Stay calm. Nineteen-year-old Melissa “Missy” Donovan waited outside the ring after a clean run on her horse, Rebel. An entire swarm of butterflies flitted through her innards, leaving her mildly nauseous. They’d made great time over the jumps, and no bars went down. Thankfully, the drizzling rain of the day prior hadn’t made a mud-hole out of the ring, and the fog had lifted with the rising of the sun.
She leaned into Rebel’s black neck, her back to his muscular shoulders, and hugged his head, caressing his face in long strokes. The slow movements were as much to keep her calm as they were for him. Waiting for final results had never been so nerve-wracking. They were in first place, but four horses and riders remained to make runs. The first team to follow them had taken down two bars, which removed them from the running for first place.
So much hinges on today’s outcome. Probably a really good thing Mom and Daddy couldn’t come. If they were here watching, I’d probably be an even worse nervous wreck. She had to remember to call them after she returned to the hotel that evening. Check on Mom. And hopefully pass along good news.
Missy closed her eyes, head down, and concentrated on her breathing. Please, Lord. All this hard work has to amount to something. I just want to make everyone proud. Please.
The crack of a hoof on wood followed by the hard thud of a bar hitting the dirt sent her heart rate up. Another team out of the running. She glanced at the clock. That team might manage fourth if they kept their time on track and didn’t take down anymore bars. She took a shaky breath.
Rebel shifted, sensing her growing excitement.
“Easy, boy. Two more teams to go, and we’ll know.” She patted his massive neck to soothe him.
Minutes crawled by. And still they waited.
The last team finally finished their run. Missy listened for their time. When the announcement came, she forced herself not to jump up and down and cheer. Must be dignified and grown-up. Mustn’t bounce around like an exuberant twelve-year-old with no impulse control.
She straightened tan breeches, white shirt, and black coat, snapped the harness on her helmet, and checked the sheen on knee-high black boots. Then she walked around Rebel to give him a once over, straightened his forelock, and smiled. All looked good. She took a deep breath and mounted her horse. Giving him a pat on the neck, she waited for the call to return to the ring.
Missy and Rebel exited the ring. Davis waited to greet her with a proud smile. A champion who had retired a couple of years prior due to a serious hip injury, Davis Gallagher had coached her since the previous coach retired the year before. They’d started dating in early April. At least, she supposed that’s what they’d been doing with the occasional dinner out when Davis had time. Although he was twenty-five years her senior, she was the envy of many of the other female riders. She’d learned to ignore their catty comments.
She shied away from thinking about the fact she should have told her parents about their relationship long before now. Well, she had. Sort of. She’d mentioned to her mother from time to time that they went out to dinner. Okay, so yeah, maybe she’d let her believe they were business dinners. And she certainly hadn’t admitted to any of her family that the man had kissed her. For some reason no one could quantify, or perhaps would quantify, her parents didn’t like Davis. They’d even objected when she hired him as her new coach.
Maybe today’s win would change their mind, and they’d see what a great coach he was. If they’d just give him a chance, they’d find out what a nice guy he was.
A broad smile wreathed his handsome face as Davis leaned against the cane in his right hand. “See? I said you could do it.”
Missy slipped off Rebel’s back into Davis’ waiting arms. He hugged her tight then loosened his grip to plant a toe-curling kiss on her lips.
“I should never have doubted you,” she said, out of breath. She hugged him again to keep both feet on the ground and maintain her dignity. “And we couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Damn straight.” He chuckled and set a hand on her shoulder to push her away enough that he could look down into her face. “So, what do you say we go out tonight and celebrate?”
Her heart pitter-pattered. Handsome, charming Davis Gallagher truly wanted to spend time with her. A fairy tale in every way. Seven months into their dating relationship, it was still surreal. She bit her lower lip and nodded. “I’d love to.”
“Fabulous. I’ll pick you up at eight.”
She nodded, rose up on her toes to accept another kiss, then picked up the reins. “I better take care of Rebel so I can get back to the hotel.”
Someone across the grounds hollered for Davis. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement. “Wear something special tonight.” His grin hinted at a secret. Then he turned and walked into the milling crowd of horses, riders, and spectators.
Missy walked Rebel toward the stable. Wear something special? He’d never asked her to do that before. And what was that grin about? What kind of secret was he holding close? A new sponsor maybe? No. He’d never kept such things a secret before. It had to be something else.
She halted. Rebel stopped patiently. She scanned the crowd. Not for the first time, she wished she had reached at least her mother’s five-foot-seven height instead of a measly five-three. She couldn’t see anything over all the heads and horses around her. It was too reminiscent of getting lost in family gatherings, dwarfed by everyone and everything around her.
“Missy.” A hand popped above the crowd then a familiar face appeared. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a gorgeous smile Missy had known all of her life.
“Aaron!” A thrill shot through her. She hadn’t known he was coming.
He broke free of the people between them and jogged to join her, scooping her into his arms for a long, hard hug. When he finally set her down, chocolaty eyes brimmed with joy matched only by a bright smile.
“What’re you doing here?”
