Authors: Laura Moore
“It's a small group, only six riders. Beginners. Afterward he wants me to ride the fence line.”
“And you want me to lend Domino to you?” She shook her head in mock despair. “A pecan pumpkin muffin should really accompany that kind of request, Josh. I mean, you're an okay rider and all, but Domino, he'sâ”
“Special. A prince.” Josh's Texas twang, his dimples, and the cleft in his square chin might be awfully cute, but it was his keen eye in judging horses that was damned near irresistible.
“He's all that and more.”
“I know it's a huge favor.”
“It sure is,” she said, her gaze seeking out her black Appaloosa gelding. He was in the near corral, sniffing the ground for stray bits of hay. “But I guess I'll lend him to you. A really great horse will boost your self-confidence, and I can see yours is a little shaky this morning.”
He shot her a sideways glance. “You definitely rattle mine. The girls back home are much easier to ask out.”
If he only knew just how challenging she wasâ¦
No need to go there now,
she told herself, and tried for her breeziest smile as she ignored his comment, saying instead, “It actually works out well, your riding Dominoâ”
“Since you've got a meeting. Yeah, Pete mentioned y'all would be busy.”
She raised her brow. “Checking up, huh?”
His shrug was unabashed. “I figured you'd be happy knowing Domino was enjoying this pretty morning while you're stuck inside talking business and bottom lines. And that might make you more inclined to say yes to a date.”
The line was so smoothly delivered, she couldn't help but laugh. “Neatly planned.”
Josh tipped his hat in acknowledgment. “Planning's important. I like to get what I want.”
Quinn was okay with thatâshe liked getting what she wanted, too. The question was whether she really wanted to get to know Joshâ¦in a more intimate way. Could she bring herself to try to have sex again? Because experiencing yet another colossal failure at intimacy would be beyond mortifying with a man like Josh.
An excellent argument for ignoring his calendar-pinup body, cleft chin, Texas twang, and appreciation for fine horseflesh. But if she continued rejecting every man she met, she'd soon be the oldest virgin in California.
Was it any wonder she talked to goats?
OSH WAS RIGHT,
Quinn thought later. She
happy knowing Domino was stretching his legs while hers had remained folded under the long conference table for the duration of the staff meeting. It had been a grim one, with talk of the drought and the need to sell off additional cattle to avoid taxing the land even more. Her father and Pete Williams calculated that an extra seventy head should be included in the upcoming roundup. Quinn knew it was necessary and a smart move when hay and feed prices were climbing ever higher and water growing ever scarcer, but, damn, reality sure could bite.
When her father had raised the issue of bringing more stock to market, she'd offered to cancel her weekend stay at the wolf sanctuary. Everyone around the table had turned her down. Sometimes her family was too understanding.
Across from her, her brothers, Ward and Reid, were talking to Pete about arranging for extra trucks to transport the cattle. She tried not to picture the steers being loaded, their bellowing mixing with the heavy pounding of their hooves on the trucks' flooring.
She shifted her attention to the end of the table. “Yeah, Dad?”
“I have a favor to ask,” he said.
“Sure. What is it?” The meeting had made her acutely aware of every gray hair in his head as well as every line creasing his tanned face, and she was determined to do what she could to help out.
“On your way back from Wolf Peak, I need you to swing by the airport and pick up Ethan Saunders. He's going to be staying here for a while.”
“Daniel,” her mother said, “are you certain that's a good idea?”
Her father spread his large work-callused hands. “I could hardly say no, Adele. You wouldn't have been able to if Tony had put the request to you.”
“Ethan Saunders is coming here? Wow, that name's a blast from the past,” Reid said.
“You remember him, Quinn?” Ward asked. “He used to lead you around on Jinx.”
Jinx had been her first pony, given to her at age four. She could recall every detail of the little paintâhis long mane that she loved to braid, his fondness for peppermintsâbut the boy who'd walked by their side? “I remember he was tall and had dark hair.”
“Everyone was tall compared to you,” Reid said.
“Ha. Very funny.”
“Ethan was remarkably patient with you, Quinn. In exchange for riding out with us and learning to work the cattle, he'd lead you and Jinx on a circuit around the barns and corrals long after everyone else was ready to drag you off the saddle,” her father told her.
