Kate had to admit she felt a twinge of sympathy watching Joseph's scowling face wince each time his family jewels slammed against the hard Western saddle. The man would be impotent inside a week if he didn't do something to protect his goodie bag. Damn shame too.
Who comes to a horse camp wearing leather dress shoes, beige Dockers, a suit jacket and dress shirt? The guy was asking for problems. Then again, being the sneaky, no-good liar she knew he was, maybe he deserved a few problems.
"Keep those legs still, Joey." Her voice carried across the riding ring. Joseph's wince at the nickname was a little more amusing. "Keep flapping like that and you'll take flight. Squeeze your knees. Try not to flop around so much."
Joseph's dark eyes met hers beneath his curtain of thick lashes. His chin down, his hands gripping saddle and reins, he managed to look sexy, annoyed and pained all at once. "Right. Thanks."
"Not like the movies, huh?" She'd bet dollars-to-hoofs a man like Joseph never needed to try hard for anything. He was a city boy out here playing cowboy. There couldn't be a worse fit.
"Can't just hop on a horse and ride off into the sunset like they do in the Westerns," she said. "Need to build the right kinds of muscle. Learn balance. Learn to read the animal. Get a feel for its needs and fears."
Sunshine trotted in line behind the other horses along the white wooden fence that formed the riding ring. Standing dead center for the best view of all her students, Kate didn't turn when Joseph, flopping like a rag doll atop Sunshine, passed behind her.
"Not lookin' for a relationship," he said. "Just a ride."
Not the first time he'ssaid that, I bet.
Not the first time she'd heard it either. She grimaced at the thought and pointedly pushed her mind from the topic.
Kate focused on her other students. The ones who hadn't lied on their camper's applications and weren't annoyingly attractive to a single, sexually ravenous woman.
"Looking good, Nisha! You could take a cue from her, Joey." The nine-year-old girl perked, flashing white teeth against dark mahogany skin with her proud smile. She threw a glance over her shoulder at the grown man who'd joined their class, her stiff black braids brushing her shoulders from beneath her hard riding hat.
Kate followed the glance to Joseph as he came around, his scowl growing deeper by the second. His wrinkled inky brows matched his hair that brushed over his forehead and hung in long waves to hide his collar. He had a squarish face, held tight in annoyance and pain, a thick jaw and a crooked nose. The man had been in a fight or two. A little scar at the corner of his upper lip and another breaking the dark shadow of beard stubble on his right cheek made it an easy guess.
His discomfort was his own doing. He was too stiff. His broad shoulders, straight as an ironing board, fought the move of the horse and made the ride rougher than it needed to be. The rest of his body struggled the same way, thick arms, big hands, and muscled legs all held tense as though he could bully the natural jarring gate of his horse to his will. No doubt something he was used to doing.
Kate imagined there wasn't much a prime stud like Joseph Garity couldn't bend to his will. If he couldn't outmuscle it, that dark gaze of his was hot enough to melt iron and the female libido, whichever the circumstances demanded. A hard-as-stone resolve with a harder-than-steel body, definitely a tasty combo for any red-blooded female. Why'd he have to be a cheating liar? What a waste.
She flicked her eyes to his and met that molten gaze head on. His scowl was just as deep, but it wasn't anger flaring in those dark eyes. He looked like he was picturing her naked. And he looked like he wanted to be the one to get her that way.
Heat flooded her insides from head to toe. Her body tingled in that delicious way when everything is new and mysterious between a man and a woman. She glanced away, her exhale shallow. Her ears went hot in a heartbeat. Shoot. They were red. She knew it without looking. Her body's bizarre version of a blush brought on when her lower regions were simmering to a boil.
She shifted her weight against the moist heat between her thighs and crossed her arms over her belly. The attraction had her all too aware of her breasts, warm and heavy, the feel of her bra and shirt against her sensitive nipples.
