The Feud (Bluegrass Empires, Book #1)

Chapter 1


This isn’t my first journey down the sweeping staircase, attempting to maneuver my six-foot-three frame as quietly as possible. With my boots in hand so as not to wake the woman I left sleeping in a rumpled bed, I’m thankful for inlaid marble treads rather than squeaky wood. I’ve made this trip more than once over the last handful of years, but I’ve been doing it less and less of late. Things with Diane have run their course. In fact, I haven’t been in her bed in more than two months.

It certainly hadn’t been on my agenda or even on my mind to come here last night, but tragedy struck when I lost a foal and a mare during a very difficult birth. Those bitter losses are hard and it made me crazy with the need for… something.

I could’ve chosen anything, really.

A bottle of Kentucky’s finest bourbon—any brand other than Mardraggon—or I could have picked a fight with one of my brothers, which would’ve ended in fists and bruises. Either one of those might have distracted me from the pain of losing those horses but instead I called Diane.

And now I’m making an escape.

I’ve barely gotten one socked foot on the marble foyer at the base of the staircase before I hear her call out in that twangy southern lilt. “Where are you going, baby?”

The sun has just started to peek over the horizon, as evidenced by the bluish-gray light filtering in through the windows of the palatial home. Glancing over my shoulder, I see her at the top of the stairs, belting a diaphanous peach robe at her waist.

Diane Turner is a stunning woman. Thirty-five years old and widowed six years ago, she’s become something of a friend with benefits except she isn’t exactly a true friend. More of a long-term acquaintance—known her for years in the saddlebred competition world—and she boards her horses at Blackburn Farms.

Tall and voluptuous with a cascade of blond hair spilling down her back and over her shoulders, most men would be running right back up the stairs for another round. But I can only take her in small doses. She married up in age and for significant wealth and then her geriatric husband died, leaving her everything, and she now lives a life of luxury in his Kentucky mansion, vowing never to marry again.

“Headed out,” I say, sitting on the staircase to put on my boots. No need to be quiet now that she’s awake.

“It’s too early,” she croons. “Come back up to bed for a bit and then I’ll make you breakfast.”

Sliding on my last boot, I shake my head and rise. “Too much work to do and not enough daylight hours to do it in.”

“That’s why you have employees, Ethan.” I glance up at her—arms crossed over her chest, hip cocked out, annoyance all over her face. “For God’s sake, you’re the biggest saddlebred farm in the United States and employ a small army of people to do that shit. Why you insist on being so hands on is beyond me.”

Petulant words coming from a woman who doesn’t have to work for her money.

Although I’d never admit it to her, Diane has a valid point. Blackburn Farms is indeed the largest breeding and training farm of American Saddlebred horses in the United States. With over a thousand acres of pastureland, barns, training arenas and medical facilities, over two hundred broodmares, almost seventy retired horses and nine studs, not to mention a sizable yearling population each year, it does take an army of people to make it all run smoothly.

Stable workers, groomers, trainers, veterinarians and administrative staff. I’m considered the general, having taken over the business almost five years ago when my parents decided to move into full-time retirement. My two brothers, Trey and Wade, as well as my sister, Kat, help out in all aspects of running the empire, but the great weight of responsibility to keep it all churning rests on my shoulders.

And yet, I’m still out there every day getting my hands dirty if need be. I can sit in my office in a suit and tie and negotiate a seven-figure deal on a horse and then turn around and muck stalls because one of the stable hands called in sick. I’m responsible for all of it and I do whatever it takes to make sure things run like clockwork.

I would never not do the work it takes to make Blackburn Farms a success and someone like Diane—who doesn’t work for anything—could never understand that.

When I don’t answer Diane’s question, she huffs and instead asks, “When will I see you again?”

“It’s foaling season. Probably not for a good long while.”

“Why do you have to be that way?” That gives me pause.

I don’t want to fight with her and I don’t appreciate having to provide an explanation when she knows the answer to her own question. Pivoting to face her but with one hand on the doorknob, I respond, “This is all we have, Diane. You know that. It’s worked fine for a long time, but I’ve got nothing more to offer.”

“Maybe I want more,” she says with challenge glinting in her eye.

“Then you need to look somewhere else.” Lifting my chin, I double down on my resolve because this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. “It’s not like you don’t see other men. This was never exclusive.”

“I only see other men because you won’t commit,” she whines.

Christ, I despise whiners. Can’t stand weakness in general. And I most definitely don’t like being manipulated. “I think this has run its course, Diane.”

She snorts, waving her hand as if to brush aside my statement. “You’ll be back.”

I don’t need her to acknowledge or agree to my suggestion. I also don’t agree with her prediction that I’ll be back, but I keep that to myself. I turn on my booted heel and walk out the door.

It’s a chilly April morning and while it will warm up significantly throughout the day, I still need to crank the heat in my truck. By the time I hit the north side of Shelbyville, the hot air is flowing nicely. I drive slowly through the small town—my birthplace. The early-morning light casts a soft glow over the storefronts lining the main street. Shops that I’ve been in and out of hundreds of times throughout my life. Vintage signs hang above cozy cafés and family-owned retailers, their windows adorned with displays of local crafts and antiques.

Leaving the town center I pass by the Shelby County Courthouse, its grand, redbrick facade and towering white columns a marker of the town’s rich history. In a few hours, the sidewalks will be filled with pedestrians and children will play in a nearby park. It’s an idyllic place to live and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

As I continue out of town, the landscape gradually transforms, the neat rows of houses and businesses giving way to open fields and the iconic rolling hills of Kentucky. The early sun casts long, undulating shadows over the lush greenery, creating a tapestry of light and dark. Fences, painted in pristine white, stretch as far as the eye can see, marking the boundaries of prestigious horse farms.

