Book 3: Springtime at Catoctin Creek

Catoctin Creek sweet romance series

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?

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Chapter One: Nadine

A sweet breeze blew across the Maryland countryside, perfumed with blossoms and bearing an appealing message from the sunny south: spring was on its way.

Nadine turned her nose up to the cool air and let it waft over her. That floral scent! The entire morning was saturated with it! She’d never learned much about flowers, their names and all that, so she couldn’t guess what bouquets she was sniffing on the steady west wind this morning. She just knew the fragrance was enlivening her senses, making her feel chipper when a full mug of coffee had not, and giving her the energy she needed to get on with this day. She pushed locks of waving black hair back from her cheeks, tucking it behind her small ears, and turned her face full into that fragrant wind.

A thought, unoriginal but nonetheless sincere, ran through her mind: she simply loved springtime.

The idea made her laugh to herself. Loving springtime, what a concept! Who didn’t, really?

Maybe Sean Casey. He was so contrary, he probably didn’t like sunshine and rainbows, either. But Nadine had decided to not to worry about Sean Casey’s opinions anymore. His likes, his dislikes, the women he flirted with. None of it was her concern. Sean was a coworker, and that was as far as things were going between them. She’d already wasted more than enough time on that man. Nadine closed her eyes briefly and put Sean out of her mind.

Of course, she was going to see him shortly, when he came downstairs to get to work, but for the moment, at least, she would live Sean-free. His pretty face could just go—vanish!

Behind her, a symphony of whinnies broke the morning quiet. Nadine opened her eyes and turned around, her hands immediately going to her wild hair as the wind pushed it over her face, and watched the little herd of ponies galloping across the fenced pasture. Beneath their hooves, the rolling landscape shone with green, looking as if someone had laid Easter grass across last year’s beige stubble. The nimble ponies flowed across the slopes with all the grace of a flock of migrating birds.

Nadine’s heart crept up into her throat and stayed there as she breathed deep, thrilling herself with the sight of those spirited ponies. All that was left of the once-famous Elmwood herd, these six ponies were treasured members of the equestrian center’s therapeutic riding and lesson programs. She could name all of them: that was Pumpkin, in front for once, then the gleaming alabaster coat of Ghost—

“Well, that’s cute.” 

Sean’s voice made Nadine’s pulse jump as well as her feet. She put a hand to her chest, willing her heart to calm itself. Why was he always sneaking around and spooking her like that? Why couldn’t he just stay in the barn—or better yet, up in his apartment under the rafters?

Bad enough she had to listen to Sean thumping around at night on the other side of her living room wall, bad enough she had to work with him in the afternoons, when the onslaught of riding lessons descended on the barn. Did he have to come down and bother her before breakfast, too, when hardly anyone was around and she could just soak up the beauty of one of Catoctin Creek’s most beautiful farms? She was lucky to live here, lucky to be back in her hometown, lucky to be manager of this gorgeous equestrian center…so it would nice if she could just enjoy a moment of downtime without Sean once in a while.

“What do you want?” she asked, working to keep her impatience from her tone.

“The ponies?” Sean said, looking down at her. “They’re very cute.”

“The ponies are magnificent,” she retorted sharply, because calling Elmwood’s priceless pony herd cute failed to take into account how majestic, how elegant, how sought-after these ponies were in the upper echelons of the horse show market. For decades, Elmwood ponies had taken pigtailed girls and serious-faced boys to championships, their pricked ears and soft dark eyes emanating professionalism as they jumped around manicured courses, laying their polished hooves into the soft footing just so. Elmwood ponies were many things, cute included, but she wasn’t going to let Sean Casey get away with demeaning them with just one word of praise. They deserved dozens. “These ponies are way more than cute, Sean. Open up your eyes.”

She glanced sidelong at him as she spoke, unable to resist taking in the view through her thick lashes. And it was a good view, as always. Sean was blessed with the looks of a Swedish prince. Or so Nadine had heard. Nikki down at the Blue Plate Diner had once told her Sean looked like a Nordic male model, and that was the source of all his problems in life.

