Equine journalist Randi Sterling bonds easily with the horses she writes about—it’s men she has a hard time trusting. When she receives a proposition from Jaydee Hill, her charismatic college flame, to move to his ranch in San Diego’s wealthy Rancho del Zorro, she is torn. Jaydee is offering her the life she’s always dreamed of, but he burned her once before. Is he a changed man or is she heading down a trail of trouble?
Desire and curiosity win her mental coin toss, but she arrives to discover—surprise! Jaydee is already married. She stumbles upon Jaydee’s dead bride in a champion stallion’s stall and is later horrified when her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon.
Can Randi solve this murder in horseman’s paradise or will she become the killer’s next victim?
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Read an Excerpt
Randi Sterling stepped out of the sunlight into the breeding barn. She breathed deep. Hay and horseflesh. Some people thought horses stunk or considered them large, frightening beasts to be avoided at all costs, but to Randi the scent of a horse was one of the best things life had to offer, and an existence without them would be colorless and flat.
Forget a shrink’s couch. A horse beneath you, a beckoning trail and the squeak of saddle leather—far better therapy than sitting on a couch trying to decide if your mother’s infidelities or your father’s alcoholism, or perhaps both, made you screwy.
Randi’s friend Kira followed her through the double doors and hooked arms with her. “Thanks for letting me ride in on your coattails. You know Hank, he thinks all Europeans are voyeurs.”
Kira let go of Randi’s arm to duck behind her back. “He also says the fewer people around making Rebel nervous, the better.” Kira’s white-blonde hair and St. Pauli girl curves were anything but inconspicuous.
A six-figure quarter horse stallion, Hesa Rebel Man, pranced sideways in the center of the breeding room until he hit the end of his rope, neck arched, ears up.
“Ridiculous.” Randi stepped to the side, leaving Kira exposed. “Rebel only cares about one thing right now and it’s not who’s watching him. It’s a horse breeding, not a golf match.” Randi handed her a notebook and the camera she’d been holding. “Take these. If Hank gives you a hard time, I’ll say you’re here as my assistant. He can’t argue with that.”
Kira waggled the notepad. “Journalists hardly need a Sherpa to schlep their stuff around.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re helping to carry my emotional baggage, and we all know how much that weighs.”
Kira swiveled her head. “I don’t see him, or her. So far so good.”
“They’ll be here. Rebel’s her stallion. The good news is this is probably the last time I’ll have to watch them hanging all over each other.”
“That’s what you think. It’s only been six months, but it feels like I’ve known you forever and I’m not letting you go.”
“That’s sweet, Kira, but there’s nothing worse than being a third wheel.”
“It’s February. Why would anyone in their right mind leave San Diego for Colorado in the dead of winter?”
“Who says I’m in my right mind? Anyway, it’s home.”
“Home is where the heart is.” Kira shook her finger. “Don’t give me that look. English isn’t my native language. Therefore, I can cliché till I’m blue in the face. To me they’re not overused phrases but unique ways to figure out how your American minds think.” She clucked her tongue. “Focus on the horse. He’s the reason you’re here, remember?”
“How could I forget? HorseWorld magazine is my shot at the big time. Let’s go stand near the wash rack. We’ll have a better view.”
Piper Powell, breeding manager of Lucky Jack Performance Horses, gave them a cursory nod before handing Rebel’s lead rope over to the groom.
Randi leaned in. “Piper saw you and didn’t even do a double take, and there’s nothing she likes better than snitching to Hank. You’re in the clear.”
Kira tucked the notebook under her arm and applied a coat of her trademark red lipstick. The combination of bright red lips on milky-white skin made Kira look like a porcelain doll, an Austrian farmer’s daughter.
She dropped the tube in her bag. “Piper doesn’t notice anything unless it has four legs, a tail and a piece of apparatus I am, thankfully, without.”
“Can’t say I blame her. A horse might give you a warning before he bucks you off. Men are far harder to read than animals. Animals don’t lie and they don’t cheat.”
Hank Hill, Lucky Jack’s owner, leaned against the wall, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip. A stranger could think him relaxed, but anytime a stallion was present, Hank had his guard up. Most ranch owners put maximum effort into absolving themselves of culpability. Hank refused to shy away from duty. Kira might have been intimidated by his hawk-like eyes and booming voice. Not many people got under Kira’s skin like that, but Hank was the type of guy Randi would have been proud to call her father-in-law if things had turned out the way they were supposed to.
