Trace “TJ” James Jr. didn’t need anyone.
When Trace Senior died sixteen months ago, ownership, to her brothers’ objection, was turned over to TJ. Being the only daughter of one of the biggest horse ranchers in Western Montana, and now the sole owner of Whispering Creek Ranch, was a very big responsibility that was dropped in the then twenty-nine year olds’ lap. TJ was the cowboy that her father longed for her brothers to be but never were. Getting up before dawn, going to bed well after sundown, living, eating and breathing the ranch and cowboy way of life, was TJ’s only way of life. Never did she complain, even when she was younger, and not once had she asked for help.
When Trace died, TJ’s brothers demanded that she sell the ranch and give them their share.
They hounded her relentlessly.
“It’s too much responsibility for a young woman.”
“It’s time that you went on with your life; find a man, marry and have a family of your own.”
“The money from selling the ranch will give you the opportunity to see the world, and to travel as Father always talked about doing but never did.”
TJ’s brothers couldn’t grasp how none of that mattered or appealed to her. The ranch was her life, and like her daddy, it would be where she lived and died. In her opinion, her five brothers had enough wives, ex-wives, children and stepchildren to fill whatever void they thought their baby sister had from not marrying and having children. There was no way that the James name would die off simply because TJ didn’t have a son to carry it on, so it wasn’t anything that she was worried about or interested in discussing.
After a year of fighting her brothers and their attorneys, and struggling to cope with the death of her daddy, deserting ranch hands, and a run of overall bad luck, things were starting to look up at Whispering Creek. Over two dozen new foals were expected throughout the winter and spring, the economy was starting to pick back up, preparations for winter would be completed ahead of schedule, and the lodge was nearly in order for the impending snow.
Things were starting to go back to how they were when Trace was alive…
But luck never shined on TJ’s back for longer than a minute.
Eight weeks ago while riding the fence line as she did every day, the ground under her and her mare, Whisper, broke away, dumping them in a dry well. Whisper was a gift from her daddy for her twenty-fourth birthday. Trace said the horse was strong-willed and stubborn like his little girl and that’s why he bought the moody yearling.
It wasn’t a match made in heaven, not in the least.
TJ was thrown more than a dozen times while trying to break Whisper, and nearly gave up on the stubborn yearling, but her hardheaded cowboy nature wouldn’t let her. One day, when trying to wrangle the unruly yearling from the corral, the horse slammed its head into TJ’s stomach so hard that it knocked her to the ground, gasping for air. When the flashes of light finally cleared from TJ’s vision, she saw Whisper standing over her with a rattlesnake latched onto her leg. The horse saved TJ from the rattler, and since then they had been nearly inseparable.
And just like with the snake, Whisper was trying to save Trace when the ground gave way under them by leaning to the side, taking the full impact of the landing. The jagged rocks bit into their skin and snapped bones. If Whisper hadn’t leaned, forcing her weight to the side, the full impact of the fall and the horse’s weight would have landed with TJ on bottom with all eight-hundred pounds of Whisper on top of her.
For three days, TJ and Whisper were in that hole, waiting for someone to find them. Whisper broke her rear leg in three places and four ribs. The vet said to put her down; not because of the animal being in pain, rather because the animal would most likely be lame if she healed and the medical costs would be ridiculous for just one horse, especially for a horse that wasn’t a champion breeder, however TJ wouldn’t hear of it.
TJ didn’t walk away unscathed from the incident. She broke three ribs, wrist and arm, dislocated her shoulder and hip, a hairline fracture of the femur, and injured her back and neck. With winter fast approaching and Whispering Creek’s summer and fall help packed up and headed south, TJ needed help even if she would never admit to such.
Her oldest brother, Jessup James, had been pressuring TJ to hire a new Ranch Manager since Frank Heff retired after nearly forty-years at Whispering Creek. Frank was like an uncle to TJ and he loved her like a niece, but he would never work for a woman so he opted for retirement without giving notice. TJ agreed to disagree that she needed a new Ranch Manager, and took up the reins to take care of it herself since she knew the ranch better than anyone.
It’s proved to be physically more demanding than she can handle with her slowly mending injuries.
“Just another day in paradise,” TJ said under her breath, and tried to stretch her back out in the saddle. She’s been riding Milk, a gentle gelding that specializes in working with handicap children, since before sunrise. Regardless of taking the smooth trails cut through the hills, always keeping the lodge in sight and a radio on her just in case, and cutting back on manual labor, she felt as if someone had beat her with a baseball bat.
“What I wouldn’t give for a stiff drink and a long, hot bath,” she said, and Milk nodded his apparent agreement.
Despite the pain radiating throughout TJ’s body, there was no place else she rather have been at that moment.
For the past week the weather had been simply beautiful. The leaves had started to change from green to red and gold. The thick, swaying emerald grass was littered with late blooming autumn flowers and created a canvas of green, purple, white and yellow that appeared as a patchwork quilt covering the hillsides. The clear blue sky was without a single cloud and in only an hour would blend to violet, orange and red at the horizon, putting a new meaning to the nickname of the state she calls home: Big Sky Country. A beautiful Sunday evening that would be even sweeter with a bottle of wine and a bubble bath.
