“How’d you meet? Since you all have diverse occupations.”
“I graduated from high school with Lance and he met Dylan through a friend.” When Ava remained quiet, he said, “What?”
She reached for his hand and threaded her fingers through his. “Is that where you were before you decided to hide out at Ginger and Kane’s?”
Yeah. And I felt like a fucking loser the entire time. Sitting alone in a place as impersonal as another damn hotel room. Wishing I could go home, but feeling like I didn’t have one. Didn’t have anyone I could really talk to either. Not like I’ve learned to talk to you.
Rather that share that embarrassing memory, he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “Smart and beautiful. How did I get so lucky?”
Ava laughed. “And wily, because you’re avoiding the question, cowboy.”
“Oh, I ain’t the only one who avoids questions.”
“Meaning…why won’t you tell me what you’re working on so diligently? Since you spend hours on it.”
She gazed out the window. “I’m keeping a lid on it because it’s something I’ve never attempted. Being the paranoid type, I’m not sure it doesn’t suck. So, it is an ego thing, with a little superstition—talking about a project while it’s in incubation stage—thrown in to make it really mysterious.” She sent him a coquettish glance. “Plus it wouldn’t do to expose all my secrets to you, McKay. You might get bored with me.”
“Highly unlikely that’ll ever happen.” Chase slowed and took the exit ramp for the Ranchester turnoff, pulling to the shoulder past the stop sign. Then he scooted from behind the steering wheel and said, “C’mere,” hauling Ava onto his lap.
“Chase! What are you doing?”
“Getting me some sugar.” He curled his hands around her neck and brought her mouth to his for a kiss. Nibbling on her lips, he let his thumbs stroke the strong, sexy line of her jaw. When she expelled that sweet sigh of surrender, he swept his tongue into her mouth. The kiss was a hot mix of teasing licks, shared breath and the wet glide of firm lips on soft. This unhurried kiss wasn’t a prelude to anything else. Too often when the sexual heat exploded between them, they couldn’t wait to get to the naked part, ending this deep connection. Which was a shame, because while the sex rocked his world, this stirred his soul.
He slipped his lips down to smooch her chin, then placed a very soft kiss on the side of her throat.
Ava’s head fell back and she whispered, “God.”
“Mmm.” He set her back in her seat and slid back behind the wheel. About a minute later, Ava reached for his hand and squeezed.
The road up the Big Horns was long and flat—to a point. Then it became a twisty maze of switchbacks as the road ascended. When they finally reached Sand Turn, he found a spot in the parking lot, which was crowded, most vehicles with out-of-state license plates.
“We’re there already?” she asked.
“Nope. Greybull is on the other side, but this is a cool spot. The view is great, so grab your cameras.”
Heat beat down, but being so high up, a constant breeze stirred the air, bringing the scent of sun warmed pine and chalky dust. Amazing didn’t begin to describe the view; you could see for two hundred miles. The sky was a watered-down blue, causing the thin clouds floating by to disappear into the endless horizon like ghostly vapors.
Once they stood by the rock ledge, Ava grabbed his arm. “This is magnificent.”
“Thought you’d appreciate it.”
He leaned against the wall and alternated between watching people and watching Ava. They’d stopped frequently over the last few weeks so she could film scenery that struck her fancy. Ava behind a camera lens was a different Ava. Focused. Patient. Intent. Her voice even had a more authoritative tone, not the usual soft lilt reminiscent of a Southern belle.
She shot a lot of footage, but she never showed him the results of her hours of labor or asked his opinion on her next subject. She could spend hours marveling at tiny pink flowers blooming alongside a mud puddle. Or an animal track. One afternoon she even taped a beetle climbing a yucca spike for an hour before he forced her away.
Her reaction boggled him. He’d expected a privileged woman like Ava to become bored quickly. When in fact, he’d gotten bored a helluva lot sooner than she had.
She’d become so intent on zooming in on the variance in colors of the canyon walls she nearly missed the big launch. “Ava, there’s a hang glider about to take off on your far right side.”
Immediately she spun and refocused. Holding on to the bars of the metal cage, the guy raced to the edge of the cliff until he ran out of ground. A collective gasp echoed as he successfully cleared the first group of pine trees. It was bizarre, seeing a hang glider from the top, not from beneath. The glider caught a thermal and began to climb.
