Tish Cohen is an acclaimed author and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Finalist, for her novel Town House, now in development as a major motion picture.
In her latest best-seller, The Truth about Delilah Blue, Cohen takes readers inside the tumultuous existence of title character, Delilah Blue, as she desperately struggles with her past and present.
Tish is also an avid rider and Barnmice member and she has written Unbridled exclusively for our community! Visit Tish online at: www.tishcohen.com
Hillary was watching me again. Leering. Oh, she’d never have let on. After all, how would it look? A married lady secretly besotted with the stablehand who sweeps up after her mare? After her husband’s stallion? Offering her my better side, my back side, I spun around and nudged the soiled hay further into the stall—even though I was meant to be pulling it out, piling it into the wheelbarrow and dumping it behind the barn. It would mean skipping my coffee break, maybe even missing out on the raspberry crullers in the staff room, but I didn’t mind, really. Not if it brought the tiniest shred of joy to Hillary’s morning.
I sighed. She must have so little of it, being married to Maxim.
No, it was better for all that she seemed to care about her husband. After all, Maxim’s winnings in the show ring funded the entire establishment. The autumn crop of horses that arrived fairly reeking of aristocratic European bloodlines. The black slate floor in the barn lavatory that never looked clean, no matter how many times Pammie and I scrubbed the tiles. The Persian rug in the tack room, the one Hillary’s youngest Bedlington terrier chewed apart the night someone locked him in the barn. Purely accidental, of course; I don’t blame Pammie for it. Not fully.
No. It was better this way, with Hillary craving me from afar. Better for Maxim anyway. And wasn’t that what it was all about? Keeping Maxim happy? Keeping his boots shiny and his jacket spotless? Could anything have been of greater importance? Anything at all?
My every waking moment was spent smoothing out life’s inconvenient wrinkles for that man. A man who woke up each morning next to the most desirable woman alive. But did he appreciate her?
Through the stall door, I watched, transfixed, as Hillary leaned over to rub her mare’s legs. Up and down. Up and down. The thing is, I never stare. It wouldn't be right. Leaning against my pitchfork, I shifted to my left, smiling in her general direction.
“Oh, hi.” She looked straight at me, surprised, and ran the back of her hand through bobbed, near-white hair, which fell back again to tickle her chin.
It was the little things, like this one, that made me love her so completely.
Rubbing the crest of her mare’s neck with a curry comb, she smiled through a cloud of dust intended, no doubt, to mask her feelings for me. “I didn’t see you in there, Gelden. What are you hiding from?”
Cheeks burning, I bent over and busied myself with a particularly elusive morsel of equine muck.
If you said it recklessly, it sounded like Gelding. My name, Blake Gelden. Originally Gelderman, my great grandfather on Father’s side came over from the old country and, it would seem, supposed life would be far less troublesome without the added weight of the r, the m, and the a. Of course, Great Grandfather wasn’t an equestrian. If he had been a horse person—which he most definitely was not, he sold sanitized mason jars to jelly factories—he’d likely have noticed the similarity between Gelden and Gelding—a castrated stallion. A eunuch. A likeness no self-respecting bachelor would ever bring upon himself, no matter how secluded or amputated he might feel. For this very reason I tend to introduce myself slowly, Geld-en, stretching out the en.
The thing is, my preening cousin Maxim was away that week. There was a big show in Florida, all the top hunter/jumper riders were to have been there. Hillary stayed home because Tesla, her prized Hanoverian mare with four of the most perfectly matched socks in the horse world, had heat in her left fetlock. But late last night, after the barn emptied out of gossiping boarders, after the stalls were given a bedtime fluff and the horses their evening mash, when there was no one left in the gleaming aisles but me, I slipped into Hillary’s mare’s stall and ran my hands along her shapely legs. Tesla’s.
The offending fetlock felt fine. Which gave me hope.
Ever since Maxim and I were toddlers sharing a creaky playpen in my mother’s dining room, life has given him whatever I’ve wanted. The boy left our house once with my entire set of Lincoln Logs, a Christmas gift I’d waited for all year, tucked under his chubby arm. When I burst into tears, my mother had said to just hush, that his family was wealthy. That if I stayed on Maxim’s ever-elusive good side—the one I’ve searched for all these years—it would pay off one day. Maxim would share his good fortune with his only living relative.
Instead, he gave me a job as chief stable boy. Runner of the muck. Installed me in a fully-equipped studio apartment over the quarantine barn, complete with skylight, featherbed, and honed granite countertops. All this and a picture window overlooking Hillary’s rose bed.
Could I help it if she tended to prune in the mornings, at the very same time I poured my first cup of coffee?
“Gelden,” Pammie’s shiny, round face appeared over the open stall door, her cheeks splotched, as usual, with what I call sugar-rush pink. Clearly, she’d been into the crullers again. Pudgy ears poked through flaccid strands of hair the same colorless hue of the mouse that lived under the tack room sink. “There you are,” she said breathlessly, smoothing her clinging polo shirt. “I haven’t seen you all morning.” With a great sucking in of her stomach, she clasped her hands behind her back and rocked coquettishly from side to side.
“I’ve been at it since seven,” I replied.
She glanced at the three stalls I’d managed to muck out in the last hour, and arched her brows in effort to mask her surprise. Dear girl, she was far too gracious to comment on my lack of progress. “Nice job,” she said. She leaned closer and whispered, “I never move too quickly when Hillary is around either. She gets me all sweaty and flustered.”
Me too, I didn’t say.
“Anyway, Gelden, take all the time you need. I’ve already mucked out the south and the north wings, and I can come back and do the stalls on the other side for you. And, because I noticed on the schedule you were planning to groom the arena, I did that for you, as well.”
Darling Pammie. She’d give me her second kidney if I asked for it. Not that I would, my mother—and her grandmother before her—happens to throw exceptionally leggy offspring with presence, stellar confirmation, and superior organ function. I’d only have taken the kidney if Hillary had needed it and Pammie proved to be the right match. But I would never have passed it off as my own. Not without serious forethought. “What would I do without you, Pammie?”
A splash of heat rose up from her open collar, spread up her neck, and landed on her cheeks, flushing them nearly purple. She licked her lips and swallowed hard, then whispered, barely perceptibly, “I try not to think about that…”
“Is everything alright in the rest of the barn?”
Her face fell. “Ooh, I forgot. Hillary wants to see you in the tack room right away. She seemed desperate.”
My rake dropped to the ground.
“Her exact words were, ‘I need Gelden—right now!’”
I bolted from the stall.
The Geldens come from racing stock. My grandfather competed in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, narrowly missing taking home the bronze in the 400 meter. My father, endowed with far more endurance, had run the 800 meter in the ‘76 Olympics in Montreal, but failed to place due to recurring wind puffs in his shins. It has been my long-held belief that father would have taken the silver if he’d been permitted to wrap his legs in a set of tightly wrapped Polo bandages. Dressage white, of course.
I raced into the kitchen having gone through every possible reason Hillary might have wanted, no…needed me. She was frightened and saw me as her savior, her hero. She’d called up her louse of a husband and told him she was besotted by my bone structure. She’d discovered one of her Bedlington Terriers—Lambikins, Lambster, Lambchop or Bob Lamb—had been bitten by a snake and needed me to save its life by administering my secretly held family antidote. What I wanted, no…needed her to know, was that I was there for her no matter what the reason. That her call would never go unanswered. That as long as I was able to take another breath, I would live to keep her safe.
