Luc Girard stood on the railing of the chute before stepping onto the massive bull that was waiting. This was a contest between the two of them. Luc wanted and needed to stay aboard for eight seconds after the bull was released. Eight seconds didn’t sound like a lot of time, unless you were sitting on a ton of raging beast who considered tossing you on your head and then stomping you into the earth a good afternoon’s work.
Jim Hill, who worked for the group that provided the livestock, looked over at him. “He’s in a nasty mood, Luc.”
Luc smiled. “I think he was born in a nasty mood.”
The bucking rig had been secured to the bull. Now all Luc had to do was climb on, cinch down his hand, get a good seat, give the nod to open the gate and stay aboard for those critical eight seconds. Both the bull and the rider were scored—the bull for his athleticism and how difficult he was to ride and the cowboy for being able to stay on board with one hand in the bucking rig and one arm thrown up and out of the way. It was a contest of strength, balance, endurance, and effort.
Luc settled himself on the big bull—at least as settled as one might be able to get. The bull was more fractious than usual and started to buck within the small confides of the chute. A couple of the bullfighters, also known as rodeo clowns, tried to help distract the bull and give Luc enough time to get his hand cinched into the rig and give the signal for the gate to be opened. As Luc gave the nod, the bull was released from the confines of the chute and began to do what he’d been bred to do… buck!
Luc kept his free arm in position and used all of his senses and skills to stay atop the raging beast. He knew he was having a good ride as he could hear the roar of the crowd and encouragement from the bullfighters, rodeo crew, and his competitors. The whistle sounded and he went to release the rig. It didn’t release quickly enough, Luc’s hand was caught as he was trying to dismount, and for a moment he was hung up on the bull and smashed against the beast’s side. The bull swung his head and entire body around to try to get at Luc. One of the bullfighters yelled and hit the bull with his floppy hat, which enraged the already angry animal; it promptly turned to the new irritant.
Luckily for Luc, the rigging released and he was able to hit the ground and roll out of the way of the bull’s hooves and then make a run for the relative safety of the arena fencing. Luc watched as one of the other bullfighters tagged the bull with a long, leafy switch to distract the bull again.
As it was designed to do, the bucking rig loosened and the bull now seeing the exit gate opened loped out of the arena. Luc jumped down off the fence and heard the crowd cheer. He looked up at the electronic scoreboard. The judges had given him and the bull a combined score of 86. Not a bad score, but not good enough to put him in first place.
Looking down, he saw his hand beginning to swell. That could only mean he’d injured it… again. He headed for the medic tent but asked several people to tell the bullfighter who’d left that he was looking for him.
Luc sat in the medical tent and grimaced as the young paramedic taped up his hand. Two broken fingers and some cracked bones in the hand itself. That would put him out for the rest of the season. Fortunately, this was the second to the last rodeo in which he was entered and he’d done enough winning this season to mean he could take some time to heal up.
“Luc, what’s up? Whoa, that don’t look good,” said Tim Johnson, the bullfighter who had come to his aid.
“Not too bad,” said Luc. “A couple of broken fingers and some cracked bones. Would have been a whole lot worse if you hadn’t stepped in. I appreciate it.”
“Just doing my job,” said Tim with a smile.
“Yeah, but you do your job well. Let me buy you a drink?”
Tim laughed. “Actually rumor is you may have some of that magic Sangria you like to make left over from last night. If that’s the case, I’d just as soon have a couple of belts of that.”
“Let me do you one better, you come for the Sangria and I’ll put on a couple of steaks.”
“Sounds good. See you about seven?”
“That works for me,” said Luc.
When Tim arrived, Luc had a glass of Sangria waiting for him and threw on the steaks. He’d also had the concession stand cook up some fries and the two friends sat and had dinner outside Luc’s RV.
“You ever think about giving up rodeoing?” asked Tim.
“Every time I don’t make money.” They both laughed. “But yeah, I’m getting too old to ride bulls. I’m the old man… and I’m not even thirty.”
“You ever want to try bullfighting, let me know. You’d be great.”
“Nah, I don’t think I could do what you do.”
“Sure you could,” said Tim. “You read stock better than anyone I know and that’s the greatest talent you can have in my line of work. Seriously, give it a thought.”
“Maybe I’ll think about it.”
Luc left the rodeo and was headed to park his RV in the lot where it stayed between seasons. Once he had it been readied for the winter, he boarded a flight bound for his home in Montreal. He lived in a high-rise condo in the beautiful city in his off time. All the way home he thought about what Tim had said. He might have given it more consideration at that time, if he hadn’t been approached by several younger Canadian cowboys to help them sharpen their riding skills.
