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Stealing a horse scared her wildly, much more than she'd imagined it wouldwhich must've been at least a hundred times just today.
Nothing was happening as she'd expected. Ariel didn't nicker a greeting and the security lights weren't shining much farther inside than the doorway and, even if they were, sweat was running into her eyes, stinging them so badly she couldn't see. Clea squinted into the narrow cone of light emanating from the tiny flashlight she wore around her neck and then took another step.
She couldn't breathe.And not just because the humidity was niney-nine percent. It was a bold, hard job, this horse-thieving business.
What had Brock been thinking, building a barn with no air-conditioning? She couldn't imagine that, either. People would be saying he was cutting corners, in financial trouble. Brock's image was what drove him.
Clea wiped her eyes with her bare fingertips and moved deeper into the black of the aisle, straining to see the horses, flashing the torch from side to side to check each one as she passed. If only Ariel were a white! Or a palomino or a gray. Pray God she was still here.
If she wasn't, Clea'd probably just break down and cry, after going through all this. She missed Ari like crazy.
More than that, she had to have her back. Somehow, being partners with Ariel was what had given her the guts to finally get the divorce she should've gotten three years ago.
Scared gave way to mad again, in the endless back-and-forth game of emotions playing with her. Suddenly, she wished Brock would catch her. Come on, Brockie. Look out the window and see my little light. Come on down here and tell me I can't take myown horse. Let me practice my new self-defense skills. Hey, Brock!
Something metal fell, clanging like the bells of hell, to the concrete floor.
Clea hit the off switch on her light and slammed her back against a stall wall. She couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't even pray. She just wished to go right through the wall behind her to hide inside with whatever horse was in there. The one kicking the side of the stall. Twice, and then he quit, thank goodness, or he might have lamed himself and it'd have been her fault.
Not to mention that he might draw somebody's attention. Or they all would. The whole population of the barn was stirred up now.
Timewho knew how long?passed until she heard only a few mutterings and rustlings and a couple of thumping buckets from horses hoping that the excitement meant breakfast. The ringing noise must've come from the narrow feed room she'd passed on the way in. Maybe a scoop or a lid. Maybe a rat or a mouse. Or a cat.
Her breathing slowed and she used every intuition she had but she didn't sense another person's presence. Evidently, neither did the horses.
Oddly enough, the scare sort of calmed her down. In a weird, insane way it was as if the worst were over now.
She flashed her little light from stall to stall, found the crooked white star in the black face. Finally.
"Thank God." Clea barely breathed the words but the mare heard and nickered to her. Quietly, as if she knew this had to be a clandestine operation. Clea crossed the aisle in three long steps, reached for the halter hanging from the wire mesh wall with one hand and slipped the door latch free with the other. Inside, quick as thought, she cupped her hand over the mare's muzzle, stroking it for a second, whispering in her ear. Ariel had to beher one true friend.
The pumping adrenaline was making Clea's arms shake but her icy fingers managed to get the halter on and the strap pulled through the buckle. Once she'd led her outAri quiet and cooperating as if they'd planned this escape togetherClea took the time to close and fasten the stall door so that, at first glance in the morning, everything would look normal. Every minute she could buy herself was another mile down the road.
Although, now that she had her mare on a lead in her hand, she could kill anybody who tried to take her away. She had another flash of a fleeting fantasy that that somebody might be Brock and."
Enough foolishness. Get out of here.
The other horses were mostly quiet as she and Ari paraded past them, the mare's shoes clinking on the concrete. The smell of fly spray from the automated system burned her lungs and made her want to cough, but she resisted.
Ari switched her tail and knocked a halter against the wire of the last stall they passed, hard enough to make the buckle clink but that was all. No alarms sounded and no voices yelled and no lights went on anywhere.
Once outside, the sultry Texas night slapped Clea in the face. The noises of buzzing locusts, croaking frogs and, farther away, Interstate 20 announced that the wider world was waiting. It wouldn't be long now.
Clea kept to the shadows until they were through the gate to the pasture, then she tied the lead rope into a makeshift rein, led the mare over to the fancy new polyurethane fence, stepped up on it and mounted. Laughterbitter, terrible, sad, hard laughterbubbled up in her at the vision of Brock's face, if he could see her now.
But she no longer wanted him to see her. It'd just be a big mess, and if he called in law enforcement, she would lose Ari for good.
Wait. Wait till you cross Red River. In Oklahoma you can celebrate.
One smooch and they were going, heading diagonally across the big pasture, taking approximately the same path through the tall grass Clea had come in on. Her legs and seat melted against the warm horseflesh and she felt the first glimmer of peace flow through her. She wanted so much to squeeze Ariel into a lope and fly away with her, but she took a deep breath and made herself fall into the rhythm of the mare's long, reaching walk instead.
It was hot. So hot that even Ariel didn't have it in her to be frisky. Good thing, because Clea didn't dare use the flashlight now, out in the open. Even if she did, the grass made it impossible to see the ground beneath, so she wouldn'twould notjog or lope, no matter how much her nerves screamed that they wanted to. This was enough. Just to be together again.
Tears sprang to her eyes and she leaned forward on the sleek black neck so she could lay her cheek against it.
"you're my gorgeous girl," she said. "Don't get in a hurry and step in a hole now. Nobody'll see us."
She hoped. She tugged at the black do-rag to make sure it covered all of her pale hair.
A mosquito rose from the grass and dived at her, hanging in the air at her cheek, singing in her ear. Clea hunched her shoulder to rub it off so she could keep her hand on the horse. The feel of Ari's warm flesh against her palm comforted her. She wasn't alone anymore.
And Ariel was safe.
