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Todd Burke sank lower in the rickety chair at the steel rail of the rodeo arena, glowering around him from under the brim of his Stetson. He crossed one powerful blue-jeaned leg over the other and surveyed his dusty, cream-colored boots. He'd worn his dress ones for the occasion, but he'd forgotten how messy things got around livestock. It had been a long time since he'd worked on his father's ranch, and several months since Cherry's last rodeo.
The girl had a good seat for riding, but she had no self-confidence. His ex-wife didn't approve of Cherry's sudden passion for barrel racing. But he did. Cherry was all he had to show for eight years of marriage that had ended six years ago in a messy divorce. He had custody of Cherry because Marie and her new husband were too occupied with business to raise a child. Cherry was fourteen now, and a handful at times. Todd had his own worries, with a huge computer company to run and no free time. He should make more time for Cherry, but he couldn't turn over the reins of his company to subordinates. He was president and it was his job to run things.
But he was bored. The challenges were all behind him. He'd made his millions and now he was stagnating for lack of something to occupy his quick, analytical mind. He was taking a few weeks off, reluctantly, to get a new perspective on life and business during Cherry's school holidays. But he was tired of it already.
He hated sitting here while he waited for Cherry's turn to race. He and Cherry had moved to Victoria, Texas, just recently, where his new head offices were located. Jacobsville, the little town they were now in, attending the rodeo, was a nice, short drive from Victoria, and Cherry had pleaded to come, because a barrel-racing rodeo champion she idolized was supposed to accept an award of some sort here tonight. Cherry's entry in the competition had been perfunctory and resigned, because she didn't ride well before an audience and she knew it.
Her name was called and he sat up, watching his daughter lean over her horse's neck as she raced out into the arena, her pigtail flying from under her wide-brimmed hat. She looked like him, with gray eyes and fair hair. She was going to be tall, too, and she was a good rider. But when she took the first turn she hesitated and the horse slowed almost to a crawl. The announcer made a sympathetic sound, and then she did it again on the next turn.
Todd watched her ride out of the arena as her part in the competition was finished. He had a heavy heart. She'd been so hopeful, but as always, she was going to finish last.
"What a shame," came a quiet, feminine voice from down the aisle. "She just freezes on the turns, did you see? She'll never be any good as a competitor, I'm afraid. No nerve."
A male voice made a commiserating comment.
Todd, infuriated by the superiority in that female voice, waited for its owner to come into view with anger building inside him. When she did, it was a surprise.
The tall beautiful blonde who'd said those things about Cherry Burke was just complimenting herself on her steady progress. For the first time in months, Jane Parker was managing without her wheelchair or her cane. Moreover, her usual betraying limp hadn't made an appearance. Of course, she was fresh because she'd rested all day, and she hadn't strained her back. She'd been very careful not to, so that she could get through the opening ceremonies of the annual Jacobsville Rodeo and wait until its end when she was going to accept a plaque on behalf of her father. Tim had raged at her for agreeing to ride today, but it hadn't done any good. After all, she was her father's daughter. Her pride wouldn't let her ride out into the arena in a buckboard.
She stopped along the way to watch the youth competition in barrel racing. That had been her event, and she'd won trophies for it in this and other rodeos around Texas since grammar school. One particular girl caught her eye, and she commented critically on the ridea poor oneto one of the seasoned riders leaning on the iron arena rail beside her. It was a pity that the girl hadn't finished in the money, but not surprising.
The girl was afraid of the turns and it showed in the way she choked up on the reins and hindered the horse. Jane commented on it to the cowboy. The girl must be new to rodeo, Jane thought, because her name wasn't one she knew. Here in south Texas, where she'd lived all her life, Jane knew everyone on the rodeo circuit.
She smiled at the cowboy and moved on, shaking her head. She wasn't really watching where she was going. She was trying to straighten the fringe on her rhinestone-studded white fringe jacketwhich matched her long riding skirt and bootswhen a big, booted foot shot across the narrow space between the trailers and slammed into the bottom metal rail of the rodeo arena, effectively freezing the elegant glittery blonde in her tracks.
