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By Tilly Bagshawe
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 byTilly Bagshawe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBobby Cameron was in the south of France on the day his father died.
Leaning hard into the filly's left flank-he was breaking in a feisty bay yearling called Mirage for the legendary French racehorse owner Pascal Bremeau-he brought her around for a third time as the dry dust of the training ring billowed and plumed up around him, enveloping both horse and rider once again in a thick, stifling cloud. Fighting back the urge to choke-he didn't want to do anything now that might frighten or unsettle the horse-he leaned back in the saddle, relaxing into the languorous, cowboy-style riding that he was famed for, closing his eyes to help himself tune in to her movements. Soon he could feel every pulse of her taut young muscles between his thighs and the nervous straining of every sinew as she cantered into the turn. It was as if he and the filly had become one being, one fluid organism, circling rhythmically beneath the blazing Cote d'Azur sun.
"Non! Pas comme ca. Regard, she is steel favoring the left. You see?"
The voice came from Henri Duval, Bremeau's trainer, who was standing by the side of the schooling ring, scowling, in shorts and a T-shirt, his few remaining strands of straggly dark hair stuck with sweat to his otherwise bald forehead, alternately yelling instructions toBobby or roaring with Gallic bad temper into his cell phone.
"Ecoute! She needs more steek, Bobby, uh? Deesmount! Deesmount!"
Keeping his eyes closed, Bobby tried to block out the sound. He wished Henri would go terrorize someone else. He was ruining his concentration, not to mention Mirage's. Was it any wonder the filly was so goddamn flighty, if all she ever heard from her trainer was screaming?
"Arrete!" The Frenchman was yelling so loudly now that reluctantly Bobby was forced to open his eyes and bring the horse to a stop.
A fine spray of white foam had formed across Mirage's shoulders, frothing like milk above the gleaming coffee color of her coat, a testament to the intensity of her morning's efforts. She was a terrific little horse, this one, brave and determined. Bobby could quite see why Bremeau had paid three hundred thousand for her, even though on paper she'd been a risky investment. Sired by the great Love's Young Dream, a Belmont winner, but out of the unknown, unplaced mare Miracle-she could go either way. She'd either make a great racehorse or burn herself out before she ever got as far as the track. But that was just the sort of horse he loved: a ball of raw energy and speed, just waiting for a little gentle, Cameron-style direction.
At only twenty-three, Bobby Cameron already had a reputation as one of the most skilled horse breakers and trainers in the world. With his straw-blond hair, endlessly long legs, and soulful hazel eyes, the brilliant but notoriously arrogant son of the famous cowboy Hank Cameron had been born with an incredible gift: a unique rapport with difficult horses. Animals that other, skilled trainers could barely get a bridle on seemed to calm instantly at his touch, soothed into submission by the low murmuring drawl of his voice. It was a talent that owners like Pascal Bremeau were prepared to pay handsomely for.
Even as a small boy Bobby had showed no fear around violent, kicking stallions, animals that could easily have killed him with one carefully placed hoof to the head. Instead, he radiated a quiet, calm authority that even the most stubborn or disturbed horses seemed to respect. By the age of twelve he was breaking in wild mustangs for his father. At sixteen, he was earning pocket money doing the same thing with valuable standardbreds and quarter horses, the classic cowboy's mount, for other wealthy California breeders and owners. And by the time he hit twenty, his reputation had spread beyond the state line. He spent what ought to have been his college years training difficult Thoroughbreds on some of the most prestigious, multimillion-dollar Kentucky farms, eventually getting commissions from owners as far afield as Ireland, Dubai, and, most recently, the south of France.
Born into one of the oldest, most respected ranching families in the West, Bobby grew up running semiwild at Highwood, the stunning three-thousand-acre Cameron ranch nestled deep in California's Santa Ynez valley. All the local kids envied him his freedom-neither of his parents seemed to mind much that he regularly skipped school to disappear into the hills on his father's horses-but in fact his childhood wasn't the idyll it appeared.
His mother, Diana, a teenage rebel from the Danish tourist-trap town of Solvang, had conceived him during a one-night stand with his aging cowboy father, Hank. A local legend, the reclusive Hank Cameron was a natural with cattle and horses, but children were another matter entirely. Having acknowledged the kid was his and named him as his heir, he considered his paternal duties to be completely fulfilled. Beyond that, Diana was on her own.
She loved her son-that wasn't the problem. But this was California in the early seventies, the era of free love and cheap drugs, and she was still only seventeen. Consequently Bobby spent the first ten years of his life on the road, traveling with his mother from one hippie commune to the next, never staying in one place long enough to put down any roots or make any real friends at school.
