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B. J. Lambert was in the loading chute at the Wild Rogue Rodeo in Central Point, Oregon, about to settle all one hundred and sixty pounds of himself on the back of a horse that had been named Bucking Machine.
These were the moments B.J. lived for. As he clamped down on the adrenaline rush of anticipation and fearand yes, there was fear, only a fool wouldn't have at least a littlea deep calm washed over him.
Once that chute was opened, it would all be over in eight seconds. He might have the best ride of his life or be disqualified. He could end up injured, or he might stroll out of the arena as nonchalantly as if he'd just taken a walk through a park.
B.J. pulled in as much air as his lungs could hold. He knew the announcer was talking about his accomplishments, perhaps going so far as to call him one of the legends of rodeo.
After eighteen years on the circuit, the buckles and trophies tended to add up.
But B.J. wasn't listening to any of that. His mind was focused entirely on the present and the animal he was about to ride.
"Give me your best," he said in a low voice to Bucking Machine. "And I'll give you mine."
He gripped the rigging in his left hand and gave the signal he was ready. As the chute opened he settled his full weight on the gelding and the ride began.
Bucking Machine started with a wild leap and B.J. focused on making contact with the heels of his boots, marking him out to prevent disqualification.
Then, with his right hand high in the air, he matched his wits, strength and balance with those of the horse. He wasn't so much thinking at this point as simply doing what came naturally.
The more wicked turns and kicks the horse threw at him, the happier B.J. was. Only 50 percent of his grade was based on his skillsthe rest was up to the gelding.
Give me all you've got. I can take it.
And he did. But when the eight-second horn sounded, he lost no time in getting off. He jumped, managing to land on his feet in the dirt-packed arena.
From the volume of the crowd's cheering, he could tell he'd had a good round. He waved his hat, specifically looking for his sister, Cassidy, and her fiance, Dan Farley, who were also participating in the rodeo. Next he looked for his mother, sitting rigidly in the stands.
Olive did not approve of the rodeo and he didn't kid himself that she was here to watch him perform. No, she'd driven all this way to cheer on Cassidy and Farley, whose recent engagement had pleased her so much she was willing to put aside her usual distaste for the sport.
The engagement was good news for a family that had had a hell of a rough ride this year. After Brock's death, it had seemed nothing would ever be right again. The loss always hit B.J. hardest at nighthe hadn't had a straight eight hours of sleep in a long time.
But he was grateful that Corb had recovered from his injuries. He'd even fallen in love and married Laurel Sheridan, Winnie's red-haired friend from New York City. Now they had a little daughterlife continued.
Winnie, however, still hadn't returned to Coffee Creek since Brock's funeral. She was convalescing at her parents' farm in the Highwood area. The family had been shocked to learn that she'd been two months pregnant at the time of the accident. Now she had a little boy and B.J. wondered when he would meet him.
He'd called Winnie a few times since Brock's death. Their conversations were always short, since neither of them knew quite what to say. They always ended the same way, with Winnie promising to return with her son to Coffee Creek one day soon.
But in the meantime, her staff and Laurel were running the Cinnamon Stick Cafe.
As for Jackson, nothing anyone said seemed able to lessen the guilt he felt for being the driver that day. B.J. felt bad for his foster brother and hoped that eventually time would heal his pain.
B.J. himself was no stranger to guilt. He knew that with Brock gone, it was up to him, the eldest son, to step in and help. But the rodeo had become more than a job to him over the years. It was an adrenaline addiction that kept him from thinking of a certain woman he should have forgotten a long time ago.
He gave his head a shake and reminded himself to focus. Lately his thoughts had been scattering far too easily.
" and we have an eighty-nine for Mr. B. J. Lambert today, ladies and gentlemen. That pretty much guarantees him top standing for the Wild Rogue this year. Give it up, folks, for a gentleman who has dedicated many good years to this sport we all love "
Tommy, one of the pick-up men, clapped his shoulder. "Well done." A couple other competitors offered their congratulations, too, stopping him to shake his hand and make admiring comments about his ride.
Once upon a time B.J. would have enjoyed all of this. Winning was the point, right?
But today he felt flat. That moment in the chute with Bucking Machine had meant more to him than any of this.
And later, when he was called to the stage and given his check and trophy, it was all he could do to muster a smile and wave at the spectators.
