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Skyler Quinn's viewfinder served as both protection and pretext for her hungry eye. Naked, her eye was never more than mildly interested. Behind the camera, it was appreciative of all things bright and beautiful. The viewfinder found and framed views she had schooled herself to ignore, like the rear view of five fine-looking cowboys hooked over a fence. She would call the shot Five Perfect Pairs of Jeans.
And then there were four.
Skyler lowered the camera. The best pair of jeans was getting away. Up one side of the fence and down the other, the cowboy on the far left had spoiled the symmetry of her shot. She climbed a set of wooden steps and took a position on the first landing of the outdoor grandstand, where an audience would later gather to watch professional rodeo cowboys ride, rope and race for cash prizes. For now, the place belonged to cowboys, critters and one unobtrusive camera.
Skyler watched the runaway piece of her picture stride purposefully across the dusty arena toward one of several ropers who were warming up to compete in the afternoon "slack" for overflow timed-event contestants. The roper responded to a quick gesture as though he'd been summoned by the coach.
Skyler zoomed in as the two men changed places. She knew horses, and the blazed-face sorrel hadn't been working for his rider, but the animal collected himself immediately with a new man in the saddle. The camera committed the subtleties of change to its memory card. Eyes, ears, carriage, gaitthe animal transformed from ordinary to outstanding before Skyler's hidden eye.
Now, that's what I'm talking about.
Or would talk about when she got around to putting a story together. The centaur lived, she would claim. He was no freak of nature, anything but barbaric, and beyond comparison with a mere horse master. He was a partner. He shared his brainpower with the horse and the horse gave him legs. It was a pleasing blend of assets, particularly when both partners were beautifully supplied. Not only would her pictures tell the story, but they could sell the story. Most horse magazines were bought and read by women, and here was a man who would stop any girl's thumb-through dead in its tracks. Long, lean, lithe and leggy, he was made to ride. The square chin and chiseled jaw were promising, but she wished he would push his hat back a little so she could see more of his face.
Skyler kept her distance as she followed the cowboy through his ride. She supposed he was giving a demonstrationteaching, selling, maybe considering a purchase. A cowboy with a good roping horse often "mounted" other ropers for a share of their winnings, but the sorrel didn't fit the bill. She wondered what the cowboy said to the original rider after his smooth dismount. Deal, no deal, or a word of advice? She'd be interested in the man's advice. Lately she'd been learning the difference between horse masterthat would be Skylerand master trainer, which she was not. Yet.
At the moment she was interested in taking pictures. She clambered down the grandstand steps and strolled toward the exit, eyeing a long shot down an alley where two palominos were visiting across a portable panel fence. The rodeo wasn't Skyler's favorite venue, but horses and horsemen were among her favorite subjects for her second-favorite hobby. And it was high time she turned at least one of her hobbies into an income-earning proposition.
"Business or pleasure?"
Skyler turned to the sound of a deep, smooth voice and looked directly into engaging gold-brown eyes. Unexpected, unshielded, up close and personal. There you are, said her heart. "I beg your pardon?" said her mouth.
"You were taking pictures of me." His eyes hinted at some amusement, but no uncertainty. "Are you a professional or a fan?"
Skyler's brain cartwheeled over her other body parts and took charge.
"I don't know you, but I know horse sense when I see it, and I like to take pictures." She smiled. His face complemented his bodylong, slender, neatly groomed, ready for a close-up. "I wouldn't mind getting paid to do it, but at the moment, it's merely my pleasure."
"Taking pictures of. .horse sense."
She turned the camera on, pressed a button and turned the display his way. "Would you like to see?"
He clicked through her pictures. "You've got a powerful zoom there. Look at that." He stepped closer and shared a peek. "You can see where I nicked myself shaving this morning."
"I don't see anything."
"Luckily, it's just my face. No harm done to the horse sense."
"It's a valuable asset." She nodded toward the picture on the camera display. Commanding Cowboy on a Collected Mount. "Do you have an interest in this horse?"
"I might buy him." He studied the picture, considering. "If the price is right. This guy's trying to take him in the wrong direction. He's not a roping horse. He's small and he's quick." Their fingers touched as he handed the camera back. She bit back an apology and a cliche about cold hands. His warmth reached his eyes. "Make a nice cuttin' horse."
"You're a trainer?" Obviously.
"I'm a bronc rider. Got no sense at all." He tucked his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans. "You coming to the show tonight?"
"I haven't decided." She was committed to watching the ropers in the afternoon slack, which moments ago had seemed like enough rodeo for one day.
"You'd get some good pictures."
"I'm not your Rodeo Sports News kind of photographer. And I'm really not interested in the kind of ride that only lasts eight seconds."
"Only?" He laughed. "That's eight real seconds. You know you're alive when every second really means something. How many seconds like that can you stand, one right after another?"
"I feel very much alive on the back of a horse. I could go all day."
He took her point with a nod, eyes dancing. "They say when you meet your match, time stands still. You believe that?"
"I think your idea of the perfect match is different from mine."
"What do you look for?"
"A great ride."
"Same here. You say girth and I say cinch, but, hell, we're both horse people. If you're thirsty, I know a good watering hole that's probably pretty quiet this time of day. First round's on me."
"That's very tempting, but I have to " Not really. There was nothing she had to do in Sheridan, Wyoming. If she'd come on her own, she could watch the afternoon calf roping and go home, where she always had things to do. "Are you competing in the rodeo tonight?" He nodded. "Which event?"
