CALEB tightened the bull rope, making sure the bull rider had a good grip and that the bull still had the ability to move. The arena was loud, and the barrel man was doing his usual ditty for the crowd. He listened with half an ear, double-checking that everything was secure on his bull.
He looked into Whirlwind’s eyes and smiled. “Just one more, buddy, then it’s over.”
“For good or bad,” the bull rider said, thinking Caleb had been talking to him.
He patted the man’s shoulder and sat back, waiting for the bull rider to nod to the gate man to let him know he was ready. Caleb lifted his head and looked around the large arena. The crowd was loud, shouting and screaming for bull and man alike. He took a deep breath, taking in the sweat, the smell of bull, and the smell of victory. Whirlwind was the best bull in this arena. He had a 100 percent buck-off rate and the baddest reputation of any bull in the Professional Bull Riding circuit, or the PBR for short. He was up there with Bodacious and Dillinger, and he had won the Bucking Bull of the Year two years in a row.
He wasn’t the only bull Caleb had in the circuit, however. He had eight other strong bucking bulls, but none compared to Whirlwind.
He looked back down at Whirlwind and saw that the bull was antsy. He was ready to get out there and show the crowd what he had. The bull rider gave the gate man his nod. The chute opened, and Whirlwind lived up to his name.
The bull flew out of the chute, bucking like a demon, and the bull rider didn’t stand a chance. Whirlwind twisted like a tornado and kicked up dirt, making it hard for the bull rider to keep up. It wasn’t three seconds before the bull rider flew off and did a face-plant in the dirt.
The crowd ate it up, but the bull wasn’t done. Whirlwind ran after the rider even as the rodeo clowns descended on him, trying to keep the rider safe. The bull seemed to be satisfied with running those jokers off and let the bull rider gain his feet. The cowboy hightailed it out of the ring while the bull flung his head around in triumph. He strutted for the crowd, the flank strap and bull rope falling to the ground.
Caleb grinned wide, his face actually hurting. He cheered with the rest of the crowd. That was his bull out there. His friend.
With a coat of rich brown, deep brown eyes, and the strength of an elephant, Whirlwind was a prize many stock contractors wanted. Numerous offers had been made, but Caleb and his mother would never sell Whirlwind, not for all the money in the world.
Whirlwind strutted through the return gate, head high. Caleb snickered. Whirlwind was so full of it. Arrogant prick. But he was his arrogant prick.
It was over. They had won. He knew without a doubt or looking at the points that Whirlwind had won. They would have some more money to take home and more prestige than they’d ever had before. He wished his dad were still alive. Wouldn’t his mother be ecstatic?
Of course, good ol’ Mandy O’Connell wasn’t one to get ecstatic. She would just nod, humph, and say “good work.” But that was the equivalent of other people jumping for joy and doing a victory dance.
For himself, Caleb would do the victory dance. But it was too crowded in the arena to get a good one in at that moment.
The celebration wore on, the bull riding champion was named, pictures were taken, and Caleb, along with his crew, were given the winner’s check and were nearly made blind by all the flashes of cameras. The crowds slowly filed out, the media left, and the cleanup crew came in. Caleb, sweating and probably smelling like a dumpster, made his way to the trailer where Whirlwind was kept.
The other bulls and the rest of his crew were already on their way home, but he took care of Whirlwind personally. He drove the trailer that housed the star bull, and he set his own schedule when he started home. He always left a day or two after everyone else.
Annoyed, he turned around to see one of the rodeo clowns jogging toward him. It took him a moment to remember the man’s name, and the paint he still had on his face didn’t help. He stopped, planning to give him only five minutes of his time.
“Hey, Rich,” he said. “You were good out there.”
“Me?” The man laughed and slapped his shoulder. “What about you and that bull? Whirlwind’s amazing! Never seen a bull so quick and smart. Sort of eerie, right? The way he knows just how to turn, and when to buck, and how high. Intelligent.”
Caleb shrugged, unease making his stomach cramp. “As far as bulls go, I guess he’s intelligent. You could also say he’s well-trained. There were other bulls out there that were just as impressive.”
“Come on,” the clown said, nudging him. “Just between you and me, what’s the secret, huh? You have to admit, he almost has human intelligence—it just blazes in his eyes. Yet he’s a bull. Strange, right?”
