Hope you enjoy.
MICHAELA BANCROFT DIDN’T HEAR HER SWORN enemy walking up behind her until it was too late.
“Working overtime?” Kirsten Redmond said.
Michaela whipped around in her desk chair, where she’d been sitting for thirty minutes going over finances. She immediately stood up. “What do you want, Kirsten?”
“I know you received some very important papers early this afternoon from our attorney, and I’d like them signed, sealed, and delivered as soon as possible, so that Brad and I can get on with our lives.”
Michaela brushed a patch of dirt off her Wrangler Jeans. She’d been working with the horses and out in the barn all day and knew that her appearance wasn’t remotely close to Miss Glamour Puss’s here. The thought caused a flutter of discomfort. “You amaze me. What, do you have your little hair-sprayed, fake-bake, plastic Barbie doll-looking friends spying on me? Because it truly is a wonder how you know every little detail of my life. Or maybe you’re screwing the mailman, too. Does his wife know? What, did he give you a call as soon as he delivered the papers?” She hated sounding so bitchy. God, why couldn’t she just turn her back and ignore Kirsten?
“You’re such a bitch.”
That was why. Not that she was a bitch, but Kirsten and Brad had sort of pushed her into that category and she was living up to it, at least at that moment. “Yeah, well, it takes one to know one. Now, be a good girl and run along and play dress up or paint-your-nails with your girlfriends. Okay?”
“At least I have friends.”
“Oh, that hurt. And, you probably have some real quality conversations with them. You know, about important subjects like what color hat and boots you’ll wear to this year’s Miss Rodeo Pageant. C’mon, Kirsten, give up the dream. You’re a bit too old for the crown and from what I know of rodeo queens, they have a lot more class, know how to ride a horse, and have a brain. Oh yeah, and they’re what, usually about five years younger than you are?”
Kirsten frowned. “I was Miss Rodeo of Indio, you know.”
“Yeah, five years ago. I think I do remember. Wasn’t there some article about the Coachilla Valley being desperate for entrants?” Michaela smiled sweetly, knowing she was getting the best of Kirsten.
Kirsten stomped her foot. “At least I’ve got Brad and you don’t, and as soon as you get those papers taken care of we can start planning our future and I can start thinking about what color to paint our nursery. We want lots of children.”
“I feel sorry for those kids.” Michaela’s stomach tightened and she clenched her fists.
“Just sign the papers.”
“Just go away. Bye, bye.” She waved at her. “Some of us have important things to do.”
Kirsten stood her ground, planting her light pink Justin boots into the dirt. Her long blonde hair hung loose down her back, and her overly made-up face caused her to look aged and brittle for someone who couldn’t be over twenty-five. She shoved her hands into her plastered-on jeans, belted in by a bright silver belt buckle— her Miss Rodeo Indio silver belt buckle.
“Listen. I’ve asked you to leave nicely. I don’t have time for your games. Trust me, I don’t want Brad within fifty feet of me. Why you feel the need to annoy me like this is very confusing. I’ve moved on.”
“Great, so you’ll sign the papers?”
Michaela sighed and forced a smile. “The papers. Yeah, well see, those divorce papers aren’t your concern. It’s really between Brad and me.”
“Not really. We want to get married. Brad just got a new truck. A Ford F-350. It has a backseat. We got the backseat for when we start having babies. And, trust me, it won’t be long.”
Anger rose from Michaela’s gut and rushed straight to her brain. “As I told you, I don’t want Brad back at all. Here’s the problem, though: Brad owes me a lot of money from debts incurred by him, and I want that money. When I get it, I will sign the papers. Maybe he should think about returning the truck.”
“I bought the truck. And, Brad would be able to pay you off on your debt if your uncle hadn’t fired him.”
“That debt is our debt, not just mine. And, as for my uncle Lou firing Brad, that was cut and dry: Brad wasn’t showing up for work even before Lou discovered what was going on between you two, but once he did and showed me the proof, Brad never even phoned Lou. I don’t think my uncle had much of a choice, other than to let him go.”
“Whatever. You are so gonna be s.o.l. if you don’t make a move quick and sign the paperwork.” Kirsten did the hair flick thing, a sign of her disdain for Michaela.
