CHAPTER ONE

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…..Katherine Bonner twisted her head to peek at the rider pursuing her. She smiled when she spotted Pierce gaining on her.

…..She rode a mighty Andalusian, her carriage proud and tall on the gray gelding’s bare back. Her dance against his withers urged him into the wooded area where they’d find shade from July’s heat, and she bent her cheek along the horse’s neck to duck stray branches of elm trees pluming her face.

…..Moist and friable under Fog Mist’s hoofs, the dirt clumped and spattered as Kat heard the pounding of his shoes against the dew-filled path, felt the rhythmic breathing pouring out of his nostrils like the chugging of steam from a steady locomotive.

…..Unable to squash a giggle, she bent to her mount’s ear and whispered for him to pick up the pace to leave annoying old Pierce and his Paint horse, Damisela, behind—well, he wasn’t old, only two years her senior. A meddlesome second cousin she’d grown up with and would have ignored if her father didn’t consider him the son he’d never had.

…..She couldn’t figure why Pierce got her as riled as he did.

…..“Slow down, Kat.”

…..Now, he’s yelling at me. Jaw hard, she clamped her mouth shut, hating his I’m-the-man intrusion.

….“Keep him in hand. Fog’s extending, flattening out his hind legs.”

…..Ooh, she seethed. Why couldn’t he pursue Sarah instead, a pretty bimbo so emotionally stunted she couldn’t focus past Pierce’s black wavy hair and deep blue eyes—and a smile damnably brighter during sun-drenched days of summer.

…..She squinted as the rising sun peeped through the thicket’s foliage, tickling her brow to burst in her eyes—like the sparkle of a giant jewel. She caught a whiff of the clearing around the bend, the heady scent of vanilla and balsam rising from the field of wild flowers.

…..Still, if Pierce was right about Fog Mist, riding him this fast was unproductive. She straightened on the horse’s back, pulled on the coarse white mane tangled through her fingers, and gently hugged her calves around his barrel to nudge him to change pace. She stroked his neck and whispered cooing sounds to indicate she wanted him to trot to the lake a thousand feet ahead of them.

…..As usual, circling the mass of water would be the best exercise to temper Fog’s body heat. He’d still need a vigorous brushing, she thought, her hand meeting the sweat running down his flanks.

…..Pierce stopped a quarter mile behind her. He stared at the body of water Bill Bonner had ordered dug up twenty years ago. Disturbing the aura of peace around their hamlet south-west of Chicago, dump trucks had hauled earth for weeks, shaping the cavity of the ten-acre pond to build the rise of a northern paddock Bill had developed into one of the finest dressage rinks in the state of Illinois.

…..Pierce smiled at the lovely picture drawn by Kat and Fog walking amongst the wild flowers surrounding the shore: purple harebells, yellow St John’s Wort mixed through red blooms of Indian paintbrush.

…..The graceful, dappled gelding trotted with Kat on his back, his silver mane and tail flowing with pride; and while she wore white jeans and a pink T-shirt, the lady and the horse paired with such symmetry, the fanciful image of a centaur crossed his mind.

…..Tall like the Bonners, more athletic than she was beautiful, she’d by chance inherited Aunt Marian’s pleasant curves; but her back and shoulders were straight, making her appear lean and svelte. Pierce nodded. In his book, Kat’s stature showed her to be quite the tomboy, his impression enhanced by hair she kept short in a pixie-style cut, meshed vivid amber and a bright corn-blond, to reflect her personality.

…..Her eyes drew attention with their rich ale color: oval and wide, above high cheekbones and next to a slim nose that sported pale freckles—but then a man’s eyes glided over the full, attractive lips, which often turned up at the corners with a mocking curl.

…..Damisela snorted with impatience, bringing him back to the present. Kat, his second cousin, daughter of Bill, and his wife Marian, stirred nothing but trouble.

…..He caressed Damisela’s long neck with a firm hand, and clucked her into motion, trotting her to the other side of the lake to join Kat and Fog Mist.

…..A long breath snaked out as he realized Kat purposely ignored him, most likely hoping he would go away.

…..He snorted, tipping his hat back, recognizing he would have to brave the stubborn streak she’d inherited from the Bonner clan, which almost made him want to turn around and leave. Still, he’d buckle down and bear the weight of Kat’s remarks, the ones he feared would be cheeky—if not presumptuous. Nevertheless, the prospect excited and frustrated him in one stroke.

…..He caught up to her easily enough. She’d dismounted and relented to a leisurely walk beside Fog Mist. He hoped the slow amble would cool both their tempers.

…..Somehow, Kat knew how to push his buttons and took every opportunity to make his skin crawl.

…..Kat tried to ignore Pierce as long as she could.

…..“Hey, why were you riding him so fast?” He reined in Damisela to dismount and walk beside her. “Trying to escape my clutches?” he mocked, lips curling around his lazy drawl. “There’s nowhere to run, Kat,” he said as he swung his leg over Damisela’s rump.

…..Kat slowed as she waited for him to catch up. “You’re right. I am trying to escape— running from your browbeating condescension,” she said, in a snit.

