Raphael "Rafe" Santiago may have left the streets years ago, but the street has never left him. A rough childhood in the Bronx taught him never to let his guard down, to keep everything in order, and always to trust that little voice in his gut that tells him when someone's got something to hide. horse trainer Elena Caulfield, is definitely hiding something, and Rafe intends to find out what it is and take care of it--his way.
But his way wasn't supposed to include feeling an intense attraction to the tomboyish Elena. With her mud-caked boots, quiet strength, and gentle manner, she's nothing like the flashy, seductive, overtly feminine women Rafe usually beds. The closer he gets to her, the harder it is to control that fiery passion he's worked hard to keep cooled, the kind that can catch a man off guard and leave him open to danger--because whatever secret Elena's protecting, it's big. . .and worth killing for. Because when you're from the Bronx, you take care of what you love--or die trying. . .
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The Black Sheep and the Hidden Beauty
By DONNA KAUFFMAN
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Donna Kauffman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe found himself watching her. Again.
Not his type. And yet, more and more often, Raphael Santiago was making excuses to leave his offices in the main house and wander down to the paddocks. He'd stroll the fence line. And watch her. He'd reasoned that it was his fascination with the horses, and yet he'd been on Dalton Downs property going on two years now, and it had only been in the past several months that he'd found them suddenly intriguing-a time frame that just happened to coincide with when she'd taken over as stable manager and head trainer.
He never lingered, never spoke to her. He'd wander on along, stopping by Kate's office, or head on down to Mac's place farther back on the property, if it was after work hours. Yet he missed very little.
She was graceful in movement, yet strong and controlled. Gentle in tone and demeanor, yet brooked no argument from the half-ton beasts she trained as easily as if they were puppies. She fascinated him, when she shouldn't.
She wasn't his type. Not even close.
He walked along the worn path to the outer barns, careful not to step in anything that would make him regret not changing out of his Italian, hand-tooled shoes, wondering what the hell he was doing. Given that he was headed toward the stables used by employees only, it wasn't to see Kate. Or Mac.
No, he was walking all the way out here because of another man. Not that he had any claim on her. They'd done nothing more than exchange the occasional nod. And it wasn't as if he kept tabs on her personal time, but Dalton Downs was private property, so he'd have noticed if she'd had regular company. And, to his knowledge, this was her first visitor since coming here. Which he gave less than a damn about. Or would have.
Except he'd been heading down to Kate's office, hoping to catch Mac about some questions on one of their case files, denying it was just another excuse to watch her, when the guy had shown up. She'd been surprised to see him, and, from what he could tell of her expression, not entirely happily so. In fact, she'd darted a gaze around, as if concerned to be seen talking to him.
She'd ended her training session with the horse immediately, a poor wretch of a thing she, Kate, and Mac had recently rescued, and handed him over to one of the help, before giving the newcomer a fast, tight hug. Next thing he knew, she was leading the older guy out to the employee barns, away from the hustle and bustle of Kate's teaching program. And, perhaps, the watching eyes of her coworkers.
Rafe certainly hadn't intended to follow them. What she did and with whom was her business. He had more than enough of his own to handle at the moment.
But something simply hadn't seemed right about that brief episode. That look on her face, perhaps, in that split second before she'd smiled and waved hello to her guest. Something. All he knew was that whatever that something was, it had made the hairs prickle along his neck. And the next thing he knew, he was picking his way along the path to the outer stables, trying not to ruin a pair of three-hundred-dollar shoes.
Mac would chalk it up to wanting sex. Kate would scold him for potentially disrupting her program. His mother would have a coronary if she knew he'd spent more then forty dollars for a pair of shoes.
But none of that mattered at the moment. Something wasn't right here. And if there was one thing Mac, Finn, and Rafe firmly believed in, it was following gut instinct. Maybe that was what had called to him about her all along. That, despite appearances to the contrary, something wasn't what it seemed with Elena Caulfield. It was almost a relief to have an actual reason for his otherwise unusual fascination with her.
She wasn't his type.
Not that she was particularly hard on the eyes. And he admired a woman who didn't mind getting her hands dirty. But from what he'd come to learn about her, she spent a good chunk of her day with at least some part of her person covered in mud or muck. Or worse. And didn't much seem to mind. She wore little or no makeup, as far as he could tell, and pulled her dark hair straight back in a simple, single braid that swung halfway to her ass. An ass even he couldn't make out in the baggy overalls she favored.
Long hair. That part was nice. And he'd have been lying if he said he hadn't spent at least a few minutes wondering what it would look like all loose and wavy. He was a man, after all. But it was clear she wasn't all that caught up in the more conventional rituals of being female, something Rafe unapologetically enjoyed in the women of his acquaintance. Tomboys had their appeal to some men, but he liked a woman who reveled in her femininity.
So his fascination had been something of a mystery to him.
