From the author: Gabriel Martiniere's on the run from his vindictive uncle who wants him dead, hiding out on the rodeo circuit as Gabe Ramirez. And then he encounters a redheaded rodeo queen who also happens to be majoring in agricultural robotics...what's going to win out, Gabe's need to run...or his attraction to Ruby Barkley?
THAT REDHEADED RODEO QUEEN
Over one year on the run now, staying ahead of his uncle Philip’s bounty hunters. Gabe Ramirez, formerly Gabriel Martiniere, exhaled heavily as he waited for the next round of saddle bronc competition to see if he’d scored in the money at this little rodeo somewhere on the Oregon-Washington border. Right now it was barrel racing time.
Gabe was barely in third place as it were, tied with his buddy Craig Yellowhawk, perched on the fence next to him. He couldn’t dial into the moves of the horses consistently and tonight had been one of his more difficult nights. But he didn’t have anywhere else to be, and he still wasn’t sick of hanging out at rodeos. Craig was good company, and he’d invited Gabe to stay at his place for the night.
Then again, he and Craig might have gotten lucky. None of the top riders were here. But there were still some good riders left in that next go-round.
Gabe tried to ignore the disgusting comments from Troy Ridley, one of their competitors, on the attractiveness of each woman as they rode around the barrels. Troy and his followers sat on the fence about ten feet away from Gabe. Troy sipped from a bottle of beer as he loudly rated each rider on her attractiveness, potential ability in bed, and how much verbal abuse he could dish out before she’d cry.
Craig shook his head. “Asshole’s on a roll tonight.”
“Sure is,” Gabe said. “Awfully damn tempting to shut his mouth for him.” But that would be stupid, especially since Philip was beating the bushes to find Gabe after he’d testified against the family company, the Martiniere Group, and their attempts to forcibly impose mind control programming upon the Group’s indentured workers.
Philip and his son, Gabe’s cousin Joseph, wanted Gabe dead as a result. And after the abortive insecure placement in witness protection, Gabe’s cousins Piotr and Serg Vygotsky, of Vygotsky Security, had set Gabe up with a new identity. A new life.
So far, so good.
“You hear anything more about that girl in California?” Craig asked. Gabe and Craig had been amongst a group of cowboys who’d come across Ridley beating the crap out of a girl at another small rodeo in the middle of nowhere.
Gabe shrugged. “They called and asked if I’d testify. I said yes. She’s still in pretty rough shape.”
He wasn’t eager to appear in court again. Not after the mess that his appearance in US vs Martiniere Group had been. But the prosecutor had been desperate for a witness, and Gabe couldn’t stand abusers. Even if it risked his freedom from Philip.
“Next up, Ruby Barkley on Sunshine,” the announcer said.
“Oh, this is gonna be good,” Craig said. “Ruby’s a hell of a good rider but that damn palomino mare of hers is unpredictable. You never know what that Sunshine horse is gonna do—run or buck.”
Gabe scowled. The name Ruby Barkley was familiar. “Have I seen her run before? I recognize the name.”
“No. She sticks pretty close to home right now when she’s not at college. Lives with grandparents and her grandmother is sick. But Ruby’s one of the Pendleton Round-Up princesses.”
“Ah.” He’d seen her at National Finals last December, then, shortly after dumping the Feds. Back then he’d been even more skittish and cautious, slipping into his new life.
“Hope to hell you lose, you damned bitch!” Ridley bellowed.
Craig chuckled. “Ruby kicked the shit out of Ridley for getting handsy with her a few years back, when she was Thunder County Days Queen and still in high school. I would not cross that woman. She’s tough.”
“Hmm.” Gabe leaned forward as the big palomino mare with the redheaded woman burst out of the gate. Now that was interesting. A woman capable of intimidating Ridley.
The mare crowhopped around the first barrel but Ruby straightened her out. The second barrel was beautiful and fast, and Gabe got an idea of just how good the pair might be.
And then Sunshine sucked back and started bucking within two strides of the third and last barrel. Gabe whistled as the big mare bucked, high and hard.
“She’d make a pretty damn good bronc rider,” he said to Craig.
“That’s what she’s riding right now,” Craig said.
The golden mare sent the third barrel flying. Ruby got her straightened out and pointed toward the gate. Sunshine dropped to a trot.
“Hey Ruby, this isn’t supposed to be saddle bronc barrels,” the announcer said. “Tough luck, folks. That’s Ruby Barkley, Pendleton Round-Up Princess, unfortunately disqualified. Good ride, Ruby. Folks, let’s give this good cowgirl a hand.”
“Well, maybe the Ice Princess won’t be so high and mighty now,” Ridley jeered as a scattering of applause came from the stands.
“She did a damn good job riding that buck through the third barrel!” Gabe yelled at him. “Come on, that palomino can buck hard. If that girl was riding saddle broncs, she would have placed better than you did, Ridley!”
“Boy, you are looking for a fight,” Craig said.
“I think I’ll wander off for a while,” Gabe said, ignoring whatever it was that Ridley hollered back, his focus on the redhead and her golden mare. “Make sure no one bothers her.” He slipped off the fence. From the way that mare moved, she might start bucking again. He’d give good money to see how this rodeo queen handled it.
Craig snickered. “Ridley calls her the Ice Princess for a reason, Gabe. Nobody, but nobody, gets very far with Ruby Barkley.”
Gabe shrugged. “I think there’s gonna be more fireworks with that mare. Gotta feeling it’s gonna be well worth my time to watch.”
“All right, Ramirez. But just a word of advice.” Craig lowered his voice. “I know people from Thunder County, where she’s from. Heard rumors. Her parents killed each other when she was six. Or her father killed her mother and she killed him. Different stories. You watch your step with that lady, buddy. She could hurt you.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” Gabe adjusted his hat. “And, really, I’m just going to watch her ride that mare. I think it’ll be a treat.”
