Bucking the Rules (Roped & Wrangled #2)
Trace Muldoon can handle anything…
As long as it has four legs, a mane wild as the wind, and a penchant for chewing hay. But when life tries to throw him off, that’s when the rodeo star is at his best.
Jo Tallen knows what she wants…
And it’s not a picket fence. She had a hard childhood, but now she’s the boss of the town’s best watering hole, she’s got her friends and her neighbors, and there are plenty of eager ranchers around. She might have a thing for Trace-but there are too many complications. And the most dangerous is that whenever the hot cowboy bellies up to her bar, she just can’t keep her hands to herself…
Trace Muldoon danced out of the way of the elegant-but-deadly female legs threatening to break his foot. One wrong move, one moment of lost concentration, and he could kiss his toes good-bye.
“Easy, sugar,” he crooned. “Come on, now. You don’t want to hurt me, do you?” He brushed a hand down her back, watching her eyes close in delight even as she tried to get in another bite to his shoulder.
Females. Prickly even when they were getting something they wanted. Trace continued to stroke and speak softly until she swayed on her feet, under some sort of hedonistic spell.
“You do have a way with the girls.”
Trace turned to see Red Callahan at the door, amusement tilting the corners of his mouth.
“Jealous of my superior skills?” Trace joked back.
Just then, teeth clicked around his shoulder in a not-so-playful bite. He yelped and skidded to the corner of the stall while the six-hundred-pound mare swished her tail and tossed her head in some sort of female satisfaction at getting the upper hand.
Red chuckled. “Yep, jealous. You pegged me. Can’t get enough of those bites.”
Trace flipped him off, but laughed and shrugged the sore shoulder. Working with horses, you expected to get a few kicks and bites for your trouble. He slipped out the stall door and closed it behind him gently. With one last glance behind him at the mare, who looked quite pleased with herself, he fell into step with Red and headed out to the hot walk area.
“Where’s my sister?”
“Still asleep, I believe.” Red checked the clock on the rough plank walls of the barn by the entrance, showing 6:15 in the morning. “She’ll probably be up soon.”
Trace shook his head. “She never used to sleep so late. Not that she was ever a morning person, but she’d get up and get started before anyone else thanks to sheer grit and caffeine.”
Red smirked. “Now she’s got a reason to stay in bed a little longer.”
Trace grimaced in return. “Really don’t want to think about my sister in bed with a guy, but thanks for that.”
“Plus,” Red went on, as if Trace hadn’t said a word, “I shut her alarm clock off and asked Emma to let her sleep as long as she could. I try it about once a week, but it rarely works.”
“Good.” Trace nodded and stepped up on the rusted bottom rung of the metal fencing that surrounded the hot walk area, folding his arms over the top for balance. “She needs a little management from time to time. Peyton works too hard, like she’s afraid to let Bea and me take on the responsibility. She’s going to kill you for it, though.”
“I can handle your sister,” Red said confidently with a cocky-ass smile to go along with it.“All it takes is—”
“La, la, la, I can’t hear you.” Trace watched a ranch hand walk a colt new to his halter around and around in circles. It was an apt metaphor for his current life: one big circle.
“Maybe she’s going off experience,” Red said, hopping up next to him. “You and Bea weren’t exactly there for her in the past when she was battling your mama for control of the ranch.”
Memories, one worse than the other, flooded him before Trace could shut them down. But much like slamming the barn door closed after the horse was out in the pasture, too little too late. “Yeah, well, I can’t speak for Bea, but I had reasons for staying gone. Though I can easily guess leaving was just as much survival for her as it was for me.”
Sensing the topic was closed, Red wisely moved on. “Steve!” The hand turned to look at him, calming the skittish horse with a few murmured words and a rub on the neck. “I want to see some figure eights with that one. He’s eager to learn, so give him something to do.”
Always the trainer. Trace took a moment to sit back and watch the man his prickly sister had gone and fallen in love with. A couple years older than he, Red was well-respected in the horse world. How a trainer of his level had landed at M-Star, a still-struggling breeding operation, was a question most people scratched their heads over.
Of course, once news of Red’s relationship with Peyton went public, some assumed they understood the score. Red was there for easy sex.
The thought had Trace laughing quietly. Nothing with Peyton was easy. Red had fought hard for every inch of gained ground there. But he also knew the man was just as crazy for his sister as she was for him. So Trace figured he wasn’t obligated to break the guy’s nose for taking advantage of his sister. She was a big girl.
Though it was getting a little tight in the house, with all three siblings back at home, and one shacked up. As kids, the house had been plenty big. As adults . . . they all needed some more space.
Not to mention, though Trace appreciated the help with his young son, he’d like to gain a little more independence. Stand on his own two feet, without worrying he was overstaying his welcome.
“Switch him up.” Red pointed and circled his hand in a signal for Steve.
“Say,” Trace started, warming up to the idea now circling his head like the colt in the warm-up ring. “You’re spending most nights at the big house now, aren’t you?”
Red’s eyes never left the horse’s legs. “Yeah.”
“And I saw a few of your boxes migrate up to Peyton’s room.” What used to be their parents’ master bedroom, though they’d almost never used it together. “I guess that’s pretty settled now, isn’t it?”
“Hmm. I think he’s done for the day, Steve. Let’s switch him out for his neighbor, see what she’s got to show us this morning.” He turned to Trace. “Back up a few steps. What’s settled?”
“You living with Peyton.”
Red’s mouth thinned a little. “Look, I understand you’re protective, but you know I’m not playing her. So if you’re going to get all butt-hurt over me moving in, then you can just—”
“I want your place.”
Red stopped and his eyes widened. “My place?”
Trace nodded to the large garage, over which the trainer’s apartment sat. “Yeah. You’re not using it, so it’s just sitting there. Someone might as well, right?”
The corner of Red’s mouth twitched. “But where will I sleep when Peyton’s mad at me?”
“The couch, like all good husbands.” He chuckled as his friend’s face whitened a little. “Calm down. It’s just an expression. If you need some alone time, you can take Seth’s room. Without a crib in there, I think a futon would fit nicely.”
“It’s only a one-bedroom place,” Red reminded him.
“We can make do. Two guys don’t need much room. Plus, one of us can’t even walk yet, so it’s not like he’s gonna take up that much space. I’ll find a nook for his crib and put one of those ugly silk screens Ma used to spread all over the house in front so he’s got a little mini-bedroom. Done deal.” The idea grew in his mind, and he could already taste freedom.
As much freedom as a single father with a not-quite-one-year-old son could have.
Red shrugged and smiled a little. “Well, it was a nice dream, but you’re too late.”
“Too late? What, did you rent it out to someone?” The thought had him laughing. They were in the middle of nowhere, with Marshall—the small town they used as a home base—over ten miles away. And nobody was going to rent an apartment out here.
“Rent, not quite. But your sister got to it before you did.”
Bea? His sweet little sister Bea—Bea had swiped his apartment from him? Well, not quite his . . . yet.
“Yeah, sorry about that. Guess you’ll have to suck it up and hang around the big house a little longer.”
They watched in silence as Steve brought out another horse and started the slow warm up.
“There’s good news about this though,” Red said after a stretch.
“With Bea and all her clothes gone—that’s like clearing up room for three.”