“BOSS! LOOK OUT!”
Slade McPherson was in a rectangular corral at his Jackson Hole, Wyoming ranch with the meanest Hereford bull he’d ever dealt with. He heard Shorty, his wrangler, give a cry of warning. There was sudden movement behind him. Diablo, the bull, had been walking toward the chute to receive his yearly set of shots. Slade never allowed any horses in such a confined area with the bull. Diablo hated men. Slade wasn’t about to allow one of his prized horses to be butted and injured by Diablo.
Whirling around, he saw Diablo toss his massive white and rust head, drool flinging in all directions out of his mouth. The bull had decided not to go into the chute and, instead, wheeled his one ton body around and charged Slade who was ten feet away. The bull bellowed, lowered his head and attacked.
Slade was five feet away from the steel pipe fence. There was no way he could stop such a charge. All he could do was run like hell. And that’s exactly what he did. Because he was six foot two inches in height, he had a long stride. Adrenaline shot through him as he dug the heels of his cowboy boots into the dusty floor of the corral. In two strides, Slade hit the fence, made a huge leap and landed on the third rung of the five-rung corral. The ground shook from Diablo’s charge. As he jerked his leg up, still climbing to get away from the angry bull, Slade felt the brush of the bull’s head against the heel of his boot.
It took a matter of two seconds before it was all over. Diablo roared and galloped around the small enclosure, tossing his head in frustration. Slade balanced himself on the fifth rung of the fence, watching his prized breeding bull bawl and race around the enclosure. That was close! Slade had lost count of the times Diablo had planned and waited until he’d get near enough to trample him to death. The bull had great genes for putting good meat on his offspring, but his personality sucked.
“Boss,” Shorty panted, running over and looking up at Slade, “you okay? He grazed you.”
Taking off his tan Stetson hat, the crown damp with sweat from the July day, Slade grinned and lifted his forearm. He wiped his brow with the back of his arm. “I’m fine,” he drawled. “Close but no cigar.” The sun was bright as it climbed higher in a deep blue sky. He glanced down at Shorty. The man was only five foot six inches tall, lean as a whippet and didn’t look as if he could even make it as a wrangler, but he was one of the best. He came from good Irish stock with sandy-colored short hair and dancing green, elfish eyes.
“Good thing,” Shorty muttered, worry in his tone. He stepped aside as Slade clambered off the pipe fence and landed on the dusty earth. “I’ll tell ya, that bull seems to hate us humans more and more every year.” Shorty’s small face grew pinched as he watched the bull continuing to trot in circles, the drool from the corners of his opened mouth flying out like thin, glittering spider webs all around his head and massive shoulders.
“Bad personality genes for sure,” Slade agreed, settling the dusty, sweat-stained Stetson back on his head. He watched Diablo. Once the bull seemed cooled down, the animal walked quietly into the chute. For the Hereford, it was a game, Slade realized as he walked around the outside of the corral. At the chute, he dropped the rear slat that would keep the bull confined. Going to his green Chevy truck, Slade picked up the syringe lying on the seat. Once a year, Diablo got his necessary vaccinations. Shorty followed him to the stout pipe chute that now enclosed the twenty-five hundred pound bull.
“Boss, remember you got a new client comin’ out here this afternoon,” Shorty reminded him. The wrangler had been with Slade since he’d taken over the ranch.
Slade grunted. He really didn’t want to hear that. Going to the chute, he said, “Stand by Diablo’s head and distract him for a moment.”
Grinning, Shorty moved to within a foot of the metal chute where the bull stood. “I’ll be the decoy,” he chortled.
Slade nodded and positioned himself at the rear of the bull. Diablo lived to find a human to trample. In the bull’s mind, humans were a threat to his territory. And Diablo would never allow another male on two legs within the pastures he roamed with his herd of cows. If they came near, all bets were off, and he became enraged and would charge them. Good thing he thought four-legged horses were not threatening. Diablo snorted, his ears moving forward and back as Shorty slowly approached.
