“There they go!“
The announcer‘s words barely registered. Terena Rothrock locked her entire focus on the ten horses at the starting gate. She could sense their gathering muscles before they exploded out of the gate. Just like that, the years she‘d spent apart from horses fell away. She became a teenager again, bent low over the straining neck of a galloping horse—mare, stallion, or gelding, it didn‘t make a difference. The creature‘s strength and determination seeped into her, and she lived for the feel of powerful muscles in motion.
She shook off past memories so she could concentrate on this moment and shielded her eyes against the hot sun. Arizona spring heat seeped into her back, dust from the dirt track billowed into the stands, and splinters from the wooden bleacher threatened to stab into her butt.
No more than two seconds had passed since the starting gun assaulted her ears, but already one of the horses was pulling ahead of the field. The horse, a tall burgundy mare with white markings on her chest, ran as if she were floating. Her muscles rippled, and her hoofs rhythmically attacked the ground. Terena had no doubt she galloped because she loved speed, not because her rider was encouraging or forcing her to.
Ah, yes, Terena reminded herself, the rider. As man and horse all but flew past, she turned her attention from the gorgeous young animal to the slim yet sturdy Hopi with long glossy black hair flowing behind him. Her cousin rode as she once had, part and parcel with his mount. Ahote Rothrock wouldn‘t have simply agreed to jockey the mare for a mere paycheck. He was sitting on some fourteen hundred pounds of animal because nothing made him feel more alive.
And because this horse was incredible!
Terena had picked up the racing schedule as soon as she‘d arrived at the county fairgrounds. There were three stallions in this race. They should be in the lead—not this two-year-old, still-growing mare. The mare continued to float, her movements becoming more magical with every step. Terena half believed the mare was running on a cushion of air—a swift-moving current.
The one-length lead became ten. Seconds later and only halfway into the race, the chestnut her cousin was astride led by fifteen lengths. It couldn‘t be! No horse could run that fast.
“Do you believe this, folks?“ the announcer screamed, his voice mixing in with the excited audience‘s yells.
He said something else, but clapping and static ate up the words. It didn‘t matter. Something unbelievable was happening this afternoon at a small-town racetrack in central Arizona. Like everyone else in the stands, Terena was on her feet, clapping. The cowboy boots she seldom had reason to wear drilled the wooden plank beneath them. The bleachers creaked and complained. What did she care whether it collapsed? She‘d breathe with the lightning-fast mare. They‘d shared the same muscles, heart, and lungs.
“Run, you beautiful thing! Run! Feel it, feel it, feel it!“
Twenty lengths, then another five. Ahote and the wonderful flying beast beneath him surged around the turn and neared the finish line.
“Explode!“ Terena screamed, not caring that the mare couldn‘t possibly have even more speed in her.
But the mare did. With maybe a hundred feet between her and the end, she kicked into an impossible gear. All around Terena, the fans went crazy. Much as she ached to join in the screaming, she couldn‘t, because her throat had closed down. Hot tears burned her eyes and then her cheeks.
Decibel by decibel, things quieted until she could make out what people were saying. Everyone was still excited, of course, their reactions ranging from good-natured disappointment because the horse they‘d bet on had been blown away to disbelief. It didn‘t matter that there was no speed gun or timer here; no one doubted that they‘d just witnessed a miracle.
Terena wiped her tears and looked around for a way to get out of the stands. Knowing Ahote—well, it had been a few years, but they had grown up together, so she knew his personality a bit—he‘d be anxious to get away from the crowd and into the stables at the rear of the fairgrounds.
“He won‘t answer your questions. Don‘t ask him to explain what just happened,“ she‘d tell anyone who tried to get more than words of one syllable out of him. At least he‘d talk to her. Maybe.
The people on either side of her showed no sign of leaving, which wasn‘t surprising, since there were still races to be run. Fortunately, the three middle-aged women directly below her were, in their words, going to feed their faces, and shuffled toward the aisle. If she could step over and down without losing her balance, she‘d follow their escape route.
