Twenty-one-year-old equestrian Nicolette Devereaux has been gaga over British CEO and stable owner, Grant Berringer ever since she became his barn manager. But despite her friend’s insistence that her new boss admires her, Nikki recognizes her one-way feelings as another bout of silly infatuation and dismisses them entirely.
Approaching age thirty, Grant is ready to tackle his next goal—starting a family. Using his own parents’ short-lived but torrid relationship as an example not to follow, he’s irritated by the absurd lust he feels for his new and much younger employee. Until he comes up with the perfect answer—a business proposal of marriage! In the contract, all eventualities are accounted for…except falling in love.
“Where the hell is the bastard in charge of this bloody circus?” The man strode into the barn, pinning Nikki with a steely gaze as he shook water off his coat.
He would have a British accent. He could probably read the directions off a box of Preparation H and make it sound momentous. Nikki pulled the barn door closed behind Lord Pompous Ass and an older man just as another bolt of lightning lit up the evening sky. Wagging his tail in greeting, her dog, Chester, trotted over to inspect the visitors.
“I’m Nikki Devereaux, Mike’s barn manager,” Nikki said, attempting a pleasant tone. She swiped her face with a sodden sleeve, managing only to smear something gritty across her cheek.
In contrast to her own bedraggled appearance, the younger man looked like he’d stepped off the cover of a Barbour catalog. Tall and sophisticated, he speared long fingers through wavy chestnut hair that gleamed under the barn aisle’s fluorescents. As he took in his surroundings, Nikki hunched deeper into her windbreaker. Odds were good the lights were not her friend.
On any other day, she might admire this walking specimen of male perfection. In another setting, with his ire directed at someone else, she might think him magnificent.
But it wasn’t. And she didn’t.
“Mike is… away. Is there something I can help you with?” She forced the polite words from her mouth—not an easy task. Anyone roaring up in a fancy-schmancy Range Rover in the middle of an effing thunderstorm, in the middle of the damn night—or seven o’clock, as was the case—shouldn’t expect the bloody welcome wagon. “Excuse me a minute.” She hurried back to the wash stall where she’d left a now furiously pawing mare to greet the visitors.
With each step, she tried to jumpstart a major attitude adjustment. Objectively speaking, she and her visitor had a lot in common. Who better than Nikki to empathize with his estimation of Mike—the bastard in charge of this circus.
Besides, this was mere icing on the big shit-cake that was her day. Why not top it off with a good ass-chewing? Even better, in a hoity-toity British accent. Outside, another boom of thunder crashed, spooking the mare. Maybe the power would go out and score today a perfect negative ten.
This morning—was it just this morning?—Nikki had trailered a client’s horse to Virginia. Driving south on I-95 from Chester County, Pennsylvania, she’d hit rush-hour in both Baltimore and DC, rain pouring the whole way. Thirteen hours later, she’d made it back, turning in gratefully at the faded blue sign proclaiming Fairthorne Farm, Home of the US Equestrian Team’s Mike Matthews.
As she maneuvered the truck and trailer around the worst of the potholes, visions of a warm tub and a glass of wine danced enticingly through her head. Visions that were effectively doused by the sight that greeted her through the relentless slap of the wipers. Twenty horses, that should have been brought in and fed hours ago stood in their paddocks. Twenty blanketed rear ends turned sullenly against the rain blowing out of the west. And not a human to be found. Now, with just one more horse to feed, Nikki was soaked through, freezing cold, and not happy.
“Where’s Matthews?” the man repeated, dogging Nikki’s heels. The older guy trailed behind with Chester, peering into stalls and humming softly.
Nikki reached the fretful mare, stroking the velvety muzzle soothingly. Poor thing. Dinner was late, and the horse was hungry. Ditto, sister. Damn Mike, anyway. The irresponsible man-slut had run off like a thief in the night, taking most of the barn help and all Nikki’s childish dreams with him. As water trickled down the back of her neck, the futility of her situation threatened to overwhelm her. She drew in a shaky breath and her lip began to quiver.
No! She could almost see the proverbial last straw floating through the air gently settling on her back. Not. Now. For months, she’d held steadfastly to the bright side without so much as one discontented peep. She was the fucking pinup girl for optimism and resilience. She was the girl with the glass half-full. The one cheerfully making lemonade from lemons. Damn, damn, damn!
She grabbed a towel from the shelf. Swabbing it once over her face, she squatted and began furiously drying the mare’s legs. She bit her cheek, clenching her eyes shut to staunch the flow of tears. This wasn’t the end of the world. Yes, she was exhausted, and wet, and cold. But she was tough. She was independent. And smart.
She blew out her breath in short, puffing exhalations, willing herself through her pain and disappointment like the queen of Lamaze class. Raising her chin, she gave her face one last dab with the towel and stood. Maybe the visitors hadn’t noticed her little lapse.
Nikki turned to face the formidable presence behind her. Both men were staring, frozen in a kind of stunned horror. Okay, they’d noticed. Her eyes traveled up the oilskin fabric of the younger man’s coat, skimming over his strong jaw and aristocratic features before settling on the deep moss green of his eyes.
She inhaled to begin a more coherent response to his question. The one he’d asked right before—
His phone rang.
“Skip, I need to get this,” he said, glancing at the number. Was that relief she saw flash across his face? “I’ll take it in the car. Arrange things, would you?”
Nikki shook her head. Apparently she was dismissed. Whatever. She felt steadier now that he’d gone. She turned her attention to the older man. Dressed in a well-worn slicker and muck boots, he scratched his balding head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m afraid you caught me at a—uh—bad time.”