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Stephanie Ryder felt a telltale breeze puff against the skin of her chest. She glanced down to discover a button had popped on her stretch cotton blouse. The lace of her white bra and the curve of her breasts were clearly visible in the gap.
She crossed her arms to block the view, arching a mocking brow at the man silhouetted in the tack shed door. "You, Alec Creighton, are no gentleman."
Wearing a dress shirt, charcoal slacks and black loafers that were at odds with the rustic setting of a working horse stable, his gaze moved indolently from the wall of her forearm back to her eyes. "It took you twenty-four hours to figure that out?"
"Hardly," she scoffed. "But you keep reinforcing the impression."
He took a step forward. "Are you still mad?"
She swiftly redid the button and smoothed her blouse. "I was never mad."
Disappointed, yes. Wesley Harrison had been inches away from kissing her last night when Alec had interrupted them.
Wesley was a great guy. He was good-looking, smart and funny, and only a year younger than Stephanie. He'd been training at Ryder Equestrian Center since June, and he'd been flirting with her since they met.
"He's too young for you," said Alec.
"We're the same age." Practically.
The jut of Alec's brow questioned her honesty, but he didn't call her on it.
With his trim hair, square chin, slate-gray eyes and instructions to go through her equestrian business records with a fine-tooth comb, she should have found his presence intimidating. But Stephanie had spent most of her life handling two older brothers and countless unruly jumping horses. She wasn't about to get rattled by a hired corporate gun.
"Shouldn't you be working?" she asked.
"I need your help."
It was her turn to quirk a brow. Financial management was definitely not her forte. "With what?"
"Tour of the place."
She reached for the cordless phone on the workbench next to Rosie-Jo's tack. "No problem." She pressed speed dial three.
"What are you doing?"
The numbers bleeped swiftly in her ear. "Calling the stable manager."
Alec closed the distance between them. "Why?"
"To arrange for a tour."
He lifted the phone from her hand and pressed the off button. "You can give me a tour."
"I don't have time."
"You are still mad at me."
"No, I'm not."
She wasn't thrilled to have him here. Who would be? He'd be her houseguest for the next few days, and he was under orders from her brothers to streamline the family's corporation, Ryder International. She was a little worried, okay a lot worried, that he'd find fault with her management of the Ryder Equestrian Center.
Stephanie didn't skimp on quality, which meant she didn't skimp on cost, either. She was training world-class jumpers. And competing at that level demanded the best in everything; horses, feed, tack, trainers, vets and facilities. She was accustomed to defending her choices to her brothers. She wasn't crazy about defending them to a stranger.
"Are you proud of the place?" he asked.
"Absolutely," she answered without hesitation.
"Then show it to me," he challenged.
She hesitated, searching her mind for a dignified out.
He waited, the barest hint of a smirk twitching his mouth.
Finally she squared her shoulders, straightened to her full five foot five and met his gaze head-on. "You, Alec Creighton," she repeated, "are no gentleman."
The smile broadened, and he eased away, stepping to one side and gesturing to the tack shed door. "After you."
Stephanie waltzed past with her head held high.
It wasn't often a man talked her into a corner. She didn't much like it, but she might as well get this over with. She'd give him his tour, answer his questions, send him back to the ranch house office and get back to her regular routine.
She had an intermediate jumping class to teach this morning, her own training this afternoon and she needed to have the vet examine her Hanoverian mare, Rosie-Jo. Rosie had shied at a jump in practice yesterday, and Stephanie needed to make sure the horse didn't have any hidden injuries.
They headed down the dirt road alongside a hay barn, moving in the direction of the main stable and riding arena. She was tempted to lead him, expensive loafers and all, through the mud and manure around the treadmill pool.
It would serve him right.
"So, what exactly is it that you do?" she asked, resisting temptation.
She tipped her head to squint at his profile in the bright sunshine. Last night, she'd privately acknowledged that he was an incredibly good-looking man. He also carried himself well, squared shoulders, long stride, confident gait. "And what does that mean?"
