Chapter One



DANTE RIVERS slowly paced the backstage area of the arena, breathing deeply as the crowd above and around him roared its approval at the unseen spectacle. He kept his breathing regular and his mind focused on the task ahead. This was what he’d trained and worked for his entire career, and he knew it was coming to an end. He could only ride bulls for so long, and at twenty-nine, he was approaching old age; he had one or two more years at most. No, he had to do it this year; this was his chance. One ride, one chance for the points, the money, and the title. All the other riders had had their rides, and this one single bull, Damnation, stood between him and everything he’d ever wanted. He’d drawn the meanest, orneriest bull on the circuit, which meant he actually did have a chance. The leader had drawn the money bull, which meant he’d had an easy time staying on, but he hadn’t gotten as many points as he could have. That twist of fate gave Dante his opening. He could feel his dream within his grasp.

“Dante, they’re just about ready for you,” Harvey, his agent and childhood friend, told him. Harvey had been with him since the beginning. He’d also hoped to ride, but an early injury that had nearly killed him ended that dream. Harvey had made a career out of what he loved anyway, and he rarely missed one of Dante’s rides.

“Thanks, Harv, I’ll be ready when they are,” Dante said without even looking away from the spot on the wall he’d been concentrating on. He cleared his mind and pushed away the jitters and nerves that threatened to bubble up. His dream was so close he could feel it. Yes, he knew winning would be a bit of a long shot. The leader was well in front, but it was possible, and that was all Dante wanted: a chance. In his life, that was all he’d ever wanted, and very few people had given him one without wanting something in return. Harvey was one of those few people.

“Let’s go,” Harvey said, and Dante picked up his bull rope and adjusted his protective vest before plonking his hat on his head and heading for the hallway that would lead him to the arena. His spurs jangled as he walked. He loved that sound, had ever since his daddy, rest his soul, had given him his first set. Yes, he had the hat and chaps, but it was the spurs and their jangle that made him a real cowboy and gave him what he felt was his personal connection and made him feel part of the long cowboy tradition.

He knew Harvey was behind him, but he always made the walk to the arena alone, no matter how many people were with him. His sport was solitary, and he liked it that way. During those seven seconds, it was just him and the bull. Everyone and everything else disappeared for the duration in a euphoric rush of adrenaline.

Dante stepped into the arena, and the crowd roared its excitement. He held his gloved hands and bull rope over his head in acknowledgement, and they cheered louder, the entire building cheering, clapping, and stomping their approval. The sound went right into his gut and groin, the way it always did. He handed his bull rope to the handlers, and they fastened it around Damnation. Then Dante checked the rope before climbing to the top of the chute. He waved to the crowd one final time and then settled on top of three-quarters of a ton of mean orneriness that no one had ridden to completion that year. The bull’s buck-off percentage was 100 percent, so Dante knew he was in for one wild fucking ride. He could practically smell the testosterone coming off the damned bull, and his heart kicked into overdrive. Dante got his hand and legs into perfect position as Damnation’s heat worked through his pants to his ass. “I’m going to fuck you up,” he told the bull and then descended into himself.

He gave the signal, the chute opened, and Damnation practically jumped out of the damned thing. Dante had anticipated the move and held on, tightening his legs as Damnation went into a death spiral. The damned animal tried to bend in half so he could get at Dante with his horns. Then the twisting and bucking began. Dante spurred the son of a bitch and then did it again as the fractions of a second ticked by. He heard and felt nothing other than the bull, his free hand waving and flipping for balance. It almost seemed like he could get into Damnation’s pea-sized brain and knew what the fucker was going to do. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t taking a beating, God no. His shoulder burned like it was on fire, and he willed the damned thing to stay in its goddamned socket.

