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Horseman Spell by Cheryl Rhodes

Horseman Spell

by Cheryl Rhodes

Musa Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61937-334-1

Pam never expected to be spending time at the racetrack again, but a romantic connection with Scott – her ex-boyfriend’s brother – throws her back into the exciting world of horseracing. As if mysterious phone calls and unknown late night visitors weren’t enough trouble, big brother Lyle returns to town.

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Chapter One

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by Cheryl Rhodes

Musa Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61937-173-6

Holly Thompson rescues sexy horse trainer Matt Winter and flees with him and his look-a-like racehorse. The clues lead them to a California racetrack to solve who is behind the horse-swapping scheme. Is Matt a wealthy racehorse owner or is he just another backstretch con artist? Never bet on an imposter!

Note: Prologue omitted.
Chapter One

A distant yell broke the heavy silence, then cut off abruptly. Holly spun around, peering through the darkness, trying to see where the shadowy barn roofs ended and the pitch-black sky began. Across the arena, her horse, Scooby, stopped mid-trot and perked his ears at the barn. Silence once again settled over the otherwise peaceful racetrack, and after a few moments the horse lost interest and resumed its exercise. Holly shook her head. A drunken groom must be whooping it up in one of the barns. Life in the backstretch never changed: a flurry of activity in the morning, a ghost town by afternoon, and then back to life at dinnertime when grooms and trainers returned to feed the horses. The evening hours belonged to the hapless stable staff. With no other place to go, they bunked down in dingy tack rooms, giving their souls up to a bottle or the drugs that promised temporary relief from their miserable existence.
The moon kept darting behind clouds, and distant streetlights cast a ghostly glow over the grounds. Holly stood on tiptoe and peeked over the weather-beaten fence. The grandstand loomed on the far side of the track, larger than she remembered. Perhaps renovated and expanded since her stint as a groom? Canadian and American flags waved softly in the weak breeze. Her eyes swept across the tote board and toward the barns. She squinted as a figure came into view on the racetrack, pushing a wheelbarrow. At this time of night? The person turned, and Holly could see someone sprawled across the wheelbarrow. Just a couple of grooms, she figured, one or both likely drunk, goofing around giving each other wheelbarrow rides in the dead of the night. She turned back to Scooby, who was pawing the ground with his right hoof, preparing to roll. Down he went and all four legs flailed in the air as he gave himself a dirt bath. He sprang to his feet, snorted, shook off the excess dust, and continued his prowl around the arena. He’d be fine in here for the night.
Holly decided to return to her truck and try for some sleep. She took one final peek over the fence to see what the silly grooms were doing, and her heart stopped. The person pushing the wheelbarrow had reached the fountain at the center of the infield. She watched in wide-eyed horror as the wheelbarrow tipped up and the groom slipped into the water. There was no movement from the pond. Even if the groom was passed out drunk, surely the cold water would have woken him up. She ducked down and thought fast. If the groom didn’t wake up, he’d drown. What was the other man thinking, dumping a drunk into the fountain? She had to see if she could help. Her fingers clenched tightly around the lead shank as she jogged over to Scooby, snapped the lead on his halter, swung onto him bareback, and trotted to the backstretch area.
As she rounded a barn she nearly ran over a woman, spooking Scooby, who jumped sideways before continuing. Holly got a good look at the woman and for a moment wondered if this was the same person who had dumped the groom into the fountain. She could have sworn it was a man pushing the wheelbarrow, but she didn’t see the features too clearly, and a baseball cap had shadowed his face. This woman had long hair and was hatless, probably some unfortunate woman tangled up with a man who lived on the backstretch, either heading home or on her way to visit someone else’s tack room. She steered Scooby to an open gate, crossed the track, and trotted toward the fountain, hoping the man had crawled out and she’d find him passed out but alive. As Holly neared the pond, she saw him floating face down in the water. She covered the last few feet at a canter, flew off the horse’s back, and waded in. She flipped him over, put her hands under his armpits, and dragged him from the water. She paused momentarily, fighting back panic, staring at this man on the ground, completely depending on her. What do I do? she thought, mind blank, and then the first aid course she’d taken at the dude ranch kicked in. She dropped to her knees, put a hand on his hard chest, two fingers on his carotid artery, and bent her ear to his mouth, hoping to hear a breath or feel a pulse beating. She barely felt a weak pulse, but the man was not breathing. She pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket and dialed 911.
