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Her Lucky Cowboy(3)

By´╝ÜJennifer Ryan

She remembered his kind smile and the playful way he’d tug her hair when she did something well. She wished she remembered him better. For him, she continued to take care of her grandmother. One good deed deserved another, though some kindnesses were harder to repay than others. And her grandmother made it extremely difficult to this day.

Why the hell did Bell agree to come here? She and Katherine had nothing in common. Polar opposites, Katherine’s optimism clashed with Bell’s realistic outlook on life. Their awkward conversations and interaction proved the divide between them might never be bridged. Still, Katherine plugged on, trying and trying to connect with Bell, despite Bell’s reluctance to open up. No one in the family ever wanted her. She didn’t understand why Katherine cared, so she kept things polite but distant. Until Katherine begged her to take this trip with her and Tony. Bell gave in to that nagging voice in her heart, telling her to stop pushing Katherine away, let her in, and try to forge a relationship with her one and only sister.

So she’d flown in with Katherine and met Tony at the hotel after he drove his bulls in for the competition. She planned to make the most out of her short vacation and try to get to know Katherine better.

The crowd cheered again, and Bell silently admitted she had another secret reason for coming. A chance to see him again.

“Our last rider of the night,” the announcer began. “A man who needs no introduction. Dane Bowden!”

The crowd went wild, rising to their feet, fists pumping in the air, cheering, “Great Dane. Great Dane. Great Dane.”

Bell sat on the edge of her seat, heart in her throat, eyes locked on the man she hadn’t seen since that day his horse threw him by the river. He climbed up onto the gates of the chute, pulled off his black Stetson, and gave a single wave to the crowd, flashing that devilish grin she remembered from her childhood. Everything in her went still, the crowd and noise fell away, and all she could see was the man she could never forget.

Geared up in his safety vest, chaps, spurs, and signature black Stetson, Dane climbed over the rails and into the bucking chute to take his position on the beast’s black back. Twelve hundred pounds of pent-up, raging bull beneath him, he slipped his hand beneath the flat braided cord, pulled the rope over his hand, secured his grip, and held on for dear life. Eight seconds to decide where he’d land between victory and death.

It sucked that he had a tear along the thumb in his favorite pair of deerskin gloves, but he tried not to let it throw him off his game. Someone had been messing with him, his gear, and his truck for the last two weeks, but nothing could stop Dane today. He’d always been able to put everything aside, focus, and reach for that thrill and the win. This was his last championship ride, and he meant to go out a winner. He’d promised his parents and brothers he’d come home, run the family ranch, give up his wandering ways, and settle down to a normal—boring—life.

Yeah, right after this ride.

He’d tame this black beast tonight, then deal with the one within when he settled back home in Montana. Tonight, he’d ride under the Las Vegas lights.

Dane nodded, the chute door opened, and the bull bucked and reared. Dane held tight, one arm in the air as the bull twisted and the crowd went wild. He sank his spurs into the bull’s side, held tight with his knees, and moved with Black Cloud. The bull kicked, reared, and spun around. Blake held tight for another round. Time to get off this ride, collect his winnings, and go out number one. The spot he’d been chasing these last years had always seemed one place out of his grasp. With three big brothers, first always seemed out of reach. He’d been second this whole year. Might as well be last. Tonight, he’d finish first. A champion.

The buzzer sounded eight seconds. Done. Victory. Dane smiled as the crowd cheered.

There are two great athletes in every ride. The two-legged one won this time.

Dane tried to dismount, but the bull spun at the last second and caught him in the side before his feet hit the ground. The rodeo clowns moved forward in his peripheral vision, but not in time. Black Cloud turned, rammed his head into Dane’s chest, and sent him flying again. The impact pushed the air and his mouth guard out of his mouth. He bit the side of his lip and tasted blood. Sideways in the air, his left foot touched the ground first, then his body slammed into the dirt. His head bounced with the impact, making his vision spark and blur, but not before he saw the bull’s body swing over the top of him in slow motion, his massive hooves coming down at Dane’s legs, snapping his left leg bones like twigs. The flesh tore along with his jeans. White-hot pain shot through every nerve like lightning. Dane’s heart jackhammered in his chest and ears. The bull rammed him again with his huge head, sliding Dane several feet along the dirt. The fierce pain shot through him, stealing his breath. His heart slammed into his ribs.