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The tie choked worse than a pair of hands around his neck.
Conner Durham yanked at the knot, loosening the tie, and then ripped it off altogether. He flung the offensive garment onto the passenger seat beside him, where his rumpled suit jacket already lay. The interview, his third with this particular company, had been a complete and utter waste of time.
He wasn't getting the job; the hiring manager had said as much before dismissing him with the dreaded "Thanks, we'll be in touch."
Turning his truck onto the long drive leading to Powell Ranch, Conner slowed his speed to the posted ten miles an hour. He'd have to find a different way to vent his frustration other than pressing his pedal to the metal.
Maybe he'd take Dos Rojo out, work the young gelding in the arena. He and the mustang, named for his distinctive red coloring, were still ironing out the kinks in their relationship, deciding who was in charge. So far, they were even, with Dos Rojo coming out ahead some days, Conner on others.
Driving past the main horse barn, he headed for his quarters, a four-hundred-square-foot efficiency apartment. Hard to believe a mere six months ago he'd owned a five-bedroom house and spent money as if it did indeed grow on trees.
No more, and not again in the foreseeable future, unless his luck drastically changed.
Luck, the lack of it, had to be the reason he couldn't find a decent job. It certainly wasn't his qualifications. According to the one-in-twenty prospective employers who'd bothered to contact him after receiving his resume, he had qualifications coming out his ears. Usually more than the job required.
Little did they know Conner was already downplaying his education and experience in order to make himself more hirable.
Inside the apartment, he swapped the rest of his dress clothes for a well-worn work shirt and jeans. Threading his belt through the loops, he fastened the gold buckle. It was one of his most cherished possessions and proclaimed him Arizona State Champion in steer wrestling. He'd won the buckle in college, before abandoning his cowboy ways in order to earn double MBAs and make his mark in corporate America.
Which he did, for six years, only to fall victim to a massive layoff and departmental downsizing. In the five minutes it took Human Resources to inform Conner that his good pal and fellow manager would take over his position and absorb the few remaining members left on Conner's team, his entire life had changed.
A knock sounding on the door provided a welcome distraction. Another minute and Conner might have started feeling sorry for himself.
Yeah, right. Who was he kidding?
"Door's open," he called, pulling on his boots and standing.
"You decent?" Gavin Powell, Conner's lifelong friend and current boss, barged inside. His glance went straight to the sleeping area, where Conner stood in front of the haphazardly made bed. "Good, you're ready."
"You need something done?"
Instead of answering, Gavin sniffed around the kitchen counter.
"I missed lunch. How'd the interview g"
"Don't ask." Conner strolled into the kitchen, adjusting his Stetson till it fit snugly on his head. "You live in a house full of people. Didn't one of them fix you some food?"
"Sage and the baby are taking a nap, since someone kept us up last night, crying. Dad's down with the flu. Between laundry and helping the girls with their homework, the afternoon got away from me. Do you have any idea how many papers parents are expected to read and sign? Three, just for Isa to go on a field trip."
Last spring, Gavin and Sage had married, joining them and their two daughters, each from a previous relationship, into one big happy family. Now they had a two-month-old son, making their family even bigger and happier.
"Never mind," he complained. "I'll grab some crackers in the office. Which, by the way, is where I need you to be in an hour."
"I finally hired a photographer. She's meeting with us at four-thirty."
"Us?" Conner quirked a brow.
"You heard right. I need someone to act as a guide. Who knows the story of Prince and is familiar enough with these mountains to lead a day ride. You're the only one I can spare fitting that description."
Conner didn't argue. He owed Gavin for the roof over his head and the food on his table. Literally. If Gavin hadn't rescued him a few months ago, when his severance pay ran out, he might now be living in his truck.
"What about Dos Rojo?" Conner asked. "I want to work him in the arena before the equestrian drill team arrives for their practice."
"Then I guess you'd better get started."
They parted ways on the porch. As Conner crossed the open area and headed toward the horse barn, the many changes occurring at the ranch during the last two years struck him anew. His own apartment was once a bunkhouse, back in the days when the Powells had owned and operated a thriving cattle business. The smaller of the two horse barns had been expanded to include stud quarters for Prince, the Powells' pride and joy. And the cattle barn, now a mare motel, housed the many horses brought to the ranch to breed with Prince.
