Authors: J.R. Ward
“God, I’ve missed you,” he groaned against her ear.
She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She was too caught up in the moment, in him. She told herself they needed to talk first but the sensible voice was drowned out. Just for one dance, she thought. And then we’ll find someplace to go.
Too soon, the song came to an end, and he said, “Where?”
But before A.J. could answer, Regina stepped up in front of the musicians, spreading her arms wide and smiling like she was a featured act in Las Vegas. Devlin and A.J. got trapped by the crowd as it came forward.
“Thank you all for joining us here on this very special evening,” Regina said, beckoning to Garrett with a glittering hand. He joined her reluctantly.
“Garrett and I are so appreciative that you have graced us with your presence.” She said this even though no one in the room would have dared turn down the invitation and she knew it. A-list parties were A-list parties. You went or were never asked again.
The crowd began shifting and A.J. spied Peter working his way toward his mother. Someone was following close on his heels but she couldn’t see who it was. When they came into view up front, she saw that it was Philippe Marceau. Behind the Frenchman was an impossibly tall, leggy blonde with more highlights in her hair than her eyes. With Peter, the two joined Regina and Garrett in front of the audience.
“The Sutherland name has been tied to a great number of successes,” Regina was proclaiming. “And I’m proud that the next generation is following suit. My son, Peter, who has
built up Sutherland Stables as a force to be reckoned with in the horse world, is about to announce an important new relationship.”
A.J. stopped breathing.
Peter took center stage. “I’m thrilled to introduce to all of you the new star of Sutherland Stables, the man who is going to take us to victory at the Qualifier, Philippe Marceau!”
There was a smattering of applause. Most of the people in the room were businessmen and, though there were some people from the horse set, they were owners, not riders. Only competitors would really care about the new addition to the Sutherland team and A.J. had to wonder why Peter was using her father’s birthday party to put out the message.
Unless it was to get at her.
And then it made perfect sense.
eyes sought out A.J. in the crowd, she thought the happiness on his face was misplaced and wondered how long it was going to take for him to find out his new breadwinner was a booby prize.
“Sutherland Stables is more than a loose affiliation of riders and owners,” he was saying. “We are a family business in every sense of the word, because champions are all related in spirit. The bond between those of us who seek excellence is stronger than blood—which can be far less reliable.”
A.J. shook her head, surprised at his remarks. Marceau wasn’t known for being faithful. The man’s professional loyalties were no more constant than those he offered the women he bedded and discarded with the morning paper. He’d bounced from one stable to another since the day he’d turned professional, always because he felt his unique talents were being underappreciated. In fact, people on the circuit ran a betting pool whenever he started somewhere new. The winners typically put their money on dates within the calendar year. She could have sworn Peter knew all this.
But even if it was a bad idea for the stables, seeing Philippe Marceau standing under those lights with her stepbrother made her blood boil. To have been summarily thrown out with Sabbath only to be replaced by the notorious Frenchman was insulting. Subconsciously, she flexed her arm. It was still acutely painful and she’d intended to go
back to the doctor’s in a few days, but now she felt an urgent need to get back to training. Courtesy of her stepbrother’s pronouncements, she was more determined than ever to win and she wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines any longer.
Turning to Devlin, A.J. looked at him for a long moment. In spite of his intense expression, the eyes that met hers were steady and warmhearted. She wasn’t sure what the future held for their relationship but she knew she needed to go back to work. And she needed him at her side.
She told him, “I’m back tomorrow. And make sure there’s water in that ring.”
He nodded and she saw relief in the rugged lines of his face.
Peter droned on until he was upstaged when Regina stepped forward into the lights. Elbowing her son aside, she launched into an affected stream of adulation for Garrett that was something between a Barbara Cartland narrative and a car commercial. A.J. found it nauseating.
As his mother performed her monologue, Peter entered the crowd. Marceau and the blond appendage were right behind him and they all were heading straight for A.J.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate us on our new partnership?” Peter said as soon as he was in earshot.
“Of course,” A.J. replied. “I don’t think you two are necessarily destined for greatness but I wish you well.”
“Marceau is going to get the Sutherland name in lights.”
