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But you'd really like this guy. Honest."
Amanda Emory had grown accustomed to fending off suggestions on her love life from girlfriends and her well-meaning mother. But listening to dating advice from her nine-year-old son seriously pushed the limit.
"Kiefer, I'm sure he's a very nice man." Distracted by the sight of the movers carrying her sons' bunk beds up the stairs of the small condo unit they'd purchased, Amanda called instructions for placing the furniture she'd picked out with her husband mere days before he died. And damn it, didn't those memories still catch her when she least expected them?
"He's not just nice, Mom." Kiefer stole a granola bar out of his younger brother's hand as he settled himself at the island separating the light-filled kitchen and a living room overrun with boxes. "He trains the horses and he can ride like the guys in cowboy movies. He knows everything about horses. Seriously, Mom. Everything."
Amanda retrieved a new granola bar for Max, her six-year-old, who had already found friends in the condo next door and was happily showing the other kids his latest creation with a building set among the piles of boxes. Amanda gave Max two extra treats for his friends and then tried to focus on Kiefer's latest matchmaking effort.
Although Dan had been dead two years, Kiefer's quest to see his mother remarried hadn't started until about three months ago, after he'd seen some movie about kid spies whoin the subplottricked their widowed parents into meeting and falling in love. In short order, Amanda had been steered toward Kiefer's soccer coach, the librarian at his school, a neighbor in their building back in Los Angeles, and nowthis a horse trainer?
"He works with horses?" She settled into the seat next to him at the counter and swallowed back a pinch of motherly guilt that they hadn't spent much time together in the mayhem of moving halfway across the country to Woodford County, Kentucky. She'd had so much more on her mind than she could ever burden her boys with, but not for the world would she want them to feel they were anything but her top priority.
For now, she waved the deliverymen upstairs to settle the dresser wherever they wanted.
"He's the best. I watched him working with one of the colts while you were setting up your new office Friday." Kiefer scrubbed a finger over a gold fleck in the granite countertop, his dark-brown hair falling sideways over one eye like his father's. This summer, her oldest son seemed to be all arms and legs, his body growing faster than his meals could fill it out. "I'm going back tomorrow after school."
"Are there other kids who watch the horses then?" She hoped Kiefer would make friends in their new hometown. Having lived in suburban L.A. all her life, she was a little intimidated about uprooting her family to move to a community that was both rural andto a large extentwealthy. She'd chosen a neighborhood in Twisted River, removed from the immediate domain of Quest Stables, which was both her new employer and a megamillion-dollar business.
"I don't know. But it doesn't matter." He peered up at her with the earnest eyes of a child who hadn't quite mastered the preteen ability to mask his feelings. "I don't like the other kids here anyway and I'm helping you you know. Meet people."
Amanda's heart squeezed tight that her firstborn had been put in a position where he felt that he needed to take care of her. He sounded years older than he was, even if the scrapes on his elbows and the jelly stain on his shirt gave him away as the kid he deserved to be.
"I appreciate you, baby." She hugged him tight, grateful that he still let her. "And I think it's great that you want to look out for me, but I promise you when the time is right, I'll think about socializing."
That much was true. And she didn't have the heart to share her fear that the opportunity might not come for a very long while. She didn't know why no one had turned her head in the two years since her police sergeant husband had been gunned down in a drug bust, but the grief counselor from the LAPD had assured her that it was okay to mourn on her own timetable and that healing would come when her heart dictated.
Kiefer looked ready to argue, his brow knitted in concentration as if he were reaching for the right words, when Max and his new pals came barreling over. They each waved some kind of airplane they'd made with Max's new construction set, although the little girl's plane looked more like a flying bunny rabbit.
While Amanda doled out praise for all the creations, Kiefer somehow disappeared. The movers shouted for a clear path into the dining room as they wheeled in a small hutch on a dolly.
Kiefer's matchmaking would have to wait, although his penchant to fix her up wasn't nearly as troublesome to her as his lack of effort to meet kids his own age. But since she wasn't exactly the Mingle Queen herself, how could she blame him?
The phone on the kitchen wall rang as the kids flew their toys into the laundry room. Amanda picked it up on the first ring, grateful her number was working. They'd been camping out in the condo for almost a week while waiting for the moving truck, but the phone company had somehow overlooked them until today.
Silence answered her.
"Hello?" She swallowed down an old panic, knowing sometimes it took a moment for telemarketers to come on the line. She'd been scared by that phenomenon before.
But still no one answered. The silence mounted. Expanded. And then click. The line disconnected as the other party hung up.
In an instant, two years' worth of worry came flooding back. Her knees buckled. She'd moved halfway across the country to escape the possibility of revenge from a drug gang. Dan had killed one of the group's members before taking a fatal bullet himself, and the dead man's brotherBenny Orwayhad promised revenge at his trial two years ago.
