Bestselling Western Contemporary Romance Novel
Rodeo took him from her once. Will it take him again?
But there’s nothing pesky or boyish about Amarilla Ray now. She’s a gorgeous, barrel-racing cowgirl who knows exactly what she wants—to compete at the Cowgirl Classic. Just once. And then she can get on with the rest of her life.
Rilla had loved Garth like a big brother all those years ago, but today, her feelings are taking turns in a whole new direction, and suddenly it feels like Garth just might be the rest of her life.
But rodeo took him from her once. And she knows he’s bound to leave again. Can she take the risk and fall in love? Can he? Or will rodeo win out again, and leave them both broken?
Come on, Billy, you can do it. A little faster now.
Amarilla Ray gripped her thighs tighter together and pushed her body forward, urging two bodies into a rhythm of one, praying for speed and lots of it.
Just a few more seconds. We can do this.
It had been a long time. A very long time. But deep in her heart, she knew that she could never forget something that felt as natural as this.
As elemental. Basal.
C’mon, big guy. You can do it. Hang in there with me…
She was almost there. Another few seconds. Almost over the edge. Excitement coursed through her…another second and she’d burst. How she’d missed this. How she’d needed this.
This ride was near perfect.
Her best ever.
A million thoughts flew around inside Rilla’s head as she urged the quarter horse on and raced past the second barrel. She cut just close enough, allowing ample room to turn and angle toward the third and final barrel. Billy leaned into the turn, almost parallel to the ground. They were flying around the cloverleaf. Swiftly, expertly, she turned the final barrel and raced for the open gate of the practice pen.
Yes. This was a good one.
“Good boy, Billy Jack,” she whispered, patting the horse on the neck.
As she sped through the gate, she glanced at Joe, her father’s most loyal and oldest ranch hand, as his thumb jabbed down on the stopwatch. As soon as she slowed and turned her horse around, she looked back at him in excitement.
His gaze met hers, and her heart flip-flopped into her stomach. Suddenly, she was nauseous. His eyes told the whole story.
“Time, Joe?” she asked again, impatient.
“A little off, Rilla,” he answered in a slow, western draw.
Huffing out a quick breath, she continued, “How much off?”
“Almost two seconds.”
She shook her head. “Impossible. Something is wrong. That was my best run to date.”
Joe slowly shook his own head and thrust the stopwatch forward for her to look at. “Sorry, Rilla. That was the time. I did everything right.”
Her shoulders fell as she looked Joe in the face. He’d been around since she was a kid. There was no reason to doubt him and no reason for him to lie. He’d timed that cloverleaf run hundreds of times for her in the past. He knew exactly what her best times were.
Of course, that was years ago.
She had to face it. She’d lost whatever she’d once had. She just wasn’t good enough anymore.
“Okay, Joe. I guess I just need to get in there and practice some more.” Refusing to admit defeat, she slid off the horse and started to lead him toward the barn. Billy deserved a good rubdown. Tomorrow, they’d try again.
A soft hand rested on her shoulder, and she glanced back to look at the older man. His sun-wrinkled, sympathetic face was heartwarming.
“Don’t give up, Rilla. You’ll get it back.”
She nodded and watched him amble toward the house. Turning, she headed toward the barn again, Billy in tow. She wished she had Joe’s confidence.
There was no doubt about it. She was too old to get back into rodeo. Her backside was sore and numb from sitting in that saddle every day the past few months, riding hard day in and day out, training the gelding, riding some more. But she should have been riding like this the past few years.
She was too damned old to start competition again now.
What was that country song? Something about being too young to feel this damned old?
She couldn’t give up, though.
She had to compete now. Had to give it a try. Before she did get too damned old. And finally, she was doing it with her father’s consent. After all these years of his arguing with her about wanting to compete, he’d finally told her, urged her even, to try and make a go of it. Barrel racing.
She couldn’t give up now. Either that or she had to figure out some other way to bring money into the ranch. This was her life, her home. And damn her father’s stubborn pride for not being straight with her.
Something was wrong. Of course, he wouldn’t tell her what—Brandon Ray was just that kind of man. “I’ll solve my own problems, Rilla. I’ll take care of us. You just do what you do.”
The ranch was in some kind of financial difficulty. She’d wracked her brain, but couldn’t come up with anything else. She’d even offered to get a job in town, convinced she could find work in
particularly during the tourist season. But Brandon had nixed that suggestion, too. He’d
wanted her here, on the ranch, with him. And lately, Brandon had let her in on just about every
aspect of running the Triple R from bookkeeping to mending fences. He’d been
teaching her more and more about the business he’d started here years earlier.
There was something, though, that he wasn’t telling her.
It was time she earned her keep. And if she could bring some extra money into the ranch by competing at rodeo, that was all the better. It thrilled her down to her toes that she could do it with her father’s consent.
She knew she had to start somewhere, and it might as well be at home. So she’d signed up to ride on the local circuit, and she’d set her sites on the Rattlesnake Cowboy and Cowgirl Classic.
Billy whinnied at the sound of a vehicle speeding up the dirt road. Rilla jerked her head to the right, steadying her hold on the horse, and watched dust clouds billow up behind the Jeep. Someone was honking the horn to get her attention. Tiny hairs at the nape of her neck bristled, and she fully faced the approaching vehicle.
Two seconds later it stopped abruptly, and her father’s friend and neighboring ranch owner Helen Hightower jumped out and raced toward her.
Something was wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.
“Honey,” she began, her eyes searching, “put the horse in the barn.” Helen’s face was solemn, her words rushed. She reached out with a soft touch to her cheek.
An unexpected chill ran down Rilla’s spine.