Dakota Thunder

He’s a bull rider who gave up on his dreams.

She’s a single mom who never had dreams to begin with.

PaperbackTHUNDER

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Chapter One

Rachel McKenna pulled into the parking lot of Taggert Contracting on nothing but fervent prayers and a gas tank of fumes. She found an available parking spot in front of the giant building, nestled in a tight row of dust-covered, expensive trucks, and put her little Honda in Park. She gently laid the back of her head against the headrest and closed her eyes.

They’d made it. God only knew how, but they’d made it to Garner.

Her five-year-old son, Trevor, tugged on the sleeve of her shirt. “Mama. I’m thirsty.”

So is this car. “Okay. Let me grab you a Gatorade from the cooler.” She unbuckled, reached in the back seat, and pulled a cold Gatorade from the small red cooler she’d borrowed from her mother back in Texas.

No less than nine hundred miles, four tanks of gas, and two stank hotels had brought them to Garner, South Dakota. And she was broke. Flat-ass, didn’t-know-where-they’d-sleep-tonight broke. They weren’t getting any free breakfast tomorrow morning, because she didn’t even have the cash for a simple room in the dilapidated motel she’d passed on Main Street.

She was certain they’d have to sleep in this car if she didn’t figure something out. She had a job waiting for her here, but no advance in paycheck. No housing. No family.

Her fingers shook as she turned off the engine. She’d never been in a predicament like this before, and she realized too late that she shouldn’t have been so rash.

But that was the kicker. She hadn’t been rash.

She’d planned this trip so damn carefully. She’d slowly saved up a couple thousand dollars. Mainly so Peter, her soon-to-be ex-husband, wouldn’t realize what she had planned. Because he would have turned on the charm to try and keep her from leaving. Peter was skilled at two things: bull riding and manipulation. He was a master of narcissism. But the money she’d saved hadn’t lasted long. She’d blown a tire before she’d even left the great state of Texas, and somewhere in Nebraska her transmission had taken its last breath. She’d saved and skimped for months only to throw that cash at her car to keep the POS running.

It was astronomical how much it cost to fix a transmission on the spot.

She should have taken the Ford F-350.

But Peter would have hunted her down like a dog if she’d taken his truck. She could take their child across the United States, and he might notice in a week’s time. Two weeks if he’d hooked up with a barrel racer. But take his truck and she’d be dealing with a whole ‘nother situation.

He was a stellar man. Which was why, when Cody Taggert offered her a job, she’d buckled down and started making plans. The job she’d driven across the country for was located in a small town that would hold nothing but a fresh, new start. She needed that more than anything. A job promised independence. Stability.

With each state’s welcome sign they’d passed, she’d tasted freedom. Opportunity.

She looked over at Trevor, so tiny and trusting in the passenger seat. He was small for his age. But then, his father was all of five-seven and a buck fifty. Most professional bull riders were small men. Agile. Quick to maneuver, both on the backs of bulls and when they hit the dirt. Their reflexes had to be lightning-quick. Big men usually couldn’t cut it. Couldn’t move fast enough. The bigger the man, the harder the fall. And ten times out of ten, you were bucked off a bull. You might make the bell, but there was no stepladder off that big guy. You might even manage to land on your feet, but even that wasn’t an easy landing.

Trevor had Peter’s coloring. A splash of freckles on his face and dark brown hair. But unlike his father, Trevor was a kind soul. He’d never met a stranger a day in his life. He was open and honest and trusted people.

Except for his father. The man who came and went more often than the colorful sippy cups in the dishwasher. The man who’d stopped taking them to Professional Bull Riders events. Because how could you hang with the boys and the buckle bunnies when your wife and kid tagged along?

And this was his year. He was already in the top ten. It was still early in the season, but the spotlight was on him, and the PBR’s public relations machine couldn’t resist a home-grown fan favorite.

Which had given her time to run.

PR in the PBR was paramount. Management wanted the viewers to connect with the riders who landed in the top ten. It kept die-hard fans tuning in week after week and buying tickets at the live events. The more PR attention they gave a bull rider, the more connected the fans felt toward that particular rider. But it had to be good PR. Commercial shoots of the boys back on their ranches, hauling hay and driving on dirt roads. Grilling out on the back deck with their gorgeous wives. Shots of their kids helping around the ranch with chores. Smiling, stable, God-fearing men.