Amanda had uprooted her kids before the guy was released from prison a week ago, unwilling to take any chances with the kids' safety. But she'd started receiving late-night hang-up calls the month before she'd relocated. The calls spooked her, making her all the more grateful for the job offer in Kentucky.
As she hung up the phone, her hands shook just a little, even as she told herself hang-ups happened all the time.
"Mrs. Emory?" one of the movers shouted from the front hall, his arms full of garment bags that must have spilled out from one of the boxes.
"Coming." Willing her heart to quit racing, she put one foot in front of the other to address a crisis so much easier than the one she'd run two thousand miles to escape.
But as the silence of the phone call echoed in her ears, Amanda hoped she'd run far enough.
Normally, Robbie Preston didn't mind Mondays.
He liked hard work and he was devoted to making his family's business, Quest Stables, the best Thoroughbred facility in the country. And although his family thwarted his efforts half the time, this Monday their maneuvering ticked him off more than usual.
"Marcus is making the rounds, Robbie." His sister, Melanie, breezed into the stable office after her morning workout with Leopold's Legacy. The horse had been destined to be a Triple Crown Winner for Quest before a DNA test revealed the sire of record, Apollo's Ice, was not the biological sire, and Legacy had been banned from racing in North America.
At five feet tall, Melanie had turned her love of riding into a full-fledged profession as a jockey, a gig that ensured she had no competition from within the Preston clan.
But since his sister was the only member of his immediate family to have even a small amount of respect for his skills as a trainer, Robbie tried to keep his cool when she brought up his least favorite topic.
"I hope no one expects me to lead the welcoming committee. I've managed to avoid him since our confirmation at Del Mar." He poured himself a cup of coffee from a pot someone had started long before dawn. The stables ran on an early schedule, and most of the animals were in the paddocks or on the exercise track by sunrise.
The new trainer had been in residence at Quest for the last few weeks, but Robbie had purposely found other things to do than ease the transition for the guy. They'd had a hard enough time working together at the Del Mar races. But he knew the time had come to officially accept Marcus, no matter how awkward the meeting might be.
"Please tell me you're not going to create an international incident." Melanie dropped into a chair across from the office's main reception area, which lately saw very little traffic outside of the stable staff. On days when prospective clients wandered through the stable area to check out Quest's boarding and training facilities, the coffee would have been a whole lot fresher than the brew Robbie choked down this morning. Although, in all fairness, it might have been his own bitterness he tasted more than any java.
"Who's creating an incident?" He stalked around the office to work off the edges of an anger he'd tried hard to stuff down this last month. "I'm here, aren't I? Putting in my hours for the greater good despite a slap in the face that couldn't have been more direct. I know it's not Marcus's fault he won the head trainer slot and I know he's damn good at the job."
He scuffed his toe across the hardwood floor covered by a few thick wool throw rugs. And although the office was attached to the stables, the room lacked any scent of horses since it was outfitted to impress visitors. A few framed photos of Quest's most famous equine residents lined the walls.
"I know that too, but you would have done as well or even better considering you're as obsessive about your work as you are aboutoheverything else you've ever tackled." Melanie slid her feet out of her riding boots and tucked them under her. "Remember when you decided to take up cliff-diving?"
"Whoa. Anybody ever tell you that you've got a knack for backhanded compliments?" Still, Robbie took some solace in his sister's opinion, since she knew horses as well as anyone, and her endorsement meant a lot, even if it was sandwiched between insults. "And for your information, three emergency-room visits in one summer builds character."
"I seem to remember Dad saying it built a thicker head." She flashed him an evil grin and socked him gently in the gut as he paced past her chair.
He paused long enough to pull her hair gently in a reflex gesturea remnant of their days as kids that had long ago turned into a sign of affection.
"You know I'm twenty-eight and that's still what the old man sees?" He looked out the window onto the front paddock area, which was more for show than anything, the greens immaculate even if summer was quickly sliding into fall. "Even when I train a Derby winner like Leopold's Legacy, Dad fixates on the fact that I broke my nose twice in a season."
"I'm not touching that one."
Turning back to Melanie, he watched her tip her head back in her chair and study him with assessing eyes, her delicate size belying a nature every bit as fierce as his.
"Neither am I." He looked back out the window in time to see Marcus Vasquez-a trainer who had come to Quest from Australia's Lochlain Stables, run by Robbie's cousinwalking toward the offices with a woman Robbie had never seen before.
"What do you mean?" Melanie rose to join him at the window.
Robbie was surprised it took a bit of effort to tear his gaze away from the pretty woman talking to the new head trainer. Her short hair blew around her face, the dark locks sunkissed with lighter streaks. She wasn't necessarily beautiful, but something about her face fascinated him. Her easy laughter reminded him of all the ways his life had grown too uptight. Too frustrating.
"I mean I'm not sticking around for another year of Preston dramas when this family is hanging on to financial security by its teeth.