When she interviewed for this opening—only her fifth paying role as a stuntwoman—Emma had been so focused on nailing the job that she hadn’t thought twice when asked about prior riding experience. While it was true she’d taken informal lessons as a teen on the property where her mother worked for the famous Ventura family, Emma knew she’d only been granted the job because of her connection to Antonio Ventura, the director. Not that she would see him any time soon. As a stunt performer for one of the more minor characters in the film, Emma served as part of the second unit on this location. That meant she answered to the stunt coordinator, while Antonio would direct the leads.
Both units were filming at the Creek Spill for the next two weeks, but Emma hoped and prayed the shoot would run over. She needed the work almost as much as she needed to be as far from Los Angeles as possible right now. Far, far away from her ex-boyfriend, due to be released from state prison tomorrow. This job had been a godsend, a boon that made her determined to exaggerate her limited horseback riding ability.
This morning, Emma and her assigned mare stood outside the pristine Creek Spill stables with five other body doubles and their mounts. All waited for instruction from Zoe Bettle, the stunt coordinator who also served as horse mistress for the film. Zoe, an accomplished horsewoman in her midforties with the body of an athlete, appeared to be in a standoff with a tall, impossibly handsome cowboy in a dark Stetson.
At least, he looked like a cowboy.
His broad shoulders filled out a fitted gray T-shirt tucked into faded jeans with creases bleached almost white where the fabric contoured to his movement and muscle. His boots had the distressed leather look that costume designers labored to replicate with sandpaper and acetone. But the weathered appearance didn’t extend to the rancher’s face. He had the square jaw, chiseled cheekbones and full lips a camera loved. Clearly, he was one of the lead actors—someone with enough clout to raise Zoe’s hackles. Emma could tell by the set to her shoulders that she was not pleased with whatever the man had to say.
Already, Emma didn’t like him. She needed her boss in a good mood today so Zoe would be forgiving of the mistakes Emma was sure to make. As it was, the woman appeared ready to fire the first stunt rider foolish enough to screw up. Emma tried to calm her nerves by stroking Mariana’s soft gray muzzle.
“Fine.” Zoe’s last word had enough volume to reach Emma’s ears. She turned toward the assembled stunt talent. “A change of plans today, ladies and gentlemen.” She strode closer to them, her tall riding boots stirring up dust from the pasture. Although she was just barely five feet tall, she carried herself like an Olympic gymnast, her perfect posture and musculature outlined by tan jodhpurs and a bright red T-shirt. “Our host, Mr. McNeill, has expressed concerns about our horsemanship.” She articulated the word with all the affront she must be feeling. “So I have assured him we will slow down our training schedule to meet the ranch’s safety standards.”
Their host? Emma glanced back at the rancher she’d mistaken for an actor, seeing him in a new light. If he was responsible for this sprawling ranch with its well-kept fields and neatly maintained barns, he excelled at his job. The Creek Spill was like a minitown in the middle of nowhere, from its bunkhouse full of ranch hands to its on-site cooking facilities and dedicated water tower.
“Ms. Bettle, I think you misunderstood me,” the cowboy called from where he stood near the freshly painted four-rail fence that separated the pasture from the paddock area.
The stunt coordinator ignored him. She folded her arms and glared at the talent.
“We will divide into two groups. Ms. Layton and anyone else involved in the race scene, please show Mr. McNeill how well prepared we are for the stunt.” Zoe’s eyes bored into Emma’s, warning her not to mess up. “The rest of you, come with me. We will be working in the far pasture so as not to disturb the local horses while they ‘adjust to our presence.’”
Emma’s boss did not roll her eyes, but her tone suggested how much she wanted to. Two other stunt doubles—both men, both stronger riders than her—stepped forward with their mounts and headed toward the rancher. Emma started to follow them, keeping hold of the leather reins as she spoke soothingly to the mare at her side.
“Ms. Layton.” Zoe stepped closer to her, voice lowered. Hints of an Eastern European accent came through. “Carson McNeill signed a unique agreement with the production company that gives him the last word on safety conditions here. Since the Creek Spill is a working ranch, we don’t have the luxury of sending him on a two-week vacation while we shoot. We must make sure he’s satisfied that we know what we are doing. Yes?”
Emma nodded. “I understand.”
Impressing Carson McNeill was priority one if she wanted to keep this job. Her palms began sweating on the reins as she glanced at the cowboy who now controlled her fate. Why couldn’t she be filming a fight scene? Or jumping off a building? Anything but horseback riding. No doubt Zoe recognized Emma was the weak link in the stunt crew.
She’d been warned.
While Zoe and the remaining cast members mounted for the ride to the far pasture, Emma urged her horse, Mariana, forward. Morning sunlight glinted off the creek in the distance behind the ranch owner. The whole property flanked the water on both sides for two miles. When she’d first arrived at the Creek Spill two days ago, Emma had been overwhelmed by the beauty of Wyoming with its endless blue sky, rugged cliffs and rolling hills dotted with wildflowers. Now the spectacular view narrowed to Carson McNeill, where he stood under the shade of a giant ash tree.
He appeared to give instructions to both men in her group, and the guys were mounted and riding away before she reached his side. Her pulse raced; she wished she didn’t have to speak to him alone. She’d mostly conquered her demons where men were concerned. After the nightmare relationship with her former boyfriend ended three years ago, Emma had started training herself for this competitive profession to supplement her work as a personal trainer. Stunt work appealed to her need to be more sure of herself, and she’d fooled a lot of people into thinking she had already arrived at that goal.
Right now, she was more worried about Carson McNeill calling her out for a fraud where her riding skills were concerned. Without the men in her crew to hide behind, she would be making it easier for the rancher to see her weakness. But the idea of appearing weak steeled her spine as she walked over to him, giving her the shot of bravado she needed to pull this off.
“I’m in the race scene, Mr. McNeill.” She tipped her chin up and braced her shoulders. It was her personal “ready” position. “What would you like to see from me?”
She had a degree in exercise science. She’d trained hard to be here. This man would not send her packing.
“Call me Carson.” He just barely touched the brim of his Stetson, a cowboy tip of the hat.
“Emma Layton.” She didn’t offer her hand since she held Mariana’s reins with her right one and it was slick with nervous sweat. In her left hand, she clutched the strap of her riding helmet.
Carson McNeill was even more compelling up close, where she could see past the shadows cast by his hat. His eyes were pale blue. A hint of dark hair escaped his hat, curling at the base of his neck. His gaze dipped over her briefly, inspiring a flare of unexpected heat along her skin even though she was thoroughly covered in a standard workout T-shirt with the jodhpurs and riding boots Zoe had provided.
“Nice to meet you, Emma. And I assure you, I didn’t mean to start the day on the wrong side of your boss.” There was a certain practiced charm about his smile. She bet he unleashed it on other women with great success.
Emma couldn’t afford to be interested, despite that lick of warmth she felt along her skin. The sensation wasn’t from the smile that was too automatic, but from the intelligence in those blue eyes. A shrewdness that told her there was more to the rich rancher than a handsome face and honed bod.
“Zoe knows stunts and horses as well as anyone.” Emma had read everything she could find about the woman on her flight to Cheyenne, and she’d been impressed. “She’s probably