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Antonia Black has always known her place with the Del Campo family-a bastard daughter. And it will take a lot more than her skill with horses to truly belong within the wealthy polo dynasty. In fact, she’s been shuttled around so much in her life, she doesn’t even know what “home” means. Until one man shows her exactly how it feels to be safe, to be free, to be loved.
Enzo Rivas knows Noni is way out of his league. After all, he’s the stablemaster, and she’s the boss’s sister. But he can’t see the hurt in her eyes and not want to protect her. And he can no longer deny the electric tension jumping between them. Yet just when he’s ready to risk it all and change their relationship forever, a secret from her past makes him question everything he thought he knew about her…
I first learned to ride a horse when I was four years old and started playing the sport of polo by the time I was nine. Tango was the horse on which I learned to play, and Tango was my first love. I fell in love with the beauty of horses and idolized the strength and bravery of the best players. In my native Argentina, everyone has a chance to go to polo matches and see how thrilling they are. It has been my dream to share the game that I love, the game that has given me so much—as a person and athlete—with the rest of the world.
I think polo is very appealing. After all, there’s a reason Ralph Lauren chose it. There is something undeniably sexy about a man and a horse and the speed and the adrenaline.
It was at a polo match that I met my wife. I was in the stands and she was coming up the stairs, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and we looked at each other. I had to know more, so I asked her cousin Sofia to introduce us and she told me, “That’s funny; she just asked me the same thing.” So the cousin introduced us, and we talked for a little bit. It was the beginning of the summer, and we didn’t see each other for two or three months. After the holiday, we started dating, and we have been together ever since…
I am very excited to present the Polo Season series, which blends my favorite sport with a little bit of romance. Whether you’re already a polo fan or completely new to the game, I hope you will enjoy these characters and their stories.
When Sunny started crow-hopping, Enzo Rivas didn’t worry. The big mare had always been hot, and it wasn’t out of character for her to occasionally get a little bored and try to test her rider.
But when Sunny started to buck, Enzo knew something was seriously wrong.
The pony threw her head down, kicked out her legs, and whinnied fearfully, almost sending Enzo out of the saddle. He pressed his knees against the saddle, grabbed the reins, and battled to pull her head back up. She fought him, flinging her head down again and heaving her back legs into the air.
For a moment, he thought he was going to be thrown, and his body automatically tensed, preparing to hit the ground, hard.
It wouldn’t have been the first time Enzo lost his seat to an unruly horse. It was part of his job, after all. Nobody trained horses and didn’t occasionally get thrown. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight it.
Sunny came back down onto all four legs again, and Enzo, sensing a split second of opportunity, yanked the reins sharply to the right, forcing the pony’s head so far over that her nose touched his knee. She screamed in outrage and spun in a circle, but she was powerless to kick her hind legs from this position.
Enzo kept her in that stance, letting her spin as many times as she wanted, speaking to her softly in Spanish, until he could feel her temper start to ebb and her muscles soften, one by one, under him.
He relaxed the reins and let the pony’s head back up. As they cantered forward, he noticed a large, bald-faced hornet floating away from them.
“Ah. Poor girl,” he said, “you got stung.”
Sunny snorted complacently as if in agreement, then reared up, threw Enzo backward into the grass, and bolted, riderless, down the pitch.
Enzo lay there for a moment, the breath knocked out of him, staring at the cloudless Florida sky. It had not been a bad fall, as falls went, and he knew that once he could breathe again, he’d be fine. But he was also pissed, and he knew it would be better to get his temper under control before he chased down the errant horse. It never helped to be mad when dealing with ponies.
“Rivas?” came a distant voice that made him close his eyes and smile ruefully. Of course she would find him like this.
“Enzo, are you okay?”
She was closer.
He struggled to a sitting position, still a little winded but determined not to be on his back when she reached him.
“I’m fine,” he said, and then almost fell over again, he was so dizzy. Damn that horse. He bent his head to his knees and closed his eyes.
“You don’t look fine. You look like you got knocked on your ass.”
He slowly turned his gaze up toward Antonia Black and felt his heart speed up in a way that had nothing to do with his fall.
