“Here comes the champ!” bellowed a rodeo announcer over the Las Vegas Thomas and Mack Center’s PA system. “She won her second straight WPRA World Championship title right here last year. Can she do it again? Ladies and gents, this is the amazing Amberley James from Carbondale, Colorado.”
Amberley tapped the top of her dad’s black Stetson for good luck, lightly kicked her nine-year-old quarter horse, Harley, and galloped out into the arena to raucous applause. Ignoring the buzz of adrenaline inside her, she slowed her breathing and focused on the hunt. She could not—would not—lose. Winning was a state of mind. A way of being. Life. All that she knew and all that she’d ever strive to do.
As her father always told her, if you’re not first you’re last, and if you’re last, you’re not much.
Daddy, if you’re watching, which I know you are, this one’s for you.
She charged forward, leaning low over Harley’s neck. The world around her dimmed, muted, then fell away save for her, Harley and the first barrel. Her ears attuned to the sound of her horse’s pounding hooves, her body to the muscular rhythm of his enormous strides. A free-runner, the gelding ate up the distance in a breathless few seconds, rocketing beneath her like a locomotive. Then the first yellow barrel flashed up.
Electricity slammed her, straight through the breastbone. Without a moment to lose, she positioned Harley and rose in the saddle. Her leg drew even with the brightly painted side, but then something odd happened to her eyes. Stars burst at the corners of her tunneling vision like fireworks and she felt herself tilt forward. She pushed down on the saddle horn a millisecond later than she should have and dropped.
Air rushed from between Amberley’s clenched teeth. In a sport won or lost in hundredths of seconds, she’d just cost herself.
She moved her hand toward Harley’s withers, opening him up a little more, squeezed with her inside leg and strove to keep him off the barrel. But that blink-fast delay caused Harley to bend too far. His rear swung, hip disengaged, his hooves kicking up clouds of dirt as he dug in and turned wider than she’d wanted.
Setting her jaw, she pulled her weight forward, brought her rein hand closer, then reached and slid as he accelerated, balancing on the horn and staying out of his mouth to give him his head. She squinted her eyes, straining to keep the blurring world in focus.
Two…three monster strides away from the barrel and then she grabbed the reins with both hands, angling him for the next turn, mentally preparing herself in case he overreacted to the approaching wall, a rare quirk of his that’d landed her in hot water before.
Play it safe or go for it?
Driving Harley hard, they hurtled full out toward the second barrel, making back precious time, she prayed. Her lungs burned and her eyes stung, her face flaming as Harley’s silver mane streamed across it. She kept her eyes trained to the side of the barrel that seemed to slide and waver like a mirage.
Keeping her hands still despite the tremors in her gut, she angled her body back to keep Harley from anticipating and turning too soon.
The tension squeezing her chest eased a tiny bit as he responded to her cue. His gait held steady. Still. She could feel him tensing. Better play it safe, especially since the barrel seemed to jump before her eyes. Keeping her hands light on the reins, she gave him extra time she couldn’t afford on the back end of the turn in case he blew through it and didn’t bend enough. She rotated her entire body as they rounded and squinted in the direction of the last barrel.
She dug her heels into his flanks, asking for whatever Harley had left, and he responded, lunging faster still, closing the distance to the final barrel at lightning speed. Would she be able to judge it with her vision playing tricks? Air stuck in her lungs, and her pulse throbbed painfully in her throat as they committed to the final turn. They had to get around this perfectly.
No room for error.
She eased back to her pockets and applied steady pressure, willing him to arc smoothly. In a flawless pivot, Harley beamed around the barrel like a champ. Then they dashed past and the world rushed back in, a tidal force, the crowd erupting as she swept under the arena and down the gated corridor.
“Fourteen ten,” the announcer crowed as she pulled up, then hopped off Harley.
“Not a bad start,” she said to him, patting his steaming neck, grateful to have made it through clean given her distorted vision.
Her eyesight, corrected with strong contacts, had never been great. Lately, though, she’d begun seeing spots on bright and sunny days. Then parts of her vision started shifting in and out of focus. Exhaustion from her nonstop schedule seemed the most likely culprit, but she’d been through years of touring without anything like this ever happening before.
Harley’s silver tail lashed a fly on his rippling black hindquarter. He nickered at her and gave her a sidelong look.
“Not satisfied, champ? Me neither.” She threw her arms around his neck for a quick squeeze. His reassuring warmth seeped through her shirt and slowed the gallop of her heart. Her eyesight struggles had been a constant, growing drumbeat these last couple of weeks of the season, a dreadful worry she’d kept to herself.
If word got out, it would set the racing community abuzz. Her sponsors would phone and her endorsements dry up. No sense raising red flags before she had answers. The sooner she returned home, caught up with her rest and got some new contact lenses, a stronger prescription maybe, the better. Hopefully, that’d be the end of it.
