The year before I moved to Winterlight Farm in Missouri, I was at a horse show on the Island with my friend, Harry, looking to pick up a few rides. A harsh morning breeze sang sharp notes of coming winter, steaming horse manure, and dejection—mine.
No one needed help. Or no one wanted me. One pervy guy leered, grabbed his crotch, and said he’d like a ride.
I wasn’t going there, so I took my weak horse-show coffee outside and sank to the damp ground against the wheel of a horse trailer out of the wind, letting the feeble sun bathe my face, trying to decide whether to stay or go home and nurse the ferocious hangover pounding my head.
Reason for said hangover chose that moment to appear, looking more dapper than anyone who’d drunk me under the table had a right to. He even had his stock tie pinned in place, complete overkill for a schooling show.
“How you be, V?”
I shot him a look through slitted eyes. “I think you know how I am.”
Harry collapsed all six-plus feet of his skinny self next to me. “Crabby and all out of whipped cream?”
That about summed it up. I sipped my coffee, rapidly going cold and stale, but it took a hair off the edge.
We were sitting outside having a cup of coffee when young man led a horse out to the field in front of us. The sleek dark bay wore saddle and bridle, and a lunge line was clipped right to the ring of the snaffle. Idiot. The grass was slick with half-frozen dew. I wouldn’t work a horse out there, especially not one vibrating like a thoroughbred being led to the starting gate. She probably was off the track by her looks and conformation. Sweat already darkened her shoulders and flank. She’d been getting ridden in the indoor warm-up ring, I’d bet, and not cooperating, so they’d brought her here to work out the kinks at the end of a lunge.
The boy with the horse jerked the line. The mare’s mouth worked, foam dripping, and her ears swiveled to me, to the field, to the indoor, anywhere but to him. He gave her slack, brought the whip behind her, and she moved out into a huge trot, covering tons of ground, tail swishing angrily with each stride. Four white socks and an irregular star. Barely visible dapples slid over her haunches like melted dark chocolate. Flashy. Beautiful didn’t cover it. Long sloping shoulders and a well-sprung ribcage. A dream made real. My fingers itched to stroke her neck, comb through her mane, take the reins, gather all that power to me. This one could jump the moon.
With my attention riveted on the horse, I asked Harry, “Where’ve you been?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him swipe a finger under his nose, a habit from his cocaine days. I hoped he wasn’t stupid enough to start again. It would explain how he could stay up half the night drinking and still be here at the crack of dawn like the Energizer Bunny.
He grinned like an addle-pate. Not sure why I had Shakespeare on the brain this morning. Probably the tragedy of my current situation.
“Perfection takes time, petal, you know that.”
I kept my nose to the opening of my cardboard cup of black coffee—one of my vices. Inhaling deeply to block the scent of cologne and cough drops, I wondered how I’d ever been attracted to this person. The fact that he could model for Ralph Lauren might have something to with it. “Perfection,” I drawled. “Right.”
Harry swigged his extra large vanilla soy latte out of a designer ceramic go cup and sighed, knowing too well the turn of my mind. “Yes, sweetheart. Perfection.”
I let my head fall back against the tire. “Ugh.”
“Why Viola Parker, do I smell a particularly sour disposition this fine morn?”
I shrugged. We both knew the truth. Since the fatal wreck with Wastrel, very few trusted their expensive equines to me. They used to beg for my butt on their horse’s backs.
We stared at the stunning mare for a few minutes. My mouth felt pasty. I needed whipped cream to soothe my senses. Why had I gone out drinking with Harry? I didn’t remember getting home but had woken in my bed at my cousin’s house, so somehow I’d gotten there. My truck had been parked half on the curb with the keys still in it, but I’d missed the mailbox. I’d left before Penny got up to find my bra on her kitchen counter again. But as I watched the mare move, warmth spread through me and tingled up my spine. My heart expanded. I could feel the floaty bounce of her step, the intelligence behind her dark eyes, the weightless sense of flying. My heart reached for her, got inside. She wouldn’t be easy, never that, but the spark was there. One eye rolled to me as she passed, and I nodded. We belonged to each other. I stood and took a step toward her, wondering if Harry planned to go south for the winter circuit. I could tag along. Depending on who owned her, this mare might be down there. Harry was still in everyone’s good graces, despite his chronic bad boy behavior. Harry never killed a horse.
