The Cowgirl's CEO
When Ty Harrison signed up to sponsor Carolyn Sheppard's barrel-racing career, he knew he was in for a bumpy ride. The diminutive rodeo star had a reputation for being a firecracker and was as independent as they came. So he wasn't too surprised that she practically had to be roped and tied before she shot a commercial for his company's boots.
But not even the photos and the PR people had prepared him for the real thing. And when he finally did corral Caro, he was totally smitten. A herd of wild horses couldn't drag him away, because the competition for her heart was one he planned to win….
The horse reared.
"Easy there," Caro said, her chest making contact with the paint's mane. She tightened her legs, holding on. "Whoa," she added, her black cowboy hat almost falling from her head.
Thumper came back to earth with a snort and a shake of his black mane, only to spin around. Caro did her best to point toward the narrow alley that led to the arena—and Thumper's freedom.
"Easy there, boy," she said, jamming down her hat. The gelding half reared again, his mouth working the bit, flecks of foam landing on his sweaty chest. Fifteen hundred pounds of horseflesh tensed, muscles at the ready, all waiting for one thing: Caro to let him go.
"Not yet," she told him, glancing left.
He was still there.
She'd noticed the man during her warm–up. The indoor sports complex didn't have a big practice pen, and since only rodeo competitors were allowed behind the chutes, spectators were rare. He stood out like a tick on a hound in his brown sports coat and beige cotton slacks. His tan cowboy hat shielded his eyes from her view at the moment, but they'd been trained on her the whole time she and Thumper had been loping around the ring. Eyes as black as the hair beneath his hat.
The roar of the crowd caused Thumper to lift his head, ears pricked forward. The rider on course was nearing the end of her run. Caro couldn't see inside the arena; the sports venue had been built for basketball and hockey, not cowgirls and cowboys. She and Thumper were tucked around a corner, so that when it was their turn to run, they'd have to race through a narrow corridor lined with aluminum fences, veer left and then crank up the speed.
Thumper lunged. Caro checked him again. Linda charged out of the tunnel right then.
Time to go.
The gate man called her number over the roar of the crowd. "One seventy–nine!" Caro could hear the voice of the rodeo announcer, but was too far away to catch how good a run Linda had had.
"Easy, boy," Caro said, because she could see Thumper's shoulder twitch, a certain sign he was about to erupt.
All right, Daddy, Caro prayed. Here I go again. Help me out if you can.
She applied pressure, and that was all it took. A simple squeeze. No kick, no leather strap, nothing. And even though she expected it, Caro's upper body still jerked back, her hat almost knocked off again. The paper number pinned to her back rustled. She righted herself about the time she passed by the man who'd been watching her, her left hand on her hat, holding it in place. The arena opened up before her. She focused, not even hearing the screams of the fans. Thumper's stride grew long. There it was: the first barrel.
They began to turn, Thumper's hooves digging into the ground. The smell of dirt filled her nose as they leaned and tilted some more, lower still….
Her knee brushed the barrel.
She gasped. The obstacle rocked. She stretched out her arm and tried to right it, but couldn't reach it. And now Thumper was moving on to the second barrel. Had the first one fallen? She didn't know. Couldn't look back. Rodeo fans rose to their feet as she careered toward the next obstacle.
Too fast. She tried to pull up. Thumper didn't respond, but began his turn. It felt like being on the end of a yo–yo. Caro hung on the whole trip around, and when she looked up, she could see the first barrel. It still stood.
One more to go.
She thrust her upper body forward, her silky shirt with its glittering rhinestones glistening beneath the arena lights. This would be the longest run. They'd have the most speed, too, and so the timing needed to be perfect.
There. Perfect. She leaned once more. Thumper shifted, too. It felt fast.
Her knee again. Damn it. She shot a glance back as they charged away.
The barrel stood!
Thank you, Lord, she breathed, closing her eyes for a split second. When she opened them again, she and Thumper were halfway down the arena. She could feel the saddle hit Thumper's back. Thump, thump, thump…her reason for naming him. Faster and faster. The wind made her eyes tear. And then she and the gelding dashed through the electronic beams that tracked the elapsing seconds.
"Thirteen point forty–three!" she heard the announcer say. "Wow! That's our best time right there, ladies and gentlemen. Caroline Sheppard is leading the barrel racing…."
She tuned the words out. Fast time. That was all she'd needed to hear. But would it hold up?
Thumper resisted when she pulled back, but Caro demanded he obey. He slowed. They passed beneath the concrete archway and into the tunnel, turned right. "Whoa," she ordered.
Reluctantly, Thumper did as asked. "Good boy," she said, patting his neck. He was dripping with sweat.
"Nice run," Melanie said from the back of a horse that was rearing and snorting as badly as Thumper had been.
"Thanks." Caro trotted past her toward the warm–up arena. She glanced around. Her male friend was gone.
Thumper finally decided to walk, so Caro loosened the reins. Her horse dropped his head, his sides expanding and contracting as he fought to catch his breath. She breathed heavily, too, the adrenaline of running barrels a high that never ceased.
And there he was.
She stiffened in the saddle. The man blocked her path. How had he got into the competitors' area?
"Caroline Sheppard?" he asked.
Green. His eyes were green, not black, after all. A soul–piercing, breath–stealing green. The guy looked up at her as if he owned her—and in a way he did. Tyler Harrison, she realized. Owner of Harrison's Boots. The Harrison name was synonymous with quality boots, recognized the world over. The name was also on every piece of equipment she owned: her saddle pad, her horse trailer, her truck. Harrison's was her sponsor, and she could tell by those eyes that Tyler Harrison was seriously displeased.
Maybe she should have returned his calls—all ten of them.
She was stunning.
Ty had known that. When his PR department had shown him pictures of her all those months ago, he'd realized immediately what a gold mine they'd have if she made it to the Wranglers National Finals Rodeo—the NFR. And here she was, just a few weeks away from doing that very thing.
But what the photographs hadn't told him was that in person her hair was as gold as summer wheat. And that her grayish–blue eyes glowed with passion. Sitting on her horse earlier, the black–and–white gelding doing his best to unseat her, she'd looked magnificent. Like something out of the Old West: fearless, proud, determined. Ty had been unable to keep from staring at her as she'd rode her pattern, flawlessly guiding her horse around all three barrels.
She excited him.
He hadn't expected that, wondered if it might be a problem. But, no, he quickly reassured himself. It wouldn't be. He was good at keeping his head on straight when it came to business matters, and he definitely had business with Ms. Sheppard.
"Mr. Harrison," she said, with a smile that could only be called impatient. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming to New York?"
She'd recognized him. Surprising. They'd never met, although he supposed his picture had appeared in enough western magazines that she might have seen his photo a time or two.
"You know why I didn't tell you I'd be here." She looked guilty, then contrite and finally amused.
"You going to arrest me then?" she asked. "Am I in trouble for failure to return a sponsor's calls?"
"Your horse looks as if he needs cooling down," he answered brusquely, unwilling to play along. He was still peeved. They'd spent thousands of dollars supporting her rodeo career this year. The least she could have done was call them back. But they'd been trying to track her down for weeks. Rodeo performers, he'd learned, were as fickle as the wind. They could enter two, three, sometimes five rodeos a weekend—but they didn't always show up at them. Figuring out which ones Caroline Sheppard had entered had been like throwing darts at a board.
"Let me slide off," she said, dropping her reins before swinging her right leg over the saddle and slipping to the ground.
She was tiny. When he'd seen her out in the arena, her lithe body clinging to her horse, blond hair streaming behind her like the tail of the horse she rode, she'd looked tall. But clearly that had been an illusion. Standing beside him, she barely came to Ty's shoulder. "Look," she said, "I've been busy. Making it to the NFR is the most important thing in the world to me."
"More important than your sponsor?"
She winced, patting her horse's neck as they went through an opening in the pipe panels. "I don't really have time to go off and film a commercial or talk to reporters or whatever else you have planned for me."
"It's part of the contract," he said, resisting the urge to add that she was currently in breach of that contract.
"I know that," she said, pausing for a second along the rail. "But can't we do it later?"
"No, we need you to film the commercial now. Before you make it to the NFR."
"If I make it."
"Not if I'm off filming a commercial."
She stumbled on a clod of dirt. He steadied her. Mistake.
"Thank you," she said.
He released her, clenching his hands afterward.
"The dirt they truck in for a rodeo is never any good," she said. "It clumps together like kitty litter."
"I see that," he murmured.
he'd wanted to meet her face to face he suddenly realized. Had been fascinated by her photo. After watching her ride, he found his interest had only grown.