In the small town of Taylor’s Bend, some secrets are about to ignite…
When Taylor’s Bend vet Oliver Johnson attends a car accident involving a horse float from a nearby stud farm he’s not prepared for an encounter with Krista Laatonen, the billionaire owner’s stepdaughter. Beautiful, prickly, and entitled, she is everything he despises about the world he left behind all those years ago. But he can’t neglect an injured animal, and there is something about Krista he can’t ignore.
Oliver soon discovers that first impressions can be misleading-the accident was not as it seemed, and there might just be more to Krista than he expected.
When two thugs arrive on Oliver’s doorstep claiming the horse from the accident belongs to their boss, Oliver and Krista are thrown into the middle of a dangerous game of deception and greed. As the threats around them escalate into blood spilled, choking fire, and a violent abduction, Oliver must decide if Krista’s ice-queen mask hides a woman worth risking his life-and his heart-for.
The white four-wheel drive towing one of The Grange Stud horse floats roared down the main street of Taylor’s Bend as though the road was empty of pedestrians, traffic and a tractor trundling along with hay baler attached.
Local veterinarian, Oliver Johnson, waiting to cross the road, stared after it in disbelief. ‘Who drives like that with a horse in the back?’ he said to the farmer standing beside him.
‘Littlejohns,’ came the reply. ‘Mad bloody bunch. Too much money and half a brain cell between the lot of them to go with it. The stable manager knows what he’s doing but that young idiot who’s supposed to be in charge. Boss’s son …’ He spat into the gutter. ‘Couldn’t manage his way out of a haystack. They only have a couple of nags there anyway so God knows why they call it a stud.’
‘Yep. Still, the horses aren’t to blame. I’d better get going. Sick cow to see.’ Oliver hurried across to his car and headed out of town for the next appointment, but he’d only just reached the farm gate when his mobile shrilled. Margie, his receptionist.
‘The police called. There’s been an accident involving one of The Grange horse floats. It’s gone into the ditch just round the bend after Victoria Road. One horse trapped on board and panicking.’
‘Okay, I’m on way. I’m not going to get to that cow today and you’d better cancel surgery, I’ve no idea how long I’ll be.’ And hadn’t that driver and horse float been an accident waiting to happen?
Margie lowered her voice. ‘Beryl’s just arrived with her dog.’
He stifled the groan. ‘She’ll have to come back tomorrow.’
According to Margie, Beryl had a crush on him the size of a house and he believed her now, after Beryl’s fifth visit dragging a hale and hearty poodle along for unnecessary check-ups and a total disregard for surgery hours. Margie thought it was funny, he thought it was excruciatingly embarrassing, not to mention a waste of time.
‘Thanks.’ Oliver turned onto the road leading back to town. The Grange never called him out, being closer to the Jindalee practice, but this was a no-brainer because he’d be there in five minutes and the other vet was thirty-five minutes away. He wasn’t about to let a horse suffer.
Witches hats marked the accident site and both police cruisers had lights flashing.
The Range Rover had come to rest nose down and canted to the side. Miraculously, the horse float stayed attached, teetering but upright. One occupant by the sound of it, who wasn’t happy and vented its fear and fury by kicking and banging against the walls. The float would be on its side in the ditch along with the driver if they couldn’t get the horse out. As Oliver got out of the car, the thrashing of hooves and panicky, distressed snorting coming from the float made him quicken his pace.
A young, dark-haired man sat in the rear of one of the cruisers, head back against the seat, eyes closed. He didn’t stir when Oliver strode by. The young idiot in charge of The Grange?
The small door at the front of the float was open. Police Constable Shannon’s voice came from inside, trying to calm the horse. The Senior Constable, Rupe, was examining the connection between the vehicle and the float. The towbar was bent where they joined and the angle of the four-wheel drive meant it wouldn’t be easy to disengage. There was just enough room to open the ramp for the horse to back out safely onto the road. Each time the animal shifted the float tilted and wobbled, perilously close to the ditch.
