- Pub. Date:
Mateo Lopez, honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on medical leave, is struggling to rebuild his life. The spinal cord injury that left him feeling like a broken man resulted in his inability to ride the horses he loves and works with on Round Top Ranch.
The new horse trainer at the ranch, however, has decided that this isn’t acceptable. Claire Windsor, a spirited, London-born spitfire of a woman, has come to begin a new program to turn the horses into therapy animals. She turns Mateo’s world upside-down, and try as he might to avoid her, she keeps inserting herself into his life. As their plans for the ranch clash, so too do their hearts...making all things fair in love and war.
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As You Were, Cowboy 1
“BLOODY HELL, IT’S hot!” Claire Windsor exclaimed as she stepped into the bright Texas sunshine, out of the San Antonio airport. Where was the rain? The clouds? The damp? The heat pressed against her like a hot envelope. Stunning, really. She’d worn a coat when she boarded the tube to Heathrow, and now she was carrying that same coat over her arm. Even her long-sleeved shirt with its wide, floppy neck felt too heavy. This was far different from the Stafford that she was used to, or even London. Boarding the shuttle bus for the auto company that housed her rental car, she sighed in relief as the air-conditioning hit her full blast.
An hour later, she’d signed so many electronic documents she felt like she was purchasing the motor rather than renting it, but she also had possession of the keys for an adorable lime-green mini-coupe. Years of traveling through Europe made sliding into the left side of the vehicle to drive bearable.
Though she longed for a stiff cup of tea, Claire was eager to get to the farm—ranch, she amended mentally. They called them ranches in Texas. After inputting the address into the GPS, she got the motor started and turned the air conditioner up. Welcoming the cool air, she whipped off a text on her mobile. Her mother worried, even more than usual since Claire’s father had passed fifteen years ago.
Safe and sound in the US. Will ring once I’m settled.
Not wishing to think too long on her father—not today of all days—she put her sunglasses on and pulled out of the lot. The time for tears had been long ago. She’d run to her horses then, and they’d brought her this far. Her commitment to her work and the horses needed her attention, not her grief.
The drive took her out of the city and into open land—and there was so much of it. It was different from home, with the colors washed out in some areas and wildly vivid in others. The grass along the road edges was scorched yellow, reminding her of straw. Swaths of long grass, flaxen against the brown earth, were interspersed with clusters of wildflowers planted near intersections. The contrast of native wild and cultivated loveliness was breathtaking.
Arriving in Durango Point, she slid into one of the parking spots along the main street, studying the front of a pub. A brick and wood structure, it matched the rest of the town in all its rustic glory. The brick siding had weathered to a faded red, while the wooden frame arched above the covered sidewalk was more pewter than brown. The sign above the pub said DANCE HALL, and another advertised LIVE MUSIC ON WEDNESDAYS AND FRIDAYS, but the main doors stood wide open and people were seated at makeshift tables outside along the sidewalk. Desperate for the loo, she took her chances the interior was open for business as well.
Purse in hand, she made her way inside briskly before she melted. The temperature gauge in her motor might have said that Durango Point was cooler than San Antonio, but she was practically dripping inside her cotton blouse. A big bear of a man stood behind the bar, and he glanced at her when she entered.
“Good afternoon,” she said by way of greeting. “Could I trouble you to borrow the loo, and perhaps order a pot of tea?” Her cousins told her they could never find a proper cup of tea when they holidayed in the States, but she was willing to take the risk. Often as not when she traveled, if she could get someone to provide her with the boiling water she could do the rest.
The man scratched at his thick salt-and-pepper beard, his eyes assessing her even while his lips offered her the hint of a welcoming smile. “Restrooms are in the back and to the right—and I’ll put the water on for the tea.”
“God love you,” she said, then hurried to follow his directions. The facilities were clean and smelled of potpourri. After she’d emptied her strained bladder, she washed up. The cool water on her wrists helped bring down her temperature. Refreshed, she returned to the bar. Though more people seemed to be sitting outside than in, there were still a handful of customers settled at tables.
The man behind the bar slid a hot, steaming metal pot in front of her. It was rather small for a teapot, but she wouldn’t complain. He also set a mug and a wooden box next to it, opening up the box to reveal a dozen different kinds of tea.
“Would you like something to eat?” the man asked.
