The Double M Ranch, Book 1
The vibrations of hooves beating the dry ground sent Madison Preston’s heart racing. Her mount reared, someone shouted. In the blink of an eye, an arm clamped around her waist, and pulled her from the saddle. Her body slammed into a hard form and the breath rushed from her lungs. She grabbed the leather horn to keep upright, struggling under the pressure of the muscular forearm holding her in place.
“Let me go,” she hollered, bringing her captor and his beast to a halt. She wiggled, pushing away from the well-developed chest molding her back.
“If you’d quit moving I’d put you down.” Male lips grazed her ear.
“Hey.” Maddie moved her head away from the hot air caressing her neck. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Sending an elbow into the solid wall of his stomach, she twisted out of his embrace, jumped from the quarter horse and the warm thighs branding themselves into the flesh of her bottom half.
“Now look what you’ve done.” She motioned to Champ, the horse she rode, running down the field.
She turned to face the intruder and nearly tripped over her tongue. He swung his warrior-sized body out of the saddle with ease but approached her with the subtleness of a raging bull. His six-foot frame towered over her five-feet-two-inches.
“Listen, lady, I just saved you from landing on your precious backside.” He scowled down at her.
His woodsy, sweaty scent floated to her flaring nostrils. Her head swam. She stepped back. For the past two years, she’d perfected ways to ward off the opposite sex, but now her quick wit and sharp tongue had vanished. She shook her head, put her hormones in check and narrowed her eyes.
“How do you figure?” She squared her shoulders, hands on her hips.
“Champ is unpredictable on a good day.” The cowboy mocked her stance.
How dare he make fun of me! “Who are you? I'd like a name to give the sheriff. I’m sure the McNeals would want to press charges.”
Troy McNeal, part owner of the Double M Ranch and Maddie’s boss, wouldn't take kindly to trespassers. Nor would his partner, Dex Walczok.
The cowboy flicked the brim of his black Stetson. “Jake Dutson at your service, ma'am.”
Jake pushed the hat back, covering the dark brown curls on the back of his head. He stuck his thumbs into his belt loops before rocking back on his heels. He gave her a half smile. A small dimple appeared in his right cheek.
“I'm the foreman of this ranch. Didn't anyone tell you he isn’t fully broke?” He motioned toward Champ, who headed back their way.
This is the legendary Jake Dutson? Wow.
His reputation as a ladies’ man preceded him. Maddie wished someone had warned her of his arrival. From what she had been told, Jake left town on personal business weeks before she started working on the Double M and no one knew when he planned to return.
She tore her eyes away from the dimple hidden within the confines of his five o'clock shadow. She yanked off one glove, swatted her leg, and glared into his hazel eyes. Foreman or not, he didn’t have the right to talk down to her like a complete tenderfoot.
“Well, Mr. Dutson, that’s what I was trying to do before you rudely interrupted.”
“You can’t be serious!” He chuckled.
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Get over yourself, cowboy.”
She pivoted and took two steps.
“Wait.” Grabbing her arm, he spun her around.
Maddie tensed at his touch, her gaze lowered. Electric shocks shot through her. She shuddered and closed her eyes. Goose pimples rose on her skin and breathing became difficult. She raised her gaze to duel with his.
“Remove your hand from my arm.” She ordered through clenched teeth. Having dealt with an abusive boyfriend for three years, she steered clear of men like Jake. Men with massive attitudes and mammoth bodies stood for trouble.
He raised an eyebrow and withdrew his hand. He backed away with a blink. “Who hired you, darlin'?”
“My name is Maddie.” Her chin jutted out. “Dex Walczok gave me the job.”
Let Mr. Jake Foreman chew on that.
“What? When?” Jake shifted. He crossed his meaty arms over the wide expanse of his chest, doubt in his eyes.
Maddie drew in an exasperated breath. She removed her straw hat to tuck the loose strands of her raven black hair into the clip. “Three weeks ago.”
She had applied at every equestrian operation in Abilene within an hour's drive from her father's spread. No one called. Until Dex. He offered her a job training abused horses using natural horsemanship. He even took it one-step further by offering her room and board in one of the cabins tucked away on the other side of the woods.
