Nina couldn't help falling in love with her big sister's cowboy any more than she could bring her sister, Jen, back from her coma. She's kept her distance from Gray out of respect for her sister. But when her family decides to move Jen to another medical facility a few states away, she can't help but reach out to Gray, even though she has no illusions that he could love her the way she loves him. She won't let herself be just another woman passing through his life, helping him forget. But one night in his arms makes her realize there is no future for them if every time he looks at her he sees the one woman he can never have.
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Chapter One Excerpt:
That’s all Gray McKinnon needed. He wasn’t so broken down at thirty-two that he couldn’t hold his seat on the back of a bucking bull for eight seconds, despite the whispers that he was as ancient as the dirt beneath him. He’d cut his eyeteeth at rodeos, like most of the McKinnons.
Gray positioned himself on the back of the dusty bull named Frozen Tundra. He wasn’t as rank as some of the other bulls being drawn today. Even if he kept his seat, the bull’s score may not be high enough to give him placement today. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to prove anything to anyone.
When he was sure his rigging strapped to the bull was secure, he nodded that he was ready and the chute opened. He expected power beneath him and Frozen Tundra didn’t disappoint. The bull tucked its head and showed him just how unhappy he was to have Gray on his back. The next Gray knew his hand broke free of the leather strap and he was airborne a few seconds. Then his body connected hard with the dirt. He didn’t even have time to be disappointed, or to react to the pain that shot through his body. He saw the rodeo clown headed toward him to distract Frozen Tundra and Gray knew he had to get out of the path of the charging bull. Still feeling the adrenaline rush, Gray scrambled to his feet as quick as he could and ran to the sideline. Only when he was climbing the rail did he feel pain shoot up his wrist.
Fifteen minutes later Gray sat in the tented medic area with an ice pack on his wrist, staring at an empty gurney as the sound of rodeo erupted in the nearby arena.
“You’ll have to keep that ice on you for another ten minutes or so. Probably should have an X-ray, too,” the medic said. “You work at the rig?”
Gray nodded. He’d been working in the family oil business since he could hold his own out in the field. His father had insisted all of his children at least learn about the business before going off on their own. Each McKinnon took their turn as they came of age. Luke was the first. He’d worked at MW Oil before heading off to college. They’d all teased him that he’d purposely gone to law school to avoid having to come home and continue working under their father and uncle’s tutelage. But he hadn’t been home since. His brother Ian had been next, but then had left for a career in military soon after. His sister Grace had been exempt from working on the rig, but still worked in the offices. Julian was the youngest and the most stir crazy of all the McKinnons. That left Gray.
“I’m working out in the field but I’m not doing anything with my hand that will prevent me from working.”
The medic, a man in his mid-fifties that looked as if he’d spent too much time in the sun, shook his head. “Rules are rules. You have an injury. You need to get some film of it before you can be cleared to go back on the job. I can’t force you to do it, of course. But you put the company at risk without it. If anyone at the oil company finds out you were injured, you’re going to catch hell Monday morning.”
Gray chuckled wryly. “It won’t even take that long.”
The medic looked at him, his wiry gray and black brows pulling together into a frown.
“I’m having Sunday dinner with the boss.”
Dawning showed in the man’s expression. “Then you best get yourself an X-ray before you sit down at the dinner table. I’ll be back in a few minutes to take that ice pack and then wrap your wrist.”
Alone in the medic tent again, Gray listened to the roar of the crowd as another rider finished their ride. He’d planned on doing his ride and then watching the other riders to get his head back into the sport. As he flexed his fingers and felt the ache in his wrist, he decided maybe coming back to the rodeo was a bad idea in more ways than just a sore wrist.
* * *
He was here.
Her heart pounded in her chest so hard, it drowned out the roar of the crowd as she wove through the throng of people milling about the sidelines of the arena. And then she stopped.
Nina Hendrix didn’t have to look at Gray McKinnon to know he was standing a mere thirty feet away from her. She knew. She always knew.