If they were single, they still had to keep their noses clean.

The bull riders had to uphold a sparkling image for all the hard-working men and women who rooted for them. The fans of the PBR loved their country, their God, and their freedom. They didn’t want to root for drunks or cheats.

And the sponsors? Shit. No one wanted to sponsor a womanizing prick.

Peter didn’t want her going public. He couldn’t afford for her to go public. He had more fans and sponsors this year than any year prior.

She took a deep breath. Everything would work out. She’d make sure that she and Trevor ate tonight even if she had to go door to door and ask for food. They’d have somewhere safe and clean to sleep tonight if she had to beg strangers. She was sure Cody would help them if she asked. She’d just never had to ask for help before. Not like this. With her dignity on the line. Peter may have been a lot of things, but he had provided for his family. He pulled enough wins at events that they’d never hurt for money. And then he’d had the sponsors. Things were pretty damn good for them financially. Hell, their house had cost more than she’d ever thought she could afford.

And because he couldn’t keep it in his pants, his wife might have to beg for food.

She just hoped it didn’t come to that.

But if it did, she’d beg a total stranger before she asked him for a goddamn thing.

She studied the large building in front of her. The shop itself had tan siding, with a dark green tin roof and several windows. There were regular doors, and there were also garage doors big enough to fit a tractor through.

She glanced around the parking lot of the large shop. Semis were coming and going. Trucks filled with lumber were pulling in and out of the parking lot, loading and unloading. Snow had been pushed into huge mounds to one side of the parking lot, attesting to how much snow they’d gotten through the winter. The tires of her car had crunched on the small amount of snow that had accumulated last night.

One thing was for sure. South Dakota was cold, and the weather was unpredictable.

Driving up from Texas they’d started their journey with the air conditioning on. The farther north they’d gone, the more she’d had to turn on the heat. It was nearly nine in the morning, but the temperature wasn’t above thirty if she had to wager a guess, and it was the middle of April.

Doubts started trickling into her mind like the cold air already making its way into the car. Maybe South Dakota wasn’t for them. Would Peter follow them here? Try and take his son from her? Claim she was an unfit mother? And she would be an unfit mother if she couldn’t feed him or put a roof over his head.

Stop. You’re just letting the stress get to you. If Peter tried taking her to court, she had plenty of evidence against his character. She’d win custody, and she’d drag his name all over the place while doing it.

Taking your wife to court while ranking fourth in the PBR wouldn’t be good publicity. Simply put, he wouldn’t chance it. Everything would be hush-hush. He wouldn’t want to tarnish his small-town-boy reputation. And she wouldn’t tarnish it either, as long as he left them alone. She wasn’t raising her son in the toxic atmosphere he created.

Worst case scenario, he might come after her during Cowboy Christmas, since he didn’t need extra points or money. But she doubted he’d do even that.

Happy ex-wife, happy life.

The best part about all of this was—if there was a best part—at only five years old, Trevor wasn’t leaving behind a classroom full of friends, and Lord knew they didn’t have much family to speak of. He was more excited with the move than unhappy. The perfect age to start over. She closed her eyes. She wanted to settle down somewhere they’d both love. Somewhere that would feel like home. A place—

There was a harsh tap against her driver’s side window. She inhaled so hard and fast her throat seemed raw from the force. With a hand against her chest in a half-ass attempt to still her heart, she rolled the window down and came face-to-face with one of the most militant-looking men she’d ever laid eyes on.

She was more accustomed to skinny cowboys in Wranglers, whose hair was usually scraggly and limp. This guy was as clean-shaven as a male starring in a Gillette commercial, and he looked like he’d just come from the barbershop. His hair was cut so short on the back and sides that she could see most of his scalp.

“Are you Rachel?”

He wore jeans that had a sharp crease right down the center of each leg and a dark blue pullover that had the Taggert Contracting logo stitched on the upper left corner. Those jeans were pulled tight against well-muscled legs. He had beautiful blue eyes and a stern look to him. As though he didn’t smile much.

He wasn’t smiling now.

“I am.”

