Excerpt for Lynx, Rodeo Romance Book 1 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Lynx

Rodeo Romance, Book 1

By Connie Vines


Digital ISBNs

EPUB 978-1-77299-787-3

Kindle 978-1-77299-788-0

WEB 978-1-77299-789-7

Amazon Print ISBN 978-1-77299-790-3



2nd Ed. Copyright 2018 by Connie Vines

Cover Art by Michelle Lee


All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


Dedication


To my family and friends because writing wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without you!


Chapter One



Charlene hadn’t told Rachel that she’d fixed her up with a cowboy, much less Lynx Maddox, the “Wild Cat” of the rodeo circuit. Rachel sighed. She should have known. After all, Charlene only dated men who wore boots and Stetsons.

Rachel Scott cringed at the very thought even as her gaze took in the breadth of Lynx Maddox's chest, his broad shoulders, and dark green eyes that scanned her with blatant masculine approval.

Despite her stern efforts to control it, her heart pounded against her rib cage. She'd seen him sitting at the table with Charlene Davis and Dan Elder before he'd spotted her. Oh, she'd allowed herself to look when he'd walked her way--looking didn't hurt. And it was okay to dream--a little fantasy never harmed a woman. But that was it; that was where it ended. After watching her father die in the arena, Rachel had sworn she’d never have anything to do with another rodeo cowboy. She stopped her train of thoughts and managed to give the cowboy a smile.

"Nice to meet you," she said, accepting his extended hand. She felt the strength in his warm callused fingers. Rachel tried to ignore a fluttering sensation low in her stomach. There was one thing she was certain of as she looked up at his piercing eyes and uncompromising jaw--men like him had trouble written all over them. And she doubted Lynx Maddox would prove to be an exception.

"Rachel, I'm glad you came tonight." His voice was soft as velvet and laced with a Texas drawl.

He smelled of woodsy masculine cologne and the sudden rise in her body temperature clued Rachel to the unexpected twist to this encounter--she was much too aware of this sexy cowboy. So aware, in fact, she had difficulty recalling her own name! She focused on the warmth of his hand against hers and she knew, although his grip was light, he was very strong. Nevertheless, his strength wasn't affecting her nearly as much as the power of his presence; it vibrated everywhere, even from the sawdust-covered floor beneath her feet. His slow, lingering smile seemed to unravel what remained of her composure. For several seconds she seemed incapable of speech, or even movement.

Good Lord, she was having heart palpitations!

Her reaction was so out of character, Rachel was at a loss as to what to do.

"I hope you didn't mind meetin’ us here," he said, easily, oblivious to her inner turmoil.

His question seemed to release her tongue from its state of paralysis.

"No. Not at all,” she replied, feeling somewhat less nervous.

"I'll see you home, of course," Lynx said, ushering her farther into the room.

I don't think so, she thought, eyeing the tall stranger. Meeting Lynx here at the honky-tonk was one thing; going home with him was entirely another. She didn't voice her decision; however, she knew Charlene would be horrified if she dared to offend him. So exercising her limited diplomatic skills, Rachel sidestepped the issue. "Is it always this crowded in here? And so loud?" she asked, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. The drummer seemed to have placed himself inside her head, his sticks pounding against her skull, and the raucous noise of the patrons made it almost impossible to hear herself think. The packed crowd made it difficult to breath.

"Friday nights are always busy. Haven't you been here before?" he asked.

"No." She realized her comment was a bit sharp, but she couldn't help that. Honky-tonk bars were fine for other people, but not for her. If it weren't for her fast-talking best friend, Charlene Davis, she wouldn't be here--feeling so out of place and strangely vulnerable.

"What happened?" he asked, looking down at her. "Lose a bet?"

"Sort of," she mumbled so low he couldn't hear her. Forcing a smile, Rachel said, “I guess everyone should experience this once." More than her hearing was under assault. Somewhere low in her body, a riotous group of sensuous messages beat in rhythm to the band, the lyrics communicating thoughts about Lynx Maddox she shouldn't even be thinking.

Lynx arched one dark, sardonic eyebrow. "This place will grow on you. Trust me."

Rachel stopped and looked up at him warily. She knew better than to trust him—or anybody. At twenty-four, she'd been on her own for years. After a moment, she regained her composure. "Dan and Charlene have a table for us across the room, don't they?"

She peered through the smoke that diffused the colored lights revolving overhead and swallowed as the bitter haze of tobacco coated the back of her throat. A cloud of it hovered near the ceiling, giving the mirrored wall behind the bar a bluish look. The air was stale and smelled of barley malt, tobacco and hay. Rachel blinked, her eyes burning.

Lynx grinned. "Well, they did. It's kinda difficult to tell right now, though."

Rachel couldn't help but agree, especially since his white western shirt stretched across his impressive chest, which was more than wide enough to block her view. When he shifted, she couldn't tell how many people were standing beyond him. "How on earth are we going to get through that mob?" she asked.

"We don't have to," he said, easily.

"What do you mean?" Rachel asked, puzzled.

"We have another choice. We can sneak out the back door to some quiet, secluded spot where we could, ah, get better acquainted."

A hot flush of denial raced to her cheeks and Rachel knew she was about to tell a lie. "Thanks, but I think running the gauntlet is a better idea right now. I'm sure Charlene wants me to meet her date."

Not the least bit offended, Lynx winked at her.

"Okay, sweetheart. Stick with me, and I'll show you how a man makes a path."

Lynx placed his hand under her forearm to guide her toward the table. Rachel felt heat rise along the length of her spine, and a fine sweat gathered at the small of her back. Darn Charlene and her matchmaking. Ever since Rachel’s break-up with Steven two years ago, Charlene had hovered over her like a mother hen. Finally, after months of badgering, Rachel had given in and agreed to show up at the honky-tonk that night. Now, with Lynx so close, she could almost feel him breathe, Rachel wondered about the wisdom of her actions.

No man was worth the risk of losing her peace of mind. In her life, what men had offered her had turned out to be mirages. Rachel knew all about mirages, and she made sure she steered clear of them.

