Ellie Lane is the proud owner of Juniper Hill Equine Therapy Ranch in Arizona, but it's been on the brink of bankruptcy for months. She's been paying the expenses out of her own pocket, including the salary of her best friend and fellow therapist, Killian Strand. But now she's out of money, and the ranch will have to close. Killian will be left without a job. And Ellie's not looking forward to admitting the secrets she's kept from her best friend.
Killian Strand has secrets of his own. Wounded in Afghanistan, he does his best to hide the scars, both outside and in. He's been in love with Ellie forever, and she's the only one in the world he can trust. But when despised billionaire Reed Osborn comes to make a donation to the ranch, Killian can't miss the sparks between Reed and Ellie. If the greedy bastard thinks he's going to put the moves on Ellie, he's got another think coming.
Reed Osborn needs to improve his image if he wants to be elected to the state senate. When his image consultant suggests he make a big fat donation to a local charity, Juniper Hill is the perfect option. He's especially eager to spend more time with the beautiful, curvy Ellie Lane—and the brooding Killian Strand. Soon the three can't keep their hands off each other—maybe true love can conquer all. But when Reed's image consultant takes things into her own hands, all hell breaks loose at the ranch. As the bad press hits the airwaves, no one's secrets are safe. And without trust, there can be no love…
Reader note: this M/M/F Ménage romance contains a BBW heroine, a billionaire, a hero vet, a horse ranch, and male male love. Reader discretion is advised for hot romance elements
“Will you stop? I know you want to go out, but this is important.”
I put my hands on my hips and glare up at the cause of the current ruckus going on in the barn. At sixteen hands, with a frosty dapple-gray coat and flowing black mane, Snowy always makes me think of picturesque winter scenes of one-horse open sleighs dashing through the snow bringing tidings of good cheer.
Today he’s being a bitch.
The normally sweet gelding kicks the rear wall of his big box stall with enormous back hooves as if he intends to knock it down. He doesn’t, though—he’s just acting out. He wants me to know he’s pissed at not being put out with his barn mates to graze the north pasture down to stubble.
He snorts and eyeballs me, pulling his lips back from his teeth.
“Sorry, Snow-man, until Reed Osborn gets here, we’re both stuck.”
Normally he’s one of the sweetest horses in the barn. My equine-assisted therapy clients love him, especially the kids. They love to brush his sleek, dark gray coat mottled with spots that look like snowflakes, and the little girls love to braid his flowing black mane. Which he adores, of course. He loves the attention as much as any movie star. If he had hands, he’d be signing autographs.
At the moment, Snowy is supposed to be performing an even more important role. I need a stunning poster child to help convince this obnoxious billionaire to donate enough capital to keep Juniper Hill Ranch in feed, hay, horseshoes, and veterinary care for another year. Hopefully another three to five years, but I’m not going to push it. Just coming up with the cash for this week’s feed order would be good.
Apparently he’s running for state senate, and this donation is probably just a PR stunt. But I don’t care. I’ll tap dance and sing the Star-Spangled Banner at his next campaign event if he gives us the grant money I applied for.
I slip my phone from my pocket and check the time again.
“Maybe it’s a good thing Osborn’s late. If he saw you behaving this way, he’d run for the hills.” I stare Snowy in the eye. “Can I tell you for the millionth time this morning how much we need this money?”
Snowy doesn’t give a flick of his tail about how I’m supposed to pay the hay bill. He’s just got a bad case of pasture FOMO, and all he wants is to go out.
I glance out the open main doors to the gravel drive.
Still no Reed Osborn.
Snowy finally gives up and huffs at me impatiently. Reaching out to stroke his soft nose, I huff out a little sigh of my own. “Just be a good boy when he gets here, OK? Or it’s all our asses out on the street.”
I don’t get too close as I stroke his face. I don’t want to get dirty. With the amount of time I spend in the barn, dirty is pretty much my default setting. But today I have actually ironed my brand-new juniper-green polo shirt. It’s got my name and the Juniper Hill Ranch logo embroidered over the left breast pocket and Barn Manager across the back. I feel very spiffy in that and my new jeans.
After trying on a million different brands of jeans last week, I finally found one that makes me feel like a million bucks, curves and all. The monogrammed shirt is similarly tailored to accentuate the positive, meaning my voluptuous bustline, and gives my body an enticing hourglass shape that makes me want to order ten more of them and wear them everywhere.
