The last place on earth Madeline Barrett wanted to be on a Saturday night in Deadwood, South Dakota was the International Bull-rider Association event. But her three-year-old son, Riley, had worn her down.
Along with his tiny blue jeans, scuffed red cowboy boots, and a pressed white cotton shirt, he had a mini Stetson perched on his head. He swung his legs where they dangled from the battered wooden benches of the friends and family stand, leaning eagerly forward, eyes fixed on the ring.
Anticipation was rife through the crowd as the hot summer sun touched the Black Hills to the east. Music blared from the speakers during a break from the announcer’s patter, and the riders were prepping behind the chutes filled with muscular bulls.
The sights, smells, and sounds were all familiar to Maddy. They were also bittersweet. Her husband Chase had been happiest here. Even knowing how it had ended for him, far too soon last September, he would have stepped into the chute, rosined his rope, wrapped his hand, and let the world go insane beneath him. It was what he claimed he needed to feel alive.
“Is Daddy here tonight?” Riley asked.
The unexpected question, so innocently delivered, blindsided Maddy. For a moment she couldn’t answer.
“Sweetheart.” She took Riley’s hand and bent her head close to his so she could speak softly. “You know Daddy’s in heaven.”
Riley looked up at her, nodding. “Uncle Zane said there are bulls to ride in heaven.”
Her heart squeezed tight and she gave Riley a kiss on the top of his head. “I’m sure there are, sweetheart.”
“Daddy said he’d come home after the ride.” Riley looked straight ahead now, squinting at the activity around the chutes.
Maddy was at a loss. She’d explained to Riley that Chase wasn’t coming home this time; that he was in heaven now. It had never occurred to her that Riley saw heaven as just another bull-riding town.
“There’s Uncle Zane.” She pointed in an attempt to distract him. “See his red shirt.”
“He’s riding Cyclone tonight,” Riley said with an air of knowledge that belied his age. “Cyclone has wicked spins.”
“Did Uncle Zane tell you that?”
Riley shot her a look of impatience. “No. I watched it for myself on TV. Can I get mini-doughnuts, Mommy?”
For the moment, Maddy was relieved to let the conversation move on. “Sure. At the break before the finals, okay?”
The announcer called the first bull ride, directing the crowd’s attention to chute three and introducing the rider and the bull.
The pair burst out of the chute, the bull rocking straight into the air, then into an immediate buck. Riley came to his feet, while Maddy held her breath.
The rider’s form looked good. He was centered, and his arm was high, legs working. But then the bull twisted right, unsettling him. It twisted left. When the rider came down, there was nothing but air beneath his butt. He went straight to the ground, kicking his leg free of the bull’s back.
Maddy cringed, as he thudded to the dirt.
The three brightly dressed bullfighters moved in to distract the bull and protect the rider. The rider leapt to his feet and sprinted for the fence, while the bull trotted the length of the ring, tossing its head, looking for something to charge. The safety rider on horseback, ambled after it, readying his lasso to lead the bull away.
“Tough luck, cowboy,” Riley said, sitting back down on the bench.
Maddy couldn’t help but smile as her son parroted her brother Zane. Three of her four brothers still frequented the Deadwood area, and she was grateful for the time they’d spent with Riley since Chase’s death.
The announcer called the next rider.
He stayed on, but barely, scoring a seventy-one. The next three were bucked off, followed by an impressive ride of eighty-five point five by a Texas cowboy. The crowds gave a rousing cheer and the rider waved his hat in acknowledgement.
“Ladies and gentleman, our next rider has an impressive record, including recent wins in Santa Fe and Reno.”
Chute one was pulled open and a pure black bull burst out. The cowboy was tall, settled square on the bull and seeming to stick like glue. His hand was high in the air, his form near perfect.
As the crowd cheered loudly, the announcer’s voice grew excited. “Chase Garrett is riding Hammerfall, and showing us all how it’s done.”
“Mommy!” Riley grabbed onto Maddy’s arm, shaking it. “It’s Daddy. He’s here!”
Maddy’s stomach bottomed out. “No, sweetheart.”
Riley climbed up on the bench to stand as tall as possible. “Go, Daddy, go!” he called out. “Ride ’im!”
“Honey, honey.” Maddy wrapped an arm around Riley’s waist, steadying him. “That’s not Daddy. That’s a different cowboy.”
“He said his name.” Riley’s eyes were alight with excitement.
“There are lots of cowboys named Chase.”
The horn sounded and the rider dismounted, tossing his hat in the air. His grin was wide and Maddy herself did a double take. There was no denying the resemblance to her late husband.
“Daddy!” Riley shouted.
