Page 48


Time passed in a vacuum of misery.


After she heard the toilet flush for the third time, she curled her palm around the handle, praying he hadn’t started locking the door. The door swung open with a loud squeak.


Chase sat on the floor, his face hidden in his hands. He said, “Get out,” in that dangerously low tone.


She parked herself next to him, hip to hip. When he didn’t bark at her to leave, she placed her hand on his knee, wondering if he’d accept her need to soothe him.


Try.


“You want some water?” she asked.


No answer.


She counted to one hundred. “Chase? Do you need—”


“I don’t need anything. Just go.”


“I can’t.”


“Don’t you understand? I don’t need you.”


Ava ignored the sharp pang his words caused. “But I need you.”


Chase slowly lifted his head and looked at her with red-rimmed eyes. “What?”


The stark misery had her reaching for him without conscious thought. “Don’t turn me away. It’s ripping me up to see you like this. I need to help you. Tell me how. Please.”


“You can’t.”


“Can’t what?”


“Help me. So just go the fuck away.”


She slowly rolled to her feet. He probably thought he’d scared her off. No way, buddy, I’m sticking. She filled a cup and held it out, waiting for him to take it. She’d stand there all night if she had to.


Finally, he said, “Fuck, all right, give me the goddamn thing,” and snatched it from her fingers.


He could scream obscenities at her if it’d bring him out of his sorrow-filled drunken stupor.


An eternity later, when he figured out she wasn’t going anywhere, he started to talk.


“Watching Ryan these last few weeks, before he…” Chase squeezed the plastic cup so hard water shot out the top. “It drove home the point I’ve had it so fuckin’ easy my whole life.” He gulped the water, swished it around in his mouth and leaned forward to spit it in the toilet. “I cheated to get where I am today by bein’ Bill Chase.”


“Whatever name you used didn’t get you to the top. Your drive to be the best did.”


He couldn’t argue with that. But she’d be surprised if he didn’t try.


“The guilt is eating at me.”


“Guilt that you’re alive and Ryan’s not?”


“No. Guilt I didn’t push him harder to wear a helmet. He’d be alive if he’d listened to me. Banged up, but alive. How can I live with that?”


Pointing out the obvious—there were no guarantees anything would’ve saved Ryan—would mean nothing to him right now.


“And here I am, wrecked because an eighteen-year-old kid I barely knew died. But I sure as fuck didn’t act this way after my cousin Luke got killed.” His head fell back against the concrete wall. “Christ. I grew up with Luke. His death ripped our family to pieces. But I could only spare two days out of my life, out of my precious schedule to go to his funeral? And once I was back on tour, I didn’t think of him at all. Even when I knew his brothers were beyond hurting. Did I reach out to them? No. Did I make an extra effort to keep in better contact with my own brothers because I understood how lucky I was I still had them? No.


“In fact, I called them less than before. Same with my folks. Even now, when Jackie lost her only child and she’s devastated, I’m sitting here thinking about myself. How I feel. How it’s affected me. How fucked up is that?” Chase squeezed his eyes shut against the tears trickling down his miserable face. “Don’t answer that. I’m a cold, self-centered son of a bitch. A shitty son, a shitty brother and a shitty friend.”


Ava silently cried along with him, her heart breaking for this man who only saw the worst in himself.


“None of this matters,” he said, his tone defeated.


“What?”


“The PBR, the PRCA, bull ridin’. It’s all bullshit.”


“Chase. You don’t mean that.”


“I don’t know what I mean. In all my years, I’ve never seen anyone killed on the back of a bull. Seen them hurt? Yes. Seen them seriously hurt and even paralyzed? Yes. But someone I know, someone killed right in front of me and hundreds of other people? That’s a first. That’s so wrong. So fucking wrong. Ryan’s death, and the tragedy of it, will make papers across the country. But it won’t change anything. It won’t give his mother comfort. Christ. He was her only kid and now she’s alone.”


Chase broke down. His massive shoulders shook as he cried.


When the worst of it passed, and he’d taken the quiet comfort she’d offered, she stood. “Come on. You’re exhausted and need to sleep.” She held out her hands to help him up.


“Ava, I’m not three years old.”