When she started to click her tongue, commanding Milk to head back to the stables, her attention was pulled to the road leading to the lodge. An unfamiliar pickup truck pulling a peculiar trailer raced down the dirt drive, throwing rocks and dirt up as they went, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake.
“Who in the hell is raisin’ a ruckus on my land now?” TJ grumbled in irritation, and kicked Milk into a run, ignoring the searing the not-so-gentle action caused.
Someone was invading TJ’s space, her home and world, and that wasn’t acceptable. Over a year worth of meddling brothers and vicious attorneys had disrupted her livelihood and world enough for a hundred lifetimes; TJ didn’t know how much fight she had left in her.
TJ’s mind was racing a mile a minute trying to figure out who was throwing dirt all over, which brother was responsible for the intrusion this time, how much it was going to cost her in legal fees now, and how many hours would she be indisposed before she could kick her boots off and slip into a hot bath.
The truck and trailer pulled up to the front of the lodge before she reached it, and when Milk cut along the familiar trail, rounding along the back of the riding stables, the lodge disappeared. TJ wanted to take Milk back to the stables then storm back to the lodge and give the jerk who was racing down her driveway a piece of her mind. She wanted to rip him a new one, and yes, she knew it was a man because only men drive like jackasses, but the pain in her back and the numbness in her legs from riding, against doctor’s orders, would prevent her from making a hasty dismount and strong stand.
TJ cut through the barn, the large rolling doors on each end remained open during the day to allow fresh air to flow through, and cut hard to the right once they cleared the barn. Milk, a seasoned and well-trained therapy horse, sensed that TJ was losing control—the strength in her thighs had wavered, her fiberglass clad hand lost its hold on the leather reins, her shoulder had dropped, throwing her balance off—so the gelding slowed, ignoring his rider’s silent commands.
“Hello?” an unfamiliar voice called out, startling TJ.
She turned towards the sound of the voice, Milk abruptly stopped, and TJ lost her balance and fell out of the saddle.
The ground seemingly rushed up towards her but she was surprised when she didn’t hit. Instead, she found herself in two strong arms that caught her then wrapped protectively around her body before carefully setting TJ down on her shaking legs.
“Careful. I have heard that the ground is rather unforgiving,” the stranger murmured in her ear, his soft Italian accent wrapped around each word that left his lips.
A chill ran down TJ’s spine; Italians were her kryptonite.
When TJ’s boots were firmly on the ground and her knees stopped shaking, she pushed out of his arms and carefully turned to face him. “Who in the hell are you?” she demanded, trying to maintain an authoritative tone, but she found it near impossible not to whimper.
TJ has never seen the man before, and was very handsome in her opinion, which was surprising since TJ hadn’t really thought about a man long enough to think him attractive or not before. His dark olive toned skin appeared soft and was without a single winkle, a day’s worth of perfectly manicured dark brown stubble shadowed the lower half of his face, brown hair was cut short on the sides with waves of soft curls on the top, light green eyes that were warm and surrounded by this black, and his full pale pink lips revealed a dazzling white smile that looked at home on his handsome face. His attire was what she was accustomed to on a ranch. He looked like a cowboy minus the missing cowboy hat, but in her experience he was too handsome to be a cowboy: well-worn cowboy boots, clean dark denim Wranglers, leather belt with a polished silver buckle, and a white dress shirt tucked in as if he was ready for Sunday service.
“Ma’am,” he nodded and offered her his hand but she ignored it.
“Was that you throwin’ dirt all over?” TJ interrupted.
His smile fell and he nodded. “I apologize, Ma’am,” he said. “I did not realize it was not a public road, and instead was a driveway until I reached the end. I apologize for that. I am-”
“We don’t board here,” she said, once again interrupting him
He cocked a thick eyebrow, giving her a look.
“And we don’t sell to strangers that just drive up,” she added. “Take your trailer and get the hell out.”
He shook his head. “I am not looking for boarding, though I was assured there would be a stall available.”
TJ gave him a look in return.
“I am Diego Esposito, I am looking for TJ,” he explained, hoping that would clear all this up for her. “I knocked but there was no answer.”
TJ continued to glare at him, and folded her arms across her chest in defiance and irritation.
“Do you know where I can find Mr. TJ James?” Diego asked, unsure.
She nodded once.
“Okay? Are you going to tell me?” he asked with a chuckle and pushed his hand through his hair, separating the curls with his fingers in the process.
“Depends,” TJ said and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and struggled to ignore the searing sensation in her back and hips from the action, and her jaw clenched through the pain.
Diego looked at her curiously, his eyes moved over her, appraising her condition. “You need to sit down,” he said, and motioned towards the lodge.
“I prefer to stand,” she said in a clipped tone.
“And I would prefer to have this pissing contest, as you Americans say, sitting down so you do not further injure yourself, Ma’am,” he said in an equally clipped tone.
TJ glared at him. “I ain’t no ma’am. I ain’t married. I ain’t got no kid runnin’ amuck calling me mama. Thus I ain’t no ma’am. What do you want with TJ?” she asked again, even more irritated than she was before because he effortlessly caused the old cowboy to come out in her speech.