He trailed behind Ruby and Sunshine at a safe distance as they headed to an empty warmup pen. Everything about the golden mare suggested she was ready to break in half with more hard bucking that befit a bronc instead of a barrel racer. High head and wide eyes. Loud roller snorts through wide-flaring nostrils. Flattened ears. Pulling against the reins, trying to get more purchase against Ruby’s tight grip as she pranced and jigged. The palomino was fast, all right, but why was a Round-Up Princess bothering with a bronc like her? Didn’t she have better options? She should be well-mounted as a member of a prominent court like the Round-Up.
He leaned on the fence, careful not to spook the mare or distract Ruby as she opened the gate from horseback. Sunshine put up a fuss but Ruby was firm and steady. Gabe’s respect for the rider grew as he watched her maneuver the mare through the gate without an explosion.
That stopped once Ruby spun Sunshine and sent her across the pen in a hard gallop. Three strides, and the big mare took off in a series of big, high, twisting bucks that would dislodge most riders.
Damn, she’s good. He’d bet on Ruby Barkley scoring better than Troy Ridley if they ever rode against each other in saddle broncs. She’d beat most men.
The palomino stopped bucking and ran hard. Halfway around, she broke out into another, less-intense, series of leaps. Ruby booted her hard and got the mare running again. Gabe watched, entranced, as the bucks lessened until horse and rider made two clear circuits of the pen. Then Ruby eased Sunshine back to a trot and worked her in big serpentine loops. After that, she asked for a gallop in the opposite direction. But that was it for the dramatics. While the big mare was frothy with sweat, her ears pricked forward now and her head was much lower. Show was over. He could go rejoin Craig.
Except Gabe didn’t feel like it. He was lonely, damn it, and it’d be nice to have someone to talk to besides Craig. Especially someone as cute as Ruby Barkley. And her reputation as the Ice Princess meant she wasn’t likely to be interested in playing buckle bunny head games
As horse and rider ambled in a big, relaxed walk on a long rein, he climbed up on the fence, cautiously watching the golden mare’s reactions. He clapped softly. His grandmother Donna would be scheming to throw Ruby up on one of her show jumpers if she had seen this performance. Especially the sparky warmbloods.
Ruby looked up, startled.
“That was a damn good ride,” Gabe said.
“Thank you. Got to get her cooled off before my grandfather gets here with the trailer, or else I’d talk more. Don’t want to hold him up too long. He’s been haying all day.”
And now that was another piece of the Ruby Barkley puzzle. Why wasn’t she here with her own rig?
Curious, Gabe leaned forward and pushed his hat back so that she could see him more clearly. He grinned at her.
“Wouldn’t want to delay your grandfather,” he said. “I’ll walk with you while we talk, unless you think it will set her off again. Or if you want to be left alone.”
Ruby glanced over at the arena, a worried expression tightening her face. Gabe bet that she was thinking about Ridley.
“It might set her off. She reacts poorly to some men.”
“Should I stay by the fence?”
That earned him a closer look. He smiled bigger and tried to look harmless. The tense lines in her face softened a little. He’d made a good impression.
“No. I want to get her past that reaction to men. See if it’s just Troy or what. She doesn’t react to my grandfather.”
He had to admire the mare as well as the rider, then. Gabe chuckled and eased off of the fence, moving slowly and watching the mare as he walked toward her.
“Well, hell, I don’t blame her for reacting badly to that loudmouth Ridley.”
“He does have quite the following.”
Sunshine tensed. Gabe stopped five feet away, watching the horse and not the woman right now.
“Less than you think,” he said to Ruby. Then he changed his tone to a soft, coaxing voice, just like his grandmother Donna had taught him years ago. Her vocals were integral to Martiniere mind control, so they probably worked with horses as well. “Hey there, pretty girl,” he wheedled, watching Sunshine’s facial muscles. “You need to be nicer to your human. You gonna let me come up to you, you pretty thing? Pretty girl. Silly pretty girl.” He advanced slowly. “Come on. I’m not going to hurt you or your human.”
The golden mare snorted and shook her head and neck. Gabe froze for a moment. Then her ears flipped toward him and the tense muscles around her eyes softened. Her lips were still tight but she was willing to tolerate him.
“Pretty girl. Pretty girl.” He extended the back of his hand. The mare stretched out her neck as far as she could reach. Gabe stood still as she sniffed his hand, then exhaled. He moved a little closer and slowly ran his hand up her head to scratch the big diamond-shaped star at the top of Sunshine’s blaze. Most horses liked being scratched there, in his experience.
“You know horses,” Ruby said, a surprised tone in her voice. “More than being a bronc rider.”
“My grandmother put me on a horse for the first time when I was three years old. Think your pretty girl will mind me walking alongside while we talk?” he repeated. “Just wanting to make sure.
Ruby shrugged. “One way to find out.”
Gabe moved to Sunshine’s side, scratching her neck under the mane. The mare blew a long, relaxed, exhale and turned her head toward him. The horse had accepted him. If not her rider—yet. At this point he was becoming very interested in Ms. Ruby Barkley, more than just casual chatting. No coy games. A straight shooter. A horsewoman.
“Nice mare, even if she does buck. Looks like she could have won tonight, if she hadn’t decided to pitch that fit. She’s got the speed, and that one barrel she didn’t buck through looked pretty dang nice.”
They started walking. Gabe rested his hand on the mare’s neck. Her muscles remained relaxed.
“Yeah, bucking’s her issue. I got her for cheap because of that habit.”
“Oh?” So Ruby wasn’t afraid to rehab difficult horses. Another point in her favor.
“She has a history of setting back when tied, rearing, and bucking. I’ve not seen the problem with tying. Rearing and bucking, yes. But I got her from a girl whose boyfriend beats up on horses, and she’s not easy on them either.”
Definitely a decent horsewoman, then. Not everyone would take on a mare with that level of problems. “That’s not good. You don’t get far with a sensitive mare like this by beating them around.”
