“Dominic.” My tone scolded him, and I dropped his hand. Hanging on the fence next to Allison, I asked her, “Which one is your favorite?”
She pointed to a gleaming white horse. “Her name is Princess. Isn’t she pretty, Mom? She could be a unicorn!”
Ah, the simple delights of a young girl. I turned to Teddy, “Could you take us for a ride?”
“Sure can,” he said with enthusiasm. “Just lemme finish that last stall, and I’ll get ‘em tacked up.” He hopped off the fence and strolled back into the barn, picking up the pitch fork as he went to finish his chore.
Less than two minutes later, he came out carrying four lead ropes. He handed one to each of us and opened the gate. “Allison, you can get Princess. Just hook the lead on the hoop under her chin. She’ll follow you in like a puppy. Miss Ella, you can take Romeo. He’s the red dun over there.” He pointed to a tall horse with a coat the shined golden-red in the sun. “Sir,” he said to Dominic, “you get Rocky.” He pointed to a stocky buckskin off to the right.
“You can call me Dominic,” he said as he walked off, his stride and tenor indicating he wasn’t thrilled with the situation. I had no idea why, Dominic and I had gone horseback riding lots of times in our youth.
I watched Allison walk with Teddy to get Princess. He helped her hook the lead onto the horse’s halter and showed her how to lead her. Then he went off to collect his own horse. Romeo was a sweet boy. It was obvious how he got his name.
We gathered at the gate. Teddy led the way through, and closed it behind Dominic. Tying each horse to the fence, he went to get the saddles and bridles while we brushed the already clean animals. I enjoyed watching him tack up each horse, muscles rippling beneath his bronzed skin.
When he helped Allison into the saddle, she giggled with glee. Then he came to give me leg up. I didn’t think I needed it, but Romeo was a big boy, and I enjoyed watching Dominic’s irritation. So, I accepted Teddy’s linked hands, placing my left foot in them and swinging my right leg over the saddle as he lifted my weight effortlessly.
I stole a glance at Dominic astride Rocky. His body was tense as he watched me, and the horse stepped back and forth under him in response. But he looked good up there. I flashed him a smile, and he relaxed a bit.
“Y’all ridden before?” Teddy asked, swinging onto his strawberry roan.
“Dominic and I have,” I answered. “Allison’s been on a few trail ride type things, but no serious riding.”
“All right, then. Good to know. Follow me. Allison first. Dominic last.”
We fell into line as he led us along the fence line toward the spring-fresh forest at the end. For a while I just enjoyed the peace of the area, the joy of my little girl riding her “unicorn,” the sway of the horse beneath me. I let it wash over me until the horror of my life began pushing it’s ugly reality back to the forefront of my thoughts little by little, and tears rolled down my face. I wiped them away as we passed through the trees.
The trail followed the creek, but a little while later we exited the trees into a large meadow. Teddy turned around and spoke to Allison. “We’re gonna trot. All you gotta do is hold on to the horn on the saddle. Princess won’t let you fall.” He lifted his head and met my eyes. I nodded my okay.
Romeo didn’t like being at the back of the pack, so I trotted up beside Allison. The exhilaration on her face was enough to keep the evil at bay for a while longer.
Teddy turned to me. “You can lope ‘im, if you want, Miss Ella. Just stick to the edge of the field.”
I trotted up next to him. “Please just call me Ella, Teddy,” I said before giving Romeo his head and squeezing him into a lope. The wind blowing on my face, whipping my hair into tangles behind me, I leaned forward and urged the horse to go faster. I could hear the hoofbeats of another horse behind us, but my steed was fast. A quarter horse built for racing that famous quarter-mile.
I pulled up at the corner of the field, allowing Dominic and Rocky to catch up. I beamed at him, and he returned it. “Race ya!” I yelled, giving Romeo a swift kick as I leaned forward again.
They stayed just behind us, but kept pace. As we rounded the slight curve of the tree line, I slowed again. We were far ahead of Teddy and Allison trotting along. I let Romeo walk, and Dominic had Rocky fall in beside us.
“You know, I was serious about what I said back at the barn,” he said with a smile.
I patted my horse’s neck. “You here that, Romeo? Apparently you’re not the only Romeo around these parts. Although you do have better moves.” Here I turned to look at Dominic, giving him a devilish grin.
“Out done by a horse,” he dramatized. His eyebrows quirked at me, and one corner of his mouth turned up. “And possibly by said horse’s owner, too,” he added.
“Oh, he is yummy. No doubt.” I looked down the field toward the other two riders for good measure. “And he’s great with Allison. She adores him.” I let it hang in the air. No matter my attractions, too much was already screwed up to go screwing around even more. Still, it was fun to play. Healthy.
After our long trail ride, we helped Teddy untack and clean up the horses. Allison took the opportunity to learn all she could about horse care, which made me think I might be looking into lessons when we got back home. If we went home.
While she trailed after Teddy, helping him with the born chores, Dominic and I sat in the hay stacked in the open corner of the barn. The earthy smells of horse, hay, and manure grounded me. I leaned back against the bales behind me and closed my eyes.
The feather touch of Dominic’s finger trailing up and down my arm was hypnotizing. I drifted into a half-sleep state, aware of my surroundings, but seeming to float at the edge of a dream. Fingers pulled gently through my hair. A soft caress along my jaw, over my lips. Enticing. My lips parted, and the touch deepened. My tongue snaked out to wet the tingling skin. Feathers slid down my neck, lifting my chin to the side. Warmth dotted where the feathers left, starting at my collar and slowly creeping up to my ear.
He took my earlobe into his warm, wet mouth, tugging gently. Large, gentle hands cradled my head as his lips danced along my jaw, leaving a trail of sweet expectation. That warm thumb teased my parted lips before his tongue traced desire along the curves. Then his mouth was on mine. Gentle, kneading lips pressed their possession on my own. And I accepted that possession willingly, opening my mouth to devour him, wrapping my arms around his strong back. It had been too long since I’d felt him this way.
“Michael,” I murmured into the kiss.
And that ended my dream. As the warmth pulled away from me, my snapped open to find Dominic staring at me. His eyes wore the pain of a broken heart. He turned from me and stood.
I grabbed for him, catching his wrist. “Dominic,” I said, my voice rough from my light slumber and the shock of dream versus reality. He stopped, but didn’t turn. “Dominic, please. I fell asleep. I was dreaming. Please. Don’t be angry.”
He sighed. “I’m not angry, Ella. I understand. A lot’s happened in the past couple days. In your heart, you’re married to Michael. I should’t have pushed you. I’m sorry.” He tugged lightly at his arm, and I let go.
“Please don’t go,” I said in a low voice. “Please. Don’t leave me.” Until the words were spoken I hand’t realized I felt that way. But there it was. I had grown accustomed to having Dominic there. He had become my rock, on which I leaned when I needed support. In the past forty-eight hours I had lost everything but Allison, and Dominic had been there for me through it all. Despite what I said about him possibly ordering the hit on Cassie and Michael, and despite how Officer Brecky felt about him, I realized that I trusted him wholly. That was why I was there, with him, instead of hiding out in a cop-appointed safe house.