Danica Brody stopped just inside the door of the livestock sale barn and inhaled deeply. Pine shavings, hay, damp earth and horse—heaven. Her former fiancé hadn’t shared that feeling, which was why walking into this particular barn felt so damned good. She didn’t have to justify her actions to a man who didn’t understand her passion for horses or her need to right a wrong.
Maybe it was a good thing that Chad had been so very bad at cheating.
She bought a sale catalog, debated about coffee, then decided against it because her stomach was in a knot. Several riders circled the arena, showing off their horses’ moves prior to the sale, and Dani drifted closer. Lacy J wasn’t there, but she didn’t expect her to be. Not unless her current owner had found someone brave enough to ride her.
She turned to see her high-school friend, Gina Salinas, waving at her from where she stood behind a stroller a few feet away. “I’m so glad you’re back,” Gina said as Dani reversed course. They kept up on Facebook, but it was the first time Dani had actually seen her friend in over a year.
“I had nowhere else to go after SnowFrost closed its doors.” Dani bent over the stroller to smile at the sleeping baby and was instantly charmed by his thick thatch of dark hair and amazingly long eyelashes. “He’s gorgeous.” Very much like his mother.
“I do good work,” Gina agreed with a satisfied smile. “How long are you staying?”
Dani straightened, rolling the sale catalog in her hands. “Forever, as far as I’m concerned. Someone has to live on the ranch and feed the cows.” All five of them. Sadly, the Lightning Creek was no longer a working ranch, but it was home and she was glad to be back.
“If you need a job, we’ll be hiring at the café soon.” Gina glanced down at her sleeping baby. “I cut back to half days to spend more time with Lucas and they’re feeling the pinch.”
“Thanks, but I’m going to start my own business.”
Gina glanced back up. “Horse training full-time?”
“What better time that when I have a fat severance check and can live rent-free?”
“What I wouldn’t give for rent-free,” Gina said with a roll of her dark eyes. “But my mom just moved in with me, so I’m not complaining. Much.” She smiled ruefully. “At least I have a live-in sitter and someone to share rent.”
She turned again, this time to find herself enveloped in a bear hug. After nearly having the breath squeezed out of her, she careful extricated herself from the blond giant’s embrace. “Mac. Good to see you.” She and mac had been close friend since sharing a table in the world’s most boring seventh grade science class.
Mac beamed at her before nodding a stiff hello at Gina, who smiled back tentatively.
“Hey, I’ll see you later,” Gina said to Dani. She smiled again at Mac, then wheeled the stroller away, disappearing into the crowd. Mac watched her go before turning his attention back to Dani. “You coming to the tavern this Friday? It’s one of your last chances to see me for a while.”
“Heading across the state?”
“The oil patch calls.”
“If I don’t, I’ll make it up to you when you get back,” Dani said, because she hadn’t yet decided exactly what her plans were. She hadn’t even planned to come to this sale until she’d heard that Lacy would be on the block. She was still unpacking and figuring out which project to tackle first on the ranch. “I assume you’re here for your paint mare?”
“You aren’t going to bid against me, are you?” she asked, only half-joking. Mac did love a flashy horse.
“Are you kidding? After what she did to her last owner? But I thought you might like to know that some guy has been hanging around her pen for the past half hour or so.”
“Yeah?” Dani asked, her eyebrows rising as her stomach twisted a bit. “Anyone I know?”
“I don’t know him.” Mac gave her a dubious look. “Are you sure you want this mare back?”
“Yeah. I do.” She was halfway to the door leading to the holding area when he called, “You owe me a beer.”
“For…?” she called back.
She laughed and waved, but her smile faded as soon as she started toward the pens. She was on a mission to rescue the horse she should never have sold. Her one hope was that the mare went cheaply, because the money she was about to spend should actually be going back into her business. The last thing she needed was for someone unfamiliar with the mare and her history to end up as her new owner.
Gabe Matthews leaned his elbows on the round metal rails of the horse pen and surveyed the people as they walked into the holding area. So far no Danica Brody, even though he’d heard she was interested in buying the paint mare now eyeing him suspiciously across six feet of wood shavings.
