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       Corralled, p.9

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  His mouth descended and she was lost.

  Velvety soft lips brushing hers. Crushing hers. His tongue stroked and teased. Coaxing. Devouring. He repositioned his head, taking the kiss down to the depths of her soul.

  Ignoring the undertone of possession, Lainie wallowed in the intensity of his kiss. Of his power. Confidence. Lust.

  Yet Hank didn’t touch her. He kept one forearm braced above her head. His palm lay flat by her shoulder. But she felt as if they were both naked as he drew her into a cozy world where nothing existed but him. And her.

  And Kyle, her conscience prodded.


  When she broke the kiss and looked in Hank’s eyes— that bottomless blue, deep and dark enough to fall into— she wondered if she could handle this competitive side of him. Or Kyle.

  Was Hank pulling out all the stops because he wanted her more than any other woman? Or did he just want to be the victor over Kyle?

  Did Kyle feel the same way? Was she truly a prize in their eyes?

  Or just a game to be won?

  He traced the line of her jawbone. “So serious.”

  “That was a serious kiss.”

  “A reminder I’m not taking anything that happens between us now, or what happened between us in the past, for granted. Or as a given because you were with me first.”

  “Are we supposed to tell Kyle everything that happens between us?”

  “It was just a kiss, darlin’.”

  No, it wasn’t, and he damn well knew it. She fiddled with the collar of his snap- front shirt. “So what happens now?”

  “Wanna sneak behind the concession stand and have a quickie?”

  Yes! “No.” She lightly cuffed him on the chin. “Maybe another time.”

  “I’ll hold you to that. While you’re getting your stuff ready for three weeks on the road, toss in any sex toys you might wanna have fun with.” He grinned. “Soon as the rodeo is over tonight we’ll be on the road. I’ll call you when we’re close.” Hank gifted her with another soft kiss. Then another. “Drive safe, Lainie.”

  He’d reached the end of the corridor when she called out,

  “Promise me you’ll stay out of the paths of the bulls tonight? Both of you.”

  “We’ll try, but no guarantees.”

  Chapter VII

  As Kyle adjusted his chin strap, he heard the announcer droning, but it was just background noise. Sweat trickled down his spine. His shirt stuck to his back like a second skin. Heat from the helmet dampened his hair. His face burned. His heart thundered.

  The bull jumped beneath him in the chute, ready to play the man-versus- beast game. Eager to hurl Kyle on his ass and stomp him into nothing but blood and bones.

  “Bring it, fucker,” he snarled at the slobbering animal before he slipped in his mouthpiece. He set his feet. He tested his hand wrap one last time and vigorously nodded at the gatekeeper as his free hand flew up.

  Immediately out of the chute, shock vibrated up his tailbone and rattled his spine. The bull’s rear legs kicked up and twisted left at the last second. Kyle shifted slightly to keep his balance. He spurred and the bull spun right, jumping sideways, damn near jerking Kyle’s arm out of the socket. He held on, readjusting his position as every bone and joint in his body screamed for him to get the fuck off.

  The roar of the crowd barely permeated his concentration as the words hold on kept repeating in his head. Time had no meaning when he rode. None. He was in a whole ’nother dimension.

  Failing to dislodge him, the bull switched directions and started to spin. Faster and faster. Kyle bore down on his mouthpiece, keeping his back straight and his feet moving.

  The buzzer sounded and Kyle snapped out of his riding stupor.

  His free hand automatically tugged on the rope to release his riding hand. As soon as the wrap gave, the bull jumped, bouncing Kyle high into the air like a piece of popcorn.

  The spectators gasped. While he was airborne Kyle knew he’d land hard. He twisted and hit on his left side, avoiding his knee, taking the brunt of the impact on his hip, rib cage, and shoulder.

  Fuck, that hurt.

  Dust kicked up and he heard, “Hey- hey- hey- hey- hey- hey!” the bullfighter’s attention grabber. Shoes entered his vision as the bullfighter directed the bull’s attention away from stomping Kyle’s stunned ass. He scrambled to his feet and raced to the fence.

  Only then did he notice the crowd was still whistling and clapping. Kyle ripped off his protective helmet, shoved his mouthpiece in his vest pocket, and squinted at the scoreboard.

  No score yet. The bull loped through the livestock arena gate.

  Kyle hopped down from the fence and raced across the dirt to snag his flank strap.

  Hank met him with an enormous grin. “Nice ride. Figure that’ll put you in the money. You’re buying the first tank of gas.”

  Kyle grinned and draped his rope over his shoulder. “Fair enough. Thanks for savin’ my ass.”

  “All in a day’s work, buddy.” Hank clapped him on the back.

  The announcer said, “How about if y’all put your hands together for a score of . . . eighty- eight! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new leader.”

  More whoops and hollers.

  Waving to the crowd, Kyle exited into the contestants’ area.

  Two more riders remained. Both guys had covered their bulls the

  night before. If either of them rode, he could be knocked out of first place. He’d still finish in the money, but the extra points for first would let him start that slow climb in the CRA standings.

