The Cowgirl Meets Her Match (Elk Heights Ranch)

CHAPTER 1

Captain Sterling Garlington.

He read the top of the envelope, a thousand realities hitting him like the shrapnel that had almost destroyed his leg earlier that year. It was crazy how much of his identity was attached to his name, his rank—his history.

A wave of regret hit him. History. That’s exactly what the envelope held. His history, meaning he had an utterly different future than he had planned, or expected. But that couldn’t be helped.

How could he be only twenty-eight and feel like an eighty-two-year-old? He walked over to the couch in the living room of his sister’s ranch house, his leg still aching from the injury so many months ago, but it was part of him.

Like his history.

Like his rank.

And somehow, he was supposed to make that into a bright new future that he knew jack shit about.

As he tossed the now-empty envelope to the coffee table, he unfolded the letter, his eyes zeroing in on the two most important words.

Honorably Discharged.

Meaning everything that had solidified his identity was now in the past. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t asked for this; rather, he had been given the chance to go back to the Marine Corps, but to do what? He couldn’t fight anymore; he couldn’t run away from enemy fire. He could plan, sit at a desk, and while that was undoubtedly an important job, it wasn’t for him.

He couldn’t be there and not participate with his own two hands, his own gun.

So, he wrote the letter, signed his name, and walked away from it all. But asking was different than receiving, and the finality of the missive weighed heavily upon his broad shoulders.

“Hey! Sterling?”

He tensed immediately at the sound of her voice. “In here,” he called out reluctantly.

The sound of her boots preceded her entrance into the living room, and just as he’d anticipated, her green eyes flashed with irritation as she set a hand on her hip and ducked her chin.

He’d had drill sergeants who were more compassionate.

He’d faced enemy fire with less hostility.

“Today, if it pleases your highness.” Harper Matthews arched a dark brow in contrast to her platinum-and-purple highlighted hair. “And I swear, you’re worse than my brother when it comes to answering your damn phone.”

“Are you done yet?” Sterling asked, taking a deep, calming breath.

“Nope, not even close. Get your ass in gear. Let’s go.” She turned on her heel, and Sterling purposefully looked away, not wanting to be tempted to study the detail on her blinged-out jeans that settled tightly around her perfect ass.

But he glanced back anyway.

Because some things deserved to be appreciated, and some risks were worth taking.

Harper Matthews’s ass deserved appreciation, but checking it out constituted a risk, because if she knew, he wouldn’t put it past her to vice-grip his balls.

Or cut them off in his sleep.

The day just kept getting better and better.

“Today, sunshine!”

Sterling reluctantly tossed the letter onto the oak coffee table and cautiously shifted his weight to his good leg. As he started to follow Harper, the pain sliced through him with each step as his weight shifted to the mangled area of his calf. He limped slightly, hating the way it made him feel.

Weak.

Washed up.

Worthless.

His sister would hamstring him if she knew he felt that way, but Laken had always seen the good, the silver lining.

Sterling had seen too much destruction, too much greed, enduring too much pain to see past the blood-stained dirt. Even if he loved his military career, that didn’t mean it was perfect, or easy.

Truth was, he loved it because it was damn hard. But each day, he’d made a difference.

And that was gone.

“Watch your step.” Harper’s voice cut through his depression, and he gave her an irritated glance.

“Hey, just trying to help. You don’t want to fall on your face. Or maybe you do.” She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Sterling made a show of stepping down the three stairs to the front porch carefully.

“Aw, good work, grandpa,” Harper teased.

“One day, Harper. One day you’ll pay for each little insult—”

“And that day is clearly not today. So, if you wouldn’t mind...?” She gestured to the round pen just beside the barn where Margaret, his brother-in-law’s horse, waited.

“Slave driver,” Sterling grumbled.

“Yup.” Harper closed the distance to the round pen quickly, her pink boots getting dusty as she strode across the gravel drive.

Sterling glanced away and focused on the scenery as a way to ignore the pain. Russian olive trees dotted the landscape along with sagebrush and rabbit bush. Blue sky stretched across from horizon to horizon with only a few cirrus clouds separating the blue. Manastash Ridge cut along the south with Elk Heights Ridge, which shared a name with his sister and Cyler’s ranch.

“You ready?”

Sterling rested an arm on the iron gate and watched as Harper untied Margaret’s lead.

“As I’ll ever be.” Sterling sighed.

“I was talking to Margaret.” Harper gave him a cheeky grin.

Sterling swallowed a retort and kept his peace. Some smartass remark now would just result in Harper taking it out on him during therapy.

