|For as long as Samantha Harrigan could remember, she had loved going to the rodeo. Now that she'd found the courage to come again, she could scarcely believe that she had deprived herself for so long of something she enjoyed so much. Thus far, she hadn't even glimpsed her ex-husband, a dyed-in-the-wool rodeo cowboy who had been her reason for staying away. He was probably too busy flirting with blonde buckle bunnies to mingle with the masses. Early on in the marriage, his infidelities had broken Samantha's heart. Now she felt only relief that the divorce was final and Steve Fisher was out of her life.
As she worked her way through the crowd to reach the concession stand, the hot August sun beat down on the fairgrounds, creating a gigantic potpourri of scents within the circle of buildings. The sawdust underfoot sent up a woodsy musk that blended pleasantly with the pungent odors of livestock, a motley assortment of perfume and aftershave, and the mouthwatering aroma of junk food trailing on the breeze.
With each breath, Samantha was transported back to her childhood. Some of her earliest memories were of going to the rodeo with her dad and older brothers. Pictures flashed through her mindof her father swinging her up to ride on his hip, of herself all decked out in brand-new rodeo finery, and of her brothers holding her up to see over the crowd while their dad competed in an event. To this day, she could remember the stickiness on her fingers from eating cotton candy, and how she'd hated having her face washed afterward with a spit-dampened handkerchief.
The memory made Samantha grin. Oh, how she had adored cotton candy--and still did, truth told. Being the ripe old age of twenty-nine didn't mean she no longer appreciated life's simple pleasures. Before she left the compound today, she would buy herself an extra-large cloud of cotton candy, and she would eat it just as she had years ago, pulling off big chunks and letting them melt in her mouth.
For now, though, she had a tall iced tea in mind, something cold and wet to soothe her throat, which was raw from yelling at the top of her lungs for her brothers, who had performed in some of the morning rounds. She mustn't be too hoarse to cheer when her stallion, Blue Blazes, and eldest brother, Clint, took first place in the cutting horse competition. Heck, no. She'd be in the front row, screaming for all she was worth. Her only regret would be that she wasn't in the arena herself. Next year, she thought determinedly. With another twelve months to distance herself from the painful memories of her marriage, she would be ready to compete again, without any fear that a glimpse of Steve's face in the crowd might make her freeze or hesitate, thus causing Blue to lose points.
It was in the cutting horse competition that the Harrigan line of quarter horses truly shone, for in that event, the quality, training, skill, and intelligence of an animal were put to the ultimate test. If her beloved Blue Blazes wonand there was no question in Samantha's mind that he wouldher reputation as a breeder and trainer would get a huge boost, enabling her to name her price for Blue's stud fees. In her present financial situation, a good year would go a long way toward getting her ranch out of the red.
Samantha had nearly reached the concession stand when she heard a horse scream. The sound of terror and pain tugged at her heart, and she whirled to locate its source. What she saw made her blood run hot. A stout, middle-aged man in flashy, Western-style clothing was trying to load a sorrel gelding into a transport trailer. The animal was balking, and its owner was beating it with the long handle of a lunge whip.
Samantha couldn't bear to see an animal mistreated. With purposeful strides, she advanced on the horse trailer, the heels of her riding boots digging deep into the sawdust. As she drew close, she realized the man was intoxicated. Each time he swung his arm, he staggered and almost fell from the loading ramp.
A group of onlookers had already gathered around the trailer. From the corner of her eye, Samantha saw several able-bodied men just standing there. Why? The poor horse needed help. Surely at least one of them had the gumption to intervene. But, no. The drunk swung viciously at the horse again, and no one in the crowd stepped forward. Sam's stomach lurched at the sound of leather-wrapped wood connecting with flesh.
"Hey!" she called out. "What do you think you're doing?"
The man didn't seem to hear her. Samantha saw blood glistening darkly above the horse's eye. There was another gash on its nose. Furious, she jerked her cell phone from her belt and started to dial 911 as she closed the remaining distance to the ramp. Before she could finish punching in the numbers, the device was swatted from her hand. Stunned, she looked up to find the drunk looming over her, his bloodshot brown eyes sparking with anger.
"You fixin' to call the cops, lady?" He jabbed a finger at her face. "Well, think again! This is my horse." He raised a massive fist to display the reins clasped in his thick fingers. "I'll beat some manners into him if I want. It's none of your damned business."
The sorrel tried to back away, but stopped short when the reins pulled taut. That told Samantha that it wasn't the animal with a behavior problem. An adult quarter horse weighed anywhere from a thousand to thirteen hundred pounds, and had enough strength in its neck alone to lift a grown man off his feet. Instead of fighting back, this poor gelding stood obediently waiting to endure more blows. Samantha had no idea why the animal refused to enter the trailer, but judging from what she'd seen, she guessed that it was mostly the man's fault.
