When Serena Skye applies to work with abused and troubled horses in the round pen at an isolated Nevada guest ranch, she instantly notices that her prospective boss, Julian Rose, is drop-dead gorgeous. After he hires her, Serena begins to work her magic with the horses-all while secretly pining for Julian. But Serena has no idea that underneath the brilliance of equines runs a dangerous ground that will soon propel her on an unexpected journey through the darkness of insanity.
After just two days, Serena has already impressed Julian with her wrangling skills, saved his life, and shared a passionate kiss with him. As they cautiously begin a romantic relationship, Julian discloses that he has not seen his schizophrenic wife, Miranda, in eight years, after she was committed to a mental institution after murdering two horses and nearly killing him. Too frightened to divorce her for fear of deadly repercussions, Julian has just learned that Miranda has been released early-and is roaming the nearby desert with a gun.
In this gripping psychological drama, a young wrangler becomes unwittingly embroiled in a perilous struggle where she must devise a way to save the animals and people she loves from the madness that threatens their paradise.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Cain
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cain
All rights reserved.
When they led the horse into the round pen, I thought, Okay, fifteen minutes. It was a beautiful, dappled grey gelding coming along quite nicely with the handler.
"What's the problem?" I asked, taking the lead from his hand.
"Can't trim his back feet, much less get shoes on 'im. The farrier won't touch 'im."
"Where is he?"
"Tell him to get his stuff and stand by," I said confidently, already stroking the silver neck.
The cowboy left, shaking his head.
"Okay, pretty boy, let's see what we can do."
I circled a lariat around haphazardly, letting it brush him here and there, on his neck and back, against his chest. No reaction. He stood quietly. Some ranch hands wandered by the corral and climbed up on the rails. The sun was unbearable. I took the halter off the horse and stepped back. He pricked his ears. I turned and walked away. He followed me. I stopped and caressed him with the rope, on his face, over his ears. Some of the onlookers sniggered.
"Thatsa ways from his feet, lady."
I smiled. "It's a good thing the horse doesn't think like you."
That's when I noticed one of the guys who wasn't laughing. His face was framed by the top two railings, his hat pulled down shading half his face, but I didn't want to look away. He was just the most attractive man I had seen in a long time, and I wasn't that crazy about men. The greatest love of my life had been a horse trainer a couple of counties over—a woman. She said she loved me, but sexual stuff was off limits, so I guess I didn't really know what I liked. But that handsome stranger's eyes on me made a shiver go right through me.
The horse got in my space. I moved him back with the rope snaking in the air. No daydreaming for me. I saw the horseshoer had joined the group outside the round pen, pretending not to watch. He'd be in here soon enough with a hoof in his hand.
When I grazed the gelding's front legs with the rope, he stamped his feet. When I tried it with his back legs, he flat took off at a dead run! Round and round he went. He forgot I was even in there with him. I slapped the rope against my thigh, and one of his ears bent my way. I backed up. The horse slowed a bit and then stopped and looked at me.
"I think my fifteen minutes are up, boy," I whispered. "Come on. Let's give these cowboys something to talk about."
I haltered him and swung up on his back with the rope coiled in my hand. The horse relaxed. His reaction seemed to tell me This is something I know. I walked him around, petting him with the rope in the places he liked—neck, shoulders, rump. He got pretty comfortable with that. He was nice to ride, moved away from my leg, and halted with just a slight pressure from my seat. What on earth had they done to his feet?
He enjoyed being ridden. It was a reward to do this easy walk, trot, lope in the soft sand. The cowboys waited. A couple of women had shown up.
"You go, girl," one of them intoned as I went by.
I let the loop of the rope out over his head. We cantered. I had one hand on his mane and halter rope, the other on the loop. I let the loop bounce off his knees and brought him to a halt, leaving the rope right there. He didn't like it, but he stayed still. I removed the rope. He lowered his head a little. I slid the rope down onto his cannon bones. He leaped forward and almost unseated me, but I left the rope there and asked him to halt. When he did, I removed the rope. It didn't take long until I had the rope dangling on his hooves. He liked it so much just standing there quietly, understanding the halt cue and the release of the rope. We both heaved a sigh of relief, and a few spectators clapped grudgingly.
I didn't care about that. The good-looking guy had not taken his eyes off of me and now tipped his hat in my direction. I needed some water but couldn't stop for the sake of the horse. It was just about the hottest part of the day. The gelding was sweating but breathing easily, so I swung the rope around over his haunches and asked for the canter. Pretty soon, the rope was bumping his hocks. He kicked out a few times, but I kept cantering and letting the rope bump the places he resisted. When I asked him to stop, he slid into the footing and didn't move a muscle. I released the rope so fast I think it even surprised the horse.
We walked around directionless for a moment. Then I asked folks on the rail to pet him as we went by or just let him brush against their hands as I pushed him closer to them with my inside leg. The grey liked that too.
