When team roper Evan Marshall's, horse dies during the middle of the season, he gets more than he bargains for with his replacement horse. Gus is the perfect roping horse, but he's costing Evan a fortune in cell phones. The horse hates cell phones. Â As if the addition of Gus into Evan's life isn't enough to turn it upside down, Evan has a secret admirer. A secret admirer who is darn good at loving him and leaving him without a hint of who he is.
When shapeshifter Aaron Two Spirits decided to play horse for Evan, he never envisioned falling in love. The plan was to go along for the ride and maybe a fling or two. But when Evan finds himself the target of a couple of bull riders, Aaron stops at nothing, even discovery, to save him.
This has been previously published.
Evan looked out the passenger side of his truck, trying to keep his mind off Buck. It was probably a good thing Mark was driving. Every time Evan started thinking about his horse he got all depressed. Buck should have had a few more years in him. Why'd he have to go and die while they were on the road? Right in the middle of the season no less. Evan pulled his hat down further over his eyes. The sun was making them all watery.
It was bad enough Evan lost a friend and companion, but he was going to have to come up with the dough to buy a new horse, too. Not just a new horse, but one trained for roping. He didn't have time, or the heart, to break in a new mount. He wanted Buck back. Hell, he still had that box of sugar cubes in the glove box for Buck.
"Quit brooding, Evan. Everything will work out. If you need it, you can use some of my prize money. This is one of the best horse ranches in the country. Two Spirits Ranch is known for their roping and barrel-racing stock. Damn lucky we were in New Mexico anyway." Mark made a left hand turn onto a dirt road.
"Easy for you to say. Dotty is in the trailer behind us." Evan looked out the back window, checking on Dotty, Mark's horse. Dotty was a good girl. She probably missed Buck too.
Michael Martin Murphy's "Wildfire," came on the radio. Damn. Talk about timing. No way could he listen to that song right now. Buck had been given to Evan by his parents on Evan's tenth birthday. Evan blinked back tears-damned sun-and reached for his truck radio and flipped channels, finding a classic rock station.
Mark groaned. "I miss Buck, too. Hell, he's been with us since we started, but we don't have time to dwell on it. Listen, I talked to the owner's son, Adam, and he's waiting on us. He's said he'd even set us up some calves to practice on. They have a small practice arena on site."
Thank God for small favors. Evan nodded. He wanted to be mad at Mark for his cold, pragmatic attitude, but Mark was right, they didn't have time for a pity party. "It cost me five hundred to have him picked up from the stables and cremated. I still have twelve grand in savings, but it's going to be tight. Buying this truck last season really put a crimp in things. I guess I can have my mom and dad wire me more if I need it."
"Nah, no need. I've got about ten grand in savings. We'll make it. It shouldn't be more than around ten to twelve grand. Assuming you get a good one and we win some prize money, you'll be back on track in no time. I won't even charge you interest." Mark chuckled, punching Evan in the shoulder, then taking another left.
Evan chuckled too. Interest was a standing joke with them. Mark's parents weren't very understanding about Mark roping for a living. Anytime Mark borrowed money from his folks, he got charged ten percent interest. Needless to say, Mark hadn't borrowed from them in years. "I should say not. I bought that damned saddle for you last season when yours got stolen."
"Wow." Mark's eyes widened, then a slow smile crept across his face.
The sheer awe in Mark's voice told Evan he wasn't talking about the no interest comment. Evan glanced forward to see what his friend was looking at. "Whoa." The place was huge and picturesque. It was a scene right out of a picture book, or a contemporary western movie. A white vinyl fence ran all around the property, right up to the front gates. Over the entrance was a sign that read Two Spirits Ranch branded into an oblong piece of wood. It was everything Evan dreamed of having one day. A big white house on a hill came into view as they drove up the winding dirt road. Barns, corrals, stables and what must be the small arena Mark mentioned dotted the left side of the property a few hundred yards before the main house. Small, my foot. It was easily the size of any arena Evan had ridden in, bigger than the corral where they practiced on Evan's parent's farm. Quarter Horses, Appaloosas and Paints milled about the pastures.
"Yeah, I knew it was big, but damn. If we can't find you a horse here we might as well pack it up and go home."
Evan watched a black horse with white socks and a white diamond on his forehead run by as they drove over a cattle guard. Oh man. He was beautiful. Evan stared, turning back over his shoulder to watch the horse out of the back window until the trailer blocked his view. "I'm more concerned about affording one. I've no doubt I can find one I like." He was starting to get a little excited. He loved Buck, but he hadn't gotten to pick him out. Actually, he'd never gotten to buy a horse. The possibility made the tightness in Evan's chest ease a bit, but then guilt set in, wilting the budding excitement. He felt like a traitor.
A dark man with long black hair, a gray cowboy hat, mirrored Ray-Bans and a light blue shirt waved to them as Mark pulled the truck to a stop in front of the corral. "I bet that's Adam. He and his brother run the place, now that their father retired."
Evan unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door. Traitor or not, he had to have a horse. Buck would understand.
He and Mark met the man at the fence.
"Mark Hammond and Evan Marshall?" The man asked as he approached. He was tall and lean, with a cowboy's build. When he got closer, Evan realized he was also Native American and very handsome. He appeared to be a little older than Evan and Mark, maybe in his early thirties.
