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He was the perfect cowboy for the job.
Wendy Darlington stared at the man who slid off the angry bull in the middle of the massive rodeo arena in Fort Worth, Texas, and her breath caught. Dust exploded. The crowd roared. The animal twisted and turned as the wranglers tried to get him under control, but the rider wasn't the least bit nervous. He sidestepped her and headed for the dusty Stetson he'd lost during the most amazing ride Wendy had ever seen. Eight seconds and then some. The buzzer had come and gone, but Pete Gunner had kept at it until he'd snagged bragging rights to breaking yet another world record.
He parked the cowboy hat back on his head and flashed a grin before heading toward the gate and the cluster of reporters waiting to swallow him up.
The scores went up and, sure enough, they were high enough to push Pete into first and solidify a place in the upcoming professional bull riders finals.
Not that she'd had any doubt.
Pete Gunner was the best of the best. An eight-time PBR champion and record holder on the fast track to win number nine.
Unfortunately he had a weakness for loud parties and lots of women, and so he was even more notorious for his behavior outside of the arena. He was a wild child. Unpredictable. Uncensored. Unmanageable.
Trouble. Big, big trouble.
That's what Wendy had told her boss when he'd come up with the crazy idea of making Pete Gunner the newest spokesperson for Western America, the biggest leatherworks company in the Southwest. They made everything from custom cowboy boots and specialty chaps to one-of-a-kind hand-tooled saddles. The company was launched during the late seventies at the height of the Urban Cowboy craze, with their products targeted toward the sophisticated, professional types eager to jump on the chuck wagon and play weekend cowboy.
They'd managed to maintain a decent profit share over the years, too, although their early heyday had long since faded with so many competitors flooding the marketplace.
Wendy had come to Western straight out of college as an intern and had slowly worked her way up from administrative aide to senior marketing representative. She'd put in nine years at the company and managed to keep up sales in an economic downturn. She'd fought tooth and nail to make a name for herself within the company, and she deserved to be moved up for it. She'd even told her boss, Fred, as much when she'd asked for a promotion last year.
But the man didn't want to maintain his company's position. He wanted to sell the company for a hefty profit and buy his own private island in the Bahamas. Something that wasn't going to happen, at least for the kind of money he wanted, if he didn't get his market share up by twenty percent.
At least that's what a private-business consultant had told him six months ago. Hence the creation of Outlaw Outfitters, a line of modestly priced products geared toward the younger segment, and the brainstorm to have Pete Gunner as the front man.
A real cowboy backing the new line would up its credibility and get the attention of the multitude of younger rodeo fans. As the senior marketing rep, it was Wendy's job to make it happen. Or else.
Those had been Fred's exact words.
Make this happen and I'll make sure you stay on with the company after I sell. Or else you can find a new job.
Which meant moving on, starting over.
The story of Wendy's life.
Growing up the only child of single parent and baseball legend Mitch Darlington, Wendy had become an expert in new. During her childhood, she'd spent the season headed to a new city every week and the offseason living in a condo near the training camp for whatever team her dad had been signed with at the time. Thanks to a huge ego and a know-itall attitude, he'd been traded eleven times over a fifteen-year period, during which Wendy had zigzagged across the country with him. She'd even lived in Toronto for six months while he'd played with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The moment she'd graduated college, she'd promised herself that her days of moving from place to place were officially over. She'd accepted the job at Western America, bought a house in Houston, and she'd been settled ever since. She'd made friends and built a life for herself. And while the actual day-to-day could be boring at times, she still preferred it hands down to the nomadic lifestyle she'd grown up with.
She wasn't losing her job.
Fred wanted Pete's signature on the multimillion-dollar endorsement package her company had offered, and Wendy was going to make it happen. Mr. Wild and Reckless had already given them a verbal agreement months ago, but it had been one mishap after the other when it came to getting him to actually sign. They'd overnighted the initial documents as was policy, but then he'd claimed his dog had chewed them up. He'd left set number two in a hotel room in Vegas. Number three had ended up at the bottom of a bull pen. Number four had disappeared in a truck stop somewhere between Nashville and New Mexico.
