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"Oh! That's coming off a bull the hard way, folks, and that'll mean no score for this young cowboy."
Neal Bryant paid scant attention to the rodeo announcer and none to the disappointed cowboy dusting himself off in front of the rodeo chutes. Instead, Neal scanned the packed bleachers rising behind the white pole fence hung with banners for Wranglers, Resistol Hats and Justin Boots, searching for one face in the milling, colorful crowd from his hometown. A face that haunted his dreamsthe face of Robyn O'Connor.
It would be five years, and he still couldn't get her out of his mind. The ache of missing her, of knowing he'd thrown away the best thing in his life, never left him.
Would Robyn's dark hair still be short? Or would she have grown it long again? He liked it best when she had it long. He remembered the way it felt in his fingers. How he could wrap his hands in it and pull her close. He loved the way it would spill like silk across his chest when they made love.
He'd heard from his mother that Robyn had married not long after she'd left him, but that she was single again. He should be glad about that, but he wasn't. He wanted Robyn to be happy.
His mother and Robyn's mother were neighbors and best friends. He could've made a point of keeping track of her, but he'd chosen not to. On his infrequent visits home, her name was off-limits as far as he was concerned. Robyn's life was her own now. She'd made it plain that there was no place for him in it.
He gave up looking for Robyn in the crowd. It was a stupid move coming back. He hadn't been to a rodeo in Bluff Springs in years. He wasn't sure why he was here now.
Maybe she didn't come to the rodeos anymore. After rolling down the sleeves of his blue-and-white-striped shirt, he fastened the snaps and then drew on his rosin-darkened leather glove. One thing Neal knew for certain, she wouldn't come to this rodeo if she knew he was riding.
He gave his attention back to the rodeo. The smell of dust, livestock and popcorn filled the evening air as the carnival music from the midway spilled over the arena. Another bull and rider burst from the chute beside him and began their awesome dance across the churned dirt of the arena floor. The crowd cheered wildly when the horn sounded. One of his competitors had lasted the full eight.
The announcer's voice blared over the PA system again. "The judges' score is eighty-five. A great ride, ladies and gentlemen. And now we have a last-minute entry, but one I know you'll enjoy. In chute number three, a native son of these Flint Hills and currently number one in the national standingslet's hear it for Neal Bryant, looking for eight on board Dust Devil."
A roar of cheering and applause erupted. Tipping his hat to the crowd from the top rail of the bucking chute, Neal scanned the bleachers one last time. If she was out there, he didn't see her. Biting back his disappointment, he turned his attention to the bull coming through the stock gate.
The announcer's voice droned on. "A two-time runner-up at the National Finals Rodeo "
Those words penetrated Neal's concentration, and his jaw clenched in annoyance. Two-time runner-up was just another way of saying two-time loser. He hated losing.
This year was going to be different. He knew it in his bones. This was his year. He'd given up everything to make it to the top of his sport. Failure wasn't an option.
As he glanced out over the stands once more, he relaxed. He'd ridden his first calf in this Bluff Springs, Kansas, arena when he was eight years old. He'd won that Little Britches go-round, and like his father before him, rodeo had gotten into his blood.
The people there were friends, neighbors and some of his biggest fans. They deserved to see a damn fine ride, and he was going to give them one.
Maybe, just maybe, the one person he wanted to see would be watching.
Neal handed his cowboy hat to one of the men working the chutes and pulled on his helmet with the attached face mask. He lowered himself into the chute. His rigging was quickly pulled tightly around the bull's massive torso, and then the bull rope was laid snugly over the palm of his buckskin glove. Wrapping it once around the back of his hand, he laid it across his palm again and then pounded the fingers of his rosined glove down on the braided leather until he was satisfied with his grip.
The bull moved restlessly below him. The bell on the bottom of the rope clanged loudly when Dust Devil slammed his head against the gate. He was itching to get the rider off his back, and he knew which way was out.
"Old Devil here, he likes to spin to the left," the rodeo clown said from outside the gate.
Neal recognized the man's voice. It was Kent Daley, an experienced bullfighter. Kent had saved the hide of more than one unlucky rider, including Neal. They had traveled the same rodeo circuit for years.
"I see you're still playing with your wife's makeup, Kent. Aren't you getting a little long in the tooth for this business?"
"I'll give it up the day a bull's hot breath on my butt doesn't make me run fast."
"Just keep this one off mine, okay?"
"Devil likes to spin tight. When you come off, get out of his way. He loves to stomp on folks. He's got a mean streak a mile wide."
"What makes you think I'm gonna come off?"
"Cocky, ain't ya?"
"Getting bucked off is so undignified."
"Well, when you dismount, you should remove yourself from this bovine's vicinity with all haste."
"That's the plan. Thanks."
Neal adjusted his weight until he was satisfied with his seat. He knew this bull. He'd ridden him twice before, but he had only stayed on for the full eight seconds one time. He couldn't have hoped for a better draw, since both the bull and the rider were judged during the event. The harder a bull bucked, the higher the score his rider earned.
Dust Devil liked to take three or four big leaping bucks straight down the arena before he started into the tight spin that had earned him his name. The high jumps earned more points. A rider couldn't win with a lazy bull under him.
"Okay, boys." Neal was ready. He raised his hand and nodded. The gate flew open, and the massive gray bull exploded into the arena with a powerful lunge.
The bull leaped again, thrashing in midair as he tried to shake his rider. When he made a third lunge, Neal's lips drew back in a savage smile. He had this one.
Adrenaline pumped through his body. The roaring crowd was nothing but a colorful blur at the edge of his vision as he concentrated on the animal beneath him. Devil's massive head swung sharply to the left, and Neal shifted his weight when the bull started into his spin. He was going to ride him for sure this time. Suddenly, Dust Devil stumbled. The mammoth animal lost his footing and crashed to his knees.
