I thought you might enjoy a little peek into Tricking Christmas – coming November 30!
“Dating is a numbers game, and I really want yours. Take a chance, honey. You won’t regret it.” Truitt Lucas offered the buxom brunette standing in front of him his most persuasive smile. Rarely had it failed to work its magic on women of any age to get him whatever he wanted.
The scowl the woman wore wasn’t what he expected. He’d either lost his touch, or he’d happened upon a female impervious to his charm.
“That’s a lazy, indolent line if I’ve ever heard one, cowboy. You inaccurately assume that winsome smile of yours will make women fall at your feet. It might just get you into trouble someday. Let me make it perfectly clear for you, since you likely don’t understand big words, that I’m not interested in you or your cheesy come-on lines. My answer is no. All kinds of no. Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not buying,” she said, then added insult to injury by giving him a dismissive once-over before she marched off in a pair of high-heeled boots that were ridiculous to wear to a rodeo. She’d likely break off one of those spiky little stilettos before she made it to her seat.
Truitt wondered why he’d wasted his time chasing after the snooty woman, even if she was pretty in a wears-too-much-war-paint kind of way.
“Boy, she was sure impressed with you.” The sarcastic voice, laced with humor, caused Truitt to spin around, agitated to discover someone had witnessed his rejection.
With the sun shining straight into his eyes, all he could see was a body on a horse. The voice was definitely feminine, though. The bright orb hanging in the July afternoon sky backlit the rider’s hair until it looked like a golden halo.
Truitt lifted a hand to shade his eyes. Recognition set in while dread washed over him. All he needed was one of few women who’d turned him down to be a spectator to his defeat. Even worse, she’d likely take excessive glee in telling her friends how thoroughly he’d repelled the brunette.
“Jolee Judson,” he muttered, wondering why, of all the people who could have caught him at such a humiliating moment, it had to be the leggy, sassy blonde. When he’d asked her out on a date two summers ago, she’d practically set his ears on fire listing all the reasons she would never date a despicable womanizer like him.
Truitt wasn’t a womanizer and didn’t think he was despicable either.
Admittedly, he could have put a little more effort into coming up with a better line to use on the brunette, but he was in a hurry. He and his cousin, Troy, were set to compete in the team roping event tonight, and he needed to warm up his horse. He wouldn’t have bothered with the uppity woman, but the way she sashayed toward the arena had caught his eye. He’d veered off course and followed her, but now he wished he would have hightailed it to where Troy was no doubt impatiently waiting.
“If it isn’t Truitt Lucas.” Jolee leaned forward, bracing her left forearm on the saddle horn as she gave him a disapproving look that made him feel unsettled and about seven years old. “It did my heart good to witness you go down in flames with that crushing blow to your fragile ego. Does she make all of two women who have turned you down?”
“Three, but who’s counting.” He tossed Jolee a carefree grin, knowing it would annoy her.
Her eyes snapped with irritation. “You really are pathetic, Truitt.”
“That’s what you continue to tell me.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, wondering how fast he could get away from Jolee. She might be the most talented trick rider he’d ever come across, but he was sure her razor-sharp tongue could skin the barbs off a string of fencing wire. He glanced behind her. “Is Amy around?”
For two months, he’d dated Jolee’s trick riding partner, Amy Hugo. When Amy had started hinting that she wanted their casual dating to become something serious, Truitt gave her his best “it’s me, not you” spiel and didn’t date her again.
Amy had known when they’d started seeing each other he had no interest in anything beyond having fun. She’d accepted the friendship he offered, but Jolee remained a bit on the prickly side, even though he and Amy had stopped dating in November.
Jolee’s gaze narrowed as she glared at him. “Amy isn’t here, and why do you care anyway? She isn’t important to you.”
The words of warning his cousin and grandmother had frequently uttered about Truitt’s past girlfriends coming back to haunt him echoed in his ears. Right now, he didn’t need a lecture. He needed a means of escape. He’d hoped to get Amy to distract Jolee and be on his way.
However, if Amy wasn’t there, that meant Jolee likely didn’t have a partner for her act. He’d watched the two women perform on Thursday, and had been as mesmerized by their talent then as he had the first time he’d seen them race into an arena, doing acrobatic stunts on the back of their horses.