That woman was nothing but a pain in his ass.

“Aw, look who’s learning to play nice.” Harper goaded him on as she tugged Margaret’s lead away from the gate and toward the middle of the pen. “Just like we practiced.”

Sterling unlatched the gate, the iron squeaking as he swung it open and then closed it behind him. Little clouds of dust puffed around his boots as he walked to where Margaret and Harper waited. Hands damp with sweat, he rubbed them absently on his jeans and then fisted them.

Margaret nickered, her brown eyes watching him as if confused as to why he was so nervous. Harper said horses could sense your emotions.

He was pretty sure Margaret had his number, but thankfully, she wouldn’t use it against him.

Or so he hoped.

“Foot here.” Harper held out the stirrup and adjusted it slightly as his foot rested in the U shape. “Good. Hands on the horn and back of the saddle,” she coached.

Sterling knew the drill, but that didn’t make it any less disconcerting. He gripped the saddle horn, his sweaty palm sliding just a little before gripping hard. His other hand held the back of the saddle, and he took a deep breath then swung onto Margaret’s back.

“See, gets easier every time,” Harper commented, patting his leg.

Damn, he wished she wouldn’t touch him. It created this strange mix of irritation, arousal, and longing. “Sure, sure,” he replied, ignoring the sensations her touch left with him.

“Okay, we’ll start at a walk, get your bearings and balance, then I’ll hand you the reins, and we’ll post a bit. All good?”

“Whatever you say, boss.” Sterling grinned through his teeth, trying to be at ease. The horse was simply walking! He could freaking do this. He could drive a Humvee through wicked terrain in gunfire; he could certainly ride a horse at a walk. But truth was, the Humvee didn’t scare Sterling, and horses still freaked the shit out of him. You could put the brakes on the Humvee, but you could not exactly put the brakes on a horse if it wanted to bolt.

It wasn’t exactly a rational fear, but since when did rationality have anything to do with being afraid?

“You’re doing better than last time. How does your leg feel?” Harper asked, her green eyes darting to his leg and back up to his gaze.

He’d learned the first time that it would only be hell if he didn’t tell her the truth. She’d simply push his injury past where he was comfortable. Even if it was safe, it didn’t feel safe to have that much pain. “It’s not as bad today.”

“Good. We’ll take any improvement,” she answered. “You about ready to try posting? We’ll try at a walk first.”

Sterling groaned. This was where it started to really suck. “Fine.”

“Start slow, keep your heels down, and as the horse moves forward, rise ever so slightly and use those calf muscles to lift your body. Don’t overwork them. Just feel the tension.”

Sterling took a deep breath and made sure his heels were lower in the stirrups, then slowly rose, his calf muscle in his right leg aching with each slight movement.

“That’s it, up a little more.”

Sterling pushed slightly higher, his calf no longer aching but screaming as he posted while the horse walked.

“Ass down. You’re not a jockey. Try not to lean so far forward. Balance yourself above your ankles, use your knees. Yeah, that’s better.”

Sterling listened to her voice, modifying his position as she directed, and found his center of gravity a little easier as he continued to lift then lower himself back down as he posted.

“Much better. Do you feel how much smoother you’re transitioning?”

“Yeah, actually. It doesn’t feel as choppy.”

“Exactly. It’s more of a circular motion rather than a jack-in-the-box.”

Sterling chuckled. “Yeah, I can imagine that.”

“Margaret appreciates it too. It’s easier on her. She’s not a young filly anymore, and your heavy carcass isn’t exactly a picnic,” Harper replied.

Sterling watched as a grin teased her lips, showing off her white teeth and one-sided dimple. Her coloring was quite similar to her brother’s, Jasper. Light eyes, light hair, and tan skin, she would look like the girl next door if it weren’t for the bright purple tips in her hair that hinted at a wilder nature.

Jasper was opposite in personality. Where Harper was sarcastic, sassy, and reckless, Jasper was more direct, honest, forthright, and as solid as granite. Which was why he was perfect for Kessed. Just thinking her name sent a different kind of pain through him, aiming at his heart. It wasn’t so long ago that he’d made a play for her, but he was man enough to admit that Jasper was a better fit for Kessed. It was a difficult truth to swallow, and it didn’t diminish the sting of rejection, but it was the truth nonetheless.

Sterling knew he wasn’t in a healthy enough place to care for someone’s heart. Yet it still sucked to see Jasper and Kessed together. But he’d forced himself to at least tolerate it. After all, Kessed was his sister’s best friend, and Jasper was good friends with Cyler. They were all one big, dysfunctional family—whether he liked it or not.

