By Jackson Leigh


Title: Bareback

Author: (Deb) Jackson Leigh
Copyright:. These characters are mine, all mine. Solid products of my own twisted imagination.

Sex: Definitely. Is it worth reading without some sex? If you are offended by women loving women, don't read this.

Strong Content Warning: Nothing really bad. A little language.

Feedback: Anything at all...punct/grammar, characters, consistency, etc.

Pairing: Alt: F/F (female/female)

Summary:  A devastating accident that claimed the life of her Olympic-bound mount lands a recovering Jessica Black and her new stallion at Cherokee Falls Equestrian Center where her godmother, Kate Parker, pairs her up with a womanizing, blacklisted trainer, Skyler Reese. The sparks that fly at first between Skyler and Jessica are anything but friendly, but the heat between them changes to passion as Skyler helps Jessica prepare for the upcoming Olympic Eventing trials.


Bareback glossary


Parallel Oxer - a jump with two elements that create a spread, forcing the horse to move both vertically and horizonally.

Chevrons - a series of V-shaped jumps.

Crosscountry course - a rugged course through the natural terrain, filled with obstacles the horse must jump.

Double ski jump - two jumps at the end of earthen ramps with a downhill drop on the other side of each.

Lead - Refers to which front hoof a horse steps out on first - left or right- when at a canter or gallop.

Oxer - a jump with two elements that create a spread, forcing the horse to move both vertically and horizonally.

quirt - a short limber whip made of braided rawhide

Steeplechase - a level racing track that has artificial jumps the horse must jump.

The wall - a jump of solid appearance such as a stone or board fence.

The combination - a series of three fences placed only one or two strides apart.

Water jump - A fence with a shallow pool of water on the other side that the horse must land in but retain his footing. A lot of horses have an aversion to walking through standing water.


Chapter 1

Alexandra's urgent hands tangled themselves in the short, sun-streaked locks of the lover whose lips were blazing a searing path down her neck toward more interesting destinations. Her green eyes glowed with lust as the tanned, muscular figure covered her naked form.

"Oh baby, it's true what the girls say about you!" she moaned.

The blonde head hovering over her hesitated, lips curling into a half smile and retracing their path back to the delicate jaw line. "Oh, you like this, huh." A hot tongue traced the outline of her small ear.

"Please, Sky."

"Please what, Alexandra? Please stop?" Skyler taunted, pulling back to look down at the woman tangled in white sheets with her auburn, shoulder-length mane spread across the pillows. "You were the one who followed me into my bedroom to seduce me."

Alexandra's chest heaved as she pulled Skyler's face close and emerald orbs transmitted irritated impatience to the amused brown eyes calculating the next method of torture. Alexandra's mouth reached up to devour Skyler's, and the tormentor chuckled at the woman's wanting.

Long fingers moved in a teasing dance down the woman's soft abdomen to glistening curls. Skyler nudged Alexandra's thighs apart to insinuate her knee between the legs below. A muscular thigh pressed against the hot, wet apex that opened. Skyler reached around, prompting Alexandra to bend her knee slightly to reciprocate. Skyler's hips began to rock in a slow, sensuous massage. White teeth again traveled downward and nipped Alexandra's hard, pink nipples.

Eyes the color of dark ale glinted as they glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. Uh oh. As much as I'd like to continue this torture, better wrap this up before someone comes looking for me.

Skyler snaked a long hand downward and spread it to apply added pressure against both Alexandra's and Skyler's own sensitive sex. Alexandra moaned and her hips bucked as Skyler moved her hand in long slow strokes against the length of her clitoris. The smaller woman's red manicured fingernails raked across Skyler's back, drawing a low growl of pleasure.

Who would have…(pant) … thought … oh god, how does she do that?… another woman would be this …(pant) …sensual, Alexandra marveled. She reached up to lick at Skyler's taut breast and smiled at the hiss emanating from the other woman.

Alexandra gasped as the strokes against her clitoris grew harder and faster. Her eyes slid across Skyler's torso of hard muscle moving under soft, feminine skin.

"Come for me, Alex," Skyler demanded, stroking harder as Alexandra reached for Skyler's narrow, muscled hips to press even harder against her throbbing ache. Skyler reached lower and plunged her long fingers - first two then three - inside Alexandra. Her tongue and teeth tortured Alexandra's delectable chest while she used the thrust of her hips to drive her fingers hard and fast and deep while her thumb continued to massage the length of her clitoris. She felt Alexandra tense around her stroking fingers as she reached the edge of her organism, and Skyler bit down hard on the pulse that hammered along the moaning woman's elegant neck.

"Oh, Sky! Sweet Jesus! …" Alexandra's body convulsed a second or two before Skyler tensed and grunted with her own release. Skyler slowed, but continued the stroke of her hips and the thrust of her fingers to prolong the sensation that flooded their sweating bodies.

Alexandra's chest heaved with the effort to catch her breath.

"Oh! Geez! Damn!" Her heart pounded against the woman whose naked body had collapsed against hers. She drew several deep breaths to slow the beating.

"I hardly ever have an orgasm with Doug," she prattled excitedly. "Oh, baby, I could get used to this."

Skyler rolled off the prone woman and closed her eyes while a smirk worked across her classic features. She enjoyed being in control. She was empowered each time she passed the test to her satisfaction - the test of taking everything they offered to her and then being able walk away without feeling a twinge of emotion or regret.

"Yeah, well, I'm afraid I only give equestrian lessons. If your husband needs lessons on how to ride a human mare, you'll have to do that yourself," Skyler muttered, smiling at her own sarcastic play on words.

The truth was, she'd really rather just take care of her needs herself. But there was something inside her that made her continue to polish her reputation as a womanizer. Maybe it was a need to know that women did still find her irresistible. Maybe it was to continually test herself to make sure she could engage, then walk away without regret so that she kept at least arm's length away from a serious relationship.

She would never be wounded by a woman again. Not as long as she could still pass the test.

Skyler sighed and pulled herself up.

"I'm going to take a quick shower. I've still got horses to work and lessons to give. I don't need the stallions smelling sex all over me. Thanks for the afternoon delight, sweetie."

Alexandra's face frowned into a pout. "Well, you're not totally unlike my husband. That's it? Get your rocks off and you're done?"

That tactic obviously wasn't stopping the lean woman from gathering her scattered clothes, so the auburn-haired beauty adjusted her approach and tried again. Alexandra's voice softened and grew sexy.

"Why not come back to bed and let's try for an encore, hot stuff? I want to touch you like you touch me."

Skyler paused while Alexandra's eyes devoured every inch of the tall woman's graceful, naked frame. That's right. Take a long look, Alex.

Skyler picked up the last of her clothes and threw a wink and a half smile at her conquest.

"There's a pocket knife in the bedside table. Why don't you carve your own notch for me, huh?" She disappeared into the bathroom, shutting the door just in time to deflect the boot thrown in her direction.

She opened the door again just long enough to give Alexandra a blazing smile. "Sorry about that bite mark on your neck. You'll have to think of something to explain that to Dougie." The door shut again and Alexandra could hear the water running.

"Heartless bitch!" Alexandra muttered.


A cloudless, summer blue sky hung over the sandy driveways that tied the Cherokee Falls Equestrian Training Center compound together. At the center of the farm was a huge, white two-story house with a porch, whichtrue to its Southern heritage, wrapped three-quarters of the way around.

The main drive to the house was flanked on one side by a large outdoor riding ring and on the other by a covered arena of equal size. Four oak-sided 12-stall barns and an indoor pool/gymnasium building were positioned on the perimeter like spokes on a wheel, and past the barns were 500 acres of paddocks, pastures and forest. Green enameled metal roofs gleamed atop each building.

The Grand Matriarch of the Parker family had established the center two generations ago. Old money made years before from a once booming tobacco operation now rested in a well-invested endowment that provided for the equestrian center and its heiress, Katherine Leigh Parker - Kate to her many friends.

Although the task of running the facility fit her perfectly, the role of rich heiress wasn't exactly descriptive of Kate. Age and loose gray curls that now ringed her tanned face and electric blue eyes now softened her demeanor. But her deep, sometimes booming voice and a wild youth had loosened more than one rafter at the local country club in her younger days.

Still a formidable figure with an equestrian's grace and erect posture, the once muscular shoulders of her tall frame are now, like her waist, slightly more padded and softened with age.

Today, sitting behind the steering wheel of her gray golf cart, those usually smiling blue eyes were serious as they scanned the compound. She sighed, soaking up the good weather and the tranquility of the moment. The smell of freshly mown pastures and the nickering of contented horses as they drowsed in the sun were as close to heaven as Kate could imagine.

But as her eyes settled on the Creek Barn, her mind turned back to the task before her.

Well, here we go. So much for peace and quiet. I guess I can't wait any longer to spring this on Skyler.

Kate pressed on the accelerator and guided the cart toward the barn.


Skyler's strong hands massaged oil into the saddle to soften it. The leather's earthy aroma mingled with the scent of freshly baled hay in the barn's loft.

The horses had been fed, exercised and turned out for the day. It would be several hours before the students got out of school and showed up for lessons.

Skyler savored the solitude.

Cleaning the tack was her time for thinking. A wall full of glistening bridles and saddles was a testament to her many hours of reflection. That is, when she felt like thinking. Sometimes she just felt like polishing and not thinking at all.

Skyler's revelry was interrupted when Kate's figure filled the doorway.

"Sky, are you going to spend your life hiding in here and polishing tack? I don't know why you just don't delegate that to the barn help," Kate admonished.

"Oh, hi Kate." Skyler flashed a smile that showed white against her tanned face. "It keeps me out of trouble."

She shrugged a shoulder up to wipe the sweat that trickled past her temple with the sleeve of her green Polo shirt. Her sun-streaked blonde locks fell over her forehead and trailed down her neck in a boyishly sexy wind-blown look. Extending the brown breech-covered legs of her slim, six-foot tall frame, Skyler arched her back to stretch stiff muscles. "Besides, I love the smell and feel of the leather."

Kate's shoulders shook with a deep chuckle.

"Well, you can come out now. The ladies have all gone. And I won't tell them how you feel about leather. That would drive some of them crazy," she teased.

Skyler mouth curled in a slight smile. "I was just trying to soften up this new saddle."

Her dodge was wasted on her old friend. Kate knew her too well.

"You were hiding from Alexandra. Despite the fact that she's married and a little too obvious about her infatuation with you, a few pointers from you could turn her into a pretty good rider."

A vision of Alexandra's head tossed back, her chest heaving as she rode hard against Skyler's slickened thigh flashed across the horse trainer's thoughts.

Kate arched an eyebrow at the smirk her lecture brought to Skyler's face.

"Or maybe you've already had a ride with her."

Skyler shrugged an arrogant shoulder at Kate. "Now Kate, you know I don't kiss and tell. I can't help it if they blab it around."

Kate grinned as she shook her head.

"Damn it, Sky! I wish I had bedded half as many rich women as you have when I was your age."

Skyler's smirk disappeared. There was one rich woman she should have stayed away from. The one who broke her heart.

"Yeah, well, that's just what landed me on your doorstep now, didn't it?" She threw the oil-soaked cloth in her hand into a nearby bucket of rags.

Kate's smile faded, too. God, Sky, are you ever going to stop bleeding over Sarah? Skyler was like a younger sister to Kate. She was one of the few who really knew the woman under that arrogant front. Skyler had been dealt too much hurt, too many times, at too young an age.

"I'm not complaining. I got a top trainer out of the deal." She said softly. Skyler stared at the ground, refusing to meet Kate's eyes.

"If you would quit fooling around with the married ones and take the time to get to know someone, you may just find one who can give you more than a roll in the sheets," Kate offered, knowing her advice would be ignored.

Skyler shrugged and fixed her eyes on the bridle in her hand. "Maybe a roll in the sheets is all I have left to give, Kate."

Kate's heart ached for her young friend. Oh, Sky, you have so much to offer someone special. How do we get you back up on this horse again? "I know that's not true, Sky. Aren't you ever going to get over Sarah?"

Skyler scowled and ignored the question. It had been nearly two years, but the thought of Sarah still stabbed through her like sharp dagger. "That's all I want to give. And that is the truth."

Skyler drew a deep breath to push back the pain before standing to hang the gleaming bridle on the wall. Time to change the subject.

"Well, all done here. I think I'll check that fencing on the south side. One of the boarders said they saw a broken board near the oak grove."

"Not so fast," Kate stopped her. "I came down here to tell you that we've got a new horse coming in for your barn, and they should be here any time now. It's a stallion, so I want you around to help out if he's a handful."

"Whose horse is it?"

"It belongs to Jessica Black."

"Jessica Black? Is she going to be training here or just putting her stallion in training?" Geez, just what I need…another spoiled debutante to deal with.

The odd tone in Skyler's voice made Kate stare at her friend.

"You've got a problem with Jessica?" Kate took a step toward Skyler, hands clinched at her sides. "Don't tell me you …" Her blue eyes narrowed. "What have you done, Sky?"

Whoa, where did that come from, Kate? Skyler raised her hands in a surrender gesture and arched a slender eyebrow at the growled warning. "Nothing, Kate. I swear. I've never actually met her. I've just heard on the circuit that she's a real handful herself. Never mind her horse!"

Kate's expression relaxed, but wary blue eyes studied the tall trainer a moment before she spoke again.

"I've known Jess since she was a baby. Her mother and I .. well, we were once very close. The kid is my…my goddaughter. Jess is just very driven."

Kate rubbed her cheek, mulling the circumstances that were bringing Jessica under her wing for the first time since the young woman was a toddler.

"Her goal is to make the next Olympic team. And she was well on her way, too, until her horse slipped on the cross-country course, breaking his leg and her leg, too. Pretty badly. Her gelding was put down right there on the course and she's had two surgeries and six months on crutches. The stallion shipping in today is her first attempt to get back on the circuit. He's been campaigned by another rider and is in good enough shape to make the trials. But Jess has to get herself into shape and get to know her new horse. I've promised to help her."

Skyler chewed her lip and thought about what Kate said. "Yeah, well you go right ahead and do that. Just steer her clear of me. You know how well I tolerate pampered debutantes and prima donnas."

"Jess isn't like that, Sky." Kate's voice was firm. "And, I'm putting her in your barn because I want her to have the best trainer available."

Although the Parker Foundation owned the training center, a trainer supervised each barn, having full authority over the horses and riders assigned to them.

"And…" Kate waggled a stern finger in Skyler's direction. "I love you old friend, but I'm just here to warn you that this one won't be another notch on your bedpost."

"Kate! I'm hurt!" Skyler said in mock indignation.

"Yeah, right. Remember who you are talking to," Kate grinned.

The older woman paused until Skyler's brown eyes looked into hers. "Really, Sky. I tend to be protective of Jess. She - and her mother - mean a lot to me. She's coming here to recover and break in this new stallion. I promised Laura I would take care of her kid."

Kate dropped her eyes to the ground and hesitated. How much should she reveal? "Jess' mother means a lot to me," she repeated softly.

It was a brief, but intimate glimpse into something Kate was keeping deep inside. The two old friends shifted uncomfortably in the quiet that hung in the air for a fleeting moment. Skyler knew Kate would say more only if she wanted, but she didn't push her friend. Kate didn't have to say anything more. Neither was good at baring their feelings. It was enough that she asked.

Carrying them back to more familiar ground, Skyler smiled and executed a mock bow, sweeping her arm in a conciliatory gesture. "Enough said. I'll be a perfect lady."

Kate threw her head back and laughed. "That I've got to see!"



Skyler leaned against the barn door frame as the big dually truck pulled a sleek aluminum gooseneck trailer around the circular drive that led to her barn. She made no move when the truck's driver and another man climbed out of the vehicle and surveyed the paddocks. Powerful hooves drummed an angry message from inside the trailer.

"Son of a bitch!" the driver cursed. "I'll be glad to be rid of that devil." He rubbed a fresh bandage on his forearm and glanced over at Skyler. "I'd watch him when you unload him, lady. He bites and means business when he does."

Skyler continued to lean against the barn, making no move to approach the trailer. "It's your job to unload him. He's not my insurance responsibility until he crosses the threshold of this barn," Skyler said with an amused smile.
He knew she was right, but he cursed her and that temperamental horse under his breath. The man motioned to his companion. "Come on, let's get rid of him as fast as we can."

Hooves drummed again as the two men opened the back of the trailer and cautiously stepped inside as Kate's golf cart pulled up beside the trailer.

"This must be Rampage. Jess said he was spirited," Kate mused.

"Spirited wasn't exactly what the hauler called him," Skyler smirked.

The trailer suddenly rocked and one man stumbled down the ramp, back peddling to get out of the way as the large Hanoverian charged headfirst from the trailer with teeth bared and the man in his sights. The driver yanked on the horse's lead line as the stallion dragged him across the yard, oblivious to the stud chain digging into the top of his nose.

A white Ford Explorer hurdled down the driveway and barely skidded to a stop before a dark-haired young woman sprang from the driver's side. Ice blue eyes quickly assessed the situation as she limped over to the struggling man and grabbed the lead line. She elbowed the man in the ribs to push him away and spoke to the frantic horse in a quiet, soothing voice that didn't match her quick actions or the angry eyes. She turned him in tight circles until he calmed and finally stood still, snorting his displeasure.

The hauler spat on the ground. "Got some paperwork you have to sign showing that I delivered him sound." He grabbed a clipboard from truck's seat and walked quickly toward her.

Rampage squealed, bared his teeth and aimed for the nearest flesh - Jessica's arm. She dodged his open mouth and grabbed his nose, rubbing it hard.

The surprised stallion rolled wide eyes at her and withdrew his head. "Still playing that game, huh," Jess chuckled at him. "I've got your number, big boy, and I don't intimidate that easily."

She signed the paperwork quickly and shoved it back at him. "I thought I told you to wait until I got here to unload him," she growled at the hauler.

"I wanted him out before he hurt himself and tore up my trailer. You've got your work cut out for you there, lady," the man said before he made a hasty retreat. "Good luck," he threw back over his shoulder.

Jessica walked the big stallion, watching his legs for any signs of lameness. "What does he know, big guy. Dumb jerk got you all worked up," she muttered to the restless stallion.

"You never have been one to take the easy way," Kate smiled as she walked cautiously toward the girl and horse.

"Kate! It's so great to see you." Jessica stepped forward and gave her old friend a brilliant smile and a lingering hug. As she stepped back, Rampage reached quickly for a nip at her arm, but she dodged him without turning her head, grabbed his nose again and rubbed hard.

"I hope he's a quick study or you're going to rub all the hair off his nose before he quits biting," Kate laughed.

"He'll learn," Jessica replied. Her pale eyes danced. "You should see him move, Kate. I'll admit he's greener than I would usually take on and I prefer geldings, but he's got more potential than I've ever seen in a horse." Her excited words tumbled out. "He's been trained for advanced dressage, and ignoring the fact that this guy loves to jump was their first mistake. Their second mistake was the guy who was riding him didn't understand him and tried to muscle Rampage. They racked up some good points on the circuit this year, but I think I can get more out of this horse with a different approach."


"Whoa, we'll see," Kate chuckled at her young charge's enthusiasm. "How about you, kid? How's that leg coming?"

Jessica smiled ruefully, and absently rubbed her thigh.
"Yeah, well, it's OK. The therapists keep telling me to slow down, but I'm going to be ready for the East Coast Olympic Trials. That's why I'm here. You'll help me, won't you, Kate?"

The pleading look was one Kate had never been able to deny - not when she saw it on Jessica's face, or, many times, on her mother's.

"I'll do everything I can, honey, but I won't help you hurt yourself if your body just isn't physically ready," Kate admonished, eyeing the cane that had fallen on the ground when Jessica jumped from the vehicle. "Anyway, we've added a weight room and an indoor pool since you were here last so the riders can condition themselves outside the ring, too."

Jessica glanced around the riding center complex. It hasn't changed much since I was here long ago was that? Still feels like home. She gave Kate another hug, this time closing her eyes and pressing her cheek into the strong shoulder. Kate feels like home. "I'm so glad to be here," she said with a sigh. "A pool is great. Thanks. I've made arrangements for a physical therapist to visit me out here twice a week to help strengthen this leg."

Kate laid her cheek against Jessica's dark head. "Oh, honey, I missed you so much."

Kate was about to ask about Laura when a hideous scream erupted from the Explorer.

"Oh my God. What in world do you have in your truck?" Kate asked, looking toward the vehicle. "Oh, that's Peach. He comes with Rampage. How about grabbing the pet carrier and bring it in the barn. I'll get Rampage settled in a stall."

"Second stall on the left," Kate called over her shoulder as she slid the carrier from the back of the vehicle and hefted it with some effort. "Are you sure you only have one animal in this box?

"Yeah, just one. He's a really big cat," Jessica chuckled.

She turned the stallion toward the barn and studied the lean figure still slouched against the doorframe. One glance burned in her mind the muscular thighs above knee-high polished boots, a flat stomach, broad slim shoulders and wind-blown hair over dark, velvet eyes. Wonder who the hell that is?

Skyler was more obvious in her assessment. She smiled smugly at the quick, assessing glance she saw Jessica shoot her way. So she's checking me out, too, huh? She had been studying Jessica's athletic figure for several minutes now, and the young woman could feel Skyler's deliberate gaze linger over her slender five-foot, six-inch frame. The unusually pale blue eyes and raven black hair pulled back in a French braid was certainly a head-turner. I'll bet Kate's little girl has been around the barn a few times. I think I understand Kate's interest if her mother looks anything like this one.

As Jessica led the big bay past Skyler, the horse suddenly wheeled and snapped bared teeth in Skyler's direction. One second of hesitation and Skyler's sidestep would not have saved her skin from the sharp incisors. But the trainer was quick. Rampage threw his front foot out at her and squealed his anger. Jessica yanked his lead line hard to the side, spinning him back around and through the open stall door. Hooves rained against the oak boards of the stall. "Quick, bring Peach here."

Kate slid the pet carrier to Jessica and she pulled a huge orange, battle-scarred tom with one tattered ear from the box. She slid the stall door back just enough to shove the cat in with the agitated horse.

"He's going to kill that cat." The low, sultry voice sounded very close to Jessica's ear. Goose bumps raced along her arms and she turned to find herself staring at eyes the color of tarnished gold. She cocked an eyebrow at the self-assured woman.

"No, he won't."

They watched through the bars of the stall as the cat yowled like the horse was standing on his tail and the stallion stopped in mid-tantrum to sniff the demanding feline. The cat rubbed against the horse's legs and Rampage carefully turned so he could rub his nose against the cat's fur.

"Well, I'll be!" Kate exclaimed. "I've never seen a horse quiet down so quick. Peach? That cat looks more like he should be named Killer."

Jessica and Kate grinned at each other.

"Waste of time," came a disgusted mutter behind them. Jessica and Kate turned to find Skyler leaning nonchalantly against the opposite stall. The tall trainer shrugged at Kate's raised eyebrow.

"Well, you can't take that cat in the ring with you. I don't want that horse in my barn. He's dangerous," Skyler frowned at Jessica. I don't want you here either. I don't need complications in my life and you definitely could be a complication.

"Your barn?" challenged Jessica. "Geez, Kate. All this time I thought the center was owned by the Parker family." It had been a long drive, and her leg ached. Jessica's eyes narrowed at the thought that someone else seemed to be laying claim to Kate and the center that had been Jessica's infrequent refuge since childhood. Who was this arrogant woman?

Kate moved between Jessica and Skyler. Damn. Not a good start. I knew this would be tough getting these two hard heads on the same page.

"Oh, allow me to make the introductions. Jessica Black, this is Skyler Reese, your trainer. The best trainer on the farm."

"Skyler Reese …" Jessica said slowly, turning the name over in her mind. Well, I wondered what happened to you after that big scandal that made your name taboo around the circuit.

"Your reputation precedes you," was Jessica's ambiguous response.

The rider flinched as she watched the brown eyes turn hard. Kate shot her young charge a warning look.

Be nice, the older woman's eyes telegraphed.

OK, Kate, just for you.

"You and Conman were an awesome pair," she added to clarify her earlier statement. Now why did I say that? To spare her feelings? She certainly hasn't spared mine where Rampage is concerned.

"And your reputation precedes you," Skyler returned stiffly.

The trainer's face was unreadable. Just what have you heard about me, Sklyer Reese?

"He's not dangerous. He's just worked up because of those idiots who trailered him here today," Jessica defended.

Skyler stared at the rider for a moment. Jessica unconsciously squared her shoulders, raised her chin in a determined set, and returned an unflinching gaze.

Damn, she's cute. It would be easy to give in to this one. I bet she gets her way a lot. The trainer turned to Kate.

"This horse is dangerous. Get one of the other trainers to take him in another barn," she said flatly before turning and leaving the barn.

"What a bitch!" Jessica fumed.

"Whoa, now." Kate soothed. "I'll talk to Sky. She'll come around."

"Maybe you should put me with another trainer. I've got enough obstacles with my leg, a new horse and only months to prepare. I don't need a trainer I have to fight every step of the way."

"Skyler Reese is the best there is," Kate insisted. "She's the best trainer, you are the best rider and Rampage - if you are correct - has the potential to be the best horse on the circuit. We'll find a way for you all to work together."

Jessica fumed. Of all the arrogant, self-assured…

Kate gave Jessica's shoulder a little squeeze. "Trust me?" she pleaded.

She did trust Kate. She had trusted those merry blue eyes and bear-like hug since she was small child. Jessica gave the older woman a small smile. "OK, Kate. You've never let me down before."

Kate breathed a sigh of relief. One down, one to go.

"And I won't this time. I'm always right. You'll see."


Kate found Skyler at the outdoor ring, leaning against the wood rail fencing and watching four young riders post around the ring. She loved watching Skyler work with the kids. It was the only time the guarded trainer dropped her nonchalant attitude and let her warmth and enthusiasm show.

Kate had known Skyler since the pre-teen and twin brother were brought there by a teacher-friend of Kate's mother. The teacher's suspicions that the two were being abused at home were confirmed when Skyler fainted at school one day. A distraught Douglas had confessed, despite his sister's icy glare telling him not to trust the adults. Skyler had interceded and taken a beating from their father that was meant for Douglas. She had bloody welts across her back and a broken wrist.

The pair had stayed with the Parkers off and on for the rest of their teen years. When the father would come home from his oilrig job, the twins would stay with the Parkers.

Except for looks, the twins were night and day. The self-confident Skyler was aggressive, risk-taking and volatile. The quiet, awkward Douglas had a genius I.Q. He tutored his sister patiently through the more complicated subjects, and she protected him from the inevitable teasing from other children.

Kate was in her early 30s, and the young Skyler became her constant shadow at the farm. Horses were truly Skyler's calling. She was a natural rider and intuitive trainer. She seemed to find the beasts easier to relate to than people - unless they were children - and the horses she schooled responded to her in the same way.

"Move with the horse, Jamie," Skyler called to a tow-headed 12-year-old. "You look like a piston bouncing up and down. This is a ballet, a dance. Let the horse's movement move you. Relax."

The girl's shoulders visibly relaxed and she closed her eyes to shut out everything but the movement of the sorrel Thoroughbred mare she was riding.

"That's right. Concentrate on relaxing and feeling her movement," the trainer instructed.

A dark-haired boy trotted past on a dun Quarter horse. "Post, Charlie. You can post in a western saddle. You can sit a jog, but I want you to post a fast trot," Skyler called.

The trainer shook her head as a pig-tailed girl wrestled with a stubborn Welsh pony. She trotted him over to the trainer. "Sky, I can't get Bo to pick up his right lead. He's being really nasty today. Why can't I saddle Sally instead?"

The trainer shook her head firmly. "No, you can't saddle Sally. We know you can handle Sally, but it's time for you to learn to make a horse mind who doesn't automatically do everything you ask him," she admonished the girl. "Let me up on him for a moment."

The girl dismounted and turned the big pony over to the trainer. Skyler leapt easily into the English saddle and reined the pony in the other direction. The stubborn horse laid his ears back and started off in a canter, leading with his left front leg when he should be leading off with his right leg.

Skyler stopped him, made him back up a few steps and start off again. When the pony persisted in leading with the left leg, she stopped him again and repeated the backing, the restarting. Finally, the pony gave in to her experienced hands and led off with the proper leg. Skyler turned in the opposite direction, let him pick up his left lead once around the ring, then reversed back to the right. The pony neatly picked up his right lead, and the trainer cantered him back over to the girl. "He should be OK now," she told the girl. "He knows what to do. Did you see what I did to make him behave?"

The girl nodded, her expression determined. "I can do it now," she said.

"Good, girl!" Skyler hopped down and helped the girl mount the horse again.

"Looks like this group is coming along fine," Kate reflected. "You're great with the kids, Sky, even though I thought I'd have to hog-tie you to get you to do this."

Kate paid her trainers well and provided them with state of the art equipment. The only thing she - and the center - demanded of them was that in addition to the top equestrians they coached and horses they trained, they each were assigned several youngsters to teach from beginning riding to advanced technique. The program was funded by the center's endowment and youngsters were chosen through an application process.

They were most often middle class to poor. Some had minor juvenile records and most came with troubled histories. The program was free, but the kids were expected to work around the barns, mucking stalls, feeding horses and cleaning tack to build their character as well as their equestrian skills.

"Yeah, I know," Skyler smirked. "I guess too many of them remind me of myself at that age. Besides, you can never have enough little grunts around to muck stalls."

"Right, tough stuff. And that's why the kids all love you," Kate teased.

Skyler knew she owed Kate a lot. She felt bad about her reaction to Jessica's horse. But, damn it, that horse could hurt the kids who work at my barn. No debutante is worth having a kid hurt.

Never the less, the easy banter between friends was their indirect way of communicating "no hard feelings" from the earlier confrontation.

"Hey, I don't need you spreading rumors about how tender-hearted I am. It will ruin my reputation."

"Yeah, well you did a pretty good job upholding your reputation as a hard ass with Jessica earlier."

Skyler rubbed the toe of her boot in the dirt for a moment before looking up at Kate.

"Look, Kate. Do you think that stallion is safe to have around these kids? What would happen if he bit a plug out of one of them and a parent sued the center?"

"Every day these kids ride, we take the risk of an accident. The center is well insured and I know you will take every precaution to protect the kids."

Skyler's jaw worked. Why can't Kate see this isn't a good idea?

"I want to help Jessica, Sky. She was a lonely, insecure kid, too, when her mom and I lived together. She grabbed on to me like a life raft. Do this for me, please?"

The trainer hesitated. Lived together, huh. You never talked about that, Kate. This is important to you.

Skyler rolled her eyes as her final act of rebellion in this matter. "Damn it, Kate. You know I can't say no to you. I owe you as much as you seem to feel you owe Jessica."

Kate's firm blue gaze held Skyler's for a long moment. OK. Time to call in a marker.

"Good. Then I'll play that card if I have must to get my way on this one thing."

Skyler arched a questioning eyebrow at her friend. Kate had never in any way insinuated that Skyler owed the Parkers for anything they had done for her or Douglas. This must really be important to you, Kate.

"I'll think about it," the trainer conceded.

Kate stared pointedly at Skyler. "I'll count on it."


Jessica finished putting her things away in a guest room of Kate's huge house. There were five bedrooms, but only Kate's and one other was occupied at the moment.

A dark head that peeked around the door brought a quick smile to Jessica's face. Ah, that would be the other occupant of the house. The shy, 8-year-old boy's eyes widened when he saw he had been detected.
"You must be Charlie," Jessica chuckled.

"Hi," came the shy response.

"Come on in. I'm Jessica. I was just getting unpacked," Jess offered.

"Are you alone, too?" he asked as he sidled cautiously into the room.

"Alone?" Jessica's blue eyes grew puzzled.

Charlie had been a student at the center for several years, Kate had told her, while his single mother battled breast cancer. She lost that battle a few weeks ago, and Charlie had come to stay at Cherokee Falls until the relatives could determine his fate. "Oh, no, Charlie. I'm not alone," Jessica said, realizing the boy was referring to his reason for staying with Kate.

"My mom lives in Atlanta. But since I never had a daddy, Kate has been like a sort of second mom for me. I guess we're both sort of strays that have ended up on Kate's doorstep."

The boy's reticence vanished. He hopped up onto the bed and peeked into the suitcase Jessica was unpacking.

"Yeah, Kate's great. I wish I could stay here forever. I don't want to go away with some relative I don't even know." The boy frowned thoughtfully, then brightened. "Kate said that Trekker could be my horse while I'm here and nobody but me could ride him!"

"Wow! That's great. Maybe we could take a trail ride together while we're both here."

"That would be cool! I can show you the trails." The boy jumped down from the bed and raced out of the room, but quickly reappeared. "Oh, Kate asked me to tell you that supper is at seven."

Jessica laughed as the youngster's footsteps pounded down the stairs. "Well, at least someone around here is going to make my stay entertaining."

She put the last of her clothes away and shoved the suitcase in the closet. Her leg ached and she reached for the pain pills she had been trying to avoid all day. I'll just take one, she thought. Better go see what's up with Rampage. Skyler may be having him moved to another barn. She hesitated and then dropped a second pain pill into her pocket.

She limped badly as she headed for the door where she stopped again. Letting out a deep sigh, she turned around and picked up the cane that was propped next to her bed. I hate for people to see me using this thing, she thought angrily, but I'm never going to make it all the way to the barn without it.

Jessica leaned heavily on the cane, wishing the pain pill would kick in quickly as she trudged down the long drive to the barn.

Her eyes adjusted slowly from the bright sunlight to the cool, dim interior of the cavernous building. A wide dirt hallway was lined with roomy, twelve-by-twelve stalls that had eight-foot tall walls, four feet of rough-cut oak at the bottom and four feet of vertical iron bars at the top. The neatly raked, dirt hallway was empty except for a young girl carrying a muck rake and bucket. Her back was turned toward Jessica as she reached up to lift the latch to slide back the door on Rampage's stall door.

"NO!" Jessica yelled and flung herself forward, extending her cane to close the distance between her and the door to slide it shut just as the horse squealed and charged toward the opening.

Jamie threw her hands in front of her face and crumpled into a sobbing heap on the barn floor.

The close call left Jessica's heart pounding. The stallion whirled and drummed his hooves against the stall door. Jessica's leg really hurt now from the leap she had made to reach the stall door, and Jamie's wails tore at her ears.

Skyler charged out of the tack room and body-slammed Jessica against the stall. "What did you do," she growled through clenched teeth. The fury in the taller women's face was startling.

Jessica's mouth worked, but no words came forth as hard, dark eyes pinned her against the rough boards. "Did you hit her with that cane?" Skyler demanded, shaking with anger.

"N-no! I just used it to push the stall door shut because I couldn't get to it quick enough," Jessica said shakily. She stared at Jamie, puzzled by the girl's hysterics.

"It's OK, Jamie." Skyler's face and voice softened as she turned to scoop the girl into her arms. "It's OK. You didn't do anything wrong. I should have told you not to go in that stall." She shot another withering look at Jessica. "This lady will clean that stall herself. It's her ill-mannered horse."

Jessica watched speechless as the tall woman guided the girl upstairs to the trainer's apartment above the barn. After a few moments, she looked around the barn to gather herself.

What just happened here? Jess rubbed her aching leg and snorted to herself. Well, I guess it was just too much trouble to thank me for saving the kid's life, and her butt because she didn't tell the kids to leave that stall alone.

She pulled a chair into Rampage's stall, placing it in the corner before sliding the stall door shut again and carefully lowering herself into it. She wedged the cane against the chair to use as a prop on which to straighten and rest the painful limb.

The big stallion shifted nervously and snorted at the human in his stall. Her confidence puzzled him. He pinned his ears and shook his head. She didn't seem to notice.

Shifting to try and find a comfortable position, Jessica reached into her pocket and popped the second pain pill into her mouth. She closed her eyes and willed her fuming temper to cool as she worked to push the incident to the back of her mind. She didn't need the stallion to pick up on her agitation.

"You're not so tough, big guy," she told him.

The stallion's ears relaxed a little. He wasn't sure about this person. He reached down and nudged his feline friend, but Peach only batted at the big nose and snuggled down into the hay for a catnap.

Jessica pulled a paperback book from her back pocket, and studied the Hanoverian. He shifted his white stockinged feet and stared at her curiously with large liquid brown eyes that flanked the blaze of white splitting his face.

"How's it going, handsome?" she asked him. She watched the horse again snuffle the fur of his feline friend curled up in the pile of hay that was tonight's dinner. "This is where we get to know each other better, boy. I hope you like Black Beauty. " She flipped through the opening pages, then settled back. "Chapter one…"

The horse's ears flicked back and fourth as he listened to the melodious inflections of his new mistress' voice.


The girl's sobs slowed to hiccups as Skyler sat her on the couch and pulled her close to rub comforting circles along her back. "It's OK, Jamie. What happened? Did she hit you or just scare you."

"No, she didn't hit (hic) hit me," Jamie said softly. Shame-faced, she looked down at her hands. "I'm OK now. It's no big deal."

She pulled away from Skyler's hug and stood up. "I'll just go finish my work."

Skyler was quiet as Jamie stood angrily wiping the tears from her cheeks.

"It is a big deal, Jamie. Kids don't just fall apart like that from being startled." Her eyes narrowed and her voice softened. "Did you think she was going to hit you?"

Jamie shrugged, and then nodded, staring down at her feet and wringing her hands.

"Jamie, come here a second."

Terrified eyes glanced toward the door, calculating the distance to escape.

Skyler spoke more softly.

"Come on, Jamie. I won't hurt you." She held out her hand and the youngster reached tentatively for it. Skyler drew her closer and turned her around. She lifted the girl's shirt and saw the old bruises crisscrossing her thin back. "Jesus Christ! I should have realized it earlier."

Jamie shrank away from Skyler's soft touch. "It's nothing. I just fell down." The girl struggled to hold back the tears that again began to fill her eyes.

"It is something, Jamie. And you didn't fall down. I know. I grew up dodging my father when he would fly into rages. My teachers thought I was the most accident prone child around because I always had bruises."

Jamie stared at the floor, unable to meet her mentor's eyes.

"When I was 10, my father twisted my arm so hard it broke my wrist. That's when the social work people stepped in and I ended up here with Kate's mom. I know what it feels like to be too embarrassed to let anyone know."

Skyler struggled with the anger she felt, knowing someone had beaten this gentle, earnest young girl.

"I know what it feels like to always blame yourself, Jamie. Like it really could be your fault because an adult is using you - a kid - for a punching bag."

"Don't tell anyone," Jamie whispered. Her voice grew plaintive. "Dad isn't home much because he drives a truck and goes away weeks at a time. Mom gets lonely and when she starts drinking … well, I do stuff that makes her mad. Please, Skyler, don't tell anyone."

The trainer was surprised as the Jamie's words sunk in. "Your mom does this to you? Does your dad know what goes on when he's not around?"

"No, he loves Mom. She's good to both of us when he's at home. I swear she is."

Every fiber in her body wanted to rescue and protect this child from further harm. But Skyler knew first hand the permanent pain of breaking up a family, no matter how dysfunctional they were. The tall woman pressed her lips together thoughtfully.

"OK, Jamie. I'll stay quiet for now. But promise me that you will call me if you ever need help."

She scribbled a number on a small piece of paper and tucked it in the girl's pocket. "This is my cell phone number so you should always be able to get me. I don't give this number to many people, but I want you call me any time, day or night, if you need help. You understand?"

Jamie sniffed and nodded. "Thanks, Sky."

"You OK now?"

"I'm OK. I better get the rest of my work done." The girl wiped her nose on her sleeve. Skyler offered a box of tissues from the table and a tentative smile crossed Jamie's face as she took a few.

But the smile was fleeting. "Hey, Sky? Don't tell any of the other kids. My mom's not really a bad person. It's just hard for her when Dad's not around."

Skyler's heart ached at Jamie's plea on her mother's behalf. The capacity that some children had for forgiveness never failed to amaze her. Why can't I forgive half that easily?

"OK, Jamie. That goes for what I told you about my dad hitting me. This is just between you and me." The youngster looked relieved and nodded. The sharing of secrets reassured her that Skyler understood.

"But stay away from that bay stallion," Skyler warned sternly.

"I will." Jamie put her hand on the doorknob, but turned again to Skyler. "I guess that lady did save me from getting from run over by that horse. You really yelled at her."

Skyler cocked an eyebrow at the youngster's gentle admonishment. Then she nodded slowly.

"Yeah, I guess I did. I'll make it right with her. Don't you worry about it."


Skyler sat in her loft apartment for a while, contemplating her promise to Jamie. Should I tell Kate anyway and risk losing Jamie's trust? She absently rubbed her left wrist as visions of her drunk and angry father's face surfaced in her mind. These were images she'd worked hard to lock away.


When Skyler finally headed downstairs and emerged from the staircase, four kids silently scrambled from where they were all squatting beside the oak door of Rampage's stall.

The trainer's eyes narrowed. What were they doing by that horse's stall? The little scamps are supposed to be doing barn chores.

She walked down the barn aisle toward the murmuring sound coming from Rampage's stall. Ah, they were eavesdropping. She didn't see anyone, but could hear Jessica's voice as she read to Rampage. Skyler smiled to herself.

She turned to walk quietly away, but Rampage's head jerked up and the stallion snorted a challenge. Jessica's head popped up over the solid lower half of the stall and she peered through the iron bars.

"Oh, it's you," Jessica said with an irritated frown. "I guess you've come to move us to another barn."

"You guess wrong," Skyler said, smiling slightly and hesitating before clearing her throat. OK. I can do this. I promised Jamie. I promised Kate. She stared at the toe of her boot as she rubbed it in the dirt a few times. Finally she looked up into the palest blue eyes she'd ever seen. They were more like white clouds swirling in a blue sky.

"And I was wrong," she said at last.

"About Rampage?" Jessica frowned doubtfully.

"No, about you. I shouldn't have yelled at you without finding out what really happened." This was harder than she thought. The rider stared at her but did not reply. It was unsettling to the trainer, the way those direct blue eyes seem to probe her innermost thoughts.

"I hope I didn't hurt you, throwing you against the stall like that." She studied her boot again. "Um, I, uh, I guess I'm just a little over protective of the kids around here."

So, the notorious heartbreaker and home-wrecker has a soft spot after all.

Skyler shifted from one foot to the other. She could see the suspicion in Jessica's eyes. She didn't know why, but it was important that this woman believe her.

"Please don't repeat this, but it seems Jamie was hysterical because she knows what it feels like to be hit. Your raised cane just triggered a terror reflex."

"You mean…oh, no! That's awful. I would have never guessed." Jessica's irritation dissolved and her blue eyes clouded with concern. She stepped closer to the trainer, her word soft with concern. "I am so, so sorry."

The women stared into each other's eyes, a mutual foe and genuine concern bonding them together for a brief moment.

Skyler cleared her throat again. "So, it was really my fault for not already posting a warning against entering that stall."

Jessica lifted one eyebrow in surprise. She stared into serious brown ones for a moment. An apology? This doesn't seem to be the person the circuit is still telling stories about. "I'm just glad nobody was hurt," the rider said slowly.

Skyler pulled her gaze from those magnetic eyes and struggled to regain the upper hand. She cleared her throat again and averted her eyes to break the connection. Defenses slipped solidly back in place.

"Well, you still have to clean his stall. I can't trust him around the kids."

Jessica's irritated frown returned. There's that annoying arrogance again. "I always insist on taking care of my own horse," she said brusquely.

Skyler nodded and started to leave. It had felt good there for a minute between them. But the moment was gone.

She turned quickly to speak again and caught Jessica checking out the fit of the trainer's full seat riding breeches.

Hmm. I've seen that look a hundred times before. She's not really any different than the others, the trainer told herself. Those debutantees are worse than construction workers about checking out fresh meat, and they aren't used to being told no. Don't even go there, Sky.You certainly don't want Kate chasing you with a shotgun.

Jessica quickly looked away when she realized she had been caught, and she felt her cheeks blush. She took only a split second to gather her wits and send a haughty stare into the brown eyes that twinkled with the smirk creeping across Skyler's face.

But something didn't feel right. The sense of power Skyler usually felt when she saw one ripe for reeling in wasn't there. She studied the challenge in the pale blue eyes and the defensive stance as the rider tried to hide her need to lean on the cane. What she saw was a lot of pain, and a lot of heart.

Aw, shit! I am getting old …taking in every stray puppy Kate drags in my barn.

But her smirk faded. She knew that wasn't true. This woman was a champion. She had seen it in a few horses. She had never seen it so clearly in a rider. She was finding it impossible to think of this woman like all the others.

"Oh, yeah," Skyler said softly. "Con's favorite book was ‘Misty of Chincoteague.' I read it to him many times."

Jessica stared after the retreating figure. She must mean Con Man, the gray gelding she rode to a gold medal. Wow! I wonder what it feels like to win a gold medal.

Jessica sighed and sat back down in the chair. She looked over at Rampage. The big bay stared back as he munched his hay.

Man, have we got a lot of work to do in the next few months.

Chapter 2


The sun was not yet up when Jessica was working on the last set in the weight lifting part of her physical therapy. But her thoughts weren't on the exercises. They were on the discussion she had overheard between Kate and Skyler after they thought she'd gone to bed.

You may be right about Jessica having the skill and the heart to do this, Kate, but I don't think that knee is ready to hold up to the kind of training we'll need to do.
I'm just asking you to give her your best, Sky. We'll let her tell us if the knee is holding up.

I don't know, Kate. But if you think your debutantee can take it, I'll put her through the training she'll need to win. Just don't blame me if she falls short. I'm not a miracle worker.

Your best, Sky. I want your best and nothing short of it.

"I'll … show… her… royal… highness. Arrogant…son…of …a …bitch! She thinks … she is...God's gift to women…and horses."

Besides breaking her femur bone in the accident, she had twisted her knee so severely that she had torn most of the ligaments. The anterior cruciate ligament, one of two ligaments that provide the stability to the knee, was so damaged that a new ACL had to be fashioned from her patellar tendon and grafted into her knee. The break in her femur had taken longer to heal, but was solid now. But while the ligament had initially begun to heal quickly, it still remained painful as the rider rushed her return to strenuous activity.

Sweat ran down her face as she concentrated to block out the pain when she extended her knee against the tension of the leg machine. Done! Next was twenty minutes in the hot tub beside the pool to loosen up the muscles she just worked, 15 minutes icing the knee against swelling, and then down to the barn to saddle Rampage.

The Olympic-sized swimming pool sat under a glass dome adjacent to a fully equipped gym and massage facilities. Hmm. I wonder if Kate has a part-time masseuse, or if they just come here by appointment.

She hobbled out to the main room and dipped her fingers into the Jacuzzi to test the temperature. Just right. She looked around for her gym bag.

Oh, crap! I forgot to bring my suit. No way I'm walking all the way to the house to get it. She glanced around. The farm remained dark except for a few lights in the barns that probably were left on over night.

Oh well, I'm sure nobody is going to come up this time of the morning. I'll only be here 20 minutes. If I hear someone come in, I'll grab a towel real quick.

She turned off the overhead lights and left only the pool lights burning. With this glass dome, it probably would be pretty easy to see me with the lights on, she thought. With them off, nobody will be tempted to come up and find out exactly who is up so early.

The water was very warm and she felt the tension begin to leave her body as she floated in the silence. Relax, Jess. Just relax. Think about Rampage. That's it. Don't think about her. Think about sailing over jumps. Think about a perfect dressage routine. Think about collecting that gold medal!

After a few moments, she flipped over onto her stomach, grasped the side of the hot tub and let her feet float out behind her to begin the aquatic stretching exercises her physical therapist had prescribed. She closed her eyes and concentrated hard, hearing only the splash of the water and the hum of the filtration system.

"Well, well. Sorry to interrupt…" She froze at closeness of the low, silky voice.

Geez, tell me it isn't her.

Smiling eyes greeted Jessica as she looked over her shoulder to put the voice with a face.

Skyler stood with her arms crossed over her chest, cocking her head to the side and grinning.

"Sure is early in the morning for skinny-dipping."

Jessica's face burned with embarrassment, then visibly cooled as she collected herself.

Damn, damn, damn. I always seem to be on the losing end with her. Jessica turned away as her mind raced. She needed to get the upper hand on this woman just once. OK, two can play at this game. Let's see who's really holding the high cards.

She turned back to the trainer and pale eyes locked onto Skyler's. Her gaze never wavered as she pulled herself up on the other side of the Jacuzzi and stood naked.

The brown eyes widened for a moment and struggled not to break the gaze and look down as the dark-haired woman slowly moved in Skyler's direction.

Jessica smiled at Skyler's discomfort.

She walked deliberately to the trainer. Skyler's eyes flickered, and for an ever so brief second, dropped to take in the other woman's graceful body. The image of the feminine, yet well muscled frame burned into the trainer's brain.

Jessica stopped only when her face was inches from Skyler's.

Skyler's heart beat wildly and the blush creeping up her neck warmed her ears.

Oh god, those lips. Stop it, Sky. Remember what Kate said. You are her trainer. You never get involved with your students. You've seen beautiful women before. This is just another one. Go pick a different one from the herd.

Her brain was listening, but her ovaries were doing a dance that was shooting hot messages to her clitoris. She shifted her stance in a futile effort to relieve the building pressure between her legs.

