Summer: Good luck tonight.
Rhett: I love you.
The guys chatter around me as I tape my hands. I try to tune them out so I can slip into that zone where everything falls away, and the job I came here to do tonight is the only thing I see.
Except the only thing I see is a beautiful girl with freckles over the bridge of her nose, wide doe eyes that look at me like I’m worth knowing, and a sharp tongue that makes me laugh.
The past two weeks I’ve spent playing everything between us out in my head. The care she put into healing me, the energy she put into planning favorable interviews for me, the way she whistles in the crowd for me. I find her there every time, and there’s a twinge of regret in my chest knowing she won’t be here tonight.
I got a taste of what it feels like to have someone show up for you, and now I’m greedy for it. It only took two months of spending every waking moment with one other person or thinking about that other person to slip into a place where it feels like she belongs with me.
And I belong with her.
It’s the most insane, inexplicable thing that’s ever happened to me. Which is saying something, considering all the shit I’ve done.
“Ready?” Theo claps down on my shoulder, and I wince. The ribs aren’t as bad as they were. But they aren’t great either—not by a long shot. There’s really not any compensating for them, because my shoulder is still fucked, too. The tour doctors have pieced me together as best they can. And at least they didn’t ride my ass about not getting on tonight. “You’re not going to let Emmett win, right?”
A flicker of doubt flashes in my mind. I push it away. “Not a chance.”
I pulled a good bull. A mean bull. A bull that makes or breaks the men who take him for a spin. I have the benefit of riding last, which means I’ll know how hard I need to go to get that buckle.
The buckle I already have two of.
I haven’t been able to shake my brother’s words. How much is enough? That’s the question I’ve tossed around for weeks. Turning it over in my mind from every perspective to see if I can answer it.
But I can’t.
I don’t know when it will be enough. All I know is that I still feel incomplete somehow. Like I’m not done just yet—like I’m still looking for something.
“I’m up first.” Theo grins. “Balls to the wall. Right, Boss?”
I smile, but it feels forced. Before that night he got knocked out, I never felt nervous for him. I’ve convinced him he needs to be wearing a helmet. That the buckle bunnies will still want him if he wears a helmet because they prefer the walking, talking version of him to the vegetable version of him.
I nod. “You know it, kid. Hit ‘em with the spurs.”
We clap hands in a firm shake and give each other a smack on the shoulder. Which, for me, really fucking hurts. He turns and leaves the room, heading down the tunnel toward the ring.
Normally, I’d head out to watch him, but I’m not in the right headspace, and I know it. I don’t need to watch other guys get chucked. I need to focus on myself right now. Mental walls up.
I watch them leave one by one, and mostly stay hunched over, elbows propped on my knees, hands dangling between them. My boots are worn, broken in, probably on their last legs. We’re kindred spirits, my boots and me. I let my eyes wander over the sponsor patches on my vest, taking each one in. I’ve worn them with such pride, but today I can’t help but wonder if risking my life to keep them is worth it. It’s a thought that has genuinely never crossed my mind before.
I push it away.
The door opens and the sounds from the show outside filter into the room. The buzz of the crowd. The popping noises of the fireworks. The boom of the announcer’s voice. All so familiar, like the soundtrack to my life.
“You’re up, Eaton.” Theo grins at me from the door.
“Why are you smiling like a serial killer?”
He smiles even bigger. He reminds me of his dad. This place reminds me of his dad. That year we all watched him fall. A shiver races down my spine.
“Emmett didn’t beat my score. It’s you and me, old man.”
One side of my cheek pulls up, and I take in his excitement and enthusiasm. I think I used to be that way too. Now, I’m going through the motions.
“Proud of you.” I slap him on the back on my way past and walk down the darkened tunnel to the glitz and glam of the ring. There are even cheerleaders at this event. It’s all a Vegas show.
I don’t do my stretches because I don’t think they matter tonight. Everything is tight and painful.
Three steps up and I’m at the staging area, pulling my helmet on, watching my bull, Filthy McNasty—a fitting fucking name—trot aggressively down the chute. He snorts and shakes his head, tail flicking against his side like a whip. Agitated.
And for the first time in my eleven-year pro career, I feel it.
I push it aside as I climb up onto the fence and stare down at the bull’s broad, muscled back. Two thousand pounds of pure muscle. He rattles the panels as he crashes around.
“Hop on when you’re ready,” one coach says, giving me a thumbs up.
A thumbs up.
This moment doesn’t feel like a thumbs up situation. It feels like I’m about to spend eight seconds in excruciating pain.
I nod and climb down onto the bull, pushing it all away, trying to find that quiet—that calm. I run my hand over the bull rope, letting the bumps vibrate through my hand while watching the repetition of the motion, trying to get lost in it.
But the noise from the crowd picks up, and when I look up at the jumbotron, I see the footage of me leaping on top of an unconscious Theo playing. I haven’t watched it yet, hadn’t ever planned to.
I watch the bull hit me, tossing me into the air before turning back on a clown and leaving the ring. I land on my bad shoulder, and you see me roll over onto my knees, cupping my side.
It could have been so much worse.
That flicker of fear sparks at the back of my mind again. My stomach lurches.
I think about Summer. Good luck.
Shaking my head, I gaze back down and push my glove into the rope, tightening it until it’s just right.
But it’s not right.
A sharp whistle pulls my eye up to the stands. Before Summer, I was oblivious to the crowd, now I feel like I have a radar for her. And some asshole who whistles the same way is killing my concentration.
