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       Corralled, p.35

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “You’re damn right I’m confused and hurt. I have to take a good hard look at my life and I can’t do it while I’m looking at you.”

  Surprise registered on his face. “What?”

  “I see broken promises and outright lies on your face, Doc. I deserve better. I always have. So, no, I don’t need time to think it through. Maybe I’m thinking clearly for the first time.” She stumbled out of his office.

  “Lainie. Wait.”

  She didn’t.

  Lainie climbed in her truck, her mind racing as she sped away.

  She’d never been unemployed. She could get her EMT job back.

  She could apply at a nursing home. She could return to the health club as a massage therapist. She could start over. But she didn’t want to do it in Colorado Springs.

  Why had she been in a holding pattern for the last two years?

  Putting off making any decisions about her life and her future?

  Because she was stuck in the past? Mourning her grandmother?

  Living her life in the shadow of a man she hardly remembered?

  Had she been deluding herself? Choosing to work in the rodeo world her father loved in some misguided attempt to feel close to him?

  Enough. Get a grip on the here and now.

  Problem was, Lainie had no freakin’ clue where to start.

  Her grandmother’s voice drifted into her head. Sometimes getting on the right path takes a step back to see where you’ve been.

  Once Lainie returned to her apartment, she paced until she mustered the guts to just pick up the damn phone and call her mother.

  Sharlene answered. “I’ll admit I’m surprised you’re calling me, Melanie.” Pause. “Although I am really glad to hear from you.”

  Lainie looked at the receiver as if it were playing tricks on her.

  “You are?”

  “Yes. I’ve been really worried about you. And I hate it when we fight, even though it’s all we’ve seemed to do in the last few years.

  Are you okay?”

  No. Stupid tears started again.

  “Lainie?”

  She swallowed hard at the soft, concerned way her mother said her name. “No, Mom, I’m not okay. You were right about Dusty.

  About the whole situation. God. I feel like such an idiot.”

  “Oh, sugar bear, what happened?”

  Sugar bear. She hadn’t called her that in years. And for the first time in years, Lainie found herself spilling her guts to her mother.

  About her job. About seeing the real rodeo world. About the hardships of life on the road. About her relationship with Hank. About her confusion over it all.

  When she finished, Sharlene was quiet. Too quiet. Like the kind of stillness one felt in an animal about to attack and rip its prey to shreds. Lainie braced herself when her mother expelled a drawn- out sigh.

  “Thank you for telling me. I’m horrified and sick to my stomach about what you went through. But I’ll be honest. If it were me?

  I’d sue the living shit out of both the EBS and Lariat.”

  Lainie froze. No wonder Dusty had asked about her stepfather.

  He feared a lawsuit.

  “But it’s not about me. And I’ve overstepped my boundaries with you too many times already. So my next question is, What can I do?”

  Not the response she’d expected.

  Maybe because you’re putting lousy expectations on your mother that she never deserved. Good or bad.

  “I don’t think there’s anything you can do. I just needed to let you know. To thank you, I guess, for giving me an insight I didn’t have. Or I didn’t believe, is probably a more accurate statement.”

  Her mother laughed. “We always seem to be at cross- purposes, don’t we? I never intended to hurt you, sweetheart, and it seems I always do. I know our relationship has never been easy.”

  That was putting it mildly.

  “There’s a lot I haven’t told you, or you’ve misunderstood. I kept hoping you’d come to me with questions, but you just closed down. Resented me. I know this will sound harsh, but I resented you for that resentment. I hated that you made assumptions.”

  “Assumptions about . . . you?”

  “Yes, about me. But also about your father. About what happened after he died.”

  Lainie’s stomach lurched in the brutal silence.

  “Twenty years have passed and it’s still so damn hard.”

  Lainie actually felt her mother’s anguish over the phone lines.

  “I’m in a place where I can listen with an open mind. And a closed mouth,” she added.

  Her mother let loose a half laugh, half sob. “I forget how funny you are. I miss that. You’re so like your father sometimes it makes me crazy. So determined to make your own way. So helpful to others at the expense of your own happiness.” She sniffed. “Do you know you even have his cowlick?”

  Lainie closed her eyes. “You mentioned that a time or two when I was a kid.”

  “I loved Jason. He was . . . everything in the world to me. He was my world. Without going into too much detail, we fought hard, we loved hard. We were happy. Even when he wasn’t around as much as I wanted, especially after you were born, we made the most of our time together.

  “When Jason died . . . I wanted to die right along with him.

