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Cassidy Jane Cooper sat a little straighter behind the wheel as she spotted the sign on the side of the highway. “Welcome to Marietta, Montana, home of the Copper Mountain Rodeo.” Her pickup sped past the tall billboard and the knowledge that she was only minutes from her destination sent her heart into overdrive.
Dumbass, she told herself. No point getting wound up yet. Save it for tomorrow.
It didn’t make any difference—her pulse continued to pound in her throat as she spotted the motel she’d booked for the next three nights. A faded sixties’ complex, it was located on the outskirts of Marietta, its No Vacancy sign indicating they had a full house. A lot of visitors would prefer accommodation in town, she suspected, but this place was perfect for her, since it was just five minutes from the rodeo grounds.
She pulled into the driveway and parked, taking a moment to wipe her suddenly damp palms down the sides of her jeans before making her way into reception to collect her room key. Five minutes later she was driving past rows of dusty pickups, most of them plastered with bumper stickers extolling the virtues of cowboys in general and rodeos in particular. She pulled into a spot in front of her room, then got out and spent the next few minutes calming herself with the mundane act of unloading her gear.
Only when her saddle, riding gear and luggage were safely in the room did she let herself sink onto the end of the bed and flop onto her back. Pulling her phone from her pocket, she punched in a quick text home: Arrived safe and sound. All good.
Her mother’s reply was almost instant: Thanks for letting us know. Make sure you eat something and get a good night’s sleep. I’ll try to call tomorrow. xxx.
Duty done, CJ let her hand fall to her side and closed her eyes. It had been a long drive from Plentywood in the state’s northeast, but she was finally here.
This was really happening.
Her stomach gave a nervous-excited lurch and she sat up abruptly. If she stayed in this room staring at the ceiling, she was going to think too much and start second-guessing herself. Her decisions had all been made weeks ago. Now all that was left was for her to ride her best and show the world—well, Marietta, at least—what she was made of.
She went into the tiny bathroom and washed her face. Her hair was too kinked from being tied up in a ponytail to leave it down, so she tied it back up again and grabbed her car keys. There were a bunch of cowboys leaning against one of the trucks a few doors up when she exited her room, and she felt more than one of them give her the once-over as she made her way to her truck. She kept her gaze straight ahead, having learned the hard way that giving some of these rodeo-circuit cowboys even the minimal encouragement of eye contact or a polite smile was considered a resounding invitation to much more.
The last thing she needed was that kind of noise this weekend.
GPS took her to the rodeo grounds by a direct route and she parked among the scattering of other cars and trucks. This place wouldn’t get busy until tomorrow, when the rodeo kicked off, but she wanted to do a bit of re-con so she could hit the ground running. Plus she needed to pay her entry fees, and collect a schedule.
Dust kicked up from the dry gravel lot as she walked toward the low cinder block building emblazoned with a large Ticket Office sign. Behind it rose the concrete-and-steel bleachers, fresh paint gleaming in the afternoon sun. There had been a fire here not so long ago, CJ had heard, and the town had pulled together to rebuild the rodeo grounds.
From what she could see, the people of Marietta had done a great job—everything looked neat, bright and ready to accommodate the many thousands of people due to attend the Copper Mountain Rodeo this weekend.
The gate was pulled down on the ticket window, but the door marked Office was open, so CJ put on her big girl panties and went in. It was dim inside and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. A middle-aged woman sat behind a high counter directly in front of her, and a doorway led into what looked like another office. The woman offered CJ a smile, her bright blue eyes friendly.
“Afternoon. How can I help you? I’m afraid if you’re after tickets they won’t be on sale until after ten tomorrow.”
“Afternoon. I’m here to pay my fees. I’m a contestant,” CJ explained.
“Wonderful. Let me just find your details.” CJ watched as the woman automatically reached for a folder marked Barrel Racing and started flicking through a series of forms. “What’s your name?”
CJ shifted her weight. “CJ Cooper. Short for Cassidy Jane. But I’m competing in saddle bronc, not barrel racing.”
“Oh.” The woman gave a long, slow blink. “Well. All right, then.”
She was frowning now, and CJ knew exactly what she was thinking. Are you allowed to do that? She’d been asked the same question half a dozen times since she’d started riding in the traditionally all-male saddle bronc competition twelve months ago.
A shadow in her peripheral vision alerted her to the fact that someone was standing in the doorway to the adjacent office. She flicked a glance toward the tall, grizzled cowboy propped there. His keen gray eyes took her in for a long, drawn-out beat, his expression inscrutable.
CJ straightened her shoulders. Here we go.
But he surprised her by stepping forward, his hand extended in greeting.