As they made their way toward the center of the dance floor, someone bumped her from the side. The man was wearing high-heeled, western boots designed for something far less physical than evasive maneuvers. Rachel felt herself thrown off balance, and automatically reached for Lynx's arm.

His grasp tightened around her wrist, to steady her.

Embarrassed at being reduced to grappling with her date, Rachel quickly regained her footing. As soon as she succeeded, she moved to step away from him.

Assessing the situation, Lynx held her hand. His brows drew together in displeasure as he shot a warning glance toward the offender. "Justin," he growled. "Watch your step, cowboy." Though unsteady on his feet, the man still managed to back off in a hurry.

"Careful," he addressed her. His voice, though gruff, held a soothing tone. Grateful for it, and the fact that he seemed willing to ignore her embarrassment, Rachel breathed a soft sign of relief.

It was his next comment, which had her emotions zinging. "A woman can't be too careful in a place like this."

Rachel shook her head and chuckled to herself. Those were her thoughts, exactly.

Rachel tried to convince herself that the rush she felt upon making eye contact with Lynx had to do with their close proximity, not the dark-haired man's expression.

A muscle in Lynx's lean cheek jumped in response to her appraisal and exasperation lurked in the depths of his eyes, the greenest eyes she'd ever seen. It was at that moment Rachel realized she was in trouble. A warning bell clamored in her brain like the buzzer in a calf-roping contest, still Rachel chose to ignore it.

Lynx wrapped his arm around her shoulder, glancing at the crowd. "Don't worry Rachel--you'll get the knack of it," he said, pulling her to his side. "Relax and let me do all the work."

Somehow, she managed to tear her gaze away from his, to put one wobbly foot in front of the other.

Forcing herself not to stiffen at his nearness,

Rachel adjusted to the rock-hardness of his body. She knew that professional bull riders were strong--built heavy in the chest and shoulders; still, Lynx was a mountain of a man, topping six feet by two or three inches.

"Come on," he said, swinging her into his arms. "Looks like there's only one way to get to the table."

Rachel gave a gasp of surprise by the sudden turn of events. Finding herself pulled against him, she refused to crane her neck to look up, so she stared at the middle of his chest. She swallowed. Maybe it was the shock of being held in his arms, or the topsy-turvy, surreal feel to the evening, but her insides wouldn't stop quaking, and the way his hand kept stroking her side didn't help. To make matters worse, strands of her hair were tumbling loose from its French twist. With those loose strands flowing down to her breasts, she knew she resembled a wide-eyed flower child far more than a capable, independent woman.

The way Lynx looked at her only confirmed her suspicions.

Lynx tucked her head against his chest. "I won't bite. You can relax a little."

Fat chance, she thought as she followed his graceful steps around the dance floor. Lynx was very good at taking control. He was brisk without being rude, and it was obvious he didn't know her. Not that she was unreasonable or difficult, Rachel assured herself; she simply had her principles—that was all.

As they neared the table, Charlene stood up and waved. Lynx grinned and guided Rachel into a complicated two-step that left her gasping for breath.

Charlene let out a whoop of delight when they reached the table. "You two sure dance well together," she said, glancing at them with a speculative gleam in her eye as she reached for her date's arm. "Rachel, honey, I want you to meet Dan Elder."

"Hello Dan," Rachel replied, and smiled at the lanky, red-haired man, trying not to act uncomfortable with Charlene's appraising look. Stepping away from Lynx, she returned the offered handshake. "Charlene's been looking forward to this evening for weeks. It's good to finally meet you."

"I'm sure glad you decided to join us, Rachel. Otherwise I'd still be waiting for Charlene to get ready."

Charlene gave Dan a playful jab to the ribs with her elbow, and he grinned. "I didn't hear you complaining. As I recall, you were too busy pawing through my refrigerator--"

"Can I help it if you make the best meat loaf this side of the Mississippi?"

Charlene gave a snort of disbelief. "You're from Texas. What do you know about the Mississippi?"

Lynx chuckled. "She's got you there, cousin."

"I reckon so."

Lynx pulled out a chair and Rachel gave him a polite smile as he seated her.

Quarters were crowded, the chairs wedged closely together. Rachel tried not to notice the heat of Lynx's muscular thigh pressed against hers. Why hadn't she maneuvered closer to Charlene? This was crazy. She shouldn't be feeling this way. Thinking these thoughts.

She didn't mean to touch his arm when she reached for a napkin. Or bump his thigh with her leg, did she?

Immediately, Lynx put down his drink. His gaze began to roam over her face and Rachel caught her breath.

It was as if they were tangled in some web of emotion that was unbreakable. Suddenly everything before her seemed to shift into slow motion.

A smile was out of the question, she though, as she stared at his lips. She knew if he lowered his head and touched his lips to hers, it would have triggered such heat it would have ignited a Fourth of July firecracker between them.

"What would you like to drink?" he asked, voice low as his gaze held hers captive.

Somehow, she managed a wry smile and a weak shrug at his question.

Resisting a sudden urge to fan herself as her body temperature rose by sensual degrees, Rachel grappled with what seemed to be a mind-bending decision.

Fortunately, a portly waiter chose that moment to pop up beside Rachel's shoulder. "What'll it be folks?"

"Bourbon and water," Charlene replied, her long rhinestone earrings dancing as she shifted to bring her chair closer to the table.

"And you, miss?"

At his prompting, Rachel gave a quick look at the posted menu and said, "I'll have a Dr. Pepper, heavy on the ice." She had to do something about the searing heat of the room.

"Honey, what are you doing?" Charlene hissed.

"I’m. . .ordering a drink," she replied.

Rachel's gaze darted back to Lynx and watched a look of grim humor cross his features. "Sam, refill the beers," he told the waiter.

Dan frowned. Reaching for his beer, he turned his attention to Charlene.

Lynx leaned toward Rachel. "First dates are hell, aren't they?" he asked, before taking a long swallow of his beer.

"Oh, yes," she said the words with a wealth of feeling. "I hope never to go through this again!" Pinning a strand of her hair back in place, she was suddenly aware of how rude she sounded. "I'm sorry. . .I didn't mean--"

Lynx looked at her mortified expression and laughed. "It's okay, Rachel. I find your honesty refreshing. If you like we can pretend this is our second date, that way we'll be more relaxed," he told her.