  Everybody mourned him. He became more famous in death than he’d been in life. Which pissed me off. I’d lost my everything, you’d lost a father, and all anyone could talk about was the lasting legacy he’d left on the bull riding community. Your grandma Elsa, God rest her soul, loved talking to the press about her only son.

  She was no stranger to tragedy, but I was. I’d never lost anyone important in my life. And I was so damn young. All I wanted was to hole up and mourn. In my own way. Not in public.

  “But Elsa saw my grief as a weakness. She’d lived through heartbreak several times and figured I was being a drama queen by letting sadness consume me. She took over your care and I let her.

  I remember about a year after Jason died I finally woke up from my fog of misery.”

  “I don’t remember any of that.”

  “I know you don’t. I’m actually glad. Anyway, I’d met with Marcus a couple of times about a wrongful- death lawsuit. But mostly I was interested in setting up a foundation in Jason’s name, where any use of his likeness and his image would be under my control.” An edge entered her voice. “Elsa accused me of profiting from Jason’s death. But she didn’t understand that if I didn’t have legal protection in place, other people would profit. It wasn’t about the money. It was about retaining some goddamn dignity. I didn’t want to see the man I’d loved become a commodity. I wanted to ensure that his face wouldn’t end up on a commemorative fucking spoon or something.”

  Lainie’s heart squeezed painfully at the raw anguish in her mother’s voice and the rare burst of profanity. How had she not known any of this? Had she really assumed her father’s death had no impact on her mother at all? How could she have been so clueless? So selfish? So self- involved?

  Because you were a kid, and kids are notoriously selfish. But you’ve never given yourself a chance to have a decent adult relationship with her.

  “Is that when we moved out of Oklahoma?”

  Silence.

  “Mom?”

  “Yes. I needed a fresh start. Away from rodeo, away from the memories. By that time I’d fallen in love with Marcus. We both knew I’d never overcome the stigma of being Jason Capshaw’s widow if we lived in Oklahoma. And I didn’t want you to grow up a curiosity.”

  Sharlene had succeeded there. No one in California had heard of bull rider Jason Capshaw or his tragic end. Since she’d been involved with rodeo, and with the questions she constantly fielded about her father, she had a better appreciation for her mother’s choice.

  “You were unhappy. We’d left Elsa on bad terms because she’d threatened to sue for custody of you.”

  “She did?


  “I hated that it’d come down to that. She cooled down— it took her over a year— and I agreed to let you spend summers with her.

  As long as she kept you away from the world of rodeo.”

  “And I ended up there anyway,” Lainie murmured.

  “When Dusty told me he’d hired you, but only part- time, I knew he’d taken advantage of your curiosity, your grief over your grandmother’s death, and your restlessness. I worried you’d schedule your life around those twenty hours a week in some attempt to relate to your father’s life on the road.”

  “Maybe. Probably. I was flattered that he thought I was qualified. I feel like such a fool that Dusty had counted on that reaction from me.”

  “He’s shrewd. He saw how much you were like Jason. I hoped after Elsa died you’d come home and we could talk about some of this stuff. When you went to work for Lariat immediately, I’ll admit I went off the deep end. I called Dusty and he was so fucking smug. . . . I called him every name in the book and hated how he was using you. I thought that if I encouraged you to go back to school . . . but you mistook my encouragement as an indictment of your abilities. I never intended that.” Her mother made an exasperated sigh. “Lainie, sugar bear, I seem to go about this all wrong with you all the time. I’d like to figure out a way to make it right for both of us.”

  Lainie said, “Me too,” and for the first time, she meant it.

  “As much as I’d like to see you, I won’t guilt you into coming to California. I know this won’t happen overnight, but can we stay in touch? Take it a step at a time?”

  “I’d like that.”

  “Are you going to talk to Hank now that you’re unemployed and unencumbered?”

  “Yes. But there’s something I have to do first.”

  The intent hung between them.

  “Maybe someday I’ll get up the guts to go too,” her mother said softly. “Call me if you need me.”

  Even after the enlightening yet surreal conversation with her mother, Lainie was restless. Staring at the bare white walls of her apartment the next two days while Hank was in Omaha wasn’t an option. As she packed a bag, her cell phone rang. Lainie attempted to put a smile in her voice. “Hey, Tanna, how’s it going in Lubbock?”

  “I finished top of the leader board in the first go.”

  “That’s awesome.”

  “Yeah, but it’s a two- day event and there’s no one cool to hang with since you’re not here. By the way, I finally ditched that asshole Steve. I can’t believe I wasted four months of my life on him.”

