Familiar Showdown (Harlequin Intrigue #1153)

Familiar Showdown (Harlequin Intrigue #1153)

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by Caroline Burnes

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Good thing I have nine lives…. But it's too bad Stephanie Ryan doesn't have as many lives as me. The humanoid horse gentler is up to her pretty neck in trouble—thanks to drifter cowboy Johnny Kreel. He shows up, and just like that, someone tries to kill her. Stranded on her ranch in Nowhere, South Dakota, she's a sitting duck. I'll just bet my… See more details below


Good thing I have nine lives…. But it's too bad Stephanie Ryan doesn't have as many lives as me. The humanoid horse gentler is up to her pretty neck in trouble—thanks to drifter cowboy Johnny Kreel. He shows up, and just like that, someone tries to kill her. Stranded on her ranch in Nowhere, South Dakota, she's a sitting duck. I'll just bet my next meal that dark-side Johnny knows more than he's telling. And unless my green eyes deceive me, are those sparks between them? Good thing for Stephanie I'm Familiar, Black Cat Detective. I haven't met a case I couldn't solve…yet.

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Fear Familiar , #1153
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October is normally my favorite month. Eleanor, my humanoid, lights the first fire of the season in the library, and I curl up on my favorite green velvet pillow, the one that brings out the color of my eyes. But I'm not in Washington, D.C., where I belong. I'm in South Dakota. At the foot of the Black Hills. On a horse ranch of all things. And these aren't even nice horses. These are rogues and outlaws.

The only benefit is that I get to hang with one fine-looking woman. While I feel Stephanie Ryan wastes a whole lot of energy on those bad horses, I have to admit that she looks good in tight jeans, boots and even those chaps. With her long, straight chestnut hair and those dark eyes, she could be some cowboy's fantasy. And she has a special way with horses. Or at least that's what Eleanor says. She's a "gentler." That's someone who helps troubled horses and makes them safe.

She's out there right now working with that devil horse, Black Jack. He's black sure enough—in color and temperament. In the fifteen minutes I've been watching, he's charged at Stephanie and tried to trample her. All she wants him to do is trot the circumference of the round pen.

And he knows it. Yet he acts like she's trying to kill him. That horse has got a screw loose, and someone is going to get hurt if she isn't careful. If I could vocalize in human language, I'd suggest that she yield the battle and get out of that pen.

Why did Eleanor and Peter leave me here at Running Horse Ranch on the backside of nowhere? They told me to watch out for Stephanie. But who can protect a crazy broad who walks into a small pen with a homicidal equine?

This is going to be along two weeks. I'm counting the hours until Eleanor returns and takes me back to civilization. It's not that South Dakota isn't spectacular. It is. It's one of the prettiest places I've ever been. And the history here, in the heart of the Sioux nation, is fascinating. But it isn't home. I'm just ready for autumn snuggles with my Clotilde. Ah, the sleek delight of her tricolored calico fur, and the elegant span ofherwhiskers. They way we spoon together in a sunny window and the way she grooms my face…

Such activities are not to be. I'm here with a raging stallion. Look at that black devil rear. He's spectacular, in a bad boy kind of way. Flaring nostrils, flying mane and— Duck, Stephanie! He's trying to kill her! He's going completely nuts and is trying to strike her with a front hoof.

I've got to do something!

Stephanie dodged the hoof by a fraction of an inch. She hit the ground and rolled toward the metal panel of the round pen, but there wasn't enough room for her to slide underneath.

Instinct warned her and she scrabbled to her feet and dove just as Black Jack's two front feet came down exactly where she'd been lying.

Stephanie had to admit that in the two weeks she'd been working with Black Jack, she hadn't overcome his hatred of humans by one iota. Rupert Casper had really done a number on the animal. She didn't want to know the details. She already despised Casper and everything he stood for. Her job was to bring Black Jack around. If she didn't, Casper would most likely kill him.

But right now wasn't the time to worry about the distant future. If she didn't get out of the round pen, she wouldn't have a future at all.

To her utter amazement, she saw the black cat dart between Black Jack's back feet. It provided just enough distraction so she could hurl herself across the round pen. She had to get out. But when she was halfway up the metal panel, she saw the horse close the distance.

Ears flat and teeth bared, he bit her shoulder.

