Read an Excerpt
Two thousand pounds of mulish, malodorous stench.
Dexter Cody had drawn a rodeo bull famous for its rank smell and cranky disposition.
"Cowboy up!" Dexter's competitor hollered.
The setting sun cast long shadows of the cowboys gathered around the bucking chutes at the Sweetwater County Fair in Lander, Wyoming. Soon, the fairground lights would wash the arena in a warm glow, the oppressive July heat would ease and hooves would pummel the dirt along with a few unlucky cowpokes.
Adrenaline pumped through Dexter's veins and he cursed the protective vest preventing him from sucking in a deep breath. A trickle of sweat beaded at his temple, then dripped down his cheek as he and Stinky exchanged evil-eyed glares.
A quick glance into the stands confirmed that none of his siblings were in attendance. Good. Dexter didn't relish falling flat on his face in front of family. And if word got back to his mother that he'd ridden a bull—just for fun—she'd lop his head off. His dismal track record in the event didn't dampen his love for the sport. He wished he possessed half the talent of his older brother, Jesse, who excelled at bull riding. Instead, Dexter and his fraternal twin, Dusty, team roped together—which wasn't nearly as exciting as bustin' bulls.
Dexter didn't care to delve too deeply into his attraction to the widow-makers. At twenty-seven years of age, his bull-riding days—even for fun—were numbered. He limited his participation in the event to a few times a year—when he reached his limit of pissed off. This evening, thanks to his twin, Dexter's pissed-off tank overflowed. Most days he was content to toe the line and assume his fair share of responsibility for the Cot-tonwood Ranch working horses. But for the past month Dusty's habit of disappearing at the most inopportune times grated on Dexter's nerves.
A twinge of guilt pricked his hide. Dexter's sour mood wasn't solely the result of his brother's less-than-stellar work ethic. Dexter admitted his ornery feelings had intensified since his brother Walker had been a double winner at the Cody Roundup this past Sunday. Not only had Walker taken first place in the steer-wrestling event but he'd also landed a bride. Walker and his new wife, Paula, were a perfect match and their happiness only made Dexter more aware of the sad state of his own love life.
Shaking off the depressing thoughts, he inched closer to the chute. A whiff of bull schnocker shot up his nose. Good ol' Stinky had dropped a cow patty the size of a dinner plate.
"Ladies and gents, before we kick off America's first extreme sport we got a special treat for y'all. Trick rider Cheyenne Dakota's gonna do a little showin' off on her horse Belle."
Applause broke out when the beautiful cowgirl rode into the arena, her long black hair flying in the air. Dexter had run into Cheyenne at several rodeos through the years and the one time he'd attempted to strike up a conversation with her, she'd given him the brush-off. Not even Dusty, who had a reputation of charming the jeans off most women, had been able to cozy up to the full-blooded Native American. Cheyenne did a handstand on the back of her horse, then flipped upright and raced from the arena.
The crowd quieted and cowboys covered their hearts with their hats when the Barclay sisters took stage and belted out "The Star Spangled Banner" with a cowboy twang. Finally, heads bowed as the announcer prayed for the cowboys and the great United States of America.
Forcing his attention to the task at hand, Dexter climbed the chute rails and settled onto Stinky's back. The heat from the animal's body cooked the inside of his thighs as he worked the bull rope between the pinkie and index fingers of his gloved hand, clenching and unclenching the nylon.
"All right, folks, it's time for a little bull bustin'!" The crowd roared. "Y'all know these daredevil cowboys have to keep their seat for eight seconds if they're gonna have a chance at winnin' any money."
"Lookin' a might peaked, hoss." Dwayne Kettle wasn't any better at bull riding than Dexter, but the cowboy liked to believe he was.
"Just gettin' high on Stinky." Dexter sniffed the air, then frowned. "Or maybe it's you I smell." Nothing curled a nose worse than a cowboy's armpit soaked with fear.
"Ladies and gentlemen…turn your attention to chute number three. Dexter Cody is about to tangle with Stinky! Dexter's part of the Cody clan over there in Markton. His older brother Jesse's a contender for the NFR in bull riding. Let's see how Jesse's little brother does today."
"Ready?" The gate man nodded to Dexter.
As I'll ever be. When the gate opened, Stinky shot into the arena flinging Dexter side to side. He clamped his back teeth together and raised his right arm high into the air. Stinky swung his head and bull spit slapped Dexter across the face. Shit. Distracted, he lost count of the seconds in his head.
