“That horse nearly throwed you clean into the funeral parlor, boy.”
Whoops of cowboy laughter cut through the dusty air.
Gemma Jansen hung on the edge of the trash-talking bronc riders, waiting for a break in the conversation. The rodeo announcer’s voice reverberated through the arena stands as he pumped up the crowd for the next event: steer wrestling.
“I didn’t break nothin’, but he shore loosened my jaw so’s I tasted some dirt.”
Another round of male laugher.
A baby-faced kid shoved a plug of tobacco in his cheek. “I’d rather have a bucker like him than the last one I had. Shoot. That bronc couldn’ta tossed off a baby blanket.”
Gemma jammed her hands in her jeans pockets and sauntered closer to prop a hip against the muddy tailgate. “Afternoon, boys.”
Immediately slouched postures straightened. A couple of the younger fellas even removed their hats. Aw. Their mommas would’ve been proud at their show of respect.
Still, it made Gemma feel…old.
Feel? Hell, she was old enough to be any one of these guys’ mommas.
The wiry bronc buster named Jesse grinned at her. “Hey, Miz Jansen. You’re lookin’purty as a picture today.”
The other young buckaroos nodded and gave her an appreciative appraisal. She didn’t mind. “Thanks.”
“Ain’t seen you around the circuit for a while. Everything okay?”
“You know how it goes. Been busy takin’ care of ranch business.”
“Ain’t doin’ all the work alone, are you?”
“Trying not to.”
“Good to hear.” Jesse frowned and scratched his chin with the back of his leather glove. “Come to think of it… How come you ain’t been supplyin’ none of the animals this season?”
“I’ve been asking the same question. None of the promoters can give me a good answer.”
“If you don’t mind me sayin’ so, that sucks.” His eyes gleamed. “I’d sure like a chance to ride that ornery bronc of yours again.”
“Warpaint. Man. That roan could buck off a man’s whiskers.”
“He’s itching to be rode. Maybe you’ll get a shot later in the year.”
“Lookin’ forward to it.” He gifted her with another inspection from beneath the brim of his Stetson. “So you just wanderin’ around, lookin’ good, showin’ up them baby bunnies who’re trollin’ for buckles?”
What a charmer. She grinned. The kid’s eyes were brown from being so full of shit.
“No. Actually, I’m looking for Cash Big Crow. You seen him?”
Jesse pointed to a stoop-shouldered man perched on the tailgate of a rusted-out International pickup. “Ask Frank. He keeps tabs on all the stock handlers.”
She skirted the rigging bags and saddles, avoiding the gigantic potholes in the makeshift road.
When she reached the pickup, the old Indian man squinted against the cigarette smoke curling into his left eye. “Help ya, miss?”
Miss. Right. She hadn’t been called that in a coon’s age. “Yeah. I’m looking for Cash Big Crow.”
“You ain’t the only one. Last I heard he was at the first aid station.”
Gemma’s stomach pitched. “Was he hurt?”
“Don’t rightly know.”
She paused to let the two female trick riders by, all decked out in flowing purple regalia. Once she reached the tiny room beneath the bleachers serving as the first aid station, the only person inside was a bored looking EMT.
“Has Cash Big Crow been in here?”
The man lifted one pierced brow. “You’re the second person to ask me that. No one’s been in here for a coupla hours. Been a yawner today.” He refocused on the girlie magazine on the exam table.
Damn. Where could Cash be? Hopefully he hadn’t left.
Gemma cut through the contestant’s area, steering clear of the motor home, which housed the rodeo headquarters. She’d been in and out of that rig several times in a fruitless endeavor to convince rodeo promoters to give her a shot as a rough stock contractor.
As much as Westerners claimed gender bias or prejudice no longer had a foothold in the Western way of life, it simply wasn’t true. After her husband Steve died, Gemma had gradually been shut out of supplying stock for nearly every rodeo on the circuit. She was beyond frustrated with the “old boy” system but she was too stubborn to quit.
In the meantime, her ranch needed attention and she couldn’t concentrate on expanding her rodeo stock operation until she fixed the problems that paid the bills.
A bank of gray clouds floated overhead, covering the sun, sending dark shadows skittering across the chalky vanilla-colored dirt. She glanced at the paddock across from the arena and noticed the stocky cowboy leaning on the white metal corrals.
