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The big buckskin rearedat least he tried to rear. His thick, rangy body was too confined by the narrow chute, so he achieved little height. Frustrated, he pawed the ground, then backed up and banged into the panel with such force the reverberation carried down the metal railing like an electrical current.
"He's an ornery one," the cowboy sitting astride the fence said. "And smarter than he looks."
Ethan Powell considered the man's assessment of the horse he was about to ride, and decided he agreed. The buckskin was ornery and smart, and would enjoy nothing better than stomping Ethan into the ground.
Exactly the kind of saddle bronc he preferred. The kind he'd hoped to draw when he'd competed professionally. Nowadays his rodeo riding was restricted to this small, local arena and for "personal enjoyment" only. No sanctioned rodeo, or unsanctioned rodeo for that matter, would allow him to enter.
He understood. He just didn't like it, and was determined to change the Duvall Rodeo Arena's policies, if not the entire Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Before he could do that, however, he had to prove he still had what it took to go up against men who were, for the most part, younger than him and, without exception, physically whole.
"You gonna stand there all night, Powell?" the cowboy asked.
In the chute beside Ethan, the buckskin lifted his head and stared straight ahead, every muscle in his body bunched tight with anticipation.
Just like Ethan.
"Yeah, I'm ready."
Shielding his eyes from the bright floodlights that lit the arena, he climbed the fence and straddled it alongside the wrangler. Then he took another few seconds to study the bronc up close.
"Good luck," the cowboy said.
Ethan would need more than luck if he expected to ride this bad boy for eight seconds.
He'd been on plenty of unbroken and green broke horses in the last year. There was, however, a world of difference between those animals and one bred and trained to give a man the ride of his life.
Drawing a deep breath, he braced a hand on either side of the chute and lowered himself onto the buckskin's back inch by inch. Twice he paused, waiting for the big horse to settle. Once in the saddle, he took hold of the reins and slipped his feet into the stirrups, careful to keep his toes pointed forward.
The buckskin, eager to give his rider a preview of what was to come, twisted sideways. Ethan's left ankle was momentarily pinned between the horse's broad body and the chute. It might have hurt if he had any feeling in his lower leg.
He didn't and probably never would, unless medical science developed a prosthetic device with artificial nerve endings that could transmit sensation to the wearer.
When his ankle was freed and the buckskin was once again in position, Ethan slid the reins back and forth through his gloved hands until the grip felt right.
The moment the horse committed, he nodded to the wrangler manning the gate and said, "Go," hoping like heck he wasn't making a huge mistake.
With a loud metallic whoosh the gate slid open. Ethan tried to straighten his legs and set his spurs. He didn't quite make it. The prosthesis he wore failed to respond as quickly as his real leg did.
The buckskin lunged out of the chute and into the arena. Only his front feet touched the ground. His hind ones were raised high above his head as he tried to kick the moon out of the sky.
Ethan didn't have time to mark his horse, much less find his rhythm. With his weight unevenly distributed, the buckskin easily unseated him and sent him sailing through the air. Ethan barely glimpsed the ground as it came rushing up to meet him.
His shoulder absorbed the brunt of the impact, which he supposed was better than his face or prosthetic leg. That was until he moved. Pain, razor sharp and searing hot, ripped through him. He decided it was better to just lie there for a second or two longer.
Shouting, which seemed to come from far away, told him the buckskin had been safely rounded up and was probably gloating.
Ethan glanced up, then away. What he'd dreaded the most had just happened.
"Nope, I'm fine," he told the pickup man looming above him. At least the guy hadn't gotten off his horse before offering his assistance. That would have been even more humiliating.
Ethan pushed up on one elbow, the one not throbbing, then climbed to his knees. Getting his good leg under him was a little tricky, especially given the way the world was spinning. He could feel the eyes of the crowd on him, with everyone likely wondering if he was going to rise under his own power and take on another bronc. The answer was damn straight.
In a minute, after he could move his shoulder and arm without having flashes of color pulsate before his eyes. "The first time's the hardest," the pickup man commented. "So they say."
Except this wasn't Ethan's first time bronc riding. It was his first time since losing his leg fifteen months ago, while serving in the Middle East. He'd loved the marines almost as much as he loved rodeoing. Now both were lost to him.
Maybe not rodeoing, he corrected himself.
Standing upright, he brushed off his jeans and readjusted his hat, which had miraculously stayed on during the fall. Then he walked to the gate, doing his best not to limp. It wasn't easy. Another cowboy held the gate open for him and clapped him on the back as he passed. The resulting pain almost drove Ethan to his knees, but he didn't so much as blink.
Outside the arena, he paused to catch his breath. This wasn't going exactly as planned. "Hey, Ethan!"
He lifted his head to see his childhood friend Clay Duvall approaching, his gait brisk as usual. Ethan and Clay had been close up until their early twenties, when Ethan's mother had died from complications following a heart transplant, and Clay's father had sold Ethan's family's land out from under them. Ethan had joined the marines and for almost eight years neither saw nor spoke to his former friend. His anger at the Duvalls had been too great.
