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The barefaced loner with the long, brown hair and the distance runner's body was a woman apart. She was no fence-sitter, no small-talker, no crowd-joiner. She had come for the horses and nothing else.
Logan Wolf Track liked her already.
He would likely change his mind before the day was over but being drawn to her at first sight counted for something. His hard-earned instincts rarely failed him. He knew a kindred spirit when he saw one. Whether he could work with her, kindred or otherwise, was something else. Twenty thousand dollars worth of something else, he told himself as he approached the woman.
He had come for the horses and the money.
South Dakota's Double D Wild Horse Sanctuary was filled to capacity with horses the Bureau of Land Management had placed in the care of sisters Sally Drexler and Ann Drexler Beaudry, but the horse-loving women—particularly Sally—were hell-bent on making room for more. A bottleneck in the BLM's wild horse adoption program—plenty of adoptees, few adopters—had the ever-resourceful Sally coming up with a plan for every letter in the alphabet.
Logan wanted in on her latest production. Thanks to Ann's rich brother-in-law, Sally had found a sponsor for "Mustang Sally's Makeover Challenge." Trainers had three months to show the world that wild horses could be made into excellent mounts. The reward had Logan's name written all over it. Not only the cash, but the cachet. His way with horses was like no one else's, and he'd written a book on the subject. Not that he'd sold many copies, but that didn't mean it wasn't a great book. All his training method needed was a little publicity, and winning Sally's contest could bring him that.
Unfortunately, Sally had thrown him a curve.
In the shape of an hourglass.
"Did they turn you down?" he asked the woman's back. He knew her first name, but she would have to give it to him before he'd use it. She was watching a dozen young horses chase each other around in a holding pen. Another handful had just been released into a nearby pasture, which put the captives in a tizzy.
The woman turned and drilled him with a look. Killer eyes. She knew it, too. She held Logan's gaze long enough to let him know he'd interrupted something. Then she looked down at the crumpled paper in his fist.
"Sally's right. I'm not qualified to train a wild horse." She looked up. That quickly the color of her eyes had gone from icy gray to cool blue. "It sounds really exciting, but realistically, I don't have that much time." She squinted against the sun. "What about you?"
"I'm too qualified." Logan gave half a smile. The woman wore a reserved expression on a pleasing face. No makeup, no pretense, nothing fancy. A good face, easily read. Her time in the sun had not been spent on the beach. She took care of herself, but pampering was not on her schedule. And she kept a schedule. "Sally tried to pull some conflict of interest excuse on me, but I know better."
The woman tipped her head to the side, genuinely curious, still squinting. Logan's straw cowboy hat shaded his face. He had the advantage. He could see her just fine. "What are you interested in?" she asked.
"Training horses. But I'm on the Lakota Tribal Council—Lakota Sioux—and I guess you could say we're supporting Sally's training competition in a roundabout way. We just decided to lease a bunch more land for the wild horse sanctuary. It's true I talked it up and voted for it." He turned to watch the horses. "But I still don't see it. The Tribe isn't putting up prize money or judges, nothing like that."
"If she's gonna be that picky, she won't have anyone competing." She turned, too. They stood side by side, nearly shoulder to shoulder, sharing a common disappointment. "I train dogs," she reported.
He knew that. He suspected he had the advantage there, too. On the heels of his rejection, Sally had pointed the woman out to him through the office window. His wasn't the only application she couldn't approve, but she hated to turn good people down flat. Where there was a will, there might be a way.
"If you're good at it, that's experience in my book," Logan allowed. "Which one do you like?"
"That one." She pointed to a gelding the color of river water. His dark mane, tail and dorsal stripe were signs that his mustang ancestry went way back. "He doesn't want to be here, any more than the rest of them, but he's here, and he'll deal with it intelligently. You can see it in his eyes."
"You think he's intelligent?"
"In his world he is. He'll take cues from someone who knows how to give them."
"What would you use him for?" He met her quizzical glance with more test questions. "That's what the competition is about, right? Making him useful?"
"I'd ride him. I'd gentle him so that a child could ride him."
"Do you have one in mind?" He glanced away. "A kid to show the horse at the end of the competition."
"I just meant he'd be that gentle. Gentle enough for anyone to ride." Her voice softened. "It's been a long time since I've been around children."
"Where's your dog?"
"Halfway across the world." She turned to him, shoulders squared, right hand his for the shaking. "Mary Tutan. Sergeant Mary Tutan, U.S. Army. Home on leave."
"Logan Wolf Track. Home to stay."
"Lucky you." Her hand slid away. He wasn't a shaker. In his world hands greeted without pressure, palm to palm. He liked her friendly smile. "Sally and I have been friends since we were kids, and I really love what she's doing here. Just so you know, whatever her side is, I'm on it." Her straight hair flew back from her face as she turned it into the soft summer wind. "That paint is nice, too. And I like the pretty red roan."
"You wanna win this thing, or not?"
She gave a quick laugh. "If I were in it, I'd be in it to win it."
"The paint's too narrow across the shoulders, and that roan is walleyed."
"Same thing. In this case you're not lookin' to see the whites of their eyes. Same with dogs, right? All you wanna see in the eyes is color." Forearms braced on the fence rail, he glanced past his shoulder and met her studied gaze. She was taking mental notes. He nodded. "I like your first choice."
