They say it’s not when you get hurt bull riding it’s how bad.
The pounding on the door woke him. Or was it the pounding in his head? Maybe they were the same. But if it was the door…who came knocking at this hour?
Chase blindly reached a hand toward the nightstand by the bed. What time was it? Didn’t he have a watch or a cellphone? Did anyone even wear a watch these days?
Not finding what he was searching for, he stretched a little farther, encountering something warm and sweet smelling lying next to him. Almost sweet, anyway. The acrid stench of last night’s alcohol clung to everything. But the sweetness was there, underneath the sour.
He nuzzled his face into her hair. It smelled good too, floral, with the burnt smell of cigarettes taking away only a little of the beauty. He reached farther still, knocking over a bottle of pills and what he hoped was an empty liquor bottle. Then again, what did he care? He was in a motel in…somewhere, and he didn’t give a shit what spilled on the floor. From the look of the place when he checked in yesterday afternoon, he figured alcohol might be an improvement.
The knocking increased in persistence and volume.
“Damn it!” He opened his eyes and tried to focus. Everything was a bit blurry, but he could still tell that the woman plastered against him was blond. Heavily bleached from the state of her roots, but he didn’t care much about that. Who needed the carpet and curtains to match if you were just staying for one night?
Yet he thought he remembered a brunette. Or maybe that was the day before.
“Chase!” The pounding had gained a voice. “You better come on or you’ll miss your go.”
Miss his go? Oh, yeah. Then it all came back to him. He was in Cheyenne. At a rodeo. But if his drawn time was coming up, that would mean…
“Fuck.” He rolled the opposite direction and encountered… another warm body. Ah, the brunette.
She blindly pawed at him and he pushed her hands away. This was important. Ignoring the pain in his back and his knees and his hips and well, everywhere, he climbed over her to get out of bed.
“I’m coming!” he shouted, His own voice ricocheted inside his head. He cursed again and shuffled around until he found a couple of the pills from the over-turned bottle and dry swallowed them. He looked around for his jeans. He could do this in his sleep, ride a bull. He had been doing it as long as he could remember. He could do it with one hand tied. He snickered at his own joke. One hand tied…but he couldn’t do it without jeans. No, sir.
He found them slung over the dresser mirror. He slipped them on. Even with the belt they hung low on his hips, dipping even lower in the front where the shiny championship buckle pulled at them. So he had lost a little weight. What difference did it make? After today’s ride, he’d buy a couple of new pairs. After the celebration of course.
His shirt was on the floor, his boots over by the bed. He slipped into them, sitting on the side next to the brunette. She groped at him, her eyes still closed. He pushed her hand away and stood. Swayed.
Time to rock and roll.
“Hurry up, man.” Skeeter. He recognized the voice now. His best friend. If he had one. Things had kinda gone sideways these last few months. Ever since Jessie—
But he wasn’t thinking about her.
“Coming,” he said once again. A little Visine in the eyes and he would be right as rain. That’s what his grandmother always said. Though he had no idea what it really meant.
He crammed his black Stetson onto his head and opened the door.
Skeeter took one look inside and shook his head with a grin. “Damn, brother.”
Chase shrugged. “Let’s go.”
He buttoned his shirt on the way to the arena.
Skeeter chatted about what he had missed. Clay Marston had gone down in three. Justin Hawkins had ridden for eight, but his bull didn’t perform, pulling his score down. “You got a rank one,” Skeeter continued. “You ride for eight and you got him beat.”
“What bull?” Chase asked. Surely someone had told him the bull he had drawn, but he had lost the knowledge somewhere in the haze of whiskey and pills.
It was a crying shame when a man had to take pain killers just to get out of bed. He might only be twenty-eight, but he was getting too old for this shit.
“A Boy Named Sue.”
Chase whistled under his breath, but the reaction was purely for Skeeter’s benefit. A Boy Named Sue was a rank one. Any bull with a name like that had to be mean. But Chase Langston had been born to ride bulls. And the good Lord hadn’t made one yet that he couldn’t stay on. At least once.
