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“So much for your season of no distractions.”
Shane Marvell frowned at Tyson Bowe as they walked through the maze of trucks and horse trailers parked in the contestants’ area of the Miles City, Montana, rodeo grounds on their way to the bucking chutes. Tyson gave a snort and jerked his head toward Davy Mateus’s tricked-out Ford truck, where the bull rider stood talking to the woman who had caught Shane’s eye more than once as he’d taped up at the trailer.
“Long black hair. Flat hat. You know…the girl you’ve been staring at for the past five minutes.”
“She looks familiar,” Shane said. Once upon a time, before he and Darcy had gotten serious, he’d made a career out of being distracted by beautiful women, but lately his only focus had been rodeo. “Any idea who she is?” He’d seen her behind the chutes during the previous rodeo in Kalispell and again in Billings, wearing that distinctive Spanish-style flat-crown hat, talking to a bull rider, but he had a feeling he knew her from somewhere else. “Some kind of reporter or something?”
“Not a clue. Sharla would smack me backward for inquiring.”
That she would. Sharla ran the barrels and she also ran Tyson’s life. He seemed to like it. Maybe not having to make decisions made him feel secure.
“Anyway, I’m not distracted.” Although he had to admit that he could be—which meant he needed to remember what was important here.
This was his last season. His last chance to make the bucks he needed to finance his future. The future that did not include being a grunt on the family ranch forever. Oh, he’d still work there, but he’d also have an income of his own. A house of his own. Ever since he and Darcy had had the monumental discussion after he’d proposed, and she’d said no, living in his older brother’s house made him feel like one of those guys who was still living in their parents’ basement well into their thirties. His situation wasn’t quite the same, but it was close enough to make him uncomfortable. So he was doing something about it.
“Go for it.”
Shane shifted his attention to Tyson and laughed. “Go for it?”
“Yes. Do what you used to do. Be yourself, man. You’re kind of scaring me lately.”
“I just want to push through these last rodeos and the finals without breaking down. I can’t stay on top and chase women like I used to.” And heaven knew he was close to breaking down. The body that had served him so well, that had put up with eight seconds of pounding and jerking several times a week for months on end, was starting to wear. All he wanted was for it to last through the season. He was top in the standings, and if he finished on top, there was bonus money involved. Money he needed to jump-start his future.
The future he hadn’t given a lot of thought to until Darcy told him she wasn’t willing to share his life because he didn’t really have a future.
Tyson gave him a grunt that Shane took as an indication that his friend didn’t fully believe him—that he thought Shane’s celibate state and low-key demeanor had more to do with Darcy than his body breaking down. Maybe it did. Her blindsiding him had served as a wake-up call. He’d dropped out of college after one year, then frittered away half of his twenties chasing buckles and big money. He’d won a decent amount of money, and spent it again on the road, chasing more buckles. Tyson, on the other hand, had gone to college. Gotten a degree in business and was settling into managing his family farm.
Depressing how far behind he was, but wallowing in should-haves would get him squat. The bonus money would help him along, but the trouble was that focusing solely on rodeo was beginning to wear, just as his body was wearing. Crazy as it was, surrounded by friends and doing something he loved, he was starting to feel isolated. Alone.
Maybe he did need a distraction. To act like his old self.
No…his old self had gotten him into the situation he was in—the situation he was doing his best to get out of. Currently, he was crushing his season, although he was paying a price. The stress fracture in his tibia was making it hard to walk normally, and his shoulder had seen better days. Way better days. He automatically massaged it, feeling it click in the socket as he moved his hand over the joint.
“Want me to find out who she is?” Tyson asked.
“If I want to know who she is, I’ll find out myself.” Shane nodded at the chute boss as he passed through the gate leading to the contestants’ area.
“Chute five, Shane. Dream Machine. Tyson, chute three. Big Timber.”
“Thanks.” Shane moved past the chute boss to set his Barstow rigging on the wooden catwalk behind the chute, where he stood to prep the horse.
Dream Machine shifted in the chute, cocking one hind foot into a relaxed position and twitching an ear in a lazy manner as he approached. Shane ran a hand over the crest of her neck to let her know he was there and she bobbed her head. The little roan mare was a seasoned professional, and a favorite with the riders. Docile and borderline-friendly in the chute, she was known for exploding into the arena once the gate opened and bucking ferociously until the buzzer sounded eight seconds later. She always gave 100 percent, always earned a top score for her part of the ride, which meant that the end score depended on Shane and his ability to stay centered, both on the horse and in his head.
