Release day is coming fast! We’re up to Chapter 4, but if you haven’t read the previous chapters, you can find them here: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. You can preorder your copy here! In the meantime, let’s see what happened after the gala!
Lizzy squinted and scanned the bleachers until she spotted her father, seated at about the mid-point of the covered arena. He always went to the local horse shows to hang out with his friends, chat about horses, and re-visit the glory days. Why he needed her or Chase to join him was a mystery. Almost every Friday night, he would call her or Chase and rope one or both of them into coming out for the day. “May as well enjoy the show and make a few dollars at the same time,” he’d always say. He could treat a horse as well as either of them.
As she drew closer, however, her father wasn’t sitting with his friends or Lamonte. Instead, he was with Charlie, Caroline, and… She narrowed her eyes until the other man came into focus. She groaned and sagged a bit. Why did it have to be William Darcy? Charlie was a cheery and good-natured guy, and Mr. Darcy had been pleasant enough when he’d brought Skylla in earlier in the week for the x-rays and the MRI, but would he revert back to the Mr. Darcy she’d first met? The one from the gala still confused her, so she would pretend that one didn’t exist. How many men would insult a woman in one breath then kiss her as if he were starved for her in the next? Stop, Lizzy! She had to stop thinking about that. Yes, she wanted to avoid Mr. Darcy, but the person she dreaded dealing with most was Caroline. That harpy always put Lizzy down like she was so much better than her. What crap!
Mr. Darcy’s ploy to keep from being alone with Caroline at the fundraiser had been obvious, and if Lizzy were honest, funny as heck. But after that kiss he’d laid on her, she refused to be on her own with him. Sure, they’d been at a large event, crowded with people, but that kiss had nearly buckled her knees and reduced her to a puddle of mush. He was dangerous, and she couldn’t and wouldn’t sacrifice her heart to someone whose personality seemed to change like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
She clenched her hands into fists and started for the stands. She could do this! She wouldn’t let Mr. Darcy know how much he’d affected her, and she wouldn’t let Caroline piss her off with her snotty remarks and stuck up comments. “Hey, Dad,” she said as she stepped up the metal bleachers. “Did I miss anything exciting?”
“Nah.” His voice held that same grumble it always did with that response. “Same old, same old. You missed the halter events and the kids’ western pleasure.”
She sat beside him and scanned the horses and riders in the arena. “Is this the last of the pleasure events?”
“Yup, but at least you didn’t miss Jane. She’s signed up for western riding and trail.”
“Who’s she riding?” she asked Charlie.
“She brought Blue and Jessie, but she brought Jessie more for Blue to have as company. You know how she’s been coughing some lately.”
Her dad frowned and sat up. “You didn’t say Jessie was coughing. I’m gonna go take a look.”
“Dad, I told you Jessie started having trouble with allergies last year. I’m sure something is blooming, or she had a dusty bit of hay that stirred all that up.” What did he expect? Jessie wasn’t a spring chicken anymore, but a twenty-year-old bay mare who every Bennet child had ridden at one time or another. When Lydia had decided to stop riding in favor of chasing boys, Jane started working with the older horse again; however, with the cough that had flared, she had become more of a traveling companion to the horses Jane showed rather than a working horse.
Her father grabbed Lizzy’s supply bag and waved Charlie to follow. “Come on, Son.”
“Dad, she’s fine,” she said once more, but he didn’t hear her. He’d slung the backpack onto his shoulder and was picking his way down the stands. Why wouldn’t he listen?
“Do you ride?”
Her head whipped around, and her eyes met the unusual amber ones of Mr. Darcy, making her stomach complete a triple somersault. “Sometimes I trail ride around the stables, but I don’t show anymore. Keeping a horse trained and in shape takes time I don’t have.”
“How cute!” said Caroline in an overly effusive tone. “Were you like those little girls on the ponies, bouncing out of your saddle when the horse ran?”
Lizzy pinched her leg to keep from rolling her eyes. “No, I had a quarter horse we took in from the rescue. He passed away a few years ago, but he was the perfect horse for a child to learn on. Other than my time in the clinic, I must’ve spent my entire childhood with him, riding through the woods and practicing for the next show.”
“What of your brother?”
Lizzy’s chin hitched back. What was that supposed to mean? “Sorry?”
“Caroline,” said Mr. Darcy with an edge to his voice. “Is that your sister and her husband by the concession stand?”
Caroline screwed up her pointy face, squinting. Charlie had once said she refused to wear her glasses because of how they looked. She was not only rude but vain and one of the most ridiculous people Lizzy had ever met. How Charlie came from the same family—the same uterus for that matter—was a mystery! “What are they doing here?” She huffed and stood before making her way down the stands.
“Maybe she won’t come back.” When she turned to Mr. Darcy, he was rolling his eyes.
Before she could stop it, she chuckled. “If it were just me, she’d probably stay away, but with you here, I’m sure she’ll return before long. I have to admit that I’ve never seen her chase a man before. When did she start treating you like prey?”
He leaned against the seat behind him with a groan. “When Charlie and I were roommates at Harvard, but she’s probably a lot like your Deputy Collins. I’ve told her and Charlie I’m not interested, but she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” He glanced over his shoulder to where Caroline approached her sister Louisa. “Is she always so nasty to you?”
“She’s never pleasant, but I’m assuming she saw us kissing at the fundraiser. She’s never been quite this antagonistic—like she’s trying to start an argument—and she’s never made a crack about Chase before. I want to know whether she’s referring to him being adopted or being trans—not that I let anyone give him crap about either.”
Mr. Darcy’s warm hand covered hers on the bleacher, and her heart stuttered in her chest. “Hey, I get it. I have a sister, and I feel the same way about her. Don’t let Caroline bother you. She’s not worth the time or the gray hairs.”
