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Jolyn Sutherland swung open the rear door of her horse trailer, retreated a safe distance and waited for the explosion. It came right on schedule.
Sinbad, her seventeen-year-old paint gelding, charged backward out of the trailer, legs thrashing, hooves clattering and sides heaving. He came to stop only when all four feet were firmly planted on the groundfor about two seconds. Jolyn grabbed his dangling lead rope before he trotted off in search of the barn and the barrel of oats he knew was waiting for him.
"That old horse never did trailer worth a lick."
Jolyn looked up to see a familiar face. "Dad!"
"You made it." Milt Sutherland strode toward her. "How was the drive down the mountain?"
"Touch and go in one or two spots. But we managed." Ignoring the ribbons of pain that shot up her right leg, she rushed to meet him, a whinnying Sinbad in tow.
Her father enveloped her in a bear hug and for a brief moment, Jolyn was a little girl again, her big, strong Daddy making everything all right. "It's good to be home," she said, her face buried in his shirtfront.
"It's good to have you home, sweetie pie."
She'd missed Blue Ridge, missed living in a town where folks waved when they drove past and karaoke night at Sage's Bar and Grill was considered big entertainment. The only thing better than watching the morning sun peek slowly over the top of Saddle Horn Butte was watching the evening sun set in the distant Verde Mountains.
Jolyn loved touring and wouldn't have traded the last nine years on the road for anything except this, her father's arms holding her tight.
"Your mother's in the kitchen," he said, "fixing enough food to feed an army. She's been anervous wreck the last few days, worried sick you wouldn't survive the drive from Dallas in one piece. Especially in this heat. I swear summer comes earlier every year."
Jolyn thought it was probably just the opposite. Her dad, not her mom, had been the nervous wreck.
"Well, we're here." She drew back after giving him a smacking kiss on the cheek. "Safe and sound."
"Safe, yes. Don't know about the sound part."
"What do you mean?"
Her dad nodded pointedly in Sinbad's direction. She spun around and let out a gasp. "Oh, my gosh! How did that happen?" Bending over, she inspected Sinbad's left side.
The horse sported a nasty gash just behind his shoulder. The wound, in the shape of a jagged V, was at least four inches long and deep from the looks of it. Blood had seeped out, staining the horse's hide a dark red.
"I checked the trailer this morning in Phoenix before we loaded him," she said, her voice echoing her dismay. "So did Uncle Leroy."
Jolyn had stayed with various friends and relatives on her four-day trip cross-country from Texas to Arizona's north country, including stopping to have lunch today with her brother in Pineville. She'd taken her time traveling, not wanting to wear Sinbador herselfout.
Her father came to stand beside her, the two of them contemplating the horse's injury. "He must have run up on something between Pineville and here. The gate maybe."
"I suppose." Jolyn straightened and shook her head. The mountain road did twist and turn, but she'd driven slowly. Five miles under the posted speed limit the entire way.
"That horse has always been clumsy."
She swallowed the retort on the tip of her tongue. It was easier for some people to blame the horse rather than the rider. Jolyn knew better. She, and not Sinbad, was at fault for each of their mishaps, including the last. This latest one was no exception.
"He's excitable. That's what made him a champion barrel racer and headlining performer."
Her father smiled. "He was good in his day. So were you." At twenty years old, Jolyn had left Blue Ridge and joined the Wild and Wooly West Equestrian Show. She and Sinbad traveled with the show until fourteen months ago, their signature bareback jump over a wagon full of mock settlers one of the show's biggest crowd pleasers.
In a split second, the time it took for Sinbad's right rear hoof to catch on the side of the wagon, their career was cut short. Sinbad was laid up for six weeks after the accident. Jolyn for six months. She was lucky she could walk again, much less drive a truck and trailer.
It was the worst and, if things went well for her here in Blue Ridge, the best thing to ever happen to her.
"Do you have any antibiotics in the barn?" she asked her dad while patting Sinbad's neck.
"No. My supplies are a little low."
She wasn't surprised. Her parents hadn't kept horses on the property since she moved out. Anything out in the barn had been recently purchased in anticipation of her coming home.
She reached for her cell phone in her pocket. "I'm going to call Chase."
"Is that really necessary? He's probably in the middle of dinner."
"It's a bad cut, Dad, and needs to be treated."
"We've got some peroxide in the house."
"I'd feel better if Chase looked at it."
Chase Raintree was the local veterinarian, the only one in a thirty-five-mile radius. He and Jolyn had been friends since before they could remember. Despite only sporadic contact in recent years, she was certain he'd come if she asked himin the middle of dinner or not.
"The horse'll be fine until morning," her father said, dismissing her concerns. "You can head over to the feed store first thing after breakfast and pick up some medicine."
"I will if Chase isn't available."
