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"I'm not sure this was such a good idea."
Jules Vandeveer didn't realize she had spoken as she stared across the dirt-floored indoor arena of the Agri-Plex. From her front-row seat next to her best friend, she watched the cowboy in the brilliant blue shirt position himself on the back of a horse.
"We can leave if you'd rather not stay," Beth Anders told her.
Jules was tempted, but strengthened her resolve. "No," she said, shaking her head. "No, I need to do this." She knew the dangers involved in any sport involving animals, but running away would not solve her problem. It was time to face her fears, and although she had trouble believing that anyone would be insane enough to make a career of tempting fate on the back of a bucking, twisting animal, she knew her reaction was based on those fears. "We'll stay," she said, determined to see this through.
Beth placed a hand on her arm, concern still in her eyes. "Hang in there. It's nearly over. This could be one of the best bareback bronc rides of the night."
In a matter of seconds, animal and rider burst into the open. The horse bucked, reared and twisted in an attempt to dislodge the man. With one arm waving above his head, the cowboy hung on with the other.
When horse and rider gyrated closer, so did the dirt and dust they stirred up. Jules escaped any particles that threatened to invade her eyes and mouth by bending to reach for her bag under the seat. Over the noise of the crowd, which had now come to its feet around her, she could hear the horn signal the end of the eight-second ride, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Before she could collect her wits, something struck her bent head and fell to her feet. Afraid todiscover what it might be, she dared a glance and saw a black cowboy hat.
"Where did this come from?" She picked up the hat and stared at it as she straightened. Gingerly holding the dusty object, she looked to the arena where the last rider stood waving at the cheering crowdhatless.
"Hang on to it," Beth said over the din.
Jules stared at her. "You hang on to it," she said, shoving the hat at her friend.
Beth pushed it back, shaking her head and grinning from ear to ear. When the shrill sound of a pager pierced the noise of the crowd, Beth grumbled and slipped the beeper from her belt. "I have to answer this call," she explained, standing and scooting past Jules to the aisle. "You stay here, and I'll be right back."
Jules jumped to her feet. "But"
"It'll only take a minute. Don't move from that spot." With a wave of her hand, Beth pushed her way through the still-cheering crowd and disappeared.
Jules watched her go before turning back to find herself staring down over the railing into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen, eyes surrounded by thick, black lasheslashes any woman would kill for.
Her heart stopped and her mind went blank.
"My hat, darlin'."
The comment, uttered in a smooth, slow baritone, caused Jules to blink, but her mind still didn't kick into gear.
Crinkles formed in the deeply tanned skin at the corners of the sapphire eyes. A lock of jet-black hair fell carelessly over black eyebrows. "If you really want it that bad " he said with an Oklahoma drawl.
Her gaze dropped to the hat gripped in her hands, and her heartbeat kicked in, thudding against her ribs. Had he called her darlin'? Stunned into action, she shoved the hat toward him and shook her head.
He gave her a lopsided grin. "You sure?"
She felt her heart somersault before she nodded, still unable to utter a sound. What was happening to her? It wasn't fear that had her heart suddenly racing.
"You okay, darlin'?" His deep voice was filled with concern.
Jules blinked and stiffened at the tingling sensation the sound of his voice sent along her nerve endings. She held the hat out to him with trembling hands. "If you'll just take your hat "
The cowboy took it from her, his eyes narrowing in a puzzled frown, and placed it on his head. Tipping the brim, which now shadowed half his face, he gave her a tight smile before turning to amble across the arena.
"What did you say to him?"
Jules spun around to see Beth working her way back through the retreating crowd. She took a deep, calming breath. "Nothing. I gave him his hat."
Her friend reached her and frowned. "Is that all? He looked ticked off to me."
"Of course that's all," Jules said. Adding a good-natured smile, she refused to let her inexplicable reaction to the man intrude on their time together. "You know, Beth, if we weren't such good friends, this cowboy thing would be the last straw," she teased. She nearly laughed at the irony in her choice of words. Since they'd arrived at the Ada, Oklahoma, arena, she'd seen enough straw to choke a herd of buffalo. And she'd thought straw was a staple of the show-jumping world! Rodeos even had that beat.
