You look amazing in that dress. Bet you’d look even better out of it.
Evie Forrester smiled to herself, snuggling her cheek against the hard economy head rest, not quite asleep, but not quite awake, either. What else had Troy said that fateful night?
That’s right, he’d said she smelled like home, and then he’d kissed her and her world had turned on its head. Even though it had been nearly two months since that night, she could still feel his arms around her, hard as steel from the hours he spent dueling with huge muscle-bound bulls on the professional bull riding circuit. The part after that first kiss was a bit blurry, even though she’d tried so hard to preserve the memories. She could remember lying in his arms afterward, though, the sheets tangled around their legs. That part was clear as a bell.
His heartbeat drumming beneath her ear, slow and steady.
The rise and fall of his chest. The rumble of his voice as they talked about everything and nothing, long into the small hours.
She could remember the look in his eyes when he kissed her goodbye at the airfield the next day, too. He’d touched her cheek and promised to email and text, and she’d promised to visit him in the US as soon as she could. Then he’d walked across the dusty airstrip to the plane and she’d done her best not to cry until he’d been out of sight.
“Excuse me, mam. The captain has started our descent. I need you to return your chair to the upright position and open the blind for me, please,” a polite voice asked.
It took a few seconds for the words to penetrate Evie’s doze. Then her eyes popped open and she jerked upright in her seat.
“Are we here already?” she asked. It seemed as though they’d only left Dallas minutes ago.
“We’ll be at the gate in twenty minutes, m’am. So if you could just adjust your seat and take care of the window for me…?”
“Of course. Sorry. Thank you,” Evie said, fumbling with the seat before pushing the window blind up.
“Enjoy your stay,” the attendant said before heading off down the aisle to corral the next inattentive passenger.
Yawning hugely, Evie stretched out her back. She’d been traveling for more than twenty-four hours and counting, and the thought of a bed and a shower and food that didn’t come in little compartments and individual serves made her itch to be out of this flying tin tube. Reining in her impatience, she glanced out the window, squinting against the bright sunlight. They were flying over patch-worked farmland, fields of yellow and green bisected by the occasional road. No sign of the outskirts of Tulsa yet.
That didn’t stop adrenalin from surging through her belly. Within an hour, she’d be looking into Troy’s green eyes and watching his handsome face light up as he realized she’d flown half way around the world to surprise him. She’d timed her visit to coincide with the Easter break in the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour schedule, which meant she and Troy would have two whole weeks together before she had to fly back home to Townsville to complete the final year of her Veterinary Science degree. Plenty of time for them to consolidate their fledgling relationship.
Adrenalin surged again, sending a shiver of pure nervousness through her. Not nervousness, excitement, she told herself.
She was excited about seeing Troy again, not nervous. They’d been texting and talking via FaceTime, and exchanging letters via email. Admittedly, his responses had all been pretty short, but Troy had never been the kind of guy to spend hours in front of a computer.
The next two weeks would be a dream come true for her, the fulfillment of her most cherished dream: her and Troy, together at last.
She let out a long, shuddery breath, forcing herself to release the tension banding her shoulders, and told herself to calm the hell down. There was nothing to be worried about. Troy was practically a member of her family, and had been for nearly ten years, ever since her father took him under his wing when Troy was sent to her family’s cattle station, Forrester’s Landing, as a troubled sixteen year old.
It had been a Hail Mary attempt by a desperate social worker to try to keep Troy out of juvenile detention, his latest step on the slippery slope toward career criminal. A stint working under the hot sun of Australia’s Top End, breathing in red dust and her father’s no-bullshit, honest guidance had been the lifeline Troy hadn’t known he was looking for. It had taken a month for him to lose the surly, narrow-eyed look he’d had when her father picked him up from town. It had taken him a little longer to smile, but when he did, Evie had slipped the rest of the way in love with the rangy, taciturn bad boy from the city.
