What the Heart Wants – Exclusive Excerpt!

Chapter 1

My last relationship ended badly.

Well, truth be told, it ended quietly and with minimal drama. One day a few weeks ago, James called me as I was about to leave the barn and suggested we meet up for dinner. Once there, I noted he seemed uneasy, twice excusing himself to use the restroom. Then, just after our entrees were served, he told me how precious I was to him, that I would always hold a special place in his heart but he thought it best if we consciously uncoupled.

At that particular point in time, I had not heard about the Gwyneth Paltrow-Chris Martin split so didn’t have a working knowledge of the term. It sounded like something that happened to trains, as in the engineer uncoupled the last car to lighten the load. But as James continued explaining he had found his true soul mate and finally understood what it was to love someone with every fiber of his being, I quickly got the picture. He was dumping me.

Getting this kind of news was never good and no doubt that was why he’d chosen the clichéd but effective strategy of breaking up in public, in case things went south. I managed pretty well, though, all things considered. I cried some and asked him how long he and his soul mate had been loving each other with every fiber of their beings, which was my new code for having hot, monkey sex. Then I got up and left the restaurant with my heart, if not my dignity, still intact. I don’t care who you are. There’s no way to save your pride once you find out your significant other is harboring their very own significant other.

This was a man I had lived with for the past three years. I’d tried with everything I had to make our relationship work and yet, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself here. Let’s just say it’s not my first rodeo.

My last break up, excuse me, conscious uncoupling, was much more traumatic. There was no civilized sit-down meal at a restaurant. Oh no, last time I had the pleasure of actually viewing the…um…physical coupling of my then boyfriend and his new love interest before he dumped me. Though, in that case, there was certainly no need to sit down for The Talk as I was crystal clear on our relationship status by then.

I can admit, however, that in the aftermath, I might not have behaved beautifully. In fact, I might have thrown a lamp, poured a bottle of wine over the happy couple and written, “ Robert is a lying, cheating man-slut” across the wall above his bed using my Redder than Rubies lipstick. Still, it was an honest to goodness old-fashioned breakup. This conscious uncoupling is for the birds…and trains, of course.

When I left James at the restaurant that night, I dashed back to our house, actually his house, packed up all my essential bits and pieces and went to seek refuge at my brother, Derek’s, place. His wife, Suzanne, enveloped me in her arms, and I finally had a proper cry, letting out all my wounded pride and sadness for what would never be. She uncorked a bottle of wine, led me by the hand into the family room and settled us on the couch. As the wine flowed, I told her everything, including my new resolution.
“That’s it,” I’d said, “I’m done with relationships. I should have listened to David. You remember the first guy who dumped me, the one who told me I wasn’t an easy person to get attached to ? Well, he was obviously right about that.”

“Oh no, that’s not true.” She wrapped her arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. “You have such a good heart. You truly are a special person, but it seems to me you were never really in love with any of them. Being in a great relationship is about more than being in love with the idea of the relationship itself; you actually have to like the guy too. For what it’s worth, I think you simply haven’t found the right man. When you do, everything will be different, I promise.”

I smiled, the most pitiful one I could muster, and shook my head. “I’m not much for baseball but am pretty sure that it’s three strikes and you’re out.”
And that is what made this a bad break up. It forced me, once and for all, to accept the fact that I would probably never achieve a happy and committed relationship with a man. My future seemed bleak and hollow as I mourned the loss of one of the greatest human experiences. For who among us hasn’t longed to cherish and be cherished by one person above all others?

***

In reality, I know well enough succeeding in a relationship is a long shot for me. For the truth of the matter is I’m not really a people person. I don’t mean that I’m dysfunctional in the company of humans. I can make eye contact and do small talk with the best of them, but when it comes to really connecting in a deep and meaningful way, I don’t make the grade.

Animals, on the other hand, are a whole different story. When I’m with them, I’m completely engaged, completely filled up. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. In fact, the only time I feel truly myself is in the company of my four-legged friends. Unlike the guarded, generic interactions with members of my own kind, animals freely share their emotions with me.