And the old, irrational fear she’d once had as a glasses-wearing kindergartener, that she’d go blind, would leave her for good.
The familiar aroma of dust, sweat and leather rose off Harley as she turned and led him back to his stall. Some people associated the smell of apple pie, baked bread, garden flowers with “home,” but for Amberley, the smells of the stable—sweet hay, pungent manure, musky animal pelts—embodied her home, and even her church really, where she’d worshipped all her life, most of it alongside her departed daddy.
“We’ll do better next round,” she promised, guiding Harley past an overturned water bucket. After all, what choice did she have? If she didn’t plan on winning, she wouldn’t have bothered showing up in the first place.
Hopefully her eyes wouldn’t act up again…
Several hours and ten rounds later, Amberley shifted on tired legs beneath a floodlight, trying to look as fresh as she had when she’d begun interviews in the cordoned-off press area. The center of her vision shimmered, and her eyeballs ached with the effort to focus. All around, the humid night pressed close. She held her arms out a little from her sides, her body slick beneath her denim shirt.
Rain had been threatening all day. She wished it’d start and release some of the tension in the black, cloud-covered night. Most of all, she wanted to duck under some covers and get the sleep she needed so badly.
“Congratulations,” crowed a big-bellied rodeo blogger named Hank Andrews. Or Anderson. She sometimes struggled to recall names—and lately, faces, too. “Another world championship makes it your third consecutive win.”
Powering through her exhaustion, she shot the florid man, and the camera, a friendly smile.
“Thank you very much. I’m just as surprised as anybody. I didn’t think I’d be standing here. So. You know. I’m just really excited and thankful.”
“No surprise for the rest of us, Amberley,” he gushed. Behind a pair of heavy-framed glasses, he had kind hazel eyes. Or were they green? Everything looked a little fuzzy, especially under this artificial light. More evidence of worsening symptoms?
Dread rose in her throat. “You’ve barely lost a round let alone a competition.”
She winced and shooed away a bothering fly. “Don’t remind me.”
When Hank stared at her, confused, she forced a laugh to pretend she joked.
In fact, she recalled every loss in excruciating detail. They served as warnings of the consequences when her vigilance lapsed, like earlier this month when her eyes failed her for the first time. She’d missed a barrel and didn’t place high enough to secure a coveted spot on the ERA Premier Tour. All her life, she’d dreamed of traveling with the world’s top-seeded rodeo athletes.
“Another great ten rounds. You gave the fans everything they wanted.”
Behind Hank, a tall, dark and handsome cowboy ambled out of the shadows. He moved with an effortless athletic grace she’d recognize anywhere, even in this dim light with her eyesight fading fast: Jared Cade, Heisman Trophy winner, Denver Broncos halfback and a member of Carbondale’s biggest ranching family. He planted his brown boots wide, hooked his thumbs through his jean’s belt loops and shot her an easy grin that gave her a ridiculous beat of warmth—he was her best friend, not a beau or anything…
“I hope so,” she replied, feeling her lips twitch up when Jared crossed his eyes at her earnest tone. She couldn’t quite focus in on the details of his face given her fatigue, but she knew those features by heart, sight unseen. “I just try to come out here and do my best every night. And, you know, I just got lucky.”
Jared rolled his eyes at that. They were both extremely competitive. They’d been friends since they’d met on the rodeo circuit in middle school, trading achievements like some kids traded baseball cards, always keeping score. They shared a hard-work ethic and drive to be the best. Number one. He knew, like she did, that you only spoke about luck, you didn’t actually believe in it.
She cleared her throat, shot Jared a stern, “knock-it-off” look and continued. “I had a good week and Harley worked great and he was real consistent for me. Real solid.”
“You’ve been riding him for…” Hank stopped a moment and whipped out a pad of paper from his back pocket.
Jared held up some fingers.
“Six years,” she supplied. A raindrop smacked the tip of her nose.
Jared waved his hand.
“Almost seven,” she amended hastily, reminded of when she and Jared had spied the rangy black-and-silver colt going cheap at auction and decided on the spot to train him together. They’d always made a good team, never letting the other quit or coast, never satisfied until they’d pushed each other to achieve top spots in whatever they pursued.
“It was so good to come back here and have another finals with Harley. It’s just unbelievable.”
Jared brought his fingers up to his temple and fake shot himself in the head, a grin the size of a dinner plate on his face. She could feel the matching one on herself. Good thing this last reporter didn’t have video since she must look like a total loon.
“Hey, you nailed it.” Hank stared at her a moment, momentarily flummoxed, then continued, “Final round. Did you feel any real pressure? All you had to do was keep him up.”
She laughed, despite the rain that’d now kicked in, steady wet mist.
“I don’t know about that. You know, I— uh—never even thought about it.”