Dragging in a deep breath of dust and air, she steeled herself. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand was a coward. For better or worse, that’s what she was being if she gave into her gut reaction to turn her boots in the opposite direction and walk away from Gray. But she couldn’t ignore the man any longer. She’d made a promise, however reluctantly, and she’d keep it.
Besides, Gray had already seen her. If she walked away now, he would know for sure that she was avoiding him.
She brushed the imaginary dirty from her jeans as she made her way through the crowd, stopping for a rider leading her horse to the holding area for competition, until she reached the spot where he stood against the fence overlooking the arena. He looked as uncomfortable as she felt, although she couldn’t imagine why. He wasn’t in love with her.
He gave her a faint smile as she came within ten feet of him. With each step she took, the memory of just how ruggedly handsome a man Gray McKinnon was assaulted her. His gray-blue eyes hadn’t changed despite the heartache he’d experienced these last few years. He’d always been a strong man—as a bull rider, strength was an asset—and that hadn’t changed even though word had it he hadn’t seen the inside of a rodeo arena in nearly two years.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
“I’ve been really busy with…everything.” It was a lame excuse, but he seemed to accept it anyway. “I didn’t expect to see you here today. You haven’t been to any of the rodeos I’ve been to in a while.”
He shrugged. “I heard you’d gone back to competing.”
“I finished school. I thought it was a good idea before I got settled in whatever career I end up in.”
“Still figuring that out?”
She shrugged. “I wish there was a way to incorporate my love of horses and riding into a profession that actually made money.”
It had been a topic of conversation between the two of them when they’d first met. Gray loved working at his family’s South Dakota oil company, MW Oil. He split his time between bull riding and the demanding schedule he had working on the oil rig located on a stretch of land in the northern part of the state.
On the other hand, Nina had been trying to figure out how she could make a decent living without becoming the banker or accountant her father had been pushing her to be. She was surprised Gray had remembered those conversations.
“You’ve done pretty well barrel racing.”
She shrugged and actually felt flattered that he knew as much. “That’s only going to get me so far. What about you? What made you finally decide to come back to rodeoing?” she asked.
His face grew serious. “I wanted to give it another try before I officially hang up my spurs.”
She chuckled. “Hang up your spurs? Does a cowboy ever really do that?”
“I suppose not.”
“I saw your run.”
He grimaced. “Now I’m embarrassed.”
She laughed. “Since when?”
“Since now I know you saw me fall.”
Her mind hummed with memories she didn’t want to come to the surface. Trying to sound nonchalant, she said, “Well, here is a news flash, cowboy. I’ve seen you fall before. Many times, in fact. You and every other cowboy in this arena. It’s nothing special.”
“Wait, are you telling me I just blend in with all these cowboys? I’m not sure I like that.”
Hardly. Gray McKinnon had always stood out among men in Nina’s eye. But he had never been hers. That pleasure had been reserved for her sister.
“No one is watching anyone,” she said, trying to keep her voice nonchalant. “At least, not in the way you’re thinking. They do their run, learn what they can, and then move on to the next rodeo. Half of the cowboys who competed today are probably in a truck headed for Montana.”
He chuckled with a shake of his head. “If you say so.”
“I’m surprised you’re not.”
“I’m not what?”
“Headed to the next rodeo with them. That must mean you’re watching. Or waiting for someone. Which is it?”
She was fishing, which irritated her. She’d always hated that coy way women did that to find out information a man didn’t want to disclose. But Nina had heard that Gray McKinnon had started dating again. Something like that was somewhat hard to ignore when so many of the girls on the circuit were eagerly talking about getting in line for their first date with Gray McKinnon.
But Gray shook his head. “Just killing time.” He lifted his arm, which was draped in a sling. “I need to head over to the hospital for an X-ray and I’m stalling.”
She nodded and then turned to look out at the arena as the crowd applauded on another bull rider making eight seconds. Nina knew which hospital Gray would end up in later. Within a few minutes, the announcer gave the score.
