“Good.”Melanie almost laughed, but she caught herself, too tired to really force the sound out of her lungs anyway. Instead she nodded and loosened the girth of the little bay colt she’d just ridden. He was one of the three-year-olds just getting used to a saddle and weight, so she’d used her English tack on him.
It was just after noon and the sun was an oppressive, heavy ball in the middle of the sky, pressing down on them. She’d ridden all morning, this colt the last ride of the day, and after all that time, all Dan had to say was “good”.
“Thanks.” She ran the stirrup up and rolled the leather beneath it, securing it in place, and looped the reins over the colt’s head. “Come on, dude,” she patted his sweaty neck and started for the gate. Dan stood at the rail, his crutches propped against the fence, a white-knuckled hand gripping the top board. He stared at the empty arena and stayed motionless while Mel led the gelding back toward the barn.
It had been like this the past three days. All Dan’s snark and hostility had been replaced with a resolute indifference. He gave minimal instructions in a bored tone, standing immobile at the fence, looking about as happy as a man who’d been told he was cripple, rather than one who only had a short recovery before he was back to his old self.Mel wasn’t sure which version of him she liked less: the asshole, or the mute.
“How’d he do?” Toto asked as he came out of the barn to take the colt from her.“He did…” she didn’t want to use Dan’s word, “…really well,” she finished, unsnapping her helmet and shaking out her choppy blonde locks. Sweat had molded them to her head. “Better than the other two.”
“They’ll come around,” he assured. “This your last ride of the day.”
“Yeah.”“How’s Dan doing?” He leaned forward when he said it, his voice dropping to just above a whisper. For some reason, the question surprised her.
Mel pivoted at the waist and stared across the gravel drive to the arena where Dan still stood, his crutches still propped up against the rail. She hadn’t known him that long, and certainly not well, but it was odd to see him looking almost…helpless. “I dunno,” she admitted. “I think he’s taking this kinda hard.”“His leg’ll heal,” Toto chuckled.
“It’s not his leg that’s bothering him.”The barn manager quirked his brows when she faced him. “Oh well.” He took the colt’s reins and led him deeper into the barn, the steady clop of hooves on concrete a familiar and comforting sound.
Mel watched Dan a moment longer, chewing at her chapped bottom lip, deciding how charitable she was feeling that day. Too charitable, she decided as she stepped into the office with her helmet tucked under her arm.Nora was at the desk, tortoise shell reading glasses perched on her nose as she studied the screen of a laptop. She spared Mel a glance as she headed toward the fridge. “You all done for the day?”
“Done riding. But I need to clean some tack and LT’s mane needs trimming. Thought I might get some yoga in so I can ride Roman tonight and -,”“Honey,” Nora cut her off.
Mel turned from the open fridge where she’d been collecting two bottled waters.“You need to pace yourself is what you need to do.”
Her brow furrowed. “I have it all scheduled out, so I should be able to get it all done.”Nora twitched a small smile and rotated her chair away from the computer. “Not what I meant.” She breathed a laugh through her nose. “When was the last time you did something fun?”
The word slapped Melanie in the face. “What?” she asked, stalling for time, a shamed flush making her cheeks feel hot.“You’ve been here almost three weeks,” Nora said, “and all you do is work or workout. Now, don’t get me wrong,” she chuckled. “A workaholic beats a slacker every time. But you’re gonna burn out, sweetheart. You don’t even leave the property.”
“I -,” her protest died in her throat when she realized that, no, she hadn’t left the property. “I haven’t needed to,” she said lamely, shrugging.“Needs not the same as want.”
Mel knew her cheeks had to be red. She glanced down at the toes of her boots, feeling embarrassed when she shouldn’t. And more than a little hurt too. She couldn’t win. She didn’t work hard enough, or worked too hard. She was a rule-breaking bitch, or a goody-two-shoes. “Why would you even care?” her tone was curious and not disrespectful.Nora waited until she had eye contact, and by that time, all traces of amusement had left her face. “This business bleeds you dry. You put your blood and sweat and tears into everything you do, and even then, the shit keeps piling up. Literally.”