Ice blue eyes looked deeply into hers as Jessica leaned toward the taller woman. Skyler's lips reflexively parted as she watched Jessica 's pink tongue flick out to wet the full lips that began a slow, taunting smile.

Then, Jessica quickly reached for the towel hanging the on the chair next to Skyler and stepped back to wrap it around her glistening body.

Need oxygen! Skyler's brain screamed. The trainer sucked in a quick breath. It was her turn to blush as she struggled to appear nonchalant.

"I, uh, wanted to let you know I fed Rampage a light breakfast."

Jessica looked at her to continue, raising a questioning eyebrow while Skyler's eyes traveled down to the rider's sculpted shoulders and where the soft swell of Jessica's breasts disappeared under the thick towel.

"Uh, s-so he should be OK to work after you come, uh, come to my office to go over his training schedule." Skyler's voice was hoarse. She felt the heat rise from her body as she worked to cool her senses and refocus her mind.

Amused by the effect she obviously was having on the usually cocky trainer, Jessica pulled the ends of the towel loose and brushed them across her erect nipples, wiping the droplets of water from them. Skyler's eyes followed her movements for a split second before snapping back up to safer territory.

"I want to see you, uh, work, uh, the stallion on dressage this morning and on the jumps after lunch."

"I'll be down as soon as I get dressed," Jessica replied casually. "I just have to ice my knee for a bit before I can dress." The rider nonchalantly turned toward the shower room.

Skyler stood staring down at the Jacuzzi. Images of a naked Jessica floated through her mind.

"I said I'll be right down," Jessica repeated. An amused smile played on her lips. Not so cocky now, are you?

"Oh, right." Skyler gulped a deep breath to regain her composure, then turned on a booted heel and exited with long, smooth strides.

Yep, the barn stories are right, the trainer thought. You're going to be a handful.



Skyler's boots crunched in the sand as she headed for the refuge of Creek Barn's office. She didn't like anyone woman getting the upper hand on her.

Damn debutantee. I've seen plenty of breasts before. Maybe I should tell Kate her innocent little godchild is really a wanton vixen. I can't believe I stood there and stuttered like a teenager.

Skyler didn't like feeling like she wasn't in control, and this is what that felt like…free falling with nothing to grasp on to. The heat rising up from her collar and the throbbing between her legs irritated her.

I just need to get laid, that's what. Too many nights in the barn lately.

Her eyes followed the headlights that were traveling up the main drive.

Alex! Right! Coming in early to braid up Shoshana before your lesson. Maybe it's time to do something about this so I can keep my mind on my work, Skyler rationalized. Oh, yeah. A quick side trip to my apartment and I'll give you something you'll never forget.

A dark leer grew on the frustrated trainer's face as she hurried on to the barn. Time to head back on to more familiar ground.


The full hips of the auburn-haired woman swayed as she pulled the comb through the mane of the sorrel Thoroughbred.

Oh, yeah, this is going to be so good. Skyler unconsciously licked her lips in anticipation and moved in on her prey. She walked quietly up behind the smaller woman.

"I had such a hard on when I woke up this morning, because my pillows still smell like sex from your visit the other afternoon."

Alexandra froze at a sultry voice purring in her ear. A long, warm, muscled body pressed her against the horse she was grooming as firm hands grasped and massaged her buttocks. The low voice continued as the hands traveled around her body to caress her breasts.

"So I was thinking of taking matters in my own hand, when I remembered the culprit who was tormenting me was probably downstairs." The hands pulled the shirttail from the tailored jeans the shorter woman wore. "And here you are, those luscious hips swaying back and forth, back and forth, inviting - no! Begging for a good fucking."

Alexandra's breath hitched. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She loved it when Skyler talked nasty. Did this woman know all her turn-ons?

Hot lips traveled down the back of her neck, and she tried to turn to intercept them with her own. But the trainer held her firm, grinding her lean hips against the fuller ones. God, Skyler was turned on. She needed control and Alex was one who loved to be controlled.

"I know what you need, Alex, and you are just what I need right now." The husky voice filled her with a warmth that already was concentrating between her legs.

Alex whimpered her agreement as Skyler's hands began to free the buttons on the shorter woman's jeans. She worked her long fingers toward the wetness that was soaking the crotch. Alexandra gasped as the trainer found her growing clit and stroked it once, twice.

"Oh, I just love how wet you get for me, Alex." She withdrew her fingers and leaned in so Alexandra could hear her licking the moisture from her hand. "And you taste so good."

Alexandra whimpered. "Oh god, please Sky…"

"How can I resist when you ask so nice, Alex." Skyler let her fingers trail back down to the woman's hips. She pulled Alex's hand around to her own crotch and let her feel the gift there. The hard bulge drew another gasp from the surprised woman.

Alexandra smiled. "Why, Skyler, I didn't know you cared so much," she sing-songed in low, silky tones.

Skyler thrust hard against her, growling. "You want it, don't you. Women like you dream about it, don't you. I'll bet your husband's pitiful little penis always leaves you wanting, doesn't it? But not me, Alex. I can give you as much as you want, as long as you want it."

"Oh, god, Sky. Let's go up to your apartment right now."

But the trainer held her firmly in place.

"No! Here! Now!"

Skyler's chest pressed against her back, pushing the shorter woman to bend over. The trainer's long arms reached around Alexandra's shoulders to take both of her hands and place them on the feed trough fastened in the corner of the stall. "Keep your hands there," she ordered.

She pulled the tight jeans down to reveal Alexandra's milkly white hips, and paused to run her hands over their softness.

"So, soft, Alex." She knelt to behold the dripping curls that thrust toward her as Alexandra moved to spread her legs as much as the pants around her ankles allowed. A quick lick drew a long groan from both women. "Sky, god, you make me so hot!"

"Tell me what you want." Another lick. Another gasp.

"Please fuck me, baby. Fuck me hard!"

The dark grin on the trainer's face grew as she stood and quickly slid her zipper open to free the long, flesh-colored dildo. It was a two-headed toy and the other end fit snuggly into her own dripping vagina. Her riding breeches held it tight against her throbbing clit. Skyler took the free end and rubbed it against Alexandra's moisture.

"I'll give you just what you want, baby. Open up for old Sky now."

Alexandra arched her back as the large dildo filled her. Skyler grinned at the other woman's wanting. These straight women have no shame. Skyler adjusted her stance for leverage and began slowly thrusting.

The trainer closed her eyes and let Alexandra's moans fill her ears. The woman pushed hard back against her as she quickened the pace.

"Oh, Sky, you feel so good. Harder, baby. Fuck me harder," Alexandra urged.

Skyler was in control. She loved being in control. The dildo rubbed her aching clit, and she struggled to hold down her orgasm as Alexandra's panting drove her to thrust harder and faster.

"Come for me, Alex," the trainer commanded, reaching around to stroke Alexandra's clit as she felt her own climax demanding release.

"Holy mother!" Alexandra stiffened and convulsed as Skyler held her up, pumping the dildo until the last spasms were milked from her own clit. When she finally stilled the motion, they panted together, still pressed butt to belly. Skyler withdrew slowly as Alexandra let out a low moan.

But it wasn't enough. Skyler dropped to her knees and began lapping up the cum covering Alexandra's sopping crotch. The woman danced on her toes, torn between the added pleasure and the torture of her sensitive, throbbing genitals.

Satisfied all was lapped up, Skyler took one last, long stroke and moved to a creamy haunch that she bit hard.

Alexandra whirled around to face her assailant.

"Jesus, Sky. How am I going to explain that at home?" She pulled her jeans back into place.

Skyler's low chuckle echoed in the stall. "Tell him the horse bit you. He won't know the difference."

"That's what I told him last time. He's going to make me buy a new horse. Christ, you didn't even kiss me," Alexandra complained, although being taken so abruptly and forcefully was her secret fantasy.

"You didn't ask to be kissed, sweetie," Skyler smirked. She zipped her breeches up, but left her shirttail out to hide the bulge on her way back upstairs to her apartment above the barn.

Then she paused and bent to brush a quick kiss across the other woman's pouting lips.

"Thank you, Alex. Your husband doesn't deserve you."

Alexandra grinned as she ran her fingers through her auburn locks. "Any time, stud."


Skyler quickly divested herself of the still slick equipment, dried her own soaked curls and carefully washed Alexandra's cum from her cheeks and nose. Damn, I love a woman who gets that wet. A quick glance at her watch caused her to make a fast pass over her teeth with the toothbrush, then hurry downstairs.

The trainer whistled softly to herself as she made her way down the center aisle of the barn, pausing to throw a wink at Alexandra as she passed Shoshanna's stall. Alexandra blew a kiss at her, and then went back to braiding the Thoroughbred's mane.

The office door was open, but Jessica leaned against the outside of the doorway, toned arms folded over her chest and a scowl on her face.

Skyler quickly shut out the image of the naked rider that threatened to invade her thoughts, concentrating instead of the milky white buttocks that moments before were slapping against her own tanned hips. Yeah, that works. She smiled smugly at the confirmation she had effectively beaten the control this blue-eyed rider seemed to have over her.

"Ready to plan out some training schedules?" the trainer smiled.

"If it's not an inconvenient time for you," Jessica snapped.

Skyler stopped before doorway and raised a slim eyebrow at the rider. But before she could reply, the trainer felt Alexandra's hand brush across the seat of her riding breeches as the woman gently insinuated herself between Skyler and Jessica.

"Just got to get some more rubbers, um, rubber bands for Shoshanna's mane," the woman purred at Skyler.

Jessica's hard glare held Skyler's eyes, and Alexandra smiled at the rider. She had seen Jessica enter the barn during her and Skyler's little tryst. She had seen the way Skyler treated Jessica with a respect she rarely showed other woman. And she had gloated at the shock on the rider's face when she made sure her moans were loud enough to leave no doubt what was going on and send Kate's little pet in retreat.

She turned to Jessica. "Oh, honey. No time is inconvenient for EverReady here." She reached up to brush a fleeting caress across Skyler's cheek before disappearing into the office.

Skyler stared at her boots. She felt sort of sick, but wasn't sure why.

Normally, knowing she had added to her reputation by inadvertently having an impromptu witness would just add a little more swagger to her strut. But realizing Jessica may have seen enough to understand how she really treated women filled her with shame. It had never mattered to her before, but now for some reason, it mattered that this dark-haired beauty thought about her.

"See you later, sugar," Alexandra called as she breezed back through the office door and headed for her horse's stall.

Skyler glanced up at Jessica, and then looked quickly away. She couldn't meet the rider's eyes. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. This is what I wanted, isn't it? I wanted her to know how bad I can be so she won't flirt with me. I want her to know I'm bad news like everybody says. But what Skyler really wanted was this woman's respect.

Jessica watched a myriad of emotions swirl in the dark eyes of the trainer. A moment ago, she felt only disgust for what she considered a crass public display. But now she saw something in the trainer's face she hadn't expected. She saw pain, and self-loathing. It was as surprising as the stuttering, awkwardly cute reaction she had drawn from the usually self-assured trainer when she stepped out of the whirlpool.

"Let's get to work," Skyler said gruffly, ducking into the office while still refusing to meet the rider's gaze.

"O-o-ka-ay," Jessica said softly as paused, then followed the trainer.

The next hour was all business. They evaluated Rampage's strengths and weaknesses. Then they charted his training schedule for the upcoming months, right up to the competition. The challenge of the competition ahead fed their mutual need to test themselves and win. It was common ground that drew them together.

Skyler sighed. While Jessica studied the chart they had made for Rampage's training, Skyler studied the softly sculpted profile of the rider. She had never seen a more beautiful woman.

Forget it, Sky. She's just another one out of your reach. Just like Sarah was. You'll always just be a stray from a screwed up blue-collar family. The really sad thing is I don't need Kate to tell me I'm not good enough for her godchild. I already know that myself.

Jessica looked up from the training schedule to find the trainer scowling at the desktop, lost in thought. Skyler looked up when she felt Jessica's eyes on her, but quickly looked away from the rider's questioning gaze.

Skyler cleared her throat.

"Um, I feel like I owe you an apology or something, Jess," the trainer said gruffly. "I thought you'd be a while in the gym." She nervously rubbed at some dirt on her hand. "I guess you just found out my reputation around the barn is well earned. I'm not proud of it. That's just the way I am."

Jessica stared at Skyler. Something just didn't fit in this puzzle. This woman was on the surface arrogant and insufferable, but it was the infrequent breaks in that persona that intrigued Jessica. Kate saw something in this woman, enough to trust Jessica's career with her. But it was more than that. Jessica felt there was something solid and noble under all the bravado.

"I don't believe that's true, Sky," Jessica said softly. She reached out to still Skyler's fidgeting hands, but the trainer jerked away, her eyes refusing to meet the younger woman's gaze.

"Believe it," Skyler husked. She rose quickly from the desk and strode to the door, then paused. "But it's got nothing to do with my abilities as a trainer. My personal shortcomings aren't a factor in our professional arrangement," she said stiffly. Once again, she turned to the door. "See you at the indoor ring as soon as you get Rampage saddled," she growled over her shoulder as she left.




The morning dressage session at the indoor ring went smoothly enough. Rampage knew the routine; he and Jessica only needed to learn each other's signals. In spite of herself, Skyler was impressed with the stallion's presence and smooth gaits.

Rampage was initially nervous and danced impatiently. Jessica expertly quieted the horse and worked the reins until the big bay yielded to the bit and settled down to work.

The rider moved quickly to correct herself and the horse when they misread each other. The stallion began to relax as his confidence in his rider grew. Skyler watched silently as the horse and rider glided by, Jessica's full lips pressed together in concentration.

Not bad at all. I can see focus isn't going to be a problem.

They worked on the dressage patterns for well over an hour before Skyler waved Jessica in. "Let's give him a rest, then try him over the jumps in the outdoor ring after lunch." Jessica nodded her agreement. "Not a bad workout," Skyler allowed.

"Well, he's too tight in that end turn and tensing during the crossover," Jessica frowned.

"Stop right there," Skyler said sternly. "At the end of each session, I want him to feel nothing but positive feelings from you. This horse wants to please you. He doesn't need to work hard for two hours, and be left with the feeling he just didn't measure up."

Jessica's knee had been screaming with pain for the last half hour of the session and the abrupt lecture grated on her raw nerves. "Are we talking about the horse or your ego?"

Skyler ignored the question. "At the beginning of each session, we'll talk about the things that need improving and immediately work on them. We'll saddle back up at 1 p.m. I've got a horse to ride myself right now."

The trainer started to leave, but looked back at Jessica with expressionless eyes. This power struggle between them wasn't going to work.

"If you don't want my advice, then I can't be your trainer. I promised Kate I'd do this, so you'll have to be the one to ask for another trainer."

Jessica stared at the retreating back.

Of all the egotistical, infuriating…right when I start thinking she may just be an ok person. You're not getting rid of me that easy. I'llshow you, you arroganthorse's butt. No, horse's butt is too good for her… pig butt. That's it. She's a pig's butt.

Rampage tossed his head as his rider's irritation seeped into his body.

"Whoa, boy. That's not directed at you. OK, Miss Reese, happy thoughts. Happy thoughts, Rampage. Good boy!" She stroked the strong neck and turned the steed toward the barn for a good rub down.

The afternoon would be their real test. She needed to ice her knee and grab a pain pill before tackling those jumps.


Jessica piled cold packs on her knee until lunch, and popped a muscle relaxant before walking slowly back to the barn. The pill took the edge off her pain and her anger at the trainer.

She eyed the jumps in the outdoor ring as she went past. Her heart began to beat faster.

OK, Black. Get a grip. You've jumped millions of times and fallen off at least a hundred times. This should be no different. But her stomach grew queasy when her eyes locked on the water jump.

Clouds were gathering and the wind was beginning to sway the trees on the cross-country course. She and her dappled gray Thoroughbred, Racer, were only points away from taking the lead in the competition. Racer was in top form and they sailed over the course. But the encroaching storm was beginning to distract the horse. The next jump was not one of the gelding's favorite. The approach was downhill, and required that the horse clear a fence and land in knee-deep water. Jessica felt his tension as Racer neared the jump. "You can do this, boy," she urged. Sure hands relayed her confidence to the gelding and his ears pricked forward in anticipation. Just as the pair launched into the air, lightning split the darkening sky and thunder boomed in their ears. The gelding twisted in mid air, landing all of his weight on his right front leg. A sickening crack resonated in Jessica's ears and she felt them tumbling as Racer screamed. Pain shot up her leg. Was that her or Racer screaming now? She struggled to breathe as many hands held her head and shoulders above the water. "She's hung up in the saddle or something," someone said. "Cut her free! Hold that horse down until we can get her free!" Oh god, look at his leg. Somebody get the vet here quick!"

"Racer!" she heard herself screaming.

Jessica shook her head to clear the horrible scene from her mind and wiped the fine sheen of sweat from her brow.

Come on, Jess. It'll all look different from Rampage's back. Just relax and imagine you sailing over that fence.

As she tried to focus an image of her and Rampage making a clean jump, her thoughts echoed in her head: Imagine you sailing over that fence.

The image switched from her and Rampage sailing over the fence to her jumping over the fence without Rampage. She couldn't help but giggle at the ridiculous picture. She rolled her shoulders to shake off the negative thoughts and her mood began to improve. Must be the pain pill kicking in, she thought.

Jessica hummed softly to herself as she entered the barn. Skyler already had cross-tied Rampage in the aisle and was nearly finished saddling him.

She checked her watch to see if she was late. No, ten minutes early.

"You didn't have to saddle him for me." Jessica's fine brows knit together.

"Consider it a peace offering," Skyler said as she pulled the irons down the stirrup leathers.

The tall trainer turned to her and contemplated the smaller woman. Something inside her wanted this partnership to work. Training an Olympian could sort of fill out my resume, she told herself. The truth was, she already admired this determined young woman. She liked the way she communicated with her horse. She liked the fact that Jessica never mentioned her injury, even when it was obviously causing her a lot of pain. And she never quit until the training session was done, no matter how much she hurt.

"How about a truce?" she said softly. "Maybe we need to quit reacting to each other based on what we've each heard about the other on the circuit. I was wrong about Rampage. He's very impressive. And … you're an exceptional rider…"

Jessica's eyes betrayed her surprise.

"But, you have a tough road ahead."

Pale eyes studied the trainer as Jessica chewed her lip while she puzzled over this change in attitude.

"I could tell your leg was hurting you this morning, but you never complained or let up. You don't need to fight me and the pain at the same time." Skyler's tone was matter of fact.

Jessica sighed and looked down at her feet. Her face flooded with relief and a shy smile played across her lips. She already was impressed with the trainer's methods. She needed Skyler if she was going to make this bid for the Olympic team her best effort.

"You're right … about a truce… and about the advice this morning. I guess I get grumpy when the pain gets too bad."

She extended her hand toward the trainer. "Let's start over. Hi, I'm Jessica Black."

Skyler grinned broadly and returned a firm handshake. Rampage nodded his head and pawed at the dirt as if to punctuate the new pact, drawing relieved laughs from both women as Skyler unclipped the crossties and led the stallion toward the jumping ring.


Jessica's earlier worries about the jumps melted as the course unfolded before her. Things did look different from atop Rampage and her nervousness quickly vanished. The stallion approached the course with eager confidence and "jumped big" - clearing the obstacles with inches to spare.
Skyler watched with an approving eye as Jessica reined the prancing steed in and walked him over with a big smile on her face. The trainer nodded to her.

"He's impressive, all right. I find it hard to believe that he's only been training as an upper level dressage competitor. He's got the power of an exceptional jumper," Skyler admitted.

Jessica's face flushed with excitement and the success of their jumps. "He loves to jump. You just tell us what to do and he can do it," she grinned.

Gods, she is beautiful. The unbidden thought startled the trainer. She looked away and cursed herself for letting her attraction to the blue-eyed beauty seep into her conscious thoughts. Forget it, Sky. This one's a Thoroughbred - a real champion. You know she deserves someone better than a womanizing trainer who lives in a barn apartment.

A deep breath helped Skyler refocus her thoughts.

"We just need to work toward three goals: condition him for the stamina he will need for the three-day event competition; get your leg in condition; and help the two of you get to know each other's every cue," she instructed.

Jessica nodded and listened carefully.

"I'm going to revise the training schedule we mapped out, work up a routine of daily dressage training and interval stamina conditioning tonight. I don't want to let the dressage training slip since he's already got so much invested in it. We just need to give him more jumping experience and conditioning. We'll skip the morning dressage tomorrow and meet instead in my barn office to go over the training schedule. Be prepared to start his stamina training in the afternoon, though."

"Good deal!" Jessica patted the big horse's neck. "We're ready, aren't we, boy," she smiled.

Her enthusiasm was contagious. Skyler squinted up at her and returned her smile.

Just for a few brief moments, both women let down the defenses they hid behind and shared an unguarded admiration for the big horse.

"Why don't you turn him out for the rest of the day and let him relax? BUT, don't forget that you get to clean his stall!"

Jessica rolled her eyes and turned Rampage toward the barn. "I don't know why everybody makes such a big deal over your stall, Rampage. You're just a big, misunderstood pussy cat," she teased as they walked past the smirking trainer.


Chapter 3

It wasn't even noon and already it was hot. Hot and humid.

Jessica had taken Rampage out for his conditioning trots early because the muggy day only promised to get worse. Now they both were enjoying Rampage's cooling bath in the outdoor wash stall.

The rider hummed softly to herself as she used a hard plastic Squeegee to sluice the excess water from his gleaming coat. Over the past few weeks, she and Sklyer had settled into a comfortable pattern of training. Rampage was an incredible horse and the three of them were quickly bonding into a championship team.

"How's the next gold medalist doing this morning?" A broad grin graced the rider's classic features when Kate's warm voice sounded behind her.

"He's doing just fine," she responded, turning to greet the woman who had been a second mother to her all her life. "We worked out early because of the heat, and we were just enjoying a bath to cool him down before I turn him out for the rest of the day."

"Excellent!" Kate grinned back. "I heard a couple of riders who might be at the Olympic trials are showing today near Richmond. It's only a little over an hour away, so I thought you and Skyler would want to check out the competition."

Jessica cocked her head, running through her mind which riders may be there. She and Skyler had decided not to enter any of the intermediate shows leading up to the trials. They both thought Rampage had enough experience showing. But secretly, they both relished the thought of coming in the trials as the mystery team, rather than showing what they've got all across the countryside before they every make it to the big show.

"Sounds good to me, Kate. Have you asked Sky yet?"

"No. I was just headed over to Creek Barn. I hope she slept in her own bed last night. Otherwise, we'll just go without her. I'm not traipsing all over Cherokee Falls to find out who she bedded last night," Kate joked.

Jessica frowned. She didn't know why she felt she had to defend Skyler's honor. She had witnessed first hand the trainer's reputation, but still didn't like the jokes and insinuations she heard around the barn about the woman she was quickly learning to respect and trust with the most important thing in her life - her quest for the gold.

"She always seems to be at the barn when I go looking for her," Jessica said stiffly. "I think half her reputation is just people expecting her to be out catting somewhere and talking about it."

Kate rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'll go see who is right today. You go get cleaned up and ready to go."


Skyler had been staying closer to home lately, and Kate quickly found her moving hay bales around in the loft of Creek Barn.

"My, my. Looks like the rooster is home instead of raiding the hen house," Kate teased.

Sklyer straightened and rubbed her right shoulder. "Not much in the hen house to look at these days," she muttered, using her shirttail to wipe the sweat from her face.

"You need to get that shoulder looked at," Kate admonished, gesturing toward the area Skyler had resumed massaging.

"Naw. I could use something else massaged, though, since you brought up the hen house. But it doesn't look like either will get taken care of today. I need to clean up this hayloft."

"Forget about the hayloft to day," Kate said. "I want you and Jessica to come with me to the show this afternoon to check out some of your competition."

Skyler raked her fingers through her hair to comb out any stray stems of hay, and looked around her. The hay bales would still be there tomorrow. The thought of spending the afternoon with Kate and Jessica looking over the competition sounded like a good idea to her. Maybe they would stop for dinner before they returned. It had been a while since she'd been off the farm. Skyler shrugged off the question nagging at the back of her mind. Why had she stuck so close to the farm lately? After spending the day with Jessica and Rampage, the appeal of going out hunting for a bed partner didn't seem all that appealing. Just too focused on my work. Maybe I do need a break.

"Uh, OK. I need a shower, though, and a chance to get some clean clothes on," she said, brushing the dusty and hay from her clothes.

"No problem," Kate said with a wave of her hand. "I just sent Jessica up to the house to do the same thing. We'll leave at 11:30. I'll drive and swing by to pick you up, OK?"

"Sure, Kate. See you then."


The ride to the show went quickly. Kate had never heard her trainer so chatty.

Kate drove and Jessica sat up front with her while Skyler stretched her long legs out across the back seat of the truck. They started out talking over the competition, but the conversation between the three quickly turned light as Kate began to recall for Jessica some embarrassing moment from Skyler's early introduction into the horse world.

"Yeah, young Sky was pretty sure someone was pulling a joke on her when I first showed her that her job would be to muck stalls," Kate laughed.

"She was such a city kid, she couldn't believe I wanted her to pick up huge piles of horse poop."

"Ka-a-ate," Skyler warned.

"And you've got to know by now that Skyler always thinks there must be a better way to do almost everything," Kate continued. "So, one day, I keep seeing her take the horses out of the barn and walk them around like they are dogs. Then I noticed that when they would finally poop, she would put them back in their stalls."

Kate is straining now to get the words out around her howls of laughter. "Then I realized, she had decided to housebreak…or I guess barn-break them to only go to the bathroom outside."

Jessica's lilting laughter joined Kate's raucous laughter as Skyler folded her arms over her chest, pretending to pout at being the subject of Kate's fun.

"So I snuck in the barn behind her and heard her telling this big chestnut mare what a good horse she was for going to the bathroom in the pasture, not her stall. But everybody knew that mare would pee a bucketful the minute you put in her a stall with fresh, clean bedding."

Kate was gasping for breath now, she was laughing so hard.

"Sky put the mare in a clean stall and turned around with a smug look on her face…I can still see it. Then…then…" Tears began to roll down Kate's face, she was laughing so hard. "God, I wish I'd had a camera on her face when it sounded like someone had turned on a fire hose behind her."

Jessica was wiping away her own tears of laughter and holding her sides. The embarrassed look on Skyler face - soft brown eyes peeking from under the thick blond hair the wind had whipped around her face - was just too precious. She had never seen this side of the all-business trainer. She wanted to know more about this attractive woman.

Jessica turned to sit with her back against the door so she could face Skyler in the back seat. Their eyes connected and she could see that - even being the brunt of the laughter - Skyler was enjoying the easy camaraderie between the three. The trainer cocked her head and winked at the rider, her pout slowly changing into a grin.

"Hey, Kate. I just bet you know a story or two about Jessica, too," Skyler prodded.

Kate raised her eyebrows. Yes, she knew more than a few.

"Hmm. Did I ever tell you what a hard time her mother, Laura, and I had keeping clothes on her when she was little?"

Skyler's eyes widened. I'm not sure I want to go there.

"Do tell," the trainer prodded.

"Yeah," Kate answered with a broad grin. "One day we were sitting in a restaurant when a couple of the stuffy old bluebloods my mother used to put the squeeze on for donations to the center came up to chat on their way out."

Kate smirked as Jessica covered her face with her hands to hide the blush creeping up her cheeks.

"None of us had been watching Jess. She was sitting in her booster chair being quiet. But when they were turning to leave, one of them took that moment to turn toward Jess and say, ‘And who is this lovely little lady/'

"Much to all of our surprises, this ‘lovely little lady' had stripped naked, calmly eating her pudding dessert. I thought Laura was going to die!"

Skyler and Kate had a good laugh then at Jessica's expense, until the rider's face emerged from the cover of her hands. There was a decidedly wicked look on her face that made Kate pause.

"Oh, Kate," Jessica began. "Aren't you forgetting the really funny story about me and my tendency to go without clothes?"

"Uh, did I just miss the turn," Kate said quickly, trying to change the subject.

"Tell Skyler about the dinner party Mom threw for Gram and her little group from the Daughters of the Confederacy."

"I'm sorry. That moment has been wiped from my memory banks," Kate groaned.

"I'll just bet!" Jessica slapped at Kate's shoulder before turning to Skyler.

"Well, it seems that my Mom was hosting a little dinner party that included Kate's mother, my mother's mom and four of my mother's DAR friends. It was sort of a formal thing, so I was put to bed early. I was about 5 years old, I guess.

"It was the first time our mothers had met, and Laura and I were on pins and needles, hoping they would like each other," Kate interjected.

"Kate had helped me take a bath and get my pajamas on, then read me a story."

"Your mom had to do the cooking, so I was put in charge of you. I thought you were fast asleep," Kate groaned, scrubbing her hand over her now red face.

"But it was warm, and I wanted to see what was going on that was so special," Jessica chuckled.

"So, she shows up in the dining room when we are in the middle of dessert, butt naked!"

Skyler smiled at Kate's flushed cheeks. "But you were just a little kid. Kids run around naked sometimes," Skyler offered.

"Oh, the crime wasn't being naked. It was what I said when Gram said, ‘Jessie, honey, where are your pajamas?'"

Kate groaned again, and Skyler turned a questioning eyebrow toward Jessica, urging her to continue.

Jessica straightened in her seat and lifted her chin in mock arrogance.

"I simply told the group of ladies that if Mom and Kate didn't have to wear clothes in bed, then I didn't either!"

"No!" Skyler guffawed. "You didn't!"

"Oh, she certainly did," Kate growled. "I could see my life flashing before my eyes. You could have heard a pin drop as little Miss Jessica strutted her naked little self over to me, climbed in my lap and took a big drink from my water glass, then waved goodnight over her shoulder as she skipped back down the hallway to her bedroom."

By now, Skyler was wiping tears from her eyes, she was laughing so hard.

"Oh'ma God. What did you do?" she asked.

"Well, we were stunned," Kate said. "We just sat there until we heard her bedroom door shut, then Laura said, ‘That child has the most vivid imagination!'"

"Gram was horrified," Jessica offered. "But I think Kate's mom was really just amused at Kate's stuttering, trying to smooth over things. She was used to Kate just not giving a damn what other people thought."

"Well, I wanted to just laugh, but Laura would have killed me later," Kate said.

So, you were lovers with Jessica's mother. What happened, Kate? Skyler wondered


The sun had broken through a thick cloud cover only a bare hour before, so although the spring day was warm and the sun's glare strong, the parking area - little more than a commandeered pasture - was slick with mud.

"Good thing this truck has four-wheel drive, or we probably wouldn't get out of here," Kate grumbled.

Skyler eyed the mud skeptically.

"Jess, maybe you should grab your cane. This mud looks pretty slick," she said.

Jessica frowned. She hated that cane. She saw it as a sign of weakness. Secretly, in the back of her mind, she had been looking forward to showing up at this show with Kate and Skyler in tow. She relished the thought of showing off a bit and making the competition a bit uneasy.

"I'm fine, Sky. Don't worry about it. I don't even think I brought the damned thing."

Skyler fished around in the back of the vehicle and produced the cane.

"There's no point in taking chances. You could rip that knee out again with one slip in this crud," she said, holding out the offending cane.

Jessica stood with her hands on her hips, stubbornly refusing to take the cane from Skyler's hands.

Uh-oh, Kate thought. She knew she was looking at two extremely hardheaded women with a weapon-sized stick between them. This did not look like it would end up well. She was about to step forward and mediate when Jessica relaxed her posture and smiled like the cat that was about to eat the canary.

"Why don't you just carry that for me, and I'll just hold onto you. That cane could get stuck in the mud and make things worse. I'm sure I'd be safe just hanging onto your arm," she said, reaching out to the trainer.

Kate snorted. Did she see Jessica just bat her eyes. Skyler won't fall for that crap. Who does Jessica think she is flirting with? But Kate's mouth dropped open as the trainer obediently stepped forward and offered her arm. Wait! Is Sky blushing? Shit! This is wrong, Jess. This is so wrong. Shy can't help herself, but she'll hurt you!

The two seemed oblivious to Kate's reaction, starting toward the bleachers together and leaving Kate to catch up.

Kate grumbled as Skyler carefully helped Jessica navigate the bleachers to reach a good advantage point about midway up. She was quiet, seated on the other side of Skyler, as the trainer and rider chatted about the competitors on the program and the faces in the crowd.

There were a lot of Olympic wannabees on the roster, but probably only one serious contender for the Trials. That was Rachel Sorensen and her German bred Trakehner. Skyler didn't miss the fact that Rachel's husband and trainer were sitting with several of Virginia's horse community bluebloods just a few rows from them and watched with interest when the women took their seats. That's right, Sklyer thought, check out the women who are going to steal that Olympic team slot right out from under you, buddy.

Kate nudged her from her thoughts.

"See that chestnut stallion over by the barn?"

Skyler's eyes followed the direction of Kate's nod.

"Yeah." Her eyes traveled over the lean neck, tapered shoulder and long legs. "Nice. Isn't that the stud over at Rolling Meadows?"

"That's him. I was thinking of breeding Summer to him next season."

"I thought you were going to retire her."

"Well, I've been thinking I would like to try her one more time. She's still young enough and never had any problems."

Skyler shrugged her shoulders.

"For my money, I'd wait and think about breeding her to Rampage if you are looking for just one more shot."

Jessica smirked at Skyler's attempt to ignore Kate as the older woman leaned back and delivered an exaggerated look of surprise.

"What? And end up with a bad-tempered baby? Why I'm shocked that you would suggest that."

Skyler leaned forward and scanned the crowd, pointedly refusing to acknowledge Kate's antics. Jessica just waited for the response.

"Yeah, well, the horse does have some redeemable qualities. He's a great jumper, very solid and a great pedigree. You could do worse."

Kate shot Jessica a "you-go-girl" look over Skyler's hunched back between them. Jessica's return smile was smug. She had made some progress with Skyler.

"Besides," Skyler continued after giving the two a moment to relish her praise of Rampage. "I figure Summer is so good natured, maybe she could prevail and produce an off-spring with at least a decent temperament, even with that demon horse."

Jessica rolled her eyes and swatted Skyler on the arm.

"That's my boy you are bad-mouthing." She bumped Skyler's shoulder for emphasis. "I don't know what you are talking about anyway. My horse is a sweetheart. A little misunderstood, but a real sweetheart."

"Yeah, so is Skyler," Kate joked. "Misunderstood."

It was routine for Kate to tease Skyler about her womanizing reputation, and Skyler's usual response was cocky and boastful. Normally, Kate's teasing led to the two scanning the crowd and picking out potential prey for Skyler.

But the trainer didn't respond today, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. For some reason, she didn't want Jessica to witness their usual ritual.

Jessica felt the trainer stiffen next to her, and shot Kate a nasty warning look.

Kate fell silent, puzzling over Skyler's unusual response as she pretended to study her program through an uncomfortable silence. Her puzzlement turned to a scowl when she considered Jessica's warning look, her quick move to protect Skyler from the teasing.

Jessica could see the cloud forming over Kate as she began to process the meaning of their response to her jest.

"Damn," she complained, rescuing them all from the uncomfortable silence. "I forgot to find the restroom before climbing all the way up here."

Skyler straightened and pulled the cane from where it rested between her feet.

"Take this. You should use it to get back up these bleachers and save the wear and tear on your knee."

Jessica frowned, opening her mouth to refuse a move that would allow her competitors to see her weakness. But Skyler anticipated her reaction and was a split second ahead of Jessica's balk.

She reached over to softly stroke the muscled thigh next to hers, gentling the rider the way she would a skittish colt. Her brown eyes radiating her understanding to stormy blue ones. She knew the proud rider hated to show her disability - temporary as it was.

"There's a method to my madness," Skyler said softly. "You see the guy in the blue shirt sitting two rows back?

Jessica's eyes flicked discreetly over Skyler's shoulder. She nodded slowly.

"That's Joe Sorensen, Rachel's husband. We are going to see him again at the trials. He's already checked us out. Obviously he knows who you are. I'd rather them see you limping, and let them think you're not a threat today."

Jessica looked doubtful, but the gentle stroking against the top of her thigh was distracting and she struggled to formulate a viable protest. She found herself mesmerized by the slow smile that creased Skyler's handsome face.

"Then we can surprise them in a few months when they find out you and Rampage are really their worst nightmare," the trainer finished. Her eyes held Jessica's a moment longer, and the rider's mouth twitched into a small smile. The trainer knew her argument had hit home. God, those blue eyes are gorgeous, Skyler thought.

She held out the cane again, and this time Jessica accepted it without protest.

Kate watched the affection evident on Skyler's face as her eyes followed Jessica's descent down the bleachers. She didn't like what she was seeing. She loved Skyler like a younger sister, but she also knew her shortcomings. She loved Jessica in a different way - as a parent with a fierce protective urge that surpassed her regard for her close friend.

"Don't even think it," she growled in Skyler's ear.

Skyler flinched, then leaned back, resting her elbows on the vacant bench behind her, and scowled.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Kate."

"I can see what's developing between the two of you, Sky. You need to back off."

Kate watched Skyler's eyes flick once again to the departing rider's trim frame, then drop down to her feet.

"The chemistry needs to be good between you two to be a successful threat in the show ring, but Jessica is young, Sky. She may not know how to draw the line to keep it professional, not personal. You need to draw that line."

Skyler grew defensive. Things never change. She's still a mutt from the wrong side of the tracks and they are still the bluebloods from the right side of the tracks. It hurt worst than anything coming from Kate. Kate Parker had always treated her as an equal. Guess that's just until you think I'm after your goddaughter.

"Good enough to be her trainer, but nothing else, huh, Kate?"

The bitterness in Sklyer's voice stung, but Kate stood firm.

"Sky, it's got nothing to do with how worthy you are. You are a great trainer. You are a good friend. But you are lousy in the love department," she said softly. "You know I love you, but you know as well as I do that you can't seem to stick to one woman. If you need to scratch an itch, do it with someone other than my Jess."

What she felt for Jessica wasn't an itch to be scratched. It was more. That she did feel "more" scared her. Truth was, Skyler was afraid she wouldn't be able to handle those feelings and she would end up hurting Jessica. That mattered to her more than Kate's feelings on the issue.

Skyler's face grew dark. She hated herself for not being worthy. At that moment, she hated Kate for pointing it out. And she resented Jessica for being so beautiful and talented and wonderful … and, hell, sexy, too.

"There's nothing going on between us but work," she growled back at Kate. "But now that you mention it, maybe I do need to scratch an itch."

She stood and scanned the crowd, spotting an old conquest she knew would be more than eager for a scratching session.

She rubbed sweaty palms on her thighs to dry them on her jeans and started down the bleachers. "Don't worry about me after the show. I see my ride home," she threw over her shoulder at Kate. Then she paused and turned, the old Skyler leer firmly in place. "Do me a favor and ask Sam to feed for me in the morning. I probably won't make it back to the farm until tomorrow afternoon."

"Sky, wait!"

But Skyler ignored Kate's call and stomped down the bleachers.

"Shit." Kate should be used to this response from Skyler. The casual sexual experiences were what Skyler did to punish herself, to remind herself that she wasn't worthy of something deeper and permanent. It was typical behavior resulting from abuse as a child.

Skyler had seemed to overcome that after years under Kate's mom's careful nurturing. She had fallen so deeply in love with Sarah, and her career as a rider was taking off. She was at last something other than the abused waif the Parkers had rescued.

But Sarah's betrayal had crushed her. And Kate had doubts that Skyler could ever recover. It was a hard choice - protect Jessica or trust Skyler's fragile emotions. Jessica was her heart. She was the only daughter Kate would ever have. She was the only part of Laura - the one woman who would always own Kate's heart - that Kate still possessed heart and soul.


On her way back from the restrooms, Jessica took some time to watch the contestants in the warm-up ring. Rampage has it all over these horses, she gloated.

Their workouts had been going really well, and the knee … well, it was still holding up. Skyler really had been able to sharpen their performance.

Skyler … Jessica unconsciously smiled at the thought of her.

They were proving to be a good team. Skyler tended to sharply focus on the work and hand, just as the rider liked to do. And, Jessica enjoyed the playful banter on the ride up to the show.

Kate was right. She found herself trusting this woman. Skyler had been in that winner's circle and understood what it took to get there. She was steady and sure in her instructions. It made Jessica feel a confidence in herself that she hadn't felt before, and Rampage was responding to the rider's confidence.

But it wasn't just the student/teacher part of their relationship connecting. It was more than that. A couple of times during the past weeks, Skyler had ridden Rampage herself to see what kind of cues he was giving Jessica and recommend responses from the rider that could improve the stallion's performance. When Skyler took the saddle, she and her mount appeared as one beast. Jessica thought the roguishly charming trainer atop 1,200 pounds of equine muscle was the sexiest thing she had ever seen. Even the temperamental Rampage bowed to her commanding confidence and moved smoothly though his paces.

Jessica was still smiling to herself as she headed back to the bleachers. She was looking forward to the afternoon. Maybe they could go to a nice restaurant before they headed home. Why she wanted to spend more time with Skyler outside their training arrangement wasn't something she wanted to analyze just yet. She'd just go with it and see where it leads.

But as she turned to take a shortcut through the barn next to the warm-up ring, she spotted Skyler's lithe form leaning against the entrance to the barn. There was a very attractive, slender blonde woman talking to her.

Jessica's smile disappeared and her eyes narrowed to laser blue slits. Something about the way the blonde was standing just a little too close for casual conversation and Skyler was leering down at the woman was really irritating the rider. They were supposed to be there to check out the competition, not for Skyler to cruise the barns for women. She'd think more about why that pissed her off later.

She forced a pleasant expression on her face as she approached the pair.

"There you are, Sky! Rachel and her horse are warming up, so they must be on the program soon. We should get back to our seats," she said.

But Skyler avoided looking at Jessica, fixing her gaze on the blonde. She waved a dismissing hand at the rider.

"You go ahead. I've got a conversation going here."

Jessica felt the hackles rise on her neck.

"I thought we came here to evaluate horses and riders," Jessica said stiffly. "To see who our competition is."

"You and Kate can fill me in later," Skyler replied. "I haven't seen Pam in ages, and we have some catching up to do." She turned her leer from Pam long enough to throw Jessica a quick wink.

"You're going to miss Rachel's run through the jumps," Jessica persisted.

The blonde finally turned to Jessica, running her eyes up and down the lean rider's frame.

"Do I know you?" she asked, casting an admonishing look back at Skyler.

Blue lasers bore into the blonde, and Skyler thought it best to jump in before this turned into a spectator sport.

"Pam, this is Jessica Black. I'm training her and her stallion for the Olympic trials. Jess, this is Pam Satterfield. She's, uh…."

"An old playmate," Pam interjected, turning back to Sklyer. She trailed a slender finger along the outline of Skyler's deep-cut V-neck shirt, and Skyler looked down at her, unconsciously licking her lips.

"Are you coming or not?" Jessica growled at Skyler.

Skyler hesitated. You have to draw that line, Kate had said.

"I told Kate I'm taking the rest of the afternoon off," Skyler replied, focusing her attention on the warm hand Pam was pressing against her chest.

"Don't take it personal, honey," Pam gloated. "But it's not much of a competition. You are all work, and I'm all play. And it's well known that…" She gave Skyler a conspiratory leer. "… all work and no play makes Skyler a dull girl!" Skyler finished for her, turning to waggle her eyebrows at Jessica in a suggestive gesture.

"Fine." Jessica turned on her heel and huffed back to the bleachers.


Kate shifted uneasily in the bleachers. She was kicking herself for not handling things better with Skyler. She was wondering what was taking Jessica so long. Then she saw the dark head headed her way with a full head of steam.

"Let's get out of here," Jessica snapped at Kate.

"Why? Isn't Rachel coming up in the program soon?"

Kate knew Jessica well enough to see that she was furious over something.

"Not much point in evaluating the competition without your trainer here, too, now is it? Do I have the only trainer who is terminally in heat? She draws every bitch in season like a magnet."

Uh-oh. She's seen Skyler.

Kate tried to shrug off the anger she felt coming from the rider.

"Well, I'm here. What am I? Chopped liver?"

Jessica's shoulders slumped. She was tired. The sunny day was suddenly too warm, the glare too bright and she wasn't in the mood for company anymore. She turned apologetic eyes to Kate.

The gentle older woman was always a steady, bright spot in her life. She was always Jessica's confidant when she wanted to talk about things you don't really want to discuss with your mother. But, for some reason, she knew Kate wasn't the person who she should talk to about the confusing feelings she had for the infuriating trainer.

"I must be PMSing or something. I just want to go home, OK?" she said with a sigh.

"Sure, baby, whatever you want," Kate said. "I just want to make sure Sky has a way home if she isn't coming with us."

"If the blonde hussy I saw her with earlier has anything to say about it, Skyler may not be home for days," Jessica growled.

Kate rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, that's our Skyler," she quipped, trying to lighten the mood.

Jessica glared at her. "Yeah, apparently that's your Skyler."

Kate wrapped her arm around Jessica's shoulder as they headed for the truck.

"Honey, you need to accept who Sky is. She's one of the best trainers I've ever worked with. And, she's not a bad person. In fact, she's the best friend you could ever have. She's just lousy in the love department. There are reasons for that, reasons that are too deep and too personal for me to share with you. That's up to her if you become good enough friends. But to get the good part of Sky, you have to allow for her flaw. When you accept that, you'll have a friend you can always rely on."

Jessica sighed. Trouble was, she seemed to want more from Skyler. She couldn't stop thinking about the sexy trainer.

Kate watched the thoughts run across Jessica's face. She could see that Jessica was attracted to Skyler as more than a friend and trainer. Geez, do all the women have to fall in love with her?

"Jess, I'd have to be blind not to see the chemistry between you guys, but you shouldn't pressure Skyler for more. I can see that she has a lot of respect for you. Her leaving us today is her rather stumbling way of letting you know that she's trying to draw the line. She knows her limits. She's trying to discourage you from asking her for more. Can't you do that for her?"

Jessica shrugged, but didn't reply. She thought she must be PMSing because the despair she was feeling made her want to cry.

The ride home was quiet, with neither Kate nor Jessica making much conversation.

Jessica's mind was busy running over images of the trainer who was increasingly occupying her waking thoughts. God, if I start dreaming about her, what am I going to do? What wounded you so deeply, Sky. Why doesn't anyone else believe you can conquer your demons.


Chapter 4

The days began to go quickly as their routine fell back into place -- Jessica's morning therapy, morning dressage, afternoon interval training of walks and gallops to condition horse and rider and a bedtime story for Rampage each night - six days a week.

The women had fallen into an easy pattern. Neither spoke of that day in Richmond after Skyler reappeared at the farm the next day. They concentrated on Rampage's training, and just being friends.

Skyler reflected on their progress and whistled absently as she walked through the barn, making a quick check on the eight horses residing there. Rampage watched her and nickered as she paused next to his door.

"Sorry, old boy. You may not get a bedtime story tonight. There's a fund-raiser at the big house and your mistress must attend or there'll be no belle of the ball. Cheer up. I'll bring you back some treats from the vegetable trays."

Lantern-shaped lamps lighted the main drive as cars pulled up to the house and deposited their guests. The cars were then parked near the gymnasium by valets. The yard was illuminated by string after string of lights, and the large brick patio served as a dance floor. A live country-western band cranked out Garth Brooks and Shania Twain tunes for the dancers while caterers pulled sizzling burgers and tangy barbecue ribs off a hot grill.

It was the biggest fund-raiser put on by the center each year. This year's western theme promised to be a fun evening for both the upper-crust who paid $500 a plate to attend and students of the youth equestrian program who, along with their families, were honored guests.

Skyler paused at the edge of the lights to wipe the pointed toes of her dusty western boots on the back of her jean-covered legs. Attendance was mandatory for the staff of the center, but Skyler didn't mind. At least the party's theme allowed her to wear something she was comfortable in. Her tall frame fit well into the faded Levi's and dark blue V-neck knitted top accentuated her broad, slender shoulders.

"Hey, Sky! I've been waiting for you to get here. I need a dance partner." Skyler turned and smiled at the familiar voice. Sam was the trainer in charge of West Barn. His eyes danced and he held out his hand as an invitation. "Come on, let's show these shufflers a step or two."

"I do declare, I just can't resist such a handsome devil," Skyler replied in her best Scarlett O'Hara voice.

"You have to let me lead," Sam teased.

"Oh, OK. You boys are all the same," she replied with a mock sigh. "Lead on."

Sam stood well over six feet tall and was ruggedly good looking. He knew Skyler's sexual orientation, but her height and graceful athleticism made her the perfect dance partner for him. The fact that she was "news anchor" attractive, too, made them appear to be the perfect couple. The two glided a fancy two-step across the dance floor, Sam twirling Skyler and her following with ease.

He had been one of the few people not influenced by Skyler being blacklisted from the circuit. As a trainer, he tried to throw a few rides her way but the owners he worked for sided with the other gentry and threatened to hire a new trainer if he continued to employ her. That was before they both came under Kate's protective arm. Only Kate had enough money and influence to stand firm against blacklisting. Her one concession was to employ Skyler as a trainer, not a rider. That satisfied the angry gentry, since it meant she would not be as public a figure as a rider.

