Cowboys Can't Lie
He emerged from the upscale horse barn and strode toward her with a confident swagger and a smile that had probably broken a million hearts. Her eyes riveted on the man, unable to pull away. Tara Levine had never been attracted to cowboys with those stiff boots and ridiculous hats, like fake relics from an old western, but Crew Ashman, owner of the Silver A Ranch, was different.
His worn hat sat low over his eyes, shielding them from the burning sun without hiding his compelling gaze. His strong, bronzed arms made a decided contrast with his white, oddly clean T-shirt that stretched slightly across the wide expanse of his chest. His jeans were loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough to hint at powerful legs beneath the material, and his dark cowboy boots looked as if they were an extension of his body. He appeared comfortable even under the impressive heat of the Arizona sun.
By contrast, she felt hot and sticky in her bright blue suit that had been meant to impress. She was sure the glistening sweat rolling down her face near her hairline was impressing no one, and least of all this cowboy, who was now staring at her with a challenge behind the smile.
“Good afternoon,” he drawled. “My stable manager said you wanted to see me?” Up close, his tanned face was almost too perfect, but a five o’clock shadow somehow softened his face, making him more human. She could see laugh lines around his mouth and eyes that further enhanced his ruggedness. Laughter was a good sign. Maybe coming here was the right thing to do.
“Hi, I’m Tara Levine.” She offered her hand. “You’re Crew Ashman, right? I’d like to talk to you about your horses.”
His gaze dipped to her hand, as though considering it for a moment. Finally, his hand enveloped hers, feeling deliciously cool and strong against her skin. A current of something unidentifiable rocketed up her arm, and she pulled back a little too abruptly.
His smile grew, as if he suspected how his touch affected her. “You should have called,” he said. “I would have saved you the trip.”
What? Tara bristled internally. She knew he might need a little convincing to give her what she wanted, but she hadn’t even launched into her practiced spiel. “If you’ll just give me one moment—”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not selling Iron Express.” There was a hint of steel in his voice that belied his pleasant expression. “However, I’m willing to discuss breeding services, if you’d like to offer them to your clients.”
“He’s not for sale.” The suggestion of steel had grown into an entire wall now. “Look, I already gave your boss my answer last week. Iron Express is not for sale, and my offer to buy back Jump Start still stands. Thank you for coming.” He gave a sharp nod and started to turn on his heel.
What a jerk! “I’m not here for your horses,” Tara finally recovered enough to say. “I mean, I am, in a way, but not Iron Express. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He stopped, his eyes running down her face to her suit and on to the high heels that were as out of place here as his spurs would have been at the marketing firm where she worked.
“Dervin King from High Vista didn’t send you?”
There was a story behind his question, Tara guessed, and she wondered if answering him would set him off again. “Well, he did recommend that I come here.”
His glare should have frozen her. Instead, sweat dribbled down the back of her neck under her long hair. His jaw clenched and unclenched, and she had the feeling he was fighting to stay calm.
“But I’m not affiliated with High Vista in any way,” she added in a rush.
“Oh? Then what can I do for you?” He didn’t seem to believe her, but at least he was listening.
“I’m from Lily’s House,” she said. “It’s a group foster home for teen girls in need. They usually have about ten foster children there at any given time, and sometimes more when it’s needed.”
“I’ve heard of them.” His voice was more relaxed now, and weariness showed in his eyes. “You work there?”
She shook her head. “Not really. I mean, not as an employee. I just volunteer. Most of us do.” She could have bitten her tongue as the last few words escaped. She meant “most of us do after we age out,” but she didn’t need him to know that she’d grown up at Lily’s House.
“Most of us?” He quirked a brow in a way that was undeniably attractive. His eyes were a deep brown that reminded her of warm nights and laughter. The same color of the short hair that escaped from under his hat.
I do not like cowboys, she reminded herself. “I’m sorry. I meant, most of us who work there are volunteers. Lily Perez and her husband are the foster parents.”
“So there actually is someone named Lily.”
“Yes. She’s pretty great.” A rush of emotion threatened to choke Tara. Lily had saved her life, had become the one constant in a world where nothing was guaranteed.
