Sneak Peak from Book 2!

Chapter 1 

“You stole my horse!”

The accusation came bellowing down my barn, bouncing off the metal walls as I tucked my newest addition, Bon Voyage VH, into his stall. Patting the bay horse’s neck to calm him, I made sure not to react as I unbuckled his halter and let him free to look around. Only once I was sure he would be fine, did I close the stall door and turn to face the newcomer.

            “Emily Reed. How nice to see you again.” I faked a smile as I greeted the woman storming towards me with a large frown. I hadn’t expected this confrontation, but I knew it was a possibility when I took the talented dressage horse and client on. Emily was hot-headed and young, which, in this case, was code for immature and unprofessional. Her storming into my barn to yell at me about a client’s decision only proved this. Way to be a cliché, Emily.

            “YOU STOLE MY HORSE!” Her voice raised another octave, which would’ve been impressive had she not also poked my chest before stepping into my personal space.

Really? Did she think she would fight me? Please. We were both obsessed with riding to the exclusion of all else. She knew no more about self-defense than I did. Which, as I had learned recently, wasn’t much. Turned out punching someone hurt a lot. Life lesson learned.

            Emily had the bleached blonde hair that I found common at the top levels of competing in the U.S. where looks tended to matter just as much as talent. We had run into each other a few times on the show circuit, but she believed she was an up-and-coming star and I was just a proven ‘no-one’, clinging to the middle ground between international level competition and a good record at high-level shows. At the time, I excused her arrogance. I remembered a time when I, too, was stupid enough to make the same mistake, back before life and divorce had beat it out of me. Now, I was struggling not to match her unprofessional behavior with some of my own.

“One, I didn’t steal anything. Your ex-client came to me. I didn’t even transport him. Abigail had him brought by a third party, the one you had to have passed coming in. Two, this is my place of work and I try to conduct myself with some decorum within its walls. You might think about doing the same.” Lies, all lies. I was rarely professional, and I didn’t have more than a passing relationship with decorum, so despite my calm tone, I was seething at the attack. I used my shoulder to push her aside and walked into my tack room, hesitating when I realized I still had Bon’s halter and lead rope in my hands. Well, I wasn’t going back to the stall with Emily here, so it would have to hang next to the bridles for now. I hung it before I turned to face her again, rolling my eyes at her hovering frown.

“He is mine, Lark! I have been training him and taking care of him and… everything! Abby doesn’t even know what to do with him. How could she have told you everything? How could she do this without telling me?”

“You are here now. You can tell me all those things.” I wasn’t touching her relationship with Abby.

“No. No! You can’t. You can’t just take him. You can’t steal my horse. You can’t just… just… take him. I need him back. I need him back now.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Emily. Abby made her choice—”

“He is MINE, Lark. I picked him out. I did the training. I raised him! She can’t just… She can’t! How could you steal him?” Oh, for goodness sakes! She sounded like she raised him from a colt instead of just flying him over from Europe a few years ago with Abby footing the bill. Already mostly trained. ‘Raised him’ indeed. I should get a medal for not yelling at her.

“For the last time, I didn’t steal anything. Abigail called me two weeks ago and asked if I had a spot in my barn for him. You’ll need to take it up with her if you want to know why. I only do what the client wants.” Walking over to the dirty bridles from my morning rides, I started cleaning them, refusing to get a horse out while Emily was here. Only Twice, my daughter’s mare, was left, anyway. Anything to delay that ride a little longer. On second thought, how long could Emily keep it up? Could I put it off until my lesson got here? No, I was better than that. Maybe.

“Hey Lark! There’s a red truck blocking the…” Missy’s voice dropped off when she saw the confrontation between us. Missy, my student-slash-worker-slash-slave, slid to a stop when she saw Emily, nervously grabbing her brown ponytail and bringing it over her shoulder to fiddle with. Missy was training with me to work her way up the levels while she helped me manage my barn. Her brown eyes got wide as she took in the two of us.

I stopped cleaning and turned to Emily with a frown.

“You blocked in the transport truck? Really?” Ok, enough was enough.  “Emily, I have clients due here in an hour for a lesson. Abigail has made her decision and yelling at me does nothing but make you look bad. And driving an hour and a half out of San Francisco to Barrow Bay, California, is even worse. I didn’t go out to steal your client. Your scores were slipping. Your last few shows were unimpressive. You had to see this coming. Abigail said she would tell you this was coming.”

 In fact, Abby had assured me she would deal with breaking the news to Emily herself, but I had to admit this wouldn’t be the first time that a client avoided confrontation by ‘forgetting’ to tell the old trainer. In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought Abby would be any different. I sighed. “I’m sorry if she didn’t, but it isn’t my fault, nor can I afford to turn down clients because you under-performed on your best horse.” Oops. That last part was supposed to be trying for conciliatory. I would have to work on that later.

