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He tugged his crutches out of the vehicle and positioned them under his arms while the driver unloaded his duffel bag.
Unfortunately, in the short-go round in Albuquerque, a bucking, whirling, two-thousand-pound Brahma named Cowabunga bucked him off, then stomped on his ankle, crushing it. After surgery, Dustin sported a massive amount of hardware to keep his bones together, along with a heavy cast.
Thanks to Cowabunga, he'd have to skip the usually profitable summer circuit.
After a couple of years of always being a bridesmaid, he'd finally hit number one in the rankings, and now he couldn't ride. While he sat at home and watched the Professional Bull Riders on TV with his leg up, there'd be several young guns who would jump over him in the standings. But maybe, if everything went as planned, when he got back he could move up again in time for the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas in early November. Fingers crossed.
He paid the taxi driver, turned toward the house and took a hearty breath. He could smell the scent of animals on the air. Damn, how he loved that smell!
He was itching to do something where he could work up a sweat, but his surgeon had told him to take it easy. Dustin couldn't grasp that concept. There had never been a time when he'd taken it easy.
When he was younger, he entered junior rodeos and rode anything with fur. As a sophomore in high school, he played football and caught rodeos every chance he could. When he turned eighteen, he was able to qualify for the Professional Bull Riders circuit as well as the Professional Rodeo
Cowboys Association. He rode bulls in the PBR. In the PRCA, he rode broncs.
And he'd managed to avoid serious injury—until now.
Dustin studied the long ranch house and the outbuildings of the Bar R Ranch. Someday, he'd have a spread like this.
He looked at his duffel bag lying on the Arizona dust. Dustin couldn't believe that he'd agreed to stay at Tom's place. The only thing that had convinced him to come here was the fact that Tom needed him—and to be honest, he owed Tom big time. Tom had saved his life two years ago by pushing him away from a rogue bull. His friend would always sport scars from being gored.
"I have a favor to ask of you," Tom had said when he'd visited Dustin in the hospital after his surgery.
Dustin had struggled to stay focused, still a little groggy from the painkillers he'd been given. "Hit me with it."
"Since you're going to be laid up for a while, how about heading to my ranch and overseeing the operation? I don't want you to work, just supervise the foreman and the hands. You're going to be recuperating anyway—how about doing it at the Bar R?"
"My sister will be there taking care of Andy for me. And Andy would just love a visit from you. It's been a long time, Dustin."
"Jenna?" His eyelids drifted closed for a moment, but Jenna's image appeared in his mind. In high school lugging a load of books. Studying under the big tree by the school cafeteria while everyone else was having fun. Being elected class president every year for four years. Giving the valedictorian speech at graduation.
He'd always liked her energy, her sense of independence, her willingness to get involved and the fact that she was comfortable being alone and didn't follow the crowd, like he always had.
Back then, she'd had long blond hair that she usually wore in a ponytail tied with a piece of rawhide and usually pierced by at least one pen and one pencil. That was Jenna, always studying, always writing in a notebook. Her spring-green eyes were magnified by wire-rimmed glasses that rode low on her nose.
He'd spent many a high school class secretly watching her.
He'd wanted to talk to Jenna on numerous occasions—to ask her out—but he'd always thought that she wouldn't give him the time of day. It wasn't as if she was a snob—she was very friendly to everyone but him—so he figured that Tom had told her to stay away from him. Tom was very protective of Jenna after the death of his parents, and Dustin had to admit that he'd had many girlfriends. Jenna could see that for herself. But they were just friends—or they were buckle bunnies—and they weren't Jenna.
So, to get his Jenna fix, Dustin often went to Tom's house, not only to hang out with Tom, but to catch a glimpse of her, too.
"You're going to need someone to help you manage," Tom continued. "With your folks being in Alaska and your apartment on the third floor of a building without elevators, you don't have much of a choice. You help me, and Jenna will help you."