He rolled his stiff shoulder again, felt the ominous crunch of bone on bone, then set the Barstow rigging on the horse’s withers. Tyson was already on the other side of the gate, ready to pull the latigo once Shane used the wire hook to draw the cinch under the horse to his side. They worked silently, as did the cowboys in the chutes on either side. Everyone was getting into their heads in their own way. And yet, as Shane pulled the laces on his glove, he wondered once again about the dark-haired woman with the thing for bull riders.
And then he remembered where he’d seen her. College rodeo finals. Bozeman. Many years ago. Mitch Etch, the champion saddle bronc rider, was her brother. She’d helped him pull the rigging on the bronc during the competition, and it’d been damned hard not to admire the masterful way she’d done it.
Now he kind of wished he’d gotten her name.
“Ms. Eet…zuh…berry?” The bull rider glanced up from Ella’s business card to give her a hopeful look and she had to stifle a smile. Eat the berry? That was a new twist on her name. When her great-grandfather had insisted on keeping the traditional spelling of his Basque surname after emigrating from the old country, he’d sentenced his family to a life of correcting both spelling and pronunciation. Etxeberri didn’t exactly trip off the tongue unless you happened to live in the parts of Nevada and Idaho where the Basque had settled.
“Etch-eh-berry. The ‘x’ is pronounced as ‘chuh.’”
The bull rider once again studied the card. “Right.”
“Just call me Ella Etch. It’s easier.” She’d been an Etch all her life, as had her younger brothers, father and stepmom. Her stepsister had kept her late father’s surname, and many was the time that Ella had envied Finley her simple last name. Everyone could pronounce—and spell—James.
The big cowboy in front of her, her second interview of the day, gave her a crooked smile and she noticed he had a chipped front tooth. Her eldest brother, Joe, had no front teeth—although he now had a fine set of implants.
“How about I just call you Ella? I only know one. That’s you.” He gave her a look that was apparently supposed to let her know that was special.
“Ella it is.”
The music from the grand entry faded and the national anthem began to play. The bull rider pulled off his hat and Ella put her hand over her heart as they turned together to face the arena. Restless broncs shifted in their chutes while the anthem played, adding muffled metallic clangs to the singer’s beautiful a cappella rendition of the song.
After the anthem ended and the crowd erupted into cheers, the bull rider put his hat back in place and turned his attention to Ella. “Now what is it you want to talk about exactly?”
“The risks you take as part of your chosen profession.”
He gave her a slow smile, his eyes lighting up. She’d seen that same look on her brothers’ faces too many times to count. And Finley…she wasn’t going there. Some people were simply addicted to risk. Ella wanted to know why.
“What about it?”
She smiled at him. “Anything you want to tell me. But maybe we could start with your name.”
“T.J. Bodin.” He settled his hands on his trophy buckle, rocking on his heels. “You going to take notes?”
He looked as if he really wanted her to take notes, unlike a lot of cowboys, who preferred to give almost all monosyllabic replies to her questions.
Ella pushed a few dark strands off her face and tucked them behind her ear. “A few, just to keep you guys straight. At this point of my research, I’m gathering preliminary information to help me focus my research. Later, if people are willing, I’ll ask for a more in-depth interview, probably by phone or Skype.” If she got her research grant and proceeded on with her studies. If she didn’t get the grant…she had no idea what she was going to do. Find a job in a competitive field, probably. Or end up wearing a paper hat. Whatever it took to get by until she did get funding and earned her next degree.
“And this is for…”
“My master’s thesis.” In sports psychology, but she didn’t generally mention that immediately, as it tended to make people more self-conscious about the answers they gave. And a self-conscious cowboy was usually a silent cowboy. Even her brothers clammed up when they thought she was ‘probing their psyches’ as Joe liked to call it. Like she wanted to know what went on in their heads.
All right, she did want to know—or rather, she wanted to know why she didn’t have the same fearless nature as the rest of the family. Why she was the one who kept counting the cost and hesitating to the point that she was beginning to feel as if she was watching life instead of living it.