While Wendy had freaked over each "accident," Pete had laughed them off as just another day in the life of PBR's most notorious cowboy.
Don't get your panties in a wad, darlin'. That's what he'd told her on the phone in the deepest, sexiest drawl she'd ever heard. Just send out another set.
Not this time.
Numbers five and sixshe'd brought an extrawere safe and sound in her briefcase and she wasn't leaving until everything was signed.
She fought down a wave of anxiety, popped an antacid from the roll in her pocket and steeled herself. Briefcase in hand, she made her way around the arena wall until she reached the cluster of bull pens. A security guard stopped her in her tracks, but she flashed a VIP pass at him and he waved her forward. She was just about to turn a corner and head for the excitement when she barreled into the hard wall of a very muscular chest.
Her head snapped up and she found herself staring at her worst marketing nightmare.
She'd seen plenty of pictures of Pete Gunner over the past few months: everything from professional publicity shots of him climbing into a saddle or dusting himself off after a grueling ride, to a papparazzi's wet dream where he'd been table-dancing at Billy Bob's honky-tonk or lapping at a watering trough after the PBR finals in Vegas.
But nothing in print could begin to compare with the man himself.
Several day's growth of stubble shadowed his jaw and circled his sensuous mouth. Whiskey-colored hair framed his rugged face and brushed the collar of his white button-down shirt. Vivid blue eyes peered at her from beneath the brim of a beat-up Stetson.
"Don't be in such a hurry, sugar." He gave her his infamous grin, his lips crooked just a hint at the corner, and her heart did a double thump. "It's always better if you take your time."
Not that Wendy was the least bit attracted. She knew his type all too well. She'd grown up with such a man, and while she loved her dad, she wasn't falling for a man just like him. She liked her men stable. Controlled. Reliable.
She drew a deep breath and ignored the fluttering in her chest.
"I" The rest of her words stalled in a choked cough as the antacid took a nosedive down the wrong pipe.
His eyebrows drew together. "You okay, sugar?"
"I" She swallowed. "II'm fine," she finally managed to say.
He grinned and her heart started again. Her hands trembled and her tummy tingled.
He was just a man. Sure, he was sexier than most with his bad-boy drawl and seductive smile, but still
She wasn't going to let that turn her to a pile of quivering Jell-O, even if she had been so busy with the new Outlaw line that she'd had zero time for a social life over the past six months. Her self-imposed celibacy was not going to jump up and bite her during the most important ten seconds of her career.
She stiffened and gathered her control. "You're just the person I wanted to see. I need you to sign"
"There's plenty of signed photos at the press table," he cut in. "You can take your pick."
"No, no." She shook her head. "I don't want a signed picture."
"A body signature?" His eyes darkened with a look of pure, raw passion and her mouth went dry again. "Above the waist or below?"
She licked her lips and tried to ignore the way his eyes followed the movement. "No, of course not. I've got these papers for you"
"Pete!" The shout came from her right and she turned to find a burly cowboy motioning him forward. "Gid-dyup, dude. We've got to get the hell out of here!"
"I hate to cut this short, but I've got someplace I really need to be." And just like that, he turned and walked away.
Wendy watched the push and pull of his Wranglers as he disappeared into the crowd. He really did have a great butt. She could totally see why every woman in the eighteen-to-forty-eight-year-old demographic was head over heels for him. The front view had been good, but the back was about the best she'd ever seen
He's walking away, remember? Which is what you'll be doing when Fred finds out that you let him slip through your fingers.
She bolted forward and raced after him as if her life depended on it.
Her job, her home, her stability meant everything to her and she wasn't going to let some party-hearty cowboy screw it all up.
She was getting that signature, no matter what she had to do.