Not any longer. It had merely been instinct that something was off.
Maybe now he was finally going to get the chance to figure out what that something was.
He slowed as he drew closer to the paddock. It was empty, so they'd already gone inside. He'd let them get a good head start so as not to be completely obvious. It was why he'd walked over rather than taking one of the Dalton golf carts.
He ducked through the fence, not wanting to swing the gate open and announce his arrival with a metal squeal. The big, sliding barn door had been shoved along the track just enough to allow a person to duck inside. He glanced back toward the main barns, but no one had followed him. In fact, a quick glance back at the stables and up to the house proved that no one was paying the least bit of attention to what was going on out here. So he moved closer to the edge of the door, careful not to let the sun cast his shadow across the opening. And listened.
"How you doing there, old girl? Elena taking good care of you?"
It was the man, and Rafe assumed he was talking to her horse.
"She's feeding well, not putting on too much weight." This from Elena. "So far, I think we're doing okay."
Her voice was low, soft, with a cadence that was naturally soothing. Rafe began to see how she seduced the headstrong animals she worked with into doing what she wanted. A man hears a voice like that, he might be inclined to do the same.
"That's good. Really good. I know how worried you are. Although, I have to be honest, Lenie. Given that concern, I'm still having a hard time understanding why you left-"
"Kenny, I know you worry, too, but I've explained my reasons the best I can. Besides, it's good here. She's doing great."
"She is. But what about you?"
"I'm-fine. It's a good job, I'm good at it, they seem happy with me, and it's the right place. For both of us. For now."
"But you're going back, right? Back to the track? Your dad would be so proud of all you've accomplished and you know he'd hate it if you gave up on your dream."
When she spoke again, her voice was a bit deeper, perhaps a bit tighter. With what emotion-anger, regret, or grief-Rafe couldn't be sure without seeing her expression.
"Right now the only thing that matters to me is making sure Springer has a foal that lives, and that she stays healthy before, during, and after. That's why I came to you. You're the closest thing to family I have. I trust you. But, as much as I appreciate you coming all the way out here, it would really be best if, from now on, as she gets closer, I brought her to you when the time is right. They're doing right by me here and I don't need or want to worry them with a problem horse."
"I know, honey, and I appreciate that. Just as I'm sure you're so overqualified, they're jumping for joy to have you. I'd imagine, though, given the work they do here, with those kids, the last thing they'd worry about is you taking care of what's yours. I saw that poor thing you were training when I got here. A charity case if I ever saw one-"
"That's something else I took on, for Kate. It's not my regular-"
"I know." His voice gentled. "I'm just saying, it's what they do here, they mend things. Animals. People. Souls and spirits. I guess ... I just worry that you need mending, is all. I never saw that in you. Always so sure of yourself. Then, after Geronimo and that horrible tragedy-"
"I was going to leave anyway, Kenny. Even if everything else hadn't happened. It-I wasn't going to advance there. I just ... I wasn't sure what my next step should be. Then I found out about Springer, and it all seemed like a giant signal to just step back, take some time. So I did. No regrets."
There was a long pause, then, "Okay. I just-if you needed to talk, about anything-"
"I know. And thank you. Just help me keep her okay and you'll be doing more for me than you could possibly know."
He chuckled then, and there was a rustle of clothing. A hug, perhaps. Without peeking around the door and giving himself away, Rafe couldn't be certain.
"I'd have been upset if you hadn't come to me," Kenny said a moment later. "But I'm available for more than vet care if you need the ear."
"Understood. And appreciated."
Their voices drew closer and Rafe realized they were heading his way. He'd been so caught up in the conversation and the information it was revealing, he hadn't exactly thought out his escape route.
Too late to duck away, so the only alternative was to stroll in as if that was his intention all along. He slid the door back a bit more, the resulting grind of metal on the metal tracks abruptly stopping the conversation inside.
The sun at his back made both Elena and Kenny shield their eyes as he stepped into the darker interior of the barn. They stopped walking as well, waiting for him to come further inside.
Elena spoke first. "Can I help you, Mr. Santiago?"
"Yes," he said, not having a clue what he was going to say until he said it. "And it's Rafe, please. I was-I'm interested in talking to you."
Her expression grew wary as she looked past him. Expecting to see what, or who, he wasn't sure. But he was too busy scrambling to come up with a reason for his sudden arrival to worry about that.
She wore the same denim overalls he'd always seen her in, with a faded yellow bandana tied loosely around her neck, and her boots caked in God-knew-what. She'd pushed up the long sleeves of her pale green tee, which was covered in the red, dusty clay that passed for dirt in most of Virginia. As he stepped closer, he noted that she had a fair share of dust on her forehead and chin, too, as if she'd dragged her dusty sleeve across them a time or two.
