One night rodeo, p.33
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       One Night Rodeo, p.33
 

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  night out there. Shocked the shit outta me when Bob showed up at ten o’clock. He’d been all over the place, trying to find me. The man didn’t know what he’d done to upset me; he just knew that he’d done something and he needed to make it right. We’ve had our fair share of rows since that day thirty-some-odd years ago and we’ve always worked it out.” She patted Celia’s knee. “Does Kyle know there’s a problem?”

  Celia shook her head.

  “I’m sure you don’t wanna go to your brothers’ places or to Harper’s?”

  “No. I need some time to think. I’m not being a brat hoping he’ll track me down either.”

  Bernice patted her knee again. “I understand. Why don’t you stay here tonight? There’s a TV and a cot in my office. I’ll grab you some grub from the diner.”

  “Thanks, Bernice.”

  “You’re welcome. But I do have a condition for you staying here. If Kyle does track you down, you listen to him. You talk to him. No hiding, all right?”

  Celia had no intention of telling Kyle where she was. “All right.”

  Bernice stood. “Be back with your food.”

  While Celia ate, Bernice got rid of all the cigarette butts and almost empty cigarette packs to keep Celia from temptation. She texted Kyle that she was babysitting overnight for Hank and Lainie, reminding him to feed the horses tonight and in the morning.

  As soon as Bernice locked her in, Celia shut off her cell phone. She stretched out on the cot and watched mindless TV without seeing any of it.

  Kyle received Celia’s text message after he pulled into the driveway. He’d been delayed in town later than he’d liked, and something about her message seemed…off.

  He unloaded his supplies. Checked cattle. Fed the horses. The house was dark and gave him a weird feeling that this would be his life if Celia wasn’t in it.

  Kyle fixed a plate of leftovers and ate over the kitchen sink, just like he’d done in his bachelor days. He checked for more text messages before he got in the shower. He checked for more text messages after he’d plopped on the couch to watch TV.

  About halfway through the episode of Top Chef, he noticed a blue light glowing in the hallway. He checked the office and saw Celia had left the computer on. Weird. She always shut it off.

  He nudged the mouse and the State of Nevada’s marriage license information Web site showed up on the screen.

  He was pretty sure his heart stopped. His gaze took in the papers spread across the desk. Celia had been looking for something and he didn’t need a magnifying glass and a tweed hat to know what she’d been searching for.

  And she hadn’t found it because it didn’t exist.

  Kyle scrubbed his hands over his jaw. What the fuck was he supposed to do now? Panic like he’d never felt knocked him to his knees. She’d left him. And he’d bet a hundred bucks she wasn’t at Hank’s. He dialed their home phone while he paced in the office.

  “Hello?”

  “Hey, Lainie.”

  “Kyle! What’s going on?”

  “Not much. Just wondered what you guys were up to tonight.”

  Silence.

  Maybe he’d been wrong. Please. Let me be wrong.

  “Sorry. Brianna just threw her spoon at her father. She’s teething and being a total pain. She can’t go to bed soon enough for us. We are plain exhausted from dealing with monster child.”

  His hopes plummeted.

  “So you’re not hiring a babysitter and slipping on your dancin’ shoes once the monster is down for the count?”

  Lainie snorted. “I’m in my sweats covered in spaghetti. So…no.”

  “I won’t bug you. No big reason for the call. I just wanted to touch base with Hank. He can give me a ring tomorrow.”

  “I’ll tell him. Give our love to Celia.”

  I’d give her my love too if I knew where the hell she was.

  Next he called Abe. Shot the shit. Asked a random question about ATV maintenance. As he said good-bye Abe told him to say hey to Celia.

  Strike two. And if Harper was harboring Celia she wouldn’t tell him, so he didn’t bother to call her.

  Where the devil could she be?

  Kyle checked the bathroom. Her toothbrush was gone. She’d only told him to feed the horses tonight and tomorrow, which hopefully meant she planned to be home tomorrow. He called her and the call went straight to her voice mail.

  Not taking his calls. Big surprise.

  He wandered back to the office and stacked the papers strewn across the desk. On a whim, he clicked on the history tab to see what online sites Celia had visited. Nevada State government sites today. Ranch supply sites yesterday. Nothing unusual for the last three weeks. Not needing to see anything else, he shut down the computer.

  Angry, frustrated, worried, heartsick. Scared. Holy shit was he scared she’d walk away.

