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“There you are, cowboy,” his cousin Bodhi Ballantyne greeted him at the large sponsor tent where Beckett Ballantyne had been signing autographs and posing for pictures before the Panhandle Rodeo finals started. A few carnival-style games had been set up outside the tent along with a roping demonstration.
Beck waved at the family he’d been posing with and checked his watch. He’d stayed fifteen minutes past his volunteer slot, and since another couple of rodeo cowboys had arrived, he thanked the coordination volunteers and stepped over the low white picket fence with fake floral arrangements and hay bales that had been set up for the family photos with the cowboy of their choice.
“I raised nearly twenty-five hundred dollars for the children’s hospital in Boise,” Beck said happily.
“I raised nearly three thousand yesterday.” Bodhi didn’t miss a beat. He never did.
“Seriously?” Beck’s disappointment stabbed deep even as his competitive spirit flared. “My line was the longest they had today, and the volunteers asked if I could come back after my final events.”
“Won’t nobody be there…” Bodhi’s amused glance raked over him as they exited the tent “…seeing as everyone with a pulse will be watching me ride Victory to a truly devastating first place in the bull-riding finals. That one hundred percenter rank bull is gonna lose.”
“Bowen won’t let you squeak out another win over him that quick.” Beck laughed. “He drew Head Banger, who’s scored more performance points than Victory on his last four rides.”
“Exactly. You boys done discussing my superiority and ready to redeem yourselves?” Bowen Ballantyne, his cousin who was older by almost three years that had felt like a decade when Beck had been a kid trying to keep up, sauntered over, carnival game tickets dangling from his fingers. “Who’s willing to accept the challenge?”
Bodhi snatched the tickets. Beck immediately swiped them away.
“Ever heard of sharing?” Bowen produced another wad of tickets that he tossed at Bodhi and kept another bunch for himself.
“What’s the prize?” Beck and Bodhi asked at the same time.
“Pride, not prize. Half the proceeds from the carnival today go to the children’s hospital.” Bowen picked up a basketball and, still facing them, shot it backward over his shoulder, and even though the rim was angled to make it nearly impossible to drain a shot, the ball swooshed through the net.
“In or out?” Bowen challenged, his grayish-blue eyes narrowed even as his dark brows arched in a look that was so familiar Beck’s heart rate kicked up and his spirit soared. His oldest cousin had often laid down challenges for him and Bodhi. And the familiarity—being together, egging each other on—felt so right, when the past couple of months had felt so off for him.
Of course it was game on—basketball shots, darts at balloons, Skee-Ball. Between the three of them, they amassed quite a collection of colorful, fuzzy creatures that they handed out to young children arriving with their parents to try their luck before the rodeo finals.
They also drew more than their share of female attention—something Bodhi often took advantage of. But Beck, who’d had the same girl since high school who now worked on the pro rodeo staff even after receiving her MS in public health four years ago, had never once considered taking advantage of what Ashni had declared to be “one of his many superpowers—being way too easy on the eyes.”
He’d never even kissed another girl and had only once speculated about it a couple of months ago with his cousins in a bar one night after he’d bombed in the finals that evening and had been feeling particularly out of sorts.
He’d be lying if he hadn’t thought about it a few more times since, especially as he and Ash seemed out of sync. It was messing with his head and his performance. His wins and money were down, and the joy was gone. Riding and roping and bulldogging felt like a job he had to slog through instead of an adventure.
Ash always brought the light and magic, and lately he’d felt alone. Her taking two weeks for her cousin’s wedding couldn’t have come at a worse time for him, and he knew absolutely he was being unfair. He understood family and commitments. But he missed her and felt unsettled without her and watching Bodhi chat and flirt with various women including a busty blonde whom he handed a large blue bear to and autographed the bear’s white tummy, felt somehow dangerous. Beck had been privy to Bodhi’s sexy charm offensive since high school—watching him flirt women out of their panties and most everything else as effortlessly as he’d order a beer at a honky-tonk.
He knew he didn’t want that. Even as he wondered what it would be like to let the flirt unspool just a little, the idea made him feel dirty.
He had to get his head on straight before his events. Beck handed off his last fuzzy win to a child when a prize at another booth caught his eye.
“You don’t see that every day.” Bodhi laughed at the large plush horse rearing up, a paintbrush in its mouth and a rainbow of colors on a palette sewn onto one hoof. A red beret perched jauntily on its head.
“I want to win it for Ashni,” Beck declared. Ash had studied studio art along with epidemiology in college. When he and his cousins retired from the tour and moved to their granddad’s Montana ranch, he’d build her an art studio.
“It’s huge,” Bowen said, Mister Practical. “It will take up the back seat of your truck.”
“I’m going to win it.”
If he won the quirky-looking artist horse, maybe he wouldn’t feel so guilty. And Ashni would know that even when she was back home in Denver participating in her cousin’s elaborate three-day wedding, he’d been thinking of her. She’d also know that he still thought of her as the artist—the singer, studio artist, and science nerd—he’d first fallen in love with.
She was due back this afternoon. Maybe instead of heading straight to the ranch, they’d have a quiet dinner—just them. And a hotel. His blood and hope surged.
“Bet she kicks you out of bed in favor of the plush.” Bodhi grinned. “Let’s do it. I’ll help.”
