The next morning they woke up even earlier than they had the day before. Glancing at her phone, Darcy saw that it was almost four. She groaned and let her head fall back on her pillow. Seconds later, Zoey jumped up on the bed and launched herself at Darcy, licking her face until she was pushed away. "Mom," Darcy groaned. "Why are we up so early?"
"We have to be to Dickingson by eleven."
"Why so early?" she asked sleepily.
"We're going to a rodeo." Maggie replied firmly as she zipped her suitcase.
"Rodeo." Darcy repeated with a blink, weaving her fingers into Zoey's long hair. "Why?"
"Frank's there. That's where he wanted us to meet him. Hurry, Darcy. We're running just a hair late."
"Right," she mumbled, climbing out of the bed. She didn't bother to shower—not when it was so early, and not when she was going to be going to a rodeo and would probably end up covered in dirt by the end of the day. Her hair was wild from sleep and she had circles under her eyes. Sighing, she used a little mousse to make her waves look less wild and more tame, and splashed a little cold water on her face. She stared at her arm for a moment—the one that Alex had written his number on—and a sudden thought came to mind. Did he even know her name? She thought back to the private moment they had shared and couldn't remember ever having introduced herself, although she supposed he could have overheard her parents say it. Wonderful, she thought. Just wonderful.
She pulled on a long sleeved shirt over her tank when Maggie stepped into the bathroom. "Honey, is that really what you're wearing?"
Darcy looked at herself in the mirror. Long pants, long sleeved shirt. Her usual attire. "What's wrong with it?" she demanded.
"Darcy, would it hurt you to wear a t-shirt for once? It's a lot warmer here than in Oregon. You could get heat stroke . . ."
"I'm fine." Darcy replied firmly. At least the white shirt was cute and flattered her figure. "I'm cold." She'd said that so often over the past three years that she'd almost tricked herself into believing that it was true.
Maggie sighed heavily, glaring at her daughter. "Fine. You'd better do something with your dog. I don't want her having an accident in my car on the way there."
Zoey. Darcy had almost forgotten. Stepping out of the bathroom, she noted that Zoey was still curled up on the bed, her eyes closed peacefully. "Hey, Zo." Darcy said softly, smoothing her fingers over the dog's silky ears. The canine jerked awake, startled, and then wagged her tail. "Morning sleepy-head!" Zoey wagged her tail harder and crawled closer to Darcy, lifting her lips in a doggy smile as she snorted. "Dork," Darcy commented with a smile, ruffling her ears playfully. "Let's go."
Darcy threw a tennis ball for Zoey for ten minutes, before Maggie called them both back inside. They loaded up the car and thn drove to a nearby restaurant for a drive through breakfast. Then Darcy settled down in the front seat for the rest of the drive, her eyes drifting closed and her body melting into the seat behind her.
"This was a great idea!" Darcy commented over the roar of the river. From the hill they stood on they could see the river rushing and tumbling over boulders below. Swirls of fog and clouds covered the surrounding hills and a steady breeze pushed through the trees.
"I needed to get out. Luke is driving me crazy!" Allie said, over the noise.
"Isn't he supposed to? That's sort of what boyfriends do, right?"
"Darcy, have you even ever had a boyfriend?" Allie asked with a laugh and a giggle.
"Yes! Actually, I have." Darcy said in her own defense.
"Really?"Allie asked, turning her head to look closely at her cousin. "When? Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Darcy blushed. "I don't know. I didn't want to be embarrassed by Mom or Dad. You know how they are."
"You're just too easy to tease!"
Darcy stuck her tongue out in response. "Fine."
Allie laughed and picked up the pace. "Come on, slow poke."
Grinning, Darcy urged Gus into a canter, adrenaline filling her veins as she chased after Allie.
Darcy thought she would get used to it. All the dreams. The flashbacks. The sleepless nights. The guilt. She'd hoped that after a while it would go away and she'd be normal again. But the world didn't work that way. Most of her friends didn't understand—they hadn't been responsible for someone else's death—but Kristie got it. She knew what it was like to lose someone you were close to. Kristie helped. She listened and didn't get angry when Darcy was bitter, but how could she, when Darcy did the same for her? But now Kristie was gone. All the way to Berkeley for College. She'd left the weekend after graduation.
