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Sweat trickled between Patrice Sutton's brows. She wiped it off and dried her damp palm on the leg of her jeans. Her gaze was on the woman ahead of her in the calf-roping competition as she climbed onto her horse and prepared to race out of the box after the calf when it was released from the chute.
Suddenly someone yanked on her shirtsleeve. She peered underneath the brim of her cowboy hat to see that it was her younger sister, Keira. "Patty, no matter what you do, you've got to beat Lucy's time," Keira said urgently.
Patrice laughed. "This is a charity event, not an actual competition. I'm here to help raise money for the kids. Besides, it's hot as Hades today. I doubt if I'll beat her time."
The rodeo, which was held every July in Albuquerque, New Mexico, benefited a local children's hospital. The stadium was filled with kids who were out of school for the summer. Patrice was an up-and-coming film star due to a now-canceled sitcom of some acclaim and starring roles in two successful action films.
"Please, Patty," Keira whined. "There's no time to tell you why now, but it's for a good reason." Patrice smiled. Keira sounded the way she had when she was a little girl.
Looking at her petite sister, Patrice pursed her lips, thinking. "Lucy's got the best time so far, at ten seconds. That's pretty good seeing as how some professional ropers come in at seven. She competes in these events year-round. I haven't competed since high school."
Frustrated, Keira blew air between full lips. "Yeah, but you ride as often as you can fit it into your schedule, and I know you've been practicing like crazy since you've been home. Ma told me. You used to beat Lucy all the time when you were both on the local circuit."
The announcer's voice came over the loudspeaker. "Oops, that's okay, Mary Jane, better luck next time. Folks, Mary Jane got a cowboy speeding ticket because her horse broke the barrier before his time. So that sets Mary Jane's time at 2I seconds. Miss Lucy Lopez is still the rider to beat."
The crowd of nearly twelve hundred spectators cheered for Lucy Lopez.
"If she wins," hissed Keira, "I'll never hear the end of it."
"That's your sister-in-law you're talking about," Patrice said teasingly.
A cowboy in a black hat, denim shirt, jeans, black boots and leather chaps motioned for Patrice to follow him. It was time for her to mount her horse. "Gotta go," said Patrice to her still-fuming sister.
"You've got too much of a competitive spirit to lie down and take it," Keira yelled at Patrice's back.
Patrice mounted her favorite quarter horse, Billy One Star. He was named this because of the white mark under his forelock. He was a handsome, healthy three-year-old. Her parents had given him to her on her twenty-fifth birthday last year.
She patted his muscular neck as she envisioned the next few minutes, mentally preparing herself. Her heart thudded with excitement. Like she'd told Keira, she hadn't competed in years. She was nervous. However, she stayed in shape, and she rode Billy One Star as often as she could get home between gigs. Life as an actress who was trying to limit her roles to films gave her quite a lot of downtime between projects.
Billy One Star was so well trained that he didn't move a muscle after Patrice signaled to the chute operator that she was ready and the calf went running out of the chute. The rider was supposed to give the calf a running start before going after him, and Patrice waited the appropriate amount of time before signaling to Billy One Star to do his thing. Billy's powerful body leaped forward, and soon they were racing after the calf at his top speed. Patrice concentrated, mouth boxed in determination, as she threw the lariat and looped it around the calf's neck. She then signaled to Billy to stop, and the horse abruptly skidded to a stop. She leaped from his back, quickly laid the calf onto its side and snared three of its legs together in a wrap and a slap, or a half-hitch knot.
She threw her hands in the air denoting she was done. Billy slowly backed away from the calf in order to maintain the tautness of the rope until Patrice could climb onto his back again and move forward to relax the rope on the calf.
"Ooh, wee!" exclaimed the announcer. "That little filly knows her roping. Ms. Patrice Sutton, Albuquerque girl and TV-and-screen star, caught that 'lil doggie in nine seconds flat. It's the new time to beat, buckaroos!"
