Opposites attract and tension sizzles when a famous dressage rider and a brooding rancher find themselves in a fake relationship.
The only thing Veronica del Valle cares about these days is finally making it to the Olympics as a dressage rider. Her performance at the last qualifying competition went so horribly wrong that the video went viral. So, she agrees to her father’s idea to train at some unheard-of small-town ranch in California—away from any distractions or cameras. At first, she's put off by the rustic accommodations and the lack of high-end equestrian equipment. And she balks when the ranch’s deep-voiced stable manager offers his unsolicited advice during her training sessions. Especially since the brooding, but handsome, cowboy is usually right. But the more time she spends at Rancho Lindo, the more Veronica begins to realize that her first impressions about everything—and everyone—might have been wrong…
Tómas Ortega's needs to save his family’s ranch but his new boarding service is struggling to take off. So, he agrees to his brother’s idea of letting a secret new client stay at Rancho Lindo for the next three months while she boards her horse and trains for some event. Tómas is immediately put off by Veronica’s high and mighty attitude and complaints. He tells himself to keep his distance, especially when she makes it clear that his opinions about her are not welcomed. But when she finds out his ex and her new fiancé is coming back to town, no one is more surprised than Tómas when she offers to pretend to be his girlfriend in exchange for some after-hours training. And the more time he spends with her, the harder it is to remember that Veronica’s Olympic dreams will eventually take her away from Rancho Lindo and from him.
Release date: November 28, 2023
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 352
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The Cowboy Whisperer
It would be the only explanation why he was currently listening to his brother Gabe have an intense discussion over throw pillows.
“It’s too many, Nora,” Gabe said, clutching one of them like a football. This offender was gray and rectangle-shaped and boasted the word Blessed in a script font. “Where the hell is the poor woman going to sit?”
Nora was the ranch’s horticulturist and Gabe’s girlfriend. Tomás wondered if she was just as flabbergasted at his brother’s impassioned argument over the subject. He had never known Gabe, a retired soldier, to care about room décor so much.
If Nora was taken aback, though, she didn’t show it.
“She can move them when she needs to sit,” she said. “I think the pillows make the room more homey, more welcoming.”
“Well, I think it looks like we grabbed all the pillows from Target and threw them in here.”
Tomás walked farther into the small living room. “Do you want to know what I think?”
“No,” Gabe said.
“Of course,” Nora answered at the same time.
He shot an annoyed look at his older brother and opened his mouth anyway. “I think the pillows are the least of our problems. The cottage still needs a lot of work. The water temp is wonky, some of the drawers in the kitchen still get stuck if you open them too fast, and don’t get me started on that front porch. This place has been vacant for over a year and you think someone is actually going to want to sleep here after a quick patch-and-paint job? You and Cruz never should’ve said yes to this.”
This was an agreement to let a woman and her horse stay at Rancho Lindo for the next three months while she trained for some sort of equestrian competition. He had no idea how she knew about the ranch, especially since he’d only started accepting stable boarders at the end of last year. He’d had a total of three clients since. And even though Rancho Lindo was one of the biggest properties in Esperanza, California, it was not, nor had it ever been, known as a professional equestrian training facility. They also had never let anyone, outside of family members or employees, live on the ranch.
This woman’s seemingly out-of-the-blue proposal demanded a lot of firsts for them. Tomás would bet good money that this was not going to be the smooth experience his brothers were expecting.
“You know exactly why we said yes.” Gabe threw the pillow back onto the small love seat with its friends.
Tomás did. The ranch had been in their family for four generations. Their father had been running the ranch until he got sick last year. His oldest brother, Cruz, who had always been second in charge, took over managing the business full-time while their dad was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. And when an injury forced Gabe to leave the army, he came home to Rancho Lindo and began helping Cruz. His other brothers, Nico and Daniel, also worked on the ranch and were in charge of the cattle. He was the horse guy.
But Cruz and Gabe were the ones who knew the most about the ranch’s overall finances, and they’d made it clear that they were falling behind on some bills. Tomás and his brothers didn’t aways see eye-to-eye, but they all agreed that they weren’t about to be the generation that lost Rancho Lindo. That meant making some hard choices. The reason this particular cottage had been empty for so long was because they hadn’t had the money to fill it with a new full-time live-in ranch hand. There were five one-bedroom cottages on the property and only two of them were currently occupied—Nora lived in one of them.
While Tomás admitted the new boarder would help their finances in the short term, he prayed the whole thing wouldn’t backfire.
“Well, you guys should’ve told her to come next week or next month,” he grumbled.
“We tried, but the lawyer insisted it had to be this weekend,” Gabe explained.
“And what’s up with all the secrecy anyway?” he asked.
