Authors: Dinah McLeod
She supposed it must be, because anytime she suggested taking even teeny, tiny baby steps in that direction—like asking Wade to help her in the bathtub, for example—he acted like she’d lost her mind. Maybe she had, but she knew that she couldn’t live without her secret desire. She had tried, but the more she tried to stuff it down deep, the fiercer the need was when it resurfaced, as it always did.
“Hey, I was gonna head out for a brew. Is this all you made today?”
Scarlett was jarred out of her thoughts when Wade came back in the bathroom, holding a fistful of bills in his clenched hand. She already knew just how much he held—her tips for the day, amounting to twenty-seven dollars. “Yeah. Give me just a minute and I’ll dry off and—”
“Don’t worry about it. I can see you’re busy.” He gave her a half-smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m heading on out. Don’t wait up, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Wade turned around and walked away as though her objection hadn’t reached his ears. She tried to tell herself that he must not have heard her, but somehow, her heart just wasn’t in it. She briefly thought about jumping out and toweling off, but it was no use. If he didn’t want her to go, she wouldn’t have fun anyway. She’d no sooner dismissed the idea when she heard the door slam.
With another long-suffering sigh, she sank back under the cooling water and what suds remained. She closed her eyes and a vision of a tall, broad stranger sprang to her mind. He seemed too real, she could practically feel him. And then, she saw herself beside him, reaching for his large hand and calling him ‘daddy.’
Two months later
“You ready for this?” Jason asked, glancing sideways at his brother.
“Yup. Let’s git ‘er done. And I decided to go bareback, so you know.”
“Dammit, Colt,” he swore. “You’re gonna get yourself killed one of these days.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“What’s the matter? That pretty brunette I saw goin’ into your trailer wasn’t feisty enough?”
“They never are,” he replied with a half-grin. “Now c’mon.”
“I’m serious, bro,” he protested, hurrying to catch up as Colt began to walk away. “I know you’re not the smartest fella, but even
can find something to do for a livin’ that doesn’t risk your neck every day.”
“Not that pays ten thousand. Besides, that’s why I do this—when I win, I can take a month off so I
keep riskin’ my neck every day.”
There was more to it than that and Jason knew it. Colt could have afforded to retire of his rodeo winnings a long time ago. At thirty, he’d made more in the last year than some people made in five. He was good, and everybody that was anybody in the rodeo circuit knew it. Colton was the real deal: he was strong, smart, and fearless. Recklessly so, in Jason’s opinion.
He seemed to crave danger and while every now and again he’d take a break, he’d always be back at it before long. Jason feared that it wouldn’t be long before he took a fall that would put an end to bull riding and the like for good.
“I’m tellin’ you,” he continued, pulling up to his brother. “You find the right woman and you can finally put an end to all this foolishness.”
“Now why would I want to do that?”
“Maybe so you’ll be happy for a change. Besides, you’re gettin’ a little too old for this, don’tcha think? Now, you never did say who that good-lookin’ gal was that I saw headed over to your trailer a few hours ago.”
“I’m plenty happy. Though, have to admit I’ll be a good deal happier with ten grand linin’ my pocket.”
“Yup. Plenty to buy a nice diamond ring.”
“Knock it off, Jas.”
“So, who’s the girl?”
“A girl,” Colton shrugged.
“She got a name?”
“If you’re so interested, feel free to go ask her yourself. You and Melisa havin’ problems, bro?”
“Alright, alright.” Jason held up his hands in a show of surrender. “You don’t wanna talk about the girl, I got it. But I still say you’re gonna fall off your horse one o’ these days and give mama a heart attack.”
“What do you want me to do?” Colton laughed. “Work behind some desk like you? No thanks. I like to get my hands dirty,” he winked. “Now, if it bothers you so much, you can go on back home. I won’t take it personally.”
“Don’t break anything, you idiot,” he muttered.
