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Merry Grayson loved Baradero, Argentina. The countryside, the colors, the food, and the hot gauchos who flirted with their eyes made her feel that she could do anything.
The small hospital the paramedics insisted she go to—not so much.
“I’m fine,” she said, then tried to say it in broken Spanish when the nurse didn’t respond to her. “Yo estoy bien.” Merry’s Spanish wasn’t very good. It had been a long time since Senora Martinez’s high school class kept her on her toes. Mas tequila; Donde esta el bano? and a handful of colorful swear words were her entire repertoire.
“You are not fine. You have a concussion, and we’re still waiting for X-rays on your ribs and shoulders,” the nurse said in flawless English.
Merry rotated her shoulder. It did hurt. So did her ribs, but she knew they were just bruised instead of cracked. She’d had cracked ribs before and remembered the pain keenly.
“I don’t need to wait here for the results, right?” Her bed in the Howard Johnson’s downtown was calling her, along with a shot of whiskey for the pain.
The nurse frowned. “Do you have anyone to look in on you?”
The question hurt almost as much as her shoulder. “No,” Merry said softly. Her sister June had decided to stay stateside to be closer to her new boyfriend, Esteban, instead of competing in Argentina this year. Her friends, Carly and Zane, who she had been supposed to spend her birthday and Christmas with had stayed for the rodeo, but then had flown off without her when it looked like she wouldn’t be able to join them. Even her horse, Raphael, hadn’t made the trip to South America with her. He probably was being spoiled rotten by her best friend, Janice Sullivan, at the Three Sisters Ranch in Last Stand, Texas.
Merry was in Argentina to compete in the new bronc-busting event that the Women’s Professional Rodeo Circuit had just introduced. She wasn’t very good at it yet, and these international events were one way to get practice in without affecting her ranking.
“The IWPRC requires that you stay here overnight, then.”
“Great,” Merry said, forcing a small smile. She didn’t want to give the nurse a hard time.
The International Women’s Professional Rodeo Circuit wasn’t taking any chances for lawsuits, not that Merry would sue them anyway. One Grayson sister in litigation at a time was enough for their family. Right now, June had dibs on that because of the way the IWPRC’s U.S. counterpart had handled a public relations nightmare between June and her rival, Shayna James.
“Can I at least get dressed?” Merry hated the thin hospital gown and the bed was equally uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, and actually looked like she meant it. “Would you like some juice?”
Not without vodka. “Just some water, thanks.”
The nurse gave her a sympathetic smile and left.
Merry shared her hospital room with two other women. She could hear them moving around, but the thick curtains gave them all a semblance of privacy. Luckily, she still had full bars on her phone. Unluckily, her mother had already called twice.
Groaning, Merry sunk her head back onto the lumpy pillow. She knew what her mother was after. The rodeo hadn’t been televised, and Penny Grayson didn’t do the internet. So she had no idea that Merry had been thrown ass over teakettle and nearly stomped to death by a bronc. The damned horse had had it in for her, too. If she’d wanted that type of danger, she would have taken up bull riding. At least they had bullfighters—rodeo clowns—to protect the riders after they got thrown.
No, her mother was blowing up her phone because she wanted Merry to come home to Last Stand for her birthday, which was on Christmas Eve, and then stay for Christmas and New Year’s. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. But she had been home only a few months ago for Emily Sullivan’s wedding. And while it had been great to see her family and her old friends, it had also been…not so great.
Her sisters June and April seemed to be settling down in Last Stand, mostly due to their connection with the Sullivan family and their Three Sisters Ranch. Merry had known the Sullivan sisters all her life. They were the same age as she and the rest of her sisters, although they had lost touch for a few years. Around the holidays, they would circle back into each other’s orbits, and it was like no time had passed between them.
It would be nice to spend time with her family again, but Merry was acutely aware that her sisters had leveled up without her. Sure, Merry had won multiple women’s rodeo championships and taken home hefty purses and diamond-studded belt buckles, but her sisters were actually happy and content with their lives. When the hell was that going to happen to her?
