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Hannah Sutherland pressed the pedal of the golf cart to the floorboard, racing the battery-powered machine up the long curving driveway toward the main house.
Guest. My office. N.O.W.
That had been her father's text, and as irritable as he'd been lately, she didn't dare keep him waiting. But who could be so important that she had to drop everything and hurry to the house?
When she reached the stairs leading to the back patio, she slammed on the brake, leaped from the vehicle and hustled into the house, straightening her hair and adjusting her hastily changed clothing as she crossed the black-and-white marbled foyer. The sound of her boots echoed off the vaulted ceiling.
At the sight of the closed office door, her step hitched. She hadn't seen that door closed since the day her mother had died. Apprehension climbed her spine like a spider.
She shook off her uneasiness and knocked on the glossy surface. A moment later, the panel opened revealing Al Brinkley, the family's lawyer. He'd been her father's friend as well as his legal council for as long as Hannah could remember.
"Good to see you, Mr. Brinkley."
Brinkley's smile seemed forced. "Hello, Hannah. I swear you look more like your mother every day."
"So I've been told." Too bad looks were all she'd inherited from her mom. Hannah's life would have been so much easier if she'd picked up a few more traits.
His expression sobered, resurrecting Hannah's concern. "Come in."
Her father stood behind his desk, his face tense, a highball glass in his hand. It was a little early for cocktails.
Movement by the French doors overlooking the east paddock interrupted the thought. Tall and lean, the other occupant of the study smoothly pivoted in her direction.
His glossy brownish-black hair had been clipped short, but not short enough to hide a tendency to curl that did nothing to soften his uncompromisingly hard jaw and a square chin.
And while his features combined to form a tough but attractive face, nothing would soften those cool, distrusting eyes, and no amount of expensive tailoring could conceal his broad shoulders and firm, muscled body. He had the lean, mean, fighting machine look often displayed on military recruiting posters and an alert and dangerous air. She estimated his age as mid-thirties, but it was hard to say. He had old eyes.
"Come in, Hannah." The odd tension in her father's tone made her wary. "Brink, close the door."
The lawyer did as he was bid, sealing Hannah into the wainscoted room with the three men and a tense atmosphere. Private discussions were not the norm in the house. Nellie, who served as housekeeper, house manager and surrogate mother, was the only one who might overhear, and she was family in every way but blood. So why the secrecy?
"Wyatt, this is my daughter, Hannah. She's the veterinarian overseeing Sutherland Farm's breeding operation. Hannah, Wyatt Jacobs."
Jacobs's searing scrutiny strangely repelled and yet attracted her. Duty compelled her into motion. She crossed the Aubusson carpet. Who was he and what kind of closed-door business could he have with the stable?
Judging by his expensive clothing and the platinum watch on his wrist, he had money, but then all of their visitors did. Grand Prix show jumping wasn't for paupers or even the middle class. Their clients ranged from nouveau riche to established royalty, spoiled brats to dedicated, die-hard horsemen. Where did Wyatt Jacobs fit in?
She'd bet he looked good on a horse with that erect, confident carriage. His eyes were the color of roasted coffee beans, the pupils barely discernible with the sun streaming through the French doors at his back.
"Welcome to Sutherland Farm, Mr. Jacobs," she recited by rote and extended her hand.
His long fingers closed around hers, and his firm, warm grip combined with the impact of that hard, dark gaze made it difficult to breathe. She might as well have had a girth cinched around her chest considering the sudden pressure on her lungs.
"Dr. Sutherland." His deep, slightly raspy and seriously sexy voice would be perfect for radio.
He held her hand, extending the contact and making her wish for a split second that she'd taken the time to freshen her makeup, unbraid and brush her hair and splash on some perfume to mask the scent of stables when she'd quickly changed from her soiled work clothes in her office. But she'd been rushing and done only the absolutely necessary repairs.
Stupid girl. He's a client. And you're not looking for romance, remember?
She tugged her hand and after a brief resistance he released her. She pressed her prickling palm to her thigh. She'd broken her engagement fifteen months ago and in that time she hadn't thought about sex even once. Until now. Wyatt Jacobs made her tingle in places that had been dormant for a long time.
Her father offered her a highball glass of amber liquid. "Dad, you know I can't drink when I'm working. I still have to deal with Commander this morning."
Her frustration with the stallion she'd left in the stables resurfaced. Commander wanted to kill everyoneespecially the vet in charge of collecting his semen. In the arena he'd been a phenomenal competitor, but in the barn he was a bloodthirsty beast. His bloodline and list of championships meant she couldn't ignore him. His ejaculate was liquid gold. But she, her team and the stubborn stud had needed a cool-down period after an unproductive hour. Her father's interruption had actually come at a good time.
Her father set the glass on his desk beside her as if he expected her to change her mind, reactivating the warning itch on her nape. Hannah brushed aside her misgivings and returned her focus to their guest. Jacobs watched her with an unwavering, laser-like intensity that stirred a strange, volatile reaction inside her, and try as she might she couldn't look away.
She'd met movie stars, congressmen and royalty with less charisma. For pity's sake she'd dated and even kissed a few of them with no effect. So why did Jacobs rattle her cage?
Wait a minute. Was that anger lurking in his eyes?
There was only one way to find out.
"What brings you to our stables, Mr. Jacobs?"
