I’m excited today to give you a peek inside Falling for the Cowgirl by Jody Hedlund! Jody’s books are always a must-read for me, and this series is no different!
FALLING FOR THE COWGIRL by Jody Hedlund
SERIES: Colorado Cowboys #4
GENRE: Inspirational Historical/Western Romance
PUBLISHER: Bethany House
RELEASE DATE: October 11, 2022
Years ago, he shattered her heart. Now she must trust him with her life.
As the only girl in her family, and with four older brothers, Ivy McQuaid can rope and ride with the roughest of ranchers. She’s ready to have what she’s always longed for–a home of her own. She’s set her heart on a parcel of land south of Fairplay and is saving for it with her winnings from the cowhand competitions she sneaks into–but her dream is put in jeopardy when the man she once loved reappears in her life.
After two years away, Jericho Bliss is back in South Park as an undercover Pinkerton agent searching for a war criminal. He has no intention of involving a woman in the dangerous life he leads, but one look at Ivy is all it takes for him to question the path he’s set out for himself.
Even though Jericho tries to resist his longtime attraction to the beautiful and vivacious Ivy, he finds himself falling hard and fast for her. In the process, his worst fear comes true–he puts her smack-dab in the middle of danger. With Ivy’s life in the balance, will Jericho give her up once again, or will he find a way back to her, this time forever?
South Park, Colorado Territory
Ivy McQuaid was gonna win the roping contest. She could feel the victory in her blood.
She flicked her wrist just enough to keep the loop whirling over her head, and she pressed her thighs against her galloping horse, maintaining the perfect pace and distance from the steer.
“C’mon,” she whispered. With everything lined up, she cast the rope, aiming in front of the steer’s head.
As the lasso soared through the air and landed around the horns, she dug in her heels, leaned back, and held on with all her might while pulling the slack. The rope tightened around the steer’s horns even as she wrapped the excess around the pommel in an expert dally. The rope angled across the creature’s right side, dragging up its hip. In the same motion, she turned the steer’s head, throwing it off-balance.
She could sense the beast going down and dismounted from her horse, landing at a run that brought her to the steer. She grabbed one of the front legs and slipped a hooey knot over it. Then, with practiced skill, she strung the front leg to the two back, circling the rope enough to keep the creature from getting loose.
She hopped up and raised both hands to signal she was done.
The crowd on the outside of the corral fence let out a whole lot of whooping at her record time.
A thrill pulsed through her. Nothing beat the sound of winning. Of course, it’d be better if she could hear the sound of winning while dressed as a woman instead of as a man. But something was better than nothing.
She tried not to grin and give away her disguise. Instead, she shrugged off the praise and sauntered a few steps from the steer like all the cheering didn’t matter. That’s what a real man would do. And that’s what she needed to do now—stay in character as Buster Bliss, the expert roper.
She had to keep up the charade for as long as she could, at least until she had enough for the down payment on the parcel of land Landry Steele was selling south of Fairplay. With today’s winnings, she’d be closer to having what she needed. But only a mite.
Her face itched beneath the crusty charcoal she’d smeared over her skin to imitate scruffy facial hair. She’d tightly pinned up her long dark brown hair beneath her battered hat. And she’d wrapped strips of linen around her chest to flatten her womanly figure. While nothing could conceal her curves completely, the baggy flannel shirt and vest helped. So did the trousers and men’s boots. So far she’d fooled everyone into thinking she was a skinny runt of a man.
The big, round spectacles she wore made her appear scholarly and only added to the good-natured teasing the cowhands gave her—as Buster Bliss.
As the hooting and hollering came to an end, she tipped the brim of her man’s hat in thanks before she returned to the steer. Only then did she allow herself a smile. She’d done it again. And the honest-to-goodness truth was that she loved every single second of the cattle roping and would’ve competed without any prize money.
She knelt and jerked the rope free from the steer’s horns before releasing the binding from its legs. The creature hefted itself up with a bellow. Before it raced off, she slapped its hide affectionately, letting it know of her appreciation for the fun.
