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       Corralled, p.8

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “We also know you’ve been pushed into taking a vacation. Since you’re not sure about your travel plans, here’s what we propose.” Kyle looked at Hank and Lainie saw him nod. “We want you to spend those weeks with both of us during Cowboy Christmas.”

  Her gaze whipped between blue eyes and green. “You’re serious.”

  “Completely. You said you don’t get to see much of the areas you’re working in. Here’s a chance for you to learn the life of a rodeo cowboy. Think how much better it’ll be for your career as a med tech to know firsthand the stresses our bodies are subjected to as we’re getting from place to place.”

  “But—”

  “When was the last time you went to a rodeo and just had fun?” Kyle demanded. “Watching all the events, not just stuck in the medical aid room?”

  Lainie racked her brain but she couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer.

  “Doesn’t it sound like a blast to attend rodeos— big and small— across three different circuits?”

  “Trust us, there’s nothin’ like a small-town rodeo in the summertime. It’s why the rodeo lifestyle is addictive. Hearing the roar and the groans of the crowds. Knowing people paid their hard-earned cash to see us entertain them.”

  The food arrived and they tucked in, eating in silence except for requests to pass the salt and the occasional scrape of forks across plates.

  Hank and Kyle made short work of their breakfasts, while Lainie dawdled.

  Finally, Hank spoke. “You getting ready to turn us down?”

  “No. It’s just . . .” She drained her cold coffee and blotted her lips. “Say I agree to do this. Where would we all sleep? Even cheap hotels get expensive. Right now, Lariat pays for my rooms when I’m on the road.”

  “My brother has a fifth wheel he won in a poker game a few years back. We’d planned on heading to the ranch tonight after this event and hitching it up.”

  Kyle added, “It’s cheap to stay at the rodeo grounds, if not completely free.”

  She raised her eyebrows. “All three of us living together in a camper?”

  “Trust me— it’s good sized, even for me and Abe, and we’re both big guys.”

  “Think of how fun it’d be with you cooking for us all the time,” Kyle said.

  Silence.

  Laughing, Kyle sagged back against the booth seat. “If looks could kill, I’d be dead. Lainie, sugar, I was kiddin’.”

  “Kyle, you’re an asshole,” Hank snapped.

  But Kyle provided levity about the prickly situation and Lainie appreciated it.

  “Darlin’, we ain’t asking you to come along because we want a maid and a cook. Truthfully, inviting you is not only about the smokin’-hot sex, at least, not on my part. Is it on yours, Kyle?”

  “Nope. I’m in complete agreement with Hank on this. We want to get to know you better.”

  And still she didn’t speak.

  “Would it be so bad spending time with us? In and out of bed? Getting to know us? Letting us get to know you?”

  Lainie picked at her biscuit as all sorts of objections swirled in her head.

  The biggest problem is you’re dying to do this and you’re working hard at playing it cool.

  After the waitress refilled their coffee, Kyle said, “Are you worried about people finding out that you’re traveling with both of us and we’re staying in close quarters?”

  “Maybe a little.”

  “It probably won’t convince you, but there’s lots of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ musical horse trailers goin’ on across all the circuits.”

  Lainie knew the truth of that statement after listening to Tanna’s tales of life on the blacktop.

  “We’ll be switching from circuit to circuit, following the money. I know you haven’t worked as a med tech on the CRA often on the Upper Mountains and Plains, Badlands, or Montana circuits, which is where we’ll be concentrating our efforts.”

  “What are you really afraid of?” Hank asked softly.

  “Maybe she’s worried that ‘Lainie Capshaw, Daughter of Legendary Bull Riding Great Jason Capshaw, Shacking up on the Road with Two CRA Cowboys!’ will be a headline in Bull Riders, American Horseman, and Western Woman magazines?”

  Hank scowled at Kyle but Lainie laughed. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never considered doing anything this impulsive.”

  “Which is why you should do this with us, Lainie,” Kyle urged.

  “Take a chance. It’ll be an adventure.”

  “What’ll be an adventure?” Tanna asked.

  All three surprised gazes flicked to the hot- bodied woman standing at the end of the table.

  “Hey, Tanna, fancy meeting you here.” A total lie. Lainie had texted her, not knowing whether she’d need an escape plan.

  “A girl has to eat.”

  “Tanna Barker, this is Kyle Gilchrist, a transplant to the CRA from the EBS.”

  “Nice to meet you, Tanna,” Kyle said.

  “Likewise. Great ride last night.”

  “Thanks. I got a good bull. I’m hoping my luck holds tonight.”

  “Amen. Be nice to take home part of that purse, wouldn’t it?”

  Hank immediately stood and thrust out his hand. “Hank Lawson, Tanna. We’ve met a time or two. Would you like to join us?”

