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Brady Wound through the crowd of Texas horsemen gathered in the show ring. The prime offering of the morning was coming into the arena next and everyone wanted a close-up view of Amber Mac.
Including Brady. He'd been excited about this young thoroughbred since Colin Warner had tipped him off to the horse's bloodlines and the private sale at Henley's Blue Bonnet Farm. Brady trusted Colin because Brady's good friend, Blake Smith, had hired the business whiz kid based on one interview. If Blake saw so much potential in Colin, that was all Brady needed to check out this horse for himself. And now, his future could very well hinge on whether or not he and his dad went home with Amber Mac.
He joined his father and the head trainer from Cross Fox Ranch in the center of the ring. Marshall Carrick rubbed his finger down his thick gray mustache. "Can you believe this crowd for mid-January?" he said. "I figured this being so soon after the holidays, everyone would be recovering from making merry. But apparently Al Henley got the word out that he was selling some prize stock before the spring auction."
"I hear ya', Dad. I just hope all these people haven't come to compete with us for Amber Mac."
Marshall cupped his hand over his mouth. "Blake and Warner seem to be right on about this animal and you can be sure Al knows what a winner he's gothe's invited enough people to ensure he'll rake in every dollar he can. I guess he spent too much on Christmas presents and needs to replenish his bank account with this sale." Keeping his voice low, Marshall turned to the man who'd been his head trainer for over thirty years. "Tell me one more time, Dobbs. The vet reports on Amber Mac areconclusive?"
Trevor Dobbs, stoop-shouldered from age but still clear-eyed and alert where horses were concerned, stared at his boss. "You know there's no such animal as the perfect horse, Marsh. But yes, the reports look good. The digital X-rays showed no imperfections. The horse's throat latch is wide-open. His lungs are clean."
Seeing someone he knew, Dobbs walked off. Marshall looked at Brady. "And the horse's conformation? You had another close look?"
"Of course, Dad. I told you before, I checked him over head to tail. His hocks and knees are straight. His neck is long. His eyes are wide and alert." Brady smiled. "In fact, I had a personal conversation with him and he seemed interested in everything I had to say."
Marshall tapped the sale catalog against his palm. "You kid about this, but there's truth to what you just said. A horse that pays attention is easier to train."
"I know. You've told me. And this isn't my first day in the horse business. I grew up in it, remember?" He rubbed his knee. Standing for hours wasn't good for the old football injury. Stating a sad fact, he said, "Believe me, Dad, this horse is in better shape than I am."
"How about his hips?" Marshall asked.
"A bit narrow," Brady admitted. "But not enough to affect his running ability." He shook his head.
"Look, you should examine him yourself. Then you wouldn't be questioning everything I'm telling you."
"I'll look at him when he comes out. I'm just making sure you haven't forgotten anything."
Brady tried to ignore his building resentment. "Either you trust me on this horse or you don't."
Marshall waved off his comment. "I trust you. But you haven't been home all that long."
"Almost a year and a half," Brady pointed out.
"I realize what this thoroughbred means to you. You've made it clear that you want me to consider you for Dobbs's position when he retires in six months.And since I won't do that just because you're my son"
"I wouldn't expect you to. And I understand your reservations about me."
"you need Amber Mac to prove you can take over from Dobbs. I get it, son It's just that it's hard to keep up with the value of horseflesh while you're on a football field."
Or inside a casino. Brady knew the restraint his father must have used not to mention the sore subject of his son's ill-spent two years in Las Vegas. He wanted to point out that he'd been ready and willing to pull his weight in the family business since he'd come home. He kept silent, however, and watched as the gate at the end of the ring opened.
Henley's stable foreman coaxed Amber Mac into the ring. And every rancher from around the state paid attention.
"He's on a halter," Marshall said. "Is he bridle-broke?"
"Not yet," Brady said. He cast a sideways look at his father. "You can leave that up to me. Surely after thirty-two years of being a Carrick, I've proven to you that I can break horses to bridles and saddles." As the horse was led closer, Brady stared in awe.
