Winning dominated Riley Fitzgerald's mind until the day he met Maria Alvarez. Now, all the rodeo champ can think about is winning Maria's heart—a task that may be tougher than busting broncs.
Beautiful, Older Teacher
As a struggling teacher of at-risk teens in an impoverished, gang-infested neighborhood, Maria doesn't trust the affections of a rich, hot-shot cowboy, especially one who's ten years her junior. But she can't deny the attraction between them—and luckily, Riley's never been one to back down from a challenge.
Is She Out Of Her Mind?
There's only one thing that's more important to Riley than earning another world title, and that's earning Maria's trust. He's got one chance to prove to Maria that he's all the man she'll ever need, and she's the only woman he'll ever want.
Marin Thomas grew up in the Midwest then attended college at the U of A in Tucson, Arizona, where she earned a B.A. in Radio-TV and played basketball for the Lady Wildcats. Following graduation she married her college sweetheart in the historical Little Chapel of the West in Las Vegas, Nevada. Recent empty nesters Marin and her husband now live in Texas, where cattle is king, cowboys are plentiful and pickups rule the road.
Friday afternoon, Riley Fitzgerald climbed out of a green Chevy cab in front of the Fremont County fairgrounds in Canon City, Colorado. The late-August sun slipped behind a puffy white cloud, casting a shadow over the livestock buildings. He offered the driver a hundred-dollar bill. "Keep the change, Rosalinda."
"A pleasure, Mr. Fitzgerald." The owner of Canon City Cab was old enough to be Riley's grandmother and just as dependable. On his approach to the Fremont County Airport, he'd radioed the control tower to arrange a cab ride for him to the Royal Gorge Rodeo. "Good luck today." Rosalinda waved then drove off.
Riley slung his gear bag over his shoulder and cut across the parking lot.
"Hey, Riley!" A petite blonde sashayed toward him, her perky breasts bouncing beneath a hot pink T-shirt with the words Cowgirls Ride Better printed in black lettering across the front.
Sugar waited tables at Dirty Lil's—a roadhouse where cowboys hung out and swapped eight-second stories. Their one and only lusty kiss three years ago had been a bust, but they'd remained good friends. "Did you miss me?" Riley asked.
"Heck yeah, I missed my biggest tipper." She slipped her arm through his and walked with him to the cowboy-ready area. "You're comin' to the bar later, right?"
"You bet." Maintaining his championship swagger had become increasingly difficult when he hadn't hit a top-three finish since his July 4th win in South Dakota seven weeks ago.
"Hey, Fitzgerald!" Billy Stover waved his cowboy hat. The bronc rider occupied first place in the standings. "Showin' up kind of late in the day, aren't you?" Stover eyed Sugar while Riley signed in for his event.
"Couldn't catch a tailwind with the Cessna." Riley felt a zap of satisfaction at the smack-down. No matter how great Stover became at bronc-bustin', the cowboy would never earn the amount of money Riley had at his disposal on a day-to-day basis.
No sense trying to downplay his wealth when the media made sure Riley's competitors and rodeo fans knew the Fitzgeralds of Lexington, Kentucky, were rolling in dough. He'd heard the whispers behind the chutes—spoiled rich kid had nothing better to do with his time than play cowboy.
After graduating from college with a marketing degree, he'd bypassed the family business—Kentucky Derby horses and a century-old bourbon distillery—and had hit the rodeo circuit, living off his trust fund. Other than sharing a love for the sport, he didn't have a whole lot in common with the average rodeo cowboy. He knew horseflesh—the racing kind—but next to nothing about punching cows, which was what most rodeo contenders did to earn money between rides.
"Forgot you flew your own plane," Stover said.
"You'd forget your brain if it wasn't trapped inside your skull."
Stover spit tobacco juice, the glob landing inches from the toe of Riley's boot. "A win tonight ain't gonna put you back in the running." Listening to the man's crap would be a lot less painful if Riley lasted eight seconds in the saddle. His dismal performance the past month fueled personal attacks and provided fodder for the media.
"Worry about yourself, Stover. Your luck might run out tonight."
