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Mid-March in southeastern Montana was no time of year for a bucking horse auction. And yet, better than a hundred people had driven as many miles or more, braved ice-covered highways and trudged across acres of gray-brown slush, all in search of a bargain. Ace Hart among them.
He stood with seven other potential customers, appraising the coal-black stallion and contemplating his finer qualities, which, at first glance, appeared in short supply.
The horse, slightly underweight for his intended use and a bit on the rangy side, had backed himself into the farthest corner of the pen. Ears flat, head stretched forward and nostrils flaring, he stomped a front hoof in the wet, mucky ground, flinging clumps of mud into the air. The customers took the horse's warning seriously and maintained a respectful distance, some of them scratching notes on the back of their bidding numbers for reference when the auction started.
Normally Ace would pass up a potentially aggressive horse like this one, outstanding bloodlines or not. But the animal's eyes, alert, inquisitive and highly intelligent, told Ace what he needed to know better than the AQHA registration papers taped to the pen railing.
This was no ordinary horse and no ordinary stallion.
The Midnight Express, or just plain Midnight as he was once known on the rodeo circuit, had been born to buck, his purpose in life to unseat any cowboy with nerve enough to ride him into the arena. Most of those rides had ended with the cowboy eating a face full of dirt. No more.
If Ace purchased Midnightmake that when, he'd already decided the horse was hishe'd use Midnight exclusively for breeding purposes. Ace wasn't the kind of business manager or big-animal veterinarian to risk injuring a valuable investment.
"What do you think?" His mother came up beside him, linked an arm through his, then stuck her other hand in the pocket of her sheepskin-lined jacket.
"A little underweight. A little temperamental."
"But a beauty."
Indeed. Despite his ragged appearance, Midnight had all the potential Ace and his mother were seeking in a foundation stallion for their bucking horse breeding operation. He mentally calculated the top price they could afford to pay. With luck, the horse's prickly personality and poor condition would scare off other buyers.
"Howdy, Sarah. Ace." Earl McKinley, the Harts' neighbor and competitor in the bucking stock business, approached and fell in beside Ace's mother.
"Hello, Earl." She returned the greeting. "I didn't think you were coming today."
Neither had Ace. He glanced around, his throat suddenly dry.
Had Flynn accompanied her father to the auction? Told him about her and Ace?
Not likely. If Earl had any idea Ace spent the night with his daughter three weeks ago, he'd have a lot more to say to Ace than "howdy."
Just when Ace decided Flynn had stayed home, she appeared, casually approaching as if this was just another chance encounter with her neighbors.
"Flynn, good to see you," Ace's mother exclaimed.
"Hi, Sarah, how are you?" Flynn acknowledged Ace with a tilt of her head, the epitome of cool, calm and collected.
Not so Ace.
Sweat promptly broke out on his browboth at the memory of the incredible night they'd spent together and his disgraceful exit the next morning.
What must she think of him?
Her demeanor gave nothing away.
She appeared to be concentrating on the conversation between his mother and her father.
At one time, the Harts and McKinleys had been fierce rivals. That changed to friendly rivals ten years ago when Ace's father died.
"Rumor has it you might be getting out of the business," his mother said to Earl.
"I haven't decided either way. If I can pick up a few head today at a good price, I may end up adding to my string. If not, I'll probably sell off. It's been a tough go the last few years, what with this economy."
"It certainly has."
"I heard you leased out three thousand acres to a cattle company from Missoula."
"We did. And sold off most of our cattle. We're down to three hundred head."
The recent recession and drop in the commodities market was a frequent topic among ranchers. Ace's mother was counting on the family's expanded bucking contracting business and reduced cattle operation to stabilize the ranch's shaky finances.
"I also hear you're planning to add to your string in a big way," Earl said.
"We are indeed." Her face lit up. "That's what brought us here."
"You thinking of buying this here fellow?"
All eyes went to the big horse in the pen.
"Considering it," Ace's mother answered coyly.
Earl's bucking string had always been significantly larger than the Harts' and included a dozen championship bulls and horses. If Earl retired, that would certainly benefit the Harts and their plans.
From the glimmer of interest in Earl's eyes, he also saw and appreciated Midnight's potential.
Ace momentarily tensed. The old rivalry might just heat up again.
"I didn't know you were wanting a stud horse," he said.
"I like to keep all my options open." Earl's smile remained fixed, much like his daughter's.
She stood across from Ace, looking everywhere else but at him.
Well, he deserved her disdain. He'd messed up pretty bad.
That didn't stop him from missing her and wishing things were different.
"Shame about old Wally," his mother mused. Like most of the rodeo folk at the auction, she'd been acquainted with the late owner of the stock up for sale today. "He was a good man and will be missed."
"His kin must be in a hurry for their share of his money." Earl lifted his foot and examined the muddy water pouring off his galoshes, then stepped sideways to a spot that was only marginally less wet. "Couldn't they have postponed the sale six weeks till the weather improves?"
"They may have debts to pay off. Wally was sick a long time before he passed."
"More likely they didn't want to compete with the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale in May. Those kids of his never gave a flying fig about taking over his string even before he died. A shame, too." Earl shook his head. "He had some quality stock. Whoever those kids hired to care for these horses should be arrested."
"True." Ace's mother's gaze went from Midnight to the other horses on the next aisle over. "Some of them are faring rather badly, I'm afraid."
Earl made a sound of disgust. "I betcha this here horse couldn't buck off a ten-year-old boy."
Ace wouldn't take that bet. Midnight and the rest of Wally's string may have received less than adequate care in the two years since the old man fell ill, but Midnight possessed the heart of a champion and the spirit of a warrior.
He also had impeccable genes.
