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"All right, horse. We can do this the hard way or the easy way."
Amber Brooks stared at the animal in question, a tiny window placed high in the wall giving her a perfect view of the brown horse as it cocked its head in her direction. The look it gave her clearly indicated disdain.
"Okay, the hard way." Her hands tightened around the nylon strap someone had told her was a halteralthough she had no idea how it worked.
"Just go play with a horse," she murmured under her breath, mimicking the camp director. "You'll do fine."
As if handling an animal as big as a bookcase would be "easy." What if it bolted out of the stall? Or charged in her direction? Or, God forbid, tried to bite her?
"Nice horsey horsey," she said. The animal's black mane seemed more of a dark gray in the stall's ambient lightlike the color of a snake. She shivered.
Her feet felt heavy in the thick bed of pine shavings. "I'm not going to hurt you."
She stopped by its head and looked down at the halter. Now what? Obviously, the smaller hole went around the horse's nose. Or maybe its ear? But there was only one hole and so that didn't make sense. Nose, she decided.
A soft breath wafted across her crotch.
"Whoa," she cried, jumping back. "We don't know each other well enough for you to be doing that."
Amber turned in surprise to see John Wayne standing outside the stall.
Well, okay, it wasn't really John Wayne, but it sure was a cowboy. Black hat. Checkered beige shirt. Cool blue eyes.
"He's just trying to get to know you," the man said, his deep baritone splashed with a Southern accent. "He doesn't mean anything by it."
Easy for the cowboy to say. Amber couldn't take her eyes off her unexpected visitor. He was gorgeous. A hunk-o-hunk of burning love, as her friend Rachel would say. And just what was it about cowboys? They all looked the same. Five o'clock shadows. Square jaws. The smell of outdoors clinging to them. Was it part of the cowboy genome?
"I don't mean to be rude," she said. "But do I know you?"
He shook his head. "Colton Sheridan. I was hired on Thursday."
Just as she'd been, Amber thought. Well, she didn't get hired on Thursday, but she was new to Camp Cowboy, too.
"Gil sent me in here to help you out," he said.
Gil. The camp director. Gil and Buck had been looking for some additional help since the moment they'd realized their enrollment numbers were nearly triple what they'd been the previous year. Buck was off buying more horses, which left Gil in charge. Not many horses in the heart of San Francisco, but that's where the camp was. Amber once again marveled at their locationsmack-dab in the middle of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Step outside the barn and the high-rises were clearly visible in the distance.
"Nice to meet you, Colton, but I'd rather tackle this on my own."
That's what she was supposed to be doing: learning about horses. She'd come to Camp Cowboy committed to the idea of becoming a hippotherapist. Therapy was her thing. She specialized in speech therapy now, but she'd heard of some remarkable breakthroughs when children were exposed to horses. She might not like the animals, but she would get over that.
Anything for Dee.
She turned back to the horse. Its name was Flash, or so she'd read outside the stall. She hoped that didn't mean it'd trample her in a flash.
"It goes the other way," he told her when she held up the halter.
Oh, yeah. That was right. She'd been told that by Jarrod, the man who was supposed to mentor her through the process. He'd shown her how to halter a horse yesterday. Obviously, she hadn't been paying attention too well. She flipped the thing around.
"Not that way," Colton said with a small shake of his handsome head. She hated overly attractive men. They always made her feel so
"The hole goes over the nose," he added. "The long strap buckles behind the horse's ears."
"Right." she murmured.
"Here." The stall gate, which was on rollers, whooshed open like supermarket doors. "I'll do it for you."
"No, no," she said quickly, her feet bogged down in wood chips once again. He was tall. That was another thing she didn't like. Tall men intimidated the hell out of her. Jarrod, the registered hippotherapist she was working with, was short and blond. She could deal with short and blond.
She could deal with this, too. "I can do it."
She heard the stall door close with a bang just the same, and the sound startled Flash.
What followed was not Amber's proudest moment.
She shrieked; the horse turned away from her. The back end of the animal bashed into the wall with a boom, sending dust and debris down from the rafters. Her feet became entangled in the wood chips again. She started to fall
He kept her from going down with a hand against her shoulder.
"Sorry about that," he told her. "I didn't think it would close so easily."
You idiot, she wanted to say. But he wasn't paying attention to her, anyway. Flash was now dancing around the stall as if Amber was a monster.
"Don't move," Colton told her. "Easy there."
Easy? There was nothing easy about this horse. The iron-shod animal had to be at least six feet tall.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I don't mean to sound panicked, but shouldn't we get out of here while the getting's good?"
He appeared to be sizing her up. "We'll be fine," he said, stepping toward the horse.
Over her shoulder, she could see that the brown beast was back to eyeing her nervously. Its swishing tail sounded like a jump rope in motion.
"No offense," she said, "but are you sure you're qualified to give direction to nonhorsey people?" After all, it was his fault the animal was acting up.
She saw Colton's eyebrows rise. They were a little too thick for her taste. "I've spent a lot of time on ranches."
"And I've spent a lot of time in a city. Doesn't mean I know how to teach people to drive."
