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Excerpt from Leaping Hearts

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From the fringes of the crowd, Devlin McCloud watched the scene unravel with cynical eyes. The fierce stallion which had just been auctioned off was a hot-tempered behemoth and Devlin had known exactly when the horse was going to bolt.

 

 


The stallion’s massive haunches had tensed hard before the animal sprang forward and he picked the perfect time to make his move. At that exact moment, the groom holding the lead had let his attention lapse, looking in the opposite direction and laughing at someone behind him. Like a flash, the horse took off and, courtesy of his distraction, the young hand had been dragged through the dirt and almost trampled. By the time the kid let go of the lead, he looked like a breaded cutlet.

All around people started scrambling to get out of the way but Devlin, with his bad leg, wasn’t able to move as fast as the rest of the crowd. Relying on his cane, he made his way to the edge of the ring in the awkward gait he despised, all the while keeping his eye on the horse.

He didn’t stare just because he wanted to avoid getting run over. He was captivated. The stallion moved with a grace and force Devlin hadn’t seen in a long time. It reminded him of-

He blocked the thought of his mare Mercy. It had been a year since the accident, a year since he’d had to put her down, but the pain was still unbearable. Once more, he wondered how long it was going to take to get over his grief. He feared the ache in his chest, like the one in his leg, was never going to go away.

When he finally reached the rail, he ducked out of the ring and then watched as disorder reigned. The crowd was still milling about like lemmings looking for water and he watched with amusement as several men tried to corral the horse.

The stallion’s too smart for that trick, he thought, not at all surprised when the animal bolted at the men.

Devlin shook his head.

If someone could get a handle on that horse and channel all that energy, they’d have a hot ticket on their hands, he decided. It’d be like harnessing nuclear fission but the potential locked in the beast might just make the risk of getting burned worth it.

The stallion flashed by him, head held high, tail cocked and billowing in his wake.

Devlin thought about the horse’s new owners. He hoped Sutherland Stables knew what they’d signed on for but doubted whether they were up to the task. The stable had a lot of money, a lot of great looking tack and a swimming pool to play in but he knew more about their toys than their feats of training. He had a feeling the stallion was going to put them to the test.

With an echo of remembered passion for his career, he thought how much he wished he could tackle the beast. As envy burned in his veins, he looked down at his leg with disgust. He was used to being in the ring, not at ringside. The distance between the two was vast and, after a year, he was still an uneasy traveler of the stretch of emptiness which separated where he’d been and where he was.

His gaze shifted back to the chaos and then sharpened as he watched a young woman step into the ring and approach the horse. She was tall and thin but her body was strong and he forgot all about the stallion. Because of the baseball cap she was wearing, he couldn’t see her face so he moved to try and get a better look. He wondered who she was. A groom? One of the auction’s hands?

He knew if he’d seen her before, he’d remember. There was something about the way she moved that was unforgettable.

Devlin watched as she walked towards the stallion with calm confidence, her hips swaying, her long legs carrying her across the ring. He felt like he’d been kneed in the gut as a strange ache settled into his body. He couldn’t look away from the woman and his hand gripped his cane as she stopped in front of the stallion. Unlike the stable hand, her focus was unwavering on the animal and she was calm as put her hands in her pockets.

‘Atta girl, Devlin thought with approval. Nice and slow. No big movements.

He watched the horse and the woman size each other up. The contrast between the two was striking. The animal, dark and fierce. The woman, slender and steady. Still, as she talked to the great black beast, it was immediately apparent there was something special happening between them. And then stallion blew off her hat with a great blast, clearly fishing for some sort of reaction, and, when he got none, dropped his head. It wasn’t a surrender, more like an accommodation that was freely revocable. The instant her hand took the lead, Devlin, like the rest of the crowd, let out a sigh of relief.

He was really impressed. Like all daredevil feats, it had taken courage and stupidity for her to get that close to the stallion.

Granted, she’d been smart in the way she did it, showing the kind of sense a person gets only after they spend a lifetime around unpredictable animals. The danger had been there all along, however, and Devlin was glad she hadn’t been hurt.

And then the real miracle happened.

