eBook: Unbridled (Part Two), by Tish Cohen

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



Unbridled (Part Two)
by Tish Cohen


Chapter 12

GELDEN

On the Gelden family compound, when a sow forms an unhealthy attachment to a Black Angus, for instance, certain steps must be taken to discourage the eventual union. It isn't difficult to imagine that the resulting offspring would be at risk and it has always been my job to prevent such a physically unbalanced coupling.

Diversionary tactics can--and do--include anything from rubbing the Angus's hocks in uncooked bacon to placing the amorous and misguided sow in isolation during peak times of her cycle.

Which is not to say I would have resorted to such bestial preventative measures in a case like Pammie's, but as her superior I did feel responsible for guiding her away from the predatory clutches of my preening sybarite cousin, Maxim.

When I asked Pammie to meet me at the old Steak Shack on Highway 90 I have to say I had not thought to mention it being a fairly casual dining establishment. Sitting across the laminate booth from her, I gave myself a moment to take in her appearance: strapless red gown (rather too shiny for my taste), full makeup, and hair twisted into bent ringlets. Though a few strands on her left side seem to have missed their turn in the curling iron and lie against her neck, limp and forgotten. Really all that was lacking was a tiara with a few missing jewels.

"You're probably wondering why I asked you here tonight," I said, tucking my napkin into my collar.

Her intake of breath turned into a nervous shudder and when she tried to speak nothing came out. She reached for her wine glass in a movement so abrupt, it would surely have toppled the tiara. After a big swallow, she said, "Yes, Blake."

"I prefer Gelden."

"Sorry."

"You know, Pammie, I've come to think of you as something of a..." I searched for the right word. Sister wouldn't do. Pammie clearly lacked the aquiline nose and the high-functioning metabolism of the Gelden clan. "A special girl."

Her eyes grew so wide I had to look away.

"So I hope you won't mind if I take it upon myself to interfere in your life in a small wa--"

"That's fine!"

"Well. Good," I reached out to give her damp hand a reassuring pat, only to pull mine away again and wipe it on my corduroys. "I think you should think very carefully about whom you attach yourself to. Remember, Pammie, it is the prudent sow who gets the boar."

"Um Gelden?"

"Mm?"

"What's a boar again?"

"A male pig."

She glanced out the window, then smiled.

"You understand what I'm telling you?" I asked. With women, I'd found, it was always best to confirm.

She nodded so fast her ringlets unravelled. "Yes. I do." A huge smile spread across her face to reveal strong white teeth stained with red wine. She really was much smarter than she looked. Pretty even, in the fading light of the setting sun.

"Gelden?"

"Yes?"

"I think tonight is the best night of my life."



Chapter 13

Pammie


Pammie's mother, Marjorie, pulled the silver BMW into traffic, then glanced at her daughter. "You'll have fun, trust me."

"Mum, I'm just not into this kind of thing."

"You might be. Your aunt Cheryl swears by this psychic. Clients come to see Mr. Vladimir from all over the world. He was the one who predicted Uncle Paul would toddle off with the cleaning woman."

"I could have predicted that. Uncle Paul is not exactly known for his discretion. He was caught with Katie's second grade teacher, her fifth grade teacher, her piano teacher and her speech therapist. I think it's pretty fair to say he's a serial womanizer."

"Don't get lippy with your mother, darling." Marjorie glanced down at her daughter's faded khakis. "Have you lost weight? Those pants look a bit floppy on you."

Pammie squeezed her lips between her teeth to stop her burgeoning smile from blinding oncoming traffic. "I have. Actually, I've been too excited to eat ever since I went to dinner with--"

"It doesn't suit you, darling. It comes straight off your upper body and makes you look old before your time." Marjorie sighed dramatically. "Your sister got the good genes, my genes. I'm afraid you inherited Grandma Gert's shape, bless her soul."

She pulled the car into the driveway of a green bungalow small enough to be a Monopoly house. She killed the engine and consults a scrap of paper to see if she had the right address.

Pammie pointed out the blinking neon crystal ball in the front window. "I'm pretty sure we've got the right place, Mum."

"Ah yes. So we do. Let's get inside and work on getting you married off while you're still in your twenties."

Pammie climbed out of the car and followed Marjorie, wading through the weeds growing through the cracked cement walkway. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. I'm in love."

Marjorie spun around.

"He's wonderful. He works at the barn with me. He's my boss."

Marjorie said nothing at first. Just pulled a tube of lipstick out of her purse, swiped it across her lips and batted them together. "Forget him. There's no way on earth you can marry a farmhand while your father is still alive. It could very well kill him." She rapped hard against the dirty aluminum screen door.

"He's a stable manager, Mum."

Hushing her daughter, Marjorie lowered her voice into the hiss of a vacuum. "I'm not paying Mr. Vladimir $135 an hour to help you snare a stable boy. I forbid you to bring this man up."

