Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Read an Excerpt from Day of Reckoning by Mary Hagen

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1867: Bounty hunter Chet Johnson rides to Stand Alone, Kansas hunting outlaw Three Fingers George who brutally murdered his family. The outlaw has left, but the prostitutes hand him a child they say is his son by Angie who is dead. The baby resembles his deceased brother Luke. He cannot deny the child. Afraid to settle in one place, the prostitutes suggest he ask a woman at the edge of town to take care of the child.

Abandoned by her husband who lost her mining claim in a poker game to Three Fingers, Susan agrees to care for the child if she can join Chet in his search for Three Fingers to recover her mining claim.

As they search for the outlaw, Susan appreciates Chet's honesty and kindness, and Chet sympathizes with Susan's vulnerability. Will love overcome the fears both have and keep them together?


Chapter One



Chet Johnson rode past a wagon with a broken wheel and ragged canvas cover near the stream of Stand Alone. Another fool going west in deep trouble.

The settlement lay at the base of a low rocky ridge next to a small stream. Riding in, he counted six shacks along the margin of the shallow stream. None appeared inhabited except the blacksmith shop and livery stable, and they were closed for the day. On the main street, most of the buildings faced south.

A sorry looking building of sod and wood held a crudely painted sign, "Boarding House." It was open but no one was around. The general store with one unwashed window stood across the street from the Stand Alone Saloon. A man with a long beard and worn and wrinkled suit slept in a chair next to the open door of the saloon. The saloon's cracked red roof sprouted weeds, the unopened glass windows sagged to the right, as did the building.

Nothing had changed since his visit thirteen months earlier. Chet dismounted. Before he loosened the cinch straps on his riding horse and pack mare, he glanced right and left. The street was deserted. He looped the reins over the polished railing.

Chet sauntered inside the rambling two-storied building and leaned on the bar. A pine box filled with sawdust sat on the floor at each end of the counter. It was evident from the black stains on the floor few customers hit the makeshift cuspidors. Facing the cracked mirror behind the bar, he nodded to the man polishing glasses, studied the room, and watched the door.

Professor Clyde, as he called himself, acknowledged Chet with a nod of his head, and continued polishing a heavy glass with a rag that once had been white. A black cigar hung from the corner of his mouth. He sported a curled slick moustache and a cowlick brushed carefully down his forehead. His soiled striped apron covered black pants and clean shirt.

"Give me a shot of whiskey," Chet drawled.

"Two bits a shot." He slammed the drink on the bar and returned to polishing glasses.

Chet dug a coin from his pocket and rolled it along the scarred counter to the bartender.

"Well, look who's come to town," Vivian, the only whore on duty, yelled as she came down the stairs. "About time ya' got here."

"Yeah. Came from Montana. Headed for Texas," Chet said. He rotated his upper body to watch Vivian wobble toward him in high-heeled laced black shoes.

Vivian plopped her voluptuous body on a stool next to Chet, displaying well-formed breasts no one could miss. A flowery red robe draped over a corset and lace stockings. During working hours, she wore a pair of red pantaloons tied above her knees, yellow stockings, and a white shirt cut low. The yellow stocking reminded Chet of a chicken, and he called her Red Hen to himself but never to her face. If she took offense, she would likely as not shoot the balls right off a man.

"Where's Angie? Came out of my way to see that lady."

Vivian avoided looking at him. She grabbed a rag and wiped the counter with hard strokes, shook it out, and rubbed in the opposite direction. Her actions disturbed Chet and his body tensed. He glanced around the room. When he heard news he did not like he became uneasy, and he suspected he was about to get such news.

Vivian slapped the rag against the weathered counter. Her voice was flat. "She's dead."

"Dead. What happened?" Chet felt a pang of regret in his chest. If he had been the staying around kind, he would have taken a real interest in Angie. She had a laugh that was soft, nice teeth, and her body was warm and moist. He remained two months in the Kansas town after his last hunt just to sample her, the most time he had spent in one place for ten years or more. He sighed with regret.

"Bert," Vivian shrieked, "Chet Johnson's down here." Turning to him, she said, "Got a surprise for you." She grabbed the rag and wiped the counter again.

Chet knew Vivian was not her real name. She had a mass of red hair, probably dyed, and tired eyes. She was a bit over the hill and more than a little soiled.

