Monday, May 20, 2013

A cowboy's Duty by Marin Thomas

Hello, Gavin."
The saccharine voice raised a warning flag inside Gavin Tucker's head. Bracing himself, he stepped away from the bucking chute at the Piney Gorge Rodeo and faced Veronica Patriot with a groan. "Veronica." The woman took buckle bunnying to a whole new level. She'd been pursuing Gavin since he'd joined the circuit back in May after he'd left the army. The middle of August had arrived and the blonde piranha showed no signs of tiring. Gavin adjusted the spurs on his boots, hoping she'd take his silence as a hint and mosey along. At first, he'd found Veronica's infatuation amusing. He'd become accustomed to pretty women fawning over him whenever he'd worn his military uniform and the same held true for his cowboy getup—Wranglers, boots and a Stetson. Gavin's ability to attract the opposite sex had come in handy during his furloughs from the army. One look at his combat boots and women had fallen into his bed willingly. He'd honed his survival skills on the battlefield and used them to pick ladies who wanted nothing from him but a good time and a goodbye. A sixth sense told him that Veronica had more on her mind than a quickie. "You don't appear all that happy to see your biggest fan." She puckered her glossy lips. A weaker man might tuck tail and run, but Gavin wasn't easily intimidated. "I'm not interested in hooking up." Ever. "Did you and Dixie have a spat?" Dixie Cash. The petite brunette hadn't crossed Gavin's mind since the morning he'd dropped her off in the parking lot of the Spittoon bar last month. He fought a smile as he recalled the first time he'd caught a glimpse of her—climbing onto a bull named Listless at the Canyon City Rodeo back in June. For an instant he'd seen in her a kindred spirit when Listless had thrown her. Dixie had limped from the arena with a smile on her pixie face as if she'd had the time of her life wrestling fifteen-hundred pounds of orneriness, then she'd stumbled over his gear bag and right into his arms. Her face had burned red and he'd thought her embarrassment oddly sweet. "Dixie's a friend." Friend sounded better than one-night stand. "I can be that kind of friend, too." Veronica's gaze dropped to Gavin's crotch. His face heated—not because of Veronica's lewd stare. He'd made a mistake when he'd crossed the line with Dixie, yet he'd had no choice but to move on and put that night behind him. Short of being mean, Gavin said, "Pick another cowboy. I'm not interested in what you're offering." "When you tire of your little bull rider and decide you want a real woman, I'll be waiting." One of Gavin's competitors let out a wolf whistle as Veronica strutted off. "I wouldn't complain if she followed me through the copper state." "Careful what you wish for," Gavin mumbled. Now that he was rid of the annoying buckle bunny he checked the arena for Dixie. He recognized Shannon Douglas mingling behind the chutes with a few of the lady bull riders from the Boot Hill Rodeo, but Dixie was nowhere in sight. She'd probably viewed their one-night stand as a mistake, too, and wanted to avoid running into him. Turning his thoughts inward, Gavin focused on his ride as he secured his protective vest. After wearing bulletproof gear as part of his military uniform, he felt comfortable in the constricting rodeo garment. "Welcome to the Piney Gorge Rodeo and Livestock Show!" A thunderous din reverberated through the small outdoor arena. Gavin loved rodeo fans. The men and women were die-hard loyalists to the sport much the way soldiers were dedicated to their units. "Up next this fine Saturday afternoon is bareback riding! Bareback horses are leaner and quicker than those used for saddle bronc riding and the cowboys sure do take a beating in this event." The announcer paused. A commotion in the cowboy ready area caught Gavin's attention. The Cash brothers had arrived. Dixie had mentioned that her mother had named her siblings after country-western singers. Right then Johnny, the eldest Cash brother, spotted Gavin. The speculative gleam in the man's eyes unnerved him. Had Dixie told Johnny she'd spent the night with Gavin in his motel room? He and Dixie hadn't made a big deal over sleeping together. He'd enjoyed—make that had really enjoyed—making love to Dixie, but the country girl wasn't his usual type. The things he'd seen and experienced during his years in the military would only contaminate a young woman as pure as Dixie. Johnny broke eye contact first, and Gavin shook his head to clear his thoughts. Today he intended to make it to eight. Luck hadn't been with him this summer—the highest he'd placed was fourth. If he didn't get his rodeo act together and pull off a few wins, he'd eat through his