I glanced out the window of the Greyhound Bus watching the scenery pass by. A rolling sea of green stretched before me beneath a blazing sun. Low trees and dense shrubs straddled rocky washes of both sides of the highway. To the north and south, jagged mountains rose to a binding turquoise sky. Silence clung to the high canyons and light shimmered on rugged red cliffs. I was a long way from anywhere. I took in a deep breath. Hot, dry air filled my lungs, rich with an exotic blend of sage, juniper and blooming rosemary. The land straddled some of the prettiest grazing land bordered by dark waves of fir and oak. A river wound through the rolling hills. The sky was streaked with long fingers of purple beneath racing clouds.
I was born and bred in the small town of Cedar Creek, Wyoming. Even though Cedar Creek is its own little town, our mailing address is listed under the next largest town which is Hawks Landing. Every weekend in the summer we had Farmer’s Market. We set up tents and corn is spread out over one table while all the meat and produce are underneath in coolers. We also sell cheese and homemade butter. Once in a while we will bring baked goods. Some farmers don’t raise the same kind of crops so there is a variety to choose from. Every Friday we go out and pick corn, all by hand. In the fall there would be more meat to sell. It just happens to be one of the hard facts of farm life.
Also in the fall there is the Harvest Festival. We have a hog roast, hay rides, bonfires and games for the kids. There are also pumpkin decorating and other contests where you can win a small prize.
Where I come from its cornbread and chicken, a lot of front porch sitting, trying to make a living and working hard to get Heaven. My dad used to tell me I was a wildflower growing in the sunshine, soaking up the way of life I was raised in. Running bare foot, blooming in a summer shower. Roses and daisies can’t touch what I’ve got.
I started showing horses as soon as I was old enough to join 4-H. At first I was only showing at the county fairs and eventually advanced to competitive showing. There are a lot of things you need to consider when showing a horse.
Ensure that water is always available to your horse at all times, with the exception of the time spent cooling off after a class or workout.
Make sure your pony's fetlocks, bridle path, muzzle and ears are clipped.
Clean all tack before loading to go to your show.
Make sure your number can be seen at all times. It should be pinned to the back of your coat or on both sides of your saddle pad.
Look straight ahead and always have a smile on your face.
Jiggle the lead chain on your horse's halter to make him listen and make his head go out and ears perk up.
Trot your horse around, back him up, and spin him around.
When the judge asks you to back up try to move your hands as little as possible.
Don't worry about the other competitors.
Stay calm and in control.
Do one final brush to make sure you have everything.
Before entering the ring for a jumping class say the course out loud from memory to make sure that you know it. Going 'off course' is cause for elimination.
After showing for many years, I went on to become a competitive jumper.
Horse jumping isn't relegated to a particular equine breed, but Arabians and warmbloods like sorrel, paints and American Quarter horses, Belgian and Hessens have made excellent jumpers. Jumps must be set up correctly for the horse's gait and the number of strides between jumps are considered when setting up a training course. As jumping competitions become more advanced, the number of strides between jumps may be shortened, forcing horses and riders to plan when approaching a jump.
Show jumping equipment includes white fences, cross poles and trays for the water obstacle jump called the Liverpool. Poles may be set above each other or set together horizontally to increase the depth of the jump. In this case, the jump is called an oxer. When there are number of jumps with a certain number of strides between them, the jump is called a combination. These are just a few of the jumps used in show jumping: horses may be asked to cross pools of water, or even to jump a wall.
The Grand Prix is the highest level of show jumping. The horse jumps a course of 10 to 16 obstacles, with heights and spreads of up to 6.5 feet. The horse may jump six fences set in a straight line. Horses either are penalized or eliminated from competition if they knock down a rail. After each round where more than one competitor goes "clean," or is tied for the fewest faults, the six fences are raised in height for each subsequent round until there is a winner. Occasionally, if there are multiple jump-offs, the final fences may be raised to well over six feet.
My mentor and coach was Vincent “Tex” Buchannan. Since I lost my father when I was twelve, Tex had been my father figure growing up. With showing and competing, I saw Tex more than I would have seen my own father if he had been alive. Outside of the ring, Tex treated me like a daughter. But in the ring it was strictly a professional relationship. I have a box full or ribbons and medals I’ve won in the top of my bedroom closet. It also contains pictures and newspaper articles.
And now after four years I was coming back to Cedar Creek. I reached over and pulled out of my satchel the invitation I had received a month ago. My best childhood friend, Billie Sellers, was getting married. Everyone in Cedar Creek knew she and Mark would get married one day. They were soul mates. Billie had also shown horses. She was in my 4-H class and that’s where we met. The wedding had been scheduled for July 1st. She had asked me to be a bridesmaid and also wanted me to help with the final detailing. I couldn’t say no.
I glanced to my left. My darling daughter, Riley, now ten years old, was curled up in the seat next to me. Even though I was looking forward to seeing Billie again, I was not looking forward to some of the other “things” that still resided in Cedar Creek. By other “things” I meant Clint Webber, my ex-husband and Riley’s father. Clint and I had been high school sweethearts and married young. Too young probably. When I found out I was pregnant with Riley, I couldn’t compete anymore. Tex always used to tell me one day I would need a vault for all my medals. Even though I wasn’t interested in medals I loved the thrill of competing and I loved to win. But I did it, enjoyed it and finished with it. I wanted the Grand Prix and I got it. Now I had a chance to see what else was out there and what else I had in me. Or so I kept telling myself. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually start to believe it.
Seven years later, Clint and I had grown apart. I moved with Riley to San Francisco to restart our lives after Clint and I decided to separate. We had agreed on joint custody, but with living in two different states, Clint has only seen Riley a mere handful of times. I have also been so immersed in my job as a graphic designer; I haven’t taken the time to sign the custody papers. I’m not sure if Riley truly understands the situation. She’s one smart cookie, at the top of her class. Then again she doesn’t have the stability she needs and deserves at this point in her life. I knew Clint would be at the wedding. We had all grown up together. And seeing Clint was not at the top of my to do list.
The bus pulled up to the depot. After retrieving our bags from underneath, I went in to pick up the keys to a rental car I had reserved three days ago. I had rented a cabin for us to stay in about ten minutes away from the Cedar Creek Stables. I had hoped to take Riley riding a few times before heading back to San Francisco. Horseback riding is one of the things she doesn’t have a chance to do very often living in a condo in the city.
The cabin was made of stone and wood on the outside. It had one bedroom (Riley would sleep on the pull out sofa bed), one full bathroom and large living space and a kitchenette. The couch was covered with fluffy pillows. The walls were made of solid fieldstone that led to a six foot fireplace. Not that we would need a fireplace in July. The living room had thick carpet that extended into the bedroom. Overhead wooden beams were exposed giving it more of a country feel.
After unpacking, and freshening up, I called Billie to make sure she was going to be home so we could come out and start going over the wedding plans. Billie was staying at her parent’s house until after the wedding. When I pulled into the driveway, it was as beautiful as I remembered it. It was a three story house made out of sturdy cherry wood that had been varnished with clear stain to bring out its natural beauty. The first floor had an open kitchen, large entertaining space and full bathroom. On the second floor there was another family room, three bedrooms and another full bathroom complete with Jacuzzi tub and glass shower. Sliding glass doors led to the wrap around porch just off the family room. Finally, there was a master bedroom on the top floor with its own bathroom and balcony. An 870 square foot deck with gazebo stretched out over the backyard. It was the perfect place to hold cookouts and family gatherings. Twelve foot tall pine trees surrounded the house and seamlessly connected to a wooded area that extended as far as the eye could see. For a few seconds I just stared at it in awe.
