“You have to be kidding!”
Kim Kovak shrank back at the fury in her best friend’s voice.
Dixie’s blue eyes flashed. “After what he did to you?”
“He’s sick, Dixie. I can’t just abandon him.”
“And why not? Peter certainly had no qualms about leaving you to face months of physical therapy and psychological trauma all by yourself.”
Kim looked away. “I know. It’s hard to believe that I feel this way, but he asked me to help. I feel like I have to do this.”
Dixie shook her head vehemently. “I disagree. What the hell is so important that he needs to drag you into it? You just got your life back together.” She leaned into Kim’s face. “And what about Garrett? Huh? What about him?”
“Garrett said he understood. We talked a couple of days ago. He’s all about doing the right thing, so why wouldn’t he be okay with it?”
“Because after all he’s been through, he was willing to let down his guard and take a chance with you. I hardly think this will help your relationship with him.”
Kim watched Dixie’s angry expression change to disgust. In Kim’s wildest imagination, she hadn’t expected her best friend to react like this about the reappearance of Kim’s ex-fiancé. Perhaps Dixie was right, but she couldn’t know for sure how Kim felt. Kim herself wasn’t sure why she’d stepped through that door to the past.
Dixie crossed her arms. “So, what’s this big thing Peter wants you to help him with?”
Kim closed her eyes briefly. “I don’t know yet, but something bad has happened, I’m sure of that. I’ll find out tonight. Please try to understand, Dix. I need your support in this.”
Dixie’s features softened and she nodded. “Okay, I’ll try. But don’t let whatever it is destroy your chances with Garrett.”
Later that morning, Kim stepped through the barn door at Running Brook, pausing to let the ambience surround her and filter into her soul. No matter how hard her day had been or how unhappy she might feel, the sounds and smells of the stables were a salve. Today was no different.
A loud whinny reverberated through the rafters and her horse’s handsome head popped over the stall door. He called again, emphasizing his enthusiasm by banging his hoof against the door.
Kim laughed and walked toward the horse that had saved her life. Not literally, she mused, but he’d given her purpose and a way to move past the horror of her own history.
Bandit’s soft muzzle pushed and prodded Kim’s pockets, searching out the carrots she always brought. While he munched, Kim stroked his sleek neck and let the peace of the moment saturate her mind.
A moment later, she grabbed his halter off the hook outside the stall.
“You, my boy, are going to get a good workout today. It’s spring and I’m so ready for a trail ride, I can taste it.”
“Great idea! Want some company?”
Kim whirled around. “Sandy Barnes! How the heck are ya?”
“Dying to ride. I haven’t been on Lacey in over a month.”
Kim stepped outside the stall. “Really? Been too busy?”
“No, I had pneumonia. Really knocked me off my feet, but the doc says I can go back to my normal life now.” She laughed. “Whatever that is.”
Kim shook her head. “That’s awful. But yes, I’d love your company.”
“I’ll meet you outside in about fifteen minutes.”
Kim nodded, then headed for the tack room. Across the aisle, Sandy talked to her pretty chocolate brown mare. Kim smiled, understanding completely the connection she had with her special horse. As Kim approached the tack room, she automatically glanced toward the far corner where Garrett Quaid’s horse had been stalled the last time she’d visited. She stopped and stared in surprise. The black Morgan was still there.
She took a few steps toward the stall, remembering the horse’s animosity toward women.
“Hey, Commander,” she said softly. “How you doin’, buddy?”
His ears pricked forward and his dark eyes looked directly at her. She said his name again and he chuckled deep in his throat, but remained at the back of his stall.
Slowly, she approached the door, ready at any moment to leap backward if he lunged for her.
He stood quietly, watching. His ears remained up, his nostrils flared to catch her scent.
What am I doing? she thought.
At that close distance, she could clearly see the scar running down the center of his face. Anger boiled inside her again. How anyone could abuse an animal was beyond her comprehension. A cruel person had taken a riding crop to Commander’s beautiful face, just because he’d panicked from being tied up too close to the wall. Kim touched her pocket, feeling the outline of her gun, remembering how she’d wanted to hunt down that abuser and make her pay.
She let out a soft breath and stepped up to the stall door. “How come you’re still here, boy?”
Commander’s ears flicked and he shook his head, but didn’t move from his safe spot in the corner.
Kim sighed and turned away. The last she’d heard, Garrett had planned to move Commander to another barn. What had changed? With all the turmoil surrounding Peter’s sudden appearance, she’d been out of touch with Garrett. A murmur moved through her chest as she remembered that afternoon and the almost-kiss just before Peter knocked on her door. Crummy timing.
