No. Scratch that. I fucking hate him.
“Stop it!” There’s irritation in my voice as I push my shoulder against Deacon’s muzzle, and I immediately feel guilty. It’s not my horse’s fault my mood has turned sour. It’s not his fault that the one person I despise more than anyone else in the universe decided to show up tonight.
This is a small rodeo. The big names usually can’t be bothered with this one. It’s why I came here. It was the roar of the crowd that clued me in, that told me something wasn’t right. Only big shot cowboys get that kind of cheers in a place like this.
I peek over the railing and I see him. Even though his back is to me, I know it’s him. It’s the swagger that gives him away. Younger bronco riders are rushing over to pat him on the back. One pulls off his number and has him sign it. I feel the anger rising in me like lava, but I need to calm down, because I just heard my number over the loudspeaker.
“Next up we have Number 437, Gina Louise Smith riding Devil’s Deacon. Gina’s a hometown girl and has won this championship three years in a row, but tonight she’s got some stiff competition…”
It’s not safe to ride as shaky as I am, but I’m not going to let that bastard get the best of me. I’m sure that’s why he showed up just before my ride. He’ll get a good laugh if I blow this. I tell myself not to glance over to where he is a few chutes down. I do it anyway and see him wearing the same easy smile that always made my panties drop.
That pussy of yours is as hot as a sunburn, girl. Only sunburns hurt and you feel good…
My hands are shaking as I get on. My legs feel like rubber. Deacon tenses under me. Horses know where your head is as soon as your butt hits the saddle. Out of my peripheral vision, I see the electronic clock set to 0.00 as my quarter horse jogs to the starting line. I look ahead, focusing on the three barrels laid out in a triangular configuration.
Nobody has to tell a good barrel horse to take off when the buzzer sounds. A good barrel horse just knows. Deacon is a good barrel horse. He explodes forward and heads for the left barrel. He knows this pattern as well as I do. He swings around it, coming so close that my leg grazes the metal. But we don’t even jiggle it. His huge stride throws up dirt in the arena. He swings wide toward the right barrel then turns in tight to swing around it. Now Deacon and I are flying to the barrel on the end. His ears are back, and the wind nearly blows my hat off. I catch it and put it back on my head as he curves his body around the final barrel. Now comes his favorite part—our favorite part. I kick him back toward home, even though I don’t have to. He knows this is where he can open up, and he does. I can see the stewards opening the gates. They know Deacon won’t have time to stop and we fly through, sliding to a halt just inside the alley that leads out of the arena. In the rush of adrenaline that comes from a good ride, I’ve momentarily forgotten about everything else. It felt like a winning ride. I look up to see someone walking toward me. It’s Winona. Then I see her face and know that while we were fast, we weren’t fast enough.
“Two-tenths of a second,” she says. “You missed it by two-tenths of a second.”
I dismount. Deacon is breathing heavy, but in a high mood. I pat his neck. The heavy puffs of air from his huge nostrils are warm against my sweat-damp shirt. I already know where this is going.
“Don’t feel bad.” Winona is trying, even as the announcer tells the crowd that there’s a new champion of the Bucks’ Lake Annual Rodeo. The sixteen-year-old girl who beat me walks past, and I force myself to offer a smile that I pray doesn’t look as fake as it feels. Her daddy is a big shot rancher who bought the $25,000 horse that just beat Deacon. This is just a hobby to her—winning purses she doesn’t need at these small rodeos. It’s easy to blame her for having a victory handed to her. But the anger I feel rising anew isn’t at her. Cole Patterson knew the effect he’d have on me, just showing up like this. He knew how much this championship meant to me.
“Are you okay, Gina?”
“I’m fine.” I tense, hating the pity in her voice. She places a hand on my arm.
“Gina, there’s no shame in second…”
I shrug it off. “I said I’m fine.”
I lead Deacon away, listening to the crowd cheer as the happy teenager rides out to accept her trophy. The fading voice of the announcer is praising the promising young rider, and just before I turn the corner to the bank of stalls behind the arena, I hear him tell the crowd there’s a special treat for fans waiting for the bronco riding, because Cole Patterson is competing. The Cole Patterson.
Where do you get off, girl, treating me like a one-night stand? You’re only walking away because you liked it. You liked it, and it scared you.
