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“So I’ll think of you whenever I wear it.” Like I’ll ever stop thinking of you. Ava tried really hard not to cry, but a couple of tears slipped free. The last man who’d given her jewelry had been her grandfather.


“Ava?” Chase tipped her face up. “Ah, hell. Don’t cry. I told you that you can take it back.”


She made a sound half-laugh, half-sob. “No way am I taking it back, McKay. It’s beautiful. Perfect. I love it. Thank you.”


The guardedness in his eyes vanished. “You’re welcome.”


Chapter Twenty-Seven


Chase paced in the hotel room, glaring at his phone. He hadn’t minded that the fucker hadn’t worked at all yesterday, since he and Ava had spent the whole day in their room, most of it in bed after they’d returned early in the morning from the penthouse.


Dammit. He needed to access his email. Nothing was showing up on his phone. And he’d been in such a hurry to get away from the sorrow in Nebraska he’d accidentally left his laptop in his truck at the Omaha airport.


His gaze landed on Ava’s computer on the desk. She’d left it on for a change. It’d take him about two seconds to log on to his account. If Ava were here she’d probably tell him to go ahead and borrow it.


Two programs were running and he minimized them before clicking on her web browser. He typed in his server site, his password and waited while five days’ worth of messages downloaded. Four jokes from Quinn. Eight forwards from his father, which made him smile.


When Charlie McKay first got daily computer access, he drove Chase insane with all the crap messages he forwarded. But at some point, Chase figured out those forwards, sometimes funny, sometimes politically incorrect, sometimes sentimental, were his dad’s way of showing love. His way of telling his youngest son that he was thinking about him. Now he didn’t mind them at all.


He scrolled through the messages. Inquiries from his website from fans wondering when he’d be back in action. A notice from his credit card company about receiving his automatic payment. Same for his cell phone. Same for his rent. The last email, from Elroy, was time stamped roughly two hours ago, a form letter to all riders, regarding changes in the remaining schedule. Nothing new, just standard practice before an event. An event in Wichita he hadn’t heard whether he’d be competing in.


What would he do if that call never came?


Go to trade school? Chase didn’t see himself working as a mechanic. Or running heavy equipment on a construction site. Or writing speeding tickets as a law enforcement officer.


Think harder.


Chase pushed the chair back and stared at the bubbles popping up as the screen saver. He could ask if his buddy Darren needed an investor and hands-on help for his bull-breeding program in Oklahoma. Possibly Cash and Colby could get their venture off the ground sooner if they had a full-time partner who wasn’t ranching. No one could deny he had more current contacts at various rodeos than either Colby or Cash.


Maybe you could try to become a stuntman in Hollywood.


Right. And if he wasn’t successful at that, he’d be mooching off Ava.


Ava. The woman turned him inside out. The other night had been nothing short of magical. Standing against the glass partition and looking straight down at the street below thirty stories in the air. Watching day fade to night. Witnessing the lights in the New York City skyline come to life. Dancing with her barefoot across the polished mahogany floor, lights and noise as a backdrop, feeling as if they were the only ones in the world—even amidst a city of ten million. Laughing, carrying her to the gigantic canopied bed, swathed in silk and lace, a bed fit for a queen. Then he’d made love to her, face to face, heart to heart, drunk on the scent of her skin, high on the sound of his name drifting from her sweet lips as a breathy moan, overwhelmed by her. By how much she made him feel.


The computer dinged, indicating a new email. He touched the mouse pad, tapping on the minimized mail icon. The sender was Jackie Ackerman. What? How had she gotten his personal email address? When he opened it and read, Ava, he realized he’d mistakenly opened Ava’s email program. He should’ve exited out. But he didn’t. He kept reading.


Ava,


Ryan’s high school English teacher is pretty computer savvy and she’s more than willing to help. I gave her a stack of Ryan’s pictures to scan. She’s also transferring old home videos into that format you suggested so you can add them to the recent footage you shot. That transfer process might take awhile. Just wanted to give you a heads-up so my portion doesn’t hold up production.


Production? Of what?


I’m glad you’re working on something that might shed some light on this. I never want to see or hear of another mother going through this. I’ll keep in touch. Jackie


What the hell had Ava promised Ryan’s mother?


He found her recent history and opened a flash file titled DOC-WIP current. His face filled up the screen. “What do I like best about ridin’ bulls?” He watched himself scratch his chin. “For those eight seconds we’re fighting to see who owns the most determination. Who’s got the most try. Even a small man can best a beast.”


