Posted Feb 4 2017, 4:24 pm
Purple hair looked good on Hunter McCoy.
He glanced at himself in the rearview mirror and smiled. Lilli would love his new look—even though she couldn’t exactly see him.
He put his truck in gear and zipped out of the parking lot, anxious to get home. Several minutes later, thanks to less-than-average Seattle area traffic, he drove down the gravel driveway to the country home he lived in with his sister, Lilli.
Last summer, he’d purchased two acres next to the horse barn where Lilli kept her horse and spent the majority of her time when she wasn’t working. He’d bought the house when Lilli finally came to her senses, dumped her dickhead boyfriend, Steve, and moved back to the Seattle area.
The property had the added advantage of being close to his long-time friend and teammate, Tanner Wolfe and his wife, Emma, along with Tanner’s brother, Isaac, and his wife, Avery, who taught and trained at the same barn Lilli rode at. Emma and Avery were also twin sisters, which only added to the family feeling of the property. Hunter appreciated family more than most. Lilli and he benefitted from the closeness of the people surrounding them, since their own family resided two hours southwest of Seattle on the opposite side of Puget Sound.
Hunter had the sixties ranch house remodeled completely, not only to modernize it but to optimize it with the latest technology for the blind. They’d debated on tearing it down, but Lilli hated waste, while Hunter appreciated the funkiness of the older home as opposed to the cookie-cutter appearance of the newer homes.
He entered the spacious entry, which led to a large living/dining/kitchen with a wall of windows and a glass door opening onto a deck. A patch of green lawn ended in a wild tangle of native plants and trees. A water feature with a koi pond blended into the landscape, trickling like a babbling brook.
Lilli met him at the entrance to the great room, having heard him pull in. The woman could hear her scruffy cat purring from three rooms away. Her seeing-eye dog, off duty and not wearing his harness, stood nearby, tail wagging. Hunter gave the Golden Retriever a pat on the head. Charlie responded by licking his hand.
Lilli was smiling, which always put a smile on his face. “So, what did you do, Hunter?” She could barely contain her excitement. He waited a few moments, prolonging the suspense. She tapped her foot impatiently and propped her hands on her hips, a sure sign he was about to be given a good-natured ass-chewing if he didn’t answer her question.
“Hunter…” she warned with a voice as strong as steel and as sweet as honey, so much like their Nana. His heart swelled with love and pride for his sister.
“It’s purple—a deep, dark purple—and I had her put waves in it.” He subjected himself to shit like this because Lilli loved it, and he’d do anything for her.
“I can smell the dye.” She laughed and clapped her hands. “Let me feel. She moved forward and held out her hands, reaching for him. He stood still as she ran her hands over his long, now curly hair. “I love it. Describe the color.”
“It’s the color of those violets that Nana had in a big clay pot on her porch in the summer.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I remember.”
So did he. He remembered all too well that summer when he was seven and she was ten. The summer everything changed, and Lilli lost her eyesight in a freak accident. But true to form, Lilli never complained. She soldiered onward, dealing with her blindness as if it were an opportunity to meet a challenge rather than be a victim of a disability.
At thirty, she had two bachelor’s degrees in both business and political science and an MBA from the University of Washington. She never let anything stop her and never would. Three years ago, she self-published her first thriller novel and never looked back. Lilli raked in the cash, each book’s sales growing exponentially.
Despite her success, Hunter worried about her. She dwelled in the darkness of her books too much, and he constantly worked to pull her into the light. He wished she wrote romantic comedy or something.
He knew he shouldn’t be concerned. Lilli McCoy had the most positive attitude of anyone he knew. She was also fiercely independent despite her disability. Lilli took risks, which scared the shit out of him, like going out for walks alone with Charlie, who was no protection at all, unless licking someone to death counted as protection.
Hunter glanced down at what Lilli was wearing and frowned. She had on one of those swimsuit cover-ups. “Did you go swimming while I was gone?” He’d put in a small covered pool across from the garage this summer. They’d both gotten a lot of use out of it.
Lilli nodded, the set of her jaw defiant. She stood up straighter, her back rigid.
“I told you not to swim when no one’s here. What if something happened?”