Hank’s eyes skimmed the other six or so people in the room, landed on Kira, registered a question mark, followed by a look of resignation when he saw Randi. He removed a fleck of tobacco from his tongue and pushed himself away from the wall.
“Whew.” Kira feigned wiping sweat from her brow then nodded at the group of newcomers. “Look at them. If I sold my restaurant and everything I own along with it, I wouldn’t come close to having the kind of money they do. I bet the silverbelly Stetson that guy has on is at least a five X. Why are they here anyway?”
“Looking to breed their mares to Rebel if Hank deems them worthy. Check out the belt buckle on the tall one. Salad plate, anyone?”
The women wore True Religion jeans paired with tight Swarovski crystal-studded tops. Louis Vuitton bags swung heavy from their elbows, while wafting waves of expensive perfume clashed with Rebel’s musky sweat. The couples conversed in church-like whispers, eyes glued to the stallion who danced in place, hooves tapping the floor, snorting and pawing and wanting to get on with the business at hand. The temperature in the room had to have gone up a good ten degrees.
Rebel’s mahogany coat gleamed. He sported a thick white blaze that zigzagged from underneath his forelock before splitting in two above his nostrils. Randi clicked her pen, hoping to capture the stallion’s legendary charisma in a way that would differentiate her from the other journalists out there. When it came to horses, God was in the details. “His face marking reminds me of a Flying V.”
“Guitar?” Kira asked.
Rebel bugled a whinny and all conversation stopped. Piper left Hank’s side and crossed the room to take the lead rope away from Rebel’s groom.
Kira scratched her nose. “You’re right about one thing. He’s clearly ready to rock.”
“That’s clever. Mind if I steal it?”
“No charge. I’d be honored. What’s your angle?”
“Business. Quarter horse breeding is a high-priced, elite enterprise, but the horse is just doing what his hormones tell him to do, then we come along to manage and control it. People pay a lot of money to obtain the fastest and most athletic horses to annihilate the competition with style and grace, and it all starts here, in the breeding barn with the lust coming off Rebel’s hide and the vibrations of his hooves galloping right up the readers’ spines.”
Kira snickered. “What are you writing? General Horsepital?”
“Whatever it takes. I need to gather every relevant fact I can get my hands on, pick Hank’s and Piper’s brains, add colorful quotes and tidbits of human interest, put everything together in a cohesive format and deliver the polished article to HorseWorld by the deadline.”
“Kind of like having Wolfgang Puck, Emeril and Gordon Ramsay all dining at my place on the same night.”
Kira’s restaurant, The Surf & Stirrup, was one of North San Diego County’s most happening spots, known for its young and beautiful crowd, the best steaks in town and Kira’s signature drinks with beach and western themes that went down easy to send you flying high.
“You’re a star, Kira. If your rib eye didn’t float their boats, your tequila sunsets would. If I can pull this off with half your grace and confidence, I’m in.”
“You’ll do fine. ‘Fake it ’til you make it,’ remember?”
“I remember. Now, be a good assistant and hand me my camera.”
Randi reeled off shots: the fullness of Rebel’s shoulders and the sturdiness of his haunches—muscles made to start like a jackrabbit and stop on a dime—the epitome of the All-American Quarter Horse. Finished, she exchanged camera for pen and paper.
All parts of Rebel’s conformation have been bred for generations to allow the breed to work long, hard days over rough terrain yet still have the stamina and agility necessary to catch, corner and cut a cow from the herd. She lifted her pen, listening. From the rows of stables adjoining the breeding barn, horses kick the wooden panels of their stalls, the resounding thuds alternating with the stallion’s primal—
A squeal broke her concentration. Rebel twisted his neck, pinned his ears and reared. His hooves paddled the air, barely missing the side of Piper’s head. Seconds later, he came crashing down. The rope, having slipped through Piper’s hands, had too much slack and Rebel hurled his body toward the spectators. The men grabbed their hats and the women their purses, stumbling backward and flattening themselves against the wall.
Piper braced her legs and reeled in the lead, tightening the links laced through the halter. She had a body like a whippet but she was tough. The stud shank bit the tender skin of Rebel’s nose and he skidded to a stop so fast it seemed he’d go down. Somehow he managed to unscramble his legs and stay upright. He shook himself like a dog then let loose an earsplitting neigh that rippled in waves down his neck and along his topline, slick with lather.
