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Risk Factor

By Karis Walsh

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2015 KarishWalsh

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Risk Factor

Myra Owens runs a therapeutic riding program for returning soldiers. She won’t risk getting hurt by becoming personally involved with her riders until Ainslee Harriot challenges her to take a chance on love.

Risk Factor

© 2015 By Karis Walsh. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-070-2

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185

 

First Bold Strokes Books eBook Edition: May 2017

Originally published in Sweet Hearts (Bold Strokes Books, December 2015)

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Bold Strokes Graphics

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Harmony

Worth the Risk

Sea Glass Inn

Improvisation

Wingspan

Blindsided

Love on Tap

Tales from the Sea Glass Inn


Tacoma Mounted Patrol

Mounting Danger

Mounting Evidence

Amounting to Nothing

Chapter One

Myra Owens returned to the feed room and set two buckets on the cement floor near her friend Kate Brown, who was stooped over a wooden bin. She continued her pitch for a new student body for the stable. “The program even has family days, so the soldiers can spend time grooming or walking the horses with their kids and spouses.” Myra leaned against the door frame while Kate measured scoops of grain into each bucket. Even though Kate was the owner of Portland’s Cedar Grove Equestrian Center and could afford to hire stable help, she chose to do most of the hands-on work with the horses herself. Myra shared the barn chores as often as she could, mostly because she loved being around the horses, but also because it gave her more time with Kate, who was often busy with her new girlfriend, Jamie, and Jamie’s niece, Anna. Some of Myra and Kate’s best conversations took place while they mixed feed or cleaned tack together.

“Riding gives them a topic of conversation,” Myra continued. “A quiet way to reconnect with their loved ones, with the horse as a sort of mediator. Rebuilding relationships.”

Kate nodded and emptied a pouch of herbal joint supplement into one of the buckets. She added a scoop of vitamins to each, and Myra grabbed the metal handles and left the room. She walked down the aisle to a chorus of neighs from the horses that hadn’t been fed yet. Frosty, an older school horse, got the supplemented feed, and one of the boarders got the regular mix. Myra dropped the buckets near Kate again.

“Some of the wounded vets need more support while riding, but the ones who are dealing with emotional issues like PTSD are usually able to ride on their own, so we won’t need as many volunteers as we do for our regular therapeutic lessons.”

Myra paused in the middle of her speech while she took feed to the next two hungry horses. She was accustomed to carrying on conversations with Kate in this disjointed manner while they did barn chores—whether they paused to empty a full wheelbarrow of manure or to return a cleaned bridle to a tack-room hook. When she had been planning how to broach the subject of a new riding program to Kate, she had automatically memorized the facts in separate sound bites. Kate was paying attention to the rations she doled out, making sure each animal got supplements and grain in the proper amounts, but Myra had no doubt that Kate was also listening to every word she said.

Myra dumped feed into her own horse’s bucket and paused briefly before her next trip to the feed room. She leaned against Dragon’s neck and felt the rhythmic tensing of his muscles as he chewed the grain. The sound of his contented munching was soothing, but Kate’s horse Topper banged a hoof against the adjoining wall, reminding her that the other horses were still impatiently waiting for dinner. She gave Dragon another pat and left his stall. The last part of her talk was the impassioned plea for them to make this program work here at Cedar Grove. Myra had discovered the Bright Stars riding program when she was at a conference in Washington State last week, and she had been struck by her overwhelming need to help establish another like it as an adjunct to Kate’s already thriving therapeutic riding school. Myra knew why she needed to make this happen, and she also was acutely aware of how difficult it would be for her to work with the returning soldiers who came there to ride. Still, she couldn’t let her own discomfort keep her from doing what she felt compelled to do.

A loud whinny accompanied by the sound of a metal horseshoe striking a wooden stall door broke Myra free from the weight of her memories. She walked down the aisle with determination and started talking as soon as she came through the door.

“We have to do this, Kate. We have the infrastructure in place, we have volunteers, and we have enough horses to fill the extra classes. Not only would it be a great opportunity to help more people, but it’s a chance to give back to our community and support our local troops.”

