“Hell, yes, I’m jealous. But mostly I’m frustrated.” He sighed. “I know she’s hurting on a much deeper level than she’ll let me see. So again, it makes it seem like what we have is only on the surface, but I know better. I just don’t know how to get through to her that she can trust me.”
“You never got seriously injured during the years you played football, did you?”
“I missed a few games here and there. But something that affected a whole season? No. That’s part of the reason I didn’t audition for a pro team. Playing with the big boys pretty much guaranteed that streak would come to an end. Why?”
“It wasn’t your life anyway. You loved the sport, but you knew it wouldn’t be your career,” Kyle pointed out. “Football never defined you.”
Kyle drank his beer and remained quiet for a few moments. “So you don’t know what it’s like to have the one thing that defines you taken away—not by choice.”
“You’ve been there. Dealing with recovery time after an almost career-ending injury. What was it like? The year you took off from bull riding?”
“One of the worst years of my life.”
Fletch’s stomach sank to his toes.
“I had to live with my mom and her loser boyfriend. I couldn’t work. I had to live off my mom’s charity. My friends were busy with their lives and Cheyenne seemed a world away from Rawlins. During rehab, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get on the back of a bull again. I had a bitter taste of mortality and I didn’t like it. I had nothin’. I felt like nothin’. Sitting on my mom’s couch, day after day, wondering what the hell I was gonna do with myself if I ever did find my balls and get on a bull again.”
“Christ, Kyle. I had no f**king idea.”
He shrugged. “No one did. I had a lot of pride. Even now when my life is better than I ever hoped, I carry shame about that dark period in my life. And no, I haven’t talked to Celia about it. Would she understand? It doesn’t even matter because I don’t ever wanna be ‘less than’ in her eyes. It was hard enough bein’ ‘less than’ in my own.”
This wasn’t what Fletch wanted to hear.
But isn’t it what you expected?
“In Tanna’s case, not only did she have to deal with an injury and the loss of her horse, right before that she lost her way of life. Tanna has always defined herself as a Texas ranch girl. Now she’s not that. Now she’s not a barrel racer either.”
Fletch chugged his beer.
“I don’t know Sutton, but I remember the buzz the year he got injured. Everyone considered him done for. Some of them bulldoggers can bounce back from surgery and in three to six months they’re back in the game. With all the problems Sutton had with that wreck . . . like I said, I probably would’ve walked away. He didn’t. He came back stronger than ever. So he has a different perspective.”
“Couldn’t Tanna have come and talked to you?”
“Tanna is Celia’s friend first, and Celia has already told her to suck it up, get back on the damn horse and do what she was born to do—race around barrels.” Kyle sighed. “Love my wife, but if I was Tanna, I wouldn’t wanna talk to either of us.”
“So I’m screwed. Tanna won’t take my support, because I don’t understand what she’s goin’ through. But she’s fine playing grab ass with me as a diversion until she moves on.”
“I think you’ve hit it right on the head—sorry to say.”
“And if I break it off with her because I want more from her emotionally, she’ll take it as a sign I don’t care enough about her to stick around and try to crack that tough shell.”
Kyle clapped him on the back. “I know hang in there ain’t the advice you were hopin’ for, but it’s all I’ve got.”
“Thanks, Kyle. I appreciate it.”
They wandered back to the house, exchanging random small talk. After Fletch promised to keep in touch, he climbed in his truck, needing time alone to process everything.
But he had a stop to make first.
As Fletch walked into the barn at Eli’s place, he decided there was no reason for niceties. He’d known Sutton for a few years, if only in passing.
So where was Mr. World Champion Bulldogger?
He saw Sutton in the far stall brushing his horse. Of course it was a damn nice piece of horseflesh.
Sutton turned and smiled. “Hey, Doc.” Then he wandered over and rested his forearms on the top of the stall. “If you’re looking for Eli, he had to run an errand.”
“I’m not looking for him. I’m looking for you actually.”
Every bit of friendliness evaporated from Sutton’s eyes.
“And I can see by the way you’re giving me the stink-eye you know exactly why I’m here.”
“Yeah, I do. But I wanna hear you say it anyway.”
Fletch leaned closer. “Keep your f**king hands off Tanna.”
“You know you wouldn’t have the balls to say that if Tanna was within earshot because she’d kick ’em into your throat for treating her like a piece of property.”
“Maybe I would say it. Because make no mistake, boy, she is with me.”
“You sure?” he taunted.
“Shut up, right now, or—”