The Gift Horse

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Chapter One- Nothing to Fear but Her Clumsy Self

True crime TV was going to be the death of Samantha MacIntyre or at least her business. If her barn manager wasn’t hiding in the bushes or lurking in a dark corner, he was stalking Sam’s clients searching for forensic evidence of some imaginary crime.

Today Juan was crouched behind her pickup when she walked by leading a horse. The big mare glanced at his “hiding” place and snorted, the equine version of rolling her eyes. Even the horse thought he was one flake short of a bale.

After looking left and right, the sturdy Hispanic man abandoned his stakeout and scurried into step beside her. “You should have stayed in Germany,” he whispered.

“Juan, what are you talking about?”

“They think you know too much.”

Me? Hell, I know too little.” Sam sucked in a deep breath and counted to ten. “Don’t you have work to do?”

“You know more than you realize.” Juan’s eyes darted everywhere as if waiting for a gun-toting hombre to jump out from behind the barn at any moment. “I say too much. Beware.”

“But Juan…”

Juan ignored her, leapt behind a parked car, and maneuvered around Waylon, the barn cat, then dashed for cover down the barn aisle. Rattled, Sam surveyed her surroundings. For what, she didn’t know.

Juan had warned of impending danger for several weeks, but today he’d dogged her every step with his doom and gloom predictions. The man might be a nutcase, but she of all people knew how it felt to be an outcast.

Nutcase or not, Juan was a decent barn manager who had a magical way with horses. He also worked cheap, and cheap was definitely the best this place could afford. Besides, she’d attempted to fire him on more than one occasion. He wouldn’t leave and just kept showing up for work. She had no choice but to pay him.

Exasperated, Sam stomped toward the barn only to find the entrance blocked by a man—a very sharp-dressed man. A hands-free thingy dangled from one ear as he carried on a conversation with an invisible person while tapping out a message on his smartphone.

This day just kept getting better, and she was already running way late.

“Excuse me.” She waved her hands to get his attention. He gave her a cursory once-over and ignored her; nothing new there. Men never considered her worthy of their attention, which shot her irritation level up a few more notches. “Move your butt, pretty boy. You’re in my way,” she huffed.

The minute the words were out her mouth she wanted to take them back. Why did she always let her mouth rule her brain?

“Shhh.” The man raised a hand to wave her off, not even glancing in her direction.

The horse kept walking, fully intent on mowing him down on her mission to get into the barn and dinner. Sam hauled on the mare’s lead rope. The huge animal lumbered to a halt one hoof away from transforming the sharp dresser into a hoof pancake.

The pretty boy didn’t even bother to acknowledge them. Instead he turned his back and continued his cell phone conversation. So typical of a handsome man, thinking the rest of the world could navigate around him. Maybe she didn’t regret being rude after all.

Sam cranked her annoyance up a notch and scowled at his Armani-clad back, or whatever type of fancy suit that was, like she would know or care. Though it did accentuate a nice pair of shoulders tapering down to a slim waist, hips, and a great ass.

Blowing out an impatient sigh, she tapped him on one broad shoulder. She didn’t have all day. “Hey, mister! Take your sexy butt and designer clothes and park them somewhere else.” There went that mouth of hers again.

The pretty boy spun around, a tornado of lean male physique, movie-star handsome face, and sleek black hair. She started to back up a step but forced herself to hold her ground. His expression indicated that people never talked to him in such a blunt manner. Tough. Sam didn’t cater to rich, pretty boys—not anymore. Now, if that sounded like she had a chip on her shoulder, well, maybe she had a little one; but she was working on getting rid of it.

His clothes fit him better than her skin fit her. The labels on those clothes probably guaranteed the buyer overpaid exponentially just for the privilege of wearing some snooty designer’s name. Sam sniffed. Dang, he even smelled like a pricey label. Too rich for her blood. And those shoes. No one wore shoes like that around a horse barn. At least not a run-down place like this. Already, a wafer-thin layer of dust coated the expensive Italian leather, and Sam did know her leather.

“Skittish as a yearling colt, aren’t ya?” She faked a western drawl.

He seemed at a loss for words and just gaped at her. She often had that effect on men and still hadn’t figured out if it was good or bad. So far, she’d vote for bad, especially considering her talent for sending men running to the nearby Cascade Mountains in response to her tactlessness.

He found his tongue when Gabbie edged closer. “Keep that thing away from me.”

“She is not a thing. She’s a caring, feeling animal. More than I can say for you.” Sam reached up to scratch the mare behind the ears. Gabbie rubbed her head on Sam’s shoulder. Men like him were excellent reminders of why she preferred horses.

“Whatever.” He started to turn away.

Gabbie’s ears pricked forward. She focused her short equine attention span on their uninvited barn guest and took matters into her own hands—or would that be hooves? The mare reached out with her big nose, sniffed at his chest, and wiped a wide swath of horse slobber on the lapel of his jacket. He stared at the animal in horror and backed up until his body was plastered against the closest stall. “I said keep that thing away from me.”

“Gladly.” Patting the mare, Sam bit back an amused laugh. Obviously, the man was a city boy and not used to horses. Huffing one last time for good measure, she guided Gabbie past him.

“Who are you?” His demanding tone didn’t foster cooperation or good will.