Quickly she gave a brief description and location, said she was starting artificial respiration, and then pushed the phone aside, not disconnecting the operator. Relieved she wasn’t performing full CPR, Holly knelt beside the man, tipped his head back, and blew her breath into his immobile body while desperately trying to remember the first-aid class. Several minutes passed. She heard distant sirens and hoped it wouldn’t take too long for the paramedics to find her.
“Please breathe,” she whispered to the man before blowing again into his mouth. Then an extraordinary thing happened. His mouth clamped onto hers, and he was kissing her in the middle of her lifesaving routine! She pulled backward, away from his kiss, and his arms slightly lifted, hands reaching for her body, searching, wanting more. Holly rocked back on her heels and watched him closely. Was this all a bad joke? Had he been holding his breath, teasing her, then possessing her mouth when he couldn’t hold his breath any more? His searching arms fell limply to the grass, his eyes stayed shut, and his chest rose and fell slowly but steadily as his lungs filled with air. Holly decided a groom couldn’t be that good at faking unconsciousness.
He was a big man, a six-footer at least, lean but well muscled from his years of cleaning stalls and grooming horses. He didn’t look anything like the grooms she remembered. With his blonde hair and tanned, chiseled face, he looked more like a California surfer boy than a Canadian horseman. She noticed a bulge in his front pocket. Guessing it was his wallet and she might need to give his identification to the 911 operator, she pulled the soggy billfold out.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” she whispered, wishing that saying the words would make it true. She turned back to her cell phone and picked it up. The operator was still on the line. “He’s breathing now, and I can hear the sirens.”
“You did a great job,” praised the woman on the other end of the phone. “That was terrific. The fire department is in the parking lot and should be there in seconds.”
Holly glanced to the fence near the grandstand. “I see them. They’re climbing over the fence.”
“I’ll let them take over,” said the operator.
Holly stood and waved to the firemen, then knelt again beside the man whose eyes, the color of a turbulent ocean, were now open, watching her warily.
“Are you okay?”
His mouth tried to move, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Shh, don’t say anything. Help is here.”
“Don’t need help,” he managed to growl.
“Hey, man, they have to take you to the hospital and check you out. You were in the water, and you weren’t breathing when I got here. You might be hurt or have water in your lungs.”
“Can’t go to the hospital. Got stuff to do.” He barely dragged the words out, scowling at her. Holly hoped his attitude was just a result of the terrible trauma he’d been through.
The paramedics arrived and she stepped out of their way, returning to Scooby, who had roamed a short distance away, contentedly grazing. A stretcher arrived and the groom let out a string of curses at their insistence that he was going to the hospital. A policeman approached Holly.
“Any idea who he is?” asked the policeman.
“Nope, never seen him before in my life.” She then told the officer why she happened to be at the racetrack at this time of night.
She told him what she’d observed and her part in the rescue. No, she hadn’t got a good look at the man with the wheelbarrow. Too dark and distant. She added she’d seen a woman near one of the barns, and the policeman scribbled her description.
Holly turned back to the man she’d rescued. Several firemen and paramedics were struggling to get him on the stretcher. His arms and legs thrashed, and his yells and curses left no doubt he was not happy about an ambulance ride to Community Hospital.
The victim was finally strapped onto the stretcher and wheeled away.
The remaining policemen joined Holly and the officer taking her statement. He snapped his notebook shut and looked around at the other officers. “Let’s search the barns, see if anyone is awake, and find more witnesses.”
