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Her timing was going to stink. Montana Brown wasn't one bit happy about it as she and her horse, Murdock, rounded the last barrel in the arena. They were too far away from the barrel, and it was all her fault. Poor Murdock was giving it his all and she wasn't. Her mindher focus simply wasn't where it was supposed to be
It wasn't on the barrels they were running, despite the awesome opportunity she'd been given to train here in this beautiful huge covered arena that belonged to her cousin Lacy Brown Matlock and her husband, Clint Matlock. It was a wonderful place on the outskirts of Mule Hollowwhich just happened to be the cutest little Texas town Montana had ever seen. Honestly, she couldn't ask for anything more perfect. But even with all these perfect conditions, instead of concentrating on barrel racing, her mind kept going where she did not want it to go her dad.
"Focus, Montana," she muttered, feeling her horse's muscles bunch and gather beneath her as the powerful animal cleared the barrel. Digging her heels, knowing they needed all the speed they could gain, she urged Murdock to give it one last shot of speed as they raced toward the timer.
Forgiveness. The word snapped into her thoughts like the pounding of Murdock's hooves. She'd been thinking about this place since she'd gotten up that morning, and her riding showed it. How do I forgive him
"Stop," she commanded through clenched teeth. "Focus!" Shoving all thoughts away, she tried to concentrate on moving with Murdock. No doubt about it, yes, sir, her timing was going to be as rank as a skunk on a windy day!
Crossing the time line, she pulled on the reins and leaned back with Murdock as the gray dug his hooves into the dirt and slowed. Cringing, she forced herself to look at the digital reading and her heart sank at the number, despite already knowing it wasn't going to be good.
Some might be satisfied with the time; she wasn't some. If she wanted to win, her time had to be better than good.
And Montana Brown was here to win.
This was her shot, and she didn't plan on wasting it. She just had to get her head back in the game.
These last few weeks, so much of her life had been turned inside out.
When Montana quit her job and walked out of her dad's accounting firm, she hadn't known what she was going to do.
Uncertain and confused, she'd called her cousin, Lacy Matlock. Lacy had insisted Montana come stay with her and her husband Clint. The small town of Mule Hollow where she lived was holding a huge homecoming rodeo in a month, and Lacy wanted Montana competing in it. She'd even insisted Montana could help take care of their new baby boy, Tate, if she was worried about a job.
Montana had needed a job, but she'd been so angry when she'd quit that she hadn't really given it much thought and taking care of a sweet baby would be wonderful while she took a chance on reviving her old dream of becoming a professional barrel racer. Believing this was the answer to prayer, Montana'd packed her bags, stored her things and headed to Mule Hollow.
She was glad to be here. Glad to have family who cared. She could practice all she wanted, and by the time the rodeo started up in three weeks she knew she could be in the running for the win. She needed that. Montana knew as well as Lacy did, that her parents' breakup had affected her deeply.
"Stop thinking about it," she muttered. Leaning forward, she patted Murdock's neck. "Don't you worry, fella, we're going to practice hard so you won't be embarrassed."
As if relieved, he nodded his head and pranced a few feet. Despite their bad score, Montana chuckled. "You are the vainest horse I know and I love you."
And she did. Poor horse had been put out to pasture the last few years as she'd gotten sidetracked with her career. Sidetracked with pleasing her dad and doing what was expected of her. But that was done now. It wasn't an issue anymore. Forgiveness was.
"Okay, this is ridiculous. Let's go again, Murdock. And this time I'll give it my all, just like you are giving it yours."
Looking up at the huge, covered arena, she closed her eyes and imagined the stands full of spectators here to watch a competitive rodeo. There was no way she was going to come out here and embarrass herself or Murdock by doing a poor job. No way! Breathing in the quietness of the place, she tried to settle her thoughts and focus. "Please, God, help me do this," she whispered. Closing her eyes once more, she let the silence of the huge space fill her senses.
Opening her eyes, she set her lips in a firm line and her sights on the barrels.
She was going around those barrels again; but this time she was going at them like the cowgirl she used to be.
