“It’s what I do,” Donovan said. “I work with difficult horses. At least let me spend a few minutes with her.”
A disgusted Mort was already shaking his head.
“If I don’t have her gentled in three hours, I’ll buy her from you,” Donovan said. “I’ll give you double what you paid for her.”
Mort was as surprised as Sheryl. Donovan made the offer without even knowing how much such a purchase would cost him.
“I don’t want to take advantage of you, mister. She really is just a bad horse. It happens.”
At that moment something in Sheryl’s heart melted.
Somehow she knew that Hawk Donovan would never say please for her or any other human.
The dun mare was so afraid, the fear radiating from her in waves touched Hawk to the bone.
Dermot had a small horse ranch a few miles away from town. Nothing like the Donovan Ranch, but respectable, just the same. He boarded and occasionally trained horses, but he wasn’t an expert by any means. The circular corral where the dun mare had been restrained, after kicking at Dermot and breaking the man’s arm, was in good condition.
A lot of horses had been broken here in the past. Hawk could practically smell old fear in the air. Blood and fear and forced domination. He could almost hear the pounding of hooves on the hard ground, could almost smell the blood on the air, even though it had been a long time since anyone had broken a horse here. Most of the horses who entered this corral these days were already tame.
But not the dun mare.
The vet and the man with the broken arm stayed out of the corral. Dermot tried to caution Hawk as he stepped toward the horse, but it only took a few seconds for Hawk to completely dismiss the people who watched as he approached the mare. It was like coming home, stepping into the corral. He belonged here. He was himself here in a way he would never be anywhere else.
“It’s going to be okay, girl,” he said as he approached. Before he proceeded, he untied the mare. Not only had she been tethered to a post with a short rope, her hind legs had been bound. No wonder she was frightened. Her ears were flattened to her head, her eyes were wild. As he released her bonds, he stroked gently and murmured kind words. Meaningless words. Calming sounds that came from deep in his throat. He let the sound of his voice and the touch of his hands soothe her.
When she was free from her restraints, the mare ran. She raced in circles along the boundaries of the corral, snorting and blowing, while Hawk watched silently. He tried to touch the mare’s mind with his while she ran, but she fought against him. Hawk didn’t push to connect with the animal, but he didn’t back away, either. He remained steady. Calm. Gradually the fear in the dun mare faded.
Now and then Hawk glanced at Baby, who had made herself at home near Sheryl Eldanis. Baby didn’t take to many people. She was slow to trust, with good reason. Before Hawk had found her, she’d been treated badly. It had taken years to get her to trust people again. For years she’d flinched when a person came too near. She’d cowered and hidden and waited for blows that would never come again. The mare would be the same way. Trust would not come easily.
When the time was right, Hawk lifted his hand slowly. The mare came to him, no longer running, but loping easily. She walked directly to Hawk, never hesitating, never acknowledging those who watched.
Hawk stroked the mare between the eyes, silently telling the fine animal that he didn’t want to hurt her, that he didn’t intend to break her. They would work together, a team united. No one would be her master. No one would break her spirit. There was no need for fear.
She wasn’t easily convinced. Dermot had tried to break her the old way—with pain and fear. The dun mare’s heart was too wild to be broken, but she would make a fine ally.
Time passed, but Hawk was not aware of it. He linked his mind with the mare’s in a way that was ancient and primal and inexplicable. The dun mare was no longer afraid of him, but she had not forgotten the way she’d been treated in the past few weeks. He whispered in her ear; she responded with a soft snort. Before Dermot there had been another man who’d tried to incite respect with a whip. The mare bore the marks of that method on her flanks. She would never forget, and any rider who tried to take a whip to her might truly be endangered.
But the mare came to trust Hawk. She knew without doubt that he would never hurt her, that he had no desire to possess her.
When the wildness in her eyes had gone and her ears were perked up, Hawk remembered that he and the mare were not alone. Judging by the way the sun hung low in the sky, he’d been out here well over an hour. He glanced at his watch. Almost two hours. He walked toward Eldanis and Dermot, and the mare followed.
People who had never seen him work were usually stunned the first time. These two were no exception. Eldanis wore an easy smile and an expression of bewilderment, but Dermot was truly shocked.
Hawk leaned against the fence, and the dun mare nuzzled him gently. She wanted to play; she wanted to talk. “I’ll need a place to board her until I go home. Is there another stable nearby?”
Dermot wasn’t anxious to believe what he’d seen. His logical mind was trying to dismiss what his eyes showed him. “I haven’t exactly sold her to you yet. You said three hours, and the way I see it you have an hour left.” His chin came up defiantly. “Maybe I should just go ahead and sell her to you, though. She looks fine at the moment, but how do I know she won’t start kicking again as soon as anybody else steps into the corral? This is a fluke, that’s all. Some kind of trick.”