“Travis McMahon. I’m responsible for this dog and pony show,” he said in a deep rumbling baritone. His hand was rough and dry when he shook hers.
“CJ Cooper. We spoke on the phone,” she said, recognizing both his name and voice.
“We did indeed. Just wanted to welcome you on board. Good to have fresh blood,” he said.
There was no judgment in his tone, but there was reserve behind his gray eyes. No doubt he was wondering if she was up to the challenge she’d set herself.
She was, but he’d find that out soon enough.
“Thanks, appreciate it,” she said.
“Let me know if you’ve got any questions. Laurie here’ll hook you up with all the information you need.”
“I was thinking of having a bit of a walk around, if that’s okay. Get myself familiar with the layout.”
“You help yourself to whatever. Chutes are other side of the arena, opposite the bleachers. Locker rooms out the back here. Pretty proud of them—they’re part of the rebuild, so you definitely want to check them out. And you can just follow your nose to the stockyards.”
CJ smiled at the small joke. “Thanks, I will.”
She turned back to Laurie, who was waiting patiently with CJ’s paperwork.
“Is cash okay?” CJ asked.
“It certainly is,” Laurie said brightly.
They made polite chitchat while Laurie processed the transaction and offered further directions to help CJ navigate the grounds.
“Appreciate all your help, Laurie,” CJ said as she tucked her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans.
“I’ll keep an eye out for you tomorrow,” Laurie said. “Good luck.”
It wasn’t until CJ was outside in the warm afternoon sunshine that she registered how tight her shoulders were. She gave them a roll as she headed toward the bleachers. It wasn’t that she’d come here expecting resistance or trouble exactly, but she had been prepared for it.
Almost exactly a month ago now, she’d become only the second woman in the world to qualify to ride saddle bronc on the professional rodeo circuit, competing head to head with the men. She was well aware that there were plenty of people who were not cool with her ambition to ride among the best of the best. The reasons for their resistance varied. Some were merely traditionalists and didn’t like change. Others viewed women as too delicate, fragile, emotional or physically weak to take on such a demanding and dangerous sport. And yet others felt that the arrival of fierce female competitors signaled a threat to their place in the world. They were right, too—she wanted to win. She wanted to be the best, just like her fellow competitors did. The fact that they were all men and she was a woman was beside the point as far as she was concerned.
As she’d worked her way toward achieving professional status—a process that had involved accruing a certain amount of prize money at smaller, non-pro rodeos—CJ had quickly learned to ignore the looks and barely heard comments. To engage or give the doubters and haters any of her energy meant taking her eye off the prize. And there had been enough vocal supporters—as many of them men as women—who stood and cheered for her, for her to feel encouraged. She might be a curiosity to a lot of folks, but she was confident that with time she would earn their respect.
Her strategy for her first outing as a professional contestant here at Copper Mountain was simple—keep her head down and concentrate on what she wanted, what she was here for: to win.
With that goal in mind, she headed for the fancy new locker rooms Travis McMahon had mentioned, first stop on her re-con tour.
Guilt bit at Jesse Carmody the moment he was within the town limits of Marietta. It bit harder still when he blew past the turnoff to head west, toward the Carmody family ranch. He hadn’t seen his family in more than a year, and he knew his siblings were anticipating his arrival, especially his younger sister, Sierra, but he needed to stable his horse out at the rodeo grounds before he did anything else. He’d been on the road for nearly three hours and his sorrel gelding, Major, needed out of the combination living-quarters horse-trailer hitched to the back of his pickup.
It was as good an excuse as any to delay his arrival, he figured. And if avoiding the inevitable awkwardness of a homecoming by a few hours made him a coward…well, so be it. He could live with that.
He pulled into the rodeo grounds and did a quick survey of what he could see of the newly rebuilt arena from the truck before driving around back to where the outdoor stalls were. Major gave him an eye roll and an impatient snort as Jesse released him from the trailer, backing him down the ramp. His hand light on the leading rein, Jesse took the gelding on a few slow laps of the yard before leading him to the outdoor stall they’d been assigned. As usual, he’d made arrangements ahead of time to make sure Major’s favorite feed and familiar bedding were on hand, and he was pleased to see both in evidence. He spent twenty minutes massaging the horse’s major muscles to help dissipate any travel fatigue. Only when Major had shown interest in both water and feed did he leave his four-legged buddy, carefully shutting the gate behind him.
About half the other corrals were empty, which meant there’d be a lot of arrivals later this afternoon and into the evening. He checked his watch as he walked back to his truck. He should probably unhitch and park his trailer in the lot set aside for competitors, then head out to the ranch. Get the big homecoming out of the way.