  He took congrats from the other guys milling about. The difference between the CRA and the EBS was that as soon as the contestants in the CRA knew they weren’t in the money, they loaded up and lit out. In the EBS, all the riders stuck around until the end of the event. After the mandatory postevent autograph session, some guys— usually the Jesus cowboys, guys who liked a little preachin’ about hellfire and damnation with their bull riding— headed for their hotel for a prayer group or something wholesome.

  Single riders scoped out the buckle bunny offerings. Married guys traveling with the missus were whisked away from temptation.

  Winners of the timed events, and the bareback and saddle bronc winners, bullshitted with their impatient traveling partners.

  Life on the road was expensive. Sometimes two or three guys shared the expenses and the driving time, especially those hauling horses for the timed events.

  Kyle looked for Lainie’s friend Tanna. She must’ve lost out on a top- three finish, since she wasn’t cooling her boot heels with the other barrel racers waiting to pick up a check. He brought his attention back to the arena as the gate opened.

  The bull shot out and made a hard right, leaped, and turned right again, sending the rider sailing. But ejecting the guy wasn’t enough; the bull snorted and headed straight for him as he sprawled in the dirt. No matter how many times he’d seen it happen, Kyle still held his breath.

  Before the beast reached the rider, Hank jumped between them.

  The bull’s horn hooked Hank’s vest and the massive head tossed Hank aside like a pesky crow. The bull focused his fury, nostrils dripping snot as its head came down and aimed horns at Hank.

  Hank rolled out of the way, but not before the bull’s hoof clipped him on the thigh. The other bullfighter ran alongside the bull, attempting to lead it away from Hank. By then the pickup man galloped alongside the bull and roped him, cutting a sharp right with his horse. They dragged the ornery animal through the livestock gate.

  “Folks. Let’s give a big round of applause to our fearless bullfighters tonight, Hank Lawson, Kipper Pitch, and Bebo Smith.”

  Lackluster clapping. Fans would stand all day for a great ride, but the bullfighters saving life and limb never brought the same thunderous response.

  Did that bother Hank? They’d never talked about it. Kyle watched Hank limp off to the side and a member of the sp
orts medicine team yakked at him through the fence slats. Hank shook his head and waved off his concern. Would Hank have waved Lainie off so quickly? Or would he play it up, hoping she’d give him a little extra TLC?

  Maybe you shouldn’t be so fast to dismiss exaggerating an injury to garner Lainie’s undivided attention.

  Never. He’d never do that, and neither would Hank. All might be fair in love and war, but playing on a woman’s natural sympathies was cheating and cowardly.

  The last rider burst out of the chute. The bull wasn’t anything special. It kicked and jumped. Spun a little. The rider stayed on the full eight seconds, but Kyle knew it hadn’t been an eighty- nine-point ride, which was what the guy needed to overtake the leaderboard. The score came back seventy- seven. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief. He’d won his first CRA event.

  Hot damn. Serious celebrating would wait. He glanced at the arena scoreboard clock. Nine thirty. It’d be eleven by the time they finished here and left Lamar for the three- hour trip to Colorado Springs to pick up Lainie. Then they’d drive straight through to Muddy Gap.

  They could take it easy and stay the night in Colorado Springs, but Kyle understood Hank’s push. The sooner Lainie got used to the hours spent traveling from event to event, the better. Plus, he suspected the man missed home.

  Or Hank wanted to show off his ranch to Lainie. And for that, Kyle didn’t blame him a bit. The Lawson Ranch was a breathtaking piece of heaven on earth. But it’d give Hank another advantage. After seeing the gorgeous Lawson Ranch, no way would Kyle drag Lainie to where he hung his hat when he wasn’t on the road—a shitty trailer he rented dirt cheap.

  “Gilchrist? They’re waiting for you in the winners’ tent.”

  Kyle went to collect his buckle and his check.

  An hour later Kyle tracked Hank to a bench outside the main arena entrance. Hank sat next to a woman— no more than eighteen in Kyle’s estimation— who jabbered like a parrot on acid. Teased hair, pouty red lips, skintight clothes— she looked like every other bunny trolling for a new notch on her rhinestone belt.

  Hank’s blank face became animated when he caught sight of Kyle. He pushed off the bench, wincing as he bumped his thigh into the woman’s knee. “Hey, partner, you ready to hit the road right now?”


  The woman leaped to her booted feet, crowding Kyle’s personal space with her toothpaste- commercial smile, stinky- ass perfume, and— holy shit— stripper tits. “Hi. I’m Gia. I was just telling Frank here that I love the rodeo lifestyle. It’s so exciting!”

  Kyle bit back a grin. Frank? Yeah, she was the type of woman in for the long haul . . . not. No wonder Hank wore the spooked-rabbit look. “I got all my stuff loaded, Frank, so I’m set.”

  Hank scowled.

