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Chapter One

He stood frozen-his breath raggedly flaring from his nostrils in wild bursts. He'd just exerted most of his massive energy attempting to defeat an opponent who refused to yield. It was now the moment of truth-would he succumb to his opponent's dominance or somehow find the strength to plunge into the battle one more time?

The horse tossed his head to the side trying to catch a glimpse of his nemesis. Sweat dripping down from his long black mane sprayed in an arc around him. The sweat ran freely down his chest, though it didn't cool the heat created by his exertions or from the brilliant sun beating down upon the arena.

This was just great. Some assignment the Boss had given him. It wasn't that the stallion's massively powerful body wasn't beautiful or beneath what he deserved as an angel of the Second Order. No, after receiving his assignment, he'd slipped into the horse's body and felt his powers magnifying by the beast's physical strength. It had been exhilarating to gallop along the mountain valleys and scramble among the rocky slopes of the mountains. That part was great.

Standing in the middle of a hot, dusty day with a mere human on his back, however, was a humiliation, especially knowing that he should have at least given the appearance that he was yielding to the rider's dominance.

But, it was part of the assignment. When the Boss summoned him, he was happy to oblige, believing that the Boss had finally forgiven him for nearly botching his last assignment. Hey, it was the Boss who'd sent him as a bunny. It was part of the job to assimilate into the creature's lifestyle as much as possible. How could he know that the Boss' most powerful rival would send a cute, little cottontail to distract him? He'd gotten the job done. He'd inspired that writer to send Alice to follow him down the rabbit hole. Of course, his loudly announcing that he was late for a very important date was just the touch of finesse the writer really needed to make his tale memorable.

But, that had been a long time ago. And, if he were ever able to rise to the First Order, he knew he didn't dare deviate from his assignment. Well, at least not much. Still, to add to the humiliation, this rider, who he was supposed to be helping, selected the worst name possible. Demon. How dare a mere mortal blunder into naming him for something as ill-tempered and loathsome as a demon? It was proof beyond doubt that this mortal had never encountered a real demon.

Well, perhaps it wouldn't be too much of a deviation from his assignment to just show the mortal a little bit of what demons really were like.

He could feel the rider's closeness just as he'd felt the strength of its resolve once the competition had begun. He'd underestimated its resolve and determination. He'd seen it in the stance of the mortal in its walk toward him moments before-a small, pathetic creature in his eyes. He'd snorted with derision at its boldness to even enter the arena with him. Begrudgingly, the tiniest notion of respect grew within his heart for the courage of the rider. He might admire its determined nature, but he decided he was far from surrender. It wouldn't be of any benefit to the mission if he yielded too quickly.

Taking a deep breath, Demon lowered his head to the graveled soil, his exhalations swirling dust devils into the air. His eyes wildly cast to the left, then to the right. With all the force he could muster, Demon jumped straight into the air as high as he could, contorting his girth as he fell back to the ground. As soon as he hit, he was back up-running and kicking with all his remaining strength. Yet, the rider refused to budge from its perch on his back.

Demon eyed the fence surrounding the arena. Even if it meant injury to himself, he knew he could dislodge the rider if he could just find the right spot. There straight before him was a section of fence filled with spectators to the contest. That would be the spot-he would punish his adversary just a little bit for giving him such an unsuitable name, a name he would have to bear until the completion of his assignment. That was another part of the rules he'd change if he were the Boss.

Demon vaulted directly toward that section of the fence. Just before hitting it with his chest, he spun around and slammed into it with his side. Shots of pain exploded in his ribs-each short, panting breath a torture. A shame to punish the beast's body this way, but he was committed to playing the role to his best ability. Demon tossed his head again, proudly watching the spectators scramble back up from the ground where they had thrown themselves just before the impact. That would teach them to laugh at him.

Demon leaned further against the fence. The cracking, dried wood screamed in its own pain as it was slowly ripped apart. Demon felt the rider loosen its free leg from where it was planted against his other side. Taking another deep breath, Demon prepared for what he knew was coming.

The irritation twinged painfully as the rider raked his other side with the spur. It was the animal's gut instinct that drove Demon away from the fence, back into the center of the arena. He stumbled, nearly falling to the ground. It was only his indomitable pride and the powers of an angel that kept him shakily on his feet.

She'd won on her own terms, proving herself worthy of his intervention. The Boss' assessment of her spirit was right on target, even though Demon would never admit to doubting His judgment. Now, if he could just keep her on the right path for those prayers to be answered quickly, he'd be back on Cloud 17 with those two babe angels he'd met before he knew it, sipping nectar and dining on ambrosia. Of course, there was the other half of the assignment, but no doubt he'd soon make his appearance. Yes, this was going to be a piece of cake-angel food cake.

