EXCERPT (rated G)
10 Years Ago
Glen walked over with the bull rope that had fallen off the bull right after Skeeter had. He looped it over the rail and shook his head. “Damned if he don’t remind me of you, Coop.”
“Oh, really?” Cooper cocked a brow.
“Yup. You get that same look in your eye after a ride.” The man grinned.
As Glen walked away in the direction of the barn, Cooper’s gaze shot to Skeeter. “If that’s true, then God help you, boy. You’re bound to have a tough life ahead of you.”
Skeeter could handle it. His life hadn’t been a piece of cake so far anyway. But the life of a professional bull rider like Cooper? He was ready for whatever that threw at him.
The sound of gravel crunching on the driveway caught Skeeter’s attention. He turned to see his mother’s car inch its way toward the ring. He hardly held himself in check so he didn’t go running toward her. The only thing preventing him was that he didn’t want to act like a little kid in front of Cooper.
She seemed to take an eternity to park and then walk toward him. She stepped carefully through the dust and the sparse grass. Her waitress uniform looked so out of place next to the practice pen it might have made Skeeter laugh if he hadn’t been so excited, but his mom didn’t seem to notice or care that she didn’t fit in here dressed like that.
Cooper must have noticed her uniform though. He was staring at her as she made her way from the parked car to the ring.
Skeeter jumped to explain. “My mom works at the diner weeknights after her shift at the hospital is over. She works there on Saturdays too. That’s why she’s wearing that uniform.”
“That’s a lot of work for one lady.” Cooper shot Skeeter a sideways look. “What’s your daddy do for a living?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t live around here.”
After a second, Cooper nodded. His gaze shifted, moving to Skeeter’s mom and then back to Skeeter. “There ain’t nothing wrong with having two jobs and working hard, son. Except I suppose it doesn’t leave her much time for herself, now does it?”
“Sure, it does. She has Sunday mornings off. We go to church and then she and the ladies there have coffee and cookies together while the kids go play outside.”
Cooper nodded again, but by then Skeeter’s mother was close enough he could tell her about his ride. “Mom! Cooper said I did great and I can ride again tomorrow.”
She raised one brow. “Is that so? And it’s proper to call him Mr. Holbrook.”
Cooper grinned. “That’s fine,. Cooper works for me.”
“As long as it’s all right with you.” His mother didn’t smile even though Cooper was smiling at her. In fact, she looked a little sad as she looked at Skeeter. “But I’m not sure about another lesson so soon.”
No! She couldn’t say that.
“I need to keep practicing if I’m gonna get good.” When she pressed her lips together in a move Skeeter had seen many times, his heart sank. She was going to say no. It was no use, but he had to try anyway. “Please.”
She drew in a slow breath.
“Ma’am. If I might step in here for a second?”
Finally letting out that big breath, she glanced at Cooper. “Sure.”
“I could use someone to help me out here. If you dropped him off for a few hours a couple of days a week, he could do a little work around the place and then I could get him on a few bulls. It would only be when I’m around, of course. I do a lot of traveling, but if I’m here, he’s welcome.”
She bit her lower lip before she nodded. “That would be real nice of you, Mr. Holbrook.”
“Nah, he’d be doing me the favor helping out. And it’s Cooper, remember?”
EXCERPT (Rated G)
“And Skeeter Anderson hits the ground with the clock stopped at six-point-nine seconds.”
“Well, JW, I have to think that with the number of times this kid’s gotten bucked off, nine out of his last nine outs, odds are he’s used to the taste of arena dirt by now.”
“Used to it or not, this one’s gonna cost him, Jim. Without a qualified ride in this event, his ranking doesn’t make the cut. Skeeter’s officially off the tour for this series.”
“You’re right there, JW. Skeeter will be headed down to the touring pro division until he can get his points up to rank good enough to qualify for the series again. Let’s hope he works out the kinks in his riding and makes it to the finals in Vegas this year.”
Skeeter squinted through the bars on the faceguard of his helmet to see the clock. Seeing his time didn’t change anything. All the digital red glow of the numbers did was confirm what the announcers had said. The clock had stopped at six-point-nine seconds. Close but not close enough when he needed eight seconds to get a score.
Without a qualified ride during his last nine outs, for the first time in years he didn’t rank in the top forty. Only the best riders got to tour with this particular series. Skeeter was no longer one of them. That truth had echoed off the arena walls for thousands of bull riding fans to hear, thanks to the two announcers and their sound system. He pulled out his mouthguard and resisted the urge to throw it.