Coiling her rope around her arm, she cast her sights to the sun making its way toward the western range. Looked like she’d have time for the last—and best—event before she needed to start home.
Folks all thought Buster Bliss came up from Denver over the Kenosha Pass on the weekends to participate in the cowhand competitions. While friendly contests had always existed in some form on the local ranches, the gatherings were growing in popularity and size, so it wasn’t unusual nowadays for fellas to travel from outside of the area to join in, especially as the prize money increased.
Her cover worked well, given that Buster always had to depart early enough in the evenings to travel for a spell. The leaving helped her avoid questions about why she didn’t want to go with everyone else to the saloons after the contests were over. It was already hard to keep her cover for the few hours she competed. She’d never be able to last well into the night.
“Bliss!” At the shout of her name from Mack Custer, Elkhorn Ranch foreman, the organizer of the Sunday-afternoon competition, she pivoted as casually as she could while she kept wrapping her rope.
Instead of looking her way, the foreman was clasping hands in greeting with someone else—a man with a strong, lean outline and a determined set to his shoulders. For several heartbeats, Ivy could only stare, trying to make sense of the familiar form.
It couldn’t be. . . .
The fella shifted enough that she got a full view of his profile—a chiseled jaw covered in a layer of stubble, firm lips, and light brown hair peeking out from underneath his hat.
Her pulse began to race unsteadily. She didn’t have to see him head-on to know he was Jericho Bliss, her girlish infatuation.
As though sensing her attention, he glanced her way.
She spun and faced the opposite direction. Holy Saint Peter. What was Jericho Bliss doing back in South Park?
She hadn’t heard a peep from him since the night he’d ridden away with Dylan nearly two years ago. At the time Jericho had been doing her and her brothers a big favor by helping Dylan steer clear of the danger he’d been in from Bat and his gang for the gambling debt he’d owed them. Like everyone else, she’d been grateful to Jericho for saving Dylan’s life.
Eventually Dylan had written, letting them know he was fine and had steady work. He hadn’t told them where he was or what he was doing. And he hadn’t said anything about Jericho either. They’d guessed Dylan hadn’t wanted to give too much away in case Bat and his gang got wind of his letter and decided to come after him.
Ivy had waited impatiently for another letter, for more news, for anything from Dylan. She’d told herself she was just concerned about her brother and wanted assurance he was okay. But deep down, she couldn’t deny she’d wanted information about Jericho too.
For a long while, she hadn’t been able to resign herself to the fact that he’d walked out of her life, that he hadn’t wanted her. She’d clung to the hope that maybe, once he was gone, he’d realize how much he missed her and would return to tell her he couldn’t live without her.
But as the weeks had passed into months and the months into years, the hard truth had taken up residence and crowded out any hope that was left—Jericho had never cared about her and wasn’t coming back.
“We got Roman-style riding next,” Mack Custer said to Jericho. “Saved the hardest for last. Wanna join in for old time’s sake?”
Jericho was silent, and she was tempted to turn around and gawk at him.
“Winner gets a whole dollar.”
If Jericho raced, what if he ended up beside her? She hadn’t changed all that much during his absence. With her luck, he’d recognize her and blab her identity.
As his silence stretched on, her muscles tensed.
“Thanks for the offer.” Jericho’s voice was low and cautious. “Maybe next time.”
She didn’t wait around for him to say anything else. And she sure as heaven wasn’t waiting for someone to question why she and Jericho shared the same last name. When she’d picked the alias, it’d been the only surname she’d been able to think of quick-like. Clearly she should’ve tried harder to find a different one.
Now it was time to hightail it on home. As much as she wanted an extra dollar to add to her winnings, she couldn’t risk the exposure.
She made her way across the corral toward the barn entrance, hoping to disappear inside before any of the fellas noticed she was gone. Unfortunately, one of the Elkhorn Ranch cowhands saw her coming and slapped her on the back so hard she almost winced. “You nailed it out there, Buster!”
“Yep.” She lowered her pitch, trying to make herself sound like a man.
“Got my bets placed on you for the next event too.” The cowhand strode alongside her.
