Driving to Vegas with the Sexiest Cowboy of the Year is a dream come true for barrel racing finalist Liz Henson. Now's her chance to get up close and personal with Connor Bannock, her secret girlhood crusheven if their families are on the wrong side of a long-standing feud. It's also her shot at rodeo fame before she returns to working as a veterinarian, taking care of the horses she loves.
A five-time champion steer wrestler, Connor's going for the goldthen he's off the circuit for good. But the divorced rancher doesn't want to return home solo. Dr. Elizabeth Henson was always out of bounds. But this road trip could change everything for the Montana cowboy if they both return as champions!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
November 28 and Mother Nature had decided to dump new snow over the Pryor Mountains on both sides of the Montana-Wyoming border. Ten inches during the night. Their biggest storm so far this year.
Liz Henson, the top barrel-racing champion in both the Montana Pro Rodeo Regional Circuit and the Dodge Ram pro finals in Oklahoma, left the barn astride Sunflower. She headed toward the covered arena behind the Hensons' small house that sat on Corkin property. With this snow she was glad she'd had the farrier in White Lodge check both her horses' shoes yesterday.
Both she and Sunflower enjoyed the invigorating air as her horse made tracks in the pristine white fluff past the Corkin ranch house. Liz's parents had worked for the Corkins since before she was born. Sadie Cor-kin was Liz's best friend, and both families had shared the barn over the years.
Every dawn, like clockwork, Liz got up to put her horse through a practice session before she left for work as a vet at the clinic in White Lodge twenty minutes away. Sometimes it was a trail ride, other times flat work in the arena. She tried to vary the experience for Sunflower.
Every night at dusk she went through another practice session. Barrel racing required months of progressively harder and more challenging work to build up her horse's tolerance to intense acceleration and turning. She needed to spark her horse out of some rollbacks, yet keep her soft and relaxed.
Today she wanted to work on her horse's shoulders. Mac Henson, her father, idol and mentor, had explained that the more control you had over the shoulders, the easier it would be to steer Sunflower. He'd warned Liz about everything that could happen during competition.
Her horse might be too hot and nervous, or refuse to rate or stop. It might dive into the barrel and knock it over, or misbehave in the alleyway and balk at entering the arena.
Liz had received a five-second penalty in a competition when Sunflower had dropped her shoulder at the barrel. Since then they'd been practicing correct body arc and position around the barrels.
A horse was generally left-sided, just as most humans were right-handed. The trick during the lope or canter was to shape your horse for either turn by using reverse-arc exercises and riding serpentines. She needed to teach her horse to lift the shoulder away from the pressure of the inside rein.
If the problem couldn't be mastered, she wouldn't have a prayer of winning at the Pro National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. The Mack Center on the University of Nevada campus hosted the top rodeo competitors in the world.
She might have made it to number two out of the top fifteen money winners in her event, but without constant practice and staying in excellent physical form to make her legs strong, she couldn't expect to come out with the overall win. Sadly, this would be her last competition before she gave it up to devote herself full time to her career. Dr. Rafferty needed a partner who wasn't off every few days barrel racing in another rodeo to stack up wins.
Her seven-year-old quarter horse had been a runner from the beginning and was well proportioned. Liz had trained half a dozen horses, but felt she couldn't have found a better horse for the sport than this one.
Polly, the other quarter horse Liz trained and took with her to every rodeo, wasn't as reliable as Sunflower. But if something happened to Sunflower during competition, Liz needed a backup.
Her third horse, Maisy, she left behind. She wasn't as teachable and hadn't learned to body rate or lower her head when Liz pulled on the reins. The ability for a horse to slow its speed at the first barrel in response to light rein pressure was crucial. Only then could you position it for a precise first turn and properly align it to change leads for the other two turns, thus shaving off time.
When Liz's body relaxed, Maisy should have related that to the movement. She tried to teach Maisy, but the horse was slow to respond. Nevertheless, she was a great horse for riding in the mountains.
Since Liz used dressage in her training regimen, snaffles were the best bit to use. This morning she was using training reins and had picked the square mouthpiece O-ring to teach control and collection. This bit kept her horse's mouth moist without damaging it.
Liz had about ten different bits, but didn't have a favorite competition bit. No matter which one she used, she rarely rode Sunflower in the same bit she was running and changed it frequently to keep the horse's mouth soft.