  “Gosh, are you a bullfighter too?” the woman said in a breathy, baby voice.

  “Nah. I’m on the cleanup crew.”

  Her nose wrinkled. “Oh.” She whirled back around to Hank.

  “Like I said, I don’t have a thing going on, and I’d love to keep you company on the road. I’m very”— her red- tipped fingers inched up Hank’s shirt— “inventive with ways to make the time fly by.”

  Hank twisted sideways to escape the wandering claws. “Ah, I’m sure you are. But I’ll pass. Have a good evening.” He ran out. The man with the injured thigh literally raced outside.

  Entertained by Hank’s discomfort, Kyle followed Hank to the truck. He’d barely shut the door and Hank was burning rubber out of the parking lot.

  “Jesus Christ. Save me from women like that.”

  “Now, Frank, don’t you think you’re bein’ a little hard on her?”

  “Fuck off.”

  Kyle laughed.

  “And thanks for nothin’. What was the bullshit ‘I’m on the cleanup crew’ comment?”

  “You see how fast she dismissed me? Works every time.”

  Hank sent him a sidelong look. “She wasn’t your type?”

  “Meaning . . . easy?”

  “If it weren’t for Lainie, would you’ve boasted about bein’ a bull rider and banged her brains out?”

  The judgment should’ve bugged him, but Hank was dead- on.

  Kyle used to take pride in his horndog reputation. “Yeah, I would’ve done her. She don’t give a shit who you are beyond that you’re wearing Wranglers, a hat, and boots. She’d brag to her friends how she bagged a bull rider. I wouldn’t remember her name even while I was fucking her. Sorta sad. But that’s the way I was. I ain’t that guy so much anymore.”

  The blinker clicked as Hank steered onto the ramp to Highway 50, heading west out of Lamar. It wasn’t until he’d set the cruise that he spoke again. “Why the change?”

  He deflected. “Everything in my life went to shit after my injury. After I healed enough to get around, Ma was pissed that I turned down her boyfriend’s offer to sell used cars in Cheyenne.”

  “Selling used cars don’t interest you at all?”

  “No. Hell, no.” Kyle squirmed in his seat. “Bein’ laid up, I had nothin’ to do but think. I realized riding bulls is what I know. What I do best. But it ain’t something I can do for the long haul. So I figure if I save money like a miser and focus on my riding, not chasing every hot piece of ass that crosses my path, maybe I’ll earn enough to buy myself a chunk of dirt someplace.”

  “What was this event purse?”

  “Twenty- two hundred.”

  “Not bad for sixteen seconds’ work,” Hank said, grinning at their old joke.

  “I ain’t complaining. But I’ve been on the famine end of riding.

  Bein’ bucked off a dozen times in a row sucks.”

  A semi roared past, the amber and red lights bright against the dark road and dark sky, and Kyle blinked, surprised to feel sleepy.

  “If you wanna crash, go ahead. I’m wired.”

  “Thanks.” Kyle closed his eyes.

  Seemed he’d just fallen asleep when the truck lurched and jolted him awake. An orange sodium glow flooded the window.

  “Where are we?”

  “A truck stop outside Colorado Springs. I thought we’d fill up and call Lainie before we burst in on her.”

  Kyle stretched. “Man. I was out that long?”

  “Yeah. And you talk in your sleep too. ‘Oh, no, please don’t spank me, master, I’ll be good,’ ” Hank mimicked in a falsetto.

  “Fuck off.”

  “Your turn to pay at the pump.” Hank bailed out of the truck.

  While Kyle filled the big diesel gas tank, he watched Hank talking on the phone, trying to cover a yawn. The man was wiped out. No way could he drive to Muddy Gap.

  Kyle loaded up on caffeine- laced soda and returned to the truck after paying. “Was Lainie up?”

  “Says she was sleeping but I don’t buy it. We’re not too far from her place.” Hank yawned again. “Damn. I’m gonna need to crash. You okay to drive after we pick her up?”

  “No problem. You sure you wanna keep goin’?”

  “Yeah.” Hank muttered directions to himself, squinting at the street signs.

  Lainie lived in an apartment complex, which surprised Kyle.

  But the truth was, he didn’t know much about Lainie beyond the physical, and that was something he aimed to change.

  She waited under the security light of her building. A duffel bag and a backpack were at her feet, an enormous pillow tucked under her arm. She’d secured her riotous curls in a ponytail and jammed her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. She looked very young, although he and Lainie were the same age. Were they taking advantage of her? Would any of them walk away from this situation unscathed?

  Probably not.

  Both he and Hank got out to help her load up. Kyle asked,

  “Either of these bags need to go in the cab? Or can they both go in the truck bed?”

  “The backpack can go in the cab if there’s room.”

  “That pillow is looking mi
ghty tempting,” Hank said.

  “Here. Have it. I’m wide- awake now. Am I driving?”

  “Kyle’s driving. I’m beat.”

  Lainie’s eyes narrowed, then scanned him head to toe. “What happened tonight?”

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