I turned back to the center of the ring, halted, and looped the rope over his hocks. He submitted. I flung it off and over his neck and let it fall to his feet. He turned his head and looked at me. Is this all you want? his expression implied. Then I went back to the hindquarters, letting the rope slip down below his hocks. He stamped his feet, left, then right. When both feet were still, just an instant in time, I pulled the rope back up onto his haunches. He stayed with me, that unshoeable thing.
I gently eased the lariat down the back of his legs until he would stand motionless, taking it away every time he accepted it. Finally I could pull the rope up from the ground, touching his feet, his fetlocks, his hocks and back to a coil in my hand. I leapt off his back and hugged him. "Good boy ... good boy." I ran my hands down his legs lightly, first front, then back. I still had the lead-line, so if he moved, I could ask him to keep moving beyond his comfort level. When he stopped on his own, I put my hands on his legs again. At last I leaned against his left shoulder; his foot came right up into my hand. When I tried this at his haunches, he sidestepped away from me. I led him back to the center, picked up each front hoof, and then tried again with his hinds. I held his right hind until my back began aching, sliding one hand up and down between his hock and his hoof. His head dropped down, and I swear he closed his eyes. No one on the rail spoke.
I nodded at the shoer. He walked in with his rasp and slapped the grey's rump. The horse startled, and I glared at the man.
"That's not necessary," I said.
"You gonna tell me how to do my job?" he asked sarcastically.
"No, I'm going to tell you how to help the horse and keep you from getting killed."
He ran his hand roughly down a back leg. The gelding flinched.
"Try making your hand feel like the rope," I said.
In a few minutes, he had the hoof in his hand and rasped it lightly. After all hooves were trimmed, he looked at me with a mixture of wonder and chagrin.
"Well, I guess this might work on other horses," he said.
"I guess it might," I said. "Now, how do you feel about rubbing him down and giving him some fresh water?"
"Not part of my job," he said.
"It is now," the great-looking guy on the fence said, and then to me, "Would you like a break?"
"That'd be fine," I answered.
There was a swath of shade on one side of the pen where a grandstand had been put up. I grabbed the rail when I reached it to keep from falling down. Someone's hands closed over mine, and a voice said, "Hang on. I'm coming in." The cowboy helped me to the ground and handed me some bottled water.
I opened my eyes to that wonderful face and said, "Who are you?"
He smiled. "I'm your boss."
"I guess I'd better get on my feet then."
"Oh, no, not yet," he admonished, pouring another bottle of water on a scarf he'd removed from his neck. Then he laid it on my forehead and sat down next to me.
"I didn't know I was hired," I said.
"You are definitely hired." He held out his hand. "Julian Rose."
I thought I might faint. He made me lean forward and put my head between my knees. His hand rested on my back. I felt like the horse, calmed and safe.
"Serena," he said, "I'm taking you to your cabin and ordering you some lunch. You look like the wind could blow you away."
"I get so interested in the horses, I forget to eat," I said softly.
"What's next, anyway?"
"A trailering problem ... or should I say a not trailering problem."
"I've heard that before," I said.
"It'll be cooler later. I don't feel good about you doing it now."
He pressed the wet bandana against my head again. We were close enough to kiss. What a weird thought, must be the heat, so stifling, but my heart felt light, the woman I had loved not as compelling. Mr. Rose helped me up and kept his arm around me until we were at the door of a rustic cabin.
"I'll be back with some food. You all right now?"
"I think so."
"How 'bout some fruit and chicken salad?"
"That'll be great. Thank you, Mr. Rose."
"You're a hell of a horsewoman," he replied with a wry smile. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Trying to figure out who I am, needing horses to do it, and ..." I almost said her name.
Julian opened the door and said, "I hope you'll be comfortable here ... I'm likely to want you for a long time."
"Well, as long as I can help horses anyway."
"At least that."
He turned to go, but he must have known I hadn't gone inside yet, because he looked back.
"Serena," he said, "get some rest. I won't be long."
And the moment, whatever it was, was over.
* * *
I lay down on the feather bed. The room was cool, the windows shaded with thick, dark drapes, keeping the Nevada heat at bay. I could still feel Julian's arm around me. His strength, his sensuality flowed into me as nothing ever had before, except on the back of a horse. It brought tears to my eyes.
It was a beautiful ranch, cactus and juniper and gray-green boulders strewn around, a turquoise sky, fields full of horses of every color behind pale oak fences, a soothing painting not quite real. My heart was racing. I ached for the next horse, for the next part of my job, for Julian's voice. I had applied on paper to be a wrangler, adding that I had an affinity with troubled horses. They could wonder why. I'd seen one photograph of the place—the wide log archway with black metal cutout of horses galloping across the top and a long, dusty road to distant barns and lodgings. It was far from her. It could be a refuge. I thought suddenly of Julian's hands on mine with the round pen rail between us. It might be the scariest place I could have found.
Just then Julian knocked, and I said, "Come in. I'm awake."
"Can't sleep?" he asked, setting a tray loaded with food on a small table near the bed.
"I'm thinking about the next horse."
"Not thinking about food?" He laughed.
