It's The Only Home She's Ever Known
And Ruth Ann Blakely isn't going down without a fight! The equestrian trainer has lived and worked in the stables of The Hawkridge School her whole life.
She can't allow some big-city architect to tear it all down even if Jonah Granger is as attractive as he is persuasive.
When Jonah moved to North Carolina to be near his stepdaughter, he didn't expect to be raked over the coals by an outspoken horse trainer. Passionately opposed to the new stable he's designing, Ruth Ann is a force to be reckoned with. In more ways than one
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Jonah Granger was exactly what she'd expected.
His straight black hair had been styled into a perfect tousle, no doubt at a salon in New York City which had charged two hundred dollars for the privilege. He wore gray flannel slacks with a dark-brown turtleneck sweater, probably cashmere, and managed to look artistic but still businesslike while showing off his strong, square shoulders and his flat belly. Add in Italian loafers and a discreet, hideously expensive gold watch. Everything about the man screamed class and money.
Ruth Ann Blakely gritted her teeth as she watched the architect explain his design, and watched The Hawkridge School's board of directors melt under the warmth of his smile. Even Jayne Thomas, their usually pragmatic headmistress, seemed swept away by the grandiose plans displayed on Jonah Granger's easel.
"Thirty-foot ceilings," he was saying, "for air circulation and light, with a series of archways creating unique visual effects."
"Like a Gothic cathedral." Board chairwoman Miriam Edwards sighed. "How wonderful."
Ruth Ann rolled her eyes.
"Exactly," Granger said, aiming the spotlight of his attention right at Miriam. "The clerestory windows provide ventilation in the summer and a solar-heating effect in the winter."
"Smart." Harry Hopkins nodded. "Save on the heating bills."
Examining the backs of her hands, which testified to twenty-five or so winters spent working in an unheated stable, Ruth Ann bit her lower lip to keep from laughing.
"The stall floors will be textured concrete, but the aisles of the stable will be paved with brick."
Oh, no, they won't. Ruth Ann shifted in her chair. My horses aren't spending their lives standing on concrete, not even if it's underneath the mats you haven't mentioned.
"I've provided a lounge for parents and students." Granger flipped the page to reveal an artistic rendering of what looked like a nightclub. "Sofas for conversation, tables and chairs for meals prepared in the full-sized kitchen equipped with marble counter tops and professional appliances, plus a complete audio-video system."
Ruth Ann burst out laughing.
The thirteen board members sitting around the conference table turned to stare at her. Jonah Granger raised his straight black eyebrows and looked down the slope of his nose at her. "Is something funny?"
She tried to control herself, but whenever she glanced at the drawing, she couldn't help another cackle. "S-sorry," she said finally, wiping her eyes. "That's aa really nice room."
"If you're building a house or a hotel," she interrupted. "But my barn doesn't need so much" she waved a hand "stuff."
Those slashing brows moved higher. "Your barn?"
Jayne Thomas cleared her throat. "I didn't get a chance to introduce you, because Ms. Blakely arrived after the presentation started. Jonah Granger, this is Ruth Ann Blakely, The Hawkridge School's equestrian trainer and instructor."
"Ah." Jonah Granger sent her a cool nod. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Blakely. I'm sure we'll be able to work well together."
"I'm not." Ruth Ann got to her feet. "This so-called stable you've designed might be pretty, but it won't work for horses or their caretakers. On the other hand, the stable we use now was designed by people who understood the art and science of equines." She glanced around the conference table, making eye contact with the few board members who weren't pretending to study their notes. "All my barn needs is some renovation and restoration to make it as good as new. If you'd like to discuss those possibilities, Mr. Granger, I'll be more than happy to talk with you. But I'm not signing off on a new barn that's more about looking good in the parent brochure than about caring for the animals and giving the girls safe, productive lessons."
She left the conference room by the nearest door, and congratulated herself for not tripping or running into a chair on her way out. Sometimes her feet forgot their main job, especially when she was nervous. Facing down Jonah Granger had definitely made her nervous. He was so cool, so controlled, so
"Arrogant," she muttered as she reached the grand circular staircase descending to the first floor. "Contemptuous. Conceited." Her riding boots sounded like the horses themselves as she hurried down the marble steps. "Egotis"
She stopped moving and muttering as she rounded the curve and saw a girl sitting on the bottom step. "Hello, there. Can I help you?"
