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Authors: Evanne Lorraine

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What he knew about dressage wouldn’t have braided her
mount’s mane, but he was learning fast. He understood no one achieved that
level of excellence without putting in serious time along with a lot of sweat,
grit and heart.

Somewhere between nominations and final selection for the
USA equestrian team, something went wrong. News coverage on Tiana stopped three
years ago as abruptly as if she’d been abducted by aliens.

Last fall she’d hit the front pages again, this time as the
victim of a brutal assault by a man identified as her fiancé. Jacque had
included the photos the newspapers had run—a publicity shot of her on horseback
and candid snap of her attacker, an accountant with a mid-sized regional firm.

Prior to the fiancé, she’d had one lover, a career soldier
who hadn’t made it back from his last tour. Two men, both dead, made a rough
romantic history for such a stunning young woman.

Judging by the length of her hospital stay and the duration
of her physical therapy, her last Master had inflicted serious damage.

Liam punched up Jacques’ number as he read. “I want you to
dig up whatever there is to know about Richard Miller.”

“Sure, boss. Uh, you know he’s dead, right?”

“Yeah, I caught the news on your report. I still want
everything you can find on the sick bastard.”

“I’m on it. Any more problems with Travis?”

“Nothing concrete—I had the feeling of being watched at
Tiana’s. Her brother has a crew working, so I probably was being eyeballed by
one of them.”

“The team watching Travis hasn’t reported any problems. Last
I checked he was chilling at his sister’s place. Grant’s on site at Tiana’s,
but he’s supposed to pay attention to her not you.”

“Good choice.” The fact Grant was newly married and as
immune to gorgeous women as possible for a healthy man helped alleviate Liam’s
instinct to insist on covering Tiana’s security himself. “Doug is relieving
him?”

“Yes. Forgot to ask, do you want her medical records?”

Doug is solid choice too, but not a newlywed. Damn it.
“Not necessary, she’s going to tell me everything.”

“Understood, boss. Don’t take it too personal if she can’t
remember. Her primary doc is a neurosurgeon specializing in coma cases.
Depending on the damage incurred, her memory loss for the period of the
original trauma may be permanent.”

“Good point. I’ll take a rain check on the hacking. Thanks
for the thorough job and covering her on short notice.”

“All pays the same.” Jacques sidestepped the compliment.

“I want to add another body to the ranch’s security team.
Suggestions?”

Jacques hesitated long enough to make his answer redundant.
“You’re not going to like it.”

“Give me a name,” Liam muttered, already not liking it.

“Taylor.”

“She’s small.”
But a gun makes a great equalizer and I
won’t worry about her ogling Tiana
.

“No argument there, but size isn’t everything. She’s
well-qualified, available and she likes horses.” The head of Sterling
Enterprises’ security team made sense as usual.

The combination made her pretty much perfect for this job.
“Taylor it is.”

“She’s good,” Jacques promised.

“Your folks always are.”

“When do you want her to start?”

Liam returned to the three-year gap in Tiana’s life on the
screen in front of him, imagining her in a hospital bed. “As soon as possible.”

“Give me a couple of hours to juggle the schedule. She’ll be
at the ranch tonight.”

“Have her check in with Duncan when she arrives.”

Jacques didn’t huff at the unneeded order. “I’ll call him
about the addition to his team as well.”

“Thanks, pal.” Liam ended the call.

He finished the background report on Tiana and stretched out
the kinks in his spine before leaning back in his desk chair. He absently
rubbed his clenched belly. Her survival had to have been a miracle of
determination. No wonder she was still skittish as hell.

Her ex had perished in a fiery one-car crash within minutes
of leaving Tiana for dead. The bastard had deserved to die.

Before he’d read the research on Tiana, he’d already figured
out she wasn’t a simple country girl. His visit to her place showed serious
money at work. After sifting through scant facts and making educated guesses,
he had more questions than answers. The more he learned about his new neighbor,
the more he wanted to know.

