George A Bernstein
  Suspense

3rd Time to Die Excerpt

PROLOGUE

1695 A.D.

"Sound the assembly! The Sun's up, and time's awasting."

Charles Wallace stood in his stirrups, long, equestrian-hardened legs raising his tall frame high above the restless conglomeration of horses and riders, milling about the glade in front of the gray granite mansion-house.

The Earl of Devonshire’s nostrils flared, savoring the pungent orders of trampled, dew-laden grass and fresh droppings. He tugged at the cuffs of his taupe doeskin riding gloves, massaging palms together, as a shiver tiptoed across his spine. Anticipation, not the chilled morn air, was its author.

Tis a glorious day, full of promise! Puffs of cottony clouds spilled across a rich, aquamarine sky. Flexing broad shoulders, Wallace twisted in his saddle, scanning the melee.

What a bloody good turnout. Few local gentry dared miss the Earl's first spring foxhunt. Nobles and wealthy landowners converged from across southern England for this new, prestigious sporting event. Every guest room in his rambling country estate was filled, as were the stalls in his stables. Even George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who recently popularized this sport, was hard pressed to compete.

Wallace’s topaz eyes raked the crowd, all mounted and eager to be off. Sixty horse at least, edgily mincing and prancing in place, awaiting the blare of the hunting horn. Still, he scoured the sea of bobbing black and tan caps and flowered bonnets.

Ah! There—the copper-haired French seraph. He visualized her delectably curved long legs below full hips, cinched by a petite waist. Her heart-shaped face was illuminated by incandescent emerald eyes, hovering above a slender, tipped up nose. Arched cheeks bracketed Cupid’s-bow-shaped lips. So deceptively feminine, slender and delicate she seemed upon her muscular white gelding.

Charles knew otherwise.

Victoria Chevalier was a passionate, willful maid, plainly disenchanted with her marriage to an effeminate dandy twenty years her senior.

When first he saw her, the young Countess du Beaujolais' sensuality swept over him, sucking away his breath and setting his heart thundering like the hooves of this very stallion he sat astride. Thick-limbed, masculine Clarice, his acidic, passionless wife, had never ignited lust in his heart… or his loins.

But this nymph, Victoria, was God-sent. During the week as his guest, they were drawn together, as bees seek succulent clover. Sharp-witted and charged with life, she was full of sport. Quick dexterity with a 16 gauge brought three flushed grouse to hand… just one less than he… while her effete spouse was knocked ass over heels by his 12 gauge gun. Clarice had stayed abed.

And Victoria must have otter in her blood, out swimming him, crossing the river in swim garb much too brief for local customs. Long arms and strong legs sliced the water with astonishing ease.

He felt stirring, despite his tight britches, at the memory of his arms around her, teaching her to cast a fly for trout. Her soft chuckle hinted at greater expertise with the long rod than she admitted. ‘Twas sport neither of which their partners show interest.

Victoria Chevalier was truly akin in spirit, far different from either of their mates. This French beauty would be his that very day. His starving soul demanded it, boding a liaison far more intense than just a quick tumble in the grass.

How is it she was even wed to this foppish count? Arranged marriages! Bah! Neither Chevalier, nor the earl's icy wife will offer any real obstacle to their desires. Charles and Victoria had slyly courted for the entire week, and now was their chance to fulfill those promises silently made.

He smiled as she wound her horse through the mob. As she edged nearer, her devilish grin and sly wink snatched the breath from his lungs.

"We go," his strong tenor carrying to the page, standing atop a small stone wall. "Sound the horn, God blast it!"

The brass trumpet echoed three times over the glade, and then trice again.

Shouting riders urged their steeds ahead, each vying for a place directly behind the Earl, a sea of horses, sleekly muscled hunters, surging into the lightly wooded countryside. The drum of hooves and the echo of lusty shouts echoed through the trees like rolling thunder.

Immediately, a stone wall bordering a creek loomed as the first challenges, and two riders were quickly down. The hounds had drawn far ahead, hurdling through the underbrush, noses close to the ground, seeking fresh scent. It wouldn't be long. The Earl had spied several fox in the area just last week.

A movement at his right drew his glance, as the copper-tressed angel closed to his side. A few light strokes from her crop urged her steed ahead. She grinned, a playful challenge in her eyes, tossing her head, loosening burnished bronze locks from beneath her flowered hat.

