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Don't move. Don't make a sound. Don't even breathe. She closed her eyes and sent up a prayer. Would he look in the barrel? It seemed like such an obvious hiding place. Then again, it was one of many barrels in the equipment room. It would take him a while to search each one. Hopefully, she would be able to get out before he reached her.
But the footsteps moved closer to her. That sickening sweet cologne she remembered from four years ago tickled her gag reflex. She swallowed and curled into herself as tight as she dared. Her fingers, gripping the straps that had been mounted on the inside of the sphere, went numb.
His low singsong voice sent shivers of fear coursing through her. Stars danced before her eyes and she drew in another shallow breath. If she passed out, it was over. The stars faded. She lifted her head a fraction, just enough to see out of the top of the barrel.
Screams from the rodeo crowd just over her head reached her. Tonya had thought she'd be safe here, be a part of the rodeo, blend in with the crew. She'd been almost positive that the clown makeup and baggy clothes would be enough of a disguise should any pictures appear in a newspaper or on the news. Being a rodeo clownor a bullfighter, as some were calledwas hard work, exhilarating work. Dangerous work.
But not as dangerous as having an obsessed ex-boyfriend finally track you down.
Now she'd have to run again. Change her name again. Find a new line of work.
Hank Newman had stalked her in college, threatened her family and nearly killed her. And now he'd come after her one more time. God, help me!
His good-looking exterior hid a heart of evil. Of violence and the potential to kill. Her throat tightened at the memory. He'd wrapped his fingers around her throat and pressed. Tight, tighter. Until she'd passed out. He'd dropped her to the floor and walked out, leaving her for dead.
She'd pressed charges and sent him to jail. And not even his powerful lawenforcement family could stop it. The fingerprints he'd left on her throat had matched his and a jury had put him away. But he hadn't stayed locked up for long. He'd shown up a few months later at her office, where she'd been working only a few weeks. Fortunately, she'd seen him before he'd seen her and she'd slipped out of the office without a backward glance, knowing she would never be safe as long as he was free.
And now he was here. Looking for revenge.
Her eyes closed, not wanting to remember the hate on his face in the courtroom. "I'll come after you, Tonya. You're mine. If I can't have you, no one will."
The whispered cliché often made her awaken drenched in a fear-induced sweat.
How had Hank found her? The question tumbled through her mind as her muscles began to cramp. She listened. He hadn't spoken a word except her name. She hadn't heard footsteps except the ones that had brought him next to her hiding place.
What was he doing?
Listening for her just as intently as she was listening for him.
Tears leaked down her cheeks.
A scraping sound against the floor brought her head up. Another scrape. More footsteps. A barrel rocking. Terror thundered through her. No, no, no.
He was searching the barrels.
She could feel him getting closer, heard him mutter something under his breath.
"Hey, what are you doing in here? This room is for approved personnel only."
Tonya jerked, then nearly cried in relief. She recognized Seth Starke's voice. A buckaroo. A tall, good-looking bull rider whose blue eyes she'd spent way too much time noticing lately. But one who had impeccable timing. Thank You, Lord.
"Uh, sorry. I took a wrong turn. I was, uh looking for something," a voice said. Hank's voice, that deep bass that she'd just started to push from her memory. She'd know it anywhere.
"Well, come on out of there. What can I help you find?"
Seth snorted. "Try up the hall and on the right."
"Of course. Thanks."
Tonya listened to the fading footsteps and finally the door shut with a soft click. She let her muscles relax and winced at the pain as the blood began to flow once again. When she could, she stood and climbed out of the barrel on still-shaky legs, then shot a glance at the clock on the wall. She was going to be late.
Hank Newman was here. Frustration and terror clawed at her. She didn't want to run. She liked her life and what she'd built with the rodeo. But what other choice did she have?
But not until after Seth's ride. It was the last one of the day and then she'd be finished. Then she could plan her next move. But what would that be? Stay and fight back? Or head for the hills? She drew in a deep breath and headed for the door.
Then paused, her hand on the knob.
Was he there? Just outside? Waiting for her to step through so he could grab her and wrap his strong, menacing hands around her throat again?
Tremors shook through her. She leaned her head against the door and tried to calm herself. He wouldn't be there. Seth would have made sure of that. She turned the knob and shoved the door open.
