Irish rebel, p.19
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       Irish Rebel, p.19

         Part #3 of Irish Hearts series by Nora Roberts
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  It had to be overreaction, she decided, and set the bottle aside as carefully as she would have a container of nitro. What she was going through was something as simple as overromanticizing an affair. That would be natural enough, she told herself, particularly since this was her first.

  She didn't want to be in love with him. She began wielding the pitchfork vigorously now, as if to sweat out a fever. She didn'tchoose to be in love with him. That was even more important. When her hands trembled she ignored them and worked harder still.

  By the time her mother joined her, Keeley had herself under control enough to casually ask Adelia to work in the office while she exercised Sam.

  Keeley Grant had never run from a problem in her life, and she wasn't about to start now. She saddled her mount, then rode off to clear her head before she dealt with the problem at hand.

  The portable starting gate was in place on the practice oval. The air was soft and cool. Brian had seen the blush of color coming onto the leaves, the hints of change. Though he imagined it would all be a sight in another week or two, his attention was narrowed onto the horses.

  He was working in fields of five, using two yearlings and three experienced racers at a go. This last phase of schooling just prior to public racing would teach him every bit as much as it taught the yearlings.

  He needed to watch their style, learn their preferences, their quirks, their strengths. Much of it would be guesses—educated ones to be sure, but guesses nonetheless, at least until they had a few solid races under their belts.

  But Brian was very good at guessing.

  "I want Tempest on the rail." He chewed on a cigar as it helped him think. "Then The Brooder, then Betty, Caramel and Giant on the outside."

  He glanced around at the sound of hoofbeats, then lost his train of thought as Keeley trotted toward the oval. Irritated, he looked deliberately away and slammed the door on that increasingly wide area of his mind she insisted on occupying.

  "I don't want the yearlings rated," he ordered, telling the exercise boys not to hold them back. "Nor punished, either. No more than a tap of the bat to signal. My horses don't need to be whipped to run."

  Despite his concentration, he was aware when Keeley dismounted behind him. He took out his stopwatch, turning it over and over in his hand as the field was led to the gate.

  "I don't know the yearling at the rail," Keeley said conversationally as she looped her reins around the top rung of the fence.

  "Your father named him Tempest in a Teacup, as he's got a small build, but he's full of spirit. You don't often ride this way in the morning."

  "No, but I wanted to see the progress. And my new assistant is handling things at the office."

  He glanced over. She'd taken the band out of her hair. It flowed wild over her shoulders, but her face was cool and very serious. "Assistant is it? When did this happen?"

  "Yesterday. My mother's working with me at the school now. Contrary to some beliefs, I don't insist on handling all the steps and stages by myself, when help is offered."

  "Touchy still, are you?"

  "Apparently."

  "Well, you'll have to snarl at me later. I'm busy. Jim! Hold him steady now," Brian called out as Tempest shied a bit at the gate. "That one still objects a bit to being penned in. There, that's it," he murmured as the horses were loaded and the back gate shut. He held a finger over the timer, plunging when the gates sprang open.

  The horses flew out.

  He wondered if there was anything that gave his heart more of a knock than that instant, that first rush of speed, that blur of great bodies surging forward on the track.

  But through the thrill of it, his eyes missed nothing. The stretch of legs, the clouds of dirt, the figures riding low over the necks.

  "She wants the lead, right from the start," he murmured. "Wants the rest tasting her dust."

  Caught up, Keeley leaned over the rail as the horses made the first turn. The thunder of hoofbeats drummed in her blood. "She runs well in a crowd. You were right about that. Tempest is a little nervy."

  "We might try a shadow roll on him. He wants the outside. He's about endurance. The longer the race, the better he'll like it. There's Betty now. She wants the rail. Aye, she'll hug it like a lover."

  Without thinking, he laid his hand over Keeley's on the rail. "Just look at her, will you? That's a champion. She doesn't need any of us. She knows it."

  With his hand warm and firm over hers, Keeley watched the horses streak down the backstretch with Betty nearly a length in the lead. Pride and pleasure tangled inside her.

  When Brian let out a shout, clicked his watch again, she started to turn, to indulge the giddy thrill by throwing her arms around him. But he was already drawing away.

  "That's good time, damn good time. And she'll do better yet." He nodded, his eyes tracking as the riders rose high in their stirrups and slowed their mounts. "I'll find the right race for her, give her a taste of the real thing."

  Giving Keeley an absent pat on the shoulder, he vaulted the fence.

  She watched him go to the horses, to stroke and compliment Tempest, give the rider a few words before moving on to Betty.

  The filly pranced flirtatiously, then lowered her head to nibble delicately on Brian's shoulder.

  You're wrong, Keeley thought. Whatever she knows, whatever she is, she needs you.

  And so, damn it, do I.

  After he'd stroked, nuzzled, praised, and the horses were led away to be cooled down, Brian jumped over the fence again to pick up his clipboard.

  "I'd hoped your father would be down to see her first run with a field."

  "I'm sure he would have. He must be tied up with something."

  With a grunt in response, Brian continued to scribble notes. "Well, I'm running more of the yearlings this morning, so he'll see plenty. How's the gelding?"

  "Comfortable. The swelling's down a little. I want to wait until after my class today to drench him. It's a messy business and I don't need a half dozen kids coming around once it starts to work on him."