Choosing the closest thing to breakfast tea that she could find, she peeled the paper off the tea bag, then set it in the pot to steep. “Would it be a terrible imposition to ask for a cold sandwich?” Her body clock was a bit confused. She’d flown out in the morning, and it should be nearing late evening at home, but it was only teatime here.
“Not a problem,” the man said, nudging a menu toward her.
After glancing at the options, she smiled. “I’ll take the roast beef, please. Bread untoasted, if you don’t mind, and a definite yes to the horseradish.” She’d had no idea they would have such a lovely option.
“Sounds like you’re a long way from home,” he commented.
“I am. I’m on my way out to the Round Top Ranch.” She cast a smile toward him and extended her hand. “I’m Claire Windsor.”
“Sully,” he said, agreeable in his manner as his large hand engulfed hers. “Pleased to meet you. I’ll get that sandwich made.”
“Thank you so much—do you think I could also trouble you for a spot of milk?”
“Sure thing.” Sully grinned. “Gimme a sec.”
He disappeared into the back, returning in time for her to pour her tea into the mug. The milk in the small carafe was perfect. The tea wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. Pleased, she took a grateful sip. Sully made himself busy while she waited for her sandwich. The hum of quiet conversation wrapped around her. The air smelled of sawdust, sweat, perfume, and liquor, with a hint of grilled meats and chips. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine herself at home at the Knot and Plough. Or close to it, if she ignored the American accents.
The thirty minutes she spent at the dance hall proved to be life-saving. The tea acted like a tonic to her weariness, while the sandwich filled the hole in her stomach. She left a generous tip for Sully, promising to visit again after he offered her simpler directions out to the Round Top than the ones the GPS had given her. His involved a colorful use of landmarks, such as a field of cows and a broken tree. The milestones he’d named rather reminded her of Ireland.
Having successfully staved off her fatigue, she grew more eager with every passing mile of fence line. The gates to Round Top were definitely not those of a farm—these were topped by an arch, from which hung a sign bearing the ranch’s name, while a metal grating stretched across the opening, likely to deter animals from exiting. The gates themselves were over five feet in height, and wide enough for a large lorry to pass through unimpeded. There was a call-box station next to the closed gates. The house wasn’t visible from the road. All she could see was a pasture filled with fat, lazy cattle. She rolled down the window, grimacing as the outside heat flooded in, and touched a finger to the call button.
“Yes?” a woman’s cheerful voice greeted her after a long moment.
“Good afternoon,” Claire said, careful to direct her voice at the speaker. “I’m Claire Windsor, arriving at the invitation of Mr. Tanner Wilks.”
“The new trainer,” the woman replied, a thread of excitement in her voice. “I’m Maria. Mr. Tanner and Dr. Jules are at the barns, but we’ve been expecting you. Please come up, Ms. Windsor. Follow the drive, then go left where it forks. It will bring you right up to the house.”
The gate opened, and Claire followed Maria’s instructions. Driving slowly, she studied the surrounding land. Huge pastures, excellent four-board fencing—they did an incredible job of keeping it all in good shape. Beyond the cow pasture, she got her first look at grazing horses. The grass here appeared as yellow as she’d seen by the roads, a testament to the heat, she would imagine. Large round bales of hay sat in the fields for the horses, though, which meant they had plenty to eat.
Thick trees offered shade, as did the sheds that lay scattered throughout the pastures. Each field seemed to have at least one, sometimes two, which was ideal for letting animals get in and out of the weather if they desired. Slowing down, she drank in the sight of the horses.
Most were American breeds—quarter horses and a handful of Thoroughbreds. At a fork in the road, she spotted one of the barns. Recalling Maria’s instructions as well as the fact that Mr. Tanner and Dr. Jules were at the barn, Claire turned toward the broad building. Painted red with white trim, the building had stalls on either side—and, she would bet, a riding arena in the center. The cedar shingles on the roof were intact. Maria had invited her to the house, but she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to see the horses and get a glimpse inside the barn and training arena. If Tanner were at the barn, then she could meet him directly.
The more care she saw had gone into the buildings and fencing around the horses, the more faith Claire gained in Tanner Wilks. Loving animals meant seeing to every part of their upkeep—especially their shelter. Parking in front of the barn, she squinted at the huge windows. Most were open—allowing for natural light and ventilation.