The door swung open and they stepped inside.

Everything inside the timeworn kitchen was dollhouse miniature. The fridge barely came up to Pammie's knees, the counter surface was no bigger than her upper thigh, the sink would be of no use to her other than to soak her fingertips to get the barn muck out from under her nails--a task she really should undertake after Marjorie dropped her at home later, Pammie thought.

Mr. Vladimir didn't look like a psychic in his stiff indigo Lee overalls, red striped turtleneck and sneakers. He looked like a toddler all set to ride the teeter-totter in the park. "I hope it's alright we left your mother in the next room. I need absolute privacy when I meet my clients."

"Believe me, it's fine," said Pammie.

"She said you wanted to discuss a man you want to marry, a family friend?"

"Absolutely not. I want to talk about a horse."

It was the wrong thing to suggest. Mr. Vladimir's Basset Hound face dropped clear down to his collarbone and drained of all color. "I'm sorry, my dear. But that's not my thing. Nothing kinky. Nothing illegal. It says so right on my flyer."

"No. I've lost a horse. Or she's been taken, I'm not really sure."

A parrot squawked from the next room and Mr. Vladimir turned his head, deepened his voice into a throaty growl and shouted, "Shut your freaking clacker, Goob!" Then he collected himself and smiled as if nothing happened. "You were saying?"

"I was saying, I lost a horse."

"Ahh." He paused to light a cigarette. After exhaling, he said, "Brown with white feet?"

There was a sharp rapping on the wall. Marjorie called, "Are you two okay in there?"

"We're fine, Mum," shouted Pammie, not wanting to muddy up Mr. Vladimir's train of thought.

Mr. Vladimir continued, "Long reddish brown tail?"

Pammie nearly jumped to her feet. Braving the smoke, she leaned forward. "Yes!"

He rubbed his temple with his free hand. "I see her. She's an expensive horse. Someone wants her back very much."

"Yes!"

"You didn't lose her, my dear. Someone took her. A man. Tall, thin, somewhat frail in countenance. Do you happen to know anyone named Gelding? Or Golden?"

Pammie closed her eyes. "Yes."

"He's the one who took the horse."


Chapter 14

MAXIM

It hadn't been an easy week. Hillary locked him out of the bedroom Monday night and he'd been forced to drag a potato-colored paisley duvet down the long hall and sleep on the pull out sofa. If the bar that ran across the center had dug into his back the day he used the bed with the housekeeper, he couldn't remember. Then again, she had kept him rather...busy.

By Friday, with the small of his back paining terribly, he had convinced Hillary that the brassiere belonged to his younger sister, Michaela. Michaela was a fervent follower of trashy celebutante trends and had taken to arriving for family christenings and baby showers with her exposed brassiere straps. By the end of dinner Friday night, Maxim had Hillary apologizing to him for doubting his fidelity.

The way it should be, he thought Monday morning, running his fingers through his hair. Quickly, he brought his fingertips to his face. Sure enough, they were covered in tiny hairs. His heart raced as he stood up and peered in the mirror. There it was - the shiny flesh of his scalp was now fully evident.

He could no longer afford to dither. He pulled out the phone book and flipped to the V section. It was time to call Janine's father. He dialed the number quickly.

"Van der Fleet Center for Hair Loss, how may I help you?"

"I need to see the doctor," said Maxim. "ASAP."

"Is your hair loss age-related?"

Sigh. It all came down to age with women. "As opposed to?"

"Hormones. Illness."

"How soon can I get an appointment?"

"The doctor can see you a month today at 3 pm."

A month? I could be bald by then! I'm coming in tomorrow morning. Tell Dr. Van der Fleet I'm his daughter's coach." He slammed down the phone, proud of himself. He'd stop this aging process if it killed him.

His cell phone rang from his pocket. Which reminded him. Cell signals were full of radiation. Couldn't be good for his...gentlemen.

"Yes?" he said.

"The voice on the other end, a female voice was distraught. More than distraught. "Maxim? It's Ritka."

Gud Eggertson's ravishing young groom. The one known for tight braiding. She couldn't stay away, then again--who could blame her? "Ritka. You miss me already?"

"Miss you? I could kill you, you heartless bull. We need to talk. Tomorrow morning at nine. Meet me at the diner on Highway 77."

"Tomorrow morning?" He reached up to touch what remained of his hairline. "I'm afraid I'm busy.

"Be there, Maxim. And bring a whole lot of ideas because I'm pregnant."


Chapter 15

Bounder

It wasn’t a situation for the faint of heart. When Bounder had arranged for Lammie, luxuriously bouffant and smelling strawberries and cream after her trip to the groomer, to meet him at seven p.m. at the back of the quarantine barn, he’d forgotten his date with her slatternly sister, Lambikins, at the very same time.

