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Three years later
LeAnn “Killer” Keller would have kicked open the door to the bar, but it was already open. She was too pissed off to cry. She needed a drink, and she needed one badly. Storming up to the bartender, LeAnn ordered a shot of tequila.
She and tequila had a history. LeAnn had made some bad decisions when she and tequila partied too hard. But tonight, she needed the sweet burn to wash away the grief and anger.
A whole year.
Mick had been cheating on her for their entire relationship.
And it was her fault.
LeAnn downed the shot before she realized she’d failed to ask for a name-brand tequila, and they had given her a drink from the well bottle. At least now she could blame her stinging eyes and the tears that threatened on the rotgut tequila she’d just guzzled, instead of on her broken heart.
“Another one. Cuervo Gold this time.”
“You want some salt and lemon with that too?” the bartender asked.
“Why not?” she said, nodding.
Her phone hadn’t stopped blowing up. Mick again. Like they hadn’t just shouted at each other all through the barn and the rodeo arena until she got into her truck and nearly ran him over in the parking lot.
“Fuck him,” she muttered, and then blocked his number.
Her phone buzzed again. This time it was her sister Dolly, asking her what the hell was going on.
LeAnn gave a watery snort and swiped her arm across her eyes. Mick and I broke up. Don’t want to talk about it, she texted back.
But Dolly would want to talk about it. Ever since LeAnn blew her reputation as the WPRC’s rodeo sweetheart three years ago, they had been scrambling for sponsors. This past year, Dolly had been working her ass off trying to rebuild LeAnn’s status. It had helped that LeAnn was damned good at rodeo events, but social media had a long memory. There was still video of her drunk ass mooning the cop floating around. Dolly was having to work overtime to get sponsors to give her another chance to represent their brands. So far, no one wanted her.
No one had ever wanted her, except for Mick. And now that had been taken away from her, too.
Everything’s a mess, she started to text to Dolly. Then deleted it…and turned off her phone.
Mick cheating on her was the rancid cherry on the shit sundae of her life.
Her parents had been disappointed in her ever since she’d spent the night in the drunk tank three years ago. That had been the last straw for them. It had been bad enough that LeAnn risked her health riding bucking broncos instead of excelling at barrel racing, like she had been doing for most of her career. But after one loss, she fell apart? They had urged her to get out of the rodeo before it destroyed her. Her sisters had been more supportive, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t too happy about not being on a winning team.
“We didn’t raise you to go wild and disrespect authority figures,” her parents often reminded her when they spoke on the phone to each other once a week.
No, they hadn’t, and LeAnn had three long years to be ashamed of herself as she tried to work her way back. In her defense, she had just turned eighteen at the time, and had been hellbent on sowing all the wrong oats.
Her parents had stayed home after that nightmare season, but they begrudgingly let her and her sisters use the Winnebago to travel across the United States from rodeo to rodeo. She knew that a condition was that Dolly and Reba had to promise to keep an eye on her so she wouldn’t embarrass herself—or them—again. So her sisters continued to travel with her as benevolent wardens in a Winnebago prison.
The bartender set her up with another shot glass. This time, LeAnn took a moment to appreciate the amber color and the sweet smell of the agave. Licking the top of her hand, she dusted it with salt. After coating her tongue with the salt, she slung back the tequila and then jammed a lemon slice into her mouth. Sucking on the sour juice, she remembered how much she liked the tart bite. It had gone down smooth, and the two shots were doing their job of numbing the pain.
“Another,” she barked. “Please,” she added as an afterthought.
He poured her another. And this time, her stomach jolted when she smelled the tequila. Maybe she should slow down.
“All alone tonight, Killer?” a voice drawled from the end of the bar.
It was early in the evening, so the bar wasn’t too crowded, which was good because she didn’t want to talk with anyone from the rodeo—especially anyone with a dick. But this was Dylan Porter. And even though he had a dick, he wasn’t one.
LeAnn hadn’t noticed him when she had come in, which might have been a first for her. She had always admired Dylan, as a bull rider and as a man. Even with her insides twisting and raging against all things male, she could appreciate the curve of his biceps against his black cotton shirt.
She’d always been drawn to him. He loved animals and treated his horse like gold. LeAnn used to watch him when he wasn’t looking while he took care, not only of his horse, but he also made sure that all the horses in the barn were comfortable, well fed and watered.