Maybe he had the wrong paint mare.
Unlikely. The only other spotted horse in the entire barn was barely larger than a pony, so logic told him that the mare of interest had to be this one.
A deep voice with a distinctive country timbre came over the loudspeaker, encouraging folks to get their auction numbers if they hadn’t already done so. It was close to showtime and Gabe had thought for certain that Ms. Brody would check on the mare prior to purchase. Maybe he’d gotten bad information.
He dropped his chin to study his new boots as he debated. Cut and run? Hang out a little longer?
If she didn’t show, she didn’t show. He wanted to meet the woman for the first time on neutral turf and this sale had seemed like the perfect opportunity, but if it didn’t work out he’d figure out something else. Hell, maybe he’d buy the paint mare and Danica Brody could come to him.
“You like her?”
A feminine voice near his shoulder startled him and he turned to find himself looking into a pair of large hazel eyes set in a striking heart-shaped face.
“I do,” he said, hiding his surprise in a smile. Danica Brody had come to him.
She gave a small shrug and placed her hands on the rail a foot or so from his, studying the horse as he, in turn, casually studied her profile. She wore a straw cowboy hat and her long wheat-colored hair was pulled back into a loose braid fastened with a silver concho.
“Are you the owner?” he asked.
“No. The owner of this particular horse should be beaten about the head and shoulders.”
He laughed. “Yeah?”
She looked sideways at him, as if wondering if she should have spoken so freely. “Are you a friend of Len Olsen?”
“Can’t say that I am.”
“Wouldn’t matter if you were, I guess,” she said, looking back at the mare. “I wouldn’t take back what I said.” She frowned at the mare. “Do you know anything about this horse?”
“Just what’s in the catalog.”
“If I were you,” she said, “I would steer clear of this mare. There are a lot better horses here. Horses that would suit you better.”
One corner of Gabe’s mouth rose in amusement. Warned off. “That’s a rather bold statement, since you know nothing about me.”
Danica didn’t appear one bit apologetic. “I know horses and this isn’t a horse I would bid on if I were you. You won’t be doing anything but buying trouble. She put her last owner in the hospital.”
“Is that a fact?” he asked. “Which horse would you bid on if you were I?”
She eyed him for a moment and Gabe did his best to look as if he cared about horses. Then she pulled the catalog out of her back pocket and started turning pages.
“Any of the Dunning Ranch horses are good. They have excellent foundation stock.” She flipped a few more pages and pointed at a solid brown, rather boring-looking horse. “I know this gelding. He’s quiet and competent.”
Gabe nodded, trying not to notice just how good Danica Brody smelled as she continued to thumb through the catalog. Something spicy with a hint of floral. A nice change from the pungent smells that permeated the barn.
She looked up at him then. “Are you new to the area? Or did you drive in just for the sale?”
“New to the area,” Gabe answered truthfully. “I’m at the Staley place.”
“The castle?” Danica said on a laugh. “Then we’re neighbors. You drive through my property to get to yours.”
Gabe smiled back. “Imagine that. I’m Gabe Matthews.”
“Dani,” she said. “Did you buy it? The Staley place?”
“Something else I should steer clear of?”
“No. It’s just that it’s been empty for so long…even after it finally sold a few years ago, no one moved in and I heard a rumor it might be for sale again soon.”
“Is it haunted or something?” he asked with an amused smile.
“I don’t know what the deal is, but we—my sisters and I—didn’t really mind when no one moved in. Less traffic across our place. More peace and quiet.”
“I’m temporary,” he said. “Leasing. I’m on a forced vacation and staying there for the time being.”
“Forced vacation, huh?” The loudspeaker blared and Danica glanced over at the stands. “If they’re clearing the arena, then I’d better get my seat.” She patted the metal fence. “Good luck if you decide to bid.” She almost sounded as if she meant it, but she couldn’t stop herself from giving the mare one last long look.
“Same to you,” Gabe said.
So why had that Gabe guy been hanging around Lacy’s pen for such a long time? Mac had seen him there and he’d still been there when she arrived. And if he was on vacation, then why buy a horse?
