Dear Santa

 

BACK IN THE SADDLE
Book 2 in the Wed in the West II series
March 2016

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A SECOND CHANCE IN THE SADDLE 

All widowed veterinarian Zach Talbot wants is to raise his two boys in the peace and quiet of his New Mexico town. Who'd have thought that being roped into helping a woman choose a horse for her son would upend the single father's whole world? 

Except ex-actress and rodeo rider Mallory Keyes isn't just any woman. 

With its wide-open spaces and sky that goes on forever, Whispering Pines is the ideal temporary haven after the accident that changed Mallory's life forever. Falling for the sexy, caring man who found the perfect palomino for her eleven-year-old wasn't in her short- or long-term plans. Zach's also determined to get Mallory back in the saddle. Can she return the favor by helping to heal the still-grieving vet's heart?

 

EXCERPT

Chapter One

“So I gather you know a fair amount about horses?”

With an actual sigh, the getting-up-there Boston Terrier slid down on the exam table in front of Zach Talbot and promptly went to sleep. This might take a while, wake me when she’s done.

She being the auburn-haired Texan female of indeterminate age who’d brought the dog into Zach’s clinic three times in the two weeks since she – and her daughter, she’d mentioned more than once – had moved into the old Hufsteter place a ways out of town. Completely renovated, she’d said. Beautiful house. Reminded her of home.

Not that Zach minded chatter, as a general rule. At least it kept him from curling up in a ball inside his own head. However, since he’d yet to find anything really wrong with the little dog, other than a general slowing down due to old age, he was guessing Dorelle Keyes had ulterior motives. Motives which Zach strongly suspected had something to do with this hitherto unseen daughter.

One hooded doggy lid briefly fluttered open as if to say You got it, buddy, before drifting closed again, and Zach met Dorelle’s sharp – oh, so sharp – green gaze.

“As part of my practice, sure.” After gently rubbing the dog between the ears – which got a soft groan – Zach scribbled down a couple notes for Shantelle at the front desk to add to Edgar’s chart, then glanced back at Dorelle. Remembered to smile. “Why?”

“Oh. Well, Mallory—” the daughter “—is thinking about buying a horse for her boy. She’s…” Dorelle glanced around, then practically mouthed, “Divorced. And his daddy has custody at the moment—” Her red-lipsticked mouth slammed shut, as though she’d realized she’d gotten stuck in that narrow wedge between discretion and oversharing. “Anyway, when we noticed the stalls out back, that was the first thing we thought of, how much Landon might like to have a horse to ride when he’s here. So I was wondering if maybe you knew of someone local who might be selling. And you strike me as somebody we could trust.”

His mouth twitching, Zach adjusted his glasses. Although his own mother had always said he had one of those faces. However…

“Horses take a lot of work, ma’am—”

“And while I appreciate that your mama obviously taught you to respect your elders, trust me, no woman past a certain age actually likes to be ‘ma’amed.”

“My apologies, m-Mrs. Keyes.”

“Apology accepted. And second…I know how much work horses take, Mallory’s daddy was a rancher. So we know what to do. We just don’t know who to see. Landon’s eleven, by the way. Far as I’m concerned he should’ve had his own horse long ago. But life had other ideas.”

Not for the first time, Zach got the feeling the woman was deliberately baiting him. As though she’d been given instructions not to blab about personal matters, but if someone asked…well. It would only be polite to answer, wouldn’t it? Too bad for her, then, that Zack was sorely lacking in the curiosity department.

Although his own full plate probably had something to do with that. Not to mention a deeply entrenched sense of self-preservation that kept most locals from developing anything even remotely like real relationships with the outsiders who flitted in and out of Whispering Pines. The town was no Taos or Santa Fe, heaven knew, but the clear, high desert air and pristine forests attracted its fair share of tourists and temporary residents. Especially during ski season, which was right around the corner. Granted, Zach could be as cordial to visitors as the next townie. Friendly, even. Especially since they often brought dogs, and he was the only vet in town. Get himself all tangled up in their lives?

Nope.

However, he smiled, focusing on the topic at hand. “Has your grandson said he’d like to ride?”

