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A Kiss Before Dawn
By Laurie Salzler
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Jody Klaire
All rights reserved.
AT FIVE O'CLOCK in the morning, Chris Martel opened the door, boots in hand. Three dogs followed her out of the house and wagged their tails as they waited. She sat down on the porch step to put the boots on and get ready to head out to the barn to start chores. As she laced her boots, she glanced up at heavy purple clouds.
"It's going to be another hot one today, girlies," she said to a chorus of happy tail thumps from the dogs. A thin sheen of sweat had formed on her tanned skin, and she mopped her brow on her shirtsleeve. Her scalp was already sweaty.
It had been raining off and on for the past two weeks. With the rain came stifling August heat and humidity since Lake Ontario's effects were strong enough to reach forty-two miles into New York State to the small town of Bristol. The dogs were panting, and their paws left brief sweaty prints on the concrete patio.
Chris stood up, stretched her back, and followed the girls down the lane. Cedar, the oldest and most protective, and Cagney, Chris's self-appointed nursemaid, both yellow Labrador retrievers, stuck close, cautious of the herd of hungry cats that tended to be grumpy at this time of the morning. Sadie, the Jack Russell, single-minded as always, headed into one of the grassy pastures to hunt for rodents.
The daily chorus of impatient whinnies and nickers from ten horses greeted Chris as she neared the barn. The stall nearest the house had a window that afforded a good view to a big black Thoroughbred named Top Hat, or Mad Hattie as Chris fondly called her. The minute lights came on in the house and Chris started out the door, Mad Hattie would sound out a whinny and alert the other horses on the farm.
Warm barn aromas met Chris's nose as she opened the doors. She grabbed the feed cart and started to dish out the morning grain. She loved this time of day. The barn smelled of hay, bedding, and the sweet scent of horse.
Ruby, her Paint mare, walked into her stall subtly favoring her right front foot. Chris narrowed her eyes and scrutinized her. She'd bred Ruby to her stallion the day before, and the mare had seemed fine then. She finished dishing out the grain and returned to the mare's stall. Ruby nickered softly when she saw Chris coming near.
"Hey, big girl," she said softly as she entered Ruby's stall. "What kind of trouble did you get into last night?" She ran her hands down Ruby's front legs. "You don't have any heat or swelling. Okay, let me see that hoof of yours."
She rotated to Ruby's side and lifted her foot. Ruby leaned on her, and Chris grunted with the shared weight. While she inspected the hoof, Ruby reached around and nuzzled Chris's butt with obvious affection.
"A little higher, darling, it's my back that hurts this morning." Chris tried to ignore the sting of sweat that ran into her eyes. Ruby gingerly put her hoof down as Chris released it. She patted Ruby on the neck, walked out of the stall, and debated what to do.
She heard Bill Went's voice as if he were there. "If the horse has her mind on pain, she's not going to do the foal justice."
"Well, sweetie," she said, "I think it may be a bruise, but I'm going to have Doc come look at you anyway. I can't let you be in pain while you're carrying that baby."
With strict horse-keeping practices in place, she summoned Dr. Richard Hall to the farm mostly during the foaling and breeding season, so she hadn't seen him in weeks.
Chris reached through the metal bars, gave Ruby a pat on the forehead, and walked down the aisle toward the office to call the veterinary clinic. The dogs got up from the cool floor and followed in her wake.CHAPTER 2
MARY JO CAVANAUGH turned into Dr. Hall's driveway, ready to begin her new job.
She had barely made it to the clinic on time and almost regretted the previous night's raucous celebration with a few friends, a party honoring her graduation from Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
When her cell alarm had gone off earlier, Mary Jo had become conscious of a slight hangover, but couldn't recall the name of the blonde woman sleeping next to her. Too hurried to wake the woman and too self-satisfied to care, she had located her clothes, dressed, and rushed out of the woman's apartment to go home, shower, and prepare for her first day at work.
