The Knight and the Damsel

BOOK 2 OF RODEO KNIGHTS

Retired champion bull-rider, Michael Knight, leaves his ranch when his younger brother calls for help. Someone is sabotaging and poisoning rodeo animals. Determined to stop them, Michael takes a job in the center of the action as a bullfighter.

Bella Rosenthal is one of the few female bull-riders competing with the men. Someone is harassing her, and Michael decides to solve that case as well, but Bella doesn’t want any help. She insists on taking care of herself until one of her bull rides is sabotaged, and she is nearly killed. Michael and Bella work to find out who is behind what is happening on the rodeo circuit while fighting their growing feelings for each other.



PURCHASE THE KNIGHT AND THE DAMSEL
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CHAPTER ONE:

The bright blue vanished as dark, roiling clouds raced across the Montana sky. Bella Rosenthal craned her neck toward the windshield of her white pickup, trying to gauge if she could outrun the storm and make it to Red Fork, the next stop on the rodeo circuit, before rain unleashed its fury. Maybe. It would be close.

Taking a deep breath, she reclined back and rolled her shoulders to ease the tension. But she wasn’t successful. It still gripped her. Before the last rodeo, someone had tampered with her equipment. If she hadn’t borrowed a strap from another bull rider, she wouldn’t have been able to ride her mount.

A streak of lightning zigzagged across the sky, followed immediately by a loud boom. Her hands tightened about the steering wheel. After what she’d been through the past week, that was all she needed—a torrential thunderstorm. A few drops of rain splattered her windshield. Not half a minute later, the sky opened up and drenched the earth.

She switched on her wipers to high, and their rhythmic sound filled the cab of the truck. Squinting as though that would make her see better, she slowed her speed, leaned forward, and prayed. She thought of pulling off the road until the storm moved through, but she was already late for the drawing of her bull for tomorrow’s ride.

Her seven-year-old pickup sputtered. She aimed for the side of the two-lane highway. When the engine died, the truck still sat partially on the road. She turned her key. A cranking noise overrode the sound of the pelting rain. She looked at her gas gauge, and as expected, her tank was half full.

So what’s wrong?

Before she had time to think of what it could be, a semi coming in the opposite direction passed her, flooding her vehicle with water. She quickly turned on her emergency flashers and picked up her cell phone. No bars.

Staring out the window, she could barely see the other side of the road. She needed to get her truck totally off the highway before another vehicle rear-ended it. After setting her cowboy hat on her head, she put the pickup in neutral, shoved the door open, and hopped down to the pavement.

Rain assailed her, drenching her long-sleeve shirt and jeans. She searched her surroundings, her gaze continually drawn to the road behind her. Her truck was at the bottom of a small incline, so if anyone came over the rise, the driver would have little time to react if she didn’t moved it.

She sent up another prayer as she put all her strength into pushing her partially opened driver’s door. Nothing happened. She tried again. The truck still didn’t budge. A loud crack of lightning split the air. Then thunder rumbled like bass drums. Her heartbeat raced. She could do this. Her upper body strength was good. It had to be to hang onto a bucking bull.

For the third time, she willed every ounce of power into her push. Her left foot slipped in the water, and she went down onto the asphalt at the moment a truck crested the incline behind her.

***

As Michael Knight headed toward the next stop at Red Fork for the Western Rodeo Circuit, part of him couldn’t believe he was returning to what had been his life for years. When he had walked away three years ago, in his mind it had been for good. But his younger brother, Jesse, called and asked Michael to help him with an investigation concerning the sabotage of the stock on the circuit. Bulls and horses had been hurt, some even killed, and he couldn’t turn his back on family or animals.

He had a meeting with Carly Duggan, a stock contractor for the WRC, and his brother in an hour, and Michael was running behind. Reception was nil on his cell phone, most likely due to the remote location and the stormy weather.

His deceased wife, Amber, had hated being late. That was why he should have known something was wrong when she wasn’t in her seat for the bull ride three years ago that would propel him into the number one position in the standings. He completed the competition and won it, putting him at the top going into the championship competition for the fourth year in a row. Afterward, when he went in search of Amber, his life took a one hundred eighty degree turn. She’d died in a car wreck on the way to the rodeo, and he hadn’t been there for her last moments at the hospital. He’d learned from the staff she’d repeatedly asked for him before slipping away. He slapped the steering wheel. He should have been there for her. This was why he didn’t want to return to the rodeo scene—too many memories he wanted to forget.

Although rain was pouring down, he pressed hard on his accelerator, cresting a rise. Through the blowing rain, Michael glimpsed a pickup partially on the road—right in his path. He jerked on the steering wheel, praying no vehicle approached. He missed the truck by a couple of feet. As he fought to keep from spinning out of control, he spied a woman on the pavement beside the stalled vehicle.

I didn’t hit her, did I? I would have felt it.