She couldn’t pinpoint when she’d started to feel restless, when she began to wonder if she’d allowed the pendulum to swing too far toward the safe side of life—oddly, she suspected it had been while her brother had been recovering from the injury that should have killed him—but she could, however, pinpoint the exact moment she realized she was going to do something about her overly cautious nature. During the interview for the research assistantship she hadn’t gotten, the one she’d hoped would help finance graduate school, so she didn’t have to take out more loans, the professor had asked about her brothers, both alums of the university. When she’d finished updating him, he’d said, “You have a fascinating family.” She’d smiled and nodded and felt hopeful at his making such a personal observation…until his expression had shifted and he added, “You’re different from your brothers.”
It hadn’t been a compliment.
And the woman he’d hired as research assistant for his study into the psychology of extreme athletics? She turned out to be a base jumper who didn’t have anything close to the academic credentials Ella had. But she had street cred, which Ella did not.
That had stung, but it had also lit a fire under her, and for the first time since entering her kindergarten classroom, Ella wasn’t heading off to school at the end of August. Nope. She was going to continue following the rodeo circuit as she tried to find out more about herself as well as the guys she was interviewing. Did these guys feel the same hesitation before taking big risks that she did, but somehow manage to overcome it? If so, how?
It wasn’t like she was a chicken when push came to shove. She could rope and ride better than most. She’d once faced down a cougar who’d been stalking the lambs before chasing it off with a shovel. She had chops—she just needed to use them.
She turned her attention back to the bull rider. “I know you need to prepare, but if you could spare a few minutes for a handful of questions, I’d appreciate it.”
The muscles under the guy’s T-shirt rippled as he shrugged. He was big for a bull rider. “Sure. I have time.”
She pulled her small notebook out of her back pocket and retrieved the pencil from behind her ear. Her dad always kept his pencils there while he worked, and so did she. “Let’s start with your age and hometown.”
T.J. became serious. “I’m twenty-two and was born in Wisdom. My folks run a tire store there.”
“So you’re not from a ranching background.”
His expression became vaguely defensive. “Like more than half these guys on the circuit.”
“Trust me. I understand that there aren’t that many people who can make a living ranching. Someone has to have a real job to make ends meet.”
“Yeah, I—” He lifted his chin as the gate of the bucking chute swung open, then let out a low whistle. “Nice horse.”
The little roan mare was doing her job and then some, but the guy on top, leaning back so far that his head was touching the mare’s tail, spurring in a perfect rhythm, was doing just as well in Ella’s opinion. The buzzer sounded, and the little horse continued to buck. The cowboy took a double grip and worked his glove free while the pickup man came into position, then slick as can be the cowboy swung off the horse, released his grip on the pickup man and landed on his feet. The crowd went nuts.
“You know him?” Ella asked.
“Shane Marvell?” T.J. laughed. “Last year he rode with a cast on his free arm due to a broken wrist. Nearly knocked himself out with it a time or two.” The bull rider gave her a crooked smile that had probably melted the heart of more than one buckle bunny. “But back to me…”
And back to T.J. it was, as he continued to expound on his favorite subject—himself. Ella nodded and jotted down notes, thinking she wouldn’t have to contact him for a deeper interview because he was giving her all he had with this one. But he was a nice guy and had an interesting take on life. And danger.
She was just closing her notebook when T.J. lifted his chin, just as he had when they’d stopped to watch the bronc rides. But this time he was looking at something behind her, so Ella automatically glanced over her shoulder and found herself looking into an intense pair of blue eyes. Blue that bordered on sapphire. Or maybe the tan on the guy’s face simply made his eyes look bluer than normal.
“Shane,” T.J. said from behind her. “I was just telling Ella about you.”
Ella felt a flush rising in her cheeks for no reason she could think of. The man had just had a hellacious ride, scoring in the upper eighties, but it wasn’t that. Something about him made her feel like smoothing her hair to make sure that the annoying wisps that curled around her face hadn’t escaped her braid. Instead she gripped her pencil a little tighter.
“What exactly were you telling Ella?” Shane asked.
“About how you almost knocked yourself out with your cast last year.”
Shane smiled, his cheeks creasing pleasantly, which made him look crazy sexy, and Ella had a feeling he knew it. “More than once.” He kept his eyes on her as he spoke, as if there was some mystery about her that he wanted to solve, which only made her face feel warmer. What the hell?
“Do a lot of guys ride with casts?” she asked, already knowing the answer. Her brother had done just that at the end of his last season before sanity overtook him and he retired to go back to college, and when she’d told him he was stupid for risking the use of his wrist, he’d named at least five guys who’d done the same and had ended up with a working joint. Or a mostly working joint.
