Heather sat at attention in the bleacher section, leaning forward slightly, watching the rodeo in the small arena below with fascination. Local cowboys had gathered at Hart Ranch to put on the exhibition. They were mostly practicing, but it gave everyone from other ranches a chance to meet and have a summer party.
She had come to Louisiana with her parents to visit her grandfather—her father’s father—since they had never met before. And so far, ranch life seemed as romantic as she imagined it would be. Heather had a whole satchelful of romance books featuring the Old West, dangerous cowboys, and gunslingers with hearts of gold.
“This is fun, huh, Heather?” her mother said from beside her.
“Yep.” She didn’t even take her eyes away from the competition as she answered.
“I can’t wait to try the beef that’s been roasting over the spit,” her mother continued. “Your grandfather marinated it in whiskey and peppercorns. Imagine!”
Heather made a face. Her father, uncle, and grandfather were busy grilling steaks and hamburgers for the afternoon picnic. In fact, the only drawback to ranch life, she discovered, was that meat was a staple at mealtimes. She abhorred the fact that breakfast always, always consisted of eggs and bacon. She hated meat. She planned to become a vegetarian as soon as she returned home.
Luckily her mother didn’t continue her musings on the food so Heather returned her focus to the events. When the last cowboy got bucked off his horse, she stood up quickly and trotted down the bleacher steps. She wanted to see the animals up close. But as she skipped down the metal steps, her elbow hit a broom. She turned to apologize to the person it belonged to, when her foot slipped off the step, and her ankle twisted.
Pain shot through her like a white-hot iron, radiating up her leg and into her brain. She felt herself falling but couldn’t really do much except put her hands out to try to brace her fall. The hard ground jolted her, making her teeth rattle in her head, as the world slowly came back into focus. She landed on her hands and knees. Fortunately, she had been toward the bottom of the steps, because she realized how close she came to breaking her neck. She heard her mother call her name, felt pain lancing up her leg, and struggled to hold back the tears stinging her eyes.
“You need my crutches?”
Heather looked up, past a cast-wrapped leg, over a large silver belt buckle, and into the darkest eyes she had ever seen. The rest of the face wasn’t bad either, and Heather felt her heart flip-flop in her chest. High cheekbones, tanned face, handsome beyond belief. He gazed down at her with an eyebrow raised, standing next to another cowboy who moved to help her up.
“Heather, are you okay?” her mother asked anxiously.
Once on her feet, she stood there for a moment still staring at the cowboy who had offered his crutches. Her heart pounded rapidly in her chest as the broken-leg cowboy smiled at her, and she felt heat creep into her cheeks. Dang, of course she’d look like a fool in front of a really cute guy. It always happened. Just once she’d like to be a cool cucumber like the heroines in her romance novels.
She blinked and looked down at her foot that she held up off the ground, struggling to appear normal. Like the cute guy didn’t affect her in any way, shape, or form.
“Yeah,” she said, clearing her throat. “Just my ankle. I twisted it.”
“Can you walk?” the cowboy’s friend asked her. He let go of her arm gradually, afraid she’d keel over without his support.
She put her foot down, but as soon as the ankle flexed, pain exploded, causing her to gasp and blink back tears.
“No,” she mumbled.
“Where are you staying?” the cowboy asked.
“Main house,” Heather’s mother answered him. “Lincoln Hart is my father-in-law.”
“Well, then we’ll help you back to the house,” the cowboy told her. “I know the perfect remedy for that ankle.”
Heather wasn’t really aware of anything except the broken-legged cowboy next to her. His friend swung her up in his arms, and they all walked the path that wound up to her grandfather’s house. Heather was aware of commentary between the two cowboys and her mother, but she didn’t participate. She was too busy tying to steal glances at the man who limped beside them on his crutches, trying to figure out the weird feelings he invoked. What drew her gaze? Why did her heart beat so fiercely? Why him, when she had been around a hundred other cowboys in the past few days?
When they reached the house, her mother let the men in, and they brought her to sit at the kitchen table.
“You have apple cider vinegar, a brown paper bag, a large bowl, and some scissors?”
“Yeah,” her mother replied. “Why?”
“Old cowboy trick,” he replied with a grin.
