Emily Ralston stood in the hot sun holding the strong wooden gate
wide open and wondering how she'd gotten herself into this mess. She was hot, covered with dust and dirt, and slightly sweaty.
She was also uncomfortable in her stiff new jeans, her feet hurt, and she had a splinter in her thumb. She should have known
she would get herself into trouble the minute she went along with one of her friend Laura's crazy schemes.Laura had made it
sound like it would be fun helping out at the horse show, selling Emily on the idea of taking a day off of the daily routine
of dealing with her father's terminal cancer and her mother who was in the early stages of senile dementia. She pushed Emily
to get out of the house, see some new people. She stressed how nice the members of the riding club were. She pleaded that
the dust and the unseasonable heat were too much for her at that stage of her pregnancy. She complained that there wasn't
any place at the arena that was comfortable for her to sit and put her swollen feet up. She even laughed away Emily's protests
that she didn't know anything about horses.
"They'll stick you in the food stand, or ask you to help out the announcer,
something like that. You'll hardly even see a horse. I'll have Kate and her husband, Bob, watch out for you. Trust me." Laura
conned her with a smile, "And you know that I'll take good care of your folks, I'll even get Jack to help me."
So the job trade had taken place, Laura the riding club's show secretary,
was taking care of her parents, and Emily was standing in the hot sun at the horse show, covered with dust, acting as a glorified
doorman for rowdy gymkhana horses. Kate and her husband had not shown up because both of her twins had come down with the
flu. Worst of all, the people who seemed to be in charge at the horse show ignored her protests that she didn't like horses
or know anything about them and put her on duty at the arena gate.
Emily had learned several things about horses in just a few minutes.
First, they could smell terrible, or at least their leavings could. Second, they were dusty and dirty, and so was anybody
who happened to be around them. Third, they went through all kind of antics entering the arena. And last, she was to never,
ever open the gate until she was sure the rider inside was ready to exit the arena. Emily had even learned a few new words,
words she was sure she would never use herself, words like: hoof pick, sweat scraper, and pole bending.
She stood there, carefully keeping the gate between herself and the
dark brown horse entering the arena, waiting to close the gate behind him. This was one of the recalcitrant horses, intent
on backing away from the opening his rider was asking him to go through He was causing a lot of trouble, bumping into other
horses and upsetting them. Several of the other riders came up to help the girl get her horse to go in. They grabbed her reins
and led the horse up to the edge of the gate. Due to the rules, they couldn't lead the horse all the way in, they had to stop
at the gate and push the horse in. Some of the other riders even got behind the horse and slapped his rump, clicking at him
and at the same time avoiding the horse's hind hooves. The longer all this went on, the more frightened Emily got.
When they finally got the horse in, Emily was surprised to find someone
else helping her quickly push the gate closed behind the horse before the wild-eyed animal could try to get out.
"Thanks. I'm glad for the help." Emily said quietly, looking up into
the most startling green eyes she'd ever seen.
"You looked like you could use it." The man smiled at her, but the
smile didn't seem real somehow and his voice was stern as he asked. "You obviously don't know anything about horses. How did
you wind up with gate duty?"
"My friend Laura convinced me to help out today. She said it was for
charity. She also said it would be fun and that I wouldn't have to be close to any horses. I'm sorry if I'm not doing a good
job," Emily dropped her eyes, "but I'm a little afraid of these horses, they're so unruly."
"That's not what I meant, you're doing fine. Don't judge all horses
by these. These are gymkhana horses. Gymkhana is a timed sport, and these are fast, high-spirited horses. Sometimes they get
excited when they know they're going to run. Also some of the riders are more concerned with speed then they are with their
horse's manners, since there's no judge marking them on their form." He paused, "Contrary to what it seems, some of these
horses are highly trained and really enjoy what they do. Watch that horse now. You'll see that he's running on his own, and
that he turns easily, with very little steering from his rider."
The horse they had fought so hard getting into the ring was running
around some tall poles. Even to Emily's novice eyes the ride was smooth and balanced. The horse seemed to be running at breakneck
speed with very little urging from the teenage girl on his back. The horse came to a stop at the gate with a toss of his head
and pranced over to the gate. Emily opened the gate and let him out of the arena.
"See? He enjoyed his run. His rowdy behavior before was a sort of
stage fright, maybe an equine form of performance anxiety that was causing him to act up going in, but it was not fear. That
prance you see now is pure equine pride, he thinks he's hot stuff. Hell, he knows it." The man looked over at Emily, smiling
a genuine smile this time, "I'm David, by the way."
