Saddled and spurred, p.13
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.13

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Well, hell, ain’t no reason for us to stick around,” Max said to Nikki. “Come on, angel, let’s go.”

  “You guys all okay to drive?” Lainie asked.

  “Nikki’s the DD for me.”

  “Bran? How about you?”

  “I’m fine.”

  Hank stood. “Tell you what. Let’s meet at Buckeye Joe’s tomorrow night. We can get as loud as we want and ain’t no one gonna chase us off.”

  Abe glared at him and walked away.

  Bran couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

  The next morning Celia Lawson was leaning against the old outhouse, enjoying a smoke, when she heard footsteps crunching in the snow. She didn’t move, nor did she stomp out her cigarette like a guilty teen. She knew Eli hadn’t come looking for her. He didn’t give a shit what she did when she wasn’t on her horse. That left one other possibility.

  She inhaled a lungful of smoke and blew it out before she said, “Mornin’, Kyle.”

  “Mornin’, Celia.”

  “How’s your head?” Start out snarky, keep it snarky—that was her motto when it came to dealing with Kyle Gilchrist.

  “You assume I got shit-faced last night?”

  She shrugged. “Ain’t my business even if you did. Just makin’ conversation.”

  “My head’s just fine, thank you for asking.”

  “You’re welcome.” Now go away.

  “How long you been smoking?”

  “Since I joined the circuit. Keeps me awake on the long stretches of road.”

  “It’s a disgusting habit.”

  “Says the man who chews tobacco,” she said with saccharine sweetness.

  “You’re in a mood.”

  A bad mood when I have to deal with you.

  She smoked, gazing across the snow-covered hills stretching as far as the eye could see. The landscape was completely different here, at Eli’s place, than on Lawson land, although only thirty miles separated the ranches.

  So why did she feel so far away?

  She’d come home because she was homesick. After her arrival, she felt more homesick. The place she’d driven all night to get to . . . didn’t feel like her home anymore.

  It’d left her unsettled. Which pretty much described her life in the last year and a half.

  “You have just this week off?” Kyle asked.

  Why was he being so goddamn nice to her? Usually the asshole went out of his way to embarrass her. Like last night. Bringing up Pueblo.

  Speaking of ... Celia wasn’t about to let him off the hook for that. “So you walked into Breck’s horse trailer when I was givin’ him a blow job, huh?”

  Kyle’s mouth tightened. “It wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone on their knees in front of Breck. I doubt it’ll be the last.”

  “Got a high opinion of your sometime traveling partner?”

  “Breck’s a great guy. Great competitor. But the man is a fuckin’ slut. I was surprised to see you’d gotten sucked in by him.”

  She laughed, inhaling one last drag of her cigarette before tossing the butt to the snow and snuffing it with her boot heel. “I was the one doin’ the sucking, Kyle.”

  “Jesus, Celia.”

  “What? You can be crude but I can’t? Typical macho chauvinistic behavior for you.”

  “That you’re tryin’ to be like me warms the cockles of my heart, dumpling,” he said with a silken drawl. “I didn’t think Breck was your type.”

  “He’s not. I don’t have a type. Breck and I hook up when we cross paths. No big deal. It ain’t love. I’m not expecting a ring and a vow of devotion.”

  “Or a vow of chastity.”

  “For either of us.”

  “So you’re not . . . falling for him?”

  Celia rolled her eyes. “Not hardly. He’s amazing in bed, and sometimes I just want to be with a guy who has no sexual boundaries.”

  Kyle pinned her with a look. “Then you know that Breck is sometimes with guys?”

  “I figured. But it’s not like we’ve talked about it. Wouldn’t be a good thing for Breck if word got around the circuit.” She cocked her head. “How’d you find out he swings both ways?”

  The muscle in Kyle’s jaw jumped as he gritted his teeth. Bingo. She’d sent a question mark right to the heart of Kyle’s sexuality. He deserved it for all the comments he’d made over the years about her less than feminine attributes and tomboy actions.

  “I don’t know from personal experience, smart-ass. I showed up at our motel room an hour early and found him fucking some dude. Breck freaked out, because he thought I’d freak out. I couldn’t care less who he does as long as he ain’t putting the moves on me.”

  “Spoken like a true homophobe.”

  “Wrong. I don’t like people pushing their religion on me neither.”

  “Ditto.” Celia fired up another smoke. “Why’d you follow me out here?”

  “To be a complete and total dick to you, naturally. See if I can get you to punch me in the face or knee me in the ’nads.”

  Seeing Kyle’s megawatt grin, Celia forced herself not to smile back.

  “The reason I followed you out in the frigid fuckin’ cold is to ask you what the hell is goin’ on with your family?”

  Her focus snapped back to him. “Why?”

  “Because we were havin’ a good time playing cards and shootin’ the shit last night. Abe came out of his room and told us to pipe down because Nancy had a headache. Then Hank said Nancy should go home. Seemed Abe and Hank were about to come to blows. So that, coupled with the way you took off ... Are Hank and Abe havin’ problems?”

