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Daniel Colton swept the brush over Rider's black coat, comforted by the scent of animal hide, manure and fresh-cut Bermuda. With every swish of the horse's full black tail, hay dust sparkled in the air, reflecting the afternoon sunlight streaming through the open door of the Lucky C breeding barn.
This was home and there was nowhere else Daniel would rather be.
"Are you about done brushing Rider? Halo's practically champing at the bit to get outside for her afternoon run."
Daniel lifted his head and stared over the black quarter horse stud's back at the woman on the other side. She was brushing the beautiful palomino mare, one of Daniel's many successes in his quarter-horse-breeding program at the Lucky C Ranch.
His chest tightened and his breath caught. It wasn't the horse he couldn't take his gaze off. It was the halo effect the sun gave Megan Talbot's strawberry blond hair. The palomino's registered name was Angel's Golden Halo, but the woman deserved the moniker more than the animal. For the first time in the four months since Megan had come to work for him, she'd worn her hair loose. Normally those long, curly locks were twisted into a braid, pulled back from a face sprinkled lightly with freckles. Some would call them flaws in her pale complexion, but Daniel found each freckle adorable and hard to resist.
A light breeze blew through the door, lifting Megan's hair, making it dance in the sunshine. The horse shifted nervously and Megan patted her backside. "Shh. We'll leave soon." She turned and smiled at Daniel with her bright green eyes. "Ready to saddle up? I don't know if Halo can wait any longer. She's more hyper than usual."
Daniel jerked his attention back to his horse, reminding himself that he was the boss, Megan worked for him and he had no business staring at her hair or any other part of her perfectly shaped face or lithe, athletic body.
"Let's saddle these two." He was ready to get out of the barn and gallop across the pastures of his father's ranch. Working around the animals, training, feeding and riding, he was more at home than at the big house with the rest of the Coltons.
Big J Colton was the patriarch of the Oklahoma Coltons and the owner of the Lucky C Ranch. As his bastard child, Daniel had grown up with his half brothers and half sister, accepted by everyone except his stepmother, Abra Colton. Because of her antagonism toward him and the fact that Big J had taken in a child who wasn't hers, Daniel had never felt he quite fit in with the others.
Megan was first to the tack room. When she emerged, she carried a blanket. "Is Greta back from Oklahoma City?" she asked.
"Not that I've heard. Why do you ask?"
With a shrug, Megan threw the blanket over the mare's back and followed Colton into the tack room. "I thought I saw her earlier. I might have been seeing things. With a wedding to plan, I doubt she has time to go back and forth between Tulsa and Oklahoma City often."
Daniel snorted. He grabbed his saddle and a blanket and squeezed by Megan in the confines of the barn. The scent of strawberries wafted in his direction from Megan's hair hanging down around her shoulders. Why did she have to be so darned beautiful? If she wasn't also so efficient and helpful, he might reconsider her employment at the ranch. She was a distraction and growing more distracting every day. "Don't know what takes so long in planning a wedding. All you need is a bride, a groom, a preacher and a ring."
Megan laughed as she lifted her own saddle. "I'm with you. If you know you love someone, why all the fuss, anyway? Married is married whether you have a big wedding or stand in front of a justice of the peace, say I do, sign the papers and call it done."
Daniel chuckled. "And I thought all women were romantics."
Megan's pretty coral lips twisted. "I think it's just me. My parents tried to convince me to earn an M-R-S degree, but I was too busy studying genetics and cell biology to be interested in the boys on the UCLA campus."
Her brows rose. "You know. Mrs. someone." She shook her head. "They wanted me to marry well, be a social butterfly on the arm of my husband and stop playing in yucky stuff like parasites, tissues, and horse and cattle semen." Megan tossed her saddle up onto the mare's back with little effort.
Strong and beautiful, and she knew what she wanted out of life. In Daniel's mind, that was a killer combination. Why waste brains and talent by making her some man's arm candy?
He threw the blanket on Rider's back, followed by the saddle. "Didn't you grow up on a ranch? You know your way around horses like you've been doing this all your life."
Megan reached beneath the horse to grab Halo's girth, threaded the strap through the ring and tightened it. "My parents own a nice spread in California," she answered, pulling hard. "But they didn't let me work with the animals. I was barely allowed to ride. They were afraid those big ol' horses would hurt little ol' me." She laughed, the sound brightening Daniel's day.
