The word means everything to Shana who trains horses and rides rodeo stock. She’s a woman living in a man’s world, unafraid and taking them on at their own game. Hard childhood lessons taught her that self-determination is the key to survival.
Then she meets Roden, a rodeo livestock contractor with lessons of his own. In his locked room designed for submission and dominance, her world changes.
“How’d you do it? I would have bet the farm that bronc had you.”
“Not tonight.” Still breathing hard, Shana wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans-clad thighs and tried to lift the thick single braid off the back of her neck. Why hadn’t she cut off the mass? “I watched him earlier and knew he’d lead with his left leg. I was ready for him.”
“You sure as hell did. And you looked sexy as shit doing it.”
Shana Kumons had to laugh. She’d only met Ann shortly after coming to Klamath County a couple of weeks ago, but it hadn’t taken long to realize the young woman didn’t pull her punches.
“I wasn’t thinking sexy,” Shana admitted from where she and Ann now stood behind the arena where the local rodeo was being held. Clapping and stomping feet from the spectators in the wooden stands briefly made conversation impossible and gave her a few moments in which to get her heart rate back to normal.
She loved bareback bronc riding, fed off the woman versus animal battle of strength and wits. True, her obsession with physical battles had left her with her share of bruises, scars, and two concussions, but she’d yet to find any high to rival the adrenaline rush, the feeling that, finally, she had control. “The only thing that mattered was ending up alive,” she finished once the applause died down.
“So why don’t you do barrel racing?” As if making her point, Ann stretched out her arms and turned in a slow circle designed to show off her bright pink and purple outfit complete with fringed sleeves and matching fringes on her cowgirl hat. “The way you’re built, the judges will award you first place, particularly if you pop a button and give them a peek at the merchandise.”
“Barrels don’t do it for me,” Shana said as the arena hands across from where she and Ann stood prepared to yank open a gate for another bronc rider.
“Not enough danger? What’s with you and your death wish?”
She didn’t have a death wish, nothing close to it. As for why she courted broken bones and worse on the back of a twelve hundred pound animal?some things were no one else’s business.
The gate swung open. For an instant, the big-eared roan stood motionless while its rider ground his legs into the animal’s sides, one hand in the air, the other caught in the belly rope. Then the horse bellowed and charged. As it ran, it flung its hind legs into the air, threatening to hit the rider on the back of the head. The cowboy was flung forward, then back as the horse hit the ground on all four legs. Once, twice, three times the bronc turned itself into a lathered pogo stick. On the fourth time, the bronc spun in a half-circle at the same time and sent the rider flying. His flight was short-lived, ending in a belly-first landing. The bronc, looking exceedingly proud of itself, continued to run and buck around the perimeter of the arena while the hapless rider gathered his hands and knees under him and looked around for his hat.
“Score one for another Severn horse,” Ann said. “They say you can’t teach rodeo stock anything, but I swear, his animals are the best.”
“Severn?” Shana repeated, her attention back on Ann. “I’ve heard the name.”
“Shit. You should. His land abuts your?your employer’s. I don’t know how many acres he has?several thousand. He keeps the rodeo stock near the main complex so unless you’ve had time to do any exploring you probably haven’t seen it.”
“Time?” Shana laughed. “In my dreams.”
“At least he let you have tonight off. Does he know you rodeo?”
Something in Ann’s tone changed, but Shana couldn’t put her finger on it. Since going to work for the McDermit spread as a horse trainer, she’d been kept so busy she’d barely left it. She’d met Ann at a horse auction, and her boss Jed McDermit had introduced them, saying Shana needed someone her age and gender to talk to in this testosterone-laden world. Jed’s words had held a teasing, maybe taunting tone. Shana hadn’t known why, and Ann’s mouth had pinched. The two women hadn’t said much beyond comments about the weather, but to her surprise, Ann had all but attached herself to her since they’d spotted each other in the rodeo parking lot earlier that night.