“Under-performed? UNDER-PERFORMED? You don’t know what you’re talking about. I put in years of strong performances, only to have her pull him after a few bad scores. I’m going to be on the Olympic team one day.”

And yet I just put your only Olympic quality horse in my barn… guess it would not be in the next few years. Maybe the next one.

“Well, good luck with that, Emily.” I shouldn’t rub it in about the horse. Self-control. “Let me show you out so the transport truck can leave.” I moved towards her, copying her earlier move, only, unlike me, she gave ground and moved towards the front of the barn. After two backward steps, she turned and, with one final dirty look, stalked towards the door.

“This isn’t over! Everyone will know what you did!”

“Ok, bye! Have a nice drive home,” I called out after her with a friendly wave. “Shiitake Shrew.” Well, at least I waited until she was out of hearing to swear. Or not-swear, as the case may be.

“Oh Lark. You need to work on that potty mouth,” Missy commented, with a shake of her head.

“Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated. Also, have you tried to find a replacement for the b-word? Nothing works as well. It’s unfortunate. And I’m not saying ‘Beeyotch’ or whatever it is people say now. Nope.” I shook my head at her. “And just you wait. One day you will have a child who will parrot every bad word you say back to everyone they know, and I will laugh when you start using creative non-swear words, too.”

“Please! I’m never having kids.”

“Please!” I mocked. “You think when I was 18, I thought I would have kids? Or that I would actually have one at 23?” I snorted as I went to put Bon’s halter where it was supposed to be and grabbed Twice. “Life doesn’t consult you sometimes. Oh, and birth control can fail. Be prepared.”

“Not really an issue right now.” She returned with a grimace.

“I thought you went on a date last week.”

“We went to the McDonalds in Misne. A McDonalds, Lark!” She shook her head as she grabbed a grooming tool to help me clean Twice. “He didn’t even pay for everything. I’m done dating boys from the town. I’m going to go get me a city boy, like you did.”

I winced at the reminder.

“I don’t know if what we’re doing counts as dating. We’re just friends.” When Detective Brecken of the San Francisco Police Department, also known as Captain America by those of us within the town, left the town after his case wrapped up — one that started with me getting body parts — I was elated for two days. Too elated. Two whole days of thinking we had chemistry. Two days to get my hopes up. Then two weeks of a few texts and even fewer calls left me disappointed and having several conversations with myself about how my expectations needed to be lower. Substantially. That didn’t stop my hopes from rising every time I did get a text.

But after my last marriage, I was done being ignored by men, especially for their job, and Brecken was a workaholic. It didn’t help that I couldn’t argue against him working all the time since he was saving lives and solving crimes, both very important things. But I still felt ignored, or at least, not equally invested in our possible relationship. It didn’t help that I felt like he was hiding something from me.

I had also found that communication mostly through text messages was difficult when my main communication style was sarcasm with a side of wit. It turned out, sarcasm did not come out right. At all. Then, when we did trade texts, I spent hours afterward trying to figure out what he meant. Dating wasn’t for the weak. Or texting, for that matter. But my heart still wished he would suddenly be over the top, Hollywood-style infatuated. My anxiety was happy with our current speed. I was conflicted. 

“At least he was hot. Could he kiss? Please tell me you kissed him?”

Ha! I knew better than to answer this question. Or, at least I did, now. When Jen, my best friend, asked, I told her the truth, which then led to two weeks of her bemoaning not knowing if he could kiss. Not knowing was a ‘crime against women everywhere’, according to her. I, however, was pretty sure many women had sampled him in his 32 years. My lack of sampling wasn’t affecting women-kind as a whole.

I lied when Gran asked, and said yes, but made the mistake of saying that he was a bad kisser. That went even worse. I didn’t know that many articles have been written on how to teach a man to kiss.

“I’m sure your mother doesn’t want me talking about my sex life, or lack of it, with you.”

“Oh please. You just told me birth control fails. I think we’re past that.”

“I’m sure your mother supports anything that scares you into abstinence.”

“It failed.”

“I tried.” I shrugged. I had done my best.

“I noticed you still didn’t answer if he can kiss.”

“That’s because I’m not going to.” I stuck my tongue out at her before I threw the saddle over Twice’s back and attached the girth. “Jill will be here soon. Can you help her get tacked up for her lesson? Then you can go home for the day.”

“Will do. Have a good ride, boss.” She saluted me incorrectly, only using three fingers and her elbow dropped too low, before sauntering away.

“Don’t call me boss!” I called after her. “It makes me feel old.”

“That’s because you are!”

“I hate you! Why do I let you hang around here?”

“Because you hate clipping horses in the winter.”

“Good point. Call me what you want.” I would put up with just about anything to not have to body clip their hair or shave my horses. During the winter any sweat in the undercoat that didn’t dry could make them sick. Removing the hair by shaving it like a hairy dog in summer, was safer for the horse and easier for the rider, but horse hair had an amazing talent to get into places that should not be spoken of out loud. Anyone who had the option avoided shaving.  Grabbing the mare’s bridle, I slipped the bit into her mouth before leading her out. Time to put my training where my mouth was.