All it did was make Michaela want to laugh. “Let me give it to you in simple speak. Brad is an adulterer, so I will sue him to my heart’s content until he pays me back every dime, and something tells me that the judge is going to be on my side. Or, how about this? I just won’t sign the papers ever and all those babies you’re talking about having will automatically have a stepmommy.”
“You can’t do that!” Kirsten whined.
“Watch me.” Michaela was aware that she really couldn’t. After all, it was California, and she knew she only had thirty days to sign the papers or contest the decree before she defaulted. She was banking on Little Miss Hot Pants not being exactly well-versed in California state divorce law. But, surely Brad’s lawyer was, and no matter how Michaela tried to play it, she’d likely be forced to sign those papers. She also knew that she would probably have to sue Brad for what he owed her in medical bills, and rumor had it he was going to file bankruptcy, which meant that she wouldn’t ever see a penny from him. The lawyer fees alone in taking Brad to court would put her out of business. She knew Brad was living off Kirsten, so why not sign the papers and be free of him, her, and the whole mess? Because they’d stuck it to her and she wasn’t about to let them get the best of her. Not yet, anyway.
Kirsten turned on her heel in a huff and marched out. Michaela walked out of her office and peered outside the breezeway, watching Kirsten roar away in her red convertible Mustang GT, kicking up dust all the way along Michaela’s drive. Talk about trouble. Michaela shook her head and let out a long sigh. What she’d ever seen in Brad Warren was beyond her, because anyone who could fall for a tramp like Kirsten was not a man she would ever want to be involved with. But she had been, and as Mom always liked to spout the age-old adage, “You made your bed,” now she’d have to lie in it.
She turned and headed back to the barn to say her good-nights to all the horses down the row. She stopped at the end— at Leo’s stall. Her ten-month-old colt glanced out, then returned to his dinner. Michaela had big plans for the little guy. She’d nurtured him from the night he’d been born last March and for a time it had been touch and go. She hadn’t known if he’d make it . . .
* * *
THE EARLY SPRING NIGHT STILL HAD A CHILL IN the air. Michaela held a thermos of coffee in her hand as she curled up on a cot inside her office, checking on her mare every hour or so and listening intently for any sounds that might echo down the breezeway, alerting her that the time had come. Cocoa, her brown Lab, lay at her feet, snoring. Michaela had put a blanket over the aging dog. Usually by this time of night the two of them would be sound asleep in the house.
Her mother, after calling earlier, stopped by and brought her some homemade chicken noodle soup and coffee, aware that Michaela would be keeping vigil into the wee hours. It didn’t matter how many foals Michaela had seen born in her thirty-two years. It never ceased to amaze her.
Around 1 A.M., as she drifted off to sleep, a thud woke her. She hurried into the stall. The mare eyed her from her straw bed.
Michaela went inside and knelt down beside her, stroking her face. “I know, girl. It’s okay. You’re all right. You’re all right.”
Little Bit let out a groan and lifted her head, groaned again, and laid it back down.
“Easy, easy. You’re doing good. Good girl.”
The mare’s water broke and wet her underside. This was it. Michaela went around to Little Bit’s backside. The front hooves came first, and then the long spindly legs, revealing black legs like Little Bit’s. Next, a tiny face with a small star on it poked through, and with one final push the foal slid out, slippery and covered in the birthing sac, which with Michaela’s assistance came right off. She took a hand towel from her jacket pocket and wiped the foal’s nostrils and eyes. The foal struggled, laid back down and struggled again. Michaela wiped the tears from her face. The miracle of life.
Little Bit groaned again and Michaela noticed that she was having a hard time lifting her head to look at her baby. She watched for seconds before she realized what was happening with her mare. A lot of blood— everywhere. Oh God. Wait! This was all wrong. Oh God, no! She was hemorrhaging. Somehow she’d been torn inside during the birth. Michaela pulled her cell from her coat pocket and called Ethan Slater, her vet— and longtime friend. Growing up around horses and being a rancher’s daughter, she knew that there wasn’t a whole lot she could do, and it was unlikely the vet could either. She was losing too much blood, too fast to get her into surgery, and Michaela cried as she gently stroked Little Bit’s face, willing her to live and in some way hoping she was alleviating any pain the old girl felt.