Holly and Scooby followed the officers back to the barns. Holly was mentally kicking herself. Why did she have to stop here for the night and put herself in the middle of a crime scene? On the other hand, she was glad to be in the right place at the right time to save the man’s life. She stopped to wrap her arms around her horse’s neck and gave him a big hug. Holly never went anywhere without Scooby, and he was a willing passenger on this crazy midnight trip through the United States. He’d been cooped up in the horse trailer for over six hours, and Holly knew the arena beside the racetrack was the last chance the horse would have for exercise before crossing the border. No vet would be on duty at the American Customs until seven o’clock, so there wasn’t much point in continuing the last six miles to the border. Scooby was enjoying a few hours of freedom before loading back on the trailer. Months ago they had tried out for a coveted spot on the prestigious Hoof Beats Drill Team from Springfield, Oregon, but as time dragged on, Holly had given up hope of securing a position. The call finally came, an immediate opening, with the question, “How fast can you get to Oregon?” It would be six hours to reach the Canada/US border, and another seven or eight hours to reach Springfield; barring any delays, Holly could reach her destination by mid-afternoon. With her adrenalin pumping with the excitement of making the drill team, she doubted she would sleep again until she arrived at the farm in Oregon, her new home for as long as she remained with the Hoof Beats.
Holly wanted to change out of her wet blue jeans, socks, and shoes. She contemplated loading Scooby back in the trailer, driving to the border, and parking there until the vet arrived to check her paperwork. That wouldn’t be fair to the horse, but this racetrack had turned into a spooky experience. As she neared her truck, she saw that the driver’s door was ajar. She stopped walking abruptly and Scooby bumped into her. Holly had parked next to the arena and hadn’t locked up because the rig was in her sight and she hadn’t expected to leave the area. Darn! Some rotten scumbucket had found her truck unlocked and rifled through it. There was no money or cigarettes inside, and she hoped the intruder hadn’t gone into the trailer to steal any of her belongings. She noticed a police officer outside the nearest barn and called him over. He arrived and took a quick look.
“Is anything missing?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, but I haven’t checked the horse trailer yet.”
“Is this yours?” He stooped over to retrieve a piece of paper. The paperwork he picked up from the ground was the truck insurance and registration.
Could someone be trying to find information about her? The man pushing the wheelbarrow? The woman she’d seen at the barn? It didn’t matter anyway. She no longer lived at the address on the paperwork. So they knew her name—a little unnerving—but anyone looking for her would never think to look in Oregon.
“There’s no point in taking fingerprints and nothing is missing, so if you’re okay, I’ll head back to the barns. Give me a shout if you notice anything else.”
Holly nodded and took her papers from the policeman. She slipped into the trailer’s change room to get into dry jeans, and the man’s wallet fell from her pocket. She’d have to give it to the police so they could return it to him. She jiggled the damp leather in her palm, then finally gave in to her curiosity and opened it. The man had a lot of money in both Canadian and American currency: hundred dollar bills and a few fifties and twenties. Obviously robbery had not been the objective of his attempted murder. There was an abundance of credit cards in the wallet. No way could a low-paid groom get this kind of credit and cash. Maybe a drug dealer? Had he been hanging around the racetrack ten years ago during her tenure? She doubted it. She would have remembered a big guy like him and his California good looks. The name on the driver’s license was Matt Winter, and it was issued in the state of Ohio. So maybe he wasn’t a surfer boy after all.
As Holly walked back to the barns, a car pulled into the parking lot and a scowling man stepped out in front of her. She quickly pushed the wallet into her jacket pocket and curled her fingers over the cell phone in case she had to use it again.
“I don’t recognize you. Can I help you?”
“No thanks,” Holly answered. “I’m just going to talk to one of the policemen.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
Holly hesitated. What if this was the man who’d been pushing the wheelbarrow?
“Sorry, man, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t feel comfortable this time of night with a stranger. Weird things happening around here.”
He smiled slightly but didn’t manage to look friendly. “Sorry. I’m Terry Johnson, manager of the racetrack. The police called my house and told me there’s been an incident. I need to find a policeman too. Why are you here?”