“No. You don’t.” She paused. “I’m Ruby Barkley.” Her tone was a little softer, but still protective.
“One of the Pendleton Round-Up Princesses. I know. My name is Gabe Ramirez, and I’ve got to say, I’m impressed by a pretty lady who can sit a horse as well as you do. I followed you over here because this girl looked like she still had some fight in her, and didn’t know if you might need some help.”
“As you can see, I didn’t,” she countered. But the edge had shifted from tense to slightly flirty, and there was a twinkle in those blue eyes. She was liking his chat. Ice Princess? Didn’t seem that way.
Then again, her horse had accepted him. That might be the key to the Ice Princess.
Gabe chuckled. “I also wanted a chance to admire a damn fine horsewoman working with a tough horse. “ Yeah, he was impressed. “And.” His tone tightened a little bit as he remembered that girl in California. “I heard Ridley muttering around about coming over here to harass you with some of his buddies. He won’t fuck with you when I’m around.”
“Oh? I appreciate the thought, but I can handle myself with him.” Confident. He liked that in a woman.
“From the way he talked, it sounded like you two had a history.” He wasn’t going to bring Craig into it just yet. “Figured you didn’t need the hassle, especially with your horse acting like this. And it gave me the excuse to introduce myself.”
“Yeah. History.” A bitter tone in her voice. “He’s the king of handsy-ness. And of refusing to take no for an answer.”
“He does have that reputation. Not just with you.”
Sunshine’s neck tightened under Gabe’s hand as they heard loud, drunken, male voices.
“Hey Ruby, you goddamn bitch!” Troy Ridley, in finest form. And now he had an excuse to shut the fucker up.
Gabe glided away from Sunshine. “Leave her the fuck alone, Ridley!”
“Or what, Ramirez?” Ridley started to climb the fence, beer bottle in hand.
Gabe allowed his lips to part in a feral grin as he approached the fence, putting on his Martiniere glower. Ridley was too drunk to notice but his companions moved back. Good. And oh, he was so going to enjoy kicking Ridley’s ass. Ridley didn’t have Martiniere training.
“Or I’ll kick your goddamn ass again for harassing women.” He shoved Ridley back over the fence, leaping over it, his grin widening. “Like this.”
It was almost too easy as the others hung back to give them space. And it felt damned good to send Ridley staggering. A few blows, and Ridley was on hands and knees, shaking his head.
“Get him the fuck out of here,” he growled to Ridley’s companions. “You guys know better. He’s too fucking drunk.” He caught a glimpse of Craig hanging back by one of the bull pens, close enough to intervene if needed, but otherwise not obvious.
“You’ll pay for this, Ramirez!” Ridley snarled.
Gabe laughed, thinking about the trial awaiting Ridley. “Don’t think so, Ridley. I don’t pick on people smaller than me.”
Still, he stood there, fists loosely clenched, until Ridley’s buddies dragged him away. Then he exhaled, releasing the anger, and turned back to the fence. Ruby was schooling Sunshine in tight figure eights at a trot—the mare must have gotten agitated from the fight, maybe even her rider. Damn it.
He eased over the fence and approached them cautiously.
“Sorry. The mother—” he caught himself, not knowing how she felt about swearing. “Excuse me. The fool should know better. Sunshine okay? Not freaking out?”
“A little worried, but she’s settling. And a few swear words don’t hurt my fucking ears. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
Gabe laughed with relief. He hadn’t lost any ground with Ruby, and Sunshine pricked her ears at him, the muscles around her eyes soft again. As he put his hand on Sunshine’s neck again, both woman and mare exhaled softly. He was accepted. By both of them.
“All right. You said your grandfather’s picking you up?” Maybe she was younger than he thought. But she was in college. Shouldn’t she have her own rig?
“Yeah. My truck died.” She sighed. “It was probably stupid to come to this rodeo. She did so well last week in Umatilla. But Sunshine doesn’t like this arena, and I figured that maybe we could work on it.” A regretful tone. But he didn’t regret it one damn bit.
“Must live close.”
“Over in Thunder County—for the summer, anyway. Then it’s back to school.”
“Senior year. Oregon State. Agricultural robotics.”
Not stupid at all, for sure, not when she was studying that field at that university. Close enough to his own robotics studies at the University of Paris. Beauty, brains, a horsewoman, and not afraid of being profane. And close to legal age, if not already there. God, he really was at risk of falling in love with this woman. Already. He should turn and walk away because she was a huge risk. But his loneliness kept him there.
“Ag robotics. That’s a big field.”
“Lots of places to go with it. I keep thinking that if we can track field data down to the plant level, that would open a lot of possibilities for pinpoint treatments. Hope to apply it to Gramps’s ranch.”
Be still his beating heart. Crud. Very close to his own field, even if his uncle wouldn’t acknowledge Gabe’s expertise and tried to pervert it by forcing him to work on mind control implants.
“Oh yeah.” He wanted to let her know he wasn’t just any dumbass bronc rider, but he didn’t dare talk about his own robotics experience. The field was too damn small. “I’m in a somewhat related field. I’ve got a degree in microbial ag.” Close enough.
“Really?” Interest rose in her voice. “Where are you working?”
And that was the catch. What could he tell her? He hadn’t figured on meeting an intriguing woman while on the run. Didn’t have a story ready.
“Nowhere, at the moment.” He fumbled for a reason. “I’m riding the circuit for—reasons.” His glib phrases seemed to have whispered away, damn it. “Not a good idea for me to settle in one place.”
“Are you in trouble with the law?”
Ah. He did have the bounty hawks on his tail. Another explanation offered itself.
“No. But I owe enough on student loans to be far too attractive to the Martiniere Group indenture bounty hawks with the degree that I have.” Aha. Perfect. That way if Joey or Philip’s heavies came down on her looking for him, she’d think it was just student loan debt.
