Hissing between his teeth, Jared Thompkins winced as he turned his red Chevy half-ton Silverado through the entrance gate of Nighthorse Ranch. Goddamn shoulder! It’s never gonna heal! He’d dislocated it two rodeos ago and re-injured it over the weekend during his final bull ride at the NFR finals. Fortunately he’d gritted his teeth and brazened his way through it, determined that if this was gonna be his final rodeo, damned sure he was gonna go out a winner. Just like his brother Mitch had done eight years earlier.
Damn, it’ll sure be good to see Mitch. The two Thompkins brothers had only managed to get together a few times over the past eight years—ever since Mitch had abruptly quit the circuit and gone to work, first for their older brother Case, and then for Raven Nighthorse. Now that Jared was done rodeoing, even though he had accumulated a sizeable bank account, he was looking for a job. Couldn’t stand the thought of being idle. He even had an interview lined up, with an M. Duncan who was looking for someone to run his stable. He’d been around horses all his life and working with this M. Duncan might just prove to be very satisfying.
He was going to miss being in the rodeo, though. Parts of it, anyway. But he knew this was the right decision. Over the past few months, he’d been growing more and more restless. More and more tired of the constant traveling, the competing, the buckle bunnies mobbing him after every event, offering themselves for sex. Not that he had anything against sex, of course. He was a healthy American male, after all. What he was tired of was the mindless, empty, meaningless sex with a different partner every night. He wasn’t going to miss that at all. He also wasn’t going to miss the broken bones, the hard falls, and the constant aches and pains he was now experiencing. He wasn’t even thirty, yet some mornings when he woke up, he moved like a man in his nineties, barely able to force his muscles to move. He was looking forward to letting his body heal and just taking time to look for a woman he could have a real relationship with. A lasting, D/s relationship. Maybe that would happen here.
Mitch had told him all about Passion Lake. About how nearly every man who lived there was a Dom or a switch, and most of the women were subs. To Jared it sounded like paradise, the ideal place to find just the sort of woman he was looking for. One he could dominate and cherish and share his life with. Hopefully, one whose love of horses would be equal to his own.
The long, winding driveway, with its light dusting of snow caught in the grassy verge, ended at a lovely Victorian farm house to his left, a huge stable to his right, with an enormous log house beyond the barn. That had to be the bunkhouse Mitch had described. Jared turned right just before the barn and found the parking area just beyond it. He pulled his Silverado with the large, gooseneck horse trailer attached, across all the parking spots and climbed stiffly down from the front seat.
Straight into his brother’s arms.
The two men hugged each other, laughing and slapping each other on the back, taking turns lifting each other off the ground.
Until Mitch finally loosened his hold and drew back, grabbing Jared’s shoulders and holding him away from him so he could look at him. “Hey, little bro, how in the hell are you? God, it’s good to see you! Where’ve you been? What’ve you been doin’?”
Jared shrugged. “Oh, nothin’ much,” he said with a sly grin. “Just winnin’ the World All-Around Cowboy title at the NFR finals in Vegas. With three firsts.”
“No shit!” Mitch punched him in the shoulder. “Way to go! How many times does that make?”
Jared ducked his head. “Seven in all. This is my third in a row.” He gave his brother an impish smile. “Of course,” he added slyly, sliding his brother a glance from beneath his lashes. “I’d have nine if it wasn’t for you.”
Mitch just shook his head, refusing to be baited into this all-too-familiar argument. He’d beaten Jared fair and square, even if it had only been by a few points. “Seven times! Fuck, man, that’s getting’ into Hall of Fame territory!”
“Well, we’ll see,” Jared said modestly. “Doesn’t pay to think about shit like that. If it happens, it happens. If not…” He shrugged one shoulder. “Either way, this was my last rodeo. Like you, I’m fed up with all the travelin’, the injuries that are taking’ longer and longer to heal, the crazy fans, especially the crazy women. I’m ready to put my winnin’s to good use and settle down, buy some land, build my own place. Maybe even around here. Always did like Virginia and this area is perfect horse country. Plus I’d be close to you. We’d be able to see a lot more of each other.”
“That would be great,” Mitch said.
“Know of any land for sale around here?”
“Not off-hand. Ask Pete, he’ll know.” At Jared’s puzzled look, Mitch added, “Pete Schaeffer. He’s our CEO.”
“CEO of what?”
“Passion Lake. It’s a corporation, not a town. Twelve SEAL teammates purchased the town and the surroundin’ thirteen square miles of land. They serve as the Board of Directors, sorta like a town council. You can probably lease some land, or you can buy in, but it’ll cost you a pretty penny. How’s your bank account?”
Jared shrugged again. Last time he’d checked, he had just a little over five million, about half of it winnings, the other half shrewd investments. He’d been one of rodeo’s top money-makers for the past eight years. “Let’s just say I ain’t hurtin’ for cash. Thanks for settin’ me up with Adam’s Uncle Joe. His investments have paid off big-time. You were right, he’s an absolute genius at makin’ money.”
“Just check with Pete, then. He’ll steer you to a nice place.” Mitch swept his hand toward the trailer. “Wow. Nice get-up. How many horses you haulin’?”
“Just Jasper and Gizmo. I figured I’d put Jasper out to stud and train his progeny to be cow horses.”
“Great idea,” Mitch enthused. “He’s one of the best damned cuttin’ horses I ever came across.”
“Well, I thought about sellin’ him, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” He grinned. “It’d be too much like sellin’ you.”
