Turn and burn, p.21
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       Turn and Burn, p.21

         Part #5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  so hard she feared it’d wake Fletch. She’d managed to calm down on the drive to Eli’s, cranking the tunes and singing along at the top of her lungs—her personal type of scream therapy.

  At Eli’s she watched as he trained with a bulldogger. Summer worked the chute, releasing the steer. Eli served as the guy’s hazer, racing out on horseback on the right side of the bulldogger, keeping the bulldogger’s horse in line with the steer until the moment the steer wrestler hung off the right stirrup with one toe and launched himself off. Skidding in the dirt, the bulldogger grabbed the steer by the head and flipped it on its side.

  Dust flew and the bulldogger got up and squinted at the chute.

  Summer yelled out, “Five point six two, but you broke the barrier.”

  “Dammit.”

  Eli held the reins for the bulldogger’s horse and waited for him to trot to the end of the arena. He pushed the steer through the back gate before he mounted up. The guys were lost in conversation and hadn’t noticed her, so Tanna didn’t interrupt.

  They exited the arena, returned to the chutes and did the practice run four more times until Summer was out of steers. Something about the bulldogger seemed familiar. His fluidity on his horse, the determination in his repeated attempts. She’d eat her hat if the guy wasn’t a pro. She couldn’t see his face, but like most bulldoggers, he was a substantial guy.

  Not as big as Fletch, but few guys were as supersized as the veterinarian.

  Finally Eli sauntered over, talking animatedly to his bulldogging buddy. But Summer yelled at the mysterious guy and Eli cut toward her.

  “Hey, Tanna, how long’ve you been here?” Eli asked.

  “A while. I thought I’d get an early start on whatever torture you had planned for me today.”

  Eli laughed. “I haven’t planned nothin’. To be honest, I musta got my days mixed up. I wasn’t expecting you this morning.”

  “Really?” That explained the bulldogger.

  “But as long as you’re here, got someone I want you to meet.” He whistled loudly and the guy started toward them.

  The bulldogger kept his eyes on the dirt as he wandered over. He raised his head. Beneath the brim of his hat was one of the most beautiful men Tanna had ever seen.

  Holy. Fuck. Somehow she kept her tongue in her mouth when the guy thrust out his hand.

  “Tanna Barker, right? I’m Sutton Grant.”

  His gigantic hand dwarfed hers. “Hi, Sutton. Good to meet you.” Sutton Grant . . . why did that name sound familiar?

  “You probably don’t remember me,” Sutton said, “but we have met before.”

  Her eyes took in every detail of his stunning face. His eyes were an exotic shade of bluish-green usually seen in the water on a tropical beach. Dark eyebrows. Bone structure that might seem feminine if not for the wide expanse of his chiseled jaw and the ruggedness of his facial features as a whole. Then he smiled. Yep. He even had two dimples. “Not to contradict you off the bat, but, darlin’, I surely would’ve remembered meeting you.”

  Sutton laughed. “Probably not. I was a little shy. A little intimidated by your championship buckles and the guys flocked around you.”

  “When was this?”

  “The season after your second win. We ended up at a couple of the same meet-and-greet after events.”

  She didn’t remember all the guys she’d slept with—most of them—but there were a couple of nights where the veil of alcohol masked her hookup’s face.

  “Jeez, Tanna, you looking at him like that is making me uncomfortable,” Eli complained.

  “Sorry. I’ve had some wild times, and a few . . . ah, meet and greets that aren’t crystal clear.”

  Sutton grinned. “No worries. I would’ve been too shy to approach you anyway, even if I hadn’t been in a relationship at the time.”

  Summer shouted for Eli and he took off, leaving her and the compellingly sexy Sutton staring at each other.

  “So, are you from around here?” Tanna asked. Talk about lame.

  “No. I’m from Colorado. Eli’s been a family friend for years and he’s helping me.”

  “Helping you do what?”

  “Choose a new horse. I’ve narrowed my choices to two.”

  Finally his name clicked. “I’ve been off the circuit, but you won the CRA steer wrestling championship last year, didn’t you?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Where are you in the standings this year?”

  “Third. There’s a wide gap between fourth place and the rest, so I’m feeling confident of my chances of making it to the CRA championships.” He studied her. “Are you healed up enough from your injury to compete again?”

  She shrugged. “According to my physical therapist? Yes.”

  “But?” he prompted.

  Don’t tell him. You’ll look weak. Washed up. Pathetic.

  Tanna offered him a dazzling smile. “But nothin’—”

  Sutton put his hand on her arm, as if to assure her she didn’t have to lie to him. “Have you even been on a horse since the accident?”

