Book 1 in the Horses Heal Hearts Series
Equine Discipline: Dressage
Michael Stafford was on top of the world. A proud member of the British Olympic Dressage Team and Olympic gold medalist, his life was perfect. Then, he lost his mount, his fiancée left him for another man, and now his brother has been arrested for manslaughter. He believes his luck has turned when he learns that a beautiful and talented stallion is available in Germany, just in time to compete in the next World Cup competition. The horse’s name is Tempest.
Jessica Warren is an up and coming American dressage prodigy with a brilliant future. Orphaned at the age of 21 when her parents were tragically killed in a car accident and the legal guardian of her younger sister, Jessica has lost her competition mount to injury and needs a new horse if she wants to compete in next year’s World Cup. She learns of a spectacular horse available in Germany named Tempest, but when Jessica arrives in Germany with her trainer, she discovers she will have to compete with the extremely handsome and talented Michael Stafford for the right to ride Tempest. Jessica has nothing but respect for Michael, but sparks fly when they’re thrown together in a competition that both must win. Who will win Tempest? Will Michael be able to trust another woman with his heart? Will Jessica allow herself to be loved, or will her personal demons keep them apart?
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A loud, rhythmic banging noise shattered the glorious dream of his past Olympic glory, and Michael slowly woke and made the agonizing transition from perfect bliss to cold, stark reality. An earsplitting voice invaded his foggy, alcohol-dazed state “Oy! Mike! I know you’re in there, man. Open up!”
“Bloody hell!” Michael groaned, as his head throbbed in pain. “Stop that pounding, I’m coming, I’m coming.” Michael pulled himself up off the overstuffed leather sofa upon which he had apparently crashed sometime in the early morning hours after finishing off his last bottle of scotch. His mouth felt like it was lined with cotton, and his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. His head was pounding in time with the beat of his heart, and his walk was unsteady as he took the first few steps toward the door.
The clock on the wall showed it was ten o’clock. Even the slow, steady ticking away of the seconds was painful to his head this morning. He gradually made his way to the door as he tried to mentally bring himself into the present. Now, a year later, Michael was living in the refurbished manor house on the farm in Surrey that he had purchased with the money he had earned as a result of his Olympic success. He had turned the small farm into a dressage training yard and boarding stable and christened it Stafford Oaks Farm. It was what he and Emma had dreamed of that night, the best night of his life. So much had happened since then.
As he moved toward the door, Michael scanned the compact living area that had once been the family parlor and noticed piles of dirty clothes and dishes strewn about the room. He hastily tried to move some of the worst of it out of the way. He gingerly opened the curtains of the window closest to his front door and squinted into the late morning sun to see who had so rudely awakened him. Lionel Hayes, his best friend for nearly twenty years and a fellow dressage rider, stood outside and peered back, motioning to the door. “Do you mind?”
Michael opened the door. “Lionel, you sod, what the hell are doing here?”
Lionel pushed his way into the room. He was a bit taller than Michael, but much thinner, almost gaunt in appearance. His blond hair and blue eyes were stereotypically British as was his long, thin nose, and prominent square chin. “I tried to call you on your cell phone an hour ago and you didn’t call me back. I got worried. What in God’s name have you been doing?” Lionel grimaced as he looked around at what had once been a neat and tastefully decorated manor. He wrinkled his nose “This is disgusting.” Then Lionel noticed the empty bottle of Scotch on Michael’s coffee table. “Now I know what you’ve been up to, trying to drown your sorrows in drink yet again. Well, my friend, it’s not going to work, and I’m here to make sure you don’t end up in the hospital with liver failure.”
Lionel walked around Michael’s home, opening curtains and cranking open several windows to allow a cool morning breeze to circulate through what had been a hot, stuffy home filled with dirty laundry and dishes and smelled like a cross between a men’s locker room and a garbage dump.
“Look, Lionel, I think I’m entitled to an occasional drinking binge considering everything that’s happened to me in the past year.” Michael’s mind immediately flashed back over the year that had passed since he had experienced the best day of his life: winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games held in his home country. Since that day, his life had been nothing but a series of setbacks and disappointment. First, the owners of Romeo, the gifted stallion he rode to a gold medal in the Olympics, decided to take the horse out of competition immediately after the Games to make a tidy profit breeding him. Without Romeo, Michael wasn’t able to continue to compete internationally, and was having a great deal of trouble finding another horse as talented to ride in Romeo’s stead. Without the public exposure competition gleaned for him, his Olympic fame began to fade. His fiancée, Emma, who had enjoyed the glitter and attention he drew immediately following the Olympic Games, became bored with their lives after Michael moved out of the spotlight. It wasn’t long before she began acting suspicious of his relationships with other women, accusing him of being unfaithful to her. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and he had tried to explain to Emma that he had to travel to teach clinics and market his skills as a trainer, but all she seemed to be able to see were the many women who clamored to meet him and get close to him. Her suspicions baffled him, because he took great pains never to be alone with any of the women he met through his clinics and loved Emma too much to cheat on her with any other woman.
