Cougars have been spotted nearby, but they haven't hurt the ranch horses - yet. So Samantha is outraged when a neighboring rancher vows to kill the cats on sight.
Her family's horses may be safe, but out on the range Sam spots a wild young stallion without a herd. Being alone puts this horse in danger. But can Sam protect the rebellious mustang and still save the cougars?
Samantha Forster had never felt so out of place.
Surrounded by the familiar scents of saddle soap, hay, and horses, she shouldn't have felt awkward, but she did. Sterling Stables was about as far as you could get from River Bend Ranch.
Not far in distance, Sam thought. She looked east. They were still in Nevada, just an hour from home. She could still smell sagebrush and hear the flutter of quail. She saw the Calico Mountains against the blue sky, too, but instead of white-peaked giants, they looked like miniature ice-cream cones.
Was the Phantom up in that rocky, windblown terrain? The thought of the mustang stallion with only his winter coat for protection made Sam shiver. The beautiful horses of Sterling Stables were sissies compared to the Phantom and his herd.
Shining like glass, a dozen Morgan yearlings grazed on acres of cross-fenced pastures. The irrigated grass rolled flat as green carpet around Sterling Stables' three long barns.
The stalls' half doors were open, showing the heads of dozens of perfectly groomed horses. About a block away from the barns, an arena held a variety of jumps built of candy-striped rails, hedges, and red brick. The arena was circled with a loamy oval marked by hoofprints.
"Could you pretend you're helping me pick a horse, instead of looking like a homesick pup?" Rachel Slocum muttered. Despite her irritation, the rich girl's faint smile stayed pasted in place. How do you do that? Sam wanted to ask, but Rachel's eyes warned her to focus.
"I am helping you," Sam said. "Or at least I would be, if you'd follow my suggestions."
Rachel closed her eyes, pretending to be patient. When she opened them, she considered the horse that was being paraded past for her approval.
"What do you think of this one?" Rachel asked.
A bay with a braided black mane trotted at the end of a short lead. His handler was a young woman wearing English jodhpurs, boots that shone with polish, and a white high-collared shirt just like Rachel's.
"He's beautiful." Sam shifted uncomfortably in her well-worn Western boots.
When Linc and Rachel Slocum picked her up at River Bend that morning, Sam had felt just right in her boots, jeans, and burgundy pullover.
The feeling hadn't lasted long.
At the first ranch, Rachel had window-shopped through a selection of Thoroughbred-cross endurance horses. Sam had loved watching the athletic animals, but her fun had faded when Rachel pointed out that Sam was dressed all wrong.
Who cares? Sam had wanted to ask, but she didn't. And even though she couldn't believe Rachel decided to leave without trying one of the endurance horses, Sam was relieved to drive away.
But this place was even worse.
At Sterling Stables, known for its select Morgan performance horses, Sam felt like a country bumpkin.
"Even I can see he's beautiful," Rachel said as the gelding trotted past again. "But should I buy him?"
"You haven't even asked how much they want for him, Sam said, keeping her voice low. Rachel's father, Linc, stood just a few feet away, talking on his cell phone.
Rachel smiled. "You know that doesn't really matter. I just want to know if you'd buy him. Will my brother think he's a great horse?"
"He looks healthy and strong. At halter, his gaits are smooth." Sam held her hand palm up, inviting Rachel to look around. "The stable certainly seems reputable, but you have to get on and ride, Rachel."
Rachel's eyes glittered with stubbornness as she pushed back a wing of dark hair. "Not in front of everyone."
Sam sighed. In spite of equestrian training in England and brush-up lessons here in Nevada, Rachel still wasn't a confident rider.
And Sam understood how she felt. A few months ago, after an injury and two years away from the ranch, she'd been nervous about riding again. But Sam didn't understand Rachel's willingness to take home an untried horse. What if it bucked? Or bit?
"I'm waiting for your opinion, Samantha." Rachel kept smiling, but she tapped her toe with impatience.
Sam decided she probably deserved this. She hadn't really come to help Rachel. She'd come to look at the horses.
If Rachel could hide her true feelings, why couldn't Sam? Maybe she needed more practice.
"Okay," she said, trying to sound pleasant. "Since
you've given up the rodeo queen idea, and you have
nothing in mind except buying a horse to impress
your brother, just pick one you like."
Sam had kept her voice just above a whisper, unsure of whether Linc Slocum knew his daughter's plan, but she hadn't been quiet enough.
Linc Slocum snapped his cell phone shut.
"Honey, Samantha's right," he said. "That gal out there is Katie Sterling. She helps her dad run the place, and she wouldn't mind getting a horse ready for you to ride." Linc waited a second. Then, just in case Rachel hadn't taken the hint, he added, "You should probably ride the horse before we buy it."
"Daddy." Rachel's eyes were cold as she talked to her father. "Did you bring your checkbook?"
In answer, Linc Slocum patted his pocket.
"Then that's all you need to worry about," Rachel said.
Before Sam absorbed the shock from Rachel's rudeness, the girl pointed at another stall.
"Wait. How about her?"
To Sam's surprise, Rachel walked toward a stall as if drawn by magnetism. "Mocha," said the brass plate on the stall door. The mare's head went up, and November sunshine shone on the neck she arched over her stall's half door.
Mocha's coat was the darkest possible brown, like fresh coffee. Her ears and eyes tracked Rachel's movements as she came closer.