If she doesn’t break him, she’ll never get to have him.
In this short story, Rebecca “Becks” has to stand up against a band of brothers to rescue her family farm.
She’s been training for this moment for a year, but her greatest challenge is Archer Slone. No one’s ever gotten as far as her in the Choosing. No one’s ever proven they can survive the challenge.
Someone has to be the first.
My prompt for the story was “I’ve seen at least a hundred women and none have been worthy so far.” Wynonna Earp was about to return at the time I started writing, so I couldn’t get the idea of doing something with cowboys out of my head.
They call it the Choosing. But since they ain’t chosen anyone in damn near five years, the title’s stupid.
“Do you yield?”
I balance on my knees, rubbing a hand to the side of my mouth and getting a snarl of pain for my bother. It’s one I know well having taken all manner of hoof and claw to my flesh in the past. But he’s circling around like a vulture, his booted foot tapping into the boards like he intends to break out into a two-step.
Wiping the blood off with my thumb and smearing it over my dirt-stained lips, I rise to my feet. There’s a crowd watching, I know ‘cause before my turn, I sat on the fence post beside them. But they’re all fireflies in the distance as I wind up my fist and plow it straight into Freddy Slone’s rock jaw.
Like snuffing out a lantern, the lights snap out in ol’ Fred’s eyes and he falls back on his ass like a sack of feed. The boards shake under my feet, sending me stumbling in a half-hop to the surprised roar of the crowd. No one’s made it this far in the Choosing in years.
No one’s had a reason to try so hard.
“Stand back,” the third Slone brother shouts as if I’m about to give Fred a kick to the kidneys. He ain’t that bad. Sure, he don’t tip worth a shit, but that’s damn near everyone in town.
I smile brightly at Eric, the shiner I gave him already purpler than a Montana sunset. He doesn’t return my nicety. Instead, he slaps his deadweight brother back to the land of the living. Fred pops up, fists raised, but Eric tells him the bad news. It’s all over. He went down for the count by that little waitress from Dusty’s Diner.
Instead of a snarl, a smile rises on Fred’s face. It freezes me in my boots, churning up my insides that’d already been tenderized by two Slone brothers tonight. They were just the warm-up though.
On cue, every head bobbing around the makeshift arena pivots. There’s no spotlight, but there don’t have to be. He’s the reason we’re all here at Grizzled Range Acres, the reason everyone treks out in the spring muck to put up their fists and fight.
“Well…” The voice rolls like thunder across the open plains. A shiver I ain’t been able to hide for two years trembles down my spine. Archer Slone. Eldest, biggest, strongest brother. Leader of this pack of feral ranchers on the richest grazing land in the tri-county. And a God damn stickler for rules.
His eyes, sharp as whiskey, skip past the whole of the crowd to me. A year ago, I’d have combusted into ash at the attention. Even a few of the girls in the range are struggling to keep from giggling and passing out. But I raise my chin higher, tipping up my hat’s brim to give me a better look.
Archer tips the point of his mahogany brown cowboy hat to me. I feel an overwhelming urge to fold my leg and bow like I’m a prized pony at show. Sneering, I shake it off, my spine hardening to steel. I ain’t here to play nice. Everything’s at stake.
“Are we doing this or not?” I shout, my skin prickling as if balls of lightning zip through the air.
The man of the hour stands taller, the heels of his boots smacking in synchronicity into the ol’ gallows left standing on his land. He’d sat up there in his chair, burly arms crossed, watching these Choosings for five years without a seeming care for what happened. This is the first time anyone made him get out of his seat.
Striding forward, Archer walks to the edge of his dais. The girls and women that couldn’t stand a round with his brothers huddle closer, fingers and hands straining to get a touch of that aloof Slone heir. All these years on since their parents passed, since he took over the ranch by himself and his brothers, and the only time anyone sees him are at the Choosing.
Or so they say.
“I’ve seen at least a hundred women,” he says taking a single step forward and dropping off the gallows. The ground rebounds from his weight. Solid. Unbending. Unbreakable. I try to not buckle from his steps, the old boards creaking after too many people fighting and rasslin’ on them. Archer tips his head, the mop of black hair wafting in the wind even as his hat stays on. “And none have been worthy so far.”
I raise my fists as I’ve been taught, as I’ve trained and learned to do for the past three months. “Everything’s got to end.”
His laugh rattles every nail in the place. Archer raises his hands and, in one fell swoop, shakes the duster from his back. Gasps reverberate from the shocked audience who’ve never seen the eldest outside of his cowboy fatigues. The duster hid away the muscles peppered across his shoulders and down his back. His coat masked the chest that could rival a whiskey barrel. And the jeans…well, those always gave away his butt. If one knew how to look.
