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There were Shetland ponies everywhere.
They were gobbling the long strands of grass that sprouted around the brightly painted legs of the children's playground equipment. They were chowing down on the weeping-willow fronds at the edge of the duck pond.
Three had found their way through the chain-link fence and were grazing with voracious appetite on the green temptations of the Mason Memorial Soccer Field.
One had its face buried in the remnants of a birthday cake, and another, wandering toward the wading pool, was trailing a banner that said Happy Birthday, Wilson Schmelski.
From where he stood at the pedestrian bridge that crossed into the city of Mason's most favored civic park, Pondview, Rory Adams counted eight ponies on the loose.
And only one person trying to catch them. "You little monster! You beady-eyed ingrate!" The woman lunged right, the pony left. If it had been anyone else, he might have allowed himself to see the humor in her predicament.
Instead, he frowned. When he thought of Gracie Day, somehow, even after speaking to her on the phone, he hadn't factored in the passage of time. She was frozen in his mind at fourteen or fifteen. All glittering braces and freckles, skinned knees, smartalecky and annoying.
To him, six years her senior, Gracie, his best friend's little sister, had not even been a blip on his radar. He had not considered her a girl in the sense that he considered girls. And at that age? Had he ever considered anything but girls?
He'd been twenty-one when he saw her last. He and Graham mustering out, on their first tour of Afghanistan, and her looking at him with fury glittering in her tear-filled eyes. I hate you. How couldyou talk him into this?
Graham had started to arguethe whole let's-go-play-soldier thing had been his idea, after allbut Rory had nudged him, and Graham had understood instantly.
Let me take it, let me be the bad guy in your kid sister 's eyes.
The memory made him wince. They had looked out for each other. They'd had each other's backs. Probably thousands of times since they had said good-bye to Gracie that day. But the one time it had really counted
Rory shook off the thoughts, and focused on the woman chasing ponies.
That kid sister.
Gracie Day was small and slender, deliciously curved in all the right places. Auburn hair that had probably started the day perfectly controlled and prettily coiffed, had long since surrendered to humidity and the pitfalls of pony-chasing. Her hair was practically hissing with bad temper and fell in a wild wave to her bare sun-kissed shoulders.
She was daintily dressed in a wide-skirted cream sundress and matching heels that had probably been perfect for the children's birthday party her event-planning company had just hosted.
But if Gracie had worked at it, she couldn't have chosen a worse outfit for chasing ponies.
The dress was looking rumpled, one slender strap kept sliding off her shoulder, and not only couldn't she get up any speed in those shoes, but the heels kept turning in the grass. At first glance, the smudge on the delectable rise of her bosom might have been mistaken for part of the pattern on the dress. But a closer lookthat was not the bosom she'd had at fourteenand he was pretty sure the bright-green splotch was horse slobber.
"Do you have any idea what glue is made from? Do you?"
Something still in her, then, of that fourteen-year-old girl she had once been. That girl was closer to the surface than the cool, calm and collected Gracie Day she had managed to convince him she was when he had spoken to her on the phone.
"I need to talk to you," he'd said, when he'd finally made it home. By then Graham had already been gone for six months. He'd wanted to tell her the truth.
"I can't see why we would need to talk," she'd responded, and the fact was, he'd been relieved.
Talking about what had happened to Grahamand his part in itwas not going to be easy. And while he was not a man who shirked hard things, he had been thankful for the reprieve.
Rory felt a shiver along his spine. They said it was survivor's guilt, but in his heart he felt it was his fault her brother hadn't come home.
Somehow, instead of being a temporary diversion, playing soldier had turned into a career for both of them. Graham, on their third deployment, Afghanistan again, had taken a bullet.
Rory still woke almost every night, sweating, his heart pounding.
Two teenage boys. Something about them. He'd hesitated because they were so young. And then bullets everywhere. Ducking, taking cover. Where was Graham? Out there. Crawling out, pulling him back, cradling him in his arms.
Blood, so much blood.
But the dream woke him before it was done. There was a piece missing from it, words he could not remember though he chased after them once he was awake.
The dream never told him what he needed to know. Had it been those boys? Were they the ones who had fired those shots? What could he have done differently? Could he have shoved Graham behind him, taken it instead?
Check up on Gracie. Those words whispered, a plea.
You didn't take a dying request lightly. And especially not the dying request of the man who'd been his best friend for more than ten years.
So, back home for six months now, Rory had tried. He called Gracie twice, and admittedly had been somewhat relieved to have been coolly rejected each time. The dreams were bad enough without the reality of having to tell her what had happened, while at the same time sparing her what had happened.
And so, he had followed the letter of Graham's instruction and checked up on her. While he had been away, the company he and his own brother had startedthey had begun with race-car graphics and were now taking on the worldhad succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Once home, done with the military for good, Rory Adams was amazed to find himself a man with considerable resources.
One of whom was named Bridey O'Mitchell. Officially, she was his personal assistant. Unofficially, he considered her his secret weapon.
Bridey, middle-age, British, unflappable, could accomplish anything. Some days, Rory entertained himself by finding impossible challenges for her.
Can you get ice cream delivered to that crew working on the graphics for those Saudi airplanes? I know it's short notice, but do you think you could find half a dozen tickets to the sold-out hockey game? I'd like a koala bear and two kangaroos at the opening of that Aussie tour company we did the buses for.
Checking up on Gracie Day? That had been child's play for Bridey.
