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Authors: Janet Dailey

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BOOK: Six White Horses
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Two circles of the arena eased her attack of jitters. While Patty guided the three pairs of horses into a series of figure eights that required a flying change of lead, her grandfather supervised the setting of the hurdles. There was one jump on one side of the arena and a double jump on the opposite side.

Deftly checking Landmark's habit of rushing the jump, the horses cleared the barrier with faultless precision, one pair following the other and with Patty balancing a foot on each back of the last two horses. The double jump was trickier on the opposite side of the arena. As the last pair of horses was landing from the first obstacle, the first pair was taking the second.

When all the horses had cleared the last jump, it was once around the arena and a sliding stop in the center where they all took a bow with Patty standing triumphantly on their backs, a hand poised in the air in acknowledgment of the applause. A refusal at any of the jumps by any of the horses would have meant a nasty fall for Patty as well as for the horses.

Wheeling the horses toward the gate, she slipped astride Loyalty's back. A beaming smile split her face as she met the silently congratulatory expression of her grandfather. With the agility of a young man, Everett King caught Liberty's halter, slowing him to a walk through the gate and forcing the rest to do the same. A cowboy grabbed Lodestars head while another took her grandfather's place with Liberty.

"You did a grand job, Patty," he winked at her as he laid a hand on the shining neck of Loyalty.

"You did the training. You deserve the credit," she refused in a sincere and breathless voice. "Thanks, grandpa."

His gnarled and weathered hand closed over hers affectionately, before a somber look stole over his face. "He's here, Patty."

For an instant she froze, unable to speak or breathe. A horrible, twisting pain stabbed at her chest. There was no need to ask whom he meant. Patty knew. With every tormented nerve end, she knew he meant Lije Masters.

"Where?" Her eyes fluttered closed, to try to shut out the pain as she uttered the question in a choked voice.

"In the fourth row on your left." A touching sympathy laced his words. "His wife is with him."

A sob rose in her throat and Patty caught it back with a quick gulp. Smile, she commanded herself sternly, smile and wave at him even if it kills you. Some of her panic was communicated to the white horse and he shifted nervously beneath her.

Touching the silky neck with a soothing caress, Patty deliberately let her gaze stray to the fourth row of the stand. A smile of false surprise was forced onto her mouth as she met the pair of gray eyes looking at her from a lean, tanned face. The air of remoteness vanished as he returned the smile, its effect still devastating to her heartbeat.

Her gaze flickered to the perfection of the blond woman beside him, envy squeezing nearly every ounce of breath from her lungs. That was Lije's wife, the perfect example of femininity. Not a tomboy turned into a cowgirl like Patty, she thought in self-deprecation. But she waved anyway.

"Magnificent performance as usual, Patty," Lije called to her.

"Thanks." The shrill edge of her voice was from pain.

There was a resounding slap on the rump of her horse as Everett King waved to the cowboys holding the front pair to take them to the stables. She and her grandfather were too close for Patty not to realize that his urgings were to end the conversation with the man she still loved and who had married another.

At the stables, Patty slipped from Loyalty's back and helped her grandfather, who had followed, to remove the leather trappings from the six white horses. Their travel trailer was parked a short distance away. A quick trip and Patty had changed out of her costume into faded blue Levi's and a knit top of olive green. She kept her movements swift and hurried, not allowing herself time to think in case she lost the grip on her shaky composure.

The horses were cooled off when she returned to the stable area. The shouts and applause from the rodeo crowd could be heard in the distance along with the rodeo announcer's voice. The sounds had all become familiar to her. Rodeo was her life, thanks to Lije Masters.

"I'll finish up the horses, grandpa," Patty said softly.

His alert brown gaze was turned on her thoughtfully, seeing beyond the composed facade to the pain beneath. "You want to be alone, don't you, honey?"

"Is it so obvious?" she smiled ruefully.

"Only to me," he responded as he walked away.
 

Patty watched his lean figure disappear and sighed. It was strange that he was the only member of her family who had seen the way she felt. Both her parents had assumed her interest in rodeo came from her grandfather, who had actively competed in his younger years. But her motivation had always been Lije Masters. Since the day she could remember, he had been the reason for her existence, all through her teenage years into adulthood.

When he had started following the rodeo circuit to save his father's ranch and keep it after his father's death, Patty had been determined to follow. She didn't have the patience to wait in New Mexico for the day he would return. It was her grandfather, Everett King, who had
suggested trick riding, since her parents couldn't afford to support her as a barrel racer.

Fate, unfortunately, had taken a hand. Her bookings hadn't included the San Antonio rodeo. Liberty had been off-color and Patty had been at her parents' ranch in New Mexico before going to the Houston rodeo. She thought she would never lose the bitter taste that had coated her mouth the day she had walked into the restaurant in New Mexico and had seen Lije Masters with his new wife. To this day, she knew she had carried the scene off beautifully, never letting him see how crushing his news had been.
 

A tear slipped from her lashes as she needlessly pushed the straw around in Liberty's stall, using the pitchfork more for support. There was little comfort for her broken heart in reminding herself that Lije had never once given her any indication that he looked on her as anything more than a friend and neighbor. Still she had lived in hope. She had adored him, worshiped him, loved him, living on the smallest crumb of his attention for days.

Her hope had been nurtured by the knowledge that Lije didn't believe in riding the rodeo circuit and leaving his wife at home, nor in bringing her with him to go through the agonies of watching him compete, always knowing he was running the risk of being hurt or crippled. Yet she had lived with that fear for three years. Patty had known, too, that Lije had intended to quit after another two successful years of rodeo.

Never in her wildest imagination had she believed that he would fall in love and marry someone else in the space of three short days. But he had. It had been a year and a half ago since that fatal day, but the pain was as intense as if it had only happened this morning.