Ethan pulled in fifteen minutes later. But it was too late. Little Bit had died, quietly bleeding out as Michaela held her and whispered to her. When he opened the stall door, he reached his hand out to Michaela and she took it. He pulled her up and hugged her. “I’m sorry, kid. I’m really sorry.” He let go after a minute and looked at her with his intense green eyes. “We’ve got work to do now. She’s gone, but he has a chance. C’mon. Go to the truck and in the right side of my vet box are packages of Foalac. You’ll find a bottle there, too. Get them out and follow the mixing directions. I’m going to move him, so you don’t have to see her like this. Okay? Now, go unlock one of the open stalls and slide the door for me.”
Michaela knew that the timeline they had to get the colt to feed was about one to two hours, but the sooner they could get a grip on things the better, just in case there were further complications where he was concerned. She was so grateful for Ethan’s no-nonsense, methodical ways. She wanted to fall apart. She loved that mare. Hell. Thank god, Ethan knew exactly how to handle the situation and her.
She nodded and followed his orders, leaving the stall as he went to pick up the colt, who weighed about seventy pounds. Michaela had lost animals before, but the pain was always just as intense. But she’d never lost a mare this way, and of all her horses, she’d had a real connection with Little Bit. She had an inside joke with herself about how she’d wished for years she was more like her mare, who had no problem at all getting pregnant.
She took the supplemental food and mixed it as Ethan tended to the colt. She brought it back in the large bottle he’d told her to grab. Ethan asked her to set it to the side. “Let’s get him up to drink. We don’t want him choking.” Together they helped the colt get to his feet. Michaela grabbed the bottle and handed it to Ethan, who took it from her and stuck it into the colt’s mouth, teasing him a bit at first with it, allowing him to get used to the feeling of the rubber nipple. The baby gummed it, but soon his pink fleshy tongue wrapped around it, and as sucking noises escaped from his mouth, Michaela felt her body relax. She stood on the other side of the colt in case he lost his balance on still-wobbly legs. That night, she resolved to see him through, to see him grow strong and healthy. She’d named him Peppy Leo after his great-grandsire Mr. San Peppy and great-great-grandsire Leo San, both of whom had been huge cutting horse champions, and because her colt was as strong as a lion. And he had survived.
* * *
“GOOD NIGHT, CHAMP,” MICHAELA SAID TO HIM. She turned out the breezeway lights and headed toward the house, knowing that in a little more than two years her colt would indeed be a champion. As resolved as she’d been to save him that night ten months earlier, she was just as committed to her vision for him— and herself— now. Kirsten might have taken Brad from her, and the bank might come after her, and who knew what else might happen, but no one could steal her dream from her— the dream she knew would become a reality.
MICHAELA OPENED THE BACK DOOR TO HER ranch-style house, which led into the laundry room. The house, located in Indio, California, amid the Coachella Valley, had been built in the early 80’s and was badly in need of an update. Michaela and Brad had bought it with the horse facilities in place a couple of years after they were married, almost a decade ago. Her plans to bring it into the twenty-first century would have to wait until the debts were paid off.
She breathed in deeply. The smell of fabric softener and detergent filled the air. Unbelievable. Camden had actually been doing laundry. Huh. Surprise, surprise. She had come to believe that Camden simply went through clothes until she didn’t have any left and then went out and bought more.
Michaela pulled her boots off, not wanting to track mud through the house. Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” blared from the family room. God, why that song?
A little farther away the blender in the kitchen whirled at full throttle, probably mixing the contents of a powerful concoction— tequila, lime-aid, and more tequila. Michaela shook her head as she headed to her room to shower.
Cocoa, who recently had made it to her tenth birthday, lifted her head off her doggie bed and wagged her tail. Michaela bent down and patted the dog’s head. “Hey you, you lazy girl. I see how it is, as soon as the sun goes down you hightail it back inside. By the looks of it, I’d say Miss Camden has been letting you dig into the doggie treats again. I’m going to have to scold her.” Cocoa just kept on wagging her tail.
Michaela checked her voice mail:
“Hi, sweetpea, it’s Uncle Lou. Give me a call back. I was wondering if we could have breakfast in the morning.” She smiled. Uncle Lou was definitely one of her most favorite people.