As he drove into the spin, he braked slowly. His truck came to a stop, facing the disabled one. His heartbeat thundered against his skull. He drew in a calm breath and angled toward the shoulder of the road where he parked several yards in front of the white pickup.

Had someone else hit her? Was she all right?

Remembering the flashing red taillights, he climbed from his cab and rushed toward the woman beside the truck. Cold September rain battered him. He was used to harsh conditions, especially on his ranch in the winter, but he still shivered in his wet jeans and shirt. At least water hadn’t gotten into his boots yet.

When he neared the driver’s side, the lady, only a few inches shorter than his six feet two inches, was on her feet and trying to push her vehicle. “Here let me help you while you steer. My truck is about ten feet in front of yours.”

She faced him, and the bluest eyes stared at him—full of intensity. A couple of seconds later, recognition dawned in her gaze, and a half grin tugged at her mouth. “Thanks. Betsy is being stubborn.”

“Betsy?”

“My name for my pickup. She’s been with me a long time.”

The woman quickly hopped into the cab while he made his way to the rear. He planted his boots in the muddy dirt of the shoulder and heaved until slowly “Betsy” rolled a few inches. He continued to push, hoping the forward momentum wouldn’t stop. Since they were at the bottom of an incline, Michael didn’t stop until the truck was totally off the road and the lady braked.

He opened the passenger’s door and hopped inside, water dripping off the brim of his cowboy hat. “What happened with your truck?”

From the seat behind her, she handed him a tan towel that matched the one she already had. “I don’t know. I have gas, but it just stopped running with little warning. It’s been a little sluggish lately, but that’s all. I tried several times to start it. Then I got out to push it off the road.” She tossed her hat into the back and towel dried her long, wet auburn hair. “I tried my cell phone. I don’t have service.”

“Me neither. We’re still about fifteen miles from Red Fork. I can give you a ride to town. I know a mechanic who lives there.” From his days of driving from town to town on the rodeo circuit in a beat-up truck, he’d gotten acquainted with a few mechanics who lived in the towns on this circuit. He couldn’t afford a decent vehicle until he’d won a couple of competitions.

“Can he tow it to town?”

“Yep. By the way, I’m Michael Knight. I don’t live in Red Fork. I’m part of the rodeo.”

“You are? I recognized who you were, but I didn’t realize you were resuming your career as a bull rider. I’m Bella Rosenthal.”

“Are you a rodeo fan?”

Her chuckle held a bit of tension. “You could say that.”

Michael stiffened. While in competition, he’d dealt with women who followed the rodeo circuit. A few of them bragged about the number of bull riders they’d slept with. He’d always stayed clear of them. Even if she was part of that group, he wouldn’t leave her out here alone. Night would be falling in a couple of hours. He glanced out the windshield. From the looks of the brightening sky, the storm was moving out. But even with that fact, she wouldn’t be able to walk to town before dark.

He dried his hair and upper torso with the towel. “I know we’re already soaked, but if we wait fifteen or twenty minutes, I think the rain will let up. Unless you’re in a hurry, we can wait it out here and dry off some.”

“I need to be there when the bull riders draw their mounts.”

Was she a lucky charm for one of the competitors? He assessed her closer, noting her wet shirt clinging to muscular biceps. “You’re a bull rider?” When he had been on the rodeo circuit, there had been several female riders, but they were fighting an uphill battle. Some of the men didn’t want them in the same rodeo. If women wanted to ride bulls, they could in their own circuit or, better yet, compete in a less dangerous event like barrel racing.

Her blue gaze zeroed in on his face, her jaw set in a tense line. “Yes. I’ve been riding two years now.” The words, “Do you have a problem with that?” lay beneath the cold tone.

He’d seen it before. He didn’t have a complaint about it if she could compete on equal terms. “When I retired, there were a few on the circuit.” He’d been a couple of months shy of thirty-one and had planned to retire in another year, but after Amber died, his heart hadn’t been in it. She’d stood by him, but when she’d needed him, he hadn’t been there. He would have to live with that guilt. He couldn’t ask her forgiveness. “It’s your decision. We can wait the storm out or make a mad dash for my truck. Your call.”

Her knuckles whitened as she gripped her steering wheel. “No, we’ll stay. I don’t know about you, but wearing soaking wet clothes, especially jeans, isn’t on my Top Ten Favorite Things to Do list. It’s not like I can control which bull I get.”

“You have a Top Ten list?”

When she laughed this time, there was nothing forced about it. “Not really, but if I did, riding bulls would be on it. When you were on the circuit, is that how you felt?” She patted her torso with the towel.

“Yes, but it’s not anywhere near the top anymore.”

“Really? So you aren’t here for the rodeo this weekend?”

“Yes, I am. I’m replacing Cody McNeil as a bullfighter.”

“I didn’t know Cody wouldn’t be there.”