Another of the fellas fell into step. “You aimin’ to ride with saddles or without?”
One thing was for blamed sure. She wasn’t about to get away from the competition unnoticed. Every fella around was itching to watch her race. And why shouldn’t she stay? Jericho had no right to come strolling back into South Park and prevent her from earning more money for her new ranch.
Stiffening her shoulders, she veered toward the horses already waiting for the contestants. Six horses meant only three riders. She’d have no trouble winning the contest this time. Maybe she oughta make things fair-like and ride bareback.
“Let’s take them off.” She eyed the horses, the most docile Elkhorn Ranch had. “Might as well give everyone the show they paid to see.”
Her declaration brought a few more whoops.
When she’d hatched her plan to disguise herself as a man, she hadn’t realized it’d be so hard. But she hadn’t had much choice, not after she’d been banned from entering the competitions as a woman.
The first time she’d tried, everyone had laughed at her. No one had given her the time of day, even though most folk for miles around knew she’d been working with cattle since she’d moved to Colorado when she was twelve.
Fact was, after years of perfecting her cattle roping, she was a heap better than the majority of men. This past spring during branding time, the Healing Springs’ foreman had made her the main roper, giving her the job of heeling the calves and dragging them to the iron men. She rode steady, had perfect timing, and could judge distance.
But when it came to the competitions, her skills hadn’t mattered a lick. The organizers wouldn’t allow her to participate. Not until she’d come riding in as Buster Bliss. Then they’d been more than happy to let a scrawny man like Buster take part, thinking he’d be easy to beat.
Over the past month, she’d shown them Buster wasn’t as soft and fluffy as a goose-feather pillow. Buster had some gumption and grit. And he didn’t give up easily.
In no time, she was ready to ride with her pair of horses at one end of the open range next to the other two contestants and their horses. The finish line was near the main barn, where the spectators had congregated.
As she situated her boots on the backs of her mounts and adjusted the reins of both, she couldn’t keep from scanning the crowds. She didn’t care where Jericho was or what he was doing. She really didn’t. That wasn’t why she was searching for his lean frame. Nope, she was only looking so she knew where not to focus later.
When she didn’t catch sight of his stiff, proud shoulders or his handsome face, she released a breath. See, she had nothing to fear. Jericho had already left. That’s because he was an expert at leaving.
At the crack of a pistol from the side of the field, she shook the reins and started her horses. Riding while standing up and straddling two horses wasn’t an easy feat. Not many could do it. During the Roman-style racing the previous Sunday over at Bear Creek Ranch, one of the men had fallen and broken his shoulder and arm. He’d been real lucky he hadn’t cracked open his head with the way he’d landed.
Yep. This race was one of the most dangerous events. But that’s why she liked it. She thrived on danger. And the earnings were decent.
Between the fees for the contestants and the charges to the spectators, the winners of each contest always left with a prize. Even if it wasn’t grand, at least it was something. The real money was made in the betting. Something she didn’t do. Ever. Not after all the trouble Dylan had gotten himself into as a result of gambling.
The horses trotted forward, not too fast or too slow. She used a few paces to get her balance and crouch into the rhythm of the up-and-down sway of first one horse and then the other. The jolting was challenging. But she’d learned that the more she relaxed into the movement, the easier it was.
She kept abreast of the other two riders who clutched at their reins and strained to hold their horses close enough together that the straddling wouldn’t get uncomfortable.
As the halfway point neared, she snapped the reins and clucked to the horses. Time to speed things up and give the crowd the show they were hoping for. The horses took her cue and lengthened their strides. But with the increase in speed, one of the mares veered from the other.
She jerked on the reins to keep the horse in line. But it only continued to pull away. Her boot began to slip. And although she grasped the leather straps as tightly as she could, she was gonna have to let go before she fell and crashed.
Jody Hedlund, Falling for the Cowgirl
Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2022. Used by permission.
Jody Hedlund is the bestselling author of over 30 historical novels for both adults and teens and is the winner of numerous awards, including the Christy, Carol, and Christian Book Awards. Jody lives in Michigan with her husband, busy family, and five spoiled cats.
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