“I don’t question her horsemanship, only the skills of her crew members.” His gaze moved from Emma to Mariana, and he reached to stroke the mare’s nose. “In particular, I noticed yesterday during the workout that you appeared uneasy at times.”
Her stomach dropped. She hadn’t known she was being observed.
“Yesterday we were simply tasked with getting to know our mounts.” Sweat broke out along the back of her shoulders, though it wasn’t all that hot for August. A breeze stirred the mare’s mane and made Emma’s skin turn clammy. Her heart rate quickened. “I’ve never worked with a horse that uses so many specialty commands. She’s highly trained.”
“Unlike you.” He reached for the bridle. “May I?”
His fingers brushed hers, the contact sparking unwanted heat despite how he’d just insulted her. Relinquishing the leather, Emma tamped down her anger, knowing she needed to smooth things over with him or Zoe would send her home.
“Carson,” he reminded her, letting Mariana’s lead dangle to the ground. “And you don’t need to hold her so tightly. That’s why she’s rocking her head like that. She wants some breathing room.”
“Carson.” She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Seeing the way Mariana quieted, Emma could hardly argue with him. “Stunt work involves a wide variety of skills. While I may not be the expert horsewoman that Zoe is, I assure you, I am well qualified to scale heights, take a fall or drive a burning car into a building.”
He folded his arms across his chest, seeming to take her measure. “But you’re not working with a car or a building. You’re working with a nine-hundred-pound animal with a will of its own, and that brings a whole new level of danger to the job.”
“That’s why the production company imports horses like Mariana. They’re used to the rigors of filming and working with a variety of people.”
“That doesn’t mean you can waltz in here after a Saturday at the local dude ranch and expect to pull off a stunt on horseback.”
Too bad she had to do just that.
“Then tell me, Carson.” She looked him in the eye, unwilling to back down. “What do I have to do to prove to you I belong here? You name it, and I’ll rise to the challenge.”
Because whatever dangers Mariana and the Creek Spill Ranch held for Emma, they were nothing compared to the damage an angry ex could do if she went back home now.
* * *
Emma Layton was turning out to be an enticing distraction he hadn’t anticipated.
Carson stared into her deep brown eyes, her gaze unwavering as she awaited instruction. She was scrubbed clean of makeup, her brown hair scraped back into a ponytail and wrapped into a haphazard knot. Everything about her said she was here to work, from the determined set of her full lips to the tense shoulders she’s squared to him.
She was a half foot shorter than him, with the kind of lean muscles that dancers possessed. She was hardly what came to mind when he envisioned a stunt actor but based on her scowl, he guessed she might breathe fire if he spoke that thought aloud. With her long elegant neck and delicate features, she looked more suited for ballet than daredevil tricks, but to each his own.
Or her own.
The fact that he found her grit and determination incredibly appealing should not be on his mind right now given how much production the Creek Spill Ranch lost every day that shooting continued on his property. Carson had his overly cautious twin brother to thank for all the added clauses in the contract with the film company that said the McNeill family had the last word on safety for the duration of the shoot. Normally, Carson was the easygoing twin and Cody took care of being the hard-ass. But Carson had needed to step in and fill his brother’s shoes. Cody had a lot on his plate with his girlfriend expecting a baby. And now they were dealing with a new crisis: Cody and Carson’s stepmother was in a coma.
Paige had been in intensive care after a fall while hiking in Yellowstone, putting the whole family on edge the same week the film company came to town. Making matters more complicated, just a day before the accident, Carson’s youngest half sister, Scarlett, had received a blackmail note threatening to reveal some secret from Paige’s past that would damage the family.
While hell broke loose all around them, Carson was left to oversee the Creek Spill, plus make sure Cody didn’t overlook anything at the other major family holding, the Black Creek Ranch, while everyone took turns sitting with Paige at the ICU in Idaho. Thankfully, Paige was being transported to the Cheyenne hospital today, now that she’d shown signs of coming out of the coma.
Still, it definitely wasn’t a good time to be noticing the sex appeal of Emma Layton, who stared him down as though she wished he was the one driving a car into a burning building. Preferably at full speed. More often than not, women found him charming. How damned ironic that the one woman to turn his head in recent memory looked like she wanted to take his head off.
“I want you to feel more at ease on horseback,” he told Emma finally, reminding himself he was not the demanding, inflexible McNeill brother. “That will decrease your risk of injury considerably.”
Once he felt assured of her competence, he would return to work. She was a professional, after all, and she had a stunt coordinator watching over her shoulder. The company was insured for this kind of thing and the ranch wasn’t liable.
Except Carson had a conscience to answer to, and damned if it hadn’t grown bigger with his ever-responsible twin out of the picture. Their own mother, an experienced rancher, had died from injuries sustained while trying to separate a bull from the cattle. Carson had been four years old at the time, and he’d been there, along with his older brother. Her death had haunted the family and changed their father forever. He knew all too well that animals could turn unpredictable.
Emma lifted her riding helmet and strapped it on her head. “I’m ready.”
“I sent your two colleagues out to the arena to work on their leg positioning.” He pointed out the track his younger brother, Brock, used to show and train quarter horses, a lucrative side business at the Creek Spill. “There’s a training area beyond that, next to a tack shed. Let’s take your horse out there and we’ll start working on your hands.”
“Her name is Mariana.” She pointed toward the horse as he began leading the gray mare out to the training field. “And what do you mean about my hands?”
He took the quieter shady route behind the barn, his boots finding the worn grassy path that hadn’t been trampled to dirt yet. He thought he’d been prepared for the added activity of a film production on his property, but he’d underestimated how much equipment and manpower it required.
“They’re too stiff.” He hadn’t given riding lessons since Scarlett was a girl. “You need a more elastic hold that doesn’t place extra pressure on the bit. As it is, Mariana will get confused about what you want from her if she feels like you’re tugging.”
“I’m a fast learner.” Emma slanted a look his way, peering over the horse’s nose. “Just tell me what you want to see from me, I’ll do it. I can’t afford to lose this job.”
There was more to that story. He could hear it in her voice. See it in the hint of vulnerability in those dark brown eyes. And he regretted that he couldn’t give her the reassurance she clearly sought.
Opening the gate to the training area, he waited until Mariana and Emma were through before he latched it behind them. “And I can’t afford for anyone to get hurt on my property. I made it very clear to the production manager when I signed the contract that a ranch is a dangerous place. I won’t allow you to continue if I think you’re at risk.”
She huffed out a breath, regarding him with frustration she didn’t bother to hide. Hands on hips, she faced him.
“Every single thing we do in my business puts us at risk. In my last job, I once had to reenact a knife fight over twenty times before it was right. The take they liked best was