Tony shuddered as he came in his own hand.
Probably wouldn’t hurt to find out what’s in that notebook before I throw her out.
Just to be fair ’n all.
Early in the morning, Tony’s subconscious turned on him as it had countless times before. He tensed, even in his sleep, preparing to meet an old adversary he’d never conquered.
Don’t do this to yourself. Wake up.
But he was already lost to it.
He was cantering a white mare bareback down a long dirt road. They covered the miles with no sound of hoofbeats to break up the oppressive silence. No breeze. Sweat beaded on Tony’s forehead. Torn between loving and hating the memory, all he could do was hold on. The violet-blue sky pressed down, as familiar to him as the decrepit ranch he was riding to.
As she always did, the mare headed for the crumbling farmhouse at the top of the hill. No amount of reining would turn the mare from her course. Try as he did, each time he took this ride he was incapable of leaping off. No, the horse always took him back to the one place he hated.
In a blink of an eye, he was standing in an old round pen with the mare. His father, as weathered and worn as his surroundings, leaned against the pen’s rusty outer metal railings. “You still wastin’ yer time with that nag? The meat man ain’t gonna care none if she’s muscled up.”
“You can’t sell her. She’s mine, Dad. You said I could have her.” His voice was a mixture of the child he’d been and the man he’d become.
“Don’t go gettin’ yourself attached, Tony. We need the money and that horse is goin’ at the next auction.” There was no cruel intention in his voice, just the cold sting of truth.
“You told me if I got her to stop bucking I could keep her. She’s as gentle as they come now.”
Emotion had never had much effect on the older man who had been taught several tough life lessons early. “If she is, maybe someone’ll outbid the meat man.”
The hand Tony buried in the horse’s mane belonged to the twelve-year-old he’d once been. “I won’t let you do it, Dad. Not this horse. Not to the auction. She’s mine. I love her.” A memory that should have faded with time was as sharp and painful in his dream as the day it had happened, and the desperation in his young voice as he pleaded with his father was equally real.
With a disgusted shake of his head, his father said, “There ain’t no room for love in reality, Son. You’d best learn that now. Love just makes a man miserable. That horse goes to auction in two weeks. Train her real good and maybe she’ll find herself a home.”
The weathered, neglected pen disappeared. Miles and miles of white fencing surrounded Tony. Tall green grass waved in the light breeze under a bright, cloudless sky. He heard the distant sound of a thundering gray stallion bearing down on him. The horse grew in size as it approached, morphing into a snorting beast intent on stomping the life out of him. The more he fought it, the more it knocked him down until he retreated from it. But it followed, as it always did, cornering him until he hated himself more than he feared any pain the horse could inflict.
An image of Sarah appeared and stood beside him, replacing the beast. Sweet, trusting Sarah. He reached for her, but she stepped back in horror, staring at his hands. They were covered and dripping with blood. He desperately tried to clean them on his shirt, but the blood remained. He wanted to reassure her but even at a scream, he had no voice.
Sarah faded away and Tony sank to his knees in the tall grass. Despite the blood, he covered his face in his hands and did in his dream what he had never done awake. He cried.
Long after he’d awoken, the dream lingered far too vividly. Tony cursed each bale of hay he threw down from the barn loft. Sweat plastered his shirt to his back, but the punishing heat of the day was a welcome discomfort.
He groaned when David changed direction upon spotting him. Only a year or two older than Tony, David successfully organized sales and handled the business side of things. He had quickly built up a reputation of integrity that trumped any amount of advertising another breeder might buy. He was also the best damn ranch manager in the area, possibly all of Texas, but he had a flaw: He was too f**king happy.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, Tony headed down the ladder in resignation. David was as unavoidable as weeds in a pasture. He was the one person on the ranch Tony couldn’t avoid talking to. But I don’t have to like it.
“I’m surprised you’re here so early this morning,” David said too cheerfully. “I thought you’d be . . .”
“I’d be what?” Tony bit out, stacking the leftover hay against the wall.
David paused a moment, pushed his Stetson back thoughtfully and chose his next words carefully. “I heard you had company. I figured you might take today off.”
“Do I pay you to think about who I do or don’t have in my house?” Tony’s body filled with fury. More, he knew, than the conversation called for.
“No,” David said slowly.
“Then why the hell are we having this conversation?” Tony snarled, his fists curling at his sides.
Another man would have turned tail and run at his tone, but David simply shook his head in a patient way that only irritated Tony more. “Snow Prince won another Reining Futurity,” he said as Tony piled the last bale on top. “I heard there was a huge purse. Word has it, he’s worth almost a million now and climbing. His owner would like to come meet you. He can’t say enough good about you. The papers are begging for interviews, too.”
“I don’t care about Prince’s new owner and you know I don’t give interviews,” Tony said with disgust.
David opened the nearby door to his small barn office and stood just outside it. “If you don’t want to be in the magazines, stop training horses. You’ve made enough money.”
I would, but it’s all I have left. That and one unwelcome houseguest. “What do you know about that idiot reporter you found snooping around here last week? Was he working with anyone?” He’d almost forgotten about that man, but Sarah had brought him back, just as she had his nightmares.
“As far as I know, no one.” It wasn’t often that David looked embarrassed, but his face reddened at the mention of the hired hand who had turned out to be an undercover reporter.
“What about the rest of the hands? You might want to let them go and start fresh. One of them is always trying to talk to me.”