In that moment, Samantha felt a kinship with the horse that others might never understand. She circled the man to stand at the bottom of the ramp between him and the gelding. It wasn't a wise decision. Deep down, she knew that. But it was something she felt compelled to do: take a stand, face her demons, demand justice. There had been a time when she'd waited too long to do any of those things, and she'd learned the hard way that sometimes it was better to act rashly than do nothing at all.
The metallic taste of fear coated Samantha's tongue as she faced the drunk. He outweighed her by well over a hundred pounds, and there was a wild look in his eyes. In the not-so-distant past, she had faced another man with brutal fists and learned that she needed more than anger as an equalizer. Even so, she held her ground.
"The abuse of an animal is everyone's business," she managed to say evenly. "This horse is already cut and bleeding. He's had enough, and so have you."
"Are you sayin' I've had too much to drink?"
Samantha just stood there, meeting the man's gaze with fateful resolve, her heart pounding wildly and her body going clammy with sweat.
That was how Tucker Coulter first saw herstanding toe-to-toe with a man twice her size. While volunteering as an on-site rodeo veterinarian these last three days, he had seen so many women in skintight jeans, fringed shirts, and Stetsons that he's long since lost count. But this woman didn't have the look of a weekend cowgirl. Her slender figure was showcased in snug, faded Wranglers worn thin at the knees and a simple blue plaid work shirt. Instead of a fancy Stetson, she wore a green ball cap with JOHN DEERE emblazed above the bill in bright yellow. Through the cap's rear opening, a cloud of ebony curls spilled down her slender back.
Normally Tucker didn't find fragile women all that attractive, but something about this one appealed to him in a way he couldn't define. Maybe it was the fear in her large brown eyes, which was completely at odds with her challenging stance. Courage was a trait he admired in anyone. As a kid, he'd loved the story of David and Goliath, an undersize warrior pitted against a giant. Only this lady didn't even have a slingshot to defend herself. She put him more in mind of Tinkerbell, sans the magical pixie dust, pitting herself against an evil Captain Hook.
Still pushing his way through the noisy crowd, Tucker couldn't make out the exchange between the man and woman. He'd been told by an excited, stammering young boy in the 4-H building a few minutes ago that a horse over here needed help. Tucker had taken that to mean that the animal was sick or hurt, so he'd brought his satchel. He hadn't realized until now that the horse was being beaten.
Not a good situation. As much as Tucker admired Tinkerbell for stepping in to defend the horse, it wasn't a smart move. When you witnessed a crime in progress, the best course of action was to call the police.
Toward the front of the crowd, Tucker paused to call fairground security, a number he had programmed into speed dial three days ago, when he'd begun his volunteer stint during Rodeo Days. The phone rang several times and was still ringing when the horse abuser let loose with a roar of anger and doubled his free hand into a fist. Uh-oh.
With a growing sense of urgency, Tucker broke the connection and punched in the speed-dial code again, thinking maybe he'd misdialed the first time. Not. The phone droned monotonously. While Tucker waited for an answer, he kept his gaze locked on the trio near the horse trailer. The man appeared to be intoxicated. Each time he wagged his fist in Tinkerbell's face, he swayed on his feet and nearly lost his balance.
"I'm not moving," Tucker heard the woman say. "If you mean to strike this animal again, you'll go through me to do it."
What? Tucker couldn't believe he'd heard her right. She didn't weigh much more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, and the drunk was built like a grizzly bear. The man responded with a shove that sent her staggering against the gelding.
Decision time. This situation was fast getting out of hand. Tucker didn't believe in taking the law into his own hands; he truly didn't. But more deeply ingrained in him were the principles his father had taught him, including the steadfast rule that a man should never get physically aggressive with a woman. There were no exceptions, period, and it went against the Coulter creed to stand aside while another man transgressed.
"Here." Tucker thrust the phone at a stranger beside him. "Dial three for fairground security."
The man glanced stupidly at the apparatus in his hand. "Three?"
"For fairground security," Tucker repeated. "Get someone over here ASAP. If no one answers, dial nine-one-one, tell the dispatcher exactly where we are, and get a car here as fast as you can."
Turning sideways to avoid jostling a woman with an infant in her arms, Tucker shouldered his way through the remaining cluster of people. "Excuse me, excuse me." He squeezed past an elderly woman. "I'm a vet. Can you let me through, please?"
A collective gasp rose from the crowd, and Tucker heard a woman cry out, "Oh my God, he hit her! Somebody do something!"
Tucker strained to see over the bobbing heads in front of him. Icy disbelief coursed through him. Tinkerbell was bent forward at the waist, one hand cupping her cheek. Even as Tucker watched, the drunk jerked her hat off her head, taking some of her hair along with it.
