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Authors: Karen Kingsbury

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BOOK: A Thousand Tomorrows & Just Beyond the Clouds Omnibus
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The doctor brought his lips together and exhaled in a way that filled his cheeks. He gave a sharp sideways shake of his head. “Anything could happen, Mrs. Daniels. There’s a chance she could return to riding and not see things get worse for more than a year. Two or three years even. But eventually it’ll catch her. I’m completely certain of that.”

Ali was trembling. What were all the tubes attached to her, anyway? She wanted to rip them from her arms and run from the room, from the awful news. But something the doctor said caught her attention. “So you could be wrong? About needing it within the year?”

“You can hear what you want to hear.” The doctor’s expression was soft, sympathetic, but he sounded defeated. “I’m advising you to stop riding—the sooner, the better.”

Ali stared at him. Then she let her head fall back against the pillow. “I won’t stop.” She closed her eyes. “Please, do everything you can to make me better. I’ll finish this season, and then I’ll decide.”

The doctor knew not to argue. He’d recommended against horses since she was eleven. “Very well.” He took a few steps back. “I’d like to run tests on your parents; see if they’d be a match. We’re doing transplants with live donors these days, but it takes two people to pull it off.”

“Live donors?” Her mother looked hopeful, and Ali’s heart hurt for her.

“It’s a serious ordeal, Mrs. Daniels. One donor gives the lower right lobe, the other gives the lower left. Anyone who
donates a lobe will experience a permanent loss in lung function.”

“That wouldn’t be a problem.” She nodded. “We’d like to be tested right away.”

With that, the doctor was gone. Ali wanted to scream and cry and bury her head in the pillow. She didn’t want her parents going through something that drastic, a difficult surgery and the loss of lung function. Not when it had always been her decision to keep riding, to put her health at risk.

She opened her eyes and looked at her mother. “I’m sorry, Mom.” She reached out and took her hand again. The doctor could check all he wanted; she wouldn’t take a lung from either of her parents. It wasn’t their fault she was sick. It was her own. Her determination to keep riding.

“Ali”—her mother’s eyes pleaded with her—“You’re the best in rodeo. Isn’t that enough?”

“I haven’t won a national championship, Mama. Ace and I can do it. It might still happen this season.” Her lungs hurt from the emotion building within her. “I can’t stop riding; you know that.”

Instead of yelling at her or demanding she stop, her mother dabbed at her eyes and stared at her folded hands. “I don’t know how we’ll tell your father.”

Ali felt the victory all the way to her soul. “He’ll understand.”

She looked up and their eyes held. “I understand, too. I just want to keep you around a little longer.”

“I know. Thanks, Mama.”

She was released from the hospital a week later with a
stronger arsenal of medicines and inhalers and strict orders to use her vest two to three times a day. Especially at rodeos.

The next week while she recuperated at home, watching old movies with her father and helping her mother in the kitchen, Cody Gunner’s name never came up.

Except in Ali’s mind.

She’d told her mother the truth; she wasn’t interested. Not in Cody or anyone else. Despite her mother’s prayers to the contrary, she would not get involved with a man; not when she had so little time, when her sport demanded every spare moment.

Still, her first night out of the hospital, when her parents had turned in and sleep wouldn’t come, when the prospect of getting off Ace for good or being relegated to a lung transplant left her too frightened to close her eyes, she found comfort in one thing alone. The memory of Cody Gunner leaving his place on the fence to bring her a cup of water. The sound of his voice, the feel of his body a foot from hers in the tunnel, the guarded kindness in his voice as he asked her out.

By morning, she shook off the crazy thoughts and promised to never entertain them again. Cody Gunner? Any thought of him was ridiculous, unwanted. She didn’t care a bit for the guy. He was a player, a renegade who needed no one. It was one thing to ride horses against her doctor’s orders. But to have feelings for Cody Gunner?

Even she wasn’t that crazy.

Chapter Seven

C
ody hated himself for worrying, but he couldn’t help it.

For two straight events, Ali Daniels hadn’t shown up and that could only mean one thing. Her cold was worse than he’d thought. Maybe it wasn’t a cold, but pneumonia. Maybe she was in the hospital.