It was a bad habit she picked up from Frank and her brother Jesse.
Diego nodded, but he wasn’t nodding his agreement.
Being an Italian-Spaniard, stubborn, hardheaded women were something he was accustomed to dealing with. His mother and sisters were the most stubborn creatures to ever grace God’s green earth, so this woman was no different, in his opinion.
“Very well, I am his new Ranch Manager,” Diego explained and TJ’s eyes widened. “Mr. Jessup James hired me. I was not due to start for a few more weeks, but I was able to wrap up at Triple Valley Ranch early and I made good time on the road. I was hoping to miss the weather; snow was predicted within the month in Wyoming. I apologize if coming early left the ranch unprepared for me, but I was hoping to familiarize myself with the area, staff, horses and ranch before taking over the reins.”
TJ shook her head in disbelief. “You’re mistaken. You ain’t my... You ain’t the goddamn Ranch Manager,” she coldly informed him. “I’m sorry, mister-”
“Please, call me Diego,” he interrupted.
“Whatever,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Whispering Creek Ranch already has a Ranch Manager. I’m sorry Jessup wasted your time. I’ll make sure that he compensates you for your time and travel.”
Diego shook his head, trying to maintain the fabricated smile on his face. “I am sorry, Ma’am. I do not know who you are, but if I am going to get fired before I even sign on, I would like the reason why. And do not use the excuse of having a Ranch Manager because Mr. Jessup has assured me that the Ranch Manager retired without notice and that the ranch is in desperate need of management...” his words trailed off as he looked around.
The ranch was beautiful and apparently well ran, and there wasn’t a building which wasn’t in showroom condition from outside appearances. The horses he could see appeared strong, happy and healthy, and the grounds were immaculate. None of that was what he was expecting to find when he took the job.
Interviewing over the phone wasn’t something Diego had ever done before, and it made him slightly paranoid, but Mr. James informed him that there was no time to go back and forth with the formalities of interviewing in person and touring the ranch. Jessup was extremely concerned because the ranch was being ran into the ground by inexperienced hands, and that his family birthright was being squandered.
That didn’t appear to be the case at all.
Diego’s shoulders dropped and he hissed out a sigh. “I am in middle of a family squabble, am I not?” he asked, his accent getting even thicker, and he reluctantly looked back to TJ.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” she scoffed, looking away from him.
“Personal experience,” he offered with a strained chuckle. “Is Mr. Jessup due back soon? I would like to have words with him.”
TJ smirked, looking over at him. “Not if I get my hands on him first. It’ll be a cold day in hell when I let my annoying, thinks he knows it all, big brother hire for my ranch. He’s still pissed that ain’t sellin’ it.”
Diego cocked an eyebrow, the corners of his mouth pulling up into a smile. “This is your ranch?” he asked in disbelief.
“Yeah. You got a problem with that?”
“No, Ma’am,” he said with a chuckle and smile wide when she glared at him. “You are TJ?”
“Trace James Jr. at your service,” she said and offered him her hand. “The only owner and operator of Whispering Creek Ranch, and the only person that decides who in the hell gets to work here.”
Diego nodded is understanding and shook her hand, the unmistakable look of disappointment washing across his face.
TJ wasn’t good with people. Horses yes, people not so much, and men she was even worse with. There was a reason why she wasn’t married, minus the obvious reasons of being stubborn, running a ranch, being considered one of the guys and a cowboy without the boy aspect of it, and never having time to date.
She lacked people skills.
Trace was a man of few words but his word was law. There was no compromising, no sugar coating anything, and no pretenses. From working side by side with her daddy, TJ became his twin. The ranch hands respected TJ enough simply because she was the blonde, female equivalent of Trace, but working for the younger, prettier, and usually bigger hard ass of the two, wasn’t easy. TJ accepted no excuses and didn’t compromise. You worked or you got the hell out. You never left a job unfinished. And you never half-assed anything. That’s how ranch life was, and that’s how TJ saw every aspect of life, even life off of the ranch, as being. However, that wasn’t the case and she couldn’t handle it so she embraced the only life she knew and was content with that.
Sadly, that contentment in her small, sheltered world would prove to be her biggest downfall.
Diego continued to stand there, his mind scrambling to put together an argument that the stubborn woman might listen to, but he knew it was futile.
Proud, determined women are near impossible to convince of what is in their best interest, but when you add in the family drama and a lying brother that purposely overstepped boundaries and undermined his sister and her position and ranch, it makes it an impossible endeavor.
“I am sorry for disturbing you this evening, Ma’am,” Diego said with a heavy sigh of disappointment; he was excited about this job.
The ranch was beautiful, by far one of the most beautiful that he’d had the pleasure of working at, not that he had actually gotten the chance to work at Whispering Creek, and it would have been the perfect place and environment to clear his head and get away from the past. What was he supposed to do now? Where was he supposed to go? He put in his notice at Triple Valley Ranch, left on good terms for the most part, but he wasn’t about to ask for his job back. The pompous owner was a real piece of work that would welcome him back at greenhorn pay and ride him long and hard like a seasonal greenhorn simply because he knew that Diego would work his ass off and not complain or question it, wouldn’t allow his pride to cloud his work ethic, thus taking advantage of the situation.