Mel felt herself nod.“Just when you think everything’s fixed, something else breaks. The work never gets done. It’s there every day, the same every time. It’s real easy to get so sucked in you don’t ever see anything past the farm.”
It was a conversation she’d had with her mother, although it had been more heated. “I made a choice,” she said. “I wanted horses and I wanted to ride…the work goes with it. That’s how it is.”
Nora shrugged. “It is. But you don’t have to give up on all the other parts of your life.”Mel sighed, closed her eyes and tried to wrap her brain around the idea that a simple trip in for water had turned into the Spanish Inquisition. She held back all the rude things she wanted to say, nodded, and headed for the door.
“I just thought you might be working too hard is all,” Nora said, bringing her up short. The woman shrugged. “Not exactly ‘fun’, but I was wondering if you could ride in to the tack store with Dan. We need new fly masks.”“Sure.”
The whole walk back to the arena, Mel stewed. She could feel her eyebrows pinching together and couldn’t smooth them out. Maybe she was a doormat, maybe she just looked like a lost lamb in need of life coaching, but she’d never been able to explain the tendency her elders seemed to have when it came to doling out free advice. She was young, yes, but she wasn’t eighteen. Wasn’t in rehab. She worked hard, damn it. Who ever heard of being too responsible? Too dependable?She didn’t realize she’d reached her destination until she lifted her eyes from her boots and saw Dan giving her a curious look. “Who pissed all over you?”
“No one. Here.” She extended one of the two water bottles and he stared at it like she was offering him the fanged end of a poisonous snake. “I thought you might be thirsty.”“I don’t get thirsty.”
“That is so -,” she clamped her mouth shut. Yeah, you don’t get thirsty and I’m irresponsibly responsible. “Forget it,” she turned her back on him. “I’m going to the feed store.”“Not alone you’re not.”
It’s a conspiracy, she thought. They’re trying to make me nuts on purpose.
Dan struck her as the type of guy who wanted to drive rather than be driven. But his right leg was the one the black and white paint mare had broken, so he didn’t have much choice. They took her truck and she enjoyed the small bit of control being behind the wheel afforded. Dan didn’t wear his seatbelt, folded his arms over his chest, and stared out the passenger window as fence posts whipped past. Sullen, but not in charge for once.
The time it had taken Mel to shower and change into clean clothes had cooled her frustration with Dan, even if Nora’s words still needled at her. If anything, she was glad for his stubborn silence. She wasn’t in the mood for Eli’s happy chatter or Slim’s love for elaborate, sometimes plotless stories.
Am I really not any fun? She asked herself as she watched the long, flat Florida road stretch out before them. So not fun in fact, that people were concerned about it? Why didn’t I stay in Ohio? No dream was worth all this.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dan’s voice was full of so much disgust it took her a moment before she registered the words of his question.
“What?” she spared him a quick glance and saw that he had turned his head to face her, his dark eyes narrowed. He’d taken his hat off and the cap had pressed a ring around his head that ruined the aura of coldness he was trying to radiate.
“Why do you look constipated?”
“That’s a delicate way to phrase it,” Mel sighed as she swept her gaze out through the windshield again. “The bigger question is, why do you care?”
A beat of silence passed.
Nightly phone calls with her sister and friend Elyse weren’t serving as proper outlets for her worries. “Nora said I’m working too hard,” she blurted before she could stop herself. “And it’s bothering me.”
Dan snorted. “No such thing as working too hard.”
“My thought exactly.” Damn, did we just agree on something?
She stiffened and swore she sensed him do the same in the next seat. Sometimes it was exhausting being on uneven footing with someone, but she couldn’t think of anything to say to bring any warmth to their odd relationship. So they passed the rest of the trip in silence: past Carlton and toward the interstate, to the tack and feed store that serviced most of the farms in the area.
