Ride

Ride

by Cameron Dane

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Overview

Ride by Cameron Dane

Sheriff Duke Boone has always believed if he ever gives in to his feelings for Risa Forrester, a storm of uncontrollable passion will be unleashed. He isn’t wrong! When what begins as a blazing affair turns to near obsession, it’s up to Duke to find a way to let Risa know she can have her independence, and love too. Cameron Dane presents Ride, her red-hot, contemporary western.

Bull rider Risa Forrester and Sheriff Duke Boone have been dancing around their attraction for the better part of a year now. Almost everyone in Quinten, Montana can see it, even though Risa and Duke have never so much as kissed, let alone anything more. Risa has been in love with the sheriff for a long time and senses Duke feels something for her too. He’s so damned rigid though and used to being in complete control that he won’t let go with her and act on the fire that burns between them.

Duke knows he can never give in to the simmering lust he feels for the much younger Risa Forrester. Their age difference alone makes anything between them wildly inappropriate, and he will not invite small town gossip to his front door by engaging in a relationship with the vibrant young woman, who also happens to be his son’s best friend.

But when Risa begins to seriously compete against men in her bull riding career, emotions long unused start to stir in Duke, ones he cannot ignore. Duke’s fear of Risa getting hurt drives the passion between them, and before Duke knows it, he is knee-deep in an affair with the hottest, most wildly engaging woman he has ever known. Duke finds himself almost obsessed with Risa, something he hates feeling, and is constantly fighting desire he swore he would never let in his life again.

The need to keep Risa safe pushes Duke into a reckless ultimatum, and in doing so forces the independent Risa right out of his arms. Can Duke find a way to let go of the strict control he holds over his life and allow a woman back into his heart? And if he can, how much of his soul will he have to give to this fiery woman in order to convince her that she’s the only one he wants, forever?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595784674
Publisher: Liquid Silver Books
Publication date: 06/09/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 412
Sales rank: 582,485
File size: 641 KB

About the Author

I am an Air Force brat and spent most of my growing up years living overseas in Italy and England, as well as Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia while we were stateside. I now live in Florida once again with my big, wonderfully pushy family and my three-legged cat, Harry. I have been reading romance novels since I was twelve years old, and twenty years later I still adore them. Currently, I have an unexplainable obsession with hockey goaltenders, and an unabashed affection for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I’d love to hear from you! Visit me on the Web at http://www.camerondane.com

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

The bucking bull flew through the air, kicking his hind legs high off the ground, ramming his rider in the shoulder blades with his backside. Risa Forrester "oofed" as she jerked forward with the power of the beast's attempt to throw her, but just managed to fling her free arm forward in time, saving her balance and her eight-second ride on the back of Darth Vader, one of the rankest damn animals in bull riding competition.

Adrenaline raced through Risa's body like the headiest of drugs, making her feel incredibly alive and invincible, temporarily as powerful and strong as the bull she rode to personal victory. The bull rope in her riding hand dug into her palm through the thickness of her glove, tingling the nerve endings in her hand to sharp pinpricks of complete awareness, and then numbing her to the point where she fleetingly wondered if she still had a hold on her ride. The muscles straining from her forearm all the way up through her shoulder screamed, and told her she did.

Darth Vader spun into her hand at the last moment in an attempt to best her, but just as Risa felt her center tilt off course, flinging her into a spiral down the animal's side, the sound of a blaring horn reached her ears--the very sweetest, most wonderful noise in any riders' life.

The bull circled in an amazingly tight turn, but his muscles rippled and shifted between her legs, telling her his plan. Risa took her chance just a second later, releasing her rope and freeing her hand as he switched directions, allowing her to jump off, away from his turn and affording her the opening to run toward the safety of the fencing around the ring. She climbed up to the top and looked inthe direction of the scoreboard, her heart racing while she waited for her total. She took in the cheering of the crowd who appreciated any cowboy--or girl--that stayed on for an eight-second ride.