“Hey, you. Did you hear what I asked?” Harper smacked his good leg.

Sterling shook his head and narrowed his gaze. “What’s up?”

“I think those pain meds are messing with your brain. Focus, cowboy.” She pointed two fingers at her eyes and then directed them to him.

“Not a cowboy.” Sterling rolled his eyes then grinned. “I’m a badass in every other way though.”

“Yeah, sure you are.” She pulled up Margaret’s lead and handed the reins over to Sterling. “Go around the pen once by yourself, moderate the pressure on your leg, post, and then bring her to a slow trot and increase your posting speed. Got it?”

“Sure.” Sterling gripped the leather straps, his palms growing damp again. Damn, it felt like his body was constantly betraying him. First, his leg that just wouldn’t heal fast enough; then, he was a pathetic mess whenever he rode the stupid horse, his hands constantly breaking out into a sweat. For once, he just wanted to feel in control.

As if he had power over his own destiny, his own future.

Hell, he’d take power over the next five minutes.

“Go ahead.” Harper stepped back from the horse and waited.

And he couldn’t exactly just sit there and stare, so he gently kicked Margaret in the flank, his calf muscle protesting as he did the small kick. The horse lazily moved forward, kicking up dust as she circled the round pen. Sterling focused on his motion, keeping the movements smooth as he posted in rhythm with Margaret’s cadence.

“Good work. Try the slow trot,” Harper called from the fence where she perched, sitting on the top rail. Her cowboy hat shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun.

Sterling gritted his teeth and encouraged Margaret with a click of his tongue. Margaret responded by increasing her pace, and Sterling felt his ass bounce in the saddle.

“Post!” Harper called out.

Sterling leaned forward, rocking his weight onto the balls of his feet as he lifted himself from the saddle just a bit then eased down as he posted carefully along with Margaret’s gait.

“Hump the saddle. That’s right. Better.”

Sterling had nearly choked on his tongue the first time she said that, but now he was used to the phrase. And oddly enough, the strange wording made sense and always helped him correct his posture.

“Heels down,” Harper reminded him.

Damn, just when he figured out one part, he screwed up another. “Demanding much?” he called out to her.

“Always. You shouldn’t be surprised anymore by it,” Harper replied, a smile in her tone.

“Pain in the ass.”

“Takes one to know one!”

Sterling focused on Margaret’s neck as it mimicked her trot’s gait, and he found the rhythm, sticking with it.

“Okay, slow down, make her stop now... Good.” Harper jumped from the fence and walked over to him. “That was a huge improvement from last week. How does your leg feel? How much fatigue are you experiencing?”

Sterling took his boot from the stirrup and flexed his leg. He frowned as his leg ached but actually didn’t give him the throbbing pain he had experienced when they first started therapy. “It’s still painful, but it’s not the bone-deep pain that it was before.”

“Have you heard back from your physical therapist in Seattle?” Harper asked, petting Margaret’s neck softly.

Sterling nodded. “Yeah, he said that the notes you sent in were helpful. He agreed that the posting and balancing was pretty vital to my therapy. When I go back he’s going to test me again for a mile marker.”

“Great. I’m glad we’re on the right track. You feel up to taking her around again?” Harper asked.

Her green eyes challenged him, dared him to say no.

“Sure, I’ve got one more round in me.”

“Right answer.”

He put his boot back in the stirrup, adjusted his position on the saddle, and encouraged Margaret back into a walk, then a trot. Harper watched from the fence rail. He could almost feel her gaze scrutinizing his every move. In a lot of ways, she reminded him of a drill sergeant at boot camp.

“Push harder.”

“Don’t give up.”

“One more time.”

“Do it again.”

But she was a hell of a lot better to look at than any of the officers he’d ever served under.

Even if she was a hardass.

“One more time!” she yelled as Sterling circled the pen.

As he finished up the round, she called out again. “You can do another.”

He’d heard that before, and he was damn well certain that she’d shout out the same thing for the next ten times.

But odd thing was, it made it easier. It wasn’t ten more; it was just one more.

One more time.

One more round.

And somehow, it had translated to his life.

One more morning.

One more try.

One more day.

One more was always more manageable than a million more.

Even when a million was probably closer to the accurate number.

As he rounded the pen again, he reminded himself. Just one more.

He could do it.

He could do one.

And someday, he’d find out that one had turned into a million.

And that million times had made him stronger.

Better.

Whole.

He had to hope.