Freeing the Calf Roper by Danae Little

 

CHAPTER ONE

wedding disappear in his rear-view mirror, his heart doing its best to wrench open once again. As difficult as attending the wedding was for him, he wouldn’t let Courtney down. She deserved this happiness, and her ready-made family. It wouldn’t surprise him if he saw her at the rodeos less. She’d probably be busy having babies. Like Beth.

He growled low, the rumbling soothing him somewhat. As happy as he was for Beth and Jake as they started their family, it only reminded him of his pain. His heart tightened. He swore it had slowly turned to stone since his wife had left him.

He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. It had been only a year, their divorce papers still freshly printed, and he had just heard Sherry was getting married this fall.

Concerned friends had told him when they had confronted Sherry with it being too early for her to marry again, she had responded that her biological clock was ticking, as if that was all that mattered.

He turned on the radio, blaring out the latest country songs. It was going to be a long ten-hour drive. Who was he kidding? It was going to be a long life.

The truck jumped over a pothole in the road. He glanced back at the horse trailer to make sure the jolt hadn’t jostled Scout too much. The poor guy could use a break.

Could Hope Lake provide that for them both?

Courtney had told him that working with the kids at the camp helped fill a hole inside of her. She had said, “When you focus on someone else, helping to make their lives a little brighter, it reminds you that there is good left in this world.”

It made sense to him, on some sort of level at least. He had little hope it would help, but he was ready to try just about anything.

His phone chimed with a text. Seeing the straight, small-town road void of any other traffic, he glanced down at his phone to see the message was from Courtney. He had his truck read the message in its robotic voice: Thanks for coming. The ladies are all asking where you went, but I know you have a long drive ahead of you. Have fun at Hope Lake, and let your heart open a little.

Open my heart. His lips thinned. That wouldn’t be happening. Never again. The pain of a broken heart was something he only needed once to learn. Letting someone that close only brought misery.

He was swearing off women and focusing on Scout and himself. Well, as much as his family would let him, anyway. He was the oldest of five, and the only one who hadn’t stayed in their hometown. It wasn’t like he had settled somewhere else. He didn't have a place to call home more than the one he towed with him. An image of the ranch he almost bought teased his memories. When Sherry had left him, he canceled the sale. Why would he need all that space for him and Scout? Rodeo was his life.

“Ride or die,” he said out loud, though even to his ears it didn’t sound so convincing.

This trip was his last hope of finding something worth living for. Otherwise, he would just continue to ride through the motions. His roping times were failing for it, his appearance, he scratched at the several days’ growth on his chin, and poor Scout...no, not Scout. He got the best of him. All that was left, anyway.

One overnight rest at the Winnemucca Horse Hotel and several pit stops later, he pulled into the small mountain town of Hope Lake. People waved at each other, smiling greetings along the small main road. He found a parking space at the rest area near the diner, deciding to fill his belly so he wouldn’t arrive at the camp starving like a bear waking from hibernation.

He grasped the bar of Scout’s window, pulling himself up to check on him. Scout huffed and stamped his foot.

“I know, boy, we’re almost there. I need to fill my tank first. Hang in there.” He reached in and gave his horse a scratch between the eyes before hopping down and striding into the restaurant. He took his hat off as he entered, searching for a booth where he could keep an eye on his truck and his horse.

“Howdy,” a young gal said coyly. “You want a booth on that side?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The girl giggled. “Oh, I’m no ma’am. Follow me.” She gestured to the booth for him to sit. “You must be one of Josie’s cowboys. Just get in?”

He nodded, taking the menu she offered.

“Strong and silent type.” She bent forward. “I like that,” she said with a wink. As she walked away with a little extra sway in her hips, she threw over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back with something to wet your whistle.”

Cody rolled his eyes. It didn’t matter that he had been born and raised in California. So many non-ranchers didn’t understand the cowboy life, and Cali was full of them. Even his county had its share of people seeing cowboys as a trend rather than a way of life.

The waitress set down a glass of water and held a coffee pot with a raised eyebrow. “I know how you cowboys like your coffee.”

“No, thanks,” he said, setting down the menu. In fact, the smell of the coffee made his mouth water, but he didn’t need the caffeine this late in the day, and it was worth seeing the shock on the girl’s face.

“Oh, okay, then what will it be? A coke? Iced tea?” She set the coffeepot down and took out her pad.

“Lemonade and a cheeseburger, extra bacon.”

She scribbled it down. “Coming right up.”

He looked out the window, seeing the lake sparkle in the distance, calling to him. To the left, the ridge raised up into a forest where he believed the camp to be located. He had researched it: two hundred acres housing thirty single cabins and ten bunk cabins, a meeting hall with a kitchen, a twenty-stall stable, paddocks, two round pens, and an arena.

