Chase tamped down the immediate flare of temper. “I understand why you’re upset. But if you truly know my percentages and how I ride, then you also know how bad I’ve been sucking it up. Not just in the last few months, but in the last year. I’ve had a boatload of distractions. Made some piss-poor choices that affected my ability to concentrate.” He sent Ryan a questioning glance. “When was my last good ride?”
“Besides winning the championship at Man of Steel last year?” Ryan scratched the tip of his chin. “I’d have to say Tacoma. On Bad Reputation. You covered all your bulls, and if not for that single low score of eighty, you woulda won.”
“But I didn’t win. It’s been a struggle. Almost like I forgot how to ride a goddamn bull. You have no idea how frustrating it’s been for me.” Chase blew out a slow breath. “Look, it’s not my intention to trick anyone. I just wanna get on as many bulls as I can. So I’m asking you, Ryan. Please don’t turn me in. My entire career depends on no one knowin’ it’s me.”
“Sheesh. I ain’t gonna snitch on ya.” He sighed. Dug the toe of his boot in the dirt. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like, bein’ you but having to pretend you’re someone else. Someone average. Someone less successful. Don’t it feel weird?”
“A little. But mostly it feels good to ride.”
“You looked better than you have in a long time.”
“Thanks. Think anyone else recognized my ridin’?”
“Maybe. Most folks will chalk up the similarities to coincidence, kinda like I did at first. ’Cause no one would ever believe Chase McKay would be competing in a PRCA rodeo in Broken Bow, Nebraska.”
Chase chuckled. “True. That’s why I’m keeping a low profile around other riders and with the public.”
“That’ll be hard to do since you won,” Ryan said.
The officials herded them back into the arena for the winners’ presentation.
The older guy who helped Ryan in the chute said, “Great ride, kid.” He offered his hand to Chase. “Taz Lashlee.”
“Good to meet you, Taz.”
“I ain’t seen you around the circuit.”
“Been off doin’ other stuff. Thought I’d give it a go again.” Chase folded his arms over his chest. “Sorry I missed your ride.”
“I was last out. So I covered my bull. Not pretty, like you done, but I’m good with finishing third.”
“How long you been rodeoin’?”
Taz’s smile was missing a few teeth, which wasn’t unusual in the world of rough stock riders. “Longer than is smart, that’s for damn sure. I got a whole lotta try in me for bein’ so long in the tooth.” He grinned again.
“Taz also rides bareback,” Ryan inserted. “And he’s being modest. He’s made it to the world finals three times. Twice in bareback and once in bull riding.”
“That’s awesome, Taz. Congrats,” Chase said. “Where’s home for you?”
“Here and there. I spend most my time on the road. Seen a lot of this great country. Met a lot of fine folks.”
Then Chase understood. Taz was part of a dying breed, men so obsessed with rodeo they’d given up anything resembling a normal life. The lure of a championship buckle proved too strong, and like an addict, Taz couldn’t separate himself from his fix of possible rodeo glory. Being a rodeo cowboy was all he knew. All he wanted to know. Chase remembered being at an event with Colby, and the late night conversation at the campground about old timers competing on the circuit. Both Colby and his traveling partner, Trevor Glanzer, swore they’d quit before they gave their entire lives up to the sport.
Being a new competitor at the time, Chase hadn’t understood ever giving up the thrill of riding. But the longer Chase stayed in the business, the clearer his future became. He never wanted to be that guy—the grizzled fifty- or sixty-something rodeo dog—living out of his truck, with nothing to show for his life except aches and pains and stories about life on the road.
So how many more good years did he have left? What would he do with his life? His future?
“Got awful quiet there,” Taz said. “You okay?”
Chase offered him a smile. “Yeah. I just realized I’ve gotta meet someone.”
“A female someone?” Taz asked, elbowing Ryan and winking lewdly.
“As a matter of fact, yes. Nice meeting you guys.”
“You gonna be ridin’ around here again?”
“I’ll be outta Nebraska until the two day event in Scottsbluff next weekend.”
Ryan’s face lit up. “Awesome! We’ll be there too.”
“See ya then.” Chase snagged his equipment bag and exited the contestant area. He’d no more than cleared the gate when three women surrounded him. The old Chase would’ve smiled charmingly, flirted outrageously, made plans with one or all of the buxom buckle bunnies. The new Chase kept his head down after the “Nice ride, cowboy” comments, and sidestepped them.