“Perfect,” Slade murmured as he sank the needle into the thick, muscled area of the bull’s well-padded hip. Diablo’s entire attention was on Shorty’s approach. As Slade withdrew the needle, he glanced forward to get the bull’s reaction. There was none. His angry brown eyes were fixed on Shorty. “We’re done,” he called. Placing the emptied syringe back in the box on his truck seat, Slade said, “Release him back out into the pasture.”
“Right, Boss,” Shorty said with a quick nod. “He ain’t gonna be happy, though. All his ladies are in the pasture across the road from him.”
Pulling his leather gloves back on, Slade nodded. “Too bad. He can look, but not touch.” Slade had a small herd of Herefords, fifty in all, that Diablo bred in early fall. It took nine months for gestation. In the early summer months, the calves were born. At that time, Diablo was separated from his band, a dirt road plus a stout metal pipe rail fence between them. One never kept a bull with newly born calves. The chances of them being injured or killed by the bull was very real.
And Slade needed every calf that was birthed because after they reached a certain age, they would be sold to the meat market. And that meant money to pay a mortgage that was always a monthly nightmare to him. Above all, Slade never wanted to lose this ranch. He lived on the razor’s edge of doing just that. Being a small-time rancher meant a constant balancing act with the bank mortgage on a monthly basis. Miss one payment and he’d be foreclosed upon. It can’t happen!
Slade watched Shorty open the chute. Instantly, Diablo bellowed and shot out of it at a full gallop. The Tetons Ranch that Slade had inherited after his uncle died was only fifty acres in size. A very small ranch, all things considered. Diablo thundered out of the opened gate. Ahead of him was lush green pasture. And farther to his left was the stout pipe fence and a dirt road. All his ladies and their babies grazed peacefully on the other side. Diablo would pace for awhile, walking up and down the fence line, tossing his head and reestablishing he was boss of his herd. Slade knew that the territorial bull would eventually settle down. Diablo would do his best to follow his herd, but the pipe fence and road always stood between them. Once the bull quieted, he would graze and watch his band from afar.
Shorty came back. He took off his dusty black Stetson and brushed it against his thigh. Dust poofed away from it. “Boss,” he said as he pulled a crinkled piece of notebook paper from his back pocket, “here’s whose comin’ at one p.m.”
Slade didn’t like new clients, but they were his bread and butter, necessary to meet his financial obligations for the Tetons Ranch. “Okay, thanks,” he grunted, taking the paper. Shorty managed Slade’s endurance training appointments. Carefully unwrapping the note, he saw Shorty had scribbled a name and phone number. Frowning, he tried to read it. Shorty was thirty-five years old, single and had never been married. He’d worked for Slade’s Uncle Paul shortly before he’d died, and the ranch had been willed to Slade and his fraternal twin brother, Griff. Slade was now thirty-two, and he was grateful for Shorty’s loyalty to the ranch and his family. He glanced up—Shorty’s thin, narrow face was set in a grin.
“I ’spose you can’t read my writin’, Boss?”
“Got that right,” Slade growled. He handed the note back to his wrangler. “Want to translate it for me?”
Chortling, Shorty read it and said, “Dr. Jordana Lawton is bringing her mustang mare named Stormy here this afternoon at one p.m.” Shorty handed him back the note.
“Yes, Boss. She’s an emergency room physician, and Gwen Garner told me that Dr. Lawton is also a functional medicine specialist and has her clinic near the hospital.”
Mouth quirking, Slade asked, “What’d you do? Have a cozy chat with Gwen?” Her son, Cade Garner, was a deputy sheriff. She was the town gossip, but she was careful on what she said and made sure her information was correct before she passed it on to anyone else.
Turning red, Shorty shrugged. “Hey, Gwen said Dr. Lawton was a nice lady, Boss. I guess because Dr. Lawton is used to chattin’ with her patients, she’s real easy to talk to.”
“You weren’t her patient.”
“No, but when we talked on the phone, she made me feel special,” Shorty said, challenging him.
Shrugging, Slade muttered, “I don’t care who she is so long as she can pay for the training. What’s this about a mustang mare? Is she wanting endurance training?”
“For both of ’em, Boss. The doctor wants to know if her mare is capable of being an endurance horse prospect from a conformation standpoint. So, I told her to trailer the mare out here and you’d take a look at her.”