Darcy sat up and winced, rolling her head from side to side, trying to relieve the twinge of pain that resided there. She licked her lips and swallowed against the cottonmouth, a result of the dreams, and glanced at the dash. 8:45. "Where are we?" she asked.
"We'll be in Dickinson in ten minutes. You might want to do something with your hair."
"My hair?" Darcy asked, pulling down the visor in front of her to glance in the mirror. Big mistake. "What happened? It looks worse than it did this morning!"
Maggie laughed, her brown eyes shiny with tears. "Maybe some gel will help?"
"It's beyond help." Darcy moaned. "I'll have to braid it, I guess." She lifted her fingers and combed them through her hair, separating the strands and then french braiding a long plait down her back.
"Much better. Are you sure you don't want to put on a t-shirt? It's going to be so warm today."
Darcy glanced at Maggie taking in her white tank top with envy. She considered her mother's suggestioon for all of two seconds. "I'm fine."
"You need to stop this, Darcy. It's bad for your body. Living in Oregon is bad enough. Women already have enough problems with making vitamin D. You're only making it harder on yourself . . ."
"I know." Darcy ground out, staring at the passing houses.
"Just tell me, sweetie. Why does it bother you so much?"
"I don't want to be stared at. I don't want people to treat me differently!"
"Have you ever considered the idea that maybe it's you who treat people differently?" Maggie snapped, her hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly her fists were turning white.
"That isn't it!" Darcy snapped back, even though a wave of realization was rolling over her. Maybe Maggie was right.
"Darcy Lee Anderson! I'm your mother! And I reserve the right to tell you how ridiculous you're being about this! You have to stop pushing people away!"
Darcy sat in stony silence, her arms crossed until Maggie started to pull into an already crowded parking lot. All around them there were people getting out of their cars, walking across the lot towards the ticket booths, people wearing reflective orange and yellow vests, people wearing similar outfits on horseback, overseeing the business of parking. The first horse that caught Darcy's eye was a gray. She'd always been fond of grays. This one had a slight dip in it's white face, and dappled hind quarters, a long wispy main and tail, and a little bit of black around the tip of his ears. He held his head low, surveying everything around them with a bored look. The man who sat atop him wore a similar expression, his arms crossed at the wrist and resting lightly on the horn of his western saddle.
Startled out of her thoughts by Maggie's impatient voice, Darcy looked away from the lightly built arab, and toward her mother. "What?"
Maggie shook her head. "You need to stop drifting off. I said we need to hurry."
Darcy realized then that her mother had already parked and paid one of the parking directors. "Oh. Sorry." Darcy slid out of the front seat and reached onto the floor for Zoey's leash.
Once they were all out of the car, Maggie hurried them toward the ticket booths where Maggie showed them to internet tickets she must have printed off before they'd left home. Their hands were stamped and then they were allowed in, after having their purses searched briefly. Darcy swallowed as she looked around. She'd never been to a rodeo before and was nervous about seeing so many horses a once, after being away from them for so long. Maggie led them past vendors selling caramel corn, elaphant ears, and ice cold lemonade, and toward one of the large covered arenas.
"Frank said they would be in the main arena." Maggie said, glancing at the buildings around them. The walkways were crowded with vendors, people purchasing cowboy hats, people dressed in western wear. People with dogs. They wove in an out, Darcy keeping an excited Zoey close to her side. They hadn't even been out of the car five minutes and Darcy was already warm. Sweating against her white shirt. "Here!" Maggie said suddenly, tugging Darcy toward an entrance into the arena. They showed their stamps to the security detail, and climbed the stairs into the grandstands. "Let's find our seats. Box seats. I paid a pretty penny for them, but I suspect they will be worth it. Look for Row C."
Darcy scanned the growing crowds reluctantly, glancing at the columns holding up the roof. "Down there." She said, pointing, just as the boom of a PA broke over the stands.
"Welcome to the 75th Annual Dickinson Rodeo! Please find your seats, we start our first event in just a few moments."
Darcy and Maggie found their box seats seconds later. Also in the box was a silver haired man with a thick build. He saw them approach and stood quickly, a grin lighting up his handsome face. He was broad shouldered and lithe, wrapped with muscle while still managing to look lean. His skin was leathery and worn, probably from years in the sun. He wore a navy blue button-up, jeans, a brown leather belt with a large silver buckle, cowboy boots, and a white hat. His eyes had crows feet around them as he grinned, and his eyes were possibly the brightest green she had ever seen.
