Evidently he hadn’t realized she’d set up a goddamn camera in their room either.
He hit the pause button, his head spinning, his gut churning, his thoughts focused on one awful thing.
Yes, he knew she’d been taping all the fucking time, but he had no idea she’d been making a goddamned movie. The whole time they were together. To think he’d invited her to share his experiences on the road. He froze. Wait a second. He hadn’t invited her. She’d invited herself. Offering a convincing argument about wanting to see real life outside her poor, privileged upbringing.
But Chase sure as hell hadn’t encouraged her to creep around, sticking that camera in everyone’s face. Capturing their private moments. Having no shame in using them for her own gain. For a woman who claimed to hate the intrusion of paparazzi, she’d become damn good at acting like one of them. She’d promised him she wouldn’t show her home movies to anyone.
A new thought chilled his blood. Did Ava have footage of Ryan’s last ride? Of his lifeless body leaving the rodeo grounds?
He’d trusted her. After keeping women around for recreational uses only, Chase had opened up to her. Told her things he’d never shared with anyone. He’d fallen in love with her.
Jesus. He was a fucking idiot. She was an actress. She’d probably been acting the entire time.
His bag was packed and on the bed in less than five minutes. Would he leave without explanation? Or stick around to hear hers? As he debated, the hotel door opened. Her voice carried to him.
“Sometimes I cannot believe New Yorkers’ rudeness. All I asked for was plain honey for a bagel, instead of that nasty cinnamon honey spread. You’d think I’d asked the girl at the counter to track down a hive and gather a honeycomb herself.”
The food bags hit the table. “Anyway. Here’s breakfast. Eat at your own risk. I’m half-afraid she spit in the coffee.”
When he didn’t move from where he leaned against the doorjamb, she prompted, “Chase? You all right?”
“No. I’m trying really goddamned hard not to throw your computer on the floor and stomp it into pieces. But I’m sure a smart cookie like you backed up all the important files, didn’t you? So it’d be pointless and I’d probably hurt myself.”
“What are you talking about?”
Chase whirled around. “Why didn’t you tell me about the movie you’ve been making since we met?”
Her face, usually so animated, went completely blank. “What were you doing on my computer?”
“Checking my email. Imagine my shock when I accidentally clicked on your account and an email from Jackie Ackerman showed up.”
“You had no right.”
He was looming above her almost before she could blink. “No, you had no right. I had no idea what you were filming would be used for a movie.”
“A documentary,” she corrected.
“When you offered to help me, I had no fuckin’ clue you were really helping yourself, weren’t you? Getting some juicy stuff, taping our private moments. Asking those annoying personal questions at every turn. Now I know why.”
“You were eager for my help, if I recall. And if I’d stayed focused on Chase McKay all the time—that would’ve been acceptable?”
“None of this is acceptable. Using me. Using Taz. Using Ryan.” Chase stared at her as if he’d never seen her. “You couldn’t tell me what you were doin’ when we’ve been together every damn day for almost two months? But you told Ryan’s mom? How did you get Jackie on board for this exploitation? What scene did you set? Did you promise this ‘documentary’ will bring her money?”
Her hand cracked into his cheek.
He slowly straightened and backed away.
Ava scrambled after him. “Oh God, Chase. I’m sorry. Let me see—”
“Don’t fucking touch me.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve never hit another person in my life. I don’t know what got into me.”
“You were acting. Playing the part of the outraged woman. Setting the scene. It’s all second nature to you.”
Again her face rivaled a statue’s for stillness.
“Was any of this real?” He laughed harshly. “No. Of course it wasn’t. I’m the typical dumb cowboy, believing a beautiful, filthy rich, famous woman like you could fall for a man like me. I probably deserve this. Maybe especially after my womanizing ways over the years. But knocked flat and humbled on camera before millions of people seems a harsh comeuppance.”
“I wasn’t acting.”
“Not when it came to sex. Some things can’t be faked.”
Ava wrapped her arms around herself and looked away.
Then Chase knew. She couldn’t fake her body’s reaction to him, but she could set the scene to force his hand. “That first time… Now that I think about it, the loser bar rat in our room. He was a total plant, wasn’t he? A guy supposed to drive me into a jealous rage. Force me into taking you to bed before another man beat me to it.”