Strictly for advertising purposes, or course.
For the ranch, I mean—not my body.
I’m not looking for that kind of attention. I gave up on finding a normal guy ages ago.
Which was why I almost couldn’t find my blow drier this morning. Turns out I’d stashed in a box of stuff intended for the donation box a few years ago but luckily had never gotten around to dropping it off. Today, I revved that baby up and gave my long sun-bleached hair a perfect blow-out, did my nails, and polished my boots. I even put on a little makeup. I might even have dabbed on a little perfume that I haven’t worn since the Obama Administration.
So of course, after Snowy’s antics, my dark blue-green shirt is now covered with a sprinkling of gray and white horsehair.
I pull out my phone again and check the display.
He’s officially two hours late.
Is that bad or good? And is it better or worse that Killian Strand, the other full-time therapist at Juniper Hill Ranch, isn’t here yet, either?
Probably good. Killian is a great therapist, and a great guy once you get to know him. It’s the first impression part that can be a little rough.
I sigh and brush one of Snowy’s hairs off my nose before I wind up breathing it in.
He gives me a low nicker. He’s apologizing. He wants to kiss and make up and put all this ugliness behind us.
And he thinks I might have carrots.
I reach up absently to scratch the perfect white blaze that runs down the center of his face. In a flash, Snowy thrusts his head toward me and nuzzles my chest.
I leap back, but it’s too late.
A large brown and green smear of horse spit now covers my chest, centered mostly over my right boob.
Snowy is laughing. I can see it in his eyes.
“You bad boy,” I grumble. Not that I’m really mad at him. It’s impossible to be mad at the big goofball. Unfortunately, he knows it.
Looking down at my chest, I let out a big, rather horsey-sounding breath of my own. Killian’s late. The investor is standing us up. And after two hours primping in front of the mirror, I look like I’ve spent the night in the barn.
Tears prick the backs of my eyes. “It’s over, isn’t it, Snow-man?”
He wickers softly and nudges me with his head, this time with his typical empathy.
I lay my forehead against his and let out a breath.
I maxed out my credit cards three months ago paying the feed suppliers, the vet, the farrier, and the utilities, and have been paying for everything out of my own checking account since then. I’ve been paying the mortgage and Killian’s salary, too, but there hasn’t been enough left to pay my own.
I’ve been making all kinds of trade-offs, holding off on this bill to pay that bill. But that was just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
I have exactly forty-two dollars and sixty-one cents in my checking account. And Reed Osborn was the last lifeboat.
We’re going down. Juniper Hill Ranch is dead in the water.
“Tell me again why we’re driving to Nowhere, Arizona in the middle of a Monday morning?”
I gaze out the window of my white limousine and wonder if maybe I’m seeing some kind of mirage. Woods and trees rise around us, where a moment ago we’d been driving through the desert.
The woman sitting across from me in the limo’s spacious back compartment barely looks up from the tablet in her lap. She could be a stock photo for the successful businesswoman—gray pantsuit that hugs her supermodel body, black hair in a sleek bob framing her angular face, four-inch semi-platform heels—the expensive ones with the red soles, even though we’re headed to some kind of barn.
Chantelle Fury is the number one image consultant on the West Coast. And she clearly walks the walk.
She glances back down at her tablet. “Would you prefer blunt, or sugar-coated?”
“By all means, be blunt.”
She doesn’t look up. “Yesterday’s polling around the Arizona State Senate race confirms what I told you last week. Voters hate you. They find you unlikable by 62%. They find you untrustworthy by 68%. Top reasons were that you’re too wealthy, you made most of your money by systematically acquiring small businesses and dismantling them for a profit, and you don’t provide value to either stockholders or customers. Also, your takeovers generally result in large-scale unemployment in small towns across multiple states. One respondent called you, quote, a corporate pirate.”
“Is it too late for the sugar-coated version?”
She looks up at me, thinking I’m serious. Chantelle Fury is not known for her sense of humor. But what she lacks in levity, she more than makes up for with solutions.
And unfortunately, every word she said about me is true.
But that’s why I hired her. I’m going to change things. And she’s going to tell me how.
The limo slows and turns into a gravel driveway. The scenery outside could be a postcard. Verdant woodland. Trees. Grass. Nature-y things.
