Once A Champion

Once A Champion mmp

Chapter One

WHAT ON EARTH had happened to the Bailey Ranch?

Matt Montoya slowed his pickup to a crawl as he drove over the cattle guard that marked the northern boundary of the property, taking in the sagging fences and weed-choked hay fields that should have been cut at least a week ago. What the hell?

He hadn’t been to the Bailey Ranch in years, not since he’d come to look at some cattle after he and Trena had first married. The place had been immaculate then. Well-farmed, well-maintained. This was not the ranch he remembered.

Matt stepped on the gas and continued down the drive to the ranch house, half a mile away. A few steers stood in the pasture, heads down, tails swishing as they ate. At least they looked fat and well fed, but again, the last time he’d been here, Tim Bailey had had at least a hundred Angus in this field that now held ten.

So was his missing horse here, on this disturbingly run-down ranch? If so, Matt didn’t know why. Tim had never been a horseman, preferring to do his cattle work with on a four-wheeler, but one of the local team ropers had insisted that he’d seen Matt’s gelding here a week ago when he’d come to repair a gas line. All Matt could do was hope. He’d been looking for Beckett for over a year now and this was the first solid lead he’d had. Ironic if the missing horse had been on this ranch, two miles from his own home base, all this time. Ironic and aggravating.

After parking under the giant elm trees that shaded the old ranch house, Matt got out of the truck, moving carefully to avoid banging his healing knee, and then for a moment he stood, getting the feel of the place. It wasn’t good, smacking of neglect and abandonment. White paint hung in tattered strips off the sides of the house and the once blue trim was now mostly gray wood. Weeds poked their heads up through the gravel and the lawn looked as if it hadn’t been cut in about a year. Or maybe two. Matt felt as if he were standing square in the middle of a deserted ghost town, except that this place wasn’t deserted. Two trucks and a small white sedan were parked next to the barn. Someone was there. But where?

If he couldn’t find Tim, Matt wasn’t above exploring the pastures and barns on his own. He needed to know if Beckett was on this ranch and if he was, then he had to formulate a plan to get him back. Tim Bailey was a notoriously stubborn guy, so it might take some work, but Matt was going to reclaim his horse. He needed him.

Matt had just reached the sidewalk leading up to the house when the front door swung open and a slender woman with a long reddish-brown ponytail stepped out onto the porch. She closed the door behind her with a gentle pull, as if trying not to disturb someone inside. Matt stopped dead in his tracks.

“Liv?” It’d been a dozen years since he’d seen Tim’s daughter, his former tutor who’d helped him maintain his GPA so that he could compete in rodeo during high school. He missed so much school being on the road that he’d had to get some kind of help to keep from flunking and brainy Liv Bailey had been the perfect person for the job. Shy, but no-nonsense when it came to studies, she’d guided him through the first semester of his senior year, had helped him make grades. Liv had always been there for him and now here she was again. Life had suddenly got easier.

“Matt,” she replied coolly, shifting her weight and taking a stance in front of the door as if guarding it from an intruder. Or from him. Not the greeting he’d expected.

“How are you?” Matt asked, taking a couple more steps forward. Liv folded her arms over her midsection in a defensive motion, causing her breasts to swell against the blue chambray shirt and making Matt suddenly aware that she’d changed a bit since high school. She pointedly glanced down at her chest, where his eyes had briefly held, then back up at him, making him feel like a middle-school kid who’d been caught looking at a girly magazine.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said with an easy smile. In a strange way, he’d enjoyed their tutoring sessions back in the day. She’d worked hard to pound the knowledge into him, but since she was so shy, he could easily fluster her with a smile or joke—which was exactly what he’d done whenever he’d wanted a break.

“Why not?” she asked in a reasonable voice. “It’s where I grew up.”

“Last I heard, you were in college.”

“I’ve been out for a while.” There was a definite edge of sarcasm in her voice. “I know. I was just saying…” Nothing important. “Are you living here now?”

