Excerpt

The Cowboy Meets His Match

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 yetSave 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 allowedto 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 hadbeen 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.

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