They were swiftly upon a huge downed oak, vaulted by both animals with little trouble. Just as they landed, a hound let forth a melodious wail, and charged off to the south, head high, the call ringing from his throat, joined in full harmony by his brethren. A familiar wave of goose bumps skipped down his spine.

"Tallyho! Tallyho!" Wallace yelled, as he urged his dappled mount hard after the quickly disappearing dogs.

"Tallyho!" the two-legged vixen riding beside him howled gleefully, putting her crop to her snow-white steed. The cry echoed behind him again and again, as the others, strung out over a thousand yards, strove to follow. None could match the abandon of their host and his reckless female companion as they surged even farther ahead.

 Ten minutes of hard riding, spiced by arduous jumps, had brought them within a few hundred yards of the hounds, their calls saying the fox was not yet bayed. Much of the party had fallen prey to the many obstacles they had crossed in their pell-mell charge after the dogs.

The countess' fearless attack of the hunt had kept her slightly to the front. Charles happily hung back, watching her with an ever-escalating appreciation. She was magnificent! Never had he known such a wild and exciting creature, so fully invested in all he held dear. He could barely wait to gather her in his arms.

The hounds were clearly visible ahead, just beyond a low, stone wall. The riders vaulted it, almost as one, and as they landed on the far side, Victoria began slowing her mount, pulling off to the side.

"What's amiss," he asked, slewing to a stop beside her.

"Fa! This foolish beast has come up lame. I’m unable to continue."

"Damn the luck. We were hot on the little bastard's trail." Turning to Count Armand, surging to a skidding halt with several other riders, Charles pointed south.

“Her horse has gone lame. Finish the hunt without us. I’ll see the Countess safely back to the manor house.” The mud-spattered Frenchman nodded, tapping his cap with his crop, and charge off in pursuit of the fast disappearing dogs.

He may be an effete dandy, who can’t shoot and doesn’t fish, but the bugger can ride. Charles watched them vanish into the woods.

Dismounting, he took the lady's reins, starting back from whence they came. After a bit they found themselves in a shaded meadow, a small brook tumbling cheerfully along one side. Cottonwoods lined its banks, their flowers in full bloom, perfuming the air with a heady scent.

"Come, m'lady. We’ll take our ease here for a time before we continue. 'Tis been a hot, thirsty chase."

"Ah, truly said, m’lord. Your every wish is my command."

His lust-filled eyes caressed her every curve, lingering over each erotic swell. He licked parched lips, smiling up at her.

"An interesting proposition. You'll accede to anything I ask of you?"

She gave a throaty laugh, as he plucked her from her sidesaddle mount… and into his arms. Once there, he had not the will to release her. The scent of lilies and musk sent him spinning.

She tilted her face, crimson lips slightly parted, eyes green pools of fire. The sweet smell of her hair laid waste to his senses. His manhood, trapped in the confinement of skin-tight jodhpurs, struggled to attention.

"You are but to ask, m'lord," she whispered, panting softly. "I am willing--nay, eager--to heed your every desire."

He crushed her to him, hungry lips entangling, tongues darting vipers, his breath snatched away by the heat of her response. The fire of her kiss consumed him in delicious flames. They grappled with sweaty garments, and luckily, riding habit was infinitely less complicated than the normal fashions of court.

Welded as one, they slid down upon the soft grass, moist with dew. There was only sweetness in the salty taste of their skin. In a moment’s time they were lost in wonder, soaring high above even Heaven’s Gate.

For uncounted hours they bared their souls as well as their bodies to each other. Charles, reluctantly struggling with his unwilling libido, glanced at the sky.

“Come.” His voice still husky with ardor, he snatched up their garments and pulled her to her feet. “We must be off before we are found out.”

“Oui,” she said, but her flaming body, clinging closely to his, disagreed, rekindling the blaze within him. She raised liquid eyes to his, honeyed lips parted, wetted by the tip of her tongue.

They were quickly lost in a heated embrace, slipping again to the lush green carpet. He worshipped her skin with tender kisses and wet caresses of his tongue before entering her, her long legs trapping him urgently against her.

Their hearing filled by the thunder of unquenched passion as they lay entwined, they never heard the heavy tread of quickly approaching footsteps.

