She paused at the stall where she’d boarded Lady as a teenager. A dappled gray leaned over the wood-rail gate, tossing its head, nickering. She sighed.
She came to Onwentsia Stables on a whim to watch the first Amateur Open Jumper competition of the Spring, and the banked embers of the old fire burned brightly in her again. Seeing those big muscular athletes bounding over rails and walls had her heart tumbling giddily.
Maybe it’s time to get a horse… even start jumping again. Thirty-one’s not too old, and it’s such great therapy. One thing’s for sure… a four-legged buddy will always be there for me.
Riding created a sense of peace and a bond with the animal that no one but an equestrian would understand. The pressures of rearing a family were minimal now, with Maria living in for the last year, there to care for the children if she were away.
Time to get out and do my own thing. It’ll be daytimes, while Keith’s at work, so it won’t interfere with our being together. Besides, when was the last time he spent any real time with me, doing something fun? Something I love! She couldn’t remember, but it’d been years.
Ashley ventured deeper into the gloomy barn, absorbing the ambiance.
I can even get back into show jumping, if I get a good horse. Wonder what was wrong with that huge chestnut? A redhead, just like me. He seemed so listless, even refusing fences. Hard to believe that big thoroughbred was unwilling to jump. You never know until you…
A horse squealing in apparent pain, somewhere deeper inside the barn, brought her to an abrupt stop. She spun around, looking for a groom, but all stable hands were near the show ring.
“Better take a look. May be an animal in trouble.” She hurried back, checking stalls as she went.
There it was again. She circled into a wing for visiting horses, slowly approaching the end stall. Peering over the gate, she staggered back, a hand clasped over her mouth.
“OhmyGod.” Her eyes flooded. “You poor baby. What’s happened to you?” It looked like the big roan gelding that had jumped so poorly in the Open Class, its flanks lathered and striped with bloody furrows. The horse nickered softly, ears up, sensing compassion in her voice.
“Jesus! You’ve been beaten.” Salty streams spilled down her cheeks, her heart pummeling her chest, a soft moan slipping between her lips. A horse should be your buddy and companion, not an outlet for anger and abuse. She held out her hand to him.
“Who did this to you?” The tall horse edged tentatively forward, ears flicking back and forth. She gently rubbed his satiny snout. He nuzzled her shoulder, nickering softly.
“Sweet boy.” Her arms circled his neck and he brushed his face affectionately against her body. Why would anybody hurt such a lovely animal? Tears continued to gush, as she fished for a tissue to blow her nose and blot her eyes.
Damn, my mascara’s running. I must look a mess.
“I’m gonna find some help, pretty boy. Somebody’s gonna pay for this, I promise you.” She hurried off. He neighed plaintively after her.
Ashley was turning into the main part of the stable when the horse trumpeted again. She skidded to a stop, searching again for help, but everybody was still out at the show ring. Another shrill whinny. Was some bastard beating that poor guy again?
“Looks like it’s up to me.” Gritting her teeth, Ashley hurried toward the stall, snatching up a nearby pitchfork. Who knew how crazy this guy might be?
She cautiously approached the stall on suddenly rubbery legs. The chestnut gelding was struggling to get away from a tall, lanky man in riding habit, brandishing a whip. A very big whip. He had looped a lead chain over the animal’s snout for control.
“I got a real weapon now, you bastard! You’ll never embarrass me like that again. I’ll kill ya first.” He hit the horse hard across the withers. The big gelding bucked and pawed, but without any real energy.
“Hey, quit that!” Her shout raspy, she banged the gate with the side of the pitchfork.
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Genre – Romantic Suspense
Rating – PG13
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