savings in no time flat and be forced to find a civilian job. Having to quit the circuit before he was ready was all the motivation Gavin needed to climb onto another wild bronc. "Ladies and gentlemen, turn your attention to chute number three. Gavin Tucker from Phoenix, Arizona, is about to tangle with Cisco Kid, a bronc known for throwin' cowboys on their heads. Let's see if Tucker can best Cisco Kid." Gavin blocked out the arena noise as he fussed with his rigging—a heavy piece of leather with a suitcaselike handle attached to it. He flexed his gloved fingers until his grip felt comfortable. A deep breath later, he nodded and Cisco Kid bolted from the chute. Gavin marked out, ignoring the jolting pain shooting through his shoulder caused by the gelding's powerful bucks and lightning speed. The racket inside Gavin's head quieted as the thrill of the physical torture the horse inflicted rushed through his body. Cisco Kid made a final attempt to spin but Gavin spurred harder and the bronc gave up. Feeling a victory at hand, he relaxed his guard too soon and Cisco Kid tossed him on his arse. Gavin missed the buzzer by one second. Back in the cowboy ready area he gathered his gear. This time he spotted Veronica before she startled him. "Change your mind about me?" She'd brought a friend along—a redhead with glittery eye shadow. "Candi's up for a little fun," Veronica said. A threesome? No thanks. Even in his wildest days, Gavin had never gotten into the kinky stuff. Call him old-fashioned, but one woman at a time was plenty. "Sorry, Veronica—" he swung his gaze to glitter girl "—and Candi. Gotta hit the road." A ride in Wicken-burg awaited him. Candi popped a pink bubble with her chewing gum. "Maybe next time?" Not a chance. He touched a finger to the brim of his hat then grabbed his bag and left the arena. The sooner he put a few miles between him and those two the better. An hour down the road, Gavin noticed a billboard advertising Millie's World Famous Hotcakes. He took the exit ramp and pulled into a parking lot crowded with eighteen-wheelers. Gavin found an empty stool at the end of the lunch counter. He rested his hat on his knee and flipped over the white mug in front of him. A gray-haired waitress named Peggy strolled by with a coffeepot and filled the cup. "Didn't make it to eight?" She offered a sympathetic smile. "Not today." Not in a long while. "You ain't alone, handsome." Peggy nodded to a table where three cowboys sat, one with an ice pack strapped to his shoulder. "Special's barbecue ribs and corn bread." "That'll do." While he waited for his meal he mulled over his schedule. The Wickenburg rodeo had a decent purse. If he made the final go-round he'd be guaranteed a share of the prize money. If he lost…he'd head down the road. A self-admitted rodeo junkie, Gavin got high on the buzz and danger of riding bucking stock. Feeding his adrenaline addiction was his number one priority because it fueled his strength—strength he needed to run from the demons that had followed him home from war. "How was the rodeo?" Dixie asked her brother Johnny when he walked into the kitchen of their grandparents' farmhouse early Saturday evening. She was dying for news about a particular bareback rider, but as soon as her brothers had returned from the Piney Gorge Rodeo they'd gone to their bedrooms to nap. "Merle made it to the final round before getting thrown." Johnny grabbed a beer from the fridge, then sat at the kitchen table. "Shannon said she hopes your ankle feels better soon." Dixie's cheeks warmed. She'd discovered she was pregnant two weeks after the Boot Hill Rodeo in July. She'd hated to disappoint Shannon and give up the third thousand-dollar payoff, but she hadn't dared risk the baby's health. She'd told Shannon and the other women about her pregnancy but had asked that they keep it a secret and to tell anyone who inquired after her whereabouts that she'd sprained her ankle—the excuse she'd given her brothers when she'd told them she wasn't competing today. "Anything else exciting happen at the rodeo?" she asked. "Depends on what you consider exciting." "I suppose Veronica Patriot was there." Dixie fussed with the dishes in the sink while contemplating her dilemma—how to glean information about a certain cowboy without drawing her brother's suspicion. "Veronica's hot on Gavin Tucker's tail." Johnny chuckled. "He got thrown in the first round then split." "Did Veronica leave the rodeo with Gavin?" Drat, the question slipped from her mouth. "Why do you care if Tucker went off with Veronica?" "I don't." After Dixie had spent the night in Gavin's motel room she'd returned to the farm the following morning and confessed...

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