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On a hot, mid-August Saturday Johnny Cash stood in the cowboy ready area of the Butterfield Stage Days Parade and Rodeo in Gila Bend, Arizona, and watched the fireworks display between lady bull rider Shannon Douglas and all-around rodeo cowboy C. J. Rodriguez.
The hand-gesturing and boot-stomping drew a lot of notice and Johnny edged closer, ready to intervene if the argument quickly went south.
"You're supposed to be my man, not Veronica's," Shannon said.
No surprise that the notorious buckle bunny Veronica Patriot had sunk her claws into another cowboy. The woman was hell on boot heels and took what she wantedmostly cowboys in committed relationships. If that was the case, and Rodriguez had cheated on Shannon, then Johnny felt bad for her.
Shannon was his sister's best friend and Johnny had known her most of his life. Nine years her senior, he'd been a big brother to the little girl who'd spent countless afternoons playing at the Cash pecan farm or trailing after him at her father's spread where Johnny worked as a seasonal ranch hand.
Rodriguez jabbed his finger in the air. "I can't help it if I attract women everywhere I go."
Hands fisted, Shannon stood her ground. "You're ticked off that I won last week."
"You didn't beat me." Rodriguez glanced at his competitors, who pretended not to listen.
Shannon laughed. "You're sore because fans are finding out you're not the superstar you claim to be."
The feuding couples' audience showed no signs of intervening. Pretty soon the rodeo officials and cameramen would notice the confrontation playing out behind the chutes and broadcast the lovers' spat on the JumboTron.
"Shannon." Johnny stepped from the shadows and touched a finger to the brim of his black cattleman's Stetson.
She flashed him a grateful smile. "Well, if it ain't the Man in Black." Rodriguez snickered.
Johnny's hackles rose. What the hell had his mother been thinking when she'd named him and his brothers after country-and-western singers? It had been bad enough that they'd all been fathered by different men. From the day Johnny entered kindergarten, he'd been teasednot that his mother had cared.
When his biological father, Charlie Smith, had split after Johnny's birth, Aimee Cash had become an absentee mom, gallivanting across the Southwest, searching for the next Mr. Right. She hadn't been there when Johnny had come home from school with his first black eyeGrandma Ada had hugged him and insisted there was room in the world for two Johnny Cashes. Eventually he might have learned to turn the other cheek, but every year or two, another brother had been born and saddled with a moniker that needed defending until he grew old enough to fight his own battles. And Johnny had made his fair share of trips to the principal's office during his school career.
"Back off, Rodriguez." He leveled a sober stare at the cowboy.
"This is bullshit." Rodriguez threw his gear bag over his shoulder and stomped off. The onlookers dispersed.
"You okay?" he asked Shannon.
"Yeah. C.J.'s just frustrated with his riding, that's all." She rolled a clump of dirt beneath her boot.
Johnny noticed she wore Dynasty Boots. He glanced at her gear bagthat, too, sported the Dynasty Boots logo. The last he'd heard, Wrangler Jeans was promoting Shannon and Rodriguez's cross-country tour, highlighting women's bull riding. He motioned to the boot stitched on her shirt. "I thought Wrangler sponsored you."
"They did." She watched the rodeo helpers load a bull into a nearby chute. "Dynasty Boots offered me and C.J. a better deal and bought out our contract with Wrangler."
"What kind of better deal?"
"If C.J. and I continue to compete against each other and keep up our sham of a romancefans love that we're a couple" she said, rolling her eyes "we"
"You're not a couple?"
"Not anymore." She shrugged. "Anyway, whoever has the most wins after the Tucson rodeo in January earns a fifty-thousand-dollar bonus."
Johnny whistled between his teeth. "Where does the score stand between you two?"
"Did you think because C.J.'s a man he'd be ahead of me in the competition?"
"No I " Johnny shrugged. In truth, he believed bull riding was best left to cowboys, but if there was ever a cowgirl who could go the distance with the men, Shannon Douglas was that girl.
"If I want to win the title of Cowgirl of the Year, I need to beat C.J." She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, clearly agitated. The hotshot cowboy had rattled her.
"You sure you're okay?" His gaze roamed over her body.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Rodriguez must be blind."
