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How many more bulls would he get on today?


All of them, until he rode at least one.


Another hour passed. Then two. Chase stayed on bull number sixteen the full eight seconds. She didn’t get caught up in the clapping and whistles from Gemma, the kids and the guys because she was too busy taping the triumphant look on Chase’s face.


Did he quit after that?


No.


He climbed on three more bulls. Rode two of them. Bull number twenty was another chute fighter. By the time the bull settled down, she could hear Cash and Carter yelling at Chase to take a break. He shook his head, bounced around on the bull’s back and nodded at Colby.


It was apparent how not ready Chase was when the bull turned sharply, kicking out his rear end so powerfully that the rope jerked from Chase’s hand. Chase did a flip midair before he crashed into the corral.


But did the Man of Steel stay down, wallowing in pain? Nope. He staggered to his feet. Holding the metal fence rails for support, he limped across the dirt, waving off Colby’s help as they disappeared into the barn.


“That’ll do it for today,” Gemma said. “You comin’ up to the house to eat with us, Ava?”


“No. Thanks for asking, I’m sure it’ll be great, but it takes awhile to edit this. I imagine Chase will want to look at the footage later, so I’d better get started on it.”


As soon as Ava was inside the bunkhouse, she locked the door, shut the window, pulled the curtains and flopped on her bed. Blessedly cool. Blessedly dark.


The tears came before she could stop them.


And she wasn’t exactly sure why she was crying. Wasn’t like she’d gotten thrown around like a rag doll twenty times. Her occupation didn’t lend itself to danger. Maybe she’d get a paper cut from script pages. Or possibly she’d burn her mouth on a cup of coffee. Or she might have an allergic reaction to makeup. But nothing remotely life-threatening.


Talk about being out of her element on so, so many levels.


She’d never dated professional athletes, so she hadn’t ever witnessed that mindset and mix of physical perfection and determination needed to push to the highest level. She witnessed that drive in Chase today. It scared her to death.


So did this desolate feeling stem from fear for Chase?


No. Hers was fear of the unknown.


Out here in the real world? People dealt with serious hazards every day. Hazards she never even considered in her tidy universe, where out of sight, out of mind wasn’t just a saying but a way of life.


Ava let her gaze wander around the bunkhouse. She’d seen the wary way Gemma, Cash and even Chase had looked at her, expecting to see disgust on her face about the primitive accommodations. Right now, where she rested her head at night was the least of her concerns. For all her bold talk about experiencing real life, she didn’t know if she could handle it.


And didn’t that make her spoiled? She had the luxury of packing up her stuff and escaping if she so chose. These people didn’t.


So what was the appeal to sustain this way of life? When it was comprised of backbreaking work, extreme temperatures, isolation and daily physical danger? There didn’t appear to be monetary gain. Was it the satisfaction of besting the elements and the animals year after year?


The only way she’d glean the tiniest bit of understanding would be to stick it out. Figure it out. Maybe by doing that, she’d find her way. Because one thing she had figured out? She was more than a little lost in her own life, regardless of her physical location.


Her thoughts drifted back to her sleeplessness last night and her flash of understanding of how important it was for Chase to prove he could keep the “no sex” promise he’d made to himself. Who was she to try and change his mind? Just because she wanted to prove that she had the mad skills to keep a man sexually satisfied? Chase ought to fall into bed with her?


Talk about diva-ish expectations.


Needing to sort out her emotions, she snagged her notebook and flipped on the desk lamp. She scrawled random thoughts, suggestions, ideas. Gibberish mostly, but she finally felt a measure of control. She was being honest on the page, not writing snarkily, or trying to be hip, or funny, but being real.


Ava also realized she’d never really know Chase except on a superficial level unless she studied his obsession and profession from a different angle. Not from fear, but from curiosity. She turned on her computer and searched for Chase McKay’s previous year’s rides, creating a separate disk with those, so he could compare then and now.


Time got away from her as she edited, copied folders and burned a DVD, so the knock on the bunkhouse door startled her. Sweet Ella stood on the porch, bouncing with impatience. “You still wanna go see the kitties?”


She could use a mental break. “Sure.”


They messed with the balls of fluff until Gemma called Ella for supper. When Ava returned to the bunkhouse, she noticed Chase was in the bathroom. Now was her chance to get the disks up to the house without running into him. She needed time to figure out how to deal with these conflicting feelings, whether the emotional price of ditching her normal life was worth it for the short term. She couldn’t avoid him for long, but she intended to try.


