Turn and burn, p.41
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       Turn and Burn, p.41

         Part #5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  partnered me with Madera, the best little horse in the world. My sponsors rallied around me throughout the year. It’s been a great year in so many ways. So I’m dedicating this win to my fiancé, Dr. August Fletcher, who believed in me and supported me on this hard-fought journey getting back to doin’ what I love.” She raised the belt buckle. “This win is great, but he will always be the best thing that ever happened to me because I wouldn’t be here if not for him.” She swallowed hard, taking a moment to get her emotions under control so she didn’t break down like a blubbering fool in front of two hundred thousand people. “Lastly I need to give a shout-out to my friends in my Wyoming hometown, who are sitting in the Buckeye right now, cheering me on. Next round is on me!”

  “Wyoming?” the announcer repeated. “But aren’t you from Texas?”

  “I’m proud to be Texas born and raised. But my heart and my soul, my life, and my home, is in Wyoming.”

  After she said it, Tanna realized truer words had never been spoken.

  Two hours later . . .

  “Sugar twang, what did you say you do for a living?”

  She smiled coyly. “I didn’t say. But a shot of Patrón would loosen my tongue a whole lot.”

  He flagged down the bartender.

  The look on her face said sucker.

  After knocking back the tequila, she confessed, “I don’t normally share my occupation because it tends to be viewed as . . . a bit dangerous. But I’ll make an exception for you, chief.” She slid her hands up his chest, grabbing the lapels of his suit coat. “See I’m a world champion barrel racer. A four-time world champion barrel racer. In fact, I just won my fourth world title tonight.”

  “That right? Well, congratulations are in order.”

  “Yes, sir.” She batted her eyelashes. “I won a really big gold belt buckle. But if you wanna see it, and get a personal demonstration on how well I ride, well, ace, you’re gonna have to come up to my room.”

  Fletch laughed. “Too many people in there right now to suit my taste. But I do have a private room reserved for later tonight if you’re interested.”

  “I’m very interested.”

  “So you’re just killing time in a honky-tonk . . . until the right man comes along?”

  “Nope. I’ve already bagged and tagged my Mr. Right. Just waiting for the paperwork to go through that makes it official.”

  He grinned at his bride to be and twisted a springy tendril of her hair around his finger. Since he’d last seen her on the winner’s podium, her long locks had been swept up into an elaborate hairdo and her makeup had been redone. Tanna always looked beautiful, but tonight an extra glow of happiness and anticipation surrounded her. “You look spectacular, sweetheart. I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

  She curled her hand around his neck and pulled his mouth to hers for a kiss. A long kiss. In the past fourteen months they’d learned to take their intimate moments when they could. It didn’t matter that they were in a rowdy bar on the Vegas strip. As far as they were concerned, they were the only ones in the universe.

  Tanna broke the kiss, but she held him in place, resting her forehead to his. “Holy shit balls, Doc. Can you believe I won tonight?”

  “No doubt in mind you’d win since you are the very best at what you do.” He snuck in another kiss. “I’m so damn proud of you, Tanna.”

  “I’m proud of me too. But I couldn’t have done it without you.”

  “Nice speech, by the way.” In the last ten days, he’d nearly gone hoarse cheering her on from the stands in the arena. His hands hurt from clapping so much. And when his tough and sweet Texas cowgirl had defied the odds and scrambled onto that podium to claim her victory, he hadn’t bothered to wipe away his tears.

  “I meant every word I said.” She fussed with his bow tie. “You look hot in this tux. But I can’t wait to strip it off you later in the bridal suite.”

  Fletch placed his hand over hers, which rested above his heart. “So alls you gotta do is slip on your fancy wedding dress and satin shoes and you’re good to meet me at the wedding chapel”—he glanced at the clock—“in forty-five minutes?” The crazy woman had set their wedding date two months ago—for 1:01 a.m., immediately after the CRA Nationals ended. She’d known all their friends and relatives would be in Vegas to support her during the final night—win or lose—so it made sense to get married here. But she’d insisted on keeping what she claimed would be the happiest day of her life—marrying him—a different day from the day she competed for the world championship.

  “I’ll be there, giddy as a schoolgirl, nervous as a virgin, horny as a toad.” She nipped the end of his chin. “This staying in separate rooms the last few nights has sucked.”

  “No argument from me. So, how did you manage to ditch Celia, Lainie, Harlow, Summer and all the Mud Lilies? I thought they had you under lock and key in the ready room.”

  “I wasn’t sure I could get away when I got your text. But as soon as Garnet cranked up Bobby Darin, I snuck out.” She smirked. “How’d you escape from the man cave?”

  “At my suggestion, Eli, Hank, Kyle, Devin, my dad and your brother decided to try their luck playing Texas hold ’em, in the guise of winning us a cash wedding gift.” Fletch tipped her chin up and looked into her eyes. “I wanted us to meet alone so I could give you your wedding gift before the ceremony.”

  “August Fletcher. I thought we said no gifts.”

