“I’m telling you, we’re missing horses,” Hugh told his boss. “Not a lot, but last week I had Tim count again because we were one short, and this week we lost another one.”
Hugh and Hunter were riding fences. On a large ranch like Hunter’s, this was a job that took most of the day, especially when they needed to dismount from time to time to check something out or to make small repairs. Usually this job was done by two of the workmen, but because of Hugh’s concerns, the foreman had invited his boss to ride with him on this crisp spring morning.
Both men were tall and muscled and had practically been born in the saddle. Hugh was the oldest son of a ranch foreman who had worked for Hunter’s father and, later, for Hunter. Now that his dad had retired, Hugh was Hunter’s foreman. He had a younger brother Tim working with him, and a middle brother Jack, who specialized in horse dentistry. They lived and breathed horses.
Hunter had been born into the ranch as well. His father had been a rancher who had bought up most of the surrounding ranches during a recession—including the one Hugh’s father had owned—and who had done rather well for himself until his untimely death. Hunter had only been fourteen at the time, and if it hadn’t been for Hugh’s father, he wouldn’t have kept the ranch afloat. Now Hugh was married to Hunter’s older sister, Lisa, so he was practically family. Hunter was an even better businessman than his father, with more horses than ever being born inside the large perimeter of the Blue River Ranch and sold at auction or to other ranches all over the US. He worked hard and enjoyed getting his hands dirty in between all the paperwork and negotiating his job required.
Despite Hunter’s concern over the missing horses, a day like today, when he could spend it on horseback, was a treat. Sometimes he wished he could just work the ranch and not have to deal with everything else that came with running a successful business. Today felt like a holiday, something that was rare in Hunter’s world. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been away from the ranch for anything other than a rancher’s convention or an out-of-town auction. Then again, he really didn’t mind. Even on those occasions when he needed to travel, he always felt homesick from the moment he crossed the county line. This was his land, and if he had anything to say about it, he would be buried on it, just like his father. He hoped it would be after a long and full life—not like his dad, who’d been cut down in his prime—but nevertheless, he did not see himself ever moving away from it.
“So are you saying someone is stealing our horses, or are you thinking we have a predator on our hands?” Hunter asked his foreman after a long silence. He had his own idea about the matter, but Hugh didn’t spend all his time with his nose in paperwork, so Hunter valued his opinion.
“I’m thinking cougar or mountain lion, possibly with cubs and definitely hungry,” Hugh answered calmly. “Only thing we haven’t found so far is a carcass. Which would point to a horse thief, but then, if I were him, I’d steal horses that were already trained, not one-year-old colts.”
Hunter sighed. They didn’t need this. They’d only moved the horses to the higher meadows two weeks ago so they’d get the fresh grass that had been growing all winter. Among them were pregnant mares that would foal later in the year. For now, they were still quick enough to get away from any predator, but if Hugh was right, they wouldn’t get the good grass they needed to nourish their offspring in the later stages of pregnancy because they’d have to be moved closer to the house, where predators were less likely to strike. Hunter didn’t like this one bit. Then again, he hated losing horses, and not just because it meant less income.
Hunter was still deep in thought when he saw Hugh direct his horse toward a natural incline, where he jumped off.
“I think we’ve got an inquisitive mountain lion on our hands,” Hugh said gruffly. “Let’s hope she’s just here to feed her babies until her usual prey recuperate from the harsh winter, because if she’s been forced out of her habitat for some reason, we’re in trouble.”
“Are you sure?” Hunter asked from atop his horse.
Hugh was crouching down near a muddy patch on the small hill. “Oh yes, a puma’s been standing here, surveying her surroundings. Unless we find the carcass of a horse nearby, we can’t be sure she killed as well, but she’s definitely been here since the rain, which means within the last two days.”
Hunter unconsciously felt for the rifle in his saddlebag. The last thing he wanted was for mama puma to come out of hiding and make a tasty treat out of his foreman. Although mountain lions were notoriously wary of people, this one seemed to be more brazen than most, and it was hard to tell what a desperate puma would do for food.