"I'm Emily." She smiled, relaxing for a minute while all the horses
went in for an awards ceremony.
David shook hands with Emily, noting her shy smile and also noticing
something more, a deep sadness in her eyes. A sadness her smile couldn't even begin to hide.
"It's nice meeting you, Emily. Excuse me, but I'm going to go find
the idiot who put you out here on the gate and skin him alive." The icy edge was back in his smile as he continued, "It's
just plain cruel to do that to someone who's afraid of horses. It's also dangerous, not only for you, because you don't know
how to avoid getting hurt, but also for the riders because you don't know how to help them or even how to tell when they need
"Couldn't you show me what to do, instead? I'd hate to cause any fuss."
Emily suggested, mainly because she was enjoying David's company. "I'm really not that afraid."
He couldn't possibly know how unaccustomed she was to any attention
from such a stunning man. David was about six feet tall, and lean but solidly built. Aside from those starting emerald green
eyes, he had wavy black hair, and handsome, chiseled features. He looked like he was in his early thirties.
"Okay, I'll work alongside you and help you get the hang of it." David
replied looking into her soft brown eyes, and noticing the eagerness in her expression, "But I'm still going to kick some
butt, if you'll pardon the expression."
"Hey Rusty!" He shouted up at the announcer, "Find Cliff and tell
him to high tail it over here."
A middle-aged man with a noticeable beer gut over an ornate silver
belt buckle ambled over to the gate, "So what's your problem, David?
"What idiot decided to put someone on the gate who's afraid of horses?"
He demanded, "It's not only stupid, and potentially dangerous, but
it's a hell of a way to treat a volunteer."
"I agree." He turned to Emily, "I'm sorry Ma'am, if you want, I'll
send someone out to relieve you as soon as possible."
"I'll be okay, I guess." She looked over at David. "David here said
he'd help me out."
"Well, shout up at Rusty if you want to be replaced, this is a horse
show not a slave labor camp." Cliff walked away only to return in a few minutes with a pair of cold beers. He handed one to
Emily and one to David. "Thanks again for helping us out, Ma'am, we surely do appreciate it."
"Thanks." Emily very seldom drank alcohol but she pulled the tab and
gulped the ice cold beer. She had forgotten to bring any cold drinks with her and it seemed like she was too busy to head
up to the cook shack. David watched with amusement as she drained her beer in one long gulp, handling her his unopened beer
as soon as hers was gone. There was something appealing about this girl, he decided. She was so determined to do this dirty
little job, and enjoy it, in spite of her shyness and the haunting sadness that never left her eyes.
"Here, take this. I have lots of cold drinks in my motorhome." He
"Thanks." Emily grinned, took the can, and drank the second beer more
As the next group of riders began to compete, David was by her side.
He not only helped her learn more about how to assist the riders but he also explained about the event. He went on to give
her insight into some of the horses and riders.
"See that big horse tied up over there?" David pointed.
"The brown and white one?" Emily asked.
"He's a pinto." David told her. "Watch the rider getting on him."
Emily was amazed to see a small girl of about four get on the pinto.
"That little girl is going to ride that big horse? Is that safe?"
"For most horses, a child like that would be much too young to handle
him safely, but that old horse has been around a long time and he has an extraordinary personality, watch." David grinned.
The girl's parents led her to the gate. The girl rode the horse in,
waited for the judge's signal and kicked the old horse. The veteran horse ran through the event with very little direction
from the rider. He wasn't going full speed but he still had a better time than most of the younger riders.
"Don't ever repeat this but I think that old boy would run just as
well without the rider." David whispered, "He only does one event."
After five or six more riders had gone, a very pretty blond woman
rode up to David and handed him the reins to a large black horse she was leading around. She was covered with dust, her face
devoid of makeup, and under her hat her hair was hanging in a long straight ponytail. She had on a western shirt and jeans,
and a pair of sunglasses that hid her eyes. Emily felt like there was something familiar about her but she couldn't place
it. She also couldn't help feeling a little resentful that this woman could look so good even under dusty, dirty conditions
when she herself didn't look that good on any given day in her life. Some girls have all the luck, she thought ruefully.
"Dave, you'd better get going, I'm after the next rider and you're
after me." The blond said, then she turned to Emily and smiled. "I'm sorry, was I interrupting?"
"Emily meet Nicole, Nicole this is Emily." He made the introductions.
"Hi," Emily said softly, slightly intimidated by Nicole's looks.
"Hi Emily, nice meeting you." Nicole looked Emily over, and then looked
from Emily to David, openly curious.
David turned to Emily, "Are you all right now?"
