The Stars of Texas, Book 3
Release Date:

Jun 27, 2024

ISBN:

978-1-962707-11-4

More From Rebecca →

Last Dance with the Texas Bull Rider

by

Rebecca Crowley

She was always the ‘perfect’ Star—until she fell…

Jessa Star danced her way to the perfect ballet career, and when injury cut it short, she returned to Last Stand, Texas to open a dance studio—the perfect back-up plan. She’s convinced everyone she’s perfectly happy and perfectly fulfilled, and she’s confident the secret that could blow up her life is perfectly concealed—until her wildly imperfect bull-rider husband careens into town.

Happy-go-lucky Caleb “Calamity” Ross may not be a top-tier rodeo cowboy, but he doesn’t mind. His life on the road is fun, free, and fast enough to outrun his toxic upbringing. But when a bad wreck at the Last Stand Rodeo puts him in the hospital, he wakes to find his runaway bride by his side—the one woman who might matter enough to stop him in his rambling tracks.

Their marriage was a joke, but there’s nothing funny about their connection, or the threats they pose to each other’s futures. The clock is ticking on their wedding bells, and they’ll have to decide whether to say ‘I do’ again—or say goodbye.

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Chapter One

Jessa Star had danced for billionaires, celebrities, and two American presidents. She’d glided across the hallowed stage at Lincoln Center, moved flawlessly through pain and crippling exhaustion, stood still and poised and trembling in the heat of the spotlight as she smiled beatifically at an audience she couldn’t see.

For that faceless crowd in the darkened theater she’d sacrificed everything. Drove toward perfection no matter the cost to her body, her future, or her happiness.

For this crowd…she was less committed.

Jessa nudged aside a crumpled hard-seltzer can with the toe of her cowgirl boot, then turned to her dance team wearing a big, flashy smile.

“Ready?”

Twelve heads bobbed eagerly.

“Let’s do this.”

Jessa nodded to the sound guy at the far end of the outdoor arena, then looked over the girls’ heads at the waiting audience gathered in clumps on the metal bleachers. The sun was low but strong, the July heat relentless despite the early-evening hour, and people squinted and fidgeted and fanned themselves. They were here for the rodeo, not a kids’ dance performance—but she’d change their minds.

The opening strains of a punchy remix of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” spilled out of the speakers and the girls came to life, two rows of spinning and snapping six-to-eight-year-olds, their red-white-and-blue sequined scrunchies sparkling in the dusk.

They were terrible.

Out of sync and offbeat, the girls collided with each other when they weren’t turning in all the wrong directions. The ones who remembered the steps missed the beat, and those with natural rhythm forgot the choreography. Every foot was placed wrong, every saucy hip wiggle out of time with the music, and each leg flung high into the air had potential for a head injury to the nearest dancer.

The Last Stand Junior Stars were a mess.

They were also incandescent with joy.

The crowd fell hard for their earnest moves and irrepressible smiles, exactly as Jessa predicted. People clapped and whistled encouragement, laughing with delight. The girls’ happiness was palpable and infectious, their little bodies wriggling and twisting, each of them moving without even a whiff of self-consciousness.

Jessa crossed her arms, gazing approvingly over her ragtag brood. Not one of them was likely to travel the intense, elite, pre-professional road she’d taken, but she’d make damn sure they still got a chance to shine.

The song came to an end, the girls struck their final pose, and the audience surged into a standing ovation. Jessa joined in the mighty applause, and then hastily ushered the girls out through the metal fence as the telltale bellow of a bull sounded from the other side of the arena.

“You were all fabulous. Thank you so much for coming.” The entertainment organizer for the rodeo clapped as the girls filed past her.

“Thank you for having us,” Jessa replied, glancing beyond her at the cluster of waiting parents.

“Are you kidding? I’ll have y’all back every year if I can. Consider this a standing invitation. Who needs a professional dance troupe when you could have these cuties?”

“That’s very kind,” Jessa said demurely, but as she corralled the children toward their parents her heart swelled with pride.