The sight of Billie brought me back to reality. She stood waving from the porch. Her chin length hair hung like corn silk, straight and around her face. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers. She was wearing her old green softball t-shirt with the number five on the back and Sellers spelled out above it and cut-off jeans. Her feet were bare. It didn’t matter how elegant the house was, Billie was still Billie.
“Bronwyn,” she called. “Door’s open. Come on up.”
She met me at the top of the stairs and we embraced. When she pulled back she was grinning from ear to ear and her face was practically glowing with happiness and love. I found myself wondering if I had looked the same way when I was in love with Clint. But that seemed like years ago.
“It’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s great to see you, too, Billie. I am so happy for you and Mark.”
“Yeah. Everyone says after eight years it’s about time. Would you like something to drink? I’ve got iced tea, lemonade…”
“Iced tea would be fine,” I answered.
“I have pop, Riley.”
“Can I, Mom?” Riley looked hopefully at me.
“All right,” I gave in.
I don’t like Riley to drink a lot of pop. But I am better than I used to be. When Riley was old enough to start on solid food, I wanted to keep her on fruits and vegetables and not eat a lot of red meat. I also didn’t want her to eat candy unless it was vegetarian candy. Clint assured me a little chocolate never hurt anybody. With a can of Cherry Coke in her hand, Riley went out and sat on one of the camp chairs on the porch. Babe, the Sellers’ red Golden Retriever, sat beside her and let Riley stroke her ear for as long as she wanted.
“Well,” Billie plopped down on the couch with a sigh. “I’ll be so glad the day after the wedding.”
“You know most people look forward to the wedding night,” I replied slyly.
“Oh, you know what I mean. All the stress of planning with be done and everyone can relax. Dad can stop writing checks. Mom’s up to her ears in flowers. When Riley decides to get married, tell her to elope.”
“But on the day after you have to start writing thank you notes for the fifteen toasters you received.”
“Don’t remind me. Well, let’s get started. First, you can help me by tying these itsy bitsy white ribbons around this box of itsy bitsy bubble bottles. I’m going to work on the place cards.”
“Chicken shit,” I said affectionately.
“Chicken shit, yourself,” Billie replied back with the same affection.
I had gotten about half the bottles done when I heard the downstairs storm door slam and a woman’s voice call out, “Anybody home?”’
“Up here,” Billie answered.
“Hey, Bill…oh, hi, Bronwyn,” Mrs. Sellers appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Hi, Mrs. Sellers.”
“You don’t have to be so formal. We’re both grown-ups. You can call me Jo. Billie, I have someone on the phone who swears you ordered two cases of caviar.”
“Caviar?” Billie cried. “I can’t afford caviar on my budget. I specifically ordered shrimp dip. I’m sorry, Bronwyn, but I have to take care of this.”
“It’s okay. I need to be going anyway.” I looked out at Riley who had already fallen asleep, her hand still resting on Babe’s head. I went out on the porch and gently shook Riley awake. “Riley, this is Billie’s mother, Mrs. Sellers.”
“Hi,” she replied sleepily.
“Hello, Riley. She’s darling.”
Dressed in blue jeans and boots, Riley and I drove to the stables the next morning. Billie had been ranting over something about tulips and orchids so I figured it would be as good of a time as any to take Riley riding.
The Cedar Creek Stables had been my second home during my childhood years. It had remained pretty much the same. It was set up like an old Western town. There was a replica of a covered wagon and a buck board. The tack building was called the Trading Post. A sign above the ring read The OK Corral. There was even a little, red, one room school house I knew Riley would love. She had been reading the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The other buildings were entitled the Saloon, the Bunkhouse and the old general store.
There was the red and white recreational barn. It was a large open space where you could play checkers, pool, watch a movie or pet the animals. In addition to the horses there were a couple of calves, two goats, two Golden Retrievers and any number of cats.
After getting Riley a plastic riding helmet from the Trading Post we headed to stables. The stables were open and both ends and stalls lined both walls. There was a pathway between the two sets of stalls on the right side that led to an indoor riding ring. The floors were made of soft dirt. The smell of horses, saddle oil and hay were sweet and strong. I breathed in deeply.
“It smells funny in here,” Riley said wrinkling her nose.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it,” I replied.
“Well, bless my soul. It’s Bronwyn Vogel. It can’t be anyone else. ”
“I’d know that voice anywhere. Tex.” I turned. My old mentor and coach stood there wearing dark blue jeans, a Western print shirt and a cream colored cowboy hat. His black hair had changed to silver, but his turquoise eyes were just as blue as ever.
“It sure is good to see you back here again .How are you, my dear?”
“It’s good to be back. You remember my daughter, Riley.”
“Of course. Well, aren’t you the spitting image of your ma.”
“Everyone tells me that,” Riley laughingly replied.
Footsteps came from around the corner.
“Hey, Uncle Tex, I…” Stone Manning stopped short when he saw me.
“You remember my nephew, Stone.”
“Sure. Nice to see you again, Stone,” I replied as casually as I could and forced a smile.
Stone had always picked on and teased me. For some reason he had singled me out of a whole group of riders. We had argued about horses and politics. My mother always said it was because he liked me, but I didn’t believe her back then. I pretended not to like him when the truth of the matter was; I had had a secret crush on him since I was twelve. He had always been good looking. He had broad shoulders, a narrow waist and trim hips. I hadn’t planned on him still working here.
“Hay is for horses. That is no way to greet a young lady,” Tex informed him.
“Oh, it’s okay,” I assured Tex.
“It should have been good morning, Bronwyn. Not hey.”
“Sorry. Good morning, Bronwyn.” Stone replied with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Good morning, Stone. This is my daughter, Riley. Riley, this is my friend, Stone.”
“Hi,” Riley replied absently. The horses had already captured her attention.
“So we are friends,” Stone lowered his voice.
“Of course,” I answered. “Why shouldn’t we be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Dipping your braids in ink, throwing you in the hay, putting my sister’s pet hamster down your shirt.”
“That’s all in the past. I won’t hold it against you.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Mom, when can I start riding?” Riley tugged impatiently at my shirt sleeve.
“Well, I have some things I need to get done. So I’ll see you around?” Stone asked.
“Sure.” And why not, I thought. It might be nice to have a civilized adult conversation now and then.
Only now did Stone realize the glossiness of her dark brown hair and the glint in her hazel eyes with just a touch of venom. The dark curve of her eyelashes, her high cheekbones and full lips had caught his attention as well. Even in jeans she had killer legs. She definitely had changed. That little ponytailed girl had grown up to be a woman. A woman Stone barely knew.
“Okay, Riley. So, Tex, which horse would you recommend for a beginner?”
“Little Strawberry Shortcake would be the perfect mount for her,” Tex said. He took Riley over to a stall where a little red pony with a white blaze stood. “What do you think, Riley?”
Tex saddled Strawberry Shortcake up, boosted Riley into the saddle and adjusted the stirrups to the right length.
“Now, keep a loose hand on the reins and one on the saddle horn,” I told her.
Riley clicked her tongue like I had taught her and Strawberry Shortcake started walking down the pathway and into the indoor dirt ring. I started to follow when Tex gently took hold of my arm.
“Shouldn’t we be there in case something happens?” I asked. “She’s a city girl. You have to be careful with her.”
