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“He could’ve contacted me after he found out I was his son and he didn’t. He left me everything on his deathbed. Not out of guilt, but because he wouldn’t have to look anyone in the eye and admit he’d cheated on his wife, even if his wife was a shrew, even when his wife had been dead for years. Saving face was the only thing that mattered. Not finding happiness and not finding me.” First time Kyle had said that out loud.

Pearl patted his hand. “Did it feel good to get that out?”

“Yeah, actually, it did.”

She drilled him in the chest with a lace-covered fingertip. “That isn’t something you oughta be telling me, boy; that’s something you oughta be sharing with Celia. Marriage rule number one: She is your confidante. Confide in each other before all others, without exception. Marriage rule number two: Don’t be the tough guy with her. She’s had enough of that in her life with the way her brothers raised her. Now that you know what’s in your bloodline, I came by to warn you. Especially now that I’ve heard Marshall had the chance to get to know you and didn’t take it. Don’t be like Marshall. Marriage rule number three: Don’t withhold your emotions from her. I’m not talking affections. Because emotions and affections are totally different things. You understand that, right?”

Ah. No, not until this minute, but I think I do now. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” Pearl picked up her martini glass and floated over to the bar.

Bizarre. He looked over to see scissor-happy Bernice fingering Celia’s braid.

“When will you let me take a whack at this mop of hair?”

“Never.” Kyle flashed his teeth and plucked the braid out of Bernice’s hand.

“A hair fetish. Interesting.” Bernice eyed Kyle. “You could use a trim, Shaggy. Stop in next week. I’m running a special.” And she was gone.

Then Celia’s voice was in his ear. “I could so totally get shit-faced right now.”

“Why? What did Bernice say to you?”

“She talked about my mom some more.”

“Did she warn you not to be like her?” he said half-jokingly.

Her gaze sharpened. “Were you listening to our conversation?”

“No. But I got the same lecture from Pearl, since she knew Marshall.”

“She did? What did she say about him?”

“That I have the bloodline to be a miserable, cheating dick who withholds my emotions. So don’t be one.”

“Bernice warned me not to give up my dreams just to be a rancher’s wife.” Celia set her hand on his forearm when he bristled. “She meant don’t give up barrel racing if I love it.”

Kyle’s eyes searched hers. “Do you love it?”

“Loved. Past tense.” Her eyes held indecision, as if she wanted to tell him something.

“We haven’t really talked about this. You know you can talk to me about anything, Cele.”

“We did talk a little that night.”

“Which night?”

“New Year’s Eve. Before you kissed me.”

He frowned. “The kiss was mutual.”

“I know. You get that cute little wrinkle right here”—she poked the center of his forehead—“when I don’t take responsibility for us making out like we’d just discovered kissing.”

His thoughts scrolled back. “I remember you said you were unhappy with your performances. I didn’t get the impression you intended to quit the circuit altogether.”

“That’s the impression I wanted you to have.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want your pity, Kyle. I would’ve had to drop out anyway unless I started winning big. I was through all the money I won, some I’d set aside before I started competing full-time. Tanna let me tag along with her for the past two events. Because my travel funds were tight, I kept Mickey at Eli’s and Tanna let me borrow her super-speed horse. I wish I could say I did loads better on the dirt but I didn’t. It’s hard to admit that I’m not getting better. I’ve already reached the peak of my performance level.”

“Have I ever treated you with pity, Cele?”

She shook her head. “With annoyance. Sometimes with contempt.”

“I’m so glad those days are gone.” Kyle touched her cheek. “In fact, I want to tell you—”

“Hey, sis. We’re leavin’.”

For f**k’s sake. Every time he’d tried to tell her how he felt, somebody ruined the moment.

Maybe that’s a sign you oughta hold back.

They both looked up at Abe.

“Tyler’s fussy. Janie’s ready to go.”

Hank flanked Abe’s right side. “Brianna’s doin’ her screech-owl imitation, so we’re headed out too.” Celia seemed surprised when Hank lifted her into a big hug. “Don’t be a stranger. You guys should come hang out with us sometime.”

“Ah, sure. That’d be fun.”

“It’s great to have you home around Muddy Gap for good, sis.” Abe hugged her. “We’ll be in touch soon.”

She stared after them.

Kyle snaked his arms around her waist and pressed his lips into the back of her head. “Something wrong?”

“Will it be uncomfortable for you? That things have changed between you and Hank, and you and Abe because of me?”

“Things had changed between me’n them before you entered the picture. To be totally truthful, things were different between me’n Hank after he and Lainie ended up a couple. Not because I was still holding a torch for her. But because I was still on the circuit and Hank wasn’t. Then Hank was ranching full-time with Abe and them two got closer, which is as it should be.”

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