Gray whistled. “That score will give him some money. He had a good bull.”
Nina drew in a deep breath and focused on the strong line of Gray’s jaw. She’d always loved the way he looked so determined when he stared out at the other cowboys, studying their rides. Cowboys were a competitive bunch, and Gray was no different. But he’d never been cocky. He could appreciate a good rider without it somehow making him less of a cowboy.
“To be honest, I was hoping I’d see you today,” she finally said.
His lips tilted into a half grin. “Yeah?”
“It’s…been a while. A long time.”
“I seem to miss you every time I’ve gone to visit, Jen. It’s hard to get there during the day with work and all.”
With the mention of her sister, old hurts came to the surface. “You’re still at your family’s oil company?”
She knew he was. She couldn’t imagine what would ever make him leave. Gray loved hard work and he loved family. He used to say he had South Dakota oil running through his veins.
“I’m not in a suit if that’s what you’re asking. My father is still trying though. He’s looking to retire soon and wants one of his boys to step in. I’ll stay out on the rig as long as I can.”
She nodded. “My parents were hoping I’d run into you.”
A rider leading a horse by the reins walked past them. Gray turned to look, but Nina still caught the flash of guilt in his expression. “I haven’t had a chance to return your dad’s call. I wasn’t avoiding him.”
“You wouldn’t be the only one.”
He looked at her quickly, searching her face to see if she were kidding or serious.
“He didn’t think you were avoiding him,” she finally said, mostly because she didn’t want to get into it here in the middle of the live rodeo arena. “You should call him, though. He really wants to talk to you.”
Gray looked at the ground for a brief moment, and when he lifted his head again, he gave her a reassuring smile. “Sure thing.”
She waved to him as she turned away and walked in the opposite direction, her heart pounding. She shoved her shaking hand into the pocket of her jeans to keep it steady.
Swinging around, she said, “Yeah?”
He looked at her for a moment as if he was about to say something that troubled him. Then he just smiled. “I’ll see you.”
“Take care of that arm.”
Nina turned back again and walked quickly toward the parking lot. Dusty Surprise was already in the trailer and she had a long ride home to Rolling Rock Ranch where she boarded her horse. She’d delivered the message as promised. She didn’t owe anyone anything else. Now she was leaving. It had been two hard years for all of them. Everyone else was moving on with their life and it was time for her to do the same.
As she walked through the passageway leading to the open parking lot, she paused, placing her hand on the wall to steady herself. Yeah, she was moving on. But it hadn’t felt good leaving Gray McKinnon behind the first time. This time would be no different.
* * *
“It’s just a sprain. But I’d still take it easy for a few days just to be safe,” the doctor in the ER said, looking at the X-ray on the screen. “You could go to work on Monday. But if you need a note for your boss to take a few days, I can give you one.”
“That won’t be a problem. But thanks.” Gray slipped his arm back into the sling he’d gotten from the medic at the rodeo earlier in the day.
“You need to hold back from any bull riding for a week or so. This sprain could easily turn into a fracture if you fall the wrong way. That’ll end your season.”
Gray nodded, but he knew the truth. He didn’t need the sprained wrist to tell him his season was already over. It had been over before it even started. This was just the icing on the cake.
He should have never tried to come back to the rodeo. It had nothing to do with age or strength, something so many people assume when a bull rider was away from the sport for a long stretch of time and then tried to make a comeback. No, this went deeper.
Ian had been right. Gray’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. His brother had warned him about how he’d changed since Jen’s accident. Life just wasn’t what it used to be and he’d struggled to find that new “normal”. Of all of his kin, no one understood what that was like more than Ian.
Gray left the emergency room through the double doors that led to the rehabilitation wing of the hospital. It was a familiar walk down the hallway toward Jen’s room. When Jen had first slipped into a coma, Gray had called this hospital his home for months. The whole Hendrix family had. Even Nina. Gray never left Jen’s side.