In Slade’s business of endurance riding, of which he was many times a champion, people often brought their horses out for him to check out. “Okay. Anything else she wants?”
Shrugging, Shorty said, “The doc said if her mare’s conformation was okay, she wanted to hire you to train both of them for level one riding.”
Nodding, Slade interpreted this as money coming into his coffers to keep the bank at bay. He had weekly training sessions with nine male students. He knew how to get a horse ready for an endurance ride, whether it was a twenty, fifty or a hundred mile challenge. And he also knew how to get the rider in shape as well. “Okay, that sounds good. She got a background in endurance racing?”
“A little,” Shorty hedged. “I really didn’t get into much of a discussion with her on that, Boss. I figure you’ll sort it out with her when she arrives here this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Slade said. Tucking the paper with the doctor’s name and phone number into his dark red cotton cowboy shirt pocket, he said, “Let’s get back to work. We need to start separating the calves from their mothers, branding and vaccinating them.” That would be a weeklong activity. And Slade only had one wrangler. He worked from four in the morning to midnight every day. And every hour of daylight was precious.
“Right,” Shorty murmured, following him to where their horses were tied to the corral fence.
As Slade mounted his buckskin quarter horse, Dude, his mind wandered back to Dr. Jordana Lawton for just a second. Slightly curious if she was a good endurance prospect, Slade hoped that it would work out so he had more money flowing in. He’d find out soon enough.
JORDANA LAWTON carefully negotiated the rutted dirt road. She drove her dark blue Ford three-quarter ton pickup truck as if she was driving over hens’ eggs. Behind her in a dark blue two-horse trailer was her gray mustang mare, Stormy. One never took a deeply rutted road with a horse trailer at a high speed. It would bounce the horse around so much that it could either cause an injury or send the animal into a frantic emotional state akin to trauma.
And trauma was something Jordana knew inside and out as an emergency room physician. Glancing at the clock on the dash, she knew she was going to be late. She hadn’t anticipated the dirt road being in such bad shape, but thunderstorms coming over the Tetons last week had made a gooey mire of every ranch road in the valley. And she wasn’t going to hurry in order to get there on time. Slade McPherson, the national champion endurance rider and trainer, would just have to wait.
The windows were down in the cab, and her shoulder-length black hair flew in wisps across her face. Jordana pulled the errant strands away and then placed both hands back on the steering wheel. In the two years that she had lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she had come to find that the majority of ranch roads in the valley were not paved. Most of the owners had a tractor, and they would drive out with a blade attached and smooth out the ruts.
Frowning, her focus on her driving, she worried that Stormy might lose her footing on the thick rubber mats. Jordana wanted this experience for the mare to be a good one. It only took one bad ride in a trailer to spook some horses. After that, the horse would refuse to ever enter the trailer again. That couldn’t happen because Jordana had high hopes that this mustang mare would be good enough to start competing at the top endurance level in the United States. And she wanted Stormy always to look forward to entering the trailer, instead of dreading it. Slow but sure…
SLADE GRITTED his teeth as he looked down at the watch on his thick wrist. He’d just rode in from the pastures where he and Shorty had been separating cows from calves. It was hard, sweaty work. And he didn’t want to waste time. Dr. Lawton was already ten minutes late. Slade didn’t like people who weren’t punctual. He had gone in and checked his answering machine to see if she’d called and canceled the appointment. There were no calls. Wasn’t that just like a woman? Isabel, his ex-wife, had always been late.
He hated dealing with women in general. He much preferred working with men who wanted to train for endurance riding. Ever since his divorce from city slicker Isabel Stephens four years ago, Slade had taken on a distinct dislike of the opposite sex. Isabel hailed from New York City, had rich parents and possessed the emotional maturity of a sixteen-year-old girl. She had never been on time for anything except their impromptu wedding. Slade had developed an intense dislike of city slickers, New York City types, in particular. Isabel had left a bad taste in his mouth. She’d hired a rich New York City attorney and had taken him to the cleaners during their divorce proceedings.
