Drops of cold water hit the back of my legs, pulling me back to consciousness.
I shuffle deeper into the pillows and mumble, “More sleep.”
“Get up, Goldilocks. We have cowboys to ogle in two hours.”
My eyes flash open at the reminder of where I am. Groaning, I attempt to roll over and realize I’m still wearing my backpack. Now I’m arched over it like a turtle on his back. “Can you bring the rodeo here? I’m not sure I can walk.”
“It was only eleven miles.” She has the nerve to smile.
“How many steps on a Fitbit is that?” I need some context.
“Over twenty thousand.”
“Slap some butter on me, I’m toast. Remind me again why we didn’t drive here?” Slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, I shift off the bed. Instead of standing, I slide to the floor and drag my pack next to me.
Mae sits on her bed in a crisp white robe; warm jasmine hovers around her in a cloud of fresh, clean scent. I’m still covered in sweat and mountain grime.
I extract the contents of my bag, hoping somehow a cute outfit magically appears at the bottom. Setting aside the vodka, I toss the rest onto the floor with a sigh. Other than the oversized sloth T-shirt I plan to sleep in, I have jeans and another boring T-shirt for tomorrow along with my favorite brown strappy sandals. Fine for catching a ride home, but not for catching a cowboy. “I have nothing to wear.”
Mae inspects the pile. “You’re right.”
“Do you think I can wear—”
“No. You smell. Pretty sure your leggings smell, too.” Wrinkling her nose, she stops me from finishing. “You’re lucky I overpack.”
I catch the embroidered, flowy, rose tunic she tosses at me. “It’s a little heavy on the boho look, but better than your sloth tee.”
“You’re such an adult.” I offer the word as a compliment. “I’ll even go down the hall for ice as a thank you.”
“Shower first. Please.”
Giving my upper arm a not-so-covert sniff, I agree.
I spend a long time using all the bath products and steaming up the small but elegant bathroom. Pink, shiny, and fresh, I wrap myself in a fluffy robe of my own and slip on the pair of cotton slippers. This is the life I’m cut out for.
Steam billows into the room when I open the door. “I feel human again.”
Mae hands me a glass of clear, bubbly liquid accented with a lime.
“You found garnishes?” I ask, eyeing her jeans and simple white tee and wondering how many outfits she has in her small day pack. “Or did you pack them?”
“A single lime doesn’t take up much room. Why else should I bother carrying a Swiss Army knife?” She points at the dresser where said blade rests next to a neatly sliced lime.
“To having you as a friend.” I lift the glass and clink it with hers. “You’re the best.”
She takes a sip of her drink. “You’ve had a rough time. You deserve to have some fun, and in my experience, limes are often required for fun times.”
“Don’t tell me you’re packing tequila and some salt, too.” Excitement and awe sneak into my voice.
“Later. Get dressed and let’s go before we’re too tired to move.”
The vodka helps. In record time, we’re presentable and ready to be unleashed on other humans.
Two margaritas and a bowl of queso later, I’m feeling more like the best version of myself.
“Ready to giddy up?” Mae asks as we link arms outside the restaurant. The rodeo grounds are a short walk on the edge of town. What’s a few more feet after all the miles from earlier?
Tequila is a magical elixir.
We join the flow of fellow rodeo enthusiasts as we make our way to the show. Before we can spot a single cowboy, the scent of horses and cattle wafts over us.
“I’m beginning to love this smell.” I inhale deeply, filling my lungs with the slightly sweet scent.
Mae snorts. “You’re unhinged.”
The front rows of the grandstand are already filled with families and groups of women all dolled up and pretty. Not liking the competition, I narrow my eyes and give them sidelong stares.
Mae’s gentle laughter contradicts the hard press of her hand on my back as we climb the stairs. “Keep it moving. Plenty of man candy for everyone to go gaga over.”
“How are you so calm in the face of the ultimate American man fantasy?” I ask, taking a seat four rows up, but right in the center of the arena.
“They’re not a novelty for me. Suits are my weakness. Boots and jeans have lost their power over me.”
“I don’t know whether to feel sorry for you or admire your strength.”
A microphone squawks to life and I lean forward in my seat. The gates open and tonight’s competitors file out on their horses to take a lap around the dirt while the announcer introduces them.
One of the last horses to enter is a brown and white Paint. I hold my breath as I let my eyes scan up from the horse to the rider.
“It’s BB.” I dig my fingers into Mae’s arm.
“Ouch!” She uncurls my claw. “We’re going to need beer.”
“You can’t leave me,” I hiss at her.
“You’ll be fine. Keep your clothes on and try not to yell anything inappropriate.” She ducks down and sneaks out of our row.
Details from the first rodeo we attended a few weeks ago in Snowmass are a blur. I remember the hats, chaps, and a sudden obsession with forearms as strong hands gripped ropes or saddles. Sweet mother of pearl buttons, the strength in those arms and hands.
