AMEY MCLACHLAN was fairly certain they didn’t hang horse thieves in Tennessee any more.
But stealing a stallion would certainly be considered grand theft. So if he did become a thief, he’d better be a successful one if he didn’t fancy spending time in an American prison.
As he slowed his BMW motorcycle to read the sign at the entrance to the long gravel driveway, Jamey considered his options. Obviously the best way to get the horse back would be to buy it honestly, but he probably wouldn’t be able to raise enough capital. And, of course, the new owner might refuse to sell at any price. Jamey had learned that Michael Whitten had bought the horse in Belgium as a gift for his new bride. He’d probably paid a fair sum for the animal and would have had no way of knowing he was buying stolen goods.
Just in case Jamey had to resort to horse stealing, he already had a plan in place to smuggle the horse across the border into Mexico. From there he could ship Roman—once he was certain the horse
Roman—home to Scotland where he belonged. To McLachlan Yard outside Oban—the place he’d been stolen from as a yearling. Jamey had been searching for the horse the past two years, only to miss the sale in Belgium by a single day.
The stallion had officially turned four on New Year’s Day, just one month ago now. He was ready to fulfill the destiny that Jamey’s stepfather, Jock McLachlan, had envisioned for him: to be the foundation stallion for a great line of Scottish sport horses. Jamey only wished that Jock were still alive to see the culmination of his dream.
Jamey had made a vow to Jock’s memory that, by the year 2000, the first of Roman’s foals would be galloping through the paddocks at McLachlan Yard. He would keep that vow, even if he had to resort to deceit and theft to do it.
He’d find some way to make amends to the present owners once the stallion was safely back on his farm in Oban. Maybe he’d offer the Whittens that first foal. If the stallion was as fine as he hoped, the first foal would be worth a bundle. He’d been told Whitten had a young daughter. By the time the foal was big enough to ride, the girl should be looking for a large horse to see her through her teen years of showing.
Jamey studied the sign carefully. ValleyCrest Stables and Training Facility. Hunter/Jumper Horses. Board. Lessons. Victoria Jamerson, Trainer.
He’d been annoyed to discover that the horse had been shipped to this small out-of-the-way stable outside Memphis just before he’d arrived in Kentucky, where the horse had been in quarantine. Now he felt it might actually be a stroke of good luck in the long run. Probably little or no security here.
He could take his time, assess the stallion, perhaps work him a bit. He absolutely had to see another rider on the horse. No other way to judge his movements properly.
Whitten’s new wife, Liz, was purported to be an excellent rider, more than capable of handling a feisty young stallion. She was probably already exercising him every day. Jamey might be able to see enough of him to make an educated decision in a few days.
All he had to do was worm himself into the good graces of her aunt, Victoria Jamerson, who owned ValleyCrest. She’d had an international reputation as a rider at one time, but she’d suddenly dropped out of competition years ago.
Boarding stables always needed help. He’d work for his keep and stay only long enough to evaluate the stallion, find some quiet time to ride him and decide whether he should offer Michael Whitten a fair price for him.
Or whether he’d have to sneak a huge young horse onto a trailer in the middle of the night and literally run for the border.
The bile rose in his throat. He was definitely not cut out to be a confidence man. The thought of lying, taking advantage of these people, made him physically ill. His Romany grandmother had tried to instill in him her own Gypsy philosophy: taking advantage of the
—non-Gypsies—was a perfectly honorable way of life. As far as she was concerned, there could never be enough payback for centuries of persecution.
But his grandmother was of the old school. Until the day she died, his grandmother used to grumble about living in the same place and had refused to allow her family to sell the old horse-drawn caravan she’d lived in as a bride. Nobody else seemed to regret leaving the precarious life of the open road behind.
His uncles all held decent jobs, many working for him at McLachlan Yard. One of his cousins was a surgeon. Another was one of the leading veterinarians in Edinborough. All were respectable and prosperous, although he worried that a couple of his aunts sailed a bit close to the wind with their psychic hotline.
Jamey sat astride the BMW, unwilling to rev the engine, drive up to the stable and tell his first lie.
Finally he sighed and drove slowly up through the trees where he could see the front door of the stable without being seen.
The moment he cut his engine he heard it. The high demanding call of a stallion. He caught his breath.
Goodbye, James McLachlan, landowner, trainer, breeder, honest man. Enter Jamey McLachlan, forty-year-old saddle burn, Gypsy charmer, con artist, horse trainer extraordinaire.
“ALBERT,” VICTORIA Jamerson snapped, “I don’t care how you do it, but for Pete’s sake, shut that blockhead of a stallion up!”
She pulled off her heavy leather work gloves and stuffed them into the waistband of her jeans, sank onto a handy tack trunk in front of one of the stalls and stretched her long legs in front of her. Exhausted, she glanced at her dusty paddock boots and ran her hand up under the short dark hair at the nape of her neck. “Listening to him wears me out. He’s way overdue to learn his manners.”
“Mr. Miracle, my foot. Pat should have named him Mr. Disaster,” Albert grumbled from the doorway of the barn. His silhouette half-filled the wide opening. The biceps of the café au lait arm that he leaned against the lintel was as big around as Vic’s waist. His height, weight and muscle gave him leverage in handling an oversize youngster like Mr. Miracle that Vic envied.
“I don’t think Pat saw anything but the size of him when he stormed off that trailer on his hind legs. The miraculous thing about him is that he doesn’t come with a trunk like an elephant.”
“Only way to shut him up is to lay a baseball bat upside his head.”
In spite of herself, Vic laughed. “Right. I can see you hurting an animal. That’ll be the day.”
“Nothing else is going to shut that fool’s mouth. He’s got every mare in four counties acting like he’s some kind of Tyrone Power.”
The stallion continued to whinny and trumpet his availability.
