A Former Rodeo Queen
Josie Turner spends her days at the local dog grooming shop pampering the pooches of Angel Springs, Texas. When rodeo season rolls around again, the townfolk are excited about who their new Rodeo Queen might be. Josie, on the other hand, finds herself reminded all too often about a night she’d just as soon forget.
A Former Rodeo Cowboy
Luke Anderson lived for three things – riding, roping and rodeos. Until the day he met Josie Turner, the girl who gave his life meaning, and whose heart he was destined to break. Now, ten years later, he returns to Angel Springs to find the town hasn’t changed much, but the girl he left behind has become a stranger he hardly recognizes. What, he wonders, will she think of him, and the man he’s become?
A Rodeo Weekend
Determined to break through the wall Josie has erected around her heart, Luke must face his demons while at the same time helping Josie overcome hers. With the whole town cheering them on, can Luke mend Josie’s heart and can one rodeo weekend help them both find redemption?
Josie Turner’s gaze flitted to the quote hanging askew on the powder blue wall of Josie’s Poodle Parlor. She frowned. “I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married,” it read. The frame around Queen Elizabeth I’s words still bore an angry tilt, as if it had been slapped up there yesterday rather than nearly a decade ago. Josie fought the urge to straighten it. Most days, she forgot about the quote altogether.
Today was not one of those days.
“Here he comes.” Ruth Davis, Josie’s young grooming assistant, peered over the top of the white Maltese perched on her grooming table and out the front window of the salon.
Josie didn’t need to ask who he was. She turned her back to the window and ran a comb through the silky ears of the Cocker Spaniel she’d been working on all morning. “He’d better not bring that cigar in here.”
Ruth frowned and continued staring outside. “How’d you know he had a cigar?”
“The same way I knew he would show up here this morning. Some things never change.” Josie didn’t need to mention the particular significance of this day. There wasn’t anyone in town who didn’t know it was the official opening day of the Angel Springs, Texas Rodeo Queen Pageant. But just in case there was one clueless soul out there, the Angel Springs Herald headline screamed the big news in bold black letters.
The tinkling bell on the front door announced Cooper Dotson’s arrival. That and the deafening sneeze of Josie’s pug, Remedy, who was curled in her usual spot at Josie’s feet. Josie sighed in irritation and turned around, prepared to chastise Cooper for bringing that blasted cigar into her salon. “Cooper, I’ve told you time and again…”
Her voice trailed off when she spied him standing there with his huge cowboy hat in his wrinkled hands, no cigar in sight. Finally he’d learned. But the ever-present cloud of cigar smoke surrounding him was enough to trigger Remedy’s allergies. She sneezed once more, spraying Josie’s foot.
“Mornin’, Josie. Ruth.” He nodded at them both and fiddled with the brim of his hat. Then, he turned his back to the framed quote on the wall.
The move irritated Josie to no end. Cooper knew as well as everyone else in town why she’d hung it there, right below the photo taken of Josie when she herself was crowned Angel Springs Rodeo Queen. Even though she was a small town Texas girl, Josie harbored no illusions and was well aware that being Queen of England and Rodeo Queen were not one in the same. The sentiment fit, though, so up on the wall it had gone. She’d even banged the nail into the wall with the narrow heel of her creamy white wedding shoe.
“How can I help you today?” Josie pasted a sweet smile on her face, like she didn’t know the exact reason for his visit.
Cooper cleared his throat and squirmed, as if the long ago image of Josie behind him, with her big hair and even bigger Rodeo Queen tiara sparkling on the brim of her pink Stetson, was burning a hole in his back. “Well, Josie, as I’m sure you know, today is a very special day.”
Josie raised her eyebrows in a gesture of feigned innocence. She wasn’t cutting him any slack. She knew it wasn’t the most Christ-like attitude, but come on. He had a lot of nerve coming here year after year, asking her the same question when he already knew the answer good and well. It was like torture. Surely God understood.
Cooper’s shoulders drooped, and he gripped his hat even tighter. “The Angel Springs Rodeo Queen Pageant is officially open for entries. We’re planning a very special event this year. Bigger and better than ever.”
