TESTING THE LIMITS
Rodeo star Grady Owen has a new challenge. No-nonsense Alexa Benjamin is tougher than any bull he's ever faced but she sure is a whole lot prettier! Not that Grady has time for much between caring for his twin nieces, rebuilding his family's farm and training. Trouble is, the more he tangles with Lex, the more he wants to win her heart.
Lex is drawn to Grady in spite of herself. But ever since her bullfighter father died in the ring, she's determined to never need anyone again. She's afraid, and Grady is all about facing fear head-on. Taking a chance on this bull rider is unthinkable but so is the idea of letting him walk away!
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Alexa Benjamin had yet to see a bull rider who didn't walk as if he owned the world, and the guy coming up the front walk of her best friend's house? He looked as if he were in charge of the universe. Never in her twenty-eight years had she encountered anyone as sure of himself as Grady Owen. Nor anyone quite as irritating.
Lex stepped back from the window, gave her shoulders a roll then started toward the front door to head off trouble. Grady had just hit the top step when she walked out onto the porch and took a stance. When he saw her, his expression shifted from good-natured to hard so quickly it would have been comical if she didn't suspect that he was there to screw up her best friend's life. Again.
"Lex. What a pleasant surprise." But there was no hint of friendliness in his gray eyes.
"Same here," she said, folding her arms over her chest as she studied the man who was not going to get into the house. Like all bull riders, Grady was one tightly packed unit: average height, lean and wiry. Lex knew if she reached out and ran a hand over his arm, or any part of his body for that matter, all she would feel would be sinew and muscle. Sometimes, in the past, she'd felt a subtle urge to do just that, to touch his fascinatingly hard body. But Grady had always had that effect on her. He drove her crazy with his self-absorbed attitude and cockiness, yet a small part of her found him interesting. She'd reminded herself on more than one occasion that some people found major disasters interesting, also.
She raised her chin. "What can I do for you?"
He tipped back his ball cap, giving her a glimpse of the faint scar that crossed his forehead just below his hairline. "I'm here to see Danielle."
Lex brushed back a few strands of dark hair that the breeze had blown across her face. The rest was still caught in the silver barrette her father had made her shortly before he died.
"Danielle is busy. Up to her neck in wedding plans." She felt a touch of mean satisfaction. Her friend was marrying a guy who put her first instead of his career. Grady had done the exact opposite.
"So I hear." He shifted his weight and crossed his arms, mirroring her pose as he eyed her up and down, his gaze challenging. Fine. Bring it on. Lex loved nothing more than a good challenge. "And you're still her watchdog?"
"I'm her friend." Lex spoke lightly, but there was an edge of steel in her voice.
"I just want to talk to her."
"But you don't have to talk now."
"What's wrong with now?"
"Here's what's wrong with now," she said, pointing a finger at him. "Her mom, her grandma and her great-grandma are in the kitchen with her, going over photos of their weddings. I am not going to have you, the former fiancé, busting in and upsetting any of them." Danielle's grandma, Lorraine Perry, was the closest thing Lex had ever had to a grandma of her own, and she would not see her upset. Or Danielle, or her mother, Mae. Great-granny Great-granny could probably take care of Grady on her own, and if he persisted in hanging around, Lex might just call her out here.
"I understand." But he didn't move. He had that stubborn bull rider expression on his face. That "the odds are against me but I will prevail" look. "If you give me her phone number, I'll call her and set up a time."
Lex couldn't help smirking at him. "I don't think so."
Grady looked over her shoulder as if willing Danielle to come to the door and see what was going on. When he looked back at Lex, his expression was once again hard, his gray eyes deadly. "What happens between me and Danielle is none of your business. It isn't now, and it wasn't back then."
Lex merely tilted her head, unimpressed. "I know a train wreck when I see it coming. You have train wreck written all over you."
"And you have controlling "
"Bitch written all over me?" she asked smoothly, daring him to agree out loud.
"Your words. Not mine."
"I bet." He wasn't all that close, but as the breeze wafted over them, his scent hit her nostrilssoap and guy and maybe some kind of aftershaveand it made her once again conscious of him in ways she'd rather not be. It was an unsettling feeling, this odd prickle of awareness that seemed to come out of nowhere. Especially when he was looking at her so coldly.