Angie was a different sort. The first time he met her, he knew she was out of her element, and he felt sorry for her. Her situation was desperate when her family was killed in an Indian attack. No one on the wagon train wanted to take responsibility for her. She was extra baggage they could not afford, and so he could not fault her for her taking up the sporting life. Too many young girls were left orphaned with no one to look after them. She was just getting started in the business and he was her first customer. He did not recall she had any name but Angie.

"Angie get a proper burial?" Chet asked.

"Yep. Put her right next to Ellie's brat," Vivian said. "Couple cowboys made her a casket shaped like a violin case. You know she liked music."

He didn't know.

"Picked some wildflowers for her myself and piled a few rocks at her head." Vivian, tough as old cowhide, sniffed and dabbed her eyes with a rag. "What's taking you so long, Bert?"

"Coming, coming." Bert thumped down the stairs carrying a bundle in her arms, her loose-fitting Mother Hubbard hoisted above her ankles. She gave Chet a cracked smile and thrust the bundle toward him. "Yer bastard."

Chet choked on his whiskey, coughed, and wiped his forearm across his mouth. "My what?"

"Angie's babe, the one she died for. Said he was yours."

"Impossible," Chet said. "No way knowing it's mine. She could a slept with anyone."

"Got her with kid when you was last here. Kid's spittin' image of you. Yer brown eyes, round face, yer lop-sided smile, yer sandy looking hair," Vivian said.

Chet refused to take the bundle from Bert. Picking up his hat, he headed for the door.

"What you want us to do with this kid?" Bert planted her large body in front of Chet. "Before she passed on, we promised Angie we'd look after him 'til you showed up. Now yer here. This ain't no place for a baby."

"I'm in no position to take on a kid. I go where the outlaws take me. It's not my responsibility and if you got any kind of memory, you know I got a mission." He skirted around Bert. She circled in front of him and thrust the bundle at him, forcing him to catch the child before he hit the floor.

The baby gurgled, squealed with delight, and thrust a tiny hand from the blanket. Chet placed the child on the bar without looking at him, removed his hat, and ran his hand through his hair. Turning his back, he hitched up his pants, stuck his thumbs in his tight-fitting woolens, and headed for the door.

"I can't take care of a kid. Angie was a whore. Any cowboy visiting her could be the father. Outta' my way."

"Yer the pa," Vivian said, standing with folded arms. "Without someone to look after him, he ain't got much of a chance." She grabbed Chet's whiskey and gulped down the last of it, picked up the baby, and handed him to Chet, who had no choice but to take him.

"Allowed the ladies to keep the brat until you showed up against my wishes," the Professor said, "but he's got to go. Hard on business. If you don't want him, leave him at the end of town. Maybe someone'll pick him up, but get him out of here." He gave Chet a disgusted look, turned and straightened bottles on the shelf behind him.

Chet stood board straight, his arms bent at the elbows holding the bundle without moving. The child poked a small hand from the under the bundle. Chet glanced at the face, and the infant smiled. His breath caught in his chest. At that moment, he could have sworn he was looking at his baby brother Luke, who died before he was a year old. His mother called him her mistake. His heart sank into his stomach and he sucked in his breath. The kid even had his brother's slightly protruding ears. Luke was back. My God, the kid was his. He couldn't ignore the evidence. His hands turned to ice.

He could not think of settling in one place, not since he watched Three Fingers George and his gang destroy everyone and everything that meant anything to him. He still broke into a cold sweat when the memory surfaced.

Since that day, he searched for the man with the sole intent of ending the bastard's life. At Dodge, Chet heard about a man fitting George's description. Although Chet was on his way to Texas for the winter bounty hunting, he sidetracked to Stand Alone hoping to pick up the bastard's trail, maybe spend some time with Angie.

Chet nervously paced the room. He frowned, cursed his feelings of growing responsibility, and felt as helpless as the baby in his arm.

"And, how the hell you sure that kid's mine? Could be others that look like me," he protested half-heartedly.

"Angie swore she hadn't slept with anyone 'fore you and not after. Stayed in the second shack on the edge of town when she found out she was in that way. We helped her out. The kid's your responsibility," Vivian said. "Don't let the kid grow up an orphan. It ain't right." There was a note of sorrow in her voice.

The baby made several sounds that sounded like "gully, gully, gully" to Chet's ears. His tiny hand tried to grasp Chet's face, and he smiled. Chet's insides tied in a knot.

"What's his name?" Chet asked.

"We ain't given him a name," Bert said. Her voice sounded hoarse. "No need to git attached."

"Luke," Chet said. He looked around the dirty saloon and knew it was no place to raise a kid. The baby was his Luke had come back and needed him. His conscience would not let him shirk his duty to the child.

