“Of course they will. Are you by a computer? Sorry. Stupid question. Go to Faces of Rodeo dot com.”
“I’m there. What is it?”
“A new magazine I created,” she said with pride.
“Seriously, Ava, this is your brainchild?” Computer keys clicked in the background. “The Check back for more details on the main page is vague.”
“Which is perfect for my purposes. Anyone who checks it—and me—will believe this is a brand-spanking-new magazine, still working on a web presence. Ooh, now go to Behind the Chutes dot com.”
“Why do you need two fake magazines? Why not just one?”
“So I have options.”
“You’re scaring me. You did all this?”
“Yep. Thank God for cheap, quick and easy websites.”
“Behind the Chutes—all the news and current standings of the stars of the PRCA. Now that is a great magazine tagline.”
“Thank you.” Filled with nervous energy, Ava hopped off the bed. “So what do you say? Can you get these made up this afternoon and Fed Ex them to me by tomorrow?”
“I should say no, but I haven’t heard you this excited about anything in a long time. What name are you using for these? Ava Dumond?”
Ava paced to the window and peeked out the curtain. “No. How about just initials? A.R. Dumond. I’ll take a picture and email it to you. You can use it for both IDs.” She picked up the guest services guide and rattled off the address. “I know this is last minute, but I really need to have these in hand by tomorrow, because we won’t be staying anyplace this long for at least another week.”
As much as Ava trusted Hannah, she hedged on divulging Chase’s identity. “A bull rider. He’s showing me the sights in exchange for me taping his rides.”
“Ava.” Hannah heaved an exasperated sigh. “Did you hit your head or something? You’re never this trusting. How can you be sure this dude isn’t taking you for a ride as a smooth-talking con artist?”
“Because he’s related to Ginger’s husband. I’m being careful. And I’m having fun.”
“Fine, but I’d appreciate you keeping in contact with me.”
“I will. Oh, and one other thing? Can you grab three pairs of jeans out of my closet and send those too?”
“Why don’t you just buy new ones?” When Ava didn’t answer right away, Hannah demanded, “What the hell is going on, Ava?”
“He put me on a budget, okay? I only brought two pairs of jeans and I’m conserving cash because I have to kick in for food and gas and other traveling expenses.”
“Wait. This…bull rider put you, the heiress who lives the high life, the shopaholic who doesn’t bother checking price tags…on a strict budget?”
Damn embarrassing to admit. She bit off, “Yes.” Hannah laughed so hard that Ava was tempted to hang up on her.
Hannah regained control, managing to only let a few giggles escape. “Oh man, Ava, I like this guy already.”
“Why? Because he won’t let me spend any money?”
“No, because it sounds like he’s a taskmaster, and God knows, you need someone to teach you restraint.”
Ava would like it entirely too much if Chase would restrain her. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep this to yourself.”
“Now I’m insulted.”
“Sorry. I know I can trust you. You’re about the only one I do trust. And not just because you work for me.”
“I’d stay on the line just to hear you groveling, but I have press credentials to fake.”
“Thanks. I’ll owe you one.”
The following morning Ava decided the next time she saw Chase she’d cluck at him, because he was being a chickenshit. He’d gotten up early again because he was obviously avoiding her.
She took advantage of the time alone and rolled out her yoga mat, sliding into her morning workout routine—a mix of yoga, Pilates and kickboxing. Maintaining a daily workout was the one thing she did for herself no matter what.
Ava showered and dressed. She scrutinized her face in the mirror, cursing the fluorescent lights. Bridget, her facial consultant would throw a hissy fit when Ava returned to LA, because she hadn’t followed through with her normal skincare routine. But there was something freeing in applying the minimum amount of makeup and being oblivious to the size of her pores.
She sat cross-legged on the bed and checked her personal email. Not much. Ava waited for a feeling of homesickness to wash over her, but it never came.
What did that mean?
Two knocks sounded on the door.
She peered out the peephole. A FedEx guy. She opened the door and signed off on the packages. She ripped into the box first, unrolling three pairs of jeans and shoving them in her duffel. Two laminated press passes, complete with different colored lanyards, tumbled out from the cardboard envelope. Ava grinned. “Hannah. You’re a genius.”
“ID,” the man blocking access to the contestant entrance demanded.