Perhaps it was a prolonged vacation, and maybe, like Mac, he had a penchant for flashy horses. But he didn’t look like a horse guy, even if he had been wearing cowboy boots. His new jeans, gray crewneck sweater and well worn leather bomber jacket had shouted urbanite.
Maybe he rode English.
Dani took her seat as the first horse came into the arena and when the auctioneer started his spiel, she glanced around the sea of cowboy hats to see if she could spot Gabe. She was just beginning to think she had nothing to worry about when she caught sight of him sitting a few rows down from her and to the left, a number in his hand.
If he, or anyone, bid against her today, it was only because of Lacy’s color and conformation. No one would be riding the mare today, showing off her moves, because no one knew if or when she was going to explode. Thanks to Len Olsen, Lacy was a gorgeous, untrustworthy animal and Danica needed to get her back. She owed her.
“Hey, gorgeous.” Mac scooted in beside her and Danica slid sideways to give him room. “I see Lacy’s up fourth.”
“Yes. At least it’ll be over quickly.” She shot a look over at Gabe, saw his number paddle shoot into the air and felt a wash of relief as he continued to bid on the palomino now spinning effortlessly on his haunches in the sale pen.
“Here to bring me luck?” Dani asked Mac.
“Why else?” But he seemed to be searching the crowd.
Dani brought her attention back to the bidding action. Gabe bid several times, then when the action got too rich, put his number back on his thigh and kept it there. Now Dani had an idea of his limit, which was unfortunately well above her own.
She closed her eyes and let out a sigh. Mac’s big hand landed on the back of her neck, massaging for a moment, making her head move side to side. “It’ll be okay,” he said as he settled his hand back on his thigh.
But it wasn’t okay. Instead of starting slowly, the bidding on Lacy took off immediately. Dani had planned to wait until the bidding slowed—not that she’d really expected it to take off—and then jump in toward the end. Instead, she sat dazed as the sale price kept rising and rising. Someone really wanted Lacy and it wasn’t her new neighbor, who’d sat without moving. Dani swallowed as disappointment washed over her—she told herself that the mare would be going to a good home if someone was willing to pay that much for her. She glanced over at Gabe, saw him move his paddle, then thrust her own number high in the air. The spotter pointed at her and her competition, who sat somewhere behind her bid again. Her gut twisted.
Too rich. She just couldn’t justify it. She and her sisters had just sunk a lot of money into much-needed fence repair, greatly diminishing her store of available cash. The auctioneer pointed at her questioningly as the bid stalled out. She shook her head, feeling close to tears, which was ridiculous because she didn’t cry.
Mac grabbed Dani’s hand and lifted it up high. Her startled gaze jerked up to his face, but he just smiled at her.
“I’m already over budget,” she said, pulling her hand out of his.
“I’ll loan you the rest.”
The auctioneer asked for fifty dollars more. Fifty dollars more. Now twenty-five. He pointed over Dani’s head at her competition, a questioning look on his face. No bid, but Dani still held her breath as he intoned, “G-o-ing….g-o-ing…”
Her heart was pounding. She wanted to win, but if Mac tried to force her hand up again, she was going to have to wrestle him for control or file for bankruptcy.
Mac wrapped an arm around her and squeezed. “You’re welcome,” he murmured.
“I hope you take payments,” Dani said as she got to her feet.
“And I don’t even charge interest.”
Dani fought a smile as they walked together to the sale office to settle the deal. Lacy J was hers once again.
For one rotten moment, Gabe had thought he was going to have to buy the horse. Buy it, “realize” it was too much for him and sell it at a loss to Danica Brody. She’d obviously wanted the mare badly, but had only allowed herself to go to a certain point in the bidding—at least until her friend had intervened. He lingered in his seat until he saw Danica come out of the sale office, tucking her checkbook into her jacket pocket, then followed her to the exit, where he intercepted her. Something flashed in her eyes when she saw him—recognition? Guilt? Satisfaction?
“I thought you said buying this horse is buying trouble—or was that only if I bought her,” he said.
“Oh, no,” she said easily. “I’m buying trouble, too. But the thing is, I know what I’m getting into.”