Watching the board so intently it blurred before her eyes, the red numbers for her ride and the bull's performance finally lit up with her scores, averaging together for 88.50. Risa whooped and threw her helmet in the air, pumping her fist and screaming with the crowd as her name went to the top of the leader board after two rounds of riding. That score set her in certain position for the final go round. She searched the crowd for her partner in crime, knowing his excitement would match her own.

She found Caleb Hawkins, her boss, brother-in-law, and friend, a bit away from the milling riders and event organizers, with a phone to his ear. She climbed over the fence and raced to his side, eager to point out her name in the number one position. He looked up, and the phone fell from his ear. Risa stumbled, her legs turning to jelly as she reached him.

His blue gaze met hers, pain and sorrow filling him whole.

Risa barely acknowledged the cowboy who handed over her bull rope from wherever it had slipped off in the competition ring. "What is it?" she asked, her heart now pounding heavy with dread, rather than excitement.

"It's not good," Caleb answered, all traces of familiar humor gone from his voice. "We need to get home."

Risa didn't even have to ask in order to make a decision. If Caleb said they needed to go, she listened.

"Tell me while we walk." She took big strides in the direction of her stored gear. "We'll leave right now."

Her best score and event gone from her mind, Risa crumbled as Caleb shared the devastating news.

* * * *

Risa wandered the perimeter of Nate's Bait and Saddle Shop, running her fingers lovingly over each shelf of product. As she moved to the beautifully crafted saddles, her heart constricted painfully and a new lump formed in her throat, reminding her of her recent loss.

She had lost Nate. Forever.

Nate Palmer had given Risa her first job and had ended up becoming such a father figure to her that she never completely left it. When it came time for inventory, she always lent a hand. If he needed a little extra help around the place on a weekend that she didn't have a bull riding competition, she always came to Nate's and picked up the slack.

She could hardly believe he had died. Nevertheless, he had. At the funeral a week ago, when they lowered his casket into the ground, her legs had finally buckled and she faced the truth. Nate was gone and he could never come back.

Tears filled Risa's eyes. She swiped them away with a hard hand, knowing that Nate wouldn't want her to cry over him. He had taken her under his wing seven years ago and had never once pulled that shelter away. Even now, in death, he still looked out for her.

She could not believe what he had done.

The little bell attached to a rope on the door jingled and Risa looked up to a hard, handsome face, one as achingly important to her as any in her life.

Duke Boone.

Dressed in jeans and a black flannel shirt, he almost looked strange to her, out of his usual sheriff's uniform shirt and tan Stetson.

"I figured you'd be here." Duke pushed the door closed, twisted the lock she had left undone, and moved into the shadowed store. For once, his gaze held only kindness, not the brittle amber chips of impatience he usually reserved for her. "It's late, honey"--he used an endearment with her for the first time--"don't you think you ought to head home?"

Duke's gentle tone rattled Risa and her stomach flip-flopped. She turned away, her fingers clutched together against her middle, her mind and heart a jumble of too many heightened emotions. Coping with losing Nate to a heart attack ten days ago, to helping her mother put together a fitting funeral for him, to fending off intrusive conversation with well-meaning people, to, finally, sincerity from Duke when he had done nothing but deflect her attraction to him in the past ... Everything suddenly became too much for Risa to handle.

"Please go away." Her voice wavered and her shoulders heaved, but she couldn't bring them under control. "Leave me alone."

"I'm not going anywhere." Duke moved in behind Risa and curled his big hands around her shoulders, spreading warmth down her arms and into her icy-cold hands. Leaning down, he spoke next to her ear. "I've seen that little front light on in this place every night this week. You keep coming here looking for answers where none exist. Nate was one hell of a character and he lived a full life. But at eighty-five years old, it was just his time to go. He had no regrets, and I think he loved the last years of his life the most."

A bubble of laughter erupted and Risa's shoulders shook.

"What?" Duke spun her around and held her at arms length. He stooped down his big six foot five frame, putting himself on eye level with her considerable five-ten. His gaze met hers, a smile tugging up the edge of his lip. "Why did you laugh?"

"Because of what you said about these being his happiest years."

