HW Morgan eased his weight from one booted foot to the other to counteract the grinding pain in his right knee from his recent fall and stared out over the now empty arena. The smell of over two thousand tons of dirt, horse, and sweat lingered, along with spilled popcorn and beer. Sanitation crews were sweeping out the mountains of trash left by the fans, while another team dismantled the bucking chutes and metal panels. It was amazing how fast the trappings of the National Finals Rodeo came down, turning the Thomas & Mack Center back into a basketball arena. Only the overhead Jumbotron that could have flashed his victory score instead of his defeat remained.
"HW. Why are you still here?"
HW turned as his best friend on the rodeo circuit. "Rio" Martinez came up and slapped him on the back. He was a bull rider by trade but had come to cheer on his companions.
"I'm just thinking about what might have been." HW sighed. "I keep running that last saddle bronc ride through my head, wondering what I could've done differently."
"Hey, you came second overall, my friend. You should be proud." Rio gave him another friendly punch in the arm. "Next year you'll win it outright."
HW straightened up. "Nah. I think I'm done."
Rio stared at him as if he was nuts. "Come on. You're just sore and —"
"Nope, I just don't want it anymore."
It killed him to admit it, and it would piss off his sponsors if he decided to turn his back on the money and fame, but the desire to be the best had deserted him. He'd recently lost another longtime rodeo friend, kicked by a horse in the head. He had a terrible sense that if he didn't stop now, he'd never stop, and would end up dead or with nothing.
"Don't make any hasty decisions, my friend," Rio advised. "Get your knee fixed, take some time off, and then reassess, okay?"
"Easy for you to say when you're the next big thing and I'm on my way out," HW grumbled. "I'm too tall, too old, and my back's about to give out."
Rio had the nerve to laugh. "You're blond, beautiful, and all-American. The sponsors love you, women throw themselves at your feet, and you give great interviews. No one wants you to retire."
"Except me." HW gave the arena one last lingering glance — almost as if he was saying good-bye — and then threw an arm around his friend's shoulders. "I suppose I should go to the party or our new champion's sponsor will be accusing me of sour grapes. Give an old man a hand, won't you?"
Rio was still grinning when they reached the sponsor's suites. They both endured the backslapping and congratulations of a multitude of fans, businesspeople, and other competitors. When Rio went to get them an officially sponsored beer, HW was surrounded by a group of women, all eager to engage his attention in some way or another. There were some beautiful and smart women in his world, along with a few buckle bunnies, but none of them did it for him anymore. But he did his job: signed autographs, T-shirts, and one woman's left boob and smiled like he was delighted to be there.
Dan Post, the rep of his main sponsor, came by to shake his hand, his round face gleaming with perspiration. "Better luck next year, okay?" He leaned in closer. "My boss wants to talk to you about renegotiating your current deal, so call your agent."
"Will do. Paul's here somewhere if you want to speak to him yourself," HW agreed with a smile.
"I'd rather run it by you first — you know what he's like." Dan shuddered. "He was over by the bar a moment ago. I'll tell him you're looking for him."
Out of the corner of his eye, HW saw the new champion come in and watched with wry amusement as he was swarmed by almost the entire party. The guy was six years younger than HW, and so dazzlingly talented that he'd likely be on top for years. Unless he was injured, and HW wouldn't wish that on his worst enemy, he would prove hard to beat.
"Here's your beer. Cheers." Rio handed him a frosted bottle. "Feel like celebrating with some ladies tonight?"
"No, thanks. I have to ice my knee." HW grinned. "See? I am getting old, and you won't want to be buddies with me for much longer."
Rio clinked his bottle against HW's, his expression suddenly serious. "I'll always be your friend. You and your twin were the only people who made an effort to understand my garbled attempts at English all those years ago. You taught me a lot and I'll never forget it."
"That was probably Ry. He's always had a soft heart."
"How's he doing? Regretting leaving the circuit yet?"
"Nope. He's in love and happy as a pig in shit being the deputy ranch manager at my family home."
"Yeah?" Rio chuckled. "I can just picture him there. His heart was never really devoted to this game like ours. You miss him, yes?"
HW grimaced. "Like my right arm."
"Do you have that twin thing going for you? Like you know when he is hurt?"
"Sure do." HW rubbed his nose. "He got kicked in the face by a calf a couple of weeks ago and I was the one who got the black eye."
Rio's shout of laughter ended abruptly as someone came up behind HW. All the humor drained from his face. "Your agent's here. I'll catch up with you in a while."
HW turned to Paul White. His snake of an agent had something of a reputation and had fallen out with Rio over a year ago. Neither man would tell HW what the problem was, so HW had reluctantly stayed with Paul, who'd been in the middle of contract negotiations for him.
