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Carter Phillips stood in the foyer of the hotel ballroom, trying to determine the perfect time to make his escape. He didn't feel comfortable at fancy parties like this hating anything that took him away from his horses.
As a veterinarian, Carter preferred spending his time in a barn rather than a ballroom, but working for Quest Stables made events like this a necessary evil. Even if it was for a good cause.
The black-tie affair would raise money for an organization that provided horse therapy to disabled children and adults. Andrew Preston, stable manager at Quest and heir apparent to the family business, had helped Carter organize several of these horse therapy camps back in Kentucky. Carter had seen for himself what a thrill riding a horse could be for a child who wasn't able to walk or run.
Carter slowly scanned the ballroom, relieved that he didn't see anyone he knew. He wasn't in the mood for small talk. His plane had arrived in San Diego at six o'clock this morning and he was still adjusting to the three-hour time difference.
Quest Stables had six horses running at Del Mar this season and Carter had spent most of his day evaluating them at the racing facility. All six horses seemed to have weathered the long flight from Woodford County without any difficulty.
The hardest part of the trip so far was ignoring all the whispers and curious glances at the Del Mar stables. Everyone in the racing world knew about the scandal brewing around Quest and how its most famous prizewinning horse, Leopold's Legacy, was at the center of the storm.
After winning the Kentucky Derby and a stunning victory at Preakness, Leopold's Legacy had been poised to wow the entireracing world by running for the Triple Crown.
Then disaster struck when it was discovered that the stallion might not be a Thoroughbred. A reconfiguration of the Jockey Association's computer system had led to an accusation that Apollo's Ice wasn't the sire of Leopold's Legacy as recorded in the official records. It had stunned the Prestons and Carter himself, who had been certain there was some kind of mistake.
A certainty that had crumbled over time.
Now people in the racing world were throwing around words like fraud and deception while everyone at Quest Stables was scrambling to separate the fact from the fiction. It was a scandal that could cost the Preston family their reputation as well as a business worth millions.
A scandal that could ultimately cost Carter his job as head veterinarian at Quest.
He raked a hand through his short hair, bristling at the uncomfortable fit of his tuxedo. It was too tight across the back and shoulders, making him feel as though he was bound up in a straitjacket. Something he might need if this issue wasn't resolved soon.
Hell, he'd overseen the covering of Leopold's Legacy's dam, Courtin' Cristy, by Apollo's Ice, a prizewinning stallion at Angelina Stud Farm. He'd even been present at the foal's birth. But he knew DNA tests didn't lie, and when the results had come back with solid evidence showing that Apollo's Ice wasn't the sire of Leopold's Legacy, as recorded in the Stud Book, it had shaken Quest Stables to its very core. The Prestons had pulled Leopold's Legacy from the Belmont Stakes and were now working to solve the mystery.
A buzzing sensation in his pocket pulled Carter's mind away from the scandal that had occupied his every waking thought since the discovery two months ago. He tugged the slim cell phone from his pocket, then suppressed a groan when he saw the name on the Caller ID screen.
"Hello, Noah," Carter said into the phone.
"Hey, big brother, I'm surprised you remember my name," Noah teased. "How long has it been since we last talked? Three or four years?"
He swallowed a sigh, all too aware he'd been neglecting his family lately. He missed them, and hearing his brother's voice deepened the ache of loneliness that had been gnawing at him lately. "I was home over Christmas," Carter reminded him.
"That's right," Noah concurred. "I guess it just seems longer because I was stuck in Chicago all winter with the folks while you were soaking up the sun and all those beautiful Southern belles in Kentucky."
He knew his little brother never lacked for female companionship, even at the tender age if twenty-one. Noah's wit and charm provided him with plenty of friends. He lived to party and Carter missed hearing Noah's funny stories even as he worried that his brother would never take life seriously
"It gets cold in Kentucky, too," Carter told him, moving toward the display cases set up in the center of the ballroom.
The California Horse Breeders Association was holding a silent auction as part of the fund-raiser. Since he and Andrew Preston shared an interest in the charity, Andrew had asked him to buy something on behalf of the Preston family and make sure the bid was high enough to win. Although the Preston's made generous contributions to several worthy charities, this year Quest Stables needed all the good publicity it could get.
"I'm sure Kentucky is nice and hot in August," Noah replied.
"You're right, but I'm in San Diego at the moment," Carter replied. "We've got horses running at Del Mar."
"So this Leopold's Legacy problem hasn't screwed things up for the other horses at Quest?" Noah asked him.
He should have known his brother would have heard about the scandal. The news about Leopold's Legacy had been splashed across every newspaper in the country with headlines like: Derby Winner a Phony and Triple Crown Contender from the Wrong Side of the Track.
ESPN Magazine had added to the feeding frenzy with an in-depth article about the horse's mystery sire entitled: "Who's Your Daddy?" That was also the question Carter was trying so hard to answer.