"It means, that when people have trouble, they call me." He nodded to the low, white building, off by itself at the edge of Melody Meadow. "What's that?"
"Vet clinic. What kind of trouble?"
"Your kind of trouble. You have your own vet?"
"We do. You mean cash flow and too rapid corporate expansion?" That was the Ryder's corporate issue in a nutshell.
"And the other times?"
He didn't answer.
"Are you proud of it?" she goaded.
He gave a rueful smile as he shook his head.
She tilted her head to one side, going for ingenuous and hopeful. It usually worked on her brothers.
"Fine. Mostly I identify market sector expansion opportunities then analyze the financial and political framework of specific overseas economic regions."
"On behalf of privately held companies."
"The vet's name is Dr. Anderson," she offered.
Alec coughed out a chuckle.
"It sounds challenging," she admitted, turning her focus back to the road.
He shrugged. "You need to develop contacts. But once you learn the legislative framework of a given county, it applies to all sorts of situations."
"I suppose it would."
The breeze freshened, while horses whinnied as they passed a row of paddocks.
"Tell me about your job," Alec prompted.
"I teach horses to jump over things," she stated, not even attempting to dress it up.
There was a smile in his voice, but his tone was mild. "That sounds challenging."
"Not at all. You get them galloping really fast, point them at a jump and most of the time they figure it out."
"And if they don't?"
"Then they stop, and you keep going."
"Headfirst?" he asked.
She subconsciously rubbed the tender spot on the outside of her right thigh where she'd landed hard coming off Rosie-Jo yesterday. "Ouch is right."
The road tapered to a trail as they came up to the six-foot, white rail fence that surrounded the main riding arena. Alec paused to watch a group of young jumping students and their trainer on the far side.
Stephanie stopped beside him.
"I didn't mean to sound pretentious," he offered.
"I know." She had no doubt that he was accurately describing his job. Her brothers wouldn't have hired him if he wasn't a skilled and experienced professional.
Alec hooked his hand over the top fence rail and pivoted to face her. "So, are you going to tell me what you really do?"
Stephanie debated another sarcastic answer, but there was a frankness in his slate eyes that stopped her.
"I train horses," she told him. "I buy horses, sell horses, board them, breed them and train them." She shifted her gaze to the activities of the junior class. "And I jump them."
"I hear you're headed for the Olympics." His gaze was intent on her expression.
"The Olympics are a long way off. I'm focused on the Brighton competition for the moment."
As she spoke, Wesley appeared from behind the bleachers, leading Rockfire into the arena for a round of jumps. Even from this distance, she could appreciate his fresh-faced profile, lanky body and sunshine-blond hair.
His lips had been that close to hers.
She wondered if he'd try again.
"What about management?"
Stephanie blinked her focus back to Alec. "Hmm?"
"Management. I assume you also manage the stable operations?"
She nodded, her gaze creeping sideways for another glimpse of Wesley as he mounted his horse. This was his first year on the adult jumping circuit, and he was poised to make a splash. He grinned as he spoke to Tina, the junior class instructor, raking a spread hand through his full, tousled hair before putting on his helmet.
"Your boyfriend?" There was an edge to Alec's voice.
Stephanie turned guiltily, embarrassed that her attention had wandered.
Alec frowned at her, and the contrast between the two men was startling. One light, one dark. One carefree, one intense.
She shook her head. "No."
"Just a crush then?"
Alec dropped his hand from the rail as Wesley and Rockfire sailed over the first jump. "It's something."
She glared at him. "It's none of your business, is what it is."
He stared back for a silent minute.
His eyes were dark. His lips were parted. And a fissure of awareness suddenly sizzled through her.
It was Wesley she wanted.
"You're right," Alec conceded into the long silence. "It is none of my business."
None of his business, Alec reminded himself.
