Today had been full of lucky breaks. Not only that Deck had agreed to sub at the last moment, and he hadn’t been nasty, but due to her PR efforts the attendance at this rodeo exceeded initial expectations.
“As happy as I am with the gate, concession stand and beer garden receipts, I can’t help but wonder if our take would’ve been higher if we’d hitched our wagon to a celebrity rider like Chase McKay.”
“Why would you say that?”
“’Cause Chase was featured at the Upton Rodeo today.”
Instead of blurting, “He was?” Georgia meticulously straightened a stack of papers and wondered why Tell hadn’t mentioned it.
“All sorts of media coverage from what my spies tell me.” Esther ran her hand through her short gray hair. “Especially after that ninety-three point ride. But I gotta say, it’s a good thing the ride was for exhibition, because that score would definitely be called into question, bein’s Chase McKay’s cousin was a judge.”
Tell. You lying piece of shit. A family thing my ass.
The Upton Rodeo was a much bigger event and PRCA-sanctioned to boot. Had he really thought she wouldn’t find out why he’d blown her off? Or didn’t he care that his defection had left her scrambling to fill his judge spot at the last minute? Especially after she’d gone out of her way to find him more judging gigs?
Or maybe this is finally payback for all the times you left him high and dry.
The knowledge lodged in her belly like a boulder.
Esther said, “I wasn’t gonna bring this up, but wasn’t Tell McKay supposed to judge here today?”
Now she had to try and save face for both of them. “Yes. He’d gotten double-booked and…”
“Oh, I ain’t surprised this dinky event wasn’t his priority since his cousin is big-time. I was just curious.”
“I understand Chase McKay is generous with his time and celebrity, especially with rodeos in his home state. You should look into booking him for next year before Upton gets ahold of him.”
“Or maybe we should have you look into it, so we’ve got you locked in for PR for us,” Esther said slyly.
Georgia forced a laugh and looped the messenger-bag strap over her shoulder. “Who knows where I’ll be next year.”
“If you are interested in having an early word with McKay, Ziggy’s is the hangout spot for the rodeo crowd after a performance. I was thinking of heading over there myself.”
No way. Georgia was not going to Ziggy’s. Forcing a public confrontation with Tell wasn’t smart, given that last time they’d had words he’d thrown her over his shoulder and carried her out of the bar.
So she’d head home, make plans with her mother and have a quiet evening. With lots of wine. With lots of whining.
The staunch self-warning did no good.
An hour later, Georgia found herself looking for parking in Ziggy’s lot.
She paid the cover charge at the door. As she made her way through the crowd, she caught her first glimpse of a familiar face: her father’s. That was weird. He’d never been the type to hang out in bars, even before RJ died. Georgia inched forward to see who shared his booth and her eyes bugged out.
What the hell? Her parents were having supper together?
She watched them for several more minutes. Although they were talking, neither looked happy about the conversation. Maybe it was better she wasn’t there to mediate; heaven knew she hadn’t done a great job in the past.
Still, the whole thing left her unsettled. Today’s issues and events left her out of sorts and on edge.
Of course, that’s when she heard his laugh. Deep, rich and strong.
Georgia turned toward the sound and saw Tell in a circular booth, surrounded by women. Laughing with them. Drinking with them. Charming them. Lapping up every bit of female attention.
A jealous rage rose in her. She wanted to punch him in his handsome face for his part in her tension-filled day.
But she had no idea how to handle this. Standing here, secretly shooting eye daggers at his female tablemates, was pointless. Should she storm up and introduce herself as Tell’s…what? High school crush? Or go all hard-ass businesswoman and demand an explanation of why he’d blown off a professional engagement?
The longer she wallowed in indecision, the more she understood…she wouldn’t do jack shit. That reaction sent her spiraling back in time. When Deck had done or said something wrong and she’d kept her mouth shut rather than confronting him.
When the single guys who’d been circling her started moving closer with that hey baby come here often? gleam in their eyes, Georgia decided to go. But in trying to avoid the sharks eyeing her like chum, she’d snagged Tell’s attention.
Their eyes met. She expected him to look away quickly. Guiltily. But he kept focused on her. Part challenge, part some other fucked-up male pride thing that she didn’t want to deal with.
Now she’d look even more pathetic if she fled.
Her fight or flight decision was postponed when a male voice said, “Georgia?”
