Catoctin Creek Book 3: Springtime at Catoctin Creek

There’s a new rivalry at Elmwood Equestrian Center…

Nadine’s never fit in at Catoctin Creek — or anywhere else, really. Coming back to her hometown felt like a defeat at first, but when she started working as Caitlin’s assistant at Elmwood Equestrian Center, things seemed to be looking up for the first time in years. If only Caitlin hadn’t hired that good-for-nothing pretty boy, Sean, to teach riding lessons, everything would be perfect. If Nadine sees him go home with one more (wealthy, attractive) client…well, she’s going to lose it. That’s all. Just lose it.

Sean doesn’t want to live in Catoctin Creek, he wants to go home — but he can’t, because there’s no home anymore. He took the gig as riding instructor at Elmwood in hopes of meeting some wealthy new equestrians (preferably female) who might sponsor him on a few horses — but so far, he’s struck out. Oh, and if Nadine could stop with the dirty looks just because he’s trying an unconventional way to get ahead? That would be great. Super, thanks.

Nadine is counting the days until Sean finally leaves Elmwood; Sean is exasperated with Nadine’s grinding work ethic. Both have been going out of their way to avoid working with each other. So when Caitlin announces Elmwood will host its first-ever hunter pace, Sean and Nadine are pretty horrified to hear they’ll be working on the event together. Sure, it’s for a good cause. But can these two really stand each other long enough to get through the final flags? Or will they turn out to be the team to beat on course?

Start reading Springtime at Catoctin Creek now and preorder on Kindle – this book releases on June 29th, 2021!

Chapter One: Nadine

“Good morning only to good ponies!”

Nadine was greeted with a clatter of hooves and deep nickers as she clattered down the stairs from her apartment. The horses and ponies of Elmwood Equestrian Center looked back at her with pricked ears—well, the ones in Barn Aisle B did—and she couldn’t help but smile back at them. Nothing felt as good as getting a chorus of good mornings from a stable full of hungry horses.

“What a bunch of adorable brats you are,” she called. Nadine marched down the wide concrete aisle, turned left at the wash-racks, and swung another left in the front aisle of the barn. She pushed up the sleeves of her sweatshirt as she went; maybe today wouldn’t be as cold as yesterday. Spring was so changeable. Her passage was feted by dozens of hungry, happy horses. Stomping, kicking, whinnying, hurray!

The closed door of the feed room was a disappointment which set Nadine’s good mood back several miles. She glared at it for a moment before jiggling the handle and pushing inside.

No Sean to be seen. What a surprise.

Sean Casey, riding instructor, was supposed to be helping her with the feeding and morning chores while Caitlin interviewed new grooms, but was Sean reliable? No, he was not.

“He’s an absolute waste,” Nadine muttered. She picked up the lids from each steel trash can, looking inside. The morning feeds should have been stacked up in small red buckets, each one with a number corresponding to a horse stall. The empty trash cans stared back at her, gleaming gently under the feed room’s single weak light bulb. “He had one job, set morning feed before he goes upstairs for the night, and what do I get? Nothing.”

Nadine pushed her long bangs out of her face impatiently and started setting out buckets. She had to set up feed for thirty-six horses before they tore the barn down, and she hadn’t even had her own coffee yet. As soon she got everyone fed, she was going to murder Sean Casey.

Her phone buzzed, distracting her from thoughts of destroying her coworker. She tugged it from her jeans pocket and groaned at the text.

Prep end stall for Rosemary’s horse. Comes before noon. Thx!

“A new horse today? Really, Caitlin?”

Now she’d have to fix up a new stall. On top of everything else. Couldn’t Caitlin interview grooms just a little faster? Nadine didn’t have time to be staff and management, especially when Caitlin’s ambitions just seemed to be getting off the ground. Dozens of new students crowding Elmwood Equestrian Center every afternoon and all day on weekends, sales horses arriving which she wanted sold to students, a contractor engaged to build a new barn addition for all the new owners who would need a place to keep their horses…her boss responded to every success with a huge bid for even more, and Nadine felt like she was bearing the brunt of it.