She didn’t deny anything.
“I’ll take the lapse in judgment. I’ll take my licks for bein’ played for a fool by you. But I will take them in private.”
“What do you mean?”
“After bein’ in the PBR for years, I know enough about release forms to remember that I didn’t sign anything that allows you to use any images of me. No pictures, no sound bites, no videos, no quotes, nothin’. You go ahead and make your documentary, Ava, but leave me out of it. There better not be a single word, a single image or a single reference to me anywhere. And if there is? I will file a lawsuit the likes of which you’ve never seen. You may have money, honey, but in the court of law, it’s all about who has the best lawyer. And I guarantee you the one I have on retainer, from the last unauthorized use of my image incident? Lives for shit like this. He’ll make your previous skirmish with the press look like a fuckin’ picnic.”
“You’re wrong, Chase.”
“Not about this I’m not.”
“No. You’re wrong about me. And if you’d stop acting like the wounded male and let me explain, instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion—”
“Too late,” he snapped.
“Will you shut up and listen?” Ava drew herself to her full height and looked down on him. But her eyes strayed to the red mark burning on his cheek. Her face held that delicate thread of a woman about to crumble. “I didn’t pull a fast one on you. From the first day I left Denver and stopped periodically to dink around with my cameras, I had no idea what to do with the footage I’d shot. I’d vaguely considered using the scenery as inspiration for a screenplay, which I freely told you the first day we spent together. When I started taping your rides? That changed everything for me. Not because I wanted to exploit you, but everything about your life as a bull rider fascinated me. Scared me. I’d never met anyone like you. That’s not me bullshitting you. That’s not me acting, for Christsake.” She poked him in the chest hard with her perfectly manicured fingernail. “And fuck you for thinking what happened between us, either between the sheets or on the road, was acting on my part. It was real. As real as it gets. At least I can admit it. At least I’m not freaking out and backtracking like you are, because you’re scared shitless you admitted I’m more than another fuck-and-run encounter.”
Damn woman saw too much. “Get to the fuckin’ point, Ava.”
“After seeing the events at that first rodeo, I thought maybe I was on to something. Especially after meeting Ryan and Taz. The three of you were in different places in your riding careers. The new footage became more focused. I asked questions that would support the images I’d gotten. But my ideas were still being processed. I didn’t tell you what I was working on, not because I was creating some big, goddamn, rip-your-life-to-shreds secret video. I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” She retreated to gaze out the window. “That changed when Ryan died. I knew some of what I had could be molded into a documentary. A look at Ryan’s life and the tragedy of his death. But I’d never do something like that without his mother’s consent. Taz approached me at Ryan’s funeral about compiling some of Ryan’s rides for Jackie. He must’ve told her about it, because she contacted me. So that’s where I am. Trying to help a brokenhearted mother put the pieces together.”
Her voice caught and Chase fought the urge to go to her.
“So maybe I don’t know you as well as I thought I did either. I can’t believe after what I’ve been through you’d consider, for even one nanosecond, I would willingly, gleefully put another human being though that bullshit.”
Now Chase was really confused.
His cell buzzed and he plucked it out of his pocket. He put a fake note of cheer in his voice. “Elroy. I hope you’re calling me with good news?”
“Yes. You’re officially back on the PBR roster and scheduled to compete in Wichita next weekend.”
“No kiddin’? That’s great.” He allowed a tight laugh. “I was getting worried. No word from the powers that be. And then, I’ve, ah, been in the press the last few days a little more than you’d like, I’m sure.”
“To be honest, the coverage of you and Miz Cooper weighed in your favor for a change.”
Talk about a shocker. “It did? Why?”
“Because you’re finally with a woman who’s newsworthy in her own right, and not by virtue of her association with you.”
“Did that make sense in your head before you said it? ’Cause that didn’t make a lick of sense on my end.”
Elroy laughed. “You two are a match made in PR heaven. Even though some tabloid rags are claiming your whole relationship is a publicity stunt.” Elroy paused. “Is it?”