Chase repositioned his equipment bag, trying not to smack into bystanders as he made his way to the registration table. The long line indicated he’d found the right place.
He automatically lifted his hand to adjust his cowboy hat, a nervous habit he’d had his entire life, but his fingertip connected with the curved bill of his ball cap, not his Stetson.
Everything about being here felt damn weird. He glanced around. Looked like the chutes were well maintained. The spectator stands were covered to keep out the worst of the midday heat and the occasional cloudburst. A brand new electronic scoreboard anchored one end. All in all, a nice county rodeo.
The line moved ahead a few feet. When Chase reached for his duffel bag, something struck him in the left shoulder. He glanced up sharply to see the young kid in front of him, backing away, a look of alarm on his face.
“Sorry. I lost my grip and it slid down… I didn’t m-mean to…”
Christ. The kid was barely eighteen and looked scared Chase was going to beat the crap out of him. Chase shrugged. “No big deal. I’m still standing.” He thrust out his hand. “Bill Chase.”
The kid dropped his equipment bag so quickly it missed Chase’s foot by barely an inch. “I’m Ryan, Ryan Ackerman.”
“Well, Ryan, Ryan Ackerman, what event are you competing in?”
Ryan’s face lit up like a firecracker. “Bull ridin’.”
“Yeah? Me too.”
“I’m official and everything.” Ryan fumbled for his wallet in his back pocket and whipped out a PRCA card.
Chase took it, checking the date. The card still smelled of new plastic, as it was only a week old. “Congrats are in order.”
“Thanks. I’m really excited to be here.”
No lie. The kid fairly bounced from boot to boot. Chase grinned. “You have been on a bull before, right?”
He nodded. “I was on the high school rodeo team. Ended up fourth in the county semifinals, but third place is the cutoff for finals so I didn’t get to go to state.”
“You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”
The line moved and Ryan kept a firmer grip on his bag even as he turned around to talk to Chase. “How long you been ridin’ bulls?”
“Officially? About eleven years. Off and on. Off, mostly lately. I decided to hit rodeos this summer to try and get back on track.”
Ryan’s gaze briefly dropped to Chase’s belt buckle, which was the fastest way to figure out if you were in the presence of a champion. But it wasn’t like Chase could wear his Man of Steel belt buckle at these events, so he’d opted for just a plain belt and buckle.
“That’s what I’m trying to do too. In between when I’m working construction for my mom’s boyfriend.”
“A man’s gotta make a livin’. So is your mom here, watching your debut?”
He shook his head. “She’s workin’ this weekend.”
Ryan was at the head of the line. He showed his PRCA pro card, and when the lady said, “That’ll be sixty-five dollars,” Ryan opened his wallet and froze.
Chase stealthily peered around the kid’s arm. He held two twenties, a five and four singles.
Ryan stammered. The woman manning the registration was sympathetic, but Chase knew she wouldn’t let the kid compete without paying the entry fee. Chase took a twenty out of his pocket and let it fall on the ground. Then he tapped Ryan on the shoulder. “Is everything all right?”
When Ryan turned, Chase noticed the kid’s face was fire-engine red. “Ah, sorry, we’re just tryin’—”
“I think something fell outta your pocket when you took out your wallet.”
Relief swept over Ryan’s face when he saw the twenty dollars behind his equipment bag. “Gosh. Thanks. I thought I had enough.”
“No problem.” Tickled Chase to no end to see Ryan’s excitement when the lady handed him his contestant number.
Ryan grinned at Chase. “Nice meetin’ you.”
“See you behind the chutes.” Chase handed over his PRCA card and entry cash to the secretary.
“Ma’am. Is there a section reserved for family?”
“Yep. Section F, first six rows. Seating is first come, first serve.”
“Thanks. I’ll let her know.”
He glanced at his cell phone. Two hours before the performance started. He texted Ava the family section info and cut around the contestant entrance. Normally he loved being behind the chutes trash talking with the other riders. But he feared he’d give too much of himself away, so he opted to stretch out, warm up and get his head in the game by finding a remote corner by the pens.
As team roping started, Chase paced along the back fence until he heard a noise that sounded like…retching. He turned the corner and found the rookie, bent over, hands on his knees.
