Copyright © 2023 Brooke Montgomery
Please do not share the contents.
“Goddamn, I love me some cowboys in tight Wranglers. ’Tis the rodeo season for fine asses,” my childhood best friend, Magnolia, blurts way too loudly. A woman ahead of us glances over her shoulder with a scowl.
I burst out laughing, nudging my elbow into Magnolia’s side as we walk into the arena. Not that her big mouth should even surprise me.
“Me too,” my little cousin singsongs next to me.
“Mallory, shush your mouth. You’re too young to be lookin’,” I tell her.
“Exactly. Close your eyes.” I attempt to cover them for her, but she shoves me away.
Magnolia snickers as we make our way up the ramp and into the arena. It smells like leather, dirt, and sweat. People in cowboy hats and boots walk around looking for a place to sit. The Franklin Rodeo is the heart of Southern rodeo in Tennessee. Every June, my family and I make the four-hour drive to watch the shows, eat lots of food, and listen to the live bands.
As a professional horse trainer on my family’s ranch, I work with many clients for events like these. Barrel racing is one of my favorites to watch because I love that adrenaline high while anticipating them making it around the barrels without knocking them over. The excitement of each horse crossing the finish line gets me fired up every time.
One of my clients, Ellie, competes today. I’ve had butterflies in my stomach for the past week waiting for this. I live for the satisfaction of witnessing how the time I put in pays off. I also love showing my support when I can. I’ve worked with Ellie and her quarter horse for the past year, though she’s been doing it a lot longer than that.
As we walk through to find a place to sit, I notice a few trainers glare at me and whisper to each other. I’m not surprised, considering it happens each time I’m at a competition, but it doesn’t hurt any less. Most of them are in their forties and think I’m too young to have the success I do. I hear the rumors about how I only got here because of my last name and parents’ money. On top of my being too young, the male trainers don’t think I’m strong enough to train difficult breeds and like to degrade my skills to “good enough for a girl.” But the truth is, I wouldn’t keep my clients or get new ones if I couldn’t back up my promises with talent.
“Don’t look at them.” Magnolia nudges me. “They’re envious pricks with small dicks.”
I snort, avert my gaze, and stay focused on maneuvering around people.
“And that’s why they didn’t get an invite to the Hollis fundraiser event of the decade,” I gloat with a snarky smirk.
“Damn right. They could only wish to be good enough to be personally invited by the Noah Hollis.”
I’ve been a trainer for years, but I’ve had to work at it every day since I was a teenager. My parents’ money and ranch for me to practice on helped advance my skill, but my drive to learn and improve brought me to this level. Still, that makes me unlikable in this professional industry.
Six months ago, I proposed an idea to host a fundraising competition that’d benefit injured or rescued horses. I invited local trainers to bring their best clients to change the public’s misperceptions of me and give them a chance to know the real me. Not only is it beneficial to the charity and community but it’s a way for us to network as professionals.
My family’s been all hands on deck in securing everything we need for it, and the first annual event will take place on our ranch in only a few weeks.
When we find seats, Mallory spots some friends she met at camp and asks to sit by them a few rows over.
“Don’t leave the buildin’ without me,” I remind her before she wanders off. She’s still close, so I can keep an eye on her. She moved in with my family a couple of years ago after my aunt and uncle passed away and has become a little sister to me. Although she drives me nuts sometimes, I’m super protective of her.
My parents and four older brothers are here somewhere. We venture off to different things, and since we brought three campers to sleep in, we come and go as we please. As an honorary family member, Magnolia tags along to most of our outings.
After ten minutes of waiting, the emcee announces Ellie’s division.
“I’m gonna get closer.”
“Well, shit. Don’t leave me here.” Magnolia follows me down the steps. You’re not supposed to stand in the front and block others’ views, but I’ll only be a few minutes.
A few riders run, and one barrel tips over, making us wait for them to reset it.
“A hot guy in the row above ours is checkin’ you out,” Magnolia whispers.
Turning slightly, I see the man she’s talking about. Shoulder-length brown hair. Sharp jawline covered in dark scruff and a matching mustache the perfect length for inner thigh scratching. His biceps look like they’ll rip through his rolled-up shirtsleeves if he moves another inch.
My eyes widen as I return my gaze to Magnolia’s smug expression.
“Told ya. He’s bangin’.”
That’s an understatement.
I shrug so I don’t give away how my heart pounds with how attractive and out of my league he is. “He looks too old.”