"I suppose we could," she said, considering the idea. "I'm not an authority, though," she responded, ignoring the fluttering sensations his comment caused. She didn't dare entertain the thought of seeing him again. Did she? Not that he intended to ask, she reminded herself. "This is my first blind date."

"Ah. I sort of guessed that."

"Really? How could you?" she asked, disconcerted, wondering what else he'd figured out.

"The high-heeled boots, meeting me here, and your purse."

"My purse?"

Lynx pushed his Stetson farther back on his head. A strand of rich, dark auburn hair teased at his forehead. He lowered his voice to a deep, rumbling whisper. "Yep. Your purse. You hold it in a death grip. I noticed it right away. Maddox, I said to myself, now here's a woman carrying a heap of mad money."

Rachel glanced down at her purse, which was cradled in her lap, and grinned. "You're right on all counts."

Lynx leaned back in his chair. "Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get to the basics, okay?"

Dropping her handbag to the floor beneath her chair, Rachel smiled. "Okay. So tell me how long you and Dan will be staying in Montana?"

"A couple of weeks. Then we'll head back to Cheyenne for a few days."

"Traveling the rodeo circuit keeps you on the road a great deal of the time, doesn't it?" Rachel asked, remembering the seemingly endless cross-country drives her family had made when she was a child.

Lynx nodded. "We put in the miles all right," he replied, leaning closer. "I've always liked this part of Montana.”

He was a cowboy on the move, she reminded herself, which meant there was nothing left to say. He'd be leaving soon, Rachel reminded herself--she wouldn't get hurt. All she had to do was shut the door to her emotions. A light-hearted evening would be fun.

"Then I'll be back," he said.

"You'll be back?" she parroted. "Why?"

Lynx laughed at her question. "It's a good thing I'm not easily offended--"

"Well, I didn't expect you to be planning a return visit, that's all." Rachel said, face flaming.

"So I gather from your reaction. Dan's put a down payment on a small ranch. Didn't Charlene tell you?"

"Well, yes. But I was under the impression you were going back to Texas after the season ended."

"I will eventually. When I have some free time I'll be helping Dan with his barn raising, and other repairs."

"I see." Rachel said, not knowing what to say. Or what to think. All she knew was the bottom dropped from her stomach as he inched closer to catch her words. The noise level was horrendous in this part of the room, but Lynx was painfully near, causing her to block out her surroundings. Her throat went dry and she couldn't stop staring at his mouth. She had to get a hold of herself. She'd just met the man.

All she could think about was the way his voice teased at her, reminding her of the life she'd walked away from two years ago. Memories of an intimacy she never wanted to experience again filled her mind.

Being here with Lynx should have made the memories more painful, but for some reason it wasn't so.

Although she knew it was crazy and totally unlike her, she didn't want to leave the honky-tonk and go home. She wanted to be with Lynx. Even though it meant stepping back into forbidden territory, and risking her carefully restored confidence, Rachel elected to remain where she was.

However, with her decision came the knowledge of her extreme vulnerability.

Thankfully, the waiter chose that moment to bring their drinks. Rachel lowered her gazed and struggled to make small talk.

After a moment she said, "I’ve never been to Cheyenne, Wyoming or Frontier Days.”

Lynx toyed with a long strand of her black hair and brushed it away from her face. "Cheyenne, Wyoming is a rodeo town, Frontier Days is a three-day celebration,” Lynx said. “It's a huge tourist attraction, and the town goes all-out for it. The locals say Cheyenne only has two seasons--winter and Frontier Days."

Dan and Charlene turned their attention back to the couple.

"Don't be talking about going, just yet," Charlene said, clutching Dan's hand. "You fellas just got home yesterday."

"Now, Charlene," Dan warned. "You know how much purse money's at stake here."

"I know. . ."

Rachel melted against the back of her chair, as Lynx's fingertip brushed a strand of hair from her face. Her body shivered all the way to her toes. Fidgeting with a silver bracelet on her wrist, Rachel didn't know how to deal with this type of covert seduction. "You'll have a good time then," she said addressing her comment to both men.

"Everyone has a good time," Lynx clarified.

Dan chuckled. "Everyone who's able, anyway."

Rachel reached for her glass, glancing at Dan. "I don't understand."

Dan pushed his hat further back on his head, revealing a bright crop of red hair. "I landed in front of the angry end of a bull last year and broke my arm. Lynx had a hell of a good time, though."

Rachel saw Lynx shoot a warning glance at Dan.

"Except for the hang-over the next morning," Dan mumbled.

Rachel smothered a smile at the expression on Lynx's face, which told her it wasn't a frequent indulgence on his part. He allowed Dan's comment to slip past, and Rachel glanced across the table at Dan. "Are you competing this year?" she asked him.

"Sure. I'm fine now," Dan said, lifting his wrist for her inspection.

Charlene ran her palm over Dan's wrist. "This year you're going to be more careful, aren't you?"

"I reckon so. . ."

The rest of the conversation was lost to Rachel because

Lynx tapped his square-tipped finger on the side of her glass. "It appears to me you've got enough ice in that glass to start your own Montana blizzard, Rachel."

"You think so? I happen to like ice. There's nothing quite like a cold drink on a warm night."

"I could think of a few things. . ."

Lynx studied her, amusement lurking in his eyes. He was daring her to continue to ignore him--to deny the attraction between them.

She tried. She really tried to ignore him, to pretend they were simply old friends and nothing more.

Rachel traced her fingertip along the mouth of the frosty glass and acted unconcerned when she felt the rough edge of his jeans brush against her ankle. She even tapped her foot in time with the easy tempo of the band when Lynx rested his arm along the back of her chair. She was a grown woman. She could get past physical attraction.

Couldn't she?

Lynx drummed his thumb against the tabletop to a classic tune. "Pretty good band, isn't it?"

His comment earned him an appraising look. "Pretty loud," she replied.

"Yeah. That's the best part."

