”

  “Why Muddy Gap?”

  “That’s where I’ll be working. Came about in a strange way. When I called Susan Williams to let her know I wouldn’t be attending your wedding shower, she remembered me from years back when I applied for a bartending job at Buckeye Joe’s and she hadn’t hired me. She thought I might run off with her husband.” She smirked. “So we’re shooting the breeze, talking about all the changes in the bar industry over the years, since we’re the same age.”

  “Really? Because you look way younger than her.”

  His mother preened. “I’ll take that compliment, you rascal charmer.”

  Kyle grinned again. She’d called him that ever since he’d talked his way out of detention at age ten.

  “Anyway, she’s burned out since her ex-husband bailed with that cocktail waitress. She wants to have a life away from the bar.” Her eyes gleamed. “So when you told me about the money Marshall left me, I called her and bought in. You’re looking at the new partner of the Buckeye!”

  Stunned didn’t come close to describing how he felt. “Mom. That’s awesome.”

  “I know. Isn’t it great? Susan wants me to start tonight. Introduce me to the regulars, that sort of thing. She’s letting me stay with her until I get my own place. After all the years I’ve slaved for others, this is a dream come true for me.” She laughed. “Being part owner in a bar. I almost can’t believe it!”

  Her enthusiasm was infectious. “So that means free drinks whenever I stroll into the Buckeye?”

  “You wish. But I will admit part of the appeal for me was moving closer to you. And any future grandbabies you and Celia might wanna give me.”

  “Neither of us is ready for kids.” He scratched his jaw. “But I was thinking about buying her a dog.” That’s how desperate he was to lure Celia home. He’d contacted half a dozen different breeders in case she didn’t want another mongrel blue heeler like her beloved dog, Murray.

  Kyle was going crazy without her. A minute at a time.

  “Well, son, as much as I like dogs, I draw the line at calling a dog a grandbaby.”

  “Understood.” He watched her fiddle and fuss with her buttons, which meant she had something else on her mind. “What else is up?”

  “One other thing I wanted to talk to you about.”

  “Shoot.”

  “I was happy Marshall did one thing right in his miserable life by providing you with a place to call your own.”

  “But?”

  “But you’ve been so angry since this inheritance happened. At me. At Marshall. At yourself. Even at Celia.”

  He looked away.

  “I’m worried about you. This isn’t like you, Kyle. You’ve gone from being a happy kid to a happy teen to a genuinely happy adult. You never were resentful that I couldn’t give you all the things other boys your age had. You just made the most of what you did have. Now that you have everything you ever wanted…you’re not happy. And because you weren’t a morose kid I had to pry secrets out of, I never pressured you to open up to me. In hindsight, maybe I should have.”

  “Why?”

  “So we wouldn’t be at an impasse. I want to know what you’re thinking. I want to know what I can do to earn your forgiveness.”

  During his alone time, it had come as a shock to recognize he hadn’t applied the “the past is the past” philosophy he’d taken with Celia to his mother. Should she have told him Marshall Townsend was his father? Probably. But letting his mother’s long-ago decision ruin their future relationship? Stupid, petty, and shortsighted. And mean. God. He’d been a whiny little prick to her these last couple of months. She deserved better from him too.

  As hard as it was to do, Kyle looked her in the eye. “First, I’d ask for your forgiveness for acting like a bratty kid.”

  “Done.”

  “As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothin’ to forgive. You did what you thought was right at the time. You stuck by it. I admire that. I have a lot of admiration for you, in case you didn’t know. And it sucks for Marshall that he didn’t get in touch with me, because I am a cool kid. Or so you’ve always told me.”

  She whapped him on the knee. “Oh, you’re gonna make me cry.”

  When she sniffled, Kyle stood and tugged her into his arms. “Mom. I love you. I am happy.” Or he would be as soon as he straightened out this situation with his woman. “I just had to figure some of this stuff out on my own.”

  “That’s what Celia told me,” she said. “She knows you so well. You’re lucky, son.”

  “I know I am. I’m hoping in your new life as bar owner you’ll make time to hang out with me and Celia. She hasn’t had a mom for a long damn time, and I’m more than willing to share mine with her because you’re the best mom ever.”

  She cried harder.

  He let her.

  Then she stepped back and wiped her eyes. “Thanks. I needed that.”

  “Me too.”

  “When is Celia coming back?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Her green-eyed gaze turned sharp and mom-like. “Is everything all right between you two?”

  It’d be easy to lie and slap on a happy face. But he couldn’t. His mother knew him equally as well and she would ferret out the bullshit eventually. “Not really. We had a big fight right before she got the call from Tanna. Then she left. I haven’t heard from her since.”

  “At all?”

  Kyle shook his head.

  “Well, you know what you have to do, don’t you?”

  “Ah. No. Not really. That’s the thing.”

  She poked him in the chest. “You get your butt to Texas and bring your wife back home where she belongs. You want her to think you don’t care? Will you let your very first fight change the course of your marriage? No way, buster.”

  “But it’s different now than when I was ridin’ bulls and could do whatever the hell I wanted. I’ve got livestock to take care of. And the last thing Celia said to me was to own up to my responsibilities with the ranch.”

  Another two hard pokes in his chest. “And Celia is one of those responsibilities. The biggest one. Don’t you let her get away from you. She loves you. She looks at you the way I’d always hoped the right woman would. So you talk to your neighbor, or hire someone, or hell, even tell me what to do and I’ll take care of the dang cows. But don’t you let this go another day, Kyle. Not. A. Single. Day.”

  The thought of his mom ankle-deep in muck in her high-heeled shoes made him smile. The thought of getting in his truck, driving to Texas, and having Celia in his arms in thirty-six hours made his smile even wider. “You’re right. Thanks for the kick in the butt when I need it.”

  She kissed his cheek. “Honey, that’s what mothers do best.”

  Ten minutes after his mom had left, Kyle was about to head down to Josh’s to beg for his help for a co
uple of days when Lainie’s vehicle pulled up.

  He had to lock his knees against the fear that something had happened to Celia. Was that why he hadn’t heard from her? He threw the door open. “Lainie. What’s wrong?”

  “Let me come inside. It’s cold out here and I’ve been on my feet all day.” Lainie unwrapped her scarf. She looked like she’d been crying.

  Kyle managed a calm, “Tell me what the hell happened before I lose my fucking mind.”

  She sank onto the couch. “Tanna’s mom died yesterday.”

 
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