The Long Hot Summer (Chapter Six)

Kelly lay on a cushioned wicker love seat on the porch, her head resting on Ryan's chest. Raising her right leg, she wiggled her toes. She had left her sandals in the kitchen. She and Ryan had barely touched their dinner after the kiss. He'd helped her clear the table and wash and dry the dishes, and she'd suggested they sit out on the porch where it was safer than remaining indoors.

"What made you decide to become a veterinarian?"

Ryan rested his chin on the top of her head. "I've always loved horses and science, and becoming a vet was the logical choice. Also, I knew one day I would inherit the horse farm from my father, as it was with him and his father."

"You'll be the third generation Blackstone to run the farm?"

"Yes. And hopefully Sean will become the fourth."

"What about your brother?"

"Jeremy has no interest in horses. Pop refers to Jeremy as his vagabond progeny. My younger brother would lose his mind if he had to stay here more than a month."

"How did the Blackstones become horse breeders?"

"My granddaddy was a white tobacco farmer who fell in love with a young black woman who had come to work for him as his cook. They couldn't marry or live openly as husband and wife because of Virginia's miscegenation laws. But she did give him a son. When James Blackstone died he left everything to Sheldon. Grandpa had grown tobacco for about twenty years, but after my grandmother died from lung cancer from a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, he harvested his last tobacco crop and decided to raise horses."

"Did he breed them to race?"

"No. He raised working breeds like the Welsh Cob, horses known for their hardiness and strength. He sold them to farmers and for riding. My father brought his first Thoroughbred several years after he'd married my mother. Within ten years he was racing competitively."

What he did not tell Kelly was that his mother was an only child of a wealthy Charleston, South Carolina black family, and that his parents had used her inheritance to establish the largest and most successful African-American-owned horse farm in the state of Virginia.

"I know nothing about horses or racing," Kelly admitted. "In fact, I've never been to a racetrack."

Ryan's forehead furrowed. "You've never watched our trainers exercising the horses?"

"No."

"If you don't have anything planned for Saturday, then I'll have Kevin Manning show you how he trains horses for races."

"Do you go to the races?"

Ryan hesitated. During his short marriage, the only time Caroline had deigned to grace him with her presence was at a horse race. "Yes."

Shifting slightly, Kelly gazed up at him. A shaft of sunlight hit his face, turning him into a statue of molten gold. Turning his head quickly, he glanced at her and she shuddered noticeably from the intensity of his stare. The large gray eyes glowed with an inner fire that ignited a spark of longing that left her gasping.

Ryan returned his gaze to the sprawling landscape in front of Kelly's bungalow. The homes for resident employees were constructed far enough apart to allow absolute privacy.

The fingers of his right hand traced the outline of Kelly's ear. "If I'd come back earlier I would've taken you to the Virginia Gold Cup. It's held the first Saturday in May at Great Meadow near The Plains. The Great Meadow also hosts the International Gold Cup the third Saturday in October."

"Isn't the Kentucky Derby run the first Saturday in May?"

He chuckled. "I thought you knew nothing about horseracing?"

"I do know the date for the Kentucky Derby," she said defensively. "How many winners has Blackstone Farms produced?"

Kelly listened intently as Ryan listed the races, the names of the horses and their jockeys who'd worn the black and red silks of Blackstone Farms into the winner circle. He explained domestic horses were bred in many different races and were grouped as ponies, heavy draft horses, lightweight draft and riding horses.

"Barbs and Arabs, the two most popular riding horses, originated from North African stock. Thoroughbreds are descended from Arabians."

She thought of the colt she went to see most mornings. "Jahan is the most exquisite horse I've ever seen."

"We call him our black diamond. Everyone connected with the farm believes he's going to become a champion."

"What do you believe, Ryan?"

He wanted to tell Kelly that he liked her, liked her more than he dared admit. He wanted to tell her that something about her kept him a little off center. That he found himself thinking about her when he least expected. That he thought about her when he retired for bed and when he woke up.

"I believe if he stays healthy, he will stand in many a winner circle," he said instead. "Have you ever ridden?"

"No." She laughed. "Remember, I'm a city girl."

"Do you want to learn?"

"Yes," she said, refusing to think of the consequences if she fell off a horse.

"Don't worry, we have a few Thoroughbreds with Irish Draught and native pony blood. They're less high-strung and more suitable for a novice rider like you."

"Do the children ride?"

"Most of them sit a horse by the time they're walking. One of the boys who was born on the farm is now a jockey."

"How old is he?"

"Nineteen.

Staring up at him, she gave him a saucy grin. "By the way, how old are you?"

"Thirty-four."

"I suppose you're not too old to court me."

"How old did you think I was?"

"At least forty."

"No!"

"Well, you do have gray hair."

"Come on, Kelly, cut me some slack."

"That's hard when my first impression of you was that of a doof ball.

"Doof ball," he murmured under his breath. "Is that anything like a doofus?"

