Dragon snorted like his namesake, eyeing the suspicious bush in front of him warily.His ears pricked forward as his body axis shifted backward, all four feet firmly planted.He wasn’t going anywhere until I convinced him the small shrubbery wasn’t hiding a tiger or something equally as deadly to horses.Since we were in Florida, it could have been hiding an alligator.Well, a baby one at any rate.
I patted the large bay animal’s furry neck.“C’mon Dragon.There’s nothing there.It’s just a plant.You eat these, for goodness sake!”
Dragon butted me with his head, causing me to step backward.He tried to walk turn around, back toward the barn, but I gently re-directed him around the evil bush.He trotted next to me as we passed the evil thing, blowing his breath out through his nose.Once we were safely past the predatory plant, he settled into a fast walk, stopping occasionally to grab a bite of grass.
Josh, Alannah, and I had arrived in Ocala the day before to get the barn ready for the horses.Five horses traveled from The Hollow Hills in Vermont to the showgrounds in Ocala, Florida.The long trip tended to be rough on the animals, so after allowing Dragon a little bit of time to settle into his new stall, eat some hay and drink some water, I took him out for a walk to stretch his legs.It was crucial we monitor them all for signs of colic after travelling for two days straight.
So far, Dragon looked great—just full of energy.I didn’t really blame him.I’d be sick of being on a trailer for that long too.Dragon whinnied and walked even faster when he spied a beautiful dapple gray walking around the field ahead of us.The gray answered him, prompting a quite-loud horsie conversation.Dragon pulled on his lead rope, trying to drag me over to the other horse.I walked him in a circle in an attempt to distract him.
The man leading the gray headed our way.“Maybe if we walk together, these guys will settle down.If you don’t mind, that is.”
I tensed and braced against Dragon, trying to keep him away from the gray.Also, I still wasn’t comfortable around strangers.“I don’t think we have a choice.”
“Yeah, these two seem pretty desperate to meet each other.He’s not a stallion, is he? This guy’s a gelding.”
“No, Dragon’s a gelding too.”
“This is Ozzy.Short for Ozymandias, not Osborne.”
I smiled.“Good to know.I’d be worried about him biting, otherwise.”
The man laughed.“He’s a giant teddy bear.”
The two horses stretched their necks out until their noses touched.They blew air into each other’s nostrils, then squealed and stamped their feet at the same time.
“C’mon, Dragon.You can walk with your new friend.”
The horses settled immediately, walking calmly several feet apart.We walked together for several minutes, until we reached the other side of the field.
“You must have just arrived.I haven’t seen you around here before.Let me guess… somewhere up north?”He looked me over.“You haven’t been here long enough to get a tan.And Dragon still has his winter coat.”
His scrutiny made me slightly nervous, but I didn’t get a sense of danger from the man.I laughed.“Yeah, we arrived from Vermont yesterday to get things set up, and the horses got here about an hour ago.He’s going to get clipped later today, after he settles down.”
“I’m Patrick, by the way.Patrick O’Malley.”
“Galen McLeod.”There was something familiar about Patrick, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Nice name.”Patrick smiled.
“Thanks.”My pocket buzzed, and I pulled my phone out.I had a text from Alannah asking me to return to the barn.“Sorry, but I’ve been summoned.Duty calls.It was nice meeting you and Ozzy.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you and Dragon too.”
I had to pull a little bit to get Dragon to leave his new friend, but he followed me placidly back the barn, and didn’t even look at the horse-eating bush we passed earlier.
Going to Florida for the winter circuit was an easy decision for me.Josh tried to talk me out of it, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being away from him for so long, even though he said he’d come back home in between competitions. I told him that was stupid and too expensive. I didn’t want either Josh or Alannah to give anything else up for me.They’d done so much for me, I wanted to pay them back.So going to Florida to work for The Hollow Hills was a no-brainer.
Josh and I had a bit of a fight about my going.He was being overprotective, but I felt ready for the challenge.He was worried the competitive atmosphere would be too stressful for me, but I reassured him I could handle it.I was doing much better with my anxiety and PTSD symptoms.Josh’s proposal three months ago had given me the confidence in our relationship I needed.We hadn’t set a date for the wedding yet, but we weren’t in a hurry.We would know when it’s time.
Adam, Josh and Alannah’s adopted son, was due to arrive from Europe in a few days.I was looking forward to meeting him.He would compete and also work for the farm.So between the four of us, we’d have no problem taking care of five horses.
Dragon was brought along so he could experience the show grounds without the added pressure of competition.He’d experienced abuse at the hands of his former trainer, and showing had become such an ordeal for the poor animal that he’d enter the ring and refuse to jump.Alannah brought him to the Hollow Hills with the intention of turning him out for several months to help him get past his abuse.Josh started riding him in secret, helping both of them heal in the process.
