Sierra Montez rolled her eyes as she heard her sister gushing over Cody Galen. It wasn’t like the bull rider was even remotely interested in her. If Sierra had to guess it would be because Savanna had slept with him on last year’s tour and Cody struck her as the kind of guy who kept moving forward.
She tucked a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail back behind her ear, turning to search for the rookie rider who was supposed to be at the Fan Experience booth next.
She knew his history—everyone did. Supposed to make his debut seven years ago and slotted to ride right behind his older brother: a solid rider who’d had a lot of wins but never clinched the championship. And Marty Powell never would. The bull he’d drawn that day…well, everyone said it had been ornery, more so than Marty who’d like to fight. Marty had been thrown and his hand caught in the rope so he’d taken a beating from the bull as the animal tried to free himself of Marty.
Sierra had been sixteen and not at the rodeo that night but her father had been watching it on the TV. She’d always remembered how they’d cut away to Gage, standing there waiting for his go, and the ashy color of his features as he’d climbed out of the chute and walked away.
He’d just turned and walked out of the rodeo and never looked back. Rumor had it he’d backpacked across Europe or had gone to Alaska and been driving a truck on the ice road. But no one had heard a word from him.
Until this year.
He’d shown up last fall at a local rodeo in Marietta, Montana, and then worked the smaller circuits until he had enough points to enter the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour. He’d been doing okay too. Getting in good solid rides. Yeah, she’d been following him. Unlike Savanna who went on the road with the tour, Sierra had spent most of the year in the corporate offices in Dallas. She was just joining the tour. And now Gage was back and making his debut.
She never let herself look at any of the bull riders the way that Savanna did. She was embarrassed by her older sister and the way she couldn’t stop flirting with every one of them when they walked into the big tent that their family sponsored. But there had been something about Gage, which was why she’d only just now come to the fan event and visited the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour.
She’d been in her office in Dallas working her butt off, trying to prove to the board she’d deserved her job for her skills and not because she was a Montez. Plus she really couldn’t resist Sacramento. It was a gorgeous city and her mom lived in San Francisco so she was combining her work trip with her daughterly duty.
Whatever it was she’d thought she’d seen in his eyes that night when his brother had been fatally injured…it had never let her stop thinking about him. It was warm on this August weekend but the temperature rose a bit when she saw him standing there.
He’d walked in, pulled off his sunglasses and scanned the air-conditioned tent. She walked over to him.
“Sierra Montez,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m in charge of the rookies this year.”
Uh, great. She was acting like this was her first big job instead of something she’d been coordinating since she graduated nearly four years ago. This was crazy. Act professional. He’s just like any other guy.
And she never fantasized about any of the other bull riders. Only Gage.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he said, doffing his hat and smiling at her. Unlike some of the other bull riders his age or older, he didn’t look beat up and broken.
“Same,” she said. “We have the jeans we’d like you to wear over there in the dressing room. The fans love it if you leave your shirt off and…would you consider wearing a temporary tattoo with either your number or our logo on it?”
Everyone was different. Most of the rookies were young kids who’d been waiting for this for their entire lives. They loved having the buckle bunnies lining up to get a picture with them—all with the knowledge that any of the rookies could be the next big thing on the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour.
“Sure. Whatever it is I’m supposed to do,” he said.
He ducked behind the curtain and she stood outside watching his boots underneath the gap.
“I see you’ve picked yourself a rookie,” Savanna said, coming up next to her.
“I haven’t picked myself anything. I’m just doing my job. I’m the rookie liaison—you know that,” Sierra said deliberately turning her back on the dressing area where Gage was. Her sister gave her a knowing smirk and Sierra didn’t know how to respond.
She was still processing the fact that he’d looked even better in person than he had on TV and on the publicity photo that had been included in her packet. He’d smelled good too. Not overwhelmingly of cologne as some of the men who’d been in the tent did.
“He’s not bad. I like ’em young.”
“Of course you do,” Sierra said.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. It’s just—”
“You’re saving yourself for Mr. Right?” Savanna asked.
The tone made her feel silly. What could she say? Maybe it was watching Savanna go through men like they were disposable or her own mama who was on her fifth husband that had made her shy. Sierra didn’t know. She only knew that most of the men she met seemed too shallow and vapid. She didn’t want to share any part of herself with someone who had one eye on the door.
“I’m not interested in some guy who’s just marking time with me before he gets his next thrill on the back of a bull,” she said. She walked away from her sister and to the area she’d set up earlier. Really there was nothing else for her to do, but if she had to listen to Savanna for another second she’d lose it.