“She’ll be fine,” Tex assured me. “Strawberry Shortcake’s docile enough for a child to handle. She’ll baby sit anyone you put on her back. There’s something I want to show you.”
He led me over to another stall where a big black mare was eating hay.
“Remember Morning Mist?”
“Of course I remember Misty, your prize mare.”
“Well, she just had a foal about eight months ago.” Tex moved on to the next stall. Inside was another pure black horse. It was just a smaller version of Misty with the exception of a white spot in the middle of her forehead and four white stockings.
“Oh, Tex. She’s just beautiful.”
“I call her Trixie. She’ll make an excellent 4-H project for a child one day. Perhaps your daughter?”
“Riley’s not in 4-H. Don’t worry, she’s involved in other activities. She plays soccer and wants to try volleyball next year. She also takes piano lessons.”
“That’s good. So have you seen him yet?”
“Him? Oh, you mean Clint. No, I haven’t and I would prefer to keep it that way, but with the wedding coming up it’s going to be inevitable and impossible to avoid.”
“Well, I am not one to tell someone how to live their life. I know what it is like to grow up without a father. That’s a part of my life I can never get back. I still have a feeling of emptiness nagging in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want the same thing to happen to Riley. A child needs a father figure in their life. Whether it’s an uncle or a coach…” Tex’s voice trailed off.
“Or her biological father,” I finished. “I hear you, Tex.” I wasn’t in any hurry to reintegrate Clint into Riley’s life right now. Or mine for that matter.
When Strawberry Shortcake was back in her stall, I got Riley a curry comb and showed her how to brush down her mount. Tex gave her a sugar cube to thank her pony for a safe and enjoyable ride. It was then when I heard a voice. A voice I knew only too well. A voice that could still make my blood run cold.
“Riley? Riley Anne!”
“Daddy!” Riley shrieked and took off running; the curry comb still on her hand.
Clint swept Riley up in a big bear hug.
“I’ve missed you, Daddy.”
“I’ve missed you, too, Princess.” Still holding her, Clint started in my direction. “Hello, Bronwyn.”
“Clint,” I replied.
“I can’t say I am surprised to see you here.”
“Billie’s my friend, too.”
“I know. Say, Riley, I have something I want to show you. ”
“What is it?”
“Well, come with me and you’ll see.”
Before I could protest, Clint and Riley were heading the other way. I sighed and followed. Clint took Riley out behind the recreational barn where there was a fenced in area with a couple of animal pens. He stopped at the first pen. Inside was a little pink piglet not more than a few days old.
“He’s an orphan,” Clint said. “I thought you could take care of him for me for as long as you’re here. What do you say?”
“Please, Mom?” Riley looked hopefully at me.
“You’re always saying she needs to learn responsibility,” Clint reminded me.
“Yes, I know. But like doing her homework, cleaning her room and being on time for school. Things like that.”
“I promise I’ll take good care of him.”
“It’s only for a little while,” Clint looked over Riley’s head at me.
“Oh, all right,” I sighed.
“Isn’t he cute, Mom?”
“Adorable,” I answered.
“Can I name him?”
“Sure,” Clint replied. “He’s yours.”
“I’m going to call him Pinky. Isn’t that a good name for a pig?”
“Perfect,” I replied.
Riley reached in to pick up Pinky, but he squealed, kicked out and Riley lost her grasp dropping him on the outside of the pen. As soon as he was on the ground he started running this way and that. Clint went for him, but grabbed only air. Without a second thought I took a flying leap and caught Pinky’s two back legs and held on until Clint was able to come and get him.
“Caught like a true country girl,” Clint replied and carried Pinky back and put him in the pen.
“I think Pinky needs to stay in his pen from now on,” I said as I dusted myself off.
“Here, why don’t you feed him his lunch?” Clint handed Riley a bottle.
Riley tentatively walked toward the pen. As soon as Pinky started to suck, I saw a look of enchantment come over her face.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” I said.
“Oh, come on, Bronwyn. Lighten up. It’s just a piglet.”
“I know, but she sees it as a pet. And she’s going to get attached to it. But you and I both know that sooner or later he’s going to become Pinky the ham or Pinky the bacon. Then what are you going to tell her?”
“He moved away?”
“See? You never think about these things in advance.”
“What do you want me to do? Tell her she can’t take care of him?”
“You can’t take him away from her now.” I walked away.
When Pinky was through with his bottle I said, “Come on, Riley. We need to go.”
“But I want to pet some of the horses and play with Pinky.”
“I have some errands to run and I told Billie we would stop by.”
Riley started to sulk.
“I have the rest of the day off. She could spend the day with me,” Clint spoke up. “I haven’t seen her for a while. We could catch up.”
Riley perked up at that idea. It was not what I wanted to hear.
“I could feed her supper and then drop her off. There’s no need for you to drive all the way back here to pick her up.”
“That would be great, Mom.”
I glared at Clint.
“It’s two against one, Bronwyn.”
“Fine, but I want her back by 6:00pm.” I wasn’t going to stand there and argue.
“So, Riley, what do you feel like? Pizza or hamburgers?”
I was mad. More at myself than at Clint. It wasn’t like he had held a gun to Riley’s head and forced her to spend the day with him. She had wanted to. I couldn’t blame her. He was her father and she hadn’t seen him more than twice in the past four years. She sees me every day. He was the new pair of dress shoes and I was just the worn out sneaker. It was normal for her to want to go with Clint. But I still wasn’t happy about it. Any mother would want to protect her child. He would never physically hurt Riley, but he had hurt her emotionally. Whether he meant to or not. It was only a matter of time before he would do it again.
I settled down in an easy chair with a glass of white zynfandel. I don’t drink wine very often, but I needed something tonight to calm my nerves. I felt like I was glancing at my watch every five minutes, counting down the seconds until 6:00pm. It would be just like Clint to drop Riley off at 5:59:59 seconds just to rile me. So when I heard his truck motor at 7:10, I stormed out the door.
“Have you never heard of a phone? What if something had happened?”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. I had no idea where she was.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Why don’t you just put a tracking device on her next time?”
“Maybe I will.”
“Come on, Bronwyn…”
“Oh, don’t you come on Bronwyn me.”
“I can see we are never going to agree,” Clint replied. “Bye, Riley. I love you.”
I slammed the door in his face.
I leaned against the rail of the paddock a few days later. I watched Riley complete another circle on Strawberry Shortcake. She had wanted to come early so she could ride a little bit before it was time to feed Pinky. Each time she circled the paddock she looked a little more comfortable and her grasp on the reins and saddle horn was more relaxed.
“Looking good, Riley,” Stone said coming up from behind me.
“Thanks, Stone,” Riley answered. “Maybe you can show me how to trot sometime.”
“Your mom would be a better person to ask. She’s quite the rider.”
“I used to be.”
“I thought Clint was okay with you competing after you got married.”
“He was. It wasn’t because of him. It was because of her.” I looked out at Riley. “When I found out I wasn’t about to take any chances.”
“I can understand that,” Stone said. “Nothing’s more important than your child.”
“You’re right about that.”
“I guess I always thought you and Clint would have another kid.”
“I had some complications with Riley. After lots of bed rest, doctor visits and then having her premature, I am grateful to have one healthy daughter. And that was good enough for me.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay," I reassured Stone. “Riley, are you about ready?” I pointed to my watch.
“Yes, now. You need to feed Pinky and Billie wants me to pick up her wedding dress.”
