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The trail, narrow and steep, all but disappeared as it wrapped around the sheer mountain ledge. Good thing heights didn't bother him, Gavin Powell thought as his horse's hoof slipped and sent a shower of rocks tumbling to the ravine bottom forty feet below. He loosened his reins, giving the paint mare her head. She was small but surefooted and carefully picked her way along the ledge with the concentration of a tightrope walker.
This wasn't a trail for novicesnot one on which Gavin took the customers of his family's riding stable. He'd discovered the trail as a teenager over fifteen years ago and rode it every now and then when he craved peace and solitude.
Shaking his head, he chuckled dismally. Who'd have ever thought he'd need to retreat to this remote trail in order to find solitude? Not Gavin. Until a few years ago, their nearest neighbors had been fifteen miles down a single lane road that saw little traffic. Now, their nearest neighbors were at the end of the long drive leading from what little remained of Powell Ranch.
All nine hundred of them.
Gavin pushed away the thought. He'd come here to relax and unwind, not work himself into a sweat. Besides, if he was going to expend large amounts of mental and emotional energies, it would be on one of his many pressing personal problems, not something he was powerless to change.
The mare abruptly stopped, balancing on a precipice no wider than her shoulders. Gavin had to tuck his left arm close to his side or rub the sleeve of his denim jacket against the rugged rock face.
"Come on, Shasta." He nudged the mare gently. "Now's not the time to lose your courage."
She raised her head but remained rooted in place, her ears twitching slightly and her round eyes staring out across the ravine.
Rather than nudge her again, Gavin reached for the binoculars he carried in his saddlebags, only to realize he'd forgotten to bring them along. Pushing back the brim of his cowboy hat, he squinted against the glaring noonday sun, searching the peaks and gullies. The mare obviously sensed something, and he trusted her instincts more than he trusted his own.
All at once, she tensed and let out a shrill whinny, her sides quivering.
"What do you see, girl?"
Shasta snorted in reply.
Gavin continued scanning the rugged mountain terrain. Just as he was ready to call it quits, he spotted movement across the ravine. A black shape traveled down the steep slope, zigzagging between towering saguaro cacti and prickly cholla. Too dark for a mule deer, too large for a coyote and too fast for a human, the shape could be only one thing.
The wild mustang!
He reached again for his saddlebags, but he'd forgotten his camera, too. Dammit. Well, he really didn't need another picture. Especially one from such a far distance. He'd already taken dozens of the mustang, many of which he'd sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management when he'd first spotted the horse. All he'd received in response was a polite letter thanking him for the information and giving a weak assurance they would investigate the matter.
That was June. It was now October.
The BLM probably figured the horse was an escapee from one of the residents in Mustang Village, the community now occupying the land once belonging to Gavin's family. Or that the horse had crossed over from the Indian reservation on the other side of the McDowell Mountains. The last wild mustangs left this part of Arizona more than sixty years ago, or so the stories his grandfather used to tell him went. As a teenager, his grandfather had rounded up wild mustangs. No way could this horse be one of them.
But Gavin's heart told him different. Maybe, by some miracle, one descendant had survived.
Gavin was going to capture him. He'd made the decision two months ago when yet another phone call to the BLM yielded absolutely nothing. Even if the horse was simply an escapee, it was in danger from injuries, illness, ranchers not opposed to shooting a wild horse, and possibly predators, though mountain lions in this area were a rarity these days.
He told himself his intentions were selflesshe was thinking only of the horse's safety and wellbeing.
Truthfully, Gavin wanted the horse for himself. As a tribute. To his grandfather and to the cowboy way of life he loved, which was disappearing bit by bit every day. Then, he would breed the mustang to his mares, many of which, like Shasta, had bloodlines going all the way back to the wild mustangs of his grandfather's time.
He'd recently acquired a partner with deep pockets, a man from Mustang Valley, and developed a business plan. All he needed was the stud horse.
This weekend, he, his partner, his brother and their two ranch hands would go out. By Monday, if all went well, Gavin's family would have a new revenue stream, and the years of barely making ends meet would be forever behind them.
