Authors: Sassie Lewis
She slumped back into her seat, a little hurt that Axton wasn’t getting it, and all the excitement of minutes ago died a quick death at the hands of frustration. But honestly, what did she expect? Apart from Luke, they all thought she had just done some online college courses, instead of having actually spent the last five years working her ass off, full scholarship and all, to finally accomplish what she’d completed today.
Taking a deep breath, she turned to Ax. “As of about…” She looked at the clock on the dash. “...an hour ago, I presented my dissertation to a panel of professors. Once I had nailed it, I was given the title Doctor with a few initials to add to my name.” She watched him closely to see if he finally understood.
“How’s that even possible? You’re only twenty-one, and you have never been to college. Hell, Luke’s a vet and he had to go away for five years.” There was an undertone of anger to Ax’s voice that she couldn’t understand. Why would he be upset about her not going away to college?
“Umm, Ax, you do realize I have an IQ over one-eighty?” Well, she had done a few tests over the years and she had always tested above their scoring system. So to get the point across, the largest IQ number she’d been given worked.
Instead of responding, Ax pulled the car onto the road, heading back to their hotel.
Forty minutes later they had reached the Marriott and made their way to the room. Axton’s continued silence was driving her mad. In a bid to get his attention she slammed the door behind her, not an easy feat when those things had a self-closing mechanism. She had to put her full body weight behind it. Axton spun around at the heavy thud of her shoulder connecting with the door.
“What’s your problem?” Tia screamed at him while regaining her balance.
After telling him her happy news, he’d driven them back to the hotel without even so much as a ‘that’s great, Tia’.
“I’ve worked my ass off for the past five years, and you can’t even congratulate me?”
She was getting so worked up she had tears in her eyes. God, she hated crying. It made her all blotchy, and not only that, the man she loved was a bona fide dick. So why was she crying over him being one?
Through tear-drenched eyes she glimpsed him moving toward her, then his large arms engulfed her body, his fingers traveling over her back in a soothing motion. “I’m sorry, baby. But I’m trying to get my head around this. I always knew you were smart. But you just dropped a bomb on me. ’Cause you’re not just smart, you’re a fucking genius! How the hell does no one know this?”
God, he felt good. His touch was magic. Once he had pulled her into his arms, she forgot about being angry at him. He smelt so good. Sweat, cattle, and sandalwood...the scents filled her mind with not only images of him covering her, marking her in that delicious fragrance, but also of home.
And he’d called her baby! The effect it had on her was at odds with Luke’s use of the same endearment. Luke’s always felt brotherly. Seeing as how Axton hadn’t called her anything but her name since she was about sixteen, the word
felt like a passionate kiss.
“Luke knows. But that’s only because he found me pinching some of his college books a few years ago.” She answered his question instead of pulling his head lower to see what his kisses tasted like.
Tia moved away from temptation. Really, if she stayed in his arms any longer, she was going to start licking the little vee of exposed skin between his pecs. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, giving her a great view of his toned chest. Needing to be even further away from the tantalizing scent of him, Tia moved across the room to perch on one of the barstools.
“I didn’t want anyone to treat me any different. Apart from my teachers in high school, most of the other kids just thought I was smart. I finished high school in one year, and spent the rest of my time there taking college courses, doing my undergraduate studies. And by the end of high school, I’d already finished my postgraduate studies. Since then I’ve been working toward my PhD. I could go for my DSc, but I think that might just be overkill.” One of her professors had asked her about it, but she’d declined. It involved a hell of a lot of research and writing papers for publishing.
Ax moved closer to the bar, but instead of taking a seat beside her, he stepped to the other side. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he drank down half before looking over at her. His stare was intense, his forehead wrinkled and his jawline tightening with tension, but he didn’t ask any questions. It was like he was waiting for something. Shaking his head, he took another healthy swallow of beer.
When he returned his gaze to her, Tia raised her eyebrows at him and pointed to the almost empty beer in his hand, then flicked her fingers in the direction of the refrigerator. Reaching back into the icebox, he grabbed a beer and popped the lid before placing it on the bar in front of her. It wasn’t until she was taking her second swallow that Axton finally spoke.