My eyes sweep across the sprawling estates, each a realm unto itself with clusters of old oak trees, verdant fields and sparkling creeks. Majestic barns, with their red or dark wood facades, stand proudly among the hills. Horses grazing peacefully dot the landscape, their coats gleaming in the sun. The sight of these magnificent animals, with their elegant strides and noble bearing, is a testament to the region’s deep equestrian roots.

As I approach our family’s land, I welcome the familiar swell of pride and belonging. Blackburn Farms is a legacy, a symbol of a lifelong bond with the American Saddlebred stemming back six generations to the mid-1800s. Enclosing the pastures is a network of fencing painted a brilliant white, which gleams with cool morning dew. Built to be both practical and aesthetic, their crisp lines run parallel to the land’s contours and are an iconic feature of Shelby County and the numerous saddlebred and thoroughbred farms.

I pass the entrance to the main barn, an architectural wonder that sits on a high hill a quarter of a mile in the distance. Its white facade matches the pristine fencing. The roof is adorned with multiple steeples, each capped with a patinaed weather vane. The arched doors on the southern end are already wide open and the stable hands should be hard at work feeding and watering the competition horses stabled there. Soon the groomers and trainers will be in to start working them in the outdoor arena adjacent to the structure. Across the top of the barn, rows of windows and open hayloft doors trimmed in black add to the combination of rustic elegance. The use of cross-bracing on the doors adds both strength and character to the structure, a nod to traditional craftsmanship.

Thirty-seven years I’ve lived on this land and it never fails to take my breath away, especially the main barn. And while I’ll spend a good amount of time there today, I drive on past and take the next marked driveway leading to my home.

It feels weird… calling it my home, even though that’s exactly what it is. It’s where I was raised, along with my two brothers and two sisters. Up until about six months ago, my parents lived here. The imposing, ten-thousand-square-foot Georgian mansion has been the ancestral home to the last four generations of Blackburns, and now I’m the sole resident.

My mother and father, Tommy and Fi Blackburn, are off traveling the world. They’ve moved into a small cottage on the back acreage of the land, insisting I become the man of the house since I’m running the horse empire. For the last handful of years, I’ve been managing the family enterprise under my father’s watchful eye, but now I’m squarely on my own and I don’t mind the pressure at all.

The house is a two-story structure built with rich terra-cotta brick that contrasts harmoniously with the white trim. At the heart of the home is a grand entrance, accentuated by a white portico with a pediment that crowns the space, providing a sheltered welcome. Four slender columns support the portico, each featuring the smooth, round forms of the Ionic order, capped with graceful spiraling volutes. Flanking the entrance are evenly spaced, double-hung, sashed windows with slender muntin dividing the panes, a hallmark of Georgian style. Each window is framed by black shutters and above the entrance, a decorative half-moon window invites the eastern light into the foyer.

The home’s symmetry is emphasized by two wings extending from the main block, mirroring one another in size and form. The hipped roof supports two massive brick chimneys above each wing which tells of the presence of grand fireplaces on either side of the house, a central feature in traditional Georgian architecture.

Needing to grab a quick shower, I pull up next to the detached three-car garage. I don’t bother parking inside and most definitely don’t worry about locking my truck as I hop out. In the kitchen, our housekeeper and cook, Miranda Phelps, is at the oven, pulling out a batch of homemade biscuits. Even though I’m the only Blackburn currently living under this roof, my siblings all work on the farm and will be coming by for breakfast, as is their almost daily habit.

We work seven days a week because that’s just how much work there is to be done.

“Smells heavenly,” I say to Miranda, attempting to reach past her to grab a piping hot biscuit from the tray. She smacks my hand, hard, and I stifle a yelp.

“You keep your hands to yourself,” she snarls, and I obey. Nothing much intimidates me but Miranda has been a fixture in the Blackburn home since I was four years old, and I know better than to tangle with her. “I’ll have these stuffed with ham, eggs and cheese soon enough. Go on, get washed up, you ol’ alley cat.”

I snort but do as she says. In less than twenty minutes, I’m showered, skipping a shave, and I’ve put on my standard barn work attire of jeans, muck boots and a long-sleeve T-shirt over an athletic pullover to ward against the spring chill.

In the kitchen, I find a basket with the biscuits individually wrapped. “Take those down to the barn with you. Kat called and said they wouldn’t be up to the main house this morning.”

“Why not?” I ask, picking up the wicker basket by its wood handle.

“Said that someone was coming to look at Lady Beatrice.”

“Fuck,” I mutter, having forgotten that potential buyers for one of our best show horses have an early-morning appointment. While any one of my siblings can handle showing the mare’s qualities, I handle the pricing and negotiations. Between losing the two horses last night and drowning my misery in Diane, it had completely slipped my mind.

“Language, mister,” Miranda clucks.

“Sorry,” I mutter as I hurry outside and into my truck. Unwrapping a biscuit, I drive not back onto the main road but along a connector dirt lane that cuts through the massive acreage. Multiple passageways like this exist over the thousand acres and are mostly traversed by electric utility vehicles and farm trucks.

Such a UTV sits at the back of the barn when I arrive and I recognize it as my sister Kat’s. She lives in an apartment over one of the tack buildings near the lesson barn and had the camo paint job redone in shades of pink.

Nabbing the basket of biscuits, I hop out of the truck and enter the barn through the small office. Placing the breakfast sandwiches on the desk, I finish my meal and quickly wash my hands in the small bathroom off to the side.

