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       Corralled, p.5

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Sharlene said I’m keeping you too busy working both circuits and you have no life outside of this job. Which, she felt entitled to point out, is only a part- time position.”

  Dammit.

  “After I talked to Sharlene I checked your personnel file. You haven’t taken any time off since you started working for me.”

  “So?”

  “So you’re overdue for a vacation. Long overdue.”

  “When was the last time you took a vacation?”

  His eyes narrowed. “This ain’t about me. This is about me and your mama being worried about you.”

  “Why doesn’t she worry about her other kids and leave me the hell alone?” Lainie fumed. Paced. Cursing her mother’s need to control everything, which had always been a major sticking point between them.

  A year following her husband’s tragic death, Sharlene Capshaw was wooed by Marcus Green— an ambulance- chasing attorney— to sue the venue where Jason Capshaw had been killed. Sharlene refused. Yet a romance between the grieving, beautiful young widow and the greedy, hotshot lawyer blossomed. By Lainie’s seventh birthday, her mother had remarried.

  They moved out of Oklahoma to Marcus’s house in California.

  Which would’ve been fine, except Sharlene decided Lainie acted too rural for Sharlene’s new station in life. She enrolled Lainie in a private school and cut Lainie off from anyone who’d mattered in her old life. Her grandmother, Elsa Capshaw, wasn’t allowed contact, under the guise of Lainie needing to acclimate to her new surroundings.

  By age nine, Lainie refused to travel with her mother and stepfather, demanding instead to spend her summer vacations at her grandma Elsa’s house in Oklahoma.

  During those hot summers she fell in love with the world of rodeo her mother had left behind. The month Lainie graduated from high school, she moved back to Oklahoma for good. Partially because her grandmother needed a caretaker; partially because Lainie’s career goals weren’t lofty enough for her mother.

  It hadn’t mattered that Lainie had earned a CNA certificate and become an EMT while a senior in high school. Or that after moving to Oklahoma she’d earned a degree as an LPN, as well as becoming a licensed massage therapist. Sharlene constantly harangued Lainie to go back to college for an RN or PA degree, with an eye toward medical school.

  Medical school didn’t interest her. She couldn’t fathom the extra burden of attending classes and finishing homework at the end of a brutal workweek.

  So Sharlene had been beyond infuriated when Lainie accepted Dusty’s job offer to work in the world of rodeo. Things had spiraled to the point where she and her mother rarely spoke at all these days.

  “Lainie? You went awful quiet. You all right?”

  “No. I’m not all right, Doc. Don’t do this.”

  “Too late. After tomorrow night’s performance, you’ll officially be on vacation for three weeks.” He raised his hand, stopping her automatic protest. “This is nonnegotiable.”

  Seething, Lainie itched to smack something. She inhaled two deep, long breaths and exhaled with deliberate care. “Okay. Say I agree to take this blasted vacation and don’t just quit outright.

  What happens when I come back? Will you knuckle under to Queen Sharlene every time she feels I’m being mistreated?”

  Doc scowled. “No.”

  “Because as a fully grown adult woman, I tend to get a little pissy about stuff like that.”

  “I imagine so. Look, I’m not knuckling under to her. In fact, I’d planned to approach you about this and another issue before Sharlene called me. It seemed a good idea to get what I want— forcing you to take the break you need— while allowing Sharlene to believe I abided by her wishes and keeping her happy.”

  Warning bells rang in her head. “Whoa. Back up. Approach me about what other issue?”

  “About you going to work for Lariat full- time.”

  “You’re joking.”

  “Nope. But before you get all hyped up about it, I’ll tell you this: It wouldn’t be under the same structure we are right now. We’ve been in negotiations for months about serious changeups. By the time you get back, hopefully we’ll have all the details ironed out.”

  Trying to contain her excitement, Lainie casually asked, “Can you give me any ideas on the full- time job?”

  “Off the top of my head? It’d be administrative duties. There’d be no traveling,” he warned. “You wouldn’t work either circuit, which I know is your favorite part of the job.”

  “Would I be in Colorado Springs?”

  “Of course.”

  Lainie scowled at him.

  “I know you don’t like living there, but suck it up.”

  “Fine. Who’s working the circuits as an official Lariat rep while I’m gone?”

  “No one.”

  “So I’m not the only one forced to take a vacation?”

  Doc smiled sheepishly. “No. It’s pretty much everyone across the board. This time of year, with Cowboy Christmas, it’s notoriously slow as far as big official events.”

  “I find it hard to believe no one gets injured during that time.”

  “Actually, there are more injuries, being as the contestants are racing from event to event. But treatment is sporadic. Very few of the smaller venues can afford to do more than park an ambulance beneath the stands, get a local doctor to volunteer, and hope like hell there aren’t life- threatening injuries.”

