Jay Turner wrapped the bull rope securely around his gloved right palm and closed his fingers over it. Beyond the delivery chutes, the thumping sound of AC/DC’s Hells Bells blared over the packed crowd at the Sacramento Arco Arena. He hardly noticed the noise and the smell of bull shit anymore. His whole attention was fixed on the two thousand pounds of bull that shifted uneasily between his thighs.
He had to qualify tonight or he’d be going home without a dime again. Five weeks without reaching the final fifteen made a man look like a has-been. It would leave him too close to the cut and ruin his chance of making the finals for the third year in a row. Rampage, the bull he was attempting to ride for eight seconds, was getting more restless. Jay rammed his Stetson down hard on his head and nodded to the gate man.
The bull erupted from the chute with an explosion of power and strength. Jay kept his free hand high over his head and his balance over the center of the bull despite its best efforts to throw him off. A wild sense of exhilaration filled him as the crowd roared in approval. There was nothing like this feeling apart from sex, and hey, if he did okay tonight, he’d make damned sure he got some of that as well.
He spurred the bull to earn those vital extra style points and tried to make it look like he didn’t have a care in the world. The buzzer blared in his ear. Untying his rope, he jumped clear and managed to keep his feet as the shock of landing tore through his knees. One of the bull fighters slapped him hard on the back and handed him his hat.
“Great ride, Jay,” he yelled. “That should get you in the final round.”
Jay looked out at the crowd and waved his Stetson. His grinning face appeared on the huge screens at either end of the arena. A lot of the female fans told him he looked like a young Robert Redford. He couldn’t see it himself, but it was okay by him if it got the girls screaming his name. He punched his fist in the air as his score came up. Eighty-nine points should keep him up there and into the last fifteen.
As he exited the arena and headed for the locker rooms, Jay’s confident grin faded. Christ, his right knee hurt like hell. He’d been avoiding the sports medicine team all weekend because he already knew what they were going to say. He needed surgery on his knee. Surgery that would put him out for the rest of the season.
After enduring another round of back slapping from his fellow competitors, he made for the privacy of the locker room and sank down on a bench. Bull riding was a young man’s game. Only an eighteen-year-old with a gut full of bravado and no brains could get on a bull and not worry about the consequences. Jay wasn’t a kid anymore. His confidence had eroded like a sand dune in a desert storm over the past twelve years. He grimaced as he dropped an ice pack on his knee.
Trouble was, after the last set of injuries, he’d started to worry about getting hurt. And as soon as a rider did that, he became less able to sit on a bull, less capable of shutting out the fear. Jay sighed as he leaned his head back against the metal locker behind him and closed his eyes. One more round and he’d be able to go back to the hotel and soak in a long hot bath. Hopefully with a couple of Buckle Bunnies to scrub his back and any other part of his anatomy they fancied.
Jay frowned as he studied the list of the top fifteen riders. He’d come in sixth overall and had drawn one of the worst bulls in the final round. A monster called Destroyer who seemed determined to live up to his name and had a growing reputation for dumping the elite of the bull riding world on their butts.
For a second, despair washed over him. He’d given up on his dream to become an all-round rodeo world champion after his first set of knee injuries three years ago. His half-brother Grayson had paid for his surgery that time. Jay had no intention of asking for his help again.
He coiled his bull rope into his hand. Despite his doctor’s warnings, he’d switched to bull riding, figuring it would be easier to focus on one thing. Of course, he’d immediately damaged the other knee as well.
Jay stared out at the crowd, allowing his eyes to adjust to the bright lights and the constant ripple of movement. Silently, he struck a bargain with God. If he could just make it through this year, he’d have the surgery. He’d find the money somehow.
The rock music rose in volume and the ground vibrated beneath his boots. He made his way to his assigned bucking chute. Time to cowboy up and get the job done.
Destroyer looked calm enough, his brown flanks heavy with muscle, his tail hardly twitching. But there was a stillness about him Jay didn’t like, a watchfulness in his eyes that spoke of barely leashed wildness. Jay touched his mother’s wedding ring which he wore on a chain around his neck. He always imagined her looking down at him from heaven, protecting his ass.