In the tack room, I found Hillary standing at the counter, munching on a raspberry cruller and staring into space.
“What is it, Hillary?” I asked, feeling heady with anticipation, pure joy tickling the corners of my mouth and trickling down to my toes. “What did you…” I softened my voice and closed my eyes for the briefest of moments, “need?”
“Mmm, Gelden.” She swallowed, wiping jam from her face. “Did you hear? Maxim found that liniment I’ve needed for Tesla’s fetlock. He searched every tack shop in Florida until he found it for me. Wasn’t that darling of him?”
Cuckolded in valor. The dratted Maxim had won again.
“Anyway, he’ll be home late in the day tomorrow, so you’ll apply it to her leg after supper, will you?”
It hurt to nod. But I did it, for her.
Her hand cupped my cheek. “Such a prince, my Gelden. Whatever would I do without you?”
Just then, the tack room door flew open. Pammie stood there, a look of horror clouding her face. “It’s Tesla. She’s gone!”
Bounder, Pammie’s libidinous lurcher—a great hulking beast with more Irish Wolfhound in him than class—looked up from the Bedlington terrier who had arranged herself so bewitchingly on the rumpled sack of carrots in the feed room. Normally, he would have preferred to take her, this Lambikins or Lambster or whatever fool name Hillary had given this canine goddess, in the barn kitchen next to the radiator—the slate tiles were warmest there, and he happened to know from seeing his reflection in the stainless steel dishwasher that the Austrian crystal chandeliers cast a particularly flattering glow, causing his bicuspids to appear about three shades whiter. That day, however, the kitchen was teeming with boarders, and this particular “Bed” was skittish; she insisted upon privacy. Bounder grinned, panting. It didn’t bother him. Lambikins’ slatternly sisters were far less discriminating.
He watched as a gaggle of overexcited humans—his plump and red-faced mistress, that love-sick stable managing man-child, the ever-glorious Hillary, and a handful of boarders—tore past the feed room door and down the aisle. Torn between the prospect of snuggling into Lambikins’ downy fur, and sinking his teeth into the meaty calf of a possible intruder, Bounder paused, heart pounding, upper lip twitching.
His mistress, Pammie, had appeared genuinely distraught. Panicked, even. The right thing to do, as man’s best friend, was to go after her. Comfort her. Stare up with liquid brown eyes, nuzzle her hand with a sympathetic whine. It was what domesticated dogs did, what they had done for generations, ever since the first forward-thinking wolf exhibited enough charm, enough feigned loyalty, enough potential for bladder-control, as to be invited to vacate his dank, worm-ridden hole in the forest floor and move into the thickly carpeted, brisket-in-the-oven scented, toilet-bowl-brimming-with-drinking-water rich abode of that two-legged, virtually hairless, chairman of the food chain that calls himself “man.”
With a thwack of his tail, he swung the door shut and swaggered toward Lambikins. Who was he to turn his backside upon thousands of years of his ancestral instinct?
Fingers tingling, heart pounding, Pammie stared at the scene in the parking lot and willed herself not to faint. It was like a nightmare. Cops, uniformed and plain clothes, crawled along the pavement, the driveway, the trails leading into the woods. Every so often, a latex-gloved cop plucked a leaf or a piece of fabric from the ground and slipped it into a labeled baggie. Hillary was hysterical, alternating between crying and shouting as she gave her report to the police. Gelden stood by her side, face ashen with shock, running his hands through his hair.
Tesla was gone.
Every trail through the woods, every outbuilding, every gopher hole on the Highgate Manor grounds had been checked for signs of the future equine Olympian. To no avail. And Tesla wasn’t just the hottest rising six-year-old in the country, she was Hillary’s baby. Unable to conceive a child with the illustrious Maxim (Pammie had long believed there would be repercussions, spiritual and physiological, to a man wearing breeches that tight), Hillary had bred her mother’s retired stallion, an international Grand Prix jumper many times over, to a local Dutch broodmare with few accolades but a highly elastic gait. The resulting foal was Hillary’s baby.
No horse on earth was more cherished. Tesla’s feed bucket was scoured with baking soda. Daily. Her corner stall boasted two windows overlooking an apple orchard. Her hooves were oiled each morning and no one but Hillary, not Pammie, not Gelden, not even Maxim, was permitted to comb out Tesla’s most celebrated asset—a sumptuous copper tail that swept, thick and glossy, like the dark velvet curtain at the Old Vic theater, right down to the ground.
The tingling in Pammie’s fingers had stopped, but only because they’d gone completely numb. Her breath was coming in sharp gasps and she was fairly certain she would lose consciousness if she didn’t calm down soon. But calming down was next to impossible.
It was all her fault. Pammie was the one who returned Tesla to her stall after Hillary finished grooming the mare. Pammie shut her eyes and played her actions over and over in her head:
She had taken the horse’s lead shank from Hillary.
Glanced down the aisle to see if Gelden was coming.
Convinced the footsteps were Gelden’s, Pammie had sucked in her stomach and fluffed her mousy hair, fighting to hold back the agitated Tesla—who smelled baby carrots in her feed bucket.
Sighed, releasing her stomach, when she’d realized the footsteps belonged to a boarder—Janine Van Fleet, self-appointed enforcer of non-existent barn rules.
Unclipped Tesla’s lead and watched the mare rush her feed bucket.
Thought about the remains of this morning’s chocolate bar—the one she wrapped in foil and tucked into the center of a rolled-up polo bandage in Hillary’s tack locker.
Worried a mouse might find the chocolate, scare Hillary.
Jogged off to collect the chocolate. It was probably best to just eat it. The last thing Pammie wanted was to encourage rodents into the barn.
The question was…did she latch Tesla’s stall door?
She couldn’t catch her breath now. She needed to compose herself before people saw the sweat beading up on her forehead and started asking questions. She needed to calm down.
She needed her dog. The beloved bony and matted beast who had turned up one day on the barn doorstep half-dead from hunger and full of mites. The darling puppy she secretly wrapped in an old blanket of Tesla’s, hid in her apartment and nursed back to health with an unopened case of Weight Watcher’s milkshakes and a cake-decorating tool.
God, she loved that animal. He’d become her own personal anxiety management system. Turning back into the barn, she whistled softly. Peered into the stalls. “Bounder? Bounder, baby, Mommy needs you!”
No sign of him. Without her canine support system, Pammie knew she was in very real danger of losing consciousness. With sharp gulps of air sounding like hiccups, she scrambled through the door to her apartment and tumbled up the stairs.
By the time she got to the kitchen, sparks of unconsciousness danced like fireflies before her eyes. She fumbled through the junk drawer and pulled out a rumpled paper bag.
Pressing her mouth into it, she bent over and breathed in, out. In, out. Focused on nothing but breathing until she regained feeling in her fingers, toes. As her body relaxed, she wandered into her bedroom and lay down, keeping the bag pressed over her face. Reaching under her pillow, she pulled out her security blanket—the crumpled photo of a man in a tuxedo squinting into the disappearing sun.
