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One night rodeo, p.7
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       One Night Rodeo, p.7

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  the temperature controllers. “It’s not ice-cold in here, but it’s not warm. And I don’t know why one of these reads sixty degrees and the other reads zero.”

  “Maybe one’s a heater control and the other is an air conditioner control?”

  “Good thinking, but no. There’s another source of heat. Maybe a main source. Maybe geothermal or something.” He muttered and poked around.

  Celia wandered to the kitchen, took in the huge mess, and shuddered. “Are we staying here tonight or driving back into Rawlins?”

  “I planned on staying. But I’d understand if you…”

  “If you’re staying, I’m staying. We’ll need to eat. In order to eat, I’ll need to fumigate this kitchen. But there’s so much stuff stacked everywhere. What do you want to do with it?”

  Kyle stared at her for a moment. “No freakin’ clue. I’m all ears if you’ve got an idea.”

  “We should sort through it, I guess. Make a pile of things to save and one to toss. I’ll tackle what I can of the kitchen, if that’s all right.”

  “I feel so guilty for making you help me with this at all, but I honestly don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.”

  Her heart seemed to skip a beat at his admission. It skipped another ten beats when Kyle moved closer.

  “Is this house more or less than you thought it’d be?” he asked.

  His eyes were so serious, and that air of vulnerability surrounded him. “It needs a little work, Kyle. Okay, a lot of work. But the space has quirky charm. On the outside it looks like the standard boring ranch house, but inside, there are a few qualities that make it unique. This is your home now. You need to put your personal stamp on it.” Celia whispered, “Besides, admit it. You’ve always secretly wanted two pink bathrooms.”

  Kyle growled and pulled on her braid to tilt her head back. “Such a smart mouth.”

  “Like that’s a surprise to you.”

  “No, but this might be to you.” Kyle crushed his mouth to hers, sweeping his tongue across the seam of her lips, diving in for a hot, wet kiss.

  Her head protested for about a nanosecond and then she clung to him, mouth, hands, body, as he took the kiss deeper with every breath. With every stroke of his agile tongue.

  The kiss might’ve gone on for hours, days even, if not for the loud knocking that wasn’t from her knees.

  “Hello? Is anyone here?” echoed from the living room.

  They froze and broke apart. But Kyle never looked away from her. He uttered a thickly whispered, “This heat between us ain’t going away,” before releasing her.

  Holy crap. Celia’s entire body was on fire. From one kiss. She held her hands to her face as Kyle disappeared around the corner. She closed her eyes and found her composure before she followed him.

  Kyle was shaking hands with a big guy, probably around thirty-five, who had the mannerisms and carriage she automatically associated with ranchers.

  “Come meet our new neighbor, Josh Jones. He lives in the place we passed down the road. Josh, this is my wife, Celia.”

  She shot Kyle a reprimanding look when he introduced her as his wife. Had she somehow known that her agreement to the moniker wife would last longer than a single day?

  Josh took her hand. “Nice to meetcha, Celia.”

  They exchanged banal observations on the weather.

  Finally Josh said, “I gotta admit, I’m a little confused on your relationship to Marshall.”

  “Marshall Townsend was my father, a fact I just found out on Sunday.”

  Josh looked stunned. “You’re kidding me.”

  “No, sir.” Kyle gave him a brief explanation. “So it’s been a whirlwind couple of days for us. None of this has really sunk in. We were trying to get our yearly circuit schedules set, and now it looks like we’ll be doin’ something else entirely. Or at least I will.”

  “Circuit schedules?” Josh asked.

  “I’m a bull rider on the CRA circuit and Celia is a barrel racer.”

  “No kiddin’? That’s gotta be an interesting life. I’m assuming you both have ranching experience?”

  “I have some, helping out my ranching friends whenever needed. But Celia here, she’s the real deal. She helped run her family ranch from the time she was eleven up until four years ago when she started barrel racing professionally.”

  That sounded a lot like pride in Kyle’s voice, which shocked the hell out of her.

  “Yeah? Whereabouts was that?” Josh asked.

  “Muddy Gap. My brothers are Abe and Hank Lawson.”

  “I’ve dealt with Abe over the years. How long have you two been married?”

  Kyle smirked at her. “What day is it? Tuesday? We’ve been married since Saturday night.”

  Another stunned look from Josh. “You weren’t just a-woofin’ about it bein’ a whirlwind couple of days. Hell, the ink ain’t even dry on that marriage license.”

  “We were in Vegas. Decided to get hitched. Poor Celia thought she was marryin’ a bull rider and finds herself stuck with a newbie rancher husband instead. I wouldn’t blame her if she runs for the hills.”

  Josh laughed.