She nodded, but did not elaborate, choosing instead to stare at him as if he’d crawled out from under the proverbial rock. This was not the Liv he remembered.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

“I’m here about a horse,” he said, figuring it was time to focus on the matter at hand, since he and Liv were obviously not going to have a touching reunion. The color faded from her already pale cheeks.

“A horse?”

“Yes. It’s a long story, but to shorten it up, I left a roping horse with my now ex-wife. He disappeared. I’m looking for him.”

“Disappeared?” She reached up to touch her earlobe in the same self-conscious gesture he recalled from their tutoring sessions.

“Without a trace.”

“Before you were divorced?”

“Yeah. But we were separated. The divorce was in the works.” And should have happened a lot sooner than it had. It would have happened a lot sooner, had he known that Trena was not spending her nights alone.

For a moment Liv pressed her lips together and stared down at the weathered porch boards. There didn’t seem to be anything on this  ranch that wasn’t weathered. Except for Liv. Liv looked…good. She also looked threatened.

“Do you have my horse?” he asked. She met his eyes then, hers as blue as the winter sky on a sunny day and just as cold.

“I have my horse.”

Her horse. Matt hooked a thumb into his pocket. “Can I see your horse?”

Liv drew in a breath that made her chest rise—not that he was looking—and changed the subject. “What are your plans for the future?”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“Simple question. What are your plans for the future?” She used the same voice she’d used while trying to help him learn calculus. A voice geared to hide her innate shyness.

“I injured my knee a month ago in Austin. I’m here to finish healing up, train a little and then I’ll go back onto the circuit.” He figured another week of ground work and then he’d get back on his horse and start some serious training. Hopefully his doctor would agree when he saw him in a few days.

Liv didn’t so much as blink when he’d said he had to heal, maybe because he’d been plagued by so many injuries the past two years that hearing he had another meant nothing. Not that he thought Liv was following his rodeo career; it was just that when a hometown boy made good, the locals kept track.

“How long will it take your knee to heal?”

Matt shifted impatiently, wanting very much to put an end to the questions by saying, “Why do you want to know and where’s my horse?” but instead responded with the more congenial, “Time will tell.”

There was another long pause and for a moment she stared past him out into the pastures behind the barn. He almost turned to see what she was staring at before realizing she was making a decision. Which told him that Beckett was definitely on this ranch.

“I have a horse,” she finally said. “With a brand inspection and a bill of sale to go with it.”

“Is it my horse?” Matt asked quietly.

“I bought him from Trena.” Relief surged through him, even though he knew he had some work ahead of him.

“Trena had no business selling him.”

“Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t.” And from the expression Liv now wore, she apparently believed Trena did have a reason to sell. “That doesn’t matter. If the horse was sold before the divorce, he was community property and the sale is legal. Trena’s name was on the papers.”

Well, shit.

Matt took a moment. One thing he’d learned over the years was that expressing anger solved nothing. There were other ways to get what one wanted.

“She had no right to sell, Liv.” He spoke in his most reasonable voice, no easy feat under the circumstances. Trena had skewered him every way she could prior to their divorce, but selling his horse had been her vengeful coup de grâce. “Beckett was home recuperating from an injury.”

“I’m aware,” Liv said stonily.

“And you would keep him, my horse, even though you know that he shouldn’t have been sold.”

“Legally—”

“I’m not talking legally, Liv. I’m talking about a vindictive person trying to hurt another by selling what was dear to him.” If he’d expected the speech to make a difference in her demeanor, he was disappointed. She continued to stare at him as if he were a nasty slug or something.

Matt rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, feeling like he’d stepped into the twilight zone. Who was this woman? Where was the Liv he’d once known? That nice kid who’d saved his academic life? Probably scared to death that he was going to take Beckett away from her—which he was, once he figured out how.

“Can I at least see him?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s my horse, Matt. I’m keeping him.”

