No, prima donna ballerina Jessica Carmichael isn’t interested in the rough-and-tumble rodeo cowboy she met in physical therapy. In fact, she’s actively uninterested in his cocky smile, and his go-with-the-flow attitude, and how his silly little bets make her work harder than ever to fix her knee. She’d like nothing more than to strangle him, if she wasn’t so busy thinking about kissing him.
Matt Walker's best hope of getting back in the saddle is charming Jessica into teaching him ballet. He needs to get back on the bronc…even if he has to get there in tights. Only the uptight ballerina lives in a completely different world, one he wouldn't touch with a ten-foot mechanical bull. But maybe the one thing she needs more than control is to lose control for once—with him.
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Robert Tate Miller was raised in Hendersonville, North Carolina where he started writing at a young age.
Rob has written many screenplays and has had six movies produced for the small screen. His TV movie credits include Three Days, Secret Santa, Hidden Places, Farewell Mr. Kringle, Christmas Cookies and Love Struck Cafe. Rob wrote the novels Secret Santa (Atria), Forever Christmas (Thomas Nelson), and The Christmas Star (Waterfall Press). Rob graduated from the University of Georgia with a BA in Journalism/Mass Communications. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Read an Excerpt
Jessica could feel them out there, stirring, whispering, shifting in their seats. She could hear them on the other side of the thick black stage curtain that shielded her. They were her people, the dance aficionados, her balletomanes. Many had seen her time and again, followed her career through the years from New York stage to New York stage, season in and season out. They'd waited by the stage door for her, snapped selfies with her, asked for autographs, and told her how wonderful and extraordinary and graceful she was. She'd smiled demurely and thanked them with practiced modesty as they stoked her fragile ego.
These were her people, and they had expectations, and those expectations were what made Jessica Carmichael nervous.
She'd done hundreds of performances in her nearly fifteen-year career, but the fear of a misstep, of letting her loyal fans down, of shattering her veneer of perfection, always made those pre-curtain moments a time of mild terror. The nerves were always there, yet Jessica welcomed them. Because it was the nervousness that kept her on her toes, literally and figuratively. The nervous knots helped her stay sharp and on top of her game.
"One minute to curtain." Hal, the ancient stage manager, whispered the call. Jessica closed her eyes and drew in a long, deep breath. It was March twenty-first, the first day of spring, and the first performance of the season. At thirty, Jessica was at the top of her ballerina game. She was a star in the footlights, dubbed the Belle of the Ballet by those in the dance community. All her years of hard work had paid off, and she was enjoying her celebrity status. The fans now didn't just come out to see a ballet, they came to see her, and they came in droves.
Jessica saw the curtains move and slipped into her zone. She closed her eyes and tuned out all distractions. From the seats, she knew she must appear like a statuette, so still and poised in the dim purplish light. The audience applauded when they saw her, the polite and reserved applause of the ballet enthusiast. But she was unmoving, her pale complexion serene, hazel eyes closed, strawberry hair tied up in a tight bun, her head tilted slightly forward. And then with graceful purpose, Jessica the ballerina began to move ...
* * *
Butte, Montana, was twenty-two hundred miles from New York City but, at the very moment Jessica Carmichael sprung blithely into her routine, Matt "Mad Dog" Walker was sitting in the bucking chute on the back of a wild bronco named Salsa. This was his first rodeo in six months, and he felt a touch rusty. Even for an experienced bronc rider like Matt, this was nervous knots time, just sitting there in that cramped pen on the back of a seething wild animal waiting on the gate man to swing that heavy metal door open. Matt always likened it to sitting in a roller coaster car at the start of the ride, waiting anxiously for it to lurch forward.