“Did Tim say which horses we lost?” Hunter asked.
Hugh got up from his crouching position and nodded. “We’re not sure about this week’s, but last week was a late foal from October.”
“Damn!” Hunter cursed. He’d have to make a decision soon. He couldn’t afford to lose new foals. They were the ranch’s source of income, and every one they lost would show up in the books. He had no choice. They’d have to move the herd away from the outer fields again.
“Do we have enough wranglers to move the herd back down?” Hunter wondered aloud.
Hugh climbed back in the saddle. “In a word, no. We got one drifter walking in after we put out the feelers, and I put him to work in the stables. He’s not a bad worker, but I doubt he’s much of a wrangler. Haven’t seen him ride a horse yet, although according to Tim, he’s okay handling them. I suppose if we really needed him, we could give him a try, but that still leaves us two hands short. If you ask me, I’d move the herd in smaller groups, like we did to bring them up here. That way we should be able to handle them. Don’t suppose Gable’s made a miraculous recovery? We could use his help.”
Hunter sighed. “With the state of his leg after that injury he sustained last year, if anything, Gable will need our help from now on. Although, I think he found himself a ranch hand.” Hunter wanted to ask Hugh how his neighbor, running his ranch single-handedly and in dire straits, had found capable help when they could afford to hire staff but couldn’t find any. He didn’t, though. Gable had a hard enough time staying afloat, so Hunter didn’t begrudge him finding someone to lend a hand.
They trotted along, talking about the goings-on at the ranch while keeping their eyes peeled for anything unusual along the way. It had started to drizzle, and Hunter pulled the collar on his oilskin duster tighter, closing the zipper some more in an attempt to stay dry. He knew it would be futile, but he did it anyway. After a while, both men needed to dismount when they noticed a breach in a stretch of barbed wire. It was easily mended with an extra length and a pair of wire cutters, but Hugh pointed at the flattened high grass beyond the fence. They tied up their horses, and Hunter took out his rifle again before crossing the fence. They took their time, looking at the tracks in the mud and the broken-off bushes here and there, but found no evidence of the missing horses.
The rain started to pick up, so the men packed up to return to the homestead. From where they’d left their horses, they could see the mares with last year’s young, grazing. With a hungry predator around, Hunter knew they couldn’t leave them there for much longer.
“You mean there’s a puma eating our horses?” Danny asked eagerly as he scarfed down the mashed potatoes, peas, and roast beef they were having for dinner.
“Do we have to talk about this over dinner?” Lisa, his mother, admonished.
“He’s going to find out anyway, Lise,” Hunter told his sister. “It’s nature’s way. The sooner he finds out about it, the better.” He turned to the nine-year-old. “You can help move the herd on Saturday, bring them to safety.”
“And that’s the last I want to hear about it over the dinner table,” Lisa cautioned. “We don’t eat horse meat, and we don’t talk about anything else eating it at this table.”
Danny chuckled but stopped as soon as he saw his grandmother, who was clearly of the same opinion as his mother, giving him a stern look.
Even Hunter’s face turned serious. Although he loved his mother dearly, she was a woman you didn’t trifle with.
“So you’re moving the herd back down?” Beth Krause asked her son.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hunter answered. “We can’t afford to lose more colts to that puma or anything else that feels we’ve got plenty, and although it’s really great grass on those high pastures, we can’t keep round-the-clock surveillance to prevent them from becoming a moveable feast for predators. We barely have enough manpower to bring them down again.”
“Well, you’re not taking Danny if there’s a big cat on the loose up there,” Lisa added.
“Mom!” Danny protested.