  “Glad you finally saw the light, and you’ll get back to the wild Tanna I know and love.”

  “We’ll see. Anyway, enough about me. Are you excited to start the new job?”

  “No. I’m . . . done with Lariat.”

  “What?”

  Lainie began to explain calmly, but with all that’d happened in the last week, she lost it. She babbled about her mother, her future, her past, all her realizations in the past three weeks. When she took a breath, she realized Tanna hadn’t uttered a peep. “Sorry.”

  She sniffled. “It just hit me all at once.”

  “Where are you?” Tanna demanded.

  “Getting ready to leave my apartment.”

  “Stay put. If I leave right now, I can be there in eight hours.”

  “No.” Lainie teared up again. “God, Tanna, I appreciate that you’d drop everything for me, but you’re in first place. This is a big rodeo with a big purse and you have to stay there and win it.”

  “Fine. You don’t have a job. Drive down here. We’ll get shit-faced and act like total idiots. Then you can come home with me to the ranch for as long as you need to.”

  She pressed her neck into the back of the couch. “I may take you up on that later. But there’s something I need to do first.”

  “Girl, are you finally goin’ to Hank and letting him know how you feel?” She allowed a thoughtful pause. “Please tell me you called him about what happened with Lariat today.”

  “Hank’s got enough to worry about. His first event with the EBS is this weekend.”

  “Lainie, you know I love ya, but sometimes I wanna strangle you. Hank’s a big boy. He deserves to know.”

  “I’ll tell him. I promise. Soon. Just not tonight. Tonight I have to do something I’ve been putting off for a long time.”

  “What? Where are you going?”

  “Cheyenne.” Her cell phone beeped, signaling low battery.

  “Look. I have a ways to drive and my phone is almost dead. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

  “Okay,” Tanna said grudgingly. “Drive safe.”

  “I will.”

  Lainie turned the phone off. She threw her bag in the back of her truck and lit out. As soon as she pulled back onto I- 25

  north, she knew that this time there’d be no detours. No excuses.

  No more running from the past. She’d face those demons head-on.

  Hank paced. Unproductive, but it eased some of his rage. He’d promised Lainie he’d stick to their agreement of giving her time to think. He’d been doing pretty well, except for the ten times a day he picked up his phone to call her, only to remember at the last second that he shouldn’t.

  The fact that Lainie hadn’t relayed this disturbing turn of events, that he’d had to hear it from Tanna again, chapped his ass.

  Big- time.

  Maybe she didn’t tell you because she knew how you’d react: huffing and throwing your weight around like an out- of- control bull.

  Worked for him.

  He passed the T-shirt stand and the section overloaded with EBS everything. Belt buckles, neckerchiefs, posters, program guides, DVDs, CDs, even wispy lace thongs were displayed.

  The EBS was big business.

  The little slip of a secretary was no match for Hank. He bulled his way into Bryson Westfield’s traveling office in the back of an EBS logoed semi trailer.

  Miz Bony Secretary cut in front of Hank and glared before directing her comments to her boss. “Sir, I’m sorry. He just blew right past me—”

  “It’s all right. This man is damn near unstoppable, which is why he’s a fine bullfighter.” He gestured with his pen. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

  “Yes, sir.” Her beaklike nose nearly brushed the floor, her head hung so low on her retreat.

  Not that Bryson Westfield noticed. He shooed away the men wielding papers and didn’t speak until the door clicked shut behind them.

  “Mr. Lawson. This is your first official EBS event, but it ain’t your first rodeo. Do I really need to detail what constitutes rude behavior?”

  “No.”

  “Good. Storming in here and bullying my secretary is unacceptable. You’d better have a damn good reason why you saw fit to make yourself my priority today.”

  Inhale. Exhale. Stay fucking calm. Deep breath in. Long, slow breath out. “For the record, I apologize. It wasn’t my intention—”

  “The road to hell and all that springs to mind, Hank, so get to the point. I’m a busy man.”

  There’s still time to slink away. To back down. Do your job, collect a paycheck, and smile like an idiot.

  “Well?” Bryson demanded.

  Buck up. But no half measures, no compromises in this situation.

  Black and white. Right and wrong.

  Hank threw back his shoulders and drew himself up to his full height. He stalked closer to the balding fat boy. “I’m here about Ace Newharth.”

  “What about him?”

  “I saw his name on the roster for this weekend. He’s still on the tour?”

  Those flat black reptilian eyes turned appraising. “Yes, he is.He’s a top- twenty- five- ranked bull rider and he deserves to be there. Why?”

 
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