  “If it’s no trouble.”

  Kyle also stood, gesturing to the inside of the booth. “No trouble at all. Any friend of Lainie’s is a friend of ours.”

  Small talk about the night’s previous rodeo dominated the conversation, but eventually they ran out of things to say.

  Hank and Kyle exchanged a look. “Hate to be rude and take off, but we’ve gotta check out of our hotel by noon. Then I’m obligated to attend sponsor events this afternoon.”

  “I understand. By all means, go,” Lainie said.

  “You rode with us. You need us to give you a ride?”

  Sure, you can ride me, cowboys, but I ain’t talking about in your truck.

  It felt so good to be bad.

  Tanna waved them off. “I’ll get her where she needs to go.”

  “Thanks.” Hank snagged the bill and squinted at Lainie, his eyes dark with purpose. “We will see you later.”

  Not a question. “Be careful tonight. Both of you.”

  “Always, sugar,” Kyle drawled. The men sauntered away after nods of their hatted heads.

  “Oh, my freakin’ God. Greedy, much?” Tanna demanded.

  “What?”

  “I might actually hate you.”

  Lainie frowned. “Why?”

  “Can I be blunt?”

  “When have you ever not been blunt?” Lainie asked.

  Tanna folded her arms on the table and leaned in. “You’re fucking not one hot man, but two. Individually, I was a little jealous. But now? After seeing the way those buff guys gazed upon you with utter adoration? And I know you’re doin’ both of them at the same time? I’m green with envy.”

  “Yeah? Well, color me confused, Tanna. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

  “What you’re doin’, right this freakin’ second, is telling me if it’s all that, bein’ between those cowboy beefcakes?”

  Lainie tried not to grin like a lunatic, but it was pointless. “Absolutely. And this oughta stick in your craw: They’ve asked me to go on the road with them during Cowboy Christmas.”

  “You’re considering it?”

  “No, I’m doing it.”

  Tanna’s gaze turned shrewd. “Weren’t you keeping quiet about banging Hank because it might damage your professional reputation? Ditto for Kyle on the other circuit? Now you’re jumping aboard the traveling sin wagon, letting your freak flag fly for all to see?”

  “Yes, but it’s different now, because I won’t be on any of the circuits after my vacation. This has to stay between us, but Doc is switching me to a full- time office position at Lariat. I’ll have a normal Monday- through- Friday, nine- to- five j
ob, and it’s about damn time.”

  “So no more working on the CRA or EBS circuit?”

  “Nope. No more traveling.” At Tanna’s dour look, Lainie said, “Hey, we’ll still see each other.”

  “When?” Tanna demanded. “I live in Texas. I get to Colorado Springs once a year as I pass through for the Denver Stock Show.

  Over the next couple months we’ll lose touch. So maybe I just oughta say ‘good- bye and have a nice life’ to you right now.”

  Stung, Lainie reared back. “Fine, if you really feel that way—”

  “Dammit, Lainie, I’m sorry.” Tanna snatched her hands and squeezed. “I’m happy for you about the job, because you deserve it.

  But I’m a selfish bitch and I’m sad for me. You’re my best pal.

  We’ve had some great times and I’ll miss you something fierce.”

  “I know. Me too.” Lainie’s thoughts tumbled a mile a minute.

  “Give it to me straight, Tanna. Will anyone notice I’m shacked up with both Hank and Kyle?”

  “Yes. And no.”

  “That’s helpful,” Lainie grumbled.

  “Yes, some people will notice. The ‘Jesus cowboys’ will advise you of the error of your adulterous ways. The newly married women will give you the wink- wink- nudge- nudge, and act smug, like they’re not on the road to keep a close eye on their hubbies. The women with kids won’t notice you unless you’re on fire.

  “The youngsters, rookies, whatever, will ask you the most inappropriate questions and get indignant when you don’t answer. A few older women will high-five you for getting it on with two hotties. The buckle bunnies will offer to do you in front of your men— and then demand you watch while your men do them. So it’ll run the gamut from ‘you slut!’ to ‘you go, girl!’ to ‘hey, baby, how about let’s you and me have a private party?’ ”

  Lainie was positively goggle- eyed. “That much speculation?”

  “No. Jesus. Lighten up. I was kiddin’. No one will notice this time of the year.”

  “Would you do it if you were me?”

  “Lainie, we’ve had this conversation and my answer hasn’t changed. Yes. Hell, yes.” Tanna smirked. “And, sugar, if you don’t do it? Well, I’m sitting in fourth right now in my circuit, so I can afford to take the next three weeks off. If you chicken out, I may offer myself up to them in your place.”

  “Smarty. After last night, I think they’re awful determined to keep me.” Lainie smirked back.