Once again anger started to rise, and once again Matt tamped it down. He needed to be careful, not burn bridges.

“What did Trena tell you?” Because it was pretty damned obvious that Trena had told her something that wasn’t true.

Liv shrugged carelessly, but her expression was taut as she said, “It doesn’t matter. I bought the horse. I’m keeping the horse.”

“Liv…”

“It’s time for you to leave.”

“Liv—”

“Now.”

Matt exhaled, told himself to calm down. Not blow this. “I’ll buy him back,” he said. “For ten percent more than you paid.”

She smiled a little at that, the first smile since he’d arrived and it was more of a smirk—an expression he’d never seen on Liv’s face before. “I’m not selling.”

There was a noise from inside the house and Liv glanced over her shoulder then back at Matt. “My dad is not well,” she said, finally explaining why she was guarding the door, “but I think he’d take a good shot at kicking your ass if you don’t get out of here. So unless you want to fight an ailing older man, I’d get into that fancy truck of yours and get the hell out of here.”

And with that, Liv turned and walked back into the house. For a moment Matt stood, staring at the door she pulled shut behind her. Realizing that standing on the front walk wasn’t doing him any good, Matt started back to his truck, striding down the cracked sidewalk and across the weed-choked gravel, his knee throbbing with each step.

Anger solved nothing, but he was pissed as hell when he climbed into the cab of his truck. Yeah, he could go hammer on the front door and maybe Tim would try to kick his ass, or he could go home, regroup. Think this through. Figure out a way to get his horse back.

He was going with plan B. It’d be easier on both him and Tim in the long run.

 

AN UNEXPECTED SHIVER ran through Liv as she watched Matt Montoya turn his truck around and drive past the barn and down the drive. Delayed reaction. She rubbed her hands over her upper arms. She would not let Matt have Beckett.

“Who was here?” Her father’s deep voice sounded from behind her. She’d hoped he’d sleep through Matt’s visit, and he had, so thank heavens for small favors.

“Matt Montoya.”

“Did he need a calculus lesson?” Liv turned back to her father and smiled a little. Rarely did her father make jokes, and even less so now that he was not feeling well. He was tall and lean, his dark hair streaked with silver, and normally he held himself in an almost military posture. Right now, though, his shoulders were slightly hunched, as if he were in pain. Liv hated seeing him that way, hated that he was pretending he was merely recovering from the flu.

“My horse. He had questions about him.” Liv took one last look at the rooster tail of dust from Matt’s truck, then moved away from the window. “Seems he wasn’t in favor of Trena selling Beckett.”

“Good thing she did,” was all Tim said. “Did Matt give you any grief?” Liv shook her head. “Good thing,” Tim repeated as he sat in his leather recliner, a chair that had been in the house ever since Liv could remember. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes.

Seeing her father in a chair during the day had shocked Liv when she’d first moved home from Billings a week and a half ago—almost as much as the fact that he hadn’t cut the meadow hay on time. Not that he’d let her cut the hay for him. That would be admitting there was something wrong instead of pretending it was a conscious choice on his part. She needed to get him to a doctor, but there was no forcing Tim Bailey to do anything he didn’t want to do. They both knew the ranch was a wreck, that it was due to health issues, but he resisted all of Liv’s efforts to discuss the matter. Finally she’d stopped trying—at least until she had more of a handle on the situation.

“I’m feeling better today,” he said, keying in to her thoughts. “Whatever this bug is, I’m finally getting the better of it.” Liv didn’t believe him. “You’re dressed for town,” Tim commented. Meaning that she was wearing slacks instead of jeans and sandals instead of running shoes.

“I’m having lunch with Andie.” Her doctor friend who had the clinic where she was going to start providing physical therapy services. She was just glad she’d still been at the ranch when Matt showed up looking for Beckett. She hadn’t expected that to happen, not in a million years.