Nadine had found it hard to sympathize. Her pale skin didn’t win her any marks in the beauty department, especially paired with her wispy black hair that had to be pounded into submission with a round brush and an elastic band every morning, lest it puff up from her ponytail and get in her eyes while she was leading horses or mucking stalls. She had good green eyes, dark as forest leaves in midsummer, but no one else noticed them enough to remark on them, so she supposed it was probably just a personal preference, her own little vanity. Sean’s eyes were a particularly shimmering ice-blue. Not that she ever looked at them, and—

He was grinning at her.

Grinning at her? He ought to be frowning at her. Why couldn’t he just wake up and realize when she was insulting him? So frustrating. It was so difficult to throw Sean off his game. He was cheerful, chipper even, through the most challenging days on the farm. Even when their boss, Caitlin was being her usual chaotic self, Sean just carried on as if she wasn’t making them crazy at all…

“I know they’re good ponies, Nadine,” he replied now, his voice amused. “I rode an Elmwood pony when I was a little kid, you know. Elmwood Bowtie. She was a leadline champion at Devon.”

She hadn’t known that. If she had, she would have hated him a lot more by now—something Nadine didn’t even think was possible. Because oh boy, did she hate Sean Casey. Even if hate was a strong word, as her mother used to chide. Fine, Mom. She couldn’t stand him. Did that get across the point?

Such a lying snake. Lying, flirtatious, cheap, lazy, good-for-nothing—just like every other man Nadine had been forced to work with. Ten long years of trying to make a career for herself as a professional horsewoman, and when she finally had the plum spot she’d always wanted, her boss had to go and hire Sean.

“You did not have an Elmwood pony,” she huffed, turning her back on him and the landscape behind her. She hated to leave behind the galloping ponies, the flower-soaked breeze, but it was time to head back into the barn. Time to work. Anyway, the first blush of the beautiful morning had passed. There were high, icy clouds taking over the blue sky, and that lushly floral wind was growing a bit stiffer, too. There was a cold note to it which gave her the shivers. “Stop lying about your ponies. I’m going in to work on stalls.”

“I’ll help you.” Sean tripped after her, taking care that his polished black field boots found all the dry spots in the muddy parking lot. “I have nothing else going on this morning. Just a couple horses to ride this afternoon before lessons.”

Nadine kept her eyes resolutely forward. The big barn complex, with its double aisles and massive indoor arena attached at one end, loomed in front of them like an airplane hanger. “I have Richie and Rose to help me,” she reminded him. “Three people’s plenty to get stalls cleaned. Go do something else. Go polish your saddle.”

“Three’s plenty. Four’s even better. Just let me get out of these boots.”

She eyed his beautiful riding boots. Nadine was deeply covetous of those boots, which Sean kept in perfect condition even when the rest of his tack could sometimes fall into deplorable condition. She knew it was his best pair, not his everyday boots. “Why are you even wearing your good boots out here?”

“I was going to ride the new horse first thing this morning, and Caitlin was coming to watch with the owner. You know she likes to see me turned out all polished for clients. But it turns out he isn’t coming until this afternoon, so there won’t be time to ride him. All dressed up for nothing.”

“Oh, right. Rosemary’s horse. I’d literally forgotten about it.” Yesterday, Nadine had prepped the last empty stall in the back aisle for Rosemary Brunner’s incoming sales horse. Then a million other things had happened, in the course of a normal barn afternoon, and the new horse was crowded out of her brain. “Caitlin shouldn’t have asked you to ride him as soon as he arrived, anyway. He should have time to settle in. I wouldn’t ride him before Wednesday, at the earliest.” Today was Monday; two days would be plenty of time.

Sean shrugged. “Caitlin said Rosemary wants him sold quickly, so the sooner I know what we’re dealing with, the better. He could be very green, y’know? Rosemary gets her horses from auctions, so he doesn’t come with any history.”

