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Pro bull rider William Bonney Chisholm had a hard-on the size of Texas.
He stood smack-dab in the middle of the kick-off dance for the Lost Gun Fair and Rodeo, a three-week-long event taking place at the fairgrounds on the outskirts of town. The band had started up. Couples two-stepped across the dance floor. The pungent scent of beer and livestock teased his nostrils. Cigarette smoke cluttered the air.
Easy, bud. Easy.
He shifted and damned himself for being such a sucker for the opposite sex. Blondes, in particular.
He'd fallen hard and fast years back the first moment he'd set eyes on Tami Elder's Malibu Barbie. Tami had taken riding lessons at the ranch where Billy and his two older brothers had grown up. They'd been taken in by rodeo star Pete Gunner after their crook of a father had died in a house fire. Since Billy's mother had passed years before that and the Gunner spread was an all-male domain-home to the infamous Lost Boys, a cracker-jack group of young riders trained and honed by pro bull rider Pete Gunner himself-the only female Billy had ever kept company with had been a paint horse by the name of Lula Bell.
Until Tami had started coming out to the ranch every Sunday. He'd done his best, like any ten-year-old boy when faced with a cootie-carrying girl, to make her life a living hell. He'd shot spit wads while she'd rubbed down her horse and fired his water gun at her while she'd trotted around the corral.
He'd hated her, and she'd hated him, and all had been right with his maledominated world. Then one hot summer afternoon, everything had changed. That had been the summer he'd turned eleven and spied his oldest brother, Jesse, kissing Susie Alexander, the local rodeo queen.
Kissing, of all things.
Billy had been hurt, then he'd been mad, and then he'd glimpsed an actual tongue and he'd been damned interested. For a little while. Then he'd been mad again and he'd raced off to gather some chinaberries for his slingshot. To see how many shots it took to get his brother away from Miss Travis County.
He'd been up in a nearby tree counting his berries when Tami had finished her riding lesson. She'd slid off the horse and wandered over to the tree, her doll case in hand, to play until her dad finished talking to the riding instructor. He'd meant to shoot off a few practice shots at her, but then her dad had called her over. He'd climbed down and had been about to stomp the daylights out of her Barbie when he'd realized that it wasn't just any old Barbie. It was a naked one.
Just like that, his belief system had done a complete one-eighty. One glance at all those interesting curves and that long blond hair and those deep blue eyes, and he'd started to wonder at the possibilities when it came to the real thing.
Yep, he loved blondes.
The trouble was, the pretty little thing standing near the bar was a brunette.
His gaze swept from her long, wavy brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail to the shiny tips of her black stilettos, and back up again. She looked nothing like the other buckle bunnies crowding the dance floor. No itty-bitty tank tops or scandalous Daisy Duke shorts. Instead, she wore a black skirt that accented her tiny waist and a sleeveless black blouse that fell softly against a modest pair of breasts. There was nothing voluptuous about her. Nothing outright sexy.
Ah, but there was something about the way she stood there, her back so stiff and straight, her lips parted slightly as she sipped from a red plastic cup, that made his adrenaline pump that much faster.
She was a yuppie through and through. Out of her element, given the three-inch heels and what he would be willing to bet was wine in her glass. Probably a big-city reporter who'd gotten stuck covering the local rodeo.
He would have figured her for one of the big-time reporters who'd been in attendance to cover the "Where Are They Now?" episode of Famous Texas Outlaws, a documentary that had featured his father and the crime that had brought a wave of notoriety crashing down on the small town of Lost Gun, Texas. The original episode had aired just six years after his father's death, and the "Where Are They Now?" follow-up just two short weeks ago.
But most of the press had all cleared out, making way for the influx of rodeo riders and fans who'd come from all over the state for the best little rodeo in Texas.
Still, she had that big-city look about her.
She didn't belong here, and damned if that didn't pique his curiosity. A man could only drink black coffee so many mornings before he started hankering for something different. Maybe a few packets of sugar to sweeten things up. Or one of those fancy lattes with all the whipped cream.
A vision hit him, of her naked beneath him, whipped cream covering the really interesting parts, and his groin throbbed. He shifted, eager to give himself a few precious inches of breathing room. No such luck. He'd been training for weeks, straddling the celibacy horse in order to maintain his focus. Tomorrow was his chance. His first shot at riding his way straight into the champion's seat. His brother Jesse, the current PBR champ, had just announced his intention to marry the love of his life and start a business breeding his own bucking bulls. After sweeping the preliminaries with perfect scores just a few days before, he'd decided to pull out of the local rodeo. He was ready to step down from professional bull riding completely and turn his attention to something more long-term. Which meant every bull rider from here to kingdom come was gunning for that top spot.
But the winner's seat belonged to Billy.
He'd waited too long for this shot, worked too hard. He wasn't letting anything mess it up and he wasn't letting anyone beat him.
All the more reason to turn and get while the getting was good. Billy had come out tonight to have a few beers and relax. To lose the nerves.
He'd had a shitty training session today and all because he was wound tighter than a rattlesnake about to strike. He'd gone four days without a decent night's sleep. Four days of tossing and turning and visualizing the semifinals coming up in eight days. He needed a good strong ride to push him into the finals. And he needed great to actually win.
And he had to win.
