Blue's bridle jingled when the stallion shook his head from side to side, frustrated that Rodney had halted him at the edge of the woods. There was a gate there with a rusted padlock older than Blue that they regularly jumped, but the sun was rising, burning the ground fog white where it rolled off the hill, and Rodney couldn't see the landing.
Technically, they were trespassing, but no one cared if he rode through the low pastures and overgrown trails of Pegasus Farm's back eighty. Rodney had been doing it anyway two or three mornings a week since he arrived at the neighboring Archangel Equestrian Boarding and Training Stables almost two decades ago. Margaret 'Peg' Dean had owned Pegasus then, and foxhunts had poured wild as a flood across Pegasus Farm's fields and over its fences, with Mrs. Dean right behind the master of the hunt. Rodney had even been introduced to her at one of Elizabeth's parties once, but since she'd died the one hundred sixty acres of Maryland woods and pasture had been in legal limbo while the lawyers fought it out over who would inherit. He figured he might as well take advantage while he still could. Mrs. Dean would have approved of every jump.
Blue's head came up, ears pricked forward and turned to the hill to the east. Rodney looked as well, following the line of his mount's interest.
The silhouette of a horse and rider crested the hill outlined in incandescent light.
Rodney set his hand against the warmth of Blue's neck to remind him to stay calm and hoped he wouldn't neigh and betray their presence. Blue's roan coat had remained dark and Rodney had on jeans and a navy windbreaker. He doubted the rider could pick them out against the darkness of the trees unless they gave themselves away.
He watched as the apparition resolved into something only faintly more mundane. Horse and rider floated down the hill and over the low pasture. The knee-high uncut grass parted and rippled as they cantered over the flat. Rodney cringed because he knew the rider couldn't see the horse's footing.
The mist retreated to the shadows and low stretches. Birds called and a fox barked once, in the distance. Steam whispered off gleaming hindquarters into the cool, still air. The rider worked his mount in long, loose figure eights. The swish of the grass carried, the bellows-breath of the horse, and the pound of his hoof beats.
Rodney could make out more detail now. He recognized the horse, Atlantis, one of the few still owned by Pegasus Farm, a seven-year-old, seventeen-and-a-half hand, black Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross that probably should have been gelded, only the current manager was too lazy or cheap to get Zelenka or any other vet out to do it. Cam Mitchell had been riding him in competition until his crippling fall at Badminton the year before. Since then the stud had been riderless, prone to jumping fences when turned out, so that someone from Archangel had to catch and return him each time. All complaints had been ignored, of course — the manager just referred them up the line to the lawyers, who didn't care.
The man in the saddle wore a green tweed hacking jacket and faded jeans tucked into English riding boots, no gloves and no helmet. Rodney could make out crow-black hair and tanned skin, a narrow face and acceptably even features, but paid more attention to the horse.
He couldn't keep from analyzing once the first magic of the moment faded, taking in the powerful, easy movement and the way the rider used his expertise to compensate for not knowing his horse. He had a dressage seat that kept his legs down in the longer stirrups, offering more stability and contact. He kept his aids simple to avoid confusing his mount and the black horse responded eagerly. His neck arched proudly, with his ears pricked forward, and his mouth on the bit. Moving into a trot, the stud remained collected and balanced, exhibiting the true beauty of dressage. He floated. His legs scythed through the ground fog switching leads every two strides. They were just getting used to each other, and some day those switches could be with every stride, but the potential to become extraordinary made something in Rodney's throat ache.
Like banners of black smoke, Atlantis' long, unkempt mane and tail lifted with the speed of the horse and rider's passage. Stainless steel stirrups, rings and pieces of bit glittered dim silver. The rider seemed preternaturally still and his back remained ramrod straight as the horse moved over grass brightening from gray to green as the dawn picked out colors and shadows across the pasture. He'd seen Cam Mitchell on Atlantis' back; it had never been like this. Man and horse had been made for each other.
Rodney enjoyed and liked Blue and thought he might be the key to taking Rodney back to winning at CCI four-star level three-day eventing — Concours Complet International — after years of training and coaching others, but he hadn't had that special connection with a horse since he'd been in his twenties. Every time he had a horse he thought might be the one, something happened, whether an injury or the owner taking a dislike to him or just having to sell and Rodney would be forced to start over. It was disheartening.
The lesson wound down before the black horse stopped enjoying himself. The nameless pair turned toward the hill they'd arrived over and disappeared in the direction of the Pegasus barns.
Silence followed until Blue jerked his head back and forth in irritation, breaking the spell at the same time he shifted one hind leg and broke wind.
Rodney blinked and looked around, wondering if he'd imagined the entire thing. A quick check of his watch showed he'd lost forty-five minutes and run out of time to give Blue any more exercise.
He patted Blue's neck apologetically and turned him to head back to the Archangel stables. These morning rides were his indulgence and he had to get back to his responsibilities. Mysterious riders and golden mists belonged in story books, not his life. A fire inspector was scheduled to check the barns and sign off on the safety measures that were in place in order to satisfy the insurance company. Assurance, Inc. were bastards and he couldn't figure out why Elizabeth stayed with them other than the CEO boarding a couple of his horses with Archangel.
It didn't matter. His job was keeping the stables running, not figuring out Ambassador Weir's reasons for anything. She'd been good to him when no one else would hire him.
Blue snorted and Rodney gave in to his impatience, letting him stretch his legs out in an easy canter. The enigmatic rider was dismissed from his thoughts in favor of composing a rant meant for the manager of the feedstore to the rhythm of Blue's thundering hooves.
Rodney slowed Blue to a walk that cooled him down before he rode into the stable yard. He untacked the stallion, rubbed him down and turned him out for the day. The other trainer, Cadman, spotted him and waved her finger at him from where she was working, a messy braid flipped over the shoulder of her black-and-red tee shirt and a hoof pick in one hand.
"You're late, Rodney," she called as she ducked under the neck of the bay she was grooming. "Did you get lost?"
"I remembered you were here and it took a while to marshal the will to return."
Cadman flipped him off and went back to work on Fiddler. Rodney left her to it. Cadman was a pain in the ass, but he knew he could trust her to do her job right without being watched every minute. Shifting some of his responsibilities to her was part of his plan to ride and compete more. Cadman just didn't know about it yet.
He took a walk through the barns, checking for anything left undone or in need of repair and writing a note on the clipboard he kept at the doors next to the fire extinguisher and flashlight to assign someone more trustworthy to the cobweb cleaning schedule. Bob was either skipping or doing a half-assed job. Covered rubber feed buckets with mid-day and evening mixes already portioned into them sat beside each stall and the air smelled like shavings and hay and horse, all fresh and clean for the day. He checked his watch again, muttered a curse at himself, and headed for the offices, going straight upstairs to his apartment, where he showered and changed, grabbed a cup of good coffee and went down again.
He still loved competition and even teaching, would always love riding — at eleven, sulking because he had to give up piano so Jeannie could ride, the mastery of his body and the horse had been a revelation, one that had never paled — but running the stables was work. Work Rodney hated; USEA paperwork, FEI paperwork, county, state, federal and international paperwork, taxes, permits, budgets, orders, inventory, registrations, passports, rent, board, travel, schedules, entry forms, accounting, insurance, and the worst: phone calls to shmooze or remind owners they needed to make out the check and send it. They'd get their car payments and electricity bills paid, but they all figured the stable would go on taking care of their horses if they were late. After all, what else could he do? Starve the animals, which were innocent? Horses couldn't just be let loose and left to wander like Maryland was the damned Wild West.
In any just world, Rodney would have had a full time assistant and a secretary to do this, but instead he had the choice of doing it in the morning himself or delegating to Cadman, who once threatened to blow up a client's garage if they didn't pay their arrears, which had left Rodney having to explain to Weir why her dear friends the Cannidays had moved their horses to another farm. He owed Elizabeth — though not money — but he'd never been able to parse the dichotomy between how she would let her social set get away with leaving bills unpaid for months and her ability to pinch every penny regarding Archangel until it screamed and bled. Miko Kusanagi came in to handle receptionist duties in the office afternoons. She was actually the farm's accountant, but she worked the office Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in exchange for free lessons and board for her Arab mare.
Cadman was just going to have to give up the bomb threats and begin pulling more weight.
He checked the calendar as he sat down and powered on the office's dinosaur of a desktop. The photo for the month showed one of the current crop of Canadian eventing riders going over a monster oxer on a horse Rodney had schooled before the owner sold it on. As always, it gave him a weird, mixed jolt to see that: resentment the horse had been taken from him and pride in the work that led to it being sold for big money.
Aside from the fire inspector, who would show up whenever it was convenient, he had appointments to work with Anne Teldy and then a younger rider before noon and Jennifer would be there in the afternoon. Cadman handled all the Western Pleasure training and coaching and had blocked out the indoor arena for barrel racing from two o'clock on. Three clients with Quarter Horses boarded with Archangel and as long as Cadman dealt with them Rodney was happy; they paid their bills on time. If they wanted to learn cutting, they'd have to head for Oklahoma or Kansas; at least Rodney wished they would. Harriman Feed was supposed to deliver a truckload of timothy, too.
The dinosaur succeeded in booting one more time. Rodney opened Billing and began his first round of phone calls. A single fly buzzed behind the blinds at the window. He'd taken the ripped screen down a week ago, so he didn't open the window to circulate some air into the stuffy office, instead flicking on the inadequate oscillating fan he'd brought back from the hardware store. The hum joined the fly buzz and the compressor to the refrigerator that held everything from Cadman's lunch to antibiotics. The fan fluttered the papers piled over Rodney's desk on a three count.
First two tries netted Rodney only answering machines. He left messages. The third time he connected with a person.
"Hello, this is Rodney McKay with Archangel Stables. Are you aware you are in arrears for two months on three horses here?" At eight hundred dollars a month per horse for full stall boarding the fees were adding up fast. "Yes, I understand times are difficult. However, we are not a charity organization and if our fees are too steep, then you need to rethink keeping your horses here and make different arrangements for them." He paused and listened to the excuses while making a note in the file that he had contacted and spoken with the client. "You might want to consider switching to field board, which is four hundred dollars cheaper."
"Ma'am, right now we feed, stall, groom, medicate and everything else for you. A single 50 lb. bag of high quality feed — the only sort Archangel buys — runs to thirty dollars. Not only are your fees buying that, they are buying the facilities to store that feed. I don't believe we overcharge, but if you do, you are always free to relocate your horses, providing you pay your overdue bills."
Rodney rubbed his forehead.
"Look, why don't you pay one month now and a half of last month's fees along with next month's and the same the month after?"
He made another note in the file.
"Yes, all right," he said, biting back anything he really wanted to say since he'd already been blunter than Weir would have approved, "thank you. Good-bye."
Paperwork. Show entries needed to be submitted in time, but not before Rodney was sure the horses and their riders would be ready. He wanted to start entering Blue this year and that came straight from his own pocket. Weir wouldn't object to Rodney trailering his horse in the farm trailer to and from as long as Blue didn't displace a paying client's horse at least. Rodney spent another hour going over the possibilities, juggling his own budget and bank balance to find the money, and filling in forms. He finished his first cup of coffee and the dregs from the office pot and put on a new pot.
Cadman ducked inside to use the office washroom to neaten up, snagged a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator, and went out again. "Bob's smoking behind Barn Two again," she said on her way out.
"Tell him is ass is fired," Rodney snapped. "And yours too if you don't start doing your own paperwork!"
"Yeah, yeah," she replied, "talk to the hand."
He fielded two calls inquiring about places for horses and told them the stable was full at the moment, but took numbers and names since he expected at least two of the clients in arrears would be removing their animals, freeing up several stalls. Another call from Ben Ingram in Lincolnshire alerted him that Peter Grodin was looking to sell Doctor Doctor, one of his younger event horses, to pay some bills. Rodney regretfully told Ben he didn't have any rider at present with the strength to handle Doctor Doctor. Doctor Doctor had placed fifth at Puhnui and fourth at Adelaide, but he hadn't performed well since being shipped to the UK. But the gelding was just too big for either Anne or Jennifer, and Rodney couldn't see persuading any of the owners he rode for to purchase another horse he didn't have time to ride.
The clock pushed him into finishing everything else he could and heading out to the barns again after making sure the answering machine was programmed. The farm had a website and email address. He usually checked the inbox while eating lunch.
First up, he had a lesson with Anne Teldy, who was hoping to make the US Equestrian team for the next Olympics. She wasn't quite there yet, mostly because she hadn't had a horse that could perform on that level, but Rodney had found El Cid, a Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred, six months before. Horse and rider had clicked nearly audibly. O.B. Roth, the Assurance CEO, actually owned the stallion, but Rodney had already told Anne to find the money to buy him from the insurance magnate. He'd been burned when Salamanca's owner yanked him despite their informal agreement that Rodney had right of first refusal if he decided to sell. He didn't want to see Anne go through the same misery.
It made Rodney feel a little wistful. He'd had that magic connection with Salamanca and not once since. Maybe it only came once in a lifetime. He put a little more effort into his work with Anne and El Cid as a consequence.
He headed back to the rear of Barn Two first, to check for signs of Bob's smoking. A cigarette butt in the dirt raised Rodney's blood pressure through the roof. The idiot really had been smoking and left the evidence on the day of their fire inspection.
He stamped into the barn and found Bob.
"Get out," he said, holding up the butt for Bob to see.
"Hey, that could have been from someone — "
"You were seen," Rodney dismissed the protest.
Bob straightened to his full, freakish height and towered over Rodney. Rodney didn't flinch.
"Put in your hours and get out," he told Bob. "You'll get your pay and two weeks severance. Don't ask for a reference."
"You'll regret this," Bob threatened. "You fire me? Steve walks too."
Steve was Bob's equally tall and alarming brother, nearly albino blond and fond of dressing like a Goth reject when not working. It didn't scare the horses, so Rodney had never given a damn.
"No loss," Rodney replied.
Bob made a fist. Rodney looked at it and sneered. "You want an arrest for assault on your record? I mean another one?"
Bob pulled his hand back, then kicked over a bucket of soapy water, splashing Rodney's expensive English riding boots, while the rest drained into the middle of the barn's main corridor. He bared his teeth at Rodney. "Ooops."
"Asshole," Rodney muttered as Bob strolled out, long white-blond hair haloed by the sun as he passed from the relative shade of the barn into the sun. He found a rag in the tack room and wiped his boots off, then cleaned up Bob's mess. He could ask around to try and find a couple of new grooms, but Cadman had mentioned another ex-marine buddy of hers was looking for a job. Even if Cadman's friend knew nothing about horses, it might work. As another plus, Cadman would owe Rodney.
In the meantime, he'd just left himself with roughly triple the work he'd had when he got up at five that morning.
attentive in his behavior, revealing pleasure in his own
accomplishment…then he has not truly been schooled in dressage.
"Concentrate," Rodney snapped at Anne Teldy. "You look like a sack of rotten potatoes today."
Anne shifted, straightening her back and balancing herself on El Cid rather than just draping her ass on the saddle. Her lips thinned and her nostrils flared, but she said nothing and her hands didn't shift on the reins. Rodney nodded to himself. He liked working with Anne because no matter how he insulted her or how angry she might feel, she never passed it on to her horse.
She hadn't even needed to read Xenophon to learn that lesson, either.
Nor did she didn't snivel or apologize.
"Again," he told her.
Anne took El Cid back around to the entry point for the 20 by 60 meter dressage area Rodney had marked out in the outdoor arena. They paused there and Rodney let her have a moment to gather her poise and ready herself. He watched El Cid while they waited. Sweat darkened the blood bay's gleaming red coat to a deeper color. His ears were forward. He wasn't mouthing the bit any longer. Rodney wouldn't put up with misbehavior, but he believed a horse's moods were important. A normally well-mannered animal that acted reluctant or fearful or angry might be in pain from an undiscovered injury or picking up on a confusing signal from the rider. His first lesson was always: pay attention to what the horse is telling you.
"Calm, forward, straight," Rodney called, quoting L'Hotte's motto from Questions Equestres like a mantra for Anne. "Begin."
Rodney started his stopwatch and made notes on a clipboard as well as any penalties a judge would mark; he always remembered everything, but the notes were useful records for Anne's file and helped going over the lesson with her, too. Seeing everything written out sometimes revealed a pattern to a problem.
Anne and El Cid entered at a collected canter and halted at the center. Anne saluted Rodney in the place of the imaginary judges, then proceeded with the trot to the end of the area and turned El Cid left. They turned left a second time and crossed from the corner diagonally to the opposite corner. Rodney watched their transitions carefully.
El Cid's movements were fluid and balanced, weight to his rear legs, and still ears forward. He had the quality prized among dressage aficionados: expressiveness. With Anne in the saddle, El Cid didn't appear to be working so much as enjoying himself, as natural as if he had no weight on his back at all. Rodney nodded to himself. No sign of crookedness or evasion; El Cid was using his hindquarters to the full extent of his conformation. Now that Anne had her head in the game, they both looked much better. Collected trot, extended trot, all displaying the suppleness that was one of the goals of dressage.
Travers, half-pass right in trot and then half-pass in left. Rodney felt passably satisfied with the longitudinal flexion. Next lesson they would work on the jumps. The new jump layout he'd designed would be in place by then and El Cid would be faced with a route that wasn't memorized and almost reflexive. Anne too. She was still too slow, though Rodney approved of her care for her mount. Better to accumulate time faults than knock downs. He was still hammering that into Jennifer's head. The differences between the two riders resulted from the disciplines they had learned before moving into eventing: Anne had always been a dressage rider, while Jennifer had been a hunter-jumper.
This particular routine was a beautiful display, beginning with the very simplest actions, walking and stopping in place. Anne appeared motionless throughout, keeping her cues subtle and her hands light on the reins. It never resorted to the melodramatic and likely wouldn't thrill most watchers. It ended where it began, at the center of the area set aside as the dressage arena, El Cid still and proud as a statue, neck set in a curve that displayed muscle and flexibility, with Anne poker straight in the saddle.
One error grated on Rodney's nerves like the squall of a cat in heat.
"Unacceptable," Rodney told her, ignoring his pleasure in what had gone right. "You bobbled a lead change three quarters through. We're going to work on that. You know this, you need to practice it more."
"Whatever you say, Mr. McKay."
The rest of the hour passed swiftly. The sun felt merciless out in the open. Sweat ran down Rodney's back and Anne's face under her protective helmet shone red. She was wearing a golf shirt and her bare forearms were pink with sunburn because she always forgot her sunscreen. Puffs of dirt billowed up under El Cid's hooves and coated the blue wraps around his legs.
"Enough. Looking at you is starting to hurt my eyes," he said finally. Standing too long without moving had begun to bother his back, too. "You're too tired to improve at this point. Get out of the saddle before you hurt something; something meaning the horse as you've already damaged my will to live." He said it with that half twist to his mouth that smart riders like Anne Teldy learned meant he was more pleased than not. Current thought said to praise rather than insult students, but Rodney didn't give a damn. He believed if they weren't smart or confident enough to know when they were doing it right, they didn't belong on a horse in the first place.
"You're tougher than that, Mr. McKay."
Rodney snorted out his nose, a habit he'd picked up from his first instructor, not a horse, no matter what rumor said. "Come into the office when you've finished cooling him out. I want to talk to you about the show schedule and money."
"Don't worry, I have your check," Anne teased.
"You'd better. I don't put up with you for the pleasure of it," Rodney replied and headed back to the office while Anne found Simpson and they took care of El Cid. He switched the fan back on, drink another cup of rank coffee and swallowed two Tylenol from his desk bottle, then got out the forms he needed to go over with Anne. She'd be a while.
He fished a bottle of lotion out and handed it to her as soon as she came in. "Here. You look like a stoplight."
"You say the sweetest things," Anne laughed as she smoothed the lotion onto her arms first. She helped herself to a cold drink from the refrigerator too, but Anne always brought a six-pack of something with her and left it along with her check for lessons. They spent the next half hour discussing possible shows she could enter and her plans, which depended on how successful she and El Cid were and finances. It was always finances.
"In Europe, they would pay you to ride," Rodney grumbled as he added up the fees and travels costs for another possibility.
"Wouldn't that be great?" Anne agreed. She sat down on the beat up couch and sighed. "I wish I was rich. I'd buy Pegasus when they sell it. Do you suppose the new owner will keep it going?"
Rodney frowned at the calculator. "Eh? What?" That couldn't be right. That was an insane amount of money. You shouldn't need to take out a bank loan to pay entry fees. Had he entered something more than once? More than one something? He cleared the result and began tapping in the costs again.
Anne sat up, bright-eyed with the excitement of holding a choice piece of gossip and an unknowing listener. "Haven't you heard?"
"Heard what? Pegasus was sold to someone? I suppose it was that bastard Rathe."
Todd Rathe, of HVE, could afford to buy any horse he wanted to ride and rode brilliantly, both of which frustrated Rodney no end. It was like he sucked the life out of his mounts; they never lasted more than a year or two and never performed the same for anyone else after. At least he'd never outscored any horse or rider Rodney had trained in dressage. No one produced more polished dressage competitors than he did. Of course, dressage was the true art in eventing; throwing your horse over higher and higher jumps or racing cross-country were hardly true tests of horsemanship. Well, other than the art of conditioning for day after day stamina for endurance.
Never seeing Todd again would be too much to hope for, Rodney knew, the guy wasn't as bad as some people, but he did so anyway. Instead they were probably going to be neighbors. The horror, the horror.
"No. Wow. There's one of those legal announcements in the Galacky Observer. You know, the ones in the Classifieds, in the little tiny print?" Anne said. "The estate's finally been settled."
Rodney set down the calculator. He supposed that meant the farm would finally sell and that bastard Rathe would likely buy it. He'd been nosing around the property for years and always asked about Pegasus when Rodney ran into him at shows.
"Everyone is talking about it. I heard from Jenny Hailey that the new owner even already moved in."
"I wondered if you'd seen anything, what with being neighbors," Anne added. "Jen said he stayed a night at her aunt's B&B. His name's John Sheppard."
"No," Rodney said absently. John Sheppard. The name sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. He wondered how anyone could move into Pegasus though. The mansion, according to rumors fueled by grooms who worked there, was a wreck, with many rooms completely unlivable. Landry had let everything go to hell without Mitchell around to guilt him into doing right by it. The mansion might not have been technically Landry's responsibility.
No one liked thinking about what happened to Cam Mitchell the year before. The flip when Go Go Indigo had caught a foreleg in the log rails of the Normandy Bank had been catastrophic, the ugliest fall in years, and encapsulated every rider's nightmare. Cam had come out of the saddle and slammed into the ground, only to have Go Go Indigo cartwheel over onto him. Go Go Indigo had shattered both forelegs. The horse had been groaning, trying to stand, and rolling on Mitchell's unconscious body in front of the horrified crowd and the cameras.
Go Go Indigo had been put down on the course, while Mitchell survived, paralyzed from the waist down and facing years of surgery and physiotherapy with little hope of recovering any more mobility.
Rodney had had his own share of bad falls and injuries. He knew only luck had left him still walking and riding and Mitchell in a wheelchair. Horses were a dangerous business.
The sound of tires on gravel snagged his attention. His second morning lesson would arrive in fifteen minutes if Gall could make it on time for once. Brakes didn't screech however, so Rodney knew Gall hadn't changed his ways yet. Miko's green Prius pulled up quietly outside the office next to Anne's Lexus and the Mule and that was his cue to get the hell out of the office and let her take over.
"I think we should be ready for the Maryland Horse Trials in July," he said. "Pennsylvania after that and these two Area 1 events. Two stars only, but good warm ups for qualifying you and Cid." He used El Cid's barn name with Anne. With the owner, he'd sometimes use a barn name and sometimes the one on the horse's registration papers. It depended on the owner.
"Really?" Anne leaned forward. Pegasus Farm and John Sheppard — why did Rodney think he knew that name? — were forgotten.
Miko knocked before coming in. She took her brown bag lunch to the refrigerator and held up a second one. "I brought you sandwiches, Mr. McKay. No citrus."
"Stick'em in the fridge," he said. Cadman insisted Miko had a crush on him, but Rodney thought she just wanted to fit in and stay on his good side. "I'll be out of here in a minute." He'd eat the sandwiches after Gall's lesson. He'd need the fuel by then. "I've got a sheet here with the costs," he told Anne. "Go over it and we'll make out the entries on Friday after your lesson."
Miko said she was going to start on the quarterly taxes and Rodney fled.
Rodney didn't think of of the rider from the morning again until he crawled into bed after the last barn check, when he finally closed his eyes. The image that formed of the man and horse silhouetted by the sun almost startled him from his doze along with a sudden curiosity.
Who had that been?
John didn't need the hassle of another inheritance. He barely remembered Peg Dean — they weren't even really related — she'd been his mother's aunt's husband's cousin. He only remembered her at all because the Thanksgiving when his mother invited her, Mrs. Dean had told his father he was a cast-iron prick after several martinis. Hard to forget the expression on everyone's face. He'd walked her around the barns earlier in the day, pointing out his old Connemara pony and all his favorites, but he'd never seen her again after that. That's what he told Woolsey when the lawyer tracked him down in Florida. He was living off the money his maternal grandfather had left him. He didn't need more; he'd never bothered even trying to access the trust funds left by his other grandfather or his mother. That would have meant dealing with his father or Dave and their lawyers.
"Well, you must have made an impression on her. She left you Pegasus Farm and all her money in her last will," Woolsey observed.
"I don't care."
"I, however, do."
John had poured himself another drink. His third — fourth? — in the time Woolsey had been talking to him. Woolsey sniffed in disapproval.
"Look, didn't you get it from the years of ignored calls and ignored letters?" John rolled his eyes. "I didn't want it. I still don't."
"I didn't spend three years defending that will and Mrs. Dean's intentions from her great grand-daughter to have you ignore the responsibility now that you have it," Woolsey said. "If you don't want a farm, fine. Sell it. But don't leave it in limbo any longer."
"You can't make me," John slurred out and headed for the casino again.
He didn't care what Woolsey thought of him. He ignored the way the man's mouth folded down in disappointment or the flash of what he feared had been pity in Woolsey's eyes. To hell with him and everyone else. John had every intention of continuing on the road to hell his own way.