So Dragon was my responsibility in Florida.My job was to take him for walks around the show grounds, let him graze in the fields, give him baths, and otherwise just let him relax.Josh would ride him when he had time and the warm up rings weren’t full of stressed horses and riders getting ready to compete.
Alannah had her first class the day after we arrived, so I had my first initiation into the world of show jumping.We arrived at the barn at 5:00 am, and between Alannah’s classes, taking care of the horses, and Alannah and Josh coaching other riders, we didn’t get back to the hotel until 9:00 pm.I was so exhausted, I fell asleep before Josh was done showering.
The following day wasn’t quite as intense, but we still needed to be to the barn by 5:00 am.I had a bit of a break at lunchtime, so after feeding the horses, I grabbed a cup of coffee and my lunch and headed for the field I thought of as Dragon’s, since we spent so much time walking around it.There was a large oak tree in the middle of it, which was a perfect place to relax away from the bustle of the show grounds.
I was halfway through my sandwich, lost in my thoughts, when a voice snapped me out of my musings.
“Mind if I join you?”Patrick smiled and held up his lunch bag.
He sat next to me, opened his bag, and removed a burger.
“That looks good,” I said.
“Check out the Burger Hut near the international ring.Their food is amazing.”
“I will, thanks.”
“Have you been to Florida before?”
I shook my head.“Nope.I used to live in Texas, so the heat doesn’t bother me, even though I’ve gotten used to New England winters.”
“That’s a bit of a change. What brought you to New England from Texas?”
“I grew up in Vermont, then moved to Houston with my boyfriend after we graduated from college.I moved back after we broke up.”
He smiled when I mentioned ‘boyfriend’.“It’s never easy when relationships end.How long were you together?”
“Yeah, ouch.It’s OK, though.It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”I took a bite of my sandwich.
“I normally spend winters on the European indoor circuit, but decided I needed a change this year.Florida weather sounded pretty appealing.My clients agreed, so here we are.”
“Well Dragon is glad you and Ozzy are here.I’ve never seen him take to another horse so quickly.”
“Is he yours?”
I shook my head and laughed.“My horse is back home.I don’t think Buck would fit in here.He’s not exactly a show horse.”
Patrick smiled.“Nothing wrong with that.Are you showing him?”
“Nah.I’m not good enough to be in a show.I’m still a beginner.Dragon’s here to take in the atmosphere without the stress of competing.He’s had some bad experiences.I’m here as a groom.”
“I train both riders and horses.I have clients and horses of all levels.I’m going to move Ozzy up to the meter forty level.I think he’s ready.He’s pretty special.”
My phone rang with Josh’s ringtone.I tapped to answer it. “Hey.”
“Hey, sweetheart. You about done with lunch?Someone’s bringing over a horse for Alannah to try, and we could use your help here.”
“Yeah, sure.I’ll be right there.”I disconnected the call.“Sorry.Gotta head back to the barn.”I stood.“Nice seeing you again.”
A look of disappointment flashed across Patrick’s face.“Yeah, you too.I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
I returned to the tree the next day to eat lunch again, and found Patrick already there, eating a slice of pizza. He grinned when he saw me.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said.
I laughed.“It’s a great spot.Away from the noise and bustle.I probably should have brought Dragon, but it’s nice to get away for a few minutes.”I sat next to Patrick and held up a white, paper bag.“I took your advice.”
“Yup.”I opened the bag and took out a bacon double cheeseburger.“If it tastes as good as it looks, I think we have a winner.”
“I doubt you’ll be disappointed.”Patrick dipped his pizza into a small, plastic container containing a white sauce, then took a large bite.I looked at him strangely.“Bleu cheese.I can’t eat pizza without it.”
“We all have our quirks,” I replied. I took a bite of burger and immediately grabbed a napkin to catch the juices running down my chin.The bacon was cooked perfectly.Not overcooked, like most places did, but with the fat nice and crispy, allowing it to melt in my mouth.I moaned, my eyes rolling back in my head.“Oh, this is good!”
Patrick shifted next to me.“I wouldn’t steer you wrong.”
“Well if you have any other recommendations, let me know.This is fantastic!”I popped a few fries in my mouth.They were the battered kind, fried to a golden brown.I’d be visiting the Burger Hut more in the future.
“Galen, I hope I’m not too far off the mark here, but Friday is Valentine’s Day, and well… I was hoping I could take you out to dinner.”He looked at me hopefully, his blue eyes bright, but crinkled with worry.
I set my burger down.“Oh gosh… I’m flattered, really. But I have a fiancé.”
Patrick’s eyes widened, and his face turned red.“Of course… I shouldn’t have assumed you were single.I thought… well, never mind.”He looked away.“I’m just a foolish old man.”