Reflex had her fingers reaching up to fiddle with the high cartilage piercing on her ear--a silver hoop with a tiny dangling cr--oss. Her gaze flicked to Joseph long enough to see his scowl had mutated to a smug grin. Dang it. A man knows when a woman's nervous fidget is his doing. So what? It didn't mean anything.
Kate forced her hand from her ear, tucking it back in a knot over her belly. She cleared her throat and her hormone-fogged brain. "Heels down, Tony. Let go of the saddle horn, Delmar. You too, Joey. C'mon, sit straight. Hold on with your legs. Show me good seats, girls and boys, and we'll take turns over the jump."
"Are you friggin' kidding me?" Joseph threw his body backward, legs going up, pulling poor Sunshine's mouth so sharply the horse had no choice but to stop after a few rough steps. She thrashed her head until he'd loosened the reins. "Bad enough you've got us running around in circles. You want me to head this crazy beast over a jump?"
"Stop. It's Joe. Joseph if you have to. But never--ever--Joey."
She tipped her chin to the white sticker on his breast pocket. "Your name tag says Joey."
"Your camp application said Joey too."
"Said you were ten."
"I noticed that," she said. Three breaths of silence passed with them staring at each other, waiting. "Y'know, if you wanted to beat the cost of the farm's regular class rates--"
"No. That's not it." He grabbed a rein in each hand, and muscled Sunshine's head and body around toward Kate. He rocked in the saddle, trying to nudge the horse into motion by shifting his weight back and forth.
"Kick her." Kate had seen it before. Beginners.
"Don't wanna hurt it."
"You won't," she said.
He flicked a scoffing smirk her way then went back to his rocking. Sunshine took a step and then another, more because he'd thrown her off balance than she understood what he wanted her to do. Joe clucked and rocked and rocked and clucked, trying everything except kicking to get the horse to move. He looked like an overgrown kid on a playground spring ride. Lucky for him the speckled gray mare was used to the antics of beginner riders and finally meandered over to Kate. Good horse.
He pulled Sunshine to a stop beside her. "I just wanted basic riding lessons. Forward, backward, right and left, stop and go. That's it. Simple."
"Not simple. These kids have been here two weeks. You took the spot of a deserving, needy kid and you're late arriving. You expect everyone to sit around and wait for you? Some of these kids have never seen a horse, let alone ridden one. This is their only chance. They've never been camping, never been out of the city--"
"Sorry," he said, his voice sharp enough to stop her rant. "Listen, it was a last-minute thing. You weren't offering classes. I guess because of this City Camp stuff. So my secretary signed me up for the camp. I didn't know. But I'm here now. It's too late. I'll pay whatever the going rate is, but I am not taking this thick-headed fur ball over any jumps just so you can enjoy some sick revenge."
She stopped herself from laughing by biting the corner of her bottom lip and looked to the kids still trotting along the rail, all wide-eyed and listening. He thought this was the best revenge she could come up with? Silly man.
"Okay, fine. You're here. It's too late. But just so you know, I'm not into revenge," Kate said. "Trust me. Sunshine's our most sedate horse. She's practically dead. And the jump's only a foot high. She could step over it. This is a beginner's class, but like anything else, if you want to learn you've got to do as the teacher says."
His dark eyes narrowed on her and made her belly flutter, his stern face hardening, voice low. "Yeah. I'd love to be your teacher's pet, but this animal's brain is the size of a pea. I don't trust it to remember its way around the ring let alone get the both of us over a jump."
The teacher's-pet remark sent all kinds of dirty little ideas racing through her head. Maybe she should keep him after class for a good spanking. Her gaze dropped to the firm round of his ass, cradled in the leather saddle. Her hand itched at the thought of smacking her palm against the hard male flesh, digging her fingers in, feeling the coarse hairs bristle against her skin. A fresh flood of warmth gushed through her body, tingled low between her thighs. She exhaled.
"If you've got something else you'd like to suggest, dollface," he said. "I'm all ears."
