Authors: Em Petrova
“Sure do, miss.” He rooted in his pocket and came out with a business card with an oily fingerprint on it. She didn’t bother reading the card—she just flipped it over and signed it to Sarah and Beatrice.
When she handed the token to the girls, they squealed. One tugged her hand, and Bella offered them each a big hug. As soon as she straightened again, the man extended his arms.
“Where’s my hug? A single dad doesn’t get many chances to touch a pretty woman such as yourself.”
Ugh. She was really running out of people she actually liked.
He reached for her, and she stepped back. “Why don’t you try and see how many women you get to touch with no hands?”
At her threat, a twinkle appeared in his eyes. Damn these men who thought she was just playing hard to get. They looked at her responses as a challenge, but she was no prize to be won.
“Sarah, Beatrice, follow your dreams, lovely girls. And enjoy the rest of the rodeo, you hear?”
Beaming, they nodded. She whirled and took off deeper into the building where nobody could find her. A few steps in, she realized she hadn’t heard her score.
She knew she was right around the sixteen-second mark. Not her best time, but it would get her in the standings. Her only real competition was Wynonna Calhoun, and she wasn’t here tonight.
A hand locked on her shoulder. Instinct made her whip around, her fist connecting with a hard jaw. Pain sliced through her knuckles and up her arm, along with a deep satisfaction. She couldn’t believe that single dad had followed her. She couldn’t believe—
She blinked at Carter, who was shaking off her punch. His hat sat askew on his head, giving her a glimpse of his jet black hair. When he met her gaze, amusement ringed his equally black eyes. All that Argentinian blood was no good for her libido. It purred like a big cat about to win a prized slab of meat.
“What the hell are you doing, sneaking up on me like that?” Her words came out too breathy, but none of them sounded like fear. And her racing heart definitely had nothing to do with it.
“I wanted to congratulate you on top score.”
“Top?” Her chances of winning this thing in Henderson were about to be realized. Only a few more competitors and none of them could throw her out of first place unless they got lucky and had the run of their lives.
He gave a cocky jerk of his head that was supposed to be a nod. To her, it was like a damn mating call. Her body geared up, and her fingers twitched to touch him. To feel the coarse stubble along his angular jaw and imagine how it felt between her thighs.
A shiver ran through her.
He mistook it as emotion about her standings. “I know you’re excited. Did you hear the place go crazy when they put your name on top?”
She couldn’t stop her grin from taking over her features. She’d walk out of here with a buckle that Frazer hadn’t gotten.
Without realizing what she was about to do, she hurled herself at Carter. He caught her against his broad chest. He braced himself and wrapped his arms around her.
“I beat him,” she said.
“You beat ’em all, gorgeous.” The rumble of his words stole her mind, and she made the mistake of looking into his eyes.
“Fuck, you’re more beautiful when you’re happy.” He palmed her cheek, and she resisted turning into his touch like a cat starved for affection.
Slowly, she pulled free of his hold and backed away two steps. She fought to control her breathing so he didn’t think she was struggling with total arousal. But she was. Carter was the stuff of fantasies, a calendar centerfold with a cocky grin. Cowboy crack.
She tucked a strand of hair under her hat and gave him a nod. “Thank you for delivering the news to me. I’d like to be alone for a bit if you don’t mind.”
He stood rooted in place, eyes darkening as he swept his gaze from the top of her hat to the tips of her boots. All the places in between tingled.
“I understand. This is your image—playing hard to get.”
She blinked. “I’m not playing hard to get. I
hard to get. Thanks again for delivering the news, Carter.”
“Does this mean the steak dinner’s on hold?”
If she found herself within ten feet of this man
a prime cut of beef, she was a goner. And she’d worked too hard not to distance her heart from the bullshit men dished up.
“That’s right. Indefinitely on hold. Good luck with your ride, Cowboy.”
* * * * *
“What the fuck’s your problem, Fallon?” Quint jabbed a finger into his chest. “Are you in this competition with me or not?”