The name of the woman and the fact that she was training at Rancho Lindo were not to be shared with anyone outside the family. At least that’s what Cruz had instructed after reading the contract the woman’s lawyer had sent over a few days ago. If that wasn’t a red flag, then Tomás didn’t know what was.
Gabe stuck his hands into the front pockets of his blue jeans. “I don’t know anything more than you do, Tomás. Maybe the lady just wants her privacy? But she’s paying us a lot of money to stay here, so we’re going to give her whatever she wants, okay?”
When Tomás didn’t answer, Gabe repeated, “Okay, Tomás?”
“Okay,” he finally said.
“Good. You’re probably going to be the one who deals with her the most, so we need you to be on board.”
He figured the same thing, which was why he was more anxious about it than the rest of his family.
Gabe walked into the kitchen muttering something about “checking those drawers,” leaving Nora to continue rearranging pillows.
“I’m sorry,” he said to her. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like I don’t think you did a good job getting this place ready for her.”
His friend looked at him over her shoulder. “No need to apologize. I understood what you meant.”
When she finally seemed satisfied with what she saw, Nora turned around and faced him and continued the conversation. “I also know that having someone else around your stable every day is going to get some getting used to. That’s your space, Tomás. It’s normal to feel uneasy about letting a stranger in there.”
“What do you mean?” he scoffed. “The guys are in and out of the stable all the time. That doesn’t bother me. And you’re in there at least once a week when you need to ride to the orchard.”
Nora gave him a kind smile. “That’s different and we both know it.”
“Fine,” he admitted. “I don’t like the idea. But not for the reason you think.”
“Then what is it?” she asked.
“The lady’s horse arrived this morning. He’s beautiful… and expensive. What if something happens to him while she’s here? Rancho Lindo can’t afford that. So now it’s all on me to make sure nothing does.”
She walked closer to him and touched his shoulder. “It’s not all on you. Rancho Lindo is a family business. Everyone does their part to make it run. This isn’t going to be any different.”
As usual, Nora was the calm and reasonable voice he needed to hear. Tomás knew her words were coming from her heart. Despite not officially being an Ortega—well, not yet anyway—Nora loved Rancho Lindo as much as any of them. She’d basically grown up on the ranch too, spending several summers visiting her tío and tía, who’d both worked for his family for many years. After her tío Chucho passed away two years ago, her tía Luz moved to Texas. He knew Nora talked to her every week and was planning to go visit her over the summer.
If Nora was confident that this plan would work, then he decided he would try to believe it.
“I guess,” he said with a shrug.
A few seconds passed before Nora spoke again. “So, I was talking to your abuelita earlier. Doña Alma showed me the invitation for the Riveras’ thirty-fifth anniversary party next month. I think it’s special that Lina and Carlos are going to renew their vows.”
Tomás had walked over to check a lock on one of the living room windows that had been stuck a few days ago. “Yeah,” he said without looking back at her. “They eloped when they were eighteen, so Lina told Mom that this is her chance to have a real wedding.”
He heard Nora chuckle and continued moving the lock to make sure it wasn’t sticking anymore.
“Good for her. Sounds like it’s going to be a big event with lots of their family and friends. I’m looking forward to finally meeting Omar and Mia.”
The mention of the Riveras’ adult children—especially Mia—made him still. He understood now why Nora had brought up the subject of the anniversary party. He turned around and met her eyes.
“Is there something you want to ask me, Nora?” he said softly. Judging by the pinched expression on her face, Tomás could tell there was, but it was obvious that she was worried about bringing it up. “It’s fine,” he assured her. “Out with it.”
She let out a relieved sigh. “Well, we—me and Gabe… and also Daniel and your mom. All right, all of us were wondering how you were feeling about seeing Mia again.”
He shrugged again. “Fine, I guess. I saw her last year when she came to visit her parents for Christmas, remember?”
Nora waved her finger. “No, you told me you ran into her. This is going to be different. You’re both going to be in the same place for a few hours. It’s probably inevitable that you’re going to have to talk.”
Tomás hadn’t thought about it like that. Because the last time they had talked—really, truly had a conversation—was eight years ago when he’d flown to New York for her college graduation prepared to propose at her celebration dinner in front of her parents and brother. Instead, Mia had told him before her commencement ceremony that she’d accepted a job and was going to stay in New York. And that they should break up… for good.
Since then they’d crossed each other’s paths only a handful of times when Mia had come back to Esperanza to see her mom and dad. Their parents were best friends, so he was regularly updated on her life in between visits as well.
Still, he’d managed to avoid any social situations where he would be forced to say more than ten words to her. But Nora was right. The Riveras’ anniversary party was going to be different.
