The Courting of Thomasyna Tollefson – Chapter Three

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An Unexpected Proposal

Tuesday dawned with a lazy attitude. Thomi spent most of the morning just sitting on her favorite flat rock on Cliff Top’s private beach, watching the waves roll in. They swirled around her, sometimes lapping over the edge, wetting her pant legs. So peaceful . . . the soothing sound of the waves coming in and that of shells and pebbles washing back out. Gulls calling overhead. Sailboats and yachts of every size took advantage of a more perfect day than yesterday had been to be out on the water. Beyond them, a huge tanker chugged toward Newport Harbor. The salty air was something she never tired of, and there was no place else she’d rather be right now.

Nothing like yesterday, when the waves wanted to rip her out to sea with them.

Picking up a stick, she absently wrote in the sand:

S-T-E-P-H-A-N   G-R-E-G-G-O-R-Y   D-E-V-E-R-I-L-L

After helping her free the Mustang, he’d persuaded her to walk with him. Considerately keeping the talk general, he’d displayed a marvelous sense of the ridiculous, in which she had delighted—yet, not enough to jump back into the fire.

First, he informed her that his name was NOT pronounced Stefan but was Steven. “Don’t forget that or the two g’s in Greggory!” He then harassed her about the spelling of her nickname. “T-h-o-m-i . . . Too-me! Or is it Thoomi?” Pronouncing the th as in thumb.

“It is Tommy—don’t you forget that!” The memory of his amused laughter, his teasing glance brought a reluctant smile to her lips.

“Ah, what am I doing?” Flinging the stick, she kicked the letters out of existence. Frustratingly, his image lingered. His last words to her had been, “I’ve enjoyed this, Thomi. You have to let me see you again . . . I will see you again!”

Well . . . maybe . . . maybe not . . .!

She picked up a shell fragment, wrote:

J-A-I-M-E-E   S-H-A-I-N-E   K-E-L-M-A-N-N

Jaimee, the young cousin of one of her friends, had a serious heart condition. With three other little girls, all under ten, David and Marsha Kelmann had their hands full, and their wallets woefully empty.

David tended bar at the island’s only hotel, and the insurance benefits were fast reaching their limits. Joleigh-Anna Kelmann hadn’t been fishing for help for her relatives when she’d mentioned their situation to Thomasyna. Merely, she’d expressed her concern for them. However, Thomi, her compassion aroused at once, insisted upon meeting the family. Had immediately been captivated by all four of the girls, and straightway determined to help them from that very first meeting.

Her kindheartedness overwhelmed Jaimee’s parents, and David, at first, was reluctant to accept her offer of assistance. It wasn’t his way to allow anyone to help solve his problems. Even his relatives had difficulty making him accept assistance from them—those inclined to help, that is.

“Look,” he’d said, “I don’t want to sound ungrateful; I really appreciate you coming here with Joleigh. You’ve made the kids’ day. You’re probably their favorite performer—more family friendly that most . . . but I made up my mind we’d never be a burden to anyone because of Jaimee’s illness! Not to my family—and certainly not to strangers!”

“Then, don’t think of me as a stranger!” Thomi returned earnestly. “Please, it’s no burden to me! How many cars do you think I need? Or clothes, or houses, or anything else? You have a beautiful family you’re working hard to take care of! But as hard as you’re working, you’re slipping into a hole you may lose your house over!”

At that, David had shot an accusing glance at Joleigh-Anna. That she’d admitted that her aunt and uncle had debts that exceeded their ability to handle figured as a gross disloyalty to him.

Thomi’d quickly implored, “Oh, no, don’t hate Jo for telling me! Please, now that I am aware of your need, how can I walk away from here and do nothing?”

“But I wasn’t expecting you to do this when I told you,” said Joleigh. “I was just—just talking. Was just a response to your story about the little boy in Illinois you’d helped a couple months back . . . Got him his open heart operation when it’d been refused him. Just—it just made me think of-of Jaimee.” She’d rested her gaze upon her little cousin, her affection and her worry evident in it. “That’s all!”

It hadn’t mattered to Thomi whether Joleigh had hoped for this outcome or not. She answered, “Joleigh—ever think I should have known about this sooner? How can I ignore someone in this kind of need who lives in my home state in my hometown? Especially when it is common knowledge that I have helped other people? Not just in this country, either! You know as well as anyone that I’d want to help them! We’ve known each other since we moved here, how many years ago?” She’d turned back to David. “Please . . . don’t be offended that she told me. If I’ve helped the families of strangers, how can I turn my back on those of my friends?”

He couldn’t withstand her reasoning or her sincerity. “All right,” he finally agreed. “But only if I can pay you back!”

“If that’s what you’d like to do.” She’d refrained from insisting there wasn’t a need to worry about it. Went on to more important concerns. “The thing right now is to be sure she’s never turned down for the care she needs. One of my brothers helps me with this kind of thing. He’ll contact you for all the details we’ll need so we can get started . . .”

And once he had them, Adrien lost no time in coordinating a plan of action. One of the first things he’d done was to get Jaimee’s name before the committee who voted on the recipient of the profits from the benefit productions from the Little Theater in Littleton-by-the-Sea.

It was Adrien who’d gotten Keath Lindell to give some time to the project of the summer’s benefit play. No one had to convince Thomi to take part in it. She would have accepted even the smallest role.

But Keath, after sitting through hours of auditions, finally had decided he could work with no other as the heroine in the production. While she was used to hearing her abilities termed as brilliant, Thomi hadn’t wanted to eclipse any member of the amateur theater group. With but one exception, however, no one felt slighted, and she’d been persuaded to accept the lead role.

If it had been possible for Jaimee to jump for joy when she heard about it, the frail seven-year-old, no doubt, would have. “Now everyone will come and see it! And Mommy and Daddy won’t have to pay a lot for my operation, huh!” Happy bright blue eyes animated Jaimee’s pale little face.

Amused at the child’s enthusiasm, Thomi’d challenged her, “Oh, I’m that good, you think?”

“Yup!” Naively, she’d confided, “We like your dog commercials. Ming really likes VetPro, huh? But we like the car ones best ‘cause you drive so fast! We got ‘em all on DVR, too—and your shows!”

“Did you?” She’d been impressed—and touched. Arrogance she possessed, but it had never occurred to Thomi that anyone, other than family and friends, would record her stuff. “Well, thank you for liking what I do! Now, you just have to worry about getting better after that operation!”

Jaimee hugged Thomi with all the strength her delicate body possessed. “I will—b’cause you’re Lidia Rose in my play! Everyone knows you’re the best!”