“Maybe. Or perhaps he’ll just move on to some other stable.”
Peter’s haughty air bloomed. “When Philippe starts winning every major event on the circuit, and the Sutherland name is on everyone’s lips in a good way, you’re going to rue the day you picked that horse over your family.”
“Are you forgetting who put me in the position to choose?”
“You were the one who bought him. Now you’re going to see what it cost you.”
A.J.’s anger swelled, masking how much it still hurt that her father had given Peter the stables. Her voice became sharp. “That stallion cost me thirty grand and the dubious
pleasure of seeing you every night over dinner. All things considered, he’d have been a bargain at half a million.”
Her stepbrother’s face flushed an ugly red. “You didn’t exactly leave us heartbroken, either.”
Time to go, A.J. told herself, noting the argument was taking on more of an edge than usual. The last thing she wanted was to stage a fight with Peter out in the open at her father’s birthday gala.
“Much as I’d like to continue this,” she said, “I’m going to say good night and good luck.”
“Winning teams don’t need luck,” he said heatedly.
“When you find one, let me know.”
“You’re looking at the partnership that is going to revolutionize this sport. And you’re getting left behind with that crazy load of dog meat. Your career is over.”
Emotions running high, A.J. lashed out. “Just because you recruited the only other Froot Loop in the business with taste in clothes as bad as your own doesn’t mean you’re a lock for success. You need more than a stunning lack of fashion sense and a blind tailor to win in the ring.”
Peter lunged at her, catching everyone by surprise.
In the nick of time, Devlin stepped forward to protect her, blocking the way.
“Back off, Conrad,” he said darkly.
All around them, people were turning curious eyes toward the scuffle, eager for more drama to unfold.
A.J. was shocked by Peter’s outburst. They’d always argued but he’d never lost control like that before. Hearing his labored breaths, feeling her own heart pounding in her chest, she found herself truly regretting their relationship. Why did things always end up badly between them?
Tangled in her own thoughts, she watched mutely as Peter stepped away from Devlin. Her stepbrother tugged his tuxedo jacket in place with hands that shook.
With the situation defused, Marceau took the opportunity to insert himself gallantly in front of his new partner. “Do not arch to her level.”
to my level,” A.J. corrected absently.
Devlin took her elbow. “I think we should go.”
“Yes, do remove her,” Philippe said. “With your leg, I imagine babysitting is all that you are good for now.”
Emotion surged again and a stinging retort came to the tip of A.J.’s tongue. But, instead of going with her instinct, she cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. “Good night, Philippe. Peter.”
Her stepbrother’s voice was bitter. “You’re going to regret this.”
“You know something, I think you’re right,” she replied. “In fact, I think I’m beginning to feel sorry for us.”
Peter looked at her with utter confusion before she and Devlin left for the foyer.
When they got to the front door, they paused.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” she said. “Again.”
“There’s a lot of anger between the two of you.”
“Yes. But it’s high time to change that. I just wish I knew how.”
As much as Peter could be a source of intense frustration, she didn’t hate him and knew he wasn’t truly evil. She also was beginning to see her own role in their dysfunction. If she took a moment to think about it, what she was really upset about were the unresolved issues between her and Devlin and the amount of time her injury had cost her training. The announcement about Marceau, and Peter’s jabs, had given her something to react to and had unleashed her anxieties. Add to all that the fact Peter knew how to play her well, and ka-
“I don’t like arguing with him. I really don’t,” she said softly.
Aware she’d been silent for a long time, she looked up into Devlin’s eyes and forgot about Peter and her family and her concern over the lost training. Everything else drifted away.
“Is this good night?” she asked him.
“Only if that’s what you want. I came here to talk with you.”
A couple walked by and peered over curiously.
“Why don’t I walk you to your car?” she asked.
He smiled. “Isn’t that a man’s job?”
“In this neighborhood, you never know what’ll happen
after dark. You might get accosted by a bond trader or some rabid media mogul.”
“Better than some twenty-year-old Internet guru who’s hit the skids,” he said, opening the front door.
As they stepped free of the house, they were greeted by the crisp night air. The noise of the party faded away, and her ears rang in the silence.
