Megan Perl slipped through Rosemont Castle’s front doors as sunrise brightened the sky outside, brand new Canon digital camera in her hands. Her breath fogged the air in front of her as she jogged down the steps, tucking her chin into the fold of her scarf as she went. She crossed the circular drive out front before turning to face the castle.
Gingerly, she lifted the camera out of its case and turned it on, adjusting the shutter to capture the sun as it crept up behind the castle, making its stone façade seem to glow. Beautiful. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe this place existed, tucked into the Appalachian Mountains here in Towering Pines, Virginia, or that she and her two best friends were lucky enough to work here.
Megan crouched down, looking up at the castle through the camera’s lens. She snapped a series of photos as the sun rose over the tower on its left-hand side, capturing the way the light reflected in the castle’s many windows as it rose higher in the sky. These were the details she’d always loved to photograph most.
From behind her, the sound of a diesel engine rumbling up the drive disturbed the otherwise quiet morning. She turned, watching as a shiny black pick-up truck pulled up in front of the castle and parked. This must be Jake Reardon, the man who had recently rented the stable and farmhouse on the grounds. He was supposed to be moving in today, although she hadn’t met him yet. She didn’t know much about him except that he was a widower and well-liked around town. And apparently, he liked to get a really early start on moving day.
The door to the cab opened, and the man inside stepped out, turning to face her. She took in his lean, muscular frame, the well-fitted jeans and brown leather boots.
Well, hello there…
A fluttery sense of awareness filled her belly as her gaze swept up to meet his, warm brown eyes set in a handsome—if solemn—face. But, wait. She’d stared into those eyes before. She knew this guy. Well, she didn’t know him, exactly, but for a few memorable seconds across a bar last summer, they’d shared a definite…moment.
She swallowed over the dryness in her throat. “Are you Jake Reardon?”
He nodded. “I am.”
“Megan Perl.” She extended her hand. “We must not have been formally introduced that night at Bar None. When I heard you were moving onto the property, I didn’t realize we’d already met.”
“I hadn’t put two and two together either.” His voice was deep and rich. It had captivated her that night last summer, and it had the same effect on this chilly spring morning. His gaze was steady yet intense, locked on her face.
Instinctively, she dipped her head so that her hair fell across her left cheek, hiding the scars marring her skin. “Well, this is a happy coincidence.”
“It sure is.” Jake was seemingly unaffected by her appearance. He didn’t flinch or look away, as some other men had, but there was no heat in his gaze either. That night at Bar None, the air between them had sizzled with attraction. The absence of it from him now was enough to douse the spark still simmering in her belly. Maybe he wasn’t interested anymore. Maybe he’d found someone else in the months since, or maybe he no longer found her attractive.
She cleared her throat. “I have to confess, I didn’t expect to see you until later today. Getting an early start?”
“I just stopped by to get the keys, so I can get the barn prepped before I bring my horse over this afternoon.”
“Oh, okay. I can get those for you.” She tucked her camera inside its case.
“Are you a photographer?” he asked, stepping closer.
She nodded. “Still something of an amateur.”
“Can I see?” He gestured to the camera.
A warm flush spread over her skin as she pulled the camera back out, turned on the display screen, and showed him one of the shots she’d just taken. The sun’s rays burst from behind the tower like a halo, just as she’d envisioned.
“Wow. I’m impressed,” he said, his tone sincere. “That doesn’t look like an amateur shot to me.”
“I’ve never had any formal training, but I’ve taken some online classes,” she said with a shrug, uncomfortable with his praise. “And lots of practice.”
“We learn by doing,” he agreed. “That’s how I became a horse trainer.”
“Took a job mucking stalls at a barn near me when I was a teenager to help pay the bills. Before I knew it, I was spending all my free time there, helping out wherever I could. Turns out, I’m good with horses. Who knew?” He offered a self-deprecating smile.
“I’ll, um, I’ll get those keys for you,” she said, motioning for him to follow her up the steps into the castle. She led the way into the office, where she pulled out a large white envelope that contained the keys to the barn and farmhouse. She and Jake sat down and went over the remaining paperwork before she handed him the envelope.
