In the world of ropes and reins, rodeo is a passion, not a sport.
Tracy is the best team roper on the circuit, but the same tenacity that drives her talent makes her impulsive and reckless. Her career threatened by a fit of anger, she has only one chance to save the life she’s built.
Carson dreams of life beyond the family farm. When those dreams lead him to the world of team roping, he’s met head on by the beautiful and infuriating Tracy Miller. She’s his biggest competition, and he can’t seem to get her out of his life, or his head.
Can Tracy and Carson put aside their differences? Or will teaming-up with Carson destroy all of Tracy’s ambitions?
Tracy rested her right hand on her leg, but couldn’t quite relax it due to the brace’s hard, unrelenting position. Her left hand gripped the top of her steering wheel as her truck barreled down the highway toward Coaldale, Alberta; home sweet home.
Pulling into the small, five-acre lot she rented and called home, she parked her trailer. It wasn’t big. Enough space for three horses in the back—although only Jack currently resided there—and a modest living quarters in the front. It was one of those horse trailer-RV hybrids that were becoming very popular amongst those traveling the circuit.
Tracy hadn’t spared any expense on her trailer; after all, it was her home, and still cheaper than a house. Best of all, it was as mobile as she was. Coaldale was her hometown, or had been for as long as she could remember, although in recent years, it felt less welcome. However, her dad lived a few miles away, it was in the heart of Alberta, and she knew people here.
Climbing out of the truck, she walked around to the back of the trailer. “Hey, Whiskey Jack, we’re home,” she called out, reaching up with one hand to unlatch the bar that held the ramp in place.
Her phone began vibrating. Digging into her pocket, she pulled it out, and flipped it open.
“This is John Kendal, from the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association.”
She closed her eyes and sunk back against the trailer, sliding down until she was sitting.
“What can I do for you, John?” she managed to say in what she hoped was a cheerful voice.
“I really hate to call under the circumstances, but I’m afraid the committee has decided to expel you from the association.”
Tracy moved the phone from her face and swore under her breath. Putting it back to her ear, she grimaced and nodded, despite no one being able to see her response.
“How do I get back in?” Silence. “I can get back in, right?”
“If you return to the amateur circuit and earn a thousand points. You’ve had warnings, Tracy, so we do have to expel you. But if you can prove you’re serious, and change your ways—which means, no infractions, then I’ll approve your application.”
“Thanks, John. You’ll be hearing from me before the season is over.” She hung up before he could respond again, or change his mind, and slipped her phone back into her pocket.
A nicker sounded from inside the trailer, followed by a loud bang caused by the impatient horse’s stomping. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”
She unloaded Jack and unhitched the trailer, setting her home back up. Once she put everything in its proper place, she grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down in her lawn chair under the awning that made up her porch. She cracked the beer can open with a hiss and a pop, and brought the can to her lips.
The cold liquid hit her tongue and washed away the bitter taste of disappointment. She couldn’t keep her temper in check, and now, she didn’t have a clue what to do with her life. How long before it got around town that she was expelled? It didn’t take long for news to travel through places as small as Coaldale.
Setting aside her beer, she picked up her phone and entered a ten-digit number. Listening to it ring, she waited for an answer.
“Hello?” The answering voice was gruff and to the point, but oddly comforting to her. Perhaps it was the familiarity that made all her problems melt away.
“Dad, it’s Tracy.”
“Hey, girly, how was your weekend? Did you place in the money?”
The excitement in his voice only made everything sting a little more. “I would have, if Daryl hadn’t broken the barrier again.”
“Well, that’s the nature of the game. Better luck next time.”
“Daryl won’t rope with me again.”
“Then, find yourself another partner—”
“Dad, I got kicked out,” she cut him off.
Silence. She could hear him breathing, but he said nothing. He would, but only when he was ready.
“You’ll figure it out. I know you will.”
More silence. Her dad was a man of few words on most days, and empathizing was not something he excelled at. If she wanted to talk, Tracy had to carry the whole conversation.
“They’ll let me back in, if I can get enough points.”
“Good. You’re going to try for it, right? Get into the Canadian Finals?”
“I’m going to try. The season is already in full swing, and November will be here faster than I’d like. And there’s the matter of getting the required number of points …” she trailed off. It was a nearly impossible feat. She’d have to hit up every amateur rodeo in western Canada to have even half a hope of returning to the pro circuit in time to be eligible for the finals. Not to mention finding a new partner.
“There’s always next year.”
Those words seemed to define her life; there’s always next year. There’s always next year to settle down, to do even better than before, and to win the top spot in the Canadian Team Roping Finals.
Her phone beeped, letting her know a call was coming in. She pulled the phone away from her face to see who it was, and Vince’s name glowed up at her.
