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Mac Titus raced for the horse barn with the echo of a woman's scream still reverberating inside his head. He was two hours late, thanks to an accident on the freeway from Louisville.
Was it Emma Clareborn, the woman he'd been hired as a bodyguard to protect? If it was, he'd already blown his assignment.
He ran through the massive doorway into the stable and slid to a stop, prepared for a fight.
The familiar smell of fresh shavings raked his senses, but didn't dull the blade of caution sawing back and forth across his nerves.
All these years he'd wanted to see Firehill Farm again, but not like this. Not with the grip of caution squeezing deep in his chest.
The cavernous stable was dark, the only light emanating from the open door of the tack room in the right-hand corner.
Was she there?
He started to turn for it, but saw a flash of movement to his left.
Pivoting, he saw a man sprint out of the shadows and head for the exit. He was wearing a bandanna to disguise his face and a stocking cap pulled low on his forehead.
Mac bolted and tackled him three feet from the door.
The thug fought hard, rolled over and chucked a handful of sawdust into Mac's face.
Blinded for an instant, Mac snagged the thug around the ankles on the way down and pulled him to the floor.
His captive kicked like a mule, wrenching a single booted foot free from his grasp, and slammed it into Mac's face.
A gash opened. Hot liquid streamed across his cheekbone.
He let go, hoping for another chance to apprehend the thug from a standing position.
Scrambling to his feet, he made another lunge for the bandanna-wearing perpetrator, but the other man beat him by a second, dodged left and ran out the barn door into the night.
Mac shook off the mental annoyance at being a step behind. That's why he was here. That's why he'd been relegated to this detail. To refine his skills again.
Wiping a hand across his face, he cleaned some of the debris out of his eyes and turned back into the barn.
"Miss Clareborn!" He stepped forward, trying to make form out of the shadows. "Emma Clareborn!"
The excited shuffle of horse hooves drew his attention to the first stall where a nervous Thoroughbred paced around inside the twenty-by-twenty-foot square.
He reached his hand through the upper railing to touch the horse's muzzle.
"Get away from him!"
Jerking back he flattened against the wall of the stall, prepared to take on another attack, but the decisive ting of metal boring into wood locked him in place.
"Who are you?" A woman stood in front of him, her eyes wide, her breath coming in gasps that accentuated her state of agitation.
He was glued to the wall where the pitchfork she'd knifed at him had skewered the folds of his shirt, barely missing the concealed weapon holstered to his belt. He didn't like feeling pinned like a moth to an insect board in science class.
Determination set her features and glimmered in her eyes.
"Mac Titus, your Solberg Agency referral. I'm the bodyguard you hired to protect you from thugs like that."
Her shoulders drooped for a second and she let out a sigh, but the leery stare still haunted her dark eyes. "You have ID?"
"In my wallet."
She didn't move. "Toss it here."
Mac dug into the back pocket of his jeans with his left hand, pulled out his wallet and lobbed it on the ground next to her.
Reaching down, she scooped it up without taking her eyes off of him. Flipping it open, she did a quick comparison. "You look better without blood on your face."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." She closed his wallet and dropped it on the ground. Stepping up, she grasped the handle of the pitchfork in both hands and worked it out of the wall, freeing him.
"It's the second time this week someone has tried to get to my horse. That bandanna-wearing bastard woke me up when he tried to jimmy the latch on the stall door."
Almost on cue the horse in the stable behind him thrust his head over the gate and bobbed his head up and down several times.
"But I'm not your assignment Mr. Titus. Navigator is." She pointed at the horse.
Mac sputtered, dragging the residual particles of sawdust up onto his tongue where he wiped them off with the back of his hand.
"I'm in the business of protecting people, not horses."
"Solberg assured me you could handle this assignment. He claimed you have lots of experience with racehorses."
Navigator bobbed his head again as if he were in some sort of conspiratorial agreement.
Another protest churned inside of him, but he held it in, taking in the subtle shade of sleep deprivation tinting the skin under her expressive eyes, and the cot made up next to the stall gate with a thick sleeping bag to keep out the chill in the December air.
"You've been sleeping out here?"
"Yeah. Every night since I received an anonymous threat over the telephone the day after Navigator won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs two weeks ago."