“Come on, sis,” Hunter pleaded. “He’s big enough to ride more than a pony now, so if anything happens, he can get away. He’s been riding Belle down here on the grounds, and you know how beautifully she handles. She’s one we got from Gable, so she can be trusted, even carrying a shrimp like Danny.” He ruffled Danny’s dark, curly hair and winked at him to make his words sound less harsh. “You know we’re shorthanded, and he can work the fences. There’ll always be someone around to help out, and Hugh and I will take good care of him. Right, Hugh?”
Hunter looked at Hugh across the table. The foreman had been quiet until now, like he always was around his wife and mother-in-law. There wasn’t much point in protesting if you couldn’t win, so he simply shrugged.
“We’ll see,” Lisa compromised, silently asking for Hunter’s plate to give him seconds.
Saturday morning started off early with saddling the horses at dawn. The drizzle that had kept everything pretty much wet for the last few days had ceased, and the sun looked bright as it crept over the horizon.
“Great day to move some horses,” Hunter said aloud as he entered the row of stables toward the one that held Davenport, a temperamental gelding that had lost none of his spunk after being neutered. Hunter loved to ride him. It was a battle of wills, and Hugh always shook his head and laughed when he saw what Hunter put up with when it came to that horse.
“He’s almost ready,” an unfamiliar voice said from behind the brown steed.
Hunter patted Davenport’s neck as he rounded him. “And who are… Grant? What are you doing here?”
The tall and strikingly handsome cowboy turned toward Hunter. “Hugh hired me last night. I heard you were a few hands short, and I was in the neighborhood, so I figured I could help out.”
“Hugh hired you?”
Hunter didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he paced determinedly in the direction of where he thought Hugh would be: saddling his own horse.
“What the fuck made you hire Grant Jarreau?” Hunter shouted, not bothering to check whether there was anyone else present in the stable.
Hugh, always calm and collected, put his horse’s foot down and straightened his back. “We’ve been looking for help for over a year, and all we found was a halfway decent stable boy. Grant arrived here last night looking for a job, so I hired him.”
“And how long is he staying for?” Hunter asked, trying to keep his anger from boiling over.
Hugh shrugged. “Like any other horse wrangler. Until he’s found someplace better to work, which around here isn’t likely to happen. So I guess until he’s ready to move on.”
“He’ll leave in the dead of night, like after Gable’s accident. For all we know, he caused it and left Gable for dead. I don’t trust him to cover my back, Hugh.”
Hugh calmly looked at Hunter. “All I know is that he’s a damn fine wrangler and not too proud to get his hands dirty. He’s like us, Hunter. He’s welded to his horse, knows their language, and can get them to do just about anything. And on top of that, he doesn’t mind mucking out stables or saddling horses for other riders. If he leaves, he leaves. In the meantime, we have had a good worker to carry part of the load. If he doesn’t come around on Friday evening for his paycheck, I’ll have a drink on him.” A shy smile played around Hugh’s mouth. “Besides, even Davenport doesn’t dare to give him attitude. That was his test. I let him groom your horse last night, and the big shit didn’t even flinch. I figured if Grant was good enough for the prince, he would be good enough for you.”
Hunter eyed Hugh suspiciously and then conceded. “Fine! But I don’t need to like him. He’s trouble and he’ll prove me right one day. I can’t forget what he did to Gable and therefore to us. We had fifty extra horses to take care of because of him.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hugh replied with a smile. “You never mind helping Gable out, so it wasn’t such a big burden, right?”
Hunter narrowed his eyes at Hugh and then paced out of the stable without saying another word. He slowed his pace as soon as he came near his own horse. Grant was standing with his back toward him, bent over and apparently checking something on Davenport’s hoof. Hunter’s eyes traveled from the long, narrow back to where a red plaid shirt was tucked into a pair of fitted, slightly worn jeans that showed off a nicely curved ass, and Hunter felt all his blood rush south. He closed his eyes and swerved into the stable to prevent himself from bumping into Grant.
