A.J. Sutherland knows her own mind.
She also knows a champion when she sees him…
Everyone thinks A.J. Sutherland is crazy to buy a rogue stallion that no rider or trainer has been able to tame. But if anybody has the hustle to make something out of that hell-raiser, it’s her. She can’t do it alone, however, and goes after the great Devlin McCloud, an equestrian legend with a bad leg- and a worse attitude.
Devlin recognizes a fighter when he sees one- and that horse isn’t a wallflower, either. Before he knows it, he’s got a wild stallion in his empty stable and a hot-headed, heavenly-bodied rider sleeping on his couch. But can he get all three of them through the championship in one piece? This passion he’s found with his rider is compromising training- and at this level of competition, any distraction is not just unprofessional, but downright deadly...
From the fringes of the crowd, Devlin McCloud watched the scene unravel with cynical eyes. He’d 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 Mercy. It had been almost a year since the accident, nearly 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, and 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 order disintegrated. 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 they were up to the task. The stable had a lot of money, 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 that 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. He couldn’t see her face so he moved to try to 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 toward the stallion with 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 on the animal was unwavering and she was calm as she 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 the stallion blew off her hat, 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 Ss 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,” Peter was saying to A.J. as they stood in front of the stallion’s stall.
While her stepbrother continued yelling at her, she was absorbed by Sabbath, who had his head out in the aisle. The stallion 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. “Sabbath is coming home and everything is going to be fine as soon as you drop this nonsense and get out of my way.”
“That horse is not boarding at the stables.”
“What are you suggesting—I bring him to the house? Your mother will hate the hoofprints all over those Persian carpets she insisted on buying. And besides, I don’t think they make an equine equivalent of a doggie door.”
She and Peter had been back living at her father’s mansion since they’d both graduated from college. It created an awkward situation because of the strain between them but the location was conveniently close to the stables for her and luxurious enough to satisfy Peter. She knew her father wanted them home but his second wife was less magnanimous. Regina Conrad, Peter’s mother and Garrett Sutherland’s wife for the past eighteen years, always wanted her son close by but was less than enthusiastic about A.J.’s presence in the elegant home.
Peter pushed his chin forward. “I’m not going to argue about this. I warned you not to buy him. I’ve tried to be reasonable with you but, as usual, I’m getting nowhere.”
A.J. was beginning to lose composure as frustration got the better of her. Struggling not to lose her temper, she brought a hand to her throat where a diamond solitaire dangled from a slender chain. It was the one thing she had of her own mother’s, and as she rubbed the glittering stone between her thumb and forefinger, she tried to calm down.
“Peter, trust me. 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 Peter. “You can’t be serious.”
“One phone call to the office here and you’re off the charge account.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Well, then I’ll just write a check from my personal account.”
Peter paused, weighing his next move. “Your father isn’t going to let you ride that stallion.”
“He never interferes with my training.”
“I’ll bet that changes when I tell him all about your little friend’s reputation for throwing riders. Not to mention his skills at crowd control.”
“Look, you don’t have to blow this out of proportion.” A.J. let the stone fall back against the skin of her throat. “He’ll be one horse out of fifty at the stables. You’ll barely know he’s there.”
“It’s not the ratio that bothers me. This animal is malevolent and dangerous. I don’t want a mass exodus out of the barns. I have to protect my business.”
“Let me remind you: Sutherland Stables is half mine.”
“You do the riding part. I handle the business. And that’s thirty thousand dollars of money I’m in charge of that you just threw out a window.”
“In stud fees alone, this stallion will make thirty grand look like couch change.”
“For what? The dubious pleasure of his company? I doubt it.”
“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.”
A J. turned to see who had agreed with her and found herself looking at a legend.
Her breath caught in her throat as her body temperature soared. With her 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 that 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 downright 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 searchlights. His hair was dark and brushed off his forehead, thanks to a cowlick that was in just the right place, and his skin was tanned from time in the sun. Unlike Peter, he was dressed as she was, in blue jeans and a work shirt, but with the command he held himself, he could have been wearing a dishrag and he’d have looked like he owned the place.
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 medal 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.
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