Naomi Pierce isn’t the type to let a cowboy sweep her off feet. It’s not her first rodeo, after all. But when she returns to her Texas hometown, she can’t help but be swept up again in the rough-and-tumble world of hard-riding, bronco-busting good-ol’-boys she loved as a girl. She might be here to photograph her Rodeo Queen best friend. But it’s one fine-looking cowboy who really captures her eye…
Brice Harper is all man, all muscle, and all heart. From the moment he rides into the stadium, he can’t help but notice the beautiful stranger with a camera watching him from the stands. It doesn’t take a zoom lens to see the sparks of instant attraction. But things really heat up when he meets Naomi up-closeand he discovers that someone is stalking her friend. Brice wouldn’t be any kind of cowboy if he didn’t offer to help the ladies out. But can the rough rider keep this spirited shutterbug out of dangerwithout risking his heart?
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Excitement rushed through everyone as the lights suddenly cut out in the arena. Naomi slid to the edge of the metal bench in the darkness, her heart kicking up a notch as silence fell over the crowd of several thousand. The only sound was the occasional stamp of a hoof from the animals or the jingle of a bridle.
A spotlight came on and swung to the gates. It had been years since Naomi had been to a rodeo, but it took just a few seconds for the memories of that splendid time in her life to fill her.
Seemingly as one, everyone rose to their feet and put their hands over their hearts. Her mind halted at the first strings of the national anthem that played loudly over the speakers. The first horse came walking out of the gates, with the American flag being held by none other than Naomi's best friend, Whitney Nolan.
Behind Whitney was another woman with the Texas flag. The two made their way around the edge of the arena several times, the horses moving from a walk to a trot to a gallop, and then a full-out run with the flags rippling in the wind. As Whitney neared her, Naomi flashed her a smile, the tears gathering.
Naomi blinked through them as her mind went back to high school and the third member of their group, Suellen, who had dreamed of being exactly where Whitney was. It was one reason Naomi had returned now.
Besides, it had been too long since she had done more than talk to her best friend over the phone or visit her mother.
Whitney and the other woman halted in the middle of the arena at the crescendo of music. The spotlight caught on the rhinestones of her friend's white chaps with writing claiming Whitney the Rodeo Queen of Baxter County.
Naomi grinned at the large crown fitted on the white Stetson hat atop Whitney's long, golden waves. When the anthem concluded, applause erupted as the lights came back on.
After a tribute to the military and a prayer had commenced, Naomi discreetly took pictures of everything. She resumed her seat and watched Whitney return through the gates as the event began.
Naomi laughed when the rodeo clowns rushed into the arena to get the crowd going. She snapped photos while enjoying the show. Part of her wished she had made it in time for the day rodeo when she could have seen the youngsters doing the steer racing.
It wasn't long before she was once more sucked back into a world she had so easily left behind. She lost track of time as she cheered the events from calf roping, steer wrestling, and bareback riding.
When it came time for the barrel racers, Naomi's heart missed a beat. This had been her event. And she had loved every second of it.
With every rider that rushed through the gates and worked their horse around the barrels, she held her breath until they crossed over the finish line. When the final rider finished, the scoreboard went up, and her camera nearly slipped through her fingers.
Her time had yet to be beaten. There were some that came close, but somehow, she was still the rider to beat. Even after all these years.
She nearly forgot her camera when the event shifted to team roping. Naomi paid no attention to the announcer as he spouted off the names of the first contestants while the clowns hurried to remove the barrels.
Naomi lifted her camera and looked through the viewfinder. She took rapid shots to get everything from the moment the gate was pulled and the steer rushed from the header box, to when the lead roper — called a header — got the rope around the steer's horns. Once the header had the steer turned, the heeler would rope its back legs.
It was a timed event, so it was always fun to watch who was the quickest. Naomi loved that women competed in the teams, as well. Some duos were mixed, some not.
Naomi swung her camera to the next two up for the event and snapped a couple of pictures.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said over the speaker. "The winners of the past three years are once more in the arena. Let's give a warm welcome to the Harper brothers, Brice and Caleb."
The applause was deafening. Naomi looked down at her camera and pulled up the picture she'd just taken. She stared at the guy in a tan Stetson and a red and orange plaid button-down who looked at the arena as if it were his battlefield, while the other wore a mischievous grin that had obviously broken many hearts, along with a brown Stetson and a chambray shirt.
"These brothers are the ones to beat," the announcer finished.
Naomi had to admit, both were handsome, but there was something about the serious one that kept drawing her gaze. For the first time, she pulled her head away from her camera to the gates and watched as the cowboy maneuvered his horse into the header slot.
Somehow, she wasn't surprised that he was in that position. Was he the eldest? She imagined he might be.
She lifted her camera again and took picture after picture, shocked at how skilled — and quick — the brothers were. No one seemed surprised when they won the first round of the event.
When she lowered her camera, her gaze remained on the serious one and strayed to his ass. Because there was just something about a man in Wranglers that she couldn't resist.
