What a fucking racket.
Brendan wandered along the stable block, wincing as Bertie, his yard man, sang in tuneless disharmony with a song blaring from the tinny radio. Horses, equally offended, nodded their heads over stable doors, their ears twitching at the onslaught of bum notes and falsetto warbles. Bertie swept on, marshaling errant wisps of straw into a tidy pile.
“For fuck’s sake. Give it a rest, Bert. You’re scaring the horses.” Jerry, one of the stable lads, staggered past under the weight of a laden muck sack.
“And I don’t want you scaring off Dr. Ahmadi.” Brendan paused to rub the nose of one of the new arrivals, a Galileo yearling fresh from the sales and, arguably, one of the best-bred horses ever to grace the yard. All thanks to his newest owner, who was due to arrive at any moment.
“We’re ready, boss.” Wahid carried a leather lead and chain. “All the babies are clean, rugged-up and ready to be shown off.”
Brendan glanced at his head lad. Wahid was the only one who hadn’t staggered into the yard earlier nursing a hangover. The rest of his staff, having celebrated Bertie’s birthday the night before, were a sorry collection of pale, stumbling wraiths. He sent a prayer of thanks to the gods that they were just leading Ahmadi’s purchases out for his perusal, rather than riding them. Hangovers made this lot ride like sacks of shite.
“Yeah, make it happen.” Brendan patted the yearling’s neck absently then continued toward the tack room to rouse the rest of the troops from their stupor. “He’ll be here in a minute or two and I’d rather not keep him hanging round. It’s fucking cold this morning.”
He found Mary, Naz and Yuri huddled around the oil heater clutching mugs of coffee and looking miserable. They glanced up when Brendan walked in, then set their drinks down.
“Sorry, boss.” Mary stood. “Rough night.”
“Thank Christ you lot aren’t riding out this morning. You couldn’t stay on a seaside fucking donkey. Can you all, at least, tidy yourselves up? Yuri, you look like you spent the night under a haystack.”
“He probably did,” Naz suggested, tipping the rest of his coffee into the sink.
Yuri, having scrambled to his feet, raked his fingers through his tousled hair, sending a shower of straw to the tack room floor. “Yes, boss.”
“Go check your horses, and get them ready to be led out. He’ll be here any minute. When he’s gone, then you can thank your lucky stars that your boss is taking pity on you and not making you ride a third lot. After you get back to the yard and feed the horses, you can call it a morning.”
“Thanks.” Naz shuffled past him, offering him a smile. “It won’t happen again, sir, we promise.”
“Pull the other one, Naz.” Stable lads and monumental piss-ups went together. “Anyway, I might make you all start breaking in the yearlings tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a great way to spend a Sunday morning?”
Of course, he had no intention of doing such a thing. The week of the October sales was always a fraught affair. They all needed a rest before the breaking-in began.
The clang of the main gate ripped Brendan from wistful thoughts of bacon butties and a mug of builder’s tea. The good doctor had arrived in a gleaming black BMW which he was currently parking in front of the house. The second clang of the gate heralded the arrival of Sam Mason, Ahmadi’s bloodstock agent. The one who’d attended the sales on his client’s behalf and filled half a dozen of Brendan’s boxes with an impressive collection of very expensive horses. Beautiful, well-bred creatures.
Brendan brushed a stray bit of straw from his jacket and strode out to meet them.
“Brendan! Good to see you.” Sam seized his hand in his usual bear-like grip and shook it. “Meet Dr. Adam Ahmadi.” He grinned and turned toward his client, who had emerged from his car.
Fuck me. Please.
Brendan had only paid the briefest attention to articles in the Racing Post about this newest arrival to the ranks of British race horse owners. He certainly hadn’t had time to glance at the pictures of Ahmadi at Ascot, or York, or anywhere else. Ahmadi hadn’t attended the sales, but had handed Sam a list of the horses he’d wanted from the catalogue and, apparently, a blank check. Now, there he stood, tall and lean, in well-cut jeans. A finely tailored tweed jacket protected him from the cold, along with a scarf looped loosely around his neck.
“It’s nice to meet you, at last, Mr. Matthews.” Ahmadi extended his right hand.
“Nice to meet you, too.”
What do I do now? Curtsey?
Ahmadi was a far cry from the rag-tag collection of owners Brendan had amassed over the last five years. Retired oil executives, a syndicate of plumbers, another syndicate of secretaries, an actress, a singer and a couple of former military types. They always turned up at the yard all cheerful and excited, happy to tuck into a cooked breakfast. Brendan couldn’t picture Ahmadi leaning against the kitchen counter drinking builder’s tea and scoffing a bacon butty. He was glad he’d taken Sam’s advice and had his secretary book a table at the White Pheasant.
Brendan tried, very hard, not to stare. Especially at Ahmadi’s face—lean features artfully framed by a neatly trimmed, graying beard. Warm amber eyes hinted at good humor.
“Well, there’s no point in keeping you standing round for too long. Are you ready to see your horses?”
“Yes, please. Sam did his best to describe them, and the photos you sent were good, but I’m looking forward to seeing them.”
Brendan headed back toward the yard, aware that Ahmadi walked alongside him while Sam trailed behind, staring at his phone. He nodded at Wahid, who waited beside the first box. As they approached, the head lad stepped into the stable then reappeared moments later, leading a compact bay colt onto the brick-paved square at the center of the yard.
