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“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“No galloping.”

“I’ll just walk him if that’s what you want.”

“I do.”

Fletch scooted closer to the fence and held out his hand. Tanna latched on so fiercely a lesser man would’ve been jerked to the ground. “I’ve gotcha. That’s it. One more rung. Now put your hand on my shoulder. That’s fine; grip it tight if you need to.”

Tanna felt suspended in time as she transferred her weight against Fletch and she swung her right leg over Gus’s rump. Fletch leaned forward, keeping a death grip on her hand as she slid her front down his back until her ass met horseflesh. She pressed the side of her face into Fletch’s broad back, keeping her eyes closed.

Was it possible that her heart could actually beat out of her chest?

“Wrap your arms around my waist, Tanna.”

“Don’t go yet,” she said with panic.

“I’m not. We’re still right by the fence.”

She focused on the scent of Fletch’s shirt. The moderate breeze. The hard muscles her fingers were digging into. The firm touch of his left hand curled around her left thigh.

Breathe. Come on, Tanna. You can do this.

Sitting behind Fletch, she had no knee control of the horse; it all belonged to the forward rider. Her legs dangled like noodles and she missed the security of stirrups.

Gus shifted sideways and she gasped.

Fletch’s hand squeezed her leg. “Easy. It’s all right.”

No, it’s not.

“You tell me when.”

Never.

Fletch stayed true to his word. He didn’t pester her to buck up so they could get moving. He waited on her signal.

Okay. She was on the damn thing. Through gritted teeth, she said, “Go.”

Then they were meandering along. At this speed she could feel every shift of the horse’s back legs, which made the ride seem unstable.

“Tanna? You doin’ all right?”

Don’t think about sliding into that turn.

Don’t think about clipping the barrel.

Don’t think about Jezebel falling down on top of you.

Don’t think about watching her race away.

Don’t think of her shriek of pain.

Don’t think of her dying alone.

Gus moved into a canter and Tanna’s heart zoomed into her throat.

“Fletch? Why’re we goin’ faster?”

“You kicked your heels in.”

She didn’t remember doing that.

This pace smoothed out the ride. The instincts were still there.

So she held on. Remembering riding double with her uncle. And then with her brother. Her dad preferred ATVs to horses. In the time she’d had to reflect upon hearing about her father’s hatred of the ranch, she could admit the signs had been there. After her uncle died, Garrett had handled all the livestock, while her dad spent more time on the computer. Not at the house with her mother, but in the tiny foreman’s cabin her bachelor uncle had occupied her entire life.

Tanna hadn’t been overly close to her dad. He didn’t attend many of the events she’d entered. His excuse that driving for two hours to watch her compete for twenty seconds still stung. And since her mother didn’t drive beyond going into town or her friends’ houses, she’d had little in familial support for the whole of her career. But she had that support when she returned home after an event. She trained. Spent time with her mom, or her friends or whatever guy she’d been involved with. She’d only paid attention to those around her when they could do something for her or entertain her.

She’d gotten so lost in self-recriminations she’d almost forgotten she was on horseback until Fletch spoke to her.

“There’s a long, flat section up ahead. I’m gonna give Gus his legs, so hold on.”

Tanna wanted to tell him, no, wait, you promised no galloping, but Gus kicked up the pace. She opened her eyes only to close them again.

She so wanted that big aha! moment when everything became clear. When the wind in her hair and the years of conditioning her muscles kicked the memory of what she used to be and she felt a burst of joy. Of rightness.

But neither of those feelings came.

They slowed. Stopped. She could feel Fletch’s core muscles working and the muscles in his arms tightening. Such a powerful man. Yet such a gentle giant.

He turned toward her and she lifted her head. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to get down and walk around?”

“How will we get back on?”

“Me Injun. Know how to mount bareback.”

Tanna smiled for the first time since they’d left this morning. “Okay, chief.”

“Hang on to my arm. I’ll help you off first.”

Just look at Fletch. Nowhere else.

“Tanna, sweetheart, give me all your weight. You’re not gonna hurt me.”

She swung her right leg over and slid down until both her feet were on the ground. And she was upright. Not wobbly. Not light-headed. This was good.

Fletch dismounted and immediately circled his arms around her, dipping his head for a kiss.

“Wait. Don’t you need to tie Gus off?”

“Nope. He’s broke to ground tie. Now gimme that mouth for the victory kiss I’m dying for.”

“Victory kiss?” she repeated.

“Mmm-hmm. ’Cause this ride surely is a victory for you. Don’t see it as anything less.” Their lips met in a sweet, loving, comforting kiss. A kiss he was in no hurry to end. Teasing her tongue with little nips and sucks, gliding his wet lips over hers, coaxing her to relax into him fully. He eased off and completely wrapped her in his embrace, mashing her face against his chest.

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