Read Flanked Online

Authors: Cat Johnson

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Western

Flanked

Dedication

In the sport of bull riding, it’s not a matter of if a rider will get injured, but when. This book is dedicated to the riders who risk bodily injury each time they spin into the arena on the back of a bucking bovine, the bull fighters who strive to protect both man and beast, the sports medicine teams and the many people who donate both time and money to ensure the injured are taken care of.

Chapter One

Garret James pulled the four-wheeler up to a cluster of tall, straight trees. The sound of the engine died as soon as he turned the key in the ignition to off, leaving only the peaceful calm of the woods. The rustle of the trees. The scurry of a squirrel. The song of a bird. The sound of his pulse pounding in his ears as his anger grew.

Jaw clenched, he turned to grab the supplies he’d loaded back at the house. The tools he’d need and a box of woodscrews were in an old milk crate secured with bungee cords to the back of the four-wheeler along with the two-by-four boards he’d cut to length at home. He stacked those at the base of one of the three trees he planned to use to support his deer stand and then picked the cordless drill out of the crate. He should have brought some nails and a hammer since he sure as hell was in the mood to pound something.

Instead, he pulled out a handful of three-inch screws and shoved them into his pocket. After he’d stuck the heads of a few more between his lips, he picked up the first board. He braced the short wooden board against the tree trunk with his forearm while holding one screw in that hand. At the same time, he gripped the battery-operated drill in the other.

This sucked. It was supposed be a two-man job, but instead he was juggling it all alone. And it literally felt like juggling as he struggled to keep the board straight. He would have thought his father would want to be here helping him. After all, he would get as much use out of this deer stand as Garret would, this year and for years to come.

Whatever. Let his father go out on a date the day he knew they were supposed to build the tree stand together. Garret would just handle it all on his own during the few days he was able to be home before his next event.

He would be back on the road this weekend, traveling with his fellow bull riders, trying to forget the disturbing fact that his father was dating.

Dating.
What the hell? His dad was close to fifty and he was dating again like a…like a teenager. And only five short years after Garret’s mother had died.

The familiar ache settled in Garret’s chest. It happened every time he thought about his mother. His parents had been married since high school graduation. Their marriage had been perfect, at least as far as Garret could see. They would still be happily married if cancer hadn’t taken her. But dammit, how could his father think he could replace the supposed love of his life with some woman he met God only knew where? Good luck doing that, and at his father’s age too.

His dad and this…this…
woman
, were on a daytime date for lunch and a matinee movie. Garret snorted. Sounded pretty stupid to him. Dates were supposed to be at night, in the dark. Nice sunny days were for doing stuff outside, such as building deer stands.

Scowling, he put too much force behind the drill. The tool slipped off the screw head and the drill bit gouged his hand. So now he’d go into the next competition with a sore left shoulder from riding and a wound on his riding hand.

Great. He hadn’t even secured the first rung of the makeshift ladder for the deer stand and he was already bleeding, as well as pissed off. He spit out the screws he’d held between his lips and let them drop to the ground.

Sucking on the wound, Garret embraced his anger, mad at his dad for dating, the tree trunk for being so damn hard, himself for not being a better carpenter, even at God for taking his mother too soon.

His cell phone’s ringtone from his jeans was a welcome interruption. Still nursing the cut on his left hand, he dug his right into his front pocket. He glanced at the Caller ID. Chase Reese. Thank God. He could use the distraction of talking to his best friend about now.

Garret hit the button to answer the call. “Dude, give me some good news.” Bypassing the pleasantries, he launched right into what he needed from his fellow rider.

“Um, okay. What kind of news did you have in mind?” Chase asked.

“Tell me you’re heading to the next competition today instead of Friday so I can meet you there early and I’ll be a happy camper. Short of that, I guess I’ll take just about anything right now.” He frowned down at his hand and sucked at the blood again before it dripped on his jeans.

“Well, I’m not heading out today, so sorry. What’s up with you anyway? Why do you want to leave now for the weekend’s event?”

“I’ve just had enough of life at home.” And he hadn’t even been there for very long this time.

“I hear ya,” Chase agreed. “It seems my brother’s trying to kill me with the workouts. I’m sore as hell. He wakes me up before sunrise to go running every damn morning. Even in the rain. He’s frigging insane.”

“Then we’ll both be happy to get to North Carolina and ride. Maybe I’ll pick up a few bottles of bourbon and we can kick back in the room and relax. Just you, me, Aaron and Skeeter.” That scenario sounded like heaven to Garret.

“You guys go for it, but I’m getting my own room. Leesa’s coming with me this weekend, remember? She flying from her parents’ house in California and meeting me there.”

“Ah, shit. No, I forgot all about that.”

“Sorry, but I haven’t seen her in weeks.” Chase let out a snort. “We need some time alone. Believe me.”

“Yeah, I know.” Garret’s response came out sounding a little harsher than he had intended.

“I thought you liked Leesa.” Chase’s tone was definitely defensive.

“I do like her. It’s just…” Garret sighed and searched for a way to explain his feelings to Chase without getting into this new crap with his father’s dating too deeply. “It feels like everybody’s pairing off. It’s like frigging Noah’s ark with the riders on the circuit nowadays. You’ve got a serious girlfriend. Luke’s dating Annie exclusively. Hell, even frigging Mustang and Slade are off the market and have steady girls, and I never thought that would ever happen. What the hell is up with all you guys? I miss the way things used to be.”

“What do you miss? Drinking until we puked? Riding hung over? Trying to pick up a different girl in each city and usually getting shot down by them in the process?”

“Yes. Exactly.” Garret’s brow furrowed. “And I don’t get shot down that much. That only happened a few times.”

“Yeah, okay.” Chase laughed. “But no, sorry, I don’t miss the way things used to be. Not at all.”

