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"I ain't afraid to love a man. But I ain't afraid to shoot him, either."
— Annie Oakley
"Gabe Dalton, you shouldn't be handling a horse like that."
Jamie Dodge was firing on all cylinders right now, her adrenaline hopped up from the punishing ride she'd just taken with one of the mares, out on a trail behind the Dalton ranch. She'd pushed the horse and the horse had pushed back, more fire in her system than anyone had suspected.
It made Jamie happy to feel the old girl exhibit so much spirit. A great many of the horses that had recently come to the ranch were — according to Gabe — old and burned out, or abused.
Gabe Dalton had been in the process of turning his family's ranch into something of a sanctuary for horses that had come to the end of their usefulness, either in the rodeo or with their previous owners. He'd hired Jamie to lend her expertise to the endeavor, and today was her very first day on the job.
A rodeo cowboy, Gabe had told her it had been so long since he'd handled horses out of the arena, he'd wanted someone who had experience working with older animals.
Jamie had been doing just that on her brother's ranch for the past year and a half. Finding horses who were slow and gentle, and good for the beginners they often took out on rides at Get Out of Dodge, the guest ranch she worked with her family.
But when Gabe had offered her a chance to flex her muscles and work with him, to gain a little independence and make way more money than her brother was paying her, she'd jumped at the chance.
Gabe Dalton was a legend, who theoretically made women swoon across county and state lines. She had been told — by a breathless woman in the feed store who was clearly a rodeo fan — that Jamie working under Gabe made her an object of pure envy.
Jamie had fought to keep from rolling her eyes.
Gabe was perfectly symmetrical. And muscular. If you were into that kind of thing. And she was ... well, she had other things on her mind.
Today had been perfection in many ways. She'd been feeling increasingly lost on the Get Out of Dodge ranch, not because the work wasn't great. It was. She loved leading trail rides for the guests at the ranch.
It was ... the surrounding part of it. Everyone had paired off.
It was like springtime in an old cartoon. Her brothers were all married or engaged, her best friends were in relationships ...
And Jamie felt a little bit lost.
But not here. Not right now. And not when it came to horses.
Animals made sense. And to Jamie, horses made the most sense of all.
"You have a problem, Jamie?"
She was doing her best to keep her spiked adrenaline under control. To be ... nice. She'd been told, on a few occasions, that her direct manner of communication was off-putting sometimes.
"I just feel," she said, searching for some tact somewhere inside her, "that perhaps you could handle Gus a bit differently."
Gabe looked down at her from his position on the horse, his eyes shadowed by the brim of his cowboy hat. His large, weathered hand pulled back on the reins and he dismounted, muscles in motion from his forearms down to his denim-clad thighs.
He made for a striking visual, that was for sure. His horse there in the center of the arena, the white fence and manicured arenas, encircled by the bright green lawn, a stark contrast to the wildness that hemmed in the ranch itself.
Thick groves of pine trees that bled up the sides of the jagged mountains that closed in all around them.
It was a familiar sight, in every single way.
And for just a moment, her confidence faltered.
He was familiar in every way. A cowboy like the kind she'd grown up with. But when his eyes clashed with hers there was an unfamiliar echo in her stomach. It made her feel hot underneath her skin, and shaky down in her center.
She didn't like it at all.
Jamie Dodge wasn't a woman who wasted time on insecurity and uncertainty. She'd had to grow up fast, and she'd had to grow up tough. Living in a house populated entirely by men meant learning how to meet them on their level.
And so she'd done that.
Her father had been a man with a ranch to run and four kids to raise, with no wife to help him. Her brothers had been older. Gods, in her estimation, or something a little bit less perfect but no less unbreakable.
She'd wanted to be just like them.
There was no doubt about it; her older brother Wyatt wouldn't be standing there like a guppy, staring at Gabe Dalton just because the muscle in his forearm had twitched.
It was normal to appreciate something like that. He was — she thought — a bit like a quality piece of horseflesh.
But that was just a little visual appreciation. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing at all to get wound up about.
"He's sensitive," she said, planting her boot against the bottom rung of the fence. She gripped the top rail, launching herself up over the top, jumping down into the fine arena dirt, a small cloud rising up around her.
One piercing blue gaze wasn't going to turn her into a giggly feed-store girl. Giggling was for other women. Women who didn't have goals of getting themselves into the rodeo by next season.
Women who'd grown up with mothers with soft voices and soft embraces. Who could afford to take risks because they knew they had a safe place to land if they fell.
The only thing Jamie knew she could count on was that if she fell — no matter how hard the ground — she'd pick herself back up.
