My Favorite Cowboy

Read the Excerpt

Chapter 1

 

July

 

Another one.

Audrey sighed as she removed the plastic gloves and ran a comforting hand over the too-still mare that stared blankly at the wall. The strawberry roan was a gorgeous specimen to behold, and it killed Audrey that the horse was ill.

“I’m going to help you, baby,” she said softly, passing long strokes down the mare’s neck.

Audrey pulled out her iPad and jotted down notes, including the symptoms she had seen in three other horses. The fact that none of the animals came from the same owner, and each had arrived at the auction house on different days meant that whatever was making the horses sick had happened at the auction house.

The mare didn’t even swivel her ears as David Warner approached. Audrey looked over to the owner of the auction house. His stomach protruded, obscuring his belt buckle. He removed his cowboy hat, turning it around in his hands as he gazed anxiously at the horse with his hazel eyes. No one could fake that kind of concern for an animal.

He ran a hand through his thinning, graying, blond hair. His gray mustache twitched atop his lip like a long, thick caterpillar. “I’d hoped for good news, but I can see by your face that isn’t going to happen.”

Audrey closed her tablet and dropped her arms to her sides. She’d known David all her life and had always liked him. He loved equines and was well known in the community for coming to the aid of any horse in need. In fact, most of the animals in his barns were those he had rescued.

David’s narrow-set eyes watered as he blinked at her. “Audrey, are you sure it’s as bad as you feared?”

“Without a doubt,” she replied.

He dropped his head and looked away to hide his distress.

She walked to him and put a hand on his arm. “You need to speak to every employee. More importantly, you need to turn on the cameras you installed years ago.”

“They don’t work,” David admitted, still gazing at the ground.

She frowned as she looked around to see if anyone was close. “Who knows that?”

Finally, he lifted his head to her. David shrugged helplessly. “Everyone.”

Audrey closed her eyes, biting back an angry retort. She had to remember that David was a gentle soul. He’d married young and lost his wife just a few years afterward when she fell from a horse and broke her neck. Forty years later, he was still alone, preferring to give his time to the beautiful creatures he loved.

She shot him a reassuring smile because he’d do the same for her. “We’ll figure this out.”

“Knowing you’re on my side is a huge relief. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I’ve not found exactly what is happening to these animals. I need to rule out everything before I can give a definitive answer.”

David replaced his hat atop his head. “You will. You have the same tenacity as your father.”

The mention of her father brought back the ache in Audrey’s chest that she’d lived with for the past year. She watched David walk away before turning back to the roan. Four horses were counting on her to heal them. After years of veterinarian school and learning every nuance of equines, she didn’t like being stumped.

If she gave any of them the wrong medicine, it could do more harm than good. She didn’t want to chance doing that until she knew for certain what was causing such a reaction in the animals.

Audrey looked at the stall. The wood was Southern Yellow Pine, an inexpensive and durable material that worked well for barns. David had applied a finish to help stop mold and splintering.

At least that was in this barn, which was used for injured horses or those just coming in to the auction house. Most of the animals were kept in the larger, covered corrals with steel fencing separating them.

If she hadn’t been coming to the auction house her entire life and seen for herself just how well treated the animals were, she would test the wood from the stalls and even the metal of the corrals to see if something might have leaked into the horses’ skin or tongues. Since only four of the twenty horses had been listless and refused to eat or drink, she didn’t believe wood or metal had anything to do with it.

The food and hay, however, was another matter. Audrey let her gaze run over the other horses in the corrals. Why just four? That’s what it kept coming back to. Four.

She squatted beside her bag and pulled out some supplies. After opening the alcohol-soaked gauze, she stood and wiped the jugular furrow of the roan while talking gently to the animal to keep her calm. She then pressed her thumb against the base of the horse’s neck and felt the vein throb. The pressure also caused it to bulge, which made it easier to collect the blood.

Audrey kept talking to soothe the animal while she inserted the needle into the vein and began to draw the blood. Once she had enough, she withdrew the needle and placed another alcohol-soaked pad over the injection site to stop the bleeding.

The roan jerked her head up and tried to shy away at the contact. Audrey quickly removed the gauze and gently massaged the area while humming a gentle tune. It took only a few seconds for the horse to calm once more.

Audrey spent another few minutes with the mare before she repeated the process another three times with the other ill horses. Audrey marked each tube carefully and put them all into her bag.

But she wasn’t finished. She chose four random horses and drew their blood as well for comparisons. One way or another, she was going to figure out why the equines were sick.

It physically hurt Audrey when an animal was in pain, and she couldn’t help them. There was no way she was going to rest until she got to the bottom of the issue.

And learned what—or who—was doing this to the horses.

Audrey didn’t believe that David was involved in any way, but she couldn’t be so certain about any of the others he employed. David had a good heart and was always giving jobs to those in need. While he had the patience of Job, the moment he even suspected that anyone might think of harming the animals, they were fired.

The mystery of the ill horses took precedence over anything else Audrey had. She walked into the blazing heat and squinted from the bright sunshine. As she made her way to her SUV, she churned everything round and round in her head, hoping that she might be able to somehow figure out the mystery.

Just before she got into her vehicle, she paused and turned her head to the long, metal building David used as his office. She closed the door and tightened her grip on her bag as she walked through the gravel parking area toward the structure set off to the side.

She walked in to find David sitting as he leaned his arms on the desk, his gaze directed out the window to where the horses were. Audrey quietly closed the door behind her.

“I’ve had this business for over thirty-five years,” he said in a voice filled with hurt, anger, and worry. “In all that time, only one horse has died while in my care.”

Audrey inwardly winced at the reminder of that horrible day. She had been with her father and David when they found the gelding lying unmoving on the ground. The death had been natural, but David had never gotten over it.

His hazel eyes swung to her. “Do you think someone is doing this? Do you think they want to hurt the horses? Or could they be after me?”

“I don’t know anything yet, and I’d hate to speculate.”

He swallowed as he nodded, looking away. “Of course, of course. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

“You’re worried. It’s perfectly all right for you to feel a whirlwind of emotions right now.”

David blinked rapidly and went back to looking out the window. “I’m going to stay here with the horses until all of this is figured out and they’re better.”

“That’s probably a good idea. I have some tests I want to run on the blood I’ve drawn. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

He didn’t appear to hear her as he continued looking out the window.

Audrey licked her lips and took a step toward the desk. “David.”

“Hmm?” he said as he glanced her way.

“You need to get the cameras working. And do it without anyone else knowing.”

He bobbed his head slowly. “I know someone I can call that might help.”

“Good. Get it done today once everyone has gone home. Also, I’m going to send Maddy over to help you keep an eye on the horses until I get back.”

David’s head swung to her as his brow furrowed. “Audrey, you need to be careful. You work exclusively for two well-known ranches. If they find out you’re helping me, things won’t go well for you.”

“They can kiss my ass,” she stated. “Besides, they don’t need to know about this.”

“I never should have asked you to come.”

“Stop,” she told him. “I’d be pissed if you hadn’t called. Now, I need you to trust me. I also need you to promise me the cameras will get repaired.”

He blew out a breath, exhaustion evident in the droop of his shoulders. “I will. You have my word.”

“Good. I’ll be back.”

 

Copyright © 2019 by Donna Grant