  “This is a gift for both of us really.” He inhaled a slow breath. “Renner agreed to turn that big empty building at the Split Rock into a training arena. We’ll have to lease it, but your training time will get priority. And the Gradskys have signed off on letting you work with Madera there, instead of at their Colorado facility.”

  Her jaw nearly hit the floor. “Are you serious?”

  “Completely.”

  “So next season I don’t have to spend half my time in Colorado?”

  “Nope.”

  “Not that I wanna look a gift horse in the mouth—ha-ha—but . . . why?”

  “Guess Renner—or more likely financial whip-cracker Tierney—would rather have some income while waiting for the commercial stock-breeding program to become viable, rather than let the building sit unused another two years. As far as the Gradskys . . . they know you take better care of their horse than you do yourself.” He flashed her a grin. “Plus, you’ve got a top-notch vet at your beck and call, day and night, to treat their newest prize-winning horse, which also weighed heavily in our favor.”

  Tanna shrieked and threw her arms around him. “This is the best news ever.” She kissed him. “I love you so much.” More kisses. “So, so, so much.”

  “I love you too.”

  Tanna’s cell phone began to vibrate on the bar. “Shoot. They noticed I was missing. I gotta go.”

  “You promise you’re meeting me in the chapel? You won’t get cold feet and run away?”

  “I’m never running away again. In fact, I just may run down that aisle to reach you.”

  “And my arms will be wide open to catch you.” He kissed her. “Always.”

  Before Tanna and Fletch ever met, Kyle set out to show Celia he had what it took to give her a lifetime of love. Don’t miss their story in

  One Night Rodeo

  Available now!

  Kyle raced down the hospital corridor until he spied the woman pacing across from the emergency room doors. “Tanna?”

  She whirled around. “Kyle. Thanks for coming.”

  He loomed over her. “Thanks? That’s the first thing you say to me? Jesus. I’ve been out of my fuckin’ mind the last twenty minutes. How could you call me to get my ass to the hospital and not give me a single damn detail about what happened to her?” He had visions of her in surgery or in traction. Bloodied up and unconscious. Broken in body and spirit.

  The feisty barrel racer jabbed him in the chest with her finger. “Don’t you snap at me first thing, Kyle Gilchrist.”

  “Then start talkin’. N
ow.”

  “I told you on the phone. She fell off a horse.”

  Kyle frowned. “Her horse Mickey ain’t even here.”

  “Not her horse. A horse. She landed on the steer cockeyed after she launched herself at it. I think she ended up with a hoof or a horn to her head ’cause . . . ah . . . there was some blood.”

  “What the hell was she doin’ with a goddamn steer?”

  “Bulldoggin’.” Tanna’s eyes darted away.

  Somehow he kept a lid on his temper. “Still waiting to hear the full story.”

  Her defiant brown gaze met his. “You know how Celia is, Kyle. Someone tells her that she can’t do something and she goes out of her way to prove them wrong.”

  “Who’s them?”

  “A couple of bulldoggers from Nebraska. Cocky bastards, talkin’ shit to us about how easy barrel racin’ is compared to bulldoggin’. The next thing I knew, Celia was ponying up a hundred bucks to prove that steer wrestling ain’t that hard. Then the bulldoggers got permission from the event staff so we could have us a little race.”

  “You’ve got to be fucking kiddin’ me. Celia is in the damn hospital because of some stupid bet? Why didn’t you stop her?”

  “Because I agreed with her and tossed in a hundred bucks of my own to teach those pompous pricks a lesson,” Tanna shot back. “Celia drew the short straw to ride first.”

  Kyle caught a whiff of Tanna’s boozy breath. “Christ. How much had you guys been drinkin’?”

  “Some.”

  Unbelievable. “How’d you get to the hospital?”

  “The bulldoggers dropped us off. Celia said she was fine and walked in on her own, so I don’t think her injuries are life threatening.”

  “Celia would tell you that even if she had two broken arms, two busted legs, and her eyes were bleeding. Damn stubborn woman.” But he hoped Tanna’s assessment was right.

  The emergency room doors opened and Kyle glanced up as a nurse approached Tanna. “You’re with Celia Lawson?”

  Kyle intercepted. “Yes. How is she?”

  “She’s had a chest X-ray and a CT scan. You can come back and wait with her if you’d like.”

  They followed the nurse to the end of a wide hallway. He stepped around the curtain.

  Celia was on her back, her lower half covered with a blanket. Her slim torso appeared fragile, swimming in the floral-patterned hospital gown. Her lips were a flat line. Her eyes were shut. Kyle’s gut clenched when he saw the bandage on the upper left edge of her forehead and the bruises on her cheekbone. His gaze traveled the long, thick blond braid lying beside her on the bed; the end of it brushed the middle of her thigh.

  Ridiculous, probably, to watch the rise and fall of her chest to assure himself she was breathing.

  On impulse, he placed a soft kiss between her eyebrows. When he lifted his head, he found himself staring into her eyes.

