Win or lose, a bull rider always ends up in the dirt. Sometimes he jumps off and sometimes he's tossed, but either way he winds up scrambling around on all fours trying to save his own life.
For some reason, Lane Carrigan never got tired of it, despite the fact that the pay was mostly cuts, bruises, and broken bones. On this hot July night, he'd scored a paycheck along with a shot of adrenaline that hummed through his veins like a shot of strong whiskey.
Shoving his riding glove in his gear bag, he hoisted it to his shoulder and strode out from under the stands. A faint feeling of unease pricked the hairs at the back of his neck when he spotted a woman lounging against one of the makeshift pens that held the roping steers. She was dark-haired and shapely, dolled up like a bar-stool cowgirl in clean, pressed jeans and a sparkly shirt. Her pretty, practiced smile was fixed on his face, and she held her hands behind her back like she was hiding a surprise.
He hoped she wasn't going to jump out with a bunch of flowers or something. He was more in the mood for beer than buckle bunnies tonight, and something about her expression made him feel more like a lamb being led to slaughter than a man who'd just bested a bull. His thigh ached from an old injury and he just wanted to hang out with the guys and maybe hit the hay early.
Besides, he was embarrassed by the way girls fawned over him. It would have been all right if he'd earned their adoration with his riding skills, but he knew his fame stemmed from two accidents of birth: the Carrigan name, and the square-jawed, laser-eyed Carrigan face. The Carrigan money didn't hurt either, but the recent deal he'd struck with his brother left him land-rich and cash-poor, which wasn't exactly bunny bait.
That was fine with him. His brother was the one who cared about money, riding an executive office chair and mahogany desk at Carrigan Oil with as much confidence as Lane brought to bull riding. Eric was carrying the company into the twenty-first century with grace and style, decked out in high-fashion suits and driving high-priced cars. Lane was only graceful when he was on the back of a bull. The rest of the time he was just another cowboy, a little beat up from hard landings, with a slight limp from a long-ago wreck that had broken his right leg and set short.
The mystery woman stepped forward, her hands still behind her back. When she flicked out her tongue to lick her glossy lips, Lane felt a tightening down below, but it was more reflex than anything. She wasn't his type. Not many of them were these days.
"Lane Carrigan?" she asked.
She whipped out what she was hiding and shoved it in his face.
When a man emerged from under the stands balancing a television camera on his shoulder, Lane almost groaned aloud-but he smiled instead, flashing the famous Carrigan grin he'd inherited from his dad. He hadn't done anything newsworthy today, not with that mediocre ride, but this babe was probably a rookie reporter with no rodeo knowledge looking for a story and figuring the rich guy would fill some airtime.
He cast her a sheepish sideways grin. "Wasn't my best, but I made the buzzer."
He spoke with the slow, easy drawl expected of a rodeo cowboy, though he'd spent most of his childhood in swanky boarding schools. He'd had just two weeks every summer at his grandfather's ranch near Two Shot, but he'd been determined to memorize the way the hired help walked and talked so he could be a cowboy himself someday. He'd worked as hard at the lingo as he had at his roping and riding skills, developing his aw-shucks charm with the same care most people put into learning a foreign language.
The woman dimpled. "I was talking about your new endeavor."
He searched his mind for any kind of endeavor at all. He felt like an idiot when somebody asked him about real life while he was in rodeo mode. For him, riding was real life-more real than any business deal or swanky high-class party. His father had believed the Old West of cowboys and cattle needed to step aside for the new world of oil rigs and energy booms, but Lane knew the old ways were worth saving. His rodeo career had been the first step in freeing himself from what he considered his family's money-grubbing, oil-soaked legacy, and trading his company shares for control of the family ranch was the next. He'd sworn to himself that the former Carrigan Ranch-now the LT Ranch-would be the one stretch of Wyoming untouched by the oil industry. No bobbing oil rigs, no transmission lines scarring the hillsides.