Ava gave the beefy cowboy a once-over after handing him the Faces of Rodeo media badge.
The guy squinted at her. “Never heard of this magazine.”
“It’s new. First issue won’t hit the stands until November,” she lied cheerfully. “We’re still working on the website. Check us out if you have a chance.”
“I’ll do that.” He jerked his chin toward the gate in a “go on” motion.
Ava kept her cool rather than doing a fist pump. Once she was among the mix of contestants, she wished she’d asked Chase specifics about where to go. She noticed an older gent with a steno pad jotting notes as his interview subject yammered. A cameraman from a TV news crew had set up in the closest corner, taking the best spot. She marched over anyway. There was room for two.
“Hey. Great night for a rodeo, huh?”
The guy rolled his eyes and returned to fiddling with his camera.
So much for Midwestern friendliness.
Ava draped the strap of her video camera over a fence rail and held the Nikon. She’d intended to only snap a few pictures to keep up her cover, but her lens kept coming across fascinating subjects on the periphery and in the arena.
Time sped by so quickly she was surprised to hear the announcement for bull riding. She switched out cameras and zoomed to the action in the chutes. Chase and a young kid were helping an older guy get set to ride. She hadn’t thought of Chase as a team player, so seeing him in that role was a little shocking.
Rather than focusing on the bull and rider when the chute opened, she kept her lens on Chase and his young buddy. Both guys were rapt, hands circled around the top metal bar, lips moving with silent encouragement. They whooped when the ride ended successfully and high-fived each other.
Ava grinned right along with them.
The kid was up. Chase and the older guy helped situate him, holding the bull rope, dropping a booted foot into the pen, forcing the bull to stand up. For the hundredth time Ava was grateful for the days she spent at the Bar 9 with Gemma sharing her knowledge of the sport.
And once again she left the camera on Chase. He seemed tenser watching his young friend ride. More relieved than happy when the kid reached the eight-second buzzer and scored eighty-three points.
Then Chase was all business. With the zoom function when she zeroed in on his face. His fierceness, concentration and ruggedness were absolutely mesmerizing.
She shifted her position after Chase slipped on his helmet. Her heart raced when he climbed into the chute. Would she ever lose her fear for him in those seconds he tried to master a fifteen-hundred-pound beast?
Her lens panned the surrounding cowboys as Chase readied his bull rope. Few paid attention. How different would their attitudes be if they realized Chase McKay was set to ride?
The gate banged open. She literally held her breath as Chase and the bull exited the chute in an explosion of dirt. Chase countered the animal’s every twisting maneuver. Staying strong. Keeping his seat. Maintaining his fluidity. His control. His mastery. He made it look so effortless. He was sheer physical perfection. Grace and flow.
No wonder Chase had buckle bunnies dogging him after a performance. Seeing him move like that on a bull, they imagined how he moved while riding them.
Don’t pretend you haven’t imagined it.
Ava watched him tug off his helmet and squint at the scoreboard. The announcer drawled, “You just watched the ride to beat, folks. Let’s give Bill Chase a hand for his ninety point ride!”
That was his best ride and score yet.
That caused contestants to look at him differently. Her lens tracked his progress as he accepted handshakes and pats on the back. But his young buddy showed his excitement by picking Chase up and spinning him around. For being self-conscious about his height, Chase took it with humor. Then he knocked the kid’s cowboy hat off his head and strode away.
You could be in big trouble, falling for this man, Ava.
No. She was in lust with him. His “just friends” edict made him more appealing because she hadn’t been just friends with a guy since high school.
Something caused Chase to look her direction. He aimed a smoldering stare at her. A stare that seared her body right through the lens. A stare packed with so much raw sexual power Ava bobbled the camera. Her pulse pounded as Chase took his own sweet time sauntering toward her, but his posture wasn’t the least bit casual. “That was some ride, Sundance.”
“Thanks. Felt good.” Those stunning blue eyes searched hers carefully from beneath the brim of his ratty-ass ball cap. He blurted, “Will you leave the contestant area with me tonight?”
“Need me to bat away all those bunnies for you?” she teased.
His jaw tightened. “Yeah. Seems to be a lot of them at this event.”
“So you’re done avoiding me?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because you haven’t been around since we arrived in Scottsbluff.”