A horse-whispering loner
After years as an Army Ranger, Sebastian Donnelly is content to be left alone with his horses. He's better with them than with...people. But that changes when his boss's little sister shows up. There's something about her, a vulnerability that tugs at his need to rescue. And a sexy, vivacious charm that ignites an attraction he ought to ignore.
A soon-to-be lawyer
Desperate for a break before her last semester of law school, Laurel Maxwell is excited to see her brother marry the woman he loves. Logan and Athena, their happiness, the life they're building at the farm all serve as a reminder that she's barreling toward a future she's no longer sure she wants. One her overbearing father insists is the only path she's meant for.
Who's rescuing who?
When Laurel is offered the chance to stay on the farm and dogsit while the happy couple honeymoons, she jumps at the chance to get out her life and into Sebastian's strong arms. He wants to help her make her decision, a choice with haunting echoes of his own past. But is there any path that leads to a forever where a brilliant lawyer and reclusive horse trainer could build a life together?
Release date: July 19, 2019
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 215
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Listen to a sample
What I Like About You
Sebastian Donnelly shifted in the saddle, giving the chestnut mare a subtle nudge with his knee. After only a moment’s hesitation, Gingersnap switched directions, resuming her trot around the training ring.
“There’s a girl.”
Her ears swiveled back toward the sound of his crooning voice, so he kept up a low patter of one-sided conversation as they continued to circle. She was attentive to every touch, every signal, every shift of his weight, and it was immensely satisfying that she did it out of a desire to please him rather than out of fear.
She’d come a long way in the eight months since she’d been rescued. No one looking at her now would know she’d spent the last few years of her life subjected to profound neglect and abuse. She’d put on weight, so her ribs no longer showed through. The coat that had been dull and matted on her arrival now shone with a gleam. The mane and tail he’d spent weeks detangling, as he slowly, methodically earned her trust, fluttered with the breeze of her movement. He’d waited months before going near her with a saddle and bridle, and longer still before trying to ride her. She hadn’t been ready. But over the past few weeks, it had become clear that she’d had training before landing with the asshole who’d let her damn near starve to death. The sweet temperament he’d seen beneath the fear had emerged like daffodils in the spring, and Sebastian marveled that her spirit hadn’t been fully broken.
This was the joy and the miracle of the work he did. The work that had saved his own broken spirit.
A flash of movement at the rail caused a hitch in Ginger’s gait. Sebastian saw his stable girl climbing up so she could see better.
“She’s looking fantastic!” At fifteen, Ari was bright, eager, and utterly besotted with all things equine. She’d been trading stable labor for additional riding lessons since the spring, so she was a familiar part of Sebastian’s day.
“Coming along,” he agreed, slowing the mare to a walk.
“Can I ride her?”
Sebastian shot her a look. All of his rescues had an assortment of behavioral issues he’d been working on since they came to the farm, and many weren’t part of the group he used for lessons.
Ari folded her hands and put on her begging face. “Please? Just for a few minutes? I could stay on the lunge line.”
He considered it. She’d proven herself a capable rider, quick to take instruction or correction, and Ginger was turning out to be a gentle, responsive mount. It might be a good fit.
Even as he thought it, the mare tensed beneath him and began to dance. Her ears twitched in agitation. Then he heard what she had.
It rolled over the land, echoing off the mountains that cupped this little pocket of paradise. As Ginger gave a little buck and twist, sidestepping across the ring, Sebastian ignored Ari, switching his full attention to his mount.
“Easy. Easy. Settle.”
Tension crackled around her as he brought her in line. She quivered beneath him, nostrils flaring as he held her through another rumble of thunder. Her war between an instinct to flee and a desire to please him was evident in the way she tossed her head, eyes rolling. Storms were a huge trigger for her, and the only way to overcome that trigger was to keep pulling it, making her face it. Given their exceptionally dry autumn, there’d been limited opportunity to work on it, so he had to take the chances as they came.
For another twenty minutes, he battled her fear, taking the mare through her paces, despite the incoming storm. Ginger’s anxiety was a palpable thing, and Sebastian deliberately banked his own emotions, knowing she’d ultimately mirror him. He just had to remind her of that trust. When she hesitated, he coaxed her through. When she danced, he reminded her to follow his lead. And when the first fat drops of rain began to splatter, he relented, reining her in long enough to dismount. Stepping close, he laid a hand on her quivering neck. “It’s all right. You’re all right.”
Ginger held for him, though it was clear in every tense muscle that she still wanted to bolt. Stripping the saddle as quickly as possible, he heaved it over a rail and led her to the adjacent pasture. There, he removed the bridle and set her loose. As the next boom of thunder rolled, the mare took off at a run, kicking up her back legs and galloping a wide circle of the pasture as the other horses looked on. A few were already plodding toward the three-walled shelter to get out of the rain.