"How in the hell do I take care of him?" Chet glanced from one woman to the other. "Would one of you care for him if I paid you, found you a place to live. You wouldn't have to work here. I'd make sure I visited twice each year. Be a better life for you."

"You kiddin'? Can't trust us. We got business at night. When it ain't good, we pick up and move. Nope. Find yerself a milk cow. Got some bottles and nipples, diapers, a few garments, and the box he sleeps in. I'll get them," Vivian said. She brushed past Chet.

Chet looked down at the small bundle he held. The child was sure the spitting image of his brother Luke. Feelings of love, pride, and tenderness flooded through him. He glanced at Bert with such a pitiful, helpless look on his face, Bert laughed.

"Guess ya' might be finding yerself a settling man, yet," Bert said. "Ya' need a decent woman to help ya' out. At the east edge of town there's one left on her own. Nearly dead when she arrived out of nowhere. Vivian took food to her. Now she does our laundry, sells us milk and eggs, and we even offered her work with us. Turned us down flat. She don't talk much, though did hear her mention George. Don't know her connection to that bastard." Bert's ample hips flowed over the stool she sat on.

At the mention of George, Chet came to a stop, plopped down on a chair at the poker table, and propped the baby up in his lap. "Give Bert a shot," he snapped at the Professor. He banged two bits on the table and ran his hand through his hair.

"Three Fingers came in here, took up with Ellie, and when she asked for payment, he threw her around, and cut her up bad. She's still recovering."

"How long ago was he here?"

"Week ago."

"Was he with anyone?" George's dark, cruel face surfaced in Chet's thoughts.

"Yeah. Someone called Pete, a mean hombre, and Billie Parrot."

"Three Finger's kid brother. Parrot drifts with them. He's a bad one," Chet shifted the baby to one arm.

"Shot up my saloon, chased off my customers, laughed like it was a joke," the Professor said, his face white with anger.

"That man who called himself Three Fingers George had a way of hissing through his teeth," Vivian said as she came down the stairs carrying a small wooden crate. "He came in here, yelling and laughing, shooting off his iron. One shot came right through my floor, past the baby, and out the window. Upset my customer. He grabbed his pants, went out the window without paying."

"Place was filled with blue smoke. Put that hole in the m-m-mirror. Then, one of the cowboys hiding behind a card table got a s-s-shot off at Parrot," Bert stuttered, a habit she fell into when she became excited.

"Next thing, Parrot staggered out the door, hollering for Three Fingers and Pete. They came down the stairs shooting everywhere," Vivian said. She put the baby's crate on the table and ran her hands down her sides.

"Last we s-s saw of them, they was astride their hor-horses. George and Pete were on each side of Parrot holding him up," Bert said. "Hope the bas-bas-bastard died and went to hell."

The Professor banged a glass on the counter and pulled out a revolver. Looking over the end of his cigar, he said, "Any one of them come into my establishment again, they'll be dead before they're through the door."

Chet suspected the Professor's words were more a show of bravado than truth. "This George, was he tall, dark curly hair, thin-lipped?" Chet asked. The baby grabbed Chet's finger and stuck it in his mouth. Chet removed it and patted the baby's stomach without thinking.

Vivian grimaced. "Meanest looking mouth I've seen. Had dirty brown teeth."

Chet frowned. Kicking his feet wildly, the child freed them from the blanket and caught Chet on the chin. He looked at Chet and gurgled. Chet rubbed his jaw and pushed the foot under the cover.

"I can't keep this kid," Chet said. He cursed himself for riding into Stand Alone. If he didn't know about the baby, he wouldn't feel responsible, but he wanted Three Fingers and knew the man had been in the saloon.

"You ain't got much choice. Get your butt down to the wagon. Yer gonna need some milk for him."

"Can't expect me to change my life on account of her." Chet pulled his ear and headed for the door.

Vivian grabbed the baby and the wooden crate and the two women followed Chet onto the street. He paused, glanced left and right, studied the shacks, looked at the sky and said, "I'll pay for the kid's keep. You must know someone who'll take him on. I just can't take on this child."

The thought of settling down filled him with fear. To him, it meant putting himself in danger. Staying in one place left him open to attack and dying. Not until he put Three Fingers down could he find the will to settle and maybe not then either. He liked riding for bounty money, moving from one place to the next.

"There's that woman at the edge of town. She's got a milk cow," Vivian said. She put the crate on the ground and shifted the baby from her right hip to her left. He squealed.