He’d barely looked at her, of course. She’d been fourteen, skinny and flat-chested, and her brother, Aaron, had been Troy’s age. The two of them had gravitated to each other naturally, quickly forging a friendship that was unbroken to this day. She’d looked at Troy, though. She’d been overjoyed when her parents decided to offer him a permanent home with her family, and she’d proceeded to spy on him like a KGB agent, gathering intel on his likes and dislikes, his habits and preferences. She’d memorized his walk - cocky, with one shoulder held just a fraction higher than the other - and the way he tucked his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and looked at the ground when he was uncomfortable. She’d made sure her mum made Anzac biscuits at least once a week, because she knew they were Troy’s favorite. And she’d made sure she was always there when the boys went swimming in the old water tank.
Some of her earliest fantasies had been born out of those afternoons watching Troy pull himself out of the dusty water, his long, lean body gleaming in the sun. Talk about an awakening.
Unfortunately, Troy had remained staunchly unawakened where she was concerned. Over the next three years, he proceeded to overlook the fact that Evie’s breasts finally chose arrive. He failed to acknowledge her discovery of mascara, lipstick, and the difference a good haircut could make, too, as well as the fact that she was madly, completely, obsessively in love with him.
She’d watched him hook up with other girls from town, crying herself to sleep as she wondered why he never looked at her the way he looked at them. Eventually, she’d convinced herself it was never going to happen. It had taken a while, but she’d gotten there. For whatever reason, he didn’t see her in that way.
She’d moved on. Given her first kiss, then her virginity to Tom Wilson. Given up on ever having Troy love her the way she loved him. She’d gone to university to study to become a veterinarian and made plans for her future that didn’t include him.
Then he’d come home from America to be best man at her brother’s wedding this Christmas, and she’d seen his surprise when he looked at her. She’d seen the admiration in his eyes, the speculation. Finally - finally - he’d looked at her the way a man looks at a woman. After the wedding, when everyone else had gone home or gone to bed, they’d finished off a bottle of her father’s best whiskey and slow danced under the stars. Which was when he’d said the things about her dress and how she smelled before kissing her and tumbling her into his bed.
And now she was here, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take the seed they’d planted that night and water it with her love and their friendship and turn it into the beautiful thing she knew it could be.
Fields were giving way to houses on the ground below, roads becoming more frequent. She watched, nose pressed to the glass, as Tulsa revealed itself to her. The blue snake of the Arkansas River, a huge swathe of green that must be some kind of park. The city-centre looked small by major city standards but plenty big enough for her. She spotted the long dark stretch of the runway in the distance and took another calming breath.
This was really happening. She was really here, minutes away from being with Troy again.
The captain landed the plane with a bone-jarring thud, then everyone was on their feet, dragging luggage out of the overhead storage bins. Evie collected her overnight bag and waited for her turn to file out. In the terminal, she collected her suitcase, then made her way to the washroom.
The mirror above the bank of sinks told her she had some serious work ahead of her before she could present herself to Troy. Her long blonde hair was tangled and flat on one side, her complexion was pale, her eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
It’s okay, you’ve got this, she reassured herself. This was why people had invented make-up and hair detangling spray and eye drops, all of which she’d had the foresight to pack in her overnight bag, along with a fresh change of clothes.
Twenty minutes later, she’d slipped into fresh underwear and a clean pair of slim-fitting black jeans, banging her elbow against the stall wall multiple times as she maneuvered in the tight space. Her sky-blue shirt picked up the color of her eyes, which she’d enhanced with mascara and a touch of eyeliner. She’d brushed out her hair, and it lay in a gleaming curtain over her shoulders, the platinum highlights she’d had put in last week picking up the overhead lights. She fiddled with her fringe a little, smoothing it into place with her fingers. Then she applied a coating of warm pink-brown lipstick and stood back to assess herself.
She’d pass. Not her best, but definitely not her worst, either. It would have been lovely to have a shower, but she could do that later, when they went back to Troy’s hotel room.
She pressed her palm against her too-busy heart, willing it to settle down, then spritzed her pulse points with perfume and went to find a cab. The American Extreme Oklahoma Invitational was being staged at the the Bank of Oklahoma Center in the middle of town, and Evie watched the city go by outside her window as the driver wove his way through rush hour traffic. She checked her watch, silently urging the cab to move faster. It was nearly six, and the show started in an hour. She wanted to make sure she caught Troy well before he needed to gear up for the event.