I step into the barn, my eyes adjusting to the slightly dimmer light. The interior of the massive structure holds a double row of back-to-back stalls—thirty-two in all—and it’s where all the show horses we train reside. In fact, two of Diane’s horses are housed here. The perimeter of the barn is wide enough that five horses can ride side by side and not touch each other, the walls, or the stalls, and it’s where most of the competitors take their lessons from any of the handful of trainers on staff.

Kat is just such a trainer and is currently trotting Lady Beatrice around the perimeter while two women watch from a row of benches in the center. I recognize one of them as the mother of Carmen, one of Blackburn’s show riders. I don’t train anymore, but I attend most of the shows and know our farm’s customers. The woman’s name has slipped my memory but I know the show riders because I take great pride in them.

The women look my way, clearly sisters, both very pretty with red hair and blue eyes. I lift my chin to acknowledge them but cut the other way, intent on making my rounds to ensure the morning barn chores are well underway. Kat can handle showing the horse we’re selling and she’s just as qualified as I am to decide if the horse is right for Carmen. If this visit turns into a true purchase interest, I’ll meet with them to discuss pricing.

The morning flies by but that’s typical. There’s never enough time to get everything done. After completing my work at the main barn, I head to the lesson facility to watch one of the instructors I hired last week work with a new student and I’m pleased with her so far. I look in on the horses there, including an overall check of the barn itself. I’m constantly pulling on latches, checking stall doors and eyeballing the general maintenance to make sure nothing needs attending.

From there, I go to the broodmare barn, which is where I intend to spend the rest of my day. We have two full-time veterinarians on staff and two part-timers who cover foaling season, along with two dozen hands who are on shift around the clock to help with the births.

Parking in a small gravel lot built to accommodate the influx of workers from March to June as the mares give birth, I take a quick moment to answer some texts. My head is still bent over my phone as I slide out of my truck.

“Excuse me.”

I glance up as I’m closing the door and pocket my keys. A man in a very expensive-looking suit stands there, tall, tanned, his hair impeccably groomed. Extending a hand, he introduces himself. “Mr. Blackburn… I’m Todd Gillam, an attorney from Louisville.”

“What can I do for you?” I ask as I shake his hand. It doesn’t worry me to find a lawyer here as Blackburn Farms is steeped in dozens of business deals both in and out of the horse world. Politics too for that matter.

Besides, I’m never one to worry unless given a good reason to. I have too much other shit on my plate to waste bandwidth on unrealized concerns.

The man looks around, taking in the scenery. “Beautiful place you have here.”

“Also a busy place,” I reply with a smile. “I’ve got a million things to do so…”

“Right, of course.” Mr. Gillam holds up his briefcase and nods toward the barn. “Do you by any chance have someplace private we can chat for a few moments? I promise I won’t take up too much of your time.”

“I have legions of attorneys that handle the farm’s legal matters—”

“This is private, Mr. Blackburn.”

Something about his tone sets me on edge and while I’d like to run the guy off, my gut tells me that isn’t feasible.

“Yeah… sure.” I nod over my shoulder toward the barn, leading Mr. Gillam inside. There’s an office here where the staff vets and other medical personnel keep records and write notes during each foaling.

Fortunately, it’s empty when I enter and I motion the him in before closing the door for privacy. I watch as he puts his briefcase on the old metal desk and pulls out a manila folder.

Turning back to face me, Mr. Gillam says, “What I’m about to tell you is going to come as a big shock, Mr. Blackburn. I’d appreciate if you’d listen to the entire story—”

“How about you just get on with the story?” I reach out and place one hand on the doorknob, an indication that I have better things to do and need to get going.

The attorney nods, tapping a finger along the edge of the folder in his hand. “Almost ten years ago, you had an affair with Alaine Mardraggon.”

For a moment the words make no sense, but as he stares at me with laser focus, I finally understand what he means. “I hardly think a drunk hookup in the coat closet of the country club would constitute an affair.”

Mr. Gillam nods as if to say touché but is otherwise unperturbed by my correction. “Ms. Mardraggon became pregnant after that encounter. She gave birth to a daughter named Sylvie.” When I don’t flinch or show any reaction at all, he says with emphasis, “Your daughter.”

“Bullshit,” I growl, a low, rumbled snarl of denial. “I don’t know what Alaine’s game is or what she’s after—”

“Ms. Mardraggon died at seven thirty-eight this morning.” Those words have the effect of a bucket of ice water poured over my head. “She hired me to represent Sylvie and my instructions were to come to you upon Alaine’s death and let you know about your daughter.”

My ears buzz and my head swims. Legs feeling like they are about to give way, I lock my knees and brace my hand on the doorjamb. “Come again?”

“She succumbed to cancer.”

“I didn’t know,” I murmur. Of course, how would I? I haven’t seen Alaine since that drunken one-night stand. She lived in France. I live in Kentucky. We pretended it didn’t happen and I’d all but forgotten about it.

“Look,” Mr. Gillam says with a sympathetic smile, handing me the folder, which I ignore. “Everything you need is in here, but this is the short story. It’s not lost on any citizen of Shelby County that the Blackburn and Mardraggon families have no love for each other.”

“Our families despise one another,” I say. It’s the party line and I quote it to perfection.

“Which does make it quite fascinating that you and Alaine had… an interlude… but that animosity between your families is why she kept Sylvie a secret from you. She refused to name you as the father on the birth certificate and no one knew, not even her family members, of Sylvie’s paternity.”

I feel like I might pass out and that’s not something that has ever happened. “How can you even be sure—”

“Trust me. I’m sure Sylvie’s yours, but you can take a paternity test. Regardless, Ms. Mardraggon hired me months ago when she was diagnosed, and it was her intention that you take Sylvie when she died.”