"So? It's the truth. A while back I stopped by to check in on him and he had this, I don't know, extra spring in his step. I asked him about it, but he would only say that he was loving life."

Risa bit her lip, and Duke's gaze narrowed.

"What now?" he asked. He fingered her heated cheek, and a shiver ran down her spine. "You're blushing."

"I can't say." Risa's entire body flamed underneath her jeans and sweater. "I discovered it by accident myself."

"All right. Fine." Duke backed off, hands up. "Don't tell me."

Risa grabbed Duke's hand before he could get away, afraid to lose this little connection. Duke looked down at their entwined fingers and then lifted his amber gaze to hers. Holding her eyes, he rubbed his thumb over her wrist. The little touch snaked all the way up her arm and into her heart.

"Nate and my mother..." Discomfort flooded Risa, choking her words. "They shared some ... intimacy, these last four years."

An indulgent smile touched Duke's lips. "Did you think nobody knew that?"

Risa scrunched her brow and tilted her head. "Nobody did know."

"Honey, people knew. They just respected Nate and Jean's desire for privacy. Maybe it had something to do with Nate's age and the fact that your mother is in a wheelchair, I can't really say for sure. Just be thankful the town chose not to put them through the gossip mill,"--Duke's fingers tightened around Risa's hand--"because you know how brutal that can be."

They both did. Seven years ago, town talk had centered on Risa when the now deceased Justin MacLesten had kidnapped her, his bigotry against her brother's homosexuality his justification for the crime. In addition, just last year, Risa's best friend, Ren--Duke's son--had been outed along with his partner, Cade, when a bad choice on Ren's part had almost cost Cade his life.

Wiping her brow wearily, Risa leaned against a saddle display. "Nate left my mom every penny he had. You've heard that, right?"

Duke nodded.

"In the will, he told her not to save it, but to spend it traveling the world. They watched those travel channels a lot and I could always hear them saying they should book a trip to Greece or Italy. I think they both wanted to see Ireland too, and I'm pretty sure I heard them 'oohing' and 'ahhing' over an Alaskan cruise. They never got around to doing it together, but he has given her this great gift and told her to see all those places they talked about, and that it'll be as if he's there with her when she does.

"She's going to do it too." Risa lifted her gaze from the floor, connecting with Duke once again. Her heart pounded and her throat felt dry. "She feels as if it would honor him, and she has already looked into her first trip."

"That's good." Duke nodded his dark head. "I'm happy for her. She'll make a lot of new friends on her travels."

"Yeah, she definitely will. I think that's part of why Nate did it, you know? He wanted to open up a whole new set of people for her to connect with and create new friendships. That's real love, don't you think?" she asked. "What Nate gave to my mom."

"I think it must be." Duke rubbed Risa's hand and held her gaze. "He loved you too, you know. That's why he left you this store. You have a legacy now. A tie to this community that no one can ever take away."

Love for Nate Palmer clogged Risa's throat. "I know," she said, her voice thick and raspy. Pressure built behind her eyes, forcing silent tears down her cheeks.

Risa tugged her hand from Duke's and turned away, afraid to show any vulnerability around this man. He could cut her up so easily with just a few poorly thought words. With her heart scraped raw from trying to hold everything together this past week, she knew one false move from Duke would flay her wide open and bleed her dry.

His big hand slid around her waist, and a second later he pulled her back and tucked her against his wide chest.

"It's okay, it's okay," he chanted softly next to her ear, rocking her in the circle of his arms. "Cry if you need to, baby. Get it all out."

Risa had steeled herself to handle the wrong words from Duke. The right ones blindsided her and sucked the air out of her lungs.

Her legs buckled and she slumped forward, but Duke held her to him as he lowered them to the cold floor. She curled up into a little ball, sobbing, letting out every ounce of grief she hadn't allowed herself to feel since the night she'd learned of Nate's death. Duke blanketed her, protected her without words, sheltering her in his strong, capable embrace.

All around Risa the smell of leather permeated her senses and sank into her bones, a familiar scent she associated with Nate and his wonderful talent for crafting saddles. Through the darkness and the curtain of her hair, she saw cluttered shelves, something that, no matter how hard she tried to organize for him, Nate always seemed to let them slip back into disarray. She listened to the hum of the old-fashioned soda cooler behind the counter, full of RC colas that Nate would never finish.