Normally it wouldn’t be a terrible predicament—some, in fact, might consider Bounder to be quite the lucky lurcher to have two such adoring females prepared to give up their supper hour for him—but by the time Bounder had realized his blunder, it was too late to redirect Lambikins from their prearranged faraway locale at the far end of the forest.

But as Bounder’s booze-hound father—or, rather, the mangy cur his mother referred to as “Uncle Rover”—used to say, when life gives you dumpster scraps, wolf them down whole before some foaming-at-the-yob alley-rat snakes it right out from under your crusty snout. The mange, according to Bounder’s mother, left Uncle Rover’s muzzle covered in sores.

So Bounder’s plan was this: Ten minutes with Lammie in the barn, nuzzling her under the collar and feigning interest in her haircut, then make some sort of excuse to slip away for a bit and—as they say around the Highgate yard—hoof it up into the woods before Lambikins gets her curls in a twist and takes off for the comfort of home. Ten minutes with this one, then back to the warm barn.

And it very well might have worked if Pammie hadn’t interfered, clipping a leash onto his choke chain and dragging him off down the lane for—Bounder could barely bring himself to form the word in his head—walkies.

He did everything he could to keep his mistress from dragging him toward the quarantine barn—an elephantine task seeing as she was hopelessly besotted with, fairly reeking with desperation for the manchild in the apartment above. Sure enough, Pammie took him along the side of the barn, pausing to peer in the window like a stalker, then all the way to the doors on the far end where she pushed them open and called, “Woo-hoo?”

Gelden didn’t answer. No surprise there. But Lammie peeked her pert little head around the corner, took one look at Bounder chained to his owner and stifled a giggle.

Bounder ducked back, mortified. It was the canine equivalent of having your Mommy swan into the high school in her housecoat to bring your forgotten lunchbox. Three seconds later, Lammie shot out of the barn and down the lane, her tail wagging with all she’d say about him when she got home.

No dog could be expected to endure such a situation. In one fluid motion, Bounder sunk back into this haunches and out of the slip chain. He was free. Pammie looked at him, tried to coax him back to her, but he hightailed it for the woods.

Lambikins was waiting for him. Oh, was she waiting. He was late, his fur was dented unbecomingly at the neck and shoulder, and he’d arrived without the stolen flower he usually brought between his teeth.
As he circled her, wagging and close, nosing her backside with his hopeful nose, she snapped at him and vanished.

His evening of amour was not to be. Bounder sat down and scratched at a tick that was trying to burrow itself into his side, and heard voices in the trees behind him, by the old shed.

“How’s the mare?” asked a man who smelled vaguely of potatoes. “She ready for the journey?”

“It’s a long way to travel,” said the other man. “Especially when she hasn’t been eating.”

“We ain’t bein’ paid to give her therapy,” said the potato man. “We’re being paid to get her out of this country and it ain’t happened yet.”

“A few more weeks,” said the second man. “I’ll have her ready to go then.”


Chapter 16

Maxim

Ritka sat across the table, silently tearing the label from her Pellegrino water and piling the tiny paper coils in a in front of Maxim's dinner plate. Nervous indulgences such as this annoyed him and he ached to swipe the debris onto the floor. Instincts prevented it. He wasn't quite sure what to expect from a twenty something Icelandic groom who claimed to be with child.

Her hair fell over her face like limp noodles and her previously flirting eyes darted around the room as if, at any moment, the diner might be stormed by thieves. Little remained of the confident groom who had tried to braid his chest hairs, except that ripe young body that had gotten him into this trouble in the first place.

"I don't know what to do," she said, twirling her bottle now. "I can't stand for hours on end grooming horses when my belly gets big. Or haul bales of hay. How am I going to support myself?"

"Certainly there are others in the barn who can help you," said Maxim. "And you can still school the horses."

"I can't. There's a history of miscarriage in my family. I'll have to live out the next eight months as if I'm wound up in bubble wrap if I want to keep this baby safe."

Which gave Maxim an idea. "Well, surely if the pregnancy were...interrupted as such, it would solve all your problems, would it not? Wouldn't such a sad incident solve all your problems?"

She sat back and stared at him, appalled. "You think I want to lose this baby? Your baby?"

Maxim choked on his beer. "Well, when you say mine. I still think we have a few things to work out in that regard, wouldn't you say?"

"You think I sleep around, Maxim? That's what you think of me?"

"No. Yes. Maybe."

"You're such an asshole, you know that?"

"Well, I'm just saying. You are quite close to Gud, no?"

She banged the bottle on the table. "He's my boss, Maxim. And he's married--which actually means something to him?"

"But what about others? Did you...entertain anyone else in your hotel room down south?"

"Don't insult me."

Maxim thought he'd try another tactic. Completely fabricated, but he was desperate. "It's just that I've heard things about you. And a man in my position, as you'll probably understand is an easy target for lovely young ladies with problems such as yours."