CJ’s Feed was a wooden building that was slowly being eaten by termites and Florida dampness, its pale blue paint brittle and flaking, its porch planks sagging. It was a rectangle whose long side faced the street behind a gravel parking lot. The front had a western façade, designed to look like an old saloon, complete with boardwalk and swinging doors. Ancient oak limbs hung over its roofline, dripping moss. Because farmers and ranchers shopped midday, when it was too hot to work animals, the lot was full of trucks. Mel managed to wedge her Ford into a space down at the very end, and then came the awkward question she’d been dreading: did Dan need help getting out?
He answered it for her by popping the door and hopping out on his good leg, so fast she thought it was probably a concerted effort on his part not to appear weak. Regardless, she was glad.
The door to CJ’s proved another problem, though. Mel heard the three-legged thump of Dan and his crutches behind her on the boardwalk and when she stepped aside to let him go first, assuming he didn’t have so much as a shred of chivalry, she turned and caught the little frown on his face. “What?” she asked when he didn’t move.
He lifted one crutch and tapped its rubber stopper against the door. “Would you mind?” His voice was rough, his eyes downcast. He was embarrassed, Mel realized, because he didn’t want to wrestle clumsily with the door and his crutches in public, and hated asking her for help.
She took pity on him. It was bad enough he’d been reduced to sweatpants because that’s all that would fit over his cast, but she supposed she wouldn’t want to look like an idiot in this case either. She opened the door without a word and followed him as he thumped his way inside.
The interior was low-ceilinged and musty, bad fluorescent lights flickering overhead. But there was the overpowering scent of leather hanging in the air. The old industrial carpet was ripped in places and stained in others, but the myriad rainbow of bridles, saddles, halters, blankets, buckets, whips, ropes, snaps, spurs and a hundred other items on the walls drew a person’s eyes upward. The right wing of the building was dedicated to tack, the left to feed, an open roll top door at the end pouring in light and granting forklift access so the pallets could be moved in and out.
Black oil sunflower seed in fifty pound bags was stacked around the wooden island that housed the registers in the middle of the store, a white cat sprawled across them, flicking its tail. Customers were everywhere, and at least five turned to loudly greet Dan.
“I’ll order the masks, you can go look around,” he told Mel in a short, dismissive voice.
She would have been offended, except she didn’t want to be at his side. “Sure,” she said, and slipped between two women who were talking about chickens, heading over toward the rows and rows of horse supplies.
Mel didn’t like to shop for clothes, for shoes, for shower gifts – dishes and flatware sets and things like that. She was a disgrace to the female sex in that respect. But as she let her eyes pass over the neatly rolled, brightly colored polo wraps on the shelf in front of her, she loved shopping. Lead ropes had been hung by their snaps and trailed down to the floor, snakes striped with blue, silver, green, purple, pink, red, and black. She reached up to run a gentle finger across the gemstone brow band of a dressage bridle. And admired the white stitching on a red hunt bridle.
She had progressed to the stacks of saddles pads and was trying to decide which shade of blue she liked best when a voice reached her ears that sent a cold shudder racing up her spine.
“I don’t want any of this cheap shit.”
Riley Carlton. The malicious, insulting tone was enough of a giveaway, but the sound itself, the auditory equivalent of rubbing a bristle brush over a picked scab, gave her the cold chills. Melanie wasn’t afraid of him, she was afraid of the power he had to make her life miserable.
Run, her mind told her. Instead she walked, quickly, but it was still a walk. She went past the kaleidoscope of equine products and around the end of the aisle…straight into Riley.
“I told you I wanted to -,” his sentence turned into an oomph as they collided into one another. The cell phone he’d been speaking into flew out of his hand and landed with a soft sound on the carpet, then skittered away.
Mel jumped back like she’d been burned. Touching him, even by accident like this, made her skin crawl. For one moment, she held a fleeting hope that he wouldn’t recognize her and they could move on. But when his eyes landed on her, she knew she’d been caught.
