She stumbled barefoot on the icy wood floor, completely out of sorts, all because she’d been outsmarted by a man—well, not just any man: Joe Wilde. She had realized too late that he’d controlled their entire argument yesterday, if not the whole situation. He was an absolute master at directing behavior, mainly hers, and she’d walked right into it. She had no intention of working with that horse, or so she tried to tell herself, but now she remembered what a clever kid Joe had been at school. He could talk his way into or out of any situation he wanted, always in a way that made other people think it was their idea. As with most things, he’d gotten better with age. Crap!
Storm was to be sent to her by trailer this morning so she could spend time getting to know him and getting to the bottom of his issues. She already suspected his issues were rooted in the problems between Ryan and Joe, which neither was too willing to share, at least not with her. Yeah, something was going on, all right. Finding out now that Ryan’s mom had died and Joe was still single brought a whole slew of questions and scenarios to mind, which irritated the hell out of her, since Joe was solely responsible for her restless night.
He’d all but invaded every one of her dreams, teasing her with kisses, and she swore she could feel his large, calloused hands skimming over her backside. She wondered what it would be like to have a man like that sharing her bed, her life, her…And then, of course, that made her angry, and she punched her pillow, because the idea of Joe Wilde having any interest in “Margaret the Misfit” was a fantasy her overworked, lonely brain had obviously conjured up.
The fact of the matter was that Margaret’s life was a disaster. So what was she doing, pretending to be some professional trainer? Hadn’t she made it clear to Joe that she didn’t work with horses? She felt like a fake, a fraud, taking on a problem horse as if she had the skill and experience, as if she was a damn horse whisperer. She definitely wasn’t that. Those were all big macho men who camped out in the fields, spending their time with horses and no one else. Hang on a second, she thought, because that was exactly what she’d been doing for the past six months with Angel. That was different, though. Angel was her friend, her companion and the only thing that gave her any peace. Angel was kind and soft and responsive to her. The horse always knew what Margaret was thinking before she did.
Margaret threw on a pair of old jeans and a plain t-shirt and stepped into deep rubber boots, jamming a ratty wide-brimmed hat on her head before stepping outside with her morning coffee. She pulled up the collar of the old coat she wore, and this time, as she stood in front of the old house, facing the acres of forested land, the sunlight brightened and flickered over the white markers of the family graveyard in the clearing. It had been bordered with a waist-high picket fence at the edge of the trees. Margaret found herself walking over to it and taking in the graves of the grandmother she’d never met and the three babies who had been stillborn, leaving her mother an only child. The newer grave of her grandfather still hadn’t settled and still bore a rounded mound of dirt.
Margaret glanced up and took a breath. She supposed her grandfather had known that her mother had no interest in an eighty-acre backwater spread in northern Idaho, because he’d left everything to Margaret, including a mountain of debt, a hundred cows and a house so old that she swore the wiring had to be from the turn of the century. In between her residency at a Seattle hospital and driving back to Post Falls every week, she’d sold the cattle, found homes for her grandfather’s horses and emptied the house. But something had stopped her just short of sticking a for-sale sign on the property and walking away. Maybe it was the fact that her grandfather hadn’t given up on her, despite his quiet surliness and hardass ways. She knew deep down he loved her, and not once had he left her, even though everything and everyone irritated the hell out of him.
She was about to lean down and yank the weeds up from the grave when she heard a vehicle coming down the driveway. It wasn’t just any vehicle. She would have known the especially loud vibrating purr of that four by four chewing up her ground anywhere. It was Joe’s truck. The bottom of her stomach dropped out again. “Well, crap,” she muttered. She raced to the house, spurred by every one of her pathetic insecurities, instead of standing there like a ninny, as she had the day before. The door banged the side of the house as she flew through it, dropping her coffee mug on the table, kicking off her boots, tossing her hat and coat on the floor. She raced down the narrow hall into the bathroom, quickly brushed her teeth, and ran a brush through her sleep-tousled hair. Hurry up! she told herself as the toothpaste suds dripped from her mouth. She dunked her head under the tap to rinse her mouth and quickly splashed water on her face, grabbing the towel and wiping it just as she heard the horn blast. Her heart was racing as she glanced in the mirror at her wrinkled shirt. She sniffed her pits, nearly gagged and she grabbed the deodorant. A quick swipe under her shirt was the best she could do. She jammed her feet into the rubber boots, grabbing her jean jacket off the hook and pulling it on as she raced out the front door. She skidded to a stop as the excitement and anticipation of seeing Joe fled.
Joe Wilde was leading Storm from a rusty horse trailer, and Ryan stood awkwardly in front of the truck and waved to her before jamming both hands in his baggy jean pockets—but that wasn’t what set her teeth on edge. A gorgeous blonde slipped out of the driver’s side. She wore tan capris and a matching jacket, and she was cute, with long, wavy hair and curves in all the right places. She waved at Margaret as if they’d known each other their whole lives.
“Oh, you must be Madeline. Joe was just raving last night about how good you are with horses. He says you’re going to get Ryan’s horse all calm and fixed up and take care of everything so that Ryan can ride him.”
