- Family Saga
A Santini’s Heart
Carlos Santini has seen the worst of war first hand. After leaving the Marines, he decided to open a therapy ranch. If he can’t fight anymore, he wants to help those who have served and who are still serving. Everything is fantastic, but for one little issue, his partner, Tia Mendoza. The woman is bossy, sarcastic, and so hot he can barely keep his thoughts straight around her.
Tia loves the work she does with Carlos. She thrives helping other veterans like her brother. Of course, working for a man like Carlos isn’t easy. He has a hot temper and he is so sexy when he loses it. She can’t help but test him, until the day she pushes him too far.
Carlos knows from that first kiss that Tia is the woman for him. But, before they can have that Santini HEA, they find the ranch they both love in danger from some very bad men. As the threats grow deadly, Carlos realizes that before he can claim his woman, he will have to do everything in his power to save not only the ranch they both love, but also Tia’s life.
Read an Excerpt
Carlos Santini looked out over the barren landscape of Arizona as it flew by. His mother was driving his truck, as if he couldn’t handle the simple task. Of course, he couldn’t blame her for taking over the controls. Since he’d left rehab, he had been a pain in the ass—as his father had pointed out the night before. Brando, his twin brother, had even texted him, and asked Carlos why he had his head up his ass. Carlos didn’t respond. Couldn’t actually. He was mad at the world, and he really didn’t know why.
“This is for the best,” his mother stated.
Carlos ground his teeth. The sentence was simple and self-explanatory. Worse, he knew she was right. It shamed him that he had been such a bastard to her. She had definitely raised him better. Just remembering how awful he had been pissed him off even more.
He glanced at her. She was the strongest woman he knew. Throughout his father’s military career, she had been the rock. Even with six kids, she was always there for each of them, like right now, when he was being an idgit.
The two words seemed to soften her. Her shoulders relaxed and she was no longer frowning. She flicked a glance at him.
“I just want you to try this out. I met the owners and, while it isn’t a formal hospital or clinic, I’ve seen some of the results. I think they could really help you.”
He nodded. “I’ll try.”
He was an adult. A man who should have his shit together. But since being wounded in Iraq, he’d been so mad at the world. He wanted to destroy everything around him. Instead of demonstrating outward hatred, he did stupid things. He’d started testing his limits in extreme sports. The last adventure had left him with a sprained ankle, bruised pride, and a mother who had had enough.
She pulled up to the front of a massive ranch house. To the left, he saw stalls of horses. Equine therapy. He sighed. He’d try anything to quit being so damned pissed.
He stepped out of the truck, and a man in a wheelchair came down the ramp. He wore his hair high and tight, signaling he was former military. There was a web of scars that covered his left arm, neck and cheek.
“Mrs. Santini,” he said, greeting his mother with a smile. “I see you brought Carlos.”
It was like his first day of school. He was waiting for them to ask if he brought his supplies and backpack. Fuck.
“Yes, this is Carlos. Carlos, this is Adrian Mendoza.”
“Nice to meet you,” Carlos said.
Adrian nodded. “Why don’t you go on into the house, Mrs. Santini? There are some cookies and drinks. I want to introduce Carlos to our best trainer.”
His mother looked at Carlos and he nodded. There was no reason to resist it now. He waited until she hurried up the stairs and into the house before he let loose a breath.
“Sucks, I know,” Adrian said.
He looked at the man. “What?”
“The hovering. Making you feel like you’re five years old and can’t take care of yourself. Drove me nuts after I got back.”
Carlos nodded, the tension between his shoulder blades relaxing a bit.
“Well, come on. I want you to meet Tia.”
He followed beside Adrian. “What service?”
“Marines,” Carlos said.
“Army for me. Hit by an IED just outside of Kabul.”
“Bagdad bombing, last June.”
“The one where the advisors got killed?”
“Yeah.” Then, he asked the one thing he had been afraid to. “Do you think this works? Tell me the truth.”
Adrian nodded as they neared the barn. “Saved my life. If it weren’t for Tia, I’m not sure I would be here today.”
