A long board-and-batten barn stood on the left. A second story at the other end was probably the apartment where I would live. A shed stuck out over a six-horse gooseneck trailer. On the far side stretched the biggest pasture I’d ever seen. Several horses grazed in its four-board confines. Somewhere beyond the barn, over on the other side of my apartment, was the cause of the dust. I couldn’t see the riding ring, but could just tell several people were trotting around in a circle, probably taking a lesson.
It wasn’t too late to turn around. The New York plates might be a giveaway, but maybe no one had noticed. To my right, another field rolled out of sight, this one fenced in wire, with—oh crap—cows. The drive continued another hundred yards up to an old farmhouse. The sun lowered itself behind the two-story, white home, casting shadows in my direction, but I could make out a man and a woman—Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm, I supposed—coming at me, chasing a cow. Have I mentioned I don’t like cows? Nothing personal, they don’t strike me as the most intelligent animals ever created.
Mr. Malcolm waved. That was it. I was made, stuck in Missouri for a year. And right in front of me came my first chance to show how helpful I could be. I shut down the hot engine. It wheezed with relief. When I stepped out, Noire bounced off the seat behind me. She’d never seen a cow, but I figured she could handle it.
A gate hung open in the cow field fence, so I assumed that’s where they wanted this big, black one. I could block the escape and shoo her in. Couldn’t be much different from corralling a loose horse.
Behind me, I heard voices and the sound of steel-shod feet on concrete—the horses being led in to the barn from the ring. With a glance over my shoulder, I counted five horses in need of a bath coming up the aisle and getting clipped onto crossties. Clipped right to their bits. Crap. A disaster waiting to detonate. Grime coated their sweaty necks and filled the crevices above their eyes.
“Hey,” yelled a big woman crammed into black jeans, a pink camouflage sports bra, and high-top sneakers, “the new girl’s here.”
The new girl? Guess that was me. I returned to the bovine situation.
Mr. Malcolm, a short, bow-legged guy swathed in denim, shook a stick at the cow to keep it moving, and Mrs. Malcolm, who was a freaking Amazon in a plaid skirt, shouted something I couldn’t hear. Jesus. Am I in the Midwest, or what? Noire barked at the cow, who considered, head lowered. I shouted my dog back and stepped toward the beast. She grunted, I lobbed a clod of dried horse manure at her, and she tossed her head up, thought better of whatever was passing through her pathetic little brain, then shuffled through the opening to join her herd mates. I shut the gate.
“Hope that’s where you wanted her,” I said as the Malcolms came up. On closer inspection, I saw the person I thought was Mrs. Malcolm was a man in a plaid skirt.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at me.
This was a bad start. I swallowed my sarcastic tone and said, “Helping?”
The little guy looked away quick to hide a smile. He had a face like a tattered linen shirt left too long balled up in the bottom of a drawer, but the grin ironed the wrinkles from his cheeks. The big guy’s skin tightened like my old trainer’s face used to when I didn’t ride the way he liked. His light-brown hair picked up the last traces of sunlight in golden sparks.
“Do all Easterners think they walk on water, or do you know something about bulls we don’t?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small crowd gathered in front of the barn—five riders and a sixth person I assumed was their instructor. An audience. Was it too late to crawl into my truck and slither away?
The man in the skirt didn’t control the sarcasm in his voice, so I really had to breathe deeply to keep from saying something I shouldn’t. Did he say bull?
“Did you say bull?”
“Christ,” he muttered. He slapped one hand up to his big, square jaw—he needed a shave—fingers on one cheek, thumb on the other, and drew his hand down his face in obvious frustration. He addressed his companion who so far had said nothing. “My new manager doesn’t know the difference between a heifer and a bull.”
I glanced from one to the other. Obviously, the big guy was Mr. Malcolm. I leaned back to get a better look at him, skirt and all. It was a kilt, actually. I knew that much. A well-worn one. Great legs. Never thought I’d find a man in a skirt attractive, but this guy would look good in a tutu—Pen’s third rule came to mind: Don’t get involved with the boss.
I stuck out my hand to shake. “Mr. Malcolm?”
He regarded me critically, the way I'd done him, then took my hand. I squeezed hard—my hands are strong—and before he could say anything else, I added, nice as could be, “You hired me to take care of your horses, not your cows.”
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