Authors: Vonna Harper
Tags: #cowboy;horses;Brahma bulls;rodeo;Native American;courage;foreplay;injury;barrel racing;danger
When an expert takes the reins, holding back is not an option.
Enough with the nightmares!
A year after a near-fatal run-in with a Brahma bull, barrel racer Jordan Shore is determined to put the trauma behind her and get back to the circuit. As she nervously settles her newly healed body into the saddle for her first event, she feels eyes on her as surely as fingers on her skin.
She knows who those eyes belong to. Cougar Lighthorse. Childhood friend. Grown-up sexual fantasy. Owner of the bull that almost killed her.
Cougar always told himself there could never be anything between him and his father’s boss’s daughter, but he feels responsible for her accident. It’s up to him to guide her back to top competition form, mentally…and physically.
Jordan draws on Cougar’s strength, basks in the heat that flares between them. But the inner fire that drives her back to the arena has nothing to do with courage…and everything to do with the one secret she can never tell him.
Warning: Cougar Lighthorse is everything no woman can resist: equal parts Native American, expert horseman, sexy hands, smokin’ body, and igniter of carnal fires.
Years after I was out on my own, my mother met and married a quiet, lean man who’d always worked with his hands. Bob embraced his role as Grandfather to my two small sons and introduced my mother to fishing. (Little did he know what he’d gotten himself into.) He took her places she’d never been, like North Dakota and Mexico, and could fix anything.
Bob grew up on a farm, which meant he started working almost as soon as he could walk. He didn’t have much in the way of a formal education but was a diligent student of life. He was a great reader of people.
Early in his working life, he followed the rodeo circuit, participating in the bronc-riding events. One afternoon he and I sat, just the two of us, on his front porch while he told me what the rodeo world really was like—no job security, danger, lack of insurance, love of challenge, etc.
isn’t about the real rodeo world, but it is about a man like Bob, who understand animals.
The bulls had arrived.
Fighting the knot in her belly, barrel racer Jordan Shore gripped the corral railing as the stock truck made its way through the night-darkened rodeo grounds. Whinnies from the nearby horse barn mixed with bellows from the soon-to-be unloaded Brahmas.
She’d arrived at the county fairgrounds the day before the rodeo was set to begin, but where her fellow competitors were primarily concerned with getting settled in, she’d come early so she could study the Brahmas.
So she could come face-to-face with her fears.
Whoever was driving the stock truck handled it as if he’d been jockeying the unwieldy thing forever, expertly backing up until it was only a couple of feet from the corral where the bulls would be contained until their event. Shivering, she sensed the animals’ impatience at being penned up. If she had the brains of a gnat, she’d leave, but even with her heart pounding and her surgically repaired right leg aching, she held her ground.
If she didn’t, she might never win the biggest round of her life.
Mercury lights illuminated much of the grounds, but back here behind the outbuildings, deep shadows provided the perfect opportunity for her nightmares to breed. And, boy, were they, making her sweat.
Then the driver opened the door and jumped down from the high cab, and she couldn’t breathe.
A sharp pain turned her attention to her right palm. She’d been gripping the railing so tight she’d forced a sliver into her flesh. Yanking it out with her teeth briefly distracted her from the reality of Cougar’s presence. By the time she’d turned her attention back to him, the tall, solid Native American and whoever had been in the passenger’s seat had moved to the rear stock door.
Wiping her sweating hands on her well-worn jeans, she hurried around to the back of the corral. Her riding boots thudded dully on the packed earth, echoing her heartbeat. Given his need to concentrate on what he was about to do, she doubted Cougar was paying attention to anything else. Good. This way she had more time to come to grips, to comprehend, to resign herself. And, if truth be known, to ogle.
She was asking herself if two men on foot really could unload who knows how many 2,000-pound bulls when several mounted cowboys appeared. They spoke briefly with Cougar, but the bulls’ continual bellowing made it impossible for her to hear anything.
One of the men on horseback opened the corral gate. A minute later, the rear door to the stock truck swung open. Heart in her throat, she frantically looked around. If one of those monsters broke loose, where could she run? The barn? Could she reach it in time?
Stop it! Damn it, get over it!
