Ride straight to the top of the rodeo circuitthat's June Spotted Elk's dream. Yes, bull-riding is a man's world, but she won't let anyonenot even a sexy, scarred strangerget in her way.
Seasoned bull rider Travis Younkin knows what it's like to make it to the topand then hit the bottom. Back in the arena to resurrect his career, he can't afford a distraction like June. No matter how far he'll go to protect her from the danger. No matter how deeply the stubborn and beautiful rider gets to him
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"Okay, honey, if you can ride Ball and Chain, then you're in."
The fat man mopped his brow with a bandanna as he added, "But I'm not responsible for what happens out there, right?"
"Right." June Spotted Elk fought an eye roll as Chain kicked the metal chute holding him tight.
"I'm just doing Dave a favor," Mort went on as June reviewed her draw.
Ball and Chain was a small bull, only thirteen hundred pounds. Not the best bull on the Total Championship Bulls Ranger Circuitthe minor leagues of the TCB. Two-thirds of the riders made the eight seconds for a good ride. Tended to break left. No, not a bad bull to start out on.
Not that she was just starting out, but she was sick and tired of riding for a few hundred dollars while the men got checks with extra zeroes for doing the exact same thing.
June knew she was born to ride bulls. She knew she could ride with the big boysall she had to do was prove that she had what it took, no matter what anyone said about her being a girl, an Indian or poor. Or all three.
She looked out at the sea of unwelcoming faces that crowded the indoor arena. It was Friday night in a small Illinois town she'd never heard of, inside what was normally a convention center. June had grown up riding in outdoor arenas, so the bright lights and the echo off the bleachers were throwing her off. But she couldn't let a few technicalities undermine her. A professional bull rider rode no matter where they were. And she was a professional bull rider.
Or she would be, if she could just get on the bull.
She sighed in frustration. Proving she could do this was only the first step. But at least she'd gotten her foot in the door, thanks to her uncle Dave, who'd had to cash in a favor with Mort, the Ranger Circuit promoter. She knew good and well that was the only favor she was going to get.
The rest? All up to her, one bull at a time.
She wanted to compete. And competing meant riding against the men.
Not that the men were thrilled about it. Even though no one was within four feet of her, she could feel the palpable irritation in the air. But she was doing her damnedest to ignore them and focus on the bull. If she could just get on the bull it would all fall into place.
Or she'd get crushed to death. Either way, really.
Mort was babbling again. "Just doing Dave a favor. I'm not responsible."
"Mort, you've got to be kidding, right? Ball and Chain? For her?"
"Shut up, Red."
So that was Red Willis. Number two on this circuit. And he was getting closer, his heels dragging his spurs across the dirt so loudly that they clanged.
"I'm just saying, if the little girl wants to ride with the big boys, she don't want to ride Ball and Chain. She wants Hallowed." An arm unexpectedly draped around her shoulder, pulling her into Red Willis's chest. At six feet six inches, he was the tallest cowboy here. Even though she was five foot nine, June barely came up to his armpit. And his fingers were dangling dangerously close to her chest. Didn't matter if she had on the protective vest that all the riders wore. The threat was implicit.
"Don't you, honey?" Red was saying, smiling down into her face, his tobacco-stained lips pulled over brown teeth in a mean sneer. "Only the best for a girl like you."
"Get your hands off me," she said, trying to sound calm. She knew his type. As long as he thought he held all the cards, he'd make the wrong bet. Every single time. "I'm not your honey."
The smile got meaner. "Come on, babe"
That's all it took. June knew if she didn't nip this in the bud, half these boys would think it was open season and she would be the trophy everyone was trying to bag.
She was not here for a man. This was not some misguided attempt to snare a cowboy for her very own. She was here for herself. There would be no hooking up, no trailer hopping and absolutely no sleeping her way to the top of the rankings. The sooner everyone got that through their thick skulls, the better.
In one smooth movement, she grabbed Red's hand and ducked down, twisting back until his wrist was near his shoulder blades.
"I said," she repeated, ratcheting up his arm, "to take your hands off me. I won't say it again."
One of the few advantages of her rough childhoodshe'd learned to defend herself early. And often.
"What the hell?" he squawked. That was better. Less bravado, more confusion. Keep the opponent off balance. Just like a bull would.
"This was your first and last warning, Willis." With one final squeeze, she let go and pushed him back toward the other cowboys. Just about every jaw was dropped to the sawdust. Even Red was too shocked to do anything but let a few of the other guys hold him back. "I'm just here to ride. Anyone else got a problem with that?"