I open the door to Deacon’s stall. There’s fresh hay and water, but I don’t let him have the latter until I untack him and make sure his breathing is back to normal. It’s hard to admit that he’s only got two or three good years left before he will have to retire from this level of competition. It had been my goal to have us both go out undefeated, and I imagine what my father will say when I next call him. He’d wished me luck when I told him I was going for my fourth championship barrel title at the Lonestar Rodeo. In the background, I could hear other men talking on the line of payphones lining the wall in Pecos County state prison. He’d apologized for not being able to be there, told me I’d be sure to win, and told me that even if I didn’t he’d be proud of me.
I think back on my ride. Two-tenths of a second. If I hadn’t been so rattled at the start… If I hadn’t looked over to see that he was back. The anger rises in me, churning. I hate how it makes me feel.
It’s a two-day rodeo, and my plan was to win tonight and watch the rest of the events while Deacon got a well-deserved rest. Now I sit down on the tack box by the stall and consider hitching up my stock trailer, loading Deacon, and going home. But it’s not fair to make him travel this late at night just because I’m too chicken-shit to see Cole Patterson.
“There you are!”
Winona is nothing if not persistent. She’s hell-bent on cheering me up because watching the other events is part of our annual tradition. I’m seriously killing her vibe. She pulls off her hat as she approaches. The hair underneath is shocking red and frizzy. A west Texas leprechaun.
“Cole’s here,” she says hesitantly.
“Yeah.” I stand up, brushing the dust off my dungarees. “Yeah, I saw.”
There’s an awkward silence.
“He’s riding tonight.”
“Yeah. I heard.”
“Gina…” she begins, but I cut her off. The only thing worse than seeing Cole is having to talk about how I feel about seeing Cole. I know it’s not fair to hide in here while Winona sits by herself.
“I’m ready,” I say, and she smiles, her eyes crinkling with happiness above the freckled apples of her cheeks.
We return to an arena that was a lot more crowded than the one we left. The bronco and bull riding are the biggest draws of the rodeo, and a famous rider only makes it a bigger deal tonight. Winona and I find ourselves wedging into a ripe-smelling herd of spectators. A woman with saggy upper arms is holding a hot funnel cake just out of reach of an infuriated child wearing a t-shirt declaring him a ‘Future Bullrider.’ The child falls backwards in his anguish and I move aside at the last minute. His mother glares at me when he hits the ground, as if it were somehow my fault for not catching him. I turn to the side and slip between two older men in a bid to catch up with Winona, who’s already winding her way through the crowd up to our reserved seats behind the third chute. And just like that, I’m back to wishing I’d left, because this is obviously Cole’s chute judging by the crowd of girls in Daisy Dukes and low-cut plaid blouses begging to have their tits signed. I can only see the top of his hat from where I’m sitting, but I know there’s a smile beneath the brim as he charms the girls with his aw-shucks drawl.
Even Winona is staring at him, and as she glances at me I can see her stifling the question I told her never to ask again. I never explained to anyone why I broke it off with Cole, not even when the rumors started that I knew I didn’t deserve a man like him, so I’d dumped him before he dumped me. I knew the girls having their tits signed had added fuel to the speculation, and had even twisted it so that he’d been the one to dump me since his daddy would never accept me after what my daddy had done. But I’d rather they think what they want, because the truth is harder to admit.
Further down at Chute One, the first rider is getting ready. I know the guy. His name is Danny Atkinson and he’s dumb as a fencepost, but a pretty good rider. I watch as he lowers his skinny frame onto the back of a nervous chestnut gelding. I purposefully ignore what’s going on below and focus on Danny, who’s threading his fingers under the rigging strap behind his bronco’s withers. I cross my fingers at my side, hoping Danny will have a good ride. He’s lucky that he’s drawn the chestnut; that horse is crazy, and if he can stay on for the full eight seconds, he can impress the judges.
When the door to the bucking chute is open, for a moment the gelding stands there, head down and stock still, wall-eye turned back toward Danny. Then it explodes upward and out, arching its back as it bunny-hops across the arena.
The pair has gotten the crowd’s attention, and down below, even Cole has noticed. I see him walk to the gate and drape his arms over the railing as his gaze follows the motion of the bucking horse.
Danny is giving it his all, raking the spurs up across the chestnut’s shoulders as the horse lurches and twists.
“Come on,” I say under my breath. The clock reads seven seconds when it happens. The gelding gives a leap and turns, throwing Danny sideways and off. The horse continues bucking around his ejected rider in what looks like a convulsive victory lap until a rider enters the ring to shepherd the bronco back into the chute.
