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Toro (The Hell Yeah Series) by Sable Hunter, Ryan O'Leary (1)

CHAPTER
ONE

 

 

 

“Hold her! Hold her!” Bull Redford exclaimed, as he and two other cowboys rushed to prevent a disgruntled cow from tearing through a barb wire fence. Joseph McCoy stood a few feet away, ready to help if the need arose.

“I guess she’s not in the mood for love, Boss.” Dax Casey clung to the harness of the big Beefmaster, calming her with a muttered promise of sweet feed nuggets if she’d just settle down and cooperate with the program.  

“Women are going to be the death of me, McCoy.” Bull stared over the metal railing as the heifer finally allowed a big Brahman bull to mount her and plant his seed.

“You just haven’t met the right woman, Redford. Don’t judge them all by your ex.” Joseph checked the time on his pocket watch. “Aron felt the same way you do after he escaped Sabrina’s clutches. Look at him now, he’s head over spurs for Libby.”

“Nope, I’m serious, Joseph. I’m washing my hands of the whole fairer sex. I swear to God, if I even look like I’m heading to the altar again, knock me in the head with a cross-tie.”

“Don’t give me that, Redford, you’ve always been the bull of the woods. Before Carol, the buckle bunnies on the rodeo circuit couldn’t get enough of you.”

“Things have changed.” Bull kept his eyes on the prize stud. The sight of the raw, primal act was mesmerizing. “I’m not the man I used to be.” He wouldn’t ever tell Joseph, but Carol’s demeaning insults had essentially emasculated him, he hadn’t been able to get it up since the day she told him how she felt about him as a man. You’re a piss poor lover, Bull. You have all the right equipment, but you don’t know how to use it. I never get off with you. I’d rather have sex with my vibrator any day.  

“Don’t give me that crap. The records you set as a bull rider will probably never be broken.” Joseph propped a booted foot on the bottom plank of the fence. “You know, Tebow went all out to convert our breeding program to artificial insemination, but I’m beginning to think we made a mistake.”

“How’s that? I thought AI was the wave of the future in cattle breeding. Although, I’m sure there isn’t a bull in the world who’d vote for it.”

“Yea, sorta takes the fun out of life for them, doesn’t it?” Joseph laughed. “No, AI is so labor intensive. Natural servicing puts all the work on the bull.”

“Yea, and I don’t hear that one complaining any.” Bull hated to be jealous of an animal, but he sure as hell hadn’t had any fun between the sheets in a month of Sundays.

When the business of procreation was over, the cow moved forward and the bull landed heavily on his front feet, a cloud of dust rising with the impact of his hooves. “This is one fine animal, Redford. Who does he belong to?”

“A rancher named Esteban. I paid a hefty stud fee for the use of this monster. I’d give my left nut for a few more head from this bloodline.”

“Esteban?” Joseph mused. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him.”

“He moved here from Mexico to marry Doff Briscoe’s young widow. Old man Briscoe owned some prize-winning stock and Esteban just added to his breeding program by buying one of the all-time great rodeo bulls, Desperado. I hear he’s invested in some race horses too; the man has his fingers in some sweet pies.”

 When Dax began to unfasten the heifer’s lead rope from where she’d been tied to the fence, Bull excused himself to Joseph. “Let me take care of something, I’ll just be a minute.” Opening the gate, he approached his foreman and the cowboy who’d accompanied the stud bull from Esteban’s ranch. “The check for the stud service is on my kitchen table, Dax. I left it up there when I fixed a bologna sandwich at lunch. If you’ll get it and give it to Armando, here, I’d appreciate it.”

“Will do, Boss.”

Turning to Armando, he offered his hand. “Tell Esteban I said thank you, and let him know I’m still interested in testing out Hurricane’s bucking skills. I sure would like to add that bull to my line-up.”

“Will do, Mr. Redford.” Armando shook his hand, then left to bring his rig from the parking lot. 

Dax tipped his hat toward Joseph. “Good to see you, Mr. McCoy.”

Joseph returned the cowboy’s greeting as they all began moving out of the paddock. “I saw your new truck out front. Nice ride.”

Dax beamed. “I’m proud of it, I always wanted a green Ford pickup and now I’ve got one.” As he herded the bawling heifer into her pen, he threw a few bats of hay over the fence and a few nuggets, as promised. “Next time, ask Esteban if we could use Desperado as a seed bull, Boss.”