Trading the bright lights of New York City for her humble hometown in Texas had been the toughest decision she’d ever made. She’d slipped in a dubious puddle on a subway platform and broke her foot, and the doctor’s timeline for recovery lengthened at every checkup. Finally, she decided that instead of fighting her way back into the corps only to spend however many more years watching younger, better dancers surpass her through the ranks, this was her impetus to make a gracious exit. She packed her bags, said goodbye to New York and ballet and her lifelong dreams, treated herself to a wildly expensive vacation, and then came home to Last Stand.

Two years on, she knew it was the right choice. The Star School of Dance was so popular she was hiring additional teachers for the fall. She loved her students, loved her job, loved the little two-bedroom cottage she’d bought all by herself, and had even grown to love the hometown she’d worked so hard to escape. She busied herself reestablishing her roots in this community, joining every small-business network and charitable organization and volunteer event she could find. She wanted people to like her, to take her seriously, and to see her as more than that woman who was a ballerina for a while.

So far, she thought she was doing a pretty good job.

She would like to have sex, though. That particular sliver of her daily life was as dry and barren as the West Texas desert.

Too bad her standards were… Well, some might say unreasonable. She preferred lofty. She even had a checklist—but then she had a checklist for almost everything. She was a checklist kind of girl. But having attained the ripe old age of twenty-eight she’d promised herself the next man in her life would be there for the long haul. She’d dated too many egotistical dancers, too many mercurial musicians, too many creative types who couldn’t commit to more than that weekend’s performance schedule. She wanted someone she could introduce to her family; someone who’d coax an approving smile out of her chronically unsmiling father.

She’d had plenty of excitement, and now she was ready for reliability and routine.

She was ready to be bored.

It’s not like her expectations were that high. He had to have a steady job, preferably white-collar. Own his own home. Have a college degree. Not too churchy, given she was a scion of Last Stand’s oldest—and only—Jewish family. Bonus points if he was an entrepreneur or ran a business. And in reality, each individual characteristic was negotiable as long as collectively they added up to a stable, successful, serious man.

Shouldn’t be that hard, even in a town this size.

Yet despite all the progress she’d made elsewhere, on the romantic front she was no further forward than the day she came home.

Never mind, she told herself brightly as she complimented each girl’s specific performance before she handed them off to their parents. She had some paperwork to sort out before she got too serious with anyone, so she’d simply make do with the bright-pink marvel of modern technology tucked safely in her sock drawer.

The same couldn’t be said for her sisters, she thought as she spotted Georgia, the oldest of the Stars, gazing dreamily into the eyes of her recently acquired lover, local bad-boy Cy Powell. The second-oldest, Josie, had hooked up with Easton McKinney, her longtime friend-turned-foreman of their family ranch, the Lone Star, where the two of them were probably making out on a tractor right at that second.

“Ew,” she muttered to herself with a shudder as she made her way toward Georgia and Cy. Thankfully she was about as likely to catch this romantic contagion as her aggressively single and perpetually hostile twin, Amy.

“Oh my God, Jess, the girls were adorable. I loved the matching socks,” Georgia gushed as Jessa dropped down beside her.

“You could see how confident they all were. You do a nice job with those kids,” Cy added.

“Thank you both,” Jessa said politely, and then plucked the program from Georgia’s hand. “Now that I’m off the clock, I can actually enjoy the rodeo. What events are left?”

“Just the tie-down roping, and then the bulls,” Cy supplied, and Jessa sighed.

“I was so busy with the girls, I missed all the good stuff.”

Cy arched a brow. “The bulls are the good stuff.”

Jessa and Georgia rolled their eyes in unison.

“Spoken like a man who’s never squeezed a horse around a barrel,” Georgia muttered.

Jessa frowned at him. “You have a horse. How do you not know that barrel racing is the best part?”

“It’s for girls,” he began, and then must’ve read their shared outrage because he immediately raised his palms in surrender. “Not in a bad way, just—”

“I’d recommend you stop talking,” Georgia informed him, and Cy clamped his mouth shut.

“Look at that, not just a pretty face. He’s smart, too,” Jessa observed.

She perused the program while Georgia schooled Cy in the complexities of barrel racing. She scanned the list of competitors in the saddle bronc and ladies’ breakaway, smiled at the name of the stock contractor—an old friend of her father’s—and glanced over the team roping pairs.