“Is this Ethan Saunders related to the Saunderses who live in Washington, D.C., and who were kind enough to send in their RSVP to the wedding promptly?” Tess asked.
“One and the same. Cheryl and Tony used to live on Cobble Hill Road. Cheryl and Tony married a few years before us. Cheryl was a godsend my first year as a bride, talking me down whenever I convinced myself that I could never live with a man as impossible as Daniel.” Her mother turned to her father and winked. He answered with a slow smile.
Watching the exchange, Quinn made a mental note to steer clear of her parents after the meeting or run the risk of catching them canoodling like newlyweds.
Her mother was still talking. “They lived in Acacia until Ethan was fifteen, then Tony got a job with the State Department. They've been in Washington ever since.”
“Ethan's a photojournalist. He's worked all over the world,” Ward told Tess. “Mr.Â and Mrs.Â Saunders often use one of his photographs for their holiday card. His pictures stand out from the run-of-the-mill Christmas trees or white doves with olive branches.”
Quinn might not remember what Ethan looked like, but the images he'd captured were unforgettable: the large, pleading eyes of the beggar children in Cairo; the heavy vestments of an Orthodox priest in Turkey; rail-thin boys straddling camels in a race across the desert dunes.
“So what's the problem with Ethan coming here for a stay, Mom?” Quinn asked.
“I just don't know whether this is the place for him. He should stay atâ”
“That's the thing. He won't,” her father said. “Tony says Ethan refuses. Tony's at his wits' end, darling. I told him Ethan could stay for as long as he needed.”
“Which only worries me more. What ifâ” her mother began.
“We'll do everything we can for him. One of the staff cabins would serve him best. Give him space and privacy.”
The deep brackets that framed her mother's pressed lips revealed what she thought of that suggestion. But she must have decided that arguing would be futile. Quinn's dad could be just as stubborn as her mom was persistent.
Shifting his attention back to Quinn, her father continued, “Ethan's insisting on leaving Bethesda by the end of the week. Tony's arranged to get him on a flight to San Francisco on Sunday. I'll give you the flight number and arrival time before you leave. I hope it won't cut into your time at the sanctuary.”
“Wait,” Reid said. “Bethesda? As in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center?”
Her father nodded but didn't elaborate.
Quinn opened her mouth to ask what had happened to send the globe-trotting photojournalist to a military hospital, but before she could say anything her mother spoke again.
“You know, Daniel, we could ask Estelle to meet Ethan at the airport.”
“We need Estelle to help with the Sunday checkout.” Estelle Varga worked the front desk.
“Or I could goâ”
“Adele,” her dad said.
“Fine. Quinn will pick him up.” Her mom looked less than delighted.
Quinn sat straighter in her chair. Well, this was different. Usually her matchmaking-prone mother was all for her spending time with a member of the opposite sex. Logically, she should be doubly eager since the male in question was the child of old friends. But here she was volunteering to drive all the way to the airport on Sunday herself, rather than have Quinn spend time with him. Weird.
But this much was clear: whatever had happened to Ethan Saunders, both her parents were deeply concerned about him.
And that made Quinn even more curious.
Quinn sat cross-legged on the rocky ground, her binoculars trained on a gray she-wolf that was pacing inside the eight-foot-high enclosure. It was Una, a wolf Quinn had adopted several years ago, during her first trip to Wolf Peak, a sanctuary owned and run by Joel and Ruth Meyers, former hedge fund managers turned wolf protectors.
The scars that crisscrossed the wolf's body were no longer visible, but Quinn remembered them to this day. Una had just arrived when Quinn came to Wolf Peak as a college student writing a paper on the differences between dogs and wolves for her animal behavior class. Introducing her to the wolves in their care, Ruth had told her about Una.
The she-wolf had been raised in captivity because some less than bright individuals believed that owning a wolf was kind of like having a wicked cool dogâmistake number one of about one hundred that humans repeatedly made when it came to understanding the nature of these animals.
