Love is one unpredictable ride
Ride straight to the top of the rodeo circuit—that’s June Spotted Elk’s dream. Having danced with adversity in the male-dominated world of bull riding, she won’t let anyone—not even a sexy, scarred stranger—get in her way.
Seasoned bull rider Travis Younkin knows what it’s like to make it to the top and 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.
Because he’ll do anything for victory. But so will June.
Aug. 2014 from Harlequin SuperRomance
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4 1/2 stars–Excellent description and a novel story idea make this a must read. Anderson gives the readers an inside peek at rodeo riding on a small scale. Her characters ring true and the skill with which she ratchets up the tension is admirable.—RT Book Reviews
5 Stars! I just loved it. Sarah Anderson’s stories have a really great balance of drama and romance – with a hint of banter/comedy thrown in…Sarah’s got it. She never, ever, EVER disappoints. I’m sure I’ll be rereading this one at some point down the line. Also, I hope to see Ian again, in fact, this story is just chock full of side characters that could be made into heroes of their own.—Harlequin Junkie
B+! I thought the way that Travis and June will get their little house, married life and – hopefully in a few years – kids is inventive and realistic…They reach their professional goals, find true love and will get to move on to rewarding careers. Plus they’re not too battered by bulls at the end. —Dear Author
B! I liked the vein of female strength and empowerment. I liked the dynamic between the hero and heroine. And I thought the ending was satisfying.—Red Hot Book Reviews
“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 Circuit—the 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 boys—all 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 Red Willis’s 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 childhood—she’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 was—she’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 finals—the major league—in 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 back—well, 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 face—because there was always a smack—as 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 Ground—it 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 Travis—show 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 camp—worried for her safety—and the Red camp—just 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 ankle—it 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 girlfriends—women who lived with men crazy enough to ride bulls. No buckle bunnies here—they 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 it—to 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 ride—on a bull named No Man’s Land—still 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. “Travis—I don’t recall asking your permission.”
The corner of his mouth curved up a bit—something 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 not—broken or not—Travis 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.”
His mouth opened into something just short of a snarl when Hallowed Ground came roaring down the chute. Saved by the bull, June thought with an inward grin.
Hallowed Ground was a bull to be reckoned with. A buck shy of two thousand pounds, his mottled white skin seemed to hang loose on his formidable bones like a boxer wearing an oversized robe into the ring. He might look big, but that only disguised the agility that had would-be riders flying off his back in all directions.
His horns looked like he’d twisted them around the hard way, on some poor sap’s backside. She knew that was just the way horns grew, but it didn’t make him any less frightful looking. One horn was angled down behind his ear, like he wanted it tucked out of the way while he tried to gore anyone who dared to ride him with the other. If history was any indicator, Hallowed would do his damnedest to get her both coming and going.
“Travis, if Girlie wants to ride, let her ride. It’s her neck.” June rolled her eyes in the direction of the speaker. Girlie? “You want me to pull your rope? I’m Mitch.”
June mentally scrolled through the night’s garbled announcements. Mitch Jenner. Currently sixth in the overall standings, placed third tonight. Lasted 5.3 seconds on his last attempt to ride Hallowed Ground.
And apparently the only friend she had right now.
“Sure. Much obliged.”
“This is beyond insane,” Travis mumbled. He was still standing between her and the bull.
“Travis,” Mitch scolded, still smiling at her, “isn’t that the definition of bull riding?” A gangly fellow with glasses perched on a beak of a nose, he grinned at her. “Don’t worry about him, Girlie. He’s just a Poppa Bear in chaps.”
Most of the cowboys here had dark chaps, from black all the way to dark brown, but Travis and his chaps stood apart. A vivid grass-green with three brown diamonds down each side, his chaps reminded her of early spring on the Plains, when the prairie was still lush from April showers. Custom chaps like that weren’t cheap. They said winner. They said confident, a showman comfortable enough to be outside the box.
They also said he had a good Wrangler butt, the kind that got a standing ovation from the ladies in the crowd every night, good ride or not.
“More like just a plain ol’ chicken,” Red called out. The sounds of clucking followed.
Travis’s jaw flexed. Clearly, this was an old battle being fought on new turf—hers.
“You’re making me look bad,” he said, the whisper sounding almost dangerous.