…..He laughed. “Oh! Big word for you, Kat.”

…..She stared right at him, skipped over the wind-tossed hair and bronzed good looks, thinking he wielded a lot of aggression this early in the morning, even for Pierce. “Why are you following me, anyway? I beat you fair and square last night. I owe you nothing.” A small group had played poker the previous evening. The game had ended with an argument between her and Pierce, as usual—over scores, over money, over which one of them was the bigger cheater.

…..“Marian asked me to get you. I guess she needed to punish me for my behavior last night. Why else would she send me looking for you?”

…..“Because she’s smart. She knows I can teach you a thing or two. Anyway, I wouldn’t tackle such a difficult riddle, if I were you—too complex for your teeny brain. Besides, I’m going to be the bigger … person here, Pierce. I have better ways to occupy my time than arguing with you. Did she say what she wanted?” she asked, readying to jump and slide herself over Fog Mist’s back.

…..He laughed. “Were you about to say ‘the bigger man’?”

…..Kat refused to dignify his smirk with an answer, laboring instead over Fog and pushing her torso up to mount him while she cooed to him to be calm. When she straightened on her horse, she blew a little tuft of Fog’s hair off her nose and, for good measure, gave Pierce the evil eye, waiting for him to answer her question.

…..“She didn’t say. I didn’t ask.” He smiled.

…..She tossed her head away from his sneer, and raised her chin as she indicated to Fog that they were gone.

…..“You sure ride like a man,” he yelled at her as she cantered away.

…..Irritably mounting Damisela, he reined her in as she quenched her thirst from the lake and then set her in motion. Problem was, he thought moodily, as he stared at Kat and Fog disappearing into the distance, she was too attractive to be a man and way too much trouble.

…..How he’d love to make a dent in the quiet disdain she wore around her like a cloak, at least where he was concerned. Oh, on occasion, she would attempt to be pleasant—like some neighbor discussing the weather.

…..He sighed as he put Damisela to a gentle canter, thinking maybe he stirred the dirt out of Kat—the bickering probably both their fault. They enjoyed their freedom and both liked to wear the same pair of pants.

…..Pierce realized Bill Bonner regarded him as heir apparent, mostly because Kat wanted nothing to do with paperwork or keeping tabs on the books. Bill had appointed Pierce as the one solid contributor most able to manage the farm one day. Of course, Jake Tyler entertained the idea that Bill might choose him as top honcho. No contest, though. Bill would go with blood. Yet Pierce wondered if the polite rivalry between Jake and him was what fueled Kat’s ill mood toward him. Could be. She’d been friendlier five years prior, when Kat and he had been inseparable, riding and working together. Theirs had been a sweet friendship.

…..No one realized he used Kat as a yardstick to measure the worth of his many girlfriends, which explained why he’d gone through a slew of them. They weren’t feisty enough, or as glamorous as Kat. They were vain, couldn’t ride, feared horses like the plague. As for Sarah, she embodied all those things rolled into one pretty face. Even better, she was the one girl who got under Kat’s skin.

***

…..Kat set Fog to a trot toward the south paddock. Closest to the front lawns, the southern corral meandered up the county road that snaked past the Bonner-Willows’ fifteen-hundred acre ranch. Her mother would be working there at this time of the morning.

…..Invisible from the bend in the road, the Bonners’ wide bungalow stood perfectly hidden behind clumps of giant cedars and spruces, and the property, accessed from the road by a wide lane, had its entrance heavily guarded. A private security group manned the gate, utterly devoted to Bill and his family.

…..Kat hesitated when she noticed her mother already hard at work with one of the first-year students. She decided not to disturb her.

…..She dismounted and gave Fog a hug before she grabbed a braid hanging from one of the fence posts, tying it around his neck. She didn’t want him to run off before she could brush and feed him. He’d be cranky if he skipped his morning ration of grain, and she needed him alert and on his toes for the dressage show coming up in a few weeks.

…..Leaning on the wood fence, she concentrated on Marian and her new student—a young girl who’d been around horses all her life but couldn’t seem to finish first at any of the local dressage fairs.

…..“No, no, Emily. You have to show your horse deference. Mylena is not a tool; she’s a facilitator who is here to help you. And she will choose to do so just as soon as she gets to know you better.”

…..“I’ve had her for two years, Mrs. Bonner.”

…..“I know, dear. But I have a feeling you two have never been properly introduced. Let’s begin again.”

…..Kat smiled as she admired her mom’s gentle, firm hand with the trainees. Her thin, ash-blond hair fell to her shoulders, unpretentiously parted in the middle. Her jaw was set in a face bronzed by days spent outdoors, and her chin was raised a few inches higher than most, but her blue eyes always crinkled with kindness, and half a smile hovered on her full lips at all times.

…..She held the reputation of being one of the best trainers in the country. “She has the gift of being able to get into a horse’s head,” had reported one journalist who’d seen her at work.

…..“Do you see what Mylena is doing? She turns her head away when you approach.”

…..Emily’s answer was a twelve-year-old’s shrug.

