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       Corralled, p.36

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “After what he did to Lainie Capshaw last week? You’re not reprimanding him?”

  “What I choose to do or not to do with my bull riders is none of your concern. I handled it in the best way I saw fit.”

  “Meaning you’re ignoring it,” Hank spat.

  Bryson shrugged. “It’s her word against his. I’ve known Ace a long time. He’s a devout Christian man, with a loving family supporting him and a large fan base. I know nothing of this Lainie woman beyond that she expects the Capshaw name will grant her special privileges.”

  He stared at Bryson, wondering when the man had gotten kicked in the head by a bull. Attempted sexual assault was a special privilege?

  “This is typical reactive behavior for a female in a male-dominated sport. They get their little feelings hurt, or they send off mixed signals, or their advances are rebuffed and the next thing you know, they’re crying foul.” He pointed a fat finger at Hank.

  “This is also why I told Doc not to send me female medical technicians. Did he listen to me? No. I’ve never once had to deal with sexual harassment shit like this when the staff and the riders were all men.”

  Hank slapped his hands on the desk with enough force that his palms stung. “You ignorant son of a bitch. This is not about Lainie getting her feelings hurt. This is about that bastard putting the hurt on her. Ace left fucking bruises on her neck. Bruises. If Tanna Barker hadn’t come in . . .” Jesus. A red haze of fury consumed him when he considered what might’ve happened.

  “I don’t know who you think you are, but you can’t speak to me like that—”

  “We’re not talkin’ sexual harassment, Bryson. We’re talkin’ attempted sexual assault. Big fucking difference.”

  “Says you. Might I remind you that Miz Capshaw didn’t file charges against Mr. Newharth?”

  “She didn’t file at your request! She didn’t want the bad publicity any more than the EBS did. You promised her you’d handle it discreetly. Nothin’s been done. Except Lainie’s been penalized.

  She’s been pulled from the EBS circuit permanently.”

  “Oh, really? I didn’t know.”

  “The fuck you didn’t. I’ll bet this is your doin’. Ace hasn’t been penalized at all. This isn’t fair and you goddamn well know it.”

  “Fairness is relative, and as far as I can tell the matter is over.”

  “It’s far from fucking over,” Hank snarled. “You either drop him from this event—”

  “Or you’ll what?” Bryson supplied sarcastically. “Hover over me and snarl idle threats?”

  “No, I’ll let the bull he’s on stomp him into the dirt like the piece of shit he is. In fact, I’ll encourage it. I sure as hell won’t rush in and risk my life to save his.”

  Bryson’s face turned beet red, but the fat folds in his jowls remained milky white lines. “Get out of my office. You’re done here. For good. I’ll be pulling your name off the roster, not Ace’s.”

  “Do it. And fair warning: You have no idea the shit storm that’s gonna rain down on you and the EBS when the media gets wind of this. The almighty EBS. The premier organization dedicated to the art of riding bulls turns its back on the only daughter of the most beloved bull rider of all time.”

  Another piggy- eyed glare.

  “Because of Jason Capshaw’s death, bull riders now wear safety equipment. Lainie Capshaw has centered her career around helping injured cowboys. In memory of her fallen father. Yet this organization failed to protect her— not from the bulls, but from the bull riders themselves. The very men she was hired to help.”

  “Miz Capshaw didn’t want the media attention before—”

  “It’s different now. She gave you her faith the EBS would do the right thing . . . and you gave her the finger. Her only recourse is to try this in the court of public opinion, and in the legal system.” He angled forward across the desk, invading his personal space. Bryson, the dickless wonder, flinched, causing Hank to grin.

  “We both know she can still file charges against Ace. She can file charges against you and your organization for everything from conspiracy to discrimination to endangerment.”

  “Get. The. Fuck. Out.” Bryson seethed. “Your bullfighting days are over.”

  “With the EBS? Good riddance. I’m damn happy to stay in the CRA, where honor and family and respect mean something.”

  “The beloved CRA, where a man is considered a real John Wayne for standing up for his little woman?”

  “No, in the CRA a man doesn’t have to stand up for his woman, because the organization is already standing behind her. This assault never would’ve happened within the CRA.”

  “Well, this ain’t the CRA.”

  “Of that, there’s no doubt in my mind. Pretty soon it’ll be crystal clear in everyone else’s mind too.”

  “Threats don’t work on me.”

  “Yeah? Let’s test that theory, shall we?”

  Hank spun on his boot heel and stormed out.

  Halfway to his truck, he dialed directory assistance. “Connect me with United Airlines.”

  Chapter XXV

  Cheyenne looked far bigger than what the population sign indicated. The orange glow of the sodium lights along the four- lane interstate turned the black sky an abnormal shade of purple.

  Lainie forced herself to uncurl her fingers from the steering wheel. Her knuckles were white. Her palms were scored with red marks from the death grip she’d maintained on the hard plastic since she’d hit the Wyoming state line.