“Look forward to moving in,” he said as he stood, those brown eyes sizzling into hers.
“We’re looking forward to having you here,” she said. “And I personally can’t wait to see horses grazing out there on our pastures.”
“Guess I’ll see you around, then.” He extended his hand, and she took it. His grip was firm and warm, and it sent a ripple of heat up her arm like she’d just slipped her hand into a hot bath.
“Just let us know if you need anything.” She pressed her hand—the warm one—against her chest as he walked away. Okay, she seriously needed to get her hormones under control now that Jake was going to be living and working here on the property.
She picked up her camera and headed upstairs to her room. She and her friends Elle and Ruby had won a contest last year that had led to permanent positions as Rosemont Castle’s property managers. Since their arrival, they had opened an inn inside the castle, as well as instituting other programs that helped the property pay for its own upkeep.
As she walked down the hall toward her bedroom, she passed Ruby coming out of the spiral stairwell that led to her bedroom at the top of the tower. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Megan said with a smile. “I just met our new tenant and gave him his keys.”
“Oh, wow. He’s here early.”
“Right?” Megan said. “Hey, did you know Jake was the guy we met at Bar None that night last summer when we bumped into Theo and his friends there?”
Theo was Theo Langdon, Rosemont Castle’s owner and also the Earl of Highcastle, who—after falling in love with Elle—had chosen to live here in Virginia in the castle his grandfather built rather than returning to his home in London.
“Of course,” Ruby said. “You didn’t?”
“No,” Megan said, trying not to sound annoyed. “Do you need my help with breakfast this morning?”
“Nope,” Ruby told her. “Elle and I have it covered. Enjoy your morning off.”
With a wave, Ruby headed downstairs, while Megan went into her bedroom to get her two foster dogs—already bouncing excitedly as they caught sight of her—out of their crates. Chandler was a fluffy black dog, a mix of who-knew-what, but one hundred percent happy energy. Barnaby was as quiet as Chandler was exuberant, a tan-colored pit mix who preferred to let Chandler do all the “talking” for him.
Megan let them out of their crates and sat on the bed. She pulled her camera out of its case and started tabbing through the photos she’d taken outside while the dogs chased each other around her room. The pictures were…not bad. Pretty good, even? Okay, there were a few shots here she couldn’t quite believe she’d taken herself.
Photography had always been a hobby, but she’d saved enough money during her first year here at the castle to buy this fancy new camera, and now she wanted to make it more than a hobby. She’d been toying with the idea of offering portrait sessions to their guests at the castle, but so far, she hadn’t worked up the courage to ask Ruby and Elle what they thought of the idea.
Maybe she hadn’t felt “professional” enough to charge money for her photos. But Jake’s words resonated with her. We learn by doing. He’d learned his trade by trial and error the same way she was, and now he’d moved here to start his own horse training business. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy for her to charge for her services either. Maybe she’d run it past her friends tonight.
She pulled out her laptop and spent the next hour or so editing a few of the best shots she’d taken that morning. They would make a great addition to her portfolio, not to mention the castle’s online photo gallery. Finally, she stood and went into the bathroom to get ready for her day, blanching when she caught sight of herself in the mirror.
She’d been in such a hurry to photograph the sunrise, she hadn’t done her makeup yet, which meant…Jake had seen her bare face. Without the special concealer she applied every morning, the left side of her face was marred by a thick, pink scar that started near her scalp and ran down her cheek, jagged in areas where the tree branch had ripped haphazardly through her skin during the crash. Another scar extended from her left shoulder to her elbow.
She closed her eyes, swallowing over the tightness in her throat. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in dating him anyway. She had already decided she was focusing on her photography this year. No men. Only here, in the privacy of her bathroom, with tears burning in her eyes, could she admit—just to herself—she wasn’t ready to date. Not yet.
And anyway, she’d already spent too many years indulging in meaningless hookups, flitting from one dead-end job to another, and putting herself last. This year was all about Megan and no one else. She had a chance here at Rosemont Castle to explore what really made her happy, to maybe discover a more mature version of herself.
