A Bravo's Honor
“Luke! Wake up, man! We got trouble!”
Luke Bravo shot to a sitting position from a sound sleep. He raked his fingers back through his hair and squinted at the bedside clock. 2:10 a.m.
And someone was pounding his sitting room door. “Luke! Wake up!” Luke thought he recognized the voice: Paco, one of the stable hands. He sounded seriously freaked.
Stark naked, Luke jumped from the bed. Grabbing his hat off the back of a chair as he flew by, he raced through the sitting area. Lollie, the spotted hound he’d raised from a pup, had beaten him to the door. She paced in front of it, whining and sniffing the crack between the door and the floor.
“Back, girl. Sit,” he commanded. With a final worried whine, the dog moved out of the way. Luke yanked the door wide. “Paco. What the hell?”
About then, the housekeeper, Zita, came flying around the corner from the servants’ rooms, muttering in Spanish, clutching the sides of a flimsy red robe. She let out a shocked little squeak when she got a load of Luke standing there in the altogether.
He put his hat over his privates. “It’s all right, Zita.” He aimed a narrow-eyed glare at Paco. “Is there a fire?”
Paco slapped a hand over his mouth to quell a snort of laughter at the housekeeper’s embarrassment, and mutely shook his head.
“No fire?” Luke asked again, just to be sure. When the stable hand’s head went back and forth a second time, Luke told Zita gently, “I’m on this. Don’t worry. Go on back to bed.”
Face noticeably flaming, even in the dim light provided by the hallway wall sconces, Zita whirled and ran back the way she had come. A choking laugh escaped the stable hand.
Luke leveled a scowl on him. “If not a fire, then what?”
Paco’s grin vanished. His smooth dark face grew somber. “It’s Candyman. He cut his ear on something. There’s blood everywhere. He’s gone loco. We can’t settle him down.”
Though stallions are rarely even-tempered, Candyman, Bravo Ridge’s prize stud, was a true gentleman. A black-footed gray from foundation Quarter Horse lines, he produced top-quality horses for show, ranch work and everyday riding. As a rule, you could count on him to be easy-going and calm.
If he was out of control, he must be hurt bad.
“On my way.” He shoved the door shut, put on his hat and grabbed for his clothes. Once he had his Wranglers and boots on, he told Lollie, again, to stay, as he slipped out door. He took off, racing down the backstairs and out one of the service entrances into the hot August night. Halfway across the back gardens, he caught up with Paco.
By the time they reached the dirt driveway that circled the main house and grounds, Luke could hear Candyman’s screams. He ran faster, Paco close on his heels, across the driveway and around the stables to the prize stallion’s paddock.
As they approached the paddock fence, Luke saw that someone had got a rope on him—but not been able to hold it. The rope trailed loose along the stallion’s neck. Candyman bucked and snorted. Gray mane flying, he shook his proud head, stomping the ground, sending clods of dirt and grass everywhere. Blood, black by the light of the nearly-full moon, ran down his powerful neck. His eyes shone wide and wild—one filmed with blood from that raggedy, sliced-up ear.
Half-blind and scared to death. Even once he got the animal settled a little, the doctoring required would be beyond Luke’s rudimentary veterinary skills. On the other side of the far fence, the stallion’s mares whickered and restlessly paced, frightened to see the big gray so far out of control.
“Call Doc Brewer.” Luke barked the order over his shoulder at the stable hand. “Tell him to get the hell out here. Now.” He climbed the six-foot metal fence surrounding the paddock. As he jumped to the ground within, he gave a low whistle.
The stallion stood still, then, and scented the air.
“Whoa, boy. Easy now…”
The horse made a questioning sound.
“That’s right, it’s me. Easy there. Easy…”
Candyman snorted and shook his silver mane. But he didn’t rear again. He waited, withers twitching, snorting again softly, as Luke cautiously approached.
“Yeah, boy. Good boy…” He held out his hand, palm flat. Candyman gave it a sniff and then allowed him to grasp the dangling, bloody rope.
Luke patted the powerful neck and laid his cheek against it, feeling the tacky wetness of clotting blood. “Come on, now. Let’s get you in your stall…”
The horse went where Luke lead him, though reluctantly, switching his tail and making low, unhappy noises. Twice, he jerked the lead to show Luke he wasn’t the least happy about the situation. Each time the horse resisted, Luke would stop and speak softly to him. He would stroke the stallion’s fine forehead and blow in his nostrils.
In time, Candyman allowed Luke to take him into his stall. Once there, it was a matter of keeping him settled until the doc arrived—which had better be soon.
