An injured horse. A wary woman. Healing them could cost his heart.
Nat Jackson knows what she’s good at: healing horses. Relationships? She learned about the price of those from her mother. When Cole Masterson shows up at her Second Hope ranch with a bad shoulder and a lame horse, she’s more than willing to treat the animal. But his money comes with a catch—he insists on staying at the ranch while his horse undergoes treatment.
The horse, she can handle. Resisting the man…that’s a complication she doesn’t need.
Money is no object when it comes to his horses, and Cole knows Second Hope offers the best in equine rehab. He hadn’t counted on Nat’s fractured heart awakening his desire to mend it. Her skills have his horse on the fast track to health, though. There’s not much time to work his way through her defenses before it’s time to leave.
Nat has no intention of getting her hopes up only to have them dashed. Cole’s already thrown his heart over the fence—and he has no choice but to follow it in pursuit of the woman of his dreams.
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They'd hoped to arrive at the Second Hope Ranch by five, but Cole hadn't taken into account his own tendency toward mother hennishness. He made the driver stop the trailer every few hours, going back to check that Fleet wasn't in any pain, that the shavings were deep and clean, that the sling holding most of the horse's weight off his feet was neither too loose nor too tight. It wouldn't do for Fleet to colic because they'd done something wrong. Heck, Cole didn't even want the horse to be unduly stressed, and while Fleet was used to trailering, he wasn't used to doing it on cracked bones.
Cole was torn between guilt at adding time to the trip, and relief that he'd insisted on stopping to let the horse rest. When they pulled up to the rehab ranch—Equine Spa, some of his reining buddies called it with equal parts fondness and derision—it was full dark. The gate opened only after the driver called in and someone came out to clear them. As they drove up, floodlights came on to light their path. The long dirt road ended in a large, lit courtyard, with more lights in several of the buildings: both barns and the indoor arena.
The truck rolled carefully to a stop, easing ever slower until it finally rocked still. The driver glanced at Cole, now used to him demanding more care with their precious cargo, but even Cole couldn't fault that halt.
A girl stepped into the glow pooling from the headlights, lifting one hand in a cheerful wave. She was younger than he'd expected from the woman who ran the place, shorter and curvy with kinky red hair and a softness that he associated with mothers. Cole pushed the truck door open with his good arm, and stepped down onto dirt covered with a layer of sand. Excellent footing for injured horses. He winced as his other arm—carried carefully in a sling—shifted slightly. Then he closed the truck door and walked forward, hand outstretched. "Antoinette Jackson? Cole Masterson."
The redhead dimpled—he couldn't believe people actually did that, but the word applied—and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I'm not Nat—and you really don't want to call her Antoinette to her face—but if you take a look that way…"
He turned in time to see a shape emerge from the lit arena, silhouetted against cream colored boards and pale sand. He couldn't tell much other than it was a woman on a horse. As she came nearer, stepping from the shadows into the circle of light in the courtyard, he took a good look at her mount. Black, with broad shoulders and strong, straight legs. It walked with the loose-legged stride of a truly relaxed animal, the woman's legs swinging, unhampered by stirrups or even a saddle. The creature kept its head low, ears flopping contentedly to either side of a broad head. Only when he'd looked his fill at the horse did Cole's gaze lift to its rider.
She was tall, leggy, sitting comfortably astride her horse and moving with a grace that spoke both of training and years in the saddle—or on the back, as the case currently was. Black hair fell from a low ponytail down past her rib cage, thick waves of it that matched the night sky. From this distance and with the odd lighting he couldn't see eye color, other than dark smudges of brow and lashes, but her skin was very pale. Her shoulders were narrow, collarbones stretching out underneath the thin straps of a tank top, breasts small and high above a compact rib cage and a tiny waist. It wasn't until she stopped that he realized he'd been staring. He'd expected someone…older. The redhead had been a surprise, but the woman before him was a devastation. She was beautiful. Suddenly, he was jealous of Fleet.