“That’s an even better reason not to push the poor horse.” Nadine stopped in the barn entrance and peered down the front aisle, wondering if Richie and Rose, the grooms, had started mucking out yet. The big barn took several hours of hard work to clean each morning. They always started on the front aisle—so-called because it was the main barn aisle, lined with stalls housing the boarders, the paying customers. The “back aisle” was a little shorter and less trafficked, home to the farm horses and ponies, and dead-ending into storage below Nadine’s apartment, while the front aisle led directly to the indoor arena, the barn offices, and the tack rooms.

She narrowed her eyes at the condition of her barn. The front aisle was a mess this morning. Blankets needed rehanging on their bars—Nadine liked them hung with hospital-like precision in perfect rectangles, their buckles tucked away out of sight—and that lovely spring wind had scattered hay everywhere. A bit of a mess while cleaning stalls was acceptable, but this was beyond normal limits. If Caitlin came down before they’d finished morning chores, she’d have a mini-meltdown. Nadine decided to ask Richie to use the leaf-blower to clear the aisle before they did stalls, while she fixed the blankets.

Assuming Sean went away. Why was he still hovering alongside her? Barn work wasn’t his problem. He rode horses and taught riding lessons, and right now he didn’t need to do either. Instead, he was still bleating at her about the new horse. The one who wasn’t even here yet.

“I’m not going to push the horse, Nadine. Maybe have a little faith in me? Have I been hard on any of the other horses I’ve trained here?

Maybe he hadn’t, but none of those horses had been challenges. Nadine knew tough horses, but she wasn’t so sure Sean did. He rode with a stiff, elegant posture which told her he was more about theory than practice—more about looking pretty than riding effectively. Just the opposite of Nadine, as he was in every way imaginable. She sighed and turned back to him. “I’m just saying, you don’t even know this horse. He could have been bouncing from barn to barn for months. He might be tired and miserable.”

Sean raised a lazy eyebrow at her. “It’s touching to see what faith you have in me. Nadine. I promise to be good to this tired, miserable, pathetic horse-tragedy you’ve built up in your mind. But, I still have to get him going. Sales horses are my responsibility, and I can’t just waste time when Caitlin wants me selling, selling, selling—”

“Of course, you’re very busy,” Nadine agreed tartly. She turned on her heel, heading into the barn.

“I am very busy,” Sean countered, chasing after her. “Wait, Nadine. Why are you mad at me now? I wanted to help you guys this morning!”

“Just go change your boots,” she snapped. “If you come into a dirty stall in those boots, I’ll kill you for boot abuse.”

“I’m going to change them, we are literally walking towards my apartment where my other boots are—but listen, Nadine—” His hand rested on her arm, a soft gesture asking her to wait, to give him a chance.

Nadine froze. He’d touched her like this before, and more—giving a leg-up, steadying her while she dealt with a spooky horse, things like that—but they’d been buried under winter coats for most of the time he’d been here. Now, with his fingers pressing through her thin thermal shirt, she could feel those—feelings—again. The same feelings he’d set off with his casual touch when he’d first arrived here, six months ago. When Sean had first come to Elmwood to take on the riding instructor job, and she’d been such a foolish victim of his smile and his charm. She’d let him touch her arm, and felt the warm thrill his fingers gave her skin, and wanted more of it.

That first touch was burned into her brain—as was her reaction. She remembered the silly grin spreading across her face as she’d looked at him, but she didn’t remember what she’d said. Or even what he’d asked. Probably something stupid and innocent, like if she knew where he’d left a pony bridle or if she could get a horse’s mane pulled. Nothing which matched the magnetic reception she’d felt with his hand on her arm.

And then, after he’d taken those warm fingers away, she’d watched him march right over to Vonnie Gibbons, a middle-aged adult student who drove an Audi and dressed in perfectly matching riding outfits, right down to her thousand-dollar boots, and flash his movie-star smile at her. 