He shifted, and the bright morning sun crested his left shoulder, causing her to squint up at him. “My name’s Shane Taggert. I hear I have an appointment with you this morning, but I’m headed out on a call. Can we do this tomorrow?”

Her thudding heart came to a painful standstill inside her chest. Shane was Cody’s younger brother. Cody had told her that Shane did the hiring, but that he’d already talked to his younger brother about the position.

But from the look on Shane’s face, there was no position.

Panic bubbled up. She’d called twice. Spoke to Shane’s secretary. Made sure this morning would work and did everything in her power to be here before ten this morning.

Hoping for an advance on her paycheck might be a bit of a stretch. “Is Cody around?”

Shane’s expression didn’t change. “Well, that’s the thing. Cody doesn’t do the hiring around here. He just got back in town after several years spent on the rodeo circuit, and well…” Shane Taggert’s fake laugh said it all.

She could fill in the blanks.

Cody had run his mouth to her, promising her a foot in the door when he didn’t have the clout. His younger brother Shane was in charge, and from the look the man was giving her, he had no plans on hiring anyone in the foreseeable future.

Hadn’t she learned yet? A man’s promise wasn’t worth a damn.

At this point it was her fault. She should have known better than to trust Cody, an acquaintance at best.

Panic started to creep in. She needed this job. Not wanted. Not hoped. Needed. As in essential.

She also needed to find a place to stay tonight, and the money that would secure not only lodging, but food as well.

Shit, she even needed gas.

The only option here was to sell herself for this job in person, because she knew her application—if she could even call it that— hadn’t impressed anyone. Especially not the stern man currently frowning down at her. She’d never once held down a job. Hell, she hadn’t even finished high school. Hadn’t once thought about college. She’d gone from being a junior in high school to Peter, and then straight to the bull riding circuit with him. She’d quickly gotten pregnant with Trevor, and at the grand age of eighteen, had walked down the aisle.

She and Peter owned land and horses, not laptops. She’d agreed to be Cody’s secretary without the basic knowledge or skills to do the job. Answering phones and taking notes didn’t seem like rocket science to her, so that wasn’t where her fears had resided.

Still.

A stay-at-home-mom wasn’t something they were looking for here at Taggert Contracting, but Cody Taggert had been sweet, and maybe Shane was the same way underneath all this gruff exterior. She hated plying for pity, but she didn’t have a choice when she had a mouth to feed.

For Trevor she’d grovel. She’d do anything for her son.

“I drove from Texas,” was all she could think of to say. Tears were hitting the back of her eyes and her throat was tightening up. She was not going to cry in front of this stranger. She was not going to break down. She had more than herself to think about.

“Mama. I have to pee.”

“Just one second, sweetie,” she said to Trevor. She turned back to Shane and cleared her throat. She felt small and stupid looking up at him from her driver’s seat. He looked polished. Disciplined. Successful. She was sitting in the same car her mother had given her when she was sixteen. “I understand I had nothing to put down under employment and no references, but—”

“Like, I really have to go.”

Breakdown in three…two…

“There’s a restroom inside, right off of the main shop,” Shane said, backing up so she could open her car door. “I can give you ten minutes, but really, we’re not looking for a secretary at the moment.”

Pushing her car door open, she decided to lay it on the line. She stood in front of him, closed the door, and held out her hand for Trevor. “Well, according to Cody, he needs a secretary. I’m sorry your brother returned to the family business and started throwing his weight around, but he offered me this job a few months ago, and last week, when I called him to confirm that I was interested, he said the job was still available and that I was already hired. He even explained to me the benefits that would come with the job and the pay. All that’s left is the paperwork and the advance.”

Cody hadn’t said shit about paperwork or an advance, but she’d been on a roll and her mouth had kept going. She couldn’t take it back now. She wasn’t going to take it back now.

Shane didn’t look too pleased. Time to pound this home and ignore his scowl. “Are you telling me that a part owner of this company led on a potential employee? Because I didn’t reinstate my rental agreement when I left Texas.” She didn’t have a rental agreement, but he didn’t need to know that. She tilted her chin up a notch. “I was told—”

Shane held up a hand. “Okay. I wasn’t aware my brother had gone that far.”