Daniel frowned at how he'd grown used to the sound and looked forward to it. As he cinched Rider's girth and looped the leather strap, he concentrated on sticking to facts, not emotions. "You're an excellent rider."
"I didn't get that way because of my parents, but more in spite of them. What they didn't know was that I'd go to my room, saying I wanted to read for a while. Once there, I'd slip out the window, climb down a tree and race off to the pasture. Because I didn't want to get caught, I rode bareback and without a bridle."
An image of a gangly young woman with long strawberry blond hair riding bareback across the hills of California flashed in Daniel's mind. "No bridle? How did you get the horses to go the way you wanted?"
Megan lowered the stirrup and patted Halo's neck. "They could feel the pressure of my legs and responded accordingly. I also bribed them with apples and sugar cubes."
"I'm impressed." Daniel adjusted his stirrup and slipped the bridle over Rider's head. "Your parents didn't know what they were missing. You're very good with the horses."
"They didn't need the help with their horse-breeding program. We had a staff that managed the animals on the ranch." Megan sighed. "I'd love dearly to bring my horses out here someday."
"Why don't you?"
"My parents haven't forgiven me for moving to Oklahoma. Every time I speak with them on the phone, they ask me when I'm moving back. Remember last month, when I went home because my father was sick?"
Daniel nodded. She'd been gone an entire week, and he'd missed her more than he cared to admit. "You could have brought your horses back with you then. We have room here on the Lucky C for them."
Megan gave an unladylike snort. "Don't you think I would have if I could have?" She shook her head. "My father is using them as leverage, threatening to sell them if I don't move back to California."
Daniel shot a glance her way. "And are you?"
Megan blinked. "Am I what?"
"Moving back to California?"
She laughed. "Oh, heavens, no. I love it out here. I love my parents, but they stifle me. I've been calling my father's bluff about selling the horses. I hope he has a change of heart and lets me have them. Besides, I have no desire to live their lifestyle. It's not me."
Grabbing his stallion's reins, Daniel asked, "And what lifestyle is that?"
Megan's mouth twisted. "Servants to do everything for you, smiling at people you don't know at social events you don't really care about. Wearing skirts, heels and makeup all the time. Never getting your hands dirty or breaking a nail."
Daniel studied her fresh, makeup-free, freckled face. With her light red eyebrows and blond-tipped eyelashes, she was beautiful just the way she was. He wouldn't change a thing.
Tearing his gaze away from her, he led Rider out of the barn. He walked away from the woman who was far too often in his thoughts both at work and at night when he lay in bed, trying to sleep through a growing hunger that had nothing to do with food.
Behind him, he heard the sound of hooves pawing the ground and then thumping against the hard-packed dirt.
"Whoa, Halo," Megan said, her voice tight.
Daniel glanced over his shoulder.
Halo, normally calm and gentle, reared, her front hooves pawing at the air.
Daniel took a step back into the barn, his hand still holding Rider's reins.
Megan held on to Halo's bridle, talking softly, soothingly. When the horse came back down on all four hooves, Megan chuckled shakily. "You really are raring to go, aren't you?"
"Need a hand?" Daniel asked.
Her mouth firming, Megan frowned. "I don't need your help. I'm perfectly capable of handling Halo."
A smile tugging his lips, Daniel led Rider out of the barn. "Touchy, are we?"
"I'm not fragile like my father and mother seem to think. Haven't I proven that?" she demanded.
"Absolutely," he said, unable to fight the grin spreading across his face. "If you didn't look so good in your jeans, I'd mistake you for one of the guys."
Megan's frown deepened for a moment, then cleared. Her lips quirked upward along with her brows. "You like the way I look in jeans?"
Daniel was saved from responding by Halo rearing again, jerking Megan up off her feet for a second.
"We'd better get going before Halo takes off without you." Daniel jammed his boot in the stirrup and mounted Rider. He had to remind himself Megan was his employee. He couldn't flirt with the staff. It wasn't right. He leaned down and opened the gate to the pasture, rode through and waited for Megan.
She stuck her boot in the stirrup, but before she could sling her leg over the top of the saddle, Halo spun.
Megan held on, managing to get her leg over the top. "I don't know what's got her riled, but she's not acting right."
"You want to take another horse?"