After she parked her Ford Ranger, she noticed a new sign attached to the red-shingled building that served as Doc's equine hospital. She read it with some anxiety, but mostly a tangle of excitement and joy in her belly: Coyote Crossing Equine Clinic, Richard Hall DVM, and Mary Jo Cavanaugh DVM. She gathered her hair into a ponytail and pulled it through the back of her baseball cap.
She quickly checked her appearance in the rearview mirror and hoped the fact she had a headache wasn't apparent. After she pulled the keys from the ignition and took a deep breath, she got out of the truck.
Cool air wafted over her as she opened the door and walked into the front part of the clinic. She passed storage shelves laden with bottles of antibiotics, tranquilizers, various salves, and other supplies that were the mainstay of the practice. She paused briefly beside a portable X-ray machine near the door and took in the familiar odors of antiseptic, hay, manure, and horse sweat.
Mary Jo crossed the threshold and saw Doc's assistant and wife, Donna, sitting alone at a desk, talking on the phone. Probably talking to a client, she thought. She waved to Donna and opened the door to the stable area attached to the office.
"Hey there. Anybody home?" Her voice echoed off the high ceilings.
"MJ! Come on in."
As long as she'd known him, Doc had called her MJ. His greeting made her smile. She walked in and stopped briefly to admire Doc's updated clinic. It was so different from the early days when she'd been an enthusiastic thirteen-year-old owner of a horse. Although they'd kept in touch over the years via phone calls and mostly e-mail, this was the first time Mary Jo had seen the new clinic.
A garage door — where horses entered when they arrived — was open, and a refreshing breeze drifted inside. Three big stalls stood to the left, each with an individual number on the door. To the right, a surgical table stood next to a heavily padded recovery stall. In addition, the roof had numerous skylights which could be opened for better air circulation. Doc's place was state of the art, and she believed it was going to be a pleasure working here.
"Where the heck are you?" Mary Jo asked.
"I'm in stall three."
She walked in the direction of Doc's voice, peeked between the bars of a stall, and found him rewrapping the front foot of a chestnut Thoroughbred.
Doctor Richard Hall was fifty-nine, but other than the silver hair, which he'd had the entire time she'd known him, he didn't look over forty. He was a big man on a six-foot frame with muscles to match. Brown eyes complemented his dark, handsome face.
"What's up with this beauty?" Mary Jo nodded toward the horse.
Doc finished wrapping the foot, stood up, and admired the horse. "He presented lame for the past year until his owner let me X-ray him. I found a growth on his coffin bone. I brought him in, drilled a hole in his hoof, and scraped it off. When he heals, he can return to the jumping circuit and I think he'll do fine. I'm going to keep him here another week or so before I send him home."
"We worked on cadavers to explore the hoof, so I've never seen a coffin bone in a live horse. Wish I hadn't been tied up with the boards so I could've been here." Mary Jo sighed in frustration.
"Better you get that testing done than be working with me. Technically, I shouldn't let you practice yet without you having your license on hand, but I'm sure the state's delay will be short. Either way, you'll only be riding with me for a few weeks until you get it. I've already added you to the practice's insurance, so we just need that piece of paper."
"Good. You can introduce me to clients, and I'll be able to put faces with names," Mary Jo said as she opened the stall door for Doc.
"You probably already know most of them. Not a lot has changed since you were just a pipsqueak riding with me on Saturday calls."
Doc gave the horse a reassuring pat on the neck and came out of the stall. "Come on. Let's go see what Donna has in store for us today."
Mary Jo followed Doc into the office area where Donna was busy putting together the daily call list.
"Let's have a cup of coffee before we start loading the truck," Doc said. "I won't want anything hot for the rest of the day, especially in this weather."
After he poured them both coffees, Doc sat with her to compile a list of supplies and instruments they would need for the day's calls. Ten minutes later he looked up from his tablet. "Why don't you wander around, look among the shelves, and familiarize yourself with where things are? I'll be ready in a few."