The figure loomed in front of her. She let out a gasp and swallowed a scream.
"Hey, are you all right?" Seth grasped Tonya by the arm. She swayed and her stark white face troubled him. He'd admired her from afar for so long it felt strange to actually touch her.
She drew in a deep breath. "It's you."
"Yeah. Where did you come from? I didn't see you in there."
She gave him a shaky smile. "I was hiding." The little laugh she let escape didn't suggest she thought it was funny.
"Hiding? From ?"
"The guy you chased off. Thanks for that, by the way."
Seth frowned as warning bells went off in his mind. "Why were you hiding from him?"
"Doesn't matter now." She straightened and he realized he was still holding her upper arm. He let go and she tugged at the hem of her colorful long sleeve, fluffed the bright red wig and stuck her jaw out. "We're going to be late."
Seth followed her glance to the clock on the wall. She was right. They had to get going. "Are you sure you're up to this?" He was concerned. He wanted to know about the fear lingering in her eyes. Color had crept back into her cheeks, but she was still tense, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds as though she expected someone to walk up.
"I'm fine. Or I will be." Her blue gaze met his, and just like always, he felt drawn to her. She appeared fragile, yet he knew how strong she really was. And brave. No one could face down a thousand-pound bull and not have a spine of steel. That was why the fear in her eyes rattled him. Made him want to confront whatever had scared her. She gave him a light shove toward the men's dressing rooms. "I'll be out there in a minute."
She shook her head. "Go. You need to get ready. I'm on the way to the arena. I'll be right behind you."
Another glance at the clock sent urgency shooting through him. She was righthe'd have to hurry. "All right." He looked around. "I think that guy is gone."
"Good. Go. I'll be fine."
Seth hesitated one more second, then took off, his boots echoing against the concrete floor. He didn't know much about Tonya, just what he'd learned from working with her on an almost daily basis. But what he knew, he liked, and he vowed to make an effort to get to know her better. Soon. The fact that she was scared of the guy Seth had caught in the storage room really worried him. Not only did he vow to get to know Tonya better, he promised to be there for her if she needed him. For friendship, protection or more.
Tonya watched Seth leave and reached out to grip the doorframe. Chills pebbled over her skin. Hank Newman had found her. For years she'd never stopped watching over her shoulder and today it had paid off. Sort of. She'd seen him before he'd seen her. He looked different, but she'd recognized him. Almost too late, but quick enough to get away from him.
Seth Starke had shown up at just the right time. And so had the attraction that she'd been noticing every time she found herself in Seth's presence. But she couldn't think about that right now.
Confusion flooded through her. What was Hank doing here? No, wrong question. She knew what he was doing here. The main question was: How had he found her?
Another quick look at the clock had her groaning. She wilted against the doorframe to give herself a few seconds to get it together. Finally, she straightened, scrutinized the few people hurrying toward the stairs that would lead up to the arena. She had a show to finish. Then she could figure out her next move.
Seth watched Mia Addison entertain the crowd with the two dogs who traveled with her wherever she went. They were great for filling up the downtime that happened between rides and events. Adults loved her show as much as the kids. Seth let his gaze wander the area. Where was Tonya? She'd said she'd be right behind him.
Tonya Waters. The woman who'd started to come to mind more often than not. He'd thought he'd seen her slip into the supply room and had planned to grab a private moment to ask her out. Only he'd found another man following her.
Someone who'd scared her enough to send her into hiding. Just as he'd been about to open the door to the storage room and call out to her, she'd opened it herself. The sheer terror that had stared back at him for that brief moment before she realized it was him stayed with him and he planned to ask her about it as soon as he could.
He drew in a steadying breath and climbed the gate, balancing himself on the top rail. Soon he'd throw his legs over and drop onto the bull who pranced and snorted. He glanced up. Still no Tonya.
He'd noticed her from the moment he'd met her, but she'd belonged to someone else. Now she was single again, her boyfriend killed in a freak bullfighting accident. He'd heard through the grapevine that Tonya still blamed herself a year later. The sadness in her eyes drew him, made him want to offer comfort. Which was crazy. His eyes scanned the area again. His already tense muscles bunched harder. Had the guy who'd frightened her gone back to find her? Where was she?
