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"Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the chuck wagon races here at the Yuma Good Ol' Days Rodeo!"
Lucy Durango ignored the announcerher attention remained glued to Shannon Douglas, a former high-school classmate who'd climbed onto the back of Sidewinder. Shannon wrapped the bull rope around her left hand while several cowboys perched on the rails, ready to lift her to safety if the bull reared.
The pungent scent of manure, livestock and sweaty cowboy saturated the warm April air as Lucy inched closer to the chute. I must be nuts. Time would tell if the idea she'd come up with for her Pony Express fundraiser was brilliant or just plain idiotic.
"Before we kick off our next event, we've got a special treat for you." The announcer gestured toward the bull chutes. "Shannon Douglas, a resident of Stagecoach, Arizona, is here this fine Saturday afternoon to prove cowgirls can ride bulls as well as cowboys!"
Half the fans cheeredthe other half booed. Lucy had been to enough rodeos in her lifetime to understand some men would always object to women competing in roughstock events. The cowboys who surrounded Shannon's chute supported her, their words of encouragement ringing loud and clear.
One of the men helping Shannon was C. J. Rodriguez, an up-and-coming rodeo star. The Stagecoach Gazette had run a feature story about Shannon and C.J. touring the country together to promote women's bull riding. Lucy thought Shannon and C.J. made an interesting couplethe tomboy and the rodeo Romeo.
"Shannon is sponsored by Wrangler" the announcer said "and recently returned from rodeos in New Jersey and New York."
Sidewinder balked, and C.J. reached over the rails, grabbing Shannon's arm to keep her from sliding beneath the bull.
The blood drained from Lucy's face. Was she out of her mind? Probably.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Shannon Douglas will be riding Sidewinder, a bull from the Pat McLean Ranch in Solvang, California. Sidewinder's a four-year-old veteran who twists like a snake when he bucks."
The chute door released, and Sidewinder exploded into the arena, the force of the move throwing Shannon forward, her face narrowly missing the bull's sawed-off horns. Sidewinder had been aptly namedhis midsection bent into a tight coil, then unwound in a violent burst of energy as he kicked out with his back legs. Shannon defied the odds and clung to the bull. When the buzzer sounded, the bullfighters sprang into action, distracting the animal. Shannon launched herself into the air, hit the ground hard then bounced to her feet and sprinted for the rails. Once Sidewinder lost his rider, he settled down and trotted off to the bull pen.
Applause echoed through the stands of the outdoor arena. "Let's see what the judges think of Shannon's performance." All eyes were glued to the electronic scoreboard in front of the judges' table. "Eighty-four!" The announcer chuckled. "Not too bad for a girl."
After nodding her thanks to the cowboys who congratulated her, Shannon removed her protective gear and Lucy crept closer, waiting for the hoopla to die down. Once the fans dispersed, she stepped forward. "Congratulations, Shannon."
"Hey, Lucy. I haven't seen you at a rodeo since " Shannon's smile disappeared. "Sorry, I didn't mean"
"It's okay." Until today, Lucy hadn't been to a rodeo since her brother, Michael, had died. "Do you have a minute?"
"Sure." Shannon stuffed her gear into a canvas bag then nodded for Lucy to follow her.
"I want to talk to you about a fundraising idea for the Pony Express."
Shannon nodded. "How's your taxi service for inebriated cowboys doing these days?"
Lucy tried not to be offended by Shannon's description of the Pony Express as a free taxi service for drunken cowboys, because it was so much more than that. Seven days a week the van service offered cowboys who'd celebrated a little too much a ride home from the local bars. Keeping an impaired cowboy from running his truck off the road wouldn't bring her brother back, but it would honor his memory.
"Hector" a retired ranch hand, divorced four times, father of seven, grandfather of twelve, born-again Christian and a recovering alcoholic was the driver for the Pony Express "is keeping busy."
"I have to make an appearance at the Wrangler booth," Shannon said. "Let's talk there."
Once they reached the sponsor's tent, Shannon spent several minutes chatting with rodeo fans and signing programs. Lucy had almost given up hope of speaking to the lady bull rider when a Wrangler employee insisted she take a break.
Lucy and Shannon walked behind the tent where Wrangler had placed folding chairs and a large cooler filled with drinks. Shannon fished a Gatorade from the melted ice. "Help yourself."
"No, thanks." Now that Lucy had Shannon's undivided attention, she got right to the point. "I need to raise money for the Pony Express."
"I thought I read somewhere that you'd gotten a federal grant for the business?"
When Lucy had started the taxi service two years ago, the local newspaper had run a feature story on her new venture. "Earlier this year I learned that my grant is being cut in half because of budget shortfalls." If she wanted to keep the Pony Express going, she needed to hold an annual charity event to make up the gap in funding.