He heard the horse before he saw the woman. The sound of thundering hooves filled the air. Carlos turned in the direction of the sound—and everything seemed to fade into the background. She was riding on a massive brown horse. A straw hat sat on top of her head, as she galloped across the pen. The horse came to a gate and effortlessly jumped over it. The horse and woman worked in harmony as if they shared one mind and body. The beauty of it took his breath away.
“Tia,” Adrian yelled out. The woman pulled the horse to a stop and smiled at them. After urging the horse with the reins, they made their way over to the fence. She was wearing the straw cowboy hat, a sleeveless green t-shirt, and jeans. Reddish-brown hair was pulled into a long thick braid.
“Hey there, Adrian. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Carlos Santini. Remember, we talked about him?”
She nodded and looked at Carlos. “Looks like you’re walking fine. Do you have any physical limitations?”
He shook his head.
“What was that?” she asked in a tone his mother had used the first time he cussed in front of her. Damn.
“No. No physical limitations.”
She smiled. “Good. Get your gear and then get your ass out here. We’ll get you ready to ride.”
Then she urged the horse to trot away.
He watched, trying to figure out just what he was feeling. Part of it was irritation. He didn’t like being dismissed that way. But…beneath that, it was attraction. Damn, he liked an ornery woman.
“She’s not very chatty, is she?”
Adrian chuckled. “Never has been. Most women are, but Tia...she never was a talker.”
He glanced at Adrian, then back at Tia. He noted the similar color of their eyes, the strong jawline…and the smile. They had the same smile.
“Yep, that’s my sister. Gear up, Santini. This is the first day of the rest of your life.”
The Monday after his brother’s wedding arrived too early for Carlos. He slept through is first alarm, then creaked—actually fucking creaked—when he got out of bed. Twenty minutes later, he was ready for a gallon of coffee.
He rubbed his hand over his face, as he walked down the hall to the kitchen, and almost ran into the wall.
“Fuck,” he said, stumbling into the kitchen.
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Tia asked.
Figures. Fucking Monday morning. He blinked and she came into better focus. When he felt as if his mouth had been turned inside out and used for a garbage bin, here she was standing there, her hair up in that lazy ponytail, a t-shirt tucked neatly into a pair of jeans. He knew the belt buckle was from one of her barrel racing wins. She probably wasn’t even wearing any make up. His brain wasn’t completely awake, so the first thing he thought of was kissing her. And then she would punch him.
“Oh, don’t be pissed at me, Santini. I made coffee.”
“At least that’s something,” he mumbled as he took the coffee cup she handed him and poured himself a full cup. “And let’s be honest. Your mouth can be worse than mine.”
Tia didn’t argue with that. One thing he could always count on from Tia was her honesty.
“I take it you partied hard at the most recent Santini wedding?”
He sighed and settled against the counter. Tia was never chatty, but she always seemed to pick the mornings he wasn’t in the mood to be nice to irritate him. Of course, that was most mornings. He was sure it was part of her twisted personality. She knew he would be tired today, so she showed up to screw with him.
“Yeah. It’s hard to believe another one of us has been shackled.”
“Hey, better him than you, right?”
He nodded. “You speak the truth.”
Carlos rolled his shoulders to loosen his upper back muscles. He wasn’t made for the window seat in coach.
Her sickly sweet tone told Carlos she was screwing with him again. Normally, he would rise to the bait, but he didn’t have it in him this morning.
“Anthony told me that flying back here was going to kick my ass, but I didn’t believe him.”
And he would be damned if he admitted it to the oldest Santini. Anthony already had a big head. Hell, he had been giving Carlos marriage advice last week. To the happy to be the confirmed bachelor, Anthony had told him to start looking to settle down.
He had felt as if he were in some kind of bizarro Santini world where all of his siblings, except Nando, had told him he was getting to be an old cranky bachelor.
“But, you got to spend a week in Hawaii with your family.”
“I know your mother raised you better than to grunt at me,” she said.
“She doesn’t have to put up with you.” She opened her mouth, but he pushed ahead. He hadn’t really had enough coffee to argue with her. Every argument left him a little aroused; and today, his ability to think with his big head wasn’t that great. “Yeah. Everyone was there, including Nando.”
