Chapter One

 

 

“DAMN it, Josh. Are you training that horse or dancing with him? You know Hanson will be running his mouth all over the valley about your lack of skill if it bests you.”

My brother’s taunts flew like the dust the mustang was kicking up. Problem was, Jesse sat high on the fence while I stood down in the mess in the corral.

The gelding ran from me the minute I stepped into the enclosure, and it didn’t help that I missed the first time I tried to throw a rope around his neck. Now he was at the far end with his butt facing me. Not the end a trainer wants to see.

“I told you, you were a moron to buy this animal,” Jesse continued. “There’s no way Hanson will take him back.”

I didn’t care about the money. I didn’t want to fail this horse. He was beautiful. About two years old, all black, with a thick mane and tail. Perfect head and chest, strong legs, on the tall side, which suited me. Proud, courageous, and totally wild. I had to figure a way to start him.

Damn that jackass Ray Hanson. Normally, I don’t swear—my mom didn’t like it. But what else are you going to call a man who tries to train a smart horse the dumb way?

Ray had invited me over to watch him start the mustang. He’s always wanted folks to think he’s better than me with horses. He’s got some strengths of his own. Me? I just understand horses. I can’t explain it. Maybe I got it from my dad. Folks have told me he was the best.

I’d wanted to work with a wild mustang all my life, so I went to Hanson’s place when he called. Right off, it was bad. The horse was real smart. But bad things had been done to him in the short time he’d been around humans.

Hanson did more when he put the halter on. Walked right up to the animal, put a chokehold on his neck, and had his foreman force the halter on. It was violent and ugly, and the horse’s eyes turned dark and hard. Hanson was in real danger of taking everything gorgeous out of that animal and breaking his spirit for good.

Soon the man was in danger period. The gelding’s ears went flat against his neck, and he struck at Hanson with both front legs. Then he ran. When he couldn’t escape, he let his back hooves fly to keep Hanson away. Hanson got mad and called for his rifle, and that’s when I bought him.

Before the next morning, Hanson had told everybody at Cunningham’s Bar and Grill how he’d planned all along to sell me an unbreakable horse at a profit. Now I had to make progress or I’d be hearing about how Hanson had bested me from every cowboy in the valley, especially my brother. Sometimes Jesse played his older brother card too hard. Yeah, he had five years on me. But I was twenty-five now, and I didn’t see five years as any big age difference anymore. I’d graduated college, and I was a respected horse breeder and trainer. It was time Jesse noticed.

I picked up the tail of my halter rope and tossed the rope toward the mustang’s hindquarters. It fell harmlessly to the ground, which is what I wanted. But the horse ignored it, which I didn’t want.

I pulled the halter rope in and threw it again and again for nearly half an hour. I needed to turn his front quarters toward me. Finally, as I pulled it toward me once more, the gelding turned his head to look at me. He studied me a long time, making a decision.

Sweat rolled down my neck and pooled on my lower back. I took a slow, controlled breath and waited. His ears twitched and his nostrils flared, like he was catching my scent. He took a step toward me and licked his lips.

It was the reaction I was looking for. Carefully, I closed the distance between us, keeping myself in his line of sight. The mustang flicked his ears and bowed his neck, wanting to leave but unsure he needed to. I stopped, letting him make the decision to stay. He didn’t, but I started my approach again. He still distrusted me, and I paused again, and then we continued the dance until I was beside him.

I lifted my hand in the air as if to stroke his neck, but I didn’t touch him, and we repeated that until, at last, he accepted my caress. Murmuring softly, I apologized to him for all the errors others had made.

“That’s it. Feels good, doesn’t it?” I whispered low, making him strain to hear me as I stroked him. “You’re in a better place now. You realize that, don’t you, Hurricane? That’s what I’m naming you, okay? Because you kick up such a fuss. We’re going to have a good time together.”

Next, I rubbed his withers and shoulders, firm enough so he knew he didn’t need to be afraid of my touch. Hurricane took the halter, then began to respond to the pressure of the rope. If my luck held out, he’d be taking a saddle in no time.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jesse said. “I didn’t believe you could do even that with that animal. Good work, Josh.”

“Quite a show,” a voice called from the driveway.

A stranger was coming toward us, moving like he hadn’t walked in days. Judging by the dust on the black Silverado behind him, maybe he hadn’t. His hair was a little on the long side for southwestern Montana, and he was maybe four inches taller than me. He wore jeans and combat boots, and he had muscles everywhere, bulging along his arms and legs and all controlled tight and held ready under his camo T-shirt.

