Sydney Thomas may be the newest Rodeo Queen on the circuit but she’s more than just a pretty face and fabulous horseback rider. If only her new boss could see it! But the frustrating, bossy, drop-dead gorgeous man seems bent on pushing her away at every chance he gets. Scott Chandler learned at an early age that he needed to “cowboy up” and take care of his family. The one time he let his guard down, his heart got trampled and he’s not about to let that happen again. He knows Sydney’s type, Rodeo Queens who hide their manipulative ways behind good looks, tight jeans, and glittery tiaras. But just as Scott and Sydney are finally realizing there might be more to their fiery relationship than scorching kisses and passionate nights. Secrets from their pasts come back to haunt them. Will the Cowboy and the Rodeo Queen ever be able to ride off into the sunset together?
#1 First Meeting
Sydney rolled up the sleeves of her shirt to her elbows and pulled the shirt from her chest in an attempt to cool herself. It was only April, but her shirt was already sticking to her skin at nine in the morning. She couldn’t help but smile and take in the smell of alfalfa, dust, and leather as she made her way through the jumbled maze of trucks and trailers, most with horses tied in the shade, dozing before their events. She knew how lucky she was; most people couldn’t honestly say that they loved their life, but she loved every minute she’d spent growing up in rodeo.
Sydney heard the unmistakable pounding of horse hooves on the packed ground behind her and moved closer to the vehicle on her right. Usually there was more than enough room for riders and their rigs in the walkway, but with the unexpected turnout at the rodeo today, there was barely room to maneuver. The horse was jogging pretty quickly and she didn’t have anywhere else to go, especially since another truck and trailer had chosen that moment to pull out of the gate ahead of her. The driver of the truck spotted her and waved her on. She tried to hurry through the opening he’d left her at the gate, but the rider behind her chose to slip between them, his mount’s shoulder knocking her into the gatepost on her right.
Sydney reached up to massage her shoulder before registering the surprise on the face of the driver of the truck.
“Are you okay, Sydney?” It was Bobby Blake, a friend of her father’s who must have been delivering some panels in the back of the arena.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured him before raising her voice. “I guess chivalry really is dead,” she yelled at the cowboy’s back.
She saw him jerk his mount to a stop before glancing back over his shoulder at her. “Look, honey, I don’t have time for you girls who don’t belong back here. This area is for contestants, not their groupies.”
“Want me to set him straight?” Bobby asked.
Sydney smiled her appreciation. “No, but thanks Bobby. I’ve got this.”
“Go get him, honey,” he teased. “He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. By the way, congratulations.”
“Thanks, Bobby.” Sydney made her way toward the obnoxious cowboy seated on the sorrel. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but around here we tend to have a sort of unspoken code. When that walkway is packed with cars and horses like that, you slow down and you certainly do not push your way between a truck and someone walking. I don’t really appreciate hoof marks across my back.”
She looked up at him as she came closer, refusing to let him intimidate her from his seat on the horse. “And as for being a groupie, I could probably out ride you any day of the week,” she challenged.
The cowboy arched his right brow and a slow smile spread across his face. “Maybe we’ll have to see about that later.” With a tap of his heels, the horse jogged forward a few steps toward one of the stock pens.
Sydney narrowed her eyes as he left. What a jerk, she thought. Shaking her head, she rubbed her shoulder again and searched the back of the arena for the stock contractor’s trailers, noticing a lanky cowboy setting up folding chairs beside a Findley Brothers stock trailer.
“Excuse me,” Sydney began, making her way across the short grass. “Can you tell me where I might find Mike Findley?”
A weathered face returned her smile and Sydney realized he was much older than she had first assumed. “What’s that?”
Sydney realized that he probably couldn’t hear her over the clattering of stock panels as the cattle moved into the pens. “Mike Findley? Do you know where I can find him?”
“Oh, no, I’m not Mike. I’m Jake,” the man hollered.
“Hi Jake, I’m Sydney Thomas.” She raised her voice as well. “I was just crowned rodeo queen and I’m looking for Mike to see if we might carry the sponsor flags or run cattle for him today.”