This time his pride would win because Diego refused go back with his tail tucked and head hanging.
TJ groaned, looking to the ceiling.
Diego looked at her curiously. “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned about her well-being.
It was more than obvious that she was in pain, a medical degree didn’t need to tell him that, and the oath to his old profession dictated that he should be concerned for the moody and irritable stranger. But his genuinely caring nature made him care.
“I’m fine,” she snapped at him. “It’s just like that sonuvabitch to go behind my back and hire someone when I told him I didn’t need help. No wonder he hasn’t returned any of my calls. I knew that rotten bastard was up to something.” Again she huffed. “I ain’t givin’ you a job, but you can come inside while I try to get Jessup’s ass down here from Bozeman. I swear to God he’s adopted,” she mumbled under her breath and slowly hobbled towards the lodge. “Milk, go home,” she called out.
The horse snorted, nodding his agreement, before turning and strolled back to the stables and into his stall.
Diego watched wide-eyed.
It wasn’t often that you see a horse respond to dog commands like that. He knew right away that Milk, the large gelding TJ rode up on, was a therapy horse. He, himself, had much experience with working and training therapy horses. The fact that the horse stepped to the right when TJ’s weight shift to the left, purposely delivering the falling woman into Diego’s arms, was proof that the gelding was expertly trained and above average intelligence for a horse. It made Diego feel even worse that he wouldn’t get a chance to work with the animal himself: it had been a long time since he’s had the privilege and joy of working with therapy horses.
Dick Owens, the owner of Triple Valley Ranch, refused to open up his glorious ranch to the handicap and underprivileged, something that Diego propositioned him about more than once. It was beneath a man like Dick Owens and his horses to allow poor people, criminals in the making as he called them, and the handicap to step foot on his ranch, let alone, touch his horses.
Yet another thing that Diego hated about his former employer.
“You coming or what?” TJ called out in a clipped tone.
“Sorry, Ma’am,” Diego said then smiled when he heard her growl under her breath in irritation. “You have a lovely ranch,” he said, following her through the side door of the lodge, minding the way she moved and how she favored her right side to compensate for the strain on the left.
“Yup,” was all TJ said, using the wall and countertop for support as she went.
The kitchen was large and open. All ranch kitchens looked the same, in Diego’s opinion, but that wasn’t the case now. There was something about this kitchen that reminded him of home. Instead of oak and granite covering everything causing it to feel stuffy and overly crowded, it was open and airy. The high ceiling was rough-cut timbers with dark raw wood beams that spanned the entire width of the kitchen, a stone oven was built into one wall with an open wood burning fireplace below it, clay tiles acted as the canvas for a hand painted mural of an Italian vineyard, warm golden colored stucco covered walls, impressive antique styled stove and fridge looked turn of the century but they were modern reproductions that cost more than he’d make in a year, rod iron chandeliers with blown glass accents hung throughout the space softly illuminating it in a golden glow, raw dark wood cabinets covered one wall with a large front apron sink positioned in front of a large window, cast iron pots and pans accented one wall with wooden shelves covered in cookbooks, and the travertine floors were rich and warm. There was a large wooden table with benches and chairs, room to seat ten or more, along the opposite side of the kitchen where the bay window was, the dark maroon curtains framing the window were the quintessential of an Italian kitchen…
It reminded him of home.
“You might want to have a seat, this could take a bit,” TJ said, grabbing the cordless phone from the charger on the counter.
Diego nodded and obediently sat at the table and watched the woman studiously. What kind of doctor would allow someone in so much pain to ride? he wondered, noting how she’s not favoring her right hand since it’s not in a fiberglass cast to the elbow like the other was, and her left shoulder was being favored causing the right to hang slightly lower—her alignment is very bad and should be address by her physician, he commented to himself—and the obvious pain in her back and hips was causing her to walk with a considerable limp.
The phone being thrown against the backsplash caused Diego to jump, obviously he had missed something, and he quickly stood. “Is everything all right?” he asked.
TJ growled under her breath and cautiously turned around before leaning against the counter, tossing her cowboy hat on the counter. “My lovely brother is out of town and won’t be back for a couple of weeks,” she informed him. “Bastard turned his cellphone off even. It’s almost as if he knew I’d be callin’ to rip him a new one.”
Diego forced a smile. “I assure you, Ma’am, I had nothing to do with that. I am early, something I apologize for. If I am to be completely honest, I was excited and could not wait to get here.”
TJ groaned. “Shut up,” she complained.
He nodded, his forced smile falling. “Yes, Ma’am. I am sorry to hear Mr. Jessup will be unavailable for the butt chewing he deserves. You said you do not board horses, but I cannot fathom leaving Dantae in his trailer-”
“Dantae?” she interrupted.
Again, Diego nodded. “My best friend and horse.”
That seemingly piqued her interest and the pain clouding her dark brown eyes cleared.
“Can you suggest a place in town that would have a vacancy and available boarding? I really would like to have words with your brother in person,” he continued.
