“Daddy. You're not supposed to swear in front of me.”
Sol caught himself before some other taboo word escaped from his mouth. Or worse still, a whole string of them.
Two deep breaths. Calm.
How was he supposed to be calm when his wife was out on a date?
“I'm sorry, sweetie. Daddy's got a foul mouth. You shouldn't repeat anything I say.”
His blonde, blue-eyed nine-year-old daughter, the spitting image of her mother, rolled her eyes because, yeah, he wasn't telling her anything she didn't already know.
“So who is this”—he wanted to say Bozo, but he didn't want to make his daughter feel disloyal if she liked the Bozo—”guy?”
“His name's Mike. He goes to Mama's gym.”
Great. Some muscle-bound doofus who probably didn't have two brain cells to rub together.
“So . . . you like him?”
It was an important question. Georgia didn't subscribe to the school of thought that kept her from introducing her dates to her daughter until she decided they were keepers. Just the opposite, in fact. If Eden didn't like the guy right off, he got deep-sixed in a big hurry.
They were a package deal, Georgia liked to say, and both of them had veto power.
It kept Sol from having to intervene in all but the most serious cases.
Sol watched his daughter's face. She scrunched her mouth over to one side as she contemplated the question. “He's okay, I guess. He's kinda nervous around me.”
That meant Doofus was smart enough to know Eden's opinion mattered.
“So what are she and Mike doing on their date?” It was all he could do to not sneer Mike's name.
“They went to the carnival.”
“And they didn't take you?”
“You didn't want to go to the carnival with them?”
“Yeah. But I wanted to see you more.”
Sol's heart swelled. His daughter had chosen him over a carnival.
“You know, those aren't mutually exclusive events.”
“That means you can do both. How'd you like to go to the carnival with your old daddy?”
His daughter's grin was the only answer he needed.
* * *
Sol pulled a thread of pink cotton candy from his daughter's blond hair and sucked it from his fingers. How she managed to get it everywhere was beyond him.
She'd dragged him over to a gaggle of her friends, hanging onto his hand as if he were a helium-filled balloon that might float away before her friends had the chance to be suitably impressed with her daddy who “rode bulls at the rodeo.”
He pushed his cowboy hat back on his head and gazed out over the crowd. They'd been there half an hour, and he still hadn't caught sight of Georgia.
The heat was pervasive. Sol lifted his hat to wipe sweat from his forehead. Paved over as they were, cities held onto their heat even after the sun went down, and Dallas was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave that made him long for the cool breezes of his family's ranch.
The forecast predicted a storm coming in. It couldn't come soon enough for him. He was riding later, but the Mesquite venue was an indoor arena, so rain wouldn't create a problem. As he settled his hat back on his head, he saw Georgia.
The sunlight flashed on her golden hair, creating, for a moment, the illusion of a halo. She wore tight-fitting cutoff jeans, sandals, and a western shirt with the tails knotted at the waist over a ribbed tank top that stretched tight across the full breasts she'd had since eighth grade. As usual, his first glimpse of her took Sol's breath away.
Sol took a step to his right, trying to get a bead on who she was with.
The shifting crowd let him catch glimpses.
Medium height . . . Dark hair . . . Stocky . . . A pony tail . . . Biceps the size of Sol's thighs.
Holy hell. The guy was built like a Sherman tank.
Physical intimidation wasn't going to work.
That was okay.
Sol had plenty of other ammunition in his arsenal.
“Hey, honey. Look. There's your mama.”
Eden was off, racing toward her mother.
At the sound of her daughter's voice, Georgia's head came up. A look of delight was followed by one of terror that almost made Sol laugh out loud. He supposed that said more about him than it did about her.
He moseyed after his daughter who had flown into her mother's arms like they'd been separated for months instead of mere hours, Eden's typical greeting for the people she loved. Sol wasn't looking forward to the day she started dating.
But that was a problem for another day. Bozo was today's problem.
* * *
“You know me. I get bored easy,” Sol said, explaining why Georgia should ride the Ferris Wheel with Eden instead of him. “Then I'll rock the car. Eden'll deafen me, screaming in my ear, then she'll try ‘n choke me, hangin' on so she don't fall out. And then we probably will fall out. It's better if you go.”
Georgia gazed at him without saying a word, sending the tacit message that he'd better not try to pull a fast one.
“Mike?” she crooked her finger, then pulled him aside, out of Sol's earshot, but he could guess what she was saying.
“Daddy?” Eden had ahold of his hand again.
“I want to ride with you.”
“Don't worry, honey. We'll ride together. Maybe the teacups. You like that ride.”
“That's a baby's ride.”
Sol felt his eyebrows rise. Damn, he hated seeing his little girl grow up. “Okay. The Tilt-A-Whirl then. That's my favorite.” A lot of people would be surprised by that, expecting a bull rider to like the wilder rides, but nothing the carnival could offer was as wild as getting on the back of a one-ton bull.
Bozo trailed behind when Georgia returned.
“Come on, baby,” Georgia said, taking Eden's hand to go stand in line.
Sol and Bozo settled down on the sidelines to watch. She’d introduced Sol as her ex-husband, a fact he had a hard time remembering emotionally. He didn’t know why; they’d been divorced far longer than they’d been married.
“Where you from?” Sol asked.
“What makes you think I'm not from here?”
Sol's laugh was genuine. “You don't sound Texan.”
Bozo shrugged. “I'm from Indianapolis. My company transferred me to Dallas six months ago.”
“What do you do?”
“I'm an architect.”
“Huh. You don't look like no architect,” Sol said.
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“I reckon so.”
Two guys walked by hand-in-hand. Bozo's head turned, tracking them until they were past where he and Sol stood. If he hadn't been watching closely, Sol might not have noticed the twitch at the corner of Bozo's mouth where his upper lip tried to curl into a sneer.
Was the guy homophobic?
That wouldn't go over with Georgia, but she'd probably read Bozo the riot act and open his eyes and mind the way she'd done with Sol. Nope, he couldn't count on that to do the job.
“How long you been seeing Georgia?” Sol asked.
Bozo turned back to watch the ride. “Not long. This is only our second date, but we see each other a couple of times a week at the gym.”
Sol looked down at his cowboy boots. He scuffed a toe in the dirt.
