Discover romance across America with Janet Dailey’s classic series featuring a love story set in each of the fifty states. With more than 300 million books sold, Dailey is an undisputed legend of contemporary romantic fiction—and in Bluegrass King, she celebrates a love as lush as the rolling hills of Kentucky.
Dani Williams has always resented wealthy, self-confident Barrett King. The scion of a blueblood Kentucky family, Barrett is used to the best of everything—while Dani and her horse-trainer father struggle to get by. But now they own The Rogue, a thoroughbred racehorse Dani is sure will be a champion. Finally, she’ll get to show Barrett that he can’t always win.
But there’s no such thing as a sure thing—on the racetrack or in love. And when tragedy strikes for Dani, Barrett’s sincere caring threatens to reveal a devastating truth: Her resentment masks an aching desire for the almost impossibly handsome man. But if she unchains her heart, will Barrett welcome her into his world of Kentucky privilege? And could she ever belong?
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The Americana Series: Kentucky
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
THE horses stomped restlessly in their stalls, straw rustling under their hooves. Sleek chestnut and bay heads were extended over their doors as they whickered softly at the rising crimson sun.
Dani Williams glanced over the back of the grulla, the mouse-grey stable pony she was saddling, her hazel eyes watching, her father making his last-minute inspection of the tall, cedar-red Thoroughbred horse. Tension crackled in the air as the big horse bared his teeth and nipped at the stocky figure that was her father.
Muscles rippled in the powerful hindquarters as the horse edged away from the man, hooves moving lightly over the ground with the innate-grace of a ballet dancer. A groom firmly held the halter of the bobbing equine head, occasionally being pulled nearly off the ground by the raising of the strong neck.
The Rogue—fierce and wild. Misbehaving for the sheer love of it. A fighter. But more important, The Rogue was a Thoroughbred racehorse. Dani's father had often said that if a man was lucky, he would see a horse like this once in his lifetime.
The marvel was that they owned him, this two-year-old stallion that stood nearly seventeen hands at the shoulder and still growing. Yet it wasn't The Rogue's bigness that promised greatness, there was the wide flare of the nostrils to drink in the wind, the broad chest to let the lungs fill to capacity and more precious than all, the nature-given desire to race.
The Rogue had raced three times as a two-year-old and three times he had won handily. The fourth time he went to the post, he never got out of the starting gate. Always fractious, always strong-willed, at race-time the big horse was an explosive keg of dynamite. His impatience had surfaced in his fourth race when he tried to open the starting gate himself and injured his right front leg in the process.
With a horse of The Rogue's caliber, no injury was slight. For two months they had babied, pampered, and nursed him along, taking no chances that would aggravate the bruise and muscle strain into something more serious. Today was the day The Rogue was to be tested.
A movement caught Dani's gaze, shifting it to the slender-built man walking towards her, a racing saddle over the arm that carried the riding crop. Her mouth moved in a tentative smile of greeting.
'I almost forget what it's like to get up at the crack of dawn,' he said, stopping beside her, his brown head failing by several inches to reach the top of her own.
'It's a nice quiet morning,' Dani murmured, smoothing her sweating palms over the sides of her faded jeans before preparing to tighten the saddle cinch. 'What do you think, Manny? Is he ready?'
Deep brown eyes were turned on Dani; like the dark complexion, they were a heritage of Manuel Herrera's Puerto Rican ancestry, but he gave her no answer. And Dani, who had spent nearly all of her nineteen years in the company of fragile racehorses, knew there was no certain answer to her question. At some point in a horse's full stride, all his thousand plus pounds was balanced on one leg whose ankle was no bigger around than that of a ballet dancer's.
A sigh shuddered from her lips in a vain attempt to relieve the tension that gripped her. With a fluid movement of long habit, Dani swung herself into the saddle of the stocky grey horse and walked him slowly to the larger, fidgeting Thoroughbred. The Rogue blew softly through his nose, nuzzling the neck of the more sedate horse, calming substantially while still moving nervously under the ministering hand of her father.
Her eyes searched the drawn lines of Lew Williams' face, missing none of the strain and tension that had him on edge, too. Lew Williams had once been a jockey like Manny, only he had lost the battle with his weight and height. But racing was in his blood. A few years after Dani was born, he had turned to training with mediocre success, then twelve years ago he had picked up his first horse in a claiming race.
But, as her father had often grumbled, it cost as much money to keep a loser as it did a winner, and most of the horses they had owned had been losers. Excluding The Rogue, they owned a string of six third-rate horses. The only money winner in the lot this year had been an ageing racing mare. But The Rogue—every dream her father had ever dreamed was wrapped up in this horse.
The bridle was on and the saddle was cinched. Her father boosted Manny into the saddle; then stared at the rider crouched like a monkey on the big horse's back.
'Once round the track at a canter to loosen him up,' Lew Williams instructed, his eyes running anxiously over the jockey's nodding head. 'Then a slow gallop, and dammit! I mean slow!' A swift glance encompassed Dani still mounted on the stocky mouse-grey. 'Take Nappy around with him. The Rogue will keep pace with him.'