  Indignant, she snapped, “Did Eli tell you—”

  “No. You know he ain’t the type to break a confidence or you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

  She shook her head.

  “I asked because I read about your wreck online. I knew you’d disappeared off the circuit for rehab. Sucks, huh?”

  “Ya think?” She bristled. “And how would you know that, youngster?”

  “I know because I’ve been there. The year you won your third championship.”

  “Sorry. I just get a little defensive when people tell me they know what I’m goin’ through. What happened to you?”

  Sutton cocked his head. “How about if we have a seat and swap stories?”

  Something about his eyes urged her to trust him. “Okay.”

  He flipped over two plastic feed buckets.

  Tanna sat, sinking her heels into the dirt and resting her forearms on her thighs. “You go first.”

  He squinted at her. “Why?”

  “Beauty before age,” she purred, “’cause, sugar, you are one hot-lookin’ speci-man and I’m your elder by at least eight years.”

  “I’m betting that cooing tone and them pretty brown eyes get you just about everything you want, don’t they?” he teased.

  She shrugged. And smirked.

  “Short version? Or long?”

  “Longer is always better.”

  He chuckled. “My story’s gonna sound tame. I grew up in a ranching family. Got bit by the rodeo bug early on. In high school I was state all-around champion. I competed with the University of Wyoming rodeo team for four years. Senior year I was collegiate steer wrestling champion.”

  Tanna whistled. “Impressive.”

  “I had a few rodeo sponsors and the blessing of my family so I decided to try my luck on the pro circuit. I did okay the first year, but I missed home and my girl, so I kept out of trouble, for the most part.”

  “Sutton, that ain’t no fun. Pining in your horse trailer instead of ripping it up?”

  “Yep. That was me.” He shot her a sideways glance. “Which is why you and me didn’t cross paths more often.”

  She laughed.

  “I didn’t make it to the CRA first year. I decided I’d give it another year and had a great second season, landing in the top fifteen. Then early on in my third season I had a bad night. Launched off too soon. Hit the dirt and the steer at the wrong angle. Blew out my knee, my elbow and my shoulder. I spent months recovering from surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in my right knee and a torn bicep tendon in my left arm. I moved home. I was worthless. I couldn’t help out on the ranch. I couldn’t get a job while doin’ rehab. My girlfriend saw me as a slug and dumped my ass.”

  “Sad story. And no offense, but I don’t see the parallels in our lives.”

  “Be patient. It gets worse. Calving season at our ranch means everyone pitches in, including crippled-up sons. We’d moved eigh
t cow/calf pairs into the barn and I was tasked with watching them. Easy, right? I wasn’t out checking cattle in the cold and snow. I’m not sure if it was a change in the weather or what, but the calves freaked out, which freaked out the mamas. I was supposed to stop them to keep them from injuring themselves. But the second I got close to one, I fell down in the muck.” He fiddled with his gloves. “I froze. I’m not talking a momentary lapse. I stayed in the stall, frozen in fear for four hours before anyone noticed.

  “I’d gone into shock. Keep in mind—I’d started helping my dad separate cow/calf pairs when I was five years old. Twenty years of experience and I’m suddenly catatonic around livestock. Not only couldn’t I compete in bulldoggin’, I couldn’t help out at the ranch. And I didn’t know how I’d ever get over my fear.”

  “Obviously you did. How’d you do it?”

  “A neighbor of ours, Fife, a grizzled old rancher, called for help with his water heater. When I showed up, he admitted he’d lied to get me over there. My dad had confided in him, because he didn’t know how to help me. Fife took it one step at a time. After a month of daily baby steps, I’d conquered my fear enough to be around livestock. By two months I was milling around in the pasture with a hundred calf/cow pairs. Three months I was back to taking down steers. By month four I was throwing myself off my horse like I’d never taken a break. No one outside of my family knew I ever had that fear. I healed up, jumped back on the tour and won the world championship the next year.”

  “That’s a great story. Inspiring. But my situation is different. I don’t have the luxury of daily immersion. I have a job. So if I’m only goin’ to Eli’s one day a week, if I end up on your type of time frame to get this issue handled, I’m looking at a solid sixteen months before I’m even ready to saddle up. I’ll be almost thirty-eight.”

  “You don’t need me to point out that you can barrel race well into your fifties and sixties. Some of the best women in the world didn’t win until they hit their late thirties and early forties.”

  “But you can’t deny the majority of the winners are young,” Tanna pointed out. “I won two of my championships during my twenties.”

  “I’m just saying that even if it does take you sixteen months? You won’t be washed up. I can tell that you feel washed up right now.”

  Wouldn’t you? How can I ever get past this?

  “How would you feel if you never climbed on the back of a horse again?”

  “Sad.”