“I worry about that myself sometimes,” Ruby said softly, her voice troubled. “So far Gramps and Granma have been able to help me. It’s not living well—I’m working part time and eating ramen—but I’ve been able to keep my head above water financially.”
“That’s good,” he said, a sudden flash of what life in indenture would be like for this woman. No. That absolutely couldn’t happen. “You don’t want to see indenture as a woman.” Joey and the way he abused any indentured woman—as bad as Troy Ridley. “Especially with your focus on ag robotics. You really don’t.” The Martinieres would gobble her up—and Joey would target a woman like Ruby.
“If I have to drop out first, I will.”
“Hope you don’t. So this girl goes on vacation when you go back, or are you doing remote studies this fall?”
She shook her head. “Too many hands-on labs to study remote. At least for my focus. And I’ll be taking Sunshine with me. I work at one of the lesson barns near Corvallis. Pays for housing for me and one horse in return for stall mucking and feeding.”
“Who are you working for?”
He whistled in respect. Lora Smith was not just anyone. She was a high-level former Olympic eventer. That meant—damn. Ruby was good. Tonight wasn’t a fluke.
“Damn. Not everyone gets to work with her. But—rodeo? I thought she was more dressage and eventing.” His cousin Justine had occasionally lessoned with Lora Smith. He hadn’t known Smith was in Oregon now.
“She is. The other job I have is help with rehabs and colt starting plus riding training horses at the small shows. I do like learning new things.”
Yes. Ruby was damn good if she was doing that with Smith.
“Eh, my grandmother did low-level eventing, so I know a little bit about that world.” He heard footsteps on gravel and tensed, wondering if Ridley had gotten away from his buddies and was on his way back to hassle Ruby some more.
“Ruby?” Cautious, but older than Ridley. The man came into sight. Skinny, lanky, face lined and dusty, head covered by a gimme cap advertising a seed company, long gray hair pulled back in a pony tail.
“Just cooling Sunshine off.” Ruby’s voice was tired and perhaps a little cautious herself. Gabe bent to check between Sunshine’s forelegs to see if she was still hot, so Ruby wouldn’t have to.
“She’s still wet but cool now, Ruby. Should be fine,” he said softly to her.
“Who’s this with you?” Demanding, protective. Must be the grandfather.
“Gabe Ramirez.” He straightened up and spread his hands, doing his best to look unthreatening. “Came over to see if your granddaughter needed any help with this mare and—Troy Ridley and his buddies were talking trash when she came out of the arena. Troy won’t bother her if I’m around.”
That earned him a grudging but respectful look, if still somewhat suspicious. “Ron Ryder. Appreciate it. Ruby. She blew up on you again?”
“Yeah, first and third barrels,” Ruby said as she reached forward to rub Sunshine’s neck. “But she settled once I rode through it here in the pen. And she was calm around Gabe. No tension.”
“Well, that’s something,” Ryder said. “She doesn’t hate all men. Just certain ones.”
“Mare’s got good taste if she doesn’t like Troy Ridley.” Gabe took advantage of Sunshine’s relaxation to show off for Ryder a little bit and scratch the golden mare’s jaw. “I like that in a horse.”
Ryder snorted. “So you’re not a fan of Ridley, either.” Statement, not a question.
“Don’t like men who talk down women. Especially loudmouths who think that getting rough with horses and women is a good idea.”
Ryder eyed him speculatively. “Heard that Troy got into a little trouble for doing both a few weekends back. You know anything about that?”
“I might,” Gabe admitted while Ruby dismounted. He faced Ryder straight on. “I am good at not leaving a lot of marks. Learned in a tough school.”
That earned him a sharp laugh from Ryder. “Got it. All right, Ruby. Let’s get this cranky mare back home.”
“I’ll get the gate for you.” He walked next to Ruby, fighting back the itch to take her hand. Damn it, he wanted to see more of this woman. “Well, Ruby Barkley. I’m sure I’ll see you and this pretty girl around some more.” He closed the gate after them, tipped his hat, and walked away, fighting back an urge to look behind him to watch her load Sunshine, focusing instead on Craig.
Craig handed Gabe a check. “We held on to third.”
“Good.” Gabe worked his shoulders to loosen them up. She was a Pendleton Round-Up Princess. He’d be sure to see her again somewhere on the circuit.
Craig chuckled and elbowed Gabe. “And yet another man falls to the lure of the Ice Princess. Looked like you were making some good time with her there.”
Gabe rolled his eyes. “She didn’t seem so icy to me.”
“She’s still dangerous as hell, Ramirez. A lot of men have tried and failed to crack that shell.”
“I always appreciate a challenge.”
“Mm. Well, she’s gonna be at the Sweets rodeo next week. Court appearance.” Craig smirked. “I suppose you’re gonna want to stay over for the week instead of the night.”
Gabe laughed. “Might as well see if I can lose this check on the entry fee. Think you might have some ranch work to keep my hands busy?”
“Man, I can always use a hand. Be worth it to watch you crash and burn with the Princess.”
“I won’t crash,” Gabe said, a confidence he didn’t quite feel in his voice. “Give me six months. You’ll see. We’ll be dating by then.”
“Stake money on it?”
“One hundred bucks.”
“It’s a bet.”
Gabe grinned to himself as they walked to Craig’s truck. One way or another he’d figure out Ruby Barkley.
The question was, what would he do after that?
Gabe felt a lot better about the Sweets rodeo—called that because it was part of a celebration of the local onion crop—when he saw who the stock contractor was. One of his favorite buckers was in the lineup—now, if he could just manage to draw Skydancer. That would be his best opportunity to impress Ruby.
But there were other, good horses from that contractor as well. Many of his favorites. All the same, he really hoped to get Skydancer.
Soon enough he and Craig were hanging out by the in gate for the Grand Entry. Ruby was back up on Sunshine, but the palomino mare was completely different from the weekend before, relaxed even in the warmup before the entry started. Redheaded rider and golden mare tore around the arena at high speed, a gorgeous sight.
