Home > Hope on the Range(2)

Hope on the Range(2)
Author: Cindi Madsen

   It was the mantra she’d awoken to at 7:00 a.m. countless times throughout the years. Dad was gruff, didn’t show any “mushy emotions,” and ran things the old-school way. The cowboy way, as he referred to it, and Tanya had been around cowboys enough to know it held true. Even Brady kept most things surface level. Frustration bubbled up, as it often did when Pops acted like she required micromanaging. No matter how hard she worked to prove she’d come a long way in her twenty-nine years, he’d always see her as the rash and slightly wild girl she’d been in high school.

   When Mom had been justifiably worried Pops would work himself into an early grave, Tanya gave up the remainder of her hard-earned scholarship and returned home to help keep the dude ranch running. Sometimes she wondered what would’ve happened if she had stayed for the four years she’d planned on, but it didn’t much matter in the long run. Although a part of her still couldn’t stop searching for what she wanted to be when she grew up, Silver Springs offered the secure, logical path. Not only was it her home, but Brady was here.

   Tingles coursed over her skin as she tucked the envelope containing her new handbook under her arm and stood. As soon as she’d cleaned Cabin Three and made it guest-ready, she planned on diving into the book’s pages and formulating a game plan. The local rodeo was at the end of the month, and in addition to the main events, she and Brady always had side competitions going. They talked trash about who was going to place higher, who’d earn the fastest times, and how the team at the dude ranch would totally beat the staff at Turn Around Ranch.

   And this year, she’d be embroiled in another lofty battle. A secret one that involved winning over her best friend’s heart.

   * * *

   Brady urged the sorrel horse underneath him to go faster as he raced toward the pond and copse of trees that marked the halfway point between his family’s ranch and the Bullhead Valley Dude Ranch. It’d been his and Tanya’s spot since they were old enough to leave the house unsupervised. Anytime he or the cowgirl next door texted to say they needed a meetup, both of them would do whatever it took to sneak away.

   He’d been wrapping up riding lessons for the day and texted Tanya to ask if she could get away for a few minutes. He figured they’d set a time within the next hour or so, but she’d taken it to the next level with her “Beat you there” reply.

   One of the best things about Tanya was that she enjoyed a challenge as much as he did. These days, that mostly meant working with the at-risk youth in the Turn Around Ranch program. Don’t get him wrong, he loved his job, and watching the teens grow was super satisfying, but ever since he’d decreased the number of rodeos he competed in, he’d been missing this particular brand of adrenaline.

   Two distinct profiles materialized in the distance, and Brady cursed himself for not taking the time to saddle up CJ, his buckskin gelding. Poor Bud was getting on in years, which made him perfect for first-time riders. Not so great for racing.

   While Brady and his rusty steed drew closer to the gnarled old cottonwood, Diesel and Tanya were coming fast, her red hair flying behind her like a flickering flame. Funny how a friendship so blissfully uncomplicated could push him so hard. It was one of many reasons they’d trained for rodeos together and what had inspired him to put a new spin on this year’s local event.

   “Come on, Bud,” Brady said with a click of his tongue. “Just another fifty yards to an all-you-can-graze buffet.” The horse snorted and elongated his stride. Excitement zipped up Brady’s spine as he leaned over the gelding’s reddish-brown neck, making himself as aerodynamic as possible.

   Almost…

   Brady swore as Tanya pulled her dark paint horse to a stop at the exact halfway spot—an oft-debated topic when they were kids. Dust clouds coated the air as Bud skidded to a stop, his white and pink nose nearly bopping Diesel’s black one.

   Before Brady could so much as get a word out, Tanya dismounted and began to celebrate her victory. “In case you didn’t notice, I won. Oh yeah, oh yeah.” Her dance moves were exaggerated and sloppy, her hips swaying from side to side—no music and she still couldn’t keep a beat.

   “Let me get this straight…” Brady gripped the saddle horn and swung himself off Bud, the leather creaking as he did so. “You rode your rodeo-trained horse while I plodded over here on the old nag we use to train nervous Nellies to ride. Real fair odds right there.”

   Tanya jabbed a finger to his chest. “It’s not my fault you brought the wrong horse. Besides, where’s the cocky cowboy I grew up with?” She lifted her head higher, a stripe of sunlight illuminating her green eyes. “The one who’d tell people he’d beat them, no matter the course or the horse?”

   “Oh, he’s right here. He’s just also smart enough to realize that when it comes to you, he needs all the edge he can get.” Brady tugged one of her windblown curls, warmth winding through him as her familiar smile curved her lips—although the bright shade of pink was new. “And maybe he’s getting old but doesn’t want to mention it.”

   Tanya made an offended noise in the back of her throat. “He is not. Because that would mean I am, too, and that’s absolutely not true.”

   After looping Bud’s reins over a low branch, Brady patted the horse’s flank. “True. All the same, I’m getting ready to pass the torch. The Silver Springs Rodeo is gonna be Aiden’s first official competition, and he’s been borrowing my horse while his gains the necessary experience. Before you know it, I’ll be left with slow-and-steady Bud for good.”

   “Excuses, excuses,” Tanya said, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re already waving the white flag on this year’s side competition.”

   “Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately for you, the reason I called you here is to inform you that I’m planning on takin’ things to the next level.” Brady eyed the pond, thinking a dip might be nice about now. “Wanna go for a swim while we discuss it?”

   Tanya’s eyes went wide, and while he didn’t completely understand why, he got the message loud and clear that she’d rather not jump in the cool water. Come to think of it, in addition to the makeup on her lips and eyelids, her hair was all done up, sleek curls in place of her usual messy ponytail. “You got somewhere else to be this evening? I guess I should’ve asked how long you’ve got.”

   “No. I mean yes.” She blew out a breath. “Time’s not real pressin’, but that CEO who’s gonna shadow me all month is set to arrive in about an hour, and I figured I’d try to make a good impression. You never can resist dunking me, and ‘drowned rat’ isn’t an easy look to pull off.”

   For reasons he couldn’t exactly put his finger on, her answer grated on his nerves. Why would she put on airs for some city slicker? Not that Brady paid much attention, but she’d never dressed up for one of her guests before.

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