Her Small-Town Cowboy (4 page)

BOOK: Her Small-Town Cowboy
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“I think so.” She turned to Mike, eyes twinkling in amusement. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Being a fairly intelligent guy, he recognized that she was punting his own words back at him. Her version was much brighter than his had been, and he got the feeling she was daring him to match her. He managed not to smile, but it wasn’t easy in the face of all that perkiness.

Eyeing her sneakers, he frowned. “That’s the only pair of flat shoes you own?”

“Obviously,” she retorted, tilting her head in a chiding gesture that brought to mind his sassy younger sister.

“Well, you’re gonna need some riding boots to grab on to the stirrups. Come on in and I’ll see what I’ve got.”

Eager to get her lesson over with, he wasn’t crazy about having to go through the extra hoop. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her in the stable, he told himself as Abby took Lily’s hand and tugged her forward. He just wasn’t keen about sharing his turf with someone who made him so...jittery.

Inside the sliding door, she fell out of step with him, and he glanced down the rubber aisleway, thinking something must be out of place. The dividing walls between the stalls were made of age-darkened oak, with wrought iron rising from chest height up to the ceiling. Lights and fans dotted the interior, keeping the horses cool on even the hottest days.

It all looked fine to him, and he asked, “Something wrong?”

Eyes wide, she slowly shook her head. “This is incredible. How many spaces are there?”

“Twenty in this barn,” he answered proudly, lifting Abby up to sit on a sturdy shelf normally reserved for spare equipment parts. It was currently empty, one more reminder of how close to the bone Dad’s beloved Gallimore was operating these days. “The stable for boarders has another fifteen.”

“You take care of thirty-five horses here?”

“Well, me and my brothers, Drew and Josh, along with a couple of Dad’s old grooms who wanted to stay on after he died.”

Peeking into a vacant stall, she looked down the line with obvious disappointment. “They’re all outside? I was hoping to meet some of them.”

“I saw Gideon waiting in the front paddock for you,” Abby piped up helpfully. “First, you need some boots.”

“All right, then. Let’s find me a pair and get started.”

To Mike’s ear, the excited pitch of Lily’s voice nearly matched his daughter’s, and he found himself grinning. In his experience, adults didn’t get jazzed about new things the way kids did. Maybe it was being around children all day, he thought, or maybe that was Lily’s natural way of viewing the world. Whichever it was, even a reserved guy like him was having a tough time resisting all that enthusiasm.

Stopping outside the tack room, he motioned his prospective student ahead of him. Most folks moved tentatively through the barn during their first visit, but not Lily. She confidently strode past him and into the large storage area. Along one wall were three rows of saddles, some English for dressage and jumping, some Western complete with lassos coiled neatly around their horns. On the other wall, dozens of bridles hung from their padded holders, reins left dangling to avoid straining the leather.

Standing in the middle of it all, Lily spun slowly until she came back to Mike. The look on her face was impossible for him to read, and he waited for her to say something.

“What a great office you have,” she commented with a smile. “You must love working here every day.”

“Except when it rains. Then it’s kinda the pits.”

“I guess so,” she replied with a laugh. In the corner, something moaned quietly, and she took a hesitant step back. “Did I wake someone up?”

“That’s just Sarge,” Abby explained. Right on cue, a scruffy blend of several breeds of terrier emerged from the shadows and yawned. “He likes to sleep in here.”

Blinking at Lily, the small dog trotted over and sat in front of her, tail wagging politely. Laughing again, she hunkered down and held out her hand for him to sniff. When he was satisfied, he offered a paw that she shook as if he was a small person. “Hello, Sarge. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

With a quick yip, he went back toward his spot, glancing over his shoulder in an unspoken request for her to follow him. Which, to Mike’s amazement, she did. When she saw the filthy old horse blanket he had there, she turned to Mike with a curious expression. “Is that really where he sleeps?”

“I know it looks bad, but he likes it that way.”

“Why?”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“That’s okay,” she said, sitting down on the scuffed plank floor to pet the dog. “I like stories.”

