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One night rodeo, p.8
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       One Night Rodeo, p.8

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Nothin’.” He reached for his beer and swigged. “Get some rest. Been a long day and it’ll be more of the same tomorrow.”

  “And the day after that,” she muttered into her pillow.

  “What did you say?”

  “Ranching is a tough gig. A never-ending, backbreaking round of work.”

  “Is that why you decided to barrel race?”

  Did he believe she was lazy? “No. I never minded the work. I’m not working on the Lawson ranch because after about a year on the circuit there was no place for me there anymore.”

  “Shit, Celia. Sometimes I’m such an ass. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

  “Forget it. Good night, Kyle.”

  Giving him the cold shoulder, she closed her eyes. But she couldn’t escape him. Not even in sleep.

  She dreamt of him. Intimate snippets. An image of clothes flying. An image of hot skin and hotter kisses. Those intense green eyes staring into hers as his body rose over hers.

  She woke with a soft gasp and glanced at Kyle, lost in sleep. Maybe the dream she’d just had wasn’t a dream but a fleeting impression of their wedding night. His bare shoulder peeked out from beneath the blanket and she wanted to put her mouth on that smooth section of skin and taste him. Just to see if that kicked any memories.

  But he looked so peaceful. She rolled over and went back to sleep.

  Chapter Four

  Kyle was seriously fucked with this ranching business.

  Seriously fucked and in a panic because he had no clue what he was doing.

  Helping out his buddies once in a while didn’t come close to understanding what it took to run a ranch on a day-to-day basis.

  He and Celia had gotten up at the crack of dawn and knocked back a pot of coffee in near silence. Then they’d tracked down outerwear—coveralls, coats, gloves, hats—and trudged to the stock tank, which was completely frozen. Celia checked the outer metal rim and found a box with two switches. She flipped the top one and a hissing started. “I’ll be damned. Marshall set this up to heat the tank with the same woodstove that heats the house.”

  Kyle wondered how long it would’ve taken him to figure that out on his own.

  Then they headed down the hill to Josh’s place.

  Josh was outside, pulling tack out of a horse trailer. Four horses stared over the fence in what looked like anticipation.

  Celia shouted, “Morning, Josh.”

  He turned around. “That it is. Nice balmy six degrees, ain’t it?”

  “Better than six below.” Celia pointed to the horses. “So, which one of those beauties is mine?”

  “Bugsy. She’s the roan on the far left. She’s a little feisty, but I reckon you’ll handle her. I figured Kyle could have Marshall’s horse, Capone. Wasn’t sure how much experience you had with horses, Kyle.”

  “Been on them and around them most my life, but I’ve never owned one.”

  “Now you own four of ’em. So how you wanna do this?”

  Kyle wasn’t the least bit upset that Josh was addressing Celia.

  “We talked about it last night. I have experience sorting, so he’ll handle the penning. Then we’re hoping you can direct us through the right gates so we can get them into our closest pasture.”

  “No problem. I don’t mind helping you guys out, but I’m gonna suggest you study the paperwork that gives the outlay of which property is yours. I know where the land boundaries are on my end that borders yours, but I’m not sure on the other side.”

  Celia picked up a halter and walked to the corral. Kyle studied the way she approached the horse, talking to it, offering reassuring pats. When the horse shied away, she didn’t chase it, merely waited for it to come back. As soon as Bugsy got close enough, Celia slipped the halter on and led her through the gate.

  Kyle grabbed a halter. His horse, Capone, didn’t move at all; he just stood there and allowed Kyle to slip the halter on. No problem saddling him either, for which Kyle was grateful.

  After they were through the gate, Josh handed Kyle a riding crop. “This’ll put some of them unruly cows back in their place.”

  “Or maybe it won’t. I swear some of them act up just because they like to feel the sting of the crop.” Celia shot him a smirk.

  Kyle reined closer to her. “Speaking from personal experience, kitten?”

  She laughed. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” and kicked her stirrups, galloping away from him.

  Oh, little wife of mine, I fully intend to find out when you stop running from me and accept this.

  The herd wasn’t too far away from Josh’s place. But the cows became agitated quickly when three riders started driving them away from their feed. The sluggish animals moved at a snail’s pace in the frigid air. When a couple of alpha cows finally took off at a brisk trot, the whole herd followed. Except for a half dozen cows that decided to break away, prompting Celia to chase them down.

  Kyle had watched Celia racing around barrels for the last four years. Her style on the dirt was balls-to-the-wall. Not a particularly pretty riding style, but efficient. Whereas out here, in the middle of a herd? Celia was utter poetry. Complete perfection as she showcased the skills that were second nature to her. He would guess she wasn’t aware of the power and grace in her movements. Of how regal and right she looked on a horse, cutting through cattle, pushing forward, reining in on a dime. She was born to do this. And the exhilaration on her face told him exactly how much she’d missed it.