Craig elbowed him. “Man, she’s got her hooks into you bad. Stop drooling.”
“Can’t help it. They’re a nice pair when they’re clicking.” Gabe grinned at Craig. He was in the last batch of saddle bronc riders, and he’d pulled Skydancer. He actually had a decent chance to impress Ruby tonight…and Sweets had a dance afterward.
It was just going to be a question of when he could relieve Craig of his hundred dollars. Oh, this was going to be a good night.
Soon enough it was time to prep Skydancer. Gabe made extra certain of his equipment.
“Hey there, big fella, we’re gonna win tonight,” he said softly to the big chestnut and white draft-cross Paint. “You feelin’ good?”
The stud snorted and raised his head high, fixing Gabe with his one blue eye. Gabe eased down on his back, made sure he was set and ready before the gate swung wide.
Skydancer didn’t disappoint. Gabe fell into the rhythm of the big stud’s leaps and twists, rhythmically raking his taped spurs across the horse’s shoulders and keeping his focus. The eight-second buzzer startled him as much as it did Skydancer, breaking into their flow. But then the stallion took off running. Gabe leaned forward to encourage him, a big grin splitting his face. That had been a good ride and he knew it down to the bones in his little toes. The big stud loved to run when he got a chance and Gabe didn’t mind encouraging it.
The pickup men finally caught up with them, and just like the ride, it was a perfect dismount. Exhilaration filled Gabe and he threw his hands up high, laughing as the crowd cheered. Skydancer broke away from the pickup riders, still into galloping big and hard, snorting with each stride. Gabe paused to watch the big stud, savoring Skydancer’s enjoyment of their audience.
Skydancer charged toward him. Gabe faced him, laughing hard now because he felt connected to the big horse, thrilling because they shared a bit of jubilation. The horse paused in front of Gabe and reared, tossing his head to cheers from the crowd. Gabe tossed his head in return and snorted.
“Thanks for the ride, big fella!” he shouted, saluting Skydancer, then bowing as the crowd roared even louder while Skydancer galloped to the gate. Then he dared to turn and look at the scoreboard.
GABE RAMIREZ was in first place, several points ahead of his nearest competitor. A safe lead.
Gabe whooped and pumped his fists. He picked up a run, slowing only to scoop up his hat and plop it on his head. He sure as hell hoped Ruby had seen this ride. One of his best ever.
She was at the gate, blue eyes shining bright, cheeks flushed. Yes, he’d made a good impression.
“Well, if it isn’t Princess Ruby Barkley,” he said. Damn, she looked good in her princess outfit. “You’re looking lovely tonight.”
“High scoring cowboy’s full of flattery.” But there was a big grin on her face as she said it.
Gabe laughed, leaning on the gate next to her, brushing elbows. Was it his imagination or did electricity spark between them?
“Ain’t that the truth. Skydancer gave me a good ride. He’s one of my favorites. We usually score well together when I draw him ‘cause we both love to show off and can match our rhythms. Oh, it feels great tonight. But I know damn good and well it can go the other way on me the next time with a horse I’m not in tune with. Still not good enough to make that work.”
He’d made even more of a positive impression on her with that speech, from the way her smile grew, more authentic than the standard queen version. He could already tell the difference in her smiles. And another brush of elbows sent a sharper tingle through him.
Oh yeah, there was chemistry between them all right.
“So true about the flow. I know how things can change,” she said. And he could tell from her smile that she was thinking about that fast, hard, elegant Grand Entry gallop on Sunshine.
“With that palomino of yours, I bet. No bucking from her tonight.”
“She likes this arena. So far, that’s the only factor I can identify.”
Time to move on before she had to go back to work. “Going to be at the dance tonight?”
She shook her head, smile fading. “No. I need to head out. Leaving early tomorrow for Corvallis.”
Damn it. “I was looking forward to a dance with a princess, especially since I had such a good ride. I didn’t think Oregon State started up this soon.”
She hesitated, the glow fading slightly. “Uh, no. Couple of things. Lora wanted me back early, and then Dr. Green asked me to assist at a late summer seminar.”
Whoa. Now that was a different story. She wasn’t just shining him on. “Green asked an undergrad to assist? Damn, lady. You’re good.”
The compliment flushed her cheeks again and she grinned, showing him a dimple in her left cheek, even as she shrugged. “He’s my advisor, and he recruited me for OSU over Washington State. Based on my 4H presentations and some other things I did in high school.”
“Ah. I see.” He was going to have to look those up. 4H presentations weren’t enough to get Green’s attention. He suspected he’d discover that Ruby Barkley was a research powerhouse in her own right.
“I’ll still be at the Round-Up.”
He tightened his lips. Now that was too damn risky. “Too public. If there’s one place the Martiniere bounty hunters are gonna be, that’s it.” He sighed, surprised at his disappointment. “Oh well, Ruby Barkley. Here’s to hoping we see each other on the circuit next year. Looks like I owe Craig a hundred bucks. Easy come, easy go.
Though it wasn’t about the money. There was just something about this woman.
It was one of the hardest damn things he’d ever done to turn and walk away from her.
Hope flared. “Yes, princess?” He whirled to face her.
“I’ll be at several shows in the Valley this fall. Might even do some barrel racing with Sunshine. Gotta see what Lora wants me to do. If you’re headed in that direction….”
It was something, and it told him that she did want to see him again.
“Let me give you my number. Text me with your schedule. I’ll make it if I can. No promises, but I’ll try.” Now what kind of temporary farm work could he find in the Willamette Valley?
“Sure,” she said as she handed him her phone. “I could give you my number too.”
His breath caught and their eyes met. He couldn’t hide the big grin or the leap of joy within him at that.
“Princess, I’d love just that.”
Numbers entered; phones handed back. Their fingers brushed and he felt that jolt again. From the rising flush on her cheeks, he suspected her reaction was much the same as his.