“I came to see you. What else?” He threw both hands out to punctuate the question and accidentally smacked a passing rider in the chest. “Oh, sorry.”
The rider scowled, shook his head and kept walking.
Aaron threw her a silly, somewhat embarrassed grin and said, “Oops,” with a soft laugh. “Anyway, did you really think I’d miss one of your big events? You were beyond wonderful.”
He was way too good for her ego. “You didn’t need to come all this way, you know.” Missy motioned him to follow her toward the stable. He immediately fell into step beside her and Rebel. “I know you’re busy with work and all the travel you have to do.”
“Ah, who needs work?” He waved a hand and grinned.
“Aaron.” She shook her head in disapproval.
He rolled his eyes with a snort. “I’m kidding. My boss knows exactly where I am.” His grin widened, laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes the way she’d always found incredibly hot and appealing.
“Well, that’s reassuring. I don’t want Daddy to fire you over me.” She sent him a teasing look and handed Rebel off to a groom named Alex Finnegan.
The stud planted all four feet and stood his ground. His ears flipped backward but didn’t quite flatten to his head. He snorted softly.
Alex hesitated. The man was new, so he wasn’t accustomed to Rebel, plus the horse didn’t know him.
“Go with him, Rebel.” Missy patted the horse’s shoulder and gave the groom a reassuring smile. “Don’t let him kid you, Alex. He’s nothing but a big sweetheart.”
“I sure hope so.” The man’s look was dubious.
Rebel gave her a disgusted look but followed the groom away.
“I see he still lives up to his name.”
“Not so much after a good run. He’s still my baby, so he listens to me.”
“Yeah, well, might I remind you that baby outweighs you by a thousand pounds?”
“Doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s still my baby.”
Aaron shook his head and chuckled. “You really are so much like your mother.”
“Thanks!” She gave him a bright smile.
“That wasn’t necessarily a compliment, but take it as you will.” He laughed. Then he shoved his fingertips in the front pockets of his jeans, suddenly looking nervous.
She cocked her head, completely befuddled. Aaron never got nervous. He was one of the most self-assured, confident, easy-going people she knew. It was one of the many things she’d always loved about him. Even if he would never see her as anything but a little sister. But then, maybe if she’d ever had the courage to kiss him senseless like she’d longed to for years, he wouldn’t be so blind to the fact that she was a woman.
She gave herself a mental shake. She was dating Davis, for pity’s sake. She shouldn’t allow her mind to toy with such thoughts about boy-next-door, nothing-but-a-friend, sees-me-as-a-sister Aaron Everett. Old habits insisted on rearing up. But that doesn’t mean you should entertain them, you nit. Time for a grown-up relationship, not childish fantasies.
“What do you say we go out to dinner tonight? Celebrate today’s victory.”
“Oh.” The starch left her shoulders. “I can’t. I already have plans.” She wanted to tell him more, but he hadn’t been very supportive when she’d told him months ago about dating Davis. In fact, he’d been rather hostile toward her coach as a result. She’d avoided the subject since then.
“Oh, well... that’s okay. Maybe another time.”
“I’d love that.” Missy glanced toward the stable with regret. “I have to make sure Rebel is settled in and get back to the hotel. I’m a bit short on time.” She cocked her head to look up at him. “What about lunch or dinner tomorrow?”
“I wish I could, but my flight leaves first thing tomorrow morning. I doubt I’ll even have time for breakfast. Duty calls.” Disappointment matching hers colored his tone, salving some of her regret.
“I’m glad you came today.”
“So am I.” He smiled, but it didn’t seem quite as bright and cheerful as before. “Your dad told me they wouldn’t be able to make it today. I didn’t want you left without a cheering section.”
Had Aaron figured out she had plans with Davis for the evening? If she didn’t bring it up, he wouldn’t either. She knew him well enough to know that about him. Guilt prickled. She should be honest with him.
Then again, maybe he hadn’t a clue what her plans were and was disappointed about not being able to spend time with her while they were in the same place.
Yeah. She liked that possibility much more. She’d go with that one.
“I better let you go,” he said after staring at her for a few moments. He pulled her into a hug. “Congratulations on the win today. You earned it.”
“See ya ‘round, short stack.”
She took a playful swing, but he hopped back and laughed. “You know I hate it when you call me that!” Would he ever stop calling her that? Or was she stuck with the annoying label for the rest of her life?
“Touchy, touchy.” He backed away. Then he stopped, humor fading. “Bye, Missy.” He turned on his heel and walked off.
Missy watched him go. Had he ever said goodbye before? Maybe. But not quite like that. Like she may never see him again. She shook her head. Don’t be ridiculous. Their parents were next door neighbors and closer than family. They were bound to see each other for the coming holidays.
A yell from the direction of the stable pulled her from her thoughts. She listened. Was that someone hollering about or because of Rebel? The yell repeated, this time more clearly. Nope. Nothing to do with her or Rebel. But she headed for the stable anyway. Make sure Rebel is settled for the night and get to the hotel. Davis will be prompt, so you can’t be late.
To continue to part 1 of 2, click HERE. You can find links to purchase the book in either paperback or e-book on the Donovan Legacy series page of this site.