A sudden vicious blow to the back of his head slammed Charles against her, showering her with blood and gore, pinning her down.

"No!” A fearsome beast hovered above her, swinging a weapon high above its beaked head.

“Mon Dieu! No! Please, don't hurt...” The thud of heavy blows, the crunching of bones and rending of flesh, continued unabated for many minutes in the otherwise silent glade.

It wasn't until four hours after the last of the hunt had ridden in, two foxes in hand, before it was admitted that something was amiss. A hastily organized search party gave up, finally, three hours into the night.

The entire village was out again at dawn, searching ahorse and afoot for the missing couple. Two hours after sun-up, a hunting horn was sounded from a thick forest glade. The dogs had found their master. Searchers gathered in silent wonder in the small meadow that, sixteen hours before had hosted an idyll of love and passion. The ground was torn, blood and bits of flesh splattered everywhere. Two broken bodies lay heaped together, limbs twisted askew, heads crushed, faces gone, barely recognizable as having once been human.

The huntsmen agreed it was the work of some great beast--mayhaps an angry bear. Had an enraged sow destroyed them while protecting her cubs? Surely a plausible answer. They would hunt down and kill her, if they could.

So two lovers, newly discovered unto each other, died with love and life unfulfilled.

It was a passion that might have lasted an eternity, were it not cut short.

So brutally short.


1845 A.D.

Morgana Quincy’s hazel eyes, shaded by arched, inky eyebrows, squinted against the sun, watching the one-horse coach clatter around a corner before she started down the cobblestone path. Her white parasol, protection against the mid-day sun, draped casually over a slender shoulder. She shook her head, glistening onyx curls swirling and bobbing about her gentle, round-cheeked face. She needed time to clear her mind.

Her father, Jonathan Denton, had immigrated to the Americas only fifty years before, and had distinguished himself as a blockade-runner in this new country's second war with England. Now, thirty years later, he owned a successful shipping business, with six sloops carrying goods to all the major cities of the World.

But a life that should be a cornucopia was not going well. She was a fortunate woman, raised in a warm and loving environment by her father, widowed now these past twelve years. She married eight years past to a handsome young pillar of Philadelphia society, something that should fill her life with joy. William came from one of the oldest families in the city.

At twenty-seven, the major thing missing from paradise was a child, but not for a lack of trying… at least during their first five years together. Sex with her husband… something she shamefully enjoyed… was far less frequent now.

Just last month she discovered the cause: his affair with a sultry, voluptuous singer from a "high class" saloon near the harbor.

How could that bastard do this to her? What to do now? Take revenge? Something not in her nature, but the lure was strong.

They could try to work things out, but did she even care to make the effort? For what? If he pledged penance, would she let him back into her bed? She imagined he would try. She’d begun to suspect William was more enamored with her father’s fortune than her. And despite promises, would he really forsake that sensuous trollop? Nay, nothing good could come of this.

Now she was plagued by greater worries. Father, her stout oak providing shelter throughout her life, was ill. Seriously ill! Some foreign thing grew tenaciously in his chest, consuming him, sucking the meat off his bones, casting him into a mere shadow of himself. He’d become somnolent from heavy doses of morphine. She could only hold his hand, weeping incessantly during her daily afternoon visits. Conversation, while lucid, was brief and strained.

Head lowered, lost in thought, she was sent spinning upon colliding with someone on the walk. Strong hand caught her slender shoulders, steadying her until she regained her balance.

"Oh, I'm so sorry." She snatched a breath, her cheeks flushed, hazel eyes wide, as she glanced into a pair of fathomless, amber wide-set orbs. A long face, dominated by a strongly arched nose, smiled down at her. A mop of curly mahogany hair sprouted around the edges of his cap.

" ‘Tis I who owe an apology, Mrs. Quincy. I wasn't looking where I was about."

"Nor was I, sir. But how is it you know my name?” Her heart fluttered, her skin infused with a tingling heat. Who was this strangely exciting man? His was not a presence she would soon forget.

"I am your father's barrister. Robert Isaac, at your service."

"Oh, yes. Father mentioned you just today." Tears blossomed in the corners of her eyes. "T’was the most we have talked this whole week."

" ‘Tis a sad thing to see one so strong grow frail. It must be very hard on you." His long, smooth, tapered fingers magically encircled her hand, and honest compassion filled his eyes.