“You and me both,” TJ said as if it were obvious. “The auction is next weekend so every place will be booked.”
“Auction?” he asked.
“Horse auction,” she said in a tone that made it more than obvious that he should have known what she was talking about in her opinion. “It’s where a bunch of old white men with way too much money in their pockets shop for horses and studs in order to build up their catalogues,” she said, hobbling from the kitchen. “Come!” she called out when Diego didn’t follow.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said and hurried after her. “I am very much aware of what a horse auction is. I was more curious as to why the disdain in your tone when you said it. Is it safe to assume that you not going?”
She paused at the front door and cocked a full, dark brown eyebrow.
“I take your silence as confirmation that you are not,” he said with a chuckle. “Why is that?” he asked when she pulled the front door open, genuinely curious.
Diego was desperately trying to get TJ to talk to him, to converse with him so he could find something he could possibly offer her that might sway her decision when it comes to his employment. Most likely he was grasping at straws, but he was a fighter and never gave up without a fight.
TJ shrugged before winching then headed out the door and started down the front steps. “Ain’t got no need for more horses,” she said, heading towards the British green trailer hitched to the back of Diego’s truck. “We have dozens of foals that’ll be gracing the world in a few months. Daddy said that happy horses become family, and as he heard, women, when sisters or are close like sister, sync their cycles.”
Diego’s eyes widened; he wasn’t sure where this conversation was going in the least.
“I reckon everyone thought he was talkin’ crazy, but the proof is in our ledgers,” she said, going around to the back of the trailer. “Our harras has, for the last decade, gone in heat within weeks of each other. Daddy said it makes it much easier to keep track of their cycles for breeding. It made Whispering Creek the envy of breeders everywhere. They demanded to know how Daddy did it, what the secret was… Are you here to try to get that information for that vile sonuvabitch Dick Owens?” she asked.
Diego chuckled. “No, Ma’am, though I will admit it is most impressive. La mia famiglia were able to do the same, though it took much, much longer than a decade to achieve.”
TJ nodded; that was an interesting tidbit of information. “Well, let’s see him,” she said, motioning for him to open the trailer since she hadn’t the strength to.
Not sure what game TJ was playing, but grateful that she wasn’t walking him out to his truck to get the hell off her property, nodded and opened the back of the trailer.
Despite her irritation over Diego’s presence and Jessup’s actions, a smile filled TJ’s face.
“He’s beautiful,” she whispered, holding her hand out.
The pure black stallion sniffed her hand before leaning into it, giving her permission to pet him.
“Dantae, this is Miss TJ,” Diego introduced, caressing up and down the horse’s forehead.
“Is he…” she started to ask, looking the horse over. “It ain’t possible. I’ve only seen pictures of them.”
Diego nodded. “Dantae is a Cavallo del Ventasso. I brought him over from home… I have had him since he was born. His mother died in a childbirth and I bottle fed him, laid with him in his stall even, and could not fathom leaving him when I headed west. Padre was not pleased that,” he paused catching himself and looked over at the woman next to him caressing his horse.
Somehow, without even trying, TJ effortless got his walls to fall. Never had he told anyone outside of the family what he had done for Dantae, how it was that he had him even. Cavallo del Ventasso were a protected and critically endangered breed of Italian horses that couldn’t leave their country. There are less than fifty purebreds in existence, and Diego had one that he called his best friend and son for the past seven years.
“He’s beautiful,” TJ whispered with tears in her eyes, pulling her fingers through Dantae thick mane. “Time for a trim,” she teased.
Dantae pawed at the floor of the trailer.
TJ sighed, nodding her understanding. “If you didn’t make such a good argument,” she scolded. “I reckon you’re gonna have to stay here for now, until we can figure out what to do with your daddy,” she said.
Diego fought to keep from laughing.
Again, Dantae pawed at the floor, nodding.
“He’s a stallion?” TJ asked without looking over at him.
Diego nodded. “He is. Is that a problem?”
She shook her head. “Only if he can’t play well with others,” she said.
“Dantae is exceptionally well-behaved,” Diego assured her. “He is even housebroken.”
“I trained him myself,” he explained. “Though, I trained him to be a therapy horse.”
That stole her attention and she looked over at him, but his attention was on the horse he was petting. “Padre was not happy that my training caused, what Madre called, selectiveness in mares.”
Again, TJ chuckled. “That’s why he ain’t branded as a stud.”
He nodded. “That and I would never hurt by boy like that. Branding is a barbaric practice that I have never supported. I understand the reason for it, but to scar such a beautiful creature to simply mark ownership is beyond stomach turning.”
TJ groaned, making a face; those were her views on it as well. None of her horses were branded. Instead, TJ microchips each, retains DNA and blood typing on file, and had a digital and physical photo catalogue of each horse from birth, in most cases, to adulthood or when sold for identification purposes.
“Ma’am?” Diego asked, confused by her reaction.
“I’m gonna kill my brother,” she grumbled under her breath, patting Dantae’s neck. “There’s accommodations in the stables I reckon you’ll like more than your little trailer. Fresh hay and oats, get yourself some water, and tomorrow you can stretch your legs in one of the training corrals while your daddy tries to convince me to let ya’ll stay.”
