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Willow McBride glared at the white and pink plastic stick with the two bold pink lines. Not one. Two. And not even a pale second one so that she could pretend. Not that she’d ever lived one day of her life in denial. She hadn’t had that luxury because her mom was fragile—a creative, prone to migraines, and inexplicable impulses to sage rooms, sprinkle sea salt, read strangers’ auras or walk barefoot into the night to communicate with spirits or head to her studio to paint.
By the time Willow had been six, she knew how to wake herself up before dawn, dress, do laundry, make breakfast, complete her chores, and pack a lunch and snack for herself and brother and run a mile down the gravel drive to catch the school bus. By eight, she’d mastered the art of casseroles and Crock-Pot cooking.
She’d been a mom to her mom before puberty and had no wish to repeat the experience.
Willow allowed herself one stomp of her electric-blue custom Kelly Boots with the fringe and white stars before she exited the rodeo fairground bathrooms. She cracked the stick in half and tossed it in one of the large metal trash receptacles brimming with cups of mostly drunk soda, kettle corn, cold fries, congealed ‘cheese’ on broken nacho chips and half-eaten hot dogs oozing mustard, ketchup and relish.
She dredged up her fan smile, the champion barrel racer one, and sharked through the crowds to the backstage area. Little Belt Cowboys Rodeo was the first in Montana’s pro rodeo summer circuit, and she was two weeks late.
She should have skipped the exhibition Glacier Country Rodeo that had kicked off the rodeo season. She didn’t have anything to prove, and it would have given her another two weeks to do repairs on the front steps and porch of the homestead house on the dwindling McBride ranch. She hoped to live in the tiny house, which once belonged to her maternal grandparents and had been absorbed into the McBride spread once they’d died.
But she’d wanted to make a good impression on the sponsors, maybe grab a few new ones before the season was underway. She’d imagined investing in the homestead house over the next few years just as she’d rebuilt the old barn so she could use it to launch her own horse training program. For years during the off-season, she’d worked at the Wilder Dreams stables for Tucker Wilder, who’d been her mentor, boss and friend. She liked working for Tucker but had had such an uncertain childhood fraught with financial difficulties that she wanted to have control over her destiny.
She didn’t want fate or her dumb hormones to dictate squat.
She waved to a few of her competitors—the other barrel racers—preparing their horses, while her mind spun with regret.
She’d had a fun couple months with Jake Reynolds last season, but when she’d headed home in September, they’d both said goodbye and, she thought, meant it. But he’d been there smiling when she’d exited the winner’s circle for the first exhibition event of the season, prize money in hand, ready to take her to a country-western honkytonk to celebrate and schmooze with the sponsors. Jake, a bull rider, was a favorite with fans and sponsors and so easy to say yes to.
I should have said no.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda. The words drum beat in her brain. But no. After a short autumn, long winter and cold spring working, finishing the renovations on the old barn, and helping her dad on the flailing ranch, paying bills and ensuring her mom ate, Willow had been ready for fun. Jake was a good storyteller, a better dancer and generous in bed.
“Dumb fun,” she muttered still seeing those dang cheery pink lines taunting her though she’d trashed the evidence.
Just when she finally felt in control of her life and out from under the constant specter of poverty and fear for her Special Forces brother’s safety, because he’d announced he was coming home for good, Willow had been tossed into the dirt.
She swallowed her dismay and panic. She could handle this. She had to. And she needed to pull herself together. She had to be one hundred percent when she and Montana Wind entered the arena this afternoon. Focus. No doubt. And with a baby on the way, the money would be even more important.
How long could she ride? How long could she hide it from her unpredictable mother and taciturn father? Heck, what would the fans think? And the sponsors? Rodeos projected the image of family-friendly events with far more conservative fans than Willow imagined other sports had. She and Jake had never talked about a future beyond the next rodeo or dinner and dancing date.
She’d have to tell him.
And that soured her stomach.
Don’t think about it now.
She didn’t want to think about it ever.
The financial insecurity and daily instability that had colored her entire childhood roared back with a vengeance, and she stopped walking, closed her eyes, and let her fingers brush along the worn wood of the corrals housing the horses. She breathed in the familiar scent: horse, dirt, sawdust, popcorn and fried food.
Focus. Only the next ride mattered.
She breathed in and out. Confident she could strong-arm her worry back into the dark hole in her head like she’d done as a child. Her mom and dad and the failing ranch needed her and her income. Her baby would need her—if she kept it, but could she give her baby up for adoption?
The lid on the panic and questions wouldn’t stay shut.
She’d been a fool. She knew better. Last season she’d been on top, and she’d relaxed a little, let herself succumb to the flirtations of bull rider and part-time model and actor wannabe Jake Reynolds. Their romance had been casual and good fun, but quite public. She hadn’t liked the public part, but being on the arm of a fan favorite had increased her visibility. Jake was very easy on the eyes and could charm anyone, including stupid her. She’d never been comfortable with the social elements of her job, but Jake had made them easy.
She wanted to kick herself for letting her guard down. She’d only ever relied on herself. But now Jake would be in the mix. What would he think? What would he want to do? Willow shoved the questions aside. She’d find out soon enough.
End of Excerpt