Her combination of courage and vulnerability worked on him
like the laws of cause and effect. It took nothing more than his awareness of
her regard to arouse him. Not a good thing. Getting excited by a woman doing no
more than watching him meant trouble with a capital T. Color him crazy, he was
eager for more.

She was so damn fragile. But he’d be a fool not to recognize
the core of steel under her silken skin. The more time he spent with her the
better he liked her. Now that he understood how much courage she’d needed to
rebuild her life, he admired her as well. Most of all he wanted to keep her
safe from ever being hurt again. The instinct to take care of those close to
him was nothing new.
Feeling this protective about a woman I want is
brand-new territory.

He shrugged off the uncomfortable insight and went in search
of Duncan, head of ranch security. Everyone who worked at the ranch helped take
care of the place. Multiple areas of expertise were the rule rather than the
exception. Inside the house, Lynda ruled. Don managed the barn and horses. The
ranch grounds and anything to do with security were Duncan’s areas. Each of
them ran their own team and all three answered to Liam.

One of the cutting joys of running a family business was the
head of the family held ultimate authority. This had been true for his
great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father and now for him. He’d learned
the hard way, boss is lonely job. As the boys got older, he shared more of the
business’s concerns and opportunities with them, but he was still in charge.

He caught up with Duncan on the east side of the barn. At
forty plus, the man was close to as fit as when he’d first started working for
Sterling Enterprises twenty years earlier. His laugh lines had grown deeper but
his farmer’s tan, buzz cut and light-blue eyes were exactly the same. Duncan
dipped his chin and went back to prying a broken fence post out of its hole.

Liam snagged a pair of gloves and a pry bar, adding his
muscle to the job. They fell into an easy rhythm on the familiar task. After
the new post had been seated they stowed the tools and leaned against the
trailer Duncan had hitched to the tractor. “Any more rotten posts?”

“Nope.” Duncan tilted his straw hat toward the pile of
broken, pressure-treated four-by-fours with lumpy concrete anchors stacked on
the trailer behind them. “That was the last one.”

“Good, I added a few new watchdogs/ranch hands to your
team.”

“Besides Grant and Doug?”

“Yes, Jacques has a pair on Travis—Luke and Willis. You
might meet them before I do and one more for the ranch.”

“Who else is the chief sending?”

“Taylor.”

Duncan dipped his stubbly chin again. “She’s sharp. You
gonna give her a room in the big house?”

“Hadn’t thought about it.”

“Doubt she’s gonna want to bunk with me and the guys.”

Damn, just when I was looking forward to a little privacy
.
Liam nodded, acknowledging Duncan’s point. “Good call. I’ll talk to Lynda.”

“Any special reason we need another body?”

“I want you to add Tilly’s place to your patrol route,
starting tonight.”

Duncan took off his gloves and stuffed them in his jeans
back pocket. “You gonna tell the new neighbors about this service?”

“There’s just one neighbor and she already knows. She’s
coming over to ride this evening.”

Duncan tipped his hat back far enough to eyeball Liam. “Fast
work.”

“Horseback riding, old man.”

“Uh-huh, whatever you say, boss.”

Chapter Six

 

The Sterling grounds told Tiana the Crucible dues were small
change for Liam long before the house came into view and confirmed Rob’s belief
the man was a big deal. This was good. She didn’t need to worry about Liam
being a fortune hunter. Even better, the ranch suggested old money—the kind of
stability her father’s flush-or-bust approach had never provided.
Silly
girl, he’s not proposing
.

Giant potato-shaped gray stones in shades from the lightest
oyster-shell pearl to nearly black held together by concrete formed the outer
walls of the first story of the big house. Door, shutters and trim were glossy
white. The second floor had traditional wood siding painted a medium gray. The
timeless structure seemed to belong to the surrounding land as much as the rolling
lawn or graceful trees. A hundred and fifty yards away a weathered barn sat on
the same kind of rock foundation. Several smaller buildings filled in the area
between the main house and barn. The grounds were beautifully kept without
being the least bit fussy.