“You seem to be doing a fine job of that all by yourself.”
That was apparently the last straw, because he grabbed her arm and hauled her off to the side, out of earshot of the others. “Please don’t do this.” How nice of someone to use the magic word. His voice was low—and sexy, darn it all. She’d love to hear him say her name in that voice.
“Go on, honey! Try to break his arm, too!”
Travis’s hand dropped like she’d jabbed him with a hatpin.
“Get out of my way, or I’ll get you out of my way.” Somehow, she managed to sound calm, but if she didn’t get on that bull right now, she was going to lose the last of her cool and wind up in the middle of a cowboy riot.
Whatever concern for her she thought she’d seen seconds before evaporated beneath a frustration that bordered on pissed. “Fine. Throw your life away. But at least wear a damn helmet.” Even as he said it, he stepped to the side.
She’d won this round. “Don’t have one,” she replied, hoping she didn’t sound smug as she handed her bull rope over to Mitch and straddled the gate.
Two other cowboys had joined Mitch on the platform. She recognized the Brazilian—she was certain he had a name, but even the rodeo announcer just called him by his point of origin. He was a man apart, silent and dark as he watched the drama. June had heard whispers through the crowd that he never spoke and he sure hadn’t weighed in on the whole women-on-bulls controversy. But here he was, holding her by her vest to steady her on Hallowed’s back.
“Thanks,” she said. His head barely dipped in response.
The other cowboy up on the platform was the one who’d given the opening prayer—Luke Lucas, aka the Preacher. Not the best rider here, but it hadn’t been hard to see him behind every rider mounting up, head bowed in prayer for a safe ride. At least in the Lord’s eyes, she deserved the same blessing. And help with the flank strap.
“Hallowed usually breaks right and then comes back hard to the left,” Mitch said as he took up the slack in her bull rope. “Don’t let him get you down in the well, Girlie. His back kick is vicious, so set your spurs and keep your free hand up.”
June tested her grip, nodding for him to give the rope another tug. “I can ride a bull. And my name is June.”
“I know. I’ve seen you do it.” June’s head popped up in surprise, but the only explanation she got was a smarmy wink. “Have a good ride, Girlie.”
The bull twitched beneath her legs, itching to get out of the chute and grind her into the dirt. He blew snot all over the gate as he tried to shake her off.
No fear. Roll with the bull.
“Oooee! That girl looks mighty good up there!” She didn’t recognize that voice.
“I bet she’d look a hell of a lot better riding the Red Bull, if you catch my drift.”
Next time, she’d break Red’s arm.
“Mort, this is insane. No way she should be up there. At least make her wear a damned helmet,” Travis went on.
“What’s the matter, Travis? Afraid the little Indian princess is gonna make you look like a pansy?”
Damn it, these men were going to stand around and take pot shots all night until the bull gave up and went to sleep.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, watch over this woman and help her have a safe ride,” Luke intoned, his head bowed so that his low voice barely reached her ears.
“Since when is being smart being a pansy?” Travis shot back.
“Since you started wearing that helmet, pansy.”
That was it. She couldn’t focus, and she couldn’t ride with them chattering like monkeys. “Hey! Shut it!”
At the sound of her voice, Hallowed tried to rear up, but he was too damned big to do much more than get his front hooves about a foot off the ground in the narrow confines of the chute. Out in the open, he’d get a whole lot higher. The Brazilian held her steady as she reset her butt on Hallowed’s still-twitching back. June wasn’t the only one who was ready to get on with it.
Finally, silence. A tense, pissed silence, but still. Only Mitch was snickering, “You tell them, Girlie,” as Luke double-checked the flank strap.
Travis appeared on the platform, glowering at her. “You’re really insane enough to do this?”
“No more insane than you are,” she growled, pulling on the handle. Still not tight enough. Maybe Mitch was afraid he’d hurt her?
Travis leaned over and pulled on the rope, cinching it down the rest of the way. His face was only inches from hers. This close, she could smell the Old Spice and see the faint white line that ran just under the beard, down the whole length of his jaw.
A man with scars—scars he tried to hide.
What did the rest of his scars look like? He had to have them. Everyone here did. Her own ankle bore the evidence of her obsession.