Rachel smiled. Lynx wasn't at all what she'd expected. Sexy, take-charge, Texas rodeo cowboy one moment, and charming, non-threatening date the next. She didn't know what to make of the situation.

Or Lynx Maddox.

It was only the cologne, she reminded herself when Lynx leaned closer and pointed out the skill of the fiddle player--she always loved the scent of a good cologne. Warm and musky. Or, maybe it was his reputation that held such appeal--he was a rodeo cowboy. Bull riders flirted with death and danger every day, and that alone could be a real turn on for some women.

Still she knew none of those things was the real reason she was reacting this way.

His heart-stopping green eyes were her undoing. Weren’t they? But what about his smile? she asked herself. Lord, he had a gorgeous smile.

"Rachel don't you want your drink?" he asked.

"Ah, I'm waiting for some of the ice to melt," she said glancing at the small iceberg in the center of the glass.

"Why don't you let me have this one? I'll order you something. . . warmer."

"Coffee would be good," she agreed.

"Rachel, are you doing okay?" Charlene asked, pulling away from the shelter of Dan's arm. "You're awfully quiet."

"Yes. Of course," she replied.

"Good. Then Dan and I are doing to leave you two alone for a while. We're going to fight for some space on the dance floor."

"A while?" Dan snorted, staring at the dance floor. "We may be gone for a couple of days."

"Go on, enjoy yourself," Rachel urged.

"We'll stay here and hold the table," Lynx said, tossing his Stetson on Charlene's vacated chair. His shoulder brushed against Rachel's and she jerked at the sudden contact. Lynx didn't seem to notice her discomfort, because he inched forward and plucked the cherry from her glass. Biting into the bright red cherry, he pulled the fruit from its stem.

Rachel's throat tightened in reaction. Without thought, her tongue moistened her lower lip. She'd just agreed to stay at the table, alone, with Lynx. Not a good idea.

She felt his leg brush against hers, and her toes curled inside of her boots. Her breath caught in her throat when she watched him take a swallow of her soda. The thick, corded muscles of his neck making the action seem almost vulnerable.

Yes. Definitely a bad idea for them to be together like this.

"So tell me, Rachel," Lynx said, setting down the glass. "What made you and Charlene choose this particular honky-tonk?"

She glanced around the room and understood his curiosity. She wondered what she was doing there. Rachel was certain that she looked as out of place as she felt. In an impish tone she said, "Why the four-star service, of course."

Lynx grinned and glanced around the room. "Ah, yes. You must mean the small bowls of chips and salsa on the tables, and the baseball bat next to the bar. Nice touches."

"And the cocktail napkins. Don't forget those. See Charlene and I each have one."

"Let me have a look. . .yours says Joe's Place. . .the prints blurred, but I believe it says San Antonio--"

"You're joking, aren't you?" Rachel asked, half convinced, as she reached for the napkin.

He chuckled. "Had you going for a moment, didn't I?"

"Well, yes, you did," she replied, an easy smile curving her lips. "I was really disappointed when I read the imprint on the napkin and found it only carried an ad for pizza delivery."

Before Lynx had a chance to respond, a winded Charlene and a rumpled Dan returned to the table.

"It's too crowded to dance," Charlene gushed, handing Lynx his Stetson before sliding into her chair.

"Crowded? More like standing in the center of a stockyard in Abilene! I couldn't move for fear of being stampeded!" Dan said, taking a swig of his beer.

Both Lynx and Rachel laughed, their gaze meeting as they joined in the shared joke.

She was having a good time, she realized. She hadn't expected to enjoy the evening nor feel so comfortable with Lynx and Dan, but she did. The evening went along in that light-hearted tone for another hour. It wasn't until Lynx and Dan left the table in search of coffee that everything changed.

"Rachel, honey, why's that man staring at you?" Charlene asked, glancing to right of her friend.

"You're imagining things."

"No I'm not. He keeps watching you. . .oh, no, here he comes--"

"Charlene, you're scaring me." Rachel twisted her chair to get a look at the man. He was stocky and looked to be in his early thirties. He also looked vaguely familiar.

Before she could act, the man lunged against her, catching her off guard. He grabbed her wrist, "Wanna dance?"

She jerked her hand free. "No I don't. I think it would be best if you went back to your table." She was concerned but she wasn't frightened, yet. She glared at him for several counts, her heart pounding. If she kept her head, he'd leave her alone. If he didn’t, she'd scream the roof down!

"I'll buy you another drink. . ."

"No--" Rachel shot back.

"Justin, leave the lady alone." Lynx's voice was a low growl right behind her. "The lady asked me to buy her a drink," the drunk whined.

"I did not!"

"Rachel," Lynx ordered, quietly. "I'll handle this."

Rachel felt her spine snap to attention. She'd never responded well to orders, no matter how well intended.

The drunk stumbled, landing on top of Rachel. She let out a squeal of surprise as glasses and mugs of beer careened off the table and on to the floor.

"Get off of me!" she said, shoving at his shoulders.

Before she could act, Lynx stepped forward, yanking the man off of Rachel. "Justin, didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?" Lynx asked.

Justin said something foul under his breath and Rachel saw Lynx's expression change.

In swift, economical movements, Lynx spun the man around and grabbed him by the collar. One hard blow from his fist catapulted the man backwards. He crashed into a table and several wooden chairs. The sound of splintering wood filled the room, and suddenly Rachel found herself the unwelcome center of attention.

"Charlene?" Rachel searched the room for her friend and found her gone. So what was she supposed to do now?

The question was quickly answered. Lynx made his way to Rachel's side seconds before several rowdies joined in the fracas in the center of the room.

"Damn," Lynx said, exasperated. He ducked the first punch. "Rachel, what in hell are you doing standing there? Get out of here!" His words were almost drowned out by the sound of breaking glass.

"Where?" she shouted.

Lynx pointed toward the back exit. "Move! This is a brawl, not a square dance!"

Rachel did a quick hop-step around several cowboys to get to a pillar near the wall. A barroom brawl? No, Lynx must me mistaken. She'd never seen a fistfight before. She couldn't be in the middle of a brawl. She watched a chair fly across the room and shatter a section of the wide mirror that hung behind the bar. Then she watched the bartender duck behind the counter as glass rained down. Lynx was right. This was a brawl!

