Irish rebel, p.3
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       Irish Rebel, p.3
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         Part #3 of Irish Hearts series by Nora Roberts

  Dawn at the shedrow was one of the magic times, when fog was eating its way along the ground and the light was a paler, purer gray. Music was in the jingle of harness, the dull thud of boot and hoof as grooms, handlers and horses went about their business. The perfume was horses, hay and summer.

  Trailers had already been loaded, Brian imagined, and the horses picked by the man Grant had left in charge already gone to track for their workout or preparation for today's race. But here on the farm there was other work to be done.

  Sprains to be checked, medication to be given, stalls to be mucked. Exercise boys would take mounts to the oval for a workout, or to pony them around. He imagined Royal Meadows had someone to act as docker and mark the time.

  He saw nothing that indicated anything other than first-class here. There was a certain tidiness not all owners insisted upon—or would pay for. Stables, barns, sheds, all were neatly painted, rich, glossy white with dark green trim. Fences were white too, and in perfect repair. Paddocks and pastures were all as neat as a company parlor.

  There was atmosphere as well. It was a clever man, or a rich one, who could afford it. Trees in full leaf dotted the hillside pastures. Brian spotted one, a big beauty of an oak, that rose from the center of a paddock and was fenced around in white wood. In the center grass of the brown oval was a colorful lake of flowers and shrubs. Back away, curving between stables and track, were trim green hedges.

  He approved of such touches, for the horses. And for the men. Both worked with more enthusiasm in attractive surroundings in his experience. He imagined the Grants had glossy photos of their pretty farm published in fancy magazines.

  Of the house as well, he mused, for that had been an impressive sight. Though it had still been more night than day when he'd driven past it, he'd seen the elegant shape of the stone house with its juts of balconies and ornamental iron. Fine big windows, he thought now, for standing and looking out at a kingdom.

  There'd been a second structure, a kind of miniature replica of the main house that had nestled atop a large garage. He'd seen the shapes and silhouettes of flowers and shrubberies there as well. And the big, shady trees.

  But it was the horses that interested him. How they were housed, how they were handled. The shedrow—should he be offered this job and take it—would be his business. The owner was simply the owner.

  "You'll want a look in the stables," Travis said, leading Brian toward the doors. "Paddy'll be along shortly. Between us we should be able to answer any questions you might have."

  He got answers just from looking, from seeing, Brian mused. Inside was as tidy as out, with the sloped concrete floors scrubbed down, the doors of the box stalls of strong and sturdy wood each boasting a discreet brass plaque engraved with its tenant's name. Already stableboys were pitching out soiled hay into barrows or pitching in fresh. The scent of grain, liniment and horse was strong and sweet.

  Travis stopped by a stall where a young woman carefully wrapped the foreleg of a bay. "How's she doing, Linda?"

  "Coming along. She'll be out causing trouble again in a day or two."

  "Sprain?" Brian stepped into the box to run his hands over the yearling's legs and chest. Linda flicked a glance up at him, then over at Travis, who nodded.

  "This is Bad Betty," Linda told Brian. "She likes to incite riots. She's got a mild sprain, but it won't hold her back for long."

  "Troublemaker, are you?" Brian put his hands on either side of Betty's head, looked her in the eye. A quick, hot thrill raced through him at what he saw.

  What he sensed. Here, he thought, was magic, ready to spring if only you could find the right incantation.

  "It happens I like troublemakers," he murmured.

  "She'll nip," Linda warned. "Especially if you turn your back on her."

  "You don't want a bite of me, do you, darling?"

  As if in challenge, Betty laid her ears back, and Brian grinned at her. "We'll get along, as long as I remember you're the boss." When he ran his fingertips down her neck, back again, she snorted at him. "You're too pretty for your own good."

  He murmured to her, shifting without thought to Gaelic as Linda finished the bandage. Betty's ears pricked back up, and she watched him now with more interest than malice.

  "She wants to run." Brian stepped back, scanning the filly's form. "Born for it. And more, born to win."

  "One look tells you that?" Travis asked.

  "It's in the eyes. You won't want to breed this one when she comes into season, Mr. Grant. She needs to fly first."

  Deliberately he turned his back, and as Betty lifted her head, he glanced back over his shoulder. "I don't think so," he said quietly. They eyed each other another moment, then Betty tossed her head in the equine equivalent of a shrug.

  Amused, Travis moved aside to let Brian out of the box. "She terrorizes the stableboys."

  "Because she can, and is likely smarter than half of them." He gestured to the opposite box. "And who's this handsome old man here?"

  "That's Prince, out of Majesty."

  "Royal Meadow's Majesty?" There was reverence in Brian's voice as he crossed over. "And his Prince. You had your day, didn't you, sir?" Gently Brian stroked a hand down the dignified nose of the aged chestnut. "Like your sire. I saw him race, Mr. Grant, at the Curragh, when I was a lad, a stableboy. I'd never seen his like before, nor since for that matter. I worked with one of the stallions this one sired. He didn't embarrass his breeding."

  "Yes, I know."

  Travis showed him through the tack room, the breeding shed and birthing stalls, past a paddock where a yearling was going through his paces on a longe line, and then to the oval where a handsome stallion was being ponied around in the company of a well-behaved gelding.

  A wiry little man with a blue cap over a white fringe of hair turned as they approached. He had a stopwatch dangling from his pocket and a merry grin on his weathered leprechaun's face.

  "So you've had your tour then, have you? And what do you think of our little place here?"

  "It's a lovely farm." Brian extended a hand. "I'm pleased to meet you again, Mr. Cunnane."