As he wound his rope, his eyes lifted and looked right at her.
Naomi's heart missed a beat. She smiled nervously. Right before he grabbed the reins, he tipped his hat at her and rode off.
At least she thought he'd been looking at her, but the women behind her giggled loudly, each wondering if she had been the object of his greeting.
Naomi laughed at herself and readied for the first round of bull riding, which was the main affair at any rodeo. She'd once dated a bull rider. Briefly. She had been too young for their wild, reckless ways and how they eagerly put their lives in danger each time they climbed on a bull, hoping to hear the buzzer on that eight-second ride.
But people lived for the event. The crazier the bull, the louder the crowd cheered. Naomi took more pictures, her heart in her throat each time a cowboy was bucked off, and the bull went after them.
One of her pictures captured how close the bull's horns had been to gorging the cowboy. Yet, with each near-death experience, the crowd gasped then cheered both the rider for getting away and the rodeo clowns for coming between the bull and the contestant.
Her uncle had been a rodeo clown, and she knew their jobs were the hardest of everyone's. They were out there between each event and always at the ready for any participant or animal that got into trouble. They were also the ones with the most injuries.
In fact, her uncle had died when a bull's horn pierced his chest. But the cowboy her uncle had been helping got to safety. And that's what the clowns were for.
With the rodeo coming to a close for the night, Naomi was the first on her feet to give the clowns an ovation. As soon as the closing ceremony finished, Naomi made her way out of the stands to the back of the arena.
She paid only a passing courtesy to the many cowboys who murmured "ma'am" and tipped their hats as she walked past. When she finally reached the area where the pageant contestants were, she easily found Whitney's white hat, sparkling crown, and blond locks.
Naomi watched her friend in her element for a long minute. Then Naomi whistled loudly. Whitney turned, her blue gaze scanning the people until she spotted Naomi. Whitley let out a loud squeal and rushed her. Naomi threw open her arms and hugged her friend tightly.
"It's been so long," Whitney murmured.
Naomi knew she was thinking of Suellen. "Too long."
Whitney leaned back and beamed at her. "I worried you might change your mind."
"Never. Weather delayed my plane, but I told you I'd be here."
"And you always keep your word." Whitney moved to her side and linked arms with her as they started walking slowly. "Well?"
Naomi shook her head, chuckling, as she glanced at Whitney. "Fine. I'll admit that I miss being involved in the rodeo."
"I knew it," her friend said with a pump of her arm.
"Don't get any ideas. I've got a nice life in DC, and that's where I'll be returning in a couple of days."
Whitney rolled her eyes. "You say that now, but I think if I can find the right cowboy for you, you'll change your mind."
"You forget I know all I want to know about cowboys."
"True," Whitney said with a twist of her lips. They both stopped and watched a couple of men walk past, their gazes on their fine asses. "Then again...."
Naomi swung her head to Whitney, and they both laughed. "If I do any riding, it will only be on a horse."
"Yeah, we'll see about that," Whitney declared with a grin.
"I mean it, Whit. I'm here to spend time with you and Mom. That's all."
Whitney nodded. "Yep. I hear you loud and clear."
Then why was it that Naomi suspected her friend had other ideas?
"Are you ready?" Whitney asked.
Naomi looked at all the women in rhinestones and hairspray ahead of them. Each beautiful and impeccably dressed in denim and boots. But anyone who believed rodeo pageants were like other talent and beauty contests was sorely mistaken.
The women were expert riders. While competing, they were given a horse they had never ridden before and had ninety seconds to flawlessly complete an intricate routine.
But it went further than that. The girls weren't allowed to be married or have children. Each contestant also had a chaperone. Hell, even the judges had escorts. And the girls who competed were discouraged from even having boyfriends.
At her silence, Whitney raised a brow. "Is it too much?"
Naomi took a deep breath. "Yes. And no."
"Even after all these years, I still see Suellen everywhere," Whitney murmured.
Naomi tightened her hand on her friend's arm. Whitney, Suellen, and Naomi had been inseparable. They'd traded wins in barrel racing, and were always there to cheer each other on.
Suellen was the one who'd decided to do a rodeo pageant. Her dream was to win Miss Rodeo America and claim the thirty grand that came along with it. While neither Naomi nor Whitney had any interest in the pageant, they'd supported Suellen fully.
And when Suellen won her first title in a local rodeo, the three went out to celebrate. Suellen put the top down on her convertible on that balmy night. And they had the music blaring, singing loudly as they drove down the dark, winding roads.
They had the entire world before them. And they planned to conquer it together.
Until a car hit them head-on.
Naomi could still hear her scream mixed with the sounds of tires screeching. And the crunch of metal.
Whitney had suffered two broken arms and a broken collarbone. Naomi broke her femur, had several lacerations, and a concussion. Suellen ... died.
Naomi had missed Suellen's funeral because of the surgery on her leg. She had tried to escape the hospital to go, and in the end, the doctors had to sedate her. She didn't talk to her parents for four days after that.
"Suellen would be so proud of you," Naomi said to Whitney.
