He was not Phillip Beaumont, the handsome face of the Beaumont Brewery and the man who owned this farm. Even though she shouldn’t be, Jo was disappointed.
It was for the best. A man as sinfully good-looking as Phillip would be...tempting. And she absolutely could not afford to be tempted. Professional horse trainers did not fawn over the people paying their bills—especially when those people were known for their partying ways. Jo did not party, not anymore. She was here to do a job and that was that.
“Sure am,” the man said, nodding politely. “You the horse whisperer?”
“Trainer,” Jo snapped, unable to help herself. She detested being labeled a “whisperer.” Damn that book that had made that a thing. “I don’t whisper. I train.”
Richard’s bushy eyebrows shot up at her tone. She winced. So much for that first impression. But she was so used to having to defend her reputation that the reaction was automatic. She put on a friendly smile and tried again. “I’m Jo Spears.”
Thankfully, the older man didn’t seem too fazed by her lack of social graces. “Miz Spears, call me Richard,” he said, coming over to give her a firm handshake.
“Jo,” she replied. She liked men like Richard. They’d spent their lives caring for animals. As long as he and his hired hands treated her like a professional, then this would work. “What do you have for me?”
“It’s a—well, better to show you.”
“Not a Percheron?” The Beaumont Brewery was world-famous for the teams of Percherons that had pulled their wagons in all their commercials for—well, for forever. A stuffed Beaumont Percheron had held a place of honor in the middle of her bed when she’d been growing up.
“Not this time. Even rarer.”
Rarer? Not that Percheron horses were rare, but they weren’t terribly common in the United States. The massive draft horses had fallen out of fashion now that people weren’t using them to pull plows anymore.
“One moment.” She couldn’t leave Betty in the truck. Not if she didn’t want her front seat destroyed, anyway.
Jo opened the door and unhooked Betty’s traveling harness. The donkey’s ears quivered in anticipation. “Ready to get out?”
Jo scooped Betty up and set her on the ground. Betty let off a serious round of kicks as Richard said, “I heard you traveled with a—well, what the heck is that?” with a note of amusement in his voice.
“That,” Jo replied, “is Itty Bitty Betty. She’s a mini donkey.” This was a conversation she’d had many a time. “She’s a companion animal.”
By this time, Betty had settled down and had begun investigating the grass around her. Barely three feet tall, she was indeed mini. At her size and weight, she was closer to a medium sized dog than a donkey—and acted like it, too. Jo had trained Betty, of course, but the little donkey had been Jo’s companion ever since Granny bought Betty for Jo almost ten years ago. Betty had helped Jo crawl out of the darkness. For that, Jo would be forever grateful.
Richard scratched his head in befuddlement at the sight of the pint-size animal. “Danged if I’ve ever seen a donkey that small. I don’t think you’ll be wanting to put her in with Sun just yet.” He turned and began walking.
Jo perked up. “Sun?” She fell in step with Richard and whistled over her shoulder. Betty came trotting.
“Danged if I’ve ever,” Richard repeated.
“Sun?” she said.
“Kandar’s Golden Sun.” Richard blew out hard, the frustration obvious. “You ever heard of an Akhal-Teke?”
The name rang a bell. “Isn’t that the breed that sired the Arabian?”
“Yup. From Turkmenistan. Only about five thousand in the world.” He led the way around the barn to a paddock off to one side, partially shaded by trees.
In the middle of the paddock was a horse that probably was golden, as the name implied. But sweat matted his coat and foam dripped from his mouth and neck, giving him a dull, dirty look. The horse was running and bucking in wild circles and had worked himself up to a lather.
“Yup,” Richard said, the disappointment obvious in his voice. “That’s Kandar’s Golden Sun, all right.”
Jo watched the horse run. “Why’s he so worked up?”
“We moved him from his stall to the paddock. Three hours ago.” Jo looked at the older man, but he shrugged. “Took three men. We try to be gentle, but the damn thing takes one look at us and goes ballistic.”
Three hours this horse had been bucking and running? Jesus, it was a miracle he hadn’t collapsed in a heap. Jo had dealt with her share of terrified horses but sooner or later, they all wore themselves out.