Not that it mattered. Stinky spun right, left, then right again in quick succession, catapulting Dexter through the air. He landed in the dirt. Hard. Instinct kicked in, and he rolled in time to avoid a stomping from Stinky's hooves. The bull fighters closed in to distract the enraged animal, but when Dexter crawled to his knees, Stinky charged.
The image of his mother crying at his funeral spurred Dexter to his feet. Just as he reached for safety, the bull's horns caught him in the seat, pitching him over the arena rails. For the second time in less than eight seconds, Dexter landed in the dirt.
"Best leave the bull ridin' to your brother." Kettle chuckled.
Shut up. Dexter spit dirt from his mouth. When the world stopped spinning, a pair of red cowboy boots came into focus inches from his nose. Then a feminine hand appeared before his face. He reached for the slim fingers with pink-painted nails and scrambled to get his legs under him. Once upright, his mouth sagged open.
"Been a long time." Nine years hadn't left much of a mark on Dusty's former high-school sweetheart—the girl Dexter had secretly coveted. Josie's face was leaner, more finely sculpted, but her brown eyes were as big as he'd remembered. Her freckles, which he'd always been a fan of, had faded except for the smattering across the bridge of her nose. The strawberry-blond hair was shorter—the locks brushing her shoulders. She wore a white Western shirt with black horses stitched across her small, perfect… He dropped his gaze from her breasts to the leather belt cinching her narrow waist.
"Better luck next time." Josie smiled a tad crookedly.
Dexter noticed he still held her hand and reluctantly released his grip. "I was sorry to hear about your father's heart attack." He wiped his shirtsleeve across his face, erasing any trace of Stinky's slobber.
"Thanks. The doctor restricted him to bed rest." Josie shrugged. "He's not cooperating, so I flew home to help Mom."
She motioned to the bull being loaded into the chute behind him. "I thought you and Dusty team roped together."
The mention of his brother's name dampened Dex-ter's enthusiasm at running into Josie. "We're still a team, but once in a while I mess around with bulls."
"I don't recall you being the daredevil type."
"There's a lot you don't know about me." Her eyes widened, and he silently cursed. He hadn't meant to sound defensive. "What's your father's prognosis?"
"As long as Dad takes it easy and remains on his meds he should be fine. But it'll be tough to keep him down for long."
Most cowboys and ranchers worth their salt were stubborn. Josie's father was no exception.
"Dexter Cody." A stranger approached, offering his hand. "Bud Masterson. I hauled my horse here from Montana. Was hoping you'd take a look at him."
Well, shoot. Dexter had forgotten he'd agreed to meet with the rancher today. Masterson had phoned earlier in the week asking Dexter to evaluate a wild horse he'd purchased from a government holding pen. The man's timing left a lot to be desired. Dexter turned to Josie. "Are you sticking around after the rodeo?" At her nod, he said, "I'll catch up with you later."
Masterson led Dexter across the fairgrounds to the livestock trailers. The rancher rambled on about the stallion, but Dexter's mind remained stuck on Josie. He hadn't seen a ring on her finger, but that didn't mean she wasn't involved in a serious relationship. He wondered if Dusty knew she was back in town.
"He balks whenever a human comes near," Master-son said.
Shutting the door on all thoughts of Josie, Dexter stopped a short distance from the trailer to observe the white stallion. The animal appeared docile, so he moved closer. Suddenly, the stallion stomped his hoof several times. The horse had caught Dexter's scent.
"When I asked around about trainers your name came up more than once," Masterson said.
Rogue horses had become a hobby for Dexter. He wouldn't call himself a horse whisperer but he had a connection with horses on a level most people didn't. "Where did they capture the mustang?"
"Near the Canadian border earlier this year. He was on his way to the glue factory when I rescued him."
The stallion's brilliant blue eyes revealed a wounded spirit. After living in the wild, the horse would rather die than be confined to a pasture the remainder of his years. "He wants to be free."
"If I turn him loose, they'll shoot him."
"He's got a nasty habit of wandering outside the herd management area and destroying private property." Masterson rubbed his brow. "After I brought him back to my ranch, he broke free and caused a car accident. Galloped onto the road in front of a minivan carrying two kids. Could have been a hell of a tragedy. Luckily the family escaped with minor injuries."
