My skin prickled, an awareness and phantom energy washing over me as I stroked the gelding’s back. My gaze pulled to the ridge. But Shiloh wasn’t there. It was the flash of her long braid in the breeze that cued me into her new location.
My breath caught in my throat at seeing those light blue eyes close-up. They could steal every last semblance of sanity from a man’s brain. I froze, standing stock-still.
Shiloh didn’t say a word, just watched from her seat on the ground right outside the pen. Her gaze locked on my hand on the horse’s back. He twitched in place, and I let a few silent curses fly.
I wasn’t easily distracted. I prided myself on my focus and ability to tune out the rest of the world when I worked with the horses. My jaw clenched as I zeroed in on the task at hand. But I was aware of my dog making his way over to her—the traitor.
Sliding my palm across the gelding’s back, I gave him a good scratch. He pushed against my hand, wanting more of the contact. That hunger for connection was a good sign. I backed away, reaching for the blanket on the fence rail. The horse shied away from me a few steps.
I stood where I was, rubbing my hand against the fabric. I wanted him to see that he had nothing to fear. I waited for the shift—the one I could feel from across the pen. The one that meant an easing in his energy. As soon as I felt it, I stepped forward.
The gelding’s gaze locked on the colorful, woven blanket. It was one of my favorites. Made by a local woman, it reminded me of a sunset—the colors of a brightly painted sky. Slowly, I lifted the blanket and let the horse sniff it. It was freshly laundered, so it didn’t have the scent of any other animals.
He inhaled and then huffed out a breath.
“See, nothing to worry about.” I lifted the blanket to his neck and rubbed gently.
The horse braced himself at first, muscles locked and seemingly ready to bolt. But as no pain came, he eased a bit. The gelding’s acceptance of the something new happened in slow shifts. I lost track of time in the dance. There was only him and me.
Finally, he stood in a relaxed posture, the blanket on his back as I scratched behind his ears. “Not so bad, right?”
The gelding’s ears twitched.
“All right, enough for today.” I pulled the blanket from his back and moved to the fence. My steps hitched a bit as I caught sight of Shiloh again. She didn’t move from her seat as I slid between the rails and placed the blanket back on the top.
I waited for her to bolt, but she didn’t show any signs of leaving. My pulse beat a rapid rhythm in my neck. Dangerous. Too damn risky. To be this close to her… To see how the gold woven through her light brown hair caught the light. To capture the spark in those blue eyes.
“What’s his name?”
Everything in me locked. It was the first time I’d heard Shiloh’s voice. It had just a hint of rasp to it. Some huskiness. An edge that I swore I could feel skating across my skin.
“No name yet.”
Her gaze turned to me, her eyes glinting in the afternoon light. “Don’t you think he deserves a name?”
“He deserves the right name. That takes time.”
I saw something in Shiloh’s expression, a hint of surprise and something that looked a lot like longing. “He does deserve that.” Her hand sifted into Kai’s fur, and he leaned against her.
Shiloh rested her head atop his, cuddling him to her chest. I’d never seen anything like it. Kai sought me out for affection, but not like this. He was a goner for the woman, and I couldn’t blame him.
“You want to meet him?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Shiloh’s gaze flew to mine. “Really?”
“Sure. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get him used to other people.” It was the part of the process my operation lacked since only Lor and I were ever here.
Shiloh nuzzled Kai and got to her feet. “I’ve worked with plenty of horses, but never one that’s been hurt the way he has.”
“Calm and steady. Don’t let his actions make you react.” I ducked between the pen’s rails and stepped inside.
She followed, moving slowly and evenly. She kept her gaze on the horse but didn’t stare. The gelding pawed at the earth as if marking his territory. Shiloh stilled.
“Breathe through it. He’ll feel your tension if it’s in you.”
She let out a long breath, and I watched hints of unease bleed from her muscles. The horse stopped pawing. His gaze didn’t leave us, though. It was two against one, and he wasn’t a fan of those odds.
I took a few steps forward, watching for signs of agitation. His muscles were strung tight, but he didn’t pin his ears or lower his head to charge. I eased my hand over his face to that spot behind his ears. That seemed to do the trick, relaxing him further.
I shifted my gaze to Shiloh. “Come on up. Nice and easy.”
She took a few steps and stopped—halted because she felt the change in the air. The gelding had braced. That kind of instinct was something nearly impossible to teach. It had to be in you. And it usually came from experiencing the dark parts of the world.
My chest constricted at the thought of what Shiloh had faced, but I forced my hands to keep stroking the gelding.
“I don’t want to cause him pain,” she said softly.
“You’re not. You’re teaching him that not all hands hurt.”
She bit the inside of her cheek and nodded, taking another step. Then another. She found a rhythm that worked for both her and the gelding. And, in a matter of minutes, she was standing next to me. So close, I felt her heat in the early spring air.
“Nice and slow. Raise a hand to pet his neck. Show him what you’re doing so he knows.”
Shiloh did as I instructed. Her fingers trembled slightly as she moved, and the gelding’s eyes locked on that hand. But as soon as it made contact with his neck and started to move in smooth strokes, he let out a breath.
“Feel that?” I asked.
“Like the first taste of air after being underwater for too long.”
My mouth curved the barest amount. “Good way to think about it.”
Shiloh didn’t need any more encouragement. She petted and patted, moving around the gelding until he’d all but turned into a lap dog. I knew the feel of him from working this week, and this was the most relaxed he’d ever been.
“You’ve got the touch.”
Her eyes lifted to mine. “I’m trying to learn—”
I shook my head. “I’m not talking about something you can teach. This is instinct.”
Shiloh stroked the gelding’s cheeks and then lowered her head to his. “I always did understand horses a lot better than people.”
People were overrated. This kind of connection? It was far more precious.
She pressed her lips to the horse’s muzzle and then straightened. “I needed that. Thank you for giving it to me, Ramsey.”
And with that, she headed for the fence and her grazing horse. I was stuck, frozen to the spot, trying to take in all the beauty that was Shiloh as the sound of my name on her lips echoed in my head.
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