Turn and burn, p.36
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       Turn and Burn, p.36

         Part #5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Alls I’m asking is that you consider meeting with these folks. They’re good people. Hard workers. They’re horse brokers as well as breeders. And I’ve gotta say, they’ve been breeding exceptional stock. In a few years, they’ll be at the top of the heap. How would you like to be one of the riders who put them there?”

  “How hard did you have to lobby on my behalf, Sutton?”

  He scowled. “Goddammit, I knew you’d say something like that. I didn’t lobby at all. I mentioned you were up here for the summer.”

  “And?”

  “And they asked how you’d fared after your injury. If you’d started training. What your plans were. They mentioned your accident. In fact, they called it a freak accident and said no one should be blaming you for Jezebel’s death.”

  Why didn’t she believe him?

  “Since I’m such a great guy,” he grinned again, “I said your plans were up in the air. That’s when they really put the boots to me. So I promised them I’d bring it up with you. And now I have.”

  “They own your new competition horse?”

  “Horses,” he corrected. “I couldn’t decide on one so I’m alternating them, I offered to buy them outright, but they wanna retain ownership for breeding purposes rather than selling. There’s something to be said for having a world champion depending on your stock.” Sutton bumped her shoulder with his. “Or a three-time world champion riding their stock.”

  Tanna couldn’t help but ask, “Do they have a competition horse in mind for me?”

  “A seven-year-old mare named Madera. Natalie Finch rode her for a year, and they were close to making the CRA finals, but Natalie busted both legs in a snowmobile accident, putting them out of contention. With no rider, they decided to breed Madera, so she’s been outta competition for two years.”

  Tanna remembered hearing about Natalie’s bad luck and subsequent retirement. She’d competed against Natalie that year but she didn’t have an impression of the horse she’d ridden. “Someone has been working with Madera?”

  “Their trainer. Natalie Finch was a decent rider but they’ve never had a barrel racer of your caliber put Madera through her paces.”

  “Laying it on a little thick, ain’t ya, bulldogger?”

  “Only because it’s true.”

  “Look. I appreciate the props, but I’m nowhere near ready to try out horses.”

  He leaned over the fence and spit a stream of tobacco juice. “Because you’re still scared?”

  Disconcerting that Sutton had said the same thing Fletch had. “I can’t push the horse to perform on the level I need if I can’t push myself.”

  “No offense, but this horse isn’t on your level. And you gradually increased your speed over only five runs, Tanna. Five. You do five more and you’ll keep getting faster. We both know it. Whatever issue you might’ve had with needing to build speed isn’t a factor anymore.”

  When she didn’t immediately answer, his smug smile appeared.

  “Aha, you can’t argue with me because you know I’m right!”

  “Fine. I’ll do a few more runs today and see where I end up, time-wise.”

  “Does that mean I can tell them you’re interested? Or will you at least look at the online footage of Madera before you say no?”

  “You are such a pushy bastard, Sutton Grant.” She unhooked Mickey’s reins and led him along the corral. “But yes. I’ll consider it.”

  Sutton pumped his fist into the air.

  “Now get back in position.”

  “Your wish is my command, Tex-Mex.” He grinned. “And at least try to go a little faster, huh?”

  Tanna flipped him off.

  Fletch parked on the far side of Eli’s barn. He hadn’t heard from Tanna all day and he’d gotten concerned, knowing that Eli and Summer had gone to an auction in Rock Springs.

  Although she assured him she had a handle on her former fears, Tanna being alone with horses scared him. The demands of his job ensured he couldn’t be on the sidelines, cheering her on while she pushed her boundaries. He just hoped she wasn’t holding back because he couldn’t be with her every day.

  So his jaw dropped at seeing Tanna racing across the dirt at what looked like normal competition speed—not the turtle pace she’d bemoaned in the last week.

  So what had changed? And when had it happened?

  That’s when Fletch saw Sutton Grant sitting on the fence, watching Tanna’s every move.

  Jealousy hit him like a hoof to the gut.

  So he hung back out of sight.

  After the run ended, Tanna focused entirely on what Sutton told her. Then she was back at it, lining up and racing into the practice arena.

  It was bittersweet, watching the woman he loved reconnect with a part of her that’d been missing. A part that defined her. A part of her Fletch had known was there, but hadn’t seen in action. And it was amazing to watch her doing what she was meant to do.

  After another run, Tanna loped off into the pasture, giving the horse time to graze and cool down.

  He walked along the back side of the corral. Upon reaching Sutton, he draped his forearms over the fence. “Hey.”

  “Hey, Doc. I didn’t know you were here. Pull up a section of fence.”

  “You plan on pushing me off for bein’ a little hotheaded the last time we saw each other?”