Like Conner, Thunder Ranch and the Powells had suffered a grave financial setback, a combination of the economic downturn, loss of their range and encroaching housing developments.
Unlike Conner, the Powells had bounced back, thanks in large part to Prince, a stallion Gavin had discovered roaming free in the nearby McDowell Mountain Preserve. More significant perhaps, the Powells had adapted, turning what remained of their cattle ranch into Scottsdale's most successful public riding stable.
Dos Rojo eyed Conner warily as he approached the stall. The mustang needed an attitude adjustment if he expected to continue living the cushy life of a working ranch horse. Otherwise, he might end up back where he'd come from at the Bureau of Land Management's facility in Show Low, his fate uncertain and, though Conner didn't like thinking about it, possibly doomed.
Not entirely unlike his own fate.
He was determined that the horse remain at Powell Ranch, just as he was determined to find another job.
"Let's go, boy."
They spent forty minutes in the arena, Conner putting Dos Rojo through his paces on a lunge line. When they'd finished, he walked out the horse and gave his coat a good brushing before returning him to his stall. To his delight, Dos Rojo sniffed Conner's hat and nudged his arm as he latched the stall door.
"I agree." He patted the horse's neck. "Good workout. Maybe next time we'll try getting a saddle blanket on you."
There were many things Conner had liked about his former job. The challenges he regularly faced and overcame, the sense of accomplishment, the respect and admiration of his peers and superiors, greeting every new day with purpose.
To be honest, he also found some of those same rewards working for Gavin.
It wasn't enough, however.
The ranch office was located in the barn, beside the tack and storage rooms. As he neared, he could hear voices, Gavin's and a woman's.
Conner's steps faltered, and then stopped altogether. It couldn't be her! He must be mistaken.
The laughter, light and musical, struck a too familiar chord.
His hands involuntarily clenched. Gavin wouldn't blind-side him like this. He'd assured Conner weeks ago that Dallas Sorrenson had declined their request to work on the book about Prince due to a schedule conflict. Her wedding, Conner had assumed.
And yet there was no mistaking that laughter, which drifted again through the closed office door.
He contemplated turning around, then thought better of it. Whatever Gavin required of him, he'd do. He owed his friend that much.
Still, a warning would have been nice.
With an arm that suddenly weighed a hundred pounds, he grasped the knob, pushed the door open and entered the office.
Dallas turned immediately and greeted him with a huge smile. The kind of bright, sexy smile that had most men Conner includedangling for the chance to get near her.
Except she was married, or soon to be married. He couldn't remember the date.
And her husband, or husband-to-be, was Conner's former coworker and pal. The same man who'd taken over Conner's department. Supervised his employees. Expanded his office into Conner's old space.
The man whose life remained perfect while Conner's had taken a nosedive.
"It's so good to see you again!" Dallas came toward him.
He reached out his hand to shake hers. "Hey, Dallas."
She ignored his hand and wound her arms loosely around his neck for a friendly hug. Against his better judgment, Conner folded her in his embrace and drew her close. She smelled like spring flowers and felt like every man's fantasy. Then again, she always had.
Richard was one lucky guy to snare a woman like her.
And, like a fool, Conner had made it easy for him.
She drew slowly back and assessed him in that interested way old friends do after not seeing each other for a while. "How have you been?"
Rather than state the obvious, that he was still looking for a job and just managing to survive, he answered, "Fine. How 'bout yourself?"
She looked as happy as she sounded. Flushedno, glowing, her brown eyes sparkling with curiosity. She'd swept her brunette hair, shorter than when he'd seen her last month, off her face with a colorful band.
Conner could be mistaken, but he thought she might have put on a little weight. It looked good, giving her curves in all the right places.
Married life obviously agreed with her.
"I thought you turned down the photography job." He tried not to stare, dimly aware that he'd interrupted Gavin.
His friend shot him an impatient look. "Like I was saying, Dallas's calendar unexpectedly cleared. She called me last night and volunteered to take the pictures, if we still needed someone, which we do."
She broke out in that incredible smile again.
Conner's heart disregarded his brain's directive and beat triple time.
This had to stop. She was taken, and Conner didn't trespass on another man's territory, even when he disliked the guy.
He needed to get a grip on himself, and fast. How could he expect to work with her otherwise?