“Oh, my goodness, yes! He already has, actually. A few times out on a farm north of L.A. Where we were living, you know.”

Clearly Zach’s cue – again – to ask what had brought them to Whispering Pines. Except he honestly didn’t care.

Heidi would’ve, though. Because his wife hadn’t known the meaning of aloof, embracing – often literally – everyone she saw like they were best friends…

“Dr. Talbot? Is everything okay?”

With an actual jerk, Zach pulled his head out of his butt to meet Dorelle’s gaze again. “Yeah, sorry…” He cleared his throat. Smiled. “Actually, my brother Josh is the foreman up at the Vista Encantada ranch nearby—”

“Oh, yes, we passed it the other day when we were out exploring. And your girl out front, she said your brother worked there. One of ‘em, anyway.”

Shantelle was young yet. She’d learn. “The Vista breeds champion quarterhorses – which wouldn’t be suitable for your needs – but from time to time they foster rescues, too. I seem to recall Josh saying something about an older gelding that’d been used to teach another rancher’s kids to ride. I haven’t seen the horse myself – he hasn’t been there long – but I’m sure you and your daughter would be welcome to go out and meet him.”

Dorelle lit up like someone’d flipped a switch. “That sounds perfect—”

“Dad-deeee!”

“Liam! No!”

The groggy little dog scrambled to his feet as, at the doorway to the exam room, Zach’s older son grabbed his baby brother around his middle and yanked him back. “Sorry, Dad!” Jeremy grunted out around the red-headed, wind-milling blur that was his three-year-old son. “Grandma just dropped us off. Man, he’s fast.”

“So were you at that age,” Zach said, then squatted in front of the pair, ruffling the little one’s rust-colored curls. “I’m almost done, squirt. You wait outside with Jeremy, okay?”

But Liam threw himself so hard into Zach’s arms he nearly knocked him over. He had no idea why the boy was so clingy – certainly a lot more than his older brother had been – but his hugs never failed to overwhelm Zach, with love and fear, both.

“Oh, don’t send them out on my account,” Dorelle said behind him, more gently than Zach would’ve expected. Yes, it was obvious she loved her daughter and grandson, but until that very moment he wouldn’t’ve pegged her as a softie.

Even so, the boys knew the rules. Or at least Jeremy did. To Liam, the concept of boundaries was still a little sketchy. So Zach detached himself from his son, then stood, trying for stern and failing miserably when those big, brown, getting-wetter-by-the-second eyes tilted up to his. So who was the softy now?

“Go with your brother,” he said, steeling himself against those eyes, so much like his mama’s Zach’s own stung. “I won’t be long. Why don’t you think about what you want on your pizza while you’re waiting?”

That did the trick. “Peesa?” Liam breathed, like this was the most awesome suggestion, ever.

“Yep. Now scoot.”

After the boys left, Zach turned to find Dorelle watching him with one of those expressions, God help him.

“Neither one of ‘em looks much like you.”

“Truth,” Zach said with a smile. “Although I was apparently as blond as Jeremy when I was his age.”

“Which is?”

“Seven. Eight in a few months.”

“And the little one?”

“Liam’s three. He looks…” His throat caught. Damn. “He looks exactly like his mother.”

“She must be one gorgeous creature.”

Zach hesitated. “She was.”

Dorelle sucked in a short breath. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Talbot. I didn’t know.”

Somehow, he doubted that. And it was the end of what had been a very long day, one that had left Zach so tired he could barely see straight. Meaning he found himself sorely lacking patience for whatever game this woman was playing.

“Really?”

 The woman’s eyes briefly widened before she released a short laugh. “I suppose I deserved that. Since I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that digging up information is a hobby of mine. Especially when I find myself in a new place and don’t know anybody. It sucks, feeling…unsettled, you know what I mean? But I swear to you, this is the first I’m hearing of it.” She hesitated, then asked, “How long?”

Oh, what the hell. “Two years,” he said, and she bit her lip, shaking her head. Then she pushed out a little breath.

“Folks tend keep to themselves around here, don’t they?”

“Pretty much.” Although Shantelle’s keeping it to herself was nothing short of a miracle. Town nosybody in training, that one.