More like twice my age.
At twenty-two, the oldest man I’ve dated was Jase Underwood, and he’s only two years older than me.
“So what? You don’t have to have Daddy issues to sample a finer cuisine.”
I roll my eyes at her choice of words. Sneaking another glance, I notice his gaze remains fixated on me. He’s rugged like a cowboy, which isn’t much of a surprise at a place like this.
“He’s probably glarin’ at me for blockin’ his view.”
“No, babe. You are his view. That’s a look of lust, trust me.” She flips her long dark hair and steals another look.
“You would know that look, wouldn’t ya?” I snort.
“The look of thinkin’ dirty things. I bet he’s undressed you in his mind three times and envisioned your boots wrapped around his neck.”
I roll my eyes. “Doubtful. Wouldn’t be surprised if he came down here and scolded me.”
“Maybe he’ll punish you with spankings…” She waggles her brow, and we get lost in a fit of giggles.
Clinging to the railing, I keep my attention ahead so I don’t miss Ellie’s entrance now that they’ve restarted.
Finally, Ellie and Ranger race into the arena. She’s decked out in sparkly pink, including her cowboy hat, which I helped pick. She’s not dubbed the Rodeo Princess for nothing.
“Yeah! Go, Ellie!” I cup my mouth and scream as she clears the first barrel.
Leaning as far over the railing as possible, I shout louder.
“Want me to lift ya up so you can be in there with her?” Magnolia mocks.
“Too bad I didn’t make a sign.”
She laughs but eventually gets into the spirit and cheers with me.
Ellie’s posture is perfect as she rounds the second barrel and rushes for the third.
“C’mon, Ranger! Go, go, go!” I jump up and down at how flawlessly she’s performing.
When Ellie rounds the final barrel, I nearly lose my mind. They race toward the finish line, and everyone goes wild.
“Fifteen point seven six eight,” the emcee announces, then repeats it over the crowd.
“Holy shit!” I cover my mouth after I realize how loud I am.
“That should put her in first place, no problem,” Magnolia points out.
“Her fastest barely cleared fifteen point nine. I can’t believe how much time she shaved off.”
“Probably all that cheerin’ ya did. Encouraged them even more.” She nudges me with a cheeky grin.
“Ha ha. But I bet you’re right. Maybe I should add that into my trainin’. Sideline of me screamin’ at you.” I cackle.
“Speakin’ of screamin’. Go celebrate by talkin’ to the sexy cowboy. Maybe he’ll have you screamin’ later for a different reason.” Magnolia pushes me toward the stairs, and if I weren’t living on this adrenaline high, I’d run in the other direction.
I don’t mind taking risks. In fact, I thrive off the excitement of trying new things. But when it comes to dating and guys in general, I say things that get me in trouble.
“Good thing I’m wearin’ my lucky cowboy boots.” And my favorite white floral sundress that makes my boobs look awesome. It’s the beginning of summer, and the temp is already in the low eighties, so I wasn’t about to sweat my ass off being outside most of the day.
Magnolia smirks and urges me to go.
I walk up to his row, excuse myself as I shift my body in front of a few people, then sit next to him.
“Hi.” I angle my body toward him as he takes a swig of his Budweiser.
He chokes when he realizes I’m speaking to him.
“Hi,” he coughs out.
“You don’t mind if I sit here, do ya? I saw you kept lookin’ at me and thought maybe I was in your way.” I flash him a mischievous smile, then pretend to look in the same direction as I was standing. Tilting my head to where I stood, I add, “But now that I’m here, I don’t see how I coulda blocked your view.”
I return my gaze to his as a half smirk forms across his face. “No, I could see just fine.”
His deep timbre has a shiver rippling down my spine. I’m eager to hear it again.
“Oh, good. So you musta been glarin’ at me for another reason.” Our knees are almost touching, and I’m tempted to inch closer until they do.
He stares at me as if he’s contemplating his words. “I wasn’t glarin’.”
“Coulda fooled me. You were definitely starin’ awfully hard, then.” I lick my lips and wait for him to elaborate on why he fixated on me. When the awkward silence drags on, I continue, “Anyway…since you seem as comfortable as a cat in cold water with me sittin’ here, I’ll go back to my friend. You’re free to join me. The view is great.”
“Not as great as mine was.”
I stare at him—half shocked and half giddy at his words. “A-are you hittin’ on me?”