All at once, the black spot vanished, swallowed by the uneven terrain.
Gavin reached for his saddlebag a third time and pulled out a map, marking the location and date. Later tonight, he would add the information to the log he kept tracking the mustang's travels.
"Let's go, girl."
With another lusty snort, Shasta continued along the ledge as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Her metal shoes clinked on the hard boulders beneath her feet. In the sky above, a pair of redtail hawks rode the wind currents as they searched for prey.
An hour later, Gavin and Shasta reached the main trail that traversed the northern section of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It was along here that Gavin and his brother guided their customers. Most of the horseowning residents of Mustang Village favored the gently winding trail, where four generations of Powells had driven their cattle after spring and fall roundups.
Gavin hated thinking there wouldn't be a fifth generation.
As he neared his family's villa, with its large barn and adjoining stables, his gaze automatically wandered to the valley below, and he was struck with yet another pang of nostalgia. Not long ago, Powell cattle had roamed the open range, feeding on the lush vegetation that grew along a small branch of the Salt River.
These days, houses, apartments and commercial buildings took the place of open range, and the river had been dammed up to create an urban lake and surrounding park.
Gavin understood that progress couldn't be stopped. He just wished it hadn't come to Mustang Valley.
Dismounting, he waved to the adult students taking riding lessons in the main arena. Later, after the grade school let out for the day, the equestrian drill team would practice their routines there.
He'd given up hope that his twelveyearold daughter, Cassie, would become a member. Not that she didn't like horses. Quite the opposite. She spent most of her free time in the stables, and for someone who'd never ridden until this past summer, she'd taken to it like a natural. Apparently there was something to be said for genes.
No, the reason his daughter wouldn't join the school equestrian team was the same reason she had few real friends and was struggling with her classes.
Slow to fit in, Principal Rodgers liked to say, despite scoring high on her placement tests. The move from Connecticut to Arizona was a big adjustment. As was switching from private school to public school. So was living fulltime with her mom to living fulltime with a dad she hardly knew.
The adjustments weren't easy for his sensitive and often emotional daughter.
Leading Shasta into the stables, he tethered her to a hitching rail outside the tack room, unsaddled her and proceeded to give her a good brushing. He heard a familiar whistling and glanced up to see Ethan approaching, his farrier chaps slung low on his hips. A casual observer might not notice the limp, which had improved considerably in the ten months since his discharge from the Marines.
Gavin noticed, however, and winced inwardly every time he thought of the injury that had permanently disabled his younger brother.
"You have a visitor," Ethan announced, coming to stand by Gavin and resting a forearm on the mare's hind quarters. "A lady visitor."
Gavin's stomach instantly tightened. "Not Principal Rodgers again?"
Ethan's eyes sparked with undisguised curiosity. "This gal's about thirty years younger than Principal Rodgers. And a lot better looking."
"Someone from town?" Though Mustang Village was technically a residential community, Gavin and his family always referred to it as a town.
"I don't think so. She doesn't have the look."
"An attorney?" He wouldn't put it past Cassie's mother to serve him with papers despite their recently revised jointcustody agreement.
"No. She's a cowgirl for sure. Pulled in with a truck and trailer."
Gavin knew he should quit stalling and just go meet the woman. But given the family's run of bad luck in recent years, he tended to anticipate the worst whenever visitors wouldn't identify themselves.
"Got a girlfriend on the side you haven't mentioned?" Ethan's mouth lifted in an amused grin.
"When's the last time you saw me on a date?"
"If you're considering it, you could do worse than this gal."
Gavin refused to acknowledge his brother's remark. "Where's she waiting?"
"In the living room. With Cassie."
He ground his teeth together. "Couldn't you have stayed with her and sent Cassie instead?"
"She'll be fine. Your daughter isn't half the trouble you think she is."
"Yeah, tell that to Principal Rodgers." Gavin pushed the brush he'd been using into his brother's hand. "Take care of Shasta for me, will you?"
Without waiting for an answer, he started down the stable aisle. As he entered the open area in front of the main arena, he dusted off his jeans, removed his hat and combed his fingers through his hair. Passing two of his adult students, he nodded and murmured, "Afternoon." He might not like people living in the valley once owned by his family and traipsing all over his property, but without their business, he and his family would lose their only source of income.