Two more fights broke out on the dance floor. Rachel's stomach knotted and she felt sick as she watched the mounting bedlam. The cowboy Lynx had punched lunged to his feet and charged at Lynx.

Lynx had a broad smile on his face as he glanced her way. He was enjoying himself! Rachel couldn't believe it. Lynx grabbed the man by the collar and looked like he was prepared to bang the man's head against the wall.

Dan slugged a dark haired cowboy and sent him sprawling under a table. Meanwhile, Charlene gamily picked her way over to Rachel side and tugged her through the crowd toward the exit.

"Don't stand here gawking, honey."

Rachel made her way outside before she fully realized what had happened.

The ruckus was quickly turning into a riot before

her eyes, and Lynx and Dan were trapped in the center of the room.

The volume of crashing and banging was escalating, but the whoops and hollers were less and less frequent. Maybe things were starting to calm down.

Rachel winced when she heard the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the wall. "Charlene, do you think anyone will get hurt?"

"Naw. This happens all the time. Things'll calm down as soon as--"

Suddenly a low growl, accompanied by several groans and curses, caught Rachel's attention.

Barney, the honky-tonk's bouncer, a Goliath in lumberjack clothing, hauled a man to the doorway, and with one mighty swing hurled him outside. The man whizzed past Rachel. He hit the ground with a heavy thud. He groaned once but didn't move.

A flicker of realization penetrated Rachel's mind as she stared at the ground.

Lynx Maddox lay spread-eagle at her feet.

Wiping her damp palms against her skirt, Rachel bent down and tapped Lynx firmly on the shoulder.

"Lynx. Lynx Maddox."

Hearing the feminine voice, he smiled. Looked like he'd won the fight after all. He cracked one eye open and fought to focus it. He stared at the wavering form next to him. Dark hair. Rachel. He grinned, pleased with the soft hesitation in her silvery voice.

Lynx struggled to raise himself onto his elbows and gave her a look of amusement. He knew his face was the picture of astonishment, and he felt his smile vanish. As the awareness of his surroundings faded and his elbows gave way beneath him, Lynx knew he was going to collapse. In the distance, he heard Rachel cry out in alarm.

His last conscious memory was of Charlene Davis hobbling toward him, one of her shoes in her hand, shouting, "Darn you, Barney. You threw out the wrong cowboy!"

Chapter Two



Somehow, Dan, Charlene, and Rachel, managed to shove Lynx into the back seat of her car. Charlene drove while Rachel held Lynx's head cradled in her lap, mindful of very bump and pothole in the asphalt road into town. By the time they'd pulled into the parking lot of the motel where Charlene and Dan were staying, Lynx was awake. He was still seeing double but he was conscious.

Thank the Lord for small favors.

Lynx staggered inside and threw himself on the full-sized bed. He'd looked so vulnerable, his long legs dangling off the edge of the bed, while his large square hands clutched a pillow against his cheek. Rachel couldn't help noticing the way his hat tipped drunkenly over his forehead. His neatly pressed shirt was now wrinkled, with several of the buttons missing and the pocket torn. He looked so darn silly, all that brazen masculinity resting on a bright, floral bedspread.

“Guess we’ll have to keep him until he’s able to go back to his camper,” Dan chuckled.

“Shoot,” said Charlene. “Then I might just rent my own room tonight. He’s your cousin—-not mine.”

Dan shrugged. “Suit yourself, darlin’.”

While Dan pulled off Lynx's boots and tossed them on the floor, Charlene searched through a duffle bag for a bottle of aspirin.

Suddenly, Rachel felt a rush of concern for Lynx. He was in a strange town, far from home and his family. What if he was really hurt? She was partly to blame for his injury and she couldn't leave without knowing he was going to be all right.

Perching on the edge of the bed, Rachel took one of his large hands in her own. Lynx uttered something unintelligible, and Rachel felt her stomach clench. Lynx Maddox, you're the kind of man who could lead to my undoing, Rachel thought. However, the warning vanished from her mind in the span of a heartbeat because like everything else sane and logical, it ceased to matter when she looked into Lynx's deep, green eyes as they opened.

Lynx focused his gaze upon her face. After a moment, he groaned and squeezed her hand. "Rachel?"

"Yes," she replied, panic nudging at her. His voice sounded so. . .uncertain, lacking its usual sexy rumble.

"You came. I'm glad you came." He curled his fingers around her wrist, his thumb caressing her skin. "Your skin is so soft. . ."

"Charlene!" Rachel called, panic lacing her voice.

"I'm coming," her friend said. "Dan's rounding up a glass of water. I can't get the lid off the aspirin bottle. Shoot!"

Rachel turned her attention back to Lynx. Despite her vow not to get involved with other people's problems, Rachel wasn't able to squelch a pang of concern for Lynx. She knew Dan and Charlene could take care of him, but still she couldn't bring herself to walk out the door.

"Promise me something," he said, his voice an uneven rasp of sound.

Heart pounding, Rachel hesitated. She didn't want to promise him anything. She wanted to gather what remained of her common sense and self-preservation skills and go home where it was safe. She didn't want to care about this stranger, this cowboy--she didn't want to be hurt again. But she did care, that was her main problem in life, she always cared too much.

"What. . ." she swallowed against the dryness in her throat as she looked at Lynx. "What do you want me to promise?" His color didn't look well, she thought, he could have internal injuries. Perhaps she should call 911.

"I want you to promise that you'll come see me. . ."

"Of course--"

"Promise you'll come see me ride tomorrow."

Rachel felt her hands tremble as an icy terror drifted over her. Come and see me ride? She’d sooner die. Eight years ago, she’d vowed never to set foot near another rodeo arena.

Here she was, worried about admitting him to the hospital, and all he could think about was the next rodeo, just like her father. Anger surged through her veins at the careless disregard he had for his own well-being. And at herself for worrying about him.

She opened her mouth to tell him so. Instead, something about his glance from beneath his stark eyebrows had her stomach twisting into an all-too-familiar knot.