“Maybe I am.”
Crossing my legs, I wave him on. “Well then, just go on and ask me.”
He tilts his head as wrinkles form between his brows. “Ask you what?”
“For my number.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Noah. What’s yours?”
“I like that. So now that we know each other, do you want my number or not?”
He brings his bottle back to his tempting lips and watches me over the neck while he takes a sip. “You’re very blunt.”
“And why shouldn’t I be?” I ask, keeping our gazes locked. “Are you used to shy women? Is that what you prefer? If I’m not your type, you can just say so. It won’t hurt my feelings.”
“That’s not it.”
I shrug and say, “Okay,” as if his lack of eagerness didn’t bruise my ego. “If you change your mind, I’m bartendin’ at the Cantina lounge tonight. First beer’s on me.”
I’ve been a volunteer for the past few years since my family’s ranch is a sponsor. My brothers pitch in too, but they don’t do it for the charity proceeds. They’re only after single girls’ numbers, which is exactly why they’ll need a babysitter at the fundraiser.
Before Fisher can respond, I sashay myself out of his row and back toward Magnolia.
Her eyes are wide, and her mouth is agape. “Where the hell did that side of you just come from?”
I link my arm through hers as I lead us to where Mallory sits.
“I channeled my inner Magnolia. Figured I’d never see him again anyway, so why’d it matter if I make a fool outta myself?”
“Jesus. By the way your bodies were leanin’ into each other and the intense eye contact, y’all were turnin’ me on for a minute.” She makes a show of fanning herself.
We laugh as we take our seats in front of my little cousin, who’s busy gossiping with her friend. I resist the urge to glance up to see if he’s looking at me again but decide to play it cool as if I don’t care either way. So much for going up there and giving him my number. Instead, I’m kicking myself and panicking about what a fool I am. Now I wish the ground would open up and save me from the humiliation.
Once all the racers have run, Ellie’s declared the winner, and we shoot to our feet, clapping and letting out piercing whistles. I couldn’t be more proud of her focus and determination. Even when she had bad training days, she’d get back up and work harder.
“Isn’t that Craig Sanders?” Magnolia whispers in my ear as we watch the team roping event.
My eyes follow as she points in his direction, and my lip curls. “Unfortunately.”
I’m not surprised to see him here as a trainer himself, but he’s local to Sugarland Creek. He’s probably trying to find clients or steal them from others.
He’s a snake like that.
“Oh shit, he’s comin’ over.” My back stiffens as he makes a beeline for us.
“Howdy.” He tips his hat, and I cringe. “Congrats on the win.”
“Thanks,” I say. Although it’s Ellie’s win, he’s bitter she went to me after she fired him last year.
“She was a little slow on that second barrel. Might wanna help her fix that so she doesn’t have such a narrow win next time. Would hate to see her slip into second.”
Magnolia shoots him a murderous glare as I force a grin. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks so much for your valuable input.”
His jaw twitches as if it’s full of tobacco chew. Gross.
Mallory’s clueless about what’s happening and chimes in, “Which racer was yours?”
Magnolia stifles a laugh as I bite back a smile.
“Mine isn’t here,” he tells her in a forced drawl.
Craig can’t keep clients because he has a shitty attitude and no patience.
“How come?” Mallory asks, ignorant of the irritation covering Craig’s face.
Instead of answering, he gives me a nod. “See ya ’round, Noah.”
“God, I hope not,” I mutter.
He’s another one who thinks he should be more successful than me because he’s older. He also blames me when his clients leave and hire me instead.
Once the events are over for the evening, Magnolia takes Mallory to our camper while I head to the lounge for my shift. She promises to stop in later, but considering my brother Tripp is here, I doubt she will.
She’s crushed on him since middle school, but he’s never returned the feelings or been the settling-down type. He’s only two years older than me, so I can’t blame him. Eventually, though, she’ll move on from her crush, and he’ll be too late.
As I hand out drinks and chat with customers, my mind wanders to Fisher. Every time someone approaches, my heart skips a beat at the thought of it being him. I’m not sure he’ll show up, but I want to be ready if he does. I grab a napkin and write down my number. This way, if he chickens out and doesn’t ask me, I’ll just casually hand it to him. He can decide whether he wants to use it.
Grabbing another napkin, an idea hits, and I jot down my ex’s number. If he asks for it and the vibes are off, I’ll give him Jase’s instead, and he’ll be none the wiser.