Jared cleared his throat quietly, a scoffing sound, skeptical. True friends like Jared called you out and didn’t let you get away with anything…even trying to schmooze a reporter when you just wanted to kick off your boots and eat a pepperoni Hot Pocket.
“It was just kind of the same thing that goes through my head every night. Go fast, be tight, get around the barrels and try to win some money. That was my goal.” That earned her two thumbs-up from Jared. Little did he know her other worries—and he wouldn’t ever know them since it’d all turn out to be nothing.
She let go of a breath she didn’t know she held.
“I don’t really have any sort of thought process before I go in other than that.” The rain picked up now. Heavy drops pelted them. “I just knew that I needed to focus all day and think about what I needed to do in there. And that’s what I did. I focused.”
Jared made a circling motion with his index finger. Wrap it up. She gave him a slight head shake. She’d worked hard for this all year and she’d bask in the moment, even if she felt faint, the world growing dimmer. Was it getting even darker out? When she swayed slightly on her feet, she caught Jared’s quick, concerned frown and snapped her spine straight.
She couldn’t stand being fussed over.
“I didn’t hardly talk to anyone today. My mom and my friend were about the only two people I actually spoke to…”
It touched her that Jared had flown out to spend the week with her and help her prepare. They always gave each other pep talks before big games or competitions, sometimes tough, sometimes inspirational, sometimes just to make each other laugh and calm down.
Today, Jared had been full-on comedian, making her giggle whenever her anxieties about the race—and her eyesight—started winding her up. Several times she’d caught herself on the brink of confessing her concerns. Would he think less of her if he learned of her weakness? He didn’t know the girl who’d once been called four eyes and been teased so hard she’d spent her lunches hiding in her grade school bathroom.
And he would never know her.
That girl disappeared long ago. Amberley had spent her lonely childhood with her horses until she’d worked her way up into competitive barrel racing and become the winner whom Jared respected. Liked. And winners didn’t complain.
They got the job done.
“It just was one of those days when I needed to take it to myself and focus on what I needed to do.” Her look clicked against Jared’s for a minute. “And it scared me on the first barrel today. I knew that it was going to be tight, and I was thrilled we got around it.”
The rain fell heavier, in weighty splats, not that Hank seemed to notice. She shivered in her soggy shirt as he forged ahead with his next question. Would this interview end before she caught pneumonia? If not, her next interview could be from an ICU bed.
“And another world championship for Colorado today. What do they say about you up there in the Rocky Mountains?”
Jared mouthed something obnoxious—it had to be, given the wicked twinkle in his eyes—and she fought back a giggle. He was the worst.
“I don’t know what they’re going to say.” She earned an eye roll for that. “I hope I made them proud. I know I’m proud to be a Rocky Mountain rider. And I have to thank all of my fans today. They’ve been awesome. I love that they came down and cheered me on. It meant a lot.”
That, spoken directly to Jared, wiped the grin off his face and did something funny to his large, wide-spaced eyes, darkened them somehow. For a moment, she glimpsed the heartthrob her girlfriends gushed about, and it unsettled her. Sure, she recognized his attributes. Every female with a pulse appreciated his lean, square-jawed, gorgeous face, his towering height, slim hips, muscular torso and endless legs that turned a pair of worn jeans into a work of art. He had the kind of red-blooded American male good looks that made a gal want to salute and thank God for everyday miracles.
She wasn’t blind, despite her recent vision hiccup.
But she wasn’t stupid either. Fruit flies lived longer than Jared’s romantic relationships, if you could call them that. Conquests was more accurate a term. Their friendship worked because she inoculated herself against his ladykiller charms. The only woman to see the frog and not the prince. In fact, she preferred the goofy frog to the prince. Their friendship meant too much and she’d never want him in any other role, especially after losing the only other important man in her life, her dad, to cancer two years ago.
Nope. No way would she ever jeopardize their friendship.
She tore her eyes from Jared and peered at Hank through the steady curtain of water dripping off her hat brim.
“A 13.95 average through ten rounds.” Hank whistled. “Pretty neat day. Brings you that average title. How important was that to you?”
“You know, it was real important to me. Every contestant that comes here dreams of winning and that, of course, is one of my goals, and so to achieve it is huge. Though it’s surprising, I’ve worked really hard for this and I just have to thank everyone who’s helped me get here.”
The rain had turned Jared’s long lashes into dark wet spikes around his golden-brown eyes. He didn’t blink, just stared right back at her for a long moment with an unreadable expression she should be able to decipher. She usually knew almost every thought inside his pretty head. “They all helped me get through this week and all through the year. I just can’t thank them enough.”
Jared mouthed something and pointed to the parking lot where his pickup waited. She didn’t have to read his lips to guess he’d said something like, “Let’s go.”
“Final numbers were one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars on the week, and that leads you to another world title,” pressed Hank.