Mr. Gillam pushes the folder forward again and I’m sure I look at it as if it’s a bomb about to explode. “Inside the folder is a letter to you from Alaine, along with the birth certificate. As instructed, I delivered a similar letter to Alaine’s parents not long ago, as well as an amended revocable trust drafted by an estate lawyer she hired that provides for Sylvie. That’s of no consequence to you, but I’ve been assured, there’s plenty of money to raise—”

“I don’t need any Mardraggon money, and I’m not raising some kid who’s probably not even mine. This is ridiculous.”

“Regardless,” he says, patience oozing from his entire bearing. “A preliminary custody hearing has been scheduled for Monday. You’re required to attend and make your intentions known. There’s also a subpoena for your attendance in that folder. If you don’t want the child, I’m sure the Mardraggons will petition for custody. For now, Sylvie will stay with them until the hearing.”

I stare down at the folder, the contents inside having just turned my world upside down. Even if it isn’t true, I’m getting ready to enter a shitstorm because nothing good ever comes from tangling with the Mardraggons.

“My card is stapled on the inside. Call me if you need anything but just know that I’m Sylvie’s legal representative and everything I do is in her best interests.”

I nod, not bothering to look at the man. I hear him move to the door and step aside to allow him access. Before he steps over the threshold, I ask, “What type of cancer did Alaine have?”

“Brain cancer. Glioblastoma. Very aggressive. Nothing could be done.”

I acknowledge that news with a lift of my chin, although I can’t say I’m sad to hear of her passing. I grew up despising Alaine and her brother, Gabe, just as they hated me and my siblings. The bitterness between the families runs so deep that we avoid each other at all costs. That drunken one-night stand shouldn’t have ever happened, but we were both wasted and I can barely remember it.

Maybe she didn’t remember it correctly either. In fact, I’m sure she was probably the type of woman who was sleeping around and any number of men could be the father.

That has to be the answer.

Regardless, this is a huge problem and needs my immediate attention. Whipping my phone out, I shoot a group text to my siblings.

Emergency family meeting now at the main house.

Chapter 2


“You had sex with Alaine Mardraggon?” Trey asks for the third time.

I shoot my brother a warning look to not ask again. I’ve answered it once and I’m not going to waste my breath when there are more important things to decide.

“Do you believe what Alaine wrote?” Kat asks. She’s holding the single-page typed letter that I read a dozen times before my siblings congregated in the main sitting room. The heart of the restored Georgian mansion, an ever-present reminder of a bygone era, harmonizes historical splendor with subtle contemporary touches. The room is defined by its tall, paneled windows. These windows, with their traditional wooden shutters, frame the outside world and fill the space with a soft, natural glow that dances across the high ceilings adorned with ornate plasterwork. From the center of these intricate designs a crystal chandelier hangs like a jewel, scattering light in a warm, embracing aura.

The polished oak floors wear a large Persian rug of deep reds and blues woven in intricate patterns. Chippendale-style chairs with their mahogany frames display graceful curves and carvings, while a matching sofa reupholstered in luxurious, deep green velvet whispers of modern comfort amid historical charm.

In one corner, a Georgian tea table with cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet stands and on the wall adjacent to the fireplace sits a Pembroke table perched by the window, which Miranda always fills with fresh flowers. It’s our mom’s favorite place to write letters back home to Ireland.

Tall, built-in bookcases flank the wall opposite the fireplace, their shelves a mosaic of leather-bound classics and various keepsakes, echoing generations of intellectual pursuits. The walls themselves are a gallery adorned with oil paintings. Portraits of ancestral figures, stern and regal, keep watch over the room, their eyes following the passage of time. Landscapes in ornate frames offer views of pastoral scenes and historic landmarks, a visual escape to the world outside.

Dominating the room is a large marble fireplace, its presence commanding yet inviting. Above it, a grand, gilded mirror reflects the life of the room, multiplying its light and space. On mantelpieces and side tables, small, tasteful decorations are carefully arranged: brass candlesticks, a silver tea set, a porcelain figurine or two, each a character in this elegant narrative. Over the years, my mom chose and placed many of the items, but most have been handed down through generations.

Subtle modern touches are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the room, like plush throw pillows and a casually draped cashmere blanket on the sofa’s arm, offering a nod to contemporary comfort.

I shrug, my hand resting on the mantel as I stare into the cold fireplace.

“Of course you can’t believe what she wrote,” Trey says. His temper can run fiercely hot, particularly when his family is at the heart of the matter. “She’s a Mardraggon. Can’t believe a fucking thing they say.”

The bitter feud between the Blackburn and Mardraggon families started in the mid-nineteenth century when a young Elizabeth Blackburn fell in love with a dashing Henry Mardraggon and all of Shelby County, Kentucky was abuzz. The two families had recently settled in the area—the Blackburns hailing from England and the Mardraggons from France. Times were perilous and the young country was engaged in a civil war, although Kentucky was a key border state and attempted to maintain neutrality.

The Blackburns and the Mardraggons were both up-and-coming, influential families and looked upon with great favor by all who knew them.

The Blackburns worked tirelessly to build up a saddlebred breeding farm, horses known for their versatility, beauty, smooth gaits and endurance. They saw great economic opportunity in selling their horses to the Union. The saddlebred’s speed, agility and ability to cover long distances were ideal for cavalry horses and officer mounts. It was through the placement of these horses with the Union that the Blackburns started their meteoric rise as purveyors of the best horseflesh in the country.