Nadine loved taking care of horses, but there were some mornings when it just seemed like nothing went right. And the maddening thing was, she couldn’t just leave Elmwood and strike out for greener pastures, as she had always done before.

This time, she had to see the job through.

***

By the time Caitlin strolled into her barn, the sun was fully up and icicles were dripping into puddles outside the doors. Nadine had opened the big doors on both aisles to let the cool, early spring breeze dance through the stalls. Late March could bring last-minute snow or short-sleeve weather to Catoctin Creek, but today felt like it would fall somewhere in the middle: the forecast was for fifty-five degrees, sunshine, and snowmelt. A good day to let the horses and ponies out naked in the fields, and turn over their musty winter blankets to air out.

Nadine had three ponies trailing behind her as Caitlin walked in. She’d shed her sweatshirt already and was just wearing a black hoodie, liberally strewn with hay, over a green long-sleeve tee and a pair of jeans. Her boss, dressed as usual in khakis and a clean blue sweater, looked her over critically. Nadine knew Caitlin wished she would dress a little tidier, but the job just didn’t lend itself to clean clothes. Especially when she was doing all the grunt work in addition to her managerial responsibilities.

“You’re turning out alone?” Caitlin sounded surprised.

Nadine fought to keep her voice steady, not accusatory. Caitlin didn’t like dramatics. “Did you hire someone to help me in the mornings?”

“I thought Sean would do it.” Caitlin glanced down the aisle, towards the door leading to Sean’s upstairs apartment, as if he’d magically burst through the door, fully dressed for work. “He’s been helping with stalls and grooming, so I just—”

“Sean doesn’t get up before eight o’clock,” Nadine informed her boss. “Whereas I start at six-thirty. He usually makes it down here right before I start cleaning stalls. I asked him to at least set feed at night, but even that seemed to be too much to handle.”

“Oh.” Caitlin nodded. The surprise had worn off her face; she knew Sean wasn’t exactly the most energetic when pressed into stablehand duties. “Well, I suppose as long as he’s helping do stalls.” She started to head past the ponies, making for her office at the end of the barn, where the aisle opened onto the indoor arena.

“Wait!” Nadine blurted. “Have you hired anyone? Seriously. We need help.”

“I hire them but then they don’t show up, darling, you know how it goes.” Caitlin spread her hands helplessly. “The people here have some kind of bee in their head about not working outdoors, they wake up and realize it’s chilly and they have to put on a coat, and it’s all over…” She was already trailing off, already pushing past the pony in her way, a little palomino Welsh named Buttercup. “Work it out with Sean for as long as you can, I’ll call down to the feed store and see if they’ve heard anyone is looking for work.”

“Maybe put an ad in the next issue Maryland Horse while you’re at it.”

“Oh, heavens, it won’t take that long.” Caitlin waved and went down the aisle, closing her office door behind her.

Nadine clucked to the ponies. “It’s been a month since we had regular grooms,” she told Buttercup darkly. “She’s going to have to pay them better.”

Nadine was tired of hearing about people who didn’t want to work from people who didn’t have to. work. Caitlin had grown up here, inherited this farm from her mother, and hired people to do all the work she couldn’t or wouldn’t do. She was a famously ungifted equestrian; Nadine could hang out at the feed store counter for ten minutes and hear six different stories about Caitlin falling off a dead-broke pony or getting owned at 4-H shows by kids who had never sat in an English saddle before. What Caitlin was really good at was making money, and then keeping it. But that kind of business acumen tended to be hard on employees.

Luckily—was it lucky?—Caitlin wasn’t the toughest employer Nadine had ever had. When she’d come back to Catoctin Creek, it hadn’t been by choice. Interviewing at Elmwood Equestrian Center had been a last-ditch effort to prove she could make a career out of horses—the position was assistant manager, not groom or stablehand, and the job came with housing in the form of an actual barn apartment, not an ancient travel trailer parked behind the manure pile, like her last “housing” arrangement had been.

Plus, working for a woman had sounded preferable to her last three employers, all of whom had been male, handsy, and hard to escape when they came knocking after hours.

Elmwood was a good place to work. It could just be better.

