Home > Hope on the Range(3)

Hope on the Range(3)
Author: Cindi Madsen

   Had she?

   And since when did she care if her hair got messed up? Half the time, she initiated the water fights that led to him dunking her. She’d come up for air, slapping water at him and cursing him out for being bigger and stronger—not that she’d ever say it that way. She’d make an excuse about not being ready or that she’d slipped on a mossy rock.

   Maybe that was it. She must want a more level playing field as they tossed their dare-filled gauntlet.

   “How about we shoot instead?” Tanya opened the bag of tricks at the base of the cottonwood tree that was technically more of a crudely built box and lifted out their bows and quivers of arrows.

   Since they often came on horseback, they’d stashed the essentials. In addition to the archery equipment, there were fishing poles, a tackle box, and snacks that were likely past their prime. Not that he was one to talk, since he’d recently begun to feel he was past his, too.

   Lately he’d turned into one of those old men who ranted about too many changes and the state of the world. He also fretted over his parents, his five brothers, and the entire staff at the ranch—not to mention each and every teenager in the program, past, present, and future—more than he ever had before. He continually felt like something was…off. Or maybe just missing. Whatever it was, he couldn’t seem to put his finger on it. Sure, his goals had changed quite a bit through the years, but he’d been the one steering, and he was happy with his choices.

   With any luck, preparing for their annual small-town rodeo and the new twist he wanted to throw into the mix would help. See. I can embrace change.

   As long as I’m the one in charge of it.

   “Are we shooting or snoozing?” Tanya asked, waving his bow in front of his face and returning him to the here and now.

   “Is snoozing an option? Because if it is, I choose that.”

   Tanya shot him a pursed-lip look that reprimanded him for being boring without saying a word, and he smirked and relieved her of his bow and quiver. As they walked toward the tiny meadow where they’d set up multiple targets, he noted the way her purple V-neck top complemented her red curls and pale skin.

   Back when they first began playing together, she’d been a slip of a girl with thick Pippi Longstocking braids and a smattering of freckles. Sometimes he still pictured her like that—the girl who’d gone exploring with him, everything from rickety shacks to rusted-out vehicles that’d hosted nests of mice and other vermin.

   While he still saw hints of that girl, fiery waves had replaced the frizzy braids, and her pale, delicate features—so at odds with her personality—made her appear as though she should be slinging drinks in a pub in Ireland instead of cowboying it up out on the ranch. She moved her ear to her shoulder in a stretch that exposed the long column of her neck and tightened her shirt over, uh, other assets he was definitely glancing away from ASAP.

   Not like he’d never noticed she had breasts before or that, objectively, she was pretty. Those were merely facts that didn’t mean anything besides he had eyes. Problem was, she’d put effort into dressing up for some guy she hadn’t even met. Despite what his family thought, jealousy over her dating anyone else had never been a factor.

   Well, not in the romantic way they meant it. The two of them just had a lot going on, and now that his oldest brother was engaged, Brady felt the weight of the ranch transferring to his shoulders. Given all that, his selfish side didn’t want to share her with anyone else.

   Although Brady supposed if she were going to date, some out-of-towner who was only here temporarily would be the best-case scenario.

   Immediately, guilt settled in his gut. Of course he wanted Tanya to be happy. But the past year had been full of more downs than ups, and he couldn’t handle one more change.

   A crack punctuated the air as Tanya laced her fingers together and pushed them out, popping her knuckles. “Best of three.”

   “Deal,” he said, and she gestured for him to go on ahead. Back in the day when he’d insisted ladies always went first, she’d punched him in the arm and told him she wasn’t a lady and never would be. Under the guise of equality, she’d insisted he go first, but in reality, she just wanted to see what score she had to earn to best him.

   Brady grabbed an arrow and placed it on the rest. He set his grip, drew, and aligned the tip of his arrow with the black, blue, red, and yellow target.

   His focus grew hazy when he caught a whiff of Tanya’s perfume—one he hadn’t smelled in years. He hadn’t realized she still wore it, and he was sure he would’ve noticed. Sultry and a hint fruity, it unlocked a memory he’d repressed, one he immediately bricked back up, but damn if it didn’t distract the hell out of him.

   The muscles in Brady’s arm trembled from holding the string taut, which meant he needed to take his shot.

   One shallow exhale, and he released the arrow.

   It soared through the air and lodged in the outer circle. Not the bull’s-eye he’d been hoping for, however nine points wasn’t anything to turn his nose up at. Brady stepped aside, and Tanya placed her much smaller foot into his boot print.

   “So I’ve been wanting to get our current group of teens more engaged,” Brady started, “and with the rodeo coming up, I came up with a brilliant idea.”

   “Calling your own ideas brilliant is the first sign of narcissism. Please call for help if you or someone you love are in danger of being a narcissist.” Tanya put a hand to the side of her mouth and stage-whispered, “As soon as we’re done here, I’m gonna set up an intervention.”

   Brady chuckled. “Hear me out, and then you can judge.”

   She glanced over her shoulder and huffed. “I think you’re just trying to distract me.”

   He inched closer, crowding her the same way she’d done to him, and ran his fingers along his jaw. It drove her bonkers when he fidgeted close enough that she caught the movement in her peripheral vision.

   “Too bad for you, it won’t work.” The strings on Tanya’s bow twanged as she released her arrow. It soared through the air, a little high…

   But at the last second, it dipped and hit dead center. Brady made a half growl, half grunt that got swallowed up by her self-satisfied laugh.

   “I’ve got nerves of steel, don’t ya know?”

   He did. Back when they traveled the rodeo circuit, he was the one who couldn’t eat the day of an event while she wolfed down heaps of junk food, no problem. “That’s right. The unshakable Tanya Clayton. She’s got fancy saddles and big, shiny belt buckles to match.”

   She bumped her shoulder into his—well, more like into his biceps, since she was a foot shorter. “Hey, remember how my belt buckle is bigger than yours?”

   “Oh, you want to compare sizes?” The question burst out of him before he realized what it’d sound like.

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