Bull shook his head. “I can’t afford Desperado. Esteban gets ten thousand a straw for that bull’s semen.”

“Damn.” Dax snorted. “I can’t even give my jizz away. Women don’t want me. Hell, I once had a fuckin’ sperm bank turn me down.”

Bull scoffed, he could relate to Dax’s problem. “Well, you aren’t as valuable as Desperado. He’s a three times World Championship Bull, never been rode.”

“He’s going to kill somebody one of these days. That damn crazy animal put half a dozen cowboys in the hospital. Every time he barreled out of a chute, he had murder on his mind.”

“Yea, but he’s worth his weight in gold as a breeder, he was a damn fine rodeo performer. He put me on my ass three times over the years.”

As Dax left to fetch the check for Esteban’s stud fee, Joseph and Bull started back toward Bull’s office.

“Did Esteban breed that Bremer?” Joseph asked, pronouncing Brahman the way most Texas cowboys did.

“No, he bought it from a ranch down in Mexico. Terra Dura. A man by the name of Don Luis Cortez raises some of the finest cattle in the western hemisphere. I’ve contacted him and we’ve exchanged a few emails. He doesn’t do business with just anyone, so I don’t know what kind of luck I’ll have.”

“Terra Dura. Terra Dura. God, I know that name. We’ve had dealings with them at some time or the other.” Joseph wracked his brain. “Oh, well, it will come to me sometime. Why wouldn’t he do business with you? As far as stock contractors go, you’ve got the best reputation in Texas.”

“I don’t know about that, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m hoping he’ll see me someday soon.” Bull opened the last gate, allowing Joseph to go through ahead of him. The spring weather was still nippy and damp, every step on his right ankle was a painful reminder of the break that had ended his rodeo career. Damn, he wasn’t old enough to suffer from arthritis. “How’s ole Beau LeBlanc?”

“He’s mean as ever,” Joseph said, then chuckled. “No, he’s good. He and Harley have a new baby, plus Beau’s started a new venture, he bought a Harley-Davidson franchise in Baton Rouge.”

Bull chuckled. “I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life. Isn’t that crazy? I don’t think I could balance the damn thing.”

“Well, if you remember my wreck on the dirt bike and the months I spent in a wheelchair, you might not consider it so crazy,” Joseph said in all sincerity.

“True, after surviving the PBR, I guess I ought to be satisfied to ease along at a slower pace. So, what do you and Beau need for this year’s Rascal Rodeo?” Bull asked, guiding Joseph into his office, located at the back of the barn.

“Just the usual. We’ll have the regular rodeo to raise money for the foundation and I’d like some gentle stock for the kids to ride.”

Bull took out his phone, checked his calendar, and typed in a note for later. “I have another rodeo that weekend, but for these little kids, I’ll make it happen. I think it’s great what you and Beau do, throwing this special event for children who suffer with paralysis.”

“You’re not waving your fee this year, so don’t even start.”

Bull ignored Joseph’s edict. “No worries. Like I told Jacob and Lance at that Texas Holdem game, I’ll throw these kids the best rodeo ever.”

“I know you will.” Joseph clapped Bull on the back. “While I’m out this way, I’m going to stop over at Canyon’s place. There’s something he wants to show me. I don’t know what it could be. He’s worked at Tebow for almost a year now and we still don’t know him that well.”

“Canyon’s good people.” Bull didn’t comment further. He knew some of what his neighbor had gone through, but it wasn’t his place to talk about it. “All right, I’ll make the arrangements and send you a copy of the plan.”

Once Joseph left, Bull methodically finished verifying a few dates on the computer. There were five rodeos he would be sending stock to in the next couple of months. Business was booming, he had that to be thankful for. Pushing away from the desk, his rolling chair groaned in protest at his weight. “Oh, shut up,” he admonished the piece of furniture. “I’m not fat.”

Bull stood, kicking the offending chair underneath the desk. By now, everyone would’ve gone home and he was alone again. Locking the door, he took off up the hill toward his cabin, where he’d spend another night in solitude. Since Carol left him, taking little Luke with her, he’d grown to hate the evenings. Not that he missed his ex-wife, their marriage had been over quite a while. But he sure as hell missed that little boy.

