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The truth is, my parents are alive. Pretending they’re dead makes their absence in my life tolerable. When the letter came from their attorney—crap—who would have guessed they had a lawyer? Anyway, it was like they were dead because it referred to money I might receive, “amount undisclosed.” That was just like them. Jesus. Amount undisclosed. What the hell was that supposed to mean? It could be five dollars for cripe’s sake.
I tightened my horse’s girth from where I sat in the saddle, and she swished her tail in irritation, tossed her head.
We both needed a good gallop.
The letter said my parents had “made arrangements.” That’s a thinly-veiled Dad euphemism for “here’s what I want you to do, and I’ve fixed it so you have to.” He always gets his way. I went along like an idiot—hadn’t seen or heard from them in years, and I still went along.
I’m like a dog. I can say that because I have a dog—Noire—running alongside. Doesn’t matter how I treat her—and
I treat her good—she’d be happy to see me.
Always hopeful. That’s what it was. I was hoping this time they’d finally come through for me—that it would be more than five dollars.
I can talk myself into anything.
This was the situation: In the next month, on May first, I would be twenty-nine years old. The letter from an attorney said there was this trust fund for me. To get it, I had to keep a job for one year by the time I was thirty—even a job working with horses—and I had to leave with a glowing letter of recommendation. That goes to show they were still keeping tabs on me, probably through my uncle. God forbid I should know where they were or what they were doing.
We hit the straight stretch and I gave Cali her head. She eased into gallop.
My first mistake was telling my cousin, Penny, about the letter. She’s more like my sister since my aunt and uncle raised me, and I lived with Pen and her husband, Frank. She’d shifted into gear, scoured the want ads of all my horse magazines, sent out my resume, and came up with a doozey of a job for me.
Penny had sat one wide hip on the edge of the bed and flipped her long, dark hair over her shoulder. “You have to do something, Vi,” she said. “You haven’t kept a job for more than a few months solid ever.”
She didn’t have to remind me. The breaks between had become longer. It was getting so I could hardly keep Cali in hay. If it weren’t for the tolerance of Penny and Frank, I’d have had to sell the nag.
“Penny,” I’d said. “I ride horses, fancy show horses, remember? The kind that jump really big jumps for really big money. I do not give trail rides.”
“It’ll be a nice break for you. All that competition is stressful.”
Stressful. Yeah, right. What was stressful was the owners. All they cared about was winning, not whether their horses were happy or healthy or even ready for the next level. Penny knew all about the blowup with my last client over his horse. He says he fired me, but I walked out because I wouldn’t make his horse do something that would get one or both of us hurt. And I don’t mean the owner.
I tried a different tack. “Yeah, but Missouri? For cripe’s sake, Pen, what do they have out there, corn fields?”
“I’m sure they do have corn fields. But St. Louis is a big city. They have baseball, museums, a good symphony …”
Crap. Penny is thorough. She’d done her homework, and she is always reasonable. I’m not. It’s a bad habit. Can you really expect reasonableness from someone with a name like Viola? Jesus. It’s the twenty-first century.
“Like I’ll have time for the symphony when I’m taking care of twenty hack horses and who knows how many boarders and…I’m not teaching riding lessons, right? You told them I don’t teach?”
She nodded, and I continued without taking a breath. “Anyway, you know I don’t care about sports, and I’m not going to be anywhere near St. Louis. How could you do this to me?”
“I have not done it to you. I’ve done it for you.”
She’d raised her voice. She was folding laundry and snapped the life out of a couple of pillowcases by way of calming herself before continuing.
“You’ll be a little over an hour from St. Louis. It takes that long to get to Manhattan, so don’t make such a big deal about it. You hardly ever go into the city anyway. Now get going, before they change their minds or you run out of time.”
I had used every excuse I could think of. Penny overrode all of them. She’s not usually bossy, but had reached her limit, being pregnant. They needed my room for a nursery. I wouldn’t have a home to come back to when the year was up.
So, I made plans to haul myself and Noire and Cali to Winterlight, the Malcolm family’s public riding stable out in God’s country, for a year of keeping their horses fit for fox hunting, giving trail rides, and “helping out around the farm.” That, I knew, could be anything. I hoped they didn’t expect me to milk cows or slop hogs or anything like that. Working at a hack barn was low enough.
I ride jumpers, and I’m good at it. When I get in the saddle, some channel opens that is closed to most others. I used to get paid well to jump horses around grand-prix courses with jumps so high it would make your hair stand on end. It put me in a zone of some kind where nothing could touch us—if I was on a horse I knew was ready, a horse that could do it. If I was on a horse that wasn’t ready, I’d get a sick feeling in my stomach and do my best to find a way out of it.
