Dalton Williams scanned the crowd packed into the arena. Wide eyes peered through fence rails, button-down checked shirts and blue jeans crammed the rows of stadium seating. Eager mouths chomped on burgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, fried pickles and cotton candy and exclaimed over the spectacle below. The glare of stadium lighting illuminated the entire arena with an eerie glow.
Dalton’s gaze drifted to land on the cowboy sitting astride a bronco in the bucking chute. The man adjusted his seat, locked his gloved hand around the leather strap and nodded. Stuart “Buck” Handley was the man to beat. He’d won the National Bronc Riding Championship trophy five years in a row – something no one thought could be done.
But last season Dalton had won, against all odds, throwing the whole circuit into a spin. Dalton had ridden against Buck for years and never come close to beating him. But last season had been different – he’d been at the top of his game after years of focus, prac
tice and strength training. His dream of winning the championship had finally come true. Pundits were certain it was the start of a new era, one with Dalton at the helm.
But when the circuit started up again after the summer break, he’d torn a rotator cuff at the first event of the year. Now Buck Handley was back in the lead.
Dalton watched the bronc jump out of the chute, bucking and twisting, its hindquarters almost vertical above its head, ears laid back against its neck. Buck held on tight, his body flexing with the movements of the animal, one hand high in the air.
The buzz of the eight-second timer rang out and the crowd erupted into cheering and catcalls. Dalton shook his head and spat in the dirt as the announcer went wild, his voice echoing loudly through the cool night air.
“You ridin’ tonight?” asked a soft feminine voice behind him.
He turned and nodded. “Yup.”
Carrie Finnick stood there, her torn denim short- shorts and knotted flannel shirt leaving little to the imagination. “I’ll be cheerin’ for you,” she said, laying a perfectly manicured hand on his forearm.
He glanced at it, then smiled. “Thanks, Carrie. I sure do appreciate it. I’ll need all the support I can get.” “Oh, you’re gonna win for sure – everyone knows that,” she drawled, letting her fingers trail softly down
his arm. His skin goose-pimpled beneath her touch.
He cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t know about that. Buck just had a good ride that’ll be hard to beat. But I’ll sure try.” He hated to be rude, but he had no interest in Carrie. She followed the circuit whenever they were in Texas and had hit on him every season. He’d taken her out to dinner once after a breakup, but hadn’t felt any kind of spark. Not being the kind of man to lead a woman on, he’d left it at that. But she didn’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer – not where he was concerned, anyway.
The truth was, he hadn’t dated anyone seriously since Jodie left him back in Chattanooga. If he was honest with himself, he hadn’t given anyone a chance. But there was no time to think about that now. His ride was coming up and he had to get his mind straight. “I’d better go get ready,” he said, touching the brim of his hat with his fingertips and nodding in her direction.
“I’ll be lookin’ out for you,” she called after him.
He strolled over to the bucking chute and surveyed the animals corralled behind it, ready to go. He didn’t get to pick the one he wanted to ride but by now knew them all pretty well. The red roan was a solid performer, but tended to travel in a straight line with a standard bucking style. If he wanted to beat Buck’s score, he’d need a horse with more of a twist to its stride.
His eyes landed on a gray quarter horse named Benny. At first glance, Benny looked like a mild- mannered old boy, but he knew differently. He knew who he’d ride, now he just had to focus, to concentrate on what he had to do.
A group of children ran past with a bucket of popcorn, spilling kernels on the muddy ground as they went. They laughed and chattered amongst them‐ selves, excited that the rodeo was in town and they got to watch the cowboys, arguing about who would win and who would be thrown. Dalton remembered doing the same with his friends when he was a boy in Chat‐ tanooga. He’d loved the rodeo and never missed it if he could help it.
He’d always wanted to be one of the cowboys who got to ride the wildest broncos around, and when he started on the circuit it was all he could do to keep from pinching himself. He couldn’t believe he could ride for a living and have people cheer for him, look up to him, admire him.
But lately, things had been different. Ever since Jodie called to tell him she was through waiting for him to come home and had fallen for someone else, the spark had gone out of everything. The rides, the crowds, the bright lights – none of it filled him with the same excitement any more.
Buck stepped through a gate nearby and brushed off his chaps with both hands, dust swirling around him in a soft cloud. He spotted Dalton and grinned. “How’d ya like that, huh?”
“Sure was a good ride, Buck. It’ll be hard to beat.”
Buck raised an eyebrow. “But you’re gonna try, I bet.”