But the determined ladies followed him, chattering like crows, apparently not caring that he had someplace else to be. He looked up to see how far he was from the stands and saw her.
Christ, she took his breath away.
Chase had about three seconds before the lovely Ava launched herself at him. He wrapped her in his arms and squeezed.
“What a great ride! You were amazing. You looked totally in control.”
He released her, but snuck in a quick peck on the mouth before he met her gaze. “You liked seeing me in control, huh?”
A soft blush stole across her cheeks. “I taped it, but the angle wasn’t that great, so I don’t know how it turned out.”
“I’m sure it’ll be great.” That’s when Chase noticed the hostility flowing from the buckle bunnies. He tugged Ava to his side before addressing the trio behind him. “Ladies. Have a great evening.” Then he led Ava away, stopping beneath the stands.
Ava pushed him against the concrete wall and got right in his face. “It’s always like that for you? Doesn’t matter if I shaved you bald, you grew an ugly-ass ZZ Top beard and dressed like Charlie Brown, women of all ages would still line up for a shot at you, wouldn’t they?”
Unsure how to answer, he squirmed.
Her eyes searched his.
“And you kissed me again. Out of the blue.”
Closing his eyes, Chase let his head fall back against the wall. “You caught that, huh.” Great response, McKay, especially when you have no excuse.
Then Ava’s warm, soft lips pressed against his. He bit back a groan. Fought the urge to spin her around, pin her to the wall and kiss her until they couldn’t see straight.
She eased back and Chase opened his eyes.
Ava smirked. “Be warned. If you steal a kiss, so will I. Anything you do to me? I’ll do right back to you.”
Goddamn, she was hell on his good intentions. “Then no more kissing.”
Something like resignation flitted through her eyes. “We’re back on the road early tomorrow?”
“Yep. We’ve got one-nighters for the next week.”
“Sounds like you’re back in familiar territory.”
Chase stopped and stared at her. “Was that a shot at me?”
She lightly punched him in the arm. “Friends give each other shit all the time. Suck it up, cowboy. Let’s get you fed so you’re not so cranky.”
An afternoon rodeo allowed the rare night off. He’d just slipped on his last clean pair of Cinch jeans, when two knocks preceded Ava opening the door and waltzing into the bathroom. Damn good thing he hadn’t been standing around in his skin.
“Hey, Chase, oh, sorry…”
She didn’t look particularly sorry as she stared at his chest. Before he backed off to grab his shirt, Ava traced a fresh bruise on the bottom curve of his rib cage. His skin beaded beneath her tender touch.
“Is this the only bruise you got today?” she asked softly.
“I guess. I didn’t really look.”
“So it doesn’t hurt?”
Her beautiful, skeptical eyes connected with his.
Chase covered her hand with his on his stomach. “I’m not bein’ a tough guy to impress you, Ava. I get the shit beat outta me by bulls on a weekly basis, so I’ve usually got pain one place or another.” He stepped back. “You hungry?”
“Yes, and please tell me you’ve got a real restaurant in mind and not just a stop at the Qwickie Mart for more sunflower seeds and licorice.”
He grinned. “There’s a glimpse of that snooty California girl, but as a matter of fact, I’ve heard about this supper club called Steak’n a Claim.”
“What, pray tell, is a supper club?”
“You eat on one side and there’s entertainment and a bar on the other side. Something you’d be interested in?”
“Aren’t you afraid we’ll be recognized?”
He probably deserved that, since he’d purposely made them keep a low profile this first week on the road. “If you don’t wanna go, Hollywood, just say so.”
Ava rose to her three-inch height advantage and crowded him. “I just asked a question, McKay, so don’t get snippy.”
“Men don’t get snippy. Men get pissy.”
She poked him in the chest. “Fine. Don’t get pissy.”
“Fine. So is that a yes or a no?”
“Yes. What am I supposed to wear?”
Her long legs were encased in tight jeans. She wore a fluttery top with silver and blue swirls that reminded him of the ocean. “You look great right now.”
Ava rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a bit of makeup on, my hair is in a clip and I’m wearing flip-flops.”
“You’re tryin’ not to call attention to yourself, remember? You get all fancied up, looking like the Hollywood star you are, and we’ll draw more notice.” He pushed up on his toes and kissed her forehead. “Besides, you don’t need none of that junk anyway. You always look beautiful.”