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"You've got to be kidding." Amanda leaned against the hood of her car. Staring into her father's perpetual blue-eyed squint, she fought for composure.
"Sorry, Mandy." Tom Markette managed to say the words without sounding or looking at all apologetic. "I need the biggest paycheck I can get, and Okeechobee offered it. Gas and feed ain't free, you know."
Amanda swallowed a bitter retort. There was more than money behind her father's decision to leave her twisting in the wind, and they both knew it. But this wasn't the time to dredge up old hurts. She shoved a hank of loose hair behind her ear and chose a different battle. She had more immediate issues to deal with, starting with the Saddle Up Stampede in
"Dad, the stampede is in five days. Five days. You can't back out now."
Expecting to find her father in the practice ring of the Boots and Spurs Dude Ranch, where the bar association held its annual fundraiser, she'd closed her law office in nearby Melbourne and driven out to watch him ride. The instant she'd spotted his long form propped against his motor home, a familiar sinking feeling had formed in the pit of her stomach. Acid had burned the back of her throat when she'd spied a horse standing in the hitched-up trailer.
"Okeechobee lost their opening act and I took the job, baby girl. You know how it is. I have to take advantage of every opportunity." Tom speared her with a calculating glance. "If you'd give up this foolish notion and join the team again, I wouldn't have these problems."
There it was. Eight years, and her dad still hadn't forgiven her for walking away from the Markette Ropin' Team. Well, he wasn't the only one who bore a grudge. She held up a hand.
"You're the one backing out of our deal. Don't even try to lay this on me."
She eyed the man who should be standing with his hat in his hand, gratitude showing in his lined face for the easy paycheck he would earn putting on a roping-and-riding exhibition at the charity fundraiser. Hoping to impress him with the clout she wielded as the newest member of the bar association, she'd given him the job. But her father didn't appear grateful, much less impressed. If anything, he looked as if he couldn't wait to hit the road. And if he cared one whit about the predicament his leaving would put her in, it didn't show in the jaunty angle of the Stetson he'd perched on his head.
"By the time the show starts, three thousand people will be sitting right up there. Waiting for you, Dad." Amanda gestured toward the grandstand, which would be filled to capacity in less than a week. "How can you let them down?"
She didn't bother to ask how he could let her down. The fact was, neither of her folks had ever won a Parent of the Year award or shown any interest in her outside the rodeo ring. Their neglect had shaped her decision to specialize in family law, where her focus was always on the best interests of the child.
"Guess they'll have to settle for someone else." Tom Markette pushed himself away from his truck and reached out as if to hug her goodbye.
Amanda crossed her arms. "What, you think rodeo stars are hiding behind every palmetto bush? Or waiting in the barn till I call their number? No such luck."
And where did that leave her?
She was in charge of entertainment for this year's stampede. Come Saturday night, an empty arena was not an option. Not with her practice in its infancy and her reputation at stake. Not with every paralegal, attorney and judge in the county expecting the thrill and excitement of the best that rodeo had to offer. Not with at-risk kids up and down the east coast of Florida dependent on the money the event would raise.
"Ahh, Mandy. You always did worry too much. Royce and the rest of the crew'll still be here, won't they?"
They'd do some pole-bending rides, give a calf-roping demonstration. She'd lined up a live band and a country dance. All of which were small potatoes compared to the best roping-and-riding exhibition in the business. He was the headliner and the reason they'd sold so many advance tickets.
"Dad," she said pointedly, "you signed a contract. You're legally obligated to be here."
"Yeah, well, so sue me, baby girl. I won't be." He laughed easily, his smile so charming Amanda caught herself wanting to please him, to persuade him to stay, to be proud of her.
She stifled a groan. He had her over a barrel and he knew it. She'd no more sue her own father for breach of contract than she'd pick up the reins of the life she'd left behind. The only surprise was that, this time, she'd actually expected him to keep his word. She'd never forgive him for breaking it again.