To her surprise, although the bulls charged down the ramp and into their temporary home, they almost immediately calmed down. Of course, finding hay and water waiting for them had a great deal to do with their reaction. In less than five minutes, a dozen Brahmas had been secured in the sturdy enclosure. It was so dark in there, she barely glimpsed their massive forms. Morning was soon enough for that stroke-threatening task.
Male voices tore her attention from the bulls. Cougar and the others had gathered near the truck’s cab. Occasional laughter told her the conversation was less than serious. Although thoughts of being surrounded by so much testosterone intimidated her, she wanted to laugh with them, to absorb their strength and competence, to thank Cougar for holding her tight and strong and safe during that memorable day a year ago when pain and panic had chewed at her sanity.
Heat touched her nerve endings. Disconcerted, she closed her hand around her throat. If a bull— No! What she felt spoke of something far different from danger, at least the kind she’d experienced thanks to one of those beasts. This was a hell of a lot more carnal. If she didn’t—
Cougar had left the others and was walking toward her.
Her legs trembled. She wanted to run. She needed to stay. Watching him, she concentrated on a body carved from a lifetime of physical labor. His jeans barely contained powerful thighs, and yet what she could see of his ass was tight and minimal. His flat belly nestled between prominent hip bones. If this were rodeo day, he’d be sporting a hand-tooled leather belt complete with a decorative brass buckle, but tonight he hadn’t bothered with flash. He’d tucked in his long-sleeved western shirt and rolled up the sleeves, exposing forearms capable of handling the wildest bronc. His shoulders were broad enough for any task. Midnight hair so long he’d contained it with something at the nape of his neck spoke of his Native American heritage.
He was now so close he might see what she was doing, but she couldn’t stop herself from glancing down. There. Covered by denim, the bulge she’d thought about more times than he would ever know.
“Jordan? Jordan Shore?” His voice hit her nervous system like a drumbeat.
He held out his hand. In the uncertain light, she couldn’t see all the details, but memory told her of long, strong bones and sun-weathered flesh. She closed her trembling fingers around what she could of his. She felt small and feminine. Turned on.
“I heard you were going to be here,” he said, still claiming her hand. “Is this the first time you’ve competed since…”
“Just a couple of local events. Nothing as big as this.”
“Or with my bulls around.”
The statement weighted the air. Although robbed of breath, she mustered the strength to pull free. Before she could think of a response, one of the men called out.
“I have to go,” he said. “But we need to talk.”
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
She pointed toward the parking lot reserved for participants. “It’s a double horse trailer with a sleeping area. Faded blue and white.”
“I’ll find it. You’ll be there later?”
“Yes. But you don’t—”
“Yeah, I do. We do. Are you traveling alone?”
He studied her. “No man in your life?”
“No. What about—”
“There’s no woman in mine.”
She was tired after the ten-hour drive from the family ranch in Harney County, Oregon, but Jordan hadn’t undressed. In the hour since she’d spoken to Cougar, she’d checked on her quarter horse Trixie dropped by the trailer of a woman she’d competed against for several years and read the local newspaper. Now, because the night was hot, she was sitting in a lawn chair in front of her rig, with her boots off, her attention shifting between the moths swarming around the lights and the comings and goings of those around her. She could have joined the group in the next row but hadn’t because experience had taught her that someone would bring up her accident. She understood their curiosity but wasn’t interested in rehashing the details. Besides, there were certain questions she didn’t want to answer.
For the second time tonight, something hot shocked her nerves. She didn’t have to look to know who was walking among the many vehicles, but she did. Cougar still carried himself as if he had limitless strength, but his steps were slow. Either his day had been as long as or longer than hers or he wasn’t looking forward to this.
“I’m here,” she said.
He nodded, came closer, stopped when maybe four feet separated them. She’d known this man all her life, but there’d always been a certain awkwardness or awareness or something between them. The years hadn’t changed that, and right now he turned her on. Telling herself it was the civilized thing to do, she pointed at a lawn chair she’d propped against her trailer.
He set it up so he could sit across from her. Because she’d left a light on in her sleeping/eating quarters, the night only nibbled at his edges. He’d always been quiet, while she’d been what her parents called the ultimate chatterbox. Now, however, she couldn’t think of a word to say.