Jake turned and faced her, crossing his arms. The cattle had quieted so he toned down his voice as well. “Well, Mike’s up with the announcer right now working out of a few details. But he’s not who you’d want to talk to about that.” He leaned back against the trailer, crossing his ankles as if getting relaxed for a long conversation.
Sydney raised her brows in expectation. When Jake didn’t say anything, she pressed. “So, who should I talk to instead?”
“That’d be Scott Chandler.”
Sydney sighed, finding it difficult to restrain herself from punching something. First she’d been shoved into a fence post and now a cryptic cowboy was obviously enjoying a joke at her expense.
“And where would I find Mr. Chandler?”
The Cheshire-cat grin on Jake’s face made her heart sink. No, life couldn’t possibly be that cruel. Her gaze followed the direction of his finger as he pointed to the cowboy atop the sorrel at the stock pen, obviously eavesdropping on their conversation. Swallowing the dry lump that had suddenly materialized in her throat, Sydney squared her shoulders and raised her golden eyes to meet the black eyes of her foe.
“Well, I think you just finished telling him off.” Jake grinned, anticipating the showdown to come.
Sydney had a few choice words that might have suited this moment if her mother hadn’t ingrained in her how unladylike it was to curse. A blush crept up her cheeks as Scott Chandler dismounted his horse and bowed deeply before her.
“Your Majesty,” he mocked. “I am at your disposal.”
They sat outside, relaxing under the shade from the trailer as the sun began to sink, turning the sky blue with streaks of pink and orange. Sydney knew quiet moments on the rodeo circuit were hard to come by, and the men with her wanted to savor each one fully. She laughed at dinner as Jake spun a wild story about Scott as a young boy working his first rodeo, then she snuck away to Valentino’s pen, pouring his grain into a bucket and reaching for a flake of hay. She put the horse between her and the men’s laughter, laying her head on his neck for a moment before heading to check the other horses.
Entering the other pen, she ran her hand over the back of a large bay mare she’d nicknamed Pie. She knew the guys were trying to help her feel included, but they had known each other for years, so well that they could finish each other’s sentences. She, on the other hand, was still an outsider and would be for a long time. It was difficult enough to be the “new kid” in any situation like that, but with the glances she’d seen from Scott today, it was nearly impossible for her to focus on anything other than his dark gaze.
Each time she’d caught his gaze, she’d read something in the smoky depths of his eyes that she didn’t want to consider. It wasn’t just desire, for she felt that herself. It was the feeling that everything she said and did was being weighed against a standard. Sydney felt like every comment he made was calculated for a reaction from her, which would then be measured on his scale of trust. She wasn’t sure how they could form any sort of friendship while she was so conscious of his judgment.
“You okay?” Scott’s voice startled her.
“I’m fine.” She leaned on Pie’s back and realized she felt more at ease with the horses between them. “Just checking on the animals before it gets too dark.”
Scott slipped through the panels and made his way closer, patting the rump of Dakota, the horse she’d ridden for him the morning before. “Hmm, seemed more like you were hiding.”
“Not hiding, just . . .” She searched for the word she wanted.
He leaned on Pie’s rump, his arm pressing against hers, and patted the mare’s neck. Scott looked into her eyes. “Hiding?”
Sydney’s breath caught. He was close enough to kiss her, his breath fanning her cheek. He smelled of leather, horses, and grass. She wanted him to kiss her and bit her bottom lip. His gaze immediately fell to her mouth. She couldn’t breathe; she had to inhale or she would pass out, but an inhale meant more of his scent filling her lungs. She stepped back from the mare, trying to put any space between them so that her brain would function.
“No, I just thought you’d like some guy time.” It was a lame excuse, but it was all she could muster. Scott arched a brow, indicating his disbelief. “What time are we pulling out tomorrow?” she asked as she pretended to check the hoof of a gelding nearby.