"That's impressive, Miss Clareborn. But he's just a horse, and I usually protect those standing on two legs."
Her eyes went wide, her body stiffened; he'd insulted her.
"He's not just any horse. He's going to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. The Triple Crown, Mr. Titus."
Navigator bobbed his head.
Amusement glided over Mac's nerves. It wouldn't serve to insult her again, and from the set of her jaw to the surety in her sexy dark eyes, he knew she was certain. He'd seen the obsession before, experienced its destructive power firsthand. People with that much belief in something they couldn't control belonged in Gamblers Anonymous.
"Do you have any idea who's behind the threats against your Thoroughbred?"
"I didn't recognize the voice on the phone and my caller ID registered it as an unknown number. It could be from half the farms in Fayette County, anyone with a Derby prospect. They've been slinking around my practice track, clicking their stopwatches from behind the bushes since early this fall. They've seen the speed he has and they don't want to compete against him."
She stepped to the horse and stroked her hand along the wide white blaze zigzagging down the big bay's forehead.
His head drooped slightly, his eyes blinked shut.
Even a novice could see the woman loved her animal and believed in him, but he knew the inherent error in her thinking.
"I've got a first-aid kit in the tack room. I'll clean you up." She headed for the open door. "Besides I'd like to see what sort of man my money gets me."
Mac scooped up his wallet and fell in behind her as she headed for the tack room in the corner of the barn, watching the sway of her curvy hips clad in tight jeans. The view put an unexpected hustle in his step.
Emma Clareborn was all grown up. A far cry from the girl he remembered seeing once twenty-five years ago. She'd gone from a freckle-faced kid with long, dark braids to a curvaceous woman who at the moment turned up the heat in his blood.
"How long have you been running Firehill Farm?"
"Since my father had a stroke about the time Navigator was foaled."
Mac's footsteps faltered. His dad's old nemesis, Thadeous Clareborn, was still alive?
"It put him in a wheelchair and he never mustered the courage or the physical ability to get out of it." Emma stepped through the tack room door with every nerve in her system attuned to the man behind her. Even bloody and covered with grit he caused an instant attraction just under the surface of her skin.
Dark hair dragged his collar. His five o'clock shadow had advanced well past seven. He was physically just what she'd ordered, but aside from that one question matteredcould he protect her horse?
Mac stepped into the tack room right behind her.
"Sit." She gestured to a stool pushed under the edge of a workbench against the side wall.
Mac pulled it out and sat down, crossing his arms over his chest.
She turned around to reach into an overhead cupboard and grab the first-aid kit. He was unprepared for the sweet smile on her generous lips when she turned back around, or the fact that it was directed at him.
"Solberg did a great job referring you. You're just what I neededsomeone who looks the part and fits in with my work crew. No suit-and-tie stuffed shirt, aviator shades you know, that movie-star-bodyguard type."
"I aim to please." And he planned to give Winslow Solberg a good understanding of the less-than-ideal employment situation he found himself in right now. Bodyguarding a horse. He uncrossed his arms and watched her smile fade.
She cleared her throat and put the kit down on the work counter next to him. "For what it's worth, MacI can call you that, can't I?"
Engrossed in the pleasant vibe jolting his body, he almost fell off the stool when she reached out, grasped his chin and forcibly tipped his face up toward the overhead light.
"You can call me anything you like, Miss Clareborn. You're paying the bills."
A slight furrow formed between her eyebrows and smoothed a second later. "Call me Emma, please. Ooh, he kicked you good."
It took every ounce of restraint he had to ignore the heat pulsing from her hand and spreading on his skin. Her grasp was firm, but tender. She let go and opened the kit.
"It's a clean cut. I'll glue it shut."
"A trick I leaned from my dad. Superglue works wonders on a clean cut. Barely leaves a scar."
Annoyance pitted his thoughts and dragged a reply up his throat, but he clamped down on it. Soon enough she'd discover that scarring was the least of his worries.
Refocusing, he studied her delicate hands as she manipulated a piece of gauze and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
Curiosity opened up inside of him. He reached out and grabbed her right hand the instant she set the bottle down. Turning it over he stared at the bridge of hardened calluses spanning her palm. "Work crew, huh."