She carefully applied her makeup. Then—armor in place—she leashed her dogs and walked them outside. “Any day now, Mother Nature,” she grumbled as she led Chandler and Barnaby over the dewy grass alongside one of the pastures. Her breath glistened in front of her as frosty evidence of every exhale. After almost a year in the mountains of Virginia, she still hadn’t acclimated to the weather. Maybe she’d always be a Florida girl at heart.
From inside her jacket, her cell phone began to ring. She fished it out clumsily with her gloved fingers and connected the call. “Hello.”
“Hi, Megan, it’s Priya.” Priya was their contact at the Towering Pines Animal Shelter. She helped them coordinate everything with the rescue pets they were fostering here at the castle in their Fairy Tails program.
“Oh hey, Priya, how are you?” Megan juggled both leashes in her right hand as she held the phone in her left.
“Great, thanks. I’m calling with a rather unusual question.”
“Okay,” Megan said, intrigued.
“A few weeks ago, the local humane society seized three neglected horses, which have been under quarantine at their livestock rescue facility. But this morning, they were made aware of a hoarding situation that’s going to require all their resources, and long story short, they need to move those original three horses somewhere until they’re adopted.”
“Foster homes for horses?” Megan turned her gaze toward the barn just visible ahead, realizing where Priya was going with this.
“Yes. These horses will still be under the care of the humane society, but since their facility is full, they reached out to us to see if we might have any foster homes that would be able to accommodate them.” She paused. “Which is why I’m calling, since, as I recall, you have an empty barn and pastures. I could probably find someone to come out and help care for them if you could take them in, even temporarily.”
Megan grimaced. She really did want to help, but… “I hate to tell you this, but we’ve rented out the barn. In fact, our new tenant is moving in today. I’m not sure how many horses he’s bringing with him, though. I could ask him if he’s got room for the foster horses.”
“Oh, could you? That would be great. Sheriff Alvarez has room for one of them at his house, so I’d just need you to take two.”
“You mentioned they were under quarantine?” Megan asked.
“It’s standard with livestock to make sure they aren’t carrying infectious diseases, but these horses were given the all clear a few days ago. They’re ready to move,” Priya told her.
“Okay. I’ll ask our new tenant. I can probably let you know later today.” She looked down at the barn, but Jake’s black truck was nowhere to be seen. So, he’d already left to get his horse.
“Perfect. The humane society needs to act quickly on this hoarding situation, so the sooner the better.”
“Got it,” Megan told her, turning around to head back toward the castle.
“Out of curiosity, who rented the stable?” Priya asked.
“Oh really?” Priya’s tone changed, and Megan had the sudden impression she might not be the only one who found her new tenant handsome.
“Yep. He’s starting his own horse training business.”
“That’s great. Good for him. Well, let me know what he says. I’d love to get the horses moved as soon as this afternoon if he’s amenable.”
Megan pressed a hand against her heart, which was beating just a little bit faster at the idea of seeing Jake again so soon. “Okay. I’ll ask him as soon as he gets here.”
Jake Reardon walked to the end of the barn and stood looking out over the empty pastures beyond. Moving into the farmhouse at Rosemont Castle was the fresh start he’d been depending on for years now, the chance to step into his own shoes for the first time as he grew his business. It had been a hell of a road to get here, but he wasn’t going to think about that right now.
Focus on the positive. And, speaking of positive, Megan Perl was currently walking toward him from the direction of the castle. Megan, the woman who’d stolen his breath that night at Bar None last year, who made him feel alive for the first time in recent memory, and who also managed the property he’d just leased.
“Hi,” she said as she approached the barn. “Settling in okay?”
“Well, my horse is,” he told her. “I haven’t even been over to the house yet.”
“Busy day for you.” She tucked a strand of glossy brown hair behind her ear as she came to stand beside him in the entrance to the barn.
“It sure is.”
“Can I meet your horse?” she asked with a smile.
“Of course.” He led the way into the barn. Twister hung his chestnut head over his stall door, whinnying to them as they approached. “This is Twister,” Jake said as the horse head-butted him affectionately. “Bet you can’t tell how he got his nickname.”
Megan reached out to touch Twister’s face, running her hand over his tornado-shaped white blaze. Her smile widened. “Clever.”