A bottle of bourbon, the worst run of luck ever at the Indian casino and an ill-considered pass changed his mind. The bruises from the beating in the parking lot would fade; he'd been hurt worse many times. Hell, he'd been playing polo for Reynaldo the last five years and a two-ambulance match was considered easy-going and well-mannered, not to mention all the jumping falls he'd endured since childhood. The incident reminded him that without something to do every day, he got himself in trouble fast.
He hadn't done anything since leaving Argentina and had no prospects for employment. All his skills revolved around horses in one way or another. They were straight out. He'd had enough and made the decision of no more before boarding the plane to the US. No more polo, no more eventing, no more horses. He needed to get away from how much he hurt.
Just thinking about about what Reynaldo had done made him want to reach for a bottle and that scared John more than anything. That time his mother cracked up the Mercedes, the oak tree hadn't leaped out in front of her, no matter what story Dad's lawyers had paid to have put out. Just because she'd been a sweet drunk didn't change that his mother had been an alcoholic for years before her death from cancer. One more reason he'd only used uppers and downers now and then and stayed away from coke completely out of fear he'd like it way too much. Besides, he'd never wanted to get tossed out of his sport for testing positive. It was just too stupid. Booze was his regular poison, but he knew himself well enough to see how easily he could become a drunk. It ran in the family.
His gaydar had always been for shit. Usually, he let himself get picked up. If he hadn't been drunk, he wouldn't have put the moves on that guy in the casino bar. He'd had enough bourbon sloshing through his system that he likely couldn't have got it up with a crane to help if the answer had been yes rather than 'get away from me, you faggot' anyway. Getting punched and rolled for his wallet's contents later on had probably been lucky compared to what might have happened under the circumstances.
He'd finally started thinking instead of reacting after he sobered up and the hangover gave way to general aches and pains.
Woolsey had left his card and, after a couple days subsisting on room service while the worst of the bruising faded, John found it and called him.
Turned out there was money to go along with the property. Not really enough to turn Pegasus Farm around, but more than enough to walk into a dealership and drive out with a jade green Porsche after all the papers were signed at Woolsey's Silver Spring office. Despite John telling him to fuck off originally, Woolsey had everything handled except for John's signature. John didn't know whether to be annoyed or impressed and settled on grateful he didn't have to waste any time on red tape. He wrote Woolsey a big check and promised to wait a week before putting the farm on the market.
"The land is worth a fortune, of course," Woolsey told him. "There are several standing offers from Assurance and HVE. Plus a group called GeneEye. It will sell immediately." His tone was as carefully neutral as his good but never flashy suit. He handed John a ribbon-bound, brown file folder with the deed and other information inside.
"That's nice," John said. He didn't want to hold onto it long enough to face paying the taxes.
"You should look the place over before you sell," Woolsey advised him. "There are still some horses and you'll need to let the manager and the other workers there know their jobs are ending. Luckily, none of them live on site."
John scowled. He hated playing bad guy and telling someone their job was history definitely qualified. He opened his mouth to ask Woolsey to do it, but shut it. That was the sort of thing Dad always did. John liked to think he was better than that.
"Okay," he told Woolsey instead. "I'll call you after I've checked everything out."
"You'll need these then," Woolsey said and handed over several sets of keys and a map.
John shoved them into his pocket.
The map had a route highlighted from Silver Spring to Pegasus Farm. John stuffed it under the file folder's ribbon. He wondered if Woolsey had known Peg Dean personally. He'd put a lot of work into getting the courts to uphold that handwritten will in John's favor of Helia Dean-Truscott, the natural heir if the old lady had died intestate, would have won out.
There was someone John hoped he never had to meet.
"Do you always get your way?" he asked.
Woolsey folded his hands together and smiled tightly. "That is what I am paid obscene amounts of money to do."
"If you're half as good at manipulating the legal system as you are me, then you're worth it," John said grudgingly.
"I like to think so. Good luck, Mr. Sheppard. Margie will call a taxi for you."
The Porsche was an impulse. He'd driven a rattletrap Toyota the entire time he'd lived in Argentina and gone without a car entirely while he tramped around Europe. He'd missed driving something fast and powerful. Plus, he hated rental crap.
It made the drive to Galacky, Maryland more than a chore at least. Without a clue to the state of the house or whether it even had electricity, John checked into a pleasant looking bed-and-breakfast. The woman at the check-in was the owner. She asked what brought John to town and he answered, asking for directions, even though he guessed that she'd be on the phone with the news five minutes after he went through the door.
Actually, she was already on the phone as he left. He flashed her a smile and waved; a little pink in the face, she waved back.
Maryland was green. Spring sliding into summer. Greener than John was used to, in a different way from the near tropical heat and color in Florida or the carefully groomed polo grounds in Argentina. Not like the UK or Europe either, when he compared them. The air felt different, even inside the Porsche's air-conditioned confines. It felt good. It felt like Virginia, actually, where he grew up. That ought to have bothered him, considering the way he took off over a decade before and never looked back. But he hadn't hated Virginia itself. He'd missed the States.
Funny, he hadn't realized that in Florida. Maybe he'd still been reeling from Reynaldo's disaster when he arrived. John doubted he'd ever come to terms with what Reynaldo had done. Thirty-five horses dead, the entire string, thanks to one man's greed. He'd had to get out. Miami had just been the first place he ran to after bailing on Argentina.
He was good at running. Maybe when he had the money from selling the land, he'd try out Fiji. He'd already visited every continent except Antarctica. Time to start on the islands.
He turned the Porsche down the last road before reaching Pegasus, spotting a red-and-black winged-W on the sign as he drove by. Weir, it read in small letters centered above the much larger Archangel and Equestrian Board and Training Stable. Slick and professional design. The red gates were freshly painted and the drive sported fresh blacktop. He wondered if they were among those offering to buy Pegasus, if they were that successful or if the sign was just a façade. Down the hill and up the hill and around a curve and he saw the mailbox and locked gate to the Pegasus Farm drive, just the way his acquaintance at the bed-and-breakfast had described.
The gate was closed but not locked, though it wouldn't matter since Woolsey gave him a key to it too. John parked the Porsche, opened the gate, drove through, stopped and closed it behind him.
The two lane drive needed repaving. John would have kept his speed down anyway, but it was a necessity to steer the Porsche around the potholes instead of tearing out the transmission. The trees planted on either side were older than him, older than his father, and likely older than his dead grandfather too. Gold coin sunshine flickered through the shade of their leaves down to the weed-choked verge. The fences on the other side of the trees were dingy gray instead of the white they'd been once. John noticed more than one place in need of repairs beyond a coat of paint. The pastures were overgrown or bare in places and empty of stock.
He wound the Porsche up the lane to the house. The gray field stone and bricks were weathered but still attractive. Ivy hid a multitude of problems, but the roof had an actual bow in it which John noticed despite his architectural ignorance. That would cut into the value. Of course, no one wanted to buy the property for the house. A shame because a bolt of longing went through him as he looked at it, imagining it in good repair and occupied. He stuffed the feeling back down, parked next to a gray stationwagon and got out, looking around at the rest of the buildings as he stretched his shoulders.
Despite himself, despite the dilapidation, John couldn't help being impressed. Pegasus had been something else in its heyday, he could see that. Not just a boarding or training barn, but a breeding farm. Aside from the main barn and a smaller one, the stud barn and breeding shed were also built from the same soft gray field stone as the house. A foaling barn and a well house were constructed in half-timbered style, as were even more buildings whose purpose John didn't recognize immediately. Outdoor arenas and at least one indoors. Polo fields that made him wince. Paddocks and beyond them more pastures, dotted with majestic shade trees, then rolling hills that appeared to have been in hay, but hadn't been cut, and then old woods. One hundred sixty acres of the prettiest land John had ever seen. Weeds everywhere, but it still made his heart beat faster.
He'd never set foot on Pegasus before, but it felt like home.
The thought of the beautiful old barns and buildings coming down and being replaced by a soulless industrial complex rubbed him all wrong.
There were horses turned out in the paddocks. Woolsey had mentioned the farm still had some stock. He'd pushed it out of his mind. John looked at them for a long moment before he found his legs carrying him over to them without having made a decision.
Automatically, he checked the hay rack and the water. John leaned closer and sniffed the hay, then drew back, deeply unhappy. His nose wrinkled at the quality of the hay.
"Hey!" someone yelled. "Hey, you, this is private property. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
John turned and spotted a heavy-set man hurrying toward him.
"You're trespassing, asshole," the man said. The puffing and wheezing interfered with the threatening effect. Salt-and-pepper gray hair in a brush-cut stood up on his head and matched his eyebrows.
John leaned back against the paddock fence and smirked. "I'm not."
"You want me to get the cops out here?"
"Sure. Then you can explain why you wasted their time," John replied. He didn't have any real reason to taunt the man, except he reminded John a little too much of his father. "Since I'm the owner."
"John Sheppard." John offered him his hand. "I'll assume you're Hank Landry? Didn't the lawyers let you know?"
"I got a call from Woolsey's office," Landry said. He took John's hand and shook it unenthusiastically. "No one said anything about you showing up. Figured you'd sell or, I don't know, be one of those absentee owners."
"I haven't made my mind up yet," John replied. He had made his mind up and wondered why he wasn't saying so. He still meant to sell Pegasus, didn't he?
"You want me to show you around?" Landry asked, radiating reluctance.
"Thanks, I think I'll handle that myself," John told him. He had a feeling he'd see a lot more without Landry steering him away from anything questionable. "Just point out the office, would you?"
Landry indicated the smallish building John had taken for a guesthouse.
"Used to be the mother-in-law house," Landry said. "Old Mrs. Dean's manager used to live in it. I use it for an office and live in town."
John stayed by the paddock until Landry got the silent message and left him. Then he began wandering. There were hay barns in the distance, a building holding the farm's tractors and other equipment, all of it rusting and likely not running. Another barn at the far end of the pastures, almost out of sight, puzzled John. He'd have ask about it.
The remains of an extensive garden surrounded the house. Money and work could put it to rights before the end of summer. The lawn and the interior of the racing oval needed to be re-turfed.
The lawyers and executor must have provided some kind of operating and maintenance budget for the farm since Margaret Dean died, otherwise Landry wouldn't have a job. John wondered what it had been spent on besides taxes, because it looked like nothing had been taken care of for the last eight years. He'd have to go over the farm books and use some of what he'd learned in those damn business classes his father had made him take in college to figure out what had been going on.
Landry wouldn't like that.
John smiled to himself, a little nastily, and stuck his hands in his pockets, heading back to the paddocks.
The horses there watched him curiously.
He studied them while leaning his forearms over the top rail. They looked like they hadn't seen a barn or a curry comb in months. The paddocks needed cleaning out too. No halters on any of them but that was normal procedure.
They weren't bad looking horses, John thought. Cleaned up, some of them would be very, very good. His attention was taken especially by the young black stud in the farthest paddock. The horse watched John warily as he ambled down that way, but didn't shy away.
John studied the black stud. He picked a long splinter out of the top rail, where some bored horse had chewed the paint away.
The stallion kept pacing the paddock restlessly, radiating boredom and unspent energy, but moving so smoothly it mesmerized John. Seventeen-and-a-half hands at the withers, he estimated, and probably half Thoroughbred, he had the conformation John had always looked for in an event horse. A little too tall for a polo pony, of course. John would have bet he could jump like a proverbial Pegasus flew — why else put him in the paddock with the highest fences on the farm? Six or seven years old at least.
He wondered who had trained the stallion. The way he moved gave away dressage experience, though maybe not recently. Landry would know, even if there weren't any records.
John wanted to ride him.
The only fault John could find with him were the stud's rather long ears, which would have looked mulish on a smaller animal. They weren't pinned back, though. He saw no signs of mistreatment or rogue temperament.
John began talking to him in an easy voice.
"Hey, there, buddy. Sorry I haven't got any treats on me. Didn't know you were going to be here. Gonna come on over and get acquainted? I sure like your looks. I bet you can really fly when you want to, huh?" Closer and closer, so that John could see the delicate flushed skin in his nostrils, count the whiskers on that fine velvet muzzle and the sweep of ridiculously long eye lashes over liquid eyes. The stud's ears twitched forward as he listened to John murmur nonsense. He edged closer, blowing softly, taking in John's scent.
"What's your name then? Something silly, I bet, something embarrassing, right? I'm going to find out. We're going to be friends, you and me, buddy. How'd you like to get out of this paddock and do something? Get out there and move? The two of us, just flying wherever we want, doesn't that sound good? Like we'd never stop." He'd always felt like that on horseback, like they could go and never come back. Escape. It never lasted, but it fed the soul until the next time.
The black stud was right up at the fence now, inhaling John's scent and watching him. The horse shook his head a little, parting a long, tangled forelock, and sidled closer. John had always been able to sweet talk horses. He stayed where the horse could see him and his movement easily.
"Yeah, I'm going to find some tack and get out here in the morning," John promised them both. He'd bring carrots and apples too, not being above bribery. "You and I are going fly."
In the meantime, he'd head up to the office and go over the accounts, find out more from Landry. John smiled at the horse. He'd forgotten his vow to have nothing more to do with horses.
He was in love.
Elizabeth swept in the next morning, while Rodney was on the phone to Harriman's trying to find out where his feed delivery was, since it wasn't, for the third day in a row, at Archangel. He only noticed her arrival as she came inside the office. He waved at her and snapped into the telephone receiver, "Don't make me come down there and talk to the manager. If that feed isn't here by this afternoon, I will make your life hell. Do you understand?"
He thumped the receiver down and tried to smile for his boss.
Both her eyebrows were up, but Elizabeth was smiling. She'd brokered two different peace agreements in Africa before her appointment as Ambassador to Malta and continued working for the State Department after the Malta posting. Underneath her Chanel suits, she had a tough mind and a will of steel. She'd strong-armed plenty of people in addition to sweet talking them. Rodney's ways didn't shock or bother her.
"Problems, Rodney?" she asked. She lifted a stack of magazines from a chair and seated herself.
"The usual," he dismissed the subject. "Idiots."
Elizabeth smiled with real warmth.
"I'm sure you'll straighten them out."
"Not that you aren't the highlight of any man's day," Rodney said, "but what brings you here?"
"Oh, that was good. Have you been practicing?"
"What do you think?" Rodney asked.
"That makes it even better." She sat with the same exquisite posture she brought to horseback riding. It made her appear attentive, even fascinated, in many social settings. "I stopped by to make sure you remember to come to my soirée."
Rodney made a face. "Do I have to?"
"In a tuxedo."
"Why?" he asked with put-on piteousness. "You know I hate those things. Also, I'm awful at them."
"Yes, but you're also the farm's greatest draw. By the way, how is O.B.'s horse working out?"
"You mean El Cid? He and Teldy have really clicked. I suppose you want me to sell him on her riding him, don't you?"
"That would be part of it," Elizabeth agreed.
It wasn't like there had ever been any choice. Elizabeth may have couched it has a request, but Rodney knew an order when he got one. He even had his own Armani tuxedo. Elizabeth had been the one to tell him where to go to buy it and have it tailored to perfection. The cost still made him gag, but he'd gone for a classic look that didn't date.
Elizabeth stood and crossed around behind the desk. She bent and bussed Rodney's cheek. "Maybe you'll meet someone interesting."
"Maybe I'll sprout devil horns and a forked tail."
"I invited our new neighbor."
"Our… Oh. Pegasus." Rodney had to credit Elizabeth. This guy had only been on the scene three, maybe four, days and she had already latched onto him.
He'd still swear he knew that name…Rodney snapped his fingers and began digging through a pile of magazines until he found one with a shot of three polo ponies and their riders on the cover. The number four rider on the brown horse had sped between two defenders and hung to the side, his mallet just contacting the ball to hit it toward a goal. The cover article was on the pro riders of the polo circuit. The nine and ten goal handicap superstars were all interviewed, but the picture was of John Sheppard, who had an eight goal handicap and rode for a team supported by an oil-rich Argentinian named Reynaldo Vega. When he wasn't on the polo field, Sheppard was riding event horses in Europe for several other wealthy South American owners. Jesus. The guy probably drove Formula One on weekends, dated supermodels, and stood in for James Bond on the weekends. It had to be the same guy.
"That's it." He waved the magazine at Elizabeth. "That's him."
A polo rider of all damn things, Rodney thought with a hint of scorn. A rich, handsome daredevil. Rodney already hated him.
"Wonderful!" Elizabeth exclaimed. She snagged the magazine away from Rodney. "You'll have something to talk about together."
Rodney looked at her in complete horror. She wanted him to make nice with a polo goon? And he'd thought wearing the tux and shmoozing rich owners would be the limit of his evening's misery.
Landry hadn't wanted to let John see the accounts. Small wonder. They just confirmed John's suspicions. More than one boondoggle was hidden in the numbers. The hay and feed were sub par, but Landry had been paying premium prices for it. Likely a nice kick-back arranged between Landry and the feed supplier. Maybe some outright fraud going on too, but John didn't know enough accounting to spot that. According to the books, Landry had been buying shavings for the barn, but all John saw was the cheapest kind of straw and not much of that; it didn't look like Landry even brought the horses in most nights. None of them had been ridden in over a year.
John read silently. Landry fidgeted. The office had been the front room of the little house. The windows still had faded chintz curtains and some of the furniture looked to date back to when it had been occupied too. Landry perched on a straight chair that had been shoved into a corner. John used the desk chair between trips to the file cabinets. Nothing was in order; the mess seemed almost deliberate.
Pegasus still owned ten horses. All of them were foaled from horses Margaret Dean chose and bought or bred on the farm. The black stud's papers identified him as Pegasus Farm's Atlantis Night. Landry had let one of the old studs get in with the mares eight years back and one of them had caught — smelling her had likely been why the old stud jumped the fence.
John found a file of letters from the farm manager at Archangel, complaining about the same stud getting out. The signatures were all M.R. McKay and, like the words, betrayed frustration and growing anger, but the letters had stopped eventually, so either Landry had finally put up better fences or something had happened to the stallion. A receipt for fencing materials relieved him.
He wondered if Atlantis had inherited his sire's jumping ability until he found the paperwork on the stud. Cam Mitchell had been aiming Atlantis at the CCI★★★ events, training him up and qualifying him just before the disaster at Badminton. Atlantis hadn't been there, none of Pegasus Farm's horses had been because of the costs. Mitchell had been riding as part of 302 Farm's unofficial team instead. Poor bastard probably wished he'd stayed home too.
John flattened his hand over the papers in the file before him. He studied Landry, who looked sour and constipated.
"You must have thought no one would ever compare what's here," John said and tapped the papers, then went on, "with what's really here," as he pointed out the window to the barns.
"You don't know what it costs to take care of a place like this. Horses are expensive," Landry said.
John raised his eyebrows.
"Yes," he agreed, "they are."
Landry's expression brightened. "If you aren't going to sell this place, then you need someone that knows what he's doing. I could stay on. Under the right circumstances."
Circumstances that would let him go on robbing John as blind as he had the estate.
John smiled at him.
"I'm an eight goal polo player," he said. "I've spent the last five years managing a pro-am team. I've been riding three-day events since I was sixteen. I can assure you, Mr. Landry, that I do know what I'm doing when it comes to horses."
"I know what you've been doing too," John added.
He could see the oh shit run through Landry's thoughts like a neon marquee across his forehead.
"You — "
"So, thanks for the generous offer to stay on, but I don't think we'd get along," John finished. "Do you?"
"You sonovabitch," Landry muttered. He levered himself onto his feet. "You giving me two weeks notice?"
John shrugged. "Sure."
"What about Paul and Stubbs?"
The two grooms, of which John had seen neither hide nor hair during his tour. He doubted he'd be keeping them on either. They probably had their own scams going and certainly had to have been aware of what Landry was pulling. He wouldn't fire them until he had someone else to take over, though.
"I don't know yet," John said.
Landry headed for the door and walked out without another word. John shrugged and began searching for a phonebook to look up a different feed supplier. He found it and located a business in Galacky, close enough a same day delivery would be possible. Even if he did sell the farm, until then, the horses deserved something better than cheap hay that stank of mold. He reached someone in the office and got a promise that if he came in he could check out what they had and get it trucked out and unloaded, though they wanted cash upfront since they didn't know John from Adam. He got the feeling they might be selling him something someone else had been scheduled to receive, but didn't let it bother him.
The rest of the afternoon went to arranging other deliveries and beginning a preliminary list of repairs the farm had to have done immediately. Stubbs, an older man in greasy coveralls and straw hat, showed up and they put the horses up for the night in the smaller barn together. Stubbs had a key to the tack room too and revealed he'd been taking care of everything inside pretty much on his own account.
"Plenty of these were custom made," he said as he patted a saddle. The heady scents of leather and oil soap mixed with liniment in the tack room. It was the first place on Pegasus John had found in good shape. "Made me sick seeing it all go to hell."
According to Stubbs, Paul was a lazy shit who sucked up to Landry and did as little as possible. Stubbs told John that Landry hadn't been half bad early on, but Landry had steadily let things go after the first couple years, once he became convinced like everyone else that the farm would eventually end up in the hands of some big corporation or real estate developer.
Stubbs even knew where the breaker boxes were and they shut off the electricity to the barns. Arranging an electrician to come out, inspect and repair the wiring went on John's ever expanding list. The smaller barn had been kept up, but the bigger one was cobwebbed and cluttered; John didn't trust that some rat hadn't chewed away at the wiring. Shutting off the electricity as a precaution was a practice at many barns. John had seldom seen an instance where it made better sense.
John gave up on the office and locked up around nine-thirty. He picked up a pizza and took it back to the bed-and-breakfast with him, where he ate it while working on his laptop.
Checking through his email, he realized he hadn't sent Teyla anything since before he'd left Argentina the month before. He wondered what she'd think of Pegasus and his abrupt decision to rehabilitate the place. One way to find out, he knew, and proceeded to explain how he ended up owning a chunk of Maryland horse country. He ended the email with a sincere invitation to her to come and stay and bring anyone from her extended family and friends too.
The thought of Landry's expression if John had pulled into Pegasus with an entire circus with him behind him kept him smiling all the way into sleep.
If Torren hadn't been crying, Teyla thought she might have.
It was all gone, everything her family had built over five generations, wiped out by a combination of the times, her own stupidity, bad luck and Michael Kenmore's malice. She held Torren close as she watched the last trailer pull away with the last pieces of what had been the Athos Family Flying Circus. Gravel crunched under the tires before the vehicles rolled onto the blacktop. It was bad, but not as bad as the auction that had sold it all; maybe she'd already accepted the inevitable then.
All she had left were three horses, a six-horse stock trailer and an eleven-year-old King Cab truck with a fifth wheel hitch. She'd sold the trailer she'd lived in with Torren and Kanaan in order to buy back the stock trailer and truck. All the good memories their little home on wheels had held were tainted by Kanaan's betrayal. Kanaan was still Torren's father, so she didn't want him dead, but she hoped something happened to him while working for Kenmore's Hybrid Circus & Carnival that hurt him as much as he'd hurt her.
She still didn't understand how he could have used her trust to embezzle Athos' emergency funds, leaving them broke and stranded just outside Sacramento. Athos had been his home, its people his people, too, not just hers.
The sinking feeling that came when she'd gone to pay for the rental of the space where the circus had been set up and her business credit card had been rejected would come back in her nightmares, she knew. Every cent, gone. There had been days of dealing with the police and the bank and then realizing it had been Kanaan who had helped Michael wreck them. Until all she could do was sell off everything to find the money to pay the circus' debts.
All of her things were stuffed in the first two stalls of the stock trailer.
She leaned back against the hood of the truck and hefted Torren higher in her arms. He was so used to being on the road, packing up and rolling along to the next engagement that she didn't think he understood that this leave taking was different. She wanted to give him the chance to wave good-bye to everyone as the various friends and acts scattered to the winds. Teyla worried she'd never see some of them again, despite promises to meet again when they all wintered in Florida. The truth was some of them wouldn't show up. They'd find normal jobs and give up the nomadic life in exchange.
Teyla understood the call of security. She wanted it for herself too. It had begun while she still carried Torren inside her. She'd given up life as Teyla the Terrific, Queen of the Trapeze and committed herself to managing Athos instead. Maybe that was when things had gone bad with Kanaan. He hadn't wanted to split up their act. King Kanaan didn't impress the crowds half so much without his queen to catch high above the center ring.
It turned out the act meant more to Kanaan than she and Torren had. Without it, there hadn't been much to their relationship except familiarity. She'd never understand what Michael Kenmore, that bastard, could have offered Kanaan that compared to the community and history they'd all shared, growing up as part of Athos, but it must have involved getting back at her somehow.
She'd never understand Michael either or why he'd fixated on her to the point he'd gone so far to ruin Athos. They'd only dated three times. She'd got together with Kanaan after that.
Teyla vowed to herself she wouldn't let Torren become the sort of man who would treat anyone the way Kanaan had her.
Anyway. It was done. The Athos Family Flying Circus had folded its tents for the last time. The fading banner painted on the side of the stock trailer was all that marked that it had existed up until two weeks ago. How many people would remember that once they'd crisscrossed Europe and smuggled twenty-two people out of Germany just before World War II? Teyla almost wished they'd stayed in Europe the last time, but Michael would have followed them there too.
Time to do something else. It would help if she had any skills beyond trick riding and the trapeze. She doubted managing a failed business would attract any employers when she submitted a resumé. Working at McDonalds wasn't going to pay for her and Torren, much less feed and board Taffy, Caramel and old Jumper.
Sweat ran down the valley between her breasts. Later in the day it would darken the gray tank top at the small of her back. Teyla felt sick. She didn't like California much, for no more reason than that this had happened in the state. She wouldn't miss the temperatures in summer. Eight o'clock in the morning and it was eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit and rising. Merciless bright sunshine glared off every chrome detail and stretch of windshield glass. She would need to stop regularly to make sure the horses had water back in the trailer; it wasn't some rich man's toy with an air-conditioner attached.
Not that the truck had air-conditioning either, but she figured that just made it a little less likely to overheat.
Torren whimpered and she realized she was hugging him too tight.
The only vehicles left on the lot were Halling's Winnebago, his equally aged VW bus with the faded psychedelic paint job that had lasted since the sixties, and Davos' vintage 1955 silver Mercedes.
The Mercedes stopped alongside Teyla and Torren. Davos rolled the window down and leaned his silvery head out. "Don't worry so much, Teyla," he told her. "Everything is going to be better."
"I hope so." Teyla told him. "I'll miss you."