"Just doing Dave a favor," Mort muttered to himself again. "Not responsible."
"You really don't belong here."
One cowboy stepped forward. The overhead light hit the brim of his black cowboy hat, casting a dark shadow onto his face. The shadow, combined with the ten-day-old beard he wore, made it almost impossible to read his expression. His hands hung at his sides, the left shoulder at a slightly lower angle, probably from where he'd hit the ground rolling earlier.
"This is no place for a girl."
June knew who this cowboy wasshe'd know that jaw, those shoulders anywhere. Travis Younkin was the most famous bull rider on this circuit and one of the best bull riders in the last decade. He'd been on the verge of winning the TCB Harley Pro Challenge finalsthe major leaguein Vegas before that one last ride had taken a few years of his life. She'd followed his career before it got shot to hell and backwell, it was more than that. She'd followed a lot of riders' careers, studying their rides for what worked and what didn't. Travis was the one bull rider who'd held her attention in a more personal way, one that went far beyond a good ride. There'd always been something about him
After his wreck, she'd cried for him.
Now he was trying to claw his way back up to the bigs. Aside from Red and one or two other guys, he was the only one here who could claim to be a real professional.
And he didn't think she could do this, either.
The old anger flared up as she heard her father's voice when he caught her watching bull riding on TV. You ain't getting on those bulls, Junie. She could even hear the smack of his hand hitting the table, the wall, her facebecause there was always a smackas he said it. Unconsciously, she flinched as her body remembered the one time he'd caught her on a bull. And he'd been sober then.
She pushed the memories away. This was about here and now. Bulls didn't give a crap for awful fathers and neither did she. She was going to ride and that was final. No way in hell would she let an old memory screw up her foot in the door. No one was going to tell her what she could and couldn't do. Not anymore.
That included Travis Younkin.
Damn, if June didn't get on a bull soon, all this adrenaline would go to waste and she would have to dig out her running shoes and do laps around town with her dog just to cool down. She turned her attention back to Travis, ignoring the thrill of attraction that had a small part of her wanting his autograph. This was not about meeting one of her idols, a man whose picture she'd taped to the inside of her school notebook. She wasn't a love-struck girl. She was a woman. A bull rider.
"Listen, I appreciate your point of view, but Mort owes me this tryout. I'm here to ride. Ball and Chain, Hallowed Groundit doesn't matter to me what I draw. I'll ride any bull."
Well, it mattered a little. Ball and Chain was a good draw, practically a pussycat of a bull. But Hallowed Ground? Only two men had ridden that bull in twenty-seven tries last year.
Red Willis and Travis Younkin.
If that's what it takes, she reminded herself.
"You can't ride Hallowed."
That's what Travis said. What she heard was, You can't ride. God knew her father had said that often enough. Well, she was going to show that man. She was going to show Travisshow them all.
She could ride with the best of them. She just had to prove it, one bull at a time.
"Hey, come on, Younkin. If the girl thinks she wants to ride Hallowed, then she should ride Hallowed." Red was still itching for a fight. It's not like he could haul off and hit "the girl." However, June didn't think he'd mind a whole lot if she got turned into a mud puddle in the ring.
The rest of the cowboys were split between the Travis campworried for her safetyand the Red campjust plain pissed someone like her existed.
The delicate male ego. They'd put their bodies on the line to ride a bull, but one woman made them twitchy.
June settled her hat back onto her head and made sure the eagle feather was in the right place. She checked the tie that held all three feet of her thick black braid to her belt.
Long ago, she'd learned that loosely tying her hair to the back belt loop was the best way to keep it from flying up and smacking her in the face in the middle of a ride. That was how she'd first broken her ankleit hadn't been the bronco that bucked her, but the hair hitting her square in the eye that knocked her off. Confident that everything was in its place, she turned to Mort.
"Bring me Hallowed."
"No." Not intimidation or a threat. Just an order that Travis expected Mort to follow.
She knew where he could shove his orders.
Without acknowledging that he'd even spoken, June smiled as sweetly as she could at Mort. "I want to ride Hallowed. And Dave said you had to let me ride."
At the mention of her uncle's name, Mort's Adam's apple bobbed nervously. June felt her grin grow more real. Uncle Dave didn't tell her what, exactly, he'd done that left Mort so beholden to him, but whatever it was, it was going to get her on a bull.
