-Luck of the Draw Excerpt-
The stands at the Pecos rodeo grounds buzzed with shouting and laughing and hollering and anticipation like the Roman Coliseum but with less blood and guts. The West Texas heat soaked Josephine Cox’s shorts with sweat, and the high humidity made her wish she had gills.
She tugged on Comet’s lead rope and the palomino quarter horse picked up his head from the plot of patchy grass and followed with the reluctance of a five-year-old on the way to the dentist.
You’d think Comet was slow. You’d think Comet wasn’t competitive.
You’d be wrong.
At the shade covered wash rack near the warm-up arena, Josephine cross-tied Comet, and pulled the whitening shampoo out of the bucket. She wet her horse’s white mane and liberally worked the shampoo into the manure-stained hair. She should have known better than to take the fly sheet off her horse that close to the start of the rodeo. Note to self: next horse would be horse-poop brown.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” The male voice came from somewhere on the other side of Comet. Josephine wasn’t tall enough to see over her horse’s withers, but she didn’t have to peek under Comet’s muscular neck to know who was coming.
“Looks like you found me.” Forget the poop brown horse. For the first time in her life, Josephine wished she’d bought a plain-Jane sorrel. Just an all red horse, no star on his forehead, no white stocking running up its legs, just a horse like any other. A horse that was impossible to pick out in a crowd. Not one in a million that shone like a beacon and turned every head within an eight-mile radius.
Tall, and lankier than most of the other bull riders, Monte Shaw easily folded his arms over Comet’s back and leaned against the stout horse. He propped his straw cowboy hat higher on his forehead, revealing brilliant blue eyes and a freshly shaved face a girl would be tempted to take home to momma if she didn’t know any better.
“Come to town with me after the rodeo tonight. There’s this new guy, David Allen somebody, playing at the honky tonk. Supposed to be pretty good.”
“I don’t know.” Josephine massaged the shampoo into the base of the mane. Comet’s lips twitched, and his head bobbed, and the horse let out a soft grunt. If her dream of being a pro barrel racer didn’t pan out, maybe she could work the circuit as an equine masseuse.
Or heck, she’d subject herself to the makeup and the hairspray and the rhinestone-studded outfits and carry the flag if she had to. Anything would be better than landing back at the Rockin’ C and settling down for the rest of her life.
“Oh, come on.” He came around her horse’s rump with one of those cocky half-smiles that had charmed the pants off the buckle bunnies, the barrel racers, and the riders from the flag team.
“I was going to pack up and get an early start tomorrow. Calgary is a long way away.”
“And we’ll have most of the week to get there. A few hours here or there won’t make no difference.”
She rinsed the suds from Comet’s mane. Monte stepped closer. And closer. She gripped the sprayer like a weapon. At least they weren’t alone. Spectators wondered by, their little kids riding stick ponies or stuffing their faces with cotton candy. Nearby, in the outdoor arena, cowboys and cowgirls warmed up their horses under the baking sun, the thick cloud of dust that the horses kicked up made the back of her throat itch. While Monte up close made her skin crawl.
He stepped forward. She stepped back. He stopped. “Come on now. Only a few weeks left until the circuit ends in Cheyenne. I was hoping to get a chance to know you better.”
“It’s not like you won’t ever see me again. If you ride the ridge trail, your father’s place is only a hard thirty-minute ride from the Rockin’ C.”
“That’s different. Your parents are there. My parents are there. And the bad blood…”
“Maybe you should have thought of asking me out months ago, before you banged every babe south of the Mason-Dixon line.”
He didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed. Instead, he took a step back and looked Josephine up and down, from the water dampened tips of her cowboy boots, to her cutoff jeans, up to last year’s Cheyenne Rodeo T-shirt she’d knotted at her waist. His eyes lingered over the lettering covering her breasts before he met her eyes with bold confidence. “I never took you for a prude, Cox.”
“I’m no prude, Monte. This is the seventies after all. You know, bras have been burned, sex has been revolutionized and all that.” She waved a hand in the general direction of his crotch. “Just no telling where that thing’s been.”
He backed her against a nearby stall, her fingers tight on the sprayer’s trigger. “What do you know about who I’ve slept with?” He leaned in close and whispered in her ear. “I never kiss and tell.”
“Maybe not.” She shoved a hand against his chest and brushed past him. She didn’t have time for this. She had to get changed, and get Comet saddled and warmed up before her run. “But the girls gossip. A lot.”
