by Debra Kayn
When widower and land baron Cole Reardon acquired the Turner Grain Corporation, he didn’t know the company sponsored a bull rider. He refuses to support thrill-seekers dumb enough to get on the back of a crazed animal. He’s not willing to risk his fortune and livelihood when he has his daughter’s well-being to consider. Not even when the bull rider is the sexiest woman he’s ever seen.
Bull rider Florentine McDougal plans to turn pro after the season championship, fulfilling her lifelong dream of succeeding in a man’s world. That is, until Cole Reardon shows up and threatens to break his sponsorship contract with her. Now everything she’s worked for is less than eight seconds away from being destroyed.
Cole distracts Florentine with his sexy mouth and unreasonable demands, and he’s not going to compromise his integrity. But she’s not going to let him loose until she has pro status. And neither will come away from this dust-up unscathed.
© 2012 Debra Kayn
The nerves hit her every time she planned to throw her leg over an eighteen-hundred-pound pissed off bull, and today was no different. Florentine concentrated on drawing deep breaths into her tightening chest, finding strength in the musky odor of a rodeo. She shook her hands at her sides, loosening up her muscles. I can do this. I have to do this.
Earlier in the day, she’d drawn the fourth spot for the final round of the rodeo. With only three more events until the end of the season, she needed to pool all her energy into winning. If she planned to qualify for the Professional Bull Riders circuit, that meant putting family and friends in the backseat and keeping herself in prime condition. She opened her eyes and lifted her chin. She was jumping ahead of herself.
Before she thought about the future, she had to worry about riding the bull named Quicksilver. Everything she’d worked hard for could end here if she failed. She needed to sit among the professional bull riders if she planned to motivate other young girls to follow their dreams. It was easier to believe a success story than someone who only talked big.
She stepped out from under the metal grandstand and hurried around the corner toward the holding pens. A bright flash stopped her on the spot. She bent over, covered her eyes, and knocked her lucky hat off in the process. The photographer didn’t even acknowledge her fallen hat. The press had dogged her tail since she arrived for the summer rodeo season, and no matter how many times she asked them to leave her alone before a ride, they were always in her face.
“I had a deaf dog that listened better than you.” She snatched her hat off the ground and slammed it on her head. “This is your last warning. Get that camera away from me, or you’ll find it crammed up your—”
“Florentine McDougal to the waiting pen.” The overhead announcement cut off her tirade.
She pushed past the reporters and hurried through the crowd. Shawn the Tame stood in front of the pen. She slowed. He’d taken a low score on last week’s ride, ending his riding for the season. If he was hanging around, it wasn’t business.
“Did you forget to wear your dress, McDougal?” Shawn laughed and leaned against a post. “It’s time for you to go home and play tea party with the other girls.”
“You askin’ for an invite?” Florentine eyed him from boots to hat. “Seeing as how you don’t have anything to do around here but whine.”
“Let’s get a leg up, Florentine.” Reggie, her spotter and long-time buddy, climbed on the railing. “Don’t lower yourself to that scumbag’s level. You’re better than he is. Don’t psych yourself into losin’.”
Shawn stepped forward, but one look from Reggie seemed to change his mind. “We’ll see which man makes it to the end,” he said and stomped off.
What if she lost? She tensed. Failure wasn’t an option. She wasn’t about to go back to Pike, Montana, with her tail tucked between her legs. She’d be the only McDougal who failed and didn’t achieve her dream.
All pre-ride jitters were the same, but she knew the moment the gate opened her instincts would kick in and everything would work out. She only had to plant her ass on the back of an unpredictable, charged animal, and win.
She gazed out at the bullfighters clearing the arena, bringing calm to a normally chaotic scene. The excitement, the attention, and the cheering crowd had always given her strength. But somewhere along her path to becoming a professional bull rider, she’d come to love everything about the sport. Even the sweat, the dust, the fear, and the stink of the bull doing everything in its power to unseat her.
At least here, she had people who understood the appeal of riding, even if they didn’t understand why a female would want to compete. The danger of taking on a rank bull and the euphoric high that came from both winning and surviving ran deep in her blood. Every rodeo validated her strength and power.
She would win.