‘G’day, Ollie.’ Rupe heaved a deep sigh. ‘This is a bugger of a thing. Can you sedate that horse? I’m worried he’ll have the whole thing over.’
‘G’day. Can we open the ramp?’
‘Yeah, I reckon we can try now you’re here. I didn’t fancy it with just two of us. The horse is pretty big.’
‘What about him?’ Oliver jerked a thumb in the direction of Rupe’s car.
‘Useless. He’s in shock and he’s done something to his wrist, sprained it I reckon.’
Oliver climbed in beside Shannon, who squeezed out through the narrow door. The horse was a big chestnut thoroughbred, built for speed; but now the body quivered, eyes wide with fear, nostrils flaring, and the glossy coat had a sheen of sweat. When Oliver straightened in front of him he backed away, snorting, pulling hard on the tether rope. The float shifted alarmingly. He squealed and plunged forward, crashing into the divider and rearing up. One hoof struck the padded metal front of the stall close to the top, making Oliver duck away in case he got a foreleg over.
‘Sshh, shhh, shhh. Calm down boy. Calm down.’ Oliver murmured a string of soothing words as he did a quick assessment. A mare. The shaking horse had scrapes on her shoulder, a cut over the right eye dripping blood and some torn skin on both back legs, probably from the initial crash, but otherwise seemed okay thanks to the thick padding lining the lower part of the walls. The big mare’s main problem was blind panic and every time she moved, the float moved, which frightened her more.
Outside, he joined Shannon and Rupe at the back of the float.
‘I reckon we can open it,’ Shannon said. ‘We can’t leave him in there.’
‘She’s a mare. It’s touch-and-go with just three of us,’ said Oliver. ‘Have you called The Grange?’
‘Yeah. Someone’s on their way but they’ll be thirty minutes at least.’
A ute pulled up. The driver stuck his head out. ‘Need a hand?’ Rupe’s neighbour and vineyard owner.
‘G’day, Tim. How are you with horses?’
‘Won’t know till I try.’ He moved the ute off the road and walked back.
‘Okay, if you get in with the horse, Shannon, and untie her, we’ll get the back open and steady her as she comes out,’ said Oliver. ‘Let’s go.’
The horse snorted and fidgeted as the ramp came down and she sensed freedom, but when Shannon untied the rope and eased her backwards she came docilely down, stepping delicately until she reached the ground. She tossed her head up and down and snorted loudly, looking about with ears pricked although her body still shook with nervous energy.
‘Good girl, good girl.’ Oliver ran a hand down the sleek neck. He continued his examination. The cut over the eye was superficial and he could clean and patch it up here.
‘She’s beautiful,’ Shannon said.
‘Walk her over on to the grass.’ Oliver watched critically as the horse crossed the road. She walked normally, no sign of injury to her legs beyond the superficial abrasions but a bang could lead to swelling later. When Shannon stopped, she bent her head and began plucking mouthfuls of the long, dry grass on the wide verge.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said Tim. ‘See you two tomorrow.’
‘Yep, should do unless someone’s goat gets sick.’ The weekly tennis mixed doubles—hard fought matches they all enjoyed. He really didn’t want to have to call in a sub again.
He’d missed two sessions since they started after Christmas.
‘I’ll be there,’ said Shannon.
Thanks, mate,’ Rupe said, and Oliver lifted a hand in farewell.
Oliver opened his bag, unpacked what he needed and began attending to the cut. ‘Bring her head up, Shannon, please, and hold her steady.’
The ambulance passed Tim’s ute as he eased onto the road heading out of town, and pulled up next to the police cruiser. The paramedic jumped out and chatted to Rupe for a minute before leaning into the car to talk to the injured driver.
Moments later a white BMW convertible with the top up pulled over and came to a halt. The horse jerked her head away and sidled sideways, causing Shannon to take a few hasty steps. Oliver grasped the lead rope as well in case the horse broke free. She’d have no trouble pulling Shannon off her feet if she bolted.
‘Another bloody genius from that place,’ she muttered. ‘That’s the daughter. She’s hardly ever here, most likely too busy jetsetting around the world.’