Back inside her house that evening, he found himself staring at Stephanie's likeness in a framed cover of Equine Earth magazine that was hanging on the living room wall. The fact that her silver-blue eyes seemed to hide enchanting secrets, that her unruly, auburn hair begged for a man's touch and that the light spray of freckles across her nose lent a sense of vulnerability to an otherwise flawless face, was none of his damn business.
The equestrian trophy in her hand, however, was his business, as was the fact that the Ryder name was sprayed across the cover of a nationally circulated magazine.
"That was at Carlton Shores," came her voice, its resonance sending a buzz of awareness up his spine.
"Two thousand and eight," she finished, coming up beside him.
He immediately caught the scent of fresh brewed coffee, and looked over to see two burgundy, stoneware mugs in her hands.
"You won," he stated unnecessarily.
She handed him one of the mugs. "You seem like a 'black' kind of a guy."
He couldn't help but smile at her accurate assessment. "Straight to the heart of the matter," he agreed.
"I take cream and sugar." She paused. "Dress it up as much as you can, I guess."
"Why does that not surprise me?"
She was in a business that was all pomp, glitz and show. Oh, she worked hard at it. There was no way she would have made it this far if she hadn't. But her division of Ryder International certainly wasn't the bedrock of the company's income stream.
He took a sip of the coffee. It was just the way he liked it, robust, without being sharp on the tongue.
She followed suit, and his gaze took a tour from her damp, freshly washed hair, pulled back in a sensible braid, to her clingy, white tank top and the pair of comfortable navy sweatpants that tapered down to incongruous lime-green socks.
"Nice," he observed.
She grinned, sticking a foot forward to show it off. "Royce brought them back for me from London. Apparently they're all the rage."
"You're making a fashion statement?"
"Everything else was in the laundry," she admitted. "I'm kind of lazy that way."
"Right. Lazy. That was the first thing I thought when I met you." It was nearly nine o'clock in the evening, and she'd only just stopped work to come in and shower for dinner.
"I'm going to assume that was sarcasm."
"The outfit works," he told her sincerely. Quite frankly, with her compact curves and toned muscles, she'd make a sackcloth work just fine.
She rolled her eyes. "Can I trust anything you say?"
Alec found himself captivated by the twinkle in her blue irises and the dark lips that contrasted with her creamy skin. She was charming and incredibly kissable, and he had to ruthlessly pull himself back to business.
"Are you aware that Ryder Equine Center has next to no income?" he asked, his blunt tone an admonishment of himself, not her.
When the sparkle vanished from her eyes, he told himself it was for the best.
"We make money," she asserted.
"A drop in the bucket compared to what you spend." Sure, they sold a few horses, boarded a few horses and took in tuition from students. And Stephanie had won some cash prizes in jumping competitions over the years. But the income didn't begin to compare with the massive expenditures necessary to run this kind of operation.
She gestured to the magazine cover. "And there's that."
"Nobody's disputing that you win."
"I mean the marketing value. That's the front cover of Equine Earth. It was a four page article. Check out the value of that on the open market."
"And how many potential lessees of Chicago office tower space do you suppose read Equine Earth magazine?"
"Plenty. Horse jumping is a sport of the rich and famous."
"Have you done an analysis of the demographics of the Equine Earth readership?"
Her lips compressed, and she set her coffee mug down on a table.
Alec regretted that she'd stopped smiling, but he forced himself to carry on. "I have no objection to assigning a value to marketing efforts—"
"Well thank you so much, oh guru of the framework for overseas economic regions."
"Hey, I'm trying to have a professional—"
The front door cracked sharply as it opened, and Alec instantly clamped his mouth shut. He turned to see Royce appear in the doorway, realizing how loud his and Stephanie's voices had risen.
But Royce's smile was easy, his nod friendly. Obviously they hadn't been overheard.
"Hey, Royce." Stephanie went to her brother, voice tone down, smile back in place.
Royce gave her a quick hug, then he turned his attention to Alec. "Am I interrupting something?"
"We were talking about my career," Stephanie chirped. "The publicity Ryder Equestrian Center brings to the entire corporation." She looked to Alec for confirmation.