Mitch laughed. “You still have your Harley?”
“Yeah, it’s in the first stall.” Jared looked around. “You the only one here?”
“For the moment. Rusty and Ray are in town gettin’ supplies. Mark is at a horse auction, Al and his wife Linda are out ridin’ fences. Raven and Leah are meetin’ with a prospective client. Don’t worry, you’ll get to meet ’em all sooner or later.” Mitch turned his attention to Jared’s elaborate horse trailer. “What are the livin’ quarters like?”
“Pretty nice, if a little cramped.” Jared opened the door and they both entered.
Mitch looked around, letting out a long, low whistle. “Fuck, bro, what’re you talkin’ about, cramped? This is a goddamn palace!”
Jared chuckled. “Well, at least it’s tall enough so I can stand up straight and don’t have to stoop over. Plus, it’s even bigger when I extend the slides.”
To the right, steps led up into the sleeping quarters in the gooseneck area over the pick-up’s bed. It was given some privacy by the presence of the bathroom, which had a toilet, a vanity, and a fully tiled shower. The spacious living area featured a comfortable leather sleeper sofa with a forty-five-inch flat screen TV in the opposite wall above a bar area, flanked by all sorts of storage cabinets and drawers made out of birds-eye maple. Similar cabinets lined the wall above the couch. The kitchen had a small breakfast bar with two stools, granite countertops, and a table with padded benches. The black appliances were state of the art, including a four-burner electric cooktop, microwave, convection oven, and a large refrigerator/freezer concealed behind maple doors. A door in the end wall opened out into a large room where Jared kept all his tack. It also featured an alcove large enough for two bunk beds, should he ever have the need for them.
“Wow.” Mitch thumbed his Stetson back off his forehead. “How much did this set you back?”
“Around a buck fifty,” Jared replied.
“Thousand?” Mitch’s voice rose in shock. “A hundred and fifty thousand?”
Jared shrugged. “It’s custom built. Figured if I was gonna live in it, I wanted it to feel as much like a home as possible, so I got the Platinum package, all the bells and whistles.”
“So you’ve been livin’ in it?”
“Yeah. For the last year and a half. Sure beats motel rooms all to hell.” They walked back through the luxurious trailer and descended the steps onto the concrete apron. A sudden gust of wind sent a bitter chill right through the thin cotton of Jared’s western shirt, causing him to shiver. “Damn it’s cold out here! Isn’t it supposed to be spring?”
“Unexpected winter storm. Hopefully the last one until next winter. Go put a damn coat on. It’s thirty-one fuckin’ degrees out here and they’re callin’ for more snow.”
Jared looked up at the leaden gray clouds hanging low overhead, almost seeming to brush the tops of the skeletal trees, as if the branches were bony fingers reaching out to grab them as they scudded past, ripping them to shreds. “I believe it. That’s a snow sky if ever I saw one.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the Silverado.
“You’re limpin’!” Mitch cried.
Jared shrugged. “No biggie. I wrenched my knee on the last day of competition.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Yeah. I saw one while I was in Colorado over Christmas. He gave me a brace to wear. Sorry you missed the family get-together.”
“Me, too. Couldn’t get away. So how was everybody?”
“Mom and Dad are fine. Case and Amanda are great, the kids are growin’ like weeds,” he added, referring to their older brother, his wife, and their three kids. “Hard to believe Connor is fourteen.” Jared pulled a black Resistol and a suede shearling jacket off the truck’s seat. Jamming the hat on his head, he shrugged into the warm coat.
“Well, we’ve got a great doc here in town. Luc McKay. Former SEAL. Maybe you should go see him.” Mitch clapped his hand on Jared’s shoulder, making him wince.
“Holy fuck, shoulder too?”
“Yeah, twisted it two rodeos ago and re-injured it last week-end.”
“No wonder you’re ready to quit.” Mitch ushered him toward the back of his horse trailer. “C’mon. Let’s get your horses unloaded and stabled.”
“No, no. I’m not stayin’. I have an interview with an M. Duncan for a job as his stable manager. He said I could board my horses there. Whadda you know about him?”
“Her,” Mitch corrected. “The M is for Molly. She’s a widow, forty-ish, works at the library but is currently boardin’ two horses, in addition to her own. She’s smart, funny”…he tilted his head, giving his brother a calculating look…” and submissive. Her late husband was a Dom and she’s been looking for someone to scene with, in case you’re interested.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably wouldn’t be wise to screw around with the boss. Assumin’ I even get the job, of course. Besides,” Jared grimaced. “Forty-ish?”
Mitch just shook his head. “Wait’ll you meet her. She’s a real looker.” He grinned. “What I believe you young whippersnappers might call a cougar.
“If you say so.”Jared looked toward the long trailer he was hauling. “Anyplace I can turn this rig around?”
“You don’t have to. Just drive on around the barn. You need directions to Molly’s place?”
“Naw, I’ve got it on my GPS.”
Mitch clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Okay, bro. Good luck. I hope you get the job. Up ‘til now, some of us have been helpin’ her out with the heavy work, but she really does need somebody full time so she can spend her time trainin’ event horses and not so much on the maintenance end of things. Besides, it’ll be nice havin’ you around.”
“Yeah, I agree. I’ll see you when I get back.”