Slipping off her shoes, she reached into the backseat for her boot bag. She’d brought three pairs: two pairs of riding boots, and one pair of paddock boots. Easing her seat back, she got her paddock boots on and laced them up. No matter how excited she was, she didn’t dare walk into a barn without the right footwear. It was safer for everyone involved—crushed toes hurt. As eager to make a good impression as she was to meet the horses, Claire double-checked her appearance in the rearview mirror.
She had worn her blond hair in a braid for the trip, more to tame the long mass than to prepare for a professional introduction. Thankfully, the wisps that had come loose during the flight looked more artful than messy. No cosmetics, which meant no smudges.
Once outside the car, she made a face at the heat. Even pushing up her shirtsleeves didn’t help. A breeze simply moved the hot air around her—a tease if ever there was one. At least when she stepped into the shade of the barn, the temperature seemed to drop a couple of degrees. The wind was still hot, but thankfully the brutal weight of the sun was off of her.
The stalls opened into their own paddocks, and several of the horses were inside dozing. She didn’t blame them—she’d rather be indoors napping herself. Hands clasped behind her back, she strolled slowly down the barn aisle. The sandy dirt floor had been raked, the tack and tools stored neatly on pegs. It was clear that a lot of love had gone into the care and keeping of these animals.
A horse nickered at her, and she stopped at its stall and ran her fingers down the chestnut’s nose. The card on the side of the stall read SUGAR. “Hello, Sugar,” Claire murmured. “Aren’t you a lovely girl?”
“She is,” a deep-timbered, masculine voice with a touch of a drawl said from down the aisle.
Turning, Claire squinted through the shade to find a large man moving toward her with a slow, purposeful gait. At around six foot two, with broad shoulders, the man had skin the color of teakwood, and long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat, much to her personal disappointment. Didn’t all cowboys?
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked. It was only when he paused in his walk that she caught sight of the way he held himself—stiff, as though the movement had cost him.
“I’m Claire Windsor,” she said, giving the mare one last stroke on her nose before heading toward the gentleman. Extending her hand, she grinned. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I can’t begin to say how excited I am to pursue the therapy project here at Round Top. I’ve brought everything I need, and I’m ready to get started. Have you already selected the horses you want me to evaluate for the training program?”
Though he’d gripped her hand, he stood frozen as she prattled on. Claire couldn’t contain her enthusiasm, however, and rushed to fill in the silence.
“I’ll be honest, the success we experienced in Stafford is nothing compared to what I imagine can be done here, and it’s such a tremendous opportunity. I’m chuffed just to be here.”
Releasing her hand abruptly, he studied her with a consternated frown.
“I know you explained the operation and the facilities to me, but I had no idea how much there was for me to work with. It’s going to be perfect. From the photos you sent, I think that the indoor arena is ideal for initial training—as I mentioned, bombproofing the horses is always the first step. Their absolute calm is paramount when working with PTSD patients in particular, and anyone with an injury—yourself, for example. Forgive me, I couldn’t help but notice the limp. Injuries can make it that much more difficult for men such as yourself to feel comfortable around large animals, so their calm can promote yours—not that I’m saying you have any issues. Just an example.”
Curling her fingers into her palms, Claire hesitated a moment. The man in front of her hadn’t moved, though his jaw had tightened and a muscle in his cheek began to jump. Having made a career of overcoming obstacles made not getting ahead of herself difficult.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilks. I think my mouth got away from me—not usually a problem. Though I admit, after the flight, arriving here is like fulfilling a promise I made to myself.” Brilliant: She’d gone from blathering to becoming maudlin. The last thing her employer wanted to hear was her sob story. “Anyway, I’m here.” It was a rather unimpressive finish to her introduction.
After a long pause, during which he scrutinized her, the man scowled. “Ms. . . . Windsor was it?”
She nodded slowly. There wasn’t an ounce of recognition in his eyes or his manner.
“I’m afraid you’ve made some mistake.” Nothing friendly inhabited his tone.
Claire’s stomach bottomed out, and her heart beat rapidly. Her father occasionally got that blank look and lack of intonation right before flying into one of his rages. She’d never known which was worse—the anger or the stupor that followed when he tried to drown his sorrows. The last thing she wanted to do was draw similarities between her father and her employer. Not when she wanted this to work so she could help more people like her dad.
“There’s no job, and you’re not going to be doing a damn thing with these horses. Do us all a favor—and get the hell out of here.”