  Sutton nodded as if she’d said the right thing. “That’s good. How would you feel if you never ran barrels again?”

  That one she didn’t answer immediately. “Lost.”

  “More lost than you feel right now?”

  “I don’t know.” She fought a burst of frustration. “Why don’t I know?”

  “Whoa. There’s no right or wrong answer, Tanna. I’m just trying to share some of the same stuff to think about that helped me.”

  This guy she’d met only a half hour ago was going out of his way to help her. Eli had been the same way. “Is everyone in the West so dang helpful?”

  “Southern hospitality ain’t got nothin’ on us,” he offered in an exaggerated drawl.

  She managed a wan smile.

  “So see, I do know what you’re goin’ through. If you ever want to talk more . . .”

  Tanna must’ve looked skeptical.

  Sutton grinned at her. “I’m not hitting on you. Give me your phone. I’ll plug my number in. That way, if you want to talk, you can call me, but I’ll never bother you.”

  She handed him her phone.

  “Sutton, I need your help,” Eli called.

  “I’ve been summoned.” Sutton patted her shoulder as he stood. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”

  As she watched him amble away, she had the fleeting thought that he looked just as good from the back as he did the front. Sure, Sutton was a very attractive man, but that wasn’t his pull for her. He’d been in the darkness and found his way back to the light.

  Maybe there was hope for her.

  That thought gave her the courage to step foot in the pasture. And when the horses came running, expecting treats, she didn’t hide or retreat.

  One step at a time.

  Tanna returned to her trailer more rung out than if she’d run a marathon. Her shift at the bar didn’t start for hours and she didn’t know what to do with herself so she crawled back in bed.

  That’s when the nightmare came again. A continual loop of blood, death and horses. She’d lived the events, making the nightmare realistic—right until the part where her horse plowed through her mother, turning her into smoke. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried to call out for her mother. For Jezebel. She gave it one last scream.

  And that’s when she woke up.

  “Tanna?”

  She froze at seeing Fletch standing in the doorway.

  “You all right?”

  “Yeah.” She raked her hand through her hair, hoping he didn’t notice how much it shook. “Just a bad dream. Guess that’ll teach me not to nap in the afternoon.”

  He frowned. Seemed to want to question her further but didn’t.

  “What are you doin’ here?”

  “I was in the neighborhood.”

  “Ha-ha. You know that’s the first time that line has ever rang true.” She patted the mattress. “Care to take me for a tumble?”

  “As much as I’d love to crawl between your sheets and thighs, I need to make a grocery store run. Anything you need?”

  Yeah. Can you pick me up a gallon of courage? And a bottle of fear retardant?

  “If you’re coming over after I’m done working, we probably need more popcorn.”

  “Done. And I’ll pick out a movie.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “And if you need to talk about your bad dream—”

  “I don’t.” She gave him a smacking kiss on the mouth. “Better get condoms too; we’re goin’ through them like crazy.”

  Chapter Nineteen

  At the end of the week Fletch finally ventured to the big metal building across from the barn. The structure had been jammed in at an angle—the front door was on the side opposite the barn, which meant access to the closest door was through the corral, and he cut through the rough stock horses. Hard to look at these beauties and imagine them trying like hell to buck you off.

  “Knock knock,” Fletch shouted into the cavernous room.

  A chair squeaked and Tobin yelled, “Back here.”

  Despite the vast emptiness of the space, Fletch’s footsteps were muffled.

  Tobin leaned against the doorjamb. “Is Hugh having an issue with an animal he forgot to tell me about?”

  “No. Since my morning was free I thought I’d take a look at what you’ve got regarding the commercial stock-breeding program.”

  “Come in and grab a cup of coffee. I’ve stored the info on a flash drive.” He pointed to a long conference table. “You can set up over there. I have an extension cord if you need to power up.”

  “My laptop has a full battery so I’ll be good for a while.”

  “Knock yourself out,” Tobin said, tossing him the flash drive.

  Less than five minutes later, Fletch looked up from his laptop and said, “That’s it?”

  “Seems like there should be more, huh?”

  “Has any other work been done on this at all?”

  Tobin crossed his arms over his chest. “Not really.”

  “Because you’re short-staffed?”

  “More like shortsighted,” Tobin muttered. “To be honest, I think Renner has bitten off more than he can chew.”

  After he finished typing in a few notes, Fletch met Tobin’s gaze. “You wanna explain that?”

  Tobin shoved his laptop to the center of their shared work area. He took a long sip from the scarred insulated mug before he spoke. “Is there such a thing as doctor-patient confidentiality for vets?”

  “Absolutely. Whatever catt
le tell me when I’m doctorin’ on them stays strictly between them and me.”

 
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