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Bodie Hadley heard the female voice over the pre-parade commotion and hoped she wasn’t addressing him. His human-ing skills weren’t the greatest on his best days anymore, and with today being the kick-off of the Pineville Rodeo in Pineville, Oregon, he’d been up since the butt-crack of dawn without an additional hit of caffeine. And now at ten a.m., Mr. Friendly Pants he was not.
“Hello up there. Excuse me?”
She was talking to him. Damn.
He took a deep breath of high desert air and shifted in his saddle. His horse, Dutch, flicked his ears, but otherwise remained motionless beneath him. “Yeah?” he said without looking down at yet another eager rodeo buckle bunny. He was supposed to be keeping an eye on his stock before they made their way down the town’s main drag, but the hypnotic up and down motion of Mary Jo’s bottom as she and the other rodeo royalty circled their mounts in front of him was, well, hypnotic.
“Would you mind moving your horse off my foot?”
Horror jolted through him in the split second before he brought his heels and hands up to send Dutch in a hop sideways away from the woman. He looked down, prepared to see his horse crushing some poor lady’s instep. Bodie blinked and pushed his hat back at the sight of Dutch’s parade-ready black hoof planted on the toe of a bright yellow shoe.
A three-foot-long, vibrant yellow shoe with fire engine-red laces. Clown shoes.
His hands tingled like he’d just reached the top fence rail as a bull’s horn breezed his britches. While certain the female clown the shoe belonged to hadn’t suffered any injury, he still nudged his horse over a step.
She smiled at him from under her red rubber nose. “Thanks. I hated to disrupt your enjoyment of Miss Udder Salve’s departure…” She set her huge rainbow wig a-bobbing by nodding toward the group of sequin-laden riders trotting in a circle before it was their turn to head down little Pineville’s Main Street.
Bodie snorted. “Dairy Queen. Newly crowned.”
“Good for her.” She sounded genuine despite her wisecrack. “I think I’m supposed to start down the parade route after the Butter Babes—”
He chuckled. Maybe not entirely genuine.
She frowned and looked behind her. “Though I don’t see the guys…”
Bodie only saw what had to be the sexiest clown on earth. All those little boys who grew up afraid of clowns were approaching the concept all wrong. Just the thought of what she might not have on under her armpit-high, white and red striped pants had him edging Dutch back toward her just in case the opportunity to peek down the hooped opening of her pants should present itself. Not that he would peek, but just in case. He was a guy after all. His Romeo days might have been over, but he couldn’t help basic biology.
Her white T-shirt was respectably—and annoyingly—loose and thick, probably to protect her shoulders from the wide black canvas suspenders holding her ridiculous britches up. But he sensed curves worth exploring.
Not by him, though.
Since the accident five years ago, despite his reputation, he hadn’t really been tempted by any woman, let alone one sporting a red rubber nose and a rainbow afro. But there was something about the large, world-weary tear painted at the corner of her big blue right eye that tugged at something deep in his scarred belly. He wanted to pluck off the goofy nose and kiss her silly.
Which would be about as smart as getting on the back of a bull again.
When she didn’t find who she was apparently looking for, she shrugged and returned her attention to him. Or, more accurately, the big gelding lazing beneath him. She gave his very unflappable horse a pat that turned to a scratch. Dutch shifted his weight toward her, and his muscular shoulder flexed, his hide twitching when she hit the sweet spot.
She cooed at the big idiot. “Yes, I didn’t think I’d be going anywhere with such a strapping boy as you looking so comfortable standing on my shoe.”
Dutch turned and nuzzled her good.
Now his dang horse probably knew what she had on under those pants. Bodie shifted in the saddle again, unnerved by his sudden fixation on clown undergarments. He turned his attention to where his bulls were milling about in the temporary pens set up in the parking lot of Pineville’s lone supermarket at the end of Main Street.
Some bulls could be corralled together because the only fights they had to pick in this world were with the cowboys who climbed aboard their backs and tried to cling like tenacious ticks for eight long seconds. But others, such as Boomerang, wanted to fight everyone he made eye contact with. Man or beast. So Boomerang always had his own pen. And he was currently pawing a hole in the heat-softened asphalt to apparently make his break à la The Great Escape. He was a handful. Which was why he had his own mounted escort on parade day.
Bodie didn’t like to take chances.
Not anymore. Especially now that he had finally regained a spot on the rodeo circuits. Not as the top-twenty-ranked bull rider he’d once been, but as a stock contractor in his own right with his own bulls.
Knowing he didn’t want to have to pay for a pavement patch to Frank’s Groceries’ parking lot, Bodie caught the eye of Danny, Boomerang’s wrangler for today, and with nothing more than a hitch of his chin, conveyed the need to redirect the bull’s current fascination with digging an escape hole outta here.
As he watched Danny clamor over the metal pen rails, Bodie heard a nearby group of teenagers complain, “Where are the bulls? These are just a bunch of cows.”
He stifled a sigh and scratched at his short beard. Maybe the kids had skipped anatomy class. Or didn’t know that just because his bulls didn’t have horns, they didn’t buck any less. They were simply a little less deadly. Just a little.
“But I bet you can really move when you want to, can’t you?” His new favorite clown said and brought his attention back to her.
She was stroking Dutch’s shiny black cheek and the way her arm crossed over her chest, he couldn’t help but notice her cleavage. Clowns weren’t supposed to have cleavage. When she glanced up at him, he flinched at being caught checking out her chest. But she did have great cleavage.
“He has some Arabian in him, doesn’t he?” she asked.