  That was when he knew he’d fallen hard for her and realized he would do everything he could to make this marriage real. And he knew exactly how to make sure she felt the same. He would give her back a part of herself that’d been missing for the past four years and the ranch of her own that she’d dreamt of.

  Besides, even after half a day in the saddle herding cattle, he knew he’d never make it as a cattleman if he didn’t have her by his side. And wouldn’t that be the best life? Running this ranch together—as husband and wife?

  “Kyle, quit goddamn daydreamin’ and pay attention!” his lovely bride yelled at him.

  He grinned and saluted.

  Once they reached the first gate between fences, Kyle dismounted and tied off his horse. Since he’d never sorted cows except during branding, he’d suspected Celia had given him the hardest job. But his job was a piece of cake compared to hers. She had to check the brand on every cow and separate it from the herd, which for animals with a herd mentality was easier said than done. Cows liked to be clumped together, especially when the temperature dipped into single digits.

  After a few false starts, Celia pushed the first cow toward him and it trotted into the pen. She shouted, “Look at the marking on the right hip, and make sure the ones goin’ through have our brand.”

  “Will do.” He liked that she’d referred to it as our brand.

  The noise increased the longer they were in the midst of the herd. Celia cut one cow to him with the wrong brand and he almost let it pass. He had to grab the tail to get the cow’s attention and it spun so fast it knocked Kyle in the muck. He swatted it with the riding crop and could have sworn he heard Celia laughing at him.

  Finally Celia yelled, “I think we’ve got ’em all. Kyle, do a count.”

  Count the cows. Right. At least they weren’t moving much. He stood on the middle of the fence and counted. Twice. He yelled back at Celia. “One sixty-seven.”

  “Josh? Is that right?”

  “Should be two more of yours. Started out with a hundred seventy but I lost one a few weeks back.”

  So Celia sliced through the herd, found the last two, and sent them his way. Then Celia and Josh rode over. Celia’s face was damp, her cheeks were rosy, and her lips…her poor lips looked chapped and windburned.

  Maybe you oughta volunteer to kiss them better.

  She noticed his smirk but didn’t comment.

  Josh leaned on his saddle horn. “That only took three hours.”

  “Only?” Kyle said.

 
“With a less-experienced sorter it might’ve taken all damn day. You guys are a good team.”

  Celia shot Kyle a questioning look and then glanced away.

  “Now on to the next fun thing. If you guys are all right with it, I’ll ride ahead and open gates.”

  “That works,” Celia said, and deferred to Kyle, almost as an afterthought. “Don’t you agree, Kyle?”

  “You guys are the experts.”

  “About how far do we need to drive them?”

  “Around three miles. Some of the places between here and there have big snowdrifts, so we’ll be takin’ the long way.”

  “You sure this is easier than loading them in a cattle truck and dumping them out right by the stock tank?”

  Josh scratched his chin. “I considered that. But the closest place you can get a cattle truck is two miles from here, so we might as well just push them all the way.”

  “Sounds good.” Celia grinned at him. “Kyle, darlin’, mount up.”

  Kyle squeezed her thigh as he passed her. “I’ve been waiting to hear you say that.”

  Took another four hours to drive the cattle to the pasture by the house. Kyle had to watch, feeling totally worthless, as Celia started up the tractor and loaded a round bale of hay into the bucket. Josh sliced the netting. Celia smoothed out the roll with the back of the bucket and Josh used a pitchfork to spread the hay for the cattle.

  They were quiet on the horseback ride to Josh’s place. Kyle was especially mired in his feelings of ineptitude and inadequacy. This was the slowest part of the season in the cattle business. What would he do when it got busy? How would he know what to do?

  The last vestiges of daylight disappeared as they finished brushing down the horses and putting everything away. He and Celia were about to leave when Josh’s front door opened and a parka-clad woman waddled out. Immediately Josh was by her side, holding her arm to keep her from falling on the ice.

  She dropped the hood and smiled at Kyle, then at Celia. “I’m Ronna, Josh’s wife. And I couldn’t believe it when Josh told me Celia Lawson had moved in next door.” Ronna squinted at Celia. “I don’t know if you remember me. Ronna Menke? I graduated a year ahead of you?”

  “Yes, I remember you, Ronna. We had geometry together.”

  “That’s right. You were so quiet. I don’t know if I ever heard you speak up in class.”

  Celia shifted closer to Kyle. “Math wasn’t my best subject.”

  “So Josh tells me you’re newlyweds.”

  “Guilty. Is it that obvious we’re wildly in love?” she cooed, looking up at Kyle, practically batting her eyelashes.

  Wildly in love? What the fuck?

  “Yes, and I’m happy to see it. You were always so shy.”

  Again, what the fuck? Celia? Shy? Since when?

  “Hitting the rodeo circuit cured me of shyness. Good thing, huh?” Celia hip-checked Kyle. “Or I never would’ve roped me a hot bull rider.”