“And you think I don’t?”
“I truly doubt you know this mare like I do. We kind of grew up together.”
“And then someone ruined her?”
“Something like that.” She held out a hand. “No hard feelings?”
“No,” he said with a half smile as he took her hand, rather enjoying the way it felt in his. Small but strong, smooth and warm. She stepped away and Gabe made his move. “Hey, since we’re neighbors…I don’t suppose you’d like to—”
Her expression instantly shuttered. “No,” she said simply. “But thanks anyway.”
Dani crossed the lot to where she’d parked her truck and trailer. She’d refused to allow herself to believe she wouldn’t get Lacy back, so had come prepared to haul the horse home. It would have been a lonely trip home if it hadn’t been for Mac. She owed him. Owed the horse. Seemed like she owed everyone a small debt of gratitude—even Chad for showing his true colors before the wedding. Good of him to save her all that future heartache.
Speaking of men, her neighbor worked fast. She couldn’t really blame him, though, if he was living alone in the castle. Not much to do in the isolated place and coffee with a neighbor would have probably been welcome. Of course, he might have been talking a drink or a date, but she hadn’t given him a chance to offer anything. She was so not in the market right now, but he was damned good-looking with his dark hair and striking grey eyes and she’d felt a nice jolt of…something, when their fingers had touched. A corner of her mouth tilted up as she got her keys out of her pocket. Too bad Jolie wasn’t here. Her sister was a sucker for smoldering hot guys. While she….she’d had enough of that for a while.
Her phone rang in her pocket and she dug it out. Allie. Her oldest sister, who’d also had enough of men for a while.
“I got her,” she said as she unlocked the door to the trailer’s tack room.
“For a song?”
“Uh, no. The song part didn’t happen, but I got her.”
“That’s going to be one expensive lawn ornament, Dan.”
“Owe her. I know. And I’m looking forward to seeing her when I come for my stuff.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to drive over tonight? Sleep over?” Dani asked, reaching into the tack room for Lacy’s old halter.
“I’d prefer not to spend the night on the ranch.” Allie spoke matter-of-factly. Too matter-of-factly. Dani pressed her lips together, wishing that her sister could separate her bitterness toward her soon-to-be-ex husband from the ranch itself.
“I understand.” The silence that followed her comment stretched on just a moment too long and Dani’s radar went up. “Are you okay?”
“What happened?” she asked flatly. She knew this tone and also knew that unless something was dreadfully wrong, Allie wouldn’t share without being prodded—the burden of being the stoic older sister that their mother had depended on. “Kyle?”
“Who else? I had to threaten him with a lawyer today in order to convince him to bring back Dad’s old tractor. He still insists he needs it to work around his place.”
“You know as well as I do that he doesn’t need a tractor. He wants to sell it to a collector. In fact, from the way he was acting, I think he already has a buyer.” Allie blew out a disgusted breath. “He actually told me that he deserved the tractor in return for the sweat equity he’d put into the place.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dani said. “He was drowning in sweat. That’s why the place is falling apart.”
“Exactly! I asked him why, if he’d put in so much effort, we just paid someone a boatload of money to patch up the fences and gates so the cows would stay home? He didn’t have an answer to that one.”
“I imagine not,” Dani said.
“He is so pissed that he had to go back to work,” Allie continued in a lower voice. “He’d never planned on working again.”
Dani’s former brother-in-law was openly angry that he hadn’t received a share of the property in the divorce settlement, which was why he kept trying to lay claim on anything of value left on the ranch, like, say, a vintage tractor.
“Into every life,” Dani said drily.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Allie said and then her voice brightened. “But hey, I didn’t call to cry on your shoulder. I called to see about Lacy. I’m glad you got her.”
“She’s changed,” Dani said.
Allie gave a soft snort. “Haven’t we all? Even Mel.”
“No kidding,” Dani said with a wry smile. Their ultra-driven sister had finally stopped dealing with her demons by never slowing down and had settled on a remote ranch in New Mexico with her new husband. “I need to call her, too. Tell her the news.”
‘That reminds me—Mom phoned late last night. They’re heading off to the Great White North to fish. We shouldn’t expect to hear from her for a while.”