“This place would be perfect if Caitlin could just keep help, so I could do my job instead of everyone else’s.” Nadine sighed her complaints to the ponies as she slipped off their halters. There was no one else to listen. Her mother would have told her to quit. She was no help. But Nadine had always known that. Any support in their relationship would be one-sided.

The three ponies squealed and went cantering off through their muddy paddock, kicking at each other without breaking stride. Nadine had a million things to do, most of them dirty stalls, but she still paused to watch the ponies play. That was the best part of working with horses: watching them at liberty, moving with a freedom and lack of self-consciousness she felt like she’d been chasing her entire life.

When the ponies finally settled down to nuzzle at the sparse blades of new grass, Nadine turned to trudge back inside. Something—someone—stopped her short. Her quick moment of inspiration returned to exasperation. “Sean! I nearly ran you over. Did we get a good night’s sleep, honey-baby?”

Sean rubbed at the pale whiskers on his chin. He still had a sleepy look to his eyes. “So, I guess I missed turnout,” he observed, casting her a sheepish smile. “Yeah, sleep was good, though.”

Nadine just stared at him. There was a time when she’d thought Sean handsome, funny, charming—a real catch showing up in Catoctin Creek with his fancy Virginia upbringing and his perfect position in the saddle. 

Then she’d gotten to know him. Boy, had she been wrong about Sean Casey! First impressions could really mislead a girl, especially when they came with model good-looks and arms full of ropey muscle. Nadine considered herself schooled in this department. 

***

“Have you prepped the open stall at the end of Aisle B?” Caitlin was running her fingers down the stall chart on the feed room wall, occasionally smearing a name written in dry-erase marker. Nadine knew she’d have to rewrite the horse names later. Caitlin was careless about things like that. “Stick that horse of Rosemary’s down there.”

Nadine lifted her eyebrows. “So, why is Rosemary Beckett sending us a sales horse? I thought she kept all her rescues.”

“She finally found one who isn’t too damaged to start a new life.” Caitlin wrote Beckett Horse over the open stall. “She says he’s a quiet ride and just needs some mileage before he’s ready to sell. I told her we’d put him into some lessons, see what he wants to do next.”

“A project for me,” Sean announced from the corner, where he was sitting on a metal trash can and chewing on a handful of sweet feed. “Sounds like fun.”

Nadine rolled her eyes at him. “Can you fill that can with feed instead of eating it? Do your job for once.”

Sean hopped up, waggling his eyebrows at her playfully. “Testy, testy, Nadine.” He lifted a sack of sweet feed from the pile next to the trash can. “I have the private lesson with Martha Lane at ten o’clock, by the way. She’s going to ride Tiny. Can you have him groomed for me?”

Nadine decided that it would be better not to answer. Sean was always trying to get her to groom his lesson horses. Just because they didn’t have any grooms at the moment didn’t mean it was her responsibility…

“Oh, that’s nice,” Caitlin said, turning around and smiling at them. “Nadine, it’s good of you to help Sean get horses groomed. You don’t have to do that, but thank you.” She checked her phone. “Well, I have a call with the Frederick Rotary in five. See you two later.”

As Caitlin tripped out of the room, Nadine spun around to show Sean what she thought of his little trick. She’d meant to just give him a little shove, tell him to stop acting like she was his personal groom. But she hadn’t realized he was bent over to pick up another feed bag. Her hands didn’t connect with his solid upper arm—instead, they met his  rear.

Which was also pretty solid.

Sean slowly turned to face her. “Nadine, are you grabbing my ass?”

She jumped back, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks. “No! That wasn’t—it was an accident. I was falling,” she added lamely. “I tripped.”

Sean grinned at her. He had a movie-star smile, ten thousand watts and all of them charming. The perfect match to his shining golden hair and brilliant blue eyes. “You were trying to push me over.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Wait—maybe it was better he believed that. She shook back her hair and tried to look mean. Nadine had a small, wiry, black-haired energy that could be mistaken for toughness if a person didn’t know her very well. “If I’d meant to push you over, you’d be on the ground.”