He nodded at me, then stared at Jesse. My brother had turned around to look at him, but now he jumped off the fence and ran at him. He stopped short in front of him, looking him over, then hugged him hard.

“Took you long enough to get here.”

The stranger let go in Jesse’s arms, like a balloon you let all the air out of. Then he sucked it all back in quick. Pulling himself together, he stepped back and looked my brother over, not saying a word. The two of them were nearly the same size, except the stranger had more muscle. And he had dark hair, while my brother’s was short and blond like mine.

“Damn, Dane, it’s good to see you,” Jesse said. His grin was huge when he turned to me. “Josh, this is my old Ranger buddy, Dane Keller.”

“Good to meet you,” I called out in a low voice, still rubbing and monitoring Hurricane. “Let me finish with my horse.”

“We made good progress, Hurricane.” I gave him one last rub and turned away, keeping him in my peripheral vision as I made my way to the gate. Hurricane’s ears and eyes focused on my leaving, and it was satisfying to watch.

Now I could turn my attention to the stranger. He gripped my hand when we shook, in the way of men used to commanding attention and others.

“Good to meet you, little brother. That was some work with the horse.”

Even when giving the compliment, Dane’s voice was deep and controlled, like he was used to controlling everything all the time. His gray eyes never wavered as he studied my face, and that and his grip and his voice made my stomach flip. God, I wanted him to touch me all over.

“How long were you watching?”

“Long enough to know you knew what you were doing.”

“Thanks. I—”

“Dane,” Jesse interrupted. “Come on up to the house. You look like you could use a beer. How long can you stay?”

Slapping Dane’s shoulder, Jesse turned him toward his house. “Come on along, Josh,” he added.

“Give me a few minutes,” I said to his back. “Aunt Kate wanted to talk to me before the guest cookout.” Brooks Ranch was a working cattle and horse ranch that took guests in summer. It had been that way for a hundred years.

“Good. You can make us some dinner then,” he replied.

 

 

ABOUT twenty minutes later, I found them drinking on Jesse’s deck. The sun was slipping behind the Gallatin Range on the west side of the valley, throwing pink highlights across the Absaroka Mountains behind the ranch. The light made the alfalfa and pines and cottonwoods glow so the whole valley really looked like its name implied: Paradise. It was my favorite time of day, and I couldn’t imagine a better place in the world to be, ever.

Dane and Jesse had served together in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jesse said Dane saved his life a couple of times, and when Dane stayed in the Army, they stayed in touch.

“I didn’t re-up, Jesse,” Dane said as I stepped onto the deck. Dane took a long drink from his beer, and Jesse studied him hard.

“Good,” my brother said. “What you going to do?”

Dane stared at his beer can for a bit, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Got all my gear in the truck. Left Bragg a couple days ago, and here I am.” He tried to grin, but it wasn’t working. It was like his muscles had forgotten how.

“Good,” Jesse said again. “You rest up a couple days. Uncle Karl can put you to work, and you can stay with me. We can get some fishing in.”

“Still got a plan for everything, hey?” Dane said, shaking his head.

I had to laugh at that, and they both noticed I was there. Dane looked at me, and this time he almost smiled. It sent a thrill through me.

“You do know my brother.”

“That’s right,” Jesse said. “You two make fun. But I do have a plan, and the next part involves you making a decent welcome home dinner, Josh, while we bring in Dane’s gear.”

“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” I saluted. Jesse whipped me the finger, and they headed toward the Silverado.

I am a pretty good cook. Started helping my mom when I was little, then helped cook for guests after our parents died and Uncle Karl and Aunt Kate took us in.

Tonight I wanted to make something really good to impress Dane. But I couldn’t take a lot of time. I settled for homemade meatballs and a doctored-up jar of spaghetti sauce, plus salad and my own version of garlic bread using store-bought bread. It all smelled pretty good when I took it out to the deck.

As usual, Jesse ate fast. Dane seemed to be enjoying every bite. I liked that.

“I haven’t had a meal like this in forever, Josh,” he said, looking me in the face as he wiped at his mouth with a napkin. “Thank you.”

Later that night, lying in bed at my cabin, I thought about that compliment and the look in Dane’s eyes. Was he gay? If I let myself, I could want him bad, just like I wanted to train the horse.

I sighed and folded my hands behind my head. No use getting my hopes up. Even if he was interested, how could I do anything about it when no one knew the truth about me?