Mel was hand-grazing her horses near the cattle pens when Larry found her. She held a lead rope in each hand and let Roman determine their meandering path across the rodeo grounds, LT content to follow. When Roman lifted his head, chewing grass, and pinned his ears, she knew someone was approaching. A check over her shoulder revealed the owner of Dry Creek Ranch walking toward her.
Eli had been chatty at breakfast, so she now knew all the names of the Dry Creek ranchers and horses – at least those present at this rodeo. She knew that Larry’s father had made a mint in the trucking business and that, of his three sons, Larry had chosen to invest in cattle ranching. She knew that, though the ranch was large, it was by no means as vast as some of the properties out west. She had learned this particular rodeo was a small, county fair type of function, that none of them rode on the professional circuit where the money, glory and women were. From there, Eli’s information had digressed to a ramble on his own rodeo pursuits and his insistence that the cows at this event were somehow mentally impaired.
“What’s his name?” Larry halted a respectable distance from the horses and nodded toward the black gelding who had stopped chewing, blades of grass sticking out of the corners of his mouth and regarded the man with what could only be described as guarded curiosity. At least, that’s what Mel thought of her animal’s moods, unsalvageable horse nut that she was.
Larry nodded. “That fits.” Then he almost smiled. “Lot of horse for a little girl.”
“I’m small enough,” she countered, “that they’re all a little too big. So I can’t tell them anything, it’s all about the asking.”
His ghost of a smile became a real one. “He’s not a Quarter Horse.”
“Nope,” she agreed. “He’s Dutch.”
The rancher lifted a single brow.
“Dutch Warmblood,” she elaborated. “He’s got Hanoverian and Westphalian in him, but he’s registered Dutch. He was imported from Holland about seven years ago and -,” she closed her mouth when she realized how snotty she must sound. She felt a blush in her cheeks. She was not a braggart, but tended to get on a roll, covering uncertainty with an overabundance of information.
“I didn’t import him,” she said, feeling like a brat. “Someone else did, and he has so much personality that…” hastily, she summed up the story of how her farrier had urged to go look at Roman after her last warmblood had been put down. She left out her heartbreak over losing Admiral, the way she’d bonded to the big black gelding who was very particular about the people he liked. She finished with a sigh. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling and telling you all this stuff you don’t wanna know.”
Rather than walk off, as she’d expected, Larry inclined his head toward her other horse. “That one’s a Quarter,” he guessed correctly.
“LT,” she had to smile at her little chestnut she’d had for fifteen years. “’Cause he’s my Lieutenant,” she explained his name. A chuckle threatened. “My parents went out and bought me a green-broke, three-year-old who was being barrel raced for my eleventh birthday.”
The rancher came closer, careful to give Roman a wide berth, inspecting LT. “What’s his breeding?”
“His registered name is My Impressive Guy.”
Larry’s graying brows scaled his forehead, his relatively impassive face jumping with shock. “He’s outta Impressive? No shit?”
“Great grandson,” Mel explained, and before she could check herself, she’d launched them into an extensive conversation about the once highly-sought-after Quarter Horse stallion who’d passed along champion blood and a genetic seizure disorder to countless offspring. She assured him that LT did not possess the flawed genes and they talked Quarter Horses until some of the overbearing depression lifted off her chest. In the dressage world, very few knew anything about Quarters – which she loved for their brains and their courage – and she smiled until her face ached talking about the intricacies of halter versus western pleasure versus hunter bloodlines and the famous foundation stallions of the breed.
After a final, lengthy pause in which Mel started to wonder now what? Larry scratched at his head and asked, “how long were you at the Carlton place?”
Mel’s reaction was physical and mental. She stiffened head to toe, accidentally tugging at the lead ropes in her hands and earned glances from both the horses. A warning shot was fired in her mind, a big colorful flare that went up and exploded in her brain, telling her to say nothing. The Carlton family was beyond influential in the world of dressage and she couldn’t afford to say anything damning, not even to some cowboy she’d just met.
“How – how did you guess that?” she stammered.
Damn it! Her rain jacket was the one that had been provided to her by the farm, a big Carlton “C” embroidered on the breast pocket, it and the prancing horse logo of the farm clearly visible even though the coat was knotted around her waist.
She’d arrived in January and it was now July. Even so, it took her a moment to come up with, “seven months,” as she tried wildly to figure out if this new acquaintance was friend or foe. She cursed the Carltons for making her paranoid and jumpy. She hadn’t been either of those things seven months ago.
A thoughtful look crossed Larry’s face. “The way I hear it, girls are dying to work there.”
“You quit or get fired?”
“I quit,” she lifted her chin a notch though she didn’t feel as confident as the gesture suggested.
He chuckled. “Good for you.”
She lifted her brows.
“Those high and mighty assholes are my neighbors.”
An unstoppable jolt of fear slammed through her, and it must have shown on her face because Larry laughed.
“Relax, I don’t want ‘em to be my neighbors.”
Melanie glanced away and took a deep breath, willing herself to be calm and not jump to any conclusions. As she’d fled the estate the night before, she’d been half afraid someone would come after her. Now, this felt too coincidental for words: she’d sought shelter two stalls away from the Carltons’ neighbor! What the hell?!
“Where are you gonna go, sweetheart,” his deep, gruff voice softened just a touch and it reminded her of her father’s.
“Dunno,” she said through a tight throat.