“Good thing you didn’t.” Sean straightened. “If I got these breeches dirty, I’d have to go change before Martha got here.” He winked at Nadine. “These are the sexy ones.”

She was irritated with him all over again. “Martha Lane is twice your age,” she hissed. 

“Yes. And rich, and ready to buy a farm of her own,” Sean confirmed. “Can’t you see a good thing when it’s standing right in front of you? There’s a way out of this rat race. You don’t have to muck Caitlin’s stalls forever while she pats you on the head and calls you her assistant. Find yourself a sugar daddy, Nadine, and spend someone else’s money for a change.”

They stared each other down for a moment. Nadine was remembering how dazzled, how delighted she’d been when Sean had started working at Elmwood. His impossible good looks, his gorgeous equitation, his gentle horsemanship. The whole package! She’d spun a few dreams about him, that was for sure.

Then she found out about his real intentions, and things weren’t so dreamy any more. Sean flirted with everyone; it was like oxygen to him and she could have excused that on its own. But he was only really serious about the women with cash, and Nadine thought that was gross.

“Sean, Martha. Lane isn’t going to be your sugar mama and buy you a bunch of horses to ride. Just like Kathy Gottlieb wasn’t, and Lucille March wasn’t, and Vonnie Gibbons wasn’t.”

Sean shrugged, but now he was evading her eyes. Was he embarrassed? Good. He should be. Sean had been in Catoctin Creek for less than six months, and he already had a reputation for flirting with every woman in sight…and for actively chasing the single, wealthy ones.

Nadine wished he’d stop…but at the same time, she also hoped one of them actually gave Sean what he was looking for: a private farm, far away from her. Then maybe Caitlin could hire someone who actually helped around here.

She’d had enough of men filled with empty promises in this business.

Chapter Two: Sean

Sean groomed Tiny himself.

There was no point in arguing with Nadine about getting the horse ready—he just provoked her to pass the time, anyway. Elmwood Equestrian Center wasn’t his usual hang; Sean was used to more money, more ambition, more bling in his stabling. Even the drama here seemed like small potatoes; little Elle Stevens was mad that Kayla Darling had said her pony was fat, or Madison Matthews had taken Ainsley Hemming’s new martingale and claimed she’d bought it herself at Horsetown. Little kid stuff like that. The kind of lesson-barn drama Sean had enjoyed as a tween, but hardly up to his show-circuit standards.

Well, not much was, anymore. Sean brushed off the chunky chestnut school horse and tried to focus on the subject of today’s riding lesson. Martha Lane was not a gifted horsewoman, but it was in Sean’s best interest to make her think she was. She’d ridden as a child and was rekindling her schoolgirl interests with the help of an impressive divorce settlement. Mr. Lane had paid a pretty penny for his wandering eye, but D.C. lobbyist types weren’t too fussy about getting caught. He’d moved on with his latest mistress, and Mrs. Lane had retreated to the woodsy lanes of Catoctin Creek in hopes of starting a new life.

Sean’s mission was to make sure she knew he’d help her, every step of the way.

“Pick up your foot,” he told Tiny, squeezing the horse’s solid foreleg. Tiny shifted his weight, bored with grooming, or maybe with life in general, and flicked his tail noncommittally. “Come on, Tiny! Pick up this big old frying pan of a hoof so I can clean it out!”

“He only responds to compliments,” Nadine called, drifting by with a wheelbarrow-load of shavings for the new horse’s stall.

“Oh, shut up,” Sean huffed. He leaned hard against Tiny’s leg, pushing the horse off-balance, and scooped up the hoof. “Gotcha, big guy.”

“Congrats,” Nadine said. “You got a sixteen-year-old school horse to pick up his foot.”

“Don’t you have a stall to bed down?”

She stuck out her tongue at him, but moved on.

Sean sighed and got to work cleaning out Tiny’s huge hoof. The horse was half-Belgian and half Quarter Horse, a combination which practically promised bulk from head to toe. And like his “gentle giant” Belgian ancestry promised, he was quiet, good-natured, and sort of stubborn: the perfect horse for riding lessons. Nadine loved him; Sean had seen her slip into his stall at the end of the day to hand out a few extra carrots or leftover alfalfa cubes from the evening feeding. She had a thing for the big horses, he’d noticed. She liked the ponies—Elmwood’s bread and butter had always been trim, dainty Welsh ponies, bred for the show-ring and ridden by small girls in pigtails—but she seemed drawn to draft horses, tall horses, any equine big and powerful.