“And a way to honor Jeffrey’s memory,” Kate added in a quiet voice. She and Myra each picked up two buckets and returned to the stall-lined aisle.

They fed the last four in silence. Myra inhaled the scent of horses and fresh cedar shavings, but her breath came in shallow and rapid gulps as she felt the constricting fist of sorrow tighten her throat. The barn and horses had been a safe haven for her, and she needed to repay the favor somehow. Assuage the guilt because she had survived and had found some peace here while her brother Jeffrey hadn’t. Possibly keep another family from facing the stupefying shock of welcoming back a loved one, only to lose them at home. Myra had witnessed plenty of miracles while working with Kate and her therapy program. Maybe they could squeeze out a few more.

Kate closed the latch on Topper’s stall, and she draped her arm over Myra’s shoulders as they took the empty buckets back to the feed room.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “Jamie will be out of town next weekend, so why don’t we take Anna for a drive and visit this Bright Stars program together? You’ve wanted to take on more lessons since you got certified, and this would be a good place to start. You can do the lesson plans from scratch instead of just taking over the ones I’ve already created. Really make the program your own.”

Myra—still reeling from the onslaught of memories she felt whenever Jeffrey’s name was mentioned—took a few moments to realize what Kate was saying. She stopped walking and turned to face Kate, breaking the contact with her to get a little distance.

“I don’t want to be the teacher. I thought I could help out if you need me. I’ll take on some of your regular lessons so you have the time to do these.”

Kate frowned. “If this will be too difficult for you…”

Myra shook her head. She felt her brow tighten in an answering frown as she searched for a way to express the conflicting emotions she felt. “I want the program to happen. It matters to me more than I can say. But I don’t know if I can be the instructor and interact with the riders. I couldn’t help the way you could.”

“You can help them in ways I can’t.” Kate said. She stopped in front of the white boards that covered the walls where they stood, just outside the feed room. Both barns were full of boarders and lesson horses, and Myra and Kate had detailed charts listing when horses had training sessions and turnout time in the paddocks, when students had lessons, and what horses required veterinary or farrier care. Splotches and smears covered the boards as old schedules were erased and new ones added almost daily, but the one constant was the amount of work required to run a training barn this size, plus a full-time therapeutic program.

“I have a full load of classes right now,” Kate continued, gesturing toward the boards with a green dry-erase marker. “If we expand, it will need to be with you as the instructor, but I’ll understand if you don’t want the extra responsibility. The barn as it is couldn’t survive without your help, let alone if we added an entirely new therapy protocol. You’re always here for classes, you do all the insurance billing, and you take over when I’m at shows or traveling. I don’t know when you find time for your regular job. Why don’t we wait until next summer for this project?”

Myra sighed. Kate might be exaggerating when she talked about Myra’s indispensability, but she wasn’t overstating her own workload. Kate taught the therapy classes, traveled to shows with her training horses and students, and served as barn manager and chief stall cleaner. Add Jamie and Anna, and Kate barely had time to take a breath of her own. Myra juggled full-time school teaching with barn work, and she had recently qualified to teach in the barn’s therapeutic program. Her goal had been to lighten Kate’s responsibilities, and here she was suggesting they expand with a different kind of program. Kate was willing to add the classes for service members—she was always willing to help someone in need—but Myra recognized the signs of strain on her longtime friend’s face. If Myra wanted the military program, she’d have to take charge of it herself.

Myra’s attention shifted around the barn while she considered whether she could go forward with the project. Could she teach the lessons? Face the constant reminder of what Jeffrey was like when he returned from his second deployment to the Middle East? Keep going forward when it was too late to go back and help him like she should have done? She had won the right to start the program using Kate’s resources and arena, but she felt as if she’d lost the tight grip she always held on her memories. Her work with the therapy students was unwaveringly personal. She got attached to them and celebrated small victories and defeats as if they were her own. But with these new riders—the veterans and active-duty military members who would come to the program with both mental and physical wounds—she’d need to remain detached.