The last rider safely left the arena, and the bullfighters put the barrels back in place. The press moved forward, jockeying for position. She glanced over her shoulder into the stands. Her fans raised their hats in a show of support. She climbed up on the pen, straddled the bull, secured her boots against the rungs on each side of the animal, and waited for the word to get into drop position. She tugged her hat down farther on her head. The stench of anger and fear rolled off the bull fighting to free himself from the pen. She pushed herself to remain calm. Time to show the animal who was boss.
The animal’s jarring blows almost knocked her boots free from the rails on the pen but reinforced her confidence in an odd way. She closed her mouth to keep the dust out but left her jaw lax. She’d practiced for years until she could almost guess the bull’s next move.
“Ready?” Reggie balanced on the gate.
“Let’s roll.” She slid onto the back of Quicksilver smoother than oil on a baby’s butt, but the bull wanted no part of the ride. He slammed her leg against the barrier. Pain radiated through her knee and up into her thigh. She clenched her teeth and groaned.
Reggie grabbed her shoulders. “Get ahold of yourself, girl. You’ve got a ride to win. You fall apart now, and you can kiss your ass outta the circuit.”
She steeled her spine and broke away from Reggie’s grasp. Every ride counted, and if she blew this one, her career would be over. She wouldn’t allow her fear to win.
“I’m okay.” Florentine climbed back up on the rail, blew up her cheeks, and let the air out slowly. “I’m ready. Let’s try it again.”
Quicksilver jumped. She caught his rhythm and settled in. The last thing she wanted to do was give him a chance to throw his temper before she got him out in the arena. Once settled, she slipped her mouthpiece in place. That’s it, you big bully. Let’s see what you can do.
Within seconds, she’d secured her gloved hand under the rope, readjusting when the bull tried to smash her against the sides of the pen again. She used the heat coming off the back of the bull, through her jeans, to her advantage. As long as she kept constant contact, she’d feel his every move.
She shoved away the last bit of fright and moved with the animal. After pulling her hat down tighter to keep the sweat out of her eyes, she let out her breath and lifted her left arm. When she’d finally mimicked the flow of Quicksilver’s energy and could read his body language, she nodded.
The buzzer rang. Faster than spit, the gate flew open, and the bull shot from the pen. The crowd and noise faded away. She rode out every rib-crushing jolt, listening to the snarl and snuff of the beast below her. Anticipating every move, she imagined a string tied to her arm and Quicksilver was her yoyo. Back, forth, stall, jump, around the world. She never allowed the animal to unwind.
Then the bull lunged, pitching her upper body forward. Her weight landed on her tied arm. Pain shot up her wrist into her elbow, and the muscles in her forearmed burned. She held her breath, pooling all her energy into holding on. She couldn’t lose.
She ignored the discomfort, and when the bull changed directions, she let out her breath. She careened to the right. Time ticked away from her. She had to find the bull’s rhythm or make him dance for her. She dug her spurs into the animal’s neck and rode. Quicksilver wasn’t finished with her yet.
The bull darted left, kicked his hind end in the air, and charged hard to the right. Florentine swung her free arm back, forth, back, and stayed in position. She concentrated on the spot between the animal’s ears and could almost taste the sweet joy of victory. Yes.
The roar of the crowd grew deafening, and she knew she’d lasted the eight seconds. The buzzer rang long and loud. The always-present bullfighters materialized in the middle of the pen, distracting the angry beast with calm precision and skill. She loosened her grip, catapulted herself through the air, landed on her feet, stumbled, and then ran with confidence for the fence. Reggie grabbed her arm and pulled her to the other side, out of harm’s way.
Yes! She contained her joy over winning—no need to rile up the men who’d lost today—and got ready to walk out and accept her win.
“Lucky ride, McDougal.” Johnny Crocker laughed. “Your bull had no balls. Maybe next time, you’ll get a real ride.”
“That’s what your girlfriend said about you, Crocker.” She pushed past him and walked out into the arena. Dumbass.
She jogged across the dirt, received her scores at the judges’ table with a grin, and waved the paper at the crowd. She’d made it into the next round.