Holly relaxed slightly, obviously in the presence of a man with authority on the track.
“I’m doing an overnighter to Oregon and stopped for a rest.”
Before she could say anything else, a police officer came into sight. Johnson waved him over and introduced himself. The officer told him they were searching the barn area for anyone who might have witnessed a fight.
“Anyone can get onto the racetrack,” Johnson said. “Our security guards are stationed at the gates only during the racing season. Our season just ended, so there’s no security for a couple of months.”
Two other officers approached holding papers. “We found these scattered in Barn Three in front of some stalls.”
“Those are feed bills,” Johnson said, taking a look. “Matt Winter’s stable.”
Holly’s ears perked up at the name, and she felt the weight of his wallet inside her coat pocket.
“I wonder if that’s the man they took to the hospital,” mused the officer.
“He’s been involved in some incidents. Not well liked around the track.” Johnson’s eyes traveled to Holly, and the officers followed his gaze.
She became uncomfortable and suddenly reluctant to share the news that Matt Winter’s money-laden wallet was in her pocket. Call it woman’s intuition, but Johnson was giving her the creeps, and for some unknown reason she didn’t want him to know about the wallet.
“If I’m not needed anymore, I’d like to leave.”
One of the policemen gave her a business card. “Once you get to Oregon, I’d appreciate it if you’d give me a call and your new phone number. If we catch the man responsible, we’ll need your testimony at a trial.”
“OK.” Holly sighed. She thought chances were slim the police would catch the man, unless Matt Winter decided to cooperate and tell them who it was. She wasn’t too thrilled about returning to British Columbia to be a trial witness.
Behind the wheel of her truck, Holly was faced with the dilemma of the wallet in her pocket, cursing herself for not just handing it over to the police, which she would have done if Johnson hadn’t been standing there giving her the evil eye. She couldn’t very well go back to them now and confess the wallet had slipped her mind. She decided to make the quick drive to Community Hospital and return it to Mr. Winter herself. Briefly she toyed with the idea of taking his money and running, but she was too honest to do that no matter how tempting several hundred dollars sounded.
It was easy to park her rig in the nearly deserted hospital parking lot. Once inside the bright building, she made her way to the emergency room. Five people filled the waiting room, and she stepped past them into the emergency ward. Right away she heard Matt Winter kicking up a fuss about the doctor putting a cold stethoscope on his chest. She moved quickly across the room to where he lay, standing beside the open curtain until his eyes caught hers. The doctor followed his patient’s gaze and glanced at her without much interest.
“My girlfriend,” Matt muttered, taking Holly by surprise. That was the last thing she’d expected him to say. She asked him how he was feeling.
“I’m fine. I want to get out of here now.”
Holly looked helplessly at the doctor, who sighed. He was experienced at dealing with unruly patients, but this man was wearing him out.
“He’s refusing to tell us his name,” the doctor grumbled.
“Matt Winter,” she replied, inwardly pleased at the shock on the patient’s face.
“Thank you.” The doctor scribbled on his pad. “Mr. Winter, we cannot release you. You have a bump on your head from where you were hit, and you were submerged in a pond without breathing for at least one minute. You don’t have any broken bones that I can feel, but I’m setting you up for X-rays just to be sure. I can’t hear water in your lungs, and the way you’ve been yelling, I’m sure you will be fine, but we have to keep you here for at least a few more hours.”
“No! If I had any broken bones, I’d know. I’ve felt worse than this plenty of times and never went to the hospital. I’m moving my stable of horses in a few hours and have to get out of here.”
The doctor turned to Holly. “Can you make him see reason? He is not leaving the hospital tonight. Maybe later in the day, depending on the X-rays. I’ll be back.”
He hustled off to a patient waiting in another room.
Holly was left staring into Matt’s hostile eyes. “Guess you’re stuck staying here.”
“What are you doing here? And how do you know my name anyway?”
The lack of sleep was beginning to catch up to Holly. “You’re the rudest man I’ve met in a long time! I’d think you could at least manage a ‘thank you’ for saving your life. Here. I took your wallet out while I was helping you breathe again and looked at your ID. Your money’s all there. Don’t insult me by counting it in front of me.”
