Avery shook herself, every muscle tense and ready to move. In less than a minute, the gate would be thrown open and nearly a ton of raging bull would come barreling out of the chute, a cowboy in the middle of its back just trying to stay on long enough to score points for an eight-second ride. As soon as that ride was over, it was Avery who would keep the bull distracted, taunting the beast until it charged her instead of the rider. Avery was one of only a handful of female bullfighters, or rodeo clowns, as they were called. As far as this rodeo was concerned, however, no one knew her character, Casey the Clown, was a girl.
Her entire world closed down to the space between the gate and her. The noise from the crowd, the smell of the animals, and the taste of dirt all receded so that only she, the cowboy, and the bull existed. There were other bullfighters in the arena, but none of them mattered. Her heart pounded. Excitement sang through her veins as she readied herself to distract more than seventeen hundred pounds of thundering hooves and goring horns long enough for that idiot on his back to scramble for safety.
But first, they had to get through the ride.
The gate swung open and Cowboy Crusher exploded from the chute. He jumped, landing on his front feet, twisting his enormous black body as he kicked his heels almost over his head; poor Dempsey never had a chance. Less than two seconds into his ride, he went flying.
Sounding her clown horn, Avery whipped off her large, droopy hat and waved it over her head. She wore large jeans held up by red suspenders tucked into specially made red boots with running soles on them, and God knows she put those boots to good use. Her red-striped shirt was five sizes too big. Between the oversized clothes, binding her breasts, and Casey the Clown’s well-known shtick of never speaking, she’d managed to keep the fact that she was a female a secret from everyone here. It was her knowledge of bulls, her fast reflexes, and her acrobatics in the ring that made her a hell of a clown.
Normally, the noisy horn was enough to attract the angry bull’s attention. Combined with the flapping of her floppy hat and her almost gymnastic jumps and gyrations, most of the animals she dealt with became far more interested in chasing her. From the moment Dempsey went flying, however, Crusher became fixed on destroying the irritant that had been on his back. Winded, Dempsey was just rolling from his back to his knees, but Crusher was faster and the bull meant to get him.
Bolting left, Avery ran, flapping her hat and honking her horn in an attempt to catch the periphery of the bull’s attention just as it was turning for a charge. Dempsey was scrambling for the nearest fence, but Crusher was too close. He’d never make it.
“Hey, big boy!” she hollered. “Come to Mama!”
She would never be sure if the bull registered the fact that she was a female, but she realized the other bullfighters and everyone within hearing distance sure as hell had.
Swinging his heavy head to lock her in his angry sights, Cowboy Crusher lowered his horns and pawed the ground.
“Come on, you overgrown mutant piece of steak, why not take on someone with more brains than a rodeo rider!”
She vaguely heard the crowd’s laughter, but Avery was far too focused on the enraged creature as it promptly bellowed back and charged. There was no feeling quite like this one, the cold tremble—part fear, part excitement—that slithered in through her gut as she held her ground, watching as that massive animal bored down on her. It could kill her easily, and yet she didn’t run. She waited instead, her body locking into readiness until the very last second when she charged the bull in turn. Grabbing the poll of Crusher’s head, her hand smacked flat between his horns as she vaulted up and over him in the signature flip that had made Casey the Clown so well known. Leaping over the beast, she smacked him on the rump with her hat and sprinted for the relative safety of the arena walls.
The bull charged after her. He rammed the fence, shaking it, seconds after she had climbed out of the way. She leaned down and released the bucking rig as the mounted rodeo cowboys moved in to get Crusher back to the pens.
The audience cheered and Avery hopped down from the fence to take a bow. She waved to those watching and skipped out of the arena, heading for her rented SUV. One dangerous situation taken care of; one more left to go.
She needed to get away from the rodeo and pronto. No one at the Wild Mustang Security Firm knew that in Avery’s spare time she worked as a bullfighter—she’d been doing it for years now. It was one of the few places she could go to decompress after a stressful mission. The problem was that there was a very real possibility that her secret was about to be exposed. All it took was someone from her job recognizing her voice, and her extracurricular activities would be in real jeopardy. Any other security firm probably wouldn’t care, but at Wild Mustang…
The men she worked with were the best in their field and often they depended on her to get them out of bad situations. Those same men could be more than a little overprotective of the women in their lives. Sadly, that included her. Only in her case, they didn’t express those protective feelings in the same dominantly sexual manner that their female partners had to put up with. Instead, she got an office full of overbearing older brothers, not one of whom was shy about lecturing her as if they had the right, or who would be likely to approve of her penchant for playing tag or keep-away with massive, enraged bovines.
