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Authors: D. R. Graham

Rank

BOOK: Rank
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Rank

D.R. GRAHAM

A division of HarperCollins
Publishers

www.harpercollins.co.uk

Harper
Impulse
an imprint of

HarperCollins
Publishers

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

www.harpercollins.co.uk

First published in Great Britain by Harper
Impulse
2015

Copyright © D.R. Graham 2015

Cover images © Shutterstock.com

Cover layout design © HarperColl‌insPublishers Ltd 2015

Cover design by HarperColl‌insPublishers Ltd

D.R. Graham asserts the moral right

to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue record for this book is

available from the British Library

This novel is entirely a work of fiction.

The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are

the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to

actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is

entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved under International

and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

By payment of the required fees, you have been granted

the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access

and read the text of this e-book on screen.

No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted,

downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or

stored in or introduced into any information storage and

retrieval system, in any form or by any means,

whether electronic or mechanical, now known or

hereinafter invented, without the express

written permission of HarperCollins.

Digital eFirst: Automatically produced by Atomik ePublisher from Easypress.

Ebook Edition © March 2015 ISBN: 9780008140083

Version 2015-03-09

For my Papa and every other cowboy with heart and try.

Contents

Chapter 1

Facial wounds bleed a lot. I was reminded of that the day my brother Cole had a bad wreck at a rodeo in Lethbridge, Alberta. In the finals on Sunday, Cole drew a rank bull that hadn’t been ridden in fourteen outs. It was a nasty looking black and white Brahman that rammed its skull into the rail I was standing on.

After Cole eased down into the chute, I took a deep breath, pulled the bull rope, and slapped his back three times for good luck — just the way our dad used to. Cole secured his hat and tucked his chin before he nodded. The gate opened and the bull exploded into the arena with the same force as the adrenaline that shot through me.

A country song blared over the loud speakers, and the crowd cheered as the bull cranked out a succession of belly rolls and shivers. The bull turned into Cole’s hand and side bucked before it whipped around and reared back. He spun twice more to the left, then jumped and kicked with a twist that should have knocked my brother off. When the eight-second buzzer went, Cole reached down with his free hand, jerked his riding hand out of his rope, dismounted, and landed on his feet. He didn’t even lose his hat.

Once I was sure he was all right, I hollered, “Yeah! Now, that’s how it’s done.”

The other guys working the chutes gave me high fives before I leaned over the railing to slap palms with a bullfighter named Mutt. A score of ninety flashed up on the board, Cole tipped his hat to the crowd and then fanned the bull as it ran by him.

Mutt chuckled. “There he goes, stirring the pot again.”

“Shit,” I mumbled and checked over my shoulder. The last thing we needed was Cole disrespecting the stock contractor. I jumped down from the chute and jogged over to where Cole was making his way down the front row signing a bunch of programs and one particularly nice cleavage. Saving him from himself was getting to be a full time job.

“Okay, tone it down,” I said as I pushed him under the grandstand where it reeked of stale beer and popcorn.

“Why? I’m just giving them their money’s worth.”

“Yeah, well, Ron Miller looks like he’s about to stroke out because you fanned one of his best bulls. Stop showboating.”

He shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “I get sponsors by working the crowd, not by kissing a stock contractor’s ass. I couldn’t care less about Ron Miller.”

“You should care because —”

We both stopped talking and watched the last rider leave the chute. He needed a ninety-two to beat Cole, which wasn’t likely, but it was possible.

After the eight-second buzzer went, Cole mumbled, “Damn. That was a good ride.” His cocky attitude faded and he chewed on the leather cuff of his glove as he stared at the scoreboard, waiting. Eventually, an eighty-seven flashed up on the screen. “Yeah, baby!” Cole shouted and thrust his arms victoriously into the air. “Looks like we’re eating steaks tonight.” He jumped on my back, hooting and hollering.

I pushed him off. Partly because he was acting like a fool, and partly because I was too tired to celebrate. “Just go get your buckle and the cheque so we can get the hell out of here.”

“Aw, come on, Billy. I want to party and the girls here are half-decent. Let’s stay a while.” He shoved my chest. “I bet that new barrel racer you’ve been staring at all weekend wouldn’t mind if you hung around tonight. What’s her name again?”

Although I knew exactly who he meant, I wanted to sleep in my own bed for the first time in two weeks, not hang around while he got rowdy. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” I pulled my hat down at the front and spit tobacco juice on the dirt near his boot.

He laughed at my avoidance tactic. “Yes, you do. The blonde with the white horse and the tight ass.”

