Racing Toward Love
Book 2 in the Horses Heal Hearts Series
Equine Discipline: Racing
Ian Stafford is a former British Special Forces soldier and Afghanistan war veteran who still has nightmares after watching his best friend cut down by a sniper in a remote village in Afghanistan. When he sees a woman in a local pub being harassed and threatened, he intervenes. During the ensuing brawl, the woman escapes, but Ian accidentally stabs one of his attackers who later dies. Ian is charged with manslaughter, and the woman who can exonerate him has disappeared.
Megan Brady and her father Daniel never imagined that the thoroughbred colt they raised from birth would grow up to be a contender for the British Triple Crown. Seabiscuit II is the last horse you might imagine as a champion if judged by looks alone. Like his namesake, Seabiscuit II is not much to look at, but has a heart as big as all outdoors, and refuses to be beaten. Unfortunately, the Irish mob has also taken notice, and has approached Megan’s brother Stephen with an offer of a bribe to purposely lose the most important race of his career. Stephen refused, and Megan has taken it upon herself to thwart the mob, but their brutal tactics nearly see her raped until Ian steps in to save her. Megan knows she must come out of hiding to exonerate Ian, but knows if she does, the mob will be there too. Meanwhile the date of the big race approaches.
Can Megan’s example of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and the will to prevail even when the going looks tough, help Ian come to grips with his grief, and give him the courage to forgive himself and allow himself to live and love again? Will Ian be able to trust Megan with his heart?
Racing Toward Love
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Megan Brady’s stomach fluttered as she parked her car in front of the Rusty Nail Pub just outside of Woking and near Guildford. There were no other buildings nearby and very few cars in the lot. She had to admit that the location was ideal for a clandestine meeting, but the atmosphere clearly favored the men she was supposed to be meeting. The pub was practically deserted, so there wouldn’t be anyone to help her should the encounter go badly.
Megan gripped the steering wheel of her father’s car as she debated whether she should even go in. This wouldn’t be easy, primarily because the party she was there to meet was expecting her brother Stephen and would not be happy she had come in his place.
“OK, Megs,” she whispered under her breath. “You’re here now. There’s no going back. Let’s do this.”
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and opened the car door.
Megan entered the pub and was immediately assailed with the stench of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Although smoking had been banned in bars in the U.K. for years, it appeared this establishment didn’t abide by government rules. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, drab interior. Getting her bearings, she slowly walked to the bar. She was somewhat surprised to see she was the first to arrive. No one resembling the party she was supposed to be meeting was in the pub. There were only a couple of other patrons in the place, none of whom took any notice of her. She walked over to the bar and sat down.
The bartender looked at Megan curiously. Apparently, few people other than locals frequented the Rusty Nail. He approached cautiously and asked, “What can I get for you?”
Megan knew she needed all of her wits about her if she was going to survive a confrontation with the organization that was threatening her family, so she ordered a soda.
The bartender cast her an even more curious stare and dispensed the soda, placing the glass in front of her.
Just as the bartender served Megan her drink, the pub door opened, and Megan quickly turned. A tall, good-looking, well-built young man with sandy blond hair cut in a distinctive military style entered the pub. Megan watched with interest as his gaze scanned the interior of the pub as if to memorize every detail of the place and its inhabitants. Once he had completed his sweep of the room, he made his way to a table. The bartender walked over to take his order, and Megan overheard the man order a steak and potato pie and a beer. The bartender served him the beer right away.
She surreptitiously watched the man as he sipped his beer and waited for his food. This wasn’t the person she was there to meet. For one thing, he wasn’t looking for anyone; he just went about his business. It appeared he was reading a booklet of some sort, but he occasionally looked in her direction. Obviously, he was just as curious about her as she was about him. Did he live nearby? Or was he just passing through? She wasn’t very familiar with this area, but she was fairly certain there weren’t any military bases in the vicinity.
A door slammed in the back of the pub, drawing her attention. Four large, burly men emerged from the shadows. They scanned the room but quickly focused on her. As one, they moved toward her. The apparent leader, the largest of the four with a jagged scar down one side of his face, sauntered up to Megan and leered at her.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Miss Brady,” the man said insolently. Megan noticed immediately that he spoke with a distinctly Irish accent. “We have business with your brother. Where might he be?”
Megan hoped the men couldn’t see how fast her heart was beating as she dug deep and found the courage to respond in a clear, firm voice. “Stephen sent me in his place.” She squared her shoulders and looked at the leader defiantly. “My father asked me to give you a message. Neither Stephen nor my father will accept your bribes. Seabiscuit II will run his race at the Epsom Derby. We will not agree to lose intentionally as your boss has requested. We ask that you accept our decision and leave us alone.”
Megan watched as the man’s expression slowly changed from lascivious to enraged. In truth, her father didn’t even know she was there, and he probably would have tied her up and locked her in her room if he had known she had talked Stephen into allowing her to take his place for this meeting. However, when Stephen had approached her and told her that members of the O’Reilly crime family had tried to bribe him to throw the Epsom Derby, one of the richest races in Britain and the second race in the British Triple Crown, she easily fell back into her familiar role of big sister and protector and persuaded him to allow her to take care of things.
She was now seriously regretting that rash decision. Feigning a bravado she didn’t feel, Megan looked toward the pub entrance. “Now that I have delivered my father’s message, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have to go.” Megan left some cash on the bar to pay for her drink and started toward the door.