Right now, it was only Leopold's Legacy who was not allowed to race, but if they didn't find answers soon, the local and regional racing commissions would enact a ban against all horses majority-owned by Quest.
He grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter as he entered the ballroom and took a deep sip. It wasn't to his taste, since he preferred his liquor hard and strong, just like his women. Not that Carter had found much time for romance since this scandal with Leopold's Legacy had erupted.
"Hey, are you there" Noah asked.
Carter blinked, realizing he'd let his mind wander again. "Yes, I'm still here."
"Well, one of the reasons I'm calling is that you just got a late invitation to your fifteenth high school reunion. It's this weekend."
"Just throw it away," Carter told him.
"You're not coming back for it?"
He heard the disappointment in Noah's voice, but Carter knew he couldn't even consider going home until this mess with Leopold's Legacy was cleared up. The Prestons were like a second family to him and he couldn't abandon them now. "There's no way I can make it. I've got too much work to do."
"That's what you always say," Noah replied. "I think you should try to have some fun for a change and the reunion sounds like a blast."
He checked his watch, realizing he didn't have much time left to bid. "I'm at a charity auction right now and while I wouldn't exactly call it fun, I do need to bid on something." Carter scanned the multitude of items on display. "I'm trying to decide between a set of Limoges china, an authentic silk kimono, and an old saddlebag that was used on the pony express. Which one do you think I should bid on?"
"Can't you just fly to Chicago for the weekend?" Noah persisted. "I'd like to talk to you about something ."
That's when Carter saw it.
His heart skipped a beat as he stared at a breathtaking portrait of Leopold's Legacy. Or rather a bay horse that looked like Leopold's Legacy's identical twin. The stallion in the painting had the same clover-shaped star on its forehead and the same unique flaxen color in its tail.
But there was something more.
The artist had captured the same spirit that Carter saw in Leopold's Legacy. The majestic stallion in the painting had his head turned toward the sun, the light gleaming off the powerful muscles in his neck and shoulders.
Carter couldn't believe this was just a coincidence. The horse in the painting wasn't Leopold's Legacy, but it looked as if they might have the same bloodline and very possibly the same sire.
"Carter?" Impatience laced Noah's voice. "Are you still there?"
"I'm sorry," he said, barely able to think, much less talk coherently. "I've got to go."
"All right, but call me back. I really need to talk to you."
"Okay," Carter said, barely comprehending his brother's words as he slipped the cell phone back into his pocket. He was too fascinated by the portrait and the possibility it presented.
Carter watched a man wearing a ten-gallon hat make a bid on the painting. The silent auction was ending soon and he didn't have time to waste.
"Only fifteen minutes left, sir," said a middle-aged woman with a name tag that proclaimed her as Shirley Biden. "So make your bid count."
Carter picked up the pencil and a bidding slip from the table. "What can you tell me about this painting?"
"It's called Picture of Perfection," she replied. "That's the name of the horse, too. If you're the top bidder, I've arranged it so you not only win the painting, but get an opportunity to meet the artist."
He stared at the painting, his gut telling him that Picture of Perfection might hold the key to his search for Leopold's Legacy's true sire. At the very least, it could be a first step toward solving the mystery that plagued Quest Stables.
"Ten minutes, sir," Shirley said cheerfully.
Although Carter had been asked to bid on an item for Quest Stables, he'd find something else for them. He scribbled down a figure that would make his accountant drop him as a client, but he wanted this painting for himself.
He signed his name to the bid, then handed it to the woman. Her eyebrows shot up when she looked at the number. "Thank you very much, sir. And good luck."
Carter placed another bid on the vintage leather saddlebag for the Preston family, knowing how much matriarch Jenna Preston liked antiques. Then he paced the ballroom, waiting for the silent auction to end.
He found himself wondering about the identity of Picture of Perfection's dam as well as when and where she had been bred. Artificial insemination was forbidden by the Jockey Association and the International Thoroughbred Racing Federation, which meant Thoroughbreds had to be conceived the old-fashioned way. He and Brent Preston, Andrew's brother and Quest's head breeder, had actually watched the breeding between Apollo's Ice and Courtin' Cristy at Angelina Stud Farm. That's what made the DNA results for Leopold's Legacy so incomprehensible.
Carter declined the offer of a second glass of champagne from a passing waiter, wanting to keep a clear head. He needed information about Picture of Perfection such as breeding date, birth date and genealogical data before he could make any solid determinations. Anything that might point him toward a possible connection with Leopold's Legacy.
Carter found himself standing in front of the portrait, staring at the horse. There was no denying the talent of the artist. The horse looked as if it could leap off the canvas at any moment. He read the artist's signature at the bottom left corner.
He wondered if Mr. Cameron had any of the answers he sought. Not likely, but he could probably lead Carter to the owner of the horse.
The chime of bells sounded in the ballroom, signaling the end of the auction.