Layne took his time pulling into the Hale Arena parking lot. Driving a four-horse trailer through downtown Kansas City was nerve-wracking enough, but having to back his trailer up to the doors and off-load his horses challenged even his expertise.
A whistle caught his attention. Looking into the side mirror, he saw a man motioning and he realized he was guiding him. Layne waved then eased down on the pedal to keep moving. Another whistle let him know he was close enough.
Once he’d turned the truck off, he tugged the keys out of the ignition then jumped from the cab. He jogged to the back of the trailer, getting there just as a hoof hit the inside wall. The stranger jumped and Layne chuckled.
“Thanks for the help,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Layne Daly.”
“Carl Stewartson. Glad to help. I’ve driven vehicles like this before, so I know how difficult they are to back up.” Carl shook his hand.
Layne wondered if he’d imagined Carl holding his hand a little longer than necessary. He gave himself a mental shake. Didn’t matter if the man had or not. Layne didn’t have time for a hook-up. Not right then anyway. He needed to get the horses settled in their stalls. He checked his watch and grimaced.
“Got somewhere you need to be?” Carl tilted his head toward Layne’s wrist.
“No. Just wondering where my groom is. He was supposed to be driving over from the ranch earlier and have everything set up so I could get the horses in right away. But Quinn hasn’t showed up yet.” He pulled out his phone. Both of them jumped when another kick landed on the wall closest to him.
Carl snorted. “Sounds like they’re getting impatient.”
Layne nodded. “Tigger hates being trailered anywhere. Thank God Boom and Snack are so laid-back, or I’d have a riot on my hands.” He brought up Quinn’s number then hit the send button. “I’m going to chew his ass out about not being here.”
“Well, if you need any help, just let me know. I’ll be around.” Carl started to walk off, but Layne reached out to grab his arm.
“Could you wait and help me get them unloaded? Even if he’s on his way, he won’t get here soon enough. If I don’t get them out of there soon, Tigger will end up hurting himself or the others.”
Carl grinned. “Be glad to. Why don’t I go see where your stalls are while you talk to your guy?”
He wanted to say that Quinn wasn’t his guy, just a friend and an employee, but he was pretty sure Carl didn’t mean it the way he’d taken it. “Thanks.”
Layne winced at the harshness of Quinn’s voice. “Quinn, what the hell’s wrong? You sound like shit.”
“I’m sick. Came down with it just after you left this morning. Meant to call you, but fell asleep,” Quinn croaked out.
“Shit.” Layne swept off his hat then slapped it against his thigh. “Now I’m going to have to find someone to help me out here. I can’t take care of the boys all by myself while doing exhibitions and talks.”
Quinn coughed before saying, “I’m sorry, Layne. I know this is important to you.”
Layne shot a quick glance around the busy crowd of people coming and going from the arena. Some were walking horses. Others were helping to herd the bulls in for the rodeo. He propped his hip against the wheel well of the trailer and sighed.
“I know you are. I’m not mad or anything, Quinn. It’s not like you planned on getting sick. I’m just cranky from driving all day and having to figure shit out. Get some sleep and, if you need to, have Whit drive you to the doctor’s.” Layne couldn’t help but smile at the unhappy little whine Quinn gave at the thought of going to the doctor. “I’ll call Whit in a couple hours after I get the boys settled for the night.”
“I’ll let her know.” Quinn hung up.
Layne did the same then shoved his phone in his back pocket. Better suck it up, buttercup. There’s no one here to help you and you have three horses to get bedded down before you can leave. As exhausting as dealing with horses was, Layne wouldn’t have it any other way. His herd was his life. Hell, had been his life since he was old enough to walk and discovered how much freedom there was on the back of a horse.
An anxious whinny drew his attention to the open windows of the trailer. He saw Tigger stick his nose out, sniffing the air and curling his upper lip in a weird little smirk.
“Ah, Tigger, my boy. Let’s get you out of there,” Layne muttered, setting his hat back on his head as Carl strolled up. “Did you get the information?”
“Yep. You’ll have to go and officially sign in, but Marie told me which section of the barn area you’ve been assigned.” Carl held up a piece of paper. “She said it was the same place you were last year.”
Layne relaxed a little. While Boom and Snack would be unaffected by the noise and commotion of the American Royal events, Tigger would not be. The nine-year-old gelding was as high strung a Thoroughbred as Layne had ever come across, so he did his best to keep all the distractions and craziness as low as possible. He didn’t need Tigger doing his insane horse impression.