She was silent a moment. "There was a Spanish rider, but I'm certain it wasn't his."

Bingo. "Maxim slid a card across the table."

"What's this?" she asked.

"It's the phone number to a DNA lab in the city. I'll drive you there as soon as we get the bill."


Chapter 17

Gelden

He stood beside Hillary in Tesla's stall and thought about her question. Was it, indeed, time to accept the fact that Tesla was not coming back? Ever since her disappearance, Gelden had been getting up early, stuffing his pockets with carrots, fluffing the prized mare's bedding, scrubbing her feed bucket and water basin, clearing the cobwebs by her windows and leaving the carrots as a welcome home treat in her bucket.

It seemed to make Hillary happy.

Today, however, something in Hillary had changed. She stood beside him, running her hand along the wall as if caressing the bumper pads of a baby's crib, and sighed. He wasn't at all sure if it was possible, but the woman appeared to have shrunk. Her shoulders were less broad and she barely came up to his chin. Her usually shiny blond hair was unkempt and she had tired black smears under her eyes.

"No," Gelden reassured her. "We'll find her. I'll find her."

She smiled sadly. "If only it were that simple." She dropped a few cubes of sugar into Tesla's bucket and looked back at him. "I keep having these dreadful thoughts..."

"What kind?"

"It's silly. I feel guilty, actually. But I can't help wondering if someone from the barn might have been involved, you know? I mean, surely one of us would have noticed if a stranger walked in here and led her away, don't you think? I was here that morning. So was Pammie, you, Janine and a few other boarders."

"Yes, but surely you don't think any of them were involved."

She peered down the hall to see if anyone was around. Assured they were alone, she leaned closer to him. So close he could smell her spearmint toothpaste. "I have reason to believe Pammie is involved with Maxim."

And so Pammie's secret was out. He'd warned her, tried to redirect her, but to no avail. "I'm sorry you had to find out about that, Hillary. Believe me, I've tried to talk sense into the girl. It's just that Maxim...he's like a drug. Always has been."

She rolls her eyes. "Yes, I was under the influence once myself."

Just as they roll the mare's door shut, Janine rushes into the barn, breathless. "Gelden! Hillary! I think I've just seen Tesla!"


Chapter 18

Pammie

His name is not Gelding or Golden, Pammie thought to herself as she traipsed through the forest trail picking up Bounder’s droppings so Maxim wouldn’t complain his “woods are soiled.” Besides, what kind of psychic had a blinking neon crystal ball in the window of his Monopoly house? And a parrot named Goob? Mr. Vladimir was clearly a scam artist, in spite of his predictions about Uncle Paul and the cleaning woman.

She pushed aside the fronds of a Common Horsetail Fern and scooped up a sizable load. Ever since their dinner at the old Steak Shack on Highway 90—a night she’s officially christened the best night of her life, Gelden had been distant. But it hadn’t deterred her. Her mother always said as soon as a man confesses his feelings to a woman—even one with Grandma Gert’s genes, he becomes terrified, vulnerable.

It was Pammie’s job, as a woman, to assure Gelden his feelings were safe with her. Another thing that was safe with her—should it ever be confirmed by someone other than her mother’s psychic—was Gelden’s involvement in Tesla’s disappearance. If it turned out to have been Gelden’s doing, she could only assume he had good reason. She would do what any self-respecting woman-in-love would do. She’d take the blame for the love of her life.

Looking for a place to dump her plastic baggies of Bounder leavings, Pammie followed the path toward the old shack beyond the property line. She fought her way through thick bushes and climbed over the moss-covered split rail fence and walked toward a green metal garbage can by the shed door. After dumping her malodorous load, curious, she pushed open the door and peered inside.

Nothing but an empty stall and, outside the stall door, a metal desk and chair and a few bags of grain and moldy carrot stubs. Spying a gleaming leather halter on a rusty nail, Pammie crossed the room and picked it up. She didn’t have to read the brass nameplate to know this halter, she recognized the smell instantly—the halter belonged to Tessa!

At that moment, the shed door swung open and Janine walked in, followed by Hillary and the glorious Gelden. Hillary gasped when she saw Pammie.

“Look!” said Pammie. “It’s hers. It’s Tesla’s bridle!”

“Oh my God,” said Janine. “I knew it. You took Tesla!”

Pammie’s eyes met Gelden’s. He stared at her, blinking back something—but what? His love for her? Or his hope that she doesn’t turn him in? He looked so beautiful in the dim light of the filthy, cobweb-covered window. Soft but strong. Brave yet scared.

Slowly, Pammie nodded. “Yes. I did. I took Tesla.”


CHAPTER 19

Maxim

It was impossible to concentrate these days. What with the DNA lab mucking up Ritka's test. Now it was to be another week before he'd hear the result. Not that he didn't know the answer already. Seriously. He'd never been able to get Hillary pregnant. As much as he hated to admit to any sort of physical flaw--Dear God, was baldness not enough?--Maxim was fairly certain he was sterile.