“The elusive youngest Santini.”
“You’ll meet him soon. He hopes to stop by on his move back over.”
“He said something about stopping by on his way out to Dallas. That’s where he’s taking off back to Europe. He hadn’t really spent much time with the two Santinis on the island lately, so he took a little extra time.”
“Aren’t there more Santinis? Didn’t your cousin have one or two?”
He narrowed his eyes as he studied her. Totally not like her. It wasn’t that Tia was antisocial, but her life revolved around the ranch and the horses. She rarely asked about babies, brothers, or weddings.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. It was the one tell she had. She never showed her nerves, but when she moved around like she was this morning, Tia was trying to hide something.
Something was wrong. He’d been gone a week, and while Tia was honest, it didn’t mean she wouldn’t wait until he returned from Hawaii to tell him something bad. She valued family as much as he did, so she wouldn’t bother him unless it was life or death.
“You don’t talk this much. Ever. Did something happen you don’t want to tell me about?”
She shook her head. “No reason. Just wanted to see how everything went. I thought I would be nice and make you a pot of coffee to help you get back in the rhythm of things.”
He grunted again and took a sip of his coffee. The hot liquid slid down his throat and into his belly. Mornings were still chilly in Arizona this time of year, and Tia made a much better pot of coffee than he ever could.
“Of course, I could just take the pot of coffee and go.”
She chuckled and walked to the window. He watched her, but that was normal. From the moment they met, she had captured his attention, and now he felt almost like a stalker. The week he had spent away hadn’t helped. He’d had more than one of his new sister-in-law’s old dancing friends let him know they would be happy to celebrate the wedding with him.
He hadn’t been tempted. Not even a little.
She sighed, drawing his attention back to the present. This had been her house growing up, and he had often wondered if it was odd being a visitor in it. Of course, the woman never acted like a visitor. Like just barging in and making coffee. Damned good coffee at that.
As the caffeine started to get his blood working, he picked up his phone and saw he had tons of messages. They were mostly horrible and vulgar and from his siblings. Gotta love having brothers and a sister with the same sick sense of humor. Then, he saw the date and it hit him. Hell, it had been the reason he had come back early from the wedding; but, without a functioning brain, he hadn’t really registered her behavior.
It was the second anniversary of Adrian’s death.
“You didn’t have to come to work today. I told you that.”
Her spine straightened. “I couldn’t just ditch work. Besides, I wanted to make sure you made it back.”
“I texted you last night. I could handle your clients today.”
He expected her to lash out at him. Instead, when she glanced at him, he saw the apology for her curt answers. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Really.”
Then, she looked out the window again and sighed. If he hadn't been paying attention, he wouldn’t have heard it. It was one of the loneliest sounds Carlos had ever heard. The urge to pull her into his arms and comfort her almost overwhelmed him. Knowing he would get a knee to the balls was the one thing that stopped him. Tough as nails, Tia Mendoza had handled the death of her brother better than he knew he would have if he had lost one of his brothers.
She turned around. “I said I was fine, Santini. Don’t push your luck.”
Of course, she was prickly. Her pride was a point of contention between them. Hell, it was a point of contention with Tia and the rest of the world. If he didn’t have so much pride himself, he would probably get more irritated with her.
“Okay. We have any appointments today?”
She nodded. “I have a full day, as does Will,” she said. “Tomorrow is going to be busy, so you’ll have to help.”
“I can help today.”
She chuckled. “Aw, Santini, you’re barely standing, but it’s a nice thought. I’m going to go out and start getting ready.”
She brushed past him, hesitating at the door. “Thanks for thinking of Adrian.”
Then she was gone, the only evidence that she had been there was the freshly brewed coffee and the scent of honeysuckle in the air. It always seemed to cling to her skin and then linger in the air after she left.
He continued to sip his coffee, as he went to the window above the sink. He stood there, watching her. She walked with that sassy sway of hers, which spoke more to her confident stride than her sensuality. Still, he found it damned sexy. Stopping by her truck, she retrieved her hat, set it on her head, then started on her way again.
