Ty Covington likes to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. By day, all that matters to him is his horse and winning in the rodeo ring. At night, all he wants is a deliciously hot, no-strings affair with his rival, Kenzie Malone. Then everything changes in one heart-stopping split second.
The accident should have killed both Ty and his horse. Instead, they're both on the road to a hard recoverybut only thanks to Kenzie's family connections and fortune. Which means he owes her. He owes a woman who is both everything he despises and his deepest desire. As needhungry and demandingtakes them both over, Ty knows that this time, uncomplicated isn't an option. And this cowboy always pays his debts
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Tyson Covington leaned against the end of the trailer and waited on the person he considered his personal dealer in ecstasy to deliver. It wasn't as though he was addicted. He could stop any time he wanted to. He just didn't want to. The level of feel-good that was about to change hands was insane. And cheap. It could be worse. Much worse.
"Number seventy-two," the matronly woman in the portable kitchen called as she slid his order through the trailer's narrow delivery window and across the short counter. "Funnel cake, extra powdered sugar, and a large lemonade."
Ty stepped around the corner of the trailer. "Thank you, ma'am." He tipped his hat to her before tucking the plastic cup between his arm and body, juggling the grease-stained paper plate in his hands.
If he ever met a woman who could whip these up for him? His single days would be over. For regular funnel cake access, even he would consider marriage.
A large barn fan kicked on and swept away the extra powered sugar. Ty clutched his plate tighter as the dense cloud of sugary goodness dissipated in the air.
Ty tore off a wedge of the hot treat and shoved it in his mouth. Sucking in a breath at the burn, he inhaled a lungful of powdered sugar. All the willpower in the world couldn't stop him from choking. He coughed hard and blew out what looked like a face full of illegal substance all over the back of a nearby cowboy's dark denim shirt.
Still, he wasn't about to let something as ridiculous as a second-degree burn to the mouth or a personal confrontation destroy the pleasure of the first bite. There was something about rodeos that just made funnel cakes taste better.
He glanced around and let the sights, sounds and smells momentarily take him over. Man, he loved rodeos. Listening to the scratchy amplification of the announcer's voice boom over the subtle, hive-like hum of the crowded stable area, Ty thought that was probably how God sounded as He called out the scores for those entering heaven horseback. And if, for some reason, Ty couldn't enter heaven horseback? He wasn't sure he wanted to go.
Shod hooves hit the dirt pack with sharp clips as owners unloaded horses nearby. Others were arranging stalls, wiping down hides until they shone under the lights and generally working with their animals. Someboth animals and owners alikewere high-strung. Others were old pros, comfortable with the routine common to every competition. Even one with stakes as high as this. The banter between the cowboys, half bragging and half bullshit, resulted in sharp laughs now and again.
Ty relaxed a bit.
He wandered into the community barn and stopped in front of the stall he'd been assigned. Shifting to lean against the bottom half of the Dutch door, he chewed rapidly and tried to breathe with more carein through the nose, out through the mouth. His eyes still watered enough his vision blurred. Yeah, he could've taken a big swallow of lemonade, but he wasn't a wuss. Besides, some things were simply sacrosanct. Funnel cakes were up there on that list, so he'd eat his cake like a grown man or not at all.
Gingerly shifting the paper plate around, he took a second bite. The first burn was bad enough that the second and then third hardly registered. Glancing around, he took a healthy swallow of lemonade, his shoulders sagging as the cold assuaged the scalding heat.
Still not a wuss, since no one witnessed the momentary weakness.
A dark velvet nose slipped over his shoulder and huffed, sending the plateand the treatflipping end over end out of his hand. The plate rolled away and came to a stop next to a bale of hay. The delicacy hit the hard-packed dirt with a thwapfacedown.
Tyson glanced over his shoulder at the big, wide eyesone brown, one bluedoing their best to appear innocent and full of curiosity. He scowled. "Don't look at me as if you were being deprived, you big mule. You know I would've shared a bite when it cooled off."
The horse flapped his lips at his owner in a not-so-subtle demand.