He hadn’t known she’d snapped it, not ten seconds after he’d stumbled into her show stall last summer in Santa Barbara. He’d been drunk. Really drunk. Maxim had been declared show champion again, no surprise. There’d been a big party. After dinner, Maxim had stood up, clinked a spoon against his champagne flute and waited. Once the eyes of all sunburned riders and trainers were upon him, once the room was silent but for but the chirping of crickets in the hills behind him, once all eyes, even Gelden’s, were cast his way, Maxim pulled his neglected wife to her feet.
There, in front of the most gifted riders in the world, Maxim asked Hillary to marry him all over again. Gelden, who barely survived their first set of nuptials, died all over again.
When he stumbled into Pammie’s arms an hour later, teary and reeking of brandy, she knew full well she was taking advantage of a broken man. She knew she couldn’t possibly earn the foggiest place in Gelden’s champagne-soaked memory.
None of that mattered. All that mattered was the smell of his skin. The rough texture of his hair. And Pammie’s hope that one day, Blake Gelden would turn away from Hillary and see that Pammie could offer him what he really needed—a solid marriage to a wife who adored him. Her homemade butter tarts with candied pecans and lightly drizzled caramel would be an added bonus.
It had been ten minutes she’d never forget and ten minutes he’d never remember.
Gelden couldn’t have known he was Pammie’s first. She hadn’t said a word. Even in his inebriated state, it would have had the impact of a cold glass of water being sloshed into his face.
Gelden was a good person. A good boss. Certainly, Pammie should be able to go to him now. Explain that she may have inadvertently, stupidly, left the latch to Tesla’s stall undone.
She let the paper bag drop to the floor and sat up.
Tell the truth. It was all she needed to do. Gelden would understand, forgive her and they could, together, set about the task of hunting for Tesla.
She rushed downstairs and back into the barn, searching for Gelden.
Hearing footsteps behind her, she spun around to see Janine Van Fleet marching toward her in breeches, boots and black velvet hardhat. In her right hand is the elbow of Marnie Hoffman, Highgate’s newest and youngest boarder.
“She’s done it again,” said Janine, her nostrils sharpened into tiny triangles.
Pammie peered toward the parking lot, wondering if the police had left. “Janine, this really isn’t a good time…”
Janine puffed out an angry breath. “Marnie groomed her horse in the wash stall and left his droppings right there in the middle” She looked right, left, then leaned closer. Still steaming.”
Marnie yanked her arm away. “I was just putting Easter in his stall…”
“It’s the third time,” said Janine. “That’s three strikes. Tell her, Pammie. Tell her what three strikes means.”
Marnie looked horrified. “It won’t happen again, I swear. Please don’t evict Easter, he loves it here…”
“No one is being evicted,” said Pammie. Her stomach tightened into a ball as she watched Hillary burst into the barn and storm past in a whoosh of despair.
Gelden was next, his face steely with concern. When he saw Pammie, he stopped, rubbed his jaw. This was her chance. Hillary had disappeared into the kitchen. Taking his arm, she guided him away from Janine and Marnie.
“Gelden, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “I want you to find out who’s to blame for Tesla’s escape…” He looked off into the distance and narrowed his eyes, motionless for a moment, before snapping his head back to face her. “…and fire them on the spot."
Wearing nothing but white t-shirt and boxers—burgundy silk festooned with paisley, tiny coiled-up commas tinged with acid green, like rancid shrimp—Maxim waggled his fingers at the brunette under the duvet, padded into the loo and headed straight for the mirror. He leaned over the white tiled counter and stared, a lazy smile creasing his face.
It had been a good morning. Nah, a great morning. A two-hour private lesson with the fabled Icelandic coach, Gud Eggertson, in an outdoor arena warmed only by the Florida sun, followed by a half hour alone in a hotel room with Ritka, Gud’s equally admiring young groom—a big-boned, nimble-fingered girl renowned the world over for her exquisitely braided manes. Ritka’s braids were wound so smooth and so tight they were said to be the equivalent of equine neck lift, making a seventeen-year-old look ten again by coaxing wilting flesh up onto the crest and rounding it into an elegant arch. Riders had been rumored to have slipped Ritka as much as $1000 to sneak out of her hotel room the night before a big show and braid their steed’s manes.
Ritka was young, twenty-five. At 43, around this woman-child, Maxim found himself sucking in his stomach, ducking under peaked caps to avoid the scrutiny of the midday sun. For centuries, certain men of a certain age had sought out younger women. If they rubbed at life hard enough, scoured away the patina of age, was it possible to uncover the glint of glorious youth underneath? That was the hope. But this morning with Ritka, Maxim hadn’t felt young at all. He’d felt ridiculously old.
He ran the cold water, flicking his fingers through the stream until it was so icy it hurt, then bent over to splash his face. With eyes clamped shut, he reached for a hand towel and stood up, scrubbed his face dry. The looped cotton was cheap, scratchy. He supposed one got what one paid for in a common hotel like this—though one would have hoped Gud would sprung for a few more creature comforts for his team. Maxim stared down at the threadbare cotton and paused, bringing the towel closer to his face.
The towel was covered in tiny black hairs.
Instinctively, he dropped it to the counter and scrubbed his face with his hands—was this room crawling with rodents? Ritka didn’t have a pet in her room, what other explanation could there be? He peered closer into the mirror and noticed a dusting of the stubby dark whiskers sprinkled across his shoulders. The horror!
He pulled off his shirt, to find stray hairs on his neck. Could it be…?
Barely daring to breathe, Maxim reached up to run trembling fingers through his trademark mane and closed his eyes, praying he was mistaken. He lowered his hands, terrified to look. Ever since seventh grade, when he’d chosen baldness as the topic for his end-of-term science project and learned hair loss in men was lovingly handed down from generation to generation, like cottages on Lake Rosseau, the horrifying image of his father’s shiny head had refused to vacate his mind. Growing bald had become Maxim’s biggest fear.
He opened his eyes. Sure enough, his damp fingertips were plastered with wavy, black, cruelly exiled hairs.
“Maxim?” Ritka called from the next room. “Are you almost finished? I’d like to use the facilities.”
He stared at the white sink, white counter, white hexagonal tiles on the floor. Dark, spiky hairs mocked him from every surface, as if an entire colony of barn mice had just been waxed. Kicking the door shut with his foot, Maxim called, “I’ll just be a minute!” and mopped up the countertop with the towel, pushing Ritka’s creams and potions out of the way.
“Hurry up,” she pleaded.
Looking for someplace to stash the evidence of the annihilation of his prized pelt, confirmation of his vanishing manhood, Maxim opened the tiny window behind the toilet and let the towel drop five stories down to the bougainvillea garden below. “Almost finished!”
Giving his t-shirt a good shake, he pulled it back on and cursed out loud. He’d scattered hair all over the room—the toilet seat, the floor, the tub.
“You okay, Max?”