He was thirty-three and had been in a saddle nearly his whole life, had been riding rodeos professionally since he was eighteen. But, in all his fifteen-plus years on the circuit, Matt couldn't remember drawing a horse as feisty as the dark brown Salsa. The boisterous bronco had a reputation among the other riders for being darned near unconquerable. Earlier in the locker room, Matt had boasted to a rodeo reporter that he considered ol' Salsa just another ride, that he'd had tougher draws, but, deep down, Matt wasn't so sure. He could feel the bronco's anger simmering beneath him, as if the horse couldn't wait for the gate to fly open so he could teach this punk cowboy a lesson. He took a deep breath as he heard the rodeo announcer bark out his introduction.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome three-time world champion Matt 'Mad Dog' Walker, riding the toughest little charger in the fold, the wild one — Salsa!"
And then the gate swung open and it was game on. Matt was at his finest in the saddle. He was focused and fearless and among the very best in the business. Eight seconds. That's all he had to hold on. He'd conquered so many mounts before and earned his Mad Dog nickname for the wild and reckless way he rode, but, on this night, for one of the few times in his life and career, Mad Dog had doubts, and he knew full well that doubt was a bronc rider's worst enemy.
"And down he goes! Mad Dog's in the dirt!"
Matt hit hard and rolled, just avoiding Salsa's wild kicks. He felt the tear immediately, the sharp shard of pain that shot through his left knee. But, just as he'd done dozens of times before, he executed a perfect roll, scooping up his Stetson as he sprung onto his feet. As the dim reality of what just occurred settled over him, Matt grinned his famous Mad Dog grin and waved his hat to the cheering crowd as the rodeo announcer bellowed reassurance.
"Looks like he's all right, folks! Good ride, Mad Dog! Better luck next time."
Matt felt the searing pain move from his knee up to his spine, but he managed to keep that showman's smile pasted on for the sake of his adoring fans.
Damn, he thought. This can't be good.
Matt's uncle and manager, Harry Carson, watched from the railing. He was approaching sixty-five, had been there for every single one of Matt's competition falls, and, even though Matt was waving his leather cowboy hat to the crowd and grinning like a Cheshire cat, he knew Harry could sense something wasn't right. Matt turned and gave Harry a look, and, as the old rancher started to enter the arena to help him, Matt held up a finger, stopping him short. Matt knew that if his fans, and those rich rodeo promoters sitting up in their fancy boxes, saw that Mad Dog needed his manager to come help him out, the word would soon spread.
"Did you see that?" "What's wrong with Mad Dog?" "Think he's done?"
So Matt limped his way over to the side, doing his best to make it look like it was just a minor tweak, nothing more serious than a twisted ankle. He kept smiling and waving his hat and winking at ladies, and all the while feeling like he had a knife jammed into the base of his spine. He was still smiling when he reached the railing where Harry was waiting.
"Let's get you out of sight," Harry said.
"Yeah," Matt rasped, choking back tears.
A half hour later, Matt sat on the edge of an examining table in the rodeo locker room while rodeo physician Dr. Larry Scott poked and prodded his left knee. Whenever the doctor put pressure on it, Matt would flinch a little and then try to mask the fact he was in pain.
Harry stood by, arms crossed. Whenever Matt caught his eye, Uncle Harry would give him a wink and an it's-all-good smile. Matt would smile back and do the one thing he always did when he didn't want to think about something. He'd talk about the schedule.
"Spokane on Friday. Then we're in Cheyenne the next week. Topeka the one after that. Right, Harry?"
"I think so," Harry said.
"Okay," Dr. Scott finally said. "You ready to listen to me, Mad Dog?"
"Depends on what you're saying, Doc," Matt said with a wink.
The doctor sighed. "Well, I need you to hear me even if you don't like the news."
Matt grinned, trying to mask the fear that was welling up in his gut. "Go ahead, Doc. Let me have it."
The doctor looked at Harry as if to say, I need you with me on this. "Matt, I'm fairly certain it's your anterior cruciate ligament — your ACL."
"Is that all?" Matt said. "See, Harry, I told you it wasn't serious. Okay, Doc, just wrap it up, and I'm good to go."
"You're done, Matt," Dr. Scott said. His tone was firm and weighty. "I think your career might be over. And, even if you do make it back, from the looks of this knee, you're a year or two and a whole lot of rehab away from riding again. I certainly can't sanction you for this season. We can take a look a year from now, if you're willing to work to get well again." The doctor put a hand on Matt's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Matt felt a deep churning in his gut. It was like his life dream had just been dropped like a light bulb onto the cement, shattering into a thousand shards of thin glass.