They hugged each other again. Jared climbed back into his truck and waved to Mitch as he drove off. As it turned out, Molly’s house wasn’t far from the Nighthorse Ranch. As he turned off the main road he noticed the sagging fence posts lining the rutted dirt track that was her driveway. So rutted, in fact, he had to slow down practically to a crawl just to keep his horses from losing their footing inside the trailer. Definitely one of the first chores he would tackle. Whoa. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. You don’t even have the job yet.
He passed through a long alley of graceful, Southern live oak trees, their leafy branches, liberally draped with Spanish moss, forming a gracious canopy overhead. He’d always loved live oak trees, especially as a kid because they were so much fun to climb. They were hardy and graceful and lived forever. But mostly he loved them because they were the only oak trees that didn’t lose their leaves in the winter. These were so huge, he figured they were probably at least a couple hundred years old. At the end of the alley he emerged into the large side yard of a ramshackle old farmhouse with a tin roof and a wide front porch that was beginning to sag. It was badly in need of some structural support and a fresh coat of paint.
Uh-oh. M. Duncan doesn’t appear to have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Maybe I should just turn around and drive away.
But he didn’t. He drove toward the stable and parked his truck and trailer alongside it. He had just opened his door when a woman, wearing an oversize sweat shirt, sweat pants, and sneakers, burst out the front door, followed by clouds of billowing smoke. Holy shit! He hit the ground in a limping run across the dirt straight toward her.
“Ma’am! Are you okay? What happened?” He ran right up onto the porch and touched her shoulder.
“I don’t know!” She turned toward him, coughing uncontrollably, panic in her watery eyes. “I just lit my first fire in the fireplace and the whole room started filling up with smoke!” She was coughing so hard she could barely get the words out.
“Did you open the flue?”
She gave him an exasperated look. “Well, of course I opened the flue!” she cried. “I’m not an idiot!” Her indignation triggered a fresh spate of coughing that soon had her gagging.
Fuck! “Do you have a fire extinguisher?”
“Sand.” She was practically bent double. “Bucket.” She waggled her fingers vaguely toward the house. “Hearth.”
“Move away from the house. Less smoke,” Jared called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the house. The billowing smoke was so thick, he could barely see. Thank God the source of all that smoke, the fire blazing cheerfully in the hearth, was faintly visible, so he headed straight for it. Locating the bucket to the right of the fireplace, he picked it up and began tossing shovelfuls of sand over the burning wood until the fire was completely out.
Jared immediately went around the room and opened all the windows to help the smoke dissipate more quickly. He ran through all the other rooms, opening those windows as well. Finally he opened the back door, ran back down the hallway, and stumbled out the front door, coughing so hard he was sure he was going to hack up a lung. He stopped at the edge of the front porch and bent forward, hands on his knees, trying to stop coughing long enough to catch his breath.
“Oh, my God!” The woman ran toward him. “Are you all right?”
Unable to speak for coughing, he just nodded, holding up his hand to indicate that he would speak as soon as he was able. After a couple more heavy bouts of coughing, he finally straightened and said in a voice that was so hoarse it sounded like it had been ground up in a garbage disposal. “Fire’s out. I opened all the downstairs windows to help the smoke clear faster. You got any big fans?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Two. In the garage.”
“Excellent” He gave her a thumbs up. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
He limped around the side of the house to the garage in back. It took him a few minutes to find the fans amidst the clutter and chaos inside, but he was pleased to see that they were both large box fans. He carried them into the house through the back door. He plugged one of them into a socket in the kitchen and faced it to blow out the back door. Carrying the second fan to the living room, he found a socket near the front door, plugged in the fan and faced it outward in the open doorway.
“It’s okay,” he called to the woman who was still standing exactly where he’d told her to. Submissive, Mitch had said. For some reason, seeing her there, following his order, stirred his loins as nothing else had for a long time. Mitch’s description of her as a looker was inadequate. She was more than just a looker. She was downright gorgeous, with a wild mane of light brown curly hair streaked with pale blond highlights. She had tried to tame it by pulling it together at the nape of her neck and securing it with a wide tortoise-shell clip. But the clip had loosened, allowing wisps and tendrils to escape, making a soft, appealing frame around her classic oval face. Even beneath her baggy, paint-spattered sweats, he could tell her figure was voluptuous, with large breasts unbound at the moment by any bra. She moved toward him and his cock hardened so fast, the sudden exodus of blood from his brain to his groin made him light-headed.
“You can go back in now,” he said, hunching his shoulders forward and thrusting his hands into the pockets of his jacket, holding it out to try and disguise the huge bulge behind his zipper. He stood aside to let her enter the house. “I think we can probably close the windows now.”
They went from room to room, closing the windows. By the time they were done, the woman was coughing again. He put his arm around her shoulders, feeling the trembling in her muscles. “You’re shivering!” He looked at the sweatshirt and sweatpants she was wearing, noting that they had been washed so many times the fabric had become limp and shapeless “No wonder! You don’t have any clothes on! Have you got a coat?”
She nodded, lifting her left arm and waggling her finger toward the hall, as if she were afraid to speak lest she start coughing again. He opened the door just inside the front entrance and found it was a coat closet. Inside was a shearling jacket almost identical to the one he was wearing. He held it for her while she put her arms in the sleeves and shrugged it on.
“C’mon. Let’s go sit in my truck while the house warms back up. I’ll turn on the heater.”
He ushered Molly out the front door and across the yard to his red Silverado.
