Read an Excerpt
"Luke! Wake up, man! We got trouble!"
Luke Bravo shot to a sitting position from a sound sleep. He raked his fingers back through his hair and squinted at the bedside clock2:10 a.m.
And someone was pounding on his sitting-room door. "Luke! Wake up!" Luke thought he recognized the voice: Paco, one of the stable hands. He sounded seriously freaked.
Stark naked, Luke jumped from the bed. Grabbing his hat off the back of a chair as he flew by, he raced through the sitting area. Lollie, the spotted hound he'd raised from a pup, had beaten him to the door. She paced in front of it, whining and sniffing the crack between the door and the floor.
"Back, girl. Sit," he commanded. With a final worried whine, the dog moved out of the way. Luke yanked the door wide. "Paco. What the hell?"
About then, the housekeeper, Zita, came flying around the corner from the servants' rooms, muttering in Spanish, clutching the sides of a flimsy red robe. She let out a shocked little squeak when she got a load of Luke standing there in the altogether.
He put his hat over his privates. "It's all right, Zita." He aimed a narrow-eyed glare at Paco. "Is there a fire?"
Paco slapped a hand over his mouth to quell a snort of laughter at the housekeeper's embarrassment, and mutely shook his head.
"No fire?" Luke asked again, just to be sure. When the stable hand's head went back and forth a second time, Luke told Zita gently, "I'm on this. Don't worry. Go on back to bed."
Face noticeably flaming, even in the dim light provided by the hallway wall sconces, Zita whirled and ran back the way she had come. A choking laugh escaped the stable hand.
Luke leveled a scowl on him. "If not a fire, then what?"
Paco's grin vanished. His smooth dark face grew somber. "It's Candyman. He cut his ear on something. There's blood everywhere. He's gone loco. We can't settle him down."
Though stallions were rarely even-tempered, Candyman, Bravo Ridge's prize stud, was a true gentleman. A black-footed gray from foundation Quarter Horse lines, he produced top-quality horses for show, ranch work and everyday riding. As a rule, you could count on him to be easygoing and calm.
If he was out of control, he must be hurt bad.
"On my way." He shoved the door shut, put on his hat and grabbed for his clothes. Once he had his Wranglers and boots on, he told Lollie again to stay, as he slipped out the door. He took off, racing down the back stairs and out one of the service entrances into the hot August night. Halfway across the back gardens, he caught up with Paco.
By the time they reached the dirt driveway that circled the main house and grounds, Luke could hear Candyman's screams. He ran faster, Paco close on his heels, across the driveway and around the stables to the prize stallion's paddock.
As they approached the paddock fence, Luke saw that someone had got a rope on himbut hadn't been able to hold it. The rope trailed loose along the stallion's neck. Candyman bucked and snorted. Gray mane flying, he shook his proud head, stomping the ground, sending clods of dirt and grass everywhere. Blood, black by the light of the nearly-full moon, ran down his powerful neck. His eyes shone wide and wildone filmed with blood from that raggedy, sliced-up ear.
Half-blind and scared to death. Even once he got the animal settled a little, the doctoring required would be beyond Luke's rudimentary veterinary skills. On the other side of the far fence, the stallion's mares whickered and restlessly paced, frightened to see the big gray so far out of control.
"Call Doc Brewer." Luke barked the order over his shoulder at the stable hand. "Tell him to get the hell out here. Now." He climbed the six-foot metal fence surrounding the paddock. As he jumped to the ground within, he gave a low whistle.
The stallion stood still, then, and scented the air.
"Whoa, boy. Easy now "
The horse made a questioning sound.
"That's right, it's me. Easy there. Easy "
Candyman snorted and shook his silver mane. But he didn't rear again. He waited, withers twitching, snorting again softly, as Luke cautiously approached.
"Yeah, boy. Good boy " He held out his hand, palm flat. Candyman gave it a sniff and then allowed him to grasp the dangling, bloody rope.
Luke patted the powerful neck and laid his cheek against it, feeling the tacky wetness of clotting blood. "Come on, now. Let's get you in your stall ."
The horse went where Luke led him, though reluctantly, switching his tail and making low, unhappy noises. Twice, he jerked the lead to show Luke he wasn't the least bit happy about the situation. Each time the horse resisted, Luke would stop and speak softly to him. He would stroke the stallion's fine forehead and blow in his nostrils.
