Home > Final Stretch (Glen Springs #1)(3)

Final Stretch (Glen Springs #1)(3)
Author: Alison Hendricks

"Robbie says he's on some sort of business trip." Jake glances back at the boy and his voice lowers. "Not sure I believe that, but it's not like I can do much about it. And I didn't want to tell him he couldn't go just because his old man's MIA, you know?"

I nod, then click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. The horses slowly amble closer, used to moving together in the same group. It's a big improvement over how unsocialized most of them were when I took them in.

"I left word with his neighbor; gave him my cell just in case."

I smirk at him. "Just in case we get a rare pocket of reception up in the hills?"

"Stranger things have happened, man. Speaking of… remind me to tell you about my brother later."

My brows lift at that, but Jake isn't forthcoming. He goes to help Robbie and Curt get their horses ready, and I help Julie. She's quiet. Shy. Jake's told me she has trouble opening up around people, and I can definitely relate.

As soon as Gloria comes up and nudges her palm, though, she absolutely lights up, giggling as the mare sniffs and mouths her hand, looking for sweets.

"Pack an apple in your lunch today?" I ask.

She nods. "I was going to give it to her later."

When Julie first started coming here, she only really spoke to Jake. But once Gloria picked her out of the group, she warmed up to me some, too.

"Good. She needs to work for it a little bit," I tease, helping Julie with the saddle after she puts the blanket on. "Remember how to tighten the cinch?"

She nods again, her hand moving along Gloria's side until she nearly reaches her back thigh. She presses in gently, and Gloria lets out the breath she'd been holding. Julie tightens the cinch quickly, just like I taught her.

I can see she wants to climb up in the stirrups already, but she waits. Robbie, Curt, and even Jake wait, too. They know the routine here. Maybe a little too well for my liking.

I go through the line, checking every cinch, every saddle, every halter. I make sure the horses are in good temperament and I nudge them until they lift their feet up so I can check their shoes.

At this point, I trust the kids to do it right. I definitely trust Jake. But if I don't check, I'll obsess about it the entire trip and that won't be fun for anyone. So they wait, and once I give the all-clear, we get settled on our mounts.

"Is that a new horse?" I hear Curt ask as I take my position near the front.

I follow his gaze to a large pasture, already knowing which horse he's referring to. A slim palomino stallion is walking at a leisurely pace, trying to get out of the midday sun.

"He is," I say, resting my hand on the pommel of my saddle, my thighs holding tight. "His name's Apollo. I just got him from an auction last week. He was a racehorse. Is a racehorse," I say, correcting myself. "His leg is giving him trouble, so I'm helping him get back into shape."

Curt's eyes light up at that. "Is he gonna race again?"

"That's the hope."

I dare a glance at Jake. As I expected, he's looking right at me, one brow arched. He doesn't say anything just yet, but I know he'll get around to it sooner rather than later.

We set out through the meadow, following a sloping track that's already well-worn. I lead and Jake brings up the rear, with his three students keeping a slow pace that matches mine. Trying to keep Otto from joining us has been an exercise in futility since I got him, but he’s fitted with a rope lead, just in case there's anything dangerous in the foothills. A snake. A rock. A wayward flower.

The trail is blissfully uneventful, though. We trek over small and medium hills, up to the largest of the set. The top is nearly flat, and that's where we stop so everyone can have lunch. I dismount and let my own horse, Domino, nibble at a patch of dandelions while I unpack my sandwich. A breeze rustles through the tall grass, and as I look out over the fields and meadows below, I'm filled with a sense of peace I'm only ever able to get here.

Some of that peace fades a little as Jake comes up to stand beside me. "New horse, huh?"

"I always planned to rehabilitate racehorses," I tell him, trying to keep the accusatory note out of my voice.

"I know," he says.

And he's one of the only people who knows why, too. He knows exactly how much it means to me, the amount of hurdles I've had to clear just to get to this point, and how many more are waiting down this path.

"Are you going to race him?" he asks tentatively.

"What? No. God, of course not."

Sweat prickles on my brow, and I know it's not all from the sun. A wave of nausea hits me and I have to focus on standing my ground just to keep the shakiness out of my limbs.

Jake lets out a puff of breath. He looks visibly relieved. "Okay. Good. 'Cause I was gonna say…"

My laugh sounds more than a little hollow to my ears. "I bought a racehorse; I haven't lost my mind. Chill."

"Hey, I didn't know," he says, putting his hands up. "Maybe you had a change of heart since we talked about it last."

Heart has nothing to do with it. My heart's still out there on the track. My mind, though…

My mind's a tangled mess that I'm just now starting to sort through.

"Yeah, definitely haven't. It's just… a step in the right direction."

Jake flashes me the smile that would've brought me to my knees when we were rooming together in college. Years of friendship have lessened the effect, but I still appreciate it.

"It's a big step. I'm proud of you, Shane," he says, clapping me on the shoulder. His expression sobers, though, and I tense. "Just… if it ends up being too much, too fast…"

"I know," I tell him.

"You should really have some help out here, anyway. This is a lot for one person to take on. Even you."

"If I need help, I'll ask for it."

Jake was there for me when I was at my worst all those years ago. We fell out of touch and I fell into everything racing had to offer—and everything it demanded of me. Even with that, he still came when I called.

I look back at the kids. Julie is feeding Gloria her apple. Robbie and Curt apparently got a tablet to work up here. Everybody's doing what they should be doing, so that leaves it on me to change the subject.

"So you mentioned your brother earlier?"

Jake gives me the 'are you serious right now?' stare down before he smirks. "Nice segue."

"I try," I say, unwrapping a ham sandwich from aluminum foil.

"He's… gotten into some trouble," Jake says, ruffling a hand through his hair.

I raise a brow at that. "Travis, right? Or do you have some other brother I don't know about?"

He snorts. "Yeah, Travis."

That's… shocking to me. I've never met Travis, despite how long Jake and I have been friends. Jake's dad gave preference to his younger son from the time he was old enough to hold a football, and the two of them were always at a camp or some other training event whenever Jake went home.

But from everything I know, Travis grew up to be the perfect son his dad always wanted him to be. Huge star in the NFL—apparently; I don’t watch much football—wildly rich and successful, popular with women the world over. Everything Jake wasn't.

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