How many followers did his blog have? Millions? As much as she wanted to please her fans, she needed out of this weather. She felt a sneeze coming on, held it in, then jerked as it exploded in her sinus cavities.
“How does this one stack up?” Hank asked, undeterred.
She took a deep breath and launched into what she hoped would be a good enough answer for him to quote and move on. Please…
“Well. You know. The first one is always special and so unreal and indescribable. But this one feels so much more hard-earned. And that’s what it felt like all this year. Harley got injured right before the season started, so that was a challenge. I didn’t think I had a chance to even be thinking of a world title.” Especially with her eyes failing.
A tremor lanced through her.
Jared gave her a firm, “you got this” nod that bolstered her. He’d said those words when she’d worried she and Harley wouldn’t be competition ready in time for the season. Every chance he got, he’d come home to work with her and Harley until they got up to speed. She and Jared had always been each other’s number one fans.
Would he still stand by her if she had a serious vision problem? She kicked the dumb thought aside. People her age didn’t up and go blind for no good reason.
“And I have to give credit to all the girls here because they put on a great barrel race all week and they’re tough competition,” she concluded and shot Hank a hopeful look.
“World champion barrel racer Amberley James,” Hank intoned into his recorder. “Congratulations on another great year.”
She ducked her head and sent a shower of water on her rain-splattered boots. “Thank you.”
Please let this be the end. Her heavy lids drooped momentarily, and the ground seemed to tilt a little bit. Or was that her?
“Hank, good to see you,” she spied him now standing just a couple of feet away, shaking hands briskly with the lingering blogger.
“Well.” Hank’s ruddy face turned tomato. “Didn’t expect to get a double scoop here.”
“Oh, I believe Amberley’s done a great job of giving you all the material you need,” Jared drawled, polite, friendly and respectful as ever, with just the right amount of firm. “Y’all have a good night, now.”
He swept an arm around her waist and led her toward the parking lot.
“Any special reason you came out here? Are you two going to make it official?” Hank called.
Jared halted and peered down at her. She blew out a long breath. Why couldn’t men and women just be friends? They’d battled the misimpression they were a couple for years, right down to rumors claiming they dated, held hands, kissed even. She blushed a bit thinking how they’d come close to doing just that right before her father got ill. Luckily, they’d come to their senses and avoided a huge mistake.
“I’d be a lucky man if that were true, but Amberley and I are just longtime friends. If that changes, I’ll be sure to give you the exclusive.” He tipped his hat and pulled her into the unlit, mostly deserted parking lot.
Under cover of darkness, they ran, hand in hand, splashing through puddles, laughing, soaked and breathless when they arrived at his truck.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked, one heel up and back on the step bar.
He placed his hands on the wet body of his truck, boxing her in, and leaned down. The clean, masculine scent of him, leather, soap and a hint of spice, had her breathing deep.
“To rescue you. Plus, I owe you for bailing me out at the bachelor’s auction last week.”
A bright laugh bubbled up from within. It felt good after so much worry. “Still not sure if I got my money’s worth…”
“Chili dogs and chips?” he scoffed, looking not the least bit offended. “That took a lot of effort. Planning.”
She pressed lightly on his muscular chest. “Yeah. Right.”
He trapped her hand against his heart, and for a breathless moment they simply stared at each other.
Tell him about your eyes, urged the angel on one shoulder.
Keep quiet, the devil on her other shoulder whispered.
She cleared her throat and ignored the strange sense of letdown when he released her and stepped aside. “Anyway, I had to even up the score.”
“Never,” she shot back, forcing a teasing tone, needing to lose this strange awareness tugging her from the friend zone.
He angled his head and raised his thick, perfectly shaped brows. “As in you don’t want me rescuing you or pulling ahead in the tally?”
She lifted her chin and ignored the twinge inside about her eyesight. “Neither. Do I look like someone that needs rescuing?”
“Not a chance.” He chucked her gently under the chin and considered her. “It might be what I like about you best.” Her heart flailed at the deep, serious timbre in his voice. “That and your burned grilled cheese sandwiches.”
She laughed, but it didn’t break the intimacy swelling between them. “It’s an acquired taste.”
“Acquired? Maybe. Taste? That’s debatable.”
The air in her lungs faltered at his tease. Strategic withdrawal time.
She hopped into the truck but left the door open. Today had been a strange day with lots out of focus, especially these all-over-the-map feelings for Jared. Friends didn’t look at each like that.
“Get me out of here, you fool.”
“Always a fool for you, darlin’.” Deep dimples appeared in his flashbulb smile, and for a moment, she almost believed him. He winked, then shut the door.
She leaned her forehead against the window and watched her breath fog the glass. Flirting was as natural and necessary to Jared as breathing.
It didn’t mean anything.
And if she ever let herself think so, then she’d be the biggest fool of all.
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