Two dollars and seventy-seven cents. That and a crumpled gas station receipt were all Joe Buckley had in his pockets to buy dinner. He’d used the last check blank in his wallet to pay his entry fees at tonight’s rodeo, and he seriously doubted the little wood-framed concession stand was set up to take credit cards.
If he were back home in Minnesota, there’d be a dozen guys who would lend him five bucks for a double burger and fries. But if he were back home, he wouldn’t have this problem, because he wouldn’t have been working overtime on a Saturday afternoon, wouldn’t have had to rush back to his rented apartment to throw on clean clothes and haul butt in order to get to tonight’s performance on time. None of which had left time for a stop at an ATM for cash.
You knew it wouldn’t be easy, Joe reminded himself. Moving halfway across the country to Oregon, starting fresh. All his life he’d dreamed of living in a place where cowboys weren’t an oddity; where rodeo was a proud tradition. When his boss had announced that he was closing up shop in favor of retirement, Joe had figured it was a sign. He was almost thirty years old. All but a handful of his friends were married. The time would never be better to make his dream come true.
The trouble with dreams, though, was reality hardly ever measured up.
He’d expected it would take time to get to know people. But he hadn’t expected there to be so many of them. Back home, a good rodeo might draw thirty contestants in each event. Out here, in the heart of cowboy country, it was eighty or a hundred, each one tougher than the next. Joe felt intimidated, doubted his own ability. Was he good enough to compete with these guys?
Not if tonight’s performance was anything to judge by, he brooded, still stinging from his failure to take advantage of a good draw.
He rounded the corner of the arena intent on joining the hungry patrons clustered in front of the concession stand. A woman crossed his path a few yards ahead, sending Joe’s pulse tripping over itself at the sight of sun-streaked brown hair, long legs just made for blue jeans striding off toward the contestant parking lot.
Now there was a face Joe wouldn’t mind getting a lot more familiar with. Him and every other single-minded cowboy east of the Cascades. And she lived right in the same town he’d made his home. If there were such a thing as a blue blood in rodeo, Katie Kasper would qualify. Both her father and brother were world champions in Joe’s chosen event—steer wrestling. Her mother had made multiple appearances at the National Finals Rodeo in the barrel racing. And Katie herself had made a splash as a barrel racer in her late teens and early twenties, winning national rookie of the year honors and qualifying for the Finals.
All of which was a long-winded way of saying she was out of plain old Joe Buckley’s league. Even at his cockiest, Joe would’ve been hard-pressed to muster up the courage to try his charm on Katie. With his self-esteem bumping along in the lowest rut it’d ever stumbled into…well…forget about it.
But it wasn’t easy to forget considering he saw her at least once a week when he picked up supplies at the lumberyard her mother’s family had owned for generations. According to one of Joe’s work mates, Katie had been the only one who offered to give up the professional rodeo circuit when her grandfather’s health went downhill a few years back.
Joe admired her loyalty. Almost as much as he admired those brown eyes and the warm smile she flashed whenever she happened to be the one who signed off on his purchase orders. Which had become more and more often lately, the one real stroke of luck he’d had since coming west. Too bad Joe’s admiration was so intense it invariably turned to glue on his tongue, making him incapable of anything besides a nod and a goofy grin. Lord, what a moron.
Joe’s mood sunk a notch lower as he watched Katie disappear into the parking lot. No doubt she had places to go, people to see, just like everyone except Joe.
Give it time, he told himself as he pointed his feet toward the concession stand. That was his mantra these days, muttered a hundred times between daybreak and dark. Eventually, he would get to know some folks. But every weekend it seemed like he ran into a fresh batch of strange faces and they were all hurrying off to the next rodeo the minute they finished competing at this one.
He’d give anything to hear someone call out “Hey, Joe Buck!” the way his old friends had, slap him on the shoulder and urge him to join them for a beer after the rodeo.
He fought off a suffocating wave of loneliness while he studied the menu scribbled on a chunk of cardboard and tacked to the wall of the concession stand. “Give me a hot dog and a Coke, please,” he told a skinny, freckle-faced boy who could barely see over the counter.
“We’re out of hot dogs,” the boy said apologetically. “Would you like a hamburger instead?”
Would I ever, Joe thought. But three dollars was over his budget. There was only one thing on the menu he could afford besides a candy bar. He sighed. “Nachos, then.”