I’m the only one who doesn’t react to the bear of a man calmly walking before me. He doesn’t raise his fists but keeps his hands the size of my head calmly crossed over his forearms. “You don’t have to do this,” Archer says, his baritone voice dropped so deep only me and the coyotes can hear it.
It’ll be like punching a mountain. My legs were already wobbling under me, my arms aching from too much action in too short a time. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should wait for one more year.
He steps closer, his lips nearly glancing against my ear. In a tempting growl, he whispers, “Becks.”
I swing for him. The first is wild, a hipshot of a punch, and finds nothing but air. The second, however, the one he missed cause he was too busy worrying about the first, plunges deep into his gut. Or it would if he didn’t have cast-iron for a stomach.
“FUU—!” I swallow down the curse and dodge under just as Archer folds up his fists and comes for me.
What is the Choosing? Think of it like Cinderella’s Ball. Except instead of ball gowns and glass slippers we wear flannel and boots. And instead of dancing with the handsome prince, you gotta beat him and his three brothers in a brawl to win the kingdom. The kingdom being his ranch with land that’s been butting up on my family’s acre for centuries. Summer fires and worse have chased us closer to the river, stealing away land every year. If I don’t win this, there won’t be anything left of our farm.
The fist flies. Ha, it’s hardly fair to call it a fist. Mine is a fist, skinny fingers clenched so tight I could snap one and not notice. He’s hurling boulders at the end of his arms. I dodge the first, light on my toes thanks to years of whipping skillets out to tables. The second, however, careens for my gut.
I throw my forearms up to block, bracing for the jolt, but it shakes me to the core. Archer pummels my own arms into me, shaking the air from my lungs. Pain rattles apart my spine, my eyes burning.
It sends me scattering away, the roar of the crowd the only sound against the cricket and coyote calls. I struggle to huff in the air he punched from my lungs with a single blow. Archer don’t pace, he’s not some wild animal waiting for its shot. No, this is his cave, and I’m the trespasser. He looms above, his arms raised should I spring out of nowhere. But he’s not worried.
“You ain’t playing,” I say, the words barely a whisper and reaching no one in the crowd.
Only Archer hears me, his head tipping in thought. “You know the rules.”
“Yeah…” I slap my hands to my thighs, the shock of impenetrable denim ringing through me. Rising higher, I stare at the hulking man ready to knock my ass off. But I see the shy stranger who’d dip into the creek whenever I’d water the horses. The horses weren’t fans of the quiet, cautious boy knee-deep in mountain water. So I stopped bringing them with when I went damn near every day.
I didn’t expect him to go easy on me.
I just didn’t expect him to go hard either.
Cracking my neck, I launch into a run. “I know ‘em by heart,” I say and feign a punch to his left. Archer don’t even need to dodge it, his entire chest fortified with muscle. But he flinches, which is when I plant my foot and raise my leg.
Do a kick right to the abdomen. Shake all the air from him, then go in for the kill. It’s a brilliant idea that’d been the backbone of my entire plan. So when his meaty fist clamps onto my ankle, my whole world shatters.
For a beat, Archer’s brown eyes melt, like they would when he’d blink against the sun’s reflection off the river and I’d splash him til he laughed. But before I can even breathe, the whole of him hardens and he plucks me off the ground by my foot. I crumple up, my body lashing for him to cling tight. It’s all I can think to do.
My fingers scrape over his shirt, locking onto the flannel and digging in. But the behemoth has all the power, ripping me and his shirt in the process. Buttons ping like bullets and I fly through the air. It doesn’t last long, a handful of seconds, but the landing stings. My thigh takes almost all the brunt, collapsing my leg worse than before.
Archer Slone throws his hands back and roars. The tattered flannel flaps around him, revealing a mess of thick black hair running the length of his exposed chest. All around, the crowd begins to clap and chant, the blood rage upon them. But another sound, secret and sneaky, skitters under Archer’s preening. A crack, louder than before, of the boards. They’d been trampled and shaken all night. How much did they have left in them?
The bear of a man stops before me, his eyes wild and hair catching in the wind. Instinctively, I lock a hand around my hat, pinning it against the rising breeze. Gritting my teeth, I fumble a foot under me and try to rise.
My thigh shakes, nearly collapsing me to the ground. But I fold a fist up and catch myself.