“Yeah, it was the same way back in Springerville,” Dorelle said. “There were absolutely no secrets between neighbors, but we had that circling the wagons thing down. And oh, dear
Lord—” Her hand flew to her cheek. “You thought I had matchmaking on my mind, didn’t you?”

Zach’s mouth twitched. “I had wondered.”

“Oh, dear boy, no. Not that you’re not cute as a damn button, but I did think you were married. No, I kept coming in because you are as cute as a damn button and what else have I got to live for these days? And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s not a whole lot to do around here. Just like Springerville. One learns,” she said with a slight, almost regal, bow, “to make one’s own entertainment. Although we really are looking for a horse. Talking about it, anyway. And I thought…”

Her eyes clouded. “Mallory’s had some challenges of her own, this last little while. And this past year or so has been particularly hard on her. Not that she’d ever admit it, God knows. But if you ask me, she didn’t buy a house out here in Nowhere, New Mexico – no offense—”

“None taken.”

Dorelle nodded. “Anyway. She didn’t buy that house but for one reason, and that was to hide.”

“From?” Zach asked before he caught himself.

“Life. Her life, anyway. And I don’t like it, not one little bit. Frankly it scares me, if you want to know the truth. Like she’s given up. And that’s not like her.” Her forehead puckered, the brunette looked down at the dog, who’d fallen back asleep. “So it occurred to me that getting her looking for a horse for Landon might…I don’t know. Break whatever this is that’s got hold of her. Start to, anyway.” Softly smiling, she met Zach’s gaze again. “That’s all I was about, I swear. I wasn’t trying to fix you up.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Good.” Dorelle reached over to snap a leash on the snoozing dog before lowering him to the floor, where he blinked, yawned, then sat back down, slightly shivering. “So you’ll call me after you talk to your brother?”

“I’ll ask him later. I don’t have regular appointments on Saturday afternoons.”

“Thank you so much.”

However, as Zach herded his sons to their little blue-and-white house next door to the clinic, Dorelle’s comments about her daughter swirled inside his overworked brain like afternoon dust in the sunshine.

Clearly he needed a hobby. Or at least a nap.

* * *

“Hi, Mom!”

Seeing her son’s ginormous grin swallowing up the entire, if admittedly tiny, phone screen, Mallory Keyes felt her heart swell in her chest. If her precious boy was happy, then she was happy. Nothing else mattered.

Even though it killed her, not being able to touch him, smell him, every day. But Landon deserved a normal life. Well, as normal as the son of a shattered Hollywood power couple – God, she hated that term – could expect. And never let it be said that Mallory couldn’t roll with the punches. Or set her own druthers aside in order to do what was best for her son.

And at least they had FaceTime.

“Hey, baby,” she said, steeling herself for that inevitable moment when the kid would groan and go, “Mom? Really? Baby?” He was eleven, after all. But that moment apparently was not today. Thank God. “How’s it going?”

“Good.” He shoved his hand through shaggy, blah brown hair that softened what promised to be some pretty fine bone structure, God help them all. “Got an A on this project we had to do in science. Without Dad’s help, you’ll be happy to know.”

“I am. What was the project on?”

“How mold grows. I had to keep samples in the fridge, it was so cool. Except Cristina kept trying to throw them out.”

Their housekeeper. Sixty if she was a day, built like a warship, heart of gold. “Sounds about right. She making you keep your room clean?”

You better believe it,” Mallory heard in the background, and Landon rolled his eyes. Gray, like hers.

“This is not a bad thing, Poky.”

“So I guess I can’t pull the ‘I’m just a kid’ thing, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Too bad.” Then he grinned again, and her heart went kaplooey. “So when can I come see your new house?”’

“We already discussed this. Over fall break.” Landon’s new school was on some weird year-round schedule, so he got two full weeks off in October. “Did you get the pictures?”

“Yeah, it looks really cool.” He frowned slightly. “Hey. You okay?”

Mallory’s chest pinched again. Five years ago, Landon had been too young to fully understand the implications of the accident that changed all their lives. But more recently he’d apparently become more sensitive to her ongoing challenges, even though she rarely gave voice to them. Partly because the less she did, the less power they had over her. Or so the reasoning went. But also because she never wanted Landon to feel sorry for her. Or, more importantly, that his mother’s being in a wheelchair would have any negative impact on his life.

