A thin layer of frost, glittering in the morning sun, covered the lawn in front of the old farm house, the driveway, and the pastures. The colored lights framing the porch and doorway reflected red and green on the icy drive.
Hibernia, the farm that was Tonya Callahan’s new home, although old and weather-worn, seemed like a palace compared to the single-wide mobile that she and her father had lived in for as long as she could remember. Now they were settled in the farmhouse that had once belonged to the Warrens, the old couple who had sold the farm to them.
As she headed for the barn that Christmas morning, the frost on the driveway crunched under her boots, and she zipped up her jacket against the chill.
Sliding open the double barn door, she was greeted with whinnies and the impatient stamping of hooves. Her eyes scanned the length of the shed row where twelve heads craned out of their stalls, their ears pricked up and all staring intently at her. I’m never as popular as I am in the morning, she thought.
Tonya inhaled the warm sweet smell of hay, horses and leather that reminded her how lucky she was. She was a licensed apprentice jockey, she had a new stepmother, and her father was positively glowing with happiness. Then there was Mike Torres, the former jockey who now lived in their old trailer on the property as he studied to fulfill his lifelong dream, veterinary medicine. All was right with the world.
Mike was right behind her as she started for the feed room. “Buenos dias,” he called to her.
“Morning, Mike. Merry Christmas. Or should I say Feliz Navidad?”
“Very good. Your accent is getting better.”
A loud whinny and the banging of a feed bucket against the wall signaled that JK’s Imperial Count, Hibernia’s resident breeding stallion, was in his usual demanding mood.
“Okay, Jake, keep your coat on,” Tonya called as she wheeled the hay-laden wheel barrow down the shed row to the last stall. Tossing the hay bundle over the stall door, she said, “Here you are, your majesty.” Jake tore into the bundle, then looked up, wisps of hay hanging from his mouth as he chewed it. Tonya smiled at his comical appearance, his long ears and thin face reminding her of a skinny mule. But he was hardly a mule. He was a champion racehorse and the owner of the record for a mile and a quarter at the local track. On him rode all the hopes and dreams of the Callahan family.
“What time is dinner?” Mike called to Tonya from a stall he was cleaning.
“About noon. But come in any time. We’re going to open our presents first.” Tonya couldn’t wait to see Mike’s expression when he opened the gift she had for him. Pleasing Mike was important to her, but she was still somewhat confused about her feelings toward him. Were they romantic feelings? Close friendship? Or just the affectionate longing of an only child for the sibling she never had? Whatever it was, she looked forward all day to their study sessions in the evenings.
“Anything I can bring?”
“Nope. We’ve got it covered. See you in a while.”
Tonya hurried to the house, wrapping her scarf more tightly around her neck. The West Texas sunlight was trying to penetrate the cloud cover, making the morning seem chilly and raw. In the house, her father, Royce, was building a fire in the brick fireplace. The scent of evergreen from the Christmas tree mixed with the smells of apple cider, pumpkin pie and cinnamon coming from the kitchen.
Tonya joined her new stepmother, Lexi, in the kitchen to help prepare Christmas dinner. Lexi wore a bright red apron over her jeans and sweater, her long dark hair tied back with a blue ribbon that matched her eyes. Although there were fourteen years between their ages, they had become close friends in the past months. “This turkey ought to be more than enough for the five of us,” Lexi said as she brushed the bird with butter.
“Doc Frey is joining us. Didn’t I tell you?”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot. It’ll be good to see him again.”
“We’ll be seeing him a lot in the spring once the foaling starts.”
Doc Frey was the kindly, gray-eyed veterinarian from the racetrack who had offered to fund Mike’s education through college and vet school, seeing in him an extraordinary talent for the work. Mike and Tonya studied together every night, Mike racing through his GED courses while Tonya desperately tried to master Spanish. Her high school French classes had proven to be worthless at the Southwest racetracks where her father trained Thoroughbreds.
Tonya’s two cats, Clive and Henry, prowled the kitchen sniffing the delicious and unfamiliar smells. “And there will be plenty left over for you two as well,” Lexi said. She reached down to scratch the little blue-gray patches between the ears of the identical white cats. They both closed their eyes and purred at her touch.
Once the turkey was in the oven and the other dishes started, they returned to the living room to find Royce asleep in his chair, his legs stretched out toward the fire. He and Mike had been up until two a.m. with a colicky mare. Lexi looked at him affectionately. Then she jumped into his lap, kissing him and messing his hair, shouting, “Merry Christmas!”
Royce woke with a start, grabbed Lexi, and began tickling her while she shrieked. Tonya smiled at their antics. Never did she think her father would find love again after his first wife had died when Tonya was little. But here they were like two teenagers with their first crush. Tonya was happy for him, even if she was still a little jealous at having to share his love with another woman.
Mike tapped on the door and came in carrying several brightly-wrapped boxes. He put them under the tree and sat on the sofa with a shy smile. “Feliz Navidad, everyone.” Mike had replaced his barn clothes with a soft gray shirt and his best jeans. His thick dark hair was neatly combed.
Tonya plopped down on the floor next to the tree. “Let’s get to those presents! Here’s one with your name on it, Dad,” she said, tossing a box to her father. Lexi slid off his lap as he began tearing into the wrapping.
Tonya played Santa, distributing gifts to each person until they insisted she open her own. Everyone got something useful, and there were “Ooo’s” and “Thanks” enough to go around. Tonya had struggled with what to get for Mike and finally settled on a brass name plate for his future office engraved, “Miguel Torres, DVM.”
