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She was the one woman he could never have, and it drove Mark Hansen nuts.
Nicki Sable stood in the shadow of the announcer's booth, laughing at something Jesse Cody said, their words drowned out by the blaring voice coming from the loudspeakers. She didn't see Mark there, spying on her. He had to crouch to peer between the white metal pipes. He stood in a twenty-by-twenty pen, one that served as a corral when it wasn't being used by rough stock rider s to store their gear, and seeing her there, watching her talk to Jesse, made Mark's stomach clench.
Damn that Jesse Cody, he thought, going back to rubbing rosin on his bull rope. The no-good son-of-a-gun had it all—the best equipment, a supportive family and, most of all, Nicki Sable.
"You ready to ride?"
Mark glanced up, shocked to see Nicki on the other side of the fence, a half smile on her gorgeous face as she looked him in the eyes.
"Think so," he said slowly, glancing around him for a moment to ensure one of the other Cody brothers wasn't standing behind him and that maybe she was talking to him. Then again, they didn't all ride bulls. Only Jesse did. Mark's nemesis in more ways than one.
"You ever ridden Bandito before?" she asked.
Mark kept his gaze on his rope, trying hard not to let her see how difficult it was to remain unaffected by her presence.
Pure and simple, he wanted Nicki Sable.
Since the first moment he'd spotted her mutton busting when she was nine years old he'd been fascinated by her. Not that he'd wanted her back then, but the spark of interest had been there from the very beginning. As she'd gotten older, and grown into a true beauty with her honey-colored skin and stunning green eyes, his fascination had turned to something more. Trouble was, he worked for her father. And her dad hated his guts.
"I rode him at your dad's practice pen," Mark said. "I think he was hoping he'd toss me on my keister."
"Who?" she asked. "My dad?"
Mark smirked, which was about as close to a smile as he could get, what with his face all frozen like it was. "Yup."
She frowned. "Just what is it with you and my dad?"
Mark almost laughed. " You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try me," she said, seeming to be genuinely curious.
Mark glanced toward the arena. They were still tied own roping in there, the crowd suddenly cheering as someone—Mark didn't know who—jumped off his horse at the exact same moment a black angus calf fell to the ground, the rope that'd put him there stretched taut between the steer and the horse.
"How much time do you have?" Mark asked, once the sound of the crowd faded.
"All day," she said, tipping her head sideways, her long blond hair—Barbie hair, he used to call it when they were kids—falling over one shoulder. " I have to help my dad load stock once we're all done."
Today was the finals of the Dakota Days Roundup. In less than an hour, Mark would try to win himself some money at one of South Dakota's most popular rodeos. And so he should be focusing on the job at hand, not chatting with the biggest distraction on God's green earth.
"Let's just say he and I don't see eye to eye," he said. Specifically, Jonathan Sable would never forgive Mark for wanting to date his daughter. Years ago, back when Mark had first started working for the owner of Sable Livestock Company, he had made the colossal mistake of asking Mr. Sable's permission to date Nicki. That was the cowboy way—to ask permission before courting a woman. Mark would never forget the man's words: The day you win the NFR is the day you'll date my daughter!
"Ab out what? " she asked, glancing toward the filled-to-capacity grandstands when the crowd let out another yell.
You , he almost answered.
"What I do for a living," he said instead, because he knew Jonathan couldn't stand the fact that Mark rode bulls and, yes, that was a total double standard. The man made his living breeding some of the finest bucking stock in the world, but he didn't want his daughter dating one of the cowboys who rode those bulls, because he felt bull riding was a dead-end career.
But there was another, more important reason why Nicki's father didn't like him around.
His name wasn't Jesse Cody.
Mark risked glancing up at her. Nicki was searching his face intently, as if she were trying to pull apart invisible curtains to catch a peek of what was going on inside his head. "You don't really think that, do you?" she asked. "That my dad feels you're not good enough for me because you ride bulls?"
And there he went again, putting himself on the spot. Lie to her and keep the peace between her and her father. Don't lie and stir the pot.
"I do," he said, because when it came right down to it, he could no more lie to her than he could keep from wanting her. She smelled so damn nice standing there. Like some kind of flower. The scent was so at odds with the potent smell of livestock that he could have sat there and inhaled the unique fragrance all day. He looked up at her.
Again, that penetrating stare. "Well," she said slowly, having to pause for a moment because yet another cowboy had jumped off a horse, a sorrel gelding stopping so hard it practically sat on the ground. "What if I—"
"Nicki!" someone yelled, a male someone.
Mark shook his head; he recognized the voice. Of course he did. After nearly a lifetime of tension between them, he could ID Jesse Cody's husky baritone from fifty feet away.
"Your father wants you," the blond cowboy said, his rigging bag thrown over his shoulder.
Even in profile Mark could see Nicki's lips press together, as if she was disappointed. "My father can wait," she said.
"No, he can't," Jesse contradicted, shooting Mark a glare. "He's trying to get some steers loaded. Wants you over there ASAP."
Nicki glanced at Mark, sunlight turning her eyes the exact same color as lime rinds. "You going to be here for a while?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said. Until they were done with the bull riding.
"Good. I have something to ask you, but I'll have to do it later. I'll be right back." She dashed off, just as she always did when her father summoned her. She might be twenty-nine years old, but she was still Daddy's little girl. Mark wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan Sable hadn't spotted her talking to him, and then invented a reason for calling her to his side.
