Deep down, Jillian has always known she couldn't be a wife and mother. After the pain she's experienced in past relationships, she can't risk the heartbreak. But she has her animals and her special gift, which has brought her to Via Del Caballo, California. The tiniest sign tells her everything an animal is feeling. To observers, it's uncanny.
To Wes Landon, the stories of the gorgeous "horse whisperer" are so much mumbo jumbo. Then he sees Jillian in action, charming horses, dogs even him. When his brand-new baby daughter is left in his care, Wes has hopes that Jillian would want to be part of his family. But the closer he tries to get to her, the more she pulls away. Can he convince her to take a leap of faith?
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"Not that one."
Wesley Landon glanced at the woman who'd spoken. Who was she talking to? With her friendly smile and bright blue eyes, she had to be the prettiest thing he'd seen all day. Then again, there were half a dozen people lining the rail at the 51st Annual Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale. Clearly, though, she'd been speaking to someone inside the arena.
"Can you lope him out a bit?" he called to the kid who owned the gelding he was considering purchasing.
"Sure thing," the young man answered as he urged the big bay into a slow run.
The horse sure had the looks, Wes thought, his heart pumping in tempo with his mounting excitement. "What do you think, Cowboy? You think he's the one?"
The border collie glanced up at him and wagged his tail, his bright brown gaze declaring he was far more thrilled to look into his owner's eyes than at the horse in question.
"Well, I think he is," Wes said. If the gelding didn't turn into a total nutcase during the competition portion of the sale, he might have found a diamond in the rough.
"Seriously." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman edge closer. "That horse is plumb crazy."
Wes glanced left again, surprised to see the cute little brunette staring at him. So she was talking to him.
"The horse you're looking at."
She wasn't flirting, he realized in disappointmentshe was trying to psych him out. It wasn't uncommon for the competition to do that. Sometimes they would tell out-and-out lies in the hopes of souring a sale.
"Who told you that?" he said, playing along.
She smiled. She had a nose that was tipped up at the end and when she grinned, the smile lit up her face and her bright green eyes like the dawn of sunrise. In a light blue ribbed shirtone the same color as the California sky aboveand jeans tucked into fancy cowboy boots, she didn't look like someone who'd tell a lie. She looked innocent and sweet and, yes, beautiful.
"The horse did."
"Excuse me?" he said again.
"What's your dog's name?" She came forward, smiling down now.
"Hey, Cowboy." She knelt, scratching the dog under his white chin before she rested her forehead on his black mask. "How are you, gorgeous?"
Okay, there was something about a woman loving on his dog that never failed to soften Wes's mood, even if she was trying to pull the wool over his eyes. Unless maybe he'd misunderstood her.
"Did you see him buck someone off?"
She stood. "Nope. I can just tell by looking at him."
Okay, this was ridiculous. He held back his laughter, although just barely. "You can just tell," he asked, wanting to be absolutely clear. "By looking at him."
A nod, one that set her angular bobher hair more black than browninto motion. It brushed her jaw-line, that hair, coming to a point by her chin. Wes was struck by the notion that the cut perfectly accentuated her pixielike face. A face filled with utter seriousness.
His smile faltered. "I think you might be wrong about this one." He glanced back at the animal in question. The gelding loped around like a pleasure pony, completely calm and relaxed.
She shrugged. "Suit yourself." She shifted her smile down to his dog. "Nice talking to you, Cowboy."
He watched her leave, admitting he'd never seen such light green eyes; her gaze seemed otherworldly, and it tried to convince him she told the truth. He didn't believe her, of course. There might be some people who could take one look at a horse and know if it was a good animal, but he'd never met any. His friend Zach knew someone like that. A friend of his fiancée's. He claimed she was a real-life horse whisperer, a woman with short black hair and bright
He jerked around. "Jillian?"
She immediately turned and frowned. "Yes?"
Oh, good Lord. This was one of Zach's fiancée's best friends, the horse trainer.
"You're Jillian Thacker?"
She smiled a bit, and he could tell the grin was tinged with relief. "Oh, good, maybe now he'll believe me " relief. She tipped her head.
"Do I know you?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. I'm Wes Landon." Any doubt that she didn't recognize the name faded the moment he saw her green eyes widen almost imperceptibly. Her gaze swept over him as if matching up her last image of himprobably out at Golden Downs racetrackwith the man in the cowboy hat, long-sleeved white button-down, jeans and boots who stood before her. He'd seen her before, too; he just hadn't recognized her.
"Well, well, well," she said, her eyes narrowing before she slowly crossed her arms. "The evil racehorse owner in the flesh."