Before she could stop him, Riley was down off the bench and running along the stands.
But he was beyond listening.
She jumped to her feet, grabbing her tote bag and rushing after him. She called for him to stop, but there was too much noise. The crowd was cheering, and the announcer was shouting congratulations to the rider.
“How about a ninety-two?” the announcer called out. “The high score of the night so far. Let’s show Chase just what we think of that effort.”
The crowd cheered louder while the bullfighters tried to coral the black bull.
Riley ran along the platform, past the crowded stands towards the chutes and the cowboys.
“Riley,” she called louder as he ducked and weaved through the spectators.
She was gaining and she was easily keeping him in sight. But she was worried about what she’d say when she caught him. They needed to leave the event. They needed to go home and have a long talk about death and what that meant.
He’d barely turned three when Chase had died. It was so much for a young boy to comprehend. He was coming up on his fourth birthday now, and she thought he’d been able to wrap his head around it. He talked about his Daddy being in heaven. Until tonight, she hadn’t realized heaven to Riley was still the same as Cheyenne, Omaha or Billings.
Then he stopped.
“Riley, honey,” she called out.
“Daddy.” He reached his hand through the rails of the fence. He was on the stands walkway, four feet off the ground, and the rider named Chase was coming in his direction.
“Daddy,” he repeated, his little hand grasping the air.
When the man walked right past him, Maddy thought her heart would break into two.
Riley shrieked his disappointment. Then he ducked his head and called out again. In a split-second, he was through the rails and falling onto the dirt of the ring.
The spectators in the vicinity gasped. Then they began to shout. The bull swung his head toward them commotion.
Crying and wiping dust from his eyes, Riley stood up.
Maddy ran for the rail, her heart thumping in abject terror.
The bull lowered its head and ran for Riley.
The bullfighters shouted, running and jumping, trying desperately to draw the bull’s attention away from Riley.
The man named Chase turned. He saw what was happening and dropped his rigging, sprinting for Riley. He and the bull were in a dead heat.
Maddy grabbed the top rail, intending to vault over, but someone grabbed her.
“You’ll never get there,” they shouted in her ear. “You’ll only make it worse.”
She struggled to break the hold. “Let me go! That’s my son.”
The bull was closing in. Riley was crying and rubbing his eye, was about to be trampled or gored.
She screamed and Chase launched himself between the bull and Riley, grabbing her son in his arms and rolling beneath the feet of the charging bull. The bull’s front foot caught him square in the back, but he remained protectively curled around Riley.
Then the bullfighters arrived, shouting and circling. One of them smacked the bull in the head. Another hit it on the rump. The third had peeled off his bright-colored shirt and waved it like a flag.
They distracted the bull. Chase scrambled up the fence, launching over the top with Riley in his arms, pulling them both out of harm’s way.
Adrenalin pumped through Chase as his feet hit the solid flooring of the grandstands. A pain shot through his side, but he kept his death grip on the young boy who’d fallen into the ring.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.” A woman’s breathless voice penetrated above the announcer and the cheers of the crowd. People pressed in around them, obviously concerned about the young boy and hoping to learn he was alright.
“Daddy.” The young boy sobbed, his little arms wrapped tightly around Chase’s neck.
He sounded upset but strong.
Chase was fairly confident the boy hadn’t been hurt, but he’d feel better once the medics had a chance to look at him.
“Riley,” the woman said, putting her hand on the boy’s trembling back, “Mommy’s here, honey.”
Chase looked down to see a pretty, dark-haired woman, her blue eyes bright with unshed tears. Her face was pale and her deep red mouth was tight with concern. She had a spray of freckles across her cheekbones. It was an irrelevant fact that somehow registered in his brain.
She was fresh-faced, no makeup, but she had dark lashes that framed the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. Her thick hair was pulled up in a ponytail. She wore a moss green t-shirt with capped sleeves over a pair of faded jeans. She was local. He’d bet she was local.
She tried to gather her son from Chase’s arms and Chase tried to hand the boy over, knowing he needed his mother’s comfort.
But the boy wouldn’t let go. He gripped tighter to Chase’s neck.
“Daddy,” he moaned tearfully.
Chase lifted his brows to the woman in a silent question.
“He’s confused,” she said. “He saw you ride.”
The explanation didn’t make any sense to Chase. He knew the boy had dirt in his eyes. Maybe he simply couldn’t see.
“You’re mother’s here,” he told the boy.
“No, Daddy, no!”
“Riley.” The woman’s voice was sharper than Chase thought necessary.
“Daddy, don’t go,” Riley wailed.