Then she was face to face with Chase McKay. The man was built like a bulldozer. Eyes—the same mesmerizing blue as Tell’s—stared back at her. His wide smile was pure McKay too. She blurted, “You remember me?”
“Of course.” Chase didn’t shake her hand; he hugged her. Hugged her. “You look fantastic.”
“Ah. Thanks. So do you.”
He grinned at her like he had a big secret. “My cousin is a dumb-ass. Bein’ pigheaded is a rite of passage for us McKays, but this one is gonna be especially sweet to pay forward.”
Confused, Georgia just blinked at him.
“We won’t have much time, so we’ve gotta get maximum play outta this play.” He stepped to the side so they were both within Tell’s view. “I heard from Dalton that Tell got pissy when he thought you were hittin’ up our relatives for sponsorship money? Can you imagine how much it’ll eat at him, wondering if you’re tryin’ to sweet-talk me into makin’ an appearance at a rodeo for your PR firm?”
“Why do you want Tell to think that?”
“Because he needs to wake the fuck up. And since what goes around comes around, I’m doin’ him a favor. So, darlin’, look like you’re pouring on the charm.”
Georgia slapped on a smile. “Even when I’m ticked off at him?”
“Because he’s surrounded by them bunnies?” Chase scoffed. “He ain’t hanging around them chicks to make you jealous. It’s got something to do with me, which is all kinds of fucked up. Why are you so ticked off at him?”
“Because he left me holding the bag.” She told him about Tell backing out of the Pine Haven Rodeo.
“To be honest, I’m shocked. Two years ago, Tell wouldn’t let me compete in a PRCA event under another name. He’s always doing the right thing.”
“Not this time.”
“Let’s use it against him.” Chase mimed signing a document on his hand. “Wanna play a game?”
“Make Tell’s head explode.” Chase’s eyes twinkled. “Come on, it’ll be fun. We’ll just casually walk out the front door as if we’re deep in conversation.”
Georgia didn’t know what purpose this would serve. This wasn’t a sexual flirtation between her and Chase McKay. She’d followed his career and knew the bull rider was happily married.
They stopped in the middle of the parking lot.
“Won’t be long now,” Chase said.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“The bitchier you are, the more he’ll try to get you alone to sweet-talk his way outta the doghouse. But stay firm, Georgia, because he’s gotta learn how to do some serious groveling.”
“I will never understand men.”
Chase laughed. “Now that you’ve said that…I ain’t feelin’ manly. It’s fuckin’ bizarre that I just channeled exactly what my wife would say.”
And as Chase had predicted, Tell barreled out, straight toward them. “Just what in the hell is goin’ on?”
“I’m talking to Georgia.”
“None of your damn business,” Georgia snapped.
“The hell it’s not. What does she want from you?”
Despite the fact Tell towered over Chase by at least six inches, Chase herded his cousin back. “Are you always so damn suspicious?”
“Of the two of you becoming buddy-buddy? Yes. You’re a celebrity, Chase. She’s in PR. Do the math.”
“I did do the math and came up one judge short for the Pine Haven Rodeo today,” Georgia said sweetly. “Ring any bells?”
Tell froze. He blushed. He opened his mouth but no sound came out.
Chase shook his head. “Not cool, cuz. You ain’t the type to shirk your responsibilities.”
“I’m a PRCA judge. I should’ve been on the roster for the Upton Rodeo in the first place. Besides, the Pine Haven Rodeo is small-time.”
“Them cowgirls and cowboys who paid money to compete in it didn’t think it was small-time,” Chase said hotly. “Jesus. When did you get to be a rodeo snob, Tell?”
“Don’t you talk to me about bein’ a snob, Chase.”
Chase focused on Georgia. “Who’d you get to fill in as a judge on such short notice?”
“Deck Veldekamp.” She felt Tell’s angry eyes trying to melt her face.
“So because Tell backed out, you—”
“Had to beg my ex-husband to help me? Yeah.” She looked away. “Which was humiliating because Deck knew Tell was the one who cancelled on me at the last minute. Oh, and so did the rodeo committee secretary, so it was an all-around fabulous day.”
Tell’s learning to grovel curve was short because immediately he was in Georgia’s space, forcing her to meet his hangdog gaze. “Shit, Georgia. I’m sorry. So sorry.”