She watched as Kate wrote out the next day’s agenda. Perhaps the distance Myra would need to maintain would help her be more effective as the program’s teacher. She’d be able to observe as an outsider, not allowing her personal pain to get in the way of the students’ progress. Myra sighed. She wasn’t fully convinced of her logic, but she had to hold on to the shaky confidence it gave her.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

Kate grinned and pulled her into a tight hug. “I knew you would. Come up to the house and we’ll start doing some research. I’ll contact the Bright Stars people so we can observe some lessons and get more details about the structure of the program.”

Myra unresistingly followed as Kate pulled her toward the house, but her mind was shouting at her to run. To escape. Kate—in her usual enthusiastic way—had taken hold of the new idea and was running with it, conversely energized by the idea of more work. She chatted about the equipment they might need for the lessons, and the modifications they’d make to the existing arena space, seemingly happy to have a new project to plan and organize. Myra tried to focus on the details and facts rather than her own gnawing misgivings. She only had herself to blame for bringing up the idea in the first place.

“Remember when we took Jeffrey on the trail ride?” Kate stopped on the gravel driveway and gave Myra a smile that seemed as tinged with sadness as with humor at the funny memory. “He jumped off when his horse started trotting, and then thought she was chasing him around a tree.”

Myra choked back a laugh that threatened to turn into a sob. Her brother, three years younger than she was, had begged for weeks to be invited to ride with them. He’d been enamored of beautiful, blond Kate—who hadn’t been?—and Myra had finally relented and let him come on one of their weekend trail rides. He’d panicked at Snoopy’s bouncy but sedate trot and had jumped off the little mare. She’d been confused by his abrupt dismount but had obediently followed her rider as he ran around a sapling, convinced the horse was chasing him with malicious intentions. Jeffrey had given up on riding after that experience. He gave up on Kate after he found out that she and Myra were caught kissing beneath the school bleachers.

“He didn’t want to ride again, but he still enjoyed being around horses. He’d hang out at the barn with me even when he realized he didn’t have a chance of dating you.”

Kate laughed. “He had your touch with animals. I remember coming to your aunt’s barn when you first got Dragon. Jeffrey would be sitting on the grass with all the barn cats draped over him while Dragon grazed nearby.”

Myra nodded, easily able to picture the exact scene Kate was describing as if it had happened just this afternoon. It seemed to define her brother, who had been able to charm animals and humans with equal ease. If only she had been better able to see the pain beneath his charm. If only she had known how to reach him when he had disappeared so deep inside his memories. If only…She wiped the back of her hand across her cheek and brushed the wetness away on her worn denim jeans.

“I love that about you,” Kate said quietly. “You take your own sadness and use it as a way to help other people.”

Myra shook her head wordlessly, unable to speak. She hooked her arm through Kate’s and started walking toward Kate’s house again. She wasn’t a saint, wasn’t someone as altruistic as Kate believed her to be. She pushed her grief back inside, deep in her heart, and changed the topic of conversation from Jeffrey to which horses would be best suited to her new program.

Chapter Two

“Myra!” Kate called from the main barn’s aisleway. “They’re here.”

Myra checked the grooming area one last time to make sure everything was in place before she greeted her new students. The three horses were standing quietly in the crossties, and a wooden tote full of brushes and combs was sitting on a shelf at each station. Everything was tidy and ready for the lesson, but Myra knew what really mattered. Before every lesson, she fussed over her lesson plans and the equipment each student would need, even though none of it was as important as the horses themselves. They were the true miracle workers. They were the ones who would be able to reach past barriers and touch human hearts. She gave old Spot a quick scratch on his neck and walked down the aisle.

She saw her small group of riders clustered around the entrance to the barn, standing just inside the large sliding door where a sharp line separated the bright spring sunshine from the shadowy interior of the barn. To an outsider, they were an unremarkable group, but Myra had access to their private lives. She had read their files and knew the darker secrets behind their homecomings. The damaged lives and shattered relationships. The pain—mental, physical, and emotional. The burden to help them was overwhelming, and she reminded herself yet again that she was only the facilitator in the process. The horses would heal more scars than she’d even realize were present and hidden. She paused for a deep breath while she matched each person with the information she’d learned about them.