It was getting worse. He could hardly look at her anymore without being filled with an almost paralyzing ache of attraction.
She reached out her hand, her dark eyes twinkling with amusement, and after a beat of hesitation, he took it and let her help him to his feet.
For a moment after he stood, he let his hand linger in hers, allowing himself the luxury of feeling the tingling heat that seemed to generate from her skin into his. But then he dropped it, remembering the runaway horse.
“Did you see where Sunny went?” he asked.
She laughed. “She pranced right into the barn. I’m sure one of the grooms has her by now.”
He nodded and winced, already sore from the fall. “She got stung,” he said.
“Oh,” said Noni, “I know. I saw the whole thing.”
He smiled and rubbed his neck. “Hot horse,” he said ruefully.
She smiled back. He felt his chest squeeze in response. “Hot horse,” she agreed. She looked him over. “You sure you’re all right?”
He nodded. “I’ll probably be sore, but nothing is broken.”
“Good,” she said.
They gazed at each other for a moment.
“Are you going to Hendy’s party tonight?” he finally said, needing to break the tension.
Her mood suddenly changed. She frowned, and a red flush touched the creamy skin of her cheeks and chest. “Yeah, I guess,” she said in an abrupt tone. “Anyway, if you’re really okay, I’m going to head on home.” She quickly turned to go. “I’ll see you at the party.”
He watched Antonia walk away, heading for her truck. He had the impulse to call out, stop her, ask her what was wrong. But before he could act, Noni swung up into her truck, her platinum blond hair streaming behind her, slammed the door with a bang, and was gone in a cloud of dust.
He clenched and unclenched his fist, reminding himself that every time she slipped away, it was better for both of them. Less complicated, safer.
Nothing good, he reminded himself sternly for the ten millionth time as he started back toward the barn, could come from anything happening between us.
She is my boss’s sister. She is a Del Campo. I would only end up hurting her.
The words were his litany, but lately they were starting to lose their power.
He shook his head. Being stern with himself wasn’t working anymore. He could feel that he was starting to weaken. Being around her at work, being her friend and confidant, without ever hinting at his real feelings, had begun to exhaust him.
It was a part he knew he could not play much longer. All his good reasons for keeping his distance, all the rules of the barn and vows to himself that he had clung to over the years had started to feel weightless compared to his growing feelings for this woman. The many times he had repeated to himself that it was unprofessional, that he wasn’t fit to be in a relationship, that he didn’t deserve her, that she was too fragile…it was all beginning to feel as insubstantial as a fairy story. A cautionary tale he’d heard as a child, meant to keep him away from gingerbread houses and wolves in the woods.
Because she was different these days. She was stronger and happier and more stable. And her happiness made her all the more irresistible.
And maybe, he thought, I’m different, too…
He turned back around at the barn door, watching the lingering trail of dust that her old blue truck had left behind. He thought of a moment in the barn earlier that day, when he had held the head of a pony for her while she bent over its hind leg, hammering in a new shoe. For just the quickest second, she had looked up and met his eyes, and a devilish smile had danced over her mouth. It had been the kind of carefree grin he would never have imagined on her face when he had first come to know her. It seemed to prove that she was finally mended. Certainly, she was a changed woman from the one he’d met all those years ago.
* * *
Eight years earlier
The barn had been fizzing with gossip for days. Enzo’s boss, Alejandro Del Campo, had flown to Berlin to find his newly discovered half sister. She was a scandal no one in the Del Campo family had even known existed before reading Carlos Del Campo’s posthumous will.
There were rumors circulating all over the farm about the mystery woman. The grooms were whispering that Alejandro had bailed her out of jail, a student rider swore she heard that the sister was an opium addict, and the Argentine vet said she had been living on the streets, doing what she must to survive.
Of course, not one of those things had turned out to be true, but on the day that Alejandro had first brought Antonia to the barn, anything seemed possible and none of it was good.
Enzo had been leading out a little black mare named Hex for training—she’d recently started to get spooky on the field and he’d wanted to pinpoint what, exactly, was setting her off—when Alejandro slid open the doors and entered with a small blond woman trailing behind him. The usual buzz and chatter of the barn suddenly stilled.
