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Ava checked the guard on the electric clippers. Better to leave it a little long than trim it too short. She bent down, letting the ends of his dark hair tickle her cheek as her lips grazed his ear. “You ready?”

Chase released a shudder and she smiled. He wasn’t the only one who could send mixed signals.

Standing above him, she wedged his knees between her thighs as she wrapped the fingers of her left hand around his jaw. Keeping his head at the proper angle, Ava warned, “Hold still,” and clicked on the clippers.

The first strip of hair to go was dead center, front to back. Then she moved to tackle the right side and finished with the left side. She brushed the hair from his shoulders, wishing some had landed on his arms, giving her an excuse to feel those bulging biceps. “Have a look.”

He stood and meandered to the mirror. Ava watched him smooth his hand over his scalp. “Wow. That looks different, huh?”

“Ever worn your hair that short?”

“Nope.” Chase slanted this way and that.

“Is it good? Or bad?”

“Good, I guess.” Chase’s vivid blue eyes met hers in the mirror. “What do you think?”

I think cutting off your gorgeous black locks just increased your hotness by a factor of ten million.

“I like it.”

He mugged in the mirror. “I like it, but I think I wanna go just a hair shorter—ha-ha.”

“Fine. Stop admiring your handsome self and sit so we can get this done.”

He plopped back on the chair.

Ava straddled his legs and held his head in place. The second trim didn’t take as long as the first. She shaved the hair on the back of his neck. Her hands took one last lingering sweep over his shorn hair, down his beautiful face, to his broad shoulders. She scooted back. “You look good with short hair, Chase.”

“Thanks. Do I look recognizable?”

“The goatee helps.”

He snagged the broom from her. “I’ll finish up. We need to get on the road so I can make my check-in time.”

“How far is it?”

“Four hours.”

Once they were cruising down the blacktop, Ava cranked her window open for fresh air. “Where are we going?”

“A one-night rodeo in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Then we’ll hit smaller rodeos within driving distance during the week. Next Thursday, Friday and Saturday we’ll be in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. At some point I’m thinking we’ll head to Cody, Wyoming. Their rodeo is set up differently. During tourist season, they have a new slate every night, and hand out a new purse every night.”

“What kind of purse? Because I’d like to win a purse.”

Chase laughed. Hard.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. In rodeo, purse means the amount of money paid out to the winners.” He laughed again. “Ain’t like a purse you can buy on Ro-day-o Drive in LA.”

“You are getting a huge kick out of me being such a neophyte.”

“Check you out, using fancy words to confuse a simple cowboy. What’s a neophyte?”

“Someone who’s inexperienced in a certain area.”

“You mean a greenhorn. Or a tenderfoot.”

“Of course you’d prefer old Western terms.”

“As long as we’re on the subject, we need to get a few things straight about this road trip. Traveling partners split the expenses fifty-fifty. The goal is to get to the next event as cheaply and quickly as possible. Sometimes that means no time to check into a motel and clean up, especially if the events are geographically spread out.”

“Was it my imagination, or did you emphasize cheaply?”

Chase grinned. “Glad to hear you picked up on that. We ain’t gonna be staying anyplace as fancy as the Cooper hotel chain.”

“I sorta figured,” she said dryly.

“Is that gonna be a problem?”

“Why would it be?”

“Because, Hollywood, you’re rich.”

“So?” Ava said a little abruptly.

“So your idea of roughin’ it and mine are likely polar opposites.” Chase took his eyes off the road and peered at her over the top of his sunglasses. “I ain’t askin’ this to be a nosy dick, but have you ever tried to live on a budget?”

She’d had no reason to. “What does that have to do with anything? I can pay my half of the traveling expenses, no problem.”

“In cash? We ain’t using credit cards at all on this trip. We’re both supposed to be under the radar. Heck, we’re even using fake names.”

“Give me some credit, Chase. I actually know how not to leave a credit card trail.”

“But that still doesn’t tell me if you’ve ever made a budget and stuck to it? Do you know what it’s like to be completely out of money?”

Ava fought a shudder at the very idea of being out of money permanently. “No.”

“Didn’t think so. How much cash do you have on you right now?”

“I don’t want to discuss money with you,” she snipped.