“It will take a couple trips, so I’ll start taking some of the animals over after breakfast.” He made his way around the horse. “Why? Are you in a hurry to get there?” As she stood up, he had moved to stand in front of her and reached for her hand, his thumb caressing her palm. “Or just to have someone besides me to talk to?”
“I . . .” she stammered. Her breath caught in her throat as warmth spread through her veins. Just a touch from Scott and her entire body felt as if it were being consumed by liquid heat. She felt conflicted, her mind warring with her emotions. Her logic told her to jerk her hand away from his touch, but her heart wanted her to remain, which scared her even more.
#3 Cooling Off
“Damn!” Sydney heard a voice just before something clattered to the floor. “Crap!”
Sydney opened her eyes and raised herself onto her elbow to see what the commotion was about. She could only see Scott at the sink, but it sounded like he’d dropped every pot and pan at least twice. She slipped from the blankets and made her way to the doorway between the kitchen area and bedroom. In no way was she prepared for the sight that met her eyes.
Scott stood in the middle of the small trailer covered in milk and eggs. The small sink was filled with dirty dishes. The entire counter and some of the floor were covered with egg shells, raw egg, and milk. On the stove, smoke was pouring from a lump that looked as if it could have once been bacon. Scott was waving a towel, trying to push the smoke to an open window, so he didn’t seem to have heard her approach.
Sydney stifled a laugh, but Scott heard it and turned her way, giving her a murderous glare. It might have been enough to end the humor of the moment if he hadn’t already used the towel to wipe up some of his mess. He flipped the towel and raw egg yolk flung backward, landing on his forehead and slipping down, dropping from the end of his nose to land at his feet. At his look of utter distaste, Sydney’s giggles exploded into outright gales of laughter.
“Are you going to keep laughing all day?” he asked as he turned off the stove and wiped the mess from his face. “Or do I need to drag you down here to help me?” His irritation only made her laugh harder. Scott glared at her, his black eyes flashing.
“Okay,” she finally managed between spurts of laughter. “I’ll help.”
She had barely cleared the stairs when Scott pulled her into his arms, his body pressing fully against her own. “So,” he growled. “You think this is pretty funny?” Sydney was sure her smile belied the negative shake of her head. “What am I going to do with you?” Scott asked as he maneuvered her toward the counter.
Her pulse raced wildly as he held her wrists behind her back. She was completely at his mercy but she knew his playful mood was only dangerous to her heart. “You could let me go,” she suggested, trying to appear nonchalant.
Scott released her wrists and circled her waist with one arm, molding her body to his. He leaned closer, brushing his lips across her check to her earlobe. She closed her eyes in anticipation of his kiss, surrendering to the desire coursing through her. She’d dreamt about his kiss when sleep had finally claimed her in the early morning hours.
“I have something much more enjoyable in mind,” he whispered, his lips brushing her earlobe, sending shivers down her spine.
Scott pulled back and looked her in the eye, his eyes as dark as she’d ever seen them but almost sparkling with wicked charm. Sydney was confused when he gave her the same smile she’d seen so often from her brother when he’d just pulled off a prank. She quickly realized she’d been had. She followed his gaze to his hand, raised in the air just above her head, just in time to see him crack an egg against the cabinet above. She squealed and tried to squirm away from him as the wet, slimy mess landed on her forehead.
“Bull’s-eye.” Scott’s deep laughter rumbled through the trailer. “Now we’re even.”
“Ugh!” Sydney groaned as the egg yolk slid down her face and into her t-shirt.
“Need some help cleaning that up?” he teased, raising an eyebrow impishly, his eyes gleaming dangerously.
Sydney looked down to see her shirt clinging to her breasts and felt the egg yolk slide down her stomach. She spun away from him, reaching for the towel on the sink, and began to wipe the mess from under her shirt.
“You sure you don’t want an extra hand?” Scott chuckled.
Sydney spotted the soapy water, complete with bits of cooked eggs floating on top. With her back still to him, she silently scooped up water in a dirty glass. “Actually, maybe you can help.” She spun to face him, her hands around the glass of water.
“Don’t,” he warned.
