HOOKED (STUDS IN SPURS)
“Cat Johnson…brings the sport of bull riding vividly to life.” Book Reviews & More by Kathy
In all of her years as a sideline reporter for the pro tour, Annie Grant has never been tempted by any of the sexy bull-riding studs in spurs she interviews . . . until she learns Luke Carpenter is back on the market.
Annie Grant steered the rental car into a spot and cut the engine. She was just gathering her stuff—a large tote bag, a bottle of water and car keys—when the sight of two cowboys crossing the parking lot caught her attention.
Her brain turned to mush and her heartbeat sped. Annie scrambled out of the car so fast she forgot to grab the change of clothes hanging from the hook behind the driver’s seat.
“Damn, damn, damn.” She grumbled aloud to no one as she unlocked the car and grabbed the hangers covered in the plastic dry cleaning bag.
Forgetting things and cursing aloud to herself were just two more indications she’d gone crazy. The first had been when she’d realized she had a crush on one of the professional bull riders she worked with.
What woman in her right mind would want to date a rider? A man who made his living by traveling the world amid hordes of women intent on bedding the star the moment he got off the back of a bucking bull? If he got off without being critically injured or worse.
Apparently Annie was not in her right mind because veteran rider Luke Carpenter had caught her eye a while ago. Recently, more of her anatomy than just her eyes had become very interested in him.
Without even knowing it, Luke had captured her, body and soul. It seemed she wasn’t getting either back from him anytime soon, despite her realization that hoping for more than a working relationship with him was crazy.
And now two of his friends, the guys he’d driven with from the hotel to the arena yesterday, were walking straight toward her.
It was obvious to her now Luke wasn’t with them today, but her hands were shaking anyway just from the brief moments she’d thought he might have been.
Frustrated with her body’s ridiculous reaction at the mere thought of Luke, Annie blew out a loud breath.
Dry cleaning bag draped over one arm and the tote bag weighing down the other, she flung the car door shut with probably more force than was necessary.
She really needed to get control of herself and her schoolgirl crush.
Who knew if Luke would even look twice at her as a woman instead of just a female co-worker? He hadn’t in all the years she’d known him . . . but he’d also had a steady girlfriend all that time.
Now, since the tour had taken its midseason break, that girlfriend was suspiciously absent.
For the first time in years Luke had been going out with the other riders and acting more like a single man than a taken one.
If Annie didn’t get her butt in gear, some other woman would scoop him up. There were plenty of ready and willing women hanging around the local bars after an event looking for riders to flirt with.
That for the past couple of months Annie routinely knew Luke’s whereabouts—who he hung out with, where he went in his free time—only further proved she was crazy.
Practically a stalker.
He would probably run away in fear if he knew she was keeping tabs on him. But she couldn’t worry about that right now, because veteran riders Mustang Jackson and Slade Bower were standing next to her car waiting to walk her inside, because that’s what cowboys did.
Of course Mustang and Slade wouldn’t let a lady walk alone in a parking lot at dusk. If Luke were here, he’d do the same. She knew that for a fact because, like his fellow riders, that’s the kind of gentleman he was.
So why were Annie’s dreams strictly about getting naked and sweaty with Luke and never with any of the other very attractive guys she spent so much time with?
She wished she knew.
“Here’s our little Annie. How are you doing today, darlin’?” Mustang greeted Annie, pulling her out of her pondering.
“I’m good. How are you two?” Annie directed the question to both Mustang and Slade next to him.
“In a couple of hours I’ll be in that arena riding and hopefully taking home some money, so I can’t say I could be any better if I were twins.” Mustang laughed.
Slade nodded. “Amen to that.”
Their enthusiasm had Annie smiling. These guys truly loved their jobs.
Actually, she loved hers too. Yes, the constant travel could be tough, but it wasn’t like she had anyone waiting for her at home.
That thought was less than uplifting.
She smothered a sigh and decided maybe now was the time to do something about her lonely situation. These two cowboys might be just the ones to give her the information she needed about Luke and his current dating status.
“So, are your girls coming to the next event?” With all the casualness she could muster, Annie began some investigating.
She’d have to start slowly and skirt around the real object of her interest for a bit so they wouldn’t get suspicious and realize she was interested in Luke.
