Authors: Em Petrova
Yet she’d just slung one round, denim-clad thigh over a two-ton beast with blood in its eyes.
“Holy fuck,” he murmured, half prayer, half reverence for the woman with a set of balls big enough to think this was a good idea. There were women bull riders in the world, but most chicks stuck with gentler beasts.
Not Bella Roberts.
Quint issued a low whistle and folded his arms as someone opened the chute and the bull rushed out. As soon as Bella was whipped downward, her beautiful face nearly grazing the bull’s body, which would surely bust her nose, he stopped admiring her guts and started worrying for her sanity.
“Dammit, who let her do this?” He was no bull fighter, but he’d seen it done enough times. He sprinted into the arena, waving his arms. The beast bucked. Bella was tossed.
When her perfect ass hit the dirt, he reached for her. She took his hand, and he yanked her out of the way seconds before hooves pummeled the earth where she’d been lying.
His heart thumped so hard, he had no recollection of taking her out of the arena. His chest felt too tight, his adrenaline running too fast through his veins. Focusing on the feel of her soft palm against his, he fought for calm.
“Well that went better than I imagined.” Her voice was full of mischief, and she tugged her hand from his grasp.
He grasped her by the shoulders and pressed her against the wall. The building wasn’t well-lit, but a bare bulb somewhere down the passageway allowed him to see the laughter in Bella’s eyes.
Dammit, the woman had no clue what danger she’d just put herself in. She might have been killed, maimed.
“I don’t know what you were thinking getting on the back of that bull, but—”
“It was a dare.”
Quint nearly choked. “Who the hell dared you to ride that bull?” He’d better grab a shovel, because he’d be digging a grave later tonight.
Her eyes flared at his tone. “One of the guys asked me to come to his trailer after the competition.”
He dragged in a deep breath through his nose, battling fury. Bella didn’t know him, and his anger was nothing short of intense on a good day. But after seeing her being whipped…
“I said the guy couldn’t handle me. He asked who could. So I showed him.” She doubled up in laughter.
Quint couldn’t tear his gaze off her. God, she was breathtaking with those twinkling eyes and a strand of hair escaping her ponytail to graze her jaw.
Unable to resist, he pinched the tendril between his finger and thumb and swooped in to claim her lips. Her laugh died under his kiss. In a heartbeat, her surprise transformed to something bigger, hungrier. It clawed at him too, an animal waiting to be unleashed.
He plunged his tongue into her mouth and kissed her like a woman who’d just scared five years off his life deserved to be kissed—with rough passion and a craving for more.
She responded with a soft moan, which only fed his need. He dug his fingers into her back, lifting her against him. She was soft in all the right places with an underlying strength born from years of hard training.
Voices echoed down the passage, and it took everything in him to lift his head and break away from her. The burning need to show everyone who was kissing Bella was a bright spotlight in his mind, but he knew she wouldn’t respond well to being put in such a situation.
Panting, she fell back to the heels of her boots. He hadn’t even realized she’d gone onto tiptoe to kiss him. A growl escaped him as he eased the errant strand of hair behind her ear.
“I’ll meet you right here after the competition.”
Some of her dazed expression vanished, and she shook her head. “What? No.”
“I’m your date tonight, Bella. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself before I saved you from being cut to ribbons by those hooves. I’m Quint Lopez, part of Team—”
“Fallon-Lopez, I know.” She looked a little squeamish and forced some distance between them as the passage flooded with cowboys. One called some congratulations on her ride, and she threw him a wave.
Quint lowered his head and glared. He wanted to throat-punch him.
He followed the man with a glare for a second before turning his attention back to the stunning woman in front of him. “Bella, you don’t just share a kiss with sparks like that and not even have a date with him.”
She took a step backward. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, cowboy. It was just a kiss. Same as any other kiss I’ve had today.”
He moved to trap her, but she ducked beneath his arm and made a fast getaway, leaving him to ponder how those curves would feel under him all night long.
Bella hadn’t been lying when she’d told Quint that his kiss was the same as any other she’d had that day—because his partner’s panty-melting assault had unraveled her the same exact way.
Dammit, she was slipping. Letting two guys corner her in the same day? And they were partners, for God’s sake.
She stopped walking. Had they teamed up on
? Were they playing her?
The taste of each man danced in her head. Hell, she hadn’t even eaten or brushed her teeth since Carter’s kiss, so his flavors mingled with Quint’s. She ran her tongue over her lower lip, still wet with Quint’s kiss.
