“She’s my favorite girl.” He rubbed the side of her face and murmured something to her. “I got her specifically for new riders and children at the dude ranch because she’s so gentle.”
“You’ll stick close?” she asked as she came to stand beside him. “I mean, I literally have no experience.”
Hayes eyed her from beneath the large black rim of his hat. “No experience, huh?”
He raked that heavy-lidded gaze over her and he might as well have touched her bare skin. There wasn’t a place on her that wasn’t tingling. She’d met the man only five minutes ago and he’d managed to awaken something in her that had been dead for two years.
“You’re in luck.” He brought those dark eyes back up to hers. “I’m very…experienced.”
Okay, they were definitely not talking horses anymore. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind this man was much more worldly than she’d ever thought of being. If she had to guess, she’d put him in his midthirties, nearly a decade older than her own twenty-five.
“And I’ll definitely stick close,” he promised.
The ride hadn’t even started and Alexa was already wondering if she was getting in over her head.
* * *
What the hell was he thinking?
He shouldn’t be offering rides to or flirting with a total stranger. He’d come down to the stables to be alone, to ride his brother’s stallion. Being back on the ranch was supposed to help him return to some semblance of the life he’d had before he’d been gutted by experiencing things no one should ever be subjected to.
But the second he’d hinted that she’d have to come back later for a stable hand to take her on a trail ride, a burst of jealousy speared him. The feeling had caught him off guard. He didn’t want to feel, didn’t want to allow himself any happiness. He’d been through hell and was just trying to survive each day and uphold his promise to his brothers and his ailing father. They had a dude ranch to get up and running and Hayes had a home to renovate.
Hayes had been back home a few months and he was not looking forward to getting involved with anyone right now…if ever. So no matter how mesmerizing Alexa’s brown eyes were, no matter how she seemed to be a little sad and vulnerable, sparking that fierce protective instinct inside of him…he simply couldn’t act on this unwanted chemistry.
He saw how she looked at him; he wasn’t a fool. She was young; she was attracted. He was only going to show her a portion of the ranch, bring her back, and send her on her way. That would be the end of things. Her attraction had no place here…and neither did his.
He carried too much baggage, had too much to sort through within himself before he could think of trying anything with a woman again. Hell, he barely left the ranch, let alone attempted to be social and date.
Taking a beautiful woman out for a ride didn’t have to be anything more than just that. Once she was gone, he could ride alone like he’d originally intended. Adjusting to civilian life was more difficult than he’d believed possible and riding alone was the only thing that cleared his mind.
PTSD was nothing to mess with, and he needed space. Perhaps a little one-on-one time with a total stranger wouldn’t be such a bad thing. With Alexa, there would be no need for him to talk about himself. He didn’t have to put on a front like he often did with his brothers. He could talk up the dude ranch with Alexa, which was a welcome distraction in his life. This family project might be the only thing keeping him from going out of his mind and giving in to the demons that had followed him home.
“I’ll get her ready and we’ll go,” he told Alexa.
Alexa. Such a beautiful name for a woman with such striking features. He’d only heard the name one other time, long ago. His high school buddy had dated and married someone named Alexa. Hayes had to force himself to stop staring because she was the type of woman a man could get lost in.
All that long midnight hair, her dark skin tone and those wide, chocolate eyes. Her curves were damn near hypnotic in those jeans and fitted tank. Yeah, she would turn any man’s head and he was no exception.
Years of military training had enabled him to mask his emotions—something that would come in handy on a trail ride with this beauty. The sooner he could get this ride over with, the better.
Hayes saddled up Jumper and Doc, his brother’s stallion. Nolan had been working overtime at the hospital, so Hayes had offered to get Nolan’s horse out for exercise.
“Right this way, Ma’am.”
If he didn’t refer to her by her name, maybe he could keep this little escapade impersonal…exactly the way he wanted to live his life. Detached.
Hayes took the reins and led the horses from the stable. Alexa fell in step beside him. The subtle aroma of jasmine tickled his senses. His instincts hadn’t failed him in all his years overseas, and he was positive he had Alexa pegged as someone who wasn’t taking time away because she necessarily wanted to. Something about her reserved nature and an underlying hint of fear made him all the more determined to make this ride to be enjoyable and memorable for her.