  “I really hate you.”

  “Any chance we’ll cross paths on one of these circuits?”

  Tanna’s long, glossy braid fell over her shoulder as she shook her head. “I’ll be in Texas. Lots of rodeos within two hundred miles. I need a dose of my mama’s cookin’. I need to be home for a while to regroup.”

  Lainie wondered what that’d be like, the overwhelming need to reconnect with roots. Her mother and stepfather’s house in California wasn’t homey, but more of a showplace. Grandma Elsa’s cozy house had seemed like home, but it was gone now too.

  “Come on. I’ll drop you at your hotel.”

  Lainie packed her suitcase and loaded up. She’d called Doc and double- checked that he’d be at the rodeo grounds before she headed there. She drove past the horse trailers and campers, paying particular attention to the fifth wheels. Hank’s pickup was a Cummins 350- horsepower diesel quad cab with an extended bed, so maybe his camper wasn’t the claustrophobia- inducing box she feared.

  She walked through the tamped- down weeds, dust kicking up with every bootstep. Kids and dogs ran everywhere. Tack of all shapes and sizes hung on horse trailers. Men and women stood in groups shooting the breeze. Lawn chairs were scattered between campers in semicircles. It resembled a minitown. Why hadn’t she noticed that before?

  Because you’re not usually among people in their element; you’re stuck inside, missing out on real life.

  Activity was minimal inside the arena this time of day. The livestock entrance gate was open at the back of the building. She ducked in, skirting the loading ramps. The familiar odors of manure, dirt, and hot air hit her, but didn’t offer the comfort they usually did.

  The concession stands were empty. Cleaning crews mopped the cement floors and cleaned the bathrooms, nattering back and forth in Spanish. For them this was just another day getting ready for the crowds. For Lainie it felt like a new beginning.

  She rapped twice on the door of the medical room. Doc motioned her in as he finished a conversation on the phone.

  “No, that’s not what we agreed to. Fine. Send it to corporate.Mark it ‘Attention Jackie.’ She’ll straighten it out.” He hung up and sighed. “Remember the good ol’ days, when running a sports medicine team meant I could actually practice medicine?”

  “Umm, no. During my tenure the motto’s been: ‘We’re building a family brand as strong as cowboys who depend on us.’ ”

  “Smart aleck.” But he said it with a soft smile. “Did you ask for this meeting because you intend on chewing my butt?”

  “Maybe.”

  His gaze pierced her. “You talked to your mother.”

  Not a question. “Yes. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say I won’t be flying to Cali for my vacation.” Lainie smiled tightly. “However, you are right. I need time off. I’ll take it and come back in three weeks ready to take on whatever you throw my way.”

  “Okay,” he said slowly, drawing it out to about four syllables.

  “What’s the catch?”

  “No catch. I just want to know who’s on staff tonight.”

  “Marty. Shorty. Me. You. Why?”

  “If you’ve got it covered, I’d like to leave right now.”

  “You’re really on board with this vacation, Lainie?”

  She shrugged. “I understand why you did it. I don’t agree with Sharlene’s railroading you into it. However, I wouldn’t have done it on my own. So I’ll admit I’m looking forward to time off.”

  “Lie down. I need to check you for a head injury.”

  “Funny, Doc. I’m fine.”

  He measured her with his gaze. “You know, you do look better than I’ve seen you in months. I won’t ask what brought it on. I’m just happy that something did.”

  Thank God Doc hadn’t demanded specifics.

  “Have a great vacation, and I won’t be calling you unless it’s an absolute emergency.” His phone rang again and she sneaked out.

  As she debated on calling Hank or Kyle or texting them, she heard, “Lainie?”

  She wheeled around. Lo and behold, Hank was there. “Hey, I was looking for you. I didn’t think you’d be here,” she said.

  “Sponsors wanted to meet. I just go where they tell me.” He jerked his chin toward the medical room. “Everything all right?”

  “Everything is fine. I had to tell Doc I wouldn’t be around for tonight’s performance.”

  Hank’s face fell. “What? Lainie, I thought we’d—”

  She briefly put her finger to her lips and towed him down the secluded hallway. “I’m not backing out. I need to take care of a few things before I’m gone that long. I thought if I had a head start, I’d be ready to be picked up at my place in Colorado Springs tonight.”

  “That’ll work. We’re driving straight through to Muddy Gap. I have a few things to help Abe with on the ranch before I’m gone for that long too.”

  “See? This will save us time.”

  Hank crowded her against the wall. “I want to kiss you. Right now. Makes me a selfish bastard, because I don’t care if Doc sees or if the cleaning crew sees. I don’t give a flying fuck if the whole blasted arena is watching, Lainie. This is about you and me. About what we bring to each other when we’re alone.”

 
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