She found herself agreeing to his request. The word fool echoed in her mind well into the next day.



* * *



After the lunch shift at the café, Rachel slipped out of her waitress uniform into a pair of worn denim jeans and a red split-shoulder top. "I must be out of my mind for going through with this," she said, running a brush through her long, black hair. "Charlene, you're my best friend, please talk me out of doing this."

Charlene adjusted a sequined pocket on her purple western shirt then replied, "Naw. You made the promise."

Rachel gave her friend a meaningful glance. "Of course I did--I thought Lynx was delirious."

"Well, he wasn't," Charlene replied.

"No kidding."

"You'll do just fine, honey. Going to the rodeo will do you a world of good. You’ll enjoy seeing Lynx ride--it's a once-in-a-lifetime event. Besides, the sparks shooting off around the two of you would supply enough electricity to light up the arena."

Rachel felt her cheeks warm. So her friend wouldn't notice, she bent down to slide her foot into a gray boot. "Lynx is attractive--I won't deny it, but that's beside the point."

"Rachel! You can't hide from the world forever."

Ignoring her friend's outburst, Rachel reached for her other boot and sat down. "Charlene, I've sworn off men, remember? The last thing I need is another dead-end relationship." Grasping her boot, she shoved her stocking-clad foot inside.

"Any woman in her right mind wouldn't miss a chance to watch the `Wild Cat' in action," Charlene reasoned.

"Doing what?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Charlene gave a wicked smile. "Now, you know what I mean."

"Yes I do, and that is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. I don't want to spend any more time with Lynx."

"Don't want to, or are afraid to?"

"Both."

"You'll have a good time, honey."

"I haven't been to a rodeo since--"

"My point exactly. That was eight years ago. It's time you sat inside an arena again. Most rodeo rides go off without a hitch."

Rachel gnawed at her lower lip for a moment. "I know you're right, Charlene."

"Besides, honey, you know how I am--I'll drive you plumb crazy if you don't go."

Slanting a quick glance at Rachel, Charlene gauged

the effect of her words, then continued to plead her

case. "Lynx is easy on the eyes, honey--real easy."

Rachel laughed. "Good try, Charlene. Soon you'll forget all about Lynx Maddox. And so will I."

"Is that a fact? What happens when you start remembering the details? The look in that cowboy's eyes was red-hot. Didn't your blood start to sizzle when he looked at you at the honky-tonk? You'll go to your grave wondering how that man kisses."

"Good Heavens!" Rachel snapped, uncomfortable at how close Charlene came to the mark. "You’re sex-obsessed. Lynx Maddox is a rodeo cowboy--not some western god."

Running her hand over the back of her neck, Rachel kneaded the muscle, hoping to ease the tightness. A cord of apprehension seemed to secure itself there before inching down her spine. Her friend was right--she did need to get on with her life. She couldn't keep expecting shadows to cover her world. She had never been close to her parents, but her father's death had left a deep hole in her life. Phantom grief for the father (and for the relationship, which never existed) was how she thought of it. Perhaps attending the rodeo would be a good first step to her letting go of the past.

"You're right, Charlene. I can't avoid my past forever. And a promise is a promise. What time does the bull riding start?"

Charlene let out a whoop of delight. "If we get a move on it, we'll see the first series of rides."

Half an hour later, Rachel climbed up the bleachers at the arena. It looked like the entire town had turned out for the event.

Rachel had lived in Running Springs, Montana for the past seven years. She'd come to live with her paternal grandmother a year after her father's death and had chosen to stay when her mother remarried and moved to Chicago.

She found comfort in the small-town clannishness of Running Springs. It was why she'd stayed on instead of moving to Missoula, were she’d gone to college. It seemed the most reasonable thing to do even after her grandmother's death the year before. After all, the town and her small circle of friends provided the only emotional ties she'd ever known during her lifetime. Rachel couldn't imagine ever wanting to leave.

Charlene patted Rachel's hand then turned and tossed her purse on a vacant section of the splintery white bench. She tugged on Rachel's sleeve then pointed across the arena. "Look, honey, there's Lynx!"

The rodeo was well underway by then and Rachel scanned the circle of cowboys by the catch pens. She spied Lynx, off to one side away from the others. Her heart thumped against her ribs. She might as well admit it; she wanted to see Lynx again. She liked looking at him. Watching him. But from a distance--where it was safe.

He moved with confidence, a sureness just this side of arrogance. His walk was a cowboy's deliberate, rolling gait as he headed toward the chute. In spite of her best intentions, Rachel couldn't tear her eyes off him.


* * *


Lynx felt a kick of surprise as he watched Rachel climb the bleachers. She stood perfectly still for a moment, scanning the arena. He studied her, letting his gaze scrutinize her in considerable detail. Her black hair gleamed in a single braid, dangling over her red shirt and the swell of her breasts. Her tight blue jeans outlined the sweet sway of her hips.

The noise of the arena faded.

Without conscious invitation, he remembered how he'd been drawn to those legs the night before. The western skirt she'd worn then had shown off trim ankles and shapely calves that had made him sit up and take notice. Today he would have to contend with her curves, too.

Lynx swallowed past the dryness in his throat.

Predictable as Texas heat, his body stirred in reaction. He remembered the way her body had pressed against his at the honky-tonk. Her hand had rested momentarily against his arm, searing his skin, sending erotic messages all through his tensed muscles. He'd spread his fingers on her back and drawn her close as he guided her around the dance floor. Her exhaled breath had made a tiny sensual sound. The floral elegance of her perfume had teased him. She'd caught her lip between her teeth and looked down at the floor. Her hand trembled when she let go of him.

He hadn't expected Rachel to come to the rodeo, Lynx realized. Now, watching her lean near to her friend and smile in his direction, Lynx didn't know what he felt.

Lynx was aware of a surge of masculine hope replacing common sense.

Rachel's long hair glistened blue-black in the harsh sunlight. His fingers itched to release the braid and tangle themselves in the silky, softness of her tresses.

Charlene Davis slid close to Rachel. Waving frantically with one hand and holding onto Rachel's arm with the other, Charlene shouted, "You-hoo, Wild Cat, we're over here!"