But the smile faded when the next message came on. “Michaela, it’s Kirsten. You better sign those papers, or else we’re gonna have big problems.”
Michaela flipped a finger at the machine. Why did she let that little hooker get to her? “Ooh look at me, I have fake boobs, collagen lips, lipo on my ass, and I’m Miss Rodeo America,” she said out loud, her head bobbing from side to side in an exaggerated fashion.
“News to me.”
Michaela spun around to see her best friend and newly acquired roommate, Camden standing, in the doorway, margarita in hand. She tossed back her latest colored locks— flame red— and held out a glass of the concoction. “I gotta tell you that if those are fake boobs, your plastic surgeon did a shitty job, because girlfriend, you’re about a B cup. And, for God’s sakes who would pay five thou for a measly B cup?”
They both laughed.
“Let me guess: The evil babe who the shithead robbed from the cradle has been bugging you again.”
Camden held out the margarita. “Drink on me?”
“Nah. Thanks, though. It’s been a rough day. The evil babe came by and gave me a piece of her mind. I don’t think a margarita will cure this girl’s blues.”
“No. But a shot will, and I am not taking no for an answer. Now, c’mon.” Camden grabbed her hand.
“I need a shower.”
“Ten minutes more won’t hurt. If I can stand you smelling like a horse, then you can wait. Live a little, and don’t let this stuff get you down. You’ll be old before you know it and then you’ll be dead and you’ll be saying, ‘Damn I should have had more tequila shots with my best friend.’ ”
She held up her hands, palms out. “Fine, I give up. I know better than to argue with you. Besides, maybe you do have a point.” She followed Camden into the kitchen. “But don’t you have a date with Kevin tonight?”
“Nope. He’s taking clients to dinner. I’ll be seeing him tomorrow. He’s taking the day off and we’re going to spend it together.” Michaela frowned, and Camden added, “I know you don’t care for him.”
“It’s not that. I don’t know him that well, really. I just didn’t like that he was kind of a jerk to my uncle when he wouldn’t sell him his property.”
“He can be pushy, I admit that, but he backed off when Lou told him he wasn’t interested. He’s moved on to other projects.”
“I know, but be careful, okay? Get to know this one a bit better than the last one before he slips a ring on your finger.” Michaela had a right to be concerned that her friend would rush into another relationship. Her recent split from her third husband, Charlie Dawson— a big-time financial advisor— had left her in a lurch. Seems Charlie knew exactly how to work the financials to his benefit and Camden was out on her butt and wound up at Michaela’s front door needing a place to stay, until she could find a place of her own to rent or buy. That had been six months ago, and as far as Michaela knew, Camden hadn’t done any house shopping as of yet, only man hunting. She kept insisting to Michaela that Charlie would settle with her, because she hadn’t signed a prenup, and then she’d get into a new house. But Michaela really didn’t care. She enjoyed her friend’s company and wild ways, so far removed from her own behavior, but entertaining nonetheless.
“What, you afraid you’re gonna be stuck with me forever? That you’ll have to install a revolving door for your divorcée friend? Won’t happen, worrywart. I’m gonna find me a real man who can take good care of me and me of him. Who knows, it might be Kevin, it might not.” She shrugged. “Now, let’s have that drink.”
Ten minutes turned into twenty and before long an hour had passed and Michaela had filled up on two of Camden’s cure-alls, though refusing to down the shot. She didn’t think she could handle the booze straight. “You know that SOB has a new truck,” Michaela said. “A Ford F-350.” She shook her head. “Kirsten tried to tell me that she bought him the truck. Please. Does it say sucker somewhere on my forehead? Jerk probably hid some money away that I didn’t know about— maybe he hid some cash in a safety deposit box or under the mattress, or better yet under, his girlfriend’s mattress. He’s such a jerk, and that little trophy he hangs out with is a piece of work.” Oh boy, the alcohol was certainly going to her head.
“You know.” Camden pointed at her. “It’s not like you aren’t gorgeous. I don’t know why you always say she’s the trophy. She’s no prize. Brad lost the prize and I bet he knows it. Look at you. Oh, and I might add that you have a brain, too. A commodity Kirsten definitely lacks.”
They were sitting on the couch in the family room. Camden took her by the shoulders and turned her to face the mirrored wall behind them. “Just look at you.”