Lizzy stared at their hands before she couldn’t take the contact anymore. She pulled her hand free and swallowed. “Look, Mr. Darcy—” She rubbed her palms up and down her denim-clad thighs. “I’m treating your horse.”
“And I’m only five years older than you. Do you address all of your patients’ owners so formally?”
Her back stiffened. “How do you know how old I am?”
A sexy as hell chuckle rumbled through his chest. “You more or less told me when you gave me your academic history. You know, you graduated vet school at twenty-four and had been practicing for the past seven years.”
Her face heated, and she cleared her throat. “Seven years in May,” she said softly. “I turn thirty-one next month.”
“So I was fairly close.” Their eyes held for a few minutes before she couldn’t take the connection and searched the trailers strewn around the parking lot for a glimpse of her father. She needed to get away from Mr. Darcy or join the others so they’d have a buffer.
“I don’t know why Dad insists we come to these things if he’s going to take the bag and treat the horses himself. He’s kept up his license. He doesn’t need us.”
“Perhaps he likes having you here for company.”
She barked out a laugh. “Do you know how many people he’s friends with at these things? He’s been going to horse shows all over the Hill Country since he was a boy. He knows almost every person here and wouldn’t be lonely without me. Besides, he sees me every day after the clinic closes when I stop at the stables to check in on him before I go home.”
“Don’t you want to see your sister ride?” Like the rest of the family, Jane had grown up around horses, but she’d become a trainer instead of a veterinarian. She and Charlie spent their weekends hauling horses to the different shows around the area.
“I enjoy watching her compete, but I don’t attend every event. I work every other Saturday, and I’m sometimes on call. I’d rather stay home where I’m closer to the office.” She had other priorities. “You mentioned you have a sister. Does she ride too?” Maybe she could distract him from asking her questions.
“She’s an eventer. She may move down here with her horses once I have the stable renovated, but she didn’t want to interrupt her training schedule so she stayed behind at Pemberley.”
“Where we grew up in Maine. My father still runs a successful stable and breeding program there. I wanted a fresh start, so I moved here.” He didn’t look her in the eye. Was there something more to him leaving home—moving across country than he let on?
“The Saddler place had been vacant for some time. I would imagine the stables were in pretty bad shape.”
“I’ve had to more or less level them and start over. They’d put concrete in the stalls, and if there were rubber mats, they weren’t left behind.” She cringed. Concrete was easier to clean but unforgiving for a horse to stand on for long periods of time without some cushion. “I’m living in the house, but it needed work too. Once that’s completed, I need to find a decorator but I don’t know who to ask.” He glanced to where Caroline now sat with her sister and brother-in-law. “I can’t ask Charlie because he’ll recommend Caroline, and I don’t want her in my house. Once she gets one toe through the door, I may never get her to leave.” He shuddered.
Lizzy bit her lip while she tried not to grin. She couldn’t blame him. “You could do what the rest of us do.”
“Go to the home improvement store, buy a few cans of paint, and do it yourself.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No, I’m no painter. I failed finger painting in kindergarten.”
With a smile, she blinked. Mr. Grumpy had a sense of humor. Who knew? A movement in the corner of her eye captured her attention. “Um, Caroline is heading this way. Perhaps we should go see if my father needs help with Jessie.”
A wide smile overtook his face. “That sounds like a brilliant idea. Let’s go.”
Faster than she would’ve expected, he stood and grabbed her hand, pulling her towards the trucks and trailers in the dustbowl of a parking lot. Before she could get too comfortable with her hand cradled in his, she casually shoved it in her pocket. His touch was too much. He was the most handsome man she’d seen in years—outside of Ryan Reynolds, that is—but she needed to keep her head on straight around him. No matter what, she couldn’t let herself develop feelings for him. The last thing she needed was to resemble a schoolgirl with a crush.
“Evie?” Lizzy pulled her keys from the lock and closed the front door behind her. A moment later, a chirp of sorts came from upstairs and a small grey cat barreled down to the foyer. “There you are.”
The cat chirruped and trotted behind her into the kitchen where Lizzy dropped her keys and phone onto the bar. “Are you hungry?” The cat moved her mouth in a silent meow, and Lizzy grinned. Evie was the cutest little thing.
After Lizzy measured out a small amount of food and dumped it into the bowl, the young feline pushed her hand away and began eating as fast as she could. “You know if you want food, you have to let me pour it,” said Lizzy with a laugh. Evie needed to learn some patience.
Lizzy stroked the cat’s silky fur. What was the deal with Mr. Darcy? Today, he’d been a surprise, resembling Dr. Jekyll and managing to be decent company. She couldn’t deny she enjoyed looking at him. At a sharp nip to her finger, she startled. “Okay, I stopped. I won’t think of him again.” Leave it to Evie to know she was thinking something she shouldn’t be. “I need a shower. Are you coming?”
As she walked up the stairs, Evie darted past her and toward the master bedroom. The small feline had always been moody and unpredictable, but she had a softer side too.
When she entered the bathroom, Evie was already sprawled, her entire body pressed as flush as she could manage to the bath mat. She adored rolling and rubbing all over the soft cotton. Lizzy chuckled at the kittenish antics and turned on the hot water, letting it warm while she removed her dusty clothes. She dropped her jeans in the hamper but paused, staring at her hand. Was it possible to feel someone’s touch hours after it happened? She could swear the sensation of Mr. Darcy’s hand still lingered on hers, even now. He was a puzzle and for some reason, she thought of him a lot more than she should. As much as she’d tried to stop, the problem only seemed to get worse. She had a sneaking suspicion he could do a lot of damage to her naïve heart, and she simply couldn’t risk it. She couldn’t afford to take a chance. So why couldn’t she get him out of her head?