His eyes didn’t waver from her face, and they seemed to see too much. For several seconds, neither of them spoke, and then he said, “I guess she’d have to be.”
He glanced behind him at the elaborate barn that looked better than some motels she’d stayed in. The colored cement corridor between the rows of stalls joined a walkway that led to a training area, where the stable hand she’d talked to earlier was working with a beautiful chestnut horse.
She waved toward the men. “I can come back, if you’re busy.”
“No, it’s fine. Come on. Let’s talk on our way up to the house.”
“Okay.” That was a surprise. One minute his glare was ready to freeze her to death and now he wanted to chat at the house? No. More likely, he needed to go up to the house and was hoping to get rid of her once and for all on the way. If his strides were any indication of how much time he was willing to give her, she’d better talk fast.
Well, she was no dainty little princess. She stretched to match his pace, using her arms to propel her further. “Mr. Ashman, I—” The heel of her right pump caught in a groove where two pieces of cement joined. She stumbled and might have fallen if his hand hadn’t whipped out to grab her arm.
Her face burned. “Thanks.” She hated how breathy she sounded, but all of a sudden her heart was beating too fast, and she was quite certain it wasn’t because of her near fall.
“Sorry about that.” He dropped his hand and began walking again, but more slowly this time, eyes scanning the walk ahead for more joints. “And, please, call me Crew. Now what were you saying?”
They had reached the place where the walkway either led into the parking lot or curved up to the house. Probably two minutes of talking time left, if that was all he would give her.
“The Silver A Ranch is one of most respected horse-boarding and horse-training facilities in Phoenix,” she began.
He cast a lazy smile at her that started her flushing again. Hopefully, he’d attribute it all to the heat and her near fall. “There aren’t really that many of us. At least if you’re talking high-class Thoroughbreds.”
“You mean there’s you and High Vista.”
His lip curled slightly and a furrow appeared between his brow. “Yes. But while horses are often what the average person thinks of when they hear about us, keep in mind that first and foremost, I raise cattle.”
She hadn’t known that, which told her she hadn’t done enough research. But she needed to get back to the point at hand because the house was looming in front of them.
“So, Mr. Ashman—Crew—most of the girls work with Lily’s sister, who is a psychologist, because they all come from neglectful or abusive situations.” She paused, taking a peek at his face, which showed no expression. What was he thinking? “But they need more than just talk. So we get them involved in school, sports, music, art, and numerous others projects to help them find themselves and learn what’s out there.” Tara’s voice increase in speed as they approached the back deck of the house. “You know, give them the opportunities that they didn’t have in their own families. I think—”
“Here we are.” He stopped before the deck and leaned sideways past her to open another door she’d thought led to a garage. His arm brushed hers and for a moment she was distracted by his closeness.
“After you,” he said, gesturing for her to proceed him into the house. “And please continue.”
The cool air hit her first, followed by the aroma of rich leather. As her eyes adjusted to the dimmer interior light, she saw an office—a very masculine office—filled with an expensive-looking desk and bookshelf. Below the large window that faced the back yard and the barn sat a worktable filled with harnesses and at least two saddles. Tara was willing to bet that was where the smell came from and not from the black chair behind the desk.
“You see, some of the girls don’t react to the normal methods of getting them to talk and recover,” she said as he rounded the desk and pulled open a drawer, where he removed a pen and some kind of ledger. “We’ve discovered that giving the girls something living to take care of often helps reach them in ways nothing else does.”
She stopped talking, her chest suddenly tight. Could this cowboy begin to understand what that meant to an abandoned teen? Though she hadn’t done much research on Crew Ashman, she did know he’d been born and raised on one of the largest ranches in Arizona.
He leaned over the desk and began writing something in his ledger. “How much?” he asked. “I’ll be happy to make a donation.”
Tara’s gaze fell to the desk, seeing for the first time that the ledger was actually a book of checks. “You think I came here for money?” Her cheeks were no doubt bright red again.
Ashman’s hand stilled as he looked up at her with those gorgeous brown eyes. “You aren’t here for a donation?”
