Read an Excerpt
August, Present Day
The moment she flew out of the saddle, Elle Medina knew she'd blown it.
Unless Víctor Alazandro hadn't seen the fall. Unfortunately, a running horse stopping short of a fence while the rider kept going had a tendency to draw attention.
She hit the water hazardfilled earlier in the day in preparation for this jumping classwith a splash, landing face down in the murk, wishing she could sink into the ooze and disappear below the Nevada soil, right into the center of the earth.
Instead, she raised her head in time to see the dappled gelding trot off toward the corral fence while her student ran toward her screaming, both hands fluttering at her sides like little propellers.
Tabitha fell to her expensively clad knees, avoiding the splattered muck. "Elle? Are you okay? I can't believe you fell off Silver Bells. I've never even done that!" The girl shaded her eyes with one hand as she looked around the corral. "Is he okay?"
Elle, on hands and knees, twisted her torso and plopped back down on her read end. Shoving fine strands of dripping blonde hair away from her face before resting her forearms on bended knees, she said, "I'm fine, Tabitha, stop fussing. Silver Bells"
"He just stopped," the girl said. "He just ran up to the fence and stopped. And you didn't."
"I'm fine," Elle repeated. She didn't add what she suspected was the truth. Silver Bells had probably stopped short of the jump because Tabitha had veered him away at the last minute a half dozen times before Elle took over to demonstrate how it was done. Apparently, the horse had had enough. She added, "Why don't you go tend to Silver Bells."
"Poor baby," Tabitha gushed, springing to her feet.
The poor baby in question, reins trailing in the dirt, took one look at Tabitha's frantic approach and trotted toward Mike, the stable hand, who had come to see what the commotion was about.
Elle took stock of her own situation. She might be covered in muddy water, but at least nothing felt broken.
Well, nothing except her pride. Falling off a horse like a blasted rookie. Oh well, get over it. She hadn't been waiting around Tahoe Stables for her big chance just to give up because of a little mishap.
She knew Víctor Alazandro was on the property. She'd seen him and an assistant arrive, but she'd lost track of his exact whereabouts during the lesson. Sometimes Peg took people inside for a quick drink before giving them a tour of the stables. With any luck, Elle could sneak off and change clothes before the promised introduction to Alazandro.
That slim hope died away as she struggled to her feet. Peg, Alazandro and the man who had accompanied Alazandro stood with arms hooked over the corral railing, staring right at her.
Two options. Walk toward them, run away.
Only one option with any chance for salvaging this disaster. Waving a hand at Mike who appeared to have things under control, Elle started walking toward the three onlookers. She straightened her shoulders, held her head high. At five foot five, she wasn't a particularly tall woman and her outdoor life kept her on the slim side, but she walked as though she owned the ground, ignoring her squelching boots, chafing jeans and the mud-splattered T-shirt plastered against her breasts.
Peg Stiles, owner of the stables and Elle's boss, regarded Elle's approach with a rare grin.
Alazandro's hooded dark eyes, however, revealed nothing. A black Stetson crowned a larger than average head and a body still trim and fit. Alazandro was in his forties, newly divorced, reportedly urbane and calculating. He wore a white silk Western-style shirt piped in black. His black boots, buffed to a high polish, sported two-inch stacked heels.
The second man stood a head taller than Alazandro with a loose-jointed, lanky look. Mid-thirties, blond hair cut military short, angular face, shoulders out to there and back. His clothes weren't as pristine as Alazandro's or as rumpled as Peg's. Jeans and a white cotton shirt rolled up at the sleeves, buckskin vest, dusty boots. A silver buckle caught and reflected the same sunlight that had bronzed his skin. He held a disreputable hat in one hand. And his gaze, steady and very direct, made Elle flinch.
She tore herself from this man's scrutiny and turned all her attention to Alazandro just in time to hear him mutter a few words to Peg. "This is the 'expert' horsewoman you told me about?" he said in a deep, rich voice that held no trace of an accent. No reason it should. His mother had been born in Guadalajara, his father in Rome with both of them emigrating to the U.S. before marrying and starting their large family.
Elle had done her homework.
It was obvious Alazandro didn't care if Elle heard him or not. Directing his next comment to the tall man, he switched to Spanish, and added, "Ni siquiera puede ella mantenerse arriba de un caballo." She can't even stay on a horse.