It was her grandfather's shoulder that had been drenched with her tears. He was the one who had convinced her to continue the circuit when she wanted to curl up and die. She enjoyed the circuit, the constant training that was necessary to keep the horses in top form. It kept her from dwelling too much on the impossibilities of her dream, but it was still work. And it was not the way she had envisaged spending the rest of her life.

Patty had wanted a home and children. Lije's children to be sure, and a ranch that she could help him run. She was as capable as any ranch hand around. That had always seemed a plus factor in her favor, a reason why Lije would choose her above anyone else. How wrong she had been! His wife was a fashion model who had never been on a horse in her life, city-born and city-bred. She, Patty, could have given him so much more.

The salty taste of tears covered her lips and she realized with a start that she was crying. That was something she hadn't done in over a year. Hiccuping back the sobs, Patty wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. Liberty turned luminous brown eyes on her and nickered softly. It took all her willpower to resist the urge to fling her arms around the horse's neck and cry. Misery and self-pity dominated her senses and Patty didn't notice the darkening of the stall.

"There you are, Skinny." A low-pitched, faintly derogatory voice spoke from the doorway. "I thought I might find you in some dark hole, licking your wounds like a hurt animal."

After an initial start of surprise, cold anger held her motionless. Only one person called her Skinny.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Morgan Kincaid," Patty glared. "And I don't particularly care, so why don't you just get out of here?"

"I could have been mistaken," he drawled lazily. His tall, husky, broad-shouldered figure blocked out the light. "But it seemed to me that you turned white as your horses when you saw Lije in the stands."

Patty held his blue gaze for an instant, but its latent sharpness was too perceptive. "You were mistaken," she snapped, turning away to begin moving the pitchfork in the straw.

"I'm glad to hear that." The strong mouth moved into a smile. "Thinking the way I was that you were all tore up at seeing Lije again, I would have sworn that there were tears on your cheeks."

"That's absurd!" She kept her face averted. "It's only perspiration. I don't know where you got the idea that it would bother me to see Lije. He and I are good friends."

"Listen, Skinny." His voice was patiently indulgent. "Nearly everyone on the circuit knows that you thought you were in love with the guy"

"I can't control what people think." Any more than she could control the faint tremor in her statement.

"No, that's true," Morgan Kincaid agreed, a thumb hooked negligently in his belt as he watched her moving the straw around the horse's hooves.

Patty turned on him suddenly, unable to tolerate any more of his unsubtle cross-examination. "Shouldn't you be at the chutes making sure your precious rodeo stock is all right?"

"Sam is the chute boss. That's his job," he answered smoothly. "Aren't you curious why Lije came all this way to see a rodeo?"

"Why don't you tell me?" she responded in a tone seething with irritation.

"He wants to sell Blake Williams a young bulldogging horse he trained. It seems he needs the money."

"What's so unusual about that?" Patty shrugged impatiently. "Name me a rancher who doesn't need cash money?"

"It isn't for the ranch that he wants the money." There was a watchful stillness in the blue eyes. "His wife is going to have a baby."

Patty had already accepted that it was more than a probability that some day Lije and his wife would have children. But for the announcement to come now—without any warning—and from Morgan Kincaid, a man she loathed and despised, was more than her poise could conceal. Her brown eyes widened in shock as she uttered a gasping cry of pain. Morgan Kincaid's gaze glittered sharply over her.

"Now why should that bother you? You and Lije are only friends." His mocking statement held the fine edge of cutting steel. "You certainly don't look happy at the news. A stranger might think you were envious or jealous."

Her fingers tightened convulsively on the pitchfork handle. "You've said what you came here to tell me. Now get out!"

He didn't move as he stared at her thoughtfully through narrowed eyes. "The old wound opened up, did it? You still think you love the guy?"

"I never thought! I knew I loved Lije!" Unwillingly Patty raised her voice, no longer trying to pretend that she didn't care. She lifted the pitchfork to a threatening angle. "And if you don't get out of here, I'll run this through you!"

The sudden movement and the angry voices unsettled the white horse tied in the stall. There was a frantic whinnying as he pulled against the lead rope, twisting and turning his head, his hooves beating an in-place cadence on the stable floor.

"Easy, boy," Morgan Kincaid murmured soothingly, ignoring the pitchfork Patty had aimed at him to move to the horse's head. The animal continued bobbing nervously, eyes rolling, but Liberty responded to the reassuring voice and the gentle touch of the human hand. "That isn't any way for a lady to talk, is it, feller?"

That instant of regret that Patty had felt at upsetting the sensitive and spirited horse was overtaken by a wave of self-pity.

"I'm not a lady," she asserted with false vigor and pride. "I never have been a lady."

Letting her statement slide by without comment, Morgan Kincaid ducked under the horse's neck and stood on the opposite side of the horse a few feet from Patty. The quiet tone of his incoherent murmurs eased her own raw nerve ends as well as Liberty's. At last the horse snorted and began nuzzling the hay in the manger. With a large, tanned hand trailing along the horse's withers and over his back, Morgan wandered slowly toward Patty.

His almost complete indifference to her put her instantly on guard, the slightly lowered pitchfork raising a fraction of an inch. Cautiously she watched him turn to face her, her gaze centering on the movement of his right hand.

"You remind me of a bantam hen my mother used to have." His eyes insolently inspected her slender form.
 

His right hand touched the brim of his sweat-stained hat, lifting it off to reveal the thick black hair. Distracted by the unhurried movement of his right hand, Patty wasn't prepared for the lightning swiftness of his left as his
fingers closed over the
pitchfork handle and wrenched it easily from her grasp. She made one futile grab to recover it before she was intimidated by his height and breadth. The pitchfork was discarded with a lazy toss over the manger.

BOOK: Six White Horses
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