Two months ago, she lost her job in Lubbock and returned to her hometown. She loved staying with her father for those first few weeks, but knew he needed his space, just as she did. At twenty-four, she valued her privacy. The cabin Dex offered was a stepping-stone until she saved enough money to buy a house of her own. Big enough and with a nice amount of land for her to teach barrel racing.
Her real passion in life.
“I may not be an over-sized cowboy, but I can control the horses.” She poked her finger in his direction. On any other ranch, she may be intimidated by the foreman, but being friends with Brandi, Troy's sister, gave her a certain advantage.
He stepped forward. His eyes caressed every inch of her body. “Champ's been abused. He's unpredictable and in need of a strong hand.” He picked up her fingers, gave her a sly smile. “These are too delicate.”
Wanting nothing more than to slap the smirk off his face, she jerked her hand free from his work-roughened skin.
“There's a difference between a strong hand and using the strength in it to feed your own ego.” She plunged her hand into her riding glove before looking up.
“Wait a minute. We talking about abuse here? I've never hurt an animal.” He frowned. “I happened to be looking out for your well-being when I took you off Champ's back. A simple thank you would have sufficed, without your attack on my ethics, which you know nothing about.”
“Nor do I care to. I’ll tell you what, cowboy, keep your unwanted comments to yourself and I won't attack your beliefs.” Turning, she approached her horse on shaky legs.
She grabbed Champ by the reins. He sidestepped, no doubt sensing her frustration, and pulled on the leather ropes. She blew out a mouthful of air before reaching out to pat the stallion's neck.
“I'm not mad at you, boy.” She stroked his muzzle. She placed her foot in the stirrup and mounted.
She glanced at Jake’s tight, jean encased butt as he swung into his own saddle, and tipped his hat in her direction. The man could stop a stampede with those hazel eyes and brown wavy hair falling above his shoulders. He touched his heels to his horse’s sides. His manners were in definite need of taming.
Not interested. Not this time. Hell no.
She didn't need a man in her life.
She clucked her tongue and increased the pressure of her legs on Champ’s sides. He lunged forward to a gallop.
Being attracted to Jake demonstrated her weakness for sexy cowboys. It would prove nothing short of a mistake. One she refused to make.
Men are trouble.
She repeated her beliefs over and over until she rode through the crossbars heralding the Double M twenty minutes later.
“Maddie?” Dex approached her from the side.
She took a deep breath and let her full weight rest into the saddle. Champ stopped and danced. She pulled the rein to her hip, his nose to her knee. They’d worked on the one rein stop for a week now. He wanted no part of it. When his feet seized moving, she released her hold.
Dex closed the distance between them. A concerned look marred his features. Her stomach churned at his approach.
Please, don’t let this be bad news.
She dismounted, the saddle creaking. Her mind traveled to the incident in the meadow. Dex wouldn’t fire her because of the disagreement with Jake, right? Her heart pounded in her chest. She needed this job, if not for the abused animals, for her own self-worth.
“Why don’t you call it a night? You’ve been working long enough for today.” He rested his arms on the top rung of the gate.
Maddie's shoulders relaxed. “I will after I cool Champ.”
He ran a hand through his dark hair. “Not much longer. It’s already seven, and you’ve been at it since the crack of dawn.”
She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. When did it start cooling down?
“I’ll head for home after I stable this guy.” She patted the horse on the side. The horses she worked with today did great. Even Champ, the most stubborn, gave in with little pressure.
“I almost forgot,” Dex snapped his fingers, stopping her progress. “Troy and Chell want you to come up to the main house for supper tomorrow.”
“What time?” Maddie faced him once again.
She stroked Champ’s twitching side. Dex reached out to adjust the palomino’s bridle.
“Tell them I'll be there.” She looked forward to it. She spent far too many nights eating alone.
A movement near the gate caught her eye. Jake rode through the fence, his stare never wavering from hers. With a gentle tug, she led Champ toward the smaller corral.
“Whew. I thought for sure I was going to get the ax,” she told the animal, stealing another glance in Jake’s direction. “I’m going to ignore that beast.” She nodded toward Jake. “And you’re going to stop acting like one.”
“I’m serious.” Reaching up, she rubbed his ear.
* * * *
“Come to the house for supper tomorrow.” Troy halted his mount next to the hitching post.