In time, Candyman allowed Luke to take him into his stall. Once there, it was a matter of keeping him settled until the doc arrivedwhich had better be soon.
Paco appeared on the far side of the stall door. "The doc's in the hospital."
"Tell me you're joking."
"Wish I was. Hip replacement, they said. They're sending his new associate."
Luke would have blistered the air with bad words if he wasn't being careful not to stir up the stallion. "Whoever he is, he better know what he's doing. And he damn well better get here fast." Paco made a low sound of agreement. "Get me a bucket of warm water and a clean rag, will you?" Luke turned his attention back to the horse.
Since he'd raised and trained the eight-year-old himself, Candyman always responded well to Luke's voice and his touch. When one of the other stable hands brought the bucket, the horse even allowed him a little prodding at the injury. But the area was too sensitive to touch without anesthetic. Candyman jerked his head sharply, snorting in warning when Luke tried to mop up the worst of it. He decided the cleaning could wait until Phineas Brewer's "associate" arrived with a tranquilizer.
At least it wasn't as bad as Luke had feared at first. With skillful stitching, it might even heal up good as new. Luke willed the time to pass quickly. He talked softly to Candyman as the minutes dragged by. The horse quivered and chuffed at him. "Easy," he soothed, "Easy, boy "
Where was that damn vet? The smell of blood and hay and horse filled his nostrils. Sweat beaded under his hat and ran down his bare chest. "Turn on the fan," he commanded to anyone who might be listening. "It's an oven in here ."
Someone flipped a switch and the stall fan spun.
Softly, in order not to spook the injured horse all over again, he spoke to Zeke, who ran the stables and now hovered close on the far side of the stall door with Paco and three other men. "Your men find what caused this mess?" Candyman's stall and paddock were carefully constructed to be both secure and smooth-sided. A stallion, even a calm-natured one, was more curious and sensitive to his surroundings than other horses. Special care was taken to protect against sharp nails or any projection on which the prize animal might injure himself.
"We found a board knocked down in the run-in shed." The run-in shed, located on the far side of the stallion's paddock, was an open shelter the horse could use to get out of the sun or sudden bad weather. "A big nail was exposed, the head broken off and bloody from where he hooked his ear on it."
"Is it fixed now?"
Luke heard the crunch of tires on gravel in the driveway outside. "That the vet?"
"I'll get him." Zeke hustled off and returned an endless couple of minutes later. "It's the vet, all right."
Candyman stirred and snorted nervously. Luke patted the horse's neck and spoke in a slow, careful tone. "Get him in here."
"It ain't a he."
Luke glanced toward the stall door. Through the pipe bars, he saw the new vet.
Clearly not a he.
She met his surprised glance, a fine-looking woman, full-breasted in a white t-shirt. Her smooth olive skin was scrubbed clean of makeup and her long black hair, parted in the middle, was tied back in a low ponytail.
It was her eyes that held him, though. They were cat-slanted and black as midnight. He remembered those eyes. "Mercedes?"
She nodded, a graceful dip of her dark head. "Hi, Luke. How you been?"
He shook his head. Time did fly. "Little Mercy Cabrera "
One of the hands muttered something appreciative. Another one laughed. Someone whispered darkly, "Cabrera " Everyone knew that a Bravo never trusted a Cabreraand vice versa.
Luke commanded, "Enough," and the men were silent. He spoke to Mercedes. "I remember hearing you went off to college."
"I did. Eight years ago."
Damn. Had it really been that long? "You, and then Elena."
"That's right." Her sister, Elena, a Cabrera by blood, was three or four years younger. "We're doing all right, both of us. Moving up. I graduated from A&M. You'll be relieved to know I passed my national veterinary board exams with flying colors." She carried a black bag. And she looked plenty capable. It was something in the tilt of her strong chin, in the intelligence shining in those striking eyes. Damn. Little Mercy Cabrera. Adopted into the Cabrera family when she was twelve or thirteen. It seemed to him she'd been sixteen just last week. Sixteen, meaning jailbait
She sure looked full grown now.
"Time goes by," he softly observed.
"Yes, it does. I'm partnered up with Phineas since last month. He wants to retire in the next few years. I'm going to do my best to fill his shoes." She stepped close to the bars and spoke in a quiet, even tone. "Need some help with that horse?"