Before anything could be said, they were approached by one of the uniformed parking attendants who’d been hired for the night. The boy must have been in his late teens and he was wearing a black blazer that was too big for him and a pair of running shoes. Shrugging, Devlin handed over his ticket and the kid went sprinting off down the driveway, out of sight.
“As far as privacy goes, I guess this didn’t make a lot of sense,” A.J. whispered. “I forgot about the valets.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the lineup of young men loitering around.
“We can drive around the block and park,” he suggested.
“Like two kids hiding from their parents?” A.J. giggled, partially because she found the idea funny, mostly because she felt anxious about what he would say when they were alone.
“You have no idea how much I’ve missed hearing your laugh.”
Her breath caught. She saw his hand rise up and nearly touch her elbow, but then he hesitated.
“I came tonight to ask for forgiveness,” he told her quietly. “To apologize. And to ask you to come home.”
A.J. flushed with happiness and was sorely tempted to throw her arms around him and tell him that was exactly what she’d hoped he’d say. But she needed more from him. She was far too in love to be able to risk going back to the farmhouse without a clear understanding of where things stood between them.
The fleet-footed attendant returned without a vehicle. The kid looked worried. “Excuse me, sir. I can’t find your car.”
“Maybe because it’s a truck,” Devlin said dryly.
“You mean that thing? With the bed all bent out of shape?”
“I know she’s not pretty but she’s sound under the hood.”
“It’s the back end I was worried about.” Abruptly, the boy blushed and shut his mouth.
“What happened to the truck?” A.J. asked.
Devlin clapped a hand on the kid’s shoulder, slipping him a couple of dollars. “Not to worry. I’ll go get her myself.”
“Hey, thanks,” the boy said, looking at the cash. “But I didn’t earn this.”
“With that crowd in there”—Devlin nodded over his shoulders—“you most certainly will have by the end of the night.
The teenager looked happy as he rejoined his friends.
“What happened to the truck?” A.J. asked again.
“Nothing good.” Devlin shrugged and noted her shivering. “Should you go in? It’ll kill me but I can wait until tomorrow if it means you don’t get the flu.”
She shook her head, thinking she didn’t care if it was snowing and she was barefoot. She was determined to hear him out.
“Come on,” she said, and started down the driveway, heading in the general direction she’d seen the attendant go. Devlin caught up with her, slipped his jacket over her shoulders and fell into step at her side.
“It’s to the left,” he said as they approached the end of the driveway.
She turned blindly.
“No, your other left.”
She went the other way.
Down at the end of a long line of cars, standing out among the Mercedes and Jaguars, the truck was a workhorse in a field of Thoroughbreds. As Providence would have it, the thing had been parked right under a streetlamp and the added light wasn’t kind to its fading paint job or the recent damage.
Which was extensive, A.J. noted.
“Good Lord! What happened?” she exclaimed, going in for a closer look. Crushed and mangled as it was, she wondered why the bed was still attached to the cab. “You back into something? Like maybe a wrecking ball?”
“Run-in with a tree limb.”
“That fell out of the sky like a meteor!”
“Yeah, something like that,” Devlin muttered.
A.J. inspected the truck briefly.
“Those are beautiful earrings,” he remarked when she came back and stood in front of him.
“Thank you. They were a gift from my father.”
“They’re a magnificent color.” She watched as his hand reached out and caressed one of the stones. “Although I prefer the red in your hair.”
She warmed under the husky desire behind his words but remembered she should be wary. “Devlin, I—”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so damned sorry. I can’t believe I yelled at you when you were injured and hurting. And then left, for chrissakes. I don’t blame you for being mad. I’ve thought about nothing except you for the last week, trying to come up with a rational explanation for my behavior, some way of explaining why I became so unglued. When I saw you go down, I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I had images of you in a hospital bed, never to get up again. In retrospect, that was highly unlikely but I wasn’t thinking clearly. When you were able to get to your feet, I thought, Okay, she’s all right. But then you got up on that stallion, who was halfway to insane and looking like he was going to jump out of his skin, and I felt like I was in a nightmare. It was awful, watching you hold yourself up by will alone, driving that panic-stricken animal over those jumps.”