Liz trained with four barrels, arranged in what was called the cloverleaf pattern, even though there were only three for competition. Her dad had taught her that if you went for the diamond pattern, the horse wouldn't know which barrel was first, thereby reducing the excitement so her horse would stay controlled. A clever trick that worked.
Once inside the arena, Liz spent time making perfect circles with Sunflower, starting at fifty feet and diminishing to twelve, so the horse would get used to going in circles using a little inside leg. Her horse's back feet needed to go in the same track as her front feet. Liz worked Sunflower in one direction, then the other, making as many circles as necessary to get that control, sometimes walking, sometimes jogging, sometimes loping and trotting where Liz could stand in the stirrups to strengthen her legs.
Barrel racing was all about speed transitions, stops and then backing up. But Liz had learned that "all go and no whoa" wasn't fun. An effective warm-up was everything. She walked Sunflower over to the fence, stopped, backed up, then went in the other direction, using the "whoa" to alert her horse to stop. This exercise built up her horse's hindquarters. Practicing at the fence caused Sunflower to use her back hocks and stifles to turn around, building vital control.
When the moment came, Liz walked her horse along the wall, using her right hand to tip the horse's nose slightly toward the wall. She kept her left hand low and moved it out in the direction she wanted to move the shoulders.
Then she pressed the horse up by the girth with her right leg to push its shoulders away from the wall. When she felt Sunflower take two steps off her leg, she released the pressure and let the horse walk out straight.
"Good girl, Sunflower."
Liz repeated this process in the other direction, and eventually Sunflower progressed to the trot and canter stages.
The sound of clapping caused her head to jerk around.
"You're looking on top of your game, Liz."
To her surprise, it was Connor Bannock from the neighboring ranch. Coming from him there couldn't be a greater compliment. At her first junior rodeo competition years earlier, she'd blown it so badly she'd wanted to die. But Connor, who was a year older and already on his way to a world championship, had sought her out. In front of a lot of people he'd told her she had real talent and shouldn't let one loss be a reason to give up. His encouragement, plus the way he'd smiled and tipped his hat, had lit a fire in her that had never gone out.
"I'm working on it." She walked Sunflower toward him. "As usual, your fame precedes you. I just heard about your latest win. Congratulations."
He and his hazer, Wade Torney, had already returned from the rodeo in Kalispell. Wade, who rode parallel to the steer as it left the chute to keep it traveling in a straight line, had been Connor's partner for years. They must have driven hard through the snow to make it back this fast.
Now the twenty-seven-year-old world steer-wrestling champion sat astride one of his stallions, wearing a shearling sheepskin jacket and his trademark cream-colored Stetson. The man was a legend.
In his teen years, Connor had been Montana's high school all-around steer wrestling and team roping champion two years in a row. Early in his career he'd stacked up dozens of awards, among them the PRCA Overall and the Steer Wrestling Resistol Rookie of the Year.
To the envy of the other competitors, last year he won his fifth world title, placing in seven out of ten rounds at the Wrangler NFR, winning the fourth round in 3.3 seconds. The list of his achievements over ten years went on and on. She knew all of them.
Beneath his cowboy hat, a pair of piercing brown eyes studied her with a thoroughness that puzzled her. Without his hat, his overly long dark-blond hair was gilded at the tips by the sun.
What was the divorced, hard-muscled rancher doing over here? Nature had played all sorts of surprises this morning. First the snow, and now the powerfully built man who'd made the cover of a dozen Western magazines naming him the sexiest cowboy of the year.
No doubt about it. The six-foot-three, two-hundred-pound bulldogger attracted a huge share of buckle bunnies who followed him around the circuit. When she was a young and impressionable teenager, the sight of him used to make Liz's heart bounce like a Ping-Pong ball.
But Liz was a twenty-six-year-old woman now, who'd had relationships with several great guys. At the moment she was dating Kyle James, a pilot with an air charter service out of Bozeman. He'd flown in some supplies for Dr. Rafferty on an emergency. Liz had met his plane at the airfield outside White Lodge.
His good looks and friendly nature appealed to Liz. He ended up flying to White Lodge several times to take her to dinner. She'd driven to Bozeman twice to spend time with him. He was growing on her, but when he'd offered to drive with her to Las Vegas, she'd turned him down, explaining that she'd made other arrangements.
