A COWBOY WINS
A lost cowboy vying for sponsorship.
A sponsor who’s sworn off bad boys.
Win your hearts over with the bull rider and the business woman.
Sponsorship—that’s the only answer to catapult my career. If I can get Lost Cowboy to sponsor me, then, I’ve hit it big. When I meet the irresistible woman with my future in her hands, I know I have to convince her that I’m the one, the one she needs, the one she wants.
Off limits. Completely forbidden. Out of the question. This isn’t my first rodeo; guys like the sexy Bullet Simmons, are bad boys you can’t trust or rely on. But he’s not giving up. He wants our sponsorship, wants me, in more ways than one. I’m caving, succumbing to his charm. This cowboy just might win my heart.
The bull he’d gotten on the night before wasn’t just a rank bucker, he was mean as all get-out. There wasn’t anywhere on his body that Bullet didn’t hurt.
His ribs still ached from getting under one a few months ago, and if the weather was cold, it hurt to breathe. His twenty-five-year-old body felt more as though it was forty, or sixty.
It didn’t help that he was back in Oklahoma, or that he’d gotten drunk the night before simply because he didn’t want to face the shitstorm his life was becoming. Maybe that’s why his body hurt so badly; because it was being pulled in so many directions.
He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be in Colorado, living his dream. Instead, he’d gotten another call from his mother-in-law, telling him to get “home” because his baby needed him. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard the same message from her, and each time, he felt worse than the time before, because it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
They were supposed to be a family. Every few weeks, he and his wife would try to work things out between them. Each time, it ended worse than the previous.
The last one had been so bad he knew there wouldn’t be a next time. As he held his baby boy in his arms, the child’s mother had attacked him. And she’d done it in front of her entire family.
She was sick—bipolar disorder. If she’d just take her medicine, none of this would happen. But she refused. The slightest thing could set her off, and he never knew what, or when, it would be.
Last night, when he heard the local stock contractor was bucking bulls, he knew he had to get on one. Had to. Riding bulls was in his blood. He thought about it all the time, even dreamed about it.
His sister called it “adrenaline addiction,” but it wasn’t criticism. She was the only one in his family who understood. Even though Lyric had never tried to ride a bull, or a bronc, or even barrel raced, no one understood rodeo better.
She was the founder of RodeoChat, a social-media-based outlet for rodeo news. Lyric managed to keep her finger on the pulse of rodeo around the world. She knew the schedules, statistics, and habits of the cowboys and cowgirls who competed across the field in every event. Since its founding, Lyric had interviewed hundreds of them for her weekly Twitterviews and YouTube videos.
That’s why she understood. When he’d tried to explain how he felt to their parents, Lyric had backed him up. In fact, she’d compared it to their dad’s life.
“You know how it feels,” she’d told him, “to be on stage, in front of thousands of people. It’s the same thing for Bullet, just a different thing drivin’ it.”
As the lead singer of Satin, one of the most successful international heavy metal rock bands, Nate Simmons was no stranger to adrenaline addiction.
“Thousands of people aren’t threatening to kill me when I’m on stage, that’s the difference,” his dad had countered Lyric’s argument.
His father wasn’t wrong. Every time Bullet got on the back of a bull, he knew he could die. It was that simple. Eight seconds. That’s what it took. If he could stay on the back of the bull for eight seconds, he’d conquer both the beast and himself.
His mother shook her head, that day, and looked between him and his father. “Neither of you will ever grow up.”
“It’s why you love me so much, isn’t it, Guinevere?”
Bullet envied his parents’ relationship. It was as if they were still dating, even though they’d been married for over thirty years, a rarity in the music industry.
It hurt to roll over, but he needed to charge his phone and see how many messages his soon-to-be-ex-wife left him. It was early; maybe there wouldn’t be any yet this morning.
Oh, Jesus, it was worse than he thought. There were ten calls from his mother-in-law. What the hell? The woman was becoming a pain in his ass.
He checked his texts, without listening to her voice messages, and saw there were at least twice as many of those. He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus enough to read, but his head was pounding like a damn jackhammer. How much had he drank last night?
He didn’t read through all of them; it wasn’t necessary. The last one she’d sent was the only one that mattered.
Callie in ICU at Mount Mercy GET HERE.
Bullet listened to the messages from his mother-in-law, but it was hard to get anything more out of them other than Callie was in the hospital, and he needed to get there right away.