A tall woman with hair the colour of bleached straw slammed the car door and marched towards them.
‘What’s happened? What are you doing with my horse?’ Her accent was slight but evident in the rounded vowels and precise enunciation. Sunglasses obscured most of her face and she had an asymmetrical hair style where one side was longer than the other, even though the whole effect was short.
Leaving the horse in Oliver’s care, Shannon, stocky and dark-haired, walked to meet the fair woman. They came from different worlds, hard-nosed Shannon in the blue police uniform, and the elegant blonde in her rural version of designer faded blue jeans with those stupid ripped knees and sleeveless shirt, which never suffered from a speck of dirt or a crease and would have cost ten times what any of the Taylor’s Bend women paid for theirs.
‘Constable Shannon Chu.’ Her voice would cut steel. ‘Could I have your name please, ma’am?’
‘Krista Laatonen. I own this horse.’ She pushed the sunglasses up and took a couple of steps towards the horse, hand outstretched, but it tossed its head and snorted, backing away.
‘Do you have proof of that?’
Oliver calmed the horse, hiding a smile at Shannon’s deliberately blank expression, guaranteed to infuriate this blonde fury even more. Laatonen? Sounded Finnish. Explained the fineness of the white hair and the smooth, pale skin, not to mention the Arctic blue eyes.
‘I’m from The Grange. Hugh Littlejohn is my stepfather and this is my horse. Ask him if you don’t believe me.’
‘We may do that. Your brother Angus, over there, was speeding and drove into the ditch. We’ve just freed your horse from the float. It was panicking and in danger of injuring itself. This is Oliver Johnson, the vet.’
‘Angus is my stepbrother.’ The icy pair of eyes coated Oliver with disdain. ‘We have our own vet. Thank you.’ Her tone altered to unexpected concern as she peered at the bloody cut over the horse’s eye.
‘Is she badly injured? What about her eye? Isn’t that a lot of blood?’
‘Minor skin abrasions on the head can bleed a lot, same as people. Her eye isn’t damaged but I’ll need to examine her more thoroughly.’ Wonder if that bloke liked being thought of as ‘their’ vet. Oliver wouldn’t.
Rupe strolled over.
‘Senior Constable Perry,’ he said.
‘This is Krista Laatonen from The Grange,’ said Shannon. ‘Says she owns the horse.’
‘I do own the horse. Her name is Calypso Secret.’ She bit the words off and spat them towards Shannon. ‘I was just informing your constable that we have our own vet and you should have called us first.’
‘We are aware of that. We called The Grange but the Jindalee vet is at least half an hour away and your horse might have needed a sedative before we could safely get her out,’ Rupe said.
‘You sedated my horse? Without permission? How dare you?’ She swung the icepicks back to Oliver. His jaw tightened. How dare she talk to him as though he were some unqualified upstart? ‘Who did you speak to at The Grange?’
‘Mrs Littlejohn,’ said Rupe. ‘She told us to do what was necessary and she’d send someone. Didn’t she inform you?’
‘Your horse didn’t need sedation. She calmed down quickly when she knew we were getting her out,’ Oliver said. ‘I was called by Senior Constable Perry for assistance. If she had needed it I would have made a professional decision in the best interest of the animal.’ He couldn’t resist adding, ‘Something you might take up with your stepbrother over there.’
For the first time she glanced across to where the paramedic was assisting the driver to climb into the back of the ambulance.
‘Is he all right?’ It had a grudging sound to it. Not a loving relationship then. Not surprising given the lack of communication between them. She’d been more worried about the horse. So had he.
‘He has mild shock, a possible cracked rib and a sprained wrist. Might be broken,’ said Rupe.
‘Was he drunk?’ As though she expected he would be in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
‘Not over the limit but he did register positive for alcohol.’
She breathed in hard, lips tight, but said nothing. One manicured hand gracefully swatted a fly from her face. Pink-tipped fingernails and perfect make-up straight out of a cosmetics ad.
‘We have to get this car and float off the road. As it’s your property, do you want to take care of it, Ms Laatonen?’ asked Rupe briskly.