Thomi’d flicked her cheek and responded with another display of rare humility, “Ah, I’m not the only one that good! You’d still get better if someone else were to do—”

Jaimee’d thrown an instant and vehement protest; changing color and becoming alarmingly breathless. Dismayed and certain the little girl would suffer harm from her spell, Thomi hastily assured her that nothing and no one would entice her away. When she knelt by her, Jaimee left her mother’s embracing arm to cuddle into Thomi’s.

“You promise? A Big Time Promise?”

“The Biggest! Remember, the seats center front will be reserved for your family! No one else!” In her arms, the child quieted. Thus, offers she’d received of late sat in her study, disregarded. This obligation came first.

Now, there was her father’s unofficial proposal. Before Keath Lindell had opened doors to her present career, she’d been content working on the family run equestrian center—except for those clashes of will between her and her father. Some days he could be just impossible! She wrote his full name in the sand:

N-I-C-H-O-L-A-S   N-A-P-A-Y-S-H-N-I   B-J-O-R-N-O-L-F  T-O-L-L-E-F-S-O-N

An imposing name for an imposing man. He’d called earlier, wanting her help exercising his horses. If only that was all he wanted! Ah, well . . . maybe she ought to go. Ruffina, her Paso mare, also needed a good workout.

Collecting the cooler, Thomi called Ming to her. “At least out at DreamWynd, Mingi,” she informed her trusty canine companion as they started back up the rocky path to the house, “I won’t have to worry about some tall redheaded idiot badgering me for a dinner date!”

* * *

Situated a comfortable distance from the road, the big white colonial house at DreamWynd topped a knoll that sloped sharply behind to the stable yard. The front lawns, tiered in two levels with stone walls for support, were tastefully planted with varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees. An ageless, but well maintained, stone wall enclosed much of the land belonging to the Tollefsons, adding a good deal to the charm of the place.

The driveway, white stone gravel as far as the parking lot, emptied into the stable yard. There it became a lane that went beyond the barns, the indoor arena, and the three riding rings outside, and led to the pastures, fields, and the wooded trails; some of which in turn, went to sandy beaches lining ocean coves.

Thomi parked in the family’s private parking area—next to an older model white Lincoln she wasn’t familiar with. Who could this be? Hardly had she gotten out of the car, when her youngest brother and sister besieged her. A little girl of about three or so tagged along. With gorgeous blue eyes and coppery curls, how much like Stephan she looked!

“Hi, Thom! This is Kailey Van Kirk, and she don’t talk!” said four-year-old Stacia-Lynne breathlessly. She hauled her new friend forward, still chatting away. “Don’t know why, she just don’t. And she came with your new boyfriend. Know what? Her mom’s name is Karla Storm, just like Geoffrey’s horse is April Storm! That’s funny, huh? But we like her! And they’re in the boarding barn. And I like Stephan lots better than Charley, Thomi! Maybe Daddy will like him too, huh, Thomi? But he don’t wanna get his hopes up, ’cause you never pick the good guys!”

“Stacia, spare me Dad’s remarks, okay?”

“But this guy’sth a good guy, huh, Thomi! He talksth to us and he gabe us candy, and Kaiwey’sth mom let her ride my pony,” exclaimed Stacia’s twin brother, Daine-Anthony, obviously thrilled to be so honored. “They came to sthee Fairwind and Wogue, ’cause they’re the onesth who used t’ own ‘em. They’re Stephan’sth cousinsth, y’ know. But Mom’sth not here and Dad’sth busy, so they’re waitin’ for him. You want me to show you?”

“No,” replied Thomi, quelling the unexpected fingers of thrill that mingled with an equally unforeseen apprehension. Not safe from tall redheaded idiots anywhere! Figures he’d be the cousin of someone they’d done business with in the past! Figures he’d know how to charm children! “Where is Dad?”

“Out in the field. Heidi foaled out there, so he’sth checking on her. Know what? Stephan thaid he wants to mawr—”

Sudden angry brays and equally outraged squeals ripped the air, together with the sound of splintering wood. “Oh, great! You kids stay out here! Don’t come in!” Thomi sprinted for the boarding barn.

Seven-year-old Jacqlyn burst out of the barn and spying her, cried at the top of her young lungs, “Thomi! Thomi, quick! Cedric and Squeaky are kicking the barn down! Mrs. Green’s gonna kill Wanda and Louise for this, and your new boyfriend’s here with his cousins, and I’m getting Dad!” She dashed away in the direction of the pastures.

“Jacqi, I don’t have a new boyfriend!”

“Yeah, y’ do!” called back Jacqi, without stopping.

Thomi uttered a sound of annoyance and hurried down the aisle toward Mrs. Green, who was certain her precious spotted mammoth jack was about to be murdered by the much smaller red dun Quarter Horse mare. Mrs. Green alternated between crying out her concern for Cedric and upbraiding an absent Wanda and Louise, DreamWynd’s hired help, for ignoring her orders not to put her mule and that mare next to each other. Just now, fortunately for them, they were in the main barn, grooming two of the animals Nicholas wanted exercised today.

Already, Stephan and his cousins had responded to the emergency. The tallest of the girls slipped into Cedric’s stall, undaunted by the mammoth jack’s furious tantrum—which Squeaky answered with a nasty one of her own from her side of the wall. There’d be nothing left of those stalls shortly! Or Stephan’s cousin, either. Cedric wasn’t fond of strangers!

“Stormi, be careful! He’s no pony!”

“Stephan, he’s got deep cuts! If he strikes again he could—” Cedric let fly his hooves, and caught one in the jagged opening he’d kicked in the wall between the stalls. “Damn! He’s done it! I’ll calm him! See if you can get him free!” Stormi went closer to the trapped mule, unafraid. Cedric scrambled about, trying to intimidate her and free himself at the same time. But his unpredictable disposition and his imposing height didn’t frighten her. She spoke to him confidently and softly. His ears went from laid back flat to perked forward interestedly within a few short, but harrowing minutes.

Stephan, trying to get nearer to the mule’s back end, glimpsed Thomi’s arrival. He called out, “Thomi! Run back and get my case from the Lincoln! This could be bad!”

Mrs. Green made a small cry and pressed her hands to her mouth. For a few moments, her worry overshadowed her vexation with Nicholas’ hired girls.

Thomi about-faced, took a second to grip Mrs. Green’s arm in reassurance, then sprinted out to the parking lot. Now she knew who the Lincoln belonged to! Considered himself family already! And she’d thought she’d be safe from him here! Ha! Wouldn’t be safe probably if she went to the moon!