  “Nah. If bein’ pissed off at me made you take action with Tanna so she can do that?” He pointed to the pasture. “Then it was worth it.”

  Fletch climbed up on Sutton’s right side. “How’s she doin’ today?”

  “I can’t believe how well. I figured she’d ease into it. But she’s been hell-bent for leather.” He scratched his chin. “She’s still pulling back on the second barrel, but that’s understandable. And Mickey is a good horse, but he’s not a great horse. He’s certainly nowhere near the caliber of barrel horse Tanna is used to.”

  “So what changed today that sent her from zero to sixty?”

  Sutton couldn’t hide a smug smile.

  “What did you have to do? Threaten her? Or bribe her?” he said lightly, trying to keep sharpness from his tone.

  He chuckled. “I knew you weren’t dumb, but your intuitive side does surprise me.”

  “Animals rarely verbalize anything so it’s my job to be intuitive.” Now that had come out sharp.

  “Christ, you’re touchy. Alls I’m saying is most men would look at the whole picture—Tanna getting back to barrel racing—and not break it down pixel by pixel. You knew something had to happen to encourage her to kick up the pace.”

  Fletch looked at Sutton. “So it was just your influence that did it?”

  “You’d hate that, wouldn’t you?”

  “Goddamn right I would.”

  Sutton offered another smile. “Not blaming your jealousy on something else—yet another surprising thing about the good doc. But the truth is, I dangled an opportunity in front of her. The horse breeder I use is interested in having her try out one of their prime barrel horses.”

  “No shit. They told you that?”

  “Of course they want her. Tanna is a proven champion. So I relayed the info to Tanna. She bitched about bein’ a has-been and some other bullshit about why they couldn’t possibly trust her with high-end horseflesh. But the whole time she was denying it, I saw the wheels spinning. Mostly she made the choice on her own to get back up to speed. Literally. So how long have you been here watching?”

  Fletch shrugged. “Long enough.”

  Sutton adjusted his hat. “You pissed off that in trying to get her lined up with a new horse means she’ll be leaving here?”

  “Never was a question that she’d leave here. Just what kind of shape she’d be in when she did.” Tanna had been more broken when she’d arrived than anyone had known—including him. As proud as he was that she’d come full circle, he couldn’t stop the melancholy feeling.

  “Does she know you’re in love with her?”

  That jarred him. “More
’n likely. I haven’t come out and said it, but she can’t be around me and not know how I feel.”

  “Jesus, Fletch, why don’t you tell her?”

  Rather than snap off, none of your damn business, he said, “Because she’ll run. She’s never had what I’m willing to offer her.”

  “Which is what?”

  “Everything.” He hopped off the fence. “I’ve gotta check on a horse,” he lied.

  “Don’t leave without letting her know you were here,” Sutton warned. “This was a big day for her. She’ll want to share it with you.”

  Fletch didn’t respond. He walked to the horse barn and performed a quick check on the three horses just for the hell of it. One was a former wild mustang that Eli wanted to breed with Blue, a docile mare who became a fierce mama. That feistiness might translate into good bucking stock. He’d already suggested to Renner that investing in a few wild horses would be a good place to start. Although Renner couldn’t use horses bought from BLM auctions for rodeo stock, he could start breeding them with his existing stock.

  He killed thirty minutes before he returned to the corral. Tanna was outside the gate ready to start her run.

  Her hair was flying as she burst onto the dirt and urged Mickey to haul ass. They cleared the first barrel, no problem. He did hold his breath as she started around the second barrel. He saw her pause for a second—and knew that second hesitation could cost her . . . possibly seconds. They sped toward the third barrel. Mickey turned sharply enough that Fletch feared horse and rider would hit the skids, but she retained control. She rode him hard until the end.

  Sutton yelled, “Turn and burn, baby. You shaved it down to twenty-two point nine!”

  She whooped and dismounted. Then set to tying Mickey to the fence post.

  Fletch walked across the dirt toward her. He’d made it a little more than halfway when Tanna caught sight of him. She didn’t walk, she ran. In an instant he had that squirming, beautiful, elated woman in his arms. Laughing. Squeezing him tightly. And for just a moment, all was right with his world.

  “Fletch! Didja see me ride?”

  “Several times. How did it feel?”

  “Scary. Horrible.” She smirked. “Then wonderful.”

  He pressed his lips to her forehead. “I’m happy for you, sugar twang.”

  “What’re you doin’ here?”

  “I told Eli if I was in the neighborhood I’d check a couple of things.”

  “Are you done for the day?”

  “Nope. I’ve got three more stops.”

  Tanna sighed. “I’m in the mood to celebrate.”

  “By celebrate do you mean knocking back a few drinks? Or having a quickie against the horse trailer?”