Still on her side of the rail fence, Elle ground to a halt in front of Alazandro. Using the Spanish she'd learned from the ranch hands back home in Arizona, she tossed her muddy head and said, "Señor Alazandro, para enseñar a los cobardes, a veces uno tiene que ensuciarse la cara." To teach cowards, sometimes one has to be willing to get one's face muddy.
Peg, whose language skills began and ended with English, looked confused. The tall blond man's upper lip curled. Alazandro's reaction, the one response she cared about, came slowly. His gaze moseyed from her face southward, pausing on her breasts, moving lazily down to her hips.
This kind of sexually provocative perusal would have annoyed the hell out of her had it come from any other man she'd yet to really meet. Coming from Alazandro, however, it renewed a spark of hope. She didn't care if he hired her to muck out stalls or sleep in his bed. As long as he hired her.
She returned his frank appraisal with one of her own, brazenly studying his mouth before meeting his gaze.
Alazandro, again in Spanish, said, "Me sorprende usted, Señorita."
He thought her a surprise? He didn't know the half of it. Carefully forming her next words, she said, "Ikkyou, Misuta Alazandro? Matawa shinki?"
His eyes grew wide. "You speak Japanese?"
"Hai," she said, yes. No need to mention how little. She wasn't even sure the sentence made sense.
"Fascinating. And what exactly did you say?"
"I asked if you thought I was a surprise or a novelty," she told him.
"Definitely a surprise," Alazandro said. He'd broken his nose sometime in the past and it had mended slightly crooked. It was the only jarring note on his otherwise handsome face. "Perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye," he said. "And what meets the eye is very interesting. Peg is quite impressed with you."
"Peg is an exceptionally astute woman."
"Yes," Alazandro said. "I know." His plump lips settled into a smug smile as he added, "She had the good sense to let me bail her out of bankruptcy, didn't she? I'll build a resort on the lakefront half of this property that will be the talk of Lake Tahoe if not the western United States."
"How exciting," Elle gushed.
Maybe she was a better actress than she knew, for Alazandro seemed pleased by her phony enthusiasm. She knew how Alazandro operated. Peg Stiles would be lucky to have a horse left when this guy was through with her. There'd be a fancy resort, all right, it was what Alazandro was famous for. Posh amenities, beautiful waterfront settings, the best horses money could buy.
She couldn't let that be her problem.
"Despite what you saw a few minutes ago, I really am quite adept with horses as well as with people," she said.
Peg's harrumph reminded Elle that in the preceding few days, Peg had made it clear she resented Alazandro touring what she still considered her property. Peg also hadn't wanted to introduce Elle to Alazandro. It had taken two weeks of pleading to convince her.
Alazandro's voice lowered as he leaned a little closer. "Peg is enthusiastic about your prospects."
Elle came close to batting her eyelashes as she murmured, "I hope she's not the only one."
Pushing a beat-up hat away from her high forehead, Peg looked from Elle to Alazandro and back again. Years of a two-pack-a-day habit had etched sprays of fine lines into her lean face. She barked, "Hey now, what's going on? I just said Elle here was damn good with horses and is hankering for a change of scenery. Been talking about that new place of yours down in Mexico. This conversation sounds more like cocktail-party crap than serious"
"Calm down," Alazandro said. Turning his attention back to Elle, he added, "Tell me, Ms."
"Medina," Elle said, beginning to extend a hand then remembering her current grimy condition. Hooking both hands in her back pockets, she added, "Elle Medina."
"Tell me, Ms. Medina," he purred. "Do you have any more surprises up your sleeve?"
This elicited a smile from Elle who said breathlessly, "Of course I do. Don't you?"
His laugh was polite. "Oh, yes. Definitely."
Her mind raced as she tried to think of something else provocative to say. She couldn't come up with a darn thing.
Alazandro took Peg's arm. "Okay, compañera, show me your stables. Convince me I don't need to tear them down and rebuild them."
"They're fine as they are," Peg snarled, her gaze drifting toward the lake and the trails that crisscrossed her land. Trails her late husband had cleared with his own hands two decades before. The cost of saving at least part of her stable would be losing the much beloved trails. Peg's face reflected the bitterness of this compromise.
For a moment, Elle's sympathy for Peg's plight all but chased her own agenda out of her mind. For a moment, she wished she could stay here and help Peg find a way to make her part of this bargain more palatable. But if this ploy to capture Alazandro's attention failed, she'd have to devise another. And if that failed, another. One way or the other, she was going to get at the truth. She'd promised her grandfather. She'd promised herself.