Over the next hour Jessa enjoyed the action in the arena, chatting happily with Cy and her sister as the blazing-hot Texas sun gradually dropped below the horizon, making way for cooler air and a light breeze. The floodlights stood tall and bright against the darkening sky, and as the announcer alerted the crowd to the start of the bull riding everything seemed to stiffen to attention. Even the birds hushed as though they were lining up on their branches and passing a tub of popcorn.

Loud music poured from the speakers. The bleachers shuddered and clanked beneath her feet as spectators hurried back to their seats, eager for the most thrilling part of any rodeo—even one the size of Last Stand’s. She’d grown up attending this event every year, even competing in the junior barrel racing when she was old enough, and when she moved to New York no amount of rooftop fireworks or Governors Island picnics fully replaced this Fourth of July tradition.

That said, bull riding was her least favorite event. The danger, the stakes, the risk to life and limb… Pretty much everything most people loved about it made her occasionally have to watch from between her fingers. She flipped to the list of men about to take their chance at an eight-second ride—and froze.

The cold started in her feet, as if all the blood circulating there had shot straight up to her cheeks, which flashed hot before becoming as icy as her toes. The freeze traveled up her legs, through her stomach, and down her arms until her fingers were numb, yet she managed to grip the program so hard it trembled.

Right there at the top of the list was a name she’d spent two years trying to forget—and never getting close.

Calamity Ross.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the final event of the evening.” The announcer’s rich voice boomed through the arena. Everyone around her seemed to inch forward on their seats, excited, fired up, ready to cheer for these brave bull riders.

She felt ready to throw up.

She could’ve left. Maybe she should’ve left. But even more than she wanted to run, she wanted to stay. To see him one more time, even if from a distance. To remember who they’d been for that strange, perfect week, and to relive that freedom she’d probably never taste again.

“He’s climbing the ranks and coming off a big win at the Spring Hill Stampede last month. Let’s see if he can start us off with an eight-second ride tonight. All the way from Camp Creek, Tennessee, make some noise for Calamity Ross!”

Belatedly Jessa realized he was in the chute, had been there this whole time. Georgia and Cy had chosen good seats, close to where the bulls were released, high enough for a view over the chain-link fence surrounding the arena, but she could only see the top of his helmet as he hunched over the animal. He was looking down at the bull’s back, adjusting his hand on the rope, his posture calm and strong and fearless.

Jessa arched halfway off her seat for a better look. The bull writhed between the metal gates, the sound of its body slamming against the siding sending her heart into her throat. She could see him winding the rope, perfecting his wrap, using his right hand to tighten the gloved grip of his left. She sank her teeth into her lower lip, on high alert for his signal, for any warning of what might be about to happen.

Then he nodded, and the gate clanged open.

A distressed whimper escaped from Jessa’s mouth as the brindle bull surged into the arena, but it was drowned out by the crowd roaring all around her. The bull spun and spun, looking like it was desperate to catch its own tail, its legs kicking high and wild on every turn. The rider’s face was obscured by the grill attached to his helmet and for a second Jessa’s anxiety faltered as she struggled to connect the unfamiliar, disparate pieces—the raised hand, the fringed chaps, the protective vest dotted with sponsors’ logos—to the man she’d known.

Then she saw something, though she didn’t know what—the tilt of his head, maybe, or the length of his legs—and she knew it was him. The man who’d opened her wider than anyone before. Who’d made her heart laugh and her body sing. Who would’ve pulled her into his wild world and taken her anywhere if she’d let him.

The man she’d left without a backward glance.

He seemed to be slipping sideways, the back of his skull coming terrifyingly close to the bull’s heaving haunches, but then the buzzer sounded and the audience cheered and he dove off, landing on his hip before springing up and jogging to the fence while the bullfighters chased down the still-bucking animal.

As the announcer declared a score of eighty-one, he turned toward the viewers and yanked off his helmet to raise it in a triumphant gesture. His honey-gold hair was rumpled and sweaty, his cheeks flushed, and at the sight of his face Jessa pushed to her feet, unsure whether she meant to flee or fling herself at him but unable to stop either way.

She didn’t know whether it was because she was the only one standing, or if her movement caught his attention, or if some unseeable, all-powerful force tugged their gazes together like magnets. But somehow his blue-eyed glance found hers, and she couldn’t look away.