Nadine’s heart had sunk as she realized their connection was all in her head. The smiles, the charm, the soft touches, the thrills rippling through her at his touch: none of that meant anything. Sean Casey was just a big old flirt.

That’s when she decided to hate him, and it had served her well ever since. Except, of course, for the whole working-together thing. 

Now she tried to take a step back, flick away those burning fingers, but her feet didn’t want to take her away, and her eyes didn’t want to jerk from his. So she stood there, seething with a strange mixture of emotions, and let him talk as if anything he said mattered to her.

“Don’t you want to stop fighting all the time?” he asked, his low voice charmingly pleading. “Wouldn’t it be easier if we got along? I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but—”

“What does that mean?” Nadine interrupted, momentarily distracted. “You don’t know how long you’ll be here? Are you looking for another job?”

Sean dropped his hand to his side, his expression rueful. She missed the connection immediately, but at least she had the freedom to take a step back, as if those invisible magnets were slowly giving up their force. “No, I didn’t mean to imply I’m looking for a new job, but, you know how it is. If the right thing came along…”

“Wait a minute. How could this not be the right thing?” Nadine was aware she should be encouraging him to apply far and wide to new jobs, preferably in California, or perhaps Germany, but she felt an irrational surge of loyalty to Caitlin and to Elmwood. She’d worked here a year now. She was proud of her work. And this place did things that mattered. Sean did things that mattered. “You have a good job. You’re a riding coach with dozens of students, you have sales horses to ride and commission when they sell, you have access to a truck and trailer so you can go to shows, you have an apartment right up there—” she pointed up at the pair of barn apartments, their small windows overlooking the stalls and aisles. “I don’t understand what else you could want.”

Sean gave her a sideways smile. “I think you mean you don’t understand what else you could want,” he told her. “We’re used to different things.”

Nadine’s lips slammed tight together. That did it. She was done talking to Sean for the morning. Arrogant, entitled, selfish…

She stalked up the aisle, mud flaking from her paddock boots with each step. It didn’t matter if she made a mess now. She’d ask Richie would get out the leaf-blower and scour this aisle clean. Then they’d muck out, and he’d blow the aisle again to clear up their mess. By eleven o’clock, this barn would be spotless—just the way she always left it, six days a week.

She was aware of Sean’s tread as he climbed the creaking stairs to his apartment, the involuntary slam of his front door as he pulled it tight in the swollen old frame. Then she knew he was on the little linoleum pad just inside his door, unzipping his field boots and tugging them free. She knew where he was, what he was doing, in part because her apartment was a clone of his, in part because when the barn was quiet she could hear his steps on the floorboards, and in part because, for some annoying reason, when Sean Casey was around, Nadine always knew it.

“Well, maybe he’ll leave,” she muttered, taking down a manure fork and tossing it into a wheelbarrow. “I bet we’d all be a lot happier without lazy Sean Casey in the barn.”

Chapter Two: Sean

“They’ll miss me when I’m not around,” Sean told his mirror.

He’d left his boots in a heap by the front door and gone into the bedroom to change out of his good buff breeches—no reason to dirty them with barn chores when he had some jeans from yesterday which were only moderately dusty. Sean didn’t bother cleaning stalls very often; it wasn’t his job, technically, and he wasn’t particularly good at it. But something about Nadine’s attitude over the past few weeks had been needling at him, and he wanted to prove her wrong.

“She’s got me cast as some kind of villain,” he went on, “and that’s just not true. Just because I don’t want to live here forever, chasing around these kids and these old ladies who want to learn to ride? This isn’t my life. And Nadine just doesn’t understand.”

He sighed at his reflection, who gazed back at him with sympathy. The only sympathetic person in his life. Sean appreciated his mirror with a devotion which he knew was quite sad. It wasn’t because he liked his appearance so much. It was because he had no one else to talk to.

“She’s so difficult. You shouldn’t care what she thinks.”

