Kane Wilder straddled the top of the chute and looked down at the broad black back of Rocket Launcher. He breathed in deep—the familiar scents of bull and dirt settled in his lungs. He let out his breath twice as slow. Again. And again. His heart rate slowed further and the clash of the music, the fired-up cheers and whistles of the sold-out crowd, and the deep, practiced voice of the announcer all faded away.
He leaned down and put his boot on the bull’s back to let him know he was about to get some company he didn’t want. Then he dropped down, legs wide, knees bent and feet angled back so they couldn’t get caught up in the rails when the bull shifted. Immediately he began to wrap his rope, sliding it back and forth between his glove to test the friction, warm the resin and get the feel of the rope for his hold hand.
He tested the hold, his position, rocking back on the bull and trying to feel the exact center of gravity. There was a science to it. And an art. Kane always felt the animal. The mood, the energy, and he never gave the nod until he felt the connection. Some of the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour front and back office teased him about being a bull whisperer—because, when he got what he thought of as his alignment, his belief that he’d ride the full eight was absolute. No doubt.
And usually he was right.
His focus was on the shoulders, the dip, and angle of the head. Yeah riders could get a read on a bull from watching the spot between the ears, but the massive shoulders held the power. Kane thought of himself as floating slightly above the thrashing shoulders. If he could keep his hold hand anchored and his weight light so he could rock back and forth, countering the moves while his hold hand held the plane, he was golden.
The trick was to move with the bull, but in the opposite direction, synchronously, anticipating and countering each roll, kick and whatever else the bull wanted to throw at him on any Friday or Saturday night.
Kane hadn’t been one of the AEBR’s top bull riders for the past four years because he often ended a ride tossed in the dirt on his ass.
He was golden for sticking, winning, earning cash and landing sponsors.
“Rock and roll,” he said softly.
He angled his pelvis up toward the bull’s shoulders, nearly sitting on his hold hand wrapped up tight in the bull rope. He kept his body loose, but his thighs tight. He held his left hand high, rocked a little on the bull, shoving his hold hand a little higher on the rope. He could feel the tension, the restless energy of Rocket Launcher beneath him.
Felt good. Real good.
Kane kept his chin tucked, his gaze glued to the point between Rocket Launcher’s massive shoulders that lined up with his hold hand. He gave the nod. There was a slide of metal and Rocket Launcher—true to his name—shot out of the chute, immediately dropped his head and shoulders, and kicked his back legs high, nearly perpendicular to the ground, his massive, one-ton body already shifting into his trademark roll to the right.
The noise of the crowd would be deafening except Kane always screened it out to the point of white noise. At six seconds Rocket Launcher pulled his namesake move and jumped forward, kicked up and jumped forward again, spun a one-eighty and kicked up and came down hard.
Kane stayed welded—left hand extended up and fingers spread. He saw the light but couldn’t hear the bell—the music and the crowd drowned it out, but the change in the ambient light hitting the arena from the jumbo screen graphics showing a full ride gave further proof. Kane judged the bull’s next move and dropped his bull rope and launched himself free over the top and to the right of Rocket Launcher. The bull had run left after the flank rope was released seventy-eight point three percent of the time in the last two years on the tour. Immediately, Rocket Launcher calmed and ran a half circle around the arena as if taking a victory lap.
Kane jumped to the top of the fence, took off his helmet, popped out his mouth guard, and did a quick wave to the crowd as his score flashed. Ninety-two. Kick-ass.
Thank you, Rocket Launcher.
Four points higher than Casey, who was having a year and had too much to prove after ducking the finals last year. Five points higher than the nineteen-year-old Brazilian, Gonzalo, who thought he could kick Kane’s ass, but he couldn’t. Gage was only two points behind.
Rocket Launcher ran through the chute and Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire blared. The crowd went crazy and the announcer, Jessie, did a little move to set up and face him.
Fuck he was sick of this part.
Why the hell had he chosen this song?
He wasn’t an asshole, well, not really. And he wasn’t twenty anymore. He’d thought Alicia Flores who managed PR like he rode bulls would axe it. He’d suggested the song as a joke, a play on his image, but nope, she’d let the song slide. Probably because she knew he’d regret it after his fourth or fifth stick. It was only April, and he wanted to swear each time he heard the opening guitar lick. The pogo stick style drumbeat made him want to stick a screwdriver in his ears.