He tried to hide his emotions as he caressed the beautiful plate. The joy on his face was unmistakable as he looked up at Tonya and said, “Someday.”
Doc Frey arrived with a bouquet of flowers for Lexi’s table, a bottle of wine, and a gift box. He sat on the couch next to Mike and handed him the box. “Just a little something to help you on your way.” Mike tore through the wrappings to find a leather-bound copy of Merck’s Manual, the Bible of veterinary medicine.
“Wow! Thanks a lot.” Mike thumbed through the 3000-page volume with awe. Doc Frey put an arm around his shoulders.
Lexi went back to the kitchen and came in with cups of steaming apple cider which she passed around.
Tonya’s heart was full of the joy of Christmas. She store glances at Mike’s eyes, always expressive but today more than ever, as they reflected his gratitude for his new life among people who loved and accepted him. Once known only as a ruthless jockey intent on winning at any cost, Mike had become an integral part of the life of the Callahan family and a valuable asset to the training/breeding operation.
The morning flew by. Doc and Mike were deep in a discussion of the causes of colic in pregnant mares while Tonya played with the cats, tossing bows and balls of wrapping paper for them to chase. Royce snoozed by the fire until Lexi came in carrying the turkey on a huge platter. “Dinner’s ready, so let’s sit down,” she announced.
Tonya went to the kitchen, and the two women carried in the rest of the side dishes.
As they pulled out their chairs at the table, Mike said with a grin, “What? No tamales?”
Royce stood and began to carve the turkey. “Sorry, amigo. Not today. Maybe for the New Year’s dinner.”
Clive and Henry prowled around the chairs hoping for a few tidbits. Tonya felt Henry rubbing on her legs and lifted him into her lap. He curled up, watching her adoringly as she ate. Clive hopped up on a nearby shelf where he sat purring with his tail curled around his front legs and his eyes half closed.
Late that afternoon, they were all settled in the living room enjoying the fire, full of turkey, wine and good cheer, when there was a sharp rap at the front door.
Royce got up to answer it. “Now who could this be?” He opened the door to reveal a stranger standing in the doorway.
Lexi gasped, and her face turned white. Her knees buckled, and she slid to the floor, landing in a heap next to Royce’s chair. Doc Frey kneeled down next to her, taking her pulse. Tonya stared in shock at her, then at Royce who stood open-mouthed at the door.
The stranger finally spoke. “Sorry to break in on you like this. I wasn’t sure it was the right house. My name is Lucas Caine.” He offered Royce his hand, and Royce shook it, then hurried to Lexi’s side.
Caine was slim and nearly six feet tall with thinning blond hair, a mottled complexion and watery blue eyes. He smiled readily. Almost too readily, Tonya thought. Not really knowing why, she took an intense dislike to him. He lingered by the door surveying the scene, and Tonya thought he looked somewhat smug as he watched Lexi struggle to her feet, helped into the chair by Royce and Doc.
“What is it, honey?” Royce asked with concern. Lexi just shook her head and stared at the floor.
“Maybe I can explain,” Caine offered, closing the door behind him. “Diana is surprised to see me here.” He looked at Lexi. “Aren’t you, Dee?”
Royce stared at the stranger in confusion. “There must be some mistake. My wife’s name is Lexi. Lexi Parr Callahan.”
“No,” Caine said with a smirk. “Her name is Diana Wilkins Caine. And she’s my wife, not yours.”
Tonya and Royce exchanged bewildered glances. Doc cleared his throat, “Mike, why don’t we go out and check on that mare again?”
Mike got up quickly and followed him to the door. “We’ll be in the barn if you need us, Royce,” said, glancing at Caine.
Royce nodded dumbly, turning back to Lexi who still sat staring at the floor in silence. He helped her up, and she sank into the chair as though trying to make herself invisible.
Not bothering to wait for an invitation, Caine sat on the couch, stretching his legs in front of him and looking around. “Nice place you got here, Callahan.” He gave Tonya an appreciative glance, looking her up and down in a way that made her skin crawl. “This your daughter?”
Tonya moved closer to her father who ignored the question. “Look, Mr…Caine, is it? I don’t know who you are or what you want, but you’ve made a mistake.”
The man pulled some papers out of his jacket pocket and laid them on the coffee table. “I thought you might say that. Here is our marriage license and our wedding picture.”
Royce stared dumbfounded at the items. “But what…where…?”
Caine seemed maddeningly nonchalant. “I’ve been looking for my wife for several years. Just happened to see this in a racing magazine.” He handed Royce the winner’s circle picture from the Traveler Stakes, the race Jake had won in record time. Tonya, the winning jockey, sat proudly on his back while Lexi held his bridle, and Royce hoisted the trophy. What a glorious day that had been. Never could Tonya have dreamed when the photographer snapped the picture that one day it would lead to this nightmare.
Royce gave back the picture, his eyes smoldering. “I don’t know what your game is, Caine, but I think you should leave.”
Caine glared at him for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and stood up. “Ok. But I’m not leaving town without my wife. I’m staying at the Wagon Wheel, Dee, when you’re ready to talk. I get off work at Jenkins’s feed store at five.”
He strolled arrogantly toward the door. “Merry Christmas, all,” he said with a smirk. “I doubt it will be a happy new year.” They heard him whistling as he closed the door.
Three to One Odds, by D.M. O’Byrne, is under contract for publication with Black Opal Books. Scheduled release May, 2018. All rights reserved.