Every head in the stand turned in her direction.

Lynx felt the grooves at the corners of his mouth deepen, and he adjusted his Stetson. Rachel wouldn't appreciate his laughter. Last night’s brawl in the honky-tonk was still the major topic of conversation in this small town. He'd already noticed how Rachel avoided the lime light. Ms. Scott was dying of embarrassment right about now, and her friend was totally oblivious to the spectacle she'd created.

His gaze locked with Rachel's and held. He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat and nodded. Rachel gave a jerky nod in response.

He'd been fooled once before by a woman's admiration, Lynx reminded himself, trying to rope in the desire he felt for Rachel. He'd mistaken desire for the real thing once before, and he'd paid a heavy price for that mistake--one he planned never to repeat.

Giving himself a mental shake, Lynx dragged his attention back to where he was and strolled to the chute. He noticed his hands were clenched into fists and he tried to relax. The past is the past.

Maddox, he warned himself, this is a bull-riding event remember? Keep your mind focused. Concentrate. Bulls have horns. Long, sharp horns. A man could get killed here. So stop thinkin’ about women. Get your act together.

Feeling more off balance than he ever had during his adult years, Lynx climbed the rails and he sat atop the metal bar. He pushed his hand into his glove, lowered himself into the chute and onto the bull's back, then concentrated on the job at hand. He wrapped the flat, braided rope tightly around his right hand, in line with the bull's spine.

As he gave the rope a final yank, he heard Dan shout, "Saw him break a man's leg going out of the pen in Casper. Watch out!"

Lynx gave an internal groan and felt his gut knot with tension.

The announcer's words boomed over the loud speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, coming out of chute number five is Lynx Maddox, the “Wild Cat”. . .atop Widow-Maker. This cowboy hails from Amarillo, Texas. Let's give him a big Montana welcome."

The crowd roared.

"Ready?" Dan shouted.

Lynx replied with a firm nod. The gate swung open and the bull exploded from the chute. Hooking. Spinning. The animal fought to knock him off his back.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion. The heavy thud of hooves to the ground. The animal's labored breathing and the clang of the cowbell filled Lynx's head as his butt was pounded against the bull's back. His spine compressed with every jolt.

Hell-of-a-way to make a living, he thought, fighting to remain upright. Infuriated, the bull jerked its head from side to side, rolled its eyes and suddenly aimed a horn at Lynx's leg.

The Brahman had changed his tactics, Lynx realized, his arm pulling hard at the socket as he fought against gravity. Exhaling a heavy snort, the animal dropped his head forward and blasted toward the center of the arena. Lynx knew he was in trouble, big time.

Pain seared through his body at the jarring motion

of his body hitting against the animal's spine. As the bull twisted its heavy forequarters and launched into another kicking spin, Lynx tightened his handhold on the rope.

The buzzer sounded. Thank God. The longest eight seconds in the world.

Lynx struggled to free his wrapped hand. White-hot fear shot through him. The rope had tightened; his fingers were numb, his body bathed in sweat.

An image of being gored flashed through his mind. All it took was one misstep off the bull, and he'd land on his hands and knees. The bull would turn around and pounce on top of him. He'd never have a chance.

Lynx jerked his hand. No good. Sweat beading his upper lip, his body remembered the numbing sensation of horn into flesh. A bitter cold entered his bones. Last time it was his shoulder. This time it would be his back. He'd watched a man die in seventeen minutes from that type of injury.

Two rodeo clowns jumped into the arena, shouting and circling the bull, trying to draw his attention. The bull shook his head, plowed the ground with his hooves, giving Lynx the seconds he needed to free his hand.

Lynx fell from the bull's back. Before he gained his footing, the animal's rump slammed against him and he was whipped down, his head hitting the cowbell. Pain vibrated along his forehead.

Watching for the sharp hooves, Lynx staggered to his feet, and ran to the fence. Hand over hand. he climbed the barrier. The bull charged after him and rammed his head into the fence only inches below Lynx's butt.

The impact jarred Lynx's foot loose and he fell flat on his back. Breathless, he looked into a pair of snorting nostrils and blazing, black eyes. Anger shot through Lynx. After five years on the rodeo circuit, he'd be damned if he'd die lying in the dirt!

Rolling, he scrambled to his feet, the bull's hot breath warming the fibers of his cotton shirt. He braced himself for the impact. Suddenly the animal changed directions, charging after a blue-haired clown, a guy who had to be even crazier than Lynx. The kid lured the bull into an empty pen and the crowd responded with a roar of approval.

Dan darted across the arena, "You okay?"

Lynx wiped the sweat off his face with his forearm. "Hell, I don't know--I think so." He gave his cousin a wry grin before leaning on him for support.

Glancing down, he noticed the leg of his pants was ripped open and blood oozed from a small wound. He'd been lucky to escape alive, he told himself. The bull he'd drawn was an old devil, the kind who had learned at a rider's expense.

The announcer's amplified voice bounced around the arena, "Looks like the `Wild Cat' is gonna' be all right folks."

The crowd cheered.

Dan snorted. "Yeah. That's what every announcer says--if he sees that you can still twitch.”


* * *



Rachel's fingernails pressed half-moons into her palms. Never mind what the announcer said. Today’s battle between Lynx and the bull was too much like the last time she’d watched her father compete. All she saw was blood. She felt dizzy. A ringing rush of white sound filled her ears, and she knew her face had drained of all color.

Rachel watched Lynx limp across the arena. Feeling light headed, she eased herself back to her seat. "How badly do you think he's hurt?" she asked.

Charlene stood on top of her seat to see what was happening. "I think he's okay, honey. Lynx is up and walking. Dan's not going for help." After stepping down, Charlene took her seat once again. "Rachel, honey are you okay? You've gone so white you're scaring me."

Rachel felt her stomach clench into a hard knot. I'm okay. My knees are a little rubbery, that's all."

Her friend eyed her skeptically. "Are you sure that you're all right? I didn't realize this would happen."

Rachel glanced at the arena. "Neither did I."

She was drowning in memories.

