Kyle knew from second number three he wouldn’t survive this ride. The bull twisted like a demon, Kyle’s hand slipped, and the crowd groaned.
He and the bull went up in the air, hung for a long moment, and descended, the animal’s legs hitting the earth like piledrivers. Kyle’s body jolted, his teeth clacking, the strap burning through his glove.
Waves of noise poured from the crowd. Half the county wanted to see him on his ass, and half wanted him to win, to be their champion. The ride would give Kyle enough points toward this year’s finals, another belt to hang in his trophy room.
But determination, guts, and the prospect of the win were no substitute for a good grip, no defense against a bull that had been bred in hell.
Kyle put aside his ego and looked for a soft place to land.
He made it to 5.318 seconds before he was airborne. The bull spun in place, and Kyle saw its gigantic horns waiting to gouge him when he came down.
There was a flash of fiery red hair and dead-white faces as a pair of rodeo clowns dashed from the rail to chase the bull out of Kyle’s path.
Kyle tried to roll with the fall, tucking in for the landing, but the ground rushed up too fast. He hit the dirt—hard—and heard the crack of ribs.
The bull broke evaded the clowns in the ring and lumbered back to Kyle, rage in every stride.
He had to get up off his ass, but his legs weren’t working. Shit, had he busted a knee? An ankle? Not his foot, he hoped fervently. Foot bones were a bitch to heal and having to ask his brother to help him walk would rankle.
Kyle seriously couldn’t get up. The only thing worse than taking a bad fall and hobbling away was being tossed out of the ring by the bull. He’d seen it happen, and it looked like it could happen to him today.
At the last second, the burlier of the two clowns jumped in front of the bull then ran like hell when the bull focused on him. Kyle’s vision blurred as the second clown trotted to him and leaned down to peer at him.
Kyle blinked as he took in butter-yellow hair under the wild red wig and sky-blue eyes in a worried face. The white and red clown makeup couldn’t disguise the sweet curve of her cheek, just like the plaid shirt and jeans didn’t hide her compact, shapely body.
What the fuck?
“Anna …” Kyle tried to say, but the word was a croak.
Anna Lawler, Riverbend’s large animal vet—Dr. Anna as she was fondly called—put a surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder. “Hold still.”
“Are you shitting me?” His voice was cracked, breathy. “What the hell are you doing in here? That’s one crazy bull. Get the hell out.”
Anna ignored him. She ran small but competent hands down Kyle’s arms and over his ribcage—Kyle groaned—and down his belly to his thighs.
“Damn, darlin’. Wait ’til we’re in private.”
Anna didn’t bother to tell him to shut up. She probed all the way down his thighs, pushing at his kneecaps then down his shins to his ankles. No stabbing pain, thank God.
The bull swept by, driven into the pen beyond the chute by the burly clown and a couple more who’d joined the chase. Only Kyle and Anna remained in the ring with the crowd clapping and stomping as they chanted his name, waiting to see whether he lived or died.
Anna did the same test on his arms and gloved hands before she beckoned to the burly clown who’d jogged back in. Hal Jenkins was a brute of a man, his face barely softened by the rosy cheeks and paint outlining his mouth. A former bull rider who’d given it up after one too many falls, Hal was a good wrangler and tough as an ox.
Hal wrapped an arm around Kyle’s shoulders and hauled him up. Anna was on Kyle’s other side, bracing him as he found his balance.
Anna was a nice bundle under his arm, her hair smelling of flowers instead of dirt and cow shit. The scent cut through Kyle’s pain, made him want to sink into her, tell Jenkins to lose himself, flow down into the warm scent of Anna Lawler.
Where she’d rip him a new one. Anna was by no means a sweet, gentle soul—except with animals. They loved her.
Kyle steadied himself, letting go of his rescuers to show he was okay. He waved at the crowd, and they cheered.
His biggest fans, the clump of women with T-shirts bearing his name or slogans like “Bull Riders Do It Harder,” called to him, asking if he was badly hurt. Could they kiss it better? And more suggestive remedies.
Aware of Anna’s belligerent scowl, Kyle waved once more. He blew one or two kisses at the ladies and then let Jenkins and Anna guide him, pain kicking his ass now, out of the ring.
* * *
A couple of busted ribs and a lot of pulled muscles meant the season was over for Kyle.
He’d been injured before from falling off bulls, and a couple of times from rock climbing, but never this far into a great year. He’d been in the lead, had already landed a couple of nice money prizes, and had a fine chance at the grand championship. Sponsors had been sniffing around, anxious for Kyle Malory to endorse their products—the money they were talking about was substantial. So, of course, he’d had to draw the nastiest bull on the circuit and knock himself out of the running.
As he hunkered down at home to recover, Kyle came to understand what “fair-weather friends” meant. By three weeks into his recovery—pain meds, doctor appointments, and physical therapy—pretty much everyone had deserted him.
During his few days in the hospital, a handful of the buckle bunnies had come to cheer him up. He hadn’t been able to drink the beer they’d brought him, but that was okay—they downed plenty of it themselves and crawled all over him when the nurses’ backs were turned. He’d had to tell them to go when their enthusiasm kept jabbing his ribs, which hurt like hell. His libido had backed way off, hiding in a corner, while pain won first place.