“Crap on toast.” As quickly as possible, she navigated the maze of passages through the building. She had to get her head on straight before her event. There wasn’t a man on the planet—let alone two—who could shake her from winning Henderson, Texas.
She brushed the loosened tendril of hair off her face and hurried deeper into the space where her horse was housed. What she needed was to find her center. Only Josey Wheels could do that for her. She needed a quiet moment with her animal, and she’d be fine.
Her hands still trembled and she could practically feel the men’s touch. Usually she reveled in leading a cowboy on, especially the cocky ones. She’d allowed Jeb to buy her that drink—a tall sweet tea—but after finishing the last drop, she’d thanked him and walked away. Knowing he was watching her leave gave her a little thrill.
Call it sick, but she liked the cat and mouse act. So what if guys wanted her? She was more than a firm body in tight-fitting jeans. She was toughened by years of training. She’d spent summers away from her family, learning how to lean only on herself, dealing with mean girls and guys like Frazer…
Fuck, how had that asshole wormed his way into her head again? She gave him a boot up the ass and rushed down the line of stalls to the one housing Josey Wheels. As soon as her horse heard her step, she gave a whinny that at once comforted and thrilled.
She reached up and encircled the horse’s neck with her arms. Leaning her forehead against the furred one, she whispered, “We’re going to be okay, girl. I’m ready. Are you?”
She hadn’t given Carter a straight
about the steak dinner. The idea of sitting across from a man like him, so virile and commanding, made her panties start to steam. But knowing that Quint’s touch affected her the same way only troubled her further.
Maybe she was just horny. She’d have to take care of that, but not with a rodeo guy. She didn’t want rumors to start flying that she was easy or available. Then she’d never get any rest from the men knocking on her trailer door.
No, she’d have to find some random Joe before she pulled out of town—with that shiny new win on her belt, of course. Slaking her lust with a one-night stand would surely exorcise the ghost touch of team ropers Fallon and Lopez.
Damn if she couldn’t recall each and every spot they’d touched her, though. Spine, nape, hip, palm. A shiver that was all icy-heat ran through her, and she bit her lip to stop a small noise from escaping.
Just how close were the pair? Did they know each other had cornered her on the same day and kissed her? Or were there secrets separating them?
Either way, she wasn’t about to find out.
Not my bulls, not my rodeo.
“Carter Fallon.” The twangy drawl was one Carter knew all too well, and it also made his stomach crawl. Tammy Hope was the worst kind of Buckle Bunny—she was a Buckle Bunny with a video camera.
He continued to work the soap into his rope, letting the stickiness sink into the fibers so he could get a good grip. As “header” in the team roping competition, it was his job to lasso the escaped cow around the head while Quint secured its back legs. All this magic happened in as few seconds as they possibly could manage.
“How’s my favorite header?” Tammy held the camera up to catch his reaction. Sometimes her video clips got onto ESPN highlights, which only fueled her fire. She fancied herself the Diane Sawyer of the rodeo.
“I’m not sure who your favorite header is, Tammy, but
doin’ just fine.” He tested the rope, found it not quite to his standards and added more soap.
She dissolved into high-pitched giggles, her long blonde ringlets floating around her face. If she stopped playing Barbie doll, she might not be half bad-looking. Between too many rhinestones and the blue eyeshadow up to her perfect brows, she was far from his type.
In this game, he’d learned early on who to mess with and who not to. Actually, he hadn’t been interested in any of the women fans they called Buckle Bunnies, but Quint had messed with a few.
The corner of his lips tipped up at the idea of sic’ing Tammy on his partner. She loomed closer.
“Are you zooming in on my face?”
“You have the sexiest smile, Carter Fallon. Let your fans see it.”
“This is my best side.” He turned his jaw the other direction and continued to work his rope. The sticky residue on his gloves would work perfectly smeared across Tammy’s camera lens.
“Why don’t you answer some questions for me?” she asked, extending one thin leg showcased in a miniskirt. He suspected she was only so thin because she believed men wanted a woman like that. Maybe some did, but not him.
“Fine.” He pushed out a sigh, resigned to long minutes of his life eaten away by her interview questions.
“Great!” She bounced on her toes a moment before settling down to business. “So Team Fallon-Lopez is really ‘on’ this season. How do you see yourself performing tonight?”
“Same as always, I suspect. With a lotta luck and a pinch of skill.”
She chortled. As usual. So tiresome.
Get on with it.
Chances of this interview getting air time were slim—he and Quint weren’t big names. Not yet. But if they kept going like they were, they might see some big money. Right now he was happy to be paying cash for all their travel expenses and entry fees. Thankfully their truck and trailer were paid off, but it would be nice to start building a little emergency fund.