One side of his mouth lifted in a cowboy smilewhich was more of a smirk. "Point taken. I've ridden horses my entire life. I'm comfortable sharing what I know."
"In that case," she said. "I'm really glad to meet you, Colton. I'm Amber Brooks."
"Colt," he quickly corrected. "And I know. You're an intern here. You're learning to become a hippo-therapist."
"I'm actually one of the camp's speech therapists, too. Hippotherapy is just something I'm hoping to study while I'm here."
He was giving her that look again. The one that made her want to wiggle like a worm on a hook. "Don't take this wrong, but you sure you want to work with horses?"
She turned toward Flash, releasing a sigh. How to explain her life? How to explain about Dee, the nephew she loved so much? How to explain the situation with Dee's dad? That Sharron was dead, and that Dee's father was in jail
because he'd killed her sister. Not intentionally, but just about.
"It's complicated," she said.
And she shouldn't explain, anyway. The fact was Dee had been enrolled in Camp Cowboy this season, and the only one who knew that was the camp director, Gil. Amber planned to keep it that way, too.
"Try me," he said.
She shook her head. "No, seriously, it's not worth getting into. I just want to learn about horses. Hip-potherapy intrigues me."
And there he went, staring at her again. It was the oddest sort of look. As if he was trying to peel back the rind of a pomegranate, to get to the ruby-red seeds beneath. "You don't look like any kind of therapist," he mused.
"That's because I left my thick-framed glasses in my room."
He smirked again. "So you mind me asking why someone who doesn't know a thing about horses, and who doesn't want to become a hippotherapist, is trying to put a halter on one?"
She had to turn away.
"I'm an equine intern. That means I'll be lending a hand with the kids throughout the next few weeks. That means working with horses, obviously, so I need to get used to them. The horses, I mean."
She sneezed before she could stop herself. The horse's head popped up, and she braced herself for impact.
Flash returned to nuzzling the ground, apparently intrigued with something it found there. Ah. Food.
"Should I bother it while it's eating?"
"Nope. Horses are always looking for something to munch. If you wait for him to stop, you'll be standing there all day."
Damn, but his accent was really Southern. "If you say so." She gave Flash the same look she used when dealing with a petulant child. "Horse, prepare to be haltered."
Colt almost laughed. Almost.
He hadn't laughed in years, or so it seemed. Not since.well, a lifetime ago.
"Easy there," said the woman he'd been told was the most dishonest piece of work this side of the Mississippi.
Standing in a beam of sunlight, she looked like an angel. One of those made-in-Taiwan Christmas tree toppers, the kind with masses and masses of fake blond ringlets. Except her hair was real. He took in the bloom of color across her cheeks. Her tipped up nose. Plump lower lip.
"What?" she asked, turning toward him. "Am I doing something wrong?"
"No," he said. Get a grip, Colt. You've seen beautiful women before. "Just walk on up to him. Trust me, he knows what you want to do."
She didn't look like a criminal.
But Logan, his best friend, swore up and down that she'd stolen his son. Hidden the boyher nephewaway in some kind of boarding school, and she wouldn't tell Logan where he was. Didn't have to tell him because she had full custody of the child, thanks to Logan's brush with the law and her sister's death. From what Colt knew of her, she was a deceitful city dweller with the morals of a snake.
And so Colt had built up an idea of what Amber Brooks would look likeand this wasn't it.
She was just about to put the halter on the horse when she sneezed again. The gelding started; Amber darted away. "Okay, that does it," she said. "I'll never make it as an intern if this keeps up."
"You can't back off now," he said. "The horse will think he's won."
It might have been a few years since he'd worked his father's ranch, and he might have been young back then, but when you were dealing with animals, you wanted to be in control.
"I'm scared," she admitted. "Seriously, I think I should wait for Jarrod. He's the person I'm interning with, and when he helped me out yesterday, I wasn't half as scared."
"That's because he was standing right behind you," Colt said, moving up next to her and urging her forward with his hand. "And I can, too."
She was short, no more than five-three, with enough curves to fill a road map. But his buddy had warned him that Amber Brooks was a real piece of work. He'd known Logan since high school and was inclined to believe his friend. She might look heaven sent, but she was no angel.
"Here," he said. Damn it. "It goes like this." He demonstrated how to hold the halter, how to put the horse's nose in first, than how to slip the crown piece through the brass buckle. "See?"
"Oh, yeah, that's right," she said. "I remember now. It's like the harness that people use for bondage."
"Not that I'm into bondage or anything!" she quickly exclaimed, and if he read her body language right, she couldn't believe she'd said the words. "I did a paper on fetishes when I was working on my masters."
So. She was highly educated. Probably thought she was better than everyone else.
"Thanks," she said, wry amusement on her face. "Honestly, I feel like an idiot."
"You'll do fine next time," he found himself saying. "Let's go."
"Where?" she asked.
"I was told to help you saddle up the horse. That you were wanting to learn how to ride."
"Ride?" she repeated, her blue eyes suddenly huge. "Oh, Iuh."