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Rodeo Queen (Heartsong Presents)

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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Was he waiting for her?

A chill crept up Caitlyn Wentworth’s spine—a chill that had nothing to do with mid-September in Texas. Was he out there tonight? In the rodeo arena?

She smoothed shaky hands over her sequined sapphire top and rhinestone-studded white jeans. The matching glitter on her cowgirl hat flashed as she adjusted it and checked her reflection in the dressing room mirror. Shaky or not, the show had to go on.

“What’s this?” Natalie’s tone was a bit shrill.

The letter Caitlyn had gotten today dangled from her sister’s hand.

“Nothing.” Caitlyn snatched it.

“Nothing?” Natalie snatched the letter back and read it aloud.

Who do you think you are leaving me and our boy? Did you really think you could get away? I know exactly where you are, Camille.

Caitlyn grabbed at the letter, but Natalie turned away and kept reading.

And when you’re least expecting it, I’ll be there. I’ll grab that long dark hair and drag you back home where you belong.

Natalie’s hand shook. “Where did you get this? Who is Camille?”
“It came in the mail and I don’t know who Camille is, but he seems to think I’m her.”

“Who’s he?”

Why hadn’t she played dumb and pretended the letter was in her locker by mistake?

“Some guy who apparently thinks I’m Camille.” Caitlyn nabbed the letter, stuffed it on the top shelf with the others and clicked the padlock in place.

“Is this the only letter?”

Yes hovered on the tip of Caitlyn’s tongue. But she was a terrible liar. Her gaze darted from her sister’s. “No.”

“How many?” Natalie shot her best you-better-tell-me-everything glare.

“Six.” Caitlyn sighed.

“Six?” Natalie’s blue eyes widened. “Have you called the police?”

No police. Calling police would spin her carefully ordered, Mitch-less life out of control. Caitlyn rolled her eyes, trying to hide her panic. “He hasn’t done anything but send me letters.”

“Are they all threatening like this one?”

It wasn’t her imagination. The letter was threatening. The first one that made her heart quiver. “No. Just kind of whiny and poor me.”

“Why haven’t you called the police?”

“Because I figure he’s a harmless, confused coward. Obviously, I’m not Camille.”

“Well, he thinks you are and wants to drag you home by your hair.” Natalie propped her hands on her hips. “I’m not sure why you think he’s a coward. We need to call the police.”

“No.” Caitlyn tried to sound calm. “Letter writers are like Peeping Toms. They don’t do anything but write letters.”

“Who says? Dr. Phil?”

“I don’t have time to watch Dr. Phil. It’s nothing, Nat. Just forget it.”

“It’s not nothing. I’m calling Mitch.” Natalie fished her cell from her purse.

Caitlyn’s heart lurched and she lunged toward Natalie. “No.”

“He’ll know what to do.”

A knot lodged in her throat. “You don’t even know his number.”

“He’s in my address book.”

Her breath stalled. “Why?”

“Back when I was in my bar-hopping mode—” Natalie sighed “—I ran into him. He was on duty, but he saw me and offered to drive me back to my apartment. I refused, but he still made me see the error of my ways and asked about you.”

Caitlyn’s brain whirled. Mitch had tried to rescue Natalie from herself. And asked about Caitlyn. “I’m glad he tried to help you.”

“Actually, I think he did help me.” Natalie shrugged. “But back to the problem at hand, give me one good reason I shouldn’t make the call.”

“Because I don’t think it’s a big deal, but if I get another letter like that, I’ll call the police.” Caitlyn closed her eyes. “Just not him.”

“And you’ll tell me if you get another?” Natalie’s gaze narrowed. “Of any kind?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?”

“Yes.” And she never broke a promise. Please, Lord, don’t let there be another.

“All right.” Natalie slid the phone back in her purse.

“What are you doing nosing around in my locker anyway?”

“Getting your jewelry bag like you asked me to.” Natalie held up the clear, plastic bag. Rhinestones flickered in the light.