From the time she could remember, when she had fallen down and scraped her knee, she wiped the blood on her palm, and wiped her palm on her jeans. Gone on with her day, not letting a single tear escape. She learned to suck it up and to buck up.
"I know when it comes to riding saddle bronc and dealing with horses who have a lot of fight, you're one of the best. But trust me on this. I know these kinds of horses. This one is skittish," she said, approaching the horse slowly. "And handling him like you are is just ..." She did her best to find some words that weren't overtly confrontational and it was damned hard.
She'd been raised by a man who didn't mince words.
There hadn't been a whole lot of softness in Jamie's life, and that was fine by her. The fact was, she preferred direct methods of communication. Often things like this seemed unnecessary to her. But he was the boss and she was the employee. So she had to figure out some kind of way.
"Horses like Gus, who have a lot of trauma and a lot of years behind them, need a different kind of intuition. It's not just which way they'll move, it's why they're moving that way," she said.
"He was doing fine for me," he said, looking at the old gelding that he'd been riding only a few moments before.
She shook her head. "He did a lot better with me this morning. He's balking. Pulling against your reins. He doesn't like it." Really, there was no point mincing words here. "He doesn't like you."
"All right, what's the problem?" He crossed his arms, and her eyes flickered to his forearms. They were streaked with dirt and muscle, and there was a cut right next to his elbow that was just beginning to heal.
She returned her focus to his face. She could see his eyes, now that she was closer. Along with the hard, square cut of his jaw and the firm, set line of his lips.
He was not happy with her.
Too bad. She wasn't happy with him.
"He's got a soft mouth," she said. "You need to be more sensitive to that."
"Horses are big-ass animals who don't need to be babied."
She fought to keep her eyes from visibly rolling back in her head. "In general, I agree with you. But we are getting horses from all different backgrounds, and some of them will need to be babied. I have a firm hand, and I lay out expectations with my animals. But you also have to know when you need to be a little bit more forgiving. And Gus here needs forgiveness."
Also, a rider who doesn't have his head up his ass.
Biting her tongue through that last part was a personal victory.
"Why is it you think you know better than I do?"
"You're a rodeo cowboy," she said slowly. "What you do is a specific thing. Your type ... I know all about your type."
Gabe snorted, pulling his hat off his head and running his hand through his dark hair. "Really?"
"I was raised in a house with cowboys. Believe me. I've had enough exposure to make me immune to your charm, and also give me enough insight to know that a lot of times you're leading with your ego."
"You don't think I could possibly just have a different take than you on what Gus needs?"
Her patience frayed, then snapped. "If so, it's the wrong take."
"Little girl," he said, his eyes going hard, his mouth firm. "I hired you to work for me. I hired you to assist me. I didn't hire you to tell me what to do."
She didn't apologize, because she knew Wyatt wouldn't have. Because she knew it was how he would have talked to someone in this situation. Straight up.
Wyatt wouldn't have ignored being called little girl. But Jamie figured since he was her boss, she'd let it go. "You've taken on a lot here."
"You don't need to tell me what I already know. But between the horses I had already agreed to take in that were retired from the rodeo, and the horses that came from that farm Bea told me about, I didn't have much choice. I wasn't going to turn them down. They didn't have another place to go."
"And that's real sad, but we have to make sure we can do good by the horses, too. I understand that your goal is to make it so they can go to families. Less experienced riders who need gentle mounts. But we are going to have to make gentle mounts out of them."
"Yes," he said drily. "I am aware of my goals. And that is why I hired you."
"I'm the best you're gonna find," she said confidently.
She didn't have any trouble claiming her expertise. That was the thing. If horsemanship was only about training, then she supposed people could assume that at twenty-five she didn't have the necessary experience to back up her confidence. But it wasn't about age or experience, not alone. So much of it was about instinct and a connection to the animal. About having a good sense for how to work with each individual horse.
Her experience had come from barrel racing, from years working the family dude ranch, where she had managed finding and training new horses for experienced and inexperienced riders alike.
From where she was standing, it looked to her like Gabe Dalton only knew how to do one thing. He knew how to ride bucking broncos. Hard and fast. She didn't think he knew how to sense the different personalities of the animals he was working with. Not intuitively.
"Let me ask you a question," she said, crossing her arms and cocking her hip to the side. Her tank top bunched up at the front, her shapeless jeans stiff against the movement.
Her friend Bea often gave her grief for buying unisex clothing at a farm supply store. But Jamie found that it was serviceable enough. Except for some reason, standing there in front of Gabe, it all felt a little bit ill fitting.
"Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to work with horses like this? I mean, obviously you can ride."
I guess. For eight seconds at a time. If you're lucky.