"I'm so glad you folks could make it!" he said loudly, reaching for Maggie like a lifeline. He pulled her into a hug. "It's been too long. Peter was just around here somewhere—I think he went to get some drinks. Ah! You must be the legendary Darcy." Frank said, reaching for her as well. She was sucked into a hug, unsure how to handle the sudden proximity so someone she hardly knew.
"Hi," Darcy said, awkwardly as she pulled away.
"And who's this?" Frank asked, glancing down at Zoey to pet her gently on the head.
"Zoey." Darcy replied.
"Does she work cattle?" Frank asked, scratching his chin.
Darcy laughed a little. "I don't think she's ever even seen a cow—except maybe on the drive out here."
"Huh, well. Guess we had better take our seats. The show's about to start."
"What's first?" Maggie asked, as they stared out over the arena. There were a couple riders by the bull pens, and a few men milling about.
"Should be the preliminary bull riding. Then broncs. Then . . . bull-dogging and team-roping. Commentary compliments of our state famous Rodeo clown," Frank offered with a chuckle, motioning to the entry gate where sure enough a clown was walking toward the middle of the arena.
"Welllllll, folks. It's gonna be a scorcher out today! What do we say we get started and bring out our first rider?" the announcer said, gearing up the crowd.
"Did we miss the flag ceremony already?"
Frank nodded. "Unfortunately, but, if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. You pay close attention now, Darcy. I'll be quizzing you when this is over." He tossed a wink in Darcy's direction before focusing back on the arena.
Darcy stared, an anxious churning upsetting her stomach as she looked out over the dirt. The rodeo clown had settled himself in a blue, fifty gallon barrel, and had his attention focused on the bull gates, like everyone else.
"First up is Dirk Grady from Billings, Montana. He's looking pretty anxious. This is his first ride professionally in almost three years. He's riding Dark Pride, a nasty bull with a reputation for throwing 'em as quick as they get on. Watch closely now, folks. The gate's opening. He's out."
Darcy watched with something close to awe and terror as a black bull burst out of the gate, bucking and spinning. She glanced at the clock. Three seconds. Four. Five. Five and a half—and the crowd groaned as Dirk was thrown to the side. Quickly the mounted riders and the clown moved into position to distract the bull. Quickly they roped it and half pulled, and half chased, it down a dark tunnel.
"This is nothing like watching it on TV." Darcy muttered as the announcer alerted the crowds to the next rider and bull. "So he gets a zero, right?"
Frank, who was seated between her and Maggie nodded. "Basically, there are two judges. Each judges the bull on a scale of one to twenty-five, and the rider on a scale of one to twenty-five. The points are then tallied."
"So how do the points work?" Darcy asked, watching as the second rider was able to stay on the full eight seconds but scored only seventy-two points.
"On how well the rider stays with the bull. He can't touch the bull except with his anchor hand—the other one has to stay up in the air. Sometimes, if the bull isn't putting much effort into moving, the judges will let the rider have a re-ride. That might happen here, but it's unlikely."
"Huh." Darcy said, just as the bull, loosed of his rider, charged toward the barrel where the clown was hiding. Quickly the clown ducked inside the barrel. "That was close." he said, laughing, his voice echoing over the PA system. "Almost had pulverized rodeo clown on the menu. How'd you folks like that?" The clown asked as he popped up out of his hiding place again. The was a loud roar of approval from the stands. "Heck—you folks ain't very nice at all!" The clown exclaimed before ducking into his barrel just as another bull charged toward him.
"Up next we've got Jesse Silver riding Laredo. He's a Dickingson local. Son of Frank Silver. One of the youngest here at twenty-one. Last year his total winnings were fifty-one thousand, two-hundred and sixty-six dollars. Looks like he's getting ready, all strapped in."
Darcy glanced quickly at Frank. She hadn't known that he had a son, let alone one competing in the rodeo. She stared at the scoreboard where the cameras had zoomed in on an overhead view of the pen he was in. She couldn't see much of what he looked like. He straddled the panels of the pen, waiting for the bull to settle, and then, he was on, strapping his gloved hand down tight, men all around striving to keep the bull quiet.