The girl turned to look at her as she came the rest of the way to ground level. "No, thank you. I'm just waiting." She would be about thirteen, with dark hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, a round face and a chubby body dressed in tank top and jeans a size too small.
"Waiting for what?" Ruth Ann leaned an elbow on the newel post. The fall semester didn't start for another week, and all the students had left campus for a brief vacation.
"My stepfather." The girl stared straight ahead. "Mr. Granger."
"Ah." That might explain the odd air of withdrawal, as if she'd walled herself off from the rest of the world. He'd be a demanding parent, which played hell with an adolescent's self-esteem, in Ruth Ann's experience. "I just left that meeting. He should be finished in a few minutes."
A nod was the only response. But then, with a sideways glance at her breeches and boots, the girl said, "You ride? Horses?"
"I'm the trainer here. Do you ride?"
"Oh, no." She shook her head. "I mean, I do, kinda. But it's really scary."
"Maybe you haven't had the right horse. What's your name?"
After hesitating a moment, she said, "Darcy."
Ruth Ann offered a handshake. "I'm Ruth Ann Blakely. Good to meet you, Darcy."
Jonah Granger hadn't taught his stepdaughter how to shake properly. She barely grazed Ruth Ann's palm with her own, then let her arm fall back to her lap.
The approach of voices from upstairs announced that the meeting had ended. Darcy jerked her head up, got to her feet, and scurried to the other side of the entry hall, like a mouse caught on the counter when the kitchen light comes on.
Ruth Ann's temper started to simmer again. What had the man done to make this girl so nervous?
Flanked by board members, Jonah Granger came down the stairs, carrying his big box of useless drawings and smiling at the compliments of people who wouldn't know a hoof pick from a hay hook. At the bottom, he spoke with each and every one of them as they left by the front door, before finally deigning to notice his stepdaughter.
"Darcy, there you are." He grinned at the girl and summoned her with a gesture. "I thought you'd still be in the library."
To Ruth Ann's surprise, Darcy moved quickly to join him. "I didn't feel like reading. I went for a walk instead."
He put his hand on her shoulder. "Did you like what you saw?"
The girl shrugged. "It's pretty."
"When you come back to start classes," Jayne Thomas said, "you'll get an extensive tour, and you can see how beautiful Hawkridge really is. We have hiking paths on the mountain and, of course, the riding trails." The lift of her eyebrow in Ruth Ann's direction promised a reprimand as soon as they had a private moment.
But Ruth Ann was more interested in the fact that Darcy would be attending Hawkridge. "Maybe you'd like to sign up for some lessons," she told the girl. "I promise to keep you safe, and you'll have a good time."
Jonah Granger's smile vanished. "Darcy's had her fill of horseback accidents, I believe. But she's an excellent pianist, and plays several other instruments, too."
The teenager gazed at her toes, their nails painted a glittery blue.
"She'll have lots of choices," Jayne promised, with a warning glance at Ruth Ann, who had opened her mouth to protest. "And lots of time to decide what she wants to do." Setting a hand lightly on Granger's shoulder, she ushered him toward the door. "You'll be coming in from New York next week"
Aha! Ruth Ann thought.
"to bring Darcy for Moving-In Day. Let's arrange another meeting then. We can review your plans in more detail. Ruth Ann will give us her input at that time."
From the double doorway, Jonah Granger threw Ruth Ann a glance that could have been called challenging. Or just spitting mad.
"I'll look forward to it," he told the headmistress, his voice as smooth as black ice.
Jayne went outside with Granger and Darcy. Staying within the shadows, Ruth Ann peeked around the door frame in time to see the architect and his daughter fold themselves into a dark-blue Porsche. With a roar of the engine and a squeal of tires, the sports car streaked around the circular drive.
"Showoff," Ruth Ann muttered. "Just what I'd expect."
Jayne remained on the front steps until the forest surrounding them hid the Porsche from sight. Returning to the entry hall, she closed the doors and stood for a moment facing the carved mahogany panels, holding onto the big brass handles.
Ruth Ann decided not to wait for the lecture to start. "Look, I'm sorry I was late. I scheduled the vet visit for one o'clock three months ago, but he had an emergency and didn't arrive until after two. I couldn't just walk off and leave him with six horses to handle on his own. Nobody consulted me when they set up this meeting." She gave a disgusted sniff. "Not surprising. The board would probably have preferred I never show up at all."