Sometimes, overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all, Diana would disappear completely for months at a stretch, usually on the back of some scary-looking guy's bike. Terrified that she had gone for good, Bobby spent her long absences being passed miserably like an unwanted parcel from one distant relative to another. Eventually, of course, she always returned, disillusioned with her biker and full of kisses and promises to get her act together. But by then it was too late. Her son had already learned two important life lessons: that loving people was a risky business; and that the only person he could truly depend on in this world was himself.
Shortly after Bobby's tenth birthday, broke and exhausted, Diana decided to pay Hank Cameron a visit.
Bobby would never forget the drive out to Highwood that day. It was the first time he'd seen the property that would one day be his, and he couldn't believe his eyes. Sitting in the front passenger seat of his mom's dilapidated VW bus as they bumped and spluttered down the long, winding drive, he gazed in awe at hills so green they looked like something out of a cartoon and seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. All across this emerald canvas were grazing herds of cattle, searching for shade beneath the ancient sycamores that peppered the landscape or making their way down to the river that rushed alongside the driveway like a dancing stream of molten silver. Not even in his imagination, on those many long, lonely nights when he'd lain awake fantasizing about the mythical Highwood, had he ever seen anything quite so beautiful.
Hank, needless to say, was less than thrilled to see the pair of them.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he barked as Diana clambered out of the bus, her dirty, skinny son loitering behind her like a stray dog. It wasn't exactly the welcome that Bobby had hoped for from the father he had long built up in his mind as some sort of cool, romantic hero. But he didn't dwell on it. By this time he was used to being an unwelcome guest, and he was stoic when Diana announced she was leaving him with his father for the summer while she went to try to find work in Santa Barbara.
"Leave him here? With me? You can't be serious," Hank spluttered incredulously. "I don't know what to do with him."
"Yeah?" said Diana, climbing purposefully back up into the driver's seat. "Well, guess what? Neither did I when I was seventeen years old and you sent me packing. But we did okay, right, Bobby? Now it's your turn."
While the two of them fought it out, Bobby stood calmly on the porch steps beside the one pitifully small suitcase that held all his worldly possessions. Most of what they said was a blur, although he could remember his mother's parting words as she sped off down the driveway in a plume of dust: "He's your son, Hank," she yelled out the window. "Deal with it."
Hank had dealt with it-by ignoring his son completely.
"You do your thing, kid," he said, showing Bobby up to what would be his new bedroom, "and I'll do mine."
And for the next thirteen years, that was pretty much the way things had gone between them. Bobby never did go back to live with his mother again, although Diana continued to pay semiregular visits and had him down to Santa Barbara for the occasional birthday or Christmas. But whatever disappointment Bobby may have felt at her abandonment, or Hank's lack of paternal concern, was more than made up for by the sheer magic of being at Highwood. Before that first summer was over, he had become fast friends with the other ranch hands' kids. But much more important, he'd discovered what was to become the one great love of his life: horses.
For the first time in his life, he felt he really belonged somewhere.
This, at last, was home.
Vaulting down lightly from Mirage's back, he took off his hat, an automatic gesture of courtesy that belied the dismissive, irritated scowl on his face as he approached Henri.
"What's the problem?" Handing the filly's reins to a hovering groom, he glowered at the French trainer. Even without the hat, Bobby stood a good six inches taller than Henri in his cowboy boots and jeans and looked an almost menacing figure.
"You're breaking my concentration," he snapped. "I think you should leave."
The already irate Duval now began to turn a worrying shade of purple. Having been let down by adults all his life, Bobby famously had zero respect for authority. It was a trait that had always infuriated his father; and it did him no favors with horse trainers either, themselves a notoriously difficult and arrogant breed.
"You theenk I should leave?" Henri couldn't believe his ears. "She is my 'orse, Monsieur Cameron. Tu comprend? Mine!"
"Well, now." Bobby smiled maddeningly, revealing a row of perfectly straight white teeth. "She's actually Monsieur Bremeau's horse, isn't she? If we're gonna get technical about it."
His voice was low and rich, like syrup, with a deep Western twang that seemed to soothe horses and excite women in equal measure. Unfortunately, it appeared to be having quite a different effect on the apoplectic Frenchman, who had started hopping from foot to foot with rage, like a lizard on burning sand.
"He hired me to do a job, and you're making that job impossible," Bobby continued. "I'd like you to leave."
"'Ow dare you!"