His sister came running and threw out her arms for a big hug. "Way to go, B.J. We're all so proud of you."
Her fiance, a man who had been his friend since they were mutton-busting age, gave him a firm handshake. "Impressive. Hell, you were the man to beat, but no one even came close."
B.J. shrugged. "It's what I do. You novices, though, you really kicked butt. You're the ones who deserve the big congratulations."
Cassidy flushed. She'd come in third in barrel racing after a six-year hiatus from the sport, while Farley, a full-time vet who competed only occasionally in the rodeo, had managed to take first place in steer wrestling. B.J. could tell he was still on a high from his great performance. B.J. remembered well the days when winning had made him feel that way, too.
Hard to say when the thrill had started to fade. Maybe when he'd noticed the other cowboys sharing their victories with girlfriends, wives and children, while he always stood on the podium alone?
"We were all pretty awesome," Cassidy said, linking one arm around Farley, the other around her brother. His sister looked happier than he'd seen her in some time, and he was glad for her. She'd recently decided to leave behind her planned business career to work as a horse trainer and teacher with Straws Monahan. Her recent engagement to Farley was also a big reason for the glow in her smile.
"You two make a great couple," he said.
And that's when his mother joined the group. She was decked out in a stylish skirt and trimmed Western shirt, looking spry and fit for a woman in her sixties.
"You did well, Robert James." The words were right, but the tone held the note of contained disapproval that he was used to hearing from his mother.
"Thanks, Mom. I'm glad you could be here."
She nodded, then turned to her daughter. "I'm tired. Think I'll head back to the hotel."
"Oh." Cassidy's face fell. "Would you like us to come with you?"
"No. You go ahead and celebrate." She sighed. It was the drinking and partying that accompanied rodeo that she most disapproved of. "I suppose you've earned the right to a little fun."
"We'll have fun," Cassidy agreed. "But you know we won't overdo the drinking. We never do."
B.J. wondered if his sister thought she was speaking for him, too, when she said that. If so, she wasn't being entirely honest.
"Ready to head over to the Rogue Saloon?" Cassidy asked him, once their mother had departed.
"I'll meet you there. I promised an interview to a reporter from the Mail Tribune" His sister didn't look too disappointed, and neither did Farley. He was definitely the third wheel tonight. Maybe he'd just skip the party. He wasn't much in the mood, anyway.
It turned out there were a couple of reporters waiting to interview him, and he answered their questions politely, giving the stock answers that he had memorized years ago.
He'd thought he was finished, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
The nerves that ran along his spine tingled at the sound of her voice.
He turned slowly, taking the time for a good long look before he answered. Savannahthe local sheriff back homewasn't in uniform tonight. She was wearing her thick, dark hair long, and in her jeans, brown boots and black-and-gray shirt, she could have been just another pretty rodeo fan.
She had on silver hoop earrings and a silver star that hung from her neck by a black ribbon. But what really drew his gaze were her eyes, dark and wary.
"How are you, Savannah?" He almost couldn't believe it was really her. For eighteen years she'd barely spoken to himexcept when official duty required her to, like the day his brother Brock had died.
She shrugged, as if to say it didn't matter how she was.
"Something's happened," she said. His heart contracted painfully. "Not another accident."
"No." She held out her hand in a reassuring gesture. "No. Nothing like that. It's about the fire."
He understood immediately that she was referring to the awful night that had changed everything between them. She'd been home babysitting her little sister while he went out partying with their friends and her twin brother, Hunter.
Right from the beginning things had gone wrong. First the location. Hunter had been keen for their group to ride ATVs out to an abandoned barn on Olive's estranged sister's property. B.J. hadn't felt right about it, but he'd gone along.
Then a big electrical storm had struck, spooking the girls and sending them running. Only Brock and Hunter had stayed behind to witness the barn catching fire. Not until later did they discover that a vagrant had been passed out in the loft. Rain had put out the fire before the barn burned down, but smoke inhalation killed the vagrant.
B.J. had been the one to insist on calling the authorities. He'd also done what he thought was the noble thingtaking the blame for inviting his friends out to his aunt's barn. He'd wanted to protect his girlfriend's brother, not ever considering that Savannah would blame him for getting Hunter in trouble.
"Isn't that ancient history?"
"I wish." She exhaled her annoyance. "I had a visit from a private investigator from L.A." She frowned as a young man carrying two beers in his hands jostled her shoulder. "Could we find someplace quiet to talk?"
