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Last Year, Seattle, Washington
“Bodhi Benedict Ballantyne McIntyre?”
“Bodhi will do,” Bodhi answered, looking up in surprise.
He popped up off the metal bench where he’d been sitting while he wrapped the wrist of his hold hand with medical tape.
Some suit walked down the cement flooring of the back staging area toward him with a look of grim determination. Not something you saw every day at an arena an hour before showtime.
Suits were trouble. Bodhi had tied on his boots and buckled on his chaps, but he didn’t have his shirt on. Too bad the suit wasn’t a woman. Whoever this was expensive-shoeing his way toward him—sniper gaze narrowed on the target: him—his odds of winning this exchange would vastly improve if the suit was female.
Bodhi swaggered over, spinning the roll of medical tape on one finger.
“You are Bodhi Benedict Ballantyne McIntyre?” the guy asked stonily.
The serious scenario had caught more than one cowboy’s attention.
“We’ve already ascertained that,” Bodhi said cockily. “You are?”
Bodhi felt more than the suit’s eyes on him now. Normally he liked the attention. But this—this didn’t feel good.
“You’re a hard man to find, Mr. McIntyre.”
“It’s Ballantyne.” He didn’t lose his smile, but no one called him McIntyre. No one. He’d ditched that last name in middle school with the stroke of a pen, his mother’s approval and a judge’s gavel. “My schedule’s posted a year in advance.”
He was a top-tier saddleless bronc and bull rider on the pro rodeo tour, not a CIA operative. And Bodhi never attempted to fly under anyone’s radar.
“You weren’t in your hotel room last night.”
“Ah, that.” Bodhi gave an aw-shucks grin. “Found a better offer.”
A king-size bed in a tricked-out hillside condo with wall-to-wall windows that looked out over Seattle’s Lake Union and the city, a wraparound deck and a hot tub with a sponsor’s daughter who had a thing for his leather, rope, and his Stetson.
Who was he to deny her? But there’d been no sleeping involved. Never was.
He heard a couple of mumbles from the too-nosy cowboys watching them, and his eyes narrowed. He reveled in the limelight but didn’t want it from a suit. And if the suit didn’t get out of his face, his cousins would come looking and start asking questions. And then Bowen, the oldest of the three of them, would worry about Bodhi’s wrist and the injury that wasn’t healing well. His wrist felt shot but nothing that tape and a brace couldn’t hold together until the end of the season in a few weeks.
“Bottom-line me,” Bodhi said. It wasn’t a suggestion.
“Oh. Yes,” the suit stammered, caught looking at Bodhi’s bare chest with the defined muscles and a couple of long scars—one of them surgical and the other where a bull’s horn had caught him as he flew over said bull and his vest had ridden up—or his pants and chaps had ridden low.
“I…ah…have a letter for you.” Suit’s gaze skittered away as he reached into his pocket.
“You don’t trust the mail?” Bodhi’s gaze hardened.
“It’s a court-certified letter.”
Bodhi’s heart rate kicked up, but he kept his expression easy. He had a lot of experience with keeping his emotions and thoughts shut down tight. First from kids at school because of his dad, and later his mom’s career. Teachers. His mom. His aunts. Now women, fans, sponsors, and the tour staff.
Bodhi held out his hand for the letter.
“You got ID?”
“You’re backstage at the pro rodeo tour,” Bodhi said flatly. “Who else could I be?”
The suit gulped. Had he ever been that young or earnest? Bodhi didn’t even want the letter. Nothing from a suit boded well. And he recognized the name of the law firm on the envelope.
“Hey, Bodhi, one of your women catch up to you? Junior on the way?” Jesse McDaniels, one of the newer and more aggressive bull riders on the tour, called out.
“Way he moves, he’s probably got half a dozen juniors and their hot skank baby mamas on the payroll,” Liam Henderson, who hung with Jesse, answered. They fist-bumped.
Jackasses. Bodhi swung around and headed for the door that led to the arena, assuming the suit would follow. He did.
Out into the main hall where people were already filing into the arena. He headed to a souvenir stand.
“Ah, Mr. McIntyre—I mean Ballantyne…” The suit hurried after him.
Bodhi had always been told he walked fast. He did everything fast except fuck.
“There.” He pointed to a huge banner of him on a bull, hanging down from the rafters. Probably not the best for identity since he had his helmet on and a mouth guard.
“Excuse me, darling.” Bodhi turned to a young woman setting out merchandise at a souvenir stand. “Mind if I show the suit here the program? Thirty seconds tops.” He engaged his photo with fans smile.
“Sure.” She goggled at him, her gaze bouncing from his smile to his chest and then nervously back up again.
He found his page. Not hard since he signed it hundreds if not thousands of times each week.
Three young women, their hair poufed into lions’ manes, squealed. “It’s him. OMG, it’s him. It’s really him.”
They stopped and bounced and preened.
“Oh. My. God. You’re Bodhi Ballantyne. You are.”
“I am.” He smirked at the suit, who stared at the women like he’d never seen the species before.