"She seem like a decent sort?" Chet asked. He kicked the box with the toe of his boot before tightening the cinches on the horses.

"She's moody, not overly friendly, stays to herself. Hard to say, but seems so. Dependable with our laundry," Vivian said.

"Poor as a scrawny coyote at the end of winter," Bert added.

"You say she mentioned George?" Chet asked. Vivian forced Chet to take the crate and he tied the box on his pack animal. He sure did not want to entrust his son to someone who had a connection to the killer, but she might provide a lead.

"Go talk to her." Vivian said.

Mounting his horse, he turned to leave with Vivian still holding the child. She thrust the baby at him and Chet grabbed the child before he fell to the ground. He was surprised at the sorrow he saw in the eyes of the hard-featured woman as she released the baby.

"Take care of that kid. He don't deserve being left an orphan," Vivian said.

"Yeah." Chet could think of nothing else to say - no excuses, no more denials.

Filled with misgivings, doubt, and an odd ache in his heart, Chet headed his horse east past the sleeping man and the general store toward the wagon with the child propped in front of him. He could not give up his search for Three Fingers. If he was anywhere around, Chet would find him. The baby presented a problem he would have to solve before he continued his search. No doubt the child resembled his brother and was his. The baby gurgled and Chet sighed, a deep sigh of despair.

Now, what in hell do I do?



Monday, November 29, 2021

Read an Excerpt from Sucking Bites by Jessica McBrayer



Award-winning and Amazon Top 100 series.

Lily Goodwill, the vamp with a heart of gold, gets a disturbing call on the Suicide Prevention Hotline. A hysterical caller is convinced a werewolf is breaking into his house. Lily dispatches the appropriate services, convinced that “someone is off their meds.” Oh, that it was true.

Soon enough, Lily is fighting for her life against a hairy beastie. She is supported by her almost-fiancĂ©, the brooding French vampire, Sebastian, who adores the ground she walks on, and Aidan, the vampire-hunting jinni, who scarfs energy for breakfast and believes he’s waited his entire existence—for Lily. Her best friends and housemates - vampires, a demon, and a hell hound - rally to her side as the odds stack up against her.

A conniving vampire Queen, a witch bent on seduction, and a determined assassin with a contract on Lily’s undead life round out a season in the City by the Bay. 





Chapter 1. Lilith

“Suicide Prevention, this is Lilith. How may I help you?”

“I just saw a freaking werewolf! It’s outside my window and I need you to call the police!”

“Sir, you saw what?”

“I saw a werewolf! I called the police and they hung up on me, so I started going down the emergency numbers in the phone book and you were next. Please it’s trying to get into the house.” The man is frantic. His high-pitched tone makes my ears ring.

“Are you sure there’s something out there?”


“What’s your address, sir?”

 “1246 James Street.”

I hear screaming, growling, and glass breaking. I speed-dial 911 and report a break-in. The other line goes dead. I send good thoughts out to the man who called in and wonder what he truly saw. Werewolves – yeah right. But I can't forget the noises I heard and it makes me shiver.

Rack up another call fielded by Lily Goodwill, member in good standing on the side of right and light, for the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Hotline. Me in my mission control headphones at my government-issue desk that’s stocked with my favorite hand sanitizer, the kind that smells like raspberries and chocolate, which I use at this moment. It’s best not to pass on germs. You never know what you can pick up from a phone call. Yes, I have a problem.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Read Chapter One Echo of Love by Mary Hagen

$1.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers


Mark Larson is a man afraid to make romantic commitments, believing that any sort of relationship he consents to can only end tragically. After her divorce, Mori Jordan is convinced she can never trust another man. She wants nothing more than to make her horse business successful and provide a secure home for her daughter, Emily. When the two confirmed singles meet, Mori's caution and Mark's fear are put to the ultimate test. Despite Mori's resolve to keep men out of her life, she has difficulty curbing the feelings she discovers in Mark's presence. Despite Mark's struggle with a painful past, his chemistry with Mori rekindles his desire to have a family. In the end, Mark's fears and Mori's worries almost cause them to lose the one person who can finally free them of their demons. 


Chapter One


There was nothing unusual about the day, no electricity reverberating, no anxious tension tagging at Mori Jordan, nothing to suggest that her beginning-to-going-smoothly life was about to become complicated. That is until he pulled his fancy rig into her yard. Frowning, Mori leaned over the top railing of the corral and watched the blue Dodge 250 pickup with matching horse trailer pull to an abrupt stop. Now who is that?

