London was hot and tired, but exhilarated after six hours of working with horses and their riders. About three quarters of her clientele were kids under fourteen. It was gratifying, proving to novice equestrians that their animal was under their control. Contrary to belief, she picked up very few new regular clients at fairs and rodeos. The problems she helped with were rider related rather than horse related. The horse issues would take more than a thirty minute fix.
She checked her sign-up list, surprised to see her last opening had been filled. Weird name. D.L. A-ride. No gender or age listed. Was it a joke? D.L. A-ride. She watched the gate for a horse and rider to approach.
After two minutes she closed her eyes, breathing in the familiar scents of hot dirt and manure and livestock, with the occasional whiff of diesel fuel and something sugary like cotton candy or funnel cakes or Bavarian almonds.
“Excuse me,” a deep voice said behind her. “I’m looking for London Gradsky?”
London pushed off the fence and turned around, the you found her response dried on her tongue. Holy balls was this man hot. Like off the charts hot. Two days’ worth of dark scruff couldn’t hide the sharp angles of his face. Strong, almost square jaw, ridiculously full lips. The guy wore a ball cap and dark shades. A short-sleeved polo in ocean blue accentuated the breadth of his shoulders, the contours of his chest and… Holy smoking double barrels, welcome to the gun show; his biceps were huge. His forearms appeared to have been carved out of marble. She stopped herself from dropping her gaze to his crotch. Had Mel sent this man her way?
“I’m London. Do I know you?” Please don’t tell me you’re a long lost cousin or something.
“Yeah. We met a while back.” He paused. “I signed up for the last class slot because I needed to talk to you.”
Needed. Not wanted. Her skepticism reared its snappish head. “Who are you?”
He encroached on her space, completely throwing her body into shadow and tumult. Then she waited, breath trapped in her lungs for the moment when he tore off his sunglasses.
Eyes as blue as the Caribbean stared back at her.
Fuck me. She knew those eyes. She’d dreamt of those eyes. Although last time she’d seen them up close she’d wanted to spit in them. “Sutton Grant.”
“I reckon a once-over like that is better than the fiery look of hatred I expected.” He grinned.
That grin? With the damn dimples in his cheeks and in his chin? Not fair. She was such a sucker for a devil’s smile boosted by pearly whites. But she’d considered him devil’s spawn after his dealings with her family. In her mind she’d attributed cloven hooves, demon horns, and a forked tongue and tail to him.
Which pissed her off because the man was a piece of art. A real piece of work, too, if he thought she’d let bygones be bygones just so she could stare slack-jawed at his perfect face, spellbinding eyes and banging body.
“You lied to get a meeting with me?” She snorted. “I see you’re still the same manipulative bastard who follows his own agenda.”
He took another step closer. “I see you’re still the same brat who jumps to conclusions.”
“Yeah? I’m not the one in a piss-poor disguise, douche-nozzle.”
“Douche-nozzle…I don’t even know what that is.”
“Look in the mirror, pal.” Her gaze flicked over him. “A ball cap, a polo shirt, and…no freakin’ way. Are you wearing Mom jeans, Sutton Grant?”
He shot a quick look around and said, “Keep your voice down. No one has recognized me and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“I’ll bet your girlfriend picked this outfit because it is guaranteed to keep you from getting laid. Like ever.”
He scowled. “I don’t have a girlfriend. Now can we skip the insults and cut to the chase? Because I really need to talk to you.”
“You scheduled the time and it ain’t free.” London held out her hand. “Fifty bucks for thirty minutes. The clock starts ticking as soon as you pay up.”
Sutton dug in his front pocket and pulled out a crumpled fifty. “Here.”
“It’s about Dial.”
“What did you do to him?”
“It’s more a problem of what I’m not doin’ with him. Due to my injury, he’s been benched the last eight months.”
Now she remembered. Sutton had gotten badly hurt late last fall during his circuit’s last qualifying event for the CRA Finals and ended up with life-threatening internal injuries. “What do you want from me?”
“I’ll hire you to work with Dial, get him back up to speed, since I’m still sidelined.”
“So he’ll be in top condition when you’re back on the circuit?”
