Hooves pounded out a steady rhythm on the thick Virginia turf. Sara brought her shoulders up and back, opening up the angle of her hip. At the same time, she closed her fingers on the rubberized reins. asking her mount to shift his center of gravity back to his hind end. The final jump was four strides off. Sara instinctively counted down each beat, and then in one fluid movement her arms and torso followed the crest of Gale Force's athletic body as he soared over the stone wall. The horse's front legs curled for a second then straightened out to meet the ground, landing with perfect precision.

Sara stroked the animal's sweaty gray neck with her gloved hand as she eased him down to a trot. "Good boy," she said.

Emma, Sara's English groom, was sitting on another horse at the edge of the course. "Well done," she called to her boss.

Sara smiled and headed in that direction. "Practically flawless," she said, catching her breath. "He's going to kick butt at the horse trial next weekend."

Emma laughed. "Doesn't he always?"

Sara nodded in agreement. They rarely placed outside of the top three in any competition.

The two riders slipped the horses the reins, letting them stretch their tired muscles as they leisurely walked toward the barn.

In the driveway. a sleek. black BMW sport coupe was slicing a wide swath through freshly fallen leaves, creating a fluttering wave in its wake. When it rolled to a stop near the house, Leila, Sara's oldest and best friend, climbed out.

"Why is she here on a Monday morning?" Emma asked as she swatted away a hovering fly.

"Not a clue," Sara answered. She thought about Leila's chosen profession as an interior designer. "Maybe she has a client out this way."

Leila spotted them and waved both arms over her head.

She was yelling, but it was too far away for anything to be understandable. Sara and Emma waved back, but didn't hasten their relaxed pace.

"Is she still dating that bloke with the vineyard?" Emma asked.

"Sure is," Sara answered, with a sideways glance. "She may have stayed there last night and decided to swing by here on her way back to Leesburg. Check that out." Sara pointed at Leila and laughed as she watched what could only be described as an uncoordinated game of hopscotch. "What the heck is she doing?"

"She's probably wearing a pair of ridiculously expensive designer heels and is trying like mad to avoid the puddles left over from last night's rain," Emma replied.

Sara pictured Leila's drenched feet and cringed. Whatever her friend was here to say must be pretty darn important for her to risk destroying her shoes as well as her mood. I bet you're cursing up a wicked storm of your own right now, she thought.

Sara and Emma were a little less than two hundred yards away when Lcila scrambled over to a golf cart parked near the side entrance to the stable.

An electric chill ran up Sara's spine. "Is that still charging?" she asked as she saw Leila reach for the metal bar that supported the cart's little green roof.

"It should be," Emma answered. "Why?"

An agonized whine drifted across the fields on the autumn breeze. The sound startled the horses, causing them to lift their heads and snort nervously.

Sara watched in horror as Leila's body moved in sudden spastic jerks.