The Centaur's Bride
Taking a deep breath, Renee ventured into the barn, hoping she'd find the hot cowboy she'd spotted earlier. She peered down the length of stalls, refamiliarizing herself with a layout she faintly remembered from childhood. The stalls to the right were simple, chain-link cubicles, while the ones to the left were enclosed in solid wood. The empty barn echoed, the sweet scent of warm hay and dust permeating the air. A bare-bones wooden stairway climbed into the hay loft, while several bales of straw formed a more solid looking stairway of their own at the other end of the building.
What if he's not here? Or worse, what if he's already involved with that Lori chick? She clutched what little confidence she had left tightly within her and ventured into the barn's cool, dim interior. "Hello?"
The man in the cowboy hat appeared from behind the straw stairway, now wearing a dark, form-fitting tee shirt. What a shame. At least his shoulders and biceps stretched the fabric in all the right places. An arrow of sweat darkened the shirt’s neckline, pointing down between his sculpted pecs.
He strolled toward her, well-worn cowboy boots scuffing against the hay-strewn floor, each step sending quivers through her core. He had a strong jaw dusted with five o'clock shadow, dusky blond hair curled slightly over his ears, strong, straight nose, and sensual lips. Under his mahogany gaze, the place between her legs felt anxious, hot, and undeniably wet.
"You must be the new owner." His voice was as low and sexy as she’d imagined.
If she wanted to beat Steph at dibs, she'd need to play like Steph. Say something sexy. But all she could think of was riding a cowboy. Totally inappropriate. Instead, she smiled and stuck out a hand. "Howdy partner!"
Howdy partner? Really? That was the best she could come up with? She shook her head and said a small prayer that her blush was invisible in the dim light of the barn. He accepted her handshake, his large, work-calloused grip firm but in no way uncomfortable. In fact, the contact sent a delightful shiver up her arm as she imagined that hand touching other parts of her skin.
She cleared her throat and tried again. "My name's Renee. What's yours?"
A tiny smile twitched at one corner of his mouth, and she was drawn into his warm brown gaze. "Black."
"Black? That's your first name?"
"Yep." His gaze flicked down to their still-clasped hands.
She scrambled for a Steph-like quip to keep the ball rolling. "Let me guess. Black Beauty?” Oh, God, what was she doing? A little girl’s book? Come on, Renee. “No, too girly. Black Jack? No, that's a pirate.” Bad to worse… “Oh, wait, Black Stallion!" Her blush built to an almost intolerable heat, and she was dying to cover her face with both hands. Then she realized she was still clutching his hand. She jerked free, trying to stand tall when all she wanted to do was cringe.
The twitch at the corner of his mouth rose to a full smile. "Close. Black Stevens."
Before he could say more, Lori emerged from one of the wood stalls behind him. The tall woman clapped a hand to his shoulder, but not with what Renee would call affection. More like possessiveness. "I see you've met our ranch-hand. Black here's been assigned to show you around."
Rats. He was taken. It figured that the one time Renee'd claimed dibs on a hot guy, she'd choose one who was already hitched.
Shrugging off Lori's grip, Black scowled and turned to look at her. "You and I need to talk about that."
"You can always go back to mucking out stalls." Lori's smile was tight.
Renee held both palms out. There was some serious tension going on, and she did not want to get in the middle of it. "Hey, I don't want to interrupt a lover's quarrel. I can come back later."
Black let out a rough laugh. "Lori and I are not, and never will be, lovers."
The tall woman's haughty expression confirmed his words. Whatever was going on between these two had nothing to do with sex. Unsure what to make of things, Renee looked around to find a new subject. "I don't suppose Cookies is still here? Grandfather used to keep a pony for me."
Lori laughed. "No Cookies for you, my dear." She shot a strange glance toward Black. "I’ll arrange to saddle our stallion, Saul for you."
Black seemed to stiffen. "Saddle Saul? What's Saul think of that?"
With a disdainful look, Lori moved past him toward Renee. "He's eager to please."
Black turned as she walked by. Cleared his throat. Shifted to address Renee. "A stallion might be a bit much for you."
"Nonsense." Lori flicked a hand dismissively, sending lazy dust motes into a swirling frenzy. "She's Toliman's granddaughter. I mean, look at her. She's got the curve-less physique of a jockey. Plus, I hear she and her friend are thrill-seekers. Saul's going to love her."
Tension permeated the barn, loaded with a subtext Renee couldn't fathom. Steph loved the hype of thrill-seeking for her paparazzi, but in truth, the things Steph did scared the bejesus out of Renee. Riding a stallion sounded like it might be right up there with swimming in a shark cage. Besides, Grandfather had died riding a horse, and she was nowhere near as skilled as he'd been. "Er, I haven't been on a horse since I was eight."
Black grabbed Renee's arm and turned her firmly toward one of the stalls open to the pasture. "Why don't I show you around before you decide anything? Let's save the riding for later, when it's not so hot." He shot a look over his shoulder but didn't slow down. "We have a new foal. She was just born a few days ago."
