“No. Thanks for being honest with me. I’ve spent my whole life with people pretending to be who they’re not and expecting me to be the same shallow person. That’s why I ran away with the rodeo.”
“Are you finding people are more real here?”
“Some more than others.” Channing reached for his hand. “Like I told you the other day. I’d like for us to be friends, because the truth is, I could use one.”
Edgard squeezed her hand. “Anytime, chica.”
By the time they unwrapped the sandwiches and set out the rest of the food, Trevor was back from exercising the horses and Colby had shambled down from the sleeping area. He looked like hell. Channing had to bite her tongue against demanding he go back to bed.
The meal was sort of strange, in that with all the sexual things the four of them had done together, it was the first time they’d eaten a meal in the same place.
Colby wasn’t a good dinner companion. He complained about the onions on the sandwiches. The lack of beer. He grumbled about having to clean himself up in the tiny shower. When his cell phone rang, Channing was grateful for the chance to escape.
She wandered through the grounds. It was a lovely night, the humidity softened the air so it seemed to soothe her and caress her skin like warm velvet. Lots of folks were sitting outside enjoying the evening, drinking beer. Some kids were practicing throwing ropes. She really didn’t have any idea where she was headed until she saw the glare of the arena lights and the empty bleachers.
A couple of gals were taking turns running the barrels.
Channing stayed there, hanging on the fence, on the outside looking in—again—and wondered if she’d ever find a place in her life where she fit in.
She fit with Colby. How he’d recognized her loneliness the first time he’d seen her blew her away. She thought she’d kept that secret well hidden. But she’d noticed things about him too that he’d shrugged off as no big deal.
The soft clip-clop of horse’s hooves sounded behind her. She spun and saw Gemma astride a bay mare.
“Channing! Girl, what’re you doin’ out here all by yourself?”
“Getting some fresh air. What are you doing?”
“Letting Daisy here stretch her legs.” Gemma patted the horse’s neck.
“She’s a social butterfly. She wants to see who’s hanging around the paddock. Mostly I think she’s got her eye on cozying up to one of them cutting horse studs.”
“You want to ride her? She’s really gentle.”
Channing laughed. “Can I tell you something completely embarrassing?”
Gemma grinned. “You don’t know how to ride a horse, do you?”
“Nope. Not the first thing about it.”
“Well, lucky you’ve got me to teach you.”
“The teacher being taught, that has a nice ring to it.”
“You’re a teacher?”
“Wow. That’s great. What age group?”
“I’m supposed to teach high school in the fall. But my real love would be elementary kids.”
“Why can’t you switch and do that?”
Channing sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time. Come on, help me bed Daisy down for the night and we’ll talk about making you into a real horsewoman.”
Channing wished she would’ve brought her notebook. There was so much more to taking care of a horse than she’d ever dreamed. Gemma chatted as she performed the tasks she’d done a million times. When she finished she said, “Early tomorrow we’ll get saddled up.”
“I don’t know…”
“It’ll be fun, I promise.” She wiped a gloved hand across her forehead, leaving a smear of dirt. “I got beer in the trailer if you want one.”
Channing thought it’d be rude to point out the smudge so she didn’t.
“I’d love a beer.”
“Good. Let’s sit outside, soak in the night. I hate being cooped up all day in the damn truck.”
At her campsite, Gemma pulled out two lawn chairs and a six-pack of Bud Light. She popped the tops on two cans, handed one to Channing and toasted her. “Cheers.”
After a long pull of beer, Gemma sighed and propped her booted feet on the cooler. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. This is getting to be my favorite time of day.” She grinned. “Beer o’clock.”
“So, tell me, Channing Kinkaid, who you are, and why you’re running with the rodeo and a buncha cowboys. You look smarter than that.”
Again, Channing laughed and gave Gemma the long version of her life, the run down of her crises and conflicts and the temporary escape from it.
Gemma looked thoughtful for a minute as she finished her second beer. Then she said, “Sounds like you got out in the nick of time.”
“But I do have to go back,” Channing pointed out.