A funny look flitted through his eyes and he looked away. “Something like that.”
“Because we both know the only people who’ve been able to work with him have been you and me.”
She sucked in a few breaths and forced herself to loosen her fists. “This wouldn’t be an issue if you hadn’t browbeaten my folks into selling Dial to you outright. When the breeder owns the horse and a rider goes down, other people are in place to keep the horse conditioned. That responsibility isn’t pushed aside.”
“You think I don’t know that? You think I’m feelin’ good about any of this? Fuck. I hired people to work with him and the stubborn bastard chased them all off. A couple of them literally.”
London smirked. “That’s my boy.”
“Your boy is getting fatter and meaner by the day,” Sutton retorted. “I’m afraid if I let him go too much longer it’ll be too late and he’ll be as worthless as me.”
Worthless? Dude. Look in the mirror much? How could Sutton be out of commission and still look like he’d stepped off the pages of Buff and Beautiful Bulldogger magazine?
“I hope the reason you’re so quiet is because you’re considering my offer.”
London’s gaze zoomed to his. “How do you know you can afford me?”
“I don’t. I get that you’re an expert on this particular horse and I’m willing to pay you for that expertise.” Sutton sidestepped her and rested his big body next to hers—close to hers—against the fence. “I know it’ll sound stupid, but every time I grab the tack and head out to catch Dial to try and work him, even when I’m not supposed to, I feel his frustration that I’m not doin’ more. I ain’t the kind of man that sees a horse—my horse—as just a tool. Your folks knew that about me or they wouldn’t have sold him to me for any amount of money.”
“Yeah. I do know that,” she grudgingly admitted, “but you should also know that I wouldn’t be doin’ this for you or the money, I’d be doin’ it for Dial.”
“That works for me. There’s another reason that I want you. Only you.”
His unwavering stare unnerved her, as if he was gauging whether he could trust her. Finally he said, “Strictly between us?”
“If it’s decided I’ll never compete again, you’re in the horse world more than I am and you’ll ensure Dial gets where he needs to be.”
London hadn’t been expecting that. Sutton had paid a shit ton for Dial, and he hadn’t suggested she’d help him sell the horse to a proper owner, just that she’d help him find one. In her mind that meant he really had Dial’s best interest at heart. Not that she believed for an instant Sutton Grant intended to retire from steer wrestling. First off, he was barely thirty. Second, rumor had it his drive to win was as wide and deep as the Colorado River.
As she contemplated how to respond, she saw her ex, Stitch, with Princess Paige plastered to his side, meandering their direction. Dammit. Not now.
After the incident this morning, she’d steered clear of the exhibitor’s hall where the pair had handed out autographs and barf bags. She felt the overwhelming need to escape, but if she booked it across the corral, it’d look like she was running from them.
Screw that. Screw them. She was not in the wrong.
“London? You look ready to commit murder. What’d I say?”
She gazed up at him. The man was too damn good-looking, so normally she wouldn’t have a shot at a man like him. But he did say he’d do anything…
“Okay, here’s the deal. I’ll work with Dial, but you’ve gotta do something for me. Uh, two things actually.”
How much to tell him? She didn’t want to come off desperate. Still, she opted for the truth. “Backstory: my boyfriend dumped me via text last month because he’d hooked up with a rodeo queen. Because he and I were together when I made my summer schedule, that means I will see them every fucking weekend. All summer.”
“And I don’t wanna be known as that poor pathetic London Gradsky pining over her lost love.”
Sutton’s eyes turned shrewd. “Are you pining for him?”
“Mostly I’m just pissed. It needs to look like I’ve moved on. So I realize your nickname is ‘The Saint’ and you don’t—”
“Don’t call me that,” he said crossly. “Tell me what you need.”
“The first thing I’d need is you to play the part of my new boyfriend.”
That shocked him, but he rallied with, “I can do that. When does this start?”
“Right now, ’cause here they come.” London plastered her front to his broad chest and wreathed her arms around his neck. “And make this look like the real deal, bulldogger.”
“Any part of you that’s hands off for me?”
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Of course “The Saint” would ask first. “Nope.”
Sutton bestowed that fuck-me-now grin. “I can work with that.”