“Georgia says you're crazy.”
Sol threw back his head as a laugh burst out of him. She'd taken one look at him and gone into damage-control mode. This was going to be fun.
“She says I shouldn't believe a word you say.”
“Of course, she does.” He was grinning like a loon.
“So why don't you hit me with your best shot, so we can get it out of the way.”
Sol shook his head. He could almost like this guy. Too bad he was dating Georgia. “Nah, there ain't nothing wrong with Georgia. She's a great gal.”
The smile he gave Bozo got a frown in return, as if he was wondering what Georgia thought Sol would tell him that had merited whatever stern warning she'd inflicted on him.
After the Ferris Wheel, the four of them rode the Tilt-A-Whirl. Sol tipped the guy at the controls five bucks to give them a good ride. Between that and the years Sol had invested in learning which way to throw his weight, they got a great ride. Even Georgia grinned at him when it was over.
After that, they got candied apples. As they headed for the bumper cars, Georgia took off the shirt she'd been wearing over her tank top and tied the sleeves around her hips. Sol didn't like the way Bozo noticed that sweat made her top cling to her breasts. It made it difficult to rein in his competitive drive.
He tried anyway, not wanting to look too much like an ass with Eden beside him, but her screaming laughter every time he T-boned Bozo or Georgia egged him on. Not that Georgia and Bozo didn't get a few licks of their own in. Georgia's satisfied smirk when she finally broadsided his bumper car kicked him into high gear. All thoughts of restraint evaporated like a morning mist on a hot day. After that, it was all out war. Even with Georgia and Bozo double teaming him, Sol knew he'd come out the winner.
Except bumper cars wasn't the game he needed to win.
Eden was showing signs of a sugar high, so Georgia suggested the Merry-Go-Round to calm her down. Sol and Mike both groaned, but Georgia took Eden on it anyway.
The two men stood at the metal railing that surrounded the ride and watched Sol's women go around in circles.
Sol was torn. Should he make his play now? He might not get another chance, but moving too soon could blow it.
“You know there's nothing you could say about Georgia that would make me back off,” Bozo said, making Sol's decision for him. “I haven't met many women like her. She's so down-to-earth and real. Not a phony bone in her body.”
Sol bit back his smile. “Yeah, that's our Georgia. As real as real gets.”
For a moment, he thought Bozo hadn't caught the trace of dry sarcasm he'd let into his voice. This wasn't going to work if he didn't make Bozo drag it out of him. Hell, it probably wasn't going to work anyway.
Finally, Bozo asked, “What?”
Sol shook his head. “Nothin'.”
Another long pause.
“No, you said 'as real as real gets,' but you didn't mean it.”
“Sure, I did.”
“No. Tell me what you meant.”
Sol sighed as though he didn't want to say it. “Well, I'm sure you done noticed Georgia's built like a brick shithouse.”
Bozo laughed. “You know I've never exactly gotten that comparison, but yeah, I know what you mean.”
Sol turned his head toward Bozo. “It ain't occurred to you that her tits are too perfect? I mean, shit. When've you ever seen boobs like that that weren't airbrushed?”
Bozo stared at Sol, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. His gaze shifted to the carousel as Georgia and Eden came around. He tracked Georgia until they disappeared again.
“Really?” Bozo finally said.
Sol kept quiet, giving Bozo the chance to think it through.
“Man, she wears this little spandex thing to the gym, but I never thought . . .”
Sol fought a smile. He had him. Bozo had taken the bait. Now Sol had to set the hook.
“Well, she's proud of 'em. They're a work of art. Hell, her whole body's a work of art.”
“Her whole . . .?”
“Butt implants. They're not as perfect. You can kinda feel what's real and what ain't if you're paying attention. But damn, they make her jeans look good.”
Bozo's mouth was hanging open again.
“I'm sure she'll tell you eventually. After all, it ain't something you tell folks 'til you've known 'em a while.”
Bozo was silent. Was the guy into physical perfection enough to be put off?
Patience wasn't Sol's strong suit, but he forced himself to wait.
Finally, Bozo said, “I guess it's not that big a deal. So she wanted a better body. I can't throw stones about that. It's why I work out.”
Sol turned around and leaned back, his elbows cocked on top of the railing. This guy wasn't supposed to be okay with this.
Maybe it was a show. Maybe it would eat at him until it poisoned his attraction to Georgia. It was a great thought, but he couldn’t count on it.
The two guys he'd seen earlier holding hands walked by.
Oh, no. He couldn't do that.
Bozo wouldn't buy it anyway.
Or would he?
He'd already bought that Georgia's more obvious attributes were store-bought, but would he believe there was a darker reason she'd needed them?
“I'm real glad you feel that way. Georgia deserves someone who accepts her for who she is. And who she was.”
It seemed to take Bozo a few seconds to translate what Sol had said.
“Who she was? What do you mean?”
Sol took a deep breath. Was he really going to do this? If Bozo told Georgia, she'd kill him dead. And he'd deserve it.
“Georgia ain't the name she was christened with.”
Bozo frowned as if he were trying to follow the implication.
This was it. Last chance to stop himself. Instead, he said, “She was named . . . George.”
“George? Why would her parents name her George?”
Sol shot him a meaningful look. The guy wasn't really that dense, was he?
“No! I don't believe it.”
Of course, he didn't. Any fool could see Georgia was all woman, but Sol was committed now, so he just shrugged, as if to say it was up to Bozo to decide what he believed.
Bozo watched Georgia and Eden ride past them again.
“She can't be. I mean . . . Eden looks just like her.”
“Eden's her cousin's kid,” Sol said. “She was a baby when her mama died in a car wreck, so we adopted her.”
“No. No court would let a kid go to two—”
Deviants? Sol was pretty sure that was what Bozo had been about to say. Or something equally offensive. “You'd be surprised how little the courts care when the arrangements are made within the family.”
Bozo stared at the Merry-Go-Round. Georgia and Eden passed them three or four times before he looked at Sol. “Does she . . . I mean, is she . . . ?”
Sol couldn't completely repress the grin that wanted to spread across his face, but he managed to just let the corners of his lips quirk up. “Anatomically correct?”
“As much as they can do with surgery and hormones.” Sol had no idea what that really meant, but he figured Bozo didn't either. “Of course, she can't have kids.”