I'll sell your precious damned mare down the road, Clea, and I won't be too particular about who buys her. You can bet your selfish little life on that. If you're gone, then so is she. Maybe to the killers.
Brock's voice was in her head, so real she thought she felt his breath on her neck. She shivered.
Her only comfort while she plotted and planned and waited to get Ariel back into her possession had been knowing that he was too greedy to sell a high-dollar horse for a killer price.
Maybe. His need to control consumed him. She'd been living in fear that it might trump greed in the face of all the inconvenience and money Clea was costing him.
The sudden glow of headlights coming around the curve on the county road she was heading for, jerked her back into the present moment and froze her in place on the horse. She could tell by the moonlit silhouette that it was a big pickup truck with lights across the top and along the running boards.
Would the driver see her rig? And then think thieves and stop to investigate? Or call the sheriff? Take her tag number?
She'd done the best she could, but her brand-new truck and trailer pulled up into a ragged bunch of mesquite by the side of the road at three in the morning were not hard to spot. This whole area was slipping fast into urban-sprawl development land and the people who lived in the new McMansions and worked in Dallas usually didn't drive pickup trucks. It must be one of the few farmers or ranchers or horse trainers still holding on in that area. And they were the ones who might get suspicious.
For a minute she wished she hadn't been too worried about scratching the paint on her new vehicles to drive deeper into the brush. But then the truck rolled right on by her hiding place without slowing down; she was safe again.
As safe as she could be while in illegal possession of one of the best hunter-jumpers in the country.
But it wouldn't be long until she was out there on I-20, blended in among the eighteen-wheelers and the RVs, flying north with her darling tucked safely away out of sight calmly, she hopedmunching hay. Just a few more minutes. They were more than halfway to the road.
Clea turned around to look behind her at the looming white house in the distance and the gabled barn behind it. The sight urged her to lope the rest of the way. She fought it down. She'd come too far to mess up now.
After what seemed a whole night's worth of time, they reached the fence that ran along the road.
Clea slid off, untied the lead and reclipped it under Ari's chin, murmuring nonsense to the mare, keeping the trees between them and the road as long as she could. She gave thanks again that along this side of the property was still an old barbed-wire fence with a section held up by a loop of baling wire to make a gate. No lock.
She opened it and the black mare walked right through the gap, waited for the trailer door to swing back and loaded without a bit of trouble.
"If you'll just haul the same way you loaded, we'll do great," Clea said.
She let herself take a second to hug Ariel's neck before she tied her in the slot prepared with the full hay feeder.
"You be good," she said as she fastened the divider securely around Ariel. "Don't give me any trouble and we'll get to our new home a whole lot faster. you'll love it there. It's nice and cool."
Ari grabbed a mouthful of hay and started chomping. Clea closed up the trailer and then went to put the gate back in place.
Excitement was starting to build deep inside her, pushing away fear and anger, coming up hot through the pool of cold sadness. She ran to the driver's door, unlocked it, climbed in, fastened her seat belt and turned the key. She backed out into the blissfully empty road to head for the interstate. Straight south from here, all the way to the access road, then a right turn and it wasn't half a mile to the on-ramp. The northbound on-ramp.
That was the plan.
But to follow the plan she had to drive past the main entrance to Brock's development, Falcon Ridge. Yes, Falcon Ridge, when there wasn't a falcon or a ridge anywhere in sight and hadn't been for a hundred years, if ever.
It might have been the very first or just one of the first, but soon there were bound to be more of these stupid monstrosities springing up like weeds all over the farm- and ranchland of north Texas. She hated them.
And here it was now, looming ahead on her right, somehow reminding her of an enormous medieval castle and its keep somewhere out on a moor in the middle of nowhere. But no, it was a shining new, self-sufficient small town with its own specialty food shops and spa and convenience store selling gasoline. With its very own gym, coffee shop and guarded gate.
With its fake variety of townhouses, one-story houses, two-story houses, houses with yards and houses without. Fake community. Fake closeness. Well, what could be more natural for Brock to build?
The reckless need to defy her ex-husband drove her. Her arms turned the wheel with no direction whatsoever from her brain and she drove in past the gatehouse where the guard sat fast asleep. He didn't even hear the loud purr of her diesel motor.
She followed her instincts on the streets that wound around for no reason and finally found the last one on the north side, where one of the houses backed up on the acreage she'd just crossed and the barn she'd just burgled. A bitter chuckle rang out, loud in the truck. It didn't sound like hers but it must have been.
Her hand ached to hit the horn and summon Brock-the-Builder and his new wife, both of whom belonged here so unequivocablyhe with his fake hair and she with her fake breastsinto the yard or at least to the window so she could wave at them while she drove past. Then, in the morning, when the guys went to feed and discovered Ari was missing, Brock would know who took her.
He would never, ever, in a million years think Clea had done it herself. He might suspect she'd hired someone, but she wanted him to know she hadn't needed to hire to get it done.
She wanted him to know her real spirit was coming back to life. She was stronger now, strong enough to confront him.
But not strong enough to let go of Ariel, now that I just got her. Better be careful.
She slowed more and idled in front of the houseugly fake Southern mansion, with even the proportions of the pillars all wrong. Just as she'd expected. He had a new wife with fake breasts and bad taste.
Clea's foot tapped the accelerator to make the motor growl, a noise she liked to think of as threatening.
Take that, Brock. you'd better not come after my mare. He would, though. She knew him too wellas opposed to her realization, when she'd finally gathered the courage to leave him, that he had never known her at all.
Well, honestly, how could he? She hadn't known herself. She'd been afraid to face her real feelings and afraid to assert her own willwhen it went up against Daddy's or Brock's. Well, no more.
Get out. You have miles and miles and hours and hours to think about this.