No one answered when she rang the doorbell. She was early,
but hoping to have a chance to meet his housekeeper.

She thought Liam had told her to come over in an hour.
Although after one of his kisses, she might have been mixed up about more than
the time. Was she making her own choices or just reacting to his charisma? At
the entrance, her confidence ebbed away and doubts flooded in. Just as she was
ready to totally chicken out, turn around and go home, the door opened.

“Come in, please.” A well-kept middle-aged woman in trim
slacks and white sleeveless shirt as tailored as a vest smiled a warm welcome.
Her fashionable strawberry-blonde bob swung back and forth as she talked.
“You’re even prettier than your pictures. What am I thinking? You don’t know me.”
She held out a hand sprinkled with freckles that matched those dusting the rest
of her. “I’m Lynda, the Sterling boys’ housekeeper. I should say the Sterlings’
housekeeper. They’re all grown up now.”

“I’m Tiana.” She lightly squeezed the offered palm.

“Who else could you be? I would have known you anywhere.
Tilly talked about you often. She was so proud of you.”

“I wish I could have spent more time with her.”

“No one could have guessed she’d go so quickly. We’d met for
coffee the morning before she passed, just like we did every Thursday for
eons.” Lynda’s voice caught and her pretty blue eyes glittered with unshed
tears.

Tiana blinked back a sudden blur in her vision and squeezed
Lynda’s arm, offering comfort to her newest friend.

“Come and talk to me in the kitchen.” Lynda patted her hand.

Tiana took in the living room as she trailed behind Liam’s
housekeeper. A giant fireplace made from the same kinds of stones as the
foundation dominated the area. The hearth was swept clean. A lavish arrangement
of Casa Blanca lilies and Lady Ferns in a beaten copper tub rested where a fire
would be laid. Plump upholstered furniture in muted earth tones and
cream-on-white floral prints was arranged into groupings to facilitate
conversation and break up the large space. Tall windows were draped with sheers
and silk panels. A glossy black grand piano anchored one corner. The long
hallway was lined with family photos and a variety of awards. A soccer MVP
citation hung next to a school portrait of a seven-year-old with a gap-toothed
smile.

“I’m supposed to meet Liam.”

“He probably lost track of time. There are lots of
distractions on the ranch, especially for a horseman.”

“Actually, I’m early. I hoped for a chance to talk to you
since Liam mentioned you were friends with Aunt Tilly.”

“I’m so glad you came. You’re a lovely surprise.” Lynda led
the way to a big, sunny kitchen open to a dining area. Yellow cedar cabinets
framed the windows and appliances, lively granite counters sparkled and terra
cotta tiles covered the floor.

Nothing about the house was what Tiana had expected.
Curious, she asked, “Have you worked for the Sterlings for a long time?”

“Almost fifteen years. I came shortly after the boys’
parents died. Before me, Minnie was the Sterling’s housekeeper. She’d been part
of the family since Liam’s birth. I’d only helped out with the cooking during
the holidays and for special occasions. Poor Minnie wasn’t young and she took
the deaths nearly as hard as the boys did. She resigned a few weeks after the
horrible plane crash. By then my husband Frank had been gone almost a year and
I was looking for something to do. I stopped by and offered to help out. Been
here ever since.” Lynda slipped on a bright, flowered smock.

“I’m sure they appreciate you, the house is beautiful.”

“The truth is, having boys who needed me saved my life.” She
pulled a bag of fresh green beans from the refrigerator, transferred the
vegetables to a stainless colander, rinsed the green tangle and began pulling
pale stringy strips from them.

Tiana knew there was more explanation behind Lynda’s
lifesaving comment, but she didn’t know her well enough to probe. Instead she
asked, “Did you meet Tilly when you first started working here?”

“No, we met in school. My parents moved here the year I
entered the first grade a hundred years ago.” Lynda stared into the middle
distance.

“What was Tilly like then?”

