Riding for a Fall
Leaning against the door of Diablo's stall, I folded my arms and muttered as I watched Tom Braden make a fool of himself over Jan Reeder. They stood outside the stable, blissfully unaware of my presence. I heard Tom's laughter and saw the glint in his brown eyes. But Jan was all wrong for him. She didn't even like horses, did she?
It hurt to see my best friend -- and business partner -- setting himself up for heartbreak. "He's riding for a fall, Diablo," I said, patting the stallion's neck.
Tom and I had first met as kids. I'd been a scrawny, pig-tailed girl with fancy boots and a kid-sized 10-gallon hat. Riding my stick horse, I galloped across the road that morning. A new family had moved in, and I still remember the excitement I felt when I saw that cute little boy . . . riding a stick horse, dressed in western duds, with a tin star pinned to his vest, and a holster at his hip. Obviously we had much in common.
Country kids. That's what we were, even though we lived in town. We watched old Westerns on Saturday mornings, then acted out the plots, riding our stick horses as we chased outlaws, shooting cap pistols from behind trees, and rounding up imaginary mavericks as we rode the dusty trails.
During our teen years, Tom and I spent time at the stables nearby. He'd saved every cent he'd ever gotten and bought himself a bay gelding. I got my first horse -- a pinto pony -- about a year later. We rode together every afternoon, racing through the fields, playing horseback tag, and performing daredevil rodeo stunts.
Tom turned sixteen a few months ahead of me. You had to be sixteen to work at the stables. I envied Tom and could hardly wait for my own birthday to arrive. Having a horse wasn't cheap. We worked hard to pay for feed, tack, and board. Most of what we earned went for the stable fees Mr. Patterson charged, and he paid us whatever was left over. It wasn't much, but we didn't care.
"Someday I want to own a stable like this," Tom told me once. We were probably close to eighteen at the time.
"Yeah, me too," I replied, pushing my hat back and staring off toward the setting sun. It sounded like an impossible dream, but we swore to make it happen. Someday, Tom would have his stable, and I would work for him. That was our plan.
What happened was even better. A few years later Russ Patterson decided to retire. Russ knew about our dreams, and he knew we would give it our all. He let us buy the place from him. We changed the name to Sundown Stables, and even though it meant working from dawn to dusk, we never once regretted the decision to go for our dreams.
Now, about Tom and Jan . . . if I didn't speak up I'd regret that for the rest of my life. Tom and Jan didn't belong together.
"I won't stand by while you get hurt," I explained as we cleaned up that evening. "She's not your type. Can you imagine her here, mucking out a stall?"
Tom grinned. He leaned against his pitchfork, and mischief danced in his dark eyes. "If I didn't know better, Victoria Hardwick, I'd swear you were jealous."
"That's ridiculous. She's got nothing I want." I turned back to my work, struggling to keep my temper in check. Maybe Jan did have something I wanted, or someone I wanted, that is. For the first time, I realized I cared about Tom as more than a good friend and business partner.
But, after all the years Tom and I had spent together, if we were meant to fall in love it would have happened long ago, wouldn't it?
You've always been too busy to think about love.
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I brushed them away before they could fall. I was a cowgirl. Cowgirls don't cry.
Tom and I stood outside the stable, locking up for the night. "Is Jan picking you up?" I asked. I glanced around but didn't see her little sportster.
"She won't be coming around any more," Tom said. "We finished up our business earlier."
"Business? What are you talking about?" Tom wasn't making any sense.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small gift-wrapped package. "You've got a birthday coming up. I asked Jan to help me choose this for you."
I was speechless.
"I only meant to spend one afternoon with her, but things took a little longer than I expected." He tapped the present. "Then, when you started acting funny, I suspected maybe you were jealous. I guess it was wrong for me to let you think I had any interest in her --"
"You wanted to make me jealous?" I was still holding Tom's unopened gift. "Why?"
"Open it up. I think you'll see."
My fingers fumbled with the ribbons and wrapping. Inside lay a silver charm bracelet. "It's beautiful," I whispered, carefully touching each charm. A horse. A saddle. A tiny barn. A 10-gallon hat. A boot. All the things Tom and I loved, all the things we'd shared.
And a house. I looked up at Tom.
"That one's for our future. At least, that's what I'm hoping. Vic, in one way or another, we've been partners since we were six years old. I think maybe we're meant to be partners for the rest of our lives."
I let the tears come.
"Hey, cowgirls don't cry," Tom teased, lifting my chin and brushing a kiss against my lips.
"They do when they're happy," I told him, throwing my arms around his neck. From inside the stable, I heard Diablo whinny. I was the one riding for a fall now, but the best kind -- the happy, head over heels kind that comes with falling in love.