"Look at that deep chestnut color. And check his gait. A good swinging walk, long strides."
Al Henley came up behind them. "There he is, gentlemen. Amber Mac." He smiled with the slickness of a used-car salesman who knew he had serious customers on the lot. "In case I need to remind you, Mac's sire is Macintosh Red from Dufoil Stables in Virginia. Among his credits, Red won the Arkansas Derby, the Arlington Million and the Oak Leaf Stakes. His dam is our own Honey's Gold. She foaled Amber Mac in March."
"We know all that, Al," Marshall said. "It doesn't mean we're going to buy this horse."
Henley slapped Marshall on his back. "I think it does, Marsh. It's all about the bloodlines and you know this is a top-notch animal."
"I don't know anything of the sort," Marshall said.
"He's carrying around that extra flesh we see in a lot of weanlings. What do you think, son?"
Brady hid a smile. "It's a shame, isn't it?" he said. "Means I'll have to put him on grass for a few weeks. Breeders should know better than to let a horse put on show fat."
Henley laughed. "Why don't you boys quit wasting time and make me an offer on this horse."
Marshall rubbed his chin. "I might take a chance on him. Like you said, his bloodlines are impressive. I'm prepared to offer you ten thousand."
Despite the cool January temperature, Brady removed his wide-brimmed hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. These two horse traders were a long way from coming to an agreement.
Henley scoffed at the offer. "Take Mac away," he instructed his stableman as he headed toward another group of potential buyers. "Find some serious horsemen in this crowd."
Brady started to protest, but Marshall lay a work-roughened hand on his shirtsleeve. "We can't appear too anxious, son. I wouldn't be surprised if Blue Bonnet had one of their own men in the crowd pretending to be interested in Mac." He smiled with one side of his mouth. "One thing you should remember about horse traders you can't trust any of us. The best thing we can do now is have a look at that two-year-old Appaloosa over there and make Henley think we've lost interest."
At their truck forty-five minutes and several conversations later, Marshall Carrick took his checkbook from his glove compartment. "Not bad," he said as he wrote out the check. "I would have gone fifty grand on Mac, so I'm satisfied with forty-three thousand."
Dobbs passed around bottles of beer from a six-pack. "At least Henley's providing the refreshments."
Brady accepted the drink and took a long swallow. Forty-three thousand dollars. He knew his father had the money, but despite the fair salary Brady was earning at Cross Fox, it had been a long time since he'd seen five-digit figures in his own checking account. He figured it would take at least ten minutes for his heart to stop jumping into his throat.
"I'll find Al, pay our bill and make arrangements to pick up the horse," Marshall said, heading back to the show ring. He stopped and called over his shoulder. "I'm starved. Where'd you say that restaurant is you always go to, Dobbs?"
"Only a couple of miles down the road in Prairie Bend," the Irishman said. "Cliff's Diner. Best food in Texas."
"Meet you boys back here at the truck," Marshall said. "I'm hungry enough to eat a " He stopped, chuckled. "Guess I won't say it."
Brady drained the rest of his beer. "I'll meet you at the truck, too, Dobbs. I've got to have one more look at Amber Mac."
The trainer rested his arm on a fence post and smiled. "I thought you might."
CLIFF'S DINER was like a hundred others surviving in Texas prairie towns. It looked like an Airstream travel trailer on steroids, all silvery chrome on the outside and red, black and white on the inside. Brady waited for his father to slide into the vinyl booth then sat beside him. Dobbs settled across from them and opened one of the three menus the hostess had set on the table.
Marshall pushed his reading glasses to the end of his nose. "What's good?"
"The burgers," Dobbs said. "Half a pound each and brimming with juice 'long as you don't order them well done."
What the heck. Brady figured his arteries could stand a wake-up call. Besides, they were celebrating, and for a born-and-bred Texan, any celebration included beef. "So that's why you come here, to have a hamburger?"
"And the lemonade," Dobbs said. He leaned across the table. "Not to mention the best part "A smile split the weathered creases of his face. "And there she is."
