This one is getting some fantastic reviews!
All the King’s Horses
by Lauren Gallagher
Cover: Lori Witt
Length: 91,000 words
Amy Dover’s dream of training horses has come with a price. The pressures of her career—not to mention an oppressive husband and business partner—have sucked out all the joy the horses used to bring her. After her husband’s sudden death, Amy leaves that world behind and takes a job as a farmhand so she find her passion—and herself.
Dustin King has more than enough on his plate. He’s got a full barn and a packed training roster that includes rescued horses who need more attention than he can spare. The last thing he wants to deal with is a woman who’s unnervingly indifferent toward horses, no matter how attractive she is.
Except Amy isn’t as indifferent as Dustin thought. In fact, working with two traumatized horses might be just what she needs, and as Amy and Dustin bond with the rescued horses, they also bond with each other. Dustin reignites something else Amy thought she’d lost forever. No matter how much they try to resist, the spark that draws them together keeps getting hotter.
But Amy has known from the beginning that she’ll one day go back to her old life. She just didn’t plan on having someone to leave behind this time…
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I didn’t go to my husband’s funeral.
It was a closed-casket service, so there’d be no closure from seeing him one last time. I didn’t care to see him again anyway, closure or no. All the tearful sentiments—he was so young, it was so tragic, he was such a wonderful man—would have sent me right into the ground with him. I couldn’t stomach the thought of one more person patting my shoulder and telling me how sorry they were, how horrible it must be for me, and to call if I needed anything at all.
The night before they buried Sam, I quietly packed the few things I couldn’t live without into my truck. Whatever belongings didn’t fit, I left in the too big, too quiet house. The next day, at a little past noon and right around the time my family and friends were probably all dressed in black and filing into the church, I climbed into the cab and drove out of town without looking back.
I didn’t know where I was going.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. I had an address entered into my GPS. I had a job lined up, a place to stay, a destination in mind. But beyond that? I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything anymore except that I needed to get far, far from here so I could collect my thoughts and
and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t even say I needed to sort out my feelings, because I didn’t feel anything. No pain. No grief. No anger. Nothing but the restlessness reverberating through me and telling me to just get the hell out of here.
So I drove.
I was forty-eight miles from home and two from the county line when my cell phone rang. If the caller ID had showed any other name, I’d have ignored it, but since it was my older sister, I answered.
Cringing, I said, “Hey.”
“Honey, where are you?” Mariah asked in a hushed whisper. Voices murmured in the background as she added, “The service is starting any minute.”
The service. My husband’s memorial service. There should have been a lump in my throat or something, maybe even some hot, seething anger, but I felt absolutely nothing. Even the makeup-concealed mark on my face wasn’t throbbing anymore.
“I’m not coming.” Ugh. Could I have sounded any more like a petulant brat? Stomp, stomp, I’m not coming, and you can’t make me. As if it really was that simple or that petty.
“You’re not coming?” Anyone else would have read me the riot act, but Mariah just lowered her voice a little more and asked, “Why not?”
She was quiet for a moment. I thought she might be chewing on what I’d said, thinking of a response, but soft movement on the other end suggested she was relocating to someplace where fewer people might overhear. The voices in the background quieted, and Mariah said, “What’s going on?”
“I can’t do it,” I said. “Look, there’s a lot I can’t explain right now. I just, I need to get away fromeverything. Clear my head, I guess.”
“Get away? Meaning?”
“Meaning I’m—” I paused. “I’m leaving, actually.”
“Where are you going?”
“I need…” I glanced at the rearview, meeting my own eyes for a second before I focused on the road ahead. “I just need to go away. Get myself back together.”
“Okay, but where?”
I gnawed my lower lip. I really didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want any of them to try to find me. I just needed to be as alone as I could get for a while. Taking a deep breath, I held the steering wheel tighter. “Just don’t worry about me, okay?”
“You know I will.”
Leaving Snohomish County. The sign whipped past my truck, and I slowly exhaled.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“You’re blowing town while we’re burying your husband.” Mariah’s voice was gentle but insistent. “That’s not fine, Amy. That’s going off the deep end.”
“Well, maybe that’s what I need to do, then,” I said quietly. “Maybe I need to go off the deep end.”
My sister was silent for a long moment. “When you get a chance,” she said finally, “could you at least e-mail me and let me know where you’re at with the horses on your training schedule? So I can work with them for you?”
Guilt twisted under my ribs. I’d been in such a hurry to get away, I hadn’t thought about everything else I was leaving behind. “Oh, man, I’m sorry, Mariah. I’m leaving you in a lurch, aren’t I?”
It’s not too late. I can turn around. Hardly anyone even knows I’m gone yet. King’s Ranch probably won’t have any trouble replacing me. Farmhands are a dime a dozen.
“Amy. Honey.” Mariah’s voice was the closest it could be to a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “If this is what you need to do, then I’ll hold down the fort while you’re gone. I’ll bring in an extra pair of hands if I have to, but you just go. We’ll all be here when you come back.”
When I come back.
Am I coming back?
I swallowed. It hadn’t even occurred to me before this point how long I might be gone, or if I might go back at all.