He grabbed her arm and spun her around. “Come on, Josie. One beer.”
She dug her heels in. He tugged harder, her boots slipped in the water and she slammed against his chest. The sprayer went off in her hand. The freezing cold well water soaked them, and she let out a shriek of surprise. Monte stripped the hose from her hand and threw it down, but didn’t let her go.
“L-Leave h-h-her alone.”
Monte turned, her arm still tight in his grip. Rowdy Boyd stood behind them, already in his rodeo clown costume, but he hadn’t put his makeup on yet. Probably didn’t want it melting off under the blazing Texas summer sun.
“W-w-who’s gonna s-s-stop me?” Monte mocked Rowdy’s stutter.
Rowdy stood taller, but he was still more than a head shorter than Monte. “M-Me.”
“Bug off, Mighty Mouse. Gotta be a racehorse out there somewhere in need of a jockey.”
“You mother fucker.” Rowdy launched himself at Monte. Rowdy was fast and wiry and agile. Which was probably what made him such a good bullfighter.
Out of the corner of her eye, Josephine caught a flash of blue as a man stepped between Monte and Rowdy. He pushed a hand in the middle of both men’s chests, his large frame blocking Rowdy from view. Silas Foss.
“Get out of here, Foss,” Rowdy said, “This isn’t your fight.” Funny how Rowdy’s stutter always disappeared when he was riled.
Silas ignored Rowdy and turned his attention to Monte. “I suggest you keep your hands off the lady.” Monte’s grip loosened enough for Josephine to pull her arm free. “And need I remind you who’s going to be out there in that arena saving your dumb ass from fifteen hundred pounds of pissed off beef?”
Monte knocked Silas’s palm away from his chest and looked from Silas to Rowdy to Josephine. His expression shifting from anger to blatant interest when his eyes landed on hers. “Think about tonight.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” The man had the nerve of a snake charmer in a pit of vipers. Josephine popped the quick release clips on the cross-ties and grabbed Comet’s rope.
“C-can you believe this g-guy?” Rowdy said to Silas.
Monte pointed a finger at Rowdy as he started to back away. “You’d better do your job tonight, you little piss ant. Don’t leave me hangin’—”
“Get the hell out of here.” Silas put a staying hand on Rowdy’s shoulder.
Monte laughed, but his focus was on Rowdy. “What’s the matter baby buckaroo? You need your bodyguard—”
“I don’t need you fighting my f-fights, Foss.” Rowdy shook off Silas’s hand, his face red, but not from the heat.
Rowdy stormed off toward his trailer before Josephine got a chance to thank him for stepping in. Monte continued to walk backwards. Either he didn’t want to turn his back on Silas or—
Monte duffed his hat and pointed it at her. “I’ll pick you up at your trailer after the closing ceremony.”
“Why’s he pickin’ you up?”
Josephine spun around. Chet Orin came walking up behind her. Of all the— “What are you doing here?”
Chet pulled off his hat and laid the brim against his chest with a this-wasn’t-my-idea tilt to his lips. “Your father sent me.”
“My fa—” Josephine grabbed her grooming bucket. “Unbelievable.” She wanted to throw the bucket at Chet’s head, but mostly she wanted to throw it at her father. But he was in the Texas Hill Country, a few hundred miles away. Josephine had a good arm for a girl, but her arm wasn’t that good. She backed Comet out of the wash rack. “I’m a twenty-three-year-old woman. I don’t need a babysitter. Why’d he bother sending you now, after all these months?”
“Maybe if you’d bothered to call—”
She nicked him with a cutting glare.
Chet held his arms out to his sides. “I just do what I’m told.”
He always had.
From the day he’d been born. From the day Chet’s father had abandoned him and his mother at the Rockin’ C. Obedient. Loyal. Like the son The Great Caine Cox never had.
Silas stood there with his hands on his hips. Waiting. Watching. She was already sweating, but heat rushed up her neck and landed on her cheeks. Unlike with Monte, she liked the way Silas watched her.
“Let me walk you back to your stall,” Chet said.
“I don’t need—”
Silas spoke up. “I’ll take her.”
“Wait. Not you, too?” She couldn’t keep the shrill pitch of disappointment out of her voice. She didn’t need a keeper. She didn’t need a man. She didn’t need anybody.
Comet bopped her on the arm with her nose. Okay, she needed Comet. Especially if she wanted to run barrels. But that was all she needed. She backed away, tugging Comet along with her. “Just…Just both of you, go away.”