Life often changed in the blink of an eye, Risa knew that very well. From a very young age, she had accepted that truth and learned to roll with the punches. For whatever reason, though, she'd never once considered losing Nate.

Her chest heaved as the first wave of wracking tears left her body, the tension leaving her muscles as her breathing slowly returned to normal. She wiped her face dry with the sleeve of her sweater, and an awareness of the intimacy of Duke's embrace slowly returned to her brain.

"I'm all right now," she whispered, unable to turn and look him in the eyes. "You can go if you want."

"I'll stay a little while longer." Duke didn't move or let up his hold. "You'll wear yourself down if you don't let go. Relax and use my arm as a pillow. Don't worry about anything but resting your brain and your body, at least for a little while."

Risa had no words. Maybe that was for the best. She and Duke usually ended up fighting when they talked. For once, Risa welcomed the silence. Within minutes, her eyelids dropped and she fell asleep.

* * * *

Stretching her long arms and legs, Risa groaned as her muscles protested the pull from sleep. She cracked one eye open, blinking against the sharp shaft of light that streamed in through the faded cream curtain on the window by the bed. She didn't have cream-colored curtains--and more bizarre--her alarm clock hadn't jarred her out of a deep sleep. Wait. She hadn't fallen asleep at home last night.

She had fallen asleep in Duke's arms.

Risa sat upright and looked around. More awake now, she recognized where she was. The little apartment of rooms over Nate's store. Unused, they smelled of must and dust. They had furniture, though, and a functioning shower.

Risa threw her legs over the side of the bed, but a little paper propped up against a bell jar clock on the nightstand caught her attention. She picked it up with shaking fingers, recognizing Duke's sharp, scrawling handwriting right away.

They don't make 'em tougher than you. You'll be all right. Talk to you soon.--Duke.

Risa's hand flew to cover her mouth as her heart constricted painfully, a sensation that never seemed far away from her this last week and a half. She rubbed her fingertips over each word of the note, feeling the scrawl of the pen over paper. Committing the three sentences to memory, she folded the slip of paper and tucked it into her pocket. For the first time in ten days a smile pulled at the corner of her lips, and Risa knew exactly why.

There were days when she wondered why God had given her such a powerful desire for this one tough, unapproachable man. Then a moment like last night happened, followed by a little note such as this one, and she remembered why she had fallen so deeply in love with Duke Boone.

* * * *

Chapter One

Risa lowered herself onto the bull in the chute, her full concentration trained on the magnificent eighteen hundred pound animal between her legs. The bull, Hazy Sunday, tensed his muscles and pushed his weight into the door of the holding pen, eager to get into the ring and do his job. Caleb Hawkins stood on the bars and held the back of Risa's protective vest in his strong grip, supporting her until she gave the signal that she was ready to ride. A half-dozen other cowboys worked around the chute performing various tasks. Well accustomed to the routine, Risa didn't let it distract her from her job.

Riding for eight seconds on the back of a bucking, aggressive bull.

Her bull rope already wrapped under Hazy Sunday, Risa pulled the tail through the loop on the opposite end. Ren, standing beside Caleb, took the rope and pulled, cinching it securely behind Hazy Sunday's front legs. Risa slid her gloved hand through the handhold, custom made and offset to fit her grip, adjusting until she found her natural hold. Ren handed her the tail of the bull rope. She took it on rote, wrapping and securing it in her gloved hand. She aligned the braided length with the handhold and then wound it over her pinky finger, giving her an extra layer of grip to the rope and the bull. When everything in her palm felt right, she folded her hand around the braids and pounded her fingers down with her fist, securing everything in place.

Pushing forward over her riding hand, Risa squeezed her groin and thigh muscles into the bull's massive body, ready to ride. She slammed her free hand on the top bar of the chute and nodded her head, giving the "go" signal.