It took him less than five minutes to throw his gear in a bag and get on the road. It was an hour’s drive to get to the hospital, which wasn’t far from where Callie’s parents lived. Right now, though, all he could think about was where his son was. Callie’s mother didn’t mention Grey in her messages. He called his grandmother, the woman who raised him and his sister while their parents were on the road, with the band. She didn’t live far from Callie’s parents. Maybe she’d know.
“Oh, Bullet, I’m so glad you called. Callie’s parents have been tryin’ to get in touch with you. Something awful’s happened—”
“I know. I’m on my way to the hospital right now.”
“Oh, thank goodness, Callie—”
“I’m sorry to keep interruptin’ you, but do you know if they have Grey with them?”
“They didn’t tell you? Grey is here, with me.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. It’s Callie who’s in rough shape. You better get to the hospital quick, Bullet.”
“I’ll come by once I’ve seen her. Tell Grey his daddy loves him.”
“I will, Bullet, and I’m so sorry.”
Before she said anything else, Bullet said goodbye and hung up. Whatever was going on with Callie wasn’t something he wanted to hear over the phone.
He pulled the truck over and looked up at the sky. “Lord, thank you for keepin’ my boy safe, and please, lay your healing hands on his mother.”
He rested his head against the steering wheel. His life had been one clusterfuck after another since the day he met Callie.
The night he met her, she was drunk, underage, and about to get in a shit-ton of trouble. Against his better judgment, he’d agreed to get her out of the bar they were in and take her home. That, actually, wasn’t what she’d asked him to do, but until she was sober enough for him to determine whether she was at least over eighteen, there was no way he’d take her up on what she’d offered.
He had to stop twice on the drive to her house, that night, so she could throw up alongside the road. At least she gave him enough notice that he had time to pull over. If she’d gotten sick in his truck, he might’ve been tempted to let her walk home.
Two years later, it had never gotten better. Drama was her middle name, and if it didn’t happen on its own, Callie created it. He wasn’t sure, now, if he would’ve married her if she hadn’t gotten pregnant. Sometimes he thought he probably would have. Other times he hoped he was smarter than that.
When he found out they were having a boy, he told Callie he wanted to name him Henry Greyson, after his granddad on his mother’s side. She liked the name, so she didn’t give him a hard time about it.
It hadn’t been that simple three years ago, when he’d gotten another girl pregnant with his first child. The baby’s mama fought him on the little girl’s name every step of the way. It wasn’t the only thing she fought him on. In fact, there was little she didn’t fight with him about. He knew that was because he’d refused to marry her, and he’d wanted a DNA test to prove he was the father.
When the tests came back positive, they settled on Hannah Pearl. He’d wanted his little girl named Pearl. He didn’t know why; he just loved the sound of it. He called her his perfect Pearl, never Hannah. It drove the girl’s mama crazy, but he didn’t care.
His daughter lived in Texas, with her mama, full-time. She moved there to be closer to her family, which meant a twelve-hour drive each way in order to see Hannah Pearl. He didn’t get to see his daughter very often, and they were long overdue for a visit.
When he got into town a couple of days ago, Callie was on a bender. He’d finally found her in a town or two over, drunk as shit but with her cousin, thankfully. He’d picked her up, carried her ass to his truck, and drove her home. She railed at him the whole way, but he’d learned to tune her out.
She’d seemed better yesterday, although she wasn’t very talkative. She usually had a laundry list of everything he’d done to piss her off. Not this time.
When he left her parents’ house last night, Callie was sound asleep. Grey was too, in the crib in her room. Her mom and dad weren’t home, but he’d figured they would be soon.
Bullet drove past the hospital and pulled into the bar he saw across the road. He needed a drink before he faced whatever trouble Callie got herself into this time.
He downed three shots, one right after another, not missing the looks the pretty bartender was giving him. Any other day, he’d stick around and see what else she’d give him, but today he couldn’t.
He threw a twenty on the bar and stood to put on his jacket.
“Where you goin’, cowboy?” she pouted.
“My wife’s in the hospital—” He was thinking about offering to come back, but as soon as he said the word wife, the bartender glared at him and walked away.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk in the lobby.
“Uh, yeah. Let’s see, my wife is in the ICU. I think that’s what the message said. Lemme look.” He pulled out his phone. “Yep, the ICU.”
The woman waved her hand in front of her face and glared at him. “Her name is Bullet?”
“No, ma’am. That’s my name. My wife’s name is Callie.”
“Take the elevator to the fourth floor and turn right. You’ll need to show your identification when you get up there.”
He turned the corner and waited for the elevator.
“Drunkard comin’ to see his poor wife who’s in intensive care. Wonder what put her there?” he overheard the woman say to the next person in line. He was damn sick and tired of people thinking Callie’s problems were because of him. Damn sick and tired of it.
Right after they married, his in-laws had sat him down and told him about Callie’s illness. Might have been nice if they’d told him a little earlier. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t have married her if they had.
While she was pregnant, she’d been good about taking her meds. After the baby was born, not so much. She was afraid they’d affect her breast milk, and she was determined to breastfeed. Grey wasn’t ten days old when she had her first fit. That’s what Bullet started calling them—fits. He had no idea what started it, but suddenly she was screaming at him. Then she pummeled him with her fists. It took him a minute to react, that first time, and when he did, it’d been to hold her at arm’s length. When she couldn’t reach him to hit him, she’d turned her head and bit his arm.
He’d almost backhanded her that day, out of instinct, but stopped himself. Before it could get worse, he left. He was less than a mile away when he turned the truck around. What was he thinking? He couldn’t leave their baby alone with her.
When he got back to the house, she was on the bed, sobbing into a pillow. The baby was in the bassinet next to the bed, also sobbing. Screaming was more like it. He called her name, but she didn’t appear to hear him. Was this what it was like when she was home alone with Grey? Did she just leave him in his bassinet, screaming?
He picked the baby up, that day, and drove to his in-laws’ house. Later that night, he moved Callie, the baby, and himself in with them. He hadn’t wanted to, but he didn’t see he had any choice. They’d agreed it wasn’t a good idea to leave her alone with the baby.
Callie’s dad stood when Bullet got off the elevator and approached the ICU waiting area.
“Hello, son,” his voice broke, and he turned away from Bullet.
“What’s goin’ on?”
“Is she…oh, God,” he couldn’t continue.
“No, but she’s unresponsive.” When he saw tears run down his father-in-law’s cheeks, Bullet felt as though he might cry, too.
The door opened, and Callie’s mom joined them in the waiting room.
“Where…in…the…hell…have…you…been?” she spat at him.
“Now, Mama,” his father-in-law began. “This isn’t Bullet’s fault.”
“Isn’t his fault? Did I hear you right? Did you just say this isn’t his fault?” She turned and jabbed Bullet in the chest with her finger. “Why did you leave last night? Why? Answer me. What was so damn important that you left our little girl all alone?”
Bullet backed away from her, but she kept coming at him. Callie’s father put his arms around his wife’s waist and stopped her. When he did, she broke down in tears.
“She tried to kill herself last night, Bullet,” she sobbed. “And where were you? Where were you?”
Bullet felt the air leave his lungs. She’d been asleep. He doubted she or Grey would wake up before her parents got back, which he figured would be any minute. They never stayed out past seven-thirty or eight. He hadn’t left much before then. What the hell had happened?
The intensive-care nurse led Bullet to Callie’s room. “You’ll have fifteen minutes.”
Nothing could have prepared him for the way she looked. There were tubes going into a mask that covered half her face. There was another smaller tube that went directly into her nose. There were wires everywhere and an IV in her arm.
He fell into the chair next to her bed and reached out to touch her. Her skin felt cold and clammy. And it looked gray. Soft tears fell down Bullet’s cheeks as he took Callie’s hand in his.
“What have you done, sweet girl?” He lowered his head and let himself cry.
Someone rested her hand on his shoulder. He hadn’t heard anyone come in. He looked over his shoulder at his mother-in-law, tears rolling down her cheeks too.
“They need us to make a decision.”
Bullet stood and moved away from her. “What kind of decision?”
“Look at her,” she sobbed. “She’s on life support, Bullet.”
He knocked the chair over on his way out the door. He couldn’t deal with this right now.
When Bullet came back the next day, the ICU nurse tried to stop him from taking Grey to see Callie, but he pushed right past her. If what his mother-in-law told him was true and they needed to make a decision about taking Callie off life support, he wanted Grey to see his mother one more time, to say goodbye.