“That figures.” Garret screwed up his mouth. He’d never thought he’d see the day. His best friend was pussy whipped.

At least Skeeter and Aaron were still unattached. They’d be like the Three Musketeers. Three single guys out on the town. Skeeter had finally gotten himself a decent fake ID so they could all go out together to places that bothered to check their ages. The girls had better watch out when the three single bull riders got to town this weekend. He and the boys would likely leave a trail of broken hearts behind them. That was how life on the road as a professional bull rider should be. A man might as well tie a flank strap around his balls if he was going to be tied down to one girl. Same damn thing in Garret’s mind.

Nope. That shit wasn’t for him. Not as his career was on the rise and the buckle bunnies abounded. They were looking for bull riders to take home for a night, and luckily Garret was single and ready to partake of the offerings. Even if he had to do it without his best friend, Chase, along for the ride on the buckle-bunny merry-go-round.

“Aw, don’t be jealous of Leesa, Garret.” There was a definite condescending air to Chase’s words. “There will always be a special place in my life for you too.”

Garret was so not in the mood to be teased right now. “Yeah, sure. That’s it. I’m jealous. I cry every time I’m out with some hot new chick getting some pussy and you’re sitting alone in the hotel room because your girl’s not around and you don’t want to go out without her.”

“I know you do. I’ve seen you try to hide the tears.” Chase laughed, apparently unfazed by Garret’s teasing. “Anyway, I gotta run. I’ll call you.”

“Fine.” He scowled at Chase’s constant and annoying good mood. Chase always sounded so damn cheerful that sometimes—such as now—Garret just wanted to smack him.

“And cheer the fuck up,” Chase added.

“Yeah, yeah. Talk to you later.” Garret disconnected the call before he got more pissed off.

He shoved the phone in his pocket, even less inspired after taking the short break to answer Chase’s phone call than he’d been before. Garret stared at the tree. He’d managed to complete nothing but the one board hanging crooked by a single, badly placed screw.

Drawing in a big breath of air, Garret hoisted himself off the seat of the four-wheeler where he’d been leaning. He picked up the drill, put it in reverse and backed out his first failed attempt. Take two. He adjusted the board, eyed it and decided it was straight. His father would have insisted he use an actual level. But his father wasn’t here right now, so things were going to get done Garret’s way. This ladder was going to get put up how Garret wanted.

That’s what happened when a man ditched a job for a woman. He had to take what he got. Garret lined the Phillips head tip of the drill bit up with the head of the screw and pulled the drill’s trigger. The tool zipped and squealed. At least this time he didn’t do himself bodily harm, but the screw still wasn’t sunk flush with the board, and the more he tried the more the bit stripped the screw head.

What the fuck? Was this damn tree made out of iron? Finally, he gave up and moved on to the next screw.

This was why he was a bull rider. Because if he had to do something like this for a living he’d lose his frigging mind. Bull riding was nice and predictable. The rider tried to stay on. The bull tried to buck him off. Sometimes the rider won. Sometimes the bull did. Simple. Easy. Everyone knew what to expect going in. Not like life. Life threw shit at a person that he’d never expect, such as trees as hard as iron, and a father who thought he could go out on dates.

Determined now, Garret dug another screw out of his pocket. It went in perfectly smooth, like a hot knife through butter.

All right. This was better. Things were looking up. Maybe those first two screws had hit a knot and he was past the hard part. Satisfied, he bent and got the next board that would serve as the second rung on the ladder. He might possibly finish this damn thing before hunting season after all, with or without his father’s help.

The phone in his pocket sounded again. He frowned. He wasn’t ever going to get done if his damn phone didn’t stop ringing. Pulling it out, Garret saw it was Aaron Jordan. Was every one of the forty guys he rode with going to call him today?

He punched the button to answer. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Hey, not much. I just wanted to give you a head’s up about this weekend. I’m going to need my own room.”

What the hell? Chase first, and now Aaron? Garret sighed. “Why? You suddenly get yourself a girlfriend too?”

“Uh, no.” His friend laughed. “My sister’s fixin’ to come and stay with me for the weekend.”

“Your sister?” Garret had met Aaron’s older brother. In fact, he’d hooked them all up with a truckload of alcohol for the floor-wide party they’d hosted at their hotel right after the finals in Vegas last season. But he didn’t remember hearing much, if anything, about a sister before. Then again, Garret didn’t always listen all that closely.

“Yup. She’ll be staying in a room with me,” Aaron continued. “I don’t want her to have to pay for a room. She makes crap money teaching music at the middle school.”

A middle-school music teacher. Great. She sounded like a ton of fun. Garret shook his head. “Fine. I’ll split a room with Skeeter.”

“Yeah. That’s what I figured since Chase needs his own room too. And what the hell crawled up your ass and put you in such a piss-poor mood?”

Garret supposed he must have sounded less than enthusiastic. “Nothing.”

Besides his father dating, his best friend acting all but married and now a screw hole in his riding hand? Nope, nothing wrong at all.

“Yeah, sure.” Aaron let out a short laugh. “Anyway, what day you getting to North Carolina?”

Garret had planned on driving from his house in Ohio on Thursday, but now with Chase busy with his girl, Leesa, and Aaron busy with his schoolmarm sister—whatever her name was—he wasn’t so sure. Maybe he should leave really early Friday morning and get in just before the competition started that night. Not that staying home for the extra day was looking all that attractive right now either. Shit. Neither of his options was exactly appealing. “I’m not sure yet. Thursday or Friday.”

“All right. The arena’s only a few hours from my house, but I have to drive in Thursday for some sponsor shit I have to do. They’ve got me booked for something both Thursday and Friday. So I’ll be there whenever you get there. Just give me a call when you hit town.”

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