Her cheeks flushed pink. Even though Shannon was a tomboy, the subtle signs of a pretty woman were evident. Her turbulent green eyes, fringed with thick black lashes, glowed with a vibrant, determined spirit. Then there was her mouth, plump lips that begged a man to Startled by his train of thought, he cleared his throat. What the heck was he doingcataloging his sister's friend's body parts? At least he'd stopped before he'd checked out her
"I got to the rodeo late. Did you ride this afternoon?" she asked.
"Sandpiper tossed me on my keister."
"Did any of your brothers compete?"
"The rest of the gang stayed behind to work on the bunkhouse."
"I heard Dixie threw all of you out of the farmhouse after she and Gavin married."
"You heard right." He nodded at C.J. "Was that your normal warm-up routine?"
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're about to kick off the men's bull riding event, but first, we have a special treat for you." Applause and whistles filled the arena. When the noise died down, the announcer continued. "Shannon Douglas is about to show us that cowgirls are as tough as cowboys when it comes to bull riding!"
The crowd noise was deafening. Johnny had no idea Shannon had become so popular on the circuit. "You sure you're okay?" She shot him a dark look, so he said, "Good luck," and moved aside. He didn't stray farin case Rodriguez got it in his head to pick another fight with her. After she put on her Kevlar vest, protective face mask and riding glove, she climbed the chute rails while the announcer finished his spiel.
"Shannon Douglas hails from the Triple D Ranch near Stagecoach. She's been competing in roughstock events since high school and you won't find a tougher cowgirl in the whole state of Arizona!" The JumboTron displayed a close-up of her as she waved to the fans. "This cowgirl's about to tangle with Boomerang, a veteran bull known for his tight spins."
Shannon stretched a leg over the bull and settled onto his back. She wrapped then rewrapped the rope around her gloved hand and Johnny worried that she was thinking about her quarrel with Rodriguez.
He spotted her partner inching toward the chute and stepped into the man's path. He wasn't letting the rodeo playboy taunt Shannon. Only after the gate opened and Boomerang sprang free, did Johnny turn to the action inside the arena.
Shannon hung on through three spins. As the seconds ticked off the clock, the bullfighters moved into position, ready to help if needed.
The buzzer sounded and Shannon waited for an opening to dismount. Boomerang chose for her. The bull kicked out at the same time he twisted his back end and she catapulted through the air. She hit the ground and skidded several feet across the dirt. His heart stalled when Boomerang turned on Shannon as she struggled to stand.
Head down, the bull charged and a collective gasp rippled through the stands. The bullfighters made a valiant attempt to intervene, but the beast was fixated on his rider.
Move, Shannon, move!
She must have felt the ground shake, because she rolled sideways in the nick of time and the bull's horns missed her by inches. Scrambling to her feet, she stumbled toward the rails as the rodeo helpers guided Boomerang to the bull pen.
When Shannon's boot hit the bottom rung, Johnny held out his hand and her green eyes flashed with relief. Adrenaline pumped through his blood and he yanked her too hard over the rails, her momentum carrying him backward. They tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, Shannon sprawled on top of him. Damned if he couldn't feel the soft mounds of her breasts through her Kevlar vest. His arms tightened around her and the first thought that popped into his head was how good she felt pressed against him.
"There you have it, folks!" the announcer bellowed. "Shannon Douglas has bested Boomerang!"
The announcer's voice startled them and Shannon rolled off of Johnny. Another cowboy offered his hand and helped her to her feet. Her competitors congratulated her with fist pumps, high fives and hearty pats on the back. By the time Johnny stood, she was no longer smiling. A few yards away, dressed in a red-and-white-checked cowgirl blouse, Veronica Patriot hung on Rodriguez like a cloth over a picnic table. Obviously the cowboy wasn't trying very hard to play up the romance between him and Shannon.
"Hey, Johnny." Andy Kramer, a bareback rider, stopped by his side and nodded to Shannon as she removed her protective gear. "Bet you're glad Dixie quit riding bulls."
For sure. Last summer Shannon had convinced Johnny's sister to compete in a few rodeos, but Dixie had turned up pregnant after the second one and scratched her final ride.
"You wanna grab a beer when we leave here?" Andy asked.
"Sorry, I've got a date." He planned to stop at his girlfriend's apartment and surprise her with a night on the town. He hadn't seen Charlene in forever and the last time they'd talked on the phone, the conversation had been strained. He hated that they were growing apart, but he'd been forced to put their relationship on the back burner the past year in order to deal with family problems and the pecan farm's financial crisis.
"See ya at the next go-round." Andy walked off.