The banner over the booth held the Montez Denim logo along with the backsides of all of this year’s rookies on it. Underneath in bold red text read: The feel of the West.
She’d come up with it and they’d had a pretty good response, which had impressed her dad and the rest of the board. Working for a family-owned company had its drawbacks—like sometimes her father and uncles still saw her as a teenager, or worse a child, and didn’t always want to give her the responsibility she could handle. She’d had to threaten to leave and take a job back East in order to get them to relent and give her this campaign.
She peeked around the curtain to see that there were already several fans in the queue. Not all of them were women though the majority were. She heard someone behind her and turned to see Gage standing there.
He had a faded chambray shirt on but had left the buttons open revealing his muscled chest and abs. He had their classic vaquero-cut jeans on. They were slim-fitting through the thighs but cut more generously at the bottom to fit easily over his boots, which were clearly a fancy pair. Hand-tooled dark leather with an intricate stitching design. She recognized the work as the Texas brand Kelly Boots from Whiskey River.
“I’m ready,” he said. “Gotta get back to my next thrill.”
She blushed. Like legit turned pink before just shaking her head. “Sorry you heard that. My sister—”
“No way. Savanna is your sister?”
“Ha, you know she is,” Sierra said.
He did know that. He had seen her at the first rookie/brand meeting back at the start of the AEBR Tour. She had worn a skirt and buttoned-up shirt. She reminded him of some of the oil company execs who’d used to visit once a year when he’d been working on the rigs. But younger. And prettier. And hotter.
“I do know. Just joshing with you. Why haven’t we seen you on the tour before this?” he asked.
“Because some people are stubborn.”
“The board. My father,” she said. “But I’m here now so that’s all that matters.”
“Out-stubborned them, did ya?”
She smiled then and it lit up her entire face. “Yay.”
“Good for you. That’s me on every ride. Just determined to out-ornery every bull I get on.”
She laughed. “You’re doing pretty good this season.”
“I’m doing all right,” he admitted casually but there was nothing low-key about his ambition this year. He was back to win the Powell boys one more championship and to prove to himself he was just as good as his brother. It was hard living in Marty’s shadow. His older brother had been the perfect son, good grades, first to do chores and he had been magic on the back of a bull. Marty could ride the spurs off anyone else as his mom liked to say and Gage had grown up half hero-worshiping his older brother and half resenting him.
Gage liked to think that if Marty hadn’t died after his last ride maybe Gage would have matured enough to have a good relationship with him. He was close to Marty’s best friend Nicholas Blue, which was what made him feel like it might have worked. But given their father, it was unlikely. He knew that.
“Ah, so you’re in it for the gold buckle,” she said.
“Anyone who tells you they ain’t is lying. The truth is we all are riding for something. I’m riding to prove I’m as a good as—” What the hell? He hadn’t planned to admit that. “Never mind. Where do you need me?”
She nibbled on her bottom lip for a moment and he thought she wasn’t going to let it go, but then she did. “Over here.”
He followed her lead and let her position him in front of a large canvas sign that had a picture of Hammerfall on it with his head down.
“You’ll need to lose the shirt. And what about the tattoo?” she asked. “I can get one of the assistants to put one on you. We’re giving them away in the tent.”
“Nah, I’m good,” he said.
“Yes, you are,” she said.
He arched an eyebrow at her. Now she sounded like her sister.
“Could you pretend you didn’t hear that?”
“I could. But you know there’s nothing wrong with my hearing,” he said.
He took a half step closer to her and she held her hand up. She was funny and easy to rattle and cute and sweet so he stopped. He was going back to Scotland when this year was over. He was going to win the championship and then walk away from it all. Go out on top the way Marty should have instead of riding for one more shot at glory and dying.
His focus had to be the ride.
Not the girl with the brown ponytail and green eyes that made him think of a freshly mowed field in spring. The kind that had always tempted him to go and lie down in it. She licked her lips. They were full and a soft pink color that made him believe that kissing her would be…delicious. His own lips went dry at the thought of kissing her.
He stepped back and turned away. He needed to get this over with and get out of here. Back to his trailer so he could chill out and remember what he was doing this for. Focus had been the one thing he’d been able to take for granted as an adult. But suddenly she was messing with his.
No matter how luscious those lips looked, he knew better than to feed his own fantasies about her. He couldn’t afford a distraction. Distracted men got bucked off their bull. Distracted men died.
He had plans to live a good long life.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Hey, sorry for being all lecherous just a second ago. I mean is there anything worse than sexual harassment in the workplace?”
“What you were doing wasn’t sexual harassment. It’s called attraction,” he said. “And if I were any other guy I’d probably have taken you up on the offer.”