Oliver bit his lip to stop the laugh escaping.
‘Or should I call the tow truck?’ Rupe finished after the silence indicated she wasn’t replying yes.
‘One moment, please.’ Mobile phone in hand, she turned away and spoke rapidly, furiously, to someone.
‘Mad as a frog in a sock,’ murmured Shannon.
The imperious voice cut in. ‘Call the tow truck, please. Have them take both vehicles to the local garage.’
‘The Range Rover might be drivable,’ said Shannon.
‘Not by me.’ Her perfectly sculpted lip curled. ‘Angus can handle it.’
‘What about Calypso Secret?’ asked Oliver while Shannon called the local garage.
‘There’s no float available to pick her up right now. Do you have a stable or a yard at your practice where I can leave her?’
‘She needs more attention. I need to check for other injuries.’
‘Can you do that?’
‘Are you asking me if I’m qualified to treat your animal?’
‘I’m asking will you. I can pay you whatever you want.’
Not quite what he’d asked her. Oliver met Rupe’s eye briefly. He’d be thinking exactly the same thing. She figured money would buy her anything and it probably did. Except manners.
‘If it wasn’t for the fact your horse needs treatment I’d say no, given your assessment of my professional ability.’
A slight rose-pink flush tinged her cheeks. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to doubt your ability. I’m worried about Calypso. I’d hate her to be in pain.’
He let that one pass. If that was worry, insulting the vet was an odd way of expressing it. He’d hate to see unconcern. Come to think of it he had—towards her stepbrother. To be fair, underneath the spikes she did seem genuinely to care for the horse’s wellbeing. ‘My practice is about two kilometres from here. You’ll have to walk her rather than ride. Head into town, turn right at the first intersection and follow Victoria Road. You’ll see the sign. Shouldn’t take too long. Try to keep her on the soft verge and take her quietly.’
After a moment of stunned silence, she said, ‘What about my car?’
‘Isn’t someone coming from The Grange?’
‘No, not now I’m here.’
‘You can walk back.’
She looked around as though a minion might appear and offer to take the horse for her. When none did, she looked at her feet clad in red strappy high-heeled sandals. ‘I can’t walk that far in these.’
‘I’ve got gumboots in the boot,’ said Oliver. ‘You can borrow those.’
The cool ice eyes held his gaze for a long, stunning moment. Something choked the breath in his throat, blood roared in his veins, a force crackled between them. Desperate lungs dragged in air.
Rupe and Shannon had drifted away to study the crash site and move along the trickle of cars dawdling by and stopping to chat or ask questions. Everyone would know the news by now and everyone’s opinion of the goings-on at The Grange would be reconfirmed.
She repositioned the sunglasses on her nose.
‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll manage.’
‘Up to you,’ said Oliver. ‘Take my phone number and give me yours in case you have trouble.’
She handed him her phone and he sent himself a text. ‘Turn this off so it doesn’t frighten her. She’ll be a bit jumpy. A sudden noise might upset her.’
She stalked over to her car, leaned inside and pulled out a red leather bag, which she slung over a shoulder. She touched something and the roof came up, then she locked the doors with a touch on the door handle.
Fun car but impractical for a vet even if he could spare a year’s pay to buy one. Stuey wouldn’t have the electronic equipment to service something European and upmarket like that anyway. The simpler the better when you were out in the country.
Oliver returned his attention to his patient, ignoring Ms Laatonen when she walked back to join him, although every nerve ending tingled and the hand holding the lead rope turned clammy. Stuey arrived in his tow truck. Calypso had calmed down enough now that she wasn’t startled by the engine or the screech of the brakes.
‘Is she usually good in traffic?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then you should be okay. It’s about six-hundred metres to the turn-off and my road’s quiet. Watch she doesn’t tread on your foot. Don’t want a broken toe.’
She didn’t seem to know much about the horse she was so adamant was hers but she should be fine and he’d jog back to meet her once he’d driven home, just in case. Might chuck in a pair of thongs for her because her feet would be crippling her after a few minutes on that terrain. Not telling her that, though. She deserved to suffer a little. Might make her think.