“I think you need to cool off a bit,” she threatened. He surprised her, moving quickly to disarm her of the glass, but she had quicker reflexes than he’d assumed. Sydney pitched the water at him, feeling satisfied as it connected squarely on his chest and splashed water in his face, momentarily blinding him.
Scott yelled in surprise, giving her a moment to scoot away from his grasp in the confined space.
“There!” she said, triumphant. “Now, we are even.”
“Oh, sweetheart, we aren’t even close.” Scott’s voice was too calm as he made his way toward her, and she realized exactly how a kitten must feel when it teases a snake, awakening danger it didn’t expect.
She quickly searched the area for any sort of weapon. Grabbing a handful of cold scrambled eggs, she whirled to confront her attacker. “One more step and you’ll be wearing these, too.” Scott regarded her with an amused smile and took another step toward her. “I mean it, pal.”
Scott dodged the eggs flung toward him. He wasn’t as lucky, however, when a well-aimed handful of what had once been hash browns immediately followed and hit the side of his head. Sydney realized her folly too late and ran for the door, hoping to seek refuge outside. She flew out the door, leaping off the top stair just in time to see Jake walking toward the trailer, a worried frown creasing his brow.
“Jake,” Sydney screamed, laughing again, trying to run toward the confused man.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Scott grabbed her by the waist and swung her over his shoulder like a sack of grain.
“Jake, help!” she screamed, pounding helplessly on Scott’s solid back.
“Oh no, honey,” Jake chuckled. “He’s my boss. I’m staying out of this.”
She cast him an evil glare but didn’t think it had any effect with her hanging upside down. Jake was quickly forgotten when she realized that Scott was heading toward the water trough.
“Scott, don’t you dare!”
“Well, Sydney, you seem to like water. Maybe you need to cool off.” He stopped directly in front of the trough. She could see the leaves of alfalfa floating on top. “You did say you might need help cleaning up your shirt. I’m just being helpful, the way you were.”
Begging for forgiveness wasn’t usually her style, but then again neither was sitting in an icy water trough at seven AM in a deserted rodeo arena. She had to try. “Scott, I’m really sorry that I threw that water at you.”
“And . . . ?” he encouraged.
“And, um, I’m sorry I laughed at your attempt to make breakfast.” He didn’t move, and she wondered how long a person could hang upside down with all of the blood rushing to her head. “Well?” She was getting anxious to have her feet on solid ground again.
“You apologize real pretty-like, honey.” Scott mimicked Jake’s drawl.
“So, can you put me down now?”
“’Course,” he agreed amiably.
Before she knew it she was flipped upright, waiting for her feet to hit ground that never arrived. Suddenly, water splashed overhead and she found herself seated in the livestock trough.
“Now, that would make a fun picture.” Scott stood with his fists firmly planted on his hips, not even trying to contain his laughter as she swiped wet curls from her eyes. He reached down to pluck a piece of alfalfa from her hair and she swatted at his hand.
“Ass,” she muttered under her breath.
“Is that any way for a lady to talk?” Scott leaned close and grasped her hands, helping her out of the water. “Besides, you’re repeating your insults.”
She glared at him as she stepped out before shoving him out the way, ignoring his laughter as he walked behind her back to the trailer. Jake led the way and stepped through the doorway, but stopped so suddenly that Sydney ran into his immobile form. He let out a low whistle as he looked inside the trailer.
He turned and faced them both. “Does this mean I’m heading out to pick up breakfast?”
Sydney’s eyes met Scott’s, and neither bothered to contain the laughter that burst from within.
T. J. Kline was raised competing in rodeos and Rodeo Queen competitions since the age of 14 and has thorough knowledge of the sport as well as the culture involved. She has written several articles about rodeo for small periodicals, as well as a more recent how-to article for Rev Writer, and has published a nonfiction health book and two inspirational fiction titles under the name Tina Klinesmith. She is also an avid reader and book reviewer for both Tyndale and Multnomah. In her spare time, she can be found laughing hysterically with her husband, children, and their menagerie of pets in Northern California.
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