She was also willing to bet a whole lot of money that none of them knew that their IT genius, mad hacker Thom Lyndon, was considered to be one of the best bareback bronc riders in the world. It sure surprised the hell out of her the first time she’d spotted him on their local circuit. He rode under the name of Tom Stiles, which she knew was his mother’s maiden name. Avery supposed he did that so if any of the guys followed the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association’s standings, they wouldn’t know it was him—probably for the same reasons she didn’t want any of them to know she was Casey the Clown.
The last thing Avery needed was Thom being able to confirm it had been her in the arena this afternoon. Like every other person in the stadium, there was no helping that he now knew her bullfighting character was a woman. Her only hope was that there might have been too much ambient noise for him to recognize her voice. Fortunately, she reached her car without anyone stopping to talk to her. All she had to do now was return the SUV to the rental agency and fly her personal plane back to her home outside of Sedona.
As she scooted into the vehicle and headed for home, she was halfway to convincing herself that she might just get away with this.
Avery! What the hell was Avery doing here?
Thom had been waiting close to the arena when Cowboy Crusher shot from his chute. That animal was one of the top-ranked bucking bulls in the world, which meant he was dangerous and damn near impossible to ride. Jimmy Dempsey had been badly outmatched from the start, and Thom liked Jimmy. If things went horribly wrong, he’d wanted to be close enough to lend a hand. He hadn’t been at all surprised when Dempsey was thrown on Crusher’s first jump and buck. He was just turning back to his rig when he heard the gasp and shout of the crowd, reacting to a dangerous situation. Despite the rodeo clowns rushing in to help, Crusher had turned on Dempsey.
Thom sprang to get into the ring, along with a lot of other cowboys. He’d been swinging his leg over the top of the fence when he spotted Casey the Clown blowing his horn and waving his floppy hat. Casey was an excellent bullfighter and Thom had seen his work before. Although the clown’s antics failed at first to distract the bull, Thom figured all would be well, and it was. Casey was able to change the bull’s focus, and brought it charging straight at the experienced clown. The problem was that Casey was only able to divert the beast from goring Dempsey by yelling at it. What caught the fascination of the crowd was the realization that Casey wasn’t a ‘he’ at all… Casey was a woman. Had he not recognized the very feminine, teasing voice that brought Crusher charging in so that the clown could deliver her by now infamous over-the-back flip, Thom might have been fascinated too. But he did recognize it. That voice belonged to Avery Jackson, the Wild Mustang Security Firm’s very own intrepid pilot and resident little sister… to everyone else, maybe. Not him.
Thom’s feelings for Avery were not of the big brotherly variety, and they hadn’t been for quite some time. For months, he had been innately aware of everything she had to offer a man, and with every week that passed that awareness only intensified. She was smart, beautiful, had a wicked sense of humor, and was decidedly off limits. Thom’s best friend was Noah Taylor, the only one who knew he spent his spare time as a bareback bronc rider. Noah was also the only person who knew the feelings that Thom harbored for Avery; feelings he steadfastly encouraged Thom to pursue.
None of that really mattered. What mattered was that Avery had put herself in danger and had been doing it for quite some time. Thom had accepted the fact that there were often times when, during the course of working for the firm, she did put herself at risk. But in those situations, he was always there to influence just how hazardous the situation was and he, working behind the scenes, could usually help manipulate the outcome.
Thom saw Casey/Avery take a bow, acknowledging her successful rescue of Dempsey for the amusement of the crowd before heading out of the ring. Vaulting over the fence, Thom took off after her, trying to make his way through the confusion both in the arena and on the other side of it where participants had their vehicles parked. He searched for her teal-colored Jeep but couldn’t see it. The only vehicle he did see was a nondescript SUV pulling out of the parking lot. If that really was Avery—and judging by her voice, he was positive that it was—then she’d come a long way to throw herself in front of a bull. Then again, she was a pilot. She could easily have flown into town to rent a vehicle.
He glanced at his watch. Although it was the middle of the afternoon in New Mexico, the site of the rodeo, it was evening in London. Still, Noah ought to be awake. Ever since Noah had gotten involved with the investigative reporter, Zara Hughes, he was usually in bed having his way with Zara by this time. Thom grinned, and then called Noah anyway.