“Fine.” He grabbed the rest of the towels, as well as the bath mat, dampened them, got down on his hands and knees and wiped down the rest of the room. It wasn’t that he cared a whit about impressing this girl—quite frankly he’d found her nasal giggle endlessly annoying—but he couldn’t afford any rumors about Maxim Radcliffe’s physicality weakening just then. Not with Olympic trials just a few months away. Many of his competitors were half his age. They were getting harder and harder to beat. He was well aware these youngsters were sniffing around, looking for a chink in Maxim Radcliffe’s façade, the slightest crevice into which they could insert one gleaming, silver spurred boot, step up and take his place in the jumper world.
Maxim’s hairless scalp would give them precisely the psychological edge they’d been looking for. If he allowed them the satisfaction.
He dropped the balled-up towels and bathmat out the window.
Ritka pushed the door open, glanced around and beamed. “You tidied up?” She wrapped her arms around him. “You are the perfect man!”
He nodded, sick from the slap dealt him by his own mortality.
Ritka placed Maxim’s Blackberry in his hand. “The little red light is flashing.”
As she turned on the shower, he left the tiny bathroom, pulled on his clothes and opened his email to find a message from Hillary.
Maxim, come home. Tesla’s gone—
He was halfway out the door when Ritka shrieked, “What happened to the all the towels?”
In the Gelden family it has always been customary to exchange gifts at Easter. Not trifling, treacly artery clogging confections. No foil-wrapped candied poultry ovums or beady-eyed hares made of white chocolate. Such physical prowess as ours was not achieved by stumping one’s body full of glucose, emulsifiers, and carnauba wax.
No, in my family, we've always marked the holiday with Easter Pucks. Small, brownish, elongated bars were molded from a grainy mixture of kamut flour, egg yolks, golden syrup and millet. It is permissible, when necessary, to add a few spoonfuls of water to the paste for improved pliability when mixing. After a night on a wax-paper lined tray in the fridge, the delicious concoctions were ready to eat, or deliver to one’s sweetheart with a hand-written note.
I'd looked forward to Easter all year for a taste of Easter Pucks, but had always believed them to be most loved by the children, who woke up to find piles of sugar dusted protein pucks at the foot of their tiny beds, an offering from the Easter Bunny as he made his tireless trip around the world.
My cousin Justine has always refused to lay pucks on her children’s pristine coverlets, claiming they looked more like barnyard droppings than treats and made her daughters weep. She resorted instead to store-bought chocolate and, as a result, four-year-old Gwendolyn developed a lisp.
I stared down at the Easter Puck I’d placed in a box, sighed, and closed the lid, wrapping it in a silky yellow bow. On a small white card, I wrote,
A tiny treat to soothe your chafed soul.
I toyed with the idea of drawing a small heart next to my signature, but decided against the gesture as Maxim might one day find the card. I hurried to the door with my gift. Maxim was due home tonight and I was determined to spend a few moments with Hillary before he arrived. I’d give her my gift, she’d thank me, I’d tell her we needed to organize a search party for Tesla, she’d thank me again. And so on. It wasn’t as if I was giving her a gold bracelet or a new car, but I thought she would know a heartfelt gesture when she saw it. If she'd ever felt the slightest bit of affection for me, and I was fairly certain she had, this kind of deed might have been enough to prompt her to say so.
After pulling out my aviator sunglasses and my best jacket, a hand-me-down leather bomber from Maxim, I paused in front of the mirror and opened the top drawer of the bureau in the hallway. I pulled out the tattered photo torn from a decades-old copy of People magazine, and held it up to the mirror. Tom Cruise from his Top Gun days, standing before an F-14 Tomcat.
I glanced from Mr. Cruise’s hair to my own, nudging my bangs up and over to one side until they almost resembled his own. There was a time in Mr. Cruise’s career—those golden years between Risky Business and Top Gun, but well before the ill-fated Cocktail—during which I do believe I had a mild crush on the man. Nothing sexual. (I trust, gentle reader, that you are by now sufficiently convinced by my vehement feelings for Hillary that you might allow me this truthful indulgence without passing judgment on my manliness, such as my father did when I walked in on him in the shower and found it hard to stop staring.)
One might refer to it as my coming of age. During my early twenties, I was influenced enough by Mr. Cruise that I flirted with the idea of becoming a fighter pilot. I was turned down, however, due to the Gelden family’s tendency toward motion sickness. Thankfully, I grew to be very much my own man.
Still in front of the mirror, I slipped the photo back into the drawer, put on the aviator sunglasses and flipped up the collar of my jacket. I grinned at my reflection. Not bad for a 34-year-old stable hand who lived above a quarantine barn. I tucked Hillary’s gift under my arm and jogged out the door.
It wasn’t until I reached Hillary’s front stoop and pressed the bell that I realized I desperately needed a breath mint. I searched my pockets and came up empty. Also glaringly absent was the Tom Cruise confidence I’d drummed up moments prior.
Just as I heard footsteps approaching from inside the house, I was grabbed from behind. The attacker’s right arm wrapped around my throat and the fingers of his other hand ground into my head in some half-witted attempt to stun me, no doubt.
My gift box fell to the ground as I struggled to escape. What good was a colon-cleansing holiday puck when its giver was lying dead on the ground beside it? Somehow I managed to duck out of my enemy’s embrace and I spun around to face him, losing my sunglasses in the skirmish.
Tanned, relaxed, fit, he was doubled over in laughter. “You should have seen your ugly mug, Gelden,” Maxim said, his handsome face red with amusement. In his hands was the tub of elusive lotion for Tesla’s fetlock. “You looked like you were being murdered.”
“Hello, Maxim,” I said, angrily reaching for my fallen glasses and crumpled package.
Maxim shook his head. “Thirty-five years old and you still fight like a freaking girl.”
Hillary opened the door, looking resplendent in white jeans and a faded blue sweater, bare feet. She looked past me and my now-ruined hairdo and straight to her husband. “You’re back!” I watched as Maxim took her in his arms.
“Of course I am," he said. "And I have a plan. Tomorrow we begin a careful search for Tesla.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I knew you’d have a plan. I just knew it.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. It wasn’t until this moment that Hillary acknowledged my presence. She pulled away from Maxim and half smiled at me. “Gelden, did you need something.?”
I tucked her gift into my pocket and shook my head. “Nothing that can’t wait. I’ll leave you two kids alone.” I reach up to the back of Maxim’s neck and wipe lipstick off his skin. The lipstick is the color of dark wine. Hillary is wearing soft peach. Shooting my cousin a look of disgust, I add, “You must have a lot of catching up to do.”
If Bounder had thought for a minute, upon being born, that he’d would eventually be found by a lovesick stable girl who would serve his every meal on a disposable tray leftover from a Lean Cuisine meal, he might have crawled back up the birth canal and into his mother’s amniotic sac and hoped for better odds the next time he surfaced.
To be served on refuse was undignified, to say the least. One step up from snacking from the dumpster behind the burger joint on Highway 40 with the foxes and strays and the fox terrier who was rumored to have swallowed a hedgehog and lived to tell the story.
It was no big secret in the human world that feeding your dog from a plastic bowl stripped the pigment from a dog’s snout, turning a glossy black nose a sickly shade of intra-uterine pink. But did Pammie care about her lurcher’s delicate sense of public self?