The cowgirl that she'd come back to Mule Hollow to find.
And to do that, she'd better get her head on straight, concentrate and stop letting this forgiveness issue wage war on her.
Because forgiveness just wasn't in her heart right now.
"The cowgirl can ride." Luke Holden propped a boot on the bottom rung of the arena fence, as he watched the horse and rider practically fly at the speed of light from one barrel to the next. The horse and rider seemed to move as one. The woman, who looked to be in her midtwenties, was pretty in a girlnextdoor sort of way. She had dark hair the color of a bay horse's mane that glistened in the overhead lights of the arena, and it hung in a short braid from beneath her straw cowboy hat. She was focused and intent as she urged her horse on.
"Yes, she can. That's Lacy's cousin, Montana Brown," Clint Matlock said without looking up from the clipboard. He was studying the list of livestock Luke would be providing for the upcoming Mule Hollow Rodeo. "She's staying with us for a while and plans on competing in the barrels at the rodeo. Lacy says she hasn't been riding for a few years, but ever since she got here a week ago, she's spent hours on her horse."
"It shows. She's good."
"Evidently, she was well on her way to the national level when she quit to concentrate on college a few years back. She could still be great."
Watching her as she crossed the time line, Luke saw her frown at the digital readingwhich he couldn't see from his vantage, but knew had to be good. "No doubt about that. I'd never have known she hasn't been riding." He shot a grin at Clint. "The other competitors better be on their game."
"No kidding," Clint agreed, glancing up, then back to the list.
Luke decided it'd be a good thing to get his mind back on business and not the cowgirl. "Do you think that'll do it?"
"It looks great." Clint handed the clipboard back to him. "You have firstrate stock. These rodeos are going to be a big draw to everyone around. Including bringing back some hometown folks. It'll be good for everyone, including helping you build a solid reputation with your rodeo stock."
It was true. Mule Hollow was sponsoring three different rodeos over the summer to promote the town, calling them the homecoming rodeos, and he was supplying the stock for them. "I appreciate you putting in a good word for me, so I could get the contracts on all three events. I owe you."
Clint shot him a frank look. "You don't owe me anything. I'm glad to do it. Even after all the years you worked on the ranch with me, I'm doing this because you deserve it."
"I learned from the best."
Clint nodded, looking thoughtful. "Yeah, my dad knew his stuff."
Luke had learned much from Mac Matlock, but he'd learned a lot from Clint, too. Though Clint was only a few years older than Luke, the guy had been working beside his dad since he was barely old enough to ride. He had a relationship with his dad that Luke envied. "Don't sell yourself short. You know a few things yourself. That's why this ranch is what it is today. Mac taught you well."
The Matlock Ranch was one of the biggest, most successful ranches in the region. It was his legacy, something he would pass on to his son someday. Luke was aiming at building something similar, if all went as planned. These rodeos were going to help his finances and his reputation grow.
"It's going to be a busy summer, with all of the town involved in these homecoming rodeos."
Clint gave him a don'tIknowit look. "The gals are gonna drive us all crazy."
"No doubt about that. I saw Esther Mae yesterday, and she was buzzing at a hummingbird's pace with her plans." Esther Mae was in her sixties and fairly excitable when it came to.well, pretty much everything.
"Lacy's pretty excited, too. But you know her, she loves to plan all these festivals. And I have never been able to keep up with the woman."
Luke agreed. Mule Hollow had been hosting all manner of festivals, dinner theatersyou name it, they had it. The place had been alive with activity ever since Esther Mae and her two friends came up with a plan to save their beloved town from dying. A few years ago, they'd advertised for ladies to come to town and marry all the lonesome cowboys. Lacy had arrived and supercharged their idea with her own kind of energy falling in love with Clint in the process. To the men's surprise, the ladies' idea had worked above and beyond what any of them had anticipated, totally astounding all the men in town.
These rodeos were their latest idea. But this was a little different. These three rodeos, one a month stretching out across the summer, were geared to bringing home "the runaways" as Clint called them.