He unfolded his tall frame from the driver's seat and stepped out in a man-with-a-mission style. His expensive suit, dazzling white shirt and stylish tie belied his mission as he unloaded a frisky young chestnut Morgan mare. Securing the halter onto her proud head, he eased his wide hand over her back and led the mare toward Mori. Except for the mare, his manner of dress and good looks reminded her of Frank, the ex-husband she was glad to be rid of.

I'm earlier than I thought I'd be," Mark said with a smile. "I hope it's not inconvenient."

Watching the man and horse, Mori almost let out a whistle. The man was a hunk, far more handsome than Frank and bigger too. In fact, the hunk and the Morgan with her shining dark coat were a perfect pair. Curious about the man who walked toward the corral, she headed for the gate to open it. The jangle of her cell phone interrupted her intent, and she reluctantly took the call.

The sound of Cecile's voice, her partner at Riding Farm, softened her irritation. Her message further piqued Mori's curiosity. So, the man who had driven into her life without warning was Mark Larson, the Mark Larson who had crossed her path those many years ago. And he wanted her to train his horse. If that wasn't irony. Cecile had hoped to be there when Larson. Well, she hadn't made it, and Mori was on her own with the well-known lawyer.

Mori stuck her phone in her pocket and pushed open the gate, only to face "the hunk," who seemed even taller close up.

"Hi," Mark Larson said as he extended his hand. "Cecile probably told you I'd be bringing my filly. Your partner speaks highly of you and said you'd be the best one to work with her since my schedule keeps me from doing it myself." He paused. "I doubt that you remember me."

"Cecile just called to let me know you were coming," Mori said, meeting his hand with hers.

She remembered him. His name registered the minute she had heard it. Her looked different from the man she had known fourteen years earlier. She had not liked him. She measured him with a quick glance.

"I'm earlier than I thought I'd be," Mark said with a smile. "I hope it's not inconvenient."

"Not at all," Mori said as she circled the mare, examining her features. She ran her hand down the filly's leg, feeling the carpus and metacarpus bones. Mori's judgment rated the horse as sound and workable. Her judgement about the owner of the horse, the well-known bachelor in nearby Fort John, Colorado, wasn't so positive.

Larson and she had been in a horse show together when she was sixteen and he was in law school. He had looked down his well-formed nose and had spoken in a condescending tone, "You don't belong in this competition. You're too young to handle the mare you're ridding. You should bow out before you embarrass yourself."

Mori had straightened her back, pushed her hair aside, and proved him wrong.

She no longer was intimidated. She stood her ground in the dusty driveway, fixing her gaze directly into Mark's eyes. "Her bone structure seems sound. What have you got in mind concerning the mare's future?'

Mark drew his eyebrows together for a second. "I'm not certain. She's green, hasn't had much attention. I like to ride Western, but don't want to put her under a saddle until she's ready, a bit older." He squinted and put his hand over his forehead to cut the brightness of the sun. "You're the expert. I'll leave it up to you."

The tension relaxed in Mori's neck as she said. "She's a fine animal. What's her name?"

"Sunny Day." His hand skimmed along the sheen of the horse's neck. "I can't wait to see how she comes along. I'd like to work with her too, whenever I can." The pride in his voice and gentleness of his touch caught Mori up short. For a moment Mori made no comment, but took a deep breath. If Mark David Larson III became one of her clients and she did a good job, it would bring her business. That she could use. More than anything, Mori wanted to pay of her mortgage and make her horse business a success so that she could provide Emily with a secure home.

Mori glanced at his pickup and horse trailer. It smacked of wealth. Very few breeders could afford such a luxury rig. There was more to see, however. Why hadn't she noticed the occupant in the passenger side? Maybe the sun's reflection. She certainly saw her now, using every bit of grace to maneuver herself from the truck. There was no mistaking the beautiful socialite, Shawna Queensly. Mori had read about Mark and Shawna in the newspaper. They were at most functions worthy of mentioning in the city paper.

Ignoring the woman leaning against the truck, Mori lifted chin ever so slightly and turned her attention back to Mark. "I'd like to train Sunny Day." Cupping her hand around the soft velvet of Sunny Day's muzzle, she looked up into her large, prominent eyes and said, "Looks like we're going to be partners, Sunny Day."