Pain shot through her, but she didn't let go of the metal bars. If she fell under his feet now, he would stomp her to death.

The pain of the bite was so intense that she felt her hands weaken. She'd never seen a horse truly intent on killing a human. She'd heard stories, but hadn't believed them. Something awful had been done to Black Jack, and it was going to take a lot to overcome it—if she lived that long.

Just when she thought she had to let go, the cat leaped onto the horse's back, a move that made the stallion wheel and try to bite the cat. Stephanie heaved herself up the panel.

"Hold on." The stranger came out of nowhere. With one vault, he was in the round pen with her. His arms closed around her hips and he hefted her over the panel and dropped her on the outside.

Before he could get out, the horse turned on him.

Lying in the dirt, heaving to catch her breath, she watched the horse and the man square off. The man made no threatening moves toward the horse, but he didn't run. He held his ground, using the palm of his hand to indicate to the horse that he should come no closer.

To her amazement, Black Jack skidded to a halt. He pawed the ground and snorted. His eyes rolled, showing the whites, and he tossed his mane. While he was dangerous, Stephanie had to admit that he was also beautiful. As was the black cat, who'd come over to her and was licking her cheek with a sandpaper tongue.

"Easy, boy," the stranger said to the horse. His voice was low, almost a whisper. He turned sideways to the horse and the two of them began to walk slowly around the pen, each ignoring the other. To Stephanie, it looked like a choreographed dance, performed by a troupe from some royal academy.

"You okay?" the stranger asked.

"Yeah." She pushed up to a sitting position, her body feeling every thud she'd taken in the last ten minutes.

"You're bleeding." The man continued to pace the small enclosure. He made no attempt to move closer to the horse, but he gave no ground, either.

She looked at her shoulder. He was telling the truth. Blood had soaked through her shirt and was dribbling down her arm. "Doesn't look life-threatening," she said.

"Anybody ever tell you that it was stupid to climb in a pen with twelve hundred pounds of bad attitude?"

"Maybe." She had no intention of explaining her actions to him. His behavior was unusual—she conceded that. But his dress, the worn jeans that hugged his lean body, the dusty boots and the blue chambray shirt that softened his hazel eyes—those things told her he was a cowboy. The one thing she didn't need was a cowboy tending to her business.

"What's this fella's name?" he asked.

"Black Jack."

"He's a fine specimen, but his attitude sucks." In two seconds, the cowboy vaulted out of the pen.

Black Jack stood for a moment as if he were transfixed. Then he charged the panel so hard he shook the entire round pen.

"What did you do to him?" she asked.

"That's exactly the question I wanted to ask you. What the hell did you do to this animal to make him hate you so much?"

Stephanie arched her eyebrows. She wasn't insulted in the least. It was exactly the question she would have asked had she come upon the same scene. "I don't know who you are or where you came from, but that's the right question. And you've got a keen sense of timing." She pushed herself off the ground and stood. Her shoulder was killing her, but she'd never show it. "What's your name?"

"Johnny Kreel."

She held out her hand. "Stephanie Ryan." She looked beyond him toward the barn. Parked beside it was a beat-up truck and horse trailer. She'd been so intent on Black Jack and staying alive that she hadn't heard the cowboy drive up.

Familiar was at the truck and trailer, scoping it out. Eleanor had told her, and insisted it was true, that the cat was some kind of private detective. He did seem inordinately curious about things. Some would even call his brand of curiosity nosiness.

"I've been on the rodeo circuit," Johnny said. "I saw your barn and wondered if you needed any help. Fence mending, building, things like that. And I can handle horses."

"I can see that." Stephanie considered this stranger. She'd been on the ranch alone for the past four months, and she'd come to realize that the spread was more than she could manage. She'd actually been thinking about a hired hand. "What would you expect for wages?"

Johnny looked around. "Say, for the first two weeks, I'd work for food and lodging for me and Tex." He pointed to the horse trailer. "Tex is my gelding. We've been working the stock at the shows, but Tex hurt his leg and I need a place for him to rest up."

Food and a roof was the best deal Stephanie had heard in a long time. She'd spent everything she had creating Running Horse Ranch. She hadn't expected to carry the burden of starting the horse-training facility by herself, but fate had been harsh. And she was almost out of money.

"It's a deal," she said. "Put Tex in the first stall on the right. His buddy will be Layla, a sweet little mare that gets along with everyone."