The owner, Josie Williams, who Courtney had introduced him to at a rodeo a couple months back, had taken it over ten years ago. Several times a year, she turned it into a safe-haven for foster kids, and a place for them possibly to meet an adoptive family match.

The thought of adoption soured the water he drank. On the one hand, he had always liked the idea. His family had adopted his two youngest siblings after their parents had died in an accident. They were as much his brothers as the ones born to his parents.

After a fruitless five years of trying to conceive, he offered adoption as an alternative to Sherry, but her face had twisted in disgust, leaving his heart hardening.

Not towards the kids. They deserved the chance to find loving homes. It turned his heart away from love and women who would only ever see a man that couldn’t father children as a worthless waste of space in this world.

That’s what he was, worthless.

“Here you go.” The waitress set the food in front of him.

“Thank you,” he said, feeling his stomach growl and his salivary glands working up for the juicy burger in front of him. He glanced up as the waitress still stood there.

“How long you staying for? A week? Josie’s cowboys usually stay that long,” she asked.

“Not sure,” he said, and he didn’t know. It all depended on how it worked out. He had committed to three days because he felt like he could go through just about anything for that long. If it was the healing balm that Courtney thought it would be, he could stay longer. His life was his own now, and he planned on enjoying that freedom to its fullest.

“Well,” the girl twisted her hands before her, “I could show you around if you’d like. There’s not much to do here in Hope Lake, but there’s a city only twenty-five minutes from here. It has a movie theater, pizza, bowling, stuff like that.”

Cody looked at the girl again, thinking she must be mid-twenties, maybe a good ten years younger than him, not too much but enough that it didn’t feel right. Even if she had been his type, even if he hadn’t sworn off women, well, as more than friends, he still wouldn’t have made a move.

Courtney, Beth, and the other rodeo gals had been a support for him during the last year, but they didn’t want anything from him. This one, well, you could read her future hope in her eyes, and they were full of children playing behind a white picket fence.

“I appreciate the offer, miss, but I won’t have the time to do much besides what I came here to do.” He ducked his head and turned his attention back to his food.

The girl stood there a moment longer, then huffed as she spun on her heel, muttering under her breath about the gall of some men. She didn’t know it, but he had saved them both a lot of heartache. Better feeling miffed now than falling in love and being told your dreams weren't possible.

He rolled his shoulders, shaking off the altercation, grateful it had happened after he had his food. Otherwise, he would have had to check it for loogies or something disgusting from a resentful woman. There was no telling what a woman would do to a man she felt had offended her.

Besides the slighted girl, the town felt welcoming. Even the air seemed to soothe his mind. People strolled the streets, stopping to talk to people passing by. Kids in flip-flops and cut-offs ran out of the general store and down a stairwell that looked as if it led to the lake below. The marina hosted a couple of dozen ski boats, a slew of paddle boats and kayaks, and even some giant banana floaties.

The burger satisfied his hunger and his tastebuds. When he left, he counted out a generous tip for the waitress in hopes it would soothe her spirits. Walking back out into the fresh mountain air, he filled his lungs, already feeling lighter.

Yet, when he parked his rig in the camp, staring at the office, Josie walked out, and he remembered why his gut had been bothering him.

Josie was one of those no-nonsense gals, kind of like his mom. She came into a room...or into your view, and all eyes turned to her and all ears heeded her words. She spoke clearly, concisely, and with direction. A person found themselves doing as she asked without question and then wondered how they got to doing it in the first place.

His heart went from a canter to a racing gallop as she spotted him, changing her direction toward him and his rig. A smile broke through the serious resting face she had as she waved, making her blue eyes sparkle as if a light shined from within them.

She was drop dead gorgeous and everything a woman should be.

“Get a grip, Cody,” he muttered to himself as he stepped out of the truck, steeling himself from the onslaught of the magnetic force the woman held. It’s only attraction. Anyone would be attracted to a woman like Josie. It didn’t mean he had to act on it, and it definitely didn’t mean it was love.

Love was the enemy.

“Welcome, Cody! I’m glad you could make it.” She reached out for his hand, her grip firm and warm and firing through him like a thousand fireflies loose inside his chest.

“Hello, Josie,” he said, enjoying how her name rolled off his tongue.

She still held his hand, her body freezing as he spoke. “I’d forgotten how deep your voice is,” she said, shaking her head and finally releasing him. “It will carry far out here at camp.” She rushed the words out. “Well, let’s get you settled and get your horse in the stables. Then I’ll show you around.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded.

