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County Galway, Ireland
"Pegeen would have loved to ride you," Aidan McKenna said past the lump in his throat as he led Mac Finnian into his stall after his morning workout and cooldown.
Mac snorted and pranced in his stall, ready to run again.
Indeed, Aidan could read him, had been able to do so since the black colt was born. He'd always had a connection with the horses he trainedhe was a McKenna, after alleven if that particular ability was less developed than that of his brothers. He, instead, wrestled with dreams and nightmares, trying to decide which were true portents of the future and which were figments of his overwrought imagination. Sadly, he didn't always get it right. But he didn't want to think on it nowdidn't want to remember his tragic mistake with Pegeen.
Instead he concentrated on the strong connection he had with Mac, the only McKenna ability welcome in life. 'Twas almost as if they were one.
Aidan removed the lead and then unfastened Mac's halter and slipped it off his big head. Everything about the colt was bighe stood a bit more than seventeen hands, nearly a full hand larger than the average Thoroughbred. Thankfully, even the smallest jockeys were flexible enough to sit his broad back.
Aidan could almost see Mac running in the Irish Derby, the woman he'd loved with her shocking red hair and bold ways atop the black colt. Pegeen would have been grinning from ear to ear as she eagerly raced him. But of course now that could never happen.
From her grave, Sheelin O'Keefe had seen to that.
Despite his brother Cashel's dire warnings, Aidan had taken up with the Irish jockey, and Sheelin's curse had ended Pegeen Flynn's life before she'd had a chance to really live.
After the better part of a year without her, still mourning the only woman he'd ever cared for, he was wondering if the pain of losing Pegeen would ever subside when Cashel entered the stable, followed by the dark-haired lass he'd seen watching Mac's run with his brother. She was a lookera natural beauty with lush curves. Not wanting his brother to realize where his mind had wandered a moment ago, Aidan immediately tucked away his thoughts for later. For when he was alone.
Giving Mac a peppermint, he shut the stall door behind him and stared at the light in his older brother's eyes, the same McKenna-green as both his own and their younger brother Tiernan's. The three McKenna men looked alike, too, all tall, broad-shouldered, with thick dark hair brushing chiseled features. Today, Cashel's were softened into something that looked like hope.
"Aidan, our problems are solved!" Cashel said. "This is Catrina Clarke from America. We can have the backing we need to race Mac there."
But Aidan didn't have reason to trust hope. "And what kind of backing is it you offer from America, Miss Clarke?"
"Call me Cat. I'm a breeder and I came to Ireland on a buying trip, to add new blood to my stock. But when I saw Mac Finnian run "
Her breath caught in her throat and Aidan's caught in his. It wasn't just her natural beauty, but something in her voicesomething that told him she was more than a businesswoman when it came to fine horsefleshthat seduced him.
Just for a moment.
Then he shook himself free.
"Out with it, then," he said.
"I know you don't have the funds to race him in the U.S., and I'm willing to make a deal so that will be possible." Her smile widened, lighting up her whole face.
Once again, he was caught by the fire that burned within her.
Until the colt kicked the stall door for attention. Mac had hung his head into the aisle and now snorted at his owners. Aidan reached back and scratched the sweet spot on his long, muscular neck before turning his attention back to his brother.
"We're not selling anyone half interest in our colt!"
"But that's not the deal I offered!" the woman protested.
Knowing he had to get away from the Clarke woman before he caved, Aidan snorted and headed for the exit. Cashel followed and Aidan realized the lass had chosen to remain where she was. He took a good look back. There she stood, her back stiff, her mouth now in a straight line. And then her cell phone rang and after a glance at her screen, she frowned and wandered off to take the call in private.
"Of course I wouldn't agree to sell," Cashel said, grabbing his arm and stopping him from leaving. "The Clarke woman wanted to buy Mac outright, but I told her that wasn't possible. What kind of sodding fool do you take me for?"
"So what are her plans for Mac Finnian?"
"She simply offered a very fair partnership. She'll not own any of Mac, simply get a share in the winnings until we retire him from"
"How much, then?"
Aidan gaped at his brother. "'Tis ridiculous!" he shouted.
Cashel raised his voice, as well. "You want to give it up, then, just stay here and run him on Irish grass?"
Looking out through the open door into the misting rain and the emerald green pastures beyond the barn, Aidan wanted to say the colt would do well enough, but he knew "well enough" would be a disappointment to them both. The previous September, Mac had won a couple of Group 2 races by a nose but had only come in second in the Group 1 stakes race at the Curragh and had come in third in another.
In a country where races were run on grass like that which stretched on forever before him, they'd bred a colt who wanted to run on dirt. A colt who ran like the wind on dirt. A colt who could win big on dirt.
But it wouldn't be here or in any country close by.
The logical thing was to race Mac where he would run best, and that would be in the United States. There Mac Finnian could race on dirt tracks.
"Think about it, Aidan. He could advance to the Breeders' Cup Classic with an honest chance of becoming a world champion."
And if that happened as they both thought it could, at last McKenna Racing would earn the reputation it needed.
Then they would have their pick of top-flight racehorses to train.
But the only way they could race Mac in America without selling parts of him off was to take the deal. And take the woman with it. He shook his head. Something deep inside was telling him this was a bad idea. A very bad idea.
"We're nearly broke and you know it, Aidan," Cashel continued. "The stud fees to get Mac and the fees to nominate him for the Breeders' Cup ate up our savings, and the horses we've been training haven't exactly had a grand year."
True, those fees had totaled six figures. Plus their share of winnings this year had been slim enough that Aidan feared losing owners who might not keep faith in them to train their Thoroughbreds to be champions.