"I think you and I both know luck is part of it." His words so unerringly mirrored her thoughts for a moment she was afraid she'd said it all out loud. "But since you asked, I am a damn good rider, thank you very much."
"A certain kind of riding," she said. "This is different. I have a lot of experience with training horses who are older, and who need to be made into safe mounts. A lot of it isn't training so much as an evaluation. You have to know who has the temperament. And they all won't. Some horses are just a lot more hot-blooded than others. A lot more skittish. Now, there are still things we can do with them ..."
"You're right, Jamie. I don't have experience with that. But it could be argued that there is some intelligence in knowing that, and in the hiring of you."
"Well," she said, approaching the big horse, Gus, that Gabe had been on. "I think that Gus has a pretty good chance at being made into the perfect horse for someone older. Kids could ride him, I guess, but he's big, and that will be difficult for them, and I imagine parents will be naturally leery of a horse his size. He is skittish, but I think that's circumstantial, more than his temperament. The fact that he has a soft mouth means that he is responsive. And that will also be good for an older, less experienced rider. Actually, when we're through training Gus, I think that we could use him at Get Out of Dodge."
"Is that so?" He was like a wall. Totally unimpressed with her. And also totally not intimidated by her.
She didn't know what to do with that.
"Yes. We get a lot of people coming to the ranch who don't necessarily have experience with horses, but want to learn. A lot of people later in life who've never been on one."
"It must be an interesting job that you have over there."
She blinked, unsure of what to do with the way he'd taken the conversation and turned it to her. He sounded sincere, that was the weird part. Not like he was mocking her, and all things considered, she'd have expected mockery.
That was how her brothers would have behaved.
But not Gabe, apparently.
"It's fine." It was a job that she was going to be taking a break from in the next year. After she'd saved enough money to get herself on the road with the rodeo. After she'd found the right horse, and done all the work she needed to do in order to not ... humiliate herself barrel racing.
Wyatt was a rodeo legend. A bull rider who'd won the championships four times.
Jamie wanted to make her own mark in the rodeo. Oh, she knew barrel racing didn't command quite the enthusiasm from the crowd the bulls did. But she wanted to succeed on her own. On her own merit.
She wanted to get out and do things on her own. She needed to.
She'd been in Gold Valley all this time. The most distance she'd gotten from her family was working at a Western-themed store in town called The Gunslinger. Otherwise, she lived on the ranch, worked on the ranch.
Her life revolved around it. Around them.
She knew that her father and brothers all felt like they took care of her. Right down to Wyatt being completely and utterly disapproving of her taking a job with Gabe Dalton. He'd been on her about it ever since Gabe had approached her about the job a few months earlier, which was ridiculous. He'd given them plenty of time to sort out schedules. Really, it had been overly planned. Which seemed to make Wyatt even more obnoxious.
As if Gabe was planning to seduce her or something.
As if he could.
Hell, she'd grown up in a house full of men just like him, and those men had brought their friends around. Had brought other rodeo cowboys around.
They smelled. They left the toilet seat up. They hit on everything that moved. She'd spent her life picking around men's underwear in the clothing baskets, had been rinsing whiskers out of the sink with great distaste since she was ten.
Between her father and her older brothers, men had been pretty thoroughly demystified.
Body odor, constant swearing, jockstraps, asshole behavior ... Gabe was watching her while she mused, his lips tipped up slightly as if he could read her mind.
"Does Wyatt give you a lot of freedom?"
She snorted, the action loosening some of the tension in her chest. "Wyatt doesn't give me anything. I work at our family ranch. Otherwise, I do what I want."
Cowboys were not her type. Not at all. She supposed that in order for them to be interesting at all, their behavior had to seem romantic.
And to her, it just wasn't. But then, Jamie wasn't a romantic. She was a practical kind of girl. She was well aware of the way the world worked, well aware of the way cowboys worked.
Her desire to get back into riding had nothing to do with cowboys, as a matter of fact. She was always much less interested in a man on the horse than she was in the horse he was riding.
If she was going to be interested in a man — and someday she supposed she'd find one — it wouldn't be one like that.
Gabe Dalton was exactly the kind of man she was immune to.
But Wyatt worried.
What Wyatt didn't understand was that she had always taken care of herself. But until she wasn't right at home, he was always going to feel like that was his responsibility.
Jamie had learned early on how to be self-sufficient.
Babies didn't choose to be born, and they definitely didn't choose the manner in which they were born.
Jamie certainly hadn't chosen to cause a blood clot that led to her mother's death days later.
But the fact of the matter was her mother had essentially traded her life for Jamie's.
The boys and her father had lost her, and gained Jamie.
In return, Jamie had done her best to be tough. To be like them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboy to the Core"
Copyright © 2019 Maisey Yates.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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