Rodeo producer Cole Jacobs has his hands full running Jacobs Livestock. He can’t afford to lose a single cowboy, so when Cousin Violet offers to send along a more-than-capable replacement, he’s got no choice but to accept. He expects a grizzled Texas good ol’ boy.
Wild and outspoken, ruthlessly self-reliant, Shawnee’s not looking for anything but a good time. It doesn’t matter how quickly the tall, dark and intense cowboy gets under her skin—Cole deserves something real, and Shawnee can’t promise him forever. Life’s got a way of kicking her in the teeth, and she’s got her bags packed before tragedy can knock her down. Too bad Cole’s not the type to give up when the going gets tough…
Shawnee slowed and turned into the driveway of the saddle club. The parking lot was already crowded and a good number of riders circled the arena, warming up. Her pulse did an eager shimmy of anticipation.
Cole gulped audibly. “I thought this was just some little local deal.”
“It is.” Shawnee wheeled into an empty slot and shut off the engine. “Looks like there are a lot of locals.”
Cole trailed behind her like a bewildered child as she strolled over to the entry office/concession stand. He got a Coke while she gave the secretary their names. They both paid their entry fees. As they stepped aside to make way for the next in line, Cole froze, staring at the poster that described the roping, taped to the table for quick reference.
“It’s progressive?” The horror in his voice suggested she’d invited him to a ritual sacrifice.
“Almost all of the ropings are nowadays,” she said, ignoring the curious glances from the others in the line to enter.
“If I miss the first steer, we’re done. You won’t even get to rope.”
He sounded so desperate, on the verge of panic. “Well, then, don’t miss,” she said, and walked away.
If only it were that simple. When the position draw was posted, she and Cole were the fifty-seventh team out of ninety-eight, and with each successive bang of the chute gate, he got a little paler, sat a little more rigid in his saddle, until Shawnee was afraid if she tapped his arm he’d keel over.
As team number fifty-one rode into the roping boxes, she nudged Roy closer until her knee bumped Cole’s. His eyes were glazed and he was barely breathing. She crooked a finger. When he leaned down within reach, she clenched her fist in the front of his shirt and slapped a long, hot kiss on him. By the time she let go, he had regained some of his color.
“Just a reminder,” she said. “What you get later for being a sport.”
“Even if I miss?”
“Especially if you miss. Then you’ll owe me. Big. And I already know how I plan to collect.”
His smile was a pitiful thing, but at least he seemed to be taking in air again.
And he didn’t miss. The loop wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it fit. Cole dallied up and went left, and Shawnee was able to snag both hind feet. Roy buried his rear end and the big steer hit the end hard enough to jerk two feet of rope through her gloved hand. Like a junkie snorting a line, her blood sang at the hot slide of nylon against her palm and the smell of burning rubber from her saddle horn.
God, she loved this game.
Her grin was made of pure joy. Cole’s held the petrified relief of a man who’d taken a single step into a minefield and hadn’t blown up…yet.
While they waited for their next run, Shawnee wallowed in the singular aroma of horses and ropes and dirt, Roy’s quiet strength beneath her, the laughter and banter of the other ropers filling the air. Not a particularly friendly bunch. Or Cole was scaring them away with his Grim Reaper face. Shawnee stuck by him, rather than wandering around to chat up strangers. Funny, how much easier it was to make friends after they saw her double-hock a steer or two.
Yeah, kiss this, boys.
Almost half of the teams dropped out in the first round, so their turn came up quicker the second time. As the team ahead of them tracked their steer to the catch pen, Shawnee stuck out her chest and flipped back one side of her button down shirt to flash Cole some cleavage. “Don’t forget. Catch now, or pay later.”
He caught. Farther down the arena than Shawnee would have preferred, but her own loop was quick and deadly, so their time was still respectable. The two runs combined put them eleventh out of the top twenty that got to rope a third and final steer. Not bad. And as the saying went, a bad day roping was better than the best day doing anything else. Shawnee was buzzing with adrenaline. Cole looked like he was going to puke.
Shawnee put her hand on his thigh and squeezed. “Dude. It’s a fifty-dollar jackpot. We’re not roping to win the world.”
He just shook his head and rode over to the corner where he sat alone, muttering to himself.
By the time they backed in the roping boxes for their final steer, he’d gone from pale to green. He nodded his head, took three swings, and threw a balled up mess of a loop that swatted the steer on the side of the head and fell on the ground. Cole dropped his head, reined Salty up, and turned to ride straight out the gate, his rope trailing behind, without even glancing at Shawnee. He was already off his horse and jerking at the cinches when she caught up with him at the trailer.
“Don’t try to tell me it doesn’t matter.” He wadded up the rope and slung it in general direction of the tack room. “I’ve heard Tori talk. You rope to win, not just show up.”
Shawnee paused, knowing she needed to tread carefully. Not exactly at the top of her skill set. She listened instead—to the times being announced while Cole yanked his saddle off and slammed it onto the rack so hard it almost went through the wall. Finally, she said, “You did rope to win.”
Cole made a noise packed so full of disgust it practically turned the air purple.
“Quit your tantruming and pay attention.”
“I am not—”
“Oh please. You’re two seconds away from throwing yourself on the ground and holding your breath until you turn blue.” Shawnee pointed at the nearest loudspeaker, now droning out the final results of the roping. “Listen to the placings.”
Cole scowled, but listened, then punched a frustrated fist into the other palm. “If I’d caught, we would’ve won third or fourth.”
“Assuming I caught two feet.”
He glared at her. “You never miss.”
She laughed outright. “If only. Then I’d be a legend in something other than my own mind.” She hitched her thumbs in his belt loops and dragged him close, wishing she had a bucket to stand on so she could glare straight into those stony blue eyes. She gave him a shake instead. “You threw to win. Gave it your best shot. That’s what matters. I know how hard this was for you, and I really appreciate it. If you hadn’t gutted it out, I wouldn’t have been able to rope at all.”
He shook his head, jaw set, rejecting every word.
Shawnee sighed. “How long do you intend to mope about this?”
She laughed again, then realized he wasn’t joking.
“I can list every steer I ever missed for Xander at a rodeo,” he said, his voice flat. “And every free throw in basketball in high school. This is why I don’t play team games. I don’t forget anything.”
She had to blink a few times to take it in. “What about the good runs? The shots you made? Do you remember those?”
“But you focus on the mistakes.”
“I can’t help—”
She wanted to call bullshit—would’ve if it had been anyone else—but Cole’s brain didn’t work like other brains, so maybe he couldn’t stop himself from obsessing. Either way, he’d known this day would be torture and he’d come with her anyway. Her heart did a complicated, slightly terrifying whirl and swoop. This man. This strange, wonderful, maddening man.
What the hell was she going to do with him?
Kari Lynn Dell is a ranch-raised Montana cowgirl who attended her first rodeo at two weeks old and has existed in a state of horse-induced poverty ever since. She lives on the Blackfeet Reservation in her parents’ bunkhouse along with her husband, her son, and Max the Cowdog, with a tipi on her lawn, Glacier National Park on her doorstep and Canada within spitting distance. Her debut novel, The Long Ride Home, was published in 2015. She also writes a ranch and rodeo humor column for several regional newspapers and a national agricultural publication.