"Sounds good," Renee said breathlessly, dodging a drying pile of manure.
"Let me know how you enjoy riding!" Lori's voice floated after them, followed by a laugh.
Now that they were away from Lori, Renee tilted her head to check out Black’s jeans-covered ass. Not too baggy, not too full. Nice. She trailed her gaze up his broad back to the sexy muss of hair peeking from beneath his cowboy hat. Were all cowboy hats called Stetsons, or was that a specific brand?
A loose rock twisted under her foot, causing her to lurch forward. He spun and caught her by both arms before she fell. Ohh, quick andstrong. She smiled coyly up into his face, pleased at the startled blink he gave her before he looked away. See, this Steph thing's not so hard. Well, as long as no talking was required…
"Careful," he said. "These rocks seem to appear out of nowhere." He turned and continued walking, no longer holding Renee's arm. Shucks. She closed her eyes and inhaled the lingering scent of him. Sweet hay and leather and sexy, sexy man.
Opening her eyes again, she was abashed to see him looking at her from a few steps away, near the mare. A smirk tweaked his sensual lips. "This is Millie."
The mare cocked her ears toward Renee curiously.
Cheeks burning, Renee straightened her spine and held out a hand to the horse as if to shake. "Good to meet you, Millie. I'm Renee." There, that was cute, right? The beast bobbed her head as if in greeting, and Renee giggled and curtsied back, pleased by Black’s approving smile. "So polite!"
"Millie, Renee's the new owner of the ranch, and she'd like to meet Ivy-Jane if you don't mind."
The tiny foal peeked out from behind its mom's hindquarters, nose too big for her body and dainty feet ringed with stripes. Renee let out a gust of air. "Oh, my, God, she's adorable."
The foal startled back into hiding. Momma horse flicked her tail and turned around to continue grazing, as if shrugging in acquiescence.
Black crouched and leaned forward, offering one hand toward where the foal had disappeared. "It's okay, Ivy-Jane. Come meet the human."
Renee admired his wide chest as he stretched his arm. "I like how you talk to them."
He rose without looking at her. "It's about respect, that's all. Isn't it, Millie?" He scratched the mare's neck where her dark mane emerged. "And with the little ones, you need to allow them to come to you. They can sense who to trust."
The foal peeked at them again, this time from around the mare's front end, dark ears back. Renee averted her eyes, keeping focus on Black. Not difficult to do. The muscles in his forearm rippled as he scratched the mare, and the tiny gold hairs on his skin caught the sun. Remembering how he'd stretched a teasing hand out to the foal while he was working on the sprinkler box, Renee held her palm up and wiggled her fingers at the foal.
To her delight, the little creature approached to sniff, velvet muzzle brushing the backs of Renee's fingers.
"Seems you pass muster." Black watched with a hooded gaze and easy smile. Damn, he had a sexy smile.
"How old are they when you start breaking them?"
Millie nickered and swished her tail, sending the little foal skittering away before turning and plodding slowly after. Renee let her arm drop in disappointment.
"We don't break horses here." Black's voice held a low growl of irritation. The hooded smile had transformed to stone. "Besides, Millie's... from the wild herd."
"Sorry. I meant tame." Renee raised her brows, but his face didn't soften. "Work with? I don't know horse lingo. Besides, I thought wild horses would run away. Why's she in your pasture?"
Black removed his hat and ran a hand over his dusty blond curls. "Old Man Toliman—your grandfather—always helped horses. Didn't matter if they were his, the neighbors', or from the wild herd. He offered protection for new foals. Provided forage during hard winters. Medical help when needed.” He shrugged. “We try to honor his methods."
More of that wistful sensation that had captured her on the drive here, that sense of something lost, took hold of her. She had a vivid image of her grandfather's broad smile whenever he took her out to the barn or pasture. "He used to pull me around in a little wagon to see all the horses. He'd say we were going visiting," she said, tears filming her eyes. Why had she never come back here to visit? Just because Dad was worried about voodoo or some such? "Grandfather loved horses."
A breeze passed between her and Black like a ghost, and she wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. She tried to laugh. "Sorry."
Black's rich mahogany gaze sought hers. The stony face he'd worn earlier had softened yet remained serious, like he was expecting something of her. "Maybe you can love horses, too."
She laughed again, heart pounding like a flighty bird in her chest. Mr. Intense was one compelling fellow. She shifted her gaze back toward the barn. If anyone could make her love horses again, it would be Black Stevens.
"Maybe you can take me riding and show me how?" She tilted her head and shot him that same shy, coy look she had when she'd tripped on the rock. Her nethers tingled with the desire to ride, and not necessarily a horse.
He breathed in deeply, as if absorbing her. "Sure."
"Oh!" She remembered Grandfather's poem. "And Grandfather's will said something about buried treasure. You heard anything about that?"
"Well, you're officially recruited to help look for it." She took his work-calloused hand and pulled him back toward the barn to saddle some horses, her forced boldness making her heart flutter.