For an instant his expression slackened with shock. Then those soft, sly lips of his curved slowly into a smile—a smile she knew was meant just for her.

And against every shred of her better judgment, she smiled right back.

That’s when the bull rammed into him.

One minute he was standing victorious, the next he was high in the air as the animal slipped the bullfighters, tucked its head, and tossed him up and over.

“Caleb,” Jessa screamed as the crowd sucked in a collective breath. He landed hard on his shoulder, rolled to his stomach—and didn’t move.

“Do you know him?” Georgia asked but Jessa was already in motion, clambering down the bleachers. By the time she got to the fence the medical team had bundled him onto a stretcher, so she bolted toward the entrance, weaving around people carrying trays of drinks, politely dodging attempts by several acquaintances to chat, finally bursting out to the grassy stretch beyond the porta potties. She sprinted to the ambulance, managing to catch one of the rear doors just as it was being pulled shut from the inside.

“Caleb?” she called desperately.

“What the hell do you—Jessa?”

And because this whole situation wasn’t already enough of a chaotic mess, Jessa looked up into a face nearly—but not quite—identical to her own.

Her twin sister, Amy, was evidently one of the EMTs on duty.

For most people this would’ve been a glad twist of fate, but Jessa and her sister had been diametrically opposed on just about everything since before they could talk. Now Amy was the inadvertent gatekeeper to Jessa’s biggest secret—and the last person on earth she wanted to reveal it to.

“Let me ride with him. We met once, and he won’t know anyone else in town.”

“Where did you meet?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just ask him if I can go. He’ll say yes.”

“I would, but he’s unconscious.”

Tears sprang into her eyes, and she forced them back, willing her voice not to wobble as she asked, “Is he okay?”

“He will be if you stop holding us up and we get him to the hospital. It’s nice of you to be concerned, but unless you convince me that he’s not going to sue the pants off us for letting you ride along, you need to go.”

She had no choice. She couldn’t abandon Caleb—not again. Jessa hardened her jaw, lifted her chin, and looked her sister dead on.

“We’re married. He’s my husband.”

Amy’s eyes rounded, and her mouth formed a perfect circle to match. She opened and closed it a few times, not making a sound. Then she seemed to shake herself back to the present, her expression becoming detached and professional as she jerked her thumb toward the back of the ambulance.

“Hop in.”

Caleb felt like shit.

His eyes were gritty, his ears rang, and his mouth tasted like he’d spent six hours slamming whiskey under the midsummer sun. Maybe he had—that would explain the headache screaming in his temples. Not so much the loss of his left arm, though.

Panic shot through him as the awareness that he couldn’t feel anything below his shoulder hit home. He jerked, grabbed his arm—which was very much attached, albeit totally numb and in a sling—and then sank back onto what he realized was a pillow, the pain throbbing between his brows pushing his eyelids shut, his right hand stinging where he’d inadvertently pulled on the IV line.

Gradually the pieces came together. The eight-second ride. The slam of the bull’s head, the dizzying sensation of his feet leaving the earth. The EMT who looked uncannily like Jessa—and that woman in the stands who’d looked even more like her. He must be really losing his marbles, because that first Jessa had appeared before the bull tossed him like a six-foot-two Frisbee.

“Caleb?”

His eyes snapped open, only for him to squeeze them shut.

Finding one Jessa at his bedside was improbable. Seeing two had to be a hallucination.

He tried again, slower this time, opening one eye and then the other.

Two Jessa Stars still stared at him, one on each side of his bed.

He squinted between the two of them. If he had double vision, shouldn’t they look the same? Move at the same time? One wore a purple T-shirt and hunched forward, the other had her arms crossed over her EMT uniform.

“I’m confused as hell,” he announced, and they smiled in unison.

“You’re in the hospital in Last Stand. You’re concussed, and your shoulder is injured from landing on it, but you’re going to be fine.”

Purple-shirt Jessa patted his hand as though that put everything right. As though he might not have any additional questions about the sudden appearance of two versions of his estranged wife.

“Jessa?” he asked dumbly, deciding to start with the basics.

Her smile flattened. “It’s me.”