“Thanks.” Caitlyn unzipped the bag and fastened the shimmering necklace in place, then slid the matching studs in her ears.

How could she forget the letter was there? It had rattled her from the moment she arrived at Cowtown Coliseum this evening and Glen had given her a stack of mail. Most of her fan letters were from little girls who wanted to be rodeo queens just like her when they grew up. A few came from brazen cowboys asking for a date with their phone numbers included.

Until these letters to Camille.

Six letters in as many weeks.

“See you later.” Caitlyn slipped into her red-white-and-blue-sequined jacket, then strode through the back lobby to the corral. Her white horse, Lightning, waited, saddled and ready.

An aging rodeo hand held the American flag for her as she mounted her steed. “Evening, Caitlyn.”

“Hi, Pete. Looks like a big crowd tonight.”

He handed her the flag as her cue began—the opening notes of “God Bless the U.S.A.” Caitlyn nudged her horse into the arena. The spotlight blinded her.
Was he out there watching? Waiting in the darkened crowd to drag her out by her hair? Goose bumps crawled over her skin.

No time to worry about it now. She snapped her reins and Lightning made the first round, the flag waving proudly behind them. As the song sped up, she urged her horse to pick up her pace until the song built to its climax and she charged her horse around the arena.

As queen at the Fort Worth Stockyards Championship Rodeo, every Friday and Saturday night she made runs around the arena carrying flags representing individual sponsors. But the initial opening run with the American flag was her favorite. Though she’d heard the song countless times, she never tired of it. At the end of the ride, she never failed to feel more American.

The last notes faded away and she darted out of the arena on Lightning. The crowd roared behind her. She shivered at the thought that her letter writer might be roaring, as well.

Mitch had connections in every law enforcement agency in the state. If she went to the police, he’d find out and he’d come to her rescue. Her heart couldn’t take another run-in with Mitch Warren.

No. She’d have to handle the letters on her own.

***

“Great job, as usual, Caitlyn.” Pete met her near the corral and took her final flag for the evening. Only the second round of bulls was left, but her flag-bearing duties were done until tomorrow night.

“Thanks.” All she needed to do was change clothes and go home. But the dark outside waited. What if the letter writer wasn’t a coward? Did he know what she drove? Was he waiting in her car?

Natalie had rattled her. But it wouldn’t hurt to have backup. “Do you think you could walk me out tonight, Pete?”

“I’ll see you out.” Glen, her boss’s assistant appeared out of nowhere. “Bob wants to see you in the office before you leave, though.”

“Now?”

“It seemed urgent.”

She frowned. “What for?”

“Didn’t say.” Glen shrugged skinny shoulders. “Just let me know when you’re ready.”

Why would her boss want to see her? Trying to ooze confidence, she strode through the lobby to the office and knocked on the door.

“Come in.” Bob’s gruff voice came through the thick wood.

Caitlyn swung the door open.

Ornate, wood-paneled walls framed Bob sitting at his desk, frowning. “Sit down.”

“Is something wrong?”

“You tell me. Your sister told me about the letters.”

Natalie. Caitlyn’s jaw dropped. How could she?

“Don’t you think you should have told someone about this? Me? The police?”

“This is the first one that’s…” Caitlyn sank to the bench lining the office wall.

“Threatening.”

“Natalie shouldn’t have bothered you with this.”

“Your sister is worried about you and, quite frankly, so am I.” The seriousness in Bob’s voice tugged at her, making the letters seem even more worrisome.

Despite shaking legs, Caitlyn stood. “What do you plan to—?”

A knock sounded at the door. She jumped.

“Come in.” Bob sounded even gruffer. “That’s probably Ranger Warren. He’ll be handling the case for us.”

Warren? Her dazed brain stopped functioning.

The door opened and Mitch Warren strode in. His cowboy hat shadowed short dark hair and vivid sea-green eyes capable of looking into her soul.

Ten years since high school. He’d gotten even better looking.

“Hello, Caitlyn.” His rich, honeyed baritone turned her name into a caress.