Bounder padded out of the kitchen, nails clicking on the linoleum floor, and wandered into the 10’x10’ room that made up Pammie's living room, dining room, study, bedroom and guest room, and parked himself across from his master, who was seated on the sofa with her bare feet resting on the coffee table, fully absorbed in reading something Bounder had absolutely no interest in. What did capture his interest was the delectable-looking cinnamon bun next to her left foot. A cinnamon bun she’d be well advised to leave alone.
After two or three well-executed sighs, all of which his mistress ignored, Bounder leaned over on one hip and did what any dog in his position would do…craned his neck around and gave his under tail area a good washing with his tongue. Once assured that his stern was as spotless as his bow, he thumped his great tail against the old carpet a few times and emitted what he thought to be a rather persuasive high-pitched whine.
Pammie was engrossed in some sort of detailed map—hoping to locate Hillary’s missing mare, no doubt. It was all Pammie had thought of since the horse went missing and, quite frankly, Bounder had had enough. He’d been forced to miss out on the parmesan cheese she usually sprinkled on his kibble, his daily grooming and his bedtime biscuits.
He stared at the cinnamon bun, saliva filling his cheeks and threatening to spill out onto the carpet. Shuffling closer to the table, he licked his lips and whined again. Pammie didn’t look up. With one eye on his master, Bounder stretched his neck out and chanced a quick lick.
Delicious. A thin, white glaze of icing laced with a whisper of cinnamon. He licked it again. And again, this time daring to take a slight nibble out of the side of the pastry. Appalling behavior from man’s best friend, he knew. Especially after, erm, cleaning house as he had just moments prior. Really, it wouldn’t be kind to allow the girl to eat the pastry after contaminating it so. Humans were so picky about fecal contamination.
After a few more bites, Bounder heard a metallic click from the front of the apartment and bolted, tearing to the door, barking and scrabbling at the paint, trying, as he did every morning, to burrow through the flimsy wood and burst out onto the porch where he could finally sink his teeth into the milky calf of the mailman and stop the man from his daily taunts. But the mailman came and went and, once again, it was not to be.
Dejected, Bounder loped back to the coffee table to finish off the tainted bun before Pammie got her paws on it and gasped when he saw her stuffing the last of it into her mouth and washing it down with a glass of milk.
Ah well, he thought. A little cross-contamination between roommates had to happen eventually.
Once his mistress disappeared into the barn, Bounder headed off into the woods where he was pleased to find a dead rabbit to roll in. He hurled himself on top of it, rolled onto his back and squirmed around, paws batting the air, until he was certain he’d taken on the scent of a warrior.
Down through the valley he went, sniffing this and that, chasing chipmunks and mice that would morph into elk and wolverines when he repeated the story of his morning adventure later to Lambikins in the tack room. After following a squirrel further into the forest than usual, he was surprised to find himself disoriented. He followed a dark path through a thicket and around the back side of a pond nearly dried up, hoping to find the bridle trail that would lead him back to the barn. Instead, he came to a clearing with a small tidy barn painted navy blue and white. Not much bigger than a child’s playhouse, this outbuilding was one he’d never come across in all his travels—not even while homeless.
He sniffed the flowers and the bushes, the trail through the long grass and the shingles of the barn. Horses had been here, for certain, as well as a German Shepherd—female—and a man who smoked cigars and didn’t believe in baths. Curious now, Bounder lifted himself up on his back legs to peer in the window, but saw nothing but straw bedding inside. Trotting around to the front of the little barn, spotted something hanging from a nail and paused, raising his colorless nose to give it a good sniff. It was the leather halter of a horse.
His shackles rose as his nostrils traveled across the leather. This halter didn’t belong to any horse.
It belonged to Tesla.
“While your leader may have been away when the crime occurred, I’m now back. And rest assured, I have a strategy.” Maxim, wearing a black polo shirt and grey breeches so tight Pammie was certain they’d split before Maxim got off the mounting block and onto his stallion's back, stood across from the boarders and barn staff at the far end of the barn kitchen. He waved a crop toward the white board he’d set up on an easel. Written down the left side of the board were the letters T, E, A, and M. “I thought it important to bring everyone together before I tell you all what we’re going to do about this.”
Gelden, perched on a stool on the other side of the easel, sat up taller. Pammie sighed, entranced by the way his blue t-shirt set off his eyes. “Actually, Maxim,” said Gelden, “I’ve already come up with a plan…”
“TEAM,” Maxim barked, ignoring Gelden. He whacked the crop against the easel so hard it wobbled and Gelden caught it before it crashed over sideways. Maxim rapped the T. “T is for Tesla.” He crossed his arms across his chest and his eyes, apparently weighed down with grave concern, narrowed into slits. “The victim.”
Pammie caught Gelden’s eye and shot him a sardonic smile. The same smile she gave him whenever Maxim said something painfully obvious. Which was quite often. To her delight, Gelden smiled back.
Encouraged, Pammie flipped her hair over one shoulder and grinned again, this time batting her lashes. But Gelden had already turned away. No matter, she thought to herself. That smile could get her through the rest of the morning. Something had to. Ever since feeding Bounder and eating her cinnamon bun at home that morning, she’d been having terrible pains in her stomach and had been forced to jog in and out of the loo. Honestly, if it hadn’t been her fault that Tesla was gone, she’d have begged for the morning off.
“E is for eager,” said Maxim. “I am eager to find Tesla.”
God, the man’s an idiot, she thought to herself. Loves to hear himself speak, whether he has something to say or not. She tried to catch Gelden’s eye again, but he was staring in Hillary’s direction.
Another pain pierced Pammie’s gut.
Janine Van Fleet raised her hand. When Maxim looked her way, she stood up, arms pinned to her sides. “I’m eager too,” she said. “I’m eager to find out who’s been leaving their dirty bridles hanging by the sink in the tack room. Those hooks are for cleaning purposes only. If people keep leaving their filthy tack there, the next person who comes along has to waste time…”
“Those were my bridles, Janine,” said Hillary. “I’ve been a little preoccupied lately.”
“I should say so,” snapped Gelden, incensed for his boss.
“Oh, I don’t blame you, Hillary,” said Janine. “You can’t be expected to follow barn protocol under such circumstances. But maybe one of your stable hands,” she pauses to glare at Pammie, “could spend a little less time grooming her mongrel and a little more time helping out so that we can keep this place operating in such a way that—”
“Thank you, Janine,” said Maxim. “We’ll keep this in mind. Now…back to business. Where was I…?”
“A,” said Janine, on the edge of her seat as if she couldn’t wait to hear what was next. “You were at the letter A.”
Maxim sucked in a deep breath. “Thank you. A is for…A is for…” His face clouded over. Just when Pammie began to worry that the entire beginning of the alphabet had vanished from the man’s consciousness, he spoke. “A is for audaciousity. Because that’s what this thief has. Audaciousity.”
“Audacity,” said Gelden, running his hands through his hair. “The word is audacity.”
Janine grunted. “As in, it takes great audacity to leave your boss’s bridles unwashed in the tack room.”
The pains in Pammie’s stomach grew more insistent. Which may have been the only thing stopping her from tackling Janine and ramming her glossy lips into the Aubusson rug. More abdominal agony. She prayed Maxim would wrap it up soon so she could hit the loo.