  Yeah? What are her options? You’re not legally bound to give her anything since she’s not your wife. She doesn’t have enough money to get back on the circuit full-time. She doesn’t have a place to live. After the blowup with her brothers she’d never ask them for anything. Maybe she’ll hit the road with Tanna? Or move to Texas permanently?

  The fuck that was happening.

  Kyle moved from the window and accidentally bumped the ironing board. A few papers fluttered to the floor. He thumbed through them and froze.

  A bank account statement. A statement for an account that contained one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Celia’s bank account.

  Celia had that much money?

  Since when?

  Had she been lying to him all along?

  He flipped through the papers, stopping when he came across the information for veterinary trade school in Cheyenne. Test dates, registration criteria, and deadlines.

  Had she meant to leave this out for him?

  Kyle would find out the truth. But he’d have to find her first.

  His phone rang at seven thirty in the morning just after he’d parked the tractor. And it wasn’t Celia. He barked, “What?”

  “Come and get your wife.”

  “Who is this?”

  “Bernice. Celia’s been at the Beauty Barn since yesterday afternoon. I’ve got customers coming in and I’d really thought you wouldn’t be an idiot and let her sulk all freakin’ night.”

  “I’m on my way.”

  Chapter Twenty-three

  The morning wasn’t as cold as it’d been earlier in the week. Celia wondered how Kyle was faring doing chores alone.

  As much as she’d tossed and turned on the crappy cot last night, she hadn’t come up with a way to talk about the marriage issue. Or the nonmarriage issue.

  She cleaned herself up and unlocked the back door for Bernice. She’d just finished her second cup of coffee when the back door slammed. “The coffee’s fresh if you want a cup.”

  “Don’t mind if I do.”

  Celia spun around. A very ragged-looking Kyle approached her wearing his pissed-off face.

  She said the first thing that popped into her head. “A bit early for the full salon treatment, isn’t it?”

  “Funny. Maybe I should ask if you get a special rate since you spent the night here?”

  No snappy retort for that.

  “Jesus, Celia. I was worried sick when I figured out you weren’t babysitting for either of your brothers.”

  “You called them?”

  “What the hell do you think? You didn’t answer your cell phone. I spent all night pacing, wondering if you’d gotten in an accident….”

  She wanted to snap she hadn’t been thinking straight because she’d found out—oh, they weren’t fucking married—but she knew shutting off her phone had been childish. “I’m sorry you were worried. So they know?”

  “That you lied to me and spent the night God-knows-where? Not exactly something I wanna share with anyone, let alone your brothers.”

  Celia marched up to him. “You wanna talk lies? How about the lie that we were married?


  “We were married. The chapel in Vegas let their license expire, which neither of us could’ve known at the time.”

  “So why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me—us—continue to live together as husband and wife?” Everything they’d done, everything they’d been to each other, had been based on a lie. “You didn’t tell me because you needed me as your goddamn ranch hand. You needed me to help you through calving.”

  “That’s really how little you think of me, Celia? I’m that shallow, heartless, and calculating?”

  “You tell me. You’ve known about the bogus marriage for weeks. Yeah, I talked to the lady in Nevada too. I know the whole license/permit issue is completely out of the norm. But isn’t it ironic that you found out the truth before that first calf dropped?”

  Kyle didn’t say anything.

  And Celia was so worked up she feared she would say something she’d regret. She was afraid she’d revert to that little girl who goaded him. So she walked away from him, to the sitting area, where she’d left her purse. She turned on her cell phone and scrolled through the missed calls. Thirty-some calls from Kyle over the course of the last twelve hours.

  Celia frowned at the number of missed calls from Tanna.

  Kyle barreled around the corner. “Goddammit, Celia. We’re trying to talk about some of this stuff—”

  She held up her hand. “Tanna has called me fourteen times in the last twenty minutes.”

  “By all means, call her back right fucking now. I’d hate for her to miss your advice on her love life when our marriage is falling apart.”

  “There is no marriage,” she snapped. “So don’t pull that I wanna talk about this now bullshit attitude on me when you should’ve talked to me weeks ago—Tanna? Hey. What’s going on?”

  Tanna was close to hysterical.

  Finally Celia calmed her down enough to decipher the phrase she kept repeating. She lowered herself onto the couch. “When?”

  She vaguely heard Kyle ask, “What’s wrong?”

  “Take a deep breath because I can’t understand you. Oh God. I’m so sorry.” She listened to Tanna falling apart and she tried to hold it together. “No, that’s okay. I’ll have it on me at all times. Yes. I promise.”