"Bareback." He pushed his right hand deep into his jeans pocket. "I've got an extra ticket. One is all I've got, so if you're with somebody "
"No, I'm " But she took the ticket he handed her and inspected it as though she hadn't seen one before. "I mean, I haven't decided. I wouldn't want this to go to waste."
She looked up to find him grinning as he backed away. "You should see my horse sense in a pair of chaps. Bring your camera."
She met his grin with a smile. "You cowboys are all alike."
"I won't ask how many you know. You can tell me tonight when you come by the chutes to wish me luck."
"I don't even know your name."
"It'll be on the program." Safely out of returning-the-ticket distance, he paused. "You gonna tell me yours?"
"I haven't decided. And I'm not on the program."
* * *Trace wasn't holding his breath. The woman was as intriguing as she was beautiful, and her showing up behind the chutes or even in the stands was a long shot, which was what made the bet interesting. Surprise was the spice of Trace Wolf Track's life.
He hadn't always seen it that way, but he'd lived and he'd learned. Life was full of surprises, people were totally unpredictable and a guy could either try to buck the system or enjoy the ride. Sure, he searched the crowd for that pretty face once or twice, and he turned his head to the sound of a female voice just before he lowered himself into the chute and took hold of his bareback rigging.
And then he cursed himself for losing his concentration when he should have been calling for the gate. He'd drawn a chute fighter. No screwing around, cowboy. I'm outta here, with or without you.
Trace made the whistle, but his signature dismount turned ugly in the face of a flying hoof. He didn't mind getting clipped in the head, but mentally he took points off his score for stumbling and losing his hat. Winning a go-round wasn't everything. He scanned the bleachers as he acknowledged the applause with a wave of the errant hat. He had no idea where to look for the seat he'd given her, but did a double take at the sight of a pretty woman in the front row jumping to her feet.
He had to laugh at himself when the woman reached across the aisle and took a toddler from somebody's arms. Not his ticket holder. The hair was too yellow, the hips were too broad and the kid appeared to be hers. He'd been thinking about his green-eyed photographer with the reddish-blond hair all afternoon, recalling her sweet scent, guessing her name and making up her story. It didn't include kids.
Trace unbuckled his chaps as he ambled back to the chutes. He wiped his head with his shirtsleeve. Sure enough, the hoof had drawn blood, which he didn't mind getting on his shirt, but he hated like hell messing up the sponsor's patch on the sleeve. He'd sold his right arm to promote cigarettes. Took the money and quit smoking, thanks to the bloody patch.
He put his hat back on for a dignified departure. Exiting the arena on the heels of a good score required cowboy reserve. Win or lose, the slight swagger in his step came from years of forking a horse nearly every day. Ordinarily he would have been mentally downshifting now that his workday was overone man's eight seconds was another's eight hoursand it was time to celebrate, whether he felt like it or not.
"Nice ride," said saddle bronc rider Larry Moss-brucker as he caught up with Trace on the way to the medic's van. "Where's the party tonight?"
"It's your call, man. First round's on the winner." Larry clapped a beefy hand on Trace's shoulder.
"Bob's? You don't wanna miss BOGO Burger Night."
The only thing worse than one of Bob's Bronc Buster burgers would be a second Bronc Buster burger, but the place would be packed to the gills on Bob's stuffed-and-mounted trophy trout.
"Think I'll pass on the gut busters. Busted enough for one day. But I'll stop in and pony up after I clean up and get something to eat." Trace glanced at Larry, who looked disappointed. "Something that won't bite back."
"How's the head?"
"I'm keepin' it under my hat."
"Aw, man, don't let a fresh wound go to waste. That's good for unlimited female sympathy. A rare treat. Tender." Larry grinned. "Juicy."
"Mmm. I can taste it already. But that kind of meal don't come cheap and they don't give a free one on top of it." Trace eased his hat off. The sweatband was killing him. "'Course you don't need it when the first one's that good."
"Yeah, well, you gotta do a few shots between burgers at Bob's."
"Should be good for unlimited sympathy all around."
"They started burger night after they had to quit Ladies' Night." Larry was keeping pace with Trace, who wasn't in the mood for much conversation, which meant he wasn't in the mood for Larry.
But Larry was a talker.
"Some tourist said it wasn't right to charge men more than women. Discrimination, he called it. Maybe they've got a big supply of women where he comes from, but out here the good ones are scarce, and no shortage of demand. No shortage of bars or beer, either, so which law should we go by? Supply and demand, or whatever it is that outlaws discrimination?"
Trace chuckled. "My guess, it's that ol' killjoy, the U.S. Constitution."
"The only woman willing to go to Bob's for a free burger would have to be another tourist."
"With an iron gut. Hell, Bob's not hurtin' for business and we ain't hurtin' for women."
Larry snorted. "Speak for yourself."
Another twenty yards and Trace would be speaking to the rodeo medic about whether he needed stitches, and he wouldn't be expressing any more interest than he was feeling when he asked, "Angie kicked you out again?"
"Hell, no. She's letting me sleep on the sofa." Larry gave an unconvincing chuckle. "Hell, when I first met her, she was all about being with a cowboy. Now she wants me to quit riding."
"Gotta quit sometime." While you're ahead. While your head is ahead.
"Not me, boy. Not till I'm damn good and ready."