I removed my hat and ran my fingers through my hair as I scanned the crowd, looking for her. “I’m tired. I just want to go home.”

“You’re too young to be tired. And if you don’t rope that filly, I will.”

“Don’t,” I warned.

He smiled at my reaction. “I knew you liked her. Let’s stay.”

“No. My credit card is maxed out. Meet me at the truck. We’re going home.”

“Come on, Billy. We can stay for a while,” he begged as the rodeo queen approached us. Her hair was three feet wide, her make-up was three inches thick, and there were so many sequins on her outfit it was almost blinding.

She smiled in a flirty way and linked her arm around Cole’s elbow. “Come on, darling. It’s time for the presentation.”

He winked at me, confident that he had convinced me to stay. Then he walked away with her.

“I’ll leave without you,” I shouted.

He waved jokingly without looking back. The cloud of perfume the rodeo queen likely wore to kill the stench of bullshit lingered — even after they were already at the champion’s platform near the grandstand. Watching someone else take home the buckle and prize money was never something that sat well with me, not even when it was my own brother. When they announced Cole’s name, I wandered out past the back pens. My phone rang as I reached the lot where the participants all parked and camped. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but she would keep calling if I didn’t answer.

“Hey, Ma.”

“Is your brother still in one piece?”

“Yeah. He won. How did your doctor’s appointment go?”

“Fine. Everything is about the same. How are you doing, hon?”

A combination of frustration and exhaustion shot out of my mouth when I exhaled. “I think it’s time for me to stop touring and get back to making a regular paycheque.”

“Cole won’t take his medications or eat properly if you’re not there with him. You know that.”

“He’s a big boy. I can’t spend the rest of my life following around after him picking up his messes.”

I knew she had hoped if I stayed on the tour for Cole’s sake I would eventually start riding again. It didn’t work. The more I hung around without competing, the more I hated it. I spit tobacco juice onto the grass.

“Are you chewing?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I ain’t chewing.” I paced around on the grass looking out at the horizon. She didn’t say anything else, so I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him. We’ll see you tonight.”

She sighed. “Okay. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” I hung up and turned to drop the tailgate of my truck, because Cole knew I wouldn’t leave without him, and I knew he was going to take forever milking the win.

Shae-Lynn Roberts, the youngest daughter of the best chuckwagon racer in the country, leaned against the side of the truck wearing jeans and a white tank top. She’d already brushed out the curls she wore for competition and had her hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“Hey Billy. How’s your mom?”

“Good.” I sat down on the tailgate and reached for a bottle of beer out of the cooler that I kept in the back.

“Is she still having falls?”

I glanced at her, not really wanting to get into it, but I knew she was asking because she actually cared, so I said, “Yeah. The doctor wants her to start using a wheelchair.”

“A wheelchair. Really? I didn’t realize she’d gotten that bad.” Her eyebrows angled together in a genuinely sympathetic expression that made me uncomfortable.

I shot back some beer, then changed the subject to steer her away from the topic of my mom’s health. “You took first place again.”

“Yes, I did.” She paused for a second, aware that I had purposefully avoided the other conversation. After some contemplation she must have decided to let me get away with it. “Did you see my run?”

“Yup. It was good. It could have been better though.”

She propped her right hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side. “Really? What do you think I did wrong?”

“Harley dropped his shoulder at the first barrel.”

“Oh, and you’re an expert on barrel racing now?”

I chuckled. “You know how much rodeo I’ve watched in my life.” I flicked the beer cap into the cooler. “You don’t have to take my advice if you don’t want to. I don’t care.”

Her expression changed again and she raised her eyebrow as if she thought I was being rude. “Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”

“You ain’t old enough to drink.”

She made a sweeping gesture with her arm to remind me where we were. “The drinking age in Alberta is eighteen.”

I tipped the bottle back and drank almost half. She stared at me, still waiting for me to offer. “What?” I asked.

“What do you mean what? I turned eighteen last month. You and Cole ate some of the cake my mom made. Remember?”

I remembered the cake, but I didn’t remember it was for her birthday. Even if I did know it was for her birthday, I would have sworn she was no more than sixteen. I didn’t care enough to argue with her, though, so I reached into the cooler and handed her a beer.

“Thanks.” She sat down beside me on the tailgate, eager to give it a go. I watched as she unsuccessfully tried to twist the cap off. She struggled with it for a while then, in frustration, handed it to me to do it for her.

“I thought barrel racers were supposed to be highly toned athletes.” I grinned to tease her as I popped the cap off and gave the bottle back to her.