The Mardraggons—who had some experience in making wine in the Burgundy region of France—started a new venture in distilling bourbon. Settling in Kentucky, they found corn abundant, and it became the primary grain for whiskey. Using charred oak barrels for aging, the Mardraggons were one of the original pioneers of distilling that defining characteristic of bourbon. By the mid-1800s, they were mass producing in sealed bottles and gaining a reputation for quality and authenticity in their alcohol. The Mardraggons also took advantage of the economic opportunity the Civil War presented but were not as discerning between the two warring factions of the Union and Confederacy, providing liquor to both.

Elizabeth Blackburn and Henry Mardraggon cared nothing about horses, bourbon, or war. They only cared about each other. They were madly, deeply, and wholeheartedly in love. Henry proposed to Elizabeth after getting permission from her father, James Blackburn. The engagement was widely celebrated throughout all polite society. Two powerhouse families would be merging, and everyone knew that they would be controlling much of the economic interests in the region.

But as with many love stories, things went disastrously wrong. After a blissful two months of engaged life, dark rumors started to circulate about Elizabeth Blackburn. Ugly, salacious gossip that, if true, spelled disaster for the young couple. It most certainly spelled ruination for Elizabeth. It had reached her father’s ears that Elizabeth had been engaged in an illicit affair with a young man of no importance in Shelbyville.

The rumors were without merit, vehemently denied, devoid of proof and undoubtedly false. That didn’t matter to anyone because women whispered behind Elizabeth’s back, fueling the gossip, and both patriarchs of the Mardraggon and Blackburn families stewed over the potential truth.

An argument ensued between the two fathers, James Blackburn and Edward Mardraggon. No, not an argument—a rageful, blasphemous feud between two powerful men tossing bladed barbs at one another. Young Henry, who refused to believe the worst about his love, tried to intervene and calm the situation. Tempers between the fathers flared hotter and pistols were drawn.

Two shots were fired with the intent to kill but only one bullet landed tragically.

Right into the chest of Henry Mardraggon, fired by Elizabeth’s father, who had been aiming at the elder Mardraggon.

Edward Mardraggon’s own bullet went wide as he aimed at James, lodging in a door casing.

Henry died instantly.

Beautiful, heartbroken, ruined Elizabeth took a little longer to die. Two weeks after Henry was buried, she hung herself under the rafters of the grape arbor where Henry had proposed to her.

Both families blamed the other for their children’s deaths. No one ever talked again about the rumors surrounding Elizabeth and whether they were true, for it hardly mattered. Two precious lives were gone, and two families entered into a war that some say raged hotter than the one between the North and South.

“A paternity test is simple enough,” Wade says. The youngest of the three Blackburn brothers, he’s the most even-keeled. He brings logic to this conversation. “Let’s assume you are Sylvie’s father. What are you going to do?”

“He’s going to take his daughter,” Kat exclaims, tossing a chastising glare at Wade. “Of course, he’s going to take her and raise her and she’s going to be a Blackburn.”

“Except she’s a Mardraggon.” Trey drums his fingers on his knee, one booted foot propped on his knee. “She’s been a Mardraggon for her entire life. She’s been raised by those morons and therefore she’s probably—”

I wheel around and growl. “Don’t even finish that thought.”

It goes silent, none of my siblings willing to risk my ire. I truly don’t know what Trey is about to say, but if it’s going to in any way disparage my supposed daughter, some unknown force of protectiveness has welled inside of me, unwilling to let anyone say a bad word about a girl who may be my blood.

Glancing at my watch, I see it’s still unfeasible to reach our parents, currently vacationing in New Zealand. Being as they’re on the other side of the world, it’s the dead of night there. I called and left a voicemail as well as sent a text, and the mere fact they’ve not responded means they’re deep in slumber. I need their advice and I’ll get it eventually. But right now, it’s helpful to have my siblings here brainstorming the issue.

It’s not like there are a lot of decisions to make. Wade is correct. It’s a very simple matter of paternity and if it’s determined that Sylvie is mine, she’ll come live with us.

I ruminate on Alaine’s letter.


Dear Ethan,

I know this letter and Mr. Gillam’s visit are going to come as a shock and I first and foremost need to apologize for keeping our daughter a secret from you. It is my only hope that you can understand my reasons for doing so. At the heart of the matter is our families’ deep hatred for one another. I’d like to say our one evening together was a mistake, but it gave me Sylvie, so how could that ever be true?

Given the animosity we shared and the fact I lived in a different country, it was easier not to tell you. But I’m dying and that means I have to be truthful, not just with you but myself, and I admit that I was also selfish. I didn’t want to share Sylvie, nor did I want to deal with the scabs that would keep getting ripped off the wounds our families continue giving each other.

Cancer is the great equalizer. It’s made me really think about what is best for our daughter. I love my family, but I know they are not without faults. I believe some of those faults could be detrimental to Sylvie. I can’t say that I know you very well. I was taught to hate your family. All I know is that I don’t want Sylvie to grow up under my parents’ influence.

I believe Sylvie is best left under your care. You have the strength and fortitude to stand up to the Mardraggons. She comes with a large trust fund which includes controlling interest in the winery. My parents are going to fight you hard for her. Please stand strong. Raise her with the same love I gave her. Do right by our daughter.

If you don’t, I will come back to haunt you.


Alaine Mardraggon


“Why in the hell would she keep that secret?” Wade muses.

Kat nods at the letter in her hand. “There’s a lot of money involved. The Mardraggons would automatically assume we’d try to make a play for it.”

“Because they’re assholes,” Trey mutters.

I don’t disagree. Look it up in any thesaurus and asshole is synonymous with Mardraggon. Even after the original feud that split the families apart, the Mardraggons took any opportunity they could to try to ruin the Blackburns. Throughout our entangled histories, if there was a chance to knock our family down, the Mardraggons were behind it. Of course, we aren’t without backbone and will use any opportunity we can to take that family down a peg or two.