Hank wore a wide grin; everyone else looked like they’d wet their pants. “Damn horse reminds me of me.” He tugged on the belt loops of his Wranglers, hitching them over his narrow hips. “Rowdy and ready.”
“You think?” Piper’s tone made it clear she was not amused.
“Sure. Ask the wife. She’ll tell ya.”
“No thanks. I’ll take your word for it.”
Randi scribbled fast so as not to miss the action: A chain linked through the noseband helps control the stallion, protecting against injuries to horse and human.
Hank took Rebel’s lead rope from Piper. “Stacey coming?”
Randi froze. If she were a dog, her ears would have shot up. Stacey wouldn’t be alone. Jaydee tagged behind her like a lovesick puppy, calling her “sweet cheeks” and grabbing her butt every chance he got. Watching them frolic made Randi want to throw up.
Piper snapped a pair of rubber gloves over her fingers. “It’s not like she checks in with me. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s out getting her nails done.”
Hank led Rebel forward, giving the gathering a clear view of the stallion’s equipment.
“Wow!” Kira’s eyes went wide. “They don’t say ‘hung like a horse’ for nothin’.”
“Shh! You’re supposed to be cool. Act like you see this sort of thing every day.”
“In my dreams.”
“And you wonder why Hank thinks all Euros are pervs?”
Kira jerked her thumb. “Yeah? Look at your fellow red-blooded Americans and tell me they’re not impressed.”
One of the bejeweled women stood with her mouth hanging open. She elbowed another, who dropped her purse on the floor. The men sat poker-faced. No doubt it took some effort.
Hank held out a plastic tumbler. Piper reached for it. Rebel bared his teeth, snapped at her back and Hank flew into action. His fist slammed into the stallion’s muzzle with a loud smack right before the horse made contact. Rebel jerked his head away with a grunt, giving Hank a look of surprise and newfound respect.
Hank wasn’t one to lose his temper. His movements were smooth and purposeful. Enough…yet not too much. Let a twelve hundred pound animal get the best of you and you wouldn’t last long. Get the best of them and they wouldn’t last, either.
Piper returned to her task, seemingly unfazed she’d just almost lost a couple ribs. Pouring soapy water from the cup along the length of Rebel’s shaft, she hummed as she rubbed the suds like she was washing the dinner dishes.
Care is taken to make sure all necessary parts are free of dirt and debris that might contaminate the sample.
The groom handed Hank a leather tube about two feet long with a suitcase handle on the top.
“Okay,” Hank said, “let’s do this.”
“You’ve got it, Boss.” Piper relaxed her grip on the rope and Rebel surged forward to straddle his conquest with another eye-opening squeal. The mare didn’t protest, didn’t move, didn’t kick. Rebel bit her, shoving himself in her general direction but he couldn’t find a natural fit. “She” was a dummy, a phantom-breeding mount, a slanted pole wrapped in padding with a life-sized plastic horse head attached.
Hank grabbed hold of Rebel, guiding his shaft into the handheld tube. After a few rough thrusts, the rhythm of the mating became easier. Hank widened his stance and braced himself against the dummy to hold the container in place.
Doesn’t seem to bother the stallion that the “mare” isn’t alive.
Kira peered over Randi’s shoulder. “Reminds me of a football player I knew in college. Now I understand why they don’t use a real mare.”
“Save that story for your bar. You’re right. This way is cheaper and easier. No trailering costs or risk of injury to the mom-to-be. UPS delivery and the vet’s turkey baster and you’re in business.”
Seconds later it was over. Rebel’s muscles went slack and he hung on top of the dummy, front legs dangling. He shook his head and backed off, landing with a thud on a thick rubber mat beneath his feet.
Fire in the stallion’s eyes dims. No more stamping of hooves or commanding calls. Day’s work done and over in mere seconds.
Kira broke the spell. “I need a cigarette.”
“You don’t smoke.”
“Yet.” Kira opened her purse and Randi half expected her to pull out a pack of Marlboros, but her lipstick appeared instead and she applied a fresh coat. “What’s Rebel’s liquid gold go for these days?”
One of the Stetson men turned around and took off his hat. “We came a long way to convince Hank our mare is worthy of his stud. I’d do just about whatever it took to get a colt by Rebel, but Hank turned my nephew’s horse down.” He cleared his throat and shifted his weight to the other foot. “Said her conformation wasn’t up to par. The boy wanted to wring Hank’s neck.”
Randi rapped her pen against her collarbone. “Are you telling me Rebel’s sperm is worth killing for?”