Twister paced to the window at the rear of his stall and whinnied again before returning to the doorway.
“He’s a little lonely this afternoon,” Jake said. “I don’t think he likes being the only horse on the property, but he won’t be for long. A client is dropping off a horse for me to train later this week, and I’m hoping to make that two by the end of the month. I’ll rent out the rest of the stalls to boarders.”
“That’s actually what I came down here to talk to you about,” she said. “Are you familiar with the program we’re running at Rosemont Castle?”
“Only what I’ve heard around town,” he told her.
“Well, when Elle, Ruby, and I came in as property managers last year, we opened an inn inside the castle, so guests can come and have a ‘royal’ getaway. There are twelve guest rooms that were sitting empty, and now they’re generating income for Theo and his family to help Rosemont Castle pay for its own keep, so to speak.”
“Sounds good,” he said, not having any idea what this had to do with him.
“We also run a program with rescue pets. It’s called the Fairy Tails program,” she said with another of those irresistible smiles. “Get it? T-a-i-l-s.”
“I like it,” he said, returning her smile.
“We foster adoptable dogs and cats from the Towering Pines Animal Shelter here at the castle, and our guests can meet them while they’re here. Then, if they’re interested in adopting, they can put in an application and hopefully take their new pet home with them when they leave. It’s been really successful so far, and popular with our guests.”
“That’s great.” He stared at her, momentarily distracted by the way the sun danced in the cinnamon depths of her eyes. Megan seemed to radiate energy, making everything feel lighter and brighter when she was nearby. It was more than just physical attraction—although he certainly felt plenty of that too. He’d felt a sort of instant connection with her that night at Bar None, and the intervening months had done nothing to dampen his interest.
Whatever was or wasn’t between them, though, he couldn’t afford to become distracted by it. He and Megan were linked by business now that he lived here at Rosemont Castle, and that meant she was off-limits romantically, assuming he was even ready to embark on his first relationship since Alana’s death, and he wasn’t at all sure that he was.
“Anyway, I got a call from the Towering Pines Animal Shelter this morning,” Megan told him. “They’re trying to help the local humane society place some rescued horses and were wondering if we could put them up here in the barn until they find homes.”
Jake rocked back on his heels, frowning. As much as he wanted to say yes, he needed to rent out these stalls to keep himself afloat. His new business was barely off the ground, and right now, his budget was stretched as thin as the prickly whiskers on Twister’s chin. “What do you know about their background?”
“Only that they were seized due to neglect. Priya said they’d completed a quarantine period and were ready to move. The humane society needs to clear out their livestock facility to make room for animals they’re seizing from a hoarding situation.”
“And who would care for them?” he asked.
“She said she might be able to send someone out to help. And the humane society would pay any expenses like feed and medical care.”
“Hmm.” He watched as Twister began to nibble at the hay in his stall. Neglected horses would require a lot of extra care, even if the humane society sent someone out to help.
“I hate even having to ask, and I totally understand if you say no,” Megan said. “It’s the worst timing, right? If only they’d needed a place to put a couple of foster horses anytime over the last year, we would’ve been able to take them in a heartbeat.”
“Although you wouldn’t have had anyone to care for them,” he commented, gut desire to help warring with the knowledge that doing so would put his new business at financial risk. And he’d already risked so much just to get this far.
“Very true,” Megan said. “I wish I could give you some time to think about it, but apparently these horses need to be moved today.”
“Any idea how quickly horses like that usually get placed permanently?” he asked, running numbers in his head. He might be able to get by without boarder income for a few months, depending on how many hours of business his off-site training clients generated for him.
“No,” Megan said apologetically. “I could call Priya and find out, though. Our dogs and cats are usually with us anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so I’d imagine horses would be similar.”
“Priya Sharma?” he asked. They’d gone to high school together. Of course, he could say that about half the town, if they were anywhere near his age. He knew Priya better than most, though. She and Alana had been good friends.
As Megan nodded, a shaft of sunlight from the window in Twister’s stall caught the scar that ran down the left side of her face. “She mentioned that she knew you too.”