“Yes, Jed knows,” Shana said, her attention divided between Ann and preparations for the next ride. So far she was in first place for the bareback event, but only half of the cowboys had completed their rides. “It factored into why he hired me.”
“That and your looks.”
“He’s been a gentleman.”
“Good.” Ann’s voice dropped. “But don’t turn your back on him because if you do?maybe you’ll find out what I’m hinting at, maybe not.”
“I can handle myself,” she said despite her confusion.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
To Shana’s surprise, Ann ran her fingers over her upper arm as if testing her muscle strength, and maybe more. “Damn, that’s hard. You work out?”
“Some.” Shana didn’t move. The touch, lingering and warm, reminded her of how long it had been since she’d been touched. Making it with women wasn’t her style, but she wasn’t dead. She understood sexual energy.
“More than some. They’ll like that.”
Ann patted her shoulder then stuck her hands in her back pockets in a gesture that accented her small but firm-looking breasts. “You’ll learn soon enough.” She sighed, blinked repeatedly then shook her head in what Shana interpreted to be resignation. “Let’s just say Jed chose well. And Severn is going to want in on the action.”
* * * * *
Shana had been able to dismiss Ann’s strange comment during the bull-riding event, but now the small, well-attended, once-monthly rodeo was over. Spectators were making their way to the dirt and gravel parking lots. Holding her second place ribbon, Shana waited behind the bucking chutes where Ann had told her to stay while she got some details on the post-celebration.
Celebration? Drinking, flirting, maybe an hour wound around some sweaty cowboy? Thoughts of expending weeks of pent-up sexual energy with a man’s cock deep in her kicked up her heart rate and heated points south. How long since she’d had sex? And would she, maybe, connect with someone she trusted and had a modicum of something in common with? Much as she loved and needed to frequently fuck, spreading her legs for the hell of it wasn’t in her nature. Besides, in today’s world a girl had to have a death wish if she didn’t keep certain realities in mind.
What was it Ann had said about Jed choosing well when he hired her? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d gotten a job because she was easy on the eye, but not once had she kept the job based on her looks. Bottom line, she knew horses a lot better than she understood human beings. Jed McDermit had to be at least twenty years older than her, which put him close to her father in age. As employers went, she’d had worse than Jed who combined a hands-on approach with trusting those he’d hired to do their jobs. Sure she knew he was a man, fit and proud of it with a certain arrogance she attributed to the state of his checking account. So far he hadn’t come close to coming on to her but she’d sensed something in his manner that was slightly unnerving.
Someone must have brought along a CD player because the speakers the announcer had used earlier now blasted out a country and western song about a truck-driving man and the women he’d left behind. Some of the overhead lighting had been turned off, throwing the rodeo grounds into deep and seductive shadows. Not questioning what she was doing, Shana started toward the large county-owned barn behind the arena. She heard laughter and loud voices, mostly male. They drew her magnet-like to the promise of energy, fun, release.
As she neared the main barn opening leading to the twenty or more stalls, she spotted knots of people just inside the barn. Some were standing while others perched on hay bales. The smell of hay, hops, and sweat spoke to her skin and nerve endings. Damn but she loved this hard-living, hard-playing world.
“I was just coming to get you.” Ann thrust an opened beer bottle into her hand. “Last rodeo it was so frickin’ cold the celebration was cancelled, but it’s rocking tonight.”
Rocking only began to describe the impact of music loud enough to rattle one’s teeth, bowlegged cowboys in tight, tight jeans wrapped around their beers, an arm wrestling match with one of the hay bales serving as a table, several mongrel dogs roaming around, a big-bellied man wearing coveralls backing a big-hipped woman against a stall wall.
“We’re in the minority,” Ann announced unnecessarily. “At least five men to every woman. Take your pick.”
Her pick? From the way several men stared at her, she’d have to beat off the competition if she wanted to. She spotted Jed talking to a younger, larger, taller man but didn’t bother going over to him. Tonight she was off the clock. Her red ribbon proclaimed her right to be there. What she did on her own time was her own business. Besides, he’d already said she was the best trainer he’d ever had.