“Full of mischief and sass.”

Tiana grinned. “She never changed.”

“No, she was one-of-kind,” Lynda agreed, stringing another
bean.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Tiana wasn’t much of
cook, but watching Lynda work while she stood idle just felt wrong.

“The fillets in the fridge need turning.”

Tiana took a peek. A glass pan held salmon in some kind of
brown liquid. She backed out, taking care to keep the heavy dish level and made
it to the nearest counter without spilling the contents.

“There are utensils in the top drawer to your left.”

Tiana selected a pair of stainless tongs, uncovered the
filets and turned the fish successfully. “Now what?”

“Cover them up and pop them back in the fridge. That’s it.
In a few hours they’ll be ready for the grill,” Lynda assured her. “I take it
you don’t do a lot of cooking…”

“No, zapping frozen stuff, making sandwiches, pouring cereal
pretty much covers my culinary skills.” Tiana tucked the salmon away.

“Morton’s has a decent selection of prepared food, but you
should check out Jenson’s Café. They have fabulous coffee and pastries to die
for, plus a wonderful deli menu. You can buy ready-made salads, soups and
sandwiches. It’s where Tilly and I always met.” Lynda indicated the breakfast
counter. “Have a seat. Would you like an iced coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

A moment later, a tall glass of heaven was set in front of
her and a plate of angel slices appeared at her elbow. Tiana recognized the
treats and helped herself to one. “Aunt Tilly used to make these.”

“Those are from her recipe.”

Relieved she didn’t need to explain about her allergy to
peanuts—always a mood dampener—Tiana took a bite.

The French doors behind her opened.

Lynda flapped a hand at the interruption. “Leave the stinky
stogie outside.”

“Yes ma’am.” A slightly pigeon-toed, grizzled cowboy
balanced his smoke on the concrete step before entering the dining area. The
man’s weathered skin was a shade of brown Tiana had always associated with
saddles. His whiskey-colored eyes hid under heavy salt-and-pepper eyebrows and
the brim of a battered straw hat. A plush mustache matched his brows. “Do I
smell cookies?”

“You can’t smell anything, you ornery old coot,” Lynda
grumbled, but her eyes twinkled and she filled a plate with the rich bars. “I
suppose you want coffee too.”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

“You do have a cookhouse of your own. This is the family’s
kitchen.”

“I’m practically family, Uncle Don the boys always call me.”

“In your dreams.” Lynda sniffed.

He doffed his hat to Tiana, revealing a receding hairline.
“Don Nesbitt. Where’d you come from, sweet thing?”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Nesbitt. I’m Tiana
Barbour. Tilly Bennett was my aunt. She left her farm to me.”

“Don’t have to call me Mr. Nesbitt, makes me wonder if
you’re talkin’ to my dad and that would mean the dang place is haunted, ’cause
he’s long gone.” Don accepted a cup of black coffee and plate of cookies from
Lynda. “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“Don is in charge of the barn when he isn’t underfoot in
here.”

“I’m heading for Seattle. I came by to see if you needed
anything from town.”

“No.” Lynda’s tone softened. “But thank you for thinking of
me.”

“Anytime, ma’am.”

“Will you be coming back tomorrow?” Lynda slipped off her
smock and hung it in the pantry.

“I’ll be back later tonight, tomorrow at the latest. Gonna
miss me?” Don pushed back from the counter.

“Not in this lifetime.” Color spots lit up Lynda’s
cheekbones. She grabbed a towel and wiped down an already shiny counter.

The unlikely couple was flirting. A smile tugged at the
corners of Tiana’s mouth as she wondered how different their conversation might
have been if she hadn’t been there. Not much, she decided. They were too
focused on each other and exchanged barbed love notes much too quickly to allow
for censorship.

After Don left, Tiana stacked the angel slices on one plate
and gathered the dirty dishes. “You’re ready to go.”

“There’s no rush. Girl talk is a rare treat since I work in
macho land. Anyway there’s nothing waiting for me at home but a spoiled
tomcat.”

