Nathaniel had wanted to work with Thoroughbreds since he was a kid. He owned a couple of retired racehorses, good for riding. “One good stud can set you up for a great side business,” he said. The initial investment, however, could be major. “In the next year or two, I’m going to invest. See what I can do.”

“Why not show horses?” she asked.

“That’s good, too, but I like the races.”

“I love horses,” she said. “You knew that. But did you know this? I’ve competed in dressage events all over the state. When I was younger, of course. Eventually it became too expensive for me. The best training was never in my neighborhood and the biggest competitions, including for the Olympics, were out of my reach. But if I could ever do anything, I would teach beginner dressage. Maybe even intermediate.”

She told him she had thought about inviting him out to the farm to meet her parents and horses, but realized he already knew them. He knew them before he knew her, in fact. So she invited him to see her little Fortuna house and she made him dinner there. “I don’t have a great make-out couch, however,” she warned him.

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “I needed that couch to get you going, but now that you’re all warmed up, we can do it anywhere. The floor, the chair, against the wall, the car…..”

“I was so right about you. You’re just arrogant.”

He was also sentimental. Nathaniel was charmed by her two-bedroom house with a detached garage. The decorating was not prissy like a little dollhouse, but dominated by strong colors and leather furniture. The best part was, she had it completely decorated for Christmas, a garland over the hearth, lights up on the outside eaves. She had drizzled glitter on her huge poinsettia, had a Christmas cactus as big as a hydrangea bush, lots of what his mother had always called gewgaws. Ribbons, candles, potpourris, a Santa collection and, of course, a tree. A real tree, decorated to match the house—in burgundy, green, cream and gold. “And you’re not even spending Christmas at home,” he said.

“But I live here,” she reminded him.

“It just doesn’t make sense for me to put up decorations,” he said. “Mother left a ton of them in the garage cabinets, but I’m leaving before Christmas. And I didn’t think anyone would be around to see them.”

“I do it for myself,” she said. “I’m having holidays, too. I’ll spend nights here since it gets so crowded at the farm. In years past, I’ve been known to loan the house to one of the brothers and sisters-in-law and kids and just take the couch. Brad brings an RV, which the teenage boys pretty much commandeer. During summer visits, the kids stake out the barn and front porch.”

“Sounds like fun. I think I would have liked that, growing up,” he said. “When they all get here, will you let me meet them? Or re-meet them? I haven’t seen the boys since junior high.”

“Sure, but you have to be prepared.”

“For what?”

“They’re going to treat you like you’re my boyfriend.”

He smiled and pulled her against him. “What makes you think I’d have a problem with that?”

“I don’t think we’re in that place,” she informed him. “I think we just eat, talk, take care of puppies and kiss.”

“Annie,” he said as if disappointed. “What do you think a boyfriend is?”

“Um, I never really…..”

“Tomorrow is Sunday, your day at the farm with your folks,” he said. “Get done with whatever it is you do by early afternoon. Come for a ride with me. Let me show you my spread—it’s so peaceful in the snow. Bring a change of clothes so you can freshen up before we have dinner.”

“I can do that,” she said. “I’d like that.”

Annie had seen herself as plain and sturdy, until she’d been under the lips and hands of Nathaniel Jensen, because he was so much more than she’d ever reckoned with. Handsome, smart, funny, compassionate, independent, strong, sexy—the list was endless. And he made her feel like so much more than a solid, dependable farm girl. When he kissed her, dared to touch her a bit more intimately than she invited, pulled his hands back when she said not yet, she felt sexy and pretty and adored. This was a man she looked forward to exploring, and she was taking him in slowly, with such pleasure.

So she told Rose she had a date to go riding with the vet and was, of course, excitedly excused from Sunday baking and dinner at the farm. “Please don’t get all worked up,” Annie told her mother. “This isn’t anything special. We’ve become friends on account of those puppies.”

“Right,” Rose said. “Still, could you wear a little color to bring out your hair and eyes?”

“I said, take it easy,” Annie stressed. “And don’t mention it to anyone. I don’t want to be the talk of the county the way that skinny Hollywood woman was.”

But Annie wasn’t taking it lightly—she was almost sizzling with pleasure. And she tried dressing up a little more. For riding, she wore her best jeans, newest boots and oldest denim jacket over a red turtleneck sweater. She added a black scarf. She brought along attractive slacks and high-heeled boots with a silk blouse and her best suede blazer to wear for dinner afterward. They talked about horses while they rode two of Nate’s favorite mounts, a couple of valuable, albeit retired, Thoroughbreds, disciplined and with just the right amount of spirit. The conversation about breeding, training, racing and showing horses was so stimulating she could almost forget for a while that she was trying not to fall in love with him.

