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Eyes Up, Heels Down

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The drive that led to Baker Farms was extensive. Tree-lined and impressive, John was even more intimidated than he’d been during the phone interview. He barely had the references for the position and he knew it. The owners must really be out of barn staff to hire him.

He urged his decrepit jeep up the gravel drive, pulling off alongside enough BMWs and Jags to make his stomach drop. He had no place here. This was a training barn that hosted Olympians like it was nothing. There was no need to hire a washed up groom to muck a few stalls.

Still, he needed the money and the farm was the first to call him back. Maybe Mike’s good word had been enough. He walked around the grand fountain at the end of the drive and followed the narrow path through a hedge-rimmed gate.

If he thought the drive was impressive, his heart nearly stopped at the barn.

Sprawling out before him was a twenty-four-stall barn with attached indoor arena. He could see two other barns, forming a semi-circle that faced three outdoor arenas behind which he could see acres of sprawling cross-country courses and fields, at least a dozen horses were grazing in the mid-morning sun. John couldn’t help but gasp as he watched a flashy bay warming up in one of the jumping arenas. People milled about, some leading horses in from workouts, others just getting started. A comparatively modest house sat a few hundred meters back, all gray stone and shaded by trees.

“John Watson?”

“Ah, yes, ma’am,” John said, startled from his gaping. He made sure his jaw was tightly shut.

“Sally Donovan, assistant barn manager,” she said. John took her offered hand, forcing himself to meet her soft brown eyes. “I’ll take you to the boss."

John nodded and followed her into the main barn, the familiar, earthy smell of horses and leather calming him as it always did. He barely had the time (or the adjectives) to register the interior of the main barn as Sally led him down the aisle. He saw a few other staff members, one mucking and another doling out hay. He could see a few riders at the end of the aisle but was pulled into the main office before he could get a good look. Inside, a man was sitting behind a large wooden desk, the walls behind him full of photographs and ribbons. There were a few trophies on the windowsill.

“Greg, this is John Watson. He’s starting today.”

“Ah, John, nice to meet you,” Greg said. The man was older, with silvering hair and a tired expression, but John had heard of Greg Lestrade before. He’d been a groom for a few big time riders in his younger days.

“You too,” John replied.

“Well, we run a tight ship here, but with our clients you have to. Feedings at six am, some at two pm, and again at five pm. We muck twice a day, all three barns. Big time boarders are here, mares and foals to the right, and the rest across the way."

“All right,” John said, hoping there was a schedule posted in the tack room.

“Horses are groomed daily, some twice according to the owners. You clean tack once the rider is finished. We’re in charge of blankets, vet calls, farrier, you name it, we do it. All the rider does is ride, got it?” Lestrade asked.

John nodded.

“Mike Stamford put in a good word for you and he was one of the best exercise riders we had so I hope he knows what he’s talking about,” Sally added, looking John up and down. She could probably smell his lack of pretentious upbringing. Hell, John had only been able to compete on the show circuit when a friend had broken their ankle and asked him to ride. God, that had been a great season. Not for his friend, of course.

“Now, discretion is important,” Lestrade said. We have some of the top riders training here and it wouldn’t do for mouths to go flapping. We keep the barn neat and the horses safe. Gossip is not our division.”

“Of course,” John said.

“Right. Sally, give him the tour. Let him do turnout and help with the evening feed.” He nodded to John and turned back to his computer.

“This way,” Sally said, her dark ponytail bobbing as she lead the way out of the office. “And it’s all posted in here,” she said with a smile, nodding at the feed room next to Greg’s office.

“Thank God,” John said.

“You’ll get used to it,” Sally said, continuing down the barn. “There’s a lot to handle, but we’ve managed. Though, to be honest, you’re quite needed at the moment.”

Needed? That was a feeling he wasn’t used to. At least not lately.

They saw a few other workers, all of them nodding as he and Sally passed. Nobody spoke. Hell, even the horses were quiet. All John could hear was the soft whoosh of soiled bedding being tossed into wheelbarrows and the occasional stamp of a hoof.

“Is it always this…quiet?” he asked.

Sally laughed. “Only when a certain someone is here.”

