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Peyton Blackstone lay on her back, staring up at the gossamer fabric draping the four-poster bed. She'd turned off the air-conditioning the night before, leaving the windows open overnight to take advantage of the cooling temperatures.
Pinpoints of light painted the dawning sky with streaks of pink and lavender and the woodpecker living in the tree outside her bedroom window had begun tapping his beak against the bark in a rhythmic cadence that set her teeth on edge. She didn't need an alarm clock to wake her, not as long as she had her feathery neighbor.
Peyton knew she had to get up and check on a mare recovering from a localized infection of the skin before driving over to a neighboring horse farm to pick up Celia Cole-Thomas. She and Celia had an eleven o'clock appointment at a Staunton salon for a beauty makeover. Later that afternoon Celia was scheduled to exchange vows with her fiance. The ceremony would take place in the garden at Celia's brother's horse farm. The resident minister at Blackstone Farms would officiate, while Nicholas Cole-Thomas had invited everyone living on farms within a twenty-mile radius to attend the reception.
Celia and her fiance, Gavin Faulkner, had come to Virginia to marry and at the last possible moment decided to hold the ceremony at Cole-Thom Farms rather than at the local courthouse. Peyton, after embarrassingly revealing she liked Celia's brother, had been recruited by Celia to stand in as her maid of honor, while Gavin had asked Nicholas to be his best man. However, she knew Celia's attempt to play matchmaker was destined for failure. Whenever Nicholas visited Blackstone Farms to meet with his mentor, he would give her a barely perceptible nod, looking through her as if she didn't exist.
When she'd returned to Blackstone Farms after completing her studies for a degree in veterinary medicine, Peyton had asked her cousin about his protege. Sheldon Blackstone was forthcoming when he told her about the swirling rumors weeks before Nicholas arrived to claim the prime land his agent had secured for him in an auction pitting him against the owner of Thornton Farms. Nicholas's representative finally quoted a price that far exceeded what Jubal Thornton was prepared or able to meet, and over four hundred acres and a dilapidated mansion were deeded to the new owner who set up Cole-Thom Farms.
Sheldon also revealed it'd taken Nicholas more than a year to restore the mansion to its original grandeur and another year to erect one- and two-bedroom prefab cottages, connecting dormitory-style buildings for resident employees, a dining hall and two state-of-the-art modern stables. Viewed as an outsider, Nicholas was touted as brash, vain, arrogant and an upstart after he'd purchased several Arabians for breeding purposes. There was even more chatter about him. No one had seen him with a woman and this simply added to the mystique of the tall, dark, handsome horse breeder.
Sitting up, Peyton swept back a lightweight blanket, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. She combed her fingers through the hair falling over her forehead and around her face. Her feet touched the floor at the same time her cell phone vibrated on the bedside table. Reaching for the phone, she stared at it. An unfamiliar number was displayed on the screen. She punched in her pass code, deciding to answer the call.
"Hey, baby. I knew you would be up. You always were an early riser."
The voice on the other end of the connection raised bumps on her exposed flesh. "Why the hell are you calling me?"
"Is that any way to greet your husband?"
She gritted her teeth. "Ex-husband, Reggie." Peyton knew he hated when she called him Reggie.
His deep laugh came through the earpiece. "I'll always think of you as my wife, Peyton."
Her hand tightened around the phone. "I don't want you to ever call me again."
"Don't you want to hear what I have to say?"
"No! You said and did enough when we were together." Peyton pressed her thumb to the touch screen, ending the call.
She didn't want to believe he had the audacity to call her when she'd told him emphatically she never wanted to see or hear from him again. And Peyton didn't want to believe that the man with whom she'd wanted to spend her life turned out to be a fraud. When she filed for divorce she didn't know which of his names to use, so it'd become Reginald Matthews aka Ronald Mitchell, aka Richard Morris. The only consistent thing was his initials. She should've known there was something wrong with him because he appeared too good to be true. But at twenty-four she'd believed herself in love for the first time. However, a year later the rosy bubble didn't burst but exploded when, after he'd been arrested for solicitation, she discovered her husband had a criminal history going back to when he was a juvenile. Reginald's criminal history included misdemeanor offenses ranging from petty theft, forgery to menacing. He never served time because of his father's influence.
