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Authors: Darlene Panzera

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BOOK: Montana Hearts
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While Sammy Jo had hair almost as dark as his own, Delaney's long tresses were a light blond, like a sweeping halo of sunshine. Sammy Jo certainly had the curves, but Delaney's slim figure appeared more graceful when she moved, which he found more attractive. And while Sammy Jo posed confidently in front of the camera lens, giving the rider in the arena a thumbs-­up, Delaney appeared more comfortable behind it.

He didn't relish the media attention or ask to take pictures with every new woman he met but something curiously sweet about the camerawoman had tugged at him the moment he saw her. Maybe it was the attentive way she went about her work, as if she truly cared about the quality or was passionate about the subject matter. Jace had hoped it had been the latter. He pulled up the photo of the two of them together on his cell phone and glanced at the smile she'd flashed at the last second. He may have acted like an attention-­seeking fool, but he didn't regret it for one moment.

Not for that shot.

And if she wouldn't give him her phone number, he'd find another way to get to know her better.

Jace got his idea to draw her attention while prepping for his turn to ride. He'd sent a messenger over to the announcer booth beside her and adjusted his feet in the stirrups as he waited to hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, our next competitor straight out of Phoenix, Arizona, wishes to dedicate his next ride this evening to one special cowgirl—­a Miss Delaney Collins.”

She dropped the camera away from her face and looked right at him the moment the announcer said her name. Except instead of being flattered, she looked . . . mortified. She wasn't wearing a ring but maybe he should have asked if she was single before being so bold. It would make sense that someone as pretty as her would already have a boyfriend. Maybe
that's
why she was reluctant to have her picture taken with him. He wished he could go over and find out, but he had to enter the bulldogging box.

He gave a quick nod to his longtime pal and fellow competitor Bucky Knowles, who had agreed to be his hazer tonight. He trusted few ­people other than Buck to keep the steer running in a straight line so he could slide out of the saddle and wrestle it to the ground. Most ­people didn't realize how important a role a hazer played, but he and Buck had both been around long enough to know that one slight turn could make or break a run.

They'd grown up holding on to the tails of steer, “surfing the dirt” around their daddies' fields together since grammar school. Then when they were older they wrestled steer to the ground right out of the chute—­chute dogging, most called it. By the time they each had their driver's license they'd learned to slide from a mounted saddle attached to the back of a tractor driven at thirty miles per hour down onto a fake steer fastened to a second vehicle. The next step, of course, had been to get comfortable performing that same feat from the back of a horse.

Now he and Bucky toured around pro rodeos and often agreed to help one another when it wasn't their own time to ride for score. For there had never been nothin' like the thrill of bulldogging. Nothing else that could pump him with as much adrenaline and heart-­pounding excitement.

“Hey, watch the leathers,” his gatekeeper warned, pointing to the dangling leather strips hanging down below his stirrups.

Jace adjusted his weight in the saddle and glanced down toward his boot. “Yeah, I had a strap break right before I mounted up and had to replace it. Didn't have time to trim off the excess.”

Because he'd spent too much time thinking about Delaney.

But he'd be all right. After all, he was a pro. And once he and his horse raced out of the chute to chase down the steer, Delaney's eyes would be focused solely on him, her camera zooming in to bring his expertise into vivid clarity. Maybe
then
. . . she'd be impressed enough to give him her phone number.

He leaned down and gave his horse, Rio, a good pat. Then he signaled the gatekeeper with a nod of his head, the chute opened, and the steer burst into the arena. Careful not to cross the breakaway rope barrier until the appropriate time, Jace chased after the five-­hundred-­pound Corriente, riding up on one side of the animal, while Bucky rode up on the other.

Turfing the steer within four to five seconds usually got him a paycheck, but to win the big money he had to move lightning fast to flip the steer over onto its back within three. His left hand released the saddle horn as he slid off his horse . . . dropped down . . . and got a firm hold on the steer's horns. Everything was perfect. Everything had gone the way they had a thousand times before. Except this time, his foot got hung up in the stirrup.