Thoughts of her distracted him, and he rode below what he was capable of at both events, taking a fourth place and a no-score. The third weekend, he spotted her trailer and felt himself relax. Whatever the problem, she must have recovered.

He saw her that Saturday morning, several hours before the spectators were scheduled to arrive. She was riding her horse in the field behind the arena, tearing up one way, circling imaginary barrels, and then racing like the wind back toward the edge of the parking lot.

Cody loved horses, but he didn’t own one. Most of the
time he flew to events and stayed in hotels. Ali and the other competitors who relied on their horses traveled in motor homes, pulling horse trailers. He wandered toward the stock area and borrowed a horse from one of the steer wrestlers. In an easy motion, he swung himself into the saddle and galloped out to the field toward Ali.

She looked healthy and tanned; her cheeks clear of the puffy redness.

He pulled up near her. She turned two tight circles, then stopped and faced him. He held her gaze. “You’ve been gone.”

“Yes.” Without tugging on the reins, the animal leaned his head back, and she rested against his neck. She was breathless from the workout. “Did you get hung up while I was away?”

A strange feeling worked its way through Cody’s gut, a feeling he couldn’t quite identify. He allowed the hint of a smile. “I would’ve.” He leaned forward, his hands covering the saddle horn. “But I got the best advice.”

“Really?” Her expression was light, easy.

“Really.” He danced his horse sideways a few steps. “Someone told me if I could stay on for eight, I could stay for nine. You know, use the extra second to untie my hand so I wouldn’t get hung up.”

“Well?” She shifted back in her saddle. “Did it work?”

“Like a charm.” He lifted his hands so she could see them. “No more casts.”

“Hmmm.” She raised one eyebrow. “Imagine that.” Her
heels pressed against her horse’s belly. And without further warning, she was off, flying down the field, clearly intent on finishing her workout.

Cody watched her, and the challenge was too great to pass up. He switched the reins from one side of the horse’s neck to the other. “Yah!” And suddenly he was tearing up the field after her, mesmerized by her speed and ability. He didn’t catch up with her until she reached the far side.

She brushed her hair off her face, her cheeks ruddy from the exertion. “Are you chasing me?”

He held the reins tight against his waist. With the sun on her face, exhilarated from the ride, she wasn’t only beautiful. She was irresistible. He waited until he had his breath again. “Do you want me to?”

“No.” A laugh came from her, one that sounded like the most delicate wind chimes. “There’s no point.”

“Why not?” His words were slow, the conversation unhurried. They were far enough from the arena that no one could see them, no one would wonder why Cody Gunner was talking to Ali Daniels.

“Because”—she smiled—“I don’t want to be caught.” She set her horse in motion again. “See ya.”

There was laughter in her voice. She was kidding, of course. All girls wanted to be caught. But maybe Ali was different in this, too. He didn’t ride after her. Instead he set out at a diagonal, back toward the stock pen. He returned the horse and headed to the hotel for breakfast.

It took him an hour to stop replaying their conversation
in his head. He chided himself, hating the way she’d distracted him that morning. If she didn’t want to be caught, fine. He wouldn’t chase her.

He needed his focus, needed to stay angry, in touch with the rage. Nothing in his riding regimen had room for the strange feelings she stirred inside him. But after their encounter that morning, he couldn’t get into a rhythm, couldn’t find the way back to the pain that kept him centered on the back of a bull for eight violent seconds. He was bucked off an easy ride, a bull that had been ridden 70 percent of the time.

He was walking down the tunnel, disgusted, when he saw Ali sitting by herself outside the locker room. She was coughing, but she stopped when she saw him.

“Ready for more advice?” She stood and leaned against the wall.

Normally after a buck-off, he wouldn’t talk to anyone. But his frustration had no staying power in her presence. He stopped and crossed his arms. “Let me guess, don’t fall off, right?”

“No.” She pushed the toe of her boot around in the dirt. A smile lifted her lips. “That would help, but you should anticipate more. The way you ride, it’s all about reacting. You should balance that. Focus on the feel of the bull’s shoulders and anticipate his next move. Anticipation first; then reaction.” She lifted one shoulder and fell in alongside him. “Couldn’t hurt.”