“Margaret,” Ryan muttered.
“Pardon?” The blonde, who was petite too, paused and stared at Ryan.
“Her name’s Margaret Gordon,” Ryan said again.
Margaret could do nothing but stand there, just as she had done in school when Joe yanked off her wool cap the morning she’d tried to dye her hair blond but turned it orange instead. Everyone had roared with laughter, and she had been made the butt of a big joke. Why she remembered that horrific memory now was beyond her, except maybe she felt the same way. Even though no one was laughing at her, she felt as though she’d been kicked in the gut, the rug yanked out from under her. She’d misread something somewhere, so really, her anger was misplaced. It had to be, she tried to tell herself, but right about now, what she pictured was planting her foot right between Joe’s legs and watching him fall over and cry.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the blonde said. “Well, Margaret, Madeline, the names are so close!” She actually waved her hand in front of her face and giggled, a squeaky, pathetic sound that had Margaret wanting to slap her.
The woman froze and pressed her hand against her chest, her eyes widening. Maybe the hostility Margaret was feeling actually showed on her face. She glanced at the worried look on Ryan’s face and she smiled, or tried to, but it was downright impossible when inside, she felt like a love-starved idiot. For the life of her, she couldn’t manage to say anything.
“Morning,” Joe said. “Hope we’re not too early.” His hair was neatly combed, and his plaid shirt looked freshly ironed. He walked over and placed his arm around the blonde’s shoulder, as she leaned into him, her head not topping his shoulder as she placed a hand with bright pink fingernails flat on his chest and fluttered her eyelashes up at him.
Joe smiled down at the blonde in a way that left Margaret feeling empty and pathetic. For a minute, in her rattled brain, she wondered if she had actually flinched. Her face ached, forcing a hard smile to her lips, and she wanted nothing more than to slink back inside and hide. It was only the thought of Ryan, who stood lost and alone in front of Joe’s truck, looking like an outsider, mirroring exactly how she felt, that kept her there.
“This is Sara.” Joe squeezed the blonde’s shoulder, pressing her tighter against his side. There was no mistaking how involved they were.
“Hi,” Margaret said. That was it, the sum of anything intelligent she could utter. She fisted her hands in awkwardness and then jammed them in her back pockets, trying to figure out what she could say and what the hell to do with her hands.
“Storm’s all yours,” Joe said. “Tied him to your corral, there. Didn’t think you’d want him in with your horse.” He inclined his head to where the horse was tied. Well, of course he couldn’t use his hand, because it was glued to the skinny tart plastered against him. Margaret could only stare. Joe cleared his throat. “You okay?”
Her face heated, and that prompted her forward. “Hi, Ryan,” she said. She kept going, because her insides were jittery and her face, she knew, was now bright red. Storm must have picked up on her anxiety, because he started fidgeting and stepping sideways. “You know, it might be best if I get him settled now. You can go,” she said. She didn’t turn around but shut her eyes, counting back from ten and then taking a deep breath. She needed them gone before she jammed her other foot in her mouth, but when she turned around, three sets of eyes stared back and she had a sinking feeling they thought she’d lost her mind.
“Uh, you sure you’re okay with him?” Joe asked, gazing down at the blonde and then back at her.
She noted how different his demeanor was from the day before. He wasn’t barking, shouting or being an ass, period. His peacock feathers were in full bloom. She pressed her lips together harder and went to yank the brim of her hat down, except her finger came up empty, grabbing nothing but air. The damn hat was on the floor inside, so she awkwardly slapped her head. “Yeah, uh-huh.”
“Well, okay then.” Joe laughed in a happy, lighthearted way that made her heart sink even more. He placed his hand on Sara’s back, pulled open the driver’s door, and helped her in—with his hand on her ass, no doubt.
Ryan still had his hands stuffed in his pockets, standing awkwardly, another outsider just like her. She sympathized.
“So you’ll call me after and let me know what’s happening, and make sure you stay safe with that horse?” Joe said, jabbing a finger at her. She stared at him, wondering who this guy was and feeling tempted to give him the finger.
Ryan climbed in the passenger side. Margaret stepped back, and Joe started the truck and turned in a wide circle, the horse trailer rattling from where it was hitched behind the truck. Joe honked and waved as he drove past, smiling and laughing with Sara pressed against his side and Ryan looking the other way.
Margaret waited until the taillights disappeared, taking the happy couple with them, and she wondered where her head was. Somehow in all this, she’d unconsciously shoved her and Joe into some happy bubble, which had burst and dumped her right on her ass in the gutter.
“Stupid, stupid,” she said. “First the man tricks you into looking after his fricking horse, and where in the hell did you get the idea a guy like him could be single? Joe Wilde,” she barked at herself. Storm blew out his nostrils to let her know he was still there. “Okay, where to put you?” She glanced at Angel, her Arabian mare, who hung her head over the corral.
“You’re going into the field, my girl,” Margaret said as she grabbed Angel’s halter, unlatched the gate and led her out, but not before she stopped and stared at the prickly dark horse, the reason her self-imposed isolation had ended in the most unexpected and uneasy way.
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