Earl knew it, too. He intentionally downplayed his interest in purchasing Midnight by finding fault with him and the other horses. Ace's mother employed the same tactics with Earl. They'd been doing it for years, with Earl usually coming out ahead.
"You ready, sweetie?" Earl asked Flynn.
"I'll be seeing you later when the auction starts." Earl tipped his hat at Ace's mother, then he and Flynn leapfrogged over wet patches to the double row of pens holding the geldings and mares.
The challenge had been officially issued.
"He's going to bid against us for Midnight," Ace's mother observed.
"He won't be the only one."
Ace watched Flynn go, ashamed at his relief. He should apologize to her. He owed her that much, if not more. But after three weeks without any contact, she'd probably refuse to speak to him, and he wouldn't blame her.
God, he'd been such an idiot.
"Yeah." His mother was one of the few people to call him by his given name.
"Are you going to examine that horse or what?" She inclined her head at the pen.
"I will. Eventually." He returned his attention to Midnight, forcing thoughts of Flynn from his mind. It wasn't easy.
It seemed as though the horse ignored everyone else except him. Good. They were of similar minds.
"Too muddy?" his mother asked. "Or is the horse too mean?"
"Unpredictable and wary aren't the same as mean." On the ranch and in his veterinarian practice, Ace had examined his share of mean horses. "He's a stallion standing within fifty feet of twenty mares. His mares. Not to mention the geldings. His competition, in his mind. He's in a strange environment, surrounded by strange people and hearing strange noises. He's bound to act a little temperamental."
"No one's been in the pen with him that I've seen."
"Are you challenging me?"
Ace's mother arched a brow at him and smiled. "When have you needed someone to challenge you other than yourself?"
He hadn't, not since his father died.
Eventually, Ace decided both he and Midnight were ready. He slipped the latch and opened the gate. The horse snorted and pawed the muck again, his way of saying, "You sure about this? Because I have a thousand pounds of solid muscle on you."
Ace was sure. He stepped inside the pen, shut the gate behind him and waited. When it came to horses, he had an endless supply of patience.
Now, people? Not so much.
Midnight flicked his ears slightly at the silky smooth tone of Ace's voice but didn't budge.
Minutes ticked by, Ace wasn't sure how many. From the corner of his eye he noticed a small crowd had gathered in front of the pen. A few of the louder comments reached his ears.
"Watch this. You ever seen Hart at work?"
"He's got more nerve than me, climbing in with that brute."
"What is he? Some kind of horse whisperer or something?"
Not exactly, Ace thought. But he did have a knack for reading animals, horses especially, and for getting them to trust him. Enough to earn himself a reputation around the state.
When he sensed the moment was right, he took a small, slow step forward. Midnight jerked his head, his gaze still fastened on Ace.
"There you go."
Another small step, this one met with an angry snort and a head toss. No problem. As long as the horse didn't show signs of charging him, Ace was okay.
"We'll do this on your terms, buddy."
Finally, Ace was close enough to touch the horse, though he hesitated.
"Good job," he murmured softly.
Midnight's breathing increased as he inhaled Ace's scent, the fine whiskers of his velvety nose brushing Ace's jacket sleeve. He was determined that the horse make the next move.
His patience, as usual, paid off.
Midnight sniffed Ace's hand, drew back and sniffed again.
It was a small but vital victory for Ace. When he reached out to stroke Midnight's neck, the horse flinched. He didn't bolt or rear, however, and after several more long moments, allowed Ace to run a hand along his neck and chest, his hide twitching.
Sadness squeezed Ace's heart. Neglect had scarred this magnificent animal. He just didn't understand some people, which would explain why, other than his family, he'd spent much of his thirty-four years a loner.
His attention wandered, as did his gaze. Flynn had evidently concluded one chance meeting with him was enough, for she was nowhere in sight. When Ace looked back around, Midnight had retreated to his corner and had resumed glaring at people. Ace in particular.
Rather than antagonize the horse unnecessarily, Ace conducted the remainder of his examination visually. Skittish personality and weight loss aside, the horse appeared in reasonably good health. Ace had no reason to doubt the copy of the medical report, which hung on the pen railing along with Midnight's registration papers.
Ace turned, his movements calm and measured. He was taking a big risk presenting his back to Midnight. He'd once met an old cowboy with a sizable chunk missing from his shoulder after just this sort of move. But Ace had to know for certain if Midnight was wary and not mean.
He walked unscathed to the gate and sighed quietly. On the other side, he paused to look at Midnight.
The horse bobbed his head.
Yeah, I agree. Ace grinned to himself, feeling as if he, too, had passed a test. You're coming home to Thunder Ranch with me.
His mother wasn't standing where he'd left her. Ace spotted her several feet away, conversing with his uncle Joshua and cousin Duke who'd accompanied Ace and his mother to the sale.
He'd barely started toward them when Flynn unexpectedly crossed his path. A jolt of alarm brought him to a halt.
"Hi," he muttered, trying to move. The soft ground pulled at him, sucking his boots down into the muck. He was trapped.
Served him right.
She stared at him in silence, tendrils of corn-silk-yellow hair peeking out from under her cowboy hat.
Memories surfaced. Ace had sifted his hands through that hair, watched, mesmerized, as the soft strands coiled around his fingers like spun gold.
Then, not two hours later, he'd abruptly left her bedside, hurting her with his transparent excuses.
No longer calm and collected, she stared at him with the same pained expression she'd worn that morning.
"Flynn, I'm sorry," he offered lamely.
"For what exactly?" She crossed her arms in front of her and glared at him through slitted blue eyes. "Slinking out of my room before my father discovered you spent the night, or acting like it never happened?"