Drew leaned against the barn wall, facing out and away from her. His crutches were propped against the wall behind him, as if he took every opportunity to tuck them out of sight. Myra had read about the muscle damage he’d sustained when he was hit by shrapnel, but she knew she was only getting the bare bones of his story. He wouldn’t have been recommended for this program for physical therapy alone, although Myra hoped riding would help in that area as well. He wouldn’t be here if he only needed healing on a muscular level. Unlike Drew, Blake didn’t have any outward signs of damage but had been suffering from PTSD and was having difficulties coping with the return to his old life. Only his proud and shuttered expression showed the barriers he had erected to protect his pain.

That left Ainslee Cooper. Myra could only see her silhouette, but the slender outline of her prosthetic was easy to spot. Myra had been intrigued by her file, partly because her story was similar in some ways to Jeffrey’s and partly because of the photo attached to it. Ainslee was beautiful. Dark hair pulled back in a tight bun and little makeup only emphasized her elegant bone structure and large chocolate eyes. Dark, angular eyebrows framed those eyes and gave an impression of someone with a strong and stubborn personality—no softly arched brows or diverted gaze, but one of directness and openness. Her smiling mouth and full bottom lip quirked up in one corner, like she was ready to break into hearty laughter. She looked impish and younger than her age of twenty-six, but the photo had been taken before she’d been deployed. What changes would Myra see in her now?

The three people in her lesson had much in common but they stood in silence, not speaking to one another. Would anyone notice if Myra escaped out the back door of the barn?

“Hey,” Kate said, appearing by her side and dashing Myra’s plan to run away. Kate nudged her with an elbow. “You’ll be great. You’ve taught plenty of lessons before, and once you get started you’ll see that this one isn’t any different.”

Myra didn’t quite believe her, but she stepped forward anyway. She cleared her throat to get the attention of her students and inhaled sharply when Ainslee turned and looked at her.

Myra slowly exhaled. She had expected Ainslee to appear older than in her picture after all she had been through, but there was something young and vulnerable in her expression that hadn’t been in the photo. No smile this time, and her skin was paler, but the faint laugh lines near her eyes and curving to the corners of her lips were evidence of a lost propensity to an easy grin.

“Welcome to Cedar Grove. I’m Myra and I’ll be your instructor for the next eight weeks. Do any of you have experience with horses?” Three brief and silent head shakes were her answer. Myra was relieved since they could all start from scratch. She tried to ignore her awareness of Ainslee while she talked—disconcerted when her body’s response to the actual woman was even stronger than to her picture—and concentrated instead on the information she needed to share and on a cursory appraisal of the three students. Blake was tall and slender, focused slightly to the left of Myra’s face, never holding direct eye contact. Drew, on the other hand, met her gaze with an almost belligerent expression, as if daring her to challenge him somehow. He still had the muscular build of someone who had spent hours a day in a gym, but Myra knew his injury would have severely curtailed his workouts. All three were wearing long pants and heeled, tread-less boots. The right leg of Ainslee’s jeans was cut off at the knee, and the metal of her curved prosthesis was as shiny as the brand-new looking cowboy boot on her left foot.

“I see all of you are wearing the appropriate clothes,” Myra continued. “We’ll provide safety helmets, and that’s our first rule. No riding without one. Rule Two: until you get familiar with our horses and we get to know you, no one is allowed to ride or enter a horse’s stall without permission and supervision. Three: ask for help if you need it. I know you’re accustomed to being in control, but allow yourselves to be beginners here. Finally, Rule Four, keep your anger and frustration out of the barn and away from the animals. If you need to blow off some steam, do it outside. Any questions so far?”

