Was Olivia hearing this right? The one man in Indian Lake she'd found truly intriguing since, well, foreverthe hopelessly handsome heir to the region's most successful farming operation, Rafe Barzonniwas involved in horse racing? That made him, and her sudden attraction, downright dangerous. He wasn't just out of her league. He was a gambler. Like her father. With the shame of her father's racetrack betting addiction still haunting her, Olivia can't be part of that world. Rafe's world. She can't trust him, or his magnetism. But there's something deep in his incredible blue eyes that keeps drawing her closer
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The early-spring dew glistened as dawn struck the lush grass of the Barzonni training paddock. The only disturbance in the chilly air was the heavy snort, rhythmic breathing and thundering hooves of Rowan as Rafe urged his father's prize Thoroughbred around the second quarter mile of track.
Rafe was far from a professional jockey, and at six foot one, he'd never aspired to the career, but no one knew Rowan's talent, spirit and desire to run like Rafe did. Every beat of Rowan's heart matched his own. Blood pulsed through his veins, suffusing his body and mind with oxygen, and Rafe's lungs filled and exhaled the crisp, clean morning air like an elixir. His exhilaration grew as the horse sped up, and Rafe leaned his head closer to Rowan's neck, shouting encouragement. He knew Rowan sensed his pride, his own need to push them both to their physical limits. No run was a test or trial. Each one was the end game. It was for the win.
At moments like this, Rafe and the horse were one, moving fluidly through space and time, gobbling up track as if they weren't part of the real world. Together they were magic.
They were coming up to the third turn, so Rafe pressed his thighs into Rowan's sides and dug in his heels just enough to communicate it was time for Rowan to unleash all his power.
Rafe and his father had built their home track together, board by board, truckload after truckload of precisely mixed sandy loam, clay and base soil when Rafe was only fourteen. Angelo had always dreamed of owning a Kentucky Derby winner, so they'd fine-tuned their track to the exact specifications of Churchill Downs in Louisville. And no ordinary racehorse would do. Angelo wanted fame, but not necessarily fortunethough his farm had yielded a fairly large one over the years. His four sons were his legacy, but a moment in the winner's circle would erase all his beleaguered childhood experiences, or so he'd told Rafe. Rafe never once forgot what he was racing for.
Rafe's father had come to America after living most of his young life on the streets in Sicily. Angelo had told the boys he worked hard because he never wanted anyone to take his land from him. As long as he tilled the earth and watched vegetables grow, he knew he'd never have to scrounge through garbage for a meal. Some townspeople said Angelo was a thief, that he'd stolen bankrupt farms from their neighbors over forty years ago. But Rafe never believed his father had done anything wrong.
The fact was that Angelo was a driven man. His need to control his future and that of his sons overrode everything else in his life. Angelo was not demonstrative or thoughtful. He didn't often tell his sons or his wife that he loved them. Instead, he toiled from dawn till long past dusk to keep the farm solvent. His hard work had made him wealthy over the years, but Angelo never saw it that way. He was always one failed crop away from destitution. He taught his sons to keep their sights on the abundance that came from the earth.
Angelo was also a man of contradictions. Though he loved horses, he never bet on a race in his life. To him, gambling was the same as burning money. A waste. But the thrill of being victorious at a race, the prestige that came from owning a winner and the possibility that his name would be attached to a horse that made history was Angelo's dream. And he didn't believe in half measures. When he realized Rafe shared his love for horses, Angelo did everything he could to encourage Rafe's passion and involvement in the sport.
Rafe had raced over a dozen Thoroughbreds around this track, but no horse had ever measured up to Rowan. He was the son of a Preakness-winning sire and a mare that had won over a million dollars at Santa Anita, Arlington and other tracks in her lifetime. Rowan had been born to race, and Rafe believed that with the help of their trainer, Curt Wheeling, they were finally about to triumph.