He wasn’t sure what that was about, but there was probably a psychology lesson in there somewhere.

Well, Sean wasn’t going to dig into Nadine’s psyche. That was none of his business. She was cute, sometimes even eye-catching, with that cloud of dark hair around her pale face and big brown eyes, but Sean didn’t have time for work crushes. He was determined to get back up the ladder, get out of riding-lesson-hell and back into the world he knew, of bustling horse shows and elegant people and sprawling horse farms with signs next to their gates which read Private Farm – No Solicitation.

So far he’d rushed through three quick attempts with three age-inappropriate women, but none of them seemed to be leading towards his goal, so he’d cried off with compliments and explanations about fear of losing his job. Kathy Gottlieb had narrowed her eyes but shrugged; Lucille March had actually yelled at him (that had been awful, but she’d soon recovered and sent him on his way); Vonnie Gibbons had laughed and said toy-boys like him were a dime a dozen if she wanted one. That had probably been the worst, because he was actually at her sprawling mansion, complete with a view of the Potomac River, when she’d turned him down flat.

Sean had been out in the empty stable, a towering masterpiece of a private barn with six big stalls, a heated tack room, an apartment he would have killed for, and an indoor arena. All it was missing was horses, and a human to ride them. Sean had hoped to be that human. But he’d gone about it all wrong.

This whole plan was taking more time and concentration than he’d thought. Honestly, if it didn’t pan out with Martha, he was giving up. One more shot. And if he failed…well, he had no idea what came next. He was almost afraid to consider it. The past six months had been very lonely for Sean Casey. Kicked out of the only world he’d never known, his parents gone to ground in the Bahamas…Nadine made fun of him nonstop for being a spoiled rich boy who didn’t know how to live in the real world, but honestly? She didn’t know the half of it.

He doubted she’d be nicer to him if she did, though. Nadine seemed to be harboring her own prejudices and problems. Sean had been initially curious—she was cute, good with horses, and his age, so why wouldn’t he have been?—but she wasn’t even remotely interested in telling him anything about herself, so he’d given up.

“I’m riding Tiny today, huh?” 

Sean stood up, planting the horse’s huge hoof back on the ground. “Hello there, Martha.”

“Good morning, Sean.” She crinkled her eyes when she smiled. Trim, confident, and the mother of an honors student at nearby Wilson College, Martha Lane was not afraid of her new life. Sean was jealous of her courage. But then again, Martha was approaching her fresh start with a lot of money in addition to her natural optimism. That had to help. When she’d first shown up to volunteer with Elmwood’s therapeutic riding program, Sean had been immediately taken with her positive attitude, but since he’d gotten to know her, he suspected there was steel beneath her smile.

Now he smiled at her warmly, his hand on the shoulder of her school-horse. “Do you want to help tack up?”

“Yes, I do! Let me just put away my purse—”

She hustled to the tack room. Sean watched her. Was she swaying her hips just a little to show off her figure in her breeches? He hoped so—

“Dirty dog,” Nadine snapped, pushing past him with an empty wheelbarrow.

“Mind your business,” Sean retorted.

“This is my business.” Nadine stopped, dropping her wheelbarrow, and put her hand up to Tiny’s muzzle. The horse lipped at her fingers, but Nadine’s dark eyes, somehow snapping with anger, were fixed on Sean. “It might be hard to tell these days, but I’m the assistant manager. Your boss. And I ought to tell Caitlin—”

“You wouldn’t.” Sean felt a tremor of anger along with something else. Was that fear? Nadine had been Caitlin’s right hand before the latest round of grooms quit in a cluster—going off to McDonald’s for lunch, getting themselves riled up about their tiny paychecks, and never coming back. She’d ended up handling the mucking out and feeding because there was no one else, but if Caitlin got her act together and hired staff, Nadine would be back in Caitlin’s pocket all day, with plenty of opportunity to poison their boss against him.