Sometimes, though, when the pain snuck up on her, she couldn’t hide it from him as well as she’d like. And considering everything leading up to his new living situation, trying to pretend her life didn’t affect his was probably naïve. If not downright stupid.

“I’m doing okay, honey.”

“Really?”

She smiled. “Yes, really. Okay, the move wore me out some, but it was worth it. It is so gorgeous out here. Sometimes you can drive for miles without seeing another car.”

His brows crashed. “That must be weird.”

Mallory laughed. “It is, a little. But you’d be surprised, how fast you get used to it—”

“Gotta go, Cristina’s calling me to dinner. Talk tomorrow?”

“You bet, sugar.”

The calls were never long enough. And every single time, when they ended, Mallory felt like somebody’d hollowed out her chest. Which in turn made her question, yet again, whether she’d made the right choice, leaving behind her only child.

Except the only other option would have been selfish. If not downright cruel. Granted, the kid was a toughie, but she could tell he needed a break. Not from her, but from the attention she invariably attracted every time she set foot – or wheelchair – outside—

The landline’s shrill ring made her jump. Mallory glared at the thing for a good second or so before wheeling over the tiled floor to answer it. A little testily, maybe. Why Mama’d insisted on installing the blasted thing, she’d never know, since they both had cell phones, for pity’s sake.

“Hello?”

“Oh…I’m sorry,” said a real nice male voice on the other end. Real nice. Granted, in all likelihood it probably belonging to someone who did not match the voice, because that’s the way these things usually worked, but a girl could dream. “I was trying to reach Dorelle Keyes?”

“She’s not in right now,” Mallory said in a somewhat less pissy tone. “May I take a message?”

A pause preceded, “Is this her daughter, by any chance?”

Mallory tensed. It was highly unlikely the paparazzi would’ve sniffed her out way up here, let alone unearthed an unlisted number. But these days she wasn’t taking any chances.

“If you leave your name and number,” she said, grimacing at her reflection in the mirror on the other side of the room, “I’ll be sure to have Mrs. Keyes get back to you.”

“It’s Dr. Talbot. Edgar’s vet? She’d asked me to check with my brother about a horse for her grandson?”
The relieved breath Mallory had been about to release snagged at the base of her throat. To hear Mama tell it, this Dr. Talbot would put Michelangelo’s David to shame. And say what you will about her mother, the woman definitely knew hot when she saw it.

So much for not matching the voice.

“Um…you still there?”

Mallory wrenched her gaze away from her wretched reflection. Way too many nights of lousy sleep had definitely taken its toll. “Sorry. She was supposed to run that by me first.”

“I take it you’re Mallory, then?”

Call her crazy, but she was guessing this guy had no idea who she was. Meaning either he hadn’t put two and two together, or Mama had – for once – kept her trap shut. Or maybe he was just playing it cool?

“That’s me. Only nothing’s been decided about the horse. Since we’re still getting settled in—” A half-truth, since once the reno had been completed all they’d had to do was dump stuff in closets and drawers and they were basically done. “—I hadn’t really given it much thought yet.”

“Completely understandable. But if you are interested, my brother says he has a palomino that could be perfect for your son, especially if he’s inexperienced. Not a youngster, but a lot of good years left. No health issues. Even-tempered as they come. And nobody knows horses like Josh – he wouldn’t steer you wrong.”

And neither would this man, she bet. Although how she’d deduce that from a five-minute conversation – and especially given her background – she had no idea. Something about his no-nonsense approach, maybe. But after so many years of never feeling like she could truly trust anybody, of having to constantly watch her back – it felt…good. Even if it was only an illusion.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” she said, rearranging her long sweater over her thighs, even though her legs didn’t really register the chill in the hair. “But there are…logistics to take into account. I’m still not entirely convinced this is a good idea.”

“Your mother said you grew up on a ranch, so I assume you know what goes into caring for a horse?”