"Silver's a high scoring champ, a kid that everyone should have their eyes on. He's a real natural. Gate's opening. Laredo's out. He's not happy at all."
Jesse Silver kept his right arm firmly in the air, his head down, watching the bull. Darcy almost couldn't watch. The bull—Laredo-was spinning and twisting, too quickly.
"Look at that, folks! Would you look at that! Laredo is bucking like a madman and Jesse's still aboard. Watch that hand folks. Watch that kid ride like a pro."
A loud buzzer sounded, ending the eight seconds. Darcy watched, enthralled, as Jesse tore his hand free and jumped off the bull. The riders swooped in, roping it, flanking it close enough for one of the riders to reach down and release the cinch and strap that Jesse had held on to. Darcy's eyes darted to the scoreboard, waiting eagerly for the judge's score. Loud cheers errupted from the stands.
"Folks! Look at that scoreboard! Look at that score! That is an ninety-two, folks. An unbelievableninety-two! Watch now, instant replay in slow motion. Complements of our sponsors, Ford and Cinch."
Frank was on his feet, yelling and cheering louder than anyone within Darcy's hearing distance. She felt compelled to cheer as well, so she let out a sharp whistle. Jesse walked to the middle of the arena, well aware that the bull still hadn't been penned, picked up his strap, and started the journey back to the gates. It was hard to tell from where they were sitting, but Darcy was sure that he was grinning.
"Let's go meet up with him. He doesn't ride for a while yet." Frank said to the group.
"Where on earth is Peter?" Maggie asked, as if suddenly realizing that her ex-husband hadn't showed up.
"I expect he got distracted." Frank said. "Come on, and you two pretty ladies can meet Jesse."
Her heart still pounding, Darcy stood and followed her mother and Frank through the stands, Zoey on her heels. But, her heart didn't stop pounding and she realized that she was nervous to meet Jesse. Such a young, popular horseman. A champion bull rider. What would he think of her? Wearing long sleeves in June? She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as they walked. Would he see the scar on her face? She shook her head resolutely, trying to dislodge the thoughts. It would be fine.
Frank led them behind the arena, onto a grassy lot that was lined with large horse trailers and paneled stalls. There was a large grouping of assorted horses together, in a large area, a few foals amongst them. The horses dozed quietly in the sun, and didn't bat an eye at the crowds gathered around to stare. Other horses were saddled and tied to trailers or panels, standing with a hing leg cocked and a bored expression on their faces.
Noticing that she was lagging behind, Darcy picked up the pace, ignoring the curious glances she received as she followed Frank and Maggie deeper into the maze of trailers and campers. When she finally caught up, Maggie and Frank were standing by a large four horse trailer with living quarters, colored dark blue, with Cinch banners covering every inch of free space. There were two horses tied to the trailer and a few folding chairs around a cooler. The closest horse, a bay, lifted his head as someone rounded the side of the trailer. Darcy followed his gaze just in time to see Jesse Silver approach. He was wearing a black button up with his sponsor's name on the collar. A thick vest, protection, Darcy guessed, from the bull's horns, covered his chest, and black chaps slapped against his jean clad legs with each step. He wore a black hat on his head, and had blood streaming from his nose. He was covered in dust and dirt, most likely from his dismount from the bull.
"You did great, kid." Frank said, his chest puffing out slightly with pride in his son.
"Thanks," Jesse said, gruffly.
"It's been a long time since you've seen Maggie and Peter, Jesse." Frank said.
Jesse's eyes darted to Darcy curiously, before he held out his hand and took Maggie's. Darcy blinked back surprise. He had two different colored eyes. One was a stormy grey-blue, the other was deep green, like celery. The effect was startling, but it did nothing to downplay his attractiveness. "Nice to see you again." He said, his eyes drifting almost lazily back to Darcy.
Flustered by the fact she'd been caught staring so openly, she looked away quickly. "Jesse, this is Darcy. My daughter."
Who else could Darcy have been? The resemblance between them was so close that, had Maggie been younger, they might have been mistaken for sisters. Jesse grinned, showing straight white teeth set below a straight, refined nose. Her knees felt week as his eyes drifted over her. He held out a calloused, gloved hand. "Nice to meet you."
And Darcy, shocked, could only say, "Your nose is bleeding."