“I’m in.” He just couldn’t concentrate very well after Bella’s rejection. He focused hard on the rope in his hands and evading all questioning from his partner. His very angry partner.
He hadn’t seen Quint with his chaps this bunched since the Calhouns bumped them from ranks and booted them from the national finals last fall.
“If you think you’re fooling anybody, you’re wrong.” Quint jerked his gloves down harder over his fingers, a sure sign he was about to curl his fists and punch something.
Carter met his gaze. “Fooling about what? I’m getting ready to compete, Quint. What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You keep disappearing. I know you’re prowling after a woman.” Quint didn’t look remotely happy about the thought, and it didn’t have anything to do with them being thrown off their game.
“Since we’re discussing distractions, why don’t we talk about yours?”
Quint narrowed his eyes. “I’m dead focused on this win, Carter.”
“Until Bella Roberts walks by.”
His partner’s glare would have felled a weaker man. Besides, he could take Quint. They’d never gotten into a full-on brawl, but they’d thrown a punch or two in the heat of the moment. Carter squared his shoulders.
Quint took a big step toward him, bringing them nose-to-nose. Carter worked his jaw. “Dammit, I don’t wanna fuck up your pretty face, Lopez. Get out of my space.”
“Admit that you’ve been sniffing around Bella and I’ll back off.”
“Why’s it so important to you?”
“You know damn well that our rhythm is off if there’s shit between us. Spill it so we can go out and do the best damn run of our lives. I’m taking home a cash prize from Henderson.”
“Fine. I went and found her and congratulated her. Happy?”
The feverish light in Quint’s eyes deadened, and he sniffed. “Yeah. Now they’re about to call our names.”
Fucking hell, how was Quint going to concentrate when Bella stood off to the side watching the roping event?
Quint caught Bella’s gaze and offered her a tip of his hat. She returned it with a saucy flick of her own that made his chest tight. What was her allure? She was beautiful, sure, but he’d seen plenty of pretty girls over the years. Her confidence was definitely sexy, but then again, he’d been around enough rodeo ladies to have seen this trait by the barrelful.
Something about those big gray eyes tugged at a man’s innards and drew him closer.
Carter made a move beside him and when Quint looked over, he saw his partner was also tipping his hat to Bella.
Son of a bitch.
They’d never argued over a woman, but there was still plenty of time.
Quint nudged Carter with his elbow. His partner elbowed him right back—in the ribs. Hard.
“What the fuck’s your problem, Fallon?”
They glared at each other. When Quint broke the staring contest and returned his attention to the sidelines, Bella was gone.
If given the choice, who would she pick? Carter got his share of female attention. Quint supposed the jackass had all the things a woman wanted in the looks department. But hell, people sometimes asked if they were brothers. With their dark hair, they could be. But Quint was pretty sure he had more in muscle.
And he was definitely packing more heat in his Wranglers. No question.
He faced the arena again, fuming. “If you fuck this up for us tonight because you’re distracted, I’m going to personally rearrange your teeth.”
“I won’t fuck it up. I’m more worried about you. Getting your rope knotted over a woman who won’t give you the time of day?”
“Fallon-Lopez. You’re in the pipeline.” The crusty cowboy’s announcement broke up their argument—for the time being. Quint mounted and looked at his partner in the same way he’d been doing for the past six years they’d competed together. When it came to Bella, may the best man win. But when it came to rodeo’ing, they were a team.
Seated on his horse with Carter several feet away on his own and a calf in its holding pen between them, Quint began to count backward in his mind. He’d always counted down and felt his thoughts click into place like the tumblers on a lock.
Tick, tick, tick
until everything aligned.
The buzzer sounded. His horse, well-trained and ready for the bag of hot oats he got as a treat after every ride, lunged out. The calf shot between him and Carter.
Carter threw his lasso and roped it across the horns with a precision born of years of experience. Quint released his rope at nearly the same time. The calf was pulled up between them, and the crowd cheered.
“Five. That felt like five seconds,” Carter called to him.