Kate flinched out of her private imaginings and shot her gaze to his. The decidedly carnal direction of her thoughts must have shown on her face. Her ears went hot in a flash, right along with the wet folds between her thighs.
She wasn't embarrassed. She'd always been a very sexual person, oversexed some said. She'd learned to control those impulses over the years living on the Thorndike farm. But it was more than a little disconcerting to have them flaring up here, now, when riding horses was the one thing that stirred her more than sex.
No worries. She could handle it. "You're right. If you're scared you shouldn't do it. A frightened rider will never get the horse to respond. So, uh, why don't you see me after class for a refund and we'll call it even?"
That made him straighten in his seat. Joe's scowl clouded over his face like a heavy curtain, but the angry expression didn't reach his eyes. If anything he seemed secretly amused, fighting a smile even as he tugged on Sunshine's rein, heading her back to the rail.
"I don't think so." He mumbled something about not taking jobs with animals. She tracked his progress. There was something undeniably sexy about a man on a horse--confident, powerful, man over beast--very primal. Of course the effect was totally ruined once Sunshine broke into a jog and Joe's big muscled body started flopping around on her back like a sack of potatoes.
Kate made a point not to laugh and turned her attention back to those students who deserved it. "That's it, Carmen, squeeze your legs. Savion, keep Willow against the rail. No passing, guys."
She walked to the two upright wood posts at one end of the ring, with the low cross rails X-ing between them. Constantly glancing at the progress of her students, she toed the long post lying in the dirt before the jump, scuffing her already dirty leather riding boots in the process.
With the launch post straightened, Kate backed a few feet away. Close enough to help if there was trouble but not so close she'd distract the horses. "Okay, starting with Nisha. Straight down the center of the ring and over the jump."
The young girl's eyes widened, the whites all the brighter against her dark skin. She gave a nod, her round hardhat nudging forward and back.
"Okay." Nisha's timid voice belied her brave expression. At the far end of the ring she turned the liver-spotted Sylvester toward the jump, a slow jog bringing them straight down the middle. Her smile flickered, fear stealing a moment on her face, chased quickly away by sheer determination.
"That's it," Kate said. "Push up in the stirrups when your horse reaches the launch post ... now." A single stride before Sylvester leapt over the small jump, the little girl stood in her stirrups. Nisha gasped at the small hop, both hands white-knuckling the saddle, reins slack and ineffective against the horse's neck.
"Beautiful job, Nisha." Sylvester did his part, unconcerned with his young passenger, so used to the routine he really didn't need encouragement or direction. But Nisha didn't know that and the accomplishment would likely change her world. These kids needed successes. Their lives were already too full of disappointments. Man over beast, it was a natural primal drive and something that had helped her overcome her demons years ago just like it would these kids.
"Okay, next. Garon, Paul, Tony, Delmar. Right in order, guys." She swung her attention to Joe as he and Sunshine trotted around from behind her, his dark eyes fixed on little Nisha, astonished. Couldn't be easy watching a child accomplish something you didn't have the guts to try.
"Joey, you're last. Gives you plenty of time to work up some courage." She knew the nickname bugged him, but that was pretty much the point. Besides, he'd screwed with her City Camp days. He had it coming. "Where's your hardhat?"
Joe swung his gaze to her, narrowing his eyes. She figured he was trying for a steely stare. His floppy rag-doll impression ruined the effort. Kate tilted her head and gave her sweetest butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth smile, blinking madly for effect. Joe obviously saw straight through the act and winked at her, ruining her effort as well.
"Not wearin' it. Musses my hair." His cocky sarcasm twanged through his voice and glinted in his devilish smile. He didn't respect her.
Right. "Then you don't take the jump. You shouldn't be riding without it at all." She hadn't noticed. Shoot. He turned her brain to mush.