Two medics appeared, a man and a woman, both of them zeroing in on Riley.
“We need to check him out,” the man told Chase.
“Please do.” Chase had no intention of stopping them.
A security guard also arrived and began moving the crowd away to give the medics space.
The female medic moved behind Chase.
“His eyes are full of dirt,” she announced.
“We’ll need to move you to the tent,” the man said. “I’m Jason,” he told Chase. Then he looked to the woman. “This is your son?”
“I’m Maddy Barrett,” she said. “His name is Riley.”
“Riley,” the medic said, “does anything hurt?”
Riley didn’t answer; he simply clung tighter to Chase.
Chase looked at Maddy. “We should move this to the medical tent.”
Whatever was upsetting the boy, Chase couldn’t imagine it was being helped by all of the commotion. The announcer had moved on to the next bull ride, and the crowd was gradually settling back in their seats, but there was still interest in him and in Riley.
The woman named Maddy gave a rapid nod. “Yes, thank you.”
Chase started to walk.
“Anything hurt on you?” the female medic asked Chase.
“I’m good,” Chase said.
“The bull stepped on you.”
“Took a kick to my side,” Chase acknowledged as they made their way down the stairs to the area beside the stalls.
“You’ll need an x-ray.”
“I’m hurt, not injured.” Chase could still breathe, and the pain was dull more than it was sharp. His ribs weren’t broken. They were only bruised. He’d felt the same pain many times before.
His score would doubtless put him in the finals, up in just over an hour. He needed to walk it off not lay around under an x-ray machine.
They entered the relative calm of the medical tent. It was built over a rubberized plywood floor, with bright lighting, three stretchers, and basic medical equipment.
Chase carried Riley to the closest stretcher.
“The man has to put you down now, honey,” Maddy said to Riley.
“No.” Riley moaned, his face pressed against Chase’s chest. “Please don’t go, Daddy.”
There was something about the boy’s vulnerability that got to Chase. A protective instinct welled up inside him. He knew it was only temporary. In minutes, maybe only seconds, Riley was going to realize his mistake.
But that led Chase to a question. Who was Riley’s father? Where was he? Chase was new enough to the IBR circuit that he didn’t know everyone. But if Riley’s father was another rider, shouldn’t he be here taking care of his son?
Maddy put her hand on Riley’s shoulder, working her fingers against Chase’s chest. “Riley, you need to let go.”
Riley shook his head.
Maddy looked at Chase, an abject apology on her face. “He’s confused,” she said again.
The female medic, obviously deciding to go with the flow, put a stethoscope to Riley’s back.
“Can you breathe in for me?” she asked Riley. “Nice and deep.”
The boy took a deep breath while she listened.
“Can you show me your eyes?” she asked him. “Just turn your head toward me and blink. Your Daddy doesn’t have to put you down.”
Again, Riley did as he was asked.
“I’m so sorry,” Maddy whispered to Chase.
“Maybe you can call his father?” Chase suggested, growing impatient.
If Riley’s father was here on the grounds, he might want to get his ass over here and help his wife and his traumatized son.
Maddy swallowed instead of answering. The abject sadness in her eyes gave Chase the answer. He could have kicked himself for his insensitivity.
“He was a bull rider?” Chase guessed.
Maddy nodded. “You look a lot like him.”
Chase’s arms involuntarily contracted around Riley. “How long?” he asked Maddy.
“Nine months. Last September in Nashville.”
Now that he had a date, Chase knew of the incident.
The medic moved around Chase to speak to Maddy. “We’re going to need to rinse his eyes.”
“Okay,” Maddy agreed.
“Can you hold him?” the medic asked Chase.
“I’m not—” Chase stopped himself. He had no intention of allowing Riley to continue in his delusion, but perhaps this very second wasn’t the time to make things clear. “Sure,” he said instead.
“Hey, buckaroo,” he said to Riley. “I’m going to sit us down. You can stay in my lap if you want. But the medic is going to have to get your face and your eyes really wet. Your eyes must hurt right now.”
“I’ve had dirt in mine too and had them rinsed out. The water will feel funny, but it doesn’t hurt very much. And you’ll feel better after. That be okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Riley said.
“You’re very brave,” Chase said.
Maddy put a trembling hand to her mouth.
“I’m not finding any other injuries,” the medic said to Maddy.
“Thank you.” Maddy’s voice was hoarse with emotion.
“We have to get to you next,” the male medic told Chase in a no nonsense voice.
“I’m fine,” Chase reiterated. “Just take care of the boy.”
He sat down on the stretcher, positioning Riley in his lap. The medic wheeled up a tray with an eyewash bottle and some towels.