Anger filled Mateo Lopez like hot shrapnel bursting with every word the gorgeous blonde issued in her cultured British accent. White-hot lances of pain radiated along his spine. All he’d done was move a few damn bales of hay, and it had left him sweating and gasping for breath. Accepting his limitations and giving in to weakness were not in his wheelhouse, although he’d elected to make the walk to his truck for the prescription the doctor insisted he fill. If he could avoid taking the pain pills he would. Now her.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, and he could practically feel the stiffness of her tone, as though a riding crop were delivering a fresh welt of pain across his back. “Mr. Wilks?”
“I’m not Tanner,” Mateo admitted. As grating as her pronouncement had been, his mother would tear a strip off his hide if he didn’t dispel the misunderstanding. “I’m Mateo Lopez, ranch manager.” Technically, he was the assistant ranch manager to his father. They split the ranch tasks between them. “I handle the trainers as well.”
He was the trainer.
The horses were his.
This . . . woman was not going to just walk in and take over like she owned the place.
“Please accept my apologies, Mr. Lopez. I thought you were Mr. Wilks.” Unease left her manner stilted, and a tiny frown line appeared between her cornflower-blue eyes, which gleamed with intensity even in the barn’s shade. Sugar nickered again and stomped her feet, disturbed by their nearness and likely offended by the lack of attention. The filly was lovely, and a diva in her awareness of it.
With a light cough to clear her throat, she recaptured his attention and continued, “If you could point me in Tanner’s direction, then I’ll excuse myself.”
“I have no problems excusing you, but the ranch is private property and, as I already stated, I oversee all the horses here. We don’t need a new trainer.” It went against the grain on every level. A spasm worked its way along his spine, and he gritted his teeth. Yes, Tanner had mentioned the potential plan—keyword potential. He hadn’t mentioned actually hiring anyone. Mateo attributed it to keeping the Colonel focused on his recovery. That was why, right?
“Mr. Lopez, I’m not sure what I’ve done to offend you, but my contract is with Mr. Wilks.” The stress of the word contract couldn’t be missed, nor could the way her chin lifted and her shoulders went back. Even her nose seemed a little higher, as though she physically held herself back from fighting with him.
“Lady, I don’t know what you think is going to happen, but no trainers touch these horses without my approval.” The horses were everything to him. There was no way Tanner was going to usurp his work to bring a Brit.
“I know exactly what is going to happen. I left a very lucrative and successful training program in Stafford to travel several thousand miles to make a dream come true. I apologize if I’ve offended you, but until Mr. Wilks decides to buy out my contract, I’m not going anywhere.” Stubborn defiance flashed in those willful eyes. Red flushed her cream complexion, which drew his attention to the scatter of freckles across her nose and upper cheeks. They contrasted against her sharp look, and he couldn’t look away.
“What you left or didn’t leave is not my concern,” he said through his teeth. The spasm in his back was continuing to lash at his spine like blazing hot barbed wire. The need to collapse weighed on him, but he refused to give in. Not when he faced an opponent in better physical condition than he. Even if she was overdressed for the heat. To give in to weakness in front of her would be to concede that he couldn’t do his job.
Despite the rigidity of her posture, she couldn’t disguise the concern flickering in her eyes. The last thing he wanted was her sympathy. Not when she stood there with clenched fists. “I’ll leave you to whatever it is you’re doing and seek Tanner out myself.”
Though she turned on her heel and began walking away, Mateo couldn’t just let Claire leave.
“You have no business wandering around the ranch by yourself.” Not dressed like she was—she’d get heatstroke. “The ranch covers several hundred acres, and that doesn’t include the outer pastures.”
Halting, she still held her hands clenched tight as she turned to face him. “Mr. Lopez, was it?”
A shiver of humor evaded the pain storming his system. There was something about the way she framed his name in her perfectly sensible, clipped accent. Melodic and insulting all at once.
“You can call me Mateo.” He managed a smile, though it required him to clench his teeth.
“I’d prefer to keep the address formal in order to stay professional.” The brilliant blue of her eyes turned positively frosty. “That being said, Mr. Lopez, I spoke to a Maria. She directed me to the house, and I chose to stop at the barn on my way there. My mistake. I won’t continue to trouble you.”
