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August, seven years ago
Standing on top of the chute, looking down at the muscular back of the two-ton animal gunning to toss him boots over head into the dirt, Axel Wolf was on top of the world.
Today was going to be a great day. And not just because he was going to kill his ride on Texas Trouble. Every bull rider had to believe that, or they wouldn’t climb on. Bull riding required discipline, commitment, physicality and a belief that you were going to ride the full eight, even though the odds were stacked against it.
Axel didn’t count the odds. Today he was on top of the leaderboard, and unless he fell off—which he wouldn’t—he’d win. But that wasn’t why today would be epic. Today was his last appearance at a Texas Pro Rodeo event. He’d punched his ticket to the American Extreme Bull Riders tour—top tier in the world—and was joining up next week. It didn’t get much better than that, and even though it was nearly the end of the season, there was still plenty of time to make a mark and earn some serious money to help send his youngest brother to college.
The AEBR tour wasn’t the best thing that was happening to him today. Nope. Not by a long shot. Today would mark a new day with his girl. She was here watching and after he won, they were going to celebrate. He’d spent months researching and looking at diamonds before having her ring made. He’d tucked it deep in his pocket. Best good luck charm ever.
He wanted her to know that he was committed. All in. When she headed off to med school next week, and he joined the AEBR, Cruz Lopez and the world would know that one day she’d be his wife. He didn’t mind a long engagement. In fact, he preferred it. It made sense. She had years of school, and he wanted to ride the tour for at least four or five years before settling down at his family’s Texas ranch.
Axel was in his zone as he dropped down and tucked his feet back. He ran his rope through his glove, the smell of the resin along with dirt and sawdust and bull settling him even more. He ran through Texas Trouble’s last ten rides again in his head. Breathed in deep and closed his eyes as he wrapped, unwrapped and wrapped his grip again. His mouth guard was in. His helmet was on. He could feel the bull’s muscles shift beneath him, and he leaned up high near the shoulders, centering his body almost on top of his grip.
One more deep breath and release. He opened his eyes, staring directly at the indent between the bull’s massive shoulders. Tonight would be the beginning of the rest of his life. He never thought he’d be a family man. He’d spent so much of his teens raising his brothers. Cruz had changed all that, though not all at once. Her tentative questions about his future goals—did he see himself married, did he ever want children and how many—had scared him spitless. He’d devoted himself to his family, but still, he’d lost them one by one. He only had two brothers now, and they barely spoke to him.
He’d reach out, and they’d reluctantly answer—eventually.
He was a screwup where family was concerned.
But she’d gotten him thinking. And when he thought of the future—being back settled on the ranch—she was always by his side. So, yes, he’d bought a ring. A testament to his faith in her and to their combined abilities to handle the hardships fate would capriciously toss at them.
He dragged another deep breath into his lungs, cleared his mind and gave the nod. The slide of metal launched him into the arena and his future.
The ride was a thrill. It wasn’t textbook in that the bull changed directions straight out of the chute and Axel found himself nearly parallel to the back even as the bull then dropped forward and spun. But his left hand stayed high, his thighs tight, and he even got in a couple of spurs. He saw the buzzer light but couldn’t hear the bell over the roar of the crowd. He hopped off, and jumped the fence expecting to see Cruz.
She wasn’t there.
She wasn’t in the reserved family section either.
And she wasn’t waiting when he got his check and buckle.
His puzzlement turned to concern.
He checked his phone.
He didn’t find her until he was carrying his gear toward his truck. She wore jeans and a tank top—not the dress he’d bought her and left in the trailer for her when she arrived.
She didn’t smile or run to him like she usually did. Her jet-black hair tumbled down her back. She fiddled with a hunk of it, straightened her shoulders and marched toward him.
“What’s up?” He stopped. Usually he’d drop his ropes and his duffel so that he could hold her. Kiss her. But she didn’t look like she wanted that right now, although he had no idea why. He hadn’t seen her since she’d gone to the AEBR orientation and welcome weekend with him three weeks ago.
Her normally bronzed skin looked pale, and she looked thinner, her high cheekbones a little hollow.
“I want to break up.”
End of Excerpt