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The hoots and whistles from the crowd in the stands at Horsemen's Arena in Las Vegas should have been enough to give Helen Shaw the adrenaline rush she needed to jack up her excitement for the coming event. But it wasn't.
As she and her horse, Tater-a honey-colored Nokota she had purchased from Colt Granger two years ago- made their way out to the main arena, Helen's stomach brutally pitched, reminding her that something was definitely off this evening.
"Shoot 'em dead," her teammate Sarah Hunter yelled as Helen passed her. Sarah's ride would be coming up after two more riders competed.
"You, too!" Helen yelled back to her. They were on the same team, but they competed individually, which was the reason why Helen liked the sport so much. Even though they were competitors, everyone in the equine sport acted as if they were all part of one big extended family, which was something Helen needed at the moment, a friendly reminder that she would be all right.
Instead of focusing in on her game, Helen was busy gulping down deep breaths of rich animal-scented air, trying to calm her overactive stomach. The familiar smells of horse stalls usually quieted any nerves she might have, so she didn't understand the growing nausea.
What could she have eaten to cause such a reaction in her stomach? Yes, she was nervous, but she'd checked and rechecked everything: the braided rein felt steady in her hands; her two single-shot Cimarron .45s were loaded with black powder and secure in their double front rig; her royal-blue cattlemantype hat sat snug on her head; the custom-made, matching blue leather chaps hung easy on her legs; and the lapis lazuli flower pendant her friend Colt had given her for good luck felt a little like his warm kisses around her neck.
She was ready to take on this moment. If she won, she would move on to the next regional championship event for cowboy mounted shooting in the fall. Something she'd been working toward for the past three years.
Tater slowed to an easy canter as they made their way through the metal gate. Helen could hear the pop-pop-pop from the male competitor in front of her as he fired at the target balloons from his mount. An announcer rattled on about the cowboy's time and his abilities in the usual jumble of garbled words that large arenas' PA systems seemed to produce.
Then, in an instant, the crowd whistled and cheered as Helen and the cowboy passed each other, nodding recognition as she and Tater finally reached their starting point.
The announcer mumbled something about Tater then focused on there being a lady in the house, which he did every time a woman rode out. Cowboy mounted shooting was one of the few events where women and men competed against each other, and because of this, most of the announcers seemed to overcompensate with political correctness to let the audience know a "lady" had approached the main arena.
Helen eased Tater into a faster canter, making tight circles in front of the short course. The buzzer sounded and without much thought, Helen drew her first weapon, leaned forward in the saddle, and Tater took off for the semicircle of five white balloons. In one swift movement Helen took aim, clicked back the rough hammer, pulled the trigger and popped the first balloon, then the second, third, fourth and fifth. She quickly holstered her gun and drew the second firearm, all the while guiding Tater around the red barrel at the far end of the course, his hooves pounding dirt, his breathing hard and heavy. Tater felt like the wind guiding her toward each target. The constant hammering of his strong legs and the sharp angle of his muscled body as they rounded the barrel added to Helen's supreme confidence and focus. She took aim once again and popped each of the five remaining red balloons on the run down as she and Tater raced straight to the end of the course. Holstering her second gun, totally in sync with her horse, totally in tune with the power of the event, Helen knew she'd broken a record.
The crowd cheered. The announcer did his "woo-hoo" bit, and continued his warble about how "this cowgirl can ride!" Then he gave the audience her overall ranking stats as everyone waited for her score.
When the clatter died down, Helen and Tater eased up to a more effortless gait, and she noticed the five-foot-tall digital clock gave her a winning time.
"We did it, boy."
Helen beamed, and just as she patted her approval on Tater's hindquarters, the nausea overtook her with a vengeance. This time Helen couldn't control it and she vomited down the side of her lovely blue chaps, causing what could only be described as an overreaction by the handlers, who immediately called in medical.
Suspecting the flu, her team leader insisted she see a doctor, and before Helen could get herself together enough to object to all the fuss, she was transported to an urgent care facility, where an overly sympathetic nurse and stoic female doctor hit her with a barrage of questions. When Helen admitted this wasn't the first time she'd vomited in the past few weeks, the doctor recommended a complete physical, which included a urine sample and enough vials of blood to satisfy a vampire.
"The good news is you don't have the flu," Doctor Joyce said as she slipped off her latex gloves and tossed them in the small silver trash can. "You can sit up."
Helen slid her feet out of the stirrups and quickly pushed herself upright, holding the front of her paper gown closed, ready for anything the doctor threw at her.
"That sounds as if there's some bad news coming. Give it to me straight, Doc. I can handle it." Helen let out a heavy sigh as anxiety gripped her body. She'd been feeling sick for weeks, and suspected the absolute worse, but was hoping it would pass.
She knew all about cancer and heart disease, both of which had claimed the lives of several family members. She only hoped if it was something horrible, she had time to do a few of the things on her bucket list.
She sighed. "How much time do I have?"
"About seven months," Doctor Joyce told her in a calm voice.
Helen figured that's how these things went. The doctor remained composed while the patient freaked out. Helen was not the freak-out type. She prided herself on remaining cool under any circumstance. "Will I suffer?"