  "Likewise, young Brian from Kerry." Paddy gave Brian's hand a firm shake. "I told them to hold Zeus until you got here, Travis. I thought you and the lad would like a look at his morning run."

  "King Zeus, out of Prince," Travis explained. "He's running well for us."

  "He took your Belmont Stakes last year," Brian remembered.

  "That's right. Zeus likes a long run. Burke's colt snatched the Derby from him, but Zeus came back for the Breeder's Cup. He's a strong competitor, and he'll sire champions."

  At Paddy's signal, an exercise boy trotted over mounted on a magnificent chestnut. The horse gleamed dark red in the strengthening sun, with a blaze like a lightning bolt down the center of his forehead. He pranced, sidestepping, head tossing.

  Brian knew, at one glance, he was looking at poetry.

  "What do you think of him?" Paddy asked.

  "Beautiful form" was all Brian said.

  Twelve hundred pounds of muscle atop impossibly long and graceful legs. A wide chest, sleek body, proud head. And eyes, Brian saw, that glinted with ferocious pride.

  "Take him around, Bobbie," Paddy ordered. "Don't rate him. We'll let him show off a bit this morning." Whistling between his teeth, Paddy leaned on the fence, pulled out the stopwatch.

  With his thumbs hooked in his pockets, Brian watched Zeus trot back onto the track, prance in place until the boy controlled him. Then the rider rose up in the stirrups, leaned over that long, powerful neck. Zeus shot forward, a bright arrow from a plucked bow. Those long legs lifted, stretched, fell, flew, shooting out clumps of dirt like bullets as he rounded the first curve.

  The air roared with the thunder.

  Inside Brian's chest, his heart beat the same way, at a hard and joyful gallop. The boy's hat flew off as they turned into the backstretch. When they streaked by, Paddy gave a grunt and flicked his timer.
r />   "Not bad," Paddy said dryly and held out the watch.

  Brian didn't need to see it. He had a clock in his head, and he knew he'd just watched a champion.

  "I think I've seen the like of your Prince at last, Mr. Grant."

  "And he knows it."

  "You want your hands on that one, boy?" Paddy asked him.

  There was a time, Brian thought, to hold your cards close, and a time to lay them out. "I do, yes." Struggling not to dance with eagerness, he turned to Travis again. "If the job's being offered, Mr. Grant, I'll take it."

  Travis inclined his head, extended a hand. "Welcome to Royal Meadows. Let's go get some coffee."

  Brian simply stared as Travis walked off. "Just like that?" he murmured.

  "He'd already made up his mind," Paddy said, "or you wouldn't be here in the first place. Travis doesn't waste time—his or anyone else's. After you're done with your coffee and such, come over to my place—above the garage. You'll want a look at the condition book, and have a little conversation."

  "Yes, I will. Thanks." A bit dazed, Brian headed off after Travis.

  He caught up, surprised, and a little embarrassed, to find his palms were sweaty. A job was only a job, he reminded himself. "I'm grateful for the opportunity, Mr. Grant."

  "Travis. You'll work for it. We have high standards at Royal Meadows. I expect you to meet them. I'd like you to start as soon as possible."

  "I'll start today."

  Travis glanced over. "Good."

  Scanning the area, Brian gestured toward another small building, with the paddock set up with jumps. "Do you train jumpers, show horses, as well?''

  "That's a separate enterprise." Travis smiled slightly. "You'll work the racehorses. You can move your things into the trainer's quarters when you're ready." Travis flicked a glance toward the garage house.

  Brian opened his mouth—then shut it again. He hadn't expected housing to be part of the package, but wasn't about to argue it away. If it didn't suit him, they'd deal with it later.

  "You have a beautiful home. Someone likes their flowers."

  "My wife." Travis turned onto a slate path. "She's particularly fond of flowers."

  And Brian imagined they had a staff of gardeners, landscapers, whatever it was, to deal with them. "The horses appreciate a pretty setting."

  Travis stepped onto a patio, turned. "Do they?''

  "They do."

  "Did Betty tell you that when you were speaking to her?"

  Brian met Travis's amused eyes levelly. "She indicated she was a queen and expected to be treated as such."

  "And will you?"

  "I will, until she abuses the privilege. Even royalty needs a bit of a yank now and again."

  So saying, he stepped through the door Travis held open.

  Brian didn't know what he'd been expecting. Something sleek and sophisticated. Something grand, certainly.

  He hadn't been expecting to walk into the Grants' kitchen, nor to find it big and cluttered and despite the gleam of snazzy appliances and fancy tiles, homey.

  Certainly the last thing he'd expected was to see the lady of the manor herself in an old pair of jeans, bare feet and a faded T-shirt standing at the stove with a skillet while she rang a peal over the head of her youngest son.

  "And I'll tell you another thing, Patrick Michael Thomas Cunnane, if you think you can come and go at all hours as you damn please just because you're going off to college, you'd best get that thick head of yours examined in a hurry. I'll be happy to do it myself, with the skillet I have in my hand, just as soon as I'm done with it."

  "Yes, ma'am." At the table Patrick sat with his shoulders hunched, wincing at his mother's back. "But since you're using it, maybe I could have some more French toast. Nobody makes it like you do."

  "You won't get around me that way."

  "Maybe I will."

  She shot a look over her shoulder that Brian recognized as one only a mother could conjure to wither a child.

  "And maybe I won't," Patrick muttered, then brightened when he saw Brian at the door. "Ma, we've got company. Have a seat, Brian. Had breakfast? My mother makes world-famous French toast."

  "Witnesses won't save you," Adelia said mildly, but turned to smile at Brian. "Come in and sit. Patrick, get Brian and your father plates."

  "No, thank you. There's no need to trouble."

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