Bozo's face was a movie screen of warring emotions, but Sol saw the moment he remembered Georgia's warning. “No. Georgia said you'd tell some wild story about her.”
Sol smiled. It had taken Bozo long enough to get here. “A'course, she did. What else would she say? But there are some things even hormones ain't gonna change. Like her voice.”
Georgia's lower range alto sometimes got her mistaken for a man on the phone, but it was damned sexy in bed.
The reminder cinched the deal. Bozo believed him.
“When did you get together with . . . Georgia?”
He seemed to choke on her name. Sol had hoped this question wouldn’t come up. Still . . . if this was what it took to finish him off, Sol would make the sacrifice.
“When she was still George.”
“But that would make you . . .”
Sol cocked an eyebrow, as though daring him to finish the thought.
“But you ride bulls,” Bozo said as if that proved something.
“You'd be surprised what a guy will do to fit in. This here's Texas, you know.” Where men were expected to be macho.
Bozo leaned his forearms against the fence. His head dropped and he stared at the ground as though trying to adjust to Sol's revelations.
Now for the coup de grâce.
“Just so you know. I still love George—Georgia. But the changes . . .” Sol shook his head. “They just don't turn me on. That don't mean I won't get a couple of my cowboy buddies and stomp you if you hurt him . . . her.”
That much at least was true.
* * *
Georgia charged the gate that led to Mesquite rodeo's staging area. Someone caught her arm. “Whoa, there. You got a pass?”
“No, I don't have a pass.” Georgia tried to shake him off.
“Sorry. This is a restricted area. You got to have a pass.” He was a small man. A banty rooster who compensated for his small stature by acting more macho than the cowboy he could never be.
“Where do I get a pass?”
The guy pointed at a nearby group of three people. “You gotta see the rodeo secretary.”
Georgia took a step in the direction he'd pointed.
“But she don't give ‘em to buckle bunnies,” he sneered, his tone grating in its superiority.
She pivoted on one foot. “Buckle bunny? You think I'm a buckle bunny?”
The guy backed up a step.
She was so pissed off she was shaking. “Rodeo cowboys are the most worthless, pitiful, pathetic excuse for a man that's ever walked God's green Earth. If I needed a kidney to save my life and the only possible donor was a rodeo cowboy, I wouldn't take it. Not even if he got down on his hands and knees and begged me to. Not even if I had a dozen kids who depended on me to feed them. Nothing—NOTHING—could make these overgrown children attractive.”
The gatekeeper cringed. “You still need a pass,” he said in a thin voice.
Georgia's anger coiled tighter. If this little weasel of a man thought he was going to keep her from killing Sol—
“Georgia? That you?”
She turned to see Terry Ainsley, another bull rider and one of Sol's sometimes travel buddies, eyeing her.
The fire of her anger still burned hot, but Terry just laughed. “What's Sol done this time?”
“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“You might be surprised what I'd believe about ol' Sol. He's more fun on the road than a horse trailer full of buckle bunnies. Well, maybe not that much fun. But damned close.”
“I need to kill him, Terry.”
“I can see that, honey. Can it wait 'til after he's rode?”
“I don't want to wait.” She wanted to do it now while she could still lay claim to the crime-of-passion defense.
“I see that, too.” He stood there, looking at her until she started fidgeting. “This is the long round, you know. If he does good, he’ll be in the money. You don’t want to ruin that. You kill him now, the winnin's won't be part of the estate.”
Georgia took a deep breath. “Can I at least maim him?”
“Okay. I just need to talk to him.”
“Yell at him you mean.”
“Well, yeah. Talk at high volume.”
Terry did a lousy job of suppressing his grin. Looking over her head, he said, “I'm taking her back, Jimmy. If anyone gives you heat, tell 'em they can talk to me.”
She could tell Jimmy wanted to argue, but he didn't have the balls to challenge Terry.
The musky animal smell grew sharper as they passed into the rodeo underbelly. Terry guided her to where the bull riders prepared.
She heard Sol before she saw him. “I swear to God, the doofus believed every word. He wasn’t even that hard to convince.”
Georgia extended her arm, her hand catching Terry mid-chest, forcing him to stop. She had to hear this. According to Mike, before he’d kissed her off—kissing being merely a metaphor since he had cringed from even holding her hand after the carousel ride—Sol had told him she’d had certain “enhancements.” She suspected she wasn’t getting the whole story, but Mike had sworn that was everything. Or at least the gist of it.
“Wow. She must be a real bowser if he bought that.”
“Hell, no,” another voice said. “I’ve seen Sol’s ex. This guy must be dumb as a stump to believe she was ever a man.”
Georgia gasped. Sol had said she’d been a man? She couldn’t move. Could barely breathe. A red haze settled in front of her eyes.
“I’m going to kill him,” she muttered and started forward.
Arms encircled her from behind, lifting her off the ground. Near her ear, Terry yelled, “Sol! Run!”
She kicked and screamed, but Terry hung on. Her last glimpse was of Sol turning toward her, his gray eyes wide with shock, before Terry marched back toward the entrance with Georgia’s feet kicking his shins. He dumped her as soon as she was outside the restricted area.
She dodged him, trying to get back inside, but the gatekeeper stepped into her way. God, she hated little men with Napoleon complexes. Terry grabbed her around the waist and swung her around before she could mow the pipsqueak down.
“That's enough, Georgia.” She turned toward him, still determined to get back to Sol. Terry's face was set in stern lines, but the hint of laughter in his eyes made her want to add him to her hit list. “You can deal with Sol after his ride. Maybe you'll calm down by then.”
“Don't count on it.”
“Oh, I won't. But you're still gonna to have to wait.”
He wasn't going to bend on this. She bit down on her rage, and straightened her shirt. Terry was smart enough not to laugh out loud at her attempt to make a dignified exit.
She made her way into the bleacher seating and picked a spot to wait. Of course, with the way her luck was going, she sat within listening distance of two guys who seemed to know all about rough stock.
Rodeo wasn’t a sport she enjoyed. If she’d followed the rankings, she wouldn’t be so bored between rides, but for the eight seconds or so each ride lasted, she longed for that boredom. Every year, riders were seriously injured. Some never walked again.
A few died.
