Authors: Iris Johansen
El Tariq, Morocco
et the bastard! He’s trapped.”
The hell he was, Kilmer thought savagely as he gunned the jeep up the hill. He wasn’t about to let them catch him when he’d come this far.
A bullet tore past his ear and splintered the windshield.
Too close. They were gaining on him.
He put his foot on the brake and slowed the jeep down.
He swerved around a curve in the road, braced himself, and then jumped into a mud-and-sand-filled ditch at the side of the road.
Christ, that hurt.
He rolled over and dashed into the brush, watching the jeep roll driverless away from him and then veer toward the edge of the road. With any luck they’d think that shot had struck him and not try to analyze why the jeep appeared uncontrolled.
Now wait for the truck pursuing him.
He didn’t have to wait long. The Nissan truck roared around the curve. Two men in the cab. Three in the open back of the truck. The man on the right side of the back was the one with the rifle. He was aiming at the jeep again.
Let them get a little nearer . . .
They were passing him.
He stepped out of the brush and threw the grenade he’d pulled out of his backpack.
He hit the dirt as the grenade struck the truck and exploded. A second explosion rocked the ground as the gas tank of the truck blew.
His head lifted. The truck was a blackened, flaming ruin; smoke was curling up toward the sky.
And that smoke would be seen for miles.
He jumped to his feet and started to run toward the glade at the top of the hill.
It took him five minutes to reach it and he was hearing the roar of vehicles behind him when he burst into the glade where the helicopter was hidden. Donavan started the rotors whirling as he caught sight of Kilmer.
“Go!” Kilmer dove into the passenger seat. “Stay away from the road before going south. You might get a bullet in the gas tank.”
“I thought from the explosion that you’d taken care of that problem.” Donavan lifted off. “Grenade?”
Kilmer nodded. “But there may be more than one truck this time. The first thing they’ll do is check the safe when they see that smoke and then they’ll call out every man at the compound.”
“So I see.” Donavan whistled as he saw the line of trucks on the road below. “And one of them has a ground-to-air missile launcher. We’d better get the hell out of this airspace before they spot us. Did you get it?”
“Oh, yes.” Kilmer gazed down at the jeweled and embroidered velvet pouch dangling from the gold chain he’d pulled out of his belt pack. The blue sapphire eyes of the two horses whose images were imprinted on the pouch glittered back at him. Deadly. So beautiful. So deadly. He’d already killed seven men today alone to gain possession. Why didn’t he feel triumphant? Perhaps because he realized that those lives would probably be only the start of the chaos to follow. “Yes, I got it, Donavan.”
alk to him, Frankie,” Grace said as she stroked the horse’s muzzle. “When you get to the barrier, lean down and tell him what you want him to do.”
“And he’ll balk just the same.” Frankie made a face. “Horses may understand you, but I’m chopped liver to them.”
“You don’t know until you try. Darling is just having a battle of wills with you. You can’t let him have the upper hand.”
“I don’t care, Mom. I don’t have to be boss. If Darling was a keyboard instead of a horse, I might want to assert myself, but I—” She gazed at Grace’s face and then sighed. “Okay, I’ll do what you say. But he’s going to toss me.”
“If he does, then fall right, the way I taught you. And then get on him again.” She paused. “Don’t you know how much it scares me to have you fall? But you love to ride and it was your choice to compete in this show. I don’t care whether you win or not, but you have to be prepared for anything that might happen.”
“I know.” Frankie’s smile lit her face. “And I will win. Just watch me.” She kicked the palomino and sent him galloping around the ring. She called back over her shoulder, “But it would help if you told that to Darling.”
She looked so little on that horse, Grace thought in agony. Frankie was dressed in jeans and a red plaid shirt that made her curly dark hair tumbling out of her helmet look black in the sunlight. She was eight, but she’d always been small for her age and she looked younger.
“She’s only a kid, Grace.” Charlie had come to stand beside her at the fence. “Don’t be so hard on her.”
“I’d be hard on her if I let her go through life unprepared.” She muttered a prayer beneath her breath as she saw Frankie start the approach to the barrier. “I can’t protect her all her life. What if I’m not around? She has to learn how to survive.”
