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Goose tossed his head and danced sideways, jerking Lily's attention back from her reverie just in time to see him angle her dangerously close to a low hanging branch. She ducked at the last second and steered him back to the path. "Behave yourself, you spoiled horse."
Goose merely snorted in response.
It would be her own fault if Goose's bad attitude unseated her. She knew better than to let her attention driftGoose simply loved to challenge a rider and see who was really in chargebut the peace and beauty of the Marshall estate was hypnotic at times. When combined with the gentle cadence of Goose's walk as he cooled down from his run, it was hard not to let her mind drift away.
All those people who paid money for fancy yoga classes or time on a shrink's couch just needed to spend half an hour doing exactly this. They could quit twisting themselves into pretzels to meditate or digging up their daddy issues in search of peace. This was free therapy.
No, it was better than free; the Marshalls actually paid her. It was crazy, but true, and she thanked her lucky stars every single day that she'd landed here. It was perfect.
They were almost to the river, and Goose began to trot as the break in the trees grew closer. She could see the earlymorning sunlight glinting off the water, and she turned her face up to the sky to let it warm her skin as they crossed the treeline. Goose walked straight to the water's edge and waded in, and only a sharp tug kept him from going directly to a depth guaranteed to soak her only pair of boots.
"Not this time, Goose. I'm on to your tricks. I'm not walking around with wet feet all day again."
As if he understood, Goose made a sound suspiciously like a disappointed huff, then lowered his head to drink. Pulling out her own water bottle, she took a moment to enjoy the view of the sun peeping over the mountains in the distance while she drank.
The Marshall estateHill Chasewas a little slice of heaven on earth. It was close enough to D.C. to allow easy escape and respite for the various family members immersed in politics and government, but it felt light years away from all that. It was also a business unto itselfas well as the family's homeand Lily did her best to just blend in with the scores of other employees. She took a deep breath of the clean air and blew it out, and the knowledge she'd been too cautious to really accept settled on her shoulders like the sunshine.
Her social worker had told her this day would come. Lily hadn't believed Jerry then, but now
She really could start over. She already had, she corrected herself. The Lily she used to be was fading more and more every day, and the Lily she was now had finally begun to feel like the real herlike she'd been trapped inside a box and was just now able to freely move and breathe.
She shook her head to clear away the fanciful thoughts. While she'd be perfectly happy to spend all day right here, she still had two more horses that needed their exercise and a long list of other chores waiting for her at the stable. "Come on, Goose. Let's go."
"Already? You just got here." Lily nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice, and her water bottle dropped out of her hand to land in the shallow water next to Goose's feet. She twisted sideways in the saddle to locate the owner of the voice and found a man swimming just a few yards away, only his head and shoulders visible above the water.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you." The man's grin belied the apology.
"Just startled." That much was true. The estate was private, and no one knew she was here anyway, so she had no cause to be scared. Plus, as Goose's head jerked up he whinnied, seeming to recognize the voice. A second later the horse began to wade deeper toward the man, completely ignoring her scolds and attempts to stop him.
Thankfully, the man met them halfway, and she was able to tuck her feet up closer to the saddle and out of the water. Goose's big head lolled in pleasure as the man rubbed his nose, the reunion causing them both to ignore her for a moment.
And she needed that moment. The man was now close enough for her to recognize him: Ethan Marshall, one of Senator Marshall's many grandsons. She'd heard he was just back from an extended trip overseashell, the whole estate was abuzz with the newsand though she'd seen plenty of pictures, those pictures were nothing compared to reality.
All the Marshalls were genetically luckyhoneyblond hair, deep green eyes, strong jawlines under high cheekbonesbut Ethan seemed to have won the lottery, combining those individual features into something more more Just more. Thick haircurling just the slightest bit around his earsdripped water onto broad, tanned shoulders. There, the droplets joined with others to run in rivulets over a set of lovely pecs and abs before meeting the water lapping his waist.
She jerked her eyes back up. Mercy. The man was gorgeous enough to give a girl heart palpitations, and when he looked up from Goose to meet her eyes and smileseemingly aware she'd been checking him out, much to her mortificationthe full effect was enough to cause her to sway in the saddle the tiniest bit.
"I'm Ethan Marshall."
"I know." Eyes up. No gawking. "It's nice to finally meet you." She backed Goose up a bit, to relieve the strain on her thighs from holding her feet out of the water, but Ethan didn't follow. He looked at her expectantly and she searched for something else to say, but her brain was misfiring a bit now that she had his full attention. "Welcome back."
"Thanks. And you are ?"
Her cheeks heated. Idiot. "Lily. Lily Black."
"Well, it's nice to meet you, too, Lily. How many times did Goose soak your boots before you figured him out?"
"Three." He smirked, and she shrugged. "I'm a slow learner, I guess."
"Well, Tinker will do the same thing, too, if you didn't know that already."