“All right.” He opened the front storage unit in the trailer, then grabbed three lead lines before turning back to Carl. “Here. You’ve handled horses before, haven’t you?”
“Yep. Grew up on a ranch down in Stephensville, Texas, before hitting the rodeo circuit. Horses were my thing.” Carl took one of the lead ropes.
Layne shook his head. “Here. I’ll need you to take Boom and Snack, if you don’t mind. Tigger’s going to be antsy and wanting to freak out. I’ll need both hands to handle him.”
Carl shrugged. “Okay.”
It was then, as Carl walked toward the back of the trailer, that Layne noticed his limp. Obviously it wasn’t pronounced or else he’d have spotted it before, but now that he was looking, Layne could see it.
“Not judging, but will you be okay taking both of them?” Layne motioned to Carl’s left leg.
“Oh, it’s healed. Just got a limp is all. If your boys are as calm as you say they are, there shouldn’t be a problem.” Carl didn’t seem upset by Layne’s question.
“Good. And yes, both of them are. Boom’s JC name is Bombproof, which is why we call him Boom. The only thing you might have to worry about with Snack is his tendency to try to grab any kind of food that might be on the way. So keep an eye out if you see hay bales, or Snack will be dragging your ass over to them.” Layne chuckled. “I’ve had that happen to me so many times when I haven’t been paying attention. If I let him, Snack would eat his fool head off and weigh three thousand pounds.”
He joined Carl at the doors, helping him to unlatch them. They swung them open and Layne’s chest puffed up at the sight of his boys. Tall and beautiful, their breeding showed in every line of their legs and chests. Their bright brown eyes met his gaze and Layne hummed softly. Even the slightly crazed look in Tigger’s eyes eased a little.
“JC? What’s that?” Carl asked as Layne hooked his lead to Tigger’s halter.
“Jockey Club. These three geldings are Thoroughbreds. Off the track Thoroughbreds, to be accurate. Each one has their registered name. Boom’s is Bombproof. Snack’s is Unbridled Displeasure. Tigger’s is Kitten Jones.” Layne began stepping backward to get Tigger moving.
The big bay gelding eyed him for a moment, and Layne wondered if he was going to throw a fit about getting off the trailer now. He tried not to think about how long it had taken him to get Tigger into it earlier this morning. Carl didn’t say a word, simply stayed out of the way and to the side where Tigger couldn’t see him.
“Come on, you big baby,” Layne crooned, holding the rope in a firm grip, but not trying to force Tigger to do anything. That was the surest way to get him worked up. “You know you want to get in your stall and have some oats.”
Tigger shifted, then Layne saw Boom peering over his back. He could swear Boom rolled his eyes before shoving his nose against Tigger’s shoulder as though encouraging the gelding to move.
“That’s right. Boom and Snack want out as well. You’re standing in their way. Come on now.”
Finally Tigger decided he was tired of all the nonsense. He bum rushed Layne, who was used to that trick and got out of the way while keeping a hold of the rope. Tigger jumped from the trailer, but pulled up short. Layne glanced around to see Carl standing in front of the horse.
“Thanks. I’m used to having someone else with me, so I didn’t even think when he did that. I appreciate you knowing what to do.” Layne walked Tigger in a tight circle then moved off a little. “If you bring Boom out, I’ll hold him while you get Snack. Neither one of them will do what Tigger did. They’re perfect gentlemen.”
He could see that Carl wasn’t totally convinced, but he gave the man credit for sucking it up and doing what Layne asked. As predicted, Boom walked off the trailer as though he had nowhere to go and all day to get there. Layne took Boom’s lead, letting the chestnut gelding scratch his head on Layne’s shoulder. To be honest, he rarely allowed the horses to do that because they could get pushy about it, but Boom had been good the entire trip, so Layne was willing to give him a little leeway.
Snack stepped off like an elder statesman, head held high and ears pricked like he was listening to a cheering crowd. Carl claimed Boom from Layne then shot him a look.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
Carl nodded. “This is my eighth year here. I wander around in the stall areas all the time. Can’t get enough of the horses.”
“Good. Then you lead the way. Like I said, keep an eye on Snack or he’ll be dragging you all over the place trying to sneak bites of hay. Boom will go where you take him. He’s aptly named. Nothing much bothers him.” Layne gave Tigger’s lead a little tug, just to get his attention. “We’ll bring up the rear. That way, if Tigger decides to be an ass, we won’t get in your way.”
