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Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" poured out of the open windows of Johnny Jameson's truck as he drove along the country road. It was January in Texas, but he was energized by the cold air, knowing the temperature would rise to triple digits soon enough come spring. No matter what the weather, he'd much rather be outside than cooped up indoors.
He always liked to keep on the move. Never felt the need to stay at any one place too long. More times than he could count, he had lived out of his vehicle.
He'd been lucky lately. The jobs came to him, and he could pick and choose what he wanted to take on. That was the reason he was coming to Larkville. He'd been intrigued when he'd heard the job description. Also because Clay Calhoun and his prize quarter horses were legendary in Texas. But before he got too excited, he wanted to assess the situation before he made any promises to the man, or to the job. if there still was a job, since the offer had been made months ago.
He'd been delayed by a stubborn colt, but after he'd finished training it, the thoroughbred was worth what the owner had paid. When he'd called Calhoun to let him know he'd be delayed with previous commitments, he'd ended up talking to Clay's son Holt, who'd explained that his father was ill, but assured him that the job would be there whenever he arrived at the ranch. Johnny had said to expect him around the first of the year.
As it turned out it was the first of the year, and he was finally headed for the Double Bar C Ranch. He glanced in the rearview mirror at his trailer, and his precious cargo, Risky Business, his three-year-old roan stallion.
His attention focused back ahead and on the southeast Texas landscape of rolling hills and pastures that had the yellow hue of winter. He looked toward a group of bare trees and a cattle water trough nestled at the base. There was also a visitor, one beautiful black stallion. The animal reared up, fighting to get loose from his lead rope that seemed to be caught on something.
He glanced around to see if anyone was nearby. Not a soul. He pulled his truck to the side of the road and got out. After walking back to check his own horse, he headed toward the open pasture to hopefully save another.
Jess knew she was going to be blamed for this. since her brother Holt was away on personal business, her sister, Megan, was away at school and her brother Nate was in the army, she was the one family member around to handle Double Bar C emergencies. Even though she really wasn't involved in the day-today running of the ranchHolt was in charge of thatshe knew finding Night Storm had to take top priority.
The bigger problem was, how do you find, much less bring back, a rogue stallion? No one but Clay Calhoun had ever been able to handle the valuable quarter horse. Now that Dad was gone, the question was what to do with storm.
The ranch foreman, Wes Brogan, had decided to let the animal out to the fenced pasture, but before Wes was able to transport Storm there, the horse broke away.
When she'd gotten the call early this morning, she immediately went to the barn, saddled up Goldie and rode out to find Storm. She'd been on a horse since she was a baby, so there wasn't any problem keeping up with the ranch hands. To cover more ground, the crew took off in different directions of the vast Calhoun land and so Jess set off on her own.
The Double Bar C had been in the family for generations, and her father had worked hard so it would remain with the Calhouns for many more. Big Clay had loved his horses, especially this stallion, but there had been trouble since Storm had arrived at the ranch. The valuable horse had been mistreated in the past. Eventually Storm began to trust her father somewhat, but since Clay's death a few months back, the horse's behavior had gotten worse and no one had been able to handle him.
She sighed, feeling the bite of the January cold against her cheeks. She slowed her horse as they came to the rise and suddenly caught a spot of black. Taking out her binoculars, she saw the welcome sight.
"Hallelujah!" she cried out, seeing Storm. Then she looked again and saw a man holding on to his lead rope. She didn't recognize him as one of the hands, then she spotted a truck and trailer alongside the road.
"Oh, no, you don't. You're not going to steal Double Bar C property." She kicked her heels into the mare and they shot off.
Johnny had worked with the horse for close to thirty minutes and had made some headway. The animal was still in distress, but at least Johnny had gotten close enough to loop a rope around his neck so he could calm the animal.
And what a beauty he was. His glistening black coat looked well cared for, he thought as he kept the spirited stallion moving in a circle. He pulled the rope taut, knowing he would need an arena to truly work him.
The horse got more agitated when he heard a rider approach, but Johnny couldn't take his attention from his task.
"What do you think you're doing on Calhoun land?"
He was surprised to hear the female voice.
"Trying to help this valuable horse." He managed to maneuver around to see her.
"He's not your valuable horsehe belongs to my father."
He noticed the pretty buckskin mare, then he lifted his gaze to the tall blond beauty who sat straight in the saddle. Her long slender legs hugged the animal's flanks and she controlled her horse as if she were born to ride.
"Then maybe I should be having this conversation with Mr. Calhoun."
He heard her gasp, followed by, "That's a little difficult since his death."
Thrown by the news, Johnny slowed the stallion but when the animal acted up, he turned his attention back to him.
"Please accept my condolences, Ms ."
"Jess Calhoun." She took her lariat off her saddle. "What do you need me to do?"
Back to the problem at hand. "If you can manage it, throw another rope over the stallion's head?" he asked.
"Storm. The horse's name is Night Storm."
She swung the rope overhead and it took a few tries, but she finally hit her target.
Johnny watched as Ms. Calhoun walked her mare backward, pulling the rope tight. That helped to get the animal under control. Somewhat.
"Keep it taut."
But she also needed questions answered. "Not that I don't appreciate your help, but I have no idea who you are."
"Johnny Jameson. I was on my way to see Clay Calhoun. I had no idea about his death." He wasn't sure what else to say. "I spoke with your father last September in Dallas at a horse auction. He'd asked me to come to the ranch then, but I had a job to finish first and it went on a lot longer than planned." He tugged on the rope. Would this horse ever tire out? "I called Clay right away, but I talked with your brother Holt. He assured me that I'd be welcome whenever I arrived."
He caught the sad emotion that played across her face. "When did Clay pass away?"
"Late October. Pneumonia," she finally said. "He waited too long to see a doctor." She nodded toward the agitated animal. "Storm is Dad's horse. No one else has been able to handle him."
The stallion pawed at the ground and breathed heavily through his nostrils. Johnny tugged on the rope.
Jess watched in amazement. This tall dark stranger sure knew his way around horses. Was Jameson a horse breeder? "Wouldn't want to buy a stallion real cheap, would you?"
He grinned. "Don't be so anxious to get rid of him. Like you said, he's a valuable animal. I think he's also the horse your father wanted me to work with."
Johnny Jameson was dressed in the standard cowboy uniformjeans and Western-yoked shirt. His wide-brim Stetson shadowed his face, but she could see the chiseled cheekbones and deep-set eyes. When he tipped his head back she caught a glimpse of the gray color of his eyes and felt a tingle of awareness.
No. She wouldn't fall for another cowboy. She took out her cell phone and called Wes. She gave him her location. "More help will be here soon."
They stayed busy with the horse until finally the group of riders came over the hill.
The foreman climbed down from his horse. "Damn, Jess. Your daddy would be proud."
"I didn't do this," she said as one of the men, Will Hinkle, took the rope, relieving her of her job. "Mr. Jameson here caught him."
Wes turned to the man. "I'd shake your hand, but I see you're busy." He paused. "Did you say Jameson? Johnny Jameson?"
The forty-five-year-old Wes grinned. "Well, I'll be damned. You finally made it to our part of Texas."
Jess didn't like being left out. "Finally made it?"
Wes smiled. "Mr. Jameson is one of the top horse trainers around. I remember when Clay got back from Dallas. He was so excited and hopeful about Johnny coming to work with us."
Jameson turned those amazing gray eyes toward her. "Your father and I talked at length. As I said, he's the one who hired me. Thing is, do I still have a job?"