The stallion let her lead him. Feigning boredom, so he didn’t appear to be giving in, the giant horse had let her take him from the ring. It was a small pledge of trust.

As the crowd dispersed, Devlin limped out to the center of the ring. Bending down, he picked up the woman’s hat. The stately logo of Sutherland Stables, two s’s intertwined with ivy, was embroidered on the front.

He went in search of the woman.

##########################

“I’m not going to let you bring him back to the stables,” A.J. Sutherland’s stepbrother was saying as they stood in front of the stallion’s stall. “I can’t believe you bought this… animal!”

While Peter continued yelling at her, A.J. was absorbed by the horse. The stallion, called Sabbath, seemed to be regarding Peter with the same level of interest she was. Which wasn’t much.

“For heaven’s sake,” she finally broke in. “He’s coming back to the stables and everything is going to be fine as soon as you drop this high-handed nonsense and get out of my way.”

Peter pushed his chin forward. “I really don't want to argue with you. I’m trying to be reasonable but, as usual, I’m getting nowhere.”

“Trust me," she said with determination. "I can turn him around. I’m going to work with him, one on one.”

“Not if I refuse to pay for him, you won’t.”

She turned her focus on him. “You can’t be serious.”

“One phone call to the office here and you’re off the charge account.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Try me.”

A.J. couldn't believe he'd go to such lengths. “Look, you don’t have to blow this out proportion-”

“I don’t want a mass exodus out of the barns. I have to protect my business.”

“Let me remind you,” she said forcefully, “Sutherland Stables is half mine.”

“You do the riding part. I handle the business. And that’s $30,000 of money I’m in charge of that you just threw out a window.”

“In stud fee’s alone, this stallion will make thirty grand look like couch change. When he’s a champion, you can bet he’ll be profitable.”

“You don’t know if that horse can compete in anything other than a bowling tournament. Knocking down people seems to be his forte, not jumping fences.”

“He’s been shown before.”

“Only to be a horror in the ring. That’s hardly a recommendation for a stud.”

“It’s in him,” she vowed. "He has a jumper's heart."

“She’s right.”

Both turned to see who had agreed with her and found they were looking at a legend.

A.J.’s breath got caught in her throat as her body temperature soared. With her baseball cap in one hand, Devlin McCloud was standing close enough for her to see the flecks of green in his hazel eyes. Her heart started to pound as she responded to an electric current which flared when they looked at each other.

Although she knew his face well from all the press he’d received throughout his career, it was the first time she’d ever been up close to the man and she was stunned. If the champion was devastatingly handsome staring out of the cover of a magazine, he was down right mesmerizing in person. Her body began to tingle.

My God, he’s beautiful, she thought.

The man was just over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, strong arms and a stance that was tough and confident. He looked out on the world from a pair of deep set, highly intelligent eyes which were at the moment trained on her like beacons. His hair was dark and brushed off his forehead, thanks to a cowlick which was in just the right place, and his skin was tanned from time in the sun. Unlike Peter who was in a suit, he was dressed as she was, in blue jeans and a work shirt. Considering the command he held himself with, however, he could have been wearing a dishrag and he’d have looked like he owned the place. Next to him, her stepbrother looked like a sapling.

It really was the Devlin McCloud.

There were few in the equestrian world who didn’t know him. He was a maverick, a national sports presence, the former captain of the Olympic Equestrian team, a multiple gold metal winner and one of the best show jumpers the country had ever produced. And if he hadn’t been known because of his accomplishments, his tragedy would have sealed the buzz on him. A.J.’s eyes flickered over his legs and she saw his flash of annoyance as he caught the glance.

“I believe this is yours.” He held out her cap.

His voice was deep and sensuous and had a kind of gravel in it that reverberated through her ears and down into her spine. Although he’d been interviewed on national TV and radio numerous times, it was the first time she’d heard him speak live. Even though she knew so much about him, and his private stable was not far from the Sutherland compound, she’d never spoken with him before. That wasn’t unusual. The man let few people get near him.
Aware she was staring, A.J. took the hat and confronted Peter. “You see? If anyone is likely to know a champion, it’s him.”

“I didn’t say he was going to be a champion.”

She turned back around in surprise. “But you agreed with me.”