For the next few years, Luc spent his time coaching and teaching young bull and bronc riders how to improve their scores, minimize their injuries, and come home with money in their pockets. More and more as he watched his young protégés he realized two things. First, he missed being an active participant in the rodeo and second, Tim might just have had a good idea. The next time he saw Tim, he asked about joining Tim’s crew of bullfighters.
Tim had been thrilled and had brought Luc on board and taught him the tricks of the trade. As Tim had predicted, Luc was a natural and very quickly rose to the top of the bullfighting game. He was known as tenacious, fearless, and able to get a cowboy to safety with minimal damage to man or beast.
Although the two men had known each other for years—they had first met when Luc was still riding bulls—it was during the time he was a bullfighter that Luc and Ryder became close friends. Ryder was the son of ranching dynasty in Idaho and worked for one of the best stock providers in the world. Getting to know Ryder and being able to talk to Ryder about the stock he provided gave Luc invaluable insight into the animals that he worked with.
Ryder had been one of the first to support Luc when he left bull riding and left the rodeo circuit and the first to welcome him back as a bullfighter. And he’d been instrumental in Luc quickly gaining fame and acclaim as one of the best in the business.
As time went on, the two men moved through the phase of just being two guys who got along at work; they became good friends and shared more and more of their lives. Luc had just finished up for the day when he went to join Ryder at one of their favorite restaurants in San Antonio. The two friends had found out early on that they both appreciated good food in out-of-the-way local places. They had gotten into the habit of exploring new restaurants together.
Luc walked into the casual restaurant and spotted Ryder. He joined him at the table.
“Now that, mon ami, is not the face of a happy man.”
“Oh, I’m fine, just thinking about things that might have been,” said Ryder regretfully.
“Ah, thinking of the fair Sierra again?” said Luc with a smile.
“It’s not funny, Luc.”
“I know. But the solution is so simple and yet you pretend there is none.”
“There isn’t. We broke up. She blew my hat off my head and blew my windshield out. All over not trusting me when I never gave her any reason not to.”
“Nasty-tempered filly. Probably best you left. Let the next guy who comes along tame her.”
Ryder looked up at Luc with an angry expression. “She’s not nasty tempered. She’s just spirited.”
“Okay, spirited, but still let some other guy hold her accountable for her naughty ways.”
The two men had forged a strong friendship. They’d spent many nights traveling, eating and drinking together. They had both sensed a kindred spirit and had felt comfortable in engaging in frank discussions about women both in theory and in past experiences. Both men had discovered individually a quiet renaissance of couples who were designating the man as the head of the household in a committed relationship and his responsibility to hold his partner accountable for her behavior.
Both had agreed that it made sense to them as it allowed him the ability to express his anger at what she’d done and for her to atone for that behavior but then be absolved of any guilt for having done it, putting the relationship back on track. Once the men had begun discussing it, they had found men of a similar opinion and all had met regularly to talk about relationships specific to them and in general.
“I tried that. It didn’t work.”
“From what you told me, you only got the job partially done. It sounds to me like you need to go home and get your lady back in your bed, preferably with a ring on her finger.”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about—too many times landing on your head when you were riding bulls.”
“What I know is that you are miserable. And yet I envy you that misery.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Ryder grimly.
“At least you almost had what we both have said we want and need.”
“In case you missed it, I don’t have it.”
“Because you are too stubborn and too proud to go back and reclaim what’s yours,” said Luc emphatically.
“You’re full of shit.”
“Probably, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. You said yourself that you heard she hasn’t married anyone and hasn’t really seen anyone long term. Maybe she regrets it too. Jesus, Ryder, go back to Idaho and get Sierra back.”
“Let it go, Luc.”
“I never thought I’d think of you as a coward.”
Ryder slammed his drink down, causing the other diners to jump. He scowled at Luc and his body became tense with anger and aggression. Luc knew he was on thin ice. He knew this was a sore spot with Ryder, but it needed to be said.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“You’re right, I don’t. I’ve never had what you had and what you could have had with Sierra. But I know for damn sure if I had, nothing but my death and being chained in hell could keep me from going back for it.”
Ryder suddenly looked like a balloon that was being deflated. “I wish I thought it would do any good. I know Sierra. That might have worked if I hadn’t left or if I’d gone back years ago. I just need to accept that she’s the one that got away and make a life without her.”