“Unfortunately, no. Sage has some tests for her college classes to deal with.” Mustang screwed up his mouth in an unhappy expression.
“Jenna will be there.” Slade practically glowed when he spoke his girlfriend’s name. Obviously he was a man in love.
With a frown, Mustang shot his friend a look. “Yeah, yeah. Rub it in.”
“What? Sorry. I can’t help it if my girl can get away more often than yours can.” Grinning, Slade didn’t look very sorry at all.
Mustang blew out a loud breath. “It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen Sage. My nights have been awfully lonely.”
“Aw. A whole two weeks? I’m there for you, buddy.” Slade slapped Mustang on the back.
“Yeah, thanks a lot. A man has needs, Slade. Ones you sure as hell can’t fill.” Mustang glanced sideways at her with a grimace. “Sorry, Annie. I shouldn’t be talking like that in front of you.”
Annie laughed at Mustang’s reaction to his slip. “It’s fine, really.”
Thanks to her job as a sideline reporter she was around men pretty much constantly. She was used to them forgetting she was there and talking the way they would among themselves.
Besides, women had needs too. She could totally relate to Mustang’s frustration. In fact, her own needs in that department hadn’t been met in quite some time. Definitely much longer than Mustang’s two week stretch.
Annie smothered the envy she felt. She wanted a man of her own to look like Slade did when he spoke about Jenna. A man to miss her desperately the way Mustang missed being with Sage.
She needed to see about getting one.
Not just any one, but one in particular. “So, um, you know who I haven’t seen around lately? Luke’s girlfriend, Lilly.”
“Huh, you noticed that, did you?” Mustang asked. “No, you haven’t seen her around. Not since the tour went on summer break. Why do you ask?”
The smile that spread across Mustang’s face combined with the intensity of his stare made Annie realize this guy was a little more intuitive than she’d given him credit for.
Annie shrugged as if it didn’t matter and regretted saying anything. “No reason. Just wondering is all.”
“Uh, huh.” Mustang continued to grin while Annie tried to estimate exactly how much longer it would take to walk to the arena from here. She needed to get away from his probing.
“Mustang, leave poor Annie alone.”
One look at Slade proved that even though he was defending her, he was grinning too.
“Why are you two acting so weird? Jeez, all I did was ask about Lilly, just like I asked about Sage and Jenna. It’s nice to have other girls around here after being with you guys all the time.” Annie scowled when they continued to look at her like they didn’t believe a word she was saying.
“Sorry, darlin’. It’s just we’ve noticed how you look at Luke. I was wondering how long it would be before you made a move.”
Mustang had noticed her stalking—uh, observing—Luke? Crap.
“What do you mean how I look at him? I watch all you guys ride. It’s part of my job.” If she was going to report on air about the competition, she had to watch both the rides and the riders.
Of course, keeping an eye on Luke before and after the events was a different story, but hopefully Mustang hadn’t noticed that.
“Nah, uh.” Slade shook his head. “You don’t watch the rest of us the way you watch him.”
“You’re both crazy.” Knowing her expression would show exactly how unhappy she was about the course the conversation had taken, and how close to the truth they’d come, Annie lowered her head to hide from the two cowboys’ scrutiny.
She picked up speed, only to be foiled by the closed door leading from the parking lot to the building. She reached for it as Mustang sprang forward. He grabbed the handle and she was forced to wait for him to open it for her.
Only he didn’t.
He stood, waiting and watching her until she felt compelled to do or say something to get this conversation over with.
If only she could think of something to say.
“Look, Annie. I have one thing to say then I’ll leave you alone.” Mustang’s gaze zeroed in on her face as she waited. The fact he’d used her name and hadn’t followed it up with the usual darlin’ told her he was serious. “For years now we’ve worked with you and you’ve been nothing but professional. Not a one of us will think any less of you if you decide to go for it with Luke.”
Next to Mustang, arms crossed over his chest, Slade nodded. “Agreed.”
Annie let out a half-laugh, half-sigh. “First of all, you’re assuming I’m interested in going for it. Second, who says Luke, or any of the other guys, would be interested in me? Huh? With all the pretty young things hanging around the chutes after the events to meet you guys why would anyone look twice at me?”