This very moment, I’m cantering Prince across the short side of the indoor arena. The rain is pelting down outside, lashing onto the roof and against the windows. Yet, in my mind’s eye, I see palm trees and gentle waves lapping up onto a stretch of soft, sandy shore.

That’s Prince for you. He’s the sweetest, most relaxed soul in the barn. He and I always have wonderful training sessions together. Not every horse brings a picture to mind, but Prince and I connect especially well, so our relationship plays out with vivid scenes.

Thinking back, it took me years to understand that the animals themselves aren’t necessarily originating the specific images in my mind. Let’s face it, how can a horse possibly have any frame of reference for an idyllic beach scene? Instead, my subconscious seems to tap into their emotions and displays it in such a way that I understand the truth of the matter.

Sometimes, I’m actually given snippets of real life moments from the perspective of an individual animal. Though, in those cases, I most often see traumatic and abusive episodes. With this in mind, I don’t tend to hang around animal shelters or horse auctions for any length of time.

Putting aside the sad interactions, I can tell you that it is a heady experience to be so in tune with another being. With our emotional states melded so magnificently, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where I leave off and the animal begins. Prince flows like silk across the diagonal, and I marvel at the beautiful connection we’re sharing today.

Maggie pokes her head over the arena half-door, jolting me out of my self-inflicted philosophy session. “Just a heads up, the ship-in client pulled into the yard about ten minutes ago. You hadn’t forgotten, had you?” Her brown eyes dance with mischief.

I still celebrate the day Maggie and I met almost five years ago. At the time, my equestrian business had been much smaller. I wasn’t convinced I needed any help, but she slotted into my life in such a seamless way, immediately taking over the management of the barn. Soon I was bringing in more horses and able to expand my teaching. Now it seems impossible I’d ever functioned without her.

Though I would never actually admit to her that I have any special ability to communicate with the horses, she knows me well enough to suspect that Prince and I are involved in more than the normal training session.

“Yeah, yeah, we’re just finishing up.” At her bland look, I quickly amend my answer. “Okay, I’m not actually willing to go on record with this, but there’s a slight chance I might’ve lost track of the time. Not that it matters because that’s why I have you, isn’t it?”

“Just get in here already,” she smiles and offers Prince a mint. “Besides,” she adds in an undertone, “I think this lady’s gonna be high maintenance.”

“I thought the horse was owned by a man. Did he not come?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe.” She shrugs. “I think there was someone else in the truck, but they haven’t set foot in the barn yet.”

I dismount and rub Prince behind the ear, which is the very spot I happen to know he loves best. I send out waves of gratitude and joy, and he sighs and leans his head into the crook of my arm, radiating back images of pure contentment.

“Okay, you two, break it up. By the way, I put our visitor in the stall by the grooming area.” Maggie gently tugs Prince away from me and tows him down the aisle toward the wash stall where she can give him a refreshing shower to finish his cool down.

Calvin, my Whippet, has materialized and though he’s leaning against my leg in a casual sort of way, I’m not easily fooled. During the day, I often don’t see him for hours at a time, but without fail, he’s on hand the minute I’m experiencing some sort of emotional distress or when an animal in the vicinity is putting out anything that strikes him as disruptive energy. Clearly, the consult horse is making him uneasy.

As I walk toward the stall, I’m already feeling the discord pushing into my headspace. There’s plenty of fear and anger. Underneath, a terrible insecurity. I repeatedly see a vision of a large horse shrinking down to nothing.

I peer into the stall and there stands a stunning, black gelding with a white blaze down his face and four white stockings. Lots of chrome as they say in the horse world. He flings himself around in a circle, throws his considerable weight against the door and lifts his head, shrieking at an impressive volume.

“For God’s sake, Leo, shut up. Why can’t you just behave like a normal horse?” The woman’s voice cracks with impatience.

With my focus so completely fixed on the horse, I hadn’t noticed her standing off to the side of the stall. I turn to introduce myself…and for a moment…I’m mesmerized. This woman is beautiful, so beautiful she doesn’t look real. She’s tall and lean, her long, blonde hair appears like golden silk as it cascades around her face and down her back. And what a face it is. Her features are delicate, her skin shining with the luster of pearls, providing the perfect backdrop to sharp, green eyes. Eyes that are currently fixed on the horse.