"Doubt it." Stover disappeared into the crowd. The sports world was having a field day debating whether or not Riley deserved last year's championship title. Riley's first year on the circuit, he ended the season ranked seventh in the standings. The second year he'd won the title—by default—when Drew Rawlins had scratched his final ride. This year Riley intended to prove the naysayers wrong. He'd had a hell of a run during Cowboy Christmas, but he'd been slipping downhill since then.
"Ignore him." Sugar glared at Stover's retreating back. "Win or lose, you're the hottest cowboy on the circuit."
Too bad Riley's pretty face couldn't keep his butt glued to the saddle.
"Grab a seat, folks, and hang on to your hats." The rodeo announcer's voice boomed over the loudspeakers. "The saddle-bronc competition is about to begin."
"Go get 'em, cowboy." Sugar kissed Riley's cheek then disappeared into the stands.
Rummaging through his gear bag, Riley found his chaps and gloves. He'd put his spurs on during the cab ride to the arena.
"Riley Fitzgerald from Lexington, Kentucky, is up first."
An ear-splitting din echoed through the stands as the crowd stomped their boots on the aluminum bleachers. His confidence might have abandoned Riley but at least his fans hadn't.
"Fitzgerald's about to tangle with one of the orneri-est broncs on the circuit."
Riley had ridden Peanut earlier in the season at the Coors Pro Rodeo in Gillette, Wyoming, and the stallion had been hell on hooves. The gelding had practically thrown Riley into the rails. He shoved his Stetson on his head—not that he expected the hat to stay on. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. Large, industrial air vents circulated the smell of horseflesh, urine-soaked hay and sweaty cowboys through the air.
Gotta make it to eight.
He scaled the chute rails and slouched low in the saddle then worked the buck rein around his hand until the rope felt comfortable. As with most notorious broncs Peanut didn't flinch or twitch a muscle—he was every cowboy's best friend until the gate opened.
"You folks may not know that three years ago Fitzgerald won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Championship in saddle-bronc riding his senior year at UNLV. One might recall the story behind that ride "
The facts surrounding his infamous ride had been embellished through the years until no one believed the truth—sheer luck and not skill had kept Riley in the saddle when Lucky Strike swapped ends—jumped into the air and turned 180 degrees before touching the ground. The ride had vaulted Riley into instant stardom and earned him sponsorship offers from Wrangler, Justin boots and Dodge trucks.
"Hang on, folks. The flagman's signaling a problem with the clock," the announcer said.
A sequence of slow-motion action shots played inside Riley's head as he envisioned his ride. First, he marked out the bronc—touching both heels above the horse's shoulders as the animal exploded from the chute. Peanut bucked, spun and back-jumped. Riley held on, his body moving in sync with the horse while spurring. The image abruptly vanished when loud music blasted through the arena.
"Fitzgerald dropped out of the standings this month. If he's gonna defend his title he's gotta win on the big buckers like Peanut."
Win—exactly what Riley intended to do.
"Clocks have been fixed. Let's see if Fitzgerald can stay in the saddle."
A final squeeze of the rein then Riley signaled the gate man. The chute door swung open and Peanut leapt into the arena. Riley spurred the gelding, goading it to buck harder—the feistier the bronc, the higher the score. But his efforts were in vain. Peanut whirled right, left, then back to the right, but without much vigor.
Son of a bitch. Peanut was acting like a dink—a bucker with no buck.
The buzzer sounded and Riley leapt to the ground, resisting the urge to smack the bronc on the rump as he walked to the chute.
"Don't rightly know what was wrong with Peanut tonight. He sure didn't do Fitzgerald any favors. An eighty isn't good enough for a win. Better luck next time, cowboy."
"Tough draw," Ed Parker said.
Too pissed to speak, Riley opened his gear bag and stowed his rigging. Parker was one of the nicer competitors on the circuit and didn't deserve Riley's cold shoulder; but better to keep his mouth shut than spout statements that would make the morning papers and sully the Fitzgerald name.
Riley's great-great-grandfather Doyle Fitzpatrick had purchased the family's first thoroughbred horse in Ireland and brought the stallion with him when he'd immigrated to America. He sold Duke of Devonshire and used the money to buy Belle Farms—the burned-out shell of a pre-civil war estate on the outskirts of Lexington. Doyle then opened a local bourbon distillery, using the profits to renovate Belle Farms and invest in the world's finest horseflesh.