She nodded, clapping her hands. "Bravo! You just scored another A."

He glared down at her. "You've got a real smart mouth." Grasping her shoulders, he shifted her to sit on his lap. "If you play, then you have to pay. Are you prepared to pay, Kelly?"

She stared at him through her lashes. "That all depends on the game, Ryan."

He lowered his head. "Have you ever played for keeps?"

"No."

"Then I'm going to have to teach you," he whispered seconds before his mouth covered hers.

His kiss was slow, deliberate and methodical. It was gentle and persuasive. Healing. Exploratory. Drugging. Desire sang in Kelly's veins as she parted her lips, sampling and tasting the texture of the tongue exploring her mouth. His left hand moved up between her thighs, burning her bared flesh as her breathing deepened.

As quickly as it had begun it ended when he pulled back. And what she saw would be imprinted on her brain until she ceased breathing. The color in Ryan's eyes shimmered like a newly minted silver dollar. His eyes changed color with his moods, and instead of darkening with desire, his eyes turned into pools of liquid lightning.

Kelly tried to slow the runaway beating of her heart. "I think you'd better go now before we do something we may regret later." Her husky voice had lowered an octave.

Ryan slowly shook his head. "No, Kelly. I never do things I later regret."

Her senses were reeling as if her nervous system had been short-circuited by a powerful jolt of electricity. She hadn't known Ryan a week, yet he had lit a fire of desire she thought long dead.

Sitting upright, she pushed off his lap and stood up. Hands on her hips, she watched him stand. His body language was measured, precise. It was as if Ryan was in control of his life and everything in it.

Rising on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. "I forgot something."

"What's that?"

"I forgot to apologize for closing the door in your face."

He lifted an eyebrow. "There's no need to apologize."

"But you told me you expected an apology."

"That was before you agreed to date me."

She nodded. "Good night, Ryan."

Bending over, he pressed a kiss under her ear. "Good night, princess."

He walked off the porch to where he had parked his car. He knew he had to slow down, not frighten Kelly. After all, they had a year to get to know each other.

I'm crazy. I've lost my mind, Kelly told herself over and over on the short drive to the schoolhouse. She had spent a restless night replaying her conversation with Ryan the night before.

She had also thought of herself as sensible and practical. When all of the girls she had grown up with were experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sex, it was Kelly Andrews who did not succumb to peer pressure. Why had she permitted Ryan to talk her into a situation in which she was not certain of the outcome?

She might be frustrated – after all, she was undergoing a sexual drought – but that did not mean she should contemplate sleeping with her boss's son. Kelly was certain she was certifiably C-R-A-Z-Y!

She parked her car and walked toward the entrance to the schoolhouse. Her step slowed when she saw a man at the door, waiting for her. Her car was the only one in the lot, which meant he had walked. She recognized his face, but not his name.

Smiling, Kelly said, "Good morning."

Snatching a battered straw hat from his head, he held it to his chest. "Good morning, Miss Kelly." He extended a hand. "I don't know if you remember me. Mark Charlesworth, ma'am."

She shook his hand. Although his clothes, his hands and clothes were clean, he smelled of the stables. "What can I do for you, Mark?"

He lowered his head, and a profusion of dreadlocks swept over his broad shoulders. "Can we talk, Miss Kelly? Inside?"

"Sure." She unlocked the door and pushed it open. A blast of hot air assaulted her as soon as she walked in. She had neglected to adjust the thermostat. Moving quickly, she pressed several buttons on a wall. Within seconds, the fan for the cooling system was activated.

"We can sit over there." Kelly gestured to the sitting area.

Mark followed Kelly, waiting until she sat down before he took a chair opposite her. Rolling the brim of his battered hat between long, brown fingers, he stared down at the floor.

Kelly waited for him to speak. The seconds ticked by. "Yes, Mark?"

His head came up and he stared at her with large, soulful dark eyes. "I need your help, Miss Kelly."

Leaning forward on her chair, she nodded. "How can I help you?"

"I want to go to college, but I don't know if I can pass the test the college says I need to get in."

She smiled. "You want me to tutor you?"

He smiled for the first time, showing a mouth filled with large white teeth. "Yes, ma'am."

"How old are you, Mark?"

"Twenty-two."

"Do you have a high school diploma?"

"Yes, ma'am. I dropped out at sixteen, but I went back and finished up last year. My dad said if I passed the test to get into a college he would pay for me to go."

"What do you want to be?"

He dropped his head again. "I'm not sure. I know I don't want to muck out stables for the rest of my life."

"Good for you." Kelly paused. "I'll help you."

Mark leaned forward and grasped her hands. "Thank you, Miss Kelly."

She winced as he increased the pressure on her fingers. "You can let go of my hand now." He released her hand, mumbling an apology. "If I'm going to tutor you, then it will have to be in the evenings."

He bobbed his head. "Yes, ma'am."

"Do you have any SAT practice books?"