The fingers of agony digging into his spine began to twist, and Mateo braced a hand against the door to the stall. White-knuckling, he managed to stay on his feet. A man appeared in the entry to the barn, backlit by the late-day sun, the hat on his head giving away his identity.
“Miss Windsor,” Tanner called as he strode down the aisle. “Maria told me you were here. Was on the way to the house when I saw the car outside.”
Shit. Mateo wanted to curse. Bad enough the foreigner was here. His best friend confirming her story, though—that made it all the worse.
“Mr. Wilks?” Claire’s tone held notes of trepidation and suspicion in equal measure.
“Tanner,” he said, his voice insistent as he extended a hand to grip hers in a handshake. “You’re early.”
“I am.” The sudden relief in her voice made Mateo want to kick himself all over again. “I’m so happy to make your acquaintance in person, Tanner. Please, do call me Claire.”
“Great,” Tanner said, shooting a glance at Mateo. “I see you’ve met our ranch manager. He’s our resident trainer here, so you two are going to be working together.”
“What?” Mateo said, not bothering to disguise his shock or irritation even as Claire echoed the same syllable with disappointment.
Splitting his attention between Claire and Mateo, Tanner narrowed his eyes. “Claire, if you could give Mateo and me a minute, and head on up to the house—Jules is there waiting to meet you, along with my father.”
Mateo said nothing as Claire nodded.
“Of course,” she said, then glanced at him. Mateo wanted to straighten under her scrutiny, but he didn’t think it was possible.
“Oh, and Claire,” Tanner said, spinning to face her and blocking Mateo’s view of her face. “If the Colonel gives you any guff, just nod and say, ‘Yes, sir.’ He tends to be grumpy after a doctor’s visit.”
“Jolly good.” She smiled, her tone considerably lighter and filled with her earlier cheerfulness. She nodded to both men before leaving the barn.
Tanner waited a beat after she disappeared, and both men heard the sound of a car door closing, followed by that of the motor turning over. Mateo leaned on the door, taking advantage of Tanner’s distraction to appreciate a brief rest. As soon as the other man began to turn back toward him, he straightened.
Taking off his hat, Tanner raked his fingers through his hair. Though it was still cut short, the retired captain had let it grow to just a quarter of an inch below regulation. If he wasn’t careful, he’d finally look more like a cowboy and less like a Marine. “You need to sit down,” he said, taking notice of Mateo’s discomfort.
“I’m fine.” Long before they were Marines, Mateo and Tanner had been the best of friends. They’d grown up together. Hell, Mateo had grown up with all the Wilks children, but he’d been closest to Tanner in age and temperament.
“You’re not fucking fine,” Tanner said, taking his arm. Even the light grip sent a burst of fresh pain through his system, but Mateo steeled himself against showing a reaction. “You’re pale, your breathing is ragged, and if Jules were here, I’d let her kick your ass.”
Tanner’s new wife had been the large-animal vet for Round Top and the surrounding region for nearly a year before he’d come home. She’d taken one look at Mateo and read him like a book. Though she was a veterinarian, she understood the type of spinal cord damage he’d taken and the nerve pain he suffered from.
Not arguing with Tanner, Mateo let him help him to one of the tack boxes. Sitting down slowly, he let out a long sigh. The only difference in his pain level was he didn’t have to fight to stay on his feet. Mateo was readying an apology when Tanner dropped to sit on the tack box across from him.
The late-afternoon quiet of the barn, as the horses dozed, waiting for their evening feed, returned. British invasion aside, Mateo had been having a decent day.
“Save the apologies. You were pissed I hired a trainer and didn’t tell you about it.” Tanner cut right to the heart of the matter, and Mateo braced his palms against the tack box. He wanted to adjust his balance, take the pressure off his sciatic nerve. Distracting himself from the stabbing sensation in his back, he met Tanner’s blunt gaze.
“Captain, it’s your ranch.” Admitting it grated on his nerves.
“Nice, fine, let me stew in my own juices.” A hint of a smile softened the statement. “It’s not just my ranch—it’s your home, and I’m not replacing you.”
“Kind of feels like it.” Although, he had to admit to himself, Round Top belonged to the Wilkses. It didn’t matter that it was also Mateo’s home—he was just another employee.