  The lights of the Warren Air Force Base blinked across the prairie. A dark, jagged outline of mountains loomed in the distance.

  Several sizes of missiles were grouped together along the side of the road. The welcome to the “equality state” seemed appropriate.

  She rounded a sloping corner on the interstate and there it was, Frontier Park. Carnival rides towered above the chain- link fence surrounding the park. Then everything disappeared behind rows and rows of trees.

  No going back now.

  She exited and followed the signs. Traffic was light this time of night. It didn’t take long to reach the big wooden sign hanging above the rodeo grounds, welcoming visitors to “The Daddy of

  ’Em All,” the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo.

  Her stomach was twisted in knots. Her mouth was as dry as the dust kicking up beneath her tires. Her heart whomped against her chest. A cold sweat— she’d never believed that phrase until just now— coated her skin. Her body trembled so hard her legs bounced of their own accord.

  One step at a time.

  As Lainie parked alongside the visitors’ building, she prayed they’d locked up for the night. Maybe if she stayed in the pickup, a cranky security guard would swing by and shoo her away. At least she could honestly say she tried.

  Get out of the damn truck.

  Why had she decided to make the pilgrimage to this place after all these years? Her father wasn’t here. His soul or spirit or whatever had moved on long ago. What remained of Jason Capshaw was the tragic legend, the reverence regarding his flawless bull riding style, and a memorial statue at the place where he died.

  And you. You’re what’s left of him. You’re part of him.

  Lainie pictured her grandmother Elsa’s sweet face and the fierce pride when she spoke of her son. Her sadness at losing him at such a young age. Her joy that she’d at least had Lainie as a reminder. Grandma had traveled all the way from Oklahoma for the unveiling of the statue the Cheyenne Frontier Days Booster Club had presented on the fifth anniversary of Jason Capshaw’s death.

  Sharlene hadn’t attended the ceremony; nor had she allowed Lainie to attend. People move on, Sharlene had pointed out. Sharlene had said that a lot. Now Lainie knew why. Now she understood.

  Lightning zigzagged across the sky. As soon as Lainie opened her door, a blast of dry air hit her, stealing her breath. She glanced at the sky again. No clouds.

  Rain, dammit. Then I’d have an excuse to hide.<
br />
  Gritting her teeth, she shoved her keys in her back pocket. She skirted the front end of the truck and followed the line of the fence until it ended. The gate was wide open. Lainie looked up.

  There it was. Less than forty feet away.

  A metal handrail circled the statue. The bronze was centered on a gigantic piece of sandstone, prominent in the spotlight. Even from this distance she could tell the detail was amazing on both the bull and the man.

  Lainie cut sideways so she’d get a full- on view of the face. His face. Her father’s face. A face she hadn’t seen in such detail since she was five years old. The artist had perfectly captured the look of determination her father wore when seated on the back of a bull.

  The twist to his lips. The squinty- eyed stare. The slight flare to his nostrils. The hard set to his jaw.

  She blinked the moisture from her eyes as she drank in every facet. The tilt of his summer- weight cowboy hat, centered high on his forehead. The precise angle of his free arm thrown up in the air, parallel to his upper torso. The gloved fist wrapped in frayed bull rope. The forward pitch of his lean body, knees tucked tight, spurs digging in.

  Other elements jumped out. The flowing look of the fringe on the chaps, as man and beast caught air. The deep creases and faded spots in his jeans. The worn- down runnels on the spurs. The scuff marks on the toes of the boots.

  She gasped. How could she have forgotten those old boots?

  A childhood memory surfaced of her father returning home from an event. She’d helped him air out his equipment bag, filled with a mixture of scents: wet leather, dust, and a hint of manure.

  The pungent trace of liniment. The cool tang of metal. The oily scent of rope. The bitter, powdery aroma of rosin. The rich smell of chewing tobacco. The dirty sweat- sock odor of his boots.

  His beloved ragged, stained cowboy boots. Her mother complained about his unnatural attachment to those boots and threatened to throw them out. It’d been the only time Lainie had seen her laid- back, good- natured father mad enough to spit nails.

  She’d asked him why he didn’t just buy a new pair. He’d told her those boots had absorbed a lot of great memories and brought him good luck. It seemed a waste for a man to throw good luck and memories away.

  Jason Capshaw had been buried in those boots. A fact that she now realized would’ve pleased him.

  Her focus returned to the figure astride the bucking bull. The artist had denoted the wrinkles of his shirt, as well as the gleam and size of the championship belt buckle centered between lean hips.

  Her gaze lingered on his face before moving up. She’d definitely inherited her dad’s hair. Wild curls peeped out from the sides and back of his cowboy hat. Springy strands so perfectly detailed, she was half tempted to climb up and see if the ringlets smelled like the Prell shampoo he’d favored. But the shampoo never quite masked the leather scent left in his hair from his ever- present cowboy hat.