Stephan’s large saddle brown medical case sat on the backseat floor. She yanked it out and hurried back. Yeah, didn’t it just figure, too, that he’d be something useful—like a vet!

By the time she got back with Stephan’s medical case, Stormi had succeeded in totally winning Cedric over. With no halter or rope, she kept the mule under control with just her low sweet voice and the soothing touch of her hand. Thomi halted by the open stall door and simply watched in amazement as the ornery animal lipped at Stormi’s dark auburn hair and nuzzled her cheek. Let himself be persuaded into cooperating with his liberator—who possessed an equally mesmerizing voice. And an infinitely gentle, patient manner in dealing with temperamental creatures . . .

Well, at least, Ming wasn’t swayed!

In the next stall, Stormi’s sister had, despite an obvious disability, done the same with Squeaky. Now that Cedric had quit his foolishness, Squeaky lost interest in the quarrel. Both girls had clear, musical voices, although Stormi’s seemed lower and sweeter—and Thomi halted outside the stall, not announcing her return—just so she could listen herself. Watched Stephan free the mule’s trapped back leg and assess the damage done.

“He’s cut it deeply, yet, luckily, hasn’t done it permanent damage! Be laid up a while, however.” He stood and glancing out, perceived Thomi at the door. “Thanks, Thomi. Is there someplace else we can get him so I can stitch him up? I don’t think I want to attempt anything in such close quarters with him.”

“You can use the paddock right outside,” said Thomi, swinging the door open wide. “It’s closest. If you can actually get him to move . . .”

Not a problem. Even as she spoke, Cedric, deep under Stormi’s spell, willingly hobbled outside. One could only admire her way with the usually anything but tractable mule.

Stephan at once began to prepare Cedric for his operation. Then, sedating the animal, Stephan repaired the gash and neatly bandaged the leg. While his cousins were perfectly capable of attending him, he was inclined to enlist Thomi’s aid in assisting with the operation. As she was no stranger to such occurrences, and had, in the past, assisted Dr. Ayer, she acquitted herself well, earning his praise when the job was done.

In the meantime, Mrs. Green, upset over the occurrence, and the sight of her mule’s bloodied hock, had gone off on her own search of Nicholas Tollefson—and his hired hands. First, she ferreted out Wanda and Louise, since they were the easiest to locate. A new ruckus raged.

Nicholas, dragged out of the field by Jacqi, found himself in the center of it. Unable to sort out all the complaints and the pleas of innocence besieging him all at once, he told everyone to calm down, and he strode off in the direction of the paddock.

Naturally, a parade of people followed him, not a one of them inclined to heed his command. They all hustled toward the paddock where Thomi, Stephan, and his cousins stood watch over the slumbering mule, their disagreement plainly reaching them.

Jacqi ducked between the rails, and ran over to report cheerfully, “Mrs. Green is gonna make Dad fire those two nutheads!”

Mrs. Green felt her grievance legitimate. Everyone in the county knew that Quarter Horse mare and the mammoth jack loathed each other. Why had Wanda and Louise changed the mare’s stall to that next to Cedric’s?

“Nicholas, you’re well aware they don’t get along! That mare instigates these scenes! And if your ‘help’ can’t follow orders, I say fire ‘em! Get someone who can!”

Mrs. Green then collared Louise. Nearly fainting with dread confronting the old lady’s displeasure, Louise could only whimper apologies. She was cut off ruthlessly. “I don’t want you near my animals, do you understand me? And as for you, my girl—” She glared at Wanda.

They, yet again, swore the animals were getting along when they’d left. In her mind, the two were twits, and Mrs. Green refused to listen. Thomi didn’t blame her. Wanda, in general, had an inflated opinion of her equine knowledge, while Louise dissolved into tears at the slightest reprimand. Such babies!

“Mrs. Green,” Nicholas interrupted, trying for control of the situation, “I’ll deal with them! Go settle up with Deverill!”

Of Scotch-Irish, Native American, and Norwegian parentage, Nicholas Tollefson possessed, besides great height, a powerfully built frame, and he wore his blue-black hair at shirt collar length. His bearing, that of one accustomed to having his will obeyed, encouraged few to pluck up heart to cross him. A glance from those remarkable emerald eyes caused bold men to give way. However, there were a few who weren’t intimidated by any of this. Notably, his wife, certain of his offspring—and Mrs. Emmajean Green.

She regarded him quite in the light of a recalcitrant boy. “Nicholas, I won’t insult you by threatening to take my animals elsewhere, although I daresay you’d lose more than my business if I took them out! But I will have to seriously consider alternative measures if you can’t train these two featherbrained nitwits better than this!”

“That’s it! I’ve had it with this crap!” Wanda burst out indignantly. “We don’t have to put up with her garbage! Keep your stupid mule here! We’re leaving! Come on, Louise!”

Louise, head bowed and tears flowing, followed her friend and fellow worker back the way they’d come.

Jacqi hopped with glee, chanting, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! YES!” and she and Thomasyna hit a high five, flipped a thumbs up at Mrs. Green. It incurred their father’s frown, but beyond that he didn’t censure them, nor did he try to stay the girls’ departure.

Mrs. Green, thrilled to see the back of the incompetents, scolded him, “I should think someone like you, Nicholas, could judge a person’s worth within five minutes—or less—and weed out the undesirables! Whatever possessed you to hire those two twits in the first place?”

“I didn’t hire them,” he answered, “my wife did. But don’t go looking to rake her down for it! She operates under the principle that everyone needs a break sometimes. Even you, Mrs. Green! So, I won’t insist you take this troublesome creature elsewhere! I’ll even be big enough to admit you’ve done me a service in scaring them off! Saves me from having to tell Anetra to get rid of them!”

“Nicholas, it’s a good thing I admire you!” she retorted with a reluctant twinkle. “But I’m not joking here! I’m quite taken with this trio! Inform Ayer I’m dropping him in favor of young Dr. Deverill here! And if these girls are available, you ought to hire them!”

“If they were, I would,” he said promptly, and he turned his head to Kourtnay, addressing her in familiar accents. “Kourtnay Deverill! It’s been a long time! Glad you all could drop by to impress Mrs. Green! Are you here to check up on Rogue and Fairwind? They’re doing well!”

Kourtnay smiled, coloring deeply. “Yes, Stormi wanted to see them. I know they’ve been safe with you.” She paused, fidgeting with a pretty diamond and sapphire ring on her finger. With a shy hopefulness and a certain glow in her gray eyes, she asked, “Is . . . is Nicky here?”