But then Ian came home from the military and needed him. His brother was facing hard times that were different from Jen’s, but still affected the whole McKinnon family. His family needed him and the rodeo didn’t seem important anymore. Nothing did.
Gray still visited Jen. But his daily visits soon turned to weekly and now, at the urging of everyone around him, he visited once a month. The distance would give him the time he needed to move on with his life, everyone had said. But how could he do that? How could he leave a woman he’d loved and never said goodbye to?
“It’s been a while,” Colleen, the head nurse on Jen’s floor said with a smile.
Gray nodded as he passed by the nurse’s station. “How has she been?”
Colleen gave him a pasted smile meant to reassure him. But it always meant the same thing. Nothing had changed. “She’ll be happy you’re here.”
Both of them knew that was a lie. Jen didn’t know he was here. She had no idea where she was or what had happened to her. And as he walked into her room and looked at her body, transformed by the accident and vegetative state she remained in for so long, he wondered himself why he’d fought so hard to convince everyone around him that Jen was still here.
Gray pushed the curtain closed and walked to the side of the bed. He touched Jen’s hand, ignoring the twinge of regret he felt no longer getting the familiar squeeze of reassurance from her or a quick smile with the contact. Jen just lay in the bed with her head lifted to one side. A tracheal tube was attached to her neck, unlike in the beginning when there seemed to be tubes and monitors on every part of her while the hospital tried to treat her traumatic injuries.
A middle-aged nurse named Margaret pushed the curtain open as she came into the room, startling Gray. She smiled as she got to her tasks. Margaret had always reminded Gray of his aunt Kate with her warm eyes and soft-spoken voice. But they looked nothing alike. Margaret’s tight, short curls made her look older than she was. Despite her thick middle and short stature, she moved swiftly through her task of checking IV fluids and Jen’s catheter.
“It’s been a while,” she said.
Gray cringed at the common comment he’d been hearing. “It’s been a bad winter at the oil rig.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have those ice storms like we did last March. My husband and I are still cleaning up after the mess it left,” Margaret said, referring to the devastating storms that had rocked his hometown a year ago, leaving the entire area in near ruin.
“She looks good today. She’s got a little color.”
Gray didn’t see it. He wanted to say Jen looked the same as she did every time he visited. Thinner maybe. Still lifeless. Unrecognizable as the woman who had been so full of vitality two years ago. He touched Jen’s hand. It was frail and cold, like it always was. The nurses would always put Jen’s hands under the blanket to keep them warm and only uncover them to check her pulse. He wondered if Jen felt the cold as he did.
He stepped out of the way, as Margaret moved into place to change the IV fluid bag. She discarded the empty bag in the hazmat container.
“I’ll give you two a little privacy,” she whispered, pulling the curtain closed again before she left.
With a deep breath, Gray pulled a chair a little closer to the bed, careful not to let the feet drag across the polished floor, making a scraping noise. He eased himself into the chair and drew in a deep breath.
“I gave it another try today, Jen,” he said quietly. Then he chuckled. “Got myself thrown like I did when I was ten years old and just testing myself on a bull for the first time. You should have seen it.”
Gray closed his eyes. Jen couldn’t see anything. She never would again.
“I wish I had seen it.”
Startled by the male voice behind him, Gray straightened up in the chair. He turned to find Art Hendrix, Nina and Jen’s father, standing by the opening of the curtain.
“Sorry to intrude,” he said.
Gray stood up and extended his hand to shake Art’s. “You’re never an intrusion.”
“When Nina told me she saw you earlier today at the rodeo, well, I was hoping I’d see you here tonight. How’s the arm?”
Gray looked down at his arm, still in the sling. “I’ll live.”
“You haven’t returned any of my calls,” Art said. “I know you’ve been in to see Jen.”
“Colleen tells me when Jen has had visitors.”
“But you haven’t been by the house in a long time. I know it’s a ways out from Rudolph, but I hear you’re still working at the rig.”
“Yes, still a roustabout in Warton.”
