LIES – Intrepid Women book 5
The last thing Tara needs is a nosey man.
The last thing Jake needs is an uptight female with a grumpy cat.
When Meyers Security is hired to find a stolen, multi-million dollar Thoroughbred, Jake uses the opportunity to chase down the one woman who’s hovered at the edge of his mind for far too long. Tara isn’t his type, yet he can’t shake the image of her lean, mean attitude, long black hair, and mysterious dark eyes.
Tara has a rep—handles whatever comes her way, and is paid top fees as an international equine escort. Jake is the one man who can get her to talk, but at what price? She has enough information to blow his case out of the water, but she’s been lying so long it feels like the truth.
One horse is missing. Will there be more?
May, 2012. Johnsonville International Airport.
Aboard Flight XLB317.
“Not just no, but—”
Tara nearly decked the snippy flight attendant when he grabbed her by the arm. She would not be manhandled or pushed around.
“Your seat assignment has already been changed,” he said in a grating sing-song lets-everybody-be-happy voice that set her teeth on edge.
“And,” he went on, there’s absolutely nothing you or I can do about it, so, if you’d just remove that,” he waved his fingers at her overalls, “smelly stuff, and take your seat.”
Tara stared him down and spat a single word. “Negative.”
His eyebrows shot up for an instant before he managed to school his expression.
He’d started on her the minute she’d stepped from the cargo section into the galley of the passenger area. She was responsible for two horses riding in the back section of the plane—in a travel crate the size of a three-horse trailer—and took her job very seriously.
“I booked and paid for the aisle, which is standard practice for livestock escorts on a combo flight.” The front half of the plane was for passengers, the rear half for cargo.
“You will be in the same row at the back here, and you do have the option of either the window or middle seat. The airline’s security department has bumped you and there’s nothing either of us can do about it because the security rep needs—”
“I don’t really care what he needs. I’m responsible for several thousand pounds of equine capable of taking this plane down if they panic and I can’t get to them. I must have easy access to the cargo deck, and that does not include climbing over some suit with an attitude. I suggest you move one of the other passengers.” Shouldn’t this idiot have some kind of problem solving skills?
Tara turned her back on the annoying man while she plucked the toque off her head and fought her way out of pale gray overalls, then crouched to stuff them in her duffle. The outfit was a requirement, an attempt to minimize allergens coming into the cabin.
The voice behind her was a couple of octaves deeper than the one she’d been arguing with, and her hand stilled for a split second.
“Yes.” Glancing sideways, she was surprised to see shiny western boots and barely-broke-in denim. Not exactly executive attire. Drugstore cowboy?
Rising, she took in the rest of the man’s outfit. Brown tweed jacket over a crisp white shirt. Or was he a real cowboy all dressed up? Maybe, maybe not, but she recognized sincerity in eyes the same dark blue as his jeans. A wash of awareness slid down her spine, but she shrugged it off.
“No problem at all, Mr. Smith. The aisle seat is yours as requested. This lady will be taking one of the other seats in the row.”
“I hope you won’t mind my boot in your lap if I need to get to my horses in a hurry,” Tara ground out. “Something goes wrong back there, I won’t be thinking about my manners.” She sucked in a breath. Got a grip. “In case you weren’t informed, the horses in cargo are my responsibility, and the aisle seat was assigned me to allow for a quick exit if something goes wrong back there. But for some reason, I’m getting bumped. I hope you’re not too concerned about your personal safety.”
She liked he seemed to be paying attention. “If one of my charges starts panicking and I get there quickly, I can prevent an accident. I’m sure you’re aware that—”
“Please, don’t say that again.” The attendant flapped his arms. “You’ll upset people. Mr. Smith is—”
A sharp glance from Smith had the attendant’s lips snapping shut.
“I’ll be happy to trade places with you, Miss…”
“Yoste.” Not her name, but heck, she doubted he was really Mr. Smith, so why should she feel bad about traveling with someone else’s passport? She itched to wipe her suddenly sweaty palms on her cargos, but knew better than to give away her nerves. Instead, she tugged on the cuffs of her favorite travel shirt, a snow-white Henley. “Sharon. And thank you.”
He slid in to sit by the window and she stifled a grin when the flight attendant huffed ever so slightly.
With the plane already pushing back from the gate, Tara got settled quickly and belted in before closing her eyes and extending her perception to focus on the fillies. Quiet, still, curious about the movement, but nibbling at their hay. You’re fine girls, nothing to worry about. She sent them the sensation of her hands stroking, long, slow, and soothing, from their ears to their shoulders.
When the pilot ran up the engines in preparation for turning onto the runway, she automatically tightened her seatbelt another notch and imagined herself inside the horse crate, standing between the fillies, a hand on each. Brace yourselves, girls. Here we go.
She kept her internal voice steady and the image of herself in their container strong throughout the most critical moments of takeoff—rotation—that instant when the wheels let go of the earth, and when the landing gear thunked into position.
There we are, girls. All the hard stuff is done. Nothing but the odd bump now, and I’ll be back to visit in a minute.
She opened her eyes and caught Mr. Smith staring at her. “What?”
Before he could respond, the seatbelt light blinked off with a soft ding. “That’s my cue,” she said, slipping from her seat. Stopping in the tiny galley, she pulled on her overalls and hat before stepping through the hatch into the dimly lit cargo hold.
Once inside the crate, she ran her hands over the horses’ chests and necks, looking for nervous sweat and any overheating, but, as expected, they were as cool and dry as their surroundings.
With a final pat and a peppermint for each, she carefully latched the crate door then made her way back to the passenger section, her own version of Alice down the rabbit hole—bright lights, vivid colors, and the steady murmur of foreign voices.