She flung it on his bed and marched out of the emergency room and to the exit, thankful she’d never have to see that angry man again. She saw the ladies room and stopped for a quick visit before continuing to the parking lot. Leaning against her truck, tall and lean, his surfer blonde hair glimmering from the street lamp, was Matt.
“I figured this had to be yours. Only horse trailer on the lot.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed? What are you doing?” She jerked a hand back at the hospital.
“Can’t hang around. Where are you going? I need a ride.”
“You won’t like where I’m going. I’m heading for Oregon. Alone.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Did you hear me say ‘alone’? I’m not taking you across the border with me. You’re probably a drug dealer or a murderer, and I’ll get arrested and lose my truck and trailer and horse.”
“I’m not a drug dealer and I don’t have a criminal record. I can pay my way if you’re worried about money. Please. You have to help me.”
She looked at him in exasperation. “I don’t have to do anything. Get someone else to help you.”
She unlocked the door of the truck, but in an instant he was beside her, his fingers curling around her arm, five miniature lightening bolts searing her skin.
“Please. They tried to kill me. I need help. I’m sorry I didn’t thank you back there. I’m extremely grateful you rescued me. Very lucky. How can I put into words the thanks you deserve for saving my life? Thank you so much.”
She looked into his deep blue eyes, now the color of a turquoise sky, and tried to ignore the electricity charging from his fingers into her arm. He was a good foot taller and standing close enough to kiss her. She felt her face go warm as she remembered the caress of his lips after he’d started breathing again. She relented a little as his gratitude softened her.
“I’ll take you back to the racetrack. Maybe the police will still be there. They’ll help you.”
He laughed bitterly. “I don’t trust the cops.”
Typical racetrack man. One foot on each side of the law.
“And you trust me? We don’t even know each other.”
“You saved my life. I owe you big time, and I’ll owe you even more if you help me.”
He was a handsome man, now that he’d knocked off the attitude and bad language and was speaking in soft tones he saved for the ladies. A persuasive man, and she could tell he had some education behind him. A different breed than the regular horseman.
“I’ve got a job waiting for me in Oregon. I can’t have you just tagging along.” What was she saying? Holly felt herself wavering, wanting a few more hours in this strange man’s company. No. She pushed those thoughts aside. This was a horseman, not someone to get involved with. Men like him broke the hearts of every girl they touched.
“I’ve got a place to go to in Wilsonville, Oregon, just south of Portland. This will work out great for me. Please. You have to take me with you.”
“What about your horses? I thought you said you’re moving your stable.” Holly was trying to find excuses for him. There had to be some reason why this man could not travel with her.
“I have an assistant trainer and two grooms. They can ship the horses.”
“Well, I can’t leave for a few hours. The vet doesn’t get to the border till seven.”
“Or you can call a vet to meet you there and sign off the paperwork for customs.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have a vet down here anymore, and I don’t want to shell out the cash to have a vet meet me after hours. You don’t expect me to look through the yellow pages and wake up a vet in the middle of the night when it’s not an emergency?”
“I’ll pay for it. I’ll call my vet to meet us at the border. He’s a good guy. Can I use your cell phone?”
Holly’s fingers curled around it in her jacket pocket, and she slowly nodded. She must be crazy. But she would like to get driving as soon as possible, and if his vet would meet them at the border and he’d foot the bill, well, why not? She’d like to learn more about this mystery man. He flashed her a quick grin.
“Can I ask another favor?”
“If we’re traveling together, I’d sure like to know your name. The customs officers will think it’s suspicious if we don’t know each other’s names.”
“Holly Thompson.”
“That’s a pretty name. How about another favor, Holly?”
“What’s one more? Shoot.”
“A quick stop at the racetrack to pick up one of my horses. I want to take her with us. You’ve got room in your trailer.”
“I’ve got bales of hay and some of my stuff in the other stall.”
“That’ll take a couple of minutes to throw in the back of your truck.” He moved to open the door of the horse trailer, and before Holly could think of any words to protest bringing his horse on the trip, he had begun the transfer.
“Are you sure you can do that? You should be resting.”