And the ensuing report about Gracie Day had been soothingly dull. Gracie was no longer engaged to the fiance Graham had disliked intensely, and she ran a successful event-planning company, Day of Your Life, here in Mason, in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Hers was the "it" company for weddings and anniversaries and special events.
The company had just been chosen to do the major annual fundraiser for Warrior Down, the organization that helped wounded vets and their families.
But Gracie's bread and butter was birthday parties for the children of the well-heeled, politicians and doctors and lawyers and CeOs. She put together the kind of parties that had clowns in them. And bouncy tents. Maybe a magician. And fireworks. The ponies must be an added touch since Rory had received Bridey's very thorough report.
Gracie Day organized the kind of parties that he had never had. In fact, he didn't recall his birthday ever being celebrated, except on one memorable occasion when his mother had ended up face-first in the cake. How old had he been? Six? After that, he'd said no thanks to efforts at celebration.
There. He'd "checked up" on her. Even that little bit of checking had triggered a bad memory, so he wanted to let it go there. Grace Day was doing well.
Still, even as he tried to tell himself he'd obeyed the letter of Graham's last instruction to him, it ate at the honor he had left. Rory had needed to see for himself that Gracie was doing all right. His last call had been a week ago.
And there had been something in her voice.
Even though she had said she was doing fabulously.
He couldn't pinpoint what exactly he had heard in her voice. A certain forced note to the breezy tone? Something guarded, as if she had a secret that she was not planning on revealing to him?
Whatever it was, it wouldn't let him go. Over the past week, the need to see her had grown in urgency. Instinct had become such a big part of his life when he was a soldier, that he found he couldn't ignore that niggling little voice. When he tried, it was just one more thing that woke him in the night, that haunted his dreams.
A little lie to her secretary had sent him to Pondview. "My company is one of the sponsors of Warrior Down. I need to talk to her urgently. And in person."
Just as he'd suspected, the mention of Gracie's pet project got him all the information he needed. Did he feel guilty for lying?
No. Guilt was for guys of a sensitive nature, and he definitely did not qualify. In his house, growing up, later on the battlefield, that was how you stayed alive. You didn't let things touch you.
But Graham dying Rory shook it off, chose to focus with unnecessary intensity on Gracie. She was sneaking up on a fat black-and-white pony, who, while seeming oblivious, was clearly watching her out of the corner of his eye. She was right on one count: the pony was beady-eyed.
And a whole lot smarter than he looked. Because when she made her move, the pony sidled sideways, out of her grasp. He turned and looked at her balefully, chewing a clump of grass.
Rory winced when her heel embedded itself in the grassy ground, spongy from a recent watering and Gracie pitched forward. The heel snapped off her shoe with a click so audible Rory could hear it from where he was standing.
What was left of her cool reserveand that wasn't muchabandoned her. Rory found himself smiling when she pried her foot free, took off a shoe and hurled it at the pony, who kicked up its heels at her and farted as it dodged the shoe.
"Bad horses become glue," she shouted. "And dog food. How would you like to be breakfast for a Great Dane?"
"Tut-tut," Rory muttered to himself. "Your decorum doesn't match your dress, Miss Day."
The truth? He liked the Miss Day who would throw a shoe at a pony much more than the one who answered her phone with such cool reserve, or the one who ran perfect birthday parties in her designer duds.
But then, he knew enough about the real Miss Day that she would be appalled. That's how bored guys whiled away their time. Played poker. Smoked. Slept. Talked.
About girlfriends and family.
Graham had never been that successful in the girlfriend department, so Rory knew an awful lot about his sister.
Like: Gracie just never lets loose. You know, ever since she was a little girl she's carried a picture of a candy-apple red Ferrari. How did she become such a stick-in-the-mud? And how is it she's going to marry a stick-in-the-mud accountant, least likely ever to own a sports car? He drives a car that would barely make the economy class at a car-rental agency!
Then, as if to prove her brother had her all wrong, that there was nothing stick-in-the-mud about her, Graham Day's straitlaced sister, who didn't know how to let loose, took off the other shoe and hurled it after the departing pony. She said a wordloudlythat soldiers used with fast and furious frequency but that would have raised a few eyebrows at her perfectly executed rich kids' birthday party.
Rory felt a smile tickle at his lips. A long, long time since he had found much to smile about.
Still, it was more than evident it was a bad time to talk to her. Of course, the chivalrous thing to do would be to rescue her, to save the day, but he had given up any illusions of being a hero long, long ago. And more, Gracie would hate his catching her like this.
In a bad spot.
Out of control.
Needing his help.
Besides, he didn't know anything about horses of the large variety, and less about the tiny ones.
Still, just leaving her to deal with it seemed too hardhearted, even for him, the man generally untroubled by guilt.
But there it was: the memory of Graham required Rory to be a better man. Even if she was not his sister, Graham wouldn't have approved of abandoning the damsel in her distress.
Rory remembered he had a step up on the other heroes out there. A secret weapon. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and tried not to wince when Bridey answered, halfway through the first ring, with her chipper, "Mr. Adams, sir."
He had tried to tell her his preference was for a more casual form of address, but on that topic she would not hear him.
Her tone reproachful, she was fond of reminding him, "Mr. Adams, you are the CEO of a very successful company."
"Bridey, I need you to find me someone who can round up some escaped ponies."
If the request took her by surprise, she certainly didn't let on. She took all the details and assured him she was on it.