“Really?” Ruth, the traitor, stopped scissoring the Maltese to listen to what Cooper had to say.
“Yes. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the pageant, you know.” Cooper, obviously brimming with joy at the prospect of having an ally in Ruth, nodded with enthusiasm.
“Wow.” Ruth’s voice actually sounded awestruck. Josie wanted to gag.
“Naturally, we’d love nothing more than to have all the past Rodeo Queens be a part of our celebration. I’m sure you understand that it’s more important this year than ever before. What with the anniversary and all.” Cooper stood a little straighter, perhaps buoyed by the extra-special importance of his mission.
Despite all the warning bells ringing in her mind, Josie’s gaze darted to her Rodeo Queen photo. As it always did when she allowed herself to remember the events of long ago, her throat tightened. “I’m sorry Cooper. I just can’t. You and the other members of the committee understand, don’t you?”
How could they not? They were there to witness it all firsthand. The less said the better.
“We can’t do the rodeo this year without you. Like it or not, Josie, you are the most famous Rodeo Queen Angel Springs has ever had.”
Famous? Ha. Infamous was more like it. She struggled to hold back an eye roll. “While I appreciate the offer, I’m going to have to decline this year.” Again.
Cooper huffed out a heavy breath. A dark red flush began to creep up his neck toward his face. “Look Josie. I know this is difficult for you. We all do. Everyone here in Angel Springs.”
Finally, he was making some sense. Josie allowed herself to relax ever so slightly.
Too soon. He wasn’t quite finished. “But think for a minute. Think about what it felt like when you were crowned Rodeo Queen. I was there. I saw that glow on your face. You can’t deny it was one of the best nights of your life.”
The more he talked, the faster Josie’s heart thumped. She wanted to cover her ears so she wouldn’t have to listen to it anymore.
“And really, what happened afterward didn’t have anything at all to do with the Rodeo Queen Pageant.” Cooper pulled at his shirt collar with an uncomfortable tug. “I mean, yes you were Rodeo Queen and that night was a special moment for every one who was there. But it had next to nothing to do with the…”
Don’t you dare. Don’t say it. Don’t say the word wedding.
Ruth flinched and cast worried glances back and forth between Cooper and Josie. Josie supposed Ruth was waiting for her to go bonkers. Maybe start screaming or throwing things at the old man who was the head of the Angel Springs Rodeo Queen Pageant Committee. Even Remedy picked up on the tension in the powder blue room and shuffled to her feet, positioning herself directly between her mistress and the offending party, now wringing out his cowboy hat as if it were a dishrag.
In all the years since the incident—she steadfastly refused to refer to it as a wedding—he had never forced the issue of her participation in the Rodeo Queen Pageant to such an extent. Sure, he always showed up here on opening day, hat in hand, smelly cigar dangling from his lips (thank the good Lord that changed) begging her to be more involved. And every year, Josie struggled to smile while she responded with an emphatic ‘no’. But this, she was unprepared for. Most specifically, his mention of her notorious wedding day. Scratch that. There never was a wedding.
Josie opened her mouth, ready to let forth a stream of words that were most definitely not Christ-like. Cover your ears, God. But nothing came out. The sheer absurdity of this conversation had rendered her speechless.
Cooper took advantage of her sudden paralysis and stepped forward. Remedy’s chest rumbled with a tiny growl and the old man stopped in his tracks. “Now, Josie. Don’t say anything right now.”
Don’t worry. I can’t seem to make a sound.
“You just think it over. Think about how much it would mean to all of us here in Angel Springs. We love you. We always have. You know that. Please, do this for us.” He nodded at her then plunked his hat back on his head as he turned to go.
“Goodbye, Mr. Dotson.” Ruth waved her scissors at him, but he continued his beeline for the door without even a backward glance.
Once he was gone, Remedy wheezed her way back to Josie and plopped at her feet. The room was silent, other than the pug’s snuffling and panting.
After several long, quiet moments Ruth finally spoke. “Josie, are you OK?”