Mary Jo strolled around the office with her coffee mug in hand and committed the locations of the different drugs to memory. She opened drawers and found, among other things, sterilized surgical trays. A cabinet revealed wraps and boxes of casting material as well as boxes of syringes and needles of different sizes. The next cabinet held drain tubes, cotton, and catheters.
She had just located the case containing the metal files and drills for dentistry work when Doc called to her. "Now that you're somewhat familiar with where things are in the office, go ahead and check out the truck."
Mary Jo went outside to the parking lot and approached the clinic's truck — an F-150 4x4 Ford pickup fitted with a vet box about the size of a small camper. It included drawers and cubbyholes for storing supplies, and a small refrigerator for vaccines and drugs that needed to be stored cold. The sides lifted up with the help of hydraulic arms. The back had the normal tailgate with a lift that gave access to the top. On the lower right, she spotted a small water heater and a faucet with a hose attached. A space in the middle held extra cases such as the X-ray machine, dentistry case, and a head stand used to support the head of a standing tranquilized horse.
"This thing is like an office on wheels," Mary Jo said, amazed, as Doc joined her outside.
Years earlier when she had ridden with him, all of Doc's veterinary supplies had been crammed into a little Toyota Corolla.
"True enough, except there's no room to fit Donna." Doc laughed.
Almost hidden in the truck's cab, among boots, a couple of changes of clothes, and wrappers from various fast food places, sat a laptop with a small printer underneath.
"I'm not even sure there's room for me," Mary Jo said half seriously.
"You'll fit, but it's a good thing it's not winter. I usually have a heavy coat and a couple of thermoses taking up that seat," Doc said. "Okay. Let's load up and get moving."
Mary Jo opened the passenger side door and rolled down the windows to let the superheated air escape before she climbed into the truck. Doc did the same on the driver's side. Once he pulled out on the road, she picked up the call list and started reading.
"So we're heading to the Went Farm first?" she asked. "I haven't seen Bill since before I graduated from high school. He's a nice guy."
"He was." Doc sighed. "He died about four years ago if I remember correctly. His ticker just quit. It was a shock to everybody who knew him."
"Oh, my God. I would never have thought." Mary Jo paused. "That's hard to believe. He was so young. So the farm is still in operation?"
"Yeah, Chris Martel inherited it lock, stock, and barrel. There've been some major changes, and it's a regular horse paradise now."
"Hmm, I've never heard of him."
Doc laughed. "He's a she. I didn't think there was another person alive who was more dedicated or knew the horses inside and out the way Bill did. But he hired Chris, took her under his wing several years back, and they ended up forming a partnership. They were close, and it was hard on Chris when he died."
"Who's the barn manager?" Mary Jo asked, wondering if it was someone she knew.
"Just Chris. She runs the entire operation. The community came together to help right after Bill died, but she mostly does everything herself. Sometimes she hires the neighbors' kids to help put up hay. She has her Paint stallion there and studs him out some, but the main business is a foaling facility. People board their pregnant mares with her to foal."
"Sounds like a good business to be in." Curiosity steered Mary Jo to refocus her attention on reviewing the rest of the call list as they drove.
Doc was right. Not much had changed. She recognized the majority of the names on the list and now one more. Chris Martel.CHAPTER 3
CHRIS LOOKED OUT the office window and stared at nothing in particular after she hung up the phone. When she rang the clinic, Donna told her she was first on Doc's call list, so the wait wouldn't be a long one.
All three dogs were dozing on the cot and got up when Chris rose from her chair. She left the office and strolled down the barn aisle followed closely by her four-legged companions.
She stopped at the hay room, put a bale in the wheelbarrow, and cut the twine. At each stall, she put a section of hay into the rack.
After feeding the horses, she grabbed the pitchfork and the muck bucket and started cleaning stray piles from the stalls. Whether the stalls needed cleaning or not, she fluffed the bedding. There wasn't much mucking out to do; most of the horses kept their stalls manure free. But her stallion, a bay-and-white Paint named Stetson, was the exception. She forgave him that little sin because he was well behaved and gentle with the mares.