A prickling along and down her spine told her she was being watched. A little resentful—she was weary of explaining that her features represented both her Hopi and white heritage—she waited until she‘d stepped down and then looked around.
Two men stood in the aisle watched Ahote guide his mount toward the exit area opposite the stadium. No, they weren‘t just standing. Well over six feet tall with shoulders that would never fit in an airplane seat, jeans that clung to narrow hips, flat bellies, and long, black hair, they grabbed her full attention and brought heat to her cheeks. She wasn‘t the only one. Instead of concentrating on their quest for food, the three women who‘d been sitting below her turned and stared at the men. Really? They probably were young enough to be their sons.
Something about the men‘s scrutiny of her cousin made Terena uneasy. She understood interest in the winning horse and her rider, but this was more. Almost hostile in intensity.
Perhaps they‘d somehow locked into her thoughts because as one they turned toward her. Native American, she concluded. Their obsidian eyes tracked her every move, or rather, her lack of movement. The phrase deer caught in the headlights pretty much summed up how she felt. Instead of trying to figure how to cut and run, she wrapped their bold scrutiny around her. If this was their idea of a sexual come-on, what the hell. She was ready, primed, and hungry.
Not that it was going to happen, but she could dream about standing between them with no way out and their hands all over her. Getting naked.
She pictured herself sans a single piece of clothing, flanked by the two men who resembled professional football players, when the slightly taller one‘s attention shifted from her to his companion. The taller one‘s expression changed from bold scrutiny to challenge. His jaw clenched, and his gaze narrowed. Throwing out his white, T-shirt-clad chest, he took a half step toward his companion. Arms at his sides and fingers curling into fists, the other man, who appeared to be a little younger, faced the taller one. She recalled the day last fall when she‘d watched two mustang stallions fight for dominance. Would these men battle over her?
Before she could shrug off the insane thought, the shorter, younger man stepped back. The way his eyes narrowed told her he hated giving way, but for reasons known only to the two of them, that was the way of their relationship.
“You mind? You‘re blocking the way.“
Startled, she looked over her shoulder at an elderly man with narrow shoulders and a massive belly a few feet away. “I‘m sorry. Hold on.“
Putting off the moment when she‘d be eye to eye and maybe body to body with the two dark-skinned, black-haired strangers, she concentrated on her footing as she wove her way around several people until she reached the aisle. She lifted her head and looked around. Having fought her own battles and watched her own back since she was sixteen, she checked for the men. They were no longer where she‘d seen them but were instead halfway down the stairs, the dominant man leading the way. Studying their wide, cotton-encased backs instead of weathering their intense stares should have been easier on her nervous system and a certain region between her legs. It wasn‘t. If anything, her awareness of herself as a sexual creature increased. She didn‘t want to think about how she‘d respond if they were any closer.
Yes, definitely Native American but not Hopi or Navajo like the majority of Arizona‘s indigenous people. Most wouldn‘t note the difference between members of the various tribes, but because of her mother‘s genetics, she wasn‘t in that camp. Going by the ragged ends trailing nearly to their shoulder blades, she guessed they cut their own hair. Both wore cowboy boots and jeans that did things to their asses that made her mouth water, but she knew better than to assume they were cowboys or ranchers. Horse races brought out the wrangler in a lot of people. For all she knew they were—what?
The man in the lead had already reached the bottom and the other was a step away from joining him when the second paused, turned, and looked at her. A fair measure of her career success came from her ability to read expressions, but she had no idea what he was thinking. He studied her, his deep-set eyes threatening to pull her into a place she‘d never been.
Would she want to go there? She might get burned, or worse.
Then he dismissed her and joined his companion. They wouldn‘t disappear into the crowd because they were too tall for that, but their long, strong legs would soon take them out of sight. She‘d never see them again.
Good. She‘d come here to try to talk to Ahote because her aunt and uncle—his parents—had begged her to. She‘d do her job. Well, she‘d give it her best shot. Then she‘d…