An odd look came into Nicholas’ eyes. “You’ll find him in the garage under the blue pickup! I hope the shock doesn’t give him a stroke!”

Kourtnay flushed a deeper red, uttered a quick, “Thank you!” and limped away in the direction Nicholas indicated.

Nick watched her go, a speculative look in his eye. “He’d wanted to marry her before he ever knew her name! Before we got out of the truck, as I recall! Thought it merely infatuation of the moment at the time but—a few things are beginning to make sense now.”

“Whoa!” uttered Thomi, impressed. Her gaze followed Kourtnay’s progress till she rounded the corner of the boarding barn. “You mean St. Nick had a reason for ignoring all those girls trailing after him these past three years? Thought he just felt he was too good for any of ‘em!”

Imagine that! Nicky forsaking all others for the love of one he’d met only briefly! Just for the moment of the sale of the two mentioned animals, as far as anyone knew. Heh . . . maybe the man (her very own brother!) was a saint after all! Be kind of fun to go check out his face when he slid out from under that truck and saw her there! Be a whole lot of fun to tease him about it, too! Which she fully intended to do, anyway!

“Nothing wrong with a good strong romance,” opined Mrs. Green. “What’s better is when they last! If they’ve lived apart all this time and still have deep feelings for each other, then they’ll do fine! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go meet my own sweetheart! Married sixty-two years come September!”

Informing Stephan, then, in her most gracious manner, that if he’d leave a bill with Nicholas, she’d settle her account with him the instant she returned with her husband. Getting Stephan’s promise for it, she departed.

“Know what I told Stephan, Thomi?” piped up Jacqi, tugging her shirttail. “Told him we think Charley’s a jerk, and we don’t like him! And you’re kinda dumb for staying with him and—”

“Jacqi, I’m not with him, anymore! Quit dragging him up!”

“So you gonna be with him?” She pointed happily at Stephan. “He said you and him were gonna have dinner, and I said—”

“Yeah, I’m probably going to be sorry for what you said!”

“She loves to talk about you,” observed Stephan, amused.

Thomi pinched Jacqi’s cheeks, making her lips pooch. “Yes, and she’ll blab her lips to anyone! Enough now!”

Jacqi danced free of her hold and hopped in front of her father. “I like him better than Charley, Daddy, don’t you? I think she can go eat dinner with him, and you don’t gotta worry! Really!”

“He doesn’t have to worry about anything, anyway!” returned Thomi, irked.

At the same time, her father said, “Jacqi, I’m going to re—”

“I know, I know,” broke in his little daughter, “You’re gonna ‘serve judgment, ‘cause Thomi never picks the good guys! I heard y’ before!”

Thomi choked on an outraged laugh. Was bad enough to hear it once, but twice in the same day was beyond tolerance!

A muscle twitched beside Nicholas’ mouth, but he gravely replied, “Then you don’t need to ask what I think, do you? Be quick now, and go find Lyndsay for me. Tell her I need her right now!”

Feeling important, Jacqi scampered off on her mission.

Ignoring Thomi’s resentful stare, Nicholas spoke then to Stephan. “I appreciate your quick acting here with this idiot mule! Obviously, you’ve prevented a worse disaster—for this time, anyway! I warn you, though—you accept her as a client, and you’ll have her so much in your life you’ll think you’re married to her! The only one worse would be Marianne McNicoll!”

Having said that, he extended his hand to Stormi, saying, “Karla, I’m sorry circumstances didn’t permit us to meet at the time Nicky and I met Kourtnay. Had Ascott Meadows not been destroyed, you might have become our stiffest competition!”

She smiled, accepted the friendship of his handshake, but declined his compliment. “I’m only relieved that my horses could go to someone who’d appreciate them. I wish more of them had survived . . .” Sad regret darkened the smoke gray eyes, but she seemed disinclined to talk of the tragic fire that destroyed her stable and its valuable stock.

With a look difficult to define precisely, she gazed off in the direction her sister had gone and changed the subject. “Forgive me! I hadn’t a clue she knew any man well enough to have feelings for him! I would never have let her waste her time running with me if I had! All she said at the time of the sale was she liked both of you and trusted you’d take care of the horses the way we would ourselves. She’s never once given her secret away. Although . . . as you just said, a few things suddenly seem to make sense now!”

“Nothing to forgive. I’ll be willing to bet some of those times you may be recalling coincide with those that I have a keen memory for! He seemed to have an urgent eagerness to volunteer for trips to specific areas more often than before his meeting her. Never could get him to want to go further than Connecticut or Massachusetts! New York on occasion . . . if I insisted.

“Suddenly, he’s willing to go there and points south on an instant’s notice! Generally left within the hour of my asking him to go . . . even if there wasn’t the least need for him to start off until the next day or within the week. Eventually, he began requesting certain jobs each month.

“I never questioned him. Whatever his personal business was, I knew he’d attend to mine as it needed to be. Plus, his willingness to go let me stay here and take care of things. I’ve appreciated that more than I’ve probably told him!”

Nicholas tugged Thomi’s hair playfully. “Then, too, he probably didn’t want to be interrogated, harassed or teased. So why give anyone the ammunition for that?”

“Well, hey! Who’d’ve thought? I mean, he used to check out the menu every day!”

“Ah, and you don’t?”

“Dad! I don’t check out the menu—I’m one of the selections on it. And I’m always trying to prove I’m not the Special of the Day!”

Murmured Stormi dryly, “Yes, I know that feeling well . . .”

Nick acknowledged her remark with a quick understanding glance, but then leaned a hand against a fence post and regarded his daughter skeptically. Abandoned Nicky’s issues for hers. “So what’s the story now? Or is Jacqi making one up?” He looked from Thomi to Stephan and back again.

“There’s no story!” retorted Thomi, her hot defiance steaming to the surface. “It’s Jacqi’s fantasy!”

“Oh, not just Jacqi’s! Be truthful, Thomi,” Stephan cut in with smiling reproach. “Our story began yesterday when I hauled you up over that cliff!”

She shot Stephan a black look, informing him she wouldn’t be bullied into anything—only his tolerant smile, his sunny amusement, the very sweetness of his regard ripped the reins out of her hands, and Heart was ready to run that story ahead a few chapters—oh, maybe, someplace in the middle!

Nicholas watched them with no lessening of his skepticism. “And how’s it going to end?”