As he moved through the gathering gloom, Bull listened to the noises made by the animals as they settled down for the night. Their distant lowing and soft bellows were almost drowned out by the drone of crickets in the nearby woods and the chorus of frogs down by the river. Whoever thought the country was peaceful and quiet at night had never really listened.

Mounting the steps to his porch, Bull heard the distant ring of a hammer on iron. Canyon was still working, no surprise there. His best friend was in the same boat he was, they were both alone. Two bachelors. Both divorced. He knew Canyon dated, nothing serious, but at least he had a woman in his bed occasionally.   

When he opened the screen door, it squeaked loudly. If he ever he got around to it, the old hinges could use some oil. Once inside the door, he flipped on the overhead light, illuminating the interior. Despite having lived here all his life, the old house didn’t feel like home and it hadn’t since his parents passed. Carol had never been happy here or content with Bull’s lot in life. He’d won a championship belt and some good-size purses, but no matter what he provided, his wife was never satisfied.

Especially with their sex life.

While he was riding the circuit, she’d been riding his foreman. There was no conjecture on his part, he’d caught them red-handed and the look on her face would stay with him until the end of his days. Rapture. He’d had to beg for a little affection, his wife had been stingy with her body, allowing him only quick fucks every blue moon. But with this other man, she’d wanted it – she’d wanted him. Not Bull. Somebody else.

Even though he’d been shocked, discovering her infidelity came as no huge surprise. Bull had been suspicious, picking up on tell-tale signs – whispered phone calls, heated glances, and both Carol and Matt Lawton disappearing at the same time, once even coming out of the barn together after he’d bellowed his head off calling for them. Writing off the incidents as coincidence was difficult, but Bull didn’t want to believe what was right in front of his face. When his wife informed Bull that she was pregnant, total joy wiped out the wariness. Thoughts of a baby to love and welcome to the family banished the hunches plaguing his sleepless nights. But when he’d come home early and found her playing cowgirl on top of the naked cowpoke, Bull went ballistic. Matt Lawton was long-gone in a matter of hours – he’d seen to that, beating the shit out of the little prick.

At first his wife had cried, asking for forgiveness and begging to stay. Bull had wanted the baby to be his so much, he agreed. He even refused to insist on a paternity test. If Carol had given their marriage half a chance, he would’ve maintained the status quo, transferring all his affection to the child he loved before it was even born. But she hadn’t, she’d waited long enough for the baby to wrap his little fingers around Bull’s heart, then she’d reconciled with his ex-employee, declaring Lawton to be the father.

Left with nothing but an empty house and emptier dreams, he’d sued for joint custody. The court battle had gotten nasty and the neglected test for paternity was carried out with heartbreaking results. Bull wasn’t the father. Yet he insisted he had rights, his name was listed on the birth certificate. Unfortunately, that had made little difference.

Some people would call Bull a fool, but he was still sending his ex and her baby money, refusing to let the child do without anything he needed.

Oh well, at least this fool could sleep at night without a guilty conscience.

What he couldn’t do was get hard.

His wife’s constant vitriol had robbed him of his manhood. He could still hear her harsh, ridiculing voice ringing in his ears. You’re a lousy lover. You might be hung like a bull, but you’re clumsy as one too. I never had an orgasm with you inside me, not once. In fact, I faked most of them. Even when you went down on me, I couldn’t cum. All you ever gave me was a lick and a promise. How do you mess up oral sex?

Well, Bull wouldn’t know. She’d never gone down on him. He cursed the years he’d been faithful to that bitch, turning away the droves of women who offered him sex on the circuit. And now that he was free, he was impotent. Just his fuckin’ luck, robbed of his ability to make love by the one woman who should’ve loved him unconditionally.

Oh, yea, he knew it was all just in his head. There wasn’t anything physically wrong with him. But he didn’t know how to get her words and the look on her face out of his brain. The one time he’d tried, picking up a girl in a bar in Dallas – well, suffice it to say…he’d never put himself in that position again. She’d made fun of him. Now, he could add her laughter to Carol’s insults and the result was that he slept alone, dreaming of a woman who’d welcome his touch, who’d want him as much as he craved her, but far too cowardly to go out and find one.

After fixing himself another bologna sandwich, he settled down on the couch and turned on the TV. The noise of old reruns comforted him. After he swallowed the sandwich and three Oreo cookies, Bull checked his email, happy to see a message from Terra Dura Ranch. With any luck, he’d be heading to Mexico in a few weeks to check out some cattle.