“Hey, Dad, I have a call coming in. We’ll talk later, okay?”
She clicked off the call and switched to the other line.
“Vince, what’s up?”
“Back at home, but not a whole lot. I’ve been thinking about your situation.”
“You’re thinking about me? It’s about time,” she replied, a mischievous crooked smile lighting up her lips, despite no one being there to see it.
She heard Vince sigh on the other end of the line. “Tracy, can you be serious for just a minute?”
“Sorry, it’s what I do.”
“Look, friends help friends, right?”
Tracy rolled her eyes, listening to him ramble. “Get to the point.”
“Right, well, if you need a job, I could use a little help around the ranch.”
“And how does your wife feel about that?”
“I wouldn’t have offered it to you if she wasn’t okay with it. The job is yours, if you want it, Rayna-approved and all.”
She grinned. Vince was the guy that got away. She met him years ago, here in Coaldale, at a local amateur rodeo. Back when he still did rodeos, that is. At the time, he was dating Jillian, making him unavailable to Tracy. She respected that. Tracy was many things: strong-willed, stubborn, had a short fuse, and liked to get what she wanted. When it came to men, although she wasn’t accustomed to losing, Vince was the one guy she never could win. She left him alone when he got married, and he left Coaldale not long after the marriage blew up.
She never got her chance with him. The next time he walked into her life, he’d already fallen in love with Rayna. Now they were married, and Tracy was still alone. Not that she cared; she just hated how he kept sneaking into her life.
“I’ll be there by the end of the week. Tell Rayna I said thanks.”
He chuckled and it sounded warm and inviting. “She cares about you, you know.”
“Right, I’ll believe that when I see it. I’ll see you later, Vince.”
She hung up and looked out at Jack grazing in the corral. The setting sun glistened off his golden palomino coat, making him look like part of the sunset.
Setting her phone on silent and putting it aside, she picked up her beer. Something about today had everyone calling her. Maybe that was because it was Monday, or maybe the world just wanted to keep her spinning. Either way, she didn’t want to hear the phone ring again today.
* * *
Tracy moved Jack up into a canter as she crested a coulee, riding toward her dad’s ranch. He made his home just a short five miles from hers, providing her with a couple hours of riding to get there by horseback. Her sprained, bruised hand rested on her right knee as she grasped her reins in her left hand. She moved with the bounding motion of the horse, the prairie grass passing beneath them in a blur.
Riding up to the ranch, she jumped off Jack, and put him in an empty stall. By the time she left the barn, her dad was walking out of the house to greet her.
“Staying for dinner?” he asked.
“What did you do to your hand?”
“Hope the other guy’s face looks worse.”
She laughed. Of course her dad knew her temper, rather than any mishap, caused the injury.
“His face was pretty hard.”
“I can see that. Maybe you should take another swing at him. That brace would help add a little more sting.”
Tracy walked into her dad’s arms. “Leave it to you to make me smile.”
“A father will do anything to see his little girl light up.”
He let her go and they walked into the house. Tracy took a seat at the kitchen table and watched her dad putter about.
“Where’s Glenda?” she asked, referring to his latest girlfriend. Her mom passed away a few years back from cancer, and now her dad seemed to have a string of lady friends. So far, she hadn’t seen any real emotional attachment with any of them. He was just trying to fill an empty space.
“I’m not. She wasn’t your mother.”
Tracy laughed. “No one will ever compare to Mom.”
“Ain’t that the truth?”
They fell into silence. Tracy didn’t really know where to go from there. Her mom was a touchy subject. The pain never seemed to fade, and an incessant emptiness filled the air in his home. Getting up, she busied herself by helping her dad prepare dinner. They didn’t speak, not even once. Even over dinner, they both stayed quiet.
She started clearing the table while her dad ran some water in the sink. Picking up a dishtowel, she dried as she searched for the words to tell her dad she was leaving town. Sure, Foremost was only an hour away, but she was all he had left. He was why she stayed in Coaldale for this long. That, and she didn’t know where else to go.
There really was no nice way to break it to him.
“I’m moving,” she blurted out while continuing to rub a dishtowel over a plate with unnecessary vigor, ignoring the fact that it had long been dried.
“Give the plate a rest, Tracy,” he said, not looking up. “Where are you going?”
“Foremost, for now, just to tide me over until I can get back on the circuit.”
He nodded. “Let me know when you leave. I’ll help you load up.”
“Friday, I think. But I’m not sure.”
Tracy finished drying the last dish, not that there were many with only the two of them, and walked over to the back door. Sitting down on a bench, she pulled on her boots.
“You should come watch me ride amateur.”
“You know I don’t watch.”