“And, last but definitely not least, we come to M. M is for mobilize, which is why we’re here today. We’re going to mobilize this team. I know the police have searched the yard, the woods, but we’re going to search again, under my watchful eye. We’re all going to pair up and spend the next eight hours combing every bit of the Highgate property.” He motions toward the counter, where about twenty paper lunch bags are lined up and waiting. “Lunch and snacks are ready. Once I name the teams, everyone can grab a survival sack and a partner and head out. We’ll meet again at six o’clock to discuss our observations.”
Eight hours in the woods with a partner? She just had to be assigned Gelden. It would be unbelievably perfect. They’d start out on the mossy path to the north of the barn, follow it around the lake until they reached the abandoned cottage. There was a fallen log just outside the cottage, Pammie had seen it a few weeks prior while hacking poor Tesla and had allowed herself to indulge in one quick fantasy. Herself, Gelden, and a bottle of Shiraz, all perched on the log watching Tesla graze in the meadow. At first they’d be shy, unsure of themselves, but after a glass of wine Gelden would loosen up. See Pammie for more than just the co-worker who brought him a hot cup of coffee after the morning feed and start viewing her as the ripe, passionate woman she was going to be.
Once she lost fifteen pounds and stopped chewing her cuticles.
Maxim walked over to his wife and placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling down on her. “I will be partnered with Hillary.”
Gelden dropped his pen.
Pammie couldn’t stand the pain one more second. She leaped up and trotted from the room, disappearing into the safety of the restroom not a moment too soon.
Relieved of her stomach cramps, Pammie raced back into the kitchen, planning to announce her intention to partner with Gelden. The second she jogged into the room, Hillary said, “There she is.” Hillary looped her slender arm through Pammie’s chunky one and led her toward the white board, where Maxim had listed the partnerships. Just as she’d hoped, her name was beside Gelden’s.
“I’m with Gelden?” Pammie squeaked.
“You were,” said Maxim. “But we thought you’d disappeared, so we’ve paired Gelden up with Marnie Hoffman. You get to spend the whole day with Janine Van Fleet.”
Ferns so fresh with spring they nearly glowed iridescent green line the narrow path. If one were to slow long enough to peek beneath the feathery tendrils, he or she would see the delicate white bells of Lily-of-the-Valley and the odd pink Trillium. Trodding through the hard-packed damp earth, Maxim’s rubber Wellie flattened a delicate threesome of crocuses. He paused, raised his hands to his face and thundered out a mighty sneeze. “Damn forest,” he said, pulling out a Kleenex. “My mold allergies are killing me.”
Hillary rubbed his shoulder. “Just know that Tesla appreciates it.” She shivered and pulled her thin cardigan closer to her body. “Poor thing out there all alone. Starving maybe. Or worse…”
Maxim knew what Hillary was thinking, that whoever might have been evil enough to take the valuable mare was not likely scrupulous enough to care for her properly. He sneezed again, this time tripping over a tree root and nearly stumbling to the ground. “Dammit!” he roared. “If I get these breeches muddy…they’re custom made from Germany. I definitely should not be out here scrambling around like one of the stablehands. This might not be allergies at all. I could be catching cold.” He wrapped his cashmere scarf higher up his neck and zipped up his heavy bomber jacket. “I say we go as far as the south end of the pond, then call Gelden and tell him to saddle up Georgie and Baron so we can ride them home.
“Gelden’s out there looking for Tesla,” said Hillary. “We need every willing body we can get to search these woods. And on foot. On horseback it would be too easy to miss something. You said so yourself at our meeting back at the barn.”
“I still don’t know what we’re going to find…”
“But it’s your plan!”
He paused to squirt anti-inflammatory nasal spray into his right nostril. “Can I help if I forgot about the Spring pollen? You know my system is delicate after I’ve been on the road showing.”
“Maybe if you actually slept in your own bed once in a while…”
“Nothing.” She picked her way around a deep puddle. “It’s just that I called you many times in your show trailer at night. And you were only there that one time.”
Not entirely true, thought Maxim. There were many times that pretty little stable girl had come to his trailer. But he’d unplugged the phone. Hillary calling had never crossed his mind. It was the interruption of incessant ringing he’d wanted to avoid. After all, a man of his age had to be careful. Once…romantically tangled with a beautiful young lady, it was imperative to keep his focus lest his mind wander and, ahem, fail at the job at hand. Other than losing his prized mane, having to resort to a little blue pill was one of Maxim’s greatest fears.
“You know I’m a heavy sleeper,” he replied. “Quite frankly I resent your distrust. And your willingness to disturb my sleep at a time when you know I need to be sharp.” He shot her an annoyed glance for effect. It worked like a charm.
“Sorry, love. It’s just that I’ve been so distraught. I’m forgetting things. I’m not sleeping. I haven’t been able to think of much beyond Tesla’s whereabouts, you know? Other people’s needs have taken a back seat.”
“It’s alright. She was your baby.”
Hillary stopped, her bobbed white hair fell forward, pieces sticking to her mouth. She swatted it away. “Was? Why was? Tesla isn’t dead!”
“No, not dead.”
“Hillary, even you have to admit she’s probably long gone. Whoever took her has probably shot her full of tranquilizers and shipped her off to God-knows-where with plans to unload her on the black market…”
Her hand cracked across his cheek. He stared at her, blinking back shock. Unable to speak right away, he rubbed his tender flesh and stepped backward. “What the hell was that?” he roared.
“That’s my girl you’re talking about!”
“What are you mad at me for? I’m not the one selling her on the black market!” he shouted back. She stomped past him in a flurry of tears. “Hillary, wait!” Maxim jogged to catch up with her, his Wellies kept poking him in the back of the knee. It wasn’t until she was rounding the end of the lake that he slipped his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. It was probably wrong to say something like that.”
She wiped her teary face on her sleeve. “It was bloody insensitive.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far—”
She raised her hand again and he held up his hands in defense. “Okay, okay! It was bloody insensitive of me.”
The thin line of her lips melted into a forgiving smile. “You mean it?”
“I do. From this moment forward I’ll be the most sensitive husband in the forest.”
As they made their way around the lake, she made a face, poking him in the ribs.
He laughed. “I’m kidding! The most sensitive husband in the country. The continent. The planet.”
Hillary snuggled into him. “That’s the man I fell in love with.” Rain began to patter on the ferns and bushes by their feet. “Honey, I’m really getting chilled. Be gallant and lend your loving wife your jacket for a bit?”
He reached up to feel his throat. “Sorry, love. But I think my glands are swelling.”
The moment she pulled away to cover her head with her cardigan, he caught sight of an old outbuilding through a gap in the trees. They should probably check it, he thought. Leave no pebble unturned and all that. The rain began to fall harder and a trickle of water ran under his scarf and down the side of his neck. Ah, the outbuilding will still be there in the morning. Right now all he could think about was getting Gelden to bring a load of firewood from the shed and building him a nice cozy fire where he could rest his tender glands. Turning around, he said to his wife. “We’d better take cover before the storm gets too intense.”
She shielded her eyes from the rain and looked around. “I seem to recall an old shack somewhere around here…”
He turned her away from the outbuilding and, taking her elbow, guided her back the way they came. “You must have dreamed it darling. Now what do you say to making your husband a nice cup of cocoa and rubbing his feet in front of a roaring fire?”