“I think he’s got jumping in his blood. Being a champion is something else entirely.”

That voice of his sounded delicious and she found herself preoccupied with the way his lips moved over the words. They were perfectly molded lips, she decided, the lower one more full, the upper curling over straight white teeth. She struggled to keep her train of thought.

“Er- but if he has the innate talent, then he can win.”

“What’s the use of the best foundation in the world, if you can’t raise the roof because the walls are unsteady?”

“My point exactly,” Peter said.

“Well, you’re both wrong. I’m going to turn him into a champion.”

“You’d have a better result if you turned him into dog food,” Peter muttered.

Standing in front of the woman who’d captivated him, Devlin shifted his weight and changed the position of his cane. He saw her eyes flash downward as she noticed the movement and hated that his physical weakness was so obvious.

Seeing her up close, he realized that he recognized her after all. She was the daughter of Garrett Sutherland, the incredibly wealthy engineer, and a newcomer on the professional circuit. In her middle twenties, she was just cutting her teeth in the big leagues but showed some real promise as a competitor. The guy with her had to be Peter Conrad, the one who ran the stables.

Ignoring Conrad, Devlin kept looking at the woman and decided she was damn beautiful. Her features were strong, her chin determined and her startling blue eyes met his head on. He liked all of that. She also had the glow of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors and carried herself with the physical poise that comes from being an athlete. The fact she filled out her jeans like they were a test she had all the right answers to didn’t hurt either. He found himself wondering what she looked like with that auburn hair free around her shoulders.

“I have faith in him,” she was saying, “and I’m going to start by riding him in the Qualifier.”

“You’ll be the laughing stock of the circuit,” Peter said with a cold smile. “You’re going to make a fool out of us.”

“Thanks for all the support,” she replied dryly and then looked into Devlin’s eyes.

Meeting her gaze, Devlin caught on to the insecurity she tried to hide.

She’s right to worry, he thought. The stallion was going to need a lot of work and, even then, there’d be no telling what would come of the investment. Time and her inexperience were likewise working against her. Two months would be a stretch for any rider and new mount to forge a relationship, even if the rider was working with a compliant horse and had years of competing under her belt.
“I’m warning you,” Conrad said to her before turning to go. “Don’t try to bring that horse into my stables.”

“Our stables,” she corrected.

But the man had already started walking away, delicately side stepping a pile of hay in front of another stall and then yelping as a curious muzzle reached out to him.

“Damn animals,” he muttered.

A.J. turned to Devlin and, as her eyes traveled across his wide shoulders, she momentarily forgot her frustration. She noted that his hair just brushed the top of his collar, the silky waves breaking against the flannel, and she wondered what it would feel like. Her fingers curled the baseball cap into a ball and her heart began to pound with a crazy anticipation.

Aware her cheeks were flushing, she cleared her throat and said,

“Don’t you think it can be done?”

Devlin regarded the hope in her face with nostalgia. Thinking back, he could dimly recall the emotion in himself. He was less than ten years older than her but felt ancient looking into the crystal blue of her eyes.

What color is that, he wondered. Sky blue?

As Devlin got lost in her eyes, he couldn’t deny her an answer.

Looking into that blue, he found that something inexplicable happened to him. He felt cleansed, somehow. Less cynical, less tired of life. It made him want to get closer to her.

“I don’t know you or the horse well enough to say,” he answered cautiously. “Hard work and training will probably get you both over the fences, assuming he doesn’t throw you just for the fun of it. But winning? That takes teamwork and you can’t teach it. In horses or people.”

Her face registered trepidation but then switched to optimism.

“I need a trainer,” she declared.

Devlin felt a physical shock as he figured out where she was heading. “With what you can afford, you’ll find one, I’m sure.”

“I want you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“But you’re the best and I want-”

“You want a miracle worker. And I ran out of miracles a year ago.”

She reached out, touching his arm. He was stunned at how the soft touch effected him. It was like getting burned except he liked it. He pulled away sharply, even as he was curious about the sensation.

“Please, I can pay-”

“Money doesn’t solve everything,” he said.

Before he lost his wits again by looking into those eyes of hers, he turned and walked away, his limp more pronounced than usual.


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