“Well,” she said. “Let’s tack him up.”
While they got busy taking off Dungiven’s shipping blanket and bandages, Lynn got the first aid kit from the van, fished out the aspirin bottle and shook out two, thought a moment, then shook out one more. She swallowed them dry. They would have to do to stave off the migraine that had been threatening all day.
Lynn went around to the front of the van and slipped out of her hacking jacket, laying it across the passenger seat. The evening was growing chilly — she shrugged into her down vest and checked for her cell phone in the pocket. The reassuring display glowed at her.
Dungiven was ready. He turned to look at her with his ears pricked and gave a low whinny as she took the reins and flipped them over his head. Joe gave her a leg up and she boosted lightly into the saddle, gathering her reins and settling her feet into the stirrups, trying to hold back the headache. Joe held her ankle for a moment.
“Listen — are you doing this because she didn’t let you ride him in the Classic?”
She leaned down to adjust her stirrups and to whisper in his ear. “All I want is to get these horses home. Are you okay with that?”
He stepped back. “Fine by me, you pull a crazy stunt like this.”
She immediately felt sorry. “Look – I’ll see you in an hour, tops. Okay?”
He accepted it grudgingly. “All right. Go.”
She took the helmet he handed her, strapping it on one-handed, and gathered the reins. Before she set off, he called out, “Hey.”
She stopped and turned in the saddle. “What?”
“You’re not going to have one of your damn horse show headaches tonight, are you?”
She felt herself smile, and he smiled in return. She stood in the stirrups and dug her apartment key out of the tiny front pocket in her breeches. She flipped it to him and he caught it. “See you in an hour, Joe.”
Darkness dropped almost as soon as they entered the woods. “Shoot,” Lynn said under her breath. She had forgotten the flashlight. After the first quiver of uneasiness, though, the peace of the dark woods fell around her. Insects buzzed and twanged, and a breeze fanned her cheeks. The trail was a pale smudge in front of her, the footing solid and even. Dungiven’s walk was strong and quick. He knew he was going home. They’d be at the barn soon, and she’d call the emergency vet out right away to make sure there were no hidden strains or bruises from his fall.
Her headache faded a bit, and she smiled again, thinking of her implicit promise to Joe. They’d been seeing each other for a few months. He had started at the barn last spring doing the general handyman stuff, painting, fixing grain bins, mending kicked doors and downed fences. She found herself drawn to his quiet manner, his polite Texas drawl, his dark eyes and dark hair. All that summer she had tried to treat him with professional courtesy, and all the while she had half her mind on him when she was teaching lessons, supervising the farrier visits or schooling the young horses.
Now he was a part of her life the way no other boyfriend had ever been – Lynn thought about the last guy, a bartender at the local rider’s hangout. That had been a mistake from the beginning and had ended quickly. Rumor had it Mark had gone back to Colorado. Thank God, she thought, shifting in the saddle. Joe was about as different from Mark as a person could be.
Dungiven flicked an ear, his head a ghostly vision in front of her. She patted his shoulder, letting the reins go slack, and eased her boots from the stirrups for a moment. She couldn’t wait to get home, get out of her tight breeches and boots, and take a shower. She let the peace of the night woods lull her, and then picked up contact again.