As Rafe and Rowan headed down the final stretch, Rafe tried to imagine what it would be like to be the jockey on Rowan's back during a professional race. Thousands of spectators would be watching him, critiquing his skills, the nuances of the tugs he gave the reins, the directions he shouted into Rowan's ears and the lean of his body in the saddle. They would cheer and yell for him, and his boyhood dreams would become reality.
The sound of Rowan's hooves as they pounded the dirt filled Rafe's ears. In the distance he could hear his father's voice rolling toward him like an oncoming storm.
"Push him out, Rafe! Put your knees into him!" Angelo shouted. Rafe could see his father out of the corner of his eye, holding his stopwatch at eye level, and he smiled to himself. Angelo never let that stopwatch drift a quarter inch out of his sight, always fearful he'd miss a split second of vital clocking.
Curt Wheeling pulled off his ever-present cowboy hat and smacked it against the white fence. His thick salt-and-pepper hair sprang into a half-dozen spiky cowlicks. "Let him free, Rafe! Let him take you to the limit!"
Curt also held a stopwatch, the one his father had given him fifty years ago on his sixth birthday. Curt had come from a long line of horse trainers, and the Barzonnis were lucky to have hired him. Curt had been let go from his last job in Texas because the owner wanted a younger man. Since coming to Indian Lake, Curt had fit right in and had bonded with Rowan just as Rafe had.
Rafe heard their instructions and leaned his chest against Rowan's withers, keeping his head low to reduce wind resistance. When he got this close to the finish line, Rafe always wondered how many seconds faster Rowan would be with a jockey who was sixty pounds lighter and nearly a foot shorter. At the same time, this ride was so thrilling that Rafe couldn'twouldn'tdream of relinquishing the track to anyone else. Angelo always said that if Rowan could run with a lanky, hard body like Rafe's in the saddle, he could race to the stars with a professional jockey. Training Rowan with an anvil on his back was good for the horse, his father had said.
"C'mon, boy! This is it! Nowfly!"
That was all Rafe had to say. Rowan's strong legs beat out a rhythm that Rafe had never heard from any horse before. His hooves hit the ground and carried them so fast over the finish line that Rafe wasn't quite so sure the horse hadn't sprouted wings and left the earth.
Then something happened that Rafe had never experienced with his horse. He kept going. With each stride, he moved even faster.
Instead of pulling him back, Rafe let him run. And run he did. Rafe felt as if he was shooting through space. The air stung his eyes and he admonished himself for not wearing goggles, but he couldn't have anticipated this. Last week Rafe had pushed Rowan to nearly thirty-eight miles an hour, but today he knew they were moving much faster. Most Thoroughbreds' stride was twenty feet, but Rowan's was twenty-six. He was a highly unusual horse, and it was becoming more apparent to them all that this year Rowan was about to meet his destiny.
But what confused Rafe was the fact that Rowan had never displayed this kind of power before. Why had he held so much back?
They were nearly halfway around the track before Rowan's speed diminished even a millisecond. The horse was breathing so hard, it sounded as if his lungs would explode, though Rafe knew well that Thoroughbreds had exceptionally efficient cardiovascular systems. Breathing through his nose, Rowan drew in air when he extended his long legs, and he exhaled when his legs came together.
Finally, without any instruction from Rafe, Rowan slowed, turned around and galloped back to the fence gate where Angelo and Curt were clapping and grinning at them.
"That was unbelievable, son!" Angelo shouted with both arms raised jubilantly over his head, his stopwatch still in his right hand.
Curt opened the gate so Angelo could walk through and hug his son.
Rafe jumped down and wrapped his father in a tight bear hug. "Did you see that? Amazing! There aren't enough words." Rafe unfurled his arms from around his father and threw them around his horse's neck.
Rowan stamped a hoof and bobbed his head as if he was taking his rightful accolades. "Way to go, boy! You are the best. The best!"
Angelo hugged Rowan, as well. "I knew this was a special horse the first day we saw him in Tennessee." Angelo held the reins and stared into Rowan's deep brown eyes. "He has soul, Rafe. You remember that. This is no ordinary horse. He deserves your time."
"Time." Rafe snorted. "It's spring. Just when I should be helping Curt train him, we're working twenty hours a day to get the tilling and planting done. If only Gabe were here."
"He's not," Angelo ground out. Gabe's marriage to Liz Crenshaw was a sore subject with Rafe's father. Angelo believed the marriage was an excuse for his eldest son's defection, but Rafe understood Gabe's need to have a career of his own.
Rafe, on the other hand, couldn't imagine a more perfect life than what he had here on the farm. Though the work was backbreaking and exhausting at times, he couldn't conceive of any other way to live. And it was worth it for the horses, which had been part of the farm since before Rafe was born. Though Angelo hadn't begun purchasing Thoroughbreds until Rafe was in his teens, Rafe couldn't remember a time he wasn't riding. Gabe and Mica were enamored of sports cars, and though Rafe appreciated their passions, animals occupied that special place in Rafe's heart.
Over the years, Rafe had gained every bit of knowledge and expertise he could about Thoroughbreds. Until Curt Wheeling came along, Rafe and his father had not seriously considered entering races to win a purse. The horses they'd been able to afford weren't "star" material. But Rafe understood his father's strategy to keep buying horses and trading them "up" until he was able to afford a quality racehorse.
When they'd driven to Tennessee to see Rowan, the owner wasn't much interested in the young colt who took up space in his stable and time with his trainers because he already had an entrant in the Kentucky Derby.
But though Rowan was only a year old when Rafe met him, he would never forget the way the horse seemed to sense his presence. Rowan had been grazing in a grassy paddock with his mother. The owner had pointed him out to Rafe, and while Angelo and the owner talked, Rafe had wandered over to the fence to take a closer look.
Rafe was still yards away from the fence when suddenly, Rowan lifted his head from the grass and looked directly at him. There was no fear in Rowan's eyes as he turned away from his mother's side and strode slowly toward Rafe.
Rafe reached the fence at the same moment as Rowan, and when he reached out to touch his snout, Rowan eased his head under Rafe's hand. Then the horse curved his neck around Rafe's shoulders, as if he was hugging him.
Rafe got chills. "You'll be coming home with me," Rafe had whispered. "I'll care for you all my life."
Rafe put his arms around Rowan. Then he kissed him just as his father and the owner walked up. Rafe was shocked at the lump in his throat. He'd barely known this horse and yet he felt he'd known him forever.
He remembered the compassion and understanding in his father's eyes as Angelo considered the purchase. His long pause filled Rafe with dread that the owner was asking too much for Rowan and that Rafe's strong reaction might have negated the sale. "Is he the one, son?"
Knowing that his father was a shrewd businessman, Rafe tamped down his emotions and found his voice. "I need to ride him, Pops. See what he can do before we decide."
Angelo remained stoic and nodded as he turned to the owner. "That all right with you?"
The owner agreed and signaled to his trainer to saddle Rowan. Then he explained that Rowan needed training. He could run, but he wasn't making any promises. Angelo and Rafe would have to provide substantial instruction.
Rafe put Rowan through a few paces on the training track, but it only took one turn for Rafe to realize the potential that the Thoroughbred packed.
Angelo made the deal. Neither of them ever looked back on the drive home to Indiana.
Rafe returned to the present and looked at his father. "Dad, remember when I rode Rowan for the first time?"
"Never forget it," Angelo replied, folding his arms across his chest.
"Well, something happened out there on the track today. You saw it." He glanced at Curt, who was giving him a wary expression. "Hear me out. All this time, we've been racing Rowan on a track like Churchill Downs. That's adequate for places like Arlington and such, but I think it's too short for him."
"What are you saying?" Angelo asked.
"I think he's a Preaknesstype runner. That race is a mile and three-sixteenths, not just the mile like the Kentucky Derby. Rowan didn't hit his stride until we passed the finish line. I want to take him on another round right now and see what he can do. He should be tired out, but he isn't. And to keep him running these shorter races is a disservice to his talent."
Curt scratched his head. "How could we have missed this?"
Rafe put his hand on Curt's shoulder. "How could we have known? It was a brutal winter. He hasn't had a chance to let it rip for months. Two weeks ago he was running through muck and mud. This is the first time the track's been in decent shape this season."
"Logical," Angelo said with an odd grimace. "Listen, you take him out. I'm tired. I'm going up to the house to see if breakfast is ready." He hugged himself again.
"But, Dad, you gotta see this. You have the best eye ever."
"Oh." Angelo stared at the ground. "All right," he said quietly.
Rafe couldn't understand why his father wasn't sharing his enthusiasm, but he wouldn't let Angelo's attitude get to him. "Excellent!" Rafe smiled broadly and slung himself up onto Rowan's back. He pulled on the reins and turned the horse around.
Rafe and Rowan waited at the starting line while Angelo leaned against the fence and held his stopwatch. Curt did the same. As usual, Curt held up the red bandanna he used to signal the start of the trial, which was easy for Rafe to see.
Curt dropped the bandanna, and Rowan shot ahead. Rafe could tell that Rowan had made the first turn in a shorter time than the first trial. The second turn breezed by. So did the third. Coming up to the finish, Rafe glanced over at his father and Curt as he always did. Curt was screaming something at Rafe, though he couldn't make out the words. Angelo still held his stopwatch at eye level, but he was not cheering or shouting like Rafe thought he would be. He'd expected his father to be bursting with enthusiasm; instead, he appeared to be watching with a very steady gaze.
Rafe glowed with pride as he leaned forward and pushed Rowan to cross the finish line and not stop. Rowan poured on the power and left the finish line far behind him. They were around the first turn before the horse's stride slowed.
Rafe's suspicions were confirmed. They hadn't begun to tap Rowan's power and abilities. As Rafe slowed the horse, his mind filled with visions of great races, superb wins and making history. Rafe was nearly euphoric as they galloped back toward the gate.
Instantly, his smile melted off his face. Angelo was lying on the ground, and Curt was still yelling at him. Rafe couldn't make out the words over the pounding of his heart. He urged Rowan to the gate and jumped off.
"What's wrong?" Rafe shouted as he opened the gate and stooped over his father.
"I called 911 from my cell," Curt said. "He clutched his chest and sank to the ground just as you passed the finish line. There was no way you could hear or even see me then."
Angelo's eyes were closed, his face a ghastly, frightening gray.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A sweet story about overcoming your fears and finding happiness! Olivia Melton works hard with her Mom at Indian Lake Deli and on catering jobs and enjoys her life filled with her close relationship with her Mom and friends around town. She's not looking for anything more, but can't believe the attraction she feels for Rafe Barzonni when she runs into him. Rafe is one of the heirs of the most successful farm around the area, and is passionate about horse racing. When Olivia learns that last part, her stomach drops. She has residual issues regarding gambling and horse racing because of the hard childhood she lived through as the result of an addicted father. Will she be able to overcome her hatred of the sport and enjoy the growing attraction between she and Rafe or will she let her fear hold her back?
3.5 stars Fear of Falling by Catherine Lanigan takes readers on a journey through heartache, fear, defeat, romance, and even a little triumph along the way. Characters are the heart of the novel, even the four-legged kind, and you will be drawn to their stories and their community. Intriguing peeks into the intricacies of horse racing segue into scenes that will leave you waiting for the outcome with bated breath. You won’t watch the Kentucky Derby the same way again! While a couple aspects of the plot didn't quite make sense to me, if you like a clean, sweet romance that still simmers with passion, this is a great choice to add to your TBR list! (I received a copy of this book in exchange for only my honest review.)