"In two weeks, all this officially changes. Can you believe it? A goddamned reality show." Clint, my older brother, stared across the vast expanse of our family's land as I spoke.
I steadied my horse as we watched the Montana sky go from purple to pink. "It'll be a big adjustment, that's for damn sure. But Saddle Up saved us. There's no denying it. We’re already booking guests between seasons of the show and it hasn't even started filming yet." Clint nodded and let out a grunt of approval. "Ever says it’s only the beginning."
"It's the beginning of something."
“Speaking of the show,” he began, voice low and hesitant.
“What?” A sense of dread curled in my gut.
“Joey told Ever the studio wants to add a…romance to the season.”
I laughed. “Great, good luck to them. Though it seemed to work out for you.”
“They, uh…well, Buck, they want it to be between you and one of the cast members.”
I nearly choked. “You know, it’s early and I don’t think I heard you right. Did you say they want me to have a romance on the show?”
“You told her no, right? I’m not an actor. There’s nothing about me that says pretty boy TV star.”
He shrugged. “Figure they’ll call you in for a meeting today to set something up. You can handle it on your own.”
My brother didn't say anything else. Instead, he clicked his tongue and took off on his horse, Max. Time to go to work.
I pushed the looming meeting out of my mind as I headed for the pasture. We had calves to tend and plenty of chores to help usher in spring. The sun was up earlier every day but it was still damn cold this morning. Mist hovered over the grass as I rode out to start rounding up the calves so our vet, Clara, could check them over.
But as the day wore on, every call on the radio, every car coming down the long dirt drive had my heart lurching. There was no way in hell I’d be their Romeo on this show.
“What crawled up your ass and died?” My youngest brother, Tristan, asked as the two of us worked our problem horse, Wildfire, back and forth in the arena.
“I need a way out of something.”
He cocked a brow. “What?”
I told him my problem, and he chuckled. “That’s an easy fix.”
“Oh, is it? Tell me how, then.”
He shrugged. “Simple. Do what Clint did. Make yourself unavailable.”
“I doubt I’ll be able to fall in love and get engaged in a week.”
“Maybe you don’t have to. Find a girl, make her an offer. No-strings-attached. Twelve weeks as your fiancée. Enough money to make it worth her while.”
I let his words sink in. It could work. If I could figure out who to ask.
Ten years ago:
“One more day, then these girls are gonna get off our ranch and we won’t have to worry about them anymore,” Sam said as the two of us leaned against the fence rail outside of the arena. We had barrel racing duties today. Which meant helping the four teenage girls who’d joined us for our summer internship get ready for their first rodeo competition.
“Come on, you don’t mind it. They worship you. You’re a bull rider. You’re basically a god to them.” Sam was twenty-two, already a rodeo champion, and he had girls lining up to date him. Of course, he didn’t give them the time of day. My brother was focused on one thing. Winning.
“It’s not so bad having them giggle every time I tip my hat. They’re pretty cute.”
I looked at the four girls, three of whom were crowded together, whispering and casting glances at Sam. When he was around, I didn’t stand a chance. Both my older brothers were broad shouldered and chiseled, and the confidence Sam exuded made me look like a kid next to him.
“We’d better get started. They’re gonna turn on us any minute now.” I put on my hat and caught the eye of Penny, the little redhead. There was something about her. Something I really liked. I couldn’t stop looking at her, wondering what her hair felt like, what she smelled like. Girls always smelled good. She had sparkling green eyes and a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and she never looked at my brother. Not once. Not that she looked at me much either.
“All right, ladies. Let’s get this show on the road. The rodeo is in a few days and this is our last real chance to do some time trials.” Sam strode into the arena like he owned the place, and I guess he kinda did. One day this whole ranch would be ours. The Rykers were born to ranch. That’s what our dad always said.
We spent a good part of the day working with them on technique, and by the time they were done, we all were hungry and ready for supper. Except for Penny. That girl was standing in the center of the arena, scoping out the set up, and I could see her wheels turning. She was working out the route in her head. I’d watched my mama do the same thing.
“You need to use your legs more to get that horse going and sit deeper in your saddle.”
She nodded. “I know. There’s just so much to think about. And I get scared when we go too fast. I don’t want to fall off.”
“You can’t rodeo if you’re afraid of falling, sweetheart.”
Setting her jaw, she took a sharp breath. “I’m not here for rodeo.”
“Then why are you here?”
“My parents always ship me off for part of the summer. Same with my sisters. We’re too much trouble when we’re out of school.”
That made my throat tight. Her parents made her feel like she wasn’t wanted? I’d never had that.
“Buck, come on, what are you doing out here? Your mama is holding dinner on account of you.” My dad’s voice boomed from the end of the long path to the arena. “Get those barrels put away and go wash up.”
“Yes, sir,” I said before turning my attention to Penny. “You should go. Your supper’s gonna get cold.”
