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“Someone get a rope on him, the chute gate isn’t latched,” Liam Neisson shouted as he clamored over the bucking chute where bulls and broncs burst into the Pineville, Oregon, rodeo arena. He’d just sent his newest, and rowdiest, bucking horse into the chute.
And Wild Bill wasn’t having it.
Rebelling against the confines of the metal-railed bucking chute, the big, brown-and-white pinto gelding tossed his head repeatedly, preventing Liam’s brother Drew from getting his lasso over the horse’s head. Wild Bill took exception to the attempts, rolling his eyes and blowing out puffs of agitated breaths that misted in the crisp September morning air. Clearly, Wild Bill had decided to live up to his name. But Liam needed to acclimate the bronc to the chutes and noise of the arena before the start of the High Desert Rodeo in two days.
Liam balanced himself on the gate rails on the arena side of the chute and reached for the spring-loaded lever latch. Before he could secure the latch, Wild Bill threw his shoulder into the gate and sent it swinging open. It was all Liam could do to retain his grip and ride the gate backward as the gelding burst into the arena in a bucking frenzy. Even without a sheepskin flank strap fastened behind the widest part of the horse’s abdomen, let alone a rider on his back, the bronc kicked wild and high.
Liam grinned. The way the horse clearly loved to buck was exactly why he had blown a huge chunk of the budget his grandfather had allocated him for this season’s broncos on Wild Bill at auction. Now all Liam had to do was find a stud who could buck as well as Wild Bill for his breeding program. Then he would be able to prove to his grandfather once and for all that the Wright Ranch could be known for supplying the rankest bucking horses as well as standout bucking bulls.
His older brother Ian might be the perfect Neisson to inherit the job of running the entire Wright Ranch rodeo rough stock operation, but Liam was determined to bring value to the ranch, also, with his broncs.
It was the least he could do after failing to save his mother from being injured by one of his grandfather’s bulls. Injuries that had ultimately proved fatal.
As much as Liam would have liked to watch Wild Bill buck until he wore himself out, the start of the High Desert County regional rodeo was only two days away, so the arena was downright crowded. The rodeo court had been practicing one of their mounted flag-bearing routines and had to scatter to avoid the bronc’s unpredictable path. A roping team who’d been practicing their throws were caught with their ropes on the dirt and had no choice but to head to the rails as they rushed to recoil their lassos.
“Liam! Here!” Drew held out the lasso he’d recoiled from his spot on the catwalk.
Liam reached across the empty chute the gate had come to rest against and grabbed the lasso from his younger brother. He jumped down from the gate onto the deep loam of the arena and extracted himself from between the gate and chute railing.
Before he could start out into the arena after Bill, a blur of buckskin and long dark brunette hair blasted past him, pelting him with small clods of dirt.
Amanda Rodrigues. His little sister’s best friend for as long as he could remember rode her barrel racer quarter horse, Rumbles, at a full gallop toward Wild Bill. Her pale pink western-style shirt billowed and the late morning sun sparked off her bedazzled jeans pockets as she leaned forward in the saddle. Her cream felt cowboy hat flew from her head, fully unleashing her hair in a dark flag streaming gloriously behind her.
“Amanda, don’t!” Liam shouted. In the short time he’d had the gelding, Liam had learned Wild Bill was long on attitude and short on manners.
As if putting Liam’s thoughts to action, Wild Bill twisted in midair to aim his rear hooves toward Amanda and Rumbles. The nimble barrel horse cut sideways, deftly avoiding Bill’s flying hooves but nearly unseated Amanda.
His heart in his throat, Liam ran toward them as fast as the soft footing allowed and started swinging the lasso loop over his head. But he was still too far away to make an effective throw.
Liam’s gut twisted. He couldn’t allow anyone to get hurt, especially his sister’s headstrong best friend.
Despite his warning and the gelding’s erratic leaps and bucks, Amanda guided her smaller mare next to the bronc and leaned sideways in the saddle, reaching for his halter. The woman had no sense.
“No, Amanda!” Liam yelled, willing her to listen to him.
If she actually got a hold of the halter, one swing of Wild Bill’s head would yank her clean out of the saddle and probably dislocate her arm. Bill had draft horse somewhere in his lineage, evident in his size and strength. His temperament was one hundred percent ornery-ass horse.
Before Liam could get close enough to throw his lasso, Amanda made another grab for Wild Bill’s halter. Liam’s pulse stuttered. It figured she hadn’t listened to him. While growing up, Amanda and Caitlin only ever listened to Ian. And Grandfather, of course.
Swinging the lasso faster to compensate for the distance his throw would have to cover, Liam realized Amanda wasn’t actually trying to grab Wild Bill’s halter, she was trying to clip a lead line onto the bronc.