“Fuck it, Lyndon, this had better be good…” came the surly growl on the other end of the phone.
Thom could hear Zara’s husky laughter in the background.
“It is. It’s Avery…” replied Thom, trying to keep the smirk out of his voice.
“What about her? Have you finally decided to… where the hell do you think you’re going? Get your ass back in this bed!”
This time Thom couldn’t contain his amusement. “I take it you’re talking to Zara…”
“Damn straight and if Zara isn’t careful, she’s going to end up over my knee before she ends up on her back.”
Thom could hear Zara swear in the background. He really had caught his friend at a bad time. Zara and Noah hadn’t been together all that long and were both thriving in their new relationship. Zara seemed to still have an issue with the fact that all of the principals of the firm were very open about their relationships and the elements of power exchange in each. The only exception to that was Thom—partly because he was the only one who was not committed and partly because none of them recognized that Thom was just as dominant as everyone else. He wasn’t an over-the-top alpha male, and never had been. His dominance was a more gentle, nurturing form of loving authority.
His musing was abruptly ended when he heard the resounding thwack of Noah’s hand connecting with Zara’s behind; she cursed, and Noah growled before swatting her again. Noah was a good guy and was head-over-heels in love with Zara, but Zara was a hellcat of the first order and if given an inch, she’d take a mile. Each of them was flourishing in the other’s care, but while Thom did envy his best friend for finding someone who so thoroughly filled his needs, Thom also knew he much preferred women who craved the loving support of a sexually dominant daddy.
“Okay now,” Noah said, now that his own situation was settling back down. “What about Avery?”
“I saw her today.”
“Not a big surprise considering you work together. Someone making a move on your girl?”
“She’s not my girl,” Thom said a bit too quickly.
“Yet,” Noah replied. “And whose fault is that, cowboy? I know you like to ride broncs; I just don’t understand why you don’t throw a rig on that particular filly and ride her until you get her broke. Ouch! Damn it. What have I told you about biting me?”
Thom laughed. “Again, I take it you’re talking to Zara.”
“It’s not funny. She’s a nasty little vixen when she’s horny and doesn’t have my undivided attention, which she’s about to get applied to her backside a whole lot harder than she usually likes it. I’m serious, if I have to remind her yet again just which one of us is in charge around here… hang on a minute. I said enough.”
Thom could hear scrambling around and then heard the steady sound of Noah delivering a no-nonsense spanking that quickly had Zara wailing in response. And here Thom was, without his popcorn.
The rhythmic tattoo that Noah laid down seemed to be getting through to his beloved fairly quickly. What could be heard first as struggling and cursing soon devolved into crying and pleading.
“Had enough?” Noah asked in the distance. “Good, then you go stand in the corner until I’ve talked to Thom and decided just how long, how hard, and which hole I’m going to fuck first.” A strained silence followed. “Think about it, Zara. I have no trouble telling Thom I’ll call him back… good girl.” The last was said in a loving, soothing voice and then the phone was picked up again. “Sorry about that. Now what’s up with you and Avery?”
“I keep telling you there is no me and Avery.”
“And yet, here you are. On the phone with me, whining about her…”
Thom wasn’t grinning anymore. “I’m not whining,” he said a bit too defensively. “Okay, maybe I am. I shouldn’t have called. Obviously, I interrupted you and Zara. Tell her I apologize for getting her in trouble.”
“I got news for you, buddy. Zara doesn’t need anyone’s help to get herself in trouble and if her nose doesn’t stay in that corner, her pretty bottom is going to get turned a deeper shade of red. I take it something happened today?”
Thom was fascinated with how Noah could so effectively deal with his misbehaving fiancée and still sound so calm and in control when talking to him. “You could say that. I’m at the rodeo in Santa Fe right now…”
“How’d you do?”
“Not bad,” replied Thom, brightening. “I won the bareback and came in second in the saddle bronc and calf roping.”
“I’ll bet that earned your current charity of choice a nice little donation.”
Thom grinned. Not only was Noah the only one who knew he was a very successful professional rodeo cowboy, but he was the only one who knew that each weekend Thom picked a local charity and donated whatever winnings he made to them. Except that Noah wasn’t the only one who knew now, Thom suddenly realized. As fast as Avery took off after that last bullfight, she had to have recognized him too.
“Avery was at the rodeo.”