Mori liked the strength of the head of the Morgan breed, the set of the ears, and the nice curve of the back. Mori noticed she had no white markings, not even on her face. Continuing to explore Sunny Day for any flaws, Mori addressed Mark, "I'll need a health certification from your vet. Don't want to bring any diseases to our horses."

"I gave them to Cecile when I discusses boarding and training fees with her at the chamber luncheon. Luckily, I had them with me. I've only had her a short time."

"Fair enough," Mori said.

Mark handed her Sunny's reins and that was that. He was entrusting the care and training of this beautiful animal to her. Nothing but good could happen to Sunny at Riding Farm.

That done, Mark's manner and voice were businesslike. I have three more horses I need to board. They'll need some work too. Would like to work them myself when time permits, but can't always drive the twenty-five miles to my ranch." He paused. "That's if you have time and room."

Mori rubbed her grimy palm over her jeans before she took the hand Mark offered. Looking into his smiling face with gray eyes, she read friendliness.

"I'll check with you in a few days to see how it's going."

"Sounds good. I'll keep you informed about Sunny's progress, what I'm doing. You can tell me if I'm on the right track, it it's what you had in mind."

"I'm sure this will work out for both of us. Unfortunately, I've got to get back to work." He headed for the truck, then he turned, "Cecile has my phone number. If you need anything just call."

Mori watched him walk to his vehicle, the 'I'm sure this will work out for both of us,' ringing in her ears. He had lost none of his muscular athletic build she remembered from the horse show. Not like Frank. He'd grown flabby in the years she'd been married to him. Mori gave a sigh of intense relief, glad that phase of her life had ended, and then pondered the exchange between Mark and Shawna.

"Ready, Shawna? She heard Mark call.

"Of course. That horse of yours gets more attention than I do," she said petulantly.

Mark opened the door to his truck and helped Shawna step in. She kissed him lightly.

Did Mark draw away from her kiss? Strange.

Mori compared her grubby jeans to Shawna's stunning blue suit and chic straw hat with the blue polka dot band that matched her blue and white silk blouse. The blue and white pumps made her almost as tall as Mark who, Mori guessed, was well over six feet tall.

"Back to work," Mori heard Mark say as he entered his truck.

"Humph," Mori said under her breath. "Hardly the   appropriate clothes for a horse delivery, even if they did come directly from their offices." Looking at her faded-yet-serviceable jeans with the tear in one knee, a patch of blood on the other knee put there an hour earlier when Mori helped bring Morocco's new foal into the world, Mori knew she could never compete with the Queensly woman. Not that she wanted to,

As Mark and Shawna drove out of the yard, Cecile Riding, Mori's partner, drove in. Despite the fifteen years difference in their ages, Cecile and Mori complemented each other as business partners. The pint-sized Mori and the solid and hefty Cecile had a no-nonsense, yet compassionate way, with animals. When Cecile's husband died after draining most of their savings through no fault of his own---cancer---Cecile needed a partner. Lucky for both of them, Mori had some money from the sale of the house she owned with Frank and could obtain a loan to make it happen.

Mori waved and before leading the filly to the south pasture. "Time enough to start working you tomorrow. Let you get acquainted with the farm," Mori said. The little chestnut filly threw back her head catching Mori by surprise and upsetting her balance. She stumbled after the mare, who backed into the barn door.

Gripping the halter rope under the filly's chin, Mori gained control of the animal. "You don't get away with that," Mori said. She put her hand out to tub the horse's neck to calm her before leading her to the pasture.

After releasing the young horse, Mori stopped at the barn to check Morocco and her new colt, then hurried to the office to see Cecile. When she was a young child, she had ridden her bicycle to Riding Farm to see the colts. In time, Cecile and her husband, Ben, hired Mori to clean stalls, feed the Arabians, and eventually train and ride them in horse shows. Mori never lost her childhood love for horses, even during the years she attended the university to study interior design, and later in Omaha while she was married to Frank. It seemed fitting that she was back at Riding Farm, home in Colorado. Plus, she was grateful to be on her own and away from Frank. He hated everything to do with horses.

"Mark didn't waste time getting his horse out here. I'm sorry he caught you by surprise, but I was so busy I couldn't call sooner," Cecile said when Mori walked into the office. Her blue eyes, high cheekbones, and slightly arched nose were framed by an unruly mass of gray hair.

Mori shrugged as she seated herself in the chair across the desk from Cecile.

   "Well, tell me. Don't keep me in suspense. What did he say?" Cecile impatiently tapped her pencil in the palm of her hand. "I'm dying of curiosity."

