Gentling the Cowboy (Page 33)

Gentling the Cowboy (Texan Nights Series #1)(33)
Author: Ruth Cardello

Their eyes clashed across the short distance between them.

When he spoke, his harsh tone was in direct contrast to his words. “Get dressed then, because I doubt we’ll get much talking done with you standing there like that.”

Sarah turned her face to the side and hid a smile behind her hair. Score one for the Yankee. She quickly slipped into her clothing and went to stand next to him, boldly taking his hand in hers.

He turned away and walked out the door, but his hand tightened on hers as he dragged her behind him down the steps and out into the bright late-morning sunshine. They walked together down a rugged path that made Sarah glad she’d chosen to wear sneakers instead of boots. He stopped when they reached a small clearing that boasted a crystal-clear mountain stream.

“This is where I come when I need to think . . . or forget.”

Tony let go of her hand and picked up a rock to throw angrily into the stream. “You know that feeling you get when you first start driving a car on your own? At first you’re nervous, then you get more and more confident until you feel invincible. That’s how I’d describe my career until about five years ago. I came from nothing, you know? No one expected anything from me. I moved out of my father’s house at sixteen. I was working on a cattle ranch when I won a green horse in a poker game. The ranch owner let me keep him at his place and watched me work with him. Pretty soon, he had me training all his horses. I quickly gained a reputation for taking horses from green to champion in everything from racing to the rodeo circuit. People wanted to see what I did, so I booked shows at expos and fairs. Before long, I was getting offers to work with high-profile horses. Some went on to win their owners millions.”

Sarah joined him by the water and simply listened.

“The money came fast and easy after that. Rich people like to win. It made for a very profitable exchange. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was getting jobs all over the world. I could have bought and sold my ranch a hundred times over. Race horses. Barrel racers. The foundation is the same. A willing horse can be taught anything. I’ve always been able to bring a level of trust out in a horse that others couldn’t.”

“Because you care about them,” Sarah said.

“No, because I understand them. I always have. It’s not something I can put into words.”

Sarah wanted to ask more about the topic, to debate his claim not to care, but she was afraid he’d shut down if she did. She let him tell his own story, at his own pace.

“People said there wasn’t a horse I couldn’t gentle, and I started to believe my own press. I met a family with a teenage daughter as headstrong as any animal I’d ever met. She had bought a Canadian warmblood. A seventeen-hand gray stallion with a dangerous reputation and a violent past. There were all sorts of rumors where that horse had been, but whoever had abused him, they hadn’t left a mark. He was stunning and enough of a challenge that he was exciting. I accepted their money and never doubted that I could fix that horse.”

His face whitened as he continued. “I thought I had him ready for her. I was blinded by my own confidence. Something in him was broken in a place I couldn’t reach but I couldn’t see it. I told them he was safe. I told her father she’d be fine. For a while, I was right. Near the end of their first riding season, someone was lunging a horse in the same ring and cracked a whip against it. I don’t know what that stallion had seen or endured, but it came back to him with a vengeance. Those who were there said he went wild. He threw her and, before anyone could stop him, he stomped her to death.”

Tony threw another rock into the water. “I knew he was dangerous, but I thought I was gifted. I’m not. I’m cursed. She was only sixteen.”

Sarah whispered, “What happened after that?”

Tony closed his eyes. “The father took me to court. I hired some fancy lawyer who told me that any apology would be an admittance of guilt and I could go to jail.” He opened his eyes and the depth of his remorse was almost unbearable to witness. “We won the case and the court documents say I wasn’t guilty, but I know the truth. I am guilty, and I never did tell the father that I was sorry.”

Sarah wrapped her arms around his waist and held him tightly. I understand, oh, so much more than you know. It was because of that understanding that she knew there wasn’t anything she could say right then that he’d be able to hear. So she held her tongue and gave him another piece of her heart.

The questions Tony braced himself for didn’t come, and the sincerity of the hug she gave him robbed him of further speech. She wasn’t demanding that he give more, nor was she smothering him with pity. In her embrace, he felt understood and accepted.

And it was more terrifying than any nightmare he’d ever had.

He put an arm around her waist and rested his chin on top of her head, releasing a shaky breath as he did. Outside of initial lawyer consultations and his testimony in court, he’d never spoken of that time in his life. People had thrown accusations his way, both in private and in public, but he’d never defended himself.

There was no defense for what he’d done. He’d been young and cocky. Then young and afraid. If either were a valid excuse, prisons would be less full.

At first he’d tried to weather the character flogging he received in the press. Everywhere he turned there was a reminder of what he’d done, who he’d hurt, what he’d taken from the planet. The news played the story over and over until there wasn’t a person on the street who didn’t stop to talk to him about it. It didn’t matter if they were damning him to hell or excusing what he’d done, each encounter left him feeling raw and filled with a guilt so intense he’d considered taking his own life to even the score.

So he’d bought the Double C and retreated there. Drinking heavily and eating next to nothing, Tony probably wouldn’t have lasted long had David not wandered onto his property. The memory of their initial meeting was muddled by the drunken haze of his first months on the ranch, as were the details of exactly how David had become Tony’s manager. Had David bought the first horses with his own money or Tony’s? He couldn’t remember. They’d just started appearing.

At first David had worked them while Tony continued to binge drink, deliberately ignoring the changes at his own ranch. Eventually boredom, curiosity, or both had driven Tony to watch David train.

Then to work with a horse on his own. Before long, working with the horses replaced drinking, and he and David came to an agreement. Tony didn’t want to meet perspective buyers or hear about the horses after they left his ranch. David could hire whoever he thought necessary to keep the ranch running smoothly, as long as they respected Tony’s privacy and kept their distance from him.