The coffee-table-style book, in the planning stages for months, would chronicle the life of Prince, beginning with his capture, to his success as a stud horse, as well as tell the story of the mustang sanctuary, from its inception to today. All profits from the sale of the book would go toward funding the sanctuary and raising awareness of the plight of wild mustangs.
As an avid advocate of no-kill animal shelters, and a professional photographer, Dallas had been the Powells' first choice. It was Conner, in fact, who'd introduced her to them back in the day, when he was on good terms with Richard. Since then, she'd become friends with the Powells, frequently volunteering at the sanctuary. She'd initially agreed to work on the book, but then there had been that conflict.
No more, apparently.
Conner would do whatever was required of him to help the Powells and Clay Duvall, whose rodeo arena currently housed the sanctuary. They weren't just his good friends, he also supported their efforts to rehabilitate former wild mustangs and place them in good homes.
He just wished he didn't have to work with Dallas.
"I thought maybe you two could head out to the sanctuary this morning," Gavin continued, oblivious of the internal battle waging inside Conner. "Get started with some pictures, figure out what all needs doing and how you're going to manage it."
Dallas beamed. "Wonderful idea!"
"I have a class at five." When Conner wasn't overseeing the bucking and roping stock at the Duvall's rodeo arena, he taught riding classes at Powell Ranch and lead trail rides.
"I'll cover for you." Gavin started for the door.
"O kay." Done deal. Conner was going with Dallas to the sanctuary. "We'll take my truck."
She accompanied him out of the office and to the apartment, where he'd parked.
"I thought you drove a Dodge," she commented, upon seeing his older model Ford.
"Used to." He didn't elaborate, preferring not to advertise that he'd traded in the Dodge, along with his convertible and motorcycle, for a secondhand truck without monthly payments.
"Oh." Understanding registered on Dallas's face. "I'm sorry about your job. Triad Energy Systems lost a good department head."
He opened the door for her. "Guess they kept the better man."
She met his gaze. "They kept the man with more seniority." Not the kind of remark he'd expect from Richard's better half.
"You'll excuse me if I don't ask how he's doing."
"Actually, I wouldn't know." An indefinable emotion flickered in her eyes. "As of two months ago, we're no longer engaged."
It took several seconds for her words to register, longer for their implication to sink in.
Dallas Sorrenson was not just single, she was available.
Conner had always been easy to talk to, his boyish charm encouraging conversation. It wasn't the only quality Dallas had liked about him. Did like about him.
Talk flowed easily on the ten-minute drive from Powell Ranch to the mustang sanctuary at Duvall Rodeo Arena. Well, with two minor exceptions.
When Dallas inquired after Conner's job search, he gave her one of those nonanswers and promptly changed the subject. They also didn't discuss what had happened between her and Richard, though the news of their breakup had clearly stunned him, requiring a full minute for him to regain his ability to speak.
Not that Dallas blamed Conner for avoiding any discussion of her former fiance. Richard had been retained and awarded a raise while Conner was let go. He wouldn't be human if he didn't harbor a grudge.
"I always love coming here," she said as they drove past the rodeo arena with its bucking chutes, bleachers and livestock holding pens. A group of men were practicing on their cutting horses, separating calves from a small herd and driving them one by one into a pen. Correction, several men and two women, Dallas observed upon closer inspection.
She wouldn't mind getting pictures of the women. Maybe she'd ask Conner to stop briefly on their way out if the group was still practicing.
"Not too much happening this time of day." Conner aimed the truck onto a long, straight dirt road, at the end of which were the pastures where the mustangs were kept. "If you want some photos of calf roping or bull riding, there should be a decent turnout tonight. Guys practicing for tomorrow's jackpot."
"Will you be working the jackpot?"
"Yeah. I fill in for Clay during events and on weekends. When Gavin doesn't need me."
Despite her curiosity, she didn't pressure Conner for details. Did he enjoy living the cowboy life 24/7 instead of now and then? Prefer it over the manufacturing plant and the constant mental grind? What had happened to his girlfriend, the tall, willowy swimsuit model?
"Sage mentioned you're at the sanctuary almost as much as at Powell Ranch."
He cast her a sideways glance. "You talked to her about me?"
"Only in passing. I was there last week. Taking pictures of the baby." Dallas pressed a hand to her stomach as they went over a pothole.
"How's the documentary photography coming?"
She was surprised he remembered, and flattered. "I'm continuing to pursue it. In between weddings and family reunions and conventions."