There was something wrong with his reasoning, but Dustin couldn't put his finger on it back at the hospital. If only Tom would leave so he could sleep.
Sleep blessed sleep. The pain was exhausting him, and he didn't want to take too many pain pills if he could help himself.
"It's okay with Jenna," Tom said. "She's looking forward to seeing you again."
That struck Dustin as strange. He doubted if Jenna even remembered him from high school. He hadn't had a decent conversation with her in years. Matter of fact, the last time he'd talked to Jenna for any length of time was at Andy's christening ten years ago. He was Andy's godfather; Jenna was Andy's godmother.
Now, as he stood at the gate of Tom's ranch, he remembered the promise he'd made to Tom years ago—a promise he regretted to this day. He'd given his word to Tom that he'd stay away from Jenna. Therefore, his interaction with her was limited to fleeting glances and some short blips of conversation whenever she attended the PBR events.
He might as well be back in high school.
Dustin flung his duffel over his right shoulder and thought of Tom. When you traveled with a man to and from rodeos you got to know him really well. Tom was more than a good friend, he was like a brother, and he didn't want to betray Tom's trust.
Dustin had almost told Tom that he wasn't going to stay at his ranch to recuperate. He didn't want to be a burden on Jenna or on anyone. He could take care of himself—somehow, someway—but he hadn't been able to find his voice.
He remembered falling asleep, dreaming of spending the summer with pretty, smart Jenna Reed. In his dream, Jenna didn't think of him as the class clown, the class jock or as someone who didn't take advantage of a four-year scholarship to hit the road to ride bulls. She thought of him only as a man.
But this wasn't a dream. This was reality, and he was about to spend most of the summer with Jenna. Then again, maybe it was a dream.
"Aunt Jenna?" Andy said sweetly. "Can I go outside now? I want to watch the guys break Maximus."
Jenna smiled and ran her fingers through her nephew's sandy hair. His blue eyes were wide with hope. How could math and reading compete with a bucking bronc?
"Do the first seven decimal problems and you can go. We'll do reading comprehension later."
She leaned over to Andy and pointed to the problems on page fifteen of his math book. She'd seen progress with Andy during the week that she'd been tutoring him, and she didn't want to lose the momentum.
She did the breakfast dishes as Andy labored over his workbook.
The doorbell rang. "I'll get it," Jenna said, walking into the living room to get the front door.
She looked through the peephole. Standing on the porch, propped up by a pair of crutches, was none other than Dustin Morgan.
His hair was darker than ever, and his eyes were as blue as the Arizona sky above. If possible, he looked better than he had in high school. Her cheeks heated just looking at him. TV didn't do him justice.
Jenna could never forget the guy who'd flirted with every girl in high school. That is, everyone but her.
He'd been a star quarterback and the best player on the basketball team in freshman and sophomore years as well as a rodeo champ. He had all the girls drooling over him, including her.
But he never paid her any attention. In fact, she was the only female he seemed to avoid.
And he'd turned down a full scholarship so he could ride with the PBR. Jenna had never been able to understand this.
She swung the door open, and he smiled widely. Her gaze drifted to his crutches, his torn sweatpants and the cast that went from his foot to his knee.
"Hello, Dustin. It's been a while." She offered her hand. So far, so good.
He took her hand for several heartbeats and held it before he finally shook it. She could feel the calluses on his palms and fingers.
It was a simple thing, just a handshake, but at his touch, she felt like a giddy schoolgirl again instead of a levelheaded almost-thirty-year-old.
"It's good to see you again, Jenna."
He smiled warmly, and she could understand why a gaggle of buckle bunnies always vied for his attention.
"You, too. Although I see you on TV all the time at the bull riding events or or " She lost her train of thought for a moment. "But this arrangement is going to be.different."
Jenna could hear the quiver in her voice, and wondered why seeing Dustin up close and personal was unnerving her.