He’d always have a special place in her heart for helping out Garth that time when his feed bucket had fallen and emptied out. Dylan had fixed it and made sure Garth had enough food to get through the night.
“Not just tonight,” she said. “I’m all alone for good.”
“You broke up with Mick?”
“What makes you think he didn’t break up with me?” She took her tequila, salt, and lemon down to the end of the bar and sat down on a barstool next to him.
Dylan wasn’t part of the crowd that hung out together after the rodeos, but sometimes he was there, playing pool in the bars Mick had smuggled her underage ass into when her sisters thought they were at the movies. She and Dylan had never hung out, but he wasn’t one of the jerks who liked to make fun of the women riding broncs.
“Because even though Mick is an asshole, he’s not stupid,” Dylan said. “Only an idiot would let you get away.”
His words and the admiring look in his eyes made her heart thump. It was warm in here, especially sitting so close to him. LeAnn stared down at their knees, almost touching.
“Then he’s an idiot, as well as an asshole,” she muttered.
“You mean to tell me that Mick broke up with you tonight?”
“He didn’t actually say those words, but since he was banging a buckle bunny a half an hour ago, I took it to mean that that was goodbye.”
Dylan winced. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Didn’t I?” she said bitterly and tanked the shot, forgetting about the salt and lemon.
Mick had wanted sex and LeAnn had wanted to wait until marriage. That’s what her parents had always taught her and her sisters. But lately, she had been starting to come around to Mick’s point of view that there was no point in waiting. This year, they had started to date exclusively. And she had been planning to sleep with the bastard, even though there was still a part of her that wanted to wait.
Her head started to pound, and she felt sick. She went to signal the bartender for another one, but he was down the bar with another customer. Dylan took ahold of her outstretched hand and held it. “He ain’t worth it.”
His thumb caressed her knuckles. She deliberately moved her leg closer to his. LeAnn hadn’t realized how much she craved physical contact that wasn’t expected to turn sexual. And yet, something inside her buzzed at his nearness. LeAnn was pretty sure this wasn’t the tequila talking.
“I know that now,” she said. “But I just spent the last few years of my life trying to be everything he wanted. Well, almost everything.” She gave a half-laugh.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have sex. She did. She just hadn’t been sure if she wanted to have sex with Mick. And after all these months, LeAnn should have known the answer to that question. So she really couldn’t blame him for fooling around. At least, that’s what Debbi Peterson told anyone who would listen.
“You kept him waiting for all that time. What did you expect?” Debbi had said when she saw her crying tonight.
That had stung. There had been other girlfriends in between Debbi and LeAnn, though, so for some dumb reason, she had thought that Debbi would have been on her side.
“I had expected him to let me know if he wanted to see—sleep with other people,” LeAnn had said when she’d recovered from the verbal blow.
“You got too focused on riding,” Debbi had said.
That part was true. LeAnn was trying to get back on top after a disastrous couple of years brought on by her partying too hard and the last few months trying to be the girlfriend that Mick wanted, to make up for not sleeping with him. LeAnn had dressed the way he said to, had followed him around to wherever he wanted to go, and had listened quietly to all the toxic male bullshit that he and his friends like to spew after they’d had a few beers.
The last part had been the worst. She hated herself for becoming “that girl,” just to please him.
“I need to win,” LeAnn had said to Debbi.
“You need to grow up,” Debbi had told her. “You can’t blame a man like Mick for not wanting to babysit you. Maybe if you had kept him satisfied, he wouldn’t have had to sleep around.”
Fortunately, LeAnn knew bullshit when she heard it. “Or he could have broken up with me and slept around all he wanted. He cheated because that’s who he is.” And part of her wondered who Debbi was, if she could defend him.
LeAnn and Mick had done other things, of course, aside from sex. She wasn’t a nun. And it had been nice. Just not fireworks nice. She had been waiting for fireworks to happen, and she had said that to Debbi.
“That only happens in books and movies,” Debbi had snorted.
They were barrel racers. They had both been wronged by the same man. Debbi should have had her back. That was the girl code, right? She should have grabbed a pitchfork and threatened to geld him or something. But instead, she’d taken Mick’s side. And it had hurt like a bitch—a double betrayal that had left LeAnn reeling, and second-guessing herself.
“I’m an idiot too,” LeAnn said to Dylan, who was still holding her hand.
“Not from where I’m sitting,” he said.
“Mick told me what I wanted to hear. He said he respected my decision to wait until we got married to have sex. Did you know that he was sleeping with any sidepiece he could get his hands on, when I went back home after our dates?”