Chapter Nine


As Chase dished up a helping of sausage and fried potatoes, Gemma said, “Ava dropped off the disks she made of your rides today. One of the disks has all your previous good rides in the PBR and your worst rides to compare against your rides today.”


Chase’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth. “She did? That’s above and beyond.”


“Maybe slo-mo can give an idea of what you’re doin’ differently,” Colby said. “Something is off in your ridin’, but I’ll be damned if I could pinpoint exactly what it is.”


“That’s because there were too many things wrong to focus on just one,” Cash said with a smile.


If Cash’s kids hadn’t been at the table, Chase would’ve flipped him off. Oh right. His arm hurt too fucking bad to even lift up. “I’m gonna blame some of my altered performance on the safety helmet.”


“If you wanna train here, you have to wear it. The sooner you get used to it, the sooner we can get you back on track. Besides, you were havin’ troubles long before the headgear switch.”


Colby pointed at Chase with his butter knife. “I’m with Cash on this.”


“So you’d wear the helmet without complaint to every performance if you were still on the road?”


“Yep.”


Chase snorted. His big, macho cousin wouldn’t have worn one. Period.


“My boys all wear helmets when they’re competing at junior rodeo events. They don’t know different since they’ve always worn safety equipment.” Before Colby took a breath and continued his diatribe, his cell rang and he excused himself.


Chase pushed his food around on his plate. He was sore as hell, worse than he’d been in months. He didn’t feel like eating. But that wouldn’t sit well with Gemma, especially since Ava had bailed on supper.


Ryder chattered. Ella threw out random facts about cats. The youngest boy, Jansen, looked ready to fall asleep in his chair.


Gemma asked, “Everything all right?” after Colby returned to the table.


“Fine. Channing says it’s so quiet in the house with all her boys gone she actually spooked herself.”


That made Chase think of the first night they’d arrived and Ava’s fear of unfamiliar noises. Seemed odd she’d be off by herself somewhere.


“I wish Gib and Braxton coulda come,” Ryder complained.


Cash ruffled Ryder’s hair. “You’re full of complaints tonight, son. What’s up?”


“It was boring standin’ around today. I wanna help with the bulls tomorrow.”


“No can do. But I’ll tell ya what. I’ll let you watch Chase’s rides in a bit. After you get cleaned up.”


“Aw, Dad. Do I hafta?”


“Yep,” Cash said. “And you two,” he pointed to Ella and Jans, “start makin’ your way upstairs to the shower.”


After the kids left, Colby sighed. “What is it about boys’ bone-deep fear of soap and water? Drives my wife insane.”


“I’ll bet Princess Talia is sweet-smelling,” Gemma teased. “I’ll bet she’s getting big too.”


Colby’s face lit up. He shifted to dig his wallet out of his back pocket and passed around a picture of his baby girl.


Since Chase hadn’t seen the newest addition to Colby and Channing’s family—hard to keep up with his prolific cousins’ offspring—he dutifully checked out the dark-haired, blue-eyed child. Definitely a McKay.


“She’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Takes after her mama,” Colby said. “Even at six months the girl’s already got her brothers wrapped around her pinkie.”


“Sounds like she’s taking after Keely,” Chase said with a grin.


“Speaking of the latest McKay newlywed…” Gemma asked Colby, “How is the wild child?”


“Busy. Her business is good, and that’s sayin’ something in this economy. Her West cousins, Chet and Remy, started building her and Jack’s house as soon as the ground thawed. Not that Jack or my cousins need my dad’s input, but apparently he’s over at the building site every day to make sure Keely is happy. Damn man still dotes on her.”


“It’s easy to do with daughters,” Cash said. “No matter how old they get.”


“I can’t believe my folks took all four boys fishing. But it ain’t like they’re roughing it in Grandpa and Grandma’s new RV, with air conditioning and satellite TV.”


“At least if they’re around a lake Carolyn can toss them in the water so she won’t hafta put up with their stinky selves in a small space.” Gemma stood. “You guys head on into the family room. I’ll dish up cake after you’re done watchin’ the rides.”


Chase tried not to wince as he rose to his feet. He plopped on the closest easy chair, but didn’t relax, fearing his muscles would seize and he’d have to ask for help getting up.

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