‘All the roads around here are quiet. Damn these flies!’ She flapped ineffectually at one crawling over her cheek. ‘I’d better talk to that tow truck man.’
‘His name’s Stuey and he owns the local garage.’
‘Right.’ She strode away.
Oliver stroked Calypso’s neck and the horse stopped grazing and rubbed her head against his chest. ‘Good girl. You walk along quietly and I’ll see you later, okay? I’ll get you all fixed up and feeling better.’
‘She likes you.’ Her voice surprised him. Must have been a quick chat. Most likely one-sided. Her side. Orders didn’t take long to give.
‘I like her. How old is she?’
‘Six.’ She took the rope Oliver handed her and patted the silky nose. Calypso resumed eating. ‘Come on.’ She pulled at the rope and started walking, the horse following obediently behind and her high heels tangling in the dry grass and weeds.
Oliver grinned as Shannon joined him.
‘She’s in for a nice walk,’ she said with an answering smile.
‘I’ll take the car home then go back and meet her. Don’t want another disaster.’
‘Softie. See ya, Ollie.’
‘It’s the horse I care about,’ he called at her retreating back.
‘Ha, ha, ha, sure,’ floated over her shoulder. ‘And I’m Cleopatra.’
Krista took her sandals off when that vet had passed her on his way home. She wasn’t giving him the satisfaction of seeing her struggle in the rough grass on the roadside. Luckily, the thickness made the ground soft underfoot so walking barefoot was marginally better as long as she avoided the prickly looking weeds, and the stones and other hidden sharp objects like sticks.
So much for the pedicure she’d had yesterday.
Something squished under her toes but she didn’t dare look.
Damn Angus. If he hadn’t been carted off in that ambulance she’d have punched him. She’d almost told that cop to arrest him for horse stealing. He knew Calypso was her horse, a twenty-fifth birthday gift from her stepfather, given to her in typical lavish fashion just after he bought The Grange. Angus could ride any of the other horses he wanted so why did he insist on taking hers? And where was he going? Why was he racing along at breakneck speed? Was it because he knew she was arriving this afternoon and thought he’d get away with something? Unlucky for him she’d left Melbourne earlier than she’d planned. Lucky for her she’d taken this route on the way to The Grange and caught him in the act, instead of taking the other turn-off. The underhanded sneaky bastard.
Pity she hadn’t packed better walking shoes but she hadn’t intended to go hiking along the roadside. She’d packed for the weekend celebration which, apart from lazing by the pool, involved talking, drinking and eating. Plenty of drinking given the company she’d be forced to keep and the state her mother would be in, in the lead up.
Lucky the vet hadn’t suggested she ride Calypso, that would have added another layer of humiliation. The cheek of that man offering her his gumboots. Laughing at her. They all were. Country yokels. Good looking, though. Especially that cop, Senior Constable someone. Shame he wore a wedding ring.
The vet … well … good body, strong … sandy hair wasn’t really her thing but he had a look about him … clear blue eyes, like hers, but his were … calm, kind. Her apology for snapping had been genuine even though he didn’t think so by his expression. She’d offended him and for some reason that upset her. Not a lot. Upset was too strong. Unsettled her was more like it. She wanted him to like her but he didn’t, he liked Calypso more. Why did she care?
Too bad. She’d pay whatever was owing for looking after Calypso tonight and bandaging her cuts, and she’d bill Angus herself. Hugh would be livid. Crashing a Grange car, damaging a float, involving the cops, injuring the horse, all in time for the fifteenth wedding anniversary extravaganza.
She smiled. That was something to look forward to, Angus being told off by his father. The anniversary, well … that was something to be endured. The best that could be said for Hugh was he was a generous host and provided top-notch booze and food. She’d be ready for a stiff drink after this experience.
It was hotter than she thought, should’ve taken her hat out of the car and brought her water bottle. She hadn’t been thinking straight. Not with that man watching her with dislike in his eyes. She was parched already. Two kilometres was nothing, a short stroll, but in these conditions? Sweat trickled down between her breasts and her armpits were uncomfortably sticky. Her deodorant would be getting a work-out. The pool at The Grange beckoned. A swim, and after that a cool drink involving gin and ice.