“Speaking of the wedding,” Stone started. “I was thinking…”
“Did it hurt?”
“Ha, ha very funny. I’m serious. I don’t have a date for the wedding and I assuming you don’t have one either.”
“So I was thinking maybe we could go together. As friends if nothing else.”
“Okay. That would be…nice.” I was searching for the right word. It had been such a long time since I had been asked out I wanted to make sure I gave the correct response.
“What happened to my other earring?”
“Right here, Billie.” I handed to her.
“Now I’ve lost my shoes.”
“They’re over here. Relax; your wedding is going to be beautiful.”
“Oh, Bronwyn. Am I really ready to do this? What if I’m not a good wife? What if…”
“Billie, you’re very lucky. Some people who get married aren’t really in love. I’ve seen you and Mark together. I’ve never seen two people more in love with each other. Also some people never find that one special person they want to spend the rest of their life with. Mark’s going to swallow his tongue when he sees you.”
Billie’s wedding dress was beautiful. Sleeveless, white satin skimmed her body with a slightly flared hem and a draping neckline that added just a touch of sexiness. It was so Billie. Her bouquet was made of sweet William, lily of the valley and hyacinth. Instead of a veil, Billie had a white lily pinned on the right side of her head.
Since her color scheme was white and royal blue, my dress was made of royal blue satin. It was actually a one piece, but the bottom hem of the sleeveless bodice had been scalloped and created the illusion of two separate pieces. There was an intricate crisscross pattern on the bodice as well. Imitation crystal and sapphire earrings hung from my ears. They had been a present from Billie for all her bridesmaids. My hair had been done in an up do like I had worn to my senior prom. I was carrying a small bouquet of violets.
The Chapel in the Pines was a quaint, little, pristine white chapel. All the pews were white with dark green carpet underneath. Each pew had a white or royal blue bow attached to the side. Ribbons swooped connecting them together. A white fabric walk way led up to the altar, which was covered in a white cloth. Two candelabras were placed at each end. Sunlight sparkled through the stained glass window at the front of the church behind the altar.
The ceremony was sweet and simple. Despite looking quite striking in his black suit with satin royal blue vest and tie, Mark was a nervous wreck. Billie practically floated down the aisle on the arm of her father. When he handed her off to Mark, I saw Mark’s lips form the words, “You’re gorgeous.” They said the vows, exchanged rings, lighted the unity candle, kissed and walked back down the aisle as husband and wife.
The punch and cake reception was held in the church yard. Billie and Mark walked around and greeted people, thanking them for coming to the wedding. Afterward the photographer took pictures. He even took one especially of Riley in her yellow sunflower dress.
The dinner reception at the recreational barn was a great success. There were tables set up covered with white table cloths with something like a fishbowl housed a small candle nestled in a bed of blue and silver pearls. The garter and bouquet were tossed from the stage. For dinner there was shredded barbequed pork and chicken as well as a vegetarian plate. The best man gave a champagne toast.
Clint was there of course, but luckily he wasn’t part of the wedding party. I was too busy with my bridesmaid duties to have any kind of interaction with him. That suited me just fine He danced a couple of songs with Riley so she wouldn’t feel left out. Billie danced with her father and Mark with his mother. They danced their first dance as husband and wife to the song “Embraceable You” by the musical genius Gershwin.
The band was playing a lot of square dances, hoedowns and line dances. I was dancing to one of the slower songs with one of the groomsmen when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“I’m cutting in,” Stone said. He was dressed in khaki pants, a white dress shirt and a tweed sports jacket. His hair had been slicked down. “Since we are technically here together I thought we should dance together at least once if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.” I placed my hand on his shoulder and he took my other hand in his and placed his right hand at the small of my back. “You, ah, clean up good,” I said for fear of awkward silence.
“I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen you in anything, but riding getup. You look lovely.”
I don’t know if it was the music, the champagne or the atmosphere of the wedding, but I noticed my arms were now draping over his shoulders and his hand on the small of my back was pressing me closer.
“I feel like I should apologize again for all the things I used to do to you back when we were kids,” Stone said softly.
“I told you it was a long time ago. It’s okay.”
“I know, but the fact of the matter was I really did like you.”
“I’ve always had a crush on you, too, even though I don’t consider putting a hamster down someone’s shirt an act of affection.”
“I didn’t know how to show it back then. But I do now.” He voice had turned husky.
He leaned forward and gently kissed my lips. Seeing that I liked it, he gave me another soft kiss, longer this time. I responded by kissing him back.
Our kiss ended abruptly. I turned and saw Riley standing there. Then her face scrunched up like she was about to cry. She turned and ran out.
“Riley, wait,” I called. “I better go and talk to her.”
“Please,” Stone said. “Let me.”
“All right,” I agreed.
Stone found Riley standing with her back to him next to Strawberry Shortcake’s stall.
“I want to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Look, Riley, I…”
“Why did you kiss my mom?” She whirled around. Stone saw her face was tear-stained.
“You see, when two adults like each other they show it in different ways. When I like someone, I show them by kissing. Your mom’s a great lady and I do like her. Do you understand?”
“Sort of. Not really. I don’t know what’s going on. But it doesn’t matter anyway because my mom and dad are going to get back together.”
“Riley, I know how you feel. My parents are divorced, too. And it hurts sometimes that they are not together. But sometimes it’s better for those two people if they don’t live together. Just because they don’t love each other anymore doesn’t mean they don’t love you.”
“Well, it’s true. Now let me ask you another question. Do you want your mom to be happy?”
“Yeah. Why? Do you think she’s sad?”
“I don’t know. But I do know my mom was sad after she and my dad split up. But she found a very nice friend and she is much happier now.”
“I want my mom to be happy. I want my daddy to be happy. I want to be happy, too.”
“I believe you. Listen, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t kiss your mom again unless you say it’s okay. I’m sorry I upset you. Will you accept my apology?”
“Okay. Do you want to come back to the party now?”
She shook her head. “No, I think I’ll just stay here and pet some of the horses.”
How could I have been so stupid? I should have known better. For the first time I had focused on myself and my desires. And it had turned into a train wreck. I should have been focusing more on Riley’s needs and feelings.
“Where is she? Is she okay?” I nearly tackled Stone.
“Relax, Bronwyn. She’s all right. She’s out in the stables. I don’t think she fully understands the situation, but hopefully she does a little better than she did.”
“Well, I have to go to her.”
“Just give her a little bit of time. I think she just wants to be alone right now.”
“She told you that?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. I don’t know what I would have said to her. It’s just that she has never seen me with anybody except Clint.”
“It’s my fault. When you said you had a crush on me, I figured it was all right to kiss you.”
“It was a wonderful kiss. If I said I didn’t enjoy it, I would be lying. But I have responsibilities as a mother and Riley should be my main priority. Some men are scared when a woman has a child.”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”
If I hadn’t had any bridesmaid obligations I would have left right then. It was midnight before I went to the stables. I found Riley curled up on a horse blanket in front of Strawberry Shortcake’s stall fast asleep. I gently shook her awake. She didn’t say anything about Stone and I kissing and I wasn’t about to bring it up.
Five days after the wedding and Billie and Mark were on their honeymoon in St. Thomas, Riley and I were back at the stables. Once Riley had mounted Strawberry Shortcake, I saddled up the mount Tex had selected for me. Riley wanted to go riding one more time before we went back to San Francisco and she had practically begged me to go riding with her. Tex had volunteered to take us out on the trail so I had agreed. Since it had been so long since I had been riding, I asked Tex to pick out a suitable horse for me. He selected, Gypsy, a bay mare. On a scale from one to ten with ten being very spirited, Gypsy was ranked a five, but Tex thought I could handle her. It made me feel better when he said Strawberry Shortcake was ranked a minus one.