Fighting a grin, Ty picked up the cake and retrieved the plate, gently slapping the two together to knock away most of the dirt before tearing off dusty chunks and feeding them to his horse, Doc Bar's Dippy Zippy Gizmo. But as far as the ladies were concerned, he went by Gizmo. The stud horse had the disposition of a labra-doodle crossed with a bullmastiffgentle, playful, loving and strong as an ox with a heart that just wouldn't quit. He was also developing quite the reputation with breeders in the area for passing on both his disposition and superior skills to his get. Demand had become so intense eighteen months ago that Ty had put the horse on a breeding hiatus. He hadn't wanted to, but he couldn't keep up the breeding demand and the competitive circuit. One or the other had to give.
The stud horse was only six years old. On the fringes of entering his prime, as far as competition went, and the idea of pulling him off the rodeo circuit when he'd really begun to shine seemed incredibly unfair to both of them. They'd worked hard to earn the points, and money, necessary to make it onto the pro roster. That had been followed by hard work and a lot of long hours in the truck and trailer as they traversed the country, attending every event they could. The end goal had always been the sameearning a spot on the National Cutting Horse Association national finals roster and a chance at the more than four million dollars in prize money.
It still didn't feel real.
Winning would entitle Ty to demand premiums for Gizmo's stud services, to be even more selective in breeding and creating the Covington line of Quarter horses, a line he'd named Bar None. Like Doc Bar before him, Gizmo was the seat of what Ty was determined would go down in the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame as one of the finest lines ever.
He didn't want to create a mass-market Quarter horse.
He wanted exclusivity, a name for his horse and himself, a legacy that would make him his own man, no longer overshadowed by his brothers.
Ty was pulled from his thoughts as a crowd of spectators walked by the stables discussing the horses and their odds. It didn't matter that it was December in Fort Worth, Texas. People from around the world had flown in for this. They'd hang out, see the city's sights and spend a little money. But come tomorrow, these same people would be in the stands, cheering on the stars of the rodeo circuit.
On the streets, limousines ferried international horse breeders and buyersmen and women who Ty hoped would come out to watch Gizmo in action and see what Ty had worked so hard to cultivate in the genetics program he'd started in his teens. They would watch with the open intent of either investing capital in Ty's program or passing on him.
Ty shook his head. Thinking that way gained him nothing. What he needed to do was focus on Gizmo, keep him healthy and happy and energized. The horse was nearly psychic. If he sensed Ty was off, the two would end up out of sync, and that wouldn't serve either of them well. That meant Ty had to find that inner place where he could simply exist, the place he'd spent so much time as a child, the place no one could reach him.
But his mind threw one more curveball before he could shut himself down. What if he actually took the top title? The little bit of funnel cake he'd eaten wadded up into a thick lump and sank deep in his gut, settling like a ship's anchor. If he won, the recognition would take him places he'd dreamed of going all his life.
Ty studied his horse with a critical eye. Known as a grullo, Gizmo was a rare dun colordeep blue-gray body; black mane, tail and leg markings; a black dorsal stripe; and a pale face mask. Gizmo often sired colts with dun coloring thanks to a rare genetic marker, and as his predictability in colt color went up, so did the stud fees Ty could charge. Grullos were rare. Every dime of that money helped fund Ty's breeding program as well as his ability to travel the rodeo circuit and pay the exorbitant entry fees, not to mention helping cover the costs of hiring extra cowboys to cover him at his family's dude ranch. But what mattered most was Gizmo. Ty had loved the lunk since the colt had taken to following him around only a few days after birth.
"Doesn't seem to matter where we are. I always find you making moon eyes at that damn horse," said a highly familiar, decidedly feminine voice, coming from a dozen or so feet to his left.
Ty's lips twitched as his body came to life, fueled by raw awareness. "Not true."
"How do you figure?"
He ran his fingers into Gizmo's forelock and scratched. The horse's eyes drifted half closed. Ty glanced toward his stable neighbor, lifting a single brow as he offered a lazy smile. "Sometimes he makes moon eyes at me."
Mackenzie Malone, heiress to the Malone Quarter horse breeding empire and the most challenging competitor in the arena, considered him openly. Then she slipped into her horse's stall, disappearing from view. "Disturbingly true," she called, her voice muffled by the thick wooden wall that separated them. "True enough, in fact, that I'm not exactly sure how to reply."