"Don't worry, we'll see each other before the year is over," Davos assured her with a smile.
"Have you seen that, Davos?"
The psychic smiled wider. "I have."
Teyla didn't bother asking him what else he had seen. Davos had an act he performed with 'clients', but his real visions were often enigmatic or even misleading. He tended to be closemouthed rather than precipitate ill-informed decisions. As a teenager, Teyla had asked him for a reading and he had shared a vision of herself with a baby she now knew was Torren. Davos had told her she would raise her child in a happy home. Of course, she'd assumed that meant Athos Circus and that Kanaan would be with them. Looking back, Davos hadn't said that at all.
"So where are you going now?" she asked.
"Oh, I thought I'd visit with my daughter for a while. Until she throws me out."
"Good luck, Davos."
"Head for the morning, Teyla," he told her and drove away.
And that just left Halling and his fourteen year old son Jinto.
A rusty, forlorn cough from inside the Winnebago made Teyla correct herself: Halling, Jinto and Pablo the Lion, who was twenty-seven years old, older than Teyla, and had been born into the circus just like her. Halling had let go of all the other big cats from his act, but no one wanted a half-blind, tottering old lion that needed to have his food ground up before he ate. Or maybe Halling just couldn't bear to part with the old boy. And now he was inside the Winnebago.
Halling looked as lost as Teyla felt. He'd been with Athos since he ran away from the commune his hippie parents had raised him in. He'd been a cat trainer and later their ringmaster. Teyla couldn't imagine where he'd go. He still dressed in tie-dye shirts and bell bottoms when he wasn't playing ringmaster in a bespangled top hat and tails. There was no gentler man on Earth, Teyla knew, but where could he fit now?
He ambled over to her, leaving Jinto leaning against the VW bus, arms folded and a mulish pout marring his features.
"Teyla, good morning," Halling said.
"I don't know how you can say that," she snapped, despite herself.
Halling just shrugged. "Because I still have Jinto and you still have Torren?"
She smiled at him. Halling gave her a one-armed hug and snuffled against the top of Torren's head, making him squeal happily. Sometimes Halling could be exceedingly wise.
"Now, if only I had any idea where to go," she murmured when Torren had quieted.
"What about your friend John?" Halling asked. "Didn't you tell me he had emailed you an invitation to visit and stay with him?"
"Me, yes," Teyla replied, thinking of John's unexpected and welcome email of the night before. She had been too caught up in her own disasters to worry over her friend, despite guessing at the pain written between the lines of the message he'd sent her after the polo horses he'd loved and cared for had been poisoned. "I'm not sure he meant me, Torren, three horses and everything we still own."
"So, call him," Halling suggested. "Ask."
Teyla lifted her eyebrow but obediently handed Torren to Halling and plucked her cell phone out of her jeans. John had relayed a telephone number along with his email. She'd immediately programmed it into her contacts out of relief to have any way of connecting with him.
"Hello? John? It's Teyla," she said into the phone.
"Teyla," John nearly whooped. "Tell me you're somewhere on the east coast. I want to see you. I need your help."
"I'm in California."
His heartfelt, "Damn," made her laugh.
"John, do you have room for me and Torren and three horses?"
It was John's turn to laugh.
"Teyla, I have room for the entire Athos Circus."
Teyla caught her breath and looked at Halling and then Jinto and finally the Winnebago containing Pablo.
"That's…That…Can Halling and Jinto come too?"
"Sure. Jinto must be almost ready for high school, right?"
"Yes," she choked out. "Thank you, John."
"Teyla? Are you okay?"
"I'm coming to stay with you," she choked out. "I'll tell you everything when we get there."
Halling caught her hand and squeezed it while smiling at her, mouthing the same words John said over the phone.
"It's going to be okay."
Maybe it was.
"You what!?" Rodney heard his voice rise into embarrassing heights and couldn't help it. "How could you sell it to someone else? It was a special order!"
The sweet, comforting smells of alfalfa and timothy hays among others mixed with the sharper scents of cedar shavings and sawdust and filtered into the storefront portion of the building from the open barn in back, mixing with leather from the various pieces of tack on sale. The tack hung on the side wall along with brightly colored webbing and shining new metal chains and buckles. Aisles filled with heavy paper 50 lb. bags of animal feed for everything from rabbits and dogs to sheep as well as the more obvious horses and cattle were piled to eye level. Familiar names like Nutrena Feed™, Sweetlix™, and Cargill Feed™ abounded. The opposite wall held refrigeration units with glass doors and locks. A pyramid of salt blocks stood before the front doors advertising a sale. The linoleum itself was swept clean of dirt and bits of hay that customers tended to carry in on their boots and the front window shone. Harriman's was the best run feed store in three counties, which was why Rodney purchased everything he could from them, but he felt positively betrayed at the moment.
"I've been special ordering feed mixes from you for the last eight years, Archangel is never late with payment, and you let some upstart jackass waltz in here and hijack a truckload of organically grown grain and my monthly shipment of timothy?"
Siler just shrugged at him. Rodney would have questioned why Harriman kept Siler on with an attitude like that, except for the heavy crescent wrench he always had to hand and the well known fact that Siler had never met a piece of farm equipment he couldn't repair. Harvesters, hay-balers, forklifts and tractors all perked up and purred for Siler. Rodney did almost all the mechanical repairs at Archangel, but when he didn't have the time, he called in Siler. He just had a knack, like some demi-god bastard of John Deere.
"Who the hell did you sell it to, anyway?" he demanded.
Siler just shrugged. He'd been nearly as uncommunicative over the telephone, saying only the shipment had been diverted, when Rodney called for the third day in a row, prompting Rodney to drive the Mule, his aged and eccentric Ford F150, nicknamed for its refusal to quit, into Galacky over his lunch hour to straighten out whatever mess Harriman's had made in person.
"That would have been me," a lazy voice interrupted from behind Rodney.
He spun around and glared at the lanky man standing in the doorway between the store and the storage warehouse, next to a display of mineral supplements and vitamins. The man was squinting against the fluorescent lights inside, blinded by the contrast from the dim depths of the warehouse, and Rodney couldn't make out his eye color. He recognized him anyway from the magazine cover. The white polo shirt and the deep tan were exactly the same.
Polo Guy smiled, all white teeth and amusement; whether the smile was aimed at Rodney or Siler, Rodney couldn't tell, but either way, he wanted to sock him one.
"You!" he growled, groping for the name he'd dismissed from his mind once Elizabeth left.
He rolled his eyes. "Wonderful. It's the bastard child of George Hamilton and a hedgehog."
The protest still sounded amused, so Rodney felt safe enough turning his back and facing Siler again. He needed to expend some of his frustration on the manager and owner. "I want an explanation for this sort of treatment! Where's Walter?"
"I had to get rid of the crap the manager had been foisting off on the estate so I called around," Polo Guy said from behind Rodney. "Harriman's had a truck loaded up and were willing to sell it to me for a little extra."
So at least Polo Guy recognized Landry's essential uselessness. Rodney hoped he'd fired Landry. One of his passing fantasies was never having to see that fat ass good ol' boy again. Not that he hadn't gotten the best of him any time they locked horns, but it was always a waste of Rodney's valuable time.
A waste, as was this farrago.
"That's all very well," Rodney said, then pointed at Siler, "But haven't you heard of the customer comes first?"
Polo Guy strolled over and leaned against the check out counter. "First come, first served?"
Rodney gritted his teeth. He wanted to threaten to take his business elsewhere, but Harriman's was the best. He ignored Polo Guy and addressed Siler. "When can you get another shipment in?"
"That's not soon enough," Rodney protested. "What am I supposed to feed in the mean time?" He'd deliberately let the normal hay volume drop over the last month. It made for nice, neat, not too tall double aisles and impressed the fire inspector when he finally deigned to show. He was running low as a consequence however.
"You might have thought of that before you let yourself run out," Polo Guy commented.
There went another layer of enamel.
"You, shut up. I wouldn't be out if someone hadn't hijacked my feed the day of delivery." Rodney sniffed. "Keeping too much feed on hand is a fire hazard, you know."
"Hmm. Starving your animals is a legal offense, you know."
"I'm not starving my animals!" Rodney shouted before grabbing onto his temper and holding onto it with both metaphorical hands. "That's libel! Or, or slander. I can't remember which one is which." He glared and lifted his chin. "That's a lie, is what it is."
"Okay, okay, no starving."
Siler had begun entering Rodney's order into the computer, thank God.
"Better double that order," Polo Guy said. He flashed a sideways grin at Rodney. "I wouldn't want to hijack anyone's feed again."
"You wouldn't dare."
The low, easy laugh invited Rodney to join in. Rodney didn't, but he felt the pull. His quick burst of temper receded under it.
"Listen, if it's that big a thing, and the next shipment really will only be here next week — " There Polo Guy paused and looked at Siler who nodded a gloomy confirmation. " — I'll sell you half of the truckload I bought. Same price. Just send someone over to load it," he offered.
Rodney stared at him and calculated how much more time and money it would cost to buy a load of hay from somewhere else. "Deal," he said.
Polo Guy extended his hand and Rodney shook on it. They had the same calluses. Rodney's hand was broader, Polo Guy's fingers were longer, but they fit easily.
He'd send Cadman and Collins over with a stock trailer and a check. Which reminded him… He turned on Siler. "You better make damn sure I'm not charged for that shipment," he said.
Polo Guy laughed.
"You need to know where to come get the hay?"
That was Rodney's turn to laugh. "Come on. You're at Pegasus."
"Right then. I'll be there all afternoon."
Rodney waved absently. "You may as well load a dozen of those salt blocks into my truck," he said to Siler. He fished a crumpled list of sundries out of his pants and consulted it. "We've got a new boarder in. The owner has a multi-supplement blend she wants fed every evening, so we may as well add it to the standing weekly order too."
"See ya soon, buddy," Polo Guy said and strolled out.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Rodney replied. He needed to explain to this woman that you could over supplement your horse and it could even result in toxic levels of minerals and vitamins. Supplements were not a magic wand anyone could wave at their horse and turn it into a winner. Why were people all such morons anyway? There should be a test they had to pass before they could buy a horse.
What in hell did this list say? Rodney tipped the wrinkled paper one way and then the other, squinting.
Cadman had taken the call and scratched out the list while on the phone. The ink had smeared. Rodney could barely read her chicken scratch hieroglyphics anyway. Finally the shorthand resolved itself into sense.
What the hell was that, some holistic crap? Crystals. The owner wanted crystals hung in her horse's stall. Did Cadman really think Rodney was going to go buy crystals? He was going to make her pay for this.
What next? Aromatherapy for the horses?
Why didn't these people just all move to Sedona anyway?
It wasn't a conscious decision, but on some level Rodney must have known he meant to ride onto Pegasus land again. Otherwise, he would have ridden Blue. Instead he saddled Kepler, the brown gelding Elizabeth rode when the County Hunt met, and pulled on a dark windbreaker instead of his usual waxed jacket.
He'd powered through the morning feed regime and mucking out, even taking up Bob and Steve's slack, and Cadman, who had showed up without Rodney asking, declared, "Good fucking riddance," which made Rodney laugh even as he brought out his saddle and began tacking up Kepler.
"You aren't taking Blue?"
"Jennifer is going to school on him this afternoon," Rodney told her. "Jumps."
"Ooooh, it's Jennifer, is it?"
Cadman waggled her eyebrows and then cocked her hip. She hadn't bothered with make-up. It made her look weirdly naked. Rodney was used to the mascara and lipstick she usually wore during the day. He supposed it was just too damn early. The sun hadn't come up yet, just teased with soft grays and mauves and the palest green shade at the eastern horizon.
"Just remember, after she's had a real stallion between her legs, she's not going to — "
"God, you have a filthy mind. Get it out of the sewer and up to the gutter at least."
Cadman rolled her eyes and Rodney stepped up into the saddle. His back didn't even twinge; the half a hand higher Blue stood next to Kepler made a difference he despised acknowledging. Of course on a bad day, it made no difference at all; everything hurt. But not today, despite taking a turn helping unload the stock trailer the afternoon before. He'd had his back support on, though, the same one he wore while competing. It helped sometimes.
"I know she's a good rider, but I still don't get why you let her ride him. He's not exactly a rental hack, after all."
Jennifer was the best rider coming to Archangel and Blue was the best horse. Rodney loved riding and competing, but stepping back and watching Jennifer work with Blue let him see things he couldn't from Blue's back. Putting her up on Blue was teaching her more than riding her own horse. Blue wasn't as polished and Jennifer was learning right along with him. He wasn't sure why Cadman didn't like her much and had decided ignorance was bliss. Women were often incomprehensibly strange about each other in his experience.
"You call that friend of yours?" he asked.
"Yeah. Dusty said she'd be here tomorrow. I told her she could bunk with me until she finds a place."
Rodney nodded. He hoped Cadman and this Dusty got along, because Archangel didn't pay well enough to give anyone an easy choice among Galacky's limited and overpriced residences. Rodney wasn't getting rich and he got free rent and a heftier paycheck than any groom.
Kepler enjoyed getting out. His ground-eating trot took them east into a trail that wound through the woods and after cutting through one pasture, to the edge of Pegasus Farm. Rodney dismounted short of the treeline this time, slipped a lead from his pocket and snapped it onto the halter he'd left under the bridle. He used the lead to tie up the gelding out of sight, then walked to the fence.
Eyes might claim that the horse and rider already working around and across the field never touched the earth, but, boots on the ground, Rodney could feel the impact of each hoof vibrate through the soil. 1,300 lbs. of muscle and bone couldn't help make noise, either. Rodney propped his arms on the gate and watched. The stallion had been clipped and groomed to an oiled sheen since the last time. Wraps protected his legs, shocking white as the polo shirt his rider wore.
Dressage used the same terms as ballet. Like ballet, it was meant to look effortless, but up close the stage shivered and shuddered and the dancers shook and sweated. The horse in the pasture blew like a dragon while steam curled off his hindquarters.
Rodney bit back the impulse to call out to the rider, to tell him to slow up and ease up, because his mount hadn't been ridden regularly in too long and the stallion simply wasn't conditioned for extensive exercise. He didn't have to. Sheppard — and Polo Guy was Sheppard — allowed his mount to slow and relax into a slower pace.
Rodney faded back from the fence, preferring to remain unseen, as the sun finally restored color to the world.
He had no time to ride out the next morning and Cadman's gum-chewing ex-marine Dusty showed in the afternoon. She wore cowboy boots, a snap-front shirt with the sleeves cut off and had a fouler mouth than Cadman herself. She did as much as Bob and Steve together. Rodney assigned her to Pal and Trumpy and Dr. Porter's Saddlebred once he was satisfied that she knew what she was doing. He wondered if he could recruit any more ex-marines as grooms.
Dusty had snapped her gum and said, "I worked at a farm outside Flagstaff in high school. Same one my dad worked at. Doing the same thing: shoveling shit." She shrugged and added more quietly, "I didn't get it then."
Rodney didn't ask what she meant. Every job meant shoveling shit on some level, after all.
He rode Kepler out the next morning and watched Sheppard work with the stallion. It almost broke his heart. The horse was going to be great and Sheppard was already better than a polo player had any right to be. Better than Anne Teldy, better than Jennifer Keller, better than Rodney's sister Jeannie, who belonged in the Olympics and would have been on the Canadian team if she hadn't been bumped one year and pregnant the next time. Sheppard wasn't as good as Rodney, of course, but like his mount, he had the potential.
Of course, Rodney himself had had the potential twenty years ago. He still did, despite lately beginning to wonder if he still had the obsessive commitment necessary to reach the Olympics or even continue participating in the CCI★★★ levels. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be for him. That had a part in how hard he was working with Jennifer. Maybe she would be his legacy to the sport instead of his own achievements.
Every morning he could, Rodney watched their progress, wondering what Sheppard meant to do or if he meant to do anything beyond riding and training his horse to please himself. He couldn't guess and he found himself not caring. He found a special peace in just watching.
The Naugahyde seat stuck to the back of Teyla's thighs right through her jeans. A broken spring had been stabbing her left ass cheek since Oklahoma. Her fingers were cramped into claws from curling around the steering wheel hours on end. She saw the sign and turn-off ahead, sighed in gratitude, flicked on her blinker and shifted down to brake and take the turn. Behind her, the VW bus' blinker started flashing, reflecting in her truck's side mirrors. The Winnebago loomed behind it, slowing too.
They'd kept Jinto sandwiched between Teyla's truck and trailer and Halling in the Winnebago all the way from California, praying they'd never be stopped. The highway patrol or state police and Pablo wouldn't have been a good mix, and Jinto was too young to have a license. Luck and careful driving had kept them under the radar and they'd made it to Maryland.
Teyla had a sinking feeling their success meant Jinto was going to think he got to drive from now on. She'd leave telling him differently to Halling.
It wasn't possible to miss how much work Pegasus Farm needed, but Teyla fell in love anyway. It felt right to her the way nothing had for months. The buildings with their soft gray field stone reminded her of Europe, as did the green everywhere. After the drive across the dry, brown expanses of the Mid-West, it relieved her eyes and even her skin.
John greeted her in his reserved way, the not-a-hug touch of forehead to forehead they'd come up with because the sequins on her trapeze costume always caught on his shirts otherwise. The quick curl of his mouth into a smile made her smile back.
"Where's Torren?" John asked as Jinto parked the VW next to Teyla's truck. The Winnebago chugged up the road. "You're going to stay, right? The house needs to be remodeled, but there's electricity and hot water and the roof doesn't actually leak no matter how bad it looks." He headed for the truck and opened the door behind the front passenger's, where Teyla had Torren strapped into his car seat. He'd been colicky and unhappy through most of the drive. Of course now, he'd gone right to sleep. John peered in but didn't touch him. "Wow. I knew you'd make a good looking kid."
Teyla flushed. She'd had a tiny, foolish crush on John when he worked for Athos Circus. That had been a decade back, while she'd still been a teenager. She'd got over it and they'd become friends instead, somehow holding onto their connection and staying in touch even after Athos left for America and John went his own way. Even knowing John had never been interested in her, the indirect compliment still pleased her.
"He has his father's temper," she said before thinking.
John twisted around and raised his eyebrows at her, silently asking where Kanaan was. John's reticence made him a comfortable friend; he seldom pushed for more than Teyla or anyone wanted to share, content to accept only what was freely offered. If she didn't answer, he wouldn't put the question into words.
"Kanaan has joined Kenmore's," she answered, keeping it short.
John's face blanked and then he casually shifted the conversation away from the sore spot.
"So, the house has more rooms than a hotel. What do you say?"
"Are there beds?" she asked.
Halling climbed down out of the Winnebago after parking and wandered over to them, joined by Jinto. His face creased into a smile as John laughed.
"There are even sheets."
"I'm staying," Halling declared.
Jinto spun on his heel, taking in the farm, and commented, "You own this? Wow."
"Lock, stock, and tax assessment."
"Cool." His gaze settled on the green Porsche and his face lit up. "That's yours too? Can I drive it?"
"No!" John, Halling and Teyla chorused together.
Jinto looked sulky and put upon.
"I drove the bus."
"You're not old enough."
"Hypocrite," Jinto told Halling.
John pointed at Torren, who hadn't even stirred.
"You want to take him inside, pick out a room for him?"
"Oh, hey, I can pick my own room?" Jinto asked eagerly, forgetting to pout as fast as he'd started.
"Sure," John told him. "Knock yourself out. Mine's got a couple of suitcases by the bed. Everything else is up for grabs."
Jinto took off for the house, while Teyla bent inside the truck and released the straps securing Torren in his seat. Torren didn't even wake up. Teyla gave her child a cross look. Now he slept? After crying and fussing for what felt like the entire trip?
She handed him to John just to enjoy the faintly horrified look of panic on his face. She loved the way his features twisted and moved so much, despite his efforts to play the stone-faced one.
"Jeez, he's heavy."
"I know," Teyla told him. "Eight and a half pounds at birth."
John looked abashed.
"You know Jinto's is going to commandeer the biggest bedroom in the house?" Halling asked.
That didn't bother John, obviously. He just grinned lazily and hiked Torren higher in his arms.
"Hell, I've been sleeping on the couch in the den. It's closer to the kitchen. Seems kinda crazy to go all the way upstairs just to sleep, you know? Downstairs is actually in good shape."
They started toward the front veranda of the house. The finials on the columns framing the steps were carved stone horse heads, proud as anything in Rome or Versailles, but mottled with lichen. John patted the arched neck of one as they passed. Furtively, Teyla did the same. Halling didn't even hide his touch, stroking over where the stone was already worn just a little smoother than the rest. It felt like good luck.
John had the door open when an unhappy roar echoed from the Winnebago. Torren woke and began struggling; he didn't like waking in a stranger's arms. Horses, but not Teyla's three, began neighing down in the nearer paddocks. John just avoided a black eye from one of Torren's flailing fists and thrust him out at Teyla.
"Here, buddy, here's mommy," he blurted. "Was that —?"
Teyla accepted Torren.
Halling looked shamefaced.
"Pablo," Halling admitted.
John blinked at him.
"Pablo the Lion?"
"You remember him?" Halling asked.
Jinto thundered up behind John and squeezed by him. "He needs a walk," he said.
"Jinto, wait," Teyla called, suddenly worried that while John was willing to take in herself, Halling, Jinto and a baby, even three more horses, he might not welcome a senile lion.
John was staring at the Winnebago with wide hazel eyes. "You drove cross country with a lion in a Winnebago."
"We couldn't just have him put down," Jinto declared scornfully.
"No one would buy or take him," Halling apologized.
Pablo let out another roar. The Pegasus horses freaked out and ran up and down the paddock fences neighing.
"Crap," John muttered.
Teyla waited for him to tell them Pablo had to go. His eyes had narrowed, while his thin face gave away concentrated thought.
"Okay," he said. "The horses here are not used to big cats, but we can deal. This is a big farm and when it was built someone put up a six-horse quarantine barn. You can't see it from here. We can set up Pablo there and bring in some chain-link to lion-proof one of the paddocks out there so he can spend some time outside."
Halling looked ready to cry in relief.
John turned to Teyla. "Why don't you take Torren on inside, fix him up and Jinto can keep an eye on him. I'll walk you down to the barn and whistle up Stubbs. He can help you unload your horses. Meanwhile, Halling and I can drive Pablo out to his new home. Okay?"
Reluctantly, Jinto stopped halfway down the veranda stairs.
"Go ahead and get Torren's things from the backseat," Teyla called to him.
Jinto's shoulders slumped, a virtual pantomime of 'do I have to?' that made Teyla smile to herself.
"Thank you again, John," she said.
By evening, they were all ensconced in the large living room with the remains of three large pizzas, too much soda, and ice cream, spread over the coffee and side tables. Torren was asleep in John's lap, having been introduced successfully, and Jinto was half asleep and leaning against his father. Teyla had stretched herself out on one of the sinfully comfortable, extra-long sofas — she understood why John would sleep on them now — and Halling had his feet up. A brand new, large screen plasma TV had been set up in front of a disused fireplace and was playing something with too many explosions, the sound muted.
"Once I find a job — " Halling started to say.
John waved his free hand in dismissal. "Forget it. You see this place. I'm glad you're here."
"Look, even with you here, we're all going to rattle around in here. Besides, I was hoping I could get you to help me start fixing it up," John interrupted. He glanced at Teyla. "I had to fire the manager the estate had."
"I don't know," Teyla said.
"Come on, you managed a circus."
"Right into the ground."
She'd told John the whole sordid story of the end of the Athos Family Circus over the pizza. Halling had added a few facts Teyla hadn't been aware of, including some of the poison Michael had sown with Kanaan and several others, so John knew it all. She'd trusted the wrong person and now John wanted to trust her.
"No, Kenmore got Kanaan to sabotage you."
"I should have seen it."
John slid down in the couch so that Torren was resting against his chest.
"John is right," Halling said. He shook Jinto's arm until Jinto roused. "C'mon, brat, I'm not a pillow. Bed."
Blinking and yawning, Jinto wordlessly staggered to his feet and off toward the stairs.
"Despite being raised by me and a pride of big cats, he usually has more manners than that," Halling said. He levered his long, tall body up and scraped his gray hair back over his shoulders. "Good night, Teyla. Good night, John."
John and Teyla watched more explosions on the TV after Halling left.
"I could use a farm manager," John said at last. "And a friend."
"Do you miss them?" Teyla asked.
"Yeah," he replied. "I miss them, but Mitch and Dex and Holland decided they were going to stay and keep riding for Reynaldo…and I couldn't do that. Not knowing what I knew."
"And now everyone believes you were behind what Reynaldo did."
John leaned back against the supple leather of the couch and closed his eyes. "Yeah, taking off the way I did looked kinda guilty to a lot of people."
"Could you ride for someone else, maybe here in the States?"
"No, being suspected of poisoning an entire string of polo ponies is the kind of black mark that pretty much ends careers."
Teyla made herself get up and retrieve Torren. He'd drooled a wet spot through John's shirt. John was watching her intently, obviously waiting to see if she got it. She wasn't the only one who had to start over after losing something. She wasn't even the only one who had been betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.
"You will have to show me the office in the morning," she said.
There had been no reason to think of Sheppard and Atlantis' morning work-out as Rodney's private show. He hadn't even talked to the man beyond a few insults thrown out at Harriman's. He certainly hadn't mentioned his trespassing and voyeurism. He'd wanted that hay, after all, not a restraining order.
It still felt like a betrayal when he walked to his place at the fence and someone else, another rider, was in the pasture with Sheppard.
That it was a pretty, petite woman on the wide back of a nearly white hack Rodney hadn't seen before disillusioned him even more. She followed Sheppard over the top of the hill and down into the still shadowy gray pasture, halted, and just sat comfortably in her saddle, letting the white horse graze.
Rodney squinted. Yes. She just had a hackamore on the white horse, though a bit wouldn't stop most horses anyway. The rising sun gleamed bronze over her smooth hair.
Sheppard began working with the black horse, mostly ignoring his companion.
Rodney couldn't concentrate on horse or rider. He kept wondering about the woman. Who was she? Why had Sheppard brought her to what had seemed to be a private moment in his day? Why her? Why now? Where had she come from? Rodney conveniently ignored that his own observations hadn't been invited. He felt suddenly excluded and a little angry. This had been his secret, the highlight of his own day sometimes, and now there was an interloper.