Anchored by a hand gripping her saddle horn, she leaned what seemed impossibly far to the side and timed her attempts to Bill’s head tosses as he bucked. The metallic click of the lead line fastener successfully finding purchase on one of the halter’s O-rings reached him and Amanda righted herself in the saddle. With lightning-fast movements she wrapped the other end of the lead around her saddle horn.
Okay, maybe she had a little sense.
She urged Rumbles into an easy canter, and the mare’s forward momentum forced Wild Bill to settle and follow along at the end of the lead line.
Liam let the lasso fall slack at his side as Amanda eased Rumbles and Wild Bill down to a trot, then a walk. She slowly shortened the lead rope until the big gelding’s nose was at her knee and she reined her mare in an easy turn, heading back toward where he stood.
“Woot! Amanda, you rock,” Drew said as he ran up beside Liam. He’d retrieved Amanda’s hat from the dirt and was waving it above his head.
The others in the arena whooped and clapped.
Liam’s gaze returned to Amanda and stuck. He should be watching his gelding’s gait for any sign of injury that might have been sustained while breaking out of the chute, but Liam couldn’t drag his attention from the beautiful woman riding her buckskin toward him.
No longer restrained by the cowboy hat she’d lost, her long, dark brunette curls bounced in a wild cloud around her heart-shaped face. She was positively beaming with blatant satisfaction for successfully wrangling his wayward bronc.
Damn, when the hell had she become so pretty?
Actually, he knew exactly when. Earlier that summer at the Pineville Rodeo, Liam had been knocked back on his boot heels by the realization that the little dark-haired girl who’d practically lived at the Wright Ranch aiding and abetting his sister in her shenanigans had grown into a real beauty. Beautiful and fearless.
The memory of Amanda’s hand pressed against his chest, right over his heart, had haunted him since the day she’d helped Caitlin stop him from giving Bodie Hadley what he deserved. At least what Liam had thought Bodie deserved at the time. But now that it was clear how much Caitlin loved Bodie, and because Liam loved his sister, Bodie was officially off the hook for his part in cousin Charlie’s death. Liam had immediately squashed the zing of attraction Amanda’s touch had sent through him at the time because she was Amanda.
“You’re catchin’ flies, bro.”
Snapping his mouth shut, Liam yanked his attention from Amanda and leveled his best glare at Drew for using one of their youngest brother Alec’s favorite jabs. The anger always lurking just below Liam’s skin flared, itchy and hot. It was as though an invisible, full-body rash had engulfed him the day he’d simply stood frozen in place and watched his grandfather’s best bucking bull chase his mom and sister down in the paddock Liam had been repairing. Mom had saved Caitlin with a shove, but no one had been near enough to save Mom. No one except him, and he had just stood there and watched.
From that day forward, Liam had been angry. Angry at himself for not leaping to action the second the bull had entered the paddock on the heels of his mom and sister. Angry at the strangling powerlessness that had consumed him in that moment and that he’d never managed to shake. Angry that he secretly believed he’d lost his chance to do what he wanted in life, whatever that might have been, when he’d failed to act quickly enough to save his mom from harm. He needed to stay on the ranch to ensure everyone else he cared about stayed safe.
Drew held up his empty hand as if in surrender and took a step back. “Easy. Nothing wrong with admiring a pretty lady.”
Liam curled his lip at his brother for reading him with so little effort.
Drew turned his attention to Amanda as she approached and said loudly enough for her to hear, “Pretty and badass!”
Amanda grinned and acknowledged the compliment with a flourishing bow over her saddle horn.
Brushing the arena dirt from her cowboy hat’s felt, Drew stepped toward her. “You are my hero, Amanda Rodrigues.” He handed her the hat.
She took her hat and returned it to her head, once again containing her wild curls. “You are easily impressed, Drew Neisson.”
His grin said she wasn’t wrong.
Liam rolled his eyes at his clown of a brother and set to recoiling the lasso he hadn’t had the chance to use with quick, jerky movements.
Amanda lifted the reins and urged Rumbles and Wild Bill forward. Stopping in front of Liam, she unwound the lead rope she’d attached to the gelding’s halter from her saddle horn and handed it to him. “This big guy belongs to you, I believe.”
He glared at the braided, red nylon lead in her hand for a long moment before handing the lasso to Drew and taking the lead from her. He should have been quicker throwing the chute gate latch home. He should have had a rope on Wild Bill before sending him into the chute. He should have been the one to wrangle the gelding to keep those in the arena safe.
His entire life was one big should have.
Amanda made a noise in the back of her throat. “You’re welcome.”
He met her gaze. “You could have been hurt.” When had her eyes turned such a beautiful, rich shade of chocolate brown?
She smiled widely and made an all-encompassing gesture at the arena. “Rodeo.”
