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The Feud: A Blackburn Novel (PREORDER: Releases June 18, 2024) (eBook)

The Feud: A Blackburn Novel (PREORDER: Releases June 18, 2024) (eBook)

A one-night stand is about to turn his world upside down

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THIS IS A PREORDER TITLE. 
The Feud: A Blackburn Novel eBook preorder purchases will be delivered via BookFunnel on June 18, 2024.

New York Times bestselling author, Sawyer Bennett, welcomes you to Bluegrass Empires, a sweeping series of sexy romance standalones. Set among the rolling hills of Kentucky horse farms and bourbon distilleries, these seductive tales are steeped in bloodline feuds that run deep and without forgiveness.

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As the oldest of his siblings, Ethan Blackburn bears the weight of responsibility for the day-to-day operations of Blackburn Farms, the largest Saddlebred breeding and training facility in Kentucky. Serious, gruff and solely focused on the success of the family business, Ethan isn’t one to mince words or waste time on anything that doesn’t further his interests. But when his meticulous world is upended by a shadowed secret brought into the light, Ethan is sent into a tailspin.

Marcie DeLeon just navigated her way through a bitter divorce, now intent on reimagining her life as a single career woman. She’s not looking to revisit the burden of a relationship anytime soon but when Ethan turns to her for help, she can’t help but lend a sympathetic ear to the handsome and broody man.

Ethan and Marcie are strangers who find a common thread to weave them together, creating a bond neither were seeking but both are loathe to walk away from. When Ethan faces a high-stakes battle against his family’s bitter enemy, he knows without a doubt there is nothing he won’t do to win the fight. Ready to give of himself completely, Ethan prepares to face-off with his foe hoping that no matter what the outcome, Marcie will be by his side in the end.

The Feud: A Blackburn Novel is a friends to lovers novel within the Bluegrass Empires series. All books in the series can be enjoyed as standalones.

Read Chapter One

Ethan

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.

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Product Release Date: June 18, 2024

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