The dance floor thinned as couples began to stop to watch Sam and Skyler. When the band wound up the tune, Sam and Skyler were the only couple left on the floor and the crowd clapped their appreciation for the dancers.

Sam bowed to the crowd, then to Skyler, and they both laughed when she grabbed him and gave him a smacking kiss on the mouth before he headed toward the beer keg and her to the bar.

"Amaretto sour," she said to the bartender and turned to lean her back against the bar while he mixed the concoction.
"Don't forget the cherry, honey," a sultry voice instructed the bartender. Skyler turned to find herself nose to nose with Alexandra. "Been hiding from me, huh?"

"No, I haven't been hiding from you, Alexandra. I've been right there at Creek Barn, doing what I do every day, working horses and training riders."

Green eyes batted at Skyler. "I could use another private lesson myself."

"Now, Alexandra, you know me. I have a short attention span. I rarely take the same trail more than a few times. But you sure were fun, sweetie," Skyler winked.

"Now Sky," the auburn-haired woman mocked the trainer's drawl. "I wouldn't want to have to tell my husband that you seduced me. He would be very upset."

"Ooooo. You are so right, you know. You messing around with a lowly horse trainer - a female to boot - wouldn't impress his business clients. Why I'll bet that would give him the ammunition he needs to cut off your shopping money and take up publicly with that secretary he's screwing."

Alexandra's face turned ashen, then red with anger. "Fuck you, Skyler Reese."

Skyler raised her drink in salute. "I believe you already did," she grinned as Alexandra stormed off.

Skyler showed her empty glass to the bartender. "How about another of these? A double this time."

He shook his head at the exchange he had just overheard. "Yes ma'am. Coming right up."

Skyler leaned again against the bar and scanned the crowd for Kate.

"So, you ride, you train, you dance. Is there anything you can't do?" The silky voice sent a tingle through Skyler. Jessica's long raven-black hair that usually was kept in French braid was loose and fell about her shoulders. Her pale eyes shined from a combination of pain pills and cocktails.

"Hey there," Skyler smiled down at the young rider. Her eyes lingered over Jessica's snug black jeans and cobalt silk shirt that complemented her iridescent eyes. "Kate puts on a quite a shindig, doesn't she? You having a good time?"

"Better every minute." Jessica gulped down the last of her drink and signaled the bartender for another. "I saw you dancing with Sam out there. You're pretty good."

"Thanks. I'd ask you to dance, but this crowd wouldn't appreciate it and I promised Kate I would be on my best behavior."

"Oh, I guess that's what that exchange with Alexandra was… your best behavior."

Skyler's lip curled in a half smile. "Maybe you should slow down on the alcohol a little, huh?"

"Don't worry, I always throw up before I get drunk enough to embarrass myself."

"Now that sounds attractive." The two women laughed at Skyler's sarcasm.

They both relaxed against the bar and watched the crowd play roulette and black jack to determine their contribution to the charity. Dart and water gun games entertained the youngsters while the adults danced and dined. Charlie stood at the water gun game with another boy, Scott, and two girls who also were students at the center. The bell sounded to activate the water pistols and the youngsters each aimed at the hole that would propel their plastic horse to the finish line first. Charlie's horse advanced quickly as the boy concentrated on the game. When it became evident the other horses wouldn't catch him, Scott turned his water pistol on Charlie, drenching him. A redheaded girl's horse pulled ahead to win.

"You cheated," Charlie fumed.

"What are you going to do about it, Kate's little pet?" Scott taunted as he pushed Charlie. The smaller boy hesitated, then stomped his booted foot down on Scott's toe. The larger boy howled and his face darkened with rage. He flung himself at Charlie, fists flying and knocked the smaller boy to the ground. Charlie's nose began to bleed, but the sight only fueled Scott's rage. Sam appeared out of the crowd and grabbed the larger boy in a bear hug from behind. Scott struggled to free his arms, kicking and shouting obscene curses. Sam's tall frame lifted the boy off his feet and he quickly walked around the side of the house before the boy's tantrum could interrupt the entire party.

"Hey, Charlie. You OK, buddy?" Skyler asked the boy still sprawled on the ground.

Charlie's blue eyes were filled with tears when he looked up. He fought back a sniffle. "I … I'm OK. I'm not going to cry in front of everybody."

Jessica's understanding voice came from over Skyler's shoulder. "How about if we go to the kitchen to get some ice for that nose. If you feel like crying in there, nobody will see you. I know I'd feel like crying if I got hit in the nose like that."

The boy nodded and silent tears began to trickle down his cheeks as he stood and walked into the house between the two women.

Skyler sat down and pulled the boy into her lap while Jessica pulled an ice pack from the freezer and held it on Charlie's nose until it stopped bleeding.

"I think the bleeding has stopped, but why don't you just sit here with Skyler for a little while to make sure the bleeding doesn't start again. OK?" Jessica stroked his tear-stained cheek and the boy shivered at her touch. "I'll grab you a blanket. I think that ice pack gave you a chill. We'll just warm you up for a minute."

The boy stared with enchantment into the pale pools of blue and nodded. He leaned his head against Skyler's strong shoulder and watched Jessica as she headed upstairs.

Charlie let out a long sigh. "She sure is pretty, isn't she, Sky?"

The tall woman chuckled deep in her chest. "She sure is, Charlie."

Chapter 5

Days unfolded into weeks of training behind them. Rampage made steady progress, but the pain in Jessica's leg never let up. Richard, her physical therapist, shook his head as he flexed the leg and watched the grimace on Jessica's face. "I don't like the looks of this, Jess. That graft should have healed long ago. If you were a horse, you would be put out to pasture for a year-long rest."

"I'm too close to getting what I want, Richard. I'm not going to let a little pain stop me."

"Pain, my dear, is a message from your body that something isn't right. If you push this injury, you could rip that whole knee up again. Then you may not be able to ride at all, much less jump."

She refused to meet his eyes as he studied her determined face. After a moment, Richard threw his hands up. "I can't work miracles, Jess. I'm telling you now that you are sore enough that you are probably slowly shredding that ACL graft. You should get it ‘scoped again to see what's going on."

"I'll take my chances," she frowned. "I can take a few months off to let it heal better after I make the Olympic team."

"I'm telling you that it probably won't last that long. I don't know how you are jumping horses with the kind of pain you are in now," Richard admonished.

"It's got to last that long. What about another steroid injection to take down the inflammation?"

"You just had one two weeks ago. Those shots are supposed to last at least eight weeks. You know the doc won't shoot you up again this soon." Jessica stared at the wall. "If you won't listen, I'll go talk to Skyler and Kate."

Her eyes flashed. "You absolutely will not!"

The two stared hard into the other's eyes. Richard finally backed down. She had called his bluff. She knew he couldn't divulge medical information without her permission.

"I'll keep quiet for now, but I can't believe Skyler can't see how much pain you are feeling," Richard grumbled. "She should know better. I guess she's only concerned about the horse's legs."

"That's all I pay her to concern herself with," Jessica shot back.

Richard worked silently to massage and stretch Jessica's leg. After long moments, Jessica let out a long sigh. "I'm sorry, Richard. I know you are just looking out for me. Don't blame Skyler, though. I've done a pretty good job of hiding it, and she's been working Rampage herself on the cross-country course to give me a break."

The therapist studied his attractive patient for a moment. "I'm just asking you to slow down," he said with a resigned sigh.

"OK, I will." Jessica hopped down from the table, careful to land with most of her weight on her good leg. "See you next Thursday?"

Richard frowned. "Yeah, OK. Hey, use that cane when you can."

Jessica hobbled down to the barn. Rampage is going to get only a short chapter tonight. I really need to ice this knee and pop some more pain pills.

The kids and other equestrians in training had all gone for the day. The sky had begun to dim as twilight approached. The only sound was Clint Black's voice drifting softly from a barn radio and contented munching as the barn's equine residents dined on a supper of sweet feed and orchard grass.

Grabbing the paperback book she had been reading to Rampage, Jess was headed for his stall when Charlie appeared at the other end of the barn. He motioned silently for her to come toward him.

"Want to see Skyler dance?" the small boy whispered.

Jessica grinned. "Thanks, buddy, but I saw her dancing at the party the other night."

"No! This is much better. She's dancing with ConairCon Air."

Jessica looked puzzled as Charlie pulled her toward the barn's rear opening.

In a green meadow sprinkled with yellow chickweed flowers, Skyler sat bareback astride a large dappled gray gelding. The dying light gave the pair a ghost-like appearance.

The tall trainer still wore her brown riding breeches, but soft moccasins had replaced her knee-length boots. The horse wore only a bridle and the reins lay across his withers rather than in Skyler's hands. Horse and rider appeared melded by magic into one beast as the horse expertly executed several dressage maneuvers usually communicated through reins_ a flawless crossover and passage.

As they approached the center of the meadow, the gelding halted. A smile slid across Skyler's face as she closed her eyes and raised her arms in imitation of a ballerina. Taking an undetected cue, the big horse pivoted slowly on his hindquarters in a complete circle. ConairCon Air then pranced forward in a goose step, holding alternating forelegs an extra beat before touching the ground to lift the other. Skyler's eyes were still closed as she lowered her arms like a high-wire walker working for balance.

Jessica was mesmerized.

"It's beautiful, isn't it," Charlie said in a reverent whisper.

"Yes, it is," Jessica breathed. "How does she get him to do that?"

"She says the best way to be one with something is touch with nothing between you. That's why she isn't using a saddle. She talks to him with her touch - her legs, not the bit," Charlie explained. "She showed it to us in class one day when she was trying to teach us how to use leg pressure to signal what we want from the horse."

ConairCon Air wheeled and executed another crossover maneuver.

"It is like a dance," Jessica breathed. "I can't imagine the patience it would take to teach a horse that."

"Sky's the best," Charlie offered. "When any of the kids are having a problem learning something, they always go get Skyler to help. She helps us with our homework, too."

Jessica raised a questioning eyebrow.

"The rules are that we have to do our homework before we can take our riding lessons and help around the barn. All the kids assigned to Skyler's barn, we have to show her our finished homework before she'll let us take our saddles out of the tack room."

"Thanks, Charlie. Thanks for showing me Skyler dancing with ConairCon Air." Jessica turned to head back to Rampage's stall. "You better scoot now. I heard Kate say you were supposed to help her grill burgers tonight."

"Oh, yeah," the boy grinned. "Cheeseburgers are my favorite. See you later, Jess."

"Later, Charlie," she grinned.

Jessica turned once again to watch the trainer for a few moments.

So you are a soft touch with the kids, huh? Your mystery deepens, Skyler Reese. And I love a good mystery.


Jessica's Explorer sat in the dusty parking lot of the honky-tonk. I'm not going in that place until Bruce gets here. I'll have every red neck around hitting on me. I must be nuts to agree to meet him here on a payday weekend.

She was relieved when her friend's black firebird pulled in next to her and his tinted window slid down. "Hey, beautiful," the man grinned. "I sure was surprised to hear you needed old Bruce's services. Let's go inside and have a beer."

Jess eyed the stocky, former pro-football player. "Just show me how to use the stuff, Bruce. I don't want to go inside."

"Uh, uh. We'll fix you up, but then we need to go inside and give it time to work. You do want to know it's going to work before you pay for it, don't you."

Jessica blew out a huff of breath. "Yeah, I guess I do."

She limped over to Bruce's car and got inside. He patted his thigh. "Just lay that knee over here and relax. Think good thoughts." Jessica had worn khaki shorts so her knee would be easily accessible. Bruce pulled a small vial from his console and filled a slim syringe with the vial's liquid.

"What were you able to get?" she asked with a frown.

"Just lidocaine, the stuff the doc would use to deaden your skin to sew up a cut. We're injecting it right under the kneecap to deaden the inflamed tissue that's giving you so much trouble. I'll try to get you some bupivacaine, but my contact for that wasn't around on such short notice. It lasts longer and is better for orthopedic stuff."

He prodded Jessica's swollen knee. "Damn, Jess. This doesn't look so good. You sure you want to do this?"

"Just do it, okay? Let me worry about my knee," Jessica snapped.

"Hey, it's not my knee. Whatever you want, babe," Bruce shrugged. He showed her where the injection should go on each side before sliding the needle into her skin.

"You know, since you are around horses, vets normally use Carbocaine or mepivacaine. It last longer than lidocaine, too. You should check around the barn to see if there is any stuck in a cabinet somewhere. All this stuff is pretty cheap, so nobody keeps a close eye on inventories of it."

Jessica grimaced as he shot half the syringe into one side of her kneecap and the rest on the opposite side.

"All done," he said. He rubbed his hand along her silky leg. "You always did have good legs, and now you have a very sexy scar on this one."

Jessica wrinkled her nose and snorted. "That's where they put the pins in and later took them out. And you run that hand any farther up my leg and I'll have to call up that bad-tempered red head you live with and tell her you were hitting on me."

Bruce jerked his hands up and held them aloft, palms out, as he laughed. "Hey, just giving you a compliment. No call to make threats. Let's go see if this works."

The two headed into the smoky bar and took a table away from the dance floor. They ordered two sandwiches and a couple of beers. By the time they had eaten, Jessica's knee definitely felt very numb.

"OK, time for a little two-step to test it out." Bruce stood and offered a hand. Unlike a lot of former athletes, Bruce had kept himself in good shape. Jessica looked doubtful at his suggestion, but joined him. She was surprised that she was able to move comfortably for the first time in months. The knee was completely painless. She grinned up at Bruce and he twirled her around a few times in celebration.

Back out in the parking lot, Bruce pulled two more vials from his car. "That's $200, little lady."

"I thought you said this stuff was cheap."

"Risk mark up. My contact takes risk swiping it, and I take a risk selling it to you."

He held the vials just out of her reach, and his eyes grew serious. "Be careful, Jess. You use it too much and you'll do permanent damage to your knee and never feel it. How do you think I screwed up my football career? Total knee replacement is no fun and a real career ender."

"I'll be careful," she said, handing over the money.


Skyler squinted in the sun as she watched as Jessica take Rampage over the show jumps. The big horse flew over the course and easily jumped each obstacle with many inches to spare. Jessica's eyes shone when she pulled him up next to Skyler. "He's really on today!" she grinned.

"How's the knee?"

"It's doing good. I've never felt better," Jessica beamed. It had been tough earlier to inject the knee herself for the first time, but she managed to do it without passing out and the results were well worth the trouble.

"OK. He sure looks warmed up enough for the cross-country course if you are. Let me saddle up so I can trail you and see how he does."

Skyler saddled ConairCon Air quickly and they walked the horses toward the course. "Don't rush him today. Just take it slow. Just don't let him get away from you. He really likes to fly and I don't want either of you injured." Skyler grinned at the excitement so obvious on Jessica's face. She reached over and squeezed Jess' knee, partly as a show of support and partly to make sure Jess wasn't covering real pain. Hmm. Not a twitch. That knee really has suddenly taken a turn for the better, I guess. Jessica looked to the trainer for the go-ahead and Skyler nodded. She held ConairCon Air back for a minute to give Jessica and Rampage a decent lead.

Jessica hunkered down on the big bay and relaxed. The two fairly flew over the jumps. Skyler had to push ConairCon Air a little to keep up. It looked like it would be a perfect run until they approached the downhill water jump. Skyler saw Jessica's head lift and her body tense. Suddenly, she yanked on the reins as they approached the jump and the stallion skidded into rather than launching over the jump. The impact nearly unseated Jessica, but since she initiated the balk, she was prepared and managed to maintain her seat.

Skyler couldn't stop ConairCon Air without crashing into Rampage, so they sailed past the first rider to clear the jump. The trainer wheeled her steed around and came charging back. Rampage fretted and pawed the ground, irritated by the sudden stop.

"Good God, Jess. Are you all right?" Skyler jumped down from ConairCon Air and ran to Jessica's side.

The rider's face was white and she was shaking so hard her teeth chattered. "I fro...froze up," she choked out. Tears began to slide down her pale cheeks.

Skyler reached up to pull Jessica off the horse and wrapped her arms around her and pulling the woman in a protective embrace.

Sobs choked Jessica's words as she fought for control. "What if he fell when he hit the water on the other side? I couldn't go through the whole hospital ordeal if I got hurt again. I just smell rubbing alcohol and I launch into an anxiety attack."

Skyler held the smaller woman close, rubbing the tense muscles of her back as Jessica rested her head on the trainer's chest.

"Hey, that's understandable," Skyler said softly. "This is first time you've been on a course since the accident?"

Jessica nodded silently. Skyler held tightly to the rider's shoulders as they shook with silent sobs and tears flowed hard for a few minutes.

Jessica finally regained her voice. "I … I just keep seeing Racer lying there with the bone sticking out of his leg. I can hear him screaming."

Skyler's voice was low and soothing. "It's OK, Jess. It takes time to get over a devastating experience like that. We'll find a way around this. We'll just take our time."

They stood there for several long moments while Skyler's hand rubbed small comforting circles on Jessica's back. As the younger woman's tears subsided, they both suddenly became aware they were standing with their arms around each other and Jessica's head snuggled into the curve of Skyler's shoulder.

The trainer's heart beat wildly in Jessica's ear. Skyler felt a hot blush flood her cheeks, but it was quickly forgotten when she noticed the dark spots of blood on the dusty ground. "Are you hurt? Where's the blood coming from?" Skyler checked Jessica over frantically.

When there were no cuts to be found, their eyes widened as they turned to Rampage. A long, thin splinter protruded from beneath the skin of his chest. "Let's get him in the barn and call the vet," Skyler said grimly.

The moment between the two women was quickly forgotten.


By the time Dr. Victoria Greyson arrived at the Creek Barn, Kate had joined Skyler and Jessica at Rampage's stall. The tall veterinarian smiled at the worried group. Her light brown hair was cut short in an attractive style that tapered to her slim neckline much like Skyler's. She gave the trainer a quick wink and she reached to shake Kate's hand as her expressive forest green eyes lingered over Jessica.

Kate spoke up. "Jessica, this is Dr. Victoria Greyson. Besides the fact that the center keeps her on retainer, she's a good friend of mine."

Tory threw a warm smile at Kate. "That's Tory, to my friends, Jessica. So please call me Tory. I've heard your name from Kate many times." Kate didn't tell me her goddaughter was so stunning. Kate had told Tory their Olympic hopes were pinned on this horse, but one look at the attractive rider ratcheted the vet's concern for the horse's injury even higher. Tory pulled her eyes from the rider and scanned the stallion. "So what's up with this guy?"

Jessica slid the stall door back and moved the stallion around to face the vet. "He crashed into a jump and he has a splinter stuck in his chest. Oh, yeah. You might want to keep one eye on him because he has a biting problem when he's around strangers."

"That's easy enough to fix with a little tranquilizer," Tory said, eyeing the horse's chest. "Hold his head to the side. Hmm. This actually looks fairly superficial because it went in sideways, but this is a really large splinter … nearly six inches long. I'm afraid the best thing to do is to make an incision along the skin to remove the splinter rather than pulling it out and risk leaving some small pieces that could cause infection. It will take a bit of stitching to close but since it will be a shallow incision, he should be able to resume dressage and gallops in just a few days, Skyler. The skin will have had time to begin mending by then. I wouldn't jump him for a week."

Jessica was quiet, her eyes filled with worry. Tory smiled up at her. "Hey, don't look so serious. He'll be fine. And ..." Tory's eyes twinkled. "… you've got the best vet in these four counties at your service."

Jess gave her a small smile and relaxed a little.

"How about coming out to my truck with me and help me carry back some of the stuff I'll need to take care of this?" Tory asked, turning her most dazzling smile on the dark-haired woman.

The two women headed out to the vet's truck, and Kate turned to Skyler. "What happened out there?"

Skyler rubbed her neck and frowned, her eyes following Tory and Jessica as they exited the barn. She hesitated to be sure they were out of earshot.

"I'm not really sure. Jess and Rampage were doing great, but she froze and pulled him up at the last minute when she came to the downhill water jump. She was almost able to stop him, but he still ran into the fence a bit. I don't think his injury is serious. I'm more worried about Jess freezing at that jump. It could have been much worse."

Kate looked worried. "I'm wondering if she's not trying to do the impossible. She has to ice that knee down every night. I know it's hurting her. I had a talk with her physical therapist, and he's worried, too. The doctors told Jess that the leg may never be able to stand up to jumping again, but she is so determined that she won't let anything stop her."

"That's funny. Lately, she doesn't appear to be in that much pain during our training sessions. I was under the impression the leg was getting much better."

Kate scratched her head. "I don't know. Jessica has always been a very private person, but she's really closed down since the accident. Maybe she needs to talk to a therapist or something."

Skyler snorted. "Shrinks! I've never known one that didn't need one themselves."

Kate shrugged. "Maybe you're right. Maybe not."

The two women returned and Tory began preparing to remove the splinter. Jessica watched as Tory injected a numbing agent in the skin around the splinter.
"Is that the same thing they use on humans?" she asked.

"It's similar. Actually, this is Carbocaine. It lasts longer than the lidocaine that hospitals use for everything from stitching up small cuts to numbing a hand before they put an IV needle in the skin.
Skyler watched Jessica and Tory work together.

I guess vet work is more interesting than planning out training schedules. What am I thinking? Why should I care if she seems to like Tory? Maybe I'm just over due for some bar cruising.Yeah, that's it. I'll just hit a few places tonight and see what the prospects are.

"Well, I've got to help the kids feed the horses. It doesn't take four people to take out a splinter," Skyler said to Kate. The two women working on Rampage didn't seem to hear her.

The tall trainer headed for the feed room, and Kate squinted at the vet and rider. Looks like Tory and Jessica are hitting it off. Tory's a great conversationalist and it looks like she's taking an interest in Jess. Maybe I'll get her to stay for dinner. A new friend could get Jessica to open up some.


Tory did stay for dinner and it was a relaxed affair. Jessica found the attractive vet easy to talk with. The subject matter, of course, was centered on horses. With Kate and Charlie rounding out the group, the conversation was lively and the time went quickly.

A chiming mantle clock reminded Kate that Charlie should be getting off to bed because it was a school night. The boy was reluctant to leave the group and shuffled toward the stairs only after a stern look from Kate. He paused at the bottom of the stairway and turned to smile at the women. "Hey, you know what? When I grow up, I'm going to be a vet, too!" The women laughed as he grinned and sprinted up the stairs.

"He's really cute," Tory said.

Kate sighed. "Yeah. I wish I could adopt him, but he has an uncle who wants the boy. He's coming to get Charlie in about six weeks. I just haven't had the heart to tell Charlie yet."

They cleared the dishes and Tory picked up her jacket. "I'd better be heading home myself. My animals haven't been fed and I've got a few hours of paperwork waiting on me." Kate was loading the dishwasher, and Tory turned to Jess. "Walk me out?"

"Sure," Jessica smiled.

Tory paused on the porch and leaned against the railing. "Kate says you haven't been out at all since you got here a few months ago. I have a problem myself putting work aside and just having fun. I thought maybe we could go to a movie or dinner sometime. I can always use another friend." She smiled at the rider.

"Sure. That sounds good. I guess I have been training pretty hard lately. I just haven't felt much like having fun since the accident. Tonight, though, was great. I think it was the first time I've forgotten about my leg and training for even a few hours."

"Great! How about Friday night? I've been dying to try out that new Mexican restaurant in town."

"That sounds okay."

"Good. I'll have to call you Friday to let you know what time. I never know how my schedule is working out until the last minute … what with emergencies and stuff."

"Yeah. I can imagine." Jessica looked into Tory's emerald eyes and smiled. "See you on Friday."

Jess watched the vet's truck head down the drive, and her thoughts turned to Rampage. She noticed her cane leaning against the porch railing and sighed. Tory's eyes faded from her mind and reality came flooding back. The anesthesia she had injected into her knee at lunch had long since worn off and it ached, but she needed to check on Rampage before she turned in. Jessica grabbed the cane and hobbled down the drive to the Creek Barn.

Rampage was lying down when she peeked into the stall. He got to his feet when she quietly slid the stall door back. Her throbbing leg, the long line of stitches across the stallion's chest and the memory of freezing at the water jump suddenly weighed heavily on her shoulders and her eyes began to fill with hot tears.

"Hey, I thought I heard someone down here." Skyler's low, rich voice was the last straw. Jessica leaned against Rampage's shoulder and choked back a sob.

"Jess, hey, what's the matter? Rampage is going to be fine." Skyler's face tensed with concern as she slipped into the stall and rested her hands on Jessica's shoulders. Jess turned and wrapped her arms around Skyler, sobbing into her chest.

Skyler stroked the shorter woman's back and held her close. After a while, Jessica's sobs turned to sniffles. Skyler pulled a bandana from the pocket of her jeans and dabbed at Jessica's tears. Jessica took the cloth from her and blew her nose into it. She laid her head again on Skyler's warm chest and realized that the trainer was wearing nothing under her thin T-shirt. "It seems I got your shirt wet … again," she said into Skyler's chest.

"It's OK," Skyler said softly. Jessica could feel the deep thumping of Skyler's heart against her ear. She rubbed her damp cheek against Skyler's breast to dry it, and she felt the nipple underneath the thin material harden. Jessica felt her own heart begin thumping in quick rhythm with Skyler's pounding pulse.

"I … I guess everything just closed in on me," Jessica said apologetically. She snuggled deeper into Skyler's strong embrace. God, this feels good. "Maybe I'm a little PMS, too."

"It's OK," Skyler repeated, stroking the dark, silky head. The rider's body fit perfectly against her own.

Jessica stared at the bandana in her hand. "Uh, I'll wash this and get it back to you."

"Don't worry about it. Keep it."

Jessica's head tilted back and she swept her pastel eyes up to Skyler's soft, dark ones. I wonder if she knows what those eyes do to me, each woman thought.

Jessica reached up and pulled Skyler's head down. Their lips met in a soft kiss. Skyler's mind raced. Did she just do that? Did I just let her do that? Oh, shit!

A tentative tongue requested entrance, and the trainer gently complied.

Jessica pulled away at last, her breath coming in light pants. Wow, does she taste good. Time to make a quick exit, Jess. We'll let her think about that for a while.

The rider gently pulled herself from the taller woman's embrace, smiled slightly, and limped away to the house.

The startled trainer put her fingers to her lips and stared at Rampage. The big horse snorted at her.

"Hey, don't be so jealous," Skyler chuckled. "All I got were her lips. You get to feel those beautiful legs wrapped around you every day. Want to trade?"



Chapter 6

Since Rampage had a few days off, Jessica helped Skyler work with the youngsters under her charge. Charlie and Trekker were just starting to take small jumps, while Jamie was showing real promise on the short cross-country course. Scott, who preferred western riding, was working on reining patterns - the western version of dressage.

"Hey, Jess. Skyler has the afternoon off, so we were wondering if you would like to go trail riding with us this afternoon?" Charlie's eyes begged for an affirmative answer. He saw Jessica look toward Rampage's stall. "I know Rampage is resting, but you could take Kate's horse, Summer. I already asked and she said it was OK."

Jessica hesitated. Hmm. ConairCon Air's stall is empty, too. Wonder if Skyler's out riding? "Sure, Charlie. That sounds like fun. Just give a few minutes to saddle Summer. Can you show me where her bridle is?"

When the four were saddled, they headed for the trails that wound through the surrounding woods and mountains. It was a perfect day for trail riding. A warm summer sun shone down from blue, cloudless sky. It was probably the last brief warm spell they would enjoy before fall set in and winter was on the way. Tall pines shaded the trails as they wound up one mountain.

"It looked like ConairCon Air was gone. You think Skyler is out riding?" Jessica asked the kids.

Scott smiled smugly. "I'll bet I know where she is," the older boy leered. It normally wasn't a secret he'd give up, but at the age of 13, the first surges of testosterone already had begun to cloud his thinking. He wanted to impress the group.

Scott took the lead and headed for a steep path up the mountain. When they neared the top, he stopped and turned to them. "You have to get off your horses," he said with a conspiratorial smile. "And be quiet." He led them to a ledge and pointed downward.

On a ledge below, Skyler's nude body was sprawled on a blanket. She lay dozing on her back, bathed in hot sunlight, and with book open at her side. I always wondered why she never had tan lines no matter what she wore, Jessica thought.

"I came across her one day when I came up here to see if I could get close to that eagle's nest," Scott leered.

The others stared blankly before Jessica regained her senses and pushed them back from the ledge. She turned a stern face on the three kids. "It's not nice to invade someone's privacy," she scolded. "Skyler works day and night at the center, and we shouldn't be intruding on the few hours that she takes off for herself."

Charlie and Jamie looked embarrassed, but Scott smirked.

"We're not disturbing her. She doesn't even know we're here. She shouldn't take her clothes off out here if she doesn't want someone to look. Besides, why should she care about us looking? From what they say around the barn, Sky's not exactly a nun anyway."

Charlie looked puzzled and Jamie stared at her shoes. Jessica's eyes flamed. "That's enough, Scott. You three mount up and ride back to the barns right now."

"Yeah, what are you going to do?" Scott sneered. "Stay here and have all the fun?"

Jessica grabbed the boy by his shirt and shoved him toward his horse. "Now, Scott. You don't want to see me really mad!"

The boy shot her a sullen look, but mounted up and followed the other two down the trail. Jess could see that ConairCon Air was tethered under a nearby shade tree and she looked for a path that led down to Skyler's ledge. A smile crept onto Jessica's face as a plan began to form in her mind.

Jessica left Summer tied to a tree at the top of the path so that the horse's steps wouldn't give away her element of surprise. She stepped carefully and she crept around the last boulder that sheltered Skyler's sunny ledge from the path.

It was the sharp intake of breath that nearly gave her away when her eyes settled on the athletic figure that now lay only a few feet away. Skyler was in a restful slumber, warmed by the sun that caressed her lean form. Jess' eyes flowed down the broad, sculpted shoulders, past small firm breasts, across a taut, muscled abdomen, lingered on the triangle of light brown curls that began Skyler's long, very sexy legs. Easy, Jess. Time to have a little fun. Ignore that little voice that is telling you to strip off you clothes and fling yourself on that incredible body.

"Um… sorry to interrupt." Jessica remembered Skyler's words when she surprised Jessica in the hot tub and now repeated them gleefully. She saw Skyler's body jerk in surprise, and then relax as she recognized the voice. A small smile emerged as Skyler popped one eye open in the glaring sun.

"You are interrupting, but it is OK." She struggled with her impulse to cover her body as the blue eyes raked over her. It never bothered me to parade in front of other women. Why do I feel like she's staring past my skin and right into my soul? Skyler crossed her ankles and casually reclined on her elbows. "How'd you know where I was?"

"I didn't. It seems that Scott knows about your sunning habit and his testosterone just wouldn't let him keep it secret."

"Ah, well. He would have learned about female anatomy sooner or later." Skyler shaded her eyes with one hand. "Where are they?"

"I sent them back to the barn," Jess replied.

Skyler's were questioning, then smug. "Want to join me?"

Jessica looked around. She really hadn't planned what to do after she surprised Skyler. She had expected the trainer to jump up and put her clothes on.

Skyler read Jessica's hesitation with satisfaction. Not waiting for an answer, she stood up and sauntered toward the rider. Jessica's heart began to beat wildly. She remembered Skyler's soft lips in Rampage's stall a few days before and it made her groin tingle with desire.

Skyler stopped only inches from Jessica's lips, then reached around her and pulled her clothes from the rock close behind the rider.

"On second thought, we should be getting back. We can't be sure the boys went back like you told them."

Jessica realized she was holding her breath and let it out slowly. Skyler's slow smile made even her good knee feel weak.

It was Skyler's intention to turn and leave while Jessica was still off balance, but she felt those blue eyes caress her body silently as she pulled her clothes on. She started toward where ConairCon Air was tethered, but suddenly turned back, unable to deny the desire that burned her. She took Jessica in her arms and captured those full lips. Skyler's kiss startled Jessica, but she quickly recovered and ran her tongue along gentle lips to ask entrance into Skyler's hungry mouth. Ripples of heat ran through both women and Jessica groaned into Skyler's kiss. They both struggled to slow their breathing as Skyler pulled back, her eyes glowing with passion.

"Race you down back to the barn," Skyler's sultry voice invited.

Jessica hesitated only a minute, and then scrambled up the trail to mount Summer while Skyler tightened her saddle on ConairCon Air. The two raced down the trail, but as they galloped up to the barn Jessica recognized Tory's truck parked outside Creek Barn. Oh god, it's Friday. Dinner. I forgot. This is going to be uncomfortable.

Tory greeted them both with a smile.

Damn, I didn't plan to run into the vet. The trainer's hormones were screaming with the anticipation of one hot, young rider, cool white sheets and long, passionate kisses. She couldn't stand it any longer - spending her days with Jessica within touching distance and her nights the beautiful rider invading her dreams.

Tory turned to Jessica. "Hi, Jess. I called a while ago to see if you were ready to go to dinner. When Kate said you were out riding, I just decided to head on over here. You want change to real quick and head to town?"

Jessica hesitated and looked at the surprise on Skyler's face. "Tory had asked me out to dinner tonight," she explained to Skyler. "I guess it just slipped my mind." She turned to Tory. "I guess I didn't realize how late it was. I still need to unsaddle Summer and rub her down."
Tory looked from Jessica to Tory and back to Jessica. She smiled a tight smile. "That's all right. You go shower and change. I'll take care of Summer and pick you up at the house in about 30 minutes."

Jessica hesitated. Her eyes bounced between Skyler and Tory. There's no way of getting out of this awkward situation unless I go along. I like Tory. I really don't want to hurt her feelings. "Thanks. I'll go get ready." She turned quickly because she didn't want to see the disappointment on Skyler's face.

Skyler and Tory worked silently to unsaddle and rub down the horses. Finally Tory spoke. "So what's going on between you and Jessica?"

"I don't know what you mean," Skyler replied without looking at her.

"I get the distinct feeling that I interrupted something."

"We were just out for a ride." Skyler hesitated. Shit, that didn't sound very convincing. "I mean, I was out riding and she was out riding with some of the kids. We ran into each other and rode back together."

Tory stared at Skyler, deciding if she should continue.

"Sky, Jessica is a really nice person. Kate told me everything she's been through this year. She really needs something good and stable to hold onto."

Skyler turned, crossed her arms over her chest and stared hard at Tory. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that as much as I like you, your track record speaks for itself. Jess doesn't need her heart broken, and she's more than just a roll in the sheets."

Skyler dropped her eyes and stared at the ground. Her jaw worked in frustration, but she knew Tory spoke the truth. "I'm just her trainer. Go take her to dinner. She deserves a night out," she said miserably.

"OK," Tory said softly. She put Summer in her stall and left in her truck to pick up Jessica.

Skyler dug the toe of her boot into the dirt and fought the sick ache in her chest. She's right. Kate's right. Jessica deserves better than me. What makes me think I won't want to walk away once I get her in the sack?

Skyler stomped up the stairs to her apartment and slammed the door in frustration.


Despite Jessica's frustration at the interruption in her plans to seduce Skyler, she found dinner a relaxed and enjoyable affair. Conversation with Tory was easy. They talked about horses at first, but later found they both enjoyed reading and women's professional basketball.

The house was dark except for the porch light that Kate left on for Jessica. Tory followed Jess to the door and paused. "I had a really good time, Jess," Tory said softly. "I think we have a lot in common. Kate will tell you I'm a pretty decent person, and I think you should know right up front that I'm interested in more than just your friendship."

Jessica stared up into Tory's emerald eyes. "Tory, I … I'm just concentrating on Rampage and getting my leg well right now. I don't now how much more I want to deal with on top of that."

Tory smiled. "I understand. I am a patient woman." She reached down and tilted Jessica's chin toward her, placing a soft, lingering kiss on Jessica's lips. Pulling back only inches from Jessica's face, Tory watched her reaction through half-lidded eyes. "Goodnight," she said softly before turning to leave.

Jessica stood on the porch and watched the vet leave. Her eyes left the truck and wandered to the Creek Barn, a dark hulk under the light of a nearly full moon. She started down the steps toward the barn, but hesitated at the bottom. Should I wake Skyler up? How do I feel about Tory? Oh geez! Why is life so complicated?

Jessica walked back up the steps. Like Scarlett said, I'll worry about it tomorrow … after my ovaries calm down.

The figure in the dark window of Creek Barn stood still as Jessica started down the steps, then hesitated and went back in the house. The ache in Skyler's chest seemed as though it would burn a hole in her heart. More like a hole in my stomach. My luck with women has never been good. When am I going to accept that? Skyler took another long drink from the bottle of peach brandy that had been keeping her company most of the evening. She heard a faint scratching at her apartment door. When she opened it, a fat orange cat shot though the opening and headed right for Skyler's bed.

A crooked smile played across Skyler's face. "Oh well, looks like the best offer I'm going to get tonight," she teased the tomcat. She stripped off her clothes and climbed into bed as the cat snuggled into the pillow on the other side of the bed. "I guess we're just two old toms past our prime, Peach."

She slid under the covers and closed her eyes against the ache in her chest. But closing her eyes didn't stop the visions of Jessica's bare backside floating in the Jacuzzi, incredible pale blue eyes and soft lips that haunted her brandy-induced dreams.


The memory of Skyler's lips burned in Jessica's mind the next day and she was anxious to have the trainer alone for a few minutes. She was frustrated and puzzled when Skyler appeared chipper, but somewhat distant toward her. Skyler seemed to be making sure they were never alone. She suggested that Jessica run Rampage through some light dressage exercises, and then progress on to his Saturday gallops.

But Skyler didn't take up her usual post to watch. Instead, she left Jessica alone to her work and spent the morning working with the kids and a new colt that was brought into her barn earlier in the week.

Tory showed up in the late afternoon and persuaded Jessica to take in a movie with her in town. Irritated that Skyler seemed to be ignoring her, Jessica accepted the invitation.

After the movie, Tory took her to an upscale women's bar. The patrons were professional women and a single performer played tunes on a baby grand in the corner.

Jessica sipped on the drink Tory placed before her and watched several women dancing.

"A penny for your thoughts," Tory said quietly.

Jessica blushed. "I'm sorry. I guess I am just wondering about something." Tory cocked a questioning eyebrow. "You may not want to talk about this, but I was wondering what the real story is on Skyler. What exactly happened that got her blacklisted from the circuit?"

Tory gave a deep sigh. "I guess the best way to get her off your mind is to for you to know it all.

"Skyler was one of the first kids to go though the equestrian program at Cherokee Falls. Her talent as a rider was exceptional, and with the Parker family backing, she was working in no time as a professional rider for hire. The problem was that she also had a wild streak in her. Her downfall was her tendency to seduce rich, straight women. It was like a conquest for her. Maybe it was a way for her to get back at the rich since she had grown up poor.

"She overplayed her hand, though, when she went after Sarah Berrington Tate. She made the mistake of falling in love with Sarah. Sarah, of course, wasn't married, but they didn't hide their affair very well and her father soon found out. He gave Sarah an ultimatum: either she drop Skyler or he would drop her from his will. Sarah had grown up accustomed to a privileged life. She wasn't anxious to share a barn apartment with Skyler and have to work for her money. Skyler was crushed. Old man Tate got the word around and managed to get Skyler blacklisted as a rider. Nobody would hire her, so she had to wait tables, groom horses, muck stalls or whatever else to eat.

"That's when Kate came to her rescue. She gave Skyler a job training horses and equestrians. Skyler rarely goes to any of the shows, however. She hasn't seen Sarah since the night Sarah told her that money meant more to her than Skyler. At least, I don't think she has. Sarah really hurt her. Since then, Skyler has kept her heart well protected, opting mostly for one-night stands she picks up in bars or married women who she knows won't leave their husbands' money."

"That really sucks," Jessica said sadly.

"Jessica…" Tory's eyes sought Jessica's and held them in an intense gaze. "Don't underestimate how damaged Skyler is. Although the Parkers carefully protect the background of the kids that go through the program, I do know that Skyler was the victim of an abusive parent. Sarah was the first time she ever let herself open up to another person. I'm not sure she could trust someone enough to fall in love again. Some really good women have tried, but only been hurt. Skyler knows her limitations. If you guys started something and she backed off, it could be because she values your friendship too much to encourage anything more. You should respect that. She wouldn't have backed off if she didn't care."

Jessica turned that over in her mind. I guess that was what Kate was trying to tell me, too.

"On the other hand, now I would love to cultivate more than a friendship with you," Tory smiled warmly. She held out her hand to Jessica. "Would you like to dance?"

Jessica smiled and took her hand. Tory was an excellent dancer and they glided smoothly across the floor. Tory's arms were strong around her and Jessica felt safe and relaxed in her embrace. Jessica leaned into Tory's breast and closed her eyes. There was no denying that the veterinarian was very attractive. Many of the women in the bar had been eyeing both of them all evening. Tory turned Jessica's face up toward hers and pressed warm, soft lips against Jessica's forehead. Jessica reached up and pulled Tory's face closer and captured her lips in a kiss that made the taller woman's knees go weak.

Across town, the tall trainer stepped into a dimly lit bar not quite as upscale as the piano bar Tory had picked out for Jess. The walls and floor vibrated with the disco music spun by a disc jockey in a booth overlooking a strobe-lit dance floor. At one end of the bar, denim-clad women gathered around four pool tables and leaned casually against the wall watching the action and the dancers. Her faded Levis and thin, sleeveless Lycra shirt accented her muscular physique, and many eyes followed her from the door to the bar where she requested bourbon neat from the bartender.

"So, Skyler Reese is on the prowl tonight," teased the bartender.

Skyler smirked. "Pickings are getting slim around the barn, Mindy."

The bartender ran her fingers through her short dark hair. "Well, I don't know that there is much here you haven't already had or turned down," she laughed. "There is a really cute blonde I haven't seen in here before. Seems to be single, just hanging out with friends."

Skyler's eyes traveled to the table Mindy indicated with a subtle nod of her head. The trainer shrugged her disinterest. "Not what I'm looking for," she said.

"One day, Sky, you're going to reach a point where you have to go out of town to find what you're looking for," Mindy admonished.

Skyler's eyes settled on a short woman with long, dark hair who was leaning uncertainly against the wall near the pool tables. Not exactly Jess, but close enough if she doesn't talk, she thought. "That is more my style tonight."

Mindy's eyes followed Skyler's stare. "Hold on, Ace. She's just here for the weekend, and Robbie has already been courting that one," Mindy warned, indicating a stocky woman who was bent over the pool table. "In fact, I think she's trying to impress the girl right now with her billiards expertise," the bartender added sarcastically.

Skyler studied the lay of the land for a moment. She watched Robbie sink a bank shot and toss a smile at the dark-haired woman. The woman returned a weak smile.

"Give me another bourbon and one of what she's drinking, Mindy."

The bartender moved to pour the drinks. "Shit, Skyler. Don't go starting anything. We make all our money on the weekends, and I don't need the cops hanging around here and scaring my customers off."

"No sweat. I'll whisk that girl right out from under Robbie before she knows what has happened."

The bartender shook her head as Skyler took the two drinks and began making her way across the room. The trainer leaned against the wall next to the dark-haired woman.

"Are you waiting a turn at the pool table," Skyler asked her casually.

"Uh, no. I'm just watching," the woman said tentatively.

Well, she doesn't have Jess' sexy voice, but those eyes are blue!

The woman began to eye Skyler with interest. The smooth trainer turned a brilliant smile on her new acquaintance. "Looks like you could use another drink."

The woman looked down at her empty glass, then at the drink Skyler extended to her. "Mindy, the bartender told me what you were drinking."

The blue eyes softened with amusement. "Oh, you're smooth."

Skyler rewarded her with her cutest, crooked smile. "I'm Skyler Reese. And you are …"

The woman hesitated before a small smile crept across her lips. "Laurie Thompson."

"Ah. What are you doing in Cherokee Falls, Laurie Thompson?"

"I install computer systems for a software company. I've been in town all week to install a new system at the Savings and Loan. I'll probably finish next week, and head back to Seattle. That's where I live."

Skyler smiled. Perfect. Short-term and no strings attached.

The trainer's maneuvers had not gone unnoticed. Robbie glowered at them as she missed a shot at the eight ball and scratched the cue ball to lose the game while the other player still had most of her balls left to sink.

She threw her cue down and stalked over to Skyler and Laurie as the deejay began a new dance tune. She ignored Skyler. "How about a dance, Laurie?" the stocky woman asked Laurie.

Skyler raised her eyebrows when Laurie turned a questioning face her way. She handed her drink to Robbie, who took it, thinking Laurie wanted her to put it somewhere safe for her. "Actually, I had just told Skyler here that I would dance with her. You seemed tied up shooting pool. Do you mind holding my drink for me?"

Robbie stuttered in surprise as Skyler took Laurie's hand and guided her expertly to the dance floor.

"You're pretty smooth yourself," Skyler chuckled as they walked away from a stunned Robbie.

Skyler moved in a slow and sexy four-beat time to the eight-beat music. Laurie turned out to also be a very good dancer, mimicking the trainer's timing. She watched Skyler through her thick eyelashes. Whoa, this woman is so sexy! This is one night I'm glad to be out of town with a hotel room all to myself, Laurie thought. She moved closer to the tall, blonde woman and was rewarded with a lustful smile when she moved her hips in perfect sync with her dance partner's.

Robbie still glowered from the edge of the dance floor, watching every suggestive movement between the two dancers.

They danced through two songs, then Skyler pulled her close when the third song slowed the tempo. Laurie's eyes were hungry, and Skyler kissed her deeply as she pressed their bodies together. Laurie ran her hands along Skyler's strong back, marveling at the woman's lean frame. No sense wasting time, the smaller woman thought.

"Let's get out of here," Laurie suggested. "I'm staying at the Marriott."

Skyler smiled her agreement and they headed for the door.

"Hey, Reese. Just where do you think you are going?" Robbie moved between them and the exit.

Skyler was nonchalant. "Well, Robbie. Laurie here has invited me up to her hotel room, and I accepted. So, if you will excuse us."

The stocky woman held her ground. "I'm sick and tired of you waltzing in this bar like you own it and every woman in it, Reese."

"I'm not looking for trouble, Robbie. We were just leaving." Skyler steered Laurie around Robbie and was about to follow when the woman's fist connected with Skyler's left eye.

Mindy was immediately at her side, restraining Robbie and hustling her to a nearby chair. Another large woman who worked as the bar bouncer stood over Robbie, assuring she would remain seated.

"Tell me you don't want to press charges, Sky," Mindy pleaded.

Skyler touched her cheekbone to feel the swelling, but shook her head. "No. Just keep her in here until we can get out of the parking lot."

"You got it." Mindy sighed in relief. "You should put an ice pack on that eye. You'll probably have a pretty good shiner tomorrow."

Skyler nodded and nudged Laurie toward the door.


Alcohol and a burning desire for the elusive ebony-haired rider with pale blue eyes fueled a lusty, sex-filled night between Laurie and Skyler. But the encounter Skyler sought to quell her need, only left her feeling empty. There was no substitute for the woman who haunted her every thought.

The trainer had forgotten about her eye until she crept home just before feeding time and looked in the mirror after climbing out of the shower. Damn you, Robbie. You sucker-punched me a good one.

Her bad mood lifted suddenly when she heard Jessica's voice downstairs near Rampage's stall. She dried her hair and dressed quickly to sprint down to the barn. Her dark mood descended again when she saw it was Tory, not Rampage Jess was talking to while she mucked the stallion's stall.

"Whoa, Sky! Who gave you that shiner? You must have been out prowling around the wrong woman last night," Tory grinned.

Jessica's head jerked around, and Skyler scowled.

"That new colt head-butted me when I was working him in the round pen," she lied.

Jessica walked over for a better look, grasping Skyler's chin to turn her face toward her. She stared hard at the trainer's bruised cheekbone, before puzzled blue eyes searched the pained brown ones for the truth. "Maybe you should have a doctor look at it."

Skyler looked away, afraid her eyes would reveal more than she wanted. She grasped Jess' small wrist, holding it for a moment before pulling the rider's hand from her face.

"I'm fine," she replied gruffly. "No reason to see a doctor for a simple black eye."

Jessica watched Skyler quickly tack up a colt she was breaking, and head for the round pen.

Why does she make my heart ache so? Why does it drive me crazy that she may have been barhopping last night, dancing with other women, maybe sleeping with other women? Why can't I get her out of my mind?



Chapter 6

The next month went by quickly. Because Jessica's knee didn't seem to bother her workouts as much anymore, Rampage's training settled sessions lengthened. They would taper off again later so that he would peak at the trials.

The tension between she and Skyler began to ease once Skyler seemed assured Jessica wouldn't cross the line from friendship to wanting something more. But because their workouts primarily now were to keep the horse and rider in shape, Skyler spent less time with the pair and more time on the kids and other clients.

Jessica's relationship with Tory also progressed. They went out a couple of times a week. Jessica always enjoyed herself, but was content to take the physical part of their relationship slow.

Skyler was keeping a low profile, seeming to have lost her lust for one-night stands. She threw herself in the youth equestrian program, spending hours training the kids and their horses, swimming with them in the center's pool and helping them with their homework in the afternoons.

Fall had begun to turn the center's hardwoods into an artist's palette of red, yellow and gold, and a nip to the air was energizing both riders and steeds. In a paddock behind Creek Barn, a group of kids were testing their mounts at a little barrel racing. The object of the contest was to run your pony the length of the arena, around first one, then a second barrel and race back across the arena in a shorter time than the other contestants. Skyler paused at the door of the barn and smiled as she watched. Man, what I wouldn't give to be a kid again and play without a care in the world.

Her smile faded when she saw Scott holding a quirt - a short limber whip made of braided rawhide - and showing it to the other boys. He waved to the boy holding a stopwatch, mounted his horse and headed for the barrels. He whipped the pony around the first barrel and aimed for the second. The pony was running hard, but slipped coming around the second barrel and struggled to recover. When he was back on his feet, Scott flogged him hard to make up the lost time.

Skyler's face flooded with anger at the sight of him whipping the young horse. She had already started for the paddock when she saw Scott quickly dismount, his face contorted with fury. He held the colt by the reins and whipped him repeatedly across the face. The young horse dragged the boy several feet, trying to escape his tormentor.

"Scott!" The large boy turned at the sound of Skyler's voice. She grabbed for the quirt, but Scott was quicker. He brought the whip across Skyler's face. "Stupid, bitch! Get out of my way!" he screamed.

He swung again at the trainer, but she was ready this time. Skyler ducked and grabbed Scott's hand that held the quirt. She twisted the arm to force the boy to the ground, and put a hard knee in his back. "I had better never, ever see you raise a hand to one of our horses again. Never, never, ever," Skyler growled through clenched teeth. Both boy and trainer were quiet for a moment, each trying to check their fury.

Charlie came running from West Barn with Sam in tow. "Skyler," Sam said softly. "Let him up. I'll take care of him." Skyler's face was scarlet and her jaw worked as she held the boy's face in the sand. Visions of her father's hand raising a thick belt to strike at her spun through her head and fed her anger. She stared up at Sam for a long minute before recognition began to register in her anger-glazed eyes.

Scott struggled underneath her strong grasp. "Get off me, dyke! You just let me up and I'll take care of you. I'm tired of a woman bossing me around."

Skyler looked down at Scott and then released him. Sam grabbed the boy by the collar when he stood up. "That's it, Scott. Let's go find Kate. It's time we talked about whether you should be here."

Jessica watched from the barn as a dejected Skyler led the colt toward her. She cross-tied him in the wash stall and spoke soothing words to the anxious animal as she examined his head and eyes closely for injury. "Well, he looks OK, but we better keep an eye on him," Skyler told Jamie who stood at her elbow. "How about rubbing him down for me and putting him in the last stall for tonight," she told the girl.

"Sky?" the girl hesitated. "You couldn't help it. Someone had to stop him. The truth is that all the other kids are afraid of Scott. We'll be glad it they throw him out of the program."

Skyler breathed a deep sigh. "That will be up to Kate, Jamie."

When the girl led the colt away, Skyler leaned her forehead against the wall of the wash stall and closed her eyes. Her hands began to shake as tortured memories of the beatings she received from her father flooded back.

Jessica laid her hand on Skyler's shoulder. "Hey, you OK?"

After a moment, Skyler turned and looked into the eyes that seemed to pierce her very soul. Jess touched the blood oozing from the welt on Skyler's cheek. "That's a nasty cut. We better clean it up. Do you have some first aid stuff around?"

Skyler cleared her throat. "In my medicine cabinet upstairs."

"Come on. Let me take care of that for you." Jessica took Skyler's hand and guided her up the stairs. She sat Skyler on the bed of the small, neat apartment and went to find the first aid supplies in the bathroom. When she returned, Skyler's shoulders were slumped and her head bowed, silent tears trickling down her tanned cheeks.

Jessica knelt before her and spoke softly as she wiped at a tear with her finger. "Hey, what's this, tough stuff?"

Skyler gave a hard shake of her head and struggled to regain her composure in front of the other woman. After a moment, she spoke in a low voice. "I just hate to see us fail any kid. It's not Scott's fault. He's just got a lot of demons to deal with and it comes out in temper tantrums. I never should have roughed him up like that. I just can't seem to stop being a fuck-up."

Jessica moved to sit on the bed next to the desolate trainer. "Sky, you can't save them all. Scott needs more help than a few good role models and horses to play with. It has nothing to do with you failing him." She gently cleaned the welt with a peroxide-soaked cotton ball. "You are so good to these kids. Jamie and Charlie idolize you. You've helped so many. You shouldn't beat yourself up because one came along who needs professional counseling." I can't believe this strong, confident woman is so emotionally fragile.

Skyler avoided Jessica's eyes as Jess laid her hand on the trainer's damp cheek and gently turned Skyler's face toward her. "You have such a big heart. I don't know why you spend so much time trying to convince people you are just a rascal," she smiled.

Skyler raised her eyes to Jessica's face and felt herself drowning in a sea of pale blue. "I … I am a rascal," she said hesitantly with a small smile.

Jessica leaned close to touch her lips to Skyler's warm mouth. Skyler hesitated before her mouth responded, her tongue tentative. She pulled away, her eyes darkened with emotion as she fought the confusion spinning in her head. "I … I thought you were seeing Tory."

Jessica's eyes were pleading. Her face flushed with desire. Her voice was husky. "Oh, Sky. It's you who makes my mouth go dry and my heart race, no matter how much I try to deny it. I don't care if you don't want me tomorrow."

Skyler jumped up, nearly throwing Jessica onto the floor. "No! You deserve better, Jess. Kate knows it. Tory knows it. Hell, I know it!"

"You are wrong, Skyler Reese. You are what I need. You are what I want, no matter how hard you and everybody else work to change my mind."

Skyler stood trembling, staring at the floor. This wasn't fair. She was upset and venerable. Right now, there was nothing she needed more than to feel Jessica's arms around her - holding her tight and keeping her safe.

"What else, Skyler. I know you feel the same way, but there is something else," Jessica pleaded. "Just tell me that you don't want me, and I'll leave you alone," she said softly.

"I'm scared." It was a whisper so soft, Jessica almost missed it.

She reached up to cup Skyler's face in her warm, delicate hands. "Why Sky? Why are you afraid of me?"

The dark eyes that raised to meet her own were enough to break her heart. She waited as the trainer's throat worked to get the words to her lips. "I'm scared because you're not like the rest." Skyler's gaze dropped to the floor. "I'm crazy about you. I can't just sleep with you and move on."

Jessica placed her hands on Skyler's shoulders and gently pushed her back onto the bed, capturing her mouth in a passionate kiss. She stroked Skyler's cheek as their eyes locked. "That's good. Because I'm crazy about you, too," she whispered.

Jessica sat up, straddling Skyler's hips, and pulled her shirt over her head, exposing creamy shoulders and a taut abdomen. She slipped her warm hands under Skyler's shirt and her eyes asked permission. Skyler tugged at her own shirt and Jessica sighed at the golden skin now exposed and the soft swell of breasts under the white sports bra. She laid her face against Skyler's warm chest and closed her eyes to focus on the heart beating wildly beneath her cheek.

Her lips began a journey to taste the smooth shoulders, graceful curve of the neck and delicate ears. Her nails raked gently across the trembling abdomen. Skyler shivered under her touch. "Oh god, Jess. I don't know about this…."

Jessica held Skyler's face in her hands looked deep into her anxious eyes. "I want to know the real Skyler. I want to dance with you bareback," she whispered in the tall woman's ear.

Skyler blocked out the warning sirens sounding in her head as Jessica removed the last clothe barriers between their chests. She pulled Jess down onto her body and savored the touching of their breasts - warm, tanned skin against pale, flushed skin. Jessica cupped the soft swell of Skyler's breasts. She moved slowly to delight in each touch, each taste as would a condemned prisoner experiencing a last meal.

Skyler's mouth hungrily sought out Jessica's full lips and she moaned her passion into her lover's throat. Jessica moved away, sliding down and pulling off Skyler's riding boots. She reached for Skyler's belt, but paused before unbuckling it. "I want all of you. I want to feel all of you on all of me," she said in a husky voice.

The women were naked in moments. Skyler's eyes were wide, caught off balance by the smaller woman's assertive seduction. Jessica's kisses grew more urgent as her mouth roamed the trainer's lean, muscular body and stoked a fire Skyler thought had been long dead inside her.

The taller woman quickly flipped their positions so that she now hovered over Jessica. She looked in awe at the blue-eyed, raven-haired beauty. "You are so beautiful. I can't believe how beautiful you are," Skyler whispered. She covered the smaller body with hers and planted soft, caressing kisses from Jessica's ear to her breast. She took each taut nipple - one a time - into her mouth, tasting and stroking with her tongue. Jessica's body arched to meet her lover's mouth while her gentle hands caressed Skyler's breasts.

Skyler slipped her arm underneath Jessica's arched back and stroked the firm buttocks, pressing Jessica's hips against her own. She straddled Jessica's leg and pressed their hips together. The moisture of her lover's readiness fanned the flames consuming the trainer's groin. "Oh, Jess," Skyler breathed in the rider's ear.

"Don't tease," Jessica begged.

Skyler cradled Jessica in her arms as she ran her tongue across a tender nipple. She thought her heart would burst at the sound of her lover's pleading. "I just don't want to miss even one inch of you." She slid along her lover's body to taste the inside of Jessica's muscled thigh. Skyler paused to lock eyes once more with the blue ones now darkened with passion, then lowered her mouth to ignite the flames of her lover's desire. Her own desire was building with every caress of her tongue across the throbbing sex arching up to meet her lips. When she felt Jessica nearing climax, Skyler moved up to again straddle the strong thigh. She slowly dipped her fingers into Jessica's soft center. Jessica pressed her thigh between Skyler's long legs and found her lover slick with anticipation. Their hips moved together in a perfect, rhythmic dance, and in moments both cried out as release flooded their sweat-slick bodies.

They lay without speaking for a long time as they struggled to slow their breathing. Skyler had rolled over on her back and pulled Jessica up to rest the dark head on her shoulder. Her arms wrapped around the rider, Skyler's hands softly caressed Jessica's warm back. "Jess, I …"

"Just let it be, Sky. Let's just don't analyze this and let this go where it will. You and I both know you shouldn't make promises you may not be able to keep."

Skyler was quiet. After a moment, she spoke. "I was just going to say that you make my mouth go dry and my heart beat fast, too."

Jessica's blue eyes swept up to bronze ones. She slid her body along Skyler's to reach the smiling lips that beckoned her. She captured Skyler's mouth and hungrily probed it with an insistent tongue. She began to blaze a slow trail of kisses and caresses downward as Skyler's legs trembled and her breathing rasped. "You're going to wear me out, woman!"

"I plan to treat every night we spend together as if it is our last," Jessica murmured between sweet kisses she placed inside the taller woman's parting thighs.


It was near dawn when Jessica finally left Skyler's sleepy embrace and headed up to the house. She crept up the stairs so she wouldn't wake Kate and Charlie, but when she opened her bedroom door, there was a small boy sleeping in a tight ball on Jessica's bed.

She took a quick shower, pulled on some boxer shorts and a clean T-shirt and crawled into the bed beside the boy. Charlie snuggled into Jessica's arms and rubbed his eyes. "Where were you, Jess? I've been looking for you."

"I'm here now, Charlie. Did you have a bad dream or just feeling lonely?" she said softly, stroking the dark head.

The boy began to cry. "Kate said my uncle is coming to get me today, Jess. I don't want to go. I want to stay here with you and Kate," he sobbed.

"Oh, Charlie. I wish you could, too. But you need to give your uncle a chance. He is your mother's younger brother and from what I hear, he very anxious for you to come live with him." The boy tightened his grip around Jessica's ribs as if he could stay by holding tighter. "Tell you what. I'll stick close to you all day, OK. If this uncle doesn't seem like a great guy, I'll personally tell him you are a horrible boy and cause lots of trouble so he should leave you here. How's that?"

Jessica hoped for a smile, but got only a sniffle and a trembling, "OK, Jess" from her small friend. She rubbed his back until she felt him relax and drift off the sleep. She closed her eyes, too, and fell into a deep, restful sleep laced with dreams of a certain blonde trainer.

It seemed only moments later when Kate knocked loudly and swung Jessica's bedroom door open. She stood with her mouth open in surprise as it registered in her mind that the lump in Jessica's bed was too large for one person. Jessica opened her eyes and smiled at Kate. Placing a finger against her lips as a sign for Kate to stay quiet, she lifted the blanket to expose Charlie's dark head resting on Jess' T-shirt-clad stomach.

Kate's face broke into a sad smile. "I was just coming to tell you he was missing," the large woman said softly. "I was afraid he had run away during the night." Kate reached over and gently shook the boy. "Hey, buddy. Want some breakfast? I made your favorite, pancakes and strawberries."

Charlie rubbed sleepy eyes. "Pancakes?"

Jessica's fingers tickled at his ribs. "Wow. That sounds great! I'm starving myself. Race you downstairs, Charlie."

In a flash, the sleepy boy was fully awake, jumping to the floor and running for the stairs before Jess could skirt around Kate. The older woman laughed heartily as their footsteps pounded down the stairs. She stopped and exhaled a deep sigh. "This house is never going to be the same," she said to the empty room.


Jessica worked to keep the breakfast conversation lively, hoping to take Charlie's mind off his impending departure. But as they finished off huge stacks of pancakes topped with syrup and strawberries, Charlie grew quiet.

"When's my uncle supposed to get here?" the boy asked.

"We're expecting him sometime after lunch," Kate said quietly. "Your uncle has already had the stuff from your mom's house shipped to his home in Atlanta. Do you have your clothes packed?"

"Yeah. I'm all packed," the boy said glumly.

Jessica brightened. "Hey, Charlie. Remember I told you that my mother lives in Atlanta? I can come see you, if you like, when I go to visit my mother a couple of times a year!"

"Really, Jess?" The boy's face brightened. "That would be great!"

"And you know what? How about we all pack a picnic and take a trail ride this morning. Your uncle won't be here until later."

"Oh, boy! You, too, Kate?"

"I'd love to, Charlie, but don't you think someone should stay here in case your uncle arrives early?" The truth was that she was going to have a hard time giving the boy up because they had grown close. She really needed time to compose her own feelings before Charlie would have to leave.

"Yeah, I guess," the disappointed boy frowned.

Jessica gave the boy a quick wink. "We can ride up to Skyler's sun bathing spot and picnic there."

"Do you think Skyler could come with us?"

"Well, only if she promises to keep her clothes on," Jessica smirked.

Kate turned a puzzled face to Jess. "Oh, Kate, I'll have to tell you that story another time," Jessica said with a crooked smile. The vision of Skyler's nude body stretched out in the sun that began to materialize in her mind brought a flush to her cheeks.

"OK," Kate rolled her eyes, wondering what latest escapade Skyler had been up to. "You two go change into riding clothes and I'll pack you a lunch. Then you guys take off. I've got a lot of work to do around here," she said, shooing them out of the kitchen.

Thirty minutes later, Jessica and Charlie were headed to Creek Barn with a scrumptious lunch packed in saddlebags slung over their shoulders. Kate watched them walk down the driveway and melancholy weighed heavily on her. Charlie's really hit a growth spurt. He's going to be a fine, tall man. Any man or woman would be proud to have him as a son. I would have been proud to have him as a son.


The pair found Skyler in the tack room, a small smile on her face as she worked the saddle leather. The smile broadened to a delighted grin when she saw them standing in the doorway.

"Hey, Sky," the boy said excitedly, "we've got a picnic packed and we want you to go with us on a trail ride. Kate said we could!"

Skyler's eyes traveled to Jessica, who gave a small nod of encouragement for the trainer to agree. "A picnic? I don't know how I can refuse that. You should have called me, though. I've already turned Trekker out. You'll have to go down the pasture and bring him back up to the barn."

"OK," the boy said gleefully. He grabbed a lead rope and ran toward the pasture.

"Thanks," Jessica said. "His uncle is coming to get him this afternoon. Kate thought it would be a good idea to keep his mind occupied until then. Actually, I think Kate wanted some time alone, too. She's trying to hide it, but I can tell she is taking his leaving pretty hard."

Skyler stood and walked over to Jessica. She placed her right hand on the wall by Jessica's head and leaned close. "I need something to keep my mind occupied, too, so I'll stop playing last night over and over in my head," she said in a husky voice.

Jess reached up to place cool hands on Skyler's warm, flushed cheeks. She pulled the taller woman's face down and pressed their lips together. "Last night isn't something I want you to forget, not even for a moment," she whispered into Skyler's warm lips. Skyler's arm snaked behind Jessica's waist to pull their bodies together and she deepened their kiss to a passionate embrace. The sound of hooves nearing the barn made them break the embrace, but intense blue eyes held Skyler's glazed ones a moment longer. Maybe I am breaking through that tough shell after all, Jessica thought.


It was perfect day for a trail ride. There was enough of an autumn nip in the air to have chased away the pesky deer flies that torment both horses and riders in the summer, but a cheerful sun shone from a deep blue, cloudless sky to warm their backs as they rode along the mountain trails littered with fallen leaves of red, yellow and gold.

The happy warmth that radiated between the two women was an unconscious salve to the anxious youngster. Jessica and Rampage led the way with Charlie and Trekker, then Skyler and ConairCon Air following. The boy grinned as he joined in their playful banter. When they turned down the path to Skyler's ledge, Jessica shot a smug glance over her shoulder toward Skyler. A surprised Skyler cocked a questioning eyebrow back at her. Charlie didn't miss the exchange, and ducked his head as a light blush colored his cheeks.

They dismounted at the ledge, and Skyler loosened the horses' saddles and replaced their bridles with halters to make them more comfortable before tying them to nearby trees. Jessica and Charlie spread a blanket on the smooth ledge and unpacked their lunch.

The sun shone warm on the exposed ledge, and Skyler began to remove her sweatshirt she wore over a short-sleeved Polo shirt. Charlie's face blanched white when he looked up and his mouth dropped open. "J…Jess. You said … you said she…," the boy stuttered but could not put his thoughts into words.

Jessica followed his stare to Skyler, but was at a loss at first to understand his distress. "O-oh," she said as realization dawned. Skyler stopped while she still had one arm in her sweatshirt.

"What?" she questioned as she looked at her companion's faces. "What's the matter?"

An amused smirk appeared below Jessica's laughing eyes. She was failing miserably in her efforts to look stern. "I told Charlie that you could come along only if you would keep your clothes on."

Now it was Skyler's mouth that dropped open. Her eyes flicked from Jess to Charlie and back again.

Jessica gave up her effort to look serious and grinned mischievously. "Charlie was with me the day Scott showed us your sunbathing spot. I think Charlie was afraid you were changing into your usual attire for this location - your birthday suit."

Skyler stared blankly at the boy whose face had turned a deep red. He dropped his eyes to the ground and said weakly, "I…I didn't look once I realized it was you, Sky," he said.

The trainer's shock turned to amusement. She walked over and kneeled next to the boy, placing an arm around his shoulders. She waited as he slowly raised her eyes to her face.

"I'm sure you didn't, Charlie," she said softly. "I was just taking my sweatshirt off because it was getting bit warm for me. But I want to explain something to you. Not that I would want people going around naked all the time, but the human body is nothing to be ashamed of. Neither you nor I should be ashamed that you caught me sunbathing, because you were a real gentleman by not staring once you realized you had by accident imposed on my privacy. You are a handsome young man and in a few years, you'll have plenty of girls interested in knowing you better." The boy wrinkled his nose at the prediction. "Now I'm telling you the truth: You'll be interested in them, too. When you find that happening, I want you to remember what a gentleman you were with me, and I want you to make me proud by treating those girls and their privacy with the same respect. Any male can be a man when they reach a certain age, but not every male is a gentleman. That's what will put you above the rest of the crowd. OK?"

The boy looked thoughtful, and the redness in his face began to fade. He smiled fondly at the trainer. "Sure, Sky. I'll remember."

Jessica's eyes filled as she watched the two. She loved the nurturing side of the tough trainer that came out only when she was around the children. She cleared her throat, and reached into the saddlebags. "Hey, ham sandwiches! I don't know about you guys, but I'm starved."

Charlie's eyes lit up. "Yeah, I could eat two!"

Jessica chuckled. "You must be having a growth spurt, buddy. I don't know where you put all that food. You ate as many pancakes as Kate and I did together this morning. Luckily, Kate knows your appetite and has packed more than enough sandwiches."

The lunch went by quickly as the three chatted and joked. It was well past noon when Jessica looked at her watch. "We better start packing up to head back," she said.

Charlie's face turned glum.

"Hey, buddy, don't look that way," Jess said softly. "I have a good feeling about your uncle. After all, he is your mother's younger brother and you loved your mom, right?" The boy nodded. "Then why not give your uncle a chance. Your mom would have wanted that, don't you think?" He nodded again and attempted a small smile.

"OK, Jess."

"OK, then. I bet the horses are getting tired of being tied up. Let's get everything together and head back to the center."

Jess glanced at Skyler, who stood with her arms folded over her chest, head cocked to one side and an odd expression on her face as she listened to Jess' conversation with the boy.

After repacking their saddlebags, the three rode back slowly in companionable silence. Each lost in his or her private thoughts.

As they drew close to the Creek Barn, Charlie's eyes grew anxious again at the sight of a strange SUV parked in front of the house. When they were tying the horses to the hitching posts in front of the barn, they were surprised when Kate walked out of the barn trailed by a 30-something, dark-haired man with the same brilliant blue eyes as Charlie.

"Hey, you guys are back!" Kate exclaimed. Charlie stood on the other side of Trekker, peeking under the horse's head at the man. The young man knelt down and beckoned the boy with a wave of his hand to come over to him. Charlie stepped timidly toward him.

"God, Charlie. Your uncle is a mirror image of you…only older," Jessica breathed.

The young man smiled without taking his eyes off the boy. "My sister, Karen - Charlie's mother - got the only blonde hair in the family," he said. He took a deep breath and spoke to the boy. "Hey, Charlie. I'm your Uncle Mark. You probably don't remember when I used to come visit you and your mom when you were younger. Although your mom and I have always been close, you haven't seen me in a while because my job has kept me out of the country for the past five years. I haven't seen you since you were about four years old."

The man's eyes filled with tears. "I'll never forgive Karen for not letting me know she was sick until it was too late for me to get back in the country to see her before she died. I loved my sister, and I miss her terribly." Mark held his arms out to the boy, and Charlie moved to him. The boy began to sob into the man's shoulder. "I miss Mom so much, too," he said between sobs.

Mark pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dried the boy's tears. "I know you don't want to leave Kate, Charlie, but the last time I talked to your mom, I promised her that the two of us would take care of each other for her. It's what she wanted for both of us, Charlie."

The boy looked thoughtfully into his uncle's eyes and nodded his agreement with a small smile. At that moment, a curdling yowl came from the depths of the barn and they all rushed in to see what horse was standing on Peach's tail.

Every hair stood out straight on the battle-scarred old tom as a chubby, black Labrador puppy jumped playfully around him. "Look out there fellow," Skyler laughed as she scooped the puppy up out of the reach of angry claws. "Peach probably isn't the best playmate for you, little guy."

Mark stepped forward and took the squirming puppy from Skyler. "Oh, so that's where you got off to." He looked up at the women. "I'm forgetting my manners. Hi, I'm Mark Peters." He offered his hand first to Skyler, then to Jessica.

"Oh, I'm afraid it's me who is forgetting her manners. Mark, this is the Creek Barn head trainer Skyler Reese, and this is Jessica Black, my goddaughter and a top rider.

Mark held the puppy up, facing Jess and Skyler. "I'd introduce this little fellow to you, but he doesn't have a name yet. That's going to be up to Charlie because this is his new puppy."

The boy's eyes grew wide. "Wow! He's mine? Thanks, Uncle Mark." Mark handed the puppy over to the excited boy. "I'm going name him Rascal. That's what I thought of when I saw him playing with Peach."

The adults laughed. "That's a great name," Mark smiled. He turned to the women as they watched the puppy joyfully lick at Charlie's face. "I don't know much about being a father, but I've had a lot of experience being a boy. I'm counting on that to get me and Charlie through without Karen here to supervise us," he grinned.

"Why don't we go sit on the porch for a while so we can get to know each other?" Kate suggested.

"Skyler and I will take care of the horses," Jessica said, "then we'll join you."

"OK," Kate said, "but don't be too long. Join us for dinner, Skyler?" She knew Skyler was as close the boy as she and Jessica were.

"Sure. I can do that. Sam owes me a favor. I'll ask him to make sure the Creek horses are fed and put up for the night so I'll be free."

"Great," Kate responded. "We'll be on the porch."


Jess and Skyler made quick work of rubbing the horses down and turning them out in the paddocks to relax before they were brought in to the barn for the night. Their eyes met often, and they exchanged smiles as they went about their tasks in the barn. Skyler turned the last horse out and headed to the tack room to hang up the halter and lead rope in her hand. When she stepped through the doorway Jessica's hand reached out and grabbed the trainer's shirt, pulling her close.

"I've been waiting all day to kiss you again, and I just can't wait any longer." Burying her hand in Skyler's sun-streaked locks, she pulled the taller woman's face down and kissed her deeply. Skyler pressed her body against Jessica's so that both women were breathless when they finally broke the embrace. Skyler leaned her forehead against Jessica's. "Think you would find your way back out here to the barn later tonight?" she begged softly.

"I thought you didn't back track down trails you've already ridden," Jessica teased.

"Maybe this trail is different. I don't think I explored it fully the first time." Skyler's voice was also teasing, but her eyes were serious.

"Leave your door unlocked. Maybe you'll get lucky," she smiled up at the trainer. This time it was Skyler who initiated a passionate kiss that made Jessica's knees go weak and her face flush with desire. "I sure hope so," Skyler whispered.


When Skyler and Jessica arrived at the house, the group moved to the back patio so they could put some steaks on the grill while they talked and Charlie played with Rascal.

"Are you heading out tonight, Mark?" Jessica asked.

Mark smiled at Kate. "Well, Kate has offered to put us up one more night so we can start out in the morning. That is if Charlie doesn't mind sharing his bedroom."

"Cool!" Charlie smiled. "I've got two twin beds in my room. You can stay with me."

"We have other guest rooms," Kate laughed at the boy.

"We guys will be fine bunking together. It'll give us more time to get to know each other. Right, Charlie?" Mark and Charlie exchanged smiles.

"Sure, Uncle Mark. Can Rascal bunk with us, too?"

Mark looked over at Kate. "I brought a crate that he sleeps in, so you don't have to worry about him messing up the carpet or chewing anything up."

Kate laughed. "I'm sure Rascal would be welcome."

Charlie ran to Kate and gave the large woman a big hug. "You're the best, Kate!"

"Stop it now," Kate said, daubing her eyes. "You're going to break an old woman's heart, hugging me like this and then leaving in the morning," she kidded.

"Well, there's something I'd like to talk with you about," Mark said.

"Go ahead, Mark. Skyler and Jessica are family to me. There's nothing I wouldn't discuss in front of them."

Mark looked fondly at Charlie. "Well, it took some doing, but when I talked to Karen and finally found out she was terminally ill. I began working things out with my company to bring me back to the U.S. You see, I work as an architect for an international firm. The deal I made with them was that I would work in Atlanta nine months out of the year while Charlie is in school, but I will have to do some overseas traveling during the summer months. I thought Charlie could spend his summers here until he is old enough to travel with me. That is, if it's OK. I'll be glad to pay his expenses while he is here."

Charlie's eye grew wide and he held his breath as he watched Kate's face for an answer. Kate held her arms out to Charlie and he shyly walked into her bear hug. "I think that is a wonderful idea! And you don't have to worry. Charlie does enough chores around here to pay his own way." The boy nodded to his uncle. "However, if you would like to come to our annual fund-raiser and make a donation that will help put another child in the same program Charlie has been participating in, we won't turn that down."

Mark laughed. "It would be my pleasure."

Rascal had been watching the adults intently, sensing a serious turn to the conversation. When Mark laughed, he began to bark excitedly.

"OK, Rascal. You're welcome during the summer, too, provided you don't torment Peach too much."

"Oh, I'm sure Peach can take care of himself. I'll just keep some band aids around for Rascal's nose!" Skyler said quickly.

Everyone laughed at the thought of the dog with a large bandage on his nose.


The house was quiet when Jessica slipped down the stairs after everyone had retired for the night. The cool night air and the fact that she hadn't injected her knee that day made her leg ache. The pain, though, was no match for her desire to be with Skyler again. She trotted down the drive with a determined limp, her heart racing with the anticipation of lying next to Skyler's nude body again.

She climbed the stairs to the trainer's apartment quietly and slowly opened the door. The apartment was dark except for flickering candlelight coming from the bathroom. "Skyler?" she called softly.

"In here, Jess," came Sky's low, sultry voice.

When Jessica stepped into the doorway a slow, sexy smile spread across her face. Skyler was sitting chest deep in a whirlpool bathtub full of bubbles. The warm light of nearly 20 candles illuminated her sculpted features. She smiled at Jessica. "Join me?"

Jessica slowly began to strip off her clothes as Skyler's eyes followed every graceful movement. When she finally stood before Skyler completely naked, the trainer sighed. "God, Jess. You are so beautiful." She held out her hand and Jessica took it in hers before stepping in the tub and sliding down to lay her body on top of Skyler's. Their gaze drank in each other's eyes. Skyler reached up to release Jessica's French braid and let the silky dark locks spread across her shoulders. They moved to press seeking mouths together. "Let's go slow tonight," Skyler whispered. "I want to savor every moment with you."

"Do you say that to all the girls?" Jess teased. Skyler stiffened and closed her eyes. "Hey, I was just teasing," Jess said with concern. She saw fear and hurt in Skyler's eyes when she finally opened them again. "Baby, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you or pressure you."

Skyler's face was serious. "Do you say that to all the girls you've been with?"

Jessica's eyes softened and gazed lovingly into Skyler's. "No." She took a deep breath and decided to plunge forward. "I've never felt about anyone the way I feel toward you," she said quietly. "I'm in love with you, Skyler. You are always on my mind. I dream about you. When we are together, I feel content and complete. I know you have been hurt badly in the past, and find it impossible to trust. So, I'm going to stick my neck out first and let you know exactly how I feel. Not telling you won't make it any less painful if you choose to turn away."

Skyler's eyes filled with tears. Jessica's heart stopped as Skyler looked away for several long, tortuous moments. A mixture of feelings crossed her face before she finally looked back into Jessica's eyes. Her voice was strained. "Oh, Jess. I've tried not to fall in love with you, but my heart - scarred as it is - just wouldn't let me. You fill my every thought. Nobody has done that since … well, for a very, very long time. I really didn't think I had it in me to feel this way again."

Jessica leaned forward to capture Skyler's lips, but her leg slipped in the tub and she grimaced as pain shot through her knee. "What's the matter? Skyler said anxiously.

"I just hit my knee wrong. It will be OK in a moment," Jessica said through clinched teeth.

Skyler took Jessica's shoulders and turned her around so the rider could straighten her legs out and rest her back against the trainer's chest. Skyler ran some more hot water to warm the tub. "Let's just relax a minute," she whispered in Jess' ear." Skyler wrapped her arms around Jessica and held her tight. Jessica turned off the water when the temperature was right again and relaxed against her lover's breast.

But Jessica's bare skin was too much for Skyler to resist, and she began nibbling on the neck that lay exposed as Jess laid her head back on Skyler's broad shoulder. After a moment, Jessica let out a gasp as Skyler's hands found the soft swell of Jessica's breasts and stroked her taut abdomen. "I can't help myself, Jess. I just can't keep my hands off of you," Skyler purred in her ear.

"I think we need to continue this in the bed," Jessica gasped. They rose from the bath and dried each other between kisses placed in various sensitive spots of their pulsating bodies.

The night was a long marathon of slow, sensuous lovemaking as they reached ecstasy time and time again. They finally fell into an exhausted slumber, Jessica's head resting on Skyler's warm breast and their arms wrapped tightly around each other.


Skyler shook her head to stop the ringing in her ears before she woke and realized that it was the phone next to the bed. Jess snuggled closer and frowned as she tightened her grip on Skyler. Shit! I can't believe we slept this late. It's almost 8 a.m.

She grabbed the phone and put it to her ear. "Hell…hello?"

"Sky, you still asleep?" It was Kate on the other end. "Charlie and Mark are about to leave. I thought you might want to come say goodbye. You OK?" There was a pause. "Or are you just not alone?"

"Uh, you're right, Kate. I do want to see Charlie off. Just give me 10 minutes to get dressed," Skyler said quickly. She started to hang up the phone, but Kate spoke again.

"Wait. Have you seen Jess this morning? I thought she was sleeping late but when I went up to wake her, the bed was already made."

Skyler shot a panicked look at Jessica, who was awake now and listening. "Uh, maybe she's up at the gym."

Jessica grimaced and grabbed the phone. "I'm here with Skyler, Kate. We'll be there as soon as we get dressed." Jess hung up the phone without waiting for a response from Kate.

Skyler covered her face with her hands.

"What? Are you ashamed for Kate to know about us?" Jess frowned.

Skyler lowered her hands. "No! I'd just like to stay alive. Kate warned me before you arrived not to get involved with you, and I promised her I wouldn't. As much as I respect Kate, I just couldn't keep that promise."

Jess rolled her eyes. "Kate is a bit protective, but I can handle her … that is if you are afraid of her," she teased.

Skyler jumped on top of Jessica and began tickling her. "My blood will be on your hands if she murders me or throws me off the farm!"

"She's going to murder us both if we don't get cleaned up, dressed and up to the house in the next ten minutes," Jess laughed. On that note, they both jumped up and raced to the bathroom.


The farewell was tearful, but Charlie and Mark seemed to be well on the way to a fast friendship. The boy held Rascal under one arm as he said goodbye to the women. He hugged Kate with his free arm until the big woman's cheerful eyes filled with tears for the tenth time in the past two days. She held onto the boy for several long minutes before letting him go. "I love you, Charlie. You'll always have a home here," she whispered in his ear, earning a broad smile from the youngster.

After giving Skyler a hug, too, he grabbed Jessica and held her tight. "You were right about Uncle Mark, Jess. He's great!"

"We'll see you in June, buddy. Count on it," she kissed his cheek.

Charlie leaned closer to whisper in Jessica's ear. "Rascal slept in the bed with me last night. At first I thought Kate had found out and was mad at me, but now I think it's you who's in trouble for something. You better look out!"

Jessica grinned at the youngster. "Don't you worry, buddy. Kate's growl is a lot worse than her bite. She's really just a big teddy bear."

The three of them stood and waved to the departing vehicle until it was no longer in sight.

Kate turned to the two of them. Her face was stern. Her eyes went from Skyler to Jessica and back to the trainer. "Skyler, I want see you in my office." She turned and headed toward the office.

Skyler turned to follow, but Jessica grabbed her arm and stopped her. "No, Kate. I know this is about me, so you can say anything you have to say to Sky in front of me."

The big woman's normally cheerful face darkened. Few people had ever seen the jovial woman angry, but Skyler had and she wasn't anxious to see it again. Kate stared again at Jessica, and then glared Skyler.

"OK," she said in a low voice. "Just what the hell is going on between you two?"

"Kate…" Skyler began.

"Don't Kate me, Skyler. I made it perfectly clear that my goddaughter wasn't up for grabs. I trusted you to train her as a rider and condition her horse. You repaid me by violating my trust in you. Don't you have any control over yourself or was our friendship just not special enough for you to keep your promise?"

Skyler hung her head, but Jessica's eyes blazed.

"Kate Parker, you have been a second mother to me since I was a small child, but even my own mother hasn't had a say in my love interests since I was a teen. As much as I value your opinion, this isn't something that is your place to decide. And I really don't appreciate you talking to Skyler like I'm not even here or have a will of my own."

"Jess, you don't know what you're getting into. This is about a promise Skyler made to me before you got here. It's about violating a trust between friends. Skyler's a great rider and trainer, but has a lousy track record with women. I stood beside her when nobody else would give her a job, and I've even looked the other way when she bedded half the female clients of this farm. But I don't intend to see her use you right under my nose like she does all the other women she sleeps with!"

Jessica's temper unfurled as she stepped within inches of Kate's face. "If I want to sleep with Skyler, then I will. If you want me to leave the farm, I will. But I won't stop seeing Skyler!"

Skyler grabbed Jessica's shoulder and pulled her away from Kate. "Just wait a minute here," she shouted. "Now you guys are talking about me like I'm not here. I'm not going to be the one who comes between you guys. You mean too much to each other. You both mean too much to me!"

"Looks like you thought of that too late, Skyler," Kate spat.

Skyler decided to take her chances. Things couldn't go much worse than the way they were heading now. "No, Kate. You are wrong about this. I mean, you're not wrong about me breaking my promise to you. I deeply apologize for that. But I won't apologize for being with Jess. This is different, Kate. I…I'm in love with Jess."

Kate scowled at Skyler, but the trainer stood her ground.

"It's true, Kate. I never thought I could lose my heart again after Sarah, but Jess is different. If you hate me for this, then I'll be very sad to have lost my best friend." Skyler took Jessica's hand and pulled her close beside her. "But if you make me choose between our friendship and what I feel for Jess, I'll have to choose Jess."

Kate's brow knit together as she pressed her lips in a tight frown, considering Skyler's words.

"How can you know that? You couldn't have been sleeping together long. I would have known it. You can't know you are in love - just like that!"

"That's where you are wrong, Kate," Jessica said. "I mean, you are right that we haven't been sleeping together but a few nights, but Sky and I have been spending months getting to know each other like people should to form a lasting relationship."

Kate took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. She turned a skeptical eye toward Skyler.

"I never thought I'd hear those words coming out of your mouth again after Sarah ran you over, Sky," she said softly. She raised her voice and jabbed her index finger in the air under Skyler's nose. "But if you hurt Jessica, I'm going to personally kick your butt from here to California. Is that clear?"

Skyler looked down at Jessica with unguarded adoration. "No chance of that, Kate. No chance of that."



Chapter 7

It was still dark outside when Jessica woke to Skyler's steady heartbeat and slow breathing in her ear. It was always hard to get up each morning for her early workouts, but pulling herself away from Skyler's warm embrace was even harder. The trainer stirred and opened sleepy eyes as she felt the warmth of Jess' body leave. "Hey, where you going?"

"I know we did quite a bit of your kind of exercise last night, but I've got my regular exercise routine to attend to," Jess teased. "You can sleep another hour before you have to hit the shower and start feeding horses." She leaned over the bed and laid a deep, searching kiss on Skyler's warm mouth. "And you better shower. You smell like an orgy."

"Ummm. You are going to kiss me like that and leave?" Skyler reached up for Jess, but the rider was too quick.

"Yes I am. We've trained too hard to slack off now," Jess waggled a finger at Skyler.

"Well, I guess I can see who is going to wear the pants in the family," Sky joked.

Jessica looked around the floor. "Speaking of pants, where are mine?"


Jessica was working on her last set on the thigh machine when she heard the gymnasium door open and close behind her. A smile grew on her face as quiet footsteps came closer. I thought you'd sleep longer for sure, Sky. Couldn't stay away, huh. Maybe I'll get you naked in the whirlpool with me. She purposely pretended she didn't hear the stealthy steps until they were almost upon her.

"We've been apart way too long, lover," she said in a sultry voice. She smiled as she heard her stalker abruptly stop. She completed her last leg lift, but still didn't turn around. "And I'm glad you're here." She reached to point out a spot on the back of her neck. "I really need a kiss right here."

After she felt warm lips caress the back of her neck, she closed her eyes and turned her head to capture those same lips with her own. Her eyes flew open when she realized the mouth tasted familiar, but not like Skyler's.

"Wow, I should go out of town more weekends if that's the greeting I'm going to get when I return!"

"Tory! I … I didn't know …what are you doing out here so early in the morning?"

The vet's grin began to fade and confusion washed over her face. "I got in late last night, but had an emergency call out this way at 4:30 a.m. so I thought I'd drop in. I knew you would be up here starting your daily routine." Tory began to frown. "If you didn't know it was me, exactly who did you think it could be?" The tall vet stiffened. "I wasn't aware you were seeing anyone but me."

Jessica's mind raced. She hadn't really had time to think about how she was going to tell Tory about her and Skyler. At that moment, the gymnasium door swung open. Skyler was showered and dressed in riding gear for the day. She hesitated when she saw Tory standing over Jessica. "I heard a vehicle and knew Jess was up here alone, so I came to check it out …" Skyler's voice trailed off. She raised a questioning eyebrow at Jessica, and Jessica's eyes pleaded for help.

Tory's eyes flicked from Jessica to Skyler and back to Jessica. Her green eyes turned angry as realization dawned. "Oh, I see. I'm gone only one weekend and the resident fox has been in the hen house. I swear, Kate will never learn with you, will she, Sky?" She spat her words at Skyler and started for the door.

"Tory, please wait," Jessica pleaded with her friend.

Tory stopped her retreat and stood for a moment before turning around to look at Jess. The hurt was evident in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Jess," she said stiffly. "But don't come looking for me when Skyler jumps to the next woman. I don't take her leftovers. It would keep me way too busy."

Skyler touched Tory's arm. "Tory, it's not like that."

Tory snatched her arm away. "Are you telling me that I'm mistaken that you two are sleeping together?"

"No, but…."

"That's all I need to know." Tory strode out the door.

Jessica and Skyler stood staring at the door. Skyler dropped her head and studied the floor for a moment. "That didn't go too well, did it? I'm really sorry, Jess. Neither of us wanted to hurt Tory."

"It's not your fault, Sky. I should have already figured out how to tell her. She just showed up before I got a chance to work it out in my head. All I could do was sit here like a speechless idiot."

Skyler pulled Jessica into her arms. "Don't worry, honey. Tory has a good head on her shoulders. After a while, she'll realize that we are really in love and destined to be together. She'll understand that this has nothing to do with her." Jessica leaned into Skyler's comforting embrace. "Besides, if Tory wants to call me the fox in the hen house, then she's got to be the cock of the walk. Don't doubt for a minute that there is a long line of women waiting to take your place in her arms." This brought a small smile to Jessica's face, before it turned to a frown.

"I didn't think I could be that easily replaced."

Skyler laughed at her lover's pout. "Speaking as your lover, you my delicious thing could never be replaced."

"Good answer," Jessica purred as she tightened her arms around the trainer.

"Hey," Skyler chuckled. "Speaking as your trainer, you have to get back to work and I have a barn full of horses looking for their breakfast."


The morning was busy and passed quickly despite Jessica's concern for Tory's hurt feelings. At lunchtime, Jessica limped up the stairs to her bathroom to inject her knee before Rampage's afternoon gallops. The knee was swollen and bruised from the constant injections. She had taken to wearing long workout tights to her physical therapy sessions so Richard couldn't see the bruising, but she thought he was growing suspicious.

Not much longer and I can give this leg a rest. The trials are only four weeks away. I know I can make it that long. I'm almost out of stuff, though. It was easy enough to swipe it out of Tory's truck, but it looks like I won't get that opportunity anytime soon. Maybe I should give Bruce another call.

Her knee began to numb and she headed for the kitchen to make a sandwich. As she placed the sandwich makings on the kitchen island, she noticed Kate sitting alone on the patio. She really is taking Charlie's leaving very hard. Seeing Skyler and I so happy together probably makes her feel even more alone.

Jessica grabbed a couple of beers from the refrigerator and went to join Kate. The older woman gave her a small smile when Jess handed her the beer and sat in a chair next to her. She waited several long moments for Kate to speak, but Kate only took a long drink from the beer and stared into the distance. Her blue eyes were watery.

"You miss him pretty bad, huh," Jess said after a while.

Kate swallowed hard and cleared her throat. "Yeah, I guess so," she replied softly. "The kids come and go, but Charlie lived here for nearly a year while his mother was sick. It was nice to always have someone around to share your mornings and evenings with. It was nice to have somebody around who needs you. I guess I needed his company more than I realized."

Jessica frowned. "You've been a mom to so many kids. Me included. I guess it never occurred to us that you have needs, too. I'm so happy to be here with you, Kate. You've always been there for me. I know I've sort of kept to myself lately, but I've just been trying to sort things out since the accident. And now that things are coming together for me, I'm spending all my time with Skyler. I've been pretty insensitive, haven't I?"

Kate patted Jess on the knee. "You don' t need to be worrying about me. Kate Parker has always taken care of herself. But I do hope you aren't making a mistake with Skyler. Even if she is sincere, it doesn't mean she is capable of being the woman you deserve, Jess." Kate took a deep breath and slapped her knees with her hands. "BUT, don't listen to me. I just get a little blue when the house is empty. You should enjoy every moment of being in love while you can. There is nothing like that feeling." She gave Jessica a wan smile.

"Have you ever really been in love, Kate?"

"Oh, yes. Infatuated many times. Deeply, seriously in love only once."

"What happened?"

Kate stared at Jessica for a moment, weighing her answer. She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly as she dropped her eyes to study the bricks of the patio. "She was too worried that having two mommies would make her daughter the subject of ridicule."

Jessica's jaw dropped. "You mean … you're talking about Mom? It was because of me?"

"Oh, honey. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't her fault. We both loved you too much to put anyone else first. I've never really loved another since her." Kate cocked her head and smiled again.

"Does she know that?" Jessica asked, still turning this revelation over in her mind.

Kate shrugged. "Water under the bridge, now. That was years ago. Promise me you won't say anything to her, Jess. I lost her as a lover years ago, and don't want to lose her as a friend because she doesn't still feel the same way. I want to hear you promise," she insisted.

"OK, Kate. I promise. But I was going to ask Mom to come up for visit because I haven't seen her for months. I can't go see her because Rampage trains six days a week. Now, I don't know. I certainly don't want to have her come here if it is painful for you. Maybe I shouldn't have come either."

Kate patted her knee. "Don't be ridiculous. Of course Laura can come visit. I'd love to see her." Kate leaned toward Jessica. "And don't doubt for a moment that being a second mom to you has been more than worth any pain caused by my relationship with your mother. I've loved you like my own daughter ever since you were too little to ride anything but a Shetland pony. "

Jessica threw her arms around Kate's neck and held on tight. "Oh, Kate. You'll never know what an anchor you've been in my life. Mother's not nearly as strong as you are. I'm not surprised, but I'm sure she couldn't help that she was too weak to stand by you and me both." Jessica laid her hands on Kate's tanned cheeks and gave her a smacking kiss on the mouth.

Kate's hearty laugh warmed the rider's heart. "You better not let Skyler see you smooching on me! She always was the jealous type." Kate shooed Jessica toward the house. "Get out of here. I've got paperwork to do."

Jessica grinned and started toward the house.

"Oh, Jess. You and Skyler join me for supper. We'll grill burgers or something. I want you two to help me sift through some new applicants for the program. With Charlie and Scott gone, we've got a few openings."

"Sure, Kate. I'll tell Sky."


The sight of Skyler's drop-dead sexy smile temporarily erased Kate's request from Jessica's mind. "Hey, gorgeous," Skyler purred in her ear. "How about if I saddle ConairCon Air and we make Rampage's afternoon gallops an outing for both of us?"

Jessica's heart raced. "Only if you stop looking at me like that. I won't be able to concentrate enough to stay in the saddle," she chuckled.

They saddled the horses and headed for the maze of wide, dirt trails that wound around the paddocks and through the surrounding woods. Skyler carried a stopwatch and timed four- and five- minute slow canters with three-minute rests in between. There was a nip in the air and the horses were eager for more vigorous exercise.

Jessica's cheeks were pink from the cold, and her eyes glowed with the energy radiating from her steed. "These guys really are geared up today," Skyler called to her. "Why don't we just let them get it out of their systems?" Jessica nodded her agreement "Follow me and see if you can keep up," Skyler challenged over her shoulder.

ConairCon Air lengthened his stride and veered to jump a paddock fence. Rampage followed close on his heels. A zigzag race across the meadow took them over a stream and a large fallen tree trunk before they leaped the fence again and headed down a lane through the woods. When the path widened, Rampage edged next to the gray. Just as the bay was taking the lead, they broke out of the woods and Skyler turned ConairCon Air sharply to the right. Not expecting the turn, Jess and Rampage lost ground when they made a wide loop to alter their direction. The big stallion pounded the ground hard to catch Skyler and the gray. Jessica and Rampage were steadily gaining ground and the foursome took several more fences. Skyler hunkered down on ConairCon Air. Man, that bay is some horse. Come on Con, keep the lead just a little longer.

The horses headed down hill. Skyler eased the pace a little, and Jessica nudged Rampage into the lead. Skyler pulled ConairCon Air back a little to give Rampage room to take the jump ahead, but stayed close enough to keep up the pressure of the contest. She saw Jessica's head lift a little in surprise. The water jump! She's led us onto the cross-country course. In a split second, Jess determined it was too late to abort the jump without risking injury. She leaned close to Rampage's neck and urged him forward with her hands and legs. Rampage responded immediately and sailed confidently over the jump and through the water. We did it! Piece of cake! Skyler and ConairCon Air followed closely behind.

Jessica pulled the big bay up and turned an accusing smirk on the grinning trainer. "Very crafty, Miss Reese." Rampage snorted in agreement. "How about I beat you back to the barn."

"How about we walk the horses back to let them cool down," Skyler smiled.