You’re making me crazy, Cougar. I’ve been attracted to you since I was old enough to know the meaning of the word. Why do you have to look so sexy and be so dangerous?
“Long day?” she brilliantly came up with.
“Long. At least these bulls are accustomed to traveling.”
“You’ve really gotten into stock contracting, haven’t you?” She tried to lean back, but her body refused to relax. Her skin jumped and hummed, and she couldn’t keep enough air in her lungs.
“It’s working out.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Yeah, I do.” He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth in contrast to his deeply tanned face. “Those years of working for your father taught me a lot about handling livestock.”
Except for those few minutes a year ago.
father?” she asked.
“He’s doing good. Mom and he are in Arizona for some kind of powwow.”
“I’ve been meaning to thank him. When your dad retired, mine finally admitted he couldn’t run the ranch without his foreman—and that maybe his kids really were capable of taking over the operation.”
“That’s what you’re doing? Running the ranch?”
Despite the wear on her emotions, she’d been meeting Cougar’s black eyes while fighting the desire to touch him. Now she looked down at her right leg. “Not really. I’m addicted to competing. At least I was until I did a number on this. Fortunately, my brothers aren’t the incompetents I accused them of being all the time we were growing up.”
didn’t mess up your leg. One of my bulls did.”
There. The truth laid out between them.
“All right. Your bull. Rampage. He’s aptly named.”
The heat he’d pumped into her by breathing flowed out to be replaced by ice. She didn’t remember lifting her head, but now that she had, she couldn’t tear her gaze off those high cheekbones and broad nose. “Oh.”
“I wanted you to know. Reporters might pick up on it. The announcer’s probably going to say something.”
“I know, but thanks for the reminder.”
“That’s not the only reason I came looking for you.”
Through the years, she’d seen countless mares backed into corners by countless stallions. She’d led bulls to cows and watched the sometimes-violent servicing. Why those images came to mind right now escaped her—or at least she told herself she had no explanation for the comparison since Cougar hadn’t moved except to stretch out his strong legs.
“Why did you?” she asked.
“To see how you’re doing. And to apologize.”
Quit looking at me like that! As if you want to throw me onto the ground and bury yourself in me.
Forcefully reminding herself that she was putting her own spin on his gaze, she shook her head. “You didn’t open a gate and let Rampage out when he was having a bad-hair day in spades. You didn’t plow into my mare and send me flying.”
Now it was his turn to jerk his head. “I’ve relived the accident a thousand times. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make it come out different.”
Realizing she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been able to let go of the past shocked her. But then, if she’d had to hold a frightened accident victim, the memory would have stayed with her too. “At least it’s behind us.”
He stood, the movement both weary and effortless. “Is it? We’ll know better once this rodeo is behind us.”
She might have questioned his word choice if he hadn’t held out his hands. Not giving herself time to question what she was doing, she let him draw her to her feet.
“Funny how life turns out, isn’t it?” He continued to grip her fingers. “While we were growing up, we were pretty formal around each other. There you were, my dad’s boss’s daughter. I knew there’d be hell to pay from my old man if I was anything except respectful toward you. I understood my place.”
“Your what?” Why did his hands have to be so warm and strong, his body so close, her libido in overdrive? “You scared me.”
She looked up, up, shaken to realize how much taller and substantial, more everything he was. “Every time I saw you, you were doing something physical. You were so muscular.”
You still are.
“I’d watch you on horseback and envy you because you made it look effortless.”
“You ride as if you were born to it.”
“Hardly.” She laughed in an attempt to calm her nerves. “It took countless hours in a saddle for riding to become anything close to second nature, while you…”
Stop holding my hand. Give me back my space, because if you don’t, I’m going to jump your bones.
“I was going to say that your being Native American made your horsemanship instinctual but that’s stereotyping.”
His chuckle rumbled up from somewhere deep inside and slid over her skin. Her breasts tightened, and her nipples hardened. She struggled not to acknowledge the moist heat between her legs. Damn it, a man’s laugh shouldn’t have this impact on her.
But Cougar Lighthorse wasn’t just any man.