FREE FRIDAYS: WEEKEND READING—ON US.

Hannah

Chris Keniston

What the hell are you doing up there?”

Not expecting her cousin Connor to be finished with the horses so soon, Hannah Siobhan Farraday almost teetered off the stone pillar at his bark. “Taking in the view.” She gripped the post more tightly. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Like you’re getting ready to dive off my wall and break your neck.”

“Says the man who swung from an oil rig for a living.”

Connor looked over to the crew chief he’d hired to replace the hundred-year-old gate arch with the new stable name. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”

“Running late.” The balding middle-aged man with a rounded gut barely glanced at Connor. “This little lady is helping with set up.”

Somehow Hannah doubted holding the end of a measuring tape constituted set up, but when the guy was bumbling around waiting for his crew, she figured the least she could do was hop up and help hold the flat end of the tape in place. Heaven knew there was no way this guy would be able to hop up onto anything higher than an ant mound. She tipped her head from her cousin to the back of the large truck. “Have you looked?”

Concern fell from Connor’s face as his gaze landed on the massive new arch. A slow, sure grin tipped one side of his mouth skyward and eased across, lifting the other corner up to match. “Sweet.”

“Yeah.” As excited as she was about the new stables, anyone would think she had a stake in it other than family pride. She couldn’t have been more excited about the new stables and the equine program if she’d owned the place. The opportunity to be in on the ground floor and bring change, hope, to people who couldn’t normally have access or afford it was worth walking away from all she’d begun to build in Dallas. Though she’d like to think the reputation she’d begun to build for herself would follow her.

Clipboard in hand, the crew chief scribbled something down and then handed Hannah the metallic casing of the measuring tape. “Here, you grab this end and tell me what you read.” Taking hold of the edge of the tape, he crossed the expanse of the entryway and balanced on the first rung of the ladder against the stone column and set the tape at the midpoint of the support posts. “Whatcha got?”

“Two hundred and sixty four on the nose.”

“Good. Good,” the man muttered to no one in particular.

She’d have thought with a project this size they would have measured and cross-measured a few hundred times already, but one more time wasn’t going to kill anyone. Rolling in the length of the tape, she nodded at the guy and spun about on the narrow wall.

“Here.” Connor moved forward and raised an arm. “Let me help you.”

“I got up here without you. I can get down on my own steam too.” Shimmying around, she toed a ridge of stone and climbed down the wall as easily as she’d scurried up.

Shaking his head, Connor chuckled, his smile still consuming his face. “Don’t know why I bother.”

Hannah leaned in and kissed her cousin on the cheek. Even though the West Texas Farradays and the Hill Country Farradays didn’t live close at all by normal people’s standards, they still spent enough time with each other to consider themselves more like siblings than cousins. “Cause you love me.”

Connor laughed outright. “There is that.”

Kicking up dust as it turned off the main road, the winch truck with the remaining crew pulled up and parked beside the massive ironwork. The gleam in Connor’s eyes had the hairs on Hannah’s arm standing on edge. Her cousin had dreamed of this day most of his life and she could hardly stand the anticipation. Yes, building the arenas and corrals and additional stables for the initial equine therapy program had been a satisfying part of seeing the dream come true, but this—the traditional iron banner—this was the icing on the cake.

The process of lifting an ironwork that weighed several hundred pounds was not quick, or even all that complex, yet Hannah and Connor stood rooted in place, riveted by the slow-moving action. Content to see history in the making. Coming from the direction of town, the stable truck with Catherine, Connor’s wife, pulled up behind them.

Doors slammed and Catherine hurried up to her husband, easily curling in beside him. “I thought I might miss it.”

Connor draped an arm across his wife’s shoulder and pulled her in close. It was really sweet the way her cousins gave their all to the women in their lives. For some, like Adam, it had taken longer than the others, but once a Farraday man found his mate, she got 100 percent of what he had to give. The trick in the next decade or so for Hannah would be finding a man of her own who could live up to her cousins.

“And here we go,” Catherine whispered.

The large piece of art descended over the entry and with a little shuffling by the men on either side, the ends slipped into place and Hannah’s heart leapt as surely as if Capaill Stables was hers.

For a few more minutes the three of them stood just inside the open gates and stared up as the workers completed the task of securing the new name in place.

“Looks pretty good,” Catherine whispered.

“Better than good,” Hannah added.

“Granddad would be pleased,” Catherine said.