He thought about his trailer. Too small, too intimate. The saloon where Cassidy and Farley were headed would be noisy. "I could stand some food. Want to go out for a steak?"
She hesitated, and he could see the mistrust in her eyes. Even after all these years, it hurt.
She blamed him for what had happened to her brother. Always a kid who invited trouble, Hunter had grown even wilder after the fire. He'd given up on school, found a rougher set of friends, and two months later, on his and Savannah's eighteenth birthday, had stolen money from their mother and run off to his first rodeo.
Since then he'd been traveling from one state to the other, always on the move.
On the surfaceand to Savannahit probably seemed as if he and Hunter lived pretty similar lives. But the heavy drinking and gambling that sucked up most of Hunter's energy was not B.J.'s scene.
"My truck is parked close." She pointed to the visitor lot. "How about we talk there?"
Though she worded it as a question, she didn't wait for him to answerjust started walking as if she expected him to follow.
B.J. stood his ground. Following wasn't something he did a lot of. But this was Savannah and he had to hear what was on her mind. With a sigh, he set off after her.
Savannah could feel her phone vibrating as she moved away from B. J. Lambert. Good. She needed a distraction.
As soon as she'd started talking to him, she'd realized approaching B.J. was a mistake. She'd thought enough years had passed that he would be almost like a stranger to her now. But strangersnot even the best-looking onesdidn't make her palms sweat.
She was a sheriff, damn it. She was supposed to be tough.
She'd come to the rodeo in the first place hoping to see her brother. But though he was registered, Hunter hadn't shown up.
A typical Hunter move. And since he refused to own a cell phone, she had no easy way to locate him.
Talking to B.J. had been the logical next step. Until she'd looked into those knowing gray eyes of his and had felt all her insides come undone.
As she reached for her phone, she hoped B.J. would get stubborn and refuse to cooperate. But she could hear the sound of his boots scuffing along the hard-packed dirt behind her.
She'd started something now. The Lord only knew where it would end.
Savannah glanced at her phone's display, hoping the call would be official business requiring her to leave Central Point, Oregon, right this minute. But the number was from the Mountain View Care Home back in Coffee Creek.
"I can't find my slippers."
She tried not to sigh. The staff at the care home had been instructed to restrict her mother's calls. But Fran-cine Moody could be ingenious, and no one appreciated that better than Savannah.
Over the years her mother's calls had become increasingly frequent and ever more muddled. Francine had never had the strongest hold on reality. Now it was mostly beyond her grasp.
"Mom, hang up the phone and ask Aubrey to help you find them."
"She feeds you dinner every evening, remember? The nice woman with the smile you say reminds you of Goldie Hawn?"
Actually, aside from her dyed blond hair and winning smile, Aubrey looked nothing like the winsome movie star. But the association seemed to help her mom's failing memory.
"Oh, yes, Goldie Hawn. Do you remember when she"
"Mom, I've got to go now, okay?" If she let her ramble on, her mother would spend the next thirty minutes rehashing the plot of some old movie. "I'll be home again in a few days and I'll visit you then." She closed her phone, hoping B.J. hadn't heard any of that. His pity about her down-and-out family was the last thing she needed.
A few steps away from her truck, Savannah pulled out her keys and clicked the unlock button. She'd just slid behind the steering wheel, when B.J. plopped himself right next to her.
She stared straight ahead, trying to adjust to his presence. But even without looking she could sense his long, muscular form beside her.
B.J. was too tall to be a cowboy, but that hadn't stopped him from being a success at it. He had a high forehead and a strong jaw and chin, and intense gray eyes that hinted at green when the light was right.
From the first time she'd met himat age fifteen when she'd walked into class as the new kid in townshe'd thought he was the best-looking guy she'd ever seen.
She still thought that. Reluctantly.
Asking him to come to her truck had been a mistake. She'd thought a restaurant would be too intimate. But her cab had never felt so small, and if there'd been a table between them, at least she wouldn't have had to sit so close that their shoulders practically touched.
The table also would have hidden the long line of his jean-clad thigh. And surely, in a restaurant, she wouldn't have been able to hear the sound of him breathing.
"This is real cozy, but an open window would be nice."
Quickly she inserted the key, then powered down both windows. "Sorry. This is awkward."
"It doesn't have to be, Savannah."