“Did she see you? So what if she did? I’ve never understood your… Zara, do I need to call Thom back after I take my belt to your backside? No, I didn’t think so. As I was saying, I’ve never understood why you didn’t want anyone at the firm to know you rodeo in your off time.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s all caught up in my sordid family history—the whole drunken cowboy kills championship barrel-racing mother and then himself, leaving toddler in their horse trailer to die.” Thom shook himself. He really didn’t want to get into that right now. “I just don’t want to have to explain my pull to the rodeo every time I want to ride. In any event, it wasn’t just today. I’m beginning to think Avery has known for a long time.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Remember that bullfighter I pointed out to you, Casey the Clown? The one who seemed able to read rough stock like very few others, but never spoke?”
“Yeah, the one with the horn? God, he was a kick in the ass… crazy and put himself in real danger but entertaining as hell to watch.”
“Well, Casey isn’t a he. Casey is a she, and I’ll bet you every buckle I’ve won that particular she is Avery.”
Thom let that sink in. Noah was closer to Avery than anyone. Or at least, she always seemed to tolerate Noah’s interfering in her life far better than anyone else’s, including his own.
“Are you seriously telling me that reckless idiot clown is actually Avery? That’s enough, Zara, it isn’t funny.”
“Oh, but it is,” Zara chimed in, though Thom could barely hear her. “All you big, brawny, studly security operatives might be good when it comes to looking at other people, but not one of you noticed that the rodeo clown was a girl. Ha! That is way too rich. Well played, Avery, well played.”
From the tone of Noah’s growl, Thom doubted if Zara would be in for an easy time the rest of tonight. He doubted if his friend had been joking about Zara getting welted before she got laid, either.
“One and the same, I’m afraid. And today she could have been killed. She went one-on-one with one of the most dangerous bulls on the circuit.”
“Why the hell did you let her do that?” snapped Noah.
“I didn’t let her do anything. By the time I knew it was a woman, much less Avery, it was over and done and she’d hightailed it out of here.”
“Then you track her down and jerk a knot in her tail.”
“She doesn’t see me that way…”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s up to you to make her see you that way.”
“She isn’t submissive…”
“You think Zara is? Or Finn? Or Willa?” Noah chuckled, referring to the other women in committed relationships to the men in their firm. “Hell, no, they’re not. But it doesn’t mean they don’t need someone stronger and tougher to take the lead and lift some of life’s burdens from their shoulders. How much do you really know about Avery?”
“I’m a hacker,” Thom dryly reminded. “I know everything.”
“No,” Noah said with a sigh, “you don’t. Shit, you and I should have had this conversation a long, long time ago. Avery has, in my not-so-humble opinion, an enormous need for a good, strong, decent man in her life. You know that she hasn’t been in a relationship in years, right?”
“Do you know why?”
“I just figured she was busy…”
“And doing without? Not without good reason. The last time she got involved, the guy was a wannabe dom with a bad temper and a mean streak. Avery used to play in some of the same clubs Croft and I did. She hooked up with this asshole and got herself in a jam. She eventually got a message out to me, but by the time I located her, she was hanging by her wrists from a rafter. He’d taken a cat-o-nine tails to her. She had open cuts on every part of her body, and he wasn’t the only guy there. He’d shared her. There was cum dripping from her ass and cunt.”
“Jesus, Noah, why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I promised Avery I wouldn’t tell anyone. In exchange, she let me take care of her while she healed, and I was able to get her some help.” Through the phone, Thom heard Zara’s soft-spoken reaction to what Noah was saying. She must have left the corner to comfort the resident badass of the Wild Mustang team, because Noah’s next words were slightly muffled. “It’s okay, baby, it was a couple of years ago.”
“I’m not like you or Croft,” Thom said. “Hell, I’m not like Mac or even John…”
“No, you’re a whole different kind of dominant… the kind that Avery needs. A man who is strong enough to keep her in line, set rules for her, and help her to achieve her dreams and goals. A more nurturing kind of dom—one that will take care of her and treat her right. Hate to break it to you, buddy, but you aren’t the only one we know who’s had an abysmal childhood.”
“You really think she needs a daddy dom?” Thom asked, trying and failing not to let that small flicker of hope ignite inside him at the thought of Avery submitting to his voice and his hand.
“As I understand that term, yes,” Noah said with a sigh. “It sounds to me like Avery needs you to step out of your comfort zone as her nerdy big brother and into what she really wants and needs.”
“I don’t know,” Thom hedged. It hit him in the gut to admit it, but he still said, “She’s never seen me in any way remotely sexual.”