He had to hold the boy tight to keep him from scrambling out of his arms to crawl on the bed. It nearly broke Bullet’s heart to see how much the boy wanted to go to her. He looked toward the door and saw the same nurse who’d tried to stop him, with tears rolling down her cheeks. Bullet couldn’t stop himself from crying either.
This was the hardest decision he’d had to make in his life so far, but Callie was gone. The doctors said so. She’d never wake up again. She’d never hold their child again.
He carefully lowered Grey onto the bed and showed him where he could put his arms around his mama. Grey rested his head on her tummy and started humming the same lullaby Bullet knew Callie sang to him.
His heart was breaking for his little boy, and for himself. As hard as their life together had been, Bullet had honestly wanted to make things work with Callie. Maybe once they’d both grown up a little, it would’ve. Now there’d be no working things out, no little family living happily ever after. Bullet put his hands over his face and quietly sobbed, mourning his wife who’d decided her only choice was to give up on life.
Bullet picked Grey up and went in search of his in-laws. He’d made his decision; they’d be taking Callie off the machines that were keeping her alive.
“I can’t believe you’re taking him away from us,” said his mother-in-law.
“It isn’t like that. I’m not taking him away. You knew I was trying to build a life for us in Colorado. The plan was always to move Callie and Grey there as soon as I got my footing.”
Bullet lifted Grey from his mother-in-law’s arms, shook his father-in-law’s hand, and told them he’d be in touch.
They’d buried Callie the day before, and there wasn’t any reason for him to stay here a day longer. He was anxious to get him and Grey back to where he knew they belonged. It was a thirteen-hour drive, and he’d heard the weather wasn’t so good. He’d get as far as he could today, sleep, and then make the rest of the drive in the morning.
He didn’t know yet where they were going to live, or how he was going to take care of Grey and work at the same time, but Billy and Jace assured him they expected him to come back, and they’d figure it out.
He wasn’t the only one with a baby, they’d told him. That was true. However, he was the only one without a baby mama. That had to make a difference.
Since they’d hired him, a few months ago, to help with their new rough stock contracting business, he’d never felt as though he was just another hand. They asked his opinion about things. He’d even had a few ideas that had changed the direction of the new operation. The job was important to him because it allowed him to stay in the rodeo business. Someday soon, he planned to be on the bull riding side of Flying R rather than the rough stock side.
“It’s you and me, partner,” he said as he buckled Grey into his buddy seat. “Wish you could ride up front with me and keep me company, but you’re still too young for that. You’re safer back here.”
Bullet opened the bag of toys and books his mother-in-law had packed for them and tried to put them within Grey’s reach.
“We got a long-ass drive ahead of us. You be sure to let me know when you need somethin’, okay, buddy?”
Grey looked at him, and then picked up one of his toy trucks. “Voom, voom,” he said and plowed the truck into Bullet’s abdomen.
“Ouch,” he squealed, which made Grey laugh. If this was how it would be all the time, Bullet could handle it. But he knew better. About an hour in, Grey would get fussy. It would probably take them twice as long to get to Colorado than he was planning. He figured he’d be stopping a lot more often than he wanted to.
“This is our life now, buddy,” he kissed Grey’s cheek, and climbed in the front seat. “Here we go.”
“Voom, voom,” answered Grey.
“I stopped earlier than I planned to,” Bullet told his sister. “It’ll probably take me three days to get to Crested Butte, but I didn’t have a choice. Grey’s fussy, and I can’t keep him trapped in the back seat of the truck for hours on end.”
“I’m headed to Crested Butte now,” Lyric told him. “Dad is on tour, but they’re trying to get there too.”
“They don’t have to leave the tour. Grey and I will be okay.” Bullet felt his eyes fill up with tears. What the hell was wrong with him lately?
“It’s more than just leaving the tour. They’re planning to buy a house in Colorado.”
“When did they decide to do that?” Bullet shook his head. He never imagined his dad would agree to leave Los Angeles. His mom had been ready to leave years ago.
“They’ve been thinkin’ about it for a while.”
“Where’re they gonna live?”
“I don’t think they’ve decided yet. Maybe Aspen. Mom wants a place there, but said it might be out of Dad’s ‘comfort zone,’ whatever that means.”
Bullet knew what it didn’t mean. His parents could afford to live anywhere in the world they wanted to, so it wasn’t about money.
He wanted to suggest they look near Colorado Springs, or Crested Butte, since that was where he and Grey would be most often, but that would be selfish. Just that they’d be in the same state made him feel better.
