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“Say it. I’m not doing squat until you say it. I know you want to,” a woman’s voice said.
“I double-dog dare you,” another woman promptly replied with the childish taunt.
Because it was so early in the day and hours before the official Tuesday start of the rodeo, Drew Neisson paused next to the second bucking chute gate at the High Desert Rodeo arena. He looked up, squinting against the bright early June sun to the catwalk above the eight chutes to see who’d just issued what was the ultimate challenge among the Neisson siblings.
He didn’t recognize either of the twenty-something women straddling the railing above the bucking chute currently occupied by one of his grandfather’s bulls. He definitely would have remembered the lanky blonde who’d issued the dare and the petite redhead sporting a very satisfied smile on her beautiful face if he had met them before.
His not knowing the women was unusual, especially considering they were both obviously competitors of some sort judging by their well-worn leather chaps, scuffed cowboy boots, pristine cowboy hats with shiny long hair curling beneath, and corporate logo-covered western-style shirts. Not only had Drew spent his life in and around Pineville, Oregon, but working as part of the sports medicine team that served the local circuit pretty much guaranteed that he’d at least met if not treated everyone connected to the rodeo around these parts.
No way would he have forgotten the pretty redhead. The very pretty redhead who, judging from the belligerent set of her jaw, was seriously considering picking up the gauntlet her friend just threw down.
The redhead glanced down at the bull as if taking its measure. “Double-dog dare?”
“Yep. Double-dog dare,” the blonde confirmed with a grin. Maybe they weren’t friends. Any dare involving a bucking bull at the rodeo grounds generally didn’t end well, even for seasoned bull riders.
“Guess I have to, then.” The redhead did not sound upset about whatever she’d just been dared to do. She lifted herself up off the metal railing and swung her leg over the rail to stand on a lower rail inside the chute. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, she stretched a leg over the bull, catching her booted toes on a gate rail, and commenced easing herself down onto the huge animal’s twitching, dust covered back.
Drew’s stomach dropped to the arena dirt at the realization of what the clearly foolish woman was about to do. He grabbed the nearest gate rail and hoisted himself up.
“Hey!” he shouted to stop her.
The redhead froze just inches above her intended seat.
As if sensing he was about to go to work, the bull Drew now recognized as Red Rum began surging forward and raking his formidable horns along the chute railing not far from Drew’s hands. The ominous sound of horn on metal set dread to churning in Drew’s gut.
He dared to take his eyes off the blunted but no less dangerous horns to look into the redhead’s striking light hazel eyes—and promptly lost his train of thought. Then Red Rum blew out a wet snort and rattled the gate Drew was standing on as if to remind him.
Drew sent the woman his best scowl. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The brim of her light brown felt cowboy hat went up with her raised brows. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Something very, very stupid, that’s what,” Drew shot back. It was hard enough to put these thrill-seekers back together after they’d competed, let alone when they were just goofing around. Didn’t she know the damage a bull like Red Rum could cause? The sort of damage that took a life. Sometimes in slow, agonizing ways that he would never wish on anyone. Especially after having had to watch his own mother go through it.
“Stupid because I’m a girl?” she challenged with a hefty dose of attitude.
Despite her petite frame, she was no girl, he thought inanely. She was all woman. And her obvious gender had nothing to do with his objection. His own sister had trained as a bull fighter before she and her husband Bodie started their family.
Forcing his gaze back up to the redhead, Drew countered, “Stupid because you have no bucking rope, gloves, safety vest, or helmet to protect that pretty face of yours.”
The blonde giggled. “And she racks up another one who thinks she’s pretty.”
She wasn’t pretty. She was beautiful. And she needed to get away from Red Rum, who was growing more agitated by the minute, which only added to Drew’s concern.
The redhead huffed out a breath but inched her shapely backside lower. “Unless you were planning on pulling the gate for me, I wasn’t going to actually ride him. He won’t even notice little ol’ me on his back.”
“Trust me, Red Rum will notice.” The Wright Ranch bucking bulls were bred to notice a fly on their back and to buck until they’d bucked themselves out for the sheer joy of it.
“Red Rum?” She laughed. “What a great name for this big fella.” She let go of the top rail with one hand to reach down and pat the bull’s reddish hide. “Me taking a quick seat won’t do any harm.”
Drew shook his head at her foolishness. He had seen his share of bull riders terribly injured before they’d even left the chute, crushed against the side railings or stacked up into the pass-through gate at the front of the chute. It only took a fraction of a second to end up with broken arms and legs, busted up knees, and twisted ankles. Injuries that could cripple and destroy a career. Take a life.
He reached a hand toward her to coax her out of the chute like he would a calf tangled in a fence. “I’m sure Red Rum’s stock contractor will have a different opinion.”