Nearly ten minutes later she reached the turn into Victoria Road. Slow going with sore feet, hordes of annoying flies and a horse who wanted to dawdle and yank at mouthfuls of grass. Twice she’d stopped to remove prickles from her soles and she’d stubbed her toe hard against a hidden chunk of broken concrete skirting around a culvert. One car had passed coming from the town, the old boy behind the wheel slowing to ask if she was okay, love. Which she was. No doubt he’d stop around the corner and get the full story from those two cops.
Ahead on the right a couple of weatherboard houses in various stages of disrepair faced open paddocks across the side road. This was the edge of town. The house on the corner had a bizarre collection of garden gnomes, a yellow mini windmill and car-tyre swans painted peculiar, non-birdlike colours like turquoise and fuchsia. Two nature strips were mown and smooth to walk on but had nasty little bindi-eyes hiding in the lawn, which felt like walking on pins so she had to switch to the road, but the tarred surface ran out after twenty metres and turned to rough, potholed gravel.
The blocks of land were bigger after the first five homes, with houses set well back and a few cows and horses grazing in the paddocks. Calypso plodded along quietly now there was no available grass to tackle and every so often gave her a rough nudge with her head, which made Krista stumble.
‘Cut that out,’ she said sternly when she did it a third time. Was the horse laughing at her too? But she patted the silky neck. ‘Poor girl, are you feeling better?’
How much farther was this damned place? The road was gently but definitely rising and curved to the left up ahead with tall gumtrees providing shade. A figure came into view, striding comfortably along with a carry bag in his hand, a wide-brimmed Akubra hat low on his head. The vet. Coming to check on her, no doubt. She slipped her sandals on, straightened her back and lifted her head. Calypso pricked her ears.
The man slowed. What was his name? They’d told her but she’d forgotten already.
‘How’s it going? You’ve taken a while to get this far. I thought you might’ve had some trouble.’
‘No. How much further is it?’ She swiped at another fly.
‘Not far. I brought these.’ He pulled a pair of black rubber thongs out of the bag. ‘Thought your feet might be sore.’ He glanced down. ‘They’re a bit big but … your toe’s bleeding.’
‘I stubbed it on something.’
Krista looked at the offering. Thongs. Soft rubber, flat. Much better than either of the alternatives. But …
‘I brought this too.’ He produced a water bottle, the refillable type sportspeople use. He didn’t wear sunglasses, causing the tanned skin around his eyes to wrinkle. Gave him a rugged, weather-beaten look. Very attractive. She looked away quickly.
‘Thanks. I left mine in the car. And my hat.’ She took some deep swallows. Cool and refreshing with a slight taste unlike city water.
He patted Calypso while she drank, and took the lead rope from her. ‘I’ll take her now.’
He began walking, leaving her to stumble after him. Her shoes were hopeless on the rough surface, twisting and turning at each step and the thin soles were hardly any better than bare feet. She’d do her ankle in at this rate.
‘Could I try the thongs, please?’
‘Sure.’ He stopped and handed them over, refraining from comment. ‘Want my hat too?’
‘No thanks.’ That hat was well worn and old, no doubt imbedded with sweat and dust. She dropped the sandals into the carry bag and set off again.
‘Better?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ Who was he? She scoured her memory but came up blank. ‘I’ve forgotten your name.’
‘Right. Of course.’
‘I’m the local vet.’
She nodded. ‘I know.’ Something about his tone made her whip her head around to look at him. He returned her gaze with a blank expression.
‘Just checking,’ he said.
‘That you’re not suffering from short-term memory loss. Heatstroke. From the heat.’
Oliver walked on, quietly pleased with the furious expression on Krista Laatonen’s face. He’d been right about her feet. They were scratched and dirty, with the pink-polished nail on the big toe broken and bloody where she’d whacked it on something. Sweat ran down into the vee of her sleeveless blouse and along her hairline, although he’d been careful not to do more than glance in the general direction of her chest. In the mood she was in, he’d be in all sorts of trouble if he was caught ogling her breasts. Her cheeks and nose had a touch of sun too. Didn’t take long to burn in this weather, especially for someone with such fair skin.