As they started to walk away, Layne saw a familiar face. “Hey, Jackson. Can you keep an eye on my rig for me while we get the horses to their stalls?”
Jackson nodded. “Sure, Layne. Randy and Tammy are around here somewhere with our bunch. They’ll be glad to know you’ve made it.”
“I’ll make sure to text Randy. Did you bring in some roughstock for the rodeo as well?”
“Of course. You’d better get going or Tigger there will be pulling you down the aisle.” Jackson studied the bay for a second. “If you aren’t interested in selling, you might want to hide him from Randy.”
Layne grinned. “Tigger has the makings of a fine cutting horse. Not that you’d know it by the way he’s acting now. I think Randy and Les would be a good fit for him.”
Jackson snorted. “It’ll be a toss-up between who’ll want him more—Tammy or Randy.”
“That’s good to hear. Well, I’ll be back in a few.”
Carl and the two horses had strolled off. Layne hurried just a little to catch up with them. He wanted to watch how Carl was with Boom and Snack. If he doesn’t have anything to do while he’s here, maybe he’d be interested in helping me with them. But he said he did the rodeo. He might be too busy.
Layne tried to keep his gaze above Carl’s waist, but every once in a while, his eyes would drop to stare at Carl’s firm ass, displayed nicely in fitted jeans. He wore dusty black cowboy boots and a dark red T-shirt. Layne couldn’t really tell what color Carl’s hair was, considering he wore a tan cowboy Stetson, much like Layne’s.
Tigger snorted then planted all four feet. He jerked his head up, causing the lead rope to slide through Layne’s fingers. He grimaced at the slight burn before he tightened his grip and faced the gelding.
“What’s your problem?” Layne looked around, searching for anything that might have frightened Tigger. All he saw were a bunch of men and women rushing around to set up their own areas before the American Royal event opened the next day.
Whatever had spooked Tigger must have disappeared because the gelding huffed then stalked off as though it had been Layne’s fault they’d stopped. Layne just shook his head, but smiled. As annoying as Tigger’s antics could be, Layne adored the gelding. Hell, he loved each of his horses for their unique personalities and their joy of living.
He saw Carl stop in front of a section of four stalls. Layne checked the positioning of them and said, “Put Boom in the far one.” Using his elbow, he pointed to the stall at the junction of two aisleways. “He’s the least likely to freak out with people walking past him all the time. I’ll put Tigger next to him then leave the third stall empty. Snack can go in the fourth.”
They got the horses situated and the stall doors secured. Layne hung each halter and rope on a hook outside the doors. He leaned against the empty partition and looked at Carl.
“Are you riding in the rodeo this week?”
Carl lifted a shoulder while tapping his fingers on his left leg. “Nope. I can use my leg and everything, but the docs say if I land on it wrong one more time, I’ll be crippled for life. So there go my bronc riding days.”
Layne rested his hand on Carl’s shoulder in sympathy. “I’m sorry. I have a couple of guys working for me at the ranch who were injured while riding the circuit.”
“It is what it is, man. Not like I didn’t know the danger going in.” Carl sounded resigned, but not angry, as though he’d worked through all of that already.
“Well, if you aren’t riding, I was wondering if you’d be interested in helping me out. With Quinn being sick, I don’t have my usual groom and helper. I’m doing exhibitions with the boys here, showing how Thoroughbreds can be retrained to do things other than race. But with all the different exhibits and talks I have to do, sometimes it’s hard to make sure they’re groomed and ready on time.” Layne took a breath, aware that he was rambling.
Carl stared at him for a minute and Layne fought the urge to squirm under the man’s gaze. Finally, Carl held out his hand. “I would be happy to help out. Never let it be said that I let a man down when he needed me.”
Layne chuckled. “You say that now, but wait until Tigger steps on your foot and blows snot all over you while you’re trying to get him tacked up.”
“I’ve had worse happen.” Carl didn’t seem too worried. “How about we start hauling in all your tack and stuff? Then once all that’s in, we can take the horses out to the arena and let them stretch their legs before we settle them for the night.”
“Brilliant plan. After which, I’ll treat you to dinner.” Layne made sure the doors were secure before they returned to his truck. “Maybe we can get Jackson to help, so we can get done faster.”
Carl’s broad face lit up in a bright smile. Layne turned away as his cock stiffened. It’s definitely not going to be a hardship working with him for the next week. I just need to be careful. I don’t know if he’s gay, and if he is, that doesn’t mean he’ll be interested in me.