The elder Matthews had always bailed him out and instead of serving time in jail or prison, Reginald was mandated to community service, which he never completed. However, Reginald's luck ran out when he was arrested in Florida at the same time his parents were out of the country on vacation. Peyton had no intention of bailing him out for soliciting a prostitute, and he spent a week in jail before he was able to contact his indulgent father to put up the money. She moved out of their apartment, contacted a lawyer and filed for divorce.
Setting the phone on the bedside table, Peyton made her way into an adjoining bathroom. Flicking on a light, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, seeing a stranger staring back at her. Her dark gray eyes seemed abnormally large and haunted. A mop of sun-streaked blond hair fell around her face. The spray of freckles dotting her nose and cheeks were no longer visible. Sitting on the rails watching the horses exercise, swimming in the in-ground pool, and occasionally picnicking outdoors with her young cousins without a hat had darkened her normal golden-brown complexion to a rich chestnut hue.
Fortunately she'd worn the highest number SPF sunscreen to protect her skin from the damaging rays of the hot Southern sun. If her mother saw her now she would launch into a tirade about the dangers of skin cancer, and Peyton would somehow placate her saying she would check with a dermatologist if she noticed anything out of the ordinary.
She went through her morning ablution, finishing her shower and applying a liberal application of perfumed creme cologne. She slipped into a pair of jeans with a white man-tailored blouse, turning back the cuffs, and a pair of black leather flats. Reaching for a brush, she pulled it through the tawny strands, which fell to her shoulders, smooth and shimmering with pale gold highlights. It'd been more than three years since Peyton had cut her hair, and the urge to cut it again was stronger than ever.
She paused to make her bed and put her bedroom in order before she left the suite of rooms in the large two-story white house she shared with Sheldon, his wife, Renee, and their young daughter, Virginia. Although Sheldon employed a full-time housekeeper, Peyton still cleaned up after herself. She hadn't grown up with household help, so old habits were hard to break.
The sun was up when she walked to the area where a pickup truck, minivan and a SUV were garaged. Now that Sheldon had officially retired from running the farm, Peyton usually drove the red pickup with the farm's logo emblazoned on the doors. The doors to the pickup, like all of the vehicles on the farm, were never locked and keys or fobs were always left in the ignition. She kept her medical bag in a locked compartment in the truck along with a pair of knee-high rubber boots.
The farm was beginning to stir. She drove past a group of men walking in the direction of the stables. One by one the horses would be taken from their stalls, washed and groomed, while the stable hands mucked and washed down the stalls. They would be fed and watered and then turned out to pasture to graze. The Thoroughbreds training for races would be exercised before the jockeys put them through their paces. Jockeys and trainers would spend time conferring with one another as the respective trainers entered the data into laptops.
Peyton parked alongside one of the three stables, retrieved her bag and exchanged her shoes for the boots. She walked in, coming face-to-face with Ryan Black-stone, the farm's resident veterinarian.
"What are you doing up so early?" she asked Ryan. "I told you I'd make rounds this morning." He wore his ubiquitous jeans, plaid cotton shirt, battered baseball cap that had seen better days and scuffed boots. A two-day growth of whiskers shadowed his lean jaw.
The Blackstones were like the Baldwin brothers. The similarity in the actors' eye color indelibly connected them as family. Whereas the Baldwins shared the gene for ice-blue eyes, it was varying shades of gray with the Blackstones. At forty, tall and slender Dr. Ryan Blackstone was bummed because he claimed more gray hair than his father, who would celebrate his sixtieth birthday the following year.
Ryan raised his eyebrows at his young cousin. She'd enrolled in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan, Canada, earning a doctor of veterinary medicine degree. Like him she'd specialized in large animal and equine medicine. He'd found her motivated and single-minded in learning everything she could about medical care for horses. He smiled. This morning she looked ten years younger than twenty-seven with her bare face and her hair pulled into a ponytail.