They walked the horses side by side for a while in companionable silence. Skyler reached over and took Jessica's hand. The rider soaked up the adoring gaze directed at her.

"Have I told you how much I love you?" Jess asked.

"Not nearly often enough," Skyler replied.


Kate, Skyler and Jessica had a relaxing dinner on the patio before going inside to the den to tackle a box full of applications from youngsters recommended to the Cherokee Falls program.

"I wish we could let them all in," Skyler said, rubbing her temples. She looked over at Kate as Jessica excused herself and left to visit the powder room. "Kate, have you seen Jess's knee lately?"

Kate looked at Skyler over the top of the reading glasses perched on her nose. "No. She is always has on long pants when I see her." She smirked at the trainer. "But I'm sure you've had plenty of opportunity lately to see her with less on."

Skyler ignored the jest and remained serious. "Yes, I have. She doesn't act like it hurts at all when she rides, but the knee is all black and blue. And she can barely walk in the mornings. She says it's just stiffness that she works out in the hot tub, but I'm sure it shouldn't be that way."

"You think she's hiding something?" Kate asked.

"I don't know. She just changes the subject when I ask her about it. You've known Jess for a long time. Maybe I'm just worrying over nothing, but she bares her soul to me on every other subject. I ask about her knee and she clams up."

They heard a thump in the hallway and looked puzzled at each other before Kate got up to investigate. Jessica was leaning against the wall holding her knee. "You OK, Jess?" Kate's voice was filled with concern.

Jessica forced a smile and shrugged nonchalantly. "Fine, this stupid knee just kind of gave way. I guess I'm just tired and wasn't picking my feet up. Snagged my toe on the carpet and stepped down wrong."

Kate looked doubtful. "Did you fall?"

"Oh, no. That thump was just me catching myself against the wall. Really, I'm fine."

"I think you should get your doctor to look at that knee again."

Jessica dismissed her suggestion with a wave of her hand. "Really, Kate. You are just being over protective. I'm fine. The knee's fine."

Kate watched Jessica limp back into the den. We'll see missy when your mother arrives. In the meantime, I think I'll give Richard a call tomorrow.


"No can do," Bruce said over the phone when Jessica called for some more lidocaine. "My contact moved out to California and since I don't have a call for that kind of stuff much, I haven't looked for another."

"I really need some more stuff, Bruce," Jessica pleaded. "We're traveling to North Carolina next week to get Rampage settled in before the Olympic trials in Southern Pines."

"Look, sugar. It's simple. Call your doctor and make an appointment. Be sure it is something that requires you to get undressed so you will be left in the examining room alone for a few minutes. While you are alone, look through the drawers in the room for some lidocaine. Better yet, look for some bupivacaine. Brand names would be Marcaine or Sensorcaine. That lasts even longer than the lidocaine. The stuff is cheap and they use it often, so they don't keep close tabs on it and you'll usually find it in each examining room for convenience. I'd do it for you, but the doctors around here are wise to me and you'd have to pay me a pretty price for my trouble."

"And what am I going to say is wrong with me?"

"Hell, I don't know. There are a million complaints a woman can use to take her clothes off for a doctor. I should have listened to my mother and gone to medical school instead of playing professional football. Tell them you need a pap smear."

"Shows how much you know. They would give me an appointment three months from now. Besides, I'd have to take my pants off and the doctor would see my knee. It's pretty bruised up from the injections."

"How often have you been injecting?"

Jessica snorted. "Pretty much every day I have to train - six days a week."

"Damn, Jess. I told you to be careful with that stuff. I'll bet that ACL graft is shredded all to hell. You better go see a doctor for real - an orthopedic doctor."

"I will, Bruce. Right after the trials. I just need one more bottle of the stuff."

"Don't do it, Jess. There'll be another Olympics in four years. It's not work ruining yourself permanently."

"Thanks for the advice, Bruce. I'll think about it," she said without conviction.

Jessica ended the call and cradled the cordless phone in her lap while she thumbed through Kate's phone list. This is it, Dr. Andrea Johnston, Kate's physician. Hmm, what can I tell them that would get me in quick and require that I undress? Let's see. I need to take my shirt off, not my pants. Oh, I've got it!

She punched the number in and listened for an answer.

"Cherokee Falls Family Practice, this is Rachel speaking."

"Hi Rachel. This is Jessica Black, Kate Parker's goddaughter."

"Oh, Jessica. I remember you. We haven't seen you in a couple of years … not since that nasty case of mono you got when you had just graduated from college. Haven't been kissing too many boys again, have you?" the nurse teased.

Jessica chuckled. "No, not this time. Listen. I think I feel a lump in my breast I'm really freaking out over it. We're supposed to leave next week for the Olympic trials and I don't need this on my mind while I'm trying to compete. How quickly can I see Dr. Johnston?"

"Well, honey, we're booked up the rest of this week, but that could be serious. I know you must be worried, but most of the time it's nothing. I tell you what. We always have cancellations. How about if we call you if someone backs out of an appointment? Otherwise, we can see squeeze you in Monday afternoon."

Jessica sighed. "OK, if that's the best you can do." She gave the nurse her cell phone number.

Next, she punched in one last phone number and listened to the message on Richard's voice mail. "Hey, it's Jess," she said into the phone. "We decided to leave earlier than we expected for North Carolina, so you don't need to come out the rest of this week or next week as we had planned. Wish me luck. I'll see you when we get back. Bye."

That should take care of everything. I just hope Bruce was right about the Sensorcaine. I don't know where else I'll get the stuff if he's wrong."


The next day, Skyler was checking the new scar on Rampage's chest while Jessica saddled him for his afternoon gallops when her cell phone rang. Skyler felt her hip for her phone as Jessica grabbed her own. "It's mine," Jess said. "Hello. Yes, sure. I can come right now. Thanks."

Skyler looked at her. "It's about time you started remembering to carry that cell phone when you go out galloping him around the property. What made you remember today?"

"That's Dr. Johnston's office. I called the other day and asked them to call if they had a cancellation so I can get my allergy medication updated. I don't want to get around all those pine trees in North Carolina without plenty of antihistamine."

"Seems like they could just call you something in."

"Not when they haven't seen me as a patient in several years. Since HMOs took over, the rules the doctors have to follow are a lot stricter."

Skyler frowned. It sounded a little fishy to her. "What about Rampage's workout?"

Jessica turned what she thought was her most adorable look toward the trainer. "I don't supposed you would be a dear and run him through his gallops for me? Sweetie? I'll make it worth your while tonight." The pleading in her eyes turned to a sexy gleam.

Geez, I'm such a pushover when she looks at me like that. Skyler's eyes and thoughts ran over the curves of her lover's trim frame.

"You know I can't say no to you. That's not fair."

Jessica reached up and pulled Skyler's mouth down to hers and kissed her deeply. "You'll think it's a fair when you get your half of the trade tonight," Jess teased.


Bruce was right. A quick look through the cabinet in the examining room turned up three bottles of lidocaine and two of Sensorcaine. Jessica took one of each and slipped them in the pocket of her jacket before quickly pulling her shirt and bra off. She had just slipped on the cotton gown when Dr. Johnston knocked quickly on the door and entered the room.

The short, gray-haired doctor smiled broadly when she saw Jessica. Kate and doctor were childhood friends and still golfed together frequently.

"Well, well. This certainly is a pleasure to see you. Kate is constantly bragging about what a fine young woman you've grown up to be. I can see now that she wasn't stretching the truth. How are you, Jess?"

"I'm really great. Did Kate tell you I was going to be staying at the farm while I get ready for the Olympic trials?"

The doctor chuckled. "I think she mentioned it a few hundred times. Actually, I've got a medical conference coming up at Duke University. I'm hoping to be able to drop in on the competition and join Kate in the stands when you compete."

"That'd be great. I've got the best horse I've ever ridden ready to show them how to do it right," Jess beamed.

"Well, we certainly don't want any distractions on your mind. Where's this lump you think you felt?"

"Um. On my right side," Jessica said.

"OK. Hop up on the table, lay on your back and put your right arm over you head,"

Dr. Johnston probed for several minutes. "Hmm. I don't feel anything. Can you show me exactly where you felt it?"

"Well, it was here … no right here. I felt it yesterday, but didn't feel it this morning. I started to tell the nurse that maybe I didn't need to come, but I just wanted your opinion so I would know there wasn't anything to worry about."

The doctor stepped back. "Well, I can't feel anything, but you should schedule a mammogram to be sure. You'll be back in three weeks, right? That should be soon enough."

"Sure, that sounds fine," Jessica said, sitting up.

Dr. Johnston gave her nurse instructions to set up an appointment for Jessica, then she turned back to her patient.

"I was sorry to hear about your accident, Jess. You look like you are back in fine shape after lying around with a broken leg. Kate mentioned that the knee still bothers you a lot."

"I've been working very hard at getting into shape. The leg, though, is great. Kate is just being a mother hen." Jessica grinned up at the doctor. "A very lovable mother hen."

Dr. Johnston laughed with her. "OK. Get dressed and go get packed for North Carolina. I'd tell you to break a leg, but I'm sure that's not the lucky thing to say in this case."

Jessica laughed again. She really liked the doctor. "Thanks a lot. I hope you can make it to Southern Pines," she said. "I know Kate would enjoy the company."


Jessica went directly to her bathroom when she arrived back at the farm. Now we'll see how much longer this other stuff works. This knee needs to be pretty limber for tonight. I think Skyler is getting too suspicious. I hate keeping anything from her, but I know she and Kate would try to pull me from the competition. Nothing is going to keep me from making those trials.

She was descending the stairs when she heard laughter and voices on the patio. Hey, that voice sure sounds familiar!

A huge smile claimed her face when she threw open the French doors. "Mom! When did you get here? I was going to call you and ask you to come down and go to Southern Pines with us next week."

Laura Black was an older version of Jessica. She had the same dark hair, but peppered with gray and cropped in a short style more fitting her age. Her eyes were the same unusual color as Jessica's.

"Hey, baby. I hear you and Rampage are in top form. Kate seemed worried about your leg, but you aren't even limping."

"Kate and Skyler are just being worry warts, Mom." Jessica waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "I'm fine. The knee just looks a little bruised from the last steroid shots I got and they are freaking out over it."

"Well, that's good to know. Now, tell me about this Skyler I've been hearing about."

Jessica's face blushed and her eyes shone. "Skyler's my trainer and, well … Mom, she's the love of my life."

Laura's eyebrows arched. "That's the first time I've heard you use that phrase with a person instead of a horse!"

Kate chuckled and Jessica rolled her eyes at the remark.
"Kate, maybe I should ask you about Skyler. I have a feeling you may be a more objective source of information," Laura teased, laying her hand on Kate's arm.

Jessica grinned. Having Kate and Mom here together really makes me feel like I have a whole family. I wish Kate hadn't made me promise not to say anything. Mom hasn't lived with anyone else, man or woman, since Kate. I know she must still love her or she would have hooked up with someone else during all these years.

Kate raised her hands in a "hands off" gesture. "I'm not definitely getting in the middle of a mother-daughter thing. All I'll say is that I've known Skyler since she was a kid. She's the best trainer I've got and more committed to the youth equestrian program than anybody who works on this farm. And," Kate paused and took a deep breath. "… they both seem to think they are head over heels in love. I feel like carrying a bucket of ice water around to throw on them a couple of times a day."

Jessica laughed and playfully slapped Kate on the shoulder. "Skyler's tough on the outside, but a real marshmallow when it comes to the kids." Jessica walked behind her mother's chair and leaned over to wrap her arms around the older woman's shoulders. "She's also tall, blonde and incredibly sexy. You should see her in riding breeches!"

"Quick, Kate. Where's your bucket of ice water," Laura laughed. After a moment, her face grew serious. "Seriously, Jess. Come around here and sit down. I want to talk to you."

Jessica shot a quick questioning look at Kate, but Kate shrugged. Jess took a chair across from her mother and waited. Laura shifted uncomfortably in her chair and stared at the patio bricks, searching for words.

"Oh God, Mom. This isn't the sex talk, is it? If it is, you're about ten years too late."

Kate's eyes shot her a warning. She could see that Laura was struggling with whatever she had to say. Jessica was less patient.

"You … you're OK, aren't you, Mom? You're not going to tell me you are sick or something are you?"

Her mother gave her a weak grin. "No, honey, I'm just fine."

"It's not your health …" Jess glanced at Kate again, and her voice softened. "Are you going to tell me you've met someone, too?"

Laura gave Kate a reassuring look. "No. It's nothing like that. It's just that … well, Jess, falling in love with another woman isn't an easy lifestyle. I know you've had relationships with both men and women. I'm concerned that something I've done has made you take this direction in your life."

Jessica let out the breath she was unconsciously holding. A smile crept across her face. "Is that all?" she said softly. She moved to take her mother's hands in hers and she squeezed them. "Mom, you know as well as I do that being gay isn't a choice. My few relationships with men were really either close friendships or just experiments. You've given me every opportunity to choose men over women." She paused and glanced at Kate. "I'm afraid that you may have given up too much for my sake. All these years you've never lived with anyone since Kate." The Parker heiress shifted uncomfortably in her chair and looked off into the distance. Don't worry Kate, I'll stop short of telling her how you feel. "AND, I'll always love you for bringing Kate into my life. You know how much I love her. It's been like having a second mom I could depend on. You know she has spoiled me rotten over the years."

Laura's eyes filled with tears. "I just had to know, Jess. I've always worried that you would be influenced by my life and find it as hard as I have."

Jessica wiped away the tear that was finding it's way down her mother's cheek. "Mom, thousands of heterosexual couples raise homosexual children. Why shouldn't a homosexual couple be able to raise a heterosexual child? I know you and Kate know many gay couples that have raised straight children. If you did anything to contribute to my sexual orientation, it was just passing along a gene that makes me love women. That doesn't upset me." Jessica smiled and waggled her finger at her mother. "But if I end up getting your high blood pressure gene, I'll surely be pissed about that!"

She grew serious again and gave her mother a stern look. "But I'm glad you brought this up. I want to say something you've needed to hear for a long time." Her mother looked puzzled. "Mom, your life has only been hard because you made it that way. I love you to death, but if you hadn't been so freaking paranoid about how things would affect me, life would not have been so hard for you." She stood up and put her hands on her hips. "You may have been able to have someone to share your life with other than me!"

Jessica turned to a surprised Kate. "Dinner at seven as usual?" Speechless, Kate nodded. "Good, that gives me a few hours. I'm headed to the barn. Skyler and I will join you for dinner." She planted a quick kiss on her mother's stunned cheek and strode off to Creek Barn.

Kate and Laura stared after her. "I just can't get used to her being a grown woman instead of my little girl," Laura said.

"You and me both," Kate said uncomfortably.


The young horse shifted away uncomfortably as Skyler's dandy brush ran over his coat with the same tense speed as the thoughts racing through her head.

"You're telling me that in addition to me having to meet your mother with no advance notice, you have already gone over there and stirred things up?" The trainer scowled. "Shit, Jess. I really don't have a good track record with in-laws. Maybe you should just have dinner with your mom and Kate. Maybe you should stay at the house tonight, too, since your mother is here."

Jessica snatched the brush from Skyler's hand. "Skyler Reese, I am not Sarah Berrington Tate. First of all, my mom is going to love anybody I do, and secondly, I was just trying to find a way for her and Kate to quit dancing around each other and talk about how they feel. If meeting my mom is your downhill jump, then just stick close to me and we'll jump it together. I'm not going to repeat what my mother and Kate have done - wasted years of their lives because they were too chicken shit to face things together."

Skyler smiled at Jessica's stern posture, elbows out and hands on her slim hips. "You're beautiful when you're angry," she teased.

"Don't change the subject."

"OK. You win. At least let me get a shower and change into clean clothes."

A quick image of Skyler in the shower turned Jessica's gaze from angry to sexy. The corners of her mouth curled in a seductive smile. "Wear what you had on the night of the fund-raiser. I could hardly keep my hands off of you at that party." Jessica trailed a finger down Skyler's shirt, tracing a path between her breasts and finally hooking her finger into the trainer's waistband to pull her closer. "Maybe I could use a shower, too."

After a quick glance to be sure they were alone, Skyler followed Jessica's tug and kissed her lover deeply. "Race you upstairs," she whispered before lunging to get a head start.


The shower was more lovemaking than scrubbing, but both women finally emerged satiated and clean. Jessica headed up to the house to dress for the evening, and left Skyler only after securing a solemn promise not to chicken out.

After digging through her closet, Jessica sat on the bed to pull on some soft gray, tapered leg pants and a white, v-neck velour top. Her knee still was very swollen but still numb. This stuff really does last longer. I guess I should be careful to use it only when I know I need it to last since I've only got one bottle. I'll just use the lidocaine when I only need relief for a short time.

She found Kate and Laura in the kitchen. The aroma of a roast with carrots and potatoes filled the room and made her stomach growl. All that shower exercise has made me really hungry. She watched the two older women working together in the kitchen. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to hear what they said to each other after I left for the barn.

Laura, as usual, looked elegant even in casual clothing. She wore gray stirrup pants and a pale pink cashmere scoop-necked sweater. Kate wore a dark blue nylon running suit with a silk tank top under the jacket. As always, her sleeves were pushed up her strong forearms.

"Mom, Skyler's very nervous about meeting you, so please try to make her feel at ease," Jessica said, her eyes pleading. "Geez, I feel like a teenager again, waiting for my prom date to show up."

Kate laughed so hard she held her sides. Laura raised an eyebrow at her daughter and turned to smile at her friend. "She makes it sound like I'd actually be something other than a gracious hostess."

Kate struggled to contain her laughter so she could talk. "You do sort of have that steel magnolia face on tonight. You're going to scare my poor horse trainer to death." She turned to Jessica with a big grin. "Don't worry, Jess. I'll rein your mother in if I see Skyler start to panic and head for the hills."

"I can see you both are enjoying this immensely. If you don't behave, I'll make you sorry later," Jessica said with mock sternness.

Jess heard Skyler's knock at the front door, and shot one last warning at Kate and Laura before heading down the hall. Jesus, she is nervous. She never knocks. She usually just sticks her head in the door and hollers for Kate or me.

She found Skyler standing nervously on the porch in the fading light.

"Hey, good looking. If you don't already have a date for tonight, I'll bet I can find you one." She ran her eyes appreciatively over the trainer's athletic frame. Wow, she makes that pair of faded jeans look so sexy! "Hey, where are the boots you wore at the party?"

Skyler looked down at the Topsiders she was wearing. "Come on, Jess. I didn't want to appear too butch when I meet your mother for the first time."

Jessica wrapped her arms around the tall trainer. "Baby, there is nothing butch about you. You are way too beautiful."

Skyler tried to slip out of Jessica's embrace. "Jess, what if your mom sees us?"

"Skyler," Jessica said in an exasperated voice. "My mom is gay, too, you know. She won't find anything uncomfortable about us touching each other. And, besides, she already knows I'm crazy about you."

Skyler relaxed a little and hugged Jessica tight. "Umm. I like your outfit, too. What is that perfume you wearing?"


"It's never smelled that good on anybody else."

"You better not be smelling other women any more," Jessica teased.

Skyler planted a quick kiss on the rider's warm lips. "What other women? I only have eyes … uh, and a nose for you, dear."

"Good. I have a little present for you I picked up this afternoon after I saw the doctor."

"A present for me?"

"Actually, it's for me because I get to look at you when you wear it." Jessica pulled a gold chain from her pocket and reached up to fasten it around Skyler's neck. A small, 24-carat gold horse head charm hung from it. "That's why I asked you to wear that v-neck sweater. I knew you would look stunning in it, and you do." Jessica stepped back to take in the fine gold draped over a perfect collarbone.

"Well?" Skyler asked.

Jessica leaned close, her mouth placing small kisses from the sexy hollow of her lover's shoulder, along her graceful neck and tugging gently at her soft earlobe. Skyler's face flushed. "You've got to stop, Jess. It's tough enough to have to meet your mother for the first time; I don't need my legs to wobble when I walk into the house."

At that moment, Kate opened the door and stuck her head out. "Dinner's ready. Are you two going to stay out here all night, or have you worked up the courage to come in yet. OR, do I need to get my bucket of ice water?"

"What?" Kate and Jessica laughed at Skyler's puzzled face.

"Come on, tough stuff. My mom really doesn't bite."

Laura was in the dining room, putting the last of the food on the table. Jessica held tight to Skyler's left hand as she pulled her into the room behind her. Kate brought up the rear, enjoying the scene about to unfold. Only Kate knew that Laura was just as nervous as Skyler.

"Mom, this is Skyler. Skyler, my mother."

"It's nice to meet you, Ms. Black." Skyler offered her free hand.

"Please, call me Laura." The older woman smiled warmly and took Skyler's hand in both of hers. "You know, this may be the first time we've been introduced, but I've seen you ride many times. In fact, Kate and I were in the stands when you won that gold medal on Con Man. You had quite a ride that day."

Skyler began to relax. Talking horses was familiar ground. "Con Man was quite a horse."

"I've always been curious. What happens to horses like Con Man when they are past their prime?"

"Well, not all are as fortunate as Con Man when they are geldings. He ended up on a Virginia farm where he only has to fox hunt once in a while. Most of his days are spent grazing in lush pastures with a warm stall to snooze in at night."

"Sky owns a full brother to Con Man, now, Mom. He can't keep up with Rampage, though. You've got to see him jump!"

The women laughed. "I'll see him jump tomorrow," Laura said.

Skyler cleared her throat. "Actually, his training schedule excludes any more jumping until we arrive in Southern Pines next week. Then he'll jump one day there before going to walks and short gallops only for four or five days before the competition."

"So you are using a form of interval training?"

"Yes. As a rider for hire, I worked with a lot of different trainers. The horses I rode who had been trained with some version of this method were always in better shape and more likely to peak at the event," Skyler said.

"Enough horse talk," Kate commanded. "Let's eat and see if any of us know something about anything other than horses!"

The conversation did move away from horses a bit, but not far. The four talked at length about the center's young equestrian program and the potential applicants Kate had asked Jessica and Skyler to help her interview. Jessica persuaded Skyler to explain her bareback lesson she gives to each group of kids, then thoroughly enjoyed retelling the picnic incident in which Charlie thought Skyler was disrobing.

I can see why Jess is so attracted to her. Besides being a very striking woman, she has a presence…magnetism. I can understand how she's been able to bed as many women as Kate insisted she has. Laura watched Skyler's face as the trainer gazed with adoration at her daughter. When they adjourned to the den, Skyler sat close to Jessica on the couch and held the young woman's hand in both of hers.

Laura and Kate sat in overstuffed chairs that faced each other from either end of the sofa. Laura watched Kate's face while she laughed at another story Jessica told about Charlie. Time had softened her friend's face and only made her more attractive in Laura's eyes.

Oh Kate, if we could only do our lives over again, it could be so different. Kate seemed to feel Laura's gaze and turned a warm smile her way. Laura smiled back and turned her attention to the two younger women. Jessica and Skyler's closeness brought back an aching in Laura's heart that she thought she had buried long ago. Well, maybe these two will know how to be happy better than Kate and I did.

A yawn from Jessica reminded them all that the farm wakes up early - about 5 a.m. - and the evening was no longer young. Jessica stood up when Skyler told them she should be heading out the Creek Barn.

"Walk me out?" Skyler asked Jess.

"Walk you out? I'm going with you just like always."

Skyler blushed. "I just thought since your mom was here …" Her voice trailed off and she glanced nervously at Kate for help.

"It's OK, Skyler," Laura interceded. "At 24 years of age, Jessica has been a consenting adult for a long while now." Her eyes narrowed in mock sternness. "But before you carry my daughter off to your bed, I do want to know what your intentions are."

"Mom! I can't believe you said that!"

Skyler smiled. "That's an easy one, Laura. I intend to make your daughter as happy as I can for as long as she will have me. I'm crazy about her." She grinned down at Jess whose blue eyes locked on her lover's soft brown ones. God, I love her. I was really afraid Mom would scare her off. Well, that's one hurdle we've made it over. I don't even want to think about the ones down the road.

"In that case, you have my blessing. Now get out of here. You two are keeping us old ladies up way past our bedtime."


The weekend went quickly and Monday was filled with preparations for their departure to Southern Pines. One of the last things to be taken care of was a final vet exam for Rampage on Monday afternoon. They were pulling out for North Carolina early in the morning. ConairCon Air would be coming along, too, so Skyler could accompany Jessica on Rampage's workouts. Since Cherokee Falls was in Virginia, the trip would only take about six hours and they planned to drive straight through to keep the time the horses would spend in the trailer to a minimum.

When Kate called Tory to schedule the exam, the vet tried to refer the appointment to one of her associates.

"Come on, Tory. You know we keep you on retainer for a reason. We don't want one of your associates, especially for something this important."

Tory was silent on the other end of the phone line. Kate's voice softened. "I know you are upset with Jessica and Skyler, and I was too at first. But I've got to admit, it looks like Jess has our bad girl wrapped around her finger. Sky's worse than a puppy following Jess around. I know they both feel terrible about you getting caught in the middle, but I'm really starting to believe they just couldn't help themselves."

Kate heard Tory let out a deep sign. "OK, Kate. I'll be there at 3 p.m. I guess I can't keep sulking forever." Her voice lightened. "I don't suppose Jess has a twin?"

Kate laughed. "No, but you'll meet her mother. And I'm telling you now, that if you are thinking about trying out an older woman, you'll have to go through me to get to Laura."

Tory chuckled. "I wouldn't think of crossing you, Kate."


Skyler, Jessica and Laura were standing in the hallway of the barn when Tory's truck pulled up next to the outdoor ring. They had filled Laura in on what had happened between them and the vet while they nervously awaited her arrival.

"Let me talk to her first," Jessica said. "I'll wave to you when she's ready for you to bring Rampage out to the ring," she told Skyler.

Skyler gave her a small smile of encouragement. "Good luck."

Tory busied herself pulling instruments and syringes from the cabinets in the back of the truck. In the corner of her eye, she saw Jessica approach and stand beside the truck but her pride would not let her directly at the rider. Jessica remained silent, waiting for Tory to turn her attention to her.

At last, Tory spoke while still pretending to search for something in her cabinets. "Hi, Jess."

"Hi, Tory," Jess said softly. She shifted uneasily from one foot to another. "You still angry with us?"

Tory finally turned to stare into the white-blue eyes. After a moment, she let out a long sigh. "No, I guess not. I talked to Kate. She said you guys are really head over heels for each other. I guess it was fate, not Skyler's normal carousing after all." She gave Jessica a weak smile. "I'm just sorry it was Skyler that snagged you, not me."

"Can't we still be friends?" Jessica asked softly.

Tory nodded and smiled. "Sure. I'd like that. I'll even give your damned trainer the benefit of the doubt, I guess." She paused and shook a friendly finger at Jess. "But I've got to warn you, I lied when I said I wouldn't take her leavings. If Sky ever walks away from you, I want to be the first person you call."

Jessica smiled. "You've got yourself a deal there, lady!" She grabbed Tory in a quick hug.

"Hey!" Tory exclaimed as she juggled the syringes in her hand. "You better be careful. I almost got a sample of your blood rather than Rampage's.

Jessica laughed. She was relieved they had mended their friendship. She really liked the amiable veterinarian. She waved an "all clear" sign for Skyler to bring Rampage to the ring. Laura trailed behind them.

"Hi, Sky." Tory drawled. She stood tall with her arms crossed over her chest as the trainer led the stallion up to the truck. "You can drop that deer in the headlights look. Jess has talked me into only taking blood from Rampage instead of bleeding you, too." She smirked at the relief on Skyler's face.

"I'm sorry about how everything happened, Tory." She turned her gaze to Jessica. "But I'm not sorry about being with Jessica. She's the best thing that ever happened to me."

The two tall women studied each other for a moment. "I guess I can't blame you for that," Tory said at last.

She turned to Laura and extended her hand. "Hi, I'm Tory Greyson. You must be Jessica's mother. Nobody else could have the same unusual eye color."

Laura smiled. "I'm sorry my daughter has forgotten her manners. I'm Laura Black. Please call me Laura."

"It's your fault for not making me go back when I ran away from finishing school," Jess pretended to scold.

The women all laughed.

"Well, let's check this big guy out," Tory said as she walked around to his neck to draw some blood.

"He's already got a negative Coggins test. How come you are drawing blood?" Jessica asked.

"The Olympic folks have gotten so drug-test crazy with their athletes, Skyler and I feel it wouldn't hurt to test his blood ourselves before he leaves, and right before and after he competes. The Olympic vets will draw blood right before the trials begin and test random horses at the Sunday morning vet check before the show jumping concludes the event."

"Then you're coming to the trials?" Jessica asked hopefully.

Tory smiled. "Sure, Jess. I wouldn't miss it."

The vet was meticulous with the exam and it lasted for more than an hour. She listened to his heart, his stomach, felt his legs, X-rayed his front feet and legs, then completed a long series of tests in the ring to check for any sign of lameness.

"Well, I think I've never seen a horse in better shape," Tory said when she finally put her clipboard down. "The blood test will take a day or two, but since it's just for the record, it won't keep you from pulling out in the morning and heading for North Carolina. This is my last call for today, so I'll go develop the X-rays as soon as I get back and call you this evening to let you know if they turned up anything we should be concerned about."

"Thanks, Tory," Skyler said sincerely. "It makes me feel better knowing you are going to be with us in Southern Pines."

Tory gave her a crooked smile. "Thanks. I know you two have worked very hard for this. I wish you both the best of luck - at the trials and personally."

Skyler clasped the vet's shoulder in affection. "Thanks, friend."

Chapter 9

Tuesday morning was a great day for traveling. Mild temperatures and cloudless skies promised an easy trip. Skyler drove the Ford 350 Dually that pulled the two-horse gooseneck show trailer. The front of the trailer was a camper complete with a small kitchen and half bath and room to sleep six. They would get hotel rooms, of course, but there was always a field where the horse trailers parked, and the campers were a refuge during the long days of the competition. Those who didn't have trailers with campers included would pitch open tents to lounge under while they waited their riders' turns.

Behind the camper compartment was a tack compartment and then the horses' padded stalls. Jessica rode with Skyler. Besides the fact that the two women seemed inseparable, Jess was designated navigator for the trip. Kate and Laura followed in Jessica's Explorer, pulling a rented U-Haul trailer filled with hay and feed. Skyler was always careful to carry their own feed so the horses wouldn't have any change in their diet. The trailer would be empty by the time they were ready to return, so it would be left with a U-Haul dealer in Southern Pines.

The drive through central North Carolina was beautiful. Because the climate was a bit warmer than Virginia, the autumn color had just peaked and the roadsides were resplendent with reds and yellows. The trials usually were held in March, but the U.S. Equestrian Team officials, USET for short, had decided to pick the team early this time and train them together over the winter. Lush evergreen pines dotted the landscape as they neared the Sandhills area of North Carolina, named so because of the sandy soil that makes it ideal equestrian footing and a golfer's paradise.

Getting its start as a winter training ground because of the mild climate and the sandy footing, the Sandhills area quickly become a year-round residence for many equestrians. Standardbreds compete at the Pinehurst Harness Track; the good footing makes it a popular residence for combined driving enthusiasts; and eventing competitors find it conveniently located midway between the Winter Circuit in Florida and the Summer Circuit in the North.

For golfers, there are professional golf schools and premiere courses that often host major events such as the Women's U.S. Open Golf Tournament and the U.S. Senior Open.

Skyler expertly pulled the big rig onto the field where a few early arrivals like themselves were setting up. Kate and Laura had stopped at the training center to register and get their barn assignment while Skyler and Jess unloaded the horses, walked them to get the kinks out of their legs and let them pick at the grass around the trailers.

"Wow, this place is everything they said it would be," Jessica said.

Skyler smiled at her young lover. "I guess you are more used to damp fields that quickly become a mud quagmire under too many tires, boots and hooves in the spring," Skyler said. "It is great down here. This is where Con Man and I trained. Besides it being dryer in the fall, the sandy soil here drains well and dries out fast. That's what makes it so ideal for golf courses and horses."

Kate and Laura pulled up and Kate rolled down the Explorer's window to speak to Skyler and Jessica. "OK. The boys will be in that first barn over to your left. Here are their stall numbers. I'm going to park this trailer next to the horse van. They said the stalls are already bedded. Laura can take ConairCon Air and go with Jess to the barn. Skyler, you and I will unhook this U-Haul and load some feed and the tack trunks into the back of the Explorer and drive it up to the barn."

As usual, nobody questioned Kate being in charge and each jumped to their tasks.

Accustomed to traveling, the horses settled quickly in their large stalls. This barn was only for geldings or stallions. Mares were housed in barns that did not contain stallions.

When Kate and Skyler joined them at the barn, a grizzled man wearing a security uniform stood smiling at Jessica's side.

"Skyler, Kate, this is Fred. He is the head security guy for this barn. Fred, this is my trainer, Skyler Reese, and my sponsor, Kate Parker."

The guard squinted at Skyler. "I know this rogue," he chuckled. "How have you been, Sky?"

The trainer grinned at him. "Great, Fred. It makes me feel better to see you are still around. You're good, too, I hope?"
"Well, other than putting up with too many snotty rich people and my arthritis, I can't complain," he replied. "Ms. Parker. We've never met, but your name gets around the circuit. We're pleased to have you in our barn. Don't worry about a thing. I keep a close eye on this place all day and Melvin watches over things at night. We've both done time in the backstretch stables at Churchill Downs, so we know horses. Just be sure to leave us your cell phone and hotel room numbers and we'll notify you if your horses so much as pass gas in an unusual way."

The old groom-turned-security guard pointed down the hallway. "You can store your tack boxes in the large room midway down. It has a door to the outside that you can pull up next to so you don't have to carry them far. We make sure nobody takes them from the room, but it's your responsibility to keep them locked so nobody ‘borrows' your things.

"Any special instructions need to be written on the clipboard on each horse's stall door. Skyler, you won't have to sleep in the barn this time like you did with Con Man. We walk the barn every hour, on the hour, to check on the horses. If we're not walking around out here, we are in that small office right there. There is a security system now that has electronic eyes on every door coming into the barn. If someone enters the barn, it beeps in the office so we know to stick our head out and see who is prowling around."

"I think we'll just settle our boys in and go check into our hotel," Kate said. "We'll come back after supper to check on them before we turn in."

"Right you are," Fred nodded. He handed Skyler a clipboard to record their phone numbers.

"I'll just write the hotel's name down because we don't know our room numbers yet. But your best bet is to call any of our cell phones," she told him as she scribbled.

Kate left to pull the Explorer around to the outside door of the tack room, and Jessica tugged at Skyler's arm. "What?" the trainer asked.

"Don't you think we need to tell them about Rampage?"

Skyler nodded. "Right. Why don't you write a warning on his stall clipboard." She turned back to the guard. "Fred, that bay stallion doesn't at all take kindly to strangers. He'll take a plug out of someone he doesn't know. The stable hands can muck the gray's stall, but we'll take care of the stallion. I don't want anyone hurt or the horse upset before the competition. Oh, and as always, I'll feed and water my own horses."

"Whatever you say, Sky. Hey, that gray sure does resemble Con Man."

"ConairCon Air? He's mine. He is a full brother to Con Man. But he's not competing. I'm here as a trainer, not a rider this time. Jess here is one of the best riders you'll see mount a horse and that stallion is good enough he might have taken the gold from Con Man if they had competed against one another."

"Do tell. Well, I sure wouldn't mind seeing someone different take the wind out of some of these arrogant bluebloods' sails." The old man frowned. "Especially after the way they treated you, Sky."

"Don't sweat it, Fred. Things work out for the best. I really like what I'm doing now. I don't think I've ever been happier," she said, sneaking a glance at Jess.

"Glad to hear it. Get on, now. I'll see you after supper. If I'm not here, just introduce yourselves to Melvin."

After putting the tack trunks away and locking up the horse van and truck, they took one last look at the horses. ConairCon Air and Rampage were contentedly munching their hay. Laura laughed when she spotted the orange cat curled up in the corner of Rampage's stall. "I can't believe you brought that cat! Aren't you afraid he'll run away?"

"He always sticks close to Rampage," Jessica smiled. "I just hang the water lower so he can reach it, too, and he's fine. The whole stall is one big kitty box."

"Wonders will never cease," Laura rolled her eyes, as the others chuckled.


The hotel, of course, was elegant since the small town was accustomed to hosting professional golfers and equestrians as well as their upper-crust fans.

Kate paused before approaching the registration desk. "Um, Laura, I had reserved a two-bedroom suite for Skyler, Jessica and I. One of the bedrooms has two queen-size beds, but the other only has one bed. I tried to change the reservations, but they are booked up."

Laura waved her concerns away. "Don't be ridiculous. You and I can share a room as long as you don't snore horribly now."

Kate laughed. "Well, I haven't had anyone around for a long time to tell me if I do snore. If that turns out to be the case, or if you snore horribly, there is a sofa in the living room of the suite."

"Good enough." Laura patted Kate's arm and smiled up at her.

They unpacked quickly and headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant. They were tired, but the conservation pleasant. Jess and Skyler laughed at Laura's stories about Kate's younger wild days. Before they left, Skyler ordered two doubles slice of bourbon cheesecake to go.

"You're not going to fit into those sexy riding breeches very long eating like that," Jessica teased.

"It's not for me, thank you very much. It happens to be Fred's favorite. When I was hiring out as a rider, I sometimes had to supplement my income with a kitchen job at some of Southern Pines' finer restaurants. I would swipe a piece of bourbon cheesecake whenever I could for Fred. In return, he would tip me off if someone was looking for a rider. He helped me through some lean times," the trainer explained.

Laura and Kate headed up to the room afterward, while Jess and Skyler headed back to the barn.

"You know, you don't have to go back to the barn with me if you are too tired. I just want to check on the boys and give this token of my appreciation to Fred."

"In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm grafted to your side. You are going to need surgery to get rid of me," Jess said in a sultry voice. She released her seat belt and leaned over the Explorer's console to nibble on Skyler's neck. Skyler moaned. "Good god, woman. You are going to make me wreck this vehicle!"

Jessica smiled at the blush that was creeping up Skyler's neck. She enjoyed seeing her lover react to her touch. Jessica hopped out of the SUV as they pulled up to the barn. They walked in quickly and paused to look in on the horses. Jessica leaned close to Skyler's ear and whispered. "I didn't want you to wreck my truck, but I do plan to make you beg when we get back to our room."

Skyler's blush deepened. "You are one naughty girl," she smiled at the rider. "And I think I like that."

A thin face topped by a neat crew cut appeared at the door of the barn office. "Hey, I heard the alarm system beep. I guess you are with the Parker crew?"

Fred's face appeared next to his. "That's them, Melvin."

The two men emerged from the office. "This is Skyler, the one I was telling you about. And this is Jessica Black. She's going to be riding that big stallion with the hands-off orders."

Jessica extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Melvin."

"That your orange cat?"

"Yes, he'll stay in the stall with Rampage. They have a sort of strange relationship. For some reason the horse likes him, and behaves a lot better when that rough-looking old tom is around." She held up a can of 9-Lives tuna. "We brought his supper. He shouldn't be any bother to you."

"Well, he's not exactly in the stall right now."

Jessica shot Skyler a questioning look. "He's not? Do you know where he is?"

Fred broke into a wide grin while Melvin explained. "Well, it didn't take much for him to figure how to get out of that stall and check out the barn. He's in the office."

"I'm so sorry," Jessica hurriedly apologized. "I thought he would stay in the stall. I hope he hasn't caused too much trouble."

"No trouble," Melvin deadpanned. "But I don't think he needs that can of cat food."

Skyler and Fred began to laugh at Jessica's puzzlement.

"Seems he dispatched two mice right away and dragged them into the office for a trade. Since I had brought in a mess of grilled catfish for mine and Fred's supper, we shared it with him. He's snoozing on the office sofa right now, and watching the baseball game with us."

It was Jessica's turn to laugh along with them as they peered into the office at the cat lounging on his back with his feet sticking up on either side of his bulging belly.

Skyler remembered her gift. "Guess what I found on the hotel menu, Fred." She held the bag aloft.

Fred's eyes lit up and he licked his lips. "I'll be damned. That isn't a piece of bourbon cheesecake is it?"

"Even better," Skyler grinned. "There are two pieces. But I wasn't sure if you'd still be around this late."

"Well, since both Melvin and I lost our wives some time ago, we two old widowers kind of stick together. We're not really sure when one shift ends and another starts. Melvin stays up all night, so he brings in supper for us. We watch TV until my bedtime and I go home. I get up in the morning and bring in breakfast. We eat and read the newspaper together before Melvin goes home to sleep. It's a comfortable life for two old grooms getting close to polishing their last saddles."

"I'm glad to know that, Fred. I remember when you lost your wife. I worried about you being lonely after that."

"How about you, Sky? You were pretty low when I saw you last."

"I'm absolutely great, Fred. You know me. I'm just an old tomcat myself, and always land on my feet. The truth is, I don't think my life could get much better than it is now. Maybe I'll have time to fill you in before we leave. But it's getting late and we're keeping you from your ballgame. We'll just make the horses comfortable and head back to the hotel."

"Sure, Sky. Thanks for the cheesecake, girl," he grinned.

Skyler grabbed a muck bucket and pointed Jessica toward two muck rakes leaning against the wall. Jessica slid the door back on Rampage's stall while Skyler entered ConairCon Air's and the women began to clean out any droppings so the horses could lie down comfortably.

"Well, one thing's for sure," Jessica laughed. "These guys sure do travel well. If you were worried about the trip bringing on a colic attack, you can relax. They are both making enough manure for a herd of horses."

"You can say that again," Skyler smirked.

"Well, that does it for Rampage. I'm going to walk down to the trailer and fill his hay bag again. Does ConairCon Air need more hay?"

"No, he's fine."

"OK, I'll be right back," Jess said over her shoulder as she headed out of the barn.

Skyler muttered to herself as she knelt down to feel ConairCon Air's front legs. "You're not going to go lame on me are you, buddy? You never were good at traveling. If you were, you'd be on the circuit right now." She patted the gelding affectionately. "You look OK, but I'm going to rub a little liniment on you for good measure."

She was kneeling beside the gelding and rubbing liniment into his front legs when a chillingly familiar voice drifted from the door of the stall.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think that was Con Man you are rubbing down."

Skyler froze for a moment, then stood up and slowly turned toward the voice. "Hello, Sarah." She's still stunning. Steady, Sky. Remember that rose has some major thorns.

The petite woman's light brown hair shone as she pushed the shoulder-length locks back from her face, combing long manicured fingernails through it. Her green eyes drank in Skyler's form. God, I can't believe how much I still want her after all this time. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd drag her up in the hayloft and rip her clothes off right now.

"How've you been, Sky?" Sarah asked softly.

"Good, thanks," Skyler replied uneasily.

Melvin stuck his head out of the office door.

"It's OK, Melvin. It's just me," Sarah said to him. She turned back to Skyler. "You here to ride?"

"No. I've been working as a trainer at Kate Parker's center since I left here."

"I knew that. Believe it or not, I've sort of kept up with you through friends. I was glad when Kate hired you."

"I wouldn't have imagined that you even cared," Skyler said stiffly.

"OK. I deserved that," Sarah sighed.

They both shifted fidgeted as an uncomfortable silence fell between them.

Sarah cleared her throat. "That the horse you are training?"

Skyler glanced at ConairCon Air. "No. This is ConairCon Air, a brother to Con Man. He's my personal horse. The horse I'm training for the trials is that bay stallion in the next stall."

Sarah walked over and read the clipboard on Rampage's stall. "I know this horse. Greg Knowles has been campaigning him. He's not bad, but he's inconsistent."

"Jessica Black is riding him now. She and Kate co-own him."

Sarah gave Skyler a sharp look. "Jessica Black? I thought she had an accident that put her out of commission."

"She did. But she's back, and you better be looking over your shoulder for her if you are also competing. That stallion will do anything for her. They are the most impressive team I've seen on the circuit in a long while."

Sarah tossed her head and sniffed. Before she could reply, Jessica strolled in with Rampage's full hay bag slung over her shoulder. Sarah looked Jess over carefully.

"Hi," Jess said tentatively, slowing her stride to size up the scene she seemed to be interrupting. The tension on Skyler's face was evident. This is a blueblood if I've ever seen one. I wonder what she wants with Skyler? She stuck her hand out, and forced a gracious smile. "I'm Jessica Black."

Too schooled in polite manners to respond any other way, Sarah returned a stiff smile and gave Jess' hand a weak shake. "Nice to make your acquaintance. I've seen you ride. I'm Sarah Berrington Tate. Well, it's Sarah Duke now, but I still use my maiden name on the circuit."

Jessica's expression froze for a split second. So this is the famous Sarah. No wonder Skyler looks like her dinner hasn't agreed with her. "Nice to meet you, Sarah," she said smoothly. "I've seen you ride, too. Are you competing next week?"

"I am. I didn't know you were back on the circuit. That was an awful spill you took. I'm surprised to see you recovered so soon. I would have never been able to get over losing my horse like that," she said coolly. She glanced back at the trainer. Is this strictly business or pleasure, too, Skyler? "See you in the arena, Jessica." She turned to Skyler and gave her a warm, sexy smile. "I'll see you around, Sky," she purred.

Skyler scowled at the departing woman. "Are you ready to go?" Skyler asked Jessica in sharp voice. Jessica nodded. "We're outta here, Melvin," Skyler called to the guard.

"See you tomorrow," a voice called back from the office.

Skyler's long legs took her quickly out of the barn into the dark night. Jessica hesitated, then jogged to catch up to her outside. When she stepped through the barn's doorway and into the darkness, a long arm grabbed her. Skyler leaned against the side of the building and pulled Jessica into a tight embrace. Her mouth hungrily sought the rider's and her arms squeezed so hard, Jessica felt like she couldn't breathe.

"Sky, honey, are you OK?" she asked between short breaths. Skyler relaxed her hold and buried her face in Jessica's neck. After a moment, she spoke without raising her head.

"I knew it would be hard facing this crowd again, but I guess I didn't know how it would really feel."

Jessica was quiet. "Do you still have feelings for Sarah?"

"I don't know what I feel. Disgust, anger, but at the same time longing. I longed to be accepted into this crowd, to be one of them. I guess I thought I had finally arrived when Sarah Berrington Tate latched onto me. I did love her very much, Jess. I won't deny that. She tossed me away like a bad habit though when I stood between her and her father's money. Getting blacklisted on top of having my heart broken was just too much. I felt like the worst piece of trash you can imagine." Jessica felt Skyler's hot tears on her neck. "It felt worse than when my father would beat me while he screamed about how worthless I was."

The rider's heart ached for her lover. "Sky, you shouldn't need anybody to tell you what a great person you are, but I will." She laid her hands on Skyler's face and looked deeply into her eyes. "You are the sexiest, most beautiful, most caring, wonderful lover I've ever known. I love to watch you work with the kids at the center. They all adore you. I adore you. Kate adores you. You have lots of real friends, and they're not from a crowd whose friendships go only as far as money or last names. Hell, Rampage even likes you, and he doesn't like anybody else but me and Peach!"

This drew a small smile from the trainer. "Hey, you don't have to be here if this is too painful," Jess said softly. "You've done your job. Rampage and I can finish it up. We'll show these blue bloods who knows more about training than any of them."

Skyler lifted her head and brushed Jess' lips with the softest of kisses. "I love you, Jess. I can face anything with you next to me."

Jess hugged her tight. "Let's go, babe. We've had enough excitement for the today."


Kate and Laura had already gone to bed when they returned to the hotel. Jess was digging through her suitcase when Skyler came out of the bathroom, still wiping the toothpaste from her mouth. She leaned close to Jess' ear. "Don't bother with pajamas. They'll just end up on the floor," she said in her low, velvet voice.

Jessica blushed as Skyler's eyes felt like hot hands running over her naked form. I can't believe what she does to me!

Their weariness evaporated when Jessica finished her turn in the bathroom and slid between the sheets. Skyler pulled her lover's warm, naked body close. The trainer's need wasn't urgent and lustful as most of their lovemaking had been. It was slow and deep and tender, reassuring them both of the bond that was growing stronger between them every day.




Chapter 10

Kate watched the small smile play across Laura's lips as her eyelids moved in a deep dream state. Horses get up early for feeding and training, and so the habit of rising early had been ingrained in the heiress many years ago. She had heard Skyler and Jessica moving about some time ago, and was getting impatient to find some breakfast.

It's been a lot of years since I stared at that beautiful face this early in the morning, but it seems like yesterday. Oh, Laura, if we could have seen Jess' future, I'm sure things could have been different for us.

She wanted badly to kiss the smiling mouth, but instead touched her lips to the other woman's forehead. No reaction. "Laura," she whispered. No reaction. She shook the slim shoulders gently. "Laura, honey, you are going to sleep all day!"

The blue eyes began to flutter. "Oh, Kate. What time is it?"

"It's at least 6:30, sleepy head. You need to get up. I'm starving and the girls are already up, too."

Laura frowned and rolled over to turn her back to Kate. "I can't believe you are up already. Why would you want to get up so early when you don't have to?"

Kate grinned and slapped the curving hip that now faced her way. "You do have to. I've got an 8 a.m. tee time for us. Now rise and shine!"

