She’d come to Texas for a little R and R, but after meeting her sexy riding instructor, sophisticated Carly Kirkwood began experiencing sleepless nights filled with vivid dreams. For Zane Roan Eagle was like no man she’d ever met, and his chiseled Lakota features made Carly wild with anticipation every time he was in her presence. Belong long, their days were filled with longing looks and their nights with yearning. And although Carly always believed she belong in Los Angeles, the thought of leaving Zane created an ache deep in her heart. Could this die-hard city girl conceive a future as a West Texas Bride?
“What on earth did I get myself into?”
The words echoed in Carly Kirkwood’s mind as she hurried out of the smelly restroom at the Twisted River Fairgrounds and made her way across a dusty stretch of ground toward the grandstand. The air was filled with the smell of dust, hot dogs, cotton candy, popcorn, beer, and a thoroughly disgusting odor that was the result of a lot of sweaty men, cows, and horses all crammed together in a small area.
Everywhere she looked she saw men, women, children, and even babies dressed in jeans, colorful cowboy shirts and boots. Well, what had she expected? Armani suits and Gucchi loafers? She was in the middle of Texas, after all. Come up to the ranch for your vacation, her best friend, Brenda Clark had begged. You’ll love it. And you’ll love Texas.
Carly had been looking forward to having some time off from work. Not that her job as a web designer was particularly hard or stressful, but hey, she was entitled to a vacation and she intended to take it. Originally, she had planned to go to Yosemite or maybe Sequoia but she had jumped at the chance to spend some time with Brenda. Three weeks of wide-open spaces had sounded like a wonderful break from web layouts and html code.
The Circle C Ranch was nice, Carly had to admit that. The main part of the house had been built in the late 1800’s. The original structure had been added to and modernized through the years, but the Clarks had managed to keep the Old West feel to
the place. Brenda’s family raised and trained Quarter horses and also ran a few thousand head of beef cattle.
But, as nice as the ranch was, she didn’t love it. Her idea of a vacation was a four-star hotel with room service, a heated pool, and a mall within walking distance.
Even though the ranch house was comfortable and the surrounding countryside pretty, the weather was hot and sticky and there were horses, cows, and chickens, everywhere and, even worse, the droppings, large and small, that they left behind. A rooster that sounded as if it had a bad case of bronchitis woke her every morning long before she was ready to get up, and Brenda and her husband, Jerry, kept the same hours as the sun. Carly wasn’t used to going to bed so early. She had tried to adjust her hours to Brenda’s the first two days she had been at the ranch, but all she had done was lie awake looking up at the ceiling and listening to the clock downstairs chime the hours.
They had driven into Twisted River and gone to lunch and a movie last weekend.
Twisted River was a small town. It reminded Carly of a Western movie set, complete with cowboys in hats and chaps. She had seen a couple of Indian girls with long black braids walking down the street. There had even been a horse tied up in front of one of the stores.
After the movie, Brenda had taken her to the local ice cream parlor and they had spent an hour getting caught up on what had happened since Brenda moved to Twisted River three years ago. Brenda hadn’t wanted to leave Los Angeles; she had been as much a city girl as Carly, but Brenda’s father-in-law had died suddenly and her mother-in-law had needed help in running the ranch. Jerry had insisted on going back home. He had reminded Brenda that he had been in L.A. on business when they met and that he hadn’t intended to stay three weeks, let alone three years. Brenda’s leaving had been a blow to Carly. Brenda was her best friend; they had been practically inseparable since kindergarten. People had often assumed they were sisters, they spent so much time together. They had bought their first bras together, discovered boys together, consoled each other over broken hearts. Carly had been at Brenda’s side, offering comfort, when Brenda’s brother was killed in a car accident four years earlier; Brenda had been there to help Carly when she dumped her long-time boyfriend the year after that.
Carly let out a sigh of exasperation as she barely missed stepping in a large pile of manure that was still steaming. Honestly, she thought, these people needed a law about picking up after horses like the one they had in L.A. about picking up after your dog!
She had almost reached the grandstand when she barreled into what felt like a stone wall. Looking up, she found herself staring into a pair of deep black eyes set beneath a pair of equally black brows that were drawn together in a frown.
“Whoa, there, gal, you’d best watch where you’re going.” His voice was as deep and dark as his eyes and evoked a shiver from somewhere deep inside her.
“I was watching,” she muttered.