  Two knocks sounded; then Doc’s assistant, Randy, poked his head in. “Parnell is lookin’ for you, Doc.”

  “Tell him I’ll be right there.” Doc rubbed his forehead again.

  “Never fails. I’m damn surprised we had a conversation this long without bein’ interrupted. At any rate, we’ll talk more later, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  Then Doc was gone.

  The closer to performance time, the busier Lainie was. She taped wrists, thumbs, ankles, and ribs— with the Lariat- stamped medical supplies. She fielded phone calls. Dealt with the little crap the sponsors required, making sure the logo was visible everywhere in the assigned room, down to the positioning of the water bottles in the coolers. She was low woman on the totem pole— in fact, she was the only woman on the totem pole. Which meant she did a lot of fetch- and- carry.

  She loved the bustle, the action, and the sense of family on the CRA circuits— maybe because the family aspect was sadly lacking in her life, but she felt she belonged here.

  No matter how many times she heard the announcements over the PA system of the night’s rodeo sponsors, the names of the rodeo queens in attendance, the entertainment, the call for veterans to stand, when the local singer began “The Star Spangled Banner” she still got goose bumps from being part of something so wholly American.

  If things were boring in the medical room— which they all hoped for— Lainie and the other Lariat employees took turns watching the action in the arena. Normally she preferred barrel racing and team roping to the rough stock events, but tonight she had the overwhelming urge to attend the bull riding section.

  It was no coincidence the rodeo promoters kept the most popular event for last. In some of the bigger venues, the bull riding was interspersed between other events. The crowd went wild at the announcement of the first rider. Lainie hustled through the barricades separating the chutes and gates from the arena, flashing her Lariat pass at the guards policing the area.

  The buzzer echoed and a smattering of applause followed. The guy was bucked off with no score. Lainie climbed up the metal rungs and rested her arms on the top of the fence.

  Oh, looky there. One very hot bullfighter was bouncing from foot to foot. His nylon performance shorts brushed the backs of his muscular calves. Hank’s loose- fitting sponsorship shirt covered the tight vest. Not as thick as the vest required for bull riders, but it offered some protection against horns and hooves.

  Three bullfighters worked the chutes. Because they dealt with all the bul
ls rather than just one, bullfighters were injured more frequently than bull riders. Why any man would willingly go headto- head with a bull confounded her.

  She zeroed in on the guy on the bull behind the gate. He wore a black cowboy hat, not a protective face- mask helmet. She shook her head at the poor choice. Before too long she hoped helmets were required safety equipment for all bull riders on all circuits, the same way vests were required.

  The rider nodded his head and the gate jerked open. The bull leaped out; strings of snot flew from his nose; his hindquarters left the ground as he attempted to fling the rider into the air. The bull succeeded and bucked the rider off at 4.8 seconds.

  Again Lainie was reminded of where the spectator’s focus was: on the bull and rider. Not on the bullfighters who distracted the snorting beast so the rider could scramble away unscathed.

  Dammit. Even she hadn’t watched Hank during the bull ride—

  and she had a vested interest in making sure he kept his big, hot body safe. She squinted at the scoreboard across the arena floor to see what rider was up next. No one she recognized. The announcer blathered on and she focused on the far chute. Namely on Hank, ten feet off to the side of the chute, still bouncing in anticipation.

  Lainie could hang stark naked from the ceiling and Hank wouldn’t notice her; his concentration was absolute.

  The gate opened and Hank stayed out of the way— until the rider hit the dirt. Then he ran straight at the bull and danced to the right, weaving and bobbing, forcing the animal to charge him rather than the guy who was still struggling to get up.

  Then the bull abruptly switched direction and trotted back through the livestock gate. But Hank was already down by the next chute, waiting for the next rider. It was fascinating to see Hank working. She knew other bullfighters deferred to him, which was a

  big deal, because Hank wasn’t that old. For the first time she wondered if Hank had aspirations of moving up. Since the EBS dealt only with bulls and not other rodeo events, getting a job as a bullfighter with that organization would be a huge boost.

  It bothered her, not knowing Hank’s future plans.

  That’s because it’s just sex between you two, remember?

  Except now, it’d be sex between the three of them.

  Lainie wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Did she just saunter up to them tonight and say, “Ride me hard, boys”?

  The way things looked right now, this would be a one- time-only threesome. As Hank and Kyle traveled from rodeo to rodeo during Cowboy Christmas, she’d be holed up in her apartment.

  Maybe she’d head up into the mountains, see if her buddy Mara could snag time off and hop a flight to Vegas. Or visit the beach.

  “Now up, a name we haven’t seen on the CRA circuit, but that might be familiar to those of you who follow the EBS.”