Michael still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened between them, but everything seemed to fall apart right after the Olympic Games. Before the Games, he and Emma were on top of the world, looking forward to a life together living on his training yard in the country outside London, where he would raise and train horses for himself and others in dressage, and she would continue working in the city for a prestigious law firm. He was certain they loved each other unconditionally, although he must admit in hindsight that their relationship wasn’t perfect. Still, he felt betrayed, and had vowed to himself never to give his heart so foolishly ever again.
Michael picked up the tabloid from his coffee table and showed it to Lionel. On the cover was a picture of Emma with a one of Britain’s most famous footballers. She was laughing and looking at him adoringly, and he seemed to enjoy her attention, smiling down and holding her close, with his arm around her waist. “I can’t go anywhere without some reminder of Emma. While standing in line at the grocery store buying food for the week, I saw this in a rack next to the checkout line.” He pointed to the photo on the cover. “It seems she has a penchant for rich and famous men,” he said bitterly. “She used to look at me like that,” Michael fumed. “Just wait until you get injured or retire, friend” he told the man in the photos, “she’ll drop you like a rock.” Unfortunately, although his head told him he had escaped a bad situation and should be grateful, his heart was still engaged, and he had tried last night to dull the pain with Scotch.
“Look, man.” Lionel threw the tabloid back on the table. “You’ve got to let her go and get on with your life. You can’t let her be your ruin.”
Michael knew Lionel was right. His career and his life had gone seriously downhill since Emma left. While he had once been scrupulous about his preparation for public appearances and had always been punctual for clinics and lessons, he was now either late or, even worse, a last-minute cancel or no-show for fully booked weekend clinics for which he had already been paid half up front. He had also started to be chronically late for lesson clients, and one of his two working students had left him in frustration. As a result, the invitations to do clinics stopped coming, and many of his lesson clients moved on to other trainers. The agent he hired after the Olympic Games eventually dropped him. He had barely any income except for some horse boarding clients at his stable, and a couple of training clients who were also good friends and understood why he was acting out of character. Even those clients, though, were losing patience. As a result, he was becoming alarmingly close to financial ruin. He was barely able to make the monthly mortgage payments on his farm, and had been forced to live a very austere existence, the occasional drinking binge notwithstanding.
As Lionel moved a pile of clothes out of the way so he could sit down on the sofa, Michael’s phone started ringing.
“Good God!” Michael groaned, as his head throbbed in pain. “What now?”
He picked up the phone. “Yes, what is it?” Michael growled into the receiver.
“Mr. Michael Stafford?” The clipped, and very formal male voice on the other line responded.
“Yes. This is Michael Stafford. Who is this?”
“This is Constable Eric Madden of the Surrey police. We have your brother Ian Stafford in custody here at the station.”
Michael’s heart sank, and he raked his fingers through his hair. “What has my brother done, Constable Madden? Why is he in custody?”
“Last night, your brother started a fight, and stabbed one of the patrons of the Rusty Nail Pub in Woking. The pub owner called us for assistance, and when two constables arrived in response to the Pub owner’s call, he resisted arrest. He punched one of our officers before we were able to subdue him. He also had been drinking excessively according to witnesses at the scene. We have him in custody. Unfortunately, the man your brother stabbed died at the hospital two hours later, so Mr. Stafford has officially been charged with manslaughter.”
Michael’s heart sank. “My God!” he exclaimed, “That’s simply not possible. Ian would never purposely hurt anyone unless he was defending himself.”Something must be seriously wrong if Ian had gotten himself into this kind of trouble. “How is he, Constable?”
“He has a few bruises from the fight, and he has a pretty powerful hangover, but otherwise, he seems to be physically all right, and no one else was seriously injured,” the constable replied. “He’s asked me to contact you. He wants to see you.”
“Certainly, Constable Madden. I’ll be right there.”
“Mr. Stafford, if I may, your brother has refused to speak with us about exactly what happened last night, and he has also not requested a solicitor to assist with his defense. I suggest you engage a solicitor to represent him at your earliest convenience. These charges are serious, and he may be facing life in prison if found guilty.”
“Thank you, Constable. That’s good advice. I’ll get on it right away.” Michael hung up the phone and looked at Lionel.
“I’m sorry Li, I have to go to the police station. It appears my brother Ian has gotten himself arrested, and could be in some serious trouble.”
“Do you want me to come along? It might be nice to have some moral support.”
“No, but thanks for the offer. This is family business, and I don’t want you to get entangled in this mess. At least not until I get to the bottom of this.”
“At least let me fix you something to eat while you shower and change. There’s no way you want to go to the police station looking like you do right now.” Lionel opened the refrigerator and searched for something he might be able to cook. “Do you have any eggs or milk?”
Michael shuddered at the thought of solid food hitting his much-abused stomach, but he knew Lionel was right. He needed nourishment, and scrambled eggs would work as well as anything.
“I do. If you look a bit, there should be both in there. Thanks, man.” With Lionel now occupied in the kitchen, Michael turned and went into the bathroom. After Michael left the room, Lionel could no longer suppress the malicious grin he had been hiding since he arrived at Michael’s home. His plan was working. He was, slowly and surely, ruining Michael Stafford’s life.