“If I don’t think it has a beginning yet, how should I know how it’s going to end? How’s Nicky’s going to end?” Thomi flung back. Wasn’t he concerned about him? Man, he’d had a secret passion for someone—figures it’d be Stephan’s cousin—for years. Probably now, there’d be nothing holding it back!

“Happily—as ours will,” promised Stephan. “I’ve participated in my last unhappy one!”

Nick pushed away from the post. “Well, I hope she has too, but I’m not putting faith in words. So, how’d it happen you were nearby to haul her up over a cliff? Although, it shouldn’t surprise me you had to do it! She’s bound and determined to dance along the edge of ‘em whatever anyone says!”

Stephan’s gaze rested upon Thomi’s face, his smile holding both sweetness and a hint of teasing. “I needed to see her about—some mutual business. Found her out on the cliffs there, tossing rocks into the water. The last one, though, she threw with such force, it carried her right over. Imagining someone on the receiving end of it, I’ll bet!”

She gave him up a look that told him precisely how right he was!

Amused and unoffended that he apparently had been that someone, he went on, “For a few minutes I really expected to be coming here with the worst news for you. His Highness there let me near enough, finally, so I could grab her before her scrawny bush got completely ripped out of the cliff side. She has courage,” he finished. “She never really panicked!”

“And let me guess,” said Nick, his gaze on his daughter. “It’s partly what attracted you to her! Still neither of you needs to build a relationship on this! She ought to learn what makes one work first!”

Countered Stephan, “Sure, but how do you learn if you don’t begin one?”

“She’s begun many more than I have time to enumerate,” returned Nicholas unmoved. “In any event—”

“He don’t wanna worry ‘bout her all his life!”

Jacqi ducked through the rails in time to hear this exchange. She was immediately followed by a taller version of Thomasyna. “You got other things to worry ‘bout too, huh, Dad?”

Oh, good. Pretty soon, she’d know her father’s whole conversation on this subject, one small child at a time!

Which could lead to related but more dangerous topics. “Well, who says he has to?” She punched Lyndsay’s arm playfully and challenged her father. “Why can’t you worry about her?”

“She’s given me no cause to! Just now, you’re the one likely to drive me back to the bottle! Look, I am going to pray you can exercise better judgment this time—and bow out of it! In the meantime,” he said to Stephan, ignoring her protesting outcry, “I’ll thank you for saving her from a messy demise! And for acting so promptly in our crisis here—it occurs approximately twice a week!”

He favored both Stephan and Stormi with a long considering glance. “I’ve been searching for the right sort of person to hire on here. Someone who could be trusted with more than mucking a stall and grooming the trail horses. Those two were fine for that sort of thing but not—as you heard—for anything requiring real responsibility. Would you be interested in doing me the favor of exercising a couple of my horses today? If each of you four take one, it’ll free me to get started on a new project I took on today.”

Knowing which animals he likely needed help with, Thomasyna immediately spoke for her preference. “I’ll take Vespry!” It wasn’t often that he let anyone other than Anetra ride his favorite chestnut mare.

“No, I’m asking Karla to ride her.”

“Oh, that’s not fair!”

Nicholas shrugged. “It’s not about fairness, Thomi. It’s about giving the best man—or woman—the job! Sherwyn seems to respond best to you, and Lyndsay’s able to handle Thaena. Stephan, I’d be honored if you’d ride Valient for me.”

Stephan showed no hesitation in accepting that honor. Even as she gave him a skeptical stare, Thomi noticed that Stormi favored him with a similar look. Stephan smiled at them both and addressed his cousin, “You can’t be thinking of refusing his offer, Storm? I saw the dream in your eyes when you expressed the wish to be able to ride a certain chestnut mare in that field by the drive!”

“Well, yes, but—”

“So, your wish is granted,” Lyndsay told her. “That’s Vespry!”

Stormi seemed torn between two desires. “Ah, look—I know I’ve no right anymore, but—I had hoped to be able to take Rogue or Fairwind for a short ride . . . if it’s possible.”

“Fairwind’s due to foal anytime now,” replied Nick. “As for Rogue—I’ve made him my personal mount. Not even Anetra has my permission to ride him.” Not missing the disappointment in her face, he temporized, “Come work for me if you’re not engaged anyplace else, and we’ll see. He’s made considerable progress since you saw him last. Calmed down quite a bit! I think you’ll be pleased!”

Oh good! If his cousins were hired here, Stephan would have a wonderful reason for hanging around, wouldn’t he? Of course, when his magical way with Cedric came to be known and respected, everyone would likely drop Dr. Ayer and engage Stephan in his place. Dr. Ayer was one of those types who should have taken up mining or some other occupation that kept him deep underground and away from people. Still, to be bumping into Stephan every other time she came to DreamWynd, well, who needed that worry?

On the other hand, she instinctively liked Stormi—who obviously didn’t know what to say to Nicholas’ offer. In her eyes was a definite light and a yes. Yet, she hesitated. Nick prompted, “Are you available?”

She hesitated a moment more. Then, “Yes. We both are—Kourtnay and I.” With a decided emphasis on the word both.

Nick answered with a slight nod, “Naturally, I wouldn’t hire one without the other. Ride then, and we’ll talk afterwards.” With that, he left them in the charge of Thomi and Lyndsay, and went off to get started with the retraining of a new client’s problem horse.

Just then, Nicky, finished with the pick-up, came walking out of the garage, Kourtnay within the circle of his arm.

Ten months younger than his eldest brother, Geoffrey, he was. Both men were close images of their father, but Nicky’s disposition was far more impulsive and inclined to a hotter temper. The only time he evaluated the consequences of a venture was when it pertained to someone else’s ill-considered actions. Any of his siblings, for example.

Just now, all his attention centered upon Kourtnay Deverill. Didn’t care who was watching when he kissed her. Kisses of such joy and passion, it was rather amusing to witness. Nicholas, on his way to the new horse’s stall, stopped to exchange a few words with the couple, then continued on his way.

Kourtnay, seeing the others approaching them, stayed his next kiss. Thomi couldn’t help herself, she said, “Wow, you sure kept her a deep dark secret, Nicky! Why? Can’t be for the shame of her!”

Kourtnay flushed, and Nicky responded with pride, “Oh, no! I’m not ashamed of her! It’s just the way things happened.”

“The way things happened?” echoed Stormi. “Kourtnay—!”

“Storm, I couldn’t leave you by yourself—wouldn’t leave you! Nicky understood. We . . . kept in touch . . .”

“Yes, I’m aware of that . . . now! But—ah, Kourt! Three years!”