Would she do that, though? He didn’t think she was the kind of person who wrecked lives on purpose. And Sean had met his share of those types. He was a fairly decent judge of evil character.

“Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t,” Nadine countered now, a line he knew was a dead giveaway. She wouldn’t. “But you’re going to give this place a reputation, and I don’t appreciate it.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sean hissed. Martha was coming out of the tack room, hands free and face bright. “Would you get out of here? I have a lesson to teach.”

Nadine gave him a hard look, but her fingers, lingering close to Tiny’s snuffling nose, still moved gently over the horse’s soft muzzle. “Don’t ruin this place for me,” she said mysteriously, and then she went back to her wheelbarrow, shoving it down the aisle. Sean thought she did waggle her hips a little, but maybe that was just the way she walked. Horsewomen could have loose hips. It was a known thing. His old coach, Sinead, had always talked about it.

“Mrs. Lane, good morning.” Nadine greeted Martha with a genteel nod, and then turned the corner by the wash-racks, headed to the other aisle.

Sean let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. He picked up a saddle pad. “All ready to saddle up?” he asked, and Martha smiled.

“I really do like riding Tiny,” she said as they worked together to saddle the horse. “I’d like to buy a horse like him—really solid, you know.”

Sean was a little disappointed. He’d been hoping to get her interested in a nice show hunter. Tiny was a good enough school horse, but he was no A-circuit mount. “You want a Belgian-Quarter Horse cross?” he asked, trying to turn it into a joke. “A friendly plodder?”

“Not necessarily.” Martha stepped back and looked over the chestnut horse. “For one thing, I’d like a little more…I don’t know, I just want a horse that wows me when I look at him. I’m still not sure horse shows are in my future, but I don’t want to rule them out.”

Neither do I, Sean thought. His plan revolved around convincing a patroness to buy several show horses. Not school horses. “I can agree Tiny’s not that horse. But are you ready to start looking? Because I can put out some feelers. I know a lot of people in the show world.” Sean was half-lying; his connections were all severed, and it would take a complete change of circumstance to bring them back to life. But finding a good horse for sale wasn’t that hard, especially when the wallet was as thick as Martha’s. And it would be a step in the right direction. All he had to do was keep her focused on buying her own place, rather than boarding here with Caitlin.

“Maybe,” Martha said, but her voice was non-committal. “There’s no rush. I haven’t even decided if I’m going to buy property or board yet.”

Sean bit his lip and passed her Tiny’s bridle. He knew better than to move too fast. Right now, he had Martha right where he wanted her. If she was the one, he didn’t want to mess things up.

He’d spent entirely too long here, already.

***

There was supposed to be an all-staff meeting every Wednesday at eleven-thirty, which at this point just meant Caitlin, Nadine, and Sean gathered in the lounge overlooking the indoor arena. Nadine had been making coffee and the scent hit Sean’s nose the moment he entered the room, drawing him in like a cartoon hobo floating to a pie on a windowsill. The barn coffeemaker was old and crotchety, but Nadine seemed to have a knack for coaxing drinkable brew out of it, a skill no one else on earth possessed. He lined up behind Caitlin with a battered communal mug in hand, this one featuring a cartoon of Fergus the horse spooking at a butterfly.

Caitlin filled her Thelwell mug (the cartoon on it was the one with the children who had tied up their riding instructor, Sean noticed) and then tipped the pot over his mug. “Good lesson with Mrs. Lane?” she asked, smiling with her lips but not her eyes. Caitlin was the jealous type. Not in terms of sex—she wasn’t interested in younger guys, possibly not any guys, Sean wasn’t sure—but definitely in terms of business.

Sean had considered her potential briefly when he’d first arrived—after all, she had this entire spread free and clear, she could set him up for life—but quickly realized Caitlin wasn’t in the business for anyone but herself. He supposed she had her own agenda, her own reasons for wanting to build an empire no one could take from her, but it wasn’t going to mesh with his personal goals.

Nadine piped up before he could answer. “She looked very satisfied!”