Not exactly an enticing picture ... and yet, standing closer like this, he found himself wondering how she'd clean up. All that riding she did, he'd bet there were some Class A legs inside those baggy overalls. She could probably do a pair of killer heels some justice, too, he thought, though from what he'd seen, he doubted she even owned a dress, much less heels.
"About?" she queried, making him realize he was staring.
His gaze found hers then. Brown eyes, he noted. Not the cute, puppy-dog kind. The old-soul kind. The kind that saw way more than made him comfortable.
Distinctly aware of the older man's attention focused on him as well, he was even less on top of his game than usual. He paused for a too-long second, then blurted out the only thing he could think of. "Riding lessons."
To her credit, she tried to maintain her professional demeanor, but he couldn't help but notice her quick scan of his attire, which, admittedly, was about as far from barn clothing as you could get without being in a tailored suit or tux. "You ... want riding lessons?"
"Yes," he said, trying to sound like he meant it. "I want riding lessons."
God help him.
Chapter TwoShe'd felt him watching her, earlier, when she'd been working with Bonder. It wasn't the first time, either. Far from it. He was steady about it, open. But in the two months she'd been at Dalton Downs, he'd never spoken to her or approached her. Considering he looked like six feet of raw sex dressed up in beautifully tailored clothes, she doubted very much it was lack of confidence on his part.
So, she couldn't quite figure out what it meant. She doubted it was any kind of personal interest. He wasn't the ruthlessly overgroomed type who took longer to get ready than most women, but the man knew how to dress. He somehow managed to be casually suave and rugged as hell all at the same time. If she cared about things like that, she'd have felt downright shabby whenever he was nearby, with her worn overalls, ancient boots, and shirts that rarely stayed clean ten minutes after she put them on.
He was too polished, too perfect, too ... everything to want a woman who spent her days reeking of horse sweat and barn muck. Which left a big question mark hanging over what the draw actually was. That very ambiguity should have unnerved her, at least a little, what with everything she had going on. But the truth was, his attention always left her feeling energized and aware, and not in a bad way. Just a way she had no business thinking about.
Not that it mattered. A woman would have to be dead not to respond to those dark eyes of his, the honey-colored skin, the thick, black head of hair, and that naturally broad-shouldered, tapered-waist-and-hips kind of physique. She, on the other hand, rarely commanded such attention. Her staring at him made sense, though she avoided the temptation at all costs. Being noticed and noticing others was definitely not high on her priority list here. Doing her job, providing a safe, quiet place for her and Springer-that was all that mattered.
He was also the only one of the three Trinity men who hadn't formerly spoken to her during her tenure here. Mac came by all the time and chatted her up on his way to see Kate. Nice guy, clearly devoted to her boss, and making a point to keep an eye out for his woman's interests. Elena respected that, and she liked the guy.
Finn Dalton owned the place, but you'd never know it. A bigger flirt she'd never met, but in that completely harmless way that made you laugh rather than feel awkward or threatened. He even chatted up the horses. But she'd also noted he knew everyone by name and made time as often as possible to talk with everyone from management to the part-time stall muckers. He was gone more often than not, but his presence on the property always livened things up and put everyone in a good mood.
Which left Raphael Santiago, the enigmatic but reserved third partner in the other enterprise operated on Dalton Downs property, one that, had she known of its existence, might have kept her from pursuing the job opening here. Ultimately, she was glad she hadn't, regardless of the heightened awareness it forced her to maintain. What she'd told Kenny was true. This was exactly the right place for her and Springer right now.
At least, until now.
"Lessons," she repeated, knowing she sounded less than sharp, but he'd so completely taken her off guard, it was surprising she was stringing her words together coherently.
"Lessons," he replied.
"So ... I should be getting back on the road," Kenny abruptly interjected. He put his beefy arm around her shoulder for a quick hug, which broke Elena's fixed stare and gave her a merciful second or two to get a grip. Up close and personal, the final partner of the "unholy" Trinity, as she'd heard Kate jokingly refer to them, was ... a lot. Of everything. Even his voice was a lot. Smooth, rich, with the barest hint of an accent. It was every bit as seductive as the rest of him, and no matter the reason for the attention, she, apparently, was far from immune to it. Horse sweat and barn muck be damned.
She jerked her gaze off of him and, instead, found a smile for the man who had been her father's closest friend, as she scrambled to regain her mental footing. "Thanks again for coming all the way out. I'll call you next week to set up a checkup schedule for our girl."
Kenny held her gaze steadily with his own and she did her best to return it without faltering. The man didn't miss much. Which bothered her as much as it reassured her. She needed him right now, more than he knew, but she couldn't risk bringing him in any more than she already had. She already had too much to worry about as it was.
Excerpted from The Black Sheep and the Hidden Beauty by DONNA KAUFFMAN Copyright © 2008 by Donna Kauffman. Excerpted by permission.
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