Release date: September 11, 2018
Mr. GW Moore was what Victoria would have called a pistol. Here in his elegantly appointed drawing room, the man sat ramrod straight—impressive posture for an eighty-year-old man—and ran a gnarled hand through his shock of silver hair. His bright green eyes betrayed a sharp mind—even if he couldn’t see past his nose. His bushy, silver mustache wiggled as she and Eleanor sat down on the settee opposite him.
“Eleanor, is your daughter as pretty as she smells?”
Victoria had known a lot of men in her life and was wise to their wiles. This old goat only sought to charm them, not express a lecherous heart. Before her mother could answer, Victoria tossed her braid over her shoulder and leaned forward. “If you can’t see me, it doesn’t matter, but we’ll go with prettier.” The little surviving ember of humor surprised her.
The old gentleman chuckled and ruffled his black string tie. “You’ve brought me a firecracker, Eleanor. Can I keep up?”
“I’m honestly not sure, GW.” Eleanor winked at her daughter. “It should be fun watching you try.”
For the first time in months, Victoria thought about smiling. In the end, she didn’t. “How many hours will you be needing me, Mr.—”
“GW. Call me GW. Everybody does.”
“And I reckon as many hours as you can stand me. I’m not ready to retire from the newspaper or running this ranch. I’ve got everything from editorials to write, to ledgers to read, to horseflesh and cattle to assay.”
“I don’t know anything about judging horses or cattle.”
The old man grinned. She only knew because his mustache seemed to spread a little. “You will.” He reached down beside his chair and produced a cane. “Let’s take a walk.”
Not shy about his intended use for Victoria, he clutched her arm and verbally directed her around his home—a comfortable, adobe-style house done up in velvet furniture, Indian blankets on the walls, Spanish tile on the floor. The three of them exited out the patio at the rear of the house.
“Now, I’ll show you one of my new projects.”
The three of them ambled out toward the corral. Ranch hands scurried around the place like ants, leading horses, driving wagons loaded with everything from fence materials to hay, and trotting off into the prairie after scattered herds. The gentle hills around GW’s ranch were peppered with moving dark patches of milling cattle and cowboys whistling and swinging ropes to drive them. Off toward the west, closer in than the cattle, a herd of horses, at least a couple hundred head, grazed lazily in the waist-high grass.
A screaming, ornery horse’s neigh snatched her attention back to the corral as they approached.
“Oh, I wish I could see her well, Victoria. I hear she’s something.” Sadness and awe warred in GW’s voice as he leaned on the top rail.
A glistening, muscular bay mare with four white socks stood quivering on the far side of the corral. Sleek and sassy, she whipped her head about nervously and pawed the ground. A cowboy, blond hair flowing from beneath his sweat-stained hat, hands hanging at his sides, slowly approached the animal. Victoria caught the hint of a hitch in his step and wondered if the horse had caused it.
Suddenly, the horse seemed to decide Toby was too close. She neighed angrily again, pinned her ears and bolted to a new spot, positioning herself against the fence, but between the man and the newly-arrived spectators.
Victoria wondered who this extremely patient cowboy was. Tall, heavy with muscle, he moved more like a panther than a man as he pivoted calmly toward the animal. He was, she guessed, a few years younger than she, somewhere in his late twenties. Blond, in need of a shave, but easy to look at with his high cheekbones and dimpled chin, Victoria figured he must have a long trail of broken hearts behind him.
The cowboy paused, seemed to reconsider his interaction with the horse, and suddenly turned away from her. His stride heavier, more determined, but betraying a slight limp, he marched over to his audience. “I need to give her a minute.”
“Toby, you know Eleanor,” GW said, motioning to the ladies. “This is her daughter Victoria.”
Sapphire eyes warm with cheer, he raised and dropped his stained white hat in greeting to the ladies. “Miss Eleanor, I’m looking forward to our next meal with you. Miss Victoria…” His gaze lingered. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Is that horse as pretty as Toby says?” the old man asked the ladies.
Victoria thought of her previous answer to the similar question about her. “Prettier.”
GW frowned at her, bushy eyebrows colliding. “That your answer for everything?”
“No, just when it’s the truth. But what about her feet?”
“Oh, pshaw,” he waved in annoyance. “You don’t believe that old wives’ tale?”
“Four white socks, keep him not a day—” Victoria wagged a finger.
“Three white socks,” Eleanor chimed in, leaning on the fence, “send him far away. Two white socks, give him to a friend.”
“One white sock,” Toby finished, grinning, “keep him to his end.”
“And I suppose none of you walk under a ladder either.” GW jammed his cane through the fence toward the animal. “Her feet are fine. I hear she’s really something to see.”
“She is stunning, GW,” Victoria said, done teasing. “Simply stunning.”
“Maybe I’ll take one more run at making friends with her,” Toby said, pushing off the fence. Calmly, he strode to the center of the corral. Yes, Victoria caught the hitch in his step this second time.
The horse was a beauty, but Victoria would have to be the blind one here to miss the mean streak in her. Ears pinned impossibly flat, the mare lowered her head, and spun her backside around to Toby, positioning for a kick.
Just aching to make his limp more pronounced, aren’t you, girl?
“Why isn’t she broke?” Victoria asked GW, curious why a four- or five-year-old horse hadn’t been under saddle yet.
“Ah,” he pointed a finger to heaven. “Therein lies the project part I mentioned. Toby there isn’t trying to break her, he’s trying to heal her.”
“Heal her?” Victoria quickly looked the animal over. She didn’t see any obvious wounds. “What happened to her?”
“She’s been abused,” the old man said quietly. “Folks too heavy on the crop. Finally wound up with a farmer over in Lawrence. He flat-out beat her trying to break her. All he did, though, was make her mean.”
GW cut his eyes at Victoria. “You a parrot?”
She nearly smiled again.
“She killed the farmer,” Toby answered without raising his voice. “Stomped him into a bloody puddle of sausage.” His right hand drifted to his thigh as if it pained him. “To top it off, she’s treacherous. She’ll let you get close to her then all of a sudden she explodes like a cannonball and tries to run you down.”
Raging against the world, huh, girl? Victoria couldn’t deny a certain sympathy for the animal. “She doesn’t sound mean. She sounds like she’s not going to take it anymore.”
GW seemed to think about that for a minute. “Reckon that’s one way to look at it.”
Worry lines dragged Eleanor’s face down as she watched the horse prance and snort. “Horses like that are dangerous. She’s liable to kill somebody else. Like Toby there.”
“Aw, he’s pretty fast, in spite of his bad leg.” The old man shrugged. “I don’t know, I can’t convince myself she’s a lost cause. Toby there is the best horse wrangler I’ve ever had. He doesn’t think she’s a lost cause, either. She just needs to know…”
“She can trust you?” Victoria offered.
“No, it’s more than that.” Toby walked away from the horse and joined the group at the fence. “A horse that damaged. It’s hard to explain. I’ll bring her around, though.”
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