Instead, he veered off toward the stockyard. He’d been assigned one of the newer broncs in the competition in the draw yesterday, and he was keen to check the animal out.
He made his way to the nearest corral and rested his forearms on the top rail. He could see the tour’s vet busy inspecting bulls in one of the distant pens, checking the animals for injuries and health, part of the rodeo’s strict rules around animal welfare. Major would get a going-over, too, before being cleared for tomorrow’s exertions, as would all the other competitors’ horses.
He was looking for the distinctive gray and white coat of Buckmaster, the bronc he’d drawn, when movement drew his gaze to a cowboy leaning against a corral further along the run. He started to lift his hand in greeting, assuming it was someone he knew, when the cowboy shifted and he realized it was a she, not a he, the generous curves of her hips and chest giving the game away now that she was facing him. She flicked a glance his way, catching him with his hand midair, and he felt more than a little foolish. He changed the gesture into a casual adjustment of the brim of his hat, but he wasn’t sure he’d gotten away with it.
He hadn’t seen her around before. She wasn’t staff, and she definitely wasn’t one of the barrel-racing competitors—after months of touring together, he was more than familiar with all the regular faces. Maybe she was with one of the rough-stock suppliers? Or just a curious local?
He told himself it was none of his business, either way, and went back to looking for Buckmaster. Still, he was conscious of her pushing away from the rail and heading in his direction, and he couldn’t resist the impulse to check her out again. She was tall for a woman, with an athletic, long-legged stride. Despite her curves, she had the toned physique of the very fit, her thigh muscles visible through the soft denim of her jeans, her shoulders broad and strong. A thick, dark ponytail hung down her back, and her black straw cowboy hat cast her face in shadows, revealing only a stubborn-looking chin and a full-lipped mouth.
She lifted her chin as she moved closer and their eyes locked. Hers were dark brown and steady on his. She nodded her head in silent acknowledgment. He nodded in return.
“Afternoon,” he said.
She drew abreast of him, and just as she was about to pass by, there was a small hitch in her stride, and she stopped and turned on her heel.
“Excuse me. I don’t suppose you could tell me which one of these broncs is Hellion Boy?” she asked.
“In theory. Not sure where they’ve put him, though…” Jesse turned to scan the corrals, spotting the gelding in question after a few seconds. “There he is. Back corner, chestnut with the irregular blaze.”
She followed his pointing finger, eyes narrowed. “Thanks.”
She started to move off.
“You with the stock contractor?” he asked, turning to face her more fully. She was almost as tall as him, and up close he could see she had a light scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks beneath her tan. She was pretty rather than beautiful, but there was something about the way she held herself and her steady gaze that spoke to him.
“I’m a contestant,” she said.
“Yeah? You’ll have your work cut out for you, catching up with Lena Martinez, coming in late on the tour like this. She’s really racking up the points this year,” he said.
Her gaze slipped over his shoulder, focusing, he guessed, on the horse he’d just pointed out to her.
“Yeah, I heard the barrel racing was competitive this year,” she said, and there was something about the way she said it and the way she seemed to be distancing herself from him while still standing in front of him that piqued his curiosity.
That, and the way she filled out her jeans.
“Carmody. Not wasting any time, are you?”
Jesse glanced over his shoulder to see a trio of cowboys approaching, all three his competitors in steer roping and saddle bronc. The speaker, Dean, was wearing a shit-eating grin, his gaze traveling up and down the woman in front of Jesse like she was on sale in a shop window.
Subtlety wasn’t exactly Dean’s strong suit, with women or life in general. In his mid-twenties, he was pretty boy good-looking and full of swagger, with a reputation for partying hard.
“Did you boys just get in?” Jesse asked easily, shaking the hand Dean offered him, along with a slap on the shoulder.
“Came in yesterday. Just about to head into town and meet up with some of the boys. You in?” Dean asked.
“Probably gonna head out to the ranch,” Jesse said.
“That’s right. Forgot Marietta is home for you.” Dean’s gaze shifted away from Jesse. “Going to introduce us to your friend here?”
Jesse glanced at the woman. “We hadn’t gotten to names yet.”
The moment the words were out his mouth he realized how they sounded—as though he’d had a whole plan of attack where she was concerned.
“I take it back, Carmody—you are wasting time.” Dean turned up the dial on his smile. “Name’s Dean Maynard. Pleased to meet you.”
He offered the woman his hand.
“CJ Cooper,” she said.
“CJ. That short for something?” Dean asked.
“Cassidy Jane. That’s real pretty.” Dean waved a hand at Jesse and the other riders. “This dumb lug here is Jesse Carmody, and these two are Billy and Bobby Miller.”
CJ smiled politely. “Nice to meet you all.”
