Keeping It In The Middle
An Equestrian Love Story
Copyright 2016 Lyn Denver
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Van raised her chin to the sun, closing her eyes so that all she could see were the shadows of colors dancing. She let out a long sigh as the sun’s radiant heat warmed her face. It was the first day of spring and the first day of spring polo.
The year’s first clients, a group of beginners, would be arriving at Binny’s Acres soon and with them would come a riot of sound and movement. But the quiet hour between the chaos of feeding and training, when the horses were content, was Van’s favorite time of day. She would tilt back in her chair, coffee in hand, and let the sounds and smells of the barn overwhelm her senses. She inhaled the sweet scent of fresh hay, listened to the sound of the boarder horses quietly shifting in their stalls and the huffing pant of the dog that lay beneath her chair, felt the tiny drop in temperature as a shadow suddenly passed over her…
“Here’s today’s list,” Tyler said, bringing her back to reality. His large frame hovered in front of her, blocking out the sun. Tyler was just a hair under six foot four inches and well over two hundred and thirty pounds. In any other equestrian discipline he would have been regarded as huge, but in polo he was just seen as formidable. He had brown hair he kept buzzed too short and bright blue eyes framed with crow’s feet that made him look older than his twenty-six years, a consequence of too much time spent in the sun and smoking.
Van reached for the slip of paper just as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his hoodie’s front pocket. He put one of the deathly things between his lips and sparked it to life in one quick motion.
“Those things will kill you, you know,” Van said with a quick glance. Tyler simply shrugged his shoulders as he inhaled two long drags. He turned his head away, careful to exhale with the wind so that it wouldn’t blow into Van’s face. He knew she hated cigarette smoke. It flared up her asthma like nothing else.
Mike, the owner of Binny’s Acres and head polo instructor, made master lists every morning so that Van and Tyler would know which horses to bring up for the clients, which clients were riding what horse, as well as saddle and bridle assignments. “Lefty, Lindy, Whitey, Red, Red Bar, Messiah… Basically, all the usual suspects,” Van said, nodding her head as she ran a finger down the list.
“He’s put that idiot on Lindy again,” Tyler grumped. He had sucked down the whole cigarette in seemingly seconds and was now stubbing out the remainder in a small dish of sand beside the garbage can.
“Cheryl’s not an idiot. She’s just a beginner.”
“She’s been riding in the novice league for over a year and still can’t put her own bridle on.”
“Yeah, well, if every client could put their own bridle on we wouldn’t have jobs, right?”
Tyler finally cracked a smile and nodded. “True.”
“Besides,” Van said, looking back to the list. “Cheryl is at least good with her hands. Coy’s horses practically get their faces ripped off.”
“Coy’s alright. Can’t ride for shit, but alright,” Tyler said as he turned away, towards the tack room. Van stood, stretched her back and followed him. He was checking that all the bridles they’d need for the morning group were present and accounted for. Tyler and Van were in charge of all the beginner groups, but two trailers for the Pro-Am and 8-Goal practice matches would be leaving in another hour. Controlled chaos was the best way to describe an active polo barn.
“You just like Coy because he tells those gross frat boy stories,” she argued.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“He’s thirty-two years old. There’s a time limit on those kinds of stories.”
“Yeah, yeah. Can you check the boots and pads? And we’re missing bridle fifteen,” he said. “A broken pelham.”
“Use mine. It’s in the trailer,” Van said. Tyler nodded and continued down the line of bridle hooks. Someone had put bridle twenty-one in bridle nineteen’s spot. He switched them back with an tsk and a quick shake of his head. Van opened the various black plastic tubs full of equipment. “Saddle pads here. Front boots here,” she said. Cracking the tubs open at the beginning of the season always released an overwhelming sweaty horse odor. Van would never admit it in public, but she really liked the smell. She sucked in a big whiff, before closing them again.
“Make sure Javier takes the small tub to Pro-Am,” Tyler mumbled over his shoulder. “He only needs eight pads when we use over twenty. It pisses me off when he takes the wrong one.”
“You two fight like an old married couple.”
She heard Tyler snort through his nose in a half laugh. “I thought we were the old married couple.”
“Maybe, but we work well together. You and Javier have too much sexual tension. It’s bad for the work environment,” she teased.
“Haha,” he said. She could hear the smile in his voice.
Tyler and Van had been working together for almost eight years. They met their freshman year at college, during tryouts for the university polo team. By senior year they were co-barn managers and team captains. After graduation, Mike, one of the top polo trainers in the nation, hired them both. They’d been at Binny’s Acres for just over five years. They played polo together, worked together, lived together in the house provided by Mike, and ate together. About the only thing Van and Tyler didn’t do together was sleep.