He stopped just before the men’s locker room door. “Thank you, Ali.” His tone was dry, mildly sarcastic. He was
still dusty from being bucked off the easiest bull at the rodeo. She couldn’t expect him to be cheerful. “How did I get along without you?”

“That one”—she pushed the door of the women’s locker room and grinned—“I can’t help you with.”

Cody waited outside the arena for her, but she never showed.

He was on his way back to the hotel when two bull riders and a half dozen scantily dressed girls met him in the parking lot. He hung with them for a few hours, but just before midnight—when one of the girls moved onto his lap—Cody called it a night.

As he fell asleep, he promised himself he wouldn’t lose another go-round because of Ali Daniels. She wasn’t interested, and neither was he. That was reason enough to put her out of his mind.

The next day he was getting ready for his ride when his heart dropped.

Not ten yards ahead of him stood his mother and his brother and a man who looked very much like his father. Cody glared at the man. Was it really him? Had he come without being invited? Cody wanted to walk up and punch him in the face, release on the man a fraction of the rage he felt when he climbed on a bull. But not in front of Carl Joseph. He was about to turn around when his mother spotted him.

“Wait, Cody.” She wore jeans, and a red sweater he’d never seen before. She took light running steps toward him. “Don’t leave.”

He shook his head and took a step back, but it was too late. Carl Joseph saw him. “Brother! Hi, brother!”

Cody stopped. He gritted his teeth and ordered his heart to kick into a normal beat. When his mother was inches from him, he leaned in, his voice strained. “Why’d you bring him?”

“He wanted to come.” She wore sunglasses, but he could see the fear in her face. “You’re his son, Cody. You need to talk to him.”

Carl Joseph was loping up. “Brother! Guess what?”

“Hey, buddy.” Cody couldn’t let his brother know he was mad. “You gonna watch me ride tonight?”

“Yeah, and guess what?” He jumped a few times in place. “I met my dad. He’s your dad, too!” Carl Joseph pointed at the man, still waiting ten yards back. “See, brother. That’s him. That’s our dad!”

The excitement in Carl Joseph’s voice made Cody furious. The nerve of the man, coming back into their lives and getting Carl Joseph’s hopes up. When he walked out the next time it would change the kid forever, just as it had changed Cody.

Carl Joseph tugged on his arm. “Come meet him, brother. He wants to talk to you.”

A seething hatred consumed him. He shot another angry look at his mother. It took all his effort to keep his tone even. “Listen, buddy, I need to get ready for my ride. I’ll talk to him later, okay?”

“Okay.” Carl Joseph gave him a dramatic high five. “Have a good ride, brother!”

Without saying another word to his mom, without another glance at his father, he turned and headed fast in the opposite direction. That night—intently aware that somewhere in the stands his father was sitting next to Carl Joseph—the ride was easier than it had been in weeks. Cody rode out his rage, taking every bit of it out on the bull. In the process he kept a seat on a beast known for its violent wrecks.

Cody’s score for the night was ninety-three—his highest of the season, and enough to put him in the championship round.

He stayed in the locker room until he was sure his family was gone. When he was ready to leave, he exited to the outdoors. There would be no partying for him that night; not when he had a decade of emotions to sort through. Before turning in, there was something he had to do. He made his way through the parking lot to Ali’s trailer and gave a light knock on the door.

She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, and in the moonlight she looked impossibly beautiful. “Cody… what’re you—”

“Ali.” He tipped his hat, a grin tugging at his mouth. “Just wanted to thank you for the advice. My win tonight… it was all you.”

With that he turned and headed for the hotel across the street. He was gone before she could respond.

Chapter Eight

C
ody avoided Ali as much as possible.

They were midway through the season, and points were crucial if he wanted to take a lead into the summer. After seeing his father, he had no trouble focusing, no difficulty identifying the demons only bull riding could battle. He won three straight and by the first part of June there was no one close.

His mother still called, but he didn’t mind. Every conversation about his father was fuel for the fire, another reason to attack the bull, to go the distance no matter how violent the ride. The guy was serious about coming back. He took a job coaching at a small college a mile from their house. The story was the same with every phone call. His father was desperately sorry, anxious for a second chance.

BOOK: A Thousand Tomorrows & Just Beyond the Clouds Omnibus
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