He watched her until she disappeared into the barn, then he turned away and went to his office. The week in Hawaii had been fantastic. His brother was happily married. It was still hard to believe that such a sweet woman would put up with Anthony. Also, seeing his twin brother with his pregnant wife. Hell, even Dante and his wife were expecting a baby soon. And here Carlos was, living on a ranch pining after a woman who wanted nothing to do with him outside of work.
Sitting down at his desk, he looked at the picture of Adrian and him taken by Tia just a month or so before a drunk driver had taken his friend’s life. Sometimes, life just doesn’t end up the way you think it will. Adrian had returned from war without the use of his legs, but thanks to his sister and their love of horses, he had found a place in the world. It just didn’t seem fair.
“Miss you, Adrian,” he said to the picture, then pushed aside his melancholy mood and turned on his computer. He had emails and work to handle before the patients arrived.* * *
Tia had just settled Starburst in the stall and was walking out of her paddock when she felt the weight of the day slam into her. It was six at night and her day had started over twelve hours ago. Normally, she thrived on it, but today…well, it was a bad day.
She had scheduled a lot to do today because she hadn’t wanted to think about it. All these days, all these months…now they had turned into years. As she stepped out of the barn, she turned to head to her pickup truck. Her place was just a mile away, still on the property. After Carlos had bought the ranch house from her, she hadn’t wanted to stay in the house. Too many memories. But, there had been a nice little cottage just a mile away, and it made for an easy commute.
“Tia,” Carlos called out. She turned and found him on the porch. He was dressed but left his head bare. All that thick, dark hair was screaming for a woman to slip her fingers through it. She could imagine doing that as she leaned up to take his mouth in a deep, wet---
She blinked and realized he was looking at her funny. Damn. Her face flushed. She just hoped she hadn’t said any of that out loud.
He shook his head. “Come on, I made dinner. You look like you need a little something to eat.” She didn’t want to eat. She wanted to go home, open a bottle of her favorite cabernet, and drink it while she took a bath. And, she wanted to eat cake right there in her bubble bath. It was a day to feel sorry for herself—and she did not like doing that in public. But, she knew there would be no fighting him on it.
As she walked closer, she felt her face flame. She had come into work early that morning for a couple of reasons. Yes, it was a day she needed to connect with Adrian, and one way to do that was through Carlos. The other had been embarrassing. She had missed him. She missed his frowns and being able to say things that drove him insane. Her fascination with annoying him had turned into an obsession of sorts.
“What did you make me?”
He frowned. There it was. Annoyance. God, how did a man look so damned sexy when he was mad? Somehow, Carlos did it. He was almost as sexy as he was this morning when he’d stumbled down the stairs. That sleepy voice and those bedroom eyes were hard to ignore.
“Steaks, although, I’m about to throw them on, so they haven’t been made. I know you like them to be just this side of mooing.”
She smiled. “I like a man who respects my need for red meat. I need to clean up.”
He nodded. “You know you still have a few things in the guest room.”
“Oh, yeah.” She had stayed over the first week they opened the ranch together. “I guess I could hop in the shower and clean up while you cook.”
His eyes narrowed and her nipples tightened. She knew he hated when she ordered him around, and she did it just to get a rise out of him. The main reason to do it was because he looked so damned sexy when he frowned. So, in other words, she irritated him because it turned her on.
She was sick.
“I’m not sure I like that tone.”
“What tone?” she asked.
“The one that makes it sound like you’re ordering me around.”
She stepped up on the porch, then sat on the bench to remove her boots. After she finished the task, she stood and smiled at him. “Aw, Santini, but I am ordering you around.”
He shook his head and opened the door. “From the moment I met you,” he grumbled. Normally she would retort, but tonight, she was just too damn mad and sad to fight.
“Give me ten minutes.”
She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her hair was plastered to her head; thanks to the hat she had been wearing—not to mention the large amount of sweat she had expended today. Dirt was on her shirt, pants, and her face. She was a freaking mess.
