“Sorry,” I whispered, loosening my grip. I gave his leg a little rub to make it feel better. His hand caught mine, stilling it—shit, I’d been all but massaging him just inches away from his dick. Classy.
“Do you think he’ll live?” I asked Painter quietly. He squeezed me tighter.
“Dunno,” he said. “Guess we’ll have wait and see.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’d ask that you leave now. Normally I’d say I hope you enjoyed the show, but instead I’ll ask you again to keep Chase and his family in your prayers. God bless each and every one of you, and God bless the cowboys and cowgirls who came out tonight.”
• • •
It took about forty-five minutes to make our way out of the grandstands and back to the bikes. The crowds were quiet for the most part. Em and Kit held each other’s hands tight, whispering to each other as they checked their phones.
When we finally made our way out of the stands and into the main fairgrounds, Hunter came up to me and Painter, the two men staring each other down. For a minute I was worried, because there was obvious tension between them.
“You’ll get her home?” Hunter finally asked Painter, nodding toward me. “She rode here with Taz, but I think he’s giving Jessica a ride. Em and Kit want to go to the hospital—I guess there’s going to be a candlelight vigil. Em says she didn’t know him well, but he went to school with Kit and she’s pretty upset.”
“I’ve got her,” Painter said, squeezing my hand. “You headed to the hospital, too?”
Hunter nodded tightly, glancing toward Kit with a frown. “Gonna be a long night, I think.”
I shivered, thinking about Chase lying in the dust. I’d seen him around school, but couldn’t remember ever talking to him.
“Yeah,” Painter agreed. “Get going—I’ll make sure Mel is okay. No worries, okay?”
Hunter nodded, eyes flicking across me as he turned back to Em and her sister. “Sure thing.”
I watched him walk away, leaning in close to Painter.
“Do you want to go to the vigil, too?” he asked. I considered the question.
“No,” I said finally. “It would feel fake. I didn’t really know him . . . But I definitely want to get away from here. There’s too many people here who didn’t see the rodeo, and they’re all having fun and going on rides. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Let’s say good-bye, then.”
He kept hold of my hand while we made the rounds of his club brothers and their old ladies, almost like we were a real couple. It should’ve felt awkward, but it didn’t. Jess was clinging to Taz, whispering to him quietly. When I hugged her good-bye, she whispered in my ear, “Okay if I bring him to the house tonight?”
Wasn’t sure how I felt about that—of course, she had every right to bring someone home. I just hoped she wasn’t doing something stupid.
“You sure?” I whispered back. “I thought you were happy just keeping things simple.”
“I don’t want to be alone right now,” she replied, squeezing me tight. Yeah, I could understand that. Too bad I didn’t have anyone interested in going home with me.
• • •
I kept my arms wrapped tight around Painter as we rode back downtown. He smelled good and he felt good . . . safe, somehow. Under normal circumstances, I’d be all over him, but right now I was too busy picturing Chase’s limp body in the dirt—would he live?
I’d never seen anyone die before.
We turned down my street and I braced myself to say good night. I had no idea where we stood or even whether I’d see Painter again. Had tonight changed things? Obviously he wasn’t pretending we weren’t friends anymore . . . but exactly what were we supposed to be?
Then I saw Taz’s bike parked in front of the house. Of all nights for Jess to abandon her celibate streak, why now? I needed to talk to someone and she was unavailable . . . Painter rolled to a stop, and I’d started to swing my leg over the bike when he put a hand on my thigh.
“Taz gonna be there for a while?” he asked, his voice low and quiet.
“Yeah, Jess said she’d invited him to stay over,” I replied, feeling uncomfortable. He frowned.
“Feel like a ride? I’m not ready to call it a night.”
“That sounds really good,” I whispered. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to be alone.
“Hold on,” he said. “It’s a beautiful night, despite what happened. We should try to make the best of it.”
• • •
We headed south, down toward Moscow and then turned off at Plummer to ride around the south end of the lake. I had no idea how late it was when he slowed the bike and pulled into a gravel parking lot surrounded by trees. The big Harley’s engine died, leaving us alone with the soft chirping of crickets and frogs.
“You wanna go down to the water?” he asked. “It’s right through the trees.”
I slipped off the bike, and we walked down a grassy slope to a long, sandy beach nestled among the trees. The moon shined bright, painting a trail of silver across the lake’s gentle waves. Here and there, dark shapes broke the water. Took me a minute to figure out what they were—floating logs.
“You want to sit for a while, watch the stars?” Painter asked. I looked around, spotting a patch of grass sloping down toward the sand that seemed perfect.