Trey isn’t wrong. I can’t trust anything Alaine wrote in that letter. I’ll demand a paternity test and that will probably put all of this nonsense to rest. The more I think about it, the more I’m confident this is some ploy Alaine was putting into place to hurt my family.

Are they trying to drain money from us via legal fees? Dangle a cute kid and a trust fund in front of me to get my focus off the business?

Do the Mardraggons not understand our family wants for nothing? We’re beyond wealthy and we aren’t scheming backstabbers in maintaining that.

I won’t be fooled. I’ll go to that damn hearing on Monday, demand a paternity test and then when all of this is proven to be a sham, I’ll figure out a way to make them pay for dragging me into shit I don’t have time to deal with.

Moving to the love seat where Kat sits, I take the letter from her. My brothers and sister stare at me, their green eyes matching mine and handed down from our Irish mother, Fiona, and I stare right back.

None of them has to say a word. They all have my back, as would my other sister, Kat’s twin, Abby, if she were here. As it stands, she lives in Pennsylvania, the only Blackburn to not work at the farm. It’s fine though because she is pursuing her passion for veterinary medicine and comes home often to visit.

All the Blackburn kids not only have Fi’s Celtic green eyes but our father Tommy’s raven hair. It’s a striking combination, and no one in Shelby County would ever deny the Blackburn family is a beautiful one.

But that’s all surface stuff because what we really have is fortitude, grit, perseverance and an unrivaled work ethic. It’s how we’ve built our empire and it’s how we’ll maintain it for future generations.

“Let’s get back to work,” I say. “More important stuff to do today.”

Trey, Wade and Kat all rise, my brothers in jeans and barn boots and Kat in a pair of riding jods. A big chunk of her job is to train the show horses—although my brothers train as well—so she spends most of her days in the saddle. I might have the larger share of responsibility, but my siblings all work just as hard in smaller microcosms of the enterprise. I can do every one of their jobs plus a million others, and I get the added glory and burden of worrying about the successes or failures.

Trey claps me on the shoulder. “Got your back, bud.”

“Yeah… I know it. Thanks.”

Wade holds out his fist to bump. “It’ll be fine.”

“Of course it will.”

Kat hangs back and after Trey’s and Wade’s voices recede, she says, “Michelle DeLeon is interested in buying Lady Beatrice.”

For a moment, my mind is completely blank. The change in subject momentarily stumps me, but it only takes a second for it to connect. “The owners want two fifty but might consider something slightly less. Is Carmen ready for that horse? Because if not, it’s going to be a big waste of money.”

“That’s a better question for Wade,” Kat replies with a lift of her shoulder. Wade is the primary trainer for the young woman who owns Lady Beatrice and knows the horse’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a lot of horse and Carmen is a young kid, although I’m not sure of her exact age. “But he knows Michelle is looking at the mare for her daughter, so I assume he thinks it’s a good fit.”

“Good enough.” I grab the manila folder I’d tossed down on a sideboard and shove the folded letter from Alaine in it. “I’ll give her a call.”

“She’s single, by the way,” Kat says as we walk out of the sitting room.

It again takes me a moment to process and when what she said hits me, I scowl. “So what?”

“I’m just saying… she’s been divorced for a year and is super pretty.”

“Again, so what?”

“You could ask her out,” Kat prods, nudging me with her elbow as we traverse the main foyer and out the front door. Kat’s pink Gator sits beside my truck.

“Quit your matchmaking,” I grumble. “I’m not interested.”

“I don’t want you to be lonely. You’re getting old—”

“I’m only thirty-seven,” I bark with faux outrage.

“And that Diane Turner is no good for you.”

That statement penetrates with utter clarity and I whirl on the front portico to face my sister. “What do you… I mean, how do you know about Diane?”

I’ve never told one of my siblings about my “arrangement” with Diane. It’s a private matter, sex only, and none of their business. What Diane and I had was so meaningless, it didn’t even bear thinking about once outside of bed.

Kat cocks a black eyebrow at me. “How do you think I know? Because Diane runs her mouth every time she’s at the barn. She’s telling anyone who will listen that y’all are sleeping together.”

“Jesus Christ… it’s a random thing. Last night was the first time in—”

“Last night, huh? Diane has a lesson later today with Monica. I bet that’s one of the first things she talks about.”

“Fuck,” I mutter and turn away from her, jogging down the porch steps. I spin and point at my sister once I reach the sidewalk. “You hear that shit, you shut it down. It’s over.”

“I will,” Kat assures, heading down the steps herself and angling toward her UTV. “But that won’t stop Diane from running her mouth.”

“I’ll have words with her.” I open the truck door and hop in. At least, I’ll have words with her when I get a minute.

If I remember.

For now, I’m heading back to the broodmare barn. I need to budget time to call Michelle DeLeon to see if I can facilitate the sale of Lady Beatrice. Blackburn Farms takes a fifteen percent commission on inner barn sales, so on a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar horse, that’s some nice change going into the bank. It’s one of our easier earned revenue streams, but it’s not where my heart resides.

That’s back with the pregnant mares, bringing new foals into the world. While the Blackburn enterprise deals in show horses, we’re mostly known for our breeding program. It’s where the real magic behind our success lies.

Everything in breeding is high stakes. We’re putting a lot of money into blending championship lines to strengthen the breed. Buyers from all over the world want a Blackburn horse and every single birth is precious to me. It represents a piece of our family’s legacy.

Which is why I don’t have time to be worried about Diane Turner spilling our private business or fending off my sister with unwanted matchmaking. I certainly don’t want to be saddled with a kid.

Simply put, I have more important things to do.

