Esmerelda – The Hargrove Estate – Kentucky
Day One of Alejandro’s Challenge
Cecily Hargrove took the turn to the final line of jumps at such a tight angle, Bacchus’ hind end spun out before her horse regained his balance, smoothed out his stride and headed toward the first oxer.
Too slow. Way too slow. Dammit, what was wrong with him?
She dug her heels into her horse’s sides, pushing him forward to give them the momentum they needed for the jump, but Bacchus’ hesitancy at takeoff threw their timing all off—only her horse’s pure physical power allowing them to clear the fence.
Jaw set, frustration surging through her, she finished the last two jumps of the combination, then brought Bacchus to a dancing trot, then a walk, halting in front of her trainer.
Dale gave her a grim look as she pulled off her hat, the hot summer sun sticking the strands of her hair to her head. Her stomach knotted. “I don’t want to know.”
“Sixty-eight seconds. You need to figure out what’s wrong with that horse, Cecily.”
Tell her something she didn’t know. With her second mount, Derringer, showing his inexperience in competition, Bacchus was her only chance to make this year’s world championship team. Fully healed from their accident last year, her horse was physically sound, it was his mental outlook she was worried about.
If she didn’t straighten out his head—this strange hesitancy he was displaying toward jumps he’d never used to blink at—her dream would be sunk before it had even started.
The only thing in this world that meant anything to her.
“Do it again,” Dale instructed.
She shook her head, fury and frustration welling up inside of her to spur a wet heat at the back of her eyes. “I’m done.”
She kicked Bacchus into a canter and headed for the barn, fighting back the tears. She had handled all the lemons life had thrown at her and Lord knew there had been a few of them, but this, this was not something she could fail at. Not when she’d spent every waking moment since she was five working toward this day.
Pulling Bacchus to a halt in front of the groom who stood lounging against the stable door, she slid off and threw the reins at him with more force than she’d intended. He caught them with a lithe movement, pushing away from the door. Hands clenched at her sides, she spun on her heel and turned to leave.
“You don’t cool your horse down?”
The unfamiliar low, slightly accented drawl stopped her in her tracks. Spinning around, she took its owner in. The new groom she’d seen with Cliff earlier, presumably. She’d been so preoccupied she hadn’t paid any attention to him. She wondered now how that had been possible.
Tall, well over six feet, he was pure, packed muscle in the T-shirt and jeans he wore. Slowly, furiously, she slid her gaze up that impressive body and found the rest of him was equally jaw dropping. His black hair worn at a slightly rebellious length, days-old stubble lining a brutally handsome, square-cut jaw, his eyes the most sinfully dark ones she’d ever seen.
Her stomach flip flopped, a moment of sizzling hot, sexual chemistry arcing between them. She allowed herself to sink into it for a moment, to absorb the shimmer way down low, because it was something she hadn’t felt in a long, long time, if ever.
His blatant stare didn’t waver. Unnerved by the intensity of the connection, she sliced it dead. “You’re new,” she said icily, lifting her chin. “What’s your name?”
A dip of his head. “Colt Banyon, ma’am. At your service.”
She nodded. “I’m fairly sure then, Colt, Cliff will have explained the finer points of your job to you?”
“Why then, do you think it’s okay to question how I handle my horse?”
He lifted a shoulder. “It seems to me you were having some trouble out there today. In my experience, spending some bonding time with your mount can help with the trust factor.”
The pressure in her head threatened to explode through her skull. No one dared talk to her like that. She couldn’t believe his audacity.
She took a step closer, discovering just how big he was when she had to tip her head back to look up at him, his dangerously beautiful eyes a rich whiskey fire lighting an inky black canvas.
“And from which school of psychobabble does that come from?”
His sensual mouth curved. “My grandmother. She’s a magician with horses.”
The smile might have taken her breath away if the red haze creeping across her brain hadn’t taken complete hold of her now. “How about this, Colt?” she suggested, voice dripping with disdain. “The next time you or your grandmother achieves a top one hundred world cup ranking, you can tell me how to handle my horse. Until then, how about you keep your mouth shut and do your job?”
His beautiful eyes widened.
OMG. She winced inwardly. Had she really just said that?
Shocked at her loss of control, fighting desperately to find some, she clutched her fingers tight around her hat. “He’s recovering from torn ligaments on his rear hind leg,” she said, nodding toward Bacchus. “Keep an eye on it.”
Alejandro watched Cecily Hargrove flounce off, hat in hand, convinced the tiny blonde would be the thing that tested his control in this challenge Sebastien had issued him.
She’d been raising hell around the barn all morning. He was simply the latest in a long list of casualties.
Mucking out stalls, breaking his back caring for thirty horses, twelve hours a day would be child’s play compared to dealing with that piece of work, who had a mouth on her that would strip the paint off a car and an attitude to match.