He couldn’t do this, couldn’t have these feelings. Not right now, and certainly not about Grant. He took a few cleansing breaths and willed himself to calm down. The thoughts would go away. They always did. He’d go out on the town tonight and get laid. He was popular enough and always got plenty of attention, so even if all else failed, he could count on Miranda forgetting he had turned her down so many times before, and she’d sleep with him. Take the edge off. She was good at that.
One more deep breath and Hunter was ready to step outside. He didn’t look at Grant this time, although he was aware that Grant had stepped away from the horse. Instead, he took Davenport’s reins and mounted him, turning the nervous horse around once. “Grant, you can ride Raven. You should remember him, since I bought him from Gable. I’ll meet you, Danny, and Hugh at the first gate.” And with that, he sped off.
Now that Hunter was concentrating on keeping his eager gelding in check, he slowly calmed down. This he could do. He could work hard all day, spend time in the open air, move some horses, stay alert to any trouble that was brewing in the herd, and do all this with men who were practically family to him. It would all run smoothly, even with Grant there. Hunter knew Hugh was right. Grant was a good worker and he knew what he was doing. Hunter would set his objections aside and work with him like he worked with all the other wranglers. It didn’t matter that he suspected Grant was gay. The other guys didn’t know, and Grant had always been discreet, so it wouldn’t make a difference.
Hunter shook his head and focused on watching where he was going. Davenport wasn’t always to be trusted when he was this eager to run, and Hunter had been thrown off more than once when his horse had decided to jump a fence or a hedge. He pulled the reins and made the gelding stop just before the first gate. He turned the horse around and saw the others trot leisurely over toward him: Hugh and his brother Tim, with little Danny in between them and Grant beside them on the dark horse Hunter had told him to ride. Even from this distance he could see how well Grant sat in the saddle. He almost had a regal seat, aided not only by his clear confidence but also by his tall physique, long, lean back, and broad shoulders. Hunter turned his horse around to force himself to stop looking at the new wrangler. Instead, he opened the gate and entered the lower range.
The mustering went smoothly, with the four experienced riders rounding up the horses and little Danny opening and closing gates. Danny was also putting in some extra effort, running behind the occasional spooked foal and unruly young horse, just so he could prove he was worth his keep. The mare he was riding did a good job protecting her young jockey, which wasn’t something that surprised Hunter, since that was the reason he’d bought her off Gable two years earlier. Hunter’s father had bought Hunter his first full-grown horse for his seventh birthday, so when Danny, Hunter’s godson, turned that age, Hunter had to buy him one too. Although at the time the horse had been a bit big for the seven-year-old, now that Danny was older, Belle proved an excellent choice for the young rider.
After the work was done and Hunter was assured that the herd was safe in the lower fields, the men dismounted and started rubbing down their horses. Although the ranch employed stable boys who were quite capable of grooming the horses and unsaddling them, the general rule was that if they had the time, every wrangler took care of his own mount.
With Hugh and Tim helping out Danny, Hunter was left on the other side of the stable block with Grant. Hunter brushed by Grant as he took Davenport’s saddle off.
“So does this mean I can stay?” Grant asked, smiling.
Hunter looked at him briefly, then walked on. When he returned, Grant was still waiting for an answer.
“You’re a good wrangler,” Hunter answered flatly. “And we’re shorthanded, so I’m not about to throw you out, but just realize that I don’t trust you. I won’t forget what you did to Gable.” With that, Hunter turned around and started brushing down Davenport.
Grant moved into his field of vision. “You don’t know the full story.”
Hunter sighed and avoided looking Grant in the eye. “All I know is that the day he got hurt, you disappeared. If there had been anything missing from Gable’s house, the sheriff would have put you on the wanted list, but there wasn’t. The rumors were there, though.” Hunter didn’t elaborate and Grant didn’t offer an explanation.
After what seemed like a long time, during which both men silently worked on their horses, Grant spoke again. “I wouldn’t trust rumors. Have you ever bothered asking Gable?”
Hunter didn’t give an answer, and Grant didn’t wait around for one. The tone had been set.