“Need a hand?” Tex asked.
“I know how to saddle a horse,” I replied even though I knew he was just teasing.
Tex saddled Spirit, a pure white Arabian for himself. He led us down a wooded trail and up on a narrow ridge. Riley was in the middle and I was on the end. I was a little leery about riding on the ridge, but the horses could do these trails with their eyes closed. Besides the view from up here was amazing. It would be a crime to ride up there. Tex was a great guide pointing out all the sights along the trail.
As we started back up the gravel path to the stables, I saw Stone leading an appaloosa at trot around the outdoor ring.
“Riley, go to the stables with Tex and brush down Strawberry Shortcake. I’ll be there in a minute.” I turned and directed Gypsy over to the ring. “Is he new?” I asked. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”
“Oh, hi, Bronwyn,” Stone replied. “No, he isn’t new. Speedy just came back from being broken. He’s still a little high strung so I get him out and work with him a few days a week.”
“Well, I wanted to let you know Riley and I will be going back to San Francisco the day after tomorrow. And I hate long good-byes so…”
“You mean you aren’t staying for the fireworks and the county fair?”
“I had forgotten about that.” The county fair was the event I always looked forward to growing up. I practically lived at the fairgrounds during that week. I had to be there daily anyway to take care of any of the horses I was showing or jumping.
“It’s only a couple more days.” Stone could tell I was pondering the idea. “Besides the fireworks are the best in the state. What do you say?”
“Sure. Why not? Riley might enjoy it.”
“She wouldn’t be the only one.”
The Sweetwater County Fair had a variety of things to see. One building had nothing, but agriculture. There was corn, tomatoes, gourds, squash and those giant pumpkins grown by people around the area. The agriculture voting had been done before the fair so everyone could see who won. The animal judging was only on certain days. Other buildings contained model trains, sewing projects, woodworking projects and old fashion tractors. All the 4-H groups had set up their own display of events they had participated in, their motto or theme and the names of their members. There were all different kinds of booths for people selling arts, crafts, jewelry t-shirts almost anything you could think of. There was also a wildlife table that gave away free magazines, information and hunting laws and regulations, including which animals were in season and when.
There was also a large variety of animals and not just horses. There were cattle, hogs, llamas, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, turkeys and ducks. Riley and I went through each barn. She liked to see which animals would let her pet them. I enjoyed it because growing up I was always in the horse barn so I never got to see the other animals. In the rabbit barn, one of the breeders let Riley hold one of her rabbits hoping we would buy it. The woman looked at me, but I just smiled. As we were leaving the hog barn Riley said, “Maybe when Pinky gets bigger he will be shown at the fair.”
“Maybe,” I answered knowing perfectly well where most hogs and beef end up.
At night they had different activities scheduled. Motor cross, demolition derby and truck and tractor pull. Tonight was the fireworks which was the main reason for coming on this particular night.
I took Riley on the scrambler and the Ferris wheel and watched her ride the swings and the bumper cars. She also played a game throwing darts at balloons and seeing how many she could pop. She did win a small plastic toy dog with a spring for a tail. I was having such a good time I let Riley have a corndog and I bought myself an Italian sausage. There is just something about fair food that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s just not the same when it comes from the frozen food section at the grocery store. I didn’t want Riley to miss out on that experience.
“Having fun?” Stone walked up with one of those giant tenderloin sandwiches in his hand.
“Yeah. I’m glad you talked me into staying.”
“I didn’t have to talk too hard.”
“I think Riley’s really enjoying it.”
“Oh, she is?”
“All right. I’m enjoying it, too.”
“That’s what I thought.”
We toured the rest of the fairgrounds together. By the time we had reached the grandstands it was beginning to grow dark and they announced the fireworks would be starting in ten minutes. Stone, Riley and I found some standing room on the ground level inside the chain linked fence. Then came a sonic boom and color exploded in the sky. Half way through Stone slipped his arms around my middle. I leaned back against him. Every so often I saw Riley glance back. I guess she was just making sure Stone wasn’t kissing me. The fireworks concluded with a spectacular combination of color and sound. Stone was right; it was one of the best displays I had ever seen.
Afterwards I bought a variety box of saltwater taffy. As I turned around, I saw Clint walking toward me. I probably should have known better. Clint loved fairs as much as I did. That’s the one thing we had in common. As he came closer I saw he was carrying a big stuffed teddy bear with a red ribbon around its neck. Of course Riley ran to meet him.
“Hi, Daddy. Where did you get that bear?”
“I won him for you.”
“Wow. Thanks. I’m going to name him Archie.”
“Archie?” I asked. “Why Archie?”
Because that’s his name,” Riley replied.
“That’s as good of an answer as any,” Clint said.
“Well, it’s getting late. Riley, get Archie and let’s go.” It was getting late and it was past her bedtime even though it was summer and she didn’t have school the next day. But that wasn’t the point.
“But Daddy just got here and I want to ride the carousel.”
“Riley, I am in no mood…” I began.
“I have an idea,” Clint jumped in. I didn’t want to hear any of his brilliant ideas. “We could kill two birds with one stone. She can ride the carousel and then spend the night with me. It will be a regular pajama party.”
“Yea!” Riley clapped her hands.
Just as I was getting ready for a heated protest Clint said, “I swear I’ll have her back by 9:00am.”
“Keep this up and I won’t let you have her at all.”
“Daddy,” Riley gave a whispered plea.
“All right 8:30am. Come on, honey, let’s make the most of it.”
As I stormed out the gate, I threw my box of saltwater taffy in the trash.
The way I saw it the more time Riley spent with Clint the worse off it would be. It would just make it that much harder when it was time to leave. Somehow when Clint and I are together we are like baking soda and vinegar. We always end up exploding at each other. But what had really got to me was the way Riley had pleaded with Clint not to rile me when I said I wouldn’t let her go. Did she want to go with him so desperately or was she trying to save me from another shouting match in which there would be no winner. There was a light tap on the cabin door I had left standing wide open
“You left in quite a hurry.” Stone stood in the doorway. “I wanted to make sure you were okay. You also forgot something.” He held out a box of saltwater taffy.
“You came all the way out here just to bring me this?” I was touched. “Can I offer you some wine? I can make coffee.” I felt like I had to do something after all the trouble he had gone to.
“Wine would be great.”
I went to the kitchenette and removed two wine glasses from the cupboard. As I was uncorking the bottle, Stone walked up behind me and started massaging my shoulders.
“You’re so tense.”
I’ll admit it felt wonderful. I could feel my body start to relax. When I turned so I could face him, he lowered his mouth and kissed me softly.
“I’ve thought about doing this ever since the wedding,” Stone replied, he voice low and husky. “Kissing you.” He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling. The taste of her kiss, the scent of her skin. It clung to him like a dirty shirt.
“But what about Riley? You saw how upset she was.”
“Well, Riley’s not here. Bronwyn, you are a wonderful and devoted mother. Riley’s very lucky. But even wonderful and devoted mothers need to take time for themselves once and a while. If you want an ice cream sundae then by God have an ice cream sundae.”