Might as well call it a vacation, he hadn’t had one in years.

 

 

“Tug, la amiga, I’m having a problem stuffing all my girly parts into this outfit.” Isabella Cortez held up her arms while her best friend, Renata Espinoza, closed the zipper.

“Anything good is worth the struggle,” Renata stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. “Que bonita! You look amazing.”

Isabella stared in the mirror, noticing her faithful dachshund, Lola, watching with interest. “I guess I look okay. What do you say, Lola?” The small dog threw its head in the air, crowing her approval. “Maybe it will be okay,” Isabella agreed. The scarlet red dress sported a halter top, a high-low hem, and a thousand tiny ruffles from the waistline to the floor. “Do you think the neckline is too low?”

“No, I’d kill for your cleavage.” Renata picked up a shawl and tossed it over her own shoulder. “You certainly don’t need this. If I was shaped like you, Bella, I’d prance around naked all the time.”

“I’m afraid this dress makes promises I won’t deliver.” Isabella grabbed the red fringed scarf from her friend. “I need the scarf for the dance. If I distract them with my feminine assets, maybe they’ll be too wound up to notice when I slip off to free the bulls.”

Renata giggled. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. What if you’re caught?”

“I’m not afraid, tequila will be flowing like a river, most everyone will be drunk. Plus, I can run quickly.”

“Yes, you’re used to dodging the sharp horns of a bull, surely you can evade a few inebriated vaqueros.” Handing Isabella a pair of gold chandelier earrings, Renata made a pouty face. “I just wish I could go with you.”

“No worries, I’m on a mission, not really there to party.” She fastened the earrings, studying her face in the mirror. “Do you think I need more eyeliner?”

“No, you’re perfect.” Renata arranged Isabella’s ebony locks over her shoulder. “What about your warden? How are you slipping away from Don Luis tonight?”

“I’m in luck, my uncle is in Mexico City for a horse race. You know how he loves to gamble.”

“Yea, with your money.” Renata’s tone was totally disapproving.

“Small cost to get him out of my hair.” Isabella stepped back, gazing at the complete picture of herself in the full-length mirror. “I suppose he does his best. I’m a handful. At least with him, I didn’t have to go to an orphanage…after…”

Renata hugged her friend hard. “Don’t think about it, you’re honoring your parents in the greatest way anyone could imagine. You’re carrying the torch for them – righting wrongs and rewriting the way things are done. You’re my hero.”

Isabella giggled. “Heroine.”

“Whatever.” Renata let go and wiped mist from her eyes. “I love you. Now go, get outta here or you’ll miss the fiesta.”

“Okay, and never forget, Renata, I love you too.” She gave her girlfriend a wink, before affixing a mask to hide her identity. She had enough problems with her uncle and his constant refusal to let her control her own legacy without adding fuel to the fire. His constant efforts to paint her as immature and incapable were frustrating. If she landed in jail or got outed as La Diosa, she would just be playing into his hands.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Renata said, as she and Lola followed Isabella down the grand staircase and into the marble foyer. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a man.”

Isabella waved her hand, offering a muffled scoff. “There is no one in Aguascalientes who interests me. They’re all boys.” She let a secret smile play on her face. “I want a man. A real man.” Not like the fumbling, clumsiness of Juan Philippe who’d taken her virginity and left her unsatisfied. “I refuse to settle for less.”

“Like I said, you’re my hero.” Renata sighed, grabbing her purse as they passed the ornate hall tree near the front door.

“I’ll be home later, you be sweet.” Isabella patted her dog goodbye. “Watch after things for me.”

“Call and let me know how it goes and be sure to avoid the stampede. I don’t want to read in the newspaper tomorrow that you’ve been trampled.”

“I know what I’m doing, Renata, I’ve planned this for weeks.” Isabella reassured her friend as she closed the massive front door behind them. “Be careful going home.” She watched her friend leave, then turned to her manservant to accept the keys to the white Porsche sitting in the circular drive. He held the door open and she climbed behind the wheel. Pressing the start button, the engine roared to life, making her blood race. “Gracias, Pedro!” Isabella waved to the older man with a smile as she stepped on the gas.

As the fast car ate up the miles, she smiled. Isabella loved the rush life could offer and she intended to squeeze every bit she could out of every single day.

