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The saccharine voice raised a warning flag inside Gavin Tucker's head. Bracing himself, he stepped away from the bucking chute at the Piney Gorge Rodeo and faced Veronica Patriot with a groan. "Veronica."
The woman took buckle bunnying to a whole new level. She'd been pursuing Gavin since he'd joined the circuit back in May after he'd left the army. The middle of August had arrived and the blonde piranha showed no signs of tiring.
Gavin adjusted the spurs on his boots, hoping she'd take his silence as a hint and mosey along. At first, he'd found Veronica's infatuation amusing. He'd become accustomed to pretty women fawning over him whenever he'd worn his military uniform and the same held true for his cowboy getupWranglers, boots and a Stetson.
Gavin's ability to attract the opposite sex had come in handy during his furloughs from the army. One look at his combat boots and women had fallen into his bed willingly. He'd honed his survival skills on the battlefield and used them to pick ladies who wanted nothing from him but a good time and a goodbye. A sixth sense told him that Veronica had more on her mind than a quickie.
"You don't appear all that happy to see your biggest fan." She puckered her glossy lips.
A weaker man might tuck tail and run, but Gavin wasn't easily intimidated. "I'm not interested in hooking up." Ever.
"Did you and Dixie have a spat?"
Dixie Cash. The petite brunette hadn't crossed Gavin's mind since the morning he'd dropped her off in the parking lot of the Spittoon bar last month. He fought a smile as he recalled the first time he'd caught a glimpse of herclimbing onto a bull named Listless at the Canyon City Rodeo back in June. For an instant he'd seen in her a kindred spirit when Listless had thrown her. Dixie had limped from the arena with a smile on her pixie face as if she'd had the time of her life wrestling fifteen-hundred pounds of orneriness, then she'd stumbled over his gear bag and right into his arms. Her face had burned red and he'd thought her embarrassment oddly sweet.
"Dixie's a friend." Friend sounded better than one-night stand.
"I can be that kind of friend, too." Veronica's gaze dropped to Gavin's crotch.
His face heatednot because of Veronica's lewd stare. He'd made a mistake when he'd crossed the line with Dixie, yet he'd had no choice but to move on and put that night behind him.
Short of being mean, Gavin said, "Pick another cowboy. I'm not interested in what you're offering."
"When you tire of your little bull rider and decide you want a real woman, I'll be waiting."
One of Gavin's competitors let out a wolf whistle as Veronica strutted off. "I wouldn't complain if she followed me through the copper state."
"Careful what you wish for," Gavin mumbled. Now that he was rid of the annoying buckle bunny he checked the arena for Dixie. He recognized Shannon Douglas mingling behind the chutes with a few of the lady bull riders from the Boot Hill Rodeo, but Dixie was nowhere in sight. She'd probably viewed their one-night stand as a mistake, too, and wanted to avoid running into him.
Turning his thoughts inward, Gavin focused on his ride as he secured his protective vest. After wearing bulletproof gear as part of his military uniform, he felt comfortable in the constricting rodeo garment.
"Welcome to the Piney Gorge Rodeo and Livestock Show!" A thunderous din reverberated through the small outdoor arena. Gavin loved rodeo fans. The men and women were die-hard loyalists to the sport much the way soldiers were dedicated to their units.
"Up next this fine Saturday afternoon is bareback riding! Bareback horses are leaner and quicker than those used for saddle bronc riding and the cowboys sure do take a beating in this event." The announcer paused.
A commotion in the cowboy ready area caught Gavin's attention. The Cash brothers had arrived. Dixie had mentioned that her mother had named her siblings after country-western singers. Right then Johnny, the eldest Cash brother, spotted Gavin. The speculative gleam in the man's eyes unnerved him. Had Dixie told Johnny she'd spent the night with Gavin in his motel room?
He and Dixie hadn't made a big deal over sleeping together. He'd enjoyedmake that had really enjoyedmaking love to Dixie, but the country girl wasn't his usual type. The things he'd seen and experienced during his years in the military would only contaminate a young woman as pure as Dixie.
Johnny broke eye contact first, and Gavin shook his head to clear his thoughts. Today he intended to make it to eight. Luck hadn't been with him this summerthe highest he'd placed was fourth. If he didn't get his rodeo act together and pull off a few wins, he'd eat through his savings in no time flat and be forced to find a civilian job. Having to quit the circuit before he was ready was all the motivation Gavin needed to climb onto another wild bronc.