Chapter 3


My sister Michelle is everything I’m not. Tall and willowy with flawless features, a natural sense of style—she can make a burlap sack look couture. She exudes grace, charm and a light, tinkling laugh when she’s amused that is so effervescent, people’s heads turn to see who made that beautiful sound. Michelle married wealthy and divorced wealthier and can afford anything she wants.

So I’m quite surprised my sister is hemming and hawing over paying two hundred and fifty thousand for a horse for her daughter, Carmen. I’ve watched my sister shell out money on ridiculously expensive things with no regard to whether it would ever ding her bank balance, because in truth, it never would. Michelle’s ex-husband, Winston P. Bradenton, is a financier and was easily able to fork over half of his money to his ex-wife in the divorce without blinking an eye. Although he certainly grumbled about it every chance he could.

“Why are you hesitating on this horse?” I ask as we share a bowl of warm tortilla chips and spicy salsa at our favorite Mexican restaurant.

Michelle and I are close. I’m two years older at thirty-four and we spend a lot of our free time together. We’re not just sisters, we’re best friends. Despite thinking my sister is utter perfection in all ways, there’s not a single drop of envy or jealousy within my mind. I love every inch of her in all her perfect forms.

That’s because, if you were to ask Michelle on any given day what she thinks of me, she’d reflect the same thing. That I’m utter perfection.

While Michelle is tall and graceful, I’m petite and sassy. Michelle’s cultured, musical intonation is a complete contradiction to my raspy voice coated in the Kentucky southern accent. Women always tell me they wish they could sound like me, and men want to know what it sounds like being with me. We both have vivid blue eyes—Michelle’s sharply keen and savvy while mine reflect the lighthearted nature with which I approach life.

She shrugs off my question. “I’m not necessarily hesitating about a horse in particular. I’m just wondering if I should shop around first. I don’t want to make a rash decision just because it’s an easy choice and I can afford it.”

I laugh because this is very unlike my sister. She’s all about easy decisions and tossing money at the things she wants. “How can you even question it? You’ve been a customer at Blackburn Farms almost your entire life.”

Michelle is the quintessential Blackburn customer, having ridden horses there as a young girl and throughout her teenage years. She gave up competition and riding in general when she went off to college but has always supported the saddlebred competition world and passed on her love of it to Carmen.

I know from watching her ride back in the day and the way she’s cheering on Carmen that Michelle implicitly trusts the horse being offered to them. “You trust Ethan Blackburn on any matter regarding any horse, so why are you hesitating now?”

Michelle shrugs and doesn’t answer, instead picking up her margarita on the rocks and taking a delicate sip.

I narrow my eyes at her evasiveness. I wasn’t into horses growing up the way Michelle was. I’m all about music and art. But over the years I’ve become casually acquainted with the instructors and trainers at Blackburn since I attended my sister’s shows and would sometimes watch her train. I’ve also never missed one of Carmen’s shows and never will, because being divorced and childless at thirty-four, I’m pretty certain my chance at kids is over.

I don’t know Ethan Blackburn personally, having only seen him around at various shows, but I know who he is. I know the entire Blackburn family, not just from Michelle and Carmen’s dealings with them, but because they are one of the most prominent families in Kentucky. But I only know Ethan by sight and what Michelle has said about him.

I’ve seen him in the barn a few times while we were there checking out Lady Beatrice, but I don’t know him well enough to level a smile his way when he glances at me and Michelle. I’ve never so much as said hello to him in the handful of times our paths have crossed over the years.

Not that I would know what to say if he dared talk to me. That man is so gorgeous, he’d likely put me into a perpetual tongue-tie. He’s also too serious looking, always bearing an expression as if he doesn’t have time for even a hello and doing so would be an imposition. He’s far more intimidating than gorgeous, which means it’s a waste of space for him to occupy my thoughts.

I push that aside and niggle again at my sister. “Seriously… buy the damn horse.”

Michelle’s eyes twinkle with mischief. “Yeah, I should buy the damn horse. Carmen loves it and it’s going to level up her riding. I’ve got plans later today but I can cut the check right now. You think you could run it by Blackburn Farms on your way home since you go right by there? Hand it over to Ethan?”

I know every intonation in my sister’s voice and this one narrows my eyes. “Why do you need me to run the check over today? I’m sure if you just called him and told him you’re going to buy the horse, he can wait for you to bring the check.”

“I don’t want them to sell the horse out from under me.”

I roll my eyes at her obvious lie. “They are not going to sell the horse out from under you if you tell them you want it. It’s a quarter-of-a-million-dollar horse and it’s not the first expensive one you’ve bought from them. I’m quite confident they’ll keep it for you.”

“Oh, come on,” Michelle exclaims with a quirk of her lips. “Wouldn’t you like a tiny opportunity to have some one-on-one time with Ethan Blackburn?”

My mouth falls open, so low and wide that I’m surprised my jaw doesn’t dislocate. My sister has never once vocalized such a preposterous thought and she’s only doing so now because she suspects something.

But what in the hell could she think is going on in my head? I’ve never mentioned Ethan’s name or shown any interest in the man.


Sure, I think he’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen but that is my secret and while Michelle and I are thick as thieves, I’ve never once admitted such an attraction. It’s silly, flighty, without substance and not worth mentioning. It would never amount to anything other than appreciation of a fine male specimen.

Hell, I think that about Chris Hemsworth too.

Michelle grins at me and it makes me hot under the collar. To prove how well she knows me, she nods from across the table. “You’re really kind of obvious when you’re around him.”

“I am not,” I protest. “That’s ridiculous. I hardly ever see the man. I bet I can count on my hands…”

“Over my entire riding career, whenever you’ve come to watch Carmen compete, or when you’re watching her practice in the barn and Ethan Blackburn happens to walk by—counting up all that? You’ve been around the man dozens upon dozens upon dozens of times. Your face reflects the attraction.”