Dalton chuckled. “I sure will.”
Buck leaned back against the fence and crossed his ankles. “How’s yer shoulder?”
Dalton lifted his arm and circled it around a few times, stretching out his shoulder with a grimace. “It’s been better.”
“Well, good luck to ya.”
“Thanks, Buck. You staying to watch?”
“Ya bet. Wouldn’t miss it.” Buck’s eyes glinted and he tipped his hat. “Gotta watch ya lose, boy.”
Dalton laughed and strode toward the chute where Benny awaited him. He and Buck always teased each other that way. But after each event was over, they were first and foremost friends and usually ended the night playing blackjack over glasses of coke, each balancing bags of ice on the various body parts that hurt the worst.
“You ready?” asked a cowboy in a black Cowboy hat.
Dalton nodded, his eyes focused on the gray in front of him. The horse stamped a foot and shifted from side to side within the tight confines of the fence palings, breath expelling from distended nostrils clouding the cool fall air. He’d done this so many times before, he knew what was coming, and Dalton saw the whites of his eyes as he snorted and shook his head.
With a deep breath, Dalton climbed the rails of the chute and swung a leg over the animal’s shivering back. His heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through his veins, exaggerating every sensation. Colors seemed brighter, every sound was amplified and the rough inside of the glove covering his hand as he clenched tight to the leather strap scratched at his skin.
Time stood still.
Then the gate swung open, Benny leaped forward and Dalton dug his heels into the horse’s sides. Benny swung left and spun in a circle, his heels kicking high above his head. Dalton held on tight, leaning back and forth, rotating with the movements of the animal beneath him. The noise of the crowd cheering him on swelled in his consciousness.
Then the eight-second buzzer sounded. The loud‐ speakers declared that it was a good ride and Dalton released his breath in a huff of relief. But as he loos‐ ened his grip on the strap, Benny spooked and bucked harder than ever as he swiveled to the right, crashing against the railings of the arena fence.
Pain shot through Dalton’s leg and he cried out, grabbing it as the horse galloped out from under him. He felt his head spin, and everything faded to black as he landed with a thud in the dust to the gasps of the crowd.
* * *
DALTON’S EYES flickered open and he glanced around the room. He was in a hospital bed, surrounded by four white walls. A vase of fresh-cut carnations sat on a square table beside his bed, along with his cell phone and a horse magazine. He grimaced and lifted a hand to feel his head. It throbbed, and his throat was dry. A nurse strode past the room, then a cart piled with dirty food trays squeaked by on noisy wheels in the opposite direction.
“Hello?” he croaked. He cleared his throat with a cough and tried again. “Hello?”
A nurse poked her head in with a smile. “Did ya need somethin’, hon?”
“Could I get some water, please?” She nodded and disappeared.
His thoughts wandered back to his ambulance trip to the hospital. Two paramedics arrived in the arena after he regained consciousness, a big man with a handlebar mustache and a petite blonde woman. They’d rolled him onto their stretcher and carried him to the ambulance, making chitchat the whole way while he writhed in pain. They hadn’t bothered with the lights or sirens for the journey, since he was stable, and they’d given him a whistle to suck on, which had made him loopy.
He grinned and rubbed a hand over his stubble. He had a feeling he’d asked one of the paramedics out on a date. He hoped it was the woman.
His leg was stretched out in front of him, encased from hip to ankle in a hard white cast. He frowned. Six to eight weeks, he’d been told – that’s how long he had to wear it. Even when it came off, the doctor had warned him he shouldn’t ever ride broncs again, not unless he wanted to risk permanent damage.
The nurse bustled into the room with a jug of water in one hand and a plastic cup in the other. “Here you go, cowboy,” she said with a smile. “You just let me know if you need anythin’ else. There’s a button right here on your bed – if you press it, I’ll come as soon as I can, okay?”
He nodded. “Thanks.”
She set the pitcher and cup on the table beside his bed and left.
Dalton leaned over to grab the cup and heard his phone vibrating. It bumped around in a circle on the hard surface of the table, buzzing quietly. He picked it up and ran his finger across the screen. “Hello?”
“Dalton, honey, you’re awake.” His mother’s chipper voice echoed shrilly through the speaker.
He grimaced, laid it back on the table and sipped his water. “Yeah, I just woke up. I haven’t seen a doctor this morning, but I’m assuming the surgery went fine, seeing as how I have a great big cast on my leg.” He chuckled and took another sip, enjoying the feeling of the cool liquid as it traveled down his parched throat.