"Ladies and gentlemen, turn your attention to chute number three. Gavin Tucker from Phoenix, Arizona, is about to tangle with Cisco Kid, a bronc known for throwin' cowboys on their heads. Let's see if Tucker can best Cisco Kid."
Gavin blocked out the arena noise as he fussed with his rigginga heavy piece of leather with a suitcaselike handle attached to it. He flexed his gloved fingers until his grip felt comfortable. A deep breath later, he nodded and Cisco Kid bolted from the chute. Gavin marked out, ignoring the jolting pain shooting through his shoulder caused by the gelding's powerful bucks and lightning speed.
The racket inside Gavin's head quieted as the thrill of the physical torture the horse inflicted rushed through his body. Cisco Kid made a final attempt to spin but Gavin spurred harder and the bronc gave up. Feeling a victory at hand, he relaxed his guard too soon and Cisco Kid tossed him on his arse. Gavin missed the buzzer by one second. Back in the cowboy ready area he gathered his gear. This time he spotted Veronica before she startled him.
"Change your mind about me?" She'd brought a friend alonga redhead with glittery eye shadow. "Candi's up for a little fun," Veronica said.
A threesome? No thanks. Even in his wildest days, Gavin had never gotten into the kinky stuff. Call him old-fashioned, but one woman at a time was plenty. "Sorry, Veronica" he swung his gaze to glitter girl "and Candi. Gotta hit the road." A ride in Wicken-burg awaited him.
Candi popped a pink bubble with her chewing gum. "Maybe next time?"
Not a chance. He touched a finger to the brim of his hat then grabbed his bag and left the arena. The sooner he put a few miles between him and those two the better.
An hour down the road, Gavin noticed a billboard advertising Millie's World Famous Hotcakes. He took the exit ramp and pulled into a parking lot crowded with eighteen-wheelers. Gavin found an empty stool at the end of the lunch counter. He rested his hat on his knee and flipped over the white mug in front of him.
A gray-haired waitress named Peggy strolled by with a coffeepot and filled the cup. "Didn't make it to eight?" She offered a sympathetic smile.
"Not today." Not in a long while.
"You ain't alone, handsome." Peggy nodded to a table where three cowboys sat, one with an ice pack strapped to his shoulder. "Special's barbecue ribs and corn bread."
"That'll do." While he waited for his meal he mulled over his schedule. The Wickenburg rodeo had a decent purse. If he made the final go-round he'd be guaranteed a share of the prize money. If he lost he'd head down the road.
A self-admitted rodeo junkie, Gavin got high on the buzz and danger of riding bucking stock. Feeding his adrenaline addiction was his number one priority because it fueled his strengthstrength he needed to run from the demons that had followed him home from war.
"How was the rodeo?" Dixie asked her brother Johnny when he walked into the kitchen of their grandparents' farmhouse early Saturday evening. She was dying for news about a particular bareback rider, but as soon as her brothers had returned from the Piney Gorge Rodeo they'd gone to their bedrooms to nap.
"Merle made it to the final round before getting thrown." Johnny grabbed a beer from the fridge, then sat at the kitchen table. "Shannon said she hopes your ankle feels better soon."
Dixie's cheeks warmed. She'd discovered she was pregnant two weeks after the Boot Hill Rodeo in July. She'd hated to disappoint Shannon and give up the third thousand-dollar payoff, but she hadn't dared risk the baby's health. She'd told Shannon and the other women about her pregnancy but had asked that they keep it a secret and to tell anyone who inquired after her whereabouts that she'd sprained her anklethe excuse she'd given her brothers when she'd told them she wasn't competing today.
"Anything else exciting happen at the rodeo?" she asked.
"Depends on what you consider exciting."
"I suppose Veronica Patriot was there." Dixie fussed with the dishes in the sink while contemplating her dilemmahow to glean information about a certain cowboy without drawing her brother's suspicion.
"Veronica's hot on Gavin Tucker's tail." Johnny chuckled. "He got thrown in the first round then split."
"Did Veronica leave the rodeo with Gavin?" Drat, the question slipped from her mouth.
"Why do you care if Tucker went off with Veronica?"
"I don't." After Dixie had spent the night in Gavin's motel room she'd returned to the farm the following morning and confessed she'd stayed at a friend's house because she'd had too much to drink at the Spittoon.