Ten minutes later, they pulled up at the stadium. Crowds of people streamed past the cab before filing inside. Lots of cowboy hats and fringed vests and denim, families with children, large packs of young men. She drew a few stares as she made her way to one of the many entrances to the stadium, her luggage in tow. She waited in line behind a family of six, listening to them talk about the night ahead. When one of the kids mentioned Troy’s chances of winning, she felt a buzz of pride on his behalf.
He’d always wanted to make his mark in the world, to be someone, to prove himself. It looked as though he was well on the way if ten year olds in Tulsa could quote his ride stats and tour points by heart.
The family moved on and Evie smiled at the friendly-looking woman manning the turnstile.
“Hi. I’m wondering if you could tell me where the rider’s entrance is, please? I’ve just flown in from Australia and I’m supposed to be meeting my boyfriend, Troy Jensen, there.” It was a white lie, but she justified it to herself because, technically, she would be meeting Troy. He just didn’t know it yet.
“Lucky you. The Wonder from Down Under is one nice-looking hunk of cowboy,” the woman said, using the nick-name the media had given Troy.
“Hey, I saw him first,” Evie said, causing the woman to guffaw loudly.
“Just head around to the right, sweetheart. You’ll see the security checkpoint there. That’s probably where your man will be waiting. Enjoy!”
She gave Evie a wink before turning to the next group of customers, and Evie grabbed her luggage and started walking.
First hurdle overcome. Now she just had to convince the security guards to go find Troy for her, and then…
She shook her head. She wasn’t going to start thinking about what happened after she found Troy. Her heart was already beating double time, her hands were sweaty, even the creases of her elbows were damp, for Pete’s sake. She’d just take this one step at the time and trust in her memory of the night she spent in Troy’s arms.
The thought steadied her. She’d loved Troy since she was fourteen years old, and seeing him, being with him, was going to be amazing.
Bring it on.
Tanner Harding adjusted the cuffs on his starched black dress shirt as he exited the sports medicine room, leaving behind the smell of liniment and the sound of male laughter as his fellow riders were strapped and wrapped prior to their rides. His footsteps echoing off the concrete floor and cinderblock walls in the stadium corridor. They’d taped up his shoulder and wrist and he circled his shoulder experimentally, grunting his approval at the range of motion they’d left him with.
His shoulder had been reconstructed partway through last season but was holding up well so far. The wrist issue was an old one, the result of a fracture he’d sustained in his rookie year. Like the many other aches and pains in his thirty-one year old body, it would probably be with him till the day he died - the price every bull rider paid for daring to pit himself against 1700 pounds of furious, bucking beast on a weekly basis.
He pulled out his phone to check the time as he turned into the change room where the riders were preparing for the event. He strode past the door to the washrooms and the sound of feminine laughter drew his gaze from his phone.
A dark-haired cowboy had a well-endowed blonde pressed up against the wall in the washroom, both hands full of her denim-covered backside as he kissed her senseless. Tanner’s mouth kicked up at the corner as he shook his head at his friend’s shameless hound-doggery.
Of course it was Troy. The Australian rider had never been able to say no to a willing woman, and apparently he wasn’t about to start tonight.
“Get a room, Jensen,” he said.
The other man didn’t bother to look up, just presented Tanner with his middle finger. A couple of the other guys glanced up as Tanner sank onto the bench in front of his gear bag.
“Don’t tell me - Troy’s got a buckle bunny in there, am I right?” asked Kane.
“What’s new?” Tanner said.
Plenty of the guys took advantage of the women who wanted to score a ride of their own when the tour came to town, but the thrill of having a different woman every week had worn off for Tanner a few years ago. Sure, the road could get lonely, but he’d learned that anonymous sex with a woman he was never going to see again didn’t change that. If anything, it made it worse. Women on the hunt for a bull rider scalp didn’t want him, they wanted the mythologized version of him, the guy who was splashed across the glossy program wearing fringed chaps and a shirt so starched it could abrade a man’s skin if he wasn’t careful.