“Why?” Jake swung himself off the stallion's back.
“Chell wants to have a get together to welcome you back. Dex can't make it so it'll be us and one other guest.” Troy dismounted and glanced behind him.
Not missing a beat, Jake nodded toward Maddie. “She the other guest?”
Troy shifted on his feet. “Yeah.”
“She's not gonna be happy.” He tossed the stirrup over the pommel to release the girth.
Troy smiled. “Come on, I haven't seen a woman yet you couldn't charm.” He lifted his hat, ran a hand through his sandy brown hair, and replaced the straw sou'wester.
Jake gave a rough guffaw. “First time for everything.”
Her response to him should be enough to put any man off. The chip on her shoulder was bigger than the state of Texas. He looked her way again. The way her luscious curves filled the back of those blue jeans made his hands beg for contact, made southern parts of his anatomy pulsate.
He couldn't work around her. No way. He'd never be able to concentrate. Her lavender scent followed him wherever he went. She represented a definite liability to his equilibrium.
“You haven’t even been home a full day and you already had a confrontation with her?” Troy shook his head. “You’re unbelievable.”
“I thought she was in trouble. When I left, no one could get on Champ’s back. How was I supposed to know she trained him?” Someone could have warned him. He released the bridle and connected the lead rope to his horse’s halter.
“She rode him outside the pen, wouldn’t that be enough to clue you in?”
“Yeah, well I could’ve handled the work myself, ya know. Dex didn’t have to hire her.” Jake stole another glance at Maddie while he worked on the cinch holding the saddle to his mount’s back.
Troy raised his eyebrows. “We have taken in more abused horses in the past month than we can handle.” He put a hand on the horse's neck.
Jake shook his head. “You should’ve called. I would’ve come back sooner.”
Troy rolled his brown eyes. “You had family matters to get settled.”
Had he ever.
Jake walked out of his father, Nick’s, house at the tender age of sixteen. His father never bothered to try to find him until two months ago, or his lawyer did anyway. Nick had passed away, leaving Jake to handle his affairs—business and personal.
“The point is we needed an extra hand. Maddie is more than qualified.” Troy motioned in her direction. “What’s your beef with her?”
Other than her assumption of my heavy handedness, of course. Jake yanked the saddle from his horse's back. He welcomed the sweaty hide, leather mix as it swarmed his nose. Twelve years of working with the large animals did nothing to lessen the nostalgia.
“In any case, get along with her. She's here to stay.” Troy dashed away, leaving no room for Jake to comment.
Yeah, right. As if, he got along with porcupines every day.
Jake swung his gaze in her direction. The sway of her hips and dust-covered bottom moved with the gelding. Too bad her personality reminded him of a cactus. If he used a gentle hand, maybe those bristles of hers would turn to threads of silk.
Not a good idea to mix business with pleasure.
Reminded of the misunderstanding that got him fired from the outfit in Idaho six years ago, Jake tossed the saddle on the hitching post. He veered to the right, leading his horse into one of the stalls in the first barn. Four barns in total sat side by side, three of them able to hold twenty-four horses. The fourth housed numerous cows.
He removed the stallion's rope. Taking it to the tack room, he grabbed a shovel to muck out his horse’s cubicle. He plunged it into the sawdust while his mind raced.
“You have bronze, but no brains”, his father used to say. He grunted, tossing out the dung.
No brains, humph.
I'm only a few paychecks away from owning my own land.
His father never accomplished much, although Jake didn't understand why. From the size of Nick's bank account, purchasing the home he claimed to fancy during Jake's adolescent years shouldn't have been a problem.
Too much booze and women.
Jake held the means to buy his own place. He just had to find a suitable condo for his father’s tramp, Yolanda, the woman who blocked his inheritance.
He closed his eyes and sighed. His father forced his hand one last time from the grave. In order for Jake to receive his money, he had to purchase Yolanda a home first. What a turn of events. When he left home, his father believed that he’d wanted to bed Yolanda.
At the sound of a horse’s snort, Jake whirled to see Maddie, the real object of his desires. She unclasped the girth strap from under Champ’s belly. Ignoring her, he scooped another pile of waste into the load and dumped it in a nearby cart. Unable to resist, he stole another look in her direction. She pulled the saddle toward her.