…A few miles down the road, Bull Redford shut the lid on his laptop. His meeting with the rancher had been delayed. Don Luis sent his apologies, explaining how he would be returning in a couple of days. “Well, hell.” Standing, he strode to the window to gaze out over the city of Aguascalientes. “I guess I’ll just have to entertain myself.”

The hotel was nice and he’d selected it for one main reason, it catered to Americans. They promised in their advertisement to have someone on hand who spoke English. Bull intended to utilize the perk to the fullest. Leaving his room, he went down to the lobby, hoping to see a bar he might’ve missed earlier. No such luck. In fact, the place was nearly empty, nobody about but the pallid faced desk clerk and an elderly bellhop. The only noise was the steady tinkle of a fountain gracing the center of an indoor courtyard, complete with banana plants and a strutting peacock. Heading up to the check-in counter, he tapped on the little bell to get the clerk’s attention.

“Si? May I help you, Sir?” was the immediate response.

Bull wondered how the man assumed he was English speaking. Did he look like an American? Of course, he did. “Where can I get a drink around here? Any good places to eat?”

“Not tonight, Senor. The whole town is shut down for the festival. The Embalse de Toros.”

“A festival? Seriously?” Bull could picture carnival rides and cotton candy booths. Not exactly his style.

The desk clerk winked at him. “Dancing. Drinking. Good food. Many beautiful senoritas.”

“Now we’re talking.” Bull grinned. “Which way to this festival?” 

The clerk gave him directions and Bull took off, deciding to walk instead of calling a cab. He’d heard about the craziness of Mexican cab drivers. His pathway took him down narrow cobblestone streets, flanked by tiny shops on either side, all filled with homemade wares. He imagined on a normal day, the area would be teaming with locals, vendors hawking their goods, the smell of exotic food filling the air. In the distance, he could hear music – a driving Latin beat. The farther he walked, the louder the music became.

Bull’s eyes widened, taking in the sights. Even though night was falling, everything seemed brighter here, the colors more intense. The trees and every conceivable surface were highlighted with tiny white lights. People were milling about and their voices mingled. Knowing very little Spanish, he could only make out a familiar word or two. A small cantina beckoned him and Bull sidled up to the bar, asking for a shot of tequila. 

After being served, he moved closer to the counter, taking a sip of the drink. “Smooth, gracias.” He toasted the bartender, before turning his attention to a mirror hanging on the back wall, which gave him a good view of the crowded lane behind him. There was no vehicle traffic, the whole area was blocked off for pedestrians. A steady stream of people wearing costumes flowed behind him. Most everything reminded him of Mardi Gras, except with a distinctly Spanish flair.

“Otro?” the bartender said in a questioning tone.

“I’m sorry,” Bull enunciated extra slowly. “I only speak English.”

“Ah. Another?” The bartender held up a plastic shot glass.

“Yea, hit me again.” Bull pounded the table with a smile. “What else is going on? Any strippers?”

The man smiled, showing off a gold front tooth, filling his drink order. “Not at the festival, senor, but there are flamenco dancers. Later, there will be the running of the bulls.” He gestured to the side, where an older woman wearing a peasant blouse and a colorful skirt was flipping tortillas over a small grill. “Could I interest you in some enchiladas or tamales?”

“Maybe, later.” Bull glanced down the street. “Where did you say those dancers were?”

Following the bartender’s directions, he ventured down the street with his drink in hand. Spying the described patio lit by lanterns and decorated with lacy wrought iron, he headed for it. The music was good, he supposed, but Mexican music just wasn’t his favorite. It didn’t speak to him like country and western music did. Truthfully, his mind really didn’t get lost in the complexities of any kind of music, it was just something to listen to while he drank and compared the normally sad lyrics to his own messed-up life. As he drew closer, he could see three caballeros strumming flamenco guitars, all seated in a roped off area. Surrounding the men were impossibly beautiful women; all of them with great bodies, glowing olive skin, wavy ebony hair and eye-popping, bright dresses that hugged them in all the right places.

Bull found a seat at a small café table and took another sip of tequila. The familiar warmth of the alcohol trickled down his throat, into his belly, and radiated out into the rest of his body. Bending his head, he bowed his back, stretching his muscles. He could tangibly feel his stiff shoulders and neck begin to relax. When he looked up, he almost dropped the glass.