These days, Tanner’s romantic life consisted of friendly relations with a divorcee back home in Current Creek, Colorado, and an on-again, off-again thing he’d had with one of the tour support staff. At the moment, it was off, since she’d found herself a boyfriend, but Tanner could deal with that. He wasn’t a kid any more; he could handle a little delayed gratification.
His thoughts shifted to the night ahead. He’d drawn Bandito, which meant he was up for a wild ride and had a good chance of scoring well - if he could stick a qualifying ride. He’d had a couple of encounters with Bandito over the past couple of years. Round one, the massive Brahma-cross bull had thrown him in under three seconds and stomped on his thigh for good measure. Round two, Tanner had gone the distance but been left with a mild concussion when the bull threw him into the gate. Tonight, Tanner was planning on having a hard, clean ride. He was going to stick, and he was going to get off the bull’s back without banging himself around any more than necessary.
That was the plan, anyway. That was always the plan, but Bandito no doubt had plans of his own. Just thinking about matching skill and instinct with the big beast made Tanner’s arms and legs tingle with anticipation. He slipped his hand into his pocket to touch the lucky medallion he always carried, then frowned when his fingers met nothing but the warm cotton of an empty pocket.
He frowned and checked his other pocket. Then he remembered he’d been rolling the medallion across his fingers while the trainer taped his shoulder. He must have mislaid it then.
He wasn’t going to ride without his good luck charm, so he stood and headed for the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the stall doors was shut in the washroom now - what passed for privacy for Troy, apparently.
He’d gotten to know the younger man a little this tour. The two of them had been sharing the driving where possible, and they’d swapped a story or two. Tanner liked the guy. Troy paid his own way, rode hard, didn’t talk too much when he won or brood when he didn’t qualify. All of which made him okay in Tanner’s book. In past seasons, Tanner had been stuck driving with guys who didn’t know when to shut their traps, guys who big-noted themselves, guys who sulked, guys who did everything they could to get out of paying their fair share of expenses. So he appreciated Troy’s good qualities, and considered the Australian a friend. Or, as Troy kept saying, a mate.
Tanner copped some crap for being superstitious when he returned to search of his lucky charm but the trainers handed his medallion over and he slipped it safely back into his right pocket, the same place it sat every ride.
“When you guys get up on one of those bulls, come talk to be about superstition,” he told them on his way out the door.
“What you talking about, Tanner? None of us are as loco as you bunch of Looney Tunes,” one of the trainers called after him.
Tanner was smiling to himself as he headed back to the change rooms. Most guys wouldn’t even make it into the chutes, let alone onto the back of a bull. It took a special combination of hard-ass stubbornness, bravado and blind belief in your own immortality to climb onto the back of an animal that wanted nothing more in all the world than to buck you off then stomp your body into the dirt.
“Mr. Harding. You seen Troy Jensen around?” a voice asked from behind him.
He turned to find one of the security guards walking toward him, a slim blonde woman in tow. She was wheeling a suitcase, with an overnight bag hitched over her shoulder, the bulkiness of the bag emphasizing her small stature.
“He’s in the change room,” Tanner said.
“This here is his girlfriend, all the way from Australia. Reckon you could take her through to meet him for me? I gotta get back to my station.”
Girlfriend? The very notion that Troy Never-Saw-A-Buckle-Bunny-He-Didn’t-Like Jensen had a girlfriend was laughable, but before Tanner could set the security guard straight, the guy was gone, walk-running back up the corridor, clearly on fire to get back to his post.
The blonde smiled at him, her face open and sunny. “Hi. I’m Evie Forrester.” Her accent was like Troy’s, an easy drawl with flat vowels. “You’re Tanner Harding, right? Troy mentioned you in one of his emails. You’re driving together this season.”
She held her hand out for him to shake, which was when his memory chose to kick into gear. Once, during a long drive, Troy had mentioned a girl back home. She was the daughter of the guy who’d saved Troy’s ass back in the day, if Tanner was remembering correctly.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Forrester,” he said, even though it wasn’t.
It was damned awkward, was what is was.
Her hand was small and surprisingly strong in his. She had a heart-shaped face and a small, neat little nose and chin. Her eyes were blue, her skin lightly tanned.
