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Emilie Gill struggled to concentrate, but keeping her mind on riding and off of Camillo had proven impossible. Even with a renowned trainer evaluating her performance, she couldn't focus. And his disapproval might cost her a spot on the Olympic team. Still, it couldn't be helped. Something had happened to her groom. Something bad. She could sense it in her bones.
Emilie tried to shake away the distressing thoughts. Clenching the double reins, she sunk her weight into the heels of her tall black boots and coaxed the young mare onward to begin the course of fences.
The approach. Her braid struck down between her shoulders, marking the number of strides to the fence. One…Two… Three…
Takeoff. Together they soared over the four-foot spread of boxwoods and rails. Her hands and torso moved above the horse's arched neck.
Landing. Her weight shifted back to her seat and heels, and beneath, the bay-colored mare gripped the earth.
Emilie turned to the next jump. Eyes up. Always up. Always ahead.
Continuing through the course with the same precision, she and Chelsea completed ten jumps with no faults—but her performance was lackluster. No doubt Mr. Winslow had noticed as well. She shot a furtive glance at the world-renowned trainer sitting nearby in the open stands, his expression indifferent. Emilie swallowed hard then scanned the arena for Camillo. A four-year-old habit was hard to break. She slumped in the saddle and sighed. When would she get it into her thick skull that her once faithful groom, also her best friend, had left? Without any warning. Well, that wasn't exactly true. Camillo had acted a bit strangely over the last few weeks. But when Emilie had asked him what was on his mind, he had said he was just tired. So, she had let it go. And now he'd left with no explanation. Gone.
A light rain began to trickle down. Cold November air whipped through the hilltop space, chafing her exposed cheeks. She steered the mare across the wide arena, hurrying toward the stable.
"Miss Gill, where are you off to?" The severe British accent echoed over the grassy arena. "You cannot retire on that performance. It's simply unacceptable."
Emilie pulled on the reins, trying to erase her frown. Chelsea turned toward the covered portion of the stands where Mr. Winslow had relocated to avoid the drizzle. The older gentleman sat down, lips pursed, with his Burberry raincoat buttoned to the neck and his iPhone pressed to one ear. As she approached, he lowered the phone to his lap and leaned over the edge of the railing.
"Miss Gill, despite your size, your equitation skills are utterly lacking in finesse. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but I'm not a man to mince words. I'd like to see you take this lovely mare 'round again. But with big releases and less cattle driving between the fences. Mr. Randall is lowering the rails for you." He turned away, putting the phone back to his ear.
Emilie lifted her head high and stared at nothing for a long moment, blinking her eyelids against the increasing rainfall.
A deep frown gripped her mouth. Searching the grass ring, her eyes narrowed on a man's figure in full rain gear, lowering jumps in the far corner of the arena. Camillo's replacement. A friend of her sister's who she'd hired over the phone the day before. He'd been scheduled to start that morning. But hadn't bothered to show. Emilie had all but given up on him.
"Did you hear me, Miss Gill? Big releases," the trainer repeated.
She turned back to Mr. Winslow. "Uh. Yes, sir. I was just concerned about pacing."
"Your speed is adequate."
Emilie slumped further into the saddle. His sharp tone crushed her hopes of his ever intending to work with her. Why had he even bothered asking her to ride the course again? What was the point? If only Camillo had been there, he would have known what to say to make her feel right again. Instead, everything was wrong. Everything seemed hopeless.
Emilie pressed her lips together and gathered her wits before heading toward the new hire. And before she did something embarrassing, like cry, in front of Mr. Winslow.
Derrick Randall rushed from one jump to the next, keeping his hood low to fight the cold drizzle. The rider trotted toward him.
"Mr. Randall?" She slowed the horse and walked a tight circle around the fence he was lowering.
Mr. Randall? Derrick lifted an eyebrow as he placed the last rail in the cups.
"It's just Derrick." He stepped toward her and lifted a hand. "Sorry I'm late. Traffic accident."
"You had an accident?" She halted the mare, but made no eye contact, nor did she take his hand. Her pale face was tight. Her jaw clenched. But even angry or anxious or whatever her foul mood, Derrick choked on his breath as he looked at her.
Emilie Gill was one beautiful woman—stunning, actually. She had luminous green eyes, creamy white skin and hair that fell in a long, golden braid. Undone, it might have reached her waist. Her lips were soft and peach-colored under a small, perky nose. Everything arranged for the complete benefit of the viewer.
"I—uh—I wasn't in an accident. Just stuck behind one." Derrick took a deep breath and disregarded her unfriendly greeting. He could hardly blame her for being miffed about his tardiness. His outstretched hand moved to the neck of the gorgeous mare. Her wet coat felt warm against his palm. "She's beautiful. A Warmblood, right? You can always tell breeds by the head and feet."