Calypso was in good shape. The easy walk would have calmed her down.
When they reached the house, Oliver walked straight across the wide parking area and put the horse in the stables in one of the three stalls he used when large animals needed to stay. Billy, his bay gelding, whickered, and trotted across the paddock to meet the newcomer but he closed the yard gate to keep him at a distance. He hung his head over the fence to watch.
‘Is that your horse?’ Krista broke the silence she’d maintained since his remark. Suited him.
He filled a bucket with water and stood it inside the stable door. Calypso stuck her nose in and snuffled experimentally before drinking.
‘Would you like a bandaid for that toe?’
She looked down at her foot. ‘Thanks.’ She took off the sunglasses and put them in the bag.
With the five o’clock surgery cancelled, Margie had hung the notice on the gate and given herself an early mark. Fair enough, she had three sons to wrangle at home, more or less on her own, because her husband was a long-haul truckie. She was also a very reliable, efficient person to have in charge of the office and one he didn’t want to lose, but it was just as well she wasn’t here to see his decorative but unwelcome visitor. He’d never live it down. Shannon was bad enough.
With the coast clear he took Krista along the path through his vegetable garden behind the surgery, and into the house. He showed her to the bathroom, found bandaids and antiseptic cream, handed her a clean towel and said, ‘I’ll be out with the horse.’
‘Can you call someone to pick you up?’
Krista waited until the back door banged shut, then tugged off her jeans and sat on the edge of the big old tub to wash her feet. He’d only taken her through a covered back verandah, the kitchen and a cool, dim corridor on the way to the bathroom, but his house was surprisingly neat and clean for a man who lived alone. A quick appraisal had established that fact—one toothbrush, one towel on the rack, no female necessities like make-up or moisturisers. Definitely a single male. The tub gleamed with no scum lines, the kitchen was orderly with no dirty dishes lying on the bench or in the sink. He must have a cleaner. She had one for her two-bedroom apartment and he had a rambling old house in the country—which in her experience, was full of flies, manure, dust and or mud. He’d need someone to do the housework.
When she reappeared in the stable doorway, cleaner if not refreshed, Oliver was swabbing antiseptic onto the scrape on a rear leg where the skin was broken. Calypso fidgeted at the sting.
‘She’s very well-behaved all things considered, used to being mucked around with,’ Oliver said without looking up. He moved to the other leg and ran his hand down the horse’s flank. ‘She’s a nice-looking horse.’
‘She came with The Grange. Her dam was a champion racer. Jamaican Lady. You might have heard of her.’
‘Sorry. Not into horse racing. Do you race her?’
‘She’s had a couple of starts but not since Hugh bought The Grange. He doesn’t want to race the horses. He gave her to me.’
‘Nice gift. Will you breed from her?’
‘Maybe. She’s had one foal already, which is doing well, I think.’ She hadn’t thought about it. Owning a horse wasn’t an imposition on her daily life. Calypso lived at The Grange and was cared for by Rod along with the other horses. Hugh and her mother wanted her to learn to ride but it never appealed as an activity and she avoided coming out here as much as she could. It had seemed a very odd gift at the time. She liked animals but she’d never expressed any desire to own a horse, even at the age many girls went through a pony phase.
Oliver picked up a front foot to check the underside of the hoof.
‘No problem there.’ He straightened then frowned. His palm had reddish brown marks on it. He rubbed at it with the thumb of his other hand. He squatted and studied the hair on Calypso’s fetlock and above the hoof. A few whitish patches were visible.
‘Hand me that towel,’ he said. ‘Dip the corner in the water bucket first.’
Krista did as he asked. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘There’s something odd …’
He scrubbed at the hair. The towel changed colour and so did the hair for about ten centimetres up the horse’s ankle.
‘So what’s going on here?’ he asked, looking up at her. Accusing her!