“Oh yeah, look at me. Real prize. I’ve got horse crap on my jeans, and my hair is pasted to my head from sweat. Yep. I’m a real prize.”
“Shut up.” Camden stood with her empty margarita glass. “Want another?”
“Nope. I think I’ve had enough.”
As her friend walked into the kitchen to pour herself a refill, Michaela turned back to the mirror. She pulled the rubber band from her blond hair, letting it down, and studied her reflection. Twenty-two was ages ago; well, ten years to be exact. Although her boobs were small, they were still perky, and her hair wasn’t bleached blond like a Playboy model— or Kirsten the rodeo queen— more of a sandy color, long and thick, too. That was a good thing. But, those damn freckles that the sun liked to exaggerate still gave her that “I’m the cute girl next door” look. At least her eyes were something; she really liked her eyes. They were nice— warm, hazel, garnered-lots-of-compliments eyes. Who needed fake anything, anyway? Botox was rat poison! And plastic boobs could rupture. Yep, natural worked just fine. A little more sunscreen and a Miracle Bra, maybe, but the other stuff— forget it, and who could afford it anyway? Damn if she could.
Michaela moved to a barstool at the counter, watching Camden pour some more margarita.
“It would be kind of fun to do something nasty to him, wouldn’t it?” Camden asked.
“Who? Brad?” Michaela shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose it would. I’d love to do something to that stupid new truck of his. I’m sure he loves the thing.”
“Ooh, like key it?”
Michaela gave her a look. “Nasty and mean are two different things. I don’t know if I could go that far.”
“You’re a prude.”
“Are you calling me a goody two-shoes?”
“If the shoe fits.”
“Shut up. Pour me one more of those. Tell you what. Since we’re in no shape to drive, I’ll carry out a dirty deed to give Brad a nightmare to contend with.” Camden rubbed her hands together. “On one condition.” Michaela shot her index finger up.
“This is going to be good, isn’t it?”
“We’ve gotta do this on horseback.”
“Oh, sister, you expect a lot from a friend. You want me to get up on one of those filthy beasts?”
“Um, Camden, I doubt it would be the first filthy beast you’ve gotten up on top of.”
Camden started to protest, then said, “Okay, you may have a point. So, you’re willing to take a chance on putting my drunk ass on one of those animals and venture out in the dark?”
“Yep. Besides, I know you. You’re barely buzzed. Me, on the other hand . . . phew, you make a strong drink. I’ll put you on Booger. He’s push button. I’d put a baby on him and trust him.”
“Great. I get to ride a horse named Booger. The fact that I am even doing this is so not me.”
“Who knows, you may like it.”
They took their drinks out to the barn, where Michaela saddled up the horses. “Okay now, come here and give me your left foot.” She clasped her hands together.
“Put your foot in the stirrup here. Grab the saddle horn here with your left hand, and the back of the seat of the saddle with your right hand and step up in the stirrup and swing your right leg over the rear end of the horse and sit in the saddle.”
“God, Michaela, I had no idea I’d have to do a flipping gymnastic stunt.”
“Aren’t you the girl always bragging about her flexibility?”
Camden sighed. “Fine. Let’s do this before I change my mind.” Michaela got next to her and helped to give her a boost up. Camden squealed as she swung her leg over and nearly came off on the other side. Michaela helped her get adjusted. “Oh shit, shit, shit. Get me off. Get me off now!”
“No. Now trust me. Hang on. That’s all you have to do. Hang on.”
“No shit, Dick Tracy, you think I’m about to let go?”
Michaela grabbed a trash bag filled with the contents they needed and put them inside a saddlebag. The saddle-bags tied on, Michaela put her left foot in the stirrup and swung her right leg over the mare.
“Showoff,” Camden muttered.
They headed over to Brad and Kirsten’s place, which was only a couple of miles away. It took some time because Michaela had to keep in mind that Camden hadn’t been on a horse more than three or four times in her life. Every time she glanced back to see how she was doing, she could see by the light of the full moon that Camden wore a mask of fear. She tried to make small talk, but Camden was hanging onto poor Booger for dear life. Her hands were both around the reins and saddle horn so tight and from what she could tell it also looked like Camden had poor Booger’s girth or mid-section in a vice. It was lucky Booger was exactly what she’d said he was— one mellow fellow— because a horse who wasn’t so well broke would have been having a fit with Camden on board.