"Nat Jackson?" He stepped up to her horse's shoulder and put a callused palm on the warm coat. The horse shivered, then relaxed again. It sighed. She spoke, her voice touched with dry humor, a little husky. "Glad you could make it. We were starting to think you'd died." Without dismounting she looked up, over Cole's head as if dismissing him from her thoughts just that easily.
He knew he wouldn't be dismissing her without a fight.
A man stepped out of the barn.
"Beth! Tell the driver to go around to the far end of the second barn." She looked back down, still sitting relaxed on her horse. "Does Fleet get along with other horses all right, or do we need to isolate him?"
Cole smiled his best gentlemanly smile, hoping to at least get a second look from her. "He's a real social butterfly. Minds his p's and hooves." His pun didn't rate either the second look or the laugh he was hoping for. She looked up at Beth again, all business.
"Put him in the middle stall, then. The one that leads to the grass paddock, not the sand." Then, finally, she looked back down at Cole. "Let me get Jasmine put away, and we'll see your things stored and Fleet settled."
Jasmine's head lifted, nostrils flaring as the truck moved on down the courtyard. Beth hopped up into the passenger seat to direct from there, leaving Cole behind. Fleet whinnied, and Jasmine answered.
"He's not in any shape to be playing stud." The business mask Nat had been wearing slipped away as she spoke to her animal, amusement and love shining through. She twisted, bracing her hands firmly against the wither bone and rocking up. Her leg swung over the mare's back and she dropped, landing lightly before flipping the reins over Jasmine's head and starting to walk.
Cole fell into step on the opposite side of the horse, deciding it would be too obvious to run around and join Nat. Besides which, while he wasn't the tallest person ever at just six feet, with Jasmine's head drooping again he could see over it to Nat.
She didn't appear to be aware of him, her eyes on the ground in front of her horse as if studying every inch for possible pot holes. Cole would bet that not so much as a pebble stayed out of place for long around here, with a gaze as intent as that.
He rather wished she'd turn it on him. Now that Fleet was being taken care of, he had little else to think about. With his left arm in a sling and the reining year over—for him and Fleet, at least—there wasn't much to occupy his mind. Staying home while Fleet healed probably would have been the sensible thing to do, but Cole couldn't stand the thought of his prize stallion being out of sight—not even for the few months it would take for those bones to mend well, and not even in a place as reputable for turning out miracles as this one was.
Besides, he liked to tell himself, he could start getting them both back in shape here, under the careful watch of the barn vets and physical therapists. One of whom, he considered as he looked at the woman over her horse, was standing right here.
He wouldn't mind doing much of anything under her careful watch. After all, he had nothing else to keep him busy.
When she looked up, no doubt in response to his steady contemplation, he smiled slow and soft.
She didn't look impressed. "You're in my way."
Well, that wasn't the best pickup line ever, but he'd worked with worse. "Sorry." Cole stepped out of the stall doorway after he'd glanced around to see what he was blocking. The woman and horse turned and went past him, into a stall heavily padded with shavings. In the overhead lights he could see that the mare's whiskers were long, though her ears were neatly trimmed. Nat disappeared from view as she unbridled her horse, quiet words murmuring in the air between them for a moment, too low for Cole to understand.
He stepped away, looking down the center aisle, at the stall doors with their top halves open. He could still hear her voice, hear the warmth and praise even if he couldn't make out the words. He tried to give them privacy, studying the rafters and noting the stairs that led up to a glassed-in office above the tack room. It was good to see someone who cared about their animals, who took a few extra minutes to soothe and pet. Too many of the people Cole worked with didn't, even considered him suspect for the way he treated his horses. Though to be honest, he didn't really know all of the animals at his ranch. Not anymore. Fleet was his, and always would be, but there were so many others in training or boarding to be bred, that his staff knew more about each horse than he did. He wondered if Nat knew everything about all the horses here. He bet she did.