As though in answer to his silent question, Tonya stepped into the arena, rolling her barrel. She wore loose-fitting clothes that would enable her to move freely and quickly. Underneath the brightly colored shirt, she wore a vest. The vest and the barrel would protect hersomewhatif the bull came after her.
Seth shuddered to think of it, but she was a professional. She did her job so he could do his. He swung his legs over the rail fencing and settled himself on the back of the bull. Then he gathered the rosined rope near the bull's neck.
"You ready for this?" Jake Foster, one of Seth's good friends and another bull rider, asked. "As ready as I'll ever be."
Jake, Seth Starke, Daniel Sanders and Monty Addison, Mia's brother, had been the four buckaroos. Until Daniel had died. Now it was the three of them, and while they fiercely competed against one another for the prize money, they were best friends who still mourned the loss of Daniel.
"We going out for drinks after this?" Jake asked.
"You know I don't drink."
"Come on, man. You know the strongest thing I'm talking about is a root beer."
Seth gave a low chuckle. He did know that. Jake was a recovering alcoholic and had been clean for five years. "We'll see how this ride goes."
"I'll even drive."
Seth snorted. "No way I'm getting in your trash heap." The man literally had garbage stacked to the ceiling in the backseat of his king cab. Drink cups, food wrappers, magazines and old newspapers. It had become a joke among the friends. No one would ride in Jake's truck for fear of getting lost amid the trash. Seth suspected the man did that on purpose. Sure saved him on gas money when he rode with someone else.
"I'll clean it out just for you."
"It's okay, Jake. You don't have to try and take my mind off this ride. I need to focus."
"I know." His pal shut up and helped Seth settle in. Seth passed the rope between his pinkie and ring finger, then over the top of his hand across the back and around again to thread it under where it crossed his palm. Then he moved the rope between his middle and index fingers and clamped down hard.
He was ready.
No, he wasn't.
Fear flared. "Do you ever think about Daniel before you ride?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"Every time," Jake said. He'd watched his friend die just as Seth had. Then six months later, Seth had fallen and been horribly injured. He knew Jake had to wonder if he was next.
"He was on the computer in the break room last time I saw him. The orders are rolling in." Monty and several of the other buckaroos ran a side business selling Western wear through an online store. "Don't worryhe'll be here. Like you said you just focus on staying on."
"Right." Focus would be a good thing. Staying on would be even better.
For Seth the flashes of falling off the bull six months ago wouldn't fade. He'd been back riding now for two months, training and working. And each time he got on one of the beasts, the images from the past came forward to taunt him. Focus.
Mia and her well-trained dogs ran from the arena to the resounding cheers and applause of the entertained audience. Mia used dogs, while Tonya defied death walking a high wire and being shot out of a cannon. Mia would be back in about fifteen seconds to help Tonya bull-fight.
The clock ticked. Mia returned in a flash of color and renewed applause. She moved opposite of Tonya and waited on the other side of the gate.
A third bullfighter, Rhett Jamison, grasped the rope he'd use to pull open the gate when Seth gave him the signal. Tonya met his gaze then gave him a slow nod. The timekeeper held the stopwatch next to Seth's head. He'd press the button as soon as the gate opened. His muscles bunched and he forced them to relax. He'd have to move with the bull, not fight him. He nodded to Rhett.
Rhett pulled the rope and the gate opened. The bull shot out and went into his rocking north-and-south bucking motion. Seth kept his free arm up, his stomach tight, his weight centered over the hand that gripped the rope, muscled legs clamped against the beast's sides.
Eight seconds. Just do it for eight seconds.
He knew what he was doing. The ride felt right. Good. The fear fled. Exhilaration filled him. He let his body flow with the movement. Time slowed; the roar of the crowd faded. It was just him and the bull.
The bell sounded. Elation zipped through him. He'd done it again. He'd stayed on. The rope slipped. He frowned and felt himself falling. No, this wasn't supposed to happen. Wha?
Seth was on the ground, his lungs straining for air. The past rushed back to hit him and he steeled himself for the pain, for the bull to trample him. He tried to breathe, to roll, and couldn't move.
A hoof hit his newly healed leg. Pain ricocheted through him and blackness descended.