“Then who is that?” He pointed to her doppelganger.

“I’m her twin sister, Amy. Nice to meet you, despite the circumstances.”

He gaped at Jessa. “You have a twin?”

“You didn’t tell him about me?” Amy asked her sister archly. Jessa studied the floor.

Caleb flopped back against the pillow. As if this day needed another plot twist.

“I’ll let the doctor know you’re awake. Then I’ll leave you two to talk through…whatever this is.” Amy shot her sister a look Caleb couldn’t read as she stood up from her chair and left the room.

For the first time in two years, he was alone with his wife.

The last time he saw her she’d been sun-kissed and saltwater sweet, moonlight glowing on her bare shoulders, the knot she’d hastily tied on her bikini top lopsided and off-center.

“Come with me tomorrow,” he’d urged, and she’d just smiled, that half-teasing, half-chiding twist of her lips that had been weakening his knees for six whole days. He’d kissed her one more time, gently, his mouth closed and his heart wide open. Then she’d walked out of his hotel room without another word.

He hadn’t seen her since.

She was more beautiful than he remembered. Her glossy, dark hair was pulled away from her face, her hazel eyes large and catlike. She’d put on weight and every ounce suited her, rounding her cheeks, plumping her breasts.

He wondered where else she’d gotten softer, and then shifted in the bed, willing down the cock that was already half-hard.

“You look good,” he told her, not sure where else to begin.

“You’ve looked better,” she teased.

He found himself smiling. “I sure have felt better. And if I’d known you’d be here, I might’ve cleaned up more.”

That was a big question wrapped up in a little joke, and she dropped her chin beneath the weight of it.

“I guess I owe you an apology.”

He shrugged, slamming the door on whatever big emotion was getting ready to rear its unwelcome head. Apologies tended to go hand in hand with regrets, which he made it his business to avoid.

“Can’t see that you have anything to be sorry for. I knew you weren’t likely to show up, and you never gave me any reason to think otherwise.”

Her chiding look returned, so perfectly unchanged that he had to smile.

“I let you leave without saying goodbye. Do you hate me?” She looked shamefaced, so rueful and apologetic that it took all his resolve not to use his still-working hand to squeeze hers reassuringly.

“Of course not,” he insisted, and she sagged at his words. “I don’t feel bad about anything that happened, and neither should you. We had fun, didn’t we?”

“We did.” Her smile reappeared, then vanished. “But I should’ve told you I wasn’t coming. I’m sorry, Caleb. I woke up that morning and—”

“It’s all good,” he interrupted, not wanting to relive any second of that awful day. Not the extra hour he’d spent in the hotel lobby hoping she’d burst out of one of the elevators, or that he’d lingered so long outside security in the airport he almost missed his flight, or the final look he threw over his shoulder as he stepped off the jet bridge and into the waiting plane. He’d been stupid then, so stupid, but that was two years ago, and he hadn’t made a mistake like Jessa since.

She seemed unconvinced, but after a moment’s silence one side of her mouth kicked up. “Did you make it to Brazil?”

He grinned. “Sure did. Didn’t win a dime and nearly got my skull split by a thousand-pound bull. It was awesome.”

“If you say so.”

“How about you? Hometown move ended up sticking, huh?”

She nodded. “I opened the dance studio. It’s really taken off.”

“That’s great. I’m glad to see you landed on your feet.”

“I appreciate it.” She glanced at the hands folded in her lap, then back up. “Did you remember this was my hometown when you came to the rodeo this year?”

“I didn’t,” he told her honestly. In fact, he hadn’t thought about her at all in months. He tried not to think about anything beyond the next twenty-four hours if he could help it.

“So it wasn’t because you wanted to sort out any, um, paperwork?”

“No, nothing like that. Although I guess, now that I’m here…”

“We should probably…”

“Is it because—is there someone—”

“No,” Jessa said hastily. “No. Just, you know. Admin.”

“Right. Loose ends.”

“Exactly.”

They lapsed into an uneasy silence punctuated by occasional bleeps from the surrounding machines, belatedly reminding him of his circumstances. Unsure how badly he was injured. Even less sure how long it’d be before he could compete again, and how he’d live off his skeletal savings in the meanwhile.

