Williams Hill dragged his hand over his face as he sat in his truck at a stoplight in Estes Park, Colorado. After two straight days of driving up from Texas, he was ready to reach his destination of the rodeo grounds in the small Rocky Mountain town. Flexing his shoulders to work out the kinks, he happened to glance over at the vehicle stopped next to him.
Everything in him froze… then released in a pent-up laugh.
The woman driving a shiny new black Ford truck was gorgeous with high cheekbones and pouty lips. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, so he couldn’t quite make out the color, but her appearance wasn’t what had made him laugh.
She was clearly enjoying a favorite song—singing and dancing for all she was worth, without a care in the world for who might be watching. He chuckled again as she did a little shoulder shimmy. Adorable was the word that struck him, and he was strangely affected, an instant attraction coiling inside in a way that surprised him.
He wasn’t an instant attraction kind of guy.
Suddenly, she glanced toward him and stilled as she discovered her audience. Her eyes went wide and she sent him a sheepish grin. He smiled back and pretended to tip an imaginary hat. However, instead of another smile, she went cold on him, eyes hardening, lips thinning. She whipped her head around to face forward, her chin in the air, and didn’t glance his way again. She definitely didn’t start singing again. Not that she would have had much time, because the light changed a second later.
She was quick to hit the gas, faster on the draw than Will, who was still blinking at her abrupt about-face. He almost expected her windows to frost with the drop in temperature in there. A flash of bright pink on her back window caught his attention as she drove ahead of him. For the second time in a handful of minutes, Will chuckled. The sparkly sticker on the back of her truck read Silly Boys, Trucks are for Girls. Lips tipped in amusement, he shook his head.
At the next light, she went straight when he turned, which meant she probably wasn’t there for the rodeo. He gave a mental shrug. Wouldn’t be seeing her again. Probably for the best, since he was here to work.
Instead, he concentrated on where he was headed as he pulled into the rodeo grounds, his beat-up Chevy truck kicking up dust along the gravel road. It had been a long drive from where he’d stayed in Amarillo the night before. Most of the trip had been over the flat open plains of Oklahoma and Eastern Colorado. Browns, yellows, and greens had flashed by in a blur of pavement in front and fields of wheat or corn or cotton to the sides.
Will didn’t mind driving alone with only Garth Brooks and other old-school country music to keep him company. He liked his own company fine.
He parked, hopped out, and took a deep breath of the pine-scented mountain air. This was the second year he’d provided stock for the Rooftop Rodeo. In the past, he’d gone straight to Cheyenne Frontier Days—one of the bigger rodeos on any of the circuits. He’d been pleased this year to get an invite for several bulls and horses as well as calves at that event. It had worked out in his favor that the Estes rodeo had wanted most of the same stock.
The setting, a mountain town close to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, couldn’t be more different form his hometown of La Colinas, Texas. Granite peaks towered above the valley on all sides, creating a cathedral-like effect. The rodeo grounds were located along the main road. He’d driven up via a winding two-lane canyon road and passing the lake. Further down, past the rodeo grounds, was the downtown, filled with quaint shops situated along a walking path that followed the Thompson River.
He’d made decent time, enough to complete the check-in with the rodeo staff before his hands, Chris and Jordan, arrived with the trailers and stock.
He didn’t think about the girl in the truck again as they went through the motions of getting their animals settled before heading over to the Columbine Inn where they’d be staying for the week.
“Why the hell did I smile at that cowboy in the truck?”
Rusty Walker grumbled at herself as she made her way through town, hanging a left before reaching the downtown and following the winding road up to Mary’s Lake Lodge where she was meeting a friend for dinner.
“Even if he did have amazing blue eyes.”
It had been as plain as the slightly crooked nose on his way-too-handsome face that he was a rodeo cowboy. A Chevy truck that had seen better days, white button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves, and the tip of his imaginary hat, the real one of which was probably sitting on the seat beside him, had all been a dead giveaway. She rolled her eyes at the mental image, determined not to find his amused grin charming or acknowledge how much she’d noticed on such a short appraisal.
“Not gonna happen, buster.”
Rusty never associated with rodeo cowboys when she could avoid it.
She’d been raised by one of the toughest rodeo stock providers in the business, and had been around the rodeo and cowboys her entire life. Her father would be less than impressed if she ever brought one home. She could hear him now… “Those buckle boys are about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
The irony that the men he held such disdain for were essential to his thriving business was not lost on Rusty, but Garrett Walker had his own opinions, and no one, certainly not his daughter, was going to change those for him.