Bodie instantly focused on a cowboy’s second favorite subject, his horse. He planted his forearm on his thigh so he could lean down toward her and found himself inadvertently diving headfirst into her clear-blue eyes. He stared for just a half a beat too long before he remembered he had some remanence of a brain and forced himself to focus on answering her question. “Yes, he does. You must really know your horseflesh. His dam is a blooded Arab. My dad only crossbred her because we had this Quarter Horse stud that was so barrel-chested he—”
“Whoa, whoa.” She held up her hands and grinned. “I don’t know that much about horses. I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying types who knows a little about a lot of things, but not enough to carry on more than a two-minute conversation.”
“But knows enough to be dangerous?”
“Yep.” Her grin all but disappeared beneath her rubber nose and was definitely at odds with the big tear meticulously painted at the corner of her eye.
He really wanted to know the story behind that tear.
And he had absolutely no intention of finding out.
Yet he found himself saying, “I bet I could find something to talk to you about for more than two minutes.” What the hell? Was it those eyes? Or that tear? Nah, it was the cleavage. Just proved he wasn’t dead.
Her tongue slipped out to moisten her unpainted lips. His gut reacted by clenching as if taking a punch.
“I bet you could.” Her voice was sexy even with the rubber nose.
He was doomed.
“And here all this time I’ve been stuffing my feet into pumps and wiggling into dinky miniskirts, when all I needed to do was dress like a clown so I can land a contract with the rodeo circuit to catch a guy’s attention. They should tell us these things in junior high.”
Thoroughly distracted by the mention of pumps and dinky miniskirts, he was startled when Dutch began to fidget. It was their turn to head down the parade route.
Reluctantly, he turned toward Danny, who had been watching him with a smirk Bodie was going to have to introduce to some dirt at a later date, and gave him a wave to start the bulls down Main Street. They’d let Boomerang go first because the bull would cause less ruckus that way. And seeing as Boomerang tipped the scales at over eighteen hundred pounds of pure Brahman bull, horns or no, he was dang impressive trotting down a street. Not a bad advertisement for the Hadley Cattle Company.
Bodie let out a quick whistle that caught the attention of Cabe, who’d been chatting up one of the Butter Babes. A grin tugged at the corners of Bodie’s mouth at the new moniker he wouldn’t be able to shake. Cabe was clearly flirting with a member of the court as they both sat atop their horses facing in opposite directions. Very romantic, but not what either was supposed to be doing.
With just the slightest tip of his head toward the bulls, Bodie reminded Cabe what they were here for, and his youngest employee said his goodbyes to the lady and wheeled his bay toward the pens to start the rest of the bulls down the street.
Because Bodie was local—his family’s ranch lay a mere ten miles away—and his bulls had been consistently high scoring in the other regional rodeos he’d contracted with, he’d been asked to supply eight bulls for this year’s Pineville Rodeo. The most bulls he’d been contracted to supply since he’d jumped into the bucking bull game three years ago, two years after his career-ending wreck at one of the biggest national bull riding events. His family had been well established in the rodeo stock contracting business by his grandfather, but the bulls were all his. He sat taller in the saddle. Things were finally starting to go his way.
He returned his attention to the curbside of the street and the most stirring clown he’d ever encountered. She was once again scanning the crowd, but obviously not seeing whomever she was searching for. He held Dutch steady so he could reach down and coax a lock of what turned out to be long, honey-blond hair out from beneath her rainbow wig.
She blinked as if just waking and clapped a hand over her wig. “Hey, why’d you do that?”
With Dutch itching to be on the move along with the bulls and the guys, Bodie answered, “So I’ll know you when I see you around the rodeo grounds.”
And be able to avoid her like a sharp-spurred bull.
“And at the sponsors’ meet ’n greet party tonight?”
Was that hope in her voice or simply an invitation?
Though his interest was piqued, he pushed away the attraction. Ever since Elizabeth Howe had dumped him after seeing how badly scarred he was and realizing he wouldn’t be riding bulls anymore, he’d sworn off romance. Plus, he hadn’t gone to any after-party since the accident. He wasn’t a fan of pity.
Clown-girl had mentioned in a roundabout way that she wanted to get contracted with the rodeo circuit, so odds were not in his favor of being able to dodge her indefinitely. But he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
Without taking his eyes off her, he let Dutch start walking away. He tipped his hat to her. “Have fun at the sponsors’ party.”
She tried to put her hands on her hips, but the size of her clown pants kept her from making contact. “What makes you think I’m going?”
He wheeled Dutch around. “You’ll be there,” he challenged her. He took the chance she was the type who couldn’t resist a challenge. She was, after all, wearing three-foot-long yellow clown shoes.
“We’ll see,” she hedged, her chin up. But she smiled the slightest of smiles, in raging contrast to her costume but in perfect harmony with the tear painted on her cheek.
For some stupid reason, Bodie felt like he had when he’d successfully bred his first bull.
He swung Dutch back toward his bulls when he heard her yell, “You could have just asked me my name.”
Using the sudden need to readjust his tan cowboy hat as an excuse to ignore the laughter of Cabe and Danny and everyone else within earshot, he heaved a sigh at his own idiocy. But there was no getting around it. He was rusty and now everyone knew it. He turned in the saddle. “What is your name?” he yelled back.
She hesitated, the rainbow afro bobbing on her head as she looked down at her huge shoes.
He was about to ride back toward her when the wig bobbed upward.
“Kate,” he repeated and tipped his hat again in acknowledgment. Right back in self-satisfied mode, he faced forward again, confident he would have no trouble at all avoiding the honey-haired, gorgeous, blue-eyed Kate after the official kick-off of the Pineville Rodeo.
End of Excerpt