John waited for her to give him more detail but she didn’t, stepping into the exquisite tack room instead. Saddles lined the walls, all soft gleaming leather and perfectly run up and shining stirrups. Bridles were lined up and figure-eighted on the wood paneled walls and there was a small sitting area to the left of the door. Even the couches looked expensive.

“Most of our riders keep the rest of their tack in their personal trunks,” Sally explained. “All tack cleaning supplies are in the cabinets over there and groom boxes for farm horses are on the second shelf.”

“Medical supplies?” he asked, wondering if this tack room had ever seen a spec of mud. At least it smelled like a tack room. There was something to be said for the scent of well oiled leather.

“Above the sink.”

“Seems pretty straight forward.”

“So long as we keep it looking this good. Certain riders want their tack cleaned a certain way. You’ll start out with the farm horses, the ones owned by Mrs. Hudson, and the rider or another member of staff will explain personal saddles later,” Sally said.

John nodded, noting the thirty odd saddles that lined the wall. A few of them he knew to cost his entire last year's salary.

“Far left are the ones you're in charge of. Once a day wipe down, full cleaning each week.” Sally spun around, apparently expecting him to figure out who owned the rest at another time.

They left the tack room, though the barn was just as clean, their boots softly resonating on the cement floor. Each stall was large, roomy enough for the fancy jumpers they contained. John even recognized Silver Blaze, the eventing stallion Mrs. Hudson, the farm’s owner, had made her name as a trainer with. She’d been retired for years, but she still kept the horse at stud.

“We muck each morning after feeding, then in the afternoon, and after the evening feed if needed. Most of the horses are on some turnout rotation though we have a few on stall rest.”

John caught sight of the stall cards on each, often beneath a nameplate. Well at least that would make a few things simpler. He’d once worked at a little run down barn that relied on stall numbers for the ever-changing rotation of their horses. John was pretty sure he’d only gotten it right half the time but it had never seemed to matter there. This, however, this was an Olympic level training barn. It would definitely take some getting used to.

Sally paused before one of the stalls, grabbing a leather halter that hung beside the nameplate of “Copper Beeches” before sliding open the door. She smiled at the big chestnut mare and slipped the halter over her head. “Molly Hooper’s,” she said to John, leading the horse out of her stall before handing the leadrope to him.

He let the mare sniff over his jacket before reaching up to pat her neck. Her coat gleamed and he could feel the muscles of her top line as she flexed her neck to watch Sally pull a bay out of the stall opposite. The horse screamed expensive. What the hell was he doing here again?

“We’ll take these two out. They’re both in pasture 1.”

It was a short walk through the courtyard and behind the arenas, a line of hedges mostly hiding them from view. The little gray house was to their right, on a bit of a hill so it must have a nice view over all the going on’s of the barn. There was a little pond in the front with willows. Even the grass was perfectly green. Was the entire fucking place a heaven on earth tucked away an hour outside London?

They released the horses into a good-sized pasture blessedly marked with a clear “1” on the gate. Thank God they weren’t above numbering. “We’ve got a couple young ones to bring in. Boss doesn’t want them on too much grass before they go into training,” Sally said, leading them to a gate marked “4.”

Halters were hanging outside the gate and Sally tossed him one and indicated he grab a bay colt. The horses were docile enough and fat from their day at pasture so they came willingly enough. Sally led them a different way back, through the hedgerow so they ended up in the grassy aisle between the large jumping arena and the smaller dressage and warm up rings.

There was less activity now, one rider taking a few 3’ fences in the large arena, but John’s eye was caught by the flashy Friesian in the dressage ring. He watched, hardly able to take his eyes away as the great black horse eased into a canter, neck perfectly rounded and precisely on the bit. He pulled his focus away for a moment, watching the rider. Even from a bit of a distance John could almost see the steel in his eyes. His hands were perfectly steady and soft, though, his seat hardly shifting in the saddle. John continued to watch as the pair effortlessly transitioned down, easing into an extended trot at the long side of the ring. The horse’s feathers danced and his long mane was unbraided, flying back to almost cover the rider’s hands.

“Good, isn’t he?” Sally asked.

John forced himself to turn toward her. Great, brilliant impression he was making. Focus. Focus and calm, just like he'd once had in the ring.

“That’s the one you need to look out for,” she said, jerking her chin in the pair’s direction.

“Who? The rider or the horse?”

