Lily St. George dreams of marriage and a family of her own. But as a temporary kindergarten teacher, she can't get too attached to anyone in Oaks Crossing. When a student brings in her single father for show-and-tell, Lily is drawn to charming cowboy Mike Kinley. Working overtime to save his struggling horse farm, Mike claims to have no room in his life for love. But when they team up to start a riding school for children at his ranch, Lily knows she'll have to help Mike see their partnership is meant to be permanent.
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Mike Kinley hated weddings.
Maybe hate was a little strong, he amended as he guided a team of perfectly matched bays into the shade of a nearby oak tree. Setting the carriage's brake with his boot, he glanced over at the gazebo where a photographer was taking shots of the bride and groom he'd just delivered. Poor kids, Mike thought with a grimace. They had no idea what they were in for.
Then again, neither had he. He'd done everything in his power to make Dana happy, and where did that get him? Divorced and wishing he'd listened to his head instead of his heart. Now he was thirty years old and working seven days a week desperately trying to hold up his end of a faltering family business. If they couldn't come up with a way to bring in more cashand soontheir shaky bottom line would crater to a depth they wouldn't be able to recover from. They'd be forced to sell the place that generations of Kinleys had worked so hard to build up from a scenic bluegrass meadow to the well-respected Gallimore Stables. He and his brothers would be hunting for jobs, and his mother would lose the home she cherished so much. While Mike couldn't deny that weddings brought in some much-needed revenue, they sure were tough on his nerves.
And seeing as it was early May in Kentucky, wedding season had only begun.
Hoping to get himself back to his usual even keel, he jumped down and took a small tackle box from the well where he rested his feet when he was driving. Taking out a soft cloth and brush, he began rubbing the horses down, talking as much to entertain himself as them.
"There's my girl, Penny," he cooed in a quiet voice. "We'll get you shined up, and then it's your turn, Ginger. Folks'll want to pet you later on, so you've gotta be looking your best."
Breaking his own strict rule about not feeding the horses, he slipped a hand into the pocket of the elegant morning coat his sister forced him to wear for these gigs and brought out a few sugar cubes for each of them. After they slurped down their treats, he ran his hands down their legs in a practiced motion, lifting their hooves to make sure no gravel from the estate's pathways had gotten wedged into their shoes.
Satisfied that everything was okay, he stood between them and patted their outside shoulders. "Lookin' good, ladies."
In unison, the beautiful mares tossed their heads and whinnied back at him. Behind him, he heard a woman laugh. Careful not to startle the horses, he slowly turned to find a slender bridesmaid coming down the wide steps that led out to the gardens from one of the three reception halls. Wearing a pale blue dress that looked as if it was made of spun sugar, she seemed right at home in her elegant surroundings. A few curls had escaped her elaborate hairdo, framing a pair of sparkling eyes that were nearly the same color as her dress. His poetic reaction to her was totally unlike him, and he sternly reminded himself to keep things professional.
"If I didn't know better," she commented in a melodic drawl, "I'd think they understood what you said to them."
"Oh, they did. They're female, so they can never get enough compliments." Even to his ears, that came across as jaded, and he tried to soften the impact by extending his hand. "Mike Kinley, carriage driver."
After a moment, she gave him a shy smile and shook his hand. "Lily St. George, runaway bridesmaid."
That was a new one, he mused with more than a little curiosity. Normally, he wouldn't even think of asking her to explain. But he had at least an hour to kill while he waited for his passengers, and although he thought horses made great companions, they weren't much in the conversation department. "Mind if I ask why?"
"My younger sister is the bride, which is wonderful." Pausing, she frowned. "The groom is my ex-boyfriend."
"Not so wonderful." When she sighed and nodded, the sadness that came into her eyes brought back some of the mood he'd been trying to shed. Thanks to Dana, he knew how it felt to be cast aside and then discover how easily you'd been replaced. So, even though he knew it was probably something he'd end up regretting, he offered her a solution. "The ceremony's over, right? You could just leave."
"My whole family's in there, so I can't do that. What would everyone think?"
That it was cruel to ask you to be part of your ex's wedding party? Catching himself before he insulted this sweet stranger, he searched for a way to lift her spirits. He noticed her eyeing the horses, and inspiration hit. "Would you like a tour of the grounds?"
"In the carriage?" When he nodded, her eyes rounded with excitement. "I'd love to, but are you sure it's okay? I mean, you're working another wedding."
"We're waiting for them to finish their pictures," he replied with a nod toward the large group, "and the horses get antsy when they stand still for too long. We were headed out for a walk and some water, anyway."
Technically, that was true, even if he hadn't been planning to go just yet. For this time of year, the day wasn't all that warm, so he figured the extra circuit wouldn't do the horses any harm. While he didn't normally put himself out for wedding guests this way, the delight shining in Lily's eyes told him he'd made the right decision to make an exception for her.
As he prepared to hand her up into the tufted velvet passenger section of the carriage, she hesitated for some reason. "Is something wrong?"
Casting a longing look at the padded driver's seat, she turned those stunning baby blues on him. "Could I ride up front with you?"