“You’re not foolish.If I wasn’t engaged, I’d have said yes.”
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“Did it work?”
He nodded, the corner of his mouth uplifting slightly.“Yeah.”
“Good.I enjoy our lunches together.I hope we can continue.”
“Of course we can.”
“Good.Now tell me how Ozzy’s doing.”
Two days later, I had Dragon on the cross-ties, saddled and ready for Josh.It was early afternoon and there was a break in between classes, so the warm up rings were pretty empty.It was the perfect time for Dragon to get some exercise.Josh hurried into the barn, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt.I frowned.
“What’s going on?I thought you were going to ride now?”
“Sorry, sweetheart.Change of plans.Alannah has a lead on a good jumping prospect and wants me to take a look.”
I patted Dragon’s neck.“OK. I can take him for a walk instead.”I lifted the saddle flap to undo the girth.
“Why don’t you ride him?He’ll be fine.Just do lots of trotting and a little bit of cantering.”
I raised an eyebrow.“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.It will be good for both of you.You can use my helmet.I’ll give you a leg up before I leave.”
“OK.Sounds good.” I grinned.I’d been missing riding.This would be fun.I put on Josh’s helmet and undid the cross-ties.After putting Dragon’s bridle on him, I led him outside.
Josh stepped close to me.“Adam will be back shortly.I’ll have him check on you.Just relax, and have fun.”He kissed me.
I gathered the reins and put one hand in front of the saddle and one hand on the back of it.I stood with my left leg in the air. Josh put his hands on my raised calf and, after three hops, boosted me into the saddle.I landed lightly and put my feet into the stirrups.Josh adjusted them to my comfort before leaving for his meeting.
Dragon walked quietly forward when I asked him to, ears pricked forward.The closest warm up ring was just past the field we usually took our walks in.As we approached the field, Dragon raised his head and quickened his pace.I could feel his body tense underneath me.He whinnied loudly and pranced in place as I tightened the reins, asking him to slow down.He bolted after hearing an answering whinny, and galloped toward the field.
I bounced all over his back and pulled futilely on the reins.My heart pounded.Fuck!The first time I was trusted with a show horse, and I screw it up!Dragon made a beeline toward Ozzy and Patrick.I tugged on the left rein, trying to turn him away before he crashed into them.At the last minute, he skidded to a stop, nickering to his friend.The sudden stop in deceleration caused me to go flying over Dragon’s neck, and I hit the ground, hard.
“Galen!Are you OK?”Patrick was beside me in an instant, holding onto both horses.
I sat up gingerly.Nothing felt broken.Just bruised.Like my ego.“I think so.”
“He saw Ozzy and just took off.I couldn’t stop him.”
A small crowd had gathered around.Someone took the horses from Patrick.He crouched next to me.“Does anything hurt?”
I shook my head.“Just bruises, I think.I’m more embarrassed than anything.”
“Don’t be embarrassed.It happens to all of us.You said you’re a beginner.What were you doing riding him outside of an arena?”
The crowd parted as Josh appeared, a look of panic on his face.“Galen!Are you hurt?”He knelt by my other side.
“I’m fine.” I moved to stand, but Josh stopped me.
“You might have a spinal injury.You should be checked out before you get up.”
“Oh my God… I’m fine!”I brushed him aside and stood.The crowd dispersed, minus the two men holding Ozzy and Dragon.
Patrick brushed the back of my shirt with his hand.“You’re covered in dirt.”
Josh glared at him.I had enough.I backed away from both of them.
“I’m not an invalid, for fuck’s sake!”
Josh and Patrick were both silent, staring at each other.Josh’s face was white.He looked like he’d seen a ghost.Patrick had a wistful look on his face.
“Hello, Josh,” Patrick said.
“Patrick… I had no idea you were here.”
“You can’t even say ‘hello’?”
It clicked then.Why Patrick looked so familiar.I’d seen him before.In old pictures and news clippings, standing next to Josh and Blackjack, his former show jumper who’d suffered a tragic accident.It was why Josh had stopped riding for so long.Patrick had been his trainer.And lover.
I’d been eating lunch everyday with my fiancé’s former lover.
And he’d asked me out.
Thank God I hadn’t told Josh that part.
“Sorry… wow… hello.I’m just surprised to see you, is all.”
“I bet.It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah.It has,” Josh replied quietly.Josh’s phone dinged and he fished it out of his pocket.He read the text and frowned.“Alannah’s waiting.”He looked at me.“Are you sure you’re OK?I can tell her to continue without me.”
I shook my head and smiled.“Go.I can take care of Dragon.”
“I’ll see if I can find a lesson horse for you to ride.”
“We can talk about it later.”
