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Bucking the Rules
By KAT MURRAY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kat Murray
All rights reserved.
Trace Muldoon danced out of the way of the elegant-but-deadly female legs threatening to break his foot. One wrong move, one moment of lost concentration, and he could kiss his toes good-bye.
"Easy, sugar," he crooned. "Come on, now. You don't want to hurt me, do you?" He brushed a hand down her back, watching her eyes close in delight even as she tried to get in another bite to his shoulder.
Females. Prickly even when they were getting something they wanted. Trace continued to stroke and speak softly until she swayed on her feet, under some sort of hedonistic spell.
"You do have a way with the girls."
Trace turned to see Red Callahan at the door, amusement tilting the corners of his mouth.
"Jealous of my superior skills?" Trace joked back.
Just then, teeth clicked around his shoulder in a not-so-playful bite. He yelped and skidded to the corner of the stall while the six-hundred-pound mare swished her tail and tossed her head in some sort of female satisfaction at getting the upper hand.
Red chuckled. "Yep, jealous. You pegged me. Can't get enough of those bites."
Trace flipped him off, but laughed and shrugged the sore shoulder. Working with horses, you expected to get a few kicks and bites for your trouble. He slipped out the stall door and closed it behind him gently. With one last glance behind him at the mare, who looked quite pleased with herself, he fell into step with Red and headed out to the hot walk area.
"Where's my sister?"
"Still asleep, I believe." Red checked the clock on the rough plank walls of the barn by the entrance, showing 6:15 in the morning. "She'll probably be up soon."
Trace shook his head. "She never used to sleep so late. Not that she was ever a morning person, but she'd get up and get started before anyone else thanks to sheer grit and caffeine."
Red smirked. "Now she's got a reason to stay in bed a little longer."
Trace grimaced in return. "Really don't want to think about my sister in bed with a guy, but thanks for that."
"Plus," Red went on, as if Trace hadn't said a word, "I shut her alarm clock off and asked Emma to let her sleep as long as she could. I try it about once a week, but it rarely works."
"Good." Trace nodded and stepped up on the rusted bottom rung of the metal fencing that surrounded the hot walk area, folding his arms over the top for balance. "She needs a little management from time to time. Peyton works too hard, like she's afraid to let Bea and me take on the responsibility. She's going to kill you for it, though."
"I can handle your sister," Red said confidently with a cocky-ass smile to go along with it. "All it takes is—"
"La, la, la, I can't hear you." Trace watched a ranch hand walk a colt new to his halter around and around in circles. It was an apt metaphor for his current life: one big circle.
"Maybe she's going off experience," Red said, hopping up next to him. "You and Bea weren't exactly there for her in the past when she was battling your mama for control of the ranch."
Memories, one worse than the other, flooded him before Trace could shut them down. But much like slamming the barn door closed after the horse was out in the pasture, too little too late. "Yeah, well, I can't speak for Bea, but I had reasons for staying gone. Though I can easily guess leaving was just as much survival for her as it was for me."
Sensing the topic was closed, Red wisely moved on. "Steve!" The hand turned to look at him, calming the skittish horse with a few murmured words and a rub on the neck. "I want to see some figure eights with that one. He's eager to learn, so give him something to do."
Always the trainer. Trace took a moment to sit back and watch the man his prickly sister had gone and fallen in love with. A couple years older than he, Red was well- respected in the horse world. How a trainer of his level had landed at M-Star, a still-struggling breeding operation, was a question most people scratched their heads over.
Of course, once news of Red's relationship with Peyton went public, some assumed they understood the score. Red was there for easy sex.
The thought had Trace laughing quietly. Nothing with Peyton was easy. Red had fought hard for every inch of gained ground there. But he also knew the man was just as crazy for his sister as she was for him. So Trace figured he wasn't obligated to break the guy's nose for taking advantage of his sister. She was a big girl.
Though it was getting a little tight in the house, with all three siblings back at home, and one shacked up. As kids, the house had been plenty big. As adults ... they all needed some more space.
Not to mention, though Trace appreciated the help with his young son, he'd like to gain a little more independence. Stand on his own two feet, without worrying he was overstaying his welcome.
"Switch him up." Red pointed and circled his hand in a signal for Steve.
"Say," Trace started, warming up to the idea now circling his head like the colt in the warm-up ring. "You're spending most nights at the big house now, aren't you?"
Red's eyes never left the horse's legs. "Yeah."
"And I saw a few of your boxes migrate up to Peyton's room." What used to be their parents' master bedroom, though they'd almost never used it together. "I guess that's pretty settled now, isn't it?"
"Hmm. I think he's done for the day, Steve. Let's switch him out for his neighbor, see what she's got to show us this morning." He turned to Trace. "Back up a few steps. What's settled?"
"You living with Peyton."