Emilie's face softened. Finally, she looked down at him. "Yes. She's my latest acquisition. Just arrived from Ireland. They call her Chelsea's Danger."
"Very powerful and yet elegant." Derrick smiled. "And Peter, he's the best. I didn't know you trained with him."
"You know Mr. Winslow?" Astonishment filled her voice.
"Just my whole life." He laughed. "He and my uncle are close friends."
She glanced at Peter in the stands and then looked back, like she couldn't believe the old man had a friend. "Well, he's not my trainer. Not yet, that is."
She turned away in a whirl. Derrick liked the color her strange frustration had added to those creamy cheeks. He hoped she'd get over her anger or anxiety and decide to keep him on. He needed the money if he ever hoped to finish veterinary school. And he wouldn't mind seeing what Miss Emilie Gill looked like when she wasn't scowling.
He made his way back to Peter, looking up at the cloudy sky.
Lord, this is all in Your hands…
* * *
Guilt nipped at Emilie for not shaking the man's hand. But that gesture would have meant she'd accepted him as her employee and she wasn't sure she wanted to do that. Not even if he was a friend of Mr. Winslow and of her sister. He didn't look anything like a groom. For one, he was huge—more like a football player than a horseman.
And it just seemed wrong, giving Camillo's job to a stranger.
Camillo. Where are you?
Again, this nagging idea that he was in trouble and needed her help overwhelmed her. Only something terribly important would have made him leave without talking to her first. Or something just plain terrible… Why did she have the feeling it was the latter?
Taking a deep breath, she expelled the anxious thoughts and filled her mind with fences and rhythm. She gave Chelsea a quick tap with her heel. Over the course, she executed the big rein releases Mr. Winslow had suggested. They felt awkward. And little by little, doubtful thoughts clouded her focus again. Over the final two jumps, old habits took over. She tightened her stance and Chelsea knocked rails on both fences. Emilie grimaced as the wooden bars thudded to the earth.
Ready to face her criticism and dismissal, she slowed Chelsea and turned toward the covered stand. Mr. Winslow, however, appeared engrossed in conversation with the new hire. Had the trainer not even been watching?
At that moment, Emilie realized she didn't care. Until she heard from Camillo and knew he was safe, she might as well face the fact that she wouldn't be able to concentrate or compete.
As she approached the stands, Mr. Randall jumped to his feet. He took the reins over Chelsea's head with one hand and with the other helped her down from the saddle. Before she could protest, her feet hit the ground and he'd tossed his jacket over the saddle, protecting it from the rain.
"Nice to see you, Peter," Derrick called over his shoulder as he jogged Chelsea back to the barn.
Emilie stepped under the covering. "You were right. Bigger releases. Thank you for coming." Expecting Mr. Winslow to leave, she held out her hand.
"Humph." The trainer waved her arm away. "I'm not quite decided. I want to observe you again and see how you respond to more adjustments. How about I return on Tuesday? Have the Warmblood and the stallion ready." He stood and placed a crumpled hat on his shock of white hair. "Good day, Miss Gill."
Emilie stood openmouthed as the old man left the stands and tromped the short distance to his Range Rover. What was that? Was he still considering her? Her heart pounded against her chest and she struggled to conceal the smile that wanted to win over her mouth. Forgetting the rain, she moved out from the covered stand and headed toward the barn.
"And Randall is a fine choice," Mr. Winslow shouted from the open window of his SUV.
Emilie landed her foot in a puddle.
"You'll have a hard time finding anyone else with his experience," he added. "I certainly hope you will keep him on."
Emilie searched the old man's face. Wasn't that her decision? Cold water seeped through to her toes before she nodded in agreement.
"Until Tuesday." He rolled up his window then sped down the gravel drive.
Emilie shivered, hugging her shoulders as she ran the last few yards to the stable.
"Mr. Randall?" His name echoed through the barn, creating unnatural reverberations that chilled her head to toe. Goose bumps prickled her skin as she removed her helmet and wrung out her wet braid. The brief joy from Mr. Winslow's approval had already gone, replaced with the same dread that had haunted her since finding Camillo's note.
She grabbed a thick wool blanket from the top of a tack trunk, draped it over her shoulders then crossed the spacious foyer to check the thermostat.
"Wow, you are one tiny rider." A deep baritone sounded from behind.
Emilie muffled a squeal, dropping one end of the blanket.
"Did I startle you?" Derrick's accent, maybe Tennessee, seemed heavier than it had over the phone. "Sorry about that."
Emilie shook her head but remained facing the wall as she adjusted the temperature a few degrees. Heat crept up her spine as she could feel Derrick's eyes on her back. She turned. "I'm just a little jumpy today…."
The rest of the sentence escaped her. Her eyes grew large. The man stood in the center of the main aisle holding the most skittish horse in the barn by nothing but a handful of mane.