The leader, who unbeknownst to Megan was the O’Reilly family patriarch’s nephew and chief enforcer, Colin Fitzpatrick, grabbed Megan’s arm and hauled her back toward him with enough strength that she lost her balance and fell into him. She shoved both arms against his massive chest, trying to push herself away from his brutal embrace, but he only laughed at her ineffective struggles.
“My friends and I came a long way to make a deal with your brother, darlin’,” he said with a sneer. “Now that you’ve taken that away, I think you owe us. Boys, let’s take her to the back of the pub and collect our payment before we go back to the boss. This way we’ll at least get something for our trouble.”
The other three men grinned their approval and raked her with their eyes, lingering on her breasts. She shuddered with revulsion, and her heart raced as the full implication of what she had gotten herself into hit her. She glanced at the bartender to see if he would help her, but he was purposely ignoring the situation. No help there. She scanned the pub to see if anyone else was paying attention and noticed that the blond military man was watching and appeared concerned. Would he help her? She had to try.
“No,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “I don’t want to go with you. Leave me alone, or I’ll call the police.”
Colin only chuckled. “No one here is going to help you, sweetheart. This pub is owned by the same people who pay my salary, and, as for the police, well, let’s just say I’m not too worried about them either. Come along quietly, now, and we’ll try to make this easy on you. If you fight us, you’ll only get hurt.” His gaze swept her body hungrily.
Regardless of the man’s assurances, Megan knew that if she surrendered to these men, she would suffer unbearably. Her only option was to resist. She refused to go quietly and allow these men to rape her without a fight. “Please just leave me alone,” she pleaded. When the man continued to drag her, she planted her feet, forcing Colin to stop. “Let me go!” she shouted. When the man didn’t respond, she lashed out with her open hand and slapped him. “I said, let me go!”
Megan was shocked at her own audacity and watched in horror as Colin drew his fist back to strike her. He could easily break her jaw.
Suddenly, a very strong and very large hand grabbed the man’s fist and held it. “You heard the woman. Let her go.” The resonant and commanding voice came from just behind Megan, and she turned around to see the man she had decided was a soldier standing right behind her, appearing big, strong, and determined. Megan noted with some relief that the man was over six feet tall, had a muscular, athletic build, and exuded strength and confidence.
Ian Stafford had been watching the scene unfold before him, and, seeing no one in the pub willing to help the woman who was clearly in danger, made the split-second decision to come to her defense.
“Mind your own business, laddie,” Colin replied. “This is none of your affair.” He loosened his fist, though, and Ian released his grip on the man’s wrist. Little did the thug know how close he had come to having his wrist broken.
“I’m making it my affair since the woman clearly doesn’t want to go with you. Do yourself and your friends a favor, and let her go.”
Colin snickered and glanced over at his friends, who were also laughing. He responded, “I don’t know how you’re going to stop us. You’re only one man against four.” He turned toward the back of the pub, dragging Megan with him. Megan realized there was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable, thankful that her rescuer had at least tried to help her. Then, before she realized what had happened, the thug was lying on his back on the pub floor with his nose broken and blood streaming down his face. The impact of the stranger’s fist to his face had caused him to let go of Megan, who moved out of harm’s way toward the pub entrance. Unfortunately, after she escaped his grasp, the man’s friends surrounded the stranger, who even Megan knew was no match for four trained mob enforcers.
Ian knew he was in trouble, but at least he had gotten the woman out of immediate danger. Now, he could deal with the four thugs who had tried to rape her. He’d broken the leader’s nose, but the brute wasn’t entirely out of commission, and Ian could tell that the other three were experienced brawlers. They wouldn’t be easy for one man, even one man with Special Forces training, to subdue.
To survive this fight, he would need his knife, tucked conveniently in his boot. It was the one habit he had brought home from Afghanistan that had been difficult to break. Since his last tour in country, he didn’t feel safe without a weapon of some kind on his person at all times. Ian reached down quickly and unsheathed the knife. With it, he was able to fend off the men for a time, but despite Ian’s best efforts, it wasn’t long before two of the thugs pinned his arms, and a third tried to wrest his knife out of his hand.
Ian knew from the nature of the men he was fighting that if he lost his knife, his life would be forfeited, so he dug deep and used all his remaining strength to wrest his right arm away from one of the thugs. The knife he still held went straight into the belly of the man directly in front of him. The man collapsed immediately, and Ian was shoved to the ground as two of the thugs carried their comrade away—presumably to a hospital.
Colin looked at the bartender and barked, “You, I know you work for my uncle, tie this man to a chair and call the police.”
At first, the man looked confused, but the leader spoke to him sharply. “Look, man, we know where you live, and we can reach your family easily. Do what you’re told, or they’ll pay the price.”
The man paled, and then rushed to comply. His hands trembled as he tied Ian to a chair.
The leader further instructed the bartender, “When the police come, you will tell them this man started the fight and attacked us without provocation. We acted in self-defense, but he stabbed our friend. Do you understand?”
The bartender nodded again, and, apparently satisfied with the response, the leader left the pub, presumably to join his friends at the hospital.
When the police arrived, the bartender did as he was told, and despite his protests, Ian was arrested for criminal assault with a deadly weapon. The woman he saved had disappeared.