She knew Lily would somehow change things to walk out of here with both a check and what she’d really come here for, but Tara had never been good at face-to-face requests. Give her social media, or even the phone, and she could ask for the world. In fact, she’d often done so to raise money for Lily’s House over the years to help pay expenses for the girls who didn’t receive funds from the state. But asking for favors in person was too much like begging. It opened you up for rejection.
“We need horses,” she blurted. “We have a couple girls who are crazy about them, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to learn more about proper training.” This was not working out at all the way she’d planned. After being rejected at just about every stable in town, as well as High Vista Farm, the Silver A Ranch was her last hope.
“So you want to buy a horse?” When she didn’t reply right away, his eyes widened in understanding. “Oh, you want me to donate a horse. Well, I—”
“No!” She took a step back, her hands out in front of her in a holding motion. Why couldn’t she seem to string a decent sentence together in his presence? “Tessa—that’s Lily’s sister, the psychologist—has two horses, and she lets the girls take care of them and even ride them, but we’d like to know if two girls could come here and volunteer. You don’t have to pay them anything. Just let them feed the horses, curry them, whatever. They’ve worked with Tessa’s horses and they were interested in horses even before they came to Lily’s House, so they aren’t complete novices. And they’re good girls. They just need more than we can offer—horse-wise, that is.”
He straightened, his eyes not leaving her face. “You want me to train them.”
“Well, not exactly. They don’t know everything, so they will need some instruction. Maybe they’ll need a little attention . . .” She fell silent.
On the way over, she’d practiced everything she wanted to say, down to a not-so-subtle suggestion that she was doing him a favor by highlighting all the things the girls could do to help him, but he’d seen right through her. Her carefully planned speech had dissolved into a mess of emotion careening inside her body, because the fact was that the girls would need a lot of help learning the ropes, especially at first. If what Dervin King at High Vista had indicated was true about the Silver A Ranch being in trouble financially, Crew Ashman wouldn’t be interested in taking on another burden.
But she was not without a backup plan, because this would be good for the girls and also the Silver A in the long run if they were trained. She knew it. “It’s also good publicity,” she said. “It’ll create goodwill with the community.”
He folded his arms. “Is that what you told Dervin at High Vista?”
She didn’t respond but was sure her color had deepened. Mr. King had told her bluntly that he didn’t have time to babysit, that he had to focus on beating his competitors.
“I’m not too sure the community would ever know about it,” Crew added. “Or even just the horse community, for that matter. Not that I’m looking for that kind of publicity, mind you. I’m just pointing out that it’s not really a plus.”
“Well, it would be if you had a decent social media presence.”
He blinked at her, as if she had begun speaking a foreign language he’d never heard before. “We have a Facebook page.”
“That you haven’t posted on since mid-March—over three months ago,” she retorted. Now that she’d opened the door, she might as well plunge all the way in. “You need to be posting daily on Facebook. Twitter could be more than that. And you don’t even have Pinterest or Instagram. With all these animals here, you could do some amazing posts.”
His smile widened. “What would we post? We put up the breeding and training fees, and how many boarding openings we have. The rest, including our beef prices, is on our website.”
“Which admittedly is a decent website,” she said. Not nearly as flashy as High Vista’s, but user friendly. “If you took out a few ads and did more interesting posts, you’d have horse lovers all over the world following you. Then you’d be the most popular breeding and training facility in the entire state, and maybe half the US.”
Unexpectedly, he threw back his head and laughed. “I don’t think social media has that kind of power. People know where we’re at and what we sell. Besides, like I told you before, my main interest is my cattle, and I have established customers who don’t shop on Facebook.”
She pulled out the big guns. “High Vista Farm has forty thousand likes on their page. That’s forty thousand horse lovers who see their posts but never see yours. I work for a marketing firm, and building strong social media profiles is one of the first things we do. I know it works.”
He closed the book of checks and slipped it back into the drawer. “And just when am I supposed to do these posts? I have two full-time jobs here as it is.”