Diego’s eyes widened.
TJ looked over at him and cocked an eyebrow. “That was why you were ramblin’, wasn’t it? That or flitin’, which we both know ain’t believable in the least so I figured it was a means to get me to let you stay. I’m not letting you stay, but I can’t in good conscience force Dantae to sleep in that tiny trailer with you,” she said, looking back to the horse; there were clips for a hammock in the small trailer, and it told TJ that Diego slept in the trailer with his horse.
Oddly enough, she respected him for it and found it sexy that he wouldn’t leave his horse at night.
“Not flirting,” Diego assured her.
“I know,” she said, patting Dantae’s neck before turning and hobbled along the sidewalk.
Diego watched her walk away. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to do or say. TJ said he could stay, for now, but Diego had a sneaking suspicion that she was giving Dantae permission to stay, not Diego; he was getting to stay by default.
Strangely, that was okay in Diego’s mind. It gave him time to try to convince TJ to let him stay, or at the very least, fight for the job he’s waited his entire life for.
Dantae nudged Diego with his head, forcing him forward.
“Va bene!” he said when the horse pushed him again. “You are as pushy as an American.”
Dantae snorted and followed without a lead, going the way TJ had gone.
Diego shook his head in resignation and followed.
The stables were next to the lodge, only a hundred yards away, at most. The doors were open and as if he owned the place, Dantae strolled inside.
When Diego stepped into the stables, he smiled but his heart was heavy with sadness.
These were the types of stables that he had always longed to see again, but never did he expect to find them outside of Europe.
The two-story building was clean, spacious, efficient and beautiful. Twenty stalls lined each side of the center walkway; each rolling door had a nameplate attached noting which horse belonged where and what their specialty was. The stalls were made up of polished cherry and oak planks with powdered coated fencing covering some of the stall windows—‘problem child horses’ his father would call them—and the open windows on the other stalls were encased in rounded, oiled wood to prevent injury from rubbing against them. Fresh water fed troughs ran along the back wall, each being fed circulated, filtered water. Along the tops of the stalls, on the second story, were filled with expertly stacked bales of hay and bags of oats. The overhanging edge of the second story had strung colorful glass lanterns running the length of each side, the LED bulbs in each flickering, mimicking the effect of burning candles, creating ambient light that the horses obviously enjoyed. Music was playing from the speakers mounted on the support beams—a jazz and blues compilation—and the setting sun coming in through the sky lights breaking up the roofline filled the space with warm, golden light.
“Absolutely amazing,” Diego whispered.
Dantae had waited for his ride then smacked Diego with his tail before heading down to the end of the building.
“Where did my lovely brother find you?” TJ asked from the far end of the stable, where an oversized stall with an open rolling door was.
Dantae joined her and stood in the doorway.
Diego hurried down to his horse, concerned by his sudden change in demeanor; ears were pulled back, tail wasn’t sweeping, and body was rigid. He stumbled to a stop when he reached them, his eyes wide.
Inside the stall TJ sat on a stool with a brush in her good hand. Carefully she ran it along the silvery gray coat of the horse in a robotic lift system. The horse’s blue-gray eyes looked between Diego and Dantae, but the mare was remaining surprisingly calm. One leg was immobilized in skeletal traction that he had never seen for a horse before. The other legs were in blue air compression massager sleeves.
“She is absolutely beautiful,” Diego whispered.
TJ nodded and continued to carefully brush what she could. “Whisper saved my life and I vowed to save hers in return.”
“A bald-faced silver Grullo are rare,” he commented, caressing Dantae’s neck.
“A gift from Daddy,” she said with a small smile. “She’s stubborn like I am, hardheaded and a fighter, just like me. That’s why Daddy got her for me. Sure, the bitch tried to kill me a couple of times and was hell bent she’d never be ridden, but we came to an understanding eventually and we’ve been inseparable ever since.”
“It’s true,” TJ argued, brushing Whisper’s long, thick silver and charcoal mane so she could braid it before turning in for the night. “Dantae can take any stable he wants if it’s unoccupied. Make sure you write on the chalkboard on the door boarding so no one tries to ride or use him. I know it’s asking a lot, but can you please unsaddle Milk and brush him out for me? I need to be with Whisper right now.”
Diego nodded. “Of course. If you need anything, anything at all, just let me know.”
TJ nodded, never looking from what she was doing.
Diego caressed along Dantae’s back; he knew his horse wouldn’t wander and was seemingly drawn to the blue-gray eyed quarter-horse. “Comportati,” he whispered.
Dantae nodded, causing his long black mane to whip around his face.
Diego headed down to Milk’s stall on the other end of the stables. “Online,” he called out. “Your brother found me online,” he said, answering her initial question. “There are message boards for ranch positions and I contacted him about the ranch manager position he had posted,” he explained, unsaddling Milk.