First up tonight is the solo roping competition. Never in my life did I think I could get turned on by watching a man on a horse try to loop a rope around the horns of a calf, then jump down and tie its legs.
Sounds kind of mean to the calf.
The speakers screech as the next rider is announced. “Put your hands together for four time All Around Champion, Buzz Garrison.”
Buzz. Cowboy’s name is Buzz. Seems appropriate because he’s been the object of my own personal buzz sessions with my new BOB, a breakup gift from Mae.
What lasts seconds in real time, slows down as Buzz and his horse release from their gate after the calf. My eyes focus in on the way Buzz uses his thick, strong thighs to squeeze and direct Cisco. When his feet kick in the stirrups to increase their speed, I think about how in command he is. Zero hesitation and complete focus. Then there are his arms. Honestly, I’ve never thought about a man’s arms in such detail before.
His biceps curve and ball beneath the thin cotton of his pale blue plaid shirt as he loops and spins the rope above his head. He bites down on the length of rope he’ll use to tie up the calf.
I’m sure PETA has a lot to say about cruelty in rodeos and I get it. My heart feels sorry for the little, wide-eyed calf.
But the way Buzz jumps from his horse after stopping the calf with the rope and then straddles it to bind its legs has me squeezing my thighs together.
It’s all over in seconds. The calf looks a little dazed and I feel the same.
Buzz removes his hat and waves it at the crowd. The answering applause is thunderous. A slow, satisfied grin spreads across his gorgeous face when he sees his time.
Another first place finish. The grandstand—okay, mostly the women—jump to their feet and give him a standing ovation. “Desperado” by The Eagles plays on the PA system, and I wonder if it’s Buzz’s theme song. Like how baseball players have certain introduction songs they like to have played as they step up to bat.
And why “Desperado”? Is BB a loner who refuses to let someone love him?
He returns his hat to his head and dips the brim in acknowledgment of his fans. His body language reveals a mix of pride and embarrassment as he exits through the open gate. A few of his fellow competitors slap his back or shake his hand.
More cowboys try to beat his time, but none can come close to Buzz.
“Don’t spill this when you stand up and start screaming again.” Mae hands me a plastic cup of beer. “I had to charm my way up to the front of the line or I’d miss all the fun. Temper your expectations, it’s Coors Light. No fancy brews at this rodeo.”
“Thanks. Buzz won the roping contest.” I sip the cold beer.
“Buzz?” She lifts her dark eyebrows.
“BB’s name is Buzz.”
“Figures. He’s definitely buzz worthy.”
I sigh, loudly. “Right?”
“Having rope bondage fantasies?”
Glancing around to make sure we’re not corrupting small children, I lower my voice. “How’d you know? It’s totally kinky and weird, but totally. I’m not saying I want to be tackled to the ground and have my wrists and ankles tied together, but there’s something hot about the dominance.”
Mae fans me with her hand. “Good thing the barrel racers are up next. You can cool down before the bronco bucking.”
Nodding in agreement, I take another sip.
The women who race around barrels are all gorgeous. With long braids or ponytails, they’re the picture of sun-kissed American beauty.
“Do you think the barrel racers and the cowboys hook up?” I lean close to Mae to whisper in her ear.
“Totally. It’s probably a nonstop orgy every night after the rodeo finishes. Like in the circus.”
I’m half nodding when the last part clicks in my brain. “Like the what?”
The crowd erupts in loud cheering for the super fast time for the last racer.
Mae leans closer to me. “Freaky circus sex. Come on, you’ve never thought about this before? I bet the clowns are kinky. Then you have the lion tamers with their bossy ways and whips. All those bendy acrobats and trapeze artists? And of course, the sideshow freaks. You know they’re into more than swallowing fire and swords.”
I blink rapidly at my friend. “I don’t know you at all.”
She shrugs and takes a long pull of beer, speaking with her cup held near her mouth. “I’m not the one fantasizing about cowboy role play where I’m the cow.”
“Before rodeos, I never thought a man lasting eight seconds could ever be a good thing.”
Overhearing me, the two women in front of us turn and lift their beers in salute. “Amen, sister.”
We toast and laugh, sharing a universal truth.
“Your boyfriend’s up next.” I follow her finger to the activity across the dirt arena.
A group of men gather around one of the chutes. Inside, Buzz straddles the bronco. The horse kicks and the metallic clank echoes as the audience holds our collective breath. Gripping the wide braid of rope, Buzz signals he’s ready. Another cowboy pulls open the gate and ducks behind it.
“That’s gotta hurt,” I say to Mae as we watch the horse kick and buck, trying to ditch both the rider and the strap around his middle.
“To who? The horse or the cowboy?”
