One night rodeo, p.30
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       One Night Rodeo, p.30

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  and babies back outside within twenty-four hours of the birth because the number of births was increasing every day.

  Forty-seven down, one hundred and twenty-two to go.

  After being up all night, at dawn Celia sent him to bed.

  Kyle woke at nine o’clock—according to the alarm—and, disoriented because the bedroom shades were pulled, he had no idea if it was morning or night. He set his feet on the floor and noticed he’d fallen into bed fully clothed.

  Not the first time that’d happened.

  The sounds of a conversation drifted through the crack in the door. He recognized Celia’s voice and stood to listen.

  “…Was afraid I’d have to send her to stay with her mother for the rest of it.”

  Ah. Josh. The acoustics in this house funneled everything into the hallway, so he heard every word perfectly.

  “I’m guessing Ronna argued?”

  Josh sighed. “Yeah. She reminded me she’s a ranch wife. Since she wasn’t helping take care of the cattle, it was her job to take care of me while I take care of the cows.”

  “Hard to argue with that logic, huh?”

  “Impossible. I know William has been fussy and then we had the snowstorm and she’s been locked in the house with a cranky baby and an absent or a comatose husband for two weeks.”

  “Maybe you oughta cut her a break. Let her plow the road. It’d give you time with your son and show her that you do need her help.”

  Kyle grinned. His wife was so damn intuitive. He wondered if anyone else had appreciated that about her.

  You keep forgetting she’s not your wife.

  His happy mood vanished.

  “You know, Celia, that’s a great idea,” Josh said.

  Just as he reached for the door handle to join them in the kitchen, he heard Josh say, “That husband of yours is a hard worker.”

  “You sound surprised.”

  “I’m not. Okay, maybe I am a little. Most rodeo guys I’ve known are showmen. Guys born into the ranching life are aware of how much work it entails. I’ve got buddies who couldn’t wait to get the hell off the ranch. So bein’s Kyle wasn’t raised a ranch kid, it’s odd he hasn’t put the place up for sale.”

  “If you had the chance to sell your place, would you?”

  “Hell no. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Ranching is all I’ve ever known.”

  “Same here. It’s honestly all I’ve ever wanted to do. Running his own ranch has always been Kyle’s dream.”

  “He’s lucky to have you to show him the ropes. He never would’ve figured out a lot of this stuff by himself.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. He’s bright. He has been exposed to some of this over the years. But mostly he’s determined. I’ve known Kyle for almost twenty years. He’s good at whatever he puts his mind to.”

  No mistaking the pride in Celia’s voce.

  Josh laughed. “Spoken like a newlywed in love.”

  In love? Really? His heart skipped faster. Was it possible she’d already fallen in love with him?

  “It’s a welcome change for us, having neighbors our age close by,” Josh added. “Between you and me, Marshall was…a hermit.”

  “So you didn’t drop by for coffee to swap calving traumas?”

  “No. Marshall was an intimidating old fella. I have no idea how he dealt with a herd that size by himself at his age for as long as he did. I was floored when he asked me to take over his livestock after he’d finished shipping last year’s cattle so he could deal with his health issues. I was even more floored when he offered to pay me pretty well to do it. With a baby on the way, the drought, and the uncertain cattle market, well, I ain’t stupid.”

  “We certainly appreciate how well you took care of them. We’ve had uneventful calving so far.”

  Kyle heard her knock wood.

  “Us too.”

  Louder knocking on wood and they both laughed.

  “I gotta get. Just wanted to check in.”

  Footsteps echoed from the living room and he slid behind the door, which was idiotic because they couldn’t see him.

  Kyle crawled back in bed, and as he expected, Celia checked on him.

  The instant she pulled the covers over his shoulder, he groaned. “What time is it?”

  “A little after nine. In the morning. Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”

  “Probably my turn to make the rounds anyway.”

  “We’re good for a little while.” Her fingers traced the day’s worth of beard on his cheeks. “Rest while you can.”

  “I have a better idea.” He grabbed her around the waist, rolling her to her back on the bed. Then he smothered her surprised shrieks. Dragging her into the kiss from the first touch of his tongue to hers.

  Celia was as starved for him as he was for her. Six days was too damn long to go without touching her.

  Then she ripped her mouth from his and put her hands on his chest, pushing him away. “Kyle. Stop.”

  “Why? The cows can wait fifteen minutes.” He nuzzled her ear. “I’m dyin’ for you, Celia.”

  “I…we can’t.”

  He pushed up. “What’s wrong?”

  Her cheeks were bright pink “I got my period.”