"No," Megan grunted, fighting to control the horse and aim her toward the open gate. "She needs to get out and run."
Daniel waited for Megan and Halo to pass through before he closed the gate.
Megan released one hand from the reins to pull her hair behind her and tuck it into the back of her shirt. "I should have braided this"
Before she finished her sentence, Halo reared, tossed her head and yanked the reins from Megan's hands. Before Megan could reach out to retrieve them, Halo leaped forward and bolted across the pasture.
Daniel dug his heels into Rider's flanks and raced after her, his pulse pounding as fast as the horse's hooves. At the speed Halo was going, all it would take was a quick change of direction or halt and Megan would be thrown.
Rider's hooves thundered across the ground. Daniel leaned forward to decrease wind resistance, slapping the reins behind him against the horse's hindquarters, urging him faster.
The stallion's eagerness to be first in the race would have made him move faster even without Daniel's bidding.
Halo had a good head start, but Rider slowly closed the gap.
Megan held on, bending over the horse's neck in an attempt to grab her bridle, without success.
As Daniel rode up beside her, pressing Rider against Halo's side, he yelled, "Grab on!" Reaching out, he looped his arm around Megan's waist.
She grabbed around his neck and held on as he lifted her out of the saddle and slammed her hard against his chest.
His legs clamping tight around the horse, Daniel adjusted his balance for Megan's weight and pulled on the reins. "Whoa, Rider."
The horse strained against the command, determined to catch up and overtake Halo.
His grip loosening around Megan's waist, Daniel's breath caught and held. If he didn't get Rider under control soon, he'd drop her and she could be crushed beneath the horse's powerful hooves.
Megan clung to Daniel.
Rider had been just as spooked by Halo's behavior as she had been. In his mad dash to catch up to the other horse, he was ignoring Daniel's one-handed attempt to bring him under control.
She was deadweight on Daniel. If she could get her leg around to the back
Swinging her leg behind her, she couldn't quite reach the back without Daniel losing his grip on her. The front was closer and had a better angle.
"Whoa!" Daniel yelled at the crazed horse.
Megan made the decision to go for the front. She looped her leg over the saddle horn and straddled Daniel's lap, facing him.
Daniel immediately released her and reached around her to take the reins in both hands.
Trying to make herself as small as possible, Megan pressed her face into his chest so that he could see over her. Daniel's thighs tensed beneath her as he dug his heels into the stirrups and pulled back hard on the reins. Rider slowed, whinnying his protest, as he settled into an agitated trot.
Daniel let off on the reins just a little.
Rider took that as an invitation to leap forward. He was instantly brought back by a sharp tug on the reins.
The horse reared.
Daniel leaned forward, his chest pressing into Megan's, his breath stirring the loose hair at her temples.
Her pulse hammered in her veins, but she kept her cool and held on until Rider stamped to a complete stop, pawing at the dirt.
When she was certain Daniel had the horse settled, she lifted her head, her face inches from Daniel's. Adrenaline spiking through her system, her breaths coming in ragged gasps, she was hyperaware of every point of contact between her body and his, from her legs resting on his muscular thighs to her chest pressed against the hardened planes of his. She could barely breathe.
His arms still around her, holding on to the reins, Daniel breathed out a long sigh. "You had me scared."
Megan let go of a nervous laugh. "You? I could do nothing to stop her. That was stupid of me to let go of the reins." The wind lifted her hair and blew it across her face. Before she could shove it behind her ear, Daniel reached out and did it for her.
"You couldn't have known Halo was going to take off like she did." Daniel's fingers curled the hair behind her ear, and he dragged the backs of his knuckles across her face, tracing a line from her ear to her jaw. "Watching her fly off like that with you on her back the reins dangling."
Mesmerized by his gentle touch, Megan couldn't move away, nor did she want to. Daniel had never made a pass at her, nor had he indicated any attraction toward her in the four months she'd worked for him. Oh, but she'd been attracted to him from the day they met, when she'd interviewed for the job of his assistant.
Now, with her heart racing for an entirely different reason, her breath lodged in her throat and held as she waited for him to make the next move.
Daniel's gaze shifted to her mouth. He cupped her cheek, and his thumb brushed across her lips. "You don't need makeup."
"My mother would disagree. She hates my freckles," Megan whispered, her breath mingling with his.
"I think they are one of your best features." He leaned forward and touched her freckled nose with his lips.