Luc placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You can do that, but are you willing to settle for some half-life because you didn’t even try? What if she feels the same way, Ryder? Just think about it.”
Eight years later, Calgary, Alberta
Luc woke and groaned as he went to get up. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t rested, it was that certain parts of his body took longer to wake up than others. He sat on the edge of the bed. He was quite certain God had never intended for men to try to ride two thousand pounds of bucking bull.
Luc was standing off to the side of the chute chatting up one of the abundant buckle bunnies that always seemed to attend the Calgary Stampede. Arguably the largest rodeo in the world, it didn’t just attract girls from Canada and America, but from all over the globe. Luc felt he was making some headway with this pretty blonde from France when he heard the rhythm of the bull’s bucking go off kilter.
Luc whirled around and started toward the huge beast in the same instant. It took his mind a moment longer to process that Deadshot, probably the best bucking bull in the business, had once again tossed the cowboy unlucky enough to draw him. Only this time, the eighteen-hundred-pound bull’s former rider was hung up and hanging from the bucking rig.
Every bullfighter in the arena converged on Deadshot.
Luc was coming up behind them and didn’t hesitate to grab his cowboy hat and swat Deadshot across the rump. As Deadshot swung around, one of the other bullfighters moved in to release the rig and the cowboy. Luc yelled to keep Deadshot’s attention focused on him and backed away.
Normally, the bull should have charged at his irritant… Luc. Luc had his arms stretched out from his sides and was prepared to swat at the bull again when Deadshot shocked both Luc and the crowd. He just stopped moving.
One of the other bullfighters was able to free the cowboy and get him out of the arena and to the medics. Another of Luc’s compadres was about to move in to tag the bull with a long switch to give Luc an opportunity to escape to the relative safety of the arena wall. But Luc waved him off. It seemed the arena had gone dead quiet and the world had collapsed to just the two of them.
Deadshot was looking at Luc with keen, but benign, interest. He tilted his head back and forth as if trying to make sense of the man before him. The bull then dropped his head and in a completely nonaggressive manner, approached Luc. Luc was fascinated. He’d been riding or fighting bulls for the better part of two decades, and he’d never seen a bucking bull act like this. Luc reached into his pocket and pulled out a slice of apple. He walked toward Deadshot with his hand outstretched offering the bull the treat.
Uncertain as well, Deadshot reached out and gently lipped the apple from Luc’s hand. Luc responded by offering him another apple slice, which the bull deftly took and munched on happily. Luc couldn’t believe what was happening. He closed the distance between them and patted the bull on the head between his horns. Deadshot seemed to enjoy that and nudged Luc, looking for more apples. Luc accommodated him and then ran his hand down between Deadshot’s big brown eyes and rubbed him. Deadshot closed his eyes and responded by moaning with what seemed to be a great deal of contentment.
Shaking his head and chuckling, Luc did something no bullfighter ever does… he turned his back on Deadshot.
“Come on, big boy, let’s go back to the pens,” Luc said as he walked toward the exit gate. Deadshot fell in behind him and calmly followed Luc. Once inside his holding pen, Luc gave him a last piece of apple and another head rub and then returned to the arena to the roar of the crowd.
Luc felt like a gladiator from ancient Rome as he entered the arena to the roar of the crowd. He half-skipped, half-ran around the arena playing up to those who had come to watch the rodeo. He waved his hands over his head to encourage their cheers and took many exaggerated bows. It was clear that his performance with Deadshot was a hit.
Thus began a story that caught the attention of social media. The upside was that Luc could always get Deadshot to quit bucking and come over to him like some enormous dog. The downside was that from that point on, Luc could not be in the arena if Deadshot was performing. Once the big bull spotted the rodeo clown, he’d quit bucking and trot over to him looking for a piece of apple.
A few weeks after the incident, Luc was approached by two men who represented EquiBlues, the largest rodeo festival in Europe. They wanted to talk to Ryder. The only problem with the two men wanting to speak to Ryder was that neither man spoke English and Ryder’s high-school French was atrocious.
Luc, who was French-Canadian, agreed to play interpreter. Luc escorted them back behind the shoots to where the animals used in the rodeo were kept. He knew he would be able to find Ryder there checking on the well-being of the stock.
“Luc,” Ryder said, stepping forward and extending his hand to the bullfighter. “Nice job the other day with Deadshot. I understand the two of you have quite the social media following.”
Luc laughed. “We do have an odd relationship,” he said in his heavily French-accented voice.