She hadn’t signed up to stare this intimidating man down, but when Trevor placed his tiny hand in hers and gave her a tug, her strength and determination intensified. “Twenty-four dollars an hour, a guaranteed forty-hour work week, and a full health and dental plan.”

His eyebrows became straight slashes over his blue eyes, all pretenses of a gentleman gone. “And you think I’m going to offer you all that based on your work experience?” He leaned toward her, forcing her to look up at him. “What kind of smoke are you and my brother trying to blow up my…” He looked down at Trevor and gave him a tight smile. Then he looked back at her. “Listen, I don’t know what you and my brother had going on, but I can promise you that we don’t hire people based on…those relationships. This is a business, and I run it as such.”

She wanted to balk. To act insulted.

But she’d have thought the same thing if she were standing in his shoes. Nothing else would make sense.

Problem was, he’d had time to look over her application but didn’t have time to interview her. That told her right there that he wasn’t going to hire her. Never planned to.

She was going to wring Cody’s neck. “I’m a fast learner. I get that this isn’t…pleasant for either of us. I thought Cody had more pull. Apparently, I was wrong.”

“You can say that again.” Shane looked down at Trevor and then back to her. “My office is the second door to the left. Take your kid to do his business and I’ll meet you there.” He frowned at them once again. “I need to call my brother.”

_______

Shane was going to kill Cody. But since his brother had yet to gift everyone with his presence this morning, he’d have to settle for reaming his ass only minutes before he interviewed Rachel for a job that didn’t even exist.

He leaned back in his chair and called his brother, since the man wasn’t at work even though it was nearly ten in the morning. But Cody needed a full-time secretary. Sure.

More like he’d slept with this woman while bucking bulls somewhere in Texas. She’d probably given him a swan song and he’d offered her a job. That didn’t exist.

His brother answered on the fourth ring, his sleepy voice coming through the earpiece in Shane’s ear, irritating him beyond what he already was. “What’s up?”

“Obviously not you,” Shane snapped, nearly done with his brother’s shit. “So that woman, Rachel, showed up. She’s going to walk into my office at any moment. So, tell me what’s going on, beyond that shitty text you sent me last night. She told me she’s driven all the way from Texas for a job you already promised her. I’m not—I repeat, not—paying a non-skilled worker twenty-four dollars an hour. Explain to me why you offered her a job that literally doesn’t exist.”

Shane heard his brother’s bedspread rustling, and after a loud yawn, his brother said, “She’s a single mom and a great girl. You know Peter McKenna? The bull rider out of Houston?”

Shane followed the PBR like most men followed the NFL. He had since he’d been a kid. Not to mention that, since his brothers were PBR champions, he’d hung out and had supper with many of the riders and most of the management. And though he’d never hung around Peter, he knew who he was. “He’s ranked fourth in the world right now. Scored a ninety-two on Dirty Dog last week. What about him?”

“That’s Rachel’s husband.”

“Bullshit.”

“Yeah. Total piece of shit. I never liked him. She and I had a long conversation a few months back, and I offered to help her. She deserves to get out of that relationship. If you can even call it that.”

Shane knew where this was going, and he didn’t like it. “Let me guess. She left him and you think you’re going to step into his role. Is that his kid?”

“First of all, yes, that’s his kid. Second of all, hell no I’m not dating her, and I sure as hell ain’t steppin’ in to raise some kid. I just felt sorry for her. So yeah. I offered her a job that didn’t exist, and yeah, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t make a liar out of me. It’s not like we can’t afford it.”

That wasn’t how you ran a business, but Cody wouldn’t know that. He’d graduated high school and chased his dreams out of a chute while his younger brother had run the family business. “How did you meet her?”

Cody swore under his breath. “That’s the thing that got me. It was a few years ago. She’d shown up to surprise her husband at an event. He was in his trailer with another woman. She walked in on them with Trevor at her side. Anyway, I ran into her in the parking lot shortly after it happened. I knew her so I said hi. She was shaking like a leaf while trying to get her car door unlocked. Hell, she was shaking so bad I had to help her unlock the door. But I couldn’t let her drive in that condition, so I sat in her car and talked to her and Trevor until she got herself together.” He paused. “I ran into her in Texas a few months ago when I was there for that PBR event. One thing led to another and I offered her a job. Listen, if you think something is going on between us—”

Think? I know.”