His palms were sweating, and he rubbed them on his jeans. “Yeah, right, listen, I have to go. Nice talking to you. Good show this week.”
He left as quickly as he could, never looking back. He rubbed his stomach and forced himself to put it aside. That wasn’t the first time he’d been asked about the “secret” when it came to Whirlwind, but there had been a strange gleam—almost manic—in Richard’s eyes, and Caleb hadn’t liked it. At all.
The trailer wasn’t as large as other trailers that housed more than one bull, but the size was adequate for a prize bull. It was mostly black, and the sides were painted with flames and the words “Professional Bull Riding” in large print. He had done the work himself. The bull was sleeping in his trailer but instantly opened his large brown eyes when Caleb opened the doors. Those brown eyes could always capture my attention. He stood in front of Whirlwind with a huge smile. The encounter with the rodeo clown drifted to the back of his mind and was buried. This wasn’t the day for worries; it was the day for celebration.
“We did it, buddy. Another notch on our belt and all that money. Maybe we should go commercial, huh? Have you sell a few products?”
Before his eyes—like many times before, though it never lost its awe—Whirlwind shifted into Ryan, his best friend. The same rich brown eyes that had belonged to the bull now belonged to a sturdy, naked man kneeling on fresh hay.
He had broad shoulders, a broad chest, thick waist, thighs, and arms. He resembled a bull even in human form. But that wasn’t surprising, considering that Ryan’s mother had been an actual cow and his father had been in bull form during his conception. It was incredibly rare, nearly impossible, for offspring to be born from an animal and a shifter. Ryan was certainly one of a kind.
He’d learned a lot about the real world from Ryan. Like the fact that there was a shifter community, a community filled with extraordinary creatures that could live as animals or humans.
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “We’re in Vegas. I’d rather go drinking.”
He smiled. He loved the mocha color of Ryan’s skin and the way the light shone off his bald head. He had a strong chin and a thick nose, his mouth was wide, and he had a sexy scar that ran from his right eyebrow down beside his nose and across his cheek. He had an aura of strength, and it wasn’t unusual for some people to sidestep him, like they would a bull.
Ryan said he’d gotten the scar while he practiced shifting with his father. Caleb never got the exact details, but he never pushed. His friend never liked to talk about his father.
They both stood up, and Caleb shoved the duffel bag he had into Ryan’s hands.
“Get dressed and we’ll go. Any ideas on which bar?”
Ryan frowned as he pulled on the jeans and shoved his arms into the sleeves of a flannel shirt. “All I’m interested in is getting wasted.”
Caleb snickered and laid his arm across Ryan’s shoulders after he locked up the trailer. They walked out of the parking garage and down the street, toward the lights and the noise of Las Vegas.
“Did those big bad riders hurt the little bully?” he teased.
Ryan poked his ribs, and he laughed. “Watch it, Cal. I’m sore, hungry, horny, and I need a vacation.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Please. You live to throw men off of you.”
Ryan laughed. It was deep, and his voice was slightly husky, like he didn’t use it much. He knew Ryan hadn’t for the first few years of his life. He’d spent most of his childhood as a bull.
“I don’t know about that,” Ryan said. “I happen to like a few men riding me.”
Caleb chuckled, but it was slightly strained. He didn’t like to think of Ryan with other men and the occasional woman. It turned his stomach into knots and actually caused pain. He didn’t know why he didn’t say something to Ryan. He’d tried several times over the years, but he’d never managed to get it out.
He loved his best friend. He loved his bull shifter.
But Ryan, well, he never showed any interest, and he wasn’t exactly sure if a human could make a commitment with a shifter. His friend had never really told him much about that.
They walked onto the street, and he left it up to Ryan to call for a cab. His friend had a knack for getting the drivers to notice him. Caleb was amused that, although it was night, it was as bright as day, and he felt a little like Dorothy in Oz. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in Vegas, but if he had a choice, he would definitely choose his mom’s ranch in Southern Nevada.
They slid into a cab, and he also let Ryan pick a bar. His friend lived for Las Vegas. Although Ryan enjoyed his country home, he would often tell Caleb that after so many years of being denied his human side, he relished the times he could act like a human, when he could indulge in all its vices. Most of the time, Caleb got pleasure from watching his friend enjoy himself—except when his friend went off with a stranger.
“There. Stop here,” Ryan said suddenly. Caleb looked away from his friend and realized they were off the strip, but it was still just as bright. The bar looked simple, but it was two stories, and the name flashed garishly over the door.
