Howard’s new guy sauntered into the stock pen area and I hated him on sight. After seven years of working for my uncle, George Bloom, as a rodeo clown, I knew what a good bull rider was supposed to look like. Medium height, slender build with strong arms and shoulders. Muscular legs. Quick on his feet. Solid center of gravity.
As the new guy strode over the churned up turf, dodging cow patties and road apples with effortless ease, I knew this mystery rider was going to be good.
The riders that Howard managed were always good. Didn’t mean they weren’t complete dickheads, though.
And this guy — this guy with his wide smile and perfect teeth, his big, pretty eyes and long, brown braid of hair — this guy in his black spangly chaps, black skin-tight Western-cut shirt, and black Stetson hat was going to make my life hell. The shooters always did. They never looked twice at the safety staff despite the fact that we’d be the ones coming between the unseated rider and 2,000 pounds of pure rage that was after a piece of the cocky fucker who’d had the nerve to climb up onto his back. We stuck our necks out — and our rodeo hero went right on smiling his mega-watt smile — without so much as a thank-you.
It was always the same old fucking story.
I sighed and turned away, resigning myself to the fact that I was going to loathe my job for the next nine months. Or the next six-and-a-half if this guy was any good and ended up on the championship circuit. Maybe less if he broke an arm. God damn, but I’d wanted this to be a good year. It wasn’t going to be, though. All because of this cocky, stuck-up, walking wet dream.
“Hey, excuse me. Don’ mean to bother y’all when you’re gettin’ ready…”
Ralph elbowed me and I belatedly realized that the voice was aimed in our direction. I looked over my shoulder and there he was. Howard’s latest drop-dead-gorgeous, sex-on-two-legs, bull-riding champ-wanna-be was holding out his hand for Sal to shake, looking Sal right in the eyes. Through the layers of face paint and everything.
“Duo Maxwell,” he said and waited politely for Sal to offer his own name. Then, wonder of wonders, he made an effort to remember it: “Sal Montgomery. Pleasure to meet you. Thanks for goin’ in there with me.”
Ralph was next and that was good because I was having a hard time believing that this was happening. The showy ones never gave a rat’s ass about the clowns. But this guy — was his given name really “Duo”? — was looking at the four of us with respect bordering on admiration.
Then he was holding out his bare, callused hand for me to take. I didn’t want to. I really didn’t want to. It was easier if the guy was a self-serving chauvinist like Zechs Merquise who couldn’t be bothered to remember how many rodeo clowns there were let alone our names.
The hand was still hovering in front of me and now all the safety guys — Sal, Ralph, and Chris — were staring.
Duo Maxwell grinned. It was shy and sweet and fuck all if he didn’t have a dimple on his right cheek. “’s all right if you don’ shake hands, but I’m thinkin’ Ralph’s not contagious.”
“Just wait ‘til you get to know ‘im,” Chris said with a smug grin, reaching around me to punch Ralph in the shoulder.
The hand was still there and it wasn’t going away anytime soon. I reached out and accepted my fate. “Trowa Barton,” I said, thankful that my voice was steady despite the butterflies in my belly.
“Trowa Barton,” he repeated and his drawl caressed my name like warm lips over flushed skin. “I’m lookin’ real forward to workin’ with you. Stay safe in the arena.”
But it was outside of it where I was in the most danger. From him. From his kind, blue eyes and honest face. Oh, God was I fucked.
I managed a nod and he released my hand, turned toward Chris. Warm and appreciative and sincere.
“Good luck, fellas!” Duo Maxwell said with a wave goodbye and went to go line up for the draw.
“You, too!” Ralph called. Then quietly said, “Jesus, he’s too nice.”
“Them bulls are gonna eat him alive,” Sal agreed.
“Let’s hope he don’t draw Shinigami on his first ride,” Chris added.
He drew Shinigami, the black-as-sin ball of pure hatred with horns. I just about puked.
“Trowa, you all right?”
“Fine, Chris,” I said even though I wasn’t. “Let’s get in there. Crowd’s waiting.”
“Yeah,” Sal agreed. “Waitin’ to see you dance.”
“You’re our big hit,” Ralph teased.
I appreciated that they were trying to help me get my head in the game, I truly did. But—
“Hey, we’re all worried about Duo,” Ralph admitted.
“Let’s help him have a good ride.”
“Keep ‘im safe.”
“So you can ask ‘im out later.”
“Yeah-hah! Once he sees you dance, ain’t no way he’ll turn you down.”
I barked, “Shut your yaps already.”
“Ooh, you called it, Sal. Our boy’s got himself a crush.”
I growled and swung myself up onto the fence. I was beyond irritated that I’d been so damn transparent, but thanks to their ribbing, the ball of dread in my belly was burning me up instead of weighing me down.
The other guys tumbled into the arena and I hung back to get things going with a little daredevil action. I balanced on the top of the fence, walked it like a tightrope. Little by little, the audience noticed.