“He doesn’t know?” Zara piped up in the background. “That’s it. Let me talk to him.” There was a click as she hit the speaker feature. “Look, Thom, I don’t have your history with Avery or any of the rest of the team. But maybe that, combined with my instincts about people, gives me a better glimpse at what’s going on between the lines. Do you want me to butt out? Because the Big Bad here is giving me The Look.”
Thom chuckled. “At this point, a fresh point of view might be beneficial. Sometimes when you’re trying to fix a glitch in your code, it takes someone that didn’t write it to spot the issue.”
“In that case… Avery interacts with you on a very different level. I agree, she sees the rest of the team as a bunch of overly protective big brothers, and she actually respects Noah enough that when he growls, she listens. The rest of the team she pats on the head and, for the most part, ignores. All except you. You, she teases and flirts with. She wants you to notice her, not the way the other boys do, but as a man.”
“I don’t think you know what you’re talking about…”
“Really? This from the man who thought Casey the Clown was a guy?”
“You knew?” Thom heard Noah say.
“You didn’t?” Zara responded, laughing at him. “You didn’t notice that Avery had signs of heavy greasepaint makeup under her chin the last time we were all together?”
“Why the hell didn’t you say something?” Thom growled.
“Because at the time, it didn’t matter. I didn’t even begin to suspect that Avery might be Casey, which by the way, considering you saw her most weekends, I find inordinately amusing, until several weeks later. And since neither you nor Mister Mean Motherfucker here let me in on the fact that you have a major thing for her, I didn’t see it as germane to any conversation we might be having.”
“Now that you do know, is there anything else you’d like to contribute to Thom’s and my conversation before I paddle your butt?” grumbled Noah.
“What? I didn’t know anything about Thom’s feelings for Avery until right this second,” said Zara.
“I understand that, sweetheart, but you bit me so you getting another spanking is a given, but go back to the corner and I’ll reconsider using my belt. Now, Zara.” The steel in his friend’s voice was unmistakable. “As for you, buddy, I suggest you go get your girl and make it plain to her that she is. I also suggest you don’t take your sweet time about it.”
“Why, what’s the rush?” asked Thom, a hint of warning tickling at his senses.
“Maybe nothing, but we’re starting to hear rumbles about Christian and Fariq. Things may be heating back up over here. We’re all going to need our head in the game and you’re going to want to have Avery where you can make sure she stays safe. Honestly, if she’s on your loving leash, then it’ll be one less thing I have to worry about.”
It would be one less thing that he had to worry about too. Thom nodded. “Do tell Zara I’m sorry if I contributed to her getting into trouble and give her a break. Remember, you’re madly in love with her.”
Noah chuckled. “That, my friend, is why I’ll make sure that come morning, she’s tender in all the right spots. For what it’s worth, Zara tends to be right about these kinds of things. She’s highly observant and her instincts, except where her own safety is concerned, are usually spot on. Go get your girl, Thom.”
Noah disconnected the call, leaving Thom sitting in front of his pickup. Noah was right, Zara did have great instincts. He also knew Avery better than anyone. Did she need more looking after than she let on? More to the point, did she want it?
Thom shook his head and closed his eyes. Opening them, he realized more than anything this phone call with Noah had awakened his long-repressed feelings for Avery. That burgeoning part of him that still carried the senseless guilt of not having been able to protect his mother leapt to the fore as he considered the hell Avery had been through. He could ensure that she never had to travel that path again.
He started up his truck and headed back for Sedona. He had a lot to think about, but also a lot of windshield time to do it in. Avery… his hands tightened on the steering wheel. It was a very real possibility that he could forge a relationship with her, giving them both what they wanted, needed, ached for just to feel complete… even if it did take a little work on his part before she’d admit it. The rush that swept from his head through his heart, and then all the way down to his groin, was intoxicating. He immediately scaled it back, knowing this was something that needed to be taken one step at a time. But if Noah and Zara were right, this might very well be the best thing to ever happen, either to him or Avery.
She had open cuts on every part of her body… he shared her…
The idea that anyone would use Avery so cruelly rattled the sword of Thom’s sense of chivalry and justice. He also didn’t care how many years ago it might have happened; whoever had hurt her was going to wish he hadn’t. It was true that he wasn’t Noah or Croft, or even Mac. He wasn’t about to go all badass superhero on the sadist, but he damn well knew how to destroy someone’s life by exposing their secrets. Someone had hurt Avery; Thom was going to find out who that man was, and he was going to ruin him.