“I’ll do my best,” he grinned, clapping Jason on the back. “Enjoy the show.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Once Colton walked off to get ready, Jason found his seat. They both knew that he wasn’t going anywhere. As much as he hated to see his brother take these kind of risks, he couldn’t deny that the danger was the very reason that it was so thrilling to watch. He could well remember what it felt like to ride a bucking bronco, how it felt to hear the crowds cheering, not to mention how it felt to win. But he had a family now—a wife and a one-year-old daughter. He couldn’t afford the risks anymore. Some days, he thought that his brother longed for the same, though he’d laugh and shrug it off if ever Jason dared to broach the subject.
* * *
Colton was doing just that as he prepared for the competition. Before he went out, he always cleared his head, plucking out thoughts one by one until his sole focus was what he was about to do. As much as he hated to admit it—and never would, to his brother—what Jason said did get him thinking. He’d turned thirty last month and the truth was, he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be able to keep up doing the rodeo before he took a fall or sustained some injury. Of course he wanted to meet someone and calm down, but it had to be the
someone. He refused to settle and girls like the one he was looking for didn’t seem to exist. He’d been accused more than once of being too picky, but that usually came from the girls he spurned, or from his mother, who wanted more grandchildren, so he didn’t take it much to heart.
he told himself, as he always did when the thought inevitably came.
“You ready to win, fella?” he murmured to his horse Wayne as he stroked his flank. “Bet none of the horses accuse
of getting too old.” Of course, maybe he was, Colton reflected as he took a good, long look at his horse. They’d been doing this same dance for the last decade or so—maybe it was getting time to call it quits while they were both still in good shape.
Just then, Wayne neighed loudly and reared up, kicking his brown leg in the air before he landed again.
“You’re right,” he laughed, patting the horse affectionately. “You and me, we’re still plenty young. What was I thinkin’?”
* * *
“Cash me out,” Colton said as he pushed his winning slip across the counter to the cashier.
“Second place,” the man whistled, looking suitably impressed. “Not bad, man.”
“Gotta good horse,” he laughed, gratefully accepting the bills that the cashier pushed toward him. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. Will I be seeing you in Luverne next week?”
“Shoot, no. I promised Wayne we’d take the week off if we won tonight.”
“You still believe that animal can understand you?” he hooted.
“Better than most people, I ‘spect. Thank you kindly.” Colton quickly split the bills into three piles and stuffed his pockets. Unlike most of the men he knew, he wouldn’t be blowing his or putting it under his mattress when he got home. He was going to deposit it in the morning—having a bank account seemed to be almost unheard of among these folk.
“Nicely done, bro!”
He grimaced as Jason clapped him heartily on the back and practically shouted in his ear. “Damn, you don’t have to make me go deaf.”
“Shoot, if you’re not deaf by now, I guess nothin’ will do it,” Jason said, smiling broadly. “Sure am glad I bet on you tonight, bro. Excuse me jus’ a moment.”
Colton took a step back, sporting a little grin of his own. It was easy to remember why he did this with his ears still ringing from the shouts of the crowd, his adrenaline still pumping. He always felt so much more alive, particularly after a big win with cash lining his pockets. In those moments, he doubted that he’d ever give up the rodeo. He just wouldn’t be himself without it. As his face nearly split with the size of his smile, he thought that the only two things that could make his day even better would be an ice-cold beer or two and a soft, pliable woman in his bed.
“What do you say I treat you to a brewsky?”
“You read my mind, bro. Just let me—” Colton stopped talking abruptly when he heard a shrill scream coming from the arena. Without pausing to think, he launched into a run. He was dimly aware of the commotion around him. Every eye seemed trained on the arena, some folks yelling warnings, some standing stock-still as if too afraid to move. As he neared the ring, out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a young girl. All he could make out was her pale face and the cloud of soft gold hair. None of that registered with him near as much as the horror in her wide blue eyes when the horse in the arena began to rear on its hind legs.
He’d been doing this for a long time and Colton could read horses quite well. The one the little girl faced was pissed as hell to have such a little thing interrupting him, and he looked damn-near ready to kill her for daring to intrude. Colton ran as fast and as far as his legs would take him, not daring to hope that he would make it in time—not daring to think of what would happen if he didn’t.