“Mom the world traveler.” And she deserved it. After more than a decade of living lean in order to raise the girls on the Lightning Creek Ranch as her late husband had asked, she’d remarried and was living comfortably in Florida. “I hate to cut this short,” Dani said, “but I need to load Lacy while there are still some people around to help if I have trouble.”
“Be careful,” Allie warned in a serious voice. “I’d like you to be in one piece when I see you tomorrow.”
“Will do.” Dani ended the call and dropped the phone back into her pocket. As she started for Lacy’s pen, she saw someone loitering nearby, then stifled a groan as she realized just who it was. Marti Kendall. Petite, toned and tanned, dressed in slim-fitting Wranglers and a studded black T-shirt, she looked like she’d stepped out of a Western fashion ad in Horse & Rider.
“Hey, Marti,” Dani said as she opened the gate to Lacy’s pen, “was that you bidding against me?”
“No,” Marti said with a light laugh, brushing back a hank of her beautifully streaked light brown hair. “I have more than enough horses to deal with. The last thing I need is a crazy one.” She leaned her arms on the rails, fixing Dani with a candid look. “So is it true what I’ve heard?”
“Depends on just what that was,” Dani said, coiling the halter rope. Marti had been a couple of years behind her in school and the undisputed queen of her class—no, make that Eagle Valley High. The aura still clung to her, making it difficult for Dani to warm up to the woman. What made Marti so certain that she was a cut above everyone else, other than her perfect looks and amazing horse skills?
“That you’ve come home to start training for a living? Just like me and Dad?” she asked brightly.
“Seems like a good time to do it.”
“Wow. I hope you’ve done your research.” She spoke with a note of concern that didn’t fool Dani one bit. “You know that the market is fairly saturated here.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Dani said, trying to infuse some sweetness into her dead tone.
“I guess what I’m saying is, since you’re just starting out, don’t be surprised if you can’t get enough work to make ends meet. Dad and I are kind of the go-to trainers in the region.” She flashed her very perfect teeth. “But you know that.”
“Why,” Dani asked slowly, “would you care if I made ends meet?”
Marti seemed surprised by the question. “Because I’d hate to see you fail.”
Yeah. Right. And I have this bridge…
“I’ll be fine,” Dani said. “Thanks for your concern.”
“Well, good luck.” Marti patted the side of Lacy’s pen, the silver bangles on her arm jingling as she moved. She started for the door, then stopped and turned back. “Since you’re here, can I sign you up for an Eagle Valley Days committee? We have a lot of last-minute details to work out.”
“I need to work out a schedule before I commit. I may not have time.”
“Oh…and Chad’s family is pretty heavily involved. I understand.” She sounded as if she actually did understand as she expertly delivered the Chad jab. “But if you change your mind, give a call. We’re in the book.”
“I’m sure I can find your number.”
“Just look under ‘horse training’ in the yellow pages,” Marti said with another bright smile. “I think we’re the first entry.”
“Shot down. How unusual.”
Gabe smirked at his assistant, hoping the full effect came across on the FaceTime phone connection, even though Serena Anderson Widmeyer was impervious to both his charm and his temper.
“I’m not trying to date her. I’m trying to get to know her. Make friends.” Then offer her a fair price for a piece of land he needed. He had it on good authority that there were stability issues on the Lightning Creek Ranch and that it had come close to being put on the market a few months ago. He planned to capitalize on that instability as soon as possible.
“Hard to do if she shuts you down,” Serena said with a wicked smile that came through clearly, even though she had the airport terminal window at her back.
“You’re a rotten assistant.”
“That’s what happens when you hire the boss’s family.”
“You aren’t family,” he muttered.
“I was at one time,” she reminded him with a serene smile.
And then she’d come to her senses. She and his best friend, Neal Widmeyer, had been ridiculously unhappy in their marriage, but after the divorce, both had continued to work for Widmeyer Enterprises in different departments. Oddly, they now seemed to like each other much better than when they were married. Good thing, because Stewart Widmeyer did not take well to dissension in the ranks.
“What do you think of the place?” she asked.