Kourtnay left Nicky’s side to come hug her sister. “It’s all right, Storm. It was my choice, and Nicky was okay with it. I couldn’t let you go alone, and I couldn’t let anyone know about Nicky. Couldn’t take a chance that if any one of our relatives knew of it then Dean would get to know of it and . . . well . . . you know!”

“Who is Dean?”

Storm rested her gaze upon Thomi for a second. “My ex. Look, we’re wasting time I’d rather spend riding. Shall we?” She returned her sister’s hug. “I understand, Kourt. We can talk more about it later—if you want to.”

Kourtnay stepped back into Nicky’s embrace. “I do,” she said. “Go get the horses. I’d like to help groom them!”

“I’ll get Valient and Sherwyn,” Nicky offered. But didn’t immediately head off to do that. Too interested in stealing a couple more kisses from his beloved.

They started up the driveway. Jacqi danced between Thomi and Stephan, a hand in each of theirs. “Maybe you and Nicky could get married together, Thomi! That’s be fun, huh? And we could have a big party and ‘vite ever’body, huh, Thomi! And Rikki could write a song for you and Stephan and for Nicky and Kourtnay and we could sing it with her for y’ and you could kiss Stephan like Kourtnay kisses Nicky and—”

Lyndsay burst out laughing, and Thomi again backhanded her. “Oh, lord! Shut up! Both of you!”

Jacqi’s voice carried back to Nicky and Kourtnay. “Brat! Keep those opinions to yourself, if you know what’s good for you!” called Nicky with warning.

To which Kourtnay replied with a protesting laugh, “Ah, don’t tease her, Nicky! She’s such a sweetheart!”

“I like her way of thinking myself!” murmured Stephan, smiling down upon his little champion.

“I’m reserving judgment!” Stormi countered.

“I’m cutting through the parking lot!” said Thomi, and letting go Jacqi’s hand, she stepped back, went around Stephan, and headed for the field by that direction.

Naturally they all altered course and followed her. As she ducked between the rails of the fence, she called out to the animals they were after. Lyndsay, in her fashion, whistled for them. At once, Vespry and Thaena came trotting over. While they nuzzled the Tollefson sisters with welcoming nickers, it wasn’t many minutes before they were bestowing the same welcome upon Stormi and Stephan. With the same charm she’d used on Cedric, Storm soon had Vespry following her to the lower gate, no lead or halter needed. Thaena was happy to follow.

Neither Thomi nor Lyndsay would have needed a lead either, but the mares knew them. That they would give their trust to a stranger so quickly impressed both girls.

“I think she’s another who could charm a cobra up the sharp side of a butcher knife!” observed Thomi without rancor.

“Depends on the cobra,” Stephan replied. “Some have bitten her back!”

If the sisters hoped for an expansion on that, he didn’t offer one. He turned the chat to horsey subjects again, inquiring for more information of what the center offered. Lyndsay and Jacqi were happy to educate him. Thomi merely listened, her thoughts on other things.

Nicky had both Sherwyn and Valient waiting for them in crossties in the aisle of the main barn. This expanse had been built wide enough for a horse to be led by any in crossties. Stormi led the mares to an unoccupied spot and they stopped, waiting for someone to hook them up. Lyndsay tossed her a halter for Vespry while she took another over to Thaena. In a moment, they were busy with the task of grooming and chatting together as easily as if they’d been friends forever.

Kourtnay seemed to have formed a bond with Sherwyn. He kept turning his head to watch her. When she got up beside his neck, he nuzzled her cheek. She chuckled and kissed his velvety nose. Immediately, he returned it.

“Hey! That’s my girl, Sherwyn Bay!” Nicky warned him and laughed when the colt ignored him, giving Kourtnay another “kiss”.

“Guess he loves you as much as I do!” Nicky cheerfully observed.

Hard blaming him—or Sherwyn! Kourtnay’s five foot ten complemented Nicky’s six foot three. Her hair, of a rich chocolate brown, framed an unblemished sensitive face. In the dark gray eyes lurked a seriousness not always banished by her laughter. Apart from the awful limp with which she walked, which by itself summoned sympathy for her, there was an air of vulnerability about Kourtnay Deverill that drew one instinctively to her. That, plus her engaging smile and that melodious voice that made the sound of Nicky’s name seem far more poetic than it was.

Like her own name sounded from Stephan’s lips.

These Deverill cousins seemed to be a dangerous lot—male or female! No, it was no wonder Nicky had waited for her! Heh, no wonder he’d been eager to drive for their father on those long road trips to either pick up or delivery an animal wherever at the time. West Virginia had been the last one. She’d give almost anything to hear their story of the past few years!

Storm had no qualms of speaking her mind when the occasion warranted with disconcerting frankness. Her wit was quick and her laugh infectious, making Thomi forget her depression for the moment. O, to say nothing of her fabulous voice! Yes, she could probably charm the fangs off any dangerous animal! How could she not?

Magnificently built, her inches measured much closer to Nicky’s than Kourtnay’s did. Her dark auburn hair which fell in thick waves to the middle of her back, she wore in a  pony tail held loosely by a leather hair tie. Those smoke gray eyes held uncanny power, their stare capable of turning one totally inside out.

Finding herself under that scrutiny, Thomi gave it back levelly. Stormi flashed her a sudden smile of genuine liking, giving Thomi the impression she’d made a friend if she wanted one. However, the glance she directed down the way at Stephan held a meaning quite different.

An unmistakable warning.

What? Was she aware of the vengeful plot he wished to wage against Charley but didn’t approve? An ally from his family’s side at last? It seemed possible but she hardly dared credit it. Might be she was just reading the look wrong.

“You’re all set!” Nicky tucked the reins of Sherwyn’s bridle into Thomi’s hands. “Watch him! He’s full of it today! And Dev—!” he called to Stephan, who was encouraging Valient to accept the bit. “Take care of yourself! Thomi’ll scramble your brains if she gets the chance! And Lyndsay will help her do it!”

Thomi ignored it, started to lead the colt out of the barn through the back doors.

“Oh, we’re assuming he has brains?” inquired Stormi, surprised. Leading Vespry, she started out after Thomi. “That might challenge my imagination, I’m afraid!”

Stephan turned Valient around to follow. “Thought yours was vivid, Karla! What happened to it?”

“Took a walk early yesterday afternoon! I think you know about when! Hasn’t been seen since!”

Thomi shoved the huge double doors open wider. She sent a long appraising look at both cousins, and said, resolutely, “Don’t worry! I’m not going to be so stupid twice!”