“Wow,” she said, admiring the oversize trailer. “You travel in style, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “Beats motel rooms.” Opening the passenger door, he helped her up into her seat, then walked around to the driver’s side. As soon as they were both in, he turned on the engine and cranked up the heater. By now the woman was shivering uncontrollably, blowing on her hands, rubbing them up and down her arms. Her teeth were chattering.
“Here,” he said, reaching over her legs to open the glove box and extracting a pair of shearling gloves exactly like his jacket. Instead of handing them to her, he put them in his lap and reached for her left hand. As soon as he’d put that glove on, he repeated the process with her right hand.
* * * *
Molly watched his strong, calloused, capable hands pulling the oversized gloves over her fingers. His gentleness made the gesture oddly touching. So much so, a lump rose in her throat as she realized just how long it had been since a man had touched her with such tenderness.
“There.” His eyes met hers and he turned on that thousand-watt smile. The one that made her belly do a slow roll. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.” Still shivering, she turned toward him, her sapphire blue eyes wide with curiosity. “Who are you?”
As she stared at the incredibly hot, sexy man sitting in the seat next to her, she could barely breathe. He was well over six feet tall—around six-three if she was any judge—with broad, muscular shoulders and chest concealed beneath his western shirt. His long, thick, wavy brown hair was barely tamed by a leather thong at the nape of his neck. With all of that plus a full, sensual mouth and ice blue eyes—wolf eyes—he was a certifiable hunk, all right. Wow. Where had he come from? Not that she really cared at this point. His arrival, just in the nick of time, had probably kept her house from burning down.
“Jared Thompkins. I have an appointment with you on Monday mornin’.”
Again that smile. That devastating smile that made her belly clench, sending moisture gushing out onto her panties. Holy shit! What’s wrong with me? He’s a kid, for crying out loud! Can’t possibly be a day over twenty-two! Yet despite her attempt to reason with herself, her heart was beating so loud she barely heard his name above the clamor.
“Um…” Her face scrunched. “Sorry?” She gave him a sheepish look and an apologetic shrug. Her mind was a complete blank.
His smile deepened. “Jared Thompkins. Your new stable manager. Assumin’, of course I get the job.”
“But you’re not supposed to be here until Monday morning!”
He shrugged. “I got here early. Thought I’d take a chance. But if you want, I can come back on Monday.”
“No, no, don’t be silly. Right now is fine.” She looked him up and down, noting the two-day growth of stubble, the thigh muscles bulging beneath his jeans. Okay. Maybe he’s older than twenty-two. The dark power that radiated from him, scrambling her senses, certainly gave him the presence and self-assurance of an older man. “Would it be impolite to ask how old you are?”
“No, ma’am.” Again with that smile. Again with that flutter in her pulse. “I’m twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine. And I think my qualifications will be acceptable to you. Grew up on a ranch, been around horses all my life. Been on the rodeo circuit since I was fourteen, so I’m no stranger to wranglin’ horses, muckin’ out stalls, and doin’ the hard, backbreaking work necessary to run a successful operation.”
“Are you still riding the circuit?” Molly asked.
“No, I’m retired. I just finished my final event, the NFR in Vegas.”
“Wow. That’s the Super Bowl of rodeos. How’d you do?”
He ducked his head, raising his hand to thumb back his hat. “You’re lookin’ at the World Best All-Around Cowboy with firsts in bull ridin’, steer wrestlin’ and saddle bronc ridin’.”
“Shut. Up!” Molly chortled. “That’s awesome!” She held up her hand and he high-fived it.
“Just got lucky.” He shrugged. “But if you’re still not sure about me, you can ask Mitch over at the Nighthorse ranch. I’m sure he’ll vouch for me.”
“How do you know Mitch?”
“He’s my brother.”
“Well, duh.” She slapped the heel of her hand to her forehead. “Thompkins. Of course. Well, if Mitch is your brother, I don’t have to ask him to vouch for you. That’s recommendation enough for me. He helped me pick out my horse. You’ve got the job if you want it.”
His grin lit up his face. “Excellent. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Oh, please,” Molly grimaced. “Call me Molly. Ma’am makes me feel so old.”
His answering grin, on the other hand, didn’t make her feel old at all. It made her feel young and tingly and buzzing with sensual energy. Holy fuck!
“When do I start?”
“Don’t you want to know what the job entails? And how much your salary will be?”
“Well, I’ve got a nice little nest egg, so the salary doesn’t concern me all that much. I’m sure it’ll be enough to cover my livin’ expenses.” He cut her a glance. “Right?”
She nodded. “Yes. You will be paid every two weeks.” She named a figure that was more than generous.
Jared nodded in agreement before adding, “And I’m probably correct in assumin’ that the job involves shovelin’ a lotta horse shit, right?”
Molly laughed. “You got that right.”
“Well, trust me that is one skill at which I excel. So it’s settled, then. When do I start?”
“How about first thing tomorrow morning?”
“How about right now?” He swept his hand toward the house. “Let me help you clean up the mess in there.”
“It’s a deal.” Molly held out her hand, watching as it was swallowed up in his, feeling his strength and warmth even through the leather of the gloves. Her breath hitched. But she somehow managed to clamp down on her rampaging hormones. Okay. That’s enough of this nonsense. Sure this guy is hot with a capital H, but you’re a grown woman, for God’s sake! Old enough to be his mother! Almost. So quit drooling like some airheaded teenager and start acting your age! “But first let’s get your horses stabled.
“You’re on.” He didn’t need her help. He just wanted to see how she handled herself around horses. He gave her another heart-stopping grin.