"Especially when you started talking." Jayne crossed the marble-tiled entry hall and entered the school's office suite. "Let's go to my office and sit down."
Once they'd settled into the chairs on either side of Jayne's big desk, she shook her head. "Your opposition to the new stable doesn't make a lot of sense, Ruth Ann. Why wouldn't you want a new building with all the amenities? Surely an up-to-date facility would make your job easier?"
Ruth Ann propped her elbows on the armrests and stared at her linked fingers as she constructed the answer in her head.
"Why don't we tear down the Manor and build a new, state-of-the-art classroom building? We could have computer hookups at every seat, modern labs for the science classes, high-tech recordings for the language teachers, an auditorium and a dining room and"
Laughing, Jayne held up a hand. "Enough, already. I agreethere's a great deal of historic value in all of the buildings on the estate, including the stable." She took a deep breath and slowly blew it out again. "The board"
"Meaning Miriam Edwards."
"The board," Jayne repeated firmly, "believes the current facility is unsafe for the students."
RuthAnn characterized that opinion with a single rude word.
"Maybe," Jayne conceded with a tilt of her head. "We've never had an accident involving the building itself. And," she said before Ruth Ann could, "we've never had a girl seriously hurt while riding.You're a great trainer and instructor, RuthAnn. You're a terrific therapistyou and your horses have made a real difference for a number of girls the rest of us had just about given up on." The Hawkridge School served as a refuge and, often, a last resort for girls whose emotional problems had driven them into troublesome, even dangerous, behavior.
Blinking hard, Ruth Ann said, "I'm glad. I love my job."
"Good. What we're going to have to do is find some way to compromise on the stable. I don't know what that means, yet, except that you'll need to cooperate with Jonah Granger as he works on the design."
"Why can't he design a renovation?" Ruth Ann sat forward in her chair. "The old barn needs some work, some updating, sure. Can't Granger simply fix what's wrong and leave what's right?"
"That's not what he does."
"Then find someone who will."
"The board wants Granger. He built a house and barn for Miriam's sister up in Connecticut, and she's just wild about his work."
"So let him build something new for her. He can leave my barn alone."
Jayne's brown eyes were kind, but she said, "It's not actually your barn, Ruth Ann."
"My dad took care of it until the day he died. Literally his heart stopped while he was sweeping the aisle that night."
"My grandfather and his father before him worked in that barn taking care of the estate's horses. How am I supposed to walk away from that?"
"It's just stone and wood, sweetie. You and the horses are what matters. Those would be the same in a new stable."
"I don't think so." Ruth Ann got to her feet. "Call me superstitious or just plain weird, but my barn is a special place. The horses know it and the girls know itthe ones who really care, anyway. Moving the equestrian program to a new stable would be a mistake."
Jayne stood up. "As a friend, I'm asking you to cooperate. Please for my sake?"
Ruth Ann frowned at her. "Unfair." Then she sighed. "Okay. For your sake, I will listen to what he has to say. Are you going to ask him to do the same?"
"For all the good that will do," Ruth Ann muttered, once she'd closed the office door between herself and the headmistress. "I'll bet my bottom dollar that Jonah Granger listens to no one's opinion but his own!"
Ruth Ann Blakely was not what he'd anticipated.
Jonah admitted he'd been expecting someone like his ex-wife, Darcy's motherslim and neat, with polished boots, hair combed into a sleek ponytail and a lipstick smile. More, he'd expected to be listened to, consulted, and then given the go-ahead on the stable project.
Instead, she'd laughed at him, dammit. Made fun of his plans. He simply couldn't believe it. What did she know about architecture, anyway? She spent her days mucking out stalls and teaching kids to ride. Who did she think she was, criticizing his work?
He'd known she was trouble as soon as she entered the conference roomlate, to begin withafter Jayne Thomas had introduced him and he'd started his presentation. Her skepticism, her resistance to his project, had surrounded her like a force field. He doubted a word he'd said had gotten through.
She certainly hadn't gone to any trouble to impress him. She'd stalked in wearing riding breeches, dusty boots and a T-shirt with a huge green smear across the front, as if some horse had used her for its napkin. Face shaded by the baseball cap she hadn't taken off, her damp ponytail drooping through the hole in the back, she'd conveyed quite clearly that he was interrupting her important work.As she'd stomped out again, he'd noticed that she was tall, well built on generous lines, and furious.
Well, that made two of them.