Paul nudged him in the ribs. He wore cowboy gear but always looked more comfortable in a suit. "Still hanging around with that jerk loser?"
HW didn't smile. "What's up, Paul?"
"Oh, just congratulating my favorite client. I've got an opportunity for you to tour Brazil during the off-season. It'll be worth it. I told them you'd do it."
"I'm not interested."
"Come on, HW! You'll make thousands of bucks. All you have to do is appear in a few exhibition rides and look pretty. You're a natural."
"I'm not doing it, Paul."
The smile disappeared from Paul's face to reveal the shark beneath. "But it's almost a done deal."
"Not my problem. I'm taking a few weeks off." HW shrugged. "I'm sure you'll find someone else."
"How much cash do you want to go?"
"I don't care about the money. I need some time to myself, okay?"
Paul shook his head and tutted in a way that set HW's teeth on edge. "See, that's why you're not the champion. That's why I have to fight and struggle all the time to get you to pay attention to me." His face darkened. "You'd better not be off doing something I don't know about. I deserve my share of your earnings. I got you everything you have — all those sponsorship deals, all that airtime, all that magazine space."
HW set his jaw. Sometimes putting up with the best agent in the business had its downside. Hopefully he wouldn't be dealing with this shit for much longer. "And I'm grateful for that, but I'm still taking time off."
"Why? If you don't get out there and promote yourself like hell as the man most likely to win next year, you're going to be considered passé. A loser, just like your brother who couldn't hack it."
HW offered his agent his warmest smile. "Stop with the charm offensive. I'm not doing it. That's final. I'm going home to work on the family ranch."
"The family you called a bunch of murdering losers on TV? I bet they're going to be pleased to see you."
"I damn well hope so. I'll talk to you when I get back."
HW turned away, but Paul grabbed his arm. "You call me once a week. You'll get bored with playing cowboy and be desperate to get back to the real world."
HW gently removed Paul's hand from his elbow. "I don't think so."
"If you don't keep in touch, don't expect to have an easy time of it when you get back."
"Not a problem."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Paul demanded.
HW tipped his hat. "I'm sure you'll work it out. 'Night, Paul. See you in a couple of months."
He wasn't going to get into anything specific with his agent right there and now. Rio's advice was on target. He needed to walk away for a while, like Ry had, and work out whether he wanted to come back to this life of endless hard work, disappointment, sacrifice, and pure heroics. At the moment, he loved and loathed it equally. The thrill of competing and hearing the crowd roar just for him against the injuries, the constant travel.
The loneliness ...
It hadn't been the same since Ry had walked out on him. HW finished his beer and went to congratulate the new champion in person. He'd go back to the ranch where he'd been born, reconnect with his brothers and newly discovered sister. Once he'd settled down he'd make some decisions the way he met all the challenges in his life — with a smile.
* * *
"Jay, will you please listen to me?"
Samantha Kelly contemplated tossing her cell into the plant pot behind her as her old friend kept talking and talking and talking. She was sitting in the physical therapy center where she worked and trained and was supposed to be exercising her upper body.
"Sam, come on, you owe me big-time."
She scowled. Okay, so he did have a point.
"All you have to do is agree to a six-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at a brand-new dude ranch right here in Northern California. It's only a hundred miles from where you live. I know you've always loved the rodeo. And, as an extra incentive, you'll be staying real close to where I live."
"You call that a bonus?"
Jay laughed. "Hell yeah. I'm cute, you love me, and you can finally hang out with Erin. She's dying to meet you."
"Erin's the new one, right? Not the woman who dumped your ass when you were still in the hospital?"
"Erin's amazing." Sam rolled her eyes at his lovesick tone even though Jay couldn't see her. "So, you'll come?"
"I haven't said that!"
"But you will. I know you're up for a challenge and you know I'll just keep bugging you until you give in. They're looking for guests to give them feedback on all aspects of the ranch before they open fully to the public. I told Chase Morgan you'd be a great guest, and the first to offer an honest opinion."
"You mean I've got a big mouth."
"I mean that you're amazingly good at seeing the big picture and telling it like it is."
Sam wasn't sure that was true anymore, but she was sick of staring at the same four walls, and her family would be thrilled if she went. It would also give them a break ...
Jay carried on speaking. "I'm just going to keep calling you until you break down and come anyway."
"That's because you were a Navy SEAL," Sam complained. "You never know when to give up. So not fair."
Jay went quiet for so long that Sam wondered if she'd lost the connection.
"I know it's hard for you. I know, Sam. I barely left my room for a year after I was medically discharged. But I got nagged into running the bar and then I met Erin, and everything changed for me." He paused again. "I need your help, okay? So do my friends up at Morgan Ranch."