With no wiseacre retort flying back at her, Kate figured he'd finally accepted who was boss around here. After the last camper had sailed effortlessly over the low jump all eyes turned to Joe and Sunshine standing alone at the far end of the ring.
"C'mon, Joe, you can do it," Tony said. He'd been giving Joe riding tips all day. Kate saw a big-brother thing happening there and hoped Joe was the kind of man a kid could look up to.
"Thanks, kid." Joe rolled his shoulders then his head, cracking cartilage bubbles loud enough the sound echoed off the nearby stables. He looked as though he was about to take on a prize fighter. Sunshine needed no such preparation. She stood with her head low, weight shifted to one side, eyes drifting closed.
"Okay. You can try it, but wait until I get you a riding hat." Kate shifted her weight to move but stopped when Joe's clucks echoed across the ring. His wild rocking motion spurred Sunshine into motion. The flurry of action and noise had woken the horse with a start. Her ears flattened back, head jerked high, eyes wide, big nostrils flaring.
"Hey, I said to wait. Joe." He ignored her. Kate's sixth sense prickled at the back of her neck. Something wasn't right with Sunshine, the look in the horse's eyes, the way Joe flopped side to side, legs winging. The way he waved the reins and strangled the saddle horn--everything.
She edged closer to the jump. "Stop clucking. You're making her go faster. Joe. Too fast. Stop. Pull back on the reins. Joe. I said stop. Don't. Joe. Joe. Joe!"
Sunshine's last five strides were long and powerful, pounding the ground, propelling horse and rider toward a jump that needed less than a quarter of the speed. When her lead hoof clanked against the launch post, Joe stood in his stirrups and Sunshine planted her feet, stopping all forward momentum instantly.
The big horse slid to an abrupt halt.
He sailed head first over horse and jump, landing hard on the other side. Tumbling ass over feet several times, he finally came to a stop face down, arms and legs spread-eagle.
"Oh shit," Kate said under her breath. She rushed over, praying he was okay, that she hadn't gotten his neck broken ... or anything else for that matter.
He started moving before she reached him. Not paralyzed--good. But he was still on his belly, his elbows propping him up, head hanging between his shoulders.
"You okay?" She dropped to her knees beside him, rested her hand between his shoulder blades without thinking. He felt big and solid against her palm, her hand small in comparison. His dark hair tickled her fingertips.
She heard him spit. "Ate some dirt." He spit again. "I'm good. No blood. Nothin's broken. Knocked the wind out of me."
Thank God. She exhaled, relieved. Should she tell him the dirt was mixed with a high percentage of horse dung? Naw, save it for a rainy day.
"We need to call Doc, Kate?" At Clayton's question she glanced over her shoulder and saw him standing outside the ring, leaning his forearms on the railing, an adult-sized hardhat in one hand. He adjusted his worn cowboy hat, his blue eyes fixed on Joe.
She shook her head. "He's okay. Doc can't fix a bruised pride."
Kate felt Joe moving under her hand and looked back to watch him sit. He brought his knee up, grimacing, and hooked his right arm around it. His other hand raked the tumble-mussed waves of his hair, then dropped to twist a fat gold band on his right ring finger.
"Well that was damn humbling." He didn't seem to realize he was fiddling with the ring and Kate took a second to notice dark etchings on the flat disc section where a gem might have been. She couldn't make out the engraving and didn't get a chance to ask.
"You gonna make him get back on and try again?" Paul asked from atop his dark mare, Phantom. "You make us keep trying."
He brushed his sandy blond bangs to the side under his hardhat, and blinked his pretty, toffee-brown eyes. Paul was hung up on all things being fair and equal--likely because so many things in his young life seldom were. But he was right. Normally she'd insist Joe climb back on Sunshine and try again. Not just to show the horse who's boss, but to avoid a seed of fear that could grow out of control quick if not faced head-on from the start.
But this situation was far from normal and Joe didn't strike her as the kind of man she could make do anything. "I don't think--"
"You bet I'm tryin' again," Joe said.