It had been a long time since she felt any sense of peace—just the grim satisfaction of a job well done. She was damn proud of her achievements—even if she had lost to her baby sister in the final round of barrel racing last season. Merry didn’t begrudge June the win. June had deserved it after the shitty year she’d had, being blacklisted by the WPRC because of a bullshit smear campaign.
Truth be told, Merry wanted to move on from the rodeo. She had done all she could and, after fifteen years of being on the road, she was ready to give her horse and herself a rest. She should have done it last year when she had a sweet job lined up announcing at the various rodeos with the broadcast team. A part of her wondered, though, if that would get boring too after a while. Restlessness seemed to be a family trait. But Merry wanted to retire from the rodeo on her own terms. And that meant winning the buckle and a fat purse for WPRC’s first women’s bronc-busting event.
Maybe it was the Christmas season in general that had Merry all melancholy and retrospective. When she’d been growing up, Christmastime had been magical. She was named Merry, after all. Her mother always made sure that her birthday on December twenty-fourth didn’t get lost in the shuffle. Her father, Luke, would always show up too, usually dressed like Santa and bearing presents for her, as well as for her sisters, April and June.
But as they all got older and life’s responsibilities had gotten in the way, Christmas and her birthday had become less magical. As Merry had gotten famous, or infamous in the rodeo circuit, there were a lot of rich fans who loved to be able to fly her all over the country, and she’d lived it up, enjoying the good life for a few years. The mile high club was a good time, and partying in a private plane pretty much ruined her for commercial air travel.
This year was supposed to have been epic. Carly and Zane were going to fly her to Tahiti, where she could spend her birthday with her butt in the sand and Christmas drinking rum, surrounded by men in tight bathing suits. If that wasn’t the perfect birthday Christmas combo, nothing was. Unfortunately, they took off without her, leaving her wondering about her next step.
Her phone rang again and Merry answered it right away so it didn’t disturb the other patients in her room. “Yeah?” she said in a low, quiet voice.
“Finally,” her mother screeched.
Wincing, Merry pulled the phone away and lowered the volume. Her head was throbbing now in time with her ribs. Penny Grayson was not a quiet woman.
“What’s up?” Merry asked, settling into a reclining chair by the window. She hissed in pain. It felt like she had been skewered like a kebob.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked.
“Bad connection. I’m tired. Can we talk tomorrow?” Merry eased her feet up and tried not to whimper. She should have taken the acetaminophen instead of toughing it out. When the nurse came back with the water, she would ask for some.
“I’ll let you rest as soon as you tell me when you’re landing.”
“I didn’t fly out with Carly and Zane,” she said. “They had places to be that I wasn’t interested in going.” A big fat lie. She hadn’t been allowed to fly out with them, unless she wanted to breach her IWPRC contract—she had to be cleared by the hospital before she went anywhere. And they hadn’t wanted to wait around.
“When are you coming home, then?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have my schedule handy.” Merry closed her eyes. It hurt to think.
“Well, I do. You don’t have an event until the new season starts in February.”
“That long?” Merry frowned and then immediately regretted it as pain lanced through her skull.
“You could use a vacation.”
Couldn’t argue with that. But she had been leaning more toward Tahiti than Last Stand.
“And we’d like you home for your birthday and Christmas.”
“Why?” Merry complained. “They’re just regular days.”
“No, they’re not,” her mother shouted and a blast of white-hot pain flashed through Merry’s entire being.
“Please, don’t yell,” she growled.
“Then don’t talk nonsense.”
Merry tried not to engage, but it wasn’t in her nature to let things go. “We’re all adults. Newsflash, Ma, there ain’t no Santa Claus and even if there was, I’d be on the naughty list.”
Her mother snorted. “You and me both.”
Merry couldn’t remember if her mother was still seeing the owner of the trailer park that she rented her plot from or if she had moved on. Her mother tended to go through boyfriends like Merry rode around barrels.
“I want all of us together this year.”
“Has Luke called?” Merry wondered if her father was in the neighborhood. He traveled all over, plying his trade as a mechanic, too restless to stay in one shop for any length of time. If her father was in Texas, maybe they could have an old-fashioned Christmas like they used to have. It wouldn’t be Tahiti, but it wouldn’t be a totally depressing suckfest either.