Something in Tucker's brain short-circuited. One second, his thought processes were sequential and reasonable. The next, his head filled with white static, a haze of red filmed his vision, and he let loose with a snarl of outrage.
From that instant forward, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Dropping his satchel, he plowed through the remaining obstacles to reach the clearing. Then, with a flying leap, he covered the distance to the loading ramp and tackled the older man at the knees. The next thing Tucker knew, he was rolling in the sawdust with his adversary, the other man on top of him one second, under him the next.
The bastard was heavy. But Tucker, blessed with his father's tall stature and generous breadth of shoulder, was no featherweight himself. Working daily with large animals had also kept him fit. No contest, he thought grimly as he rolled to the top and quickly straddled his flabby, out-of-shape opponent. It was high time this guy learned, Coulter-style, how not to treat a lady.
Only Tucker forgot the whip handle. From out of nowhere it came at his face. He heard a loud pop, similar to that of a champagne cork ejecting under pressure; then a burst of pain surged up his nose and exploded through his brain.
In a dizzying spin, the earth changed places with the sky. Tucker heard an odd sound, like air gushing from a balloon, and dimply realized the noise came from him. Stars, spots. He couldn't see anything.
Crossing his forearms over his face, he rolled onto his knees, ducked his head, and tried frantically to regain his senses so he might protect himself. Something sharp connected with his ribs, knocking the breath out of him, followed by another tearing pain, and then another. In some distant part of his mind, he realized the older man had regained his feet and was kicking him.
"Stop it!" he heard Tinkerbell scream. "Stop it! Oh, God, Oh, God, somebody help me! He's going to kill him!"
Tucker tensed for another blow. Sweet Christ. He couldn't breathe, couldn't see. Where were his brothers when he needed them? This time the man's boot caught Tucker in the abs. Somehow he had to clear his head, regain his feet, and fight back.
Blinking, he managed to focus his vision enough to see splotches of sunlight and swirling expanses of sawdust. As he staggered erect, he realized he wasn't that badly hurtyet. All he needed was to get in one solid punch. Then it would all be over.
In his spinning vision, Tucker saw Tinkerbell advancing on the other man. He wanted to yell at her to stay back, that he didn't need a half-pint female to rescue him, but his tongue wouldn't respond to the commands from his brain. To his horrified amazement, she lengthened her last three strides for momentum and followed through with the pointed toe of her riding boot, executing a drop-kick that would have done any kickboxer proud. Bull's-eye. With a grunt of pain, the drunk crashed to his knees, cupped his hands over his crotch, and started retching.
The ladystupidly, Tucker took measure of her height and confirmed that the top of her raven head barely reached his shoulderdusted her hands on the legs of her jeans. "I asked you to stop," she told the drunk thinly. "It's your own fault I had to kick you. Why wouldn't you just stop?"
Dizziness sent Tucker staggering sideways. Small but surprisingly strong hands grasped his arm. He looked down. The pale oval of her face came clear and then went blurry again. Large, pretty brown eyes and a wild tangle of black curls swam in his vision.
"Are you all right?"
Tucker tried to answer, but his tongue still wouldn't work. Damn. He'd been rescued by a pixie. Now he was glad his brothers weren't there. They would never let him live this down. Oh, man. He wasn't feeling so good. His head hurt like a son of a bitch, and his stomach was lurching. The horse chose that moment to wheel and run. People screamed, grabbed their children, and scattered to get out of the frightened animal's way. As the sound of retreating hooves faded, an eerie quiet blanketed the area.
"Are you okay?" the woman asked again.
To Tucker, the question seemed to come from a great distance, and it wasn't one he could readily answer. The whole front of his face throbbed, for one, and it felt as if his nose had been shoved into his brain.
Soft fingertips plucked at his wrist. "Move your hand so I can see."
Tucker hadn't realized he was holding his nose. He dropped his arm. She gently touched his cheek, making him wince.
"It's broken, I'm afraid. I am so sorry about this. I can't even think what to say."
Tucker could think of plenty, but nothing fit for mixed company. He couldn't believe this. His nose was broken? And even worse, a lady no bigger than a minute had felt it necessary to leap into the fray to save him. How humiliating was that? He stood six feet, four inches tall in his stocking feet, weighed in at two-twenty stark naked, and had taken first place in state wrestling bouts throughout high school and college. He should have rescued her, not the other way around.
His head was starting to clear, and he felt a little steadier on his feet. The throbbing had given way to a strange numbness, similar to when a dentist injected too much Novocain. Shock, he guessedMother Nature's remedy for pain. He saw it in his patients all the time.
He took stock of the woman's injuries. An angry red mark flagged her right cheekbone, and the delicate hollow under one eye was starting to swell. He shot the drunk a searing glare. The no-account bastard still huddled on his knees, his upper body convulsing each time he gagged. Tucker hoped he choked on his gonads.
