Unbridled Murder, page 1
The Carson Stables Mystery series by Leigh Hearon
Reining in Murder
Saddle Up for Murder
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Table of Contents
The Carson Stables Mystery series by Leigh Hearon
To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.
KENSINGTON BOOKS are published by
Kensington Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10018
Copyright © 2018 by Leigh Hearon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the Publisher and neither the Author nor the Publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.
First Kensington Mass Market Edition: January 2018
First Kensington Electronic Edition: January 2018
For Eddie and Lefty, who crossed over to safety,
and for all of their compatriots
who have not.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING, AUGUST 2
Annie’s face was infused with damp sweat. The bright fluorescent light overhead nearly blinded her, and it took all her willpower not to twist and squirm from its pitiless gaze. She scrunched her eyes and tried to breathe evenly. She vowed that she would not speak or cry out in pain, no matter what happened.
The word floated above her, and Annie wanted to kick the speaker. She didn’t, and the speaker continued, in a gentle, soothing tone.
“If you squeeze your eyes like that, I can’t do my job. And you do want beautiful eyebrows, don’t you?”
Did she? Annie had never given much thought to her eyebrows. But apparently, her girlfriends had, and they had pretty much demanded that she do something about them before she saw that fabulously handsome man again.
Lisa Brunswell, one of Annie’s newest friends and her very first stable assistant, was the most adamant. It probably was her age, Annie thought. Lisa was at least two decades younger than she was, the time when things like waxed eyebrows and silky-smooth skin still mattered. Annie was about to turn forty-four, and aside from slapping on a bit of moisturizer before bed—when she remembered—she didn’t really think about her face. Her horses had never complained about her looks.
But then Marcus Colbert had entered her life, and everything had changed. Deliciously so.
And now here she was, lying on a massage table with her knees propped up and her hair pulled back into a plump white towel, and feeling extremely vulnerable. She’d felt more courage when she’d encountered a black bear on her property last autumn.
“Your skin might be a little red after the procedure, so we’re doing the eyebrows first,” the voice continued. “But by the time I’ve finished with your facial, you’ll look perfectly normal. Radiant, in fact. Now, hold still, please. And relax the eyes. That’s it.”
Annie breathed out and thought, not for the first time, that Marcus had seemed to like her just fine when he had first met her. She’d been wearing dusty cowboy boots and faded jeans.
* * *
Two hours later, Annie had to admit she looked remarkably better than any time in recent memory. Her skin was glowing, and somehow her green eyes looked more vibrant when unruly eyebrows didn’t take center stage. She’d initially squawked at the stylist’s insistence on trimming her long, dark brown hair and could barely watch as four inches of it languidly slipped to the salon floor. But looking at herself in the mirror thirty minutes later, she realized the shorter length gave her hair more bounce and shape.
She felt beautiful but had no time to revel in her new stunning self. Annie was meeting Marcus at Port Chester’s one French restaurant in two short hours, and she still had to go home to change and check on the horses before making the half-hour drive to the county’s most populated—nearly nine thousand at the last census—metropolis.
She ducked out of the salon while stylists from every booth were still oohing and aahing about her transformation. Rushing straight into the sunlit world, Annie didn’t see Deputy Tony Elizalde approach until he tapped her on her arm. Predictably, she shrieked, and reached into her saddlebag purse for her never-used can of Mace.
“Relax, Annie. It’s me, Tony. Glad I caught you. Boy, you look different.”
He was the second person who’d told her to relax today, and she was already tired of it.
“Try calling out my name next time. I respond to words.”
“Didn’t have time. You burst out of that salon like your hair was on fire. Looks nice, by the way. What’s the hurry?”
As if Annie were going to say anything about her date with Marcus. She’d endured enough snide remarks from Tony about her budding relationship to share any new information now.
“Nothing. What’s up?”
“I got a call from a buddy in eastern Washington this morning about a lead on some fine horses for sale.”
“Thanks, I have all I can handle at the moment.”
“Not you, Annie! For Travis’s new farm, Alex’s Place.”
She squinted at Tony, who was standing right in front of the sun. “I thought we’d decided at the last board meeting that we were going to look for horses at our local rescue centers.”
“We did, which is why I want to talk to you now. This is an opportunity to acquire good horses for all the right reasons. But it’ll take time to explain. And my keen detecting mind tells me you don’t have a lot of that right now.”
