“God dammit, Punisher,” Logan Cooper said as he hit the bull on the head. Not that it helped to calm the animal. Punisher didn’t understand he was in an eight by two-and-a-half foot chute with no place to go. The bull reared again; this time his horns crested the top of the gate and his hoofs connected with the metal rail. The crowd went wild when they saw the animal’s black bulging eyes and heard the sparks fly.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Cooper told the two-thousand-pound athlete as he dug his spurs into Punisher’s rib cage. Logan knew he needed to gain his position because once that gate opened, Punisher would be in charge, taking him on the ride of his life—if Cooper could stay seated, not touch the animal with his free hand and keep his form for eight measly seconds. He’d score above eighty-eight point five and have ten thousand dollars lining his pockets before the evening was over. Sounded easy in theory, in practice, hell no.
“Logan,” Cord McCoy yelled at him over the roar of the crowd and Bon Jovi singing Living on a Prayer. “Focus, you asshole. Tighten your bull rope.” His best friend and recently married fellow bull rider hit Logan on the shoulder. “Snap your helmet.”
Logan pulled on the rope again. He weaved his gloved hand into the braided material, smelling the rosin as he constricted the cord under the animal’s girth, directly behind its front legs. When Punisher moved and Cooper felt a little give, he pulled tighter as he dug his spurs in even harder.
“Watch it there, cowboy,” Hank Dillinger advised. “Not too tight with that rope.” Annoyingly overprotective was one way to describe the bull owner; crazy asshole was another. Punisher wasn’t his God damn son.
“He’s fine,” Cord protested. “Just fine.” He waved his hat in front of Punisher’s head. The animal twitched and snorted. “Cooper,” Cord yelled as Logan got ready to give the gate man his signal. “Your helmet.”
Login snapped the chin strap in place as the animal’s body rolled. While riding the wave the gate swung open and the timer started. Out the chute, Punisher swept to the left while his massive head rounded to the right. Then he spun toward the stands and back to the gate while Cooper tightened his thighs and found the center of the surge. If only the bull rider could stay there.
Had to be three seconds gone. “Watch it,” Cooper told himself. “Not too far over those horns…hold on, hold on…wow—ho…not too far back over the flank. Most likely five seconds down.”
“Red in the corner. Red moving across the ring past the yellow and black tool advertisement. Don’t look. Hold on, hold on. Six seconds gone. Don’t look,” Logan shouted in his head.
Even though he was color blind, Punisher’s head swung toward the flickering crimson as he kicked his hind legs. With a shake of his shoulders and a wail of a snort, the animal stopped in his tracks. Cooper was over the horns, his face planted in the dirt before he had time to curse.
“For Christ’s sake,” Cooper yelled as he rolled off his shoulder, the same one he dislocated two weeks ago. “What the hell is wrong with that animal?” Holy crap, Logan could have broken his neck. He pushed himself to his feet and threw his helmet in the dirt. Then he turned to Punisher. First rule of bull riding, never take your eyes off the bull.
For a moment Punisher hoofed the ground. After a head roll, he added a snort while long strings of steamy snot hung from his nose. If the bull could have blown smoke he would have. But this wasn’t a coliseum in Spain, Logan wasn’t a matador, and that certainly wasn’t a red cape.
Because, holy hell, it was a naked woman holding a red sign. Something about Blood Sport and the rodeo. Just as Punisher was showing his teeth, the entire arena of rodeo fans noticed the sign too, along with a perky pair of breasts and a well-rounded hind end. Old men stomped their feet and whistled, middle-aged women screamed something about skanky whores while young men climbed the rails panting even heavier than the bulls.
The bullfighters—known in the old days as rodeo clowns, with their painted faces and high top sneakers—surrounded Punisher. Plucking at his horns and slapping at his backside they tried to gain the animal’s attention. Logan peeled off his gloves, shoved them in his back pocket and headed toward the woman. A bull on a mission could only be distracted for so long.
“We’ve got ourselves a naked protester,” J.P. Lambert announced over the speaker system. “Cover your young’uns’ eyes and keep calm.” He cleared his throat into the microphone. “Because this just ain’t right and we’ll have it cleaned up in a spiffy.”
Logan glanced back at the bull as he grabbed the naked brunette by the wrist. Punisher, determined bastard that he was, had broken through the ring of bullfighters and charged again, that red sign not forgotten.
Logan ripped the poster board out of the woman’s hands and threw it down. The crowd jeered at her as he pushed the protester toward the fence. He heaved her up by the waist and climbed next to her as he got both of them out of range of those six-inch banana horns. They rode the surge as Punisher crashed into the rails below Logan’s cowboy boots and the protester’s red sneakers.
“My sign,” she yelled, covering Logan in spit. She pointed at the banner as Punisher stomped it into the dirt. At least the bull realized where he needed to direct his anger. One of the bullfighters, probably that brave bastard Mike Shannon, pulled the sign out from under Punisher’s hoofs. The man ran towards the chute with the bull on his heels.
“I need my sign,” the protester moaned. An old man sitting in the front row reached for her breasts.
Logan slapped his hands away. Then he shoved a redneck wearing a John Deere baseball cap, and told a woman yelling the b-word to shut up. Once he had the crowd in the immediate vicinity under control, he turned on the wide-eyed protester. “What the hell?” Logan yelled reciprocating the favor with a shower of his own spit.
Before he could say more, J.P. continued his rant over the loud speaker. “This behavior is unacceptable at the rodeo,” he admonished, making the crowd even more crazy. “You are not welcome here, young lady.”