“That’s good to hear,” she replied, her voice catching.
“Are you okay, Mom?” He heard a sob. Susan Williams hardly ever shed a tear. The sound shook him. “Mom?”
“Yes, hon. Sorry … it’s just that I have some bad news. I didn’t really want to burden you right now, but I think you’d want to know …” She sobbed again.
His chest tightened, and he set the cup on the table and straightened, staring at the bright screen of the cell phone where it lay. “Mom, what is it?”
“It’s Pa – your Grandpa Joe. I’m afraid he passed away last night in his sleep.” His mother choked up and she sobbed again.
“Oh no! I’m so sorry, Mom. I know how much you loved him. He was always so good to us, especially after Dad died.” Dalton frowned, and he lay back on the pillows stacked behind his head with both hands pressed to his eyes. Grandpa Joe was strong and fit, the life of any party. It was hard for him to believe the old man was gone. He listened to his mother’s strained voice fill in the details of Pa’s passing as a lump formed in his throat.
* * *
Hazel Hildebrand packed her violin into its case and passed a delicately manicured hand over her hair, smoothing it into place. The performance had gone off without a hitch as usual, yet there was something bothering her. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt deflated.
She’d dreamed her whole life of being in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and this was her third season playing violin with them. She should have felt exhilarated, but instead she just felt flat, though she had to admit the Chastain Amphitheater was certainly one of her favorite venues to play. She glanced up to see audience members still chatting, sipping wine and eating from picnic baskets beneath the shade of umbrellas.
“Hazel, are you going away over break?” asked Frieda Brighton, flipping her long black hair over her shoulder and smiling warmly as she packed her instru‐ ment. The first-chair violinist had been with the orchestra almost a decade.
“Well, I don’t have big plans, which isn’t like me. Actually, I think I might go and spend some time with my parents.”
“Oh? I was under the impression you didn’t get along too well with your folks.” Frieda arched an eyebrow and slipped her stocking feet into a pair of black pumps.
“Well, we’ve definitely had our differences But, Mom called me a few days ago to complain that they never see me and invited me to their summer house on Jekyll Island next week. I thought I might stay a while out there with them.” Hazel took a deep breath. The thought of spending time with her parents made her stomach clench. She shook off her slippers and pushed them into her shoulder bag, then retrieved a pair of red flats and stepped into them with a sigh. “How about you? Big plans?”
“Yeah, Jerry and I are taking a cruise. We’re leaving from Miami and going around the Caribbean. It’s going to be fantastic – I can’t wait!” She looped the strap of her purse over her shoulder.
“Don’t you have that rehearsal for the ballet perfor‐ mance the week after next?” asked Hazel, standing to pick up her violin case.
“Yes, but the cruise is only for a week, so we’ll be back in plenty of time. You’re not playing?”
Hazel shook her head, her chestnut curls fanning out over her shoulders. “No, not this time – they didn’t ask me. Maybe next time.”
Frieda tipped her head to one side with a tight half- smile. “Yeah, next time.”
“Okay … well, see you after the break, then. Have a great time on your cruise.” Hazel waved goodbye to Frieda and the others who were still packing up their instruments and strode off the stage, her brow furrowed. Frieda had known full well she hadn’t been asked to play for the ballet. She sniffed – one day she hoped to be first chair. She wouldn’t hold it over others the way Frieda always did.
The bright sunlight of the summer day hit her full in the face when she emerged from beneath the roof of the stage. Outdoor matinees in the throes of summer weren’t her idea of a good time, especially when they were all expected to wear head-to-toe black. The heat had coated her entire body in a layer of sweat. She blew out a breath and fished around in her purse for her sunglasses, putting them on with a grimace.
The drive home to the Atlanta neighborhood of Virginia-Highland wasn’t far, but first she’d have to deal with the city’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. She inched forward with the car’s air conditioning blast‐ ing, listened to the radio and let her mind wander over the four weeks of vacation stretching out before her. She didn’t do well without structure in her life. Her usual routine was to have every moment of every day accounted for, planned out, full.
She’d wake early, go for a run, shower, then have breakfast while reading the news on her phone. After breakfast, rehearsal, followed by errands in the after‐ noon. She’d always practice on her own after that, then sometimes had a performance at night. Other nights were planned out well in advance: social events, book club, church, gym, even shopping trips scheduled, to ensure she didn’t waste any time or find herself with nothing to do. No wonder her roommate Jennifer Barsby complained she hardly ever saw her.