“Oh, hell. Give me fifteen.”
He chuckled. “Just come on out back when you’re done.”
Without a backward glance, she hurried up the stairs. It was a familiar path since she had grown up in the house, and she had made herself at home even after Carlos had moved in. Since he had never complained, she had always thought he was okay with it. They had a strange relationship, that was for sure. From the moment they met, there had been an undercurrent of irritation between them. It wasn’t that odd when she first started working with a patient. Carlos had been a pain in the ass when he’d first arrived, but when he got with the program, he became her star pupil, and had found his way in the world.
Usually, though, she formed a friendship with patients who had moved through the program. Not with Carlos. She had a friendship, but there was always something more there, something that kept them growling at each other all the time. For her, it was the attraction. From the moment she had met him, she had this thing for him. And he wasn’t even her type. She usually went for sweet, funny men, much like his twin Brando. Carlos…well, he rubbed her the wrong way. Of course, that one thought had her thinking about all kinds of other rubbing.
She closed her eyes and tried to push him out of her mind. Adrian would be embarrassed by her thoughts. Hell, she was. She didn’t want to think what her brother would have thought of them. Before she could get into the shower, her phone buzzed. When she saw the caller ID, she made a face. She loved her parents, but they tended to wallow on this date, especially her mother. She had no choice, so she answered.
“Tia, sweetie, how’re you doing today?”
“Okay. It was a long day, but I’ve been promised red meat.” She paused and waited for her mother to talk. When she didn’t say anything, Tia went on. “How are you doing today?”
“Fine. Both of us have been fine.”
Her parents had been born and raised in Arizona, but her father had a lot of family in Mexico and South America. His business had been pulling them down there more and more, so her parents had relocated. They had tried to talk her into it too, but she would never leave this place. Arizona was her home.
“I don’t know why you couldn’t come down here.”
She loved her mother, but she knew how to lay the guilt on. “I told you. Carlos had to be out of town for a wedding; although, he did come back yesterday because of…the anniversary.”
She hated calling it that, but that is exactly what it was. Something so evil and horrible should never be associated with something good like an anniversary.
“Good. I’m glad you’re not alone. I’m sorry we won’t be there for the benefit.”
Damn, she forgot about that. Thanks to Marcella Santini, they were having a benefit to help the ranch. The running of the ranch was covered, but they wanted to create scholarships for people who couldn’t afford extensive equine therapy. It wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t covered by insurance.
“It’s no problem, Mom. I wish you could make it, but I understand.”
She really didn’t, but it was best not to bring that up. There was no way to win a fight with Rachel Mendoza. She had been raised in a large Irish-American family, the oldest of six, and had always known how to win an argument. And besides, Tia was too tired today.
“Well, I guess I should let you go eat. I just wanted to check on you.”
“Okay. Love you, Mom.”
“Love you, Tia Marie.”
She clicked her phone off and closed her eyes. It took her a few moments before she felt steady enough to face the world again. She opened her eyes and saw the shimmer of tears. She blinked, forcing herself not to think about Adrian right at that moment. The need to just let the tears fall almost overwhelmed her. Every muscle in her body seemed to be screaming. She’d been up for over twelve hours, and most of it had been filled with hard work. Add in the depression that hit her today, and she was definitely in need of a good hard cry.
She could not fall apart. Not right now. That was for the bathtub, wine, and cake time she had scheduled later. She had only cried in front of Carlos once, and she would not do it again. She grabbed her clothes out of the guest room, then walked to the bathroom. After stripping out of her clothes, Tia started the shower and stepped under the hot water.
Her sore muscles screamed at first, but then they relaxed under the soothing heat. Grabbing the bar of soap and a washrag, she lathered it up. The musky, masculine scent filled the air around her. Oh, damn, it was his soap. The one she smelled on him day in and day out. And now she would smell of it—like him. It was bad enough she’d been having a lot of dreams about him lately. This was not going to help.
Knowing that a steak was waiting for her, she tried to pretend that the scent didn’t bother her at all. She would just think about it later. When she was in her bed alone.
She really did need some help.