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As far as Brian Donnelly was concerned, a vindictive woman had invented the tie to choke the life out of man so that he would then be so weak she could just grab the tail of it and lead him wherever she wanted him to go. Wearing one made him feel stifled and edgy, and just a little awkward.
But strangling ties, polished shoes and a dignified attitude were required in fancy country clubs with their slick floors and crystal chandeliers and vases crowded with flowers that looked as if they'd been planted on Venus.
He'd have preferred to be in the stables, or on the track or in a good smoky pub where you could light up a cigar and speak your mind. That's where a man met a man for business, to Brian's thinking.
But Travis Grant was paying his freight, and a hefty price it was to bring him all the way from Kildare to America.
Training racehorses meant understanding them, working with them, all but living with them. People were necessary, of course, in a kind of sideways fashion. But country clubs were for owners, and those who played at being racetrackers as a hobby"or for the prestige and profit.
A glance around the room told Brian that most here in their glittery gowns and black ties had never spent any quality time shoveling manure.
Still, if Grant wanted to see if he could handle himself in posh surroundings, blend in with the gentry, he'd damn well do it. The job wasn't his yet. And Brian wanted it.
Travis Grant's Royal Meadows was one of the top thoroughbred farms in the country. Over the last decade, it had moved steadily toward becoming one of the best in the world. Brian had seen the American's horses run in Kildare at Curragh. Each one had been a beauty. Thelatest he'd seen only weeks before, when the colt Brian had trained had edged out the Maryland bred by half a neck.
But half a neck was more than enough to win the purse, and his own share of it as trainer. More, it seemed, it had been enough to bring Brian Donnelly to the eye and the consideration of the great Mr. Grant.
So here he was, at himself's invitation, Brian thought, in America at some posh gala in a fancy club where the women all smelled rich and the men looked it.
The music he found dull. It didn't stir him. But at least he had a beer and a fine view of the goings-on. The food was plentiful and as polished and elegant as the people who nibbled on it. Those who danced did so with more dignity than enthusiasm, which he thought was a shame, but who could blame them when the band had as much life as a soggy sack of chips?
Still it was an experience watching the jewels glint and crystal wink. The head man in Kildare hadn't been the sort to invite his employees to parties.
Old Mahan had been fair enough, Brian mused. And God knew the man loved his horses"as long as they ended by prancing in the winner's circle. But Brian hadn't thought twice about flipping the job away at the chance for this one.
And, well, if he didn't get it, he'd get another. He had a mind to stay in America for a while. If Royal Meadows wasn't his ticket, he'd find another one.
Moving around pleased him, and by doing so, by knowing just when to pack his bag and take a new road, he'd hooked himself up with some of the best horse farms in Ireland.
There was no reason he could see why he couldn't do the same in America. More of the same, he thought. It was a big and wide country.
He sipped his beer, then lifted an eyebrow when Travis Grant came in. Brian recognized him easily, and his wife as well"the Irish woman, he imagined, was part of his edge in landing this position.
The man, Grant, was tall, powerfully built with hair a thick mixture of silver and black. He had a strong face, tanned and weathered by the outdoors. Beside him, his wife looked like a pixie with her small, slim build. Her hair was a sweep of chestnut, as glossy as the coat of a prize thoroughbred.
They were holding hands.
It was a surprising link. His parents had made four children between them, and worked together as a fine and comfortable team. But they'd never been much for public displays of affection, even as mild a one as handholding.
A young man came in behind them. He had the look of his father"and Brian recognized him from the track in Kildare. Brendon Grant, heir apparent. And he looked comfortable with it"as well as the sleek blonde on his arm.
There were five children, he knew"had made it his business to know. A daughter, another son and twins, one of each sort. He didn't expect those who had grown up with privilege to bother themselves overly about the day-to-day running of the farm. He didn't expect that they'd get in his way.
Then she rushed in, laughing.
Something jumped in his belly, in his chest. And for an instant he saw nothing and no one else. Her build was delicate, her face vibrant. Even from a distance he could see her eyes were as blue as the lakes of his homeland. Her hair was flame, a sizzling red that looked hot to the touch and fell, wave after wave, over her bare shoulders.
His heart hammered, three hard and violent strokes, then seemed simply to stop.
She wore something floaty and blue, paler, shades paler than her eyes. What must have been diamonds fired at her ears.
He'd never in his life seen anything so beautiful, so perfect. So unattainable.
Because his throat had gone burning dry, he lifted his beer and was disgusted to realize his hand wasn't quite steady.
Not for you, Donnelly, he reminded himself. Not for you to even dream of. That would be the master's oldest daughter. And the princess of the house.
Even as he thought it, a man with a well-cut suit and pampered tan went to her. The way she offered her hand to him was just cool enough, just aloof enough to have Brian sneering"which was a great deal more comfortable than goggling.