“You got that right, Deputy. I’m booked for the rest of the day. But stop by the farm tomorrow, if that works.”
“Will do. Morning okay?”
“Ah . . . let’s make it early afternoon.”
Annie nodded at Tony, climbed into her F-250, and started to make an illegal U-turn to head out of town. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she saw Tony still looking at her, his hands on his hips, his expression amused. And curious. Well, he’d just have to stay curious, Annie thought. Although she had to admit she wa
Checking on her own horses was pretty much pro forma tonight. As she pulled into her stables, she saw Lisa’s yellow VW bug already parked by the tack room and heard her friend humming inside. Annie nudged the door open and slithered inside.
“Wow! You cleaned up good!”
Annie grinned back at her friend, who was stuffing two massive flakes of Timothy into Trooper’s hayrack. Trooper was a Thoroughbred and required more hay each day than her youngest horse, a fourteen-hand Saddlebred, consumed practically all week.
“Well, I did have a lot of help.”
“And they sure knew what they were doing. You look incredible, Annie! Marcus is going to think he’s met a totally new woman!”
Fat chance of that, Annie thought. Miracle workers might enhance her exterior, but she doubted anyone could change her personality, which had been described as stubborn, willful, and annoyingly averse to accepting advice. And those were her friends’ opinions. At least everyone stipulated to her fine sense of humor.
“Are you set for tonight?” Annie asked anxiously. Lisa had been Annie’s right-hand stable hand for nearly two months now and knew the horses’ schedules, needs, and personalities almost as well as she did. But this was the first time Lisa was going to spend the night in her farmhouse, alone, unless you counted the dogs, Sasha and Wolf, and Max the kitten.
“Absolutely. The dogs and I are looking forward to staying up late watching zombie movies and eating all your popcorn. And I don’t have to be back at my place until ten a.m. tomorrow, so I’ve got plenty of time to feed, muck, and make sure everything’s set for tomorrow night.”
Annie truly relaxed for the first time that day. She was certain everything would be fine and wondered why it had taken her so long to realize that, as her mother used to say, “many hands make light work.” For fifteen years, as long as Annie had owned Carson Stables, she’d summarily dismissed any suggestion of bringing help on board, even while her herd grew, and her horse-training business became a demanding year-round job. When Sheriff Dan Stetson, a friend from high school and now a close colleague, had convinced her to invest in a flock of sheep to bring in wool income, she’d still managed to do everything herself. After all, she’d had her horses’ help with herding and maintaining the flock’s fence line.
But with the arrival of Trooper, her newest horse and a gift from Marcus, plus a sudden surge in income when Marcus had asked for her help in divesting his late wife’s equine estate, there seemed no reason not to bring in someone to share the workload. Meeting Lisa a few months ago had been fortuitous, indeed.
“Thanks, Lisa. Well, I’ve got to go—I still have to dress.” Annie grabbed her purse and started to jog toward her farmhouse, fifty feet away.
“Go for it, girl! What are you wearing? Something slinky and easy to slip out of, I hope! And don’t forget your makeup!”
Laughter was the only answer her new stable hand was going to get.
* * *
Annie had never exactly understood what a “double take” was until she saw Marcus’s reaction as she walked through the crowded restaurant toward his table.
At six-two, Marcus could stand up remarkably quickly—and elegantly. In his haste this time, however, he managed to bump his knees on the underside of the table, nearly upsetting the bottle of red wine that the waiter was just putting down. Marcus didn’t seem to notice the waiter grab and steady the bottle. His eyes were entirely on Annie.
Unlike Lisa, he did not squeal with praise. He merely took her in, admiration and something a bit earthier gleaming out of his dark blue eyes. He held out his arms and Annie slid into them, mindful that other people were watching.
“You look good enough to eat,” he murmured into her ear.
“Later. At the moment, the tablecloth looks appetizing. I’m starving.”
He laughed and let her go. “Then let’s get to it. I’ve perused the menu, and I believe there are several items that will tempt you.”
The waiter poured a small dollop of wine into Marcus’s glass, but Marcus merely gestured for the waiter to fill both goblets. He raised one and cocked it and his head toward Annie.
“To you, Annie, a woman of infinite surprises.”