“I know a few.” His gaze traveled over her face. “By the way, I’m Shane Marvell.”
“You should see how it’s spelled,” T.J. said helpfully.
The corner of Shane’s mouth twitched as he held out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Ella. I remember you from college finals years ago. You helped your bother with his rigging.”
She was stunned that he would remember such a thing. “Mitch was particular.” And a touch superstitious. If Ella pulled the rigging he knew it was right, but she’d also been something of a good luck charm to him. Too bad she hadn’t been there during the rodeo where he’d almost died. She’d been working on a paper that was getting the best of her when she got the news of the accident.
“I remember your hat. It’s distinctive.”
Her hat? Well, so much for being flattered.
She reached up to touch the black felt hat with the cream-colored ribbon on the edge of the brim and around the base of the crown. The Spanish-style hats favored by vaqueros were common in Nevada, but not so common in Montana, where cowboys favored classic cattlemen styles.
“We Nevadans love our flat hats.”
“I’m curious as to what a Nevadan is doing on the east side of Montana?”
He was curious. She could see it in the way he was studying her, which made her want to shift self-consciously.
“Research,” T.J. said easily. “Ella is working on her master’s and interviewing bull riders about risk.”
“You don’t say.” Shane shifted the rigging he carried to his other hand. His jeans were still dusty from the arena, as were the batwing chaps he was carrying over one shoulder. “Bull riders.”
T.J. once again hooked his thumbs behind his trophy buckle, which happened to read Champion Bull Rider Miles City 2017. “Yeah. Because she wants to interview people who actually take risks.”
Shane Marvell’s expression went hard, and Ella, who wasn’t certain if he was serious or not, quickly interjected, “I’m interviewing bull riders because they take the most obvious risks, both on top of the animal and after they hit the dirt.” She refrained from saying anything about bronc riders also taking great risks, because it sounded condescending. The truth was, she shied away from bareback riders because of what had happened to Mitch.
“Fair enough.” Shane touched the brim of his dusty hat. “Nice to meet you, Ella.”
She watched him walk away, toward the parking area, feeling the strangest sense of disappointment. Why?
“I’ve got to get to my stretching,” T.J. said. “Good talking to you, and if you need more information, give a shout.”
“And friend me on Facebook,” he called after her.
Oh, yeah. For sure.
As she headed back to her truck, parked next to the trailer belonging to the barrel-racing sisters she was traveling with, she once again caught sight of Shane Marvell talking to another guy carrying a bareback rigging.
Damn but he was sexy. And he remembered her from a rodeo at least seven years ago. Surely it was more than the hat. She reached up to touch the beribboned felt brim and pull it down a little more snugly over her eyes.
She really, really wanted it to be more than the hat.
“Are you coming?” Avery Glenn held a sparkly earring shaped like a cowboy boot up to one side of her face and a miniature silver lariat earring to the other.
“The boot,” Ella said automatically, stepping back to give Avery a little more room to pull on her jeans. The teardrop camper was small, small, small, but whenever she and the Glenn sisters attended the same rodeos, they invited her to roll out her sleeping bag on the floor between the cushioned benches they slept on.
“And I should probably write up my notes.”
Avery’s younger sister, Jenna, stuck her head out of the postage-stamp size bathroom. “You’re coming. I want to hear about your bull rider interviews.”
“You aren’t going to hear anything about my bull rider interviews,” Ella said with mock sternness. “Confidentiality and all that.”
Jenna blew a raspberry and shut the door again. She was twenty-one and one of the best barrel racers on the circuit. She was also awkward and shy around anyone who wasn’t a friend or family, but that didn’t keep her from dreaming about having a bull rider sweep her off her feet someday. Ella didn’t have the heart to tell her that maybe she’d be better off finding someone a bit more stable in terms of both profession and personal health. Mainly because she understood the attraction. Why else would she keep replaying the scene with Shane Marvell in her head and tamping down the feeling that maybe she should have said something before he walked away?
And better yet, why?
She tried to remember another time she’d had such a crazy physical response to a guy she’d met for the first time and couldn’t, but the keyword there was physical. There was something about him, apparently, that struck a chord with her hormones. Maybe some deep genetic memory that was telling her more primal self that this was a good guy to make children with. That he had strong genes that would mesh well with her own.
“What?” Avery asked in an amused voice as she sat on the sofa/bed before pulling on a pink boot.