Jen was the one unstructured thing in Hazel’s life. She was scattered, disorganized, spontaneous, loud – everything that Hazel wasn’t, but she loved her like a sister. They’d attended the University of Georgia together – Hazel majoring in music, while Jen studied veterinary science. Thrown together as roommates their freshman year, they’d never lived apart since. And though she hated to admit it, Hazel liked the loud, messy energy Jen brought into her otherwise tidy life.
She pulled the car into the driveway of their small bungalow and shut off the engine with a frown. It was the middle of the day and Jen’s car was in the garage. It was unlike her friend to be home at this time of day. Jen worked five days a week at a quarter-horse ranch in Walton County, just outside of Atlanta. She headed inside, the kitchen door swinging shut behind her. “Jen! Jen, are you home?” she called.
Her voice echoed through the quiet house. Jen usually cranked her favorite country tunes through a Bluetooth speaker when she was home, but the house was ominously still. Hazel leaned her violin against the wall of the study and dropped her shoulder bag in the kitchen.
A moan from Jen’s room caught her attention and she ran down the hall. “Jen?”
Her friend lay on the bed on her side in a fetal posi‐ tion. She moaned again.
Hazel rushed to her, knelt next to the bed and laid a hand on Jen’s face. It was flushed, and a trickle of sweat ran down her temple. “You’re burning up,” said Hazel, running her hand over her friend’s damp hair. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “It hurts.” “We should get you to the doctor, sweetie.”
She shook her head. “No, I’ll be fine. I might just take some Tylenol.”
Hazel frowned. “I know you don’t like going to the doctor, Jen. But I’m afraid you have to this time.”
“No, I… ughhhh!” She moaned and rolled back and forth, her face contorted in pain.
“Okay, come on, stand up. You can lean on my shoulder.” Hazel tried to help her to her feet.
Jen fell back onto the bed with a cry. “I can’t!”
Hazel stood for a moment, her hands on her hips, watching her friend. What should she do? Then Jen moaned again, and she knew she’d have to call an ambulance.
With one hand shielding his eyes from the blazing Georgia sun, Dalton stared at the lopsided wooden sign that hung from two tall posts on either side of a broken-down gate. The sign read Cotton Tree Ranch in faded lettering.
With a frown, he kicked a two-by-four that lay in the middle of the road out of the way, then strode back to his blue pickup idling in the driveway. He still favored his left leg, which had been broken in two places. But it’d healed well, according to his doctor. Even though the cast had been removed weeks ago, a slight twinge every now and then reminded him of the accident.
Releasing the brake, he pressed down on the gas slowly and drove through the open gate and along the rambling dirt drive to a long, dilapidated single-level ranch house. It squatted in the middle of a green pasture, all peeling paint, broken porch rails and grease-covered windows. It looked like a lot of work and not much else. He parked and got out of the truck, careful to keep the foot of his injured leg from hitting the ground too hard.
He considered the phone call from Grandpa Joe’s lawyer, Mr. Sanderson. The man had informed him he was to inherit part of Pa’s estate, and his heart had pounded in anticipation. What would it be – money? Property? Debt? He’d known his grandfather was an entrepreneur, but didn’t know much about the specifics of his investments. The old man didn’t talk about it and Dalton never felt the need to pry. They were much more likely to discuss baseball scores, or which quarterback was expected to go first in the draft.
He turned slowly to look at the pickup, his belong‐ ings stacked in the back beside his Ducati motorcycle, then scratched his stubbled chin and scanned the property. Acres of overgrown pastures, rickety fencing and weeds greeted his eyes. A rundown barn and a set of stables stood – just barely, it seemed – fifty yards from the house. A chicken coop, long since vacated, jutted from one side of the barn.
He wandered over to take a closer look and discov‐ ered an old tractor parked beneath a shelter. The barn was well stocked with tools, saddlery and farm equip‐ ment, though much of it was mildewed or rusted. A black cat meandered out to greet him, its tail held high, eyes half closed. It appeared to be well fed, prob‐ ably due to a ready supply of mice.
He continued out to the pasture and draped his arms over the top fence paling. A small herd of horses grazed in the distance. Mr. Sanderson had told him about the herd. Apparently the property had been a working ranch years earlier, but the manager his grandfather hired had bled the place dry and let it fall into ruin during Pa’s final years, when he hadn’t the energy to check on it.
A buzz in his pocket made him start. He pulled out his cell, checked the caller and pressed it to his ear. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hello, honey. Are you there yet?” “Yep,” he sighed.
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