  A few boos echoed. Her attention snapped back to the chutes.

  “Kyle Gilchrist comes to us from Rawlins, Wyoming. Let’s make Kyle feel welcome in his CRA debut.”

  She peered at the figure behind the bars but couldn’t discern whether he wore a safety helmet or a cowboy hat. Whenever he’d come into the sports medicine room he’d already stripped out of his chaps and riding gear. She’d never watched Kyle ride, but many people in the rodeo world compared Kyle’s fluid, graceful riding style to her late father’s technique.

  Lainie’s breath stalled when the chute opened and the bull jumped so high all four hooves were off the ground at the same time. Landing hard, the speckled body spun to the left. Spun to the right. Twice. Jerked its rear around. Kyle held on. His body flowed with the angry bull’s every twist and turn, his free arm up in the air, his feet spurring.

  The momentum of the crowd grew. The clapping and whistling nearly drowned out the buzz of the timer.

  Kyle pulled the release from the hand wrap and bailed off the bull, landing right square on his ass. He clambered to his feet, immediately making a beeline for the fence surrounding the stands, when the bull gave chase.

  But the bull didn’t get far before Hank slapped it on the rear flank. The ornery beast spun toward the new potential conquest.

  Hank raced to the livestock gate and the bull trotted in without looking back.

  “You ready for this, Lamar? We’ve got a new high score. How about an . . . eighty- nine- point- five debut for the cowboy from Wyoming?”

  Thunderous applause echoed from the stands and Lainie clapped along, laughing as Hank and Kyle did a jumping chest bump on the arena floor, much to the delight of the crowd. Then Kyle picked up his flank strap and tipped his hat to the fans.

  Only four riders remained and chances were good none would knock Kyle off the leaderboard. Lainie returned to the medical room and busied herself stacking towels. When she heard the shuffle of boots and the muffled clank of spurs, she turned and saw Kyle wearing a sexy grin a mile wide.

  She couldn’t help but smile back and give him a once- over. It ought to be illegal to look that damn good in a pair of dusty chaps.

  “Nice ride,” she said.

  His eyebrows rose. “You watched it?”

  “Yeah. Been pretty boring in here tonight.”

  “I can’t say I’m unhappy about that.”

  Her gaze dropped to where he was cupping his right elbow.

  “What happened?”

  “Nothin’— just jerked my riding arm a little hard on my dismount.”

  “Where?”

  He pointed to the outside of his forearm.

  “Think it might be fractured?” Most bull riders had broken so many bones they knew the difference between a sprain, a bruised muscle, a fracture, and a break.

  “No. I’m fine. That’s not why I—”

  “Sit. Let me look at it.”

  “Lainie—”

  “Now.”

  Kyle grumbled. But he sat.

  Lainie rolled his shirt cuff up as far as it would go. She poked the skin surrounding the bone. Just slightly swollen. She let her fingers trace the bend in his elbow and move up his beefy biceps.

  When Kyle sucked in a breath, she finally looked at him. The desire she saw made her mouth dry.

  “Every damn time you touch me, Lainie. Whether it’s in a professional capacity or when we’re alone—”

  “Kyle—”

  “There’s no one here but us. Let me speak my piece while I’ve got the chance.”

  She nodded.

  “I like bein’ with you. A lot. It probably seems weird, what Hank and me have proposed, but neither one of us wants to walk away from you.”

  “I get that. But I won’t pit you guys against each other.”

  Kyle reached out to touch her face, but let his hand fall back to his leg at the last second. “We both know that.”

  “Are you here speaking on Hank’s behalf?”

  “Yes. We figured it’d be easier if we didn’t come blazing in here together. So I am here to ask if you’ve made a decision.”

  “You want my answer right now?”

  “The rodeo is almost over. People are gonna be heading out, and me ’n’ Hank wanna know which direction we’ll be goin’.”

  Lainie searched his eyes. No smugness. Just curiosity. And an underlying hint of cautiousness. Kyle wasn’t looking at her like a sure thing, a done deal. Would her answer be any different if Hank had asked?

  No. It’d be exactly the same: a resounding yes.

  She rolled his sleeve down and snapped the buttons before she met his gaze again. “I’ll see you both at my room in an hour.”

  Chapter V

  Kyle and Hank sat in Hank’s truck in front of Lainie’s hotel.

  The allotted hour was nearly up. They’d rushed back to their room, showered, changed, and counted up the condoms between the two of them. Nine. Enough for one night.

  “Should we’ve brought her flowers or something?” Kyle asked.

  “Hell if I know,” Hank said.

  Kyle blew out an unsteady breath. Might as well get thi
s confession over. “I ain’t ever been in this position before.”

  Hank’s head whipped around. “Meaning what? Getting ready to have a
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