He wasn’t about to admit anything, though. “You can report back to everyone that I will be perfectly fine seeing Mia at the party,” Tomás said. “It’s not going to be a big deal.”
Nora offered him a smile. “Good. I’m glad.”
Tomás smiled back, hoping she couldn’t see the slight irritation behind his expression. While he knew that his family had good intentions, it did bother him that they couldn’t believe he was over Mia. So what if they had dated all through high school and continued a long-distance relationship when she moved away? And so what if he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend since Mia? It didn’t mean that he was still in love with her or that he couldn’t handle being around her. It might be awkward, but only because it had been so long.
He was about to tell Nora all of that when Gabe appeared and announced, “She’s about ten minutes away. Tomás, Dad wants you at the house to meet her.”
They both nodded and then followed Gabe out the front door of the little cottage. As his brother and Nora walked ahead of him on the dirt path, Tomás couldn’t help but turn around and take one last look at its weathered white wooden panels and roof made of mismatched shingles.
He wasn’t sure why, but he felt like they were both about to be tested.
“Good luck to us both,” he said.
Veronica looked out the back passenger-side window of the SUV and sighed.
“There’s absolutely nothing here,” she said into the phone as the car passed one empty field after another.
“That’s the point,” her father explained on the other end.
She sighed again.
Her father must have heard it. “Vero, it’s only for three months,” he answered as if her exhale had been another complaint. “You need this time.”
Veronica shook her head to disagree even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “What I need is to be in familiar surroundings and around other riders. You know how I thrive in competitive situations. That would help my mental training just as much as my physical training.”
It was his turn to sigh into the phone. “The Kentucky center has already had some of the usual reporters poking their noses around. You can’t afford to be the target of their chisme.”
“Apa, I’m old chisme. They have new riders to gossip about. They couldn’t care less about me.”
“Is that so? Then why did the manager of the center’s stables already get an email from one of those reporters asking why Takuache was moved yesterday?”
Veronica froze at the news. They’d taken so many precautions to make sure her prized stallion was transported safely and quietly to his new temporary home. How had the news spread so swiftly? It was the last thing she had wanted to hear. “Are you serious?”
“You know I wouldn’t lie to you about this, Vero.”
She hung her head. “Yes, I know.”
Her dad was quiet for a few seconds before speaking again. “This is for the best. The ranch is run by one family, and they have a very good reputation for being honest and fair. They don’t have a big staff either. It’s the perfect place for you to train without having to worry about being bothered by anyone. It’s almost as good as being home.”
Although her father was right about most things, he was wrong about that. A small ranch in the middle of nowhere was a long, long way from home. Literally and figuratively. It had been difficult to leave what had become her safe haven. She’d spent the past three years at her family’s estate in Guadalajara healing her body and her mind after a devastating fall during her last equestrian jumping competition. It had been so bad that she had nearly retired from the sport altogether. Her father knew better than anyone just how close she’d come to breaking the promise she’d made to her mother years ago.
So when Veronica had made the decision late last year to attempt to qualify for the Olympics one more time, he’d been elated and promised he’d spare no expense to get her there. And when he told her that he’d found a place for her to train in the United States for the next three months, she’d expected a facility similar to the one she’d used before in Kentucky. But a family-run ranch in a tiny town called Esperanza? She’d nearly called their family doctor to have her father checked out.
“Fine,” Veronica finally said, with a hint of dejection in her voice. She knew there would be no point in arguing. Once she had gotten on the plane earlier that day, the argument was over. He’d won as usual.
“Good girl. I knew you would see it my way.”
It would be hard not to.
“When does Charles arrive?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Tomorrow. You can start your training then.”
“Is he staying on the property too?”
Her father cleared his throat. “No. I thought it would be for the best if you each, uh, had your own space in between sessions. I rented him a condo in Santa Barbara.”
Veronica ignored the implication about them needing space away from each other and said, “Lucky guy.”
Charles Wright was her new trainer. She had only ever talked to him on a Zoom call and then had promptly told her dad afterward that she didn’t think he was the right person. The man had lots of experience, but he’d admitted that he hadn’t been on a horse in nearly twenty years and hadn’t trained anyone in over ten. But of course her dad had convinced her to give him a shot. Time was running out and she needed to focus on her training instead of shopping around for trainers.
“Trust me, Vero. This is going to be what you need. I can feel it. This is going to be your year.”
She wasn’t sure if her father actually believed his own words. Mainly because she’d heard them before. Many times. It didn’t matter, though. Everything was already in motion. She couldn’t stop it if she wanted.
“I trust you, Apa,” she told him. “And we just got here. I’ll call you after I get settled, okay?”
“Okay. Te amo.”
