All he needs is a second chance.
Former Navy SEAL turned stable owner Dusty carries scars from war, manipulative women and a hurtful tear in his family bonds. Content to be alone with his animals, he’s happy with life on his own terms.
April needs a special stable to board her adopted horses. With a filly that has been abused and a history of her own suffering at the hands of men, April’s hesitant but willing to give Dusty a try. If he can work his magic with her horses, she’ll be overjoyed.
He’s not thrilled with her but can’t bring himself to send her packing. Not when his body responds so easily and his heart craves the salvation she offers. To make matters worse, a raging wildfire threatens to wipe out everything he owns and separate him from the one woman who makes him believe again.
Will fate tear them apart or can he find a way to step up, like the hero she believes he is, in order to save the day?
Reader Advisory: This book contains mentions of (previous) Animal Abuse, PTSD, mention of domestic abuse, violence, some remembered war-time violence.
Publisher's Note: This book has previously been released elsewhere. It has been revised and re-edited for re-release with Totally Bound Publishing.
General Release Date: 28th June 2016
“Mr. Delaney, I presume?”
Dusty glanced up from his seat on a bale of straw, where he was repairing a halter. Ben, his Belgian Malinois, sat beside him. He told the dog to stay before answering. “Yeah.”
A woman stood at the entrance to the stable with the sun at her back, outlining her like a bright angel. As she strode closer the glare receded, allowing him to see details of his visitor.
She wore jeans and a T-shirt, a common enough outfit in this part of the country. Her oval face spoke of curiosity and determination, while her movements snapped with contained energy. Medium-length dark-blonde hair, which had been pulled back into a ponytail, bobbed with each step. Wispy, short bangs that curled slightly at the ends fluttered in the light breeze, adding to her youthful and innocent appearance. Grace defined each movement, as if she were well versed in physical activity. Considering her slender form and the toned arms he glimpsed, she probably spent her fair share of time working out. A runner, most likely, with that lithe yet athletic build.
With a few more steps, she drew closer. He scented a light floral fragrance, noted the feminine curves of her body and felt his cock sit up and take notice. Intelligent blue eyes the color of a morning sky met his gaze.
Grumbling under his breath, he berated himself for reacting so quickly to the fairer sex. As if he hadn’t been badly burned by women in the past.
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for a stable to board my horse and I hear you’re the best.”
He stood, uncomfortable with her standing over him. Primitive instincts made the position unacceptable. He topped her by nearly a full head and probably doubled her in weight, yet she didn’t appear nervous or back up an inch.
He ignored the compliment. He enjoyed his job, loved the animals and pampered them like prized pets. Horses were in his blood. The ‘best’ treaded the line of subjectivity, but he didn’t really care what others thought. He did what he’d always dreamed of doing and left it at that. “What do you want to know?”
She glanced around the airy room, where several stalls sat empty. After feeding the horses their morning meal, he’d put them out to pasture for the day. Horses needed room to stretch their legs, grass to graze on and simply to do what nature intended—be a horse.
“Let’s start with what you charge.”
He placed the halter down on his makeshift chair. “Two hundred per month per head. That includes everything—feed, grooming and farrier service. The only extra expense you might incur is a vet bill. I cover the basic vaccinations, but anything over is yours.”
“I see.” She glanced around the room before her gaze landed on him once more. Interest and intrigue sparked in her baby-blue eyes. He found the sight somewhat captivating. “Do you offer training?”
“Yeah, but that’s extra, depending upon what you’re interested in. Anything from basic saddle breaking to specialized advanced training. I can do just about anything with a Western saddle, but draw the line at dressage and jumping. Since I have no experience in such, I don’t feel comfortable trying to teach a horse how to do all those fancy maneuvers.”
“I’m just looking for trail riding, at most. Nothing fancy.”
“That’s doable then.” He appreciated her professional questions, much preferring to clarify particulars now rather than after the fact. His contracts spelled out everything, but he’d noticed that few boarders ever bothered to read the detailed pages. Not his problem. He put forth the information, so legally he was covered.
She gestured to the stalls. “How much stall time versus pasture?”
“I bring them in at night, unless you want them to be on full-time pasture. They’re grained twice a day. Pregnant mares occasionally three times, depending on their needs.”
“Oh, I won’t be getting one of those. I’m going to adopt from the Humane Society farm. In fact, I’m going there next to choose one.”
Her revelation shocked him. Not that she appeared wealthy and uppity, but he rarely ran into anyone who wanted less than a gently raised horse with perfect manners. Though none of his business, curiosity prodded him to pursue her reasoning further. “Why would you want one from there? Hell, there’s plenty of well-bred animals around here with rich bloodlines and sound training. With the Humane Society it’s a crapshoot.”