Sure, he could still ride for this association, but it would be in another division. In this sport, it was the equivalent of a baseball player who’d played in the majors—hell, in the World Series—being sent back to the minor leagues because he wasn’t good enough to cut it in the major leagues anymore. It sucked.
“Tough break, Skeets.” One of the bullfighters slapped Skeeter on the back while handing him his bull rope.
“Yup.” Skeeter grabbed his dusty rope. “Thanks.”
Behind the chutes, Aaron Jordan was there to meet him the moment he walked through the gate. “Don’t let being sent down to the touring pros get to you. You’ll be back here in a week. Two max.”
Aaron’s words had been encouraging on the surface, but all Skeeter could hear was pity behind them. Besides, it would take longer than a week or two to work his way back to where he’d been. But he didn’t bother arguing. What was the point?
“Yeah.” As Skeeter pulled his helmet off, he didn’t have anything more than that to say. He walked away from his friend and traveling partner, heading for where he’d left his hat before the ride.
A nine buck-off streak was too much for Skeeter to wrap his head around after having ranked among the top riders in the country—heck, in the world. They’d called him a prodigy. Joked he’d be the world champion before he was legal to drink.
They’d all been wrong.
Skeeter never ever thought he’d be in this situation, yet here he was. He needed a few seconds alone, but that wasn’t going to happen here and now while he was surrounded by people and cameras.
“What’s going on, kid?”
He turned toward Mustang Jackson, the rider he looked up to with as much respect as he had for the man who’d trained him all those years ago. Unlike Cooper, Mustang had never won the world championship, but he’d placed in the top ten riders consistently, year after year, and he’d been around for a long time.
“I suck, that’s what’s going on.”
Mustang chewed on his bottom lip and nodded. “After watching how you’re riding lately, yeah, I gotta agree with you on that.”
That was not what he’d expected Mustang, the tour cheerleader on most days, to say. A frown settled on Skeeter’s brow.
The older man laughed. “Don’t look at me like that. You know as well as I do, if you can hang on for six-point-nine seconds—”
“I should be able to hang on for eight.” Skeeter finished the sentiment he knew well. He’d heard other riders say it often enough.
“Yup. So, I’ll ask you again, what’s going on with you?”
He blew out a breath. “I don’t know.”
Mustang tipped his head to one side. “I suggest you take some time and figure it out.” Not real helpful advice, in Skeeter’s opinion. If even Mustang couldn’t figure out
what was wrong, after giving all of them good riding advice for years, then there was no hope for Skeeter’s future in this sport. That truth sat in Skeeter’s chest like a lead weight, making it hard to breathe.
He raised his gaze to meet Mustang’s. “I’ll try.”
“You do that, and in the meantime get back to your basics. Hop on some practice bulls. Hell, get back on a damn bucking barrel.”
“The barrel? You serious?” Skeeter’s eyes popped wide. He hadn’t been on a barrel in years. Not since his lessons with Cooper back in Arkansas.
“I never joke about bull riding.” Mustang’s brows rose high. “Just do it, kid. Trust me.” He knocked back the brim of his cowboy hat and was gone.
Ride a practice barrel like the little kids who weren’t old enough to ride bulls? Skeeter had ridden to a sold-out arena in Las Vegas. He’d competed in front of stands packed with thousands of fans. And now, he’d be reduced to riding a barrel in the backyard.
“You okay?” Aaron’s voice brought Skeeter back from where he’d been wallowing in his misery.
“Nope.” If Skeeter could stand to admit to himself his career could very well be over, at least at this level of competition, he might as well admit how miserable he felt about it to his best friend.
“Yeah, didn’t think so.” His traveling partner let out a breath.
Make that former traveling partner. Aaron would still be following this tour circuit, while Skeeter was going back in the touring pros.
“I’m gonna go get out of this stuff.” Helmet in his hand, Skeeter turned and headed for the back. He could pack away his chaps and his vest in his gear bag. There’d be no championship round for him today.
His path to the riders’ dressing room took him down a hallway lined with life-sized posters of past world champions. Some of these men had long since retired from the sport. These were the men Skeeter had grown up idolizing back when he only dreamed of competing pro. Back when his mom had taken on extra shifts to pay for his equipment and later, when he started to compete, for his entry fees. All while he’d mowed every lawn he could find in walking distance to earn money to help.