Henri was livid. Who did this Yankee whippersnapper think he was, waltzing into his stables and presuming to tell him how to get the best out of the new filly? If Bobby hadn't been six foot four of rock-solid cowboy muscle, he'd have hit him. As it was, the strain of holding himself back looked set to give him an imminent coronary.
"You arrogant leetle sheet," he shouted. "What the fuck do you know about Mirage? Four days you 'ave been 'ere now and what 'ave you achieved with 'er? Fuck all, that's what, mon ami. Nosing." Henri was literally spitting with fury. "She needs the steek, I am telling you. What is the English expression? You do not make the omelet without breaking the eggs, uh?"
Reaching out toward another cowering groom, he grabbed a vicious-looking leather hunting whip-the French variety with split leather strips at the end tipped with steel-and marched over toward the exhausted horse, waving it menacingly in her direction as she cringed and whinnied in fear.
Silently Bobby stepped forward, shielding Mirage and blocking Henri's path with his huge torso.
"Don't touch her."
His spoke so softly it was almost a whisper, but his tone was menacing enough to stop Duval in his tracks. For a few seconds the two men remained stock-still in a pantomime standoff, while Henri's eyes bored into Bobby's. Eventually, when it became clear that the infuriating, arrogant American was not going to move and that he needed reinforcements, he turned furiously on his heel and stormed off toward the house, hurling his whip down on the ground in frustration as he went.
"Pascal will 'ave somesing to say about theese," he muttered. "Total fucking deesrespect ..."
Once he was gone and the grooms had scurried away, no doubt eager to spread the gossip about his latest temper tantrum around the estate, Bobby turned back to Mirage.
"It's all right girl," he whispered, stroking her reassuringly between the ears and feeling her relax instantly beneath his practiced fingers. "Don't you worry now. I won't let him hurt you."
Pressing his face into her neck, he breathed in the heady smell of horsehair and sweat that never failed to calm him.
Duval was an asshole. He wished he could take Mirage with him, back to California, and protect her from the guy's brutality forever. But that was the one downside of this job: the minute you became close to a horse, and won its trust, you had to leave.
He'd faced the same dilemma a thousand times before, of course.
But it still hurt. With Mirage more than most.
A few hours later, lying in the bath in his luxurious suite of rooms up at the house, he wondered how he was going to explain himself to Bremeau when he got back from Paris tomorrow morning.
He was hours away from a breakthrough with Mirage, he could feel it. But as of tonight, much as it pained him to admit it, Duval did have a point: She was not yet ready to progress. He dreaded being forced to hand her back to Duval's brutal schooling regime and knew for certain that it would set her back. But the fact remained, she was still favoring her left leg on the turn. He should have fixed that by now and he hadn't. It drove him crazy.
Emerging dripping from the hot, lavender-scented water he dried himself off with a towel and, wrapping it Turkish style around his waist, walked over to the window. Unlocking the heavy, white wooden shutters, he gazed outside. Bremeau's estate, in the hills above Ramatouelle, near St.-Tropez, was breathtakingly beautiful. The house itself was an old sixteenth-century chateau, and the stables had been built around the adjoining former winery. As well as being horse country, this part of the Var was also littered with vineyards. The endless, neat rows of vines lent the rolling landscape a symmetrical, regimented air that reminded him of Napa.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he breathed in the warm, honeysuckle-scented evening air, faintly intermingled with the ubiquitous smell of horses and leather that always made him feel at home wherever he was. In the distance, he could hear the soft whinnying of Bremeau's Thoroughbreds, fighting to be heard above the deafening background cacophony of the cicadas.
He dreamed of training horses as spirited and magnificent as the prancing Mirage one day, back home in California. He had long ago given up talking about these dreams to his father-their conversations always ended in a screaming row-but silently, whenever he was alone, he continued to nurse his fantasy.
Like most cowboys, Hank looked on horse racing as anathema to Western culture: fine for Arab sheiks and white-collar billionaires with their pristine Kentucky stud farms, all neat white fences, manicured lawns, and state-of-the-art technology. But not for the likes of real working men, men bound to the land and to their cattle herds, proud inheritors of their long-cherished cowboy traditions.
Personally, Bobby had never gotten it. He was as proud of his cowboy roots as the next man. But he also loved horses-all types of horses, from mustangs to quarter horses to exotic Arab Thoroughbreds. His father would rather die than see Highwood used for anything other than raising cattle, he knew that. But, really, what was so wrong about applying traditional cowboy skills and techniques to racehorse training? And where was it written that a great ranch had to be about beef cattle and nothing else?
Excerpted from Showdown by Tilly Bagshawe Copyright © 2006 by byTilly Bagshawe. Excerpted by permission.
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