“And who are you?”
Gavin took a deep breath. “I believe I’m your son.”
The crowd roared behind him, ready to party at the PBR on a Saturday night.
Chase braced himself. The PBR’s newest female reporter, a fiery redhead named Lissa, stuck the microphone in his face as soon as he cleared the contestant gate. He’d been expecting it since he’d avoided an on camera interview last night. To ensure his cooperation, the cameraman blocked him in. Bastard.
“We’re here with Chase McKay after that amazing ninety-one point ride on Devil’s Due. Congratulations, Chase, that’s gotta feel good to be back on top.”
He focused on the woman and not the camera. “It does. Especially after an extended break and such a poor showing in Dallas.”
“Tell us about the ride.”
“Well, Devil’s Due is an ornery little cuss and highly unpredictable, so I wasn’t sure if he’d go into spin mode tonight or hopscotch around. Luckily I was able to stay with him no matter what he did.”
“So the past few weeks you’ve been off the tour to deal with a recurrence of your shoulder injury from last year. Are you still having issues?”
“Not at all. The time off allowed me to find my focus again.”
“And how did you accomplish that?”
“I went back to basics. Tried to fix what wasn’t working with my ridin’. I was fortunate to have two former PRCA bull riders helpin’ me get back on track.”
“It appears to’ve worked, since you’re seated first.”
“Thanks. The thing I learned, or maybe relearned, is to focus on the bull I’m on and not worry about the next bull or the money or the points or where I might land on the leader board.”
“Good advice that’s obviously paid off. Two questions. You’ve come back to the PBR tour more confident and more aggressive. And it’s interesting to see you’ve swapped out your usual black cowboy hat for a safety helmet. Why?”
“This is a dangerous sport, and any time a rider has a chance to protect himself with additional safety equipment, I’m all for it. I’ve had a couple of close calls in recent years. I’ve witnessed horrible accidents with other riders that would’ve been preventable had the rider worried less about appearances and more about safety.”
“Spoken like a new convert.” Lissa flashed a dazzling smile—a sign she was about to go in for the kill. “Last question, and I’m sure your fans are dying to get the scoop, straight from the source. You’ve recently been spotted with actress Ava Cooper. Is love in the air?”
“Like my brother Ben has been reminding me, a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”
She laughed provocatively. “Can you at least say whether there’s a chance we’ll be seeing Miss Cooper cheering you on in the stands at future PBR events?”
Not a snowball’s chance in hell because I’m a freakin’ idiot wasn’t an approved PR response, so he managed a curt, “You never know who’ll show up.”
Lissa ended the interview. He scaled the risers to watch the remaining action; aware the cameras would keep cutting to him because he was sitting in first place with only seven riders to go.
He bullshitted with the guys while he waited to help his buddy, Dirk, pull his rope. Other riders seemed surprised he stuck around. Used to be, Chase didn’t make much time for riders outside his circle of four or five since he’d been so focused on finding a buckle bunny to hook up with after the event.
Getting to know Ryan, even for a brief amount of time, had changed Chase for the better in so many ways.
Dirk was up next. Chase held the bull rope taut while Dirk rosined his glove. Soon as Dirk had his wrap, Chase and another rider named Reese kept Dirk upright on the bull by holding his vest. Dirk yelled, “Go!” and the gate opened.
Everything went wrong from the moment the bull exited the chute. His massive rear end smacked into the barricade, immediately sending Dirk sideways. Dirk started to right himself on the next rapid fire jump, but the bull’s head reared up the same time Dirk’s body bounced forward. The side of Dirk’s face connected with the bull’s skull, knocking Dirk out completely. But his hand was hung up in the rope.
Chase stared in horror as Dirk’s unmoving body dangled and was jerked about, his bloody face continually smacked into the bull’s side. Twice Dirk narrowly missed the horn piercing his face.
Seemed like an eternity before the bullfighters freed Dirk’s hand and got him out of harm’s way. But Dirk wasn’t moving and the sports medicine team was hustling out.
Just like Ryan.
No, goddammit, this was not happening again. For some reason, Chase glanced up and saw the images of Dirk’s bloody, battered face splashed across the big screens.
Before Chase thought it through, he jumped down from the chute and raced across the arena. The bullfighters didn’t try and stop him as he put himself between Dirk and the camera, with a snarled, “Back. Off.”