  Celia tipped her head back and puffed out three smoke rings. “Yes. Most of the problems are her fault. Nasty Nancy. Jesus. I hate her. Why do you think I left? It’ll be a long goddamn time before I come back here.” She pointed at him with her cigarette. “You’d better not tattle to Hank or I will punch you in the face and knee you in the ’nads.”

  “Still the same tough girl,” he muttered.

  “When are you gonna get it through your thick goddamn head that I haven’t been a girl for a long time?”

  “I noticed, Celia. Believe me, I noticed.” He shifted his stance. “You’re friends with Harper. What’s goin’ on with her and Bran?”

  She wasn’t surprised he’d changed the subject. He always did when she reminded him of her age. “She’s working for him.”

  “That’s what he says too.”

  “You don’t believe him?”

  Kyle shook his head. “I’ve seen the way he’s looked at her over the years.”

  “You’ve all looked at Harper like that over the years,” she pointed out.

  “Not like Bran has. Not by a long shot.”

  “You noticed it too, huh?”

  “Yeah. Wonder why he’s never asked her out. They both live here. Seems kind of stupid that he hasn’t ever made a move.”

  “My guess is because he thought she’d turn him down. Bran is cautious. I love him like a brother, but he’s got a chip on his shoulder about not bein’ much more than the boring hometown guy.”

  “Really? Why?”

  “Remember, you’re a rodeo star. Hank was a bullfighter. Devin’s a famous singer. Bran’s . . . just a rancher.”

  “He’s a successful goddamn rancher. Doesn’t he know I’d give anything to have what he has? Why do you think I’m busting my ass out there on the circuit?”

  Ever since Kyle had joined the CRA, he’d competed in as many rodeos as possible, trying to earn as much cash as possible. Rumor had it he’d given up his playboy ways and was totally focused on his career. She’d admire his tenacity . . . if he wasn’t such a douche bag.

  Keep telling yourself that.

  “Well, Harper’s never been impressed by the sort of men other women are.” She inhaled. Let out the smoke slowly. “If anything, she secretly craves the kind of stability Bran could offer her.”

  “Do you think anything will happen between them?”
/>
  Celia grinned. “Oh, I’m counting on it.”

  It took a second, but Kyle returned her grin. “You little sneak. You set them up.”

  “Without apology. I saw an opportunity and ran with it. I just hope they’re smart enough to take it, especially when it’s been right there under their noses the whole time.”

  Kyle looked at her strangely.

  She snapped, “Why you eyeballin’ me like that, Kyle?”

  “Because I’m surprised by your romantic streak, Celia. It’s . . . sweet.”

  “Fuck off.”

  Kyle laughed. Hard. He even slapped his leg a couple of times. “If it works out with Bran and Harper, will you fix me up with some hot chickie? Bein’s you think of me as a brother too?”

  No smart-ass comment jumped into her head. She stared at him. “The last way I think of you, Kyle Gilchrist, is like a brother.”

  His eyes, always dancing with mischief, were suddenly deadly serious, turning a deep liquid green as he stared back at her.

  Oh. This was not good. She’d definitely given too much of herself away.

  “Celia,” Eli yelled, “we doin’ this today or what?”

  Grateful for the interruption, she turned and walked off. She knew Kyle would let it go for now, but this conversation was far from over.

  Chapter Eight

  “To good friends. Men suck. Screw ’em. Or better yet, let’s not screw ’em.”

  Harper clinked her lowball glass to Celia’s beer bottle. “So you’re not trolling for some buckle action between the sheets?”

  “To be honest, just hanging out is a nice change from life on the road. I get tired of being looked at as a piece of ass.”

  Harper frowned. “I thought that’s what you wanted. You always complained that none of the guys around here gave you a second glance.”

  “Yeah, well, I was an immature idiot.” Celia drained her beer. “I need another. How about you?”

  “I’m good.”

  “Be right back.”

  Saturday night was hopping at Buckeye Joe’s. With the slight warming trend in the weather, residents grabbed the chance to socialize, do a little dancing, and catch up with neighbors who’d literally been snowed under for months.

  Harper purposely didn’t allow her gaze to wander to the far side of the bar, where Bran and his buddies—including Celia’s brother Hank—sat. She’d prepared herself to call it a night if they issued an invitation to join their group. But Celia made it clear that she didn’t want to hang with them. Harper could tell that something major was going on with Celia and her family, but she knew better than to push her friend to spill her guts; if she did, Celia would expect Harper to follow suit.

  And wow, how could she tell Celia that she lied yesterday and everything had changed since the moment Bran had kissed her?