“Your father has been very kind to me. Few of this city's gentry show much interest in a Jewish lawyer."

"Father spoke of that as well, mocking their ignorance. You are the brightest of them all, he said… his gain and their loss. He also said you were the only compassionate barrister he'd ever met." Can he hear the cacophony he has stirred in my breast?

"He is too kind. Thousands of years of oppression have taught my people that virtue well. ‘Tis a major tenant of our upbringing." Her hand still nestled in his, her knees trembled. A strange heat permeated her.

"He also instructed me to help you with any matter in which you might have need. He referred, rather obliquely, to something about your husband?"

"He knows, does he?” She sighed. “Well, I shouldn't be surprised. He always fathoms when something is amiss. I dare say, he's a lot less innocent than I."

"Is it something you wish to discuss, ma'am? I am available, and anything told me is strictly confidential. It won’t be repeated, even to your father, if you wish."

She looked at her pale fingers, still ensconced safely in his tanned hand. She was flooded with the strange sensation she had known this man all her life. Her heart fluttered with the wings of a small frightened bird, but there was no fear in her. Finally, all that had been wrong would be set right.

She was awash with an inexorable sense Robert Isaac came from God to protect her, now that her father was unable. Her eyes turned to his. A delicate, bow-shaped mouth and aristocratic cheeks conspired to transform her smile… the first in many weeks… into a brilliant sunrise.

"I suppose I must confide in someone, although there's little enough to be done. Just talking to a person of trust would be a large load off my back. And I do sense you are someone to rely on, Mr. Isaac.”

"There's a small cafe nearby,” he said. “Quite secluded, and tables in the back allow for complete privacy. Shall we go there?"

*****

Settled beside a scared oak slab, perched on slick, dark leather benches in a dim corner of the sparsely occupied pub, she found herself pouring out her heart about things she had never before discussed with a single soul. His compassionate understanding of her grief over her father’s illness and the illicit behavior of her husband were a strange catharsis. This was a connection she never felt with another person, especially a man.

Robert escorted her to her door, finally, as darkness began its approach, saying he had some ideas that might help in dealing with her husband, should things eventually come to an end in their marriage. She made an appointment to visit his offices the very next day.

*****

Almost a year to the day after she first met Robert Isaac, they rode his black lacquered surrey into the countryside for a picnic. Jonathan Denton had succumbed ten months past, leaving his fortune in trust to his only daughter.

William Quincy made many determined forays after a share of that wealth, but a phalanx of attorneys could not dent the ironclad instruments forged by Robert for his client. Denton had consigned Morgana's care and fate to the hands of this capable young man. It was a duty he would have taken seriously… even if he hadn’t fallen hopelessly in love with her.

He had struggled to remain aloof and proper with his lovely client… until the beating. William, in a fit of rage, peaked by his family's failing finances and his inability to touch his wife's vast wealth, had taken a riding crop to her.

Robert summoned all his self-control to keep from thrashing the man. Instead, he charged Quincy with assault and battery, a rare challenge to a husband's right to strike his wife. Eventually, charges were dropped with the court ordering William to keep his hands to himself.

It was the impetus Morgana needed to begin pursuing a divorce.

"I've found love with another man," she had told Robert, a merry twinkle in her golden eyes.

"Who is the lucky fellow," his throat suddenly constricted, he could barely draw breath.

"Oh, he's a strong, handsome, gentle man of the utmost integrity. Completely unlike that lout I married."

"If you'll only give me his name," his eyes cast down to hide his despair, "I'll make inquiries to be sure he's as upright as you fancy him. ‘Tis for your protection." He was resigned to step aside. Anything for the happiness of this angel he had grown to treasure so deeply.

"Oh, you ninny." She laughed, eyes alight, her face a picture permanently etched into the fabric of his brain.

"His name is Robert Isaac. ‘Tis you I love, my sweet fool."

What? T’was he? How could this be? His wildest dreams fulfilled? Thunder hammered his breast as he took her hands, his eyebrow arched. Her smile dazzling his senses, she nodded, nestling in his arms, her face tilted, begging to be kissed.