“I’m just doing my job, man. Move.”
The cameraman dodged and weaved. So did Chase.
Chase crowded him, so the only thing the camera picked up was an extreme close up of Chase’s vest. Which forced the cameraman to shuffle back, which is exactly what Chase wanted.
“Let me do my job.”
“Film something else because you’re not getting close to him. I’ll bust that camera into a dozen pieces and throw it and you in the dirt.”
“I’ll see that you’re suspended for this.”
“And I’ll see you’re fined for exploiting the images of a head trauma. But you wouldn’t have as many of these images to splash across the big screen if the PBR stepped up and mandated all riders wear safety helmets.”
The cameraman stopped trying to circumvent Chase and kept the camera trained on him.
“Does a PBR bull rider have to die from head injures on camera in full gory detail before changes are enforced? Haven’t we learned after what happened to Lane Frost? Only after the shock of his death were protective vests made mandatory for bull riders. It makes me sick to think that another bull rider will have to die before we start protecting their heads as well as their hearts.”
“Dirk is a friend of yours?”
“This is not just about Dirk. It’s about all bull riders in all professional rodeo organizations. A few weeks back the world lost a promising young man, a friend of mine, because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. And now he’s…” Chase looked away, fighting the hitch in his voice and squeezing back angry tears. “He’s dead. Would a helmet have made a difference? Without a doubt. But no one made him wear it, so he didn’t. But he sure as hell had the vest on. Didn’t do a damn thing to save his head.”
The stretcher was airborne and the sports medicine team hustled out to scattered applause. Chase jogged after them, ignoring the cameraman’s shouts.
Once they reached the bowels of the arena where no cameras were allowed, Chase swallowed the lump of fear. “How bad?”
“Concussion. Broken nose. Possibly a shattered cheekbone. They’ll know more after he’s admitted and tests are run.”
A garage door rolled up and an ambulance backed in. Chase forced his feet to move as he headed for his truck. The last thing he wanted was to deal with the other riders and the PBR officials about his impromptu speech. Chances were good it’d been cut out of the TV broadcast. But plenty of people had seen it live. And it wouldn’t be the first time his actions ended up on YouTube courtesy of personal video devices.
That made him think of Ava. Everything made him think of her. Christ, he missed that woman. He hated how it ended. So abruptly. With such anger. With such a feeling of betrayal. Although she’d tried to explain, he’d been too irate to listen to her excuses.
Hours later, Chase left the hospital and climbed in his truck. With all that’d gone on, he hadn’t checked his phone since before the event. No messages or calls from Ava. Two from Elroy. Four from Ben. That quickened his pulse. Ben never left a message and he’d left…four? Since seven o’clock tonight?
Midnight in Wyoming. He dialed anyway.
Ben answered on the second ring. “Hey, little bro. Thanks for calling me back.”
“I know it’s late—”
“I figured it would be, with your buddy Dirk getting stomped and your tirade on TV.”
“Shit. They didn’t cut to commercial?”
“Nope. But I’m not calling you to rib you about that. Something has come up and you need to come home right away.”
His heart dropped to his toes. “What happened? Is it Dad? Or Mom?”
Ben sighed. “Both. They asked me to call since you don’t always get back to them after they’ve left a message.
Guilt kicked him in the ass.
“They wanna to talk to us. And they’ve refused to discuss what it is until we’re all in the same room.”
“That’s goddamn cryptic. What could be so important they can’t tell us over the phone?”
“Whatever it is, it came up awful damn quick. No warning, no nothin’.”
“So you and Quinn haven’t been mulling it over a few days and just decided to contact me?” Not that Chase would blame them for holding back because they knew he preferred no contact until a PBR event ended.
“Nope. Look, we all watched you tonight. Heckuva ride. You deserve to be in first place and have a good shot of winning the whole event.” Ben paused. “I’m sure Mom and Dad will understand if you can’t make it.”
What Ben was too kind to say? Mom and Dad will understand because they’re used to you disappointing them.
After hearing the worry in Dirk’s brother’s voice and his promise to get to Wichita as soon as possible, Chase felt the full weight of his choice to keep his family at arm’s length these last few years. If the situation was reversed, and Dirk was making the call to his family, who in his family would hop in the car and drive all night?