Yes, other sports had fatalities, but Sol didn’t participate in those sports. He rode bulls, and so Georgia could hardly stand to watch. Every time someone was hurt, the thought burst into her head, what if it were Sol?
She let her ire distract her, replaying the cowboys laughing, letting it feed her temper. Then she replayed the awkward good-bye with Mike, and her anger grew hotter. She hoped the bull would dump Sol on his head. What an ass.
The barrel racing ended and the rodeo clowns came out to amuse the crowd while they got the first bulls in the chutes.
The guys behind her started talking about the bulls that were there. “You got the list?” one asked the other.
As Georgia dug into her bag for something to fan the heat away from her face, she heard the crackle of paper being unfolded. They were silent as they presumably scanned it.
“There’s gonna be some good rides tonight,” one of the men said.
“You jealous, Murph?” the other man asked.
“Hell, yeah. I’d kill to be able to ride again. ‘Specially a bull like Colonel Mustard.”
Georgia glanced back. The two men looked like they were in their forties—well past a bull rider’s prime. The hands of the one who missed riding rested on the top of a polished brown cane.
“Yeah, Colonel Mustard’s a pretty rank bull,” his friend agreed. “You can make a good score on a bull like that. If you can stay on.”
“Who drew him?”
“Let's see . . . Sol McKnight.”
Georgia's heart tap danced in her chest. Half the score in bull riding came from how the bull performed, so a rank bull was a potential winning ticket. Her lips tightened into a grim line. Sol, she was sure, was delighted to have drawn a tough bull.
“I've seen him ride,” the crippled ex-bull rider said. “He could do real well.”
Or he could break his fool neck.
It was a night of good karma. Some of the riders got bucked off, but most made the eight-second buzzer. No one got hurt, and Georgia's stomach slowly settled. Sol would be fine. At least, until she got her hands on him.
He was the next-to-last rider. She saw him ease his lanky frame into the chute. His head was lowered, his hat hiding his face as he focused on the animal beneath him. Terry leaned over the side of the chute, pulling Sol's bull rope tight. Thirty seconds later, the gate was thrown open, and a cream-colored bull surged out with Sol on his back.
Georgia’s stomach rolled over.
Eight seconds was no time at all, and yet watching Sol on the back of the bull, his left arm swinging over his head, counterbalancing the jerks and twists of the bull’s motion, it stretched into an eternity. Oddly enough, that eternity didn’t play out in slow motion. The bull kicked and spun until Georgia felt dizzy. Sol stuck like a burr to the animal's back.
An eon later, the buzzer blared and the crowd applauded. It wasn't enough to make Georgia release her breath. Sol was still out there. She'd never quite figured out how the cowboys dismounted. One second, Sol was on the bull's back; the next, his boots were planted on the ground. His center of balance was too far back though, and he landed on his butt, his back to the bull. Colonel Mustard spun, his horn cracking against Sol's skull. The impact knocked Sol onto his side.
“Oh, God!” Georgia was on her feet, hands clasped over her mouth. She stood frozen as the bullfighter-clowns surged forward. Sol's fellow bull riders leaped into the arena. They raced to him, heedless of the danger, trusting the bullfighters to draw off the bull.
Sol had curled into a ball, hands and arms covering his head and neck. The bull butted his rock-hard head against his shoulder, plowing into him with enough force to scoot him across the ground.
“Oh God, oh God, ohGod, ogod, ogodogodogod . . .” She barely breathed the words, repeating them until they ran together and lost all meaning.
One of the bullfighters grabbed a horn and yanked. The bull turned and went after him, and for a second, Sol was under Colonel Mustard's belly. Georgia couldn't tell if the bull stepped on him or not.
As soon as he was clear, the cowboys converged on Sol, blocking her view.
She wanted to be down there—needed to be down there—but she couldn’t move. Her feet might as well have been nailed to the floor, her legs cast of marble or bronze, but her knees seemed made of water and threatened to collapse out from under her. Then she was sidestepping out of the row so quickly she was in danger of tripping over her own feet.
The crowd was still thick around Sol when she reached the arena level. She was about to clamber over the railing when he got to his feet. The crowd broke into applause, and the announcer said something, but Georgia barely heard it over the blood pounding in her ears. Her hands wrapped tight around the top rail, her breath coming in little gasps.
The cowboys rallied around Sol, but when he hobbled toward the gate that led to the back, only Terry stayed with him. Rodeo cowboys were a macho bunch. As long as Sol didn't need a stretcher, they'd downplay any concern they felt.
Georgia wasn't nearly as complacent. But then she'd never had what it took to be a good rodeo wife.
* * *
The gatekeeper didn't stand a chance. When he tried to stop her, she glared at him but didn't slow down. He seemed to sense she wouldn't have a qualm about running over him, grinding him into the dirt, and leaving his lifeless body for the vultures. He stepped aside at the last second.
For all her hurry, she had to stop once she made it through. She wasn't familiar enough with the rodeo's underpinnings to know where to go. They would have taken Sol to the first aid station, but where was that?
A moment later, she caught sight of Terry coming toward her. Thank God.
“How is he?”
“I reckon he's gonna live. But he ain't pretty like he used to be.”
Georgia wanted to slap him for sounding so off-hand, but that was the way these guys were. She should be comforted. If he'd sounded worried, it would only be because Sol was either dying or already dead.
But there was a lot of room between that and Sol being okay, and she wasn't going to stop worrying until she saw him for herself.
“What's the doctor say?”
“Sol's with him now.”
Once again, she heard her ex-husband before she saw him.
She'd know that growl anywhere. Whether he was fine or not, Sol was certainly annoyed.
Which meant he was fine.
Or at least not in danger of dying in the next two minutes.
All of her earlier anger came rushing back, turbocharged by the worry of the past few minutes.
She stepped into the room, prepared to finish what the bull had started, when the doctor spoke. “Maybe you're fine, and maybe you aren't. Concussions can be tricky things. I'd like to send you to the hospital—”
Sol sat on the examination table, facing away from her, but she saw him wave a dismissive hand. “I ain't goin' to no hospital.”
Apparently, the doctor was no more surprised by his refusal than Georgia was, because with only the slightest pause, he said, “I'll let you go if you have someone who can keep an eye on you tonight.”
From behind her, Terry said, “We'll take care of him, Doc.”