"I'm wondering how you reconcile raising organic, grass-fed beef with the upcoming energy development on the ranch," she said.
"I don't. There is no energy development on the ranch." He slid his thumbs into his belt loops and grinned. "Though I suppose you could call raising Grade A beef developing energy."
Nudging her stylish half-glasses down to the end of her nose, the reporter whipped out a sheaf of notes. "It says here the production plan for the Carrigan ranch calls for fourteen wells. Estimated output will be ten to fifty barrels per day."
"On the ranch?" He swallowed a whole lot of cuss words they probably didn't allow on TV. His mind was going a million miles an hour, trying to figure out what was going on and screaming shit, shit, shit. He wouldn't. He couldn't, over and over.
He and Eric competed for everything. That's why they'd split things up-so they wouldn't be stepping on each other all the time. But though Lane was in charge of the ranch, the company still owned the mineral rights. If Eric was planning to exercise those rights, he wasn't just stepping on Lane's toes. He was stomping all over them.
The reporter was still smiling expectantly. Lane edged toward the exit but she followed, trotting alongside him, holding the microphone like she was trying to get him to eat the damn thing.
When in doubt, a Carrigan always had one line to fall back on, and this seemed like the perfect time to use it. "No comment, ma'am."
She narrowed her eyes, sensing his confusion and homing in on it like a coyote sniffing out a weakened calf. "Were you unaware of your brother's plans?"
She cocked her head to one side, her smile fading into an expression of concern that would have made his leg ache a little less if there'd been a shred of sincerity in it. He turned away, but the woman dodged around him like a square dancer executing a slick do-si-do.
"You're the face of Carrigan Oil, yet you're left out of the loop." She was on a roll now, unearthing a real story, and the hand holding the microphone shook just the slightest bit as she suppressed her excitement. "Does this make you realize how other landowners feel when they fear Carrigan will exercise their mineral rights without regard to family ranching legacies? Does it make you sympathize with the little guys?"
"I've always sympathized with them," Lane said.
What was she going to do next-get out a stick and poke him in the side? He knew she was manipulating him, but the anger roiling in his gut was rising, spilling into his brain. The implication that his wealth made him different from his fellow ranchers always annoyed him.
Besides, he'd expected his brother to keep his money-grubbing hands to himself. It had been an unspoken agreement, a point of honor-the kind of thing their father would have respected. But while he'd been off riding bulls, Eric had apparently been making plans.
He dredged up the Carrigan grin again. If his brother's betrayal hurt, he sure as hell wasn't going to let it show. Lane Carrigan didn't get hurt. Not by bulls, not by women, not even by family. He was the definition of cowboy tough.
And he always fought back.
In this case, the weapon he needed was right in front of him. The public viewed oil company CEOs as cartoon villains to rival Lex Luthor. If there was one thing Eric couldn't deal with, it was bad publicity.
The reporter edged closer, again sensing the tension in the air. Maybe she wasn't a rookie after all. She had the slick, self-conscious presence of Katie Couric or Ann Curry. He glanced down at the microphone. CBS.
He smiled. This was national media. Anything he said was liable to hit the ten o'clock news in a matter of hours.
He probably should think about what he was going to say. He should go back to his trailer and come up with a formal, carefully constructed statement.
But that wouldn't be any fun.
"You know, I'm used to those bulls being out to get me," he said. "I guess my brother's not much different."
The reporter nodded eagerly.
"He'll tell you they've found a safe way to get the oil out, but the truth is, that's basically a big pile of-excrement." He brushed off the seat of his Wranglers with an exaggerated motion. "The truth is, any drilling process is hazardous-to the land and the people who live there. Carrigan might think they have the science down, but nobody knows what the long-term effects are going to be. And these projects just kill small-town communities. You seen Midwest? Or Pinedale? I'm not letting that happen to Two Shot."
"How do you plan to prevent it?"
"Whatever it takes, I guess." He looked straight at the camera. "Whatever it takes. Those rigs are not going on my land."