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"So you're just going to kill the horse?" Zach Johnson groaned.
"Couldn't you at least try to rehab him or something?"
Could this day get any worse?
He glanced at Doc Miller and his groom, Pat, their own faces frozen in what could only be called consternation. Nearby, horses stabled along the backstretch of Golden Downs raceway watched, too, with ears pricked forward as if curious what he would do.
Go ahead. Turn around, they seemed to say.
He didn't want to. He really didn't, but he knew if he ignored Mariah Stewart, she'd just come right around the front of him and start yammering in his face.
He slowly turned. "What makes you think I'm going to put him down?" he asked, wishing for the umpteenth time that she weren't so damn pretty. It irritated the hell out of him that someone so insufferable could be so attractive. Today her red hair glittered as brightly as her eyes beneath the blazing-hot Southern California sun. He found himself wondering where she'd gotten that cute little snub nose and tiny chin of hers and the freckles. He'd always been a sucker for freckles.
"Don't you always?" She lifted an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest. "Your type likes to toss away anything that doesn't make you money."
He resisted the urge to raise his eyes toward the clear blue sky. God wasn't going to help him on this one; he had better things to do.
"We've been over this before." He glanced at his vet, knowing the man had as little patience for the woman in jeans and her CEASE-Concerned Equestriennes Aiding in Saving Equines-T-shirt as Zach did himself. "I don't put my horses down."
"I send them to auction."
She uncrossed her arms. "Same thing."
Next to them, Black in a Dash, the pride of Triple J Quarter Horse Stables, groaned. They'd tranquilized him pretty good, the horse hanging his head, injured back leg just barely touching the ground. Torn suspensory. That was what Doc Miller had just diagnosed. An ultrasound had confirmed Zach's worst fears, yet even with the injury, Dasher would always have a home with him-not that she'd believe him if he told her that. Dasher was special. The last foal his dad had bred before his death. He wasn't sure how he'd afford feeding him if he wasn't out winning races, but he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.
"Please," he said to Mariah. "Can you leave us alone right now?" He glanced imploringly at Doc Miller.
The man seemed to take the hint. "As I was saying, euthanasia is one option." Doc Miller clearly directed his words toward Mariah and sounded as frustrated as Zach felt. "But since he's a well-bred stallion, you might want to keep him around."
He thought he heard Mariah snort again.
"Then again, with an injury like this he could make a comeback in a year or two. I know you were hoping to race him in the Million Dollar Futurity this fall, but I think that's out of the question, Zach. There's other races coming up, though. Heck, some are even for aged stallions, so it might not be a complete loss if he does make it back in a year or two. We could try some stem-cell therapy and shockwave treatments and see what happens, but it's a long shot, Zach-I'm not going to sugarcoat it. And it'll cost some money along the way."
Money he didn't have, Zach thought. He was land rich and cash poor.
For a moment he considered calling Terrence Whit-more and telling him he could have it all. The farm, his parent's home up on the hill, even all the broodmares- everything-just so he could be done.
"I want to buy him."
He just about groaned again. Zach almost, almost, turned and gave her a piece of his mind, but his mama's Southern upbringing stopped him cold-God rest her soul.
"He's not for sale."
"So what are you going to do? Use him to make more babies that will probably never be fast enough to race and that you'll send to some horrible auction where, as you say, someone will buy them, all the while knowing deep inside that the someone in question is really a representative of a foreign meat company that only wants your horse so he can serve it up on a dish in France."
Honestly, he was getting kind of tired of her spiel, but he held his tongue. She came around the front of him, blocking his view of Pat, who still held the lead line of his horse. "And if the horse isn't fast enough, you'll run it, likely ruining another good horse and tossing that one away, too." She flicked her hands at him in disgust. "It's a vicious cycle."
"Ma'am, like I said earlier, I'm not like that. Not at all. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a sick horse to tend to."
He touched his horse's black coat, stroking his smooth neck, admiring the way it glowed and then straightening a piece of black mane. For a stallion, Dasher was as well behaved as they came. He'd been looking forward to breeding him and passing along some of his easygoing personality, but if Dasher never had the opportunity to make a name for himself, nobody would care how good the stallion looked or how well he behaved. Without a winning pedigree, nobody would want to breed to him. Ever.
He fought against nausea and anxiety and an overwhelming sense of failure. Ever since his dad had died and he'd taken over the ranch, things had gone downhill.
"We'll get you healed up," he told the horse softly, but he didn't know if he was speaking to Dasher or reassuring himself. Hell, he might have even been telling that red-haired harridan. "Don't know if you'll ever race again, but Dad would roll over in his grave if I didn't at least give it a try."
"Glad to hear you say that." Doc Miller patted the horse's neck, too. "He's a good-looking stallion, Zach. I think he'll make a great sire. I'll send over my care instructions and some treatment options later. In the meantime, Pat, why don't you put him away? He looks about ready to fall over."
The groom did as instructed, Dasher as wobbly as a drunken race fan. Zach and Doc Miller watched him walk off, the both of them standing between two rows of stables, grooms walking horses back and forth, some in saddles, others wet from being hosed off after a hard workout. The smell of horse hung heavy in the air, a smell that usually soothed him. Not today.
With a sigh, he turned back to the veterinarian. "I appreciate your honesty."
The two men shook hands before the veterinarian headed out. Zach thought he was alone until he heard that Stewart woman say from behind him, "So you're not going to put him down?"
Though he told himself not to, he still sighed.