“You’re never here during the football season, and Emma’s busy today. Besides, nothing happened, little brother, and nothing will.” She shrugged. “And if it does, well, it does.”
“I’m sorry. I—” Hunter shook his head. The thought of losing her was unbearable to him.
“I’m not laying a guilt trip on you. In fact, I love football season because you aren’t constantly smothering me. Someday, you’re going to have to let go, find someone, and start a family of your own. I need nieces and nephews.”
“You’ll always have place in my home.”
Her knowing smile denied his words, but she didn’t say anything further. Regardless, he had the distinct feeling he’d lost the battle—again.
Lilli was as stubborn and independent as he was, and he loved his sister fiercely. She’d always been wise beyond her years, and losing her sight made her all the wiser.
The year she’d moved back East with Steve had killed him. Love was truly blind. He’d seen through the asshole, but she never had until—
Lilli touched his arm. Something she did often since she couldn’t see a person’s expression. “You’re tense. What’s wrong?”
Hunter was nothing if not brutally honest. “Thinking about that dickhead, Steve.”
She laughed. “He wasn’t a dickhead, not exactly. He was what I needed at the time to learn the lessons I needed to learn.”
Hunter rolled his eyes, glad she couldn’t see him. “He was a dickhead. I never liked him.”
“And you made your opinions abundantly clear. Besides, you’ve never liked any man I’ve been interested in.”
“None of them have been good enough for you. They haven’t recognized your special gifts or cherished what a unique and exceptional woman you are.”
“I could say the same of your women.” She laughed again, and he had to smile. Her sunny outlook on life was contagious.
“You could,” he admitted with a chuckle.
“Hunter, leave the overprotective fathering to our father. He does a good enough job on his own.”
“That he does.” Hunter conceded that point, but Dad wasn’t here to protect her right now.
“I need to change. I’m meeting the girls for dinner.”
“Do you need a ride?”
“No, Avery’s picking me up.”
“Okay.” She headed for her bedroom, Charlie on her heels despite being off duty. The Golden Retriever took his job seriously, just as Hunter did.
She paused and turned. “Hunter, get a girlfriend. You need a distraction, and I need you to have one.” With a pleasant laugh, she headed back down the hallway.
* * * *
Beatrice Kathleen Vanderhof-Carrigan, known as Kate, lived in a horse barn. Not literally, but in every other way. She lived and breathed horses, from the show horses she rode daily to the racehorses her family had bred for generations in the Kentucky Bluegrass.
Kate preferred horses over people most days of the week, if not all days. The youngest of three children, she’d spent her childhood in boarding schools. Her busy father was descended from “The Vanderhofs” whose old money dated back practically to the Mayflower, while her mother chose to live on her family’s Kentucky horse farm where Kate spent her summers.
Kate arrived early at the thoroughbred training and rehab facility to watch her horse work out on the all-weather track. Mist clung close to the ground, causing dampness to seep into her bones, so different from the dry heat of California. She’d brought her best thoroughbred to Seattle to rehab at one of the top facilities in the country. Dr. Wilson was a pioneer in racehorse rehabilitation, and she could afford the best. Even if the best happened to be in Seattle.
She could’ve sent Fighter Jet here and stayed in her Malibu beach house, but Kate was hands-on when it came to her racehorses. A week ago, she’d moved her favorite show horse to a dressage barn down the road so she’d have something to do while Jet rehabbed a minor injury.
Kate leaned on the rail next to Mitch “The Wizard” Mitchell, Jet’s new trainer, and one of the up-and-coming trainers in the business. She’d tried to hire him exclusively, but she hadn’t managed to convince him and probably never would. He’d gotten his start on the West Coast. Working for her full-time would require a moving back East during the summer months. Mitch didn’t appear to be interested. Go figure. He’d rather hang out on the West Coast than be in the thick of things at some of the bigger East Coast tracks.
Her bay colt cantered by easily, showing no signs of the injury that’d sidelined him for the past month. His rider stood balanced in the short stirrups slowing the colt as they neared the turn to canter around the track as per Mitch’s instructions.
A fiery red blur flew past her, almost airborne, as if gravity couldn’t hold him down and speed was his life’s joy. She leaned on the rail, and her eyes widened as she watched this incredible animal eat up the ground with huge strides of pure grace and barely leashed power.