Sally laughed. “Oh, the horse is a dream. It’s the rider you should worry about.”

John looked back, the pair had come down to a walk, the horse stretching into the reins as the rider released his hold on the bit. The man leaned down to give the horse a perfunctory pat before pulling out a cell phone as he let the horse walk on the buckle. “Bit of a bad habit, that,” John said. Cell phone use was hardly condoned in elite riding.

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” Sally laughed. By the time Sally had walked him through turnout and evening feed it was dark. The other staff were warming up to him a bit, Anderson being friendlier with him then most, though they all remained rather reserved. John figured out why when he was returning supplements to the cabinet.

“You’re the new groom?” said a deep voice.

John spun, startled at the man’s presence. It was almost impossible to sneak up on someone in a barn. “Uh—yeah, yes. John Watson,” he said.

The man looked him over, cold blue eyes seeming to cut through John. He recognized him as the rider from earlier. The one on the Friesian. He gulped as he caught his gaze lingering over the man’s tight dressage pants. He jerked his eyes up, getting stuck on the impossible cheekbones and dark hair, curls very defiantly sweeping over his forehead despite the damp sweat from his ride. The man’s eyes met his, holding John silent and helpless.

“Don’t bother with my tack.”

“Uh…okay.” John was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to be touching rider’s tack yet anyway, but something about the posh tone of the man’s voice made him think he wouldn’t really be allowed to argue had he been told otherwise.

The man gave him a last, calculating look before sweeping out of the room and disappearing. John let out the breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding.

“I see you met our favorite person,” Sally said, replacing the man in the feed room doorway. “And yes, he always does that.”

“Sorry, does what?” Brood? Pull off riding pants better than any other man could? See through to John's soul?

“Did he not pull it on you? Maybe it’s an off day,” Sally said. She added a bag of biotin pellets to the cabinet and nodded toward the barn. “Boss wants to see you before you go.”

Right. Yes. Work. John shook his head. He was here for the job, and he wouldn't be distracted by ridiculously posh, good looking riders.

John followed after Sally, shutting off the lights and pulling the door closed behind him. “Sorry, what was he meant to have done?”

“Oh, the Freak? Yeah, he has a habit of finding out and loudly spilling everyone’s secrets. He deduces them or something. It's torture.”

“Ah,” said John, somewhat horrified, and surprisingly unsurprised at hearing this. Everyone had secrets for a reason. God only knew what the man would say if he did decide to mess with John.

“Boss,” Sally said, knocking on Lestrade’s door before walking them in.

“Ah, John. How was it, then?” Greg asked.

“Fine,” John said. “Incredible place.”

“Isn’t it? Yeah, good old Mrs. Hudson might have lost her touch, but she didn’t lose a penny to that ex-husband,” Greg said. “Well, you’re on if you like.”

“Really?”

“Yep, starting tomorrow if you can.”

“Of course,” John said, still a bit shocked that the job was actually his.

“And you’re in luck, Anderson’s just let us know he’s got himself a flat in town so the barn apartment is yours if you want it.”

“Barn apartment?” It wasn’t that uncommon for barns to still use them, especially older ones like this, though it was now more accepted to have a separate house for the staff that lived on site.

“Yeah. Mrs. Hudson’s already loaned out her spare room, but we like to keep someone here in case things go wrong,” Greg explained.

“Yeah, all right. Makes sense.” And living on site would take away the hell of his commute. And lower his petrol spending.

“Great. Anderson will be out by the week’s end so you can move in Friday. Until then, 5:30am staff meeting.” And with a nod John was dismissed.

Sally walked him back out to the courtyard. “You’ll settle into it,” she said, apparently sensing his still somewhat tensed shoulders.

“I hope.”

“And most of the riders are pleasant.”

“Except the one,” he said.

“Except the one.”

“And you keep him around because…?”

Sally lifted an eyebrow. “He won the Maclay at thirteen and fifteen and completed his first Badminton two years later.”

“Shit,” John said. Christ, the guy must be well into his professional career by now. “How come I haven’t heard of him?”

“Oh, I’m sure you have,” Sally laughed, turning back towards the barn.

“Have I?” John still wasn’t sure.

“He won Rolex last year.”

Jesus Christ, the man was Sherlock Holmes.