The cowboy on the other side of the chute pulled a rope that released the gate, and out shot Hazy Sunday, lifting right off his hind legs with his first buck. Risa's riding hand squeezed around the hold as the bull started to spin into her hand. Every nerve ending in her body shimmered with life and energy when in the ring.

God, how she loved riding bulls.

Risa dug her dull-edged spurs against the bull's hide for extra traction, holding on tight with her legs as Hazy Sunday went airborne. He threw both sets of legs off the ground, contorting his body in an arc, challenging Risa's balance and stamina. Swinging her free hand high in the air, she tried to counterbalance the bull's determination to throw her off. Just then, Hazy Sunday abruptly faded backward, and momentum thrust Risa forward, lifting her seat right off the bull. Jerked hard, Risa lost her hold and flew through the air, landing on her hip with a heavy thud.

Instinct rolled Risa to her feet and set her legs to pumping, stinging pain in her hip and all. She ran to the side of the pen and over the rail to safety, away from a bull Caleb had warned her liked to hook. She looked up in time to see Scott and Jason, Caleb's hired bull wranglers, close the gate on the other side of the pen behind Hazy Sunday. Content that he had done his job so well, the bull trotted to the center of the grazing pen and munched on a thick patch of grass.

Unsnapping her protective helmet, Risa whipped it off her head. She slid her mouth guard off her teeth and tucked it in a small pocket on her Kevlar vest. Brushing herself off as she walked, she joined the group of men by the holding chute, thanking Scott when he handed over her bull rope. Designed to fall off the bull when the rider let go, the rope had a cowbell attached to the loop end, its weight allowing the rope to naturally slip free of the bull when a rider didn't hold it in place.

Climbing up the half-dozen rungs of the holding chute and perching on the top, Risa focused on Ren, the one man who had the information she wanted.

"What was my time?" she asked.

"Six seconds." Ren turned the stopwatch in her direction so she could see the numbers for herself.

Risa pushed away the stab of disappointment in her own performance, turning to Caleb instead. "That's great news for your competition stock," she shared, her spirits bouncing back quickly. "Hazy Sunday is a rank bull." She shook her head and chuckled. "A real badass. You're going to get invited to join the list of PBR stock contractors very soon, Caleb, I can feel it."

"Definitely," Ren seconded. "This young bull, along with Big Trouble and Rock-N-Roll, give you a good stable of young stock. In another year or two they'll be ready to challenge the top ranking riders on the PBR tour."

"We'll see," Caleb replied. "We'll see." He reached across the chute and tugged Risa's strawberry braid. "So, how 'bout you? You took a pretty hard fall. You all right?"

"Another bruise on a bruise." Risa thwacked her hip, barely wincing at the slap. She ran her ungloved palm over the rich, cognac colored leather of her batwing chaps. "I'll ice it up tonight. Don't worry, I'll be fine for competition this weekend."

Risa had a few competition sponsors, Caleb among them. While she didn't ride bulls full time--she couldn't afford to travel the country and participate in every competition on the tour--she could manage traveling around Montana, Wyoming, and even into Idaho if the size of the event justified the expense and drive.

"Cade and I can't make it this weekend," Ren said. "Dad has him scheduled to work"--Cade McKenna, Ren's partner, worked for Duke as a deputy--"and I already promised to give Connor a hand on the main property." Connor was Caleb Hawkins's older brother. The two of them, along with a third brother, Cain, owned a good portion of the ranching land around Quinten, Montana. "I'll be up in the high country, so there's absolutely no way I can slip away and make it to the rodeo. Sorry."

"Don't sweat it." Risa squeezed Ren's arm. "Lord knows you've cheered me on enough that I can survive one without you."

"Speaking of which"--Caleb lifted himself up from his leaning position and whistled in the direction of Jason and Scott--"you feel up to going one more round, or should I tell the guys to get Hazy Sunday back into the barn?"

"Hell no, don't you dare." Risa jumped off the chute so the man could guide Hazy Sunday back inside. "I haven't ridden in almost a month. I need to get the feel for it back in my legs before competition."

"I thought you'd given up this damn fool bull riding," Duke's deep, whiskey voice spoke from behind the group.