When we had their attention, Sal started chucking overripe apples at me. Now, Sal had been a pitcher on his little league team, so these weak underhanded throws were not even close to what he could do. Hell, I’d seen him throw a horseshoe right through the windshield of a brand new Dodge Ram extended cab pickup truck and the thing had lodged in the headrest. So this was all for show.
So was my routine as I wiggled to the left, dodged to the right, did a cartwheel, and then performed a comical slip in slow motion — windmilling arms included. Chris and Ralph caught me in a fireman’s carry.
The crowd applauded.
A soft apple bonked me on the head.
The crowd laughed.
I pointed an accusing finger at Sal and was promptly carried over to face him. I grabbed his neck. He sank down and Chris and Ralph lifted me up and I did a handstand on his shoulders. Clicked my heels together in midair. Then pushed off and landed with a flourish.
Sal, Chris, and Ralph posed with me to the applause of the packed stands. There were lots of rodeos, but ours — Bloom’s Rodeo — was known for the floor show. The four of us worked on routines like circus performers would. There was tip jar for us at the rodeo entrance and, by the end of the night, it was always full.
But we knew that the customers didn’t pay the entrance fee to see just us. The event that was up this afternoon was the main attraction. The bull ride.
Which meant it was time to exchange my soft-soled acrobat’s shoes for my boots.
My throat squeezed shut as my uncle greeted the crowd over the screechy PA system, and I held my breath wondering if Duo Maxwell was going to be the first one out of the chute.
He wasn’t. The opening strains of “Eye of the Tiger” – Brett Meuller’s theme song of choice this year – blasted into the arena. The relief was stunning. Even if Mueller himself was a complete waste of space.
Sal, Chris, and Ralph moved from one strong man pose to another with each strum of the electric guitar. I waited for the beat and then did a little dance for the crowd. From a distance, I was sure we looked like we were having a good time, but all four of us were watching the chute, moving closer and taking up our positions. The music cut off. Silence echoed through the arena.
The door swung open. Beast-and-rider erupted out. Hooves flying as the pale, speckled bull twisted and spun.
We kept an eye on the animal’s rhythm and speed and another eye on the rider: his gloved hand where he grasped the rope rigging that spanned the animal’s girth and his booted feet which could get tangled up in an unlucky, loose cord. I’d seen riders get thrown forward (a dislocated shoulder if they were lucky), get their hand twisted up (a broken wrist), or get themselves pulled down and dragged (a concussion, broken ribs, fractured pelvis or worse).
This time, none of that happened.
Meuller was thrown before the eight-second buzzer sounded, but Chris was already moving in to catch the animal’s eye. As Mueller pulled himself up over the fence and to safety, I darted in front and the bull took two steps in my direction before Sal got in the animal’s face and led him off. A horse cantered in and a lasso from one of the pick up men caught the bull’s horns. The stock gate opened. Within moments, the arena was cleared.
The pick up man let the handlers take over. Then he grabbed a new coil of rope, trotted his horse back to position in the far half of the arena, and held up his hand to show he was ready.
Sal, Ralph, Chris, and I were good to go. Up next was some brainless show-off named Lance Alecks. I did a couple of cheesy hip thrusts to his choice of music, “Crazy Train.” Ralph, with his raggedy Andy wig-and-hat, supplied the headbanging.
The crowd loved it, but we kept our focus on the chute. Just in case the door opened before the music cut out. It’d never happened before, but there was a first time for everything.
It didn’t happen today.
Alecks finished his ride — with points taken for having to use both hands — and then “Highway to Hell” started up. Fucking Zechs Merquise was next. I hated him just enough to put some real swagger in my moves. Sal jumped around like a maniac and Chris played the air guitar until the music cut and we all had to fight our inclinations to just let the asshole get trampled by his ride.
It was doubly sickening that the jerkwad was an incredible rider despite being so tall. It was almost like he could pilot the bulls. Unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable as the size of his ego.
The chute banged open and out came Merquise on a brown-and-white bull that spun and kicked one way, then swung back the other, over and over. We all kept our eyes open for trouble. There wasn’t any.
The buzzer sounded and Merquise kicked his way free, landed solidly, and threw up his arms in victory. Completely ignored the fact that the bull was chasing Chris over to the wall. Ralph cut the animal off. I shot in and swerved toward the open stock gate. The bull took the hint and galloped out of the arena without further fuss.
So far, it was turning out to be a quiet show. Except for the fact that some poor bastard had drawn Shinigami. I tried not to think about who that was.
“—a new face from Bozeman, Montana. Duo Maxwell!”
And then the opening drumbeats to “Walk This Way” blasted out of the speakers. We didn’t have anything choreographed for this one, so we fell back on a generic square-dance that made the audience laugh.
The music cut.
I forced myself to suck down a breath. Crouched low and poised to move fast.
Out they came, a blur of rage and midnight. Duo’s braid whipped out behind him as he sat deep in his seat, his hips following the animal’s every move. The bull’s rear feet bucked high over my head as he spun and snorted. Shinigami angled his horns for Duo’s legs, but Duo was stuck to that animal’s back like he’d been glued on. His posture was perfect — up and down, spine rolling with every lurch — the bull twisted left, then right, but Duo was—
The buzzer sounded.