My eye catches on a flash of white, and the world around me goes fuzzy.
She’s wearing a white linen dress and sticks out like a sore fucking thumb.
My sore fucking thumb.
I blink. I blink again. Like she might not be real. Why would she come all the way here to watch me do something she clearly doesn’t think I should do?
Kip told me he fired her, so I know it’s not work.
I stare at her, and I think she stares back. Across the dirt ring. Across the crowd. We lock eyes and get lost in each other.
She offers me a small thumbs up, one that makes my chest ache at the memory of being on the road with her. All I can do is stare back. I’m always fucking staring at her.
I want to spend the rest of my life staring at her.
Then she mouths, I love you.
My jaw clamps down and something snaps inside me. That fear hits me like a tidal wave, and I yank my hand out, reaching for the fencing to pull myself up.
The fame. The buckle. None of it matters. Not one bit. All I want is to hear those words from her lips.
I don’t want to spend my last moments on a bull. I want to spend them hearing her whisper that in my ear.
And then I’m off, swinging a leg over the fence.
“Eaton! What you doing?” one of the coaches calls out to me as I drop onto the landing and toss my helmet, reaching for my favorite brown hat instead.
“You’re what?” The guy looks genuinely fucking confused.
“Consider this my retirement notice. I’m out. That bull gets a night off.”
And Theo wins his first world title.
And I live to breathe another day. That part is pretty important too.
I stride through the staging area, heading straight for the door that leads out to the stands. It’s all a guess because I only have a general idea of where Summer is seated.
But I told her I’d keep coming back for her. That I’d never stop. And that’s what I’m going to do.
I turn up a flight of stairs and end up on the busy mezzanine, trying to decide between section 116 and 115. I choose 116, and shoot up those stairs, ignoring the stitch in my ribs as I do. I have tunnel vision, and I’ve overshot the section by one.
But I don’t care. Rather than going back down, I turn down one of the aisles. I see Summer standing, palms pressed against her cheeks, face white as a sheet. Eyes brimming with wetness.
I did that. I want to never make her cry again.
“Pardon me. Excuse me.” I smile and push my way down as people stand to let me pass.
“Can I grab an autograph?” someone asks.
“In a minute. Need to do something first.”
Murmurs follow me across the entire section, and then I’m at Summer’s aisle seat. Her back is turned to me, still facing down at the bull chute, standing on her tippy toes trying to see back to the staging area. Not a clue that I’m not back there anymore at all.
I’ll definitely go down in this league for the most dramatic retirement, so maybe that’s something.
And then I can’t stop myself. I’m reaching for her. Sighing when my hands wrap around her upper arms. It’s like all the anxiety that was coiling inside me just ebbs away.
Like I found what I was looking for—who I was looking for.
She spins on me, big brown doe eyes and perfect puffy lips. “What are you doing?” she breathes, hands falling instantly to my chest as though she’s checking to see if I’m real.
“I could ask you the same thing, Princess.”
“Fuck my life, he calls you princess, too? Ugh. Unfair.” A lanky redhead standing behind her crosses her arms and rolls her eyes. But she’s got a playful expression on her face. I like her instantly.
Summer ignores her, getting so lost in my eyes that she almost looks like she’s somewhere else for a moment. “I just . . . I had to be here. I couldn’t stand the thought of you being here alone. You’re . . .” Her voice cracks and tears well in her eyes. “You’re it for me too.”
A stray tear streaks down one cheek and I swipe it away before gently combing her hair back behind her ear and cupping her head in my palm. “Please don’t cry. It kills me when you cry.” I pull her close, pressing her to my chest.
And it feels so fucking right. Her arms snake around me gently, fingers trailing carefully over the sore side of my ribs. Always thinking about me.
Just like I’m always thinking about her. It took me a while to piece together why, what it means, and how I prove it to her.
Maybe I am just as dumb as Cade says.
“You need to go back down there and ride your bull. This is your championship to win.” She sniffles against my chest.
I can hear surrounding chatter and the announcer’s voice, but I don’t make anything out. The woman in front of me is the center of my attention. The center of my universe.
A wry smile touches my lips and I tip her head up to look at me. She feels small and fragile in my arms, and I don’t miss the way she trembles when I brush my thumb over her lips. “Say it. I want to hear it.”
Her lashes flutter, clumped together with the wetness of her tears. And then she takes that deep dive into my eyes again. My chest twists and I pull her closer so our bodies wedge together.
I don’t give a fuck who’s watching.
“I love you,” she says, her voice soft but sure.
I gaze down at her and wonder what the hell I did to get this fucking lucky. “I love you too. And I don’t need to ride tonight. Or ever again. Hearing that from your lips is the biggest win of my life.”
I take my hat, and I plunk it on her head. Just like I told myself I would.
And then I kiss her.
First soft and searching, before she grips at my shirt and turns things a little desperate. She moans and slips her tongue into my mouth. My eager girl is always the first to do that.
It’s the best kiss of my life. It’s the best moment of my life. Because I found the piece that was missing. I have no idea what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, but I know I’m going to do it with Summer. I’m going to keep coming back, keep proving to her we’re better together.
So, we stand here kissing. With cameras rolling. In the middle of a huge crowd. No doubt raising some eyebrows. Making a statement and not giving a flying fuck who sees us.
Choosing each other. Finding each other. Showing up for each other.
And everything about the moment is flawless.