Jake didn’t bother with notes because his first impressions were engraved in his head. She was quite something. Long and lean, with raven black hair nearly to her waist, and secretive dark-grey eyes. A presence for sure and a looker under all that attitude.
He grinned. Attitude, he was used to. Two of the special agents cousins he occasionally worked with—cousins actually—l had taught him great respect for strong women. They took tough to new heights and there wasn’t a door he wouldn’t go through with one of them.
But Sharon Yoste? She had something else going on and he wondered if it was connected to his investigation. He was damn certain he’d find out before this bird landed.
When she came back to her seat, he asked, “Everything okay?”
“Yes, fine,” she said and shut him out by pulling a notebook from her pocket and spending about a half hour writing before the attendant asked them for their meal choices.
Jake went for the sub and wished he could have a beer to wash it down.
“You must get tired of this food,” he said as he watched her cut pizza into small pieces and eat it with a fork.
“Nope,” she said with a smile. “I usually travel on freighters. Jump-seat, a bologna sandwich, and thermos of coffee. So hot food, unlimited caffeine and a proper bathroom are a lovely treat.”
Perfect, she’d opened the door. “You do lots of traveling with horses?”
“It’s my job.”
“An unusual one for a woman.”
She shrugged. “It works for me.”
“Are there many people who make a living this way?”
“Not many who specialize in it because there’s no steady schedule. I sometimes go six weeks between flights, but just as often do six in a week.”
He chewed for a minute, waiting to see if she’d fill the silence, but she didn’t. “Must be good money to make up for the down time.”
“We’re skilled and worth the investment.”
Fine, he thought. Make me work for it. “If I wanted to fly horses somewhere, how would I find someone like you?”
She studied him for a minute. “What is it you’re investigating, Mr. Smith?”
Bright one, this. “I’m gathering background info for an insurance claim. I need to know the basic procedures involved in transporting horses by air.” He wasn’t surprised to see her gaze narrow.
“Yours was the first equine transport booked with this airline after the claim came in. Must be your lucky day.” His actually. What were the chances he’d get her, and not some big burly guy instead?
Closing the empty pizza box, she used an alcohol wipe on her fingers then reached for her coffee. “What do you want to know?”
“How about a sample scenario. Your phone rings and you’re asked to fly from New York to Los Angeles with two racehorses. What happens next?”
“I check my schedule, and if I’m available, I accept the booking and wait for my itinerary to come by email or fax. Once it’s in my hand, I double-check all the flight connections to make sure all the details work. On travel day, I meet the van at the airport and take over the care of the horses.”
“Do you get paperwork then to say who they are?”
“Like I said, detail-oriented, so I have it sent to me ahead of time. It’s got their names, colors, markings, et cetera. Then, when I meet them, I take their registration papers from the package I get from the van driver and check their tattoos. Racehorses have a series of numbers inside their upper lip or on their neck to confirm their ID. If they’ve been halter-tagged, I’ll check those as well. If they haven’t been tagged, I’ll do it then.”
“That’s like a shipping label, right?”
“Yeah, all the relevant info. After that I supervise the loading, either from the van into a stall on an airline pallet—which is then towed to the plane, put on a lift, and shoved onto the aircraft—or directly from the van onto a ramp right into the aircraft.”
“I’ve been to the races and seen that sometimes horses refuse to go into the starting gates and it takes a whole team to shove them in. How do you make one get on the plane if it balks?”
She smiled. “Ever tried to force a thousand pound equine to do something it didn’t want to do? Good luck with that. It’s my job to convince them they want to go wherever I ask them to.”
“Talk to them. Treat them with respect and kindness. Try to figure out what’s scaring them and make it go away.”
Really? His eyebrows went up automatically.
“Sometimes, it’s as simple as lighting up a dark place or putting a mat where the footing is slippery.” She grinned. “And peppermints help. Like bribing children with candy. Horses are simply big kids who don’t speak English.”
She’d lightened up. Finally. Warmed to her subject so he could get the info he needed now. “What happens after the flight lands?”
“I stay with them until they’re loaded onto a van or trailer after I check the identification of the receiving party.”
“Do you ever accompany horses to their final destination?”
“Would you if asked?”
She tipped her head. “For a fee, sure. Why not?”
He had the information he needed for his investigation—a horse had been switched somehow, and the wrong one arrived at the destination. He could have left it at that, but he wanted to keep her talking. Liked the way her eyes started to shine as she talked about horses, how she visibly softened. She’d seemed so tough at first but this other side made him wonder how she’d be able to handle the dangerous parts of the job. “What happens if your charges start panicking during a flight?”
“I calm them down.”
“Do you carry drugs?”
Tipping her head again, she said, “You know I do. It’s on the pre-flight information sheets I fill out. And I’m betting you’ve already done your research.”
Busted, and now he felt stupid. “Have you ever checked the ID and found you had the wrong horse?”
“But I bet it could happen. An identity could be mixed up by accident or on purpose, couldn’t it?”
A muscle in her jaw tightened, and both hands dropped from the tray to her lap. He’d bet her fists were clenched, but he didn’t take his eyes off her face to find out.
“I take great care to prevent anything like that from happening.” Her expression was bland and her voice almost lifeless.
He didn’t think. Later, he would wonder if he’d reached out and touched her because he could see he’d upset her, and his instinct had been to comfort her. No matter, when his hand settled over her lower arm, he felt the zing of electricity before she jerked away, and food and drink containers went flying when she catapulted out of her seat.
She spent the rest of the flight with the horses and he didn’t see her again until moments before landing when she took her seat again, but closed her eyes.
Watching her while they landed, he had an odd feeling she needed help. Or protection, which was laughable. She was strong, smart, and obviously self-sufficient. Why would she need him?