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Mary Lou Finch peeked out of her hiding place in the stall, hushing every sound she might possibly make. The front gate creaked open and she froze in horror, trying not to even breathe. A stray tuft of her blonde hair caught on a protruding nail, but she didn't dare raise her hand and yank it free for fear of being caught.
The clip-clop of a horse's hooves broke the silence, and a groom entered the barn, leading a blood bay inside. Max, her terrier, bared his teeth and started to growl. Terrified, Mary Lou silenced him quickly, pulling him into her skirts to muffle his canine protest. Her heart pounded as the groom passed within inches of her, and she silently prayed he wouldn't see her. How on earth would she ever explain her presence if he did? She had come to Graystone Lodge to apply for a position as a governess, and getting caught snooping around the stables could definitely injure her chances.
The groom began talking softly to one of the horses in his stall, apparently in no rush to go anywhere. A tingle began in Mary Lou's nose and she realized she had to sneeze. Desperately, she struggled to quell the itch, holding a finger beneath her nostrils and swallowing hard. After what seemed to be an eternity, the man finally walked outside. No sooner had he closed the door when the sneeze she'd been repressing escaped violently. Her hair pulled loose from the nail, eliciting a squeak of pain as well as the sneeze, while her eyes flew open at the simultaneous events. Max glanced up, startled at the sudden noise. Thankfully, the barn remained silent.
That was close. Relief washed over her at the thought of her narrow escape. She had to work quickly, for she could be discovered at any time. A racing stable was like a little community, bustling with grooms, stableboys, riders, and exercise jockeys. Male voices echoed outside and it was only because of the noon lunch break that the barn was empty.
Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she scurried out of the stall with her bag and surveyed her surroundings. The stables, she saw, were immaculate. Neatly wrapped water hoses hung on the wall, brooms were lined up in descending height order against the door, and the aisleway was clear of hay and mud. Grain bins stood at the far end of the stables, and a cart full of buckets, each identified with a horse's name and feed mix, waited for the supper hour. The stalls were lined up neatly, twenty-four of them altogether, facing each other in double rows. Every half door was numbered, with a placard overhead identifying the horse and its owner and a bridle on the door. Almost two dozen noses peeked out, and twice that many curious eyes followed her.
One stall was empty. Its door gaped open like a protesting mouth, and inside, spiders had already begun to stake their claim on the dusty space. The placard overhead read: 'Damien's Curse,' Pierce Thorndike, owner.
A silent thrill went through Mary Lou. As Max ran outside to do his own investigating, she withdrew a magnifying glass from her carpetbag and examined the vacant stall. Along with the cobwebs, an empty feed bucket stood in the corner with a solitary apple inside. Absently, Mary Lou put the fruit in her bag, then completed her examination. Other than the apple, there was nothing noteworthy to be found, so she ventured outside once more.
A horseshoe had been tacked up overhead as a rustic decoration. Could it be Damien's? Prying it loose was a simple matter, since the nail had rusted, and the shoe came away easily into her hand. That went into her carpetbag, along with the apple. She started to close the door to examine the bolt when she saw the empty hook on the other side.
There was no bridle. A frown crossed her face and she made a quick note, wondering if the same held true for the rest of the tack. If so, that could mean...
The voices outside reminded her once more that her time was limited. Mary Lou returned to the aisleway and dropped to the floor to examine the footprints. She could identify those of the groom since his were fresh, but there were dozens of others. Frustration filled her. How on earth was she to make sense of all this? She was a scientist, not a detective, but even her specialized training didn't appear to be of much help.
She was about to give up when she saw another set of square-toed tracks embedded just inside the empty stall. A layer of straw had protected them from obliteration, and the soft clay of the barn floor had preserved them remarkably well. Examining them more closely, she saw they were from a man's boots. A shiver of excitement coursed through her. Could they have been here since that fatal night? It seemed possible. While they were much more faded in the aisle, the distinctive square toes left a path she might be able to follow. Picking up her bag, she traced the faint impressions past the stalls and the tack room, and around the corner, until she came to the boots themselves.
Only gradually did she realize they were filled. Mary Lou's gasp of astonishment stuck in her throat as her gaze lifted slowly through the glass, past the perfectly creased trouser leg, up to a well-muscled thigh that was clearly visible through the fine wool. She had to swallow hard in order to continue her visual journey, but curiosity won out and her eyes swept upward to a trim waist, broad chest encased in white cotton, then to the face of the man himself.
Her mouth dropped open. He was one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen. Blazing blue eyes glared out of a face that could have graced any of Michelangelo's statues. His nose was finely formed, his cheekbones striking. His chin was firm, while dark brows made his eyes seem even more intense. Blue-black hair, perfectly straight, swept back off his face as if it had been ordered to do so, while his complexion was flushed with attractive color. Frantically, Mary Lou wondered if he was part Irish, for he had the look of a Celtic lord.
"Miss," he declared, his voice thick with emotion. "Would you mind telling me what in God's name you are doing?"