Taking The Reins (Roped & Wrangled #1)
Peyton Muldoon needs a man bad. No, not that way. What she needs is a trainer for her struggling stud ranch. And only a true life horse whisperer will do, a man with the right touch and real know how.
Redford Callahan’s on a hot streak. Not in the sack. But with the ranch owners who hire him to gentle their animals without breaking their spirit. He can pick and choose his next gig, so he’ll be damned if he’s going to waste his time on a mismanaged operation like the M-Star. Not until Peyton sashays into his motel room one night to make him a deal he can’t refuse. Now Red’s days as a loner are numbered and he’s starting to wonder if there’s one spitfire he won’t be able to tame…
Peyton Muldoon hefted the bag of dog food over her shoulder. God, there were times her pride was a big-ass burden. A fifty-pound burden, by the feel of the feed in her arms. Would it really have killed her to ask Tiny to make the run to the store for the forgotten food and supplements?
But she’d been the one to forget, so it was her responsibility to make the second trip. Just like everything else. Responsibility. Her middle freaking name. Too bad it wasn’t a family name everyone shared.
She let the bag plop into the oversized shopping cart and navigated it with some effort to the next aisle, then looked up to the highest shelves for the supplements she needed to mix in for her pregnant mares. As she debated her purchase, she heard voices on the other side of the aisle discussing the latest cutting dog. She ignored the voices at first; then her ears rang with the clear twang of one man in particular, as he said her own ranch’s name. How could she help but freeze to listen?
It wasn’t eavesdropping when people were talking loudly in public, right?
“Red, I need you to be straight with me now. I’ve been shufflin’ back and forth about it, and I’m out of time. Is Muldoon the right place to go for stud and training or not?”
There was a silence, so long she wondered if Redford Callahan had walked away. But then he spoke.
“Pete, I don’t know what to tell you. I think it could be a first-rate operation. But right now…” His voice drifted off, and Peyton could imagine that stupid cowboy lifting his hands with a What can I say? shrug.
“I’ll just read between the lines then,” Pete said easily. “Thanks for that. How’s the Three Trees colt turning out?”
As the men moved into easier conversation about horse training and then something about pie, Peyton fumed. That rat bastard. She’d known of Red for several years. Everyone knew of him. His training skills had become a valuable commodity in the tri-state area. They’d met more than once at events, shows, auctions. And she’d always thought his smugness, his arrogance, was highly inflated. But it took balls to shoot down someone’s business like that.
How dare he insinuate that she didn’t have what it takes? Okay, he hadn’t said it outright. But he’d all but implied it with his silence.
And everyone listened to Red. Anyone who wanted to be right, that is.
Peyton hooked her boot heels on the lowest shelf and stretched high for the small bucket of supplements just out of reach. Damn it, she just wanted to pay for her purchase and leave. Midday, nobody from the feed store was going to be around to help her reach, and she’d rather be stampeded than walk around the aisle and ask for either man’s help. She hated being short. In boot heels, five-foot-three didn’t mean much. But she’d get the darn supplements by herself. She scooted the cart over and used the bottom rung for her second boot, giving her the extra few inches she needed. Her fingers grasped the edge of the container and she stepped back down as silently as possible, placing it in her cart.
“I’ll pass along what you said about the Muldoons, Red. Thanks again for the warning.”
No! She bit back the urge to scream, to run between the aisles and stall him, convince him she wasn’t just some idiot on a lark, that she knew what she was doing with her ranch, her business. But verbally attacking the man in the middle of the store wasn’t going to win her any points in the sanity column.
Peyton swiveled her head to look between the aisles of food, desperately wanting to see if Red and Pete were alone. Please, God, at least let them be the only two over there having this conversation. M-Star couldn’t afford any more bumps in the road right now.
From what she could tell, they were blessedly alone. Thank you, God.
But now she was stuck. Peyton stared at the supplement label at eye level, unseeing, wondering how she should handle this. Walk toward the register and hope they didn’t notice her? Or go greet the two men and act as if she hadn’t heard a word?
Or confront the rat bastards and call them out…
Though the last idea had merits—most of them personal—causing a scene of any size wouldn’t do a damn thing to help the ranch.
She traced the lid of one bottle, giving herself another few breaths before going with her gut.
“Earth to Peyton Muldoon,” a wry voice said from behind.
Her body froze, air caught in her throat. Nothing could be worse than being caught off guard by that one man. While she’d been debating how to make her getaway, he’d wandered over into her aisle. Her body jerked and she turned her head to look at the momentary bane of her existence.
Red Callahan. Horse-trainer extraordinaire. And right now, first-class pain in the ass. She opened her mouth to give him the chewing out of a lifetime, but the moment was ruined when she knocked the bottle of supplements off the shelf and fumbled to catch them on the way down.