Georgia stepped to the side, distancing herself from Terry's “we.”
The doctor looked Terry up and down. “'We' being bull riders?”
The doctor made a disparaging noise. “Yeah, and when he complains of a headache, one of you will give him a beer. Or a shot of whiskey.” He shook his head. “That's not what he needs.” His gaze landed on Georgia. “How about you?”
“Me?” Georgia squeaked.
Sol twisted around.
She gasped. He had a nasty lump just below his right temple that was already a dark purple-blue and nearly as big as her palm. His jaw was scrapped raw as well and there was a trace of fresh blood under his nose.
Sol glowered. “Oh, hell no.”
She'd been about to beg off, but the force of his refusal irked her. “Why the hell not?”
“Coz I want to survive the night.”
“You should have thought about that before you started telling lies about me.”
“I can't help it that your boyfriend's dumber'n a box of rocks.”
“Enough,” the doctor said.
Georgia felt heat rise in her face.
“Is there anyone else you could draft?” Doc asked Sol.
“I don't need a babysitter,” Sol said. “I'm fine.”
Calling Sol stubborn was like calling an outhouse aromatic. It just didn't quite capture how intensely frustrating he could be when he dug his heels in like he was gearing up to do. She didn't want him going off on his own to die like a wild dog. How would she ever explain that to his daughter?
“I'll take care of him.” Even as she heard the words, she fought the urge to look behind her for someone to blame them on. Too bad no one was there.
“He'll probably have a headache. He can take Tylenol, but no aspirin or other pain killers. And he may have trouble with his concentration, memory, judgment, balance and coordination.” As she listened to his instructions, Georgia perused the list of things to watch for that doctor had given her.
“How long do I need to monitor him?”
“Twelve hours at least.” He glanced at Sol who was struggling into his shirt. “Twenty-four, if he'll let you.
“Going to sleep is okay, but I want you to wake him up every two or three hours for at least the first twelve. Ask him a few simple questions. Watch for any changes in his appearance or behavior.”
“So if he starts acting like a reasonable human being, I should worry.”
Terry and the doctor laughed. Sol scowled.
The written symptoms in her hand also mentioned increased irritability. That would be tougher to identify.
“And Sol—” Doc said.
Sol turned around.
* * *
The sky had darkened and the wind was gusting by the time they left the rodeo grounds. The heat was still oppressive, but the air had the heavy feeling of an impending storm.
They drove to the cheap motel where Sol had planned to spend the night, so he could get his stuff. While Georgia waited in the car, a bolt of lightning split the sky. Finally, she thought. This would break the heat spell that had everyone so cranky.
The first, fat raindrops hit the windshield as Sol walked out of the motel room, an old battered and shapeless bag in one hand.
He threw it in the backseat of her Kia then got in the passenger side only to scowl out the window at the rain. Lightning flashed in the distance.
They didn't speak at all on the drive to Georgia's apartment.
Walking in the door, Georgia decided to let go of her anger. They were going to be together for the next ten hours or so, and she didn't want to be miserable the whole time. She couldn't let it go though without saying something, but she could try to keep it light. “You’re at my mercy now,” she said as she hung up her keys.
“Yeah.” He didn’t sound worried enough to suit Georgia.
“Do you think you’re not going to have to pay for what you told Mike?”
“I’m sure I will.”
Her good intentions faded. The man was so damned arrogant.
“I was all set to kill you, you know.”
“I know. But that was then. This is now.”
“You think I won’t?”
“I know you won’t.”
Georgia's temper spiked. “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“Look, Georgie, you—”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Okay. But you won’t kill me in cold blood. In the heat of passion, maybe. But in cold blood? No way. You wouldn’t do that to Eden.”
Damn him. She hated how hard it was to bluff a man who wasn’t afraid to get on the back of a one-ton animal with horns and a short fuse.
“You look like crap, you know.”
Sol lifted his hand to his bruised temple. “I know.”
“Maybe you should think of Eden once in a while.”
“I'm always thinking about Eden.”
“You weren't thinking about Eden when you told Mike all that crap about me.” Or when he was getting on the back of that bull.
“Sure I was. I was thinking how Eden didn't need some muscle-bound doofus for a step-dad.”
Georgia gritted her teeth. This wasn't the first time Sol had submarined her love life; it was just the most offensive. And he always claimed he did it for Eden.
“So where is Eden?”
She wanted to take offense to his question, to act as though he'd impugned her mothering skills, but Sol had told her too many times what a good mother she was for it to take hold. “She's spending the night with a friend.”
The corners of Sol's mouth turned up in a smug smile.
“Oh, no. Don't even think that.”
“That you can talk your way into my bed.”
“I would never do anything you don't want me to.”
Yeah. Right. But she knew from experience that he could make dumb ideas sound like good ones. That's how they'd ended up married right out of high school.
Sol wandered over to the couch. He fell more than sat on it, his head falling back and his eyes closing. Pain etched his face, making him look tired. Georgia experienced a reverse déjà vu moment where she could see how Sol would look as an old man with his face lined and creased by life, his dark hair salted with gray.
He would still be handsome in a craggy way, his face full of character, the way his dad's was.
“Don't get comfortable there.”
He opened one eye—the one on the bruised side of his face—and hiked an eyebrow at her.
“You don't need to sleep on the couch when Eden's bed is empty.”
“Right.” He swayed when he stood. Before Georgia could reach him, he stumbled backward half a step and stabilized.
“Dizzy?” she asked. Trouble walking was on the list.
“Just stood up too quick.”
Georgia shook her head. Sol's mantra: never admit to weakness.
* * *
The rain still fell, punctuated now and then by thunder and lightning. With Sol in Eden's room, Georgia relaxed for the first time since she'd seen him at the carnival. She turned off the air conditioning and opened a window in her room. The cool air made her shiver, but it was a welcome relief from the heat. The smell of the rain washed away the last of her anger at Sol.
She changed into her “mom” nightgown and lay down. Her limbs seemed to sink into the mattress. The day had been emotionally exhausting.
Then she remembered she hadn't set her alarm. She struggled to sit up, reaching for the clock. Two hours. No, an hour and a half. After she'd left Sol, she'd checked the doors and set up a cross-breeze with open windows. She lay back down and sighed. An hour and a half . . . Ninety minutes . . .