Her father tipped his hat back and gazed at her thoughtfully.
"All right, here's the deal. I already unloaded Brin-dle. Left him in a stall right over there." He thrust a thumb over his shoulder toward the Boots and Spurs stables. "I'll leave him with you through the weekend. I'll even swing by to pick him up on Sunday." Her dad made it sound as if he was doing her a huge favor. "You can take my place, ride him in the show."
Amanda stared from behind dark sunglasses. Was he crazy? Sure, she'd helped him design the roping and riding act he'd performed ever since injuries forced him out of the chase for the next big purse, the next gold buckle. But she'd put herself through college and law school since then.
"Dad, I haven't been riding. Not in months. I've been too busy getting the practice off the ground. I have clients who are counting on me."
Including one who had hired her that very morning. The custody battle between an admittedly prodigal mom and the father who'd had sole custody of their four-year-old deserved Amanda's full attention. She needed to dig into the heart of the case, figure out why no other family law attorney in town would touch it. She sensed this one could be a game changer, that success would give her prominence on the highly competitive playing field.
Her father clapped his hands, eager to hit the road.
Heading for the truck's cab, he spoke as if he hadn't listened to a word she'd said.
Which, Amanda realized, he hadn't.
"You'll be fine. I haven't changed the routine since the last time you saw it." He winked at her and slid onto the driver's seat. "Brindle knows it so well, all you'll have to do is hold on and let him do his thing. And who knows? Maybe you'll enjoy it so much, you'll chuck this life and come with me next time."
The big diesel engine sprang to life. The camper and trailer it towed lurched forward. Amanda's protests sputtered to a halt as the dust clouds settled in its wake.
With less than a week before the mini rodeo that was really more an exhibition than a competition, it was too late to find a replacement. She was stuck with the job. It wasn't as if she'd never been on a horse before. She had. She even had her own gold buckle to show for the years of sacrifice and training, years she'd spent trying to earn her father's love.
"Don't go there," she whispered.
There were other places she needed to be, though, things she needed to do. She made a list and started checking off the items one by one on her way to the stables. Knowing the first order of business was to clear her calendar, she tugged her cell phone from her back pocket and left a message for her secretary.
The familiar scents of hay and horseflesh filled her nose as Amanda stepped from bright sunshine and stifling heat into the relative cool of the stables. From the third stall down on the left, a horse nickered. A large pale head leaned out over the door. Amanda ran a hand over the horse's neck and felt the palomino quiver.
"Hey, big guy," she whispered to her dad's second-best mount. "It's been a while. You remember me?"
The horse snorted and nudged her shoulder, looking for a treat.
"That's a good boy," Amanda said. She might have put the rodeo scene behind her, but some things never changed. She pulled the expected handful of carrots from her pocket.
Blowing soft wet kisses, Brindle lipped them from her open palm.
"You ready for a little run?" she asked the horse.
Spangles glinted from the saddle her dad had tossed over one wall of the chest-high pen. A pile of blankets, bridles and other tack sat beneath it. Amanda straightened the fringe on a costume of soft caramel buckskin she hadn't seen in years. She shook her head. Her father had thought of everything, eliminated every reason why she couldn't take his place.
Well, except that maybe she was so out of practice she'd have trouble sitting in the saddle, much less standing on top of it while Brindle thundered across the arena. She gave a final thought to the case that had landed in her lap earlier that morning, and sighed. There was a ton of work to do in the two weeks before she and her client made their first courtroom appearance.
But all that would have to wait until Sunday morning, when the performance she'd never wanted to give was behind her.
Mitchell Goodwin lifted the miniscule teacup from the wooden table in the playroom. Shifting uncomfortably on the narrow painted bench, he raised the tiny piece of china, tipped an imaginary toast to his hostess and pretended to drink.
"Yum." His cup rattled into its saucer. "Hailey, that hit the spot. Thank you so much."
Across the table, a frown clouded a pair of brilliant blue eyes. Mitch noted the purse of rosebud lips, and leaned forward.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?"