They shared a look, tears gathering before Whitney sniffed and hurriedly looked away. Then Whitney pulled her toward the corral where her horse was. "When was the last time you rode?" "A horse?" Naomi teased.
Whitney threw back her head and laughed. Naomi took a quick picture of her friend. The sound was loud and glorious and infectious. Everyone paused and looked at Whitney because they had no choice. Suellen had been fearless and bold, but Whitney was captivating and charming.
"Oh, you are as naughty as always," Whitney said with a wide smile. "God, I've missed your humor."
Naomi put her elbow on the railing. "I've not been on a horse since I left for college."
"And men?" Whitney asked with a twinkle in her blue eyes.
Naomi forced the smile to stay in place. "None since Rick."
"That was over a year ago."
As if she needed a reminder of how long it'd been since she called off her engagement. It had been the right thing to do. Rick was an amazing man, but she knew marrying him would be a mistake. So she'd saved them heartache — and a divorce. Though he didn't see it that way.
"Well," Whitney said with a sigh. "By the way the men here are looking at you, you should be riding soon."
Naomi rolled her eyes as she laughed. Maybe she would use this time to explore her options. What did she have to lose?
She laughed off her inner voice. As if that would happen.CHAPTER 2
"Good boy," Brice murmured to his stallion, Jigsaw, as he rubbed the horse down after removing the saddle and bridle.
"It's almost too easy winning," Caleb grumbled as he led his gray gelding into the trailer and shut the gate.
Brice looked up at his younger brother. "You're the one who wanted to enter this year."
With one hand, Caleb grabbed his saddle beneath the gullet of the horn and swung it up, resting it on his shoulder before picking up the saddle blanket and heading to the front of the horse trailer to put it all away. "So I did."
Something had been bothering Caleb for days now, and Brice suspected he knew what it was. As soon as he had announced that he'd bought his own ranch, Caleb had become withdrawn. Their sister, Abby, and her husband, Clayton East, had been thrilled.
Or at least they seemed to be.
There would be a lot of changes coming. For everyone. Even for him. Ever since Abby and Clayton had fallen in love twelve years ago, the East Ranch had been his home. He could happily remain there for the rest of his life, but he needed to push himself to see what he could accomplish on his own.
He owed everything he had learned to Clayton, who hadn't only welcomed them into the family but was also happy to show him and Caleb the ins and outs of running a large ranch.
Not that Brice wasn't terrified of failing. But that was partly why he'd decided to do this. To see what he could accomplish without the East name backing him.
He'd put his entire life savings into the three-hundred-acre ranch. And there were significant upgrades and repairs that needed to be done to the barns and corrals if he was going to have any chance of starting his horse business.
Brice led his black and white paint stallion into the trailer and secured the horse before putting away his tack. When he finished, he looked around for Caleb. It didn't take him long to find his brother with a foot on the lowest rung of a fence as he leaned on it, flirting with two women.
It didn't matter where they were or what they were doing, women always found his brother. Brice grinned and motioned to Caleb that he was going to check on things for tomorrow.
Caleb was right. The first round of team roping was easy. Brice was ready for a challenge, which happened in the finals. It was getting to that last stage that sometimes made him irritable.
He walked through the back of the arena where the women who were part of the pageant were located. Brice didn't bother to even look their way since the chaperones stared him down, daring him to make eye contact with the women.
Halfway through, he heard a laugh that was sweet and seductive at once. Unable to help himself, his head swung toward the sound, and he found his gaze on the same woman he'd seen in the stands.
Wheat-colored hair hung straight and thick to her shoulders. His footsteps slowed as he stared at her oval face alight with mirth. Her smile was wide, her eyes crinkled at the corners. He wished he knew their color.
She wore a body-hugging denim jacket over a white V-neck tee shirt that was tucked into dark jeans. She had a well-worn, olive green bag slung over one shoulder. His gaze lingered on her curves before he heard someone clear their throat.
Brice tipped his hat at the line of chaperones, not bothering to discern who had made the sound, and continued on his way. The woman wasn't dolled up like the other contestants, and he wondered what she was doing there.
It was the first time since his breakup with his girlfriend that he found himself thinking about a woman. Not that he would do anything about it. He had to keep his eye on his goals. There was no time for a dalliance of any sort in his plans.
"I saw that."
He jerked his head around at the sound of Caleb's voice. "Saw what?" "You looking at that woman."
Brice shrugged, hoping his brother would let it go. "You realize that females make up half the population, right? I do look at them from time to time."
Caleb rolled his dark eyes as he came even with Brice. "I'm laughing on the inside."
"What's the big deal about me looking anyway?"
One brown brow shot up in Caleb's forehead as they walked together. "Did you seriously just ask me that? I've been trying to set you up for months now. You keep telling me you aren't interested."
"Because I'm not," Brice interjected.
Caleb halted. "Yeah. All this time, I thought you were torn up about the breakup with Jill. When, really, you were getting on with your life."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboy, Cross My Heart"
Copyright © 2018 Donna Grant.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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