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Cowboy, Take Me Away
Harlequin Special Edition (April 19, 2011)


Chapter 1

Skyler Quinn’s viewfinder served as both protection and pretext for her hungry eye.  Naked, her eye was never more than mildly interested.  Behind the camera, it was appreciative of all things bright and beautiful.  The viewfinder found and framed views she had schooled herself to ignore, like the rear view of five fine-looking cowboys hooked over a fence.  She would call the shot “Five Perfect Pairs of Jeans.”

And then there were four.

Skyler lowered the camera.  The best pair of jeans was getting away.  Up one side of the fence and down the other, the cowboy on the far left had spoiled the symmetry of her shot.  She climbed a set of wooden steps and took a position on the first landing of the outdoor grandstand, where an audience would later gather to watch professional rodeo cowboys ride, rope, and race for cash prizes.  For now, the place belonged to cowboys, critters, and one unobtrusive camera. 

Skyler watched the runaway piece of her picture stride purposefully across the dusty arena toward one of several ropers who were warming up to compete in the afternoon “slack” for overflow timed event contestants.  The roper responded to a quick gesture as though he’d been summoned by the coach. 

Skyler zoomed in as the two men changed places.  She knew horses, and the blaze face sorrel hadn’t been working for his rider, but the animal collected himself immediately with a new man in the saddle.  The camera committed the subtleties of change to its memory card.  Eyes, ears, carriage, gait—the animal transformed from ordinary to outstanding before Skyler’s hidden eye. 

Now, that’s what I’m talking about.

Or would talk about when she got around to putting a story together.  The centaur lived, she would claim.  He was no freak of nature, anything but barbaric, beyond comparison with a mere horse master.  He was a partner.  He shared his brain power with the horse, and the horse gave him legs.  It was a pleasing blend of assets, particularly when both partners were beautifully supplied.  Not only would her pictures tell the story, but they could sell the story.  Most horse magazines were bought and read by women, and here was a man who would stop any girl’s thumb-through dead in its tracks.  Long, lean, lithe and leggy, he was made to ride.  The square chin and chiseled jaw were promising, but she wished he would push his hat back a little so she could see more of his face. 

Skyler kept her distance as she followed the cowboy through his ride.  She supposed he was giving a demonstration—teaching, selling, maybe considering a purchase.  A cowboy with a good roping horse often “mounted” other ropers for a share of their winnings, but the sorrel didn’t fit the bill.  She wondered what the cowboy said to the original rider after his smooth dismount.  Deal, no deal, or a word of advice?  She’d be interested in the man’s advice.  Lately she’d been learning the difference between horse master—that would be Skyler—and master trainer, which she was not.  Yet.

At the moment she was interested in making pictures.  She clambered down the grandstand steps and strolled toward the exit, eyeing a long shot down an alley where two Palominos were visiting across a portable panel fence.  The rodeo wasn’t Skyler’s favorite venue, but horses and horsemen were among her favorite subjects for her second-favorite hobby.  And it was high time she turned at least one of her hobbies into an income-earning proposition.

“Business or pleasure?”

Skyler turned to the sound of a deep, smooth voice and looked directly into engaging gold-brown eyes.  Unexpected, unshielded, up close and personal.  There you are, said her heart.  “I beg your pardon,” said her mouth.

“You were taking pictures of me.”  His eyes hinted at some amusement, but no uncertainty.  “Are you a professional or a fan?”

Skyler’s brain cartwheeled over her other body parts and took charge.

“I don’t know you, but I know horse sense when I see it, and I like to take pictures.”  She smiled.  His face complemented his body—long, slender, neatly groomed, ready for a close-up.  “I wouldn’t mind getting paid to do it, but at the moment, it’s merely my pleasure.”

“Taking pictures of . . . horse sense.” 

She turned the camera on, pressed a button, and turned the display his way.  “Would you like to see?”

He clicked through her pictures.  “You’ve got a powerful zoom there.  Look at that.”  He stepped closer and shared a peek.  “You can see where I nicked myself shaving this morning.”  

“I don’t see anything.”

“Luckily, it’s just my face.  No harm done to the horse sense.” 

“It’s a valuable asset.”  She nodded toward the picture on the camera display.  Commanding cowboy on a collected mount.  “Do you have an interest in this horse?”

“I might buy him.”  He studied the picture, considering.  “If the price is right.  This guy’s trying to take him in the wrong direction.  He’s not a roping horse.  He’s small, and he’s quick.”  Their fingers touched as he handed the camera back.  She bit back an apology and a cliché about cold hands.  His warmth reached his eyes.  “Make a nice cuttin’ horse.”

“You’re a trainer?”  Obviously.

“I’m a bronc rider.  Got no sense at all.”  He tucked his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans. “You coming to the show tonight?”

“I haven’t decided.”  She was committed to watching the ropers in the afternoon slack, which, moments ago, had seemed like enough rodeo for one day.

“You’d get some good pictures.”

“I’m not your Rodeo Sports News kind of photographer.  And I’m really not interested in the kind of ride that only lasts eight seconds.”

“Only?”  He laughed.  “That’s eight real seconds.  You know you’re alive when every second really means something.  How many seconds like that can you stand, one right after another?”

“I feel very much alive on the back of a horse.  I could go all day.” 

He took her point with a nod, eyes dancing.  “They say when you meet your match, time stands still.  You believe that?” 

“I think your idea of the perfect match is different from mine.”

“What do you look for?” 

“A great ride.”

“Same here.  You say girth and I say cinch, but, hell, we’re both horse people.  If you’re thirsty, I know a good watering hole that’s probably pretty quiet this time of day.  First round’s on me.”

“That’s very tempting, but I have to . . .”  Not really.  There was nothing she had to do in Sheridan, Wyoming.  If she’d come on her own, she could watch the afternoon calf roping and go home, where she always had things to do.  “Are you competing in the rodeo tonight?”  He nodded.  “Which event?”

“Bareback.”  He pushed his right hand deep into his jeans pocket.  “I’ve got an extra ticket.  One is all I’ve got, so if you’re with somebody . . .” 

“No, I’m . . .”  But she took the ticket he handed her and inspected it as though she hadn’t seen one before.  “I mean, I haven’t decided.  I wouldn’t want this to go to waste.”

She looked up to find him grinning as he backed away.  “You should see my horse sense in a pair of chaps.  Bring your camera.”

She met his grin with a smile. “You cowboys are all alike.”

“I won’t ask how many you know.  You can tell me tonight when you come by the chutes to wish me luck.”


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