Chris finished checking the ten occupied stalls and pulled the half-full cart to the end of the barn. Her back muscles complained under the weight, and she grimaced as she dumped the manure onto the pile behind the barn.
Sweat streamed down her face as the day continued to heat up. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, wiped the moisture from her face and neck, and ran her fingers through the damp hair that had pasted itself to her scalp.
While the horses munched their hay, she brushed each one with a soft bristle brush to remove shedding hair and dirt. All the horses seemed to enjoy the extra attention, and she found she bonded better with them. She checked to ensure all the bins were empty and no feed had dropped on the floor, since an excess of dropped feed might mean a dental problem. Although Doc checked all the horses' teeth twice a year, she knew it wasn't inconceivable for a horse to develop mouth sores from a sharp tooth in a short time.
In the first stall she opened, Sierra, a bay quarter horse mare, was chewing her hay a bit tentatively, obviously attempting to keep it all on one side of her mouth.
"I may as well have Doc check you while he's here," Chris said.
Sierra was bred to the top Paint horse in the country, but her owners rarely saw her. Still, Chris kept them up-to-date on their horse's condition. She preferred to operate the farm that way. In her experience, absentee owners were the easiest to manage.
Typically, a mare's owner selected a stallion to breed with the mare, paid the breeding fee, and passed the pertinent information to Chris. When the mare went into heat, Chris requested the stallion's sperm shipped that day to arrive first thing the next morning. Once she received the liquid-nitrogen-cooled parcel, she had Doc come to the farm to perform the artificial insemination.
Of the ten horses on the property, Chris owned two. The rest were boarded pregnant mares. These eight mares never left her farm; the owners chose to keep them there under her care for the duration of the mare's breeding career. She already had reservations for the other fifteen stalls. Those horses were scheduled to come during the late fall or early winter, which gave them adequate time to adjust to Chris and their new surroundings before getting down to the business of having foals. Doc's imminent arrival reminded her she needed to schedule each of the new mares for an examination to ensure they were healthy and in foal.
Cedar, Cagney, and Sadie were waiting patiently outside the stall doors. Suddenly, all three dogs jumped up and raced to the end of the barn, yipping as they ran.
Chris laughed. The girls loved Doc. He was the only visitor whose arrival caused them to act like foolish puppies. She walked down toward the barn entrance just as she heard Cedar bark.
Excerpted from A Kiss Before Dawn by Laurie Salzler. Copyright © 2016 Jody Klaire. Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Kiss Before Dawn is a romance and a story about horses, two things almost sure to appeal to many people. Chris Martel works very hard to make her horse breeding business successful. She devotes her time to her horses, her dogs and her eighty-one year old neighbor, Frances Cook, the only real friend Chris has. Occasionally she visits a lesbian bar to pick up a woman, but she prefers to be alone and doesn’t make commitments. Chris isn’t impressed the first time she meets new vet Mary Jo Cavanaugh because Mary Jo is over confident and handles a situation with a horse badly. Things begin on a rough note, but, with Frances acting as a matchmaker, the women become friends and discover that they have a number of common interests. A romance grows between them and when a woman from the past tries to wreck vengeance on Chris, it clarifies for the women what they mean to each other. A Kiss Before Dawn is a standard romance. The characters are set up, tension arises between them and then it’s resolved. The two major characters are well defined and there is a lot of information about horses, maybe too much as the plot drags in places. The flaw in the book is in the pacing. It meanders along as the relationship develops and covers a lot of information that doesn’t obstruct the plot, but really isn’t necessary. It might be argued that this is because Chris is slow to trust anyone, but the primary reason seems to be that it adds length to the story. Then when the crisis arises it appears out of nowhere. There’s practically no set up and it concludes quickly. The situation doesn’t ring true and it appears to be there simply to add a stressor to the story. Anyone looking for a decent story to read and something to pass the time will find this book suits both purposes. It’s a good example of a first novel and shows enough promise to give the author a try when another book comes out.
I loved the suspense and couldn't wait to find out what happens in the end. The tension was well-paced and the landscape beautifully wrought.