Because even more than the title, Billy had several sponsorships riding on this next win. Big money all looking to back the next superstar since they were losing Jesse. And if there was one thing Billy liked, it was money. Before Pete had taken him in, Billy and his brothers had grown up dirt-poor without a pot to piss in. Their dad had spent his time drinking himself into a stupor and looking for the next big score instead of taking care of his three boys. That had meant cheese sandwiches for dinner every night.
When they'd had dinner, that is.
There'd been too many times when they'd had nothing at all. No food on the table. No shoes on their feet. No decent clothes on their backs. No bed to lay their heads. He and his brothers had spent more than one night in the backseat of their dad's broken-down Chevy because the old man had gone on a drinking binge, thanks to some moneymaking heist gone wrong.
Billy had been young at the time, only eight when Silas Chisholm had died in that fire after the biggest score of his life had earned him two minutes of fame and a feature spot in the hour-long Famous Texas Outlaws.
More like Stupid Texas Outlaws. The old man had been celebrating with a case of white lightning that had made him more than a little careless with a lit cigarette. He'd set himself on fire and taken the money with him.
At least that's what everyone thought.
Billy ignored the mess of questions swimming in his head. Questions that had just started to surface, thanks to a surge of new interest sparked by the anniversary of the documentary and his oldest brother's crazy intuition.
Jesse had dropped the bomb just a few days ago that he felt certain the money was still out there and that Silas had had a partner in the heist. His older brother had even uncovered said partner's identity.
Not that Billy gave a shit about any of it. He was more content to let sleeping dogs lie. To stop trying to dig up the past and just leave it six feet under where it belonged.
He wanted to forget those early days. The cold upholstery beneath his cheek. The hunger eating at his gut.
The uncertainty knocking in his chest. And the bitter fact that out of all three boys, Billy was a chip off the old block. The spitting image of his father.
The same hair.
The same eyes.
The same, period.
He might look like the old man, but he wasn't following the same miserable path. He was going to ride his ass off, impress as many sponsors as possible and bring home a win.
He stiffened against the niggling doubt and took another drink of his beer.
He needed to get out of his head and breathe for a little while. Maybe talk shop with the other contestants and see who posed the biggest threat. He had an idea, since he'd been following all of his fellow contenders, but still. It was good to see them face-to-face, to look deep into their eyes and see the drive. The determination. To see who messed up tonight by drinking too much, or staying out too late, or carousing with too many women. All three were distractions better avoided.
Which was why Billy sure as shootin' wasn't out tonight looking to get laid. No matter how much he suddenly wanted to.
He tugged at the top button of his shirt and tossed down another swallow of Coors Light. Neither did much to cool the fiery lust burning him up from the inside out. Tossing down another long swallow, he turned his attention to the old cowboy standing next to him.
Eli McGinnis was the grandfather that Billy had never had. He looked as if he'd stepped straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel with his snow-white slicked back hair and a handlebar mustache that curled up at the ends. He wore a plaid Western shirt starched within an inch of its life, a pair of Wranglers and a knowing expression that said he'd been there and done that a dozen times over. An old rodeo cowboy, he'd been a permanent fixture at the Gunner spread for as long as Billy could remember. A mentor to all of the Lost Boys, Billy included. Eli had also been instrumental in Billy's success on the rodeo circuit. The old cowboy had been handing out advice and badgering him into hanging on just a little longer, a little tighter, a little more, for years now.
". .make sure your hand's under the rope real solid before you even think about giving the signal."
"And keep your back bowed, but not too bowed."
"And get your eyeballs back into your head."
"Already done-" The comment cut off as Billy's head snapped up. He stared into the old man's knowing gaze. "What the hell are you talking about, Eli?"
"That uppity-up over yonder." Eli motioned across the sawdust floor. "If you keep staring at her like that, she's liable to burst into flames right here and now."
"You're losin' it, old man. I'm doing no such thing. My mind's all about tomorrow."
"True enough, but to get to tomorrow, you've got to make it through tonight."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Landsakes, do I have to spell it out for you?" He gave Billy a nudge. "Get your ass over there and dance with the woman. Otherwise, you'll keep wonderin' and that sure as shit's gonna kill your concentration and lead to another sleepless night. Better to blow off some steam and get your mind off everything for a little while."
"I thought it was better to avoid any and all distractions."
"Yeah, but if that isn't working out too well, you have to move on to plan B."
"Just get to it and get it out of your system."
Billy glanced across the dance floor, his gaze colliding with the hot brunette's. The air rushed from his lungs in that next instant, and for a split second he forgot to breathe.
A crazy reaction. But then that's what happened when a twenty-six-year-old, red-blooded male in his prime went without sex for four months and six days and two hours and twenty-nine minutes.
That's all it was. And nerves.
Tomorrow was big. The first official day of training for the semifinal round that would, hopefully, lead him straight to the finals. The press would be there. The rodeo officials. The fans. All watching and speculating.
It made sense he'd be a little nervous. Not scared, mind you. More like anxious. Excited.
He sure as hell wasn't getting all worked up because of the way her eyes sparkled and her lips curved into a smile.
A smile, for Christ's sake.
"Maybe you're right," he heard himself say. "Maybe I should just get to it."
"The sooner you start, the sooner it ends." Eli nodded. "Then you can get focused again and forget all about those long legs and that tiny little waist and those really big-"
"Enough," he cut in. "I get the point."
"Then stop talking and start walking."
"Yes, boss." He left the old man grinning after him and headed across the dance floor.