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He’d never seen Tell so mad. And what sucked is Chase didn’t blame him for his fury because Tell hadn’t said a thing that Chase hadn’t considered.


But you discarded the guilt and did what you wanted anyway, didn’t you?


“Look. I’m sorry.”


“Goddamn right you should be. Does your family know you’ve done this?”


He shook his head.


“And why is that?” Tell let the pause linger. “Because you know it’s wrong. They’d tell you it’s wrong, and they’d kick your ass until you made it right. I look at you and I feel like I don’t know you at all.” Tell stormed off, stopping when he reached the metal fence by the livestock gate. His fingers curled around the rail and he stared across the arena, his posture vibrated with anger.


Why hadn’t Chase considered he might run into his cousin while skipping from event to event in Tell’s jurisdiction?


Because once again you only thought about yourself.


Seemed to be a theme.


Chase slumped against the corral and waited for the impending ass-chewing from his upstanding, do-the-right-thing younger cousin. He glanced at the clock. The longest his diatribe could last would be forty-five minutes until the rodeo kicked off.


Tell walked back to him, a grim set to his mouth. “First off, I wish I wasn’t wearin’ this damn vest because I’d love nothin’ better than to knock your dumb ass right in the dirt.”


“I’d deserve it.”


“But since that ain’t the smartest option, we’ll go with the other one.” Tell paused. “Withdraw from the competition.”


His jaw dropped. “What? No. I drove a long damn way. I need to get on some bulls tonight.”


“Tough shit. This is how it’s gonna be. Either you voluntarily withdraw or I will report you to the head judge and you’ll be disqualified anyway.”


Without thinking, Chase snapped, “Jesus, Tell, judging power gone to your head or what? Why would you do that to me?”


Tell loomed over him because he knew it drove Chase bat-shit crazy. “To you? This ain’t only about you. I won’t turn a blind eye to this and get myself banned as a judge. I’ve worked too damn hard. Now that I know that you’ve been lying and cheating puts me at more risk than you, do you understand that?”


The truth tumbled down on him like a load of bricks. Was he really so single-minded he’d risk destroying his cousin’s future in the PRCA just so he could get on another bull?


No. Fuck no. And it made his cheeks burn with shame and his gut churn that he’d even considered it. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Christ, Tell, I’m a sorry son of a bitch sometimes.”


“No lie.”


“I’ll withdraw from the competition right now.”


“You do that. And while it was good to see you, since you can’t be bothered to come home very often, part of me wishes I hadn’t laid eyes on you.” Tell walked away without looking back.


Chase dragged ass as he trudged back to the check-in table. The secretary agreed to remove his name from the roster, but the fee was nonrefundable.


Now what?


Find Ava and get the hell outta Dodge.


As he’d started typing another text message, he heard his name shouted and Ryan fell into step with him.


“Hey, you’re going the wrong way. The contestant area is back there.”


“I’m not competing tonight.”


Ryan frowned. “Why not?”


Lie. “I’m burned-out and my shoulder is acting up. I thought it’d be okay to ride, but it’s not, so I changed my mind and withdrew.”


“That sucks.”


“Yeah.”


“Or maybe it doesn’t.”


Chase’s head snapped up to see a slow grin spreading across the kid’s face. “I might actually have a shot at winning tonight?”


“If you keep your chin down, which wouldn’t be an issue if you’d wear a freakin’ helmet.”


Another scowl. “No way. It’d throw my balance off. Just because it works for you don’t mean it’ll work for me, so quit nagging me about it. Sheesh. You ain’t my mom.”


“Maybe you oughta rethink that smartass comment, since my ridin’ percentage is over eighty after I made the switch and yours ain’t close to that.”


“Rub it in, why doncha,” he grumbled. “Are you at least staying to watch? In case I do win?”


“The last fuckin’ thing I wanna do tonight is sit up in the goddamn stands,” he said curtly.


Ryan froze. His cheeks flamed and he ducked his head, hiding his face beneath his cowboy hat. “Oh. Okay. Ah, I’ll catch ya later I guess.” The he spun on his heel and was gone.


Nice going. Maybe you can knock a toddler’s ice cream cone in the dirt too.


In his foul mood, it didn’t take long to reach the cabins.


Three soft knocks broke her concentration. She glanced up from the computer screen as Chase said, “Ava. Let me in.”