Glancing over her shoulder, Sam bit back a smart retort. “I could ask the same of you. You’re on private property, boarders and students only.” She made a show of looking him up and down. “I can tell that you’re neither.”

“I can tell that you’re treading on thin ice.” His phone rang again and saved her from further conversation with Mr. Personality. Frowning, he moved away from the door to gain a little privacy.

Fumbling with the lead rope, Sam tied Gabbie in the barn aisle. Her hands were shaking. Her heart was pounding. She might talk big but inside she was a chickenshit, a fact she kept well hidden from casual acquaintances.

Waylon the barn cat rubbed around her legs. She picked him up and held him close, taking some comfort from his furry little body. Waylon purred in response.

She glanced back in the pretty boy’s direction. He’d retreated to a safer spot outside the barn door and wiped at his suit with a handkerchief. The sunlight reflected off his black hair, turning it a midnight blue. His stubborn jaw and firm lips drove home the impression of a man who prided himself on his control. Even his hair didn’t dare deviate from its salon-perfect style. No stubble on that handsome face. He probably shaved twice a day. Too perfect for her beer and peanuts taste.

She’d grown up as the only female in a family of rough and tumble males. And this guy was nothing like her brothers, jocks every one of them. Besides, whenever she was around men like the one currently decorating her barnyard, she went into defense mode and drove them away with her smart mouth and sloppy appearance. To date, none of them had come back for a second round. Reject them first then they can’t reject you was her motto.

She sneaked another look at the pretty boy. He was incredible. Even if he wasn’t her type, he’d certainly inspire a few fantasies to warm her lonely nights.

She stared harder. There was something familiar about him. The man tapped his foot, consulted his watch, and glanced around. His stern mouth drew into a thin line as he checked his watch again. Maybe he couldn’t fathom anyone having the nerve to keep him waiting.

One of her riding students was something of a local celebrity. Every week or so, some rich guy would show up and hang around the barn to be at her beck and call. Pretty boy must be the sucker of the week.

That assumption flew out the window when he turned his head, giving her a good view of his profile. He looked enough like Jake Reynolds to be his—

Oh, shit. Her hands flew to her face as the realization hit her.

Jake’s brother.

She’d screwed up big time. Again. Her and her smart mouth. She just couldn’t keep that darn thing zipped or her foot out of it. Instead of slamming some wealthy groupie, she’d insulted Carson Reynolds, the very man who held her future in the palm of his hand. Stupid girl, the family resemblance was as obvious as a straight guy in a gay bar.

Now what? Should she apologize or pretend ignorance? An apology gave him the upper hand. Feigning ignorance seemed the safer, though more cowardly, path.

Heck, he was a guy. She’d dazzle him with her smile and win him over with her long legs. Right, Sam, and horses will grow wings and fly out of the stable. Get real. Men didn’t see her as a female but as a buddy with boobs and little ones at that.

Sam pushed a wayward strand of hair out of her eyes. She didn’t need a mirror to imagine how bad she looked. She’d been mucking stalls all morning, so her clothes were far from pristine. Her butt and thighs threatened to burst from her tight-fitting Wranglers. Her ragged t-shirt had been one of her brother’s hand-me-downs. It hung on her like a sack. Everything about her appearance added up to a big fat zero on a scale of one to ten. Not the way to make a good impression on an obviously finicky man who was suck-the-breath-out-of-your-lungs gorgeous.

Oh, why couldn’t he be more like his brother and less like Bridget, his pain-in-the-ass sister? Jake dressed casually and didn’t mind a little dirt and hard manual labor. This brother didn’t look like he’d ever pounded one nail, mowed one blade of grass, or hit one baseball. He probably didn’t even sweat.

No matter, years of training horses for the rich and shameless had taught Sam how to suck up to wealthy people. She’d swallow her pride and do it again, anything to ride her dream horse. Shoot, she’d even shine his shoes and polish that tight butt of his. So much for not catering to the rich boy.

Gabbie pawed impatiently. Sam’s attention turned to the opinionated mare. His mare. And her mare to ride. Unless she’d just burned that rickety bridge, or it’d been taken out by a natural disaster—her mouth.

She’d never mastered the fine art of tact, being raised in an all-male household the majority of her life. Her mother had spent more time at the barn than in their home. When her father had finally had enough of his wife’s obsession with horses, they’d divorced. Dad got custody of the kids with not one argument from Mom.

Sam straightened her shoulders, held her head high, and plastered a friendly smile on her face. Maybe he’d chalk her earlier rudeness up to PMS. Then again, he probably would not. She’d most likely have to grovel for his forgiveness. Well, whatever it took, she’d do it because he was her best option.

Why some women were smitten with horses from birth, she didn’t know. She only knew she was one of them. She’d sacrifice any comfort known to the civilized world to smell their distinctive horsy smell, to pet their soft noses, to be privileged to ride on their broad backs. If she gave up now, she’d lose the very animals she lived and breathed for, and that would be like signing her own death sentence.

Returning to this place hadn’t been easy, but it was too late to back out now. She had to save her career and prove she wasn’t a pathetic failure haunted by a series of screw-ups and one long-ago tragedy.

The clock was ticking. She had a balloon payment to meet, a career to resurrect, her innocence to prove. Despite Juan’s warnings, the only danger in her life was self-inflicted.