Tracy gave him a sad smile. She loved her dad, and they were close, or as close as two independent people could be. They were content to do their own thing, and rarely spent time together, but he was also her first phone call whenever she needed to talk something out. Maybe it was because they could have an entire conversation with only a handful of words being said aloud. But he never came to a single one of her rodeo rides, at least not since he was kicked out of the professional circuit. He watched her in the kid classes, but when he lost his professional cowboy status, he stopped going to the rodeos. It was up to Tracy’s mom to take her from then on.
He trained her, though, and spent countless hours teaching her how to rope, and get the timing just right, and the right angle to use so that her smaller stature wouldn’t prevent her from roping with the men. He made her into the cowgirl she was today, and she knew he was proud every time she called him to say she won another buckle. She also knew he didn’t judge her for getting kicked out. He just didn’t attend rodeos. It was too painful for him to see the life he’d thrown away.
She stood up and hugged him. “I love you, Dad,” she whispered. She didn’t know why she said it, since she hadn’t in years. Those three words were some that they never said, but just knew the other felt.
“Love you too, girly.”
The acknowledgement brought tears to her eyes and she quickly brushed them away as she pulled back and walked out the door. The screen storm door banged loudly behind her, but she didn’t turn around; she just walked straight into the barn and retrieved Jack from his stall.
Tacking him up, she mounted and rode away, careful to avert her eyes from the house. She didn’t want her dad to see how much his words impacted her. They shouldn’t have. She never doubted her dad’s love for her… but something about them being said out loud tore her up inside.
The sun set as she rode home, the sky slowly turning different shades of pink and gold, like an ever-changing painting. The coulees cast long shadows, and as the sun sank lower and lower, the animals of the night started to emerge. Crickets chirped all around and frogs joined in with the bass of their evening song. She rode past a herd of antelope that barely lifted their heads to watch her as she passed by, and quickly lowered them again to continue grazing. They obviously did not see her as any threat.
A truck blew past her on the road, scaring the herd of antelope and kicking up a cloud of dust that engulfed Tracy and Jack. She waved her braced hand around in obvious annoyance, trying to dispel the stifling, gravel dust.
“You live in Alberta and you don’t even know how to pass a horse and rider? Moron!” she grumbled.
Red brake lights broke through the cloud of dust before the truck reversed toward her. She pulled Jack to a stop, and waited. Good. Now I can give you a piece of my mind.
The tinted window rolled down, and a grinning face greeted her. Immediately, her anger dispelled to minor annoyance.
“Tracy, how’s it going?”
“It’s going, Shawn. Don’t you know better by now than to blow past a horse and rider?”
“Figured that if you’re riding the roads, you should be able to keep control of your mount.” He winked.
“You’re an idiot.”
“And you don’t look any worse for wear.”
“Is there a reason you stopped to talk to me?”
“Yeah, I’m on my way into town. A few of us are going out for drinks. Wanna join us?”
Tracy pressed her lips together and twisted them to one side. Spend some time with her friends? Or sit at home alone, again? It wasn’t much of a conflict.
“Sure, I’ll meet you there.”
“Why don’t I meet you at your place and give you a ride?”
It was no secret Shawn had been after Tracy for years. They dated briefly, in high school, and occasionally she fell for his cowboy charm after a drink or two. The night would usually end with him kissing her in his pick-up, country cliché and all that, and Tracy always regretted it later on. Every time she did that, she gave him a little bit of hope, although there definitely wasn’t any attraction on her part. She considered him a good friend, and nothing more. But if he wanted to give her a ride, he was probably hoping that the night would end the way of a country song.
“No, I’ll meet you there.”
Shawn tipped his trucker cap and nodded. “Okay, I’ll have a cold beer waiting for you.”
“That’s music to my ears.”
Shawn’s truck peeled off, leaving another cloud of dust in its wake, and Tracy shook her head, chuckling slightly. She could pretend to be mad all she liked, and if it were anyone else, she probably would have said an earful. But Shawn only did it because he knew it was her, and he liked to get a rise out of her. He was a nice guy, and thoughtful, patient, and considerate. He wouldn’t have done that to someone he didn’t think could handle it.
Nudging Jack into a canter, she covered the remaining couple of miles home in short order. Going about her evening chores, she tried to swallow her frustration over her less-than-useful right hand. What was Vince thinking? Hiring her as a ranch hand, knowing she would be pretty much useless for another couple weeks? Even getting dressed was a bit of a challenge.
She finally climbed into her truck, pulled her hair into a ponytail, and slipped a baseball cap on her head. Normally, she liked to keep her thick, curly, blond hair contained in a braid, but that was too hard with the brace minimizing her dexterity. Her hat and ponytail would do for now. At least it kept her hair off her neck.