Red's mouth thinned a little. "Look, I understand you're protective, but you know I'm not playing her. So if you're going to get all butt-hurt over me moving in, then you can just—"
"I want your place."
Red stopped and his eyes widened. "My place?"
Trace nodded to the large garage, over which the trainer's apartment sat. "Yeah. You're not using it, so it's just sitting there. Someone might as well, right?"
The corner of Red's mouth twitched. "But where will I sleep when Peyton's mad at me?"
"The couch, like all good husbands." He chuckled as his friend's face whitened a little. "Calm down. It's just an expression. If you need some alone time, you can take Seth's room. Without a crib in there, I think a futon would fit nicely."
"It's only a one-bedroom place," Red reminded him.
"We can make do. Two guys don't need much room. Plus, one of us can't even walk yet, so it's not like he's gonna take up that much space. I'll find a nook for his crib and put one of those ugly silk screens Ma used to spread all over the house in front so he's got a little mini-bedroom. Done deal." The idea grew in his mind, and he could already taste freedom.
As much freedom as a single father with a not-quite-one-year-old son could have.
Red shrugged and smiled a little. "Well, it was a nice dream, but you're too late."
"Too late? What, did you rent it out to someone?" The thought had him laughing. They were in the middle of nowhere, with Marshall—the small town they used as a home base—over ten miles away. And nobody was going to rent an apartment out here.
"Rent, not quite. But your sister got to it before you did."
Bea? His sweet little sister Bea—Bea had swiped his apartment from him? Well, not quite his ... yet.
"Yeah, sorry about that. Guess you'll have to suck it up and hang around the big house a little longer."
They watched in silence as Steve brought out another horse and started the slow warmup.
"There's good news about this though," Red said after a stretch.
"With Bea and all her clothes gone—that's like clearing up room for three."
Josephine unlocked the door to her bar and walked in with a satisfied sigh. Sure, the place smelled the way you might expect a bar to smell like the morning after a weekend. But it was her bar. And she knew tomorrow she'd be doing the exact same thing. And she loved it.
Two feet in, her feet hit a sticky spot. She made a mental note to have her afternoon staff go over the floors again with a mop, and get on the night crew to do a better job cleaning up. Though even with one sticky spot, the place was a vast improvement over what she'd walked into when she'd bought the place.
She surveyed the room, looking for anything out of place. Missing chairs, broken tabletops, knocked over wall decor ... you never knew. The place had been transformed from a rough honky-tonk that appealed to cowboys alone to a more civilized—though still fun—bar where both men and women felt at home. Her goal had been to make a haven for both genders, and to appeal to both the cowboys and the non-ranchers. A delicate balance, but one she thought she'd managed to find. Rather than the dark, oppressive, barely-lit cavern it had been, she'd brought in funky light fixtures and painted the paneling a cream tone. She'd updated from a crappy-ass juke box to a real sound system, though she kept the juke in the corner for the sake of nostalgia. And even though she still played country, she kept it to country from this decade, with some good oldies tossed in for variety. And she'd updated the drink menu to include more choices than bottle or draft, and the kitchen menu to more than pretzels or peanuts.
Her day cook, and currently her only friend, stuck his head out the kitchen door.
"Hey, Stu. What are you in for so early?" She walked around the bar and opened the cash register, reaching for the receipts she knew would be there from the night before.
"Wanted to double-check my order before the produce guy got here. Something wasn't adding up, but I found the problem."
"Always good." She hopped up onto a bar stool, rather than taking the paperwork into the back, to her rarely-used office. One of the main reasons she'd moved to such a small town after so many big cities was so she could become part of the fabric of the place. Become someone everyone knew, the community could point to and recognize. She couldn't do that if she hid in the back all the time.
"What'd you do with your night off?" Stu walked in from the kitchen, wiping his hands with a towel. Though they didn't open for the lunch crowd for another two hours, his apron was already on, the strings wrapped twice around his impressive girth and tied into a neat bow right under his belly. A belly that was considerably larger than the rest of him. Middle-age spread had hit Stu hard, but he didn't seem to have a care in the world. His motto was "Diets are for quitters," and he stuck to it with a tenacity that made Jo smile, even as she mentally winced at the potential side effects of that extra weight.
"Watched some TV, gave myself a pedicure, went to bed early."
"Boring as hell."
"It was amazing."
He sneered. "If you think that's amazing, you need more than one night off a year."
Silently, she agreed. But when you owned a business, when your name was on the deed and it all fell to you, nights off were a precious commodity. "Maybe."
"Maybe you should get a place elsewhere, instead of living above the damn bar. Then you'd at least have some sort of separation from work. How can you take a break if you're living above the dang place?"
"The rent's cheap." She smiled and went back to the receipts, double-checking her night manager's calculations. She liked the guy, and trusted him ... mostly. But her name, her business, her final calculations.