The loud bellow of a bull carried on the wind. She watched the glossy animal roll its eyes and strain against the rails of the fence. The dusty scent of the animal mingled with the scent of leather and manure.

A wild, mind-numbing terror pounded through her veins like liquid fire as Rachel remembered the last time she'd sat inside a rodeo arena.

At sixteen, she'd sat on the bleachers beside her mother for the rodeo finals in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her father, Carson Scott had drawn a horse named Dead Eye, one of the meanest broncs on the western circuit. Carson had tipped his hat and kissed his wife's cheek and headed for the chutes.

Rachel had held her breath and prayed. Three seconds into the ride, Carson was thrown from the bronc. She'd watched the doctor perform CPR on her father. She'd heard the harsh wail of the siren on the quiet desert air. She'd listened to the urgent voices of the paramedics and the broken sobbing of her mother.

Wiping her damp palms on the sides of her jeans, Rachel closed her eyes. Bronc riders traveled the circuit and experienced injuries. Bull riders stared death in the face each time they entered the arena. Lynx was a bull rider.

She shouldn't have come here today. Leaning back against the wooden seat, she blinked back the burning rush of tears. She was a fool to think she could forget the past. The more distance she put between herself and the charming Texas cowboy, the better off she'd be. She couldn't allow herself to be involved in the rodeo life again, no matter how fleeting a relationship might be.

“Charlene, I need to get away for a few minutes.”

“Honey, I’ll come with you.”

Rachel made her way down the narrow walkway, which ran behind the bleachers. She had to get away. Uncertain of which direction she was taking, Rachel turned and walked down the central aisle between the rows of stables, leading to the parking lot.

Halfway down the aisle, Rachel halted in mid-stride, a small gasp of surprise leaving her lips. Lynx Maddox stood about ten feet in front of her.

Pulling the wide strap of her purse over her shoulder, Rachel jammed her shaking hands into the front pocket of her blue jeans. She didn't want to talk to Lynx; she couldn't deal with any explanations right now. She wasn't ready to discuss her past--perhaps she'd never be ready. It hurt too much to remember.

At that moment, Lynx seemed to sense her presence and turned. Dropping the bag he carried, he leaned against the wall. "Rachel," he said, a hint of surprise in his deep voice. "Why aren't you up in the stands watching the rodeo?"

Rachel was helpless to move. She could only stare at him with wide eyes and feel his slow Texas drawl blaze a hot path down her spine.

"I couldn't stay," she said, unable to put her jumble of fears, and wild, heart pounding, terror into words. She blinked back the burning rush of tears. She couldn't allow anyone to see her this way. No one had ever seen her cry.

"What's wrong?" Lynx asked.

She heard the puzzlement in his voice, but she didn't reply. It took all her concentration to hang onto her slender thread of self-control.

Lynx took one-step and then another. She listened to the heavy sound of his heavy footsteps, until only inches separated their bodies.

"From the expression on your face, it looks like my ride got a little too exciting for you. Sorry about that,” Lynx drawled, "You can't blame a cowboy for trying to make a lasting impression, now can you?"

Rachel felt her heart skip a beat. The terror seemed to melt away. Lynx's warm breath fanned against her forehead, and a shaky smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "You made an impression, all right," she whispered.

Rachel looked up at him and stepped back a pace. He was doing it again, Rachel realized--seducing her with his voice. He was making her forget how upset she was and how uncertain she was of her future. He was making her want to reach for tomorrow with both of her hands. She couldn't allow that to happen--no one was going to hurt her again. She couldn't let him look into her heart.

An easy grin creased Lynx's face. Rachel swallowed hard. She could feel his heat and could smell the musk of a hard-working body. She watched the hint of devilment glint in his green eyes and found herself smiling in response. Lord, he was a charmer.

"I imagine I did leave an impression, especially when I ended up under the belly of the bull--a vision you aren't likely to soon forget, right?" Lynx asked.

Rachel forced a light-hearted tone into her voice. "Right. Your ride did add an unexpected twist to the day."

"The view's great from down there, you know. I got a good look at the crowd," Lynx said.

"I can only imagine."

Did he sense her fears? Were his jokes an attempt to tell her everything was fine? The thought shook her. Sensitivity and rodeo men did not go together.

Lynx removed his Stetson and ran his hand through his thick hair. His movement separated the edges of the cotton shirt, exposing the upper portion of his muscular chest. Rachel bit her lip to still a gasp; she knew her thoughts were written on her expressive face. She felt like he could read the discovery in her eyes.

Lynx looked at her before he hung his hat on a post and snapped closed the fastenings of his shirt. "Okay, Rachel, so what comes next?"

Chapter Three



Lynx watched Rachel blink and step back a pace.

"What comes next?" she echoed his question.

Lynx gave a deep chuckle and winced as a sharp pain darted across his rib cage. "This isn't a test, Rachel. You looked like you were going to let loose with a real gusher, and I'm a man who can't handle a woman's tears. Now tell me what's wrong."

Rachel stuck out her pointed chin. "Nothing," she replied.

"Come on," he urged, looking into her doe eyes that were as vulnerable as they were wary. "Tell me what's got you so upset."

She glanced at him for a surprised moment, and then focused on the dusty toes of her western boots. Her continued silence wasn't at all what he expected.

Expected? He'd never expected to see her again after the night before! And he doubted she'd be inclined to answer the dozen questions racing through his mind. He used the next thirty seconds to gather his thoughts. This round of competition had him on edge and after the barroom brawl last night, his temperament was more combustible than usual. He didn't want to say something he'd live to regret. But his reaction to Rachel's proximity left his emotions with a raw, ragged edge and made him realize why he preferred living his solitary life.

But for the moment, his logic and common sense seemed shot full of holes because all he could focus on was the expression on Rachel’s face. It was difficult to decipher.

"Nothing wrong?" he asked, leaning against the paddock wall.

Rachel nodded, tugging her purse strap higher on her shoulder, before cutting him a sideways glance.

Normally Lynx would have dropped the subject. However, one look in her pale face and shell shocked eyes made him abandon his pretense. He'd always been a sucker for a damsel in distress.


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