It should make him happy. Sterility was a gift to the philandering male, was it not?

Still. A real man is able to father children.

He hoisted his dirty boots up and onto the barn kitchen table, letting his spurs dig into the wood, and leaned back in his chair, trying to focus on his sandwich. Chicken salad never tasted quite right when Hillary didn't make it.

Where was Hillary, anyway?

Just as he choked back the last bite, he heard a commotion down the hall and got up, wiping crumbs off his hands and letting them drop to the floor for the mice.

Janine was leading Pammie into the barn, closely followed by Gelden and Hillary. "She did it," snapped Janine, nearly giddy with blame. "Pammie has admitted to taking Tesla. She's been keeping her in the shed behind the woods."

Maxim crossed his arms over his still impressive chest and stared. "Pammie. After all these years, after we've treated you like family. This is how you repay us?"

"Come on, Maxim. You know it isn't true," said Gelden. "Pammie, tell him."

"Where is she now?" asked Janine.

Pammie said nothing.

"I agree with Gelden," said Hillary. "I've known this girl too long to believe her capable of this. Besides," she turned to face Pammie. "You adored that mare."

Janine snorted. "Sounds like motive to me."

Gelden reached out and rubbed Pammie's shoulder. "Please don't do this."

Her eyes fluttered shut as she sucked in a quick breath. Still, she said nothing.

Janine pulled out her cell phone. "I'm calling the police. We can't just wait around while Pammie stays mute. We have to find that horse."

Maxim snatched it from her hands and snapped it shut. "No. I'll make the call." Spinning on his heel, he marched down the barn aisle and into his office, where he locked the door behind him. He slid into his desk chair, reached for his address book and flipped to the G section.

There it was--Horst Golden's phone number. Maxim picked up the phone and began to dial.

A man picked up. "Allo?"

"Golden. Where's the mare?"

"She's being held just outside the airport, like we planned."

"Good. I want you to change the flight. We need to get her out of the country this week."

"It'll cost you."

It was too much for Maxim. The hair loss, the tension with Hillary, the outcome of Ritka's test, his growing concerns about his manhood. He roared. "I don't care what it costs, just get rid of that horse!"


Chapter 20:

Bounder

It was known to any dog who had ever trod and widdled upon the hallowed sod of Highgate Manor as "the love shack." An abandoned lair--perhaps once inhabited by those uncouth neanderthals humans referred to as wolves. It consisted of little more than a hole in the ground at the edge of a Bambi-esque thicket, but inside that hole--about one foot beneath the earth's surface-- was air so cool it was nearly liquid, and sumptuous bedding made of straw and fallen leaves and fern fronds. But best of all was a protruding rock that, if Bounder arranged his love-limp body just so, scratched the spot on his back that only Pammie was able to reach.

It was the perfect place to deflower Lammie.

He'd lured her up to the love shack with the promise of a staggeringly beautiful sunset. The weather after dusk promised to be eventful, full of electrical storms, maybe even hail, and the clouds beginning to bubble and surge over the wheat field to the west were already rife with painterly shades of watermelon, pomegranate and plum.

Whoever said Bounder wasn't a cultured lurcher? He was just as capable of appreciating the perfect rose as those crowned "Best in Show" at Westminster. Pampered, simpering Milquetoasts that they were.

Lammie poked her nose out of the lair, the wool on her back slatternly and unkempt from the scratching rock. Bounder averted his eyes so as not to spoil his ardour.

She sashayed up and out of the earth and sat down beside him, staring at the beautiful clouds that, with any luck, would cause the humans some real discomfort. Power outages, hail bucketing down on BMW rooftops, the odd uprooted tree that might shatter a greenhouse. If he could have giggled, he would have.

When Lammie buried her muzzle into his neck he tried not to recoil. Her breath left something to be desired. It had the distinct pong of brewer's yeast.

Which could only mean one thing.

Fleas.

Bounder shifted his weight to the left and tried to think fast. Fleas were the last thing he needed. Vermin like that could destroy a lurcher's romantic reputation quicker than anything else, ticks even.

He couldn't risk it.

Looking over her shoulder, Bounder saw a flash of grey. Someone was moving into the farmhouse nextdoor and from the look of the dog crates they were bringing inside, they had a whole mess of dogs. After the moving men had disappeared inside the gingerbread cottage, a carload of humans pulled up in an SUV and the male of the species opened up the back. A sleek female whippet--in her prime--jumped out of the back and stretched, her tail pointed bewitchingly in Bounder's direction.

Then--could it be Christmas in July?--one by one, four more female whippets leaped out of the vehicle, each one more ravishing than the one the came before her. These beauties were younger, probably the just-teetering-on-maturity daughters of the first bitch.