Ah yes, indeed, she was royalty. And knew it.
The other family came in"that would be the twins, Brian thought, Sarah and Patrick. And a pretty pair they were, both tall and slim with roasted chestnut hair. The girl, Sarah"Brian knew she was just eighteen"was laughing, gesturing widely.
The whole family turned toward her, effectively" perhaps purposely"cutting out the man who'd come to pay homage to the princess. But he was a persistent sort, and reaching her, laid his hand on her shoulder. She glanced over, smiled, nodded.
Off to do her bidding, Brian mused as the man slipped away. A woman like that would be accustomed to flicking a man off, Brian imagined, or reining him in. And making him as grateful as the family hound for the most casual of pats.
Because the conclusion steadied him, Brian took another sip of his beer, set his glass aside. Now, he decided, was as good a time as any to approach the grand and glorious Grants.
"Then she whacked him across the back of his knees with her cane," Sarah continued. "And he fell face first into the verbena."
"If she was my grandmother," Patrick put in, "I'd move to Australia."
"Sure Will Cunningham usually deserves a whack. More than once I've been tempted to give him one myself." Adelia Grant glanced over, her laughing eyes meeting Brian's. "Well then, you've made it, haven't you?"
To Brian's surprise, she held out both hands to him, clasped his warmly and drew him into the family center. "It appears I have. It's a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Grant."
"I hope your trip over was pleasant."
"Uneventful, which is just as good." As small talk wasn't one of his strengths, he turned to Travis, nodded.
"Brian. I hoped you'd make it tonight. You've met Brendon."
"I did, yes. Did you lay any down on the colt I told you of?"
"On the nose. And since it was at five-to-one, I owe you a drink, at least. What can I get you?"
"I'll have a beer, thanks."
"What part of Ireland are you from?" This was from Sarah. She had her mother's eyes, Brian thought. Warm green, and curious.
"I'm from Kerry. You'd be Sarah, wouldn't you?"
"That's right." She beamed at him. "This is my brother Patrick, and my sister Keeley. Our Brady's already on campus, so we're one short tonight."
"Nice meeting you, Patrick." Deliberately he inclined his head in what was nearly a bow as he turned to Keeley. "Miss Grant."
She lifted one slim eyebrow, the gesture as deliberate as his own. "Mr. Donnelly. Oh, thank you, Chad." She accepted the glass of champagne, touched a hand briefly to the arm of the man who'd brought it to her.
"Chad Stuart, Brian Donnelly, from Kerry. That's in Ireland," she added with an irony dry as dust.
"Oh. Are you one of Mrs. Grant's relatives?"
"I don't have that privilege, no. There are a few of us scattered through the country who are not, in fact, related."
Patrick snorted out a laugh and earned a warning look from his mother. "Well now, we're cluttering up the place as usual. We'll move this herd along to our table. I hope you'll join us, Brian."
"How about a dance, Keeley?" Chad asked, standing at her elbow in a proprietary manner.
"I'd love to," she said absently and stepped forward.
"A little later."
"Have a care." Brian put a hand lightly on Keeley's elbow as they walked away. "Or you'll slip on the pieces of the heart you just broke."
She slid a glance over and up. "I'm very surefooted," she told him, then made a point of taking a seat between her two brothers.
Because he'd caught the scent of her"subtle sex, with an overlay of class"he made a point of sitting directly across from her. He sent her one quick grin, then settled in to be entertained by Sarah, who was already chattering to him about horses.
She didn't like the look of him, Keeley thought as she sipped her champagne. He was just a little too much of everything. His eyes were green, a sharper tone than her mother's. She imagined he could use them to slice his opponent in two with one glance. And she had a feeling he'd enjoy it. His hair was brown, but anything but a quiet shade, with all those gilded streaks rioting through it, and he wore it too long, so that it waved past his collar and around a face of planes and angles.
A sharp face, like his eyes, one with a faint shadow of a cleft in the chin and a well-defined mouth that struck her as being just a little too sensuous.
She thought he was built like a cowboy"longlegged and rangy, and looking entirely too rough-andready for his suit and tie.
She didn't care for the way he stared at her, either. Even when he wasn't looking at her it felt as if he were staring. And as if he'd read her thoughts, he shifted his eyes to hers again. His smile was slow, unmistakably insolent, and made her want to bare her teeth in a snarl.
Rather than give him the satisfaction, Keeley rose and walked unhurriedly to the ladies' lounge.
She hadn't gotten all the way through the door when Sarah bulleted in behind her. "God! Isn't he gorgeous?"
"Come on, Keel." Rolling her eyes, Sarah plopped down on one of the padded stools at the vanity counter and prepared to enjoy a chat. "Brian. I mean he is so hot. Did you see his eyes? Amazing. And that mouth" makes you just want to lap at it or something. Plus, he's got a terrific butt. I know because I made sure I walked behind him to check it out."