But all I said was, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she said. “What should I tell people?”
I gritted my teeth. “Just tell them I’m okay, and I need some time to deal with everything.”
“How much of that is true?”
I rested my elbow beneath the window and rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, the last part at least.”
“That’s what I figured.” Mariah sighed. “Take care of yourself, all right?”
“And you can call me any time. You know that.”
“Thanks.” I paused. “You can call me too. I’ll still have my phone.”
“I’m sure I will,” she said. “I have to go. The service is about to start.”
I exhaled. So I was really doing this. My husband’s funeral was starting, and I was really driving seventy-five miles an hour in the opposite direction and wondering if I could possibly get away any faster.
“Okay,” I said, gripping the steering wheel tighter as I pressed down on the accelerator. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Aside from the engine and the hum of the road beneath my tires, the truck’s cab was hollow and silent without my sister’s voice. I flipped on the radio, but the music just annoyed me, so I went back to silence.
And I kept driving.
My chest ached with guilt. Part of me wished I could think that ache away, but part of me was admittedly glad to feel something for the first time since long before Sam died, even if it was just guilt that I’d left my oppressively huge workload in my sister’s lap. Maybe I should have done this sooner. While he was still alive and could have dealt with the fallout of me leaving.
Yeah, right. I wouldn’t have made it past the end of the driveway.
But Sam couldn’t stop me today, and I would find a way to make this up to Mariah, so I drove, and I kept on driving. Mile after mile, city after city, over the ear-popping mountain pass and down into the desert scrubland while the familiar evergreen trees faded in the rearview. An off-ramp took me from the interstate to a rural highway, and that highway wound between cornfields, wheat fields and dry brown hills that lounged across the landscape like lazy Shar Pei dogs.
The highway narrowed, and the speed limit inched down from fifty-five to forty-five to thirty-five. It dipped into the twenties as I rolled through a no-name town with dusty pickups parked along the sidewalks in front of places with names like “Mom’s Diner” and “Aunt Edna’s Groceries.” On the other edge of town—the first edge still being visible in my rearview—the speed limit picked up to forty-five again, and I continued weaving and winding my way past the fields and hills.
With every mile, I was less and less sure about this. It wasn’t like me to just drop everything and run, especially without saying a word to anyone until the wheels were already in motion. The more unfamiliar scenery I passed, the more real it all became, and this strange brand of newfound freedom became almost suffocating in its uncertainty.
But I couldn’t turn back. If I’d thought this through before I left, I’d have talked myself out of it, and now that I’d come this far, pride wouldn’t let me face my family yet, not after they’d probably heard what was going on. What I was doing. How badly I was losing my mind.
And anyway, I told myself, I had a job waiting for me out here. A menial one in which I was very, very replaceable, but still one I’d committed to start tomorrow. If I decided to go back to the world I’d just left–and the job to which I should have been way more committed—fine, but not at the last second. I’d left enough people high and dry this week.
And I had to do this. One more second within those familiar walls and fences and I’d have gone even more insane than I was apparently going right now.
Of all things that could have offered me some kind of comfort today, I found relief in the moment I turned off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. When my back tires bumped from the lip of asphalt onto the rough, pothole-littered gravel, I rolled my shoulders like a huge weight had been lifted off them.
I was no longer connected to the never-ending knot of pavement that tangled and twisted together in one giant rat’s nest of streets and highways. I was no longer tied to the loops and straightaways and exits and off-ramps that, no matter how far I’d driven, always bound me to that one blood-stained intersection. As dust kicked up from my tires and I navigated around potholes the size of grain buckets, that intersection no longer haunted my rearview mirror.
I wasn’t free. Not yet. But I was a mile closer to it.
“Next left,” my GPS announced, and I took the turn.
I was in one of the river valleys now, and the dirt road took me past more fields and—thank God—some forested areas. Not as thick and green as on the other side of the state, but not quite so desolate and scrubby as every uncultivated stretch I’d seen for the last few hours. Off and on, between small clusters of trees, white fences surrounded herds of cattle. Then horses. Then cattle again.
And finally, long after the sun had settled behind the distant mountains, I turned down a long, dusty driveway and drove under an arching sign that read King’s Ranch. Twin fences lined the driveway and guided me to the heart of the ranch, where two log houses and a large barn with pale aluminum sides stood in front of a covered arena.
I pulled up beside the barn. When I turned off my headlights, the milky glow of a few mercury vapor lamps kept the night from closing in.
As I got out of the truck, a light came on behind me, and I turned around as an older gentleman in dusty jeans and a cowboy hat stepped off the front porch of the larger house.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked, Texas dripping off every syllable.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m Amy Dover.”
He stopped, straightening like I’d just shocked the hell out of him. “Are you, now?”
“Well. How about that.” He continued toward me and extended his hand. “I’m John King.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “We spoke via e-mail.”
He smiled, the weathered corners of his eyes crinkling. “We did. Now, Dustin owns the place—I’m mostly retired now—but I can show you where you’ll be staying.”
“Is Dustin here?” I asked as we started walking across the gravel driveway.
“Not tonight,” John said. “He’s down in Oregon picking up a couple new horses. I imagine he’ll be home around noon tomorrow, so that ought to give you some time to settle in.”