  Without thought, Harper flashed back to the sensation of Bran’s lips rubbing against hers. Nibbling. Teasing. Followed by the slick feel of his tongue invading her mouth. Her belly swooped, remembering the way he tasted of coffee, and the sexy, growling groan he’d released when she didn’t rebuff his advances. Her pulse had quickened immediately as he’d pressed her hands against the wall, taking charge, imprisoning her hips between his, proving how amazing it felt with the hot, hard length of his body against hers.

  She’d wanted to plow her hands into his hair and trace the contours of his scalp with her fingers as she kissed him stupid. She’d wanted those nimble fingers popping the buttons on her blouse so he could put his rough-skinned hands on her bare skin.

  Was it a good sign or a bad sign that they broke the kiss at the same time? Bran’s muttered “Fuck, I . . . we . . . shouldn’t do this” delivered the blow of how he felt about their reckless lip-lock: It was a bad, bad idea.

  Yes, crossing the line had repercussions for them both, but Bran hadn’t apologized.

  This morning had been particularly tough. Not the physical work. When she’d arrived at the ranch, she’d bottle-fed the calves. Then she’d hopped on the ATV and checked the mama cows’ usual hiding spots for calves that might’ve dropped overnight. She’d managed to concentrate on the job until she parked the ATV in the barn and Bran finally appeared, acting brusque. He’d barely looked at her.

  As soon as she’d filled him in on the chores she’d finished, he told her to take the rest of the day off and Sunday too. For once she hadn’t cared about the loss of income; she needed a chance to regroup.

  So she hadn’t been thrilled to see Bran at Buckeye Joe’s even when she couldn’t help but watch him. He danced with Hank’s wife. Then some other woman she didn’t know. Not that she expected he’d ask her to dance. Not that she wanted it.

  Celia slid back onto her barstool. “So how many guys hit on you in the five minutes I was gone?”

  “None. As soon as I finish this drink I’m heading home.”

  “I hear ya. Is it okay if I crash at your place tonight?”

  “If you don’t mind sleeping on the couch.”

  “It’d be better than another night in the horse trailer,” Celia muttered.

  Harper threw caution to the wind. “Okay, Cele. Fess up. What’s going on at home that makes you not want to go home?”

  “Everything. Nothing. Hell. The biggest thing is I feel like I don’t have a home to go to.” Celia picked at the label on her beer bottle. “Hank and Lainie are building a new house. I don’t blame them for wanting their own space. And Abe is good with it too, since technically, our parents’ house belongs solely to him. But that bitch Abe’s been dating for a few months has practically moved in. Whenever I’m home she makes me feel like an intruder in the goddamn house I grew up in. I hate it. I hate her. Everyone thinks I’m bein’ a big crybaby because I don’t like change or they think I don’t want Abe to be happy. But he’s not happy. He’s just settling for that woman and he deserves better.”

  Knowing Celia, she’d probably told Abe exactly what she thought of his new squeeze.

  “This is why I haven’t been coming home. When I’m on the road I can pretend everything back here is sunshine, roses, and rainbows. I have a loving family and they’re happy to see me. Instead, about an hour into my homecoming, I sense they’re counting down the hours until I leave again. Especially Nancy. I get that vibe from Abe too, and . . . Jesus, Harper, it hurts like a bitch. It was me’n him and Hank for so long. I’m seriously considering renting a place in Denver so I never have to come home again.”

  A gasp sounded behind them. Their heads whipped around to see the source of the gasp: Celia’s sister-in-law, Lainie.

  “What are you talking about, Celia? Never having to come home again?”

  Celia’s face went red. She turned and snapped, “We were havin’ a private conversation, Lainie, so butt out.”

  Lainie completely invaded Celia’s space. “Like hell. This is serious shit and I won’t let it fester another second, since it’s obviously been bugging you for quite some time. Not that you’ve said anything to any of us.”

  “So? Just forget it.”

  “No. Way. I’m tired of the drama. And if there’s something wrong we need to fix it. Right away. When we’re still sober.” Lainie snagged Celia’s leather coat off the extra barstool. “Come on. We’re leaving right now.”

  “I’m not some teenager you can just order home, Lainie.”

  “I know.” Lainie closed her eyes for a second and took a deep breath. “Shit. Sorry. It rips me apart to think I’ve had any role in making you feel this way. You know in your heart that your brothers will be upset to hear this. So, please. Let’s go home and talk about it.”

  “Will Nancy be there?” Celia asked snottily.

  “No. Even if she is, I’ll kick her ass out. She’s not family. She has no part in the conversation. To be honest, I’ve had issues with her that I’ve let slide because I figured I’d be gone and in my own house. Now I realize that’s not the way to deal with the problem either. I’m done pussyfooting around her and Abe.” Lain
ie held out Celia’s coat again. “Do you want to ride with us back to the ranch or are you okay to drive?”

  “I’m fine. I’ll meet you at Abe’s house.”

  Harper knew Celia couldn’t see Lainie’s wince. Had Celia really stopped thinking of the Lawson ranch as home?

 
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