The idea was quite appealing. Not the ice cream sundae part, but just letting go and giving in. No looking back. No regrets. There was something tossing itself around inside my head and I think Stone could see that. He took my by the hand and led me into the living room and onto the couch. He lifted my hair away from my neck and pressed his lips to the side of my throat.
“What are you doing?” I tried to ask causally.
“Distracting you.” His breath was warm on my neck. He kissed my lips softly again and again and again. I fully participated and didn’t resist when he moved closer deepening the kiss. Finally, many seconds later I placed my hands on his shoulders and pulled back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“What are we doing?”
“I think most people call it making out.”
“But sex complicates things.”
“Who said anything about sex?” Stone sat up straighter.
“Making out can lead to other things.”
“It doesn’t have to.” When I didn’t answer, he said, “What? Do you think I might take advantage of you?”
“No. I’m worried I might take advantage of you.”
“Look, Bronwyn. If you don’t want to…”
“That’s not it. The fact is I do want to. That’s what scares me.”
“I’ve never been the kind of man who would force myself on a woman."
"Maybe we could just talk. Get to know each other again and see what goes from there?"
And we did talk...all night long.
I woke up the next morning curled up next to Stone, my head on his chest. My eyes just happen to travel to the clock. It read 7:45am. I sat up like a spring had been placed under me.
“7:45am? Riley spent the night with Clint. She’s going to be back any minute. Can you imagine what would happen if Riley found you here?” I jumped up
“Tell her we were having a slumber party.”
“She’s not stupid.”
“Bronwyn, we didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Oh, I know. But I have a very impressionable daughter.”
It was8:26am when Clint pulled in. Riley jumped out and Clint got Archie out of the back of his truck and handed him off to her.
“Come on, Riley.” I started to usher her inside. “Are you hungry? I can make scrambled eggs for breakfast.”
“She already ate,” Clint said.
“Daddy took me to the doughnut shop. I brought one for you, too, Mom. Lemon filled your favorite.” She gave me a sweet and hopeful smile.
“I’ll split it with you,” I replied.
“Riley, why don’t you take Archie inside? I want to talk to your mom for a minute. There’s no reason we can’t have one civilized conversation,” he said when he saw the surprised look on my face.
“Do I have to?” Riley asked.
“Yes. Now scoot.” He patted Riley’s backside.
I crossed my arms and waited. “Well?”
“It’s just I’ve only seen Riley a mere handful of times…” Clint began.
“That’s not my fault.”
“In a way it is. You’re the one who moved.”
“Don’t try and turn this around on me.”
“It’s just seeing Riley these past few weeks and spending time with her; I want to be able to take her to all the father daughter activities. I want to walk her down the aisle at her wedding…”
“Don’t go all sentimental on me now. Just say what you have to say.”
“I want full custody of her.”
“I was hoping we could settle this like two civilized people.”
“Over my dead body.”
“Then I guess I will see you in court.”
“I’ll be there with bells on.”
What was I going to do? It felt like Clint had punched me in the stomach. I felt like I was having a heart attack, panic attack and a stroke all rolled into one. I lay in bed curled up in the fetal position like I was having stomach cramps. I had to pull myself together. I couldn’t fall apart now. I had to be strong for Riley. After all it was my fight. A fight I intended to win. What mother out there wouldn’t fight for her child? I had worked very hard the last four years to try and rebuild our lives. Now all of my hard work would have been for nothing. The worst of it was if I had just signed the custody papers this whole thing could have been avoided. Not indefinitely, but for now. Because Clint was basically suing me he was forcing me to stay in Cedar Creek. It was like he was holding me captive and against my will. I wasn’t alone. I had Tex, Stone and Billie on my side. They were just as shocked as I was.
“I’ve known Clint most of my life,” Billie said. “I can’t believe he would stoop so low. I’d like to go punch him in the you know what.”
“Mothers usually win these types of cases," Tex said.
“Besides you know Riley better than anyone,” Stone added.
“Unfortunately there is that father daughter bond,” I answered. “I can’t compete with that.”
“There’s a special bond between a mother and daughter, too,” Tex replied.
“Yeah. It’s called the umbilical cord.”
After everyone had left Stone wrapped his arms around me, held me close and kissed the side of my head.
“Everything will be okay, Bronwyn. You have to believe that.”
Over the next couple of days I wrote down everything I could think of that would help me win, no matter how insignificant it seemed at the time. I wasn’t going to hold anything back. I was going to pull out all the stops and hit Clint with everything I had.
“Just remember what I used to tell you before a show,” Tex said putting his hands on my shoulders as we stood outside the courtroom.
“Stop whining, Vogel and get your can out there?” I asked.
“If you follow your heart it will never steer you wrong.”
I closed my eyes and nodded. Then I blew out a short breath and walked in the courtroom. It was a small scene. Just a couple of witnesses, a judge, Clint and me. I walked confidently up to the front. I glared at Clint. I would make him sorry he ever ruffled my dander.
“Your honor," Clint began. “I love my daughter very much. My wife here…”
“Ex-wife,” I interjected.
“Ex-wife,” Clint rolled his eyes, “has not signed the custody papers so I am acting well within my rights and in the best interest of my daughter. I can provide for her…”
“Are you implying I can’t?”
Clint ignored me. “I have a stable job, a working ranch. I can give her all the necessities like food, shelter…”
“She is not one of your animals. You can’t just feed her and give her a place to stay and expect her to be happy,” I said.
“Your honor, I can also provide her with education and good old country values.”
“What would you know about values?” I asked.
“I want her to be smart, kind, physically fit. I want her to be whatever she wants to be and I’ll do whatever I can to help. I can give her all the opportunities and activities. She was born country and I think that is the way she should stay. I can teach her things like responsibility and self-reliance.”
“What you taught her was she was less important to you than people who have been dead for 500 years in another country. And she learned it so well…”
“I know what she needs.”
“You don’t know anything about her.”
“I know she needs her father.”
“What’s her favorite color?” I shot at him.
“Navy blue. What’s her favorite TV show?”
“Clint, Riley is ten years old. Her favorite show is Wipeout. What is her favorite subject in school?”
“Lucky guess. What is her favorite food?”
“Pizza,” he answered confidently.
“Wrong. Ham and pineapple.” I didn’t stop there. “And even more important. What kind of food is Riley allergic to? Something that makes her brake out in hives.”
At the same time Clint said, “I don’t know, okay?” I said, “Strawberries.”
“But if you recall Riley wanted to be with me.”
“Only because she hasn’t seen you more than twice in the last four years.”
“Is that true, Mr. Webber? You haven’t seen your daughter more than twice?” the judge finally spoke up.
“I have a job. I have bills to pay. I just can’t up and leave whenever I feel like it.”
“Where were you when Riley had food poisoning? Where were you when she broke her wrist? And what about the happy times? The times when a child longs to have a parent there to watch them shine? Where were you when Riley was an elf in her Christmas play? And let me tell you, she was one heck of an elf. Where were you when she scored the winning goal for her team in soccer?” I spun off intense after instance Clint had missed. “And what’s going to happen when she gets to that certain age?”
“Certain age? Oh, you mean puberty. I’m not embarrassed. I can talk to her about it.”
“Did it ever occur to you she might be the one who is embarrassed? She wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to a man especially her father. At a certain age girls need a woman to talk to for help with special questions. What about when she starts dating?”
“I’ll meet her dates at the door with a shotgun.”
“And you should have made more of an effort to come see her.”
“You left just when she was becoming interesting. When you moved away, you took her away from me. What gives you the right to take my child away?”