"Most folks like the royal treatment."
A flicker of disapproval flashed across her face, and she firmly shook her head. "Not me. Besides, if I sit in back, we can't talk to each other."
That had been part of his plan, Mike admitted to himself reluctantly. Harsh experience had taught him not to trust anyoneespecially anyone femaletoo easily. His tried-and-true strategy was to keep people at a safe distance until he could be sure they were who they seemed to be. Because of that, he didn't have a lot of friends, and the ones with the integrity and fortitude to get through his defenses were there to stay.
"I'm not much of a talker," he hedged, hoping to dissuade her without being outright rude.
"That's okay," she replied brightly. "I am. And I'd love to sit up near the horses, if they won't mind."
Her concern for the mares' preference settled it for him. Anyone who considered the feelings of animals was on the way to being all right in his book. "Let's ask 'em. Whattya think, girls?"
Right on cue, Penny nodded her approval while Ginger let out a muted whinny. Laughing, his passenger said, "I think they like me."
Who wouldn't? Mike nearly blurted. Firmly shoving the errant thought aside, he bowed the way his sister insisted he do and politely handed Lily up to the wide bench driver's seat. Then he circled around the carriage and settled in beside her. As he picked up the reins, it occurred to him that he probably wasn't the first guy to go out of his way for her. "Just so I don't end up in trouble, are you here with anyone?"
"No." The light in her eyes dimmed, but she quickly recovered and gave him what was obviously a determined smile. "I'm alone."
Her resigned tone made him want to do something about that, and he cautioned himself not to follow that crazy impulse. Romantic nonsense, he reasoned, brought on by the tenth wedding he'd worked in the past month. Even a pragmatist like him could take only so much sentiment before he was tempted to ignore his better judgment and join in the insanity.
In the interest of keeping things between them as light as possible, he gave her a quick grin. "Not anymore. The Marbury Estate is one of the oldest in Kentucky whose original main house and grounds are still intact. What would you like to see first?"
"You heard her, girls." He clucked to the gleaming mares. "Let's get a move on."
As they started off in an easy trot, Lily said, "When they move, it's like brown silk floating over the ground. They're so beautiful."
A woman after his own heart, he realized with a mental sigh. This little tour was either the best idea he'd ever had, or the worst. Then again, afterward they'd part ways and never see each other again, so he figured there was no harm in being nice.
"So," he began in his best conversational tone, "where are you from?"
For some reason, she held back for a moment, then seemed to decide it was all right to share her hometown with him. "Louisville."
After that, she looked around the manicured park, at the horses, the stately oaks arching overhead, anywhere but at him. He couldn't imagine what all the avoidance was about, but he reminded himself that women were complex creatures no man in his right mind would even pretend to understand. The runaway bridesmaid had a right to her secrets, especially since her personal history was absolutely none of his business.
Looping onto a path that wound through the rose garden, he switched to a lighter topic. "What do you do?"
Immediately, her mood brightened, and the smile that lit her face nearly knocked him sideways. "Actually, I just got my first teaching job. I'll be filling in for a kindergarten teacher for the rest of the school year while she's out on maternity leave."
"Hope it goes well for you."
"So do I," Lily agreed in a tentative voice. "It's my first assignment since getting my degree, and I have to admit I'm a little nervous about taking over a class this way. Young kids get really attached to their teachers, and I'm hoping they'll give me a chance."
Mike couldn't picture anyone not taking to Lily right out of the gate, but he opted not to mention that. "You're bigger than them. How tough can they be?"
"You have no idea."
He wasn't quite sure what to say, and he searched his limited social repertoire for some encouraging words. When he recalled how Mom used to handle the passel of kids always roaming around the farm, he offered, "If things get too bad, you can always bribe 'em with cookies. Works with me, too."
What had possessed him to add that last comment? This pretty teacher couldn't care less about whether he enjoyed snacks or not. Fortunately, either she didn't notice his misstep, or she was incredibly forgiving.
"Cookies," she echoed with a little grin. "I'll keep that in mind. Do you have any other suggestions for me?"
He answered with the kind of laugh that was pretty rare for him these days. "Not hardly."
"But you know children like cookies. That's a start."
"Everyone does," he said, giving her a sidelong glance as he guided the team around a sweeping curve in the path.
She rewarded his uncharacteristic helpfulness with the most incredible smile he'd ever seen in his life. As he felt himself returning the friendly gesture, inwardly Mike groaned.
It was a good thing she lived in Louisville. His gut was usually bang on about people, and it was telling him that Lily St. George had the potential to cause him no end of trouble.
Calling Mike Kinley an interesting man would be the understatement of the year.
To Lily's great relief, he hadn't reacted to her name the way most people did when she first met them. That was just the way she wanted it, since she despised having to be pleasant to people who were clearly more interested in her wealthy, connected family than in her. She couldn't recall how many times supposed friends had asked her for an introduction at one of the many companies her family owned, only to ditch her once they had what they wanted. Finally, in college she'd had the opportunity to start over with a fresh batch of friends who had no clue about her privileged background. She'd confided the truth to a select few, but only after she was confident they'd bonded with her and not her family's money.
