Once a Champion - By Jeannie Watt


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 on a four-wheeler, but one of the local team ropers had insisted that he’d seen Matt’s gelding here 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 when the front door of the house 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.


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