Bounder licked his lips and backed away from his flea bitten date. With an apologetic nod, he trotted across the field to the home of the glorious whippets to introduce himself.


Chapter 21

Gelden


Gelden woke up shivering. The temperature had dropped significantly overnight and his bedposts, his digital alarm clock, the leather man-jewelry box where he kept his watch (given to him by his paternal grandfather) seemed to be covered in dew. Frankly, considering the drop in mercury, Gelden was surprised it wasn't frost. He climbed out of bed and stretched, as naked as the midnight hour he was born.

Not a single member of the Gelden clan was raised to sleep in anything but the superior flesh they were lucky enough to be born into. As infants, they were not mollycoddled with onesies, receiving blankets, and woolen jumpers. Not during the nightime hours. Great Grandmother on his mother's side believed you raised heartier stock if you forced them to control their own body temperatures from the day they landed on the birthing rug in the homestead kitchen.

In fact, ALL Geldens were raised entirely without diapers. Great Grandmother believed babies were born with complete control of their sphincter muscles and it was Western Society's rampant use of crutches such as diapers that taught wee ones to ignore their own bodily functions.

It was the Gelden preference to carry the undressed infant around with a mixing bowl beneath his hindquarters. And, when household or barnyard duties necessitated the freeing up of one's left hand, the mother simply went about her daily travails keeping a watchful eye on baby, looking for signs of oncoming bodily elimination: fussing, wriggling, or assuming a look of inner concentration. Should the weather have been above freezing and the baby completely naked, Gelden mothers watched for abdominal tension or, in the male offspring, a tensed scrotum.

Gelden had always taken great pride in his babyhood poker face. From the delicate age of about three weeks, he learned to fool his mother into reaching for the mixing bowl unnecessarily...and leaving it on the table when it was time for bodily function. Ah, how he loved to listen to her frantic phone calls to Grandmother Gelden, who always arrived with treats for her scheming new grandson!

Now, Gelden wrapped himself in his bedsheet and hurried around his apartment in the quarantine barn, slamming the windows shut. He was glad the temperature had dropped. It would allow him to wear his freshly bleached white t-shirt topped with his thrift-store aviator jacket. Very Tom Cruise.

When Mr. Cruise first started up with this Katie creature, Gelden had been disappointed in him. Please. Ms. Holmes was practically a child. But over the years, he'd come to respect Tom's selection. Katie had grown into a handsome woman, ultimately whelping a rather sweet-looking pup. Gelden was painfully aware that it was long past time for him to do the same.

Once he was dressed, fed, and watered, Gelden donned his mirrored shades and trotted across the yard to the main barn as if he were jogging across the tarmac to the cockpit of his F-14.

Other than the boost of testosterone afforded by his A-lister attire, it was a morning just like any other: feeding, mucking, sterilizing the aisles, dodging Janine's complaints, and trying to get to the box of fresh muffins in the kitchen before Pammie finished them off.

WIth an armload of soiled polo bandages and saddle pads, Gelden headed off to the laundry room to find the door locked. In his excitement to don today's costume, he'd forgotten his own keys and, since neither Hillary nor Maxim were around, he dropped the laudry in the aisle and poked his nose into Maxim's office--usually off limits to barn staff--in hopes that The Vain One left his own barn keys on his desk.

Maxim's office was a veritable shrine to his own imagined greatness, with photos of him covering nearly every wall surface. Maxim jumping, Maxim standing beside horses with his gut sucked in, Maxim shaking the hands of celebrities and renowned judges from the world over. It was enough to make even the hardiest stomach lurch.

There were the keys atop the desk. As Gelden reached for them, a cryptic note caught his eye. T.E.S. Armour Heights stall 17. Gelden's pulse quickened.

Gelden had known Maxim his whole life. They'd played army man in the woods, played spy games in their grandmother's cellar. Gelden knew Maxim's miniscule brain didn't allow for complicated codes. From the time they were boys, Maxim's secret code had always been to capitalize the first few letters of a word, throwing in a few periods as if it might make his complex system even more impenetrable. For the first time in his life, Gelden was thankful his cousin was an absolute dolt.

Tesla was being held at the Armour Heights barn out by the airport. And that heartless bastard Maxim was involved.

WIth the theme song from Top Gun fairly ringing in his ears, with Maxim's keys in hand, Gelden raced out to the dusty trailer behind the barn, started up the great rattling engine and pulled it into the courtyard. Seeing Pammie shivering as she pushed a wheelbarrow full of dirty stall bedding, Gelden called, "Pamela?"

She dropped the wheelbarrow, squinted into the sun and smiled. "Hey!"

"Get in the truck. I need your help."

Never, not even in the Olympic tapes his sprinter grandfather had shown him over and over as a child, had Gelden seen anyone sprint so fast.


Chapter 22

The truck rattled and banged over the pockmarked road that led to the airport stables. It had been a tough winter, the endless pattern of freezing and thawing had left much of the area’s roadways battered and aged.