Rusty parked, grabbed her purse, and headed up the wooden steps up to the lobby of the hotel. Mary’s Lake Lodge was a huge log structure which stretched along the side of a mountain into a hotel and a series of condos and cabins. All stained dark brown with white trim, giving it a rustic mountain charm she loved, it had a restaurant that boasted excellent food, and an even better view out over Mary’s Lake and beyond over parts of Estes Park.
Only half-paying attention to where she was walking, Rusty’s mind remained stubbornly on the man in the truck. Her father wasn’t her only reason for avoiding the type. She’d learned from painful personal experience that if she wanted a guy who would work side-by-side with her throughout the year, a rodeo cowboy was not her best bet. And if she wanted a man who was in it for her, and not for her connections to her dad, that eliminated everyone else in the business.
Even if the guy in the truck did have the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. Or the sexiest cleft in his chin.
“Nope. Definitely not interested.”
Why was she even still thinking about this?
Her phone rang, interrupting her dumb internal thought process, but she scrunched up her nose when she read the name on the screen. Apparently one day of peace wasn’t even possible.
Looking heavenward for any guidance that might be forthcoming, she answered. “Rusty Walker.”
“I expected you to be with the hands,” came the gravel-voiced condemnation.
No hello. No questions about her trip. Rusty took a deep breath even as she clutched the phone a tad tighter. “Hi, Daddy.”
Deliberately, she put sugar in those words, then grinned. He hated it when she called him Daddy, let alone made it sound sweet.
He didn’t even pause. “I asked you a question, young lady.”
“I’m sure Travis or Dave have already reported in.” The hands were her father’s own private snitch network. “The stock is settled and we’re all checked in at the hotel. No problems on the drive.”
“I already heard that from them.”
“Oh.” She pretended to misunderstand. “It’s nice of you to check on me.” She spotted her friend across the parking lot and waved. “I have to go, Daddy. I’m meeting my friend Maggie for dinner, and she’s here now. Hugs and kisses.”
Rusty snapped the phone closed before he could say any more. She knew perfectly well he didn’t give two hoots about her trip. He’d been calling to make sure she wasn’t doing anything to embarrass the Walker name. Like she ever had.
Rusty put her father out of her mind and grinned as she turned toward the sound of her friend Maggie’s voice. “Hey!”
The two girls embraced before stepping up to the hostess station to put their names on the list for the restaurant. Maggie was a fellow barrel racer. They’d met two years earlier at the Cody Stampede in Wyoming and had become fast friends, keeping in touch via social media. Unfortunately, thanks to schedules and distance, they didn’t meet often. Maggie rode for fun only, and consequently didn’t get to a ton of events, and only local. Rusty raced only at the events where her father had stock competing. Granted, that was most of the Mountain States, Prairie, and Badlands circuits. But her racing wasn’t about the points for her, it was about training horses for her clients, getting the animals experience, or selling a horse that hadn’t sold yet. A “nice little hobby” according to her father. Officially, she was there to represent the family business and help the hands take care of the animals, not that they let her.
As they were seated, Rusty couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Blue Eyes in the dented and dusty truck again. He’d turned off for the rodeo grounds. And the fact she’d noticed irritated the tar out of her. However, his supposed destination meant the chances of her running into him over the next week were decent. This was a smaller rodeo as these things went, not like Cheyenne or Houston where she could avoid him more easily. She hoped he’d got the hint that she wasn’t remotely approachable and leave her the hell alone.
If he recognized her at all.
Will wandered around behind the chutes, taking in the scene. Dust kicked up, covering everything with a fine layer of gritty dirt. The scents of horseflesh and leather and sweat filled the air, overpowering the subtle pine this mountain town usually smelled of. Men hung around in groups, some up on the rails, some standing, some sprawled out on the ground, sitting and waiting or even fitting in a quick nap. The sounds of the announcer, the music, and the crowds came in and out between riders. Bronc riding was over for the night, barrel racing was about to start, and following that were the bulls.
And even after all last night and most of today without seeing her, he was still looking for the woman in that truck.
“Williams Hill. What’re you doin’ here, son?”
Will turned to find Chase Schneider standing there grinning like a fool around a wad of chewing tobacco.
“Chase.” He nodded, holding out a hand to shake.
“Didn’t expect to see your ugly mug here.” Chase spit off to the side. “I thought Rising Star had all the stock tied up for this one.”
Will squinted against the sun, which was dipping below the tops of the mountains. “They needed a few more this year, I guess,” was all he said.
As a relatively small operation, and one still getting started up, he had to compete with larger, more established stock contractors for every venue, especially Rising Star Ranch when it came to the Mountain States Circuit, but he’d been both smart and lucky that his stock was performing well. However, shooting off his mouth about luck at this particular venue wouldn’t win him any friends, not with the potential deal he was about to try to set up.
“They wanted the Turtle, didn’t they?” Chase guessed.