“I feel fine,” he reassured her. “You heard the doc. No broken bones, no water in my lungs. Trust me. I’ve felt worse than this.”
“We’ll need the paperwork for your horse.” Holly didn’t know how to say no to a passenger horse, but if he didn’t have the paperwork, they wouldn’t be able to cross into Washington.
“Got it right here.” He patted his front pocket, the bulge indicating his wallet was back where she’d originally found it. “When you were rooting through my wallet, you missed her registration papers, and my vet has the medical records. Here, give me your phone.”
Too tired to argue with him, she passed it over and waited while he called his vet.
“He’ll meet us there in thirty minutes.” Matt told her. He dialed another number. “I need to call my assistant.”
After apologizing for waking him, Matt convinced Lenny to meet them at the border with his suitcase. “Luckily I was already packed,” he told Holly. “We were planning to ship out in the morning.”
“How come your suitcase is at your assistant’s house?”
“I rented the house for all of us to live in while we’re in Cloverdale. Lenny’s wife, Sue, grooms for us, and Glenn, my other groom, is there too. I treat my staff well.”
Moments later Holly was driving down the road to the backstretch, silently berating herself for allowing Matt to talk himself and a horse into joining her journey. A sideways glance at her passenger made her heart thump a little faster. It was rather exciting to be running away with a handsome stranger in the dead of night. She could only pray that he wasn’t a dangerous stranger. She frowned. Surely he couldn’t be a murderer or rapist. He turned and caught her looking at him and gave her a tired smile. “Thank you again, Holly. I know you’re taking a chance on me, and I really appreciate your help. I’ll make it up to you. Anything you want.”
She gulped. The only thing she really wanted was to know what it was like to have this gorgeous stranger hold her in his arms. Would that electric current course through her body as he rubbed his hands up and down her back? What would his mouth feel like on hers? She brushed the thoughts aside, embarrassed to be thinking of becoming romantically involved with a man she’d barely met. A good-looking guy like him must have a girlfriend.
“How do you suggest we get your horse off the track? Someone is going to see you and the horse walking out.”
“Drive up to Barn Three. I’ll duck down so no one sees me. Are the cops still there?”
“I can’t see them. They parked on the other side by the grandstand and walked over, so they might still be in the barns.”
She glanced at her passenger who was trying to crumple his large frame sideways, his head nearly in her lap. “Which side of Barn Three?”
“Left side and stop at the middle door.”
Holly drove through the unguarded gates.
“The guy who manages the racetrack, his car is still here.”
“Johnson’s a jerk.”
She pulled the truck up to the barn’s side entrance, turned off the engine, and looked down at Matt.
“Okay, when you go in, turn to your right. She’s in the second stall down and wearing a halter with ‘Meadow Prancer’ engraved on it. Grab any lead shank. I’ve got them hanging all over the place.”
“What do you mean, I’m getting your horse? You want to bring her, you go on in there and get her yourself.”
“Holly, someone tried to kill me. What if they’re hanging around waiting for me to come back?”
“Why don’t you just tell the police who they are? And I doubt they’re hanging around with the cops crawling all over the place.”
“Please? I don’t want anyone to see me and know I’m out of the hospital.”
“What if someone sees me and I get arrested for attempted horse theft?”
“Not going to happen. Trust me. Please, just go on and get my mare.”
The man could talk a dog out of a big, meaty soup bone. He had a gentle persuasion that was impossible for horses and women to resist. Holly rolled her eyes and strode to the back of the trailer to let down the tailgate ramp. Scooby nickered softly and turned to look at her.
“Sorry, boy, you’re not coming out. You’re getting a passenger in a minute.”
Holly entered the dim barn, lit with only a couple of low-watt bulbs. She saw the main light switch but didn’t flick it on. If the police were still on the backstretch, she didn’t want to attract attention to herself and the removal of one Standardbred racehorse. Holly smelled the sweet aroma of alfalfa and listened to crackling straw as horses rustled softly in the stalls and poked their heads out to see the late visitor. She moved quickly to the second stall, read the horse’s name, Meadow Prancer, snapped on the lead shank, and unlatched the stall door.
“Come on girl,” she whispered, and the sleek, bay horse willingly followed. She walked the horse out the barn door and turned to her trailer.
“Stop right there!”

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