Wasn't that how long it took to get into REM sleep? That place where one was as deep in sleep as you could get. She couldn't remember. When she was overly tired, she sometimes reached over and slapped the alarm off without realizing it. What if she did that tonight?
The thought lodged in her brain and refused to budge.
Oh, great. Now she'd never get to sleep.
She tried anyway, even drifting off for a few minutes only to jerk awake again.
She swung her legs out of bed and sat up. If she checked on Sol now, she could reset the clock for two hours and maybe stop worrying about whether she'd wake up when the alarm went off.
With the open window, the room bordered on chilly, so she drew on her plush robe.
She'd left Eden's door barely ajar so the nightlight between the bedrooms wouldn't disturb Sol, but light from Eden's bedside lamp spilled into the hall.
She nudged the door open.
His cowboy hat was on the nightstand, and his boots were side-by-side by the bed. Sol, wearing only ratty, gray sweatpants that hung low on his hips, sat on the edge of Eden's bed, his head tilted back, eyes closed, a tissue held to his nose.
He opened his eyes but didn't move.
Georgia's hands felt icy. Nose bleeds were one of the symptoms to watch for. “How bad is it?”
“Not bad.” The tissue against his nose made him sound as if he had a head cold.
“Let me see.” She pulled his hand down and breathed a sigh of relief. It must have been just a trickle.
“How's your headache?”
“Gone.” He palmed the back of his neck. Turning his head into his hand created a loud pop.
“Here. Let me.” She came up behind him, knelt on the bed, and started kneading his neck.
He released an audible sigh. “Mm. Hurts so good.”
Georgia smiled. That was one of Sol’s daddy’s favorite lines.
She shifted her attention to Sol’s shoulders. He moaned his pleasure. This wasn't going to be enough. He had kinks on his kinks. She backed away.
“Where you going?”
“Lie down on your stomach.”
He groaned again as he stood, moving like a man three times his age. Before he could get back on the bed, the lights flickered and went out.
“Geez, it's darker than the inside of a cow,” he said. “I didn't think it ever got this dark in the city.”
“I have candles in my room.” She felt her way around the bed. At the corner near Sol, she oriented herself toward the door. His hand found her hip, resting there lightly as she stepped away from the bed.
“What? Are you scared of the dark?” she asked when she realized he intended to accompany her.
“Terrified.” His voice held a smile.
If she insisted he wait, he'd just follow her anyway. She didn't want to risk him falling and cracking his head again, so she didn't argue.
With Sol's hand still on her hip, she found the doorway and turned. She trailed her fingers along the wall until she came to her room. Lightning flashed as she stepped inside, startling her into a step back. She came up against Sol's hard body. He rocked back then his hands circled her waist, steadying them both, his breath hot against her temple.
She brushed his hands off her. “Stay here until I light a candle.”
A brass and etched glass hurricane lamp sat on her chest of drawers. Georgia had bought it because it was beautiful, but it was also useful on occasions like this. Feeling her way, she carefully lifted the glass chimney, found the matches by touch in the top drawer, and lit the candle. She replaced the chimney and turned to find Sol laying face-down on her bed, his head cradled in his arms.
“What do you think you're doing?” she asked. As if she didn't know.
“Weren't you going to give me a back rub?”
“Not here I wasn't.” Her glare was wasted on him. Or it would have been if he’d seen it. “I knew you were going to try to get into my bed.”
“I ain't in it. I'm on it. There's a world of difference. C'mon, Georgia. My whole body aches. I feel like a bull do-si-doed on my back.”
“That's because one did.” She still didn't move toward the bed, and he didn't get up. He wouldn't either. He'd fall asleep there, and she'd have to spend the night in Eden's bed with its too soft mattress.
Dammit. This was her bed. She wasn't going to be driven out of it.
She crawled onto the bed and straddled Sol. “Okay. But when I'm done, you're going back down the hall.”
He made a noise that might have been agreement. Or it might have been air escaping his throat in response to the pressure she applied to his back.
It all felt impersonal enough at first.
Her hands slid over scars she remembered as well as a few she didn't. Nothing dramatic, but they served to remind her that his life was made up of large pieces that didn't involve either her or Eden.
My choice, she reminded herself. Because there was so much he just didn't get about what it cost to love a bull rider.
She shifted forward until she was perched on the upper slope of his ass and went to work on his shoulders. A long, low groan issued from his throat.
He pulled his arms out from under his head and laid them loose at his sides so she could work him over better. The candlelight hid the details of the tattoo on right arm, but she knew what it looked like and it, too, was a reminder of his love of bull riding.
She was about to quit when he said, “Scratch.”
A smile pulled at her lips as she clawed her hands and raked her nails over his back.
“Ahhhhhh . . .”
She'd once seen him use the corner of a brick building to get at an itch between his shoulder blades and had decided on the spot that he'd been a mange-ridden, old bear in some previous life, one that was still looking for that rough-barked tree to rub up against.
Obviously, that hadn't changed. Neither had his itches' tendency to migrate since, after a minute, he undulated to get a new itch under her nails. The movement caused his butt to shift.
Georgia caught her breath. What was she doing, sitting on top of her prone ex-husband?
On a bed.
In candlelight, no less.
Her hands froze on his back, her mind stuck on the idiocy that had gotten her in this predicament.
Sol whispered, “Lift your hips a sec.”
And she complied.
He twisted onto his back.
Yup, there she was, kneeling over her ex-husband. If she sat back down, she'd be . . . well, someplace she didn't want to be. Or more accurately, someplace she couldn't afford to be if she wanted to keep the situation under control.
The potential wasn't lost on him. He scooted down. His hands on her hips urged her to settle back down in a safer place.
She appreciated his consideration and yet . . . her awareness of him heightened. Of his hard body, the warmth of his skin, the gleam of his tan in the candlelight.
He had something he wanted to say. Even in the dim light, she could see that in the way he didn't meet her gaze and in the way he stroked the plush fabric over her hip. “Nice robe.”
“Eden gave it to me for Christmas,” Georgia said, wanting to cut through the stalling that was so unlike him.
Of course, he did. He'd paid for it, just like she paid for Eden's gifts to him. Had he helped his daughter pick it out, too? It suddenly seemed like too much of an intimacy.