"Luthor, would you care to explain why I'm here?" Jacobs deferred. Funny, she would have sworn on her mother's earrings that he wasn't the type to defer anything and doing so now appeared to irritate him.
When the silence stretched, she pried her eyes from Jacobs's handsome face and discovered her usually unflappable father looking defensive and uncomfortable, his pale features set totally unlike his usual calm demeanor. He drained his glass in one gulp and set the tumbler on the desk with a thump.
Her anxiety level spiked. "Daddy, what's going on?"
"I've sold the farm, Hannah," her father stated baldly.
She blinked. Her father had never possessed a sense of humor. Odd time for him to find one. But the idea was too ludicrous to be anything but a bad joke. "Really?"
He glanced at Brinkley's stoic expression, then back. "I have places to go and things to seenone of which I can do if I'm tied to this business every single day of the year."
She searched her father's resolute face. He wasn't joking. The floor beneath her feet seemed to shift. She clutched the edge of the desk for balance. Her knuckles bumped the cold highball glass, but the chill of the crystal couldn't compare to the ice spreading through her veins.
She could feel her mouth opening and closing, but couldn't force out a sound. She shuddered in a breath then stuttered it out again while struggling to gather her shattered thoughts.
"You couldn't have sold the farm. You wouldn't have. You live for the stables." As far as she knew he had no other interests, no hobbies. Nothing except horses, winning and Sutherland Farm. He didn't even have friends outside the horse biz.
Something had to be wrong. Terribly wrong. Fear splintered through her and cold sweat beaded her lip.
Her neck felt like a rusty hinge as she forced her head to turn to Jacobs. "Would you excuse us a moment, Mr. Jacobs?"
Their visitor didn't budge. He studied heras if trying to gauge and anticipate her reaction.
"Please." She hated the desperate edge of her voice. It verged on begging. And she never begged.
After a moment he nodded, crossed the room in purposeful strides and stepped through the doors out onto the veranda. A fresh-cut grass-scented breeze drifted in the open door, but the familiar aroma failed to do its usual job of soothing her.
"Would you like for me to go?" Brinkley asked.
Her father held up a hand. "Stay, Brink. Hannah might have questions only you can answer."
"Daddy, what's wrong? Are you ill?"
He sighed. "No, Hannah. I'm not sick."
"Then how could you do this? You promised Mom you'd keep the farm forever."
The lines in her father's face seemed to deepen. "That was nineteen years ago, Hannah, and she was dying. I said what I had to say to let her pass peacefully."
"But what about me? I promised Mom, too, and I meant it. I'm supposed to take over Sutherland Farm. I'm supposed to keep Grandma and Papa's property in the family and pass it on to my children."
"Children you don't have."
"Well, no, not yet, but one day" She paused as an idea pierced her like a nail. "This is because I didn't marry Robert, isn't it?"
Disapproval clamped her father's mouth into a tight line. "He was perfect for you, and yet you refused to settle down."
"No, Dad, he was perfect for you. Robert was the son you always wished you'd had. Instead, you got me."
"Robert knew how to run a stable."
"So do I."
"Hannah, you don't ride. You don't compete. Your heart is not in this business, and you don't have the drive to keep Sutherland Farm at the top of the Grand Prix community. Instead you waste your time and money on animals that ought to be euthanized."
No matter how many times she heard it, the old attacks still chafed. She stuffed down her emotional response and focused on the facts. "Mom believed in rescuing horses, too, and my horse rehabilitation program is a success. If you'd take the time to look at the statistics and read the success stories"
"Your operation runs in the red every quarter. You're careless with money because you've never had to fight and scratch for a living."
He grunted in disgust. "A few hours a day."
"My job isn't the eight-hour-a-day variety."
"When your mother and I assumed responsibility for my parents' old tobacco farm, this place was losing money hand over fist. We built Sutherland Farm into the showplace it is today by fighting and clawing our way up the ranks. Your mother had ambition. You do not. Robert might have managed to talk some sense into you and divert your attention to more suitable hobbies. But that didn't work. Did it?"
She'd ended her engagement the day she'd realized Robert had loved the horses and farm more than he had her. He'd been willing to trample people in pursuit of the almighty dollar. But her father would never listen to that. The men were like peas in a podidentical in their drive for success despite the costs.
Robert had been her father's ideal of the perfect son-in-lawaggressive in business and a star in the show ringbut ultimately, he wasn't her ideal husband or life partner. She would have come lagging in a distant third in his heart at best. But she could hardly tell her father the only time Robert was passionate was in the riding ring.
"Robert wasn't right for me."
"You're twenty-nine, Hannah, and no man has ever held your attention for more than a few months. You're too picky."
"Daddy, I'm sorry I didn't inherit mother's grace and ability on horseback or your competitive streak. But this farm was her dream. And now it's mine. I can run it. I may not know how to ride a champion, but I know how to breed one. I have what it takes."
"No, Hannah, you don't. You've had a few successes with your stock, but you lack fire and ambition and you have absolutely no head for business. You're never going to be ready to take the reins of Sutherland Farm."
She flinched. His cruel words only confirmed what she knew he'd been thinking for years, but they still stung like the whip of a crop. "That's not true."
"I'm doing you no favors by continuing to coddle you." He paused and glanced at his friend. "I won't always be here to support you, Hannah. It's time you learned to take care of yourself."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm cutting you off."