If she hadn’t been watching where she put her feet, she never would have run into him! She took a step back, intimated by his height and the breadth of his shoulders. His skin was the color of old copper; there were fine lines around his eyes, a faint white scar just above his left eyebrow. He wore a pair of black jeans, a pale blue shirt, and a black cowboy hat with a snakeskin band. A red kerchief was loosely knotted at his throat.
“Yeah?” he asked skeptically. “Just what were you watching?”
She felt a warm flush spread through her as his gaze met hers. If she had been in the market for a new man, this one would have been at the top of her list…she cut the thought off before it was fully formed. After Richard, the last thing she wanted right now was another man in her life.
“You lose something?” he asked.
“No. I was trying not to step in any more, ah…horse manure.”
His lips twitched in a way that made her think he was trying not to laugh. “Well, good luck.” He touched a finger to the brim of his hat, stepped around her and walked briskly away.
Carly glanced over her shoulder. His jeans fit like a second skin, outlining long, long legs and a taut behind. A pair of well-worn leather gloves were jammed into one of his back pockets. She didn’t mean to stare, but the view was just too good to miss. He moved with a lithe grace that was beautiful to see. Unable to drag her gaze away, she watched him until he was out of sight.
With a shake of her head, she rounded the corner of the grandstand and made her way up to where Brenda was sitting.
“Hey, girl, what took you so long?” Brenda asked, wiping a bit of mustard from the corner of her mouth. “Did you get lost?”
“No, I ran into a brick wall.”
Brenda frowned at her a minute, then shrugged. “Here, I bought you a corn dog and a coke.”
“You got back just in time. Bronc riding is the next event. Several of our hands are entered.”
Carly nodded, then took a bite of her corn dog. That morning, they had watched barrel racing and team roping. Barrel racing had looked like fun. Brenda had explained that the barrels had to be at least twenty yards apart and set in a triangle. The winner was the rider who got around the barrels in the fastest time without knocking one down.
Early in the afternoon, they had watched steer wrestling and calf roping. Steer wrestling was a contest of speed, timing and strength as a cowboy launched himself from the back of his horse, caught the steer and wrestled it to the ground.
Calf roping had been fun to watch. Once the cowboy caught the calf, he stepped off his horse, went hand over hand down the rope and tossed the calf on its side. The cowboy then tied three of the calf’s legs with a rope – a “piggin’ string”, Brenda had called it, by throwing a loop over one of the calf’s front legs and then pushing the hind legs up and tying all three together with “two wraps and a hooey”. Again, the cowboy with the fastest time won.
Taking another bite of her corn dog, Carly glanced around. Just about everyone wore blue jeans or denim skirts and cowboy shirts. And of course everyone wore a cowboy hat. She’d had no idea that they came in such a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors.
Cowboys also came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and colors. They hung on the fences or stood around in small groups. She laughed at the antics of a couple of rodeo clowns who were fooling around down in the arena while they waited for the next event to begin. Brenda had explained that the clowns were indispensable in bull riding. Barrel clowns hid out in a barrel until they were needed. It was their job to distract dangerous bulls from injuring a thrown rider. They also led bulls away from the cowboys and out of the arena. A really good clown could coax a better performance out of a bucking bull.
The last event they had watched had been bull riding. After watching the bull riders, Carly was certain the cowboys had to be crazy. No one in their right mind would climb on the back of a bull that might weight as much as two thousand pounds.
“It isn’t really a question of if a bull rider will get hurt,” Brenda told her. “It’s more a question of when and how bad. Nowadays, a lot of bull riders wear a Kevlar vest to protect their chests and internal organs. Of course, the most common injury is concussion, either from a cowboy hitting his head against the bull’s or against the horns, or from hitting his head when he’s thrown.”
Compared to bull riding, bronc riding didn’t seem quite so dangerous, but in Carly’s opinion, it was still foolhardy. Was it really worth a few hundred dollars or a ribbon to try and sit on some wild horse for eight seconds? She knew there were professional rodeo riders who made a good living on the rodeo circuit, but they made a lot more than a couple hundred dollars. Of course, she thought they were all a brick short of a load, too, but at least the money made the risk seem a little more worthwhile.
“Bronc riding’s next,” Brenda said. “I hope none of our men draw Windy. He’s a bad one. Likes to swap ends and turn back right out of the chute. Tosses a lot of riders that way.”