But this time Molly was ready for it and as soon as it made its appearance, she clamped down on her reactions before they even got started. Okay, she tried clamping down on her reactions. But her emotions seemed to have suddenly gone haywire and they stubbornly refused to be clamped. Awareness of him as a man and herself as a woman zinged from nerve ending to nerve ending all over her body.
Don’t you dare look at him!
She looked at him, a long, lingering perusal of his lean, lanky frame rippling with those yummy muscles. She’d bet that beneath his shirt, his stomach would be flat, and his chest would be hard and sculpted like a bronze statue of some pagan god. His abs would be—and his—
Horrified to feel her cheeks beginning to heat, she ruthlessly redirected her gaze out the windshield. Trying to appear nonchalant, she slapped her hands on the tops of her thighs and turned to open the passenger door of the truck. If she spent one more second with him in these close confines, she was going to do something unforgivable. And irreversible. And really, really stupid. Like rip open his jacket and shirt and bury her face against his broad chest, letting his heat and scent ravish her. Possibly even rub it with her cheek, kiss it and lick his smooth, hot skin, suck his nip—Holy crap! She gave herself a mental shake.
Jared Thompkins was the first man she’d been attracted to since her husband’s death four years ago. And the sheer force of her reaction to him could only mean one thing. She needed to get laid!
Yeah, right. Fat chance of that happening.
“C’mon, let’s get your horses unloaded and into the stable.”
“Okay. As long as you wait right where you are so I can come around and get your door like a gentleman should.”
She nodded, biting her lip, trying to get her breathing under control. He walked around the front end of the truck and opened her door, holding out his hand. She took it and slid down to the ground, grateful that the gloves he’d put on her prevented her from direct contact with the heat of his skin. They walked around to the other side of the trailer.
“I noticed you’re limping,” Molly said, watching as he tried to minimize the extent of his difficulty
“Yeah. Twisted my knee wrestlin’ my last steer.”
“Is that the reason you quit the rodeo?”
“It’s certainly the latest reason,” he admitted. “Between that and the dislocated shoulder that’s takin’ forever to get back to normal, I’d say it’s enough. Actually, my body’s been tellin’ me to quit for years. It just took ’til now for my brain to catch up. I’ve got bruises, sprains, and broken bones on top of bruises, sprains and broken bones. Doc said there was a good chance I’d end up permanently crippled if I didn’t give myself a chance to heal. So I’m takin’ at least this next year off to take it easy and think about where I want my life to go from here.” He leveled a look at her. “I can do the job, if that’s what you’re worried about. Speakin’ of which…” He fished his cell phone out of his pocket. “Gimme your number.”
Molly gave him her number. “I’ll get yours as soon as we get back inside,” she said.
He unlocked and opened the double doors to reveal a beautiful sorrel horse standing patiently in a stall. His coat was a shiny coppery-red with a blond mane and tail. The horse snorted through his nose and jerked his head in greeting, making Jared laugh, a rich, rumbling sound deep in his throat that did strange things to Molly’s breathing. Good God, Molly, get a grip! You’re not a teenager anymore!
“Hey, old thing,” Jared greeted the horse. “Bet you thought I was never gonna let you outta here, huh?” He pulled out the ramp, and grabbed the horse’s halter, rubbing his other hand down the side of the animal’s neck and giving him a kiss right in the middle of his face, a gesture that melted Molly’s heart. This man obviously loved his animals. “Molly, this is Gizmo. Giz, I want you to meet Miss Molly. And I want you to behave, ’cause she’s a lady and we’re always polite to ladies. Understand?”
Gizmo actually nodded his head, making Molly laugh. “Hello, Gizmo.” Pulling her right hand out of the oversized glove, she held it out, palm up, for the horse to sniff. She curled it around the side of his face and gave him a gentle pat. “Welcome to Live Oak Farm. I hope you’ll be very happy here.” She turned her head to see Jared leading another horse down the ramp. This one was brown with a white blaze on his face and four white socks.
“This is Jasper,” Jared said proudly, “A prime cow horse. When I get my own place I’m thinkin’ of breedin’ him and trainin’ other cow horses. There’s a real need for good ones.”
“That sounds exciting,” Molly said. She greeted Jasper, then turned and started walking toward the barn, Jasper right behind her. Jared and Gizmo followed. She pulled open the barn door and led the way inside. “C’mon. There are two empty stalls right down here. I’ve already put fresh hay in them. Soon as we get Jasper and Gizmo settled, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the tenants.”
They walked down the center aisle, the horses’ hooves clopping on the concrete, passing several stalls with other horses inside. Molly loved being in the barn. She loved the sweet smells of hay and horses. She loved the soft sounds the animals made. As they made their way down the concourse, three horses turned their heads to follow their progress. Molly stopped and opened the door to the first empty stall, then the one just beyond it. Jared released Gizmo’s halter and the horse walked inside the first stall. Jasper dutifully entered the second. Both horses turned around and hung their heads over the half-doors. Gizmo butted his head against Jared’s arm.
“I know, I know, you want a carrot.” He spread his hands. “Sorry, Giz, fresh out.”
“I have some in the house,” Molly offered.
Jared smiled and hugged his horse’s neck “Hear that, Giz? You have won the lady over with your inimitable charms. I’ll bring you a carrot in a little bit. You too, Jas. Maybe we can go for a ride so you can stretch your legs.” He looked at Molly questioningly.