“Ole! Ole!” The musicians shouted as another woman came on the scene and nothing – nothing could have prepared him for what he beheld.

A vision of feminine perfection stood before him, her sensual curvy body molded lovingly in the same bright red as a matador’s cape and all Bull wanted to do was charge and claim. “Holy fuck,” he whispered, mesmerized. What he could see of her face was beautiful, the rest was hidden by a delicate lace mask. But her long flowing hair and the way she moved – God, the way she moved was sin itself – wonderful, captivating sin.

She put her hands in the air, drawn in little flowers of pursed fingers. As she threw her head back in a haughty little gesture, her expression changed completely. Bull could imagine a fire had ignited in her core and the flames licked upward into her arms and eyes. Her skin seemed to glow with sensual heat.

Bull put his drink down on the table, he couldn’t be trusted to hold it aright.

“Ole!” The men exclaimed again as their guitars burst into life. The girl snapped her fingers with the rhythm and started to dance. Her feet tapped with a staccato beat, even as her body flowed into a graceful S. The dress began to sway around her feet and the weight of its shifting pulled back and forth sensuously in a seductive whisper across her hips. With arms lifted high, she thrust her breasts out just for him, her body swaying, those small feet stomping in the same rhythm as his pulse. This woman was a fuckin’ wet dream, his every fantasy come to life. To Bull’s ever-loving surprise, he felt his cock grow large, becoming harder by the second. Throbbing. Pulsing. “Oh, thank God,” he groaned.

He wasn’t dead, he was still a man.

Staring at the woman before him, Bull couldn’t have looked away if his life depended on it. As he leaned forward, she leaned back. The erotic vision looked up, he could tell her mind was in the music, not on what she was seeing. Her eyes were free to burn with the flames that crackled into life when the dance began. From where he sat, he could gaze right into those compelling orbs. He didn’t have a choice. She captivated him. Hypnotized him.

The fire in his soul grew hotter as the rhythm of her feet dropped from quarter beats to eighth beats and beyond. She curled her lips slightly upward in a sexy snarl, unable to hide her passion for the dancing and the music. Her arms swirled around her, directing his eyes here and there, to her face, to her feet, to her hips. Occasionally she would straighten and her fingers would point to the heavens, other times she would fall, her spine almost parallel to the ground, before rising, her eyes still staring into infinity.

“Look at me, baby,” he whispered, because he certainly couldn’t stop eating her up with his eyes.

Suddenly the guitar stopped, but the rhythm continued with the clapping and snapping of the guitarists and the surrounding spectators. The attention that fell on her rose like a tide, and nobody in the crowd moved, except for his dancer and the hearts beating thunderously for her.

Bull bit his lip, almost bringing blood.

On stage, Isabella was totally immersed in the passion of the dance. The flamenco was an integral part of her. She could lose herself in the energy, become one with the arousing notes and the powerful chords. As she turned, she took one last glance at the crowd. Usually, she took very little notice of those who watched, some throwing money at her feet. But tonight, as her gaze skated over the audience, her eyes got hung up on one very large, very handsome cowboy.

“Ah, mi dios!” Unusual for her, Isabella missed a step. If she hadn’t been sure-footed, she would’ve fallen on her face. Thankfully, she caught herself, hopefully making the misstep appear to be intentional. “Ay-yi-yi,” Isabella whispered, reacting to the sight of her fantasy man come to life. This big cowboy could’ve stepped right out of her dreams. “Ummmm,” she purred, dancing closer to the edge, hungry for a closer look. “Ay, Chihuahua.”

All her life, she’d been entranced by the American cowboy. She’d inhaled every television show and movie, crushing on the stars and memorizing the lines. The man-candy in the audience was a cross between movie stars Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and Chris Hemsworth – in other words, he was perfect. No linen suit for this man; he wore tight blue jeans, a long sleeve western shirt with snaps, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Broad in the shoulder and narrow in the hip, Isabella wanted to curl her arms around his neck and see if his kiss tasted as good as he looked.

The guitars started again and the musicians sang with gusto, all of them together a perfectly tuned machine. Now that she had someone in the audience she wanted to impress, Isabella stepped back and spun her heart out, the flame red dress swirling around her. When their eyes locked, she felt her spirit soar. He was watching her with the same intensity.