"I told you, no." He heard his heel grind into the dirt as he turned. "It should be pretty obvious I'm not like other owners." He motioned to the barn aisle behind them. "I only have three of my own horses in training and two for other people. Do I look like a big-time operation?"
She followed his gaze. He took in the red-and-gold stall boards nailed to the top doors-a JJJ in the middle of a triangle, their brand-and red hay nets filled with premium alfalfa hanging next to them. Pat was just putting Dasher in his stall. They both watched as he unhooked the nylon webbing that kept the horses inside without them having to close the heavy wooden bottom door. Though he might have been drugged, Dasher immediately turned toward his hay net, ears lazily pricked forward. It never failed. A horse had to be pretty sick not to eat. Dasher wasn't sick, just really, really lame.
The nausea returned.
"Well," he heard Mariah say, "you might not have as many horses as the other owners, but that doesn't mean you don't adhere to the same mind-set."
She turned back to face him and once again he couldn't help but notice she was cute, maybe even beautiful-if one liked loudmouthed shrews, which he didn't.
"I don't have as many horses because I don't breed as many. My dad adhered to the concept of quality, not quantity. It's a principle I still believe in."
And that wasn't making him any money, but he'd come up with something. Maybe Mr. Whitmore would be interested in a few of his broodmares. He had a couple yet that didn't have foals by their sides .
"Quality, not quantity, yet you still sell your unwanted horses at auction."
He let loose a sigh of impatience. Why did he bother? What did it matter what she thought of him?
Yet for some reason.it did.
"A reputable auction," he explained. "A place where our horses have a chance of finding a new owner, and not the kind of owner that will turn around and sell our horses to the slaughter market you mentioned earlier. We give our unwanted horses a second chance at life, Ms. Stewart."
Her brows lifted. "You know my name."
"I hope so." She raised her chin. "I hope people think of me as the voice of their unwanted horses. I hope racehorse owners have me on their mind when they sell their animals directly to a meat-processing company. I hope racehorse owners think of me when they travel to a foreign country and see cheval on the menu. Most of all, I hope you know I'm watching you and your ilk."
Her passion was unmistakable, as was the determination in her golden-brown eyes. There was something else there, too, a lingering sense of sadness that seemed to call to him in some bizarre and unexpected fashion.
"Do you always make generalizations about people?"
"I could do the same thing and call you a crazy crackpot activist, but I don't."
She propped her hands on her hips. "We only act crazy out of frustration. No matter how loud we scream, the racehorse industry just keeps breeding more and more horses."
"Something they've been doing for centuries."
"Doesn't make it right."
"And I suppose it's right to block the entrance of the track so people can't get to work?"
"We were trying to make a statement." She flicked her long hair back.
"And picketing on race day?"
"It got everyone's attention."
He bit back a sigh of frustration. He could have sworn he heard her do the same thing, too.
"Clearly, your tactics aren't working."
"So why do it?"
"Because I've seen ten ex-racehorses crammed into the back of a four-horse trailer, panic in their eyes, open sores on their bodies from being kicked and bullied and knocked over by the other horses, barely able to stand because they haven't been given any water, their once proud carriage completely demoralized. And it's sad and it's sick and I don't want it happening anymore."
His stomach turned. Yeah, he'd heard of that kind of stuff happening, too, but not to his horses, no way.
But could he say with absolute certainty that one of his horses hadn't ended up that way?
"Look," she said, and when their gazes met, hers had softened, almost as if she'd spotted his guilty conscience. "If you really are different like you say you are, I have a proposition for you."
She wanted to proposition him? Suddenly, crazily, his mood improved, although what he was thinking probably wasn't the kind of proposition she had in mind.
"What kind of proposition?"
"Actually, it's more like I want to discuss something with you, an idea I've been floating around. Not here." She glanced past him. He could see a groom approaching with another wet horse, its coat glistening as if it were made of glass. "Later. At your farm."
It was his turn to be surprised. She knew where he lived? Well, maybe that wasn't so strange after all. She probably had a map on her bedroom wall, red dots marking where all the evil racehorse breeders lived, their pictures next to them, horns probably drawn onto their heads.
For that reason alone he should brush her off, but then he thought maybe for that reason alone he should do something unexpected. Hell, what did he have to lose? Maybe she'd "proposition" him with buying a few of his retired racehorses. Wouldn't that be something?
As if reading his mind, she said, "It's a way for maybe both of us to make some money."
He should say no. Despite how much he could use the cash, he should tell her he wasn't interested.
But with Dasher out of commission
"Fine. Dinner. Tonight at six." He turned away before he could change his mind.
"Wait. What? Dinner?"
He almost laughed. Eating with the enemy?
"What's the matter?" He turned and cocked a brow. "Afraid I'll poison your food?"
She drew back. "No. Of course not. I just-" Didn't want to think of him as a person. He saw that much in her eyes. Much better to keep him at arm's length. He didn't know for certain that was what she was thinking, but he had a pretty good idea because frankly, he'd had the same thought.
"Then what's the problem?"
"Okay, fine." She sucked in a bottom lip, Zach watching as she nibbled it and then let it back out again. When she released the flesh, it was glossy and he found himself wondering how she'd taste.
Now you really have lost your mind.
"Can I bring anything?" she asked.
A negligee with frilly underwear.
Good Lord. Stop it.
It was that damn red hair of hers. And the freckles. He turned away before she caught a glimpse of what he was thinking in his eyes.
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I promise, you won't regret this."
Actually, he already did.