The Bucking Bull. Ryan was a funny guy. They got out, and Caleb laughed, shaking his head.
“Hey, look,” he said as they approached the front door. He gestured to a sign. “They have a mechanical bull.”
“Wow.” Ryan’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. “Sign me up.”
Caleb chuckled and pulled open the door. It was a good-sized bar with pool tables and TVs, and the mechanical bull sat in a small arena at the end. As they walked in, a woman who wore nothing but a bikini straddled the bull and began to ride it.
Both men watched in amusement as the woman was tossed off within a second.
“You should do it,” Ryan said, nudging him with his elbow.
Feeling his face heat, Caleb shook his head and walked to the bar to get a drink. “No way. I’m exhausted.”
“You’re exhausted?” Ryan slapped his back. “Dude, I’m the one who was tossing those jerks left and right. You just watched.”
“And set the bull rope. And cheered.” He leaned back against the bar, propping his elbows on it. “I was your support.”
Ryan smiled, his eyes warm. “You’re always my support.”
Caleb had to look away. His body responded naturally to the genuine warmth and affection in those brown eyes. Ryan didn’t used to have such affection for him; in fact, when they first met, Ryan had charged him, intent on scaring him. After living so long as a bull, it had been hard to show Ryan how to be a human, with all the empathy and compassion it required. His friend had struggled, and Caleb felt they had succeeded.
But when he imagined leaping into Ryan’s arms and planting a big fat kiss on those sensual lips, he also thought of how his friend would smash him into the floor like he did the bull riders.
Ryan was still a bull in many important ways.
Whirlwind sometimes charged after the riders, ignoring the clowns. Sometimes he’d kick and stomp the rider until they could barely stand. Whirlwind had a violent streak in him, but that dangerous part only made Caleb more excited.
Damn, did he have it bad. Twenty-one years old and he was still hankering after his best friend. It had never been a crush. Pathetic.
“Go on.” Ryan nudged him toward the bull. “You ride better than anyone here or in the arena. Go on.”
Caleb bit his lower lip. He grabbed the shot of whiskey handed to him and gulped it down. It burned his throat, and he frowned at Ryan. His friend smiled and jerked his head toward the mechanical bull. Caleb took a deep breath before walking toward it. He had ridden Whirlwind before they put him in the bull riding competition. He could stay on for minutes, knowing how Whirlwind would move, knowing what techniques he’d use to toss Caleb off of him.
He’d also ridden mechanical bulls, which were nothing compared to the real thing. Still… Ryan seemed to enjoy watching him ride that metal monster. Who knew why.
It was slightly embarrassing.
He stepped up to the bull, climbed up on it, and with a last glance at Ryan, surrendered his dignity.
RYAN’S grin split his face from ear to ear. He shouted along with the others as Caleb kept on the bull, never once wavering. His hand was up, his face set, and Ryan clapped and laughed.
Caleb looked good up there. His lithe body swaying back and forth, his dark-green eyes hard with focus. Some would call him skinny or even, heaven forbid, nerdy. He was lanky with curly brown hair, big green eyes, and a slightly protruding nose. He had a very distinguished profile.
Ryan liked the look of him. He’d always liked the look of him, even when he’d tried to scare Caleb the first time they had met. Caleb had become his friend, talking to him, thinking him just a dumb bull, but Ryan had listened to every word, and the urge to share his secret with someone had grown into a desperate urge to find a connection. He had broken his vow to himself and told Caleb who he really was.
As he watched his friend ride the metal bull, he remembered how it felt when his friend would ride him. Caleb’s strong legs on either side of him, his crotch sliding and bouncing on his back. He shifted his stance, his cock hardening. Damn it. He didn’t want anyone else. He just wanted Caleb bouncing on him… but not in bull form.
And that was the problem, wasn’t it? That was the problem with living as a human, with embracing the need to connect to another being. It always brought hurt and longing. As a bull, he had lived a simple life. His needs had been simple, and most days had slipped together into a monotonous existence. But after meeting Caleb, everything had changed, and he still wasn’t sure if it was for the best. He was already irrevocably attached to Caleb, and if they became lovers… he knew they’d be linked permanently. Did he want that? Did Caleb want that? It was certainly becoming harder to keep his emotions locked up.