“Of course you can,” she replied. “I’ll go with you, show you around the property. I have fifty acres.”
“Wow, that’s quite a spread. I’ll bring my saddles in from the trailer after I help you clean up the mess in the house.”
“”Oh, you don’t have to do that,” she protested.
“Nonsense. I insist.” He made a gesture with his arm. “Lead the way.”
“All right,” she grinned back at him as she turned to do just that. “But you’ll have to meet the other tenants first.”
As they moved away from the stall Jasper turned and made his way to the feed box against the side wall, which Molly had already filled with fresh hay.
Lingering briefly at each of the four stalls they’d passed on the way in, she greeted each horse and introduced them to Jared. Honcho, a large bay and Sukie, a smaller pinto were the two she was boarding for a couple of local families. They were both wearing blankets to protect them from the bitter cold. Then she came to a horse whose shiny coat was coal black. His mane and tail were long and wavy and he was gorgeous.
“This is Mac,” she said proudly, grabbing his halter and holding his head still so she could rub her cheek against his face before peppering it with kisses. “Short for Laird MacKinley of Loch Glen.”
The horse stood perfectly still, whickering softly. Jared rubbed his neck. “Friesian, huh?”
“Yes, isn’t he wonderful? I bought him a couple of months ago, right after I moved here. I was looking for a horse I could train as an event horse. Your brother helped me pick him out.”
“He’s beautiful. And very affectionate.” He reached out and patted Mac on the neck. “I can see why Mitch liked him for you.”
“He’s wonderful,” Molly enthused. “Mac, that is, not Mitch.” She laughed. “Although I’m sure Mitch is wonderful, too.”
“Oh, he is, believe me” Jared grinned. “As a matter of fact, he’s the main reason I decided to come here. We haven’t seen much of each other since he left the circuit eight years ago after winnin’ his second NRF title. I told him I was thinkin’ of settlin’ down and he said this was good horse country.”
“Well, he’s right about that.” Molly gave Mac one last kiss right between the eyes. “’Bye, sweet Mac. Next time I come, I’ll bring you a treat, I promise.” She patted his neck, then turned toward the door and Jared followed suit. “Let’s go assess the damage the fire caused.”
“Where are you from?” Jared asked as they walked companionably side by side toward the house. “You don’t have a southern accent.”
She laughed. “No, I grew up on a farm in upstate New York. My mom and dad raised show jumpers and they were both members of the U.S. Eventing Association. My Dad and Balthazar even made the 1984 Olympic team. As an alternate, though. He didn’t get a chance to ride.”
Jared grimaced. “Tough break.”
“So what brings you to Virginia?”
“I lost my husband four years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jared murmured.
Molly shrugged, pressing her lips between her teeth, hoping the pain would prevent any tears from forming. Surprisingly, there were none.
“Tom and I met twenty years ago at a reception after a three day event where I took top prize for dressage. There were all sorts of millionaires and billionaires there and Tom was the guest of one of them. Even though he was twenty-two years older than me, I guess you could call it love at first sight. At least on my part. I’d never met anybody as suave and sophisticated as he.”
With Tom, on the other hand, it had been more like D/s at first sight. He had instantly recognized her as a submissive, one young and untried enough to be able to mold into his idea of perfection. He had introduced her to a world the existence of which she’d never in her wildest dreams even begun to imagine. “We got married six months later and moved to D.C. He was a CPA whose clients included royalty, the horsey set, and other super-wealthy people.” She grimaced. “He was so much more than just an accountant, though. He was more like a friend and trusted associate, privy to all their dirty little secrets. He knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak, and it took its toll. After decades of keeping all those secrets, he had a series of heart attack and died four years ago.”
“That must have been quite a shock.”
She nodded. “Actually, it wasn’t. He’d had several milder heart attacks previously that had required quadruple bypass surgery. But he never fully recovered from the procedure. His health had continued to deteriorate. He was only sixty years old when he died. I stayed in D.C. after his death, but the longer I stayed in the city, the more I longed for the country. And horses. It finally occurred to me that I no longer had to live his life. I could do anything I wanted. So I decided to pull up stakes and find a place where I could surround myself with the things I needed. Eight months ago I saw the ad for a reference librarian at the Passion Lake Library. The minute I learned about it, I checked out the town on the internet and it sounded like the ideal place. So, I quit my job at the Library of Congress, sold my house, and…” She smiled, spreading her hands to indicate the land around her. “Here I am.”
“You work at the library?” Jared asked.
“Yes. That’s partly the reason I need a stable manager. I work five days a week and Tina Ross likes to come by and ride Sukie as soon as she gets home from school. So far, she’s been coming by herself and, even though her parents gave their permission and she’s very self-reliant, I just don’t feel quite right about her being here all alone. I don’t feel it’s safe. I mean, what if something happened to her…” Her voice trailed off and she bit her lip.
“Well, I’m here now,” Jared said. “So don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Thanks. She’s coming by tomorrow afternoon, so you can meet her then.”
They spent the next hour cleaning up the living room. Molly turned the thermostat up to nearly eighty degrees. Jared shoveled the sand and partially burned wood into a heavy-duty lawn and leaf bag and swept the hearth clean while Molly washed the greasy smoke film off of all the lamps and windows before she polished the furniture. Finally the house grew warm enough for them to take off their coats, which they tossed on the large sectional sofa that she was renting until the guest house was renovated. That’s where she was planning to stay during the ten-week renovation to the main house.