“I’ll be seeing you this fall,” he said, giving her a salute like he had Skydancer.
“I’ll hold you to that.” Another big genuine smile, and then she turned back to her gate duties.
He went to find Craig.
“Congrats on the win,” Craig said. “So you get very far with the Princess?”
“Mm,” Gabe said, rocking his head side to side, half-smiling. “She’s gotta go back to Corvallis tomorrow so she’s not gonna be at the dance.”
Craig snorted. “I warned you, Ramirez. You ready to pay up?”
“Buuuut—” Gabe drawled out the word. “I did get her number. We’re gonna meet up in the Valley this fall. You and I agreed on six months. I’ll have a date with her by the end of the year.”
Craig’s double take was priceless. “Ruby Barkley never gives her number out. Never.”
“Well, it just happened.” Gabe smirked at him, waggling his phone.
Now he just needed to figure out what he was going to do and how he was going to pull this off.
Dealing with Ridley’s grand jury turned out to take longer than he thought. It wasn’t until October that Gabe was back in Oregon, looking for work in the Willamette Valley. Timing worked in his favor, though. He found a slot at a Christmas tree farm and a cheap studio in an old 1950s-era motel where other farmworkers lived. At least his darker skin helped him blend in.
What research he could do online confirmed his first suspicions. Ruby was a powerhouse in her own right. Junior Miss Rodeo Oregon. Teen Miss Rodeo Oregon, in addition to being the Thunder County Days Queen and Pendleton Round-Up princess. Competition outfits designed by her grandmother, who was an ex-rodeo queen herself. Advisor Vickie Chandler, who’d been first runner-up for Miss Rodeo America in her day. And that was just the rodeo background. Sunshine was probably the best barrel horse Ruby owned, judging from what he could find of her placements. That was probably had more to do with the quality of horse she was riding and not her skill as a horsewoman.
Ruby hadn’t won bot design competitions, but she consistently placed in the top five of the ones she’d entered. He recognized one bot that had caught the attention of his uncle Arthur, a member of the French branch of the Martinieres, when Gabe was interning in his division. Solid work. She was better at design than he was, for certain. He might be the better programmer but she was still no slouch.
His phone crashed and it took him several weeks to safely replace it and upload his data. That required careful negotiations with his cousin Serg because Gabe wasn’t about to get just any phone. He needed every bit of Martiniere and Vygotsky security that Serg was willing to smuggle to him.
And he’d missed several texts from her. Damn it.
But. Even as he scowled at his phone, debating with himself about how risky it might be to drift by Lora Smith’s barn and chance Lora recognizing him, another text popped up.
Spending my birthday at a jumper schooling show at the Hunt Club. Complete with date and address. Tomorrow, damn it. Not much time to prepare.
He checked his funds. If he managed things right, he could buy her dinner. Yeah. That sounded right. Now if his beater car would hold up for the hour and a half drive to the show….
Gabe heard his cousin Justine talking when he went into the arena, so he slipped out of the bleachers and went around to the stable alleyways. Damn it. He’d have to be extra careful. He pulled his hat low over his eyes and walked the stable. No sign of Lora Smith’s string here. Must be in the temporary stalls outside.
He found Lora’s setup, with one horse in the row of stalls. No sign of Ruby or Lora, so they had to be warming up. Gabe checked the outdoor arena and spotted Ruby on a big dark bay mare that reminded him of her Sunshine horse in how she acted. High-headed, big-eyed, looking at everything. He suspected the mare was a greenie from the way she moved. But a warmblood, with a strength closer to that of Skydancer’s. If the big mare chose to buck…then again, he suspected that was why Lora had hired Ruby. If she could sit Sunshine like she had, she’d ride through warmblood antics easily.
When Ruby rode the dark bay toward the arena, he followed, hanging back. She looked even better in the form-fitting breeches, tall boots, white shirt and jacket than she did in her Western wear. Legs that went on forever, long-waisted, her red hair neatly corralled into a bun just below her helmet. The bay mare was washy, foam forming on her neck where the reins rubbed, and between her hind legs. Definitely a young, green horse.
When their number was called, Ruby had to circle the big mare a couple of times, gently twitching the rein to get her attention back as the big bay stared pop-eyed at everything. He could tell Ruby was balancing the need to correct the young horse with keeping the mare’s confidence, not pushing. She’s a good greenie rider.
Then the big mare bolted at a double combination, clearing the fences with two feet at least to spare and going long, landing and taking off again instead of cantering a stride first. Gabe nodded to himself. That young horse had scope. The mare knocked down a rail at the next fence, which seemed to settle her.
He waited impatiently as Ruby and Lora talked. Come on, come on. He could feel the eyes of Justine’s security on him. He needed to talk to Ruby to set up tonight’s dinner and then get the hell out of here. Too exposed. At last Ruby dismounted and led the big mare toward the gate. He opened it for her.
“Thanks,” she said, not really noticing him. He pushed his hat back a little. But before he could speak, she stopped and took a second look. “Gabe?”
“None other, princess,” he said, relief flooding through him as they walked toward Lora’s stall row. “I thought I’d see if you wanted to do a birthday dinner after the show.”
“I’ve got to get the horses settled in.” She grinned. “But yes.”
“Not a problem. Lora helps you?”
“No, most of the time once the horses are unloaded, I do the rest of it.”
They stopped in front of one of the stalls. “I’ll see you there. I know where the barn is, have a pretty good idea of when you’ll get back. Can’t hang out here too long. Too many bounty hawks around even at this little show.”
He started to walk away.
“I don’t even get a birthday kiss?” she called after him.
He couldn’t help grinning as he turned back. A wicked smile was on her lips and that dimple in her left cheek showed again.
“Didn’t know we were on those terms yet.” And she had the reputation of being the Ice Princess? Damn. He must be doing something right if she was being this flirty.