"He'll bring us more business, I guess. If we do a good job with Sunny Day, he has three more horses that he'd like to board and have trained." Mori grinned.

"He did? He talked to me about boarding her and training her at the chamber luncheon but didn't mention other horses. I told him you'd be in charge." Cecile chuckled to herself and continued, "He spent the rest of our time together trying to talk me down in fees."

"Tight, huh?" Mori asked.

"Well, sort of. He said since he wasn't sure of your experience and capabilities, he thought we should give him a discount." Cecile's face filled with amusement.

Mori bristled. Her voice came out high and sharp. "His nerve. Who does he think he is just because he's got money? I hope you didn't."

"Of course not. I told him that you are an excellent trainer and so am I. And like you said, he has more money than he knows what to do with, so he can pay for the best and that's us." She looked at Mori with appreciation in her eyes.

"Well, it's our good luck he's asked us." Mori didn't see the smile that formed at the corner of Cecil's eyes or notice the bit of satisfaction in her expression. "Can't believe he came all gussied up. Not exactly clothes for working horses."

"You had a bad first impression. Actually, he's a decent sort." Cecile swung around in her chair and stood. "How about some coffee?"

Getting off the subject, Mori mentioned Morocco's new foal.

"Wait till you see him. He is perfect. Already filled out, and he was on his feet within the hour."

An orange school bus stopped at the gate, interrupting their conversation. A small dark-haired girl jumped off and ran up the driveway. Mori bounded from the office to greet her daughter. Love and pride filled her heart as she watched Emily pause long enough to pet the black and white collie-shepherd dog who met her halfway up the drive.

Waving at her mother, Emily continued toward her swinging her small bookbag on one arm and petting Punch with the other. When she reached the office, Mori picked up the seven-year-old and swung her around before landing her back on the ground.

"We have a surprise for you," Mori said, planting a kiss on Emily's forehead.

"Morocco had her baby. Wow! Hi, Cecile." Abandoning her usual hug for Cecile, she tossed her pack on the office steps and raced toward the barn.

"Hold it," Mori said. "You should change your clothes before you see the new colt."

"Mom, I haven't got time. This is important."

"You’re right. Let's go to the barn." Watching Emily brought a bubble of happiness to Mori and she glowed with contentment.

Cecile laughed as Emily beelined toward the corral followed by her dog.

"I'm lucky to have the two of you with me," Cecile said.

Mori put her arm around Cecile and gave her a hug.

"I was so lonesome after Ben died, I didn't think I wanted to stay here. When you offered to buy a partnership in my business, I was delighted. You two have made such a difference."

"You'll never know how lucky we are to be here," Mori commented.

When they reached the barn, Morocco stuck her head over the stall gate and greeted the trio with a slight whinny before gently lipping the sugar from Emily's outstretched hand. Emily peeked between the gate slats as Morocco nudged her colt away from the visitors. The newborn stallion was covered with black and chestnut fuzz. Mori crawled int the stall.

"Can I come, too, Mama?"

"In a minute. Morocco's nervous, and we don't want to upset her. She might decide to kick. I'm going to lead her into the corral. You stand aside with Cecile so we don't frighten the colt."

Taking hold of the mare's halter, Mori clipped on the lead rope. She murmured soothing words to the mare, calming her, and reached out her hand to touch the colt.

"Beautiful lady. You've got a nice baby. We're proud of you."

Morocco moved her head up and down, nearly catching Mori under the chin.

"Okay, girl. I know you're pleased, and so are we." She turned to Cecile. "If you'll open the gate, I'll lead Morocco out. Emily, stand back, honey. This colt is already feeling his oats."

Emily jumped up and down, ponytail bobbing.

"Stand still. You'll excite the animals," Mori said softly. Emily reluctantly did as she was told.

Once out of the stall, the young Arabian danced from one side of Morocco to the other, keeping himself hidden from Mori, Cecile, and Emily.  Emily darted back and forth trying to see the colt.

"He's lively," Cecile said. Taking Emily by the hand, the two followed at a safe distance.

"His name is Traveler and he's going to be my horse, Mama."

Mori smiled. "What do you think, Cecile? Traveler sound like a good name?"

"Yes." Cecile nodded her head.

Glancing at Emily, who was holding her breath, Mori said, "He should make a nice horse for Emily."

"Absolutely," Cecile agreed.

The sun-beamed look Emily gave her mother radiated even more brilliantly than before, and Mori's heart somersaulted twice.