He had to work at holding on to his irritation. She was right, yet again. By definition, rodeos were dangerous in some shape or form. But it was up to people like him to make the arena as safe as possible. His rough stock was his responsibility.
And he should have known Amanda wouldn’t listen to him when he’d yelled for her to stop. She had always been too stubborn and willful for her own good. She and Caitlin had been a real handful.
“Why are you here?” His gaze traveled over her pink western-style shirt and jeans, doing his best to ignore the very feminine shape beneath them. “You aren’t a member of this rodeo’s court.”
Her grin said she was tickled he’d noticed. How could he not when she looked so delectable in fringes and sequins?
“Nope. Not this rodeo. Rumbles and I were practicing our starts.” She patted her buckskin mare’s sleek neck and smoothed her black mane. “Rumbles is rusty with me spending so much time working with Whiskey Throttle.”
Liam’s focus was instantly on what Amanda was saying rather than on how her mouth looked as she said it. Amanda’s uncle, Federico “Old Red” Rodrigues, had just that morning been complaining to Liam about how the new stud he had acquired for their barrel horse breeding program would rather buck than run barrels.
The exact kind of stallion Liam needed for his bronc breeding program.
Now he just needed to convince Amanda to sell the horse to him. Red had told him that, as of her twenty-fifth birthday, Amanda was the boss at the Sky High Ranch per her late parents’ will. And Amanda was not only known for being very attached to her horses, but also for refusing to give up on any of them. Or anything, for that matter.
Taking a beat to make sure the excitement building inside him didn’t leak into his voice, Liam smoothed a hand over Wild Bill’s satiny muzzle. The gelding had calmed considerably since bursting from the bucking chute but he was still blowing hard from his exertion.
“Whiskey Throttle?” he asked as casually as he could.
“My new stallion. He’s sweet as pie, but…” She trailed off, fiddling with her reins as if loath to admit the horse’s failings.
Being a bucking machine was no failing in Liam’s book, it was money in the bank. “But?” he prompted.
She heaved a sigh. “He’s a little rough around the edges.”
“How so?” he pressed. He wanted to hear her say the words.
“He’s not entirely trained to the saddle.”
That was one way to say the horse tried to launch anyone to the moon who dared to climb on his back. Liam nodded, all sage-like. But inside, anticipation bubbled.
Drew slung the now coiled lasso over his shoulder. “Is he the big red roan who keeps putting you in the dirt? Old Red says there’s no way in hell you’ll break that one of bucking.”
Liam shot his brother a glare. Amanda would never agree to sell the horse if she believed she’d failed somehow.
“I don’t break my horses, Drew. I train them.” She shifted in the saddle and stroked Rumbles’s mane again. “I just need more time with him.”
Drew gestured up at her left wrist. “You sure you’ll survive him?”
Liam noticed the athletic tape her wrist was wrapped in peeking from beneath the cuff of her sleeve. She’d been hurt. His insides twisted again, just like they had when she’d reached for Wild Bill’s halter. He didn’t like the thought of Amanda hurt.
She glanced down at her tapped wrist. “Absolutely. This is nothing.” But she tugged her cuff down and crossed her other wrist over it as if to hide the injury.
Drew scoffed, clearly not buying Amanda’s bravado any more than Liam was. “Yeah, well, good luck with that.” He hitched the lasso higher on his shoulder. “And good luck with your races this weekend.”
Drew tipped his black cowboy hat to her and sauntered away.
Liam scratched Bill’s cheek beneath his halter and decided to test the waters. “You know, I just happen to be on the hunt for a new stud for my bucking horse program.”
Amanda uncrossed her wrists and tugged at her cuff again. “So?”
“So…” Liam dropped his gaze to Wild Bill and freed a hank of the gelding’s dark brown forelock from beneath the blue nylon halter. “If you decide you can’t train the buck out of Whiskey Throttle, I’d consider buying him from you.”
“You’d consider it?”
Her sharp tone brought his gaze back to hers to see if he’d offended her. He had. He mentally shrugged. He’d rather have her angry with him than injured by a horse meant more for the bucking bronc circuit than barrel racing or even just pleasure riding. “If he checks out, of course.”
Yep, she was offended. “I can stop by your place sometime and take a look at him—”
“No need, Liam. I’ll have Whiskey running barrels by the end of the month.”
The woman did like a challenge. Liam grinned up at her. “I look forward to seeing that. And if not, I’ll buy him from you.”
“If he checks out.” Her tone dripped sarcasm.
“Of course.” He mimicked her, minus the sarcasm, his grin widening.
The horse was as good as his, if what Red said about the stallion refusing to be ridden was true. Which Liam didn’t doubt, because if anyone around here knew their horseflesh, it was Old Red.
The only problem Liam could foresee was Amanda’s stubbornness and refusal to admit defeat. Not to mention his admiration for her. This was Amanda, after all.
End of Excerpt