  Those smoky gray eyes narrowed very quickly. “Kyle? What the devil are you doin’ here?”

  “I called him,” Tanna said, scooting in to squeeze Celia’s hand.

  “Why?” Celia demanded.

  “Because you asked for him,” Tanna replied softly.

  Celia’s startled gaze quickly hooked Kyle’s. When he smirked, she said, “Don’t go getting that look or I’ll wipe it right off your face.”

  “Sure, you will.” Kyle smirked again. “Just as soon as you’re not flat on your back in a hospital bed, knocked loopy.”

  Tanna laughed. “So how are you feeling, bulldoggin’ queen?”

  “Sore. Pissed I lost a hundred bucks.”

  “You don’t remember they paid up?” Tanna asked. “I guess if you bleed you win by default.”

  Celia snorted.

  “Has the doctor been in?”

  “To give me stitches and to give me hell,” Celia grumbled. “He poked me, muttered a lot, and then shipped me off to X-ray. I tried to tell him my ribs are just sore, not broken. Guess he didn’t believe me.”

  “You’re a few years short of a medical degree to be makin’ a diagnosis,” Kyle said dryly.

  “This ain’t my first rodeo,” she retorted. “I’ve been hurt before.”

  “What ever possessed you to tangle with livestock when you’d been drinkin’?”

  “It wasn’t like we were shit-faced, Kyle. We each had one shot.” She frowned. “No, two shots.”

  Tanna held up four fingers.

  “Four? Really? Huh. Didn’t seem like that many.”

  “How’s your head?”

  “Hard, but you knew that. The doc was worried about a concussion, so they X-rayed my melon too.” Once again those icy gray eyes zipped to him. “Not a word about them finding my head empty, Gilchrist.”

  He’d had enough of her tough-girl attitude. “Knock it off. I get that you’re scared.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Because, kitten, you hiss and claw when you’re afraid.” Kyle picked up her hand, rubbing her cold fingertips against his jaw. “So hiss and claw at me. I can take it.”

  “You need to shave,” she snapped, jerking her hand back. “And I’m not scared. I’m annoyed.”

  The curtain fluttered and Devin McClain strolled in, although the country music star was barely recognizable in a ratty ball cap and sunglasses. “Hey, brat. Whatcha gone and done to yourself now?”

  “Devin? How did you . . . ?” Celia blinked at him in confusion.

  “Kyle called me in a complete panic. Had me thinking I’d find you on your deathbed. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me here to hold your hand or his.”

  Kyle muttered, “Shut it, asshole.”

  Devin raised his eyebrow, peering over his shades at Celia. “Seems you’ve had a miraculous recovery.”

  “Why won’t anyone believe that I’m fine? I just got the wind knocked out of me.”

  “Darlin’, you were knocked out cold,” Tanna drawled. She offered her hand to Devin. “Nice to finally meet you, Devin. I’m Tanna Barker. I’ve heard lots about you from Celia, bein’s you’re a family friend and a Muddy Gap homeboy.”

  “A true pleasure to meet you too, Tanna. Great run last night.”

  “Thanks.” She blurted, “Omigod, I can’t believe I’m standing here with Devin McClain! I’m such a huge fan. Your song ‘Chains and Trains’ is one of my all-time favorites.”

  “I never get tired of hearin’ that. Thank you.”

  When Devin granted Tanna that million-dollar smile, Kyle could have sworn the rowdy Texas cowgirl swooned.

  “So what’s the diagnosis?” Devin asked Celia.

  “Still waiting for the X-rays to tell us.”

  “Have you called her brothers?” Devin asked Kyle.

  Immediately Celia grabbed a fistful of Devin’s sweatshirt, grimacing as she pulled herself upright. “No. And I swear to God I will beat you bloody if you do.” She leveled the same venomous look on Kyle. “That goes for you too.”

  “But, Celia, they need to—”

  “No. Do you hear me? Janie is in the last two weeks of her pregnancy and I won’t upset her or Abe for anything. And Hank and Lainie are leaving for Boulder for the consult for Brianna’s eye surgery. They need to focus on her and each other, not me. Promise me you won’t tell them.”

  Surprised by her tears, Kyle bent closer. Sweet, fierce Celia wasn’t upset about being beat to shit; she was just worried about her family’s reaction to it. “I won’t tell them as long as you promise to call them within a day or two.”

  “Okay. Thank you.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “No arguing with me? Really? That’s one for the record books.”

  “I don’t always argue with you.”

  “Yes, you do.”

  “No, I don’t.”

  “See? You’re still doin’ it.”

  “You started it.”

  “As much as I’d like to stay and hear another round of your bitchy sexual foreplay—not—I need to get ready to ride tonight,” Tanna said.

  “Now
that I know you’re recovered enough to bicker with Kyle,” Devin said, “I’ll head back to the event center for final sound check.”

  “Would it be too much trouble to drop me off at the arena?” Tanna
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