At the kitchen door, he kicked the toes of his boots against the threshold, dislodging any dust before entering the house. A tantalizing aroma greeted him, and he turned to see a pot of spaghetti sauce simmering on the old gas range. His father's doing. Since Gavin's mother died, cooking was the only chore on the ranch Wayne Powell did with any regularity.
The sound of voices carried from the other room, one of them Cassie's. Did she know this woman?
Gavin's anxiety increased. He disliked surprises.
His footsteps on the Saltillo tile floor must have alerted Cassie and the woman because they were both facing him when he entered the old house's spacious living room.
"Hi." He removed his hat and, after a brief second of indecision, set it on the coffee table. "I'm Gavin Powell."
The woman stepped and greeted him with a pleasant smile. "Sage Navarre."
He shook her extended hand, appreciating her firm grip. Ethan had been right. Ms. Navarre was definitely attractive, her Hispanic heritage evident in her brown eyes and darker brown hair, pulled back in a sleek ponytail. Her jeans were loose and faded, and her Westerncut shirt functional. Yet there was no disguising the feminine curves hiding beneath the clothing.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, noticing that Cassie observed him closely, her new puppy cradled in her arms. One of the ranch dogs had delivered a litter a few months ago, and Gavin had told her she could keep one. The pair had been inseparable ever since.
"I'm from the BLM," Ms. Navarre said, as if that alone explained everything.
A jolt shot through Gavin. "The BLM?"
"Bureau of Land Management." She held up the leather jacket she'd been carrying, showing him the badge pinned to the front, then handed him a business card. "Aren't you the person who contacted us about a feral horse in the area?"
"Yes." He glanced only briefly at the card, then spoke carefully. "I assumed from the lack of response, you folks weren't taking me seriously."
"Well, we are. I'm here to round up the horse and transport him to our facility in Show Low."
Cassie's expression brightened. "Cool."
"I'll need your cooperation, of course," Ms. Navarre added. "And a stall to board my horse, if you have one available."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Navarre." Gavin returned her card to her. He had too much invested in the horse to forfeit ownership just because some woman from the BLM showed up out of the blue. And he sure as hell wasn't going to help her. "I'm afraid you've wasted your time coming here."
"I don't understand." Sage studied Gavin Powell, admittedly confused. "Is there a problem?"
"I've changed my mind."
"The horse. I'm going to capture him and keep him."
She may have only just met him, but there was no mistaking the fierce set of his jaw and the steel in his voice. Here stood a man with a mission and the determination to carry it out.
Unfortunately, he was about to come up against a brick wall.
"You can't, Mr. Powell," she stated firmly.
"It's against the law for anyone other than an employee of the BLM to capture a feral horse."
"The McDowell Sonoran Preserve isn't federal land."
"No. But it isn't private land, either." She bent and placed her business card on a handcarved pine coffee table. "And besides, the law isn't restricted to federal land. If you capture the horse, you'd be in violation of the law and subject to fines and a possible jail sentence."
His jaw went from being set to working furiously.
Stubborn, she concluded. Or was he angry? Another glance at him confirmed the latter.
Sage's defenses rose. "I realize you had other plans for the horse, but you knew I was coming."
"No, I didn't."
"We called. Last week."
"I received no phone call."
"It's noted in the records. I don't have the name of the individual we spoke to offhand, but I can easily obtain it if you give me a minute."
He glanced at the girlCassie, wasn't it?and his gaze narrowed.
"Don't look at me," she protested, a hint of defiance in the downward turn of her mouth.
Not that Sage was good at determining ages, but Gavin Powell didn't appear old enough to be Cassie's father. Sage guessed him to be around her own thirtyone years. Maybe older. Rugged and tanned complexions like his could be misleading.
Broad shoulders and wellmuscled forearms also spoke of a life dedicated to hard physical labor and being outdoors. She'd always found that kind of man attractive. One who rode a horse or swung a hammer or chopped trees rather than earning his pay from behind a desk.