"Can I think about the horse and eat at the same time?" I asked.
"I would say yes, but there is absolutely no room in there for me," he said, half teasing.
"And what would you like me to be thinking about you?"
"I just don't know yet. Maybe after the next horse, I'll have a better idea."
* * *
The next horse came soon enough. It was cooler, and a slight breeze had started up. Long shadows fell across the round pen from the thick aspens planted along one side, aspens Julian's mother had transplanted from a nearby spring-fed canyon and nursed on the drier ranch land with as much water as she could. Finally, her husband put in a drip-line from the well so the trees could live there forever around the rails after she could no longer care for them. One of the hands had told me this when I seemed surprised at the profusion of green on the border of the arena. But I turned my attention to the burgundy-splashed roan mare tossing her head and peering through the rails. Outside the pen, a truck was parked with a stock trailer hitched to it. It had a ramp but no dividers. It was spacious and clean.
Julian caught up with me and put his hand on my arm, kind of like I was one of the guys, which was all right with me.
"Listen, Serena, this horse has never been in a trailer. She's had her head in a vise and electric prods on her rump. She's thrown herself down and slid halfway under a two-horse. She's gone completely over backward with a lariat around her neck. I don't expect much. Do what you can, but stay safe. The fellows are going to give you a bad time."
"If the mare can take it, I guess I can too," I said, and I went in the round pen with two soft ropes.
"You wanta halter?" someone called out.
I began by playing with the ropes, just turning them and trailing them along the ground, ignoring the mare. I threw a few loops her way, but they landed shy of her. She ran a little but not in a frightened way. Her eye was always turned in toward me, no matter what I did. Did the boys know how much this meant? The mare was already including me in her world. Wow! I was really excited by this.
"Dumb mare," someone said.
I didn't hesitate. I said, "Mr. Rose, please take that man out of here."
"Hey, girlie, I work here too," he chided.
"But not with this horse. Not right now."
Julian sent him to clean and fill water troughs.
The roan could not contain her curiosity. Soft ropes were something she had never known, so I made her part of the game. I held out one large loop, and pretty soon she was mouthing it. I took it away and then made another loop. She thought she would try some other things, and finally she stuck her head through it. I did not tighten it down but flipped it off, moved to another part of the arena, and made a new loop. She found it and stuck her head in. The loops were different sizes, but I never closed one on her neck. Soon she was walking beside me with her head swiveling around inside that loop like it was the most fun she'd ever had. She knew and I knew she was testing it and learning to trust.
"That's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," someone said.
They just didn't know how good this mare was. They'd never given her a chance to be good. I knew the trailer was not going to be easy, but I believed she would try.
"Can you guys back the trailer up to the pen and remove a section of rails?"
"Sure thing, Serena," one of them said.
Well, at least I was batting two horses and two cowboys.
While they were maneuvering the trailer, I increased the difficulty of the game, partly to keep her from noticing the object of her failure drawing near. I asked the mare to go with the loop, keeping her head in, wherever I moved—forward, backward, sideways, trot to halt, halt to trot. When she slipped out and ran off, I ignored her and kept doing figures with the ropes, tossing them against the fence and jumping into one of the loops myself.
She couldn't stand it and would come back for more. One time she pawed the ground a ways from me like bring that thing over here! I didn't budge. I watched her make the decision to seek that loop of rope. My arms got tired holding it. A stiff lariat would have been easier, but I wanted her to have a whole new experience that had nothing to do with the trailer and no reminders of what had happened to her in the past.
Everything was set. The open trailer fit in the space where there were no longer any rails. The roan and I played the game with her head in a big loop of lariat that I had never cinched down on her scarred neck. I went here and there in the round pen with her beside me, over to the trailer, backing away, going by the trailer right, going by the trailer left, sidestepping up to the opening. I stroked her and released her from the game from time to time. Then in one random moment when we passed by the open door, the mare's head loose inside the soft loop, I turned and walked into the trailer. And there she was, standing right with me. You could have heard a pin drop.
I handed the mare some hay from a net hanging inside the trailer, and then, with a motion of the soft loop, backed her right out, took the loop away, and sat down on the ground. She put her mouth on my hand where there was still the smell of oats. I thought, Okay, girl, let's blow their minds, and I put the loop up with her back to the open trailer. She put her head eagerly in the loop, and as I moved toward the opening, she backed herself right into the trailer. I was standing on the ramp. Her feet were completely in. She wasn't a large horse, and the trailer was extra wide, so I took a chance and walked up the ramp moving the loop to the right. She stayed with me and turned around inside the trailer, facing the front.
Excerpted from ALMOST PARADISE by Elizabeth Cain. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cain. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Elizabeth Cain’s novel, Almost Paradise, is filled with romance, drama, and suspense. Her characters come to life as their normal lives become anything but that. The story takes place on a guest ranch in Nevada over the span of a few years. Cain pulls the reader into the life-changing events that transpire in the novel. Various twists throughout the book has the reader wondering what will happen next. This is a very good story and will keep you entertained from beginning to end.