The lights were on inside Kirsten’s house. Was that laughter? Yes it was. Oh, how nice for them. They were having a grand old time.
Kirsten’s place was a modest ranch-style home with a few acres of land. There were a couple of horses out in a small pasture. One whinnied at the sight of newcomers.
“Shhh. Shut up,” Camden whispered.
Michaela pulled slightly on Macey, her mare’s, reins. The mare stopped, as did Booger. “Uh, Cam, they don’t understand shut up. Besides, horses whinny at times. They won’t think anything of it, even if they can hear what’s going on out here. Sounds to me like they’re having a party.”
“Hmmm. I think you’re right. Well, good, because we are the party crashers. Still want to go though with it?”
Someone inside cranked the stereo up another notch. It was playing Faith Hill and Tim McGraw singing “It’s Your Love.” Michaela peered through the front window and saw what looked to be Brad and Kirsten dancing. He had never danced with her. Jerk. “Oh yeah, I am so ready.” Michaela dismounted and led Macey over to a hitching post next to the pasture. The other horses trotted over. The same noisemaker let out another “How do you do,” and Michaela realized that time could be of the essence if he didn’t pipe down. After enough whinnies someone would surely take a peek, and she wanted to be certain they were long gone before that happened. She wrapped Macey’s reins around the post, and walked over to Camden.
“Okay, you always want to get on and off on the left side, so bring your right foot out and back around, then kick your left foot out of the stirrup— kind of lean over the saddle with your body and basically step down and off.”
Camden did as instructed and landed on her butt. “Like that?” she asked, a smirk on her face.
“Not quite. You’ll have a second shot at it later though, when we get back home. Now come on, get off your ass. We’ve got a treasure for Brad.”
Michaela retrieved the trash bag and the two of them, quietly and quickly, all the while trying not to giggle at their immature antics, snuck up on Brad’s brand-new red Ford F-350. She opened the driver’s side door, knowing the moron wouldn’t have locked it, sliced open the bag with her pocketknife, and shoved the contents under his seat. Boy, was it was going to be a real pain getting it cleaned out. “Nothing like the aroma of fresh manure to take away from that new car smell.”
She tossed the bag down and grabbed Camden’s hand as they ran back to their horses. She quickly boosted her friend up, who this time managed much better, and then she got back up on Macey. They rode off, cracking up the whole way home, making Camden loosen up, and actually enjoy riding Booger. Their laughter didn’t stop even after they’d put the horses away, got cleaned up, and wound up on the couch with a bag of popcorn in front of the boob tube. “What I wouldn’t give to see the look on his face.”
“Oh God, I’d love to see him get in that truck and start smelling the smell and then he’ll have to get out and when he looks under the seat, he’s gonna die,” Camden said.
This put them into another fit of gut-wrenching laughter. Yes, as childish as it had been, it did feel really, really good. Facts were that Brad had left for the much younger Kirsten after Michaela had spent the last few years trying to get pregnant. With Brad’s support they’d sought out fertility specialists and Michaela had given herself shots daily in the abdomen in hopes of conceiving. She’d gone through the expensive in vitro process twice, and the day she was prepared to go through it again for the third time, Brad’s infidelities had been brought to light. Now, there were a stack of bills from doctors on her desk and every time she looked at them, she couldn’t help but be reminded of what Brad had done to her. Worse than sticking her with the bills, was his total deceit. But tonight was the first time she didn’t feel a ton of anger toward her ex. Funny how a stupid teenage-type prank made her feel a bit better.
Michaela finally made it off the couch and into the shower she hadn’t taken all evening. Then, finding Camden sound asleep on the sofa, Cocoa curled up on the floor next to her. Michaela decided to leave the two of them there, covering Camden with a blanket and patting her old dog on her head a good night. As she settled into bed, exhausted, her phone rang. She looked at the clock on her nightstand: a little after eleven. Her stomach sank. What if it was Brad or Kirsten and they’d seen her and Camden? No, caller ID said that it was her uncle.
“Hi, Uncle Lou.”
“Hi. I didn’t hear back from you tonight. Did you get my message? I thought I’d better check in and make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine. I did get your message. Sorry. I was a little busy.”