“So, CJ. You a local girl?” Dean asked, his big, easy grin inviting CJ to confess her sins so he could reward her for them.
Jesse had seen Dean turn on the charm like this in too many cities to count, but his gut told him the other man was about to crash and burn, big-time. Jesse had only known CJ Cooper for two minutes, but there was a determined set to her jaw and a challenging glint in her eye he was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining. Crossing his arms over his chest, Jesse leaned back against the rail.
This was going to be good.
“I’m not a local. I’m a contestant,” CJ said.
“Yeah? You joining the tour with us, huh?” Dean said, clearly pleased by the prospect. He hooked his thumbs into the front belt loops on his jeans, playing the cowboy to the hilt. “Lot of competition in the barrel racing this year. Hope you’re a good rider, sweetheart.”
Billy and Bobby both smirked at the clumsy double entendre.
“I’m not competing in the barrel racing,” CJ said. “I’m riding saddle bronc.”
Dean cocked his head, a frown pleating his forehead. “They doing some kind of exhibition program for the ladies this time around?”
“Nope. I’ll be competing with the men. Against you guys, actually. You all ride saddle bronc, don’t you? I recognize your names.” Her gaze took them all in, direct and quietly confident, and Jesse wondered if his surprise showed on his face.
“You can’t ride in the men’s comp,” Dean said, letting out an incredulous crack of laughter. “That ain’t gonna work, sweetheart.”
“It’s worked okay so far, well enough for me to qualify for my pro ticket,” CJ said with a modest shrug.
Jesse swept a gaze down her body again, seeing her athletic build in a new light. Strength-to-weight ratio was important in saddle bronc, but flexibility and having a low center of gravity played a part, too.
Theoretically there was no reason a woman wouldn’t be as good as a man. In fact, she might even have an advantage when it came to flexibility—if she had the guts to get on the back of a wild, bucking animal who was determined to throw her off.
“This is a men’s competition,” Dean said. “Always has been, always will be.”
“I’m not the only female saddle bronc rider. Kaila Mussell’s been riding broncs for years now,” CJ pointed out.
Dean’s face flushed an ugly red and he took a step closer to CJ, anger in every line of his wiry body. Jesse pushed away from the rail, surprised by the heat of the other man’s reaction and how quickly things had escalated.
“You listen here, sweetheart,” Dean said, turning the endearment into an insult. “You women might think you own the world now, but some things are sacred. Some kind of mistake has been made, and I’m gonna go sort it out right now.”
He swiveled on his heel, stalking off in the direction of the office, leaving a trail of dust in his wake. It took a moment for Jesse’s brain to catch up with events. One second Dean had been laughing, turning on the charm, hoping to get lucky, the next he’d been snarling like a cornered dog.
Jesse had never seen the other man so riled before.
“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure,” CJ said, her dry tone at odds with her words. Then she headed around the back of the bleachers, head high, shoulders back.
“Je-sus,” Bobby Miller said the moment she was out of earshot. “Thought Dean was gonna burst a vessel for a moment there.”
“He’s right, though. This ain’t no women’s sport. They got no business letting one into the comp without running it past the rest of us,” Billy said.
Jesse threw the other man a look. “Come on, Billy. You really want to get into a situation where competitors can blackball new blood?”
“But she’s not just new blood. She’s a woman,” Billy said, as if that fact alone was enough to make his point for him.
Jesse shook his head. “As far as I’m concerned, if she qualified like the rest of us, then she should be able to compete. Unless you guys are scared of going up against a woman?”
“Fuck off, Carmody,” Bobby said, half annoyed, half amused. “I bet she doesn’t even make it out of the chute. I bet this is just some bullshit PR stunt they’re pulling to try to get some media attention.”
“She must have placed or won plenty of times to get the prize money to qualify,” Jesse pointed out. “Pretty sure they didn’t bend the rules for her.”
“Want to bet?” Billy said darkly.
Jesse shook his head again. “Don’t go starting any stupid conspiracy theories, for God’s sake.”
Billy frowned at him. “You telling me you’re really cool with this?” His tone said he thought Jesse was mad, as well as some kind of traitor to his gender.
“I don’t care what a rider’s got between his or her legs—if they can last eight seconds, I’ll compete against ’em,” Jesse said. “It’s as simple as that.”
“You got rocks in your head, man,” Bobby said, looking genuinely bewildered by Jesse’s take.
Jesse made a rude noise. If this conversation lasted much longer, he was going to say something he’d regret. Like it or not, he spent a lot of time with these men. “I’ve got to get out to the ranch, see my family. I’ll catch you boys later.”
He didn’t hang around to wait for their response.
End of Excerpt