She shrugged. “It’s my birthday. You’re going to take me out to dinner. I figure I can at least give you a kiss. Especially for dealing with Troy that night. Never did thank you properly for that.”
“Well, can’t let it be said that Gabe Ramirez turned down an offer of a kiss from such a pretty lady.” He ambled back to her. “I am C-19 safe, in case you were wondering.”
“So am I.” Those bright blue eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Figured as much.” He chose to keep this first kiss cautious, delicately pressing his lips to hers, chaste without offering any pressure.
“Is that how a saddle bronc rider kisses a rodeo princess?” Oh, she was definitely flirty.
“That’s for later,” he said, a thrill washing over him at that prospect. “I’m no damn Troy Ridley to push myself on a woman too early in a relationship. Figure we needed to know each other a little better first.”
She grinned. He’d scored with that one.
“See you later then.”
He wasn’t so ecstatic that he didn’t forget to be cautious as he went back to his car. It wouldn’t do to get caught now.
Once he got back to his studio to change for that evening, he sent a text to Craig.
Dinner date with the Princess tonight.
You be careful. Remember what I told you, Craig sent back.
All the same, Gabe didn’t feel like being cautious when it came to Ruby.
Lora’s barn was next to a wildlife viewing area. He couldn’t view the barn itself because it was in a grove of Douglas firs that obscured everything except the front pastures, but the driveway entrance was easily seen.
Keep that in mind, Gabriel, he warned himself. At least his careful scouting had told him that this was the only discreet vantage point for anyone watching the barn.
His estimate of Ruby and Lora’s arrival time was off by maybe half an hour, because he hadn’t been in the lot for long before the truck and trailer with Lora’s stable logo drove by. Then it was waiting to see if and when Lora left. Half an hour, and a car exited the driveway, going in the opposite direction. He waited ten minutes, then cautiously drove to the barn.
He found Ruby taking care of the three horses who had been at the show, tossing a blanket on the one she’d been riding.
“She’s a pretty girl.”
Ruby didn’t startle when he spoke, so he figured she’d looked up when he came through the barn door.
“Green as can be, but she redeemed herself this afternoon. Young.”
He followed Ruby and the big mare to her stall. Sunshine nickered at him as she came up to the front of her stall, and Gabe rubbed her nose.
“Guess you remember me, eh, girl?”
Ruby handed him a treat. “She’s being a jealous treat hog.”
He gave it to Sunshine, then scratched her nose some more. Ruby checked the other two mares and started wiping down tack. He joined her.
“You know the routine.”
He nodded. “Donna—my grandmother was pretty strict about us kids cleaning tack.”
“So how dressed up do I have to get for dinner?” she asked.
“Not very. Depends on how much you want to go out wearing breeches, tall boots, and all after the show.”
She chuckled. “I can change once we’re done here.”
After they finished cleaning tack, he looked closer at the other two horses. Ruby put things away, then took another one to her stall, leaving a big chestnut mare who let Gabe know with brushes of her nose that she really wanted her head scratched.
“This girl’s nice,” he said as Ruby came back.
“Yeah. Lora thinks she’s got a good amateur owner lined up to buy her. Apparently one of the Martinieres.”
Oh fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He laughed hollowly. “No wonder I thought I saw some Martiniere bounty hawks drifting around.” He was in big trouble. Hopefully it was just Justine…but he had no idea how she was leaning these days. He hadn’t seen her since the trial.
Ruby put the last mare away. “We can go now.”
“I can wait for you at the car.”
She shrugged as she walked toward the other end of the barn. “I don’t have any problems with you coming into my apartment.”
“You sure?” So where the hell had she gotten the reputation of being the Ice Princess if she was this open?
“I asked around. You’ve got a good reputation. I’m not worried.”
“Okay.” Well, she’d invited him—and she’d vetted him with other women on the circuit. He’d take her up on it. “Sorry. I’ve just spent the last few weeks dealing with—that little incident with Troy that your grandfather mentioned.”
They entered the studio and he looked around. Neat, everything in order and in place. Wall of monitors showing alleyways and stalls. Ruby unzipped her tall boots and pulled out clothes to change into.
He exhaled. “Girl that he beat up took a turn for the worse. Had to be a grand jury witness. Troy’s been charged with attempted manslaughter.”
“Oh.” She fled to the bathroom.
He kept looking around the studio. No fancy frills. Books, tablet, computer neatly laid out on the desk. Organized. A lot like his own small room except for the monitors.
Ruby came out of the bathroom and grabbed a pair of nice cowboy boots out of the closet. “I’m not surprised about Troy. He tried getting rough with me a few years ago when I wouldn’t say yes to him. So I decked him.”
“No wonder he doesn’t like you.”
She shrugged, pulling on her boots. “I’m one who got away. I chose to date another guy instead of him. Plus I beat him out when I bought Sunshine.” She straightened up. “Okay. I’m ready.”
“Only if you want to do it that way. Otherwise, I’m comfortable with you driving. I’d much rather not drive my truck into town if I can avoid it. Emissions issues.”
Gabe resisted the impulse to take Ruby’s hand or touch her as they walked to his car, but he turned on the full range of Martiniere manners that Donna-gran and his mother had pounded into him, opening the passenger door for her with a bow. Ruby giggled, flushing a little and the dimple popping out.
They chatted idly as he drove to the nice deli and bakery he’d discovered in Corvallis. Ruby ordered wine, and the server congratulated her on coming of age after looking at her ID.
So she’s just twenty-one. A year older than he’d thought. And his comment regarding being strict about age of consent scored another point—at least a flash of dimple.
He kept the chatter light and casual, pulling on the playboy Gabe persona he’d adopted to distract Joey and Philip from his real goals. When Ruby rested her hand on the table while they waited on her complementary birthday cupcake, he dared place his hand near hers. She delicately brushed an index finger across his knuckles, that wicked grin coming back.