Once Kyle was home, and it was clear he wasn’t coming out of his house for a while, his supporters dropped away one by one. The sponsors wanted a bull rider who could actually ride and win. The ladies wanted a guy they could parade around to their friends and who wasn’t too sore to do the deed.
The guy groupies who followed his career—and yeah, some wanted to sleep with him too—found another rider to cheer for. Even Kyle’s closest friends started to have other things to do than visit an increasingly morose dude who could barely walk from his bed to the bathroom.
After a while, the only people Kyle saw were his brother and youngest sister. His second sister, Lucy, had high-tailed it back to her life in Houston once she’d realized Kyle was going to live. She had a squillionaire boss boyfriend who doted on her, and Kyle couldn’t blame her for bailing. Even his mom went home to Austin, although Kyle had to more or less shovel her out the door. Kyle was out of danger, but now the healing had to commence.
That left Ray, who was busy running the ranch and doing his own thing, and baby sister Grace, who had a husband and family on the other side of town and couldn’t devote much time to her favorite brother anymore.
Which meant that most of the days and some of the nights, Kyle was completely alone.
Kyle sat at the window of his bedroom on one of his alone days, wishing his pain meds would let him have a beer. The meds made his world a little hazy, but it wasn’t the same as a beer buzz. Beer buzzes came with friends, pool games, talking about whatever, and getting laid. Meds just made him queasy.
The business of the ranch rolled on below. Ray and Kyle trained cutting horses and raised a few of their own. They usually ran a small herd of cattle, fifty head at most. Ranching ate time, and Ray was doing a lot of Kyle’s grunt work now.
Kyle could still answer the phone and dink with the computer, but most of that was left to a secretary down in the office. She wasn’t a cute fluffball of a secretary in a tight sweater by any means. Margaret was fifty-two, sun-bronzed and wiry from her years of riding and roping, and she didn’t take shit from anyone. She also knew a lot about running a ranch, having worked for the Malorys for years. Kyle kept out of her way.
The only refreshing note in the tedium of his days was Anna.
Not that she came to visit Kyle or even to ask if he was all right. Her visits were purely professional, about the horses and cattle. With as many animals as the Malorys had, one was always getting sick, so Anna was a frequent caller.
Kyle’s room overlooked a sweep of field that rolled to a cottonwood-lined creek at the end of their property. The land was lush and green, and now in September, the deep blue sky spread its glory above the ranch, a cool breeze creeping in through Kyle’s open window.
Below him, Anna, with chaps over her jeans and a leather apron protecting her chest, fired up her portable forge to replace a shoe Ray’s favorite horse had thrown.
Kyle watched as Anna guided the blue roan to the hitching post in the open space between house and riding rings, and tied his lead rope in a competent slip knot. She then busied herself around the forge, putting her rasps and tongs within easy reach, filling a vast bucket with water.
She was the most interesting thing Kyle saw out this window, that was for sure. Anna wore her blond hair in one long braid, the end of which touched her belt when she stood up. Her jeans molded to a fantastic ass, and her loose shirt made him imagine all kinds of wonders beneath it.
Anna caressed the roan’s fetlock until he raised his foot, happy to rest it in Anna’s lap. Horse wasn’t stupid. Anna scraped its hoof with her file to even it out and smooth it to take the shoe.
Once that was done, she tested a ready-made shoe against the hoof then grasped the shoe with her tongs and thrust it into the hot forge. When the shoe glowed red, she removed it from the forge, positioned it on her anvil, and bent to tap the shoe into shape.
The best part. Kyle forgot about his pain, his meds, his boredom, his loneliness. He got lost in Anna’s shapely ass as she leaned over the shoe, her body moving as she hammered the hot iron.
He never had found out what the hell she’d been doing in the ring when he’d taken his fall. She’d been playing rodeo clown, but why? She could’ve gotten herself seriously hurt.
Anna plunged the shoe into her bucket of water, the loud hiss reaching Kyle in his room. She tested the cooled iron against the roan’s hoof once more and returned to heat and tap the shoe again.
When Anna rose to thrust the hot shoe once more into the water, she glanced up and saw Kyle in his window. Her smooth, serene face crumpled into an immediate scowl.
Kyle felt his mouth stretching, and realized he was grinning like a fool. But hell, he was on meds, and she was the best thing he’d seen in a long time.
A slow flush reddened Anna’s face as she realized she’d been pointing her butt toward his window. “Enjoying the view?” she called up to him.
Kyle’s grin widened. “I sure am.”
Anna glared. “Back off, Kyle. I’m trying to do my job.”
“Go ahead. I don’t mind.”
“Well, I do. Get out of that window and stop staring at me.”
Kyle gave her a lazy salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
He’d leave the window if that made her feel better. In fact, he was motivated to heave himself to his feet, grab the cane his doctor insisted on, and hobble from his room, down the stairs, and outside to the porch.Return to Kyle