But Sean knew he cared. He’d always cared what Nadine thought—what everyone thought.

“You’re too dependent on other people, Seany-boy.” He gave himself a crooked smile and rubbed his hair back from his forehead. “But dammit, I wish she liked me. Even if I don’t like her very much. Ugh. I know that’s dumb. But it’s who I am.”

Sean was not above admitting this to himself; he didn’t have to pretend to his reflection that he didn’t care what other people thought of him. Why sugarcoat the truth, he often thought—he was hyper-aware of what other people thought of him, and he liked to think he was self-aware enough to recognize this fault in his personality. Since Nadine was his closest coworker, a person he saw every day without fail and often worked alongside in the afternoon crush of tacking and untacking lesson horses, it stood to reason that he’d have an unnatural interest in what she thought of him.

Perfectly reasonable state of affairs.

He did need to get over it, though. If Simone could have seen him struggling to get Nadine’s attention, hoping to get a shred of approval from his unrelenting colleague, she would have laughed at him, then told him to suck it up. When Simone had been around, he hadn’t been so obsessed with his mirror. His old friend, a fellow junior rider on the all-consuming show circuit which they’d devoted their lives to from the age of eight, Simone was the opposite of Nadine—she built him up, told him how great he was. And when he’d taken the job at Elmwood, she’d told him not to forget who he was. Not to get too comfortable.

“You’re better than up-down lessons and commuters looking for cheap board outside the city,” she’d informed him, leaning against her bedroom dresser. She’d been wearing a long-tailed dress shirt, her tan legs bare, her honey-colored hair falling to her shoulders in soft waves. Sean had been in the doorway; he’d been crashing on her couch for the past month. Trying to figure out what to do with his life now that everything he’d ever known had come crashing down. “Don’t forget that you’re Sean Casey, you’ve got championships behind your name and a big career ahead of you. I want you back on the circuit by next summer. Saugerties, baby!”

“It’s going to be pretty hard without my horses,” he’d grumbled, and then he’d been ashamed, because Simone’s best horses were gone, too. Not his fault, but it sure felt like it. It felt like it had all been his fault. They’d both had to start over, thanks to his family’s foibles.

But at least Simone had money backing her up. Simone’s grandmother was happy to front her the money for three new horses to take to Florida for the winter. Sean’s family wasn’t so generous—or so free to spend, according to his mother, who said they weren’t spending a dollar in the United States as long as his father’s associates were under investigation.

Sean wasn’t a dummy. He knew fraud didn’t just happen with no one knowing about it. And he knew his parents weren’t coming back from their Bahamian beach house in time to save his floundering career. If he wanted to get back into the upper echelons of the horse show world, he’d have to find a way there himself. And that meant finding someone else’s money.

It wasn’t in a job teaching kids and hopeful re-riders at a western Maryland equestrian center, but there might be someone in that audience who wanted to enjoy the thrill of owning top show horses even if riding at that level wasn’t an option for them. Finding that person was Sean’s goal, Simone reminded him.

She had crossed the shining hardwood in three quick steps. She looked up at him, lips parted, and patted his cheek like a doting grandmother. “We’ll be waiting for you, Sean. Hurry back. Save some money, chat up some investors, and you’ll be back in the ring in no time. I’ll see you when I come back from Florida.”

Simone was still in Florida, spinning out the remainder of the Winter Equestrian Festival in sunny West Palm Beach. She’d head back to Virginia in a few weeks, spending May at the family farm, before the horses shipped to upstate New York for summer showing in Saugerties. Simone, like everyone in their circles, followed the most Eastern Seaboard’s most temperate weather: warm days and cool nights were their ideal environment.