Her truck flew down the gravel roads, covering the distance into town at ninety kilometers an hour, and not slowing down until she hit the paved road that led into town. Pulling up outside the local watering hole, she got out of her truck. She stepped down on the running board and jumped the rest of the way to the ground. Walking in, she glanced around. The bar was full tonight, but there wasn’t much else to do in Coaldale on a Tuesday after work.
Her eyes went over to the sound of her name being called, and she immediately spotted Shawn waving her over. She smiled and walked toward the table of her friends, grabbing the only empty seat. Of course, it just happened to be next to the guy she was trying not to lead on anymore. Oh well, it wasn’t like she chose to sit there. It was the only spot left.
He slid an empty cup in her direction and grabbed the pitcher of golden liquid that sat sweating in the middle of the table, and poured her a glass.
“A beer, as promised.”
The table was full of familiar faces, people she’d known all throughout school until now. Everyone lived in this small town. That’s what she loved about Coaldale; everyone knew each other. They’d grown up together, and loved and lost together. It was like one big family. Of course, that came with its downside too.
But one face wasn’t so familiar. He sat across from her, his cowboy hat drawn low, hiding his eyes from her gaze and leaving only a strong jaw line visible. Covered in a five o’clock shadow, his full lips were pressed into a straight, uninterested line.
“Hey, stranger,” she said, trying to get his attention.
He looked up and a slight upturn at the corner of his lips was as much of a smile as he could offer.
“I’m Tracy,” she tried again, extending her hand across the table. “I’d give you my right hand, but it’s currently out-of-commission.”
That got a raised eyebrow from him as he glanced at the brace, then up at her. Finally, she managed to meet his gaze. His eyes were soft and hesitant, and the way he held himself told her he was uncomfortable. Either he was stuck up, or shy. But the softness in his eyes made her think it was more likely the latter.
He took her hand and gave it a little shake.
“How’d you do that?” he asked, nodding at her right hand.
“Lost my temper.”
He raised his eyebrow. Then an arm snaked around her shoulder and interrupted them.
“Tracy is notorious for her flying fists and fast tongue. This girl should have been born a redhead,” interjected Shawn.
She swallowed her annoyance. She was actually curious about this newcomer, and the instant Shawn opened his mouth, the stranger seemed to retreat right back into his shell.
“And if you don’t watch where you put your hand, you might just be on the receiving end of that hot temper.”
Shawn laughed, but his arm lifted off her shoulder.
She remained quiet for a while, drinking her beer and listening to the conversation around her. She kept one eye on the stranger seated across from her, however, waiting for an opening to talk to him again. Over an hour passed, and he didn’t say a single word beyond, “Pass the pitcher.”
Finally he scraped his chair back and stood up. Tracy watched him. He was tall. Really tall. She wasn’t a short woman at five-foot, nine inches, but she was fairly certain that if she stood next to him, she’d only reach his shoulders.
“I’m gonna go grab another pitcher,” he said, walking away.
Tracy watched him go. He leaned on the bar, one leg straight, and the other bent at the knee.
Scraping back her chair, she got up.
“Where’re you going?” asked Shawn.
“Grabbing a whiskey.”
She walked up next to the tall cowboy, trailing her fingers across his back, and causing him to stiffen and tense beneath her touch, before she leaned on the bar next to him. He looked over at her, surprise written on his handsome face and a slight blush crept up beneath his stubble.
“I didn’t catch your name earlier.”
“What brings you to Coaldale, Carson?” she asked, putting on her most charming smile as she looked up at him.
“Just passing through.”
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I don’t find the need to fill the silence with useless chatter.”
Tracy frowned. She barely said anything tonight, yet he said the words like an accusation.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I annoyed you so much.”
His face softened, and he smiled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you. I just meant in general.”
“We don’t have to stay here, you know, if you aren’t enjoying yourself.”
“My ride is here. I’m staying with my cousin, Allen.”
“I’ll take you home.”
Carson raised an eyebrow, but remained silent. It seemed like he was studying her. “Are you trying to pick me up?”
“Would you be upset if I were?”
“I’d think that you’re being awfully bold.”
“If you don’t ask for what you want, you can’t expect to get it.”
A laugh erupted from him, and not just a little one, but a full-bellied laugh of genuine amusement. She smiled. Most girls might have gotten embarrassed at that point, but not Tracy. She succeeded in surprising him, and she liked that. It gave her the upper hand.
When he stopped laughing, she placed some money on the bar to pay her tab, and turned back to him. “I’m heading out. If you want a ride, feel free to join me. I’m only waiting for five minutes, though.”
She walked away, not glancing back. She could feel his gaze burning into her back, and instantly knew she made an impression. She wouldn’t have to give him five minutes before he’d be right behind her.