They’d come close once, during their sophomore year in college at an away tournament held at the University of Connecticut. After a year of not so innocent flirting, he’d finally kissed her. He had breathed into her as their lips touched and softly moved his tongue in and out of her mouth. His hands rooted in her hair, he tilt her face up to him so he could kiss her deeper. He tasted like spun sugar and smelled like leather. She had felt that kiss from her scalp down to the tips of her toes.
The only problem was they’d both been totally wasted drunk at the time and had kissed right in front of Tyler’s then girlfriend and Van’s teammate, Heather. The whole girl’s polo team turned against Van, not passing her the ball a single time during the next day’s match. They lost the game, a qualifier for regionals, which eventually ruined that whole year’s interscholastic season. She couldn’t say that event was the only example discussed when the United States Polo Association put stricter regulations on I/I team member’s alcohol consumption, but it was probably one of the examples. After that tournament, a giant bruise covering his left eye courtesy of Heather, Tyler came to Van and said poetically, “We just can’t shit where we eat.”
For a while it had been hard. She was enormously attracted to him, felt drawn to him as if they were opposite ends of magnets. But, as time passed, she learned to control her body’s reaction until it was almost nonexistent. It was better to keep things professional. They were the perfect team, as long as they didn’t complicate things with kissing and sex. Everything got even easier to handle when they started working for Mike. Working from five a.m. to almost midnight every day during multiple polo seasons didn’t leave much time or energy for relationships anyway.
“Van!” Tyler shouted. She looked up from the saddle racks to find him staring at her with his eyebrows pulled together. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked with a smirk.
She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “Nothing,” she answered.
“You’ve been staring at that saddle for almost ten minutes? I said we needed to start pulling the horses.”
She nodded. “Yeah, of course. I’ll go get the ones in the north pasture.”
She hopped on Valhalla by grabbing the mare’s mane and flipping her right leg neatly over the horse’s back. The horse looked back at Van lazily, her mouth full of bright green spring grass. Valhalla shifted slightly as Van pulled three of the five lead ropes connected to the other horse’s halters over her head. When all the horses were organized, standing roughly side-by-side, Van squeezed her legs and Valhalla ambled forward.
Polo horses were used to being ponied in large groups. To bystanders it looked like some sort of magic, but the truth was the horses were always more cooperative when kept in a herd. They liked staying together. It made them more comfortable. A few stragglers in the field, horses too young or too old to be played regularly, trot behind the group even though they weren’t haltered. A striking grey three-year-old tossed her head and galloped in front, kicking up her heels. “You’ll have your chance to show your stuff soon,” Van shouted to the exuberant filly as she ran away, three more young horses in pursuit. Van hopped off Valhalla and opened the gate, dragging her horses through while carefully blocking out the followers. The horses left in the pasture called out a few times, but then quickly lost interest and started grazing again.
She tied five of the horses to the long silver trailer parked in front of the barn. Valhalla was Van’s personal horse, so she tied her away from the rest, to a fence line west of the barn.
Tyler groaned, grabbing his forehead as he approached with another four horses coming from the west pasture. “What’s the matter?” Van asked.
“Red Bar tossed me straight on my head. I’m seeing stars.”
Van glanced at the inoffensive looking culprit, an old gelding that had already cocked a leg and started napping. “You all right?” she half laughed.
Tyler shook his head. “He put his head straight down between his knees and I completely lawn darted. My vision is wonky.”
Van took the lead ropes from his hands and quickly tied the horses to the trailer, telling Tyler to go sit down for a second. He sat on an old office chair and took off his baseball cap. His eyes were closed when Van came to stand between his spread knees. She put a hand under his chin to tilt his face up to her. “Where are we now?” she asked. It was the first of the Maddocks Questions, the standard concussion protocol.
“Katmandu,” Tyler answered, opening his eyes with a grin.
“Is it before or after lunch?”
“Pretty sure it’s happy hour somewhere.”
“What day of the week is it?”
He shook his head. “I think it’s Saturday, but … I’m honestly not sure and you know that’s not because of a head injury.” He was right. Tyler rarely looked at a calendar. He didn’t need to, because the day’s polo matches and Mike’s lists controlled their whole schedule.
“What’s your horse’s name?”
“Valhalla, if you’ll ever sell her to me.”