Sean had spent the winter shivering under the heaviest snow season in Maryland history. It had felt particularly unfair for his first winter out of Florida since he was twelve years old. His parents, lounging on their island paradise, had not been sympathetic. His friends, riding under the Floridian sun, had not been good at keeping in touch. The winter’s chill under these rafters had been more than just meteorological.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, Sean looked around his tiny bathroom, an extension of a minuscule bedroom, the natural child of a miniature living room-kitchen combo. This was what he had accomplished on his own, without his dad’s credit card.

Not much.

When he’d first arrived here, he’d felt like he couldn’t breathe in the dark little apartment. Now, it wasn’t home, but he was used to it, and that somehow felt worse. He’d been here six months. How long would Simone really wait for him? The last time they’d talked, she’d promised she’d hold space and stalls in Saugerties for him under her name. But that had been a month ago. What if she changed her mind? Or simply forgot about him?

He had to get out of Elmwood. He needed horses, and money. And that meant jumping on every single opportunity.

Simone had been the one to suggest targeting the older divorcees with money. Sean knew he was naturally good with women, so the premise had seemed simple. Find a woman looking for meaning in her life through horses. Get close to her over the course of her riding lessons. Convince her that while she’d never get back those childhood dreams of stardom, she could still be part of the horse show elite.

All she had to do was invest in him.

It seemed so simple, and Elmwood was always brimming over with rudderless women showing up with a mid-life crisis and a fat wallet. So why did Sean keep striking out? Things always seemed to edge towards the physical. That was why. And he hadn’t been willing to take things to that extreme. Not yet, anyway.

Martha Lane was his best shot, but he was running out of time, and he was starting to wonder just what he was capable of doing to get out of Maryland. Out of Catoctin Creek. Out of Elmwood Equestrian Center, and the endless cycles of up-down riding lessons.

He looked at himself once more in the mirror. On the surface, Sean thought he looked just fine: clean-shaven with cheeks baby-soft, eyes their usual ice blue, and no hint of puff beneath them even though he’d been up half the night, looking at ads for horses which cost more than he’d make in a year. Wondering which ones he could show to Martha that would make her aspirational heart go flippity-flop. He settled on a few different ones every night, mentally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of someone else’s money. But he never made a move.

Well, today, he was going to show them to her.

Martha’s riding lesson wasn’t until two o’clock; she would be volunteering in the one o’clock volunteer session with the therapeutic riding club, which met at Elmwood three afternoons per week and early on Sunday. The therapy sessions were hosted by Elmwood and used the lesson program’s oldest, most reliable horses and ponies, but they were run by the Catoctin Creek Volunteer Women’s League and neither Caitlin Tuttle, the owner of Elmwood, nor Sean, nor Nadine, had anything to do with them.

Their attentions were reserved for the for-profit side of things. The therapeutic riding program was ostensibly an exercise in charity and community, but Caitlin used it to recruit new students into the general riding program. Then they became Sean’s responsibility: he would teach them, get them hooked, and sell them a horse to board. That was where Martha had come from, and in Caitlin’s eyes, that was where Martha was heading: the rank and file of casual amateur rider paying monthly fees to Caitlin to care for her horse.

“This has to work, Sean,” he told his reflection. “Because if it only goes halfway and Caitlin finds out, you’re a dead man.”

His phone buzzed: Caitlin, wondering where he was. Sean grimaced and hopped on the linoleum by his apartment door, tugging on his slightly more serviceable paddock boots. Still beautiful and hand-crafted; a year ago, these boots had never seen the inside of a stall, unless it was to slip a halter over a horse’s head when no groom was available to tack up for him. Things had changed, for both Sean and his boots. And they both had new scars to show for those changes: a long diagonal line across the punched toe-cap of his left boot from a dragged hoof; a similar line across the top of his forearm from a dragged pony tooth. Sean had been astonished that an Elmwood pony would bite, but Caitlin had laughed and asked him where he thought the bad ones stayed?

“I don’t sell all of them, Seany-boy,” she’d told him, pouring lurid red Betadine over the wound while Sean grasped his arm and tried not to howl. “Hold still, you big baby! Is this really the first time you’ve ever been bit by a horse?”