Sean glared at her. Nadine just patted the empty cushion at her side. “Come sit on the sofa,” she encouraged him sweetly. “You need a break from your tough morning.”

He pointedly sat on a hard folding chair opposite the sofa, crossed his legs primly, and looked back at Caitlin, who was settling into her preferred armchair. “So what’s on the agenda, boss?”

Caitlin sipped her coffee and shuffled some papers. “Mmmm, this is good, Nadine. Thank you.” 

“My pleasure,” Nadine chirped, smirking at Sean.

Suck-up. Sean mouthed the words at Nadine.

She batted her eyelashes at him. She had very long eyelashes. Sean wondered if they were real. They had to be, right? She wasn’t getting up in the morning and putting on false eyelashes to impress the ponies.

Not bad.

“So let’s see,” Caitlin went on, missing the exchange. “I was able to hire two grooms this morning and they’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Nadine breathed, dropping the sweetheart facade. “Not a moment too soon, honestly.”

Caitlin smiled at her. “And it’s great timing because I have a special project which is going to need your focus.”

Nadine’s smile slipped slightly. It was Sean’s turn to smirk, and he did so, openly. 

Caitlin held up a paper with a little flourish. An illustration of a jumping horse filled the center. In bold letters across the top, the page proclaimed Elmwood Equestrian Center Inaugural Spring Hunter Pace.

Sean lifted his eyebrows.

“We’re putting on a hunter pace?” Nadine asked, her voice suddenly small.

“Yes! We’ll be hosting it and working with Rotary and some local charities. Hunter paces are so fun! Have you ever done one?”

Nadine shook her head. So did Sean. He’d seen plenty of them down in Virginia, but his taste had always run more to tidy, groomed arenas and jumps which fell down when horses bumped them.

“But you’ve helped put on horse shows,” Caitlin went on.

“Oh—of course.”

Sean narrowed his eyes at Nadine. Was she lying?

Caitlin put the paper down and sipped at her coffee before she went on. “Well, then you’ll love this. Much easier. And a lot of fun. Teams of riders, a course of cross-country jumps, optimum time to meet. The entire goal is fun. It’s not cutthroat at all—perfect for a charity event. This is going to be the therapy program’s major fundraiser for the first half of the year. So a lot depends on it. All the stalls the therapy horses live in don’t come for free.”

Sean considered this statement. He supposed she had a point. Caitlin had been pushing the lesson and boarding business so hard, she was nearly out of stalls. If the therapy ponies were taking up stalls that could be rented to boarders, they weren’t just costing her money, they were costing her a lot of money.

He wondered if the therapy program was in danger of shutting own. She wouldn’t, would she?

“But we don’t have a full cross-country course.” Sean thought Nadine looked a little desperate for excuses. “We just have a couple of coops between fields. What will they jump?”

“I’m handling the course construction with our neighbors. Billy O’Connell is with the Frederick Hounds and they have coops across their property. We’ll add some to our fences, along with some other obstacles. The north pasture is rolling and has the creek running through it, and since I sold the cattle, we don’t even use it for grazing.” Caitlin brushed aside the details. “There’s going to be a lot of organization, though. Getting the word out, getting in entries, filing, course maps, all of that admin stuff. I want you two to work on it together.”

Sean felt his mouth fall open. You two? Together?

Across from him, Nadine was shaking her head. “Not necessary. I can handle it. There’s no need for Sean—”

“It’s far too much work for one person. And Sean needs a little show admin experience. This will be good for him.” Caitlin’s smile had steel in it now. “I’ll have a binder for you by this afternoon. Everything you need to cover will be in the binder. Ask questions whenever. Okay? I know you two can do great things together.”

Sean met Nadine’s gaze. For a moment he thought he saw everything she thought of him, somehow expressed in her dark brown eyes: disappointment, distaste, dislike. He felt a sudden twinge of regret, a twist in his gut. But just before he could process the feeling, she turned away from him, looking back to Caitlin. He looked at her high, squared shoulders and her lifted chin, and he thought: This is going to suck.

But sucking it up was something Sean was getting good at.

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