She wanted to suggest that he hire someone, but if the Silver A Ranch was hurting financially, getting him to believe the money would be worth it might be a bigger challenge than accepting the girls. “Even a little bit can increase the page reach dramatically. And maybe the girls can help with taking pictures or coming up with fun ideas. Posts don’t always have to be strictly horse related. High Vista posted a picture of a newborn giraffe last spring before the foaling started. They got thousands of shares.” Which meant even more people saw it. Did he even know how Facebook worked?
His eyes roamed her face. He was more attractive this close—rugged, strong, determined. A man who might be real enough to stick around.
Stop, she told herself. She wasn’t here for a romantic connection. If she wanted romance, she’d accept a date from one of the dozen guys she worked with. She only didn’t because she knew too well from observation that they’d lose interest and chase after some pencil in a skirt the minute they grew bored.
Crew’s look intensified. Time stretched between them, seeming almost to stop. Tara wanted desperately to flee, but she stood her ground, meeting his gaze, lifting her chin slightly in challenge.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “Pending approval of my stable manager, I’ll let the girls come, but they have to do at least ten hours a week on a regular schedule. Twenty would be better. Since it’s summer and all.”
Relief flooded Tara. She couldn’t help the smile growing on her face. She’d succeeded!
“But I do have one condition,” he added, his dark eyes glinting.
Her hopes plummeted. “And that is?” She hoped he didn’t want her to accompany the girls because her marketing job already required fifty or sixty hours a week, and volunteering at Lily’s took up the rest of her days. Yet at the same time, having him ask for her company would be flattering and a little bit exciting.
“For every week they’re here, you’ll spend two hours updating our social media pages.” A mocking grin filled his face, and she had the distinct feeling he was toying with her.
Two hours? Well, it wasn’t as if she couldn’t carve out that much time. She’d have to cut back on helping out at Lily’s House, or her sleep, or maybe stand up to her boss about the unpaid overtime, but the exchange for the girls would be worth it.
“Deal,” she said before he could change his mind. She proffered a hand to seal the agreement—didn’t cowboys always shake on things? He took her hand and the sensation she’d experienced earlier infused her once again.
Totally my imagination, she thought. But he was watching her, his expression shuttered. For several heartbeats he didn’t let go of her hand, and she didn’t pull away. Finally, as if by mutual agreement, their hands dropped.
I do not like cowboys, Tara reminded herself again. She’d say it a million times if she had to. The truth was, his being a cowboy didn’t make her leery, it was her reaction to him she distrusted. That was easily solved, though. She absolutely wouldn’t go out with him, even if he asked. Not that he would ask, but now she didn’t have to worry about it. She felt relief in making the decision.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“Go?” The way he’d spoken didn’t sound like he meant for her to leave. Besides, they still had to discuss what time the girls would come.
His left eyebrow angled up in that same incredibly attractive way she’d noted before. “I’m sure you’d like to learn what I plan to have the girls do. And if you’re going to be posting about my ranch, you need a tour to cover the basics.”
Was he serious? She was wearing a suit, for crying out loud, one with a skirt. And her heels had already shown they were a problem. She looked at her feet, and lifted one heel. “Maybe I can come back with the girls.”
“Not a problem. Wait right here.” Going around the other side of the desk, he disappeared through an inner door.
She shook her head, unable to guess at his meaning. As she glanced around the room, wishing he’d been more clear, her gaze snagged on a painting of an older couple behind his desk. His parents maybe? Or grandparents? She stepped closer for further investigation. The man looked like an older version of Crew.
“My grandparents,” Crew said, startling her.
She turned around to see that he was carrying a pair of bright blue cowboy boots. “You gotta be kidding,” she said before she could stop herself. No way was she putting on those ridiculous things.
He gave her a slow smile that made her heart do a little dance. “Why not? They match your suit. I brought socks too.”
He held out both the boots and socks, a challenge in his eyes. But it was the amusement she also saw there that made her take them from his hands. She sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk and traded her black heels for the boots. To her surprise, the leather, while not exactly soft, was pliable. They were only the slightest bit too large.
She looked up to see him staring at her, an odd expression on his handsome face—lost, maybe. Definitely sad. Both of these emotions she understood too well. Who did these boots belong to that seeing her in them brought that look to his face?