Van pinned her eyes. She tried to keep her face serious, despite his answers. “Repeat after me … Ferrari, money, horse, snob, taco.”
One corner of his mouth tipped up into a smile. “What you want, what we need, what you love, what you hate, what you’re thinking about right now.”
Van rolled her eyes and began to back away, but he grabbed her legs and pulled her closer. “You’re not done,” he said with a smirk. “You have to check to make sure I don’t have any nausea, ringing in my ears, or tingling limbs.”
Van raised her brows and smiled. His hands were still on her thighs and the possessive touch was making her skin feel too hot. Any minute the heat would move from her legs up to her face and her cheeks would burn red. “Are your limbs tingling?” she asked, forcing her voice to sound steady and full of sarcasm.
“I think you’ll have to investigate,” he answered, nodding his head slightly. His lips were pinned together in an expression of mock seriousness. His hands were still on her and it wasn’t her imagination that his right thumb was now moving, caressing the back of her thigh nearest her butt with the smallest of strokes. Tyler was a notorious flirt, it was a skill that earned him the lion’s share of tips from the rich female clients in the beginner groups, but rarely did he focus those abilities on Van.
“What are you doing, Ty?” Van asked, her voice a little too husky.
His eyes filled with something indiscernible just as his left thumb started making the same small movements as his right. It felt like he was kindling a fire inside her with those repetitive strokes. The flame licked up and down her spine and was almost to her—
“Good morning!” shouted a happy voice as Cheryl rounded the front of the truck and trailer. The woman’s chubby cheeks blushed when she spotted Van backing quickly away from Tyler. “Oh, I’m—” she muttered.
Tyler stood up, brushing past Van. “On Lindy, your favorite girl,” he said jovially. “And how’s my favorite girl? Winter season was cold and long without you.” Cheryl giggled as he wrapped an arm over her shoulders and turned her toward her leased mare. Seven more cars full of clients pulled in the gate then, two almost colliding together when one braked too hard. So began the chaos.
Van demonstrated the two-point position for the seven hundredth time of the morning. Keeping her toes pointed in toward the horse, she squeezed with even pressure from her mid thigh down through her knee to mid calf, raising her butt out of the saddle. “Then just stand,” she said. She held the position as she watched five beginners, a group consisting of three women and two men, try to imitate her. This batch had just graduated from polo school last fall, which basically meant they could barely hit the ball, but at least knew they were supposed to hit the ball.
“Megan, try not to lean over so much. You don’t want to be as forward as you are when you’re jumping,” Van said. The youngest girl of the group immediately adjusted her position. She was a talented rider and would be a quick study of the game. An older gentleman named Ferdinand that barely spoke English, smiled and grinned as he wobbled over his saddle, while the second man locked into position fairly quickly.
“That’s good, John,” Van commented.
He smiled devilishly at her and winked. “Thank you, Savannah.” His voice was deep and strong. It reverberated through Van like the kick of a sound system’s subwoofer on a bass note, fluttering her stomach. He was undeniably handsome in that very posh sort of way. He had dark brown eyes, short brown hair, prominent cheekbones and a sharp jaw. He was good-looking even covered in horsehair and sweat. Cleaned up and in a suit, he was probably gorgeous.
“Van,” she said. “You can call me Van. Mike lists me as ‘Savannah’ on the group emails, but my name is Van.”
John smiled again. “I think I’ll still call you Savannah.”
“Well then I won’t answer, because my name is Van.”
John smirked. “Yes ma’am … Van.”
The three women in the group were turning their heads between John and Van, following the conversation with wide eyes and smirks pasted on their faces. One, a cherub faced thirty-year-old woman named Maggie, tittered. Van sucked in a breath and nodded at John who was still holding his two-point position proficiently. “Since you’re such a quick study, you can go work with Tyler,” she said flicking her chin to Tyler across the field. His group was working on their offside forehands at a walk by taking their nearside foot out of their stirrup. “Megan, you go too.”
The young girl nodded, quickly turning her horse and picking up an easy canter toward Tyler. John stayed still. Van raised her eyebrows. “Go, John.”
“I much prefer you as a teacher, Van.”
“It doesn’t matter who you prefer. I’m telling you to change groups,” Van said. She was about to lose her patience.
John smiled as he sat down in the saddle and slowly turned his horse, a gangly off-the-track Thoroughbred named Marty, away from the group. “So bossy,” he said. “I like that.” He smiled over his shoulder at Van, causing Maggie to giggle again.