In the tack room, she took down her saddle and collected Bandit’s bridle, trying not to think about the series of events that had changed her life so completely in such a short time. Changed it, but not for the better.
Sandy’s smile was as bright as the morning sun as they walked the horses along the fence line, heading toward the forest trail.
“I can’t believe how much I missed riding Lacey while I was ill.”
“Amazing, isn’t it? I had some tough times with my injured leg, so I haven’t ridden either. But the leg seems fine now and I need to catch up. We can recuperate together.”
A soft spring breeze played across her face as they entered the shade just before the tree line. Bandit’s ears pricked and his pace picked up. Lacey nickered and quickened her step too. As Kim and Sandy fell into single file along the trail, Sandy commented on how well the two horses got along.
Kim chuckled. “Yeah, Bandit’s had a crush on her since the first day we met.”
“Oh, you mean when he dumped you on the track?”
Sandy’s infectious laugh echoed through the trees.
“Don’t remind me. I had no business trying that stunt by myself.”
“If you hadn’t, we might not have become friends.”
Kim turned in the saddle and looked back. “Good point. Speaking of which, thanks for the lead on that horse show this weekend. Your friend was delighted that I could be the photographer.”
“It’s a nice organization. They haven’t been around long, but I think they’ll grow.”
The two women rode in companionable silence for the next twenty minutes until the forest opened up onto a lovely meadow.
Sandy moved up beside Kim and stopped. “Gosh, this is beautiful. We should bring a picnic lunch next time.”
“Great idea. Let’s plan…” Kim’s voice trailed off as she noticed a movement in the tall grass off to the left. “What’s that?”
Sandy craned her neck to see where Kim pointed. “I don’t see anything.”
The grass rustled again, as though an animal moved through it.
“Probably just a pheasant or turkey,” said Kim.
As she spoke the words, the grass parted thirty feet in front of them and two small black bear cubs frolicked onto the trail.
Both horses shifted nervously, ears pricked forward, nostrils wide.
“Uh oh,” Kim whispered. “Don’t move.”
The cubs wrestled and rolled around on the ground, then stood on their stubby little legs and boxed, making grunting and squeaking noises.
“They are so cute,” whispered Sandy.
Kim shook her head violently and put a finger to her lips. They had to get out of there as quickly as possible. She nodded back toward the trees. Sandy looked scared, but quietly gathered her reins.
Suddenly a deafening roar filled the air and mama bear charged out of the tall grass toward her cubs. Lacey reared and Sandy screamed as she flew out of the saddle. Kim watched in horror as the brown mare raced away into the woods, leaving her rider on the ground, defenseless in the presence of the bear.
Trying to keep her tone normal, Kim spoke to Sandy. “Don’t move, keep your head down.”
For the longest minutes, Kim watched the female bear assess the situation. At one point, she swung her massive head toward her cubs, who’d retreated to the edge of the tall grass to await orders. Would she decide they were in no danger, and go away?
Kim almost threw up as the bear began to move slowly toward Sandy’s body. Stay still, Sandy. Don’t move. Kim silently urged her friend to stay alive. At that moment, Kim realized that Bandit had not moved a muscle. Even his ears were quiet, his face straight forward.
Slowly, Kim moved her hand to her gun, easing it out an inch at a time, her finger searching for the safety. She did not want to shoot this animal, but it might be necessary.
Suddenly, Bandit bolted from his rigid stance and charged toward the cubs. Kim’s gun fell to the ground as she tried to rein him in. The cubs squealed and began to run down the trail. The action distracted the mother bear and she turned to follow them, stopping once to look back at Bandit who now stood quietly in the tall grass. A moment later, the bear family disappeared from view. Kim jumped down and raced over to where Sandy lay.
“Sandy! Are you okay?”
Sandy lifted her head slowly. “Am I dead yet?”
Kim crumpled into a heap on the ground beside her. “Thank God. Listen, we need to get out of here. She might come back after she makes sure her kids are okay.”
Sandy rolled over, then got to her feet. “Damn. That was certainly memorable.”
Kim leaned down and collected her gun, dusting the dirt off the barrel and securing the safety again.
When she looked up, Sandy’s features formed a hard mask. “What the hell are you doing with that?”
Kim cocked her head. “Have you forgotten that I’m an ex-cop?”
Sandy took a step back. “Ex is the key word here. Why would you bring that along on a trail ride?”
Kim holstered the weapon and put her hands on her hips. “Habit. But if I’d had to shoot the bear to save your life, would that make a difference?”
Sandy’s face paled and she turned away. “Sorry. I just have baggage about guns. Right now, I need to find my horse.”
Kim glanced back at the area where the bears had disappeared, then grabbed Bandit’s reins and moved up beside Sandy. “We can talk about it later, okay?”