Home > Falling for the Cowgirl (Colorado Cowboys #4)

Falling for the Cowgirl (Colorado Cowboys #4)
Author: Jody Hedlund


Chapter

1


South Park, Colorado Territory

June 1869

Ivy McQuaid was gonna win the roping contest. She could feel the victory in her blood.

She flicked her wrist just enough to keep the loop whirling over her head, and she pressed her thighs against her galloping horse, maintaining the perfect pace and distance from the steer.

“C’mon,” she whispered. With everything lined up, she cast the rope, aiming in front of the steer’s head.

As the lasso soared through the air and landed around the horns, she dug in her heels, leaned back, and held on with all her might while pulling the slack. The rope tightened around the steer’s horns even as she wrapped the excess around the pommel in an expert dally. The rope angled across the creature’s right side, dragging up its hip. In the same motion, she turned the steer’s head, throwing it off-balance.

She could sense the beast going down and dismounted from her horse, landing at a run that brought her to the steer. She grabbed one of the front legs and slipped a hooey knot over it. Then, with practiced skill, she strung the front leg to the two back, circling the rope enough to keep the creature from getting loose.

She hopped up and raised both hands to signal she was done.

The crowd on the outside of the corral fence let out a whole lot of whooping at her record time.

A thrill pulsed through her. Nothing beat the sound of winning. Of course, it’d be better if she could hear the sound of winning while dressed as a woman instead of as a man. But something was better than nothing.

She tried not to grin and give away her disguise. Instead, she shrugged off the praise and sauntered a few steps from the steer like all the cheering didn’t matter. That’s what a real man would do. And that’s what she needed to do now—stay in character as Buster Bliss, the expert roper.

She had to keep up the charade for as long as she could, at least until she had enough for the down payment on the parcel of land Landry Steele was selling south of Fairplay. With today’s winnings, she’d be closer to having what she needed. But only a mite.

Her face itched beneath the crusty charcoal she’d smeared over her skin to imitate scruffy facial hair. She’d tightly pinned up her long dark brown hair beneath her battered hat. And she’d wrapped strips of linen around her chest to flatten her womanly figure. While nothing could conceal her curves completely, the baggy flannel shirt and vest helped. So did the trousers and men’s boots. So far she’d fooled everyone into thinking she was a skinny runt of a man.

The big, round spectacles she wore made her appear scholarly and only added to the good-natured teasing the cowhands gave her—as Buster Bliss.

As the hooting and hollering came to an end, she tipped the brim of her man’s hat in thanks before she returned to the steer. Only then did she allow herself a smile. She’d done it again. And the honest-to-goodness truth was that she loved every single second of the cattle roping and would’ve competed without any prize money.

She knelt and jerked the rope free from the steer’s horns before releasing the binding from its legs. The creature hefted itself up with a bellow. Before it raced off, she slapped its hide affectionately, letting it know of her appreciation for the fun.

Coiling her rope around her arm, she cast her sights to the sun making its way toward the western range. Looked like she’d have time for the last—and best—event before she needed to start home.

Folks all thought Buster Bliss came up from Denver over the Kenosha Pass on the weekends to participate in the cowhand competitions. While friendly contests had always existed in some form on the local ranches, the gatherings were growing in popularity and size, so it wasn’t unusual nowadays for fellas to travel from outside of the area to join in, especially as the prize money increased.

Her cover worked well, given that Buster always had to depart early enough in the evenings to travel for a spell. The leaving helped her avoid questions about why she didn’t want to go with everyone else to the saloons after the contests were over. It was already hard to keep her cover for the few hours she competed. She’d never be able to last well into the night.

“Bliss!” At the shout of her name from Mack Custer, Elkhorn Ranch foreman, the organizer of the Sunday-afternoon competition, she pivoted as casually as she could while she kept wrapping her rope.

Instead of looking her way, the foreman was clasping hands in greeting with someone else—a man with a strong, lean outline and a determined set to his shoulders. For several heartbeats, Ivy could only stare, trying to make sense of the familiar form.

It couldn’t be. . . .

The fella shifted enough that she got a full view of his profile—a chiseled jaw covered in a layer of stubble, firm lips, and light brown hair peeking out from underneath his hat.

Her pulse began to race unsteadily. She didn’t have to see him head-on to know he was Jericho Bliss, her girlish infatuation.

As though sensing her attention, he glanced her way.

She spun and faced the opposite direction. Holy Saint Peter. What was Jericho Bliss doing back in South Park?

She hadn’t heard a peep from him since the night he’d ridden away with Dylan nearly two years ago. At the time Jericho had been doing her and her brothers a big favor by helping Dylan steer clear of the danger he’d been in from Bat and his gang for the gambling debt he’d owed them. Like everyone else, she’d been grateful to Jericho for saving Dylan’s life.

Eventually Dylan had written, letting them know he was fine and had steady work. He hadn’t told them where he was or what he was doing. And he hadn’t said anything about Jericho either. They’d guessed Dylan hadn’t wanted to give too much away in case Bat and his gang got wind of his letter and decided to come after him.

Ivy had waited impatiently for another letter, for more news, for anything from Dylan. She’d told herself she was just concerned about her brother and wanted assurance he was okay. But deep down, she couldn’t deny she’d wanted information about Jericho too.

For a long while, she hadn’t been able to resign herself to the fact that he’d walked out of her life, that he hadn’t wanted her. She’d clung to the hope that maybe, once he was gone, he’d realize how much he missed her and would return to tell her he couldn’t live without her.

But as the weeks had passed into months and the months into years, the hard truth had taken up residence and crowded out any hope that was left—Jericho had never cared about her and wasn’t coming back.

“We got Roman-style riding next,” Mack Custer said to Jericho. “Saved the hardest for last. Wanna join in for old time’s sake?”

Jericho was silent, and she was tempted to turn around and gawk at him.

“Winner gets a whole dollar.”

If Jericho raced, what if he ended up beside her? She hadn’t changed all that much during his absence. With her luck, he’d recognize her and blab her identity.

As his silence stretched on, her muscles tensed.

“Thanks for the offer.” Jericho’s voice was low and cautious. “Maybe next time.”

She didn’t wait around for him to say anything else. And she sure as heaven wasn’t waiting for someone to question why she and Jericho shared the same last name. When she’d picked the alias, it’d been the only surname she’d been able to think of quick-like. Clearly she should’ve tried harder to find a different one.

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