He picked up the bucket of dirty, soapy water and followed Molly into the kitchen, where he hoisted it with effort, stifling his groan at the twinge in his shoulder. He dumped it into the chipped porcelain sink. As Molly turned on the faucet, the ancient plumbing thunked and the faucet jerked as water burst out then slowed to little more than a trickle. She rinsed out the sponges while Jared looked around at the cheap, cracked linoleum on the floor, the peeling and stained laminate countertops, and the particle-board cabinets, several with broken handles. The avocado green appliances were an eyesore. This kitchen was trapped in the nineteen-fifties and was in desperate need of a major make-over.
“You’ve been here how long?” he asked, looking up at the high ceiling with its dangling center light.
“Around eight months. I bought it because, despite its current, run-down state, it’s a real treasure.”
“Please tell me you’re planning to renovate,” he said, a hopeful note in his voice.
She laughed. “Starting first thing Monday morning. I couldn’t resist the period details like original mahogany woodwork, the stained glass window accents in the front door and the overhead transoms, the pocket doors and, the crown molding, the wide-plank oak floors—there’s no way you’d find that in houses today. I know it looks pretty hopeless right now but my contractor assured me he could restore it to its former glory. Besides, there was that great barn and the guest house.” She looked around the kitchen, ignoring the horrors of the bad fifties remodel, as she’d been ignoring it for the past eight months, working around it while first the barn, then the guest house were being renovated so she’d have a place to live during the long remodel of the main house. She and Brian Wilson, the contractor she’d hired, had had several meetings to discuss her vision for the various properties. She and Brian’s wife Lisa, a local decorator who specialized in Victorian and Queen Anne style houses, had spent countless hours discussing the furniture and accent pieces she wanted. And now that they had transformed the guest house into an elegant little gem, Brian and his crew were ready to start demolition of the main house. “You want to see what they’re going to do to it?”
She went over to a laptop on the counter and clicked a few keys. Jared moved to stand right behind her, his body touching hers from shoulder to ankle, his heat, his scent engulfing her, muddling her senses. Flustered, hands suddenly shaking, she pointed to the screen. “This is what they’re planning to do in this room. Granite countertops, glass tile backsplash, complete makeover, including a brand new island, new cabinets, new lighting, and an apron sink.”
“That looks awesome,” Jared said, bending forward slightly. A seemingly innocent gesture, yet one that sent Molly’s pulses pounding, ripping the breath from her lungs. Her eyes closed and she froze as his sheer size and masculinity grabbed hold of her and held her in thrall. Somehow she managed to show him the layouts for the rest of the rooms, finally clicking off the site and waiting for him to step back.
But for some reason he didn’t. He held himself still as if he were aware of her reaction and was afraid of alarming her. But it wasn’t his stillness that alarmed her. It was the fact that, at the exact same moment she lifted her head, he lowered his, a move that placed his cheek right next to hers.
Holy crap! Her heart skipped a beat.
It took every bit of effort she could muster not to turn her head, because she knew that if she did, she would end up doing something she’d later regret. Like kissing him. And if he turned his head, well… Jesus, Molly! You’ve got to stop reacting to him like this! Unable to trust herself, she stammered something she hoped sounded normal and slid sideways out from between him and the counter, extricating herself neatly, but leaving herself without the warmth and nearness of his body. She didn’t dare look at him, but knew that he was definitely looking at her. She could feel his gaze touching her, steady, unwavering. Shivering slightly, she moved toward the hallway, rubbing her upper arms briskly.
She turned her head back, but not far enough to meet his eyes. “Just a slight chill. Do you think you could check out the chimney to see why it didn’t draw?”
“Sure.” He followed her out into the living room. “Have you got a flashlight?”
“Sure.” She walked to an end table and opened a drawer, pulling out a large flashlight. “I keep them handy in every room so I don’t have to go stumbling through the dark if the power goes out.”
“Does that happen a lot here?”
She laughed. “Don’t know. Haven’t been here long enough to find out. But it happened often enough where I used to live that I like to be prepared, just in case.”
He took the flashlight she handed him and aimed it up inside the chimney, bending forward and craning his neck to look into the void, playing the beam of light back and forth.
She clenched her fists. Her pulses were going berserk at the sight of all that worn denim stretched across the nicely rounded globes of his ass
“Well, what I don’t see,” came his muffled voice up inside the chimney, “is the sky. So there’s definitely somethin’ blockin’ the flue.” He backed out, straightened, and turned off the flashlight. “Probably a nest of some sort. I suggest you get a chimney sweep and an animal removal expert out here. If a raccoon or somethin’s livin’ up there, you don’t wanna mess with it.” He reached over and closed the damper. “In the meantime, keep the damper closed. That should prevent any critters from gettin’ in the house.”
“Okay. I’ll let my contractor know on Monday morning. He’ll take care of it.” She took the flashlight and put it back in the drawer and turned to look at him. “Thanks for all your help. You ready for your tour of the guest house?”
He frowned. “Do I need a tour of the guest house?”
Slightly flustered, she just shrugged. “I-I figured that’s where you’d be living.”
“Isn’t that where you’re gonna be livin’?”