“Could be.” The man half-grinned. “Don’t quote me.”
The door to the breeding barn rumbled open. Stacey Hill stood framed inside the doorway, the sun glinting off her hair. Conversation stopped. The back of Randi’s neck prickled.
“Speak of the devil,” Kira said. “A day late, but never a dollar short.”
The groom led Rebel down the barn aisle. Stacey stepped inside and held up her hands like she was checking for rain. “Hank? Why is Roberto taking my horse away?” She marched, stomping to a halt in front of the lab, a separate room housed inside the breeding barn and used to prepare the semen for shipment. Across the room, Hank faced the prospective clients, his back to Stacey. She raised her voice but didn’t approach the group. “You seem to forget Rebel is my goddamn horse. You were supposed to wait for me.”
Randi kept one eye on the developing drama and the other on the door, sure any second now Jaydee would arrive to rescue his damsel—definitely in distress.
Kira touched Randi’s arm. “I’d love to stay and watch the fireworks, but I’m shorthanded this afternoon.”
“Go. I’ll fill you in later.”
“Call me.” Kira waved her fingers and slipped out the side door.
Hank excused himself from the crowd, rolling down the sleeves of his plaid flannel shirt as he strode toward Stacey. Randi took the opportunity to move in for a close-up of the woman who swiped Jaydee right out from under her naïve little nose, sending her into a tailspin. Crash and burn. Six months ago, after Jaydee begged her to move to California, she unknowingly bought herself a one-way ticket to a broken heart and rejection she’d never known the likes of. Kira would say the words sounded like a cheesy country song, but she didn’t care. Cheesy country had its place.
A stack of bangles slid down Stacey’s arm, tinkling like silver bells before they crashed into her Rolex. She plucked a stray curl from her mouth with a shellacked fingernail and glared at Hank. “You can’t treat me this way.”
Randi imagined Jaydee stroking the goatee he could never quite grow, checking off items on a clipboard. What was it about Stacey that Jaydee found attractive? A combination of attributes or just one big thing? Perhaps it was her two big things.
Stacey’s assets: Long shiny strawberry-blonde hair—check, overflowing C cup—check, a teensy waist—check, enough discretionary dough to shell out seven hundred bucks on the handmade cowboy boots on her feet—check.
Hank flung his arm out. “You see these people? Two of them came in from Tucson. Got up at four and drove seven hours. Another couple flew in late last night from Miami. We had a schedule. Not my fault if there was someplace else you wanted to be.”
Stacey put her hands on her hips. “You were in control, Hank, not them. It was inexcusable for you to collect without me here. I told you I wanted to be a hands-on owner, not just the chick who writes the checks.”
The door to the lab swung open. Piper stepped out, holding a small plastic cup with some milky liquid at the bottom. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of Stacey.
“How’s the motility?” Hank directed his question to Piper, lifting his chin to gaze over the top of Stacey’s head.
Stacey lengthened herself and squared her shoulders. “I’d appreciate it if you two didn’t act like I’m not standing right between you.”
Piper held up the container. “I checked them under the scope—suckers are swimming like Michael Phelps.”
Hank cracked his knuckles. “The shipment’s going to Johnny Collier up at the Double R, east of Santa Barbara. Address is in the computer. You’ve got about an hour before UPS comes.”
“I’m all over it.”
Stacey’s lips quivered and for a half a second Randi felt sorry for her. “You’ll regret you treated me this way, Hank. You’ve backed me into a corner. You’ll pay for this. Father-in-law or no father-in-law.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Randi Sterling, equine journalist, bonds with the horses she writes about, but has trust problems with men. When her former college flame, Jaydee Hill, asks her to move to his ranch, Rancho del Zorro in San Diego, she is torn. On one hand, he burned her in college, leaving her hurt, and on the other hand, has he changed his mind and is offering her the chance of a lifetime? When she arrives in San Diego practically the first person she runs into is Jaydee's wife. That was a big shock, but when his wife is found dead in her prize stallion's stall, with Randi's fingerprints on the murder weapon, things go from bad to worse. Randi dives in to prove that she is innocent. I loved this book, partly because of the horses and the setting, and partially because it was riveting and well written. I learned a lot about artificial insemination. This is Susan Union's debut novel, and I'm looking forward to her second in the series.
What a fun read! Easy to follow, but kept me guessing as to who-and-why they "done" it! I enjoyed the horse-ranch background, and information about a side of breeding I had never thought of. I am looking forward to the next Randi Sterling story!