“Yeah, sure.”He looked at Patrick.“It was…good to see you.”He ducked his head and walked quickly away.
“He’s your fiancé, isn’t he,” Patrick said softly.
I nodded.“Now I know why you looked familiar to me.I’ve seen you in pictures with Josh and Blackjack.”
He winced at the mention of Blackjack.“I’m surprised he still has them.”
“They were hidden away until a couple of years ago.Alannah found them, and I kind of made him face his past.”
Patrick snorted.“He never was one to deal with his issues head on.”
“Well that much hasn’t changed.Getting him to deal with anything is like pulling teeth.”
“I loved him, you know.But I think a part of me realized he didn’t feel the same way.Or at least wasn’t capable of showing it.After the accident… he just left.No word to me.One day, he was just gone.It hurt like hell at the time.”
“I bet.”I paused.“I think he did love you.Based on the way he’s talked about you.But yeah, I doubt he was capable of showing it at the time.”
Patrick clenched his jaw.“Thank you.”
“I better get Dragon back to the barn.”I headed toward the barn, Dragon walking quietly next to me.“See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you,” Patrick replied, sounding surprised.
“Are you sure we don’t need to be there?” I asked.It was Valentine’s Day, and also the night of a qualifying class for Alannah.If she made the top ten, she’d advance to the big grand prix on Sunday.
“Nope.Alannah and Adam have it covered.She was actually quite insistent we not be there.”
I pouted.“It’s nice to be needed.”
Josh stepped close and placed his hand on my cheek.He rubbed circles just behind my ear.He knew exactly what to do to distract me.I closed my eyes and leaned into his touch, putting my arms around him.“I hope you’re hungry.”
I opened my eyes and smirked.“I’m starving.What’s on the menu?”The look on his face told me I was, but I decided to be playful.
“You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Spoilsport.”I glanced at the fridge.“I already know what you’re making.I saw the groceries.Mac and cheese and meatloaf sounds perfect.”
“I wanted to do something fancier, but I didn’t have time for anything too involved.I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?My favorite meal?I’m looking forward to some home cooked food since I’ve been eating so much take out.”
Josh kissed my neck, right below my ear.“We have about forty-five minutes before everything’s ready.”
“Oh?We do, huh?Maybe there’s something good on TV.”
He ignored me and kissed along my jaw until he reached my mouth, at which point we were done talking.
“The roses are beautiful.” I forked a giant chunk of meatloaf into my mouth.
“Sorry I didn’t have a chance to get you a better present.I’m glad you like them.”
“Better present?Are you nuts? You got me flowers, made me dinner… we had some fun time.”I waggled my eyebrows.
Josh laughed.“Fun time?How old are you?”
I grinned.“Younger than you, old man.Seriously though, this is great.”I placed my hand over his.“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“So did you talk to Patrick today?”
His face hardened for a minute, then softened.“Yeah, we had a long talk.”
I’d encouraged Josh to take my place at the tree for lunch so he and Patrick could talk.I wasn’t sure Josh would be willing to, but he actually agreed to right away.
“We cleared a lot of things up.It was nice seeing him again.Apart from you and Henri, Patrick is the only other man who actually loved me.I was too young and foolish to realize it at the time.”
I nodded.Josh had looked lighter when he had returned from lunch.I was relieved they’d been able to reconcile their differences. “I’m glad you worked things out.He seems like a great guy.”
“Yeah, he is.” Josh paused. “You didn’t tell me he asked you out.”
“Hey, he has good taste.”I stood and walked over to my suitcase.I opened it and removed a rectangular package.I returned to the table and handed it to Josh.“Here’s your present.”
He smiled as he took it.“You got me a present?”
“Don’t look so surprised.Romance is my thing, remember?”
He laughed.“How could I forget?”He ripped the paper off the package and gasped when he saw the contents.
It was a picture frame containing two side-by-side photographs.One I had taken with my phone when Josh didn’t realize it.He had just finished a ride on Dragon and stood next to him, their faces touching.He had a look of pure contentment on his face.It was my favorite picture of him.
The second was an almost identical pose, only featuring a much younger Josh and a jet black horse with a blaze down his face.It was taken by Patrick after Josh and Blackjack won their first major competition.
“Galen… I....”He looked at me, tears streaming down his face.“It’s beautiful,” he whispered.“Thank you.”
We stood at the same time, and he wrapped his arms around me.“You’re incredible, sweetheart,” he muttered into my neck. “My darling Galentine.”
I laughed.“I think that’s the cheesiest and most adorable thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“I’m going to have to start calling you that now.” He grinned.
“Oh hell, no,” I replied, then kissed him.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of Galen and Josh. A huge thank you to Cole Matthews and Aditus for their awesome beta reading. Thanks to all for reading. It was fun writing about these guys again!