Page 46


Once they’d reached Jackson Hole, Chase found a luxury resort and surprised Ava by booking a suite. She’d actually teared up when he arranged for two hours of in-room spa treatments and left her alone to be pampered.


While she was getting massaged, he took his truck for an oil change and called his family to catch up. Maybe it stung a bit, their shock he’d contacted them without prompting. But Chase was determined to prove he could make changes in all areas of his life and stick to them.


“What are you thinking about?” Ava asked.


Chase grabbed her hand and kissed her palm. “How fantastic these last six days have been. Just me’n you seeing the sights. Hanging out with my friend. Then you rockin’ my world in bed and out of it.”


She permitted a smug smile. “I did, didn’t I?”


After driving through Riverton, Ava suggested they drive up to Thermopolis to see the famous hot springs. Then she surprised him and booked a room at a bed and breakfast joint that boasted a small private hot spring. She’d dragged him outside after the other guests were in bed for the night. Talk about a thrill, seeing Ava take control. Rubbing her firm, curvy body slick against his. Her mouth tasting. Her hands roving. Her voice a sexy rasp in his ear as she’d taken him to heaven.


“It went beyond…well, anything for me too, Chase,” she said softly, when he realized he’d gone completely quiet again.


What Ava didn’t realize was he’d lain awake last night, wondering if that was the beginning of the end for them, because they’d made no future plans after Ryan’s event. He still hadn’t heard from the PBR. Eight weeks had passed. He might be in limbo, but Ava had a life in California that was more than just a career.


And how fucking sad was that for him?


Chase pulled into a service station. “Need anything?”


“You’re buying sunflower seeds, aren’t you?”


He grinned. “Yep.”


“Fine. You know what I want.”


“Red licorice and a Diet Dew comin’ up.”


Ava had her headphones on when he returned. And she’d fired up her computer, something she hadn’t done often the last six days. Nor had she snapped many photos, which didn’t make sense, given they’d been in a scenery-rich national park. He’d learned not to question her because it always got her back up.


He’d become accustomed to hours driving in the truck, so he wasn’t tired when they reached the fairgrounds. His cell rang. “Yes, Ryan, we’re finally here. Where are you?”


“At the beer garden with my mom.”


“We’ll be right there.” He faced Ava to find her staring at him. “You ready?”


“Yes.”


Chase stopped just inside the gate to gather his thoughts.


Ava rubbed his arm. “Chase? You all right?”


“Nervous.”


That surprised her. But she offered him that sweet, pure Ava smile and tenderly brushed her lips across his. “I imagine he is too.”


Ryan leapt up the instant he saw Chase, nearly tackling him. “How slow did you drive? Man. I thought you’d never get here.” He wrapped his arms around Ava and lifted her off the ground.


Chase couldn’t help but grin. Ryan was like a big goofy pup. No boundaries. Honest affection and boundless enthusiasm.


“Come on. We’re sitting over here.”


Ryan’s mother was a bottle-dyed redhead, somewhere between thirty and fifty, with the rough edged look he’d seen on plenty of single blue-collar mothers. But she had Ryan’s big smile and obvious pride in her son, by the way she kept fussing over him.


“Mom. This is Chase. And Ava.”


He offered his hand. “Nice to meet you after Ryan has told me all about you.”


“Jackie Ackerman. Ryan is such a huge fan of yours. It’s been a dream come true for him, getting to hang out and bullshit about bull riding.” She turned her gaze to Ava. “Thanks for sending the video of Ryan’s winning ride. I really wish I coulda taken time off work to see it live.”


“No problem. Do you mind if I tape your rides tonight?”


Ryan smiled widely. “’Course not.”


It was difficult to get a word in edgewise with Ryan yammering a million miles an hour. The kid defined nervous energy. Finally Chase put his hand on Ryan’s restless fingers and said softly, “Relax. Take it down a notch.”


Struck Chase strange that Ava remained behind the camera for the entire conversation. She’d toss out remarks occasionally, but stuck to the observer role. She had changed too, seeming content to stay out of the spotlight.


The five-minute warning for the start of the rodeo echoed across the grounds. Ryan said, “You coming back to help me pull my rope?”


“Sure. If you promise you ain’t gonna talk the whole damn time we’re waiting for you to ride,” he teased.


Jackie laughed and playfully smacked her son’s shoulder. “He’s got you pegged, Ry-Ry.”


Ryan stood, lifted his mom to her feet and squeezed her in a bear hug. “See ya after. Cheer loud for me.”