His unwitting understatement made her smile. And ache, a little. An indulgence she rarely allowed herself. “I did. And I do. That’s not the issue. But I honestly don’t know how much time we’re going to spend here.” Her gaze drifted across the spacious family room opening to the flagstone patio and the pond beyond, its surface rippling gold from the reflection of the stand of yellow-leafed aspens on the other side of the property. Truthfully, the property had wrapped around her heart from the moment she’d opened the images in the Realtor’s email. “And taking on a horse is a huge commitment.”

“So this is a vacation home?”

“Something like that.”

The vet was quiet for a moment, then said, “If it eases your mind, the Vista has excellent boarding facilities.”

Mallory smiled, wondering what he’d wanted to say, but hadn’t. “And you’re an excellent salesperson.”

He might’ve laughed. “Hard to make a decision without knowing all your options. Tell you what – why don’t you and your mother meet me out there, see the horse for yourself? Make up your mind after that. You know where the ranch is, I gather?”

“I do, but…” Mallory paused. “I’ll think about it. How’s that?”

“Fine by me. But if you’re serious I wouldn’t wait too long. As great a horse as I suspect this guy is? I imagine he’s gonna find a new home without too much trouble.”

“And would that be you trying to close the deal?”

“Just being upfront with you, Miss Keyes.”

Nope, no clue. Mallory smiled – she’d loved her work, heaven knew. And she’d appreciated being appreciated, no lie. But she’d found actual fame tedious at best and nerve-wracking at worst. She’d never thought she’d live for the day when she wasn’t recognized, but now that that day had arrived she felt positively buoyant.

But this business with the horse…a prod, Mallory thought this was. One initiated by her mother, perhaps, but clearly with the universe’s approval: to get up off her duff – in a manner of speaking – and actually move forward with something instead of only talking about it. A bad habit she’d slipped into over the last little while.

Although the move to Whispering Pines had been Mallory’s idea, so there was that. Even though her decision had clearly flummoxed her poor Realtor. Why not Jackson Hole? Or Vail? Or even Taos, if she had her heart set on New Mexico?

Mallory hadn’t gone into details. Her reasons were her own. Not that she couldn’t see the woman’s point, that here as pretty much nowhere. Only, what no one understood, was that nowhere is exactly where Mallory needed to be right now. As in, somewhere where no one could find her. Watch her. Pity her.

Somewhere where she could truly start over. Something she’d avoided doing until now, even if she hadn’t fully realized that. And sometimes starting over really did mean starting from scratch. From nothing—

And good Lord, she’s wandered off again, hadn’t she?

“You know how much your brother’s asking for…what’s the horse’s name, anyway?”

That got a low, rumbly chuckle. “Waffles.”

“You’re kidding? That’s adorable.”

“That’s one way of looking at it. And Josh usually only asks for enough to cover his costs. We’re not talking prize stud here or anything. The two of you can hash that out, if you decide to take him.” Another chuckle. “The horse, I mean.”

“Would tomorrow work?” Mallory pushed out of her mouth, surprised how hard her heart was beating. “I know it’s Sunday, but—”

“No, tomorrow would be fine,” Dr. Talbot said, sounding a little surprised himself. “I’ll probably have my kids with me, though.”

“Not a problem.” Then she smiled, even as her heart twanged with missing Landon. “Boys? Girls?”

“Boys. Two of them. Loud. Constantly moving. Fight every five minutes. You’ve been warned.”

At that, a laugh burst from Mallory’s chest. “How about early afternoon, if that works for you?”

“One-thirty? That’ll give us time to get home from church, get them fed.”

Church. Sunday dinners. An ordinary life she dimly remembered. Missed more than she’d realized. “Sounds good.” Sounds wonderful…

“Buzz at the gate, somebody’ll let you in.”

“Will do,” she said, then ended the call, holding the phone to her chest as she heard the front door open. If she wasn’t mistaken, that weird, tingly feeling in her chest was…excitement. Lord, she was in a worse way than she thought. Because damned if she wasn’t looking forward to meeting this forthright-to-a-fault dude with the low, rumbly voice.

“Hey, honeybunch,” her mother called out. “We’re home!”

And no way on God’s green earth was she sharing that tidbit with her mother.