It was Clay, however, who gave him the opportunity to realize his ambition of bronc riding again, along with a job breaking and training his rodeo stock. After a chance meeting with Clay three months ago, Ethan had realized he couldn't hold a twenty-one-year-old kid responsible for his father's actions, and the two had reconciled.
It had taken Ethan's brother, Gavin, longer to get over his animosity toward Clay. But now the two were partners in a mustang stud and breeding business, with Clay owning the wild mustang stallion and Gavin the mares.
Sometimes, when the three men were together, it felt as if all those years they'd been at odds with each other had never happened.
Ethan pushed off the railing, doing his best not to wince as invisible knife blades sliced through his shoulder. "How you doing?"
"I was going to ask you the same question." Clay grinned good-naturedly. "That was quite a fall you took."
"I'll survive." Ethan rolled his shoulders. Big mistake. He sucked in air through his teeth and waited for the spasm to pass.
"What say we have the new nurse check you out?" "Nurse?"
Clay hitched his chin in the direction of the empty announcer's stand. "She's here setting up the first-aid station for the jackpot."
"I thought you were bringing in an EMT and an ambulance."
"Too expensive. Found out I could hire a nurse for a lot less money and still meet the insurance company's requirement for providing on-site emergency care."
Ethan resisted. "I'm fine." He didn't want to be checked out. And he sure didn't want the other cowboys seeing him head for the first-aid station.
"Come on." Clay took a step in that direction. "We have a deal."
They did. Clay had agreed to let Ethan practice bronc riding as long as several conditions were met, one being that he have any injury examined by a medical professional. Ethan knew what a liability he was, that his chances of hurting himself were far greater than the next cowboy's. Clay was taking a sizable risk despite the waiver Ethan had signed.
If he didn't comply with his friend's conditions, there was no way on earth he'd be allowed to compete in the upcoming jackpot, much less practice for it.
Grumbling, he fell into step beside Clay, and the two of them headed toward the announcer's stand.
"You going to be ready in time?"
"Count on it." Ethan had until the Saturday after Thanksgiving, less than two weeks away, to last a full eight seconds on one of Clay's broncs. That was another of the conditions Ethan had to meet in order to enter the jackpot. "I'll be here every evening if I have to."
The door to the small room beneath the announcer's stand stood ajar. A minivan was backed up to it, the rear hatch open. As they neared, Ethan glimpsed plastic containers and cardboard boxes stacked inside the van and a handicap placard dangling from the rearview mirror.
Clay stopped suddenly and scratched the back of his neck, the movement tipping his cowboy hat forward over his furrowed brow.
"Something the matter?" Ethan asked.
"I was going to surprise you. Now I'm thinking that's not such a good idea."
"Surprise me with what?"
"My new nurse. You know her." He smiled ruefully. "That is, you used to know her. Pretty well, in fact."
Ethan had only a second to prepare before a young woman appeared in the doorway. She paused at the sight of him, recognition lighting her features.
She looked the same. Okay, maybe not the same, he decided on second thought. Nine years was a long time, after all. But she was as pretty as ever.
Her former long blond hair had darkened to a honey-brown and was cut in one of those no-nonsense short styles. Her clothing was equally functionalloose-fitting sweats beneath a down-filled vest. It was her green eyes, he noticed, that had changed the most. Once alive with mischief and merriment, they were now somber and guarded.
Something had happened to her during the years since they'd dated.
Was she thinking the same thing about him?
He waited for her glance to travel to his left leg. It didn't. Either she was very good at hiding her reactions or she hadn't heard about his injury.
"Hello, Ethan," she said, her voice slightly unsteady. "It's good to see you." She came forward, her hand extended. "Clay told me you were back in Mustang Valley and training horses for him."
"For a while now." He took her hand in his, remembering when their greetings and farewells had included a hug and a kiss. Often a long kiss.
An awkward silence followed, and he finally released her hand. "So, you're a nurse?"
She smiled. "I suppose that's hard to believe."
"A little." The mere sight of blood used to make her queasy. "I guess people change."
"They do." Her gaze went to his leg, answering Ethan's earlier question. She quickly looked away.
"I work mornings at the middle school and afternoons at the new urgent-care clinic in Mustang Village," she continued. "Have since the school year started."
"And now for Clay, too."
Her cheeks colored.
Why? Ethan wondered. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask how her husband or boyfriend felt about her busy schedule. Then it occurred to him maybe she and Clay were seeing each other. That would explain the embarrassment.
Ethan couldn't blame his friend. And it wasn't as if he had any kind of claim on Caitlin himself. Not after leaving her high and dry when he'd enlisted, following his mother's death.
"Speaking of which," Clay interjected, "Ethan's your first patient."
Her eyebrows rose. "You are?"
"It's nothing," Ethan insisted, sending his friendsoon to be ex-friend once again if he kept this upa warning look.
He'd hardly gotten over the shock of seeing Caitlin. No way was he ready to be examined by her.
Any choice he had in the matter was taken from him when Clay all but shoved him through the door and into the dimly lit room.
The next instant, his friend was gone, leaving Ethan alone with the woman whose heart he'd broken, and who still owned a very large piece of his.