After another half hour of running drills, Van and Tyler divided the group into teams of four for a few practice chukkers. “You’re not in polo school anymore,” Tyler said. “Which means me and Van won’t help you. We’ll follow behind, call fouls, and keep the play moving forward only if it really bogs down. Megan, Ferdinand, John, Maggie … team blue with Van. Coy, Cheryl, Lisa, Renee … you’re on team white with me. Make a plan. Try and stick with it.”
The teams separated and huddled together for a moment, Van and Tyler standing in the middle waiting patiently. You could hear Coy’s voice above all the others. He could be a decent player, but overrode constantly, riding too fast and reckless, and missed the ball pretty often. He was also hard on the horses, a trait that automatically put him in Van’s bad graces. He was as big as Tyler, but where Ty carried his weight evenly by riding balanced, Coy flopped around like a sack of cement. She always made sure he had the thickest riser pad under his saddle to protect the horse’s spine.
“Alright, let’s play!” Tyler shouted. He leaned out of his saddle and pushed the oversized ball toward the middle of the field. The novice groups played with an inflated ball, basically a tiny soccer ball, rather than the smaller regulation-sized hard ball made of plastic. Beginners often pegged each other, and the horses, so the soft ball kept everybody safer.
The teams lined up opposite and parallel from each other, horses head to tail, facing the referee for the bowl-in, the start of the game. Van stood behind her four players. Maggie was standing in the number one position, normally a very offensive position, but also one that would get her out of the way quickly. As one of the weakest riders of the group, it was probably a good place for her. Megan was riding the number two position, the toughest position on the field and one usually reserved for the best rider. Number two players were the “Jack Russell terriers of polo,” bouncing between offensive and defensive plays as needed. John was playing number three, the power position. Number three players were basically the quarterbacks. Van felt sure he gave himself that title. Ferdinand was playing number four. It was a good position for the older gentleman who couldn’t ride quickly, but could hit the ball to the moon and back, a consequence of almost four decades of playing professional golf.
Tyler’s team was lined up Coy, Renee, Lisa and Cheryl. Coy and Cheryl had the most experience of the entire group, having played for at least one more season than the others. Coy knew enough to know he should have been riding number three or four, but the man always wanted to charge to the front. Likewise, Cheryl would have done better playing as a forward. She had good horsemanship, but a weak arm that would never carry the ball down the field. Her timidity was as big a stumbling block as Coy’s ego.
Tyler pulled back his arm and shouted, “Ready!” before tossing the ball between the team lines. Predictably, Megan had the first hit, knocking the ball deftly through the legs of Renee’s horse and carrying it down the field towards the goal. Coy charged ahead, practically knocking Renee, his own teammate, out of the saddle and reached for Megan’s mallet, attempting to hook it with his own so she would miss the ball. It took him three tries, but finally he managed the task and the ball was left behind. Fortunately, John slipped in behind them and made a beautiful clean shot straight into the goalmouth. “Well done, blue team!” Tyler shouted, cantering ahead of the group. He slowed and maneuvered the ball to the left of the goal. “Miss Maggie, come over here and knock it in. Play!”
Blue team scored five points to white team’s three and, judging by the smiles on their faces, you would have thought they’d just won the U.S. Open, the most prestigious polo tournament in America, rather than a few practice chukkers. Van loved the sound of the clients chattering about plays at the end of practices. It reminded her of how glorious this game was and how it brought complete strangers together, bonded them through sport.
“Good job, everybody,” Tyler shouted as they made their way off the field. “Leave the balls. We’ve got another group this afternoon.” He rode beside Van, their knees bumping together, as he scooped a stray ball off the field and started bouncing it on the end of his mallet. His mouth was slack with concentration as he counted under his breath. Van knew he had been trying in vain to bounce the ball fifty times without letting it touch the ground.
“Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one—”
Van reached her arm behind him, pressing her chest to his back and with a quick flick of her wrist, knocked his mallet down and stole the ball with her own. “Twenty-two, twenty-three,” she said, bouncing the ball.
“How the hell do you do that?” he asked with a laugh. He leaned forward in the saddle, getting out of her way, so she could perform the trick a little easier.
“Same way you do, boss,” she said with a sly grin.
“I can’t steal it from you, though. I can only pick it up.”
“Well, I guess I’m better with your balls than you are,” she laughed. With a harder hit she bounced the ball high in the air. Standing in her stirrups to get more leverage, she twisted and knocked the ball forward as it descended, sending it some hundred yards ahead. The clients looked back with wide eyes as the ball whizzed past them.