He kicked with his toe but his boot wouldn't slip out. One of the leathers had wedged itself tight beneath the sole, trapping his foot inside the bell-­shaped metal ring like a rabbit in a snare. His horse veered to the left, trying to balance his weight as he hung down the opposite side, and Jace had to let go of the steer to try to free himself. Rio stumbled, and Jace bounced twice along the ground, almost hitting his head. Then with a gut-­clenching squeeze, he reached up and grabbed his leg, only half-­aware of the roar of the crowd and pounding hooves around him.

“Jace, hang on!” Bucky rode close enough to lay a hand on his shoulder.

His friend tried to hold him up so his own horse wouldn't kick him, but by the time Rio slowed to a stop, he'd already been dragged halfway around the arena.

D
E
L
A
N
E
Y
G
A
S
P
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D
A
N
D
clutched the rail in front of her, her pulse racing. She'd stopped taking pictures after Jace, hanging upside down with his foot caught in the stirrup of his galloping horse, hit the ground a second time.

“He could have been killed,” Sammy Jo exclaimed, her eyes wide. “He could have been trampled by the steer or if he'd slipped his foot out any earlier . . . run over by his own horse!”

“They've cut the leathers,” Delaney said, her voice breathless. “Jace is standing. Wait. Look.” She sucked in her breath and held it, unable to breathe. “His horse is favoring his left leg. He—­he can barely walk.”

Her stomach squeezed tight as the rodeo star knelt in the dirt and ran his hands over Rio's left hock. The animal flinched and pulled his hoof away. Oh,
no.
That wasn't a good sign. A few of the other cowboys also bent down to take a look, and as Jace glanced her way, his worried expression played havoc with her emotions. Even if he was a hunter and as conceited as she supposed, one thing was certain—­he cared about his horse.

“I have to go down there,” Delaney said, turning around and scanning the stands behind her for the nearest exit. “I know he's not my horse, but I can't stand seeing any animal in pain and I won't be able to sleep tonight until I make sure Rio is going to be all right.”

“But, Del,” Sammy Jo called after her. “Security won't let you through.”

“I'll find a way,” Delaney said, weaving in and out among the crowd. She glanced left, then right, spotted the arched tunnel, and hurried through.

“Del, wait up,” Sammy Jo urged from behind.

“There's no time to lose,” Delaney said, dodging several more groups of ­people as she wound her way around the stadium to the private competitor grounds. “You know what kind of poor decisions some of these rodeo veterinarians make!”

She almost bumped into a concession stand boy carrying a large boxed tray of lemonade, but she swerved just in time. Sammy Jo wasn't so lucky. Behind her, there was a crash, followed by a high-­pitched squeal. A flurry of irate voices followed, but Delaney didn't turn around; she kept going, and kept a sharp look out for the buckskin horse with his magnificent black mane and tail.

There! Straight ahead, not far from the area behind the roping chutes where they'd first met, Jace stood with a group of others, his face drawn as they examined Rio's injury. At least the horse had managed to walk out of the arena. She couldn't bear the thought of what would have happened if he couldn't.

She considered both the helpfulness and limitations of various homemade healing remedies as she picked up her pace, but just as she flew past the last metal fence post she was brought to an abrupt halt by two men dressed in blue security uniforms who had moved toward one another to block her path.

“Sorry, miss,” one of them warned, holding his hand up in front of her. “No media beyond this point.”

Delaney glanced down at her camera. “I'm a friend of one of the competitors. I have to see him. You have to let me through.”

The security guard shook his head, then raised his walkie-­talkie to his mouth to respond to an incoming message, signaling their conversation had come to an end. Delaney wished she had the courage to stand up to them, but what else could she say? What else could she do?

