Home > Hope on the Range(7)

Hope on the Range(7)
Author: Cindi Madsen

   If he had his Ducati, Maddox would seriously consider joining the runaway horse. His motorcycle was more home than any house would ever be and had come in handy whenever he ended up in a mess he couldn’t talk his way out of. But once the shit hit the fan, of course he hadn’t been allowed to bring his bike with him.

   All because timing was a bitch—story of his life, really.

   * * *

   In a handful of seconds, Harlow managed to unlatch the gate. She nudged Maximus out the opening, wishing for her rope. Without it, she’d have to stick to herding.

   “See that stallion?” she asked her horse, who loved the thrill of the chase as much as she did. “Let’s help Wade catch him.”

   The young stallion had been sent to the ranch in hopes that Aiden, the Dawsons’ resident horse whisperer, could calm him down and train him. Harlow hadn’t heard whether Aiden had had any success, but judging from the way the horse zigzagged and evaded people, she’d go with not so much.

   Since Wade was closing in on the horse’s left flank, Harlow bolted right, the blood in her veins pumping hot. As soon as she reached the stallion, he veered in the other direction.

   Last second, the stallion seemed to realize his mistake, but since this was far from Wade’s first rodeo, it was too late. The lasso had been thrown, and the loop slipped over the horse’s head. Wade gently secured the rope, and Harlow trotted alongside to help the process go smoother.

   “I’ve got it from here,” Wade said once they were within a couple of yards of the stables. “Thanks for your help, though. I was starting to worry he’d make it to the main road before I could catch him.”

   “Happy to help.” Harlow pulled Maximus to a stop, had him complete a one-eighty, and urged him toward the corral.

   In the distance, the ranch’s giant van turned into the driveway. Harlow squinted in the vehicle’s direction and then leaned down to pat Maximus’s muscled neck and tell him what a good job he’d done. “Who’s a good boy? That’s you, isn’t it?”

   Maximus preened, and Harlow slowed him to a trot.

   The boy who’d spoken to her with a hint of condescension before morphing into full-on ridicule with his barrel-racing question stood in the same spot as earlier. He screamed trouble, his leather jacket, piercings, and devil-may-care attitude broadcasting how tough he thought he was.

   Ooh, I’m so cool. I don’t care about anything or anyone.

   Several of her classmates went crazy for that type, but she had far too much common sense to let herself be affected, no matter how hot the guy was.

   Even if said guy had dark hair, an olive complexion, and thick, expressive eyebrows. Tattoos crept out the sleeve of his jacket and covered the back of his hand. His jeans were torn, and he hadn’t even fully laced the combat boots on his feet, as if he’d gotten halfway through securing them and a more pressing matter snagged his attention.

   His eyes met hers, and she fought against the urge to look away. She hadn’t been ogling him. She’d merely been…cataloging his features. Yeah. That was it.

   While Harlow told herself to pass on by, her mouth had other plans. “Looks like my skills came in pretty darn handy with that runaway stallion. Oh, and since you’re gonna be around horses while you’re here, you might want to work on not bein’ scared of ’em.”

   He opened his mouth as if to reply, but then snapped it shut and shook his head. The sun glinted off the silver bar that ran through his upper ear and the hoop in his lobe.

   A zing of victory sang through her. “What? You can dish it out, but you can’t take it? That figures.”

   The line of his jaw tightened. “You just seem like the crying type, and I’m in enough trouble as it is.”

   The van pulled up to the main cabin, and while Harlow would never admit it, she was glad, because she didn’t have a clever comeback. And she was kinda sorta the crying type. But she was working on becoming tougher.

   Stupid jerk. He thinks he can take one look at me and figure out who I am. Well, he’s wrong. Right then and there, she vowed never to let him see her cry.

   As soon as the van doors slid open, the three-year-old twins Harlow often babysat came running toward her. Their mom, Liza Reynolds, called after them to be careful, and they continued to sprint as fast as their chubby little legs would take them, nearly tripping on the way.

   “Harlow! Were you riding Maximus real fast?” Everett was the chatty, opinionated one, and Elise usually took a minute or two to warm up. Her biggest frustration in life was not quite being able to keep up with her brother.

   Harlow dismounted and draped the reins over the saddle horn so Maximus could munch on grass while she said hello to the twins. Elise reached for her, and Harlow picked her up and slung her up on her hip. “Hey, Princess.”

   Everett stuck his lips out in a pout. “I came over first.”

   “No matter,” Harlow said. “I have two arms.” She scooped him up and plopped him on the other hip. Now that they were getting bigger, it was more of a challenge to balance them both, but she could manage.

   Liza came over, her stern mom expression in place as she glanced from Elise to Everett. “Okay, you two, Harlow can only play for a few minutes. She’s here to train, not to play with you. Remember how we talked about that?”

   “Just a few minutes, but they’ll be good ones,” Harlow said. She boosted Everett a bit higher on her hip. “I needed a minibreak after all the excitement anyway.” She relayed the story about how the horses had gotten loose and spotted Brady, Wade, and Jessica walking in their direction, so all the horses had to be secured and accounted for.

   “I’m gonna consider this my weight training.” Harlow spun in a circle, and the twins clung to her and giggled. Bonus, that made it easier to avoid Mr. Too Cool for School’s stare.

   “Wow, is there a family meeting or something?” Chloe asked as she and Aiden walked into the yard hand in hand. Like most teens, Chloe had arrived pissed off at the world and at Jessica, who’d originally taken the cooking position to pay her daughter’s way. Now they were both permanent members of the ranch and the extended Dawson family, which tended to grow by the year. “Please tell me the boring part is over already.”

   Aiden covered his mouth with his free hand, trying to hide his laugh. The two of them were so cute that Harlow couldn’t help being a smidge jealous of their relationship.

   Who has time for relationships anyway?

   If her mama asked, Harlow’s priorities included preparing for the start of senior year. But honestly, every waking minute involved recalibrating her goals and expectations, thanks to her former roping partner.

   A pang went through her chest. After two solid months of work, Bianca had suddenly informed Harlow that she’d decided to be part of another team. Which meant saying goodbye to winning the All-Around Cowgirl title awarded to the most successful cowgirl in two or more events.

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