  So, Kyle was giving her an out. And a way for him to save face when she did bail. She had the perverse need to poke him back. “You might have to kick me out. I’m made of tougher stuff than that, darlin’.”

  He gave her an arch look. “Guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

  “I did have a valid reason for showing up here besides to satisfy my curiosity. You do plan on taking Marshall’s cattle off my hands? Soon? I’ve been dealing with them since before Thanksgiving, when Marshall went into the hospital. I was happy to do it, because this is the easy time in the cattle business. But I don’t have the manpower to deal with his calving and mine. Especially since my wife is eight months pregnant with our first kid and I can’t count on her help right now either.”

  Kyle seemed at a loss, so Celia jumped in. “Congrats on the impending bundle of joy. It’s gonna wear on you, though, especially this time of year.”

  Josh grinned. “That’s the problem with them late-spring storms. End up with a blizzard baby. Anyway, I know you guys are pretty much flying blind here, and I’ll help you as much as I can now that I know you’re sticking around. I thought we could get the cattle sorted first thing tomorrow morning and go from there.”

  “Are Marshall’s horses decent with cattle? Or are they used for something else?”

  “Two of ’em are pretty good cow horses.”

  “I’d prefer to use my own, but mine are boarded at my buddy’s place and I don’t have so much as a saddle with me. You got tack for us? Or can you direct us to where Marshall kept his?” Celia asked.

  “You can use my wife’s tack since she isn’t riding and I can rustle up something for you, Kyle, if you need it.”

  “I’d appreciate it.”

  “Good enough. Let’s say seven o’clock?”

  “Works for me,” Kyle said. “I have a couple questions about this house if you have time. What’s the primary source of heat?”

  Josh laughed. “Stumped ya, did it? It’s wood fired, but the wood burner is outside, and it generates the heat to fire up the radiators. Kind of an unusual thing. But it’s basically free to heat your house as long as you’ve got a store of firewood and the time to keep it fed. Marshall has a backup of electric heat, which was a good thing this time around. Come on. I’ll show you where it is.”

  As soon as they left, Celia returned to the kitchen, moving everything off the counters to get to the dishes. Didn’t appear the dishwasher had been used recently, so she washed by hand. Once that was finished, she cleaned out the fridge, dumping the freezer contents except the frozen dinners. Marshall had enough canned food to last the entire winter.

  She scrubbed the stove. Cleaned the microwave. Checked under the sink, in the cupboards and drawers for signs of rodents. An unoccupied house was an open invitation to critters. Luckily no signs of mice or squirrel infestatio
n.

  She glanced at the time on her cell phone and was shocked to see that an hour and a half had passed since she’d last seen Kyle.

  Had he fallen outside? Gotten lost? Panicked, she skirted the boxes and headed toward the front door just as Kyle stumbled into the house and slumped against the wall. “Are you okay?” When he didn’t move, she unbuttoned his coat and pulled off his hat.

  His face was red, his breathing labored. He croaked, “Water.” She raced to the kitchen to fill a glass, brought it back, and he drained it in three fast gulps.

  When he seemed settled, Celia asked, “Where were you?”

  “Chopping wood. Holy shit, am I out of shape for that kind of physical activity. Josh helped me get the wood burner going, told me how much wood is needed every day. There was none chopped so I split wood until…”

  “Until you’re ready to pass out.” She tugged him to the couch. “You want another drink?”

  “Sure.”

  She handed him the glass when she returned from the kitchen and said, “What’s that smirk for?”

  “If I tell you thanks for fetching me a glass of water you likely will toss it right in my face.”

  “Use of the word fetch anytime around me might get a bucket of water dumped over your head.”

  “So noted.” He cocked his head. “You make a good wife.”

  Celia retorted, “Damn straight,” like she’d accepted the fact they were husband and wife.

  Whoa. When had that happened? What did that say about her?

  That you’re helping Kyle because you want to. It also means that Kyle was right; part of you wanted to marry him.

  Not that she could tell him that, even if the tiniest part of her had started to believe it.

  Kyle said, “Appears you made progress on the kitchen.”

  “You can actually see the countertops.”

  He stood. “I’ll come look because this couch smells like ass.”

  Celia spread her arms wide. “Ta-da.”

  “Hey, this space ain’t half bad.”

  “If we get the breakfast nook cleaned out we’ll have a place to sit that doesn’t stink. But there’s no place to put those boxes until these boxes are moved.”

  “Is that your way of tellin’ me to get busy hauling stuff to the basement?”

  “To be honest, I think most of this is junk. Let’s sort through it now and save two trips up and down the stairs.”

  In seven boxes they found only a handful of useful items. Same situation with the piles in the breakfast nook. While Kyle stacked the trash outside, Celia scrubbed the walls, raised the blinds, and scoured the table and chairs.