Risa threw her hand over her chest and spun around, where her gaze immediately connected with Duke's amber one. Her mind barely registered that Cade stood with Duke, she only had eyes for the sheriff. Her heart beat in a fast staccato against her fingers as she ate the big man up with her eyes. His hands clenched in and out of fists at his sides, and his square jaw ticked near the back.

Risa swallowed down the desire to say something that would please this one man her very soul ached to possess. "You figured wrong." She tapped her bull rope against her thigh. "I never told you I intended to give up riding. You made that assumption on your own."

Fire burned in Duke's eyes. "Damn it, Risa, you have a business to run now. You don't need to do this anymore."

Risa's hackles rose and she leaned into Duke's space. "I don't ride bulls as a way to fill up my open schedule. I ride them because I love it and I'm damn good at it. If I could go to more competitions I could probably ride my way to the top quarter of the pack. I could even be good enough to compete on the next level against the top riders in the sport."

"Not on those level thirty bulls, you wouldn't." Duke leaned over Risa until their noses almost touched. "There's no way your family would allow it."

"My family doesn't dictate what I choose to do with my life!" Risa poked Duke in the chest, her bull rope slapping him against the stomach. "They respect me, unlike you."

"I'd respect you plenty more if you used a little common sense."

Ren jumped down from the chute and shoved in between Risa and Duke. He pushed his father back and gave Risa some breathing room once again.

"Dad." A warning sounded in Ren's voice. "Don't start. Not again." Duke had never approved of Risa's riding, and he hadn't ever made that opinion a secret.

Ren turned to the man with the badly scarred face standing beside Duke. "Hey, Deputy, you here on business?" He slid his hand into Cade's, adoration lighting up his eyes. "What's up?"

Risa watched the two men together, so clearly in love, and envy pricked her conscience, something she didn't like feeling in relation to her best friend. She turned away and walked back to the chute, her head down to hide the flush heating her face.

God, Duke Boone knew just which words to say to get right under her skin. Her physical attraction to him, and his obvious love for his son, tended to overrule the fights they often engaged in, keeping her on a tightrope walk between blind love and body-shaking frustration. She experienced moments, though--like just now--where she had to stamp down her wish to slug him just as much as her desire to kiss him. She knew he would respond equally horrifically to both actions.

Shaking her head to dispel the unwanted thoughts, Risa leaned against the chute and listened to Duke and Caleb talk.

"We have good news." Duke stood across the space of the holding pen from Caleb. "We tracked down the cowboy responsible for the missing gear from the bunkhouse. Found him two counties north trying to sell the stuff to a pawnshop. Hank's custom-made saddle sent up a red flag. The owner arranged for the guy to bring everything in, called up the local authorities, and they arrested him when he came back with the stuff. The dude confessed immediately. Tell your men they should have their gear back fairly soon."

Caleb's blue gaze softened visibly. "Hank will be glad to hear that. He has had that damn saddle darn near half his life. He wouldn't hear of me replacing it. He has been using extra gear from the tack room for the last two weeks. It'll make him happy to get his own stuff back soon.

"Meanwhile"--Caleb motioned everyone off the chute--"you're just in time to see Risa take another ride on Hazy Sunday. Guys." He waved his arm at Scott and Jason. "Open up the gate and let that badass back through the line of pens."

Duke backed away without glancing in Risa's direction. "Cade and I just came to give you that update. We have to get back to work."

Ren stepped in and grabbed Duke's arm. "Oh, I think you can spare a few minutes." He guided Duke to Cade's side at the railing, and Risa heard Ren whisper under his breath, "You owe her that, Dad, you know you do."

Duke looked around, clearly saw the men waiting for his answer. Men who had all seen and supported Risa's riding, while Duke had done neither. The men stayed silent, but the judgment sat clear in each man's unwavering stare.

"All right, fine." Duke threw up his hands. "Ride the damn bull. Impress me with your skills."

Hurt lanced Risa's belly as she climbed up the side of the chute.