Hell had to be just like this.
Pete Daugherty rounded the corner and caught sight of her and Red standing together next to her shopping cart. “Peyton. How are ya?”
She studied his face a moment, looking for any sign of guilt or shame at having just talked about her. But nothing showed. Typical. “I’m fine, Mr. Daugherty.”
Red reached for the bottle of supplements she’d knocked off the shelf. “I’ll put that back for you.”
Peyton batted his hand away. “I don’t need your brand of help, Red. Nobody does.”
He just chuckled and stuck his hands in the pockets of his well-worn jeans. No flashy denim outfits or studded cowboy boots for him. At least the man didn’t dress as pretentious as he acted. “Suit yourself.”
She settled the bottle back on the shelf and gripped her cart handle, resisting the urge to rub the ache forming just under her breastbone. She’d survive.
Her pride, however…
Pete nodded, then glanced between her and Red. With a shrug of his shoulders, he wandered off. Probably to gossip about what a fool Peyton was, and how thankful he’d been to receive the warning from Red before he’d gotten stuck with her.
Red’s hand wrapped around her bicep, and she jerked away. “Don’t touch me.”
The corners of his mouth twitched, like he was holding back a smile. The bastard. But then his eyes narrowed, and the corners crinkled from years of being in the sun. It was kind of nice, really. Showed the difference between a real cowboy and a man trying to fake it with fancy boots.
“Sure you didn’t bust your head with that bottle when you knocked it down?”
What a gentleman. Be still her heart. “No. I mean yes, I’m sure I didn’t bust anything.”
“Except your pride, right?” he asked, tongue in cheek.
She didn’t answer, mostly because he was right. Didn’t need her to confirm it.
He stuck his hands in his pockets again and rocked back on his heels. Another shopper started down the aisle. After a long assessing gaze that traveled down her body and back up again—and left her feeling strangely naked—he inclined his head. “Should probably move on and stop blocking the way so other people can shop.”
“Right. Yeah.” Much as it pained her to take direction from him, she pushed the cart down the aisle, wincing slightly at the rusty shriek of the left front wheel. When she wanted to turn toward the register, the wheel locked up and she almost tumbled over the handle.
Why was it God was intent on her making a fool of herself in front of Callahan today?
But he didn’t say a word, just used the heel of his boot to kick the side of the wheel and get it rolling again.
She could have done that. “I could have done that.”
“I know,” he said mildly. She had the distinct feeling he was trying not to laugh. And she felt like an idiot, again. If the earth could have open up a hole right there, she would have gladly jumped in it just to escape the amused grin on Red’s face right now.
The one thing she couldn’t afford was to look stupid. Not when she needed people to trust her with their horses, and sometimes their livelihood.
“You can go now.” She edged closer to the register and maneuvered around a display of planters as best she could with the oversized cart. “I’ve got it all under control.” The cart, anyway.
He put a hand on the side of her cart, stopping her progress. “This is where you say thank you.”
“I’m not going to thank someone who might as well have just put me out of business,” she snapped. And immediately wanted to bite her tongue.
“So you were listening in on a private conversation.” There was no censure in his voice, only that damn amusement. Like everything she said was funny to him, whether it was a joke or not. It made her feel small, and she hated him all the more for it.
“It’s not private if you’re talking in the middle of the damn feed store.” Peyton clipped a planter with the cart and sent it spinning, then caught it and settled it back on the stack, pressing on.
Of course, thanks to his long legs, Red caught up with her easily. “I don’t know what all you heard, but that’s not exactly what happened.”
“I heard enough, Callahan. So back off.” She reached the register and started piling things on the counter. Billy Curry, a high school kid who was known to work several jobs to help his folks out, started ringing up the items. He glanced between her and Red several times from lowered lashes.
“Everything okay, Ms. Muldoon?”
Peyton took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, thank you, Billy.” He didn’t deserve her temper, so she did her best to give him a smile. He flashed one back. “You still looking to pick up extra work over the summer?”
His eyes lit up. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Call me Peyton, please. Plan to come by the main house once school’s out. We can always use another strong man around the ranch.”
She watched in sly amusement as his scrawny chest puffed out a little. “Yes, ma’am—I mean, Peyton. Thank you.”
“No prob.” His eyes darted over her shoulder and back again rapidly, like he was watching for someone. Or something.
She smiled and added, “You should get a stool for people like me. Shorties. I almost bit it trying to reach the supplements on the top shelf.” When she loaded everything back in the cart, she turned. Only to find Red still standing there.
“Need a hand with those?”
She pushed around him, though it was hard with a cart loaded down and the wonky wheel fighting her with every move. Pride demanded she do it herself. “No. I think we’re done here.”
As she pushed the cart out the door, she could have sworn she heard him mutter, “Not likely.”
