Page 24

After fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, drifting off into blessed slumber wasn’t an option.

Rather than taking a shower, Channing indulged in an hour-long bath. The heat leached out some of the soreness, but it might be a few days before her butt quit hurting. She snickered. Now she totally understood the phrase hurt so good.

She dressed in loose-fitting jeans, a lightweight, long-sleeved white cotton shirt, hoping it’d reflect the sun’s brutal rays. Even after slathering on sunscreen yesterday, her skin had turned crimson from a day in the stands. Good thing she’d kept her hat on and saved her scalp from frying. Instead of boots she wore strappy sandals. Cool head and cool feet meant a cooler core temperature.

With her bags packed and lined up by Colby’s by the door, she slurped the last of the coffee. Then she lovingly cleaned the carafe and packed it back in the box. It would probably sound silly to Colby, but she knew it would become one of her most treasured possessions.

She wasn’t a stranger to gifts. Mostly big, expensive ones. Her parents had given her a BMW for her sixteenth birthday. When she’d turned twenty-one, a flawless string of pearls. But they’d never given her a gift from the heart or paid much attention to her sentimental yearning for something unique and well thought out. Like a handmade scarf. Or pair of skates and a promise to take her to the rink for an afternoon of frolicking on the ice. They’d never really listened to her.

In a few short days Colby knew her better than either of her parents.

She suspected the shrewd cowboy might know her better than she knew herself.

A sharp knock echoed in the quiet room. The maid kicking her out already? Channing lifted to her tiptoes and checked the peephole.

Edgard. She opened the door. “Hey. I thought you’d be at the rodeo grounds.”

“On my way, chica. I just need to load yours and Colby’s stuff in the horse trailer. Do you want to ride over there with me?”

“Sure.” She touched his arm. And she thought she’d looked wiped out. She could’ve packed her stuff in the luggage under Edgard’s eyes.

“Ed, are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just worried about the events. Trev and I could sure stand to win some money today.”

“I’ll cheer you on, amigo. Although I guess I’m not bringing you as much luck as you’d believed?”

Surprisingly, Edgard grinned, leaning over to buss her cheek. “You bring me something better than luck, Channing.”

“What’s that?”

“Hope. Come on. Colby forgot his saddle and he’s waiting, probably pacing behind the chutes.”

Channing wondered. Had Colby been thinking about her and their erotic interlude last night that he’d waltzed off and left his saddle behind? Maybe he was as bowled over by what was happening between them as she was because he was meticulous about his equipment.

At the rodeo grounds Edgard had parked the rig at the far end of the lot, near the back entrance. He handed her a key to the horse trailer.

“Can you lock up? I gotta get this saddle over to him before he starts freaking out.”

“Sure. See you. Tell him I said good luck.”

“Maybe you wanna give me a kiss that I can pass along to him, too?”

“You know, that’s the first time you’ve offered to kiss me. You feeling okay, Ed?”

“I’m feeling great. Later.” He flashed her a bone-melting smile, hefted the saddle over his broad shoulder and sauntered off.

At the box office a ticket was held in her name. And it really brightened her day when several of the women from the Wild Bronc came over to chat, to tease her about her abrupt departure with Colby the previous night. The bolder ones even confided about the early days in their relationships with their cowboys and how they remembered—and missed—that urgency.

But mostly these trash-talking women wanted to tempt her into placing small stakes bets with them. A time-honored tradition, they swore. The only rule was you couldn’t bet against your man.

Channing knew it was a test. And she soon discovered very few bet against Colby McKay. So she prepared to clean them out of their pocket money and she’d enjoy every minute of it.

“Let’s rodeo!” the announcement boomed.

During the bareback competition Channing won twenty-five bucks.

Then the saddle bronc event started.

Oh mama. The second Colby’s name was announced, her whole body flushed with desire and pride.

Colby looked powerful and in command and supremely sexy as he rode his bronc to a seventy-five. He finished third overall and won a decent amount of money.

With it being the last day of the rodeo, the events were longer, because the short go was held right after the individual competitions ended.

The betting became sporadic as contestants’ significant others left the stands. It’d be a long day for her. Suddenly alone, Channing regretted she’d forgotten her notebook in the horse trailer.

Two tugs on her hair. Before she could turn to see who it was, Callie hopped down in front of her. “Hey, China bear.”