  "Best to wait till late in the day anyway. You want a good twenty-four hours between his last feeding and the drenching. I can do that for you if you're busy."

  The automatic refusal was on the tip of her tongue. She nipped it off, took a breath. "Actually, I was hoping you'd find time to take a look at him later."

  "I can do that." He glanced up, saw how set and serious her face was. "What is it? Are you that worried?"

  "No." She took another breath, ordered herself to relax. "I'm sure everything will be fine." She'd make sure of it, she told herself. One way or the other. "I'll feel better when things are under control, that's all."

  She worked it out. She felt better when she had a situation defined and a goal in mind. This one wasn't really so complicated, after all. She wanted Brian. She was fairly certain she was in love with him. Being certain of that would take a little more time, she imagined, a little more consideration.

  After all this was new territory and needed to be approached with caution and preparation.

  But her feelings for him were strong, and not as one-dimensional as simple attraction.

  If it was love, then she needed to make him fall in love with her. She was perfectly willing to work toward what she wanted, as long as she got it in the end.

  Pleasantly tired after a long day's work, she gave her horses their evening meal. There was no question about it, she decided. Having her mother help had taken a huge burden of time and effort off her shoulders.

  Was it stubbornness, she wondered, that caused her to pull back from a helping hand so often? She didn't think so. But it was something nearly as mulish. She wanted the people she loved and who loved her to be proud of her. And she equated that, foolishly, she admitted, with the need to be perfect.

  But she preferred thinking of it as taking responsibility.

  Just as she was doing now with Brian, she mused.

  If she was in love with him, she was resp
onsible for her own feelings. And it was up to her to try to generate those same feelings in him.

  If she failed… No, she wouldn't consider that. Once you considered failure you were one step farther away from success.

  Moving into the gelding's box, she hung his hay bag and measured out his feed. "It's better tonight, isn't it?" Gently she checked the swelling on his knee. When she heard the footsteps heading down on concrete, she smiled to herself.

  "You're feeding him?" Brian stepped into the box. "I couldn't get up here any sooner."

  "That's all right. He took the drenching without a quibble. And you can take my word for it, it worked." She straightened up, smiled. "You can see by the way he's eating, he's feeling better."

  "Knows he's fallen into roses, he does." Brian examined the injury himself, nodded. "We have a stallion with the strangles, which is what held me up."

  "Delicate creatures, aren't they?" She ran her hand over the gelding's withers. "Deceptive. The size of them, the speed and strength. It all shouts power. But under it all, there's the delicacy. You can be fooled by looking at something—at the face, at the form—and judging it without knowing what's inside."

  "True enough."

  "I'm not delicate, Brian. I have iron bred in me."

  He looked at her. "I know you're strong, Keeley. And still, you've skin like a rosebud." Gently he ran his thumb over her cheek. "I have big hands, and they're hard, so I need to take care. It doesn't mean I think you're weak."

  "All right."

  He turned back to the horse. "Have you named him?"

  "As a matter of fact, I have. We had a dog when I was a girl. My mother found him, a very homely stray who started sneaking up to the house. She fed him, gained his confidence. And before my father knew it, he had a big, sloppy mutt on his hands. His name was Finnegan.'' She laid her cheek on the gelding's, rubbed. "And so now, is his."

  "You've a sentimental streak along with that iron, Keeley."

  "Yes, I do. And a latent romantic one."

  "Is that so?" he murmured, a little surprised when she turned and ran her hands up his chest.

  "Apparently. I didn't thank you for riding to my rescue last night."

  "I don't recall riding anywhere." His lips twitched as she backed him out of the box.

  "In a manner of speaking. You cut a bully down to size for me. I was upset and worried about the gelding, so I didn't really think about it at the time. But I did later, and I wanted to thank you."

  "Well, you're welcome.

  "I haven't finished thanking you." She bit lightly on his bottom lip, heard his quick indrawn breath.

  "If that's what you have in mind, you could finish thanking me up in my bedroom."

  "Why don't I just show you what I have in mind? Right here."

  She had his shirt unbuttoned before he realized they were standing in an empty stall, freshly bedded with hay. "Here?" He laughed, taking both her hands to tug her out again. "I don't think so."

  "Here." She countered his move by ramming his back against the side wall. "I know so."

  "Don't be ridiculous." His lungs were clogged, and his mind insisted on following suit. "Anyone could come along."

  "Live dangerously." She pulled the stall door shut behind them.

  "I have been, since I first set eyes on you."

  The thrum of the heart in her throat turned her voice husky. "Why stop now? Seduce me, Brian. I dare you."

  "I've always found it hard to turn aside a dare." He reached out, tugged the band from her hair. "You cloud my senses, Keeley, like perfume. Before I know it, there's nothing there but you." He slid his hand around to cup the back of her neck, to draw her toward him. "And nothing that needs to be."

  His mouth covered hers, soft, smooth in a kiss silky enough to have her gliding down on that alone. She'd asked for seduction knowing seduction wasn't needed.

  "I want you, Brian. I wake up wanting you. Kiss me again."

  And the way her body simply melted into his, the way her lips warmed and parted, inviting him in had every pulse in his body throbbing like a wound.

  "I don't want to be gentle this time." He reversed their position until her
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