Not to be discouraged, he'd told her he planned to fly down for the last event on the fourteenth. Though she hadn't told him not to come, she wasn't sure she wanted him there. Her hesitation to let him into her life to that degree proved she wasn't ready for a fullblown relationship yet.
As Connor continued to study her, she started to grow anxious. Over the past eight years he'd only stepped on Corkin property twice that she knew of. The first time was the day of Daniel Corkin's funeral in May, when all the Bannocks showed up, except for Connor's father, Ralph, who'd been too weak to come.
The second time was the night, a month later, when Connor and his brother Jarod had rescued Sadie from their mentally unbalanced cousin, Ned Bannock. He'd trespassed on Corkin property and attacked Sadie in the barn. For the present, Ned was being treated in a special mental health facility in Billings.
Her body tautened. Connor would never have come to the ranch, especially this early, if something weren't wrong that could affect her on a personal level. "You must have bad news, otherwise you wouldn't be here. Has something happened to my father?" Her dad was the Corkin foreman and had left the house early to talk business with Zane Lawson, Sadie's stepuncle. He was the new owner of the Corkin ranch.
"If it had, do you think we'd still be here talking?"
She blinked. "But"
"It's not your mom, either." He read her mind with ease. "This has nothing to do with your parents."
Though relieved, she bit her lip. "Then, is your father ill again? Do you need help?" Liz adored Ralph Bannock, the patriarch of the Bannock family. A great rodeo champion himself in his twenties, he'd always encouraged her and Sadie in their barrel racing. But he'd suffered a serious bout of pneumonia last spring that had put him in the hospital. Since then he'd recovered, but he was getting older and more frail. So what was wrong?
Connor was taken aback by the questions, and the look of alarm in Liz's eyes told him how much she cared for his father. He found himself touched by her concern. "He was fine when I left him after breakfast."
"Thank goodness. When I visited with him a couple of days ago, he seemed well." She looked anxious. "What aren't you telling me?" She was really worried.
Liz was all business. It shouldn't have surprised him. She had every right to be suspicious of his unexpected presence. If it hadn't for Daniel Corkin, who'd warned the Bannocks off his property several decades agowhich meant staying away from the Hensons, tooConnor would have invited her to use the Bannock facilities for training whenever she wanted. It had taken Daniel's death for everything to change.
She was an outstanding rider who'd been trained by her father. No barrel racer Connor had seen on the circuit this year had her speed and grace. He'd spotted her exceptional ability years earlier. Though she'd had a poor showing at her first professional rodeo, a lot of it had to do with the wrong horse.
Mac Henson, her father, had been an expert bull rider, but without financial support he hadn't been able to realize his dream of becoming a world champion. He had, however, turned his daughter into one by investing in a proper horse for her. Sunflower was a winner and could bring her a world championship.
"How would you like to drive to Las Vegas with me for the finals?"
Her lips broke into a sunny smile. "Ralph put you up to this."
No. His grandfather had nothing to do with it. Connor's invitation was his alone, but since she thought Ralph was behind it, what could it hurt? Maybe he'd have a better chance of getting her to say yes. He'd been planning to ask her for several months, but had to be careful not to give the impression he saw her as a charity case where money was concerned.
"In case you didn't know, he's sweet on you." That was only the truth.
Liz Henson was a brilliant horsewoman and had worked hard to get where she was. The least he could do to show support for a neighbor was to drive Sunflower there for the big event. Her dun-colored quarter horse had great speed. He liked her unusual yellowishgray coat, which was set off by a black mane and tail. An original, like Liz herself.
Mac and Millie Henson hadn't made much money as foreman and housekeeper for that scrooge, Daniel Corkin, before he'd died. Now that they worked for Zane, there still wasn't a lot of money. Liz did have a job as a vet, but the practice wasn't lucrative. Even with the money she'd won so far this year, he knew she could use some physical help to get her to Las Vegas. He happened to know her equipment was ancient and liable to break down at any time along the way.
Connor realized his life had been blessed with many gifts. It would ease some of his guilt to use his means to do something for Liz, who had incredible talent. He was proud of her for making it to the national pro finals in Las Vegas. That was where they were both headed, since their wins at the Dodge Ram finals for the U.S. circuit region winners in Oklahoma City.