Bodhi strode up to the booth. Ping-pong balls had to be tossed into small glass bowls with narrow lips and a goldfish swimming inside.
“I don’t need help.” Beck strode after him.
“You both need your heads examined.” Bowen followed them. “You’re going to end up with an aquarium of goldfish—not exactly conducive to a life on the road. Buy her a damn ring already. Be practical. You need the space.”
“Yeah. That’s why he should ball and chain it—a ring will save space in his truck.” Bodhi snorted.
Beck’s chest seized.
A ring. A diamond. Forever. He wanted forever with Ash. But not yet. He wasn’t ready. He still had a lot to prove. Money to earn. And he wasn’t leaving his cousins on the tour without him. They’d always had each other’s backs. Always. And then there was his mother’s marriage examples he couldn’t quite shake off.
“Plenty of time for a ring,” Beck said with more ease than he felt. “When we retire. All of us.” He looked at his cousins to ensure that they knew he was keeping the promise they’d made so long ago. Then he handed over the rest of his tickets and stepped to the line.
It took Bodhi’s help to win the grand prize, and he’d no more than headed out of the games area flanked by his cousins so he could go prepare for his three events in the finals—steer wrestling, calf roping and saddle bronc riding—when he saw a young girl clutching a box of crayons and the pro rodeo tour coloring book staring at him, her mouth wide open.
“You’re the cowboy on the cover.” She held up the book for him to see. The coloring books were free to kids. Ashni had amused herself sketching many of the cowboys last year on the tour, and she’d turned her line drawings into a coloring book. The tour paid the printing fees and gave out the books to kids at every rodeo event. Ashni had been so excited in her own quiet way. She’d shyly admitted that it had made her feel like she was still an artist, and it was a way to give back to the community.
“I am.” He smiled at the young girl, who looked to be maybe seven or eight. She was pale and frail. He saw a port peeking out of her loose-fitting pink T-shirt with a bucking horse in rhinestones that hung off her thin shoulders.
His heart broke a little each time he saw a kid battling a life-threatening disease, but he still went to the pediatric wards at a hospital in most of the cities he hit on the tour, Ashni by his side. She would draw with kids or sit and play her guitar and sing.
“I’m going to be an artist when I grow up,” she said. “It just takes practice, wanting it and expiration.” Her voice was thin, but her eyes glowed with determination. Her hair was wispy blonde on her head, just growing back.
“Inspiration,” her mother whispered, smiling at her daughter, her hand smoothing over her daughter’s narrow shoulders.
No man by her side and no ring, Beck noted, feeling more despair sweep through him. How could a man ever leave his child and the mother of his child, especially during an illness?
But men left. He knew it first-hand. His cousins knew it too.
“Well then—” he squatted down “—maybe this guy can help inspire you.” He handed her the artistic horse.
The girl’s eyes got huge. “Really? For me?” she whispered. The horse was nearly as large as she was.
Her mother blinked hard. “Are you sure?”
“Bless you,” she whispered.
He stood. “My pleasure, ma’am.” He handed her two tickets that would get her in the VIP section for the finals.
“It’s too much,” she breathed. “The tour already gave the hospital tickets for many families.”
“Seats are more comfortable in this section, and the food and drink vendors come to you. Enjoy your day.”
“What’s the horse’s name?” the little girl asked, tugging on his hand while her other arm wrapped tightly around the animal.
He had no idea. It was her choice, wasn’t it?
“Absolution,” Bodhi answered. “The horse’s name is Absolution.”
What the heck? Beck opened his mouth to tell the girl his cousin was teasing, but she gazed at the plush animal’s comical expression with a steadfast devotion that broke his heart a little more.
“Hello, Abso…abso something. I’m Amanda.”
“Pleased to meet you, Amanda.” He touched her head softly and tipped his hat. “Ma’am.”
He and his cousins walked back to the arena.
“Smart move,” Bowen said. “You did a good deed and don’t have storage issues.”
“But you’re also out a mea culpa gift for Ashni,” Bodhi added. “Might I suggest a big, sparkly ring that will blind other drooling cowboys from across the bar and howl in a true Neanderthal style ‘this one’s taken, boys.’”
Beck increased his speed.
“Get her a ring or cut her loose. This is embarrassing,” Bodhi called out.
Beck peeled off to the dressing room so he could put on his chaps and wrap his ribs. He pulled off his tee, grabbed one of the many rolls of tape and began to wrap. When he competed, he wore a Kevlar vest, but the tape offered protection and stability for his often aching ribs.
“You’re in trouble, cuz. I can feel it.” Of course Bodhi couldn’t leave him alone.
Beck shoved in his mouth guard so he didn’t say something he’d later regret.
“If you love her…” Bodhi picked up the medical tape to wrap Beck’s shoulder even though he’d been pretty injury-free even this late in the season “…I don’t see why you’re cowering outside of the chute.”
Lovely image. Beck pulled out his mouth guard. “I don’t need relationship advice from a man whose relationships last an hour.”
Bodhi expertly finished the wrap and ripped off the tape with his teeth.
“I last way longer than that,” he taunted, flipping his wrist so the mouth guard jammed back in Beck’s mouth. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
Beck yanked out his mouth guard again.
But Bodhi beat him to the punch line. “You should have kept the horse. Least you’d have some company in bed.” Bodhi tipped his hat and was gone, leaving Beck to flip off empty space.
End of Excerpt