“It would help to get your flak jacket off,” the male medic said.
Chase frowned at him. “You’re not going to give it a rest are you?”
“Do you want to make your next ride?”
Chase grimaced. “Fine. Go for it.”
He peeled up the Velcro and pulled his left arm out of the vest. Then he popped the snaps on his black shirt. The medic anchored the sleeve while Chase shrugged his way clear.
The man’s thumbs pressed on the sore spot and Chase sucked in a breath.
“You will need an x-ray,” the medic said.
“Sure. After my ride.” Chase would be happy to pop down to the local hospital at the end of the evening. He had no other plans.
Riley squirmed in his lap as the female medic sloshed the water through his eyes.
“Keep them open,” she told him.
Riley tried, blinking rapidly against the unfamiliar sensation. But he didn’t cry and he didn’t complain. Chase couldn’t help but be impressed.
“I can tape your ribs,” the medic offered.
“Thanks,” Chase said.
He’d take the extra support. The prime Harper Bucking Bulls were saved for the finals, and there was no doubt he’d have a jarring ride.
Zane Merrick appeared, striding through the tent entrance, zeroing in on the little group.
“Maddy,” he said, “I didn’t realize it was Riley. Is he hurt?”
“He’s fine,” Maddy answered.
“Nice pickup, Chase,” Zane said with obvious gratitude.
Chase gave a nod of acknowledgement, waiting for someone to elaborate on Zane’s interest. The two had met on several occasions over the past few months. But Zane had a tight group of friends and Chase was the new guy. They didn’t exactly hang out between events.
“Zane is my brother,” Maddy said.
“We’re all done here,” the female medic said, setting down the wash bottle and patting Riley’s face dry. She looked to Maddy. “From what I can see, he’s going to be just fine. You may want to follow up with your family doctor on Monday.”
“We will,” Maddy said.
At the same time, Zane crouched down next to Riley. “Hey, little buddy.”
Riley drew back against Chase’s chest.
Zane shot Chase a look of confusion.
In turn, Chase looked up at Maddy, lobbing it to her for an explanation. He couldn’t honestly figure any of this out. Riley’s eyes were clear now. He could see again. He’d been listening to Chase speak for coming up on twenty minutes, and he wasn’t backing away from his assertion that Chase was his father.
Though the immediate danger was over, Maddy was grateful to now have her twin brother Zane at her side.
“How was your ride?” she automatically asked him.
“It should get me there.” Then he waved away the question as unimportant, taking Maddy’s arm and drawing her out of Riley’s earshot. “What happened here? How did he fall into the ring? And Riley knows Chase Garrett? Do you know Chase Garrett?”
“Riley heard Chase’s name on the loudspeaker, and he bolted from the stands.”
Zane shrugged in incomprehension.
“Chase Garrett sounds an awful lot like Chase Barrett.”
Zane’s jaw dropped. “No way.”
Maddy tried her best to give a concise explanation. “Riley said you told him there were bulls to ride in heaven.”
“Sure,” Zane said. “Why wouldn’t there be?”
“I don’t think he understands the difference between heaven and Baton Rouge or Tulsa. In his mind, each of those are places were his daddy goes to ride bulls and then comes home again.”
Zane’s gaze shifted to Riley and Chase. “He thinks his daddy is coming back?”
“He thinks his daddy has come back. This Chase looks a lot like our Chase.” Maddy wouldn’t exactly call it uncanny, but the resemblance was there in the jaw and around his gray eyes, and strangely, in his expression when he frowned.
“He’s way taller,” Zane said.
“He’s a lot bigger,” Maddy agreed. “But relative to Riley, they’re both big.”
“Riley can’t seriously believe…”
“It can’t last,” Maddy agreed. “But I think he wants so badly to believe”—her voice caught—“that his daddy is home.”
Zane drew her into his arms. “Oh, Maddy. You don’t need this on top of everything else.”
She leaned into her brother, drawing strength for as long as she dared. Then she squared her shoulders. She forced herself to draw back.
“I’ll have to cope.”
“You always cope.”
“My son needs me.”
“Yes, he does.” Zane’s gaze strayed to Chase again. “Did he just play along?”
“I don’t think he knew how to react. He was pretty great about it.”
“He joined the tour after Cooper broke his leg. So far, he seems like a decent guy.”
Maddy also looked over at Chase Garrett. The medic was taping his ribs. It had to hurt, and holding Riley in his lap couldn’t be helping. But his expression was stoic.
His gaze met hers and a surge of gratitude and admiration washed over her. At huge risk to himself, he had saved her son’s life.