He stroked the horse's lean neck and smiled wide. "Poor guy was just walkin' up and down the aisle. Seemed lost."
Emilie's mouth fell half-open. Not only did Derrick hold Redman with so little effort, but the man had also shed his rain gear. His large T-shirt and loose-fit jeans stretched across walls of hard muscle. She sucked in a quick breath and forced her eyes up. His wide-set steely eyes, golden skin and thick waves of dark hair sticking out recklessly in every direction weren't any less appealing.
Emilie blinked and shifted her gaze to the gelding beside him. "That's Redman. He's a rescue and he's usually a bit…flighty." The one time she'd ventured to touch him, the scared animal had tried to bite her.
"Well, who can blame him? Look at this place. It's like a country club in here." He pointed to the dark stained cedar that crowned the open foyer with its cathedral ceiling and faux antler chandelier. Then he gave the chestnut a hearty pat on the shoulder. "Yep, Redman, I know how you feel."
Emilie put the blanket down and pulled at the neck of her damp sweater. "That horse belongs in Stall K and apparently he needs a snap clip on his door. Put him away, Mr. Randall. We need to—"
"I'd really like it if you could call me something besides Mr. Randall," he interrupted. "Makes me think my dad is here."
She lifted an eyebrow.
"So, just call me Derrick. Okay?" His smile grew wider.
"Okay. Derrick," she said with some reluctance.
A dimple formed on his left cheek. He turned Redman toward the north stalls and strutted away. "Be right back," he called over his shoulder.
He and the horse moved off as silently as they'd come. Emilie reminded herself to breath again. Could she really work with this guy? Did he ever stop smiling? Ugh. It wouldn't be anything like working with Camillo. But she did need help. The fact that Redman was roaming the aisles was proof of that. And Mr. Winslow liked him.
When Derrick returned, Emilie looked quickly away toward the back of the stable. "It's time to turn the horses out," she said. "But I'll show you the old barn first. If you take the job, it's where your office and tack space will be. There's a restroom, telephone and refrigerator there for your private use."
She led the way to the far end of the facility. Derrick followed close behind. She wondered if he could sense her nervousness and the strange unease that hung in the air of the stable. She scratched her neck then clasped her hands behind her back to keep them still. Or was it he that made her nervous? She glanced over her shoulder. What if he didn't even want the job? She stopped and faced him.
"Mr. Ran—Derrick…I don't really know you, but Mr. Win-slow and, of course, my sister seem to think you'd be good here and I trust their judgment. I'm sure you're aware it's not usually this quiet at Cedar Oaks. There are forty-three boarders, over fifty horses, farrier visits, riding students, vet calls and lots of shows. You'd be in charge of it all…until Camillo comes back. In that case, you'd work under him through the jumper season, but he would resume teaching lessons and scheduling. Regardless, the hours are long and you'd have to work every weekend."
Derrick's grin faded slightly. "I need this job."
"And you agree to the pay we discussed?"
"Good then." She shook his hand. It felt strong and warm against hers. "Are you ready to move in?"
"No. I can stay for the rest of the day but I have an appointment with the dean to sign my leave papers in the morning. I can be back tomorrow by late afternoon."
Emilie clenched her teeth. First he's late and now he needs a day off? Why was she agreeing to this? Mr. Winslow, she reminded herself. Mr. Winslow and the Olympics.
"That's fine." She tried to keep the irritation from her voice. "Anyway, I forgot to ask the housekeeper to run through the apartment where you'll be staying. My father wants you near the main house. I hope that's okay? Camillo lived here in the old barn, but he left everything behind and it's a mess."
Derrick grinned again and an unfamiliar warmth spread through Emilie as she finally managed to look into his gray eyes.
"I'd be happy to sleep with Redman if you asked me to," he said. "I've never been in a heated barn before. Don't tell me it's air-conditioned, too?"
Of course it's air-conditioned. Silly man. "You want to sleep with Redman? I can arrange that." She smirked.
His smile stretched so wide the dimple reappeared on his left cheek. "Ah. You do have a sense of humor."
Heat rose to her cheeks. She turned and strode quickly to the old barn, pushing her way through the heavy doors that divided the two structures.
"I guess the stable hand must have closed these." Although she couldn't imagine why. "We usually leave them open."
Emilie stopped after taking two steps into the old barn.
"Is something wrong?" Derrick asked.
"I don't know…Just—those doors should be open, and this door," she pointed to Camillo's tack room door, "it should be closed and locked. In fact, it was locked yesterday. I don't know why…"
Had Camillo come back?
She rushed into the dark room, fumbling for the switch. A putrid odor stung her nostrils and robbed her of oxygen. As light flooded the space, she gasped and stumbled back.
No. Not Camillo.
But there was his body. Stiff and strangely twisted. Clearly dead. Broken boards from old jump standards lay around him. And blood.
Emilie screamed but heard nothing as she went limp down to the floor.