A small basket with grooming supplies hung outside each door. He watched her go to Jasmine's, take a curry and slip back inside. Idly, he wandered to the nearest stall.
"Well, hello there," he said softly to the occupant.
The horse turned a big roman nose on him, liquid eyes blinking sleepily. It ambled over, one back leg dragging through the shavings, making furrows and taking half of his bedding along. Even at the shoulder the horse was taller than Cole, a giant of an equine with a blade of a spine. The rest of his body seemed to hang off his backbone, rib cage pulling his skin taut. His head loomed over the half door, nostrils widening as he snuffled toward jean pockets hopefully. "A treat monster, are you?" Cole chuckled, running one hand down the large brown face. He reached up to straighten the horse's thick black forelock, then traced the whirl and eddy of a cowlick in the center of his blaze. "And what are you here for? Something to do with that leg, I'd bet."
The horse didn't tell him, content to let him wonder without the need to explain.
There was a fine patina of dust over the gelding's big, dark body, shavings in his mane and thoroughly ensconced in his tail. Signs that he'd been laying down to sleep, an indication in and of itself that he was happy here.
"General has bad back legs."
Cole didn't jump at the voice behind him, just stepped around the big head to give Nat room. She closed Jasmine's stall door and tucked her fingers in her pockets, wandering closer.
"He was shipped from Germany, but within a few months after arriving here his owner discovered his ligaments were degenerating. They tighten up, dragging at his heels until he walks on his toes. The only way to fix it was to cut the lesser ligaments and let the foot drop down again. It worked okay with his left leg, but not with the right. They cut the major tendons, which meant he could walk again once everything had calcified, but it looks a bit like a flipper." She smiled, her eyes on the horse, and shook her head with a combination of laughter and sadness. "He's happy and not usually in pain. On bad days we give him meds and on really good days he can give small kids pony rides. Overall, he seems content, still. He just lives here." She reached up, offering a bit of carrot she pulled out of a pocket.
General left Cole instantly, big lips flopping to pick up the treat. "I feel abandoned. Thrown over," Cole said with a grin, reaching up again to rub General's neck.
It drew a real smile from Nat, blue green eyes looking at him with something other than business on her face. "Horses'll do that. Can't trust 'em." Then she turned back to the gelding, wiping off dust. "His owner retired him here. He's part of our old guard—him and half a dozen other horses. He's good with Jasmine and the mini—"
She pointed to a corner of the stall, where a horse no bigger than a large dog was curled in the shadows, one eye cracked open to glare at them all. Cole would have been afraid General would crush it, but Nat seemed to have no such concern. "That's…amazing." It wasn't really the right word—insane might have been better—but it was a tactful one.
Nat laughed as if she'd known exactly what he wanted to say, as if she'd heard it all before. The sound danced through the barn, light and cheerful. "That's what most people say. But they work well together. Get sad if you separate them." With a grin and a wink, she gave General a last pat and headed toward the night beyond the barn doors. "Ready to check on your horse and head inside for the evening? They ought to have him unloaded by now."
"Fleet's a prince," Cole assured her, following. "If they don't have him unloaded, tucked in and fed, I'd be stunned."
Nat could have predicted Fleet's reaction to Cole coming to check on him: he didn't care one whit. He was in a comfortable stall with a bucket of feed and two flakes of hay. He had much better things to do than pay attention to the humans who visited.
Much to Nat's amusement, though, Cole refused to leave until he'd gone in and checked the horse's legs. All four had been unwrapped, then the front ones re-wrapped for support. One broad hand slid over fur-covered muscle, checking for heat or soreness.
Fleet was typical of a high-quality reining horse. He was a Quarter Horse, not as large as Jasmine, built for speed and agility rather than height like the bigger-boned jumping horses. His legs were straight, the sinew over his chest and shoulders well developed, not overshadowed by the heavy muscle on his hips and rump like she had seen with some of the other reiners. His coat was a glossy red, his mane and tail flaxen, with a star on his forehead and a strip down his face. One rear leg sported a high white sock, but the rest were solid.
