THE SOUNDS of a working stable had become as familiar to Luke Davis as the sound of his own breathing in the years since he had first begged a job mucking stalls, when he was barely tall enough to hold a rake. He had learned to judge the mood of the great beasts he worked with by the way they held their heads and twitched their ears, by the soft contented whickers or the agitated snorts, but in all his years of taking care of horses, he had never heard a sound quite like the screams coming from the stud barn. He hunched his shoulders, wishing he had brought his headphones with him, and tried to block out the spine-tingling screeching, but no amount of concentration could keep him from hearing it.
The stable owner, Mr. Hunter, had made an appearance that morning along with Mr. Bryant, the trainer usually left in charge of overseeing the stable. Luke had done his best to fade into the woodwork. Mr. Hunter rarely came around—this was only the third time Luke had seen him in the six months he’d been working at Bywater Farm—but the other stable hands all talked about his temper. Luke didn’t want to do anything that would endanger his job here. With the higher salary he was earning now, in another six months he could pay off the debts he’d incurred while caring for his mother and finally be free of the albatross around his neck. He hadn’t been able to resist trying to catch a glimpse of his elusive employer, though. Mr. Hunter only came to the stables when King of Hearts required attention. It was King’s screams that shattered the stillness of the mid-February morning.
The screams grew louder, followed by a huge crash, much shouting, and a door being thrown open. Luke jumped out of the way as King thundered down the breezeway, through the barn, and out into the paddock. Without a thought he rushed after the wayward stallion. Mr. Bryant had said on more than one occasion that Luke had a way with King. Even if he couldn’t do anything to help, he could make sure King wasn’t hurt.
King stood in the middle of the grassy paddock, with his head hanging nearly to the ground and defeat in every line of his posture. Luke’s heart broke to see the proud stallion that way. “King,” he called softly as he stepped inside the paddock and shut the gate behind him. He shivered against the cold, but at least there was no snow on the ground right now.
King lifted his head at the sound of his name, but he didn’t come closer like he usually did. Then again, Luke wasn’t offering an apple or a carrot like usual, so that probably explained the bay’s reticence. Luke might be good for a treat, but he wasn’t a trusted friend.
“What happened, King?” Luke took a step closer, his empty hand outstretched for the horse to sniff. “I’ve never heard you make a fuss like that.”
King whickered and shook his head, his black mane flying. Luke had seen pictures of him with his mane and tail braided for steeplechases, but in the time he’d been at Bywater Farm, no one had tried to dress King out for a race. Come to think of it, Luke didn’t think he’d seen anyone even try to put a saddle or bridle on King. They brushed him daily, turned him out in the paddock for exercise, and occasionally mounted him on a dummy mare to extract semen samples they could use for breeding, but no one ever rode him. Luke understood why, but his heart ached for the horse who had once been a champion and was now consigned to the stud barn and benign neglect.
Luke took another step closer, watching King’s reaction closely. He was rather well mannered for a stallion, but they’d intended to breed him with a live mare that morning. With King’s hormones raging—because that had not been the sound of a successful breeding—Luke had no way of knowing if those good manners would continue. King huffed again and stretched out so he could nose at Luke’s hand. “I know, I didn’t bring a carrot this time. I’m sorry, buddy. I have an apple in my lunch you can have if you want it.”
“That horse is a menace and should have been put down when he killed his rider! I want my money back.”
Luke flinched at the threat and moved closer to King’s side, as if his presence could protect the horse from any harm. He only knew the owner of the voice—one Mr. Hill—by reputation as one of the canniest horse breeders in the business, but he’d just made Luke’s list of Most Hated People.
“Get the hell off my farm,” Mr. Hunter replied as he followed Hill out of the barn. “No one comes on my property and threatens my horse.” He pulled a check out of his pocket and shredded it right there. “There’s your fucking money back.”
King nudged Luke’s back, so Luke turned away from the scene and returned his attention to King. If anyone asked, he was just doing his job, not pretending Mr. Hunter’s righteous fury hadn’t struck a chord in him. Maybe Mr. Hunter wasn’t around because he couldn’t be rather than because he didn’t care anymore.
Hill continued to spew threats all the way to his car, but Luke didn’t look back over at them. Mr. Hunter was handsome enough on TV or at a distance, all polished up for a race. Up close, he was even better-looking, despite the anger distorting his patrician features. Luke might have felt differently if that anger was directed at him, but since he wholeheartedly approved of its target, it only added to the attraction singing along Luke’s nerves. It wouldn’t do him any good, of course. Clay Hunter was as rich as Croesus and as blue-blooded as the queen. He’d never look twice at a poor stable boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
“You, boy!” The imperious tone of Mr. Hunter’s voice raised Luke’s hackles, but he kept his face impassive as he turned around to face his employer.
“What’s your name?”
“How long have you worked here, Luke?”
“Six months, sir,” Luke replied.
“Don’t you know that horse is dangerous?”