"It's a serious injury, Matt," Dr. Scott said. "We need to be realistic. If you put too much stress on it too soon, and it goes out again, you're right back to square one."
"So, how long you think?" Matt said. "To rehab? Best case scenario."
The doctor gave Matt a look. It was obvious he didn't like the question. "Maybe you should think about hanging up your spurs, Mad Dog."
"That doesn't answer my question," Matt said vehemently. "How long? Best case?"
The doctor heaved a long sigh. "Best case? Nine months. That's if the surgery goes without a hitch and your rehab's ahead of schedule. That's extremely optimistic."
Matt chuckled because he didn't know what else to do. Feigning nonchalance when he was terrified was his default defense mechanism. "Nine months? Harry, how long till The Garden?"
"Let's see," Harry said. "The Big Ride's the last day of spring ... so about twelve weeks."
"You see, Doc," Matt said. "Don't have nine months. Got three. And I'm gonna be in Madison Square Garden that night; I'm gonna be in the saddle." Matt wondered if they were buying his false bravado. He'd been a showman most of his life, and he knew how to put up a false front. Inside, he was trembling, his heart racing. He saw everything he'd ever dreamed of slipping through his chafed fingers. "I'm just a few points shy of getting All-Around Cowboy this year. First time ever. Promised my daddy I was gonna earn it one day, so I can't miss The Big Ride."
The usually even-tempered Dr. Scott looked like he was growing irritated. "Matthew, I need you to listen to me, and listen good. All-Around Cowboy or not, if you fall on that knee again, even if it's off a two-step ladder, you could reinjure it and end up a cripple for life. I am the rodeo doctor, and you know you need my okay to ride in sanctioned events, The Big Ride included. And I can tell you right now you're not gonna get it." The doctor took a deep breath; his voice dropped. "You've had a good run, a great run, but it's time to do the smart thing. At least until that knee has time to heal properly."
The doctor zipped up his medical bag. He put a hand on Matt's shoulder. "Good luck, Mad Dog. I've doctored a lot of rodeo cowboys in my time, and you are by far the best I've ever seen." He looked at Harry. "I'll schedule surgery for next week." With that, the doctor took his black leather bag and headed out.
Matt wasn't about to let him get the last word. If the doctor was right, then his riding days were done. If the doctor was right, the life he loved, the life he lived to honor his parents, would be over. He called after him. "You just don't get it, Doc! Cowboy News called me the toughest rider in rodeo. Why? Because I bounce back. I'm like a rubber ball — I'm bouncing back. You just wait." The slamming of the locker room door told Matt Dr. Scott was no longer listening. Matt looked at Harry. "Don't you listen to that quack, Harry. I'm coming back."
Harry put a hand on Matt's shoulder. "Now, Matthew. I'm not going to go against the doctor just so you can satisfy your blimp-sized ego. I'm not just your manager, I'm your uncle and your daddy and your friend. If I let you do something stupid, then I'm failing at every single one of those jobs."
"You know my dad would have told that doctor to go jump in the river," Matt said. "Promised him I was gonna win the All-Around. And I intend to keep my promise."
"Your daddy's dead," Harry said, "and so's your momma, and I'm all you've got, and I'm telling you that you are going to get that surgery, and you are going to rehab that knee, and then you're going to go back to your ranch in Montana and take the year off. We'll see how you're feeling next season. Your daddy'd say the same thing if he were here."
Matt gave him a long look. "I'm going to be in the Garden on June twentieth. Just you wait and see."
* * *
To the crowd, Jessica's grand jeté finale seemed flawless, but the ballerina felt it the moment she landed. Something just wasn't right. She knew her body so well, was in tune with its every move and nuance, and she could immediately identify the source of the sharp pain that shot up her spine and into the back of her neck. It was her left knee. Though she'd done that jump at least a thousand times, this time she'd landed wrong. Yet, despite the throbbing agony, the Belle of the Ballet remained poised, her smile frozen on her face as the ovation swelled, and the audience rose as one to celebrate her performance.