“No, but we don’t need him.”
“You don’t need me,” Merry said, thinking that her two sisters and their boyfriends would take up more than enough space in the double-wide for Christmas dinner.
“Of course, I need you. You’re my daughter. It won’t be the same without you.” The little wobble in her mother’s voice hurt worse than her head. Besides, what was Merry going to do until February anyway?
She wasn’t about to chase Carly and Zane around the world, even if she could afford to do it. Argentina would be a nice place to hang out over the holidays, but she couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than a solo dinner at HoJo’s on her birthday and Christmas.
“Raphael is probably wondering if you’ve abandoned him,” her mother said casually.
Ooh, now she was fighting dirty.
“My horse is being well taken care of, as I’m sure June has told you.” Between Janice Sullivan and Merry’s sister June, Raphael was being spoiled rotten.
“It’s not the same, though, is it?” her mother said with mock sympathy.
It wasn’t. She missed her horse. And if she was being honest, she did miss her family and her real friends. Merry was pretty sure Janice Sullivan wouldn’t have flown off and left her in a hospital all alone in a foreign country. And when she was with Carly and Zane, she always felt that she had to be Merry Grayson, one of the wild Grayson sisters. It was exhausting to always have to be “on.”
She sure as hell found out this Christmas the people she was partying with weren’t really her friends. Still, it was hard not to feel dejected at the thought of spending Christmas back in Last Stand. But maybe it would do some good for her to go home and think about her life and her next steps in her career. She was used to being on top at the WPRC. Now her rankings would slip because of that stupid bronc-busting category. She felt so conflicted about her life. While Merry wanted to be the first woman to win the buckle in that category before she retired, she and Raphael should have retired last year.
“What do you want for your birthday and Christmas?” her mother asked, probably to fill up the long silence.
“New pair of boots,” Merry said. Although, a sexy cowboy looking for a good time, a couple of shots of Fireball Whisky and a long rest in a comfortable bed, also came to mind.
To retire or not to retire? That was the question. If she could win in a category that had never been offered before, Merry’s name would forever be etched in the WPRC history. But she would have to beat younger, more talented riders who had trained longer. Still, she knew that if she retired now without having won the distinction, people would eventually forget about her. And if they did, who was she without the rodeo? Merry didn’t know, and that scared her. She wanted to be remembered as a hell of an athlete and a force to be reckoned with.
That was what she really wanted for Christmas.
The nurse came back with a pitcher of ice water. Merry held her hand over the receiver and whispered, “Can I get some Tylenol?”
The nurse placed a little plastic cup with two pills by the water. “I thought you might change your mind.”
“You’re the best. Thanks.”
“What’s going on?” her mother asked again.
“Nothing,” Merry said. “Took a knock in the arena today. It’s not a big deal.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” She hoped she sounded convincing.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not one little bit,” Merry said, even though she knew it would entice her mother. “I’ll tell you when I see you.”
That sidetracked her. “When?”
“I’ll look into getting a flight out as soon as I wind up my business here,” Merry said.
“This is going to be the best Christmas ever,” her mother said, hanging up.
Merry wasn’t too sure about that, but it wasn’t going to be the worst. Not by a long shot. That one was reserved for the time she and her boyfriend got shot at.
Simon Reynolds had been her first love, and in a lot of ways, her only love. He had been her shoulder to cry on when her mother had finally gotten around to divorcing Luke, even though their marriage had been over for years.
With Simon, Merry could be herself instead of what Luke and her mother expected her to be. Simon hadn’t cared about her grades, or her standings in the teen rodeo. He was fun personified and she had loved him deeply. Then he got sent to prison for a bunch of things she had been too naïve to have known about, and she had never heard from him again. He probably hated her for not speaking up at his trial or fessing up that she had been with him the night he was arrested. The old guilt still felt fresh, and she forced thoughts about Simon aside.
“Guess I’m going home for Christmas,” she said with a sigh. Visions of palm trees and fruity drinks danced in her head before being replaced by a dusty trailer park and a bucket of ice filled with White Claw. It wouldn’t be Tahiti, but it would be home.
End of Excerpt