Married. And, if he was reading the room right, soon to be divorced.

Which he supposed they should’ve taken care of a long time ago. Truth was, Caleb didn’t have a good reason why he’d married Jessa, other than it was a fun, wild, and outrageous thing to do. Those three words had driven almost every decision he’d made since the day he left his austere, God-fearing, oppressive life on his parents’ farm. Sure, sometimes they steered him toward disaster, but for the most part, his evolution into Calamity the bull rider left him carefree, unencumbered, and far happier.

Even his two-day union with Jessa in Hawaii had been more enjoyable than his two-year marriage back in Tennessee—although both women left him in the end.

But that didn’t matter, not with Jessa, because their whole ridiculous wedding didn’t matter. That’s why it was okay that he was happy to see her, that he’d long let go of the disappointment and sorrow of that day she didn’t show up. They were together again for God knew how long, and he didn’t want to waste this chance encounter on sulking.

“Well, it was nice to see you again, Caleb. Let’s swap numbers, and then I’ll leave you in the hospital’s capable hands.” Jessa took out her phone.

“Sure thing,” he said smoothly, pleased with how well he’d concealed how startled he was by the abrupt end to their conversation. “Not sure what happened to my phone, but if you—”

“Mr. Ross, good to see you up and alert. How are you feeling?” A woman in a white coat entered with a swish of the green curtain, introducing herself briefly as Dr. McBride before taking the seat Jessa’s twin had vacated.

“All right. Fuzzy-headed, and my arm’s numb.”

“That’s from the nerve-block injection. It’ll wear off in a few hours. You’ve sprained the ligaments in your shoulder, but luckily you won’t need surgery. For now, ice it daily and keep your arm in the sling. We’ll check it in a couple of weeks, and if it’s healing nicely, you can gradually start using the arm again.”

Caleb nodded, mentally reorganizing his upcoming rodeo schedule and calculating how much he’d lose in earnings. “And the concussion, I guess that’ll sort itself out, too?”

“Only if you take it easy and give yourself time to recover. You may have lingering disorientation, memory loss, even headaches. I’d suggest you limit screen time and avoid mental strain as much as possible.”

“Got it,” he said vaguely, his thoughts running a mile a minute. This was a busy time of year for rodeo and every second he wasn’t on a bull or on his way to ride one put a serious dent in his finances. He’d have to look at the calendar, figure out the earliest competition he could feasibly take part in, then find the absolute cheapest motel between here and wherever it was. Thankfully he’d kept up the payments on his health insurance, but maybe he could strike a deal with the hospital here in Last Stand, pay whatever he owed in installments, spread the cost and ration what was left over for food and gas until he nailed his next eight-second ride.

Speaking of…

“Hey, how’d I do?” he asked the doctor, who blinked in bewilderment.

“What do you mean?”

“In the rodeo.”

“Oh, I have no idea.” She glanced at Jessa, who shrugged.

“I’ll find out,” he murmured to himself, before looking back up at the doctor. “That it? Am I good to go?”

“We’ve done all we can for you for now, but I’d like to keep you overnight for observation. You took quite a knock to the head.”

As if he could afford that. “Not sure my insurance’ll stretch that far.”

“Then I’ll discharge you, but I would like to see you back here in two weeks for a checkup.”

“I’m just passing through, but I’ll find someone to give me the all-clear wherever I stop next. Promise,” he added with a grin.

Dr. McBride tilted her head.

“You’re not the first bull rider I’ve treated, Mr. Ross, and I know better than most how much you all hate downtime—and how it impacts your bottom line. But another blow to the head, or a further injury to your shoulder, could take you out of the game much longer than the month or so you need to heal—maybe even permanently. I’d feel a lot better about releasing you if I knew you had someplace here in town to recuperate.”

“I’ll figure it out,” he replied breezily. Jessa had been watching him through most of the doctor’s speech, and now concern gathered her brows.

“You realize you can’t drive with one hand, right?”

Dr. McBride looked at Jessa like she’d just realized she was there. Her brows lifted in recognition. “Jessa Star, right?”

“Yes.”

“My niece takes ballet at your studio. The spring recital was adorable. Anyway, I’ll get the discharge paperwork started. Mr. Ross, let us know if we can be of any more help before you leave.”