"I'm going to see Danielle."
"I'm sure you are," she said. "But it's not going to be right now."
Grady's mouth flattened even more as he cocked a speculative eyebrow at her. "Good talking to you, Lex." He turned and marched down the bumpy walk to the gate, and Lex decided it was too much to hope that he tripped over one of the concrete edges pushed up by tree roots.
Not a very charitable thought, but Grady Owen had turned Danielle's life inside out only a few years before, and while Lex knew that her friend could fight her own fights, she saw no reason for her to do so. Not when she was there to do it for her.
Grady's classic Ford F-250 roared to lifeliterally roared, thanks to the straight exhaust pipesand he wheeled the truck in a circle then pulled out of the driveway. Only then did Lex go back into the house.
"Was that UPS?" Danielle called, poking her blond head out of the kitchen. Her normally serene expression was a bit frazzled, and Lex was glad she'd sent Grady on his way. Wedding plans were stressful enough without the former fiancé being involved.
"Just a guy who was lost and needed some directions," Lex said as she followed her friend into the cozy kitchen and took her place at the table strewn with wedding photos. She'd fess up to Danielle later, but right now she wanted to get back to the business of deciding whose wedding dress would best be altered to fit Danielle on her big day. In her opinion, none of the vintage dresses would work, but it was up to Danielle to either pick one or tell her mom and grandmother and great-grandmother no, thanks. It was Lex's job to pour the wine after the task was done.
Grady pulled up to his sister's house and parked the truck behind the wind-damaged barn. He stepped over a few boards as he got out of the truck, thankful that Annie and the girls were still out grocery shopping. He'd yet to shake the black mood brought on by dealing with the she-devil. Who did Lex Benjamin think she was? He was pretty certain that Danielle wouldn't have broken their engagement if it hadn't been for Lex. They would have had troubles in the beginning, no doubt. All married couples did, but they would have worked them out. Thanks to Ms. Benjamin, they never had a chance. She'd been against their relationship from day one and had never been shy about saying so.
He walked into the kitchen and hung his hat on one of the pegs by the door, only to have the peg fall off the wall. His hat hit the floor at his feet and the peg rolled across the worn tiles, stopping under his mom's antique maple table.
Even though his sister had a way with paint and bright accents, there was no getting around the fact that their childhood home was in deep need of a monetary infusion. The place had been run-down when Annie moved in, and even though she'd made it look cheery, nothing had been done to fix the real problemsleaky windows, worn flooring, aging plumbing.
Grady picked up his hat and the peg, setting both on the counter as he tried to remember where he'd last seen the wood glue. The cellar? He started down the steps, not liking the way they sagged and creaked beneath his weight. He'd only been home for two days, but he already felt as if he'd made a mistake spending his winters practicing and working in Oklahoma. He should have hung closer to home, taking care of matters such as loose pegs and saggy steps.
Maybe if he'd taken one season off, given Danielle time to get used to his career, things would have worked out between them. But he hadn't been able to make that sacrifice.
And Lex. She'd been against their relationship from the beginning, and Danielle had listened to her. They'd been close friends for as long as he could remember, which had always struck him as odd because the two women were polar opposites. Danielle was fairblond haired, blue-eyedsweet, accommodating. Lex had a mass of dark hair and hazel eyes and she was in no way sweet or accommodating. She was hard. Brittle almost. But that mouth he had to admit to being fascinated by those soft, full lips that seemed to be in a permanent pout whenever she was concentrating on something other than taking him out.
Grady reached for the cord to turn on the overhead light as he stepped onto the stone floor.
Shelves of home canning and dry goods lined both sides of the rock-walled space. At the far wall, a couple of old bureaus stood on either side of the hot water heater, and Grady crossed to them, opening drawers until he found one loaded with string, coils of wire and a few basic hand tools. An ancient bottle of wood glue lay on its side.
He started back up the creaky stairs with the bottle. Another project he'd tackle before he left.
After gluing the peg back in place and checking to see if the others needed reinforcing, Grady opened the fridge and pulled out a beer, then put it back and closed the door again. His stomach was still in a knot, and beer wasn't going to change that. Hammering might, though, so he changed into his work clothes. He planned to head over to Hennessey's ranch to take a look at the practice bulls later that afternoon, but he had time to knock some of the damaged wood off the frame of the barn before he left.