Ava’s tendency to film reaction to events, rather than just the event itself, amused him. While she had the camera pointed at the sky, he also knew the spectators on the ledge were within her view.
He braced himself for when she aimed her lens at him.
“So, ever had a desire to hang glide? Skydive?”
“Are you kiddin’ me? That kinda dangerous stuff can kill ya.”
“Says the man who makes his living climbing on the back of two thousand pounds of pissed-off bull.”
Chase grinned. “Danger is all in the perspective, ain’t it?”
Ava shut off her camera and they walked to the truck. “I suppose so. But you’d never catch me doing either.”
“And here I thought you’d be the daredevil type.”
“Ha. I’m more the Chicken Little type.”
“I disagree. It is daring to leave the comforts of your cushy lifestyle. Hit the road with a guy you barely knew. Immerse yourself in way of life you didn’t know existed. Few women would start this journey, let alone embrace it fully, let alone enjoy it without restriction. I find that amazing. I find you amazing.”
And for once, he’d stunned her into total silence.
Following slow-moving campers down the narrow, twisting road into the valley put them behind schedule, so Chase’s anxiety was high when they finally reached the Greybull rodeo grounds. “I called yesterday and made reservations at Sleepy Time cabins.” He pointed. “Right over there.”
Ava pecked him on the mouth. “Good luck.”
The contestant line wasn’t long. He paid his entry fee and headed to the designated area. At some smaller Wyoming rodeos, sponsors fed the competitors behind the chutes in the sponsor tents and Chase was starving. No sign of food.
He hadn’t seen Ryan or Taz yet. The thought of waiting around, striking up a conversation with someone he’d have to lie to about who he was didn’t sit well with him.
Maybe that’s a sign you should be done with this.
Chase had his phone out to text Ava, when he heard, “Chase?” He spun around and was face to face with his cousin Tell.
Tell wore the black-and-white-striped vest designating him a PRCA judge. His cousin tried to grab Chase in one of those awkward man hugs, but Chase didn’t want to draw more attention to them, so he smiled and thrust out his hand. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I could say the same. Thought my eyes were playin’ tricks on me. Man, you look different. Good, but…wow. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Chase gave Tell a once-over and whistled. “Lookit you. All official and judge-like. ’Bout damn time. Uncle Casper can’t throw a shit fit that you’re off to the rodeo, bein’s he ain’t in charge no more.”
Tell smirked. “And life is good because of it. Brandt is so over the moon happy these days, he don’t mind if I take off because he has Jessie has to help out.”
“So Brandt and Jessie are doin’ good?”
“Yep. Me’n Dalton tease them endlessly about acting all newlywed starry-eyed and shit, but after what they’ve been through, hell, after what we’ve all been through with Luke and now Mom and Dad, no one deserves happiness more than them.”
“I hear ya.”
Tell’s gaze landed on the piece of paper sticking out of Chase’s duffel bag that served as his contestant number. He frowned. “You’re competing in this rodeo? I didn’t see your name listed anywhere.”
As a supposed star of the PBR, the rodeo promoters would’ve made a huge deal out of Chase McKay’s appearance at the tiny rodeo, hoping to increase attendance.
“I thought the PBR discouraged their top fifty riders from competing in PRCA events,” Tell said.
“Management hasn’t ever come right out and said Don’t do it, but that don’t mean it ain’t heavily implied.”
“So you’re rebelling?” Tell shook his head. “Why am I not surprised? Good thing I’m not judging bull ridin’.”
Chase shuffled his feet. “About that. There’s something you oughta know. It’s kind of a funny story.” He relayed his double life as Bill Chase.
Laid-back Tell vanished. His eyes narrowed and he looked so much like his dead brother Luke that Chase had a serious case of déjà vu. “Lemme get this straight. You’ve been a fraudulent member of the PRCA…for twelve years?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Bullshit. You got a pro card under false pretenses. Competed under false pretenses. Took money under false pretenses. Is that about right?”
“How long you been double-dipping in PRCA events? All along?”
“No. Just the last few weeks after my suspension from the PBR tour. I didn’t see the harm. It’s not like I’m in it for the money. In fact, I haven’t spent a dime of the payouts I won.”
“That’s not the fuckin’ point,” Tell retorted hotly. “This is just another example of the almighty Chase McKay thinking he don’t have to play by the rules. How cheating is somehow all right if it benefits you in the end. Well, fuck that.”