Hawk had no desire to prove anything to this small-minded man who was still breaking horses the same way it had been done a hundred years ago and more.
In Dr. Eldanis’s eyes he saw something much more interesting than disbelief. She was impressed and intrigued. She was interested in what she’d seen him do. Like it or not, he needed her on his side, he needed her to trust him. Since he’d never been a smooth talker, he wasn’t going to win her over with polished explanations and charisma.
But maybe, just maybe, he could convince her that he was trustworthy simply by doing what he did best.
Hawk took a close look at her. She didn’t wear any makeup that he could tell, but then again she didn’t need it. She had a fresh, clean look and flawless skin that didn’t need to be covered. He wondered how she handled the larger animals she treated, since she was petite. Even her face was delicate. Not for the first time, he had to remind himself that he wasn’t here to hook up with a pretty woman, not even for a few hours.
But dammit, he needed her cooperation. He needed her to be on his side.
“I could ride her myself, but that won’t prove anything,” he told Dermot. Then he looked back at Eldanis. “Dermot has a broken arm. What about you?”
Without hesitation she nodded her head.
This afternoon she’d left Cory in charge of the clinic and ridden to the Dermot ranch with Mort and his eldest son, who’d driven his father to town to have the broken arm set. At that time Donovan had followed in his pickup. Now, just barely past dark, she was headed back to Wyatt with Donovan at the wheel and Baby and Laverne curled up in the small back seat. Both animals were fast asleep.
“I want to know everything,” she said, her eyes on Donovan’s impassive face. She sounded much too interested, much too excited. But she couldn’t help herself. Donovan had put on an amazing display. One she could not explain away. “How do you do that? Can you teach me?”
After he had easily hefted her onto the mare’s back, she’d ridden the horse that Mort Dermot had been so sure no one would ever ride without risk of injury. Hawk had stayed close by, ready and able to sweep her off the mare if necessary. But of course, that had not been necessary. Her ride had been uneventful.
Needless to say, Dermot had decided not to sell the mare to Donovan.
“There are a lot of trainers who don’t break horses in the old way,” Donovan explained. “If you’re interested in the various modern methods of horse training, there are classes available across the country. Take your pick.”
“What about you?” she asked quickly. “Do you teach classes?”
“No.” He sounded a little horrified by the prospect.
She had a feeling Hawk Donovan hadn’t learned his skill in any class given by any other trainer. What he had was a gift.
After Donovan had finished his display, Mort had been full of questions. Questions Donovan had either half answered, ignored or bluffed his way through. He did give Mort a list of instructions on how to deal with the mare in the coming days. She was not to be whipped or sacked, she was not to be bound. Mort had agreed to everything, and more questions had been fired at Donovan. They would have been there all night if Donovan hadn’t insisted that he needed to get back to town.
His affinity for four-legged creatures definitely didn’t extend to the people around him. Donovan had been gruff and impatient with Mort and with her. But when he’d been in the corral with the mare he had become beautiful. Sheryl couldn’t explain it and she didn’t even want to try. The way he moved, the way he looked at the mare, the way they’d moved together… It had been like watching poetry. She couldn’t explain it, except to come to the conclusion that Hawk Donovan was obviously more comfortable with animals than he was with people.
She could empathize.
Donovan’s face was lit by the green glow of the dashboard, since the sun had set more than an hour ago. It was a hard face, unforgiving and without gentleness or humor. But it was also an honest face, unlike that man Carpenter. Was Hawk Donovan truly searching for information about his mother?
One more step, and she would be in too deep. The best thing she could do for herself—for her sanity and her peace of mind and the conservation of her well-ordered life—would be to send Donovan packing. She could even offer to ship him the files, if he’d just get out of her life and stay out.
She’d learned to live without a man, without even the hope of one day having a romantic relationship, even though friends and family tried to tell her that she was too young to give up on the concept of love. One bad experience shouldn’t stop her from living, they said.
One bad experience. More than a year of living hell was more like it. Michael had only hit her one time. One time had been more than enough. She’d left him that night, walked out with her pride and her cheek stinging. Her cheek had healed; her pride was still a little bruised.
As if that hadn’t been enough, Michael, a man she had once loved, had turned into a stalker. He’d fooled her completely, swept her off her feet with his charm and his undivided attention and his apparent love. And then when he had her where he wanted her—boom—he’d shown his true face. Could she pick ’em or what?
Since walking out on Michael, Sheryl hadn’t looked at any man or admired one in any way. Pretty faces were a dime a dozen. Hard bodies were easy to come by.
Until Hawk Donovan had walked into her clinic, she hadn’t given much thought to what she’d given up in the name of security. It wasn’t her fault; the man oozed animal magnetism in a way she had never before encountered. What drew her to Donovan? Chemical attraction? Biological need and bad timing? Whatever this was she really didn’t need it.