Jesse had worked things out with Cody so Michael wouldn’t draw any suspicions coming into the rodeo. Michael agreed to finish the Montana circuit for WRC and see if he could discover anything about the person harming the stock animals. A man had been caught, but he’d told the authorities there was much more going on than just him. “Cody has a family emergency, and since I live nearby, my brother asked me to help out.” Jesse and Carly were keeping the sabotage quiet and hoped that Michael could go undercover to help them find the culprit behind it.

“Jesse?”

“Yes, do you know him?”

“Who doesn’t? I hated to see him retire. He’s always been fair and friendly.”

“And others haven’t?”

She frowned. “I suspect the reason I’m sitting here is because someone with the rodeo tampered with my pickup.”

Michael wasn’t really surprised by her statement, but maybe what was happening to her was connected to the poisoning of the animals. Someone wanted to hurt the WRC and especially the stock contractors. Was the person going after individual participants now? “Who do you suspect?”

“I’m not sure, but three men are very vocal about me competing with them. Most on the circuit is supportive and helpful. But it only takes one to tamper with my equipment or pickup.”

“Who?” he asked again, hoping she wouldn’t avoid naming them. There could be a connection that he could check out.

She straightened, her back stiff. “It’s my problem. They aren’t going to stop me.”

Michael decided to talk with Jesse and see what he knew about the situation. Bull riders were tough, strong, and determined. They had to be to make it on the circuit. “What made you become a bull rider?”

She stared out the windshield, her stiff posture shouting stress. “Rather than barrel racing or some such event more suited to a woman?”

“Did I say that?”

She blew out a long breath while a car passed her vehicle heading for Red Fork. “No, but after today, I’m a little defensive.” Turning toward him, she caught his attention, the blue in her eyes dark. “I appreciate you stopping and helping me. I didn’t want an accident to occur, but it’s hard to roll a two ton pickup off to the side with one person.”

“I agree. I’ve been there. It’s so much better with someone steering and braking.”

After a Ford 150 flew by hers, she gestured out the front of the windshield. “The rain is stopping.”

“Good. My brother is expecting me, and I want to make sure my friend can come and tow your truck tonight. When we have cell reception, I’ll give him a call.”

“That sounds great. My equipment is locked up, so it should be all right until he can get here.” She stretched over the front seat and grabbed a black duffel. “I’m ready.”

“Let’s go.” He thrust open the passenger door and hopped to the muddy ground, a couple of drops of water falling from the tree limbs above.

As they headed toward his vehicle, he was tempted to ask if he could carry her large bag, but he had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate the offer. He’d seen that look of determination before with people associated with the rodeo—not just bull riders, who definitely had to want it badly to make it.

While they approached his truck, he unlocked it. “You can set your bag on the backseat.” He circled the rear and climbed behind the steering wheel.

He realized as he started the engine that she never answered his question about why she became a bull rider. In his gut, he suspected she’d avoided it on purpose. Rosenthal. Something nagged him about her last name. When he pulled onto the highway, he remembered a Tim Rosenthal being accused of soaking his ropes, trying to tire out his bulls before the chute opened. Could the tampering of Bella’s equipment and truck have anything to do with Tim Rosenthal’s tainted reputation?


***


Bella entered Mom’s Café near the rodeo grounds, hours away from the first night of competition. Seeking Michael Knight, she scanned the customers crowding the large room. She’d been surprised to get a message from him at her motel asking her to join him for lunch. He’d left his number, and when she’d call him back, he’d suggested the café.

When they parted yesterday evening, she’d thought that would be the last time she’d see him except at the rodeo. Some of the people in the business were leery of her because of the allegations against her father, which had driven him to retire early fifteen years ago.

She spied Michael in a booth at the back of the restaurant. Several men had their cowboy hats on, but he’d removed his, giving her a glimpse of his dark brown hair—almost black—that curled on his neck. His chocolate-colored gaze searched the patrons and found hers. Small laugh lines at the sides of his eyes drew her attention first to them then to his mouth, set in a welcoming smile. Its sight sent her heartbeat galloping like barrel racers charging down the arena.

She waved then threaded her way through the throng at the café. Memories of the day before riding in his truck to Red Fork and being introduced to Bud Frasier, a mechanic extraordinaire, flitted through her thoughts. Michael had gone out of his way to help her yesterday. She hadn’t relished walking to town as night fell, especially after her pickup broke down, possibly from someone’s malicious intent.

Bella slipped into the booth across from Michael. “Sorry, I’m late. Good thing this café is near my motel and the rodeo grounds. I might have to do a lot of walking until Betsy is fixed. I haven’t heard from your friend yet.”

“He called me. I told him I would talk to you.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” She was on a limited budget and prayed she didn’t have to spend a lot of money to get her pickup fixed. “How bad?”

“Someone put sugar into your tank. Evidently, someone isn’t happy with you.”


PURCHASE THE KNIGHT AND THE DAMSEL
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