Who could have foreseen that Maxim's search party idea would turn out so well? Not so well that we came up with clues about Tesla's whereabouts, not so well that I caught so much as a glimpse of Hillary while combing the forest floor for evidence, but the unusually chilled (and remarkably well-timed) sprinkle of rain that fell mid-afternoon was just enough to thoroughly soak Maxim's cashmere cravat and leave him with laryngitis, rendering the man utterly voiceless.
As a result, the last two days had been gloriously silent. Maxim was home in bed using nothing but an Etch-A-Sketch to communicate with the nurse he nsisted I hire. And really, after allowing his poor wife to race back to the house in a thin t-shirt soaked by rain while he strolled--fully scarfed and jacketed--could Maxim have really expected me to go out of my way to find him a caring, competent nurse?
It hadn't been easy to find a nurse who couldn't read. But given the opportunity, given that my cousin's sole method of communication was the poorly written word, I'd been willing to search from coast to coast to find North America's one and only illiterate nurse, a middle-aged healer from Sierra Leone whose most successful remedies back in the old country consisted of tea steeped in dried snakeskins and wrapping the patient's neck in a paste made from ground flies.
That the nurse was male and completely blind to my cousin's piercing blue eyes only made the situation more delicious.
I rapped on Maxim's door to check on his progress and found him sitting up in bed wrapped in a crocheted afghan, his nose so red it appeared to be lit from within. Steam tumbled skyward from a humidifier on his nightstand and the carpet was littered with balled-up tissues. The moment he saw me he reached for the Etch-A-Sketch and began to twist the tiny dials.
Kotswe, the nurse, limped in carrying a tray. He waited patiently for Maxim to finish his magnetic scribblings before resting Maxim's lunch on his lap. From what I could tell, the meal consisted of steaming green soup and a black muffin that I could only hope contained something found in one of the paddocks.
Maxim thrust the Etch-A-Sketch into my hands and begged me with his eyes to read it. It said:
GET NEW NURSE FEMALE!!
As Kotswe tucked a napkin into Maxim's shirt collar, I smiled sweetly and let the Etch-A-Sketch drop onto the pile of Kleenex on the floor. "I'm sorry, dear cousin," I said as I backed toward the door. "I can't make out what you're saying."
Being teamed up in the forest with Janine Van Fleet had been a disaster of mammoth proportions. Not only had Pammie been forced, as they searched the apple orchard, to listen to a ferocious diatribe about why Highgate Manor should stop using shavings for stall bedding—the coniferous pong brought out Janine’s Christmas tree allergy; but Janine had spun Pammie’s thoughts up into such a tangle that Pammie had actually agreed to change the horses’ turnout schedule so Janine could stay home three mornings a week to man the phones at her father’s business—a hair loss clinic for men.
Later, when Pammie suggested they rest on a fallen log and have a restoring snack, Janine had eyed Pammie’s power bar and made a comment about excess protein being stored in fat cells and wondered aloud whether a girl like Pammie should be eating it at all.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. Ever since walk in the woods, Janine seemed to have gotten it into her head that Pammie was her best friend.
“Pamela…?” There was no mistaking Janine’s nasal voice exoing in the barn aisle.
Pammie, in the middle of filling a bucket with grain, froze. Cursing herself for having left the feed room door ajar, she backed herself over to the wall, shimmied her body behind the door and lowering herself to a squat. She closed her eyes and willed herself to stop breathing. If she could have silenced her heart, she’d have done that, too. Anything to escape another endless tirade in the name of “efficient barn management.”
“Pamela?” Janine’s voice was louder now. She was getting close. “Pamela, where are you?”
Bounder poked his nose into the room and whined, thumping his tail against the wall.
“No,” Pammie hissed. “Go on, Bounder. Good boy, go on home!”
Thump, thump, thump. Then a sharp yip. His nails clicked against the concrete floor and his great flesh-colored nose appeared in the door crack, sniffing excitedly.
“No, boy. Go home!”
“Hey there, Bounder,” crowed Janine, coming through the doorway. “What are you doin—”
Then silence. Feeling as if she might lose her breakfast right there on her paddock boots, Pammie looked up to see Janine staring at her. “Hi, Janine.”
Janine pulled Pammie to her feet. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
Dusting off her breeches, Pammie said, “No, I was just…looking for a mouse.”
“You haven’t gotten a handle on that mouse problem yet? Did you plug up the crack under the sink with steel wool? Because you have to use a lot. Otherwise you’re wasting your time. And you’ve got to keep this feed room cleaner. Didn’t you keep that checklist I gave you?” She reached into her pocket and whipped out a folded paper. “Here’s another. Normally I wouldn’t give you a second copy, but, you know,” she shrugged and placed her hand on Pammie’s shoulder, “you’ve been granted entrance to my inner circle, girlfriend.”
Pammie took a step backward. “Yeah, well. Better get to work.”
“I’ve been thinking,” said Janine, her face shining. “Friends share their innermost secrets, don’t they?”
“I was just thinking, we should each share one secret about ourselves. So we can bond. You start.”
“Maybe later after I get the…”
“Okay! I guess, once when I was small—”
Rising up on her toes, Janine clapped her hands to her mouth and said in one breath, “IhaveacrushonGelden!”
“It’s true" said Janine. "I’m going to ask him if I can cook him a nice meal. Then, after a nice bottle of wine, who knows?”
Could this really be happening? “Janine, you can’t ask him out.”
“Why not? It’s a free world. Isn’t it a free world? Isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Then why not? Is he gay? Don’t tell me he’s gay. Because that’ll really make me cry. Can you imagine? What a waste of a perfectly good crush. I mean, if I thought—”
“You can’t ask him out because, well just because.”
Janine stopped, folded her arms across her chest. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I’ve liked him for so long I can’t remember where my life ended and my feelings for him began. I mean that I’ve never once gone to sleep since without picturing the two of us sitting on a front porch sipping wine and laughing about our day in the barn. I mean that I get up an hour early every morning to help muck out stalls, without pay, to make his morning easier. I mean that I am just plain crazy about…”
A bang, like a gunshot, rang from the hall. Pammie looked up to see Gelden staring at her from the doorway, a bucket of spilled grain at his feet.
“Maxim,” said Pammie.
Swinging his right leg over L'Enfant Terrible’s saddle, Maxim let himself drop to the ground, spraying a cloud of dirt across the previously shiny boots of legendary German trainer, Horst Schmidt, a man known for reducing even the most determined riders to tears of exhaustion in his world-renowned ninety-minute private lessons. Maxim, in his quest to out-jump riders half his age in the upcoming show season, had forked over a princely sum to bring Horst to Highgate Manor for seven days of grueling training.
Already, after his first day of schooling, Maxim had felt an improvement in a lengthening of his legs, a deepening of his seat, an all-over connectedness with his stallion. Horst had been uncharacteristically silent as he took Maxim back to basics schooling him over cavaletti, barking out commands without any sort of positive feedback. He was waiting, thought Maxim, to praise me after the ride. Didn’t want me getting careless during the lesson by gushing, admiring, fawning.