Despite her strong inner convictions, Helen's eyes welled up as hot tears stung her face. She wiped them away with the tissue Doctor Joyce offered her. "I always knew it would be like this, but I thought I'd have more time. There's so much I want to do. So many things I want to see. But mostly, I want to win the world championship of cowboy mounted shooting. I'm so close I can taste it."
Doctor Joyce wrote something down in Helen's file then sat on a black stool. "You'll still get to do those things, just not this year. You can even ride until the baby makes you feel unbalanced, if you take it easy."
Helen stopped crying, hiccuped and drew in a rough breath. "Baby? What do babies have to do with the fact that I'm dying?"
"Whatever gave you that idea?"
"You said I have only months to live."
Doctor Joyce chuckled, at least Helen thought it was a chuckle. Her somber expression never completely changed. "You can look at it that way if you want to, but that's not what I meant. You're pregnant and your baby is due in about seven months. Because you're not sure of the date of your last period, you'll need an ultrasound to get a more accurate date. Your gynecologist at home can order that, but from my initial exam, you're approximately seven to eight weeks pregnant."
Acid swirled inside Helen's stomach. Her chest tightened. Her hands felt clammy. If she wasn't half-naked, she'd run out of the tiny office screaming. "Pregnant! Me? No. Not possible. It must be a tumor or a deadly wart."
"Trust me. It's a fetus."
"You don't understand. That's completely impossible."
"If you have intercourse with a man, it's completely possible."
Helen drew in a deep, calming breath. The doctor had to be wrong. Everyone knew Vegas doctors were less than great, and this one was just plain dumb.
"He's had a vasectomy," Helen spit out.
"It's rare, but there's a one percent chance of pregnancy during the first five years after a vasectomy."
"So it can't happen."
"It already did."
"But we only had sex one time. We're friends, not lovers. Colt won't want-" She stopped talking. News traveled like a wildfire during these championships. "Who else knows about this?"
"You, me and soon your team leader."
"You can't tell anyone."
"He'll want to know if you're fit to ride, which you are not. At least not in competition."
Helen didn't want to dwell on that last statement at the moment. She had other, more pressing concerns. "Can't you make up something? I don't want anyone to know I'm-" The word caught in her throat.
Helen nodded, desperately trying to come to terms with the whole idea of having an actual baby growing inside her. An actual child. A dependent. A munchkin she never thought would come out of her body. Babies were for her friends, her relatives, people who wanted to reproduce.
She wasn't one of them.
"If that's how you want it, I won't tell anyone, but you shouldn't ride competitively while you're pregnant. If you're thrown, you could lose the baby."
"I've never been thrown from a horse, and I've been riding for over twenty years."
"It's a precaution. In the meantime, eat ginger for your nausea, get plenty of rest and increase your calorie intake. You might want to consider eating smaller meals. Sometimes that helps. Start taking prenatal vitamins- you can get them just about anywhere-and try to add plenty of calcium to your diet. Make an appointment with an ob-gyn when you get home."
"This is happening too fast. It changes everything. I don't like change. It throws off my equilibrium."
The doctor hesitated for a beat. "There are other options if you don't want this baby."
Her words hit Helen like a shock wave, taking her breath away.
When she was able to breathe again, she protested, "Who said anything about options? Of course I want this baby. I'd be crazy not to wouldn't I?" She paused as the thought of other options settled in her mind.
She shook her head. "I'm pregnant, and I'm staying that way, at least for the next seven months anyway." Her heart skipped a beat. "I'm pregnant!"
The enormity of her condition began to sink in. The idea of motherhood scared her silly. Yes, she loved kids, as long as they belonged to someone else, and yes, she sometimes liked Colt's boys, when they weren't dropping frogs in her drink or using the latticework in her backyard as target practice with her spring fruit. She didn't have to discipline them or worry if they were eating their veggies or tormenting their teachers. But most of all, she didn't have to be responsible for anyone but herself.
She'd always prided herself on her freedom. Her independence. She could join the rodeo circuit and be gone for months at a time. Pursue her dreams. Be a free spirit. Make love with no strings attached.
Suddenly that flimsy string had turned into a rope, a thick rope that tied her to Colt Granger, a rope made out of ten-gauge steel that could never be cut.
Never, no matter what.
She shivered at the thought, or was it simply cold in the office? Truth be told, she didn't know much of anything at the moment. Her brain was in a state of shock. Thinking was not part of its current function.
"Great. Then congratulations, Helen Shaw. You're going to be a mom." A warm smile spread across the doctor's face as a tsunami of nausea drenched Helen in warm sweat.
"I'm glad somebody thinks so," Helen mumbled while trying to get control over her roiling stomach.
Now all she had to do was figure out a way to tell Colt, a man who most certainly did not want another child. A man who could barely handle the kids he already had, let alone one more. A man she'd tried her best to steer clear of, knowing full well he represented everything she didn't want. She had known better not to sleep with him.
They were merely friends.
But she'd done it anyway.
"Cheer up. At least you're not dying," the doctor said on her way out the door.
Helen nodded, smiled and decided dying might have been the better option.
And as if the universe was angry at her for thinking such a horrible thought, nausea overtook her and she vomited in the tiny trash can right on top of Doctor Joyce's latex gloves.