He gave a hasty nod as they released their lassos and someone came out to free the calf. Quint brought his horse around to Carter’s. They shared a grin and left the arena as their score of four-point-nine-seconds was announced.
Fist-punching the air, Quint scanned the sidelines and saw her—Bella balanced on the rails of a chute talking to Jeb Anderson. Not even giving him—or even Carter—a glance.
Tightening his lips, Quint tried not to feel as if she’d just punched him in the gut. He and his partner had just brought in one of the best scores of their careers.
And a lot of weight it carried with a woman like Bella. What
get her weak in the knees? He was damn well going to find out and make the most of it.
Bella navigated her truck and trailer into the rest stop and parked it between two other combos. After cutting the engine, she took a minute to check her cell. Usually her parents called while she drove and she was able to have long conversations through speakerphone, but she’d just gone six hours without a peep from them.
No texts either, so she shot one off to both parents, letting them know she was stopped just outside of Texas and on her way to Alabama for her next competition.
Times like these, she wished she was part of a team event. Traveling in pairs would be so much more interesting. The long, tedious drives alone with nobody to break the monotony wore on her after a while.
She climbed out and received a hoot for her trouble. Glaring at the offending cowboy, she tested her stiff legs to see if they’d support her. “Fuck off, Rigby,” she called back.
She caught a flash of long red hair. “A sweet talker as always, Bella.” The female drawl grated on Bella’s last nerve. She and Wynonna had been butting heads for countless years, but there seemed to be no escaping the woman.
“If it isn’t the charming Wynonna Calhoun.” She settled her hand on her hip and leaned against her truck, allowing her lower back time to untighten after sitting in the same position for too long.
“You ladies inspire me,” Rigby said, looking between them.
Bella laughed. “Save your wet dreams for somebody else, Rigby.” She took off for the rest stop, checking her pockets for quarters as she did. She needed the bathroom and then hopefully the vending machines boasted some coffee. She had a whole case of energy drinks in the trailer, but she hated the things. Give her the rich nectar of her people any day.
Most of the rodeo crowd traveled in caravan-style. Playing tag on the interstate, sharing meals when they stopped. But Bella was more of a solitary person. That was fine by her, when most of the women in her sport were like Wynonna.
Whatever rubbed her wrong about that woman Bella would never know. She suspected they’d hated each other in a past life and just carried it through to this one.
She washed her hands and splashed her face with water. As she exited the restroom, a woman frantically waved at her. Bella bit off a groan. Dammit, what did Wynonna want now?
“What’s up?” Bella asked as she neared. Wynonna twisted the end of her braid that dangled over her shoulder. She was a true redhead, and because of that she got a lot of attention. Bella knew a lot of women were jealous of her looks, but Bella wasn’t one of them.
“I ran into a couple of guys who’re sick.”
Bella stared at her. “So?”
Wynonna pushed out a hasty breath. “Honestly, Bella, don’t you ever care about somebody besides yourself? We’re like a big rodeo family here.”
“I stick to myself.” She started toward the vending machines, but Wynonna caught her forearm.
“Do you still drag around all those medicines in your trailer? I thought you might have something to fix up these guys.”
“Why don’t you nurse your own boyfriends back to health?”
Wynonna was a true redhead, all right, and she blushed like one. Her face scorched. “These aren’t my boyfriends. My brothers would tan my hide and make me go home faster than I could say eff off if I was seeing them.”
Bella rubbed the space between her eyes that was starting to ache. The last thing she wanted was to be mired in the Calhoun family politics. But she did feel a little bad for Wynonna. Having five older brothers couldn’t be good for the sex life.
“Fine. Who are they? Point me at them.”
“Those guys over there. The team ropers.” Wynonna, as tall as Bella, had the advantage of looking over much of the crowd. She pointed to the guys, and Bella swallowed a groan.
Dammit, couldn’t it be any other team roping pair? She didn’t want to help Carter or Quint. Not when she’d spent so much time lately avoiding both.