Because of the colt's natural curiosity, he eased closer to Mori, sniffing at her with a quivering nose. Mori was eventually able to stroke his neck. Emily watched her mother, then approached the colt quietly and reached out her small hand to let Traveler touch it with a soft lip. Under the chestnut black hair was the typical black skin of the Arabian breed.

At first Morocco pranced nervously from side to side, trying to keep herself between her colt and Mori, but Mori's soothing words soon had her relaxing. Standing still, Emily whispered, "Nice boy. We're going to be friends for ever and ever"

The trio worked the animals for some time. Then Mori led the mare and the foal out of the corral and into the small pasture kept for mares and new foals.

It was late by the time the three left the corral and barn. Mori and Cecile checked out Sunny Day one last time before following Emily.

"I think she'll train well," Mori commented.

As they walked toward their homes, their hired man, Jake Johnson came in from irrigating.

"See we've got a couple of strangers out in the pastures," he commented. "Morocco's got a nice-looking foal. Who owns the filly?"

"Mark Larson." Mori's voice came out more forcefully than she expected.

"Hmmm. Larson's. That's interesting. How come?"

"We're going to train her."

"Good for us." Mori watched as Jake glanced at Cecile. "Can't do much better than that."

"No," Cecile responded.

"Before I leave, I'm going to turn on the sprinklers in the southwest pasture. Like to get the water on overnight."

"I'll check before I go to bed to make certain everything is okay," Cecile offered.

"Thanks. Then, I'll see you in the morning," Jake said.

Cecile stopped at the office. "I've got some entries to make into the computer before I go to the house for the night."

"Need some help? You've had a long day."

"No. You and Emily need to get home" Cecile gave Emily a hug.

With Emily's help, Mori fixed a quick supper of hamburgers and potato salad. After supper, Mori put Emily into bed, too late considering the next morning was another school day. Tucking the covers around Emily, she felt pangs of guilt. They had spent too much time with new foal, but the mother in her decided it had been worth it. She had so enjoyed watching Emily's delight with Traveler even though their routine was broken.

"I'm going to dream about Traveler," Emily said in a small voice as she drifted off to sleep.

Before retiring for the night, Mori straightened the house, put dishes into the dishwasher, and took a shower. Sleep eluded her. She thought about training Sunny Day and the first time she had Met Mark Larson. She was riding in the Arabian Horse Show in Estes Park. Mark, who was also a competitor, had been surprised after his comments to her earlier, when she took second place behind him. He'd even come over and congratulated her.

The ringing of the telephone interrupted her thoughts. Mori jumped and ran to answer it wondering who would call so late. She grabbed the receiver. "Riding Farm."

"Mark Larson. Hope I'm not calling to late." The minute he said the words he felt like an idiot. He just wanted to say more, but he had been flustered. Now he was flustered again and wanted to hang up.

"It's okay." She cleared her throat.

"I owe you an apology," he stuttered.

"Why?" Mori said, surprised at his words.

"Well, I was early. I'd told Cecile I wouldn't be at the farm until late afternoon so I know you weren't expecting me," Mark said. His voice was friendly.

"No problem. I'm glad to train Sunny Day," Mori said.

"Good. Well, I'd best hang up. Just wanted to make sure. I may try to get out tomorrow, see how things are going."

"Anytime," Mori said.

"Sorry to bother you. Good night." The line went dead.

In spite of her efforts to sleep, Mori continued to toss and turn. It was almost with relief that she saw the first light of day. Normally she liked to stay in bed until the last moment, but today she got up, put on her robe, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. With two hours left until Emily had to be readied for school, Mori took her coffee cup to the outside deck she had added to her home. Leaning against the house, she sipped her coffee and enjoyed the early morning solitude. She liked the longer days.

The mares grazed contentedly in the nearby pasture. Birds sang and chirped in the cottonwoods as the sun's early morning rays turned the lower slopes of the mountains to an orange glow. Trout churned the water in the pond as they hit the surface, feeding on an insect hatch. To the southwest, the sprinklers spread their spray over the hayfield, creating a multitude of small rainbows.

Mori sat in a lawn chair and rested her feet on the porch railing. This is peace. This is contentment. Achieving her goal to pay off her debt in the farm challenged her, yet added to her feelings of satisfaction. Watching Sunny Day cavorting with another filly, she thought of Mark and the energy she felt coming from him. The momentary attraction caused her to imagine having someone to love again as she once had loved Frank before everything went crazy. Before their divorce. She sighed and sipper her coffee. No, no more marriage. Life was just the way she wanted it.









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