Destin is drowning in debt. Not only has he inherited Bellmeade from his father, an old and once-respected breeding farm that has produced Olympic level horses, he has also inherited all of the unpaid bills. His father sold much of the bloodstock and drank away any profits, leaving Destin with three only broodmares and Black Sambuca, a spirited black stud who would be a brilliant jumper… if only they could find a rider willing to put up with him.
Having no other options and finding himself backed into a corner by all the unpaid bills and creditors, Destin reaches out to Tonio Benedetto. Tonio was known to be able to handle difficult and fractious horses, getting the best out of just about every horse he rode, but a drinking problem (and a temper) cost him both his management and his reputation. Now he’s only given impossible horses, or worse, broken ones. Black Sambuca, though, is no throw away; he’s a beautiful horse who can jump just about anything. It’s just getting him to behave when it counts that’s the problem. Tonio has one month to help save Bellmeade, one month to prove he hasn’t lost his touch with either horses or their owners.
Bellemede is practically an institution; George Washington was once a neighbor and while the estate has updated the barns, arenas, and equipment to the modern age, Bellemede is very much a place of wood, stone, respectability, and old money. Destin feels his obligation to his ancestors very keenly, wearing only appropriate clothing, driving a respectable car, and trying to figure out how to undo the mess his father left him. If he sells his father’s ridiculous sports car he should be able to get another pair of broodmares, but that doesn’t mean anything if there’s no champion stallion to stand at stud, no great horses to rebuild their reputation. Destin knows the farm can hold on just a little longer, long enough for Black Sambuca — their last home bred stallion — to prove his worth and the worth of Bellemede. But if Sambuca fails, so does Destin.
Arriving into this prim and proper world is Tonio, the son of a … well, not quite a scoundrel. His father trained race horses at a variety of tracks, often short of money but never short of dreams. Tonio was the chosen one, destined to be the one to breed the great Derby winner, or even Triple Crown winners along with a large, perfect family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.! Unfortunately, Tonio preferred jumpers, and boys. By being gay, he couldn’t give his father what he wanted and so was unceremoniously deposed, replaced by his sister. Being talented, he manged to make his way into the jumping world, until a weakness for drink and a bit of a temper took even that away from him.
It’s a story of redemption for all three: Black Sambuca, Destin, and Tonio. Destin wonders silently if his father spent away (and drank away) his inheritance out of spite for Destin being gay. He has the weight of the farm on him, not just to make money — by taking boarders or training young riders — but to uphold the reputation his family and his families horses once had. Tonio has no great family behind him; he’s been the one to get to where he is (or was) by sheer skill and determination. It’s Tonio who makes the first move, but it’s Destin who makes the next one.
Tonio needs Destin’s solid reassurance as he struggles with sobriety and the giant chip on his shoulder. While he can get by without Bellemede’s reputation to back him, or Bellemede’s owner, it’s nice to have a place to belong and someone to belong to. Someone who will be solid and stable enough for him to lean on when times get rough, someone who will take care of him, for a change. Destin would never have made the first move, too afraid of making the wrong one, but once Tonio gave him permission not only to indulge, but to live again without the weight of his family bearing down on him, Destin can’t help but realize that he deserves to be happy. That he’s no longer alone, that he has someone who will help him stand up under the crushing weight he’s put himself under.
This is a short story, but a charming one. Tonio and Destin are good for one another and I loved some of the small touches, such as Tonio not being able to solve the impossible horse problem in the first five minutes, that Destin and the vet and other trainers hadn’t overlooked something obvious. I appreciated that the solution — to both Destin and Sam — was simply helping them look at the world in a different way so they could see it wasn’t a scary place. I would honestly love to read more about this couple and more about Bellemede.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.