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No, it wasn’t, and he damn well knew it. She fiddled with the collar of his snap-front shirt. “So what happens now?”

“Wanna sneak behind the concession stand and have a quickie?”

Yes! “No.” She lightly cuffed him on the chin. “Maybe another time.”

“I’ll hold you to that. While you’re getting your stuff ready for three weeks on the road, toss in any sex toys you might wanna have fun with.” He grinned. “Soon as the rodeo is over tonight we’ll be on the road. I’ll call you when we’re close.” Hank gifted her with another soft kiss. Then another. “Drive safe, Lainie.”

He’d reached the end of the corridor when she called out, “Promise me you’ll stay out of the paths of the bulls tonight? Both of you.”

“We’ll try, but no guarantees.”

Chapter Seven

As Kyle adjusted his chin strap, he heard the announcer droning, but it was just background noise. Sweat trickled down his spine. His shirt stuck to his back like a second skin. Heat from the helmet dampened his hair. His face burned. His heart thundered. The bull jumped beneath him in the chute, ready to play the man-versus-beast game. Eager to hurl Kyle on his ass and stomp him into nothing but blood and bones.

“Bring it, f**ker,” he snarled at the slobbering animal before he slipped in his mouthpiece. He set his feet. He tested his hand wrap one last time and vigorously nodded at the gatekeeper as his free hand flew up.

Immediately out of the chute, shock vibrated up his tailbone and rattled his spine. The bull’s rear legs kicked up and twisted left at the last second. Kyle shifted slightly to keep his balance. He spurred and the bull spun right, jumping sideways, damn near jerking Kyle’s arm out of the socket. He held on, readjusting his position as every bone and joint in his body screamed for him to get the f**k off.

The roar of the crowd barely permeated his concentration as the words hold on kept repeating in his head. Time had no meaning when he rode. None. He was in a whole ’nother dimension.

Failing to dislodge him, the bull switched directions and started to spin. Faster and faster. Kyle bore down on his mouthpiece, keeping his back straight and his feet moving.

The buzzer sounded and Kyle snapped out of his riding stupor. His free hand automatically tugged on the rope to release his riding hand. As soon as the wrap gave, the bull jumped, bouncing Kyle high into the air like a piece of popcorn.

The spectators gasped. While he was airborne Kyle knew he’d land hard. He twisted and hit on his left side, avoiding his knee, taking the brunt of the impact on his hip, rib cage, and shoulder.

Fuck, that hurt.

Dust kicked up and he heard, “Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey-hey!” the bullfighter’s attention grabber. Shoes entered his vision as the bullfighter directed the bull’s attention away from stomping Kyle’s stunned ass. He scrambled to his feet and raced to the fence.

Only then did he notice the crowd was still whistling and clapping. Kyle ripped off his protective helmet, shoved his mouthpiece in his vest pocket, and squinted at the scoreboard.

No score yet. The bull loped through the livestock arena gate. Kyle hopped down from the fence and raced across the dirt to snag his flank strap.

Hank met him with an enormous grin. “Nice ride. Figure that’ll put you in the money. You’re buying the first tank of gas.”

Kyle grinned and draped his rope over his shoulder. “Fair enough. Thanks for savin’ my ass.”

“All in a day’s work, buddy.” Hank clapped him on the back.

The announcer said, “How about if y’all put your hands together for a score of . . . eighty-eight! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new leader.”

More whoops and hollers.

Waving to the crowd, Kyle exited into the contestants’ area. Two more riders remained. Both guys had covered their bulls the night before. If either of them rode, he could be knocked out of first place. He’d still finish in the money, but the extra points for first would let him start that slow climb in the CRA standings.

He took congrats from the other guys milling about. The difference between the CRA and the EBS was that as soon as the contestants in the CRA knew they weren’t in the money, they loaded up and lit out. In the EBS, all the riders stuck around until the end of the event. After the mandatory postevent autograph session, some guys—usually the Jesus cowboys, guys who liked a little preachin’ about hellfire and damnation with their bull riding—headed for their hotel for a prayer group or something wholesome. Single riders scoped out the buckle bunny offerings. Married guys traveling with the missus were whisked away from temptation.

Winners of the timed events, and the bareback and saddle bronc winners, bullshitted with their impatient traveling partners. Life on the road was expensive. Sometimes two or three guys shared the expenses and the driving time, especially those hauling horses for the timed events.

Kyle looked for Lainie’s friend Tanna. She must’ve lost out on a top-three finish, since she wasn’t cooling her boot heels with the other barrel racers waiting to pick up a check. He brought his attention back to the arena as the gate opened.

The bull shot out and made a hard right, leaped, and turned right again, sending the rider sailing. But ejecting the guy wasn’t enough; the bull snorted and headed straight for him as he sprawled in the dirt. No matter how many times he’d seen it happen, Kyle still held his breath.

Before the beast reached the rider, Hank jumped between them. The bull’s horn hooked Hank’s vest and the massive head tossed Hank aside like a pesky crow. The bull focused his fury, nostrils dripping snot as its head came down and aimed horns at Hank.

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