At this point in her lessons, new students would either be excitedly clamoring for attention as they threw question after question at her, or they’d be nervous and silent. This group was simply quiet, expressionless. Myra felt an urge to apologize for giving them rules as if they were children, but she didn’t. She had learned from her first days working with Kate that the riders often craved structure and guidelines. The framework gave them a sense of security in a new and sometimes frightening situation. These three riders, although they had the outward appearance of confidence and calm, were probably feeling some trepidation—invisible as it was—about riding for the first time, especially with physical and psychological limitations that were still foreign to them.

“Today we’re going to learn how to groom and tack the horses.” Myra talked as she led the group toward the crossties. Their silence was still unnerving, but Kate had been correct—once Myra had started the lesson, the familiarity of the words comforted her. She seemed hyperaware of the uneven sound of Ainslee’s gait on the cement floor of the aisle, but she knew she’d survive the lesson. Jeffrey was always present in her mind, and Ainslee had insinuated herself there as well, but Myra would survive. She’d manage to keep the threats to her emotions at bay as long as she kept most of herself in teaching mode. “We’ll start the actual riding next week, and you’ll have the same horse throughout the entire eight-week session.”

Myra stopped when they were close to the horses. She had already decided which human to pair with which horse, and her quick evaluation when she first saw the students confirmed her original choices. She felt the weight of this responsibility almost more than any other she’d face while teaching this group. The success or failure of the program might depend on her ability to connect the right horse to each rider since the bond they’d form with their new partners would be such an important factor in their healing and their engagement with riding. If her judgment was off…She took a deep breath and gestured at a dozing pinto. “Drew, you’ll be paired with Spot.”

Spot wasn’t the prettiest horse, but he was solid and reliable and would be the safest mount for Drew, with his back injuries. Myra paused for a moment, expecting the dark and brooding Drew to say something derogatory about the horse, but he just shrugged slightly, tightened his grip on his crutches, and limped over to Spot.

“Blake, you and Frosty will be partners. Ainslee”—Myra paused as even the act of saying Ainslee’s name for the first time seemed too intimate—“you’re with Deacon.”

Once the three were standing in their places next to the horses, Myra gave a quick demonstration of the various grooming tools. She kept it short because she wanted them to get in contact with the horses as soon as possible. During the riding sessions, she’d have volunteers leading the horses and supporting the riders, but today she would be on her own.

“We’ll start with the rubber currycomb to loosen mud and dirt on the horse’s body. Use this in a circular motion, but only on the muscular parts of the horse, not on their legs or face.” Myra curried Spot’s shoulder while she explained what she was doing. “Go ahead and try this yourselves.”

Myra handed the currycomb to Drew, and he and the other two wordlessly began to imitate her actions. Myra blinked back unexpected tears as she remembered seeing the same passivity in Jeffrey the last time she had brought him to visit Dragon after he had come home. She had to break through, somehow.

“Why don’t you keep just one crutch while you’re grooming,” she said after watching Drew work for a few minutes. “You can rest your free hand on Spot’s neck for balance.”

“Okay.” He handed her the metal crutch and she leaned it against the wall, near enough for him to reach if he needed it.

“Better?” she asked.

He shuffled several steps, keeping his hand braced on Spot’s sturdy neck, and began grooming the horse’s back. “Much. Maybe someday I can get rid of both the damned things.”

His voice was toneless, but Myra felt his frustration. She herself felt a wave of relief that he had acknowledged his situation. Would Jeffrey have been as communicative if she had spent more time with him? Or asked the right questions?

She couldn’t keep second-guessing herself. She and her parents had tried everything they could think of to help Jeffrey. It hadn’t been enough.

“Riding is an excellent way to work your core and spinal muscles,” she said. Focus on the facts, not the emotions. Heal the physical, and hopefully the emotional will follow. “I’ll bet you notice a marked improvement in your range of motion and strength by the end of the eight weeks.”