The mouse-grey was his stablemate and the only horse The Rogue didn't attempt to outdistance. There was a brisk nod of understanding from Manny and a sharp glance directed at Dani, plainly saying she was to lead the way. Seconds later the pair were walking their horses on to the empty race track. For a furlong they trotted, paying no attention to the beautiful rose gardens in the infield. The famous twin spires of Churchill Downs clubhouse kept Watch. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby horse race, was more than a century old, patterned after the equally renowned Epsom Downs in England.
Neither rider said a word as Dani nudged the grey into a rocking canter and The Rogue followed suit. Around the oval track, the pair travelled clockwise once. Dani's stomach knotted as she urged, the grey into a steady gallop, her gaze straining to pick up the slightest nuance that would indicate that the accompanying Rogue was favouring his right leg, but the big cedar-red stallion was effortlessly galloping beside her, pointed ears erect and swivelled forward as he tugged at the tightly wrapped reins without truly attempting to increase the pace.
As they drew level again with the stand where her father stood, Manny raised his whip to signal that all was well and Lew Williams motioned them to circle the track once more. At the end of the third route, he waved them to-the gate.
Unconsciously Dani held her breath while she watched her father run his hand along the right front leg of the stallion. There was a watery brightness to his brown eyes as he looked up, a grin splitting the weathered lines around his mouth.
'He ain't even warm,' he said gruffly. And she knew the tightness in his voice was caused by the lump of relief in his throat. 'You might as well get down, Dani. The Rogue doesn't need a nursemaid any more.'
In compliance she slipped from the saddle, a hand reaching out to stroke the silken neck of The Rogue, then drawing quickly away when the finely boned head swung towards the hand, prepared to nip the unwary.
'You ill-tempered demon,' Dani crooned softly, smiling at the wide forehead with its darkly intelligent yet mischievous eyes. 'I'd almost let you bite me just to see you run again the way you were born to.'
But she stepped back, out of reach of his teeth, marvelling again at the magnificence of the animal before her. The perfectly carved head Of The Rogue swung away from his admiring audience. Both Dani and her father turned to see what had captured his attention
A golden chestnut was sidling towards them, a flaxen mane and tail, a white blaze down his forehead, and four flashing white stockings. Dani's smile hardened into grimness as she recognised the pride of Coronet Farm, Easy Doesit. Her hand moved in a masculine one-finger salute to the apprentice jockey astride the horse, Jimmy Graves, but her eyes dwelt coldly at the man striding effortlessly beside the trainer leading the horse, a man surrounded by an aura that suggested he had never been uncertain about anything in his life. 'Hello, Lew,' the man greeted her father. 'How's The Rogue today?'
'Barrett.' Her father's smile was broad and welcoming, a complete antithesis of his daughter's expression. 'He's every inch healthy.'
'He can take that movie horse of yours any day,' Dani declared, not attempting to hide the dry sarcasm in her voice.
'Hello, kid.' Cool green eyes flicked over her indifferently. 'Still as sassy as ever, I see.'
She half expected him to ruffle her hair, which was cropped in a short feminine version of a boy's cut that added little to the maturity of her face. As always her hair prickled along the back of her neck as she stared resentfully at Barrett King, but he was already ignoring her.
'Are you working this horse today, Lew, or are you only letting him get warm?' He was studying the restive movements of the horse, a glint of admiration in his gaze.
An exultant light glittered in Dani's eyes; she guessed how much Barrett King envied them the stallion he had tried to buy as a yearling from them. To this day her father declared that he had never considered selling The Rogue, but Dani knew how tempting the offer had been, especially in the face of steadily mounting feed bills, stable fees, and entry fees and four months without one of their horses finishing in the money. Twice he had picked up the telephone to accept Barrett King's offer, but she had managed to talk him out of it both times. Then the racing mare, Riding High, had providentially come in second with the money in his pockets, the offer wasn't as tempting as the promise of the big stallion.
Yes, Dani was gloating now, knowing that they had a horse that all the King's money couldn't buy. And the King family, an old established family in the Bluegrass country of Kentucky, had a lot of money and only a pittance of it tied up in racehorses, but the ones they owned were the best. The fillies and colts that came from their stud farm in the heart of the Bluegrass were highly sought. There was immense satisfaction in watching Barrett King look at the stallion that any horseman would give his eye-teeth to own.
'I'm letting him go all out today, Barrett,' her father was saying. 'The Rogue works better with competition. What about it? Are you going to let Easy Doesit have his head?'
'Simms is the trainer,' the man shrugged, turning his easy smile to the man holding the golden chestnut. 'Do you want to run him alone or work him with The Rogue?'
'If you're afraid The Rogue is too much horse for yours,' Dani inserted with insidious softness, 'we'll understand.'
'Danielle.' The muttered reprimand from her father fortunately was meant only for her ears, but her taunt had brought Barrett King's gaze back to her. It angered her to notice that her words seemed to amuse him.
'We'll lead your horse once around the track,' the trainer Simms answered back, chuckling a bit as he spoke.