As soon as he nodded his head and the bull jerked under him, Jay knew he had a problem. The force of the bull’s vertical jumps and belly rolls almost pulled his arm out of its socket. He slid to the right, tried to correct, but it was too late; the big bull was on to him.
He was flung off to the right, his hand still trapped in the tight binding of his rope. He fought to unwrap his hand as the bull fought just as fiercely to get away from him. Jay could only hang on and try not to panic as he worked at the knotted rope. His shoulder was almost wrenched from its socket and a searing pain shot down his arm. The bull fighters yelled at him to stay on his feet but it was impossible. He tried to avoid a kick and slipped to his knees. Over his head, Destroyer reared up and came down on his right leg.
A thin scream pierced the air. Jay only realized it was him when it stopped and he crashed into unconsciousness.
When he opened his eyes, he was still in the arena. Beyond the solid barrier of bull fighters and the sports medicine team who circled him, he sensed the big crowd holding its collective breath. This wasn’t the way he planned to end his career, face down in the dirt.
“I think his neck is okay. Can we get him on the back board, boys?”
“Oh shit, not you,” Jay whispered.
He shut his eyes again but it was no use. The quiet female voice was all too familiar.
Why was she here? Where was Dr. T? Of all the people he would least like to see at this moment, Dr. Helen Kinsale was probably first in line. He knew he was in for a lecture.
He clutched the side of the board as four guys hefted him up and turned toward the exit. The crowd clapped and whistled as he managed to wave his hat at them. Dr. Kinsale walked alongside him, her cool slim fingers wrapped around his wrist as she continued to monitor his pulse.
The guys parked him on the gurney and left. For once, the treatment room was empty apart from the nurse. His flashy blue chaps were unbuckled and laid neatly over the back of a chair along with his Stetson. Jay inhaled the scent of antiseptic along with his own sweat and fear. Dr. Kinsale washed up and pulled on a clean pair of surgical gloves. He gritted his teeth as waves of agony washed through his right knee. He wasn’t stupid. This was bad.
“Hey, doc, can you give me something for the pain?”
Shit, he hated to ask her for anything but he was going to start rocking and moaning like a baby if the torture didn’t stop soon.
She came toward him, her pale blue eyes calm, her blonde hair held back from her face in a neat ponytail. She wore jeans and a black shirt bearing the PBR logo. There was no sympathy on her face, only a businesslike sense of purpose that unnerved him. At least she hadn’t said I told you so.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Turner, but I have to check the extent of the injury first. I can’t give you pain relief in case we need to anaesthetize you later. I’ll be as quick as I can.” She touched the leg of his jeans. “Could you take these off or shall I cut them?”
He tried a smile. “Hell, doc, I didn’t realize you wanted me so bad. But then, these are my lucky Wranglers.”
She didn’t smile back. If anything her expression became more glacial. How a stuck-up woman like Dr. Kinsale had ever got involved with the rough world of rodeo was beyond him.
“What are you doing here tonight? Where’s Dr. T?”
She turned away and took something off the tray of instruments beside her. “He’s operating on another rider. I offered to stand in for him.” She revealed the scalpel in her hand. “And I like to see how my old patients are getting along.”
He stared at the scalpel, his mouth dry as she gestured at his jeans. He tried to think of a joke, any joke.
“I don’t think I can take them off fast enough to satisfy you.”
“I’ll cut them then.” With a quick precise slash of her scalpel she sliced away the fabric from ankle to thigh to reveal his right leg. Jay almost threw up. His knee cap was a bloody swollen mess. He tried not to howl as she gently examined him. With a sigh, she turned to her assistant.
“Can you notify the local hospital? We’ll need to take him in for x-rays and possible surgery.”
Jay grabbed her elbow. “Can’t you do something here? Patch me up, let me go back to my hotel and do the big stuff at the end of the season.”
She removed his hand from her arm and held his gaze. He hated the sympathy he saw in her eyes even more than her previous disdain.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Turner. This is too serious. If you don’t get this fixed now, you might never regain full use of your leg.”