"I see you're still mooning after her," Jesse said.
Don't react. Don't let him see how badly you want to punch him in the nose. Just keep rubbing rosin on your rope.
Mark squared his shoulders. "Just being sociable, Cody."
Jesse tipped his hat back, his wide blue eyes suddenly more pronounced beneath his white Stetson. "Yeah, right," he said, turning on his heel and heading for the entrance of the livestock pen, where all the other bull riders waited to ride.
White. What kind of hat was that? No real cowboy wore white. That was only for movie stars and wannabe rough stock riders—just like Jesse.
Then why does he beat you some of the time?
Mark just shook his head, trying to fling the thought out of his head. That was all he needed. To let Jesse Cody get into his brain right before jumping on a two-thousand-pound animal. Bad enough that Nicki had distracted him.
She wanted something from him, and whatever it was, Mark doubted he'd have the willpower to say no. When it came to Nicki Sable, he'd be willing to ride the meanest bull this side of Texas for her. And everybody knew it—including Nicki.
She'd almost done it, Nicki thought. She'd almost asked Mark Hansen out. Shoot. Her heart still pounded at the thought of what she'd been about to do.
Dad would be furious.
But she didn't care, she thought, walking toward the livestock loading area. She was old enough to know what she wanted—and to do it, too. She just wished she didn't feel as if she had to sneak around behind her father's back.
You are sneaking around.
"You seen my father?" she asked one of the other rough stock riders, a kid who didn't look old enough to pilot a car, much less ride broncs or bulls.
"Can't say that I have, ma'am."
Ma'am. As if she was twice his age or something. Then again, with rodeo competitors starting their professional careers in their teens these days, maybe she was close to twice his age.
"Thanks," she said, scanning the area around her.
The South Dakota rodeo grounds were nestled in a shallow valley, one edged with golden mountains covered by tall pines. To be honest, it looked pretty much like the hundreds of other rodeo grounds Nicki had been to over the years. A combination of metal pipes—these ones painted white—and wooden chutes used to load the animals into livestock haulers. She followed her ears—you could hear steers complaining from a mile away—and found her dad by one of those chutes, his stooped form concealed by the wooden sides.
"There you are," she said.
Her father glanced up, and Nicki realized that he was going to burn in the afternoon sun if he didn't put his hat on. She could already see his scalp was pink where his gray hair was thinning.
"And there you are," he said. "Help me out here."
Nicki raised an eyebrow. Her dad had at least three other guys on site, although they were nowhere to be seen. He didn't need her, not really. Even though he was at least fifty pounds overweight, his belly hanging over his belt, he was still in great shape. Honestly, she wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he hadn't sent those other men off just so he could summon her to his side after spotting her talking to Mark.
"Sure," she said. "What do you need me to do?"
"Stay away from Mark Hansen."
That brought her up short. "Daddy—"
"I saw you talking to him," he said, hoisting up his pants, an ancient silver buckle catching the sun. He'd won it steer wrestling "back in the day." "If the idiot had a lick of sense he'd be ignoring you and focusing on the bull he's about to ride, not chatting with my daughter."
Nick lifted her chin and almost admitted the truth: that she had approached Mark. But she didn't want to rile her father even more. "That idiot works for you, Dad. You must not hate him too much."
"He works for me 'cause he's good at handling livestock, but I don't want him handling you."
"I mean it, Nicki. Stay away from that boy."
For a moment Nicki felt like an actress in a 1950s movie, one where the heroine wanted to date the man from the other side of the tracks.
Was Mark from the other side of the tracks?
He certainly came from a family that wasn't exactly known for its upstanding behavior. Well, all right, Mark's father was the one branded as trouble. Rumor had it that he'd frequently take his frustrations out on Mark. But Tomas Hansen had been dead for a few months now. Liver problems brought on by his alcohol addiction. Maybe that was why her dad didn't like Mark. She would bet he feared that the apple might not fall far from the tree.
"Dad," Nicki said. "I'm a grown woman. If I wanted to date Attila the Hun you couldn't stop me."
" I can as long as you live in my house."
Then maybe she would move out.
But she didn't say that. Instead she let out a sigh of frustration and went back to work. It was easy to let her mind wander when she worked with her dad. The steers weren't any taller than a wooden barrel, most of the brown-and-white animals so young they called out to each other nervously. In a matter of minutes they had them all loaded up in the two-story aluminum trailer used to transport animals between rodeos.
"Thanks," her dad said.
"No problem," Nicki replied.
"You going to watch the bull riding?" he asked, resting an arm on the upper rail of the pipe fence.
" I was planning on it."
After I talk to Mark.
Because no matter what her father said about Mark, the truth was she wanted to go out with him. There was something between them, although what it was, she had no idea. But every once in a while she'd catch him staring at her, and suddenly everything inside her would stop and the skin on her arms would prickle and heat would scald her flesh.
"Good. I'm sure Jesse will appreciate you rooting him on."
She almost shook her head. When would her father realize she wasn't interested in Jesse Cody? He was like an older brother to her. The entire Cody clan was like family. They might be some of the wealthiest people in Wyoming, but they were also the nicest, most generous, most loving individuals she'd ever known.
"Yeah, Dad," Nicki said. "I'm sure he will…just as Mark will, too."
It was like jumping out of a barrel in front of a bull. Her dad straightened, eyes narrowed. "What in the hell do you see in t hat ma n? "