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Welcome to Seven Cedars Ranch, Home of Cowboy College.
He sat immobile, staring at the large sign with its horse-head logo, his jaw tightly clenched.
Up until the moment he drove through the main gate, he'd been able to deny how really low he'd sunk in the last six months and how really far he'd have to climb to get back on top.
No more. The time to man up had officially arrived.
He reached for the door handle on his pickuponly to have it abruptly wrenched open. Startled, he turned to look into the face of a kid no older than eighteen or nineteen.
"Welcome, Mr. Boudeau. We've been expecting you." The kid waited, a gosh-I-can't-believe-it's-you grin plastered across his freckled face.
"The name's Ty." He removed the keys from the ignition and climbed out.
"A real pleasure to meet you, Ty." They shook hands. "Folks 'round here call me Stick." The kid stepped back, and Ty could immediately see how he'd earned the nickname. Stick could get lost standing behind a flagpole. "Right this way. Adele's waiting for you."
Ty hesitated, the doubts he'd successfully kept at bay during the four-hour drive across Wyoming gaining ground.
He needed help, that was a fact. But from a woman? One who made a living instructing amateurs at a glorified dude ranch. For a professional tie-down and team roper like himself, the idea was ludicrous. Certainly not "genius," as his younger sister had professed. And yet he'd come.
"Okay to leave the truck parked here?" His Ford F350 dually and horse trailer blocked all six of the available spaces in front of the rustic two-story lodge.
Being a minor celebrity, even an undeserving one, had its privileges, he supposed.
Grabbing his wallet, Ty followed Stick up a stone-lined walkway, across a sprawling porch and through the front entrance of the lodge. With each thunk of his boots on the hardwood floor, his gut clenched tighter. This place was his last-ditch effort. If it, and Adele Donnelly, couldn't figure out what he was doing wrong, then he might as well kiss his roping career goodbye.
"Here's the main lobby and that way is the business center," Stick informed him as they crossed the spacious room with its vaulted ceilings and pine beams. Ten-foot-high windows looked out onto rolling green grounds dotted with thick stands of trees. "The front desk is where you check in and out, get the weekly schedules, sign up for classes." He shot Ty a guilty look over his shoulder. "Not that you need any."
"You never know." He definitely needed something.
"There's a lounge with a TV over there for guests." Stick pointed. "It's got satellite."
"Oh, good. Can't miss my daily dose of CNN."
His attempt at sarcasm went right over Stick's head, who didn't stop talking long enough to take a breath.
"The dining hall's that way. Breakfast is served from five-thirty to seven, lunch from eleven-thirty to one and dinner from six to seven-thirty. Social hour starts at five. 'Course, if you're hungry, Cook's always got a pot of stew or chili on the stove."
"I'll remember that."
Ty didn't anticipate doing much socializing during his four-week stay. He was here to rope. Though competent in other rodeo events, steer wrestling and team roping mostly, tie-down roping was what he excelled at.
Make that had excelled at. Everything had changed last December.
Stick escorted him to a long counter resembling a hotel registration desk, only on a much simpler scale. "You in there, Adele?" he called.
Ty caught a glimpse of a desk with a phone and computer through the open door behind the counter.
When no one answered, Stick tapped the bell on the counter. It promptly dinged. "Huh." He pushed his cowboy hat back, revealing a shock of red hair, and scratched his forehead. "Guess she's not here."
"We can come back," Ty offered, in no hurry to meet the owner and manager of Cowboy College.
In the next instant, he mentally kicked himself. He hadn't come all this way to chicken out at the last minute.
"But we have to get the key to your guest cabin. How else you gonna unpack your stuff?"
"It'll wait," Ty assured him. The poor kid was trying so hard and deserved a break. "How 'bout we head to the barn and unload my horse. Maybe Adele will show up by the time we're done."
Stick immediately brightened. "Sure thing," he said, only it sounded more like "shore" thing.
Back outside, they hopped in Ty's truck, and Stick directed him down the dirt road to a row of three barns.
Across the open area in front of them was a large arena complete with holding pens, boxes, chutes, bleachers and an announcer's stand. A handful of riders were honing their roping skills with the help of some wranglers. Situated behind the barns were two smaller arenas, a pair of round pens, and endless acres of fenced pastures in which dozens of horses grazed on fresh spring grass. About a half mile beyond that, at the base of a valley, afternoon sunlight glinted off a large pond.