Gelden had chosen not to tell Hillary about Tesla’s whereabouts. Not because he felt she didn’t have the right to know, she did. But if he were wrong, if the note had not been about Tesla, if Maxim’s cryptic T.E.S. had stood for something else entirely (take Echinacea supplements or try erectile squats, for instance), it would mean complete devastation for Hillary. Gelden could not bear to see such disappointment. Not on such a beautiful face.

Pammie, sitting in the passenger seat, Tesla’s leather halter and lead shank in hand, had barely said a word. The entire journey she’d sat still, lips pursed, cheeks glowing. Sweet thing, this Pammie, Gelden thought. She really did care—not only about Tesla but about Hillary’s state of mind. As they rumbled along the deserted laneway, he snuck looks at her. Funny, but he’d never noticed how young she looked. With her dark but friendly eyebrows, big eyes, high cheekbones. He reminded Gelden of someone—but whom?

Not someone he knew in real life. No, it wasn’t a girl from school or church or karate class or his junior quinoa farmers summer camp. In fact, it was someone with notoriety. Fame. And, in spite of Pammie’s unfortunate choice of turquoise cut off shorts and yellow t-shirt, the person she resembled was known for her impeccable and edgy sense of fashion.

“Gelden, look out for the squirrel!”

He braked and swerved, narrowly missing the fluffy tailed rodent. Though, secretly, he wouldn’t have minded clipping it. Skinned properly, heavily seasoned, and tossed into a salad, squirrel meat was quite a delicacy in the Gelden family.

Sadly, today’s prey escaped unharmed. “Sorry,” Gelden said. “I don’t know what’s with me today. I’m…distracted.”

She reached over to pat his knee but missed, swiping him on the upper thigh.


Her touch roared through him like an electric shock. He’d never been touched on the thigh—not by the female of the species. It felt…not unlike being hooked by a porcupine quill. In a good way.

They roared past the sign reading “Airport Stables” and parked the truck. No one was around but a Spaniard snoozing on a bench in front of the stables. All the stall doors were closed up tight but one.

It had to be Tesla’s.

As they climbed out of the truck, Gelden motioned to Pammie to stay quiet. They opened the back door and lowered the loading ramp, then sucked in a collective breath and stepped toward the stall.

Tesla heard them. She poked her head—that glorious chestnut head with red forelock and gleaming lightning blaze—out the stall door. Seeing Gelden and Pammie coming toward her she stamped her feet and whinnied in delight.

The old man woke up.

It was at this moment Gelden thanked his ancestors for their superior ability to think on their feet. In one smooth motion, he took the lead shank and halter from Pammie, opened the stall door, slid it over Tesla’s nose and led her out into the sunlight. With a nod toward the man (who looked too shocked to speak), Gelden said, “We’ll bring her back to Maxim in a few minutes.”

So the man said nothing. Just watched, his mouth agape, while Gelden and Pammie, as if out for a leisurely stroll through the country, calmly loaded the mare, got into the truck and pulled away. In his rearview mirror, Gelden watched the fellow stand up and run into the barn office.

Gelden grinned to himself. It was his without a doubt his finest moment. Dare he say it—his Tom Cruise moment.

“We did it!” squealed Pammie. “We got her back. Hillary will be overjoyed. Gelden, you’re a hero!”

He couldn’t speak right away. Yes. It was exactly how he felt. Heroic. As he pulled onto the highway and into the blinding sun, Blake Gelden slid on his aviator shades and smiled at Pammie. “No, Pammie. We did it.”

As she grinned back at him, he realized who she reminded him of.

Mrs. Tom Cruise.

He’d found his Katie Holmes.

He never felt it before, this stirring of his heart. What he’d felt it for Hillary was different. Thinner, and more transparent. But this, this feeling was different entirely. Gelden finally understood what was perhaps his idol’s most famous action of all, Mr. Cruise’s couch jump. For this girl, for Pammie, at this moment, Gelden was willing to jump the couch.


Chapter 23


Hillary placed the phone in its cradle and turned to face Maxim. “Get out of my house,” she said after speaking to Ritka. Apparently Maxim had been having DNA tests. Apparently Maxim had been up to no good with an Icelandic groom. So much “no good” that the rather foul-mouthed Ritka was pregnant.

“You bastard,” she said as he peeked out from behind his Practical Horseman magazine.

“Who was on the phone?”

“It was the mother of your future children, Maxim. Triplets, she said. I hope to hell you enjoy changing diapers because it doesn’t sound like Ritka is into nannies.”

“Triplets?” Maxim’s face drained of color. “Three at one time? Is that even possible without in–vitro?

“It is. And, apparently, it’s possible to conceive triplets when you’re losing your hair!”