Mike had planned on getting through her lesson as quickly and painlessly as possible. Since he didn’t want to seem rude, he put aside his impatience and carefully balanced himself on a three-legged stool. “Well, his owner was an older lady who lived in the area. She had a horse named Captain that she’d owned since he was a foal, and he was getting on in years himself. When his stablemate died, she was afraid he’d be lonely, so she got him a dog.”

“Sarge.” Lily smiled down at the mutt, who seemed to be listening intently to his story. “What a nice thing for her to do.”

“Last year, she got really sick and had to move into a nursing home. She asked me to take the two of them and make sure they stayed together. One of Captain’s blankets dropped off the side of the stall one day, and Sarge took to sleeping on it while he kept his friend company. Now Captain’s gone, and this little guy refuses to sleep anywhere else.”

“That is so touching,” she murmured in a voice filled with sympathy. Smiling down at the dog, she cooed, “If we all had such faithful friends who’d stick by us no matter what, our lives would be so much better.”

Even though she wasn’t speaking to him, Mike caught the wistfulness in her tone. At some point, someone had disappointed this bright, engaging woman. While it had absolutely nothing to do with him, just the thought of it made him angry.

“What’s this?” she asked, fingering a label sewn to the corner of the blanket. Giving Mike a knowing grin, she said, “It says ‘do not wash.’”

“My sister Erin’s a neat freak, and she’s in charge of keeping the blankets and saddle pads clean. That one—” he pointed “—still smells like his old buddy, and Sarge likes it that way. I figure one dirty blanket more or less doesn’t make much difference.”

“Not to you maybe,” Lily told him with an admiring smile, “but to him it means a lot. It’s so considerate of you to recognize that. That must be why his owner chose you to take care of her animals. She trusted you to do what was best for them.”

Mike wasn’t accustomed to being praised for simply following his instincts, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Most folks’d probably think it’s nuts.”

“I think it’s sweet,” she corrected him in a gentle but firm voice that he imagined worked wonders on her students.

Hoping to joke his way out of an awkward situation, he forced a chuckle. “I’d appreciate you not spreading that around.”

“Deal.”

Standing, she brushed her hands off on her jeans and looked over the beat-up collection of riding boots that had found their way onto the shelves. Some had been outgrown, others donated. One pair had even been tossed at Mike’s head when a young diva-in-training threw a world-class tantrum and stormed out of her one and only lesson. When he shared that detail with Lily, she laughed again. This woman did that more than anyone he knew, and he had to admit the light, carefree sound was beginning to grow on him.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that kind of nonsense with me,” she assured him. “If I end up being a hopelessly terrible rider, I’ll assume it’s my fault, not yours.”

She reached toward the upper shelf where the smallest sizes were, but she couldn’t quite stretch far enough.

“Here, let me.” To his surprise, she pointed out a pair of well-worn brown boots that had once belonged to his mother. “You sure? They’re kinda plain.”

“They look like they’ve had a lot of experience. Maybe they’ll help me catch on quicker.”

Interesting theory,
he mused as he brought them down for her. Sitting on a chair outside the storage room, she shed her sneakers and pulled on the boots. They seemed to work, and she held out her feet to admire them. Then, to his surprise, she looked up at the shelf where Abby was perched. “What do you think of these?”

“Perfect,” she announced, her ponytail bobbing as she nodded. “Just like Cinderella.”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up,” he teased. “We’re fresh out of princes around here.”

For some reason, Lily’s smile disintegrated, and she sighed. “I’ve had my fill of princes. The ones I meet always seem to turn into frogs.”

Mike wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he decided it was best to ignore the comment. “Ready for your lesson?”

“Definitely.” She shook off her momentary funk, and that playful grin was back. “Are you?”

Despite his plan to keep a professional distance from her, he found himself returning her smile. “I guess we’ll find out.”

He strolled over and let Abby climb onto his shoulders, then lowered her to the floor.

“Daddy, can I go have a snack with Grammy while you give Lily her lesson?”

“Sure, but save me some of those cookies. They smell real good.”

She thanked him with a quick hug, and he smiled as he watched her zoom back toward the house. Hard as it had been for him to leave his ranch foreman’s job in New Mexico behind, his daughter was happy here, surrounded by his large, chaotic family and now a class full of new friends. Much as he hated losing his independence, her happiness made it all worth it to him.