Paco appeared on the far side of the stall door. “The doc’s in the hospital.”
“Tell me you’re joking.”
“Wish I was. Hip replacement, they said. They’re sending his new associate.”
Luke would have blistered the air with bad words if he wasn’t being careful not to stir up the stallion. “Whoever he is, he better know what he’s doing. And he damn well better get here fast.” Paco made a low sound of agreement. “Get me a bucket of warm water and a clean rag, will you?” He turned his attention back to the horse.
Since he’d raised and trained the eight-year-old himself, Candyman always responded well to Luke’s voice and his touch. When one of the other stable hands brought the bucket, the horse even allowed him a little prodding at the injury. But the area was too sensitive to touch without anesthetic. Candyman jerked his head sharply, snorting in warning, when he tried to mop up the worst of it. He decided the cleaning could wait until Phineas Brewer’s “associate” arrived with a tranquilizer.
At least it wasn’t as bad as Luke had feared at first. With skillful stitching, it might even heal up good as new. Luke willed the time to pass quickly. He talked softly to Candyman as the minutes dragged by. The horse quivered and chuffed at him. “Easy,” he soothed, “Easy, boy…”
Where was that damn vet? The smell of blood and hay and horse filled his nostrils. Sweat beaded under his hat and ran down his bare chest. “Turn on the fan,” he commanded to anyone who might be listening. “It’s an oven in here…”
Someone flipped a switch and the stall fan spun.
Softly, in order not to spook the injured horse all over again, he spoke to Zeke, who ran the stables and now hovered close on the far side of the stall door with Paco and three other men. “Your men find what caused this mess?” Candyman’s stall and paddock were carefully constructed to be both secure and smooth-sided. A stallion, even a calm-natured one, was more curious and sensitive to his surroundings than other horses. Special care was taken to protect against sharp nails or any projection on which the prize animal might injure himself.
“We found a board knocked down in the run-in shed.” The run-in shed, located on the far side of the stallion’s paddock, was an open shelter the horse could use to get out of the sun or sudden bad weather. “A big nail was exposed, the head broken off and bloody from where he hooked his ear on it.”
“Is it fixed now?”
Luke heard the crunch of tires on gravel in the driveway outside. “That the vet?”
“I’ll get him.” Zeke hustled off and returned an endless couple of minutes later. “It’s the vet, all right.”
Candyman stirred and snorted nervously. Luke patted the horse’s neck and spoke in a slow, careful tone. “Get him in here.”
“It ain’t a he.”
Luke glanced toward the stall door. Through the pipe bars, he saw the new vet.
Clearly not a he.
She met his surprised glance, a fine-looking woman, full-breasted in a white t-shirt. Her smooth olive skin was scrubbed clean of makeup and her long black hair, parted in the middle, was tied back in a low ponytail.
It was her eyes that held him, though. They were cat-slanted and black as midnight. He remembered those eyes. “Mercedes?”
She nodded, a graceful dip of her dark head. “Hi, Luke. How you been?”
He shook his head. Time did fly. “Little Mercy Cabrera…”
One of the hands muttered something appreciative. Another one laughed. Someone whispered darkly, “Cabrera…” Everyone knew that a Bravo never trusted a Cabrera—and vice versa.
Luke commanded, “Enough,” and the men were silent. He spoke to Mercedes. “I remember hearing you went off to college.”
“I did. Eight years ago.”
Damn. Had it really been that long? “You, and then Elena.”
“That’s right.” Her sister, Elena, a Cabrera by blood, was three or four years younger. “We’re doing all right, both of us. Moving up. I graduated from A&M. You’ll be relieved to know I passed my national veterinary board exams with flying colors.” She carried a black bag. And she looked…plenty capable. It was something in the tilt of her strong chin, in the intelligence shining in those striking eyes. Damn. Little Mercy Cabrera. Adopted into the Cabrera family when she was twelve or thirteen. It seemed to him she’d been sixteen just last week. Sixteen, meaning jailbait...
She sure looked full grown now.
“Time goes by,” he softly observed.
“Yes, it does. I’m partnered up with Phineas since last month. He wants to retire in the next few years. I’m going to do my best to fill his shoes.” She stepped close to the bars and spoke in a quiet, even tone. “Need some help with that horse?”
Candyman’s nostrils flared as he scented her. But he didn’t flatten his good ear or swish his tail, a fair indication that he would tolerate her tending him.
“Cut his ear up pretty bad.” So what if she was a Cabrera, and good-looking enough to have him thinking things he shouldn’t? Candyman needed doctoring and she was the only vet present. “You think you can stitch him up for me?”