Johnny grabbed his gear and strolled over to Shannon, intending to say goodbye, but Rodriguez beat him to her.
"Can we talk somewhere?" Rodriguez nodded to the stands.
Shannon caught Johnny's eye and he asked, "Want me to stay?"
"Thanks, I'm good."
After she left with Rodriguez, Johnny headed for the exit. What the hell had gotten into him? It was one thing to look out for Shannon at the rodeoanother to hold her close when they'd crashed to the ground.
Cool off, buddy. No harm done.
Then why had X-rated thoughts drifted through his mind when Shannon had been sprawled on top of him?
He cut through the rows of pickups to his truck parked at the rear of the lot. Once he stowed his gear, he drove south toward Stagecoach. In an effort to put Shannon out of his mind, he listened to talk radio. Ten miles passed and he hadn't heard a word the radio host said. Johnny pulled off at the next roadside gas station and bought a coffee in the convenience store, then sat in the truck and stared out the windshield.
When had he stopped loving Charlene?
He couldn't recall the last time Charlene and the word love had occurred in the same thought. Johnny's memory floated back in time first one month then two then six and finally a year. He couldn't blame the demise of his and Charlene's relationship all on his siblings and the farm. His feelings for his longtime girlfriend had been gradually fading, but because he'd been comfortable with the status quo, he'd paid no attention to the signs.
He and Charlene had been together a little over seven years and he hadn't asked her to marry him. The last time she'd brought up marriage, he'd recently found out Dixie was pregnant and then he'd gotten word the agricultural company leasing the pecan groves had gone bankrupt. Marrying Charlene would have added another person to his list of responsibilities.
Unbeknownst to his brothers, Johnny had made the mortgage payment on the farm for the past eight months, depleting his savingsfunds that had been earmarked for a house once he and Charlene tied the knot.
Shannon. When she'd landed on top of him this afternoon, he'd felt a sharp stab of arousal shoot through his body. He hadn't experienced a physical zap like that with Charlene in forever. He sipped his coffee and winced as the scalding liquid burned his tongue. If anything good had come out of running into Shannon at the rodeo, it was recognizing that tonight he had to end his relationship with Charlene. She deserved better than to be strung along.
He started the truck and merged onto the highway. An hour later, he took the exit for Yuma. He arrived at Charlene's complex and parked in a visitor spot, then removed her apartment key from his key ring.
When he rounded the corner of the building, he bumped into a man. "Sorry." Together they ascended the stairs to the second story where the guy stopped in front of Charlene's apartment and rang the bell.
Stunned, Johnny gaped at the man's dress slacks and polished wing tips.
The door opened and Charlene smiled. When she caught sight of Johnny, her eyes widened.
"Hello, darlin'," Johnny said. The color drained from her face and he thought she might cry. "Mind if I have a word with you in private?"
She motioned for Mr. Businessman to enter the apartment, then stepped onto the landing and shut the door. "I can explain."
"How long have you been seeing him?"
"This is our second date." She sighed. "I was going to tell you the next time I saw you, but we haven't spoken in three weeks."
Had it been that long? "Don't apologize." His pride hurt that she'd moved on before they'd officially broken up, but in the grand scheme of things, he was relieved she was making this easy for him.
"I'm sorry, Johnny. I should have told you I wasn't happy."
She'd given off plenty of clues that her feelings for him had changed, but he'd been too distracted to notice.
After he handed her the apartment key, she said, "Wait here." She returned a few minutes laterhair mussed. Obviously the new guy wanted him to know he'd staked his claim on Charlene.
She held out a cardboard box filled with his toiletries and personal items. "If you'd like, I can fetch the two necklaces and pair of earrings you bought me."
They'd been together seven years and that's all he'd given her? "Those were gifts. I don't want them back." He shifted the box in his arms. "Good luck with" He nodded to the door.
"Sean. We met at work." Charlene kissed his cheek. "You'll always be special to me, Johnny."
"Take care," he said.
The apartment door closed and the scraping sound of the dead bolt ended their seven-year relationship.
Johnny left the complex feeling as if an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He'd had good times with Charlene and she'd been the first woman he'd fallen in love with, but happy-ever-after hadn't been in the cards for them.
Once he reached his truck, he decided he didn't feel like being alone. He'd stop at a bar and properly mourn the end of his relationship with Charlene. She'd stuck it out with him for longer than most women would have, and the least he could do was drink a few beers and pretend she'd broken his heart.