The frame changed. A squinty-eyed Taz came into view. “What do I like best about ridin’ bulls?” He glanced off to the left. “On a day like today, when I’ve been beat to hell and I can’t hardly wrap my hand in my bull rope because it’s all swelled up?” Taz raised his right hand into camera view and Chase winced. His entire hand was red and purple, puffed up like a bad bee sting. “I can’t tell you nothin’ I like about it. But I sure can tell you a whole heap about what I hate.”


The frame changed again. A grinning Ryan appeared. Grief sliced through Chase like a scythe through wheat. “What do I like best about ridin’ bulls?” Ryan laughed. “Well, mostly that I’m finally old enough to ride ’em.” He reached in his pocket and proudly whipped out his PRCA card, holding it close to the camera’s lens. “I guess what I like is how the experienced riders are around to help out. To offer advice. Like one of my friends said, it’s not me versus him in the arena. It’s us versus the bulls.”


Chase closed his eyes, remembering the day he’d said that to Ryan. Wishing the kid would’ve listened to his other advice.


Wishing things had turned out differently won’t change anything.


He opened his eyes as black letters formed on the screen. Chasing Eight: The Heartbreak Road To Rodeo Glory.


Scenery flew by, speeding to super fast until the time-lapse photography made it seem an entire day had passed. Then again the camera was focused on his profile, front lit by the dashboard lights.


Ava’s voice, soft and curious, asked, “What makes a champion? Besides winning the big belt buckle?”


Chase’s stomach clenched as he waited for his onscreen response. “Winning is the only gauge of a champion. Lots of guys want it, they try for it, fight for it, spend years chasing it. If the title was applied to all the great men competing in the sport of bull ridin’, just because they’re great men? Then the title would be meaningless. A champion is called a champion because he’s won. He’s proven to be the best.”


The next image was Chase receiving his championship buckle and oversized cardboard check at the Man of Steel competition last year. The announcer’s words were lost in the thunderous crowd response. The noise and image faded to the next scene, the low fanfare of the Scottsbluff Rodeo win. Two officials shaking his hand. The camera panned the nearly empty stands and then zoomed to the cowboys who didn’t win, as they packed up their gear behind the chutes.


A crash sounded onscreen. Although the screen remained blank, he heard his voice. “I’m nekkid here, Hollywood.”


“I see that. What do you want me to do about it?” she purred.


The dark screen morphed into a background of a cheap motel room. He watched Ava, fully clothed, crawling across the bed toward him. He tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. His playfulness had vanished. His face was filled with such love, with such wonder, with such longing as he looked at Ava onscreen, that Chase’s stomach clenched watching it.


“Chase?”


“To be honest, I’m too beat to shit even for a blowjob.” Pain creased his brow. “My head is killin’ me.”


“Do you want some aspirin?”


“Took it already. Didn’t help. Which makes me wonder why am I even doin’ this? Putting my body through hell every fuckin’ night?”


“You just had a bad buck-off.”


He snorted. “Like that’s news. The thing that really sucks is none of this matters. The injuries I get on the road trying to prove myself. The PBR will probably flip me the bird and not let me back on tour anyway.”


“So quit.”


Horror distorted his face. “And do what? Bull ridin’ is the only thing I want to do. It’s the only thing I can do. It’s my life. Who am I without it? Nobody, that’s who.”


Ava sat back on her haunches. “You’re so much more than just a bull rider—”


“No, I’m not,” he snapped. Sighing, he let his head fall back against the headboard. “I need them to call me back. And the longer I have to wait, the less likely that phone call becomes.”


Chase watched himself onscreen. Christ. Was he…crying with his eyes squeezed shut like that? Fucking awesome. He looked like a whiny-ass baby loser who complained about everything and couldn’t even take his girlfriend up on giving him a blowjob.


She moved out of camera range.


His eyes snapped open and his gaze tracked Ava’s movements across the room. “Where are you goin’?”


“I need some air.”


He reached a hand out to her. “Don’t go. I can’t…” His voice broke. “I’m sorry I’m an asshole tonight. I feel like shit.”


Chase’s cheeks burned. She’d fucking taped this? He opened up to her and this was what she did? He thought back to that night. He’d knocked his noggin pretty damn hard when he’d hit the ground. No wonder he hadn’t remembered much of the conversation.

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