There didn't seem to be any reason to stay now. The sense of something magical and otherworldly had been destroyed.
With a resentful sigh, Rodney turned his back and walked to where he'd left Kepler. He gathered the reins in one hand and swung into the saddle, castigating himself for being foolish and romantic and ridiculous. He needed to find another riding path. He needed to be riding Blue and making out entries for Fair Hill and half dozen other USEF/USEA recognized events as well as figuring out where he'd get the money for those entries, hotels, stable and board, diesel for the truck and a new pair of riding boots.
Dusty was working out: she got along with Simpson, and together with Cadman they formed an unholy female trio he'd dubbed the Furies. He still needed to find one more groom. He needed to answer Jeannie's phone call from the night before. He'd let it go to the answering machine even though he'd been in the apartment; he'd been too tired to contend with his sister.
Life went on and he had things to do.
No doubt he'd run into Sheppard again if the man stayed at Pegasus. That didn't mean Rodney needed to watch him train any horses. It didn't mean they had some special connection. The only connections Rodney believed in were between horse and rider.
He didn't let himself look back.
Teyla watched something drain out of John half way through the schooling session. He didn't stop, but he lost some indefinable eagerness she'd noted as they rode out. She patted Jumper's neck and sighed. John's enthusiasm had been a balm to her heart. Seeing it disappear so quickly worried her.
He finished Atlantis' lesson and joined her.
"So, what do you think?" he asked.
"He is beautiful," Teyla told him. "You need to find someone who knows more than I do to help you. Trick riding isn't quite what you want to teach him, is it?"
"No," John sighed. He shoved one hand through his hair. "I was hoping…"
"That seeing you here would make him realize he could join me."
Teyla frowned. "Who?"
John nodded to the fence and the trees to the west of the pasture. "The trainer/instructor from the next farm over. McKay. He's been watching me and Atlantis since the first morning I rode out here." John looked charmingly shamefaced. "That's why I keep coming out here instead of using the arena."
"Is he very famous?" Teyla asked.
John chuckled and replied, "No more than I am. I don't know why he never made the Canadian Equestrian team, but he's been training horses and schooling riders for years now. I could use his help."
"And you hoped, because he returned to watch you, that he was interested?"
A shrug and a nod answered her. John let Atlantis turn toward the farm and Jumper followed without Teyla doing anything. The gelding moved at a slow walk. John slowed Atlantis to match his pace. Teyla smiled at the picture they must make, the white horse and the black, gilt touched by the rising sun.
"Perhaps he couldn't watch this morning?"
"No," John said, "he was there. He left."
"He's never left early before."
Teyla opened a gate. John and Atlantis went through. Teyla and Jumper followed. She closed and latched the gate carefully while considering the morning's events. She hadn't even seen this McKay, though she hadn't been looking for him the way John obviously had. It seemed doubtful that McKay had known John was aware of his presence.
"I think Jumper and I are a distraction," she said. "Tomorrow you should go alone."
"You didn't like it?" John sounded hurt.
"Of course I did, but Jumper is too old to ride every day."
"You could ride one of the other horses."
"You've said they all need schooling," Teyla pointed out. "I need to meditate and do my own exercises in the morning." Just because she'd given up the trapeze didn't mean she wasn't going to stay in shape.
"You could join me," Teyla added slyly.
"No thanks," John said.
She'd tried to get him up on the trapeze when he worked for the circus. John had been game, but not willing to practice enough to become good. He'd also complained that he ended up hurting more than when he'd been thrown, so Teyla knew he'd refuse her offer to work-out with her in the mornings. Perhaps if he hadn't met Reynaldo around the same time…
"Perhaps you'd care to check on Pablo then?"
"I think that's Jinto's job. He needs something to occupy him until the school year starts, anyway."
Teyla wanted no part of that fight when it came. Jinto had been home-schooled all his life. Halling had talked about sending him to a local public school. She anticipated outright refusal from Jinto and troubles when Halling insisted.
"You still need to show me the office, too," she said.
The horses picked up speed as they saw the barns.
"Work," John drawled mournfully, "work, work. You're no fun," making Teyla laugh.
William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice
"John Sheppard, this is Rodney McKay," Elizabeth introduced them.
Sheppard extended his hand to shake and Rodney took it half reluctantly while wondering where the girlfriend was. Maybe she'd gone back wherever she'd come from. He dropped his gaze to their hands. Sheppard's fingers were tanned rather than freckled like Rodney's. Freckles were the bane of all fair-skinned people, Rodney in particular.
Sheppard's mouth quirked into an amused grin, either at Rodney's sour expression or his less than enthusiastic handshake.
"We've actually met."
"Really?" Elizabeth asked.
"At the feedstore," Sheppard expanded, drawling, sardonic. "McKay here accused me of hijacking his hay." He toasted Rodney with the crystal flute of champagne in his other hand. He wore Ralph Lauren as though he'd been born to it; considering he'd inherited Pegasus, no doubt he had.
For once, Rodney appreciated the atrociously expensive tux he was wearing. It kept him from feeling so outclassed. Not that he was, but looking like a poor relation didn't impress the sort of people Elizabeth hobnobbed with regularly, and he owed it to her to do his part. Sheppard was all dark, suave elegance, but at least Rodney didn't look like a hayseed next to him.
"You did," Rodney snapped.
"I don't think we got as far as the formal introductions, " Sheppard continued, smiling at Elizabeth, clearly at ease in his tailored tuxedo and the elegant surroundings of her DC townhouse. Rodney couldn't tell if he was mocking him or himself or Elizabeth. It took a lot of gall to mock Elizabeth though, especially in that red, off-one-shoulder, 'oh, it's just an old de la Renta' dress, so Rodney discounted that last possibility.
"Well," Elizabeth said delicately, indecisive only briefly, though clearly at a loss to what else to say. "I'll just have to find someone else new to introduce you to." Her hand was light as a feather on Sheppard's arm, but there was no way any man would ever shrug her off. She'd decided to separate them. Sheppard let her lead him away from Rodney with just another amused look.
Rodney snagged another canapé from a passing waiter. Mushrooms in pastry. He popped it into his mouth and locked his head into suck-up mode. O.B. Roth was present and so were several others who kept their horses at Archangel. There were others with money in their pockets and nothing better to do with it than buy a few hay-burners. Rodney knew how to talk up the thrill of attending the World Equestrian Games or the Pan American Games or Lexington Rolex, always holding out the possibility of owning the mount someone would ride in the Olympics. They all got that acquisitive glint in their eyes when he started talking about gold medals. In the case of the rich, those who couldn't do, bought.
Not all of them, of course. Rodney excused Elizabeth from that estimation, and several others who he would admit loved horses and the sport without being riders themselves. Without them there would be no eventing at all, any more. There were never enough sponsors.
He even managed to find a few minutes to spend with Jennifer and remembered to compliment her dress. Rodney wasn't sure it really did look good; fashion was a foreign country to him. He'd learned from Jeannie to always say a woman made the dress look good. That pleased Jennifer.
"We could have come together," Jennifer said.
"Next time," Rodney blurted. Was she actually standing closer to him than women usually did? He thought so. Alina used to lean toward him. He thought she had done so in retrospect, but didn't feel sure of it any longer. He'd always been awkward with women. Men were probably easier. Not that he'd ever considered that other than theoretically. It had been a decade since the divorce and he hadn't dated much since, so he'd thought of a lot of things. Theoretically. Even trying to get back with Alina, but she was off studying Quinta-something the last Rodney had heard, after flitting from one empty-brained pseudo-religion to the next for years.
Alina had been disappointed in Rodney when he bowed out of contention for the Canadian riding team to take care of his parent's estate and make sure Jeannie got through college. She'd wanted to be married to the Olympian rider, not the struggling farm manager drowning in the debts his parents had left. The whole thing had soured him on relationships.
It could be different with Jennifer, he thought. She was a rider. She'd understand. And they were already working together. The thought kept rolling around in the back of his head even after she was drawn away by Todd Rathe. Rodney faded back as fast as he could. Something about Todd Rathe's personality — wealthy, gracile rider turned corporate raider — made his skin crawl. Jennifer didn't seem to have the same reaction and let him persuade her to dance.
Rodney grumpily decided they looked ridiculous together. Todd was insanely tall and Jennifer was almost petite. He hated dancing anyway. He always stepped on someone's feet, even his own sometimes.
The buffet still had an appealing array of treats, so Rodney headed that way. He'd done enough mingling in his opinion.
The buffet waited, alluring and without hidden agenda, only steps away when Rodney noticed O.B. Roth had Sheppard nearly cornered. Avoiding them meant veering distinctly off course. Debating that, he caught the slightly taunting note to the end of O.B.'s words.
"Argentina? Wasn't there some kind of scandal in Buenos Aires recently? Some rider poisoned a polo string?"
From the way Sheppard's features went blank as a mask, O.B. had hit a sore spot.
"Yes," Sheppard replied, tight-lipped, "and no."
"I hear you're a rider too."
"I'm in insurance, you see. Risk reward. That polo thing, that makes a man think twice."
Sheppard looked past O.B. into some unfathomable distance. Rodney could see the attitude pushing O.B.'s buttons.
"I'd have to advise people with horses insured with our company not to employ a rider like that."
Fucker, Rodney thought.
O.B. chuckled and pressed one big hand down on Sheppard's shoulder, hard enough that Rodney could see Sheppard stiffen against him. O.B.'s gaze caught on Rodney then and he let up. "McKay," he greeted.
Rodney obediently joined them. Sheppard's knuckles were white where he held his champagne flute.
"How's that horse of mine doing?" O.B. asked.
"You're not riding him yourself?"
Rodney shrugged. "Some horses work better for women. Anne brings out the best in him."
"Too busy riding your own horse, are you?" O.B. scowled. "I'm not paying you and Elizabeth just to keep that animal in hay. I expect results."
Rodney had an answer for that. "Actually, I've got Jennifer Keller riding Damascus lately. I expect she'll get better results than I would, the same as Anne will with El Cid."
O.B. peered at him, seeming to judge whether Rodney was lying or not, then laughed. "Well, I'll have to take your word for it, won't I?" He eyed Sheppard. "Interesting meeting you," O.B. said and left them abruptly.
"And people say I have the manners of a rhino," Rodney muttered.
He eyed Sheppard sidelong until he saw him relax.
"People say all kinds of things," Sheppard commented. "Most of it's crap."
Including rumors from Buenos Aires, Rodney heard between the lines.
"O.B. has some kind of thing for Elizabeth I've never figured out," Rodney said. He edged around Sheppard and finally made it to the buffet.
Sheppard followed him and picked up a plate too.
"So that was…what?"
"Marking his territory?" Rodney shrugged and began loading his plate. Elizabeth's caterers always had little, elegantly penned cards next to each dish listing its ingredients for the benefit of those with sensitivities. It made avoiding everything with citrus much easier.
"The pastry things are good," Rodney said.
Sheppard snagged the last two. He followed Rodney until Rodney stopped and glared at him. "What are you, a puppy?"
Sheppard had hazel eyes. There were laugh lines around them. He winced at Rodney's words and stepped back. "Why the hell are you pissed with me anyway?" he demanded a breath later.
"What? I'm not pissed at you."
The little sound that escaped Sheppard held a world of disbelief.
"So why'd you stop watching me and Atlantis?"
A mouth hanging open, especially one filled with the shrimp and pimento thing Rodney had just shoveled in, was never attractive. Rodney snapped his closed, chewed and swallowed. He wondered if he was about to choke to death when the shrimp hung up painfully halfway down his throat, and hoped Sheppard knew the Heimlich maneuver. He swallowed again desperately and then snatched Sheppard's champagne and gulped it.
"Hey, you okay?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney waved him away and concentrated on breathing again. His throat hurt a little. "Fine, I'm fine."
"Didn't your mother teach you to chew your food?"
Even the glare of death that cowed Rodney's most successful or wealthy students just bounced off Sheppard. "No, she didn't. Haven't you heard? I was raised by wolves."
"I guess that explains it," Sheppard said agreeably.
Choking to death now just a receding worry, Rodney's thoughts circled round to the revelation that Sheppard had known Rodney was watching him ride.
"You don't have to worry, I won't be trespassing any more," he assured Sheppard.
Sheppard frowned at him. "I don't care."
"It never seemed to matter before. Landry never kept any stock in the back pastures," Rodney said. "It's different now."
Sheppard poked at something wrapped in a grapeleaf with his fork. "I kind liked it. I thought…Anyway, feel free to ride on Pegasus whenever you want. You don't have to join me."
"It looked like you already had someone with you," Rodney blurted without thinking.
"That was Teyla. She's the new manager. But she's got other things to do most mornings. It's just me out there now."
Sheppard tapped the tines of his fork against the china plate. "I'm out of practice."
Sheppard looked up and met Rodney's gaze. He had a thin face, rather ridiculously handsome, though not in the cookie cutter way Rodney loathed in men and women. "I kinda hoped you'd give me some pointers."
"I usually charge for that," Rodney pointed out.
He could see Sheppard considering that, his head cocked to the side, and then a smile tipped one side of his mouth.
"Yeah," he said, "I know. But you never had a chance at working with a horse like Atlantis."
Rodney had no argument to answer that.
"We'll see," he said grumpily.
He already knew he'd be there in the morning.
Sir Winston Churchill
When he'd walked away from Virginia, his family and the engagement to Nancy, John hadn't left competitive riding behind. He'd come close. For months before that he'd been so miserable he'd been oblivious to anyone outside his own tight circle.
He didn't remember Rodney McKay, though they'd been contemporaries. McKay had been riding in Canada and John had confined himself to the Area 1, 2 and 3 East Coast meets in order to stay closer to his mother as she grew sicker and sicker.
McKay had been going through his own troubles.
John had seen him watching from the back of a blue roan the first morning at Pegasus. John had been sitting uncomfortably in on of the saddles Stubbs had maintained and had immediately, weirdly, felt settled, despite the previous sensation of sitting on top of living dynamite. Atlantis hadn't been too sure about having a man on his back again after so long. John had only meant to tour some of Pegasus' back pastures and check the state of the fences, but the presence of a watcher, a man sitting in a dressage seat, had lit John up inside. He couldn't show off, because Atlantis was still too unknown, but he'd begun the simplest exercises anyway, until the vibration of the cellphone he'd tucked in his shirt pocket had reminded him he had a full day ahead of him.
He hadn't known who the watcher had been until seeing him in Harriman's. Some cautious questions and the natural human desire to talk if someone will listen had revealed there was only one blue roan dressage horse in the area: Rodney McKay's Damascus. McKay managed the barns on the farm next to Pegasus, as well as coaching and training. One glimpse of McKay's shoulders in an orange fleece jacket from the rear had confirmed John's deductions.
His bad wrist was aching again, so he picked up a brace while he was there. It looked a little like a black sweatband, but offered considerable support. By the next day, he had a better idea of what Pegasus needed and was back at Harriman's.
The offer to sell back half of the hay load had been proffered with the hope that grumpy, snappy, intriguing McKay would come along to pick it up, but no such luck.
John had been pleased to realize he was back, watching again, the next morning. He'd almost called out to him, but then held his tongue and put Atlantis through his paces instead, the patient practice of the basics that would underlie everything else he ever asked of the horse. Losing himself in that had been easy; he'd forgotten McKay until the end.
McKay hadn't said anything. Maybe that made him more intriguing. John himself had always been contrary according to everyone who really knew him. He wouldn't have abandoned the life that had been mapped out for him since childhood if it weren't true.
Sitting on the brown leather couch he'd taken to sleeping on the second night at Pegasus, John propped his sock-clad feet against one cushion, balanced his laptop against his knees, and began searching. The house was huge, even for a large, extended family, and painfully silent in its near emptiness. A TV and satellite had been first on his list of immediate renovations just for the noise factor. He left the lights on in the kitchen — all stainless steel and black granite; it looked like it belonged in a space age restaurant — after Halling and Teyla retired just to provide himself a navigation point when he woke in the night.
It occurred to him that a dog would be nice. There were at least two barn cats he'd glimpsed already, but they were half-feral and needed in the barns to discourage rodents.
His laptop and the Internet provided information, if not answers to the all things he really wanted to know, after a few searches. McKay was a year younger than John and had a sister who still competed in Canada, while he rode mostly in the States. He had been working at Archangel for more than ten years. McKay had never gone to the Olympics, though everyone had considered him to be a shoo-in for the same year John would have gone.
John contemplated that and wondered how much it had hurt McKay to give that up. John had been too messed up to realize how much not going had hurt him until later, when he agreed to ride two horses belonging to Reynaldo's friend Caterina Peres and discovered he'd missed eventing.
McKay had been married to Alina Duggan, daughter of the man who owned his best horse at the time, John read. He wondered how that had worked out; not well, evidently, as the marriage ended in divorce several years later. Old Man Duggan put another rider on Salamanca, the horse seized up at a trial, kept tightening up, then fell disastrously in cross-country and was put down within a year of the change in riders. John winced. Every horseman knew how much losing a beloved mount hurt. Seeing one put down, as inevitably one did over the years, hurt worse.
He kept digging, reading old articles from the time, grimacing at some of the speculation that had run rampant. McKay was having an affair, McKay had a drug problem, a gambling problem, a serious injury, a debilitating disease, was caught doping his horses, had lost his nerve, had been blackballed by the Canadian community for blowing the whistle on someone else's dirty doings. No evidence of any of that ever came to light.
John tabbed back and picked out the time line. McKay had been the ascendant star of Canadian riding, along with his sister Jean. Then their parents died in a car crash. They weren't wealthy people and following their deaths, McKay had stopped competing. His sister went on riding while attending university. Salamanca was put down, Jean McKay married, McKay divorced, and finally he took the farm manager position with Archangel Stables.
It had all been about money; in retrospect John could see the pattern no one else had. Competitive riding was expensive; there hadn't been enough to support McKay's career and his sister's.
Jean McKay-Miller had a university degree and great prospects for the Canadian Equestrian Team going to the next Olympics after missing the Beijing games due to a pregnancy.
Rodney McKay trained horses and coached riders for a decade after moving to the States and only competed enough to maintain his standing and qualifications. When he did compete, he placed or won regularly. He certainly hadn't lost his skills or nerve.
John set the laptop on the coffee table and sat back on the couch. He looked up at the shadowy ceiling. Did Jean McKay-Miller have a clue? John couldn't imagine his own brother making a sacrifice like that and not making sure John knew all about it. Of course, he couldn't imagine Dave giving up a tee time for him.
He had no way of really knowing what went on between the McKay siblings, admittedly. While Rodney McKay had been struggling to keep his head above water financially and maritally, John had been watching his mother slip away, eaten up by cancer, and pretending for all he was worth that everything would be okay. He'd faked it for his mother, faked it with Nancy, wore a mask with his father and Dave and everyone else. The only time he let himself come out had been on horseback, throwing himself and his mount over the jumps, racing forward as if enough speed would let him fly away from the lies.
John let his hand rest over his belly and tucked his other behind his head.
He hadn't known it at the time, but he'd been having a breakdown behind that mask. No one had noticed.
A week after his mother's funeral, which had been attended by hundreds in awe of Patrick Sheppard's money, John had driven from Virginia to Pennsylvania to win at Radnor. Afterward, he'd climbed back in his car and started the drive home in order to attend the engagement party his father had insisted they shouldn't reschedule. There had been a truck stop along the way and a blow job that left his knees and jaw both aching while he dressed for the party later. He'd gargled with mouthwash over and over, but it didn't matter anyway; Nancy insisted on only air kisses rather than muss her lipstick.
Sometime after midnight, lightheaded with exhaustion, John had stepped outside for the fresh air, started walking, and never turned back.
He'd made it to Europe before his money ran out and taken a job as a groom. It never occurred to him to go home.
John had bummed around Europe for years, working as a groom and rider, even taken the job with Athos circus, and then spent five years with Reynaldo's polo team, living in Argentina and regularly riding in polo matches held everywhere from the Hamptons to Florida. He'd kept his eventing qualifications more through luck than a plan, but he had, so he hadn't exactly been invisible. Neither Dave or his father had ever reached out to contact him.
Even after Reynaldo, John never considered going back to Virginia. He could imagine his father's reaction. Dave's too, come to that. They'd think he was crawling back because of what happened in Argentina. They'd consider him a shameful failure.
Of course, there were the trust funds. If he meant to keep Pegasus, he'd need them.
He'd bet McKay wouldn't have turned his back on all that money.
McKay was probably smarter than him.
John squeezed his eyes shut. McKay was no doubt straight too. He shouldn't be thinking about the way he'd looked in the photographs John had found on the Internet or the way he'd looked on horseback or even in that feedstore, with his slanted mouth and waving hands. If John needed to get his rocks off, he could drive to DC or even Baltimore to find a one-night stand. McKay, he needed to help coach him and train Atlantis. Nothing more. Nothing else.
Jesus, McKay wasn't even his type.
He should be keeping a low profile.
It wasn't like he'd been flagrantly out in Buenos Aires. The affair with Reynaldo had fizzled into a friendship and left just the job riding Reynaldo's polo ponies several years back. He'd had his teammates and a comfortable life where no one asked more of him than John wanted to give. It still made his stomach twist in unhappiness as he realized stepping back into circles he'd left behind would mean moving back into the closet, at least until he'd established himself firmly enough to weather any reactions. Maybe it wasn't true, maybe he didn't need to hide that part of himself, maybe he'd be accepted without question, but he'd never been comfortable putting himself on display and never wanted anyone pointing him out or talking about him. When it happened — and it would, he knew — he wanted people talk about his riding and not what or who he did in bed.
John did mean to come out eventually. He wasn't sure why, unless it was still about spiting his family. That was a crap reason to do anything. It wasn't about Margaret Dean, either, whatever she'd wanted from leaving him the farm. A better reason was making Pegasus into a successful business and home for Teyla and Torren, because they needed it as much as John did.
Making a home and taking care of his friends mattered more than fantasizing about a romance with someone he barely knew. He was going to need every friend he could get.
God, he was lonely. He was lonely and the house was too big and too quiet at night. That was all.
He really needed to get that dog.
He took Kepler over to Pegasus after finishing in the barns.
"I suppose this means you'll be in better mood now?" Cadman commented. She was coming in every morning now. Carpooling with Dusty and doing more once she arrived.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney replied. He would never admit he'd been grumpier than usual after curtailing his observations of Sheppard and the black horse.
He arrived before Sheppard, but the gate had been unlocked, which Rodney took as the invitation it surely was. The quiet, broken only by Kepler snorting and bird cries, soaked into Rodney, settling his nerves. He opened the gate and rode through. His saddle creaked as he bent and latched the gate without dismounting. He just spotted the white-tipped russet whisk of a fox's brush disappearing through the far fence and into the long grass as he looked up.
"Hey," Sheppard said when he arrived.
"So," Rodney waved his hand toward the pasture. "Do your thing."
Sheppard was simply working on shoulder-fore and position, as patient and natural in the saddle as any rider Rodney had ever observed. Sheppard and Atlantis were tailored to each other. The black horse's conformation and height fit Sheppard's body type and size. Rodney tried to watch critically. The muscles in Atlantis' back needed strengthening, which the advanced dressage work would address. In addition, Atlantis needed further conditioning to improve his endurance before facing the exertion of a three-day event. Rodney's gaze sharpened on the stud, noting that he moved gingerly over the pasture's uncertain ground. Still, the quick way he responded to Sheppard promised that once the work was done, the pay-off would be magnificent.
"Are you working him on the lunge line?" he asked.
"In the afternoon," Sheppard replied.
"Any bad habits?"
"None so far. Or were you asking about me?"
"Should I?" Rodney knew any rider of Sheppard's age and experience would have accumulated a few eccentricities and short cuts, but he hadn't spotted them yet. He hadn't seen Sheppard put a horse over a jump yet or go cross-country either, but he could tell Sheppard would excel at the breakneck cross-country racing.
Grass whispered around Atlantis' fetlocks. Little flecks of it clung, wet and dark, to the horse's hooves, explaining the faint hitch Rodney had detected in his movement. The dew on the grass made the going slippery and the horse cautious.
Sheppard was taking him around in a long, easy circle. He waited to answer until they were nearing Rodney again rather than raise his voice or turn his head. Atlantis would respond to the delicate shift in weight of a tipped or turned head of his rider. Not even every Lipizzaner that went through the Spanish Riding School became that sensitive, but Atlantis would be aware of the movement and Rodney approved of Sheppard's awareness.
"Probably," Sheppard said. "Dressage is always my weak point."
He watched Sheppard circle again.
Sheppard halted Atlantis obediently.
"Take him around the other way. Just walk."
Atlantis went around patiently.
"Okay, doing this out here may be all pretty and romantic, but if we're really doing this, we need to work on a level surface in an arena. The pasture grass is too slick for good footing," Rodney declared eventually.
"Are we doing this?" Sheppard asked as they came around again. Atlantis came to a halt on cue. Sheppard stroked his shoulder. One long, neat ear flicked back toward him, then forward. When Rodney raised his gaze from Atlantis' head, he met Sheppard's piercing hazel gaze.
"Yeah," Rodney answered. "We are."
"Pegasus has its own arena. Halling and I can put it to rights, get it ready by day after tomorrow."
"I'll ride over in the morning and look it over," Rodney offered.
"Great. You can have breakfast with us. I'll introduce you to Halling and Teyla." Sheppard's smile threatened to blind Rodney. "Jinto too."
"That's not necessary," Rodney said, then added, "I'm allergic to citrus," since he hated cooking for himself and a free breakfast was always a good thing.
Sheppard laughed. "Okay."
Rodney fidgeted before breaking the quiet between them. "I should get back."
"Oh. Okay. Uhm, can you recommend the best farrier around here?"
"Wilford, but good luck getting him," Rodney replied promptly. "He's pretty well booked up."
Rodney shrugged. "Stay away from Anson Kell, he's an asshole. A couple of perfectly well-behaved boarders went foot-shy after he'd worked on them. I won't have him out at Archangel."
"Gotcha. I guess I'll try Wilford and cross my fingers."
"I'll check around," Rodney offered. He snapped his fingers, remembering. "Oh. The caveman."
"Guy that apprenticed with Wilford. He has a card up at Harriman's. I saw it when I was in there. Rowan. No, Ronon. Dex. Huge guy. Dreadlocks. Good with the horses."
"Thanks," Sheppard said. "I'll call Harriman's and have them get his number for me."