“Don’t know why you left an established business in Billings,” Tim grumbled. Liv knew he suspected it was because of Greg, her ex-fiancé, but that wasn’t why she’d left.

“I wanted to come back to Dillon.” She didn’t dare say “to be closer to you and find out what the hell is going on because the ranch is a wreck and we both know it.” Out loud, anyway.

Her parents—polar opposites—had divorced when she was five. She’d spent every summer with her father on the ranch, and even though she loved him, she didn’t really know him. She didn’t know if Tim Bailey let anyone truly know him—even those he loved. Living with her father had never been uncomfortable, merely silent. Sometimes they talked, but usually about small things. Things that didn’t require Tim to open up. And when they weren’t talking, they’d worked together on the place. Every morning Tim would have a written list of chores and Liv would do her part, some in the house, some outside, mostly what her father considered to be girl stuff, not hard labor.

She’d often wondered if her father wrote a list to be organized, or so he wouldn’t have to talk. She’d wanted to talk. She still wanted to talk. Fat chance. The man was fifty-six years old. He wasn’t going to change, but maybe they could develop more of a relationship, somehow, if he didn’t keel over first.

“If you have thoughts of discussing me with Andie, don’t.” Liv just smiled and grabbed her sweater. Silence could work for her, too. She wasn’t going to argue with him and she was definitely going to discuss him with Andie. “I mean it,” he called as she headed for the door. Wow. Two sentences in a row. He was serious. And Liv was worried. Anxiety knotted her stomach as she walked to her truck—and then past it to the barn.

Beckett had free access to the stalls from the pasture and by some miracle he’d been inside, out of the sun, when Matt had arrived. The big sorrel raised his head when Liv opened the man door on the opposite side of the barn and nickered a soft greeting.

“Good to see you, too,” Liv said as she walked across the dusty floor to the stall. “No treat today,” she murmured as she slowly raised her hand to rub the horse’s ears—something she hadn’t been able to do when she’d first bought him, because the horse had been so head shy. It’d taken her months to get to where she could raise her hand without the gelding flinching.

Beckett leaned into her hand, bobbing his head as she hit the sweet spot behind his ears. The scarred areas on his back and shoulders were now marked only by white hair that showed starkly against his rich copper coat. When she’d bought Beckett, the areas had been gruesome saddle sores where the hair and, in some places, the skin, had been worn off by a poor-fitting saddle and too many hours of use. The sore on his shoulder had been infected with maggots and the memory still made her shudder. When Liv had expressed her outrage, Trena had only nodded, keeping her mouth carefully shut as if saying too much would betray Matt, her then husband.

Trena wasn’t without guilt—she should have tended to the wounds, kept them from becoming infested—but she was afraid of horses and Matt was responsible for the wounds themselves. Well, someone had to take care of the horse, and that had been when Liv had been certain she was buying Beckett, regardless of what her then fiancé, Greg, decreed.

Her life had changed that day as she stood up to Greg and hadn’t backed down in the name of peace and harmony. He’d been stunned. And so had she. It had felt wonderful to finally stand her ground…and terrifying.

Liv gave Beckett one last pat, then took a few backward steps, debating about closing the access door to the pasture and keeping Beckett in the barn, just in case Matt came back. She decided against it. Beckett needed space to move and if Matt came back, what was he going to do? Load the horse and leave? Steal him?

Probably not. He had a reputation to maintain and stealing a horse from the rightful owner was not going to help his image. But she could see him trying to charm her into selling. Charm had always been Matt’s strong point. It’d been the reason she’d been so duped by him back in the day.

As she walked back to the man door, she pressed a hand against the side of her face, remembering the one time he’d kissed her—on the cheek—and grimaced at how ecstatic, yet disappointed, she’d been. She’d been such a damned fool where men had been concerned back then, and had remained a fool for about ten years after.

It’d taken Greg’s controlling behavior and a horse that needed her care to make her wake up and see the truth.

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