*****

When I got home that night, my daughter, Hailey, greeted me at the door. I just finished saying goodnight to Gran when she jumped out at me.

“Can I go to Dad’s this weekend?”

“Umm…” Could I get in the door before I had to make decisions? Hailey’s wide, pleading eyes indicated no.

“There’s another festival, like the one I went to with Dad and I want to go again. Jennie wanted to go and couldn’t, so I got to tell everyone about it, and so I want to go again, because her parents said no, and—”

“Wait! Her parents said no? Why would they say no?” I was starting to have a sinking hunch I should have paid more attention to the festival the first time around.

“Because Jazz is the Devil’s music.”

“Ok, then.” I needed to limit how much access Jennie’s parents had to my child. “Yeah, I think—”

 “And they had a major drug bust at the last one.”

“What!” I was going to kill my ex. “What do you mean they had a drug bust?”

“It was so cool! The cops came in and tackled this guy to the ground and then his friends got in on the act—” My hand swung up to stop her words. No. I didn’t need any more information.

Killing wasn’t good enough for him.

“I need to call your father.” And my lawyer.

“You can’t! I promised him I wouldn’t tell you. You wouldn’t make a liar out of me, would you?” She even gave me a quivering lower lip along with her puppy-dog eyes. It wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t remembered the reason she was there in the first place: I had been getting body parts delivered to my door, thanks to our crazy ex-cafe owner, and couldn’t bring her home until it was safe. Fudge buckets.

“No festival, but I won’t tell your dad you told me, and you can go to his house Saturday. My final offer.” Stupid divorce agreement. Why had I made the promise that I wouldn’t stop her from seeing him if she wanted to?

“Moooom. That was your only offer.” My child. Seven years old and already a smart aleck. I was so proud.

“Dinner! Then you can watch TV before bed.” I moved past her to reach the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring into the abyss looking for anything I might be able to mix together. Dinner… dinner… how bad of a parent was I if I gave her cereal?

“I have homework.”

Huh? Oh. Yeah. Homework. Good for her. 

“That’s what I meant. You can watch TV after your homework.” Why did they give seven-year-olds homework? How much did a seven-year-old need to learn? And why couldn’t it be done during school hours, so all I had to do with her was the fun stuff? It seemed less like homework for her, and more forced parental engagement. I looked at the fridge again. I really was too tired to cook. “How do you feel about cereal for dinner?” She looked at me like she was eighty.

“I want carrots. And hummus. Oh! And tea.”

“You spend too much time with your great-grandmother,” I grumbled.

“I take that as a compliment.” She sniffed and raised her nose in the air in a very familiar manner. Great. I was raising a more sarcastic version of Gran. Good luck world.

“You say that now…” I muttered under my breath as I reached in and grabbed the hummus and carrots, sliding them over to her. So long as she was eating healthy, who was I to judge? I still grabbed the cereal, complete with marshmallows, and ate it, as my seven-year-old munched on carrots. Because I was an adult like that. “So how was school?”

“School.”

Hmm. Usually my seven-year-old talked a lot.

Wait. I liked this version better. Maybe.

After a few seconds of silence, she threw me a bone. “How was work?”

“Got a new horse in training.”

“The fancy one?”

“Yep.”

“So, you are going to be doing a lot of shows this season?”

“The owner’s plan is to throw him at every international level show we can, so yeah. You going to be okay with that?”

“Do I get to stay with Dad when you’re gone?”

Not anymore, she didn’t. Drug busts around my child. She’d only stay with him if it was my last choice. Or the divorce agreement made me. Which it did. Fudge buckets. Luckily, it wasn’t often.

“Maybe. Depends on school. You don’t mind staying with Gran, right?”

“Nope. Why did they ask you to show it?” Her earnest face took the sting out of the question although it still smarted a little.

“Bon – that’s the horse – had three really bad shows in a row at the end of last year. The owner felt that the trainer was having trouble unlocking the horse’s true potential. Even stated that the horse seemed to regress starting about five months ago. So, she asked around about where I had moved and contacted me to see if I could do better.”

“So, this is important?”

Yep. As in this could make or break my business, but I couldn’t tell her that.

“A little. I know I can do what they want. I just have to find out why the horse isn’t performing well,” I smiled at her, covering my nerves. “How could I fail with such a great cheering section?”

She smiled back at me. “I know you’ll be good.”

“Thank you, Hailey Bailey.” We beamed at each other before she frowned and looked down to the table where paper had gathered while I wasn’t looking. It was like evil magic. One moment food, the next, homework.

“I still need help with my homework.”

Ugh.

“Is it too late to get a different cheering section? There has to be one without homework.”

“Mooom!”

“Fine. Fine. Homework it is.”

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