Rodney started back to the gate where he'd tethered Kepler. Sheppard and Atlantis followed, but not too close. Rodney mounted, hiding a little wince. The drive back from DC had done a number on his back, despite using the farm's truck instead of the clattering old heap he affectionately called the Mule.
Sheppard switched the reins to one hand and offered his hand. Rodney prompted Kepler closer and took Sheppard's hand, shaking it. Their knees brushed as Kepler shifted his weight impatiently.
"I'll have a check for the first six months ready in the morning," Sheppard said.
Rodney felt stunned. He had a reputation as a penny-pinching sonovabitch throughout the equestrian world. He never let anyone slide on paying for his coaching or the training of a horse. Yet he hadn't even considered charging Sheppard.
"Sure," he mumbled. "That's fine. Or we can work something out."
Sheppard smiled again. "McKay, money's the one problem I don't have."
Rodney bit back his immediate retort that he didn't know about problems then, because even he knew better. Just because money had been his bête noire didn't mean others hadn't suffered in different ways.
"Well, that makes one of us," he muttered instead, making Sheppard laugh.
"If you're riding over," Sheppard said, "steer away from the quarantine barn."
Rodney's eyes narrowed. "You have a sick horse? Have you called Zelenka?"
"No sick horses," Sheppard replied. He looked…embarrassed. Amused too. It was an odd expression. "Is Zelenka your vet?"
"Yes. He's a pigeon-obsessed Czech lunatic, but he's a damned good vet." If there was anyone in the world Rodney considered a friend, it was Radek Zelenka. Not that he had any intention of ever admitting it to him. The crazy bastard would probably want to hug him or name one of his pigeons after him. Or, God, give him a pigeon. Rodney grimaced, reminded of something Zelenka had said the week before on his regular visit to Archangel. The lease on the clinic Zelenka operated was up. Old Doc Vitter wanted to set up his nephew in business and wouldn't renew it. Zelenka was trying to find someplace else, but if it ended up too far from Galacky, he might end up having to relocate his practice and give up patients that were simply too far away. Finding somewhere he could live and keep his pigeons complicated the issue. "I hope we don't lose him."
"Huh." Sheppard sounded thoughtful.
"So what's in the quarantine barn?" Rodney asked. "Drugs? White slaves? The hidden entrance to your secret supervillain lair?"
"Not quite. Halling's cat."
Rodney stared at him. "A cat. I'm not exactly an ailurophobe. What's the problem?"
"It's a kind of big cat."
"How big?" Rodney frowned. "You mean a big cat?"
"You have a lion in your quarantine barn."
"Well, it's better than the Winnebago."
Rodney couldn't argue that point.
"Tell me you've got permits," was all he could think to say.
"My lawyer's working on it," Sheppard admitted. "Anyway, I thought I should warn you, since so many horses freak when they catch poor old Pablo's scent. Well, any big predator's scent, really."
"No kidding?" Rodney said as sarcastically as he knew how, and then to himself in disbelief, Poor old Pablo. That really beat out Mrs. Wheiler and her crystals and stall feng shui.
"I'll introduce you tomorrow," Sheppard said. "He's really a sweetie."
Sheppard chuckled. "I know it's insane, but it's the barn or have him put down. He's too old for a zoo or another circus."
Rodney just shook his head.
"I'll see you in the morning. No need to introduce me to Pedro."
"Pablo, Pedro, Pinky, whatever," Rodney said. "I have to go."
A lion, he thought to himself as he trotted Kepler away, what other insanity would he find at Pegasus? It made him grin as he thought of how horrified the people of Galacky would be if they knew. Except for Cadman and Mehra. Those two would think a neighbor keeping lions would be great. Tigers and bears, too, no doubt.
He'd never admit it, but Rodney did too.
They had already developed a routine. Halling or John cooked breakfast; Jinto and Teyla didn't. Their offerings on morning rotation were restricted to toast, yoghurt (Teyla), cereals, and Poptarts (Jinto). Everyone washed up their own mess and the last person in the kitchen started the dishwasher. Evenings weren't any different, other than John's habit of driving to Galacky and coming back with a pizza, Kentucky Fried, or Chinese. Lunch was catch as catch can. The microwave saw a lot of use.
John conned Halling into cooking the morning McKay came over the first time.
Teyla didn't see why John liked him.
In fact, she disliked him immediately.
He struck her as mannerless and dismissive. He complained nonstop from the instant he walked into the kitchen. He complained about the dressage arena. He complained about the ride over. He complained about the people who worked for him in the most insulting terms she'd heard in years. He whined about Pablo — she couldn't imagine why John had told him about Pablo. He insulted John. He called Jinto a budding juvenile delinquent, Halling a hippie goofball, and Teyla a sequin queen. He accused them all of trying to kill him when Jinto poured himself a glass of orange juice. He ate and ate and ate and never stopped chewing while he talked.
To Teyla's disgust, he even pulled off his right riding boot and grubbed his hand deep inside, averring that something had poked through the sole inside, then went right back to eating right in front of everyone.
When McKay emptied the syrup bottle on his waffles without checking to see if everyone else had had any first, Halling brought powdered sugar and whipped cream to the table. McKay's eyes lit up and Teyla considered stabbing him with a fork as he reached for those too.
"Oooh, I could get used to this."
Teyla sincerely hoped he wouldn't have the chance. Not once did he thank Halling for cooking or John for the invitation, either.
John just sat back and looked amused. No, fond. The more obnoxious McKay became, the more John relaxed. Teyla didn't understand it at all.
"If he is not a genius," Teyla quietly told Halling as she rinsed off her breakfast plate standing next to him at the double sink under the south window, "then I do not understand why someone hasn't run him down with a hay-baler."
"Not everyone has access to a hay-baler," Halling said.
Teyla added her plate to those already in the dishwasher. "We do," she commented.
"I'm not sure it works."
"I could find a mechanic."
McKay and John headed out, then Jinto and Halling. Teyla retreated to the office, where she was making slow progress getting a handle on everything that had to be done, needed to be done soon, should be done but could be put off, and sorting out Landry's peculiar method of filing. She also had to talk to Woolsey about the permits necessary to keep Pablo on the farm. She had a better grasp of that than most thanks to years with the circus, but Woolsey had at least one paralegal researching zoning restrictions in their Maryland county.
McKay came to breakfast the next day and the next. Teyla continued to dislike him. He started avoiding her. At least she thought he was avoiding her until she realized he was just completely oblivious to her. But when she walked out and watched him work with John and Atlantis, soon followed by a chestnut mare with the barn name of Poppy as well, she realized McKay was a genius. He got on Poppy's back and illustrated everything he wanted John to do with Atlantis and exactly how he cued the mare to do it.
John watched and listened. Teyla didn't know three-day eventing, but she could see old instincts and skills coming back to him with each day, life rushing in to fill dry, empty places that even as his friend she'd never known were there. He smiled more and more honestly. He talked about the future, his dark head bent close to McKay's sandy brown, both of them intently arguing over upcoming events, schedules, and what sort of chances Atlantis would have to qualify, dozens of papers spread over the kitchen table between plates of cold pizza and an open laptop. They were shoulder to shoulder and gleeful as children. Teyla had never seen John so unconsciously physically comfortable near anyone, not even Reynaldo Vega the one time she met the man. John had certainly never bantered and snickered and laughed with Reynaldo the way he did with McKay.
Remembering Reynaldo made her re-evaluate. She'd been charmed by Reynaldo, who had been a physical match for John, dark and handsome and smoothly charming, but she'd never really seen anything but his public face. Had there been real affection in his brown eyes when he looked at John? She'd thought so, anyway.
Teyla determined to hold her tongue.
After all, she'd thought Kanaan loved her too, and look how that had worked out. She didn't want to see John hurt, but had to admit that maybe she just felt jealous. When she'd arrived here, she and John had both been walking wounded, bracing each other against the cruel vagaries of romance. Now John was moving on and part of Teyla felt a little displaced.
Thank God she hadn't spoken up before. That reaction shamed her.
She began watching them together while trying to filter out her own feelings.
John just laughed when McKay rudely told him, "Don't be ridiculous. You have so much more work to do. You're not going to the World Equestrian Games at Lexington this year except to spectate. We'll be lucky if we make it to Rolex next year."
John smiled at him and said, "We'll make it."
McKay held up his hand and extended his index finger. "You could get hurt." Middle finger. "Atlantis could be injured." John kept smiling and shaking his head as McKay added another finger. "I could get hurt." Pinky. "Rolex could be canceled." Thumb. "A super meteor could impact the Earth ushering in nuclear winter and an ecological and technological apocalypse."
"You watch too much Sci-Fi," John told him.
"Like I have any time to watch TV at all," McKay snapped back. "Also, it was all that was on last night."
McKay didn't stop being obnoxious after Teyla's realization. She just started noticing the other side of his personality. Acerbic as his commentary was, very little of the vitriol held real malice. His anger flared fast and didn't linger; it never surfaced near a horse. Mistakes were his mistakes, made by John because McKay had failed to 'drill it through your hair gel helmet', and never the fault of the horse. He was a patient man under the veneer of impatience he presented on the surface.
He ogled her breasts at least once a day but with an honest admiration that amused instead of angered her.
"You're gorgeous and you have to know it and I'm not dead or blind," he told her. "I also know you'd do something awful and potentially painful and permanent to me if I ever touched you." He blinked and added thoughtfully, "And then John and Halling would chop me into hamburger and feed me to Pablo."
Pablo was the reason she realized McKay was a decent and surprisingly kind man beneath the bluster. Woolsey was having fits trying to get the permits. News of Pablo had got out, probably by way of the man Teyla had made arrangements to buy Pablo's food through, and the locals were not happy.
McKay dropped two crumpled lists on her desk one morning while stealing a cup of coffee. "Here," he said. "That's a list of all the good suppliers around here. The ones with the big no next to them are all crooked as a goat's hind leg."
Teyla carefully put the list away. McKay had been successfully — as in profitably — managing Archangel for a decade. He'd given her a wonderful leg up by sharing his local knowledge.
"That other list's people around here who are breaking one zoning law or another. Most of them have pull. Give it to John's lawyer."
"How do you know — "
"Hmm." He was poking through the file cabinet with an absolute lack of shame or any hint of awareness that the contents might not be for public perusal. Not that Teyla could think of anything inside that wasn't fit to be seen, but still… McKay had the manners of a porcupine. He added, "People talk. They don't think I'm paying attention."
Teyla folded her hands together. "I shall not make that mistake."
McKay threw her bright, blue-eyed glance. His lopsided mouth quirked up into a smile. "I'll bet you won't."
John swore McKay could be smooth and charming — schmooze was the word he'd used — and, if so, then Teyla had come to believe that McKay's blunt obliviousness was in fact a sign of respect. He wasn't contemptuously faking around her.
She couldn't explain it, but by the time a month had rolled around, Teyla decided she did like Rodney McKay. She even deigned to call him by his first name, not that he gave any sign of noticing the change.
Liking him didn't relieve Teyla's apprehension. Instead, she worried more because she could see what John was attracted to in Rodney, but she feared it could only end in pain for both men. All she could do was stand by and hope. She knew she wouldn't have listened if anyone had warned her about Kanaan, and in the end if she weighed Torren against Athos, she would make the same choices. There was no malice in Rodney McKay that she could see; she would have to rely on that.
Maybe, she hoped, whatever happened, John would consider the outcome worth what it would cost too.
Thursday morning, Rodney supervised and lent a hand wherever needed as Simpson and Chuck loaded the big fifth-wheel trailer with all the tack, feed, medicines, and miscellaneous gear five horses would need for a long, working weekend. Morning sun gleamed off the freshly washed and waxed navy-and-red paint jobs on the vehicles. His suitcases joined the two grooms and Anne Teldy's next to stacked Rubbermaid boxes filled with fly repellant, hoof picks, clippers, shoe studs, leg wraps, hoof polish, equine shampoo and saddle soap. He made sure to stow his laptop and briefcase full of papers on the horses and their entries in the Archangel Stables truck.
After that, he carefully backed the truck up and hooked the horse trailer to it with Simpson giving him tips.
He ran through a checklist with Jennifer Keller to make sure she had everything she needed in her truck and trailer, along with clear directions in case the little caravan became separated, then they loaded her gelding, Cappy.
With everything else in place, they finally loaded the five horses they were taking to Pennsylvania.
"Cellphones," Rodney said, holding his up and waiting for everyone traveling with him to do the same. "Batteries? Chargers? Good. Let's move out."
His cell trilled and he checked. John.
"McKay here," he answered.
"Just wanted to wish you good luck," John said easily.
"I don't need luck because I am good."
"You are full of shit. Okay. I'm going to call that guy you told me about and get him out here this weekend, so you'll have to tell me about how you do."
"Go get 'em, tiger."
Rodney ended the call, shaking his head at John's ridiculous sayings.
He made sure his apartment was locked then double-checked in the office, making sure he'd left the particulars on the motel they'd be using along with the location of the event and a list of telephone numbers for Cadman.
A quick check of his watch and Rodney winced. He'd wanted to get out on the road a half hour ago.
Anne left her old clunker parked at the farm and rode with Rodney, Chuck, and Simpson. Unlike Jennifer, she didn't own her own truck and horse trailer. In fact, she wouldn't even be riding a horse she owned. Besides El Cid, Rodney had her riding another horse. The experience would benefit both horse and rider.
Chuck and Simpson took the backseat of the crew cab. Simpson pulled out a paperback romance and began reading, while Chuck listened to his iPod with his eyes shut. Anne took the front passenger seat.
"Nice to have a daddy who foots the bills," Anne said of Jennifer.
Rodney grunted a noise that could have been agreement or disagreement.
It felt unfair to Jennifer, but Rodney understood Anne's attitude. Jennifer's father paid for whatever she said she needed. She was an only child and after her mother's death nothing was too good for his baby. Her gear was the most expensive possible. The luxurious SUV and two-horse trailer she drove had been customized to match each other and probably cost almost as much as her mount, Capability. The eight-year-old horse had been purchased in Belgium for just under $115,000.
Sure, there were riders who made it to the top from a start mucking and training, but Jennifer wasn't one of them. If she hadn't been so determinedly nice, it would have been easy to hate her.
Rodney had tried. Jennifer just ignored his nastiest barbs and smiled. After a while, he'd found himself being nicer to her just to save himself the irritation of seeing his worst insults utterly ignored.
He ignored Anne's chatter while envying Chuck's his ear buds while he drove and kept Jennifer's vehicle in the rearview mirror.
The ache in his back from driving made Rodney grumpier than ever once they arrived. Jennifer wanted to go out to dinner with several other riders. Rodney begged off. Instead he called Cadman from his motel room to check on things back home. He wanted to call John too, just to talk, but argued himself out of it and took a painkiller so he could sleep through the night instead.
Friday began just as early as it would have at the farm.
"One hundred ninety points," Rodney muttered to himself on the way to the barns. "One hundred ninety."
No one scored a perfect dressage round. Rodney wouldn't, though both of his young mounts were three-star qualified horses he was grooming for CCI four-star events some day — next year maybe if they stayed sound. He always worked toward that goal whether he was riding in an important event or a training level that should come easy, because failing to try for perfection was cheating in his mind.
Anne and Jennifer wouldn't be riding perfect rounds either, but again, he'd brought them to the T3DE competition to get the experience.
Of course, everyone else could have lousy days. He and Anne and Jennifer would all ride to win.
Rodney didn't really suffer from nerves any longer. Part of him was running through the dressage test in his head all morning; the rest of him kept busy along with Chuck and Simpson, getting all six horses ready for their first day. He fit a bagel and coffee for breakfast in there while checking all his tack meticulously and then started the task of keeping Anne and Jennifer on even keels.
El Cid and Champers were jumping out of their skins with excess energy. Cappy had a calmer temperament, but each horse had been conditioned for this. They felt the excitement and trepidation of being in a new place, surrounded by strangers and strange horses, and it all contributed, until Rodney thought he could feel them vibrate.
Anne would be riding All Trumps, one of Elizabeth's horses, early, then El Cid after noon. Rodney had Champagne Bentley — barn name Champers — a horse belonging to the Beekers, then Spartan Party, with another rider scheduled to test between Champers and Spartan Party. Jennifer was scheduled to ride both Cappy and Blue late in the afternoon.
The timing for Jennifer's rides pleased Rodney. By then, both horses would have calmed down a little and be less likely to make mistakes in the arena. Unfortunately, it meant that Jennifer would have most of the day to work herself into a wreck.
While Anne had a basic steadiness that served her well, Jennifer was insecure about performing despite her natural talent and the skills she'd gained under Rodney's tutelage. Sooner or later, she'd develop a certain amount of arrogance or she'd quit the circuit.
Saturday morning, after inspecting the dressage arena, Rodney found Jennifer and Anne sitting on the farm truck's tailgate. Jennifer was plaiting Anne's sandy hair into a French braid, but they were both ready otherwise. Rodney watched them for a moment before retrieving his riding coat. He didn't put it on; the summer morning was already heating up. Instead, he used one of the truck's side mirrors to fix his white stock at his throat, determined to look as put together as his mounts. Chuck and Simpson were putting the last finishing touches on All Trumps and Champers, turning out the already glossy horses so they'd be picture perfect.
The day turned out to be mixed bag for the Archangel competitors.
Anne scraped through dressage. All Trumps tested her control because he hadn't settled down in time for the test. He always had to push his rider over who was boss before giving in and giving his best. In this case, Anne hadn't worked with him long enough and the contest played out in the arena. He was too fresh and it showed.
Rodney chalked that one up as his fault, too. He should have had her in the saddle sooner, taking the edge off, instead of having her keep Jennifer off the boil.
Anne and El Cid performed far better, much as Rodney had expected.
Jennifer and Cappy were abysmal, however; her nerves took over and the gelding stiffened up in response, turning in a jerky, reluctant looking performance.
Rodney didn't have time to give her a pep talk before his own first dressage test. He and Champers were up and he had to keep his mind on his own ride. Simpson was walking and trotting Spats to keep him warmed up and ready.
Champers had passed the vet inspection, but Rodney felt something wrong through out the test. He expected worse marks than he got, but didn't see much chance of placing in the top five with what they did receive.
"I want to take a close look at him later," he told Chuck as he handed over the reins. Anne handed him a bottle of water, which Rodney took a gulp from as he headed over to Simpson and Spats. "Did he look lame to you?" he asked her.
"He was hesitating," she said.
Simpson gave Spats' head a last polish with a cloth while Rodney double-checked the girth on his saddle and the stirrup length. He patted Spats' sleek neck, then swung up into the saddle. Spats' ears came forward. Rodney felt the quiver of reined-in energy in the body between his legs and smiled. He tugged the lapels of his coat straight and then ran his finger under the stock at his neck.
"Ready?" Simpson asked him. "'Cause Spats is."
Rodney could feel it.
"Ready," he answered with a nod.
"Rodney McKay riding Spartan Party, owned by Mrs. Alice Tinney."
Rodney schooled his expression into neutrality as he and Spats reached the center of the single arena, but wanted to hum in pleasure. The bright sun heated his black coat over his shoulders and his back felt loose and good. He and Spats were in perfect synch. He'd been riding Spats for two years and the horse had turned a corner. Today he was going to show what he had.
He ran through the test in his head a last time, picturing the two of them in relation to the barely ankle-high white fence edging the dressage area, along with the decorative flower pots set along the other side. The spectators, he ignored; there was just Rodney, Spats, and the test. If they got it right, the judges would do their part.
Spats outdid himself.
Rodney knew it without needing to see their score.
"Oh, you beauty, you absolute marvel," Simpson cooed at her charge afterward. She glanced back at Rodney. "Nice, McKay."
"I can't do that," Jennifer whispered.
"You better try," Rodney told her.
She managed a far superior job with Blue than she had with Cappy and ended the day in fourth place. Todd Rathe and Dart tested after her and Rodney had to admit, the gray horse moved like a feather floating on a breeze. Some rumors said Rathe paid over two hundred thousand dollars for Dart. Dart was definitely better than Blue — for the moment — but it wasn't all the horse. Todd Rathe was a better rider than Anne or Jennifer were.
They ended the day with Rodney and Spats in the lead, but Champers withdrawn from the rest of the event; a swollen knot on his left hock made an appearance. Chuck was miserable with worry it would be a serious injury, though the local vet thought Champers had likely just knocked himself against the side of his stall, maybe because its dimensions were strange to him.
Jennifer's nerves were worse on Saturday morning, maybe because she and Blue were just below the top five riders. Dew soaked their shoes and pants cuffs as they walked the course and plotted riding strategies for each jump, checking out the approaches and the far sides. Rodney liked to poke his finger in to the earth and get a real feel for it, so that he could figure out how the footing would change through the day as it dried out and how soon the grass would be beaten down.
She listened to his advice and nodded, but Rodney already knew she was going to blow it on Cappy before she reached the in-gate. Cappy's smoothness hid when he was getting lazy; to win, he needed a more aggressive rider than Jennifer, someone who would force him to give his all.
Anne was oblivious, chattering and full of fresh gossip.
"So you've met the new neighbor, right?" Anne asked. "Laura said you know him."
"Mmm," he said, barely listening as Jennifer was announced.
Jennifer queued Cappy into his best trot. Rodney had been sipping a coffee through the warm up. Now he demanded Anne's field glasses to focus on the pair. The number on Jennifer's back fluttered. Cappy's ears pricked forward and he quickened into the gallop. Rodney held his breath. Jennifer guided Cappy into taking an extra stride before his first jump, but they went over clear. For a second Rodney thought she'd lost control and Cappy was bolting, but they had gathered together and headed for the second jump.
"So you know the story?" Anne asked.
"Oh." He only vaguely registered the delight in her voice. "Well, let me tell you what I heard."
Anne had heard John came from a rich family in Virginia, but that he'd got involved with drugs and run off rather than face failing a test or being forced into rehab by his family. Either that or his fiancée had caught him in bed with a groom. A male groom. Rodney had grunted when he heard that part. John was too smart to use drugs or get caught with his pants down in a tack room.
"That's crap. Come on, Jennifer, pick it up. Jesus, she's gone from too reckless to too careful, damn it. She's riding like an old granny."
"I mean, not that I care," Anne ended. She frowned. "Cappy can go faster than that."
Rodney would have rolled his eyes if he hadn't been intent on Jennifer and Cappy still. The course had been laid out to ultimately circle back to the staging area. From there, trees, fences and low hills obscured several sections of the course from direct observation even with binoculars. Rodney could only guess at what Jennifer was doing until she came into sight again.
Phase C was roads and tracks again, letting the horse recover from the speed and effort put forth through B. Despite the break in all out exertion, it took stamina on the part of horse and rider. They couldn't afford to slow down too much; the clock was still ticking. This was also where they'd spend ten minutes in the Vet Box as the veterinarian examined each horse for exhaustion, lameness or any other injuries.
Jennifer got sloppy and slow through Phase C and looked tired. He'd have to chide her about conditioning herself. That's why they were at a T3DE trial. The Olympics no longer had this extensive an endurance test, but it was still a test of both athletes, horse and rider. Jennifer was never going to reach CCI★★★★ or stand on a podium for the US if she thought only the horse had to give its all.
Jimmy Wofford thought the IOC wanted equestrian sports out of the Olympics. Jennifer's attitude would be why. If only she wasn't so damned talented a rider. Not to mention someone Rodney thought he just might date if he could get up the nerve to ask her out.
Chuck was waiting at the Vet Box to whip off Cappy's tack, wash him down, and do his own soundness check of the horse the groom considered 'his' in addition to the course vet's check. He would clue Jennifer into anything useful he'd heard or noticed and then re-tack Cappy before they faced the final cross-country phase.
He'd checked the clock as she left the Vet Box.
"You look ticked, McKay," a smooth voice had interrupted his concentration.
Rodney lowered the field glasses and glanced at the tall man who had slithered up next him.
"I've told you to call me Todd," Rathe said with a smile.
"I'll call you Todd when I invite you to use my first name," Rodney told him.
Todd laughed easily.
"Don't you need to get ready?" Anne asked him.
"Oh, in a minute," Todd said. He and Dart were second behind Rodney and Spats after the dressage portion and would ride just before him. The man had no nerves as far as Rodney had ever been able to determine. He admired Rathe's confidence in himself, while fully intending to put him in his place.
And since Rodney was riding last, he'd know what he had to beat. That made for a definite advantage.
Todd aimed his own binoculars at the course and studied Jennifer and Cappy. "That's her horse, isn't it?"
"You know, it's kind of funny, you've always been all about the dressage, but you're still training like the old days when the cross-country was more important."
"It's all important," Rodney said. "Endurance makes for a good third day jumper."
"I think you're just arbitrary," Todd said. "Hey, if I buy Pegasus, we'll be neighbors."
Rodney twitched. What a horrible, horrible thought that was. He'd swear Todd mentioned it just to psych him out.
"I could always ride in Canada," he snapped. He often wondered why he hadn't gone back, but he'd never contemplated it seriously. Jeannie and he got along best at a distance and Archangel suited him. He'd made it his own, even if Elizabeth held the title to it.
Todd had laughed again.
"See you later."
"Good luck," Anne had called.
"I don't need luck," Todd replied with a laugh as he'd walked away.
Rodney glared after him before turning back to watch Jennifer take Cappy into Phase D, the exhausting final race through hills, meadows, swales and trails and over twenty-nine jumps and a water hazard on this particular course, all of them solid, up to four feet wide, and none of which Cappy had encountered before. It was a marathon. Rodney knew he'd conditioned Cappy to hold the course. His eyes were on Jennifer and he could see her tiring faster than her mount. She was letting him slow and another glance at the clock made Rodney frown sourly.
"Too slow, too slow, too slow," he muttered, watching the clock tick down as Jennifer took the gelding through the cross-country. They had managed the steeplechase on time, but he could see she was being too careful now. He hoped Chuck had given her a heads up on the clock when she'd reached the ten minute box. Otherwise, she'd knock herself out of the contention.
Jennifer brought Cappy to the finish without running into any trouble, but incurred several time penalties.
"No refusals or trouble," Anne said, looking on the bright side, and she was right — Rodney would always prefer a slow time to seeing a horse and rider get hurt.
"I guess it's going to be up to you to make us look like winners," Anne said.
Rodney gritted his teeth, because he'd woken up stiff, with his back warning him any wrong move could result in a sharp jolt of pain.