He gave another noncommittal shrug. Skeptical? Or afraid to hope? Myra patted Spot on the shoulder and went to check on Blake and Frosty. She had paired them because the mare was a good physical match for Blake’s height and slim build, but she had also thought they might fit well in other ways, too. Blake was healthy and would probably progress quickly. Frosty was well-behaved, but she had a stubborn and spirited streak that made her more suitable for advanced riders. Maybe the movement and freedom he’d experience while riding would help dissipate the aura of tension Myra felt when she got close to him. Yet another reminder of Jeffrey. He had been outwardly placid and detached, but an agitated energy had practically rippled the air around him.

“You seem very comfortable around her,” Myra said, after watching Blake confidently sweep a stiff-bristled brush over the mare’s coat. She was shedding the last of her winter fur and gray hairs already covered Blake’s jeans and dark polo shirt. “Have you ridden before?”

“Once or twice on family vacations,” he said, not looking at her but instead staring at the horse as if grooming her was a vital mission. His brush strokes got more determined. “My daughter loves horses.”

Myra remembered his file. A son and daughter, ages six and eight. He was currently separated from them and his young wife while he went through class after class in anger management. Myra thought some good gallops along the trails behind Kate’s barn would do more to help than all the therapy, and she hoped he’d stick with the program long enough to try out her theory.

“After a few weeks, we’ll schedule some times when you can bring your family to the barn. By then you’ll be able to show your daughter how to groom and ride Frosty.” Something positive to offer them, instead of pain.

Blake paused with his arm in midstroke. “I’d like that,” he said, resuming his resolute grooming.

Myra turned finally toward Ainslee. She had been avoiding personal contact because she wasn’t certain how to handle her obvious interest. She had been hoping to get through the lesson with minimal resurfacing of sad memories—and that hadn’t worked—but now she was drawn to one of her students. Ainslee was beautiful, and based on Myra’s reading of her file, she had intelligence and integrity. In a normal situation, Myra wouldn’t have fought her attraction, but Ainslee came with more tangled strings than a game of cat’s cradle. She had been having trouble coping with her injury, and the subsequent problems were more than Myra was willing to handle. Ainslee had abandoned every attempt to help her—from physical therapy to a variety of counseling methods. Myra worried she’d quit this program, too, before the horses had a chance to break her out of her protective shell. So many professionals had tried to help Ainslee—what could Myra hope to do? Get close enough so she’d be destroyed if Ainslee decided to take the way out that Jeffrey had chosen? Not a chance.

Ainslee was standing as far from Deacon as she could, reaching out so the currycomb barely skimmed his body. Deacon’s dark, liver-chestnut coat was flecked with gray, but he had the proud, arched neck typical in a Morgan, and a proud spirit to match. Myra had picked him for Ainslee the moment she saw her picture.

“He likes to be scratched here,” Myra said. She lifted Deacon’s heavy mane and found an itchy spot along the crest of his neck, near his withers. She held his mane out of the way and Ainslee tentatively used her currycomb on his neck. “Use a firmer motion,” Myra suggested. “You don’t have to be afraid of hurting him.”

Ainslee had to step closer to follow Myra’s suggestion, and Myra had a feeling that any fear Ainslee had was self-directed. She kept her body positioned so her right leg was farthest from the horse, and she seemed ready to jump to safety if necessary. She increased the pressure with her brush, however, and Deacon responded by curving his neck toward her and curling his upper lip in pleasure.

Ainslee laughed, and Myra realized it was the first sound she’d heard from her. A brief but musical glimpse of the vivacious person she used to be. The humor and joy were still there, however deeply buried.

“He likes it,” Ainslee said. Her voice was huskier than Myra had expected, a contrast to the facial expressions that fleetingly altered her mouth and eyes before disappearing and leaving her with a calm mask again.

“Yes. If you watch his ears and posture, you’ll be able to recognize when he’s nervous or relaxed or interested. See his left ear, how it’s tipped toward you? He’s paying attention to you and most likely hoping you’ll scratch him some more.”