She shook her head, then started helping me clean up the arena with no other comment. We worked in silence until everything was put away, and I didn’t miss it when she watched me carry the barrels one by one and place them in the rack. I might have put on a show for her benefit, lifting the barrels rather than rolling them. She smiled, and it made my whole body heat. There was something about her that I just…liked. I wanted to be closer to her.
“I’ll walk you to the bunkhouse,” I offered.
“Thanks.” Her cheeks turned bright pink, and the two of us fell into step beside each other. She was so damn pretty.
When we got to the bunkhouse door, I shoved my hands into my pockets and worked to clear the nervous lump in my throat. “Did you have fun?”
“I…well, I mean…on the ranch? Tomorrow’s the last day.”
She smiled and toyed with the end of her ponytail. “Yeah. I did. It’s hard work, but I love the horses.”
“You’re good with them. You look good on the back of one.”
“Thanks. You look good too.” Her eyes widened, and embarrassment colored her features. “I mean…on a horse. You look good on your horse.”
“You never look at Sam,” I blurted.
She cocked her head and furrowed her brow. “What?”
“All the other girls. They look at him. You don’t.”
“I…” she hesitated, then stepped a touch closer. “I have someone else I like to look at.”
My heart was beating so fast I thought for sure she could hear it. “You do?”
Nodding, she bit her lower lip then looked away. “Yeah.”
Everything was hot and cold all at once, and I felt like all the blood was rushing from my head to…other places. She was close enough I could touch her, and the thought of that made my hands shake. This was my chance. My only chance. I went for it. I leaned in and pressed my lips to hers, my hat getting in the way until I took the damn thing off. She was soft and warm and everything I hoped my first kiss would be.
“Buck Ryker!” my dad called. “Get your butt home for supper right now.”
We broke apart and she stared at me, lips swollen, eyes bright. “That…”
“I gotta go,” I said, placing my hat back on my head. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart.”
Except I didn’t see her. She left that night and I didn’t know why.
* * *
He kissed me. Buck Ryker kissed me under the stars, and I wasn’t dreaming. My lips still felt like he was there, the ghost of his kiss lingering like…well, like a ghost. I’d never been kissed before. Sure, I’d practiced kissing my own hand, pretended I was kissing him. Him. The boy I’d had a crush on since I was twelve. The boy who I thought didn’t know I existed.
“Hello? Earth to Penny,” Suzi said, waving a hand in front of my face. “Why do you look like you’re floating? You need to bring your feet back to the ground where they belong.”
I brought my fingertips to my lips, not wanting to share my experience with Buck. I didn’t want her to ruin it. “Just had a good time in the arena today.”
“I had a good time watching Sam. God, he’s so cute. I think he likes me too. Did you see the way he was watching me on Max?”
I laughed, happy to take the focus off me. “Yeah, I’m sure a twenty-three year old bull rider wants you, Jess. Aside from the fact that you’re jailbait.”
“He’s only twenty-two. And I’m turning sixteen next month. We’re not that far apart.”
I scoffed. “Sure.”
“Did you guys hear about the bet?” Darcy skidded in from her bedroom and sat on the couch. “Sam bet Buck to kiss one of us before tomorrow night. I wonder who it’s going to be.”
“What?” My stomach hurt. A bet? He made a bet? How could he do that to me?
“Yeah. I was in the tack room grabbing a crop, and I overheard them. They didn’t know I was there, but it was definitely Buck and Sam.”
“Why would they do something like that?” I hated how my voice shook. I was mortified.
“Because they’re guys? Besides, a kiss is a kiss. If it takes a bet to get Buck to lock lips with one of us, I don’t care. I’d kiss any of the Rykers for pretty much any reason.” Suzi ran a brush through her sleek blond locks. I envied that hair. My own red curls were constantly frizzy and out of control.
My mom swore I’d figure it out one day, but how would she have known? Her own hair was straight and smooth, not wild and constantly tangled. “I think it’s mean.”
“That’s because you’re still a virgin. You don’t understand how guys work.”
Darcy threw an angry glare at Suzi and sat on the couch. “Don’t listen to her, Penny. She’s still a virgin too. She just wants us to think she’s hot shit.”
“If you try to tell us about that British guy you dated over spring break, I’m going to remind you that he was actually a fourteen-year old friend of your brother’s who pretended to be a Brit online.”
She deflated. “I can’t help that I’m a sucker for accents.”
“He didn’t have an accent. He lives next door to you.” Darcy exaggerated every word of the last sentence.
“Okay, okay. I get it. We’re all virgins. But can’t I just dream that maybe I’ll get to end this summer with a kiss from a hot cowboy?”
I couldn’t tell either of them that their chances were over because Buck had already picked his victim. He’d used me and kissed me until I was weak in the knees. But it was all a lie.
That night I called my sister to come pick me up, telling her I was sick. My parents would be pissed, but I couldn’t look Buck in the eye the next day. I couldn’t pretend he hadn’t hurt me.
So I left with the memory of his mouth on mine etched onto my heart forever. I wouldn’t ever forgive the Ryker boys for what they did to me, but I also wouldn’t forget the boy I always thought I’d end up with.