Una's owner, in addition to having slop for brains, was a fucking sadist. When Una didn't behave like some souped-up husky, shaggy pit bull, or whatever canine he'd envisioned, the guy didn't attempt to place her with a rescue organization. No, he took her to the woods, chained her to a tree, beat her, and then shot her, leaving her to bleed out.
Hikers, hearing her howls of pain, had called animal protection services, which in turn had contacted Joel and Ruth. They'd arranged to have Una admitted to the animal hospital and footed the bill for the operations to remove the bullet, mend her broken bones, and repair her internal injuries. Afterward, they'd arranged to have her transported to Wolf Peak.
The vet did an amazing job fixing her battered body, yet to this day Una was terrified of humans. But because she'd been raised in captivity, to release her into the wild would be to write her death sentence. No pack would accept her, and she wouldn't be able to survive and hunt on her own. Her true nature was forever crippled.
Una's story had cut Quinn to the quick. When she'd discovered that there were ways to sponsor wolves at the sanctuary, she'd chosen Una. Quinn was now responsible for paying for her food and future veterinary care.
“She's looking great,” she said quietly. Today was the first time she'd caught sight of the skittish female.
“Mm-hmm.” Ruth Meyers's voice was pitched equally low. “Una's found love. She's caught the attention of Griff, the newest pack member. See how he's come to stand over her now that she's lying down? He's guarding her.”
“Good for Una.” Quinn focused her binoculars on the large male wolf. His coat glinted silver in the sunlight. “Griff looks like a healthy male.”
“Not only that, he's a movie star.”
“Seriously? What's he doing here?”
“His trainer came down with an aggressive bone cancer. Died within weeks. His widow was hoping to place Griff with another trainer, but no one could take him and she couldn't handle him herself. She called us.”
Quinn sighed. The story was too familiar. “I'm glad she knew where to turn.”
“Me too. In all likelihood Griff would have ended up being euthanized. Sometimes it seems like there aren't enough shelters for all the creatures in need. Speaking of which, you made any progress?”
“Still saving up. Mendocino County isn't Napa or Sonoma, but even there land doesn't come cheap.”
“Have you thought about approaching your family?”
Even though she could feel Ruth's gaze on her, she didn't lower her binoculars. “To help me buy a property, you mean? I couldn'tâwouldn't. This is my dream.”
“What about just using a piece of the ranch?”
“Not possible. All of Silver Creek is tied up, either as farmland for the ranch or for the guest lodgings and amenities.” Which was how it should be, Quinn thought. The ranch was the family's endeavor; the sanctuary would be hers.
“Sorry if I sound pushy, Quinn. I know you'll make the dream of opening an animal refuge a reality.”
Quinn smiled. Sometimes Ruth could be pushy. Devoting her life to protecting wolves and educating the public about them wasn't for the meek or timid. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Anytime. So how are your various critters doing?”
“Good.” Quinn hugged her crossed knees. “Have I told you about my gelding named Tucker?”
“Don't believe so.”
“I spotted him at an equine rescue center near Sacramento. He'd been abused and then abandonedâyou know the story. Once I got him healthy, I started working with him on the ground and in the saddle. I've been studying massage therapy and hope to work on him. But he's really shy. Whoever hurt Tucker did a number on him. I don't know if he'll ever get over his fear of people. Especially men.”
“So he's with you for life.”
“Yeah.” Quinn shrugged. She was fine with that. She never fostered or adopted an animal she wasn't prepared to keep forever. “Luckily my friend Mel, who's a wrangler at the ranch, is feeding him his hay while I'm here. Tucker's used to seeing her around the corrals, so the change in routine won't freak him out.”
“And what about that other horse of yours?”
“Domino? Oh, he's set for the weekend. One of our new ranch hands took him out for a ride at the beginning of the week. When Josh came back he was grinning from ear to ear. Apparently Domino was one of the sweetest rides he'd ever enjoyedâno surprise there,” she added. “I decided to let Josh borrow him again this weekendâthey're cutting cattle from the herd for harvesting.”
“Sounds like a lucky cowboy.”
“Yeah.” Her only worry was that Josh might read more into her gesture and think he was going to get even luckier.
“You fostering any new animals?” Ruth asked.