Annie smiled. They drank, and Annie felt the rich, warm liquid flow through her body. At that moment, she felt so happy that she could do nothing more than gaze at the man across from her. It seemed that her companion could only do the same.
Fortunately, a waiter came by to hand oversized menus to both of them discreetly. He apparently had the good sense to realize that this would not be the time to tell them about the specials.
Marcus glanced at the menu, then deliberately put it aside.
“Now then, you gorgeous creature, you, tell me everything that’s happened since I last saw you. And don’t leave anything out.”
* * *
“And then Patricia showed me what dressage horses can really do, which has opened up a whole new market for Hilda’s remaining horses.”
By now, Annie had worked her way through two appetizers and a sizeable slice of prime rib. The waiter was impressed. If Marcus noticed that his dinner guest had outeaten him, he didn’t show it. Annie’s appetite was legendary among her friends, who wondered how a five-foot-eight woman managed to maintain a slim figure while ingesting practically everything in front of her.
“I can see I handed this job off to the right person.”
“Well, I couldn’t do it without Patricia’s help. And I’m learning so much—that’s the best part.”
“I’m glad Hilda’s horses are going to good homes.” Hilda had been Marcus’s wife, who had been savagely murdered almost six months before. To some, it might seem unseemly that Marcus appeared to be courting another woman so soon, but Annie knew that the long-distance marriage had been rocky for years, and on the verge of collapse when Hilda died. Of course, the timing of Hilda’s death hadn’t helped Marcus, who had initially been charged with his wife’s murder. But that was all behind him now, and the equestrian center that Hilda had once reigned over would soon be known as Alex’s Place, the nonprofit farm Tony had alluded to earlier.
The sun was still shining brightly when they emerged from the restaurant at eight o’clock. August truly was the perfect month, Annie thought, and not just because her birthday happened to fall in the middle of it. It was the consistently long, warm, sunny days, when Peninsula residents could forget about the rain that would soon fall and the short days ahead of them. Annie wished it could be August the whole year ’round. She suspected her herd felt similarly.
They strolled down toward the marina, arm in arm.
“I know your birthday is just around the corner. . . .”
“Don’t remind me.”
“I am reminding you. And I’m so sorry that I can’t be here on the given day. These meetings in London were set up months ago, before I realized . . . well, before I knew . . .”
Annie laughed. “It’s okay. Really. I don’t think I’ve had a proper birthday celebration since I was twenty-one.”
“Well, I promise you one when I get back. But I did want to give you a small token of my affection in advance, just so you’d know I hadn’t forgotten this important occasion.”
They had reached the main pier, a mass of wooden plank walkways that were surrounded by tourist shops and maritime stores. Marcus stopped in front of a tall bronze sculpture of two dolphins entwined together and reached into his inside blazer pocket.
Annie’s heart began to thud against her rib cage. Her mind flashed onto what he might pull out. It couldn’t possibly be a ring. Not at this early stage in the relationship, surely?
The piercing yelp of a
“Annie! Where in the Sam Hill have you been? And what have you done to your hair?”
TUESDAY EVENING, AUGUST 2
Annie groaned. Trust good ol’ Dan Stetson and his sidekick, Tony Elizalde, to break up a good party. The sheriff and deputy strode toward them, seemingly oblivious to the tender love scene that had been about to unfold.
“Marcus! Good to see you! Didn’t realize you were in town!” Dan stuck out his hand, and Marcus grasped it warmly.
“I’m here just today, and heading back to California tomorrow.”
“More of Hilda’s business to wrap up, I suppose?”
“Something like that.”
There was something in Marcus’s tone that made Dan look quizzically at him, then Annie, then clear his throat in embarrassment.
“Yes. Well. That’s good. But Tony and I have been looking for Annie all evening.” Wheeling toward her, he said petulantly, “You haven’t answered your phone.”
Annie dug into her purse and extracted her banged-up cell phone. She flipped open the top and looked askance at the list of missed phone calls on the screen.
“Sorry, Dan. It’s been acting up for weeks now. I don’t hear the calls and often can only salvage the messages days after they’ve been sent.”
“I will attest to that,” Marcus said drily. “She’s a hard woman to find even when she’s not riding one of her horses.”
Annie was not amused by any of them. “Well, you’ve found me now,” she said crossly. “What is so important that you need to put out an all-points bulletin?”
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