Ari came to join him, hood up and hands shoved into the pockets of her coat against the cold December wind. “Think she’ll ever get over her fear of storms?”
“Maybe someday. She’s got a long way to go.” He didn’t know what had happened to the mare to instill this abject panic, but he’d learned early on that keeping her in the barn was a non-starter. It was a damned miracle she hadn’t broken a leg in her terror the one time he’d tried. All in all, the entire herd did better when they weren’t confined.
Sebastian and Ari both stared after Ginger for another couple of minutes, waiting until she’d run off her first burst of anxiety. He couldn’t stop the worry or the guilt that niggled. Had he done enough? Should she be further along? It was fruitless speculation. The mare was where she was. There were only so many hours in the day, and the reality was that many of his were tied up with the riding school. It was a necessary evil—one he hoped would eventually make his rescue program self-sustaining. But that was a long way off. For now, that meant more time with students and less time one-on-one with his rescues. Slower progress was still progress.
“Help you clean up?” Ari asked.
“Appreciate it.” Sebastian hefted the saddle, while she grabbed the bridle, and they made their way to the barn. “You got a ride home?”
“Logan’s taking me. Are you sure it’s not a problem I won’t be around for the next few days?”
Her earnestness amused him. “It’s not every day your aunt gets married. It’s fine. Logan’s bringing in some extra help for dealing with the rest of the stock while he and Athena are away.”
The man himself showed up as they were stowing gear in the tack room. “Looks like we’re in for a gullywasher.”
“Yep,” Sebastian agreed. “Worst ought to be done before too late tonight, though.”
Logan slung an arm around his soon-to-be niece. “You about finished, kiddo?”
“I need to grab my backpack from the house.”
He jerked his head. “Go on and do that. I wanna try to get you home before the storm breaks.”
When he continued to linger after Ari had run off, Sebastian knew he had something on his mind.
“Well, I actually wanted to ask a favor.”
“Is there something else you needed me to take care of, while you and Athena are gone on your honeymoon?”
“What? Oh, no. It’s about the wedding itself. My college friend Nick is one of my groomsmen, and he’s not gonna be able to make it. His dad just had a heart attack this morning.”
“That’s terrible.” What does that have to do with me?
“Yeah. It’s looking like he’s gonna be okay, but Nick doesn’t want to leave him, and anyway it puts us one man short on my side. I was hoping you’d be willing to be a stand-in groomsman.”
Sebastian blinked. “You want me to be in your wedding?
Logan’s mouth quirked up in a grin. “I know it’s last minute and there’s a monkey suit and all that. But I consider you a friend and it happens you’re about Nick’s build.”
Sebastian wasn’t exactly keen on getting up in the middle of all the wedding festivities. There was a reason he worked with horses instead of people. Still, he owed Logan a lot.
The man had taken on a handful of horses simply because there’d been a need and he’d had the space. With his hands already full from managing all the moving parts of his organic farm, he’d needed help. As a favor to their mutual friend, Porter, Logan had turned over the care of the horses to Sebastian, giving him a job, a home, and a new purpose—something that had been sorely lacking since he’d separated from the military. He’d fully supported Sebastian’s expanded equine rescue efforts, going so far as to delegate a solid chunk of acreage and the original barn at Maxwell Farms to that purpose. Over the past eleven months, and through the joint labor of fully restoring that barn to be a working stable, he’d become a friend. He’d stood for Sebastian through some seriously dark days, and Sebastian was humbled to be asked to stand up with him on one of his brightest.
“I’d be honored, man.”
He blew out a relieved breath. “You’re saving my ass.”
“Athena doesn’t strike me as the type to give a shit whether the numbers are even or whatever.” The award-winning chef would probably only care about the food, so long as they were married by the end of the day.
“She’s not. My mama is. None of us want to deal with her fretting about what Emily Post etiquette thing isn’t being met.”
Clearly, Logan fell a very long way from that particular family tree.
“What do you need me to do?”
“The rehearsal is tomorrow at 4:30 up at the Methodist church. After that, we’ll all be headed back to the inn for the rehearsal dinner. I’ll see that you get the tux when you get there. Then it’s just showing up at one on Saturday to do pictures before the ceremony and hanging out through the wedding and the reception after. Once the final group pictures are taken, you’re free to bail.”
“I’d planned to be at the wedding and reception anyway.” He was a sucker for wedding cake, and rumor had it that Athena’s pastry chef from her former Chicago restaurant was making it.
“Great. I really appreciate it, man.” Logan offered his hand.
“No problem. Guess I’ll be seeing you at 4:30 tomorrow.”