Luc couldn’t help but think that lately his odd relationship with Deadshot was the only relationship of any sort that he had. He hadn’t had a romantic relationship of any length in the past few years. While once the prospect of bedding a different girl in each town had been appealing, Luc had begun to yearn for something more. He longed to experience what Ryder had once had with his Sierra—something Luc was convinced Ryder could have again if only he’d go back and claim his cowgirl.
Present Day, Idaho Panhandle, Flying M Ranch
“Luc! It is so good to see you,” said Ryder as he came out of the ranch house.
Luc was glad to see his old friend in person. It had been several years since they’d last had a chance to sit down and talk in person. When Ryder had seemed a bit surprised that Luc was willing to come to Idaho for a chat, Luc had reminded him that he had retired from bullfighting. He was now a man of leisure… and bored out of his mind.
“Ryder, mon ami! It’s been far too long.”
“It has indeed. Come on up to the house. I want you to meet Sierra, my wife.”
“Ah, the fated Sierra. I remember a rather drunken tirade the last time we were at the Calgary Stampede that started with your cursing her name and ended with you crying in your whiskey.”
“Crying in his whiskey, was he?” said a beautiful blonde.
Luc surmised that this was the woman who had haunted his friend’s nightmares and now, according to all the stories running around, brought joy to his dreams—both when he was asleep and otherwise.
“Just one time, Freckles. Don’t get any ideas,” said Ryder, teasing her.
Sierra looked over to Luc who flashed her dozens of fingers, causing her to laugh and Ryder to turn and look at him. Sierra joined her husband, putting her arm around him.
“Of course, you two would hit it off. Deadshot likes her too,” said Ryder, laughing.
Sierra giggled. “Don’t you just think he’s the sweetest thing?”
“Deadshot or Ryder?” laughed Luc, liking his good friend’s bride.
“Deadshot. We both know Ryder is a pain in the ass.”
Ryder hugged her close and whispered, “Not yet today, little girl, but that can change.”
Luc smiled as Sierra blushed and kissed Ryder.
“Come on up to the house, Luc. Ruth is just setting out lunch.”
“That would be wonderful,” said Luc.
They entered the house and enjoyed lunch. Luc could readily understand why no woman had ever been able to capture Ryder’s attention for any length of time. His Sierra was quite spectacular. Beautiful, smart, funny, and sassy—combined with the obvious way she felt about him, Luc thought Ryder had been right to leave everything he had built in France and come back to claim her.
After lunch, Ryder, Luc, and Charlie, the Flying M’s general manager, walked down to the barn. Luc wanted to see Deadshot, who had a special stall and corral.
Deadshot looked angry when he saw Ryder open his stall door. But the minute Luc stepped through, the big bull relaxed and walked over to him looking for a treat.
Luc laughed. “I did not forget you,” he said as he fished out an apple he had snagged from the kitchen. The bull pulled it from his hand and munched contentedly while Luc rubbed his head.
“I’ll be damned,” said Charlie. “I know what you said, Ryder… but I’ll be damned. I thought it was weird the way he was with Sierra, but I didn’t expect he’d have somebody else he’d tolerate.”
“I know,” Ryder said with a wry smile.
“How’d you get him?” asked Luc. “I would have thought he’d either be retired to sire more bulls or made into tasty meals.”
“He got too dangerous for anyone to handle. But I’ve never seen a more perfect bull especially for bucking. I convinced them to sell him to me with the agreement that we’d collect his semen and they’d be given ten of whatever was viable.”
“You planning to start adding bucking bulls to your breeding program?” asked Luc, intrigued.
“We are; broncs as well. That’s where you come in. I know you said you were retiring from bullfighting, but I’ve never known a man who had a better way with rough stock than you. I mean I know Deadshot is the one folks talk about, but you were always able to get stock to settle in the chutes and get cowboys to safety when they hit the dirt. Up for a ride?”
“On such a beautiful day? You don’t really need me to answer, do you?”
Ryder laughed. “Not really. Charlie, you want to come with us?”
“I’d love to, but someone needs to go check on those mangy mustangs you insist on keeping for Sierra and she said you’d told her she was…” Charlie cut himself off.
Ryder smiled. “I asked Charlie to do it as currently Sierra is under house arrest.”
Luc looked between Ryder and Charlie. “I take it you are the head of your household, old friend?”
Luc and Ryder had spent many an evening talking about relationships with the fairer sex. They agreed that it took a woman of great strength and character to be willing to submit to her partner’s authority and to agree that the final decisions in their life together would be his. And both believed strongly in marriage.