“Potential. A lot of potential.” Nestled against a mountain with a fishing stream running through it and within shuttle distance of a ski resort, it was a gem of a property, nicely protected from the rest of the valley by Lightning Creek Ranch acreage.
“Enough to compete with Timberline?” Timberline was the resort on the opposite side of the valley that Stewart’s former partner had essentially stolen before parting ways with Widmeyer Enterprises.
“I think so. Eventually,” Gabe said. But they needed more land, first to insulate the proposed resort from the possibility of encroaching housing developments and, more importantly, to make a world-class golf course. Timberline didn’t have a golf course and had no hope of procuring the acreage at this point in the game.
That was Stewart’s trump card.
He planned to make a bigger, better, more exclusive resort than Timberline, steal Timberline clientele and make his duplicitous partner, Mark Jeffries, pay. The trick was keeping the plans under wraps while Gabe investigated the possibility of buying the Lightning Creek. If anyone associated with Timberline figured out that Widmeyer Enterprises was looking at property, land prices would go up astronomically. That was where Gabe came in. Jeffries, of course, knew all the family members who worked for Widmeyer. He didn’t know Gabe, who acted as an independent consultant. His name was on no company rosters—he was identified only as Process Resources, Inc. He was nameless and faceless, and was thus able to lease the Staley property with no fear of word leaking out. He’d even drummed up a few side contracts so that he had something to do while he “vacationed” in his new house.
“They just called my flight,” Serena said, “which means you have to do without me for the next two weeks because I’m turning off my phone.”
“No, really. I’m doing it.”
“I’ll expect you to call for an update tomorrow.”
Serena made a rude noise. “Won’t happen. Good luck with Ms. Brody,” she said. “Gotta go.”
“What if I need you?” he asked, just to be a dick.
Serena made a face and then the screen went blank. Gabe smiled to himself as he set the phone down on the table.
Good luck with Ms. Brody. He was going to need it.
Temporarily moving to Montana from his home base in Bloomington, Illinois, getting to know Danica Brody and then introducing the idea of a sale had seemed a logical approach, but now that he’d met Dani, he sensed that he’d have to move carefully. Take his time, collect information. Refrain from pushing too hard and spooking her.
He could play it that way. And in the meantime…
Yes. In the meantime.
Gabe strode through the house, paused and looked out the window at the spectacular view, then walked back into the living room and unrolled a map. His side contract was a simple project designing a small park for a town in Idaho. He’d put in a low bid just to get something to work on and now he didn’t feel like working on it. For the next few days, until the service providers had time to work him into their schedules, he was no internet, no TV. No company. He wasn’t one for big gatherings and a lot of social interaction, but he wouldn’t mind hearing the sound of a human voice, either.
When was the last time he’d been lonely? Or ever considered the possibility of being lonely?
After an hour of staring at his project and listening to music on his phone, Gabe finally walked out of the house and headed for his car. If nothing else, he’d go eat somewhere, soak up some local atmosphere.
An hour later he had to concede defeat. Atmosphere soaking had not gone well. He’d hit a small tavern that served food, ate a steak dinner by himself, then wandered into the bar for a drink. Obviously McElroy’s was a very local establishment, since no one tried to make conversation with him, with the exception of the bartender, and that was duty talk.
Gabe didn’t mind. He conversed with the bartender until he finished his lone beer, then tipped the guy decently and hit the road back home again. He’d learned nothing of value, but he’d made the guy laugh a few times and considered that a decent inroad.
On the drive home, he was debating about the best way to make contact with Danica Brody without getting shot down again, when he rounded a corner and something white and large—no, huge—appeared in the road in front of him. He jerked the steering wheel to the right and mud flew as the tires spun, then caught, yanking the car sideways and slamming it into the ditch. Gabe’s forehead smacked the steering wheel and then he slumped back into his seat, checking his forehead for blood. His hand came away clean and he dropped it into his lap.
Gabe let out a long breath, shoved the door open and got out to assess damage. In the distance, he could hear the hollow thud of hooves on the hard-packed road.
A black-and-white horse.
And Gabe was pretty darned certain he knew where to find the owner.