He reached up and tugged his bangs over his forehead. “Now that’s not fair, Hillary! You know I’m sensitive about that…”

“And she keeps cats, Maxim. Nineteen of them, she says. You should enjoy Scratchy the most—apparently he adores snowy white breeches.”

“But I’m allergic! And nineteen cats in one house isn’t even legal.” He wiped his brow. “Is it? It surely isn’t ethical.”

She walked across the room, tugged the magazine out of his hand and stuffed it into a plastic bag. “No, it’s not. And what’s also not ethical is you wasting one more minute of my life.” She tossed the bag—stuffed with a few days worth of socks and underwear—onto his lap and handed him the keys to the Dodge Ram pick-up. “You have sixty seconds to vacate before I dial 911 and scream assault.”

“Hill, baby. Don’t do this. We can work this out. We’ve always worked everything out.”

“OUT!”

Maxim stood up, clutched the plastic bag to his chest, and started toward the door. “Seven years of marriage and I’m just cast out like a bum?”

“Sounds about right. Goodbye, Maxim. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

Walking into the barn, Hillary felt lighter. About a hundred and eighty-five pounds lighter, to be exact. Why did it feel so good, being cheated upon? Discovering her husband was about to father three infants and nearly twenty felines?

Confirmation. That’s what it was. Confirmation that everything she’d ever suspected Maxim of, everything he’d denied, everything he’d blamed on Hillary’s overactive imagination, was absolutely true. Her husband was a no-good, two-timing bastard who couldn’t keep his pants on two horseshows running.

And now she was rid of him.

There was no remorse.

No sense of loss.

No wondering about what was to come of her.

Just a glorious sense of peace she hadn’t felt in years. She turned the corner and gasped. There, standing in the cross ties in the center aisle was her baby, with Gelden and Pammie on either side, was her reason for living. Her Tesla.

Hillary broke into a run.

Hours later, with Tesla safely tucked into her stall, Hillary sat, still dazed and confused, in the tack room with Pammie, Gelden, and the red-headed police officer, Nigel, who’d been sent to file the report on Tesla’s return.

“So you say your husband stole your mare?” Nigel asked, pulling a piece of straw from his sock. He’d never been in a barn before, that much was clear from the look of shock on his face when he learned horse’s had shavings for bedding, not a huge, fluffy, fleece-wrapped pillow from L.L.Bean with the animal’s name embroidered on the side. But, in spite of how his nose was running and the rash that was stinging his forearms, Nigel had spent the last sixty minutes helping Hillary comb over every inch of the mare’s body to be certain she was unharmed.

“Soon to be ex,” said Hillary with a sigh. “As soon as is humanly possible.”

“I assume you’ll want to prosecute this ex of yours?” asked Nigel, pulling out a hankie and blowing his nose. “For all he’s put you through.”

Hillary smiled. “You know, with triplets on the way, I think maybe Maxim might be better punished by staying out of jail. By changing diapers, and triple midnight feedings, and baby vomit on his show breeches.” She laughed. “I can’t think of a single thing that would suit Maxim less.”

Nigel laughed, closed his notebook. “Then I guess, as they say, this case is closed.” He looked at Hillary, his ruddy cheeks shiny in the dim light of the barn window. Beside him, Pammie and her stable manager moved closer together and Hillary watched as Gelden took Pammie’s hand in his and winked.

So they’re an item, thought Hillary. The perfect couple, really. She worshipped him the way he deserved to be worshipped. Right down to the way she polished his aviator glasses on the hem of her t-shirt and slid them back onto his nose.

Sweet.

Nigel stuffed his notebook into his breastpocket. “I think my work here is done.” Glancing at Hillary, he said, “Walk me to my cruiser?”

“Of course.” She followed him out into the yard and watched him climb into his car. When he was safely buckled, she said, “So is every case this exciting?”

“No,” he said, blushing furiously. He wiped raspberry cruller crumbs from his pant legs. “Nor are many victims this enchanting.”

Hillary caught her breath, surprised to hear herself giggling like a schoolgirl. She hadn’t felt this way in years.

“Is there any chance I might see you again? Under, perhaps, less dramatic circumstances?”

She felt her cheeks burn. “I’d like that.” Hillary looked up.


In the distance, across the far field, was Bounder, trailing along behind five succulent young whippets, all of whom were in rather speedy retreat. Each and every time Bounder drew near enough to nose one of them from behind, she’d tuck her tail and sprint ahead of her sisters. Finally, just before the group of them reached the Highgate Manor fence line, an enormous male greyhound—teeth bared and his claws drawn—burst out of the underbrush and headed straight for Bounder, heading the poor bedraggled wolfhound into the forest.

Then, as if to be sure Bounder got the message that this greyhound’s girls were not to be trifled with, the monstrous and bony lurcher settled himself on the property line, ran his tongue along his sharpened canines and settled in, like a father with a shotgun, waiting for Bounder to dare to return.

Last updated by Barnmice Admin Jul 26, 2010.

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