"Won't your father give you the money?"
Everyone across southern Arizona knew the Duran-gos were filthy richthat didn't bother Lucy. What irked her was airing the family's dirty laundry, but she'd risk becoming the subject of gossip to keep the Pony Express in business.
"My father feels I should have put my college degree to better use than catering to drunken cowboys." The taxi service had been Lucy's attempt to honor her brother's memory, and in doing so, help her grow closer to her father. Her good intentions had backfired when her dad cut off access to Lucy's trust fund, which would have provided the cash she needed to keep the business afloat for the remainder of the year.
"You want me to ask if Wrangler will make a donation to the Pony Express?"
"I have something different in mind." Lucy crossed her fingers and forged ahead. "I need you to sway the powers that be at Wrangler to allow me to ride in three of your local rodeos."
Shannon's mouth sagged.
The reaction wasn't unexpected. Lucy had considered several ways to raise money, but in the end had decided to ride bulls because that's what her brother had been famous for. And, selfishly, she'd hoped her father would be pleased with her for shining the limelight on Michael, if only briefly.
"I'm going to ask people to pledge a dollar amount for every second I stay on the bull," Lucy said.
"You want me to convince Wrangler to allow you to compete against me?"
"Do we have to challenge each other? I mean" Lucy snorted "it's not like I would beat you."
Shannon shook her head. "You'll get hurt."
"You take a chance every time you ride a bull."
"Yes, but I'm an athlete."
Okay, so Lucy had never played a high-school sport. Not everybody was coordinated, but that didn't mean she couldn't hang on to a rope for a few seconds.
"Not only do I put in endless hours on a bucking machine," Shannon said, "but I lift weights and do exercises to develop my balance and equilibrium. Even after all that, I feel like a weakling when I'm riding a bull. It would take months for you to get into shape."
"I run on the treadmill four times a week." That had to count for something.
"I don't have time to teach"
"I'm not asking you to teach me how to bust bulls." Lucy hadn't thought that far ahead. "I just need you to ask Wrangler to let me ride." She wasn't above begging. "Please, Shannon. I have to keep the Pony Express from going under." If the business went bankrupt, she'd never make amends for the role she'd played in her brother's death, which had caused all those who'd loved Michael much pain and anguish.
"I'll see what I can do, but no promises," Shannon said. "Wrangler might appreciate the fact that you're raising money for a good cause."
"And they might be willing to mention the Pony Express when they promote your events." Lucy smiled sweetly. "I was hoping the rodeo committees would allow fans to place pledges before I ride." Lucy handed Shannon a Pony Express business card with her contact information. "I'll wait to hear from you, and good luck with the rest of your rodeos this month."
"You're welcome to hang out for a couple of hours." Shannon's offer stopped Lucy's hasty exit. "I'm heading over to the Horseshoe Bar later to listen to the band, Cowboy Rebels."
"Thanks, but it's going to be a busy night for the Pony Express." Busy night aside, Lucy couldn't get out of the arena fast enough. She'd done an admirable job, ignoring the memories of watching her brother rodeo, but right now the smells and sounds of bucking stock and cowboy roughhousing suffocated her. If her plan succeeded, she'd have to find a way to block out the memories each time she rode.
Head down, she strode through the cowboy ready area toward the exit. When she turned a corner, she plowed into a solid wall of muscle. Off balance, she stumbled backward and a strong hand steadied her. "Lucy?"
Tony? Her heart slammed against her rib cage. It had been two years since she'd stood this close to Tony Bravo, and his masculine scenta hint of soap, cologne and pure male muskbrought back memories of the clandestine hours she'd spent in his arms in the months prior to her brother's death.
She licked her lips nervously, and his brown eyes narrowed.
"You okay?" He gave her shoulders a little shake.
"I'm fine." The heat from his touch sent tiny shivers racing down Lucy's spine as she lost herself in Tony's gaze. The man had the sexiest eyesdark chocolate irises that blended seamlessly with black pupils beneath long lashes. She could easily fall into the bottomless depths and never find her way out. "Sorry. I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking."
He released her and removed his hat then ran his hand over his short black hair. "You here alone?" he asked.
The guarded question didn't surprise her. Not after her father had directed the sheriff to bar Tony from the church during her brother's funeral.
"Yes, I'm by myself." She sucked in a deep breath, immediately regretting the action when another whiff of Tony's tantalizing scent went straight to her head. "Are you competing today?"
"Yeah." The corner of his mouth lifted, and a tiny ache gripped Lucy's heart. It hadn't been that long ago that she'd woken in the wee morning hours to find Tony watching her with the same hint of a smile curving his lips. Michael's death had torn them apart, and when Lucy had needed Tony the most, he'd disappeared. After the shock of her brother's passing had worn off, she acknowledged that things had worked out for the best between them. If Tony learned what she'd donerather, didn't dothe night Michael had died, he wouldn't want to be with her anyway.