The woman immediately stopped to look at a pony and turned away from Enzo, so that his first impression was just a swath of pale, creamy neck and long, silky white-blond hair, the kind of hair so fine and smooth that it looked like it couldn’t be bound, as if it would just slide right out of a clip or hair band. At first glance she seemed a child, sylphlike and vulnerable, in an oversized black button-down flannel, baggy faded jeans, and worn work boots. But when she turned her head and glanced at Enzo, he’d felt himself go still.
This was no child.
She was stunning. With high Slavic cheekbones, a wide and generous mouth, a heart-shaped face tapering to a stubborn little chin, and, most startling, Carlos’s eyes. Large, slanted, and raven dark, hauntingly shadowed in her pale face, with long, sooty lashes and dramatic black slashes for brows. Except that, unlike her father, whose gaze had always looked a bit dulled by overindulgence and self-satisfaction, this woman had eyes that glowed like live coal—filled with raw intelligence, hurt, anger, and challenge. She looked like a desperate, wild thing who had just been trapped into captivity.
Her beauty was undeniable, but it wasn’t just her physical presence that moved Enzo. He recognized something in her—a fierce and anguished aura—that made him want to reach out and touch her, to gentle her, to comfort her, to find out exactly what had happened to make her this feral and fix it in any way he could.
The pony beside him had nipped him then, impatient to get outside. Enzo swore in pain, and Antonia laughed—a silvery sound that sent electric chills down his spine. For a moment, her whole face lit up. She was transformed. She lost that hunted look, and she was, if it was at all possible, even more beautiful than she had been seconds before.
Then her smile slipped away and her eyes clouded back over, and Enzo realized that he would gladly spend the rest of his life doing just about anything to try to make her laugh again.
She walked over and scratched Hex’s ears. “She wants out,” she said. Her voice was soft and husky and thoroughly American—not a trace of the Argentine accent that the rest of her family, and Enzo himself, sported.
Hex closed her eyes and nibbled at Antonia’s hair. Enzo smiled. “She likes you,” he said.
Antonia arched a dubious brow. “She likes to be scratched.”
The sleeve of her shirt fell back as she continued to rub Hex’s neck, and Enzo had been shocked to see all the scars—some shiny white and healed, but others still pink and raw—that dotted her hand and wrist.
Without thinking, he reached out and touched her hand, tracing the marks under his fingertips, feeling the tight, raised flesh and then an incredible heat that seemed to emanate from her skin. She felt like she was burning with fever.
She went absolutely still, met his eyes defiantly, and then shook him off.
“Not that it’s any of your business”—she flipped her hand over and showed him a small tattoo of an anvil on her inner arm—“but I’m a metalworker. Burns are just a hazard of the job.”
He felt hugely relieved and then annoyed with the force of emotions that were raging through him. What business was this of his? Why should he care how she got her burns?
“A farrier?” he asked, trying to hide behind polite conversation.
She shook her head. “No, mostly casting lately.” But she looked around the barn, a hint of speculation in her wide dark eyes.
Then Alejandro had joined them and Enzo had suddenly been shocked back to reality.
His boss’s little sister. A member of the Del Campo family.
If ever a woman had been off-limits…
Alejandro led his sister away, wanting to show her the rest of the farm, and Enzo had been left with Hex, who was starting to paw the ground in her eagerness to get out of the barn.
In the field, Enzo rode the pony, trying to figure out what she was shying away from, but his thoughts kept returning to Antonia. The silken curtain of her hair, her obsidian eyes, the way her skin seemed to burn from within, her scent—something sweet and hot like black pepper and cinnamon…
Under him, Hex suddenly tensed and Enzo broke from his reverie to take note of their surroundings. There it was—an old black garden hose on the field that someone had left out. It looked too much like a snake to the sensitive little mare. He’d tell a groom to take care of it right away.
He rode the pony back in, wondering whether he’d see Antonia again, wondering where she was staying…
He shook his head.
He had not felt this way in years. Perhaps he had not felt this way ever. And it shook him to the core.