The buzzer went off, and Dante bailed, landing on the arena floor and then running hell-bent for leather toward the rails and safety. Damnation had a real bad habit of going after riders. Dante scrambled over the rail, making it to safety, and only then did the roar of the crowd reach him. He’d had the ride of his life—he knew it in his heart and he could feel it in every fiber of his being. The arena erupted, and the vibrations from the entire building came right up through Dante’s laced boots, up his legs, and straight to his dick. He hoped to fucking God they didn’t see his hard-on, because he could certainly fucking feel the aching throb. It was nearly always like this, and while he was never obvious, he knew it was the same way for a lot of the other riders as well. He couldn’t really help it. While the wranglers took care of the bull and Dante waited for his score, he straddled the rail and waved to the crowd. They showed their appreciation by nearly bringing down the house. They all knew he’d had the best ride most of them would ever see, and he reveled in the attention.

Harvey appeared at the base of the fence. “Come on. They aren’t going to announce anything until you leave the arena and the crowd settles down.” Dante climbed down and took his rope when the wrangler handed it to him, then walked back toward the tunnel.

Dante made his way to the locker room. This was the last event and his last ride, so most of the other cowboys had already left to watch the action. Gently, Dante lowered himself onto a bench and sighed.

“The score should be up soon,” Harvey said.

Dante nodded slowly. Damn, he hurt all over. Dante opened the locker he’d been using and fished in his bag, popping a couple of Tylenol before taking the cup Harvey offered. “We need to get out there. If you win, they’ll want to see you, and if you don’t, everyone will be watching for that too.” Harvey’s voice held a note of warning.

Dante hoisted himself back to his feet. “That was a long time ago.” He’d learned a hell of a lot about how to act, win or lose, since he first started.

“You know that and I know that, but the fans have a long memory in this sport, and half of them wait just to see if you’re going to lose it.”

“Well, fuck them,” Dante said as he followed Harvey back out of the locker area. As he approached the arena again, though he’d only been gone a few minutes, the crowd was getting restless. Then a cheer went up, and Dante knew the results had been posted. The cheers muted somewhat, and as Dante stepped into the arena, he turned up to the scoreboard and felt his heart plummet to his feet. He’d gotten second place by two one-hundredths of a point. Two fucking one-hundredths of a point. No wonder it had taken so long to put the scores up. The judges had to make sure they were spot on. Maddox, the winner, walked into the arena, waving his hat above his head as he took his victory walk. Dante knew he was expected to as well, so he climbed up and sat on the edge of the rail, then took off his own hat to wave it at the crowd. His arm hurt like billy hell, but he smiled and waved, tamping down the roiling cauldron of frustration that simmered in his gut. Once he figured he’d made nice and played the fucking game, he climbed down gingerly and shuffled back to the locker room, where he collapsed onto a bench.

“You’ll get ’em next year,” Harvey said. “That was one hell of a ride you had, and people aren’t going to forget it. Neither is….” Harvey stopped mid-sentence as Maddox strode into the locker room with a smile as big as the Texas range.

“That was a real nail-biter,” he said with a cocky smile that Dante wanted to slap off the fucker’s face. Asshole was probably counting the sponsorships and endorsements he’d get off this win. Maddox pulled out his phone. “Did you see it?” he asked into the phone. Everyone knew Maddox was dating a New York fashion model. He’d flashed pictures of her rack barely encased in Lycra to everyone he could. “Yes, I won like we both knew I would,” Maddox said into his phone, flashing another cocky smile at Dante. Two one-hundredths of a point. “Yes, I’ll be there for your Vogue shoot, and then we can go on to Paris together.”

A few of the other cowboys wandered in. They greeted Dante with nods, and a couple of the guys he knew lightly touched his shoulder.

Maddox grinned like a Cheshire cat as he continued his conversation. “Of course we can stop at Louis Vuitton.” The men snickered softly, but Dante swore Maddox had raised his voice to make sure they all knew it. “I have the hotel on the Left Bank, and we’ll celebrate….” Maddox continued, but Dante had heard more than enough of this crap. He stood up and strode in Maddox’s general direction and then quickly turned toward the other guys. “Hey, Elton, are you going out?” Dante gestured, hitting Maddox’s arm none too softly. He knew he had to be hurting as badly as he was. A second later, the satisfying sound of a cell phone smashing on concrete reached his ears. Most satisfying sound he’d heard in years.