Alicia always gave the riders their own noose. And she made sure his was tighter than most. His fault. But hell, she’d been halfway drunk. One time. And he’d been in the wrong bar and his offer to take her home had not been greeted in the way his twenty-two-year-old self had anticipated.
All kinds of awkward apparently. But even though he had a reputation and cultivated it, he still had rules. No one on the tour. No employee of the tour or employees of tour sponsors. No one else’s girl. And not when he had a girl. Which had happened a grand total of once.
Damn the song. And Jessie staring. Fans stomping.
Kane laughed. Jumped down, rested his thumbs lightly on his belt buckle and the crowd erupted. He did the quick Texas two-step for six beats and then a tight spin, head fake, shoulder dip and quick hip check while Jessie did the same only with a bit more free styling because he was allowed. Kane finished with a quick four beat hip-hop-style walk and hand pose before flashing his commercial merchandising smile, opening his arms wide and then vaulting up and over the fence and dropping down on the other side.
He’d done the dance one night when he’d been a punk and drunk on love. Showing off to his girl, Sky, because she loved to dance. The crowd had gone wild that night, and Alicia Flores—head of the PR machine and hell on wheels if you said no or expressed an opinion contrary to her own—told him to do it again each time he stuck a ride, only with Jessie. It would be his move, she said. One of his signatures when he performed. Get his name out there more.
Kane still remembered her intense assessment.
“You’ll need a look.” She’d walked a critical circle around him, two of her ever-present assistants who seemed to change every six months or so watched, tablets palmed, fingers ready to type notes. Always notes.
Kane had felt like one of the bulls being assessed. Only less important.
It could have been hot. Alicia was damn attractive and ten, maybe fifteen years older than him, but usually no cowboy impressed her, which was why he’d been so shocked by the buzzed proposition during his second year when he’d been climbing the rankings.
He still remembered how her appraisal after the dance had unnerved him. He’d barely been twenty-two when Alicia hammered home the lesson that he was product. And if he didn’t win, he’d be cold product, bumped down to the pro circuit. He was on the tour to make them money and create prestige for the AEBR. Cowboys came and went. Interchangeable.
Alicia had circled around him, watching. Thinking. Critical.
The meeting had reminded him of his childhood. His mother was always push, push, push pushing him to be better. Smarter. More ambitious. More accomplished. But more had never been enough. The bar just kept getting raised.
“Grow your hair,” Alicia had said fingering one of his curls that he usually just finger combed away from his face. “Women will love the curls almost shoulder length. It’ll be different. And win. Keep winning.” Alicia had made it all sound so easy. Like anyone who didn’t place top three, maybe four, just wasn’t trying hard enough. “Or you’re out.”
So he’d won because that’s what he did. And it had been fun until Sky left. Didn’t come back.
He’d been fucking twenty-two and he’d felt empty, tired, worn.
So he’d ridden harder. Grittier. Fiercer. Got sponsors. Earned more money. Rode in the top three to five the last four years since Sky left because he had nothing else in his life. Nothing better to do. Alicia and the AEBR could kiss his ass. He was going to win on his terms. Quit on his terms. And he was going to earn enough money to give his mom some peace after the hell he’d put her through. And he’d still have enough money for himself so he could have a moment of quiet where he could finally sort through all the shit in his head and figure out what he wanted to do next.
And finally exorcise Sky’s ghost. Move the fuck on. Get a life like his brothers—all three of them now—had.
Kane tucked his helmet under his arm, palmed his mouth guard and shrugged out of his protective vest as he walked down the long narrow hallway toward the dressing room. He was ending Friday night in top place. Tomorrow he had to do it again. But tonight he’d head back to the tour hotel, hit the gym, soak in an ice bath and watch the tapes for the bull draws tomorrow.
Kane saw a few of the riders grouped together talking outside the dressing room as he approached. Cody looked up and Kane was pretty sure if an expression could be a middle finger, he’d just been flipped off. He smiled back with his best fuck you too.
“Where we drinkin’ tonight?” Kane called out just to piss them off. Not that he’d be there.