“Who’s hungry for his dinner,” Tiana guessed.

Lynda covered the cookies, put them away and put the used
glasses and plates in the dishwasher. “He’ll live.”

“Let me walk you to your car.”

The housekeeper retrieved her purse and led the way through
a spotless mudroom to the backyard.

“Don’t you want to lock up?” Tiana asked.

“There’s no need. Ranch security starts at the front drive.”
Lynda waved to man unloading bags of feed to a handcart. “Hi, Jed.”

“Ma’am.” He nodded back and kept working.

“Jed is a ranch hand and an armed security guard. Everyone
around here has two or more jobs.”

“Even you?” Tiana imagined Lynda whipping out a handgun.

Lynda’s blue eyes twinkled. “I wear a few different hats,
but none of them include shooting anyone.”

If Liam needed this much security at home then he wasn’t
exaggerating about the mountain’s predators. Tiana chafed a sudden chill from
her arms.

Lynda started her car and lowered the driver’s window. “I
hope to see you again.”

“Please stop by my place. I’m home all day tomorrow. You
already know the way.”

“I’d love to see what you’ve done with the place. Around
two?”

“Wonderful. I’ll look forward to it.”

After Lynda left, a light breeze ruffled Tiana’s hair. She
turned away from the wind. The new angle revealed a pair of horses grazing in
the distance.

Absently, she tucked the wayward strands behind her ear.
With the same kind of automatic response, she moved toward the beautiful
fillies.

The split rail fence invited leaning. She rested against the
rough wood and drank in the gorgeous horses. A wave of longing for her own
hayburners Alverstoke, Frederica and Charis washed through her tightening
chest. It had only been a few weeks, but it seemed like ages. Dear God she
missed her horses—missed riding. Competition was out, but she could still train
and coach. She hoped.

Despite the confidence she’d projected while talking to Liam
about her plans, she wasn’t at all certain students would follow through on
their enthusiastic initial support. In professional sports three years was a
lifetime. But she was an optimist and even if she simply taught children to
ride she would be fine.

She silently repeated one of her mantras, adding her
intention for today.
I am healing and I am growing stronger. I am ready to
take a tiny step forward by spending time with an incredibly charismatic man
.
To say nothing of the way he radiates irresistible dominance
.

Since he’d been so careful with her, she ignored the worrisome
problem of his hard Master reputation. She took a deep, calming breath, held it
for two seconds and then let it out slowly.
I am safe here. I hope
.

The lawn was green and lush, the horses bright-eyed with the
shiny coats and the playful manners of healthy young animals. A dusty pickup,
loaded with feedbags, was parked by the open barn doors. She sauntered over to
the barn. The truck’s windows were rolled down, the keys in the ignition and
the hood still slightly warm. A buzz of machinery came from somewhere in the
distance.

“Hello?” She stepped cautiously inside the barn and inhaled
the wonderful scents of fresh hay, oiled leather and healthy horses. The stalls
had been cleaned since the horses had last been stabled, most likely that
morning. A spread this size needed lots of hands and strong backs to keep it in
trim.

The top half of a split door was open, giving her a peek
into a paddock
.
A challenging neigh pulled
her toward the sound and she forgot caution.

The mares were gorgeous, but the stallion was beyond
magnificent. The huge bay knew it too. He bowed and pranced closer.

She leaned over the open door, patted the side of his
powerful neck and crooned, “Aren’t you just the best-looking guy in the world?”

“What the hell are you doing?”

Startled by the angry male voice, Tiana backed away from the
stallion slowly. She halfway expected to hear a shotgun shell being chambered
any second. Afraid to turn around, she squeaked, “I’m looking for Liam
Sterling.”

“You’ve found him.” His words crackled with dryness.

She turned in slow motion. Liam peered at her with no sign
of recognition. It took every bit of courage she possessed to approach him. She
stopped a few inches out of arm’s reach.

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