Sam studied the yoga chart on the wall opposite her until the figures blurred into anonymous shapes. She hadn't tried anything new for two years. And how long was it since she'd been needed for anything ?
"Okay." Her breath whooshed out. "I'm not sure how I'm going to help anyone, but I'll do it."
Jay whistled and whooped so hard that she had to hold the phone away from her ear.
"Great! I'll give Chase Morgan your details and he'll be in touch. See you soon, Sammy girly!"
"Don't call me that," she mock-threatened.
"Come and make me."
"I will when I get to that ranch."
She was still smiling as she ended the call. She and Jay had met in military rehab and spent hours cheering each other on with the kinds of taunts and teases that would've shocked those with thinner skins and a less dark sense of humor. But it had worked. They'd both been through hell and back. Together, they'd gotten out of the hospital and into civilian life. He was the brother she'd always wanted. She owed him a lot.
"Hey, Sam?" She turned to see her mom in the doorway. "You ready to go home now?"
Guiltily aware that she hadn't done half her exercises, she smiled at her mother. "Sure! I don't have any more clients this afternoon. This time I'm driving. I've got to get some more practice in."
"As long as you stop off at the pizza place to pick up our order, I'm good."
"Yeah right." Sam grinned. "Last time I drove, you screamed like a banshee."
"That's because you drive too fast." Mom held the door open. "You got everything?"
Sam dropped her cell into her purse. Her mom looked way less tense than she had a year ago, when Sam had been at her most difficult. Spending six weeks at this Morgan Ranch place would give her parents their first vacation from her in three years. It wasn't that she needed physical help anymore but that they worried about her all the time. Maybe it was time for them all to get over that and move on. The more she thought about it, the better the idea became.
She made sure her prosthetic was securely attached to her left calf, pulled on a new pair of socks, and tied her sneakers. Her dad had always complained she had a lead foot when he'd been teaching her to drive, and now she kind of did. Relearning skills she'd taken for granted was never fun, but she wasn't the kind of person who gave up easily. Grabbing her jacket, she executed a perfect turn in her lightweight wheelchair and headed for the door.
"I'm good to go, and guess what? I have some news to share after dinner."
Morgan Ranch, California
HW turned the wheels of his truck in a slow circle and came to a stop right outside his family home. The dust resettled and the quietness stole over him. Not much had changed at the ranch since the 1850s, when his enterprising great-great-grandparents had realized that keeping the miners fed and housed was a way more lucrative business than chasing the next phantom gold rush. They'd built liveries and saloons and eventually made enough money to buy land and graze cattle.
Even when the thought of coming back had seemed impossible, HW had never forgotten the struggle his Welsh family had endured to make a home for themselves in a new country. That inherited grit had helped him compete through injuries and rides that would've shaken another man to his soul. His grandma Ruth said that stubbornness was the marrow in a Morgan's bones.
HW would have to agree. After the horrors of their childhood, it had taken ten years for Ruth to persuade his oldest brother, Chase, to return to the ranch, and even longer to coax Blue and Ry back home. But now here they were — all working on the newly designed and almost-ready-to-go-public historical dude ranch.
He got out of the truck, stretching his shoulders and easing the weight onto his left hip. No one came out of the ranch house to welcome him. It was unusually quiet, and there were no trucks parked outside the barn. HW made his way up the steps to the wraparound porch and went in through the screen door. Everything looked freshly painted, and someone had added a swinging seat to one side of the outdoor space. He bet it was Blue. Being a tech nerd, Chase didn't have a clue how to use a hammer.
Silence greeted his question, so he headed into the kitchen, where the scent of baking lingered, reminding him that he was hungry and of his grandma, who always smelled like vanilla. He pulled out his cell phone and checked his messages. He'd sent a text to his twin brother, Ry, to let him know he was arriving today. He tested the side of the coffeepot to find out if it was still hot, texting with one thumb.
Where r u?
There was no immediate reply, so he helped himself to coffee and set about taking his bags up to his old room on the top floor. He kicked open the door with the toe of his boot and dumped everything on the old braided rag rug that covered the original pine flooring. The room smelled of sunshine and lemon polish. The windows were open, allowing the drapes to flutter in the breeze. Perhaps someone was expecting him after all.
His cell buzzed.
Are you home already? I'm in town with Avery. Back in 30.
HW paused to look out over the water meadows toward the Sierras, inhaling the clean bite of the fresh air.
Yeah. He wasn't sure about that yet. Wasn't sure his family had forgiven him for dumping them all in the shit by exposing their family history to the media. He'd even managed to fall out with his twin, which was a first. Ry always had his back, but HW had let the thrill of competition and fame turn his head and almost sacrificed something way more precious. He just remembered to text back.
Yeah. I'm here.