Shocked, she looked down into steely gray eyes in a lean face framed by thick, fair hair.
The cowboy sitting on the trailer hitch was braiding several pieces of rawhide in his strong fingers. They didn't still, even when he spoke.
"I heard what you just said to that cowboy about Cherry Burke's ride," he said coldly. "Who the hell do you think you are to criticize a cowgirl in Cherry's class?"
She lifted both eyebrows. He wasn't a regular on the Texas circuit, either. She and her father had circled it for years. "I beg your pardon?"
"What are you, anyway, a model?" he chided. "You look like one of those blonde dress-up fashion dolls in that outfit," he added as his eyes punctuated the contempt of his voice. "Are you shacking up with one of the riders or are you part of the entertainment?"
She hadn't expected a verbal attack from a total stranger. She stared at him, too surprised to react.
"Are questions of more than one syllable too hard for you?" he persisted.
That got through the surprise. Her blue eyes glittered at him. "Funny, I'd have said they're the only kind you're capable of asking," she said in her soft, cultured voice. She looked at his leg, still blocking her path. "Move it or I'll break it, cowboy."
"A cream puff like you?" he scoffed.
"That's where you're wrong. I'm no cream puff." In his position on the hitch, he was precariously balanced. She reached over, grimacing because the movement hurt her back, caught his ankle and jerked it up. He went over backward with a harsh curse.
She dusted off her hands and kept walking, aware of a wide grin from two cowboys she passed on her way to the gate.
Tim Harley, her middle-aged ranch foreman, was waiting for her by the gate with Bracket, her palomino gelding. He held the horse for her, grimacing as he watched her slow, painful ascension into the saddle.
"You shouldn't try this," he said. "It's too soon!"
"Dad would have done it," she countered. "Jacobsville was his hometown, and it's mine. I couldn't refuse the invitation to accept the plaque for Dad. Today's rodeo is dedicated to him."
"You could have accepted the plaque on foot or in a buckboard," he muttered.
She glared down at him. "Listen, I wasn't always a cripple !"
"Oh, for God's sake!"
The sound of the band tuning up got her attention. She soothed her nervous horse, aware of angry footsteps coming along the aisle between the trailers and the arena. Fortunately, before the fair-haired cowboy got close, the other riders joined her at the gate and arranged themselves in a flanking pattern.
The youth competition marked the end of the evening's entertainment. The money for top prizes had been announced and awarded. The band began to play "The Yellow Rose of Texas." The gate opened. Jane coaxed Bracket into his elegant trot and bit down on her lower lip to contain the agony of the horse's motion. He was smooth and gaited, but even so, the jarring was painful.
She didn't know if she'd make it around that arena, but she was going to try. With a wan smile, she forced herself to look happy, to take off her white Stetson and wave to the cheering crowd. Most of these people had known her father, and a good many of them knew her. She'd been a legend in barrel racing before her forced retirement at the age of twenty-four. Her father often said that she was heaven on a horse. She tried not to think about her last sight of him. She wanted to remember him as he had been, in the time before.
"Isn't she as pretty as a picture?" Bob Harris was saying from the press booth. "Miss Jane Parker, ladies and gentlemen, two-time world's champion barrel-racer and best all around in last year's women's division. As you know, she's retired from the ring now, but she's still one magnificent sight on a horse!"
She drank in the cheers and managed not to fall off or cry out in pain when she got to the reviewing stand. It had been touch and go.
Bob Harris came out into the arena with a plaque and handed it up to her. "Don't try to get down," he said flatly, holding a hand over the microphone.
"Folks," he continued loudly, "as you know, Oren Parker was killed earlier this year in a car crash. He was best all-around four years running in this rodeo, and world's champion roper twice. I know you'll all join with me in our condolences as I dedicate this rodeo to his memory and present Jane with this plaque in honor of her father's matchless career as a top hand and a great rodeo cowboy. Miss Jane Parker, ladies and gentlemen!"