  “I’m inclined to take option two. But I’ve gotta deal with Mickey and Sutton, so by then you’ll be off to your next appointment. I’ll take a rain check for the naked celebration.”

  Fletch cupped her ass cheeks in his hands and growled, “As long as it’s tonight. Been missing you in my bed, cowgirl.”

  “Same.” She pecked him on the mouth. “Call me when you’re done. How long might that be?”

  “Gotta stop at Talley’s and Myerson’s. Then Annabeth is bringing her horse to my clinic.”

  Tanna’s eyes—a piercing violet today—turned laser sharp. “The cutting horse queen is havin’ another problem?”

  “Her dad is out of town. She’s called me three times.”

  “Of course she has. She’ll probably show up at the clinic in a negligee and fuck-me stilettos, wearing her tiara.”

  He laughed, but it died quickly when he realized she was serious. “Tanna. It’s not like that.”

  “But it is,” she insisted. “She wants you and not just as her personal horse doctor. She wants to play doctor with you. Hell, she’s more determined to marry you than little Miss Ellie is.”

  “Bull. Annabeth is a client. That’s all.”

  Tanna poked him in the chest. “What if I said I didn’t want you to be alone with her tonight?”

  “Jesus. What’s gotten into you?”

  “Answer the question.”

  “Edmunds are good paying customers. I can’t afford to say no.” Fletch stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest. “And it’s no different from you bein’ out here alone with Sutton all afternoon.”

  “It’s very different. Sutton is trying to help me get my career back on track.”

  “That’s the same thing I’m doin’ with Annabeth. Speaking of . . . he told me about the folks in Colorado wanting you to try out a new horse?”

  That shocked her. “Sutton’s got a big mouth. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’m nowhere near competition ready.” She scowled. “You’re clouding the issue.”

  “And now I’m running behind. So how about if you make celebration plans with Sutton, and I’ll just go do my job? Because most likely any plans we made would get fucked up anyway.” Fletch turned and walked away.

  And Tanna didn’t call him back.

  Chapter Thirty-two

  She stewed. Cussed. Ranted. Paced. Brooded some more.

  Blind and bullheaded. That’s what he was.

  He thought she’d rather celebrate with Sutton than him?

  Bullshit. The man had nothing to be jealous of and he knew it.

  How could he honestly believe that Pageant Queen Barbie didn’t have her manicured hooks hovering above those amazing biceps of his, waiting for the right moment to dig her claws in?

  What pissed her off the most was Fletch and Annabeth would be a perfect match. He was gorgeous. She was gorgeous. Miz Maybelle’s society page would read: Local rancher’s beauty queen/professional horsewoman daughter marries local veterinarian. Beautiful, perfect babies to follow.

  But Annabeth would probably make him happy—when she wasn’t running him ragged like she did with her dad. She’d pop out a couple of cute kids. They’d build a big house with a big horse barn near—or on—her family land. Everyone would tell Fletch what a lucky bastard he was for landing Annabeth as his wife.

  Would Trophy Wife Barbie give Fletch everything he needed in bed?

  She’d been with her fair share of demanding guys. But Fletch took it to a whole new level. Not just the rockin’ sex, but his insatiable need for intimacy. If they were in the same room he had to be touching her. Even just holding hands, but more often his fingers stroked any section of her bared skin. Her arm. Her neck. The tops of her thighs if she wore a skirt. He needed a woman who was physically demonstrative in public and private. No doubt Annabeth would pull out all the stops to garner his attention and affection, but once she had that ring on her finger, would Ice Princess Barbie reappear?

  Tanna placed her head in her hands. Her stomach hurt imagining that life unfold before her eyes. Fletch deserved better.

  Like you? A former barrel racing champion with nothing to offer him except the type of hot sex he craves?

  Isn’t that what they’d both signed on for?

  Yes. But things had changed.

  Hadn’t they?

  They’d definitely made a promise to each other they would be involved only with each other for as long as Tanna was in Wyoming. Well, she was still here. And Fletch and I-Have-A-Horse-Emergency Barbie needed a reminder of that fact.

  Maybe Tanna needed a reminder too, not to be cowed.

  So after she returned to the Split Rock, she primped. It’d been a while since she’d bothered. But like any Texas girl worth her salt, she knew how to look good. Damn good.

  Big Texas hair. Check.

  Sultry makeup. Check.

  Cleavage baring glittery tank top. Check.

  Skintight Seven jeans. Check.

  Her b.b.simon rhinestone belt. Check.

  Gigantic world champion barrel racing belt buckle. Check.

  Custom-made pink alligator boots with Swarovski crystals. Check.

  Should she slip her favorite little gun in her boot?

  Nah. That’d be over the top. Although in Texas s
he wouldn’t have thought twice about adding it to her ensemble.

  Primed, she went to get her man.

 
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