They passed Brenton Kelly on the way to the chute. “You’re on,” the cowboy said with a quick nod. If anyone could snatch the title away from Chase this year it was Kelly. But that wasn’t happening. This was Chase’s year. He could feel it. Or maybe that was the oxy starting to take effect.
His knees popped when he climbed over the fence and settled onto the back on the biggest, meanest bull in the PBR. A Boy Named Sue stood calmly in the chute, not trying to shake him off before it was time. The action or lack of it made the bull seem calm but talk of this deception had made the rounds among the cowboys. They all knew, once the gate was opened, A Boy Named Sue would go to work.
Skeeter and another fellow, Chase couldn’t remember his name, Sandy or something like that, helped him ready for the ride.
Chase’s heart began to pound in anticipation. The bull sensed the change and shifted beneath him.
It’s just you and me, pal.
Three, two, one—
The gate opened.
A Boy Named Sue jumped into action, twisting sideways in order to knock the rider off his back. Chase hung on with his knees and the one hand he had on the pommel. His left arm he kept high in the air, clear of the bull and his own body. One good ride and he could take the short round. Win the purse.
He smiled to himself, even chuckled a little, then everything changed. A Boy Named Sue twisted back to the left and went into a suicide spin.
One second he was on the back of the bull having the ride of his life and the next he was flying over the top of the animal. He saw horns, hot breath, and snot. Then the ground rushing up to meet him. Pain in his leg, in his side, in his head, in his back. Pain; terrible, searing pain, then everything went black.
One year later…
Chase sat back in his chair and stared out at the mountains in the distance. It was beautiful on Skeeter’s California ranch, but he wasn’t staying there for the view. He came because it was about as far from Texas as he could get. And far from Texas was exactly where he wanted to be.
Of course he felt like an old man, sitting on the porch and staring out at nothing. But what else did he have to do? Skeeter was gone on the circuit. There was a woman named Maria who came once a week to clean and do the laundry. A man he knew by the name Smith came every day and took care of the horses and Skeeter’s dad who lived in what was graciously called the ‘mother-in-law’s apartment’ took care of everything else. The cattle, the fences, even the cooking. But Chase didn’t care much about things like food these days. He ate because he had to. And even then…
His phone buzzed from its place on the small table beside him, rattling as it bumped into his glass of iced tea. Iced tea. Just another reminder that he was becoming an old man. An old man of twenty-nine.
He glanced at the screen. Jake.
He tapped decline and tossed the phone back onto the tabletop.
Maybe soon. But not yet. Definitely not yet.
“Chase?” Hank McCutcheon, Skeeter’s dad, stepped out onto the back porch. Chase sensed him rather than saw him, as his attention was still focused on the setting sun in the distance. And the mountains. And the nothing that seemed to stretch on forever. Maybe even all the way to the coast. “You have a visitor.”
“Tell them to go away.” He said the words without thinking, though after they left his mouth, he wondered who it might be. Who knew he was at the Bar M? No one other than Skeeter himself. Not Jake, not his family, no one. And that was just the way he liked it.
“I think you might want come talk to her,” Hank said.
“Why? Does she have Girl Scout cookies?”
“I don’t think so.”
Chase sighed. “Then tell her to go away.”
“Well, see that’s the problem.” A female voice sounded only moments before a woman stepped out onto the porch next to Hank. “I’m not going away.”
Who the hell was this? He half-turned to watch her as she came near.
She was sort of butchy, slender, a little on the tall side, with a tattoo circling her left arm. Something tribal, or maybe Hawaiian. Her long dark hair was pulled severely back into a ponytail that swung behind her as she moved, and like everyone else in California, she had a dark tan. She was dressed in cargo pants, some sort of boots, and a black tank top. She made him think of a Hispanic Sarah Connor. Her dark eyes scraped over him and somehow he felt as if she could see through all the bullshit. But that wasn’t right. She couldn’t.
“I don’t know what you’re selling, sweetheart, but I’m not interested.” Chase turned away and stared back at the horizon.
“And here I thought this job was going to be a piece of cake.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw her widen her stance as if readying for a fight. He might not be looking directly at her, but he could still see her. Best to keep any predators in his line of sight.
Predators? Now he was losing it. She might look tough enough to take on a Terminator, but there was no movie script here. She was a regular, ordinary woman.
