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Sometimes a falling star wears a flag…

Dr. Suzie Appleton expected a helluva ride in the barrel-racing championships at Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, but she had no idea she’d have to save a man falling from the sky. When he calls her for a date, she’s hesitant, but there’s something sexy and seductive about the Leap Frog, and she takes a chance. She suggests he come to the Triple Star Ranch for his therapy to have more time with him before he returns to jumping out of airplanes.

Petty Officer Enrique Sanchez signed up to serve his country and expected to get shot at, just not during an exhibition jump at a rodeo. But the sexy doctor who saved his life in the arena is willing to sign off on his transfer on one condition: that he’s not her patient. Works for Enrique. He’d much rather play doctor with her than have her white coat get in the way of their personal relationship.

While the attraction between them isn’t one-sided, neither are the threats. Someone is trying to complete their attempt on Enrique’s life, and someone else has their sights set on Suzie. Rumors and lies threaten to destroy their relationship. But all’s fair in love and war, and both of them could lose big.

Suzie put her head back, closed her eyes, and inhaled the scents of heat, horse, and sweat. This was exactly where she wanted to be. Painted Dog Tired, her bay paint Quarter Horse, stood beside her, nose down, hind foot cocked, apparently asleep. But she knew better. He’d gotten his name from his sleepy look, but it was just for show. The moment he got into the arena starting gates for their barrel race, his head came up, ears flickering, and his body vibrated with suppressed excitement.

“You’re not fooling me, Painted Dog.” She thumped his shoulder and one brown eye opened to give her a mild look of reproach.

Maybe he’s meditating before the run.

Maybe she should think about doing the same. But the energy of the track behind the area buzzed with excitement and anxiety. Women of all ages had come to compete in the Cheyenne Frontier Days barrel racing championship and this was it, the day everyone both hoped for and dreaded. Suzie had trained and worked with Painted Dog relentlessly on the Triple Star Ranch when her doctoring skills weren’t needed and this was her year. After this, she wouldn’t have the time to devote to training. The Triple Star Therapy Ranch had become too popular and successful for her to take time away for barrel racing at a championship level.

She slapped Painted Dog again. “That’s okay. It’s our year, isn’t it, buddy?”

The horse gave a long-suffering sigh as he switched back feet at rest.

She laughed and shot a look at the stands. It was Cheyenne Day, where residents of Cheyenne and Laramie County all got into the Daddy of ‘Em All rodeo for a hefty discount. The stands sat fuller than previous days and she let the excitement and pleasure of the crowd seep into her. Earlier the Thunderbirds had flown their aerial display over the south end of town, and the Leap Frogs, a group of Navy SEALs who leapt out of perfectly good airplanes, would descend upon the Frontier Park arena as a special treat. Usually they didn’t do it on Cheyenne Day, but the schedule worked out that way.

Suzie didn’t mind.

She laughed at herself. While she enjoyed watching hot men fall out of the sky as much as the next heterosexual woman, she never let it go beyond that. T-type personalities, always seeking the next thrill, and egotistic men infuriated her too much to find any pleasure in their company. The few she’d met while doing her PTSD training had tested her considerable patience, but she’d written it off to their affliction.

Despite that, she still scanned the sky for the C-130 “Herky Bird” as the start time for the rodeo approached. The arrogant SEALs might not be fun to talk to, but they sure were pretty to watch when they did aerial acrobatics with their colorful chutes. The few times she’d seen them before, they made her nervous, swooping and twirling in the air like one of the helicopter seeds from her grandparents’ maple tree. But they always came down safely, as sure and confident as the professionals they were.

The rumble of propeller engines made her breath catch and focus on the sky. From her position at the north end of the arena, she could see the big, gray airship roaring across the sky with the cargo door open at the back. Soon, now, real soon.

The rest of the crowd cheered as the announcers shouted out to “our Navy SEALs, the Leap Frogs” and Suzie strained her eyes to catch the little black dots of the men tumbling out of the back of the C-130. She bit her lip as they fell without chutes for a few moments, but the blue and yellow sails opened and the men stopped short. She let her breath out and shot a guilty grin around to her fellow contestants, but no one noticed her unease.

Two of the men fell in tandem, their feet locked together, and the other two fell separately, one twirling and swirling like his chute was caught in a wind vortex. Her heart crawled up to her throat until he leveled out. Glory be, I hate it when they do that. Not that they weren’t consummate professionals, but the appearance of being out of control scared the daylights out of her.

The tandem pair broke apart and one dropped an American flag while the other dropped smoke to leave trails in the sky. The whole team performed flawlessly, though the few “out of control” swirls still made Suzie hold her breath. The announcers commented on the performance the whole way down and it was a sight to behold these powerful men falling precisely into the center of the arena.

The first guy touched down amid cheers from the audience, waving before he gathered up his chute. The first member of the tandem team hit the ground, his NAVY chute fluttering to the ground along with the smoke.

But when the second member of the tandem team hung no more than fifty feet up, the SEAL’s chute folded like a burst balloon. He immediately looked up and tried to maneuver into the portion of his chute still inflated, but his speed increased.

Oh dear glory!

Somehow, the SEAL twisted in midair and gathered up the American flag before he hit the ground in a jarring thud that sprayed the sand of the arena out in all directions. The announcers shouted in panicked surprise as the landed members of the team turned toward the downed man.

Suzie squeaked and took two steps forward to the rail, looping the reins to Painted Dog onto it before she vaulted over the side into the arena. She was running before her mind even caught up to what was happening. Fortunately, he’d fallen close to her end of the arena and she was the first to reach him.

She skidded to a halt on her knees beside him and scanned his body to determine where he was most hurt. He didn’t even moan, but his face blanched white under his tan and his lips were drawn into a tight line though his eyes remained closed.

“Sir, my name is Dr. Suzie Appleton, can you hear me?”

The man moaned but didn’t open his eyes.

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