“Me? What about you?”
“I’m her father.”
“I’m her mother, damn it.”
“Joint custody does work out well in most cases,” the judge interrupted. “But only when both parents live closer together and usually that means in the same state. I must say, Mrs. Webber, when you moved away you purposely made it harder for Mr. Webber to see his daughter. I believe that was your intention. So you are at just as much fault as he is. I think we need to take a recess so you two can cool off. We can reexamine this in a few days when you both have had time to think and can discuss this like two civilized adults. Until then I move Riley spend some more time with her father.” He banged his gavel on the desk and that was the end of that.
Even though Riley hadn’t been gone for more than a few hours and I knew she would be coming back, I felt like I had already lost her. I lay in bed just wondering why do I awaken? What do I have to get out of bed for? I had no pressing responsibilities. No future I cared to think about. No Riley.
I feared I was also losing myself. To find myself again I did the only thing I could think of. The thing I knew best. The thing I had been doing for most of my life. I rode. I saddled up Gypsy and started her at a trot around the paddock. Before I even realized it we had advanced to a canter and were heading full speed toward an oxer jump. And I didn’t let up. When Gypsy was half way over the fence, time seemed to stand still. After landing, I circled her around and saw Stone leaning against the railing watching me. I directed Gypsy over.
“When did you decided to jump that fence?” he asked.
“When the horse was half way over,” I answered. Stone handed me my water bottle that was sitting on top of one of the posts. “Thanks.”
“Have you eaten yet?”
“I had a protein bar this morning.”
“Well, then why not having supper with me at my place. Let someone take care of you for a change. Take your mind off of the situation.”
“You can cook?” I was amazed.
“I can make pasta. And pasta and more pasta.”
“Hmmm. Pasta sounds good.”
Stone gave me the grand tour of Western Star from the high tech kitchen to the open living room with its immense granite fireplace. There were also a few shoulder mounts and tanned hides on the walls. It didn’t bother me. My dad had been a hunter. Upstairs the sprawling master bedroom opened onto a balcony overlooking twenty miles of mountains.
“Oh, Stone,” I said. “It’s beautiful. The view from up here is amazing.”
“Why don’t you go freshen up and I’ll check on supper.”
Five minutes later, I was heading back down stairs where Stone had set the table and two drippy candles had been lighted. I had never had a candlelight dinner in my life. Stone pulled my chair out for me like a true gentleman. The first course was endive and walnut salad, followed by three alarm Cajun chicken and pan fried potatoes.
“Very cheeky,” Stone replied. “It’s not exactly Four Seasons, but it will have to do.”
“It looks wonderful. Where did you learn to cook like this?”
“My grandmother taught me how to cook. She called it domestic training. Somewhere she heard all that bachelors eat are bologna and pizza.”
We had almost finished eating when thunder rumbled in the distance. Stone glanced out the sliding glass doors. Up on the tree covered ridge, clouds swirled like smoke. With a bad rain, the whole hillside could disappear in a wall of mud. Then the Heavens seemed to open. Nothing but rain and wind with more to come no doubt. Could be some major gusting up there. Stone squinted as the rain turned into solid sheets.
“Looks like the storm could be a bad one. You might want to think about holding up here for the night,” Stone advised. “Don’t worry. The generator’s all set, but we might lose power briefly. I put out flashlights just in case. I have extra candles, too.” He was babbling. I watched him pace around nervously as he watched the water race off the broad porch. “We could have some mudslides if the storm continues.”
“Sit down and relax,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
He sat on the couch, but was edgy. “Hard to relax with that storm howling over the mountains.”
Something was wrong. I studied his face. What I saw surprised me. It wasn’t worry. It was fear.
“Are you afraid of thunderstorms?” I asked gently. It would certainly explain his odd behavior. His face turned red with shame and pure embarrassment. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I’m fine,” he answered curtly.
“You don’t have to put on an act with me, Stone. It’s okay. Riley’s afraid of thunderstorms, too.”
“But she’s a kid. I’m a grown man. I should have grown out of it by now. You probably think I’m just a big coward. I don’t blame you. You probably feel degraded to be in the presence of a man who’s afraid. I would.”
“Not at all. Everyone’s afraid of something. I’m afraid of snakes. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever saw one.”
“Snakes don’t bother me.”
“I used to run and hide under the covers when I was a kid. You’re probably ashamed of me. My dad was ashamed of me. Told me being scared was stupid.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid.” Thunder clapped again and Stone shuddered. I took his hands in mine. “Look at me,” I said. “Right here. Just stare at my forehead. Now smile. Good. Now breathe and think about something else.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Daffodils, green meadows, starry skies. This.” I leaned over and gave him a kiss full on his lips.
“What are you doing?”
“Distracting you.” I smiled. I hadn’t laughed at him. I didn’t think of him any differently and I wanted him to know that. It didn’t make him any less of a man in my eyes. In fact I found sensitive men very sexy.
Stone’s lips curved slightly. “Got anymore brilliant ideas?”
“Let’s make our own lightning.”
Finally, it was day Riley was coming back. I couldn’t wait. I had been pacing the floor for hours. When Clint showed up he shut off the truck and got out. What was he up to?
“Bronwyn, we need to talk,” he said very seriously. He looked past me at Riley. “Privately.”
“We have nothing to talk about.” The last time he wanted to talk he had ripped my heart out.
“We need to discuss our options before we go back to court. I don’t want Riley to be put in the middle of it.”
“Neither do I, but she is. Whether she knows it or not.”
“Would you at least consider meeting me at the stables, let’s say in a half an hour? We can talk, just the two of us?”
I could tell Clint was trying to make an effort to be somewhat civil about a touchy situation so I felt I should, too.
“I’m sure Billie would watch her.” Clint knew by my response I had agreed.
I arrived at the stables not sure what to expect. Clint was leaning against one of the stall doors humming a soft, low tune to one of the horses.
“Hi,” he said when he noticed I was there.
“Hi,” I replied. “What’s that tune?”
“Just something I made up. He’s high spirited. He needs to hear something soothing.”
“I understand.” I picked up a curry comb and started to brush the horse.
“As I see it we have a couple of different options. There is no reason we can’t come up with an arrangement both of us can agree on. We could do a six month split.”
“She can’t go to two different schools every year,” I answered. “I could keep her for the school year and you could have her for the summer.”
“But that way I would only get her for one holiday out of the year. Fourth of July.”
“One is better than none. Besides you heard the judge. Joint custody doesn’t work well when the parents live in two different states.”
“You’re the one who left.”
“And you didn’t come after me.”
“I didn’t know you wanted me to. After all you threw what was it at my head?”
“It was hair dryer. Clint, you had your world and I had mine. And I wanted her in mine. Not galloping around on a cattle drive with her father.”
“It would solve everything if you would just move back.”
Even though the idea was kind of appealing I wasn’t going to give in that easy. “Why should it be me that has to compromise on everything? Why can’t you move to San Francisco? It’s really not that bad of a place.”
“I’m not a city boy. You’re a country girl at heart, Bronwyn. No matter how much you’d like to deny it. I saw the way you caught that piglet. It makes more sense this way.”
“Maybe to you. Riley likes the city.”
“Have you ever asked her?”
“Well, no. But I know my daughter.”
“Maybe not as well as you think. Just ask her straight out. It’s her future we’re discussing here so I think she ought to have a say. She’s ten years old. She’s not a baby.”
All sorts of things were tossing themselves around inside my head.