  “Oh. So that means I can’t kiss you? Grind on you a little? Do you have cramps or something?”

  She blushed harder. “Can’t we just drop it?”

  “Why are you embarrassed?”

  “Just stop looming over me. You’re making me self-conscious.”

  Kyle rolled until they were on their sides facing each other. “Don’t be self-conscious. We’ve had our arms up a cow’s birth canal together. We can talk about this stuff.”

  “That’d be a first.”

  “Really? Why?”

  Celia briefly closed her eyes. “After my mother died, I had no one to ask about that kinda girl stuff when it happened to me. I finally got up the courage to tell Abe and he got all embarrassed. He drove me to Kmart in Rawlins, handed me twenty bucks, and told me to stock up on female supplies. I doubt he ever mentioned it to Hank.”

  “That was fuckin’ stupid and insensitive of him. It’s part of life for women and men who live together. My mom went to bed with a heating pad, a bottle of Midol, a stash of chocolate, and a bottle of wine after her bar shift during that time of the month. She never hid it from me because she said I’d have to deal with it. She never sent me to the store to buy tampons, but it wasn’t some dirty secret either.”

  “Things were a little better when Janie lived there,” Celia admitted. “But I was back to ignorance with other female issues after she left.”

  “Like what?”

  She glanced down at his chest. “Like girl clothes. Bernice cornered me to tell me to stop acting like a tomboy and start wearing a bra. Problem was, I didn’t own a bra. I was so small-chested I didn’t think it mattered. And the last thing I wanted was to draw attention to my lack of curves and become even more self-conscious that I didn’t look like Harper.”

  “Hey.” Kyle nudged her face up to look into her eyes. “I teased you about that, didn’t I?”

  “You never called me tiny tits or anything, but you made cracks about whether I was even a girl.”

  He rested his forehead to hers. “Jesus. I’m sorry.”

  “I know. I also know you didn’t do it because you secretly had a crush on me, which in hindsight, would’ve made it worse. You were just being a guy, jerking me around like you always did. I would’ve been more suspicious if you’d stopped.”

  Kyle’s lips forced a path down her neck. Happy she’d worn a shirt with snaps, he popped them one at a time and dragged openmouthed kisses over each bit of exposed skin.

  And looky there, she hadn’t worn a bra.

  She made a soft noise when he licked her left nipple.

  He cupped a breast in each hand and pressed the flesh together to tongue both nipples. “Put your hands up my shirt. Play with my nipples like I’m playing with

  Celia’s cold fingers made him jump and she responded with a low, sexy chuckle that he felt beneath his lips.

  Her hands were all over him, sending goose bumps across his arms and down his back. She brushed the ridges of his abs. She mapped the planes of his chest with her palms, her fingertips, not just focusing on his nipples.

  He scooted up to kiss her in the same unhurried manner that he caressed her. Exploring her mouth. Sinking deeper into the moment. One last nuzzle and he eased back to look at her. Her face was flushed, her eyes a soft silvery gray.

  Celia set her hands on his cheeks. Her thumbs followed the arc of his eyebrows, trailed down his temples and jaw. “You’re so damn good-looking, Kyle. Such a perfect mix of rugged and handsome.”

  Kyle blushed.

  “I’m sorry if I don’t say that enough. But I am thinking it. Every day when I look at you.”

  “Thank you.” He kissed the inside of her wrist and changed the course of the conversation. “I love touching you, Celia.” His hands mapped her face the same way hers had mapped his. “I love that I can touch you whenever I want.”

  “Same goes.” She yawned. And looked embarrassed by it. “Sorry. You touching me is far from yawn-inducing.”

  “I’ll stop hogging your sleep time.” He kissed her forehead and pulled the covers under her chin.

  She said, “Kyle. Wait,” when he’d reached the door.

  He turned back around.

  “Don’t go. There’s nothin’ that needs done for a little while. And I really like being curled up next to you. I’ve missed that the last few days. Will you crawl back in here for a bit?”

  Oh, sweet woman, what am I gonna do without you?

  Kyle hoped he would never have to find out.

  Chapter Twenty

  Celia was so damn tired she thought she might be hallucinating when Abe’s truck pulled up. Paranoia slammed into her when both Hank and Abe trudged up the driveway.

  She stepped outside. “Please tell me you’re not here because of bad news.”

  Hank gave Abe a little shove. “See? I told ya we should’ve called first.”

  Abe gave Hank a one-handed shove right back. “We can’t drop by and see how our newly married little sister is doin’?”

  “I guess. It’s just sort of weird.”

  “Actually, we came by to talk.”