He smiled, well aware of her derision but completely unfazed. He knew that she and her fellow members of CEASEConcerned Equestrians Aiding in Saving Equineshated him. Okay, not really hated, more like wanted to put him out of a job. They couldn't stand people who raced horses, because they all thought it was cruel. It still struck him as a small miracle that Zach had somehow managed to charm the founder of the group, Mariah Stewart, into marrying him.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Dr. Dolittle in the flesh."
Zach had taken to calling her that. When Wes had first heard about the woman who claimed to have a special touch with horses, he'd pretended to believe it was possible. He didn't, of course. In his line of work as an equine-farm manager he'd heard it all. The miracle worker who could pop a horse's bones into place and make them instantly sound. The massage therapist for sore equines. The herbal concoction that would give a horse extra zip. It wasn't that he didn't believe some of that stuff might helphe just wasn't sold they were the miracles some people purported them to be.
"What are you doing here?" She lifted a brow. "Slumming it?"
"I could ask the same of you."
He'd only ever seen her from a distance, usually as he was driving through the entrance of Golden Downs racetrack, and she was holding a protest sign. Cute, he admitted, even if she was bat-shit crazy.
"I'm here with a client. She had me look at that one yesterday."
They both turned to stare at the horse in question. "Given your low opinion of me, I'm surprised you didn't encourage me to buy him."
She released a huff of agreement. "Even if I had recognized you, and I might not like what you do for a living, that doesn't mean I want to see you get killed, either."
"Ah, but see, I don't make my living racing horses."
"Yeah, right. I've seen you at Golden Downs. You're the owner of Landon Farms."
He took pleasure in contradicting her. "My mom owns Landon Farms. I just manage her operation, so technically, my mom's the enemy." He gave her a teasing smile. "So if you like, I can give you her cell phone number so you can call her and tell her how much you despise what she does for a living."
She appeared genuinely perplexed. He wasn't surprised. It was a common misconception that he was part owner. "But you're always at the track."
"Not always." He met the gaze of the cowboy riding the gelding and signaled him to stop. "I drop horses off and sometimes pop in to see my mom, but that's about it. Racing is my mom's thing."
"But Mariah told me you're on the board of directors at Golden Downs."
"Because of my mom." The seat had actually been foisted on him by both his mom and his fellow board members, sort of a consolation prize back when his dad had died. As if a board seat could make up for his loss. "She insists I keep my finger on the pulse of the industry, for her sake."
A look of curiosity had taken the place of her frown. She glanced at the horse in the arena, then back at him. "So what are you doing here, Mr. Farm Manager?"
"Looking for my next cutting horse." But as he thought about the reason he was looking, his stomach soured.
Ah, ah, ah. Don't go there.
"I ride and train cutting horses out of my mom's farm."
He waited for yet another look of derision, but she apparently didn't mind that type of horse competition, because she nodded.
"We're looking for a reining prospect. My friend Natalie decided she'd like to give it a trygoodness knows why. As if jumping horses doesn't keep her busy enough."
Natalie Goodmanhe'd heard of her thanks to Mariah. It seemed as though everyone knew everybody in the small town of Via Del Caballo, especially if you were into horses.
"So what makes you think there's something wrong with this horse?" He might not believe in her "special touch," but he was curious.
"I can just tell by looking at him."
Clearly she'd picked up on his skepticism. "If you look closely enough, you can see it in his eyes."
They both eyed the horse. "All I see is an animal doing its job."
"Right now, yes, but look at the way its tail is twitching, a sure sign it's bothered by something." She pointed, her expression one of complete conviction. "Every time that cowboy asks him to do something, he twitches. He doesn't do anything about it now, because he's too tired, but I can tell that horse would ordinarily blow, its rider tossed to the ground in the process."
He scratched his chin absently, although maybe not so absently, because he noticed he needed to shave. "Let me get this straight. You think because that horse's tail is twitching that it wants to buck that cowboy off?"
"Yup. And look at its ears. And the way its nose is wrinkled. Classic signs of a horse that's not happy doing its job."
He had to admit, she had a point. "And so based on that you think he's a nut."
She shook her head. "No. That's just what tipped me off he might be a nut. I spotted him yesterday, thought he looked nice, so I peeked in on him last night, and he damn near took my head off the moment I opened his stall door. I actually heard his teeth clack together when he tried to bite me." She shivered. "Scary."
He didn't know what to say, didn't know if he should make a pithy comment of his own or if he should pretend as if he believed her.
"I slammed the door just in time. He kicked it just in case I didn't get the message. Bam!" She reenacted the moment by pretending to jump, her bob swinging. "Scared me half to death."
He glanced back at the horse, although he did so to get control of his facial expressions. Was she trying to sour him on a sale? She didn't look like the deceptive type. The docile-looking gelding didn't look like a nut, either. It walked with its head down, ears pricked forward now, eyes brightcompletely contradicting her claims.