Logan added to Lambert’s sentiments by telling her, “You could have gotten killed and left me laid up in a hospital for the rest of my miserable life.” Logan knew what he was talking about, because his brother Shane had been there and done that, except Iraq was the culprit—not a bull enchanted by a beautiful woman.
Except the naked protester wasn’t listening. With dirt smudged on her face and a frantic look in her big brown eyes, she swung her head back and forth, a lot like Punisher when he was trapped in the chute. “Erin,” she yelled into the crowd. She even pulled herself up to look over the first row as her dust-covered breast brushed against Logan’s cheek.
If they were anywhere else, “anywhere” being the operative word, Logan would have been hard as a cattle prod under his chaps. Maybe he already was, but the adrenaline—running neck and neck with anger—was pumping too fast through his blood to notice. “Erin, where is my jumpsuit?” the woman cried.
Enough was enough. Even though she was gorgeous, in a Kim-Kardashian-without-the annoying-attitude sort of way, a few things needed to be straightened out. “This is my ring, my bull, and my ride,” Logan told her pulling her down by the elbow to eye level. “I just lost ten thousand dollars because of you.” Son-of-a-bitch, he was mad. It had been an epic ride, man versus beast at its best, until she showed up.
And he knew exactly what she was about. Animal abuse and all that other crap. But why now? Why during Logan’s eight seconds? Why couldn’t she have shaken her booty while Mike Carr battled Muddy Flats or one of those Brazilians rode? Jesus, Logan needed the money.
“Stay in your seats,” L.P. Lambert advised the crowd. That easy Western twang gone from his voice. “Security needed in area A, the north end chute and the east gate.”
The protester blinked a few times as she pressed her hip against the fence. She used her thigh to cover herself. Even though her knuckles were white around the rail and it looked like tears were forming in those doe-shaped eyes, Logan felt no pity for her. She made the decision to run in front of a bucking bull, to carry a red sign, and to expose that hot little ass of hers.
Bret Bodner, the president of the rodeo association, pushed through the stands toward them. “Get her off the fence,” he yelled leaning over the old man. “Get her to the back,” he directed Logan. “And don’t leave her alone until I find you.” Bodner looked around. “Jesus Christ, I need security at the judges table.” Then he was gone.
Security certainly had their hands full. Every soul in the arena was screaming for blood. Rodeo fans didn’t like animal rights activists just as much as the bleeding hearts didn’t like the rodeo. The weekend cowboys and cowgirls wanted revenge, and they wanted it now.
“Gotta go,” Logan told the too-pretty-for-her-own-good protester. He peeled her fingers one at a time from the rail as he pulled her free. Once she was loose, he jumped into the dirt and tugged her down onto his right shoulder—the one he hadn’t hurt when a bull named Dearly Beloved slammed his hoof into Cooper’s clavicle. Yes, he was healing, but there was no way he could take the weight of a thrashing woman.
He turned toward the east exit. A leather jacket wearing group of Harley types blocked that gate. Security was dealing with them but not quickly enough. Plus, the crowd was still looking for retribution. Feet stomped, French fries flew, and plastic cups rained down around them.
The demand was for justice, Western-style. Cooper knew he had to give the crowd something that was far short of a hanging but just as satisfying. After he got Miss Protester away from the fence, he bowed. Not a good strategy because she landed a kick to his gut. A few inches lower and he’d have been in the dirt clutching his balls.
To the beat of the pounding feet he tried a jig. That didn’t make the crowd happy either. Some young bucks near the far end started to jump the fence. Unfortunately, security couldn’t deal with them because of the motorcycle thugs on the other side. Logan had to come up with something to get this crowd to take a collective deep breath, or this woman was going to be flat on her back in the dirt with her ankles up around her ears, while fifty men mounted her.
Cooper turned his head to the right. That luscious booty of hers rubbed against his cheek. Now he knew what would satisfy the blood lust, although it wouldn’t make her happy, a classic case of the rights of the individual versus the masses. Logan pondered the thought for about half a second before he hit her.
It was a light paddle on the rump with his glove from his back pocket. She punched him between the shoulder blades while uttering a string of curses. Yes, Logan had heard a woman curse like that before; he just never heard those words coming out of the mouth of a bleeding-heart, crunchy-granola, animal lover.
He hit her again while she landed another dainty kick to his stomach.
The crowd loved it. He knew they looked like one of those black and white Vaudeville movies his nephew Kevin used to watch, before Kevin turned into a sullen teenager: The villain dragging the heroine to the train tracks while she kicked, punched and yelled things like “you brute.” Except in the movies the damsel in distress wasn’t nude, didn’t have the mouth of a sailor, and didn’t go for the guy’s crotch every time she had an opening.
Then again, maybe all that didn’t matter, the boys at the end were retreating and security had broken up the Hell’s Angels. By the time Logan got to the middle of the arena, the blood-curdling cries had morphed into hoots and howls. One more whack and the music started.
We Are the Champions filled the place. Soon Logan was throwing his fist in the air and stomping his cowboy boots to the beat of the music. He just had to be careful because this particular damsel was still going for the money shot even though he had stopped spanking her. At least she wasn’t swearing anymore.
While the buckle bunnies leaned over the rail and the young bucks high-fived each other at the end, Logan headed to the chute. With a white cowboy hat someone had tossed to him, he waved at the crowd. By the time he left the arena it felt like any old night at the rodeo, except he was pretty sure this woman was going to give him an earful when he put her down.