“Where’s Amy? You can’t do your act without her, can you?”
Jolee shrugged. “I’ll make do. It’s the last night of the rodeo. She had a family emergency and left last night.”
Truitt had dated Amy long enough to know she was close to her parents and siblings. “Is it her folks? One of her sisters? Is everyone okay?”
Jolee studied his face for a moment, as though gauging his sincerity. “Amy’s mom was in a head-on collision yesterday on her way home from work. The last update I had from Amy was that her mom was still in surgery, but she will eventually be okay.”
A relieved breath rolled out of Truitt. He might not be interested in a long-term relationship with anyone, but he did care about Amy and her family. “That’s good. Is there anything I can do?”
“Prayers are appreciated.” Jolee straightened in the saddle and glanced at her watch. “You better hustle your britches or you’re going to miss your turn at roping and I can’t think it would make your cousin very happy.”
“Right.” Truitt started to tip his hat to Jolee, then remembered he’d left it with the shirt he planned to change into before he roped in his pickup. “If you talk to Amy, please tell her we’ll keep her mom in our prayers.”
Before Jolee could respond, he gave her a brief nod, then jogged to the pickup where he changed shirts and snagged his hat. He rushed to where Troy waited on his horse talking to some of their friends.
The reins to Truitt’s horse were in his cousin’s hands. Truitt took the reins from him, swung onto the back of Gunner, and did his best to clear his mind as he and Troy went to warm up their horses.
“I was starting to think you’d ditched me, bro.” Troy gave him a long, observant look. “You hit on a girl and got turned down, didn’t you?”
Truitt glowered at his cousin, who was closer than a brother, but looked more like his twin. Troy had always been receptive to his thoughts, although since he’d married Lark Gibson in January, he’d had far less time for delving into Truitt’s private life.
“What makes you ask a stupid thing like that?” Truitt asked, not daring to look at Troy who was being unusually perceptive.
“Because the last time you had that exact look on your face was when that trick rider not only turned you down, but gave you thirty-seven reasons why she’d never go out with you. I know it was that many because Cooper James wrote down a list of them for future reference.”
Truitt’s scowl deepened, making Troy chuckle.
“So, I’m right.” Troy eyed him as they walked the horses around the practice arena. “What girl set you on your ear? Was she way out of your league? Or maybe she’s blind and missed out on that smile that bends women to your will. Perhaps she’s deaf and couldn’t hear your latest cheesy line.” Troy smirked at him. “Dumb doesn’t usually bother you.”
Truitt considered slugging Troy hard enough to knock him right out of his saddle, but he didn’t want to explain to Lark what had provoked him. Just because he had a reputation as a player didn’t mean he really was one. Despite what people thought and said, he didn’t particularly relish dating girls with feathers for brains. Once in a while, he enjoyed spending an evening with a female who could carry on a conversation that didn’t involve their hair, makeup, social media followers, or latest celebrity crush.
Frustrated, but doing his best to hide it, Truitt kicked Gunner into a lope and circled the arena. He and Troy practiced until it was time for the team roping to begin. As they waited for their turn, Truitt tried to center his thoughts on roping the calf, not on snobbish females or those who could cut him to the quick with a few acerbic comments. Ha! There was a big word the brunette would be surprised he knew.
“Ready for this, man?” Troy asked, yanking his attention back to the moment.
Truitt could have confessed the truth. That he was more upset at Jolee giving him a hard time than the brunette turning him down, but that would open a whole unwanted can of commentary from his cousin. Right now, it was more than he wanted to deal with.
“I’m always ready,” Truitt tossed Troy a grin, tugged down his hat, and moved into position.
At Troy’s nod, the steer was released from the chute. The second the breakaway barrier that was attached to the steer and the open end of the header’s box released, Troy took off in pursuit with Truitt trailing slightly behind him. The timing had to be perfect, or they could be penalized for coming out of the box too soon.
Truitt watched as Troy tossed a loop that landed around the steer’s horns, a legal catch. He turned the steer to the left, exposing the legs of the steer to Truitt, who worked as the heeler. He tossed the loop he’d built and caught both hind legs. Troy spun around his horse to face Truitt and the clock stopped.
“Look at that, folks! The Lucas boys have done a great job here tonight. Give a big Nampa applause to these Washington cowboys!”