Wynonna gave her a tiny push in the direction of the gorgeous cowboys. “Go on. They’re not contagious.”
Bella shook off the woman and slowly approached the guys. Now that she got a good look at them, they
look under the weather.
The dark-haired pair was the most striking of all the cowboys in the rest stop. Tall and broad, one wearing a western shirt with white embroidery and the other sporting a ratty old plaid. Quint’s hat was tipped lower so she couldn’t see his eyes until she stood before him.
“I hear you’re unwell. Come with me.” She didn’t wait for either set of surprised eyes to register her words—she turned on her heel and marched away.
Outside the building, they caught up and flanked her. It struck her that Wynonna might be playing some game. If Carter and Quint were fighting over Bella, they wouldn’t be at peak performance, and Wynonna’s brother wanted that top spot in the team roping event.
“How’d you hear we’re sick?” Carter’s deep voice buried itself somewhere deep inside her belly, entirely too low for her own peace of mind. Something warm and liquid broke open and flowed downward.
Damn them. And damn Wynonna.
Next time she got the woman alone, she was going to let her know she didn’t appreciate Wynonna butting into her personal life. Either that or she’d prank the hell out of her and see what her big brothers could do about it.
The idea brought a faint smile to her face as she looked over the two studs in front of her.
“Wynonna told me. Now what’s the matter?” She didn’t wait for their replies, just unlocked her trailer door and launched herself inside. When they didn’t follow, she poked her head out. “You coming?”
In seconds the trailer she comfortably inhabited while on the road was shrunken to fairy proportions. With Carter’s height and Quint’s thick shoulders, there wasn’t a spare inch of space.
“Uh…” She looked around and her gaze landed on the small kitchen table and two stools her daddy had helped her bolt to the floor so they didn’t roll around while she drove. “Have a seat, guys.”
Carter moved toward the stool, but Quint stood his ground. “I’m fine here.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll just be a minute.” She bent and rummaged under the little cabinet that housed odds and ends she might need on a long trip. Was it her imagination or were they staring at her ass?
She straightened, her hair flopping into one eye. She hadn’t bothered with her hat after getting out of the truck, and it still lay on the passenger seat. Pressing her hair back, she looked between them.
They gaped at her as if she’d sprouted a tail and devil horns. The thought gave her a smile to match. With a grand gesture, she set the small, clear plastic box on the tabletop.
Carter leaned back to peer at the contents. “Whattaya got there?”
“Everything and anything to cure most human illnesses. Or at least relieve symptoms. Now tell me what’s going on.”
Carter rubbed his knuckles over his jaw, creating a rasping noise she felt deep in her core. That liquid heat inside her that hadn’t gone away since those two amazing kisses seemed to go from a slow simmer to a boil in a blink. She dragged in a deep breath, but that just made it worse.
He smelled good. Real good.
“Think we picked up a bug after that last rodeo.”
“And you didn’t stop at a clinic or find the doc?” The rodeo doctor traveled along with them, seeing to strained muscles and broken bones. “He likes seeing cowboys come in with something wrong besides a dislocated shoulder. He’s pretty good at diagnosing and doling out medicine too.”
Carter raised a brow but Quint looked like a thundercloud scudding across the sky. “How well do you know the doc?”
Heat swept up her throat. “Well enough.” He might have been one of the guys who’d believed she just needed a soft touch early after her breakup. But the doctor had gotten a mouthful of her sassy barbs and run off with his tail tucked. Which was why she carried so much medicine now—she could take care of herself.
Quint snorted, and she waved him closer. “So you have a cold? Headache?”
“Throat’s a little sore,” he admitted. “And I feel a little hot and cold both.”
She wrinkled her nose. She’d take a handful of vitamin C and Echinacea after they left just to keep her own immune system in tip-top shape. “Okay, let’s see what I have.” She popped off the lid and the guys leaned to peer inside.
“What are you—a pharmacist in your spare time?” Carter asked.
“Nope. I make meth to supplement my rodeo winnings.”
