His phone buzzed where it sat face down on the old trunk that served as a coffee table. He picked it up, glanced at the screen, and his face scrunched into concern. “Oh dear,” he muttered.
“Is everything all right? Is it your parents?”
“No, it’s Joshua, the guy I’m riding hunters for on Sunday. His jumper rider came down with mono. She can’t go.”
“Mono? Is she…?”
“A teenager? Yes. Feeling old, old friend? I feel ya, believe me. Luckily, Joshua appreciates experience.” He patted his chest. “Unfortunately for me, his jumper is all he really cares about, so if he’s riderless, Joshua won’t go to the show at all. The hunters are more of an afterthought.”
Harry’s eyes snagged mine with an avid gleam. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Nope. Not doing it.”
“What’s the matter? Lost your mojo?”
I closed my pizza box, reserving the last pieces for breakfast. Millie moved from my lap to the trunk and began grooming her paws. She could feign indifference, but if I didn’t put the box away, she’d paw it open and lick all the cheese off of what was left.
“Not at all,” I answered Harry. “It’s just not what I’m here for.”
“There’s a speed class.”
My favorite, and he knew it.
“Plus…” He let the thought trail off as if he’d lost interest.
“You’d be doing me a huge favor, V,” he said in a rush. “I’m trying to rebuild my street cred. Joshua is the only one who’s given me a chance. It will be our first show together, and I’m hoping for a long and profitable relationship. I can demonstrate the hunters are worth his time.”
It’s not like Harry had to work. He’d burned through his trust fund years before, but Allie-Baba supported him no matter what. If he wanted to buy this farm, they would do it. I stood and filled my mug with water. More coffee was not what I needed. Like it or not, I had to sleep.
He continued, “If I bring you to Joshua, he’ll be ever so grateful.”
Harry’s best interests were never far from his thoughts.
“Only if his jumper wins,” I said.
“Which he will, with you on him.”
I stared out the window over the sink. The view was of the riding ring where standards and rails were still set up in a simple course. When had it last been used? Paint had peeled off the rails, and part of the coup had rotted making it lower on one side than the other, but I’d told Miko not to touch any of it. Leaving all that wood out in the weather wasn’t good, but Ed had put it up. Near blind, he’d still been able to set the right distances. I couldn’t bear to take it down.
Squelching a twinge of regret, I returned to the present and asked, “Is he any good—the jumper?”
Harry came to stand beside me. “Let me put it this way, if the teeny bopper can navigate a course on him and pick up a ribbon here and there…”
“A push-button ride?” I asked. Not that he had to be for me to figure him out.
Harry shrugged. “He likes what he does.”
“Why don’t you ride him?
“Vi, come on. You know jumpers aren’t my thing. That’s your world.”
We stared at each other while a smile began on Harry’s handsome face.
It was one more day, and there were bound to be people I knew at the show. Maybe someone would be willing to sit the farm until I could come for the horses. Or maybe even rent it until I figured out what to do. I’d return to Winterlight on Monday in time to complete my year.
But still, did I want to ride a strange horse at the same show grounds where Wastrel crashed? He kept taking me there in the dreams. Was that what he was trying to tell me? That I had to return to where my downward spiral began? Maybe it was just what I needed to finally expel him from my nights.
Have I mentioned I can talk myself into anything?
I said, “I don’t have anything to wear.”
His smile widened. For a moment, I felt bedazzled, just as when I first fell under his spell. I shook myself.
“We can fix that,” he said.
He led me into the next room, one used mostly for storage, but it had some old lockers for the boarders, when there had been boarders. Dust and soot coated every surface. The fire had been in the main part of the barn, started in the ancient fuse box due to mouse-chewed wiring, according to the investigation, but smoke had gone everywhere. I’d taken the curtains down in the lounge last fall because they stank of it. Miko had obviously been in and out of there, but it didn’t look like anyone had been in this room for months. I sneezed.
Harry went down the line of lockers, lifting the latch and opening each door. The familiar clack and squeak reminded me of unhappy high-school days. The first one was empty. The second had a hair brush, mirror, and bobby pins on the shelf. A bucket of leg wraps sat at the bottom. A large ragged hoodie of indeterminate color hung on one hook. The contents of the next included an old but decent pair of black paddock boots, too small for me, with matching half chaps folded on the shelf above.
I began to feel like Goldilocks, anticipating the item that would be just right even though the reek of smoke had no doubt permeated this area as well.
The fourth locker held matching garment and boot bags. The initials KAS were monogrammed onto the blue plaid of each. My eyebrow lifted in curiosity. “Who would leave all this here?”
“Remember the three Ks?” Harry asked.
The three boarders—teenaged girls—had kept their horses at Ed’s a few years ago. They were all blonde and sickeningly adorable, with names like Kayla, Kaitlyn, and Kaylee, or maybe one of them was Kylie or Kelsey.
“Grounded, Flighty, and Spacey?” That’s what I had called them. They’d paid their board on time, been kind to Ed, and were good to their horses. Which meant I’d tolerated them when I had to be at the farm at the same time they were. “One of them left this here?”
“You know teenaged girls.”
“I guess, but how did you know about it?”
“I used to visit Ed occasionally.”
Other than the time Harry supposedly came looking for his lost stock pin, this was news to me. After that visit, the heavy trunk in the tack room had been shifted out of place causing Ed to trip over it, konk his head, and knock himself out. I’d found him barely coherent, lying in a puddle of spilled tea with a big knot on his forehead.
“Since I went to Missouri? Really?”
“Maybe it was only once or twice. Anyway, one of those times he mentioned they’d all moved on to college. Their parents sold their horses and tack, but they all left some stuff here for him to do with as he pleased. He never could be bothered to do anything.”
I reached for the garment bag. It was made of waterproof material which gave me hope whatever was inside might have been protected. Two of the girls were petite, but Kayla, the one I remembered best and called Grounded, she’d been about my size.
Harry unzipped both bags with a flourish worthy of Vanna White. On the hanger were tan breeches, a white show shirt, and hunter green jacket. The boots were black Spanish tops, barely worn. I held one up to the bottom of my foot. A half size too big, but they might do for a single day.
Harry’s limpid eyes were sparkling, doing stupid things to my tummy.
“Say yes, V. It will be like the really good old days.” He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Before.”
He meant when the future had promised nothing but glittering success. Before Wastrel killed himself and sent me to intensive care. Before Heidi got tangled in her pony’s legs because of a prank and died in my arms.
Before depression, self-medication, zero prospects.
Despite all that had happened since the really good old days, our shared history made Harry’s company reassuring, restful. Other than Ed, he was the only person who truly understood what I’d been through.
I rubbed the jacket’s lapel, the high-tech material slick between my thumb and fingers. I could already feel the reins in my hands, smell the sweat of the horse beneath me, hear the beat of his hooves, see the distance to the first jump.
It was only one more day. It would be good for me.
“Okay,” I heard myself say. “I’ll do it.”
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