“That’s the thing. No one knows. Mr. Beaumont flew to Turkmenistan himself to look at Sun. He understands horses,” Richard added in explanation.
Heat flooded her cheeks. “I’m aware of his reputation.”
How could anyone not be aware of Phillip Beaumont’s reputation? He’d made the People magazine “Most Beautiful” list more than a few years in a row. He had the sort of blond hair that always looked as if he’d walked off a beach, a strong chin and the kind of jaw that could cut stone. He did the Beaumont Brewery commercials but also made headlines on gossip websites and tabloid magazines for some of the stunts he pulled at clubs in Vegas and L.A. Like the time he’d driven a Ferrari into a pool. At the top of a hotel.
No doubt about it, Phillip was a hard-partying playboy. Except...except when he wasn’t. In preparing for this job, she’d found an interview he’d done with Western Horseman magazine. In that interview—and the accompanying photos—he hadn’t been a jaded playboy but an honest-to-God cowboy. He’d talked about horses and herd management and certainly looked like the real McCoy in his boots, jeans, flannel shirt and cowboy hat. He’d said he was building Beaumont Farms as a preeminent stable in the West. Considering the Beaumont family name and its billions in the bank—it wasn’t some lofty goal. It was within his reach.
Which one was he? The playboy too sinfully handsome to resist or the hard-working cowboy who wasn’t afraid to get dirt on his boots?
No matter which one he was, she was not interested. She couldn’t afford to be interested in a playboy, especially one who was going to sign her checks. Yes, she’d been training horses for years now, but most wealthy owners of the valuable horses didn’t want to take a chance on her nontraditional methods. She’d taken every odd job in every out-of-the-way ranch and farm in the lower forty-eight states to build her clientele. The call from Beaumont Farms was her first major contract with people who bought horses not for thousands of dollars, but for millions. If she could save this horse, her reputation would be set.
Besides, the odds of even meeting Phillip Beaumont were slim. Richard was the man she’d be working with. She pulled her thoughts away from the unattainable and focused on why she was here—the horse.
Richard snorted. “We don’t deal too much with the partying out here. We just work horses.” He waved a hand at Sun, who obliged by rearing on to his back legs and whinnying in panic. “Best we can figure is that maybe something happened on the plane ride? But there were no marks, no wounds. No crashes—not even a rough landing, according to the pilots.”
“Just a horse that went off the rails,” she said, watching as Sun pawed at the dirt as if he were killing a snake.
“Yup.” Richard hung his head. “The horse ain’t right but Mr. Beaumont’s convinced he can be fixed—a horse to build a stable on, he keeps saying. Spent some ungodly sum of money on him—he’d hate to lose his investment. Personally, I can’t stand to see an animal suffer like that. But Mr. Beaumont won’t let me put Sun out of his misery. I hired three other trainers before you and none of them lasted a week. You’re the horse’s last chance. You can’t fix him, he’ll have to be put down.”
This had to be why Richard hadn’t gone into specifics over email. He was afraid he’d scare Jo off. “Who’d you hire?”
The older man dug the tip of his boot into the grass. “Lansing, Hoffmire and Callet.”
Jo snorted. Lansing was a fraud. Hoffmire was a former farm manager, respected in horse circles. Callet was old-school—and an asshole. He’d tracked her down once to tell her to stay the hell away from his clientele.
She would take particular joy in saving a horse he couldn’t.
Moving slowly, she walked to the paddock gate, Betty trotting to keep up. She unhooked the latch on the gate and let it swing open about a foot and a half.
Sun stopped and watched her. Then he really began to pitch a fit. His legs flailed as he bucked and reared and slammed his hooves into the ground so hard she felt the shock waves through the dirt. Hours of this, Jo thought. And no one knows why.
She patted her leg, which was the signal for Betty to stay close. Then Jo stepped into the paddock.
“Miss—” Richard called out, terror in his voice when he realized what she was doing. “Logan, get the tranq gun!”
“Quiet, please.” It came out gentle because she was doing her best to project calm.
She heard footsteps—probably Logan and the other hands, ready to ride to her rescue. She held up a hand, motioning them to stop, and then closed the gate behind her and Betty.