"You okay, Sam?" Rusty called quietly to the rider. Through the heat and exhaustion claiming her, she heard her old friend's voice. Yet, Samantha Reynolds' eyes remained focused on the head of the pitch-black stallion whose sides were heaving so violently that specks of sweaty foam cascaded around them, falling like rain and moistening the dry bed of the corral.

Samantha nodded tersely. Carefully, she unwound her gloved, bruised fingers from the bridle's reins. Leaning forward just slightly, her fingers patted the wet neck of the stallion.

"Good boy, steady now," Samantha soothed in a hoarse whisper. "Steady now. You're okay."

This was the moment of truth. It could still go either way-the horse would either recognize the loss of his freedom or he would take off like a skyrocket one more time. Samantha knew that she had no more internal resources to call upon if the horse decided to renew the battle.

Bone tired, Samantha realized she had chosen the most appropriate name for the horse-Demon. This huge, black beast was a demon, the devil incarnate and a prize which would be coveted by many. He was worth all the pain she now felt in her left leg, well worth it. She'd known that since the first moment she'd seen him in the mountains months ago.

It was preposterous for a woman to believe that she could mount a wild stallion and break him to ride. Sure, a woman might raise a foal and teach it eventually to be saddle broken, but never a wild mustang. That's all Samantha had heard about in town since her gossiping ranch hands had gleefully spread the word about her latest adventure.

Of course, they'd also predicted Samantha would fall flat on her face trying to run a spread as large of the Triple R. She'd proved she was more than equal to that task. Now, they crowed like cackling blackbirds of her prowess-as if those magpies in town had been personally responsible for the success. This, to Samantha, was just another time she'd prove those critical folks in town wrong.

A slow smile spread across Samantha's face. Through the dust and grit in her mouth, she could taste the victory. It was sweet, intoxicating. She knew it was now within her grasp. She anticipated the triumphant moment when she would gently nudge the Demon's sides and feel him comply to her command.

Once word of her conquest spread, the crows would flock to the ranch just to gawk and affirm once again they'd known all along she could do it. As before, she'd just smile and nod. For a brief moment, she would be one of them-welcomed like a rich aunt in poor health at a family reunion. Again, it would only last until the novelty of her accomplishment faded.

"But, it'll be enough for a while," Samantha whispered. A touch of excitement tinged her voice. It might not be the answer to her deepest prayers and dream, but she'd make do with it. "Easy now, Demon. Not quite yet. Just stand steady there, boy."

As he climbed from his truck, Lennie Caldwell watched the cowboys leaning against the fence, concentrating on the horse and rider as they remained frozen in the center of the corral. So concentrated was their attention that it seemed none of them heard the rusty, battered old pickup truck pull up by the horse barn. None of them seemed to notice as he pulled himself gingerly from the mud-splashed truck and strolled over to stand behind them at the corral.

Lennie pushed the battered, black cowboy hat back on the top of his head and looked appreciatively to the center of everyone's attention. One hand perched on his hip, he framed his cheeks with long, weathered and tanned fingers before pulling them down to his sculptured chin. Pulling a handkerchief from his hip pocket, he wiped the sweat from his brow and eyes.

From Lennie's vantagepoint, the rider hardly looked capable of controlling a pony, let alone that magnificent stallion. He decided that the horse must be as tame as a kitten to let such a pitiful cowboy like that ride him down.

Lennie glanced at the rider, critical of his appearance. Tall but too skinny, the cowboy had his weathered, beat-up cowboy hat pulled tightly down on his head. He wore a loose, long-sleeved shirt under a leather vest with battered jeans. In the oppressive heat of the late afternoon, Lennie speculated that the rider must be near dying of dehydration. Sweat poured down the rider's face, exposing lines of tanned flesh on his otherwise grimy, dirty face. The only remarkable thing about the rider was the boots he wore-obviously expensive ostrich leather with silver conch insets. Lennie was oddly unsettled at the thought that such an otherwise nondescript cowhand would possess such beautiful boots.

Disgust at the cowboy's ill-treatment of the horse filled Lennie, as he continued to watch the pair gasping for breath in the corral. It was inhumane for the cowboy to put such a great animal through his paces in this kind of weather. The horse needed a good wash down and curry, but only after a good watering. The storm was brewing inside him, threatened to become stronger than the clouds he's watch build as he drove to the ranch.

"Hey, don't ya think ya done enough to that poor animal? Looks like you wore the damn thing down to a stub," he shouted at the rider, trying to subtly suggest kinder treatment. He glanced at the cowboys leaning against the fence. "I'd a thought you fellas would have had better horse sense than to let somebody mistreat a great animal that way?"

Lennie watched as Samantha's gaze shifted from their focus on the horse to look back at him. At the same time, the other cowboys spun toward the newcomer. The horse seemed to play on the opportunity their lapse in attention provided to draw upon what had to be the last vestiges of his strength. He shot straight into the air, twisting like a cyclone in flight. The rider grabbed helplessly for the saddlehorn in a vain attempt to remain astride the beast, but the twisting of the horse succeeded. With a loud thump, the rider fell hard on the gravel, shooting a small torrent of dust into the still air. Lennie silently chuckled, believing the rider had gotten just what he deserved.