At the turn, the exercise boy rose in the stirrups and attempted to rein in lightning under saddle. The colt shook his head and kicked out, communicating his displeasure at being slowed.
This horse loved to run, and damn could he ever run.
Kate’s greedy eyes ate him up.
She wanted that colt in her stables. She needed that colt in her stables. He could be the answer to her prayers, and she desperately needed that answer.
She turned to Mitch.
He grinned at her and read her mind. “He’s inconsistent at best. One day he’s brilliant, the next he’s surly and refuses to run. On his good days, he’s unbeatable. On his bad ones, he’s in last place.”
“What’s the name?”
“Seastrong. As a two-year-old, he’s won two and lost two.”
Kate nodded, making a mental note to look up his racing record and his breeding as soon as she got home. “I want him.”
“You can’t buy them all, Kate, and he’s not for sale.”
“They’re all for sale for a price,” she said echoing her late grandfather.
Mitch shook his head. “Not this one.”
“Who owns him?”
Mitch turned and pointed to a man about fifty feet down the rail from where they stood. She hadn’t noticed him before. How she could’ve missed such a magnificent male specimen was beyond her.
He was tall. Really, really tall, with long, curly hair died a deep purple and held back from his face in a ponytail. His worn T-shirt hugged his incredibly muscled body. His profile was proud and his bearing full of confidence. He reminded her of one of the Western paintings her grandfather collected, the one of a lone brave standing on a bluff looking out over the prairie with an all-knowing expression indicating he saw things the average person couldn’t see. Kate’s dormant female parts woke up and paid attention to the hot man with the even hotter body. His proud bearing radiated quiet strength and deep wisdom, a combination she found alluring.
“Who is he?” She hoped her voice didn’t sound as shaky to him as it did to her.
“A tight end for the Seattle Steelheads.” He slanted a knowing glance in her direction.
“A football player?”
Mitch snorted. “Did you think I was talking about another kind of tight end?”
Much to her horror, Kate blushed. The heat started between her legs and slid upward to her face. Involuntarily, her gaze dropped to his ass, and what a fine ass it was, encased in well-used Levis.
“He affects all the women like that.” Mitch chuckled. “Though I thought if anyone would be immune, it’d be you.”
“He has to have a price,” she insisted, hating the husky rasp of her voice.
“I doubt he does. Besides, he has investors.”
“What percentage does he own?”
Mitch shrugged, clearly not interested in furthering the conversation.
“What did he pay for that horse?”
“I’m his horse trainer not his financial advisor.” Mitch, who was known to be utterly charming and annoying cranky depending on his mood, was losing patience with her.
Kate shifted her gaze back to the man who should be an actor or model, not a football player. He was entirely too gorgeous to sacrifice such male beauty to those hulks that bore down on him every game—not that she paid much attention to football, but she did know a thing or two.
She’d be paying a lot more attention now.
* * * *
Hunter had a touch of the gift, not like his sister, but nevertheless he still had it. He could see things or know things. He was never sure how he knew them, but he did. He’d known Tanner would fall in love with Emma before Tanner knew it. He’d known the Wolfe brothers had wanted to heal and become a family again and had pushed them in that direction. He’d predicted his own purchase of this very racehorse and knew this horse was special.
Some things were destined.
Such as true love. When he was a small child. He’d listened to his grandmother tell the story of how she knew when she’d found the one. His grandparents and his parents were happily married. Hunter wanted that, and he was convinced he’d know his destiny as sure as he knew his name. Something inside him would sing and the grayness of the Pacific Northwest would turn into a rainbow of colors. They’d instantly bond physically and emotionally, knowing at first sight they’d share their life together.
He’d sworn he’d found her, but in the end, she didn’t feel that way after all. He wondered if life was playing tricks on him or testing him as to his worthiness for such an eternal love. Regardless, for five years, part of him had been waiting for her to return.
One-night stands to alleviate sexual tension weren’t doing it for him. He wasn’t a one-night stand kind of guy. In college, he’d never availed himself of the steady parade of women who’d gone in and out of the apartment he’d shared with Tanner and his wingmen. Tanner, the team quarterback, Cameron, Grady, and Hunter had been together since their freshmen year of college at the University of Washington, playing on the team’s offense. Tanner called his buddies wingmen, because if there was trouble to be found, Tanner always found it first and needed backup.