Weak kneed, she sank to the bench again.

“Aren’t you going to say hello?” He tipped his hat in her direction.

“You two know each other?”

“We went to school together.”

We were high school sweethearts. Her heart still hadn’t recovered. Say something. Stop staring like a slack-jawed teenager.

She licked her lips and forced her gaze away from him back to Bob. “You called the Texas Rangers?”

“I’m trying to look out for the safety of my staff.”

She covered her face with both hands. “This isn’t necessary.”

“From the sound of that letter, I think it is.” Mitch walked toward her. “I need to see all of them.”

Too close. She caught a whiff of spicy, woodsy cologne. Thank goodness, she was already sitting down. “They’re in my locker.”

“When did they start coming?”

“My second weekend as queen. About six weeks ago.”

“How much time in between letters?”

A sigh escaped her. “I didn’t mark my calendar when they came.”

“Approximate.”

“I only get my mail on Fridays and Saturdays when I’m here. I’ve gotten one letter every Friday, but I didn’t pay any attention to when they arrived here initially.”

“Do you have the envelopes?”

“With the letters.”

“We’ll check the postmarks and maybe we can get some latent prints. Shall we go get them?”

Unable to stand if her life depended on it, she needed a moment to digest his presence. There wasn’t anything personal in her locker. She grabbed her keys from her purse.

Her hands trembled as she slid her locker key off the ring and held it out to him. “Help yourself. Glen can show you where the dressing room is. Everything’s on the top shelf.”

Instead of letting her drop the key into his palm, his fingers brushed against hers as he reached for it. Electricity flared and the key slid from her hand. It landed with a metallic clang near her foot, but she was powerless to pick it up.

Mitch knelt, as if he might propose. Again. Instead, he scooped up the key, almost touching her ankle.

She shivered.

“And from the looks of you—” he studied her face “—I’d say that letter upset you more than you’re letting on.”

Yes. Please let him think she was weak and trembling over the letter instead of him. The letter frightened her, but Mitch scared her more.

She’d barely had time to gather her thoughts before Mitch returned and Bob left her in good hands.

And now she was alone with Mitch. He settled on the bench beside her. Although there was room for another person between them, it was too close.

“I kept them in the order I found them in. Which letter came first?” Mitch held the plastic bag containing the letters in his latex-gloved hand—just like on the cop shows.

“Back to front, exactly the way they were stacked.”

Mitch read the first bagged letter slowly, then sifted to the next. With each
page, his frown deepened.

“Is this your jurisdiction?” Her voice shook. “This is Fort Worth, not Garland.”

“Garland and Fort Worth are in my Company ‘B’.”

For now, just function, she told herself. She’d throttle her sister later.

“We’ll have to print you so we can eliminate yours. Natalie only handled the latest one, right?”

“Can we just forget this? I really don’t think it’s a big deal.”

“Lots of women have thought it was no big deal. And lots of women have ended up
in body bags.”

A knot lodged in her throat.

“I’m sorry, Caitlyn.” He touched her elbow. “I don’t mean to scare you.”

Flames licked up her arm and straight to her heart.

“But I want you to realize how serious this could be.”

Mitch messed with her equilibrium much more than the letter writer. Caitlyn pulled away and glanced at the clock. After two.

“I know it’s late and you’re tired.” Mitch stood and paced the office. “But I wanted to get as much detail as I could while it’s fresh in your mind.”

“What now?”

“I’m taking you to headquarters. We’ll get your prints and put you in protective custody.”

“What?” She jumped up from her seat.

“We have to keep you safe until we can get this guy off the streets.”

“I run a business, I have a job. Besides, it’s a letter.” She sliced her hand through the air. “Cowards write letters. They have no follow-through.”

“Oh, really. Ever heard of the Unabomber?”

Caitlyn rolled her eyes. She’d been in the second grade and Mitch in the fourth when he’d first decided to investigate the Unabomber. “That was an extreme case.”

“All the same, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Doesn’t something actually have to happen to someone before you put them under protective custody?”