“Ole!” exclaimed the musicians, their hands snapping away from the strings.

“Ole!” Isabella shouted, posing like the statue of a swan, her arms arcing into the sky. Even as the music died down, her fire didn’t extinguish, it grew out of her and filled the room, manifesting itself in the electric applause of the crowd.

Bull sat back in his chair and took a deep breath for the first time, it felt like, in an hour. He eased his jaw in place after he realized his mouth was open. Picking up his tequila, he drained the contents of the shot glass.

God, he loved this music.

As the last note sounded, Isabella knew there was only so much time before the run would begin. As the next dance troupe came forward, she hastily exited out a side gate and took off on foot toward the temporary stock pens where the animals were being held. This was perfect timing, everyone was preoccupied in the revelry. If she didn’t have important business to attend to, Isabella would’ve approached her admirer and introduced herself. Alas, it was not to be. Knowing what was to come and the fate of the bulls at the end of the run, she couldn’t waste time mooning over a cowboy who’d probably already forgotten about her. An odd pang of loss made her heart hurt. Maybe once she was through, she could retrace her steps. But what if she was caught? So far, her antics as an animal rights advocate had stayed under the radar. Keeping La Diosa separate and apart from Isabella Cortez was necessary. If her uncle ever got wind of her activities, he’d lock her up and throw away the key.

Oh well, no time for second thoughts. She could hear the bellowing of the bulls as they sought to find a way out of their prison. They couldn’t know what was in store, but the noise and the occasional boom and flash of fireworks unnerved them. Keeping to the shadows, she made her way down one alley and across another street. She knew the bulls had been deprived of water. Just before they were let loose, they’d be given tubs of alcohol. The whole process was barbaric and strange. After ingesting the wine and tequila, the animals would be turned out and chased down the streets, encouraged to stampede through the narrow byways. Once they came to the river, they’d be driven across. Men armed with swords awaited them on the other side and the bulls would be slaughtered en masse. The idea sickened Isabella and she didn’t intend to let it happen tonight.

...After basking in the heat of the hot siren’s gaze, Bull Redford wasn’t about to let her out of his sight. She’d given him a hard-on when no other woman could. As soon as she left the stage, he followed. What was she doing? He started to call out to her, but he had no desire to frighten her. Bull only hoped she wasn’t off to meet a lover. Keeping an eye on her as she flitted through the night, only the light of the moon and an occasional lamp kept her figure in view. Damn, she was fast. Bull was having a hard time keeping up. He hadn’t had much reason to sprint in the last few years.

What the hell? His vixen in red ran right up to several pens full of big, black bulls. He remembered what the bartender had said about an impending bull run. Was it her job to begin the event? The path the animals were supposed to follow was clearly delineated by rope barriers with flags attached to keep the bulls from escaping down side streets. Just as he anticipated, the beautiful woman opened the gates and began urging the animals out. But instead of coaxing them toward their designated path, she began to herd them in the opposite direction, toward an open area bordered by woods. “Well, I’ll be,” he whispered. She was letting them go.

He rushed ahead to help her, not fully understanding what was going on, but willing to take her side, whatever the outcome. With his heart in his throat, he watched as the massive animals passed so close to her that he was afraid she’d be trampled or grazed by their sharp horns. The nearer he drew, the more entranced he became. She was fierce, standing her ground to keep the big bulls from turning in the most logical pathway.

A shout behind Bull alerted him that someone else was coming.

“¡Párala! ¡Párala! Ella está dejando que los toros escapen!”

“Stop her! Stop her! She is letting the bulls escape!”

Bull was glad at least one of the crowd spoke English or he would’ve just had to wonder what they were saying.

Rushing forward, he waved his arms, urging the last of the stomping, huffing, animals in the direction his beauty wanted them to go. “There!” Grabbing her hand, he pulled her to one side. “Come on, let’s get out of here before they catch us.”

Isabella’s head was swimming. She was panting from exertion and adrenaline. Freeing the bulls was amazing, but not nearly as exhilarating as the cowboy coming to her rescue and the feel of his large hand enveloping her own.

“This way!” She pointed down a narrow alleyway. Behind them, people were rushing in their direction, some carrying lanterns. The voices of their pursuers grew louder. “In here!” Pushing open a wrought iron gate, she hurried inside a small courtyard, guiding the cowboy in with her. As soon as she could, she shoved the gate shut, just about the same time as footsteps went thundering past.