“The rodeo life is hard. You’re always on the road. How do you stay in touch with family and friends?” Tammy asked in a sultry voice.
“Same way anybody does. I call them. Text them.”
She sidled closer until he felt the press of her thigh against his. “Is there a special someone on that list?”
Immediately Bella’s face popped into his mind. Dark lashes fringing her wide gray eyes and all those tormenting freckles. Damn, he could still taste her. So much passion, barely harnessed. It didn’t surprise him that a woman as feisty as Bella would have such an untamed response to his kiss, but he couldn’t deny it stroked his ego too. He wanted her undone, panting, begging for him.
“Oh look, there’s Jeb Anderson. I hear he has someone special. Maybe you should ask him.” Carter barely got the words out before Tammy shot after Jeb.
Shaking his head, Carter returned to checking his gear for his upcoming performance. A bad start would mean he and Quint were pushed out of the standings today. The pressure to perform better and faster each time was like shaking a bottle of champagne—he felt about to burst after every ride.
He and Quint always vented their frustrations to each other, but what about Bella? Who did she confide to?
The jangle of spurs made him look up. His partner shot him a grin, and Carter returned it.
“Tammy get you?” Quint asked, arching one dark brow.
Carter shot him a look. “You sent her after me. Asshole. Jeb’s stuck with her now.”
They shared a chuckle.
“Are you ready for this?” Carter asked.
Quint knew exactly what he was talking about. After working together and being best friends for five years, there weren’t a lot of mysteries between them. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
Carter coiled his rope, whipped his arm and tossed it. The perfect circlet fell on the ears of the cow in his imagination. Quint took a couple practice throws too.
“Did you see Bella Roberts ride that bull? Fucking crazy woman.” Admiration infused Quint’s tone. From the corner of his eye, Carter studied his partner. Same old Quint—slightly mussed, looking as if he’d just rolled out of bed. Carter saw nothing in his expression to alert him to a crush.
Good thing. The last thing he needed was a pissed-off partner. They’d never found a woman to fight over and they had to keep it that way. One hiccup out in that arena would throw them off.
“No, I didn’t see her ride. Heard about it, though.” It was all the guys could talk about. How Bella had sworn only a bull could handle her, and she’d jumped on to prove it. Sure, she hadn’t made the full eight-second ride, but she hadn’t been killed.
“That wasn’t her first time on a bull,” Quint said, his thoughts running close to Carter’s. “I can’t imagine what her childhood musta been like.”
“Doesn’t she have a brother? He could probably tell you some stories.”
“Yeah, but he’s not a rodeo guy. I heard he’s a cattleman back in Arkansas.”
“Is that where Bella’s from?” Carter didn’t know nearly enough about her. He planned to uncover all her secrets tonight over dinner. Then later—right after he made her yodel at the ceiling in pleasure.
Quint lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. “I don’t know exactly. She’s got some walls up, that woman.”
“I think it adds to her popularity.”
“Yeah, both with the guys and the fans.” Quint scuffed his knuckles over his jaw and tossed his rope at an invisible target again.
“Whatever her story is, she’s good at keeping it under wraps.”
“Tammy hasn’t gotten to her yet.”
They exchanged a look and burst into laughter. “Tammy’s afraid of Bella, I reckon,” Carter said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Haven’t you noticed how the other women give Bella such a wide berth?”
Quint crossed his arms over his chest and looked downright grumpy. Alarm bells sounded in Carter’s brain. When Quint found a cause worth championing, he didn’t back down easily. With him in Bella’s corner, Carter would have a harder time keeping anything from him. Like the fact that he planned to lasso Bella.
“I know she and Wynonna Calhoun don’t have any love between them.”
The Calhouns were a whole family of rodeo people. Five brothers and a little sister, each of them neck-deep in competition. Since Wynonna competed directly against Bella, things were strained between them.
“But the Calhouns are all prickly. That doesn’t mean anything,” Carter offered. “Buck’s been giving us lip service for a year.” Buck Calhoun and his team roping partner, Asher Franklin, were at the top of their game—and his and Quint’s biggest challenger.
Quint shrugged as if his denim shirt was too tight. “Either way, I don’t think Bella should be treated badly.”
Uh-oh. Carter’s alarms blared now. “I don’t see any harm besides the normal teasing that goes on between rodeo people. Don’t get your thong up your ass.”
“Dickhead. You know I go commando.” He shifted as if swinging his free balls.