“Like you did?”
“Like I did.”
Darling was almost on top of the barrier.
Don’t balk. Don’t balk, boy. Take her over safely.
Darling hesitated, then rose in the air and cleared the barrier.
“Hot dog!” Grace jumped down from the fence as Frankie whooped with glee and then galloped toward her. “I told you that you could do it.” When Frankie slipped from the saddle, Grace picked her up and swung her in a circle. “You’re incredible.”
“Yep.” Frankie’s grin lit her face. “Maybe you’re not the only horse whisperer in the family.” She looked beyond Grace to Charlie. “Hot stuff, huh?”
Charlie nodded. “And I thought all that piano playing was ruining you for any decent job.” His smile lit his sun-weathered face with slyness. “I might even try to get you a summer job cleaning the stables over at Baker’s Farm.”
“I get enough of that here.” She took Darling’s reins and started leading him toward the gate. “And you let me off for piano practice. I don’t think Mr. Baker would do that. He likes hillbilly music.”
“After you take care of Darling, shower and change your clothes,” Grace said. “We have to be at judo class in an hour.”
“Right.” Frankie took off her helmet and reached up to rumple her curly hair. “And Robert promised to take us out for pizza afterward, Charlie. You’re coming, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Charlie said. “And if you make it all right with your mom, I’ll even put Darling away for you.” He grimaced. “Never mind. I’m getting the evil eye for interfering with responsibility.”
“She’s like that.” Frankie led Darling toward the stable. “But I don’t mind. I like making Darling comfortable. It sort of pays for all the fun he gives me.”
“Like dumping you in the dirt.”
“He didn’t hurt me.”
“Thank God,” Grace murmured as she watched Frankie disappear into the stable. “I nearly had a heart attack, Charlie.”
“But you made her try again.” Charlie nodded. “I know. She has to learn to survive.”
“And have a chance at winning. I won’t have her beaten down.”
“She tickles those keys pretty good. Not everybody has to compete in the ring.”
“She’s loved to ride ever since you and I taught her when she was three. The piano is her first love and she’s brilliant at it. But I’m not having her confined to practice and concert halls. Composing is fulfilling for her too and it doesn’t expose her to all the hoopla connected with public life. She’s going to have a full, rounded life here before I let her consider whether she wants to see her name in lights.” She grimaced. “Who the hell would have dreamed I’d give birth to a child prodigy?”
“You’re not so dumb yourself.”
“Heredity has nothing to do with a talent like Frankie’s. It’s one of those freaks of nature. But I won’t have her considered a freak by anyone. She’s going to have a normal, happy childhood.”
“Or you’ll blow everybody out of the water.” He chuckled. “She is happy, Grace. Don’t try so hard. You’ve done a great job raising her.”
done a great job raising her.” She smiled at him. “And every night I thank God for you, Charlie.”
A faint flush colored his lined cheeks, but his tone was rueful. “I hope He’s listening. I haven’t done much worthwhile in my life and I’m getting pretty old. I may need a few good marks in His book soon.”
“Hey, you’re only pushing eighty and healthy as one of your horses. In this day and age you’ve got a lot of good years left.”
“That’s true.” He paused. “But not one of them can be better than the last eight. Frankie’s pretty special and you’ve made me feel as if she belongs to me too.”
“She does. You know that.” She frowned. “You’re very serious today. Something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I got a little scared when Frankie took that jump. It made me start counting my blessings. I was remembering how things were before you showed up that day eight years ago. I was a crabby old bachelor with a horse farm that was going straight to hell. You changed everything for me.”
“Yeah, I talked you into a job, moved in, and saddled you with a six-month-old baby. A colicky baby. I’m lucky you didn’t toss me out the first month.”
“I was tempted. It took two months before I decided that even if I kicked you out, I was going to keep Frankie.”
“In your dreams.”
“It would have been pretty hard.” His blue eyes were twinkling. “Of course, I could have tried to find a bronc tough enough to bust you up a little. But I haven’t seen a horse you couldn’t break yet. Weird.”