Caleb touched her arm before she could climb over the railing. "Don't think about him watching. You focus everything on the ride or you don't get on the bull." He handed her a thick roll of tape. "Got it?"

Knowledge of what it took to become a champion rider--and how to stay alive doing it--filled Caleb's stare.

Risa nodded. "Got it." She tore tape off her gloved wrist and re-secured the fitted leather with a new strip.

Hazy Sunday snorted within the confines of the holding chute and banged his shoulder into the bars. Anticipation rolled through Risa, and everything but the bull flew from her head. This animal had future champion written all over him, she could feel it in her bones. That she got to ride him before any of the big rodeo stars learned to respect his power sent a shot of adrenaline through her, and zeroed her focus in on the ride.

Same procedure as before, Risa settled herself on the bull's back and went through her checklist until she felt securely strapped to Hazy Sunday. Excitement buzzing just under her skin, Risa banged the bar to pump herself up, nodded her head to give the "go," and the gate swung wide.

Hazy Sunday raced to the center of the ring, stopped on a dime, and started spinning tightly into Risa's riding hand. The speed and power of the bull's spin rolled Risa's hips off center, but she quickly adjusted her shoulder weight and regained her seat. Hazy Sunday bucked and turned, fast and concise, challenging Risa's balance. Her free arm tensed tightly, using every muscle down the left side of her torso to keep it from slapping down onto the bull's body and disqualifying her from the ride. It didn't matter that she only practiced Caleb's stock today, the rules for riding remained firmly in place.

Eight-second ride, one handed, or no score.

She dug her thighs into the bull's rolling muscles, squeezing with every ounce of power in her body. Hazy Sunday suddenly pitched forward. At the same time, the buzzer sounded; eight seconds on the bull completed. Risa looked for her chance to jump. As soon as the bull turned away from her handhold she let go and rolled off his body, the change in position pitching her forward onto her knees.

Scrambling to her feet, she raced in the direction she faced, toward the chute. In a flash, she climbed over the pen to the other side, elation whipping through her body, carrying her forward.

Caleb and Ren stood waiting for her, just one line of bars in between them.

She clambered over the rungs and dropped into Ren's waiting arms. "I did it, I did it!" She squeezed Ren quickly, turned, and threw herself into a fast hug from Caleb. "I swear to God when he went into that tight spin I didn't think I'd be able to hold on." She pumped her fists against Caleb's chest. "He's almost there, Caleb. In another year or so he will be a world class champion bucker, I can tell."

"He's not quite there yet," Caleb answered, "but good for you. That was one hell of ride." Grinning, he tapped the side of her head. "Why don't you take your helmet and mouthpiece off, that way we can see and hear you properly."

"Oh, of course."

Success sluiced through every pore of Risa's body, giving her the feeling of being able to fly. She pulled her headgear off and wiped her sweating brow with the sleeve of her shirt. Ren's face suddenly hardened in front of her, and what she'd put out of her thoughts so that she could ride filled Risa whole once again. Duke. His first time watching her ride. Risa turned, following the direction of Ren's gaze.

A lump formed in Risa's throat as Duke treated her to a view of his back. Cade, however, doffed his Stetson and gave her a thumbs up. Risa held her breath and waited, but after a tick, Duke gestured to Cade and they both walked away.

Ren slid his arm around Risa's shoulder and pecked a kiss to the top of her head. "He watched you ride," he shared. "I promise he did."

"Don't worry about it." Risa shook off Duke's coldness and plastered a smile on her face. He had his reasons for being hard, she understood that, but that didn't mean she would let him ruin her great mood.

She turned to Caleb and waggled her brows. "So," she started, "how many bulls will you let me ride in the next four days before competition?"

Caleb's gaze lit up with approval. "That's the sister-in-law I love so much." Risa's brother, Luke, and Caleb's brother, Cain, were essentially married. "Come with me"--he beckoned to Risa and Ren with his crooked finger--"and we'll set up a schedule."

Risa's spirits lifted as she walked with Caleb and Ren to the barn.

She steadfastly ignored the cracking in her heart. She had gotten very good at it. She'd dealt with Duke's indifference for seven years.

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