Behind her the ground shook with the thunder of running feet and she turned around just in time to catch a glimpse of the incoming stampede. The herd was led by Sammy Jo. And a small band of angry concession workers chased after her like bulldoggers after a steer, threatening to plow right into them.

The security guards separated as they threw out their arms to prepare for the onslaught, and after reading the silent word,
Go
, on Sammy Jo's lips, Delaney took the opportunity to slink around and sneak right on by.

J
A
C
E
'
S
B
O
D
Y
A
C
H
E
D
.
He'd have some serious bruises come morning, but it was the ache inside that hurt worse as he looked into Rio's eyes. He ran a hand over his horse's sleek, golden neck, guilt twisting his gut into a tight knot.

It was his fault. He hadn't heeded the gatekeeper's warning about the loose leather straps hanging below his stirrups. He couldn't blame it on his preoccupation with the pretty blond photographer either. No, it was his own ego that was to blame. Taking out his pocket knife to shorten the leathers only would have taken a second, but he'd thought it wouldn't matter . . . that he was too good . . . that something like this would never happen to him.

Rio stood stock-­still, his left foreleg slightly bent as he held it a ­couple inches off the ground. Thank God he'd been able to hobble along and make it out of the arena. One of the rodeo workers had the flatbed truck ready to drive in, in case they'd had to put the horse down, but Jace waved them away.

Now he wondered if he'd just delayed the inevitable.

He'd just stepped back to stand beside Bucky, and an assortment of other concerned rodeo pals to let the veterinarian conduct a thorough examination, when a small blond head popped into their midst.
Delaney?

She glided toward him and shoved her camera into his hands. “Here—­hold this.”

Didn't she see that he was busy? That he had other things to—­

He hesitated as she spun around, dropped to her knees beside the vet, and asked, “What do you need?”

“Not sure yet,” the on-­site rodeo vet told her.

“A cold pack?” she asked, withdrawing one from his black bag. “Or a splint?”

“Who are you?” the doctor demanded. “A veterinarian?”

Jace had been wondering the same thing.

Avoiding the question, Delaney continued. “Maybe you want to wrap the leg first with a flexible bandage?”

Frowning, the doctor took the roll of gauze and tape Delaney offered him, and said, “Jace, there's a good amount of swelling and the horse is in obvious pain. There's a possibility the bone fractured from the pull of balancing your weight when you were hanging off the other side.”

Jace spit out the remaining dirt he'd collected from the arena floor and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Although he'd suspected as much,
that
wasn't the news he wanted to hear. “But you're not sure?”

“I've seen worse,” Del assured him, running her hand over his horse's leg. “The fact Rio walked out of the arena on his own says something. He can be given painkillers. And there's no outward signs that it's an injury that can't heal. There's heat and a little swelling, but—­”


Are
you a veterinarian?” the rodeo vet demanded again, narrowing his gaze upon her.

Delaney hesitated. “No, but I—­”

“Jace,” the vet said, cutting her off in annoyance, “I can take the horse to the hospital for a comprehensive evaluation with an MRI and CT scan, but before you put out the money you might want to consider the quality of life he'll have afterward. Even if it's just a torn ligament there's a good chance Rio will never compete again. You might want to just put him out of his misery right here and move on.”

“Move on?” Delaney shouted, rising to her feet, her expression incredulous.
“Jace,”
she pleaded, her big, blue, beautiful eyes full of heartfelt concern. “You can't make a decision like that without knowing all the details. Certainly Rio deserves a chance, doesn't he?”

Some injuries couldn't be healed and left the horse in continuous pain. Putting a horse down under those conditions often seemed the better fate. However, she was right. Rio deserved a chance. No matter the cost. They'd competed together at pro level the last five years and Rio was solid in the box, scored well, and ran hard. He was also a friend, one who had never let him down, and now it was his turn to return the favor.

“I want him tested,” Jace told the vet. “And if the results are promising—­”

BOOK: Montana Hearts
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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