“Hey, Calamity Jane.”

She clapped her hand over her mouth and giggled.

“Where’s your mom?”

“Helpin’ the hazer wrap up the back legs on his horse before Daddy goes bulldoggin’.”

With her soft Midwestern accent, bordering on a twang, and big eyes, the kid was cute as bug. “Is the horse okay?”

She shrugged. “So’s your stomach and your head hurt as bad as Momma’s does this mornin’?”

Channing choked on her iced tea. “No.”

“I’m glad, because she is the one who’s a bear today, not you,” she confided with a serious face.

Beat-up brown boots covered in dirt slid into view. “I heard that Calliope Jane Morgan.” A sluggish Mary eased next to Channing. “I’d like to say she’s full of it, but the truth is, my head is pounding and I feel like I could barf. Been that way since the moment I got up.”

She could tell Mary was scrutinizing her from beneath oversized pink sunglasses.

“Here I was hopin’ my partner in crime from last night felt just as poorly as I do. But damn, you look positively chipper today.”

Channing chuckled. “Remind me why you were drinking last night?”

“Showing you how to celebrate Colby’s big ride. It just didn’t seem like I drank that much to feel this bad.”

“Momma. You always say that.”

“Pipe down, pipsqueak. You’re giving Channing a bad impression of me.”

Channing hid a smile as she sipped her tea. “So are you guys going to Valentine?”

“Yep. We’re off to love city as soon as Mike’s event ends. What about you?”

“We’re heading that way, too.”

Callie skipped across the seats to check out the vendors hawking their wares.

“Can I ask you something?” Mary said. Channing nodded. “Ain’t it kinda awkward travelin’ with Colby and Trevor and Edgard? I mean, Mike and me saw you and Colby take off last night. And Trev was so wasted Cash had to help him out of the bar at closing time. But this morning Cash said Trev wouldn’t stay in his room and he must’ve slept in the horse trailer.”

Channing tried to act nonchalant, dreading the remainder of the question.

“So how does that work when you and Colby want alone time? Do you guys gotta sneak off and git ‘er done before Trevor or Edgard bust in on you?”

Channing blushed. No doubt her new friend would be scandalized if she admitted the sleeping arrangements. But when she really thought about it, she literally had slept only with Colby in all the nights the four of them had been together.

“Well, Trevor and Edgard make themselves pretty scarce. We switch off and take turns—” somehow she managed not to wince “—one night we’re in the horse trailer, the next we’re in the motel room.”

“Oh.” Mary seemed about to say something else but Callie interrupted.

“Momma, I’m hot.”

“I know, baby. We’ll be out of the sun soon.”

“So can I have one of them little fans to cool off?” She pointed to the vendor wandering through the stands selling souvenirs.


“How about a necklace?”


“Then can I have a whistle? They ain’t very expensive.”

“No, Callie. Lord, stop beggin’ me for every damn thing you see.”

Callie sighed. “So can I at least have a snow cone?”

“Fine.” Mary dug out a couple of bucks and slapped it in Callie’s outstretched hand. “But come right back here, no fooling around.”

Talk about diversionary tactics. Callie shot Channing a triumphant look that said she’d wanted a snow cone all along.

Cheeky little thing.

The steer wrestling started. Bets were placed. Channing lost ten bucks because Mike won not only the second round, but also the final go-around. Mary and Callie took off and promised they’d see her in Valentine.

Next up was team roping. Trevor and Edgard were the second competitors. The steer raced out and Trevor’s rope came up short. They ended up with no time. They were out of the money except for the modest amount they’d won the previous day.

Channing squinted, but from where she sat she couldn’t gauge their individual expressions. Their body language didn’t lie; they were both stiff, coiling their ropes in angry, jerking motions. Ignoring the announcer’s run down of their bad run of luck again. Ignoring each other. She wondered if Colby was waiting for them back in the chutes to talk to them or if he’d leave them to misery. Their moods would be sour tonight.

After another half an hour of sitting by herself, she was hungry and needed a break from the sun. She wolfed down a hot dog from the concession stand and sucked down an icy-cold beer. Ooh. That made her woozy. She glanced at the clock. It would be at least an hour before the bull riding started, plenty of time for her to grab her notebook and jot down a few observations.