He leapt and dived toward her, barely knocking the girl out of the way before the horse’s angry hooves landed on his right shoulder. He fell to the ground, grunting with the impact of it, and raised his arms to protect his head as best he could. He shut his eyes tight, trying to drown out the unintelligible roar of noise all around him. All that mattered what that he’d gotten the girl out of the way—if she had any sense, she’d get out of the arena while she still could. And if not, well, he wouldn’t be of much help.
He braced for the next kick, certain it would come, but instead he felt himself being hauled to his feet.
“You alright, man?”
No sooner had he opened his eyes than Jason was barreling toward him and pushing past the man who’d helped him up. “What the hell, Colt? I saw that damn horse get your shoulder! Are you okay, bro?”
Colton turned his head to see the wild horse had been saddled and was being led off by a group of three men. “Yeah,” he grimaced, feeling pain shoot from his wounded shoulder. “I’m fine.”
“I’ve never seen you move so fast, bro. You might have saved that girl’s life.”
“Nah. Someone would have gotten to her.” He turned his head again to try to catch sight of her.
“Don’t know ‘bout that. No one else seemed to be thinkin’ straight. She’s lucky you were there.”
“Well, let’s get you to the doc and see about that shoulder.”
“Hold up a sec. I need to do something first.”
Without a word, Colton walked away, headed straight for the girl who was surrounded by a circle of concerned bystanders. When one turned and saw him coming, he said something to the crowd that begin to disperse at his approach. “Hey there,” he said, looking at the girl. She looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes, her face so pinched that he wondered if the stallion had gotten her after all. “How are you holdin’ up?”
“I… I’m fine,” she said, in a voice as soft as a whisper. “Thank you so much for what you did.”
Before he could reply, she launched herself into his unsuspecting arms. He was so surprised by the warmth of the gesture that he found himself hugging her back. She was a tiny little thing and felt so fragile that he was afraid his gentle hug would shatter her bones. “I can’t believe you saved me,” she said as he broke away, tilting her face and looking up at him with something akin to hero worship.
“Well, I wish I hadn’t had to,” Colton replied, trying for a firm tone despite the fact that the gratitude etched on her gentle, elfin features was making him feel funny. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
“I… I thought the horse was pretty,” she muttered, blushing as though she knew how silly she sounded.
“Oh, very pretty,” he snorted. “Not to mention mean as all get-out. Where’s your parents?”
Colton tried to stuff his temper down, even as he wondered if she ever spoke without stuttering. “Your father here? I’d sure love to hear what he has to say about that fool stunt you just pulled.”
“Um, no. He’s not.”
“Your mother then,” he prompted, his impatience leaking into his voice.
“I’m here by myself, actually.”
He frowned down at her, wondering if she was lying. Surely no decent parent would let such a little thing like her go to the rodeo on her own? He certainly wouldn’t, if she were his daughter. She looked like a good gust would carry her away—much too fragile to be around rough men and dangerous animals.
“Are you hurt?”
“Where do you live?” he asked, ignoring the question. “I’ll give you a ride home and talk to your folks then.”
“You want to talk to my parents?” she asked, her brow wrinkling. “Why?”
“Well, I think they have a right to know what kind of stunt you just pulled, don’t you?”
“Um, well, the thing is… I don’t exactly—”
“Exactly what?” Colton asked, frustrated to the point of being ready to take her over his knee himself.
“I don’t have parents. I mean, I do. I did. That is, my mother died two years ago.”
“Oh.” He was so caught off guard that for a moment, he didn’t speak. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said at last.
“And… and your father?”
“I never knew my father,” she admitted, looking away as though she had something to be ashamed of.
“Well, I’m sure he’s worse off for it. Who do you live with, then? Family?”
“No. I don’t live with anyone.”
“You mean…” He trailed off, feeling more and more uncomfortable with each passing second. “You mean you live on the streets?”
The spluttering laugh that emitted from her pretty red lips seemed to take her as much by surprise as it did him, if her flushed cheeks were any indication. “No, I, ah, just live by myself. I have a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not much, it’s not in the best neighborhood or anything, but…”