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Monday, January 5
"It's no good," Brent Preston said sharply at his brother's entrance. "I've hit a wall in this investigation."
"That bad?" Andrew inquired. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the marble counter in the middle of the family's country kitchen.
Brent had gone over everything in his mind and on paper a hundred times, and still he came up without answers that made sense.
He swept a hand over his face and turned to his brother. "Dammit, I don't know what the hell went wrong. That breeding went like scores of others I've arranged and supervised."
Andrew regarded him sympathetically. "No one's blaming you."
Like hell they're not. And even if they aren't, I am. I was in charge.
Last spring, three-year-old Leopold's Legacy had become the star racehorse at the family's Quest Stables, winning the Kentucky Derby, as well as the Preakness. The stallion appeared to be on his way to taking the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, as well, but even without the Triple Crown, Leopold's Legacy would garner enormous stud fees. Then a computer glitch at the Jockey Association prompted a call for a certain group of Thoroughbreds to have their DNA resubmitted.
No big deal.
Until the results came back. Then all hell broke loose.
According to the new DNA test,Apollo's Ice was not the sire of Leopold's Legacy, as the registration papers stated. Even worse, no one knew who the sire was, since the DNA didn't match that of any stud in the Thoroughbred file.
The Jockey Association wasn't interested in how the mix-up had occurred; their sole concern was that the provenance of the horse was not what it was purported to be. Leopold'sLegacy was pulled from the Belmont Stakes and Quest Stables was given three months to solve the discrepancy. When they were unable to do so, all Thoroughbreds majority-owned by Quest were banned by local and regional racing commissions from competing in North America. An international ban soon followed.
Almost overnight, revenue dropped by half as owners pulled their horses from the stables.
Andrew idly stirred his cup. "Listen, Brent, most of our clients will come back."
"Maybe," his brother allowed, "if this DNA debacle can be solved soon, and if it's cleared up without prejudice. But a prolonged investigation or proven fault on the part of Quest, and on me " He let the words fade as he gazed toward the wall of windows looking out on the winter garden. Its bleakness matched his mood. "If there's no resolution at all, it'll be the end of Quest." He let out a long breath. "When I think about what Granddad has created, all his hard work, his love, his passionwhen I think of it being wiped out in his own lifetime because I was too damn blind to know when I was being taken I'm the head breeder. I witnessed the live cover. What are people supposed to think?"
"Look," Andrew said. "As manager of this place, I can tell you we're not going to fold. It's just a matter of time before we get a break."
He was being optimistic. Stables had gone out of business for less. He was also being generous in not mentioning how the situation was impacting his personal ambitions. Andrew had been planning to run for president of the International Thoroughbred Racing Federation someday. Brent had hoped when that happened he'd be able to take over as general manager of Quest. None of that would happen nowor maybe everwith this scandal haunting Quest's reputation.
"I've decided to go to England," Brent announced tersely.
"England? In January?" His mother, Jenna, walked into the kitchen and hooked her favorite mug, already set out on the counter. "Dress warmly, dear."
"Why England?" his father, Thomas, asked, trailing closely behind her.
"Nolan Hunter, of course," Jenna declared, before her son could respond.
Brent almost smiled. Not much got past his mother. He had attended the Gulf Classic in Florida on NewYear's Day and had run into Nolan Hunter, the owner of Apollo's Ice. Nolan had entered Sterling Pass in one of the races but was beaten in a photo finish by Brent's sister, Melanie, riding Something to Talk About. Brent had invited the Englishman to spend a few days relaxing with the family at Quest Stables in Kentucky before returning home, hoping he might learn more from him about the debacle that was threatening his family. He had, but not in the expected way.
"I'm having second thoughts about Nolan," Brent admitted.
"I thought you might be," his mother said, as she poured coffee for her husband and herself. "The man is charming and sophisticated, but there's something about him that sets my teeth on edge."
Brent nodded. "Yesterday, just before he left for the airport, I overheard him talking on his cell phone. I don't normally listen in on other people's conversations, but the tone he was using was unlike the polished English gentleman. More like a street thug."
"What was he discussing?" Andrew asked.
"I didn't get all of it. He was angry, no question about that, insisted he had things here well in hand, that there was no reason to worry. He kept referring to some third personhe didn't specify whoand said the guy couldn't do anything because he had no proof."
"Any idea who he was talking to?" his father asked.
"Someone named Camberg. The name mean anything to any of you?"
Everybody shook their heads.
"You heard only one side of this exchange," Andrew reminded him. "Isn't it possible you're misinterpreting what"
"Of course it's possible," Brent snapped. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "And this conversation may not have had anything to do with Apollo's Ice or Leopold's Legacy. Nolan didn't mention horses. But I didn't mistake the guy's tone. There's a side to the Right Honorable, the Viscount Kestler, that we haven't seen before.And I'd bet good money it's not one his peers would approve of."
Andrew took a sip of his coffee. "Nolan Hunter has social position, considerable wealth and an impeccable reputation. Why would he risk all that?"
"How the hell do I know?" Brent retorted. "But he is the owner of Apollo's Ice, and until we find out who's behind the DNA fraud, he's my prime suspect."
"A trip to England might be just the thing," Jenna observed. "Especially right now."
No one needed elaboration. They were all aware that the anniversary of Marti's death was approaching.