"You forgot to crook-ed your pinkie, Daddy. Mrs. Birch says it's a rule." Four-year-old Hailey Goodwin demonstrated. "Now your turn, Daddy."
Beneath the tiny picnic table, the pointed toe of Mitch's left boot pinched. He flexed his ankle to stave off a muscle cramp brought on by the longer-than-usual tea party. Cup in hand, finger properly bent this time, he took another sip.
"Wait! Your cup is empty. Put it down here." Hai-ley pointed to a doll-size serving tray. "I'll pour some more."
Hoping to goodness that the exorbitant tuition he paid to Mrs. Birch's Angel Care covered a lot more than lessons in etiquette, Mitch held out his cup as his daughter poured make-believe tea from a tiny china pot.
"Did your class sing the A-B-C song, honey? Did you practice your letters?"
"Would you like a cookie, Daddy?" Hailey held out a small plate filled with plastic wafers. "They're coconut. Mrs. Birch says they're the bestest kind."
Mitch's smile froze. When he'd stocked up on treats for the evening, coconut hadn't been on his shopping list.
"The best, huh? Last week, you asked for chocolate chip."
"Did you buy some?" Her eyes going wide, Hailey stared over his shoulder at the door to the kitchen.
"There's a brand-new box on the counter. I bought them especially for you and Betty Jean."
Hailey's fists landed on her sturdy little hips. "Why does she have to be here, Daddy? I want you to tuck me in, same as always."
"Hailey, remember your promise." An hour of dolls and stories were his part of the bargain. In exchange, Hailey had promised to behave for the babysitter. Lifting his cup again, Mitch blew out air that he hoped his daughter took for a cooling breath and not an exasperated sigh. Life wasn't fair, and little girlseven ones without motherscouldn't have their way all the time. "We talked about this," he reminded his daughter when her glower continued. "Betty Jean will help you say your prayers, but I'll kiss you good-night before I leave, and again after I come home. You'll get lots of kisses."
"And cookies?" Hailey asked, the picture of innocence.
Mitch bit back a laugh and shook his head. There were a few consolations to having a wife who'd abandoned her newborn to run off with another man. Karen hadn't stuck around long enough to teach their daughter the fine art of manipulation.
"You know the rules." Too much sugar and Hailey wouldn't sleep well. "Just one."
Dark curls spilled onto her face, nearly hiding the gleam in her eyes. "If I'm extra good, can I have more?"
His daughter drove a hard bargain. Someday she'd make a good lawyer, just like her father, and his father before him. His resolve weakening, Mitch answered, "Two. But only if you play nice with Betty Jean."
"I will, Daddy," Hailey said solemnly.
The storm that had gathered in his child's face dissipated. This time, Mitch didn't bother to try to hide his relief. His attendance at the bar association's charity event was not optional. The district attorney might not stand at the gate with a clipboard or check names off a list, but the man would soon name his successor. As his protege, Mitch expected to get the nod. Now was not the time to slip up by skipping an important appearance.
Besides, he practically had an obligation to speak with the star of tonight's show, didn't he? Sure, he'd been only sixteen that summer he'd worked as a counselor at Camp Bridle Catch. But he hadn't forgotten the long days in the saddle, any more than he'd forgotten the green-eyed girl who'd stolen his heart the night they'd slipped away to a carnival in town. He tapped a finger against his lips, recalling the wonder of that first kiss, and the others they'd shared during long nights around the campfire. Though their love hadn't survived past the summer, he'd followed her meteoric rise on the rodeo circuit. When she'd suddenly retired eight years ago, he'd wondered why. Tonight, he'd finally have a chance to ask Tom Markette about his daughter.
Strictly as one old friend asking about another, of course.
Mitch shot the cuff of a suitably Western-style shirt and checked his watch just as chimes signaled the arrival of the babysitter. Hailey's little-girl laughter rang through the room. Their tea party abruptly forgotten, she charged toward the front door.