"Ow," Laura protested in mock displeasure. "Now I remember why I threw you out!"

Kate laughed. "I think it was a little more complicated than that. Besides, I think I remember leaving, not being thrown out!"

"Yeah, yeah. Well, you are at least a year older than I am. Your memory is probably shot," Laura teased.

"And your memory is still as selective as it always was," Kate fired back with a grin. "I'm turning the shower on for you. If you aren't out of that bed and standing up when I come back out of the bathroom, I'm going to pick you up, carry you in there and dump you in that shower, pajamas and all!"

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Don't test me," Kate called over her shoulder.

Hesitating for only a split second, Laura sprang from the bed and grabbed some clothes from the closet. She remembered Kate as always being a woman of her word.


Skyler had already been to the barn to feed the horses when they finally went downstairs to order breakfast.

"I swear," Laura frowned after they had placed their orders. "How in the world did I raise a daughter that gets out of bed before dawn?"

Kate smirked. "Did you ever think they might have mixed the babies up at the hospital?"

"No, but I've often wondered whether she is my daughter or yours. I know she looks like me, but she is more like you in every other way."

"Intelligent, sweet, loving…" Kate tilted her head and recited as Skyler and Jessica laughed.

Laura rolled her eyes. "I was thinking more like hard-headed, driven and full of wild oats," she replied with an overly sweet smile.

After the four enjoyed a companionable breakfast, Kate and Laura headed for the golf course while Skyler and Jessica headed for the barn. The two older women had promised they would pick up some lunch after a long morning of golf and meet the younger couple at the camper.


The emotional bonding of the previous night's physical intimacy had so deepened the relationship between the rider and the trainer that they seemed to move as one person, unconsciously finishing each other's sentences and tasks as they worked together to saddle the horses. There were sometimes long, comfortable silences because words were not necessary to feel their completeness as partners in life.

Jessica felt Skyler had finally fully opened her heart to her. The trainer's trust was such a precious gift; it grieved Jess that she still withheld a terrible secret from her love - the true condition of her knee.

The morning was crisp and sunny as Skyler and ConairCon Air led the rider and stallion down the wide, sandy paths built for equestrian training. The trainer carefully timed Rampage's gallops and watched him closely for any signs of lameness.

The workout wound down with a long walk back to the barn. As the morning wore on, the training facility began to teem with other riders, trainers, stable hands and horses. The two women didn't seem to notice anyone but each other. They laughed together easily at Skyler's stories of her escapades as a young rider at Southern Pines. They would reach over occasionally and touch each other lightly on the arm as they smiled and talked.

Their closeness did not go unnoticed.

Sarah sat with her trainer in the bleachers of the outdoor ring to watch another competitor practice over the show jumps. Her binoculars, however, were trained on a different equestrian. So, it isn't just business between you two. I shouldn't be surprised. She studied them for a while before lowering the glasses.

"You know, Jason," she said to her trainer, "I'm not feeling too well. I think something in that omelet I had for breakfast didn't agree with me." Why did her stomach feel so queasy? "I'm going home to lie down for a while."

"You OK?" the man asked.

"Sure. It's just a little heartburn. I'll take an antacid and be back feeling better this afternoon to run through the dressage routine with you."

"OK. See you then," he said moving his eyes to the dark-haired woman on the bay stallion. What's this? He moved his binoculars to his eyes. Looks like there may be some unexpected competition, after all. Hey, is that Skyler Reese riding next to the bay? He glanced at Sarah as she made her way down the bleachers. Heartburn, huh. I'll bet. That's just what I need after working all year to get you ready, to have that Reese woman to walk back in your life and throw your concentration off. Damn! Maybe I just better tell the old man before Sarah does something to embarrass me in the ring and her family and husband at the clubhouse.


Kate and Laura were strolling through the barn when Skyler and Jessica finally rode in. Laura's eyes danced over slightly sunburned cheeks.

"Hey, how'd the workout go?" Kate asked.

"Great!" Skyler smiled. "Jess really knows how to get the most out of him. This guy is sound as a dollar and itching to go. It's going to be hard to hold him down until the competition next week."

"He'll get some of that tickle out of his feet when I jump him tomorrow," Jessica said. "He loves to jump. I think he loves this sandy soil around here, too. The farm in Virginia if kind of rocky, you know."

"When do I get to see him in action?" Laura asked as she patted the stallion's muscled shoulder. "Tomorrow, when he jumps?"

"Well, we're going to run him through the dressage routine this afternoon," Skyler said. "You can watch that. Normally, I wouldn't work him this much so close to the competition, but this horse loves to work. He gets rank if he's held back too much. I think that was the last trainer's mistake. He followed a strict formula without taking account the individual personality of the animal. Horses are like people. They all respond differently to the same situations."

"Then it's a good thing I have the smartest trainer on the circuit," Jess smiled at her.

Kate rolled her eyes while Laura grinned and shook her head.

"What?" Skyler asked, feigning indignation. "Can I help it if the woman always tells the truth?"

The four laughed together.

"On that note, we're heading out to the camper," Kate said, grabbing Laura's hand and pulling her toward the barn's entrance. "We've got burgers and fries when you two can tear yourselves away from your mutual admiration society."

After lunch, Laura convinced them a short rest wouldn't hurt any of them. A soft breeze blew through the open windows of the camper as the four women climbed onto the two queen-sized bunks. The peaceful quiet was relaxing. The only sounds were an occasional distant voice or a whinny.

Skyler laid on her back, holding a magazine she was reading in her left hand. Her right arm cradled Jessica who snuggled up to Skyler's side and slumbered with her head resting on the trainer's shoulder and an arm wrapped possessively around Skyler's ribs.

Kate lay on the bunk below with her eyes closed next to Laura who lay on her side facing away from her friend. I'll never be able to resist kissing her if I turn over and face her. I haven't had this much fun and felt this happy in a long time, Laura thought. I wonder, Kate, if you could ever forgive me for sending you away so many years ago. Could I even dare to hope that you could fall in love with me again?

It was taking a while for Kate's brain to relax and shut down because of the images running through her mind: Laura's smile as she slept; Laura's face as she laughed at Kate's antics while driving the golf cart; Laura's blush when Kate took her hands to show her a better grip on the putter. She was just drifting off to sleep when she felt her bunkmate shiver.

"Hey, are you cold? I can get you something to cover up with." Kate whispered so she wouldn't wake the others.

"Mmm. A little." Laura lifted up and reached underneath her body to pull Kate's arm around in front of her. She snuggled her back against Kate's warm side, laying her head on the strong shoulder and holding Kate's long arm close against her chest. Kate rested her hand on Laura's waist. "I'm not cold now," Laura whispered back. "Is this OK?"

Kate's arm hugged her tight. "Um, sure. This is, uh, fine. I guess I was a little chilly, too," she stammered.

Laura smiled to herself. Maybe I do still have some affect on you. This feels so right.

In just moments, Kate felt Laura's breathing slow and she knew her friend was finally asleep. She lightly stroked the head that lay on her shoulder. When did you get all that gray in your beautiful dark hair, sweetie? When did we get this old? Why in god's name did we waste so many years? We could have been sleeping side by side every night, every week, every month of every year. There's no one else I've ever wanted to share my life with.

She planted a soft kiss on her friend's head and closed her eyes. She thought about the happy couple resting above them. It doesn't get any better than this, she thought.


Actually, it did get even better.

Later that afternoon, Jessica and Rampage floated into the dressage ring, relaxed and completely in sync. She took him fluidly through the elementary maneuvers usually required at a three-day event - medium trot, working trot, halt, salute, circle, half-pass, extended trot, circle - in a freestyle exhibition both horse and rider were obviously enjoying. Others milling about outside the ring began stop and lean against the rail to watch the superb stallion.

Without even a glance to acknowledge the growing crowd of onlookers, Jess asked Rampage to execute the more difficult movements required in at the higher levels of dressage: the piaffe, a calm, composed elevated trot in place; and the passage, a suspended trot in slow motion, moving forward.

The crowd was quiet, as though they were holding a collective breath.

Skyler grinned at Laura and Kate. "This isn't part of their training. She's just plain showing off now."

The corners of Jess' mouth curled in a slight smile as Rampage smoothly transitioned into flying changes - a skipping movement at a canter in which the horse changes his leading front leg every stride - and finally, a flawless pirouette - a rhythmic circular turning in place.

The pair came to a halt in the center of the arena and saluted.

Jessica finally broke her stoic composure and a big grin spread across her face. The crowd smiled back and applauded their appreciation.

"Yeah, but can he jump?" one gruff bystander said loudly.

Kate couldn't resist. "Jump? Hell, that's what he's really good at," she replied just as loudly. The people around them laughed.

Skyler shook her head and turned to her companions. "That daughter of yours, she just incorrigible," she complained to Laura. But pride and adoration for the rider shone in her eyes.

"Huh!" Laura sniffed, raising her chin in an arrogant gesture. "She's just showing the competition what they're going up against."

"No kidding," Kate echoed.

Skyler laughed. "I expect the clubhouse will be buzzing tonight!"

Jessica's heart soared with the applause as she and Rampage exited the ring. Waiting at the gate to enter was Sarah and her chestnut Thoroughbred mare. Sarah touched the end of her dressage whip to the bill of her riding helmet in a salute.

"He's magnificent," she admitted to Jessica. "He never looked that good when Greg Knowles rode him."

"Thanks," Jess said with a gracious smile. "He and I just seem to click together."

A glimpse of envy tinged with sadness ran briefly through Sarah's eloquent face. "You may be too hard of an act to follow," she said with a weak smile, before trotting off into the arena.

While the emotional high of the day had kept Jessica's mind off the increasing ache in her knee, there was no mistaking that the numbness was quickly wearing off. Every step was becoming excruciating and she had to concentrate to keep the knee from giving way when she walked. Skyler noticed that Jess was favoring her leg.

"Hey, Miss Invincible, I think you should go back to the hotel with Kate and Laura and ice down that knee. I don't need the horse or you to go lame this close to the competition." Jess could see from the expression on Skyler's face there was no point in arguing, but she hesitated at being separated from her lover even a few hours. It is killing me. It's harder to inject it more than once a day now that we're together all the time. I want her to come back with me, but I need to be alone to numb the ligament again.

Skyler could see she needed a nudge. "Go on now. I'll stay and take care of the horses. It will give me a chance to see who else is here to compete and catch up with my old buddy, Fred." Skyler pulled her into Rampage's stall for privacy and gave her a light kiss. "I'll be back at the hotel by 8 p.m. if you can make Kate wait that long for dinner. Make sure you leave me the keys to the truck. You guys take the Explorer."

Jessica sighed and laid her head against Skyler's breast. "How can I rest without my favorite pillow?"

Skyler gave her a light slap on the rear. "You'll rest a lot better without me to tempt you into other things. Now go! Ice that knee!"


Back at the hotel, Jessica leaned back and closed her eyes in relief as the Sensorcaine numbed her knee. It was badly swollen, so she climbed onto the bed and packed it in ice. It was easier to ice it when it was numb.

Laura knocked lightly on the bedroom door before entering. "Hey, sweetie. How's that leg?"

"It's fine, Mom. I guess I gave it quiet a workout today and it's swelling some. It will be fine."

"Let me look at that knee Skyler and Kate are so concerned about."

Jess waved her mother away. "I just got comfortable with the ice packs in exactly the right place. You don't know how hard that is. I'll show it to you later."

Laura looked suspicious, but the scowl on Jessica's face told her it wasn't worth the argument. Maybe you are hiding something, Jess. She'd catch her later when she was off-guard, Laura decided.

"You guys going somewhere?"

"Well, I wanted to do a little shopping, but Kate's idea of shopping is trying out golf clubs in the pro shop. I guess we're going to the clubhouse for a drink. Kate says she wants to see who else is here. I really think that she just wants to go gloat after that display you and Rampage put on this afternoon."

Jessica grinned. "You go, Kate! I'm happy I could contribute to her fun."

Laura smirked. "Skyler's right. You are incorrigible."

Jessica was restless, having already napped earlier in the day. The hotel suite was too quiet and television didn't interest her. She missed her partner. After icing her leg for 45 minutes, she pulled on some loose sweat pants and called a cab to take her back to the equestrian center. Waiting two more hours for Skyler to return just seemed too long.


Skyler rubbed Rampage down and strolled the competitors' barns to see who else was showing up for the trials. Afterward, she and Fred spent some time catching up on each other's lives. Fred was impressed with the Cherokee Falls Young Equestrian Program.

"It sure sounds like you like it there," Fred said with a small smile.

"Things ever go sour for you here, Fred, you just call Kate or me. I can guarantee you a place on the farm if you ever want to move to Virginia," Skyler said earnestly.

Fred clapped her on the shoulder. "Thanks, Sky. I'm happy right here for now, but I'll always keep that in mind."

"Well, it's about time for me to feed the boys and think about heading back to the hotel. Kate's good nature wears thin when she's hungry. And when that happens, you don't want to be the one holding her up from eating dinner."

The old man shifted on his feet and stared at the dirt floor of the barn. "Sky, I've got to ask you something."

"Sure, Fred. Anything."

The old man seemed to struggle to form his question.

"If it's about Jess and I, you've known about my sexual orientation for years. It never bothered you before," Skyler frowned. "Jess is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

He looked sharply down the barn hallway, as if checking to see if they were alone. "No, it's not that. It's just. Well, I've seen a lot of things at Churchill Downs and … well, you're not doping that horse are you?"

Skyler looked incredulous. "Doping Rampage? Whatever for?"

"Well, you see, Melvin was emptying out the trash in the tack room and found a used syringe. He's insisting that nobody but you and your rider had been in there since he had emptied the trash earlier."

"Fred! You know me better than that. I would never show a hurt horse! Rampage hasn't had a lame day since he came in my barn."

The old man straightened the slump in his shoulders. "That's exactly what I told Melvin! He's just an old coot. Probably got mixed up and just thought he had emptied the trash earlier." He scratched his head. "Still, somebody is shooting up something around here. Keep your eyes open, OK?"

"Sure, Fred." She turned toward the horses' stalls. "Hey, Fred. If you have that syringe, maybe you should get the head of security to test it to see what was in it. I don't want to think this could happen, but maybe somebody is trying to sabotage the competition."

"Right you are! Melvin should have thought of that himself." He headed back to the office, mumbling to himself. "Old fart! Trying to say my friends were doping a horse. I should have busted his chops right then and there. He's going to owe them an apology when we find out what was in that syringe."

Skyler shook her head and puzzled over Fred's news as she measured out the horses' evening meal. After pouring their dinner into their feed pails, she carefully checked each horse over. Maybe Jess' showing-off has attracted too much attention. It takes a lot of money to campaign one of these horses to the top. It's a lot of money even for some of these rich old people. Or…maybe it's about me. Maybe someone is trying to run me off again!

"That's some pretty heavy thinking going on in there."

Skyler turned as Sarah slid the stall door back. She walked over to Rampage and ran an admiring hand over his sleek shoulder. "You are right. He and Jessica are the hottest thing I've seen in an arena in a long time."

"Careful. He has a tendency to bite anyone he doesn't know."

But the stallion only snuffled Sarah's hand before he went back to his dinner.

"Well, I'll be," Skyler smiled. "That is definitely a first. He never takes to strangers."

"Maybe I remind him of Jessica." Sarah stared at the stallion so she didn't have to meet Skyler's eyes.

"You are alike in some ways, but different in many others," Skyler said softly.

"Sky," Sarah began, "I need to tell you how sorry I am that I was a gutless debutante addicted to my father's money." She swept watery emerald eyes up to Skyler's face. "Walking away from you was the worst decision of my life. I know how deeply I hurt you. What you don't know is how bad I hurt myself."

Skyler frowned at the old memories Sarah was dredging up. "It's not worth digging up old bones, Sarah."

"It is worth it to me to see you again, Sky." She reached up to caress the trainer's cheek. "As much as it hurts me to see you with Jessica, I'm glad to see you are happy." Her sadness hung heavy over them as her eyes searched deep for a remnant of that part of Skyler she once owned. "You used to look at me the way you now look at Jess. I can tell how much you love her."

Skyler lowered her eyes. While she realized her love for Jessica far surpassed what she had once felt for Sarah, it still hurt to see Sarah so sad.

Sarah's hand left Skyler's cheek and moved to pull the trainer's face down to hers. A tear trickled down her cheek as she planted a soft kiss on Skyler's lips. "Just be happy, Sky. You always did deserve that."

Skyler watched as Sarah turned and quietly left without looking back. "Goodbye, Sarah," she said softly to no one but herself.


Jess paid the cabbie off and hurried toward the barn. Her face broke into a grin at just the thought of surprising her love. The sun had set quickly and clouds had moved in to make the night a very dark one. As she neared the barn, its bright lights illuminated the interior. What Jessica saw stopped her dead in her tracks.

Her stomach turned queasy as she watched Sarah and Skyler talking. She saw Sarah caress Skyler's cheek, and Skyler did not turn away. She saw the kiss. What she did not see was Sarah walking away because Jess was running away into the dark night.


After she was satisfied that the horses were bedded down well for the night, Skyler's thoughts turned back to the syringe Melvin found. She went into the tack room to look around. There were other horses in the barn already, but only a couple of trainers were storing their tack boxes in that room. She opened first one, then the second of their boxes, not really knowing what she was searching for. The first trunk carried leg bandages, vet wrap, halters, brushes and other things for the horses. The second trunk carried the riding habits, helmets and boots Jess would wear in the competition.

Nothing unusual in here. Wait! What's in this pouch? A bottle of lidocaine slid out of the pouch. What's this for? Isn't this what they numb skin with to sew it up? Why would Jess have brought this along? Is there something wrong with Rampage that she's not telling me about? I've got to talk to Tory.

Skyler's thoughts were still swirling when her cell phone rang.

"Jess?" Silence. "Hello?"

"Sky?" Jamie's thin voice was plaintive. "I … you said to call you if …"

"Jamie, what's wrong? Are you OK?"

She could hear the girl begin to sob.

"Calm down, sweetie, and tell me what's going on," she soothed. Jamie's choking sobs continued and Skyler's concern grew urgent. "Do you need somebody to come help you now. I'm not in town, Jamie, but I can get Sam over there in just a few minutes."

"I ... I'm not at home, Sky. It's so awful, I can't stand it," she wailed.

"Slow down, honey. Start at the beginning and tell me what has happened."

The sobs slowed to hiccups and sniffs.

"Dad got a job driving a load to California, then another to Canada. He won't be back for weeks. He and Mom had a big fight just before he left because she just couldn't stand the thought of him being gone so long. Dad said he couldn't turn it down because the pay was so good." The girl's voice turned bitter and old beyond her young years. "He was hardly out of the driveway before she opened a fresh bottle. After drinking a while, she got angry. She said it was my fault because I was growing so fast I always needed clothes and stuff. Dad is always gone, she said, because he has to make enough money to pay for my stuff."

Skyler could hear the girl's composure slip. "It's OK, Jamie. Tell me what happened."

Jamie's voice was strangled with tears. "She beat me up really bad this time, Sky. The neighbor called the police and they took me to the hospital and Mom to jail. My arm is broken."

"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry I wasn't there to stop her," Skyler said over Jamie's sobs. "Are you at the hospital now?"

"No! That was yesterday. A social worker was called and they have taken me to some kind of orphanage or juvenile hall or something. They said they are going to put me in a foster home until my Dad gets back! Please, Sky. Come and get me. I'm so scared. I hate it here."

"Don't you worry, Jamie. I'm on my way now. I'm in North Carolina, about six hours away, but I'll be there first thing in the morning to take care of things. I promise you, I'll do something about this."

"Thanks, Sky. I didn't know whom else to call. They can't get in touch with my dad while he's on the road. They said Mom is out of jail, but I can't go home until Dad gets there."

"Don't worry, kid. You just rest easy tonight. Kate and I will take care of everything."

Skyler called the hotel room, but got no answer. The next number she called was Kate's cell phone. She was relieved when Kate answered.

"Kate, thank god you had your phone on."

"Something wrong, Sky." Kate voice was a little slurred by the Manhattans she had been knocking back as bragging rights had turned to friendly competition wagers with some old friends at the clubhouse.

"Damn. Where are you? I hope Laura hasn't been drinking as much as you sound like you have."

"Hey, I'm just having fun. We left Jess at the hotel, icing her leg. We're at the clubhouse, checking out the lay of the land."

"How about letting me talk to Laura."

She heard Kate hand off the phone to Laura, saying: "Spoiled sport. She wants to talk to the sober one."

"Sky? Something wrong? Is Jess OK?" Laura's voice was sober and concerned.

"I guess Jessica is still at the hotel, but she must be asleep. She's not answering the phone. Listen, Laura. I've had an emergency come up back in Cherokee Falls. I've got to drive back tonight."

"What's wrong? Shouldn't Kate or Jess go with you?"

"No, Jess needs to stay here and stick to her training schedule. Kate needs to help her. I can't go into details right now, but when Kate's a little more sober, tell her that I need the name and phone number of her lawyer. She can call my cell phone. If I'm out of range of a cell tower, tell her to call my apartment and leave the information on my answering machine."

"Her lawyer? Are you in some kind of trouble, Skyler?" Laura's voice was worried.

"Not me, Laura. You just have to trust me."

There was a short silence. "What do you want me to tell Jessica?"

"Tell her that I'll be back late tomorrow or the next day. She knows the schedule we've mapped out for Rampage. Just some slow trots and walking tomorrow morning and a little jumping tomorrow afternoon."

"I'll tell her." What was that she heard in Laura's voice? Doubt? Irritation?

"Laura … "


Skyler's voice grew soft. "Tell Jess I love her. She can call my cell phone tonight after you guys get some dinner."

"Dinner's not a bad idea. I think Kate could use something to eat instead of another Manhattan."

The mention of dinner reminded Skyler that she hadn't eaten in hours. It was nearly 8:30. She hit a fast food drive-thru and ordered a burger with an extra large cola. I'll need the caffeine to get home. Man, I wish I had slept like the others this afternoon instead of reading.

She downed the burger and settled in for the drive. It was nearly midnight and the Virginia border was in sight when she realized that Jess hadn't called. They've had plenty of time to eat and get back to the room. She must be upset.

Skyler felt around in the darkness of the truck cab for her cell phone. She had set it in the double cup holder next to her cola. She flipped it open, but it did not light up. I just charged this thing. What's wrong with it? What's this sticky stuff?

She felt the bottom of the cup holder. It was full of cola! Damn! That cola must be leaking. Great. That stuff eats metal like crazy. Jess has probably been trying to call, but my phone is full of cola.

Skyler wasn't anxious to stop anywhere this late at night since she was alone. Because the big Dually had double diesel tanks, she didn't need to stop for fuel. She's probably asleep. I'll just call her first thing in the morning.


Jessica's cabbie had stopped at the gate of the equestrian center to talk to a security guard he knew, so she flagged him down to take her back to the hotel. She paced the suite and her imagination tormented her. What was I thinking? Kate warned me that Skyler was unable to commit. The sobs she struggled to hold back only choked her. What was this all about? How could I be so wrong? I can't believe she could make a 180-degree turn and run right back to Sarah just like that.

When Kate and Laura returned to the hotel, Jessica wasn't in their suite.

"Maybe she got hungry and went on down to the restaurant," Kate suggested.

They didn't find her in the restaurant.

Jess really hadn't been in the mood to face her mom's questions and Kate's I-told-you-so. A drink. That's what I need. Several drinks, she thought.

That's where they found her. And she was very drunk, describing and demonstrating for an amused bartender the advanced dressage movements she and Rampage wowed the crowd with that afternoon. Kate caught her as her attempt at a pirouette nearly landed her in the middle of some other hotel guests' table.

"Whoa, your little celebration here makes mine look like a Sunday school class," Kate scolded. "Why don't we take you upstairs?"

Laura frowned at her daughter, then turned to the female bartender. Laura's ‘gaydar' pinged loudly as she eyed the attractive young woman. "You know you could be sued for serving drinks to someone this inebriated."

The bartender shrugged. "She was sitting at the table with some guys and they were feeding her drinks. I thought they were buying them for themselves. They were pretty disappointed when she told them she preferred girls and came over here to entertain me. The last two drinks I've poured for her were virgins. She was just too gone to notice there was no vodka in the cranberry juice. I knew she was a hotel guest. I'm coming off duty in a few minutes and would have made sure she got up to her room OK."

I'll just bet you would have. "Well, thanks for looking out for her then."

"Hey, where's Sky?" Jessica slurred as Kate helped her into their hotel suite. "Wait, I know where she is!" She frowned at Kate. "She's at the barn."

"No, she's not at the barn," Kate said patiently, moving Jess toward her bedroom.

Jess scowled and opened her mouth to say something, but instead clamped a hand over it, as her eyes grew wide.

"Uh, oh," Kate said. "I've seen that look before," she called over her shoulder to Laura as she dragged Jess into the bathroom.

After a good session of throwing up in the toilet, Laura and Kate put Jess to bed. She was out cold seconds after Kate laid her on the bed.

"I wonder what this is all about?" Laura said, looking down at her daughter.

"I don't know. Things sure are getting crazy around here," Kate frowned. "What did you say Skyler needs? My lawyer's name and phone number? Did she say why?"

"She said she couldn't talk about it, but it wasn't for her," Laura replied.

Kate tried Sky's cell phone, then left the information on her apartment answering machine. Kate puzzled over the need for a lawyer. I'll call her first thing in the morning, too.

It was 2:30 a.m. when Skyler fell into her bed at the Creek Barn. The last thoughts that drifted through her mind before she fell into an exhausted slumber was how empty the bed felt without Jess next to her.

Chapter 11

Skyler was still deep in a deep sleep when her phone rang at 5:30 a.m. "Sky, it's Kate. What the hell is going on? Why do you need a lawyer?"

"Uh, Kate. Is Jess up?"

"No, she's not. Seems she had a one-person celebration in the hotel bar last night. That's where we found her when we got back here for dinner after talking to you."

"A celebration? Alone?"

"Well, she had entertained quite a few other bar patrons and the female bartender had her eye on Jess, and we arrived in time to drag her back up to the room just as she was demonstrating a pirouette. We did rescue her before she started dancing on tables."

Skyler was puzzled. "That sounds like a side of Jess I sure haven't seen."

"Anyway, we put her to bed after she did a few Hail Mary's to the ceramic god. She's still out cold, and probably is going to feel pretty rough when she does wake up."

"Tell her that I tried to call last night, OK? I'll explain later, but my cell phone is busted so I couldn't call until I got here. It was 2:30 a.m., so I figured she'd be asleep.

Anyway, I got your message. I was going to call the lawyer as soon as their office opens. What time do you think they open up shop?"

"Just tell me why you need a lawyer."

"It's a long story, Kate, but the short of it is that when Jamie Beck's father is on the road with his job, her mother gets depressed and drinks. Then she beats on Jamie. The day before yesterday, she beat Jamie bad enough for her to be reported by the neighbors. Jamie was taken to the hospital. Her arm was broken."

"Christ! Jamie called you?"

"Well, I had promised her I wouldn't say anything, but a couple of months ago I saw suspicious bruising on her back and she admitted that her mother would get liquored up and beat her. I gave her my cell phone number then and told her to call me if she ever needed help. She wouldn't let me tell you or the authorities. She was scared to death of being taken out of her home."

"I'm not sure what I would have done in your situation, Sky. I may have reported it anyway. I really don't know. It is important that the kids trust us."

"Well, I haven't seen Jamie yet, so I don't know what other injuries she has. She said they arrested her mother and a social worker took her to juvenile hall. They can't call her dad because he is on the road for the next few weeks."

"Is her mother still in jail?"

"No, they kept her overnight until she sobered up and let her go home. But they won't let Jamie go home without her dad there. They are going to put her in a foster home and she is terrified. I've got to do something."

Kate sucked in a breath. "I'll call George and wake him up. Then I'll call Carol Whittington, the woman who handles the cases if any of the center's kids have the need for social worker. You be at George Brumley's office at 412 Stanton St. at 9 a.m. In the meantime, you call Jamie's mother and convince her to let you come over there at 10 a.m. Here's what we're going to do..."

After laying plans with Kate, Skyler took a quick shower and called Tory's home phone. Her answering machine announced that she wasn't available, and Skyler spoke quickly. "Tory, it's Skyler. I need to talk to you urgently. I'm back at the farm. My cell phone is busted, so call my apartment. I'll be here until about 8:30. Are you aware of any injections Jess may be giving Rampage? …."

A sleepy Tory picked up the phone. "Sky? What are you talking about? What are you doing back here? I thought you guys were in Southern Pines."

"One of the kids here at the center had a personal emergency that I had to come back and deal with. I'm headed back this afternoon."

"What's this about Rampage and injections?"

"One of the barn security guards found a used syringe in the trash can of the tack room. He said nobody had been in that room but us since he had emptied the trash before, so I decided to look around. Everybody else was back at the hotel, so I haven't had a chance to talk to Jess, but I found a bottle of lidocaine in her dressing trunk. Did she get that from you?"

"Lidocaine. That's a local anesthetic. Any doctor's office would have it, but I don't use it. I use Carbocaine because it lasts longer. Why would Jess have that?"

"I was wondering that myself."

"I don't know, Sky. My mind isn't awake yet. What time is it?"

"It's about 6:30."

"Let me get in the shower and wake up. I'll call you back."

By the time Skyler had made a pot of coffee and buttered a few pieces of toast, the phone rang again.

"I hope I'm wrong about this," Tory began. "How's Jess' knee been doing lately?"

"Well, it's bruised pretty badly and she's having to ice it again to keep the swelling down. She says the bruising is from the steroid shots the doctor gave her, but that was weeks ago. I've been insisting that she get it checked out, but she's so stubborn. She's at least promised to see a doctor right after the trials. I backed down because it doesn't seem to bother her too much. It just looks bad."

"I'm afraid I may be right, then. I'll bet my bottom dollar that she has been injecting that knee with the lidocaine to deaden the pain. That's why it doesn't seem to bother her. She's probably slowly shredding that ACL graft and it's going to just rip in half at some point. She'll tear her whole knee out."

"Damn it, Jess! I should have insisted she see a doctor. I should have talked to you or her therapist about this earlier. All we've been thinking about was getting her and Rampage ready for the trials."

"Don't blame yourself, Sky. Jess is an adult."

"But I do blame myself. Shit, I'm probably the only one she couldn't hide the bruising from because I'm the only one who sees her undressed. Maybe I just didn't want to see what was happening. Damn it!"

"Well, I may be to blame, too. I thought there were a few bottles of Carbocaine missing from my truck supplies, but the stuff is so cheap that nobody keeps close tabs on it. I figured I was just mistaken or one of the other vets borrowed some out of my truck. I'll bet she helped herself to a few bottles. She must be injecting that knee two and three times a day to keep walking around on it."

"God, Tory! She's going to jump Rampage this afternoon. If the knee is that bad, she could tear the whole thing to pieces."

"Call Kate and tell her not to let Jess jump Rampage until you and I can get down there."

"What if we are wrong? Jess will hate both of us for not trusting her."

Tory was silent for a long moment. "OK. I'm going to shift my appointments to one of my associates. Did you say you were headed back today?"
"Yeah, but I don't know how soon. It will be noon at the earliest. I may not be able to wrap things up here until tonight. Either way, it will be too late to stop her this afternoon."

"OK. I'll leave in the next half hour. If it takes six hours, I should be there by noon or one o'clock. I'll make her show me her knee before I accuse her of anything. I'm not a doctor, but I should be able to tell if she's injecting it with an anesthetic."

Skyler breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Tory. Thanks for being such a good friend."

"You owe me."

"Anything I have is yours … except my girlfriend," Skyler chuckled.

Tory laughed, too. "See you in Southern Pines tonight."


George Brumley was a trim man with a crown of gray hair around a fully receded hairline. His eyes were bleary today because Kate woke him up before 6 a.m.

"I swear. I can't seem to convince Kate to keep regular hours like the rest of the world." He gestured toward a chair for Skyler to sit, and himself plopped into the leather-cushioned chair behind his huge desk. "We've got all the papers in order. I have to be in court at 10 a.m., but I'm sending my legal aide Thomas with you. He's a notary and will need to notarize the documents if you can get Mrs. Beck to sign them. Everything else is all set up, too."

A young, dark-haired man knocked lightly and came into the office.

"Thomas, this is Skyler Reese. Here are the documents you will need. Just go with Ms. Reese. Arrangements have been made for you to pick up Ms. Whittington and Jamie in front of the courthouse to go with you."

George turned to Skyler and offered his hand. "Good luck. I admire what you folks do for the kids at that center." Skyler and Thomas turned to leave when George called to them once more. "Oh, and tell Kate, damn it, I'm going to start turning the ringer on my phone off if she doesn't learn to call me during regular office hours."

The courthouse was only a few blocks away. Thomas looked at Skyler as they climbed into her truck. "You know George doesn't mean that about Kate, don't you? The center is a huge part of our firm's income. Plus, I think the old man has nurtured a soft spot for Kate since they were teens."

Skyler smiled at him. "I think Kate knows that and uses it when she wants something done yesterday."

They began to laugh, but the laughter died when they pulled up to the curb where Jamie and Carol were waiting. Besides the cast on her arm, Jamie's eyes were blackened and a neat row of stitches ran across her right cheekbone. Skyler jumped from the truck and ran to her.

"Hey. You don't look so great, kiddo." She knelt next to the girl and gently touched Jamie's cheek to brush away a tear. "I wish to hell I had been there to stop her."

Jamie's throat worked, but she couldn't speak. Carol watched sympathetically as Jamie clung to Skyler like the trainer was a lifeline.

Skyler pushed Jamie back so she could look her in the eyes. Her voice was solemn. "You know that your mom does this because she is ill, don't you?" Jamie nodded. "I know you love your mom. You told me that she's good to you when your dad is home and she's not depressed. We're going to get her some help, and ask her to let you stay at Kate's until she's better. Is that OK?"

Jamie hugged Skyler and sobbed. "Oh, Sky. Could I? I know mom will get better. I just don't want to go live with somebody I don't know."

"We know, sweetie. But if we do this, you are going to have to help your mom get better. I know how you must feel right now because she hurt you, but she needs your understanding if she's going to get better. You understand?"

Jamie nodded, and Skyler stood up and looked at Carol. "Well, let's see if we can get Mrs. Beck to buy into our plan."


Kate and Laura ordered room service for breakfast. It was close to 8:30 a.m. when it arrived, and Laura went to wake Jess.

"Jess," Laura shook her gently. "It's time to get up. We have some breakfast for you."

Jessica's eyes opened slowly. "Oh, my head hurts. I think somebody kicked me in the stomach."

"You were having quite a good time when we found you in the hotel bar," Laura scolded.

Jessica looked around the room. She frowned and rubbed her temples as she tried to remember the night before. "Where's Sky?"

"She had an emergency and had to go back to Cherokee Falls. We expect her back tonight, but she left instructions for you to stick to Rampage's training schedule. So you better get up, missy, and get that hangover under control."

Jess squinted in concentration, then turned away from her mother as she remembered what she saw the night before.

"I don't want to get up," she said bitterly. "I just want to lay here all day."

"I promised Skyler that you would work Rampage without her today."

"Fuck Skyler!"

"Jessica! What's that all about?"

"I don't want to talk about it," she mumbled, hiding her tears in her pillow. "Will you bring me some aspirin and an antacid?"

Laura sighed, and headed back into the main room of the suite.

"Is she getting up?" Kate asked, already digging into eggs and toast.

"She wants aspirin and something for her stomach. But she refuses to get up." Laura frowned. "I told her that Skyler wanted her to go ahead and work Rampage today and she said, and I quote: ‘Fuck Skyler.'"

Kate's eyebrows shot up her forehead. "What …what is going on?"

"Beats me." Laura shrugged. "Jess can be very stubborn sometimes. Must be a trait she learned from you," she teased.

Kate rolled her eyes, and headed for Jessica and Skyler's bedroom.

Jessica's face was buried in her pillow and her shoulders shook as she sobbed.

"Hey, what's this all about," Kate asked gently. She turned the young woman over and pulled her up into a hug. Kate let Jess cry into her shoulder for several minutes before pushing her back, and looking her in the face. "What's going on here, kitten? Was that drunk you pulled last night from more than just celebration?"

Silent tears continued to stream down Jessica's cheeks. "I took a cab back to the barn last night to surprise Sky because I was bored after icing my knee for an hour. Only when I got there, she wasn't alone." Kate handed her a box of tissues and waited for her to continue. "I saw her, Kate. I saw her kissing Sarah!"

Kate took a deep breath. "I talked to Skyler this morning. She didn't sound like there were anything wrong between you two. She wanted to talk to you, but you were still asleep."

"They didn't see me. I caught the cabbie before he left and had him bring me back to the hotel." Her voice grew bitter. "You were right, Kate. I guess she can't stick with just one person. Tory tried to warn me, too. But no! I wouldn't listen. I'm so stupid."

Kate cupped Jessica's chin to turn her face toward hers. "You're not stupid, but you are acting stupid right now. You only know what you thought you saw." Kate waved her hands in the air. "I know, I know. I was the first one to doubt Skyler when I found out you two were an item, but I don't think you are being fair now. I've seen how she looks at you. Yes, Skyler has used a lot of women. But the Skyler Reese I know isn't dishonest. She was always up front with those other women. They all knew she was not in love with them. They only hoped she would fall in love with them later."

Kate shook Jessica's shoulders gently. "I think you better talk to Skyler before you write her off."

Jess sniffed as she weighed what Kate had said.

"And one more thing, that horse has been working his tail off for you all these months and you are not going to make him stand in his stall all day. So, as soon as your mom gets back with some antacid, I want you to get your butt out of that bed and get in the shower. We have to go to the barn."

Jessica flopped back down on the bed and hugged a pillow. "I don't think I can," she said miserably.

"Oh yes, you can!" Kate insisted. "If you did see Sky kissing Sarah, then the last thing you are going to do is let Sarah beat you and Rampage in the competition. You want her to get your woman and your trophy?"

Jessica poked her lips out and cut her eyes at Kate. They both knew Kate was pushing her buttons - one that Jess' competitive nature wouldn't let her ignore. Laura returned, holding aspirin and Mylanta in her hands. Realizing she was interrupting something, she stood in the doorway and turned a questioning look at Kate's grim face. After a moment, Jessica crawled off the bed and snatched the remedies from her mother's hands before disappearing into the bathroom and slamming the door.

Laura stood with her mouth open in surprise.

"Come on. Our breakfast is probably cold by now, but I'm still hungry. I'll fill you in while we eat."


Susan Beck was at the door when their truck pulled into the driveway. A thin, pale woman, her face was haggard and her puffy eyes red from crying. More tears streamed down her face when she saw Jamie's face and arm.

She held the door and they filed in and gestured for them to sit in the living room. She sat down in an over-stuffed chair and looked down at her lap, never meeting their eyes.

Carol spoke first. "Mrs. Beck, we need to talk about what's going to happen to Jamie until your husband returns." She introduced herself and the others around the room. Mrs. Beck only glanced up at the introductions, then dropped her stare back down to her lap and covered her face with her hands.

"You must think I'm a monster," she muttered into her hands.

Carol threw a questioning look at Skyler.

"Mrs. Beck, we don't think you are a monster. We just think you need some help," Skyler began. "Jamie is important to all of us at the equestrian center. Besides being a good role model for the other kids, she has a great deal of potential as a rider. Jamie has been with us every afternoon for more than two years. We feel like she's part of our family and we'd like to help in this time of difficulty."

She looked sharply at Skyler and then at Carol. Her expression was desperate. "You … you aren't going to take my little girl away from me, are you?"

"Mrs. Beck, considering your bouts of depression that you self-medicate with alcohol, the state doesn't feel Jamie should be left with you until her father has returned," Carol said formally.

Mrs. Beck looked timidly at Jamie. "You afraid of me, Jamie? You afraid of your own mother?"

Jamie glanced at Skyler who gave her a nod. Jamie stood up and went over to her mother, laying her head on her mother's shoulder. "I love you, mom. But you hurt me when you drink. Skyler says you can't help it because you just get so depressed when Dad isn't here." The woman looked at Skyler in surprise.

"Mrs. Beck," Skyler said softly. "All families have their problems. Because we care about Jamie and she has told me how much she loves you and her dad, Kate Parker has made some arrangements we hope you will agree to."

The woman shifted uneasily in her chair, doubt darkening her face.

"Please, mom, just listen to Skyler," Jamie pleaded. The tension in the woman's face eased as she looked sadly into Jamie's face.

Skyler decided to continue. "Thomas is from the law firm that handles all the center's legal work. At Kate's request, they have made arrangements for you to be admitted to a very exclusive local rehab facility where they can help you solve your depression problem, therefore your alcohol problem. It's free of charge, paid for by the center's discretionary funds.

"While you are in the hospital, we would like Jamie to stay at the center. We've done this for other kids over the years. In fact, we had one youngster who just left after living there a year while his mother was dying of breast cancer. There were relatives in other cities, but Charlie needed to stay close so he could visit his mother as much as possible at the hospice center. We would make sure that Jamie visits you as often as once a week at the rehab hospital if you want and your doctor approves it."

Mrs. Beck glanced nervously around the room. She looked back at Jamie for help. "I don't know what to do without your father here to help me decide."

"Mrs. Beck," Skyler said. "To do this, Thomas has some papers you will have to sign to satisfy the state. They give me temporary guardianship over Jamie until your husband returns or you are dismissed from the hospital. It's legally necessary for her to stay at the center … for insurance reasons and to fulfill state regulations."

The woman frowned and twisted a handkerchief she held in her hands. "A kid's a big responsibility. Why would you want to be responsible for someone else's kid?"

"Because I was Jamie at one time, and the Parker family cared enough to help me out. Now it is time for me to help Jamie. My mother wasn't worth saving and wouldn't take their help. But Jamie says you are a good mother. She wants you to get better."

"Please, Mom," Jamie pleaded softly. Tears began to run down her cheeks. "If you don't, they're going to put me in some foster home! Please let me stay with Sky and Kate at the farm."

"What about your schooling?" Mrs. Beck looked for a reason that would keep Jamie with her.

"Of course, school is out next week because of fall break and Jamie will be with us in North Carolina at the Southeast Olympic Trials in Southern Pines. But we will return before school takes back in and she will be taken to school and picked up each day by one of the center's personnel."

Desperate sadness showed on the woman face as she looked at her bruised daughter. "Oh, baby. I can't believe I hurt you like that. I really can't remember any of it." She looked down at her hands again. "I'm scared," she admitted.

"I know, Mom. I'm scared for you," Jamie said. "But Kate and Sky are good people. They just want to help. Kate's helped lots of families. The other kids talk about it. I'm scared to go to a foster home, Mom."

Carol prodded: "Mrs. Beck, Social Services has a lot of respect for and a long history with the Cherokee Fall Young Equestrian Program. The environment they provide there has helped many children under many different circumstances. I can assure you that you and Jamie are very lucky Kate Parker is offering this."
After a long moment, Mrs. Beck looked up at the adults. "Give me the papers. I'll sign."

The papers signed, Jamie helped her mother pack a suitcase for the hospital and a suitcase for herself to go with Skyler. They went together to the rehab hospital where Thomas took care of the financial arrangements and Skyler helped Mrs. Beck get admitted.

Mother and daughter hugged for a long moment before they finally parted. "It will be OK, Mom. I know it will," Jamie told her.

"We'll bring Jamie to see you as soon as we return from Southern Pines, Mrs. Beck. I promise."

Mrs. Beck nodded to her before turning to leave with the admitting nurse.



Chapter 12


Kate helped Jessica dismount the large stallion and lead him into the barn after his morning workout. It was a light series of trots and walks, and the big animal hadn't even broken a sweat in the cool autumn morning. He fidgeted, though, picking up on Jess' bad mood.

"Let's get him settled in for a rest and head to the camper to make some sandwiches," Kate said.

"I'm not hungry," Jessica said grimly.

"You need to at least put some bread in that stomach, and quit pouting. You are upsetting Rampage," Kate ordered sternly. "I do own half of him, you know."

Jessica silently put the tack away and rubbed Rampage down before putting him back in his stall. ConairCon Air nickered to her. Jessica's eyes filled with tears. The gray gelding reminded her of the wonderful rides she and Skyler had taken together.

She and Kate joined Laura at the camper, but Jessica sat outside. The bunks inside only reminded her of the afternoon before when she slept peacefully on her lover's shoulder as if nothing the world could come between them.

Laura brought a tray of sandwiches out and they all sat under the camper's canopy. Jess put her sandwich back down on the plate after only a few bites. She buried her face in her hands. Laura and Kate watched her, but didn't speak.

You can do this, Jess, she told herself. Get your shit together and jump that horse this afternoon, she scolded herself. Concentrate on Rampage until Sky gets back and you settle this. She sighed. The worst part is the feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering what she will say about what I saw.

She looked up at Kate and Laura. "Don't look so worried," she managed a small smile. "I'll be all right. I just need to get past this hangover and talk things out with Skyler."

Kate looked relieved, but her mother still looked worried.

"I don't get my turn at the jump ring until 4 P.M.. It's only noon. I want to go back to the hotel and rest on a real bed until then."

At least Jess was starting to move on her own without prodding, so the two older women went along. When they arrived at the hotel, there was a message from Skyler. "Everything worked out fine. Jamie and I are headed back. Should be there around 7 p.m. Tory should arrive at the hotel between noon and 1 p.m."

Kate looked puzzled. "Tory's coming? Did you expect Tory down here today, Jess?"

Jess looked at the message and shook her head. "What's this about Jamie?"

The rider listened as Kate told her everything Skyler had done for the youngster. Her heart ached. This is the Skyler I know and love. I don't know the one I saw kissing Sarah. Which are you, Sky?

When they arrived in the suite, Jessica excused herself and closed her bedroom door, telling them to wake her at 2:30. Her headache had finally stopped pounding and the half of sandwich she had eaten seemed to be staying down, but her knee ached and was swelling again.

She pulled the bottle of Sensorcaine from her cosmetics bag and injected her knee for the second time that day. She had just settled onto the bed and covered her knee with ice packs when there was a light knock at the door.

"It's open," she called as she settled back on the bed. She smiled a weak smile when Tory walked into the room.

"Hey, Jess. How's it going?"

Jessica shrugged, fighting back tears brought on by the appearance of her good friend. She swallowed hard.

Tory was puzzled. "That knee hurting you that much?" Jess shook her head hard, but Tory sat next to her on the bed. Before Jess realized what Tory intended, she quickly pulled the ice bags from the rider's knee. "Christ, Jess. This looks bad. I'm not a doctor, but I know an abused knee when I see one. If you were a horse, I'd have to shoot you," the vet said, trying to lighten the tension.

She probed the horribly bruised knee, but Jess didn't flinch. "See? It doesn't hurt," Jess muttered with a frown.

Tory stood and went into the bathroom. She looked around the room and her eyes settled on the overnight bag that contained Jessica's toiletries. Looking first in the section that was closed with a zipper, she found several bottles of anesthetic and some syringes.

When she returned to the bedroom, Jessica was still on the bed, her arms crossed over her chest and scowling at the wall in front of her. She would not meet Tory's eyes.

"I don't guess it would hurt if you were keeping it numb with this." She tossed the bottles onto the bed. Jessica didn't answer or look at her. "The barn security guard found one of your syringes in the trash and asked Skyler if she was doping your horse. Skyler looked around and found the lidocaine in your tack trunk, and called me to find out if we were treating Rampage for something you and I may be hiding from her. It took me a bit to figure it out, but I did."

"So that's why you are down here? Why didn't you just call Kate and rat me out?"

"Because Skyler didn't want to accuse you of hurting yourself falsely. She wanted all the facts. She couldn't get here before tonight, and she's scared you will blow that knee out jumping Rampage this afternoon."

"Are you going to tell Mom and Kate?"

"No, you are going to tell them … right before we load you up and take you to see a doctor this afternoon."


"What do you mean, ‘no,' Jess? You can't keep abusing yourself."

Jessica's face was red with controlled fury. "I've come too far and worked too hard to back out now. I've been numbing this knee for months. There's no reason to think it won't hold out another week until the competition is over."

"Jess, this is madness. There will be other Olympics. Even if you make the team, this knee isn't going to hold out for you to train for the actual Olympics."

"I don't need to go to the Olympics."

Tory rubbed her temples. "Now I'm really confused."

"I just need to beat Sarah Berrington Tate next week. Rampage is at his peak, and I know we can do it."

Tory's eyebrows knit together. "Why is it so important to beat Sarah Berrington Tate? She is history for Skyler. To be obsessed with her now is insane."

"She's not history."

Tory's eyes widened. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying I saw Skyler kissing Sarah." Tory was stunned. "And I'm saying I'm going to beat Sarah on her own turf. If she' has taken Skyler from me, then I'm going to take her right out of the competition, then walk away from it all just to show her how little the trophy she couldn't win really means to me."

"Jess, I can't believe this. I just talked to Skyler this morning, and she didn't seem like anything had changed between you two. She is very concerned about you. She doesn't want you to compete if it is going to get you hurt."

"Maybe she just wants me out of the competition to make way for Sarah!"

"I don't believe that for one minute, Jess! And I can't believe you do either!"