“By then, it’s often too late. Stalking laws have changed. A threat is enough to take action. And that last letter is a definite threat.”

“But I don’t have time for protective custody.”

Mitch’s top lip quirked. “It’s not something you generally make time for.”

“No, I have a clothing store here at the stockyards—and another at the mall. And I have my duties here as rodeo queen. I can’t let the rodeo down.”

“Knowing you, I’m certain you’ve hired a great manager for each store—someone who can handle things for a few weeks. And don’t they have runner-up rodeo queens or something?”

“A few weeks.” Her words turned into a wail. “No!”

“Okay, probably not that long.”

“My managers are great.” She stalked across the office. “But the rodeo has had huge turnover in the queen department. One of the main reasons I was hired was because I promised to be here. I haven’t been here quite two months. I can’t
take off.”

“Why has there been so much turnover? Have any other queens received threats?”

“No. Nothing like that. We have to be here every Friday and Saturday night. Most single women aren’t okay with that.”

“Why?”

“Hello?” She shrugged. “Date nights.”

He grinned. “So you’ve been able to be so consistent because you don’t have anyone to keep your date nights open for?”

She blushed. “Dating is highly overrated. I can’t let Bob down.”

“I spoke with Bob earlier. He’s all for protective custody.”

“Really?” She frowned.

“Of course. He wants you safe.”

“I should have known. He’s a big teddy bear. All gruff and stern when he needs to be, but marshmallow mushy on the inside. He treats us all like his kids.”

“Does he have kids?” Mitch scribbled in his notebook.

“What did you write down?” Her chest squeezed. “Bob is not a suspect.”

“Everyone’s a suspect until we know who the perp is. What about the other
staff?”

“No.” She clasped both hands over her ears. “They’re not suspects. No one I know would write kooky letters.”

“You never know.”

“Well, I do. I won’t have you digging into all my friends’ and coworkers’ backgrounds.”

“It’s my job, Caitlyn. And I’ll dig until I find our letter writer and escort him to jail myself. In the meantime, you’ll be in protective custody, whether you like it or not.”

“I have to agree to it—right?” She folded her arms across her chest and raised her chin.

***

Mitch had seen that look before. The sapphire sequins on her blouse flashed in the light, matching her beautiful eyes. Stubborn eyes.
He sighed. “Technically.”

“I refuse.”

“Caitlyn—”

“That’s it. I refuse.”

“All right, then I’ll arrange to be your bodyguard.” Mitch ran his hand along the back of his neck and paced some more.

“No.”

“It’s that or protective custody. Your choice.”

“Neither.”

“Not one of the choices.”

A world-weary sigh hissed out of her. “Can you please take me to my car?”

“I’m driving you.” Mitch wagged a finger at her. “And that’s your only choice.”

“I’m not going to the station tonight. I’m tired.”

Pressure welled up in his chest. Why did she always have to fight him? He didn’t want to scare her any more than he already had. But she left him no choice.

“The station can wait until tomorrow, but I’m driving you home. Don’t argue with me, Caitlyn. This guy could be waiting at your house.”

Her bottomless eyes grew huge. She was speechless for four, five, six full seconds. The longest he’d ever known Caitlyn to stay silent.

“I’ll go to Mama and Daddy’s. It’ll freak them out if a Ranger shows up.”

“I’ll let them know it’s me.”

“No. No way. Mama will torment me with questions about us.”

Us? His heart jackhammered. “Then I’ll check out your house and your parents will never know I’m there.”

She sighed. “Oh, all right. Can I at least change into my regular clothes?”

“If you must.” He stood.

“I don’t need an escort.” She rolled her eyes. “The security guard is still here and the place is locked.”

“Just work with me here.” Mitch sat back down.

Something in her eyes softened. “I’ll be right back.”

Had she heard the desperation in his plea?

Seeing her again had stirred up every memory and feeling he thought he’d
buried. He might be desperate to keep her safe, but he was just as desperate to win her love again.