She was about to brush his hand off her hip when he softly said, “You didn't really want him, did you?”
He tipped his head, still not meeting her gaze.
“I don't know, Sol. I didn't get the chance to find out.”
The candlelight reflected in his eyes as he finally looked up at her. “You didn't look right together.”
That was more like her ex-husband. Flat statements that didn't hedge. Opinion stated as fact. But there was an undercurrent she couldn't quite identify. As if he desperately wanted to convince her.
“I think that's my decision to make, don't you?”
He didn't bother to answer. His hand rose from her hip to trace her collarbone. The light touch jolted her, and her balance deserted her. She laid a hand on his stomach to brace herself and felt the muscles there tighten, becoming rock hard. He lifted his torso, his hand sliding around her neck, cupping the base of her skull, and pulling her toward him.
It was like sitting in a car on the freeway, watching a jackknifed eighteen-wheeler skidding sideways toward her. Nothing would get her out of the way in time.
His lips were soft as they moved over hers. He had always known how to be gentle, and that gentleness had always made her knees weak. He caught her lower lip between his and sucked gently. She should have pulled back, but she was frozen, lost in the sweetness of his kiss.
A tingle started between her thighs. In another moment, her arms were around his neck without her knowing how they got there.
He touched her lips with the tip of his tongue. She opened without question. Their tongues sparred, teasing back and forth. He tasted just the way she remembered. Sweet, tender, caring.
Sol at his best.
His hands dropped to her hips and wordlessly urged her to lift off him again. Freed of her weight, he shifted even as he kept his mouth on hers then pulled her back down. When she settled again, his ratty sweats and her cotton panties did nothing to mask the erection that fit so perfectly in the hollow between her thighs.
The sensible part of her brain was waving red flags, screaming, Don't do this; this is stupid. But her motor was already running and revved. And damn. It had been so long since she'd been in Sol's arms.
And every time you are, he's unbearable for months after.
Her body ignored that piece of hard-won wisdom. She rocked on his erection, and he groaned. She was too breathless to make any noise at all.
He released her mouth, buried his face in her neck then worked his way up to nuzzle that sensitive spot behind her ear.
“Let me love you, baby.” His voice was soft. Seductive.
Her womb contracted even as the voice in her head started flinging flags around, screaming, No, no, no, no!
The hand on her hip slid up over her waist to her rib cage, stopping when her breast was framed in the L between his thumb and his fingers.
She knew he was waiting for a sign from her. What would he do if she screeched Just do it, touch me already? Probably laugh. But then he'd caress her. Her nipples were already hard with anticipation.
The words wouldn't come out of her mouth because, no matter how much she wanted him, she knew it was a mistake. Her body disagreed.
Before she could stop herself, she squirmed. Two layers of clothing was not enough to insulate either of them from the sensation of her rolling over his erection. His head went back, his eyes closed, his mouth open, a long, noisy exhalation bursting from his throat.
Georgia ran her tongue over the corded muscles of his neck. He tasted of salty, musky male and lust.
His hand closed over her breast at last. She moaned and squirmed on him again.
“Jesus, Georgia,” he said on a breath. “Do that again.”
“Fuck.” His mouth closed over her nipple. It was her turn to gasp. Her light cotton nightgown dissolved in the heat and moisture of his mouth. His teeth scraped her nipple. An electrical charge zapped her so fiercely that she rose to her knees.
“Oh yeah, baby.” His hands slipped under the hem of her nightgown and slid up her thighs to her waist, pushing her nightgown up until her breasts were bared. He flicked her nipple with his tongue then took it into his mouth.
Her eyes closed. She cradled his head in her arms, holding him to her breast.
The voice of reason in her head hung up the emergency flags, surrendering to the inevitable. Dumb idea or not, she was going to fuck her ex-husband. Even if, in the unlikely event, he changed his mind and she had to tie him to her bed.
She shrugged out of the robe, pulled her nightgown over her head, and tossed it aside.
His pupils flared until she couldn't see even a trace of his gray irises in the candlelight.
He wrapped his arms around her and flipped her under him.
His kiss was hard and demanding, his tongue invading her mouth like a conquering army. She wrapped her bare legs around his hips, feeling the slide of his sweats over his skin.
He broke the kiss. “Give me your hands.”
He didn't wait for her brain to kick in. Closing his hands over her wrists, he drew them over her head and wrapped her fingers around the spindles of her headboard.
“Hang onto that.” Then he nuzzled her ear, drawing her lobe into his mouth and sucking on it. Goosebumps rose all over her body. Before he started his downward trek, in a low, smoky voice, he said, “Now don't let go.” Then he was nuzzling her neck, kissing her nipples, licking the sensitive lower slope of her breasts. He frenched her belly button and made the skin over her womb quiver with feather-light kisses.
She gripped the headboard tighter with every migration he made. With his hands behind her knees, he lifted her legs and kissed his way up the inside of her thighs.
Her clit tightened as he savored her, as though it could hardly wait its turn. Sol slid forward, draping her legs over his shoulders, his hands cupping her ass.
Now. Now he would give her what she needed.
Damn her panties. Not that they were much of a barrier when his hot mouth closed over her clit. She writhed, wanting to get closer. Of course, if she was any closer, she'd be behind him.
He'd always had the most talented tongue, and he'd always loved turning her inside-out with it. His tongue pressed against her crotch, but her panties denied him entrance. He was making her crazy on purpose, drawing out the foreplay until she was ready to go up like a Roman candle.
Letting go of the headboard, she slid her hands down her body, over her breasts, her belly, down to her bikini panties. She'd started to slide her fingers inside the elastic when Sol's hands closed over her wrist. “Uh-uh-uh.”
“Sol.” She turned his name into a plea.
“I'll make you happy, baby. I promise. Now grab the headboard and, this time, don't let go.”
She whimpered, but he wouldn't lower his head until she did what he wanted. When he didn't step up the pace, she got pissed. “Dammit, Sol, I want some part of you inside me.”
The heat of his mouth faded, and she knew he'd grinned.
“Okay, baby.” His fingers slid inside the crotch of her panties. He stroked her a couple of times. “So soft.” Another stroke. “So wet.” And then he stroked into her.
She arched against the mattress.