Mick had hit her with that awful fact when he had given up trying to talk his way out of the situation.
“I don’t make it a point to follow what Mick does. But I’m not surprised.”
“I was. That’s why I’m an idiot. He said that he didn’t mind waiting. That I was worth it. That he respected my decision. Of course, he didn’t mind waiting—he was getting sex anytime he waved his dick around.”
Dylan shook his head. “He’s a liar and a fool. He talks a lot of shit and he’s gotten his ass kicked more than once for it. He and I went toe-to-toe on a few things. He’s got a face made for punching.”
Her lips curved up in a reluctant smile. “If I wasn’t giving him what he wanted, why did he stick around as long as he did?” Mick had said it was because he loved her. Love would have kept his dick in his pants, though.
“Because he knew a good thing when he saw it,” Dylan said, sipping a beer.
“You,” Dylan said.
LeAnn wished she believed that. “I can’t even win a barrel race anymore,” she said miserably.
“Is that what you want to do?”
“I want to win.”
“You’ve won buckles in barrel racing. I think you’re looking for new challenges.”
New challenges. New start. New everything.
“I think you could take first in the bronc category this year,” Dylan said.
Hope filled her up, pushing out the grief. Her stats were good. She had busted her ass, determined to win and was on the right track, even if she had been slipping in rankings lately. LeAnn could let this thing with Mick screw her up or she could do what she should have done three years ago and put on her big girl panties and woman up to the challenge.
“You really think so?”
“Of course, you can,” he said.
It was nice to get the positive reinforcement. Her parents wanted her to quit the rodeo. Dolly wanted her to stop bronc riding and devote all her time to barrel racing until everyone forgot Killer Keller was a fuckup.
“You had it all, when you were winning the barrel-racing events,” Dolly said, thinking she was helping.
She hadn’t been.
“You haven’t won the bronc event yet. What makes you think you’re going to?” her father would ask.
“You’re spending too much time on the broncs,” her mother would chime in. “If you don’t start winning some events, you’re not going to be able to afford gas.”
That wasn’t strictly true. She still had some savings from her big wins from previous years. Unfortunately, the pandemic had put a huge dent in her finances. No rodeos meant no prize money. LeAnn had coasted for a few years, but this year was literally a go-big or go-home moment for her. And it looked like she’d be going home to Paris, Texas, at the end of the rodeo season this year.
Panic seized her at that thought. She did not want to go home. Not at the end of the season. Not when she’d failed to live her dream.
“I feel like my life is so out of control right now. I can’t win an event. My parents are on my case because of the bronc riding, and my sisters and I are together twenty-four seven in a Winnebago. At least when the season ends, they’ll go home and maybe I can catch a break.”
“What are you going to do in the off-season?”
“I need some space. I’ve got a couple of friends who could use some help on their ranches. I may go to a rodeo school to get more training. I definitely need more practice on broncs. I’ve let Mick and my social life get in the way of my career. I’ve got no one to blame for my latest bad scores, but myself.”
“The season ain’t over yet, Killer.”
LeAnn gripped the end of the bar hard enough to make her knuckles turn white. “I want to win that bronc category so bad I can taste it.”
“I’ve seen you ride. You can do anything that you want to do.”
She had to take a few minutes to process that. Dylan seemed content to watch her work through this. And she was content to let him hold her hand while she noticed the slight stubble on his strong jawline. She wondered idly if it would tickle her neck or be scratchy. Her breathing quickened.
“You’re good for my ego,” she said, looking away, feeling shy and self-conscious all of a sudden.
Some of the men in the Men’s Professional Rodeo Circuit of America weren’t as supportive as Dylan. LeAnn didn’t know why it was any of their business. The men had their own organization and the women had theirs. Aside from doing joint events every now and then, they had separate athletes, both two-legged and four-legged, separate rankings, and for the most part, different fans. The men’s group also had a bigger budget and got more television time, but LeAnn didn’t care. She liked competing against her peers in a more local setting. It felt more real. She wasn’t a TV star. She was a rodeo queen, and damned proud of it.
“Women have no business on broncs,” Mick had told her a few weeks ago. LeAnn wondered if that had been the beginning of the end. Or if it had been over long before that.
“It’s boring to watch,” another male bull rider had agreed with him when they had been hanging out at another generic bar after a rodeo that both organizations had promoted.