Rodney liked the true, long three three-day events that tested horsemanship and endurance rather than the shortened form the Olympics had used since Athens in '04. He was a purist. But, for once, he wished to not face the full, exhausting cross-country test himself.
Spats would pass a vet box half way through, but Rodney didn't know if he would.
He'd always done it before, but his back didn't care about that. Spats and Champers belonged to paying boarders who expected the farm's best rider on their horses, which meant Rodney. Like most riders, Rodney rode when he was hurt, but he hated pain. He hadn't believed he would have enough strength left to give Blue the ride he deserved and fulfill his obligations to his paying job. That was why he had Jennifer riding Blue. Now Rodney doubted he could have even managed the cross-country twice. He felt relieved and guilty over not needing to try with Champers scratched, but the last thing he wanted was to end up writhing along the side of the trail from a back spasm for everyone to see. He'd end up being trucked off to the hospital. That sort of thing was for polo players.
He'd thought of asking John to ride for him, but gone with Jennifer instead, certain enough of her skills and familiarity with Blue. Paying boarder and owner too, so it pleased Elizabeth.
Elizabeth didn't have to rein in the urge to shake her sometimes, of course. She had likely experienced much the same feeling as a diplomat dealing with politicians however.
Rodney kept telling Jennifer, over and over, as the day shifted to afternoon, "Look, if I didn't know you could ride him, do you think I'd have you in Blue's saddle?" Simpson had Spats ready and waiting for him, thankfully, so he could baby Jennifer along.
She still looked uncertain as her start time approached. "Maybe he's too much horse for me. I'm not as strong as you."
The words unearthed his memory of Alina telling him why she had filed for their divorce. 'You want someone as strong as you and I'm not.' Rodney pushed the memory away. It wasn't as easy as usual, but concentrating on his job always worked.
"He's trained," Rodney said. "By me. Just like you. And you're both good at this."
"Thank you, Rodney," she told him with a sweet smile that had someone flashing a picture of her after she swung up into the saddle.
Jennifer did make a gorgeous picture in her riding gear, even with an ugly big competition number pinned to her chest and a jumping vest bulking out her slender torso. Chuck handed her helmet to her. She held it in one hand, the reins in her other and the bright sun shone almost chestnut from her smooth hair.
Rodney found himself wanting to blurt something embarrassing about how pretty she looked. It almost made him gag. Luckily, Anne was there. He'd never say anything in front of her, it would get back to Cadman, not to mention the entire east coast.
"Just don't embarrass us," Anne told her with a cheeky grin. "Or we'll all suffer on the drive home."
"You held Cappy back a little too much," he said. "Stay aware of the clock." He'd never been touchy-feely, but he patted her knee before checking Blue's girth again, even though Jennifer had just done the same. Blue wasn't a windsucker, but equipment shifted and stretched and stitches came out and Rodney didn't usually get nervous, but he was working his way up to it thanks to Jennifer.
"My watch quit," Jennifer said. She held up her wrist. A brand new Rolex gleamed there, no doubt paid for with Daddy's credit card too. Rodney hoped to hell Jennifer never found herself stuck with her father's debt load. He knew how that went and where he hadn't gone as a result. "I got another one."
"Come back safe," he said and stepped out of the way. The starter gave the command and the sixth place horse and rider were away.
"Good ride," Anne added as Jennifer headed for the start box.
She handed Rodney a bottle of water, keeping a Gatorade for herself. They were both sweating in the summer heat. Staying hydrated was as important for a rider as the horses. Anne was flushed pink too, under a gloss of sunscreen.
He hoped she'd used the strong stuff; Rodney had slathered it on himself. The active protective ingredient smelled awful and he couldn't tell if the scent came from him or her.
Anne had a set of field glasses hanging around her neck too. She'd already had both her turns at the cross-country. She'd moved up in the standings with no time faults, falls or refusals with both All Trumps and El Cid, and was pleased and relaxed as a result.
Rodney accepted the bottle and sipped while watching as Jennifer waited at the start of Phase A.
"Number Fourteen, Jennifer Keller, riding Damascus, owned by Rodney McKay."
"I heard some stuff from a couple of riders during the vet check earlier," Anne said.
"They said your new neighbor rides CCI- four star in the European events."
Rodney wasn't really listening. It was how he dealt with Anne.
"And he used to be a top rider in the US," Anne said.
Rodney's mind was on the cross-country facing Jennifer. Phase A was road and tracks. Three and half miles of walking and trotting that served as a warm up. It would segue directly into Phase B, the steeplechase race track, where Jennifer would gallop Blue over eight steeplechase fences. They'd average twenty-four miles an hour if Jennifer didn't lose track of the clock again. Blue had speed to burn thanks to his breeding.
It was out of his hands. He had his own ride to worry about anyway. He headed over to Simpson and Spats.
Anne followed, still talking.
"Do you think he's going to be riding against us now?"
"Something like that," Rodney mumbled. He crouched and checked Spats shoes. It had nothing to do with not trusting Simpson. His ride was his responsibility. He'd ridden cross-country once on a horse with the wrong studs in because a groom had misunderstood his instructions. Never again. "I've got to mount up."
He glanced up at Simpson.
"Keep an eye on Jennifer."
"Don't worry," Simpson assured him. "Go ride. Anything happens, we'll take care of her and leave Chuck here for you."
"See you in the ten-minute box."
Once in the saddle, he walked Spats in a loose circle, while he tightened and relaxed the muscles in his own back in an effort to loosen up. Spats pranced a bit. He'd liked the extra attention and approval from Simpson and Rodney from yesterday.
"Attention whore," Rodney told him. One of Spats' ears swiveled back, listening, Rodney knew, to his tone rather than his words.
Mrs. Tinney would be over the moon with a win if he could manage it. Cross-country was Spats' weak link, and Todd's Trahkener would excel as usual. But Spats would shine in the show jumping on Sunday.
Concentration came harder than usual. Rodney's mental run through the course kept tripping up on other thoughts, like: If John was gay, he'd likely fall for Todd, who made no bones about his preferences. Rodney didn't like Todd, but there were worse guys out there. Providing that rumor was even true.
Rodney didn't know exactly why, but he thought it might be.
He wondered if John had moved Teyla and Torren in as cover. No, that wasn't like John. John just wouldn't answer if anyone asked something he didn't want to talk about. Rodney had already learned to wait through John's silences. Besides, he'd moved Halling and Jinto in too.
He pushed it all to the back of his mind. He had to get his head in the game. He'd figure out what he thought about John being gay later.
Much later, maybe on the drive back to Maryland.
Rodney's head cleared as he focused on the course and how he meant to handle it. Spats didn't like jumping blind, but training had upped his confidence. Rodney thought he could take their speed up a notch and Spats would make the jumps because he trusted Rodney.
He visualized each phase and how they'd handle it. Spats was a good horse. Once he knew he could do something, he'd do it for Rodney every time and he had all the heart anyone could want in a horse. Rodney believed he could win.
Rodney started his mental movie again and this time stuck through it to the end and was ready when he and Spats started out. Then it was just pacing and flying over the jumps and ignoring the stabs of pain in his back.
He dismounted at the ten-minute box while the vet checked Spats, quick and professional. Simpson had Spats' tack off and washed him down fast, while Rodney answered a couple of questions and gulped down some water. Simpson slathered fresh Vaseline up and down Spats' legs to protect them after tacking him up again. Cleared to continue by the vet, Rodney swung back into the saddle. He had enough adrenaline coursing through his own veins to mask the sharp twinge in his back this time and did it without a wince.
The wind burned his face as they thundered through Phase D, racing through flats, down a vicious bank and over the water obstacle, then up and over a massive carved fox framed by brush. Grass blurred green in Rodney's peripheral vision and the spectators were to be ignored unless they'd wandered into the way, their voices lost in the pounding of his heart and Spats' feet as they raced forward, always forward, moving as one, working together, nearly flying with the thrill of it.
They beat Todd's time by a quarter of a second.
Sunday morning, Rodney still reeked of the liniment he'd rubbed into his back the night before, even after two hot showers.
Rodney liked the show jumping lay-out immediately. The designer had created a challenging set of fences, but with an eye to not discouraging the horses. Rodney put together the jumps at Archangel and thought he understood the designer's intention. The cross-country left all the horses wanting a good run at the jumps. The show jumps had been set in place to accommodate that.
The loose earth under his boots was a little sandy, but Rodney preferred that to too much dust. When things got dusty, someone always tried watering it down, but it would be bone dry again within an hour or two.
He walked between each jump, calculating how many strides Spats would take, where Spats would see the next jump and where they'd take off. The verticals were poles painted white and green; the triple was white and hazard orange. The wide oxer had sculpted brushes framing it on each side that gave a nice visual cue to its width. The double oxer had panels painted to look like stone. It exited in a corner and resulted in the lay-out's first real challenge to the riders: make a sharp turn, save ground and time and ask their mount to face the pond immediately or swing in a wide circle and approach it on a straight line.
The pond offered another challenge. The day before, they all jumped their mounts over a triple in the cross-country water hazard, splashing through it. Today they had to clear the water, though it had no pole over it.
The in-and-out looked simple, but the horses would face it when they were tiring and the riders would be tempted to focus on setting up for the penultimate combination and the triple bar vertical finishing jump as well as thinking about their time. The temptation would be take it too fast and make up a few fractions of a second, but there wasn't really enough room to accelerate.
True to Rodney's expectations, the in-and-out seemed jinxed.
"Take the time penalty," he told Anne. "Everyone is hurrying into that jump and fouling on it."
He gave Anne a leg up then and she trotted El Cid to the collecting ring. The big bay looked daisy fresh. He thought she'd have a very good round.
Anne didn't disappoint. She gambled on the short route to the water jump and El Cid lifted over it like he had wings. The time she saved let her approach the bad luck in-and-out, which had seen poles come tumbling down every time, steady and collected.
El Cid's ears flickered and he swished his tail as the spectators applauded Anne and him. They were the first riders of the day to conquer the innocuous-looking in-and-out.
Anne kept her head and took El Cid through the triple combination with the same poise, kicking him into a faster pace afterward, when they had a straight approach to the triple-bar vertical.
Cid jumped it big, sailing over it and finishing clear without any time penalties.
Anne's smile was blinding as they came back. She pumped her fist. "First clean round!"
"I was holding my breath," Jennifer told her. "You looked like a star."
Anne grinned harder.
"Now you've got to do it again on All Trumps," Rodney reminded her.
"You're right about that in-and-out," she told Rodney. "But if you take the panel jump before it at a diagonal, you'll be lined up straight to it and save some time."
"Think you can manage it on Trumpy?" Rodney asked.
Anne shook her head. All Trumps jumped well, but had trouble if his rider didn't line him up straight to the jump. He was a fussy horse.
"Your call," Rodney told her.
Anne muttered, "I just hope no one's purse-dog gets loose because you know how Trumpy is."
Trumpy hated small dogs. Given any chance, he would send one flying like a football kicker going for a three point score. If one showed up during the show jump, he'd lose all concentration.
"I saw a couple whippets but they were on leashes," Jennifer told her.
Anne played it safe with All Trumps and rode another clean round, just squeaking through under the buzzer.
Anne's success buoyed Jennifer's nerves. She took the long way to the water jump, but didn't try to hurry too much and completed clean rounds on both Cappy and Blue.
Rodney had to fight to hide how proud he was of both of them. Rather than fall apart after suffering setbacks, they'd pulled themselves together and improved.
It didn't matter that Todd beat their times. Todd was at the top of the game. Anne and Jennifer were just beginning their careers. They'd outshine the current veterans someday.
Simpson had braided Spats mane and brushed his tail until it fell past his hocks like a silky tassel. Rodney thought the gloss on his coat could be used for a mirror. If anything, Spats looked better than he had for the dressage test. She'd even combed a perfect checkerboard pattern on his hindquarters.
"I want him to look his best when they take the picture of the winner," Simpson said.
"God, you'll jinx us."
"Spats can beat anyone today," she insisted. "I can feel it."
Rodney dug his own iPod out and listened to Beethoven, ignoring everything and everyone around him until it was time to head for the collecting ring.
He didn't believe anyone could will anything into happening, but he did believe in planning. He mapped out every stride Spats would take before they started and when the bell sounded, rode to the plan.
He knew he would have to take every jump aggressively in order to beat Todd's time. Spats felt it and responded, his long stride eating up the ground between jumps. The dressage work paid off, because Spats had confidence in Rodney's instructions and his own power and balance. They shaved off fractions when they took the short route to the water jump and went over it with contemptuous ease.
Rodney had a chronometer on his wrist, but he couldn't read it or check the judge's clock. He had to rely on the time-keeper in his head, the same way jockeys did. It told him they were still behind Todd's time.
He urged Spats faster and took the angle Anne had mentioned as they approached the panel fence preceding the in-and-out. Spats never hesitated. He lofted over the fence on the wider diagonal. At the height of the jump, Rodney felt the muscles in Spats back flex as he arched to lift his hind feet high and clear the top and he couldn't help the grin that bared his teeth. They landed and raced for the in-and-out faster than anyone else had, but with the space to make it work, no fumbling to fit in an awkward extra stride or clearing the first part just to tangle in the second.
In and out, just like they called it, and it felt almost like the steeplechase because they barely slowed at all until they were facing the triple combination.
All Rodney had to do was remind himself not to let Spats get too excited. Fatigue was starting to effect them both, but Spats was still jumping strong. Rodney didn't hear the crowd, didn't hear anything but hoof beats and Spats' breathing, felt nothing but the wind in his face and the heat rising from Spats' body, didn't see anything but the last two jumps.
He felt Spats put a foot wrong in the loose dirt and steadied him, gathered him up again and Spats showed what he was made of, responding like a champion. He found his balance, fit a short stride in where he shouldn't have been able to and scrambled over the first part of the triple. Rodney knew it hadn't been pretty, but they didn't touch and Spats took the next two parts perfectly.
Rodney urged Spats into a gallop.
The triple-bar vertical loomed closer and closer. It looked higher than it had when he was on foot.
Spats ears went forward. He gathered himself and launched upward. All Rodney had to do was not mess him up.
And they were over, applause almost obscuring the buzzer and when Rodney looked up at the clock, he laughed.
He'd beaten Todd by a full second.
Ronon picked up his mail at the Post Office and made out his bills — insurance and cellphone, without which he'd be screwed — at the library. He showered at the gym every morning. No one raised any eyebrows at a single man using a laundromat to do his clothes. He grabbed breakfast from a drive-through most mornings and ate sandwiches the rest of the time. He'd always traveled light. When he got sick of the camper, he rented a motel room, but he'd basically lived out of his truck since Melena died and no one even realized.
Or maybe they just didn't care.
There had been people who wanted to help him. A couple of good foster families, the counselor that worked to get him that scholarship to vet school, Melena's folks before…
He'd blown it all. Ended up learning to shoe horses out in New Mexico instead and then Wilford had taught him a hell of lot after Ronon drifted back east again. Wilford was recommending him to people too — a lot of them mentioned it when they called Ronon. A little longer and he'd be more than getting by, which almost scared him. It had been seven years since he stuck anywhere as long as he had Galacky. Hell, he had a business license and the third-hand farrier's customized shoeing body on his truck — again thanks to Wilford harrying him. A couple more good months and he'd have Wilford paid off and could think about renting an apartment.
If he wanted to.
After his work out, he checked his voice-mail, hoping for a pick up job. He'd made up some cards at Kinko's and Harriman had let him leave them out at the feedstore. He had a message, so after calling back, on his way he swung by the Burger King drive-thru to buy his breakfast.
He ate the first egg sandwich before reaching the town limits, steering with one hand, and finished the second well before he reached his destination, scowling at the way the sun glared through his dirty windshield. The voice-mail had been welcome. A woman's calm, melodious voice asking him to come by Pegasus Farm when he was free.
Ronon was pretty damn free.
Luckily, he knew where Pegasus was.
The gates were open so he drove right on in and parked in front of the office, shaking his head at the itty-bitty green sports car parked next to a truck and a faded but still psychedelic VW bus. There were a couple more trucks parked down by the barns, but the lady had laughed on the phone and said, "Stop into the office first so we can work out how you want to be paid. You can't miss it. John's Porsche is parked out front."
He knocked and waited for the, "It's open!" before ambling inside.
The woman at the desk startled him.
She was bent over a playpen set up in the corner of the office as Ronon stepped inside, so that he saw her from the rear first. A really great rear, he couldn't help noticing. When she straightened and turned, her gaze found his truck outside the window before she smiled. "You must be Mr. Dex." She held out her hand. "Don't worry about Torren; he could sleep through a destruction derby."
He hadn't really had any picture of the voice on the phone, but if he had, he wouldn't have thought of her. She was tiny, but the fuchsia tank top and faded jeans she wore showed off toned arms and a gymnast's body. Her dark cloud of hair had been pulled away from her face with a headband out of the sixties. Gold ankhs dangled from her earlobes.
Ronon took her small hand and shook. "Just Dex." The strength in her fingers and the hard calluses surprised him. Of course, so did the kid sleeping in the playpen, maybe a shade lighter than his mother, and her beauty, and that she wasn't just another white face. It was a little something extra to his morning, something to smile about, but counterbalanced by a moment's irritation with himself for assuming she would be white, though most were. "Or Ronon."
"So," she said, letting go of Ronon's hand and walking back around her desk. "I'm Teyla Emmagan, we spoke on the phone earlier."
"We've got ten horses here. John — the owner — wants all of them shod."
"Will they stand?"
"Yeah." Ronon shifted uncomfortably. "Anything special I should know?"
"John's down at the barn. I think I'll let him explain. We're all new here."
Ronon shrugged. He'd handle it, whatever happened.
"Anyway, I need to get some information from you and put it on the computer." She gestured to the shiny laptop on the desk.
Teyla asked him for the usual information, business operating name, what Ronon charged, tax crap, typing it into the laptop, and adding once she finished, "I can cut you a check on the farm account when you've finished or pay with a credit card…?"
Ronon shook his head. "No credit cards." Did he look like he could afford a credit card reader? Maybe she was just being nice and pretending he did.
Teyla smiled back at him.
"I suppose if you want cash, I can drive into the bank and get it while you're working," she offered. She glanced around the office ruefully. "I'm not sure how much John keeps on hand."
"Check's fine," Ronon said.
"Then I guess I'll just walk you over to the barns. John's interviewing a couple of possible grooms."
Teyla retrieved the kid, sleepily protesting, and brought him with her as they left the office. Instead of walking, they got in Ronon's truck and moved it to the smaller of the two main barns, since he'd be working there.
John turned out to be the dark-haired man talking to a blond man. He nodded to Teyla and Ronon, then turned back to the other man briefly and finished their conversation. "Tell your friend to come out tomorrow and we'll talk."
"You'll like him," the blond man promised. He shifted and nodded to Ronon.
"John Sheppard," Teyla introduced them, "this is Ronon Dex."
Sheppard shook hands easily and led them into the barn, naming each horse and laying out what he wanted Ronon to do for each of them and why. The man knew horses, but not these horses he explained, since he'd recently inherited them with the farm.
Ronon reflected it must be nice being born rich and getting richer when someone died instead of poorer. Hell of a different way from how he'd grown up. Sheppard seemed all right.
"I don't know if any of them are problems," Sheppard finished, "but Stackhouse here and I will give you a hand if they act up."
Ronon didn't generally have trouble with the horses he shod. Didn't hurt to have someone around to help.
"Any problems with that?" Sheppard asked.
"I'll leave you all to it," Teyla said.
Stackhouse laughed when Ronon tied his dreads back from his face after opening up the back of his truck and setting up. Sheppard and he laughed again as they wrapped the horses' long tails. Ronon had had a face full of horse hair enough times he appreciated their efforts along with the warning that they didn't know if any of the animals were touchy about being shod. None of them offered any problems; each horse stood through the procedures calmly as if bored with it all. One bay mare gave out a big sigh and leaned her weight onto Ronon, but that was it.
Sheppard assumed Ronon would have lunch with them and surprised Ronon by bringing both him and Stackhouse along with another groom up to the main house. Ronon's ears still rang with the rhythm of his hammer on his anvil. He knew he smelled of hot iron, sweating horse and sweating man. Sheppard just walked them into a big mud room with a laundry sink where they could wash up and then into the kitchen.
Teyla was already there, along with her son, and another man introduced as Halling. A teenager ambled in a few minutes later. Sandwiches were assembled and eaten informally right in the kitchen. Ronon watched and listened, slowly putting together a picture of how everyone related to each other. Halling and Jinto argued about enrolling into school at the end of the summer. Teyla told Sheppard she'd found a pediatrician for Torren and would be gone Thursday afternoon and that someone named Woolsey had called and he had an appointment in Silver Spring the next week to go over the terms of the trusts. She added that he needed to get her some petty cash since not everyone would be as happy to take a check as Ronon. Sheppard nodded and agreed and grinned into his tall glass of iced tea, saying, "I told you you'd be good at this."
Teyla gave him a narrow-eyed look in return, but it turned fond the instant Stackhouse drew Sheppard's attention away.
At first Ronon thought Teyla was with Sheppard but it seemed they weren't; they were just easy with each other, the same way she was comfortable with Halling and Jinto.
Ronon was finishing up by putting a shoe on the big eventing horse's left rear, one that would let Sheppard or whoever rode him screw in the different studs used in dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping, when a white Mercedes pulled into the yard. He didn't pay too much attention. Sheppard handed the stallion's lead over to Stackhouse and ambled toward the man getting out of the expensive car. Ronon didn't look at them until he'd secured the shoe and straightened up. The small of his back ached and his shoulders; sometimes his height wasn't a benefit.
Sheppard and the visitor walked over. The guy was taller than Ronon, but leaner and with pale hair. Everything about him looked like money. He checked out the black stud with an expert's eye, ignoring Ronon and Stackhouse.
"You're going to compete him?" he asked Sheppard.
"Then I suppose I wasted my time coming here?"
"Afraid so," Sheppard drawled. "I'm not selling."
"Well, if you change your mind, let me know, would you? HVE will give you the best price. Better than GeneEye, certainly."
"Will do. But I'm not selling."
"If money — "
"Money's not a problem."
Sheppard's visitor checked his watch and sighed. "I really need to get back. Show jumping tomorrow, after all."
"I used the corporate helicopter. I suppose I shall see you around the circuit then. We should have dinner."
Ronon decided he'd heard enough and busied himself with double-checking the fit of the final shoe against the stud's right rear hoof. Fuckers with too much money bored him.
Stackhouse sighed five minutes later as the Mercedes left. "Whooo. Thought the job was going to disappear just as soon as I got it."
Ronon grunted. Sweat ran under his arms and down his back. The muscles in his thighs and calves and biceps and forearms all burned —a good burn that would leave him tired enough to sleep without dreaming, even without taking a long run first.
Sheppard insisted on Ronon having a cold drink inside while Teyla made out his check afterward and even gave a hand closing up the truck. "You willing to be on call?" he asked as Ronon settled into the driver's seat. He noted the rolled up sleeping bag on the back seat, leaning against the door, arms folded and resting on the lip of the rolled down window. "We could use someone like you."
"What do you mean?" Ronon asked cautiously.
Sheppard shrugged. "I could pay you a retainer. Not much. We call, you come."
"The same day," he clarified.
"I'll think about it," Ronon said. He started his truck.
"Okay," Sheppard said. His eyes flicked to the back seat again. "We've got more room than we need around here. I was thinking about an on-site farrier, actually. No waiting."
"Said I'll think about," Ronon told him. He couldn't see moving into the house with Teyla and Sheppard and Halling, plus the two kids, and didn't figure bunking in a barn would be any better than the back of his truck.
Sheppard slapped the roof of the truck and stepped back.
"Okay," he said. "Think about it the next time you're hanging your feet out the window to keep from sleeping in a pretzel knot."
Ronon snorted with laughter and shifted the truck into gear to head for his next call.
John didn't know quite how to feel about Rodney's win in Pennsylvania. Rodney came back all smiles and insults toward everyone else who rode there — including Rathe and his own students — but he also came back wearing that back support he thought no one saw. He drove over to Pegasus in the Mule every morning instead of riding. It bothered John and made him want to ask if Rodney had seen a doctor, but that would have been overstepping the invisible bounds of their friendship as it stood.
Stackhouse had brought his buddy Markham out and after talking to him, walking him through the barns and watching him with the horses, John told Teyla put him on the payroll. When Rodney heard, he pissed and moaned about needing good grooms at Archangel and John stealing them all away. Everyone except Stackhouse and Markham just rolled their eyes at him, well used after more than a month, to Rodney's rants over breakfast by now.
"You got a farrier out," Rodney noticed as John worked with Atlantis.
"Yeah. The guy you mentioned."
"Teyla liked him."
"Well, obviously, you need to adopt him then," Rodney sniped.
John laughed because Ronon Dex was such a big guy and so obviously his own man. John had checked the information Teyla got from him and discovered it only included a cellphone and P.O. box. He had a couple of ideas about Ronon, recognized something about him that resonated, and Rodney's gibe might turn out closer to reality than not.
Rodney's eyes suddenly widened and he demanded, "Hey, they aren't going to start dating or anything, are they?"
"She met him once, Rodney."
"Well, yeah, but I've seen Man Mountain Dex a couple of times. He could turn the head of a woman. I mean, if I was a woman, not that I think he's attractive, other than the obvious objective criteria…" Rodney sputtered to a stop. His face had gone shiny pink. His chin came up and he added, "I just would not like to see Teyla hurt. By anyone. She is a quality person."
John made a note to relay that to Teyla. He was still laughing to himself over the first bit and his shaking shoulders confused Atlantis' and he broke stride.
"Oh, for God's sake, would you concentrate? I'm not standing out here for my health," Rodney griped.
John dutifully concentrated. Atlantis made a sound like a horsey raspberry however and Rodney huffed.
He'd gotten used to Rodney driving over in every morning after just a week. The growling, uneven rattle of the Mule had become familiar to everyone at Pegasus. A space was left for him to park it next to the Porsche. Rodney missing a morning session with Atlantis would have left John irritable, but Rodney missing breakfast — when he wasn't away — made him worried, though he pretended not to be.
No one said anything about John checking the answering machine and his voice mail or picking at his meal while he listened for Rodney's truck.
The sound of an unfamiliar vehicle parking outside had him on his feet and headed for the door.