Hell, she could have told him that.
“Congratulations, sweet cheeks. You’ve got balls, I’ll hand you that.”
Despite being startled, Shana took care to take her time acknowledging the crack. “You’re talking about my ride?” she asked a man who had to be a good foot taller than her and in desperate need of a shave. “I hope you bet on me to finish.”
He laughed, the sound on a par with the music. “Hell, by the time I realized it was a broad instead of some snot-nosed kid riding it was too late. You’ve done that before.”
“You think?” She took a swallow. Cold and clean, the beer nevertheless warmed her.
“Bareback’s a man’s sport,” he insisted, swaying a little. “You got lucky.”
“In your dreams. I know what I’m doing.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He leaned close and gave her a sample of his alcohol-laden breath. “Tell you what, I’ll give you some riding lessons.”
“I don’t need them.”
“This kind of lesson.” He grabbed his crotch. “I’ve got something here you’re going to love riding better ‘n you did that pony. Come on. Jump on board. Ten seconds with me and you’ll be flying.”
“You couldn’t handle me.” Her grip on her beer increased.
“Says who, bitch?”
Although she saw it coming, he’d clamped a paw around her forearm before she could get out of his reach. Using his superior size, he yanked her arm behind her and pushed her against him. His flesh felt soft, but there was so much of it. Survival instinct firmly held in check, she forced herself to relax. The hand holding her beer hung at her side.
“Is this how you do it, cowboy?” she taunted. “Can’t get a woman to look twice at you so you resort to force?”
“Whatever it takes.”
“You’re pathetic.” She glared up at his blurred face. “Beyond pathetic.”
“Bitch!” He leaned over her, forcing her to arch her back and turn her head to the side to avoid his wet lips and probing tongue.
She’d started to aim the bottle at the side of his head when she felt him being wrenched away. Back stepping, she saw someone had wrapped his arm around Wet Lips’ neck. From the look on Wet Lips’ face, he couldn’t breathe.
“Back it down, Ted, now!” the newcomer ordered.
Taking advantage of her opportunity, Shana twisted free. Doing so earned her a wrenched shoulder, but it was worth it. The newcomer hadn’t relinquished his neck hold and Ted’s face was turning purple.
“Let him go,” she insisted. “He’s going to pass out.”
“Don’t tell me I interrupted something you were looking forward to,” the newcomer drawled. “You like being manhandled?”
“Not by him.”
“But you’re not opposed to getting roughed up?”
What was that about? “Let him go,” she repeated. Ted’s eyes had rolled back. “I’m not looking forward to performing CPR on him, and I don’t think you are either.”
“Good point.” The man released Ted and shoved him at some nearby hay.
Several people applauded as Ted landed in a heap. Shana struggled with the desire to do a little batting practice with the bottle using Ted’s head as the ball. “Damn him,” she muttered, “thinking he’s so strong.”
“He is. Leastwise he’s a lot bigger than you.”
“Size doesn’t mean anything.” Determined to calm her agitation, she swallowed deeply. Again, the cold beer did its work on her nervous system. “I could take him.”
Her rescuer laughed, forcing her to admit she’d sounded like a boastful adolescent. What he didn’t know was she probably wouldn’t still be alive if she hadn’t learned how to hold her own.
“Just like you took Blue Boy.”
For a moment she didn’t know what he was talking about. Then she remembered that was the name of the bronc she’d ridden. “You’re observant.”
“It’s my business.”
“Your business. Wait, are you Roden Severn?”
“And you’re a stock contractor.”
“Among other things.”