“Now you’re just showing off for your lover boy, up there,” Tyler said. She was still leaned across his horse’s rump and she could smell him when he turned to speak to her. Tyler never wore cologne. The scent was just … him. She moved away, adjusting her saddle with a quick twist of her legs before sitting back down.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“John the douchebag,” Tyler grunted, tipping his chin at John’s lean figure. John was as tall as Tyler, but thinner. He was built more like a svelte sports car, while Tyler was a Mack truck.
“He’s not a douchebag,” Van said with a snort. “He’s probably just rich and entitled. They almost all are. How many rich daddy’s girls have you slept with during their “slumming it with the stable boy” phase?”
Tyler reached over and pulled Valhalla’s reins, jerking the horse to a stop. “You’re going to sleep with him?” he asked, his nose wrinkling up as if he were disgusted.
Van looked at him and snorted through her nose, smiling. She checked the progress of the clients to make sure they were well out of hearing range. “What are you talking about? I never said that. Geez, Ty.” A stray laugh escaped her.
“He came up to me earlier and asked if we were together. When I said no, he smirked like an asshole and leered at you like some kind of a stalker.”
Van cocked her head to one side. “Leered at me, Ty?”
“Leered,” Tyler said, completely serious. “You know these assholes just want to take advantage of you.”
Van leaned forward and put a hand on Tyler’s thigh. He was wearing jeans covered with leather chaps, but she still felt him tense. “And how many of these assholes have I ever let take advantage of me?” Tyler grit his teeth and looked away. Van studied him carefully. Something was off about him today. “You sure you don’t have a concussion?” she asked lightly. “Since when are you Tarzan, protecting my virtue and honor?”
The clients were beginning to hover aimlessly around the trailer. Van could already see one horse, Whitey, wandering toward the grass with all his gear half attached. Tyler was looking stonily ahead. “You know since when,” he said in a half whisper, still not looking at her.
Van sucked in a breath as the memory of a pair of startling green eyes behind a two thousand dollar pair of Maybach sunglasses winked at her. She shook the image away, along with the queasy feeling building in her gut. “That was two years ago, Ty, and it won’t happen again.” Before he could say anything in response she pushed Valhalla into a quick walk toward the barn.
After the clients left and they put some of the horses back in their respective pastures and pulled others out to stand at the trailer, Tyler and Van grabbed a quick lunch atop one of the plastic tubs full of protective leg boots. Samson, Mike’s fifteen-pound cat that supposedly ate mice but preferred beef burritos, was currently occupying the sole chair at the barn.
Pablo, one of the younger grooms, had brought dozens of tamales for today’s meal. His madre cooked the delicacies. The rectangles of mystery meat baked in corn meal were about the yummiest things Van had every tasted. The barn dogs sat patiently, staring without blinking, hoping for a few scraps of food. Van supposed eating surrounded by animals, flies, and horse manure could be called gross, but she loved it. Polo was a way of life, her way of life.
Tyler leaned back against the stall front, rubbing his stomach contentedly. His side pushed into Van’s and neither of them moved away. They were so accustomed to physical contact with each other that only rarely did it feel awkward. Living together, hauling horses across the country together for days at a time, and sleeping in the same horse trailer living quarters for weeks at a time had a way of breaking down the barriers of normal male/female propriety.
“I just don’t want to see you like that again,” Tyler suddenly blurted. Van had to think a moment to understand what he was even talking about. When she did, she moved slightly away, breaking contact.
“You won’t,” she grunted, tossing the last tamale to the dogs. They scrambled and growled at each other, fighting for scraps. “Stop it!” she snarled at the animals. They immediately cowered and wagged their tails at her and each other.
“When that asshole hit you right in front of me that night … I thought I was going to kill him, Van. I thought I was going to murder that son of a bitch and spend the rest of my life in jail because of it.”
“Luckily,” she said, turning to stare at him. He was gritting his teeth, his whole jaw straining from the effort. “I can take care of myself. I broke his nose and he was hauled away by the police.”
“Only for Daddy to bail him out a few hours later. No charges were filed and that asshole is the patron of a 20-goal team playing in Florida right now.”
“His dad is the patron of a 20-goal team. Christian’s name just happens to be on the paperwork,” Van said. She couldn’t keep the disgust out of her voice. “Chris has never worked an honest day in his whole life.”
“Asshole,” Tyler said. Van nodded in agreement. They sat there quietly for a moment. Bondo, Tyler’s red heeler, jogged forward with a tennis ball in his mouth, shoving it between Tyler’s boots, begging to be played with. Tyler picked up the ball and hurled it toward the arena, the dog sprinting in pursuit. After six more throws, he finally spoke. “I can’t watch you go through that again.”