"I guess you're stuck with me," he said.
She pulled her hand away from his. Maybe then she'd relax. "I—I guess I am," she blurted anxiously. Then, realizing what she said, she tempered her statement. "But you need help, and Tom said that you're going to oversee the ranch, so that'll help out. Besides, Andy is over-the-top thrilled that you're going to be here."
"It'll be fun to spend time with the little cowboy," he said.
She avoided his eyes and stared down at his cast and crutches. "I am sorry that you hurt your ankle. Cowabunga walked all over you."
He pushed back his cowboy hat with his thumb. "Thanks. It wasn't my best dismount, but I got lucky. It could have been a lot worse."
Jenna shuddered. "You did get lucky."
He shrugged. "You know what they say about bull riding—it's not when you'll get hurt, but how bad and how often."
An awkward pause hung in the air between them. Were they doomed to make innocuous small talk the entire summer?
"Let's go inside so you can sit down," she said. "I'll get your duffel."
"I can get it," he said quickly, scooping it up from the ground and then trying to get his crutches over the threshold.
She moved closer. "What can I do to help you?"
"Nothing. I can do it myself." She heard the edge in his voice.
What was she supposed to do to assist him? He seemed put out that she even offered to help.
They'd better figure out a way to exist in harmony. Didn't he understand that, for the most part, they'd be living together? She'd have to watch out for him, cook for him, do his laundry and help him get around on those crutches.
Would she have to help him bathe, too?
Her face heated in embarrassment and her heart raced at the thought of seeing Dustin Morgan naked.
Well, she'd wanted adventure and excitement, didn't she?
* * *
The cast was so awkward! It felt like he was lugging around an extra thirty pounds of dead weight. To make things worse, his duffel slipped off his shoulder, slid down his arm and crutch, and hit the floor of the porch.
He struggled to pick up the damn thing.
Jenna offered to help, but there was no way he wanted to impose on her—a woman that he barely knew but had adored from afar since high school. No way.
And there was that damn promise he'd made to Tom niggling at the back of his mind. Was this Tom's idea of a joke, having Jenna and him live together for several weeks? Or didn't Tom remember their conversation in the ambulance when Tom had saved Dustin's life?
Dustin remembered it very clearly. "Thanks for saving my life, partner. I didn't see that bull heading for me. I owe you big-time," Dustin said.
"Forget it. You 'd do the same to me. And the only thing you owe me is your promise."
Dustin held his breath. He knew what was coming.
"My sister. I see you looking at her." Tom winced in pain. "She's not as experienced as you are.
She's been protected her whole life, first by my parents, then by me. You're like a brother, but you love the women too much. You 'll hurt her, you know. And you know, you'll never be aroundfor her, riding the circuit. She deserves someone who'll be home all the time."
Dustin looked at Jenna waiting for him to enter the house. He'd rather cut off his riding arm than hurt her, but his friend was right about him never being there for her—not when he was still riding— and he figured he had several good years left in him yet.
So Dustin renewed his promise to stay away from Jenna. But, again, maybe Tom had forgotten about it, or why else would he have asked him to stay at the ranch knowing that Jenna would be there?
As if on cue, Jenna snatched the duffel from him, and held the door open, giving him a wide berth to maneuver inside the living room.
Damn. He hated feeling like an invalid.
He should have holed up in his apartment, done things for himself. But the surgeon who'd operated told him that if he took it easy, he'd heal quicker, and he'd return to the PBR quicker.
That was his goal. He was poised to win the PBR World Finals in Vegas, and that was just what he was going to do. With the money he'd win, he could hang up his spurs and finally settle down on a ranch of his own.
That's what he'd been saving for all these years on the road. His own spread.
But first, he had to heal, and Tom had convinced him that this was the best place for him. Maybe it was—but being with Jenna 24/7 was a bonus.
"Uncle Dustin! Uncle Dustin!"
Posted July 2, 2011
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