“Thank you.” Channing crunched the cookie. She debated on asking the girl her name but she figured the girl would clam up, lectures of not talking to strangers dancing in her cute little head.
“That’s why my daddy don’t never eat chicken. ‘Cause he ain’t no chicken.”
Interesting. She’d have to ask Colby and Trevor and Edgard if that superstition held true with all rodeo contestants all the time.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked out of the blue.
“China? Like a doll?”
She repeated her name and the girl stared at her with enormous blue eyes.
“You shore do talk funny, lady.”
“Yeah? So do you, cowgirl. What’s your name?”
“Calliope Jane. ‘Cept nobody calls me that unless I’m in trouble.”
“What do they call you?”
“Callie. My daddy sometimes calls me Calamity Jane.” She pointed at the chutes. “My daddy is bulldoggin’ today.” Then those blue eyes lasered into her. “What’s your daddy doin’?”
Most likely his secretary, but not information she could share with anyone, let alone a sweet little girl.
Both Channing and Callie whirled around to look at the harried brunette hustling toward them, her purple ropers clomping across the metal bench seats.
“Callie, hon, you need to leave this poor lady alone, can’t you see she’s busy?” Callie’s mother gestured to the open notebook and pen perched on Channing’s lap. “Sorry. She’s just a chatterbox.”
“Honestly, I don’t mind. It’s nice to have someone to talk to for a change. I don’t know many people here.” There. That wasn’t so hard.
The brunette studied her with the same intensity as her daughter.
“I’m sorry. Have we met?”
“No.” Channing stuck out her hand and the woman shook it heartily.
“Mary Morgan. Haven’t seen you in the family bleachers before.
Who’re you here with?”
“She ain’t gonna tell you her daddy’s name, Momma, ‘cause she didn’t tell me,” Callie said with a pout.
“Probably because she ain’t here with her daddy, Cal.”
Her rosebud lips made an “O” of understanding.
Channing hid a smile. “I’m here with Colby McKay.”
Mary’s eyebrows winged up clear into her straw hat. “So you’re the one.”
“The one what?”
“The one all them women are gossiping about.”
“Yeah?” Her heart knocked against her chest. “Bad or good gossip?”
“Depends on who you’re talking to.” Mary snorted. “No skin off my nose, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, know what I mean? Besides, near as I can tell you’re free, white and eighteen. Do what you want to and ignore all them self-righteous old biddies and cowpokes.”
Channing opened her mouth but Mary wasn’t close to finished.
“Like none of this stuff happened when they were rodeoin’ years ago?
Wrong. We’ve all heard the stories. And it ain’t like they wouldn’t jump at the chance to act young and carefree and hook themselves a hot studly cowboy if they could. I say, flip ‘em the bird—”
“What bird, Momma?”
Mary smiled indulgently and tugged Callie’s pigtails. “Don’t you never mind, girlie.”
“So Callie told me her daddy is a steer wrestler.” Steer wrestling or bulldogging, was another timed event where the cowboy chased down a steer. But instead of using ropes to catch the animal, the bulldogger launched himself off his horse, right at the steer as his hazer made sure the steer ran in a straight line. Once the bulldogger had a hold of the animal, he picked him up, cranked his head around and flipped him on his side. Steer wrestlers usually only competed in one event, because the money was so good—but so was the injury potential.
“Yeah. Mike Morgan. Currently ranked second. We’re hopin’ for a big win here and in Valentine. Then we’ll go back home for about twenty minutes before we hit the Days of 76 in Deadwood. After that we’ll head to Cheyenne. Last year Mike did well in both places and we drove between Deadwood and Cheyenne five times in one week. Seems once I do get back to the ranch I’ll never catch up.”
“You must travel a lot, then.”
“Yep. It’s fun at first. Rodeo folks are the best in the world. It’s like a big ol’ family reunion. Then about halfway through the summer season we just wanna get back home, have a normal life, if that’s possible with a kid and a ranch to run.”
“Where are you from?”
“Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. What about you?”
Channing tensed up. “Outside of Boston.”
“Oh.” Mary frowned. “Whoa. How did you hook up with Colby?”
“I’ll say.” She clapped her hands over Callie’s ears and said in a low voice, “He’s a wily one, but man, I’d take him for a test ride any time.”
Channing didn’t know whether to be jealous or flattered.
“Not that he’d pick me without me twisting his arm. Despite gossip to the contrary, the real word is he’s very choosy. He don’t usually bring a woman along in his travels. Ever.” She winked. “You plan on sticking around the circuit for awhile then?”
“Well, good. I guess we’ll be seeing you at the dances and whatever.
You going to the Wild Bronc tonight? We could toss back a couple of shots.”
“Maybe. Depends on how Colby does today.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Don’t I know how men’s attitudes depend on how they done in the arena. Pray you don’t have to know how Colby reacts when he gets hurt. But at some point they always get hurt.
Always. ” She shivered. “Come on Callie, let’s get you washed up before it’s Daddy’s turn in the box.”
“Bye-bye, China bear.” She giggled and raced off.
Channing smiled. Well, at least she wasn’t a total pariah.
She sat impatiently through the steer wrestling—Mike Morgan had the fastest time—and barrel racing. She was as curious to see how Colby would do in the bull riding as she was nervous.
What had possessed her to strike such a deal with him? Had she been delirious, still giddy from the amazing sex the previous night?