"No, ma'am," he said quickly. "If you want I can pick up some."

"No, Mark. I'll buy them. I have an account with a company in Richmond that specializes in educational materials and equipment. I'll call and have the books sent to me at the school."

"But I'll still pay for it."

Shaking her head, Kelly said in a quiet voice, "Save your money, Mark. I'm certain Blackstone Farms will not be forced to file for bankruptcy because I charged a few review manuals to their account. As soon as they arrive I'll get in touch with you so we can arrange a schedule that will be conducive to both of us. Do you live here on the farm?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Kelly stood up, Mark rising with her. "I'll meet you in the dining hall, and we'll talk."

He closed his eyes, inhaled, and then let out his breath slowly. When he opened his eyes they were glistening with moisture. "I'd like to ask another favor, Miss Kelly."

She arched an eyebrow. "Ask."

He managed a sheepish grin. "I don't want anyone to know you're tutoring me."

Nodding, Kelly said, "It will remain our secret."

"Thank you, Miss Kelly."

"Thank me after you get an acceptance letter from a college."

"Thank you," he repeated before he turned on his heels and walked quickly out of the building.

Kelly felt a warm glow flow through her. She had come to Blackstone Farms to teach the pre-school children of its employees, but there was nothing in her contract that precluded her extending her teaching skills to the farm's employees.

All of the children arrived by eight o'clock. They babbled excitedly about going swimming. Kelly had promised them the day before that if the morning temperature rose above seventy degrees, they could go swimming before lunch.

Sheldon motioned to Kelly. "I'll be bringing Sean for the next few days. Ryan had to take a mare to Richmond late last night for surgery."

"What happened?"

"He had to repair a bone spavin." Sheldon noted Kelly's puzzled expression, reminding himself she hadn't lived on the horse farm long enough to become familiar with equine terminology. "That's when there is an indefinite hind-lameness that shortens a horse's stride."

"Will she be all right?"

"Ryan says her chances of recovery are at least ninety percent."

"Ryan told me that all of the children ride." Sheldon nodded. "But do they know exactly what everyone who works at the farm does?"

Sheldon's silver-colored eyes narrowed as he angled his head. "I don't know."

Kelly lifted her dimpled chin and smiled up at Sheldon, unaware of how attractive she was. "I'd like to set up a field trip. I'd like to take the children on a tour of the property to see firsthand what makes up a working horse farm. I want them to talk to the grooms, trainers, the people who put up and repair fences, cut the grass, muck out the stables and bale hay. I'd even like to give them a tour of the kitchen. It will help them to appreciate where they live and the importance of their parents' jobs."

Sheldon flashed one of his rare smiles. "Let me know when you want to do it, and I'll set it up."

"How about next week?"

"Monday is a holiday, so that's out. By the way, we always have big outdoor doings to celebrate Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day."

Kelly mentally filed this information. "What if we do it over four days? An hour for each presentation should be enough. Any more time than that will challenge their attention span, especially since they know everyone."

"You're right about that. Kids growing up on a farm tend to know a lot more than city kids when it comes to things like birth and reproduction, but we have strict rules about keeping kids away from the mares in heat. Seeing a stallion mount a mare can be an awesome sight for a child, especially if they believes he's hurting her."

Waves of heat warmed Kelly's cheeks. She'd seen dogs and cats mate, but not horses. "Thanks for your cooperation."

"Don't mention it," Sheldon said as he left.

One of the kitchen personnel walked in with breakfast, and the children raced over to the sink to wash their hands as Kelly smiled at her charges. They were so eager to learn and to please. She had bonded quickly with them, refusing to think of the time when she would be forced to let them go.

The wall telephone rang, and she rushed over to answer it. "Blackstone Day School, Miss Kelly speaking."

"Good morning, Miss Kelly."

Her heart leapt, turning over when she heard the deep, drawling voice. "Hi, Ryan."

"How are you?"

"Good." She wanted to tell him she was very good now that she'd heard his voice. "Sheldon told me about the mare."

"Peachy Keen is still in recovery, but I expect her to come through okay. She stopped racing several years ago, so we've used her exclusively for breeding purposes. Thankfully she has already foaled two colts, both of which could be potential winners."

Kelly smiled. "That's good for Blackstone Farms."

"You've got that right. I'll probably be here until the end of the week. I want to wait to bring her back." There was a noticeable pause. "If you're not busy on Friday, I'd like to take you out for dinner."

Kelly wrinkled her nose. Ryan was asking her out. Finally her sister could stop haranguing her about not dating. "I have to check my calendar, but I believe I should be able to put aside a few hours for you Friday evening, Dr. Blackstone."

His sensual laugh came through the wire. "Still with the quick tongue? I believe I have the perfect remedy to take care of your tongue."

"Really?" she teased.

"Yes, really, Kelly."

"Hang up, Ryan."

"You first."

"Bye." Depressing the hook, she ended the call. A dreamy smile settled into her features, one that lingered throughout the day.