She leapt up to disengage the locks. “Are you okay?”


Chase sauntered in and set his hat on the dresser before he plopped into the lone chair in the room. “No, I’m not okay.”


“What happened?”


“I ran into my cousin Tell. He’s a judge for saddle bronc and bareback. He wondered why I was here, I told him the truth. Then he spewed every shitty thing about me sneaking around the PRCA circuit, which ain’t anything I haven’t already been wrestling with since I started this trip.”


First time he’d mentioned feeling any guilt.


He sighed. “Long story short, Tell demanded I quit the event or he’d report me. I understand where he’s coming from. It’ll be his ass if anyone finds out he knew I’d been lying to the PRCA about bein’ Bill Chase. So I dropped out of the competition. Then I ran into Ryan, and he’s confident he has a shot at winning tonight since I’m not competing. He begged me to watch him ride and I was a dick, which is just fuckin’ awesome, because for the millionth time in my life I used my shitty mood as an excuse to be a douchebag to someone who didn’t deserve it.”


Hard, to watch him struggle, but Ava knew from past experience Chase wasn’t in the frame of mind to be petted and soothed.


That’s when she knew for sure it was more than just sex between road buddies as they killed a couple of weeks during a lost summer. That’s when she realized she was completely in love with him. His opening up to her, letting her see the man who struggled, who cared what people who he cared about thought of him, not just the charming bull rider with carefully crafted PC answers, not just the determined lover, but the real Chase McKay.


“What can I do?”


“Do we have any beer?”


“No.”


He sighed again. “Just as well. Makes me think it’s time to pack it in and cut the rest of this adventure short.”


Outwardly Ava managed a bland expression, but inside she panicked. She wasn’t ready to end this. Not now that she’d cemented how she felt about him.


“I’ve been ridin’ better than I have in years. I’m ready to go back to the PBR.” He expelled a bitter laugh. “But that ain’t up to me, is it?”


Ava sauntered over and straddled his thighs.


“What are you doin’?”


“Getting me some sugar,” she mimicked his husky drawl and swooped in for a kiss. The same type of soul kiss he’d bestowed in the truck that literally left her breathless. After she’d thoroughly scrambled his brain, she whispered kisses beneath his jaw. “The way I see it, we have two choices for tonight. We can lock the door and engage in wild, kinky, loud sex all night. Or we can go to the rodeo. Cheer Ryan on. Drink beer. Get rowdy. Do all the fun stuff as spectators that you don’t get to do behind the chutes. I’ve been to several rodeos with you, Chase, but we’ve never gone to a rodeo together.”


“True.”


“Besides, we’ve already paid for the room, so we might as well stay. And if you’re serious about no more PRCA events, you should hang out with Ryan one last time. He’d appreciate it. Especially after your dickish behavior.”


Chase rested his forehead against her chest. “Okay. You’ve convinced me.”


Wrapping her arms around his neck, she rubbed her chin across the stubbly hair on his head, loving their wordless connection.


“How soon do you need to be back in California?”


“Why?”


“After we leave here tomorrow, you wanna head to Yellowstone for a few days? No rodeo, just you’n me playing tourist?”


“That sounds like heaven.”


“Good.” He slapped her butt. “I’m gonna grab a soda out of the vending machine. Want one?”


“Sure.”


The phone call from Marnie deflated her good mood. She debated on answering, but she’d rather get it over with because she’d been expecting—dreading—this call for days. “Hey, Marnie.”


“Ava, dear, I have news. The Richfield casting agency has gotten you a reading for a new sitcom.”


At least Marnie never made small talk. “Is this for a pilot?” There was no guarantee a pilot would be picked up by any TV network and she considered auditioning a waste of time.


“It’s not a pilot. It’s already been approved and will air on the CW as a mid-season show. Granted, it has a limited episode run, but that works in our favor.”


Say no.


Say yes, you idiot. Haven’t you had enough time tooling around the countryside with Chase? You need to get back to your real life.


“Ava, sweetie, are you still there?”


“Yes. Sorry. Thanks, but I’ll pass on this one.” God. Was she making a mistake? How much would Marnie have to cajole her to get her to cave in?


A lot. She wasn’t ready to walk away from Chase yet.


“Well. I wasn’t expecting that. However, it’s your decision. I’ll figure out a way to decline the audition, although, you should know I really put myself out there for you, Ava.”

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