They soon became lovers, enthralled by a familiarity and passion more profound than either ever expected. Now, months later, her divorce to Quincy soon to be finalized, they were about to celebrate. The picnic basket was filled with delicacies and two well-chilled bottles of wine… a fine meal, capped off with tender lovemaking under the shade of the great oaks that bordered this idyllic meadow.

They nestled, naked, upon a light blanket, spread over the dew-dampened meadow, shaded from the warm sun by mighty oaks, full with spring bloom. Robert rolled to his side, propping his head against a hand, gazing down at her, snuggled in the crook of his other arm. Her velvety fair skinned, slender body was still flushed and moist from their recent ardor.

" ‘Tis a miracle I still cannot fathom that I am here with you. That such an angel professes to love me as deeply as I love her."

"The miracle ‘tis mine, my love." She stroked his face with elegant, crimson-nailed fingers, "that I could be shed of that cruel bastard, William, and find myself in the arms of one such as you. I adore you more than I can say. ‘Tis as if I’ve loved you forever, in my dreams."

"Aye. So ‘tis with me." He handed her one of their partly filled glasses of wine glasses.

"To our love, eternal. Nothing on earth will ever destroy it." They clinked their glasses together, sipping the warming brew.

"We are already one, Morgana. Marry me, to make it official."

Her smile stirred him almost beyond bearing.

"Yes, my darling. As quickly as I’m shed of William. Our child will need a proper name, and I love you beyond my ability to say."

"Our child? Are you…?"

"Yes! I missed my time, neigh three months past."

"But how? Eight years with William, and you never…"

"Aye, but apparently t’was his lacking, not mine." Her smile ignited him. Their hands, their mouths, wended on amorous explorations, and soon he was entering her.

Nearing a wondrous finale, the earth seemingly trembled at their exquisite ardor. Her ears twitched, and the flames of passion were suddenly chilled by an ominous sense of danger.

A vague image of a horned beast and blood-soaked beak bloomed in her head. Eyes flared wide, she struggled to glimpse the wood beyond her lover’s shoulder.

“Morgana? What’s amiss, my love?” He snatched a breath, struggling from the depths of ardor.

An approaching heavy tread was clearly audible, as the air humming with a strange whirring beat.

“Non! Mon Dieu, non!” French? Terrified, she wondered, I don’t speak French.

Locked in the steel band of her panicked arms, Robert tried to turn but before he could move he was slammed against her, his full weight pinning her to the ground. Reeling from the impact, her face drenched by blood and splattered with small spongy gray particles, Morgana's eyes flew wide.

Paralyzed by terror and the weight of her lover, she cringed at large shadow above her, then the suddenly familiar fierce beaked head, the sun glinting off its silvery body, flailing the air with a spinning weapon.

"No, don't!" A terrifying flash of memory bloomed… a vision of being here before!

"Arret! Not again! Mon Dieu! Non! Non..."

The search party, led by Robert's brother, Aaron, found them the next afternoon. The small glade was a gruesome slaughterhouse… ochre stains and shredded bits of flesh scattered across the verdant lea. Two naked bodies, tangled together in a heap, were rent beyond recognition. Not a single man there held down his gorge.

It must be the work of some wild creature, probably a bear. Destruction of the two and the grounds around them were too vicious to be dealt by human hand.

Still, the Sheriff made a thorough investigation. William Quincy had been in his offices the entire day. No other possible perpetrator could be identified.

No, it had to be an animal. A hunt was organized to search for the beast, but none was ever found. It remained the mysterious end of a new and wonderful love, cut short.

So brutally short.

 

CHAPTER ONE

2012 A.D.

God, they’re so beautiful!

Ashley Easton watched the big horses attack the course. Thoroughbreds, mostly. Few amateurs owned the more exotic breeds, like Warmbloods. Perched on the edge of cold metal bleachers overlooking the white-fenced jumping arena, gray eyes wistfully traced the action. She pressed forward, her knees squeezing imagined sweaty flanks as powerful brutes hurtled oxers and walls, and maneuvered through triple-bar in-and-outs.

She was breathless, filled with jealous nostalgia. So many years tip-toeing quietly by since she’d seen an Open Jumper class, much less ridden in one. Gently curled, shoulder-length locks swirled in a coppery cloud as she shook her head and sighed.

Training jumpers wasn’t in the books while raising a family—and trying to make a life with a husband who seems more and more distant and self-involved. She leaned back, hugging herself. Things were different now. The kids were no longer babies.