He drew his gaze back to the woman. "I'm fine," he managed to say. "I'm more worried about you."
She gingerly prodded her cheekbone. "It's nothing an ice pack won't fix. Thank you for jumping in to help me. I was dialing nine-one-one when he knocked the phone from my hand." With a lift of one shoulder, she flashed a regretful smile and then began scanning the sawdust-strewn ground nearby. "Heaven knows where it landed."
Tucker felt a little better now, but he wasn't quite ready to sift through sawdust to help her look. He was checking out his nose when the stranger in possession of his cell phone approached.
Hand extended to return the device, the man said, "I never got through to fairground security, so I called the sheriff's department. Someone should be here shortly."
"Good." Tucker hooked a thumb toward the drunk as he took the phone. "He'll recover in a minute. I'd rather let a deputy deal with him."
"I hear you," the man replied. "Sorry I didn't help you out. I've got a bad back."
"It's good you stayed out of it then." Tucker scanned the crowd that had gathered to watch the excitement and saw several other men. In his opinion, there wasn't one of them worth the powder it would take to blow him to hell.
"Thanks for calling the authorities for me."
"No problem. Least I could do."
Just then Tucker heard a low growl. He spun around to see the drunk lumbering to his feet. Before Tucker could move, the man charged at the woman, who'd turned her back on him in search of her phone. It took Tucker an instant to react, and in that instant the man tackled her from behind. She went down hard in a face-first sprawl, her lower legs manacled by strong, thick arms. When she tried to rise to her knees, she was knocked flat again by an elbow jab to her spine.
Tucker launched himself at the drunk again. Upon impact, they both went rolling, much as they had before, only this time momentum broke them apart before they came to a stop. The drunk staggered to his feet just as Tucker did, and they met halfway in a teeth-jarring body slam. He couldn't believe this guy had attacked a woman, not once but twice.
The whip handle was attached to the older man's wrist by several wraps of a leather thong, making it impossible for Tucker to dispense with the weapon. His only recourse was to duck his head against his opponent's beefy shoulder to protect his face and deliver uppercut jabs to the man's belly. With each punch, the drunk fell back a step, carrying Tucker along with him until they reached the horse trailer.
Having a barrier behind his adversary suited Tucker's purposes just fine. The stomach blows would have more impact against a solid surface. At some point the whip handle connected with Tucker's right ear. Pain momentarily paralyzed him, but he quickly regained his senses.
Finally the rain of blows to Tucker's shoulder stopped, and he felt the other man's body sliding toward the ground. Releasing his hold, Tucker stepped back. The drunk plopped rump-first on the sawdust, the whip handle lying uselessly beside him.
"You'll go to jail for this piece of work," he slurred.
"If I do, it'll be worth it," Tucker flung back. "Where I come from, manhandling a woman doesn't fly."
The drunk called the lady a filthy name. Tucker was tempted to knock his teeth down his throat. He settled for kicking sawdust in his face. Then he turned away to check on the woman.
She was sitting up but still looked dazed. Tucker hunkered beside her. "Are you all right?"
She blinked and swatted sawdust from her hair."I think so. He knocked the breath out of me."
Tucker thrust out a hand to help her up. She studied his outstretched fingers for a moment. Then she glanced up to search his gaze before placing her hand in his. Tucker got the oddest feelinglike maybe she was afraid of him or something. And then the moment passed.
After allowing him to pull her to her feet, she laughed shakily and dusted off her jeans. "That'll teach me, I guess. Never kick a guy where it hurts and then turn your back on him."
Tucker couldn't see the humor. The arrival of a bubble-top saved him from having to reply. He turned to watch a pencil-thin deputy in a khaki uniform push through the crowd. His pocket badge flashed in the sunlight. A pair of green aviator sunglasses and the shadow cast by the bill of his cap made it difficult to make out his features. He strode swiftly toward the older man and bent to help him up.
"Are you all right, sir? What in the Sam Hill happened here?"
"Hell, no, I'm not all right!" The drunk jerked his arm from the deputy's grasp. "They attacked me, and I'm pressing charges. I want them both arrested!"
The officer sent Tucker a questioning look. "Is that so, sir?"
Tucker opened up his mouth to say the other man was lying, but that wasn't precisely true. "It's a little more complicated than that," he began.
The deputy raised a staying hand. "Before we get into explanations, just answer the question. Did you or did you not attack this gentleman?"
"The son of a bitch isn't a gentleman," Tucker shot back.
Tucker's temper had always been his downfall. He couldn't remember exactly what he said after that, only that the woman jabbed him twice with her elbow, signaling him to shut up.
The next thing he knew, he was being read his Miranda rights and escorted to a patrol car.