Speaking of which, where were his brothers? Or at the very least his grandfather’s men? Someone had to have sent Red Rum into the chute. And he didn’t have the time for this sort of foolishness. He was supposed to have been back at the sports medicine trailer ten minutes ago. Since he hoped to take over the program at the end of his sports medicine fellowship, not showing up on time was unacceptable. Impatience and frustration tightened the muscles in his shoulders.
As if on cue, his youngest brother Alec stepped on the rail next to him. “What do we have going here?”
Drew dropped his offered hand that the redhead had pointedly ignored and glanced at his brother. “You tell me. Who sent Red Rum through the chutes from the holding corral?”
“I did. I was going to take a practice ride on him.” Alec adjusted the bucking rope slung over his shoulder as if in punctuation. “But I couldn’t find Ian to pull the flank strap for me. Have you seen him?”
“No, I haven’t. I—”
Red Rum snorted and clanged a horn against the gate railing, yanking Drew’s attention back to the chute just in time to see the redhead raise herself back up and off the bull’s back. “Hey!”
“Ha! I did it!” she exclaimed as she clambered out of the chute and back onto the catwalk. “I double-dog did it. You owe me now, Sammie.”
“What the—” Alec started, then pointed at the women. “Wait, you two must be with that TV show filming the exhibition rides this week.”
The blonde, Sammie, planted her hands on the top rail and leaned forward toward them with seemingly no regard for the increasingly agitated bull below her but with full knowledge that the top of her western-style shirt gaped while the rhinestone buttons glinted in the morning sunlight. “That’s right. We’re stars of Buckin’ TV,” she said with a cheeky smile.
“I wouldn’t say stars…” the redhead interjected, brushing the bull dust off her backside and adjusting her chaps.
Drew pulled his gaze from the women to frown at his brother. “What?”
Alec blew out an exasperated breath. “Geez, Drew. Don’t you pay attention to anything besides your medical books? These are a couple of the Buckin’ Babes—no offense meant, ladies.”
“None taken.” Sammie winked at him. “Do you want an autograph?”
Alec’s grin widened, and he shifted to rest an elbow on a gate railing, appearing as oblivious to the bull as Sammie was. “You know I do.” To Drew, he said, “It’s quality reality TV, let me tell you. They compete on saddle broncs.”
“Ranch saddle broncs,” the redhead corrected.
Alec waved her off. “Close enough. Anyway, they’re here to do exhibition rides at select rodeos because they normally only get to compete on one circuit down in Texas. Right?” he asked the women, who nodded in confirmation.
“A TV show?” Drew eyed the women again. They were certainly pretty enough to be featured on a reality television show.
Sammie grinned wide while the redhead heaved a sigh and looked up at the clear blue sky.
As if responding to their own cue, a cameraman shouldering what appeared to be a large professional camera, a sound guy with a fuzzy boom mic, and a very harried looking, dark-haired woman hurried along the catwalk.
“What are you two doing now?” the woman asked, recrimination fairly dripping from her tone and expression.
“Nat!” Sammie exclaimed. “You should have seen it. This badass rode a bull!”
The redhead raised both hands and shook her head. “I just sat—”
Nat abruptly stopped, her mouth dropping open briefly before she exclaimed, “What? How many times have I told you not to do anything awesome without us rolling?” She put her fingertips briefly to her temples. “You two are killing me. Quick, do it again!” She grabbed the cameraman and shoved him forward then began positioning the sound man.
She must be the producer or something, Drew thought, and apparently believed beautiful women being maimed or killed by bulls made for good TV.
“No!” Drew and Alec shouted at the same time, making Red Rum stomp his hooves and toss his massive head, sending snot and slobber everywhere.
Nat planted a hand on her black jeans-covered hip and glared down at them. “Excuse me? Who, exactly, are you?”
“Pretty much the owners of this bull,” Drew said.
The redhead raised her coppery brows at him again. “Pretty much?”
Alec said, “Our grandfather is Thomas Wright.”
The two cowgirls gave simultaneous silent “ohs,” but while the redhead shifted her attention to Red Rum and seemed to consider him with new respect, Sammie ran her gaze over Drew and Alec with clear feminine speculation.
Nat looked between them. “Who is Thomas Wright?”
Without taking her eyes off Alec, Sammie answered, “Someone we can’t afford to piss off.” To her petite friend, she stage whispered, “The good looks, broad shoulders, blond hair, and blue eyes are a definite tip-off.”
The redhead shushed her with a wave of her delicate hand.
“Why, exactly, can’t we afford to piss this Thomas Wright off?” Nat asked.
The redhead answered, “Because he owns the best bucking broncs on this circuit.”
“On any circuit,” Sammie added.
The petite cowgirl nodded. “I’d give anything for the chance to ride a Wright Ranch bronc.” Her hazel gaze flicked to Drew.