He reached for her medical bag. "Don't you have a wedding to go to this afternoon?"
Smiling, Peyton nodded. "I wanted to check on Katie Dee."
"I checked her already."
"What's up, Drs. Blackstone?" quipped one of the workers as he pushed a wheelbarrow filled with hay and manure out of the stable.
Peyton rolled her eyes at him when he winked at her. A few of the single workers had started flirting with her once they'd discovered she wasn't married. What they didn't know was that she had been married, but that was something she made certain not to advertise. It was just too embarrassing.
"There is one too many Dr. Blackstones on this farm," she said under her breath.
Ryan gave her a level stare. "And there'll probably be a third when Sean goes to veterinary school."
"He's only eleven, Ryan. Are you certain he wants to follow in your footsteps?"
"I'm only repeating what he told Kelly."
Peyton fell in step with Ryan as he walked over to the pickup. "Even though I love working with you, I've been applying for positions at other farms. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck. I had a dinner meeting with Nicholas the other night, but I didn't get the chance to ask him whether he'd let me volunteer some of my time because his sister and her fiance had come in from North Carolina."
Opening the passenger-side door, Ryan set her bag on the seat. "Why volunteer, Peyton? You're a doctor, not an intern. Which means you should be paid for your services."
She stared at the grooms brushing a mare and her foal, and then her gaze swung back to Ryan's scowling expression. "It's not about money."
"If it's not money then what on earth could it be?"
"It's my name."
Ryan's frown deepened. "What's wrong with being a Blackstone?"
"Everything if I'm Dr. Blackstone, D.V.M." She sucked in a lungful of air. "Whenever someone mentions Dr. Blackstone it's never about me, Ryan. When I discovered the boil on Katie Dee's back the first thing one of the men said to me is that I should call Dr. Blackstone. They were talking about you. I may not have your experience, but dammit, I do happen to be a licensed veterinarian. Hardly anyone on this farm relates to me as a vet. You, Sheldon and Jeremy are the exceptions."
"It's going to take some time before they realize you are."
"How much time?"
"Probably a year. The more they see you caring for the horses, the more they'll come to rely on you." He dropped an arm over her shoulders. "Last night I had an in-depth discussion with Jeremy about setting up an equine hospital on the last quadrant. I could use you at the hospital because of your surgical training. No pressure," he said quickly when she lifted her eyebrows.
"No pressure but a whole boatload of guilt," Peyton teased.
Ryan winked at her. "No guilt, either." He sobered. "I want the best for you, Peyton. And if that means you working at another farm then I want you to follow your dream. The only thing I'm going to ask is if we do put up the hospital I'd like you to assist me in the O.R."
Peyton rested her head on his shoulder. "I promise. Now, are you coming to the wedding and reception?"
He dropped his arm. "I wouldn't miss it. Will you save me a dance?"
"I don't know, cousin. I'll probably be so busy dancing with all of the single men that I may not have time for an old married man like you."
"I'm not that old and I haven't been married that long."
Peyton wiggled her fingers as she climbed into the truck. "Thanks for taking over for me this morning. I'll see you later." She and Ryan alternated days checking on the horses. Not only did she want to gain greater experience caring for the farm animals, but she also wanted Ryan to spend more time with his wife and three young children. She smiled. He'd more or less given her his blessing about securing employment elsewhere. Peyton believed she would never be able to come into her own professionally if she continued to work at her family's farm.
Peyton maneuvered onto the local road leading to Cole-Thom Farms, downshifting and coming to a stop when she pulled in behind a caravan of trunks and vans inching toward the gatehouse security checkpoint. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel in frustration as security personnel carefully checked the papers of the drivers in each van. Nicholas had pulled off a minor miracle when he contracted with an event planner to coordinate a reception for an estimated two hundred guests in less than forty-eight hours.
He had invited several neighboring farms to the soiree; the owners and their employees were already in a party mood because of the upcoming biannual open-house festivities, and the owner of Cole-Thom Farms sister's wedding was an unexpected prelude to what was touted as an inexhaustible supply of food, drink and music.