"How's the fishing?" Ty asked.
"Plenty of bass and bluegills. But if you're hankering for some serious fly-fishing, Little Twister Creek's the place to go. It's not far, about a mile or two from here. My cousin and I go every chance we get."
"You up for some company sometime?"
Stick's face exploded into a huge grin. "Just name the day." As they approached the row of barns, he indicated the largest one. "Here we are."
Ty pulled up in front of an old-fashioned hitching post and parked. His horse, Hamm, greeted him with a shrill whinny and a bang on the trailer sidewall when he went around the back and unlatched the gate. Eager to be free after the long drive, the large gelding piled out of the trailer. Once on solid ground, he raised his head high, took in his new surroundings and whinnied again. Mares with young foals in the far pasture ran to the fence for a closer look at the newcomer.
"He's a beaut!" Stick gazed at Hamm admiringly.
"That he is." Holding on to the lead rope with one hand, Ty patted the horse's neck. Plain old sorrel didn't begin to describe Hamm. With four perfectly matched white stockings and a three-inch-wide blaze running down the entire length of his face, he was striking.
"Bet he can chase calves down like lightning streakin' across a meadow."
"He's fast all right." Ty didn't elaborate. His problem, the reason he'd come to Cowboy College, had nothing to do with Hamm and everything to do with him.
"This way." Stick started toward the barn opening. After several steps, he turned, gave Ty's horse another adoring once-over and whistled low. "That big boy can sure walk out."
The barn housed at least forty horses. Every one of them charged to the door of their stall and hung their head out to observe the visitors. A few of the braver ones stretched their neck out to either sniff Hamm or give his rump a quick nip. Ty assumed some of the horses belonged to Cowboy College and the rest to guests like himself.
Midway down the aisle, Stick stopped and opened the door of an empty stall. "Here you go."
Being accustomed to traveling, Hamm entered his new quarters without balking. He quickly inspected the stall's perimeter, then buried his head in the feed trough. It was empty, and a second later his head shot up in obvious displeasure.
Given it was late afternoon, Ty supposed the stable hands would be feeding soon. Still, he asked, "You got a little grain or pellets we can give him until I go over his diet with the barn manager?" Hamm liked to eat, and a snack would help him adjust to his new surroundings.
"Be right back." Stick took off and promptly returned with a small bucket of oats.
Fifteen minutes later Ty and Stick were parking his trailer behind the barn. When they were done, Ty pulled his truck around front.
Stick sat forward in the passenger seat. "There's Adele."
He hitched his chin toward the arena. "Come on, you can meet her."
Horses and their riders had gathered at the south end of the arena. Ty picked out a trim young woman astride a stout paint mare, a blond braid snaking down her back from beneath her battered cowboy hat. Despite the distance, he recognized her immediately. No surprise; he'd been staring at pictures of her on Cowboy College's website for weeks while deciding to come or not.
"She looks busy."
"Naw." Stick dismissed his concern with a wave. "She won't mind."
They selected a spot along the fence and settled in to watch, their forearms resting on the top rail.
Stick's friendly greeting was returned by all except Adele. She was preoccupied with lining her horse up in the box. The mare, obviously new at tie-down roping, didn't like being enclosed in such a cramped space. She danced nervously, snorting and pulling on the bit. With firm hands and a honeyed voice, Adele brought the animal under control.
"Good girl." She placed the pigging string in her mouth, checked her rope and shifted in the saddle. Ty knew she would cue the wrangler manning the chute only when she and the horse were completely ready. That moment came a second later.
The wrangler slid open the gate, and the calf bolted for freedom, running in a straight line away from the chute. Adele's horse might not have much experience, but its instincts were right on the money. The mare exploded from the box at a full gallop, following the calf with the persistence of a heat-seeking missile. Adele's arm came up. In the next instant, she threw her rope. The noose landed right where it should, squarely on the calf's horns, and she leaped from the saddle even before the mare had come to a complete stop.
Ty watched, completely captivated as she raced to the calf and dropped it effortlessly to the ground, securing its legs with the pigging string. She worked efficiently, not a single motion wasted. And yet there was a natural, fluid gracefulness about her.