"Sure, I'm fine. Good luck." Regretfully she watched David swing up
onto the massive black horse and ride away.
The rider in the arena came out and Nicole rode in. Her horse was
very calm and well-trained Nicole had a good ride. David was next and his horse was also well mannered. In fact, watching
David ride his horse in, it was hard to believe the horse could or would run at all. The animal seemed so docile it was hard
to believe the massive animal was awake. David sat there, relaxed, barely holding the reins loosely in one hand, waiting for
the arena judge to signal him that he could begin his ride. When he received the signal, he took up the reins with both hands.
As soon as he gathered his reins, his horse visibly tensed, his powerful muscles bunched up, bursting with pent up energy.
At David's signal, he exploded through the course, weaving through the poles with speed and grace before coming to a stop
at the gate.
David waited for Emily to open the gate and rode out, exiting quietly
with his reins loosely held and his seat on the horse relaxed. Target was prancing a bit but he was very well-behaved. David
gave his reins to Nicole, who walked her horse and Target around, and he stayed near Emily while the next few riders went
and then went into the arena as the awards were announced. He won the class and received a small silver plate as an award.
He gave the plate to Emily as he left the arena.
"Here's a momento for helping us out today." He dismounted. "Let's
go get something to drink before they begin the next event."
"I can't take this, you won it." Emily protested, "And don't I have
to stay here?"
"I have plenty of 'em, Target here is pretty good." He patted the
horse with affection. "In fact, I usually don't take the awards home anymore, enough is enough." He smiled, taking Emily's
hand. "Come on, it only takes about five minutes for them to set up the next event."
David stayed by Emily the rest of the morning, only left her when
it was his turn to ride in the event. That's when the unexpected happened, David's horse lost his footing in the soft arena
dirt and fell. The horse got up quickly but David laid there for a moment, dazed not by the fall but because his horse had
brushed his head with one of his sharp hooves as he scrambled to his feet.
Emily ran into the arena, guided by instinct, and knelt beside David.
She ignored Target as she gently reached out a hand to the cut on David's forehead.
"Are you all right?" She asked with genuine concern in her voice.
"I'm fine." David got to his feet a bit stiffly and reached down a
hand to help Emily up.
"You really had me worried." She looked up at him.
David looked down at the worry in her eyes and felt a slight tightening
in his gut. "I'm okay." He slid his arms around her waist in a quick hug. Emily reveled in the brief, warm strength of his
arms, hardly aware of the soft rubbing on her shoulder.
"Emily? I think you're not nearly as afraid of horses as you think
you are." David said with a laugh in his voice.
"What?" Emily gradually realized that both of David's hands were on
her waist. The rubbing on her shoulder was Target. "What's he doing?"
"Using you as a scratching post." David told her, "Just slap his nose
and say NO if he's bothering you."
"I kind of like it." She scratched the velvet nose.
"Good. You lead him out of the arena, so I can watch him walk. I want
to make sure he's okay." David said.
She led the big horse away, with David watching for any sign of lameness.
Following David's request, she even ran a few steps, with the big horse jogging beside her. David took the horse when they
got to the arena gate, and left Emily to her duties while he walked the big horse around for a long time. This time, he skipped
the awards ceremony altogether and walked over to Emily.
"Come on, you can join me for lunch. They have a thirty minute lunch
break, that usually lasts about an hour and I have lots of food in the motorhome."
"How can a thirty minute break last an hour?" Emily quizzed.
"I don't know, it's just one of those things, like missing one sock
out of every load in the dryer." He told her.
"Or the fact that the pen closest to the phone is always out of ink?"
"You got it." David grinned. "Come on, let's eat. Believe me you don't
want to eat the food they fix at the cook stand. I think the losing competitors wind up in the burgers."
"Your kidding!" Emily shrieked, laughing.
"You'd better believe it." David laughed at her expression, earning
himself a playful punch on the arm. "These folks love their horses."
They walked over to where the motorhome was parked. David pulled the
hackamore off of Target and hung it on the saddle horn, then he hooked the left stirrup on the horn and loosened the cinch.
"Don't you tie him up?" Emily asked.
"Nope. As long as he has some hay, he'll stay put." David grinned,
"I wouldn't recommend this with most of these horses, though."
"How is he?" She asked with concern. "Did the fall injure him?"
"He's walking fine." David knelt and felt the horse's legs, finding
no heat, swelling or tenderness in them. "And I can't find anything wrong with his legs. I'll see how he is after lunch. Let's
"Why did you leave the stirrup up?" Emily asked as she followed him
into the motor home.