Johnny tossed his empty beer bottle into the garbage and made a beeline for the back door.
"Hey, you promised to fix the shelf in the barn cellar."
"Conway said he'd take a look at it."
Conway Twitty was the fifth born Cash son. All six of her brothers had different fathers. Only Dixie and Johnny shared the same daddy. Her mother had come full circle in her quest for the perfect man and had reunited with her first love, Charlie Smith, only to become pregnant with Dixie. Aimee Cash had never married any of the men she'd slept with, so Dixie and her brothers had taken her surnameCash.
Dixie and Johnny had the same dark brown hair and blue eyes, which they'd inherited from Charlie. Their brothers had brown eyes and various shades of blondish-brown hair like their mother. "Conway's preoccupied," Dixie said.
"Is he still pouting because Sara broke up with him?"
"I think so." Conway was the handsomest of her brothers and women fawned all over him, which derailed his love life on a regular basis. Each time he found the one, another woman would happen along and tempt him to cheat. Then when the one caught him two-timing, she'd send Conway packing and her brother would mope like a coon dog left home on hunt day.
"I'll look at the shelf before I leave tonight," Johnny said.
"You and Charlene have big plans?" Charlene was Johnny's longtime girlfriend. They'd been together six years and Johnny had yet to propose.
"We're going to the movies then back to her place afterward."
None of her brothers brought their significant others to the farm. Paper-thin walls and shared bedrooms prevented any privacy, not to mention having only one bathroom in the house.
"What about you?" Johnny winked. "Got a hot date?"
Right then Dixie's stomach seized and she bolted from the kitchen. She took the stairs two at a time then skidded to a stop in front of the bathroom door. One hand clamped over her mouth and the other pounding the door, she fought the urge to vomit.
"Go away! I'm reading," Porter Wagoner shouted.
Ignoring the bedroom doors creaking open behind her and Johnny's shadow darkening the top of the stairs, Dixie banged her fist harder. Blast you, Porter. She spun, intent on dashing outside, but Johnny blocked her escape.
Oh, well. Dixie threw up on his boots.
"Eew!" Willie Nelson chuckled.
"I'll fetch the mop." Merle Haggard leaped over the contents of Dixie's stomach and hurried to the kitchen.
"Sorry." Dixie wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.
"What's all the commotion?" Porter emerged from the bathroom, his eyes widening at the mess covering Johnny's boots.
"Have you been drinking Grandpa's pecan whiskey, sis?" Conway asked.
She ignored her brother's sarcastic joke.
"I see your ankle sprain has miraculously healed." Johnny's gaze drilled Dixie.
"You think it's food poisoning?" Buck Owens asked in his usual quiet voice.
"No. I drank too much coffee today and skipped supper." Growing up the youngest in the pack she'd learned from her brothers how to talk her way out of trouble.
Johnny pointed to the floor. "If all you've had to drink is coffee, what are those white chunks on my boots?"
Merle saved her from having to answer. "Here's the mop," he said, shoving the handle at Dixie.
Her stomach lurched and she tossed the mop back at her brother and fled to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Dixie offered up the remainder of her lunch to the porcelain god, then once her stomach settled, she sank to the floor between the toilet and the pedestal sink, too exhausted to face her brothers.
At only five weeks pregnant the morning sickness was hitting her hard. Amazing that her mother had gone through this so many timesby choice. Dixie holed up in the bathroom until the uproar in the hallway faded. Until Buck quit asking if she was okay. Until the shadows of her brothers' boots disappeared from beneath the door. Then she brushed her teeth and gargled with mouthwash. When she emerged from the bathroom, the hallway was empty save for Johnny sitting at the top of the stairs.
Through thick and thin her eldest brother had always been there for her. Dixie sank down next to him on the step. "I'm twenty-three, Johnny. A grown woman. I can take care of myself."
The hurt look in his eyes cut through her. She hated disappointing him and knew the last thing he wanted was for her to follow in their mother's footsteps.
"Are you pregnant?" he asked.
"Yes." She'd hoped to keep the secret a while lon-geruntil she decided when and how to tell Gavin.
"Who's the father?" he asked.
"I'm not ready to say."
Johnny gaped. "The guy's got a right to know he's fathered a child."
"I'll tell him." Eventually. When she was certain she could hold her ground with Gavin. Dixie had plans for the future and wouldn't allow anyoneincluding the baby's fatherto interfere with them.