Edgar’s little nails scritched across the tile as he scurried over to Mallory, then stood on his hind legs so she could scoop him into her lap. Because she loved the scrawny little bugger beyond all reason. Mama followed shortly, fluffing her hair and wearing that look in her eyes that Mallory wished she could figure out how to banish once and for all. Not that she had anything against her mother’s chronic optimism – heaven knows she wouldn’t have made it this far without it – but all that cheerfulness did get tiring.

“So your Dr. Talbot called,” she said, and Mama – who’d been unloading grocery bags onto the city-block-sized quartz counter in the kitchen – jerked up her head. Surprised, maybe, but not in the least bit guilty.

“My goodness, he works fast,” she said, grabbing two jars of peanut butter and carting them over to the pantry. “I didn’t expect to hear from him so soon.” Shoving up her sweater sleeves, she returned to the counter, scooped up a half dozen boxes of pasta. “I assume he was calling about the horse?”

“He was. And thanks for cluing me in, by the way.”

Mama gave her a look. “It wasn’t anything I planned, for goodness sake. But I was there, you know, with Edgar, and the thought popped into my head. Like these things do. I really didn’t mean to go behind your back—” Clutching the boxes to her chest, her face fell. “You didn’t go and say something dumb, did you?”

Mallory stuck out her tongue, then sighed. “No, you’ll be glad to know I managed to act like a civilized human being.”

“Well, that’s a load off my mind. So what’d he say?”

“That his brother has a rescue that might work.”

“He does? How wonderful! Isn’t Dr. Talbot the nicest man? And, oh, he has two of sweetest little boys. So what did you say?”

Mallory steered her chair into the kitchen and snagged an apple out of the bowl on the counter, polishing it against her jeans’ leg before biting into it. Honestly, trying to follow her mother’s train of thought was like playing pinball. Blindfolded.

“We have a date,” she said, chewing, smiling slightly at her mother’s gasp. “To see the horse, Mama. And you seriously need to give it a rest.”

“Not a chance, missy. Not after what Russell did to you—”

“He didn’t do anything to me. Which we’ve been over a million times. It just didn’t work out. These things happen.” Her mother made a if-that’s-what-you-want-to-tell-yourself face. “It was for the best, Mama,” she said gently. “You’ve got to let this go. I have.” Mostly.

Tears welled in her mother’s eyes. “You really think this is for the best for Lannie?”

“For God’s sake don’t let him hear you call him that. And would you rather he live in a house where nobody was happy? Really?” Her appetite gone, Mallory wheeled over to dump the apple core in the undercounter garbage can. “Also, there’s a new Mrs. Langston, as you may recall. So, onward and all that.”

Mama’s eyes brightened. “So does that mean—?”

“No,” Mallory said, knowing exactly what her mother meant.

“What am I ever going to do with you?” Mama said with a dramatic sigh, only to come over and plant a kiss on top of Mallory’s head before collecting her dog and sashaying out of the room, leaving a trail of Giorgio in her wake.

Mallory smiled, only to release a sigh of her own. Because that was the question of the century, wasn’t it? Not so much what Mama was going to do with her, as what she was going to do with herself. Since frankly she wasn’t all that keen about spending the rest of her life without male companionship. Without love and affection and, okay, sex. True, things didn’t work the same way they had, but they still worked. She thought maybe. She definitely still…yearned, as Mama might say. But she wasn’t so much of a fool as to think all she had to do was join an online dating service and bam! Seventy-billion takers.

And not only because her legs were basically useless. There was also that whole who-she-used-to-be-before thing to take into account.

But to admit that she yearned – or dreamed, or wished, or whatever you wanted to call it – would a) make her sound as though she felt sorry for herself, which, no, and b) give her mother ammunition. Which, hell no.

Still. What was the harm in indulging a few tingles? A curiosity about the supposedly gorgeous man attached to the sexy-as-sin voice? A man with a sense of humor? And kids? Boys, no less? What was the worst that could happen? She’d get to spend an hour outside, on a beautiful fall day, with a decent guy. And she might even end up with a horse for her son out of the deal. Could be worse, right?

Heh. Maybe she didn’t want to know the answer to that.

 

Copyright 2016, Karen Templeton-Berger. Reprinted with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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