Like the wild goose tattooed on her shoulder, Cassidy Esperanza goes wherever the wind takes her. For her, a new day means a fresh start. And yet something about her days in Caribou Crossing—and nights with its handsome hotel owner—makes her think about staying a while. But when life takes an unexpected turn, her first instinct is to take flight once more. Is Dave strong enough to help them both face their fears, come to terms with the past, and believe that sometimes love truly can last a lifetime?
How many times had some well-intentioned relative or friend told him he needed to dip his toe in the dating waters, get back in the game, yada yada? He rejected their efforts at matchmaking and suffered through the curious gazes they gave to every female he even spoke to.
Didn’t they get it? He couldn’t imagine ever loving again. Besides, he’d been by Anita’s side from the time she got the diagnosis of terminal brain cancer until the day she died. Never, ever again, would he let himself be vulnerable to the shattering pain of loss. To the bitter anger against the world, himself, even the woman he loved but couldn’t save.
His heart clenched, the ache rose in his throat, and—
“Dave? You okay?” Warm fingers brushed his forearm, bare below the rolled-up sleeve of his lightweight denim shirt.
Cassidy. He breathed in, fresh air cleansing his throat, his chest.
“Yeah, sorry,” he said brusquely. Her voice, her touch had beaten back the darkness.
And now that he was back in the real world, he realized how disconcertingly good those soft fingers felt against his skin.
They’d reached the outskirts of town, which gave him an excuse to raise his arm so that her hand dropped. He pointed ahead. “That’s Westward Ho!—where I keep my horse.” The well-maintained wooden stable housed a couple dozen horses. Beside it was a red-roofed barn, and two white-railed paddocks provided space for the horses to stretch and socialize.
“That’s so cool, that you have your own horse.”
He shrugged. “Can’t imagine my life without a horse.”
“You’ve been riding since you were little?”
“Yeah, though I wasn’t a ranch kid, or into rodeo, like some of my friends. When I married Jessie, horses became a bigger part of life, and Robin lives and breathes them.”
“Handy that you can keep your horse in town.”
“Uh-huh,” he said as they walked into the stable. “I try to get out on Malibu at least every couple of days. When I can’t, Robin or one of the staff here exercises him for me.”
Dave greeted Eddy, the teenage girl whose dad owned the business, and introduced Cassidy. Leaving the two of them to deal with Cassidy’s paperwork, he and Merlin went out to the paddock to call Malibu. The palomino gelding came over, bobbing his head eagerly.
Dave went through the familiar ritual: tie his horse with cross ties, groom him and pick his hooves, then saddle and bridle him. By the time he was finished, Eddy’d got Cassidy up on the back of a pinto mare and given her refresher instructions on how to position her body, hold the reins, and give basic cues to her horse.
“You’re all set,” Eddy said. “Have fun.”
“Absolutely.” Cassidy beamed at the girl, then at Dave. “Lead on.”
Her smile really did have a way of lighting the day. And warming his blood.
They headed out on a quiet dirt road that led out of town, their horses walking side by side with Merlin springing happily along beside them. Cassidy looked relaxed and comfortable in the saddle. Did she fit in this easily wherever she went?
She bent forward to stroke her horse’s neck, the motion snugging her jeans even tighter against her firm butt. “This is Cherry Blossom, if you can believe it,” she said. “Eddy says she prefers to be called Cherry, and I can see why. You said your palomino is Malibu?”
“Yes. Named by the woman who owned him before me.”
“Suits him. Such a pretty boy.” Her gaze skimmed up from his horse to move across Dave’s torso and end up on his face, a hint of suggestive mischief in her eyes.
“Thanks.” He added quickly, to make it clear he wasn’t flirting, “On his behalf.”
Her lips squeezed together like she was holding back a smile. “How long will it take us to get to . . . what did Robin call it? Riders Boot Camp?”
“Yes, that’s the place her mom runs. It’s about ten miles by highway, only eight by the back roads and trails. It usually takes Robin and me about half an hour, but we move fast. Don’t know how much speed you’re up for.” He cocked an eyebrow.
“I’m up for pretty much anything.” Her striking blue-gray eyes danced, and he got the sense she didn’t just mean riding.
“Uh,” he said awkwardly, “we should let the horses warm up first.” The moment he said those words, he wondered if they could be taken sexually too. He was about to clarify, then figured that would only make things worse.
“Sure,” she said. “My muscles could use a little warming up too.”
Riding muscles, right?
Best to change the subject.