  Lainie checked out the backside of the figure. The contestant number was pinned below his shoulders. Number one. He’d entered the bull riding competition that fateful day as the number one bull rider in the world.

  Her gaze fell to the memorial plaque. It read: In memory of Jason Arthur Capshaw—son, husband, father, friend— a bull rider to the very end.

  We miss you. We’ll never forget you.

  Lainie didn’t bother to hold back the tears. She cried silently.

  Her grief was almost worse now than in her childhood, as she faced everything she’d lost.

  “Lainie.”

  She wheeled around.

  Hank stood in the shadows.

  He held open his arms. She ran straight into them. Her sobs escalated. Hank merely held her tighter. He kissed her crown and murmured, “It’s okay, baby. I’ve got you.”

  Twenty years of grief poured out of her. Through it all, Hank stayed strong and steady. Holding her. Soothing her. Being there for her in a way no other man ever had. Once the storm of emotions subsided, she looked up at him.

  The tenderness in his eyes as he gently wiped away her tears almost sent her into another sobbing fit.

  Lainie managed to hold it in. Her throat was raw from crying.

  Her voice was an unrecognizable rasp. “How did you know?”

  “Tanna called me. She was worried sick about you.”

  She couldn’t be mad at her friend for knowing exactly what she needed. “Did she tell you all of it?”

  “Yes. I won’t chew you out for not calling me. This time. ” He twined a curl around his index finger before pushing it behind her ear. “When Tanna told me you were coming to Cheyenne . . . I couldn’t get out of Omaha fast enough. I didn’t want you to deal with this alone, Lainie. Kyle’s mom picked me up at the airport and dropped me off.”

  “How long have you been here?”

  “Just an hour.” His thumb wicked the tears from her cheeks. “I was prepared to stay all night if I had to.”

  “What if I’d chickened out?” She swallowed hard. “I had a devil of a time getting out of my truck.”

  “I know. I watched you struggling. It about killed me, but I let you be until you needed me.”

  Take a chance. Tell him.

  “I’ve come to realize I need you all the time, Hank, not just once in a while.” Before he spoke, she blurted, “Cheyenne was just a pit stop on my way to Muddy Gap.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I quit my job. But as I was driving here, I began to worry.”

  “Worry about what?”

  “I didn’t want you to think I was coming to you because I had nowhere else to go. You’re not a last resort, Hank. You’re my first choice.”

  “Lainie. Darlin’, I love you. Love you like crazy. I tried to tell you before but you didn’t want to hear it.”

  “I wanted to hear it. God, I wanted to hear it more than anything. I didn’t tell you how I felt when you were in the hospital because I didn’t want you to think I’d said it out of pity. After the attack I worried that you tried to say it to me out of pity. That’s why I asked for time to think. Not for me, for you. I wanted you to make sure I was who you wanted.”

  Hank lifted a brow. “Good Lord, woman, you’re a bossy little thing. How is it that you get to decide how I feel about you?”

  She blinked at him. “What?”

  “Don’t you know I’ve been half in love with you since I saw you helping an elderly lady find her way back to the stands? I fell the rest of the way in love with you after you started traveling with us and I got to know you.”

  “I thought you’d say you fell the rest of the way after we slept together.”

  He flashed her that sinful smile again. “Oh, I definitely fell in lust with you. But lust fades. What I feel for you won’t. I believe that with all my heart, Lainie.”

  “I do too. When I realized I loved you, it scared me. For the first time I understood why my mother walked away from the rodeo life after my dad died. For all her faults, she loved my father.

  After she lost him, she needed to start over.”

  A beat of silence passed between them.

  His eyes searched hers intently. “Did you pick me over Kyle because you couldn’t see yourself with a bull rider? Or because you didn’t want to repeat the path your mother had taken?”

  “No. I chose you because I love you, Hank. Bullfighter, garbage man, it doesn’t matter. I want to be with you.” She smiled. “If you’re willing to take on an unemployed med tech.”

  “I’ll take you on anytime, anyplace, baby.” He touched her cheek. He couldn’t seem to not touch her, just another sweetness about him she loved. “So you quit, huh?”

  “Yeah. My mom advised me to sue everyone in sight, but her husband is a lawyer, so I’m considering the source.” She smirked.

  “Besides, I want to be done with it. Really and truly move on this time. Getting caught up in legal battles isn’t the way to do it.”

  “I agree. I made some threats to Bryson tha
t in hindsight I ain’t proud of. After all the garbage that’s happened with the EBS . . .

  I’m taking this as a sign to go back to full- time ranching. To be honest, I’m looking forward to moving on too.”

  “Not even part- time bullfighting with the CRA?”

  “Nope. It’s time to let Celia chase her dream, now that I’ve found mine and she’s standing right in front of me.”

  “But you like being on the road as a blacktop cowboy, Hank.”

  He swept a damp curl from her cheek. “Now I have a more compelling
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