Her heart slammed. She hadn’t seen him for almost a year, yet she’d watched him often enough she’d memorized how he looked from behind. A braid swung against his broad shoulders, the rest of his coal black hair remained hidden beneath a beat-up cowboy hat. Tight Wranglers showcased his tight ass. The toes of his boots pointed out, as he was a little bowlegged. She knew his face was a little worn, but handsome. When she was within twenty yards an anticipatory smile bloomed.
The smile died when a shout caused Cash to turn. A young woman launched herself straight into Cash’s outstretched arms. Cash kissed the woman and spun her in a circle, causing a feminine squeal of delight.
Gemma froze, unable to slink away from the intimate exchange. Cash set down the hot chickie and squeezed her curvy body tightly against his. While she talked a blue streak, he tipped her head back, tenderly smoothing away a section of her long brown hair.
Gemma’s lips tingled in remembrance of when Cash had touched her that way.
Reverently. Confidently. Sweetly.
She could’ve had that. Could’ve had him looking at her that way. Instead, he was grinning at the Indian princess like she’d hung the moon and the stars.
There was no fool like an old fool. Gemma backed up, preparing to retreat. But a gust of wind ripped off the young woman’s straw hat and blew it directly toward her.
Cash gave chase until he caught the hat ten feet from where Gemma stood. His gaze started at the scuffed toes of Gemma’s dirty ropers and traveled up her body to lock on her eyes. He blinked. “Gemma? Is that really you?”
Rather than snap off a smart answer, Gemma escaped. Cash shouted her name but she didn’t slow down until she’d reached the area where she’d parked her horse trailer.
She zigzagged through the maze of silver and black steel until she found hers. Leaning her forehead against the heated metal, she fumbled for her keys.
Fool fool fool. Dammit. Why had she hoped Cash would wait around for her to get her head on straight? Especially after she’d told him she didn’t want to get involved with him at all? What had she expected? And why in the hell had she bolted like a spooked filly the second she’d seen him? Lord. She was forty-eight years old, not eight.
Dry grass crunched behind her and she wheeled around.
Cash’s luminous, coffee-colored eyes stared back at her. “Dammit, Gemma, I know you heard me yellin’ at you. Why didn’t you stop?”
“Because I didn’t want to intrude.”
“Intrude on what?”
She turned, shoving the key in the locked door. “Don’t tease me, Cash.”
“Tease you? I know I ain’t always the brightest bulb in the box, but what the devil are you talkin’ ’bout? Intrude on what?” He grabbed her shoulder and forced her to look at him.
Just then the gorgeous young Indian princess sidled in behind Cash. Silent. Watchful.
A stunning vision of youth and beauty. A sharp reminder of everything Gemma was not.
“Me and who?” he demanded.
Her. “Never mind.”
“Huh-uh. I ain’t seen you in almost a year so I wanna know why you were lookin’ for me.”
Gemma ground her teeth together.
“If you were so hell-bent on findin’ me why’d you race off without sayin’ a word?”
“Because once I found you, I realized it was a bad time. I didn’t mean to interrupt you…and your girlfriend. Besides, I figured I’d catch up with you later.”
A sly smile lit up Cash’s face. “Then why am I the one who had to chase you down, eh?”
“Lemme tell you what I think.” His breath tickled her ear as he whispered, “I believe you took off because you’re jealous.”
Jealous? More like mortified. Gemma had half a mind to crawl under the horse trailer and hide until Cash and his jailbait buckle bunny disappeared. She managed a small snort of disgust. “Jealous? Not hardly.”
“Really? You want an explanation for what you saw by the corrals?”
“Or an introduction to my girlfriend?”
The girlfriend gasped.
“You don’t owe me nothin’, Cash. Just forget it.”
Cash grabbed the young woman’s hand, dragging her front and center. “I’d love to milk this jealous side of you for all it’s worth, but I ain’t that mean. Or that patient.
Gemma, meet my daughter, Macie Honeycutt. Macie, Gemma Jansen.”
Relief swept through Gemma.
“Ah. She’s the one you told me about,” Macie said with a charming grin exactly like her father’s.
“Daughter?” Gemma repeated.
Cash kept his gaze on hers. “Yep.”
“I-I didn’t know you had any kids.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Gem.”
A pointed silence thickened the air.
“Well, this is fun… not,” Macie said.