“So you’ve secretly been studying, but how the hell did you become a doctor without actually going to college? And what the heck kind of doctor are you?”
“Oh, I did go to college. Once a month I would come into Houston to spend time with my professors or help out with a research group. But other than that I did most of it online. That’s where my IQ helped. It also got me a full scholarship. As long as I could complete the work on time, everyone was fine with the way I wanted to do things. After I pointed out that one of the textbook reports was incorrect, I think they got the idea that I was smarter than a lot of them. As far as practical work was concerned, the hospital in Mason has a great genetics lab. And Doc Mullen had no problem with me using his space when I needed it.” Tia paused, taking another swallow of her beer. “To answer your other question, I’m a doctor of animal genetics.”
The poor guy looked perplexed. Yes, she’d just dumped a lot of information on him, but he did ask the question.
“So, that would explain why the few horses we let you buy at auction were our strongest breeders.”
“Yeah, it kinda helps. I didn’t just check to see if they looked good, or what their lineage was, I would read over their genetic profile and pair them to the best match possible. Making sure we weren’t inbreeding and things like that.”
“Well shit, I think you’ll be coming to all the auctions from now on,” he said with a wink.
It had been a long time since Tia had seen the lighter side of Ax. She was liking it. “You’re a natural, Ax. Some of the mares you’ve picked up have been great, and the stallions even better. Let’s not forget that almost every bull we have on the ranch are of the best quality in the state.”
Just then her phone chimed. Checking the message, she saw it was from her cousin Tegan, letting her know Alex, her big brother, was riding at the Houston rodeo. Tegan thought it would be great if Tia could surprise him.
“Hey, that was a text from Tegan. Alex is riding here in Houston. Do you wanna come with me to cheer him on?” She spoke to Ax while messaging her cousin back, telling her she wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“I’m cool with that. But you’ll probably want to change. I think you might be a little overdressed for a rodeo,” he said, pointing to the outfit she was wearing.
“Smartass. I’ll go get changed, then we better head out if we want to get there before the first event.”
Axton loved going to the rodeo. Hell, he used to ride in it. He loved the smell, the sounds, and the electric vibe that went through the air. But tonight the crowd of cheering fans that he’d once loved to be a part of was pissing him off. If one more guy pinched Tia on the ass, there was likely going to be a brawl.
“Hey,” he said loudly, close to her ear so she could hear him over the thunder of the crowd. “There’s Alex.” Clutching her hand, he dragged her toward Alex who was standing beside the chutes watching his competition.
As they got closer Ax could hear the conversation Alex was having with another rider.
“Hey, Chuck. How have you been? You enjoying your first tour with the circuit?” Alex asked the younger man.
“It’s great, man. I couldn’t…” The kid stopped mid-sentence, looking past Alex and straight at Tia. “Check out the rack on that babe.”
Ax was getting sick of all the flies that wanted to attach themselves to Tia. He had little half-moon blood spots on the palm he wasn’t holding Tia with, from digging his nails into it in an effort to stop himself from throwing her over his shoulder and telling all the dickheads to stop touching what was his.
Axton watched the surprise come over Alex’s face at seeing him in Houston. But the smile that pasted itself across his nephew’s mouth clearly showed his happiness at seeing the woman standing beside him. Alex then spread his arms wide open.
What the hell is he doing?
“If that isn’t the most beautiful smile to grace the rodeo,” Alex said.
Tia pulled her hand from Axton’s, then launched herself into Alex’s waiting arms. Alex adjusted his balance in time to catch the giggling Tia.
Ax hadn’t been prepared for Tia’s reaction at seeing Alex. She was wrapped around him like a fur coat. She had her legs around his hips and her arms around his neck, only to then give him a big kiss, smack on the lips.
Well, isn’t this nice?
Ax wanted to kill his own nephew. To top it off he heard the kid saying something about Alex getting all the hot ones. Over Axton’s dead body would Alex ever touch Tia in that way!
“Hi there, sweet cheeks. What are you doin’ here?” Alex asked as he placed Tia back on her feet.