The crowd roared. Patrice waved her hat in the air and signaled Billy One Star to take a bow as she'd taught him. Billy bowed by lowering his great head and bending his front legs slightly.
A couple of cowboys detached Patrice's lariat from the calf and untied the calf, who immediately got to its feet, unhurt. Patrice sighed, relieved. She always worried that she might injure the calf, but in all the years she'd been roping, she had never done so.
She rode Billy out of the stadium to enthusiastic applause. When she got to the area behind the corral where various RVs and horse trailers were parked, awaiting the return of their passengers, she was greeted by her excited family. Her brother Luke took hold of Billy's bit and patted his neck while Patrice dismounted and removed her hat. She was immediately enveloped in her father's arms. "Way to go, Peanut," he said.
Patrice beamed. Nobody called her Peanut except her daddy. Patrick Sutton's handsome brown face crinkled in a grin. Six-two to Patrice's five-seven, he bent to hug her. "You should have heard your momma cheering," he said proudly, turning to look back at Cady Sutton.
"Of course I was," Cady said. Patrick released Patrice so his wife could hug her. "It brought back memories." When she was younger, Cady had been a roper, too. Patrice was the only one of her two daughters who'd shown any interest in it. She reached up to gently caress Patrice's cheek. "Well done!"
"Thank you, Momma," said Patrice, her face a mass of smiles.
Keira came running up to everyone. "You beat Lucy's time. I'm so happy."
"What was that all about?" Patrice asked, referring to Keira's earlier strange behavior.
Keira, who was slender and had skin a little lighter than Patrice's medium-brown skin, smoothed her dark auburn curls away from her heart-shaped face and grimaced. "I overheard her telling one of the other competitors that she planned to mop up the floor with Little Miss Movie Star. That's you! She said no one was going to steal her title as the area's champion lady roper, especially not the sister of the little gold diggerthat's mewho had wormed her way into her brother's heart. She hates me."
"That was mean," Patrice agreed, sad that Lucy was making Keira's life difficult. "I'm here for the kids, and my career is fine, thank you!"
Her mother jumped suddenly. "Oh, my goodness, your cell phone just vibrated," she said with a laugh. She had been holding Patrice's purse for her until after she'd competed in the event.
She handed the shoulder bag to Patrice now, and Patrice quickly reached in and retrieved her still-vibrating phone. Looking down at the display, she saw that it was Blanca Mendes, her agent. "I'd better answer this."
She flipped the phone open. "Hi, Blanca. How are you?"
"Fine, fine," Blanca replied in her hurried manner. "Listen, chica, you've got to get back to L.A. as soon as possible. Mark Greenberg wants to see you in his office at II:00 a.m. tomorrow morning."
"I just got through hog-tying a calf in a rodeo. You do know where I am, right?"
Blanca laughed shortly. "It's Thursday. You must be in The Land of Enchantment, otherwise known as New Mexico."
"Albuquerque is nearly eight hundred miles from Los Angeles," Patrice reminded her.
"I know that you drove home on this trip, sweetie," said Blanca. "You don't have time to drive back. I've booked you on a six o'clock flight out. Just go to the desk at your favorite airline, and they'll take care of you."
"Six o'clock!" Patrice cried. "It's already half past four."
"Then you'd better get a move on," Blanca told her. "T. K. McKenna. Need I say more?"
"No," Patrice sighed.
"That's what I thought," said her agent, satisfied she'd gotten her point across. "I've arranged to have a car pick you up at the airport. You can get a good night's rest and be refreshed for your eleven o'clock meeting. I have a good feeling about this. Mark wouldn't have asked to see you again unless he was really interested. I know how he thinks. He probably wants you to read with one of the other actors."
Patrice's heart leaped into her throat. "Do you think he wants me to read with T.K.?"
"T.K. doesn't have to audition for anyone," Blanca replied.