His boss, ladies and gentlemen. 

His phone buzzed again. “Coming, coming,” he groused, and pelted down the stairs.

Caitlin was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, looking at her phone, her lower lip stowed under her gleaming top teeth. Her bobbed hair fell over her face like a golden veil. When she heard his footsteps approaching, she looked up, smiling. “Just the man I want to see,” she informed him.

This was rarely good news. Sean glanced up the barn aisle and saw Nadine peeking from a stall door, smiling. Also bad news for Sean. Their eyes met, and she jerked her head back inside.

He managed to force a pleasant expression for Caitlin, who often reminded him she did not like to be thought of as a “boss,” but who also demanded sunny dispositions and perfect obedience from her staff. “Good morning, Caitlin. What’s up?”

“A couple of good things.” Caitlin waved her phone at him as if it displayed all the answers. “The Robinsons are definitely on for tonight to look at Bailey. Make sure the daughter rides him in her lesson. You should get on him this afternoon to tighten him up. Nadine will get him polished before they get here. She’s going to pull his mane and bathe him. But that means you need to help tack the first group lesson, because she’ll be busy. Don’t forget to punch lesson cards. I don’t want anyone riding for free. Also: the hunter pace is a go for the second-last weekend in May. That gives us almost eight weeks. I talked to my contractor, and he’s going to start on fences this week. So that’s good, but I’ll need you to start planning outdoor lessons to get kids prepped—everyone needs to put in a good showing or it’s not a very good commercial for our services, now, is it? Oh, and the Brunner horse arrives at twelve-thirty, so be ready to ride him right after Rosemary leaves. One o’clock, hopefully.”

Sean blinked at this list of events, all of which meant work falling directly upon his shoulders. He sometimes suspected he’d done this very thing to his old staff. He used to stroll into his barn relaxed and happy, content that he had the best employees in the whole world to manage his affairs for him, not quite understanding that every chore he added to their day was a task which required their brains and muscles to put in a full effort on top of everything else they were already facing. When they’d occasionally protested, as he was about to do, he’d just scowled and wondered why they were being so difficult.

He cleared his throat and tried to look apologetic. “One o’clock’s tough for me today; I have to teach Martha Lane at two, and Veronica’s volunteers have the arena at one, anyway. And if you want me to add Bailey to the day, I have to rearrange my schedule because I’m already riding Chocolate Kiss and Calypso. Any way we can just do the Brunner horse tomorrow?”

Caitlin looked at him as if he’d suggested killing the barn cat. “Sean, I need these things taken care of today. There isn’t any way around them. I’m keeping the Brunner horse for free as a favor; every day he’s here costs me money. So we start the process immediately. Does that make sense? I know you’re not a barn owner, but I’m sure you want to run your own place someday—” 

And she was off and running, talking down to him about expenses and employees and rates of return, not knowing that these were the things Sean really knew about, that he’d been lectured about all of this by his father since he was eight years old. Sean understood the dicey economics of using horses to make money. It was the practical stuff he was hazy on. The equine details he was now expected to handle every day, with the assumption that he was an expert. Mostly because he’d said he was an expert.

Luckily, someone else in the barn really was an expert in horse care and keeping, and she was the barn manager. Unluckily, that person was Nadine.

There was no way to be honest with her when he wasn’t quite sure of something, like when he’d been asked to handle blanketing on the school horses last week, as Catoctin Creek shivered through a late spring cold snap. When Nadine saw that he hadn’t crossed the leg straps, instead of just snapping them to the rings on their corresponding sides, she’d nearly lost her mind.

He hadn’t realized something so trivial could matter so much—the leg straps were around the horses’ hind legs, and nothing was dangling or dangerous—but he was never quite ready for how seriously some equestrians took their work. Which was why he’d never valued his old team as much as he promised himself he would, when he had some staff working under him again.

Handling things like crossing leg straps.