She pulled out a map of the camp from her back pocket and a pen from her front. Biting the cap, she yanked open the pen and circled a section of the map. Replacing the pen, she handed him the map.

“We are here.” She leaned in close to him to point to where it read office, and he couldn’t help but breathe in. She smelled fresh, as if she were the outdoors herself. No overwhelming perfume like Sherry used to wear or so many other cowgirls, just pure natural scent.

He blinked, focusing on what she was saying.

“You turn on the first left. I’m going to put you in the spot I reserve for my rodeo volunteers. It’s right next to the stables, so it's easy for you to keep an eye on your horse.” She nodded toward the trailer where Scout pushed his nose against the window bars, snorting the air. “I know how attached you rodeoers are to your horses. They're like best friends.”

“That’s right,” he said. “So, space twenty-seven. Is there a particular stall for Scout?”

“Any empty one is fine. No reservations on those,” she said with a wink and an elbow to his side. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got to deal with a small discipline issue, then I’ll wait for you at the office.” She nodded to the small cabin she had exited. “Come on down when you’re ready for your tour. We’ll take the Gator.” She squeezed his arm as she turned to leave. “Thanks again for making it. The kids are excited.”

“My pleasure.” He tipped his hat and climbed back into his truck, watching her walk toward a section of larger cabins, probably the bunks for the kids. Walk wasn’t quite the correct word, though. It was more like striding with a purpose. No waggle in those hips that wasn’t one hundred percent natural.

He watched her until she turned, glancing back at him briefly and motioning to the road she had just passed.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, even knowing his words wouldn’t reach her. He smiled as he turned the key, letting the diesel rumble to life. It might be nice being told what to do for the next few days, less for him to think about.

Josie Williams tapped her pen on the document in front of her. The floor creaked as she rolled her chair back and forth. Movement out the window caught her eye. The bird fluttered before landing in the pine outside the door.

“Get a hold of yourself, girl,” she told herself, rolling up to the desk, intent on making herself focus. Cody James was just another cowboy who came to help her with the kids.

It didn’t matter that he stirred something inside she had thought long dead, or that one look from his deep brown eyes caused her heart to flutter. And his voice…she bit the end of her pen, then flopped her forehead to her desk.

The bell above the door jingled a few moments later, rousing her from day dreaming. She snapped her head up, ripping off the paper that had stuck to her forehead.

“That kind of day, huh?” The deep voice had her clearing her throat and pulling papers together.

“Well, sometimes it all catches up with me.” She glanced at Cody long enough to see that, yep, he was wearing his wranglers and his hat was in his hands in front of him.

“Is it anything I can help with?” he asked.

“Know how to write up grants?” She chanced a look at him, forcing herself to meet his eyes and still her heart.

“No, ma’am,” he said, a slight sideways tilt to his lips.

“Well, then, I’ll make do with what you are here to accomplish.” She let her smile free as she rifled through the paperwork on her desk. “Here you go,” she said, handing him a paper. “I need you to sign your life away.”

“My life, huh?” He took the papers but didn’t take his eyes off hers.

“That’s what they say, but really it’s just a waiver saying that you won’t sue me if you’re injured and that you aren’t a felon or have anything on your record that should keep you from being around kids and that kind of stuff, which since you’re background check cleared, you should be good to go.” She waved her hand in dismissal as she straightened up the rest of her desk, though it didn’t take long since the only paperwork she had out was his and the grant she was working on.

She watched his calloused hands grasp a pen from a clay cup that a camp kid had made her a few years back. Watching him scrawl his signature on the sheet, she raised an eyebrow. “Lefty.”

“Huh?” The pen paused as his gaze lifted to meet hers.

Heat traveled up her neck. She stood to stop the forward progression as she pointed to his hand. “You’re a lefty.”

“Yeah, does that go against the rules?” There was that slight tilt to his lips again.

She pushed her chair in, grabbing her keys as she did, and walked toward the door. “No, sir. On the contrary. It’s said that lefties have a bigger corpus callosum.” As she passed, she saw him blink a few times before finishing the date. “You can leave that on my desk.”

“So, what is it I have that’s bigger?” This time, his grin was full-fledged as he reached above her to push open the door. “After you.”

“A corpus callosum.” She ducked under his arm, breathing in a powerful scent of horse, tack, and spice. “It’s a nerve pathway in the brain that connects the two hemispheres, allowing for communication between them.”

“And left-handed people have a bigger one than right-handed people?” He hooked his thumbs in his pockets, the attractive gesture causing her to pick up her pace and focus on the Gator parked beside the office. The utility vehicle made sprinting around the camp much easier and quicker.