She'd thought a rodeo would be far different from hunter-jumping, but even the smells and sounds of the evening had brought back more memories than she'd expected. Seeing cowboys thrown from horses had only made it worse, even though Beth had warned her it might. At least no one had been seriously hurt.
"You're sure you're all right?" Beth asked, obviously worried.
"I'm fine. Really." Noticing the crowd had thinned, Jules gathered her things and stood, relieved the evening was over.
Beth took her by the arm, her brown eyes sparkling with anticipation. "Let's get going."
Pulling Jules through the stragglers leaving the stands, Beth said with a wicked grin, "We're going to a party."
Jules smiled. She could handle a little quiet mingling and a glass of wine to clear the dirt from her throat, a place where she could relax and get her heart slowed to a more normal pace. It was obvious she needed this vacation if a cowboy could leave her tongue-tied.
Tanner O'Brien spotted the woman he'd seen in the stands with Beth Anders the minute he walked into the noisy bar. Country music played at full volume by a local band assaulted his ears, and multicolored lights flashed in his eyes as a throng of well-wishers and words of congratulations swamped him. And he still couldn't keep his eyes off her. Walking across the wood-plank floor, he felt a friendly whack to his back and wordlessly accepted the praise that accompanied it with a smile and a nod, while someone else pressed a frosty mug of beer into his hand. Rodeoers and fans were one big family, no matter what part of the country.
He thanked, smiled and nodded his way through the boisterous crowd to a familiar face. Pulling up a chair, he straddled it. "Hey, Dusty."
The cowboy sitting across the table shoved his hat back on his head with one finger. "That last ride looked like a piece of cake," Dusty said around the matchstick in his mouth.
"Yeah, sure." Tanner managed a weak smile. His thirty-three-year-old body ached with disagreement. Leaning closer, he kept his voice low. "You haven't seen Shawn, have you?"
Dusty frowned. "Nope, not since your last ride tonight. He was hangin' around behind the chutes and disappeared about the time they announced your win." A quick grin replaced the frown, but the matchstick didn't waver. "That nephew of yours giving you trouble?"
Before Tanner could answer, a female voice purred in his ear, "Will you sign my program?"
Deep cleavage framed by western fringe hit him at eye level, but he ignored the view. Buckle bunnies didn't interest him much anymore. Taking the glossy sheaf and the pen she offered, he scribbled his name and handed it back without bothering to look up into her face.
Dusty laughed when she'd gone. "You've got a way with the ladies, kinda like you do with the broncs."
Tanner shook his head and chuckled. "Bet I'm old enough to be her father."
"Wouldn't have stopped you that long ago."
Tanner took a swallow of beer and considered the statement. "Yeah, but I didn't know any better then."
Unable to stop himself, his gaze swept the room, finally resting on the blonde from the arena. She was a looker, that was for sure.
When the wranglers had pointed her out to him after he'd tossed his Resistol hat into the stands, he'd felt a spark of interest. Old habits were hard to break, and he'd intended to get semi-acquainted with the little lady when he retrieved his hat. And he might have if she hadn't turned up the chill factor. Cold, that was what she was.
"Friend of yours?" Dusty broke into his thoughts.
"No way." And he didn't intend for her to be, either. He wasn't in the mood for a case of frostbite. Without looking at Dusty, he drained the mug, quenching his thirst but not his curiosity.
Dusty tipped his chair back on two legs. "She seems to be a friend of Beth Anders."
"Good for her." Tanner gave in and glanced at the blonde one more time. She sure was easy on the eyes.
Long, golden hair twisted into a fancy braid. And those eyes. Green as prairie grass in the spring. He couldn't stop thinking about them, until he remembered how they'd turned cold and how her voice, when she'd finally spoken, had an icy edge.
When she looked up in his direction, he glanced away, right into the eyes of Beth Anders, who waved him over.
A snort of laughter from across the table cut through the noise of the tavern. "Go do the gentlemanly thing and say howdy to the ladies," Dusty urged.
Tanner groaned, but reluctantly hauled himself to his feet. "Yep, best get it over with. Beth will give me an ear-blistering the next time she comes out to the ranch on a vet call if I don't."