"You must be Adam Two Spirits?" Mark extended his hand. "I'm Mark. This here is Evan."
"I am. Nice to meet you both." Adam shook Mark's hand then Evan's. "I've seen the two of you rope. Last year up in Albuquerque. You're damned good." Adam dipped his head at Evan. "Sorry about your horse. Was it the buckskin you rode last season?"
"Yeah, that was him. Thanks."
The black horse Evan had watched while coming up the drive strode up to a fence catty-cornered to the corral Adam had climbed out of. He stuck his head over, nudging Evan with his nose. His eyes were the palest blue Evan had ever seen; what Evan had heard referred to as wall-eyed.
"Well, hello beautiful." Evan held his hand out to the horse, letting it smell him.
The horse sniffed Evan's hand then nuzzled his face against it like a giant cat.
Evan smiled, petting him with one hand and bringing his other around to rub the black nose. He loved the velvety feel of their noses.
Adam sighed. "Just ignore him." He shoved the horse's shoulder. "You, away, pest." He turned towards another set of buildings and motioned for Evan and Mark to follow. "Let me show you the roping horses I've got that are ready to go." He pointed to a gray building just inside the fence.
Evan patted the black beauty one last time and followed, almost reluctantly. Oddly, a sense of belonging settled over Evan. He liked this horse. They seemed to have an instant rapport. Which was just Evan being silly. Of course he liked the horse, he'd yet to meet a horse or dog he didn't like. Hell, he hadn't met one that didn't like him. He'd always had a way with animals in general. As a kid, he'd wanted to be a veterinarian.
As he got to the gate where Adam and Mark were entering towards the stables, he glanced back at the horse. It wasn't there. Oh well, he was here to find a horse, how silly would it be to settle on the first one he saw, just because it was the prettiest horse he'd even seen. For all he knew the horse wasn't even for sale, and Evan needed a roping horse, or one that was at least somewhat trained for roping.
"Evan, are you looking for anything in particular, other than being trained for heeling? You're a heeler right?" Adam asked as he opened the white gate and held it open for Evan and Mark.
"Yes, sir, that's right. I don't really care what it looks like as long as it's mostly trained and has a good disposition." Evan stepped just inside the gate.
The black horse came around the corner of the building they were heading toward. He hurried over to Evan.
Evan grinned and petted the horse. He couldn't help it. He liked the blue-eyed beauty. "What about this one?"
Adam snorted and shoved at the horse's side. "Go away." He looked back at Evan. "Believe me, I'd love to sell him to you."
"What's his name?"
"Uh...Genghis Khan." Adam led them into a large stable with around twenty stalls.
"Genghis Khan?" Mark asked with a chuckle.
Evan followed with Genghis Kahn keeping pace beside him. The horse kept rubbing his face against Evan's arm, trying to get attention. He was a real character with a nice temperament, like a great big puppy dog. Evan wrapped his hand up under Gus's neck and patted him.
"Uh, yeah. He's definitely a tyrant with delusions of world domination." Adam stopped at a stall, holding a roan quarter horse. "This is Miss Kitty. She's seven years old and-"
When Evan stopped, Genghis Kahn rested his chin on Evan's shoulder. Evan chuckled and scratched his cheek. "Is he rope-trained, Adam?"
Adam groaned and turned toward Evan and the horse. "Yeah, he helps train the- he's normally a header." He cut his attention to the horse. "What are you doing?"
Genghis Kahn snorted at Adam, put his forehead in the middle of Evan's back and started walking, nudging Evan forward.
Adam threw his hands up. "Okay, fine, you don't think Miss Kitty is right for him."
Evan chuckled, letting the horse nudge him along. They stopped in front of a stall holding a brown and white tobiano paint. It was a fine looking horse and came right up to see him, but Evan had made up his mind. He wanted the pest behind him. It didn't even matter if he wasn't used to heeling, Evan was sure any horse this smart and personable could handle what Evan needed from him. Yeah, okay, logically he was going to have to ride him first, but... "I want him."
Adam's eyes widened, then he sputtered. "But, no, I can't-"
Gus-that's what Evan was going to call him-started flipping his head up and down, neighing and pawing the stable floor with his right front foot.
"Evan, shouldn't you look around?" Mark asked.
Evan petted Gus and peeked around at Mark.
Mark stood next to a bewildered Adam with his brow scrunched. He tipped his straw hat back and scratched his head. "I don't think Adam wants to sell this one."
Adam held his hands out, a frown on his face. "I'm sorry Evan I can't-"
Gus's tail flicked, hitting Adam in the cheek, making him sputter and bat the hair away.
"Fine. You bring a saddle?" Adam asked.
Evan nodded, his spirits soaring. This was right. It felt good. Something told him Gus was going to ride like a dream.
Mark frowned. "Uh, should I go get it and saddle Dotty?"
Adam sighed again. He stepped up next to Evan, grabbed Gus's chin in his hand and stared at him for several seconds.
Gus jerked his head away and nuzzled against Evan.
"Go get your tack," Adam looked back at Mark, "and your horse and meet me in the arena around the side over there." He pointed out the end of the stables toward the main house.