When Aidan still didn't say anything, Cashel went on. "You know the cost of flying Mac Finnian internationally, quarantining him and setting him up in a foreign barnnot to mention the racing entry feeswell, that's more money than we've seen in too long a time."
Aidan knew that as well as his brother. Realizing he would have to consider the offer as much as he hated to admit it, he relented. "Mac'll never be the best he can be racing here. We do need to consider the partnership."
"There are another couple caveats to which we must agree."
"And those would be?"
"The Clarke woman gets a third of his stud fees for the first year. And she gets to use him at stud on her own mares with no fee. One live foal per mare, an even half dozen. That was the price of not selling a share in him outright. Apparently she wants to expand her business. I'm thinking she might want to get into racing in the future, as well."
If so, Aidan couldn't blame her. Thoroughbred racing fueled his blood. And his dreams. Dreams that, under the proper conditions, Mac could make come true.
"I don't like her setting the terms, though," Aidan muttered, thinking she was likely to get under his skin the moment he saw her again. Attraction warred with irritation. He didn't need either. As if she'd heard him via some mental connection, she was stalking toward them now, her face wreathed in an angry thundercloud. "If only there was another way."
"You know there is. We could syndicate the colt, then."
"And divide him up into little pieces?" He glared at Cashel. He knew his brother didn't want that any more than he did. It was simply Cashel's annoying attempt at getting his way. Cursing under his breath, Aidan said, "All right, then."
"Grand! Don't worry, I'll see that Mac will be well taken care of."
Aidan started. "What does that mean?"
"Just what it sounds like. I look forward to the American races."
As usual, Cashel was trying to take over as if he were Aidan's boss rather than his partner in the business. The curse of having a sometimes autocratic older brother
"You'll be doing no such thing." Knowing it was time he made his own mark, Aidan stood his ground. "I'm the one who trained Mac practically from the time he was foaled, not you. I'm the one who will be taking our colt to America."
Truth to tell, Aidan would be glad to get away from his overbearing brother for a while. Noting the smirk Cashel quickly hid, he wondered if he'd been tricked into volunteering.
Seeing that Cat was standing there like a stone-cold statue, obviously tuned in to their disagreement, he ground out, "To where exactly?" Even if Cashel had tricked him, Aidan wouldn't back up now. Mac Finnian was his responsibility. "Kentucky? New York? California?"
"My farm is in Woodstock, Illinois."
"The Midwest?" He knew Cashel had been in the area once before for the Arlington Million, while Aidan had stayed behind to tend to the other horses they were training. "That would be in the middle of nowhere!"
"As if this is the only somewhere," Cat said. "Get over yourself, McKenna. There are places in the world other than your little patch of green. I can provide the means for you to see them, but I need to catch the next flight out. I've been called home for an unexpected court date. And my barn manager has done a disappearing act" Catching herself before going on, she took a big breath and looked him squarely in the face. "When you decide what you want to do, call me."
With that, she headed straight for the exit.
Cashel laughed. "At least Cat Clarke is something to look at."
Aidan found no fault with her looksshe was indeed fair, with a small waist and full hips and dark hair that teased breasts lush enough to tempt a manit was the lass herself and the attraction that stirred his guilt that created the problem.
"I'm going to town to pick up some supplies," he said stiffly.
"If you have no further objections, I'll make the arrangements, then," Cashel said. "I assume your agreement stands."
"Do what you need to."
Striding out of the barn into the soft day, where a fine, light mist covered him like fairy dust, Aidan wondered what he was getting himself into. Cat Clarke had come to Galway on an equine buying trip and had been sidetracked to watch Mac Finnian run on a practice dirt track, where she'd apparently been overly impressed with his time.
While he'd been overly impressed with her until she'd taken that call. Her snapping at him was enough to convince him that he'd do best to stay away from her. She had a temper, that one, and she had attitude that reminded him of Cashel. Always one to be in charge.
He preferred his women easy-going and good-natured, and Catrina Clarke was the complete opposite. Put her with himself and they were like oil and water.
Facts were facts, though. They'd had no better offer.
Mac Finnian wasn't just any horse. He wasn't simply a commodity to either McKenna brother and especially not to Aidan, who'd connected with him on a whole different level from the moment he'd been born. If he wanted to give Mac a chance to restore their coffers and make McKenna Racing's name as top trainers in the Thoroughbred industryand all without giving up ownership of the colthe had no choice in the matter.
Truth be told, Aidan needed a change, needed to get away from the familiar. Needed to get away from Cashel. He hoped the change in venue would be as good for him as it would be for Mac Finnian.
Maybe getting away from Galway would free him from the dreams that haunted him, the guilt and memories of how their troubles had really begun.
Of how the only woman he'd ever loved had died.
Because of him.
He hadn't had sex in too many moons. Any time he 'd thought of it, memories of Pegeen had stopped him. And now he couldn't stop himself.
He was in her, touching her, making her moan. The sound vibrated through him, all the way to the length of flesh buried deep inside her.
They were both panting moving frantically her full flesh butting his hips trying to achieve something elusive something just out of reach.
Her back was to him so he couldn't see her face, but her dark hair spilling down her back teased him with its sensuous softness and scent.
He ran his tongue up her arm to her neck and lightly bit the soft flesh cradling her shoulder. She cried out and he felt himself give way, imagined tumbling over and over and over a waterfall until he sagged against her in glorious defeat.
Aidan woke with a start. He'd soiled his sheets with the first sexual relief he'd experienced since the funeral. "No, no, no!"
Pegeen had not been the woman he could still see in his mind's eye.
He hadn't seen her face, but the woman had long dark hair like Catrina Clarke.
Could he trust the dream or not? He no longer knew.
Either he'd had a peek into the future, or he'd been tricked again.
Either way it didn't bode well for his new partnership.
He had to make sure the dream didn't take on a life of its own this time.