“Do you have enough money to get home?”
“No,” she admitted, ashamed, not able to lie even in this circumstance. “But,” she shot him a wild look, “I’ll not take charity from anyone.”
“Okay,” his smile spread slowly. “No charity. How ‘bout a proposition?”
By that night, as trucks filed in one after another, their lights bouncing through the twilight, fog-shrouded field, Dan Rawlins knew two things.
One: he still got a mild case of nerves even though his pro-circuit rodeo days were behind him.
Two: his boss was going to attempt to use the girl who’d slept in the stall – Melanie, he admitted her name grudgingly – to recon the happenings over at the Carlton estate. He didn’t like the idea, it was shady on Larry’s part, but at the same time, he couldn’t blame the man: Larry had lost a daughter, the cops had given up, and he was desperately determined to find her. Even if it meant hiring the little blonde and taking her under his wing for a while.
Shoving any such related thoughts aside, he tightened Pete’s cinch and thought about his first realization. He was not a nervous guy. But anticipation was coiling up in his gut all the same as he did one last check of his tack and mount, then led the bay gelding from his stall.
“Go get ‘em!” Eli said, already enthusiastic about his own ride.
Slim gave him a more appropriate nod that meant good luck and Dan mounted in one quick, fluid motion, taking a loose hold on the reins and heeling Pete out into the rapidly darkening evening.
Moveable panels of corral fence had been set up down the field as a makeshift warm-up ring, but Dan didn’t head that direction. Pete did not wear horseshoes, so he sent the gelding across an empty stretch of field at a trot that was too quick to be a western jog, not worried about the mud that sucked at his hooves.
It was hard not to compare this setting to the countless other rodeos he’d competed in. He hadn’t even wanted to come to this one, not wanting to stir up old memories. As he made a wide loop through the field and urged Pete into a canter, he thought about the fully enclosed compounds he’d frequented in his twenties: the blinding lights, the huge arenas and corrals, the thousands of fans. He thought about the booming voices of the announcers over the PA system, the sponsors, the colorful banners. The women…man, there had been so many rodeo groupies; girls trussed up in pink Wranglers and boots that had never seen the inside of a horse stall, all wannabes with bright smiles and shameless invitations.
Invitations he’d accepted.
He was not, he reminded himself as he reined Pete back around, a real rodeo rider anymore. After tonight, he could go back to the ranch, back to the quiet work he enjoyed, and wouldn’t have to think about his past anymore.
This is insane, Mel thought again. She sat on the highest tier of the bleachers beneath the pavilion and watched the rodeo without seeing it, too deeply entrenched in her own mind.
Larry had offered her a job.
“My wife needs help keeping the books,” he’d said, and had persisted, despite her protests that she wasn’t a bookkeeper. “You can help with the horses,” though he had a whole staff. “We’ll find somethin’ for you to do,” when she’d protested everything else.
But that wasn’t as insane as the fact that she was sitting here, lingering in this place, considering his offer.
Her eyes dropped away from the action in the arena – who wanted to watch grown men leap off horses and wrestle half-grown steers anyway? – to the muddy toes of her boots and she hated that her throat felt tight and her eyes stung with pressing tears. She had no money. No job. No place to go. No desire to tell her parents of her predicament and a long ride home to Ohio she couldn’t afford.
Just call, she reasoned, thinking that if she called her father, he’d find a way to wire her money or would come down to get her himself, and then she could go home and admit defeat, reapply for college or take a small job somewhere.
But the thought of the disappointment she’d see in her mother’s eyes left her breathless. The shame would be terrible.
She didn’t know if she should dare trust Larry Shaw or his crew. They had all seemed pleasant, except for that Dan-not-Danny guy, but worry persisted. She could very well be walking into some kind of trap if she went back to Dry Creek Ranch with them. Knowing the property butted up to the Carltons’ left her stomach rolling with alarm: what if this was some elaborate form of revenge?
She thrust the idea to the side with a shake of her head: like the Carlton family actually cared enough about her to come up with a scheme this devious. No, it wasn’t that.
I want to work with horses, she reasoned, not believing she was actually leaning toward Larry’s offer. But she was, God help her, and she knew it.
Maybe just for a few weeks, just long enough to make enough money to get home…
Though she couldn’t understand why he’d been such a volatile mix of indifference and hostility when she’d been introduced to him, Mel had to admit that Dan Rawlins was easily the best horseman at the entire event. So many of the males she’d encountered in her own riding circles tended to slump in the saddle, their shoulders hunched. Some were overly aggressive, most lacked any real communication with their animals and were heavy-handed, hauling on reins and overusing the whip. And this was in the sport of dressage where delicate communication was everything.
But Dan, she noted with appreciation, was very soft with his horse. No yanking, no pulling. And he sat well in the saddle. By the time she’d watched him take the roping title of the night, she’d reached a decision: possibly a stupid one.
She waited until the bull riding was underway and then she threaded her way through the crowds back to the barn.
The Dry Creek men were unsaddling their horses and rubbing them down, talking to one another, the golden lights above the stalls making the scene both warm and timeless: cowboys and their mounts.
Larry was propped against a support post and she went to him, feeling the others’ eyes on her. Slim and Eli were curious. Dan looked like he might be glaring at her. She took a deep breath and scanned Larry’s expectant face.
“Okay,” she said, anxiety twisting in her gut. “I wanna come work for you.”