“Hey, Mr. Callahan. How are ya?”
“You get to call her Peyton, you get to call me Red.” Red smiled at the lanky teenager. “How are things?”
Billy shrugged his narrow shoulders and rang up the vitamins. “Okay, I guess.” His eyes grew huge. “Peyton said she might give me a job this summer.”
“Not if you don’t keep your grades up. I’d be willing to bet my favorite saddle she asks to see your grades before she lets you near her stables.” She would if she was smart about her business, anyway. And she was…to an extent.
His shoulders dropped a little. “I do okay.”
“Do better. You’re a smart kid. Study hard, and you’ll do fine.” He leaned in and dropped his voice. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I worked the counter at the feed store in my hometown, I used to bring my schoolwork in with me. During downtime, if all my work was done, the manager wouldn’t mind if I cracked a book and made the most of my spare minutes studying between customers.”
Billy nodded sagely, apparently appreciating the man-to-man advice. “I just get so tired by the time I get home that studying is hard.”
No kidding. Rumor in the small town had it the poor kid worked three part-time jobs to help out his family. Noble as it was, his efforts wouldn’t help him a damn in school. “I’m sure Mr. Monroe wouldn’t mind if you brought in your books from time to time. Long as the work’s done and there are no customers that need you.” He’d speak to the manager himself and make sure of it. Shouldn’t be an issue. Monroe was a good man and was very fond of the teenagers who worked in his store.
Red left feeling a little lighter than he had walking in. Between helping Billy, even just that small bit, and his verbal tussle with Peyton Muldoon, he was in a downright decent mood.
She was a feisty one, damn sure. Talked before thinking. Reacted at the drop of a hat. And pissier than a she-cat dropped in a cold bath half the time.
But he couldn’t help liking her all the more for it. Not to mention his respect for her efforts in bringing her family stud ranch up from the hole her mama—God rest her soul—had tried to drive it into. She was a fighter, that was sure.
Red tossed the bag in the passenger seat of his truck and watched the dust fly up. He could vacuum it out, sure. But why bother when it’d be right back to the same condition three days later. When your life was spent in a barn, your truck was gonna be a mess. No two ways about it. He patted old Bertha’s dash, watched more dust and dirt fly in the air, and drove out.
As he passed by the M-Star Ranch, Peyton’s place, on the way to Three Trees where he was currently training, he thought again about Peyton and the scene from the feed store.
Sure as shit, she’d overheard him discouraging Pete Daugherty from using her stud ranch and training services. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it, either. And he refused to feel guilty about it. Pete was constantly late on paying up for anything, if he ever did. A nice enough guy, sure. But when business was business, bills had to be paid. Sure, if Peyton went into an agreement with Pete and he didn’t pay, Peyton would keep his horse. But she didn’t need another mouth to feed. She needed steady, dependable business to build up her reputation.
Other cowboys, he knew, only wanted to take advantage of her when she was down and knocking on the door of desperation. In the end, Peyton didn’t need that kind of millstone hanging ‘round her neck. Not now, when she was trying so hard to get out of the debt her parents had left her.
Not that her efforts would do her any good, if she kept working at it the way she was. But that wasn’t his problem. That was Peyton’s bag of issues. Sad fact that she had to face it alone, and sadder still that the woman had serious skills with a horse that went unnoticed thanks to her gender. But sometimes life wasn’t fair.
Red pulled up to Three Trees thirty minutes later in his beat-up rig. He smiled as he heard the truck sigh, as if with relief, when he hopped down with the vitamins in hand. The vehicle was ancient, and ugly as sin. But it ran, and he had no need for anything nicer. His horse trailer, currently in the garage, was a tricked out piece of work. But that was a completely different story. A horse’s comforts were priority number one. He could drive anything, long as it ran well enough.
“Red. Took longer than I thought.”
He turned to see Chris Tanner striding his way. And the regret that he’d be leaving hit harder than he’d thought it would. Tucking his tongue in his cheek, he nodded. “Ran into a few folks at the store.” Nothing more needed to be said on that front.
“Well then. Ready to head over?” Tanner inclined his head toward one of the workout areas. “Boys have Fire all saddled up and ready to show off.”
“That’s the problem,” Red said mildly. “Y’all let Fire think he’s supposed to show off. Horse has a big head. He’s there to work. Do his job.”
“So you say. Repeatedly.”
“Because it’s true. You go back to that mindset, you go back to the problems.”
Tanner just shook his head and took the shortcut through the stable, boot heels clicking on the clean cement floor.
Red didn’t bother explaining it again, as he had countless times before. There was no use. The man would either follow through with the training, or he wouldn’t. Nothing Red could say would change it at this point. Once his paycheck was cut, his work was done. Crying shame though, how some people refused to accept the help they paid for. Waste. They hired him for the name, the prestige. The ones that used his knowledge walked away with a good deal. The ones who didn’t, well… The best he could say was it didn’t hurt him any. It was their problem if they refused to follow through.
He headed for the barn himself, taking his time, saying hello to each pretty lady that stuck her head over the stall door in greeting. He couldn’t hold back a chuckle as he reached the end of the line and Daffodil, his favorite Three Trees mare, nudged him extra hard.
“No treats today. Sorry sweetheart.” He would have sworn she rolled her eyes in feminine disappointment before he scratched between her ears. That brought a sigh of contentment. “Maybe later, girl.” With a final pat, he headed on toward Tanner, who was standing in front of the workout pen. And he watched in silence as the cowboy led Fire through a series of exercises meant to work both man and horse to the limit.
“Looks good. Right? Looking better every day. I’d say he’s just about fixed now. Damn fine horse.”
“Nothing was ever wrong with the horse. Just the humans working with him.” As usual. Ninety percent of his job was spent fixing human error, not equine.
“Yeah, well, now we’ve got it all ironed out.”
Red just nodded and stayed silent.
“He’s gonna be ready for the Premium Rodeo this summer. Right?”
“I think that’s a fair assessment. Long as you keep up the work we’ve started.” Red watched as Fire responded to the leg commands, shifting quickly around the obstacle course of barrels and cones, not touching a one.
All it took was knowing the horse wouldn’t listen to jerking on the reins to turn the entire situation around. That and a little common sense had Fire on the right track to be a damn fine rodeo horse.
Tanner had also asked Red to take over the stable’s training operations, set them up for a successful future. All a part of the Red Callahan experience. But now…
“Time for me to move on.”
Tanner’s moustache quivered. “What the hell you talkin’ bout? We’re just getting started. With Fire here ready to take some top titles, we’re only just beginning. What’s this movin’ on crap all about?”
“It was always temporary. Said that from the start. That’s why we never had the long-term contract. We agreed going in that when I thought it was time, I’d head out. And I gave you the warning three weeks ago.” Red leaned back against the rails, hooked one heel over the bottom rung. Every time, they went through this. Same conversation, different owner. “Plus, you have a fulltime trainer. I was only ever here for the temporary fixes.”
“Three weeks ago? Hell, I didn’t know you were serious. Thought you enjoyed it enough to stay. I’ll make it worth your while.” Clint fingered the tip of his moustache, a gesture Red knew meant the man was thinking too hard. “I’ll double what I’m paying ya. Hell, with your already-inflated rates, that’s a goldmine for a trainer!”
Red didn’t bother to say he’d been offered five times as much in the past. Never mattered. “Sorry, Tanner. I think you’ve got something good going on here. It’s time for me to move on.”
Tanner turned his head and spat in the other direction. “You move around too damn much. Don’t you ever get tired of not having a spread that’s home?”
Red unwound himself from the gate and started back through the barn, ready to collect his things. “Nope. Suits me just fine.”
The transient lifestyle was how he’d been raised. No mom. If it wasn’t written on his birth certificate, he wouldn’t have even known her name. Just followed his father—a rodeo groupie to the core—around from state to state. Never settled down for any length of time. Always had to be ready to pick up and move when the rodeo dried up. Or slip out in the middle of the night because one of his father’s infamous cons had blown up in his face. Again.
This lifestyle was his choice. He never took a permanent training position. He was a one-and-done guy. Moving from ranch to ranch, fixing problem horses or helping establish a more effective training regimen. Then moving on when things were back in order.
Finding his saddle and tack, he started to load up his trailer. Though he didn’t have a horse of his own—easier to pick up and move that way—he had his own equipment. Too important not to keep his own.
Always set on moving forward, his mind was busy thinking of where to go next. With a few phone calls and well-placed feelers, word would escape that he was back on the market, so to speak. And the offers would once again trickle in. He’d weigh each job, each location, the pay and the opportunities for growth. Didn’t matter what state it was in. He had no stakes holding him down.
He headed out, turning east from Tanner’s spread. No real reason why. Just sounded good. He’d find a decent motel and hole up for a few days while he figured out a new plan. No hurry. He had enough cash to last him a good long while. He wasn’t in a rush to find a new job. Just the right one. In the end, it came down to a gut feeling. Always the gut.
And why, just at that moment, did Peyton Muldoon’s ornery face, with those eyes blazing, slide into his mind? He’d said the right job. Not the absolute, no way in hell, don’t even think about it, cowboy, job. The woman had trouble written all over her…at least where he was looking.
And he shouldn’t be looking at all. That was the problem.
He resolutely kept the truck pointed east, away from the Muldoon spread. He’d head a few towns over before stopping, just to make sure he didn’t wander across Peyton’s path on not-so-accident.
Trouble was one thing he had no need of.