"Me, too. If wishes were horses, that's the one I'd ride."
"I can make that wish come true for you. If you're serious." Her eyes questioned him again. "Your friend Sally has something up her sleeve. Maybe you know what it is."
"An arm." She smiled. "Sally plays by the rules. She doesn't pull tricks. I'm sure she'd love to—"
"That's exactly what she said. She'd love to have me compete, but she wants me to take on a partner, and she strongly suggested you." Surprised? Check. Nothing up Mary Tutan's short, unrestricted sleeve. Open for further explanation. "You apply for the competition. You train the horse. I train you."
"She said that?"
Recalling his own reaction—less surprise, more irritation—Logan chuckled. "I think she's making up the rules as she goes along, which makes it easy to play by them if you're Sally. Thing is, I like Sally and I might just be willing to give her game a shot. How about you?"
She searched his face for signs of sense. "I only have thirty days."
"I have whatever it takes." He smiled. "And then some."
"That makes you an interesting man, Mr. Wolf Track."
"With an interesting proposition," she allowed, which surprised him. "But what's in it for you?"
He lifted one shoulder. "My regular fee or a share of the prize money, whichever way you wanna go."
"I doubt that I could afford your fee. And I wouldn't do it for the money." She turned her attention to the gelding. "I love horses."
"Perfect. You do it for love. I'll do it for money." She laughed. He didn't. "I'm serious."
"Yeah, well, I'm—"
"Sergeant Mary Tutan, who says she wishes she could ride that horse. I'm saying I can make your wish come true if you're willing to put the prize money where your mouth is." She stared. He smiled. "And I can do it in thirty days."
"What about the other sixty?"
"That's for the kid." She frowned, and he elaborated. "The one we're gonna get to show the horse."
"I can't. I'd love to, but I just…" Here it came. The backpedaling. "I really just came to see my mother. I can't stay. I don't know why Sally would suggest that you partner up with me." She hit a rock and stopped pedaling. "Something to do with my father?"
"I don't know your father."
"Dan Tutan? He has a ranch right up the road. He leases Indian land."
"You think I know every rancher who leases Indian land?" He glanced away. A little disingenuous, there, Wolf Track. Some of the tribal land Dan Tutan had been leasing was about to become part of the Double D Wild Horse Sanctuary. "I know who he is. That doesn't mean I know him. All I know about Sally's suggestion is that she vouches for you personally, and she thinks you'd like to, love to enter 'Mustang Sally's Makeover Challenge' but you need a horse trainer. I'm the best there is."
Mary stared at the house, shook her head and muttered, "Sally, Sally, Sally."
"So how about you fill out the papers and we get started?"
"Just like that?"
"You're the one who's only got thirty days."
She gave him one of those little head shakes peculiar to women. I would, but there's this problem. "I'd want to be able to show him myself, and I'm not the best rider."
"We'll train him for Western pleasure. I don't care who shows him."
"You want to win this thing or not?" she mimicked.
He shrugged. "We don't win, I get nothing. You give me the money, honey, I'll put in the time."
"What about the love?"
"That I can't help you with."
"You don't have to. I really would love to do this. It would be…" She crossed her arms and hugged herself. "I'm feelin' it already."
"Well, there you go."
"Where?" She leaned closer. "Where do I go? I mean, where would we do this? And how would we—"
He laid his hand on her shoulder. "You sign the papers and leave the rest up to me."
The Drexlers' rambling old house had long been a second home for Mary. As a girl she'd sometimes pretended it was her first home. And then she'd thought about Mother and mentally flagellated herself. Even with those days long gone, she entered the mudroom through the squeaky screen door and boxed those old, familiar feelings around. Ah, yes, the door—oh, damn, it isn't mine. She was greeted by a sweet yellow dog, ignored by an old calico cat.
"Come on in," called a beloved voice.
"It's me again," Mary called back as she signaled the dog to stay and the man to come.
"In the office, you again."
Mary led the way through sunny kitchen, comfy living room and dim foyer to present herself in the doorway to Sally's office-by-day, bedroom-by-night. She took a parade rest stance.
"Okay, girlfriend, just what are the rules for this contest you've got going here?"
Sally spun her ergonomically correct chair away from the computer desk and grinned. "I see you two found each other."
"Surprise, surprise. You said I wasn't qualified to enter, but then you told…" Mary stepped aside, ceding the doorway to her companion.
"Logan," Sally prompted, "that he couldn't have a horse because he's on the Tribal Council, and they lease us a lot of land for which we are enormously grateful. And I told him you're somebody who's interested in the challenge and might be able to get a horse, but you'd need to work with somebody who knows horses." Sally bounced her eyebeams between visiting faces. "Perfect Jack Sprat kind of a deal, don't you think?"
"I have to be in Fort Hood in thirty days."
"So, you'd be in Texas. It's not like you'd be on the moon. Not quite. I've got applications from as far away as…" Sally snatched a paper from one of three wire baskets—red, gray and green—on the corner of her desk. She adjusted her glasses and focused on the top of the page. "Here's one from New York. Now that's a different world. She says she lives on a reservation. Are there real Indians in New York?"
"All kinds," Logan said.
"Good. I want all kinds of distribution.