Myra stepped back and watched Ainslee’s stance change slightly. She was still protecting her right side, but she was now paying attention to her horse, not just herself. One short laugh and three tiny words from Ainslee, and Myra found her even more appealing than before. She walked back to Drew for another round with each of her riders, even though she wanted to stagger into the barn’s lounge and lie on the comfy old sofa. She hadn’t done more than give a few instructions and carry on short conversations, but she felt a heavy weariness settle on her neck and shoulders. She had known them for only an hour, but she already cared about these people. She had been fooling herself to think she could escape from these sessions with her heart unscathed. Or shattered completely, she added, as she looked back at Ainslee.

Chapter Three

Two weeks later, Myra hoisted a sixty-pound bag of grain over her shoulder and carried it toward the feed room. The first four bags had been relatively easy to carry, but she was sagging under the weight of this one and they still had a dozen left before the truck was empty. She shifted to find a more comfortable position, and her muscles protested the extra movement. The summer day was mild, typical of an Oregon June, and she was dressed lightly in jeans and a red cotton tank, but she already felt a trickle of sweat between her breasts and down her spine.

Myra had spent most of her free time riding and working at barns, and she always reminded herself that the bright side of hauling bales of hay, bags of feed, and heavy wooden jumps meant she didn’t need to waste any time at the gym. Her hobby gave her plenty of exercise and kept her body in great shape. She felt her biceps flex as she repositioned the shifting bag. More muscle than your average woman, perhaps, but Myra liked the confidence her strength gave her. Today, however, with the stress of teaching harried teenagers during the last weeks of high school and working with her military students here at the barn, Myra felt depleted. She needed to find some way to energize herself again, before the three soldiers arrived for their lesson. Last week’s lesson had rushed by, as usual for the first time her students got to mount their horses. By the time they’d learned how to mount, had gotten their stirrups adjusted, and had been instructed in the basics of stop-go-steer, the lesson had been nearly over. Myra had been happy when the two hours rushed by with little time for any personal interaction. Now when she passed Kate—who was on a return trip to the full pickup truck—in the doorway, they playfully jostled each other as each tried to get through the door first.

“Ouch! My shoulder!” Myra winced when Kate was about to push past her, and then sped through the opening as Kate hesitated with a look of concern on her face. “Ha! You are too easy.”

“I’ll get you next time,” Kate said, sprinting toward the truck.

Myra hurried to drop the bag of grain on the ground next to the feed bin and jog back to the door. She had deliberately provoked Kate’s competitive side, and she wanted to keep her split-second time advantage. Turning the unloading process into a game would make it more strenuous, but also more fun. Myra would be even happier if she beat Kate through the door every time.

She saw Kate’s shadow and rushed to cross the threshold first. She braced her hands on either side of the door to keep from propelling herself into a collision with Kate. “I win again,” she said. Her laughter ended with a sharp exhale when she realized she was face-to-face with Ainslee instead of Kate. Ainslee, visibly startled by Myra’s sudden appearance, stepped back too quickly onto her right foot and lost her balance. Myra reflexively reached out and steadied her.

“Sorry about that. Are you hurt?” Myra felt as if a current passed between her and Ainslee where their skin was in contact, vibrations of the unreadable emotions behind the frown on Ainslee’s face. Myra wanted to let go, to regain her own equilibrium after the simple, yet intimate connection, but she kept her hand around Ainslee’s upper arm until she was certain she wasn’t going to fall. She still seemed uncertain on her prosthesis, even when walking a straight line, let alone during such an abrupt change of direction.

“I’m fine.” Ainslee shrugged away from Myra’s touch. “I saw you come in here and I…you said I should use a different saddle this week.”

“Right.” Myra motioned for Ainslee to follow her. She went into the adjoining tack room, walking slowly for Ainslee’s benefit.

“You don’t need to crawl.”

“This is my normal—” Myra turned and saw a scowl on Ainslee’s face. The same expression she had used during the entire lesson last week when the students rode for the first time. Ainslee had just witnessed her rapid exit from the feed room, so Myra’s false protests were meaningless. If she were in Ainslee’s position, she’d want to be treated as a capable adult, not a baby. “You have good mobility and don’t need to be coddled. I apologize.”


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