Ryder chuckled. “I am indeed. Most of the time Sierra behaves herself…”
“But not so much that it doesn’t make life entertaining?” asked Luc with a smile.
Charlie laughed out loud. “He has a loose definition of ‘most’… she gives him a run for his money.”
“All right, gentlemen, that’s enough. She hates that Charlie knows she answers to me, but there would be hell to pay if she found out that you did.”
“But unlike many, I would have nothing but the utmost respect for her. When a man cares so deeply for his woman that he is willing to hold her accountable, it only strengthens the bond between them. It takes a strong woman to be able to submit to her man, but it seems to be working for the two of you.”
Ryder smiled. “It is. We were talking just this morning and realized that neither of us has ever been happier. In case you missed it, I’m madly in love with my freckle-faced cowgirl.”
“That is as plain as the adorable freckles on her beautiful face. I’m happy for you, Ryder.”
They saddled a couple of horses and headed out. They rode for more than an hour just sharing things about their lives. They’d stayed in touch so both knew the basic broad strokes of the past few years but riding in the beautiful countryside afforded them the time to fill in all the blanks.
“I want to thank you again for agreeing to come,” said Ryder.
“Of course, but I still don’t know why you wanted me to.”
They crested one of the abundant rolling hills that made up the landscape. Only this time what was spread out below was an amazing view of Crooked Creek—the ranch that had been in Ryder’s family for almost two hundred years.
Ryder gestured to the main house, barn, and out buildings below. “This. This is what I wanted you to see.”
“It’s beautiful, Ryder. Considering the last pictures I saw showed the place in pretty rough shape, I’m impressed.”
“I don’t want you to be impressed, Luc. I want you to be part of it.”
“Is Charlie going somewhere?”
“No and not planning to retire either. John, Sierra’s dad, left him a boatload of money, a place to live for the rest of his life, and part of the profits from the ranch so he doesn’t have to work, but I swear he’ll die in the saddle. And he’s damn good at his job. The men respect him and there’s no one better at managing beef cattle.”
“So again, why?”
“Because I need someone else to run the other side of the business. We had thought about having two foremen—one at each ranch—who answered to Charlie. But as we started to really put a business plan in place, Sierra and I realized what we needed was Charlie to oversee the beef business, someone else to oversee the rodeo stock, and a third person to head up the dude ranch and wedding venue.”
Ryder looked over at his friend and smiled when he saw Luc was intrigued.
He continued, “I want to build a breeding program second to none. I’ve got folks queued up to hand us contracts for some of the big ones here in North America and also over in France. We plan to use Crooked Creek both as headquarters for the rodeo stock and as a wedding venue and kind of dude ranch where people can bring their own horses and either help work cattle or just ride our range and use our line shacks. Sierra is going to take on finding someone for the wedding stuff, but I want you to come on board to build and manage the rodeo breeding stock business.”
“You knew I’d retired from bullfighting.”
Ryder nodded. “Not surprising. That’s a young man’s game. And while you and I aren’t old, our knees ain’t what they used to be.”
Luc laughed. “That’s for sure.”
“You’d be perfect, you know the breeding game and you know everyone I know in the rodeo business and some I don’t. You know firsthand what it takes to make a great bronc or a great bull. Charlie wants to stay on the Flying M. It’s his home. I’d propose you’d stay at the main house down below. We could run broncs from this place and the bulls from Flying M.”
“Probably the best thing to do if you’re going to have greenhorns around. Wrong person steps in with Deadshot and things could get ugly.”
Ryder grinned. “So you’ll think about it?”
Luc shook his head. “No. I’m afraid not.” He looked over at Ryder, whose face resembled a small boy who’d just been told there was no Santa Claus. “I think your plan is exciting and bold. You, mon ami, have your foreman or whatever you want to call it for your rodeo stock business.”
If Ryder’s face had previously resembled a disappointed small boy, his response now was that of one being given keys to the candy store. His sense of relief spread from his broad smile to his shining eyes. Clearly, he had been counting on Luc to say yes.
“That’s great. Sierra asked me this morning what my backup plan was if you said no, and I had to admit to her I didn’t have one. You’re the only person I ever wanted in the role. Besides with that French accent you’ll have all those girls who come to ride wrapped around your little finger.”
Luc shook his head. “I’m afraid that no longer has the appeal it once had. I don’t envy the young riders with a different buckle bunny every night to warm their beds. I envy men like you who’ve found that one woman to build a life with.”
Ryder nodded. “It is a sweet life. Sweeter than I ever imagined.”