Well, he probably hadn’t seen rodeo fangirls or buckle bunnies. They were their own breed, had their own category of phylum.
“Can we get a photo?”
“OMG, you’re hotter in person.”
“You’re practically naked. You should ride like that. You’re the best bull rider in the world!”
The words and squeals ran together, and Bodhi kept his smile in place. He could definitely be a dick. But not to fans. Ever.
He wasn’t the best bull rider in the world by a long shot. And if he rode shirtless he’d be the stupidest bull rider in the world and soon dead.
He posed for a few selfies with the women and then swung back around and waved to the security guard as he headed backstage, Suit—now dumbstruck—hurrying to catch up. His slick leather soles slid on the cement.
“Good enough ID?”
Bodhi held out his hand to take the letter. He folded it and jammed it in his back pocket.
Damn. Ashni Singh—his cousin’s girl—her long, thick hair swinging free behind her like a night sky entered the backstage from the arena.
“Bodhi, were you posing with fans shirtless?”
She stopped in her tracks and then looked him over. Then she walked toward him more slowly, considering.
“I do like to give a show,” he answered.
She stopped and tapped her plush lips with a finger. Ashni was a petite fireball of beauty, brains, and bold ideas who had burst into his life with the subtlety and ferocity of a comet over a decade ago. His bad luck that she’d chosen his cousin over him and she’d blinded Bodhi to any other woman.
“We are a family-oriented organization.” She walked a circle around Bodhi, sparing a curious glance at the suit, who stared at Ashni the way most men and women did when they first met her.
Ashni was drop-dead gorgeous. Almost unbelievably so. She was even nicer than she was beautiful. Smarter too. His cousin Beck was a lucky bastard.
“I’m aware,” he said easily.
“And I’m aware that there is nothing about you, shirt off or on, Bodhi, that is G-rated.”
He felt his first genuine smile of the day start somewhere in his heart.
“I always aim for the R-rating, ma’am. Roaringly awesome.”
“Really? Only awesome? Losing some of your swagger, are you?”
“Not so anyone would notice.”
She looked at the suit again.
“Bodhi, you in trouble?” she whispered.
“Keep it that way,” she said saucily and walked off.
Ash was a treasure. A prize, and Bodhi was beginning to think Beck was seriously brain damaged. He should have quit the tour three years ago, taken her to the ranch, started on the family Ashni so desperately wanted.
She’d be a great mom.
She was the total package. Everything he’d never have.
“Let me help you find the way out,” he said to the suit.
Later—much later after his score in both bronc and bull riding had ensured that he’d be in the final tomorrow—he sat in his rig alone, ice on his right shoulder and wrist and a finger of whiskey, a rare indulgence, on the table. He pulled out the letter. He looked at it. Turned it over and over. A few of the guys had asked about it. He’d blown them off with a joke.
He was a master at deflection and keeping secrets.
And the interest had turned, as he had skillfully led it, to other, more salacious rumors. Even his cousins hadn’t heard about the suit visit. He’d lied to Ashni. Told her the guy was the brother of a friend from college who’d just moved to Seattle for law school.
Wasn’t proud of lying to her, but desperate measures and all that.
Might as well rip off the Band-Aid.
Bodhi opened the letter. Not a paternity suit. He was very active but also very careful. Gloving up was as natural as brushing his teeth. It was a short legal explanation that the client had requested the letter to be hand-delivered to his only son within a week of his thirtieth birthday, and then a short, hand-written letter from his father.
The loser, his mom called him.
The man who “took the coward’s way out.”
His mother, a judge on the federal court in Denver, was not known for her mercy on or off the bench.
His father had walked out the door without saying goodbye the morning of the Arapahoe County science fair when Bodhi, at age ten, was one of the finalists and giving a presentation of his project. His dad hadn’t shown up at the science fair or the presentation or award ceremony later.
One of the best moments of Bodhi’s childhood—even his granddad had flown out from Montana—but no dad.
And the focus on Bodhi’s achievement had shifted to the whereabouts of his missing father. His mom had come under a lot of scrutiny due to her job. Reporters camped out at the house for weeks. Police interviewed everyone again and again. Bodhi had finally been sent to live with his older cousin, Bowen, and his aunt for a few months.
Two months later after no word, his mom had filed for divorce. Nearly a year later they’d learned his dad had killed himself in a remote area of Estes Park. It had taken that long for a hiker to find the body.
Bodhi thought too late about burning the letter. He’d already automatically read the few handwritten lines. It was an “I’m sorry.” His lip curled. He read the rest—an explanation and a warning.
Bodhi didn’t have to google the disease. He knew it was genetic and an autosomal dominant disorder—meaning a person only needed one copy of the defective gene. He also knew the symptoms usually manifested between the ages of thirty to fifty. His dad wrote that he’d been diagnosed at age thirty-six. His aunt had died from it. And he’d watched Bodhi’s grandfather decline, saw firsthand how it ravaged a life and family.
Bodhi turned on the propane two-burner stove in his rig and watched the letter his father had wanted him to read, two decades after his death, burn.
End of Excerpt