He resisted the urge to dash her hopes with a quick shake of his head when his gaze caught on her bright hazel eyes. His stomach contracted with something hot and intense.
But it didn’t change the facts. While their grandfather technically owned all the Wright Ranch rough stock contracted to various rodeos, Drew’s second oldest brother Liam was in charge of the bucking broncs. Drew seriously doubted Liam would allow any of his horses to be used in a women’s exhibition. Not because the riders would be women, but because the broncs were so rank, and the Wright Ranch didn’t need to be known as the contractor who injured or, God forbid, killed a reality TV personality. Though Drew could be wrong. Liam had mellowed remarkably since his marriage to their neighbor Amanda.
The redhead narrowed her eyes at him as if she could read his thoughts, and Drew had to resist the subsequent urge to squirm. He was saved by the producer waving at the girls and her crew as if herding them.
“Come along, kids,” Nat said. “Since we have to put that down as a lost opportunity, let’s go get some shots of you girls readying your bucking saddles.”
Despite already being late for his shift in the sports medicine trailer, Drew hesitated to leave. The little redhead was subtly resisting the producer’s attempts to shepherd her toward the stairs leading down from the bucking chute catwalk and loitering in a way that made Drew nervous. He couldn’t just leave if she was entertaining thoughts of sitting on Red Rum again.
Alec said, “Go ahead and go. I’ll make sure she doesn’t try anything.”
Drew looked from the redhead to his brother, then to the snorting, agitated bull. “Are you still going to take a practice ride?”
“Not on this guy. I chose life.”
Drew let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. His little brother deciding to become a professional bull rider had been rough on him. But luckily, Alec had enlisted the help of Bodie Hadley, a former top bull rider who knew from firsthand experience how dangerous bucking bulls could be.
“Don’t worry, Drew. You don’t have to save me from myself today.” Alec looked up toward the end of the catwalk where the two cowgirls were still lingering. “And while I agree you absolutely did the right thing stopping their shenanigans, you do know you can’t save everyone, right?”
Drew rolled his eyes at his little brother, but as he turned and walked away, the only thought he had was I can try.
“You know, you could land that cold fish in a heartbeat if you just slowed down enough to try.”
With a start, Peyton Halliday yanked her gaze from the cowboy-perfect, jeans-clad backside she’d unwittingly been staring at and met her friend’s knowing smirk. She opened her mouth to object, but the only thing she could truthfully object to was said fish being described as cold. There’d been more than a little heat behind those pale blue eyes. And there was no doubting the strength of his shoulders moving easily beneath his crisply pressed black shirt.
Instead, she said, “You know I could never slow down, Sammie. It just wouldn’t be livin’ to me.”
“If you ain’t livin’, you dying?”
“Exactly.” Peyton grinned up at her fellow bronc rider. Their friendship had steadily—and unexpectedly—grown since Peyton had joined the reality TV show after Natalie’s fellow producers had learned of Peyton’s past and added her to the cast despite her lack of experience on the women’s Texas circuit. Samantha never told Peyton to take it easy or to be careful, and not for the same reasons as the Buckin’ TV people refrained. Sammie seemed to get Peyton’s need for the adrenaline rushes riding broncs gave her as well as the exhilarating flush of freedom her off-time pursuits offered.
Thus, the double-dog dare.
Peyton looked back toward the end of the arena where a certain decidedly hot cowboy was still marching his way out. She definitely didn’t appreciate him getting in the way of what would have been an amazing rush from sitting on the back of a real-life bucking bull for more than just a brief second. A Wright Ranch bucking bull, no less.
She shifted her attention to where the other Wright grandson was opening the forward chute gates to send Red Rum through to the holding pen. Peyton released as much of her disappointment as she could on an expelled breath.
Hooking her thumbs into the top of her chaps, she told Sammie, “I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that I end up drawing the rankest bronc this cute but no less Podunk little rodeo has to offer.”
“I’m sure most of the girls will trade with you if need be. Not everyone is looking for the wildest ride they can get.”
“Damn straight. At least inside the arena.” Sammie snorted out a laugh, her gaze straying to the younger Wright grandson with a decidedly predatory gleam in her eyes.
Peyton rolled her eyes, turned, and headed for the stairs leading down from the raised metal walkway above the chutes. “You’re such a big talker.”
“And you don’t talk enough, missy,” Sammie retorted as she followed Peyton. Their heavy leather chaps, highly decorated for the benefit of the cameras that followed them as much as possible, made descending stairs slow going.
Once down the stairs, Sammie’s longer legs had her drawing even with Peyton in two steps. “One of these days you’re going to finally kiss and tell, Peyton.”
She’d actually have to kiss first, Peyton silently mused. But that would, as Sammie said, take slowing down first.
Something Peyton wasn’t willing to do. No way, no how.
End of Excerpt