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Chase Summers leaned against the tunnel wall leading out to the arena, thumbs hooked in the loops of his comfortable old jeans, wearing his lucky flannel shirt under the competitor’s vest with his sponsors’ badges decorating the lapels. He barely heard the dull roar of the crowd or the pounding country rock music as he focused on his ride. People milled about—other cowboys waiting for their rides, watching the competition, or those who had finished and were seeing who had made the next round with them. The sports medicine team pushed past Chase and ran to the arena to help one of the riders who had just gotten thrown and was slow to get up. Chase didn’t go look. He couldn’t afford the distraction, not this close to his ride. Couldn’t let the risks mess with his head, not yet. He’d check the status later on the injury list.
It’d been a bad season so far. Bull riding was one of the most dangerous sports there was. Yeah, people complained about football. Two men lining up to attack each other in the pursuit of a ball. Not that he didn’t love football or respect the game, but those men weighed a couple hundred pounds. Try putting a guy who weighed a couple hundred pounds, maybe, against a fifteen-hundred to two-thousand-pound bull who didn’t play by any rules except to kick the shit out of you. Then see who had it rougher.
Despite the dangers, he’d ride the bull any day. The rush, the adrenaline, and the reward were intense. But this season there seemed to be more injuries than usual; more of the top guys were out for extended periods. The number one rider had been kicked in the face just two weeks ago and needed major reconstruction, leaving the field open for someone like Chase to catch up.
He took a deep breath, letting the smell of dirt, bull, and rawhide permeate his lungs, then he let it out slowly, expelling the thoughts of injuries like a bad odor. The scents reminded him of the ranch, the only home he’d ever known, the home he never thought he’d actually have and wouldn’t have except for the generosity of his mentor and foster father, Douglas Rawlings.
J.D. McIntyre strode up next to him, his chaps and jeans coated in dirt from his fall in the ring and clapped him on the shoulder. “You up next? Who did you draw?”
“Oleander,” Chase replied, nodding to his sometime traveling companion and fellow hell-raiser.
J.D. snorted. “Better you than me. That bull looks sweet and docile but turns into a righteous demon in the chute.”
Chase shrugged and checked his gloves. “He’s worth the points. I’ll need them for the lead.”
J.D. shook his head. “Well, someone had to draw him. If anyone can, it’d be you. Go beat the Brazilian and bring home the trophy. I’m out of the running for now. Damned Quick Draw tossed me in 2.8 seconds.”
Chase grunted. Quick Draw was living up to his name again. But J.D. was his only other real competition outside of Antonio Pereira. Antonio was ranked number three overall, but he hadn’t gotten as high-point a bull as Chase or J.D. If Chase could ride Oleander, he could take the competition from Antonio and gain serious ground in the overall rankings.
The announcer called his name to the chute.
“See you on the other side.” He nodded to J.D. and strode to the ride-chute where Oleander was already being led.
Oleander was a beast of a bull, docile as most of those creatures were outside of the arena, calm, almost amiable. He was mostly white with a few splashes of black to break up the albino quality. He settled quietly in the chute, no banging against the metal walls, no fighting the handlers. Chase eyed the bull, who steadfastly ignored him as if he were bored with the proceedings, but Chase knew better.
Chase climbed the metal fencing next to the bull and handed the rope to the handler. He grabbed the opposite fence across from the bull, making sure to get a good grip, then he set his boot solidly on Oleander’s back, letting the bull know he was there. He waited a few seconds, pausing to the let the bull do his customary buck, an introduction from Oleander, a preliminary howdy-do. He then slid his legs around the bull, keeping his toes pointed forward to ensure his spurs stayed away from its flanks. He warmed up the rope, checked the slack, then rubbed the rope to get the rosin sticky and hot on his glove. He punched the rosin rope away and warmed the handle to improve his grip. Then he positioned the bull rope for the ride.
Through this, Oleander stayed fairly docile, almost asleep, but Chase wasn’t fooled. No bull was assigned the high round of any tournament if he wasn’t a tough contender, and Oleander was one of the toughest. Several competitors swore this damned beast used psychological warfare against many of the riders. No one had ever ridden him successfully; Chase was fixing to be the first.
When the rope was situated to his satisfaction, he took the final piece of wrap and slid up Oleander’s back, put his feet toward the shoulder of the bull, and nodded.
The chute opened with a clang, and they were off.