A lot of guys would probably dismiss her as being simply girl-next-door-cute and sweet, but there was a hint of something more in the glint in her eye and the fullness of her mouth.
“So, is Troy in there?” She pointed to the entrance to the change rooms, a dozen or so feet down the corridor. “Would it be okay for me to just go in or am I going to violate the privacy of a bunch of cowboys? Because I’d really like to surprise him if I can.”
A single dimple appeared in her left cheek as she smiled at him, doing her best to charm him into helping her out.
It had been a long time since Tanner had felt this uncomfortable, and the urge to rub the back of his neck like a caught-out kid was strong. Thing was, he wasn’t the one who’d been caught out here. Troy was the one who was in the shit - and this woman was the one who was going to wear the collateral damage.
“Might be best if I go get him for you,” he said slowly. “For everybody’s peace of mind.”
She laughed, the sound light and easy. He was starting to feel bad for her, because even though he’d only known her for a few minutes, he could tell she was a sunny natured, trusting type of person, one of those people who ran at life with open arms - and Troy was right this second in a bathroom stall with an over-endowed buckle bunny, doing what he’d done at virtually every stop along the tour.
“How about this for a compromise? You go ahead, let me know if everyone’s decent, and then I can still surprise him?” she said.
“Yeah, you don’t want to do that,” Tanner said, adjusting the brim of his Stetson. “Definitely best if I bring him out to you.”
She was about to respond when her gaze slipped over his shoulder, focussing on something behind him. He sent up a prayer that it wasn’t who he thought it was and glanced over his shoulder.
Troy and his buckle bunny had stepped into the corridor to say their goodbyes. Troy’s tongue was halfway down the other woman’s throat, his index fingers hooked into the belt loops of her jeans as he held her close. The other woman had a shapely leg wrapped around Troy’s hips, her bright pink nails digging into his shoulders.
Evie Forrester inhaled sharply, like she’d been hit unexpectedly. He brought his gaze back to her face, waiting for her to explode with tears or recriminations and accusations, the way plenty of women would. Instead, she took a small sideways step toward the wall, using Tanner’s body as a shield. Instinctively taking cover, in case Troy happened to look up.
“Cowboy, you sure do know how to show a girl a good time,” the buckle bunny said, her voice low and satisfied.
“Same goes, Princess,” Troy replied.
Tanner watched as Evie Forrester’s eyes closed briefly, each word a further blow. She ducked her head, trying to hide her expression from him, and some of the stiffness seemed to leave her shoulders.
She looked like a kicked puppy, and Tanner couldn’t help but feel for her.
“Just…stay still,” he murmured, stepping a little closer to ensure she was concealed and reaching out to rest a hand on her shoulder, the way he would with a skittish horse. He could feel how worked up she was, her body vibrating with suppressed emotion beneath his hand.
“Well, see you ‘round, sexy. You’re gonna win tonight, you wait and see,” the buckle bunny said.
There was a small silence, then the sound of high-heeled boots heading the other way up the corridor. Tanner waited a full five seconds before glancing over his shoulder again. Sure enough, Troy was nowhere to be seen.
“Okay. He’s gone,” he reported.
Evie drew in a shaky breath. Then her head came up and he could tell she was forcing herself to meet his gaze.
“Thank you for doing that. I…I appreciate it.”
She swallowed, and for a moment her blue eyes became even bluer as they flooded with tears. Then she blinked and gave her head the tiniest of shakes, clearly determined not to break down in front of him.
“You want me to go get Troy still?” he asked, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“No. There doesn’t seem to be much point, does there?” she said. She tried for a dry little smile, but her mouth flattened into a straight line too quickly for it to be convincing.
He glanced at her luggage. “Can I call you a cab? You got anyone else you can go to?”
“No. Thank you. I can sort myself out. But thank you for the offer.” She reached out and curled her hand around the pull-out handle on her suitcase. “I don’t want to put you in a difficult situation, but would you mind not mentioning I was here to Troy?“
“He won’t hear it from me, Ms Forrester,” he assured her.
It felt like the least he could do for her.
“Thanks. Um. I guess I should go.” She gave him a parting nod, then turned and started up the corridor, her suitcase rumbling after her.