The woman straightened her spine and pinned Dusty with her gaze. “Some of them have seen the worst the human race has to offer, yet they persevered and triumphed over the odds, able to find trust in the wake of inconceivable torture. To me, those horses are diamonds in the rough and wear badges of courage. I’ll take a battle-tested and scarred horse over a paddock raised one any day.”
He studied her face for a long moment then nodded slightly. Give her credit for standing up for the underdog and for a kind heart. He’d seen too many instances of abuse and neglect in his lifetime and each situation had disgusted him to no end. Sometimes he’d been able to step up and help. Other times his hands had been tied. Yet he commended the little lady for her beliefs and for opening her door to a rescued horse.
The words replayed in his mind, hitting home with power. ‘Battle-tested and scarred’. Not just in relation to her pick of animal, either. Unwilling to dwell further, he drew his attention back to the business proposition. He headed through his office door, grabbed a couple of pages of paper and quickly returned to her. “Here’s the contract. Pick out your horse, lady, then have them drop it off here.”
“My name is April, not lady.” She met his gaze steadily while taking the paperwork.
He inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Thank you.” She smiled victoriously. “I know this will be the most wonderful home a horse could hope for.” With those final words, she walked out of the stable and back to her car.
The action, combined with the sassy sway of her hips, sent a sharp jolt straight to his groin. Don’t get your water hot, SEAL. You’ve learned your lesson about women the hard way. With one more look, he turned away and went back to work.
* * * *
“Oh my. So many choices.” April glanced over at her host, the director of the Humane Society farm, then back to the pasture full of a whole herd of beautiful animals. Horses of all colors grazed peacefully, dotting a vast field. While the sizes varied, their predicaments remained the same. All were homeless and looking for a special person to adopt them and love them for the rest of their lives. Sad but a common enough reality, not only with horses, but with other animals as well these days.
“I’m afraid so. Seems the poor economy hit horses pretty hard. People could no longer afford to keep them. Some were simply dumped to range free on their own, while others were abandoned when their owners moved away.”
“So frustrating and irresponsible.” April’s gut clenched at the woman’s words. She, of course, knew such things happened, but to see in person the animals that had been abandoned made everything more real.
“There’s worse. We’ve had several neglect and starvation cases. Those really make you want to cry for the animal and beat the person responsible for such horrible conditions.”
“I can imagine.” April shuddered. She’d seen pictures of gaunt horses on the Humane Society’s website as before pictures. Never did she want to see another animal so starved that they could hardly stand. She respected the workers at the farm even more for their caring and for the emotional toll such cruelty had to take on their souls.
Needing to change the morbid subject, April gestured toward the animals. “Can you give me some recommendations? I’d originally thought about Duke, but now that I’ve seen other horses, I’m indecisive again.”
Lois, the director, nodded. “This is just a few of them. There’s another pasture to our left and the stables to the right. Let’s go visit some of them and see if anything clicks.”
“Great.” April followed along.
An hour later, she still teetered on the fence. All the horses had their own attributes, yet none of them stood out from the crowd. She’d heard numerous stories, petted many noses, but couldn’t seem to narrow down her choice any more than when she’d stepped out of her SUV earlier.
“Nothing yet, huh?” Lois asked with a knowing look.
“No. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. All of them are sweet and wonderful.”
“Don’t worry.” Lois patted her arm. “It’s always hard to choose the right one. In my experience, the horse chooses you.”
“Okay.” The words only provided a hair more hope for her quickly sinking spirit. After scrimping and saving for years and finally deciding to take the leap to horse ownership, she couldn’t settle on a single one. The potential of leaving empty-handed loomed like a dark cloud of failure over her head.
Growing up in the Midwest, I began reading romance novels in high school, immediately falling in love with the genre, to the point where I decided to write professionally for a career. However, that dream splattered against a brick wall, resulting in a quick death in my first writing class in college when my professor told me bluntly that I wasn't any good at it. I shifted gears quickly, and left my writing dreams behind, eventually settling on becoming a nurse.
A few years back, I stumbled across a fan-fiction writing site on a favorite author's webpage. I began to read stories others wrote, not only making some wonderful close friends from the experience, but also, really learning to write for the very first time. Here I was able to share short stories, practice my writing skills, and truly develop into a writer. More than that, the experience allowed me to revitalize my dream, as I rediscovered joy in writing. Now, I spend my days off with my alpha male characters, quick witted heroines, and see how much trouble everyone can get into.
When I'm not working or writing, I enjoy working in the garden, canning, and seeing my backyard as a living canvas for my whimsical landscaping, and, of course, reading romance novels.