“Well, yeah.” She ducked her head. “That was the plan. But I can stay in the main house. They can just do the reno around me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He smiled, a slow upward curving of his beautiful lips that made her belly plummet. “I’m perfectly happy livin’ in my trailer. That’s why I bought one with all the bells and whistles. Just have your contractors hook me up to the water and septic and electric and I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” If she sounded a bit breathless, she could hardly be blamed. That smile just did weird things to her ability to breathe. Or, apparently, think. This latter was immediately borne out by her next words and actions. “I guess that’s settled then,” she said, extending her hand in an automatic gesture to seal the deal. The instant he engulfed hers in the strength and heat of his, a spark snapped across her skin. It traveled up her arm and down her body, straight to her core, where it exploded in a conflagration that melted everything below her waist. Her eyes flew to his and she was trapped in their swirling depths, flailing and floundering, completely unprepared for the sudden, intense wave of longing that swept over her, threatening to drown her.
Holy fuck! What is wrong with you? You’ve never reacted like this to any man in your life! Not even your husband, for God’s sake!
Her gaze faltered and she jerked her hand away, completely missing the brief look of lust that flared in his eyes. “I have a generator out beside the barn. You can back your trailer up beside it and hook up your electric until I can get the electrician out here.” She grabbed both coats off the sofa, holding his out to him without meeting his eyes. “Let’s go get you hooked up.”
“First, where’s your phone. I want to program in my number for you.”
Retrieving it from one of the end tables, she handed it to him, watching him punch in the required information. His hands were large, calloused and work-worn with long, lean fingers. So different from Tom’s hands, which had been on the smallish side. He’d kept his fingernails short and manicured. Even after his first heart attack, that had been something he’d insisted on getting religiously once a week, even to the point of paying the manicurist to come to the house.
“Do you have anything you need to take over to the cottage?” he asked, handing her phone back to her and taking his coat. “I’ll be happy to carry somethin’ over for you.”
“Just my clothes. They’re in suitcases upstairs in my bedroom.”
“Tell you what.” Jared draped his coat over the back of the sofa and took hers out of her hands. He held it out for her to put on. “It’s way past lunch time. Any good places to eat around here?”
She turned and slid her arms into the sleeves. “Oh, my God, yes! This place has more fantastic restaurants per square foot than anyplace I’ve ever lived! What’re you hungry for?” While she was buttoning her coat, he put his on.
“I don’t know. Whaddaya got?” Lowering the black Resistol to his head, he reached for the front door, holding it open for her to precede him. God! What was there about a hunky man wearing a cowboy hat that weakened her knees so?
She paused at the top of the front porch steps. “Well, there’s Enzo’s Italian, Binky’s sandwich shop—which is great, by the way. They use only fresh ingredients, their soups are killer, and they bake their own bread. And their roast beef sandwich is the best I’ve ever eaten. Then there’s Mansfield’s Diner, Granny Grace’s Tea Shoppe, the Icebox bar and grill at the Lodge, Katie’s barbecue—”
“Oh, that sounds good. I love barbecue. But only if it’s good barbecue.”
“It’s the best I’ve ever eaten.” Molly affirmed.
“In that case, how’s about I take you to lunch and then you can show me the town.”
She smiled. “Not much to see. But what there is is gorgeous and I’ll be happy to show it to you. And I’ll introduce you to Sam Walker. He owns the general store which sells mostly camping and outdoor stuff, but it’s also the tack and feed store. I’ll have him add you to my account so whenever you need anything, you can just go ahead and sign for it.” She looked down and gave a little cry. “Oh, my God! Just give me a minute. I’ll be right back—” She turned back toward the house.
“Where’re you going?”
“I forgot what I had on! I can’t go out dressed like this!”
“Well, unless Katie’s is a gourmet barbecue place with white linen table cloths and a wine steward, you’re fine just like you are.”
“Please,” she scoffed. “I only wear this outfit around the house.” She pulled out a pant leg. “See? Clown pants! They’re eight sizes too big and I’ve got paint all over them. I’d be mortified to be seen out in public looking like this.”
“Okay,” he relented. “Five minutes.”
“Thank you.” She jerked the front door open and scampered down the hallway toward the stairs. He followed her inside.
“Not a second more,” he called after her, chuckling.
She dressed so quickly, she didn’t have time to consider the wisdom of what she was doing. Ignoring the clamoring voices in her head telling her what a huge mistake she was about to make, she pulled on a red cashmere sweater, dark jeans and high black boots. Not even taking the time to brush her hair or check her make-up, she ran back down the stairs, breathless and pink-cheeked with exertion.
Jared was looking at his watch. “Forty seconds to spare,” he said, impressed. “Good girl.”
Molly stopped so abruptly she had to grab the hand rail to keep from tumbling down the rest of the stairs. Those words! Oh, God, those words! How she had lived for those words from Tom, especially in the years after his first heart attack, when their sex life had gone up in a puff of smoke. She had lived for the pride in his voice letting her know how much she’d still pleased him. Blindsided by the wave of need and loss that swept through her, she clapped her hand to her mouth and just stared at him, eyes wide and flickering with distress.
“Molly!” Jared cried in alarm. “What is it?” He started up the stairs toward her, but she stopped him by raising her hand.
“Sorry.” Steeling herself against his seductive pull on her senses, she managed to pull herself together, somehow stuffing her yearning to be held and cuddled and reassured that everything was going to be okay. Gathering the tattered remnants of her composure, she gave him a shaky smile. “It’s nothing, honest. Just a stray memory.” She forced a laugh. “I still get them sometimes.” She came the rest of the way down the stairs. “Let’s go get food. I’m starving.”
He grinned. “You’re on.”