"He probably smelled a mare in heat," Dexter said.
"If I can't keep the stallion within the confines of my ranch, he'll have to be put down."
An animal this magnificent deserved a better fate. "Drop him off at the Cottonwood Ranch." No need to give directions. Everyone in the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho knew where the Cody family resided. "Tell Big Ben to put him in the round pen with the high fencing." Big Ben was second in command when Dexter and Dusty were absent from the horse barns.
"You sure you want to keep a wild mustang at your place? Hate to see him injure any of your animals or ranch hands."
Dexter had little choice. He didn't have time to travel to Montana and work with the stallion. If that wasn't reason enough to stay close to Markton, then Josie's sudden appearance was. "We've got plenty of room." The Cottonwood Ranch boasted almost six hundred thousand acres. "Shouldn't be a problem keeping the stallion separated from our horses."
"You're his last hope." Masterson removed a business card from his shirt pocket.
"He got a name?"
Masterson shook his head. "If you tame him, you get to name him, Mr. Cody." With a tip of his hat the rancher hopped into the truck and drove off.
Josie. Dexter's heart pumped hard as he made his way toward the carnival rides. His excitement at meeting up with Josie today didn't make sense. He'd had a crush on her in high school, then when Dusty beat him to the punch and staked his claim on Josie, Dexter had had to settle for being friends with her. Eventually, he couldn't stand to be around her and not have her for himself, so he'd ended their friendship Christmas break of their senior year.
You should have told her how you felt about her.
With conscious effort Dexter slowed his steps. He'd better get hold of himself before he did something he'd regret. Keeping his distance made sense. However, at the moment he didn't feel particularly sensible. Besides, Josie had worked her way beneath his skin years ago. She wasn't any ordinary sliver. Pulling her out would cost him a chunk of flesh.
Maybe she's changed.
Josie probably had—everyone matured over time.
The safest course of action would be to treat her like a treasured artifact—keep her tucked away out of sight. No muss or fuss when she packed her bags and left town.
What if this time she sees you as more than a friend? More than Dusty's twin?
Dexter ended the mental debate with himself as soon as Josie came into view. She stood in line at the popcorn stand. All havoc broke loose inside his chest when she smiled at him.
So much for keeping his emotions in check around the woman.
"Business all taken care of?" she asked.
"Yep." Half his business, anyway. The other half stood next to him. Josie's scent—a crisp, clean smell—sparked off another adrenaline surge. This time the blood rushed straight to his groin. Rampant teenage hormones had evolved into a grown man's desire. "How'd you manage to escape taking care of your father today?"
"Between you and me—" Josie blew out a breath, the action ruffling her wispy bangs "—I needed a break from Dad."
"When did you get back in town?"
"This past weekend."
He grinned. "You and your old man always did butt heads." While in high school, Josie had complained to Dexter that her father had tightened the reins on her because she was dating Dusty. Everyone within a hundred square miles of Markton had been aware of the animosity between Hank Charles and Dexter's father, John Walker—but hell if anyone knew why the two men detested one another.
"Mom kicked me out this morning before my bickering with Dad gave her a heart attack." Josie moved forward in line and Dexter eyed her fanny and slim legs.
"You don't look any worse for wear after all the arguing." What he really meant to say was that Josie was more attractive now than she'd been in high school— and back then he'd believed her the prettiest girl in the area.
She motioned to his face. "You broke your nose at least once since I last saw you."
That Josie detected a difference in his appearance had Dexter wondering what else she'd observed about him in high school. Back then he'd assumed she'd only had eyes for Dusty. "How's life on the West Coast?"
"Great." Her smile drew his gaze to her mouth. The shiny gloss covering her lips set off fantasies of slow, wet, deep kisses. When he made eye contact with her, a sizzling flash of heat sparked between them.
Before he lost his courage, he asked, "How would you like to go—"
"Mom! Mom!" A little boy wearing cowboy boots and a food-stained Western shirt skidded to a halt in front of Josie. "Mom."
Josie's a mother?
"What, honey?" She cupped the back of the child's head and the expression on her face reflected a mother's love.
"Can me and Aunt Belinda ride the Ferris wheel?"
Dexter noticed a tall, big-boned blonde hurrying toward them. "I can't keep up with the little stinker," the woman said, joining the group.