He had started to grow impatient with his other lovers when none of them satisfied him. He would be distracted during most of the act, and he’d come away feeling a horrible sense of guilt, like he was cheating on Caleb. He didn’t like these emotions at all, and he wanted to hate his friend for exposing him to them, but he was incapable.
Life was so much easier as a bull.
Ryan blinked back to the present as the crowd in the bar erupted in applause. Caleb got off the bull and stumbled slightly, his face red. He grinned again. His friend blushed so easily. He started to walk toward Caleb when another man, some guy in biker leather, stepped up to Caleb and wrapped an arm around his waist.
“What’s say you and me get out of here, beautiful?”
He saw Caleb open his mouth, his eyes shocked. However, Ryan didn’t wait for his friend to make a response. His muscles bunched, his jaw clenched, and he stalked across the bar and shoved the bastard into the pool table. He wrapped his own arm around Caleb’s waist and bared his teeth.
“Ryan—” Caleb gasped.
The man stumbled to his feet and scowled. “Watch it, asshole.”
“You watch it,” Ryan snarled.
“What are you doing?” Caleb asked, and gripped his shoulder.
The biker man shoved him. “Get your own, asshole. I saw him first.”
“I doubt that.” He let go of Caleb and used both hands to shove the man back into the pool table again. A crowd was growing, and some cheered them on.
“Ryan, don’t—” Caleb said, the plea evident in his voice, but Ryan ignored him. He had a quick-flash temper that, when released, left him nothing more than the bull he had been born as, and with his emotions already in turmoil, he relished the opportunity to let out his frustration. He always did like a good brawl.
The biker man stumbled to his feet, his fist raised. Ryan crouched, snarled. When the biker man lunged at him, Ryan bent and rammed his head and shoulders into him. They fell with a crash to the floor and rolled around, punching and cursing.
He heard nothing but the blood rushing in his ears and his deep gasps of breath. The biker man was a pussy. His punches were laughable. Ryan aimed to kill. He punched and kicked with all his might, and the man eventually rolled away from him, done with fighting. But Ryan wouldn’t have that. It was a fight to the death; didn’t the biker man know that? The bastard had touched what belonged to him. He had tried to take away what was his property.
The man should have known what he had unleashed.
Ryan jumped to his feet and grabbed the collar of the biker man’s jacket. He lifted him with one hand and pulled his fist back, ready to smash it directly into his face. But someone held his arm back. Growling in frustration, he swung his head around and met fierce green eyes. Long hands gripped his wrist, and Caleb’s face was set with a firm frown.
“Stop, Ryan. Let. Him. Go.”
That voice. Smooth, calm, clear. He blinked several times; the violent haze that had gripped his mind and clenched his muscles began to ease. He looked back at the biker man and finally noted the blood covering his face, leaking from his nose. Blood also covered his white shirt and exposed skin.
Ryan grimaced and dropped the biker like he was something smelly that was about to be put in the trash. He looked around and noticed that everyone was staring at him. The bartender had a rifle out, and it was pointed at his face.
“Get the hell out of here, you freak,” the bartender said. Ryan saw that the man’s hands were shaking.
Caleb began to tug on his arm, and he allowed himself to be led from the bar. It wasn’t remorse he felt but… frustration. He hated it when his primal side grabbed hold of him, he hated losing control. In bull form, that was expected, needed. In human form… well… it didn’t make him any new friends.
They walked across the parking lot, and he yanked his arm from Caleb’s grip.
“Let go. I’m fine—”
“No, you’re not.” Caleb rounded on him and actually shoved him with both hands. Ryan stumbled backward, shocked.
“How could you do that?” Caleb shouted. His voice rose slightly. “How could you let yourself go like that, Ryan? You haven’t done anything like that since we were teens! Now that man will have to go to the hospital. You broke his arm, I saw it.”
He winced, but refused to feel guilty. “He deserved it.”
Caleb gaped and, unexpectedly, slapped him across the face. He roared and gripped Caleb’s collar before slamming him against a truck. He bared his teeth and made sure Caleb’s feet couldn’t touch the ground.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he growled, his voice coming from deep in his chest.
“Or what?” Caleb shot back, his face contorted in rage. “You’ll pound me bloody too? Well, go ahead, we both know I can’t stop you. Go ahead!”
Ryan pressed his friend harder against the truck and, feeling desperate and confused, smashed his mouth against Caleb’s.