“He’s such an arrogant, dominating jerk. Look at how he comes in here and tries to make everything about him.” She turns away. “I hope you live up to your reputation because this horse is a real piece of work.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “There are two sides to every story.”

She arches an eyebrow at me and sticks out her hand. “Katherine Carmichael. You must be Eleanor Roberts.”

I may not be able to read people all that well, but I would bet my firstborn that she never goes by Kathy or Kate. She seems like a full on Katherine. I don’t bother telling her that I prefer Elle. “Nice to meet you. And this is obviously Leo. What kind of problems are you having with him?”

She snorts. “Let me see, where shall I start? He was perfect when I began riding him four months ago, but now he just blows up for no reason.”

“What do you mean, blows up?”

“Well, I’ll be riding along and out of nowhere he’ll slam on the brakes and spin around and bolt off. There’s nothing I can do to stop him once he starts running. He spooks at practically everything, day after day, until I want to scream. And when he’s in one of his crazy moods, he’s impossible to handle on the ground. He’ll run right over you as if he forgets you’re standing there.”

I open the door to the stall and Calvin gives a low whine, pressing up against me. “Hey, I wouldn’t go in there right now. He’s definitely on the road to crazy town,” Katherine warns.
“It’ll be fine. I’ll just introduce myself.”

With Calvin still attached to my person, I ease into the stall and stand there, deep breathing, emptying my mind until I’m flooded with a sense of calm. Waves of fear and downright panic sweep toward me, but I imagine I’m enclosed in a bubble of soothing energy. Then I expand my bubble, the energy growing outwards until Leo has moved back and is standing against the far wall, snorting at me. Now it’s a waiting game.

I’m aware of Katherine in the background, her voice still an angry lash, but I’m so insulated within my own world that she barely registers. Calvin sighs and lies down in the shavings, curling up around my feet. Nothing happens for several minutes. Leo stays glued to the back of the stall, staring with wild, confused eyes. I do nothing but breathe. And then, finally, he takes his first step. He pokes out his nose, leaning as if straining to reach for a carrot, cautiously pushing his energy toward me. I allow him in. Taking the negative emotions, I visualize a sponge and see myself washing down his body, cleaning him of the dirty energy.

Without notice, his ears come forward and he walks across the stall and presses his nose against my shoulder. I still don’t move, though, giving him the time and space to absorb the calm oasis I’ve provided. Then it happens. The barriers are stripped away, his body relaxes, his breathing evens out, and he lowers his head and leans into me. I rub him all over, my hands working out any lingering tension while he stands in utter contentment, resting a hind leg and allowing his eyes to close.

When I turn back to Katherine, she’s not alone. The man standing at her side is her counterpart in every way; he’s tall, broad-shouldered, chiseled jaw, sculpted cheekbones, golden brown hair, and brilliant blue eyes. He looks like a made-to-order version of the ideal man. Except he’s scowling at me.

“I’m afraid we’re on a bit of a tight schedule, so perhaps we could get on with the riding evaluation,” he says in a mild enough manner. Still, the implication of wasted time is not entirely lost on me.

I step out of the stall, and for a brief moment, am awash in anger and impatience. My eyes swing back to Leo, fearing a relapse, but he stands at ease exactly where I left him. How weird. Calvin is blocking my path now, whining and looking at me with worried eyes. I lean down and give him a reassuring pat, but as I straighten and step around him, the tension takes hold.
Katherine comes forward and gestures to the man. “Eleanor, this is my boyfriend, Nicholas Sterling. He owns Leo.”

I’m dizzy now, my vision peppered with flashing lights, but I turn to him and extend my hand. “Nice to meet you,” I say, hoping that I sound altogether normal.

He smiles briefly, giving me a glimpse of very straight, very white teeth and then our hands meet. My body jolts slightly at the contact. I have an image of yellow and blue streaks surging through my veins and see synapses firing off at an alarming rate and then the water come. Gigantic, black, churning ocean waves, tossing me and dragging me down, down, down until there’s no breath left in my body.

***

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