Johnny smiled, and Stephanie took a step back. Johnny was a handsome man, a graceful man with the confidence of a rodeo athlete. After what had happened with Rory Sussex, she had no use for any of that in her life.

"Thanks," he said.

"Thank me by getting busy." She was brusque and she knew it. That's the way it was going to be. Johnny Kreel could work at Running Horse for a few weeks, but she had no desire to be his friend or anything else.

"Yes, ma'am," he offered.

She checked his gray-green eyes to see if he was mocking her, but she saw only sincerity. "I need to get Black Jack into the small barn." She pointed to a stout structure with an eight-foot fence around the paddock area. She'd had it specially constructed for rank horses—until she could bring them around. "There's a lead rope at the round pen gate. He was fine when I brought him out, but…"

"I need to tell you up front, Miss Ryan, that I won't manhandle an animal." He squinted against the sun in his face. "Some folks get upset when they realize I won't cut corners when I'm working with one."

This time Stephanie couldn't stop the smile that she felt spread across her face. "Glad to hear that, Johnny, because I won't tolerate such tactics. My grandfather was a horse gentler. His method has been passed down to me. I've never seen a horse that couldn't be gentled."

Johnny nodded. "Then we'll get along fine. Now I'd best get to my chores. I'll move Black Jack and then go take care of that fence over by the pumphouse. By the time I finish with that, I reckon supper should be ready."

Stephanie stopped short. "That's a good assumption. And pretty accurate, except for one thing. If you want a hot supper, you might get in the kitchen and cook it. I said I'd provide food. I didn't say I'd be your chef." She turned and walked away before Johnny could see the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Sometimes it was too much fun to unsettle the gender expectations of a Wild West man.

She'd hardly gone ten steps when she heard the sound of a vehicle. Her driveway sloped around the gentle swells of the land, disappearing from view and then reappearing on the top of the next hill. She put her hand up to shade her eyes as she spotted the black pickup stirring up a cloud of dust as it headed toward her.

"Damn," she said softly.

Johnny examined the approaching vehicle. "Someone you know?"

"The guy who owns Black Jack. Rupert Casper is his name, and he's a real piece of work. His ranch is about two miles as the crow flies, maybe four miles if you take Dry Gulch Road," she said. Johnny didn't say anything, but Stephanie saw the muscle in his jaw jump into play.

"You'd better take care of your shoulder," he said without taking his eyes off the driveway. "I'll explain to Mr. Casper that you're indisposed."

Stephanie shook her head. "I wish it were that easy. Casper's going to want to know how much progress I've made with Black Jack. When he finds out I can't even lead him to his stall, he's liable to shoot him on the spot."

Her words made the muscle in Johnny's jaw bunch even tighter. "We'll see about that."

Stephanie had no use for Rupert Casper, but she put a restraining hand on Johnny's arm. This wasn't a fight he could win. Neither could she. "It's a long story, Johnny. Black Jack is his horse. The horse hurt Casper, and he was going to kill Black Jack but his men brought him over here two weeks ago. I've been dreading this moment."

The pickup stopped not twenty feet from Stephanie. Dust rolled over the top, and a tall man with perfectly trimmed blond hair got out from behind the wheel. His jeans were creased perfection and his boots were polished to a high sheen. The only flaw in his appearance was the white sling that held his left arm. Casper's gaze swept over her bloody shoulder, torn shirt and dust-covered jeans.

"Stephanie," Rupert Casper said as he came forward. He

looked at Johnny but didn't acknowledge him. "How's my horse doing?"

"We're making progress," Stephanie said. She noticed that Familiar had left her side and was sniffing the tires on Rupert's truck like a dog.

"Did Black Jack do that to you?" Casper asked, pointing to her shoulder. He looked past her to the stallion in the round pen. The horse seemed to sense Rupert's attention. He pinned his ears and snaked his head out, striking the metal panel with his teeth.

"I did it to myself," Stephanie said. "Black Jack's a hard case. I won't deny it. But he'll come around."

"He's a danger. I fired the two men who brought him over here. They disobeyed me when I told them to shoot him."

Stephanie could see that Casper took pleasure in his power. "They thought they were doing the right thing. They knew how much money you had invested in the horse."

"It's my money." He walked toward the round pen.

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