…..“She wants to say it wasn’t her fault if she balked at that second fence in Ottawa last month.”

…..Emily’s wide eyes rounded on Marian. Clearly, she didn’t believe Mylena was expressing any such feelings, but visibly, she questioned Mrs. Bonner’s knowledge of this.

…..Marian nodded. “That’s right. Mylena told me—and so did your father,” she added with a smile. “Here, take the reins and walk with her. Stop when she stops, paw the ground if she does.” Marian pulled on Emily’s jodhpurs to get her attention. “Make an ally out of her, and she won’t worry so much about you not being ready when it’s time to jump.”

…..Out of respect, Emily nodded, barely avoiding rolling her eyes.

…..Kat bit down on her bottom lip not to laugh. Marian had long since made a believer out of her, but the wisdom had been slow to dawn.

…..Marian walked over to where she stood, leaning against the fence with Fog by the leash. “Darling, I’m sorry to haul you out here so early. Where’s Pierce?”

…..Kat shrugged. “Didn’t follow me back.”

…..“I need him here this morning. Your father’s gone exploring the west side of the property with Jake and Kenny. I need him to help with the vet visits.”

…..“So why am I here?”

…..“Karen’s got the flu. And her dressage class starts in less than an hour.”

…..Kat sighed. “I have a day too, Mom. I wish Karen would give us a little more warning.”

…..“Those are the breaks, kiddo.” Then, glancing at her daughter’s outfit, she said, “Why aren’t you wearing your chaps? You’re going to ruin that nice pair of white jeans.”

…..“Was in a hurry. Besides, white’s a good thing. I just add a little bleach to the water.”

…..“Too much bleach will rust those gold-trimmed buttons.” She turned to glance at Emily. “The child has no respect for her horse. I should have refused John Daigle’s plea to take this on.”

…..“Hey, I was the worst nonbeliever you ever taught. You told me so yourself, remember? Look how well I turned out.”

…..Marian patted her daughter’s hand. “Leave Fog with Timmy. He’ll brush him and make sure he eats.”

…..Kat prepared to climb the fence to mount her horse as her mother walked toward Emily. She heard the strident beeps of Marian’s walkie talkie phone, clipped to her belt. Maybe Karen had reconsidered.

…..Marian checked the number and pressed the talk button. “What is it, Hank?”

…..“There’s a fella out here, Ms. Bonner, who insists on seeing Mr. Bonner.”

…..The conversation was coming loud and clear through the phone speaker.

…..“Mr. Bonner is not available, Hank. Tell him to call and schedule an appointment.”

…..“That’s what I said, Ms. Bonner. Mr. Bonner already turned him away yesterday. He’s insisting he’ll see you instead. Do I have your permission to use the artillery? He’s not taking no for an answer.”

…..“We’re not going to shoot anyone, Hank.” Marian rolled her eyes as she smiled at Kat’s raised eyebrows. “What’s the fella’s name?”

…..“Says he’s a lawyer. Name on the card is Victor Horn.”

…..Marian’s arm dropped by her side, her eyes sweeping the western sky clouding over in the distance. Kat heard her take a deep breath, deeper than those she took when she had to climb the outcrop with Fantasma, a white stallion skittish about heights on rocky terrain.

…..Marian’s eyes darted toward her daughter.

…..Kat caught Pierce’s shadow hovering behind her and held a vague impression of his dark, slim form stretching along the fence. She refused to look his way. Instead, she threw her leg over the railing, slinked to the other side, and ran to cover the distance between her and her mother.

…..She’d never seen her mom without the least hint of a smile—pale and haggard, the look painting her much older than fifty-five.

…..“Mom, what’s wrong? Who is this man?” Kat wrapped her arm around her mother’s shoulders.

…..Marian peered into her daughter’s eyes without saying a word. There was another beep from Marian’s phone; she picked up and answered Hank’s question. “Please accompany this man to the study, Hank. You are to wait there with him until Mr. Bonner or I can see him.”

…..“Sure thing, ma’am.”

…..“Marian? Is there something I can do?” Pierce said.

…..Marian slipped an arm around her daughter’s waist, squeezing it tight. “There is, Pierce. You can ride out and fetch Bill for me. Tell him he needs to be at this meeting.” Glancing at Kat, she added, “It’s long overdue.”

…..“Who is he?” Kat asked again.

…..“Kat.” She checked her watch. “You barely have time to change and have breakfast before the class starts.” She put up a hand against the rise of Kat’s argument. “I don’t want to discuss this here and now, please, Katherine.”

…..Kat nodded and slipped away. She knew to respect that tone. Little Emily had stopped walking her horse, bored with having to entertain the animal.

…..“Emily,” Marian called out to her. “You go home, child. We will take this up again Thursday morning.”

…..Kat gave her mom a last glance after she mounted Fog. She watched her mother stand in the paddock, seemingly a little disoriented as she eyed Pierce riding away, already a speck in the distance. She wondered who the man was that could make her mother lose stride. She sensed both her parents knew him, perhaps someone from their past.

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