“Jesus Christ, that was my iPhone,” Maddox said as though the damned thing had been made of solid gold.

“Sorry,” Dante said before turning around. “Didn’t see you there.” The other men did their best to hide their smiles. Some succeeded; some didn’t. “You going to sign autographs for the fans?” Dante asked as a distraction.

“No, goddammit,” Maddox swore, steeling him with a hard glare, and for a second, Dante thought he was going to punch him. Now that would be sweet, but Maddox didn’t rise to the bait. He had too much to lose. Maddox instead gathered up his stuff and brushed by Dante, giving him a jab in the ribs that hurt like hell, but Dante didn’t let it show. After grabbing some water, he left the locker room and headed out into the arena. The die-hard fans would be waiting by the rail for autographs and maybe a chance to talk. All the riders were supposed to show up for autographs; it was part of what was expected, and they were fined if they didn’t show. But guys like Maddox, and him, now that he thought about it, often paid the fine and skipped it.

Dante stepped out onto the arena floor, the sand crunching lightly beneath his boots. A murmur went through the small crowd gathered at the rail, and a bit of the excitement that had begun to slip away returned. He eyed the crowd and saw a group of kids—looked like a scout troop or something. He walked in their direction and was greeted by young, awed faces and even a few jumps.

“Did you like it?” Dante asked, and they answered yes as he took their programs and signed each one. “Hello, sweetheart,” Dante said as he crouched carefully in front of a little girl next to the boys. She had on a little cowgirl outfit and was holding her daddy’s hand. She looked at him shyly and then up at her daddy.

“She can’t talk,” he said, and Dante smiled at the little girl, taking the program from her hand.

“What’s her name?” Dante asked.

“Gabrielle,” her father answered. Dante usually just signed programs, but he signed Gabrielle’s to his “favorite little cowgirl” and handed it back, saying good-bye and getting a smile from the little girl before moving on.

Dante signed a number of programs and then stepped back, waving to everyone before turning to leave the arena floor. Some of the other riders were still signing, but he’d had more than enough. Just before he reached the tunnel, he saw the scoreboard, the numbers still displayed. Two one-hundredths of a point. The numbers seemed to mock him. Anger welled inside as the fatigue that had begun to take over subsided. Dante turned away and marched back toward the locker room.

“I’ve got to take off,” Harvey said outside the locker-room door. “Are you okay to drive?”

Was he? Dante took stock of his injuries. “I’m fine,” he answered. “I’ll see you soon.” Harvey nodded and then hurried away toward the exit, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he went. Dante went back into the locker room. He took off his vest with a sigh and set it aside before stripping off the chaps and the rest of the gear, packing it away before heading toward the exit.

“Tough luck about the score,” Bobby Varton said as they passed. Dante paused for a split second, trying to figure out if the sentiment was genuine or a rib. Knowing Bobby, it could go either way.

Dante shrugged lightly, hoping like hell to avoid more pain. “What can you do?”

Bobby nodded. “Best ride I’ve seen in a long time, though.”

Dante nodded before moving on. He left the arena carrying his bag and walked to his truck, parked in the designated area. The lot was largely empty, most everyone already gone. Dante unlocked the door and threw his gear behind the seat before climbing in. He started the engine and willed the air-conditioning to cool the damned sauna down. When the cold air began to blow, Dante closed the door, but he didn’t pull out. Not yet.

His leg shook with excess energy. Tired as he was, he couldn’t stop his heart from pounding. “Two hundredths of a goddamned point,” Dante yelled, pounding his fist against the steering wheel. “I was that fucking close!” His entire body thrummed with energy that wasn’t going to go away. Adrenaline still coursed through him, and it would for a long time yet. As hyped up as he was, from his jittery legs to his cock throbbing in his jeans, it wasn’t going to dissipate soon.

He threw the truck in gear and tore out of the parking lot and onto the access road before getting on the freeway and heading toward the north end of Houston. There was no way he was going to waste all this energy. What he wanted, no, needed, was a hard, down-and-dirty fuck. And he knew just where to get it.