"Rent schment. Like you aren't making out like a bandit. You could afford better."
"I don't want better. I want what I have. Go stir something."
Stu walked off, muttering not so quietly about stubborn women and the problems they bring on themselves. She grinned and went back to her figures. Nothing started her day off quite like a quick spar with Stu. Though he probably knew it, she liked to think of their verbal duels as a better, more healthy version of the morning cup of coffee.
Twenty minutes later, employees started filing in.
"Hey, Amanda." She waved over one of the waitresses she'd inherited with the bar. Most hadn't wanted to stay and work for someone they didn't know, and that'd been fine with Jo. Can't embrace change? Probably wasn't meant to be. But Amanda had stayed, and proven herself worthy enough to start making decisions on whom to hire for wait staff. If she kept it up, Jo would be ready to move her into an assistant manager position ... when Jo was ready to loosen the reins a little herself.
"Hey, Jo." The perky brunette slid onto the stool next to her. "Good night last night. Had a reunion in here, they closed the place down. Good tippers, when all was said and done."
"Good for the till." She shifted a pile of receipts to the left, and moved another stack in front of her.
Amanda leaned back against the bar, elbows bent, legs propped out. "A crowd like that never would have stepped foot in here five years ago. You've really taken this place and run with it in your own way, haven't you?"
Jo raised a brow and punched in another number, writing down the calculation. "Did this place look like something I'd bother with five years ago?"
"Nope. But I have to say, you didn't stray too far off the mark." Amanda's eyes wandered over the décor. Exposed beams, decent lighting, classic Western-style art mixed with simple contemporary photos. "Most people got one look at you and decided you'd turn the place into some sort of gallery style. All slick glass and steel. Cold. City."
Jo had the distinct impression she'd just been gently insulted. She smiled, amused at the assessment, and fingered the fourth piercing in her right ear. "Well, you know me. I hate gossip and don't bother with it."
"Your city's showing," Amanda said with a smile. "Everyone here listens to gossip. It's like a professional sport. Everyone wants to make the first round draft."
"Have at it. More power to 'em. Gossip away ... just do it with a drink in your hand and ordering off my menu." Jo gathered up the receipts and stuffed them in a vinyl zippered pouch. "I don't care what people think, as long as they're paying their tab at the end of the night."
"Is that how it is in Chicago?"
Jo smiled. "Chicago, New York City, L.A., San Fran ... you name it. Big cities are about as likely to change as small towns."
"Which is to say, not at all." Amanda grinned.
"Exactly." Jo swatted at her shoulder with the bag and hopped down from the bar stool. "Now get to work. I'm not paying you to sit around and talk."
Amanda gave her a cheeky salute and hurried off to prep her station for the afternoon lunch crowd.
Jo headed into her office to drop off the bag and pick up the night's cash from the safe. Then, after a quick debate, she left her car keys behind and headed out the front door. The walk would do her some good. Being in the same building day after day—upstairs or downstairs—started to get stuffy and boring.
It still amazed her how quiet things were in Marshall. She passed the tack shop and peered in. The owner, Mr. Hollins, saw her and held up a hand in a tentative wave. She did the same, adding a smile for effect.
She made people nervous still, despite having been there for almost a year. Change was hard for people in Marshall. The town embraced the changes to the bar much faster than accepting her. But then again, the bar served a purpose to folks. So naturally, it was in their best interest to be grateful.
Her, on the other hand ... Well. She'd just wait and see. Eventually, they'd come around.
She'd just make them.
"Name the last time you went out."
Trace shoveled another bite of breakfast in and chewed longer than necessary to give himself a moment to think.
Peyton wasn't fooled. That was the problem with working with your sister. She saw straight through your bullshit before you had a chance to even use it. "Put down the fork and answer, Muldoon."
"But how could I possibly ignore this culinary masterpiece Emma slaved for hours to create?" He gave the woman in question a sly smile as she walked by the table and refilled Peyton's coffee mug.
Emma snorted, completely unamused and immune to the sibling squabble. She should be; she'd been hearing it for over twenty years. "What a crock. It's scrambled eggs. Don't drag my breakfast into your little talk, or you'll be eating toaster waffles for a week."
The horror of missing out on a week of Emma's homemade breakfasts had him putting down the fork and staring at his sister. "It's none of your business. I don't ask about you and Red." He cringed at the thought.
"That's self-serving. You don't want to know about my relationship with Red." Peyton took a moment to look toward a babbling Seth and nudge a Cheerio closer to him on his high chair tray.
"No, no, I really don't. And it's still none of your business what I do with my life, just because you do want to know."
Excerpted from Bucking the Rules by KAT MURRAY. Copyright © 2013 by Kat Murray. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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