Buzz holds on with one hand around the thick rope while the other arm jerks through the air like a floppy doll. According to the announcer, the riders aren’t allowed to touch that arm to the saddle or the rope while trying to stay atop the angry beast. Eight seconds doesn’t seem like a long time. Unless you’re trying to ride the equivalent of a swarm of hornets.
My favorite cowboy lasts nine seconds before he loosens the rope. Another horse and rider come up alongside him so he can dismount. He easily slides over to the other horse while the bronco runs ahead of them.
The crowd once again goes wild when he drops to his feet near the middle of the oval and waves. I’m on my feet, clapping and shouting with the rest of them.
Except Mae. Who remains seated and tugs me down by my back pocket.
“What?” I’m breathless.
“You were jumping up and down on my foot.” She points between us.
“Sorry. I’m not sure I can handle the bull riding. Makes me nervous. What if the bull throws him off and then steps on his head?”
“He’ll die,” Mae says, drily.
“I’m sure it happens. This is a dangerous, crazy business.”
Great. Now I’m full of anxiety and dread watching the rest of the bronco riders finish.
“I need to pee.” I stand and drain my cup. “Want another beer while I’m up?”
“Scaredy cat.” Mae hands me her empty.
“If the lines for the hell potties are short, I’ll be back in time.”
She’s completely right about me. Adrenaline spikes my blood and my heart rate feels like I’ve been running a 5K. Uphill.
Only a few people are waiting to take their turns in the port-a-potties. I jump in line and pray to the toilet gods for a relatively clean one while cursing my small bladder and all the liquids I’ve consumed this evening.
I think about which is worse as I hold my breath: using a popular port-a-potty, aka a claustrophobic hell closet, or riding a bull.
After drenching my hands in multiple pumps of sanitizer outside the hell portal, I join the even longer line for beer. From the arena behind me, I can hear the crowd clapping and the announcer giving the final results for the bronco riding.
Another first place finish for Buzz.
A couple of older men stand in the bar line ahead of me. Both wear crisp white western shirts and dark jeans so pressed they look like they were ironed with starch.
“That Garrison kid’s having a helluva season, ain’t he?” the more stout of the pair declares to his taller friend.
“Easy to win when you have all the money in the world buying you the best horses and time for training.”
“I heard he just shows up. Doesn’t work with the rest of the crews. Keeps to himself.”
“Same, but he has a big operation behind him. Deep pockets with connections to California.”
Both men frown at the word, like it’s code for something bad.
“Even so,” the shorter one says, “once he’s out there, it’s just him and whatever talent he has. You can’t buy nine seconds on an angry horse.”
His friend nods, but I get the feeling he’s holding a grudge. “Not having to work an honest day like the rest of us probably helps.”
Hmm. I’m tempted to tap one of them on the shoulder and ask him to spill all the details. Instead, I let them order and disappear into the crowd. This mini-field trip is taking forever as it is.
I finally order and toss a couple bucks in the tip jar.
“Here we go, cowgirls and cowboys. Our first bull rider tonight is leading the All Around standings this season. Give a huge Crested Butte round of applause for Colorado local boy, Buzz Garrison!” As soon as the emcee says the name, I’m racing back to the stands, beer spilling over my hands as I dodge and weave around people.
I’m barely back in view of the chute when it opens and one angry, ugly bull comes flying out with Buzz holding on by a thin rope. He’s wearing the same black safety vest he wore for the bronco ride. A black helmet replaces his signature Stetson.
I’m relieved he’s taken all the precautions. For good reason. The bull plants his front feet and lifts his sizable rear end to kick his hind legs, not once but twice. While turning and dipping his head down low.
Buzz bounces on the back like a flag flapping in a strong wind.
Some of those bounces have to hurt.
When the bull executes a near handstand and then quickly bucks up on his front legs, I hold my breath.
Releasing, his hold on the rope, Buzz flies in the air. For a few seconds he sails through the air, over the kicking legs of the bull who’s just ejected him like a pilot from a jet.
“No,” I shout and it sounds like I’m screaming in slow motion.
With a silent thud, Buzz lands in the dirt and remains still as the rodeo clown and a few others distract the bull.
Buzz should be moving. Getting up and out of the way of the angry mound of flesh and bone that seems ready to keep kicking ass and taking names.
The clown gets the bull to chase him in the opposite direction from Buzz. Another cowboy opens a gate and the clown darts in that direction, the bull close behind him.
My focus cuts back to Buzz, who’s standing up with the help of another cowboy. He gives a half wave to the crowd before bracing his hands on his knees.
“Got the wind knocked out of himself,” some random guy in a big straw hat says from next to me. Without realizing it, I’ve moved to the fence surrounding the dirt. I’m pressed against it, squeezed between men who could be competing tonight. They’re huge and smell like hay, horse, and beer.
“Is he going to be okay?” My voice cracks with worry.