He cursed under his breath. With a growl, he put the rake down. He crossed the dirt floor and grabbed the saddle from her arms.
“Hey, I can manage,” she announced in a crisp tone.
“Would it kill you to say thank you once?” He placed the burden on his shoulder.
Maddie removed the blanket and tossed it over the stall door. “I didn't ask for your help.”
“It looked like you could use a hand.”
Toss the saddle and walk away. Now.
“I've managed this far in my life without your assistance. I’m sure I can do the same for the rest of it.”
“You’re one of those, huh?” Jake nodded.
“One of what?” She placed her hand on a slender hip.
Damn, she’s hot.
“A woman who doesn’t think she needs a man. One who claims to be able to handle everything herself, yet secretly yearns for a man. Answer me this.” He lowered his voice, leaning closer to her. “Do you lie awake at night thinking of having a man next to you, whisperin' in your ear, caressin’ your body? Do you toss and turn as desire courses through your body?”
He loved the hunger in her eyes, the flash of anger reddening her high cheekbones.
She touched her horse's head, unbuckling the bridle. “I’d like to know how you and your ego fit through the barn door. Maybe we should have Dex widen it.”
The breathlessness of her voice revealed the effect his words inflicted. Jake considered upping his tactics to get more of a rise out of her. She already believed him to be a brute.
“You know, you carry a distinct resemblance to a porcupine.” Jake shifted the saddle to his other shoulder. “At first glance you look small and helpless. Get too close, the quills appear.”
“Why don’t you crawl back under the rock you came out of?”
Angling his head toward hers, he drawled, “I’d be happy to, if you slither in next to me, darlin’.”
Under normal circumstances, he prided himself on being polite and courteous to the opposite sex. Although he liked the challenge this enraged female presented, the fire in her eyes, her showdown stance made him want even more.
“You ever hear of sexual harassment?” she asked with a mocking smile.
“Hey, kids, think we can quit the bantering and get on with the work? I’d like to retire to my bed, which I can’t do ’til the horses are stabled,” Stan Michaels, the sixty-four year old ranch foreman, preached from the back of the barn. When Dex hired Jake to take on the foreman’s duties, Stan refused to slow down or give up the title completely.
“Just offering my assistance in whatever capacity the lady may desire.” Jake captured her alluring gaze before he threw the saddle over the rail. Her sights narrowed, zeroing in on him. He returned fire with his sexiest grin.
Snatching the shovel, he finished Colorado’s stall in record time. The short walk to his cabin did nothing to calm his restlessness. He stomped up the steps to the six-by-six foot porch. He ripped the front door open to view the dark wooden walls. A couple of windows on the far side of the room let the brightness in during the day. It didn’t matter. He spent a minimal amount of time in the place. He tossed his boots by the door and proceeded to his oversized closet of a bathroom where he stripped down.
He turned on the shower and lathered his body. His mind replayed his conversation with Maddie, causing blood to rush to parts south. Only having been around her for a total of an hour, his body betrayed him by responding in a millisecond.
Groaning, he adjusted the water to run cooler. She got so defensive when he offered his help. He heard his father’s voice again.
“You think you’re irresistible and no woman can turn you down. I have news for you, Yolanda is my woman, my fiancée.”
His dear old dad had laid into him before he landed a fist into Jake’s face, breaking his nose. His father refused to listen to the truth. Yolanda propositioned Jake, not the other way around. Hell, Jake ignored her for the most part, until she positioned her naked body in the middle of his cot.
Jake winced. He’d have to see her again. Closing his eyes, he hung his head, letting the pressure of the water beat on his tense neck and shoulder muscles. A few more days and his dealings with Yolanda would finally end. He hoped. She called last night to let him know she approved of his latest finding—a condo in Lubbock.
She’d found something to dislike about every house Jake told her about. Until this one. Man, he hoped the realtor contacted him soon.
Exhausted, Jake finished his shower, and went straight to bed. His thoughts scrambled through his befuddled brain. Yolanda, the problems she caused, mixed with his newest problem.
She'd be a distraction beyond belief. He pushed the trouble with Yolanda out of his mind, letting a picture of Maddie float to the front. He grinned as her beautiful face came into focus.
Sleep. He didn’t need it.
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