Home > Whiplash (The Champions #2)

Whiplash (The Champions #2)
Author: Janet Dailey

 

CHAPTER ONE

Las Vegas, Nevada

Early November

 

 

CASEY BOZEMAN PLANTED HIS FEET IN THE THICK DIRT THAT COVERED the floor of the vast T-Mobile Arena. As he waited for the first chute to swing open, he willed himself to ignore the lights, the noise, the TV camera crews, and the crowd of nearly 20,000 people who’d come to watch the World Finals of the Professional Bull Riders. His mind was laser focused on one job—protecting the rider who would explode out of the gate astride 1,900 pounds of bucking bull.

A glance to either side confirmed that his teammates, Joel Hatcher and Marcus Jefferson, were in place. Like Casey, they were dressed in loose-fitting athletic gear. Underneath baggy shirts they wore padded vests covered with a rigid shell of high-impact plastic. Another layer of padding was worn under their shorts. The team of bullfighters, as they were called, had worked together for the past five PBR seasons. They trusted each other with their lives. But it was a given that, whatever the cost, the rider’s safety always came first.

Farther out in the arena, a mounted roper waited with his lasso ready. If a riderless bull got out of control, it would be his job to rope the animal and herd it back to the exit gate.

The announcer’s voice blared over the public address system, introducing the first rider and bull, in sync with the images that flashed onto the huge display screens. In the gated chute, wearing a safety helmet, twenty-year-old Cody Woodbine, ranked fifth in the world standings, was lowering his body onto Cactus Jack, a surly, white-faced behemoth with blunted horns as wide as the front end of a ’69 Cadillac.

Casey had faced Cactus Jack before. Some bulls, the good ones, just wanted to dump the cowboy and head back to the pen. Others had murder on their minds. Cactus Jack was one of the second kind.

Inside the chute, the bull was body-slamming the thick steel bars, a move that could break a rider’s leg. One of the men, perched on the chute’s side rail, shoved a wooden wedge down next to the huge animal to hold him in place. Others pulled the bull rope tight around the animal’s body, just behind the shoulders. Cody Woodbine thrust his gloved left hand, fingers up, into the rope handle and wrapped the rope around the handle’s base. Casey shifted and danced to keep his muscles loose. His teammates did the same. They had to be ready for anything.

The rules were always the same. At the rider’s nod, the gate man would pull a rope to open the chute. When the bull’s shoulders cleared the gate, the clock would start. With one hand gripping the rope handle and the other hand in the air, the rider had to stay on the bull for a full eight seconds. For a successful ride, both the bull and the rider would be scored on the basis of fifty points each. For a buck-off, only the bull would be scored.

It was a simple system, but fraught with dangerous surprises.

All eyes were on Cody Woodbine as he hitched forward on the bull until he was sitting almost over his hand. At his nod, the gate swung open, freeing a ton of raw fury.

Streaming snot and manure, Cactus Jack leaped and twisted, then went into a bucking spin to the right—bad for a left-handed rider—but the young cowboy hung on as the digital clock ran up the time, displaying each second by hundredths.

From the back of a bull, eight seconds could seem like forever.

The three bullfighters circled the kicking, spinning bull, ready for a dismount or a buck-off. Casey could see that Woodbine was losing his seat, leaning too far right as he struggled to outlast the clock. But the determined cowboy hung on.

The eight-second whistle blasted. Woodbine had done it. But the young rider was in trouble. As he tumbled off to the right, his left hand twisted under the rope handle and caught fast. Trapped, he flopped like a helpless rag doll against the side of the kicking, spinning bull.

Casey flung himself at the bull, his left arm supporting Woodbine, his right hand clawing at the twisted rope. Joel and Marcus darted in to slow the beast, getting in the bull’s face, even grabbing a horn.

Seconds of spinning, jolting terror crawled past before Casey felt the glove loosen. He pulled Woodbine’s hand free. The cowboy tumbled aside and rolled clear of the pounding hooves. Dragged away by Marcus and Joel, he was safe. But Casey had gone down with him, and Cactus Jack was looking for somebody to hurt.

As Casey struggled to rise, the massive head filled his vision. He tried to roll to one side, but the horns caught his padded vest with enough force to toss him high over the broad back. As the roper closed in, Casey’s body glanced off the bull’s side and crashed to earth.

* * *

Watching the event alone, on closed circuit TV, Val Champion swallowed a scream. She pressed her hands to her face to block her view of the screen, but she could still hear the announcer’s voice over the cheers of the crowd.

“It’s 87.5 points for Cody Woodbine on Cactus Jack. But he’s going to need that shoulder checked. From here, it looks like it might be dislocated.” There was a pause. “And Casey Bozeman is back on his feet, shaken but ready to go. Those bullfighters are tough hombres. They’ve saved a lot of lives. And now, let’s take a look at our next ride.”

Lowering her hands, Val sank onto one of the two beds in her room at the Park MGM Hotel. Casey was all right. He would live to face the next bull. And the next. But she wouldn’t be watching. She couldn’t stand it.

She and Casey were ancient history. She wasn’t supposed to care about him anymore. But heaven help her, she did. And caring hurt. It hurt so much that she never wanted to care again.

She needed a drink. She needed more than a drink. But she’d been clean and sober for the five months she’d been out of rehab. She had vowed to stay that way. Besides, her sister Tess would kill her if she smelled the faintest whiff of alcohol on her breath.

The Champion family had come to Vegas bringing two bulls from their Arizona ranch—Whirlwind, a rising star in the rankings, and his younger brother, Whiplash, here as a last-minute reride alternate.

Val’s family—big sister, Tess, and adorably pregnant little sister, Lexie, with her wheelchair-bound husband, Shane, were down in the arena watching the event live. Val had tickets, too. But she’d gotten cold feet. Pleading a headache, she’d locked herself in the room she shared with Tess and opted to watch round one on the big-screen TV.

She’d told herself she could handle this. But eight seconds of watching Casey almost die had been enough to convince her she’d misjudged. She’d be smart to sell her tickets for the remaining four nights and spend the money on a flight back to Tucson, with a long Uber ride to the family’s remote mountain ranch.

Standing, she switched off the TV, turned off the lights, and walked to the window. The darkened room offered a view of the nearby T-Mobile Arena, lit up like the Fourth of July. Northward, as far as Val’s eyes could see, Las Vegas glittered like an endless dumping ground for used Christmas lights and gaudy costume jewelry.

Tacky but strangely beautiful, it called to her with a siren’s seductive voice. The hotels and casinos, which she knew by sight, whispered names that resonated like islands in a tale from Sinbad the Sailor. Bellagio . . . Mirage . . . Aria . . . Paris . . . Venetian . . . Mandalay Bay . . .

Val turned away from the window. Out there, beyond the glass, was everything she’d left behind, everything she’d run away from to save her body and soul. Four months ago, she’d come home to her family and the ranch, hoping they could make her whole again. She was doing better now. But something was missing. She’d realized it the moment she saw Casey on TV.

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