  Celia held the door open and warned, “Boots off.”

  “Like that ain’t already been drilled into my head at my house,” Hank grumbled.

  After shedding outerwear, they followed her into the kitchen and sat at the table.

  “Coffee? Beer?” she offered.

  “Nothin’ for me,” Abe said.

  “Me neither,” Hank said. “We can’t stay long.”

  This was freaking her out. They both wore their serious faces. “What’s on your mind that can’t be said over the phone?” Or in front of Kyle?

  “After our blowup or whatever it was with you, me’n Abe got to talkin’ about some stuff.”

  “What kind of stuff?”

  They exchanged a look, then Abe focused on her. “The kind of money stuff that can tear families apart. You never brought it up.”

  “You’re surprised? That’s not our way. You guys raised me. You oughta know that.”

  “We do. Which is why this is important, sis, so listen up,” Abe said.

  “First off, you are aware that all our friends gave us what for after what we said to you and Kyle. But no one came down on us harder than Bran,” Hank said. “It didn’t have anything to do with your friendship with Harper. He said we were idiots. That we should’ve expected you’d want a stake in the Lawson ranch. It’s just as much your heritage as ours.”

  Abe sighed. “I know I’m gonna come across sounding like a dick, but I’ve always considered the ranch mine since I was the oldest and to some extent it was on my shoulders to keep it going. Those years Hank was gone off and on bullfighting, when you helped me with the work? I thought of you more as a hired hand and a bookkeeper. Then when Hank came back home full-time, and you were chasing your dream on the circuit, the ranch felt like mine and Hank’s.”

  For once, Celia was glad to keep her mouth shut.

  “I wasn’t any better,” Hank said. “I built my new house on Lawson land. With Abe’s blessing. I don’t know what the devil has been wrong with us, sis. We cut you out. Completely. Not only being ignorant as to why you stayed away from home, but being clueless that your decision didn’t have a damn thing to do with loving barrel racing and constantly being on the road. You haven’t asked for a penny from us in the last four years. And we didn’t offer.”

  “So what we’re tryin’ to say…is better late than never.”

  Her gaze snapped to Abe’s. “What do you mean?”

  “You do know you could sue us, right? Demand your third of the value of the ranch.”

  “But that means you’d have to sell it,” she pointed out. “I’d never demand that—you know that, don’t you?”

  Hank nodded. “Obviously we ain’t keen on doin’ that. The best way we’ve come up with to make it fair to you is to offer you a cash settlement.”

  Celia looked between her brothers as if they’d lost their minds. “A cash settlement?”

  “For your third of the Lawson ranch. We can’t pay you it all at once. But we arranged with our banker to put the first payment in an account for you.”

  “What’s the catch?”

  They exchanged another look and Abe nodded to Hank. “No catch. Except we wish you’d keep it and the money to yourself for a little while yet.”

  “You mean keep it from Kyle.” Why did that annoy her?

  Abe reached for her hand. “Don’t give us that surly look. Kyle just had a life-changing windfall. And we’re not suggesting your marriage ain’t gonna last. This money isn’t a windfall for you, Cele; it’s your heritage. If you want to share it with Kyle down the road apiece, feel free. But we’re asking you to wait a bit.”

  “Have you told your wives about this?”

  Hank shook his head. “Lainie has her own money from her father’s foundation and her job at the hospital. We have a joint household fund we both contribute to, but she doesn’t have nothin’ to do with the ranch income or expenses. So this is our business. Lawson business.”

  “Same with Janie. She’s got her own money, a stake in the Split Rock and her job there. We decided to keep some separation between our finances and our relationship this time.” Abe locked his gaze to hers. “Our reason for doin’ this, little sis, is to give you some financial security. You deserve it.”

  Her belly fluttered with panic. Had her brothers somehow guessed that she and Kyle were a temporary couple? That she was only sticking with him long enough to get the money he promised her so she could go to school?

  Keep telling yourself that, Celia. Convince yourself you’re not in love with your husband.

  “Talk to us,” Hank said, startling her.

  “I don’t know what to say.”

  “Maybe you could start by askin’ how much money it is.”

  She looked at Abe. “How much?”

  “One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.”

  Celia’s jaw dropped. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

  Hank laughed. “Pay up, bro.”

  Abe dug in the front pocket of his jeans and flicked a crumpled twenty at Hank. “I bet him you’d say, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ He argued you’d say…exactly what you did. Anyway. It’s your money now.”

  “You guys aren’t like, hurting yourselves financially by doing this?”

  “No. But even if we had to tighten our belts, it’s no more than what
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