As Logan headed up to the house to grab Ari and take her home, Sebastian rubbed a hand over his beard, noting it had gotten kind of scraggly. His horses didn’t give a shit what he looked like, but he still had enough of his mama’s voice in his head telling him what was right and proper. Looked like he’d need to clean up like civilized folks.
* * *
Laurel was so late.
She had reasonable faith that her big brother wouldn’t excommunicate her from the wedding party and, from what she could tell, neither would his bride-to-be. But she knew perfectly well her mother would be having a hissy fit right about now, and nobody wanted to deal with that.
She’d been all set to get out the door of her Nashville apartment on time for the four-hour drive. But then The Call had come. The official job offer from Carson, Danvers, Herbert, and Pike up in New York. Roger Pike had called her himself to say how excited they all were to have her—as if it was a foregone conclusion that she’d accept the job, pending her upcoming graduation and the passing of the bar exam. It should have been. Newly-minted attorneys were not supposed to turn down offers from a top-five firm in the nation. Especially one with a starting salary like the one Pike had thrown at her. It had taken all of Laurel’s considerable skill with words to navigate the conversation without giving an actual answer. Then another loss of precious time to come down from the post-call spaz so she was safe to drive.
She’d already been wound up about seeing her parents this weekend without having the spectre of this job hanging over the proceedings. She couldn’t tell them. Wouldn’t, even if she’d accepted. This weekend was about Logan and Athena, not her latest effort to please her father. But with every mile into the mountains, her shoulders tightened and her stomach churned.
What if Pike had told Dad himself? They’d clerked together once upon a time, long before Laurel’s father had opened his own firm. She didn’t think the job had been a result of nepotism—her class ranking at Vanderbilt spoke for itself. But she knew connections mattered. And she knew if she said no, the shock waves would have far-reaching repercussions. So, priority one was keeping the news under wraps so Logan and Athena had a drama-free wedding. If Dad already knew about the offer—well, she’d find a way to talk him down so it didn’t turn the weekend into a shit show.
In the end, she pulled into the lot of the First Methodist Church, in tiny Eden’s Ridge, Tennessee, a whopping forty-five minutes late. Whipping her Mini Cooper into a space, Laurel took a few seconds to run a brush through her hair and thumb two antacids off the roll in her purse before sprinting in her sensible heels to the front doors. In the vestibule, she paused to bring her breathing under control. Rosalind Maxwell would consider gasping for breath an unseemly insult to Laurel’s already unforgivable tardiness.
Beyond the double doors leading into the sanctuary, she could hear the murmur of voices. Crap, they were probably wrapping up already. It wasn’t like it took that long to practice walking down the aisle. When she thought she could speak without wheezing—really, she needed to carve out time to get back into the gym next semester—Laurel stepped inside. The voices stopped and all eyes turned to her. She resisted the urge to hunch her shoulders, instead pausing in the doorway, spine straight, shoulders back, all her debutante training coming to her aid.
If you’re going to make an entrance, make an entrance.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. There was a pile-up on the I-40 on my way out of town.” The lie rolled easily off her tongue. Traffic accidents fell under the heading of excuses her parents would accept. She could see them twisted around in a pew up front. Ignoring the moue of disappointment pinching her mother’s pretty face, Laurel deliberately blanked her expression and strode down the red-carpeted aisle toward the assembled wedding party.
Grinning, Logan broke free of his position at the altar, long legs eating up the last several feet, so he could wrap her in a solid hug. “Good to see you, Pip.”
She didn’t bother rolling her eyes at the old nickname—short for Pipsqueak. Even in her heels, her brother towered over her. Instead, she burrowed in for a long moment, absorbing his natural calm. “Back atcha, big brother.”
Hooking his arm around her shoulders, he led her the rest of the way to the front. “Everybody, I want y’all to meet my sister, Laurel.”
She gave a little wave. As Logan began introductions to the rest of the wedding party, she was aware of her parents’ disapproving glares.
“—remember Athena, and these are her sisters, Maggie, Kennedy, and Pru. And this young lady with the sappy, romantic grin is Pru’s daughter Ari. She likes to matchmake. Consider yourself warned.”
Ari snorted. “Whatever. You’re here, aren’t you? That’s a three-for-three success rate.”
“I’m not sure you can claim credit for all of those,” Kennedy pointed out.
The girl crossed her arms. “Who was it who gave you all a stern talking to when you were being idiots?”
Pru shot her daughter a look of affectionate reproof. “What she means is she’s an incurably nosy and interfering romantic.”
“I regret nothing,” the teenager insisted.
Logan ruffled her hair. “Noted, Nosy. Moving on. This is our wedding planner, Cayla Black; my friend, Porter Ingram; and you remember Xander.”