Hauling his mind back to reality, he led the way through a sliding door that opened onto the paddock where Gideon was dozing in the sun. When Lily moved out of his sight, Sarge let out a pitiful whimper and jumped up to follow her. To Mike’s knowledge, the dog had never shown much affection for anyone but Captain. That he seemed to have taken a shine to the soft-spoken teacher had to mean something. But right now, Mike couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.

Chapter Three

“S
eriously?” Swiveling toward Mike, she gave him a horrified look. “You couldn’t find a slightly smaller horse for me?”

“Give him a chance,” the trainer cajoled, rubbing the enormous animal’s chest as if he was a golden retriever. “Gideon’s the gentlest horse on the farm. Abby rides him all the time.”

Clearly, that last comment was meant to goad her into leaping onto the saddle that looked to be five precarious feet above the ground. Shaking her head, Lily announced, “She’s a lot braver than I am.”

“I doubt that. Most folks’d be terrified to take on a roomful of kindergarteners all on their own for the first time, but you did just fine with them. After that, this guy should be a piece of cake.”

“You thought I did well today?” she blurted without thinking how it might sound to him. It was a good thing she wasn’t trying to impress this man, she thought ruefully. Coming across as needy was bad enough, but add in a heavy dose of insecurity and most men understandably ran for the hills.

“You were great with them,” he said without hesitation. “Kids are like animals—they know a phony when they see one, and from where I was sitting, I could tell they really liked you.”

His praise rang with sincerity, and she smiled. “That’s nice of you to say.”

“Like I told you the other day, I don’t say things just to be nice. The truth’s not always easy to hear, but at least it doesn’t change from one day to the next.”

Someone had lied to this man, she realized with sudden clarity. Someone he trusted enough to care very much that the person had deceived him. Since she already suspected that this devoted single father was divorced, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that someone had been his ex-wife. Lily was definitely curious about what had happened to their marriage, but she’d never dream of asking a virtual stranger such an intensely—and probably hurtful—personal question.

Instead, she refocused her attention on the horse standing quietly in the middle of the fenced-in space. Now that she’d calmed down a bit, she registered the fact that he was more than big. He was powerfully built and covered in scruffy brown fur that made her think of a retro-style shag rug. To add to his unusual appearance, there was an off-kilter white star on his forehead that led to a strip of white that zigzagged down along the right side of his nose.

As they stared at each other, his large brown eyes shone with intelligence, and she was almost certain he was taking stock of her the same way she was doing with him. The corner of his mouth crinkled, and she couldn’t help laughing. “Is he smiling at me?”

“I’d imagine so. He really likes people.”

Puzzled by Mike’s tone, she glanced at him. “You sound surprised by that.”

“If you knew what this old boy’s been through—” Mike fondly ruffled the horse’s shaggy mane “—you’d be surprised, too.”

That did it for her. Sympathy for the rescued animal flooded Lily’s heart, and she put aside her earlier reluctance to approach him. He nuzzled her hand, and on her other side, she felt something tap her arm. Looking down, she realized Mike had a few apple slices and was trying to sneak them to her.

“Hold your palm out flat.” He demonstrated for her. “He’s pretty careful, but if you curl your fingers he might nip you by mistake.”

“Okay.” Still a little nervous, she held the apples out for Gideon, who blew on her hand before delicately taking a piece from her. His lips tickled her skin, making her giggle like one of her students.

When she was out of treats, he slurped her hand in an equine thank-you and just about knocked her over when he started rubbing his forehead on her shoulder. Thankfully, Mike steadied her until she could brace herself more firmly. “He’s really strong.”

“He’s a Belgian draft horse. Most of him, anyway.” Scratching him between the eyes, Mike continued. “The rest, I’m not so sure about, but it doesn’t matter much. He’s got a great heart, and that’s good enough for me.”

Now that she’d seen him in his natural element, Lily was beginning to notice a pattern in the gruff trainer’s personality. He wasn’t crazy about humans, but he was wonderful with animals. Considering all the troubles she’d been having lately, she had to admit he might have the right idea, after all. “He seems to like you, too.”

BOOK: Her Small-Town Cowboy
11.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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