“I’ll just…” Hank’s words trailed off as he stepped back into the house, leaving Chase alone with this newcomer. Woman. Just who was she anyway? Like he cared.
“Jesus ain’t lost, I don’t need a vacuum, and my insurance is all paid up. So unless you’re selling chocolate bars for new band uniforms, you can see yourself out.”
“Let me introduce myself.” She took a step closer, holding out a small tan business card.
Without thinking, Chase accepted it.
Your PI for all your PI needs
“Catchy.” He started to hand it back.
She shook her head, that dark hair swishing behind her. “Keep it. I’ve got more.”
“I’m sure you do.” He shifted in his chair. “So why are you here again? You aren’t selling cookies and I didn’t hire you…”
The words almost stopped Chase’s heart but he kept his expression impassive. Why would Jake send a stranger to find him? Unless…
He pushed the thought away. “My brother, Jake?” An obvious move to stall for time.
“Yeah.” She eased down into the deck chair next to him. “Do you mind if I sit?”
“Go ahead,” he said, though she had already settled herself into the cushions.
“Jake sent me to bring you back to Texas.”
“I see.” Back to Texas. The last place he wanted to be. Too many memories. Seth and Jessie. No, Texas was out of the question. Now more than ever.
“Listen, I’m not good at all the sweet words and trying to make people feel better. So I’ll just come right out and say it. Your mother is very ill, and Jake thinks you need to come home. Now. Don’t make me say the rest.”
Before she dies.
His heart gave a painful thump, then he swallowed hard and got its beating under control. “You talk a good game, but how do I know Jake really hired you?”
“I found you, didn’t I?”
“Like Jesus, cupcake, I was never lost.”
She lifted her chin toward the table where his phone rested. “Call him then.”
“Jesus?” Chase asked, once more stalling for time, but not wanting to let it show. “I’m not sure I have his number.”
“Jake,” she corrected with a tight smile. One that definitely didn’t reach those dark eyes of hers.
“Jake,” he repeated. Chase didn’t want to call Jake because he didn’t want to talk to Jake. Yet he would never know how his mother was doing if he didn’t answer Jake’s calls. Or call Jake and ask his brother himself.
But if he called…
“No.” He pushed his weight down in his chair as if that would keep him in place, as if she was about to throw him over her shoulder in some kind of twisted fireman’s carry and cart him out to some unmarked van on the side of the road.
“Have it your way. See, I’m prepared to stay as long as I have to in order to convince you to come with me.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” Not happening. He wasn’t going anywhere. As if.
“I’m not moving from this house until you agree to come back to Texas with me. I’m here for the long haul.”
Chase shot her a questioning look. “Yeah? Says who?” There was no way Hank was letting a stranger stay in his son’s house. No. Way.
“Daniel McCutcheon. I believe you know him as Skeeter.”
“Skeeter?” He scoffed though he was a little unsettled that she knew his friend’s real name. No one, not even his own mother called him Daniel. “Skeeter invited you to stay?”
“I believe the term is insisted.”
“Whatever.” Chase rolled his eyes. This conversation was turning out to be almost humorous.
“‘As Chase isn’t going to go easily, I insist you stay at the ranch until you can convince him to go home.’” She read the words from her phone, then turned the screen for him to see. “Would you like to read the email for yourself?”
His stomach sank, but he ignored the sensation, ignored the proffered phone. She was just trying to get his goat. But why?
“Don’t believe me? Call him.” She dipped her head toward his phone once again as she slipped her own cell into her side pocket.
Suddenly the air around them changed. She was serious. She wasn’t joking. He could see it in her eyes. This wasn’t some sort of prank. She had been in contact with Jake. She had talked to Skeeter. His family wanted her, no, they had hired her to bring him home. The last place he wanted to be.
But if they wanted him in Texas because of his mother’s illness…
He couldn’t ignore the pull of sadness.
Evelyn Langston had been in remission when Chase had wrecked. She and everyone else—except for Jessie and Seth—had visited him in the hospital until he pushed them away. All of them. He didn’t want them to see him injured, hooked up to a dozen machines, vulnerable. Then once he had been released from the hospital, he had continued to push them from him until he squirreled himself away in California.