Josie, still at a complete and utter lack for words, simply nodded. Against her will, her gaze shot once again to the Rodeo Queen picture. As much as she hated to admit it, Josie wished she’d never worn the pink Stetson decorated with the sparkly crown. She’d even toyed with the idea once or twice of taking down the photo and pretending it had never happened. But to turn her back on such history would offend the town that had been there to prop her up when her life had fallen apart.
Make no mistake, being crowned Rodeo Queen was an enormous honor. Josie had been among the many little girls who paraded around Angel Springs in plastic tiaras, dreaming of the day when they might wear the real McCoy in the dusty arena, surrounded by charming cowboys sitting astride stately horses. She had clamored around each and every Rodeo Queen who came and visited her elementary school in the 1980’s, eager to touch the smooth satin sash that proclaimed her queen of all that was Angel Springs. It was the stuff little girls’ dreams were made of, and if she acted as though it were meaningless, she would tarnish the tiara in the eyes of some. So, she kept her royal photo there on prominent display in the Poodle Parlor. At least it was good for business.
“Do you want to go freshen up? I can keep an eye on the spaniel for you.”
Josie took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on all the good things in her life. Like Remedy and the Poodle Parlor. Even Ruth. She really was a sweet girl. Thank you for Ruth, Lord. “I think that’s a good idea. I’ll be right back.”
Once she was safely inside the confines of the bathroom, Josie splashed water on her face and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
She lifted her gaze to the ceiling, the cool water running in streams down her neck. “God, why is it so important to them for me to be there?”
She gripped the sides of the porcelain sink and waited for an answer. She found it, not in an audible voice, but instead in her own reflection. Even she could see she’d hardly changed a bit since that Rodeo Queen photo was taken. Physically, that is. All she needed was the hat and the crown. She knew if she rode into that arena on her quarter horse, Whisper, it would be like turning back the clock ten years. The people of Angel Springs could revisit what, to them, was undoubtedly the most exciting Rodeo Queen moment they’d ever witnessed.
Minus one of the star players, of course.
But the town wouldn’t care. Josie riding into the ring alone would be good enough for them. The thought was unbearable for Josie, however. Even though, if she looked at only that single moment in time, it was a pleasant memory.
Who was she kidding? It had been the best night of her life. Sometimes, she even still thought so.
Lucas Anderson waited in his truck parked directly across the dusty street from Josie’s Poodle Parlor. He supposed he should be relieved he had caught the portly figure of Cooper Dotson charging up the sidewalk before he’d climbed out of the Ford pickup. The last thing he wanted to do was run into Cooper. Today of all days.
Luke glanced down at the headline blazing across the folded newspaper on the passenger seat and groaned. Why did he have to roll into town on the opening day of the Rodeo Queen Pageant? He’d been away from Angel Springs for the better part of a decade, but he knew without a doubt the town still revolved around the rodeo. He gripped the steering wheel and considered, not for the first time, about cranking the ignition and disappearing right back to where he’d come from. But he knew he wouldn’t. God had called him to be here, whether he liked the idea or not.
And if God was on his side, surely this wouldn’t be quite as awkward as Luke imagined it would be.
“We’re about to find out,” he muttered to himself as his gaze followed Cooper huffing and puffing out the door of the Poodle Parlor. The old man’s face was red as a beet. Luke wondered what that was all about, but shook off the concern when he realized what Cooper’s departure meant.
Time to face the music.
He bowed his head for a quick, silent prayer and then slid off the driver’s seat. After he slammed the door behind him, he pulled his cowboy hat down low over his eyes. One thing he didn’t need was for Josie to hear about his return to Angel Springs from someone else. As uncomfortable as it would be for both of them, he needed to be the one to break the news to her. He owed her that much.