While her mom went to gather the supplies, broken-legged cowboy eased himself down in a chair across from her and brought her twisted ankle to rest on his cast. Her mother was back in moments, placing all the requested ingredients on the table.
“I’m Tristan,” he said by way of introduction. “Tristan Rogers. This is Duke.”
Duke held up a hand in greeting and began to cut the brown bag into strips.
“I’m Janet Hart, and this is my daughter, Heather.”
“Hello, Heather,” Tristan said.
Heather glanced up at him, feeling heat race over her cheekbones once more. Hating that her fair complexion gave away all her emotions. “Hello.”
“What we’re going to do,” Duke broke in, “is soak these strips in the vinegar, and then wrap your ankle like a cast.”
“You’re more than welcome to use my crutches.” Tristan teased her.
“And what is this going to do?” Janet asked.
“I guarantee that not only will there not be swelling, but Heather’ll be able to walk tomorrow,” Tristan replied.
“Really? How interesting,” Janet said with enthusiasm as she watched the two cowboys prepare their homemade remedy.
Tristan took Heather’s ankle, carefully flexing it. She hissed at the pain, and he flashed her an apologetic look. Keeping her foot flexed, he started wrapping it in the makeshiftvinegar-soaked bandages.
“This is going to smell, I know.” It felt like he spoke only to her. Everyone else faded away. “But it’ll get better as it dries.”
Heather sniffed a little and nodded. She watched him, keeping her gaze trained on him and not caring about the bandage he was applying. She almost wished he would keep wrapping it forever, because tingles were dancing up her leg, and they weren’t from the throbbing and bruised joint.
“Do you work on Hart Ranch?” she asked.
“A bit. My uncle is the foreman. I went to work a rodeo a few weeks ago and a damn bull mashed me up against the bucking chutes. Leg had no place to go. Broken in seventeen places.” He shook his head. “I don’t recommend it.”
He smiled at her, white teeth flashing in his tanned face. She smiled back, shyly, words temporarily fleeing from her brain. Her mouth went dry.
“You work in the rodeo?” her mother asked, unknowingly saving Heather from her inability to talk properly.
“Not really,” Tristan replied, flashing his charming smile. “A couple of times I’ve worked as the rodeo clown on some events in Texas. I save the riders who fall off the bull.”
“So you save them, but who saves you?” Heather asked.
He looked at her, his smile fading just a bit. “Nobody saves me except my partner. I didn't have one that night. I was working by myself, which seemed like an okay thing to do at the time. Obviously hindsight is twenty-twenty.”
He sat back and showed off Heather’s newly wrapped, vinegar cast encased foot. Her toes were peeking out, and the paper came up to mid-shin.
“Do you have an ACE bandage?” Tristan asked her mother.
Janet stood. “I’m sure we do. Let me run upstairs to look for one.”
She left the kitchen, and Heather was overjoyed at the prospect of almost being alone with Tristan. He caught her gaze, held it, and a wealth of something flashed between them. Heather realized she didn’t know what that exact something was, but her body reacted to it anyway. She was acutely aware of the place where his hands rested against her skin.
Duke cleared his throat and nudged Tristan. “Dude,” he said.
Tristan flashed him an irritated look before glancing back at Heather. “So, Lincoln Hart is your grandfather.”
“You live in Louisiana?”
“No, Los Angeles. We go back there in three days.”
Janet came down with the wrap and handed it to Tristan, who expertly covered the cast.
“How did you learn this?” Janet asked.
Tristan shrugged. “My dad did it to me when I broke my ankle in high school. Tore it up good, and it swelled up. Docs couldn't get it to go down enough to cast it. Dad could. It's an old racehorse remedy.”
Duke stood up, signaling their work was done. He held out Tristan’s crutches. Janet was oblivious as she gushed her thanks for their help.
Heather just sat there watching as Tristan grabbed his crutches and stood. “Just stay off the leg,” he told her.
“Will you stop by tomorrow?” she asked, desperate to find some reason to make him linger.
He nodded, smiled, and was gone.
Heather half-heard her mother escorting them out the door. She was too much in a state of shock to do anything else. Not about her ankle—that particular pain had gone by the wayside a while back—but because she realized, on some teenage level, that she had met a man who could change her life.