Jessica grabbed the taller woman by the collar and pulled her close. Her blue eyes were icy. "I swear, Tory, you do something to stop me from competing and I will never speak to you again. It's not against the rules for me to anesthetize my knee, so I'm not breaking any rules."

Tory was startled by the Jessica's blunt ultimatum. After a moment, she threw her hands up. "Whatever. I tried. I'll just let you and Sky duke it out when she gets here. In the meantime, I'll just hang close to pick you up when every ligament in that knee gives way."

She put her hand on the knob to the door. "I'm sorry about Skyler, Jess. As much as I would like to take her place with you, I really have a hard time believing she still has feelings for Sarah. When I talked to her just this morning, it was still all about you, all the time. The woman loves you, Jess. You should be careful you haven't jumped to conclusions. Your mistrust could end up doing more damage to your relationship than a kiss from an old flame."

Jessica lay back on the pillows and sobbed. Anger was the only salve that seemed to numb the ache in her heart, but Tory's words had hit home.


Jessica strode into the barn with grim determination written all over her face. She stopped at Rampage's stall door and looked into his liquid eyes. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, clearing her mind of anything but him and trying to clear her heart. He doesn't deserve to feel my pain. He needs to feel my confidence. Deep breaths, Jess. Relax. Rampage needs to feel relaxed.

She gave the stallion a soft smile. "Hey, buddy. Ready to do some jumping? I know you are. It's your favorite thing," she crooned to Rampage. She began a one-sided conversation meant to reassure herself as much as her mount. "We're going to sail over those jumps like we have wings. You and me, buddy. We're going to show them a dressage horse that knows how to jump big!"

A brooding Tory gave her a leg up onto Rampage, and walked beside them as Jess and Rampage headed for the jumping ring. Kate and Laura were already sitting on the outdoor stands, watching as Sarah put her mare over the jumps. Jess warmed Rampage up in a nearby ring while she waited their turn in the arena.

Jess closed her eyes and absorbed the smooth, calming rhythm of Rampage moving through his gaits underneath her. His strength and control radiated through her. She concentrated to lose herself in the feeling. We can do this, buddy. We're the best. We're going to fly!

She did not look at Sarah as they passed each other at the entrance to the ring. She saw nothing but the jumps ahead of them and felt nothing but the 1,200 pounds of muscle under her.

Relaxed and focused, Rampage sailed gracefully over the first jump. He was eager and Jess had to work to hold him in from fairly flying over the course of 17 jumps. The wall, the combination and even the parallel oxer were no contest to the powerful horse.

Another crowd was beginning to gather. News of Rampage's performance the previous day had spread fast and brought many onlookers today, curious to see if this dressage horse could really jump, too.

Despite the Sensorcaine, pain was beginning to shoot up Jessica's leg. As they rounded the end of the ring to approach the tallest and most difficult of the obstacles - the vertical jump - Jess noticed that Sarah, still mounted, was watching, too. Jess ignored the pain in her leg and guided Rampage's approach to the jump. Be my hero and let's jump this one big, buddy!

The stallion responded eagerly to his rider's urging. He gathered his muscles and, like a giant spring, sailed over the vertical jump and neatly tucked his feet to clear it with inches to spare. Jess smiled as she felt them airborne. There's no feeling like this. I wish we could fly on up to the clouds! She shifted her weight to absorb the impact of their landing, but when she felt Rampage's hooves hit the dirt, she also heard a loud popping in her knee. Her knee gave way and she felt herself pitched over the stallion's right shoulder. The impact of her fall knocked the breath from her lungs. Her head was screaming at the pain in her knee, but she couldn't catch her breath to vocalize her agony.

Rampage came trotting back around, tossing his head and rolling his eyes wildly. He snorted uncertainly as Jessica writhed on the ground. Tory, Kate and Laura as well as a handful of onlookers hurried into the arena. Rampage circled his rider, bucking and snapping his teeth as they approached. Jessica began to catch her breath and now moaned at the pain, clutching at her thigh. Her distress antagonized the stallion who laid his ears back and shook his head at the people trying to get to his rider.

"Whoa, Rampage," Tory crooned to him. "Settle down boy, we just want to help Jess." She approached slowly but when she reached for his reins, his eyes blazed and he lunged at her with teeth bared. Tory barely dodged as the teeth tore a long rip in the sleeve of her shirt.

All the well meaning people who had followed them in the arena to help now retreated. All but Sarah.

"Let me try, Tory. This horse kind of likes me. I think I remind him of Jess," she offered.

Tory looked doubtful. "I'm not sure Jess wants help from you, Sarah." She looked again at the stallion now standing over the suffering rider. "But at this point, I'll try anything. If you can't catch him, I'll have to dart him with a tranquilizer."

Sarah nodded and slowly approached Rampage. The stallion snorted at her approach and laid his ears flat against his neck. "Hey, Rampage. Remember me? You liked me the other day. I just want to help Jess. I know you think you are protecting her, but you need to let us help."

The stallion's ears came up and twitched forward at her voice. He looked puzzled and lowered his head to snuffle Jess' head. Sarah moved slowly, but confidently to his side. Rampage started to move away when she reached for his bridle, but yielded to her touch when he felt her grasp the reins. She led him some distance away from the injured rider, as Tory, Kate and Laura rushed to her side.

"God, Jess. I knew it! You've probably ripped every ligament in that knee." Tory gingerly felt her leg while Laura knelt to gather her daughter into her arms. "It feels like it's completely dislocated. Kate, help me pull her boot off."

Somebody had called the paramedics who parked their ambulance at the entrance of the arena and were approaching with a stretcher. Jessica bit off a scream as they splinted her leg and lifted her to the stretcher.

"Where's Rampage?" Jess struggled to speak through her teeth clinched in pain.

"He's right over there," Laura pointed. "Sarah was the only one he would let approach him. He wasn't letting anyone get close to you."

Jessica tried to rise up from the stretcher. "I don't want her near my horse. Get him away from her," she insisted, struggling to get up from the stretcher. She grabbed Tory's torn sleeve. "Get my horse away from her," she pleaded.

"I'll take care of Rampage for you, Jess," Tory said as she pushed Jessica back down to the stretcher. "These guys need to take you to the hospital. Don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of Rampage."

Jessica lay back on the stretcher and closed her eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks. Tory nodded to the paramedics and they quickly carried her to the stretcher with Laura following.

Kate looked at Tory. "Go ahead, Kate. I'll take care of Rampage and head to the hotel to wait for Skyler to arrive. Call us there when you know something about Jess' condition." The vet hesitated while she made a quick decision. "But before you go, you need to know what's been going on…"

Sarah approached with a now docile Rampage as Tory filled Kate in on what Jessica had been doing to battle the pain in her knee. Kate's shoulders slumped as she listened. "I can't believe none of us picked up on what she was doing."

"Skyler blames herself."

Kate looked grim. "If she blames herself for anything, it should be the emotional condition Jess is in right now."

The two women turned their eyes to Sarah. "What? Why are you looking at me?"

Kate let out a disgusted sigh. "Jess saw you and Skyler kissing last night. Sky had go back to Virginia to deal with an emergency right after that, so she doesn't even know Jessica is upset."

"Kissing?" Sarah looked puzzled until recollection began to surface. "You mean… oh, no! It wasn't like that, I swear!"

"Exactly what was it?" Kate's voice was sharp.

"I … I had to tell Sky how sorry I was about the way things ended with us. I can see in her face how much she loves Jessica. I told her that. And I told her that she deserves to be happy and I hope she finds that with Jess. The kiss was just a goodbye, sort of wish-you-both-well kiss. I swear it was just a peck. I can't believe Jessica thought it was more than that. I left right after. There is nothing between Skyler and I but old history."

Kate looked relieved. "Well, I'm heading to the hospital. I'll try to explain that to Jess, but I don't know if she'll believe me. You guys get that bad boy bedded down. Tory, here's the key to our hotel suite. I'll call you when I know something."


Skyler drummed her finger impatiently on the wall of the elevator as she and Jamie rode up to their fifth floor hotel suite. She was bone tired and anxious hold her lover in her arms, look into those incredible eyes and feel her gentle caresses again.

She smiled down at Jamie who was staring at the floor. "You OK, kiddo? Does your arm hurt?"

Jamie looked up. "Not much. I'm sort of hungry though. I've got a little money Mama gave me." The girl dug in her pocket.
"No, honey. Geez, I'm sorry. I just forget to eat sometimes. I'll do better. You don't have to pay for your dinner. I'm your guardian until your dad gets back. It's my job to take care of you." Skyler wrapped an arm around the girl's slim shoulders. "I guess I need some help with this parenting thing, huh? You need to remind me when I forget to do things like feed you." She grinned down at Jamie and the girl shyly returned the smile. "If Kate and the others have already eaten, we'll order something to be brought up to the room," she promised.

Jamie stared at her reflection in a chrome plate behind the elevator's buttons. "I know my face looks pretty bad, but I don't want what happened to be everybody's business. It's too personal, you know?" Like many abused children, Jamie was emotionally old for her young years.
"No sweat there, either. You know that Kate knows. I had to tell her to arrange everything. And I'll have to tell Jess because I tell her everything. But we'll just say it was a car accident. It's not really lying. It's code for ‘you don't need to know some things.' Cool?"

Jamie smiled. "Yeah. Those air bags are bad news on kids."

Sky laughed and hugged the girl's shoulders. "There you go. I'd believe it."

But when they arrived at the suite, the only one to greet them was Tory who had been wearing a path in the carpet, pacing back and forth.

"Geez. I thought you would never get here!" Tory's words were hurried. "Put that stuff down, we've got to go now."

"Go where? Where's Jess?" Skyler frowned and looked into the bedroom for Jessica.

Tory took a deep breath and gathered the thoughts in her head. "I tried to stop her, Sky, but she wouldn't hear of it. She's furious at you and at Sarah, and was out to show Sarah up. When Rampage took the vertical jump, her knee just gave out. Kate and Laura took her to the hospital and I came back here to wait for you."

Skyler was confused. "Mad at me and Sarah?"

"She went back to the barn last night and saw you and Sarah … um, talking and stuff. She's very upset."

Skyler's face went white as her mind recalled the details Sarah's visit. The pain in her eyes was so deep it startled Tory.

She gave the trainer's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Sky, I'm sure we can straighten this out. Let's go now."


Chapter 13

The lights of the emergency room were bright and Sarah squinted as she stepped in from the darkness of the parking lot. She looked around for Kate or Tory. She spied Kate at one end of the emergency waiting room, gesturing emphatically as she talked on her cell phone.

"Andrea … look, if he is the best orthopedic surgeon in the state, then I need him down here tonight." Kate listened impatiently. "There's got to be something I could use to get him down here." She stared as a man limped into the emergency room using an up-ended golf club as a crutch. "Does he like golf? Crazy about it, huh? OK. Tell that if he will come down here, I will give him my four tickets next spring to the Masters Golf Tournament. Not only that, I can make sure he gets to play the course after the tournament as the guest of one of the members. That's right. The Augusta National."

Kate shot a questioning look at Sarah while she waited for Andrea's reply. "Great! Since you are at Duke, he is only an hour or 90 minutes away. We won't let them do anything until he gets here. Yes, yes. I'll see if I can cut the red tape for him to use their operating room. What's his cell phone number? Because I have to turn my phone off in the hospital. I'll have to call him if they move us out of the emergency room before he gets here." Kate wrote a number on her arm. "Good. We'll be waiting for him. Andrea, thanks."

Kate turned back to Sarah. "You are here because…?"

"Shut up and give me your phone," Sarah smiled as she reached for Kate's cell phone. She took it and dialed a number. "Katherine, hi. It's Sarah Duke. Great. How are you? Is your handsome husband home? I've got sort of an emergency here that I need his help with. Thanks." She tapped her foot and cocked her head at Kate. "Edward, how are you? Well, I've been better. Actually, I need your help. No, I'm OK, but a friend of mine has been rather seriously hurt in a riding accident. Her orthopedic surgeon is on his way here and he's probably going to need to do surgery in your hospital. His name..." She raised an eyebrow at Kate.

"Dr. Richard Struthers," Kate filled in.

"Did you catch that, Edward? Yeah? So, you've heard of him? No offense to your doctors, but my friend's career as an equestrian may rest on this surgery and her injury has a complicated history. Thanks, Edward. I knew you would help. Give the kids a hug for me."

"Thanks," Kate said as she tucked the phone into her pocket.

Sarah studied the older woman. "I think I should talk to Jessica," Sarah said. "She doesn't need to go into surgery upset. I didn't mean to cause any trouble between her and Skyler, and I just want a few minutes to straighten things out."

Kate looked doubtful.

"Don't you think she'll be more likely to believe me than anyone else?"

Kate sighed. When did life get so complicated? "OK. I guess you are right."

Jessica's face was white and pinched. She lay in a bed behind a curtain with her eyes closed and Laura sitting at her side, holding one of her daughter's hands in a tight grip.

Kate spoke in a low voice. "Andrea's arranged for the best orthopedic surgeon in the state to come down here from the conference they are attending at Duke University. I offered him my first born, but considering my age and childlessness, he insisted instead on taking my next year's Masters tickets," she joked, trying to lighten the tension.

Laura rewarded her with a small smile of silent thanks. "They've given her something for the pain, but she just got back from X-ray and they tossed her around a bit too much, I think."

Jessica slowly opened her eyes and worked to focus them on Kate.

"Hi, kid. How are you feeling?"

Jessica's voice was hoarse. "Not so hot, Kate." Tears began to trickle from the corners of her eyes. She blinked when her eyes shifted to Sarah, and frowned.

"What are you doing here?" Her voice was bitter.

"Jess," Kate interrupted. "Sarah has cut the red tape for us to let Dr. Struthers use this hospital's operating room. You know that knee is going to require surgery. It looks like the only thing holding your leg together is skin."

"I don't need her help," Jess said stubbornly.

Sarah touched Laura on the shoulder. "Can I sit there?" Laura looked at her, then at Kate. Seeing Kate give a small, affirmative nod, Laura stepped away from the chair next to the bed.

"Jessica, I know your leg is hurting, but I think you are hurting worse inside."

Jessica glared at Sarah, then turned her face away, refusing to acknowledge what Sarah was suggesting.

"You listen to me, damn it. I didn't have to come here, but I care enough about Skyler to set things straight for her." Tears again trickled from the corners of Jessica's eyes. "What you apparently saw in the barn last night wasn't what you thought."

"Yeah, right." Jess' voice was flat.

"Look, I just went there to apologize to Skyler for being a spineless debutantee and hurting her before. I told her that I could tell how much she loves you. That kiss was a good luck peck. I told Skyler that she deserves to be happy, and apparently you are the one who makes her happy now."

Jessica blinked, wiped at her tears and slowly turned her face back toward Sarah. It was Sarah's turn to wipe tears from her own eyes. "I love my husband, but it's not the same as what I once felt for Skyler. I've never loved anyone like I loved Skyler. The problem was, I wasn't strong enough to stand by her." She stared hard into Jessica's eyes. "But I swear, if you let that little peck of a kiss I gave her come between you two, you don't deserve her either. She is the most pure-hearted person I know, and she loves you."

Sarah gave Kate and Laura a weak smile and stood up, clearing her throat. "Well, that's all I came to say. I need to get home or my husband will be wondering if I've run off with a stable hand … or a trainer."

"Sarah," Jess choked out. "Thanks."

Sarah nodded and left quickly.

Jessica's shoulders shook with sobs of relief as Laura gathered her in her arms and rocked her gently. When she could talk again, she turned a tear-streaked face to Kate.

"Where's Sky. I want to see Skyler."

Before Kate could answer, they heard shouting in the hallway.

Skyler was moving quickly from room to room, pulling back curtains. A nurse was trailing behind her angrily.

"Miss, visitors must have a pass to come back here. If you will just wait at the admissions desk, we'll see if your friend is still in the ER and can have a visitor."

Skyler shook off the woman's hand on her arm and shouted: "Jess? Jess? Where are you?"

Kate grimaced as Skyler's voice echoed down the hallway. She stepped out into the hall, muttering. "Bull in a china shop."

Skyler spied Kate farther down the hall, and Kate waved for her to come to the room. Laura and Kate stepped back as the trainer burst into room and rushed to Jessica's bedside.

She looked Jessica over quickly and put her hand to her love's cheek. Her brown eyes were desperate with worry.

"What happened? Are you in pain? What did the doctor say?"

Jessica reached up for Skyler to hold her. She clung to the trainer and sobbed like her heart was breaking.

"Oh, baby. Why didn't I realize you were doing this to yourself? Why didn't I insist you see a doctor sooner?" She paused when she remembered what Tory had said Jessica saw. "Why don't you believe that I love you, not Sarah?"

Jessica sobbed even harder, and Skyler whispered words of reassurance as she kissed the tears from her lover's face. After a while, her sobs subsided and Skyler handed her some tissue to blow her nose. Jessica's red-rimmed blue eyes swept up to Skyler's.

"I do know that you love me, Skyler. Sarah was here. She told me exactly what happened. I'm a complete idiot for even doubting you. I just jumped to conclusions. It's just…she's so beautiful and …and" She laid her cheek against Skyler's. "I'll never doubt you again, Sky. I love you so much, it nearly killed me inside to think you still wanted Sarah."

Skyler held Jessica close and kissed her deeply. "Oh, baby. You are the only woman for me. You own me, heart and soul."

Jessica rested her head on Skyler's strong shoulder. "And you own me. If I didn't know it before, I sure realized it when I thought I didn't have you anymore."

Skyler convinced Kate, Laura and Tory to take Jamie out to get something to eat while she stayed with Jessica. They had not yet returned when Dr. Struthers strode into the room. The brawny physician slid the X-rays onto lighted panels hanging on the examining room's wall and scratched his neat peppered-gray hair.

"Ms. Black, I'll have to say you have really done a job on this knee. I've seen a lot of athletic injuries, but this is very severe." He turned to Jessica and cast a glance at Skyler. "Perhaps you would like to talk to me alone, or wait until your mother returns."

Jess clung tightly to Skyler's hand. "Skyler is family, Dr. Struthers. She's also my trainer. She needs to know, too."

Dr. Struthers pursed his lips and paused to choose his words carefully. "Here's what we have: Because you were ignoring the pain that was telling you the ACL graft was in trouble, the rigors of your equestrian training has slowly shredded that ligament. As it weakened, additional stress was put on the posterior cruciate ligament, which acts in opposition to the ACL. You must have felt the knee losing stability, giving out under you sometimes or moving in directions a knee should not."

He waited for an answer. Jess shrugged her shoulder and nodded an embarrassed affirmation.

"This, in turn, put more pressure on the medial and lateral collateral ligaments on the outside of the sides of the knee, stretching them. When you continued to jump horses with those ligaments too weak to hold the femur and tibia bones in place, you pounded the ends of those bones into the lateral and medial meniscus, which are fibro cartilage that act as the knee's shock absorbers." He used his pen to point to certain areas of the X-rays. "Once those were pounded flat, the ends of the bones were left to pound together, slipping and sliding in directions they shouldn't. At this point, you must have been injecting a great deal of local anesthetic into that knee to even dull the pain." He paused once more and drew a deep breath to deliver the verdict. "The impact of that final jump ripped through all four of the ligaments and has done significant damage to the ends of your femur and tibia. There really is no other viable option here but total knee replacement."

Skyler watched Jessica's face. The rider's brows knit together over a frown as she digested what the doctor had said. She covered her face with her hands and closed her eyes a moment, struggling against the haze created in her head by the pain medicine she was given.

Finally she spoke. "What is the recovery time?"

"We should do the surgery immediately … tonight. You will have to stay in the hospital a few days, but should be able to be released by the weekend with a walker or crutches. The total healing time really depends on your dedication to a regular physical therapy routine. Usually it takes three months, but most total knee replacement patients are elderly. Your young age and excellent physical condition should shorten that period."

Jessica gave Skyler a grim look. "I'm sorry, Sky. You've worked so hard with me and Rampage. Maybe you should ride Rampage in the trials."

Skyler stroked her love's pale cheek. "Jess," she said softly. "You know I haven't been competing. Rampage has the points needed to enter the trials, but I haven't even been on the circuit this year."

Jess gave her a weak smile. "I guess we'll have to try again in four years."

Dr. Struthers cleared his throat, and the two women looked at him.

"Ms. Black … Jessica, I don't think you understand the full impact of your injury. Although you should be able to walk, or golf or maybe ride horses at a leisurely pace, you'll never be able to participate again in sports that require running or jumping … or jumping horses, without a high risk of working the knee implants loose." He stared into her wide eyes. "I'm afraid your riding career is over," he finished gently.

Jessica closed her eyes and lay back against the pillows stacked behind her head.

Skyler and Dr. Struthers watched her pale face for a moment, and then exchanged questioning glances. "Jess, are you OK?" Skyler asked softly.

Jessica opened her eyes and nodded. Her eyes moved to Dr. Struthers. "OK, let's get on with it."

"They'll come get you in a few minutes to take you to the operating room. The anesthesiologist will talk to you briefly before putting you under a general anesthetic," he explained. "I'll see you upstairs."

After the surgeon left the room, Skyler moved to sit on the bed, facing Jess and holding both of the rider's delicate hands in her larger ones. They stared at each other for a long moment until Jess finally spoke. "See what you've gotten yourself into? Now you've got a crippled girlfriend, and a useless rider when you were just about to make your name as a top trainer." Her voice was bitter.

Skyler smiled at her. "What I've got is the most beautiful woman in the world in love with me! Crippled? I thank god it was your knee, not your neck you busted. And, maybe now I won't have to endure long months away from you while you travel the world with the Olympic team. That was your dream, Jess, not mine. I'm very happy working for Kate, with the kids at the center. I'm ecstatically happy when I can crawl into bed at night and wrap my arms around you."

Jessica stared down at their hands as Skyler entwined her long fingers with the rider's smaller ones. "You're just trying to make me feel better."

"I'm telling you the truth." Skyler cupped Jess' chin, tilting her face to look deep into her eyes. "That gold medal I have doesn't keep me warm at night. Winning an Olympic medal is all about spending the rest of your life looking back at what you once achieved. Being with you makes me look forward to what's in our future."

Jessica gathered the front of Skyler's shirt in her hand and pulled her down for a soft, lingering kiss. "I love you, Sky."

"And I love you. Don't you ever doubt that again."

The rest of the group returned from dinner and found Skyler in a waiting room outside the operating suite. Skyler explained what the doctor had told Jessica. Laura cried softly on Kate's shoulder. Jamie watched Skyler's weary face, and walked over to hug the trainer.

"It'll be OK, Sky. I know it will. My mom's going to be OK, and Jess is going to be OK."

Skyler gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, kiddo." She turned to the others. "You see this tough 12-year-old? If she can be brave, then the rest of us can, too."

Laura dried her eyes and Kate squeezed Jamie's shoulder. "I'm glad you called us, Jamie. It means a lot to us that you and your mom are letting us help."

The girl's plucky grin seemed somewhat macabre under her two bruised eyes and stitched up cheek, but it was a source of strength for the adults.




Chapter 14

The surgery went well, and the rest of them returned to the hotel after Skyler refused to leave Jessica's bedside. Tory and Jamie took the bedroom with two beds, leaving Kate and Laura to sleep in Skyler and Jess' bedroom.

Jamie was exhausted, so she and Tory went to bed immediately. It had been an emotionally draining day for all of them.

But Laura was restless, so Kate fixed them both stiff toddies and delivered them to the balcony where Laura was staring into the darkness.

"Hey, you aren't still worried about Jess, are you?" Kate asked.

Laura took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No. Jess is tough, and she has Skyler now. She'll figure things out and bounce back."

Kate stood behind Laura and wrapped her arms around her friend. Laura leaned back against Kate's solid frame.

"I was thinking about something else, Kate." The love so evident between Skyler and Jessica in the emergency room was heart rending. The scene of her daughter clinging to Skyler for strength played over and over in her mind. She remembered a time when she and Kate were bonded like that.

Kate waited for her to continue. It was preying on Laura's mind that her excuse for being there - to see Jess compete - had come to an end. Only a few days more and she'd be packing her bags to return home, alone again. It was time to put her cards on the table.

"I was thinking about how we make stupid decisions when we are young - Jess numbing her knee so she could keep training … and me sending you away all those years ago because of my insecurities."

Kate's mind whirled. What are you saying, Laura?

Laura's eyes filled with tears. She laid her head back against Kate's shoulder and turned her face to look up into the surprised blue eyes. "After all this time, I still love you, Kate. This past week has been the happiest time of my life. If I could go back and live those years all over again, I would live them with you instead of without you."

Kate caressed Laura's cheek, and bent to softly taste her one true love's quivering lips. Laura turned to face Kate, reached up and pulled the taller woman down into a smoldering kiss under a star-studded night sky.

Their breathing was ragged when they finally parted. Laura could feel Kate's heart pounding in her chest. Kate took Laura's hand and stepped toward to door to the suite. "Come to bed with me, Laura," she coaxed. "It's been way too long."

Laura turned shy, staring at her hand in Kate's. "Kate, I'm not twenty years old any more. This isn't the body you remember."

Kate chuckled softly as she drew Laura again into a warm embrace. "You think I look the same? It's your sweetness, your beautiful face, your razor wit that draws me to you." Kate's eyes twinkled as she cocked her head. "You do remember how, don't you," she teased.

Laura shot her a mischievous look, snaking her hands under the other woman's shirt. "Why don't you try me and see how many of your hot spots I remember!"

Kate's heart soared as she explored the warm, womanly body underneath hers. Time had added a little padding to Laura's figure, too, but only enough to round the once skinny, angular body into a soft sexy one with plenty of curves. She delighted in the taste and feel of every part of her lover's frame - an earlobe, the graceful neck, a shapely breast, her smooth, quivering thighs.

Laura's body arched to Kate's touch. Her hands caressed Kate's muscled back and pressing hips. Kate's wanting fueled a delicious ache in Laura that she hadn't felt with anyone else in the years since they were last together. She thrust her thigh between Kate's legs, and her breath caught at the wetness she found there.

She kissed Kate deeply as she felt their passion mounting. Kate slipped two long fingers inside Laura's warm sex, withdrawing and thrusting again as her thumb mimicked the stroking against her love's swollen pleasure nerve. Laura wedged her fingers between her thigh and Kate's hot center. Both women felt ecstasy build quickly, crying out as sweet release flooded their bodies.

When their ragged breathing calmed, Kate rolled over to pull Laura on top of her. "I love you, Katie," Laura whispered as she rested her cheek on her lover's breast.

"I never stopped loving you, Laura. I never stopped."


When the arrived back at the hospital the next morning, Jess was hobbling very slowly down the hallway, using a metal walker with a bleary-eyed Skyler walking nervously at her side, ready to catch her should she fall.

"Hey, look at you. You're up and around already," Laura congratulated.

Jessica was pale, but grinned at her mother. "Not exactly ready to race, but the doc wants me up and around as soon as possible. Dr. Struthers has returned to Durham, but he recommended the local orthopedic surgeon who assisted him in the operation to finish the follow up treatment."

They gathered around as Skyler helped settle Jessica back in her bed. The rider batted Skyler's hands away as she reached to fluff her pillows and adjust the bed.

"Enough already. You'd think you were responsible, not me, for this bum knee."

Skyler blushed when she realized the others were smiling at the uncharacteristic mothering she was bestowing on her lover. Jessica grinned as Sky's face colored. She reached for the trainer's hand.

"I need to get some rest today, sweetie, so I need you to do what I ask without argument," Jessica said, cocking an eyebrow at the frown on Skyler's face. She looked around the room at the rest of them. "No arguments from anyone, and I mean it," she said firmly. She reached over and pulled Jamie next to the bed. "Jamie, I want you to go with Skyler and make sure she does everything I want. You know how stubborn she is." Jamie nodded, throwing a knowing smile at the trainer.

"OK. Tory and Jamie, I want you two to take Kate and Skyler to the barn. Rampage needs exercising, and I know ConairCon Air didn't get out of his stall at all yesterday. Since Skyler is the only other rider Rampage will tolerate, Kate needs to ride ConairCon Air with them. Tory, I've got something else I want you and Jamie to do while Kate and Skyler are working the horses."

"I'm staying with you," Skyler said stubbornly.

"No, you're not. Mom will stay with me," Jess said firmly. She took Skyler's hand and her blue eyes turned pleading. "Please, Sky. I'll lay here and worry about Rampage if you don't go ride him for me … after you've gone back to the hotel and showered to wake up some."

Skyler was defenseless against those white-blue eyes. "All right," she pouted.

"Good. And Jamie, after they exercise the horses, I want you to make Skyler lie down in the camper for a nap. She's asleep on her feet, and I want her to stay with me again tonight. The doctor says I might be able to get out of here tomorrow."

Kate smiled at the Skyler's lower lip poking out. "You heard her, Sky; the boss has spoken."

"Go on," Jess urged. "You two get out of here. My horse is getting more stall sour by the moment."

A grinning Kate threw her arm over Skyler's shoulders and guided her toward the door. "You're sure in a good mood today," Skyler complained to Kate on their way out.

Jess turned to Tory. "I need you and Jamie to do something for me. I want you to find Sarah and ask her to come see me as soon as possible."

Tory's eyes went wide. "Sarah? You want to see Sarah?"

"Yes, I do. I have a proposition for her. Don't ask, please just get her to come here."

Tory shrugged. "Come on Jamie. Sometimes it's just better not to ask questions," she said loudly as they headed for the door.

Laura chuckled. "I don't know what pain medicine you are on, but it sure brings out the bossy side of you," she kidded her daughter.

Jessica's eyebrows shot up. "Really? Well, I've been saving you for last."

Laura cocked her head in amusement, her blue eyes twinkling. "What, do you need your pillows fluffed or your back rubbed?"

"Oh, you're going to wish it was that easy. I want you to tell me what's going on between you and Kate. I can see the smiles on your faces this morning and the way she is looking at you. I can also see you turning a deep shade of red right now! Come on, give it up, Mom!"

Jessica beamed at her mother after hearing the highlights of what had transpired between she and Kate the night before. "I'm so glad, Mom. I feel like a kid whose divorced parents are getting back together!"

"Yes, well. All is well with the world." Laura fanned her red face. She could not seem to keep the feel of Kate's warm caresses and image of her naked body the night before from popping into her head every other breath she took. "Now, I've got a good book to read and you need to sleep. And that's an order from your mother, missy."


Somewhat rested and freshly showered when she returned around 4 p.m., the sight of Sarah in Jessica's hospital room stopped Skyler dead in her tracks. The two women stared at Skyler, somewhat enjoying her discomfort at seeing them together. Rendered speechless by the shock, the trainer fumbled for something to say since it was obvious they weren't going to initiate a conversation and rescue her gracefully.

"Hi, Sarah. Uh, where's Laura?" Skyler's eyes darted around the room before she strode over to take Jess' hand and give her a light kiss.

"I've sent her back to the hotel to spend some time with Kate," Jess replied smugly. "I don't suppose the Parker heiress filled you in on what's going on?"

Skyler looked puzzled. "What's going on? Except for Kate being in an unusually good mood today, she hasn't said anything." Geez, Jess thought, those two are worse than guys at not communicating.

Sarah and Jess smiled at each other. Uh, oh. Something is going on here, Skyler thought nervously. Why does everybody seem to know but me?

Surprisingly, Sarah was the one to speak up. "It seems," she said with a conspiratorial smile at Jessica, "that the sparks flying off you two have ignited the old flame between Kate and Laura."

Skyler's eyebrows shot up. "No kidding." A big grin quickly spread over her features. "Kate! And I thought that old dog didn't hunt anymore!"

Jess laughed. "Mom and Kate aren't that old, you know. Mom is only 48 and Kate just turned 50. We'll be that old before you know it! Hell, look at me. I'm already using a walker!"

Skyler turned amused caramel-colored eyes at her love. "That must be some good pain medicine they put you on. You certainly seem to be in a good mood." She held Jess' hand between her own two hands and moved to sit on the bed next to her companion.

Jessica face turned sober. "I don't think the impact of everything has really hit me yet. It may not until I see Rampage jumping without me on his back. I'm not sure how I'll feel then." Jessica looked over at Sarah, who returned her look with compassion.

"Rampage jump without you?" Skyler asked. Her puzzled gaze moved from Jess to Sarah and back to Jess.

Sarah watched a stream of emotions run across Jess' somber face. She realized the rider was having difficulty voicing the plans they had laid before the trainer arrived.

"You see, Sky, I came here today with an offer to buy Rampage. You've trained him well and he obviously is peaking for the competition. My mare is good, but she can't touch that stallion. You were right. I think he could have even beaten Con Man."

Skyler stared at Jessica who was staring at her lap. "Jess, you want to sell Rampage? I thought you were planning to stand him at stud at Cherokee Falls."

Sarah and Skyler waited patiently while Jess struggled to pull her emotions under control. She closed her eyes briefly. I don't know if I can stand to see another rider on Rampage, but it's not fair to keep him out of the competition just because I have been stupid. He's worked too hard. Even if we waited until the next Olympics, I can't jump him anymore. Skyler would do it for me, but she has already said her heart isn't in competition anymore.

She cleared her throat, and began hoarsely. "No, I won't sell Rampage. What I've agreed to do is let Sarah try herself on Rampage during the next week. If the two can click together, she'll ride him in the competition rather than her mare."

"One week, Jess! You spent months gaining that horse's trust. You expect her to do that in just a week? You know how particular he is," Skyler argued.

Jess held up a hand to silence Skyler's protests. "I think she can do it. For some reason only Rampage knows why, he seems to trust her. After I fell, Sarah was the only person he would let approach him. He was standing over me, biting and kicking at anyone who tried to get close to me. Sarah was able to catch him and lead him away so the paramedics could bring me to the hospital."

Skyler frowned as she mulled over what Jess was saying.

"So," Jess continued. "If Sarah decides after a week to ride Rampage, and they win a place on the Olympic team, I've agreed to lease him to her until after the Olympics. After that, Rampage will come back to Cherokee Falls to stand at stud. If she wins a medal on him, I've agreed to a bonus that will entitle her to three free breedings to Rampage."

The trainer shifted uneasily, looking for reasons this would not be a good idea.

Sarah read the doubt on her former lover's face.

"Sky, if Rampage and I make it on the Olympic team, I would want to hire you as a consulting trainer. I mean, I know you won't want to be away from Cherokee Falls a lot, but you obviously have figured out what this horse needs. You could map out a training regimen for the team's trainer to follow."

Skyler stared down at Jessica's hand encased in her own. "It's not that," she muttered. "It's just …"

"What, babe? Just go ahead and spit it out. Sarah and I have been frank with each other. If you don't want to work with Sarah, then we won't do this. You and I are partners. It's not a deal unless we are both comfortable with it. Tell us exactly what you are thinking," Jess encouraged.

Skyler looked deep into the blue eyes that seemed to be the mirror to her own soul now. "Why Sarah? Not that she isn't a top rider, but I'm surprised you would pick her to take your place on Rampage." Her voice softened, and her eyes reflected the pain she knew must be searing Jess at the thought of another riding her stallion. "You don't have to do this for me. You certainly don't owe Sarah anything."

Jess pulled her lover's face close to hers. "I'm doing this for all of us, hon. Sarah is as good as any rider on the circuit, and she's the only one Rampage apparently has chosen. If Sarah is able to take him to the Olympics, his stud fees will soar with his reputation. You know that."

She gave Skyler a soft kiss and looked deep into her eyes. "And I do owe Sarah. She didn't have to come to me and straighten out the misunderstanding of what I saw in the barn. She could have sat back and waited to see if it would come between us and leave you free and single again. …And I'm doing this for Rampage. He's worked damn hard for this competition and he deserves his moment in the spotlight."

Skyler thought for a moment about Jessica's words. How would she feel about working with Sarah? Maybe Jessica needed to see Rampage go on to win, so all of their hard work wouldn't be for nothing.

"Well, it looks like you guys have it all decided," Skyler shrugged, giving Jessica a warm smile. . "What's next?"

"Hand me my bag over there on the shelf, please." Skyler reached for the leather bag and Jess dug through it. Her eyes misted for a moment when she handed a dog-eared copy of Black Beauty to Sarah. "He likes you to read to him after his supper, especially when he's nervous," Jess said softly. Skyler brushed her lover's ebony hair from her brow. She knew how hard this must be for Jess.

"I'll be sure and read to him every night," Sarah promised solemnly.

"Thanks," Jess smiled, tucking away the emotion that threatened to bring more tears. She was tired of crying. She wanted to move on to the next jump. "Now, get me out of this hospital! We have a lot of work to do with Sarah and Rampage to get them on the same page for the competition."

Skyler and Sarah laughed.

"Actually," Sarah volunteered, "The attending orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Sam Montgomery, came by today and said she may be able to leave tomorrow morning."

Jessica's eyes danced as she turned a sly smile toward Skyler. "I think the doctor is coming back around tonight. Tell Tory to come up here and keep us company for the evening, sweetie."

Skyler cocked her head, and gave Jessica a wary look. "I don't even want to know what you've been sitting up here plotting."

Jess winked at Sarah. "We'll never tell."


Jamie was whipping Jessica and Tory in gin rummy when Dr. Samantha Montgomery strolled into the room while on evening rounds. The attractive hazel-eyed physician combed her thick, shoulder-length auburn brown hair back with long, slender fingers and opened Jessica's chart. She smiled at the women and the girl and motioned to their playing cards.

"What are the stakes?" she asked.

"A month's worth of stall mucking," Jamie replied, studying her cards. She looked up with a bright smile. "And I'm winning!"

"I suppose you could muck stalls on crutches," the surgeon laughed at Jessica.

Jessica rolled her eyes. "I was hoping for a note from my doctor to get me out of it."

"Gin," Jamie exclaimed again, eliciting a deep chuckle from Skyler who was propped up on the large room's sofa, reading a Horse and Rider magazine.

"Darn!" Tory exclaimed. "You didn't tell me we were going to be playing with a card shark, Jess. I'm going to have to get a note, too … maybe from my vet!"

They all laughed. It didn't get past Jessica that Dr. Montgomery, her head tilted to the side, was watching Tory.

"I'm forgetting my manners," Jess interrupted. "Dr. Samantha Montgomery, meet my trainer and partner, Skyler Reese. And this is Jamie Beck and the best equine vet in the Southeast, Dr. Victoria Greyson."

The doctor nodded to the others but turned a dazzling smile toward Tory, and extended her hand. "Call me Sam, please."

"Tory," returned the vet, jumping to her feet and clasping the surgeon's hand and holding it perhaps a bit too long.

"We've been trying to convince Tory to stay down here with us until the trials are over, but she's pleading work and no place to stay. The hotels are all booked."

"Really?" The doctor's eyebrow arched upward. "I'll probably be able to release you in the morning. So you're planning to stay?"

Skyler looked doubtful, but Jess was determined. "I may not be able to ride, but I think we've found a rider for my horse. I may still get to see him compete."

The doctor lifted the sheet from Jess' leg and studied the knee, looking for swelling or abnormal discoloration. "I grew up riding just for fun," she said while she worked. "I'd love to see the trials, but I have only been in Southern Pines a few months. Besides the usual on-the-prowl perpetually single men I've been working to dodge, I haven't had time to meet too many friends to pal around with."

"Um, no partner moved here with you?" Jessica probed.

"Jess!" Skyler admonished her inquisitive lover.

The doctor smiled. Jess and Skyler had made no effort to hide their relationship, and news traveled fast among small hospital staff. She knew Jess wasn't referring to business dealings when she called Skyler her "partner."

"No partner," she said with a crooked smile. "This is the first point in my career that I've even had time to think about having a social life, much less a full-time relationship. My only ‘partner' is my Arabian gelding I just trail ride for pleasure."

Skyler was slow at first to catch onto Jess' matchmaking, but even she was noticing now that Tory was staring at the doctor with rapture. "Hey, since we are staying, why don't you plan to see the trials with us. Kate has a box reserved for the show jumping. There're plenty of seats left," Skyler said. The trainer nudged Tory with her foot to break her from her apparent trance. She marveled that the vet's normally excellent social skills seemed to have deserted her, leaving her speechless. "Tory, here, is going to stay. She can sleep in the camper and shower in our hotel suite," Sky said as if it were settled.

"Uh, I guess I could get my associates to clear my calendar," she said weakly.

"Hey, that would be great!" the doctor beamed. "But you don't have to stay in a camper. I've got a large guest room and nobody sharing my house but my neighbor's cat who thinks he lives there."

Bingo! I knew she and Tory would click. Jessica smiled broadly. "That's a great idea. How nice of you to offer. Now we'll have quite a party!"

"Yes, well. It will also give me a chance to keep an eye on you, young lady," Samantha admonished. "You don't have a very good history of following doctors' orders."

"She'll be following them this time," Skyler vowed. "I've got her number now."

Jessica smirked. "So how early tomorrow can I blow this pop stand?"


Laura traced a random pattern on Kate's bare chest, deep in thought. Kate shifted uncomfortably. "Um, Laura dear, we're not going to be sleeping anytime soon if you keep doing that."

The smaller woman chuckled. "Nothing has changed about you, Kate. Always ready to rumple the sheets."

Kate smiled and pulled Laura's warm body tighter against her own. "What are you thinking so hard about?"

"I'm thinking about us."

Kate was quiet. "Are you having second thoughts?"

Laura propped herself on her elbows so she could see Kate's face. "Oh, god no! I was thinking about our future."

"Our future?"

"Yeah. At our age, what do you want most in the world?"

"For you never to leave my side again."

"I mean besides that." Laura resumed tracing a soft pattern on Kate's breasts. "Do you remember when we used to talk about traveling to Europe, Italy and Greece when Jess got old enough?"

"Yes, I do."

"Do you still feel that way?"

"Do you think Jess is old enough now?" Kate deadpanned.

Laura laughed. "Oh, Kate. How I've missed that sense of humor."

Kate hugged Laura to her side. "Let's do it. Let's dump all our responsibilities on the younger crowd and go see all the sights we used to dream about."

"Really? I was afraid you wouldn't want to leave the farm," Laura said softly, reaching up to stroke her young-at-heart lover's cheek.

Kate reached down and captured Laura's mouth in a deep kiss. When they pulled apart, Kate's eyes shone.

"I've spent my childhood and most of my adult life on that farm. It's been wonderful, but I'm ready to be somewhere else. Actually, after we travel a while, I wouldn't mind living at the beach somewhere … east coast, of course."

"It would be awfully frivolous of us. Do you think we could really do it?" Laura's face reflected her excitement.

Kate pulled her soul mate on top of her strong body and ran her hands down Laura's smooth back to her full hips. "Tour Italy and Greece in the spring time with you? You bet we can!"

Laura spread her legs to straddle her tall lover's long torso. Kate eyes gleamed at her partner's wetness sliding across her stomach. "I'm not sleepy anymore," Laura said with a shy smile.


Chapter 15

Jessica watched as Skyler tacked up Rampage. The big stallion snuffled Jess' hands, searching for treats and enjoying the presence of his favorite rider.

"You don't have to do this, Jess," Skyler was saying. "This means us spending a lot of time with Sarah in the coming week. And we'll be seeing her frequently during her Olympic training if they make the team. She is my ex-lover. Are you really OK with this?"

Jessica leaned on her crutches and waved her hand in dismissal. "Sarah's a good rider and Rampage deserves this chance."

When Skyler eyed her doubtfully, Jessica wrapped her arm around her lover's waist and laid her cheek against her strong back. "And, no, I'm not worried about you running off with Sarah. Her husband would shoot you, but only if Kate or I didn't shoot you first."

Skyler turned in her lover's embrace and lifted Jess' chin to plant a soft kiss on her lips. "Threats will get you everywhere," she grinned.

The trainer looked over Jess' head. "Here comes Sarah. I guess we'll find out what Rampage really thinks of her."

The stallion nickered at Sarah as she approached. "You shameless slut," Jess teased the big bay. "I'm in the hospital only a few days and you've already been courting another woman!"

Sarah smiled at the horse and offered her hand for him to sniff. She smiled shyly at Jess. "I noticed that you wear Opium perfume. I put just a little on this morning so maybe it would seem familiar to him," she said.

Skyler watched as Jess smiled back. I wonder how she's really going to feel when she sees another rider on her mount. I don't think it has actually hit her that she won't ever jump horses again. I guess I better prepare myself for when it does sink in.

The fat orange tomcat strolled out of the feed room, wound his way between the stallion's legs. The women watched in amusement as the large feline stood on his hind legs to touch noses with the big bay before running over to the barn office and neatly hooking the edge of the door with his claws to pull it open and let himself in.

"Who was that?" Sarah laughed.

Jessica shot a conspiratorial look at Skyler who shook her head. "That, Sarah, is the rest of Rampage's baggage. He gets a bedtime story every night and that battle-scarred tom as a stall buddy. I didn't believe it at first either, but it's amazing the calming effect that cat has when Rampage is nervous or pissed," Skyler told her.

"The cat comes with him?" Sarah still looked doubtful.

"Trust me. You do not want to take that horse without taking the cat along, too," Jessica warned.

"OK, ladies. Let's head to the dressage practice arena and see if this fellow will work for Sarah," Skyler prodded. The trainer gave Sarah a leg up and walked slowly along with Jessica as she hobbled on her crutches. Jamie, always at Skyler's heels, trailed along, absorbing everything they were saying about horses.

Rampage's ears worked back and forth as he kept turning a puzzled face in Jessica's direction. When the reached the arena, an amused Skyler stood by as Jessica rattled off Rampage's likes and dislikes to Sarah. "He has a tendency to want to go into an extended trot when he should be holding a working trot, but he'll listen if you just jiggle the snaffle a bit. And go light on the curb. He really gets an attitude if you use the curb too much. When that happens, you might as well ask him to do something else to get his mind off being pissed at you. Basically, just relax. He knows what to do, he's just waiting for your signals."

Sarah nodded, her face flushed with anticipation as she walked him in to the arena.

"Hey, who's the trainer here?" Skyler teased. "Am I getting competition now?"

Jess turned an adoring gaze on her lover's amber brown eyes. "Nobody is competition for you, sweetie." She gave Sky a one-armed hug. "You're the best."

They spent the next hour watching Sarah and Rampage, Jess calling out instructions from the arena's rail. There were only a few hitches at misread communications, but the last run-through went off flawlessly.

She never ceases to amaze me, Skyler thought. She nothing like the spoiled debutantee I had heard about. I can't believe how she is handling this situation. Most athletes would be sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.

Sarah's face shone and her voice was excited as they walked back to the stables. "Jess, he's a dream! I've ridden a lot of high dollar horses, but never one so smooth. He makes you feel like a mere guest on his back while he performs!"

Jessica grinned. "You can see, then, why I can't bear to sell him to you. I'm just hoping he's as good a stud as he is a showman."

The two women continued to discuss Rampage's finer points while Jamie and Skyler walked quickly ahead to ready his stall.

"Uh, Sky?"

"Yeah, Jamie."

"When we first got here, Tory said that Jess was really mad at you and Sarah. She doesn't seem mad now. What was she mad about?"

Skyler searched her mind for an answer the girl should hear. "Well, it was a car accident sort of thing."

"None of my business, then."

"Water under the bridge," Sky said. "Not worth bringing up."

Jamie was quiet as they ran muck rakes through the sawdust on the stallion's stall floor. "Does it have something to do with Sarah being an old girlfriend of yours and Jess was jealous?"

Skyler stopped raking the sawdust and stared at the girl.

"I am going to be 13 next month," Jamie said, tossing her wheat-colored hair back from her face. "And I do know a few things."

Skyler raised an eyebrow for the girl to continue.

"I have an aunt who is gay. She and her girlfriend come and visit Mom sometimes. I like them. Mom knows about you, you know. She doesn't mind because she has a sister who is gay. Says she may have been gay if she hadn't met Dad."

Skyler's mouth gaped open. "Do tell!"

Jamie grinned. "I just thought it would be easier if you guys could relax around me. I'm used to being around my aunt and her girlfriend. It wouldn't freak me out if I saw you kissing or anything. My aunt kisses her girlfriend in front of me all the time."

The trainer smiled at this person who was sometimes a little girl needing protection, and sometimes a young woman eager to explore what the world has for her.

Skyler gave the girl a hug. "I'll keep that in mind, kiddo. Now how about seeing if Jess and Sarah are going to talk all day or give that horse a rest."


Sam had cleared her calendar of appointments, but was detained to perform emergency surgery on a roofer who had fallen from a one-story building and shattered his ankle. It was messy, and had taken several hours to piece together with pins. I'm glad I left a key for Tory. I hope she has made herself at home, Sam thought.

The house was quiet as she cruised through looking for the attractive veterinarian who had more than tweaked her interest the first day they met. Sam smiled when she finally noticed the long, lean body stretched out in a lounge chair on the deck. Tory's layered locks moved with the breeze, above a pair of dark Ray Bans. The bright sunlight warmed the long, tanned arms and legs that extended from some very brief jogging shorts and a loose tank top. Lord, give me strength, Sam thought. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever come home from a bloody operating room and find a beautiful woman stretched out on my back deck.