“I wasn’t offering,” she said stiffly, turning to the curtain to open it.
“Whatever you say, darlin’.”
Sierra stood off to one side watching the women in the line flirting with Gage and him lapping it up like a starving man at a buffet. No wonder he thought he was God’s gift to womankind. She tried to focus on being ticked off at him.
But to be honest focusing on the other women was all that was keeping her from drooling over him. He was gorgeous. She knew that. His muscles rock hard from years spent doing whatever it was he did. She knew bull riders had to be in shape but he’d been gone for seven years. Surely, he shouldn’t still be this ripped—but he was.
He was arrogant.
Yeah, but what bull rider wasn’t.
They came out of the womb swaggering and probably from the time he was in the nursery at the hospital women had been falling for his charm.
He’d called her darlin’. She shook her head.
“Dang, girl, you can deny it all you want but that man has your attention,” Savanna said, coming up to her and draping her arm over Sierra’s shoulder.
“Stop it. I’m not doing that. He’s part of our brand and the fans seem to really like him,” Sierra said, using her best professional tone. “That’s as far as my interest goes.”
“Why do you do that?” Savanna asked.
“Deny yourself what you want? Do you think that it makes you better than me?”
She turned to look at her sister and felt petty about all the times she’d had been judgey about her. The truth was Savanna was very happy with her life and the choices she made.
“No. It doesn’t,” she admitted. “I just worked so hard to get the board to give me this AEBR campaign and I don’t want to screw it up. Plus I’ve always been better at work than at play.”
“Honey, Daddy isn’t going to demote you because you flirt with a bull rider. If he does, I’ll give him hell.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about. I want to be taken seriously by the board. Not just have them give me projects because I’m Dad’s daughter. I worked hard to get my degree and my ideas are high concept. I don’t want to ruin that because I couldn’t keep my hands off of one of the rookies.”
“I never can keep mine off,” Savanna said. “But I can see that it’s important to you. I’d offer to take him off your hands but he’s not interested in me.”
“He’s not?” she asked. She didn’t care… Okay, of course she cared. Every guy she knew was interested in Savanna. She drew men to her like fireflies at dusk. She just had something that most men couldn’t resist.
“He told me so point-blank a few events back.”
“Interesting. Maybe he has a no getting involved with sponsors policy,” Sierra said.
“I doubt that man has a policy about women. If he wants one I’d say he’d go after her. I think there is more to him being here this year than we can guess. More to it than being a rookie.”
“I think so too. You know about his brother,” Sierra said.
“Yeah. I remember him. You were too young to be on the tour, but Marty…he was special.”
“Did you and he hook up?”
“No. I did with his friend Nicholas, but that’s just the way Nick is. Marty was different. He was gifted on the back of a bull. Seemed like he was made to ride them.”
“Yeah until he fell off,” Gage said coming over to them.
“Sorry, Gage. I didn’t realize you were standing there,” Savanna said.
“My time is up. Came over to have a word with Sierra.”
“Well I’ve got things to do,” Savanna said, walking away.
Sierra turned to look at him. He’d put his shirt back on and was slowly doing up the buttons. “Sorry you had to hear that,” Sierra said.
“What? Someone talking about my brother?” he asked.
“Yeah. I guess. I mean is it weird?”
“Yes and no. The hard part is that he’s gone and because I haven’t been around bull riders for the last few years it’s making the accident fresh in everyone’s mind,” he said.
“Even in yours?” she asked then realized that might be too personal for two casual acquaintances.
“Sometimes,” he said. “My mom is going to be coming to see me ride in Dallas. Could I get some tickets for her through you?”
“Yes. We have the VIP viewing stand as well. Just give me her details and I’ll get it all set up.”
“Thanks,” he said turning and walking away.
She watched him the entire time until he was gone. She’d like to say that her crush on the TV version of Gage hadn’t stood up to the real man but that would be a lie. In person, he was more dynamic. His eyes were pale gray and she realized how expressive they were by what he hadn’t shown. And though she knew it had to be a tough memory losing his brother, he’d revealed none of that to her while she’d been talking to him.
But it was only when he’d mentioned his mom that she saw any flash of emotion…that and when he’d been teasing her.
Which she had to admit she liked a little too much.
If she’d been Savanna she would have run right after him and asked him out. But she wasn’t Savanna. She never would be. Though she thought it was being smart that kept her solidly standing in her place, she knew it was fear. Fear that Gage might be more than just a crush to her while she’d be nothing more than a buckle bunny and a quick hookup to him.
End of Excerpt