“I have to…” She didn’t know what she was going to say or do, but she had to try to express her gratitude.
She left Zane behind and walked back to Chase.
He was attempting to put his arm back into the sleeve of his shirt.
“How can I possibly thank you?” she asked simply.
He gave her a smile. It turned to a grimace as he struggled with the sleeve.
She reached out to help, holding the sleeve opening in place so he could slip his hand in. Then she pulled it up to his shoulder, her fingers grazing his bare, hot skin. Some kind of energy seemed to emanate from him. She put it down to raw strength.
It felt good. And it made her feel strangely safe. She gave into temptation and took a step further into his aura, drawing the sides of his shirt together, clicking the snaps one by one.
He looked up, but she didn’t dare meet his gaze. It was gratitude she was feeling, but it was also attraction, and that attraction was layered with a completely inappropriate arousal. Chase Garret was sexy. He was rugged and protective, and about as sexy as man as she had ever met.
“No need to thank me, ma’am.” His voice was gravely deep.
Her husband had had a deep voice. It was yet another piece of Riley’s fantasy that would fit. She found herself noting his earthy scent, grass, fresh air and horses. It was cowboy through and through.
“You saved his life,” she said.
She’d finished with the snaps, but she didn’t step back.
Instead, she gave in and looked into his eyes.
“I’d have done it for anyone. A child, a cowboy… you.”
Her chest contracted, and she drew in a jerky breath.
“I’m just glad I was there,” he said.
“You made sure you got there.” Her mind flashed back to the critical seconds, Chase’s lightning fast sprint, his dive in front of the rampaging bull, the way he rolled his body around Riley. If he hadn’t done everything so fast, so right…
“Don’t do that,” he said to her. “I can’t see where your mind’s going. Don’t let it. I got to him. That’s all that matters.”
“You could have—”
He covered her hand with his. “I didn’t. I made it. Your son is safe.”
Chase’s eye clouded for the briefest of seconds.
“Riley, honey,” she said, crouching down to draw him into her arms, “you have to come with Mommy now.”
Chase rustled Riley’s hair. “I have to go ride now, buckaroo.”
Riley looked at Chase. “You’re going to ride another bull.”
“I made the finals. So, yes, I’m going to ride another bull.”
Riley sat more fully upright. “Eight seconds?”
Chase gave an eye-crinkling smile. “Eight seconds.”
Riley lifted his hand for a high five, and Chase gave him a light smack on the palm.
Maddy’s chest nearly caved with emotion. For an instant, her husband was back, and Riley had a father once again.
Riley sobered, looking up at Chase. “You’ll come back after?”
It was obvious Chase didn’t know how to answer the question.
Zane’s hearty voice broke in. “Sure, we’ll be back. We’re not going anywhere. We both made the final ten.”
Maddy shot her brother a look of surprise. It might be tough, but it was better to end this thing now. Riley would be upset, but he was going to be just as upset later when they had to say goodbye to Chase.
Zane reached out to brush the tip of Maddy’s nose. “This’ll wait, Matilda. We’ve got us some bulls to ride.”
Riley finally slid off Chase’s lap and took Maddy’s hand.
Chase came carefully to his feet. “Matilda?” he asked her in an undertone.
“I hate it. He uses it when he thinks I’m being too fussy.”
“You’re not too fussy.”
“And you’re not too blasé.” He started to walk. “You, Madeline, are just right.”
Riley took a hop and a skip between them. “What bull are you ridin’, Daddy?”
“How did you know Madeline was my real name?” she asked Chase.
“You’re ridin’ Lucky Guess?” Riley took Chase’s hand as well.
“They haven’t done the draw yet. But all the Harper Bucking Bulls are tough.”
“Are they ornery?” Riley asked. “Stubborn as mules? Do they jump sky high?”
“All of the above,” Chase said with an indulgent smile.
“Then you should get a gooood ride.”
“I expect I will.”
“Will you win another buckle?”
“Riley,” Maddy said. “You need to let Chase focus.”
She swung her son up into her arms. There was something too intimate about him walking between the two of them.
They came to the junction of the stands and the stalls. It was time to say goodbye to Chase. One of the cowboys tossed Chase his lost hat, and he caught it in midair to plunk it on his head. She detected the slightest of grimaces as he moved.
“Hurt?” she asked.
“Thank you, Chase,” she said one more time.
He tipped his hat and smiled. “Happy to be of service, ma’am.”
And then he was gone. And Riley was smiling. And Maddy’s heart felt ever so slightly lighter.
It was a rebound reaction, she assured herself. After such intense fear and danger, she should expect to feel better than usual. And she did.
End of Excerpt