Tinker was Ethan's horse, a huge white stallion with a mischievous streak worse than Goose's. "Tinker dumped me completely in the river on my second day." At Ethan's smile, she made the rest of the confession. "He then took off and left me to walk back to the stable."
Ethan laughed, a warm yet totally masculine sound that made her insides feel a bit gooey. "I heard about that. Didn't know it was you, though. Maybe I should apologize."
"Why?" His small shrug said a lot. "Did you teach him to do that?"
"It kept my brothers and cousins off my horse when I wasn't around." The unrepentant grin was slightly infectious and kept her at ease with the conversation. How long had it been since she'd had a friendly discussion about absolutely nothing at all? It was a nice feeling even if it was a strange one, rusty from disuse.
"Your horse is rotten. It's a good thing he's pretty."
He winked at her, catching her totally off guard. "I've heard the same is said about me."
The statement could have been full of smug assurance of his good looks, but the tone made it sound selfdeprecating. Unfortunately, it also had her eyes going back to the acres of tanned, sculpted skin. "Pretty" was a gross understatement of the man's very ample charms.
Goose was pulling against the reins, trying to move back out to the deeper water and Ethan, thankfully giving her something to concentrate on since she'd lost track of the conversation due to her wandering eyes. Goose snorted and shook his head, but she wasn't giving in. Not in front of Ethan Marshall. She didn't want him thinking she couldn't handle the horse.
"I think he's just happy to see you, Mr. Marshall. He's normally much better behaved with me."
"Ethan," he corrected. "Just Ethan. There are way too many Mr. Marshalls around here to keep up with."
Lily felt her face warm, but it wasn't with embarrassment this time. "Okay. Ethan it is." When he smiled this time, it caused a little shiver to run over her skin. That, along with the restless movements of Goose, brought her focus back where it belonged. "Um, I should probably get back to the stable. It was nice meeting you."
Ethan nodded. "And you, Lily."
She turned Goose back toward the shore and saw her water bottle in the shallows. "Mr. MarshI mean, Ethancould you grab that bottle for me? "
She twisted around in the saddle to face him. The smirk on his face made her wonder if she'd totally misjudged him. It was a relatively simple request. Was his ego that big? A highandmighty Marshall was too good to retrieve a water bottle for one of the staff?
"I wouldn't normally ask, but I'm only wearing halfchaps, and if I get down my boots will fill with water."
Ethan shrugged a muscular shoulder. "Sorry. Can't be helped."
Maybe he was that smug after all.
The smirk grew worse as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm sure you didn't notice, but I'm only wearing water at the moment."
Lily felt her face heat again as the full meaning of his words filtered though. She'd been carrying on a conversation not six feet away from himand he'd been naked the whole time? Her eyesshe just couldn't help itretraced their earlier path down his chest and stomach to the waterline, which she now knew covered.
Ethan's chuckle caused her to jerk her head up and twist in the saddle so quickly her neck spasmed and Goose protested. "If I go get it, one of us could be embarrassed " He trailed off, leaving no question as to which one of them it would be.
Oh, dear Lord. She was already embarrassed enough. Focusing her eyes on the shoreline, she saw a pile of clothes on one of the rocks. Dammit. Why couldn't she have noticed that just a little sooner? She'd been ogling the man's chest and stomach, and only inches below the waterline was. Her cheeks felt like they were on fire now.
"Still want me to get it?"
There was laughter and challenge in those words, and then she heard splashes, like Ethan might be making his way to shore after all.
"No!" She paused and cleared her throat. "I mean, never mind. I'll get it." Without looking at him, she dismounted, grabbed the bottle, and mounted again in record time. She dug her heels into Goose, feeling the water slosh around her toes, and set him into a trot. She didn't really care if it looked like the cowardly retreat it was; she had to get out of there before she died of embarrassment.
The sound of Ethan's laughter followed her, and it was all Lily could do not to kick Goose into a gallop.
He'd been naked the whole time.
Distance from the scene of the crime helped her calm her heartrate, but with that calm came unease. Ethan found it funny right now, but would he still find it amusing later on? What if he told otherslike his grandmother? Mrs. Marshall wouldn't find it one bit funny.
Could she get fired for this? The thought chilled her. More than just the job, she lovedneededthe security of Hill Chase. It gave her a place to live and peace of mind. The thought of losing that because she'd been blinded by charm and a chest and not noticed he was skinnydipping.
He was naked the whole time.
How will I ever be able to look him in the eye again?
How could I have known? It was an accident.
Lily lifted her chin. Exactly. An accident. No harm done. So the chances of losing her job were very, very low. She had to quit jumping straight to The WorstCase Scenario all the time. The next time she saw Ethanand it was guaranteed she would see him sooner rather than later, since the stable wasn't that bigshe'd pretend it didn't happen. That would be the grownup thing to do. Surely he'd like to forget the whole thing ever happened too.
So would she, but every time she closed her eyes she could see.
Nope. There would be no forgetting for her. Ethan Marshall wearing nothing but river water would be an image she'd take with her to her grave.
And, actually, she was really okay with that.