When the unthinkable happened because I didn’t listen to my gut—a deadly crash at a square oxer in the middle of a difficult triple combination that left a gelding with great heart in a heap and having to be put down, when that happened, and I went to the emergency room with a fractured sternum and more bruises and contusions and sprains than I could count, and I spent several days in intensive care on a respirator, only to hobble out to face a law suit from the irate owner who demanded I push his horse beyond his limits, I quit for a while and tried giving lessons.
Made me wish they had put me down.
Maybe a year of forced trail riding would be a good break. I would do my time and get the glowing letter of recommendation.
Before I left Long Island, Penny made me promise not to “smart off,” drink, or get involved with my boss. Maybe she was right, but I only smarted off because the people I worked with were such idiots. The drinking thing I have under control. And Harry, well, who could resist Harry? Apparently no one, male or female. Harry didn’t discriminate that way either. I don’t like to share, so it was best to move on.
I pulled into the drive of Winterlight toward late afternoon on the last Saturday of April, and stopped. The ground rose and the road topped a hill, blocking my view of the place. A light cloud of dust hovered beyond the hilltop—probably someone riding in a dry arena.
Nothing said I had to do it. Nothing said I had to collect the mysterious trust fund.
The problem was a child. That’s why I stopped with the engine idling roughly, Noire eyeing me expectantly, and Cali pawing the floor of the trailer. They wanted to get out and run. I wanted to get out and run the other way.
There was a child at Winterlight. I’d managed to avoid thinking about it all the way there. The girl of eight was just learning to ride. Penny told them I don’t teach, and they said that was okay, I didn’t have to give her lessons. The point was, she would be around, the child and her pony. I’d have to watch her ride.
I rested my forehead against the steering wheel, but the engine jerked so bad, I feared a bruise, so I leaned back, and rubbed my hands over my face. I was road-weary and really needed to stretch my legs, take a shower, go for a ride, anything.
I didn’t have to baby-sit; I would find something else to do when she rode. She wouldn’t be my responsibility. No, I would not let the dangerous mix of young children and riding get in my way. I would work hard, take good care of the horses, and keep my head down.
Like I said, I can talk myself into anything.
A long board-and-batten barn stood on the left. A second story at the other end was probably the apartment where I would live. A shed stuck out over a six-horse gooseneck trailer. On the far side stretched the biggest pasture I’d ever seen. Several horses grazed in its four-board confines. Somewhere beyond the barn, over on the other side of my apartment, was the cause of the dust. I couldn’t see the riding ring, but could just tell several people were trotting around in a circle, probably taking a lesson.
It wasn’t too late to turn around. The New York plates might be a giveaway, but maybe no one had noticed. To my right, another field rolled out of sight, this one fenced in wire, with—oh crap—cows. The drive continued another hundred yards up to an old farmhouse. The sun lowered itself behind the two-story, white home, casting shadows in my direction, but I could make out a man and a woman—Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm, I supposed—coming at me, chasing a cow. Have I mentioned I don’t like cows? Nothing personal, they don’t strike me as the most intelligent animals ever created.
Mr. Malcolm waved. That was it. I was made, stuck in Missouri for a year. And right in front of me came my first chance to show how helpful I could be. I shut down the hot engine. It wheezed with relief. When I stepped out, Noire bounced off the seat behind me. She’d never seen a cow, but I figured she could handle it.
A gate hung open in the cow field fence, so I assumed that’s where they wanted this big, black one. I could block the escape and shoo her in. Couldn’t be much different from corralling a loose horse.
From behind me, I heard voices and the sound of steel-shod feet on concrete—the horses being led in to the barn from the ring. With a glance over my shoulder, I counted five horses in need of a bath coming up the aisle and getting clipped onto crossties. Clipped right to their bits. Crap. That was an accident waiting to happen. Grime coated their sweaty necks and filled the crevices above their eyes.
“Hey,” yelled a big woman crammed into black jeans, a pink camouflage sports bra, and high-top sneakers, “the new girl’s here.”
The new girl? Guess that was me. I returned to the bovine situation.
Mr. Malcolm, a short, bow-legged guy swathed in denim, shook a stick at the cow to keep it moving, and Mrs. Malcolm, who was a freaking Amazon in a plaid skirt, shouted something I couldn’t hear. Jesus. Am I in the Midwest, or what? Noire barked at the cow, who considered, head lowered. I shouted my dog back and stepped toward the beast. She grunted, I lobbed a clod of dried horse manure at her, and she tossed her head up, thought better of whatever was passing through her pathetic little brain, then shuffled through the opening to join her herd mates. I shut the gate.
“Hope that’s where you wanted her,” I said as the Malcolms came up. On closer inspection, I saw the person I thought was Mrs. Malcolm was a man in a plaid skirt.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at me.
This was a bad start. I swallowed my sarcastic tone and said, “Helping?”