“I’m not around horse people enough anymore,” she said. “When I was riding in competition as a girl, that was enough to keep me occupied twenty-four hours a day. No wonder I didn’t have fun in college—I wasn’t riding.”

“You’re good on a horse,” he said. “You should ride every day. So should I—it’s the best part of what I do.”

They rode into the foothills behind Nate’s stables along a trail that, although covered by a layer of snow, had been well used. The trees rose high above them and the sun was lowering in the afternoon sky. They talked about growing up as the youngest in their families, and the only one of their gender. While Annie’s brothers treated her like a football, Nathaniel’s older sisters played with him as if he were a baby doll they could dress up at will. “It’s amazing I’m not weirder than I am,” he said. “The next oldest is Patricia, who’s thirty-seven. Then Susan, and the oldest is Christina—one every two years. My parents had decided to quit while they were ahead and then, bingo.” He grinned. “Me. I upset the balance in a big way.”

“I think a similar thing happened at the farm,” she said. “The boys are thirty-three, thirty-four and thirty-seven. Then I came along and upset the bedroom situation. My parents decided I had to have my own, which left one for the boys. And then I raised a bull—did I mention he won a blue ribbon?”

“Several times, I believe.”

“We actually needed him. We had a couple of old bulls who just couldn’t step up to the plate anymore, y’know? But Erasmus was Ready Freddy. I’m real proud of that old bull.” She smiled. “My brothers had their shot at raising animals and they did all right, but Erasmus was the blue-ribbon baby. I blew my brothers out of the 4-H water with that guy.” She sighed wistfully. “I think having a daughter was harder on my dad and brothers than being the only girl was on me. And being the only girl wasn’t easy. They were ruthless.”

“Yet protective?” he asked.

“It’s an uncomfortable place sometimes, to be tossed around like a beanbag and hovered over like a china doll.”

“Did they make it hard on your boyfriends?” he asked.

“There weren’t very many boyfriends,” she said.

“I don’t believe you,” he replied with a grin. “You’re lying to make me feel better.”

So she told him about Ed. She hadn’t planned to, but this was a perfect segue to explaining that she might have an issue or two with trust. Not only had the man in the only really serious relationship of her adult life cheated on her, horribly, but she had never had a clue. That bothered her. After it was over, it was so obvious, but while it was going on, she was oblivious. Not good.

They were headed back toward the stables when she told him. She expected him to be sympathetic and sweet. Instead, he was fascinated. “Are you serious? He had about three women going at once? Scattered around? Telling each one he was in love with only her? Really?”

“Really,” she said, annoyed.

“How in the world did he manage that?” Nate asked.

“Well, a lot of phone calls while he was working. He talked to each one of us every day, sometimes several times a day. But with very few exceptions, we were assigned certain nights. We thought those were the days he didn’t have to leave town. I should have known where I stood in the line. I was getting Mondays and Tuesdays. The woman he decided was the real one in his life was getting the weekends—Saturdays and Sundays. She dumped him, of course, when she discovered Ms. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Three days a week must be the trump, huh?”

“Holy cow,” Nate said. “He didn’t even need a house or apartment! He had all his nights covered!”

“You know, I’m not impressed by his ability to pull it off.”

“Of course you’re not,” Nate said. “But if you just think about it, he had quite a scam going. Did he take you lots of places? Buy you nice things?”

“He couldn’t do either,” she explained. “First of all, he couldn’t risk being seen out and about with a woman, since one of the other women or their friends might run into him. So he said he was so tired, and after a week of being on the road and eating in restaurants, he enjoyed staying home.”

“Where you could cook for him,” Nate stated.

She pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes and nodded. “He did buy me a hot-water heater when mine went out,” she admitted. “He might’ve needed that hot shower,” she muttered.

“The man’s a genius,” Nate said. Then upon studying her face, he said, “Oh he’s a bastard, but you have to give him some credit for all the planning and subterfuge that—”

“I give him no credit,” she said harshly.

He grabbed her hand then, pulled her closer and said, “Of course not. No credit. He should be killed. But I’m glad he didn’t choose you. What if he’d chosen you? Can you imagine? We’d never meet and fall in love!”

She was so stunned that she pulled back on the reins and stopped her horse. “Are we in love?” she asked.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m just getting started here—there’s lots of potential. And he doesn’t deserve you. I, however, deserve you. And will take you anywhere you want. And I’m going to hold your hand the whole time. I’ll feed you cookies and kiss your neck in public.”