She wound her way through the mob of riders, staying clear of their elbows, refusing to budge when they tried to force her to walk around them. Amazing how desperate they became when a female threatened their reputation.
When she hitched herself up the fence, she felt the distinct sting of someone slapping her ass. She reacted without thinking, swinging her foot hard and clipping his shoulder. It took effort to school her disgust. “Whoa. Reflex. Happens every time someone thinks they’re brave enough to touch me without asking my permission.”
“Bitch.” Johnny walked away.
She jumped down and plowed into a brick wall wearing a black pearl-buttoned shirt. Her hat toppled, and she grabbed it before it could hit the ground again.
She glanced up and away, dismissing him. “I don’t do interviews, except by appointment. If you want to watch the rodeo, there’s a whole set of bleachers where you can set your denims.” She lifted her gaze and stared into a pair of light-hazel eyes. The intensity she saw caught her off guard, and she looked down, zeroing in on the sharpest black Lucchese cowboy boots she’d ever seen. She sighed in appreciation. “Sweet kickers…”
He obviously wasn’t one of the press, not with a pair of boots that’d normally cost her a month’s winnings. She slowly followed the line of his long, firm body—encased in denim and a western shirt pulled tight across his chest—back to his face and stepped away, short of breath. His smile sold itself, but the coldness of his gaze carried no warranty that he was up to any good.
She made to step around him, but he cut off her exit. “Excuse me,” she said.
“If I could have a second of your time, I’d appreciate it.” He tipped his hat.
“Not interested.” She moved in the other direction, but he beat her to the spot and blocked her. “Hey!”
He widened his stance. “It’s in your best interest.”
She stiffened. How many times had she heard that line? “Look somewhere else, dude, because I’m not interested.”
He lowered his gaze to the front of her shirt, staring a little too long, and her nipples peaked. Even though she wore a safety vest nobody could see through, she crossed her arms.
“The name’s Cole Reardon.” His quietly spoken words rolled over her like thick honey on a warm day. It was liquid seduction.
She stepped back, put fists on hips, and glared him down. She’d rather face a rank bull than let him play her as an easy lay because she participated in a man’s sport. She tossed her braid behind her back. “Great. You’ve given me your howdy, now you can get out of my way.”
“I’m the new owner of Turner Grain Corporation.” He pointed to the sponsor’s logo on the front of her vest.
She glanced down. Turner Grain. Warmth heated her cheeks. “Oh, right. My sponsor. Sorry, I thought you were one of the reporters or trying to…”
“I understand.” His left cheek twitched. “I have to apologize, myself. I meant to contact you when the buyout became official, but I had an emergency on my own ranch to take care of.”
“No problem. Those things happen.” She stuck out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve wanted to thank you in person, but I figured I’d have to wait until the season ended. I can’t tell you how much your support means to me. I’m very grateful.”
His rough, manly fingers swallowed hers. The warmth from his palm traveled up her arm. She blinked rapidly, trying to hide the way her stomach fluttered over the sexiest cowboy she’d ever met.
Her gaze settled on his broad chest. She leaned toward him, catching a hint of cinnamon over the dust and animal smells. Rugged and confident, he was a man who demanded attention. Attention she’d love to give him if she had time.
No. She couldn’t go there. A distraction like him would throw her off her game.
“No thanks needed.” He engulfed her hands between both of his. “I’d like to speak with you if you have the time.”
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, but she managed to nod.
He had a face she might have dreamed about in the twilight time, halfway between awake and sleep, when a woman could entertain a few fantasies. The purposeful expression, the dark auburn hair, and his looming presence made her feel feminine and soft. He tickled the girly side she rarely let show while riding the circuit. She lived in a man’s world and couldn’t afford to appear weak. That meant she also stuck to her seasonal rule not to dillydally with the other cowboys.
“Florentine?” He leaned forward, snapping her out of indulging in a little man candy daydream. “How about in an hour? That’ll give you time to clean up, and we can go out to dinner.”
“Oh!” She jerked her hand away. “Um. Sure.”
“It’s imperative that I talk with you. It concerns your future.”
With one last nod, she whirled around, took three steps, and clipped the toe of her boot on a small rock. She stumbled, but righted herself before she fell. Her future? What the heck did that mean?