The boy scurried off and was back almost immediately, proudly presenting Joe with a can of Coke and a paper tray of tortilla chips swimming in gluey orange cheese sauce. Joe stuffed his last seven cents into his pocket and carried his feast to a wooden picnic table a dozen yards away. He’d barely sat down when he realized he’d forgotten napkins. With a disgusted grunt, he stood and stalked back to the concession stand. He grabbed a fistful of napkins, turned…and froze.
Right before his stunned and horrified eyes, a sleek black and white dog carefully picked up his tray of nachos, eased to the ground, and trotted off under the bleachers without dropping so much as a single chip.
Joe wanted to shout, but the only words that came to mind would have had mothers slapping hands over their babies’ ears. He stared after the dog for several long seconds before allowing himself one heartfelt, whispered curse. The long, frustrating day at work, the weeks of loneliness and one disappointment after another all boiled up inside him, set off by this last, ridiculous insult to his pride. A lump swelled in his throat, threatening to choke him. He was sorely tempted to sit down, fold his arms on the table, bury his head and bawl like a baby.
But every kid who’d ever watched John Wayne knew cowboys didn’t cry, so Joe swallowed hard and slumped at the table to stare glumly into the Coke can that had suddenly become the sum total of his dinner. He’d always considered himself a positive, upbeat kind of guy, tried not to whine and pout and complain about how life was always picking on him. Right this minute, though, he was having a real hard time picking up the silver lining in the gloom.
For the first time, he was unable to silence the doubt demons, those shrill little voices in the dark corners of his mind, mocking him, insisting that he’d made a mistake, he should head back to the Minnesota boondocks where he belonged. Where he was the baddest shark in the local rodeo pool.
He clenched his teeth and mentally stiffened his spine. Not yet. I’m not giving up until I’ve given it everything I’ve got.
As he toasted his new resolve with his Coke can, a female voice called out, “Excuse me? Did someone lose their nachos?”
Joe’s head snapped up and his heart jumped into double time. Halfway between him and the concession stand, Katie Kasper stood holding his empty paper tray. The dog beside her looked as guilty as a dog could, head hanging, ears drooping…and a telltale smear of orange cheese across her nose.
Joe cleared his throat. “Those were…um…mine.”
Katie turned, spotted him, brown eyes widening. Her lips curved into a tentative smile as she stepped closer. “I’m so sorry. I’ve never been able to convince Stella that just because she can reach it, doesn’t mean it’s hers. She didn’t take it right out of your hand, did she?”
“Would she?” Joe asked, surprised out of his usual tongue-tied state.
“Usually only from small children.” Katie took another step nearer, rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe how many hot dogs and ice cream cones I’ve had to replace.”
“I’ll bet.” Somehow, Joe found himself standing, holding out a hand. “I’m Joe.”
Katie started to accept the handshake, only she was still holding the nacho tray. She fumbled for a moment, gave a giggle that sounded almost nervous, then switched the tray to her other hand so her fingers could close around his. “I’m Katie Kasper. And you’re the guy from Three Rivers Construction—Joe Buckley. What a great rodeo name. I’ll bet your friends call you Joe Buck.”
Joe could only nod, nearly fainting from sheer joy. She remembered him! But he regained his senses quick enough to keep from grinning like an idiot. Of course she remembered. Three Rivers spent a lot of money at the lumberyard and Joe volunteered to fetch supplies every time he got the chance. Any good businesswoman knew her best clients.
And this client had forgotten to let go of her hand.
Joe felt his cheeks go hot as he turned loose, stuffed his fingers in his front pockets to keep them from embarrassing him any more.
Katie waved the paper tray. “So, I guess I owe you some nachos.”
To his absolute mortification, Joe heard himself blurt, “Dinner.”
Oh, Lord. Was he really going to have to explain that he couldn’t afford a hamburger? His face went a deeper shade of red. “That was dinner,” he muttered.
“Really?” She wrinkled her nose at the congealed cheese left in the tray, then gifted Joe with one of her heart-stopping smiles. “Then I guess I owe you dinner.”
“No.” When her eyebrows shot up, Joe stumbled on, words tripping out before he could catch them. “I mean, I’ll buy my own dinner. And yours, if you know a good steak house around here that takes credit cards.”
The air backed up in his lungs as she blinked, stared at him for an endless moment. Then she smiled again. “I’d like that, Joe Buck.”
A grin welled up from way down deep inside his chest and broke out all over his face. “Me too, Katie Kasper.”
They turned together toward the parking lot, walking side by side with Stella trotting happily at their heels. Katie stopped, crouched down to scrub at the cheese on Stella’s nose and scratch behind one speckled ear. Joe’s grin widened another notch when he heard her whisper, “Good dog, Stella.”