“Don’t you start. Ever since Frankie saw that horse-whisperer movie, she thinks I’m— I just talk to them, dammit. Nothing weird about that.”
“And they understand.” He held up his hand. “I’m not accusing you of being a Doctor Dolittle. I’ve just never run across anyone like you.”
“I love horses. Maybe they feel it and respond to it. It’s as simple as that.”
“There’s nothing simple about you. You’re tough as nails about everyone and everything but Frankie. You’re crazy about the kid. Yet you let her take chances that most doting mothers would never do.”
“Most doting mothers never had the experiences I did when I was growing up. If my father hadn’t made sure I was able to survive, I wouldn’t have made thirteen. Don’t you think I want to wrap Frankie in cotton and never let her take a false step? But mistakes are how you learn and get stronger. I’ll love her and protect her in the only way I know that works. Teaching her to protect herself.”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me where you did grow up?”
“I told you, I spent every summer on my grandfather’s horse farm in Australia.”
“And where did you spend the rest of the year?” Charlie shrugged as he saw her expression close up. “I didn’t think so. But you usually don’t talk about anything before that day you showed up on my doorstep. I thought I had a chance.”
“It’s not that I don’t— It’s better if you don’t know anything about—” She shook her head. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Charlie.”
“I know. I’m just curious why you’d have to trust me to tell me what makes you tick.”
“You know what makes me tick.”
He chuckled. “Yeah—Frankie. I guess she’s enough for anyone.” He turned and headed for the barn. “If I’m going to meet you for pizza, I’d better get to my chores. Robert and I are going to play a game of chess after we ship you and Frankie back to the farm. I’m going to beat him this time. He’s really better at judo and other martial arts than he is at board games. An unusual man, Robert.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “And isn’t it also unusual that he showed up in town and opened that martial-arts studio only a few months after you came?”
“Not particularly. The town didn’t have any kind of martial-arts center. It was just good business.”
Charlie nodded. “Guess it’s all in the way you look at it. See you tonight.”
She gazed after him as he headed for the barn. In spite of his years, his step was still springy and his wiry body appeared as strong as that of a much younger man. She never thought of Charlie as aging, and it troubled her to hear him talk about it. She’d never heard him speak about age or dying before. He always lived in the moment . . . and these days they were all good moments for all of them.
Her gaze shifted to the hills surrounding the farm. The late-afternoon sun turned the pines in the woods to a deeper shade of green that spread an almost narcotic peacefulness over the hot August afternoon. When she’d first come to Charlie’s small horse farm eight years ago, that peacefulness was what had drawn her. The paint on the outbuildings and the fencing had been worn and chipped, and the house had looked as if it had been neglected for years, but that sense of timeless peace pervaded every foot of the place. Dear God, how she had needed that peace.
She turned to see Frankie hurrying toward her. “All set?”
“Yep.” She took Grace’s hand. “I had a talk with Darling while I was putting him away. I told him what a good boy he’d been and that I expected him to do the same tomorrow.”
She sighed. “But he’ll probably toss me anyway. I figure today I got lucky.”
Grace smiled. “Maybe tomorrow will be lucky too.” Her grasp tightened on Frankie’s hand. Jesus, she loved her. This was one of the perfect times. No matter what tomorrow brought, today was bright as a new penny. “Race you to the house?”
“Right.” Frankie broke free and started streaking across the yard.
Let her win? What would it hurt to—
Grace started to run at full speed. It would hurt. She had to be honest with Frankie and never let her doubt that honesty. Someday Frankie would leave her in the dust and then the triumph would be all the sweeter for her. . . .
t’s going to rain.” Grace lifted her head to the night sky. She and Robert Blockman had stopped outside in the parking lot to wait for Charlie and Frankie, who were finishing their game of pool in the recreation room that adjoined the pizzeria. “I can feel it coming.”
“The weatherman says it’s supposed to be dry as a bone for the next couple days.” Robert leaned on the door of his SUV. “August is usually a dry month.”
“It’s going to rain tonight,” she repeated.