The good folks of Mule Hollow wanted family and friends who had moved away to come home and see how much the town had changed. They wanted some familiar faces to move back to town and, like Esther Mae, everyone seemed extra excited about the summer events. Esther Mae, Norma Sue and Adela, known as the matchmaking posse, had zeroed in on anybody they could "help out" where love was concerned. They'd tinkered with him a time or two, but probably decided he was a lost cause. Luke just wasn't ready to look for love, and no one could change his mind about that until he was good and ready.
He wondered if Montana Brown was here looking for love. Looking to find a lonesome cowboy and make the posse's matchmaking dreams come true. If she wasn't, she'd sure better watch out.
"Speaking of all of this, Luke, you've been around from the beginning and you're still single. What's up with that?" Clint asked.
"Determination, that's what." Luke laughed.
"Maybe so," Clint said, grinning. "Hey, I've got to get to Ranger and a bull show at the stock barn. Thanks for coming by with this. We'll talk more, but in the meantime, you set up in here however you think is right. And " He'd started to head out but paused, grinning again. "I'm wondering how much longer that determination of yours is going to hold out. The way I see it, you and those brothers of yours have been holdouts way too long. Your time is running out, my friend. Love's a beautiful thing, you might want to try it someday."
Luke looked over to watch Montana make another run. He had to admit that just driving into town did tend to lift his spirits. But make him want to jump on the bandwagon and find a wife?
He had a new ranch to build and grow, and a new livestock business to get up and running. He was driven to make something out of himself, and wasn't slowing down until he did it. He'd scrimped and saved like many of his friends, and on a cowboy's pay, that wasn't easy. A wife and family maybe later. And maybe not.
Right now, he had a good life. He dated some when he felt like it, but it was never ever serious.
He was focused, happy and determined to be better than his dad expected him to be. And nobody, not even the matchmaking posse, could change that.
Watching Montana round the last barrel again, he saw grit and determination in her expression. He found himself curious about what motivated her. What put that fire in her eyes that flashed as she leaned in low and thundered toward her mark?
The Texas drawl startled Montana as she walked around the corner of the arena's fence, heading toward the stall with Murdock in tow. She recognized the cowboy as one she'd seen watching her from the stock pen. She'd ignored him up till now. He'd been talking with Clint earlier, but hadn't left when Clint did. Too bad. She'd been determined not to let him break her concentration. She'd had a horrible morning run, but then she'd found her focus and made some decent runs.
"Thanks," she said, slowing so she wouldn't be rude. He grinned from beneath his straw Stetson, a flash of white teeth standing out against his darkly tanned skin. He had a lean face, prominent cheekbones and a jawline that seemed chiseled from stone. He looked like a man who knew his own mind. The laugh lines around his eyes told her he knew how to smile, even if he looked like a fairly serious dude.
"You're welcome. You sure can fly on that horse." He tipped the brim of his hat, as intriguing brown eyes studied her with interest. "I'm Luke. Luke Holden. I'm a friend of Clint and Lacy's."
He held out his hand and Montana shook it briefly. "I'm Montana Brown. It's nice to meet you." His handshake was strong and his hand callused. From the look of him, she figured he did some kind of cowboy work. Not that she was interested. Even if he was about as cute as they came. Even if she had to admit that God hadn't held back when he'd put Luke Holden together. The solidasaredwood cowboy was impressive.
"Clint said you were Lacy's cousin, and you're here to compete in the upcoming rodeo."
He had been asking about her. The idea sent an unwanted thrill through Montana. She frowned at the feeling. "I plan to. I've got a long way to go, though."
He grinned. "You'll win, if that's the case."
Her stomach did a little electric slide at the way his smile lit his face up. "I'll give it my best shot," she said, trying hard to ignore the attraction sparking between them. She patted Murdock's neck. "I can't let Murdock down," she said with a wink, that just sort of slipped out on its own. "He's working way too hard for that. Isn't that right, ole boy?" As if understanding exactly what she was saying, the big gray nodded his head and snorted.