It was then Ty noticed the mare. Rather than backing up and stretching the rope taut, as was her job, she moved aimlessly, allowing the rope to hang loosely. The lack of assistance, however, didn't appear to hamper Adele's performance. She threw her hands in the air, signaling she was donein less than eight seconds, according to Ty's internal stopwatch. The students watching at the end of the arena broke into applause. He and Stick joined them.
Stick beamed. "Isn't she something?"
"Pretty good." Ty rocked back on his heels, absorbing what he'd just seen and thinking how much he hated admitting his sister might be right about Cowboy College.
Adele stood, exhibiting that same dancer's grace from earlier. The calf, now free, trotted off, only to be rounded up by one of the wranglers. Suddenly, Adele turned and glanced in Ty's direction. Their gazes connected, and the same recognition he'd experienced when he first saw her was reflected in her dark green eyes.
"Glad to see you made it, Mr. Boudeau. I'm Adele Donnelly."
"Glad to be here."
"Did you get your horse situated?"
"Stick's taken fine care of us."
At the compliment, Stick puffed up his skinny excuse for a chest. "Ty still needs to get checked in."
"I'll be up to the main lodge in a bit."
She walked over to her horse, calmly collecting her rope and winding it into a coil. With the ease and confidence of a practiced athlete, she swung up into the saddle and rode out of the arena.
Ty stared after her. Despite hearing of her skill, he'd half expectedmake that half hopedthe stories about her to be hype.
Adele Donnelly could not only show him a thing or two about a sport in which he'd been a top World contender mere months ago, she could quite possibly beat the pants off him.
"Hey, Dellie." Adele's grandfather joined her behind the registration counter. "What are you doing?"
"Hi, Pop." She straightened from her hunched position and rolled her cramped shoulders. "I'm just going over these schedules."
"I heard Tyler Boudeau arrived."
"About an hour ago."
"You meet him yet?"
"Briefly, at the arena."
"Which cabin did you assign him?"
Pop grunted. "The honeymoon cabin is bigger."
"It's booked. Number twenty-two is our next largest cabin, and the view from the back balcony's the best on the ranch."
"It's kind of far from the barn."
She studied him curiously, wondering what was up.
He rarely concerned himself with a guest's accommodations, preferring to leave the administrative functions of the ranch and roping school to Adele. On most days, when his acute arthritis didn't confine him to bed or the couch, he could be found at the barns and arena, teaching classes, overseeing the livestock and supervising the ranch hands. He still put in a full day's work when he could, but the last few years he'd come to depend more and more on their barn manager to pick up the slack.
"So, what do you think of him?"
Adele paused before answering the question, unsure of her response. Having a professional roper stay at the ranch, particularly one of Ty Boudeau's caliber, was certainly a boon for business. But the explanation he'd given for his month-long stay, that of training his new horse, hadn't rung true.
"We exchanged only a few words, and those were pleasant enough."
"Humph." Pop seemed disappointed.
"He should be here any minute."
His eyebrows shot up, momentarily erasing the deep wrinkles creasing his brow. "You don't say?"
Adele almost laughed, with surprise, not humor. Her grandfather was starstruck and couldn't wait to meet their semifamous guest.
"In that case, guess I'll get me a cup of coffee in the kitchen and wait for him."
"Decaffeinated," Adele called after his retreating back, and resisted adding, "You know what your doctor said."
A few minutes later, she looked up from her work to see Ty stride through the lobby door. She had to admit he wasn't hard to look at. And taller than she'd expected. Picking up the house phone, she paged the kitchen and said, "Tell Pop he's here," when Cook answered.
Reaching the counter, Ty removed his cowboy hat, and an unruly lock of sandy-blond hair promptly fell across his tanned forehead. His attempts to push it off his face were wasted and also charming.
"Welcome again, Mr. Boudeau." She gave him her best professional yet friendly smile. "Please, call me Ty."
"And I'm Adele."
The registration process didn't take long. When she finished, she put together a stack of papers, including a brochure, maps of the ranch and the nearby town of Markton, the current week's schedule of classes and events and a list of rules and regulations.
"Please read through this the first chance you have." She pointed to the papers stapled together on top. "You can't begin using the facilities until we have a signed copy on file."
"Tell me, am I signing away all my rights?"
Adele thought she detected a twinkle of amusement in his dark brown eyes. Perhaps he wasn't all-business, as she'd first suspected.