Veronica watched through the window as the SUV made its way through the open doors of a wrought-iron gate. She noticed the large R and L on the emblem atop the archway and assumed the letters stood for “Rancho Lindo”—her home for the next ninety days.
Within a few minutes, the dirt road they were on turned into a cobblestone driveway that ended at a turnabout with a fountain in the middle. Veronica took off her sunglasses and moved closer to the window. Her eyes grew big at the view before her. A beautiful two-story house modeled after the large haciendas back in Mexico stood behind three tall men wearing boots and cowboy hats.
She hadn’t expected a welcoming party. It was a nice gesture and she told herself to think more positively about the whole experience. Her dad believed that this was the year she would finally make it to the Olympics. She was going to try to believe it too.
The oldest man was the first to greet her when she stepped out of the car. “Hola, Señorita del Valle. Welcome to Rancho Lindo. I’m Santiago Ortega, the owner.”
Veronica shook his hand and gave him one of her camera-ready smiles. “Hola, Señor Ortega. Thank you so much for allowing me to stay here. Your hospitality is much appreciated.”
Señor Ortega motioned to one of the younger men standing next to him. “This is Cruz, the ranch manager. And Tomás, the stable manager. If you need anything during your stay, please feel free to go directly to them and they will give you whatever you need.”
Cruz’s handshake was firm but friendly. Tomás, on the other hand, barely held on to hers. He also didn’t smile at her like the others had.
Well, okay then, she thought as she studied his emotionless face.
She dismissed any more thoughts of the man and turned her attention back to Señor Ortega.
“I believe my horse has already arrived?” she asked.
But it was Tomás who answered. “Yes, he’s been here for a few hours already. If you’d like, I can escort you to the stables after you’ve settled in so you check on him.”
She waved her hand. “That’s okay. I trust he’s in good hands. I’m a little tired after all my traveling today. I’d like to go to my room and rest.”
“Of course, of course,” Señor Ortega said. “Tomás will take your bags and show you to the cottage.”
Veronica raised her eyebrows and pointed behind them. “Wait. I’m not staying in this house?”
“Oh no, Señorita del Valle. That’s my family’s home. We thought you’d be more comfortable in your own private cottage. It has a living room and a kitchen stocked with groceries in case you’re hungry. But if you’re feeling up to it, you are also more than welcome to join us for dinner at five thirty.”
A private cottage? Veronica decided that was indeed a better idea.
“Wonderful,” she told him. “Thank you so much.”
Tomás walked over to the six suitcases the driver had just unloaded from the back of the SUV. She thought she saw him roll his eyes.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He cleared his throat as he grabbed the handle of the largest piece of luggage and picked up two smaller bags. “No problem, Miss del Valle. I’ll just come back for the rest.”
She said her goodbyes to Señor Ortega and Cruz and followed Tomás to the side of the house. He loaded the bags into the back of what looked like some sort of hybrid ATV and golf cart.
“What’s this?” she asked.
He jumped into the seat behind the steering wheel and motioned for her to get inside. “It’s called a Mule. We use them to get around the ranch, along with golf carts.”
“How far is the cottage exactly from the main house?”
“Only about half a mile, but I figured you’d have luggage so I thought the Mule would be better than the golf cart.”
The drive to the cottage took less than five minutes. But part of her almost told him to keep driving once she saw it. To her, the word cottage evoked warmth and a shabby chic vibe. This was more like shabby shack.
“This is where I’m staying?” she said incredulously when Tomás turned off the ignition. The place looked smaller than her bedroom back home.
“Yes. I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside. But the inside is very, uh, cozy.”
He got out of the vehicle and went to grab her luggage.
Veronica didn’t move for a few seconds. She needed to compose herself before she said something she shouldn’t. After taking a long, deep breath, she joined Tomás, who was now inside.
It was true that the inside wasn’t like the outside. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Tomás disappeared with the luggage and then reappeared. “I put your bags in the bedroom back there. The bathroom is the only door on the right just before the bedroom. There are a few dishes, pots and pans, and some cutlery in the kitchen. Oh, and the fireplace does work. There are extra logs sitting out there on the porch, and the matches are on the mantel.”
“Of course there are,” she mumbled. This place looked like it was built in the 1800s and never brought into the twenty-first century. She hoped it at least had running water and electricity.
“Excuse me?” Tomás asked.
Veronica coughed. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “Of course, because that makes sense to leave them there.”
“Okay, well, I’m going to go get the rest of your luggage,” he said quickly, and then he was gone.
She dropped her purse onto a green velvet armchair and looked around the small, nearly bare living room and plain kitchen that sat off to the left.
Her dad had been dead wrong. This place was so not like their home in Guadalajara. In fact, the entire cottage could fit inside her bedroom alone. No. . .
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