Carter guffawed, and Quint moved a step closer. A wall of heat, starting at her ankles and rushing up to the top of her head, swept over her. Her nipples pinched hard, and she sank her teeth into her lower lip.
Damn, being so close to them was reminding her why she’d let them kiss her in the first place. Pure, raw attraction. She wanted both Carter and Quint with an animalistic need that could only be quenched between the sheets.
But since she wasn’t in the business of breaking up team roping champions, she’d opted to cut things off at one kiss apiece.
“Why do you have all this stuff?” Quint asked.
She set several boxes and bottles out on the table, looking for something in particular.
“My momma’s a big one for home doctoring. And her mother before her. We hoard medicines like we’re about to enter a zombie apocalypse.”
“Have you heard Quint snoring then? He sounds like a damn zombie.” Carter got elbowed in the arm for his quip.
“How would you know? You’re too busy whistling Dixie through your nose on your side of the hotel room.” Quint’s dark eyes twinkled with merriment.
Bella found herself relaxing. While she lined up a few more bottles, she asked questions. Did either have an unbearable sore throat, a high fever?
“No,” they said together.
Her body was doing a wild come-hither dance, each hormone a separate cheerleader waving pompons and shouting into a megaphone that she was ready and willing to let them touch her.
Carter’s hard lips were too alluring for her sanity, and Quint kept tucking the corner of his wide lips in, entrancing her.
“Sleeping all right?” She looked from one to the other.
“Hell no. Quint won’t quit snoring.”
“And you’ve got a nose whistle.”
“Shut the hell up, Quint.”
She hid a smile by ducking her head and rooting through a few more packages and some wads of Ace bandages. “Aha! Just what you both need.” She held up a decongestant.
“That’s it? Does it come with a bottle of whiskey?”
“No, but I’m sure you can find some down the road. I don’t suggest washing these down with alcohol, though. Sounds to me that you both have allergy flare-ups. Crossing Texas, I could feel the weather changing. I think ragweed’s in season too.”
She extended the box, and Carter took it from her, brushing his warm, dry fingers against hers as she did. Her inner exotic dancer did a naughty striptease for him.
When his gaze trapped hers, electricity zapped through her body. She pulled her hand back and threw a look at Quint.
Damn, that was almost worse. The man’s eyes were hooded with desire. A thousand butterflies hatched in her stomach.
“Just…take those according to the directions on the box. Get some rest and drink plenty.” She went to the door, indicating they should go.
Neither budged. Carter, still on the stool, leaned his big shoulders against the wall and crossed his legs. Quint hitched himself onto the arm of an old recliner she’d dragged out of her parents’ Goodwill pile. One scuffed boot dangled, an enticing line that led to his muscled, denim-covered thigh.
And the yummy bulge above.
She folded her arms over her chest, mostly to keep four roving eyes off her breasts, but also to hide her hard nipples. “We’d better get on the road again, boys.”
“Yeah,” Quint drawled, eyeing all the places her arms didn’t cover, “Alabama awaits.”
“That medicine shouldn’t make you too drowsy. It’s a daytime formula.”
“Thanks.” Carter didn’t make a move to get up. In fact, they looked as if they were settling in for the long haul.
“Great ride the other day, by the way. Your four-point-nine was a great score. Record-breaking?” she asked.
“For us.” Quint eyed his partner. “Why don’t you go on ahead of me and find us some drinks to swallow a coupla those pills?”
“Why don’t you?” Carter said with slow defiance.
She stepped between them. “Look, I’ve got to get on the road. And return a phone call.”
Wash my hair. Finger my pussy.
“So why don’t you both step on out of my trailer?”
“Or what?” The mischief in Carter’s eyes made her want to play long and hard and get sweaty and breathless.
She wasn’t about to let either man know it.
“Or you’ll let me kiss you again, Bella?”
She sucked in a gasp at Carter’s question. Quint’s answering growl filled the cramped space, and she had to take action.
“Get out!” Snatching up a set of spurs, she held them like ninja throwing stars, aimed at each handsome cowboy’s face.