Isabella flung herself into the shadows and turned her ankle on a rock. With a startled gasp, she fell against the broad, hard chest of her handsome champion.

To keep the beauty from falling, Bull grasped her, pulling her body against him and filling his arms with soft, sweet woman.

Isabella gasped. His broad, warm palm completely covered her breast.

In the glow of the moon, she looked down at the large hand cupped over the scarlet material of her bodice. Due to the cut of her dress, she wore no bra. The only barrier between his palm and her nipple was a very thin piece of scarlet silk. Isabella held her breath, waiting for him to free her – to push her aside. But he didn’t. His strong arm curved around her waist, clasping her body tightly to his.

“Who are you?” she asked softly, in perfect, yet stilted English.

“Shhhh, people are right outside the gate,” he whispered back, not moving, still holding her close.

Isabella closed her eyes, willing this provocative dream to continue. A stranger, the living manifestation of her desires, held her in his arms and she never wanted to move. No alarm sounded in her mind, she felt safer than ever before.

When the footsteps on the other side of the wall abated, his hand seemed to move reluctantly – but not before it skimmed over her nipple, leaving a hard, aching peak in its wake.

Isabella moaned, wishing the sensation could continue. To her relief, he didn’t turn her loose, he simply began caressing her bare arms from her shoulders to her wrists and back. Her knees became weak and she sank back more firmly against him.

“What possessed you to do that?” Bull couldn’t help but ask. He wanted to know more about her, but this information seemed paramount. “You could’ve been killed.”

Her skin felt alive where he touched her, a hot tingling pervaded her body – traveling from her arms to her nipples, down her spine, and even to the tips of her toes. “I had to, they were to be killed. Fed alcohol, then chased down the streets, across the river to be slaughtered.”

“Why?” Bull asked, wanting to know the answer, yet needing to know her far more.

“An ancient, stupid, barbaric custom.” Isabella bit back a moan as his fingers caressed her neck. Her breasts ached and the evidence of her arousal was pooling between her thighs.

Another shout out in the street caused Isabella to jump, a small cry erupting from her lips.

“Shhh, they’ll hear.” Bull spoke near to the soft velvet of her cheek. “What’s your name, beautiful?”

Isabella quaked. Should she tell him. “Who are you?” she countered his question.

“Bull Redford.”

She couldn’t help but be amused. “That’s not your name.”

Hearing the smile in her voice, he smiled back. “Well, that’s what my friends call me. My given name is Benedict, Benedict Carson Redford.”

“I shall call you Benedict – I like that.”

And he liked the sound of his name on her tongue.

Wham!

A sudden beating on the gate caused Bull to pull her farther into the shadows.

“I’ve got to leave before someone comes. People live in the cottage behind us,” Isabella whispered. “I can’t be caught.”

“Is there another way out of here?”

“Over the wall.” She pointed to the back, adjacent to the entrance of the quaint cottage. “There’s an alley at the rear.”

Seeing the height was manageable, he pulled her along. “Come, I’ll help you.”

Isabella went with him, her heart racing a mile a minute. “Thank you, Benedict.”

Hearing more footsteps, more voices, he couldn’t delay. Releasing the woman who’d captivated him like no other, he placed his hands on the top of the wall and pulled himself up. “Goddamn Oreos,” he mumbled. Once he was in place, he straddled the six-inch capstone and offered to lift her. “Come here. I’ll pick you up.” She pulled off her shoes and gave them to him. He set them on the wall, then accepted her outstretched hands, lifting her as much as guiding. As soon as she was a few inches off the ground, he reached out to clasp her waist and soon she was on top of the wall with him. He jumped off on the other side, then held up his arms for her to follow.

Isabella gave herself to him, entrusting herself to his care until he could swing her down and to the ground. “Thank you.” Seeing the flash of lanterns and hearing more voices, she looked up into his face. “I have to go.”

“Wait! What’s your name? When can I see you again?” Bull felt control of the situation slipping from his fingers.  

Isabella touched his face, leaning up to place her lips against his in a very quick, very chaste kiss. “No time.” Seeing his face, his adamant frown, she kissed him again quickly. “Come to the bullfights tomorrow night. I’ll look for you.”

And then she was gone.

“Your shoes!” he called, but before he could take off after her, Bull was attacked.