* * *
The dust had cleared now, the truck was long gone, and Enzo finally went to find Sunny and make sure she’d been taken care of. He knew he would see Noni later that night, at Lord Henderson’s end-of-the-season party, and thought that he might ask her then what had made her so angry.
Ducking back into the cool, fragrant barn, he flashed on her face again—that slightly wicked smile—and he felt his whole body tighten in response.
He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and tried to banish her from his thoughts, push her away, in the same way he’d been doing for years.
But something stuck and held.
It was getting harder and harder to let her go.
Antonia burned herself as she pulled the red-hot piece of steel from her forge. The coal spit fire when she grabbed the metal rod with her tongs, and a tiny piece of ember landed on her arm, but she didn’t even wince. She merely flicked the glowing spark off her wrist with the careless air of someone who had been burned many, many times before, slammed the burning rod onto the horn of her anvil, and set to work hammering it out.
Antonia was making horseshoes. They were pointless, really. She knew that her homemade shoes would probably just end up reforged as something else later. When shoeing the costly ponies in her care, she only used “polo plates,” machine-made, lightweight, specially designed shoes whose carefully dulled edges and rims were beyond her abilities as a smithy. She would never dare put her relatively crude work on a Del Campo pony. But when Antonia was upset, when she had something she needed to get off her mind, when she needed to check out, she went back to the first thing she had learned to smith. Which happened to have been horseshoes.
She hit the steel with more power and less precision than she normally would. But, at the moment, all Antonia wanted was the satisfying feel of metal against metal, the shower of sparks she created every time she landed a blow, the smell of burning coal and hot steel, and the resonant clank of her hammer shaping the work.
She’d had a bad day. Not because anything had gone wrong professionally. Everything had been fine as far as her farrier work went. She’d successfully shod three ponies, managed to fix a problem in the gait of one of her favorite horses just by opening up the back left heel a little and recalibrating the balance, and she had noticed a narrow but deep sand crack in the hoof of another pony and trimmed it down before it became something much worse.
But all that accomplishment came to nothing after Pilar Del Campo had shown up at the barn.
Antonia moved the metal to the center of the anvil and hit it still harder. Her hammer made an explosion of sparks bloom and fly, bouncing in a small hail of embers off her heavy leather apron.
Usually, Antonia didn’t let Pilar’s attitude get under her skin. In fact, she often had sympathy for the woman. After all, when Carlos Del Campo had died, Antonia’s existence had come as a surprise, not just to Pilar but to the whole Del Campo family as well. Suddenly Sebastian and Alejandro had a twenty-two-year-old half sister they’d never even met, and their mother had a flesh-and-blood reminder of her husband’s infidelity.
Antonia continued to hit, trying to draw the metal out into a curve, but the steel was losing heat and pliability now, no longer a bright orange-yellow but fading into a darker red.
She threw the shoe back into the forge for another heating.
At the end of the day, Noni and her older brother Alejandro had been in the barn office discussing the pony with the sand crack in her hoof. Alejandro had been effusive in his praise, telling her that he had picked that pony’s feet that very morning and completely missed the injury.
“I am in your debt, Noni,” he’d said. “That crack would have been a disaster if you had not caught it in time. What can I do to thank you?”
Antonia had shrugged him off. It was her job, after all, but her brother laid a hand on her shoulder and met her eyes with a warm smile. “Come, hermana, there must be something you would like.”
Antonia’s heart had beat a little faster than usual, and she’d thought, Now’s the time. She took a deep breath and tried to seem as casual as possible when she’d said, “Maybe we can just, you know, play a little stick and ball together sometime? Even get Sebastian out on the field, too?”
Alejandro had looked surprised for a second, and then his smile had grown even wider, and he’d opened his mouth to answer her, and Antonia had been filled with a breathless hope, when the door to the office had banged open and Pilar had come charging in. Ignoring Antonia completely (as she always did), Pilar had started in on Alejandro in rapid-fire Spanish about what he was going to wear to Lord Henderson’s party that night since the dry cleaner had failed to return Jandro’s good tuxedo on time.
And just like that, the moment was gone. Jandro had rolled his eyes and shrugged at Antonia before plunging into a good-natured argument with his mother. Antonia, after catching an impatient sideways glare from Pilar, had stood there for just one more agonizing moment before she gave up and left the office.