Oleander came alive in a whirlwind of motion, shoulders and back arching then colliding with the ground, a move designed to jar the rider’s teeth. At the same time, the bull’s back end came up, and twisted to throw Chase off-balance and hopefully off his back completely, but Chase was prepared and moved with the bull. Chase kept his legs clasped around the bull’s body, shifting and moving as the bull flung his body about in a ferocious attempt to dislodge the human interloper from his back. All the while, Chase waited to hear the blessed bell indicating that he had successfully made the eight seconds needed to beat the behemoth between his legs.
But all he heard was the sound of grunts and snorts, and he saw bull snot flying around them. Then, finally, the sound of victory. The bell sounded and Chase made his move to dismount, but the bull made one unexpected sideways turn and a blunted horn came straight for Chase’s head.
Clawing pain hammered at his head, radiating throughout his body, but he fought the nausea and darkness to open his eyes. He expected to hear the roar of the crowd, the music thumping in the stadium. Feel the dirt they brought in for the arena. Instead, he heard only a beeping sound and saw a soft light that somehow still managed to stab his retinas.
He wasn’t in the sports medicine room. This was a hospital.
He let out a groan as reality came crashing down on him, much like the body of that damned bull had.
A shadow shifted and moved from beside the bed and slowly revealed itself in the light spilling in from the hallway. His older brother, West Morgan, leaned over him, looking haggard and worn with more than a day’s growth of dark stubble. Lines of exhaustion were carved into his weathered face. West wasn’t his blood brother, but that had never mattered to the three teens who had found themselves on the Rawlings Ranch where the foster system had deposited them after they were deemed high-risk youth. But they had created their own odd sort of family, staying together and building bonds tighter than blood with the man who had saved them, who had been more of a father than their own sperm donors.
West laid a hand on his shoulder. “Stay still. I’ll get a nurse.”
Chase struggled to speak, but West had already pressed a button, and it was amazing how fast help rushed into the room. Judging by the way the young brunette checked out his brother, maybe he wasn’t so surprised. Chase closed his eyes and let her check his vitals, answering her brief questions with a raspy voice raw from disuse. His mouth tasted like dirt from the ring. With one last lingering glance at West, she left the room. West pulled up a chair and held up a cup with cold water and ice chips for Chase to sip. The cool water both burned and soothed his sore throat.
Chase let his head fall back against the pillows and tried to catalog his injuries, but the pain throbbed in every part of his body, making it difficult to locate the worst of the damage.
“How long?” he croaked.
West stared at him as if memorizing his face, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “Three days. You have broken ribs, a punctured lung, bruised kidneys, and a concussion.”
Chase tried to laugh but groaned again from the sharp, stabbing pain that knifed him in the chest. “Damn, that hurts.”
West jumped up from the chair and started to pace the small hospital room. “Goddamn it, Chase. You had to have surgery to repair your lung and release the air or something. This isn’t a laughing matter. Jesus, you could have been killed.”
The door opened, and the hallway light spilled in around a woman. Tara Rawlings, West’s fiancée, let out a small cry and raced to the bed, petting Chase’s face gently. “Chase, you’re awake. We’ve all been praying, and West hasn’t left your side once for the past three days. Thank God you’re okay.”
“That remains to be seen,” West growled from the foot of the bed. Tara shot him a look then continued to pamper Chase.
“How are you feeling? Do you need anything?”
“I hope that bull knocked some sense into you.” West came around the other side of the bed and leaned over the metal railing. “You almost died. I never want to get that phone call again, never want to make that long drive not knowing if my brother is going to be alive when I get here. Do you know how that feels?”
Chase stared up at what appeared to be tears in West’s eyes and tried not to think about what could make his brother cry. “West, man, it’s fine. I’m going to be okay. A few weeks’ recovery and I’ll be back in the saddle. This was sheer dumb luck that my spur got caught in the rope. It won’t happen again.”
West gripped the metal bar so tightly his knuckles went white. Tara reached across the bed and rubbed his shoulder, making soothing noises. “What if it’s not? What if the next time you’re not so lucky? And honestly, I don’t think you were that lucky this time.”
Chase sank against the pillow and let his eyes fall closed. Luck rarely played a role in his life—unless it was bad luck, and right now, this was the worst. Just as he was on top of the world, fucking Oleander had to take him out, leaving him on the sidelines when he could have gained some ground on the circuit. Luck wasn’t for guys like him, no matter how charmed people thought he was.
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