“—then you’d be dead wrong. I’m not messing with that girl. She’s not my type. Too sweet for me.”

Shane took a deep breath and straightened in his chair when he heard her voice in his secretary’s office. “Did she just take off with his kid? You think he’s not going to blow this door down to get to his son?”

“Never thought about it. He cares more about the arena dirt and the women that go with it than his wife or kid. He’s not going to want any bad PR. Trust me on that. Everyone’s saying this is his year.”

If anyone would know about bad PR, it was his brother Cody. “When are you coming in?”

“This afternoon.”

“You have to get out of that rodeo mentality, brother. I’m not going to keep wiping your ass while you sleep in every day.”

“I’ll be in before noon.”

Shane pressed the earpiece hooked around his ear and ended the call just as Rachel walked into his office—kid in tow. Lord, he didn’t need a buckle bunny working here, especially making more than she deserved. No matter what his older brother said, Shane didn’t believe Cody wasn’t interested in this woman. She was pretty, in a low-key way. Didn’t wear much makeup. Long, straight brown hair. If you saw her, you’d forget her five minutes later.

But she obviously had an interest in his brother. Women like her rarely stayed single for long.

He glanced down at the kid. Like most kids, he nailed Shane with a dark, brown-eyed, innocent stare. As though he could see right through him. Shane had to look away. He saw the resemblance to Peter McKenna. It was unmistakable now that Shane had looked for it. Knowing the kid was going to be the product of divorce had Shane’s heart mimicking the Grinch’s. It might have grown a little, given he understood the kid’s circumstance, having lived through it himself.

But this was still a business, not a women’s shelter. “Have a seat.”

She sat, and the kid stood between her legs as they both looked at him.

It wasn’t often that he was uncomfortable behind his desk. But here he was. He forced himself not to fidget. It wasn’t that he was scared of what she’d say or do. She couldn’t prove that his brother had offered her a job. It’d be their word against hers, and he knew he could strong-arm his brother into complying. So no, it wasn’t her threat that scared him.

He feared all that hope in her eyes. The expectation. The desperation.

Where to start? He wasn’t the type to beat around the bush, so he just spoke the truth of the situation they found themselves in. “You are aware you’re not qualified for this job.” A job that didn’t even exist, at that. “I don’t see anything about Excel or even general computer knowledge on your application.”

He wasn’t going to mention the fact that she hadn’t even graduated high school. Not in front of the kid. Especially considering, when Shane guessed his age, that the bull rider and the kid were likely the reason she hadn’t graduated.

She visibly swallowed but met his gaze and nodded in agreement. “I’m aware.”

“You left Texas believing this was a one-way trip?”

“I have all of our things in the trunk of the car.”

His heart clenched at her words. Another rarity for him. That couldn’t be true. Nothing more than a couple of small suitcases could fit in that trunk. The only thing he’d seen in the backseat had been a red cooler. “If you were planning on staying in Garner, did you find a place here in town?” Or had she banked on staying with his brother? Because he sure as shit didn’t believe that they hadn’t hooked up at one point.

The fact that she was married pissed Shane off. He’d thought his brother was better than that. Even if she’d been talking divorce. Didn’t matter. You didn’t touch a married woman. Period.

She immediately looked uncomfortable, and his brain finally caught up with the situation. They shouldn’t be talking about any of this with her kid standing between them.

Shane stood and went to the open door and called for his secretary. Helen walked up to his door. Mid-forties and a health nut, she was a good-looking woman. She was also efficient, had six kids, and worked as hard as he did. He couldn’t do his job without Helen, and she damn knew it, too. “We still got some of those donuts left in the breakroom?”

Without another word of explanation—exactly the reason she got paid more than any other secretary in the state of South Dakota—Helen turned from him and raised her eyebrows at the boy. “If you come with me, I can get you some donuts and chocolate milk.” Then she tilted her head. “If it’s okay with your mom.”

For the first time since he’d laid eyes on her, Rachel looked relieved. “Yes. Thank you.”

The kid perked up and followed Helen as though she was his long-lost grandmother, placing his tiny hand in hers without hesitation.

