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The Cowgirl's Little Secret

By:Silver James

The Cowgirl's Little Secret
Silver James

       One

Cordell Barron was always in control-of his life, Barron Oil and Gas Exploration, everything that made up his world. Except for now. At the moment, Cord's world was crashing down around his ears and his life seemed to be spinning out of control.

He stared at his hands, curled so tightly around the steering wheel that his knuckles were white. Jolie is home. Stay away from her. The words, spoken just over a month ago by her father, were seared into Cord's memory. Like the woman.

Jolene Davis. Juliet to his Romeo-right down to their feuding families. Cord had walked away from her, not once but twice, if their hookup for "old time's sake" five years ago counted. Technically, she'd walked away the second time-before he could. Turnabout was fair play and all that crap. That was what he'd told himself at the time. He hadn't wanted to admit how much it hurt-waking up hungover to find her gone, the sheets still smelling of her sweet mimosa scent. Even now, all these years later, he hated spring when the mimosa trees bloomed.

Jerking his thoughts back to the present, he stared out the windshield of his crew-cab pickup. His fingers drummed a nervous tattoo on the console. He should call his brother Cash. Technically, they were half brothers, but Cord was head of Barron Security. He could find out everything about Jolie in an hour. Her phone number. Where she lived. Worked. Boyfriend's name. His heart thudded at the thought she might have one-or worse, a husband. He pounded the heel of his fist on the console, making his phone jump onto the passenger seat. Cord had no right to dictate anything about Jolie's life, but the thought of her in another man's arms, accepting his kisses, sharing his bed...

What was wrong with him? He was supposedly the easygoing Barron, the good ole boy comedian. He didn't get angry. He didn't slam his fist into inanimate objects-especially when it would hurt like hell. Except when Jolie was around. He was always off balance where she was concerned, like a pinball game with lights flashing and bells clanging as a huge TILT strobed in front of his eyes. Yeah, that definitely summed up their relationship. They'd been headed for a big, fat game over from the moment he first laid eyes on her.

The tune of "Take This Job and Shove It" rang out from his phone, sending him scrambling to retrieve it. He unclenched his fist and answered with a terse "What?"

"Hey, cuz, catch you at a bad time?"

Cord clamped down on his emotions, shifting into business mode to talk to his cousin Cooper Tate, operations manager of BarEx, the Barrons' energy company. "Funny, Coop."

"Just as I suspected, we lost the drill bit down the hole." Annoyance and something akin to chagrin colored Cooper's voice. "The crew has to fish it out. You gonna get outta the truck and come up or what?"

Glaring through the windshield at the group of men standing around on the floor of the drilling rig, Cord replied, "Or what, smart-ass?"

"Will you just get your butt up here? We need to talk."

A wicked dust devil of red dirt kicked up and spun across the bare expanse of the well site. Rather than cooling the air, the wind seared everything in its path like a blast from a furnace. The block and tackle attached to the crown of the derrick creaked and swung in a desultory arc, and a length of drilling pipe gripped in the hoist tongs swayed with a gust.

Inured to the hot August weather, Cord shoved his phone into the hip pocket of his jeans, snagged his hard hat from the passenger seat and climbed out of the white truck bearing the BarEx emblem on its doors. The metal steps leading from the ground to the drilling floor rang beneath Cord's boots. Heat waves shimmering around him, Cord gripped the steel handrail during a quick flash of vertigo. His hand felt scorched as he released the rail and climbed again.

On the rig floor, Cooper introduced him to the tool pusher. "Cord, Tom Bradley, best damn rig manager we have."

Cord shook hands with the older man, who then turned to spit tobacco juice before saying, "Damn rig sure seems to be jinxed, boss. Y'all think there's somethin' to the problems we've been having?"

Taking off his hard hat for a moment to brush fingers through his hair, Cooper finally spoke. "I... Maybe. Too many injuries. Too many delays. We should be down to oil sand by now but we aren't even close. Seems as if something happens every other day."                       
       
           



       

His cousin took a long, controlled breath. Coop was rock solid, and if he was nervous about the situation, then something was definitely wrong. Cord waited for the other man to continue.

"Remember how much trouble we had acquiring the rights to drill this one?"

"Yeah." Cord didn't like where Cooper was probably headed.