In the wings, her sister Kat called out in a panic. "Curtain! Curtain!" The curtain fell, and Kat ran to her sister as Jessica collapsed onto the stage. "Jess?"
Jessica winced. "It's my knee. Something ... popped." She struggled to stave off the tears. The pain was nearly unbearable.
"Popped?" Kat said. She had her arms around Jess, clearly trying to project calm, though the look in her eyes gave her away.
"I landed wrong," Jessica said. "I think I'm going to pass out."
Kat called out to a couple of young male stagehands who were watching with helpless looks on their faces. "Let's get her back to the dressing room."
Jessica winced as the stagehands carefully lifted her, draping her arms around their shoulders. She looked at Kat. "Let's keep this quiet, okay?"
"Don't worry," Kat said. "Little sis has everything under control."
Jessica and Kat rode in silence all the way back to their upper east side apartment. Dr. Beckett, the ballet's on-call physician, had examined Jess in her dressing room and told her that it could well be an ACL injury, but he wouldn't know for sure until they brought her in for a thorough examination. He'd given her Vicodin to dull the throbbing. Jessica leaned her head back onto the seat of the limo. The pain killer was starting to make her dizzy, but she wasn't so loopy that she didn't realize what this could mean for her career. It could end it. Dead in the water. She felt her eyes well up. The pain's enough for now, she thought. You can deal with the fallout later.
Reggie, their usually chatty driver, seemed to sense the somber mood and kept quiet. Jessica stared out the window and, through a druggy fog, thought about her career. She'd been hailed as a prodigy, first anointed as such at the age of sixteen by Ally Harper, a freelance journalist who covered the ballet scene. Harper's most recent story had run in the New York Times a week earlier and was titled "Belle of the Ballet Jessica Carmichael Still Soaring at Thirty." In the article, Harper recapped Jessica's storied career on New York's ballet stages, and talked about how she'd started the "successful Jessica Carmichael Ballet Studio in SoHo where the legendary dancer is developing those with big dreams and smaller-sized pointe shoes."
Jessica had been told she was destined for ballet from the moment she could crawl. Her mother, Evelyn, danced with the New York City Ballet when she was in her early twenties, retiring when she married Jessica's father, Peter Carmichael. Jessica's aunt Elizabeth, Evelyn's older sister, taught ballet at Juilliard, where Jessica auditioned while she was a junior at the exclusive Brearley School, a private school for girls on Manhattan's Upper East Side, not far from the tony Carnegie Hill brownstone where Jessica grew up. She was a child of New York privilege. Her father was one of the most respected and sought after banking executives in the business, and Jessica lived a life filled with opulent parties, personal drivers, and servants. She didn't consider herself lucky. It was all she knew.
By the time of the Juilliard audition, Jessica had already been performing in major venues on the New York stage for nearly two years, and the storied performing arts conservatory accepted her right away. Jessica was obsessed with perfection, and determined that, come what may, she would never be outworked. She was always in the studio honing her craft, or would sometimes find a vacant stage to practice, imagining it was Carnegie Hall and she was the featured performer all alone in the footlights. Jessica was a prodigy, but she never really enjoyed her milestones and triumphs; she was always focused on the next thing, on getting better and being the best. Anything less, she felt, would be a complete and utter failure. "I don't want to be great," Jessica once told her Juilliard roommate. "I want to be perfect."
Jessica felt disconnected from the image of an austere rich girl ballerina. Her humor could be biting, and she wielded sarcasm like a saber. My Jessica has a sharp wit, and I love it, her dad liked to say. Jessica knew she could sometimes be brusque and off-putting, and she certainly didn't suffer fools. She didn't care about her reputation as being a bit difficult. She was dedicated to her craft, and had a singular focus on what she loved. So, if she ruffled a few feathers along the way, she knew that was just part of the process for high achievers. She had few close friends, but that didn't trouble her in the least. Ballet was her bestie.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboys Need Not Apply"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Tate Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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