Danny looks none too pleased as he jerks his fallen hat out of the dirt. I can sympathize, and wonder if the distraction of hotshot Cole Patterson has affected his performance, too. But across the ring, Cole is shooting Danny a thumb’s up, which Danny returns with a wide grin.
“I swear but he could charm the scales off a snake,” Winona observes. “If I was into guys…”
“Yeah,” I say, then change the subject. “Sucks about Danny. He was having a good ride.”
“It was a good horse, too. But did you see who’s waiting for Chute Three?”
I crane my neck over to see the horse wranglers and almost smile. Cole will be riding Twister, a black horse that made Danny’s ride look like a lesson pony. No one has made it on that horse longer than five seconds. Riders draw their horses by lottery, which means that karma will keep Cole from breezing in to win. I grin and sat back, suddenly enjoying the show again.
The next two riders are as different as night and day. There’s a short blond cowboy who comes off a second after he clears the chute, and an older Mexican cowboy who stays on the full eight seconds to the applause of the crowd. After that there are eight more riders, and three of those make the full eight-second ride. None are bad rides, but Winona and I agree that if we were to lay odds on a winner, it would be the Mexican who showed some seriously dramatic spurring action. We also agree that for all his celebrity, the winner won’t be the man just below us climbing onto the back of an already agitated jet black horse.
Twister’s ears are pinned flat against his head. He isn’t looking back at Cole, but to the side, just waiting for the chute to open. The announcer is already hyping the ride, casting it as champion against champion to the point that I’m starting wonder if the pairing was as random as it’s supposed to be, not that it matters. Cole is good, but Twister is a hell beast of a horse.
“Once Twister throws Cole, they’ll probably buy him for the bigger rodeos,” I tell Winona resentfully. Any horse that can throw a champion rider is a hot commodity.
A handler pulls the door to Chute Three as the buzzer sounds, and Twister immediately lives up to his name, leaping straight up and landing in a dizzying spin to the right. I began to count. One, two… Cole is still on, leaning back as his spurs rake the horse’s shoulders, making the mad horse madder. Three, four. The crowd is roaring, the fangirls’ boobs bouncing as their owners jump up and down. Twister isn’t having it. Cole is still aboard, and the horse is clearly taking it personally. He bolts, taking off at a bucking run, then stops to leap into the air before coming down onto his front hooves as his back heels kick side to side. His nose is practically in the dirt, his flared nostrils blowing clouds of dust into the air. Five, six. But Cole is still on, as determined as his horse to win. An image of the smug handsome face flashes through my mind, his cocky grin. I can almost hear the last words we exchanged.
Admit it, Gina Louise. You’ll never be happy until you find a man strong enough to break you like a wild filly.
Fuck you, Cole.
You know it’s true. You liked what I did to you last night. You liked it so much it scared you. That’s why you’re running away.
I feel my jaw tense. Seven. Twister is spinning again. The crowd is on its feet; worn boots stomp metal bleachers. Eight. The buzzer goes off and there’s a roar. Down below, Twister is still bucking, and Cole is on board. He’s smiling, his hand on the rigging as the other holds his hat in his hand. He’s waving it like an old-style cowboy. He could be a bronze Remington cast come to life. The girls are screaming and crying and hugging one another, as if their lives depended on him sitting that fucking horse for eight seconds.
I stand up. As much as I hate to disappoint Winona, I know if I won’t be able to hide my own disappointment over not seeing Cole Patterson’s arrogant face planted in the arena dirt. I hear her call after me and yell that I’m going to check on Deacon. The air suddenly feels hot and heavy, like it’s pressing in on me.
I might as well be invisible the way everyone is fixated on the arena. Cole had jumped off mid buck at the twelve-second mark, staying on long enough to whip the crowd into a frenzy. A man fist-pumping the air with a drink in his hand sloshes some of it on me. Mountain Dew. I hate Mountain Dew.
When I reach Deacon’s stall, I pick up a roll of paper towels lying by the door. I tear two off and blot the soda off the arm of my plaid shirt as best I can before sitting down heavily on the tack trunk. I lean my head against the stall door and feel my horse blow warm air on top of my hair. I reach up, petting his jaw.