“Tough shit. How much?”

She debated on telling the truth, or lying and stealthily lining her pockets with cash from an ATM during their next stop.

Chase eased onto the shoulder. “Dump your purse and count out the money in your wallet.”

“Why do we have to do this right now?”

He offered her a wolflike smile. “Because I don’t think you’ll play fair.”

Ava gasped with total sarcasm. “You callin’ me a liar or a cheat, McKay?”

“Both, I reckon.” He patted the bench seat. “Lay it on me, baby.”

I’d like to lay something on you—my lips, my hands, my whole body.

Friends, Ava, remember? Friends, buddies, pals. Focus.

Hiding her superior look because she had planned for using only cash, Ava unsnapped the billfold portion of her wallet. She counted out seventeen hundred dollars and dug in her purse, finding another two hundred dollars worth of crumpled and folded bills.

Chase took out his wallet and counted out twenty-one hundred dollars, then reached in the glove compartment, coming up with five hundred more.

Holy crap. He had more money than she did. Not fair. “Can we stop at a cash machine so we’re even?”

He shook his head. “We’ll never be even. Remember I hafta pay contestant entry fees outta that.”

“But if you win…you’ll have more money.”

“I’m not keeping anything I earn. Don’t know what I’ll do with it yet.” He shoved his money back in his wallet. “So I gotta know, Hollywood. You up to the challenge of living like those of us who don’t have an easily replenished pile of cash?”

“If I say no?”

“Then I’ll know you ain’t serious about wanting to experience something real, ’cause living on a budget is as real as it gets for most people.”

Ava understood why Chase was pushing her. Didn’t mean she appreciated it, but if she said no, everything would end before it began. What was she out? Wasn’t like the temptation for gourmet dining would be an issue. Or boutique shopping for designer originals. Or forking over big bucks for a mani-pedi at an exclusive spa. Or buying pricey cocktails at trendy nightclubs.


She met his challenging gaze head-on. “I’m in.”

“Now the real adventure begins.” After gifting her with his dazzling smile, he returned to the highway.

She dozed off at some point. After she woke, to the sound of crunching sunflower seeds, she asked, “You’ll be okay to ride with as sore as you’ve been the last couple days?”

“Ain’t as bad as it was. I’ll be stiff no matter what I do, so I might as well try making the buzzer.”

“What’s the entry fee?”

“Sixty-five bucks.”

“Do you want me to drop you off so I can find a hotel?”

“Yep. But it needs to be under a hundred bucks a night.”

Ava started humming the music from Mission Impossible and Chase laughed.

“Since you’re dropping me off, you’ll have to park in public parking since I won’t have a contestant tag yet.”

“They have a separate area for contestants?”

He nodded. “Timed-event competitors take their horses and horse trailers take up a shitload of parking space. The competitors who travel with their family have campers.”

“Sounds like the contestant area is one traveling party town.”

“You’d be right. When I first started competing and I didn’t have a nickel to my name, I’d drag an old tent along. Some of the stuff I saw people doin’…gave me quite the sexual education at the tender age of sixteen.”

“Give me the juicy details so I’m not shocked by what I see.”

Chase smirked. “Shocked. Right. I bet you’ve seen wild stuff in wacky Cal-y-forn-i-ay, so the countrified version will probably seem tame.”

“Still not an answer, Sundance.”

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I went to the first overnight event by myself ’cause my buddy Jet couldn’t get time off from work. I set up my pup tent. Had a couple of pilfered beers in my cooler, feeling like I was hot shit, right? So I’m sitting in my lawn chair, watching the goin’s on around the campground after the event ended. I hear a noise and creep around my tent to see two guys and a girl at the picnic shelter. They’re having a good time. One guy and a girl are clearly a couple ’cause they can’t keep their hands off each other. I start to back away when the other guy grabs the girl and kisses her. I’m thinking his buddy is gonna punch his lights out for touchin’ his girl, but he yanks the girl’s top down.

“The chick starts rubbing herself all over both of them. The guy behind her lifts up her skirt and shoves his hand between her thighs. I see his arm moving and I wondered what he was doing to make her squirm like that. She starts moaning real loud and the guy behind her turns her head to the side and kisses her to keep her quiet.”