And Chase thought he was nervous? Poor kid. He’d been there. He leaned against the rail and waited until Ryan pushed himself upright. With his pasty-white complexion, the kid resembled a zombie. Chase didn’t say anything, merely handed him a bottle of water.
Ryan slumped next to him. Took a drink, swished it around in his mouth and spat it out. “Thanks, man.”
“Did you ever…?”
“Barf before I rode? Yep. ’Course, I always told myself it was from something bad I ate or drank and definitely not from bein’ scared shitless.”
That earned Chase a wan smile.
“It’s normal. In fact, I’d think you were abnormal if you weren’t shaking in your boots.”
“Uh-huh. But the trick is to use that fear and control it, not let it control you. Make sense?”
“What number you ridin’ tonight?”
“I’m ridin’ sixteen. If you want, I can help pull your rope.”
“You’d do that?” Ryan asked with total surprise.
“Ain’t like we’re competing against each other. We’re tryin’ to best a bull, and in my mind, that puts us on the same side.”
“You’re right, I guess.”
Chase nudged him with his shoulder, or tried to, but the kid was a solid six inches taller than him. “I’m always right. Now come on, let’s get ready to ride us some bulls.”
Barrel racing ended. Most competitors were behind the scene, willing to lend a hand to whoever needed it. Chase watched as three of the first eight riders covered their bull. Then three more.
The kid was quick getting his hand in position and a wrap. An older guy stayed to help and released his hold on Ryan’s vest when the kid nodded his hatted head.
The gate opened and they were off. First thing Chase noticed: Ryan wasn’t spurring much, but he remained on the bull, matching his upper body movements to every jerk and twist. When the buzzer sounded, Chase whooped and hollered with the rest of the riders.
The score boomed over the loudspeaker. “How about a ride of seventy-eight for the PRCA debut of this Nebraska cowboy?”
Not a bad score for a rookie. Not bad at all.
Chase wandered down to his chute and performed a couple of stretches before he secured his headgear. Funny thing was, for as much as he’d initially bitched about wearing the helmet during the training with Cash, he’d gotten used to it.
“Here. Lemme hold it for you,” Ryan said. Once he was set, Chase slipped in the mouth guard and ran through his final mental checklist.
Good seat. Check.
Hips parallel. Check.
Chin up, arm up. Check and check.
Ready to rock and roll.
Chase nodded at the gate man.
They exploded from the chute, dirt flying. Chase didn’t hear the crowd. He kept his focus on adjusting to each minute maneuver the bull made, and somehow, everything clicked into place.
The bull wasn’t a jumper, but a spinner. Or so Chase thought until the animal nearly went vertical. But he gritted his teeth and held on until the buzzer sounded. As soon as he jerked his hand free, he sailed off and whipped off his helmet, squinting at the scoreboard. Nothing yet. The bullfighter jogged over with his bull rope and high-fived him.
Finally, as he reached the side gate, he heard, “Folks, we have a new leader. Let’s hear it for an eighty-one point ride from Wyoming’s Bill Chase, on the rank bull, Gnarly Dude, brought to you by Jackson Stock Contracting.”
Chase waved to the crowd and disappeared into the contestant’s area, switching out his helmet for his battered ball cap. He leaned against the railing to catch his breath. To replay the ride while it was fresh in his mind.
Isn’t that Ava’s job as a videographer? To provide you with instant replay?
Ava. He hadn’t thought about her in hours. So when someone poked him in the chest hard, three times, he half-expected he’d look up into those stunning aquamarine eyes of hers.
No such luck. Ryan jammed his finger in Chase’s sternum twice more. The kid looked furious. Before Chase could speak, Ryan bit off, “I need to talk to you. In private. Right now.” He stomped over to the corner by the empty pens.
Chase followed. “What’s up?”
Ryan loomed over him. “I’ve wanted to be a bull rider since I was nine years old. So like any kid who discovered a dream, I became obsessed. I watched every bull-riding event on TV. Including spending the last five years studying the riders.” His voice dropped to a fierce whisper. “Did you really think no one would recognize your ridin’ style, Chase McKay?”
“I’ve studied your form more than any other rider, including the reigning champs. You’re like my hero…and instead of bein’ happy I finally get to meet you, I’m pissed off that you’re running around here lying to folks. Are you doing this for kicks? You don’t get enough adoration ridin’ in the big league and bein’ on TV every week?”