"Bring him outside, if you don't mind," he called to the man riding him, though why he did so he had no idea.
The horse obeyed the rider instantly. Wes shot Jillian an expression of doubt. As good-looking horses went, the gelding took the cake. A little taller than he would like for a potential cutting horse, perhaps, but he'd seen some bigger geldings get down in the dirt. He'd watched a video of him working cows yesterday and been impressed. If he'd owned the horse, he wouldn't have offered him for sale for any amount of money.
He eyed the man on horseback, a younger cowboy with scruffy blond hair who hadn't outgrown acne just yet. "You the owner?"
The kid's eyes darted right before he answered, "Yes," but the way he said the one word caught Wes's attention. A little too quick. Wes might have missed it if he hadn't been listening closely.
"How long have you had him?"
Again the cagey look. "Long enough to know he's a good one."
Honestly, he didn't believe Jillian was some kind of horse whisperer, but he didn't like the way the kid was responding to his questions, either. "Ever been bucked off him?"
If he'd looked uncomfortable before, he was positively sitting on tacks now. "No, sir."
"Wellll, he can get a little high sometimes, but nothing someone with a good seat can't handle."
Wes had heard enough. "Okay, then. Thanks for showing him to me. I appreciate it."
He turned away before he said something sarcastic. Cowboy fell into step beside him. Good Lord, the kid was a bad liar. He heard more than saw Jillian follow in his wake.
"Now, there's a horse trader if ever I've seen one," she said.
Horse trader. The scourge of the equine industry. People who picked up horses for cheap and tried to resell them, usually telling a whole boatload of lies along the way. He would bet if he looked at the horse's registration papers, he'd see that the kid wasn't even listed as owner. He stopped suddenly.
"Did you see him try to buck that kid off earlier?"
Jillian drew back, obviously offended. "No. I told you, I could tell something was off the moment I spotted him and so I dropped in on him last night."
He looked away from her piercing green eyes, still not really convinced, but damned if he didn't agree that something wasn't right. Perhaps it'd been a lucky guess on her part.
"You believe me now, don't you?"
He faced her squarely. "I believe you're an astute horsewoman, one smart enough to check up on a prospect when nobody was around. And I believe you're probably right. If he's got issues in the stall, he probably has issues under saddle."
"Thank you. I'm flattered."
They stood in a place just outside the arena, in between the fenced enclosure and a long line of stalls.
Horse heads bobbed up and down as they watched the activity directly across from them.
"I don't know why you men are always such skeptics," she added. "I get so tired of having to explain to your sex why I feel a certain way about a horse. For once it'd be nice to meet someone who says, 'Oh, you have a gut feeling? I completely understand. Thanks for the tip.'"
A horse neighed in the distance. In the arena, one of the animals being ridden answered back. Typical sounds for an equine event except in the distance, off in the barns a ways away, one could hear the sounds of bulls calling to each other. Wes had planned to go look at them earlier, but then he'd spotted the kid riding the gelding
He turned back to Jillian. She sure was cute, especially standing there, branches from a nearby tree sifting sunlight onto her hair and throwing dappled patterns on her shoulders.
"I see your point, and I'm glad you spoke up. I'm still interested in the horse, but I'll be watching him more closely from here on out."
"Suit yourself, but I'm telling you, you'll be sorry if you end up buying him." She bent and scratched Cowboy again.
"Your dog knows I'm right, too."
"Yeah?" Cowboy whined. When Wes looked down, he was chagrined to realize his dog sat at Jillian's feet.
"Dogs have a sixth sense about other animals. They know when they're bad. You ever watch a cattle dog run up to the rankest bull in the herd? They just know, and they step in to protect their master."
"If you say so."
"One more thing," she said. "If you want your dog to stop chewing your boots, give him something elselike a pig ear or a cow bone. He's never going to stop on his own."
Wes jerked upright.
"What makes you think he likes to chew my boots?"
"Another gut feeling."
He didn't move for a second. Could she see the chew marks along the top? No, she couldn't see them. "Lucky guess."
She must have realized she wasn't going to get anywhere with him, because she nodded. "Just do me a favor. Stay away from that horse. He's a bad one."
She turned away. He watched her for a moment before doing the same. Crazy. The whole thing was crazy.
"By the way," he heard her call, "Cowboy strikes me as the type that likes to bury things, so if you're missing a boot, check for fresh piles of dirt."
He almost stumbled. She was looking over her shoulder, a wicked smile on her face. How did she know about that?
She started walking backward, thumbs hooked in her jeans. "But that was probably just a lucky guess, too, huh?"
She turned away before he could respond, which was probably a good thing because she'd done something a woman hadn't done to him in a long time.
She'd rendered him completely speechless.