In San Francisco the drug and crime rates were high and no parent would want to raise their child in that kind of environment. There was a girl who lived about a block away from where Riley and I did. She had been over at the next door neighbor’s playing. As she walked home a man jumped out of the bushes and tried to kidnap her. If Emma’s mother hadn’t been waiting for her on the front porch, Emma would have been kidnapped for sure.
Another time, some high school boys had given this other little boy lick- on stickers. The boy’s father was a police officer so he knew not to accept things from strangers. He turned the stickers into the office. They sent them to the lab only to find out the stickers had been laced with cocaine.
One little boy had tried to steal Riley’s bike in broad daylight. Luckily she had been looking out the window at the time. I told the boy he had better put that bike back exactly where he found it. It had been in the storage area right inside our apartment building door. The question was why would a boy want a pink bike with a basket? Anytime Riley was playing outside with her friends one of us mothers had to be outside also to make sure the kids were safe.
I remembered seeing news stories about people who have their adopted children taken away because the birth mother decides she wants them back. There are also people who kidnap their own kids and the other parent missed out on their kid’s whole life. Those kinds of cases made my blood boil. And in a way I was no better.
I picked Riley up at Mark and Billie’s, but didn’t say anything until we had arrived back at the cabin.
“Sit down, Riley. You and I need to have a talk.”
“Am I in some sort of trouble?”
“No. But I need to ask you a couple questions and I want the truth. Do you know why we moved to San Francisco?”
“Because you have a job there.”
“Yes, that’s true. I also thought moving would make it easier to start over and make a new life in a new place. Now I realize moving made it easier for me, but not necessarily for you. Do you like living in the city?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. But I miss Daddy.” Then she stopped.
“What is it, honey?” I asked.
“Sometimes I see other kids with their daddy’s and they are so happy. It makes me feel sad. I want to be happy, too.”
“I understand and I know how much you miss your dad. Remember when I told you how I lost my dad when I was twelve?”
“I was lucky to have Tex as my father figure. I took for granite he would always be there. You don’t have a father figure in San Francisco, but you do out here. And his is your real father. I didn’t take into consideration how it might affect you. And I was wrong.”
“Does that mean I have to go live with Daddy? Wouldn’t you miss me?”
“Oh, Riley, of course I would miss you. Don’t you ever think I wouldn’t. Even though you would like to see Daddy and me get back together that’s just not going to happen. Daddy and I just wanted different things. I know you don’t understand a lot of what is going on, but know everything I do is because of you.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, baby.”
And we hugged and cried together.
“You know it’s not such a bad idea,” Stone said.
I was telling Stone about the conversations I had with Clint and Riley.
“And it wouldn’t be like moving to a place where we don’t know anybody. I think Riley could really benefit from growing up out here. She really does enjoy the horses and other animals. I have really missed the atmosphere of living in a small town that doesn’t even have its own zip code. The elementary school Riley goes to now only goes up to fourth grade so she would be going to another school for fifth grade anyway. And who knows Clint and I might not fight as much. That would be better for me and a lot better for Riley, too. And then there is you and me. I am willing to see where this goes since we kind of already bypassed the whole dating courtship thing. So it just makes sense…”
“You’re babbling,” Stone cut in. “And when you babble you’re just trying to avoid saying what you really want to say. I think you have already made your decision. And I am pretty sure we both know what that decision is.”
I guess I just wanted some justification for myself. And hearing it from someone else made me more certain I was doing the right thing.
Of course Riley and I had to go back to San Francisco first and get everything squared away. I also had to get things lined up with a relator and search the Internet for affordable houses that would meet our needs. Tex and Billie had already offered to let Riley and me stay with them until I found a place. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome so finding a house the sooner the better.
The first house had three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and even a screened in, cement patio pool. That added a nice little outdoor living space for entertaining. There was a full bath with a separate shower and oversized whirlpool tub. All of it was tasteful and perfectly arranged. It looked so cute. However, this was only a model. The real estate agent said they could build one just like it on another lot.
The next place was a penthouse apartment in Hawks Landing. The condo complex wasn’t more than three or four years old and designed in a country French style. The foyer was small, tiled with country peach shaded squares and whimsical accent tiles. The living room was octagonal, giving it complexity with lots of windows and a gas fireplace. The living room flowed into the kitchen. It had tiled floors and granite countertops with a backsplash of black and white glass squares. The white cabinets were a little bit outdated. The view from the sliding glass door showed the courtyard and pool that belonged to the complex. There were two bedrooms. It had one and half baths. It would be an exceptional place to live.
Then I looked at a cozy cabin nestled in the backwoods of Cedar Creek. The cabin, which was stone and wood on the outside, was warm and cozy with overstuffed furniture that was a mixture of pine and other woods. A stone fireplace that went from floor to ceiling separated the living room and kitchen. In the one bedroom, crisp white curtains hung at the windows letting in some natural light. Yellow plank, pine walls glowed beneath a wrought iron chandelier. A second fireplace was in the corner.
I had a lot to think about. I really liked the first house because of the three bedrooms. It also had some extra items like the pool. But it was just a model and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wait that long.
The penthouse apartment was higher in price and only had two bedrooms. Everyone in the complex shared the outdoor living space. Being right in the middle of downtown there was an issue with the traffic and noise. And I really wanted to stay in Cedar Creek if at all possible.
And finally the cozy cabin was nice, but it felt more like a place that could be used for a vacation home or weekend getaway. The furniture wasn’t exactly my taste and the living area was separate from the kitchen.
After weighing all my options I decided the best place for us would be the model house. Riley and I could each have our own room and still have another whole bedroom for an office or guests. Riley and I could both entertain friends and the pool gave Riley the chance to host pool parties in the future. The contractor said he could have it done by mid-October so it wouldn’t be too long of a wait. Riley and I brought just the bare necessities the first time we went back out. Once the house was done we could move in a little at a time. We kept a lot of our same furniture, but bought a daybed and desk for the extra bedroom and a small dining table. Since I had a bigger kitchen I could do more cooking and we wouldn’t have to live on TV dinners as much.
Since this whole thing had been Clint’s idea in the first place, he wasn’t about to protest. He even called up the judge and said we had come to an agreement and didn’t need the second hearing. All we had to do was sign the custody papers and this time I didn’t hesitate. Clint would have Riley on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every other weekend and I would have her the rest of the time. When Riley had school activities and other engagements she would see him then also. We were out there in time for Riley to start fifth grade at Cherry Valley Elementary in Hawks Landing.
Tex had just been wonderful. He said I could work at the stables as long as I needed until I found a more permanent job. Even though no one came out and said it I think they were all glad I had decided to move back. This was where I was supposed to be.
One early Saturday morning, Stone came into the stables just as I was brushing down Misty. We hadn’t been able to spend much time together since Riley and I moved back. I had been planning to ask him to the house for supper, but there never seemed to be enough time. Each time I saw him I couldn’t wait to see him again. I wanted to let him know that he was more than a friend. He walked up behind me and looped his arms around me.
“What’s that scent your wearing?” he asked softly.
“Saddle oil and horses,” I replied.
I turned and our faces came close. He would have kissed me if Riley hadn’t run in at that very minute. He back away and respectfully kept his distance.
When Riley saw that, she stopped and turned back around.
“Stone, you can kiss my mom if you want to. It’s okay.”
“Thanks, Riley.” And with that she ran out again.
I didn’t know just what to do so I whispered, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Stone replied. And then his kissed me.