“How was Gram?” Lyric asked.
“Same as always. Says she misses us, but that she wants us to live our own lives.”
Their grandmother was the single consistent force in his life when he was growing up, and still to this day. She believed in her son-in-law’s career enough to encourage her daughter to travel the world with him, while she took care of their twin babies. Now that he was older, with kids of his own, he understood how much Gram had sacrificed for them. It was one of the reasons he’d wanted to name his son after his grandfather, her husband. To honor her, and in some small way, thank her for all she’d done for him and his sister.
“She ask you about getting on bulls?”
“You know she did.” Gram was the reason Bullet and Lyric got into rodeo in the first place. She’d been a world-class barrel racer back in the day. That was how she met Gramps, a bull rider himself.
Their mom, Guinevere, was the only child Gram and Gramps had. She’d never been interested in rodeo, only rock music. When Guinevere and Nate got married, and he was starting out in the music business, Gram helped manage his band. She’d get Satin booked at fairs and festivals where she was also booking rodeo events. Soon other acts asked Gram to manage them. She was in her eighties now, and still managed a handful of bands.
“She never let raisin’ a couple babies stop her.”
His sister was right. Gram still did more in a single day than most people accomplished in a week. This coming summer, she was being inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame for her decades-long support of the industry. The ceremony would take place at the organization’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. He and Lyric, along with their parents, would be there to celebrate with her.
“Listen, I gotta go. Grey’s wakin’ up from his nap.”
“Wait. Bullet? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Callie wasn’t my favorite person, you know that. But I’m still sorry she’s gone. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’m sorry I wasn’t at the funeral.”
“It’s okay. Gram was there.” After the service at the graveside, she asked him to take her home rather than to his in-laws’ house. When he dropped her off, she invited him inside.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she’d said to him. “People like Callie need professional help. They need medical help. If they choose not to accept the help they’re offered, there’s little the rest of us can do about it.”
Gram had told him their grandfather had struggled with the illness too. “They didn’t call it being bi-polar in those days. They called it manic depression. Your grandfather would go for weeks being the happiest guy on earth. Suddenly he’d change, and sink into terrible depression.”
Gram had never told Bullet this before. He wondered if Lyric knew. Gramps hadn’t tried to kill himself as far as Bullet knew, and Gram hadn’t said anything to make him think he had. What she did say, more than once, was there wasn’t anything Bullet could’ve done. “It was the illness,” she’d said. “Not you.”
“I’m glad Gram was at the funeral with you.”
“Thanks, Lyric.” Bullet hung up before he started crying again. He hoped he could get Grey to bed early tonight. He badly needed the sleep himself.
When he finally did fall asleep, he was plagued by dreams of Callie trying to tell him something. Just as she was about to, he’d wake up. When he fell back to sleep, there she’d be again.
When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his life was about to change. He hoped it was for the better.
* * *
Bill kicked at the dry dirt under his feet as he walked down the driveway. He turned, when he reached the road, and looked back at the house. He’d probably never see it again. When he would return home, his mama and baby sister wouldn’t be living in it anymore. It no longer belonged to them.
It’d been a long three years since his daddy first got sick. Bill was only eight when it started. Life was good back then. In the summer, folks would come to their ranch for a week or two at a time. In the fall, the dude ranch part of their business shut down, and hunters would come.
That’s how his daddy got sick. They still couldn’t say what it was, but his mama remembered seeing a bite after he spent a day guiding hunters. He wasn’t the same after that.
At first he got real weak. Bill had to pick up more of the chores when that happened. As his daddy’s health got worse, they had to cancel the rest of the hunting trips, and then in the spring, he didn’t have enough strength to get the dude ranch operational again.
His mama started selling off cattle to pay the bills. Next went the bulls, and finally, the horses.
When his daddy died, last week, his mama told him two things. The first was they had to sell the land and their house to pay off the medical bills. The second thing she told him was that, as the man of the house—even though they wouldn’t have an actual house for a while—it was his responsibility to find work and help support the family.
His eyes filled with tears he quickly brushed away with the back of his hand. Flynn men didn’t cry. That’s what his daddy told him. And since he was a man now, he was done with crying.
All that mattered at this point was finding work. There were three other dude ranches within a hundred mile radius; one of them had to be hiring. He might be young, and he might be little, but there wasn’t a harder working cowboy in the State of Colorado. He’d prove himself so.