“Oh, that makes me feel a whole lot better.”
This was getting ridiculous. “You know, you might want to think about another line of work.”
“I was perfectly happy scooping out pens.”
“Nobody’s happy scooping out pens.”
“Well, that’s a dead-end career.” He took a step forward and captured her hand.
She tried to jerk away.
“The trick is,” said Jared in the most soothing voice he could muster, “to let him know what you’re doing.” He urged her reluctant hand toward Tango’s withers. “That way, nobody is surprised.”
“Is ‘surprised’ a euphemism?”
“I mean it literally.”
Tango craned his neck to see what was going on.
“Your touch should be firm,” Jared advised, keeping himself between Melissa and the horse’s head. He gave Tango a warm-up pat with his free hand before placing Melissa’s palm on the horse’s coat. “That way, he knows you have confidence.”
“I don’t have confidence.”
“Sure you do.” He let go of her hand, and she immediately pulled it back from the horse.
Jared drew a frustrated sigh. “I’ve seen five-year-olds with more guts than you.”
She glared at him.
“Lots of them,” he affirmed.
Her glare lasted several seconds longer, but then she squared her shoulders, screwed up her face and turned to the saddle.
“Buckle first,” Jared instructed as her small soft fingers tackled the leather. “Now pull the strap through the rings.”
It took her a minute to get the mohair strap untangled and dangling straight down.
“You want to take the saddle and blanket off together. Grab it front and back. Lift, don’t drag it. Then carry it into the stable. I’ll show you where to put it.”
He stepped back to give her some room.
Tango was sixteen hands, so it was a reach for Melissa to get a firm grip. But she grabbed the saddle, lifted, pulled back, stumbled in the loosely packed dirt and nearly fell over backward.
Jared quickly wrapped his arm around the small of her back, averting disaster. Her waist was small, her body and frame light. No wonder she was such a wimp when it came to physical work.
“You okay?” he asked reflexively.
“Fine.” She firmed up her grip on the heavy saddle and straightened away before he could get used to the feel of her in his arms. But not before he realized how easily he could get used to the feel of her in his arms.
He wondered if she danced. Then for a second he allowed himself to imagine her in a dress. A dress would suit her, something silky and flowing, maybe a bright blue or magenta. Despite her hesitancy in the stable yard, something told him she’d have self-confidence in a different setting.
She all but staggered into the stable, and he was forced to give her points for grit.
“Third rack from the end,” he instructed, following with the reins.
She plunked the saddle down.
“You can clean it after lunch,” he told her.
She nodded, obviously out of breath. Then she dusted off the front of her navy tank top.
“But first we move Tango.”
“Of course we do.” Her tone was sarcastic as she turned to face him.
“You ticked off at me? For helping you?”
She studied his eyes. “No.” But the tone told him she was.
“You can always quit.”
“I’m not going to quit.” Her annoyance was replaced by defiance as she started for the stable door. “Let’s go.”
“You want to lead him from the left,” Jared called after her as he hung up the reins, positive now that she’d never been near a horse before today.
Tango wasn’t intimidating. He was an incredibly well-trained, twelve-year-old saddlebred, solid as a rock and not the least bit flighty or malicious. Any horseman, groom or stable hand would recognize that in an instant.
He came through the doorway to find Melissa sizing up Tango from about five feet away.
“Talk to him,” Jared advised. “Then give him a pat and undo the rope.”
“Is there a trick to it?” she asked, apparently having given up any pretext of knowing what she was doing. “Which part?”
Over her shoulder, she cut him an impatient glare, and he was forced to tamp down a smile.
“Pull the end.” He demonstrated, tugging the quick-release knot. Then he handed her the rope. “Stand on this side. Make sure he can see you. Don’t let the rope trail.” Jared got her positioned properly. He didn’t know how much she’d have to work between here and Seattle, but she stood a much better chance of avoiding starvation if she had a clue about what she was doing.