Tanner took his time crossing the crowded room. When he reached the table where the two women sat, he tipped his hat at the pretty brunette. "Evening, Beth," he said, and then managed a brief nod in her friend's direction.
"Hi, Tanner," Beth greeted.
He stayed focused on the vet and avoided the blonde seated across from her. "Where's the professor tonight? That fiancé of yours needs to keep an eye on you."
"Michael called just at the end of your ride. But hey, great ride! Another win! You ought to be well on your way to that gold buckle."
He shrugged. Praise always made him uncomfortable. "I drew a good horse."
"That's what you always say," she said, laughing. "And luck must have had something to do with where that hat of yours landed when you tossed it." She glanced at the blonde and back again.
He caught the hint and risked a look at her friend.
"Yeah," he agreed. The blonde's interest was riveted to the middle of his shirt, the crease of a frown between her high, arched brows.
Cold. Real cold. So why did the room feel several degrees warmer?
"Jules, this is Tanner O'Brien, champion bareback rider," Beth said before smiling up at him. "Tanner, meet my oldest and dearest friend, Jules Vandeveer."
"Ma'am." Tanner touched the brim of his hat when the blonde raised her head to acknowledge him. His gaze collided with hers, and his mouth went dry. Damn. She sure had an effect on a man.
"Mr. O'Brien," she said with a nod and the hint of a smile.
He noticed her hesitation when she leaned toward him and offered her hand, but he took it, anyway. A gentleness in her touch caught him off guard. The heady perfume she wore didn't help matters, either, but a man had to breathe, and breathe it in, he did.
"Why don't you sit down, instead of towering over us, Tanner?" Beth suggested.
The sound of her voice brought him back to earth. With unusual reluctance, he released Jules's hand, then lowered himself onto a chair and tried to ignore the pain in his knees. He'd pay for that last ride even more tomorrow.
Beth leaned across the table to speak to him. "Tonight is special for Jules. It's her first rodeo."
"Oh, yeah?" Daring to face the silent blonde, he smiled. "How'd you like it?"
With a quick, uncertain glance at him first, she finally gave him a level look. "It was interesting."
He didn't miss the coolness in her voice, and his grin faded. "Not much of a rodeo fan, I guess."
He held her gaze, prepared to say more, until she ran her tongue over her lips. His pulse quickened. Lips like those were meant to be kissed. And kissed well. It was all he could do to look away.
"You must love what you do."
It took some effort, but he dragged his gaze back to hers and fought for control. "Love it? Darlin', it's my life. Always has been and always will be." If his body didn't wear out first.
She offered a tentative smile. "I guess everyone has their calling."
"Jules is on vacation," Beth explained.
"How long will you be here?" The question was out of his mouth before he realized it. There was something about her besides her looks that drew him to her. Maybe he'd read her wrong at the arena. She fascinated him, in a strange sort of way.
"About a month," she answered. "Until after Beth's wedding. Why?"
It was easy to see that she needed to relax. Hoping it would begin to thaw her, he decided a little flirting would be harmless. "Well, darlin', I can teach you a lot about rodeo cowboys in a month."
Her eyes widened in surprise for a moment, and then she flashed him a killer smile. "Why, thank you, but no thanks. Cowboys aren't my thang."
He stared at her, not sure what to think. That smile had almost given him hope, but he wasn't sure how to take her response. He probably deserved her rejection. She obviously wasn't the type to fall for the line he'd fed her, and he'd made a fool of himself by using it. Not that it mattered. He doubted he would run into her again, and he sure didn't need to get tangled up with her. He had better things to do. He had a ranch to run and National Finals Rodeo to qualify for. His summer would be busy.
Filling the awkward silence that followed, Beth laughed and placed her hand on her friend's arm. "She's a city girl, Tanner. She's not used to cowboys like you."
"You've known each other long?" he asked, focusing on Beth.
"We met in the hospital when we were twelve. I was there with a bad case of poison oak, and she was"
The blonde shook her head. "We learned we lived near each other and became best friends."
"A city girl, huh?" he asked, as if it surprised him.
Beth nodded. "An attorney, as a matter-of-fact."
" her friend began warningly.