“Is that what you want, baby?”
All she could do was gasp and blink, trying to bring the world back into focus.
He slipped her legs off his shoulders and peeled her panties down until he exposed her blonde curls. She wanted to open herself to him, but the panties were down just far enough to keep her legs pressed together. Sol applied his tongue to the crux of her thighs. With her legs bound, it was a tease. His tongue could score the target, but he couldn't draw her into his mouth. She whimpered again.
“Please. Please, Sol.”
He rose to his knees. She quivered.
“Don't let go of that headboard, baby.”
And he stripped off her panties.
Georgia opened her legs wide.
Sol's breath hissed in, his eyes locked on her pussy. “Geez, Georgie, you're so wet, you're glistening.”
Several long seconds passed then he shook his head as though breaking a spell. His sweats hit the floor and his erection sprang free.
He was more generously endowed than any other man she'd known, and for tonight, he was hers. She lifted her hips, enticing him to come back to her.
He crawled up the bed until he was on his hands and knees over her.
“Can I let go now?”
He smiled, his eyes glinting in the candlelight. “Yeah, I think so.”
She flattened her palm against his chest as he lowered himself to kiss her. The taste of her was on his tongue. She curled one leg around him. He thrust against her, as though taking a practice swing, then positioned his hips.
Georgia broke the kiss. “Sol—”
“No.” And he thrust into her.
She gasped. He felt so good, the thought she'd just had about condoms disappeared like cotton candy in the rain. She wrapped her arms around him as she lifted her other leg and locked her heels behind his back.
Gentle was not what she wanted anymore, and Sol obliged her, giving her hard, impatient strokes. Georgia welcomed each one, bracing herself for each pounding, blissful one. She dug her nails into his shoulders. Sol swore and slammed into her even harder. She knew she'd just tapped that erogenous zone in his brain. The one where sexual fantasies were born.
The tension in her was spiraling out of control.
Breathing became optional.
“Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, Sol . . .”
“Come for me, Georgie.” His voice was low and raspy. “Hurry. Coz I can't hold back much longer.”
Knowing he was fighting his own satisfaction to make it good for her tipped her over the edge. Her climax broke like a wave on a beach. When the second wave hit, she arched into him. Another wave rolled in. He murmured something she couldn't begin to decipher. His arms tightened around her, and he slammed into her again, bringing another wave, a bigger one. Then they were clinging to each other, panting, gasping for air.
When their breathing calmed some, he kissed her. A nice, slow, lingering kiss. “Can I call you the next time I get a concussion?”
“Oh, Lord.” How could she have forgotten? “Are you okay?”
Sol laughed. “Oh, yeah. I'm better than okay. How's next Saturday work for you?”
She stroked the bruise on his face. “No. No more concussions. I don't want you getting hurt.”
“Then how about I come by after I ride next week?”
Damn him. He couldn't just let her bask in the afterglow. He had to bring up the one thing guaranteed to ruin her mood.
The alarm she'd set earlier went off. Like she needed the reminder to wake up and come back to reality. Sol rolled away from her so she could turn it off.
“God, I'm insane.”
“What's wrong, honey?”
She swung her legs off the bed and reached for her robe. “This shouldn't have happened.”
“Really?” he growled.
“Of course not. We're divorced. And you—” She turned and poked a finger into his chest. “You wouldn't even slow down to put on a condom.”
“I've never worn a condom with you.” His tone was aggressive.
How well she knew that.
“Dammit, Sol. What if I got pregnant?”
“You're not on the pill?”
“That's beside the point.”
“So what you're really saying is, what if I give you an STD?”
Heat rose in her cheeks. How ironic. He understood her better now than he had when they were married.
He glowered at her. “I've told you before; I don't take those kinds of risks. You're the only one I ever wanted kids with.”
The anger drained out of her. She loved this man, but she couldn't be with him. Every time he got on the back of a bull, a piece of her grieved as if she were watching him die.
“I can't do this, Sol.”
“Is it Mike? You know he ain't good enough for you.”
God, he was like a junkyard dog with a bone. “And you know that how?”
“You're a smart woman. You deserve someone who ain't an idiot.”
“And you think you're smarter than Mike?” She couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
A self-satisfied smile twisted his lips. “I'm smart enough to tell George from Georgia.” He reached out and curled a lock of her hair around his finger. “Only an idiot would ever think you weren't a woman right down to the marrow of your bones.”
Georgia wanted to be pissed off, but the tender light shining in his eyes made it impossible. He slipped his hand around her neck and pulled her close for one of his gentle kisses.
She couldn't help thinking, if only . . .
In the middle of the kiss, she started giggling.
He pulled back and gave her a questioning look.
“I think maybe I like you better concussed,” she said with a smile.
He grinned as he pulled her back down beside him.
* * *
The next morning, when Georgia said, “We're not getting back together. You know that, right?” Sol wasn't surprised.
“Yeah, I know.” He hadn't expected her to drop everything she'd built in Dallas and come home to him. At least, he hadn't thought he did. The twinge of dashed hope said differently. He pushed the disappointment down as she turned back to the bag she was packing with her version of egg McMuffins. They'd spent a few nights together since the divorce, but not for a long time. He should have been grateful with what he had. And what he had was confirmation that the feelings she'd once had for him weren't completely dead. That was no small thing.
A horn honked outside.
“There's Terry.” He grabbed his canvas bag. “I gotta go.” They had to make a rodeo in West Texas. Would she object if he kissed her goodbye? He decided that might be pushing his luck, so he headed for the door.
He turned back.
“Here.” She shoved the paper bag into his hands. “There's enough for Terry, too. And, Sol—” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Be careful, okay?”
That was all the encouragement he needed. He slung one arm around her and pulled her into him for a sweet, lingering kiss. “I promise,” he said when he broke the kiss.
“Ain't it a beautiful day?” Sol said as he got in Terry's truck, grinning like ten kinds of idiot.
Terry just laughed. “You're second place winnings are in the glove box,” he said as he put the truck in gear.
“Second place, huh?” Sol hadn't even thought about where he'd finished the night before.
“Yeah,” Terry said. “But there's always tomorrow and who knows? Maybe down the road, a championship buckle.”
“Yup. There's always hope.” Sol smiled. But he wasn't thinking about the rodeo.