She flipped open her cell phone and began to press buttons, assuming the number hadn't changed. Chase had taken over his parents' house when they semiretired and moved to Mesa a few years earlier and lived there with his eight-year-old daughter, Mandy.
Jolyn's father stayed her hand. "Maybe that's not such a good idea."
"Why?" She gave him a curious stare.
"Your mother and he are well, let's just say they're having a difference of opinion."
"About Mandy?" Jolyn asked.
"Oh, no." Jolyn's heart sank. "I thought Mom agreed to let that go."
"She's recently changed her mind."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Her father heaved a tired sigh. "I didn't want to upset you before your trip. Figured you had enough to deal with."
Jolyn groaned. "What brought this on?"
"I'm not sure. Mandy started taking lessons oh, sometime last fall I guess it was. But your mother didn't get pushy with Chase again until recently."
Dottie Sutherland operated a small dance studio out of the community center, offering classes three afternoons a week and Saturday mornings. Most of the girls in town, and even the occasional boy, studied under her at one point or another while growing up. As a child, Jolyn endured two years of lessons before permanently trading her tap shoes for cowboy boots.
"Can't you stop her?" Jolyn asked.
Her father raised one eyebrow and gave a short laugh.
"You're joking, of course."
She hadn't been but didn't contradict him. "This isn't just about Mom. There are other people's feelings to consider, including Mandy's. She still doesn't know, does she?"
"I don't think so."
"I can't support Mom in this if it means hurting Mandy." Or going against Chase, she added silently.
Her father scowled. "I don't know what's with your mother lately. She's been acting funny."
"Just not her usual self." He exhaled. "I've asked her again and again what's wrong but she keeps insisting nothing's the matter."
"Maybe I can get her to open up."
"It's worth a shot, I guess." His tone implied she'd get no further with her mother than he had.
Sinbad, evidently tired of standing in one place, began pawing the ground. The movement caused his injury to gape and seep fresh blood.
Jolyn made a decision. As much as she wanted to see her mother and get to the bottom of whatever was bothering her, Sinbad's injury needed attending. Turning him around, she walked toward the trailer. "I'm going to drive over to Chase's." She hated loading the horse back into the trailer after a grueling four-day road trip but saw no other choice.
Her father followed her. "What about supper? Your mother won't be happy after all the work she's put into it."
"This won't take long."
"You baby that horse too much considering what he did to you."
"Not now, Dad. Please." She'd just returned home after a long absence and wasn't in the mood to dredge up old arguments. To ease the tension, she gave him another kiss on the cheek. "I won't be long, I promise."
Chase lived half a mile away. She'd phone him on the drive over there. If he happened to be away, she'd wait for him and cleanse Sinbad's wound using a garden hose.
And what if he doesn't want to see you?
Of course he does, Jolyn told herself. Chase might be angry with her mother but he'd never refuse to treat a sick or injured animal.
He'd looked good the last time she'd seen himtwo Christmases ago, was it?though tired. His dark brown eyes had lacked their usual warmth, and his killer smile struck her as forced. The divorce and grueling custody battle had obviously taken a toll on him. Had he changed since then? And what would he think about the changes in her? Both the good and bad ones? Would he even notice?
It occurred to Jolyn that her need to rush Sinbad over to Chase's house might be motivated by her desire to see him, especially now that he was single again.
Before loading Sinbad she inspected the inside of the trailer. Finding no sharp edge on the gate that might have caused the cut, she erred on the side of caution and chose to put him on the left side of the gate this time. The big paint initially balked at going back into the trailer but finally complied after much coaxing. Jolyn shut the door behind him and dropped the latch in place.
Her father rested a hand on her shoulder. "This isn't all your mother's fault. You can't blame her entirely."
"No, it's not all her fault."
It was her brother Steven's fault when, nine years ago, he'd decided to have an affair with SherryAnne, Jolyn's one-time best friend and Chase's wife of three months. To this day, no one knew for certain who Mandy's biological father was. Not even SherryAnne, at least as far as she was telling.
CHASE WALKED OUT of the house, the screen door banging shut behind him. He spotted Jolyn's truck pulling into his driveway, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. She'd returned to Blue Ridge. Hopefully, to stay. He hadn't realized until now how much he missed her.
When she approached, he motioned her on, signaling she should park near the barn, next to his truck. She gave him a wave as she rolled past. Chase followed, hurrying his steps. He rounded the back end of the trailer at the same moment she hopped out of the truck cab.
"Hey there." She came toward him, grinning from ear to ear. He avoided staring at her pronounced limp and kept his eyes focused on her face. It wasn't exactly a hardship. Jolyn had always been a cute girl. She'd grown up into a very attractive woman. Hell, she'd just plain grown up. Chase didn't recall her filling out a T-shirt quite that nicely.
"Hey there, yourself." He scooped her up in an impulsive hug and swung her around in a circle. She felt nice in his arms. So nice, he didn't let her go right away. "It's good to see you again, Beanie."