He’d made no attempt to touch her during their short exchange and yet her skin felt as if it had been invaded. Telling herself her reaction was the understandable aftermath of having to deal with Ted of the sloppy lips, she made a show of taking in her surroundings. In truth, little beyond Roden Severn mattered anymore. Unlike the other celebrants who almost universally wore jeans, he was dressed all in black except for the silver belt buckle. His traditional cowboy shirt, complete with pearl snaps, rode his hard and muscular body like a lover and the snug dark pants made no attempt to hide the family jewels. She wouldn’t call him handsome since that word conjured up images of smooth, unscarred flesh and a fashion model body.
Instead, Roden Severn struck her as having been carved out of stone. No attempt had been made to sand away the rough edges. He reminded her of a wild horse complete with long, unkempt hair, wounds both old and new, a rogue look to his eyes, body ready for action. If she didn’t approach him slow and cautious, he’d bolt.
Or would he? Maybe, like a stallion staking its claim, he’d mount her.
“Ah,” she managed belatedly, “just because I rode Blue Boy doesn’t mean he isn’t a good bronc. I hope you’ll continue to use him.”
“I intend to.” He took her arm and guided her into the shadows. Next he unceremoniously clamped his hands around her waist and lifted her onto a hay bale, then positioned himself in front of her. Dim naked light bulbs hanging from the rafters cast him in shadow. “Jed said you’re good. When I saw you intended to ride tonight, I made a point of watching.”
“You don’t usually?” Her throat felt dry, unlike her crotch.
“No.” His deep, strong tone slid like warm water over her skin. “I have a lot of duties during a rodeo, too many, if truth be known.”
The rodeo itself was behind them, and although she imagined he still needed to oversee getting his broncs and bulls back to his spread, he’d decided to spend time with her.
Why not? The night was for hard-pounding music, alcohol, seduction.
“I briefly worked for a stock contractor in Wyoming,” she told him. “Then the SPCA shut him down.”
“I heard about that.” He folded his arms across his too-broad chest and latched his dark gaze on her. “You didn’t happen to have anything to do with the whistle being blown, did you?”
She’d been instrumental in building a case against a man determined to put profit before the livestock’s welfare, but she wasn’t about to tell this man that. After all, he and her former employer were in the same business.
“I left the same week the indictment came,” she explained. “I don’t know what happened.”
“You already had another job lined up?”
She shrugged and made a show of savoring her drink. Someone had switched CDs. Now a female singer was demonstrating her range, the notes long, slow, and rich like old wine. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted three couples engaged in something between a dance and fucking fully clothed. Damn, she needed to be fucked. To fuck.
“Finding work has never been a problem,” she said and finished her beer.
“Because you have sure hands.”
“Is that what Jed told you? He approves of the way I handle his green stock?”
“He does, among other things.”
What things, she wanted to ask but didn’t. She’d have to be dead from the neck down not to know how her boss studied not just her gentle patience with the half wild horses, but her form and movement. Most men did. She’d known the time would come when she and Jed would need to define their relationship and had been looking forward to the exploration, but that had been before this black-clad cowboy walked into her life. The thought of sniffing out the possibilities with not one but two men caused her pussy to heat again. Before she could focus on and enjoy the sensation, Roden took hold of her wrists and turned her hands up so he could study her palms.
“Calluses. Short nails,” he observed with his thumbs pressing into her veins. “The hands of a woman who sees them as tools.”
“I wouldn’t be able to do my job if they were soft.”
“And pitting yourself against horses that hate any kind of confinement turns you on, does it?”
His words held layers of meaning. Challenge. She wanted to concentrate on them and yet she didn’t care about anything except his thumbs shutting off the flow of blood.
“I’m good at what I do.” Her voice had a rote-like quality. “I know how to channel my strength to where it needs to go. After a while the horses I work with know that.”
“I’m sure they do.”
He started kneading the insides of her wrists, his thumbs making long, sensual strokes along her flesh. If she hadn’t been sitting, she’d be hard-pressed to go on standing. The way he stared at her, bold and confrontational, reminded her of a just-roped stallion.
Was that what he was? A stallion?
If so then she was a mare. A mare in heat.
“We’re going to dance,” he said and pulled her to her feet.