Once Cole had assured himself that the little stallion was well settled, they got his things from the stall they'd converted into a tack room just for him and headed toward the house.
She was more aware than she liked of the man walking beside her, his stride long and loose even with his left arm in a sling. It made her nervous, antsy. She didn't want to like him.
Letting him stay had been a mistake. Her thoughts tangled and snarled into a mess of annoyance at the idea of playing nurse to a man. She dealt with horses, not humans. Equines were less frustrating.
Her steps banged up the stairs to the veranda as she sped, venting recently born anger on the stained wood. The porch light came on automatically. It nearly blinded her. Nat ignored it and pushed into the house through the screen door, turning to hold it open. She stared at Cole's boots, the scuffed toes peeking out from the tattered hems of well-worn jeans. Working boots, boots he used often. The edges of the soles were rounded, the leather scratched. Nat hated cowboys. She reminded herself of that firmly as his scent drifted around her, sage and apples and soap mixed with the faint edge of sweat.
He'd stopped moving. Her gaze inched up, catching on the duffel bag he held in one strong hand. One knuckle was swollen, slightly crooked. Her chest clenched, remembering her father's swollen knuckles, how they'd twisted after he'd broken them on the bar-room wall. Suddenly, Cole's scent wasn't so appealing.
Nat lifted her head, expression steady and cool, marking honey brown hair and cider brown eyes and filing them away so she didn't have to pay attention again. "Make yourself at home. Living room." She gestured to the open, airy space around them, then to the counter that was all that separated the common area from the kitchen. "Kitchen. Fridge is stocked. If you use the last of something, add it to the list. Or if you want something." She shrugged. "Whoever goes into town will get supplies." She let the door close as he stepped farther into her house. "The sliding glass door takes you out to the back." A glance across the room showed blackness beyond the glass, but she knew there was a small courtyard framed by her house, covered in flagstone with an oak tree in the middle. The architect had recommended moving the tree, saying that in another thirty years it would begin to tear up the foundation. She'd told him that in thirty years, she'd be ready for something new, anyway, and the tree had remained as the centerpiece.
Nat turned on one heel to look around, pointing to the hall just beyond the kitchen. "There's a bathroom there, my office, and the den." A playroom, more accurately, with a pool table and beaten-up couches and chairs, various games tucked in various closets. Then she turned the other way, to face the other wing of the single-story house. "Bedrooms are down there. Yours is the first one on your right, and the bathroom is just around the corner." The only other room was hers, and if he ended up in there she had no compunction about showing him out, possibly minus a few body parts. "The door across from yours is the linen closet. If you need anything extra, it's probably in there."
"You have a great place."
There he went, with his smooth voice and his almost-drawl, as if working around cowboys had given him the beginnings of a Texas accent. She refused to hear the compliment, her gaze flickering around her house. She knew it was nice; she'd worked hard to make it someplace she enjoyed coming back to. The furniture was leather and wood, the floors oak. Her rarely used but still state-of-the-art entertainment system was against the far wall, hidden behind doors, and the bar that curled around the corner was rich with greens and burgundies. It was more masculine than most women would like, but she enjoyed it. It made her feel safe, warm, while the openness of the layout kept it from being cave-like and the windows across most of the walls let in plenty of light. The back wall of the main area was almost solid glass, either sliding doors or big windows, looking out onto her oak tree and the flowerbeds.
Her place was perfect, and she didn't need him to tell her that. Using that thought as a buffer, she glanced at Cole and kept the compliment from taking root. He was handsome and smelled good—men like that were to be trusted even less than normal males. "If you want to put your things in your room, I need to go clean up. Feel free to use the shower down the hall."
He smiled warmly. "Sure thing. Thanks."
Nat gave him a mildly suspicious look and headed toward her bedroom.