That didn’t surprise TJ, but it should have. She suspected her brothers were up to something. What, she didn’t know. But her gut had never lied to her before and it was screaming that they were scheming. That could have been why she refused to take it easy and replace Frank. Trying to prove or disprove her gut feeling, TJ had checked the very boards that Jessup used to find Diego. Never did she see her ranch listed on the want ads or posting boards, but there was a few ranches she’d never heard of and figured they were simply fly-by-night Texans trying their hand at Montana ranching. It wouldn’t have been the first time. And now she realizes that one of those ‘fly-by-night’ ranches was hers in disguise.
Jessup would get his ass kicked real good when he got back to town, that TJ was certain.
“Triple Valley Ranch is a lovely hole,” TJ said conversationally, watching Diego tend to Milk. Trace always told her that you can learn a lot about a man simply by watching him and noting which words cause his eyes to deviate from yours. But there’s so much more you can learn of a man’s character by the way he treats a horse.
The tenderness in Diego’s touch, how attentive he is, and the way he moves with purpose and experience…
It made Diego an even bigger problem than she initially thought he’d be.
“But Dick Owens is a real piece of shit,” she added with a soft snort.
The burst of amusement that broke past Diego lips caused a smile to pull at the corners of TJ’s mouth. “In not so many words,” Diego agreed, hanging up the saddle with the others in the equipment hold by the makeshift offices then checked the bristles of each hanging brush before finding the one he thought best for Milk and his coat. “Mr. Owens and I never got along. Our differing of opinions when it came philanthropy was the major reason for our many disagreements. The way he treated his horses and ranch hands was another.”
TJ’s brows pulled together. “What do you mean?” she reluctantly asked, suspicious. “The philanthropy thing,” she clarified. “I already know that bastard ain’t fit to raise a feral cat let alone a pony, and he treats everything and everyone as if they are beneath him. Daddy hated him. Threated to cut his balls off and feed ‘em to him if he ever stepped foot on our property again.”
Diego looked at her curiously. “There is a story there.”
She nodded her agreement. “To say the least. Dick Owens thought I was rather purdy… I was sixteen when he propositioned Daddy, and Daddy nearly ended up in the back of a sheriff’s jeep in handcuffs as a result. Bastard didn’t want me, not that I would have had him. He wanted to know the secret of syncing heat cycles. You know that scar on Dick’s neck?”
“He hides it under a bandana but I have seen it,” he said. “Your father was responsible?”
“No. Me,” she said with a smirk. “I don’t need no man defending me or fighting my battles for me. Daddy lost his temper and swung on him after I took his Winchester from him. It was safer for Dick that way. When Dick tried cheap-shottin’ him after I got them separated, I used my boot knife on him. That’s why Daddy was in handcuffs after the Sheriff showed up. Daddy said he was the one that cut him, not his little girl. Dick argued it, but the Sheriff wasn’t gonna listen to him, and he knew I did it. It wasn’t nuttin’ some stitches couldn’t fix.”
Diego chuckled; her indifference about her felony assault amused him. He continued to brush out Milk’s coat. “We spent the past three years working at Triple Valley Ranch for Dick Owens…me and Dantae. I started as a ranch hand and quickly moved up to ranch manager… After a month I was his ranch manager. My worth ethic and experience proved to be most useful and Dick took advantage of it. I did the work of five greenhorns or three ranch hands, and he exploited it,” he paused and shook his head.
TJ looked down to the other end of the stables; Diego stood there brushing out Milk with his back to her. As he moved, she admired his firm, slightly rounded backside and the way his Wranglers showed the definition in his thighs.
That wasn’t right.
Never had TJ given anyone a second glance before, but she couldn’t help but give a second, third and fourth to Diego.
“If I was entertaining,” she said, struggling to find her voice and Diego looked over his shoulder at her, “hiring a new Ranch Manager, what would your work history and experience include?”
Diego returned his attention to Milk so she didn’t see the smile on his face.
This was what he wanted. All he needed was a shot, an opportunity, and TJ was giving that to him.
“I grew up on a ranch,” Diego said, starting from the beginning since he was speaking to the one person that might understand. “La mia famiglia owns a horse ranch, one that has been in the famiglia for more generations than I can remember at the moment, but because of my passion I lost mio padre’s approval and the right to one-day call Centro Ippico della Berardenga mine.”
TJ’s eyes widened and the brush in her hand stopped in mid-stroke. “The Centro Ippico della Berardenga?” she asked, her mind spinning in a million directions at once.
There was no way.
It wasn’t possible.
TJ looked from Diego to Dantae; the horse was looking at her, as if he was proof enough that his rider spoke the truth.
Diego sighed, shaking his head. “Yes, the Centro Ippico della Berardenga. La mia famiglia does not understand that I want more from our ranch. I wanted us to take a more proactive role in therapeutic riding,” he explained, his accent flaring heavily, the way it does when he’s struggling to express himself. “There was not money in it according to mio padre so it was not something that was up for discussion. When I was sixteen, I went to the University and started working on my medical degree-”
“Wait, you’re a doctor?” TJ interrupted.
It couldn’t get any worse if she tried. An heir to one of the oldest and most reputable stables and breeders in Europe, possibly the world, and a doctor and cowboy?!
“It is complicated,” he said.
“Ain’t you like eighteen?” she blurted out.