"How's the Pony Express business?" he asked.
"Fine." The moment felt surreal as they chatted about mundane things, when it felt like only yesterday that they'd been madly in love and crazy for each other. "How's the border patrol business?" Tony was one of the good guysan agent for the Yuma Border Patrol Station.
"Good." His gaze drifted down her body, stalling on her breasts before descending to her toes and reversing direction. Was Tony recalling the times she'd waited for him in his motel room when he and Michael traveled the circuit?
"How's your mother?" Lucy asked. Maria Bravo worked as a waitress at the Fiesta Travel Stop between Yuma and Stagecoach.
Okay. Everything and everyone was fine. There was nothing left to say, but Lucy couldn't summon the strength to move her feet toward the exit. "Is your mother still volunteering with Meals on Wheels?"
"I'm glad she's keeping busy," Lucy said. Tony's father, a U.S. Immigration and Customs agent, had been killed in the line of duty when Tony was a baby. Antonio Bravo had gotten caught in the crossfire of a botched drug deal near the border. Rather than return to her hometown of Nogales, Mexico, Maria, a Mexican immigrant at the time of her husband's death, had become a U.S. citizen and had raised Tony in Arizona.
Conversation stood at a standstill.
"I'd better go," Tony said. "I'm first out of the chute this afternoon."
"Good luck with your ride."
"I drew Swagger. Should be interesting to see who struts their stuff betterSwagger or me." He settled his hat on his head and touched a finger to the brim then disappeared among the milling cowboys.
Lucy made it to the exit then did an about-face and returned to the stands, finding a seat on the bleachers near the chutes. Memories pinched her heart, but she couldn't make herself leavenot after running into Tony. She'd believed she'd put their short affair behind her, but seeing him today had unsettled her and awakened a need for answersanswers she feared would open Pandora's Box.
"Ladies and gentlemen, now that the chuck wagon competition has ended, we're ready for the final event of the day. And don't forget the barbecue and music jamboree following the rodeo."
A group of young women wearing pink leather shorts and fringed halter tops strutted in front of the crowd waving signs that advertised the local restaurants competing in the barbecue cook-off.
"Folks, Tony Bravo is up first in the men's bull-riding event. Bravo hails from Stagecoach, Arizona."
The stands erupted in applause and boot stomping, and there were sexy whistles from a group of buckle bunnies near the chutes. What woman wouldn't find Tony's tanned skin, jet-black hair and muscular physique sexy?
"Turn your attention to chute seven. Bravo's coming out on Swagger, a five-year-old Charbray from the Swanson Ranch near Alpine. Only one cowboy has ridden Swagger this year. Let's see if Bravo tames this wild bull."
Hands clasped tightly in her lap, Lucy watched Tony prepare for his ride. He adjusted his protective face mask and zipped his Kevlar vest. Not long ago he and her brother had chosen not to wear the gear. They'd believed themselves invincibleMichael's death had proved one of them wrong.
The chute door opened and the reddish-brown bull jumped into the arena. Tony struggled to maintain his balance, his right arm flailing in the air, snapping back and forth as if connected to his body by a rubber band. Swagger kicked sideways and Tony slid off balance but managed to right himself before the next buck. Lucy counted the seconds in her head. Four five sixShoot!
Tony catapulted over the bull's head and she flinched when he landed on his right shoulder and bounced across the dirt. The bullfighter waved his arms, attempting to distract Swagger, but the bull wasn't finished swaggering. As Tony struggled to his feet, the animal charged. Tony dove to his right, barely avoiding a collision. Lucy expelled the breath she'd been holding in a loud gasp when Swagger trotted out of the arena.
"There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Tony Bravo gave his best effort but Swagger keeps his bragging rights. Better luck next time, cowboy."
Lucy headed for the parking lot. Now that she'd asked Shannon to find rodeos for her to ride in, she'd better show the cowgirl that she meant business. First on her agendafind a mechanical bull to practice on.
Lucy's father had purchased her brother a high-tech bucking machine that he and Tony had trained on in the barn at the Durango Ranch. On a few occasions during high school, Lucy had hidden in the hayloft and spied on the boys. Sweat had stung her eyes and hay dust had filled her lungs, but the discomfort had been worth it when Tony removed his shirt and she'd gotten an eyeful of his rippling muscles.
After Michael died, her father had instructed Pete, the ranch foreman, to get rid of the bucking machine. One day while Lucy was in Yuma running errands, she'd driven past Tony's pickup on Main Street and noticed the equipment in the truck bed. She wondered if Tony still had the machine. If he didcould she convince him to allow her to use it?