The little guy looked away quick to hide a smile. He had a face like a tattered linen shirt left too long balled up in the bottom of a drawer, but the grin ironed the wrinkles from his cheeks. The big guy’s skin tightened like my old trainer’s face used to when I didn’t ride the way he liked. His light-brown hair picked up the last traces of sunlight in golden sparks.
“Do all easterners think they walk on water, or do you know something about bulls we don’t?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small crowd gathered in front of the barn—five riders and a sixth person I assumed was their instructor. An audience. Was it too late to crawl into my truck and slither away?
The man in the skirt didn’t control the sarcasm in his voice, so I really had to breathe deeply to keep from saying something I shouldn’t. Did he say bull?
“Did you say bull?”
“Christ,” he muttered. He slapped one hand up to his big, square jaw—he needed a shave—fingers on one cheek, thumb on the other, and drew his hand down his face in obvious frustration. He addressed his companion who so far had said nothing. “My new manager doesn’t know the difference between a heifer and a bull.”
I glanced from one to the other. Obviously, the big guy was Mr. Malcolm. I leaned back to get a better look at him, skirt and all. It was a kilt, actually. I knew that much. A well-worn one. Great legs. Never thought I’d find a man in a skirt attractive, but this guy would look good in a tutu—Pen’s third rule came to mind: Don’t get involved with the boss.
I stuck out my hand to shake. “Mr. Malcolm?”
He regarded me critically, the way I had done him, then took my hand. I squeezed hard—my hands are strong—and before he could say anything else, I added, nice as could be, “You hired me to take care of your horses, not your cows.”
The little guy snorted, and the beginnings of an appreciative smile played at the corners of Mr. Malcolm’s wide mouth.
He shook my hand. “That I did. You’ll be Miss Viola Parker, then. Welcome to Winterlight.”
A smattering of applause greeted me when I turned around, so I bowed. Sheesh.
At that moment, one of the horses in the aisle squealed like it had been bit, I heard the smack of a hoof connecting with flesh, another squeal. The horses in the field lifted their heads. A couple whinnied, and they all trotted over to see what was up. My radar went on full alert. There was a loose horse in the barn and no one else had noticed.
What was this? A peep show? Jesus. Action, please. It happened so fast; my audience still had all eyes on me, their backs to the impending disaster.
At the other end of the aisle, a chestnut head come up, another horse shifted sideways and the one causing the havoc, a small gray, ducked under one crosstie, then another, coming our way, gaining speed. The little palomino in front flattened her ears and let go with both barrels as the gray snuck by, his reins broken and tangled around one leg, whites of his eyes glowing. The palomino’s shot missed and hit a stall door with a bang. Everyone jumped.
“Get back,” I yelled to the group, and I ran forward, putting myself between them and the gray. “Whoa,” I said for the gray’s ears alone. Noire stayed near, blocking the driveway. I dug in my pants pocket—I always have a piece of carrot or some kernels of corn or something in there, and if not, I could fake it to get close enough.
Cali whinnied and shifted in the trailer, catching the gray’s attention for a moment. In the next, I had the rein and was at his shoulder. Blood seeped from a hoof-shaped cut on his forearm. “Whoa, whoa now, it’s all right,” I said, running my hand down his leg to pick up his foot and untangle the broken strand of leather. He answered Cali and danced sideways. I stayed with him, leaning into his shoulder and squeezing his ankle. He bent his knee, and I untangled the rein.
Mr. Malcolm stood behind me. I hadn’t seen him move, but I knew he was there. He put his hand on the gray’s nose. Long fingers. Dirt under the nails. No wedding ring.
“Okay Smitty, show’s over. Renee, why don’t you take Smitty around the back and hose him off? We’ll figure out what to do with his bridle later.”
A tall black woman with short gray hair took Smitty.
“He’ll need that kick hosed for a while to keep it from swelling,” I said to Mr. Malcolm. “And horses should always have their bridles removed and their halters put on before they get put in crossties.”
He looked at me for a long moment, not smiling, not frowning, sandy brows ever-so-slightly drawn together, questioning maybe—maybe if I knew him better I could tell. I read horses better than I read people.
“You’re the boss,” he said after a time.
Real soft like. Like a caress, seductive as the velvety down on a horse’s muzzle.
Then he turned toward those who remained. “Norman?”
The man I took to be the instructor came forward, and Mr. Malcolm spoke quietly, but not at all the way he hadjust spoken to me. Now, there were sharp nails in his voice.
“Why are the horses cross tied to their bits? Please make sure their bridles are removed and their halters put on first.”
Norman slouched off without acknowledging the order. Oh, Malcolm had said “please,” but it was an order, no doubt about it. Why hadn’t I paid closer attention when Penny described his background? All I knew was that he was a mostly absentee owner, which suited me fine.