Tory didn't move when Sam opened and stepped through the French door. The dark glasses hid her eyes, but her even breathing told Sam that the vision before her was asleep. She smiled to herself and reached down to move the Ray Bans up so she might see those exotic jade-green eyes she had been dreaming about the last few nights. Tory's eyes fluttered open and Sam was rewarded with the jewels she sought. A big smile spread across Tory's face as her eyes focused on Sam's.

"Well, it's not often I come home and find such a pleasant surprise on my deck," Sam smiled. Her low, musical voice sent chills down Tory's arms and legs.

"I, uh, must have fallen asleep," she said as she sat up. Tory shook her head to clear it. "Ugh, I can see you must have been tied up in surgery."

Sam looked down at the spatters of blood on her surgical scrubs. "Oh, I didn't realize I had brought work home with me," she laughed. "Don't move, I'll go change and join you out here."

"How about a drink? I found your blender and made a pitcher of margaritas. It's in the freezer," Tory said.

Sam rewarded her with a dazzling smile. "That would be really great!"

"I hope you don't mind me rummaging around in your kitchen," Tory apologized when Sam returned. She handed the vet a tall glass of frozen margarita.

"I'm glad you felt enough at home to rummage," Sam smiled back.

Sam's height of five-foot-ten nearly equaled Tory's. She had changed from the surgical scrubs to a flamingo pink tank top and cut-off jeans with a wide belt that accentuated her curvaceous hips and slim waist. Glad for the dark glasses, Tory let her eyes run over the woman before her.

"So, tell me what it's like to be a horse vet," Sam prodded. They had the rest of the afternoon before them, and she wanted to know everything about this interesting woman.


Sarah and Rampage was a good match. Sarah's riding was practically a shadow of Jessica's methods; and with Jess' coaching, the horse soon began to perform at his peak again. They stuck to the training schedule Skyler had mapped out for the competition, and the stallion approached the long weekend trial eager and ready to perform.

Sarah's lawyer drew up a lease agreement with the stipulations that Jessica and Sarah had agreed upon, then faxed a copy to George Brumley for approval. Brumley's approval was given, and Kate, Jessica and Sarah gathered in the barn's small office to sign off on the deal. Laura, delighted to find that Jamie loved shopping, had taken charge of the girl for the day to launch an attack on the local mall and area specialty shops. Skyler, always an arm's reach of her recovering lover, leaned against the wall outside the office, digging her toe in the sand flooring.

"Uh, oh. Here comes trouble," Skyler muttered, shifting away from the wall to pull herself up to her full six-foot height. Approaching from the other end of the barn was a short wiry man with a wavy, white mane of hair, piercing blue eyes and a face made leathery by too many years on the golf course - Willard Lexington Tate. At his elbow was Sarah's trainer Jason Wright, and lagging reluctantly behind was James Richard Duke, Sarah's husband.

The women's laughter drifted from the office as Skyler tapped gently on the door to get their attention.

Will Tate glared at Skyler, and she met him with a level stare. I'm not afraid of you old man. You can't hurt me any more. She smiled with satisfaction to see him straightening his shoulders to try and match her height.

"I heard they had let some trash back on the circuit," Will sneered. "I came to clean it up."

Skyler fought for control as her anger rose from her stomach and burned her face. "Hello, Mr. Tate. It's good to see you again, too," she said in a cool voice. "I'm afraid your are mistaken, though. I'm looking at the only trash on this circuit, and it's been here all along."

The man gave a condescending snort. "I'll get to the point, Ms. Reese. I hear from several sources that you've been hanging around my daughter again. Starving you out didn't keep you away, so I'm offering a different approach." He pulled his checkbook from his pocket and flipped it open.

Skyler's anger unfurled. She grabbed the older man by his collar and slammed him against the barn wall, holding the shorter man's feet several inches off the ground. "You bastard! You may have bought your own daughter before, but I've never been for sale." Her eyes smoldered and her breath was hot on his face.

The sound of angry voices and the body slamming against the wall brought Sarah, Kate and Jessica rushing from the office.

Waves of dark fury rolled off the tall trainer as she held the man against the wall. Will Tate was the embodiment of everything, every person who conspired to keep her down in the white slums to which she was born. He was the epitome of the disease born from power and greed that infects an otherwise civil society. He was no different from her father who beat her physically; only he beat his daughter down with money and twisted social values.

A small hand pulled at Skyler's arm. "Sky, let him go," Jessica said softly. Skyler's eyes blazed with hatred. "Please, Sky. He's not worth the trouble."

Skyler closed her eyes and felt Jessica's voice drain her anger. Nothing else seemed important when that velvet voice covered her like a protective blanket and soaked into her soul. She lowered the man to the ground and Jessica slipped a reassuring arm around her waist as she stepped back.

Will straightened his collar and spat on the ground. "I'm filing assault charges against you. Putting you in jail will save me writing a check."

"No, you won't!" Sarah stepped between Skyler and her father. Her voice was cold and her manner nonchalant. "So, Jason. I see you wasted no time dragging Daddy out here to rat me out." She shook her head and clicked her tongue. "And you dragged poor Jim with you."

Jim smiled and shrugged apologetically, and Jason shifted uneasily while her father glared at her. "Don't get in my way, Sarah," Will growled.

"Why not, Daddy? You've meddled in my life enough. It's time to put a few things on the table. I'm not involved with Skyler again - God knows, I probably would be if she'd given me the chance. Sorry, Jim. That's no reflection on you. But much to my disappointment, she's moved on and found someone with more backbone than me." She gestured to Jess, who gave her a sympathetic look.

"What I am doing is leasing this stallion from Jess. He makes the high-dollar mare you picked out for me look like a mule in the arena. I'm riding Rampage in the trials. I just signed the lease papers. Jessica and Skyler are helping me adjust to their horse. Jason just went running to you because he's jealous that he isn't half the trainer Sky is."

Jason snorted his disgust. "We don't need those dykes around here ruining the reputation of circuit. Just like those dyke tennis players. The press will get hold of one of them and paint the whole program as queers."

"You ride that stallion in the trials with that queer trainer following you around, and I'll disinherit you in a minute," Will spat, pulling his usual trump card.

"Won't work this time, Daddy. You see, I took the money Grandmother left me and made a killing in Red Hat and few other stocks a while back. I'll be very comfortable on my own money, not to mention my husband's estate. Isn't that right, honey?"

Jim, six-foot-two and sandy-haired, smirked as he casually leaned against the wall. He seemed to be enjoying the show. "Right you are, babe."

"Shut up, faggot!" Will shouted at him. Seeing he was out-numbered, Will began to tuck his checkbook in his pocket. "Come on, Jason. We're going to file assault charges and you are my witness."

"Don't put that checkbook up so fast," Sarah warned. "Kate and I anticipated your little attempt at interference, and we've been doing a little background work."

Kate, who had been watching silently from the outskirts of the group, folded her arms over her chest and gave Will a challenging stare.

"I want you to open that checkbook and write out a check to the Cherokee Falls Youth Equestrian Program for $50,000. Then you are going to go home and forget about filing assault charges."

"And why would I do that?" growled her astounded father.

"Because if you don't, then Kate's lawyer will file a slander suit against you for maligning the character of Skyler Reese and, by association, the Cherokee Falls Equestrian Center."

Kate's voice was quiet, yet deadly with controlled anger. "After looking over the signed affidavits my investigator has obtained, showing that you blackmailed several people into blacklisting Skyler on the circuit, George Brumley says we have a very good case against you."

Will's eyes flicked nervously. "You're bluffing," he said in a low voice.

Kate's eyes blazed. "Try me, Will. Just remember, you aren't dealing with a young, penniless rider now. You are dealing with Kate Parker."

Will's face reddened as the others stared at him. He could see that Kate meant business, and he knew the Parker name and estate dwarfed his own. "What do you call this? You are blackmailing me!"

Kate grinned an evil smile. "Nope, you are wrong about that, Will. I call this restitution for the harm you did to Skyler."

Snorting his disgust, he angrily scribbled out a check and thrust it toward Kate.

"Thank you, Will. We'll send you a receipt for your tax deduction," Kate said politely.

He glared at Kate, and then at Sarah. "Blackmailed by my own daughter. I don't even know you. In fact, you aren't my daughter," he snarled.

Sarah eyes were cool and her voice was soft. "Oh, but I am your daughter, Daddy. I learned every underhanded move I know from watching you operate."

Will Tate's face blanched as he turned on his heel and strode out of the barn with Jason on his heels. Kate laid a supportive hand on Sarah's shoulder as the young woman watched her father's retreating figure. He seemed much smaller and older to her now.

"I've never seen this side of you, babe. I think I like it." Jim's deep voice reminded the women that he was still there.

Sarah gave him an affectionate smile. "Come here, you." She hugged the man. "I hope nothing I said hurt your feelings. You know I love you."

"Hey, I've got old girlfriends in my past, too," he said, waggling his eyebrows.

Sarah smiled up at him, and turned him around to face the others. "Ladies, this is my husband, Jim. If any man in the world can make me heterosexual, it is this one. Good looking, great in bed and has money, too. What more could you want?"

Jim blushed at his wife's teasing. He shook each woman's hand in turn as Sarah made the introductions. "So, is this stallion as good as the rumor mill says he is?"

"Even better," Jessica bragged, laughing.



Chapter 16

As if to live up to his owner's words and his advanced dressage background, Rampage ran away with Friday's dressage competition. Smooth and confident, the stallion turned in a flawless performance that quickly intimidated the lesser riders in the competition and had the veteran riders looking over their shoulders.

Saturday was the real test - endurance/cross country. This all-day competition tests a horse's speed, endurance and jumping ability. The trial is divided into four exercises: phase one is a timed roads and track exercise usually done at a brisk trot as a warming up period; phase two is the steeplechase, ridden at a strong gallop with six to eight jumps to clear; phase three, another timed roads and track exercise ridden at a quiet trot and walk to give the horse a chance to recover his wind from the steeplechase; and finally, after a ten-minute compulsory rest and vet check, the competitors go on to the most exciting of the day's event - the cross-country phase.

The cross-country course is approximately two and three quarters to four miles long, comprised of 24 to 36 fixed and solid obstacles of great variety and is ridden at a good gallop. Cross-country courses require horses and riders to be bold and smart, and they also test stamina. The obstacles can be very difficult - jumping uphill, jumping over solid obstacles, jumping downhill, jumping several series of fences and - Jess' bane - jumping over a solid obstacle into a knee-deep pool of water on the other side. Riders are permitted to walk the course before the competition, but the horses are seeing it for the first time on the day of the competition. This makes good communication and a responsive horse critical for a winning run.

Dark clouds hung overhead, threatening rain, but also bringing a welcomed breeze. Kate rented a minivan that would hold their entire party - her, Laura, Jamie, Tory, Sam, Skyler and Jessica - and had already picked an advantageous viewing spot atop a hill overlooking the steeplechase and cross-country courses. She also produced binoculars for each member of the party.

Sarah was focused and quiet as Rampage pranced, picking up on his rider's anticipation. His workouts over the past week were light, as stipulated by interval training methods, and he was fairly bursting with pent up energy. Sarah worked expert hands hard to control the stallion.

"Don't worry, Sarah. Once you get him started, give him a job to do, he'll settle down," Jessica advised her. Skyler checked Sarah's saddle and stirrups, murmuring to sooth the tense horse. Jessica fidgeted as she leaned on her crutch.

"I swear, Jess. I've never seen anyone pace on crutches, but you are doing a good job of it," Skyler said with a warning look. "Hold still. Rampage is picking up on your nerves."

Jess stilled her body for a moment, then limped off toward the others waiting at the minivan. Skyler glanced over her shoulder at her retreating figure before looking up at Sarah.

Sarah smiled. "I thought I was supposed to be the one with a case of nerves."

Skyler frowned and shrugged her shoulder.

"You need to cut her some slack, Sky," Sarah said. "I know it would be hard for me to train all year, then watch someone else ride my horse in the trials."

"It's not just that, I don't think," Skyler replied. "There's something else bothering her. She'll chew on it for a while before she spits it out and tells me her real problem. She's sort of like this boy." Skyler patted the bay's shoulder. "You have to coax her, not force her."

The trainer squeezed Sarah's knee. "Ride well and be safe. Trust Rampage. He's a hell of a horse," she advised before going to join the others.

They parked on Kate's hill and piled out of the van.

Tory pulled Sam to the side and explained how the event would unfold, pointing to the various courses. The vet grinned as she watched the physician peer through her binoculars to pick Rampage and Sarah out from the other competitors. The slim doctor was a striking figure in polished western boots, softly faded jeans and a crisp pink oxford blouse, the sleeves rolled up on her forearms. Her wind tossed her thick mane and gold jewelry accented her tanned face and arms.

Skyler watched them and nudged her partner, gesturing toward the couple with a nod of her head. Jessica smiled at them. "Looks like Tory has taken the bait, hook, line and sinker," Skyler whispered in her ear.

Jessica nodded, and then looked worriedly at the clouds threatening overhead. Skyler stood behind her and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman. "What's on your mind, babe?" the trainer coaxed.

Jess took a deep breath, but didn't speak.

"That was supposed to be you down there on Rampage. Is it harder than you thought, watching Sarah take your ride?" The trainer's voice was soft in her lover's ear.

Jess gave her head a hard shake and rubbed her eyes.

"What then? Can't you tell me what's wrong?"

Jess stared at the ground and wrapped her arms over Skyler's, squeezing her lover's embrace even tighter. "It's just … the clouds and wind … I've just got a bad feeling. It feels like déjà vu or something."

Skyler's mind raced back to Jessica's initial accident on Racer. "Don't even think it, babe. This is a different day, a different situation." She could feel Jessica tremble in her arms. "Hey, trust me and Rampage, OK?"

Jess leaned her body into Skyler's, and rewarded her with a weak smile. She did feel warm and secure in her tall lover's arms.

They moved to join Kate, Laura and Jamie who were seated in lawn chairs and intently following Sarah and Rampage as they began their first phase. The stallion was a coiled spring, straining to be let loose. His brisk trot ate up the ground before him and the pair turned in a time more than a minute shorter than the nearest competitor.

Skyler frowned. "She needs to hold him in. She's coming out too fast and won't have anything left for the cross-country."

"They're OK," Jess disagreed softly. "He's got more stamina than any horse I've ridden. If she holds him in too much, he'll pout and fight her. They'll loose their rhythm."

Entering the steeplechase phase, Sarah gave in a little more to the eager bay. The hilltop group could hear the crowd seated in the stands below murmur in admiration as the horse and rider sailed over the course. The judges were checking their watches and shaking their heads.

As they began the third phase, a slow trot and walking to cool down, Jessica and Skyler hopped in the van so they could meet Sarah at the vet check.

Sarah was breathing hard from the adrenalin rush when she hopped down from the saddle.

"You're taking him too fast. I don't now if he'll have enough left for the cross-country," Skyler scolded.

"Are you kidding? I'm having a hell of a time holding him in. He acts like he hasn't even had his edge taken off yet."

Jessica moved closer. "Then he's going to be tough over the cross-country. He loves to jump and tends to get more and more excited as you go farther along the course. You have to use the little distractions I showed you to keep his attention on you and not just the next series of jumps."

Sarah nodded and accepted the sports drink Jess was handing her. Skyler led Rampage through the vet check, walking him the full ten minutes to calm him yet keep his momentum.

"A leg up, please," Sarah requested of Skyler when the time was up. Skyler laced her fingers together to cup Sarah's knee and hoist her back into the saddle. Sarah grinned down at Skyler.

"Don't look so worried," she admonished, with a wink at Jessica. "It's in the bag."

Skyler shook her head at the rider's bravado and stepped back as Sarah turned Rampage toward the cross-country course.

When Jess and Skyler returned to the hilltop, the clouds had grown heavier. The coming storm still was too far away to hear the thunder, but sheets of lightning were visible in the distance.

Jess' eyes flicked nervously toward the darkening sky, and she clung to Skyler's hand with a death grip. Jamie watched Jessica for a moment. The former rider's stress was evident.

"They'll be OK, Jess," the girl said, softly touching her arm. Jess reached over and kissed the girl on the forehead.

"Thanks, Jamie. I'm just a bundle of nerves today," she smiled. "Believe it or not, it's easier when you are down there competing because your mind is always occupied. It's been a long time since I had to sit and watch somebody else do it."

Skyler muttered under her breath as she watched Sarah wind Rampage through the course. "Too fast, Sarah. You're losing control over him. Slow him down."

Jess pulled a stopwatch from her pocket and returned her binoculars to her eyes. She clicked the watch as Sarah left the chevrons and headed toward a double ski jump. Rampage rushed the first jump, and Sarah struggled to slow him for the more dramatic drop on the second jump. Rampage shook his head at her pressure, but sailed over the second jump while maintaining perfect balance.

"He's giving her a really hard time," Jessica said, "but she's hanging in there with him."

The wind picked up, swaying trees as Jessica tracked her binoculars ahead of the horse and rider. Christ, the water jump! Rampage continued to shake his head as Sarah worked to slow him down. Rain began to pelt down and thunder rumbled as they approached the water jump. Oh, god! I can't believe this is happening again.

"No-o-o-o!" Jessica screamed as she watched Rampage slip as he launched his body over the jump, flipping sideways and landing heavily on his side in the water. They all stood frozen, heedless to the rain that had begun pelting them, and watched as Sarah was pitched clear of the horse.

"This can't be happening again," Jessica moaned before turning and limping as fast as her crutches could carry her toward the van. Skyler caught the hysterical woman and held her tight in her arms. "Jess, baby, hold on a minute," she pleaded. Jess hid her face in her lover's chest.

The rest held their breath as Sarah rolled, then sprang to her feet. Rampage also struggled to his feet, and shook the water from his coat like a big dog before looking for his rider.

"They're both up and OK," Kate called out. They watched Sarah quickly lead him to a spot where she was standing uphill from the horse and launch herself back into the saddle. A quick pat on the stallion's neck and the two were off again.

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Tory and Skyler watched the big bay's progress closely for lameness. The downpour was brief and already had subsided to a sprinkle.

Jess sobbed, her face still buried in Skyler's shoulder.

"Jess, baby, look. They're OK. Sarah is finishing the course," Skyler prodded. She rubbed Jess' back with one hand while she held her binoculars with the other.

"I can't look. I don't want to look," Jess whimpered. "You watch for me."

Skyler placed a soft kiss on her lover's forehead and held her tight against her as she gave her a running report of Rampage's progress. "They're over the solid wall, taking the hedges with room to spare. Sarah really is pushing it to make up their lost time. God, Jess, Rampage is really flying! That's it! They're home free!"

Jess still clung to Skyler as everybody cheered and piled into the van to go congratulate Sarah. Skyler waved them ahead. "We'll walk down, you guys. I think Jess needs some time."

"We'll walk," Kate corrected, tossing the keys at Skyler. "We're not the ones on crutches. You guys bring the van." The others headed down to the grandstand, but Skyler stood still hugging Jessica and waiting for her tears to subside.

"I'm sorry I'm such a big baby," Jess sniffed, clinging to her lover's strong body. "I just keep hearing Racer scream and that bone sticking out of his leg. It's probably a good thing that I can't jump horses anymore. I think that accident will haunt me forever."

Skyler brushed Jess' dark locks back from her face and kissed the salty tears away. "And I will always be here to help chase that bad memory away. We'll replace it with lots of good memories," the trainer promised. "Come on. Let's go see Rampage and Sarah."

Sarah's face glowed as she recounted each jump approach and the incredible recovery at the water jump to Kate and Laura.

Skyler's arm rested protectively across her partner's shoulders as they watched Tory run her hands down Rampage's legs, flexing the joints and checking for swelling or sore spots. Sam bent close over Tory's shoulder and the vet was giving her a lesson in horse orthopedics. "Finally, we found someone who speaks Tory's language," Skyler teased the two doctors.

Jamie slipped her hand into Jessica's and held on tight. "Are you feeling better, Jess?" the girl asked. "That really scared me, too."

Jessica smiled at Jamie and hugged her. "Yeah. But it helps me to know I wasn't the only one scared. Thanks."

The girl beamed at her. "I'll make sure Rampage's stall is clean so they can put him up and give him his dinner," she offered.

"Good idea, squirt," Skyler said. "You know, I could get used to having you around," she added, winking at the girl.

They all turned as Jim trotted into the barn. "Well, all the scores are in. That fall really cost you, Sarah, but you still are fourth in the standings."

"Damn that rain. We would have been in first place if we hadn't slipped on those wet rocks."

"Nature of the game, my dear," Kate drawled. "The good news is that you are in fine striking distance. A clean performance in the show jumping and you should be back among the top three leaders."

"Let's celebrate!" Jim offered.

The women all smiled at his enthusiasm.

"Not so fast, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," Skyler smirked. "Tomorrow is the biggest test. We have to make sure Rampage doesn't stock up after today's workout and be too stiff to jump well tomorrow."

Jim frowned. "That's why they show jump on the last day, hon," Sarah explained to him. "The cross-country actually has more difficult jumps, but the test is to see if your horse is in good enough shape to complete the cross-country and still be limber enough to do precision jumping the next day."

Jim looked disappointed. "So what does that mean?"

Skyler snorted. "It means I'm going to be earning my pay tonight. We need to walk him and rub his legs down every four hours to keep him from getting stiff."

Kate grinned at the pouting man. "We've got several hours before he needs another rubdown. Let's all go somewhere to eat. We'll split this up. It's seven o'clock now. Tory can do the eleven to midnight shift. Then Skyler can come back and rub him down at 4. That leaves 9 o'clock for Sarah. The competition starts at 1 p.m."

Laura smirked. "What about you, horse co-owner? Why Tory and not you at eleven?

Kate straightened up to her full height. "Because it was my idea. I'm the senior member, meaning I'm too old to be rubbing horses down. And, I keep Tory on retainer. I pay her to take care of the center's horses." Kate leaned down and whispered in Laura's ear. "And it's not the horse I want to be rubbing on tonight!"

Laura's face reddened, and Kate grinned.

Kate's words were too softly spoken for the others to hear, but Jess didn't miss her mother's blush. "I'm not sure I like this, Kate."

Kate turned a questioning eyebrow to her goddaughter.

"So you are planning to have your way with my mother while you send my bed warmer into the cold night to rub a horse down?"

Kate smirked. "Don't forget, dear, I pay her salary, too." The tall woman winked at Skyler. "After all these years, I've finally found a good use for the Parker millions!"


The night was chilly when Tory, with Sam tagging along, returned to the barn for the vet's shift with Rampage. The big stallion snorted nervously, sending steamy clouds of hot breath into the cool air as they walked him under the stadium lights of the outdoor ring. A mare whinnied from a nearby barn, and his ears pricked forward to analyze the sound. "No, you don't need to be courting tonight," Tory laughed, giving a few light tugs on the stud chain that wrapped over the stallion's nose. "Hasn't your trainer told you it weakens the legs," she joked, citing the old adage believed by boxing trainers for years.

"I believe that is rooted more in the issue of stamina rather than strength," Sam mused. "I never found it to be true myself."

Tory's eyes twinkled. "Oh, you jumped hurdles, too?" she teased in reference to Rampage's task awaiting him the next day.

Sam swatted at Tory's arm playfully. "No, silly. But I did play on the women's tennis team at Northwestern.

"You don't say!" Tory gave her a flirtatious smile. "I knew that body had to come from some type of athletic training."

Sam blushed. "Well, I haven't played much at all since college. The only exercise I seem to get now days is standing beside an operating table or trail-riding my horse."

Melvin stuck his head out of the office door when they returned to the barn and tripped the electronic eye.

"Just us, Melvin," Tory called, and the man went back to his television.

Sam leaned against the stall partition and watched as Tory's strong hands massaged the bay's chest and legs. She felt carefully for any areas of sensitivity or excessive warmth that would warn of inflammation.

The stallion was relaxed and playful, nipping at the belt loops on Tory's jeans as she bent to her task. "Watch it, buddy. I've seen your handiwork. You take a bite out of my rear and you can just get yourself another vet."

Oh, man, would I like to take a bite out of that rear myself,Sam thought. Listen to me, I sound like I haven't had a woman in my bed for years …well, maybe it has been a few. Sarah wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, not from the cold but from the visions that wouldn't stop running through her mind as she watched Tory's hands massage the horse's muscles.

Tory glanced up. "Are you cold? I have an extra jacket in the truck." She bent over again to continue the massage down Rampage's foreleg.

"Um, no. The view from up here is keeping me pretty warm." I can't believe I said that!

Tory's head jerked in surprise, causing her to lose her balance and stumble into the horse's flank. Rampage grunted and moved over a step.

When the vet regained her composure and looked up again, Sam's expression told her the sexy doctor was amused at her discomfort. Tory cleared her throat. "Yeah, well, sorry to take your fun away, but we're done here."

There was little verbal conversation on the ride back to Sam's house, but the minds of both women were screaming in anticipation of their next step.

I feel like some naïve schoolgirl, hoping to get kissed for the first time, Tory scolded herself. Why can't I take control like I usually do?

I can't believe I'm being so aggressive, Sam thought. I've never made the first move with another woman. Tory's going to think I'm some dyke who seduces women all the time!

When they arrived at the house, Sam busied herself locking the doors and setting the alarm. It was late, but both women found themselves self-consciously standing in the living room, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, shooting shy glances at each other.

At last, Tory laughed. "You know, I'm usually a very witty conversationalist. I get invited to all the parties in Cherokee Falls because I'm so good at mingling and socializing. I don't know why I seem to be constantly speechless around you."

It was Sam's turn to laugh. "I'm sorry. I … well, I …"

"Now look who is stuttering," Tory teased gently, feeling more confident now that the tables appeared to have turned.

Sam blushed, but tilted her head to gather her wits for her next move. Go ahead. Be bold. If she turns you down, you never have to see her again because she'll go back to Virginia. If she doesn't turn you down, you may just get your hands on that incredible body!

"The truth is: I've never pursued another woman. I'm more comfortable being the pursued. But I find you very attractive. I'm afraid you'll be gone from my life, back to Virginia, if I waste this time together," Sam said quietly. There, I said it.

Tory's eyes widened. OK! Is that an invitation or what? Grab her and kiss those lips you've been drooling over all day! But Sam's sexy smile had the vet's feet rooted in place. She wet her lips while she fought to control the leaping of her heart. "The truth is: I'm usually a pursuer but - for the first time in my life - I find you so … stunning … I'm stumbling around like it's my first time out of the gate."

Sam's eyes sparkled. She offered Tory her hand and pulled her close. "You have the most gorgeous eyes I've ever seen. They captured me the moment I met you." Tory stared deep into the fair doctor's eyes and bent slowly to brush their soft lips together. Sam's arms curled around Tory's back and neck, pulling her into a deep, exploring kiss that left both women breathless.

"Sleep in my bed tonight?" Sam requested softly. "When I wake up in the morning, the first things I want to see are those incredible evergreen eyes of yours."


"Sky, a little help here?" Jessica requested as she heard her lover spit out her toothpaste and rinse her mouth in the next room.

The tall trainer strode into the room, wiping her mouth on a thick white hand towel. Her sun-streaked, windblown locks gave her a rakish look as her bronze eyes glittered at the sight before her. She eyed the dark-haired beauty lying on the bed in her bra with her jeans pulled part of the way down.

"My knee is too sore to bend enough to get my pants the rest of the way off," Jess frowned.

The trainer mustered her sexiest smile and leaned to kiss her lover's full lips. The half-lidded, white-blue eyes twinkled at her under long dark eyelashes in response.

"I guess if I get to undress you each night, there are some definite advantages to this whole knee surgery thing," Skyler purred. Her lips burned a hot trail down Jess' taut stomach, down her thighs, and down her calves as she tugged the jeans off. She stopped to kiss the bandaged knee on her journey back up to unhook her lover's bra and nuzzle her soft breasts.

"Oh, baby. I missed your touch so much these past few nights," Jess moaned.

Skyler lifted her head from the nipple she was teasing and stroked her lover's raven head. "I didn't think you were up for making love, with everything that has happened. It seems very selfish for me to ask, but I just can't keep my hands off of you any longer."

"You know, my knee may be hurt, but the other parts of me are working fine," Jess smiled gently as she ran her hands under the T-shirt Skyler had planned to sleep in.

Jess rolled onto her side, laying her injured leg straight and bending her other leg to balance herself. She pressed Skyler onto her back and hovered over the taller woman. "Please let me," she asked softly as Skyler moved to regain her dominant position. Her young lover had lost a lot in the past week, the trainer realized - control of her own career, control of her own horse. And there was nothing she would deny those cerulean eyes now darkened with lust and longing.

In answer to her love's request, Skyler took the smaller hand in her long fingers and led it to the moist blonde curls between her legs. Jessica bent to kiss, lick, then suck at Skyler's neck and the breasts that arched up to receive her mouth. She dipped her fingers into the dripping, hot folds under her hand and slowly stoked the fire of her lover's swollen center. "I want to feel you inside me," Skyler moaned to her lover. Jessica plunged two fingers into the hot canal, but withdrew as she felt her lover's climax build.

"Please, Jess," Skyler begged for release.

"Not yet, babe," Jess purred. "Flip over for me." Jessica ran her hands, then her lips over the trainer's graceful neck and smoothly muscled back. She rested her cheek on Skyler' s warm, taut buttock before teasing the sensitive muscle with a series of nips and kisses. She reached between her lover's legs again and breeched her throbbing sex. Skyler moaned and the sound increased Jessica's own ache to a throb.

Jessica's legs were now alongside Skyler's shoulders as the smaller woman wound her arms around her lover's thighs, moaning her own desire as her mouth savored the smoothness of the trainer's sexy buttocks.

Once again, Jess deserted her stroking. "Oh, baby, don't stop!" Skyler protested.

"Let me slide under you," Jess demanded gently, prodding Skyler's side to push her onto her knees. It only took a moment for the trainer to see the advantage of this new position and she straddled Jess' face, then buried her own between her raven-haired lover's legs and lapped at her dripping sex.

Unable to hold back any longer, the two women cried out their ecstasy together. A light sheen of sweat covered their bodies as they clung to each other and kissed away the sweet nectar of each other's climax.

Skyler lay lightly upon her small lover, resting most of her weight still on her knees and elbows. She lay with her head resting on Jess' slender thigh, as Jess stroked Skyler's back and thighs that still straddled her head. She loved the musky smell of her lover and the ownership she felt over this incredibly sexy woman.

After a moment, Skyler lifted up and gathered Jessica's entire body in her arms to turn her to the head of the bed, and rest her on the disarray of pillows. "I love you, Jess," Skyler whispered reverently, as she pulled the blanket up over them and settled Jessica so that the dark head rested in the well of the trainer's shoulder. Jessica stretched a protective arm across her lover's waist and drew her good leg up to lie across the trainer's muscular thighs. The heat of her lover's body warmed her through to the core of her soul.

"I love you, Sky," She murmured.



Chapter 17

Saturday's clouds had long since blown out to the North Carolina coast, leaving a crisp blue sky overhead.

Sarah was bursting with excitement. In an effort to work off her nervous energy, she and Sam went for a long run that morning while Tory and Skyler waited Rampage's turn at the veterinary inspection. Rampage passed the exam with flying colors and was deemed sound for the afternoon jumping.

Tory shook her head. "This horse is a truck. He just keeps on going."

Skyler grinned. "Jess sure knows how to pick a winner, present company not excepted. Speaking of her psychic abilities, you do realize that request for you to come to the hospital was a ploy to set you up with Sam."

Tory smirked. "I suspected as much when Sam walked into the room." The vet blushed. "I can't fault her for that, though."

Skyler's eyes sparkled. "So, I take it things are developing between you two? She's very attractive."

"Hey, you know I don't kiss and tell." But Tory's crooked grin was telling enough.

Tory unconsciously wet her lips with her tongue as though the taste of Sam's lips still lingered there. "She is very attractive, isn't she?" Tory admitted, then stepped forward and grabbed Skyler's collar in a mock threat. "But Jess is the last woman you're going to steal from me. I catch you sniffing around Sam and you'll be one dead trainer!"

Skyler laughed as she pushed Tory away. "Don't worry. Jess is all I'll ever want. Anyway, I don't think Sam has even noticed any of the rest of us. That woman has eyes only for you."

Jessica nervously watched as Skyler tacked Rampage up for the competition. "Shorten that strap on the martingale," she instructed. "Maybe the saddle should slide up another inch."

Skyler stopped and turned slowly to her backseat driver. "Jess, how many years have I been saddling horses?"

Jess gave her a weak grin. "I know. I … it's a little harder than I thought it would be to watch someone else ride him, especially in the show jumping. I don't know why the show jumping is different; maybe because it's the final phase." Her eyes filled with tears. "I wanted so badly to be taking him in that ring myself."

Skyler pulled her lover into a protective embrace. "I know, baby. But this is a very selfless thing you're doing. You make me, and everybody else in our little family very proud."

Jamie came running, breathless, into the barn. "Sarah's next on deck!" she announced.

Jim had been helping his wife straighten her red riding jacket and brush the barn dust from her polished boots. Skyler unhooked Rampage from the crossties and led the stallion forward for Sarah to mount.

"Leg up?" Sarah requested when she was ready.

Jim stepped forward quickly. "I'll do it. I'm learning a few things around this place." He lifted his wife into the saddle and patted her leg. "Break a leg?"

Skyler snorted, then whispered in the man's ear. He grinned.

"Ride well and be safe," he offered to his smiling wife. Sarah steered Rampage to the warm-up area to loosen his muscles.

Kate and Jamie waited for them at the entrance to the arena. Kate gave her a quick lay-of-the-land. "This is a tough course, Sarah. The leader pulled two faults - time and one rail down; his horse wasn't in a very good mood and fought him a lot. The woman second in the standings is the only one so far to make a clean run, and the woman holding third dropped a rail on the vertical jump. Run it clean and you've got a spot on the team."

Sarah nodded as she adjusted the chinstrap on her helmet. Her smile was gone, replaced by an expression of intense focus. Like a bronco rider getting ready to signal for an open gate, Kate thought.

Rampage snorted and shifted his feet as they waited. Sarah murmured to him. "OK, love. This is it. This is what you and Jess have been working for. You're the best and we're going to show them that," she crooned to the ears that flicked back and forth at the sound of her voice.

When the trainer and Kate joined the others in the Parker box at the indoor arena, Jessica pulled Skyler down into the chair between hers and Jamie's seats and leaned over to cling to her lover's arm. Skyler affectionately winked at Jamie, who grinned at the excitement of the moment. Tory leaned toward Sam, quietly explaining the finer points of show jumping. Laura sat between Kate and Jim, clutching each of their hands as they watched the officials replace a rail knocked down by the last rider.

Sarah was up next.

Getting the go-ahead from the judges, Sarah turned Rampage in a large circle before trotting him into the ring and activating the electric eye of the timer. Rampage cantered with the relaxed ease of a Sunday stroll. The crowd held their collective breath as the stallion sailed over the first jump, neatly tucking his feet and landing softly on the other side.

This course had seventeen jumps. Just 16 more jumps to go. They sailed over the oxers; the triple bar was barely a ripple in their pace; and they cleared the wall jump without even a slight hesitation.

"Look at their time," Jessica breathed. "They're on a perfect pace."

The crowd tensed again as the pair approached the combination, but Rampage made the shift to shorten his stride between the closely placed fences with little effort.

The ESPN cameras followed their progress as the announcer shuffled through his papers to find the background commentary on this rising star.

Sarah urged the big bay to quicken his pace as he approached the vertical jump. Five feet and six inches high, the straight up and down fence is one of the most difficult for a horse to jump. Rampage's muscles bulged as he gathered to launch himself over the top rail. He neatly tucked his feet and cleared it with at least three inches to spare. A hushed murmur rippled across the crowd, all well schooled in the need to remain quiet until the competitor finished the course.

Two difficult jumps left to go.

The water jump on a show course is difficult for many horses because, unlike the cross-country they ran the day before, horse and rider must clear the water on the other side of the jump rather than land in the water. This course's water jump had been placed between two vertical jumps, so the competitor must jump vertically, then horizontally over the water, then vertically again. This final series of jumps was where most competitors were racking up their faults.

Sarah expertly leaned forward over Rampage's neck to encourage him to stretch out over the water jump rather than jump more vertically. The stallion landed clean, neatly clearing the water.

The ESPN announcer talked quietly into his microphone.

"One last jump, and the crowd is holding its breath. This is an amazing stallion that Sarah Duke is riding today. A clean round ensures her a place on the Olympic team. … They're up! Look at that horse jump! Wait, his back foot touched that top rail. It's vibrating … but … it's not … going to fall!"

The announcer paused for a tense moment, the camera glued in a close-up to the trembling top rail before shouting into the microphone: "Yes! A clean round for Sarah Duke and Rampage! What a performance today, folks! This is an amazing horse with an amazing story behind him. An advanced dressage horse who loves to jump according to his trainer, former gold medallist Skyler Reese; a mediocre event competitor until he was bought by top rider Jessica Black after her gelding, Racer, was euthanized following a tragic accident; this horse accepted his new rider, Sarah Duke, only a week ago when Jessica Black was injured right here in Southern Pines. It's been a long time since we've seen a horse this intelligent, this powerful competing on the American circuit. This is one pair the world will be watching, folks, when the Olympics roll around next summer!"

The crowd's applause was deafening in the indoor arena. The Parker box was jubilant. Skyler grinned as she wiped away the tears of joy that ran down Jessica's cheeks. Jamie was the only one with the presence of mind to jump from the box and run to help Sarah with Rampage as they exited the arena.

The rest was a blur. ESPN gathered Kate, Skyler, Jessica and Sarah together for a final interview, threading together a storybook tale from Jessica's injury problems to Sarah's last minute substitution. Cameras followed Rampage to a small outdoor paddock where he was unsaddled and rubbed down before being turned loose to prance and shake his head for an admiring crowd.

Sarah was still beaming and singing Rampage's praises when the group gathered at her house later that evening for a celebratory cook out. She chatted endlessly about which mares she would select to breed to the bay stallion after the Olympics while Jim barbecued his locally famous ribs over a slow fire. Beers in hand, it was a relaxed affair.

It didn't seem to bother Jim that he was the only male present at the party, and the women had long since decided they definitely liked the easy-going man. He sipped on his beer, and explained to Jamie the details of barbecuing ribs while letting her flip them for him.

Jessica sat with her injured leg propped in Skyler's lap while the tall woman, always enjoying any contact with her beautiful lover, absently performed a gentle massage along Jess' thigh and calf.

Sam and Tory sat on the bench of the redwood picnic table with their backs leaning against the table. Tory's arm stretched along the table behind Sam, and the doctor leaned against the veterinarian's side, soaking up the warmth of her new friend.

They all joined in the laughter as Kate recounted her visit to the showground's clubhouse right after the trials' conclusion.

"I've got at least ten checks in my pocket for the Youth Equestrian Program!" Kate chortled. "That will teach those bluebloods to bet against Kate Parker!"

"Bluebloods! What do you think you are Ms. Parker?" Laura teased.

"My Daddy swore there must have been a blue collar in my mother's bloodlines to produce a loud-mouthed, tom-boy daughter like me!" Kate laughed. "Mother said it was from his side of the family marrying too close!" Her story was nowhere close to the truth, though. Both of her parents had adored Kate and lavished her with love.

After filling themselves with beer and ribs, the group was tired and pleasantly reflective. It was Jessica who put all of their thoughts into one sentence.

"So where do we go from here?"

Sarah smiled at Jim. "Well, I can tell you that my life for the next few years is well mapped." She slid her hand into his and laced their fingers together. "After Rampage and I win a gold medal, Jim and I are going to concentrate on starting a family. We both love kids, and having Jamie around this week has made us realize our biological clocks are ticking. While I'm pregnant, I hope to be taking care of a top mare carrying a Rampage baby."

Skyler tilted her head, and her soft brown eyes held Sarah's green ones for a moment. "I think you guys will be excellent parents," she said. "I'm very happy for you, Sarah." Jessica squeezed Skyler's arm to let her know she had said just the right thing.

Taking the opening in the conversation, Kate cleared her throat.

"Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you guys what Laura and I are planning." Skyler and Jessica looked at their mentor in surprise.

"You and Mom?" Jess said.

"That's right." Laura reached for Kate's hand and pulled it into her lap.
"We've stupidly wasted too many years apart and have quite a bit of catching up to do." Kate said, looking at Laura for more support. Adoration shone from the smaller woman's eyes as she gave Kate a slight nod to go ahead and reveal their plans.

"We both want to do a little traveling. Up until recent years, Laura has been busy raising a daughter and running a public relations firm. And I've been running an equestrian center. It's time we did something for ourselves."

"What about the center?" Skyler asked, incredulous that Kate would be leaving Cherokee Falls.

"Well, what I'd like to do is turn the operation of the farm over to you two. Jess can be the farm manager, and you can run the Youth Equestrian Program. I know you have some ideas for expanding the program to more kids.

"You guys could move into my house. Do what you want to with it. When Laura and I come back from Europe, we may settle in a house at the beach and just spend several months a year at Cherokee Falls. I've lived there since I was a child and I'd like to experience living somewhere else. You can talk it over, and tell me what you think later if you want. I don't mean to put you on the spot."

Skyler arched a questioning eyebrow at Jessica, and Jessica smiled as she nodded her head. The trainer turned back to Kate and Laura. "There's nothing to discuss. There's nothing else we'd rather do."

Kate whooped. "Then it's settled!" She gave Laura a big kiss. "We're packing our bags for Italy, sweetie," she said.

Jamie jumped up and gave Jessica and Skyler each a hug. "That's so cool, you guys!"

"Congratulations!" Tory offered.

"Hey, what about you, Tory? Is there a doctor in your future?" Jess teased. Skyler elbowed her inquisitive lover in the ribs as Tory and Sam both blushed. "What? I'm just the only one with guts enough to ask!"

Tory laughed. "Well, I've got to also return to Virginia tomorrow, but Sam has promised to come up there for a visit in two weeks." She turned adoring emerald eyes on Sam's blushing face. "I think we both enjoy each other's company. So, we'll just take it one step at a time."

Sam reached up to plant a soft kiss on the vet's cheek. "There are a lot of obstacles besides the distance between Southern Pines and Cherokee Falls - trying to find time together around a doctor's schedule and a veterinarian's schedule is the big one. But we're going to see where it goes," Sam said smiling.

"How about you, Jamie?" Jim teased. "Who was that cute stable boy I saw hanging around you yesterday?"

"Ugh. That was Tommy. I like horses, not boys," she replied, wrinkling up her nose.

"That will change probably in the next year," Skyler laughed. "In the meantime, I've got plans for Jamie. She's going to be the next professional rider I train to represent Cherokee Falls."

The girl's eyes shone as her mind whirled with the prospect. "Really, Sky? Really? I'll work hard every day!"

The group laughed. "Really, Jamie. It was Jess' idea. She likes your riding form, and thinks she can make a event rider out of you."

"This is the best night of my life!" Jamie exclaimed.

"Believe me, honey. There will be many more ‘best nights' in your life after tonight if this crowd has anything to do with it," Laura promised.


The cool spring Saturday morning had warmed to nearly 80 degrees, baking the sandy soil of the Cherokee Falls Equestrian Center. Horses stood sleepily nodding or lay stretched out in the grass of the surroundings pastures, enjoying the sun's warmth after a cold winter.

Jessica steered the gray golf cart toward the Creek Barn, hoping to find Skyler and Jamie to tell them lunch was ready. She sprang from the golf cart and walked quickly through the barn, calling Skyler's name. Her knee had healed well over the winter, leaving not even the suggestion of a limp.

When she walked through the back entrance to the barn, she spied the two equestrians in the dirt paddock behind the barn. Jamie was astride ConairCon Air bareback, and Skyler stood beside them. She could see Skyler coaching Jamie on how to use her leg pressure to guide the horse. Jamie listened intently, then dropped the horse's rein across his withers, rested her hands on her thighs and closed her eyes. Skyler stepped back and ConairCon Air stepped out, reading an imperceptible signal from his rider. He turned and trotted the length of the paddock before turning again and performing an extended trot. Jamie's eyes remained closed, but a huge grin spread across her face. The horse halted in the center of the paddock. After a moment, he began turning in a perfect pirouette.

Jamie's arms extended over her head, mocking the ballerina movement she had seen Skyler amuse audiences with many times before. When the horse came to a stop, the girl's eyes flew open. "We did it!" she chortled. "He did exactly what I told him to do with my legs!"

Skyler grinned proudly. "I knew you had it in you, kiddo! Maybe I'll let you start teaching some of my classes. I could use a break," she teased.

"Hey, you guys! Lunch is ready. Come on, or I'll have to feed it to someone else."

"Nag, nag, nag," Skyler teased as Jamie smiled. "Hey, Jamie, how about turning ConairCon Air out with the other horses. We two old ladies will take the golf cart. I promise not to let Jess eat your sandwich before you can join us."

Jamie was eager to please. "Sure thing, Sky. I'll be right there."

Jess linked arms with Skyler as they watched Jamie lead the big gray toward the pasture. "I love to see you working with the kids," Jess said softly.

"I love working with them," Skyler replied.

The pair walked up to the entranceway at the rear of the barn. Skyler looked down into Jessica's sapphire eyes.

The trainer's mind raced over the thoughts that had been running through her head a lot in recent months. Steeling herself for disappointment, she decided now was as good as anytime to broach the subject. "Jess, have you ever thought about having children?"

The idea didn't surprise Jessica, just the fact that the question came from her lover. She studied the trainer for a moment as the tall woman lowered her eyes and kicked at the dirt. Skyler mentally kicked herself Geez, I knew she'd think I was nuts. Why should she want to do that to her body for me anyway? She knew the rider was meticulous about her weight and appearance.

"You mean, get pregnant?" A small smile tugged at Jessica's mouth as she watched Skyler shoot quick glances her way, trying to gauge her partner's reaction.

"Well, yeah. I just wondered. No big deal." Skyler mumbled and stared out at the pastures, watching Jamie release ConairCon Air to join the other horses.

Jessica's smile grew. I love it when she turns all shy like this, she thought. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms tight around the trainer's waist, tilting her head up and placing a soft kiss on the trainer's pouting lips.

"I wish I could have your baby, Sky. But until science progresses a bit, I don't think that's possible." She pulled Skyler into a deeper kiss. "I love you, and would love to raise children with you. I just don't know how I feel about using donor sperm, you know. I think this is something we need to talk about a lot before we decide anything."

She smiled again as Skyler's face lit up, white teeth flashing in a broad grin. "You…you would do this for me?" trainer stammered. "You know I love kids, but I just can't see myself pregnant."

The very thought of a pregnant Skyler in an over-sized t-shirt with "baby on board' stamped across the stomach, whining and complaining about swollen feet and a compressed bladder made Jessica collapse against the barn wall in laughter.

"What? You don't think I could do it?" Skyler tried to frown, but the ridiculous image that invaded her thoughts, too, made her chuckle along with her lover. "OK. I'm just not cut out for it. I admit it."

Jessica wiped at the tears the laughter had sent down her cheeks and once again hugged her partner tight. "Oh, Sky. You'd make a wonderful second mom, but, honey, I'd never ask you to get pregnant for me." She patted her lover's taut abdomen. "I happen to like you just like you are."

Skyler mustered a mock frown. "Are you saying you may not love me anymore if I get fat?"

"You? Fat? That will never happen. You'd never eat if I didn't come find you in the barn and force you to sit down to a meal," Jessica scolded. "Like now. I've been out here 30 minutes, trying to get you up to the house for lunch." She grabbed Skyler's hand and tugged her toward the golf cart.

But Skyler yanked back on Jessica's hand, pulling her back in to a strong embrace. Long fingers tilted the dark-haired woman's expectant face upward and kissed her lover with passion-filled devotion. Soft brown eyes filled with love stared down at pale eyes now darkened to the color of the summer sky. "I do so love you, Jessica Black," Skyler confessed.

"And I love you, Skyler Reese. With all of my heart," the breathless rider returned.

"Uh, Jess."


"Have I ever told you that I have a twin?" She hesitated. Now or never, Sky. "A brother."

Jessica stared up at Skyler in astonishment. "A twin?" she said weakly. This put everything in a new perspective. "Do you look alike?"

Skyler nodded slowly.

"Whoa." Jessica's head was spinning as she turned and walked slowly to the golf cart.

Skyler walked quickly to catch up to her lover. "Wait, Jess. I didn't mean to pressure you. I just thought …well, I just thought…"

Jessica smiled uncertainly at Skyler who was once again rearranging the barn floor dirt with her foot. She reached her hand out toward her nervous partner. "Come on, lover," she said softly. "We obviously have some things to talk about, but I can't think on an empty stomach."

The trainer's face brightened, and she jumped into the driver's seat of the golf cart. "I'll drive! You just sit there and take it easy."

"Skyler," Jessica laughed. "I'm not pregnant yet!"

Brown eyes danced under wind-whipped blond locks, as the trainer turned an ear-splitting smile on her partner. "I'm just practicing!"

As the cart careened toward the huge house at the center of the Cherokee Falls Equestrian Center, Skyler's excited chatter fueled Jessica's hysterical laughter. "I need to go to town. Pickles, ice cream, um, pizza… what else do pregnant women eat? Oh, we'll have to call Kate and your mom! Do you want a boy or girl? It doesn't matter to me. I'd like either. Hey, what so funny?"

The End

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