“Terrible ride, Maxim. Your worst ever!” barked Horst as Gelden and Pammie rushed into the arena to start tying up Maxim’s stirrups, loosening L'Enfant’s girth. “So much tension in the hips. It’s like teaching a mannequin. I've seen six-year-olds ride cavaletti with more fluidity!”
Maxim looked at the great man, dumbfounded. “But I…”
“What’s going on with you that you ride with such wooden posture? You’re getting old on me?”
Maxim lifted up one boot at a time to allow Pammie to wipe them down. “I’ve actually had a terrible sore throat. I haven’t been well.”
Horst waved away this excuse. “Ech. You know what such tautness does to your horse’s back? You’re going to cripple this magnificent animal. The rigidity crawls right up your spine, into your shoulders and down to your hands. A rider of your stature should know better than to allow such a flaw to creep into his ride.”
Pammie, throwing a loopy smile in Gelden’s direction, began to brush horse hair from Maxim’s thighs. Concerned about how high her hands might accidentally travel, Maxim swatted her away. These were, after all, unusually clingy breeches and he could not afford for Horst to think his mind was not on the job. Pammie and Gelden stood on either side of L'Enfant’s head, waiting for Maxim’s nod, then headed down the barn aisle with the magnificent beast.
Horst raised a hairy tarantula of an eyebrow and nodded toward Pammie. “Is this robust one the cause of your tight hips?” His rheumy eyes twinkled as he nudged Maxim in the ribs. “She has lovely cheekbones, no?”
Maxim looked back and forth from Pammie’s receding posterior to Horst’s wet lips. “Who, Pammie? God, no.”
“This girl certainly likes you, my married friend.”
Pammie liked him? Maxim tried to think of a time he’d ever felt even a crumb of interest coming from his assistant stable manager, but came up empty. Not that he’d ever paid her much mind. He barely knew her name after three or four years of service. A girl like Pammie didn’t tend to weigh heavy--no pun intended--on Maxim’s laydar.
Horst grunted. “I will give you my yoga tape. This will help you to loosen, soften. You’ll do it before each lesson this week, agreed?”
“Agreed. Thank you, Horst. It was a wonderful lesson. Please tell me you’ll be our guest for dinner at the house tonight. Hillary will whip up her famous duck l'orange. Or maybe salmon? She makes a nice, light fish that is so healthy—”
But the great man had already spun around. “I will come, Maxim. But I refuse to trouble your beautiful wife. A pork chop and a salad without your American pesticides will be fine for me. I’ll bring German wine, you know I drink the sweet stuff.”
Racing through the front door, crop still in hand, Maxim called up the stairs. “Hill? Horst is coming for for dinner! Do you hear me? And you’re not to be pushing your fancy marinated fish on him. Go into town and pick up a few lean pork chops and some organic greens. No, forget the organic. They charge a bloody fortune for that stuff. Pick up the regular lettuce and we’ll tell him it’s organic. Hill? HILLARY?”
Hillary’s face appeared over the banister and she started down the stairs, her delicate face grim. Her hair was pulled back in a red kerchief and she wore a white t-shirt and ripped jeans rolled up to mid-calf. From the streaks of dirt on her forearms and her shirt, it was clear she’d been cleaning.
“Honey,” said Maxim, “do you have to dress like a domestic? Other wives fix themselves up a bit, even when they’re cleaning the house.”
Her eyes flashed with anger. “I suppose you’d be the best source on that--what other women wear in the privacy of their own homes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He reached up and rubbed his throat. “And pick up some Sucrets when you’re out, will you? I’m still a little hoarse.”
“Sure. But before I go, I’d like to ask you a question.” She held something up in the air. Something white, lacy. “What is this bra doing behind the sofa in the front room?”
Maxim sank into the sofa cushions wishing he could be swallowed whole. He hated sitting around in sweaty breeches after a grueling ride. Somewhere, he was certain, he’d read the trapped moisture was hazardous to his reproductive health. Not, God forbid, that he wanted children. Whining, drooling creatures concerned with no one but themselves. A necessary annoyance people only put up with to sustain the human race—without them, there’d be no one to hire in one’s older years.
Hillary had been begging him for one for years. Just one baby, she’d said. I’ll take care of it. You won’t have to lift a finger. Sometimes he thought if he’d given in, he might have bought himself a distraction. After all, what better way to get your wife off your back about certain indiscretions?
Across the room, Hillary sat, staring at him, her fragile face hardened into an angry question. Between them on the coffee table lay the evidence. A strapping, gleaming white brassiere.
“Well?” Hillary asked, her foot tapping against the floor. “Do you have an answer for me? Whose is it?”
The thing was, Maxim didn’t know. There’d been so many women. It could belong to Marta, the cleaning lady. But it looked a little ample to be Marta’s. It could be Rosalee Henderson’s—she’d come by once to drop off a rummage sale flyer for Hillary and wound up staying to…chat. Then there was Hillary’s cousin. He couldn’t be expected to know. They’d been in the house six years. It could belong to almost anyone.
“I have no idea, Hill. But I can assure you I had nothing to do with it me.”
Her mouth flattened into an unconvinced smirk.
Maxim continued, knowing full well he was taking a risk. “Perhaps it is I who should be questioning you…have you been entertaining the neighborhood ladies in a way your husband might find shocking?”
“Don’t be idiotic. Whose is it?”
He stood up and tugged damp breeches from his thighs. “I resent your implications. I’m going to have a shower.
Hillary sat in the den, stared at crushed seat cushion. She’d never been the jealous type. There’d been other clues that Maxim had been unfaithful—a bill from a lingerie store, which he explained sold men’s briefs; lipstick on a collar that allegedly came from his mother; hang-up calls he swore were telemarketers—but Hillary had always sworn she wouldn’t make assumptions about her husband’s faithfulness without cold, hard proof.
Someone knocked at the door and walked in. Janine Van Fleet smiled and held out a sheet of paper. “Gelden said I could find you up at the house.” She waggled the paper. “I’ve been researching alternative soaps for the tack room. I’m not sure if you’re aware or not, Hillary, but most soaps contain an additive called sodium laurel sulph—”
But Hillary had crumpled forward and begun to sob.
Janine dropped the paper and knelt down to comfort Hillary. “I’m sorry. The soap isn’t that bad! I was just thinking of the effects of harsh chemicals on our tack.”
“It’s not that.” Hillary reached for a pillow and wiped her face. She looked at Janine and debated the appropriateness of sharing her “discovered” laundry with a paying boarder. “I’m just at the end of my rope.” Pointing at the bra, she shook her head. “I found this behind the sofa and I’m fairly sure my husband is involved.”
Janine picked it up. “It’s kind of cheap, don’t you think? Look at the construction of these straps.”
“I’m talking about the state of my marriage, Janine. My husband is cheating on me.”
Janine stiffened and sat back on her heels. “Do you know who she is?”
Sobbing again, Hillary shook her head. “No.”
“If I told you I’m pretty sure I know whose bra this is, would you want to know?”
“Even if it meant messing things up even worse around the barn?”
“Yes. Whose is it?”
“What?” Hillary’s jaw dropped. “Pammie from the barn?”
Last updated by Barnmice Admin Jul 26, 2010.