"We had a helluva bidding war with Davis Petroleum." Coop inhaled again. "Do you think they might be behind our troubles?"

His gut cramped. Coop had gone right where Cord suspected. J. Rand Davis was a rabid competitor. The man had a habit of interfering in Barron family business. Not to mention he was Jolie's father.

"No," Cord replied after some consideration. "I don't think so. Ah, hell, Cooper. I have no frickin' idea if the man would stoop that low or not." He swallowed the flood of saliva in his mouth and jerked his cousin a few steps away. Lowering his voice, he said, "Jolie's back."

Not everyone in the family knew about the fiasco that had been Cord and Jolie in college. That drunken night when, as a senior at the University of Oklahoma, Cord had run into her at a fraternity party and the bright-eyed freshman, well on her way to a massive hangover, had fallen into his lap, kissed him and cussed him out for never asking her out in high school. Learning she'd wanted him like he'd wanted her had felt like a kick in the gut from a twelve-hundred-pound Brahman bull.

But Cooper was Cord's age, a fraternity brother and friend. He'd covered for them when Cord couldn't stay away from the daughter of his father's biggest rival. And Coop had been the one to act as designated driver the night Cord had broken up with Jolie because his father, Cyrus Barron, had dictated that his second son walk away from the one girl he'd ever loved. Coward that he was, Cord had done as his father decreed and then proceeded to get and stay drunk for a week.

"Ah, hell, cuz. That sucks."

And didn't that just sum it up in a nutshell. "Yeah. It does."

Coop turned back to the tool pusher. Tuning out the continuing discussion, Cord studied the rig with a practiced eye. The workers stood around in groups, hands shoved into jeans' pockets, hard hats pushed back on their heads, clothes covered in drilling mud and grease while they waited for orders. The derrick hand was camped out on the monkey board-the platform at the top of the derrick. His job at the moment was to trip pipe-adding or subtracting lengths during the drilling process. Cord recognized the guy and waved, getting a yell in response.

"Yo, big boss! Let's get the damn bit fished out so we can get back to work."

The man had a point. More talk wouldn't get the rig back to drilling for oil. Cord turned to the knot of men still arguing outside the doghouse.

"Billy's right. We have to get that bit out before we can do anything."

At Cord's order, the crew snapped to work. The heavy, burned-oil smell of diesel mixed with the chemical tang of drilling mud. Cord grinned. He felt alive out here on the rig. These guys were real. Hard men in a hard industry. He'd started as a roughneck, back in college, learning the business literally from the ground up. If things had been different, he could have happily worked the oil patch and not missed the Barron lifestyle.

Maybe.

He returned to the mind space he alternately avoided and spent way too much time in lately-thoughts of Jolie. Back when they were younger, he'd been short of options. Stay with her and fight to work in his chosen profession or say goodbye and have his career guaranteed and filled with perks. His father had threatened that Cord would never work in the oil business if he disobeyed him. And as kids, the Barron boys knew their old man didn't make empty threats. No rival company would hire him, according to his father, and he'd believed it. In hindsight, things might have been different, but he'd been too immature and spoiled at the time to test his father's decree.

With the workers settling into a well-rehearsed routine, Cord turned to enter the doghouse. A panicked shout halted him in his tracks.

He spun around and swore time warped into slow motion.

A chain snapped from the stand of pipe just above the drilling hole. One end whipped out, catching one of the roughnecks across his chest. The man fell to the deck as his coworkers ducked. A section of pipe swung wildly from the tongs at the top of the derrick. Up on the monkey board, Billy scrambled to control the block and tackle. Men scattered amid the grinding clash of steel on iron and the wet smack of metal meeting flesh.                       
       
           



       

Cord tracked the arcs of both the chain and the falling pipe. Cooper stood squarely in the path of both. Acting completely on instinct, Cord lunged toward his cousin. Shoulder lowered like a linebacker, he caught Coop in the middle of the back, toppling the other man off the edge of the drilling floor. Arms flailing, Cooper hit the dirt twenty feet below. Cord had no time for regrets or to worry about how bad Cooper was hurt. The loose pipe crashed into his back, driving him to his knees, where the end of the flailing chain clipped him around the top of his rib cage. As his head smacked the steel flooring, he had time for one thought before succumbing to darkness.

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