The sweating horse snorted as if in premonition and his dark ears pricked forward before flattening to his head. Tory, who was examining the bay's swollen hoof, felt his weight shift suddenly. "Steady boy," she whispered. "I know it hurts
The sound of boots crunching on the gravel near the paddock forced Tory's eyes away from the tender hoof and toward the noise. Keith was striding purposefully toward her, his lanky rawboned frame tense, the line of his mouth set.
"Trask McFadden is back."
The words seemed to thunder across the windswept high plateau and echo in Tory's ears. Her back stiffened at her brother's statement, and she felt as if her entire world was about to dissolve, but she tried to act as if she was unaffected. Her fingers continued their gentle probing of the bay stallion's foreleg and her eyes searched inside the swollen hoof for any sign of infection.
"Tory, for God's sake," Keith called a little more loudly as he leaned over the top rail of the fence around the enclosed paddock, "did you hear what I said?"
Tory stood, patted the nervous stallion affectionately and took in a steadying breath before opening the gate. It groaned on its ancient hinges. She slipped through the dusty rails and faced her younger brother. His anxious expression said it all.
So Trask was back. After all these years. Just as he said he would be. She suddenly felt cold inside. Shifting her gaze from the nervous bay stallion limping within the enclosed paddock to the worried contours of Keith's young face, Tory frowned and shook her head. The late-afternoon sun caught in her auburn hair, streaking it with fiery highlights of red and gold.
"I guess we should have expected this, sooner or later," she said evenly, though her heart was pounding a sharp double time. Nervously wiping her hands on her jeans, she tried to turn her thoughts back to the injured Quarter Horse, but the craggy slopes of the distant Cascade Mountains caught her attention. Snow-covered peaks jutted brazenly upward against the clear June sky. Tory had always considered the mountains a symbolic barrier between herself and Trask. The Willamette Valley and most of the population of the state of Oregon resided on the western side-the other side-of the Cascade Mountains. The voting public were much more accessible in the cities and towns of the valley. The unconventional Senator McFadden rarely had to cross the mountains when he returned to his native state. Everything he needed was on the other side of the Cascades.
Now he was back. Just as he had promised. Tory's stomach knotted painfully at the thought. Damn him and his black betraying heart.
Keith studied his older sister intently. Her shoulders slumped slightly and she brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face and back into the ponytail she always wore while working on the Lazy W. She leaned over the split rail, her fists balled beneath her jutted chin and her jaw tense. Keith witnessed the whitening of the skin over her cheekbones and thought for a moment that she might faint; but when her gray-green eyes turned back to him they seemed calm, hiding any emotions that might be raging within her heart.
Trask. Back. After all these years and all the lies. Tory shook her head as if to deny any feelings she might still harbor for him.
"You act as if you don't care," Keith prodded, though he had noticed the hardening of her elegant features. He leaned backward, his broad shoulders supported by the rails of the fence. His arms were crossed over his chest, his dusty straw Stetson was pushed back on his head and dark sweat-dampened hair protruded unevenly from beneath the brim as he surveyed his temperamental sister.
"I can't let it bother me one way or the other," she said with a dismissive shrug. "Now, about the stallion
" She pointed to the bay. "His near foreleg- I think it's laminitis. He's probably been putting too much weight on the leg because of his injury to the other foreleg." When Keith didn't respond, she clarified. "Governor's foot is swollen with founder, acute laminitis. His temperature's up, he's sweating and blowing and he won't bear any weight on the leg. We're lucky so far, there's no sign of infection-"
Keith made a disgusted sound and held up his palm in frustration with his older sister. What the hell was the matter with her? Hadn't she heard him? Didn't she care? "Tory, for Christ's sake, listen to me and forget about the horse for a minute! McFadden always said he'd come back; for you."
Tory winced slightly. Her gray-green eyes narrowed against a slew of painful memories that made goose bumps rise on her bare arms. "That was a long time ago," she whispered, once again facing her brother.