Did she ever. Her brother’s former college roommate was still hot. He was also very married. To Kennedy, if she wasn’t mistaken. They’d been high school sweethearts, once upon a time, and life had given them a second chance.
“Good to see you again, Xander. Congrats on your own nuptials.”
He wrapped her in a quick hug. “Thanks. You grew up.”
“Yeah, that happens. I’m all set to become a productive member of society and everything.”
“So I hear. Never pegged you for law school as a kid.”
Laurel’s face felt stiff as she forced it into a smile. “It takes all kinds.”
Logan continued with the introductions. “And this is Pru’s husband, Flynn.”
Flynn nodded with an expression every bit as impish as his daughter’s. “A pleasure, to be sure.” The greeting fell off his tongue with an unmistakable Irish brogue.
“This here is Master of Carbs, Athena’s pal, Moses Lindsey. Moses is the genius behind our cake.”
“I’m pretty sure that makes you the most popular guy at the wedding,” Laurel told him.
His teeth flashed white against the burnished bronze of his face. “I aim to please.”
“Please tell me there’s chocolate.” She folded her hands in supplication.
Moses jerked his head in Ari’s direction. “Tiny over there already put in her order. There will be chocolate,” he confirmed.
Laurel mimed a small fist pump. “You are a god among men.” Chocolate cake would go a long way toward making up for the stress she’d endured this semester.
“And last but certainly not least, your escort, Sebastian Donnelly.”
Laurel turned to the last groomsman and felt the faux, flirty smile slide right off her face. She froze there, hand partly outstretched as her gaze locked with a pair of deep, brown eyes. Her breath backed up in her lungs, and her heart slowed to a crawl.
His thick, dark hair was nearly black and just a little mussed, as if he’d combed it with his fingers straight from the shower. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and long, long legs. His button-down shirt clung to his arms in a way that told her he had plenty of muscle under the Oxford cloth, and she’d bet money there was a solid six-pack under there, too.
He stepped forward, taking her hand in his. “Hi.”
As his long, callused fingers closed around hers, she could breathe again. A stillness seemed to flow out of him and into her, and all the running and the stressing and the anxiety that was her constant companion went quiet. Her breath came out on something very close to a sigh, the tension in her shoulders leeching out. In its absence, the pulse that had turned sluggish began to gallop. All the prospective polite banter evaporated from her brain, leaving her with only one thought: Holy shit, you’re gorgeous.
She couldn’t very well say that, though.
Words. I need words. I’m supposed to be good at those. Casting around for something to say, she blurted, “What happened to Nick?” Goofy, bespectacled Nick, who used to give her noogies and didn’t leave her a tongue-tied mess of attraction.
“His dad had a heart attack, so Sebastian is standing in,” Logan explained.
“Is his dad okay?” The question came automatically. Thank God, she sounded normal at least.
“Yeah, he came through surgery and woke up a few hours ago.”
“Good,” she murmured.
Sebastian still had her hand, still hadn’t looked away. Why hadn’t he moved? Why hadn’t she? It seemed as if heat built between their palms, and Laurel wanted to bask in it.
She wasn’t broken. After the last couple of years, she’d begun to think that Devon had been right. The last guy she’d tried dating, back in her first year of law school, he’d accused her of being a robot. She was driven and focused. In the grand scheme of trying to maintain her position at the top of her class through that brutal, first year of academic hazing, dating and sex hadn’t been a priority. She hadn’t been interested in anyone since. But standing here, palm-to-palm, with Sebastian Donnelly, she felt that interest roar to life like a furnace re-stoked. Heat rolled over her, and she could only pray she wasn’t blushing.
One corner of his mouth quirked, as if he knew her brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Christ, how was it legal for a man to have lips that sensual? The contrast to the neat, close-cropped beard did something to her long-dormant lady parts, and she couldn’t help wondering what that beard would feel like on the sensitive skin of her inner thighs.
“—done with introductions, how about we do one last run through, so Laurel is up to speed, then we’ll break for the rehearsal dinner. Okay?”
Jerking her attention to Cayla, Laurel pulled her hand free, resisting the urge to tuck it under her arm to savor the tingles from where he’d touched it. Her cheeks bloomed with warmth.
Good God, when was the last time she’d felt an attraction like this?
Pretty sure that would be never, she thought as she followed the other bridesmaids to the vestibule.
With half an ear, Laurel listened to the wedding planner reel off instructions. The rest of her was still back in the sanctuary, reliving the touch of Sebastian’s hand. It wasn’t the heat that drew her—though that had rocked her back plenty—it was the stillness. The same kind of calmness her brother had always exuded but…more, somehow. Rare and precious, that feeling called her more effectively than any siren. Taking her place in the line-up to walk down the aisle, she wondered what she had to do to get another hit.
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