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“Or what? You gonna beat the f**k outta me?” Sutton snapped his finger in front of Fletch’s face. “Get in line.”

Lightning fast, Fletch crushed Sutton’s hand in his big fist. “Don’t. Ever. Fucking. Snap. At. Me.”

“Jesus. All right. Let go of my hand.”

Fletch released him. The fear in this son of a bitch’s face was worth the momentary lapse in control.

“You are one scary motherfucker.” Sutton squeezed his hand open and closed. “Why don’t you ever show people that ‘me hulk’ side of you?”

“I’m the cool-headed professional, remember?”

“But if you could beat the f**k outta someone, you would, wouldn’t you?”

“Yep.” Fletch flashed his teeth in a non-smile. “And you would be first on the goddamned list.”

“I’d tussle with you. It’s a little-known fact that cowboys like to fight,” he said with a straight face. “You might have size on me, but I’ve got youth on my side.”

The gall of this kid.

“But I’ll speak my piece to you. And to her. Because I won’t become another guy in her life who enables her.”

What the f**k was Sutton talking about? “Enables her to what?”

“Hide behind her fear. Eli does it. You’re doin’ it. The three-time world champion barrel racer is slinging drinks and selling clothes in a little-known burg in Wyoming. She needs to be in an arena, running barrels. That’s what she’s meant to do.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“That’s because you don’t know me,” Fletch snapped. “I realize Eli won’t push her. But I am the man who will give her back that part of herself that’s been missing. I’ve already laid the groundwork. So I sure as hell don’t appreciate you riding in here and f**king it up.”

“It’s already f**ked up. And that’s what pisses you off. That I give her something you don’t. That you can’t no matter how much groundwork you lay.”

“Which is what? And you’d better take care with your answer.”

“Understanding. I’ve been exactly where she is, so she trusts that I know what I’m talking about. I can help her in ways you can’t. You may have her in your bed, but you weren’t the first person she called after her brother gave her the smackdown that left her raw. I was. What do you think that means?”

That I was an idiot for running away like a scalded cat after overhearing your conversation. I should’ve confronted her, made her talk to me, even if I’d had to drag her away kicking and screaming. Even if I’d had to hog-tie her to a damn chair to get her to open up to me.

“It means that we both want the same thing—Tanna to conquer her fear. But I can’t help but suspect that your reasons for wanting Tanna to saddle up again aren’t as altruistic as you’re pretending.”

“You’re reaching.”

“Am I? If Tanna gets back into competition, then she’d be on the road, drifting from rodeo to rodeo, which is . . . wow, exactly the same lifestyle you’ll be living and on the same circuit you’ll be competing on. Coincidence, bulldogger?”

Sutton’s fake jocularity vanished. “So you think by keeping her in Muddy Gap that you’ll somehow have her? Do you really want to be her second choice?”

Fletch drew back as if Sutton had taken a swing at him.

“Hit a little too close to home, did I, Doc?” Sutton sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Look. I don’t have a horse in this race—pardon the pun. Tanna may talk to me, but she listens to you.”

He had no response for that.

“So my advice is quit looking at me like I’m the problem,” Sutton said.

He turned and walked away, leaving Fletch just as frustrated and adrift as when he’d gotten up this morning.

Chapter Twenty-five

Late evening the next day, Tanna watched Harlow saunter into the lounge at closing time. She oozed sex appeal just walking across the room, even when there wasn’t a man in sight for her to impress. Hadn’t taken Tanna long to realize Harlow wasn’t putting on a sex kitten act. With her white-blond hair, abundance of curves, big blue eyes, full mouth and breathless way of speaking, Harlow Pratt was an old-fashioned pinup girl in the flesh. And Tanna liked her more than she’d admit—especially not to Harlow.

“Hey, harlot, what brings you by?”

“That is not a nice nickname.”

“Meant in good fun, I promise.”

Harlow looked around the empty bar. “Bunch of early birds roosting at the Split Rock this week.”

“Not that I’m complaining. Because next week it could be completely different.”

“Since you’re off early, you have big plans tonight?”

Tanna wiped down the counter and rinsed the rag before she replied. “Nope. Do you?”

“I was hoping for another bonfire but no one seems to be around tonight. Which is weird because Tobin is always around. Speaking of Tobin . . . I saw you down by the corrals the day before yesterday talking to Sutton and Tobin.”

“Really? I didn’t see you.”

“I got sidetracked looking for Renner.” She set her elbows on the bar. “What’s going on with you and Sutton?”

“Why would you ask me that?”

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