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A. J. Sutherland was captivated by the stallion from the moment she saw him. And she wasn't the only one. Like believers in front of a hypnotist, the whole audience was under a spell and had the dreamlike eyes of zombies. Called by the master to come forward, the crowd moved like a glacier, pushing its way toward the auctioneer's stand and bulging out of the cordoned-off area where the horse was displayed.
A.J. did her best to get through the throng but others were doing the same. A bottleneck formed and elbows were used like hockey sticks as people fought to come forward. Being no slouch, especially when it came to getting things she wanted, she mounted pointy defenses of her own until she made it to the front. Wrapping her arms around herself, she released her breath in a rush as she got an unobstructed view of the black stallion.
She'd seen a lot of good Thoroughbreds in Virginia but nothing like him.
Head held high, the horse stared out at the crowd with hostile disinterest. He was the king; he ruled the world. Everyone else just took up space.
Under the lights, his coat glistened with flashes of black and navy and his tail whipped back and forth impatiently. Dark hooves stamped the dirt as he threw his head against the halter and lead line that tied him to his handlers. With his powerful body dwarfing the men around him, he was the one in control despite being outnumbered by the five grooms who'd been assigned to try and hold him. The men around him circled cautiously, tense.
Like the crowd, they knew his reputation. It wasn't a good one.
A.J.'s eyes feasted on the stallion. In every move he made, there was a promise of strength andagility that was both athletic and poetic. And, behind his disdain, she sensed a fierce intelligence and an iron will.
At the head of the crush of people, she made up her mind. He was the most magnificent thing she'd ever seen. And she was going to have him.
"We're opening the bidding at ten thousand dollars," the auctioneer said.
Her hand flew up.
It was an outrageously low price considering the horse's bloodlines, high if you thought about his penchant for trouble.
"That's ten thousand dollars, do I have eleven?"
Somewhere in the crowd another hand was raised. A ripple of speculation went through the arena. Many had come to get a look at him up close, few had come with the idea of buying. Everyone wanted to know who was going to take him.
"That's eleven. Do I hear twelve?"
The other bidder countered at thirteen and she immediately raised the price to fourteen. There was a pause and then the price came back at $15,000.
"Do I have sixteen?" The auctioneer looked her way. She inclined her head without hesitation.
Just then, her arm was grabbed by her stepbrother.
"What are you doing?" Peter Conrad's eyes were bulging.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Like you're making another rash decision. Throwing yourself heedlessly into another mess that I'm going to have to pay for." As the price continued to climb, he escalated the argument along with it. "Have you heard about that thing's reputation?"
"Excuse me," A.J. said, moving around him. The two did a cramped box step, trading places.
"We are at twenty-two thousand dollars," the auctioneer said.
A.J. reestablished eye contact with the gavel man and nodded. The crowd's murmuring elevated, surging in waves with the bidding.
"Stop this," Peter hissed.
A.J. paid no attention to him. Her focus was on the other bidder. Like a train slowing down, her competition was losing steam but wasn't out of the game yet. There was a long pause and then the price was raised again. Without blinking, she tacked on another thousand.
"Don't you dare buy that animal!" Peter demanded. Turning toward the auctioneer, he started shaking his head and drawing his hand across his neck to dispute her authority.
When the bid came back, A.J. fixed her stepbrother with fierce blue eyes and spoke up loudly over the crowd. "I'll pay thirty thousand for the stallion."
The audience gasped in surprise and the auctioneer looked amazed at his good fortune. And her recklessness.
Peter began to sputter, overwhelmed by her audacity.
"Er, I have thirty thousand dollars," the auctioneer said, looking into the crowd at the other bidder. "That's thirty thousand going once."
"You're crazy!" her stepbrother said. He tried frantically to get the auctioneer to stop but the man shook his head at Peter's theatrics. It was a valid bid and everyone knew it.
Rebuffed, Peter curled his fists in frustration and then tried a different tactic, assuming an air of haughty scorn.
