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"Oh, Charming, what's wrong with me?" Beth McClure ran her hands down the gelding's broad back. His warm coat and steady heartbeat calmed her.
Twenty minutes ago her brother and his wife, her best friend and former college roommate, had announced there would be a new McClure come spring. Friends and family gathered at the ranch cheered the news.
Beth was glad for them, really.
It was selfish of her, but the news stabbed her in the heart, making her realize how alone she was. Oh, sure, she had family, friends, but there was not a prospect of a boyfriend in sight. In some ways she was content to be alone, but her heart still ached.
Charming raised his head and stepped back, knocking Beth into the back wall of the stall. She stumbled, her skirt tangling in her legs, and she twisted her ankle. Wearing heels out in the stables wasn't smart, but she wasn't worrying about that when she escaped.
"Charming, what's wrong with you?" She pushed the horse away as she searched for her shoe. Charming danced again, bumping her a second time. She fell against the side of the stall, losing her other shoe.
"Stop." She glanced over her shoulder to see what was making the horse so nervous. She spotted the black dog sitting outside the open stall door.
"Oh, sorry, guy." Beth patted Charming on his back hip to quiet him. The black dog sat quietly, watching her. Beth recognized him. He belonged to the newest employee of Second Chance Ranch, Tyler Lynch. He was an Iraqi War veteran like her brother Zach. Tyler's dog, Dogger, was known as a cautious critter who didn't offer his friendship lightly, much like his owner. In the month Tyler had been at the equine therapy ranch, she'd never known his dog to allow anyone to pet him, and she only had a nodding acquaintance with the dog's owner.
Tyler would politely nod his head or keep up his end of a conversation, but he'd subtly let a person know there was a wall between him and the world. Beth knew that "look." Zach had worn the exact same expression when he came home from his tour of service.
Intrigued, Beth moved to the front of the stall. "Hey, guy, how are you?"
The dog cocked his head. He had the look of a mutt, short dark hair, mid-size, sleek and with white stockings on his back feet. He had a half-moon scar on the back of his head.
"Are you declaring a truce?" she asked, inching forward.
Charming stretched his neck down toward the dog. Beth reached under the horse's neck and patted the other side. "What do you think, big guy? You think he wants to make friends?" She whispered the question out of the side of her mouth.
The horse raised his head and nodded.
Beth's hand fell to her side. "You want me to pet you?" she asked, directing her question to the dog.
Dogger looked from Charming to Beth as if considering the question.
Beth laughed. She stepped out of the stall and held out her hand. The dog moved toward her and sniffed. He sat, waiting for her to oblige him.
Beth squatted and stroked the dog's head. He accepted her affection. She'd tried to make friends with the dog a couple of times before, but he'd refused her overtures.
"You're a mighty cagey boy. Did you decide to watch and wait to make sure I was worthy of your trust?"
The dog closed his eyes, enjoying the petting.
"Well, I be"
Beth jerked at the sound of Tyler's voice, losing her balance. She sprawled onto the floor, her skirt drifting gracefully around her knees.
"Sorry." The corner of Tyler's mouth twitched, making that hands-off look he normally wore melt away. Her stomach dipped.
It was nothing but embarrassment, she told herself as she looked up from the floor into his handsome face. "You startled me."
He offered his hand.
There was no dignified way to get to her feet. She accepted his hand and he pulled her to her feet. Beth dusted off hay from the backside of her skirt. The laugh trying to escape her chest erupted. "You must think I'm a klutz."
"No," he said, his eyes twinkling.
At the change in his countenance, Beth's mouth nearly fell open. Gone was his usual tired, weary expression, replaced with the look of a young, gorgeous man. Tyler Lynch had a headful of wavy brown locks, deep brown eyes that missed nothing and a scar on the right side of his mouth. She'd also noticed he had some scars on his left hand and forearm.
"What are you doing out here instead of inside at the party?" he asked.
The party she'd escaped. "I could ask the same thing of you."
"Which means you're avoiding answering my question?"
Aw, he was sharp, noticing her dodge, but she didn't want to admit even to herself, let alone this man, why she'd escaped the party.
"I thought Charming here needed a heads-up to be extra gentle around Sophie, with her condition and all."
His brow arched. "And what was his answer?"
"He's been bobbing his head, agreeing with me. Besides, he's also making friends with your dog, which surprised both of us."
Dogger looked from her to Tyler as if trying to understand what was happening.
Tyler studied his dog. "Dogger doesn't easily make friends."
She ignored her embarrassment. "I know. I've tried to befriend him before, but he's been very wary around me. What he normally does is give me the eye, turn around and walk off." The words could've applied to Tyler himself. She glanced at him.
Tyler didn't flinch, and Beth breathed a sigh of relief. Instead, he squatted down and ruffled the dog's ears. "Dogger's a survivor and cautious in all he does. Streets of Baghdad do that to a soul."