Unfortunately, he conceded, studying her fine rear end in the tight-fitting grey breeches as she stalked away, she was also extraordinarily beautiful. Traffic stoppingly, outrageously beautiful. He would have had to have been fixed like half the horses in the barn not to have appreciated the delicate, heart-shaped face, remarkable blue eyes and honey blonde hair that gave her an almost angelic look. Highly deceptive, clearly.
Blowing out a breath, he gathered up Bacchus’ reins and took the beautiful bay gelding for a walk along the cobblestoned laneway to cool him off. To cool himself off.
It had been damn near impossible to swallow the comeback that had risen to his lips when Cecily Hargrove had thrown her world cup ranking at him. His grandmother had been top three in the world. She would have ridden circles around the superior Ms. Hargrove in her day. But exposing his true identity as a Salazar and rendering this challenge null and void wasn’t something he could do. Not when Antonio and Stavros had already successfully completed theirs.
Not when his private island in the BVI was up for grabs—one of the few places on earth he found peace.
He led a cooled-down Bacchus into the barn and rubbed him down with a cloth. The therapeutic work he’d always loved gave him a chance to process the last, bizarre, twenty-four hours of his life.
It had not surprised him when Sebastien’s jet had deposited him at the Louisville airport last night where he’d been instructed to report to the Hargrove’s legendary, hundred-acre horse farm just outside of the city. Nor to find in the rustic cabin he’d been allocated in the staff quarters a couple of pairs of jeans, some T-shirts and boots, as well as a small stack of cash and an ancient mobile phone. It was exactly the same picture that had greeted Antonio and Stavros upon their arrival at their challenges.
The cryptic note that had been left on top of the pile of clothes had been similar as well.
For the next two weeks, Alejandro Salazar does not exist. You are now Colt Banyon, talented, drifter groom. You will report to Cliff Taylor at the stables at six a.m. tomorrow morning where you will work for the next two weeks.
You will not break your cover under any circumstance. The only communication you may have with the outside world is with your fellow challenge takers on the phone provided.
Why this particular assignment for you? I know you have been searching for the time to provide your grandmother with the proof she desires to right a wrong long ago perpetrated. To restore the Salazar family honor. Your time as a groom will provide you with both the means and opportunity to do so. I hope it offers you the closure you are looking for.
I wish you luck. Don’t blow this Salazar. I’ve gone to a great deal of effort to provide you with an airtight identity. If you, Antonio and Stavros successfully complete your assignments, I will donate half of my fortune, as promised, to setting up a global search and rescue team. It will save many more lives.
Alejandro’s mouth twisted as he switched to Bacchus’ other side, toweling the sweat from the gelding’s dark coat. No doubt the idea of him breaking his back shoveling horse manure for two weeks with a name torn from the pages of a Hollywood script had provided an endless source of amusement for his mentor. But if Sebastien had been here, he would have told him this chance to provide his grandmother with the justice she was seeking would indeed provide him with the closure he’d been looking for. He should be thanking his mentor for the opportunity.
The feud between the Salazars and Hargroves had been going on for decades—ever since Quinton Hargrove had illegally bred his mare Demeter to his grandmother, Adriana Salazar’s, prize stallion Diablo while the horse had been on loan to an American breeder. The Hargroves had gone on to build an entire show jumping legacy around Diablo’s bloodline, one Adriana had never been able to match.
Heartbroken, his grandmother had been unable to attain proof as to what the Hargroves had done, watching as her fortunes plummeted and the Hargroves star had risen. Sebastien, in setting up the elaborate identity he had for him had put Alejandro in the perfect position to acquire that proof. Not only did he have the skills to carry out the subterfuge from summers and holidays spent on his grandmother’s Belgian horse farm, he had her touch with a horse.
He ran the towel down Bacchus’ hind end. Somehow, he acknowledged, relaxing into the therapeutic work, it seemed almost too simple, this assignment of his, given the emotionally complex challenges Antonio and Stavros had been handed.
Antonio had been sent undercover to work as a mechanic at a garage in Milan. No issue there given his skill with a wrench. Far more shocking had been the child the Greek billionaire had discovered, the product of an old love affair. Antonio was still grappling with the considerable fallout of that life-altering discovery.
Stavros had warily gone next, finding himself sent to Greece to pose as a pool boy at his old family villa, a place he had long given a wide berth. Purchased by new owners, the property still held the ghosts of Stavros’ childhood, the site of his father’s death in a boating accident in which Stavros had survived.
Which undoubtedly left Alejandro the winner in the challenge lottery. Collecting a DNA sample from Bacchus, Cecily Hargrove’s prize horse, to prove the Hargrove’s crime was as simple as saving a few mane hairs from a brush and sending them off to Stavros to analyze in one of his high-tech labs.
But maybe, he conceded, tossing the towel in a bucket and leading Bacchus back to his box, it was that simple. Sebastien had always known how much he’d ached to correct the history books for his grandmother. Maybe he was simply giving him the time to do it.
Which left his biggest challenge to find a way to steer clear of Ms. Cecily Hargrove’s razor-sharp mouth and perfect behind.
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