"I won't be responsible for the trouble you're creating," he told A.J. "I've cleaned up the results of your enthusiasm one too many times. If you do this, you're on your own."
He straightened his cashmere jacket with a curt tug at the cuffs. The tan color was played off by his silk pants and cream turtleneck but did little for his pale complexion. He was a study in bland tones. The only bright spike in the outfit was a jaunty red handkerchief in his breast pocket. It looked like a pimento that had fallen into a bowl of oatmeal.
A.J. looked down at her own clothes. Scruffy but clean blue jeans, a polo shirt and barn jacket, leather boots. She had on a Sutherland Stables baseball cap which was controlling the top half of her mane of auburn curls. The bottom half was reeled in by a tie at the base of her neck. Practical, comfortable. Unremarkable.
"Going three times."
"You will regret this," Peter announced.
It was a promise A.J. had heard before from him. What it meant was, if something bad didn't flow naturally from her impulse, he'd make sure he took up the slack.
"I'd only regret it if I didn't get him," she murmured.
"Sold," the auctioneer called out. "Lot number 421, a four-year-old Thoroughbred stallion, Sabbath, to Sutherland Stables."
Peter's frustration came back as the gavel hit wood. "When the hell is this going to stop! When are you going to grow up and stop behaving so rashly?"
A.J. watched his face grow tight with rage as he went into a full snit.
It went further than the partial snit, she reflected, which merely involved foot stamping and huffing, or the half snit, which was the partial with verbal backup. She saw that beads of sweat, highly characteristic of the full snit, had formed at his temples and across his forehead. With a detachment she found amusing, she noted that forehead seemed to be getting more pronounced every year, courtesy of his receding hairline.
"Peter, take a breath, will you," she said in a calm voice. "Everything's going to be fine."
"Fine! You just paid thirty thousand dollars for a horse no one can ride!"
"He's magnificent, even you should be able to see that. And his bloodlines are impeccable."
"Being distantly related to nobility hasn't made him a gentleman."
"He can clear any jump you put in front of him."
"And usually without his rider! That personality of his is better suited for the rodeo than show jumping. Even better, put him in a ring with a red cape and he'd give any matador a run for his money."
People were starting to gather around them, fascinated by her outrageous bid and the ensuing argument. A.J. didn't care but it irked her to watch Peter get more flamboyant as their audience grew. He loved attention, and seeing him bloom under the eyes of strangers made her remember the one toothpaste commercial he'd been in as a child. He'd paraded around for months afterward like he'd won an Oscar and the thirty-second spot had led him to believe he was destined for stardom. The afterglow of speaking the words Minty-fresh, Mommy! into a camera had lasted twenty years.
"You're overreacting," she told him, trying to get one more look at the stallion as the stable hands began to lead the horse away.
"And you're out of control! I run a stable of winners. Some of the best bloodlines in the country are under our roof and I won't let you bring a beast like that into their midst."
"He's not a beast"
"That thing tossed his rider, ran out of the ring and trampled half the crowd at the Oak Bluff Jumper Classic."
"That's in the past."
"That was last week."
"He's going to be a champion. You'll see."
"The stallion's dangerous and unpredictable. What makes you think he's suddenly going to turn into a winner?"
"Because I'm going to be riding him."
Peter snorted. "I doubt you could hang on to him long enough to get both feet into the stirrups."
A mix of bravado and frustration made A.J.'s voice louder than she'd meant it to be when she replied, "You'll see. I'm going to take him into the Qualifier two months from now."
People around them gasped.
At that moment, a shout of alarm rang out from up front. When she turned around, she saw several stable hands bolting in different directions, diving for cover. Then, just as suddenly, everyone in the crowd was scrambling for safety. The stallion had broken free from his handlers, leapt into the cordoned-off area where the crowd had watched the auction and burst into the throng of people, scattering them like marbles across a floor.
Not again, A.J. thought, sparing Peter a glance as they both ran for it. His face was vacillating between a self-satisfied I-told-you-so look and one of naked fear as the horse charged toward them with thundering hooves.