“What the hell was I thinking?” I ask him. For the last three months, I’ve disciplined myself to replace thoughts of Cole Patterson with other things—the more negative the better. Cole Patterson? Think of a spider instead. Cole Patterson? Think of a scary movie. Cole Patterson? Liver pudding. I hate liver pudding as much as I hate Mountain Dew. It was conditioning to keep me from wanting the man who’d used my one night of sexual weakness to make me feel like a dirty little slut who could only be satisfied if she was treated like his fuck toy.
I’ve tried to shut the night out of my mind, but if I allow myself to dwell on it for even a moment, it all comes rushing back, the way his sweat-slick shoulder tasted when I bit down on it to keep from screaming, the way the sparse hairs on his hard chest abraded my nipples as he slid up my body to kiss me with a mouth that tasted like the pussy he’d just eaten until I screamed, the words he used… fuck, ass, cum… the way I’d blushed, the mounting excitement I felt as he whispered that he’d always known it would be this way, that he could tell by the way I walked that I’d like it just like he was giving it to me. I even remember the ceiling fan above the bed—metal with a chain bob that struck the blade… clink, clink, clink.
And I remember the shame when he’d laughed afterwards and called me a fun little ride and said we should do it again as he slapped my butt. And the anger at the entitlement in his voice.
I was the first girl to ever dump Cole Patterson. The local hero had returned home, chosen the daughter of the town pariah, and even deigned to offer her seconds. And what had she done? Like some ungrateful bitch, she’d declined, to the bafflement of hundreds of girls who’d love to be his dirty little whore.
There is a noise behind me and I stand and turn to see Deacon banging his empty water bucket with his nose.
“Fine,” I say, and open the small window over the bucket, unsnap the handle and pull it out. The water faucet is down the hall and around the corner. I can hear honking horns in the parking lot. Now that the bronco riding is over, people are starting to leave.
I round the corner, put the bucket under the spigot, and turn on the water. I’m just turning it off when I hear my name and it’s as if a chill has come over my body, freezing me in place. I don’t move. I can’t move.
“Gina Louise? I’m calling you, girl. Have you gone deaf?”
My heart is thudding as I look up, and he’s smiling at me like we’re the best of friends, as if our last words weren’t as hot and heated as the sex preceding them. And because he’s flanked by two of his friends, Jeb and Boyd, I play it cool. A girl has her pride, after all.
“Hey, Cole,” I say, keeping my tone as casual as I can.
“Did you see me ride?” He hops up and perches on the door of an empty stall by the water faucet. His movements are fluid, powerful, catlike.
I pick up the bucket and walk away.
“That’s it?” I hear his boots hit the floor, and I don’t have to look back to know he’s following me. “That wasn’t just any horse, you know. That was Twister. I thought at least you’d stick around and ask for an autograph.”
I know he’s just being arrogant for the sake of his hangers-on, but it grates on me nonetheless.
I turn to him when we reach Deacon’s stall. “What’s wrong, Cole?” I ask. “Don’t they want your autographs at the rodeos in Dallas? Or do you have to come back here to find that kind of attention.”
“Day-um,” one of his friends says. “You gonna let her get away with disrespecting you like that?”
Cole puts his elbow up on the stall door and leans against it as he looks down at me. If he’s rattled, he doesn’t show it.
“Naw, Jeb,” he says, looking at me instead of his friend. “She’s not being disrespectful. She’s just sore that she lost today and I won.”
He’s trying to get a rise out of me and it’s working. I feel the flush of anger rise to my face, but he turns away and reaches in to pet Deacon.
“I was pulling for you, boy,” he says, turning his attention to my horse. “You’re a good ol’ fella. It wasn’t your fault. Your mama didn’t ride you hard enough is all.”
“Fuck you, Cole,” I say, and now Cole’s two companions burst out laughing. Then I gather myself. “Sometimes a hard ride isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anyway.”
It’s a direct jab at him and the laughter becomes howls as the tables are turned. Cole’s easy smile fades. Even if we both know he was the best fuck I’ve ever had, to have me suggest otherwise is a blow to his giant ego.
I push past him and open the window on Deacon’s stall and heft the bucket into it. I barely get the handle clipped to the holder before the dark muzzle is sloshing in the water. Deacon is a messy drinker.
“It’s a shame you think that way, Gina Louise,” Cole said. “Because my motto is ‘satisfaction guaranteed.’ So how about you give me another shot?”
I shut the window and smirk. “Sorry, cowboy. I don’t give second rides.”