***

Caitlyn changed out of her sequined rodeo queen outfit and into her own jeans and Western-themed T-shirt.

I need a breather. She leaned back against the wall. Deep slow, breaths. Get through the drive home and tomorrow she’d figure out how to get rid of him. She’d even consider protective custody—as long as he wasn’t the protector.

After a couple of minutes, she calmed down and dug her lipstick from her oversize purse. No, he’d think she’d reapplied for him. She dropped the lipstick, smoothed her hair and straightened her shoulders. Ready for battle, she opened the dressing room door.

A man was leaning against the wall to her left.

She opened her mouth, but the scream died on her lips. Glen.

“Hey, it’s me.” He patted her shoulder.

“I didn’t know you were still here.”

“You didn’t really think Bob would let me leave without making sure this place was locked up, did you? Did your friend leave?”

“He’s not my friend. Just an old acquaintance.” Understatement of the year.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Ready for me to escort you to your car?”

“Yes, please.” She smiled. Mitch problem solved.

For tonight anyway.

***

Mitch rolled his neck muscles from side to side and scanned the office. American flag buntings decorated each window. As star spangled as Caitlyn’s glitzy jacket and hat but without the sequins.

Stubborn woman. Hadn’t changed a bit in the past ten years.

Except she was even more beautiful.

If anything happened to her, he’d die. How could he convince her to go into protective custody?

The muscles in the back of his neck ached and he massaged them as he paced.

Her dad. Yes. He’d go see her dad first thing in the morning. And Caitlyn would be in a safe house before she could say the word no.

As long as he made it to his sister’s wedding, his family wouldn’t be too upset. And surely by then, he’d have this case closed.

Nervous energy jolted through him. Out of all the people he’d vowed to protect over the years, he’d never had to protect someone he loved. He had to keep Caitlyn safe.

And she should be back by now. Mitch stepped into the hall.

No sign of movement. His heart pounded.

“Caitlyn.” He hurried toward the dressing room.

“You’re still here?” A man’s voice behind him.

Mitch spun around.

The assistant he’d met earlier. Glen.

“Have you seen Caitlyn?”

“I escorted her to her car.”

“You what?” Mitch’s pulse went into overdrive.

“She came out of the dressing room.” Glen frowned. “I was supposed to escort her to her car after the rodeo, so I asked if she was ready.”

Something in his chest roiled. What if Glen was the stalker? What if he’d done something to Caitlyn? Mitch locked his best bad cop glower on Glen. The man didn’t flinch, didn’t look away. Telling the truth.

“Did she go home?”

“I think she went to her store. Said something about needing her laptop.”

“Where is her store?”

“Across the street a ways down, next to the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. It’s called the Sassy Cowgirl/Rowdy Cowboy.”

Mitch bolted for the door.

***

Thanks, Mitch. He’d successfully given Caitlyn a case of the creeps with his warnings that her stalker might be at her house. Now she was afraid to go home.

She shut and locked the office door blocking the view from the windowed showroom. No one could peer in and see her now. A shiver skittered up her spine and she sank into the chair at her desk.

At least she’d managed a few minutes to gather herself—for her hands to stop shaking, her heart to stop rattling, her brain to numb. Caitlyn closed her laptop and stuffed it in her oversize purse, then straightened the few items on her raw pine desk.

It was only a letter. Natalie, Bob and Mitch had all overreacted. She wasn’t some whimpering ninny. She’d taken self-defense classes. If anything happened, she could handle herself.

Just settle down. Her store—her dream—always settled her nerves.

Deep breaths. In and out. She was safe. Her stalker wasn’t here. But if she didn’t get moving, Mitch would trail her here. At the moment, she really wasn’t sure which she feared more.

If she called him now, she’d end up riding with him. If she could just get brave enough to make a run for her car, then she could call and let him follow her.

She grabbed her keys, blew out a cleansing breath and pulled the back door open.

A man’s large silhouette filled the doorway. “Hello, Camille. I’ve been waiting to get you alone.”

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