She made a mocking expression to let me know she didn’t find my joke particularly funny. Then her gaze shifted to my mouth. She squished up her nose in disgust and asked, “How do you drink with tobacco in your mouth?”

“Practice,” I said, then tipped the bottle back to prove it.

About as impressed with my tobacco chewing as my mom was, she said, “Nice,” in a sarcastic tone. She stared at her beer bottle for a while as if she was building up the courage. After a quick breath she took a swig. It was obvious from the way her face twisted that she didn’t like the taste. She tried another sip and gagged as if she wanted to spit it out.

I laughed. “You want me to finish that?”

She gladly handed it to me. “It tastes like piss.”

“You have to drink enough to forget about how bad it tastes. Eventually, if you drink more, you start to forget about how bad everything else is too.”

She shuddered and cringed, still disgusted.

My attention shifted to Tawnie Lang, the barrel racer with the white horse and the tight ass. She was exiting the grandstand with all the other spectators. As she passed by, she removed the sky blue hat that matched the colour of her eyes and ran her fingers through her long blonde hair. It was about then that I decided it wouldn’t be so bad if we stayed one more night. I finished my beer and watched her walk towards her horse trailer.

“Oh my God. Stop drooling at the new girl,” Shae-Lynn mumbled.

I turned my head to spit tobacco juice on the grass. “I wasn’t drooling at nothing and she’s not new. I remember her from the junior circuit.”

“Oh.” Shae-Lynn glanced over her shoulder in a casual way to check Tawnie out. “Where’s she been since?”

I shrugged, wondering the same thing, then started on her beer. The cherry flavour of her lipgloss on the mouth of the bottle balanced out the horrible flavour of the tobacco that was getting washed down my throat.

Shae-Lynn faced me again and asked, “Why don’t you ask her out?”

“Who says I want to?”

“It’s obvious. You’ve been staring at her all weekend.”

I looked over at Tawnie, then back at Shae-Lynn. “I don’t date girls on the circuit.”

“Wouldn’t you make an exception for the right girl?”

I shrugged noncommittally. It wasn’t likely. I couldn’t imagine myself being interested in dating anyone, especially someone who didn’t live in the same city as I did. Shae-Lynn stopped asking questions and we sat quietly for a long time. The colours of the sky changed and deepened as the sun got lower. I watched the spectators file out of the grandstand. Shae-Lynn seemed to be staring at her fingernails, thinking.

She sighed. “You sure don’t talk all that much since what happened to your dad.”

That change in topic came out of nowhere, and it caught me off guard since everyone else on the circuit acted as if they would rather cut out their tongue than talk to Cole or me about our dad. “I’m talking to you right now, ain’t I?”

“Sort of. Not really.” She swung her feet back and forth. “Do you think it might help if you talked about what happened?”

“Help what?”

“You.”

“I don’t need help,” I said, but it came out less convincing than I meant it to.

“You haven’t ridden since it happened.”

Uncomfortable with the fact that she could obviously see right through me, I spit on the grass and opened another beer to ignore her statement.

She watched me for a while, then said, “The sooner you get back on a bull, the better.”

I exhaled and scratched the back of my neck. I’d been thinking about officially leaving rodeo, but hadn’t even told Cole yet. Since she was hell bent on talking about my issues, I decided to practice telling her to test how Cole might react. “I’m thinking about retiring.”

“What? Why? You’re ranked number one.” She nearly shrieked — confirmation that Cole was going to lose his shit when I told him.

“I don’t want to still be doing this when I’m fifty years old. I’d rather get out now and finish university while I’m still young.”

“You can do both. The season doesn’t interfere with classes.”

“I also have to work and take care of my mom.”

She nodded as if she understood that part. She also frowned because she knew as well as I did that I was grasping for excuses. Unfortunately, instead of letting it go, she pressed on, “That’s nice of you to take care of your mom, but you don’t need to stop riding. You shouldn’t quit because your dad’s wreck spooked you.”

Frustrated that she was forcing me to go to an emotional place I didn’t want to visit, I threw the empties in the cooler. “I’m not spooked. I just don’t want to waste my life touring around shit-hole towns with a bunch of hicks abusing my body and killing my liver just to end up dead in the ring one day.”

“What happened to your dad was a fluke accident. The best way to get over the fear is to get back on.”

“Listen, Shae-Lynn, I ain’t scared. And I ain’t interested in talking about it with you.”

Not impressed with my harsh tone, she hopped off the tailgate and glared at me. “You don’t have to be an asshole about it. And how many times do I have to ask you to call me Shae? You know I don’t like it when you add the Lynn.”

BOOK: Rank
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