“I know it’s a drive to get out to our place, but you know you’re always welcome. Why don’t you stop in?”
Guilt crept up his spine. “I’ve been real busy these last few months between working, coming here and family. You know my brother, Ian, came home from the military with an injury last year.”
“I heard about that. I also heard he’s doing better.”
Gray couldn’t help but smile. Word got around quick in these parts. “Yeah, he’s a lot better than I thought he’d be. He has a family now. A big one.” He chuckled then, just thinking of how Ian’s life had gone from being grim to being full of life.
“That’s good to hear. I know your brother needed you. I’m not arguing that point. Of course you’d be there for family first.”
Gray’s blood ran cold. “Jen is family. She never stopped being family.”
Art sighed. “Why don’t we take a walk?”
Gray turned to Jen, bent down and kissed her on the cheek as he always did, and felt the cold against his lips.
When he straightened up, he said, “Sure.”
The sound of the curtain opening as they walked by was like a fingernail across Gray’s nerves.
They got to the end of the hall where there was a small waiting room. Gray had spent many hours here during visits when he had to leave the room so a doctor or nurse could tend to Jen’s needs in private. The room was empty, so Art motioned to the sofa for him to sit down.
“I was hoping you could find time to come out to the house for dinner. Sooner rather than later,” Art said.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. My wife would love to see you. Lara ran into your aunt not long ago while she was visiting friends in Rudolph. She heard all about Ian adopting those kids from Back ast.” Art laughed and shook his head. “It always amazes me how women can go on for hours on end about someone else’s kids.”
“Aunt Kate has always had a soft spot for kids. Everyone’s kids. But they’re family so I’m sure she was thrilled to boast about them.”
“How about we make plans for dinner in the next day or two? Can you come out to the house?”
Gray shook his head. “I’m going to be going out to the rig for two weeks. Maybe we can plan something for when my schedule breaks after that.”
“Let’s definitely do that,” Art said with a nod, clearly disappointed with having to wait. “Jen is my daughter. My responsibility. But I want to respect the relationship the two of you had before we move her.”
Gray's stomach dropped. “Move her? Where?”
“I’ve been offered another job so we’ll be leaving South Dakota. We’re taking Jen to a facility in Chicago. They want to do some testing.”
“Testing for what?”
“Just testing to assess her current condition.”
“I thought it hadn’t changed.”
“It hasn’t. It won’t get any better than this. But we’d like to make some changes and that means we need to be careful. The constant back and forth to the hospital while working has taken its toll on Lara and I. This job offer could give us the fresh start we need. I hope you understand.”
“You can’t take her away.”
Art looked at Gray with sympathy. “I knew you’d be upset. That’s why I’d hoped we could talk about this in a more private setting.”
“How would that have changed anything? You’d still be taking her away.”
“It’s been over between you two since the day she slipped into that coma, Gray. I know you loved each other. But that accident changed everything. It took away the life…she’d planned for. That we’d hoped she’d have. She’s never coming back. Not the Jen we knew and loved. It’s time for all of us to accept that and move on.”
Gray felt a jolt to his body as hard and jarring as the fall from Frozen Tundra earlier that day. “Why are they doing tests?”
He hesitated and Gray didn’t like that at all. “To see if there is a chance that Jen can survive without all these machines.”
“Why is that even being questioned?” Dawning slammed into him hard. “Are you trying to kill her?”
Art’s face grew red. “How could you even utter such a thing? She’s my daughter! But she’s gone, Gray. She’s just a shell.” His anger turned to sadness as his lips trembled from holding back tears. “She’s never coming back to us. Not in the way we want her to. Lara and I want to give her at least some comfort while her body is still here on this earth. We don’t want to harm her. We want to take her home and let her live whatever life she has with us, not in a hospital surrounded by strangers. It’s time, Gray. I hope in time you’ll see that I’m right.”
Art stood up and stalked away before the numbness Gray felt had worn off, turning his emotions to emptiness. They were taking Jen away.
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