Gabe fumbled his words, forgetting what he was saying. He wrapped his hand around hers as silence fell between them.
No. He wasn’t dealing with a shy virgin here, but a woman who was definitely interested and not afraid to let him know it. How far would they go tonight?
He didn’t think he was in charge. And he was quite happy to follow her lead.
They released their hands as their server and a couple more staff members brought out a chocolate cupcake with a single candle burning on it, singing “Happy Birthday.” After Ruby blew out the candle, she cut the cupcake in half.
“Cake’s meant to be shared,” she said in a husky voice that sent a frisson of delight through him.
He picked up the bigger half and offered it to her. Ruby nibbled it carefully, that wicked grin with the dimple returning as her tongue flicked at his fingers. He shivered, and traced her lips with a fingertip. That grin spread as she licked her lips slowly, then picked up the other half of the cupcake and held it out to him.
He reciprocated in turn, gently sucking on her fingertips. That widened her eyes and she quavered a little, the grin getting even bigger.
After he paid the bill, he bowed and offered his arm to her.
“Old-fashioned, but all the same, shall we?”
They strolled around the downtown, still talking idly, but he was intensely aware of her presence next to him. At last they reached his car.
“I owe you a good kiss for your birthday, Ruby.”
“Absolutely.” Her voice was deep and husky now, almost a purr. She pressed into Gabe as he wrapped his arms around her and they kissed. Ruby’s tongue teased against his lips and he parted them slightly, daring to meet her tongue with his.
He finally broke it off. “Much more of this in public and we’ll be in trouble.”
“If we keep it up here, yeah,” she said. “Let’s take it to my place.”
“You sure about that?”
“Not my first go-round. I’m pretty darn selective; have birth control and disease protection. Plus I have a weak spot for a nice guy with good manners who I might possibly rope into helping me do chores in the morning. Lora’s taking the day off.”
He laughed. “Well, if that’s what it takes, I can sure live up to it.” He stole another kiss, then opened the door for her.
As he drove off, she rested her left hand on his thigh. He placed his on top of hers.
He was relieved to see that there weren’t any observers at the wildlife area as they drove by. Ruby directed him around to the back side of the barn—even better—and he parked next to a beater truck. She waited for him to open her door and take her hand, then pulled him to her for another kiss as intense as the last one.
“We’d better get inside,” he said shakily when their lips parted.
Ice Princess? Like hell.
Ruby yelped as he swept her up into his arms. Surprise was replaced by a knowing smirk as he carried her to the door. Within two steps of the door closing behind them they were shedding coats and boots. Ruby pulled at his shirt and he took her hands.
“A warning. I’m pretty badly scarred,” he said. “You may not want to see. A bad car wreck.”
Her lips tightened. Then she took his right hand, guiding it to her head until he felt the slight rough spot. “Beer bottle to my head.” She stepped away, pulled off her shirt, and undid her bra. “Burns. And tire irons leave a mark as well.” Ruby turned her back to him and he saw the old, faded scars. Not as bad as his, but….
He growled. “Who would dare—I’ll make them pay.”
She gulped as she faced him again. “You’re a few years too late. They’re dead.”
Gabe kissed the mark on her shoulder. “All right.” He took a deep breath. He’d never shown his scars to a lover before now, but she’d shown him hers first. He pulled his shirt off and turned his back to her. He thought he heard a soft cry. Then her fingers brushed lightly against the marks on his shoulder blades, followed by feathery kisses that made him gasp. Her firm hands guided him around and they kissed again.
“I—it’s been a while—may be out of practice,” he whispered.
She chuckled a deep throaty growl that grabbed him by the gonads as she unbuttoned his jeans. “Not the only one, cowboy. And who says we don’t have all the time in the world to get back into practice?”
Making love to Ruby was every bit as exquisite and marvelous as he hoped it would be. Afterwards, he pressed light kisses on her forehead, her brows, her eyelids and cheekbones and nose as she smiled, practically glowing with a softer purr in her throat.
Oh God, he was lost. Completely and totally lost. This woman owned him. He didn’t dare—but he’d never met a woman quite like Ruby Barkley. For a moment he wondered what the Martiniere emeralds would look like on her, then firmly shoved that notion away.
That life was gone. And he didn’t dare risk this woman. No. Finally something was going his way. Even if it was only one night, he would have this memory. Ruby. His Ruby. Beautiful, brilliant, and one hell of a horsewoman. What did he need emeralds for when there was a Ruby at hand?
“Thank you,” he whispered at last. “That was wonderful. Thank you.”
She smiled even bigger, that sparky edge gone. “You’re not as out of practice as you thought, Gabe Ramirez.” She stroked his forehead, tracing a finger down the deliberate scar left by the plastic surgery. “And I agree. Wonderful. I’m looking forward to getting to know you one hell of a lot better.”
He leaned his forehead against hers. “I don’t have much to offer, I’m afraid.”
Not unless I become Gabriel Martiniere again.
“That’s all right. You’ve got manners, a good heart, and brains. I don’t give a shit about anything else. It’s what we make of it—together.” She gulped. “Even if you have to take off because of the bounty hawks.”
“I won’t go without you knowing,” he promised. “If I can.”
“That’s all I ask. Do your best.”
Gabe took Ruby into his arms again.
No longer alone. To hell with you, Philip and Joey. I’ll go to hell to protect this woman if that’s what it takes.
Not that he thought she’d need much protection.
Except from Philip and Joey, that was.
This redheaded rodeo queen owned him now.
Rancher Ruby Barkley and her ex-husband Gabe Ramirez are competing head-to-head for the AgInnovator game show’s new one-shot award, the Ag Superhero. The winner walks away with $3.75 million per year for five years. But issues face Ruby and Gabe. Fence cutting. Rogue biobots. Physical attacks. And the need to save their son Brandon from indentured servitude. Then the secret shadow of Gabe’s hidden inheritance reveals itself.
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