I huffed, pulling my shredded pride tight. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to Florida, and I would never ride this mare. It was my day off, but I’d go to work anyway, give the barn a good cleaning, and take Ed Todd to lunch. The old geezer could barely see anymore, but he loved his horses and always gave me a job when I needed it, even if it was only mucking stalls and exercising his retired jumpers.
Yet, I didn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes off the dark bay. She hunched her back and shook, flopping her short mane from side to side, then raised her neck, hollowed her back, champed the bit, dropped her head, shortened her stride…barely contained energy just waiting to bust free. The handler idly swept the whip along the ground, asleep at the wheel. Dangerous with a horse like this. She slipped a little, squealed and bucked, testing him. The stirrups flopped up and down with a thunk. She shook her head again, wanting to go. He yanked at her. She cut into the circle, ears back. Not flat, but he didn’t seem to notice, just waved the whip, and she went out to the end of the line, still trotting, overstepping by a mile, tail stiff. Raw physical talent constrained by stupid people. Something was wrong. They’d either failed to notice, or done something to cause it. My vote was for the latter.
A girl came out of the barn and walked toward them dressed in boots and breeches, a helmet and show coat.
I hadn’t noticed Harry getting up, coming to stand beside me and admire perfection on four hooves. He gave a low whistle.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “Becca Scissorhands.” Who had no business within a mile of this horse, let alone riding her. Becca’s boots were sweaty, and she tapped her whip against her leg. She’d already been up on this piece of heaven, and it hadn’t gone well. “A crime’s about to happen, and they don’t even know.”
“See?” the boy said, turning to Becca. “She’s fine.”
Becca crossed her arms, clearly unconvinced. Maybe intelligence lurked behind the sneer after all.
The mare felt the moment of her handler’s inattention and stopped. Becca stomped toward her. The mare backed. Becca grabbed the lunge line as if she might pull the horse down to her level and give her what for, but the dark bay continued backpedaling.
“Whoa,” I whispered, as if I were at her shoulder, and I began walking without even realizing what I was doing. “Easy now.”
Becca advanced, and the mare took one step, two…Becca’s whip came up. The mare wheeled her front end to the side nearly jerking the girl off her feet.
“No,” I shouted, but before Becca could lay the lash across the mare’s silky hide, the horse reared, pulled the line out of the boy’s hands, and took off for the other end of the show grounds.
At the far side of the field, not much of a fence separated us from a busy road. The line snapped in the air behind her, but if she slowed, it might get around her feet. I threw down my cup and started running.
“Turn,” I telegraphed to her. “Circle back. It’ll be all right.” I would make it all right. But, oh, God, the running hurt my sore head.
I heard Harry’s long strides catching up. Farther back, Becca screamed at the boy, but her words were lost to the bitter wind.
The mare cut loose with a series of irritated leaps and bucks and got one foreleg over the line. I pushed more speed into my legs, ignoring the kettle drum beat of blood in my ears, but the distance between us only lengthened. On foot, I could never catch a galloping horse. Had to try. “Whoa, girl, whoa. Turn.”
The fence came closer, and I couldn’t tell whether she didn’t see it or didn’t care. Like Wastrel galloping for that last jump. Fear, raw and overwhelming, seized my gut and nearly took me down.
“Please,” I breathed. “Stop.”
I could barely see for the watering of my eyes, but she might have slowed. My arms pumped but I felt light-headed and fuzzy and no longer in touch with the ground.
Suddenly, she stopped and faced me, and I nearly ran into her. Quickly, I unsnapped the lunge line and kicked it away, then undid her reins from where they’d been looped under the throat latch. She stood as if we’d done this a hundred times, and I felt like we had. Felt like we knew each other at a soul-deep level. Like I hadn’t felt with a horse since Wastrel.
“Good girl,” I crooned, and she nudged my shoulder, nostrils flaring, blowing warm air over my cheeks. I loosed a long breath of relief, pressed my forehead to her cheek, stroked her damp neck. Like satin, she was, steel-wrapped satin. With one hand, I unbuckled the girth, shoved the saddle off, and ran my palm over her back. She flinched. Just as I thought.
We stood like that forever, as if she hadn’t just nearly killed herself. I felt Harry come up, but he stayed silent. Other footsteps and labored breathing behind me, but I kept my connection with the mare, her with me, our hearts beating as one.
“Well, if it isn’t Vi the valkyrie.”
This post is already long enough. Suffice it to say, I ended up with this magnificent horse. If you want to read the rest of the story, called Cold Backed, Candace has it available to her newsletter subscribers.
Join me tomorrow for D is for Duded up.
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