“Cactus,” Paulo, always cool with every rider on the tour, said.
That was the real bar they would hit after a few of them showed their faces at the sponsoring bar, shoot shit or pool, drink a beer and then head out with the excuse that management kept them on a tight leash so they had to get up early in the morning. And then they’d gather at the real bar to try to cut some of the adrenaline with booze and women. Or they’d hit the gym. Or bed if they had a woman.
“What the hell, Kane? This image is trademarked.” Alicia advanced on him down the long hall of the staging area toward the dressing room where five bull riders lounged and now smirked at him. Her stilettos clicked on the concrete like automatic weapon fire. She clutched a glossy brochure “And no shirt. We talked about that damn tat. Violation of your contract.”
All the bull riders shut up. Alicia didn’t usually blow up publically, but she’d always been harder on him since the act of chivalry that his mom had drilled into him since birth had been shoved back down his throat and perceived as a rejection of her as an attractive woman. Saying no hadn’t been personal. It had been him adhering to his rules.
“Explain.” Alicia bore the brochure like it was a shield and she was Perseus about to slay Medusa.
He read the words.
Scottsdale Austen Sheridan Orthopedic Guild Auction. Starry Night Art Auction.
Seeing the despised name, he pushed the brochure out of his face.
“The amount of fucks I give is less than or equal to the numerical value of zero.”
“What?” Alicia stared at him, her dark eyes blank. Casey shook his head and coughed instead of laughing. Kane noticed that Cody, who never appeared to give a shit about saving anyone’s feelings or pride, huffed out a lazy laugh.
“Just the professor talking dick again. He takes online classes and majors in I’m smart. You’re stupid. So don’t even fucking try to communicate with the prick.” Cody sauntered by and seized the brochure. He took one look at it and barked out a laugh. “You might not give a fuck Wilder, but AEBR legal and PR sure as hell will. That picture was on the AEBR tour program last year.”
Kane was still trying to figure out how Cody of all the riders knew he was working on his MBA online. He grabbed the brochure back and glared at the glossy print advertising an art auction set for the following week. There was an exclusive preview brunch tomorrow at nine a.m. for the heavy hitter patrons and then the art exhibit opening Saturday evening. The name of the hospital guild and the hospital burned his ass, because they were unpleasantly familiar, but he finally lassoed his ire and focused on the art.
“Where’d you get this?” he kept his voice quiet and cold.
“Not the point,” Alicia said.
Kane looked at the image of the bronzed sculpture of a bull rider defying the odds of gravity.
“I’m sure you cowboys all have something better to do.” Alicia walked over to the growing group of curious bull riders in various stages of dress and undress.
“Not really.” Cody crossed his arms. “Free at the moment.”
“Got an answer yet, Kane?” Alicia demanded.
Kane, coiled tense as a rattler about to strike, smiled, lazy and confident, and walked toward Alicia, his body fluid.
“Don’t even give me that walk,” Alicia hissed at him, holding up a small, neatly French manicured hand like a school crossing guard. “Save it for the buckle bunnies in the bar. We have a situation. And I don’t want a situation especially this week. You are booked tomorrow with interviews, meet and greets. Next weekend you have a commercial shoot and two meetings with two potential sponsors in addition to everything else.”
Where was this coming from? He never missed an event.
“How did this artist get your image? And your…?” Alicia trailed off biting her red lips, clearly agitated and not trying hard enough to regain her regal cool.
His large, elaborate tat of a furious bucking bull that scrawled across his back had been a crazy impulse according to Alicia. She’d been incensed. The AEBR was family-friendly and the riders were not tatted up like bikers. The rules on other tours had relaxed some, but the AEBR, not so much. Kane had caught a lot of heat for the tat. Management figured he’d been out of his mind drunk—as if a tat that detailed and stylized could have been inked in a couple of heavily under the influence hours. But the art had been an analytical decision. A declaration. A promise. A reminder. It had taken several sessions to finish. And he’d been utterly sober each time. And irrevocably in love.
Kane didn’t break his rolling stride or eye contact.
“No worries, Alicia.” He took the brochure from her stiff fingers, rolled it and slid it in the back pocket of his jeans. Her dark eyes narrowed in doubt and challenge. “I got this.”
End of Excerpt