He’d heard peripherally about the car accident when it happened last year, although he hadn’t realized at the time that he knew her. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, but these horses are likely to need a fair amount of time and attention to get them ready for adoption, and I really was counting on boarder income.”
He rubbed Twister’s neck as he realized the inevitability of what he was about to say. “But, far be it for me to turn away an animal in need, so I’ll make it work.”
Megan’s expression brightened. “I realize this is a huge imposition, and we’re more than happy to make it up to you any way we can.”
An image of her in front of the castle that morning with her camera drifted through his mind. “Actually, maybe there is something you could do for me.”
She nodded. “Just let me know what you were planning to charge to board two horses, and I’ll subtract it from your rent until they’re adopted. I already cleared it with Theo. We’ll even throw in a little extra to account for the inconvenience.”
“Oh.” He straightened. “Well, I hate to…I mean…”
She waved away his pride. “Consider it done.” Her eyes narrowed. “But wait…what were you going to ask me for?”
“It’s nothing.” He shook his head, embarrassed to put his idea into words, especially now that she’d offered financial compensation for the rescue horses.
She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him an amused smile. “Just tell me.”
His cheeks felt too warm. “Well, I was going to ask if you could take some pictures for me, you know, while I’m working with the horses. For my website.”
Her smile was wide and genuine. “I’d love to.”
“No need. Really. Compensation for boarding is more than enough.”
She placed a hand on his forearm. Her touch was light, casual, but it sent a burst of fire through his veins. “You’re doing the humane society a huge favor by taking in these horses, and anyway, I’m building my portfolio right now, so I’d be getting as much out of it as you are.”
“Well, okay then. I’d really appreciate it.”
“It would be my pleasure.” She was still smiling at him, and it was doing all kinds of uncomfortable things to his body, reminding him exactly how long it had been since a woman smiled at him with anything other than pity, or even touched his damn arm, for that matter. Let alone how long it had been since a woman had touched any other part of him. Maybe that was the reason he was about to lose his damn mind every time Megan so much as blinked in his direction.
“Okay, I’ll leave you to get settled in, but I’ll call once I’ve talked to Priya,” she told him. “And thanks again. We really appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it.” He watched as she walked toward the castle, trying not to stare at the sway of her ass inside her jeans. Megan was tall and lean, curved in all the right places. Her mahogany hair shone in the sunlight. Gorgeous. Every inch of her. Megan’s tanned complexion and dark hair and eyes were the opposite of Alana’s pale features. He’d thought blonde hair and blue eyes were his “type,” but lately, it was Megan’s face inspiring his fantasies.
And he had a serious problem on his hands. He and Alana had started dating at fifteen. She’d been his first date, first kiss, first girlfriend, and he had been hers. But her strictly religious family had insisted she wait for her wedding night. After watching his mother’s life disintegrate from too many men and drugs, Jake had been happy to wait if it meant being a part of the wonderful thing he’d shared with Alana, the glimpses of stability and happiness he experienced when he visited her parents’ house.
And so, at just eighteen years old, he had walked down the aisle, ready to start his new life with the woman he loved. When he first heard the screams, when he saw Alana on the ground in her white dress, he’d thought she would jump up at any moment, laughing at her own clumsiness. It would be a funny story to tell. “Remember how you fell down the steps behind the VFW hall during our wedding reception?”
But Alana hadn’t gotten up, laughing or otherwise. She’d gone into a coma, where she lingered for almost nine years. He’d been forced to watch her wither away in that hospital bed, becoming a fragile shell of the vibrant woman he’d loved since he was fifteen, until finally, she’d left him forever.
Now, Jake found himself in the most uncomfortable and unwanted position of being a twenty-eight-year-old virgin widower, and he had no idea what to do about it. Part of him wanted to get drunk at the local bar, take a woman home, and be done with it. But he couldn’t do that in a small town like Towering Pines, not unless he wanted the whole town to know about it, anyway. His attraction to Megan was quickly becoming a problem, though. There was no way he was going to lose his virginity with the woman who managed the property he’d just leased. That was asking for disaster. Megan was off-limits. If only he could as easily convince his body as his mind. BUY IT NOW: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play