“You know it. Be safe, okay?”


“Love you too, Mom.”


Ava slipped on her press pass and entered the restricted area with Chase and Ryan.


Chase loved the buzz around the chutes, but he also felt the odd man out because he wasn’t competing. Ryan knew quite a few of the guys. He flitted between chatting up bronc riders to leaning over the fence and talking to timed event competitors. The barrel racers weren’t on their horses yet, or Ryan would’ve been on that side of the chutes, charming the ladies.


He and Taz watched the action in the arena without speaking beyond the occasional remark on the performance. When the Dodge truck drove onto the dirt to drop off the barrels, they headed behind the chutes.


The roster had twenty bull riding competitors. Taz had drawn fourth, Ryan twelfth. He and Ryan helped Taz and watched as the bull landed hard on its front hooves and Taz sailed ass over teakettle until his body smacked into the ground and bounced before stopping.


Taz wasn’t moving. The bullfighters watched over him until medical professionals arrived.


Ryan’s eyes were huge as he faced Chase. “He’s gonna be fine, right?”


“He’s tough. They’re getting him fixed up. See? He’s on his feet.”


The kid jumped down a level before Chase caught him by the shirtsleeve. “No need for you to head over there. They’ll shoo you out. And Taz will bitch about you wanting to hold his hand anyway.”


Ryan nodded. Blew out a distressed breath. Squinted at the scoreboard to see who was up next. Then Ryan went into that quiet time before a ride. Some guys called it psyching themselves up. Others called it getting in the zone. Chase found those minutes leading up to climbing on a bull the hardest. One he was on and getting a good wrap on his hand, he went through a mental checklist. Once the gate opened, he focused on keeping his seat, staying on, spurring and making that buzzer.


So he paced right along with Ryan. Until they stopped, stared at each other foolishly and smiled.


“Come on, kid, you’re up next. Show me whatcha got.”


Ryan’s bull was a mean bastard. First it wouldn’t get up. Then it decided to fight. Chase held the bull rope as Ryan got a fast wrap. Taz held on to the back of Ryan’s vest until Ryan shouted, “Go!” and the gate opened.


The bull had a showy style, leaping and twisting like a marlin on a hook. Ryan’s hat went flying, but the kid held on.


Chase curled his hands around the wooden rail and muttered, “Almost, come on,” and the buzzer went off.


As Ryan reached to release his rope, the acrobatic bull jerked its head, catching Ryan in the face with a horn. Ryan fell back far enough that when the bull’s rear legs left the ground, the momentum ejected the kid sideways. He slammed into the solid metal gate head first, and then his body crumpled to the ground.


Confusion reigned in the arena when the bull charged a bullfighter. Then the barrel man. The pickup men cornered the angry animal and dragged it out with ropes.


He looked back, expecting to see Ryan on his feet, but he hadn’t moved. What the hell?


Distorted noise echoed through the loudspeaker system, the words garbled and grating.


Get up.


Chase wasn’t sure if he’d said the words aloud. His vision became a pinpoint focus on a too-still Ryan lying in the dirt.


Then the bullfighters and medical team erected a human tent around Ryan and he couldn’t see a damn thing.


Get up kid. Come on. Shake if off. Don’t scare your mama like this. Jesus. Don’t scare me like this.


More medical personnel raced over. A stretcher appeared. Then an ambulance. It never looked right, a ghostly quiet emergency vehicle slowly rolling across the arena dirt. No flashing lights, no wailing sirens, no rush.


The sound of spectators clapping as they paid respect to the person leaving via ambulance partially roused Chase from his stupor. Seemed as if he’d blinked and the next rider was up, and the rodeo was back in business.


He turned and literally ran into Ava. “Let’s go to the hospital. Ryan is probably freaking out. I imagine Jackie is already on her way.” He took Ava’s hand and they weaved through the melee of contestants leaving the event. She didn’t speak until they were in his truck.


“Will Ryan be okay?”


Chase shifted in the seat. “In small events like these, there are no med techs, so they automatically take injured riders to the closest hospital as a precaution. And Ryan is young. Old timers like Taz refuse to ride in an ambulance and find their own medical treatment. But I doubt a youngster like Ryan put up much of a fuss when they told him he needed to go to the hospital.”


“Oh. Okay. That’s explains a lot.”


They made the drive to the hospital in silence. He parked in the emergency lot, and it seemed to take an hour to walk through those emergency room doors.


Inside the hospital waiting room, Jackie paced in front of the windows. Ava hustled over and hugged her. “Any news?”

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