John narrowed his eyes at the panel van that came to stop in Rodney's usual place. He skidded to a halt as Rodney exited the passenger door. Sandy hair stuck up in sweaty clumps and he looked bruised, gray-faced with exhaustion. An equally tired looking man came around the front of the van.
"You look like shit," John told Rodney.
"What a surprise," Rodney replied. He waved at his companion. "This is Zelenka."
John had deduced that from the blue lettering on the van. Zelenka Veterinary Service. Zelenka turned out to be a slight man, with longish hair that flew up and glasses he perched on his nose. He needed a shave and his blue coveralls were stained and showed the fading of repeated bleaching. He glanced around with a sort of bright curiosity.
"I want coffee," Rodney declared and stomped past John.
"Ah," Zelenka said after Rodney had abandoned the two of them. "Rodney insisted I drive him here."
"That's fine," John said. He waved toward the door. "Come on inside. There's coffee. And breakfast…stuff." It was Jinto's morning, which meant Poptarts or microwavable frozen breakfast things. Teyla, no doubt, would have some of her yoghurt stashed in the fridge too.
Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose. "Rodney can live off coffee. I am afraid my stomach is not quite so strong."
Teyla had tea. She had more teas than John had realized existed. There was cabinet with neatly labeled canisters of teas now. Assam, Earl Grey, Peppermint, Chamomile, Green, Black…John expected to find something tiger-striped or purple next. He figured she'd be willing to share.
"Ah, tea, that would be very good." Zelenka pushed his glasses up. "Thank you."
"What happened?" John asked as Zelenka passed him.
Sharp eyes inspected him.
"Rodney and I were up all night." Zelenka grimaced. "Colic," he explained as they walked through the door into the mudroom.
"Volvulus," Rodney called back through the open door — he never worried about letting out all the heat — as though insisting on a technical term would change the result.
John winced, thinking of what a horse faced when its large intestine twisted. Sometimes there was no guessing what caused it. Sometimes the horse died.
He let Zelenka wipe his feet on the mat, then followed and pulled the door closed.
Rodney was drying his hands next to the laundry sink.
"We had to put Mossy down," he said.
Crap. John squeezed his eyes shut, then snapped them open before he could picture his favorite polo pony down in his stall. Jazz hadn't been put down. It might have been kinder and certainly would have been faster than the way the gelding had died. The stab of hurt felt almost as bad as it had at the time. He set his hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed. "Sucks," he managed to get out, his voice hoarse, and gave Rodney a little push for the kitchen. Teyla was cleaning up Torren, a post-breakfast routine that Rodney usually found amusing. It would distract him a little, John hoped.
Zelenka prepared his own tea and sipped it sleepily while Rodney wolfed his way through two egg-sausage-biscuits, a bowl of cereal and a strawberry Poptart.
When he'd finished eating, Rodney seemed to run down, the last spark of energy expended on refueling.
"He'd had colic before," Rodney said. "Spasmodic."
"Resolved with Banamine," Zelenka added wearily.
"Dusty caught it on the last walk through the barn and called Radek and then me. We walked him until Radek got there, since it seemed to calm him down before, even if it didn't really help," Rodney explained to Teyla and Halling, who were listening too.
"Like pacing with a toothache," Halling said.
"I tend to think so," Zelenka agreed. "It can help in some mild cases."
He glanced at Rodney, who continued the story. "Torsion. Dusty was right." He waved at Zelenka. "According to him, a text book case." He put on a bad accent meant to mimic Zelenka's. "Large intestine distended with gas. No gut motility."
"Digestion sounds," Zelenka clarified for Jinto, who looked in typical teenage fashion equally horrified and fascinated.
"Not as gross as the rectal exam," John murmured while thinking of barn experiences of his own. He startled a laugh out of Zelenka.
"Up his butt?" Jinto asked and made a face. "Yuck."
"Very," Zelenka agreed.
Rodney looked at Zelenka expectantly until he offered a little more detail. "Very well. Mucus membranes in the mouth were very pale. I gave a painkiller and inserted a nasogastric tube to relieve pressure in the stomach. Rodney called the owner while I made transport arrangements and alerted the colic surgery team."
"In Pennsylvania," Rodney muttered. "I had to drive through Annapolis and Baltimore."
"As you would have to reach Virginia too," Zelenka pointed out. "It is the closest hospital that does equine surgery," he added before sipping his tea. "The surgery was difficult."
"The colon had rotated completely in a sector they couldn't pull out to cut away the dead tissue," Rodney said.
Teyla set her hand on his for a moment.
"I had to call Jack Mortimer and tell him Mossy needed to be put down," he finished, his tone dull and his eyes distant and blank. "Of course, he'll still get a hell of a bill."
"It was not Dr. Williams' fault, Rodney," Zelenka said, "Or yours."
"Two hours in the trailer didn't help things," Rodney snarled. He looked bleak. "I couldn't find the right exit because it was closed for road work."
Zelenka sighed loudly.
"And so, we were there most of the night and only returned an hour ago. Rodney insisted it was time to show me how to find my way here." He sipped his tea again. "As if I could not find my way."
"We should have gone to Leesburg."
"I don't think it would have made a difference."
Rodney sucked in a deep breath, slapped his palms down on the table top, then slowly blew out. His shoulders finally relaxed and he slumped down in his chair. "Okay. I know."
"You look like you need some sleep, buddy," John said. "Why don't you catch an hour or two here?"
Rodney was already shaking his head, but John went on, "I'll drive you back to Archangel later and Doc Zee here can head home if he wants to."
Zelenka began nodding.
"That, yes, would be a great relief."
"I should get back," Rodney said half-heartedly.
"Does Cadman know where you are?"
"Yes," he said.
"She'll call if they need you."
"Anne has an appointment."
"She can work without you one day. She'll have to eventually."
Rodney smothered a yawn, finished with a grumpy sound, and got to his feet. "Two hours," he mumbled and shuffled off to the den and couch.
Zelenka slowly finished his tea. "I should go," he said. "My birds must be seen to and I have appointments."
John thought he'd pass on having a vet reduced to zombie-status by exhaustion do anything and just reschedule if he'd had an appointment with Zelenka.
"I need a partner," Zelenka went on, then shrugged, adding, "Of course, in a few months I will not even have a clinic or a home."
"I must move. Right now I live in an apartment over the clinic — which is good most of the time. But it is hard finding a new location and a new place."
He rose and rinsed his tea cup out. John walked out with him. Zelenka looked around. "You are restoring the farm?" he asked. "Rodney mentioned this."
"Yeah," John answered. "Want a tour?"
"I would like that."
John had thought Zelenka would pass, but he nodded and began walking to the barns, pointing out other buildings, mentioning the gatehouse at the other side of the property, where a backroad offered a secondary access that didn't take everything past the main house. It was in the worst repair of anything on the farm. Zelenka made a few comments, then his expression lit up.
"Is that a dovecote?" he asked.
"Yeah, but it's empty." John steered them over to it and let Zelenka examine it since he was interested, then finally bid him good-bye and let him drive away. He stopped in the small barn and talked to Atlantis for a few minutes, letting the big horse butt his head against John's chest and scratching just behind his ears. The barn was cool and dark and smelled of fresh bedding. Seeing everyone in it healthy and content soothed John's nerves.
Back in the house, he toed off his yard boots in the mud room and walked inside in his socks. Rodney was stretched where John often slept, one leg bent at the knee, making little snuffling snores. John watched him for a moment, not letting his gaze linger long enough to be creepy, and then sat down in one of the chairs. His laptop was on the coffee table. He opened it and began reading Teyla's emails on local landscapers and construction businesses.
Teyla listened to the hiss of static from the old phone, waiting for the caller to say anything. She watched the clock. When a full minute had passed, she set the receiver back in place. She'd tried talking to whoever kept calling, but they never replied. Not even with heavy breathing. She was tired of the nonsense. She made a note to have caller ID added to the farm's landlines. Once she had it, she'd stop picking up for unidentified callers. In the mean time she'd hang up next time this happened.
"What, I can't visit my one and only brother where he's wasting his life?" Jeannie demanded. She'd parked herself on the outside stairs that led up to his apartment. She had a paperback — a romance of all things — in her hands. The brat was moseying around the tiny bit of landscaping that masqueraded as a yard.
Rodney rubbed the back of his neck — he knew where he'd picked up that mannerism — and bit back a groan. He didn't bother holding back the sarcasm. "No, you can't. You're probably in the country illegally. Besides, you never show up unless you want something."
Jeannie kept her index finger in the book, marking her place, and tried to look wounded. Despite the big blue eyes and blond curls, it didn't work on Rodney. He'd grown up with her, after all. Hell, he'd taught her that using that look would melt their parents. He was immune.
"Mer — "
"Using a name I always disliked and quit answering to when I was seven isn't going to help your case," he interrupted. He decided the fastest way to deal with Jeannie would be just walking up the steps past her. She wasn't crazy enough to actually trip him.
"Fine," she snapped. She closed the book and put aside with her tapestry bag and got to her feet. "Madison!"
Rodney started up the steps and Jeannie stopped him with her hand on his chest.
The squirt popped around a bush and dashed up the steps.
"You remember Uncle Rodney, don't you?"
Rodney looked up into Jeannie's face. His sister had a certain resemblance to him, but she was beautiful too, classic as a Grecian bust. He could always read her. "No," he told her.
"For two weeks, while I go to — "
"No," he said again. "I can't — "
"Oh, come on, Rodney," Jeannie said. "It's not like you're really competing anymore. I have a chance to train in Lincolnshire this year. I just need time to find a place and set up Madison's care."
Madison was right there, just two steps down from Rodney, and he knew kids heard so much more than adults thought they did. He gritted back the first words that he wanted to say and asked instead, "Where's Kaleb?"
Jeannie's face tightened. "He's busy."
Right, Rodney thought viciously, and he was the Good Fairy. Jeannie's precious English major must have got tired of being house husband, child carer, and all around dogsbody. So now Jeannie had to find someone else to take care of things while she pursued gold. He'd been a little shocked when she married Kaleb and got pregnant just in time to louse up her chances of going to Beijing for the Olympics. He wasn't at all surprised that she was going after a medal now that Madison was a little older.
"She's three, Jeannie, and I live alone. I have a job that starts before dawn and lasts until dark."
"Rodney, come on," Jeannie protested. "You can delegate."
"I do. So that I can compete."
"Oh, like you're ever going to make an Olympic team again," Jeannie said carelessly. "I need this."
"You can't just drop her off with no warning!" Rodney looked down at Madison, who was clutching at one stair baluster, and frowning up at him with her lower lip pushed out and wet. "Sorry, squirt, you're great, but your Mom's been making some unwarranted assumptions."
"Well, it wouldn't be without warning if you'd picked up the phone or returned my calls," Jeannie snapped.
"Maybe you should have interpreted that as an indication that I was busy."
Jeannie stared at him and Rodney glared back.
"You always — "
"That's right," Rodney interrupted, an old, bitter anger suddenly rising up through him and spilling out. "I always. I always give up what's important to me so you get what you want. I gave up piano, because you wanted riding lessons. I gave up my chance at the Olympics to get a job and pay off the debt Mom and Dad went into to buy your mounts and to keep you in college. I paid off your credit card debt three years ago. I loaned you the money for your wedding — by the way, how are you doing on paying that back?" He sucked in a deep breath then dropped his voice. "I think Madison is a great kid, but I suck with kids. She's needs you, not me, and if you leave her here, it won't be two weeks, it will two months, and then two years, and maybe you'll make the Olympic riding team and maybe you won't, but either way, you'll finally decide to show up and be a mommy again. That's not fair to me and it sure as hell isn't fair to Madison."
Rodney's head snapped to the side with the force of Jeannie's slap. His face burned hot and he could taste blood in his mouth where a tooth had cut into the inside of his cheek. Jeannie had strong arms. He watched silently as she scooped up her bag and Madison and stalked away.
Madison waved at Rodney over her shoulder.
He raised his hand and waggled his fingers in answer.
Duke of Edinburgh
Woolsey mentioned that three different offers had been tendered for Pegasus while he and John went over the papers necessary to begin their efforts to access the trust funds he should have inherited at twenty-five and thirty respectively.
"Do you think your father will attempt to block you?" Woolsey had asked when John explained what he wanted from the lawyer.
"I have no idea, since I haven't spoken with him for over a decade."
"But you're hiring me."
"I think you can handle it if he does."
"I've done some checking," Woolsey commented. He'd offered John refreshments and seated him in a green-leather club chair in front of his antique desk. His tie looked as pristine as it must have when he dressed in the morning. His shoes, when John glimpsed them, were shined to a high gloss. A single manila folder was centered on the desk's leather blotter next to a yellow legal pad. A Mont Blanc fountain pen rested on the legal pad. John would have snickered over the 'respected and dignified attorney' ambiance if Woolsey hadn't inhabited it so comfortably. He got the feeling all it was there because Woolsey liked it, not as a scene set to impress any clients.
"I notice that the inheritance and trust fund you receive from your paternal grandfather includes a significant block of voting stock in Sheppard Power & Industry. The proxy is currently be voted by your father."
"He and Dave can outvote me," John said.
"Yes, but your block is large enough to upset the balance of the current board of directors if your were to withdraw the proxy and use it to support one of the other major shareholders." Woolsey picked up the pen and turned it in his fingers. "This is why I asked if your father might not wish for you to exert control over the stock and therefore the trust."
"I'm not interested in SPI," John said, feeling tired. "I've never been interested in it."
Woolsey hummed noncommittally.
"In the meantime, I should inform you that there have been three serious offers for the Pegasus land. Assurance, Incorporated contacted my office last week. So did HVE. And GeneEye tendered an offer on Monday."
"Not interested," John told him, the same as he'd told Todd Rathe in person.
"Nonetheless," Woolsey said, "I would be derelict in my duty as your attorney if I did not inform you of the terms."
John waved his hands. "Print it all up and I'll read it later, but go ahead and tell them I'm not interested in selling. I'm not trying to drive up the price." If Assurance was O.B. Roth's outfit, Roth had pretty much shot himself in the foot at Elizabeth Weir's get-together. At least Todd Rathe hadn't brought up Argentina. Hell, he'd practically been flirting before he left.
They finished the rest of the appointment's business. John invited Woolsey to visit Pegasus sometime as they shook hands and surprised himself by meaning it. Woolsey surprised him by smiling and accepting. "One of these days," he said. "I find myself wishing to see Pegasus after all the time I've put into safeguarding it for you."
"And for Margaret Dean," John pointed out.
"Yes," Woolsey admitted, "I try to do the right thing."
John refrained from making a lawyer joke. Woolsey meant it. His father — and SPI's — lawyers were going to choke on Woolsey's integrity. It made him smile.
He went to South Carolina to watch Rodney and Anne Teldy ride two weeks later. It was an FEI rules competition, a three-star level, with the short cross-country, but the humidity still did a number on the horses and riders. John ended up running errands for Simpson and Chuck. He also watched the brawny chestnut gelding Rodney wanted him to look at and decided that he would buy him, even if they did fly to the UK and buy Grodin's horse too. Since he'd kept up his own qualifications, the additional mounts would give him something to ride at the higher levels until he had Atlantis and Poppy qualified.
Watching Rodney compete on Prince Fyodor and Nanking, two of Elizabeth's horses, made John hold his breath in something close to awe. Half a morning riding Prince before going into the dressage arena, gleaming and shining and right on the bit, all that firecracker energy perfectly in control and Rodney looked like he was asleep in the saddle, his aids nearly invisible, like he could have done it all bareback and bridleless. No one watching the way Prince Fyodor moved could miss that Rodney had trained him far past the levels necessary for an event horse. Not that John needed to guess. He'd started following Rodney back over to Archangel in the afternoons and had watched him school Prince Fyodor in a hell of lot more than a damned counter-counter, some of it useless for an event horse, but still breathtakingly beautiful, just because Prince had a talent for it. Just because Rodney could. Just because they both loved it.
Rodney and Prince Fyodor showed exactly what a horse trained to a flying lead change could do on the cross-country the next day, taking the demanding, direct route between two difficult fences and clearing the second without so much as scrape, the first and only horse of the day to manage that, and finished the course without a single fault.
Of course, every good trainer did what Rodney did. Just as every good rider knew what Rodney knew. But Rodney brought something intangible to it. The horses he trained and rode were artists as well as athletes. Just watching them became a privilege.
A rush of inappropriate pride hit John then. He stuffed it down. Rodney wasn't great because of him. If anything, it would be the reverse: John and Atlantis were going to be great thanks to Rodney. Out of twenty-five riders, Rodney was among five going into the show jumping portion with a chance to finish on their dressage score.
Even Rodney couldn't make every horse look great, of course. Nanking was the exception that proved the rule that weekend.
Nanking bucked, tried to bolt, and then balked at the water jump, but Rodney stayed aboard — unlike several other riders that day — and managed to scramble him over it and onward. "I'd tell Elizabeth to sell him," Rodney declared after they finished, "but no one would would buy him for more than dogfood after seeing him today." He still patted Nanking's shoulder as he and Simpson untacked him. "Poor bastard. Hates traveling. Hates shows and crowds."
John knew what he meant. Not every horse that had the physical talent for eventing had the right personality. Nanking was just too high-strung.
Around noon, a rain shower turned the downward approach to the pond and its two jumps, already worn down to bare dirt, into an slide worthy of an otter. Topography hid the state of the trail from approaching riders. As Anne and Sigmund See came over the hill and down, Siggy's front legs slid right out from under him. The horse instinctively tried to speed up and keep his feet. His head jerked forward onto the bit, jarring Anne's grip on the reins loose, and she fell forward into Siggy's neck.
"Ow," John grunted as he saw that. She'd either hit her chin or her nose, despite the protection of her helmet. A dismayed murmur ran through the crowd, gathered as always to watch the water obstacles.
As they hit the water, Siggy's head came down and Anne lost her stirrups and went over, smacking into the water front first. Siggy lost the fight with gravity and inertia and slipped, smashing down on his side. It all happened in seconds. Water sprayed up. Siggy kicked and scrambled his way back onto his feet.
"Jesus," Chuck muttered from beside John.
"At least he didn't come down on her."
John watched Siggy fling more water around as he got out of the water. The gelding looked okay on the surface. Water darkened his coat to black and streamed off him. Once on dry ground again, he shook like a giant dog, before before giving out a pained grunt. John had expected Siggy to keep going; it would have been typical. Seeing him just stand rather than wander away started John worrying.
Anne levered herself up onto hands and knees and knelt in the water for a few moments, before staggering to her feet and splashing out of the pond to Siggy. Blood covered her chin, but she caught up Siggy's reins and began checking him out. Her hands slowed over Siggy's left shoulder, finding something invisible from the distance.
"That's it for them," Chuck said.
That was it for the rest of the day for the Archangel contingent. Siggy went to the vet and Anne went to the doctor. The blood running down her chin proved to be from cutting the inside of her mouth; she'd broken one of her front teeth right off. Without Siggy to ride, Anne didn't have a pressing reason to stay for the final day, but she wanted to. John volunteered to drive her after an emergency appointment with a local dentist was organized. Glazed over with pain killers, Anne patted the Porsche's leather seat and then John's thigh with a giggle, slurring that it was almost worth a tooth to ride around with him. He was relieved to pass her care over to Simpson when they got to motel.
Simpson stayed in the room to keep an eye on Anne and Chuck elected to bunk in the trailer so that he could be near the horses, so it was just Rodney and John at dinner. They finished their steaks and began analyzing Rodney's chances against the other four who had made it through the cross-country without adding any penalties. John stifled the urge to ask Rodney about his back again, swallowing back his worry and answering his cellphone instead.
"I'll take this outside, okay?" he told Rodney as he held up the cell.
Rodney shoveled another fork full of chocolate cake into his mouth and nodded. John figured he knew where he stood in Rodney's scheme of things. His presence wasn't really necessary when Rodney had cake. With a grin, he left the table and the restaurant, stopping just outside the doors.
Even over the speakers of a cellphone, Teyla's voice held a warmth.
"I am not sure," Teyla said.
"The horses are all okay?" John figured Teyla would have said if anything had happened to Torren or anyone.
"Yes," Teyla replied immediately. "It isn't serious." He could hear the uncertainty in her voice. "Annoyances."
"Annoyances?" John echoed.
"Thursday we were visited by the police," she explained. "An animal neglect complaint."
"You're kidding me."
"Stackhouse and I showed Officer Banks and Sgt. Reynolds around the farm. They were satisfied the complaint was groundless." Teyla added, "They were very polite. I do not believe the difficulty lies with the local police department." Athos Circus had had problems with the local law at times. Circus workers, like carnies, weren't always sterling paragons. Teyla had dealt with both good and bad law enforcement.
"What else?" John asked. Teyla wouldn't be calling over a single incident.
"Friday there was a noise complaint."
John laughed despite Teyla's outrage at the ridiculousness of it. "Did they send the cops again?"
"Yes." Teyla chuckled with him. "I believe that Officer Banks and I may become friends. She was kind enough to recommend the gym where she works out."
"Today I called the police department," Teyla admitted. "Someone rammed the mailbox and knocked it over, then began using an air horn. Amelia — Officer Banks — said they weren't able to catch them, but the mailbox is serious enough they will look into it."
John wondered if Landry or the groom he'd fired could be behind the petty harassment.
"She'd like to interview you once you're back," Teyla added.
He'd mention Landry and the groom, though neither seemed like candidates for knocking over a mailbox. He couldn't buy Landry with the air horn. The farm manager had been corrupt and semi-incompetent, but the damage to Pegasus Farm had all been benign neglect, nothing had been stolen or vandalized. The air horn seemed too full of malice to fit Hank Landry.
"Rodney and Prince Fyodor are still in the running. They cleared the course with no penalties earlier."
"I'm sure he will place first tomorrow," Teyla said. "Or second."
"I'll just tell him the first part."
Rodney would have finished his cake by now. John hoped he ordered coffee. He wanted to get back inside and snag the bill. Rodney could be pig stubborn about money, but would never notice if John took care of it before it showed at the table.
"Poppy threw a shoe today, so I called Ronon," Teyla said.
John groaned, "Again? How the hell does she do that?"
"Ronon recommended a different shoe. He said it would still be fine for eventing. I told him to go ahead."
"He was here when the air horn went off."
"You'd have told me if a horse spooked and kicked him in the head, right?"
"Yes, John. He offered to stay here tonight."
"Good. You did say yes, right?"
"Okay, tell him he can have the gatehouse if bunking at the house freaks him out too much, and then light a fire under the contractor and get it fixed up," John told her. "I've got to go."
"Very well. You will be returning on Monday?"
"Good night, John. Wish Rodney the best luck tomorrow."
"I will. Bye, Teyla."
Walking back into the restaurant, he snagged their waitress and handed over his credit card, before rejoining Rodney.
"So, that was kind of a long call," Rodney said.
"Teyla wanted the play by play of your ride."
"You can't lie worth shit."
John sat back down and relaxed. "Some jackass ran over our mailbox."
"High school dickheads," Rodney declared. "They're always using the backroads to see how fast they can drive before they wrap their car around a tree. There's at least one wreck on that road every year." He wiped his mouth one last time and tossed the napkin on the table. "Can we get out of here? I want to go by and check the horses."
"Sure, let's go," John agreed easily.
George H. Morris, The American Jumping Style
The scent of bacon frying filled the Pegasus kitchen.
"There's someone from Brown Landscaping parked in my spot," Rodney griped as he walked into the kitchen. Halling left the frying pan on the burner and pulled the packages of eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator.
"The early bird gets the parking spot, Rodney," John drawled. He had his laptop open on the table to the side of his empty plate. Teyla had already given up on breaking him of reading the news off the Internet, a habit he'd picked up while living outside the US. Instead, Halling cooked his breakfast last and served it after he closed the laptop.
Rodney gave him a sly, pleased look. "Someone spilled fertilizer all over your compensation mechanism."
"There's crap on your Porsche," Rodney clarified.
John's chair screeched as he pushed it back and bolted out of the kitchen.
Rodney smiled and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Halling, why don't you give me that bacon and eggs while it's still hot," he said.
All was fair in business and breakfast, Rodney thought to himself. John waylaid his hay and Rodney hijacked his bacon and eggs.
John retaliated by making oatmeal for breakfast the next day and raising his eyebrows at Rodney when he complained.
"You want to take a turn cooking?" he asked.
"You really don't want to eat my cooking," Rodney replied.
"Then quit whining and tell me what to do about Poppy."
Poppy — her registered name was Popstar Princess, which Rodney believed should be grounds for prosecution — had the kind of looks that stuck in the mind. Very delicate looking, with an Arab head, very wide between the eyes, and a dark gold coat. She did all right at dressage without being a really quality mover, sucked at cross-country, and shone in the show jumping stadium, lofting over the most intimidating jumps with a contemptuous whisk of her tail as she landed.
She had a nasty habit of finding something — anything — to wedge her hooves against and try to work her shoes off, however.
John ended up getting Zelenka in to consult with Ronon on how to stop her, since they couldn't keep her in a pry-proofed stall all the time. After two months of experimenting, they settled on a super-light shoe and high-tech epoxies and only used nails before events.
She still failed at cross-country, throwing John into the second fence of a combination and lighting out for the barns at the very next event. A spectator ended up catching her.
"Sell her as a show jumper," Rodney told John. "She's too nervy for eventing."
John leaned against the horse trailer, looking mulish and cradling his wrist, which he insisted wasn't sprained. "Look, I've sprained it before, okay? I know." Which explained the black brace he wore all the time on the wrist opposite his stopwatch chronometer. A bruise had begun purpling his cheekbone and there would be others under his grass-stained shirt and breeches.
Inside the trailer, Poppy nickered.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney muttered at her, then casually thumped the side of the trailer with the flat of his hand for emphasis.
He caught John hiding a grin.
"I thought you didn't talk to horses."
Rodney scowled. "I don't fool myself that they understand English," he replied in a lofty tone.
"Right," John drawled.
"Sell her and buy Grodin's horse," Rodney said in an attempt to redirect the conversation. "There's a couple of other horses you should look at over there, too."
John groaned and said, "Lincolnshire in two weeks?"
Rodney smiled brightly at him. "Lincolnshire and a couple of side trips. How long since you've been to Ireland?"
John groaned again. "I never should have told you I'm rich."