There were cheers and more applause. Jane waved the plaque and as Bob held the microphone up, she quickly thanked everyone for their kindness and for the plaque honoring her father. Then before she fell off the horse, she thanked Bob again and rode out of the arena.
She couldn't get down. That was the first real surprise of the evening. The second was to find that same angry, fair-haired cowboy standing there waiting for her to come out of the ring.
He caught her bridle and held her horse in place while he glared up at her. "Well, you sure as hell don't look the part," he said mockingly. "You ride like a raw beginner, as stiff as a board in the saddle. How did a rider as bad as you ever even get to the finals? Did you do it on Daddy's name?"
If she'd been hurting a little less, she was certain that she'd have put her boot right in his mouth. Sadly she was in too much pain to react.
"No spirit either, huh?" he persisted.
"Hold on, Jane, I'm coming!" came a gruff voice from behind her. "Damned fool stunt," Tim growled as he came up beside her, his gray hair and unruly beard making him look even more wizened than normal. "Can't get off, can you? Okay, Tim's here. You just come down at your own pace." He took the plaque from her.
"Does she always have to be lifted off a horse?" the stranger drawled. "I thought rodeo stars could mount and dismount all by themselves."
He didn't have a Texas accent. In fact, he didn't have much of an accent at all. She wondered where he was from.
Tim glared at him. "You won't last long on this circuit with that mouth," he told the man. "And especially not using it on Jane."
He turned back to her, holding his arms up. "Come on, pumpkin," he coaxed, in the same tone he'd used when she was only six, instead of twenty-five as she was now. "Come on. It's all right, I won't let you fall."
The new cowboy was watching with a scowl. It had suddenly occurred to him that her face was a pasty white and she was gritting her teeth as she tried to ease down. The wizened little cowboy was already straining. He was tiny, and she wasn't big, but she was tall and certainly no lightweight.
He moved forward. "Let me," he said, moving in front of Tim.
"Don't let her fall," Tim said quickly. "That back brace won't save her if you do."
"Back brace " It certainly explained a lot. He felt it when he took her gently by the waist, the ribbing hard under his fingers. She was sweating now with the effort, and tears escaped her eyes. She closed them, shivering.
"I can't," she whispered, in agony.
"Put your arms around my neck," he said with authority. "I'll take your weight. You can slide along and I'll catch you when you've got the other foot out of the stirrup. Take it easy. Whenever you're ready."
She knew that she couldn't stay on the animal forever, but it was tempting. She managed a wan smile at Tim's worried figure. "Don't natter, Tim," she whispered hoarsely. "I've got this far. I'll get the rest of the way." She took a deep breath, set her teeth together and pulled.
The pain was excruciating. She felt it in every cell of her body before the cowboy had her carefully in his arms, clear of the ground, but she didn't whimper. Not once. She lay there against his broad chest, shuddering with pain.
"Where do you want her?" he asked the older man. Tim hesitated, but he knew the girl couldn't walk and he sure as hell couldn't carry her. "This way," he said after a minute, and led the tall man to a motor home several hundred yards down the line.
It was a nice little trailer, with a large sitting area. There was a sofa along one side and next to it, a wheelchair. When the cowboy saw the wheelchair, his face contorted.
"I told you," Tim was raging at her. "I told you not to do it! God knows how much you've set yourself back!"
"No not there!" Jane protested sharply when he started to put her down in the wheelchair. "For God's sake, not there!"
"It's the best place for you, you silly woman!" Tim snapped.
"On the sofa, please," she whispered, fighting back a sharp moan as he lowered her gently to the cushions.
"I'll get your pain capsules and something to drink," Tim said, moving into the small kitchen.
"Thank you," Jane told the tall cowboy. It was a grudging thank-you, because he'd said some harsh things and she was angry.
"No need," he replied quietly. "You might have stopped me before I made a complete fool of myself. I suppose you've forgotten more about racing than Cherry will ever learn. Cherry's my daughter," he added.