“Give it up, Becks. This isn’t…” Archer says, the beast breaking a moment. “It’s not worth it.”
“Ha.” Shaking my head, I work my feet under me and stand tall. The cool wind strikes my jaw, pain spidering up to my cheek from the split in the skin. But I drink down the pain and spit it back out. Raising both my fists, I stare Archer right in the eye and say, “It’s everything.”
Steam pulses from his nose, the man stomping his foot to the ground. It shakes the entire ring, sending some of the audience tumbling off their perches. But I was ready for it. Launching forward, I go straight for his tender vittles. Rabbit punches up and down his sides, always dodging and shuffling away before he can get me.
Another roar rises from Archer, his paw slapping for the annoying creature buzzing against him. “You can’t win this. You know that! You’re not strong enough!”
A backhand swats out of thin air, snapping my head back and sending the world spinning. I dance away, my entire body smarting. Archer goes full smug, but it don’t matter he got his hit in. I eye up the floor, cracks splintering from every stomp of his boot.
“You’ll submit to me, Archer Slone!” I shout to the heavens.
He can’t escape the pride, the man tossing his head back and roaring. Did I miscalculate? Archer shifts his shoulders, his arms dropping as if he’s about to get down onto all fours to charge. I try to look for an escape, but I’m pinned in. If he gets me, then it’s all over. Another year lost. Nothing proven, nothing won.
The crack punctures like lightning across the plain. Archer stands up taller, his eyes widening when the entire stage shatters below him. I go too, but I’d anticipated it. Rolling into a ball, I manage to hit the dirt on my ass and spring up to the feet, only losing my hat in the process. Archer isn’t so lucky. His feet strike the hard ground, then his knees. Tossing his head back, he screams in rage and the human anger shifts to a growl.
I unhook the rope on my belt even as the black fur sprouts across his chest. Winding up the lasso, I watch the once soft-spoken man shift into a bear that could cleave my head off with one swipe. His paw rises, the claws longer than my fingers, when I throw.
The rope cinches around his bear wrist, Archer staring in disbelief. I run forward, looping together his paws. He tries to tug apart my rope, but I wrench his knotted arms back and tie them to his back legs.
Huffing in rage, the bear’s tied up like a hog for Christmas. He strains but cannot escape, every struggle tightening his bonds. The thighs widen, sending him deeper to the ground while I stand before him. A roar bursts from the bear and I turn my back on him. Bending over, I pick up my hat, dust it off on my jeans, and place it on my head.
“You are a right pain in the ass, Archer Slone, you know that?”
A growl answers me, but I only laugh. The teeth gnash at the air, his surprisingly minty and hot breath bursting against my cheek. I blink, but hold still, the fangs nearly nipping my jaw. With a smirk, I straddle over his lap.
Staring straight into the dark brown eyes, I say, “Tell me you submit.” When he doesn’t respond, I reach behind to grab the rope and yank. The raw rope slices through my hand but I cling tight. He tries to surge forward, the thick bear fur enveloping me, but I don’t back down. “What’d I say?”
All I focus on are the eyes, even as the warm fur gives way to hot, naked skin. Even with his teeth receding and lips plumping over them. I watch the eyes, waiting for when the bear bows to the human.
“Archer…?” I prompt, my thighs shaking as I strain above his nearly naked lap. Only a tight pair of briefs keep him decent, though not for long.
“I…submit.” The words fall like a mountain crumbling to the sea. I don’t blink, I don’t breathe. All these years, all this training, all this work and it’s finally paid off. His voice softens, the man and beast fully under my sway.
That’s the deal with the Choosing. Whoever can prove herself worthy enough to control the bears of Grizzled Range Acres, gets to control the man as well.
“The land is yours,” Archer says stunned.
“Land’s nice and all…” I settle onto his lap, savoring in the cock I’d been fantasizing about for a year gliding over my jeans. His throat bobs, Archer’s head tipping up and his eyes slipping closed, but I don’t let it. Holding tight to his jaw, I pull him down until his eyes meet mine. The unbreakable bear is putty in my hands. “But it wasn’t what I fought for,” I say, joy burning away the pain in my body.
A slow chuckle of realization rolls from Archer. All those warm summer days when he whispered about the rules of his clan. About how he couldn’t be anything but the guardian until a woman proves she can control him. How he wishes for the impossible, a skinny waitress with a handful of horses to dominate the grizzly bear.
“Then,” he whispers, his hips flexing to rock me deeper into his lap, “I am your—”
Before he can finish, I pull those stout lips to mine and kiss him harder than we ever did at the river.
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