Luke shook his head and patted King’s withers. “No, sir. He’s not. He’s just lonely. I’ve agreed to bring him carrots and apples, and he’s agreed not to bite or kick me. I think it’s a fair trade.”
Mr. Hunter studied him intently for so long that Luke began to worry for the security of his job, but at his side, King lowered his head and tore a mouthful of winter-withered grass, all the tension that had invested his body when Luke first came out of the barn gone now. Whatever Mr. Hunter had been looking for, he’d evidently seen enough, because he spun on his heel and marched back into the barn, freeing Luke from his piercing gaze.
“Joe!” Mr. Hunter shouted.
Luke dismissed him from his mind and gave King one final pat. “I’d better get back to work. I’ll muck your stall while you’re out here, and I’ll bring you that apple when I get a break for lunch.”
Luke headed back to the stud barn, making sure to latch the gate completely behind him. He didn’t want to be the one responsible for a horse getting loose. He gathered a wheelbarrow, rake, and pitchfork to muck King’s stall and started toward the end of the barn.
“Ah, there you are, Luke.” Mr. Bryant came out of the stable office as Luke passed by. “I have some news for you.”
“How many times have I told you to call me Joe?”
Luke had lost count, but Joe Bryant was old enough to be his grandfather and had an air about him that commanded Luke’s respect. “I’m sorry, Joe. I’ll try to remember.”
“See that you do, because we’re about to be working together more. You just got a promotion.”
“A promotion?” Luke repeated.
“That’s right. As of five minutes ago, you are officially King’s groom. Your days spent doing nothing but mucking stalls are over.”
Luke’s ears rang a bit as he fought the light-headedness that followed the announcement. “I’m not sure what that means. I mean, I know I’ll have to care for him, but that’s hardly a full-time job. I can brush him in the morning and evening, feed him, turn him out, and still have time left over. I’m grateful, of course, but I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would, having only been here for the past six months,” Mr. Bryant replied. “What do you know about King’s history?”
“Just what I saw on TV,” Luke said. “You can’t work in this industry and not have seen that race.”
Mr. Bryant sighed. “The Grand National. The steeplechase to end all steeplechases, at least in England. They were the favorites to win that year. The great Nick Morris, the best steeplechase rider of our era, atop King of Hearts, the fastest, most reliable horse we’d seen in years. And best of all, they understood each other. Nick knew exactly what King was capable of, and King trusted him implicitly. If Nick pointed him at a jump, King took it. It was a match made in steeplechase heaven. And then Nick fell.”
Luke had watched the race with the same anticipation Mr. Bryant described. That anticipation had turned to horror when Morris, in the lead, had lost his seat. King had tried to come back to where he fell, to protect him, but the rush of horses over the jump right behind him had been more than he could fight. The only consolation for the family left behind had been the news that the fall had broken Morris’s neck and killed him instantly. He hadn’t felt the hooves that pounded his body to mush. King, though, hadn’t been the same since.
“But what does that have to do with me?” Luke asked, forcing his thoughts away from the memory.
“Since that day, King has let exactly two people in close proximity without going wild—Clay and me. Until today, that is. Clay tells me you were in the paddock with him and even turned your back on him, and he did nothing.”
“I’m not some horse whisperer,” Luke protested, afraid of where this was going. “I just treat him like I treat all the other horses.”
“Whatever you are or are not doesn’t matter,” Mr. Bryant said. “What matters is that King trusts you. He tolerates Clay and me, but we knew Nick. His feelings about us are all tied up in that day and that loss. You’re different. You don’t have anything to do with what happened before.”
“I’ll take care of him. I don’t mind that part,” Luke said. “I just get the feeling there’s more to it than making sure he’s brushed and fed.”
“Clay wants to breed him, but you heard how well that went today. He thinks King’s reaction to you will make that easier. You’ll be with him in the breeding pen to keep him calm and to get him out of there if things go sideways again.”
“I don’t know anything about breeding a horse,” Luke protested.
“I didn’t say you’d be in charge,” Mr. Bryant said with an indulgent chuckle. “I’m still the trainer at Bywater Farm. But you settle him. You’ll be there to hold his head as needed, to keep him calm, to walk him through the process. And, most importantly, to take care of him before and after so his trust in you keeps growing.”
“I’ll do my best,” Luke assured him. “Um, will Mr. Hunter be around?”
“Don’t set your cap in that direction, my boy,” Mr. Bryant said. “The only one hurt worse by Nick’s death than King was Clay. King might be ready for a new life as a stud, but Clay’s still lost in his grief.”
“I wasn’t,” Luke said, too quickly to judge by the skepticism on Mr. Bryant’s face. “It’s just… he makes me nervous, and if I’m nervous, King’s more likely to be nervous. I don’t want to be the reason things go wrong. I like working here.” He needed to work here.
“I can’t make him stay away,” Mr. Bryant said. “King is his horse. Just focus on doing your job. The rest will take care of itself.”
If only that were as reassuring as Mr. Bryant meant it to be.