“That’s what the research says.” She hopped into the driver’s seat and started the engine as he slipped in beside her. His warmth tingled alongside her arm and leg. “So, I’ll give you the quick tour of the place, but you’ll mostly be in the barn and the arena, I imagine. Unless you want to take a group trail riding?”

“It’s not my specialty, but whatever you need, ma’am.”

Josie shifted into drive. “Not that I mind your cowboy ways of politeness, but please, call me Josie.”

“Sure thing, Josie.” He said her name as if it belonged on his lips, almost as much as the small smile that showed itself briefly.

She slipped the gears in the Gator, causing the engine to rev as she stalled in neutral. She chastised her racing heart as heat flooded her cheeks, thanking God for the tan she had earned this summer. Without it, her cheeks would be as red as the roses planted in front of her office. The Gator slid back into gear, and she hit the accelerator a bit aggressively, pushing them both back into the seats. She bit back the apology as she headed up the hill, trying to act like she had meant to start off at a racing speed.

“This is where the kids stay. We have counselors who watch over them. Five kids per counselor. Hey, Kyle, how’s it going?” She called out as a lanky late teen ducked from a cabin.

“All good here, Miss Josie. Wylie’s back to himself after your little talk.” The guy craned his head to see Cody better. “That our new cowboy? You’re a roper, right?”

“Yep,” Cody said, tipping his hat down.

“Cody, this is Kyle. This is his second year as a counselor.” Josie motioned to Kyle with a wide smile. “He’s one of the best, and you’re returning for our winter camp, right?”

“That’s the plan. It’s a couple of weeks before the next semester, so it should work out.” Kyle waved to Cody as a commotion came from inside the cabin. “I better get back to it. Nice to meet you, Cody. We’ll see you in the arena.”

Cody nodded and lifted his hand.

“See you at dinner,” Josie called to the teen as he ducked back inside. She pressed the gas more gently this time, taking them up the hill toward the next set of cabins.

“These bigger ones are for the kids, but what about these smaller ones?” Cody pointed to the cabins set off to the side past the larger group cabins.

“Well, when it’s time for PAPs, that is Potential Adoptive Parents, to come meet the kids, they stay in these cabins. When we aren’t having our Foster Camps, we open them up as vacation rentals.” She glanced at him. “I have to keep the camp running somehow.”

Cody nodded. “So, you really work hard to find these kids’ families?”

“That’s what I do—try to find them forever homes.” She sighed as she looked out into the forest beyond the cabins.

“Do they all find homes?” Cody asked, his normally deep voice lowering an octave and softening.

She turned the Gator around at the top where the lookout tower sat, stopping at a place they could see the entire camp below. “Not all of them.” Her grip tightened on the steering wheel, her thoughts on one particular boy. “Some come with too many strings, too many issues, or too much anger.”

Cody nodded. “These kids shouldn’t have to go through what they do.”

Josie turned toward him, reading his straight lipped expression and wanting to read his eyes that were shadowed by his cowboy hat.

He turned slowly toward her, his dark chocolate eyes meeting hers with a look of determination. “Tell me how I can help.”

It wasn’t the first time she had heard this request, nor the first time she heard a depth of caring in the voice speaking it, but Cody’s level of determination, as if he took this on as his personal mission, struck her. She licked her lips, trying for the right words, all the while wanting to hug him. Instead, she cleared her throat, tore her eyes away from the handsome cowboy, and rested her gaze on the camp below.

“This has been my passion for over a decade now. Each year, I think my heart won’t make it through another. Yet, each year I come back with more determination than the one before.” Her gaze landed on the barn and the arena as she pointed. “That’s where you will teach kids to trust themselves, to learn to trust others, and realize it’s okay to bond with something, someone.”

Cody stiffened beside her. “How will I do all that?”

“By being you.” She gave him a sideways glance before leaning back in her seat. “I’ve seen it year after year. I didn’t know it would happen the first time, and then I thought it a fluke, but each time one of you come in, teach them some skills, spend some time with them, I see a transformation in these kids.”

Cody leaned back as well, the tenseness in his body seeming to relax, and he let out a sigh. “You had me thinking I jumped into the pond too soon.” A nervous chuckle vibrated the air around them. “I thought you might have seen me as something special, and that I am not.”

Josie turned toward him. He had tilted his head back to see her better, giving her a clear shot of his eyes, eyes that held a deep pain and a burning self-hatred. She only knew that because she stared at her own each morning. God, help us both.

She patted his leg before shifting the Gator into gear. “I think, Cody James, this week you just might find you are something special.”

Without so much as a glance or pause for response, she drove them back toward the camp, pointing things out as they went, and ignoring the fact that somehow, as strangers, they had seemed to share a deeper moment than she had shared in a very long time.