The bull shimmied again, but Travis didn’t even flinch. She tested her handle again. Just right. “Thanks.”
His frown was right in her face as he leaned past the Brazilian, who was still holding her vest to keep her on top of the impatient bull. This close, with no one else to hear him, she half expected Travis to wish her a good ride, good luck, but instead, all she got was “Don’t get killed out there.”
Why was it okay for these guys to risk life and limb to do something their mothers hated, but if one woman wanted in, it was too dangerous? Stupid double standard.
She tested her grip on the bull rope, giving it one final cinch as she let her mind clear. Roll with the bull.
She nodded her head, and suddenly the world was spinning off its axis.
Every bone in her body jolted hard right as her arm almost popped out of the socket.
Hallowed Ground broke left, proving once again that the good bulls never did the expected. She managed to get her weight counterbalanced just in time for the next kick.
He spun hard to the right, trying to whip her off like a centrifuge, all while kicking his back legs up higher than her head.
She dug in her spurs as he reared back again. Better points for spurring. Roll.
Roll, she chanted over and over as her body whiplashed right and right again. He was trying to get her down in the well, but she knew if she leaned too far left, he’d spin back that way and throw her under his feet.
Roll. The adrenaline dumped into her blood, making her body sing. In a moment of sheer physical clarity, she knew again that this was what she was supposed to do. This was who she was supposed to be.
Hallowed bent back hard left, the jolt ripping at her grip. She couldn’t hold on much longer. Her arm was just about to give. One more second. One more—
The buzzer sounded just as her fingers slipped the handle.
This was June’s strength—landing not under the feet of a pissed bull, but on her own. “Catlike,” more than one observer had noted. No matter what she was being thrown by—the mustangs she broke back on the Real Pride Ranch, the bulls she couldn’t stay away from, even that one wild buffalo—she managed to land feet first. Sure, more often than not, a hand hit the ground as well, but she’d seen video of her rides. She landed like a runner taking her mark, not a discombobulated rider on the verge of getting trampled. She didn’t know how she did it and didn’t care, as long as she hit the ground in a position to move.
The ground rushed up to smack her, but she managed to get her torso spun around just enough that her feet hit at the same time. And she was running for the safety of the gate. A bull like Hallowed was likely to hold a grudge, and she had no desire to be on the receiving end of those lopsided horns.
It wasn’t until she’d clamored up the side and Hallowed had trotted out of the arena to have his flank strap removed that she heard the silence. The only sounds were her heart pounding and Hallowed snorting as he muscled his way down the chute.
It lasted about five seconds, and then the group of cowboys on the platforms, the bullfighters in the arena and the women in the bleachers exploded.
“Did you see that?”
“Did she just do a somersault in midair?”
“Did she just land on her feet?”
“Did she just ride Hallowed Ground?”
“She did it!”
“She really did!”
Had she? “A good ride?” she hollered, afraid to look. She’d made the time—but had her free hand stayed clear? Women were allowed to use both hands, but men weren’t. Would she get a score? Would she qualify?
Would she get to ride?
“Eighty-nine,” the judge announced over the loudspeaker. “An eighty-nine for June Spotted Elk on Hallowed Ground.”
Relief turned the adrenaline to sheer joy. This rush left her giggly and high with her own power. She whipped off her hat and flung it into the air with a “Hiiieyeee!”
This was the sweetest ride she could remember—not only had it been a good ride, not only had she ridden a monster of a bull like Hallowed Ground, not only had so many of the men here failed to do the same, but if this had been the competition, she would have been in second place after the long go—the first round of rides. Right behind Travis Younkin’s ninety, and right ahead of Red Willis’s eighty-seven.
This was who she was. This was what she was supposed to do.
To hell with what everyone else—her father, Travis, Red—thought. She was tired of living hand to mouth, scraping by on scholarships and her mom’s welfare check, tired of people thinking she couldn’t do anything because she was a poor Indian woman.
She was born to ride bulls. Men got paid good money to do the eight-second dance. Why couldn’t she? She could—the Ranger Circuit was the first step.
And June was on her way.
Amid the shouts and applause from the women in the audience, Mitch jumped into the arena, hat in hand and a grin on his face. “Ma’am, I’m sure I speak for Mort—and us all—when I say that we’re pleased to welcome you with open arms.”