  Kyle wondered if she’d hidden a flask in her boot and had been drinking today. Celia calling him hot? In front of people? He decided to go with it and hooked an arm around her shoulder. “Well, she never lacked for hot cowboys chasin’ after her on the circuit. I had to bide my time, swoop in and sweep her off her boots when she least expected it.”

  Ronna sighed. “So romantic. You are planning on sticking around? Not going to sell? Because the place is worth a lot of money.”

  Josh flipped Ronna’s hood over her head. “Forgive my nosy wife. She’s overwhelmed with pregnancy hormones and says the first thing that pops into her head.”

  “I’m ready to have this baby now,” Ronna said, flipping the hood back down. “If Josh will let me out of the house, I’ll bake a loaf of pumpkin bread and bring it up.”

  “That would be much appreciated.” Kyle thrust out his hand. “Thanks so much for everything today, Josh. Hopefully you won’t regret having us as neighbors with all the questions that’ll be coming your way.”

  “Happy to help.”

  When Kyle opened Celia’s door to help her into the truck, he saw her wince as her back met the seat. Her ribs were probably killing her. Just like her not to mention it.

  Neither spoke until they parked in front of the house. “Anything else I need to do with the cattle tonight?” he asked her.

  “Make sure the water isn’t frozen. If it is, you’ll have to break off the crust.”

  “Okay. I’ll load up the woodstove, check that, and then I’ll be in to make sure you didn’t get cow shit in them stitches today.”

  “I’m fine. I can help you.”

  “No.”

  “Kyle—”

  “I know your ribs are killing you, Cele. You shouldn’t have been on horseback today. So go inside and take it easy.”

  “I don’t take orders from you.”

  Kyle got right in her face. “In this case, yes, you do. You’re hurt. Now, you either get your ass in the house or I carry you in. Your choice.”

  That’s when the tough girl mask dropped and Kyle saw the pain in her eyes. “Okay.”

  He almost carried her in anyway.

  During the hour it took him to finish chores, Kyle’s insecurities about his ability to run a ranch resurfaced, stronger than ever.

  You two make a good team.

  Yes, they did. He just needed to convince Celia of that fact.

  The warmth of the house soothed him. He heard the shower running and smelled something cooking. Grabbing a beer, he stared out the living room picture window, waiting for her.

  The sweet scent of her shampoo drifted toward him and his cock pressed against his zipper. Addressing the issues with a hard-on wasn’t how he wanted to approach this, but he sure wasn’t going to hide how she affected him. Because that was part of this too. He’d never experienced such a burning need for a woman. Not just from lust. He’d been in lust plenty of times in his life. But this? This was different. He’d fallen in love with her before he’d even touched her. Wasn’t that a kick in the pants?

  Her footsteps stopped behind him and he faced her. She wore her flannel pajama bottoms and an AFR sweatshirt. “How are you feeling?”

  “Sore. The ribs didn’t bother me while we were workin’ cattle, but I definitely noticed them the second we stopped.”

  “Did you take a pain pill?”

  “No. Last time I took pain pills I ended up married to you.”

  Kyle waited for her to say it was a mistake, or something flip, but she just stared at him with those big, beautiful gray eyes. “Celia, we need to talk.”

  She nodded.

  “Will you be okay sitting on the chairs in the kitchen?”

  “Better there than that stanky-ass couch.”

  Kyle brought them both a beer. They sat across from each other, not really looking at each another. Celia broke the silence first. “I had a voice mail from the secretary at the Big Bend rodeo asking whether I’m competing this weekend.”

  “What did you say?”

  “I haven’t called her back.” She sipped her beer. “I also had a voice mail from Hank. Bringing me up to date on the diagnosis for Brianna’s eye, which is good, by the way.”

  “Remind me again what is wrong with it?”

  “Something with her tear duct. Since birth she’s constantly had eye infections to the point that her eye gets matted shut. Now that she’s old enough they can do a quick surgery that will unplug the blockage.” She shuddered. “I can’t imagine watching them stick a metal wire in my baby’s eye. I’d go ballistic. No matter how many times they say it isn’t painful for the kid.”

  “I wouldn’t be able to watch either,” Kyle admitted.

  “Abe left a message about their dog, George, who is a holy terror, and said he reminded him of my dog Murray when he was a pup. The last voice message was from Harper. She had a feeling something was ‘up’ with me and was checking to see if I was okay.”

  “We have to talk to your brothers tomorrow, Cele.”

  “I know.”<
br />
  “You have any idea what you want to tell them?”

  She shook her head. “I keep hoping Lainie slipped up and already told Hank. He’d tell Abe and I’d just have to do damage control and we could go from there.”

  “That answer makes me feel better.”

  “How so?”

  “It’s better than you sayin’ you plan on denying everything that’s gone on between us and chalking it up to one drunken night.”

  “I don’t think I can do that, because it would be a lie.” She looked
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