“Well, I’m not, so get your head out of your ass for five minutes.” Sympathy time was over. Rising from his seat, Tanner pinned him with a stern look. “Round Top is making changes across the board, and not just regarding how we’re raising the cattle.” They’d always been grass-fed, but by unanimous agreement among Tanner, Jules, and the Colonel they’d eliminated any remaining hormone and antibiotic protocols. They might lose some cattle here and there, but overall they’d be raising a better quality of beef.
Mateo agreed with their decision on that one. “I get that. You and the Colonel have been working really well together.” Which was saying something. The Colonel’s word was law on the ranch. The old man’s cardiac issues had led to Tanner accepting a discharge from the Marines and returning home. It hadn’t been all bad news: Tanner and Jules hooking up made for a happier ranch all around.
“Dad and I are trying. It’s not always easy. He’s set in his ways and I’m determined to make the changes we need. I’m lucky, I’ve got Jules on my side—and I need you to be, too. With Dad and with Claire Windsor.” Blunt and to the point, Tanner raised his eyebrows in challenge.
“Never said I wasn’t on your side.” Resentment scored along his ravaged spine. “I’m doing the best damn job I can.”
“I know you are. We talked about this. We talked about the changes, and about bringing in new people—”
“But another trainer?” The complaint slipped free and he grimaced. “I’m damn good with the horses.”
“Yes, you are, and she’s a specialist. We’re all going to be learning from her.”
Learning. Mateo frowned and met Tanner’s sober gaze. He was absolutely serious. Unfortunately, Mateo didn’t have an excuse for his behavior other than that he didn’t want the woman there. It wasn’t her fault she was there. Madre de Dios, if Mama had been the one to come down here instead of Tanner. Maria would have had his head on a plate.
“Look, Mateo. You’re always going to have a job here, and I don’t know anyone better with horses.” Tanner raised his hand to stop Mateo from speaking. “You know the breeding charts for every barn; you can tell me the pros and cons of matching any mare to one of the stallions; you gentle the foals, and they take their first halters as if they’d been born to it.”
Mateo knew he shouldn’t let Tanner’s compliments go to his head—but they still bolstered his ego. That he needed the encouragement in the first place, however, did bug him. “Thanks.”
Tanner resumed his seat on the tack box. “I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. I really do appreciate what you do. None of us could get along without you.”
“But?” Appreciation only went so far, and Tanner wouldn’t be having this conversation just to offer solace to Mateo’s wounded ego.
“But Jules had a solid idea and she’s done a lot of research. She looped me in, and I agreed with her—more now that I understand the benefits of it.” All of which made sense: Tanner and Jules were well matched. Before the former captain had returned to the ranch, Mateo wouldn’t have named them an ideal couple, but after? Yeah, the pair had been made for each other. “I sold the idea to the Colonel, and he’s on board.”
“You have my attention.” No one bullied the Colonel into doing anything he didn’t want to do.
“Do I?” Tanner questioned, his tone arresting Mateo’s knee-jerk, smart-ass response. “I’ve tried to talk to you about it before, but you never seemed interested in really listening.”
Had he blown Tanner off? Some days were worse than others, and sometimes it was easier for Mateo to just keep his own company rather than burden his friends or family. Blowing out a breath, he spread his hands. He owed Tanner his attention and more. “I’m listening now. I promise. Tell me?”
“Claire Windsor specializes in training horses as therapy animals.” Leaning forward, Tanner rested his elbows on his knees and turned his hat around in his hands. “She’s been working out of a barn in Stafford, England. They’ve had tremendous results with wounded soldiers, particularly Royal Marines, and some sailors returning from the Middle East. Their animal program was originally aimed at autistic kids, but she saw other applications as well. The psychologists who studied those in treatment for PTSD saw improvement in every single case where a participant was paired with a therapy horse.”
Mateo grunted. “I’ve heard of therapy dogs.”
“Right?” Tanner got to his feet again and began pacing as though he had too much energy to contain while he spoke. “Dogs as service and therapy animals are pretty common, so what could a horse offer versus a dog? That was my first question.”
“Horses can’t exactly travel with you in the car or into town,” said Mateo. He scratched at his jaw, aware of the prickly stubble along his cheeks. He needed a shave. A perk of a service dog he thought to himself, was that most airlines, restaurants, and businesses would allow a service dog to enter. Even the most reasonable couldn’t be asked to accommodate a horse.
