The horse went absolutely wild. It hurt to see an animal so lost in its own hell that there didn’t seem to be any way out.
She knew the feeling. It was a hard thing to see, harder to remember the years she’d lost to her own hell.
She’d found her way out. She’d hit bottom so hard it’d almost killed her but through the grace of God, Granny and Itty Bitty Betty, she’d fought her way back out.
She’d made it her life’s work to help animals do the same. Even lost causes like Sun could be saved—not fixed, because there was no erasing the damage that had already been done. Scars were forever. But moving forward meant accepting the scars. It was that simple. She’d accepted hers.
Jo could stand here for hours listening to the world move, if that was what it took.
It didn’t. After what was probably close to forty-five minutes, Sun stopped his frantic pacing. First, he stopped kicking, then he slowed from a run to a trot, then to a walk. Finally, he stood in the middle of the paddock, sides heaving and head down. For the first time, the horse was still.
She could almost hear him say, I give up.
It was a low place to be, when living hurt that much.
She understood. She couldn’t fix this horse. No one could. But she could save him.
She patted her leg again and turned to walk out of the paddock. A group of seven men stood watching the show Sun had put on for her. Richard had a tranq gun in the hand he was resting on a bar of the paddock.
They were silent. No one shouted about her safety as she turned her back on Sun, no one talked about how the horse must be possessed. They watched her walk to the gate, open it, walk out, and shut it as if they were witnessing a miracle.
“I’ll take the job.”
Relief so intense it almost knocked her back a step broke over the ranch manager’s face. The hired hands all grinned, obviously thankful that Sun was someone else’s problem now.
“Provided,” she went on, “my conditions are met.”
Richard tried to look stern, but he didn’t quite make it. “Yeah?”
“I need an on-site hookup for my trailer. That way, if Sun has a problem in the middle of the night, I’m here to deal with it.”
“We’ve got the electric. I’ll have Jerry rig up something for the sewer.”
“Second, no one else deals with Sun. I feed him, I groom him, I move him. The rest of you stay clear.”
“Done,” Richard agreed without hesitation. The hands all nodded.
So far, so good. “We do this my way or we don’t do it at all. No second-guessing from you, the hired hands or the owners. I won’t rush the horse and I expect the same treatment. And I expect to be left alone. I don’t date or hook up. Clear?”
She hated having to throw that out there because she knew it made her sound as if she thought men would be fighting over her. But she’d done enough harm by hooking up before. Even if she was sober this time, she couldn’t risk another life.
Plus, she was a single woman, traveling alone in a trailer with a bed. Some men thought that was enough. Things worked better if everything was cut-and-dried up front.
Richard looked around at his crew. Some were blushing, a few looked bummed—but most of them were just happy that they wouldn’t have to deal with Sun anymore.
Then Richard looked across the fields. A long, black limousine was heading toward them.
“Damn,” one of the hands said, “the boss.”
Everyone but Jo and Richard made themselves scarce. Sun found his second wind and began a full-fledged fit.
“This isn’t going to be a problem, is it?” Jo asked Richard, who was busy dusting off his jeans and straightening his shirt.
“Shouldn’t be.” He did not sound convincing. “Mr. Beaumont wants the best for Sun.”
The but on the end of that statement was as loud as if Richard had actually said the word. But Phillip Beaumont was a known womanizer who made headlines around the world for his conquests.
Richard turned his attention back to her. “You’re hired. I’ll do my level-best to make sure that Mr. Beaumont stays clear of you.”
In other words, Richard had absolutely no control of the situation. A fact that became more apparent as the limo got closer. The older man stood at attention as the vehicle rolled to a stop in front of the barn.
Phillip Beaumont didn’t scare her. Or intimidate her. She’d dealt with handsome, entitled men before and none of them had ever tempted her to fall back into her old ways. None of them made her forget the scars. This wouldn’t be any different. She was just here for the job.
The limo door opened. A bare, female leg emerged from the limo at the same time as giggling filled the air. Behind her, Jo heard Sun kick it up a notch.
The first leg was followed by a second. Jo wasn’t that surprised when a second set of female legs followed the first. By that time, the first woman had stepped clear of the limo’s door and Jo could see that, while she was wearing clothing, the dress consisted of little more than a bikini’s worth of black sequined material. The second woman stood up and pulled the red velvet material of her skirt down around her hips.
Beside her, Richard made a sound that was stuck somewhere between a sigh and a groan. Jo took that to mean that this wasn’t the first time Phillip had shown up with women dressed like hookers.
Betty nickered in boredom and went back to cropping grass. Jo pretty much felt the same way. Of course this was how Phillip Beaumont rolled. Those headlines hadn’t lied. The thing that had been less honest had been that interview in Western Horseman. That had probably been more about rehabilitating his brand image than about his actual love and respect for horses.
But on the bright side, if he’d brought his own entertainment to the ranch, he’d leave her to her work. That’s what was important here—she had to save Sun, cement her reputation as a horse trainer and add this paycheck to the fund that she’d use to buy her own ranch. Adding Beaumont Farms to her résumé was worth putting up with the hassle of, well, this.
Then another set of legs appeared. Unlike the first sets, these legs were clad in what looked like expensive Italian leather shoes and fine-cut wool trousers. Phillip Beaumont himself stood and looked at his farm over the top of the limo, all blond hair and gleaming smile. He wore an odd look on his face. He almost looked relieved.
His gaze settled on her. As their eyes met across the drive, Jo felt...disoriented. Looking at Phillip Beaumont was one thing, but apparently being looked at by Phillip Beaumont?
Something else entirely.
Heat flushed her face as the corner of his mouth curved up into a smile, grabbed hold of her and refused to let her go. She couldn’t pull away from his gaze—and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. He looked as if he was glad to see her—which she knew wasn’t possible. He had no idea who she was and couldn’t have been expecting her. Besides, compared to his traveling companions, no one in their right mind would even notice her.
But that look.... Happy and hungry and relieved. Like he’d come all this way just to see her and now that she was here, the world would be right again.
No one had looked at her like that. Ever. Before, when she’d been a party girl, men looked at her with a wolfish hunger that had very little to do with her as a woman and everything to do with them wanting to get laid. And since the accident? Well, she wore her hair like this and dressed like she did specifically so she wouldn’t invite people to look at her.
He saw right through her.
The women lost their balance and nearly tumbled to the ground, but Phillip caught them in his arms. He pulled them apart and settled one on his left side, the other on his right. The women giggled, as if this were nothing but hilarious.
It hurt to see them, like ghosts of her past come back to haunt her.
“Mr. Beaumont,” Richard began in a warm, if desperate, tone as he went to meet his boss. “We weren’t expecting you today.”
“Dick,” Phillip said, which caused his traveling companions to break out into renewed giggles. “I wanted to show my new friends—” He looked down at Blonde Number One.
“Katylynn,” Number One giggled. Of course.
“Sailor,” Number Two helpfully added.