The crowd clapped and cheered, and the noise increased when the scoreboard showed team Lucas had earned the top score of the night. There were still three teams left to rope, but Truitt hoped they’d at least place in the top three even if they were bumped out of the number one slot.
“Great job, Tru!” Troy said, giving him a knuckle bump as he rode Indy up beside him.
The horses were brothers, born a year apart. Troy had raised Indy from a colt and trained the tall, heavy chested horse just like Truitt had trained Gunner, although he’d been a year old when they’d gotten him. He was quick and agile, able to follow a steer and react to its moves on a dime, all necessary traits for a quality roping horse, especially a heeler.
Truitt and Troy hadn’t ever intended to be roping partners competing in the rodeo, but life had changed for them when their grandfather had passed away.
Troy had left behind a promising rodeo career to return to Dusty Hills Ranch where he and Truitt had been raised when their grandfather had been ravaged by cancer. At the time, Truitt hadn’t decided what he wanted to be when he grew up, and had been considering enlisting in a branch of the military, like their fathers had done. When his grandfather was too sick to work on the ranch, Truitt had taken over the majority of the responsibilities until Troy come home, and they shared the burdens of running the ranch with their grandmother. After their grandfather passed, there just didn’t seem time to do anything but get through one day, then the next, and the next.
Six years had passed, and Truitt was no closer to knowing what he wanted his future to look like now than he’d been then. He loved the ranch, and their grandmother who had raised them and kept things going while he and Troy spent two months every summer enjoying rodeo life.
From the middle of July through the middle of September, they worked like maniacs during the week to have their weekends free to travel to area rodeos where they competed in team roping. At first, Truitt did it for Troy, because he knew how much his cousin missed competing.
Now, though, he loved it every bit as much as Troy did. The rush of adrenaline when they earned a good score. The roar of the crowds. Truitt certainly didn’t mind the attention of all the girls who were rodeo fans.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Troy wave his hat at someone in the stands. He turned and watched as Lark beamed at her husband. The love between her and his cousin was a tender thing that anyone watching could see.
“For anyone watching, Troy is waving to his wife. He’s still in newlywed mode, but Truitt is as free as a bird. I bet he’ll dust off his dancing boots and be at the concert after the rodeo, if anyone wants to scoot a boot with him.”
Truitt nodded his head in agreement, smiling and waving to the crowds. Energy flowed through him as he and Troy exited the arena. They watched the last three teams compete, pleased to come in second place. Since they only rodeoed part-time, they were happy anytime they made it to second or third place when they competed.
“I’m going to go find Lark,” Troy said when Truitt lingered near the arena.
He’d heard the announcer mention a trick riding exhibition. For reasons he didn’t want to explain or examine, he felt compelled to watch Jolee ride.
“I’ll catch up to you later,” he said absently, swinging off Gunner and giving Troy the reins.
Troy raised his eyebrows in question, but didn’t say anything as he rode off.
Truitt walked to the fence by the bucking chutes, climbed up on it beside a few of his friends, and watched as Jolee raced into the arena riding her horse Apache. The dapple-gray Andalusian gelding was a showy equine with his dark mane and tail. The horse stood sixteen hands tall, with animated movements full of grace, making him a perfect mount for trick riding. Apache was intelligent and fast. From what Truitt had observed during his time of dating Amy, which put him in proximity to Jolee, Apache easily learned difficult moves. Strong, competent, and showy were three words that came to mind when Truitt saw the horse.
He watched as Jolee bounced from one side of Apache to the other, then did a handstand before flipping around and riding backward, waving to the crowd. The core and upper body strength required to perform her act was mind boggling. He’d seen the lean muscles in her arms and shoulders earlier when he’d noticed she’d been dressed in a tank top and jeans.
Now, she wore a sparkly blue and red outfit, sequins shimmering in the arena lights as she and Apache raced around the arena.
Amy had mentioned how much she’d learned from Jolee, who had been trick riding since she was old enough to saddle her own pony. Truitt didn’t doubt that Jolee was one of the most, if not the most, talented trick rider on the rodeo circuit.
When she hung by one foot from the saddle, her head bobbing dangerously close to Apache’s thundering hooves and blond hair dragging in the dirt, Truitt leaned forward on the fence, breath caught in his throat until Jolee swung upright again.