"You headin' over to Lil's?" Parker asked.
"Yeah." Riley would drink a beer and pretend he didn't give a rat's ass about losing when he did. After socializing he'd phone Rosalinda to fetch him from the bar then he'd fly to his next rodeo in Payson, Arizona.
"I'll give you a lift after my ride," Parker said.
"Appreciate that." Riley headed for the food vendors, where he purchased two hot dogs, fries and a Coke. He sat in the stands and ignored the buckle bunnies with big hair, big boobs and big rhinestone belts, batting their eyelashes at him. Riley's wealth combined with his dark good looks garnered him more than his fair share of female interest. Most of the time, he enjoyed being fussed over but his recent losing streak put him on edge and he didn't appreciate all the female distractions.
He heard the announcer call Parker's name. A few seconds after the gate opened the cowboy sailed over the bronc's head. Parker was out of the running, too. Riley returned to the cowboy-ready area and followed Parker to his truck.
Dirty Lil's was a hop, skip and a jump from the rodeo grounds. They parked behind the building, near a grassy area where bikers threw horseshoes and played poker at picnic tables.
"You ever think about hanging up your spurs?" Parker asked.
Plenty of times. "Never." That's what champions were supposed to say. "Why do you ask?" Riley didn't know much about Parker's personal life other than his father was the foreman of a corporate-owned cattle ranch north of Albuquerque.
"I've been doing this for eight years and all I've gotten for my time and effort is a handful of broken bones and a divorce."
At age twenty-five, marriage wasn't a topic that came to Riley's mind often. His biggest concern was figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Until then, he didn't dare quit rodeo or his father would demand he return to Lexington and help run Belle Farms. "You have any kids?" he asked Parker.
"A daughter. Shelly's four. I missed her birthday last week because I was in Texas."
Parker was only a few years older than Riley but already a father. Riley figured he'd have kids one day but he couldn't picture himself as a dad anytime soon.
"I don't know about you, but I could use a cold one," Parker said, hopping out of the truck.
A wooden bust of a woman from an ancient sailing ship hung above the entrance to Dirty Lil's. A sign dangled from her neck, reminding customers that Friday night was ladies' mud wrestling.
As far as roadhouses went, Lil's was top-of-the-line and plenty big enough for the cowboy ego. A decent-size dance floor occupied the rear of the establishment, where a stage had been constructed for local bands. In the middle of the room sat a twenty-by-twenty-foot inflated kiddie pool filled with mud. A garden hose hooked up to a spigot behind the bar rested on the floor next to the man-made mud bog.
Waitresses dressed as saloon wenches carried drink trays and flirted with the cowboys. "Hey, fellas." Sugar smiled behind the bar. "Don't stand there gawkin'. Sit down and have a drink."
"Two Coors." Riley fished his wallet from his back pocket. "When did you start pouring drinks?"
"Melanie's on break." Sugar leaned over the bar and whispered in Riley's ear. "Heard about your ride. You'll win next time."
Or the next time. Or the time after that.
As soon as Sugar walked off, Riley chugged his beer, then spent the following hour dancing with a handful of women. He bought a round for the house then caught up with Parker and challenged him to a game of darts—and lost a hundred-buck wager.
"You did that on purpose," Parker accused.
"Gave the game away."
"You're nuts." Riley swallowed a sip of warm beer. He'd been nursing his second longneck for over an hour. "What?" he asked when Parker stared at him.
"You strut around a big shot with the women." Parker pointed at Riley's waist. "Flashing your world-champion belt buckle and pilot's license. Buying rounds of beer with hundred-dollar bills."
No sense refuting Parker's charges. Riley was set for life. He was aware most rodeo cowboys shared motel rooms, slept in their trucks and skipped meals to scrape together enough cash to pay their entry fees and fill their gas tanks. A few guys even set their own broken bones because they didn't have the money to pay for an E.R. visit.
Riley had never experienced sacrifice—that set him apart from the other cowboys on the circuit. In return, his rivals had no idea how it felt to live with the pressure and responsibility attached to the Fitzgerald name.