Looking down at Tyler's brown, wavy hair, Beth had a feeling that Dogger wasn't the only one Tyler was talking about. "Well, I'm glad he's feeling at home enough to invite me to pet him."
Tyler stood and looked at her stocking feet.
"When Dogger sat down in front of Charming, the horse danced a bit, and I wasn't looking and lost my shoes." She ended her explanation in a whisper.
He leaned in to hear the last. Her eyes locked with his and her stomach did a jig. Tyler Lynch was one of the few men she'd known who could see eye to eye with her oldest brother, Ethan, who stood six-foot-three.
Dogger stood and walked closer to Charming, breaking the intimate moment between them. Dogger didn't move while Charming inspected him. Beth knew the two animals were taking stock of each other, much like the man standing next to her. Charming lifted his head and nodded. The dog had passed the test.
Beth stroked Charming's side. "Dogger's on a roll today. Two friends."
The dog glanced over his shoulder as if to say, c'mon, human owner, join me.
Tyler didn't move. Dogger sent him another look.
Beth laughed. "I don't think he's going to give up until you do."
"Okay, okay," Tyler said, holding up his hands. He walked to Charming and rubbed the horse's nose. "I feel kinda funny having the dog introduce us."
Grinning at Tyler's surrender, Beth added, "Sometimes animals have better sense than humans."
Tyler's brow shot up.
She didn't mean it as an insult and wanted to apologize, but decided the best way to correct the situation was to plow on. "How long have you had Dogger?"
His face closed down and his gaze dropped to his hand on Charming's neck. He stroked the gelding's black coat.
Had she gone too far? The man had been as stand-offish as his dog until today and now he was opening up.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean"
"I found Dogger under the fender of a car used in a roadside bomb outside of Mosul. I think the poor pup was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We don't know if he was hit by the fender or was in the street and crawled under the fender after it landed close to him.
"I heard the whimper and investigated. There was Dogger, a cute little shaver. He seemed okay except for the cut on the back of his head." He pointed to the scar. "That was where the medic thinks the fender hit him. We adopted him and he became our company's mascot." Tyler glanced down at the dog. "I didn't want to leave him in the country when I came home and none of the other guys at the base wanted to adopt him, so I made arrangements for him to come home with me."
It explained a lot about the two of them. Dogger was never far from Tyler's side.
"Well, I'm glad that he's decided to make friends." Beth leaned down and scratched the dog's head. "I hope he'll want to work with the kids we have coming here, or the other veterans who'll be coming. I think those guys will identify with the dog. He's another survivor."
Tyler continued to stroke Charming. "I'm glad the Army decided to use you all. Anyone say when you'll get your first patient?"
"Next week is when I think we'll get a couple of soldiers. My older brother, Ethan, is training more horses at our parents' ranch to work with adult males."
A spark of interest flared in Tyler's eyes. "Because?"
"Well, you've seen the horses here. Some are taller than others. Brownie is only fourteen hands tall, perfect for the kids who ride. But an adult male will be much too heavy for that little mare. Charming here is right for someone like you."
He jerked. "What?"
"An adult male," she quickly added.
He looked a little less offended.
"You could ride him, but if we have more than one adult male riding at the same time, we'll have to have another horse for them to use."
"Makes sense. It's been a while since I've worked around the barn. When Ollie's here, he's good at directing me."
Oh, goodness, Beth thought, he'd revealed another part of himself. They were on a roll. "Ollie's good at giving orders."
The ranch foreman had been taking chemo for his stomach cancer. Combined with her brother's recent marriage to her college roommate, things had been crazy around the ranch. Beth had also been traveling a great deal as a clothing buyer for the largest independent department store in the state of New Mexico. "I've been praying for him."
Tyler tensed up. It wasn't a big move, just a tightening of his shoulders and expression.
Before she could question him about it, Sophie entered the stables. "Beth, Beth, what are you doing out here?" She looked from Beth to Tyler. "Oh, am I interrupting something?"
Beth flushed to the roots of her hair. Tyler's expression looked like it was carved out of stone.
"Dogger decided to let me pet him. We were just marveling at it."
Sophie took in the scene. "I came out here because I wanted to introduce you to one of the new military riders who's going to start next week."
"I'd love to meet him."
Sophie grinned. "It's a her."
"You're kidding, aren't you?"
"Nope. C'mon and I'll introduce you to Captain Brenda Kaye."
Beth started toward the door but realized she had no shoes on. Sophie looked at her feet.
"You can thank Charming for that," Beth explained. "He kept knocking me into the stall wall and I lost both of my shoes." She hurried back into the stall, found her shoes and slipped them on. Closing the stall door behind her, Beth said, "Okay, I'm ready."
At the stable door, Beth glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Tyler and Dogger.
With her heart light, she walked back to the house with Sophie.
Sophie linked arms with Beth. "What happened back there?"
"He offered his friendship."
Sophie stopped. "Whothe dog or Tyler?"
Beth grinned. "Both."