At thirty-something—Annie couldn’t even bring herself to name the exact number in her head—she felt suddenly very old next to the barely twenty-somethings hanging around in pursuit of their own champion bull rider.
Slade rolled his eyes and let out a snort. “Yeah, right.”
Meanwhile, Mustang laughed. “Yeah, you’re really old. Jeez, woman. No young girl is going to turn Luke’s head when a real woman is interested. Luke’s been around here long enough to know the real deal when he sees it.”
Was Mustang saying Luke thought she was the real deal? Had Luke talked to them about her while they were hanging out? The guys had all gone out for dinner and beers together last night.
“I’ll believe that when I hear it from Luke.” She’d played it off a dismissive as she could, like she was joking, but her traitorous heart pounded as she waited for them to react.
She was letting Mustang get her hopes up about Luke when she was supposed to be playing it cool. She sucked at dating and men.
“I won’t speak for Luke, darlin’.” Mustang shook his head as he finally opened the door and waited for her to step through. “But you can ask him yourself, now can’t you?”
Damn cowboy code. One rider would never betray the confidence of another. Annie should have known better than to even hope they would.
As they walked down the hallway toward the arena, Mustang glanced at her again. “I can tell you this though. Any man who isn’t interested in getting to know you better is crazy.”
“Mustang Jackson, are you flirting with me?” She laughed, happy to have the subject stray from Luke into territory she could deal with.
He shook his head with a grin. “No, ma’am. If I was flirting, you’d know it.”
On the other side of Mustang, Slade let out a burst of a laugh. “Oh yeah. I can vouch for that.”
Slade’s cell phone rang and he excused himself to take the call, leaving her to walk alone with Mustang.
“Listen, I’m just saying don’t wait for what you want. None of us knows how long we’ve got. Not here on this earth and certainly not here in the pros. In eight seconds out there on that dirt, a man’s whole life can change.”
Annie sobered immediately. She knew. She’d seen it happen. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Make sure you do.” Mustang tipped his hat. Then he headed down the stairs to the rider’s dressing room, leaving Annie with quite a bit to think about.
Annie must have been thinking harder than she realized, because the next thing she knew she’d walked head on into something about as hard as a brick wall, although a lot better smelling.
The rich scent of his cologne—a combination of leather and spice perhaps—assaulted her senses as she gazed up and into the tempting, handsome face of Luke Carpenter.
He grabbed both her arms in his big, firm grasp and steadied her.
Tiny, incredibly endearing crinkles appeared in the corners of his intense blue eyes as he smiled down at her. “Whoa, there. Where are you heading in such a daze?”
He released his hold, but the warmth where his hands had been remained.
Flustered at being caught by the very man who’d been occupying her mind and had caused the daze, Annie scrambled for an excuse. “I, uh, need to change before the broadcast.”
She held up the drycleaner bag full of clothes draped over her arm, feeling the need to prove to him she wasn’t lying. That it wasn’t thoughts of how and when to make her move on him that had her so distracted.
“Ah, gotcha. A woman has to look her best for the cameras.” He smiled.
What was he saying? That she needed all the time she could get to look good?
No, of course not. Now she was being paranoid.
Luke continued, “I better do a little prep work myself.”
“Why?” she asked, letting herself glance at how great he looked in jeans and his sponsor shirt. “You look great already.”
And he smelled even better.
“I meant, I need to get my rope cleaned and rosined up, but thanks.” Luke grinned and Annie couldn’t help but stare at his lips, wondering if they’d be soft or firm when—if—he ever kissed her.
She swallowed hard. “Oh, yeah, of course. Um, maybe I should get that on camera. You know, for the viewers. They might like to see all the preparation you guys go through before a ride.”
God, did that sound as lame to him as it did in her own head? Hopefully it wasn’t totally obvious to Luke that this idea for a piece was strictly so she could spend more time with him, even if it was on camera.
“Great idea. Anytime. You know where to find me. Right now I better get. See ya later?”
She nodded. “Later.”
With a tip of his brown cowboy hat, he was gone, but the effects lingered on.
Annie sagged against the wall and drew in a deep breath to settle herself before she made her way to where she needed to get to herself.