Carly nodded even though she didn’t have the slightest idea what Brenda was talking about. Swap ends? Turn back?
She shook her head as the announcer’s voice crackled to life over the PA system, introducing the first rider in the next event.
Several people in the stands cheered as a cowboy mounted on a stocky brown horse burst out of the gate. The horse bucked several times and the cowboy went flying. A moment later, the whistle blew.
The next rider was disqualified for grabbing hold of the saddle with his free hand.
“It’s called pulling leather,” Brenda remarked. “A definite no-no.”
In spite of herself, Carly was soon caught up in the excitement of it all. She clapped and cheered loudly for the riders. After all, any man who was crazy enough to compete deserved his share of applause.
As soon as the next rider mounted, the horse threw itself over backwards before he even left the chute. Carly gasped as she imagined the cowboy being crushed beneath the saddle, but somehow the rider managed to roll free and scramble under the fence with no more than a few scrapes and scratches. The audience applauded wildly as the announcer declared that the unlucky cowboy would be allowed a re-ride.
Carly sat back, one had pressed over her heart.
“Next up, our own Zane Roan Eagle,” the commentator announced, a touch of pride in his voice. “Roan Eagle has drawn Hazard Ranch’s devil horse, Blue Dynamite. No one’s managed to grab eight seconds on this salty stallion in the last three years.”
“Zane works for us,” Brenda said. “He’s one of the best horse trainers in the country. We were darn lucky to get him. He’s one of the best bronc riders, too. He used to ride the circuit, but now he just competes at our local events.”
“The circuit?” Carly asked, only half listening as she watched the cowboy settle himself on the back of the biggest, meanest looking horse she had ever seen absently.
“The rodeo circuit.”
“Oh, of course.”
“Those cowboys are always on the road, driving from Reno to Greeley to Cody, up to Canada for the Stampede. It’s a rough life.” Brenda leaned forward as Zane Roan Eagle approached the chute. “Blue Dynamite’s a hard ride but he’s a good honest horse. I’ll bet Zane wins on him today.”
Carly nodded. Blue Dynamite was aptly named, she thought. Sitting on top of that horse would be like sitting on a pile of explosives.
Brenda glanced at Carly. “Remember, he has to last eight seconds to qualify. The judges score both the horse and the rider from zero to twenty-five points. Watch now. When the bronc leaves the chute, Zane’s spurs have to be over Blue Dynamite’s shoulders before the horse’s front feet hit the ground. It’s called marking out. He has to spur the horse from the shoulders to the rigging and back. Riders aren’t allowed to touch the horse or themselves with their free hand during the course of the ride.”
Carly nodded again, her eyes narrowing as she watched the cowboy. Was it
possible? Leaning forward, she studied him intently as he tugged his hat down on his
head, then raised his free hand. It was him, she thought, the handsome brick wall with the tight buns she had bumped into earlier. She started to say as much to Brenda, then quickly changed her mind. Brenda wasn’t going to be happy until there was a new man in Carly’s life and Carly wasn’t ready for that. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate a good-looking hunk when she saw one.
Grabbing her camera, she snapped several quick pictures before the gate opened and the horse shot into the arena.
Head down, back humped, Blue Dynamite bucked for all he was worth. Zane Roan Eagle clung to the saddle like dry paint to a wall.
Time seemed to slow as Carly watched the ride. Zane Roan Eagle seemed to anticipate Blue Dynamite’s every move. There was a kind of fierce beauty in the way man and horse moved. It was almost like a ballet, she thought, a furiously fast and dangerous ballet. The rider’s hat flew off and his long black hair whipped around his face as the horse dropped his head and bucked from one end of the arena to the other.
She let out a sigh of relief when the shrill blast of the whistle signaled time was up. A pickup man rode up alongside Zane. Zane caught the man’s outstretched arm and vaulted from the back of Blue Dynamite onto the pick up man’s horse, then slid over the horse’s rump, landing on his feet. Crossing the arena to the sound of wild applause, he picked up his hat and waved it at the crowd. Carly applauded, too. And then Zane turned. Shading his face with his hat, he looked up into the stands. She felt a funny little tickle in her stomach. Even though it was impossible to tell at this distance, she would have sworn he was looking right at her. She was tempted to stand up and wave but she didn’t, of course. It was ridiculous to think he was looking for her. They’d hardly spoken ten words to each other.
Nevertheless, the thought made her smile the rest of the day.