"So I remember to tighten the cinch up again before I remount. It's
one of my old habits." He dug into the refrigerator, "You can wash up in there, through the bedroom."
Emily went into the small bathroom of the motorhome and washed her
face and hands, grimacing as she saw herself in the mirror. How could any man spend time talking to her, she wondered. Her
self doubt doubled as she looked around the motorhome and saw a small framed picture sitting on the dresser. It was a picture
of a woman, a woman with uncommon beauty. Emily gasped as she recognized her. The woman in the picture was Nikki Silver, one
of the top models in the country. She was on the cover of at least one magazine a month. Her good looks were pure and classic,
perfect features, flawless skin, and dazzling almond-shaped eyes, brilliant blue eyes. Emily thought to herself, I should
have realized David would know a woman like that.
David had pulled several containers of food out and washed up at the
kitchen sink. He had set out paper plates and taken the lid off most of the containers by the time she emerged. There was
a beer sitting by her plate.
"This officially triples my beer consumption for the past year." She
grinned, holding up the bottle.
"We'll sign you up for A. A. next week." He grinned back, "Have some
"I'd love some," She said firmly, "but first I want to take a look
at that cut on your forehead."
"It's no big deal. That big clumsy lump out there just forgot to watch
out for me when he was getting up." David protested but he sat still and let her look at the cut.
"You're right. It's minor." Emily grinned, "Now I can enjoy my lunch."
"But that's not my worst injury." David protested.
"Oh really? Where else did you get hurt?" Emily was concerned.
"Where I landed." David grinned, "On my . . " He stood up and reached
for his belt buckle.
"Never mind, in that case you'll have to take care of the problem
all by yourself." Emily laughed, grabbing a piece of chicken.
"Darn." He grinned back at her with a mischievous glint in his eye.
They sat there, talking companionably while they ate. Aside from the
chicken, he had salads, carrot and celery sticks, cottage cheese, and a chocolate cake.
"So what do you think of your first horse show?" David asked her.
"Well, it's hot, dirty, long and yet fast paced." She paused. "I like
it, except for these darn jeans. I thought they were supposed to be comfortable but these are stiff as a board."
"Wash them several times, with lots of fabric softener." David paused
for a long swallow of his cola, "Not all horse shows are like this. Apart from gymkhana, there are equitation events where
horses are judged for their manners, and riders are judged for their seat and hands. They're run in both Western and English.
They can be almost boring to watch, unless you know what to look for. Then there's also show jumping, dressage and so on.
This is just the tip of the iceberg." He looked at her with mischief in his eyes, "Did you notice anything different about
horse shows from most sports?"
"Aside from the fact that you sit on poor innocent animals while you
compete?" Emily teased then she thought, "And that most of the competitors cheer each other on and help each other? No, not
unless you mean that men and women compete against each other as equals."
"I knew you'd spot it." David smiled, "There are separate events for
men and women in some of the shows, but for the most part the classes are separated by age, not by sex."
"Do you like competing against women?" She asked, a teasing note in
"I don't mind competing against women unless they beat me," David
grinned, "And believe me, that happens more often than I care to admit."
"What do you do when you're not riding in horse shows?" Emily asked.
"I'm a lawyer, mainly corporate these days but I also do a bit of
entertainment law." He shook his head ruefully, "I used to do criminal defense, but I got tired of defending so many people
that really did the terrible things they were accused of doing. Many times I thought they should be in prison or worse, which
made it hard to give them the kind of defense I was obligated to give them. What do you do?"
"I don't work now, I have obligations at home. I was just finishing
my BA. in business, going part-time, when things got so, um, messed up." Emily told him, the sadness in her eyes deepening.
David was just about to ask her what she meant by having obligations
at home when they heard the announcement that the lunch break was over, they started to put the leftover food away.
"Emily, would you go out to dinner with me after the show tonight?"
David asked impulsively.
"You're very nice David, but why would you want to go out with me?"
Emily's eyes dropped, "I mean I saw the picture in the bedroom, the picture of the model. If she's the type you usually date,
I'm not in your league."
"I wouldn't date him on a bet." Emily was startled to see Nicole standing
behind her, grinning. "Of course, if David wasn't my brother, I just might."
"You're his sister?" Emily found it hard to believe that the woman
standing in front of her, dirty and without makeup was that same glamorous woman she'd seen in all those magazines but it
was undeniable. "But you're a famous model."
"He's still my brother." Nicole went over to grab the rest of
the carrot sticks out of the refrigerator. She also grabbed a piece of fried chicken. "I have to run. Go out with him, Emily,
he's not so bad. Really."