Nadine really had blown up at him about that. It was funny, considering what a weirdly minor little mess-up he’d made. And it wasn’t like there were instructions somewhere on how to blanket horses. Different blankets had different straps, for heaven’s sake. There wasn’t a universal school of horse blanketing he could have attended, which would have made sure he was on the same page as Nadine in all things leg straps. She was just always after him, dogging him for things which she would excuse in anyone else. Just yesterday she’d totally given Richie a pat on the back after he’d put the wrong saddle on Rainbow, and Richie knew it had been the wrong saddle when he’d done it. He’d just figured it wouldn’t make any difference and that it saved time to leave it that way.

Sean had known it made a difference—Rainbow had a wide back, and Richie had chosen a saddle with a narrow tree, which would have pinched the horse—but instead of getting mad, Nadine had simply offered to help him switch out saddles so they’d still be on time before the kids arrived for their lesson. And she’d done it with a smile, besides, and Nadine had a pretty smile, not that Sean should even know, since she never turned it on him without some sort of coercion from Caitlin, like when they were being photographed for a series of candid shots in the new Elmwood Equestrian Center brochure. She’d smiled at him so many times that day, he’d felt like he’d met a new person.

He’d liked her.

“Sean!” Caitlin snapped her fingers at him. “Where’s your brain?”

“Oh, uh…” He couldn’t even answer. What had they been talking about? Sales horses. “The only way I can make it work is if I ride Bailey right now,” he told her, hoping she hadn’t been saying anything important while he’d been thinking about Nadine.

“Then go and do it,” Caitlin sighed as if he was being impossibly slow. “Make sure you get every horse on your list ridden today. And notes in the training journal, please. Not just flatted twenty minutes. I want to know what you worked on and how the horse did. It’s the only way to keep track of them all.”

With that, his boss pushed away from the wall and went stalking off down the aisle, no doubt to bother Nadine a little more—although Nadine never seemed to mind Caitlin’s roughshod mangling of the barn affairs she’d hired Nadine to handle—before she vanished into her office or went off to one of her many appointments and events. Sean looked down at his jeans and paddock boots, and sighed. He’d just changed into work clothes.

He went back upstairs to change back into his breeches and field boots.

He glanced over his shoulder at the barn below before he pushed open his door. He liked this view, even if the landing was narrow and the staircase vertiginous. He could see across the walls of all the stalls and right into some of them—Richie and Rose were visible cleaning stalls, and Nadine was standing in one, looking at Caitlin from across the barrier of a half-filled wheelbarrow. The few horses who stayed inside because of various lameness complaints were tugging at their morning hay or snoozing. Sean tried to look at them, but his gaze kept wrenching back to Nadine and Caitlin, wondering what they were talking about.

Somehow, he always suspected their whispering was about him. And he didn’t know if that was because he was as vain as Simone had always told him, or if it was just because the powerhouses energizing both of those women kind of scared him, and it felt smart to keep his eyes on them. After all, he had his own schemes to keep close to his chest. If Caitlin found out he was planning to steal away Martha Lane for his own equestrian dreams, instead of meekly continuing to push her through the lesson mill process, she’d probably fire him. And if Nadine found out, she’d definitely tell Caitlin. He knew where his colleague’s loyalties lay, and while he wished it were with him, he also knew it didn’t matter. When he left, Nadine would stay, and they’d just hire a replacement. Like he’d never even happened. 

Sad, really, to think he’d spent six months of his life here, and would likely spend two more—there would be no reason to leave before Simone opened up her house in Saugerties in June—without doing anything of value, without leaving a mark. The students, Caitlin, Nadine—they’d all forget him.

Caitlin turned away, heading off down the aisle, and suddenly Nadine’s glance swept up to Sean. He froze for a minute, a deer in the headlights, and then he shoved his shoulder against his door, pushing it past the sticky jamb, and closed it firmly, feeling as if the cheap metal door was no match for his colleague’s piercing green gaze.

Nadine saw right through him, and it scared him.

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