Nicky gave a crack of derisive laughter.

Thomi led Sherwyn out, mounted, and reined the blood bay colt around. “Care to have me enlighten Kourtnay that your temper’s like a simmering volcano, Nicholas Napayshni Quenton? You’re a great guy—if you get your way!”

“Ride, Thomasyna!” he called with cheerful nonchalance, not terribly worried that her dig would change Kourtnay’s opinion of him. “Bring ‘im back alive!”

“Naturally!”

Nicky had another retort, but never had the chance to utter it. Just as Lyndsay swung into the saddle and told him to stand away, the iron-gray mare immediately tried to unseat her.

“You’ve been stuck with a challenge, haven’t you?” remarked Stephan as he mounted Valient. “Don’t fear on my account, though! I’ll be astride this animal when we return!”

And his mount gave him the chance to prove it. Valient, five years younger than his mother, Vespry, was a spirited colt, not above testing the mettle of a strange rider. Throwing back his head and tossing his black mane in Stephan’s face, the mahogany bay colt reared up. For a suspenseful moment, it appeared he’d take his rider over backwards. If he jabbed harshly at his mouth, he would undoubtedly do that.

With a light hand and his seat as immovable as Lyndsay’s, Stephan brought the colt down easily. He seemed to know instinctively that the merest cue was all the animal needed. His patience and his soft words soon won Valient over, and he settled down, willing to carry him anywhere.

While Vespry didn’t seem to desire testing her rider, it didn’t invalidate Karla Storm Van Kirk’s abilities. The young woman rode with an alert confidence, but yet, a casual ease that silently proclaimed her experience. Here was one who truly knew how to become one with her mount. Thomi reluctantly conceded that her father’s whim hadn’t been foolish after all.

Sherwyn conducted himself in a gentlemanly fashion until Thaena took exception to a goat running up to the rails along the lane. Thomi kept the young colt from rearing, took him around in a couple of tight circles, persuading him to change his mind. Not possessed of the same restive disposition as Valient or Thaena, Sherwyn submitted.

Lyndsay, disciplining Thaena in a similar manner, finally convinced her to quit her foolishness as well. As she came back to the others, her mount more docile, Stephan gave her an approving smile. “Nicely done! You’ve shown her who’s boss!”

“She shows ‘em all!” replied Thomi. “Think it’s those long and powerful legs! She could probably hang onto a greased pig!”

Lyndsay laughed. “You’re just jealous I grew taller than you! Don’t you sleep long on Sherwyn, little big sister! You’ll be walking home!”

Thomi cast her a narrow glance. “I never sleep on horses! Timothy sleeps on horses! Of course, Timothy sleeps everywhere!” Appraisingly, she looked Stephan over. “You guys don’t!”

“No,” he responded, amused. “Our grandfather made sure none of us slept anywhere around an animal—nor rode with a clumsy hand!” His hand went to his backside, and he grimaced. Stormi chuckled and confirmed his claim.

Thomi bit back the impulse to fling, “Good, then I won’t have to baby-sit you!” and canter away. It’s what she really wanted to do. Leave him in the dust and ride the trails alone. However, she unaccountably cared about Stormi’s opinion of her. Probably because she wouldn’t mind the chance to form a friendship with this tall cousin of Stephan Deverill. She said instead, “So tell us about him. Did you learn to ride young, like we did?”

If she kept the conversation on anything to do with horses, maybe this outing wouldn’t be so bad. If he deviated from that, she could showcase all of Lyndsay’s virtues and get him to see a truly superior specimen of young womanhood. Maybe he’d fall for Lyndsay, and she wouldn’t have to worry about him bugging her anymore! Lyndsay was more his size, too.

Maybe not as tall as Kourtnay and Stormi, but still! Generally labeled the quiet type by those who didn’t know her well, Lyndsay could display a wickedly mischievous spirit. Today, however, she seemed to be showing her more reserved side.

A prick of conscience set in then, and Thomi rebuked herself for even considering tossing her younger sister to any wolf in Charley’s family den. If she didn’t want to be there herself, it would be heinous of her to try unloading Stephan onto Lyndsay—or any of her sisters, for that matter.

Although, if Rikki’s experience was anything to go by, it seemed he probably possessed enough charm to persuade any one of them to his dinner table in minutes.

Her concern was for nothing, however. Neither Stephan nor Stormi brought up any mention of Charley nor any supposed obligation on her part to submit to dinner with Stephan.

They roamed every trail they came upon, comfortably engaged in horse talk. The pressure she’d felt herself under since arriving at DreamWynd, had at some point, melted away. Lyndsay was always an agreeable companion, and she’d expected that Stormi would prove to be as well. The admission, however, that Stephan Deverill was also, came with reluctance, triggering debate between Heart and Mind.

Heart, sinking deep in physical attraction, urged, Give him a chance. He’s gorgeous!

So’s Timothy when he’s all dressed up! retorted Mind. But he’s still a little snake just the same! Listen to me, Thomasyna! Beware!

This dispute abruptly quit when the riders encountered a fallen tree in their path. Positioned so that they could neither go under nor over it, and the way around complicated by thickets and brush, they opted to move it.

Stormi’s greater height made her the best assistant to Stephan in clearing the trail. The tree was small enough to afford hope of removing it, yet large enough to pose a problem for a space. Eventually, they managed to drag it off the path enough to get by.  Just ahead lay a small clearing.

“Hey! Strawberries!” Lyndsay promptly dismounted, passed the reins of the horses she held to Stormi and Thomi, and hurried off to sample some.

Stephan made a casual suggestion to Storm that she might like some strawberries as well. She took the hint, giving the reins of the horses over to him. “Just to be sure you have enough to keep yourself occupied!” she said meaningfully.

Ming reveled somewhere in the delights of the forest, leaving Thomi unprotected there in charge of Sherwyn Bay and Thaena. Greedily they munched the lush grass beside the trail, yanking impatiently at the reins for more freedom. Got to be a struggle to maintain her balance.

His own hands full with Valient and Vespry, Stephan shot her that heart stopping smile and asked, “So—since your family feels we’re officially seeing each other—”

You let them think it! We’re not seeing each other!”

“We’re seeing each other right now! Should Persistence become my first name?”

She gave a sound of annoyance. “Thought it already was! Anyway, exercising my father’s horses together doesn’t mean we’re dating! Look, you were going to marry—Whatshername! Don’t you feel anything?”

He shook his head. “Nope.”

“Seriously?”

“She wasn’t worth having feelings for.”