Three years ago Brent's wife had started complaining about nonspecific problems, mostly lethargy and tiredness, nothing she could put her finger on. Athletic, bright and perpetually cheerful, she had captured Brent's heart thirty seconds after they'd bumped into each other, literally, in the college library. They'd gone together for two years before getting married right after their graduation, he with a degree in animal husbandry, she with a double major in English and sociology.
Since their twin daughters had just started kindergarten, Brent and Marti chalked her sluggishness up to her missing the girls being home all the time. He suggested she start a new project to keep herself busy.
Six months later, she died of cancer.
He'd lost her, and that loss still lay heavy on his heart, dominating his every private thought. If only he'd insisted she go to a doctor sooner If only
He'd spent countless hours harboring that guilt but precious few wallowing in it. He had his beautiful twins to guide through their grief and sorrow. It was a purgatory no parent ever wanted to suffer, yet it surprised him to realize that somehow he'd succeeded. He was proud of his daughters. They made him want to go on.
"What about the girls?" Jenna asked. "School starts next week."
"I'll take them with me," Brent told her. "I don't want to be separated from them right now."
"I'll talk to the school principal," his mother said. "Althea's very accommodating about children taking trips with their parents."
"Where are they this morning?" Andrew asked. "Surely not sleeping late. That'd be a first."
"They went down to the stables with Granddad to see Raleigh's Rascal, Isabella's new foal. They should be back any minute."
Just then they heard a commotion at the back door, the high-pitched excited voices of young children and the low rumble of a mature man. A moment later two identical eight-year-old girls burst into the room.
"Isabella let us touch her baby," Rhea exclaimed. "Rascal is so soft."
"And he hasn't got any teeth yet," Katie added, "just like a regular baby."
Their ponytails were held back with yellow ribbons to match the bright yellow polo shirts they were wearing with red jeans.
Their great-grandfather stood behind them. Tall and lean, with a fuzzy head of white hair, at eighty-six, Hugh Preston still had the power to dominate a room simply by walking into it.
At his heel stood Seamus, a steely-blue-gray-colored Irish wolfhound whose shoulders came to the man's knees. Hugh patted him on the head, then pointed to the corner, where the dog contentedly lay down with a slight groan to observe the activities of the humans around him.
"I figure sixteen hands," Hugh said about the foal. "A bay now, but I'm hoping he'll gray out like his sire." He poured himself coffee.
"I want orange juice," Rhea said, racing over to the marble counter and reaching for the nearly full pitcher. Katie was beside her, competing for it.
"Whoa." Brent rose from his seat. "I'll pour. First, how about showing some manners by saying good morning to your grandparents?"
"Good morning," they sang in unison.
"And Uncle Andrew," Brent prompted.
They wished him a good morning, as well. Immediately Rhea asked, "Can we have our juice now?"
Suppressing a smile, Brent poured it for them. "How would you girls like to go on a trip?"
"To Disney World?" Rhea asked, wide-eyed. "Jennifer and her mom went there over Christmas. She said it was awesome."
"I was thinking of England." He handed them each a medium-size glass only half-full.
"I don't want to go to England," Katie told him with a pout. "I want to go to Disney World."
"You'll get to see the Tower of London," Thomas told them.
"And we can hear the clock strike," Rhea contributed. "Bong, bong, bong"
"That's Big Ben," Andrew said. "The Tower of London is a castle."
Katie frowned. "Then why do they call it a tower?"
"It's where the queen keeps all her jewelry," Jenna explained.
"You mean the queen lives in a tower?" Katie asked. "Like Rumpelstiltskin?"
"No," her sister said impatiently. "She lives in Buckingham Palace."
"But why doesn't she keep her jewelry with her at home, like other people?"
Exasperated, Rhea said, "Because she's not like other people, silly. She's the queen, and she's got so much jewelry she doesn't have room for all of it in her palace."
"When do you plan to leave?" Thomas asked his son.
"I don't want to go to England," Katie repeated, clearly not enticed by the lure of seeing a tower full of jewelry.
"In the next day or two," Brent answered, "if I can make the arrangements."
As they settled down to family breakfast, Brent mentally reviewed the other reasons he wanted to investigate Nolan Hunter, the Viscount Kestler. Over the past week Brent had learned that Marcus Vasquez, Melanie's fiancé and Quest's former trainer, was actually Nolan's illegitimate half brother. Marcus had also confided to Brent that he suspected Nolan was not being completely up front about the breeding scandal, though he could offer no proof to support his allegation. Brent might have dismissed it as sour grapes over the issue of the Spaniard's paternity, had he not overheard Nolan's phone conversation.
A horse in Dubai owned by Lord Rochester had purportedly been sired by Apollo's Ice. Not long after the Sandstone Derby, the horse was found dead. Poisoned. DNA tests revealed the stallion had not been sired by Apollo's Ice, but by the same mysterious stallion that had sired Leopold's Legacy. Brent had discussed the matter on the phone with Lord Rochester, but the Englishman had no idea who could be behind the fraud.
"What's your game plan in England?" Thomas asked, after the girls had been excused to return to the barn to see the new pony again.
"I thought I might start at the Jockey Association in London, see what I can pick up there."
"Marcus mentioned that Nolan's younger sister Devon teaches in a private girls' school near Oxford," Jenna commented. "Briar Hills Academy, I think he said. You might contact her to see what light she can shed on the situation."
"If you need help, son," Thomas said, "all you have to do is call. You know that. One of us all of us can be on the next available flight to Heathrow."
"I don't have to tell you to be careful, brother," Andrew said. "This scam is international and somebody's making big bucks. The closer we get to the truth, the more desperate they're going to get."