It’s pretty. Picturesque. The kind of thing the Common Man would find appealing. Hence, its inclusion on our Reputation Repair Tour.
For a moment, my mind wanders down a similar gravel road to a tiny adobe house on the sunbaked Arizona desert where my aunt and uncle lived out their lives on a small family farm.
That was a long time ago.
The car’s tires crackle and pop over the long gravel drive.
“Where are we again?”
“And why are we here, specifically?”
“We’re here to convert you from Blackbeard to Robin Hood.”
I don’t, but I’m sure she’ll explain.
She does. “Your options are simple. You have to show voters that you aren’t a greedy pirate who sucks up all the wealth—you’re a soft-hearted philanthropist who gives back to those in need.”
Wait. “Are you asking me to give away money to someone?”
She gives me that dead-fish stare of hers. “Did you not read the agenda I sent you?”
I start to squirm under that gaze. “I figured you were handling it.”
She takes a beat. She’s probably thinking I’m an asshole by 71%.
“Reed, you either find a way to change the voters’ opinions of you, or you throw millions of dollars away on a campaign that will end in defeat. You and I both know that defeat is a very poor investment.”
She’s right. She actually told me at our first meeting to drop out of the race.
I told her I don’t give up.
She handed me a bill that could choke a horse.
I paid it.
So here we are.
She slips her tablet into her oversize leather tote bag. “You’ve already made the right decision in hiring me. Now let me save your campaign.”
I nod. Being told what to do isn’t something I’m used to. Most people pander to me because I’m rich and powerful. Chantelle seems to enjoy the role reversal.
“Whatever you say, Ms. Fury. I’m yours to command.”
She glances at her gold Cartier watch. “We’re late. Hopefully, this won’t be a problem. And yes, to answer your earlier question, you are here to give somebody money. Large quantities of it. So follow my lead. Smile a lot. Shake hands with everyone. Don’t scare the children—many of them are low-income or neurodiverse, and some suffer from mental illness. And don’t be overly forward with the veterans. Some of them suffer from PTSD. Pet the horses.”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
I gaze back at her, not even knowing where to begin.
“You know how they always say be yourself?”
The limo reaches the end of the gravel drive and comes to a crunching halt in the parking lot. We’re surrounded by two open, hilly pastures with white post-and-rail fences. A big, welcoming white farmhouse stands a little way off, along with a few smaller buildings and assorted supply sheds. The yard in front of the house is more like a meadow dancing with wildflowers, with a wide flagstone path leading to the front door.
Several horses trot across the pasture to greet us at the fence, which strikes me as funny. Kind of like big dogs who have to come see who it is.
Straight ahead is a big red barn that looks like it should be on a calendar in someone’s grandma’s house. A big green sign reads Juniper Hill Ranch in swirly gold letters with silhouettes of horses trotting along the bottom.
The chauffeur opens the door for me, and I swing my legs out of the vehicle.
Chantelle doesn’t wait for the chauffeur. She’s already out of the car with her portfolio of contracts or forms or whatever the hell she has in there and is striding toward the big red barn.
As I stand, several sets of wind chimes ring in the breeze. The place smells of earth and horses and hay, a warm, earthy smell with a touch of grassy sweetness. For some weird reason, it puts me immediately at ease.
I follow Chantelle inside, looking carefully down at the ground in front of me so I don’t step in something unpleasant.
The barn isn’t new by anyone’s definition. But it’s not decrepit, either. It’s one story, low-slung, with an overhang outside that I suppose must be for shading the horses. The center forms a long, wide aisle straight out the other side, with rows of stall doors lining each side.
I don’t see any low-income children or veterans suffering from mental illness milling around, but maybe I’m just early.
“This way,” Chantelle says as we pass a rustic little room marked Office.
There’s an open doorway to the right leading outside, just past the office and before the stalls. Outside is what looks like a cement patio with rails on each side. A large faucet stands in the corner, and water hoses run overhead with sprayer attachments neatly hooked to two central posts. A big drain lays in the center.
It looks like a miniature car wash.
A horse wash.
As I turn toward the sound of water spraying on cement, my breath catches, stopping me in my tracks.
A woman is standing at the faucet on the opposite side, wearing only jeans and a sports bra, washing off what I imagine is her shirt.
Chantelle clears her throat. Loudly.