"You have another appointment in two hours," the blond man said, addressing Alazandro. It was the first time he'd spoken and Elle glanced at him.
He'd put his hat back on his head. She caught him staring at Peg, eyes narrowed.
Alazandro said, "Then let's get to it."
Elle, momentarily caught up in the undercurrents whizzing by, finally realized Alazandro had begun walking away.
"Mr. Alazandro," she called. "Wait"
Without looking back, Alazandro nodded very slightly toward the blond man who turned to Elle.
She put a foot on the bottom rung of the fence to heave herself over. "But"
A very tanned hand clamped down on the rail next to hers. She lowered her foot as she looked up. Eyes the color and depth of Lake Tahoe regarded her from beneath the brim of the battered Stetson.
"I need to talk to Mr. Alazandro," she mumbled.
"Isn't that what you were just doing?"
His examination made her uncomfortable and she averted her eyes. "Damn. I blew it."
"My chance to get a job at Alazandro's new resort. Of all the days to fall off a horse."
The stranger seemed to reach a conclusion of sorts, as though finding a missing piece of a troubling puzzle. "So you really are after a job," he said. "Hence the language demonstration. But why Japanese?"
"I've heard he gets a lot of Japanese tourists at his resorts. I thought someone working in the stable who could communicate with the visitors as well as with the local staff might come inhandy."
"Puerta Del Sol doesn't open for several weeks," the stranger said. "After hurricane season."
Door of the Sun. Such a peaceful name for a resort beside the sea. So misleading. Never mind, all Elle knew for sure was what she'd overheard Peg telling her lawyer. Alazandro was headed down to Mexico after his visit to Peg's stables. One way or another, Elle was going, too.
"I know when it opens," she said. "But there must be a lot of work going on beforehand, right? Trails to map and clear? Horses to feed and exercise?"
His eyebrows furrowed. "And you want to do that kind of grunt work?"
"I'll do whatever it takes," she said.
Staring right into her eyes, he said, "Why? What's so important to you about getting hired for the Puerta Del Sol resort?"
She hadn't expected this question, especially coming from him. After a ten second delay, she said, "I like learning about things."
"So your interest lies in resort management?"
"Maybe." Hoping to win back control of the conversation, she added, "I don't know how to apply a mud pack, my tennis game sucks and I know zip about deep-sea fishing. My options are limited. But I do know horses."
"I see," he said, his upper lip lifting a hair as he looked at her. She knew what he saw. The mud, the dripping hair. The anxiety. She started to explain about Tabitha and the jump and the disgruntled horse and thought better of it. She'd already said enough.
Chancing another glance at his face, she said, "Who are you, anyway?"
"Who do you think I am?"
"I don't know. A secretary, maybe?"
"Do I look like a secretary?"
"Do you ever just answer a question?" she snapped.
"Sometimes. Do you?"
She glared at him until she remembered that he had accompanied Alazandro and so might exert a certain amount of influence. It wouldn't pay to push him too far.
As she tried to think of a graceful way to back down, he said, "I'm Alazandro's bodyguard."
"Why does Alazandro need a bodyguard?"
"He's a wealthy man."
"In other words, someone is trying to, what? Kidnap him? Rob him?"
The bodyguard studied her face. Damn, that way he had of looking past the surface was getting on her nerves. He finally said, "He recently received a death threat."
The blood drained from her face. If Alazandro died before she had a chance to discover the truth
"What's the matter?" he said, reaching out a hand to steady her.
"This death threat. Did it come from someone here in the States?" Why did she suddenly feel there was a gun pointed at her back? She had to will herself not to swivel around and look.
"Does it matter?"
Biting her lip she said, "Maybe someone is after him right now. Maybe someone has a gun trained on you. I'm standing awfully close."
"And you don't want to get shot by mistake?"
"Can't say as I blame you."
"So, who made this death threat?"
His eyes narrowed fractionally as he rested both hands on the top rail. "There you go with the questions again."
She blinked a couple of times. "I'm just curious. I've never met a real bodyguard before."
He didn't reply and she felt herself squirming under his watchful gaze. "I thought bodyguards wore dark suits and sunglasses and those little ear pieces," she mumbled.
"You're thinking of the guys on television."
"So you've been hired to protect him."
"That's what a bodyguard does."
"With your life?"
He half smiled. "He's not the president of the United States."
"So, not with your life."
He stared at her without responding.