The walk across the street took only a heartbeat, even with his limp. Luke wondered if she’d seen him approaching through the big windows at the front of the grooming parlor. He wasn’t sure if that would be a good or bad thing, so he dismissed the thought and gripped the doorknob. Luke must have been even more nervous than he realized because he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of the bells jingling from the door handle when he entered the shop.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Luke pushed the brim of his hat back into its usual place, so he could get a look at the girl belonging to the voice. It wasn’t Josie. Then again, he’d known that as soon as he’d heard her stilted words. Josie’s voice wasn’t like that. It was smooth as butter on a hot summer day. He’d fallen asleep to the memory of her soft Texas drawl whispering in his ear many a night while he was on the rodeo circuit.
Get over it. She’s probably married with three kids by now. Luke cleared his throat and addressed the girl, who was in the process of giving some kind of tiny white dog a haircut. Another dog, one he recognized as a Cocker Spaniel, lay sprawled on a table beside her. “Is Josie here?”
She paused, put down the rather sharp looking pair of scissors she’d been wielding, and pushed her glasses up farther on the bridge of her nose. “Yes, but she’s, um, busy at the moment.”
“That’s OK.” Luke nodded and tipped his hat to the young woman. “I’ll wait.” He wasn’t about to take his chances at being spotted on the streets of Angel Springs. Besides, he’d made it through the front door. There was no turning back.
“She should be out in a few minutes. Can I get you anything while you wait?”
“No, ma’am. Thanks for the offer, though.” Luke crossed his arms and shifted his weight to his right side. It was then that he saw it.
The quote hanging on the pale blue wall.
His eyes took in the words, “I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married.” As if to drive the point home, the quote hung directly below a poster-sized Rodeo Queen portrait of Josie. Reading the bitter phrase under the watchful gaze of Josie in her Rodeo Queen crown was like getting punched in the gut. Luke very nearly fell over right where he stood.
“That’s Josie.” Scissor girl smiled at the picture. “I’ve never seen you around Angel Springs before. Do you know her?”
Unable to tear his gaze from the scathing words of Queen Elizabeth I—she must have been one unhappy woman—Luke’s jaw clenched. “Yes. Yes, I do.” Then he corrected himself because obviously quite a bit had changed. “I mean, I did.”
“My name is Ruth. I’m Josie’s grooming assistant.” The girl cocked her head at him. “What did you say your name was?”
Luke was almost afraid to answer her, which was absurd. He’d faced down angry bulls, angry horses and the even angrier circumstances of life. Why did those things pale in comparison to one angry woman?
Before he’d seen the quote, he would have ventured to guess this innocent girl wouldn’t have recognized his name at all. He’d been stupid enough to believe he’d become a long forgotten memory of Josie’s, hardly worth mentioning. Now, he wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t.”
Ruth’s eyes widened and the scissors froze over the white dog’s head. Great, now he’d frightened her.
“I’m sorry. That was rude.” Luke inhaled a ragged breath. “My name’s Luke.” He left off his last name. His first name was common enough. Perhaps it wouldn’t arouse any suspicions.
Ruth stood still as stone, watching him behind her glasses through narrowed eyes, her scissors unmoving. “Luke who?”
Luke opened his mouth to answer, no easy feat considering his throat suddenly felt as though it were coated with sand, but before he could say a word an ancient looking pug hobbled into the room. The dog looked at Luke’s dusty boots and sneezed three times in rapid succession. Luke pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head at the poor creature.
The word dripped off Josie’s tongue like honey, smooth and sweet. She must have slipped into the room behind the ailing pug. Luke snapped his head up and met her gaze.
Like she always had, the woman standing before him took his breath away. Her heart-shaped faced was framed with thick waves of hair the color of honey, to match her voice. She jammed a dainty, porcelain hand on her hip and tilted her head in that familiar way of hers as she took him in with her eyes. Those eyes—still the same shade of spring clover—were the only thing that had changed. Deep in the luminescent green something was missing. Luke squinted and tried to figure out what it was. Then he cursed himself when the realization set in that he was the one who had stolen the joy that once poured from those irises.
“Anderson,” she said again. Without breaking their gaze, Josie shifted her slender shoulders toward Ruth. “This is Lucas Anderson. My former fiancé.”
The scissors fell from Ruth’s hand, narrowly missing the little white dog’s head, and hit the tile floor with a clatter.