Diego chuckled. “Thirty-three, but thank you for the compliment. Once my required schooling was completed I left the hospital after one internship, not bothering to do the rest which would have earned me my PhD. Medicine was not as fulfilling as I hoped it was going to be, mainly I wanted the knowledge and medical background so I could follow my true passion.”
“Which is?” TJ whispered, unable to take her eyes off him.
“While in school I split my time between my studies and running an equine assisted psychotherapy program and therapeutic riding stable in Sardinia,” he said softly, and her eyes widened. “Once funding for those programs were… Reallocated,” he said in a clipped tone, pausing to compose himself, “I went west.”
That was completely unexpected.
TJ didn’t know what to say.
If she were to be honest with herself, Diego Esposito was exactly what she’d want in a man… A Ranch Manager. A cowboy that was a doctor, passionate about helping others, and was nice to look at was what any cowgirl would want, so of course it made her suspicious.
Once Milk was put away in his stall and Diego fed him, and making sure all of the horses in the stables were fed and ready for the night, he returned to TJ, Dantae and Whisper.
“Your ranch… Never have I seen stalls so beautiful,” he said, leaning against the doorway to the neighboring stall and caressed Dantae’s neck, his attention on his horse. “But what makes them beautiful is not the wood they are made from or the impressive bracing systems, heavy-duty hardware or the expansiveness of them. What makes them the most beautiful stalls I have ever seen are all of the little things that you have done for your horses. The fencing on the stalls of the bambino problematico are treated with a heavy-duty powder-coat finish that is an expensive extra step to ensure that if the horse rubs up against the metal, which the standard coating rubs off quickly, it will not snag their hair or coat or hurt them. The music and ambient lighting, not to mention the skylights, are all a means to keep the horses at ease and to keep them from feeling lonely. Fresh water setups with trickling water that mimics a sound of a natural flowing creek... Never have I seen anything so beautiful, but it is the meaning and intent behind each and every thing that makes this beyond words.”
TJ nodded, slightly impressed that he deduced the importance of each thing as quickly as he had, but it made her even more suspicious. “So my lovely, overly expensive and a massive waste of money setup has impressed you,” she said indifferently.
Diego shook his head. “It is not a waste of money... Those are your brothers’ words and thoughts,” he surmised. “The syncing of your harras cycles is proof that it was not a waste of money. That is why it only took a decade to achieve what took my family nearly two centuries to do.”
TJ blushed; that was the greatest compliment anyone had ever given her.
“I will beg, if I have to,” Diego said, escorting Dantae to the open stall next to Whisper, “for the opportunity to work at Whispering Creek. The obvious love and heart which is the very essence and breath of Whispering Creek has enamored me and prompts me to fight for the job I have searched my entire life for. It would give my life a sense of purpose when I have none. Working with children with medical conditions, disabilities that will limit their lives, has always been something I have longed to do. That longing and passion to help others cost me my birthright,” he said the latter so softly that it caused tears to flood TJ’s eyes.
Never had TJ met someone that was as passionate about equine assisted therapy as she was. Not even the director of the Helping Hooves Northwest foundation she worked with was as passionate as the pleading man in front of her was. Each word that left Diego’s lips was passionate and filled with more emotion and truth than she’d ever heard from a man before. There was a feeling in her gut that she knew she couldn’t afford to ignore, but it was a different kind of warning, one that she knew she had to ignore at all costs, even if it broke her heart in the long run.
When TJ was barley a teenager, she saw something on the television and it moved her to want to try equine-assisted therapy at Whispering Creek. Since TJ had never asked for anything before, Trace agreed to give it a try. After the first few months at the summer camp TJ went to in order to learn more about the programs and benefits, she was even more determined to start something at Whispering Creek. Trace was moved by his little girl’s determination and agreed to help her start a program as long as his daughter wanted to head it.
Equine-assisted therapy programs aren’t cheap to setup, let alone maintain. The special saddles are extremely expensive, the horses require specialized training and had to have a naturally subdued temperament which can be hard to find in strong, powerful creatures like horses. On top of that, there were alterations to the stalls, riding stable, lodge and the property to make it family and handicap friendly. Not to mention, the specialized medical training that the ranch hands and TJ had to go through; in a single year, TJ will put in over one-thousand hours of specialized medical training in order to maintain their licenses.
None of it was cheap, and to maintain it cost even more than the initial setup. It was costly, her brothers raised a ruckus about it, but Trace was moved by his daughter’s selflessness and her longing to help those that needed it; never had any of his sons thought of anyone but themselves. So to keep the peace, TJ offered her shares of the family ranch to cover the costs. Trace simply shook his head and kissed his daughter on the top of the head and signed the check to cover the expenses.
Ten years later, the program was one of the best in the country and maintained by private donations and fundraisers. None of the three-hundred-plus riders that visit Whispering Creek a year pays for the services or the boarding. Most are families that are barely making ends meet as is because of staggering medical bills and travel costs for treatments. Some are wards of the State that were dumped in Foster care simply because the parent didn’t want to deal with a child with a disability or handicap.
Her brothers warned TJ that the stress of the ranch and therapy programs would put her in an early grave, and since the accident didn’t, the stress most likely will…
That, she couldn’t allow to happen.