I'm almost, this-close to finishing the new mystery, aka Murder on the Hoof. Everything about it has been difficult, but especially the opening. My Peri series usually opens with the crime, followed by Peri and her cohorts discovering whodunit. I didn't want this one to start like that.
So here's the first chapter. It hasn't been edited yet, so it's probably rough. If you have comments, that's great. If not, that's okay, too. I think I just wanted to get this out in public so I could stand back and go, "Hmm, yes, now that I see it..."
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MURDER ON THE HOOF: CHAPTER ONE
It was his blue eyes that made Willie want to turn and run. The color of arctic glaciers, their iciness popped from the long dark eyelashes surrounding them. He used them quite effectively, staring through her with no expression.
It wasn’t the first time a pretty boy looked through her, and at her age, it wouldn’t be the last. Her gaze flinched, but she planted her feet.
“Tyler?” she asked, extending her hand. “I’m Willie Adams. My trainer, Emily Jungers, is meeting me here to look at one of your horses.”
He remained in his seat and stretched out his hand to meet hers. It was a slow, deliberate move, as if he considered whether to shake her hand or not. His palm felt firm and stiff, one pump of a shake, then withdrawn.
“Nice to meet you.”
Willie glanced at the makeshift tack room, a stall used to contain saddles and blankets during the horse show. She could still see a corner of the large red sign hung on the front of the barn aisle, proclaiming “Tyler Ransome Performance Horses” in large black letters. Two canvas-backed folding chairs sat, unopened, against the faded beige wood. Within the shadows beyond the door, she spied saddles on racks.
She looked down at the travel mug of coffee in her hands, and found herself taking small, nervous sips to fill the silence. The warm aroma of hazelnut caffeine was crowded by the smell of hay and horses and leather. A rattle of spurs made her look away, thankful for the break from discomfort. Emily Jungers, a tall, lithe redhead, strode toward them and held out her hand. “Tyler, good to see you.”
The cowboy unfolded his long limbs from the chair and stood, offering his hand in return. “You wanted to see the little mare?” He pointed down the barn aisle and strolled away with Emily.
Willie took a step to follow, then looked down at the cup in her hands. Once a comforting distraction, it now felt awkward. She glanced around. There was no table outside to leave it, so she went to the tack room and stuck the cup inside the door, then scampered after the two trainers.
She watched Emily’s long legs keeping an easy stride with Tyler, but Willie either had to trot to catch them or continue to walk smoothly with her short legs and get there when she got there.
Damned long-legged people, she thought. Would it kill them to slow down for us shorties?
Horses stuck their heads over stall doors on either side. She looked at her watch. It was just past ten, so they were probably waiting on a mid-morning snack. The air was warming toward its goal in the high eighties, a typical July day in southern California. She looked at each face as she walked by, savoring their beauty, then regarded the people walking in front of her.
The girls at her stable were right. When she had mentioned him, Elliot’s owner Barbara had said, “Ooh, Tyler Ransome, rhymes with handsome.” He was easily a head taller than Emily, broad-shouldered and lean under his grey tee-shirt. Strong features in a chiseled face, with bright blue eyes and full lips, he was model perfect. She usually could not be charmed, much less starry-eyed, by such a beautiful man, but she found herself keeping her distance from him and trying not to look his direction.
It was not the reaction she expected. What would I want with a pretty boy, she thought. A horse trainer at that. I’ve been riding horses for two years. He’s been with them for, basically, ever. We have nothing in common. He’s not like my Hank at all.
Hank had been gone for three years now, leaving her a young widow. The good news was that she wasn’t left to raise any children without him. The bad news was that she would have welcomed the chance to raise his children. Photographs and videos couldn’t be hugged in the middle of a bad night, and her memories of their carefree marriage did not feel like much of a legacy.
She caught up with the pair at a stall, where a tall, bright bay stood, craning its neck over the door, as if asking for a treat.
“This is Cat’s Liberty Belle,” Tyler said as he opened the door, then slipped a halter on the horse’s head. He led the mare out and walked her to Emily.
Willie knew better than to say anything, even if she thought the horse was gorgeous, which she did. Emily had told her before they started shopping for a horse, that it was much like buying a car.
“If the seller thinks you’re excited about this horse, it doesn’t leave you a lot of wiggle room with the price,” Emily had said. “And no matter how much you like a horse, everything can change with the vet check.”
Keeping her trainer’s advice in mind, Willie tried to keep the sparkle from her eyes as she looked at the six-year-old mare, who stood quietly with her head down and her back foot cocked in relaxation. In the meantime, she watched Emily run her hand across the horse’s withers, down her back to her rump, then stand back.
“She’s a little bigger than my client needs, but I’d like to try her out,” Emily said.
Willie nodded, if only to look agreeable. This mare was beautiful, but big. At 5’4”, Willie didn’t consider herself tiny, but this horse’s withers looked at least that tall. That meant 16 hands; she had been hoping for something a little shorter, maybe 15 hands, when the horse wore new shoes and stood very straight.
“I’ll throw a saddle on her and meet you in the warm-up arena in fifteen minutes,” Tyler told them and led Belle up to his tack area.
Emily looked at her and turned toward the arenas, so Willie followed. They passed by the row of shopping stands at the edge of the warm-up arena. Most of the displays were empty, and a few were still in the assembly stage. The horse show didn’t officially start until tomorrow, but most of the competitors arrived a day early to set up their stalls and acclimate their horses. Vendors did likewise, just in case someone needed fly spray or new reins.
“She’s awfully big,” Willie told Emily on their way to the arena.
“I know you want something smaller, but she’s a good mover, a good age, and pretty quiet. She’s been shown in pleasure and trail, so she wouldn’t need any new training for you. And I know Tyler.”
Willie cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Not like that.” Emily shook her head, her long auburn ponytail swaying behind her AQHA baseball cap. “I mean, I’ve bought horses from him before. He’s straight-up, always interested in finding a good fit for his buyers. You’d be surprised how many people try to pawn off a horse with a navicular condition or even dope them up so they look super quiet. Tyler’s not like that.”
Willie ran the word ‘navicular’ through the list of horse terms she kept stored in her brain. She knew it had something to do with having bad feet.
They arrived at the arena and sat on the stone wall to wait for the horse. Soon, they saw the tall cowboy leading Belle, who followed along, her head level with her withers, typical of a relaxed Quarter horse.
Emily turned to Willie. “Just remember, this is a two-week show with a lot of horses here. This isn’t the only one we’ll look at. Even if we don’t find your horse here, one of these trainers may have a horse at home for us.”
There had never been an AQHA horse show this large in southern California, but the Los Angeles Equestrian Center had recently expanded, adding four covered arenas and expanding their warm-up areas, thanks to a recent endowment by two legendary actors. Each had taken up horse riding over the years and now competed with each other in reining events as well as at the box office.
In response to their generosity, the center had named an arena for each actor, and in response to the expansion, the American Quarter Horse Association had scheduled a two-week show. Everything from pleasure riding, to jumping, to speed events and cow and ranch horse classes were offered, to showcase the versatility of the breed.
Now Willie sat at the edge of the Kirk T. Williams arena, preparing to buy her first horse and wondering both why she was doing this, and what took her so long.
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