Ella realized then that she was smiling. She gave her head a dismissive shake. “Just thinking about genetics.”
“And smiling.” Avery reached for her other boot. “You get way too much joy from research.”
“Bull rider research,” Jenna called from the john. “Of course, she gets joy from it.” She opened the bathroom door and Ella moved to the right so that she had room to close the door again.
“You look good,” Ella said. She wore a white cold-shoulder T-shirt, dark jeans and had pulled her long blonde hair into a low ponytail. She wasn’t a bling gal like her sister, but the simple outfit suited her.
“Put on some earrings,” Avery suggested.
“I feel like I have three eyes as it is,” Jenna said before lifting her chin, “but I’m going to have a social life if it kills me.”
“Bluff,” Ella said. “Pretend you’re confident and people will believe it.”
“Until I start stuttering and blushing and all that crap.”
“Smile mysteriously,” Avery suggested. “Most guys want to do all the talking anyway.”
An image of T.J. shot into Ella’s head. After starting out cautiously, he’d warmed up to his subject—himself. But he wasn’t a bad guy. Just young. And full of himself.
“What’s it to be?” Avery asked as she got to her feet. “Notes or social life?”
Ella hesitated for a little less than a nanosecond. “Social life.” She wanted to set a good example for Jenna. And, truth be told, she wanted to lay eyes on Shane Marvell again. Not because she wanted to ogle him, but because she wanted to evaluate her reaction to him. Her response had given her pause. Had she been justified in her response, or had it simply been the heat of the afternoon that left her all hot and bothered?
Shane was getting tired of being a third wheel with Tyson and Sharla, especially since Sharla didn’t particularly care for him, or for anyone who was close to Tyson, so instead of tagging along with his best friend and taking snide hits all night, he headed to the local roadhouse with two other bronc riders. He rarely drank before a ride. He liked alcohol well enough, but hangovers screwed with his timing and he wasn’t about to let his love of single malt interfere with his future ability to buy single malt during the off-season.
They were just getting out of the truck after parking in the gravel lot behind the bar when someone hailed them. T.J. For all of his trash talk, the kid was okay. He just got a kick out of pushing buttons and swaggering. Like he’d tried to push a button after introducing Shane to Ella Etch, who was even more intriguing up close than she’d been at a distance. Intriguing and beautiful. She had a quiet dignity—the kind that came from knowing you’re good at something—but she hadn’t been at ease when they’d talked. It was almost as if being close to him put her off her game.
Well, now he knew why he kept seeing her at rodeos. There was a core group of competitors who traveled the Montana circuit, but there were also a lot of local guys who didn’t have the time, money or inclination to travel to a new rodeo every week, so they only competed in a few close to home. That would give her new subjects for research. It made sense.
But bull riders? Yeah. They were a special breed, but it didn’t take any more guts to get on a bull than a bareback bronc. There was a reason that there were fewer competitors in bareback than in any other event. It was brutal in a way the other events weren’t and if a guy didn’t have proper conditioning, and a proper mindset, he may as well kiss his chances goodbye.
Today’s ride had been phenomenal, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it was because he’d been distracted by Ella Etxeberri—to the point that he hadn’t overthought his performance, because he’d been thinking about her. He’d relaxed and the resulting score had put him firmly in the top spot. And then fate had put her directly in his path.
He ordered a Coke and stepped to the side of the room and surveyed the crowd while his bronc rider friends started circulating. He’d join them soon enough, but right now he wanted to see if a certain researcher had decided to join the rodeo after-party, or if she’d already hit the road.
It didn’t take long for him to spot her, on the opposite side of the room, sitting with Avery Glenn. Shane leaned his shoulder against the wall, holding his Coke close to his chest to keep from wearing it as people pushed past him. Damn but she was something, with that long black hair tumbling down her back, still wavy from the loose braid she’d had it in earlier. Avery was all spangles, like usual, and her younger sister, whom he didn’t know, was the exact opposite. Ella was somewhere in between, but she still caught his eye more than Avery. Was she looking for a party? Or a research subject?
He smiled to himself. He could be a subject. He wasn’t a bull rider, but he had a feeling that the vibe he’d felt while talking to Ella hadn’t been one-sided. Maybe Tyson was right. Maybe he needed to start acting like his old self, allow himself a distraction or two.
Maybe he needed to talk Ella Etxeberri into doing research on a bronc rider.
End of Excerpt