“Yeah, I’ve seen enough of you to last me a lifetime.” Carter threw the loop of rope over his shoulder and started walking away. “Going to check the horses.”
“I’ll come along.” As soon as Quint joined him, they settled into their old rhythm. Suddenly, Bella wasn’t a tension between them. They had a job to do, and Team Fallon-Lopez was going to kick ass.
* * * * *
The Bella Roberts cheering section was out of control. She had so many cowboys lined up watching her, Quint thought he might need to apply for an official fan club membership card just to stand alongside them.
He hung off to the side. From her position, he knew she could see him. Good—he wanted his touch, his kiss, to be the last thing she thought about before she got into the saddle.
Damn, she looked glorious tonight. Most of the girls primped themselves for the competition. Plenty of guys too. Bella didn’t need much to bring out her natural beauty, though, and the way she held herself so gracefully commanded everyone’s attention. Her freckles alone could bring a man to his knees, though.
Hell, even Carter stood a few feet away, observing her. His friend didn’t think Quint knew, but Carter was as obvious as a dog with porcupine quills in its nose. He’d been sniffing around Bella a lot lately. Carter thought Quint didn’t notice that he kept disappearing, but he knew Carter kept putting himself in Bella’s path.
Let him try. He won’t get anywhere.
Not when she’d already given Quint that stolen moment. And there were many more to come. He stared at her wiggling hips as she strutted to her horse and mounted with an ease only a true cowgirl could manage.
A knot in his chest tightened, tugging an invisible rope connected to his cock. Having her body molded to his while he kissed her wasn’t something he’d forget easily.
“Come on, beautiful,” he murmured.
She gave a saucy wave to the crowd, which erupted into cheers. The cowboys waved and shouted to her as she trotted past them. Then she stopped playing with her onlookers and got down to business.
Quint noted the set of her jaw and tilt of her head. The long lines of her back spoke of total dedication to her sport. She was going in with the gold buckle already fixed in her mind. Nobody was going to take it away from her.
The buzzer sounded, and she was off. Looping the barrels with such skill and speed that the knot in his chest broke free and he fist-punched the air. “Yahhh!”
Carter was grinning. A group of fans near the front was on their feet holding up individual letters that spelled Bella’s name.
She skidded to a stop and performed a magnificent and Disney-princess-like bow from the saddle that had everyone roaring. Quint looked around to see Carter leaving the arena.
Oh hell no.
He tailed him, closing the gap in seconds. They were almost of equal height, but Quint’s longer legs always run the races. “Where ya going, Carter?”
“Just getting a drink. I’m mighty thirsty.”
“I bet. Watching Bella probably does that to everybody.”
Carter’s bored expression was totally an act. “I reckon.”
Quint didn’t know whether he wanted to punch his friend or join him in finding Bella. “They got some of those power drinks back there by the gate. Want me to grab you one?”
Carter eyed him. All of a sudden, they were like two bulldogs circling the same little French poodle. Each aware of what the other was doing but not willing to take that first lunge at the other.
In the meantime, the poodle got away. Bella disappeared from the arena, along with her tooled-edge chaps and her horse sporting streamers on its tail.
Quint folded his arms, bracing his legs wide. He might not have gotten to her in time, but neither had Carter.
Bella paced the passageway, trying to keep her mind off…well, everything. Her ride, her score that was about to be announced and especially that pair of ropers determined to drive her batty.
Last time she’d seen them, they were standing together. She hadn’t known two solid walls of muscle could stare like that. How was a woman supposed to keep her wits about her with hunks like them giving her the come-hither look?
“Great ride, Bella!”
She glanced up to see a tall drink of water loping toward her flanked by giggling little girls. Bella dropped her personal life and smiled at the girls. They couldn’t be more than eight years old, and they hid their smiles behind their hands.
“Well aren’t you two ready for the rodeo? Look at all those rhinestones! And is that a turquoise ring I see on your finger, little one?” She crouched before the girls.
“Sarah and Beatrice were itching to meet their favorite barrel racer,” the man drawled.
Bella fawned over silver rings and silky curls before standing again and looking at the man. “Do you have something I can autograph for them?”
“Sugar, I’ve got a lot of somethings you can lay your ink on.”
After years of comments like this, Bella had her bored expression set on redial. She conjured it now and stared at him until the tips of his ears reddened.
At least he has the grace to blush. The nerve—bringing his little girls as a reason to flirt with me. Or saying that in front of them.
“I’ve got a pen if you have some paper? A receipt or a business card?” She whipped a pen from her front pocket and held it up.