Duo tossed his hat out toward the center of the arena as he kicked himself free, landed just as neatly as Merquise had, but he wasn’t fucking around with a victory salute. He got his smart ass headed over to the wall and, for a second, it looked like the bull was going to go for the dropped hat.
But then Shinigami spun around 180-degrees and went straight for Duo.
Chris was closer, but I was faster. I got right in front of Shinigami’s snout, felt his snot smear across the front of my yellow-and-green tunic, and I kept on running, hearing the sound of hooves pounding into the dirt behind me. I leaped up onto the wall as Sal caught Shinigami’s attention. Then Ralph and Chris and, by that time, the pick up men had moved in and were herding the frustrated animal over to the stock gate.
It was over.
The crowd was roaring.
I glanced back toward the chute to see what kind of ride-ender Duo was using — a wave, a bow, a touchdown dance, or all of the above, but he wasn’t doing any of those things. He was grinning in my direction, applauding. Then he pointed right at me, let out a whoop, and threw his hands up over his head to clap some more, leading the audience in a round of applause until Chris came over and punched me in the leg.
“Take a bow, you crazy asshole!”
Duo’s dark eyes sparkled with approval, then he slid out of sight.
Shaken, I slid down from the wall and got back to work.
When all was said and done, Duo came out ahead of Zechs Merquise in points, and it was clear Merquise didn’t think it would last as he sanctimoniously congratulated the new guy from Montana, but Duo just shook his hand and gave him a charming grin.
All the riders gathered in the arena and waved to their fans — friends, family, and otherwise. I withdrew to look after the animals. This was the side of the rodeo that people didn’t normally see: handlers and safety staff feeding and watering the livestock alongside the rodeo vet after a show.
The sun set and I could see the lights over by the fairgrounds. Could hear country music and laughter. The Long family ran the cantina — a humble bar and grill; they were always busy on a bull ride night.
I looked down at the streak of crusty mucus across the front of my costume. What did it say about me that I preferred spending the night cleaning this up to joining tonight’s festivities?
It said I’d do anything to avoid seeing Duo Maxwell surrounded by beautiful women. That’s what it said.
Sal, Chris, and Ralph were long gone — probably two celebratory beers down — by the time I ran out of excuses to walk the aisles between the stock pens and I started out across the packed-dirt parking lot. I was just coming up on my camper truck — a tiny, grumpy-as-goose-shit box on four wheels — when I heard someone call my name.
“Trowa! Hey, Trowa!”
Oh, God. What was he doing here, keeping all those gorgeous cowgirls waiting? I stopped and turned.
His hat was missing and his braid had been loosened up. Several fly-aways caressed his cheeks in the night breeze. He was still decked out in all black and I had no idea how I was going to say a word to him when my tongue felt so big and dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth.
“Fella, you were amazin’ today! I owe you a steak dinner.”
His genuine enthusiasm floored me. I somehow said, “Just a normal day at the office.”
He smiled. Dimpled. Oh, fuck me.
He gleefully pointed out, “You saved my ass.”
And what an ass it was. I’d had every intention of spending the rest of the night cleaning the cow snot off of my shirt and thinking about his ass, his hips, his twisting spine.
“Can I buy you a beer?”
I almost said yes. But the image of him throwing an arm over my shoulders, walking us into that bar, and clinking glasses with me only to let buxom cowgirls pull him onto the dance floor was too much. “No,” I said, perhaps too sharply. “Thanks.”
“Eh, well,” he easily accepted — too easily, God damn him — and shrugged. “At least let me get your shirt cleaned for you.”
I blinked. Stared. The whine of a pedal steel guitar swelled in the distance.
“What?” he barked.
“That’s a first.”
The grin was back. “No shit?” He held out his hand.
For one crazy instant, I thought he was asking me to dance. “What are you doing?”
He rolled his eyes. “Waitin’ on you. Your shirt, Trowa,” he explained in response to my blank look.
I hastily pulled it up over my head to hide the shiver I felt when he said my name.
“This got tags?” he asked of the garment now in his grasp.
“Handmade,” I answered.
“Girlfriend?” he checked.
“Cousin,” I told him. “Cathy Bloom, barrel racer. We’re cousins.”
“Family,” he summed up in a tone that was too heavy to be just wistful. “That’s nice.” He looked me over and the wind decided to remind me that my torso was covered in nothing but a ribbed tank top. “This you?” he asked, nodding at the camper.
“Well, get on inside. It’s cold out.” He turned away, my clown tunic draped over his arm. Numb from the surreal conversation, I grabbed for the door handle.
“Oh, an’ Trowa!”
I paused, glanced over my shoulder to see him walking backwards between parked cars.
“I still owe you that beer an’ steak dinner!”
I waved and then I hid in my camper, which I cleaned from top to bottom as I thought about his smile and narrow hips and the way he said my name.
It wasn’t until I’d moved on to cleaning the accordion-sized bathroom that I looked in the mirror and realized I was still wearing my clown makeup.