Rodney didn't really think about John being rich often. John didn't worry about paying for things, but he didn't lord it over anyone and worked as hard in the barns as Stubbs or Stackhouse and Markham. His tastes in entertainment were definitely work-a-day. A DVD, a bowl of popcorn or a bag of chips along with a longneck beer were his end of the day preference.
Rodney knew because he found himself sprawled in John's den, watching mindless TV and talking about something meaningless and fun, three or four evenings out of the week. It had become routine, with the others joining them sometimes after dinner and sometimes not.
John held up two different DVD boxes. Rodney read the titles and covered his face with his hands. "No, no, no," he moaned. "Not International Velvet! It's a crime against cinema. I don't even want to know you if you like that."
John grinned and dropped one of the boxes into the garbage. "I knew you had good taste."
"Of course I have good taste. I'm not the one playing Johnny Cash in the barns."
"There's nothing wrong with Johnny Cash," John said defensively. "Besides, Cadman told me about the time she caught you singing along to Phil Collins."
"I was mucking out," Rodney protested. John just grinned at him. "Fine, fine, what do you want to watch?"
"No one really has eyes that color without contacts."
"The Black Stallion?"
"I should have known."
"Aw, c'mon, Rodney," John coaxed.
"It's Disney!" Rodney hissed. "I hate Disney movies."
"God. Fine. Utter depression is better than sugar-coated stupidity."
Sometime later, after John Hurt had been diagnosed with cancer, Rodney turned to John, who had the other end of the couch and remarked, "Have you noticed how almost all movies about animals are tragic?" He waved his hand at the screen. "Even when they aren't really about the animals."
John blinked at him and then nodded slowly. He said, "The Red Pony."
"Where the Red Fern Grows," John said. "We had to read it in school and then our teacher showed us the movie. Twenty-eight nine-year-olds sobbing their hearts out, what a great idea."
Rodney raised his bottle to Old Dan and Little Ann. He searched his memory and came up with another.
"Bambi," Rodney stated. "Mom gets killed right before his eyes."
"Yeah, my dad would have shot her too," John muttered before finishing his beer.
"Your dad sucks," Rodney said.
"You know, he really does."
John contemplated his bottle. He turned it one way and then the other. "You ever see The Yearling?"
Rodney finished his beer. If they kept this up he was going end up slitting his own throat. "Yes. I need another. You?"
He picked up two beers for both of them, along with a bag of chips he carried back clenched between his teeth. John accepted his bottles, set one on the coffee table and popped the lid off the other. He took a long drink while Rodney tore open the chip bag, took a handful and then shoved it John's way.
"Kes," John said.
"Movie," he mumbled. "Kid raises a falcon…"
"It all goes bad in the end," Rodney finished for him. "Missed that one."
"Sam in I Am Legend."
"I hate that goddamn movie and the jackass who wrote the script." Rodney defiantly ate another handful of chips. Somehow they'd begun competing over remembering horrible movies that made them want to cry. Animals should never be in movies. Look at the poor dog in Terminator 2. He searched his memory for another cinematic trauma and found it. "Fuck," he sniffed. "Artax in The Neverending Story."
"Are you crying?"
John nodded and said, "Mad Max's dog."
"Crap, I really liked that dog, you know?"
"That's 'cause you're just like him."
Rodney sniffed again, stuffed a chip in his mouth and then another so he had an excuse to swallow.
"Scrappy," John explained. He was staring at the TV but not seeing it.
Rodney glared at him. John had compared him to a dog. Granted, a cool, tough dog from a good movie, but still a dog. A dog that got killed in the movie. Rodney considered himself much more like a cat. He didn't really like most people and only put up with them because he had no choice. "Just don't call me Scrappy Doo."
John froze and then snorted beer out his nose. When he finally recovered, he started singing in a horribly scratchy voice, "Scooby dooby doo, where are you — "
Rodney threw potato chips at him.
Jinto told him he ought to pick out a bedroom if he was going to keep sleeping over on the couch the next morning.
Spending as much time as he did at Pegasus did mean turning more and more responsibility over the Cadman. Sooner or later, Elizabeth had to notice and she did. Rodney tried not to feel guilty when she stopped by the office to ask him what was going on.
The August calendar showed Peter Grodin at Badminton. Rodney didn't pay any attention to it. He had to deal with Elizabeth. She was too good at manipulating him to do what she wanted. He'd never really fought it before, because on the whole Elizabeth's intentions for him and anyone else were always good. Good for her, but good for the person in question too.
"Two weeks, Rodney, really?" she asked. "Are you sure Cadman can handle things here that long?"
"I'm pretty sure Cadman could handle things here permanently," he said. He looked up from the desk. "I just don't think she'd put up with being asked to do it all."
"What do you mean?"
"We need an office manager."
"You've always handled it before."
"At the expense of riding myself."
Elizabeth lifted her eyebrows in that 'I'm disappointed in you' look she'd perfected on the Russians. It had worked on Rodney before, but this time he just noted it, unaffected. He'd said no to Jeannie; after that, Elizabeth was easy. She wasn't going to hit him, after all.
"You're spending more time at Pegasus lately," Elizabeth said.
She opened her mouth, but closed it without saying more.
"If you'll excuse me, I need to pack," Rodney said.
Elizabeth tipped her head to the side, then smiled. "Of course." She paused and he knew she was about to whammy him. "I believe you're right. Archangel does need an office manager. It's unfortunate you won't be here to consult with me over who I hire."
He'd been afraid to threaten to quit for so many years that the old sick feeling balled up in his stomach again, but this time Rodney ignored it. Jeannie could take care of herself. He didn't have any real debt left to pay off. He owned Blue and he had two recent wins. He could ride over to Pegasus; John would let Rodney keep Blue there indefinitely.
"It would be a shame if you couldn't get along," Elizabeth added.
"Then I guess one of us would have to go," Rodney said.
The shock on Elizabeth's face was sweet. He liked and respected her, but the freedom to ignore her little manipulations meant Rodney could finally breathe again. His friendship with John satisfied things in Rodney he had never even been aware of, they just got each other, but being able to finally best Elizabeth, that was the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the whole sundae.
Rodney got out while the getting was good.
Rodney had a feeling if the Concorde had still been flying, John would have booked them on it. He'd always flown coach. John probably didn't even know there was anything on a plane except first class. He wasn't above enjoying the upgrade in circumstances, however, since John had insisted on buying the tickets for both of them, claiming, "I hate being crowded."
"I could — "
"Hey, you're my, uh, consultant," John had explained. "Don't worry about it."
Rodney decided to go with the flow and enjoy.
Customs glanced at his passport and then John's, asked what they were in the UK for, business or pleasure, and waved them through with a "Good luck and enjoy your stay," when John answered, "Buying horses." Once they had their bags and had exchanged their currency, John guided them to the Tube, navigating with the ease of familiarity, until they exited at the Old Street Station in Shoreditch.
John managed to surprise Rodney again. The Hoxton Urban Lodge was four-star, but edgier than Rodney had expected, bright with color and hosting an interesting array of artwork. The lit-up reindeer were particularly appealing. They checked in without difficulty, went up to their rooms and settled in. Rodney used the wi-fi to send a quick email off to Cadman, reminding her to keep an eye out for problems if the weather turned particularly hot and humid. All Trumps had tied up — all his muscles seizing painfully — the summer before after a vigorous session on particularly muggy day. He sat down next to the window and began making a list of calls beginning with Peter Grodin, just to confirm their appointment to look at Doctor Doctor at his yard the next day.
Grodin extolled Doctor Doctor's qualities and Rodney tuned him out, wondering tiredly if he shouldn't have followed the example of John's declared intention to shower away the film of exhaustion left behind by hours of travel. Rodney fished a water bottle out of the fridge; he had a headache exacerbated by the dehydration he suffered whenever he flew in anything big enough to be pressurized.
"Peter, we wouldn't have flown across the Atlantic if we weren't serious about looking at him," he interrupted while twisting the lid off the bottle. "We'll be there tomorrow."
"I'm being an idiot, aren't I?" Grodin murmured in self-deprecating amusement. "No one's buying a horse sight unseen over the phone."
Rodney sipped the water and silently agreed on both points.
"I've got to call my sister, so if you'll have him ready to look at sometime in the afternoon, I think John's arranged a car," he said to finish the call.
"You'll take a look around the rest of the yard while you're here, won't you?"
Goodbyes said, Rodney terminated the call and finished his water. Calling Jeannie didn't really appeal. Maybe he could let it wait a few days. Whatever plans John had made might preclude a visit to Lincolnshire. Rodney hoped they would, at least. He called two more trainers he knew casually and arranged to go by their yards during the coming week. Then he gave in to grime and took a shower under the rain-style head in the very luxurious bathroom. The Hoxton definitely wasn't cheap where it mattered. Dressed again afterward, he dropped down in the orange-upholstered, modernist styled chair next to the window and wondered how much of a mistake it would be to take a nap.
John knocked on his door, jerking him out of a doze and saving him from a painful neck crick. Rodney glanced at his watch as he went to the door. It had only been fifteen minutes. Long enough to remind him he was tired without getting any real rest. He glared at John in reaction. John, shaved and bright-eyed, grinned back and asked, "Want to check out the nightlife around here?" He waved the guide to local attractions provided with the room.
Rodney gave him a scornful glare. "Like those things are ever worth the paper they're printed on. Besides, I'm not twenty. If you want to go pick up some hot young thing and whatever you can catch, go right ahead."
John made an ewww face. "Rodney. You popped all the other kids' birthday balloons when you were a kid, didn't you?"
"Well, at least they had them," Rodney snapped back. He still hadn't called Jeannie and was beginning to feel guilty. Of course, Jeannie had had birthday balloons. Birthday parties, sleepovers, riding lessons…He wanted to slap himself. They were grown ups now. Sulking over childhood slights was immature if not downright neurotic.
She really had been their parents' favorite.
"Poor baby," John said without a hint of sympathy. He clapped his hand around Rodney's arm. "Come on, we can at least go out and get something to eat."
Rodney stomach chose to grumble audibly at that point, so there was little point in protesting.
Getting something to eat in John-speak apparently meant dining in a restaurant Rodney had never heard of, where the food tasted too delicious to believe and probably cost an obscene amount. Rodney never saw the bill. John made sure of that. He made sure Rodney never felt an instant of awkwardness too, mocking the other diners and even the decor — chandeliers and statuary peacocks, swans, and tigers prompted a hissed, "It's the Victorian Raj," from John in a low voice meant only for Rodney.
"Hey, you're the one who picked the Trey Amigos," Rodney replied, deliberately mangling the restaurant's French name.
Mockery didn't preclude savoring starters of pan-seared foie gras with cherries and foie gras caramel, of course. Or trying a taste of John's fricassée d’artichaut avec gnocci et son caillé de chèvre aux herbes. John just grinned and kicked Rodney's ankle when he made a noise of bliss loud enough to draw the attention of the other diners.
"He's auditioning for the remake of When Harry Met Sally," John told one affronted man.
Rodney kicked John's shin in retaliation. John forked up a sample of Rodney's foie gras. He nodded in approval before swallowing.
"All right," Rodney admitted, "the food is good, but I'd swear that was a stuffed bulldog with a Stetson on its head over on the side wall." John cocked his head and squinted. "Come to think of it, I don't know which I'd find more unhygienic, actually," Rodney went on, "a live dog or a taxidermied one."
"The swan appears to have a tiny crown too," John observed.
"I think the monkey is watching me," Rodney told him gravely.
"Maybe he thinks we're up to some kind of monkey business."
They both annoyed everyone near them by cracking up. Lack of sleep made them both punchy enough to think they were great wits at that point. The main courses arrived before they could get any sillier. Veal loin for Rodney and saddle of rabbit for John, both presented with accompanying vegetables and sauces that Rodney had forgotten the names of before he even finished ordering earlier. He admired his food for a moment before assaying the first bite.
John, who tended to eat like Jinto shoveled the walk from house to barns — as a job best done as fast as possible — or picked and stirred things around without swallowing much, lingered over his meal, obviously savoring the polenta served with it, even licking his lips once. The flick of pink tongue transfixed Rodney with his fork in the air and he stared. John had a really lush mouth. Lips meant for kissing, Cadman had said and Rodney hadn't thought about it, but she was right. The way they glistened almost mesmerized Rodney. He felt lightheaded, trying not to imagine John kissing…anyone. Anyone. Not him, certainly, and Rodney didn't want to watch him kissing someone else obviously, because that would be wrong. Why else did something tighten in his gut at the thought?
"What?" John asked.
"Uh." Rodney pointed to the side his own mouth. "Missed."
John wiped with the napkin this time, much to Rodney's relief.
"No problem," Rodney said and choked down the saffron linguini without tasting it. He kept his eyes on his plate after that. The advent of dessert, John's tiramisu and a chocolate hazelnut sponge cake accompanied with tea ice cream for Rodney, drove all other thoughts out of his head soon after.
Satiated, Rodney agreed that a walk would do him some good and followed John to a club called Plastic People and from there to Cargo before winding their way back toward the Hoxton. They passed the pink painted Sh!, which had Rodney backtracking to squint at it.
"See something you want, Rodney?" John breathed into his ear.
Rodney valiantly did not jump out of his skin. He pointed at the window instead. "Is that — are they selling the sort of thing I think they are?"
They started walking again. Rodney bumped his shoulder into John's. "Dare you to buy something for Teyla in there."
"I've got no problem buying something in there, Rodney," John told him. "But I think you should be the one to give it to her."
"Oh, no. No. No." Rodney semaphored his hands in the international sign for stop. "Nooooo."
"In person," John added evilly.
"Come on. It might change her mind about you."
"Why would she need to change her mind about me?" Rodney demanded.
"No reason," John told him. "Let's get back to the hotel."
Rodney stopped on the sidewalk. He folded his arms. "What do you mean 'change her mind'?" he yelled.
John turned and shrugged. "Nothing."
Rodney glared at him.
"McKay," John coaxed. "Hotel. Bed. Sleep."
He'd tried out the bed at the Hoxton. It had been heavenly, Rodney remembered. He decided he could pester John about what Teyla thought of him on the drive to Grodin's yard the next day. That duck down duvet was calling him.
"Fine," he said and began walking again. "But I'm not giving her a sex toy."
John chuckled, low and with a pleasantly dirty tone, murmuring, "Too bad. I would have loved to have seen her face before she flattened you."
John knew better. He knew the difference between fantasy and reality and the dangers of basing the former on the latter to any genuine relationship. He knew, but he was just drunk enough, just tired and hopeful enough that he let himself close his eyes in the shower and imagine someone else touching him. He stopped himself, when someone became someone specific.
He felt too wired to sleep.
Padding out of the bathroom and pulling on a pair of red boxers, he considered whether it would be worth it to dress and go downstairs where he could buy a hot cocoa and sit in the lounge. It seemed like too much trouble. The room's minifridge held a bottle of milk along with water. He drank half that, flipped off the lights and slid between the sinfully smooth sheets.
Closing his eyes didn't help.
Jerking off would leave him sleepy and relaxed.
He decided if he meant to do this, he'd do it slowly. He wouldn't think about anyone or anything. Just how good his own hands felt. He pushed the sheets and duvet down. Light from the city beyond the drawn curtains kept the room from real darkness. He could make out his own body, dark against the pale sheets, with shadowed valleys and dark hair like bruises everywhere. He pushed away any speculation whether Rodney would like or dislike that.
John tucked one arm behind his head and slid his right hand down his chest. He ran the callused pad of his index around his nipples, then licked it and touched the peaks, so they tightened further. He lingered, teasing himself, until the sensations threatened to tip over into discomfort. Stroking two fingers down his sternum and over his belly down to his navel, he squirmed a little at the sensation when he stirred the line of hair just above the wrong way, then combed it back down.
He arched his hips and wiggled out of his boxers.
His hand made its way further down to where he'd already hardened and circled his cock in a loose grip. He didn't have lube with him and didn't want to stop and look for something to take its place, so he teased and teased until his hips were shifting out of his control and precum slipped down the shaft.
A quiet moan slipped between his lips.
John bit back the next moan and whimpered instead. He didn't intend anyone on the other side of the hotel wall to have a free audio introduction to the what he was doing. Not even if Rodney had been in one of those rooms rather than across the corridor.
His breath caught at that thought. Rodney was probably already asleep. John sped his hand as he imagined Rodney sprawled across the bed, the breadth of his back and the smooth shape of his ass. He wanted to stop, he'd told himself he wouldn't fantasize about Rodney, but the picture was in his head and his body was taking over. He pushed his other hand down between his legs and rolled his balls as he worked his cock. For an instant, he pictured Rodney's hands there and it was enough to make his hips jerk hard as he came with a strangled groan.
After a couple heaving breaths, John forced himself up and back into the bathroom to wipe himself down.
He found his boxers lying on the floor.
So long as he focused on actions, he kept himself from thinking about how much he wished he was walking back into a bedroom with Rodney waiting in the bed, no doubt complaining about wet spots and ending up glued to the sheets. A smile crossed John's face as he imagined it.
John squeezed his eyes shut.
He knew better than this. He really did. Rodney was straight. Finding the idea of Rodney complaining endearing was even worse than jerking off to a fantasy of him, because his emotions were getting involved along with his libido.
"Damn it," he muttered and flopped back onto the bed and pulled the sheet up.
He really wished Rodney wasn't straight.
If Rodney was at least a little bi, John could pull out all the stops and convince him being with someone who knew and liked him for who he was would be better than dating a woman, even one as pretty and painfully nice as Jennifer Keller.
That was the stupidest fantasy of all. John couldn't change Rodney or who Rodney wanted.
Which wasn't him.
He couldn't help flirting a little though. It wouldn't hurt. Rodney wouldn't even notice anyway.
Doctor Doctor shone even under the gray light of a cloudy day. A freckled redhead led him out and walked him around. She pushed his nose back without much effort when he tried to nibble the end of her braid. Doctor Doctor held his head high and looked around the yard, even neighed back to one of the other horses in the stalls, and in general made a good first impression.
"We'd need a vet certificate, obviously," Rodney told Peter Grodin.
John strolled around the big horse while Rodney and Peter talked. They'd agreed on the strategy on the drive. Peter knew Rodney at least casually. He'd concentrate on selling to him, while John quizzed the groom.
"He looks good though."
Peter folded his arms. "He is, but I've never managed to get him to perform up to his potential." He nodded toward the barn and a gray horse there. "And now I have High Spear and Doodlebug. I just don't have the time handle Doc too."
John walked around behind Doctor Doctor.
One ear flicked back to listen then both pinned. The lead shank jingled. The groom muttered, "Don't you dare — "
Doctor Doctor lashed out with both feet, but John had seen something and danced back out of range.
"Amy!" Peter yelled. "Did you warn him?"
"Sorry, sir," the groom called back. She walked Doctor Doctor forward a couple of steps and swore quietly at him.
Doctor Doctor's shoes clattered on the cobblestones that had to have been in place hundreds of years. Rodney privately thought they should have been torn out; cobblestones were a terrible surface for horses.
"Shit," John laughed. "That was close."
"Is that a habit we should know about?" Rodney asked. His heartbeat had jumped to double time.
Peter gave a shamefaced nod. "It's just people. He's done it since I bought him."
"Must make shoeing an experience," Rodney observed. He was knocking thousands off Doctor Doctor's price and getting an idea of why Peter didn't want to keep him. Peter didn't want to bother breaking the horse of a dangerous habit.
"Not really," Peter averred.
John had approached the groom at Doctor Doctor's head again. She handed him a hoof pick out of her pocket. He laid one hand on Doctor Doctor's shoulder, then crouched and picked up his hoof. Doctor Doctor stood stock still as John examined his hoof, checking the frog was in good health and the hoof wall sound and just fooling around with the pick to see how the horse reacted to it.
John kept one hand on Doctor Doctor after releasing his hoof. He kept talking to the groom, letting his voice and presence become known to the horse, then worked his way back to Doctor Doctor's hindquarters. Rodney could see John was ready to dodge if Doctor Doctor lashed out with a side kick, but nothing happened. Eventually, John ran his hand down over Doctor Doctor's hock to his fetlock, bent over the way a farrier would, and lifted the hind hoof. Doctor Doctor's ears twitched, but he stayed calm and allowed John to check without problems.
John patted him, then circled forward where Doctor Doctor could see him and repeated the process on the other side.
"He knows what he's doing," Peter observed.
"You thought he wouldn't?"
Peter gave Rodney a sidelong look. "Rumor has it you latched onto this guy pretty fast."
"Latched on?" John's head swiveled toward them at the spike in Rodney's voice. Rodney shook his head at him. He faced Peter a second later. "What rumor?"
Peter shrugged at him. "Just some talk that you wanted back into regular competition and had found an owner to pay for it." His cheeks colored a little. "You know how people gossip."
"I don't know whether to be insulted or complimented," Rodney muttered. "No one's ever accused me of being a gigolo before." He waved at John. "Now, he's got the looks for it."
Peter gave Rodney an odd look.
"And if I did decide to stoop that low, I'd have started before this. Maybe with Catherine Langford. Or, I suppose, if I'd been that desperate, Todd Rathe."
It bothered him, he admitted to himself, that anyone thought he was trying to use John that way. More than the idea that anyone thought Rodney was gay. He'd been paying his way — and Jeannie's — most of his life. Why would he change now?
The way John had been flashing his money on this trip probably hadn't helped the situation, either.
"I'll need to ride him before I make up my mind," John said a moment later as he joined them. Curiosity shone in his hazel eyes, but he didn't ask what had Rodney upset. No doubt he'd ask later, in the rented Land Rover, as they drove back to London. "Have you got any other horses we could look at?"
"Actually, yes," Peter replied smoothly. "Let me show you Magellan, while Amy tacks up Doc."
Erica E. Goode, "The Secret World of Siblings," U.S. News & World Report, 10 January 1994
Rodney had quarreled with his sister and wanted to bury the hatchet. John had no problems trailing along with him, providing unspoken support or acting as referee if necessary. The buying trip had been extremely successful, besides the two horses from Grodin's yard, they'd spent three days in Ireland and he'd bought a dapple gray gelding. He'd never have heard of the small stud farm in Country Wicklow if Rodney hadn't guided him there. In between visiting various farms, he'd done his best to show Rodney a good time. But they were flying home in two days, so the invitation to dinner with the Millers couldn't be blown off.
John knew he was biased, but Jeannie McKay-Miller annoyed him. She really had no clue about her brother.
He could see why Jeannie was the darling of the Canadian riding set: tall, with curling blond hair, and Rodney's blue eyes in an attractive face. Her personality animated her features into beauty, the same way Rodney's made him handsome. She smiled and shook hands with John when they arrived at the small house the Millers were renting while Jeannie trained with one of Britain's most prestigious riders, then hugged Rodney. Both actions were too pro forma for John's taste.
Kaleb, he liked, and her little girl. Madison sat down on the chintz-covered sofa next to John and showed him all her pictures. She was pretty good with a crayon, he thought. She'd drawn Mommy with her horse, Mommy riding, Mommy jumping fences and cars and even their little rented house — with Daddy and Madison waving from the windows inside. All the rest of the pictures were of Madison and Kaleb. School or pre-school — John wasn't sure when little girls started school in England — and shopping and gardening and driving in the Mini-Cooper. It wasn't hard to see that Kaleb did all the work of keeping the family functioning.
Back in kindergarten, Dave had drawn the Sheppard family without their father, precipitating a nasty, low-toned fight that ended with their mother passed out in her bedroom, John remembered. She'd never been happy; Patrick loved SPI more than he had his wife. He wondered if Jeannie loved competing more than her family.
Jeannie cornered Rodney and began talking shop, so John asked Kaleb about English Literature and moving to England. Kaleb had a wry smile that flashed before he answered.
Between them, John and Kaleb kept a conversation going without letting it devolve into a nasty sibling fight, and no one started slinging mashed potatoes, but John found himself thinking longingly of the frozen, reticent silences of his own family's disagreements.
Also, Jeannie wasn't a great cook. She'd taken over cooking for the night and even abandoned her family's normal vegetarian fare for Rodney, which was touching, but the meal might have tasted better if Kaleb had handled preparing their dinner. John liked carrots fine, but he preferred them either raw or cooked, not somewhere in between, with some pieces falling apart around the tine of his fork and others threatening to go flying off the plate when he tried to spear them. The rest of the meal was just as uneven.
Rodney pronounced it, "Just like Mom's."
"So, you're a polo player," Jeannie said to John.
He told himself she hadn't deliberately made it sound like he extorted money from little old ladies and cripples.
"I'm eventing now," he replied.
"Levels?" she demanded.
"Jeannie," Rodney hissed.
"Three-star," John answered. "I let my four-star quals lapse a couple of years ago, but I'll be back by next year."
Nonplussed, Jeannie stared at him. "Oh. John Sheppard. Some of the riders here have mentioned you." Her smile warmed and Rodney looked relieved, but John felt less friendly than ever. "So who are you buying for?"
"John owns Pegasus Farm now," Rodney added. "The big place next to Archangel. Cam Mitchell used to ride for them before his accident."
"You're an owner too?" Jeannie asked.
"I didn't realize when Rodney said you were over here buying horses that you were buying them yourself."
Kaleb coughed into his napkin. Rodney looked pained. Jeannie smiled.
"I could introduce you around to some of the farms here," she said. "I know a couple have some fantastic horses for sale. And if you're looking for another rider — "
"I'd put Rodney up," John interrupted.
Jeannie's mouth thinned into an unattractive line.
"Well, if you aren't interested in supporting a full-time competitor," she muttered.
"I ride my own horses," John said.
"I suppose if you can afford it, that sort of amateur riding is wonderful," Jeannie sniped. "Rodney still competes sometimes, even though he's holding down a full time job."
John schooled his face into a neutral blank. Rodney's 'full time job' had paid to let Jeannie ride professionally, not to mention that it included riding competitively himself.
"It does seem a little odd that you're here with him," Jeannie added. She glanced at Rodney. "How does Elizabeth feel about that?"
"I do get vacation time," Rodney said. "It's not actually her business."
Or yours, John kept himself from saying.
"Busman's holiday, then?" Kaleb offered.
"It got me a chance to come see you, too," Rodney replied sardonically. "How could I pass that up?"
John ate his carrots, kept his opinions to himself, and followed Rodney's lead, letting Jeannie dominate the rest of the evening.