  Celia dropped her phone to the carpet. She put her forehead on her knees, hoping to muffle her sobs. What horrible news.

  Poor Tanna.

  Celia felt Kyle’s hand rubbing her back, offering support, and that made her want to cry harder. “What’s going on?”

  She sat up. “Tanna’s mom, Bonita, had a stroke.”

  “Is she gonna be okay?”

  “They don’t know. It doesn’t look good.”

  “Ah, dammit, Celia. I’m so sorry. I know you spent a lot of time with her.”

  She thought of Bonita’s sweet smile as she bustled around the kitchen. The way she twirled her dish towel and her dog, Smoochie, started dancing.

  “She was so much like my mom. After Murray died, she was the only one who didn’t tell me to get over it. She was so sweet and motherly and I didn’t realize how much I missed that.” The last part came out on a sob.

  Celia found herself hauled into Kyle’s arms. He let her curl up in a ball on his lap, and held her as she sobbed. Which made it worse because he had the ability to soothe her like no one else. How could this all be a lie?

  She cried harder.

  Her phone began to vibrate on the floor. She practically leaped out of Kyle’s arms to scoop it up.

  Tanna. Again. She hastily wiped her face. “Hey, T. No. It’s okay.” Celia began to pace as she listened to Tanna’s nonsensical ramblings. “Of course. You don’t even have to ask. Seriously. It’s a three-hour drive. I’ll let you know as soon as I get there.” Celia couldn’t look at Kyle. “Kyle has this ranch thing down pat. He won’t miss his ranch hand at all.”

  Kyle made a growling noise behind her.

  “Cell service in Wyoming sucks, so don’t panic if you can’t get ahold of me, okay?”

  She couldn’t afford to break down now. She had to focus on Tanna. Be strong for her friend. She grabbed her duffel bag from Bernice’s office and slipped her coat on. She felt Kyle’s burning gaze on her so she met it head-on.

  “Goin’ someplace?”

  “Texas.”

  “You’re going to Texas now?” he said incredulously. “How are you getting there?”

  “I’ll drive to Denver and fly to Dallas.”

  “So you’re just gonna jump in your truck and leave without talking to me about any of this first?”

  “Tanna needs me. Her family has been my family for the last four years. And there’s nothing for me here anymore.”

  “Celia,” Kyle said sharply. “You can’t just drop everything and go to her.”

  “Says who?”

  “Me.”

  “And who are you? Right. You’re the man who’s not really my husband. You’re the guy who kept me in the dark about our marriage being a lie.”

  “It wasn’t a lie, goddammit. The way I feel about you isn’t a lie. What we had—what we still have—isn’t a lie either. You know that.”

  “It doesn’t matter.” She raced out the door.

  Two seconds later Kyle had caught her and latched onto her biceps. “It’s the only thing that matters. Look at me, Celia.”

  She shook her head.

  “Please.”

  She might’ve snapped at him if he hadn’t softened his tone. Softened his hold. If he hadn’t said please. Against her better judgment, she looked into his eyes and saw the same misery she felt.

  “These last three months have been the best of my life. I don’t want to lose you. Not because I need your ranching expertise but because I need you.”

  “Why are you telling me this now?”

  He broke eye contact for a second. “Because you wouldn’t let me tell you before.”

  “It just proves you didn’t try very hard to tell me anything, did you?” Celia jerked out of his hold and made tracks for her truck.

  But Kyle didn’t let her get far. “Fine, you’re right. I’ve been a closemouthed jerk. I’ll come with you and we’ll talk about it on the way to Denver.”

  “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone and you have a ranch to run.”

  He snarled, “I don’t give a shit about the ranch right now.”

  She wheeled around after throwing her duffel bag in the back of her pickup. “Don’t ever say that. Those animals depend on you. They are your responsibility. This is your life now. You can’t just up and take off whenever the hell you want.”

  “And you can?”

  “It’s not my ranch, Kyle. I have no claim on it.” I have no claim on you. “And don’t worry about giving me any of the money you promised me when I agreed to stay married to you. I don’t want it.”

  “You certainly don’t need it anymore, do you?” he shot back.

  Celia stiffened.

  “You wanna talk about a secret? How about the amount of money in your bank account? Was your claim that you were too broke to buy even a jug of juice a total lie?”

  “No! I was that broke. I’ve been so broke for the last year I couldn’t have competed if it hadn’t been for Tanna.” Was that part of the reason she’d felt so obligated to go to Texas? Because she owed Tanna?

 
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