In spite of the voice in my head that decided—again—to question everything I was doing, I managed a smile. “Sounds good.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Ms. Dover,” he said. “We’ve been hurtin’ since the last hand left, especially with Dustin being away this past week.” He gestured at himself. “These old bones can’t do all this nonsense anymore, I’ll tell ya.”
“Glad to help,” I said.
You have no idea how much you and Dustin are saving my sanity right now
John led me across the driveway to one of the two log houses. The one he’d come out of a moment ago was two-story, while the one he led me toward was single-story but wider than the other. Almost like two small ranch-style houses pressed up against each other. When I’d agreed to take this job as a live-in farmhand, I’d expected a tiny apartment, maybe a converted loft over the barn or a mother-in-law suite beside the house, but, by the looks of it, this was a full-size duplex.
As we walked onto the porch, John said, “Dustin lives on that side.” He gestured at the door on the far right of the wide porch. As he started toward the left side, he said, “And this side is yours.”
“Interesting setup,” I said.
“Well, we built the duplex so the kids had places to stay,” he said. “It was cheaper, you see, building one instead of two. But our daughter decided she didn’t want to stay on the farm, so we decided to use her half for farmhands. Ain’t a lot of other places for someone to live around here, and it meant we didn’t have to convert the barn office into an apartment, so it worked out nicely.”
He pushed open the door and made an “after you” gesture.
I went inside and looked around.
The cabin was small but cozy. It was pleasantly decorated in a country style that matched the old, probably antique furniture. From what I’d heard about Eastern Washington’s winters, I had a feeling that wood-burning stove would come in handy in a few months.
Not that I planned to be here that long. I didn’t think so, anyway.
“I hope this will do for ya.” John took off his weathered old cowboy hat as he stepped inside. “Ain’t exactly a New York penthouse, but it’s what we’ve got.”
“It’s fine.” I took in my surroundings. In fact, I liked the tiny place. It was small, and it was—more or less—mine. After sharing a house that was simultaneously way too big for two people and entirely too small for Sam and me, this was perfect. Turning to John, I said, “It’ll be just fine. Thank you.”
“Good, good.” He put on his hat and inched toward the door. “Well, I’ll let you get settled in. In the morning, I can show you around the farm.”
“Thank you,” I said.
He went back up to the main house while I grabbed a few things out of the truck. Not a whole lot—I hadn’t brought much anyway—but just the bare minimum to tide me over until tomorrow. Then I went into the tiny, warmly decorated bedroom that was mine for the foreseeable future.
Just the sight of the queen-size bed made me doubly aware of how exhausted I was. Every muscle ached, and my eyes were heavy like I’d just come home from a grueling, weeklong competition. Time to get some sleep. I could deal with thinking and all of that when the sun came up.
I went into the bathroom and, without looking in the narrow mirror above the sink, washed the concealer off my face. It was only when the water swirling down the drain was clear, devoid of even a single trace of color, that I forced myself to look at my reflection.
The bruise had faded, but not by much. The edges had expanded a little, radiating out from the darker center that covered my cheekbone, and the farther they reached down my cheek and up to my eye, the lighter they were. At least it was more of a sickly blue-green today rather than the deep, furious purple it had been the morning after. Another week or so of applying and reapplying concealer—wonderful when I’d be working outside in dusty summer heat—and it would be gone.
My gaze drifted from the bruise to the leather string suspended around my neck and dipping beneath my collar. Swallowing hard, I reached up and pulled it out from under my shirt, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when my gold wedding band caught the light from the single bulb above the mirror. The heavy ball of lead that had taken up residence in my stomach sank a little deeper, and I let my gaze flick back and forth from the ring to the mark on my face.
One would go away on its own. The other, only when I took the initiative and took the damn thing off. And left it off this time.
Sighing, I let the ring drop onto my chest, wondering how a band that thin could be so heavy. One of these days, I’d take it off. Maybe even get rid of it.
But tonight, I just
I couldn’t. Not now. It was too soon.
Too soon? I should have taken this thing off years ago.
Maybe so, but I had my limits. Skipping town and blowing off Sam’s funeral pushed those limits, but taking off the ring? I wasn’t ready for that yet.
I closed my hand around the ring, the metal cool against my skin and the guilt hot in my otherwise numb chest. Closing my eyes, I could still hear the rumble of his motorcycle fading into the distance. I could still taste the venomous whispered prayer that it would be the last time I heard that sound, that he really wasn’t coming back this time.
Guess you should be careful what you wish for.
Lauren Gallagher is an abnormal romance writer who has recently been exiled from the glittering utopia of Omaha, Nebraska, to an undisclosed location in South America. Along with her husband, a harem of concubines, and a phosphorescent porcupine, she remains, as always, in hiding from the Polynesian Mafia. For the moment, she seems to have eluded her nemesis, M/M romance author L.A. Witt, but figures L.A. will eventually become bored with the wilds of Spain and come looking for her. And when that time comes, Lauren will be ready. Assuming L.A. doesn’t have her hands full keeping track of Lori A. Witt and Ann Gallagher, which she probably will.
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