Yertle the Turtle was Will’s best performing bull. He named all his bulls after Dr. Seuss characters, a thing that had started as a joke, then became a tradition. “He’s doing pretty good this year.”
Chase didn’t seem to notice he hadn’t answered the question. “I’ll say. He’s been racking up points, I hear.”
“Yup. You riding?” Will tried to redirect the conversation.
“I finished my rounds for Tie Down tonight. Did okay.” He slapped his hat against his thigh, raising up a small cloud of dust.
Will nodded. “I saw your run. Might be time to retire your horse, buddy.”
Chase lifted his eyebrows. “Tonight was his last run. How’d you guess?”
Will wasn’t surprised because he’d asked around. His business was rodeo stock, but he was more interested in the horses, and Chase’s horse was one of the best on the circuit. “You thinking of putting him to stud?”
“I was thinking on it.”
“I’d be willing to make you a deal. Give him to me for stud and I’ll provide your next two horses.”
Chase cocked his head. “I’ve heard good things about your stock horses, but do you have any solid rodeo prospects?”
Will tipped his hat back and gave Chase a serious stare. “The horses are what we do best.” What he did best. The bulls were part of the business, but horses were his focus.
Chase chewed his chaw, considering Will for a long moment. “I’m down Texas way next month. Maybe I’ll make the trip further south to check out what you have.”
Will played it cool. Getting one of his horses with a rodeo pro like Chase would be a huge coup. “You think on it and get back to me.”
Not wanting to push it more, Will moved on. “When are you up on the bulls?”
“Who’d you draw?”
Chase spit again. “Blueberry. He’s pretty good. One you can get some points on, but he can have an off trip.”
Will didn’t know that bull, so he didn’t have anything to add. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Chase paused as if waiting for Will to keep going.
Most of the guys liked to spend time hanging out while they waited for their events, but Will wasn’t much of a talker and they’d hit all the topics he’d been interested in.
Chase obviously realized that because he suddenly grew more serious. “I’m pulling gates tonight for the bulls. Anything I need to know about your animals?”
Will hooked his thumbs in the back pockets of his jeans. It wasn’t unusual to get this question. If a cowboy knew his business, then he knew what questions to ask the contractors about their stock. Will, Chase, and Jordan would be behind the chutes helping with the bulls anyway, but Chase showed his experience as a pro to ask regardless.
“The Turtle blows hard, just get the gate out of his way.”
“Thing Two tends to stall, so watch out for that.”
“Got it. Anything else?”
“Nah. Once-ler, Sam-I-Am, and Grinch are all easy. Nothing to do for them except move.”
“Thanks, man. Appreciate it.” Chase held out a hand to shake again. “See ya ’round.” With a slap on the back, he walked off.
As Chase moved away, Will caught a flash of a familiar horse being led through the crowd of folks behind the scenes.
Attention snagged, he followed. As he got closer, he could see that he’d been right and the handsome quarter horse with a deep red coat and black mane and tail was Mischief Maker, his sister-in-law’s horse. The animal was being led by a woman wearing a light pink button-down shirt with a material that shimmered and caught the light along the seams. Her deep red hair hung in a long braid from under her silverbelly Stetson hat.
Will quickened his steps, trying to catch up.
But as he got closer, the woman stopped and quickly mounted. Will realized she was fixing to run the barrels in the event currently going on. Rather than distract her, he decided to wait until her turn was over, then he’d go have a word.
Moving around to an empty spot along one of the fences, he took a step up, looped his arms over the top rung, and settled in to watch. His sister-in-law, Holly, had told him she had sent her best barrel horse to a rider she thought could do something with him. Holly was an accomplished rider herself, but she was also a large-animal veterinarian servicing all the ranches around their area in the Texas Hill Country.
In addition, she was newly married to his brother, which made her a new mama to Cash’s little girl, Sophia. While she had agreed to partner with Will, taking on the barrel racers his operation was training, Holly didn’t have time to compete herself. He’d been urging her to find a partner all year.
Maybe this woman was a possibility?
As Will watched, two other women made their runs. This particular venue had a longer barrel racing course, but both women made competitive times with a 17.65 second and 17.60 second runs consecutively. Mischief was going to have to ride hard to place.
He glanced over to see if the horse was almost up. With a jerk, he stood up straighter, trying to get a better look at Mischief’s rider who was now facing toward him. He’d only seen the back of her a minute ago, paying more attention to the horse.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered. More than mere interest about Mischief stirred.
The announcer’s voice came over the loud speakers. “Next up, we have Rusty Walker. Rusty’s riding Mischief Maker, owned and trained by Holly Hill out of High Hill Ranch in La Colina, Texas. Rusty has taken over the reins in both training and riding this five-year-old quarter horse. Let’s see how she does tonight.”