It was for the best. And now he only thought of them once or twice a day. Hardly thought about the home where he had grown up. His mother, his grandmother and everyone else there on the Diamond. Hardly thought about Jake and his new wife, their twin boys. Thought even less about Jessie or Seth and their baby.
“You call him, cupcake. I’m not going anywhere.”
The woman beside him pushed to her feet. “It seems I’ve given you something to think about,” she said.
He wasn’t going to answer that. He wasn’t sure why, only that they were adversaries. Warriors in a stand-off.
Was that what this was?
No. She was no warrior. She might look tough, act tough, talk tough. But he could see a sweetness to the curve of her lips. A softness in her brown eyes. Her swagger was just that, swagger. All he had to do was hold firm and she would be running for the hills in no time flat.
“We’ll talk more after dinner,” she continued, then turned on the heel of one of her combat boots and headed for the door.
She didn’t look back as she side-stepped the small ramp that led into the house. One more step through the door and she was out of sight.
Chase turned his attention to the beautiful landscape before him. Her words rang in his ears, sounding more like a threat than a casual comment. They would talk more after dinner. What if he didn’t want to talk more? What if he was all done talking? What then? He had a sinking feeling that things like that didn’t concern Pacheco the PI.
His hands gripped the arms of his chair, his knuckles turned white. And he realized then, he hadn’t even gotten her Christian name.
It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going with her. He wasn’t going at all. He couldn’t. Not like this.
Slowly he loosened his grip on the arms of his wheelchair. He released the brake but didn’t move.
The chair was the very thing that gave him mobility even as it took away his ability to go forward. Or back. He couldn’t return to Texas unable to walk. And he would never walk again. Now he just had to accept it. Maybe then he could go home.
No matter what Jake said, Chase couldn’t imagine that he would be welcomed at the Diamond. He’d fucked up. Royally. He’d hurt Jessie. Punched his brother Seth on Seth’s wedding day. Maybe called his brother a name or two. That part he couldn’t remember. Though every second of the time his mother spent talking to Chase as he got into his truck was burned into his brain. They didn’t want him there. Not then. But now was different. Or was it?
Did Jake think so little of Chase that he sent a woman after him? Or was that another way to undermine his confidence and have him scurrying home with his tail between his legs?
Not that he could scurry anywhere. Not any longer. Never again.
He had been so lost in thought he hadn’t heard Hank come out the back door and join him on the porch.
Chase cleared his throat and waited for Hank to continue. It was too early for supper. Other than letting him know it was time to eat, Hank McCutcheon pretty much left Chase alone. In that silence, Chase felt the fragile bonds of a friendship beginning. Or maybe it was merely a mutual understanding, a trust.
“I just want to say I’m sorry. About the girl. But Skeeter called and…” He trailed off, but he didn’t need to continue. Chase could hear the rest in his voice. The ranch belonged to Skeeter. “Well, maybe it is time you went home.”
So much for trust.
“Yeah.” Chase managed to make his snarl sound like spoken words. “And what am I going to do in Texas?”
The same thing he was doing there: sit in a damn chair and look at the landscape while everyone around him went about their lives. He couldn’t walk. Or ride a horse, mend fences, get on the back of a bull. Hell, he couldn’t even muck a stall. He was useless.
Before she dies.
And then there was his mother.
Had her cancer returned with a deadly force? He had no way of knowing. There was no one at the Diamond he could trust to tell him the exact truth about his mother’s illness. They all swore they wanted him to come home. But he didn’t believe it for a minute. They might think they wanted him home but that was before he actually got there and they saw just how useless he really was.
“…family,” Hank was saying.
It was the same old song and dance Chase had heard from everyone except the housekeeper. Maria kept her opinion to herself. Though truth be known she spoke about three words of English while Chase allowed her to believe that he spoke even less of Spanish. It was a good arrangement as far as he was concerned.
He pulled himself from his thoughts and focused on the man before him.
“Your family needs you.”
Chase shook his head and put his chair into motion. “Don’t believe everything you hear, Hank.” He rolled past the man, then up the makeshift ramp into the house.