  Supper wasn’t fancy, just soup and toast, but they both ate like they’d never seen food before.

  “So what happens tomorrow?” Kyle asked. “And feel free to explain it slowly so this greenhorn can understand.”

  Celia pushed her bowl aside. “Our cattle are mixed in with Josh’s cattle. We’ll look at the brand and cull our cows from his herd. I’ve got experience sorting. I’d prefer to have my own horse, because a good horse can make all the difference. I’ll cut the cow out and send her your way. Your job will be to keep the separated ones penned, while getting the new ones I’m moving toward you into the pen.”

  “Will I be on the ground or on a horse?”

  “I imagine Josh will be on horseback too, so it might be easiest for the first part if you were on the ground. You’ll need a riding crop to smack the wayward ones back in line.”

  Kyle stared into his soup bowl.

  “Something wrong?”

  “Just a lot to think about. Especially for someone like me who’s spent the last decade only thinking about my job eight seconds at a time. I hope this dream of owning my own ranch don’t become a nightmare.” He stood and grabbed her bowl, quickly washing both and setting them on the drying rack. “I’ll check the woodstove again and bring in our stuff from the truck.”

  Next thing she knew Kyle had dumped everything in the master bedroom.

  “I take it we’re sharing this room.”

  “No place in the other bedrooms to sleep and I didn’t figure you’d wanna bunk on that smelly-ass couch.” Kyle held up his hand. “Spare me the rules for us sharin’ this bed tonight. I’m whupped. All I wanna do is watch a little TV before I crash.”

  She noticed he’d brought the TV from the living room and set it on the dresser. “You’re welcome to my sleeping bag. I’m good with the blankets I got from the hall closet.”

  Worry lines etched his forehead and his mouth. Dark circles hung under his eyes. The man was exhausted.

  “Set the alarm on your cell phone too so I don’t sleep through my first day as a rancher.”

  Kyle fiddled with the TV until the satellite dish worked. He found pillows and spread them across the bed. He stripped to his birthday suit and crawled into his nest.

  From his comments, Celia knew he was struggling with what’d happened today, but she also knew not to expect him to confide in her any further.

  Kyle didn’t give her a second glance when she wandered in, in her pajamas, unlike last night in the motel room when his hungry eyes had burned away every stitch of her clothing. God. Had that only been last night? So much had happened in such a short amount of time. She slipped into the sleeping bag, twisting to try to get comfy, but she felt like a sausage about to burst her skin.

  “Are you always this damn wiggly?”

  “I’ve never gotten used to sleeping bags.”

  “We can swap, if you’d rather.”

  Celia blew out a frustrated breath. “No. I’m fine.”

  “You don’t sound fine.”

  “Neither do you. But I’m betting it’s a big fat zero on you spilling your guts to me.”

  “What would you do, Cele, if I shared every one of my fears about all the shit that went down today?”

  “I’d listen.”

  He snorted and flipped the channel.

  “What?”

  “You’re not any better at sharing this stuff than I am.”

  His observation surprised her. “I am so better at sharing than you.”

  “Prove it.”

  “Fine. Ask me anything.”

  Kyle shook his head. “It don’t work that way. You have to tell me something. Something that’s completely new that I did not know about you.”

  Celia was sure this discussion had a point because Kyle had the sneakiest way of gathering information without her realizing his intent until it was too late. But her pride made it impossible to back down from his challenge, even when she suspected that challenge was rigged. “I was hesitant about committing to travel the circuits with you not because it was you…but because I wasn’t sure I wanted to barrel race at all anymore.”

  He lifted one eyebrow. “No kiddin’? What would you do instead?”

  “I’m thinking about going to vocational school—if I can get a loan. I figure if Abe can get a four-year college degree while runnin’ a ranch, I might be able to stand school for two years and wind up with a useful skill besides racing around barrels.”

  “What would you go to school for?”

  “Veterinary assistant. Before Tanna started barrel racing professionally, she went to school for a year in Texas in the same type of program and she said it wasn’t that hard. I’ve always been around livestock, so I’m good working with animals.” Part of her expected he’d sneer at her, because that’s what the old Kyle would’ve done. But he looked interested.

  “How serious are you? Like checking on start dates and tuition?”

  “Yeah. The next semester starts next fall. The tuition…let’s just say even a couple of big event wins won’t put a dent in the cost of higher education.”

  “No one in your family knows about your secret dream to professionally preg-test cows?”

  Celia laughed. “Fletch does. He promised me a job if I ever actually followed through and attended school.”

  “So working as a vet as
sistant is your dream job?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  Kyle frowned. “Then if you could do anything you wanted and money wasn’t an issue, what would you do?”

  “Run my own ranch.”

  He went completely still.

  “What?”

 
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