“You don’t gotta do nothin’ you don’t want to. That’s the beauty of being young and where you’re at in your life.”
“By blowing off my obligations?” she countered.
“Only person you’re obligated to make happy is yourself. Is Colby McKay helpin’ you blow off some steam and taking some of the starch out of your spine?”
“You might say that.”
“And since I’ve got no life and no shame, my next question…is he any good?”
Channing sipped her beer before she let a slow smile tilt the corners of her mouth. “Oh, yeah.”
“Come on, girl. Details. Vivid details.”
“You’ve seen him on broncs?”
“Well, rough stock ain’t the only thing he can ride like a wild man.
And he can ride long and ride hard, all night.”
Gemma hooted. “Keep goin’.”
“You know the phrase ‘hung like a bull’?”
Channing leaned forward. “Bulls ain’t got nothin’ on him. And believe me, when he’s riding, bucking him off is the last thing on my mind.”
“Oh. My. God. I need another goddamn beer. Better yet, give me some ice out of that cooler.”
“Come on, Gemma. This isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, right?”
“About Colby? Or men in particular?”
“That your way of fishin’ for information on Colby?”
“Can’t put anything over on you, huh, Gem?”
She snorted. “Okay. I’m gonna admit that I know Colby’s folks a little better than I know him. Our ranches are only about two hours apart.
“So, here’s what I know about your rough rider. He likes ‘em young.
He likes ‘em once and then he likes ‘em gone.” Gemma tipped her can toward Channing. “So as I see it, from my years of wisdom, you’ve clean busted out of all three molds he likes to put his women in. Just maybe there’s more to what’s goin’ on with you two than a short summer fling.”
“I doubt it.” Channing chalked up the increased beat of her heart to beer, not hope. “What about you? How long have you been a widow?”
“Two and a half, long, lonely years.”
“And in that time…” Channing trailed off expectantly.
Gemma sank a little lower in her lawn chair. “In that time I haven’t done the mattress mambo. Not once.”
“Why not? You’re pretty, you’re fun, you’re bright, you’re respected, you know everything about rodeo stock—”
“But I’m old, Channing.”
Channing frowned. “Old. Right. What ancient age are you? Thirty-five? Thirty-six?”
“Either you are my new best friend for saying that or Colby’s gift for charm is wearing off on you.” Gemma smiled briefly before she fiddled with the pop-top on her beer can. “I’m forty-seven.”
Channing whistled. “Wow. You don’t look it.”
“I feel it. Lord. I see those young thangs—” she gestured with her can,
“—like you and those eighteen-year-olds with the perky tits, and the pert asses and the pierced belly buttons…and hell, they are something to behold. Sleek and slick and sexy and can perform more fancy moves in public than a trick rider. No wonder no man my age looks at me twice.”
Channing wondered if Gemma had noticed that Cash Big Crow always looked at her—way more than twice. Surely Gemma couldn’t be that blind?
“You know how they say what goes around comes around? Well, must be karma biting me on the ass.” Gemma tossed her beer can in the pile on the ground. “Believe it or not, I was one of those hot little numbers when I was eighteen. Looking at older widowed women with contempt. Thinking they were ancient. They ought to just go back home, take up knitting and leave the wild living to the good-time girls like me.
“Ironically enough, I didn’t end up with one of those dreamy young cowboys my age who circled me like studs around a mare in season. I married a man old enough to be my daddy.”
Crickets chirped in the immediate silence.
Channing crushed her beer can under her heel. “Oh, come on, Gemma. You can’t start a story like that and then expect me to fill in the blanks or to sit here politely and not demand to know what happened.
She smiled. “Short version: I had a terrible home life growing up. We were poor, lived in rural Wyoming, my father was abusive, my mother just took his mean mouth and his flying fists by drinkin’ herself into oblivion. I wanted better. After I graduated from high school, I moved to Sheridan and worked as a waitress.
“Bright lights, big city, right? I lived in a shitty trailer with two other waitresses and worked my ass off, still going nowhere fast. And to top it off, even though I couldn’t wait to get away from my family I was so damn lonely.”