Most people, being of sound mind, ran out of the ring, but a few brave souls rushed forward, spreading their arms wide in a semicircle around the animal. They were going to try to corral the horse through an open gate that led into an unoccupied paddock but the stallion seemed to know what they were after. The horse made a beeline at the men instead of falling for their ploy, and they fell aside, trying not to get trampled.
Mission accomplished, the stallion raced on, ready for more action, his lead line streaming behind him like a banner. Chaos reigned as people shouted and cursed and it dawned on A.J. that the horse looked delighted at all the trouble he was causing. He'd broken free of his captors, terrified the crowd and was enjoying himself thoroughly by chasing after stragglers.
If he were human, he'd be laughing, she thought.
Peter's voice was furious in her ear. "I can't believe you want to bring this demon home!"
She smiled as the stallion galloped by, a black blur. He was limber and graceful, with the strength of steel in his muscles. "Look at him go."
"Straight to hell if I get to pick where to send him."
After another ten minutes of people trying to get control of the horse and failing, A.J. tugged her baseball cap down tight and stepped into the ring. She caught the stallion's eye immediately. Pegging her with a dark look, he rushed at her, only to come to a screeching halt a few yards away when she refused to move. Dirt kicked up around him in a cloud and he pawed the ground in warning, throwing his head up and down.
Instead of showing fear, A.J. put her hands into the pockets of her jeans. A silence fell over the crowd.
She could see the horse mulling over his options. Someone standing their ground in front of him was something new and he seemed confused.
"All right, you've had your fun," A.J. said in a low voice. "Now it's time to behave yourself."
As if he understood her, he shook his magnificent head and whinnied a loud denial. He was breathing heavily, his nostrils flaring widely, but she knew it was more for drama than from exertion. Even after bolting around the ring like a madman running from sanity, he hadn't broken a sweat across his gleaming black coat.
While they squared off, A.J. was looking at him with a calm disregard, as if he were a temperamental two-year-old. Inside, however, her instincts were sharp. She tracked every movement he made, noting the subtle twitching in the muscle fibers of his deep barrel chest and the beat of his heart in the veins just under his slick coat. She was searching for any advance warning that he was going to lunge at her, any hint as to what his next move might be.
After all, she might be daring but she wasn't stupid. It didn't take her years of experience with horses to know she had to be extremely careful when staring down an animal like Sabbath. A half ton of stallion backed by the personality of a pro wrestler didn't make for safety. It was a dangerous situation. And a thrilling one.
"You know, you may have missed your calling." She took a step forward, continuing to talk. "You'd make an excellent steamroller."
Sabbath snorted and reared up on his haunches for show.
"I'll make a deal with you," she said, stopping when she was only a couple of feet from him. "You calm down and come with me and I'll help you put all that energy to more constructive use."
She smiled at her own words, thinking it was probably like asking a rugby player to turn in his cleats for a pair of tap shoes.
While the horse seemed to be considering her proposal, A.J. pictured herself saddling him up and mounting him for the first time.
"It's going to be a long way to the ground if you throw me," she said softly. "Fortunately, I tend to bounce."
Sabbath let out another ferocious roar. Her smile deepened.
"So do I take that as a yes? Are you ready to try a little tap dancing?"
Suspiciously, the horse moved his head forward, putting his black muzzle up to her face. He took in a huge lungful of air, drawing her scent through his nose. Then he blew it back at her, sending her baseball cap flying.
A.J. shook her head. "If you want to impress me, you're going to have to do more than play bowling ball to a crowd of people and knock off my hat."
Sabbath reared again, his mane streaking through the air, hooves pawing the space between them. Then, looking bored, he abruptly dropped his neck, lowering his head.
After a moment, A.J. cautiously reached forward and took his lead in her slender hand. When the stallion tolerated it with only a flick of his ears, she moved to the side and went forward. Together, they started to walk out of the arena.
One of the stable hands approached tentatively. Without words, he pointed out where the stallion had been housed and then scurried away. Left to handle the horse alone, A.J. led the way into the stable area and approached the stall Sabbath had been in.