“Garrison? He’s got a deal with the devil. Worst thing he might have are some bruised ribs. Don’t worry your pretty face about him. He’s not worth it.” An older man to my left pats my shoulder.
“Oh, we’re not. I’m not, I mean. I haven’t even met the man.” I stumble through my words. “We don’t even know each other.”
His eyes trail down from my face, pausing in the general vicinity of my boobs, before skimming over my hips and legs. “Sweetheart, didn’t your momma warn you about cowboys?”
I stare at him, waiting for him to start laughing at his obvious joke. He doesn’t.
“Find yourself a nice boy with a nine to five, two weeks of vacation a year, and a 401k kind of job. You’ll save yourself a whole heap of heartbreak.” He pats my shoulder again.
I see red. Like a bull with an unwanted passenger on his back.
“Thanks for the unsolicited advice. Stop touching me and I won’t throw one of these beers in your face. Please.”
It’s his turn to stare at me. His dirty nails and ragged cuticles are still resting on my shoulder.
“I said please.” I twist away from him and his hand drops to his side. “Now don’t make me waste fifteen dollars’ worth of semi-flat beer on making my point.”
He holds up both his hands like I’m holding him up. “Don’t shoot the messenger, sweetheart. Cowboys are nothing but trouble.”
I’m about to tell him no woman likes to be called sweetheart by a strange man, when Mae coughs beside me.
“You need a back-up?” She casts a dirty look at the manhandler.
“No, I’m good. Saved your beer.” I pass her the cup. “I might’ve spilled three dollars of beer with all the excitement.”
Without a backward glance, I move away from the fence. “I’m not sure I can handle more excitement.”
“What happened? You okay?”
“Other than thinking I watched a man get killed by a bull and then having some random old guy mansplain to me about the foolishness of loving cowboys, I’m good.”
“I think there’s a petting zoo on the other side of the arena. Maybe you need some animal therapy. Hug a sheep or pet a goat. I can hold your beer.”
We weave our way through the thinning crowd as people focus on the bull riding action, the big finale before the winners are announced.
The petting area is empty of kids and toddlers. Inside the short fencing, a few sheep, a handful of rabbits, and a couple of pygmy goats meander around, sniffing the ground for overlooked treats.
“Can we pet them?” I ask, leaning over the fence, arms outstretched in the direction of a black and white goat.
“It’s supposed to be ages ten and younger, but since we’re getting ready to pack up for the night, you can hold a bunny, if you want.” The teenager in a Shawn Mendes tee and mom jean shorts is evidently in charge.
I’d been hoping to hug a sheep, but I’m not going to argue when she scoops up a rabbit and hands it to me over the fence.
“Mind if I sit?” I tilt my head toward a stack of hay bales.
“Go for it. Just promise you won’t try to steal it. I’ll get hell if my count is off again tonight.”
Mae and I meet eyes.
Again? she mouths.
With my therapy rabbit cradled in my arms, I sit on the top hay bale. Petting the softest fur ever, I start to feel better. Less ragey and full of adrenaline over a man I don’t know who’s crazy enough to ride bulls for a living.
“Helping?” Mae asks, sitting next to me.
She pets my rabbit’s ears.
“Um, you’re going to need to get your own bunny. This one’s mine.” I bat her hand away.
“Don’t listen to her,” I whisper to the rabbit. “I’m very nice.”
“Lucky bunny.” The voice over Mae’s shoulder is a familiar masculine drawl.
I peek at the worn brown suede chaps and denim covered legs standing directly in front of me. My mouth goes dry as I quickly sweep my gaze past the buckle and over the blue shirt. No more vest. Finally, I’m greeted with the lazy, sexy smile of Mr. Buzz Garrison, rodeo champion and death wish haver.
“I’m sure if you ask nicely, you can pet any bunny you want.” I replay that in my head and it sounds like “pet anybody.” Yep, dirty.
“What if I want your bunny?” His lips spread into a wolfish grin that my traitor body thinks is hot. I don’t know which is worse—his sexy full mouth or the way mischief sparkles in his dark eyes.
He did not just say that.
And the way his lips hitch up on one side, making his smile a little lopsided, tells me he meant it to sound too sexy for church talk.
Good thing it isn’t Sunday.
I glance around for Mae to confirm he’s standing here talking to me, but she’s wandered to the far side of the petting pen. Sneaky girl giving us privacy.
“Shouldn’t you be nursing your injuries?” I manage to sound casual.
“I’m fine.” He strokes the fur on the luckiest bunny ever. “Nothing that hasn’t happened before.”
“You looked dead.”
“I’m sorry that upset you. I’m guessing you haven’t been to a lot of rodeos before.”
“This isn’t my first one.” I straighten my back.
“I know.” His voice lowers to a rumble meant only for me. I stare up at him and notice a faded cut on his bottom lip.