“But you are three sheets to the wind.”


Chase turned his head away. “Sorry I’m such a mess.”


“All the more reason for you to let me help you.”


An eternity passed before something shifted in him. He struggled to his feet by himself, but allowed Ava to guide him back to the bed he’d barely left for two days.


Once she’d settled beside him, he twined his arms around her, tangled his legs with hers. “Don’t go,” he whispered thickly against her throat.


“I’m here. There’s no place I’d rather be than with you, Chase. You know that, right?”


His whole body relaxed as he expelled a deep sigh and passed out.


She trailed her fingers up and down his spine.


Ryan’s death had changed them both. Where did they go from here?


They kept a low profile during Ryan’s funeral. But so many people attended it was easy to blend. All in all, the service was nice. Sad.


Ava ran into Taz as cars loaded up for the trip to the cemetery. She almost hadn’t recognized him without his cowboy hat. His hair was shorter. He wore a sports coat.


He hugged her with a gruff, “Ava.”


“Taz. How you holding up?”


“Not so good.” He glanced at the hearse. “Still can’t believe it.”


“Me either.”


“How’s Chase?”


“About the same as you.” Miserable, blaming himself. Avoiding people.


Silence.


“You been on the road?” Stupid question, Ava.


“Nope. I’m done.”


“Done?”


“I quit. No more rodeos. No more foolin’ myself. I ain’t been ridin’ good consistently for a couple of years anyway.”


“What are you going to do?”


“A buddy of mine bought some land outside Scottsbluff. He’s been trying to get me to take over, making improvements on it, for the last year. I wasn’t interested until…” He cleared his throat. “I realized I ain’t too old to learn something new.”


“We could all learn something from this.”


Taz glanced around and pulled her off to the side, out of earshot. “Listen, I know you got a lot of footage of Ryan while you were taping Chase. I’d like to see you do something positive with it. Even if it’s just for his mom. The kid deserves that much.”


“I agree. Is it all right if I use footage of you too?”


“Don’t know what for, but sure.”


Ava kissed his cheek. “Take care of yourself, Taz.”


They were sitting in a diner outside Alliance, picking at a meal neither wanted.


“Chase?”


“Yeah.”


“What happens now?”


“I don’t know.” He glanced up from smashing a pile of peas with his fork. “Why? Did you have something on your mind?”


“Yes. And hear me out before you automatically say no.”


“I’m listening.”


“Come to New York City with me. Just for a couple of days. We both could use a break. A little bit of pampering. I’ve spent time in your world, Chase, I’d like for you to spend time in mine.”


“Why New York? Why not LA?”


“My assistant mentioned there’s still paparazzi lurking around my place. We’d be trapped. In New York…we’d probably be anonymous.” She reached for his hand. “Let’s park your truck in Omaha, get on a plane and we’ll be at LaGuardia in three hours. My family has a standing suite at the Cooper Square Hotel. We can stay there as long as we want.”


His eyes searched hers. “Why is this so important to you?”


“I’m not ready to say goodbye. Are you?”


“God no.”


His vehemence surprised her.


“Good. I’ll make the arrangements. We could use a distraction. It’ll be fun.”


Chase smiled for the first time in days. “Let’s go.”


Chapter Twenty-Four


“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New York City. The local time is three p.m.” Ava glanced out the airplane window as the flight attendant rattled off the usual spiel. She was anxious to get out of the plane and into the city.


Chase leaned across the armrest. “You all right?”


Ava faced him and frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?”


“I dunno. I expect you’ll be different now that the city mouse is back in her element.”


“What about you?” she countered. “Will you become the country mouse? Afraid of taxis, sirens and the crush of people?”


“I ain’t skeered of nothin’.” Chase pressed his lips to hers. She’d expected a quick peck, but he cranked the kiss to hot and teasing as his thumb discreetly rubbed the stiff point of her nipple.


She pulled back. “Chase—”


“I missed touching you the last few days,” he murmured.


“I missed it too.” Ava rested her forehead to his. “Hold that thought, okay?”


“Okay.” He gave her a lingering smooch. “Bear in mind that just because we’re on your turf don’t mean you get to call the shots.”

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