Candyman's nostrils flared as he scented her. But he didn't flatten his good ear or swish his tail, a fair indication that he would tolerate her tending him.
"Cut his ear up pretty bad." So what if she was a Cabrera, and good-looking enough to have him thinking things he shouldn't? Candyman needed doctoring and she was the only vet present. "You think you can stitch him up for me?"
"Can you keep him settled while I have a look?"
"Come in here. Do it nice and slow."
So strange, Mercy thought, to be there in that stall with Luke Bravo and that beautiful, bloodied stallion in the middle of the night. Since she first came to San Antonio with her poor, doomed mother fourteen years before, she'd had a crush on the tall, golden Bravo boy. She'd seen him riding a fine horse in a parade once. And at the San Antonio winter stock show and rodeo, the big one, that used to be held at the Freeman Coliseum.
For most of her teenage years, the rugged young Anglo had filled her girlish fantasies.
Not that it could ever be more than a foolish girl's daydreams. She was as much a Cabrera now as if she'd been born one. And no self-respecting female in her family would go out with a man who had the last name of Bravo.
The Bravos had stolen much from her people. The land she now stood on, this ranch the Bravos had renamed Bravo Ridge, had belonged to the Cabreras for hundreds of yearsuntil Luke's grandfather stole it from Emilio Cabrera back in the fifties. One Cabrera man had lost his life slaving for the Bravos. And another, fighting them.
"What's his name?" she asked Luke.
"Good with the ladies?"
"A gentleman, always."
The horse allowed her touch. He whickered softly into her palm. She performed a quick examination just to make sure there was nothing more to treat than the bloody, half-hanging ear.
"Well?" Luke asked, as she finished the exam.
She wished he'd worn a shirt as she tried not to stare at his sweat-shiny, blood-streaked, perfectly formed male chest. "I'm going to have to medicate him before I can clean and stitch him. Can you lead him out of the stall for me?"
He nodded. So Mercy unlatched the door and backed into the main part of the stable. Luke started to bring the stallion out, too. But the horse grew fractious, jerking the rope Luke had on him, blowing hard through his nostrils.
Luke was gentle. And so patient. He petted the stallion and whispered in his good ear. When he guided the horse forward again, the animal went quietly.
Mercy had the needle ready. As Luke petted and soothed the big gray on one side, she thumped the other side of the horse's neck sharply with three fingers to desensitize it. She was good with a needle, got it in quick and smooth. Swiftly attaching the syringe, she gave the injection and eased the needle out. Candyman didn't seem to feel a thing.
Luke stayed close, petting the horse and talking softly to him, as the drug took effect. After a few minutes of waiting, he sent a glance around the stable at the watching men. "We gonna need these boys, you think?"
By then, she had judged that a local anesthetic should do the trick, since Candyman seemed settled and kind of peaceful, with the trank in his system and Luke stroking him and whispering to him.
"I think the two of us can handle this now," she said. "As long as help's in shouting distance if there's trouble."
"Go on back to your bunks, boys ."
The men left them.
Mercy had the second injection ready. The horse snorted softly when she gave him the shot just behind his ragged ear. But he was already relaxed from the tranquilizer and she was done so fast, he never got around to kicking up a fuss.
As they waited for the area to grow numb, the horse was calm and the stable was quiet. All the stalls were empty, which didn't surprise her. In the hot summer weather, the horses would be happier and more comfortable outside during the night.
"It's so quiet," she said, feeling strangely self-conscious.
Luke made a soft sound of agreement.
"You live in the main house?"
"The rest of your family, too?"
"Uh-uh. Most of them have houses in San Antonio. Or elsewhere." Luke had six brothers and two sisters. "But they all come back to the ranch for holidays and to get away from the rat race now and then."
She shook her head.
"What?" he asked in a whisper, a smile playing at the corner of his finely-shaped mouth. "Some reason I shouldn't live there?"
"All those fat white pillars. Like a palace in Greece. Or maybe a Southern plantation house."
Luke chuckled low. "You would have had to know my Grandpa James. He modeled it after the Governor's mansion."
Once the Cabrera hacienda, La Joya, the jewel, had stood where the huge white house with those proud white pillars stood now.