She couldn’t let it go. Just couldn’t believe he could honestly feel nothing over such a cruel break up. “You aren’t angry or resentful? Disappointed? You can forget her—just like that?”

“Someone’s made me forget her—just like that!”

“Yeah, right!” But flushed at his soft caressing tone.

He chuckled and retorted, “Admit it! You’ve been doodling my name on every available blank space since yesterday!”

The blush deepened; she gave an involuntary choke of laughter and countered, “What’s the surprise? You keep turning up! But, that doesn’t mean I want you to!”

“I don’t know . . . I hardly think you’d waste time doodling my name if you didn’t! Besides, you want to forget Charley, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I’d like to forget him. Only how do you forget someone who’s—” She broke off abruptly, sucked a long breath and ended, “Look, I can’t forget! And being with you won’t change it! Don’t waste your breath trying to convince me it will!”

For a moment, he just stood watching her. Then, passing the two pairs of reins to his left hand, he advanced. Misliking his look, Thomi backed away. Thaena, urgently clipping the grass in that little area, found her in her path, and shoved her out of it. Still clutching both pairs of reins, Thomi stumbled into Stephan’s willing free arm.

Stiffening, Thomi let go the reins and twisted in his hold, wrenching free with more force than he ever expected from a person of her small stature. She backed again; this time into Sherwyn’s grazing spot. The colt wasted not a second in ridding it of her. Catching her this time, Stephan prepared for her struggle, trying for a hold that would be firm but gentle.

His consideration meant nothing to her.

She exploded into action, doing all she could to free herself. Luckily for him, Ming still hadn’t put in an appearance. Although that could happen any second if her loyal pet caught wind of her complaints! He recalled her acting something like this on the street yesterday. Strange that she hadn’t displayed such panic hanging from that scrubby little bush before that!

“Thomi! Thomi, I am not going to hurt you! Will you just calm down! I—ugh!” For she’d elbowed him squarely in the gut, winding him.

He hugged her tightly against him so she couldn’t do it again. But it only made her worse. He decided then, that she needed to face him. Not that she made that maneuver easy. Dropping the reins, he ordered, “Stop it, Thomi! I only want to talk to you!”

“Let . . . go!” She put all her weight into the attempt to free herself, her breath coming in hard gasps. No trust glowed in those dark green eyes.

“There’s no reason for you to—” He stopped, an unthinkable notion coming to mind. “What happened between you and Charley, Thomi? He has his faults, but I’ve never known him to be—”

Rebellion displaced fear. “Nothing happened! Let me go!”

He succeeded in making her face him. Acting on impulse, he took both her wrists in one hand, shoved back her sleeves. Unprepared for what he uncovered, for a moment he could only stare in disbelief. “Charley did this? Thomasyna . . .”

Her hands twisted agitatedly in his. “What do you care?”

There were many things he could have answered then. Things that might have helped him gain at least a sliver of her trust. None of those came front and center in his brain. Keeping her imprisoned with one hand, he plucked a ring out of his shirt pocket and held it up. “I’ll always care what happens to my wife, Thomasyna!”

Thomi gasped, taken totally off guard by both his passionate declaration and his producing of the ring. She recalled, all at once, her little brother’s happy statement earlier. “Know what? Stephan thaid he wantsth to mawr!”

“Mawry . . .  Marry you!”

That’s what Daine had been about to tell her when the ruckus occurred in the barn! Well, how could this idiot dare say that to little kids? Especially ones who’d blab it all around town within thirty seconds! And naturally, almost everyone would believe it.

Eight small, but perfect diamonds ringed an exquisite emerald—the two set left and right slightly larger than the pair fore and back—and all set in a white gold filigree band. A shaft of sunlight touched the stones, setting off the green fire in the emerald and making the diamonds flash and glitter. O, never had she seen stones as fine as these. Fabulous!

Didn’t that figure, though! Just like a guy to expect dinner and marriage—or sex, usually sex—just like that! Well, she might have to be grateful he’d saved her life; she might owe him a dinner for it. But marriage wasn’t open for debate.

Nor, at any moment before the ring—the wedding ring—was sex.

She stared up into those determined blues and stated flatly, “You are crazy!”

“I am,” he agreed. “About you!”

There was that in his deep blue gaze that seemed to confirm that idiotic pronouncement. For an unguarded instant, she lost her way in it, and he dared to gather her closer to him to prove it.

Her trance broke.

Thomi caught her breath in a little frightened gasp, for now these arms encircling her reminded her of Charley’s . . . possessive, unyielding, demanding. In her experience, this kind of hold meant but one thing.

With a strength borne of fear and wrathful desperation, she broke free of it.

“Thomi, wait!”

Not giving him so much as a glance to show she’d heard him, Thomi snatched up Sherwyn’s reins. Pulling him around between her and Stephan, she vaulted upon the colt’s back. Valient spooked just then, and Thaena bolted.

Stephan didn’t bother trying to catch them. Thinking only of stopping Thomi’s retreat, he made a grab for Sherwyn’s bridle. At the same time, Ming burst out of the bushes to Thomi’s right. He flew straight for Stephan, his eyes an unnerving shade of red.

Anticipating Stephan’s move, Thomi yanked on the reins, her hand unusually heavy. The colt reared, forcing Stephan back. Now he had to deal with Ming, who showed every sign of launching an attack.

As she wheeled Sherwyn about, pressing him into a headlong gallop, she heard Stephan’s stern command to her dog. His voice emitted a good deal of authority, but she didn’t stop to find out whether Ming had obeyed it. Down the trail she bolted, plowing through or going over whatever got in her way. Branches snagged her clothes and hair.

She never noticed.

The main trail came up before Thomi had time to cue Sherwyn toward the stable. Crossing the path into the brush, he skirted berry bushes and a stand of pines. The bay colt obeyed her signal to circle back, never breaking stride. Another branch whipped her face, stinging her eyes, making tears stream. She tried to check his speed for she couldn’t see a thing. Checked it just as she felt him collect himself for a mighty leap.

Desperate to gage her situation, Thomi managed to open her eyes a slit. She sucked in an apprehensive breath.

A large downed log blocked the trail completely. Much larger than anything Sherwyn had yet been schooled over.

If only she’d known—if only she hadn’t checked him!

A powerful thrust lifted him off the ground. Maybe, his gallant attempt would—

The sharp tick of hooves striking wood cut off that hope. As Sherwyn tumbled down hard on the other side, Thomi somersaulted through the air, slamming into a merciless elm . . .

Back to Chapter Two

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