They neared the stables, and April could not stand the suspense any longer. "Poppa, would you please tell me what all this is about?" she begged, shivering in the cold despite her cape and his arm about her.
He stopped just outside the door leading to the smaller of the buildings. "Do you remember my prize Darley Arabian?" he asked proudly.
"Yes, of course. He's a magnificent creature. People come from all over just to see him."
"Do you remember all I told you about him?"
She nodded. "He has a pedigree, is full-blooded, and is a descendant of a famous horse named Eclipse, bred by the Duke of Cumberland."
"And I had him brought over here from England at great expense," he added with a wry smile. "Well, I've a wonderful surprise for you, and it's been quite difficult keeping it a secret. I've had to keep you away from the stables and leave strict orders to the groomsmen that your surprise be kept out of sight."
"Poppa, whatever are you talking about?"
Bewildered, she watched as he reached to open the stable door. The glow of a lantern spilled out into the gathering twilight. He looked inside, nodded to someone, then turned to her and said in a voice trembling with pride, "I have hidden Virtus's colt from you, April, because he is my gift to you on this day."
He laughed at her stunned expression and reached to pull her inside the stable. She gasped, catching sight of a shiny black colt prancing in the center of the room. His coat shone like satin, and his eyes sparkled with gold and red fires. He was the most magnificently beautiful horse she had ever seen, even among her father's thoroughbreds.
"You...you mean he's mine?" April looked from the black colt to her father in disbelief. "You are giving the son of Virtus to me?"
"He's all yours." He was beaming with pride. "Now he hasn't been broken yet, and I certainly don't want you riding him until he is. Like his father, he's high-spirited. But you should be able to handle him after he's trained."
"She'll never be able to handle this horse."
For the first time, April noticed a man standing in the shadows outside the ring of light, holding the colt's reins. He stepped forward, and she dimly recognized Rance Taggart, who had arrived at Pinehurst when his father became ill. Frank Taggart had been in charge of the stables for as long as she could remember, and his son Rance had often been at Pinehurst.
Vaguely, she recalled her father saying something about Mr. Taggart's son arriving a month or so previously, but since she had not been in the stables of late, she had not noticed him.
Now, she felt her father stiffen with indignation. He was not accustomed to being challenged.
"What do you mean by that, Taggart?" Carter Jennings growled.
Rance's eyes flicked over April briefly, then met the challenge of Carter's glare. April noted that he was a full head taller than her father, with wide shoulders. Beneath his open suede shirt, she could see a heavily furred chest tapering down to a flat belly and narrow hips. He was well-proportioned, lean, yet muscular.
Her gaze moved to his face. His hair was ebony, and his eyes, a smoldering chestnut brown, were intense, probing in their alertness. He was quite handsome. Something about him was disturbing...something she did not understand just yet. Something dangerous? She was not quite sure, but the man possessed a quality that caused her to tremble at his nearness.
Rance spoke to Carter Jennings in a firm confident tone. "This colt is very high-spirited, and even after he's broken, it will take an experienced rider to handle him. April isn't that experienced. If you want to give her a horse, there are some gentle mares--"
"You forget your place, Taggart!"
Rance Taggart did not wither before her father's angry, booming voice as other men did. He stood straight, erect, eyes unwavering. He had no intention of apologizing.
"I own this colt, just as I own everything else at Pinehurst, and if you think I will tolerate your telling me what I may or may not give my daughter--"
Rance's smile was arrogant as he tilted his head to one side. "Mr. Jennings, I don't give a damn if you give your daughter every horse you own. Along with every cow and mule. I'm just telling you what I know. This colt is too dangerous for her to ride. She could get her neck broken."
As if to emphasize the statement, the colt suddenly reared up on his hind legs, forelegs thrashing wildly in the air above. Startled, April stepped back. She would have fallen, but Rance's free hand shot out to steady her. He gave the reins a yank with his other hand, bringing the colt down on all fours once again. "See what I mean, Mr. Jennings?" he drawled.