“Look at this,” his expression morphed from anger to amusement as recognition dawned. He sneered at her. “I thought we told you to go home.”
Riley was Arthur and Marissa Carlton’s only child. He’d been groomed for the arena since birth and had the build for it. Tall, lean, long-legged – he was a ballerina just like his mother. Mel had once agreed with one of the other working students that he was good-looking, in a blonde sort of way, and he was, but there was nothing handsome about his personality.
The last time she’d seen the asshole, she’d been stuffing all her belongings in a tack trunk and trying not to make eye contact. Now, though she was shaking, she lifted her chin in defiance. “I was told to get off the property. Your mother can’t tell me what to do beyond that.”
The words sounded ridiculous and weak to her own ears, and his smirk proved he thought so too. “What? You actually found someone who wanted you around?” He took a menacing step forward. “Frigid bitch -,”
“What the hell do you want, Carlton?”
Her pulse had been hammering so hard in her ears, Mel hadn’t heard Dan approach. But the sound of his voice over her shoulder was a welcome interruption. She took two steps back when Riley’s attention left her, until she stood even with Dan, who held both his crutches in one hand and was standing as straight as he was able.
Riley made an obnoxious show of frowning in thought. “Dry Creek right?” he pointed at Dan, then a smile slowly crept across his arrogant face. “Yeah…that’s right. Ha! Shit, don’t tell me you people hired her on.”
Mel moved a look between them, nauseous, convinced that Dan would crack his own grin and agree with Riley.
But he stared the Carlton brat down for a long moment, then took a firm hold of her wrist. “Let’s go. I’m done here.”
The relief that flooded through her was so strong she complied without question. Dan somehow managed to look dignified as he moved off on his crutches.
When she passed Riley, the blonde leaned down low enough to hiss, “go home, bitch.”
At the moment, she wanted to.
The softest of breezes rippled through the open windows of the truck, in one side and out the other. It was about ten degrees cooler in the shade of the pavilion at Sonic. Around them, families and day laborers ate in their cars, the tumultuous sound of a half a dozen radio stations crowded out by the even louder sounds of voices. A fly came in and went just past Dan’s nose, settling on the arm rest between them. He watched it crawl across the cloth upholstery and then it landed on Mel’s elbow. Her lack of response brought his frustration with the girl to a head.
He tossed his crumpled up burger wrapper into the bag at his feet and twisted so he had a better view of her. Her burger sat in her lap, one bite taken out of it. One hand was looped through the steering wheel and she clicked her fingernails together with small, annoying sounds.
“’Kay,” he said, clearing his throat loudly. Her head swiveled toward him and her blue eyes were wide and frightened looking in the shade of the car. He hated sharing, pretending to care about chicks’ problems. But she was still quivering all over since their encounter with Little Prick Carlton, and he was tired of watching her hands shake. “What the hell went on at that farm? Were you bangin’ him? You have a bad break up or something?”
He hadn’t thought her eyes could get any wider, but they did. Her mouth pinched up in a little O. “W-what?” she stammered. Color bloomed in her cheeks and she stopped looking like a scared rabbit and more like a very insulted, very attractive female. “No. Hell no. I never -,”
“I get it,” he shrugged and turned away from her, watched traffic snake around the bank across the street. Dan waited. He’d learned that the only incentive a woman needed to talk was silence. Women hated silence: they had to fill it up with idle chatter.
He had to wait longer than he thought he would, though. But Mel finally heaved a little sigh. “You don’t wanna heart about it, do you?” she asked, like she already knew he didn’t.
Something about her asking, the way she seemed to understand that he didn’t value talking for talking’s sake, made him suddenly curious about the story that, up until two seconds ago, he hadn’t wanted to know. He himself might have found her annoying, but he couldn’t imagine her being offensive to that bunch of Carlton shitheads.
“I might,” he said, then stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye.