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Rodeo Hero

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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“Come on, Kendra. You used to be fun before you got Jesus.” Wyatt’s hot breath blasted her neck.
Kendra’s stomach twisted. It would be so easy to give in, but she wasn’t like that anymore. Was she? Why did changing have to be so hard?
She pushed against his chest, but his arms locked around her. “Wyatt, stop it. Anyone could step outside any minute.” She checked the church lawn surrounding them. Still deserted.
“Are you saying we should take this party to my place?”
“I’m saying—this party is over. Now, let go of me.” She stomped his foot with her stiletto.
Wyatt swore and let go of her. He hopped on one foot in a circle, cradling the other with both hands and crushing yellow and purple wildflowers. He straightened and turned back to her. Anger flared in his dark eyes.
Her breath caught.
He lunged at her. “Why you little—”
“I believe the lady said no.” A man’s deep voice came from over Wyatt’s shoulder.
Wyatt whirled in the man’s direction. “And just who do you think you are?”
“A man who believes a lady should be treated like a lady.”
Heat crept up Kendra’s neck. No one had ever defended her honor. But she wasn’t honorable. At least, she hadn’t been in the past.
“I know you.” Wyatt snickered. “You’re new around here. That’s why you’re mistaken. She ain’t no lady.”
Kendra winced. He was right.
“Maybe you don’t think so because you’ve never learned how to treat a lady.”
“Why I oughta—” Wyatt’s fist cocked.
The man shrugged out of his black tuxedo jacket. Muscles strained against the teal satin vest underneath. A lot more muscles than Wyatt’s wiry frame harnessed.
Wyatt turned back to Kendra. “You ain’t worth it. Find your own way home. We’re done,” he growled.
Wyatt stalked away, and Kendra started breathing again.
The man stepped closer to her. “You okay?”
She smoothed her blouse, but her hands shook.
“Ma’am?”
She swallowed the knot lodged in her throat. “I’m fine. How long were you watching?”
He grinned. “I was about to intervene when you delivered your own blow. Impressive. Those shoes should be registered as lethal weapons.”
She’d never seen such anger in Wyatt’s eyes. What would have happened if Clay’s friend hadn’t gotten involved? She shivered.
“You cold?” He offered her his jacket.
“I’m fine.” She scanned late May’s perfectly blue sky, dotted by puffy white clouds. “Obviously I don’t need a rescuer, so you can go back to the celebration.”
“I think the bride and groom are about to leave anyway.”
He offered his hand. “I’m the new youth director here—Stetson Wright.”
Warm and firm, his grip made her feel safe. “Kendra Maddox.” She’d noticed him at the rehearsal and during the wedding—one of Clay’s groomsmen. His dark hair was cropped close, with no length for a woman to curl her fingers in. But it fit his clean-cut image. His eyes mirrored his concern. What color were they? Olive. No, darker. Asparagus.
She hated asparagus, but it looked good on him.
“You were in the wedding, so that makes you Rayna’s relative or friend?”
“Friend and coworker.” She pleated a fold of her silky teal skirt between her fingers. The cap-sleeved, V-neck satin concoction was so Rayna. No poof. Just elegant, classy straight lines. “And you’re obviously a friend of Clay’s.”
“I work at Cowtown Coliseum. If you work with Rayna that means you’re in advertising?”
“I’m a photographer for the ad agency.”
“You should have been taking pictures at this shindig.”
“I offered my services as a wedding gift, but Rayna wanted me in the ceremony.”
“They’re a great couple.”
“Perfect together.”
The church doors opened, revealing a radiant Rayna, regal in her swirl of white satin.
Kendra bit her lip. Could a day like this ever happen for her? She frowned. When had she started wanting it to? She shook her head. The romance of the wedding was getting to her.
Clay followed his bride through a shower of birdseed as their guests echoed shouts and well wishes. They charged for his shaving-creamed truck, waving and laughing, and then minutes later, pulled onto the highway, cans trailing behind, rattling and clanking.
“How about I give you a ride home?” Stetson offered his arm.
Spicy aftershave filled her senses. “No thanks.”
“Your ride left, right? I promise I’m completely harmless. Not like. . .”
“I promised Rayna I’d drive her car home. They were hoping that if they brought both their vehicles, neither would get decorated because no one would know what they planned to drive.”
“Oops. Clay should know. Given a choice, a guy always takes his truck.”
“You were in on the decor?”
“What’s a good groomsman to do?” He shrugged, eyes sparkling—the epitome of innocence. “You attend church here?”
“I joined a few months back.”
“Good.” He cleared his throat. “I mean—it’s good to belong to a church fellowship. Guess I’ll be seeing you around.”
“Guess so.” She gathered her skirt and turned away.
“I’ll keep my steed in good riding order, in case you need any more rescuing.”
She stopped. “I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, ma’am. Just keep those shoes handy.”
Goodness, he was cute. Just made a girl want to appreciate God’s handiwork. Forcing her feet to move, she hurried to Rayna’s silver Jaguar and pressed the button to unlock it. She jammed the key in the ignition, revved the engine, and eased into traffic for a quick escape.
She’d just gotten rid of one man. The last thing she needed was another. Her seatbelt clicked into place, and she adjusted the strap across her shoulder.
The last tie to her former lifestyle—gone. Maybe she could reinvent herself without Wyatt tempting her to go back. Maybe a good thing for her, but not for him. She’d failed him. He’d probably never step foot inside another church since she could no longer drag him there.
On the other hand, Stetson seemed different. Different from any man she’d ever known. A youth director? Too squeaky clean for Kendra Maddox.

The traditional church was similar to the one Stetson had grown up in. Instead of walnut pews with red cushions, these were a lighter wood with navy fabric to match the carpet. He closed his eyes and imagined sitting in his childhood church with his father. Now he was all grown up and a newly hired youth director. Dad would be proud.
All he needed was a perfect, pristine preacher’s daughter for a wife. But that would have to wait. Right now, he had to focus completely on his youth group.
He scanned the crowd filling the sanctuary before morning service. Maybe she wasn’t coming. Maybe she was one of those sometime members. He hoped not. And he hoped she and that jerk were really over. Why did some women gravitate toward jerks? Had the world indoctrinated them that that’s all there was out there?
Kendra entered from the lobby and walked down the center aisle, hesitantly, as if unsure where to sit. She probably usually sat with Rayna, who was gone on her honeymoon.
He started to stand, but Rayna’s sister-in-law got to her first.
“Sit with us, Kendra.” Gabby caught sight of him. “Stetson, mind if we sit with you?”
“That would be great.”
Gabby went back to where she’d been seated, gigged her husband, Adam, in the ribs, and headed in Stetson’s direction.
Uncertain again, Kendra stood there. But uncertain didn’t seem to fit her.
Gabby stopped at the end of his corral, called a pew. “You go ahead, Kendra.”
Put on the spot, Kendra entered first, which forced her to sit by Stetson. Her vibrant blue dress lit her icy-blue eyes.
He swallowed hard.
“Nice seeing you again, Stetson.”
“You, too, Adam. Heard from your sister or Clay?”
“They arrived safely in Galveston late last night.”
“How do y’all know Stetson?” Kendra sifted through the bookrack in front of them. “Just from the wedding?”
Her long hair, the color of butterscotch, brushed his leg as she leaned forward.
His mouth went dry.
“From the rodeo.” Gabby opened the bulletin. “He’s a—”
“Rodeo hero.” Adam said.
“I don’t know about that.” Stetson could smell Kendra’s flowery perfume. “We’re almost neighbors, too. How’s the weekday commute from Aubrey to Dallas?”
“Worth every mile.” Adam sighed. “I don’t know how I thought I could stand the city until retirement.”
Gabby patted his hand. “We’ll have that ranch someday, baby.”
“Hey, Lynn.” Kendra waved to one of his youth-group members and motioned her over. “Are we still on for Saturday?”
“I can’t wait. It’s going to be so awesome.” Lynn turned a giddy smile his way. “Kendra’s taking me to Clay and Rayna’s ranch to teach me about photography.”
“Cool.”
The pianist began playing.
“I better get to my seat,” Lynn whispered.
The crowd quieted as a deacon stepped up to the pulpit.
“We’re glad to see everyone here this morning. I have a few things to announce before we begin services. Our new youth director is here with us. I hope everyone will give him a warm welcome—Brother Stetson Wright.”
Stetson stood for a moment as the congregation applauded. His stomach knotted. Ugh, the center of attention.
“You have to go to lunch with us at Moms after services,”
Gabby mouthed.
“I’d love to”—especially if Kendra is going—“but the pastor invited me to his house. Besides, your mom might not be prepared for another guest.”
A sigh escaped Kendra.
Disappointment? Relief? He couldn’t tell, but he needed to take his focus off her.
“No.” Gabby shook her head. “Moms on Main—it’s a restaurant. Maybe next week. Oh, I know. Clay and Rayna will be back for the rodeo Friday. Maybe we can all have dinner together then.”
Adam elbowed his wife in the ribs. “Shh.”
As Stetson and Kendra shared a hymnal, his attention stayed on her. He didn’t need any distractions. The church had hired him to focus on the youth in his charge. And Kendra Maddox was definitely a distraction.

Kendra walked the brick-lined streets of the Fort Worth Stockyards. Why had she agreed to go to an early dinner and then the rodeo with Gabby and Adam? She’d probably run into Wyatt, and it wouldn’t be pretty. But she’d missed Rayna and looked forward to welcoming the newlyweds home. And Rayna needed all the support she could get as Clay wrapped up his final bull-riding season.
Besides Stetson would be there.
She’d only met him a week ago. Why did a little thrill travel through her nerve endings at the prospect of seeing Stetson? She sucked in a deep breath and summoned her poker face. Gabby and Rayna would not know anything was up.
Maybe it was anticipation of Rayna’s return. With Rayna gone on her honeymoon, Kendra’s workweek had been long. Countless times she’d headed to her friend’s office, only to remember halfway down the hall that Rayna wasn’t there.
She stepped inside the Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the dimly lit lobby. An enormous aged photo of a rodeo arena greeted her. Probably at Cowtown Coliseum.
Stetson was the first person she saw. Relaxed, comfortable in his casual western attire, and way too handsome.
“Hey.” He tipped his hat.
Did all cowboys do that? But it had never been as attractive as when he did. “Are the others here yet?”
“They’re at the table, but I told them I’d wait on you.”
“Thanks.” She tucked her hair behind her ear; then her eyes squeezed closed. Old flirtatious habits die hard. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“What?” His green gaze held no trace of comprehension.
“Nothing.”
“We’re right through here.” His hand pressed against the small of her back.
A shudder moved through her.
A radiant Rayna stood and hurried to greet her with a hug.
“Kendra, I’m so glad you came.”
“I had to come see my favorite newlywed.” Kendra pulled away to look at her friend. Rayna’s eyes reflected peace, joy, and bliss. “Marriage definitely agrees with you.”
Rayna blushed.
“Work just wasn’t right last week with you gone.”
“But we’re not talking about work just yet.” Clay winked.
“I guess we better not mention the pile about to topple off Rayna’s desk then.” Gabby grinned.
Rayna winced. “Is it really that bad?”
“No, silly.” Gabby patted Rayna’s hand. “We had your back.”
Stetson pulled a chair for Kendra then claimed the one beside her, too close for her comfort.
“I’ve never been to the Cattlemen’s Steakhouse.” She scanned the restaurant to take her mind off his proximity. Red-brick floor, matching vinyl chairs and napkins. A grill where steaks sizzled was receded in a brick wall. The servers wore black T-shirts with rhinestone wording: Cattlemen’s Fort Worth Steakhouse Since 1947. A familiar cowboy sat in the corner with a giggly blond and her cleavage.
Wyatt caught her eye.
Her gaze darted away.
The hair along the back of her neck prickled. He was coming over.
He stopped beside her and cleared his throat.
She looked up. At least the blond wasn’t with him.
“So you’re dating some clown, now?” He snickered.
“We’re just a group of friends trying to have a nice dinner.”
Stetson gulped his sweet tea.
“We don’t want any trouble.” The warning rang clear in Clay’s tone. He was ready and willing to back up his friend.
“No trouble from me.” Wyatt shrugged and strutted back to his table.
Kendra started breathing again. A neon sign from the restaurant’s bar drew her gaze. Oh what she wouldn’t give for a drink to relax her nerves. But one drink had gotten her into a lot of trouble in the past.

Kendra scanned the lobby, wishing she’d stuck with Rayna instead of coming by herself. But she’d needed to move her car closer to the coliseum, and the guys had needed to prepare for the rodeo, so their ladies went with them. Just avoid Wyatt and everything will be fine.
A clown wove through the crowd straight toward her.
She blinked.
He was still there.
Surreal. “Hello.”
“I waited for you.” A familiar voice came from the white-painted frown around a familiar mouth.
She scanned the red nose and huge white circles surrounding asparagus-colored eyes. Stetson’s shirt matched his eyes. A ridiculous pair of oversize overall-shorts with red bandanas trailing from every pocket completed his outfit.
“What are you doing?”
He grinned. “I thought after Wyatt called me a clown, I should let you see the real me.”
“You went to this much trouble for a joke?”
“It’s no joke.” He cleared his throat. “It’s my job.”
No. He couldn’t be. Adam had said Stetson was a rodeo hero. That meant pickup man. Those cool-looking cowboys who swooped in on their horses just before the bull pulverized his rider. Surely Stetson wasn’t. . .

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