Some of the champions pictured were still competing. Skeeter had traveled, joked, eaten and prayed with them for the years he’d been with this tour. He’d ridden alongside champions, competing at their level—until now.
Now, it could all be over. His mom’s money and hard work gone to waste. All of Cooper’s countless hours of coaching—all for nothing.
Hoping none of the guys would be in the dressing room, Skeeter bit his lip and fought against the hot sting of tears, not brought on by sadness but anger. Anger at himself. Who else did he have to blame? He’d somehow let this happen, though he had no idea how. Just like he had no idea how he was going to fix it.
EXCERPT (Rated G)
Inside her room, he released her hand and moved to the window. He hit the ON button for the air conditioner. It purred to life, much quieter than the unit upstairs. Hopefully the soft, steady drone would lull her to sleep.
He’d have to sneak in a shower after she fell asleep, but for now he could lie with her for a while. Skeeter sat on the edge of the mattress and pulled off his boots as the room began to cool. As the second boot dropped to the floor with a thud, he twisted to see Riley hesitating near the bed. She wasn’t sure what he wanted.
What he wanted and what he was going to do were two very different things. He swung his legs onto the bed on top of the covers and leaned back against the headboard.
Reaching out, he flipped back just the corner of the sheets on her side of the bed. “Come on. Get in and get comfortable.”
She did as he’d said, settling in against the pillow beneath his arm. She felt good there, nestled against him. A man could get used to having a soft warm body pressed against his all night, every night.
He glanced down to make sure she was comfortable and saw the smile on her lips. “What?”
She laughed. “I was just thinking if the preacher showed up now his head would probably explode. Between Mustang and Sage in the trailer, and Slade and Jenna in the barn. You and I here…”
“Yeah, I know. Not exactly the wholesome picture I painted for him.” Skeeter didn’t want Riley getting the wrong impression about the guys or him. “You know, they really are a couple of good guys.”
“Don’t say anything to anyone yet, but I think Slade might be fixin’ to ask Jenna to marry him.”
“Really?” She turned her head on the pillow to look up at him.
“How do you know?”
“He kind of hinted at it the other day.”
“Wow. That’s nice. You think she’ll say yes?”
“Don’t know. She loves him, anybody can see that, but she’s a city girl with a home in New York. He’s a bull rider, on the road all the time, and his family is in Texas. Differences like that can cause problems, I suppose. It’s not like they’re from the same world—” Skeeter stopped himself before he finished the thought. From the same world like you and I.
If this were any other time in Riley’s life, Skeeter wouldn’t be sitting in bed with her making small talk until she could fall asleep. Instead, he’d be exploring every inch of her, getting to know her in so many ways.
That time would come. God, he hoped it would. He hadn’t considered trying to have a serious girlfriend since he’d started traveling with the pro circuit. It had seemed impossible. Riley made him want to have one. To have her. She made it seem possible. They did live in the same world. It was very possible.
His pulse sped a bit thinking of lying down with Riley every night, just like this. Like this, but different because if they were together as a couple, they wouldn’t be talking right now. It was nearly impossible, but he yanked his mind off thoughts of making love to Riley. Of what the first time together would be like.
Riley couldn’t know about his internal conflict as she continued to talk. “Yeah, I guess they are different. I still hope she says yes.”
He smiled at her optimism. “Careful. Your romantic side is showing.”
She lifted one shoulder. “That’s okay. It’s only you here. I’ll play the tough stock contractor with the heart of steel tomorrow.”
He gave her shoulder a squeeze. The fact she felt she could show him a part of herself she couldn’t show others warmed him inside. “Close your eyes. The rest of the guys will be here tomorrow, and believe me, you’re gonna need all your energy to deal with them.”
“Nah. I know you’ll deal with them for me.” Her voice sounded dreamy as she sank heavier against him, but all Skeeter could think about was how much trust and faith she’d already placed in him. He’d do whatever it took to live up to her expectations. There was no way he was going to let her down.
“Skeeter?” She surprised him by speaking. She’d been silent for long enough after her pronouncement of her faith in him that he’d thought she might have drifted off.
“I liked our kiss.”
Skeeter smiled. “I liked it too.”
He felt her relax against him again. Her breathing slowed until it became a steady, deep rhythm. All the while, he tensed beside her. He’d never wanted a woman this much.
Damn. Sleep wouldn’t come easy for him tonight. Not with Riley on his mind. Definitely not with her pressed against him, waking parts of his body he wished would go back to sleep, at least for tonight.