A tinge of color spread on her cheeks. She swallowed hard and pulled her hand back.
"Someone has to make sure Navigator gets his run for the roses."
Irritation flooded his brain, but he didn't have the heart to tell her the odds weren't in her horse's favor. "I'll take up the slack for you, since I'll be here 24/7." He stared into her eyes, but it wasn't appreciation he saw there. "Don't worry. I can protect your horse at the same time."
There it was, a brief veil of relief passing over her features for an instant. He liked it, but it didn't stay long enough.
"I hope so," Emma whispered. She raised the gauze and began dabbing at the cut on Mac's cheekbone. "Things haven't been the same around here since my dad had his stroke." Not the same was an understatement, a sweet lie she wasn't proud of, but didn't care to clear up with the muscle-bound protector she'd been forced to hire using some of the farm's draining liquidity. Between her Derby ambitions, Firehill's operating expenses and her father's private nurse, there was no room for financial surprises like having to hire a bodyguard.
Silence encircled them and she focused on her task of scrubbing away the blood and sawdust from the two-inch gash on his handsome face. Her stare locked on his left jawline.
Tension gripped her muscles, forcing her to suddenly withdraw her hand, as if she'd just been scalded.
"One more scar isn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference on me." His matter-of-fact observation was ground out with as much emotion as a traffic cop issuing a citation to an upset motorist.
Sucking in a breath, she continued working, unable to take her gaze off the thick, ruddy scar riding the length of Mac Titus's left jawbone, from his ear to his chin.
She stepped back, watching his dark blue gaze raise to meet hers.
This scar was fresh this had been a life-threatening injury in his recent past.
"It's none of my business but how"
"Did I get it?" He glanced down at the floor, then dragged his gaze back up to hers, and for a moment she thought she saw his rock-hard features soften.
Anticipation bubbled up inside of her and she automatically leaned closer, like a confidante waiting to hear a juicy confession.
The moment burst like a bubble in her face as he stood up.
"The only thing you need to know, Miss Clareborn, is I'm here to make sure nothing happens to your animal. Anything beyond that is off-limits."
She looked at him, measuring the seriousness in his eyes, but there was something else there. Something raw and exposed. Pain?
The shuffle of footsteps rushing into the barn drew her attention to the door.
Victor Dago poked his head into the room.
"My horses are going ballistic, something stirred them up. Everything okay in here?"
Tension snapped in the air. Mac watched hostility spread across Emma's face, tightening it until he was certain she had some sort of aversion to the man who darkened the doorway.
"Victor Dago, I'd like you to meet my new farmhand, Mac. He took a tumble and spooked Navigator. I'm sorry if it got your horses riled up."
Victor's eyes narrowed. He stepped through the doorway into the room and reached out to grasp Mac's hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm glad to see Miss Clareborn has finally hired someone to help her."
Mac released the man's thick fingers, trying to attach a country of origin to his accent.
"You stable horses here?" he asked.
"Yes, half a dozen, with two still in quarantine via the Virginia Port Authority at Front Royal. They're on day two of a fourteen-day evaluation."
"Anything contagious? "
"No. Just waiting for their Coggins results. They'll come in soon. We'll go to pick them up and put some track time on them before the Christmas Classic at Keeneland on the twenty-fourth."
Emma inched closer to him. If he pushed his elbow away from his body he'd be able to touch her.
"Sorry for the commotion. I'll be more careful next time."
Victor nodded and turned around. "Good night, then." He disappeared through the door.
Emma slumped against the workbench the moment Victor was gone.
Mac sat again, allowing her to finish what she'd started before the interruption. He held comment until he was sure the man had left the stable. "Who is he?"
"He trains horses for a sheikh I've never met or talked to.
They lease my stud barn across the paddock for their racing stables."
The explanation was straightforward, but it didn't explain the visible tension that had sucked the air out of the room less than a moment ago. "I take it you don't like the man."
"He creeps me out. That's all. Close your eyes, this glue is an irritant. It'll burn."
He did as he was told and a few minutes later he was staring at her again, amazed at how little the cut stung, and how beautiful her eyes were.