Even Hallowed Ground.
Mort turned to the stock contractor. "You don't want her riding your best bull, do you?" Clearly, Mort was trying to find a way out of this.
The contractor shrugged. "My wife would kill me if I didn't let her try," he said, nodding over to the stands.
June followed his eyes. A half-dozen women were sitting together in the front row, watching the negotiations with intense curiosity. June tipped her hat to the group. These were wives and girlfriendswomen who lived with men crazy enough to ride bulls. No buckle bunnies herethey were all waiting at the bar for the fun to begin.
If it wouldn't have sent the wrong message, she would have hugged the stock contractor. Finally, someone who wasn't going to stand in her way just because she was a woman.
"Mort" Travis started, but he wasn't fast enough. Mort let Ball and Chain loose while the stock contractor went to get Hallowed.
After this ride, she was going to find the contractor's wife and hug that woman.
"You are not going to ride that bull."
June jolted. Travis stood next to her, arms crossed and jaw set. She hadn't heard him move, not even his boots stirring up the dirt. Not bad for a white man, especially one with a permanent limp. But she could feel him now, her body fully aware that the Travis Younkin was right there. The pull she felt between them was almost magnetic. In her mind's eye, she flipped back to the picture inside her high school notebook. Travis Younkin, it'd read. Simply the Best.
She hadn't been too young to get the double entendre and she sure as heck hadn't been too young to wonder if he really was the best. At everything.
His eyes narrowed as she looked at him. Right. This was not about him, and she would not get all googly-eyed.
The other thing she'd always thought about when she'd looked at that picture?
What if she could be the best, too?
And now she had the chance to do itto show everyone she wasn't some misguided girl with delusions of grandeur and a secret wish to bed a bull rider. Where would she be if she let a stupid crush undermine all her hopes and dreams? She'd be crushed by a bull, that's where.
Even now, she could see the tape of Travis's wreck in her mind. Rides were supposed to be eight seconds, but he'd been trapped under that bull for almost three minutes of hell. He shouldn't have survived, but he had.
If he had any sense about him at all, he would have retired after he had to have his pelvis and jaw reconstructed. That disaster of a rideon a bull named No Man's Landstill made ESPN's All-Time Best Wrecks. At least these days, he had enough sense to wear a helmet. He was the only guy here who had one.
June didn't have one, either. But then, a shocking lack of common sense was what led them all to sit on the back of a two-ton animal and try to ride the danged thing.
Up close now, she could see the serious brown eyes that cut right through the crap. She didn't get the same threatening vibe off Travis that she'd gotten off Red. Maybe she should give him the benefit of the doubt.
"You think I won't make the buzzer?"
"I think you won't even get on him," he replied.
"Mr. Younkin" He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she felt the air between them thicken. "TravisI don't recall asking your permission."
The corner of his mouth curved up a bitsomething that might have been a smile under other circumstances. Even so, a faint dimple tried to divot his cheek, right on the edge of the beard that almost hid the sharp planes of his face.
The girl part of her brain realized that, pissed or notbroken or notTravis Younkin was still a handsome fellow.
And stubborn. "I'm not letting you on that bull."
Her fingers tightened around her bull rope. "Don't worry, Mister Younkin. You aren't letting me do anything."
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Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a rodeo? Ever wondered what would happen if a woman dared to ride bulls with the guys? Here's your chance to get a look at the Rodeo Dreams of June Spotted Elk as she tries to prove she can ride with the best of them. June has always been able to ride whatever comes her way, despite her father's criticism and the jeers of the guys. And she always lands on her feet. She just wants to do what she loves and make enough money to get her mother and herself out of poverty. She doesn't count on falling hard for Travis Younkin, a bull rider who's trying to make his way back to the top of the circuit after a devastating wreck. He claims to only be looking out for June's safety, but June just sees it as a vote of no confidence in her abilities. Travis is reluctant to have June on the circuit for a number of reasons. He really doesn't want to see her get hurt, since he knows all too well what a rank bull can do to the human body. He also realizes that June is a good rider and she could knock him out of contention for the top spot. He's leery of getting too close to her, since his last girlfriend was the distraction that led to his wreck and dumped him as soon as he was injured. But he can't ignore the fact that June is a talented rider, who just happens to be one of the most beautiful women he's ever seen. So he may have to put his heart on the line to help her, protect her, and help make both their rodeo dreams come true!