The colt was all arse with sturdy legs. He shuffled a little in the frosty air, sending steam from flared, pink-rimmed nostrils.
“This is the War Front colt.” Brendan stepped forward to pat the horse’s arched neck. “He’s going to make a fine sprinter, I reckon.”
Ahmadi ran his hand down the colt’s near-side foreleg, olive skin standing out against the white sock. “I reckon you’re right.” He straightened and smiled. “Good choice.”
“You’re the one who picked him.” Brendan nodded at Wahid, who turned the horse around and led him up and down the yard. The colt surveyed his new surroundings with an uneasy eye, but walked quietly alongside Wahid before meekly following him back into his box.
“Next, we have the Lemon Drop Kid filly.” Brendan watched Mary lead the rangy gray filly from the stable. Her plain head belied her immaculate pedigree. She nibbled at Mary’s jacket while Ahmadi looked her over, again bending to check her legs. When he had finished, he nodded. “She won’t win any beauty contests, that’s for sure.”
“No, but she will win races. I’m certain of it.”
“I trust your judgment, Mr. Matthews. That’s why I sent my horses to you.”
Brendan managed a smile and made all the right noises as each horse was led out and shown off. Ahmadi also made all the right noises, casting an expert eye over his purchases. He shoved his hands into his pockets and nodded after the last horse was put away.
“You’ve exceeded my expectations, Mr. Matthews. This is a very fine collection of yearlings. I think I was right to listen to Sam.”
“Thanks.” Brendan glanced at the agent, who stood a few feet away, engaged in a conversation on his phone. “I hope that your faith in me is justified in the months to come.”
“I’m sure it will be.” Ahmadi smiled. “Now, I suppose I’ll have to come up with names for all of these.”
“I can’t help you there.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve plenty of time to think of names. It’ll make a change from reading.”
Brendan glanced at his watch. “We have time to kill before lunch. Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” He did a quick mental inventory. The kitchen wasn’t a bomb site. He had plenty of tea bags, plenty of good coffee. There may even have been some biscuits, or bread for toast, or something.
“Thank you. Yes. I’ve been desperate for something to drink since leaving London. I didn’t dare stop at a service station. Those places are like zoos.”
“I’ve had more than my fair share of service station coffees.” Brendan led the way back toward the house. “I have the good stuff.”
Ahmadi grinned, his eyes brilliant. “Excellent. I think you and I will get along very well indeed.”
God, I hope so.
Sam lowered his phone as Brendan approached. “I’m going to have to dash. Mr. Spinetti has arrived early. He’s waiting for me at Bedford Lodge.” He stuck his hand out toward Ahmadi. “I think I’m leaving you in good hands, Doctor. Brendan should behave himself. And, if you ask nicely, he may even offer you biscuits with your coffee.” He wandered off toward his car with an absent wave.
Brendan waved at Sam’s retreating back, then headed in the direction of the house. Now that Sam had gone, he searched the muddle that was his brain for something to talk about. Glad-handing owners was not his favorite part of the job.
“More biscuits for us, yes?” Ahmadi said.
“Oh yes. Sam does like his biscuits. I usually hide the best ones when he’s around.” Brendan kicked the straw from his shoes and opened the door. “Come in. Sorry about the mess. The cleaning lady doesn’t come ’til Monday.” He nudged a saddle out of the way and was glad he’d left the heating on. Ahmadi hung his jacket on the coat stand and followed him into the kitchen.
“Have a seat.”
“Nice room.” Ahmadi sank into one of two battered old armchairs beside the bay window.
“It’s better when the sun’s out. It comes right through that window in the mornings.” Brendan spooned coffee into the filter basket and found some clean mugs in the dishwasher. “Tea or coffee?”
“Coffee, please.” Ahmadi leaned back and crossed his legs, looking for all the world as if he belonged there among the clutter of Racing Posts, sales catalogues, form books and bills.
Brendan took the milk from the fridge then set some biscuits on a plate. The coffee maker gurgled to life, releasing the aroma of freshly brewing nectar into the room. “Are you comfortable enough? I can turn up the heating if you like.”
“No, I’m fine.” Ahmadi tapped the radiator behind the chairs. “It’s lovely and warm here.”
“Good. Yes. This is probably the warmest room in the house, what with the stove and all.” Brendan nodded toward the big blue Rayburn range on the other wall. “That keeps it warm, especially in the winter.”
The coffee maker finished its work. Brendan poured coffee into each mug. “Milk?”
“No, thanks. Black, please. No sugar.”
“Easy enough.” He carried the mugs over to the window and set them on the little table between the chairs, then went back to retrieve the biscuits before sinking into the other chair. “Cheers.”
Ahmadi raised his mug toward Brendan. “Cheers. Here’s to a long and fruitful partnership.”
“I’ll drink to that.” He sipped his coffee, still not quite believing the whirlwind of a week, and the fact that six well-bred yearlings now waited for his guidance. And all because of the man who sat in his kitchen, a very fine-looking man with long, slender hands and warm amber eyes. Brendan guessed his age to be around forty or so. Not that it was any of his business. Fancying clients was not wise. No, sir.