“Thank you so much, Dr. McBride,” Jessa said warmly, before turning a significantly frostier gaze on him the second the curtain slid shut.

“You heard what she said. If you don’t take proper care of yourself, you’ll be off the circuit even longer.”

“You’re right—I heard her. And I said I’ll figure it out,” he reiterated, not sure why Jessa was butting into his business—and equally confused about whether or not he liked it.

“What’re you going to do, get a lift to a thirty-dollar-a-night motel and then try to drive out of here tomorrow?”

How had she known that was his plan?

“The one I had in mind is forty dollars a night.”

She didn’t laugh.

“Listen, Jessa, I appreciate you worrying about me and all, but I’ve had worse injuries than this one and gotten back on a bull the next day. I’m a grown-up. I can take care of myself.”

She regarded him through narrowed eyes, her teeth sunk so deep in her bottom lip he was afraid she might bite it off. He didn’t understand what she was so het up about—but that irritated flush in her cheeks was awfully pretty.

Finally, she heaved a sigh so heavy it must’ve been forged in her very soul. “There’s no way around it. You should stay with me.”

That threw him almost as hard as that asshole bull. “What did you say?”

“I’ve got a two-bedroom house right here in town. Plenty of room for us both.”

“There’s no… I don’t… But we…”

“It’s not ideal. Not ideal at all. But it’ll be fine,” she insisted with a bright, fake smile. “We’re friends, and I want to make sure you’re okay.”

He gave up, the thoughts in his bruised head moving slower than molasses in January. If he were fighting fit, he was sure he could come up with a million reasons why this was a terrible plan, but his brain hurt, his eyes hurt, and if he was honest the idea was…not a total turnoff. Staying with Jessa would be free, for one thing, and undoubtedly more comfortable than whatever roach-infested flophouse he’d land in otherwise. She’d be there to help him while—

She’d be there. Morning, noon, and night he’d be in touching distance of the one woman who’d tripped him up, who’d gotten under his feet and tangled herself in his legs until he fell, face-first and hard. It took him a long time to get back up to speed after her, and to rediscover the pace that kept his tread so soft on the earth he barely made a mark.

He couldn’t afford to stumble like that again. Not after everything he’d been through, all that he’d overcome and rebuilt. He lived light and fast, and he didn’t ever want to be weighed down again. Not by his parents, not by their faith, not by the foolish heart beating in his chest.

“It’s kind of you to offer, but I’ll be all right on my own,” he concluded.

Dang it, there it was—that chiding look of hers. Fierce and hard and sexy as all get-out. Stern schoolmarm meets no-nonsense nurse and neither one is wearing underwear. His resolve drained like oil leaking from his truck, slowly, unstoppably, and at a cost he couldn’t afford.

“I’ll think about it,” he revised—and would’ve slapped himself if his stupid arm worked.

“You may be cavalier with every other aspect of your life, Calamity Ross, but you will not play fast and loose with your health—not if I have anything to say about it. If something happened to you, and if I knew that I could’ve…” She stopped herself short, swallowing hard, but not before he’d heard the waver in her voice, knew how close she was to caring about him.

Jessa cleared her throat. “You’re coming home with me, and you’ll follow the doctor’s orders to the letter. Understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” he practically squeaked, the clearly uninjured appendage between his legs stirring.

“I’ll see about the discharge papers. Don’t move,” she commanded with a pointed finger, then swept out of the cubicle, as straight-backed and strong and utterly irresistible as he’d remembered.

Damn, she was hot.

Caleb pinned a lot of his eccentricities on his strict Baptist upbringing, having spent so much of his life in constant awareness of rules and the terrifying consequences of breaking them. Now he thrived on chaos and danger and risk, treated every day as a fresh start, and refused to be burdened by anyone or anything, including his own choices.

Jessa had threatened all of that, once—but maybe that made her his riskiest move yet. And he never shied away from a challenge.

He leaned back on the pillow and closed his eyes, bracing for the days ahead—and grinning despite himself.

Nothing left to do but hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping June 27, 2024

Last Dance with the Texas Bull Rider is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-11-4

June 27, 2024

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