His sister had really had an odd run of luck over the past few months. The company where she'd worked for five years folded, and while she'd found a part-time job, she still hadn't found a full-time position that paid well enough to support her small family. The cows she'd hoped to sell to tide her over had come down with an ailment that required quarantine, and then, to top things off, a freak tornado had torn through the area, knocking down hundred-year-old trees and damaging only two buildings in the entire valley Annie's garage and small barn. That was when his sister had started to crumble, and Grady knew he had to come home.
He and Annie owned the place outright and hadn't insured the buildings for replacement value, so he was the one doing the rebuilding and watching the girls while Annie went to work part-time at the library. He had a feeling that babysitting was going to be more of a workout than riding practice bulls. The girls took after him, it seemed. Lots of energy and lots of ideas.
Despite his dark mood, he smiled as he grabbed his work gloves. He didn't want to see his nieces become bull riderstoo much riskbut he was going to see to it that they got a proper foundation in whatever they chose to funnel all that energy into. Annie and the girls were all he had right now, and he was going to make certain their lives were good.
Danielle gathered up delicate floral teacupsshe'd gotten out the good china for her wedding gown summitand carefully hand-washed them while Lex studied the photos on the table. The five women had not come to a consensus as to which wedding dress could best be altered for the ceremony, and Lex wasn't certain they ever would.
"The 1980s is out." She pushed the photo aside.
"Agreed," Danielle said with feeling.
"Which one do you like?" Lex asked. Danielle had spent most of the meeting pointing out the merits of each dress and trying not to hurt feelings, so Lex had no idea what she was really thinking. Danielle excelled at tact.
"I like Great-granny's, but she's smaller than me and I don't think it'll work." Great-granny's was the best of the group. Designed in the mid-1940s, when fabric rationing had still been in effect, it was made of heavy satin, with a narrow skirt, a sweetheart neckline and broad shoulders that could be altered fairly easily. Or so Danielle said. Lex knew little about sewing.
"Which leaves mid-1960s." Lex shrugged. "It's not a bad dress." It had a waistline and full skirt. Lots of lace and satin but it wasn't the right kind of dress for Danielle, who was toned and leggy and needed a simpler body-skimming dress.
Danielle wiped her hands on an embroidered towel. "How am I going to tell them that I want my own gown?"
"By taking a deep breath and blurting out the words?"
Danielle nodded and sat at the table, idly picking up the photo of the 1980s dress. "Mom was beautiful, even if the shoulders on this dress make her look as if she's about to go out for a pass."
"I see no way you could alter this dress and have any of it left."
"Pretty much I would rip the sleeves off."
"And the butt ruffle?"
"Definitely out." Danielle set down a photo and met Lex's gaze. "Who was at the door earlier?"
There was no sense hedging. "Grady."
"I thought so. I recognized the sound of the truck. Did he tell you what he wanted?"
"To see you. Sorry if I overstepped by sending him on his way. I didn't want to upset anyone."
"No. I'm glad you did." An unreadable look flickered across Danielle's face, followed by a sigh. "I guess I need to see him before he hits the road again."
"You don't have to."
"I did break up with him over the phone." And she'd made the right choice, but that hadn't kept her from feeling bad for weeks afterward. He'd chosen rodeo over her. Hard to forgive that, but Danielle was the forgiving sort. Far more so than Lex.
"You owe him nothing."
"I know," Danielle said simply.
There was a lot more Lex wanted to say on the subject, but why? When push came to shove, it wasn't her businesseven though she never wanted to see Danielle that unhappy again. Ever.
"I need to get home," she said. "The menagerie will be hungry." She stood and picked up her rhinestone-studded leather bagone of the top sellers at their Western-themed store, Annie Get Your Gun. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."
They met every Wednesday to discuss business, drink tea and share any gossip that Danielle picked up from her grandmother, who owned the building where their boutique was located. But all the gossip had already been passed along during the wedding dress summit, so the meeting would be all business tomorrow.
"Great. I'm looking forward to some nonwedding talk."
"That works for me." Lex gave the photos one last look, then met Danielle's eyes. "Be strong." She was talking about both wedding gowns and ex-fiancés.
Lex certainly hoped so.