Grimacing, Slade kicked the red dirt with the toe of his scarred cowboy boot. Isabel was the reason his beloved ranch was teetering on the edge of foreclosure. She’d taken him for every penny he’d ever earned. All his savings that had kept the ranch on sound financial footing had gone to her. Now, four years later, Slade continued to wrestle with every penny that came in on a monthly basis. He had nightmares about losing his parent’s ranch. It had been in the family for over a hundred years. There was no way he could lose it. Being a rancher was all he knew. Anger stirred in him as he relived the divorce from petulant, spoiled Isabel.
Pulling in a deep, ragged breath, Slade recalled how he’d fallen in love with the sleek, beautiful Isabel. A dressage rider from the East Coast, she’d come out to Jackson Hole for a two-week vacation with her rich corporate friend who owned a ten million dollar home here in the valley. Isabel had met Slade at the Tetons fifty mile ride, her first endurance contest. Isabel knew her horses. And when Slade had seen her in the crowd as each rider rode up and waited to be released by the judge every five minutes, his heart had pounded. Slade could never remember a woman who had affected him so profoundly as Isabel had.
And it hadn’t hurt that he’d won that race on his flashy medicine hat mustang stallion, Thor, either. Isabel had had stars in her eyes for him as he’d rode in first among a hundred other contestants. They’d had dinner and gone to bed that night. And Slade, stupid idiot that he was, impulsively married her a week later.
“What a loco decision,” he groused, looking at his watch again. The dirt road to Tetons Ranch curved, so he wouldn’t see a truck and horse trailer until the last moment. He saw no one driving around that corner. “Damn,” he added, now walking angrily back to his ranch house. Where the hell was this woman? If she couldn’t even be on time for this first meeting, what would it be like if he accepted her as a student later? If her horse had the potential? Not good. Not good at all. Damn her. Why couldn’t she call and let him know where she was at?
JORDANA GAVE A GASP of surprise. As she slowly pulled around the last curve, she saw the iconic Marlboro Man cowboy from the cigarette ads. Oh, she’d seen photos of Slade McPherson, but in real life… My God…
Most things didn’t unsettle Jordana one way or another. But the fierce-looking, rugged cowboy did. As she drove her horse trailer between the barn and the ranch house where he stood, Jordana felt her heart unexpectedly begin to pound. This wasn’t adrenaline. She was a physician, and she knew the difference. No, this was her womanly side wildly responding to the man she saw standing there, his hands tense on his narrow hips, watching her approach.
Jordana knew Slade McPherson was a loner. Everyone in Jackson Hole had told her that. A strong, gruff, even antisocial rancher who knew more about breeding endurance horses than anyone else in the nation. She’d done her research. And in her eyes, after learning all she could about this hardened, rugged cowboy, he was the best at what he did: a champion endurance rider and breeder.
Not expecting to have such a powerful physical reaction to seeing him in person made Jordana feel giddy like a teenager. As she put on the brake, she saw his large gray eyes narrowing speculatively upon her. Suddenly vulnerable beneath that incisive, probing gaze, Jordana felt like Jell-O melting out in hot sunlight. Even her lower body was reacting to him! Good grief! What was this all about? Unhinged, Jordana suddenly felt unsure in this man’s towering presence. He wore a set of dusty Levis that perfectly outlined his long, powerful legs and thick thighs. His hands were long and large, draped over his narrow hips. The dark red cotton cowboy shirt did nothing but emphasize his square face that was burned dark by the sun. The slashes at the sides of his full mouth and the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes told her this man regularly challenged the weather in any condition—and won.
Her intuitive sense told Jordana he was armored up. The realization hit her in the solar plexus. Unexpectedly, her hands shook as she gathered up items from the seat in preparation to leave the truck. Jordana suddenly was taken back to when she was fifteen years old. It was at that age she had been struck by love for the first time. And how she felt then was how she felt now. Compressing her full lips, she tried to gather her strewn emotions. As hard and implacable as Slade McPherson appeared to be in person, Jordana knew she had to put on her physician’s face: strong, confident and detached. It would hide her present emotions that were a mix of excitement, desire and curiosity.
Climbing out of the truck, Jordana hastily walked around the front of it. As she faced the stony looking Slade McPherson, she heard him snarl, “You’re late…”