I clap my hand over my mouth. “Does he know?”

Michelle laughs and shakes her head, her gorgeous auburn hair the same shade as mine fluttering around her face. “No, my love. That man is in his own world. Only I can see it because I know you so well.”

Reaching down into the bowl of chips, I pick one up and throw it at my sister. It bounces off her left shoulder and falls into her lap. Michelle retrieves it with a laugh, dunks it in salsa and pops it into her mouth.

Grinning, she chews and after swallowing, says, “But if you’d like to act on that attraction, I am pretty sure I can arrange a date. If there’s one thing that comes with years of spending money at Blackburn Farms, I bet I’ve got some pull in that department.”

I shake my head. “Oh no you don’t. You’re a horrible matchmaker. Remember Jeff Timmons? What in the hell were you thinking setting me up with that guy?”

“I was hoping to get you out of your post-divorce funk,” Michelle admits. “It was enough to get you showered, a bit of makeup on and out of the house. That was a brilliant idea.”

I grimace as I think about the six months following my divorce where I basically hid in my house or at the school where I work as the principal. The end of my marriage devastated me, but not because I lost the love of my life. No, it had more to do with my forty-eight-year-old, prominent doctor husband trading me in for a twenty-three-year-old trophy wife who was pregnant. All those years I wanted a child, and my douche spouse was against it. It left me regretting my choice to marry George Foyette. And it was a cruel stab and twist of the fated knife that he knocked up his young receptionist and then proclaimed himself madly in love with her,  ready to bestow all the love in the world on their baby.

They had a boy almost seven months ago, named him George Junior, and I still get heartburn thinking about the years I wasted on that man.

So yeah… Michelle setting me up with Jeff Timmons, who may have been a world-class douche in the end, did one thing—it got me out of the house. Made me realize I’m a social person who likes to be around people. That I enjoy going out and experiencing things. It didn’t make me want to date any more than I do now, but my social circle expanded more than when I’d been married and, in my opinion, I have a full life.

I’m done talking about dating and opt to change the subject. “I’m not going to be able to take the time off for Mexico.”

Michelle tilts her head, expression crumbling with disappointment. “That’s not fair, Marcie. You should be able to take a vacation like everyone else. You work way too hard.”

“You’re not wrong on any of that,” I sigh, picking up a chip. My gaze meets my sister’s. “But since we lost Rebecca, I’m doing double duty and it’s going to take just that week alone to get me halfway caught up.”

I’m the principal of the county’s largest primary school and it’s a career path I rarely question. The hours are long and grueling, the problems I deal with regarding my students are often heartbreaking, and yet… I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even if it means missing out on a spring break vacation with my sister and niece.

My assistant principal, Rebecca Foster, up and quit last week after proclaiming she didn’t have the stomach for administration anymore. She wanted to go back to teaching, which was all well and good, but she could’ve worked a little on the timing. If she’d just given me a chance, I probably could have put her in a classroom for the upcoming school year and found a suitable replacement. But as it stands, she quit with no notice and now I’m stuck doing two full-time jobs.

“In fact,” I continue, lifting my water versus a margarita like my sister, “I’m going to be there the rest of the day working. Happy Saturday to me.” Raising my glass in a mock toast, I sip and sigh dramatically. “Delicious.”

“Speaking of delicious,” Michelle replies as she props her chin on her hand to laser her eyes across the table. “Let me set you up with Ethan Blackburn.”

“No,” I say with an emphatic shake of my head. “And in case that wasn’t clear enough for you… no, no, no, no.”

“Why not?” It comes out as a petulant whine which, surprisingly, has worked to Michelle’s benefit a lot over the years.

“Didn’t you hear the part where I said I’ve got no time to go on a vacation with you? Which means I’ve got no time to go on dates.”

Especially not with a man who is completely out of my league. Blind dates are bad enough, but to be on one with someone who would never have asked you out if given a clear choice ahead of time would be soul-rending. I almost shudder thinking about it.

“I call bullshit.” She points a finger at me, her bloodred nail expertly manicured and polished. “You might be under the gun now because of Rebecca leaving but you’ve made no effort to date since your divorce from the Antichrist—”

“I went out with Jeff Timmons,” I interrupt, making a pointed reminder that she isn’t quite accurate. “And that date was so bad, you wonder why I don’t—”

“Just stop.” She holds up her hand, palm out, and I snap my mouth closed. “You’re avoiding going out because George did a number on your head.”

“He traded me in for a sex kitten,” I grumble.

“He’s a narcissistic asshole who did you a favor. You were horribly unhappy in that marriage and him banging his receptionist was the best thing that ever happened to you.”

This is not the first time Michelle has said those words and it won’t be the last. And she’s correct… I was incredibly unhappy in my marriage, but I never would’ve left. I tried with all my might to make it work. Tried to be everything George wanted but it was never good enough. He always tore me down, complaining about the way I cooked, the extra ten pounds I put on over winter, the way I cut my hair. He hated the fact that I worked hard for my career. George wanted someone to cater to his needs, and while I did a damn good job of maintaining our household and being a good wife while working an arduous job, it was never good enough.

Yeah, I’m better off without him. My sister speaks the full truth.

George Foyette did a number on my head, and I don’t have it in me to put my trust in another man. Which means there is no sense in dating. It’s a waste of time and besides… I have my job and family to keep me happy and fulfilled.

The Feud (Bluegrass Empires, Book #1) is a standalone contemporary hockey romance within the Bluegrass Empires series. See the full details and get your copy HERE.