“Exactly, but here’s what the research shows.” Tanner went back to spinning his hat in his hands, clearly comfortable with the topic of conversation. Even his shoulders had relaxed. Whatever investigation he’d done set him at ease. “Remember how you once told me that if you’re afraid, the horse is going to respond to that?”
“Yeah, horses are very sensitive to emotions and they react accordingly.” Another reason he kept a lid on his pain levels and did his damnedest to keep his temper in check. “Anxious people create skittish horses. Calm folks can keep even the hottest horse calm.”
“Exactly.” Tanner grinned, then dropped his hat on the tack box. “Claire’s program takes it a step further. She helps teach the horse how to respond to the anxious person and calm them down . . . and help the depressed person gain some energy. Based on everything I’ve seen and reviewed, her work has phenomenal results, and I want to see her based out of Round Top. I want her to train our horses so we can, in turn, donate them to programs for injured vets, and maybe even open the ranch up to bringing them here for quality time with therapy horses.”
Mateo turned the plan over in his head. It had solid merit, and he could see why Tanner was excited. “The Duchess of Cambridge is the only one you could find who can do the work?” Could he train a horse to respond to a person’s anxiety with soothing calmness? Mateo wasn’t sure.
“Her name is Claire,” Tanner said, his tone even and making it clear he would brook no arguments. “And you’re going to be working with her. I need you to be her assistant and her guide. You know the horses, she knows how to train them, and I think we’ll all benefit if you can have a front-row seat to her efforts.”
Son of a bitch.
“I need this favor, Mateo. I know you’ve got shit going on—but the Colonel and I are still working on the financial restructure and if I’m not right there . . . well, hell, you know what he’s like.”
Yeah, he did. The Colonel had refused to slow down after he’d had his second heart attack. He’d courted a third one about six months earlier. Tanner and Jules had rushed him to the hospital, and since then he seemed to have gotten through his head that he needed to take it easy. No matter how much Mateo hated the idea of the British trainer, he couldn’t leave Tanner hanging either.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, and he could have sworn he heard the jaws of a trap closing in on him. Shaking off the image, he pushed to his feet and kept his teeth gritted against a new surge of pain. He needed to get back to his place and take his meds. After, when he could think around the white-hot daggers in his spine, he’d figure out the rest.
“You’re the man,” Tanner said, extending his hand.
Gripping his friend’s hand, Mateo fought to give him a grin. “Remind me of that after I eat boot leather and apologize to her.”
He’d been in the wrong. He’d own it.
“C’mon, I’ll walk you out. Don’t worry about evening feed,” Tanner said as he grabbed his hat. “Jules and I are going out later, so I’ll swing by and get them all turned out.”
Before Mateo could protest, Tanner added, “I insist. You took care of all the morning feeding. I gotta make sure I pull my weight.”
Forcing a chuckle even though he felt not a shred of humor, Mateo nodded. “All yours, boss. I’ll just go binge-watch something British to get in the mood.”
Tanner laughed, but he didn’t respond. Neither one of them needed to hold hands and skip, even if this had been the first real disagreement they’d had since Tanner had come home.
At his truck, Mateo opened the door and made a show of going to the back to check on something, allowing Tanner to climb into his own truck and pull away. As soon as Tanner was out of sight, Mateo sagged against his vehicle. He wasn’t sure he could even climb into the driver’s seat. Getting his breathing under control, he stretched his back slowly. It cracked and popped, but the radiant discomfort lancing out from his spine remained unrelieved.
It was ten minutes before he managed to get himself into the truck. Grabbing a bandanna off the passenger seat, he mopped the sweat from his face. Working with a gorgeous lady while he was hunched over in agony was not his idea of a good time. He had to get his pain under control.
The faster she got her work done, the sooner she’d be gone.
Getting the engine started, he put the truck in gear. An image of the elegant blonde flashed across his mind’s eye. From her delicate, pale skin to her cool blue eyes, Claire Windsor was a woman who could heat a man’s blood. Working with her would be a torment on every level.
The problem with finding her attractive, besides not wanting her on the ranch? His body wouldn’t respond, even if his mind could appreciate her.
He’d almost made it to the guesthouse he called home when his phone rang. Seeing his mother’s name, he answered immediately.
“Mateo Antonio, you told Miss Windsor she wasn’t welcome on Round Top?”
Aww, hell. The Brit had ratted him out to his mother.
That was definitely strike two in his book.
Strike one she’d earned by showing up in the first place.