Mike took her on a leisurely tour of the estate's breathtaking grounds, and she gradually relaxed as they chatted off and on about nothing in particular. While he concentrated on the horses, she took advantage of the opportunity to study him more closely. Being female, she couldn't help admiring what she saw.
Any man would look dapper in the crisp white shirt and gray morning suit, but there was more to his appearance than that. Sun-streaked brown hair brushed his starched collar, telling her he spent a lot of time outdoors. His white gloves rested on the seat between them, and she saw that his large hands were calloused from plenty of hard work. The easy, confident way he held the reins spoke of a lifetime spent around horses.
And then there were his eyes. A unique mix of blue and gray, they focused on her more directly than most people's did, as if he was listening intently to her. She didn't think she was being particularly entertaining, which made his attention even more flattering. Unlike most men she knew who went out of their way to compliment her appearance, this outdoorsy carriage driver actually seemed interested in what she had to say. It was a refreshing change.
As if that wasn't enough, he seemed to know everything about the antebellum estate, patiently answering her questions and pointing out various historical spots spread throughout the sprawling grounds. The house itself had been around since the early 1800s, surviving the ravages of the Civil War by serving as a headquarters for both Union and Confederate commanders. The well-tended gardens were breathtaking, filled with brilliant colors and bracketed by what looked to be miles of immaculately trimmed boxwood.
It was the ideal spot for a wedding, and she could understand why Natalie had chosen it. The husband she'd chosen to share that day with was another matter altogether, but Lily reminded herself it wasn't her place to question the decisions her younger sister made.
Now that the wedding was over, Lily's only job was to support the new couple.
Unfortunately, her less-than-stellar experience with Chad made her fear that the freshly minted Mrs. Wellington was going to need all the love and understanding she could get.
"This is such a pretty spot," Lily commented while they drove beneath a grove of oaks draped in Spanish moss. Nearby stood the mansion with its wide front steps, where her sister's photographer had snapped dozens of pictures for the wedding album. "I wonder how many people have been married here over the years."
His tone struck her as being overly polite, and she laughed. "Sorry about that. You must have heard that about a million times."
"A few," he repeated with a wry grin. Pulling gently on the reins, he stopped the horses near a small creek that wound its way through the picturesque clearing in the trees. "If you don't mind stopping here for a few minutes, the girls could use a drink."
"I don't mind a bit. Would it be all right if I pet them while they're drinking?"
He climbed down and gave her a dubious once-over. "You want to handle horses dressed like that?"
"Trust meyour horses are a lot cleaner than the best man's toast was."
Mike laughed, then held up a hand for her to take. The old-fashioned gesture seemed ideally suited to this fairy-tale setting, and she felt like a princess when she landed on the ground beside him. Her heels sank into the soft soil, and rather than ruin the dyed satin shoes, she stepped out of them onto the velvety grass.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mia Ross is the queen of small town inspirational romances for me. I love her characters and her places. Her Small-Town Cowboy definitely delivered on the fun characters, but it fell just a tad short on the small town itself. Lily and Mike meet in a very unexpected way. It had me chuckling to see them interact for the first time - and what they both thought was the only time. Both are surpised to find each other again when she begins to substitute teach for his daughter. His daugher was such a charmer. She was everything I could have wanted from her character. The perfect little mix of mischievousness and sweetheart. And she's determined to keep Lily in her life somehow. Now this isn't a case of a little girl getting two people to fall in love. What I liked best was that she was just one of the forces pulling Lily and Mike together. There were so many more, and was mixed very well. But....yes, the dreaded but....the town just didn't shine in a way that I've come to expect from Mia Ross. The other people in the town were fun, especially the school kids, but I wanted to see more of the places and sights.
Her Small-Town Romance is sweet story of overcoming your fears with God's help and of accepting that you are the person God made you to be. Dog lovers will like the part a St. Bernard named Teeny plays in getting handsome Bryan Sheffield and lonely Jade Emerson together. I enjoyed this book featuring another of the Sheffield siblings and recommend it to others. I won my copy of Her Small-Town Romance by Jill Kemerer in a giveaway.
Oaks Crossing is a new series from Mia Ross and I love it! Her Small-Town Cowboy is the story of Lily, a teacher, and Mike, a horse trainer and single dad. Lily has stepped away from her wealthy family to begin her teaching career in a small community. Mike is raising his daughter, Abby, with the help of his mom and large family on the family's horse farm. He returned to the farm after his dad's death and has taken over operations but the farm is failing. Lily becomes Abby's kindergarten teacher. Lily decides to learn to ride at the farm and also helps come up with the idea of starting a riding school at the farm. She is awesome at working with kids and animals. This makes her a great partner with Mike who excels at working with animals. Mike has been emotionally hurt by Dana, his ex-wife, who walked away from the marriage when Abby was a baby. Mike needs to work on forgiving Dana and trusting Lily to not hurt him. Great story with kids, horses, and love that I had trouble putting down. I can't wait to read more books in the Oaks Crossing series!