“It’s a novelty,” another one had chimed in. “It won’t even be an event next year.”
“I still beat your score,” LeAnn had told him, speaking up for the first time in defense of herself and her sport. What had taken her so long?
That had led to a lot of spluttering and mansplaining.
“You had an easier horse.”
“You get our rejects.”
“The judges go easier on the women.”
There wasn’t any arguing with them, but LeAnn still tried. It was exhausting, always trying to prove herself.
“You’ve taken a few kicks in the gut, but you’re a fighter,” Dylan said, bringing her thoughts back to the here and now. “That’s why they call you Killer.”
His words were better than the tequila. And the admiration in his dark eyes went to her head like a downed shot. Suddenly she didn’t want his thumb caressing her knuckles. She wanted his hands on other parts of her body. She shifted in her seat, as another flood of warmth filled her. A traitorous thought flitted through her. If Dylan had been her boyfriend, she wouldn’t have lasted a year before deciding that waiting until she was married wasn’t what she really wanted to do.
“I just have to get my head back in the game,” LeAnn said. She had to get her whole body into the game. She needed to make some changes in her life. She needed to do things her way, find her own path. She wasn’t going to be WPRC’s sweetheart anymore. That ship had sailed. But it didn’t mean it was the only ship in town. She just had to find out where she fit into all of this. She wasn’t a Wild Grayson Sister, and she wasn’t America’s sweetheart. She wasn’t just a daughter or a sister. And she sure as hell wasn’t Mick’s girlfriend.
So who was she?
She was a bronc rider.
“I’m going to win my next event.” That was a good of a place to start. That meant no more tequila or wallowing in self-pity. She pushed her glass away from her.
“Now, you’re talking.” Dylan saluted her with his beer bottle. “Liam, put the lady’s drinks on my tab.”
“You don’t have to do that,” LeAnn said.
“I want to.”
“Thanks.” Impulsively, she braced a hand on his shoulder and leaned in to give him a kiss.
She probably should have kissed him on the cheek. But before she could think about it, she brushed her lips against his.
Opening her eyes wide, she stared at him. He looked just as surprised as she did. So she did it again.
The third time, she wrapped her arms around his neck and brushed her tongue against his. Slowly, he kissed her until she was half in his lap and breathless. It wasn’t quite fireworks, not yet, but she was having a hard time pulling away from him.
“Sweetheart,” he said hoarsely. “You don’t want to do this.”
But she did. LeAnn didn’t want to talk anymore. She wanted to have sex with Dylan. She was more sure about that than she ever had been with Mick. Sure, it might have been the tequila influencing the decision. It might have roots as being just a revenge fuck. But she knew that that wasn’t entirely what it was. LeAnn wanted to take this next step in her life.
She felt safe with Dylan, loved being this close to him. Eyes half-closed, she wondered what it would be like to be pressed up against a barn, legs wrapped around his waist while he pounded into her.
That’s how she had caught Mick and the blond buckle bunny.
She let out a shuddering breath.
“You okay, Killer?” Dylan asked, concerned.
“I think I’m better than I’ve been in a long time,” she said, slowly opening her eyes. The hateful image of Mick cheating on her had been replaced with a fantasy of her and Dylan.
“Good,” he said. “You’re better off without Mick.” He trailed his fingers down her cheek and she leaned into the caress.
“I can see that now. I wasted so much time.”
“Let go of the past. You can’t change it. Concentrate on the now and what you want for the future.”
Those were damn fine words. He was right. It was time to start over. She was going to be a new LeAnn who didn’t care what the toxic cowboys thought. There was going to be a new commitment to excellence and success. She was going to rock the rest of the season.
And she was going to lose her virginity.
“What do you say? Want to get out of here?” LeAnn said, nuzzling his ear.
“Do you know where this will wind up if we do?” he asked, resting his hand on the small of her back. “Be sure this is what you want. No regrets.”
“I’ve been a good girl since the day I was born and look where it’s gotten me,” LeAnn said. “I spent the last four years trying to get back my Goody Two-shoes reputation. I’ve been ridiculed by lots of people for riding a bronc. I’ve had to fight my parents for every ounce of independence. I spent the last year with Mick doing everything in my power not to sleep with him. That should have told me he wasn’t the one.”
“What’s changed?” Dylan asked.
“I have. Now pay the tab and take me back to your hotel room.”
For a terrible moment, she thought he was going to turn her down.
But then a wide smile spread across his face. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
End of Excerpt