The woman jumps about a foot in the air and emits a horrified squeak, then spins to face us, clutching her wet shirt to her chest. She gazes at us wild-eyed as if we’re the villains in a slasher flick.
The words ‘dangerous curves ahead’ pop into my mind. I’d noted her luscious round bottom and generous thighs, and now I’m floored by her full, round breasts, her perfect hourglass shape.
She’s like a goddess come to life. If goddesses wore sports bras.
Despite voter sentiment, I’m actually only about 55% an asshole, so I’m aware that staring at her is completely inappropriate. But I cannot look away.
“Ms. Lane?” Chantelle says.
Ms. Lane spins around again, turning her back to us. “Yes. I’m… Could you…” She takes a breath. “Please step into the barn, and I’ll be with you in a moment.”
She waits for us to go. We do.
“Pathetic,” Chantelle whispers to me as she leads the way back into the barn. Once inside, she clasps her black leather portfolio to her chest and gazes at the wide, empty space. There’s only one horse inside, and he pokes his head out of his stall to study us.
I turn to look back at the doorway to the horse wash, gazing at Ms. Lane’s silky, golden hair and amazing body.
Yeah, I give up. I’m 100% an asshole.
This is why I hired Chantelle.
I walk farther into the barn and turn the corner to avoid temptation.
“How late are we?” I ask. Maybe Ms. Lane had given up on our arrival and started to…what, do laundry? While she was still in it?
“Only a couple of hours. Not nearly late enough for her to decide to…do whatever that was.”
“Let’s cut her some slack. She probably thinks we weren’t coming. Maybe she…fell off a horse into the mud.”
“Mud? It hasn’t rained in a month.”
Chantelle raises a brow at me.
I frown back. “Well, maybe if we’d been on time…”
“I had to squeeze in a meeting with a potential donor. I couldn’t put it off.”
I shove my hands into my pockets and look around. From what I can see, the barn is spotless. Even for a barn. The place is obviously well kept. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ms. Lane puts her blood, sweat, and tears into the place.
I don’t know the particulars yet, but if I’m going to put my money into some philanthropic attempt to make poor people think better of me, this seems like the place to do it.
“OK,” I say. “I’ll fund this place.”
“Of course you will. People will eat this up. Animals, children, veterans…all we’re missing is the senior citizens. Unless some of the veterans are old. I’ll have to ask about that.”
Ms. Lane finally approaches us wearing a baggy T-shirt with a faded Purina logo over her soaking-wet jeans. Little drops of water collect on the concrete around her ankle-high boots. But she has a brilliant smile and a firm handshake in spite of it all.
“Sorry about that,” she says. Her lips are so perfectly kissable I can’t even think. Her hand is warm in mine, and I can’t seem to let it go.
Her eyes are like deep, dark, hypnotic pools of beautiful.
I don’t hear a word she says.
I’ve always hated Mondays, and this one’s no exception.
I might hate this one even more than most as I steer my Harley down the long gravel driveway and see the sleek white limousine parked in the lot.
I park in my usual spot beneath the carport beside a shady cottonwood and cut the engine. I remove my helmet and shake my ponytail free, trying to remember what’s on the barn schedule today and who our company is.
I had to leave early this morning, just after feeding the horses. An emergency call from a client, Evan Romano. A corporal in the Army, same as I was. Guy’s having a hard time of it. Always has, which was why he enlisted in the first place. Also same as me.
Nobody ever drove either one of us around in a friggin’ limo.
In any case, it’s a good thing Evan lives in the apartment complex down the road. Easier to be there when the client’s not fifty miles away.
Swinging my leg over the bike’s seat, I let out a low groan. Three years of surgeries were enough to end my days in the Army, but not my days riding my hog. Not quite. Not yet.
I raise my arms high over my head and stretch as I head toward the barn. The back’s achy today. Too many damn metal pins and not enough bone and sinew to hold them. Too much stress and not enough sleep.
I try not to limp, but some days, it is what it is.
As I get closer, I hear Ellie’s warm laughter, which after this morning’s session with Evan, is like a balm to my soul.
Then another voice laughs with her. This one male.
My hackles rise, ruining the moment. Then I remember who we were expecting. Reed Osborn. The big-shot investor Ellie was hoping to sweet talk into filling the hay barn for the next year.