A cute, dark-haired waitress stopped at their table, an order pad open in her hand. "Hey, Dobbs," she said. "I haven't seen you around in a few months. No interesting horses over at the Blue Bonnet?"
"I don't come all the way up here from River Bluff just to buy horses, darlin'. I come to see the prettiest waitress in Prairie Bend, maybe all of Texas. And if I'd known you were getting better looking every day, I'd have made the trip more often."
Brady stared at the trainer. Nearly all traces of Dobbs's Irish ancestry had vanished from his speech, though he still had the gift of the gab. The waitress was young enough to be his granddaughter. But Dobbs was about as faithful to his wife, Serafina, as any man could be.
The girl must have known it, as well, because she rolled her eyes. "Do you want lemonade with that blarney, Dobbs?"
He laughed. "Sure. But first I want you to meet my boss." He nodded toward Marshall. "This is the owner of Cross Fox Ranch, Marshall Carrick."
She stared at Marshall a moment before offering her hand across the table. "Nice to meet you."
"And this fella is his son, Brady," Dobbs said. Brady glanced at the name tag on her red dress.
She took a step back from the table. Her eyes widened as she appraised Brady overtly before grabbing her pen from her pocket and positioning it over the order pad. "Hi. So what'll you have?"
After taking down the orders, she headed toward the kitchen. Dobbs leaned back and smiled at Brady. "You've still got it, don't you?"
Brady stopped fiddling with a plastic carnation in the center of the table. "What are you talking about?"
"Didn't you see the way Molly looked at you? I can't tell you the last time a pretty young thing gave me the once-over. It's obvious Molly is a Cowboys fan."
Brady was used to curious, even adoring gazes from women. He hadn't had many in the past few years, but when he played with the Dallas Cowboys he'd gotten lots, even when he was married and had Daphne on his arm. But he'd swear the look he'd just gotten from Molly wasn't like that. In fact, she'd made him feel uncomfortable, as if she'd noticed he had something stuck between his teeth. He shook his head. "I didn't get the same impression, Dobbs."
"Then you weren't paying attention. I bet you've got a double-decker burger coming with the extra patty on the house." A busboy set three large glasses of lemonade on the table, and Dobbs took a swallow, while Marshall pulled out Amber Mac's sales receipt and ignored them. "Molly's cute, isn't she?" Dobbs said.
Looking over his shoulder, Brady watched her fill the coffee cup of a cowboy at the counter. She smiled at the guy, a warm natural expression unlike the reserved greeting she'd given Brady. She curled her fingers over her shapely hip and laughed, then excused herself with a flippant wave of her hand. Her wavy hair, bound in a ponytail, flirted with her nape as she walked away. "Yeah, she's cute," Brady agreed. "How long have you known her?"
"A while," Dobbs said. "She was working at this diner when I started coming here almost ten years ago. Back then I seem to remember she was married. Then she was gone for a few years. And one day she was back and no ring on her finger."
Dobbs looked at the artificial plants hanging from the ceiling. A pitiful strand of tinsel drooped from one of them, overlooked when the Christmas decorations had been packed up. "I asked her why she hadn't hooked up with someone again," he added.
Oddly curious about the answer, Brady said, "What'd she say?"
"She's a wisecracker. She went on about how any girl would be happy to have a permanent spot at Cliff's Diner and that she'd probably be serving up lemonade when her hair turned gray." He shook his head. "I hope that's not true."
"Hush now," Marshall said, looking up. "Here she comes with our food."
Molly set plates in front of the men, asked if they needed anything else and walked away.
"Eat up," Marshall said. "We've got a horse to take home this afternoon."
As they ate, each man expounded on the virtues of Amber Mac and the possibility of the thorough-bred becoming the newest horse-racing sensation.
Brady washed down a bite of hamburger with some lemonade. No time like the present to state his case. "Let me train him, Dad."
Marshall put his burger down. "Whoa, son. That's a powerful ambition from a guy who, until just recently, had no interest in the business."