“No problem, sweet pea. I was only concerned because I know that you’ve had some rough times this past year.”
“Thanks. But I’m fine. Really. In fact, I’m doing, uh, really well.” She loved the way he’d called her sweet pea ever since she could remember. Her father always called her pumpkin, and that made her feel good, too, but Daddy also knew how to spank and send her to her room, or ground her when she needed it. She loved him for his sense of fairness. But Uncle Lou was the spoiler. He’d never had any kids of his own, so spoiling Michaela was one of his favorite things. “You want to grab breakfast in the morning with me, right?”
“I do. There are some things I need to talk about with you.” He cleared his throat.
“Uncle Lou? Are you okay? You sound . . . I don’t know. Tired?”
“I’m fine. Working a lot, that’s all. I’m having a hard time unwinding these days for some reason. I’m getting old, and riding the animals every day is starting to wear on me.”
“You are not getting old,” she said. “Sixty-one is a spring chicken.”
They both laughed. “I don’t know about that. I’m feeling like a cooked goose. You get to bed now, and I’ll see you about seven-thirty over at The Dakota House.”
“Ooh, sounds good.” Her stomach rumbled just thinking about the yummy breakfasts The Dakota House specialized in, especially considering that all she’d had tonight was a liquid diet. “I can’t wait. Sleep well.”
“You too, sweet pea.”
Michaela hung up the phone. Something in Uncle Lou’s voice bothered her. What was it? The sound of exhaustion? At first she thought maybe that was it, but, no. Resignation? Maybe. Defeat? Yeah, it did sound like that, but about what? She yawned. Whatever was eating at Uncle Lou, she resolved to get to the bottom of it tomorrow over a ham and cheese omelet.
THE NEXT DAY MICHAELA ROSE EARLY AND HANDLED all of her morning chores before going to meet her uncle for breakfast. She suffered a bit of a headache from last night’s fun, but it didn’t take long to wear off as she went about feeding the horses and cleaning out the stalls.
Leo came up and nudged her while she changed his bedding, replacing the day-old shavings that had begun to smell like urine with fresh ones that made the air smell like sawdust. “Hi, you,” she said. “What’s wrong? You’re not hungry this morning? You want to play?” She rubbed him on top of his forelock— the piece of mane hanging between his ears and down onto his face. He was such a beautiful animal— bay in color, a dark reddish brown with jet-black stockings going up past his knees, and an almost black mane and tail. He had a smidge of a star, almost like a crescent moon on his face, and his large brown eyes reflected an intelligence Michaela knew was indicative of a winner.
Leo turned back toward his food. She finished up his stall, and went into the office to see what was on tap for the day, after breakfast with Uncle Lou. It looked as if the vet was scheduled to come out and do some routine checks. She wondered if it would be Ethan or his partner. Had Ethan returned from his rafting trip? He’d suddenly taken off over two weeks ago without telling her he was leaving, and she’d been angry with him for it since. Ethan had been staying at her uncle Lou’s place for a few months because his fiancé, Summer MacTavish, had broken off their engagement the night before their wedding. After Ethan left on his sudden trip, Michaela’s mother mentioned to her that she’d heard he and Lou had had an argument. Michaela asked her uncle about it, but he wouldn’t say much, just that they’d had a difference of opinion. It had bugged her since her mother had told her, and she planned to ask him about it if he was back today. She couldn’t help but wonder if the argument had been over Summer herself, because Summer was Uncle Lou’s accountant. And frankly, Michaela was a bit surprised that Lou had kept Summer working for him. Especially considering the way Summer left Ethan. Lou had been close with Ethan since Ethan was a kid, and Michaela figured that it probably hurt her friend that the man who really had been the closest thing to a father Ethan had ever known had kept Summer on.
After doing her chores she checked the clock: past seven. Time to go and meet her uncle. Camden wasn’t on the couch when she went back inside to change. She must have moved in the middle of the night and made her way to her bed. She decided not to bother her. Camden drank twice as much than Michaela had last night and would probably feel much more the worse for wear this morning.