'We'll see who leads who!' Dani snapped, spinning abruptly on a booted heel and shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her faded jeans.
Anger gave impetus to her legs, carrying her quickly to the stand while her father and Barrett King followed at a more leisurely pace. Her smouldering gaze watched their progress, momentarily despising her father for showing such deference to the man at his side simply because he represented money.
From the first day she had seen Barrett King almost five years ago, her hackles had raised. It had been the instant recognition of an enemy. Most people didn't see beyond the charming smile and the handsome facade, but Dani did. And she studied him again as he walked beside the short, paunchy figure that was her father.
He was tall, more than six feet, significantly dwarfing the men around the racetrack, the breadth of his shoulders and depth of his chest dimmed down to a lean waist and hips, yet all were in keeping with his height.
Deep lines were etched in the sides of his mouth, amounting to masculine dimples. A grin quirked the corners and relieved the hint of fierceness from the powerful jaw and chin. His sternly handsome face was dominated by long, dark-lashed eyes of very vivid green. Yet these cool, reckless eyes always seemed to have little devils of laughter lurking in their clear depths. But Dani knew they were devils that could, if the occasion demanded it, leap to the front and become anything but laughter. Barrett King could be ruthless if he chose.
Thick masses of waving auburn hair crowned the top of his head, the fiery highlights accented by the morning sun. He was wearing a loden green sports suit, stitched in cream yellow like the pattern of his shirt opened at the throat. As always, he wore his clothes with careless grace. Her father classified him as a man's man, but Dani considered him a ladies' man, an opinion seemingly endorsed by the beautiful women who clustered around him.
At nineteen, Dani felt very worldly—not from experience but exposure. She had travelled the race-track circuit almost since she was born. For the first five years she had been accompanied by her mother, a woman who to this day she couldn't truly remember. Her mother had hated the unpredictable life of horse racing and had abandoned her husband and child. Dani was twelve when the word reached them that her mother had been killed in a car crash a few months before. Her father had grieved quietly, but she had felt nothing, a fact that had haunted her with overtones of guilt.
A frown dug deep furrows in her forehead. She loved racing. She loved horses. She didn't care two pins for the security her mother had craved. So they weren't wealthy like Barrett King, Dani thought angrily. So they lived out of the back end of a pick-up truck. This was her life and she loved it!
Up with the sun, the mornings were a joy. The scent of hay tickled her nose. The warm smell of horses. The combination of leather and saddle soap that always dung to her hands. The accelerated beat of her heart when the call to post was sounded. The mostly good-natured competition between horse owners. As for friends, she had hundreds scattered across the East Coast from Florida to New York.
So what if her clothes could all fit in one small suitcase and she didn't have a dress to her name? So what if the jeans and top that constantly adorned her slender figure made her look more like a young boy than a girl? So what if the only education she had known had come through the mail? So what if she dined mainly on hamburgers and Cokes? None of that made Barrett King any better than she was.
These last thoughts were the reason the glint in her eyes was so openly defiant when her father and Barrett King joined her. There was a puzzled question in the latter's eyes as he met her gaze, but as usual his glance never fingered very long on her. Barrett King saw her as a child, at most a teenager. That rankled with Dani, too. She wanted to declare that she was his equal, but the apprehensive light in her father's eye choked back the scathing comment that bubbled in her chest.
Clamping her lips shut, she turned her gaze track-ward to the two horses slowly circling the track counter-clockwise. Without the quieting influence of his stablemate, The Rogue was exhibiting the eagerness to run, fighting the tight hold of the reins by the steel muscles of Manny's arms.
'He looks good, Lew,' Barrett commented.
'He looks more than good. He looks great!' Dani said firmly, the mediocre praise irritating her. When he's a three-year-old he's going to take the Triple Crown the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and then the Belmont.'
'It's not safe to count your chickens,' Barrett cautioned with a hint of mockery. 'The Rogue is only a horse.'
Her head spun around to glare at him angrily. 'You can say that because you haven't seen him run. You haven't seen The Rogue in full stride. Nothing can touch him. Nothing!' A brow was raised at her vehement declaration. 'You knew he was good, Mr. King, that's why you tried to buy him, but he belongs to Lew and me!'
For once there were no devils in his cool, level gaze. 'It isn't good to become too attached to a horse, especially a working Thoroughbred. It can only lead to heart break—as it almost has already.'
'You'd like to see him crippled, wouldn't you?' she accused, her hazel eyes flashing cinnamon brown fires. 'If you can't have The Rogue, you don't want anyone else to have him either.'
'That will be enough.' Her father's voice was a low growl and just as menacing but the effect was dampened by the apologetic look he tossed to Barrett. 'You'll have to excuse my daughter. It's difficult to teach them the proper respect in this kind of environment.'
'I respect those who deserve it,' Dani retorted.
Her chin was tilted upward to indicate that the cool look she was receiving didn't intimidate her at all, but mentally she braced herself for the taller man's anger.
Excerpted from Bluegrass King by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1977 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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