When he turned back to Rachel, he tried to put his business face on again, but the damn thing kept slipping. She was young. About his age. But she seemed younger somehow, and his heart went out to her. She’d been screwed over by a man she’d trusted, and now she was saddled with a kid and no job.

Saddled might be a little harsh. He could tell she loved the child since she was looking out of his large office window like Helen was the mastermind behind the largest child trafficking ring in the country.

Shane sat behind his desk once again. He felt better now that the kid wasn’t staring him down. He’d never been around kids, and he didn’t want to start, so he cut right to the quick. “You have a place to stay?”

Those tears that had nearly spilled earlier made another appearance, but to her credit, just as when she’d been sitting in her car, she held them back. “No.”

No tears, but her voice was strained and soft, and that Texas twang he’d detected in her voice got more pronounced with every word she spoke. He might be all business, but he wasn’t a cold-hearted man. “Well, my brother promised you a full-time job with benefits. I can’t consciously send you packing, but I have a business to run. So, here’s the deal. You will work for that wage. Helen will teach you what you need to know. Since my brother doesn’t need a full-time secretary, there will be times you’ll be asked to do other things around this shop. Unpacking boxes. Organizing. Maybe even sweeping the floor when needed. Does that sound acceptable to you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How much money do you have?” She looked stricken at his words, so he shook his head and looked her in the eye. “I’m not playing. This is your chance to ask for what you need, whether it be money, a place to stay, food. Better name it. Otherwise, I’m going to leave you sitting here and I’m going to go out on that call, and you’re on your own. I know Peter’s your husband. I know he has money. But where are you at?”

No one had ever accused him of being a softie, and when it came to business, he was far from it. When it came to this company, it was all about business. All about money. All about satisfying customers while being efficient and pinching the life out of every penny. He wasn’t going to beat around the bush, and he sure as hell didn’t have the time. He could tell by her car and her meager belongings that she needed help. And he was fully prepared to help her.

But he wasn’t prepared for her answer.

“I have about six dollars. No place lined up. A couple of Gatorades and some Ritz crackers in the car. About a week’s worth of clothing for each of us. I would have brought more, but I just left. Wanted…” Her voice finally wavered. But no tears fell. “I wanted to start fresh. I didn’t want the reminders. And I don’t want his help. I’ll take help from the devil himself first.”

He clenched his jaw. His brother might have known she was in a bad spot, but he only knew half of it. It was nearing lunch and this woman had a few Ritz crackers and a couple of bucks to feed her kid. She was either stupid or desperate, and though she was uneducated, she didn’t come off as stupid to him. Guarded, maybe. Scared. But when she’d stepped out of her car and had gone toe-to-toe with him, he’d seen her grit. She’d said she was a fast learner.

He wondered if Peter had raised his hand to her. Because the man wasn’t broke. And what Rachel wore wasn’t cheap. The denim alone cost over a hundred dollars. The boots several hundred. All name brands.

Part of him felt sorry for her. Part of him was angry that she expected them to foot the bill for her mistakes.

But what if Peter had beat her? Hurt her? Or even raised his hand to the kid? Why else would she want such a clean break?

Goddamnit. Why did everyone else’s bad decisions always fall on his plate? He’d like the freedom to make a damned bad decision once in his life.

His conscious was tearing at him, even though he was more than a little frustrated at the situation at hand.

He couldn’t imagine the stress she must have endured as she flitted from gas station to gas station from Texas to South Dakota. She must have counted every meal, every drink, every drop of gas. Prior to her answer, he was going to give her a few hundred bucks from the petty cash in his desk. Tell her she could grab a room at the local motel until she found a place.

But her words changed everything. “Now that I think of it, did you even have a rental agreement?”

Knowing he was referring to what she’d told him outside, she finally had the decency to look a little sheepish. “No.”

He figured as much, married to Peter McKenna, a damned millionaire.

Shane was a fool. He was a damned fool.

Still. Buckle bunny or not, rich husband or not, Shane wasn’t going to leave this single mom to do it all by herself in a foreign place. He couldn’t leave her to figure out where to live while trying to feed her kid. While trying to find a babysitter. No, he wasn’t going to leave her to do it alone.

But he was going to take it out of his brother’s ass.

And his paycheck.