She pulled out of his embrace and glared at him with enough heat to blister paint. "I'm leaving right this minute and never coming back if you call me that awful name one more time."
"String Bean Sutherland," he teased.
"You're as bad as you ever were."
"Some say I'm worse."
Her voice dropped in pitch. "Do tell."
Was she flirting with him? Or, more precisely, flirting back? The Jolyn he remembered was too shy, too serious, too self-conscious around men to engage in lighthearted sexual banter. What, besides nearly losing her right leg, had happened to her during the last nine years?
She looked the same. Well, almost the same. Her brown hair sported blond highlights and was cut in a shorter, more sophisticated style. She'd also taken to wearing makeup. Not much, just enough to enhance her hazel eyes and full mouth. Dallas had obviously agreed with Jolyn. He liked the new her, liked seeing her finally come into her own.
Easy, boy. Chase took a mental step back, reminding himself this wasn't just Jolyn, one of his oldest and closest friends. This was Dottie Sutherland's daughter, and Dottie was a woman dead set on making his life miserable. No, ruining it.
About the same time Chase sobered, a loud bang came from inside her horse trailer. Sinbad was making his displeasure known.
Jolyn shook her head. "I'd better get him out before he kicks a hole in the door."
"So, what scrape did he get into this time?"
"Scrape is exactly how I'd describe it. He was fine when I loaded him in Phoenix but not so fine when I unloaded him at the folks' house. He has a pretty bad cut on his left side."
"Let's have a look."
She opened the trailer door. Sinbad nearly plowed over her in his haste to escape and only calmed when she had a firm hold on his lead rope. "That wasn't so bad, was it, old boy?"
Chase chuckled. "All these years and you still haven't trained that horse to trailer?"
"We were too busy working on other things."
As he well knew. He and his ex-wife, SherryAnne, had competed in horsemanship events alongside Jolyn up through their high-school graduation. SherryAnne went all the way to become Gila County Junior Rodeo Queen. Jolyn, the better rider in Chase's opinion, lost out at the last minute and had to settle for being one of SherryAnne's attendants.
"I really appreciate you seeing us. Dad told me Mom's been giving you a hard time again."
"She is, I won't lie. No court order yet, but she's threatened to see an attorney." Chase examined Sinbad's injury as he talked.
"For the record, Chase, I completely disagree with her." Jolyn laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "I always have."
"I know." He turned to give her a smile. "And it means a lot to me. Your mother is a force to be reckoned with when she chooses. Standing up to her isn't easy." Chase understood that more than most. He'd been the brick wall Dottie Sutherland had bashed into for the last nine years.
"Has she said anything around town?" Jolyn asked. She kept Sinbad quiet while Chase filled a bucket with water from the hose. "Mandy doesn't hasn't heard "
"Nothing as far as I know." Chase went to his truck and the custom-built compartments in the bed, where he stored veterinary supplies. He removed a pair of clippers, a bottle of disinfectant wash and sterilized cotton. "I will give your mother credit. She doesn't appear to be running off at the mouth, for which I'm grateful."
Chase set to work shaving the area around the wound, then he swabbed it clean. Sinbad behaved himself, paying little attention to Chase. Jolyn helped by distracting the horse with nose petting.
"You have every right to be angry at Mom. Maybe you should consider seeing an attorney yourself."
"I will if push comes to shove. So far, your mother is just blowing smoke." Chase silently wondered how long that would last.
Almost since the day she learned the chance existed that her son, Steven, might be Mandy's biological parentChase refused to use the term fathershe'd been pressuring Chase off and on to have DNA testing done. Thank God none of her family supported her, including Steven, who'd moved to Pine-ville years ago and purportedly wanted nothing to do with Mandy. But that didn't stop Dottie. Lately, she'd escalated her pressuring to a new level.
Chase had fought her and would continue to fight her night and day. Mandy was his daughter, had been from the moment the nurse placed the squirming and squalling newborn in his arms. The only way Steven or any of the Sutherlands were going to get their hands on her was over his cold, lifeless body.
"Sutures or no sutures?" he asked Jolyn.
"What do you recommend?"
"Your choice. The wound will heal without them. Might take longer, especially if it breaks open, which is likely, being near the shoulder. Depends a lot on him and how quiet you can keep him for the next several days."
"Not very. You know Sinbad."
"Yeah, I do. He won't stand well when I anesthetize the area. Which, if we decide to suture the wound, means I'd have to sedate him."
"No, you won't. He'll stand."
"You sure?" Chase squinted one eye at Jolyn.
She nodded. "He's gotten a lot better."
"Really?" Chase remained unconvinced.
"Injuries were a pretty regular occurrence in the show. Horses didn't enter the ring unless they were cleared by a vet, even when they weren't injured. The management had a strict policy."
"Okay, then. Sutures it is. Do you want to tie up one of his legs just to be on the safe side?"