Catapulted forward, Neal flew over his riding hand, twisting it tighter in the rope. Devil lurched to his feet with Neal dangling helplessly against his side.
Neal struggled to free his hand as the bull continued to buck and thrash, tossing him like a rag doll. Kent Daley darted in and began trying to loosen the bull rope. Kent's partner dodged back and forth in front of the bull, taunting the animal to keep him from turning back on Kent as he worked. At last, Neal's rigging slipped loose.
He fell into the dirt beneath Devil's hooves. He tried to roll aside. A crushing blow to his ribs forced the air from his lungs as one of Dust Devil's hooves drove up under the edge of his protective vest. Neal curled into a ball of agony. He couldn't breathe.
Kent dropped down beside him. "Are you hurt?"
"I can make it," Neal gasped. He pulled his helmet off to get more air. It didn't help.
Devil ran the second clown into the safety of the padded barrel. With a furious blow of his head, the bull sent the barrel flying. Then he turned back to the men crouched on the arena floor.
"Get me out of here," Neal managed through clenched teeth. Dagger-sharp pain lanced through his side. He tasted blood in his mouth. Grabbing his helmet lying in the dirt beside him, he suppressed a groan as Kent shouldered him to his feet and half dragged, half carried him toward the fence. Neal couldn't make his legs work right.
Safety loomed only a few steps away when Dust Devil bore down on them again. After letting go of Neal, Kent turned to lure the bull away. His brightly colored, baggy clothing made him a more inviting target. Neal staggered two more steps. With one hand on the fence, he glanced back to see Kent get hooked and tossed high into the air. He landed facedown in the dirt and lay still. Dust Devil whirled back for the fallen clown.
Other men and riders were racing toward them, but no one was as close as Neal was. He turned away from the fence and limped toward the crumpled figure on the arena floor. Neal drew the bull's attention by yelling and waving his arm. The massive animal hesitated for an instant, and then charged the fallen man.
Neal threw his helmet. It hit the bull square in the face. Enraged, Dust Devil changed direction and charged him.
Neal took a step backward, turned and tried for the fence. He stumbled and fell to his hands and knees. As he glanced over his shoulder, he had a split second to wonder if he was going to die, and if Robyn would care. Then the world exploded in a brilliant, bloodred flash of pain, followed mercifully by darkness.
Robyn Morgan crossed the nearly empty hospital parking lot and inserted her key in her car door. She paused and raised her head to listen. The distant sound of a siren broke the quiet of the balmy June night. She recognized the distinctive wail of the county ambulance.
Drat! If she'd only been a minute faster getting into her car, she wouldn't have heard it. Or, she admitted with a wry smile, if she hadn't spent the past twenty minutes pouring over the application form for a nurse-practitioner scholarship her supervisor had given her. Twenty minutes of pure wishful thinking.
She couldn't get over the shock of it. The accompanying letter stated that she had been recommended for a full private scholarship at the University of Colorado. The scholarships would be awarded to four candidates chosen from the names put forth by physicians practicing family medicine in Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. The deadline for returning the application was September 1.
She had no idea who'd submitted her name, but it was flattering to know her expertise had been noted, especially since the school was one of the best in the country. But, like the carrot on a string in front of a donkey, the promise of a chance at professional advancement and a better salary dangled just out of her reach.
She couldn't go back to school now, not with the trouble she and her mother were having with the ranch. It was tough making ends meet, and the gap widened every month. Her mom couldn't do it alone. Robyn knew there would be expenses in going to school out of state that even a full scholarship wouldn't cover.
Yet it was an opportunity she might never have again. There had to be some way she could make it work. She racked her tired brain for a solution but came up blank. No, she was only kidding herself. The offer was tempting in the extreme, but the timing couldn't have been worse.
Meanwhile, was she going to stay late and help with whatever the ambulance was bringing, or was she going home? She battled with her conscience as she stood in the parking lot. Her shift was over. She'd given report to the night nurse. She could go home. She should go home.
Biting her lip, she listened to the siren's wail growing louder.
Someone else could handle the crisis for once. She was tired. She didn't feel like rushing in to save the day.
But her mother would have put Chance to bed hours ago. He wouldn't know his mother hadn't come home on time. The night-shift nurse, Jane Rawlings, was a good nurse, but she was young and inexperienced. What if it was something Jane couldn't handle?
Robyn's shoulders slumped in defeat. Once again, her overblown sense of responsibility won out. After pulling her keys from the car door, she threw them in her purse and hurried back through the hospital door. The look of relief on Jane's face said she'd made the right decision.
"Thank goodness. I thought you'd gone."
Robyn dropped her purse in a drawer behind the emergency room desk. "I should have been. One of these days, I'm going to put my own life before this job. I swear I am."
"Right. That'll happen about twenty-four hours after you're dead." The skeptical comment came from Dr. Adam Cain as he strode in.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then raked his fingers through his thick blond hair.
Jane read from the notes she had taken when the call came in. "A bull rider has been injured over at the rodeo. The paramedics say the guy's in bad shape. They're suggesting we call for an airlift." She read off his vital signs, as well.
Dr. Cain nodded. "All right, alert Kansas City General's team that we are going to need them. It will take a little while to get the chopper ready."
Startled, Robyn asked, "You're going to call an air ambulance transfer without seeing the patient first?"
"I'm been moonlighting in this one-horse town long enough to know that your paramedics know their stuff. If they think this guy needs an airlift, I'm sure he does. Every second counts this far from a trauma center. If he looks like something we can handle, we'll cancel the transport."