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“You could always hire a ranch hand,” Celia pointed out.

“I remember what Bran went through with that. He had no takers. Harper was a last resort. Although neither of them are complaining now.”

“True.”

Kyle sensed her withdrawal, so he laid it on the line. “You haven’t been happy on the circuit the last year. And it had nothin’ to do with your relationship with Breck goin’ south. You’ve been struggling for a while. I suspect everything you own is in your horse trailer. You rarely go home to Muddy Gap, a place you’ve always loved. You don’t spend time with your family. I want to know why.”

Celia kept her gaze locked on his. “I stayed on the road because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Happy that she’d given him the truth, Kyle brought her fingertips to his lips for a kiss. “I’ve felt the same way. Havin’ a P.O. box in Rawlins as my home base. Crashing with my mom a couple times a year. Sleeping in my camper or a cheap motel.”

“So you do understand.”

“Yes. I’ve been working so f**king hard to make money so I could buy a place of my own and quit the CRA. Now that I’ve got what I always wanted? I don’t know what the hell to do with it.”

Celia laughed softly.

“So say you’ll help me. Please, Celia. Stay. I need you.”

She tugged her hand away from his and drained her beer. “Give me some time to think about it.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

Celia wandered to the living room and he followed her. He leaned against the doorjamb and watched her, a little disconcerted by her abrupt need for space. She pulled on her outerwear and slipped outside without a word or a backward glance.

Then Kyle returned to the kitchen, beating a path in the cracked linoleum from the window to the doorway, watching for her return. Half worried that she would come inside, pack her paltry belongings, and leave for the rodeo in Big Bend.

An hour later the front door slammed. He waited in the kitchen, trying not to look nervous and desperate. Although he was both and she probably knew it.

He glanced up to see her leaning against the counter opposite him, mimicking his stance. “I’ve thought about it.”

“And?”

“And I’ll stay for six months. That’s it. Then we will have this marriage dissolved. In exchange for my ranching help during that time, I’ll take your offer of payment of full tuition for the entire course. Not just the first year. But I have a couple of other conditions.”

“I figured you would.”

Celia squared her shoulders. “First, you need to trust me with the ranch work. We tend to argue a lot, Kyle, but I need your word that you’ll really listen to me. You’ll understand that in this, I know what I’m doing.”

“That won’t be a problem, trust me.”

“Good. If we’re staying together as a couple, then I want everyone to believe we got married on the spur of the moment because we were wildly in love.”

Another problem solved, being he was already wildly in love with her. “Why?”

She looked away again. “I’ve never been the girl the guys pant after. Listening to Ronna today reminded me how shy I’ve always been. I never even had a date in high school. With the exception of Harper, I spent more time with my horses than with my classmates. I’ve come out of my shell the last few years, but that shell is always there, waiting for me to crawl back into it. I couldn’t stand for my family or my friends to know the only way a guy like you married a woman like me was because we were drunk.”

“Hey.” Kyle curled his hands around her face. “Don’t say shit like that. You are a beautiful woman, Cele.”

“You don’t have to say that,” she protested.

“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.” His thumbs stroked her cheekbones before he let his hands fall because he sensed her pulling away.

“So I told you my fear about people finding out the truth about our marriage. What’s yours?”

“I’m afraid once people find out I inherited this ranch they’ll say you gave up a promising career as a barrel racer to become a rancher’s wife because you felt sorry for me.”

“What? I don’t feel sorry for you. That never even crossed my mind.”

They stared at each other for several long moments.

Kyle spoke first. “Did Tanna tell Lainie we were ridin’ high on the tequila express on our way to the wedding chapel?”

“I don’t think so. She claims our being hammered led us to finally expressing our true feelings for each other.”

He couldn’t argue with that. “So no one ever has to know that the reason we stood at the altar was from too much free booze at a Devin McClain concert.”

“And that I was buzzed on prescription painkillers.”

They said, “Unless we tell them” at the same time. They both laughed.

“I sure as hell don’t wanna tell anyone. It’ll be our secret. As will the fact that we haven’t consummated our marriage.” He grinned. “Yet.”

She retreated and gave him a speculative look. “That leads me to my next stipulation. While we are married, I expect we’ll be husband and wife in name only.”

“No.”

Celia stilled. “No?”

“No.” Kyle loomed over her. “Not only no, but hell no. Fuck no. That is my stipulation. We will be man and wife in every sense of the word.”

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