She beat Uncle Lou to The Dakota House and ordered a cup of coffee. The place smelled so good— a mixture of cinnamon, coffee, and bacon filled the air. She melted back into the vinyl booth and watched people come and go from the restaurant, which was decorated with various Indian “artifacts.” Twenty minutes later she started to fidget as there was no sign of her uncle. It wasn’t like him to keep her, or anyone for that matter, waiting.
She dialed his cell phone. It went straight to voice mail. She called the house phone. No answer, only a machine. She waited another fifteen minutes and tried again. Same thing. This was just plain screwy. She paid for her coffee and decided to drive over to her uncle’s place to see what was up. He couldn’t have forgotten. But maybe he’d simply slept in after his late night. It wasn’t like him, but that tone in his voice last night hadn’t sounded like him either. Had he been drinking? No. He hadn’t come off like that. Granted, he liked a drink in the evening, but he was not known to booze it up.
A few minutes later she pulled into the luxury-style Diamond Bar Z, Lou and Cynthia’s ranch. There wasn’t much activity. Usually Dwayne, their assistant trainer, or Dwayne’s cousin Sam, who also helped train, would be out working horses, and their ranch hand Bean— his nickname, because he was as skinny and lanky as a green bean— might be around. That was doubtful though, as Bean was notorious for being late. He was a bit slow. As a kid he’d fallen off a horse onto a rock and suffered a brain injury. Lou had taken him in years ago and given him a job.
Lou’s truck was there. Cynthia’s Mercedes wasn’t. Strange. The big truck and trailer were both gone. Then Michaela remembered that Dwayne and Sam were probably hauling horses out to Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo. If she remembered correctly Uncle Lou said they were planning on pulling out for the rodeo yesterday, around noon. Dwayne competed in calf roping. Her uncle used to be involved in team roping, but with age had slowed down and now busied himself with the training and his responsibilities as the breeding manager. Michaela had made plans to trek over and see the rodeo over the weekend. Dwayne had given her free tickets, which were hard to come by, and Camden, who was going with her, had some connections at The Bellagio, so they were set with a nice room at a great rate. Michaela liked to watch the events; her friend liked to watch the cowboys. It was sure to be an entertaining weekend.
She got out of the truck and was greeted by her uncle’s golden retriever, Barn Dog. “Hey, boy. Where is everyone?” She patted the dog, which licked her hand. “Some help you are.” She laughed. “What’s this? Paint?” She probed Barn Dog’s fur near his collar. Maybe creosote. Lou used it to keep some of the horses from chewing on the wood pasture fence.
She headed toward the barn expecting to find her uncle there. Maybe one of the horses was sick. “Uncle Lou?” Her voice echoed through the breezeway. No Lou, but she did get a few whinnies as horses popped their heads out. None of them were eating. She looked at her watch. After eight. They hadn’t been fed? Lou always fed them. Even though he had hired help, it was something he’d done for years. “Lou? It’s me, Mickey.”
She heard Loco pawing the ground in the last stall. Uncle Lou kept his multichampion cutting stallion a few stalls away from the other animals. Although a good stallion, he was still a stud, and he did have a mind of his own. A gorgeous blue roan in color, Loco came from great bloodlines and had earned almost almost three hundred thousand dollars in winnings. The horse was truly her uncle’s joy in life.
“Hi, big guy,” she said as she approached the stall. He lifted his head and snorted, his eyes wild. “Hey. What’s wrong?” He was acting really off. His coat gleamed with sweat. And . . . what was that smell? Not horse sweat, but rather coppery. What the hell was that? She wrinkled up her nose. Was one of the mares in season? She doubted it. Lou knew better than to keep a mare in season in the same corridor as the stud. “Loco, what is . . .” Her voice faded as she peered into his stall. She stumbled back and grabbed hold of the stall’s bars to keep from falling. Bile burned her throat. She swallowed hard and blinked several times. “No, no, no!”
The latch on Loco’s door was undone; she whipped it open. The stallion bolted past her and out of the breezeway. She ran over to her uncle, who lay facedown in the straw— impaled on a broken pitchfork sticking through his back. She lifted his hand— cold. Her own hands shook uncontrollably as she dropped his to the ground. A scream caught in the back of her throat. She gasped and fell into the straw, pushing herself away from Lou. She brought her hands to her face, her voice catching up with her anguish as her horrified scream echoed through the breezeway.