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Worth the Risk(4)

By´╝ÜClaudia Connor



He didn’t know her, not her last name, not where she lived or worked. In a very weird way, that made it feel safe. A public place, she wouldn’t go anywhere else. And she didn’t want to be with her brothers tonight. Didn’t really want to be alone either. Stephen had given her an out. With Luke home on leave, she had one more nosy brother to dodge and now she could do it without lying.

Her palomino, Winnie, blew hot horsey breath in greeting then bumped her shoulder. “Hey now, what did we talk about? You already had your treat for the day.” She gave Winnie’s caramel neck a pat and moved on.

When she’d greeted the four horses in the barn, she went into the tack room, illuminated by a single yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling. She breathed in the smell of old leather and oil as she gathered the special saddle pads and straps she needed for her first student.

“Hannah?”

“Yeah, in here.”

Her assistant, Lexie, came around the corner. There were only seven horses total. Not exactly a farm that required hired hands, but Lexie had always been here, and when the original owners died, she stayed. Stout and sturdy and of undermined age, she helped lift the heavier students into the saddle.

“Hey, girl. I expected you earlier. Everything okay?”

Hannah stared hard at the bridle in her hands. Adjusted the buckle that didn’t need adjusting. “No, um…they had to put Max to sleep.”

“Shit.”

Hannah had to smile at the sentiment even as she blinked back a new wave of tears. “I’m okay. And I’m sorry. He was kind of your dog too.” The previous owners, and closest thing Hannah had ever had to grandparents, had left it all to her. The house, the barn, the land. And the dog. He’d lived with her, slept with her, but everyone loved him. Which meant she’d have to tell the kids at some point.

Hard-edged Lexie sniffed. “He was a damn good dog. Nothing else needs to be said.”

No. There was nothing else to say. The sound of a car door closing signaled it was time to pull it together. With a deep breath she wiped her eyes and went out to greet her first student with a smile. She wouldn’t throw a shadow over this child’s time here. It meant too much. Eighteen months ago, a drunk driver had run Allie’s family van off the road. She’d lost her mother, a baby brother, and her right leg just below the knee. She was six years old.

“Hey, squirt.”

“Hi, Hannah.”

She took Allie from her father’s arms and caught the relief in his eyes. He’d lost so much, and she got the sense he was hanging by a thinner thread than usual. “I have some extra horses that need brushing today. Mind if I put your girl to work when she’s finished?”

Allie’s eyes danced with excitement, her father’s with gratitude. He ran his hand through his hair. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She met his gaze with understanding. “Just make sure you stay gone an extra hour.”

As always, they began Allie’s therapy with grooming. Hannah held out an arm, offering as little assistance as possible as Allie balanced on her new prosthetic. They talked and worked. She’d only known Allie a few months, but she loved her.

When Hazel was ready, Lexie supported Allie in the saddle while Hannah fastened the special straps around the girl’s waist and thighs.

“Okay, girlfriend. You ready to ride?”

“Ready.” Allie sat tall and proud, her eyes bright under the bill of the velvet riding helmet. Her grin was wide enough to reveal a tiny gap from her first lost tooth.

Hannah smiled back. After more surgeries than she could count and years of therapy learning to walk again, she knew that joy firsthand. She understood how riding a horse lifted you up, leveled the playing field, and gave you a borrowed strength. Understood the sense of power and confidence. The freedom and fresh air after the stink and general misery of the PT room.

Using Hazel’s steady gait, they spent an hour strengthening Allie’s core and balance, learning to compensate for the part that wasn’t there anymore. When they were finished, Hannah led them across the lower pasture to a strip of trees. She fingered the lead rope loosely in her hand and waited, giving Allie room to talk if she wanted.

The rhythmic steps of hooves on newborn grass and Hazel’s horsey breath joined the sound of trickling water. Sunlight filtered down as they followed a path along a shallow creek that wound its way around three-quarters of the property. It wasn’t a huge piece of land, nothing fancy, but it was her home, her livelihood, and at one time had been her salvation.

“I think maybe I should cut my hair.”

Hannah glanced up at the dark strands hanging in a long ponytail down her back. “Do you want to cut it?”

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