“Can you keep him settled while I have a look?”
“Come in here. Do it nice and slow.”
So strange, Mercy thought, to be there in that stall with Luke Bravo and that beautiful, bloodied stallion in the middle of the night. Since she first came to San Antonio with her poor, doomed mother fourteen years before, she’d had a crush on the tall, golden Bravo boy. She’d seen him riding a fine horse in a parade once. And at the San Antonio winter stock show and rodeo, the big one, that used to be held at the Freeman Coliseum.
For most of her teenage years, the rugged young Anglo had filled her girlish fantasies.
Not that it could ever be more than a foolish girl’s daydreams. She was as much a Cabrera now as if she’d been born one. And no self-respecting female in her family would go out with a man who had the last name of Bravo.
The Bravos had stolen much from her people. The land she now stood on, this ranch the Bravo’s had renamed Bravo Ridge, had belonged to the Cabreras for hundreds of years—until Luke’s grandfather stole it from Emilio Cabrera back in the fifties. One Cabrera man had lost his life slaving for the Bravos. And another, fighting them.
“What’s his name?” She asked Luke.
“Good with the ladies?”
“A gentleman, always.”
The horse allowed her touch. He whickered softly into her palm. She performed a quick examination just to make sure there was nothing more to treat than the bloody, half-hanging ear.
“Well?” Luke asked, as she finished the exam.
She wished he’d worn a shirt as she tried not to stare at his sweat-shiny, blood-streaked, perfectly formed male chest. “I’m going to have to medicate him before I can clean and stitch him. Can you lead him out of the stall for me?”
He nodded. So Mercy unlatched the door and backed into the main part of the stable. Luke started to bring the stallion out, too. But the horse grew fractious, jerking the rope Luke had on him, blowing hard through his nostrils.
Luke was gentle. And so patient. He petted the stallion and whispered in his good ear. When he guided the horse forward again, the animal went quietly.
Mercy had the needle ready. As Luke petted and soothed the big gray one side, she thumped the other side of the horse’s neck sharply with three fingers to desensitize it. She was good with a needle, got it in quick and smooth. Swiftly attaching the syringe, she gave the injection and eased the needle out. Candyman didn’t seem to feel a thing.
Luke stayed close, petting the horse and talking softly to him, as the drug took effect. After a few minutes of waiting, he sent a glance around the stable at the watching men. “We gonna need these boys, you think?”
By then, she had judged that a local anesthetic should do the trick, since Candyman seemed settled and kind of peaceful, with the trank in his system and Luke stroking him and whispering to him.
“I think the two of us can handle this now,” she said. “As long as help’s in shouting distance if there’s trouble.”
“Go on back to your bunks, boys…”
The men left them.
Mercy had the second injection ready. The horse snorted softly when she gave him the shot just behind his ragged ear. But he was already relaxed from the tranquilizer and she was done so fast, he never got around to kicking up a fuss.
As they waited for the area to grow numb, the horse was calm and the stable was quiet. All the stalls were empty, which didn’t surprise her. In the hot summer weather, the horses would be happier and more comfortable outside during the night.
“It’s so quiet,” she said, feeling strangely self-conscious.
Luke made a soft sound of agreement.
“You live in the main house?”
“The rest of your family, too?”
“Uh-uh. Most of them have houses in San Antonio. Or elsewhere.” Luke had six brothers and two sisters. “But they all come back to the ranch for holidays and to get away from the rat race now and then.”
She shook her head.
“What?” he asked in a whisper, a smile playing at the corner of his finely-shaped mouth. “Some reason I shouldn’t live there?”
“All those fat, white pillars. Like a palace in Greece. Or maybe a Southern plantation house.”
Luke chuckled low. “You would have had to know my Grandpa James. He modeled it after the Governor’s mansion.”
Once the Cabrera hacienda, La Joya, the jewel, had stood where the huge white house with those proud white pillars stood now. Mercy had seen pictures of La Joya and thought it so fine, so suited to the land it was built on, with thick stucco walls and a tile roof to keep things cool in the hot Texas summers. James Bravo had torn the hacienda down to build the white mansion surrounded by green lawns and rose gardens.
“Must cost a small fortune to water all that grass,” she said, keeping it offhand, not allowing any bitterness to show. She was, above all, loyal to her adopted family. But now was not the time to raise the specter of the longtime blood feud.
He kept things neutral, too, with a half-shrug of one powerful bare shoulder. “We use well water. What can I tell you? My father loves that damn house and those rolling green lawns maybe more than my grandfather did.”