“Tegan ran into Luke, who told her I was in Houston this weekend. She texted me, told me you were competing in this event, and since we’re here, I couldn’t not come. After all, you are one of my favorite cousins.” She said all this so fast her words ran together. A smile spread across her face as she pulled Alex in for another hug. Axton was going to end up with no teeth if he kept grinding them together.
“You do know you say that to all of us.”
“I know. When I pick a favorite I’ll be sure to let ya know.”
Alex was right, Ax had heard her tell all the cousins that they were her favorite. But if Alex didn’t take his arms off her soon, he was going to be her dead favorite. Ax almost followed that thought through when Alex bent down and kissed Tia’s cheek. It was only the knowledge that his sister Tonya would kill him if he hurt her firstborn that stayed his hand.
“Alex,” Ax said as he grabbed his nephew’s hand and squeezed it with enough force to see a wince cross over Alex’s face. He also pulled him away from Tia.
They’d always been a little competitive, being so close in age. There was only eighteen months separating their births. They had done the rodeo circuit together when they were in their teens, but one thing was for sure, Alex was the better rider. He had won a shitload of buckles and money over the years, where Ax had been lucky not to break his neck coming off the saddle of his bucking bronco.
Pulling him into his side, Alex gave Ax a hug, pounding his fist into his back just hard enough to cause a little pain. Axton shook his head, a small laugh escaping him at their childish antics. “We’re getting too old for this crap, Alex.”
“Tell me about it. Well, I’m glad y’all are here to watch, ’cause to be honest, it might be the last time you get to. After this circuit, I think I’m done.”
Axton could see the lines of strain on Alex’s face. Years of being bucked around by a horse would start to take its toll on any man’s body.
“Bet your mama is happy to hear that.” Ax squeezed his shoulder in support, knowing this decision would be hard for him. Even though Ax had been a terrible rider, when the time came to think about giving up, it had been a difficult decision.
“I haven’t told anyone yet, so keep it to yourselves.” Alex paused, waiting for their affirmation, and Axton nodded. “I’ve gotta go and get ready. Come out for a drink after. There’s a bunch of us heading out tonight to celebrate. Meet me near my truck. You know the one.” With that he shoved a pass into Tia’s hand then kissed her on the cheek. One of Axton’s molars cracked.
“Ride ’em, cowboy,” she screamed after him.
* * * *
Alex had won his event. So instead of them all catching a cab, Alex drove them to the bar. He wouldn’t be drinking much tonight as he would be riding again tomorrow.
It was a great bar. There was a live country band playing, and the dance floor was full at the moment, with a large crowd line dancing to
Jump Right In
by the Zac Brown Band, but Tia was sitting this one out. She had already danced with a few of Alex’s friends, and Axton seemed to get pissy every time someone asked her to join them.
She sat back, relaxing and listening to everyone talk about things happening on the circuit, when Alex put a shot glass in front of her.
“Bottoms up, sweet cheeks.”
Most people would think ‘sweet cheeks’ had something to do with her ass, but they would be wrong. Alex had started calling her that when she was about five and she had chubby cheeks—the ones on your face that is. He would pinch them and say, “You have the sweetest cheeks.”
Tia lifted the glass, saluting Alex. “Why thank you, kind sir. Think I just may,” she said, then downed the shot.
It must have been jet fuel, because it burned all the way down. After she placed her glass on the table he grabbed her hand, dragging her to the dance floor.
“How’ve you been, Tia?” He had lost some of his Texas drawl from traveling around so much.
“Great, Alex. Same old, same old.” She was losing herself to the music.
“So anything going on with you and Ax?”
Crap, why did he have to ask?
He was the only other person, apart from Mara and Shelley, who knew about her feelings for Axton. On her twentieth birthday he had found her crying in the barn. When he’d asked what was wrong, she had confided in him. Ax had brought some skank with him to her party, and the redhead bitch had been rubbing herself all over him. It was when Tia witnessed Ax pushing ‘red’ up against the side of the house and proceeded to fuck her right then and there, for all and sundry to see, that she had broken down and ran to the barn.