I’d promised to be here early to help her out with her meeting—give the potential investor a tour of the ranch, show off the horses, whatever. Evan’s call kinda threw a hitch in my giddyup.
Exhaling a sigh, I consider going inside to change. I’d left right after mucking stalls and feeding the horses to go talk down a guy who wouldn’t have cared if I’d shown up in a clown suit. Which would have been better than what I’m wearing now.
I’m in a plain white wife beater that shows all the tattoos I generally keep hidden from clients and faded barn jeans that are too torn and paint spattered for public consumption. My dark ponytail is plastered to my head from my bike helmet, and I haven’t shaved all weekend.
I probably look more like someone from America’s Most Wanted than a therapist.
Whatever. I normally keep it more casual than some therapists. Jeans and T-shirts, my comfortable boots. Many of the guys I work with don’t relate as well to shiny, happy people who look like they’ve never seen disappointment.
I’ve seen plenty.
Ellie and Rich Guy laugh again, and the sound grates on me like fingernails on a chalk board. Maybe America’s Most Wanted is exactly the look I want when I go meet Mr. Reed friggin’ Osborn.
I take a deep breath and tell myself to get a grip. Ellie wants a donor; I’ll help get her a donor. Whatever Ellie wants, I’ll do my best to provide.
I undo my mussed ponytail and re-do it. Then I plaster on a smile, call forth some of that swagger I used to have before my injury and head into the barn.
It only takes one glimpse of our guests to wipe the smile clean off my face.
The awful-looking woman in the gray pantsuit looks like she just had a cactus enema.
The guy talking to Ellie looks like some kind of surfer-boy Calvin Klein model--spiky blond hair all gelled up, lean athletic build, and a tan that probably comes from a salon. He’s wearing an expensive designer suit—I know because the only suit I own is a black one from Sears that I keep for funerals, and this ain’t that.
I shake my head. Even though it’s September, it’s ninety degrees out here. And they’re wearing suits.
But hey, whatever rich morons Ellie chooses to court for donations is above my pay grade.
I decide not to introduce myself yet. Not until I get a better read on the room. I hang back and lean against one of the wooden pillars, crossing my arms.
“This is Snowy,” Ellie says with a toss of her fair hair. She puts her hand on the horse’s face and gives him a little pat. “Snowy is our most skilled—and by far our most popular—therapy horse here at the ranch.”
I don’t like the way Rich Guy’s looking at Ellie. Not that I can blame him.
Ellie is…God, she’s beautiful.
How many times have I completely lost track of time watching her go about her work? She has a natural radiance that just draws you in like a moth to a flame. That’s why the clients love her. She can make even the most frightened kid or disappointed ex-Army grunt feel seen with one radiant smile. Make them feel welcome. Validated. Almost whole.
Good thing she’s my boss. More or less. Boss, friend, colleague, lifeline…whatever. She and this ranch are my entire life. Otherwise, I might be fool enough to think we might be something more.
But I’ve got nothing to offer her beyond what I already do. And she deserves so much more.
Snowy nickers as Ellie pulls a couple of carrot chunks out of her pocket and offers them to Rich Guy.
“Want to give him a treat? He’ll love you forever…”
He smiles at her. “How can I resist an offer like that?”
I roll my eyes.
A moment later, Nurse Ratched in the Pantsuit lets out a shriek of alarm and leaps backward to dodge Snowy’s curious lips as he gets ahold of the papers peeking out of her leather folder and yanks them free.
“Oh! I’m so sorry!” Ellie cries, bending to pick up the papers. “He must have thought you had a carrot!”
I scoff softly. I can almost hear the big gelding laughing. He knew there was no damn carrot in there.
Rich Guy is laughing too. Not just a polite chuckle, either. A full belly laugh that makes his dark eyes dance with glee.
An uncomfortable twinge hits me in my midsection.
He has beautiful eyes.
But I do not like this rich, entitled prick.
Not one bit.
I focus on Ellie’s beautiful smile as she’s laughing. Laughing with Rich Guy. Gazing dreamily into his eyes like they’re in some damned soap opera.
I uncross my arms and straighten. I’ve had just about as much of this as I can take.
If Ellie thinks we need more donors, then I’ll just have to go get a haircut, dust off the Sears funeral suit, and be more proactive in the fundraising department.
But these people don’t belong here.
These people are trouble. I know it like I know my own name.