He froze in place when Jolee maneuvered into a position of hanging onto two handles on the back of the saddle, her legs extended behind her in the air as Apache raced around the arena. One false move, one wrong step, and the horse could kick the living daylights out of her.
“Dude, what’s up with you?” Shaun Price asked as he sat on his horse by the fence. He and his father, Jason, were two of the pickup men working the Idaho event. “You look like all the blood drained out of your face.”
“I’m fine,” Truitt said, forcing his mouth to form his trademark grin.
“Are you sure? You are watching Miss Judson like you expected the horse to stomp her to death at any moment. They are both highly trained.”
“They are, but it doesn’t make what she does any safer.” Truitt watched as Apache slowed and Jolee did a forward flip off the horse, landing on her feet like a gymnast, hands elegantly poised in the ear. Both she and the horse took a bow to the roaring applause of the crowd, then she swung onto Apache’s back and raced out of the arena.
“Miss Jolee Judson! Give that fine young lady another hand, folks,” the announcer boomed. “Her daredevil partner had a family emergency and had to leave, but Jolee gave you all a spectacular performance tonight.”
Truitt slid off the fence and headed toward his pickup and horse trailer where he knew he’d find Troy, and possibly Lark. This was their first out-of-town rodeo this year, but not the first time Lark had attended the rodeo in Nampa. Much to his and Troy’s surprise, they’d been invited to stay with Lark’s distant relations in Star, Idaho, a nearby community where her ancestors had started a potato farm more than a century ago.
Truitt had enjoyed meeting Lark’s cousins, however many times removed, and appreciated the kindness shown by Levi and Grace Gibson, their hosts. According to the stories Lark had shared, Levi had just returned from the Vietnam War when he met Grace at the Veteran’s hospital in Boise where she worked. They took over the farm and now two of their boys were partners in running it.
When Troy first started dating Lark, they’d jokingly called her a potato princess, since her dad owned and operated the biggest potato farm in their region of Washington. They’d quickly discovered Lark was a hard worker who was determined to make her tater tot food truck a success. And she had.
Truitt could hardly wait for the rodeo next weekend in Joseph, Oregon. Lark would take her food truck, and he and Troy had volunteered to help in between roping. Troy also worked part-time as a farrier and had a few jobs lined up to make the most their time in Joseph.
As he neared his vehicle, Truitt watched Troy wrap Lark in his arms and kiss her passionately. Rather than intrude on their moment, he meandered through the parked vehicles, taking his time returning to the pickup.
“Are you staying for the dance?” Lark asked as Truitt stepped up to help Troy stow their gear.
“Nope. Do you two want to head home tonight?”
“As much as I’m ready to be home, let’s leave in the morning,” Lark said, giving Truitt a glance, then turning her attention to Troy. “Grace has a big breakfast planned to send us off in the morning, and I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“Sure. No problem.” Truitt finished putting away his saddle, checked on the horses, then motioned for Troy and Lark to get in. “Let’s head out.”
Lark walked over to him, placed the back of her hand against his forehead, and made a tsking sound with her tongue. “No fever. I wonder what sort of plague has settled over you to miss out on a chance to party with the rodeo crowd?”
“Very funny,” Truitt said, taking a step away from the woman he considered his sister-in-law, or the closest thing he’d ever have to one. “I’m just not in the mood. Some peace and quiet sounds pretty good right now.”
Troy and Lark exchanged a look Truitt had no hope of deciphering. He slid behind the wheel of the pickup and drove to Star. After indulging in pieces of pineapple cheesecake served by Grace, Truitt retreated to his guest room. He turned on the small television, in hopes of finding an old western to watch until he felt ready to sleep, only to see a teaser for the evening news showcasing a video clip of Jolee doing the suicide drag trick on Apache.
Truitt flicked off the television, turned off the light, and flopped onto his side in the bed, wondering why that woman had been stuck in his thoughts from the moment he’d encountered her early that day.
Jolee Judson was opinionated, peevish, and had no use for him. Why then, did he care so much that she’d called him pathetic?
Slugging his pillow, Truitt closed his eyes and tried to calm his mind, but visions of Jolee in her sparkly costume, offering the crowd a dazzling smile, made him wish she’d share one with him.