Vic put her hands over her ears. “I don’t think Mike had a clue what he was dumping on us when he took Liz and Pat off to Florida to compete for the winter season. How on earth are we going to put up with this noise for two whole months until they get back and agree to have him gelded?”
Albert shook his head. “Seems like a real shame, gelding a fine animal like that.”
“Fine animal, my eye. Good-for-nothing animal, you mean. You know he’s too dad-gummed big to be a jumper. At near nineteen hands he wouldn’t fit between the fences on a tight course even if he could fold up like an accordion. And he may still be growing.”
“Could be. He’s still a youngster,” Albert said. “Got to admit, he is one fine horse.”
“Oh, right. He has the manners of Genghis Khan. You and I together can barely waltz him from the stallion paddock to his stall and back again. Why on earth did Mike have to buy that particular horse?”
“Shoot,” Albert said. “He was the biggest, fanciest, feistiest horse Mike ever saw is why. Man’s got no sense about horses yet. Can’t expect him to. He’d never even been on a horse until six months ago when he fell in love with Liz. Cut him some slack, why don’t you?”
“I do, Albert,” Vic said, and latched her arm through his as they walked toward the stable. “I love both Mike and his child, but he should have had better sense than to go to a sale without Liz or me to advise him. Why couldn’t he have given her a nice safe diamond necklace for a wedding present?”
Albert laid his dark-skinned hand on her arm reassuringly. “Calm down. We’re gonna make it, Vic. We can handle the problems. They’ll be back from the Florida circuit in two months. That’s practically no time at all.”
She stopped dead and turned to face him with her hands on her slim hips. “How are we going to make it, Albert? I would really like to know.” She began to count on her fingers. “First, the workmen renovating the house are driving me nuts with decisions that ought to be made by Liz and Mike. Second, two days after they leave for Florida, Angie Womack breaks her collarbone and can’t exercise horses for us. Three, our stable help goes home to Juarez for Christmas and does not return, so you and I—both of whom are too old for this—are running the place single-handed. Four, half the horses here are on training board and are supposed to be ridden every day. Five, I am still not unpacked from moving house into Liz’s cottage so she and Mike and Pat can move into the big house when they come home. And last but definitely not least, that stallion out there is driving me crazy.”
“We’re better off than we were this time last year,” Albert said. “Bills are paid, stalls are full, and we got a waiting list. Our clients love us again. And best of all, Liz is happily married to a fine man with a fine daughter.”
Vic sat on a bale of hay sitting in the broad stable aisle. “You’re right. I’m just really upset about Angie’s broken collarbone. It’s not as though I could ride in her place.”
Albert’s laughter rumbled up from his broad belly. “Put me on ‘em, I’d break ’em in half.”
“Not Mr. Miracle,” Victoria said, grinning up at him. “That blockhead’s big enough even for you.”
“Liz and Mike have been gone less than a week,” Albert said. “And Angie’s been stove up two days. We got time to find us another exercise rider before the horses start getting crazy on us.”
Vic pulled herself up and leaned her head against Albert’s shoulder. “The voice of reason. I know a winter season in Florida will turn Pat into a fine junior rider, as well as blend the three of them into a real family.” She sighed. “That’s why I absolutely cannot call Liz and tell her about Angie’s accident. She’d want to come home right away to help out.”
“So call some other folks,” Albert said. “Bound to be somebody around wants to exercise a few horses, make a little extra money. Not like we need anything fancy.”
As they reached the door of the office the telephone rang. Vic picked it up off the desk, motioned to Albert to shut the door and said, “ValleyCrest.”
The voice on the other end of the line was a croak. “Vic? This is Linette. Can I speak to Albert?”
“Sure. What’s the matter with you? You sound god-awful.”
Without waiting for an answer, she handed Albert the phone. “It’s your wife.” She walked to the feed room and began organizing dinnertime for the horses. A moment later Albert stuck his head in the door.
“I got to go,” Albert said. “Linette’s come down with the flu. Making her sick to her stomach. She’s afraid to drive home. She’s dizzy and throwing up.”
“Oh, Albert, I’m sorry.”
“I hate to leave you like this. The stalls are clean, so you just got to feed and water tonight, but I may not make it in tomorrow.”
“I’ll manage. You go look after Linette. And try not to come down with the flu yourself.”
Albert shook his heavy head. “Told her when she went back to teaching fourth grade she was gonna bring home every disease known to man, but would she believe me? No.”
“Go, Albert. She doesn’t need to be giving it to the rest of the school. And stay home as long as you have to.”
Albert called over his shoulder, “Want me to see if I can get Randy or Kenny to come in and help you out tomorrow?”
Vic shook her head. “Won’t be the first time I’ve cleaned twenty-five stalls, and probably won’t be the last. Shoo. Scat. Don’t you dare get sick.”
As soon as she heard his truck rumble out of the driveway, she sat down on the tack trunk again. She prided herself on not being one of those weepy women, but right now she needed a darned good cry.
She was strong enough and capable enough to handle this place by herself for a short time, but she was facing mighty sore muscles and long hours unless Albert came in to help her tomorrow.
ValleyCrest definitely needed more help. At least one groom, but preferably two. And one person capable of riding a dozen horses a day. She’d have to put another ad in the newspaper, not that ads had ever brought her anyone halfway decent in the past. Good help who knew about horses was rare and expensive.
Suddenly the stallion began to call again. “Oh, blast,” she said. “Albert’s not here to help me bring him in. I’ll never manage it by myself.” She raised her voice and shouted, “You may have to stay in the pasture all night.” She pulled herself to her feet. “Serve him right. Why should he be comfortable? I’m not.”
“Miz Jamerson?” A voice called from in front of the stable. “Miz Jamerson, we got to see you right now.”