"I would say that depends on whether or not you're still seeing that suit. What was his name? It was a city
Kincaid? Watson? Portland? Nashville?"
"His name was Dallas." Thick walls or not, her amused response came through loud and clear.
"Still seeing him?" he pressed. It took a few minutes for her to stick her head around the corner and answer with a grin. Every second he waited deepened his vague but persistent unease.
"Nope. Turns out he had a very weird penchant for Never mind. The answer is no. I'm not dating the city boy anymore." One eye narrowed. "Why?"
Desire for the fiery redhead quickened his pulse, prompting Ty to move away from Gizmo and peer into Mackenzie'sKenzie'sstall as she moved back inside. "Just want to make sure you know there's no need to be jealous of Gizmo, darlin'. Since you're city-free, I'll let you make moon eyes at me anytime."
'"Let me,' huh?" Her laugh was rich yet delicate, the sound enticingly deceptive. She might look like a fragile waif and sound like an angel, but she was a powerful threat in the arena and hell's own temptress between the sheets. "Keep dreaming, Covington. I don't make moon eyes for anyone, but particularly for bed partners who park their boots by the door instead of under the bed with the intent to stay awhile."
He hadn't heard her complain before. Their longstanding history in the arena had always been fun. Before a rodeo, they'd establish the ground rules, the winner gaining something he, or she, wanted to experience together, though it had always been in bed. These postcompetition hookups allowed him to blow off a little steam and manage any residual adrenaline and ramped-up aggression after the long days on the rodeo circuit.
He and Kenzie had skipped a few opportunities to knock boots in the past, but only when one or the other was temporarily involved with someone else. And it was always temporary. Neither of them was programmed for long-term relationships, and that was what he adored about her. No expectations, no threat to either's independence and no hard feelings when he and Gizmo took home the top prize instead of her and her mare, Search for Independence, or Indie, which they did more often than not.
Still here they were, chasing each other for spots in the finals, knowing they'd likely end up in a face-off at some point in the competition.
Ty absently pulled a piece of a gum out of his shirt pocket, his mind shifting to the first elimination early tomorrow morning.
Gizmo tossed his head and bugled, knocking one front hoof against the stall door, his eyes never leaving the sweet treat Ty held between two fingers.
"Fine. Take it. Your breath is horrible anyway." He handed the horse a piece of bubble gum and fought not to laugh as Gizmo seemed to grin, delicately plucking the treat from Ty's fingertips.
"Sometimes I wonder if Gizmo realizes you're more than a walking, talking soda jerk of sugary goodness."
Gizmo shoved him hard with his nose. Ty stepped away, just out of reach of the horse's flapping lips. "Enough," he mumbled, gently pushing Gizmo's face from his shirt pocket. "You're embarrassing me."
The horse tossed his head and continued to chew his gum with exaggerated enthusiasm.
Unfurling the in-stall water hose, Kenzie filled Indie's water buckets, watching to ensure the mare didn't step on the hose as she moved around, inspecting the new space.
"So," Kenzie called out to Ty, "how's the dude ranch endeavor going?"
Ty leaned against Indie's stall door. "It's been far more successful than we thought it would be, actually." They'd have to have another two years before they were in the black regularly. No way was he revealing that to a Malone, though. Wouldn't surprise him if her family lit winter fires with random dollar bills they had lying around their ranch. Kenzie had never known the hand-to-mouth existence he'd lived for a large part of his life. She couldn't understand.
Shaking off the discomfort of the chasm of differences in their socioeconomic positions, Ty continued, "Cade's fiancée has been amazing at getting us prime advertising and exposure. Thanks to her efforts, we were rated a five-star resort. She's pretty great."
"I heard Cade had popped the question." She twisted the spigot off before coiling the hose. "You like her?"
"I do. Quite a bit, actually. She's just what he needed." From any other woman, Ty would have weighed the comment for its jealousy component. Not with Kenzie. She was far too practical, and for that he was grateful. But it wasn't gratitude that resulted in the small twinge of emotion that pricked his heart. Truth? He had no idea what it was. And he had no intention of putting it under his internal microscope for evaluations. Some things were better off left alone, and this was one of those things. Besides, there was a bigger elephant standing between them.
He intended to take the title at this rodeo, and probably from this very woman.