How did we drift so far apart? We were so in love… so powerfully drawn to each other… despite all that went wrong. We don’t even have anything to talk about anymore.

She stood, slender and casually elegant in tapered tan chinos and a flowered cotton blouse. Stretching her five-foot-eight inches frame, stiff from balancing on the hard metal seat, she ambled down from the bleachers, not really interested in the lower fence Novice Hunter class just beginning. She wandered aimlessly, musing, surprised to find herself at the entrance of the barn. A comfortable place, filled with happy vibes.

She turned, slouching against the railing, arms folded across a bosom surprisingly full for one so slim, idly watching a teenage girl work her bay mare over the low fences.

Moisture welled in her slate eyes at the memory of her parents cheering as she took Lady over the higher Open fences. Thirteen years had trundled by since she last showed a horse. Mama was always there and Papa usually came, despite his busy schedule at the mill. She missed them terribly.

But bad stuff happens. They were gone, wiped away in that one terrible instant. Now she and Keith seemed to have so little in common. Did they ever enjoy the same things… besides each other? She was into horses, and then home life, raising a family of happy children.

He was into… what? Keith, mostly. The world revolving around the Big Jock. He expected her to be the Moon, spinning around his planet. But his sphere of ego-centric gravity was repelling… not attracting… her.

Couples divorced for less, but Ashley was no quitter, eschewing the search for other solar systems. She’d keep her marriage together, if only for the children… make every effort… go more than half-way. The rest was up to Keith.

Of course, if he’s rarely home, whatever she does makes little difference. She refused to give up her individuality, if it came to that. Pushing away from the railing, she shook herself like a dog out of a pond, casting off morose thoughts like droplets.

Ashley Easton functioned best happy rather than depressed. She glanced at the ring, the corner of her lips twitching up as an Appaloosa mare nimbly maneuvered through the Hunter course. How fulfilled and contented she was when riding and jumping.

Might as well visit the horses. Scratch a few ears. Enjoy the smells.

She entered the barn, kicking at straw strewn across the floor. Funny how the aroma of fresh hay and manure ignited a sense of happier times.

She strolled from stall to stall, stroking velvety muzzles and caressing behind ears. The animals rubbed her with their snouts and nibbled at her sleeve, recognizing her as a friend.

She paused at the stall where she’d boarded Lady as a teenager. A dappled gray leaned over the wood-rail gate, tossing its head, nickering. She sighed.

She came to Onwentsia Stables on a whim to watch the first Amateur Open Jumper competition of the Spring, and the banked embers of the old fire burned brightly in her again. Seeing those big muscular athletes bounding over rails and walls had her heart tumbling giddily.

Maybe it’s time to get a horse… even start jumping again. Thirty-one’s not too old, and it’s such great therapy. One thing’s for sure… a four-legged buddy will always be there for me.

Riding created a sense of peace and a bond with the animal that no one but an equestrian would understand. The pressures of rearing a family were minimal now, with Maria living in for the last year, there to care for the children if she were away.

Time to get out and do my own thing. It’ll be daytimes, while Keith’s at work, so it won’t interfere with our being together. Besides, when was the last time he spent any real time with me, doing something fun? Something I love! She couldn’t remember, but it’d been years.

Ashley ventured deeper into the gloomy barn, absorbing the ambiance.

I can even get back into show jumping, if I get a good horse. Wonder what was wrong with that huge chestnut? A redhead, just like me. He seemed so listless, even refusing fences. Hard to believe that big thoroughbred was unwilling to jump. You never know until you…

A horse squealing in apparent pain, somewhere deeper inside the barn, brought her to an abrupt stop. She spun around, looking for a groom, but all stable hands were near the show ring.

“Better take a look. May be an animal in trouble.” She hurried back, checking stalls as she went.

There it was again. She circled into a wing for visiting horses, slowly approaching the end stall. Peering over the gate, she staggered back, a hand clasped over her mouth.

“OhmyGod.” Her eyes flooded. “You poor baby. What’s happened to you?” It looked like the big roan gelding that had jumped so poorly in the Open Class, its flanks lathered and striped with bloody furrows. The horse nickered softly, ears up, sensing compassion in her voice.

