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Out in the pasture, she tested Madera’s stopping power. She was happy that the mare responded to verbal commands better than the reins. Then Tanna tugged out and down on the reins and the horse turned a tight circle. She tried the opposite side. Not as tight, but decent.

As soon as she kicked her heels, Madera jumped to life.

That was a nice burst of speed.

Tanna didn’t let her run far. She wanted to see how the horse would react if she let up on the reins.

Madera immediately tried to bolt.

“So, you’re one of those kinds. Docile acting until the moment my guard is down. Then you pull a Pony Express imitation.” She patted Madera on the neck. “I’m onto you, sister. But I’m gonna wait to pass judgment on whether that’s a good or bad thing until I see what you can do.” She squinted at the gate and Eli waved his arms, which meant the barrels were ready.

She kept Madera at an easy trot until twenty yards from the gate. “Show me whatcha got. Let’s run.” She dropped her butt into the saddle and Madera charged forward. Once they hit the timer’s mark, Madera was all about speed.

Tanna directed her to the right and there wasn’t a hitch in Madera’s smooth movement even coming out of the pocket. Still, Tanna fought the urge to rein back on the second barrel and they cut it so tight they tipped the barrel over.

Five-second penalty.

But the race wasn’t over yet. They nudged the last barrel but it only teetered. Then Madera was on the straightaway and that burst of speed Tanna had felt wasn’t a fluke.

Madera hauled ass. Serious ass.

They cleared the gate too far. That’s something they’d need to work on—faster stops. Many rodeos were held in confined spaces with short alleyways so the horse needed to acclimate to that possibility every time.

She kept Madera on a short rein and yelled to Sutton. “Time?”

“Twenty-five point nine. With the five-second penalty.”

Which meant a base time of . . . twenty-some-odd seconds? On a first run? With a rusty rider?

Holy. Shit.

What could this horse do if she was properly trained with a rider who knew how to push her to peak performance?

She could win. And win big.

One thing Tanna hadn’t forgotten about the years she’d spent with Jezebel—the feisty mare hadn’t started out top-notch. It’d taken dedication on Tanna’s part to get her to that level. Jezebel’s owners wouldn’t have had a winning horse if not for Tanna’s perseverance to turn her into one. Yes, horses with high price tags almost always performed better. But a good partnership between horse and rider really made a difference.

Madera made a noise.

Tanna patted her neck. “You did good.”

Confidence pushed through the fog of doubt. She shouted at Eli. “I’m runnin’ them again.”

Each of the next six runs fluctuated between nineteen point five and twenty-one point one.

Tanna stopped to regroup. She hung back by the gate, tempted to dismount and let Madera roll in the dirt, eat some oats, because she deserved it. But she wanted to stay on just a little longer. She was excited about this horse. Had she ever thought she’d say that again? Had she ever thought she’d supplant her fear long enough to reclaim her skill? The mechanics were coming back to her—if they’d ever really left.

She returned to the training area and stopped in front of Chuck and Berlin, who wore identical grins.

Chuck spoke first. “You made our horse look good.”

“Oh, I think the reverse is true. She is a sneaky one. Not balking at the bit, which I expected with the noseband, but balking at getting saddled. She’s got a wicked crow hop if you’re not paying attention. Her head needs to be higher in the turn but I think trying her with a browband instead of a noseband will help.” Tanna patted Madera’s neck. “This girl prances like an Arabian and turns like a Quarter Horse. But that burst of speed reminds me of a Thoroughbred.”

“You aren’t far off. Her dam was Red Rider, a champion cutting horse. Her sire, Fool’s Gold, also a Quarter Horse, but he earned his name by having that Thoroughbred streak.”

“You bred her?”

“Bred, born and broke at our place. We’d intended to train her as a cutting horse. The gal can run, so on a whim we contacted a barrel horse trainer and she worked with her for a year before Natalie took her on the circuit. You have no idea what a rush it is to see you riding her,” Berlin said. “It’s like handing your car keys to someone and them proving that your car isn’t a Ford, but a Ferrari.”

Truly touched, Tanna said, “There’s a compliment. Thank you.”

“So are you interested in training with her?”

“Training with? Meaning putting me in charge of getting her competition ready and then handing the reins to another competitor? No.”

“But you’d be willing to take her on yourself?” Berlin prompted.

“I’m willing to discuss it.”

Berlin and Chuck exchanged a grin. “That’s what we were hoping to hear. Tell you what. We’re staying in Rawlins. We’d like to take you out for supper and we can talk about it then.” Chuck looked at Eli and Sutton. “You’re both invited too.”

Sutton said, “Great! I’m in.”

Eli smiled. “I appreciate the invite. But me’n my lady already made plans for tonight.”

“If they aren’t set in stone, we’d be happy to have her come along too.”

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