"But the role I'm up for is his love interest in the film," said Patrice hopefully.
"Be prepared for whatever happens," advised Blanca. "However, I seriously doubt T.K. will show up. Besides, I would prefer to have you cool, calm and collected. Even I would freak out at the prospect of meeting T.K."
Patrice laughed shortly. Blanca Mendes usually wasn't intimidated by anyone.
"Okay, I won't get my hopes up," Patrice promised. "Thanks, Blanca. I'll make that flight."
"Of course you will, chica," said Blanca, "because you understand that to get anywhere in this business one must be prepared to make"
"sacrifices," Patrice finished for her.
"Call me after the meeting. We'll go out and celebrate," said Blanca confidently.
Patrice closed her phone and looked into the crestfallen faces of her family. She sighed heavily. "I guess you got the gist of that. I've got to leave this afternoon."
"Did I hear you say 'T.K.'?" Keira asked excitedly, practically jumping up and down.
"That's right," Patrice told everyone. "I auditioned for the role opposite T.K. in a Western of which he's also serving as one of the producers. I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to get your hopes up for me in case I didn't get the part."
Cady put her arm about Patrice's waist. "Oh, honey, we root for you no matter what. We know you have your head on straight and realize that when you don't get a role you really want that it isn't the end of the world. Maybe something better is waiting just around the corner."
Patrice wondered what could be better than starring opposite T. K. McKenna, one of the biggest box-office draws in the world. It had to be something mighty good.
She smiled down at her mother and hugged her. "Thanks. I appreciate that."
She straightened and looked at them all in turn. "I'm sorry to have to cut my visit short."
They all shrugged aside her apology, assuring her they understood.
The announcer's voice rang out. "If the lady ropers would gather in the center of the stadium, it's time to announce the winner of the competition."
Keira grabbed Patrice by the arm. "Come on, I can't wait to see Lucy's face."
Patrice, Keira and her parents walked back to the stadium while Patrice's brother Luke led Billy One Star to his horse trailer where he would rub him down before putting him inside for the trip home, a ranch on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
Luke, twenty, was a junior in college but lived at home where he was being groomed to run the ranch when his father retired. The Suttons had been cattle ranchers in New Mexico since the late I800s when an ancestor of Patrick's, an ex-slave also named Patrick, had left Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in search of a better way of life. He'd married a fellow Louisianan woman and soon there were Suttons spread out over New Mexico. However, because of a scarcity of blacks Sutton offspring were obliged to marry Native Americans and Mexicans. Patrice's father had quite a bit of Native American blood. Her mother hailed from South Carolina and was African-American. She had met her husband when she had taken a trip to the Southwest with girlfriends following her college graduation. The handsome rancher had swept her off her feet, and she had never returned to South Carolina to live.
Patrice closed her eyes as she relaxed against the airplane's seat. Keira had gotten her to the airport with ten minutes to spare. Luckily, she'd had no bags to check. Blanca had worked her magic, and her transition from terminal to airplane had been flawless. She smiled. It had been fun competing in a rodeo again. She had not dreamed she would actually win the competition. Keira had been happier than she was when she was handed her trophy. The sour look on Lucy Lopez's face had confirmed what Keira had said about her: she indeed had a bone to pick with Patrice.
Patrice was having none of that, though. After all, Keira was Lucy's sister-in-law. For Keira's sake, if not for anything else, there should be peace in the family. Patrice had stepped up to the microphone and said, "Thank you so much. It's my pleasure to be here today, and I'm thrilled to have won. However, I think I would be remiss if I didn't thank the wonderful women who also competed in the event, especially Ms. Lucy Lopez, who has been citywide champion for years now." She offered Lucy her hand in congratulations. Lucy shook it, an astonished expression on her pretty face.
As Patrice left the stage, she overheard one of the other women say, "That was sweet of her."
"We're related, you know," Lucy had said nonchalantly.
"Oh, yeah, how?" asked the woman, surprised.