Still twisting, Demon plunged for the weakness in the fence. He reared again on his hind legs and brought his front legs crushing down on the already splintered wood. Splinters of pine shot at the cowboys as they scrambled out of the way of the angry stallion. Their spurs jingling merrily, Lennie and the other cowboys threw themselves headlong for the protection of a water trough and barrels setting next to the corral. With a mighty leap, the horse sailed over the debris of the fence and, at a full gallop, ran around the corral back toward the mountains in the distance.

Can't make it too easy, Demon laughed, as he lowered his head and galloped as fast as the beast's legs would run. This was a better plan, he justified to himself, and he'd no doubt complete the assignment far easier and far quicker in freedom rather than in confinement. Besides, there was that little sorrel filly he'd seen up in one of the valleys. It might be educating to allow himself to experience more of this beast's lifestyle than just running.

Samantha's lungs burned as the air rushed back into them. It took a moment to collect her wits which had temporarily been knocked out by the fall. Anger replacing injury in her thoughts, Samantha jumped up and ran to the end of the corral. There, already a good distance from the ranch, Demon was kicking up his rear hooves in celebration. The horse had snatched victory from the jaws of his defeat just at the moment he seemed to surrender. Freedom was a short gallop away.

Samantha watched until the horse was a mere speck on the horizon winding back up into the mountains. She turned to face the cowboys who were staring dumbstruck at the horse's dash to freedom. Samantha stalked over to the stranger. Pushing her way through her ranch hands, she came face to face with him. It galled her that she had to look up from her five foot, eleven inches to the stranger who had to stand at least six-foot, four.

"Just what did you think you were doing?" Samantha demanded hoarsely, stabbing his chest with a pointed finger. "Don't you have the common sense God gave a goose? Don't you know better than to shout like that when somebody's trying to break a horse?"

"I'm sorry," he responded, throwing his hands in the air in front of him. "I didn't know you were breakin' him. I just figured you were puttin' him through his paces. I didn't know…"

"And you didn't bother to keep your stupid yap shut long enough to figure it out either, did you?" Samantha retorted hotly. "Do you have any idea just how much you cost me? We're not just talking about the tack-the saddle and the bridle. We're talking about thousands of dollars of the best horseflesh to come around here in ages.

"It took me and the boys weeks to figure out a way to catch that horse. He near killed three of these men once we got a rope on him. He kicked the heck out of the trailer we hauled him down in. And, now, he's gone, and it's all because you couldn't just keep your mouth shut."

"I-I-I don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I didn't know," he stuttered, as he continued to back away. "I mean, hey, can't you all just go back and get him again? I'll be glad to help."

Samantha stopped dead. Turning around, she smiled at the other cowboys cowering behind her. "Hey, guys, we can just go back and get him," she called sarcastically. "Isn't that a great idea? And Mr. Wonderful here says he's going to help. How charming of him."

"Now you don't have to get so intolerably mean about it," the man replied defensively. "It wasn't nothing but an accident. Now, if you'll just calm down…"

"Calm down? You want me to calm down after riding that devil into the ground only to have you lose him for me?" Samantha asked incredulously. "I don't have time for this." Roughly, she pushed him aside.

It must have been more the surprise of the push than its force caused him to fall back onto his rear in the dust. For a brief second, Samantha was surprised to see him sprawled at her feet. Looking down at the shocked expression on the man's face, Samantha glared down at Lennie. The moment he tried to rise from the ground, she growled at him viciously and watched as he scrambled quickly to get out of her range. She sent a spray of gravel from the toe of her boot in his direction before stomping off toward the big house.

Rusty led the other cowboys in a chuckle that evolved into a guffaw and terminated in rolls of belly laughs. They slapped each other on the backs and joked about Samantha's unique style of ending a conversation. Finally, Rusty broke away from the others and extended a hand down to the stranger. As he pulled him to his feet, the sound of door nearly slamming off its hinges echoed across the yard. Rusty chuckled softly again. "Well, stranger, you sure know how to make an entrance," Rusty laughed. "What are you doing here?"

"My name's Lennie Caldwell. Just got hired here as a hand. Who the heck was that?"

"You don't know?" Rusty laughed louder. "That's my little Sam, owner of the place. Ain't you met before?"

"Heck, no. I'd likely remember that cowboy if I'd ever met him before," Lennie drawled, as he swept the hat from his head and began beating the dust from his worn jeans. "Some woman hired me over the phone and told me to get here soon as I could to help with round-up."

"That ain't a he," Rusty chuckled, as the other cowboys joined in with their own hoots of laughter. "That's a she. Sam, as in Samantha. Boy, Lennie, you got a lot to learn. I think this might be the shortest job you've ever had."

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