Connor dragged his gaze from the old Gaelic name his father had aptly suggested for the ranch, Capaill, and studied his wife’s face. “You think so?”

“I really do.” Catherine beamed. “He loved this place. Took pride in its history and I know deep down, if he were here, he’d be thrilled to see the Brennans and Farradays come together on this land.”

“And that,” Hannah rubbed her hands together, “is my cue to get back to work. I want to take the new Fjord filly for a ride. Seems a bit skittish to me so far. Calls for a nice long visit, just the two of us.”

“You don’t think she’ll be good for therapy?” Catherine asked. The only reason they’d taken on this shorter, stockier breed was for its ability to carry heavier weight and because the height would make it easier for volunteers to lead the horse. The last thing anyone wanted was for the mare to turn out to be a poor fit for the new program.

“We’ll see. Could simply need adjusting to the new environment.” At least that was the story she was sticking to. Finding a good therapy horse was a bit like finding a good man; they might look pretty handsome at first sight, but once you get to know them, they could easily become more of a problem than a prize.

***

There was something to be said for the comfort of plush leather seats in a superior made luxury car. Too bad Dale Johnson couldn’t say the same for the two wheels underneath him. At first, driving out of town, the roar of the engine beneath him and the wind in his face felt fantastic. The sense of freedom had been missing too damn long from his life. The long-forgotten sensations almost made up for the mess he’d gotten himself into. Almost.

Now that he’d been on these never-ending Texas back roads for more hours than he cared to count, he wished he’d bought himself a secondhand car instead of this two-wheeled kickstand that would not require frequent refueling like a car, gas station cameras be damned.

Of course, maybe after a good night’s sleep on a real mattress, caution will win out again. Then again, he was going to need a lot more than a single night’s sleep to put his life back in order—and his back. According to his calculations and the last road sign he’d seen, he should be arriving in Tuckers Bluff in about another hour or so. What he needed now was to get off this machine for at least a few minutes and walk off the numbness taking over the few body parts that didn’t hurt like an SOB. It hadn’t taken long after leaving Dallas to realize he would not be getting away with riding for a hours without stopping. At this point, with every added mile, his back strenuously voted for more rest stops. Too bad he couldn’t plug the heating pad into the engine. Slowing to the side of the road, he came to a stop and gingerly eased his way off the bike. A whole hell of a lot slower than he would have liked, but at least he was moving. Sure beat the alternative.

A swig of cool water went an even longer way to easing the burn in his throat, if not the ache in his back. Careful not to twist, he did his best to stretch the sore muscles and decided walking a few minutes more could only help. Propping one foot up on the nearby fence, he gazed at the horizon laid out before him. It had been one hell of a long time since he’d seen so much of nothing in one place. Focusing on the clear sky as blue as a child’s crayon, he forced himself to think of childhood drawings, the bright blue dress his date wore on prom night—the one he’d worked so hard to talk her out of—and the twinkle in his grandmother’s slate blue eyes while she sang an Irish limerick. Anything not to think of the similarities to the dry, flat and hotter than Hades sandbox.

Some days the Marine Corps seemed so far away, so long ago. Other days, the years spent someplace nobody wanted him to be, certainly not the natives, seemed too close for comfort. Now back in the civilized world—and on occasion he questioned exactly what about modern day urban life constituted civility—hanging onto hope for a better world seemed an awfully damn hard thing to do.

Screwing the cap back on the water, he gave himself a mental kick. Wallowing in his own dang thoughts wasn’t going to make things any better either. Things were what they were. Returning the bottle to his backpack, he took one lingering look at the vastness before him. Time to get moving. Swinging his leg over the seat with a little more agility than when he’d climbed off the new motorcycle, he knocked up the kickstand and started the engine.

Spitting bits of roadside dirt and gravel, the tires gripped the asphalt road. Ready to push every single horsepower to its limits, he leaned forward and that sixth sense that more than once had saved his life pushed him to glance quickly across the road. His heart and his motorcycle skidded to a sudden stop.

The last thing he’d expected to see in the middle of Damn Nowhere West Texas was a horse up on its hind legs, front feet kicking, and a petite beauty sliding off its back—crashing hard on the unforgiving dirt. Flashes of heavy hooves with a thousand pounds of momentum coming down on her was all it took for him to spin around and race across the road. Both in the sandbox and the civilized world, he’d had enough of needless death to last him a lifetime. Enough was enough.