The Playboy of Argentina(3)

By: Bella Frances

And of course there was Dante, too. Like a symphony, they flew up and down the field. Damn, damn, damn, but it was utterly, magnetically mesmerising.

They won. Of course. And as fluttering blue-and-white flags transformed the stadium and the crowd hollered its love she scooted her way out. Head down, her face a picture of ‘seen it all before, can take it or leave it, nothing that special’, she made her way round to the ponies—the real reason she was here.

The grooms were hosing down the last of them when she slipped through the fence, and watery arcs of rainbows and silvery droplets filled the air. She sneaked around, watched the action. She loved this. She missed it. Until this moment she hadn’t realised how much.

Everyone was busy, the chat was lively and the whole place was buzzing at the fabulous result. Of course the Palm Beach team were no pushovers, and Esme would be satisfied, but the day belonged to Rocco Hermida. And Dante. As expected.

As soon as she had taken a little peep at the two ponies she wanted to see she’d head off, have a soak in the tiny enamel bath in her hotel’s en-suite bathroom. She would use some of the marketing gifts from the last plantation: a little essential oil to help her relax, and a little herbal tea to help her sleep. She’d been on the go for twenty-four hours. Even if she did make the party tonight, which Esme seemed so determined she would, sleep was going to have to feature somewhere.

No one was paying her any attention. She didn’t blame them. Small and slight and unremarkable, she tended to pass under most people’s radar. Unlike the polo scene groupies, who were just like the ponies—all perfect teeth, lean bodies and long legs. Treated as a boy until she’d realised herself that being a girl was a lot more fun, she’d run with her brothers, ridden the horses and wandered wild and free all over the farm. Until the day that she had flown out of the stables to hunt for her brothers and run straight into Rocco Hermida.

She would never forget that moment.

Rounding the corner, she’d seen him, blazing like sunshine after thunder in the shadows of the muddy lane. He’d stood and stared. She’d slammed to a stop and gawped at him. She had never seen anything more brilliant, more handsome, more menacing. He’d looked her over, taken his time. Then he’d turned back to Mark and Danny and wandered away, rattling off questions in his heavily accented English, turning her life on its head, oblivious.

Now he was responsible for this world-class string of ponies, his world-class genetics programme and a whole host of other businesses. But polo was his passion. Everyone knew that. And the giant horse transporter with ‘Hermanos Hermida’ on it, parked at the rear of the campo and drawing her closer, was an emblem of how much care he put into his ponies.

It was immaculate. A haven. Ponies were hosed down, dried off and resting in their stalls. Gleaming and proud. She walked amongst them, breathing in their satisfied air. Where were her girls? She was so keen to see the mix of thoroughbred and Argentinian pony, trained to world-class perfection. She knew she’d recognise Ipanema’s progeny—the ponies he’d kept on the string were her living image. She felt sure she would feel some kind of connection with them.

‘Que estas haciendo aqui?’

Right behind her. Frankie started at the quiet growl. Her stomach twisted. Her whole body froze.

‘Did you hear me? I said, what are you doing?’

Words stuck, she willed herself calm. ‘Just looking,’ she finally managed.

‘Turn round.’

She would not—could not.

‘I said, turn round.’

If she’d been in the heart of an electric storm she couldn’t have felt more charged. The voice she hadn’t heard for years was as familiar as if he had just growled those unforgettable words, ‘You are too young—get out of here!’

A pony turned its head and stared at her with a huge brown eye. Her heart thunder-pulsed in her chest. Her legs felt weak. But from somewhere she found a spark of strength. He might be the most imposing man she had ever known, but she was her own woman now—not a little girl. And she wouldn’t let herself down again.

She turned. She faced him. She tilted up her chin.

He stared, took a pace towards her. Her heel twitched back despite herself.

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