With a barely-there signal, Rusty sent Mischief into a gallop. Will tuned out the commentator, the crowds, everything as he watched horse and rider with a single-minded concentration.
Moving so fast, they were almost a blur, they reached the first barrel. The soft dirt flew up as Mischief bent his body around Rusty’s leg, turning tightly around the obstacle, as close as they could get without touching it. They popped up and flew toward the next barrel. A smooth lead change, then they hit the second barrel. Mischief almost appeared to pivot on his inside hind leg, his turn was so precise.
Rusty sat fairly quiet in the saddle, guiding her mount more with her legs than her hands, letting him do the job he’d been trained for. She spurred him on toward the third barrel, around it, then rode straight back, Rusty’s braid flew out behind her and her legs practically jumped off the horse’s sides as she used her heels to urge him to faster speeds. As soon as they were past the line, she reined him in to a sharp stop.
The announcer came on almost immediately. “And she does it, folks. Rusty’s time is 17.40, moving her into first place. That was the winning time last year. The other riders are going to have to stretch it to beat her.”
The crowd clapped and cheered. With a grin, Rusty waved to them, acknowledging their support for what had been a masterful ride. Holly had made a fantastic choice when she’d picked this woman to ride her horse. No question Rusty Walker knew exactly what she was doing.
She trotted Mischief back through the gate. Will hopped down from the fence and headed her way. Before he caught up to her, she dismounted and lead Mischief back the way she’d come earlier, right toward him.
“Nice ride, Rusty,” another dark-haired girl getting ready to make her own run called just as Rusty was drawing up to where Will waited.
She turned and waved. “Thanks, Maggie. Go get ’em.”
Rusty was smiling when she turned back around, a genuine smile, and Will could see a pair of deep-set dimples that were downright sexy. Again, that distinct stirring of interest ignited inside him.
“Ma’am?” he called.
Mischief turned his head at the sound of a familiar voice only to be turned back forward by a light tug on the reins.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Will tried again as he got closer.
Deep brown eyes snapped to his and widened in surprised recognition, at least, he thought that might be recognition. Then the surprise was replaced by a blank wall of cold indifference. The smile vanished, replaced by lips closed tight. She kept walking.
Strangely amused by her attitude toward a total stranger, Will ignored the chill in the summer air, fell in step with her, and held out a hand. “I figured I should introduce myself. I’m—”
“Someone I have absolutely no interest in knowing.” She glanced at the hand he still held out, but didn’t take it, and didn’t stop walking.
Will dropped his arm to his side. “I don’t think you understand. I’m—”
“Not getting it. I’m not interested. Quit while you still have some pride, buddy.”
Wow. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been shut down that harshly, and he wasn’t even asking her out. All he’d wanted to do was share his relationship to Holly since Rusty was riding her horse.
He held up his hands in surrender. “All right. Great run. Enjoy the rest of the rodeo.”
He tipped his hat and stopped walking, letting her move on alone, Mischief following along like the lamb he was, though the horse turned his head to peer at Will a few times in a confused horse kind of way.
Will ignored the animal, his gaze pulled to Rusty’s retreating figure and the sway of her hips. Despite her total rejection, desire tightened in his gut, which brought on a frown.
What was wrong with him? What kind of guy found a woman attractive who’d effectively slammed the door in his face before she was even asked? Besides, it wasn’t like him to respond so immediately to a pretty woman. Usually, the personality was what attracted him.
A low chuckle had him turning to find Chase not far away. Will raised his eyebrows in question.
“You’re not the only one to receive that treatment,” Chase commented.
They both gazed after Rusty’s retreating form.
“Yeah,” Chase said. “Her father is Garrett Walker, who’s a son of a bitch. Guess that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She’s a real ball breaker, that one.”
Will cocked his head, still watching as she disappeared around a trailer. While she’d been abrupt to the point of rudeness, he didn’t get the feeling that she was a bitch, as Chase implied. Maybe seeing her dancing in her car and the grin she’d initially sent him when discovered had skewed his view.
“I won’t take it personal, then,” was all he said to the cowboy.
He turned back to the arena, needing to meet up with Chris and Jordan and start thinking about the bulls.
Besides, he doubted he’d see her again after this week, and he was here to work. Not to mention the meeting he had set up with her father for later in the week.
He hadn’t missed Chase’s casual comment about Garrett Walker, a disposition Will intended to take into consideration, which meant not being interested in the daughter. Despite an edge of disappointment lining his mood—one which baffled him anyway—no way would he blow the opportunity.
Hitting on a potential partner’s daughter, especially when she’d already blow him off, fell under the category of just plain stupid. Too bad, though.