I hear laughter as a group comes around the corner. Cole’s group. Or, should I say, groupies. It’s a mixture of young men and women, some already half drunk.
Cole pulls a deck of cards out of his pocket. “You know, Gina Louise, that I can’t let this go, not after you go and say something like that in front of witnesses. A man has his reputation.” He tosses the pack of cards in the air and catches them. “But I’ll make a wager with you. One hand of poker. If I win, I get a redo.”
“And if I win?” I ask.
“Honey, you know he’ll win,” a girl says. “And if he wins, you win.” Everyone laughs. Cole just smiles.
“And if I win?” I ask again, ignoring the girl’s comment. Everyone grows quiet. The tension between us is thick as Texas mud.
“If you win, I leave you alone.”
I stare at him. My heart is pounding for two reasons. I know I’ll always feel like this if he’s within a hundred feet of me. And I know this is the only way to end it. Cole is a good poker player, but I’m better. I grew up around a poker table and won my first game at age six. I have an uncanny lucky streak when it comes to poker. Poker is my game.
“Deal,” I say. The men whoop and holler. The women glare, especially one who’s opened her shirt so that Cole’s scrawled name is prominent across the top of her breast. I turn to her as I grab the deck of cards from Cole’s hand. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You can have him soon enough.”
“Texas Hold ‘em?” Cole asks as we file into the tack room. There’s a rickety card table standing against the wall. Cole picks it up, pulls the legs down, and sits it in the center of the small ring as Boyd fetches two ladder-back chairs.
I toss the cards to Jeb and sit down. “You’re the dealer.”
There’s not one person in the rodeo who hasn’t passed the time playing Texas Hold ‘em. Jeb shuffles the deck before dealing the hold cards. One for me, one for Cole. Another for me and another for Cole. I pick my two cards up and look at them. I have an eight and a nine of hearts.
Next come the flop cards. Jeb deals the trio face up on the table between us. I try not to smile, but it’s hard. There’s a ten of hearts, a jack of hearts, and a deuce of spades. I look over at Cole. He’s glancing from the flop cards to his hand.
Jeb deals the fourth card, the turn card. It’s an ace of spades. I can’t use it. I look up at Cole.
The last card placed on the board, the fifth, is known as the river. When I see it, I can’t help but smile. It’s the queen of hearts.
“Sorry, Cole,” I say. “You’ll have to ride alone tonight.” I turn my hand over and Jeb starts to push the cards to me that would make up my winning hand of eight, nine, ten, jack, and queen of hearts.
“Not so fast.” Cole raises his hand and then slow-rolls his cards, and I watch with mounting disbelief as he lays them down. He has the ace of hearts and the king of hearts. There’s a collective gasp in the room as Jeb takes the cards he was pushing toward me and pushes them to Cole instead. A royal straight flush.
I’ve never seen a hand like that, not even when I was watching my daddy play poker. He always said you had a better chance of getting struck by lightning while riding a unicorn than getting a hand like this.
I meet Cole’s eyes across the table. His guy friends are patting him on the back; the woman with the signed breast looks as if she’s going to burst into angry tears. I feel like I may, too.
“You cheated.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them, and Cole’s victorious smile is replaced by a look of anger I’ve only seen once before.
“I don’t cheat,” he said.
“That was a one in a million hand…” My voice falters. “Less than one in a million.”
“It’s a game of chance,” he says. “And you lost.”
“Now the question is whether you’re gonna honor your word,” he says. “Or if you’re gonna be like your old man and try to wiggle out of a loss.”
I feel a rush of rage. I don’t even realize I’ve stood or raised my hand to slap the handsome face across from me until Cole grabs my wrist and jerks me forward. My other hand slams down on the flimsy table for support. His face is inches from mine and he looks stern, scary.
“You lost,” he says so low only I can hear. “Now either you honor our deal or I’ll make sure it gets out that Gina Louise Smith ain’t no better than her lowlife daddy.”
I’m shaking with rage and fear of the threat. Three years after my father’s imprisonment, I’m on the cusp of shaking his reputation. A well-placed word from a man like Cole Patterson could make me shunned in the hometown I can’t afford to leave.
“Fine,” I say. “One ride, cowboy. That’s all you get.”
“One ride will be enough,” he says.
He stands up, keeping hold of my wrist.
“Well, I’ve got my winnings,” he says as I look at the ground, seething. “I’ll see the rest of you guys in the morning.”