She touched the horse, sliding a hand down his neck first, and then carefully reaching up again to press the flapping, bloody flesh of his torn ear. Candyman didn’t flinch. “He’s ready. I need to wash my hands.”
She went to the long, deep concrete sink at the far wall and lathered up with the strong disinfecting soap in the tray there, then dried her hands with a paper towel from a wall dispenser. Luke watched her, she knew it. She could feel those eyes of his, searing a hole in her back, tracking her every move. She tossed the towel into the waste basket by the sink and turned again to face the man and the stallion.
For the stallion’s sake, she approached them slowly. And maybe, if she were honest, it wasn’t only that fine gray horse that had her moving with care. Something in Luke’s burning blue gaze made her pulse turn slow and lazy, made her heart beat a deep, hungry tattoo beneath her breasts.
He had blood on his cheek. In a sudden, shocking image, she saw herself licking it off.
“Tell him nice things,” she instructed, “and keep a soothing hand on him. I’ll need to clean him up first.”
Luke was impressed with Mercy’s doctoring skill.
Fifteen minutes after she washed her hands, Candyman was clean and stitched up and bedded down in his stall, with the fan going to keep the heat of the night at bay.
And Mercy Cabrera was putting her instruments away in that black bag of hers, getting ready to leave.
Luke didn’t want her to go.
Which was insane. And also stupid. Where could it go with the two of them? Nowhere. If he made a move on her, he would only be asking for trouble.
There hadn’t been a flare-up in hostility between their families in years. Not since his father hired her adoptive mother, Luz, to work for him in a well-meaning attempt to put the old feud to rest.
Davis Bravo’s plan had backfired. Luz’s working for a Bravo had infuriated her husband, Javier, who had demanded his wife quit immediately. She hadn’t. Things had gone downhill from there.
Since then, the families had sense enough to avoid each other. It had been going well. Tensions were low enough that a little minor interaction would probably work out fine.
Mercy taking over for Phineas…that could be good. She could treat Luke’s horses. But she wouldn’t technically be working for anyone named Bravo. There would be nothing in such a transaction to get Javier Cabrera’s back up again, nothing to poke at that hotheaded pride of his. Mercy doctoring the Bravo Ridge livestock was a safe and sane way to start putting the feud behind them.
What Luke wanted when he looked at her was not safe. And not sane. Not in the least.
He wanted to touch her. To stroke a hand down her shiny black hair, to press his palm against her soft cheek. To taste that ripe, red mouth of hers. And more…
A whole lot more.
There were a bunch of pretty women in South Texas who didn’t have Cabrera for a last name. If he wanted companionship he should go looking for one of them. What was the matter with him to even consider messing with Javier Cabrera’s daughter?
He wasn’t considering it, he told himself firmly. Uh-uh. No way.
Mercy hooked the clasp on her black bag and stood. “The stitches are the kind that dissolves, so I won’t need to remove them. But I’ll come by next week to check on him.”
“Thanks.” The word came out rough and low. All he had to do was nothing. Just stay right where he was until she was gone.
He took a step closer to her.
Her dark eyes widened. Another step, close enough that he could smell her. She smelled good. Fresh. Like a meadow of wildflowers in early morning. With a hint of something sweetly spicy, something exotic and tempting.
“I um…” She licked those lips of hers, quickly drawing her pink tongue back inside. He wanted to sink his teeth into the smooth brown flesh of her throat, to suck that tongue of hers deep into his mouth. To rip off that snug t-shirt, shove down those faded jeans. “Call the office,” she said. “If there’s a problem.”
“I’ll do that.” He held her gaze and his voice went lower, rougher. “I remember you. When you first came to stay with the Cabreras. I remember those eyes of yours. Black. True black.”
Those eyes tracked—his mouth to his eyes. And back again. “She had cancer, my mother.”
“I heard that. It was hard for you, huh?”
“She died a year after we came to stay with Luz and Javier. They made her final months as good as they could have been. They loved her. And me. And I’m their daughter now, their true daughter. In my heart. And by law.”
He stepped closer. Close enough he could have reached out and grabbed her. But he didn’t.
She held her ground. “I owe them everything.”
Another step. He was crowding her. There was no excuse for such behavior. But he did it anyway, stepping sideways, boxing her in. Too late, she moved to put distance between them. Since he blocked the exit, she backed up. Three steps and she could go no farther. The section of wall between Candyman’s stall and the next one over stopped her. She watched him, her eyes locked on his, as he closed the distance between them.
She gazed up at him, eyes deep and dark enough for drowning, and she whispered, “We shouldn’t…”
Before he took her mouth, he whispered back, “I know.”
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