For a brief time later, talking to Enzo after she’d helped him off the ground, she’d felt a little better. But then he’d gone and reminded her of Hendy’s party, too, and all her disappointment and anger had flooded back.
She’d driven straight home to her shop, lit up her forge, and started making horseshoes.
She opened the door to the forge and caught up the partially made shoe in her tongs. Holding it in the air, she stared at it for a moment, chewing her lip. It was pulsing and alive—exactly the right temperature, she could tell by the yellow-orange color—as pliable as clay, ready to be thrown onto her anvil and hammered into something useful.
Instead, Antonia reached over and plunged the half-done work into her water bucket, extinguishing its heat and glow with a steamy hiss. Then she threw the thing, dripping, cold, and worthless, into her scrap pail, took off her safety glasses and apron, and shut down her forge.
“Luna, Mojo,” she called.
A black and white mass of fur curled up in the corner of the shop untangled itself into two separate huskies, one fluffy white, one glossy black, but both with the same slanted ice-blue eyes.
“Come on,” said Antonia, giving her thigh a little pat as she left the shop.
The sisters, tongues lolling, obediently trotted after their mistress. Next time, Noni thought as she strode into the soft Florida dusk, she wouldn’t let Pilar Del Campo stop her. Next time, she wouldn’t hesitate. She would make her move.
Enzo was at the foot of the stairs at the back of the barn, heading up to his apartment, when a figure riding a black Ducati motorcycle pulled up next to him.
Enzo smiled as the rider took off his helmet, revealing a young blond man with a friendly grin. “Mark Stone,” said Enzo. “It has been a while. Nice bike.”
Mark dismounted awkwardly. “It’s new. Still getting the hang of it.” The motorcycle began to lean, and he caught it just before it fell. “Obviously.”
Enzo laughed. He had always liked this young Internet genius. Enzo had given him polo lessons when Mark had substituted for Sebastian on the Del Campo team a few years back. Since then, the amiable billionaire had been a regular at Del Campo events.
“Where is Camelia?” Enzo asked, referring to Mark’s new wife, an ex-groom from the Del Campo farm.
“Training,” said Mark proudly. “It looks like she and Skye have a really good shot of making the Olympic dressage team this year.” He frowned. “Oh, but hey, if you see her, do me a favor and don’t mention the bike, okay? She’d pitch a fit if she knew I was riding it.”
Enzo snorted. “I am sure she just wants to keep you alive.”
Mark smiled roguishly. “One hopes.”
“You just missed Alejandro,” said Enzo as he started back up the stairs. “He left about thirty minutes ago, but I think you can probably catch him at the farm.”
“Actually,” said Mark, “it’s you I want to talk to.”
Enzo paused, surprised. “Oh?”
“I’m putting together a team, Enzo.”
Enzo raised his eyebrows. “A polo team?”
Mark nodded. “Yes. High goal. I’m going to be the patron and play number four, and I’ve got two other players—a guy from Mumbai and another guy from Australia—lined up. They’re both incredible. But I need a fourth player, a team captain, to play the number three position.”
“Ah,” said Enzo, “that is very exciting. Congratulations. Actually, there is a young groom in the stables—he’s from Philadelphia. I don’t know if he’s ready to captain, but he’s an incredibly promising player—”
“No, no,” said Mark. “You misunderstand. I want you to come play number three. And be the piloto of my team.”
“Pilotos don’t play,” said Enzo automatically, “and I have a job here with the Del Campos.”
“I’ll pay you twice what they pay you,” said Mark, “and who says that a piloto can’t play?”
“I should have said that good pilotos don’t play,” said Enzo. “It splits their attention.”
“I think you’re capable of doing both.”
Enzo laughed. “Well, thanks for the offer, but—”
“I’ll pay you three times as much,” interrupted Mark.
Enzo was silent for a moment. It wasn’t the money. It was the timing. He knew that he was starting to weaken when it came to Antonia. Perhaps putting some distance between them wouldn’t be the worst idea…
- On Sale
- Jul 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 320 pages