“Jesus! You’ve been beaten.” Salty streams spilled down her cheeks, her heart pummeling her chest, a soft moan slipping between her lips. A horse should be your buddy and companion, not an outlet for anger and abuse. She held out her hand to him.

“Who did this to you?” The tall horse edged tentatively forward, ears flicking back and forth. She gently rubbed his satiny snout. He nuzzled her shoulder, nickering softly.

“Sweet boy.” Her arms circled his neck and he brushed his face affectionately against her body. Why would anybody hurt such a lovely animal? Tears continued to gush, as she fished for a tissue to blow her nose and blot her eyes.

Damn, my mascara’s running. I must look a mess.

“I’m gonna find some help, pretty boy. Somebody’s gonna pay for this, I promise you.” She hurried off. He neighed plaintively after her.

Ashley was turning into the main part of the stable when the horse trumpeted again. She skidded to a stop, searching again for help, but everybody was still out at the show ring. Another shrill whinny. Was some bastard beating that poor guy again?

“Looks like it’s up to me.” Gritting her teeth, Ashley hurried toward the stall, snatching up a nearby pitchfork. Who knew how crazy this guy might be?

She cautiously approached the stall on suddenly rubbery legs. The chestnut gelding was struggling to get away from a tall, lanky man in riding habit, brandishing a whip. A very big whip. He had looped a lead chain over the animal’s snout for control.

“I got a real weapon now, you bastard! You’ll never embarrass me like that again. I’ll kill ya first.” He hit the horse hard across the withers. The big gelding bucked and pawed, but without any real energy.

“Hey, quit that!” Her shout raspy, she banged the gate with the side of the pitchfork.

“Huh?”

“Stop beating that poor, defenseless animal!” Energized, adrenaline flowing at flood tide, she danced from foot to foot, a redheaded Valkyrie, brandishing her weapon over the gate, beating the air. Angry tears flowed unabated.

“Hey, put that thing down before your hurt somebody.” Lowering his whip, he backed away in the face of this very agitated woman, her cheeks streaked with black mascara war paint.

“Then leave that horse alone, Godammit.” She jabbed the pitchfork in his direction.

“What the Hell business is it of yours, lady?” His eyes never left the sharp metal tines.

“No animal deserves abuse like that. What’s he done that was so terrible?” She sniffled, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand, tears drying up from flood mode.

“You see him jump today?”

“Yeah, so what.” She caught her breath, lowering her weapon, having deflected him from his attack. “Any athlete can have an off day.”

“Been more like an off year. Supposed to be a great jumper, but he’s got no heart. I’ve had it.” No longer threatened, the horse stood quietly, head hanging, breathing hard. Blood dripped in red rivulets off his flanks.

Maybe someone did sell this guy a clinker, as far as jumping went, but the animal didn’t look at all well. So thin!

Shit! When I get back into jumping, I’ll want a good Open horse. She almost smiled, despite her fury, realizing the decision had just been made. She studied the horse.

This poor guy may never qualify, but I can’t leave him in the hands of this cretin. The reek of booze on him was overpowering. She skewered him with two gray lasers, burning out from below arched scarlet eyebrows.

“Well, you’d better leave him alone. You can get in trouble for this kind of abuse.” Sighing softly, giving a small shake of her head, she leaned her weapon against the wall and entered the stall.

“What’s his name?”

“Injun, but he sure ain’t no warrior.” He edged away, keeping a wary eye on this crazy woman.

She studied the big red horse, watching her with soft brown eyes. He nickered, and she could almost hear, Please help me, in the forlorn sound.

Oh, damn! Trapped. She glanced at the man, still holding his whip.

“Want to sell him?”

“Huh?”

“Do you want to sell him? You clearly don’t like him. Beat him again, I’ll report you.”

“Yeah?” He studied her for a moment. “What’ll you pay?”

“Look, I wanted an open jumper, and you said yourself he’s not cutting it. I could probably low-ball you, as angry as you are, but I’ll make you a fair offer. I’ll pay you whatever you paid. Just show me the invoice. Deal?”

“You bet. I got it right here in my locker.”

A half-hour later, check written, she called the vet most highly recommended by the stable’s manager. Luckily, he was nearby and would be there in an hour or so.

Good. This poor baby needs his wounds cared for and a good general check-up.

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