Through a set of lucky circumstances, they all played for the Seattle Steelheads football team, though Hunter preferred to call it fate. There were no coincidences. Everything happened for a reason—a simple fact that was one of Hunter’s guiding principles. Right now he wondered what twist fate had in mind for him next. Not that he put all his stock in fate. He believed in God but not necessarily as a white person would. His personal religion combined a belief in karma, the old ways of his tribe, and modern religion.
He turned to regard the woman staring at him as if she’d never seen a man before. Per usual, he waited for a sign, but nothing happened. No thrill of recognition of his soul mate. No quickening of his heart. No sense that he’d finally come home.
This woman was not The One. Not that he expected her to be, but he prided himself on being open-minded.
She approached him, and her blue eyes glinted with the single-minded purpose of a linebacker pursuing a quarterback. Hunter braced himself, ready to politely dismiss her, though he doubted she was the kind of woman easily dismissed.
Perhaps she was a football fan. Hunter always had time for fans. As one of the few Native American football players in the league and a member of a Coastal Salish tribe, he was sought after for interviews, photo sessions, and as a role model for tribal youth. He did his best to meet every request as part of his campaign to further the average person’s understanding of Native American culture.
He smiled and held out his hand. “Hello, I’m Hunter McCoy.”
She didn’t exactly smile back. Instead, she looked him up and down as if she were assessing him for strengths and weaknesses.
“Kate Vanderhof-Carrigan.” She shook his hand, her grip surprisingly firm for such a slight woman. He sized her up. His well-honed instincts warned him she’d be a formidable opponent. She was attractive but not classically beautiful by society’s standards, though Hunter had little use for such crap. She wasn’t tall, but she took advantage or her every asset from perfect yet subtle makeup to burnished reddish brown hair that curled around her shoulders.
Hunter stifled a surprising urge to bury his fingers in her hair. She didn’t look like a woman who’d be interested in a one-night stand, nor was she his destined mate. She actually looked like the uptight, get-ahead-at-all-costs type. Everything about her reeked of money. Hunter didn’t care much for her type, even if his libido seemed slightly interested, but then right now it was interested in any woman.
“That’s your horse?” She pointed at Seastrong, known as Sid around the barn.
Hunter puffed up a little with pride. “Yes, he is.”
“I’m interested,” she said, getting right to the point.
Hunter frowned. “Interested?”
“In your horse.” Her impatient tone indicated she considered him some sort of moron.
“In what way?” Hunter wasn’t sure he understood what she was getting at. He had a trainer, and she didn’t look like a groom, not with the quality clothes she wore.
“I’d like to buy him?”
Hunter threw back his head and laughed. “He’s my Derby horse.”
Her jaw tightened. “Name your price.”
“I have fifteen investors. Even if I wanted to sell, they don’t.” That wasn’t entirely true. Every one of his investors would sell if he wanted to sell. They were comprised of teammates, athletes on other Seattle teams, and a few team management types. None of them had much interest in horse racing, short of showing up at the Kentucky Derby and standing in the winner’s circle. Accomplishing that feat was a long shot in itself, but Hunter had a good feeling about this horse, and so did Lilli.
“Everyone has a price.”
He thought about that for a second. “I don’t. He’s more than a horse to me. He’s a member of the family. My sister would be heartbroken if I sold him. They have a connection.”
Skepticism crossed the woman’s beautiful face. “Maybe I should be talking to your sister instead.”
“It won’t do you any good. She gets very attached to her animals.”
“I want that horse.” Kate appeared to be one of those women who wasn’t used to hearing the word “no.” She narrowed her eyes and studied him intently. He studied her right back.
“That horse is not available. One doesn’t sell a member of their family.”
She snorted, as if she considered his statement ludicrous. One more reason he’d never sell to her.
Hunter shot her one of his best panty-melting smiles, just for the hell of it, to see if he could melt her icy demeanor. He wasn’t conceited, just confident and self-assured. He was a professional athlete in his prime. Women flocked to him. Some of them got closer than an autograph, but never for long.
Hunter didn’t waste much time dating the wrong women. Kate was the wrong woman.
And Sid was not for sale.