Van laid a hand on his forearm, stopping him from throwing Bondo’s ball. He turned to look at her and she smiled softly. “You’re not my big brother or my dad, Ty. It’s not your job to protect me from all the evil penises of the world.”
“I can try,” he said, unable to stifle the smile blooming in the center of his right cheek and spreading to that same corner of his mouth. “Evil penises?” he asked.
“Maniacal cocks,” she said. “Diabolical dicks. They are everywhere, Ty.” She opened her eyes wide and spread her arms for emphasis. “Everywhere.”
He shook his head and laughed as he stood. “Glad to see that English Lit degree is being used, Van,” he said, just as the first car of the next group of rider pulled down the driveway.
The second group was easier than the first. They were playing at the 2-goal level, so they had the basic rules of the game down and generally could control their mounts. They tended to be less friendly to each other, though, as if the increase in league fee prices was indirectly proportionate to camaraderie.
At the end of practice, Van was hitting stray balls toward the barn to be put up for the night while Tyler discussed the mechanics of an offside neck shot with a woman named Sally. She was in her mid-twenties and strikingly gorgeous with dark auburn hair, hazel eyes and pale skin. She always dressed to the nines, wearing all the most chic -- and expensive -- polo gear and clothing. This year she was donning brand new boots in the dark leather that was becoming so fashionable in Wellington. Van looked to her own worn out boots, the soles practically falling off, and same leather chaps she'd worn since high school. She fingered her curly brown hair that always looked a little too worse for the wear after a long day of polo.
Sally laughed suddenly, her whole head tilting back as if Tyler had said the funniest thing on the planet. She touched his hand. Van leaned over and hit one of the balls hard, shooting skillfully between their horses. Sally jerked back aghast, while Tyler only raised an eyebrow and smirked. He reined his horse to a stop, sending Sally ahead.
“What was that about?” he asked as Van rode closer.
She shook her head. “Just putting the balls up.”
He raised his eyebrow even higher. “You almost put one in Sally’s spine.”
“Please,” Van said under her breath. “If I wanted to hit Sally in the spine with a ball, you know I wouldn’t miss.”
“Do you want to hit Sally in the spine with a ball?” he asked, still smirking.
“Oh, look at these new two thousand dollar boots I just got from Argentina! I just had to have them! Oh, look at this new helmet I got! It has all the latest carbon fiber technologies!” Van said in a singsong voice, mocking Sally. “Like any of that crap can make her hit any better. Megan from this morning could already beat her.”
Van looked up to find Tyler just staring. He was smiling softly with his brows pulled together. “What?” she asked.
He shook his head. “We’re a mess,” was all he said in response as he turned his horse, a young bay gelding named Midget, and trot ahead.
After the 2-goal clients left for the day, Van and Tyler turned out horses, checked on the stalled horses, gave the skinny horses grain, bandaged the hurt horses, refilled all the water troughs and tossed roughly two thousand pounds worth of Alfalfa hay into the pastures for the herd’s evening meal. Afterwards, they grabbed a bag full of tacos from the nearest gas station for dinner and drove to their shabby home five miles away.
On their front porch, Van’s cell phone started ringing. She dragged it out of her back pocket reluctantly. Van received calls from only two people: Mike and Tyler. It wasn’t Tyler calling, seeing as how he was standing right next to her, shoulder to shoulder, as they pushed through their front door that always stuck in the frame, and a call from Mike past ten p.m. was never good news.
The screen showed an unknown number though. “Who is it?” Tyler asked shoving the front door closed with his shoulder again. There was a massive scratch mark on the wood floor of the entryway because the door hung to low and its hinges barely functioned. He locked the deadbolt and secured the chain. They didn’t live in the greatest neighborhood.
“Don’t know,” Van said, hitting the ignore button, dropping the phone on the table, and digging into the plastic bag of tacos filled with the most delicious albeit questionable meat. Halfway through her first one, her phone dinged again, this time with a text message from the same unknown number.
"Let me take you out tomorrow night. -John," the message read.
“How the hell did he get your number?” Tyler said, reading the message over her shoulder.
She texted a quick no and then turned her phone’s screen off. “Probably Mike sent out that contact sheet like he always does.”
Her phone dinged again. This time the message read, “One drink?” She hit the button to blacken the screen without replying, instead focusing on her taco. Her phone sounded again and the message said, “Bring your body guard, Thor, if you must. We’ll make it a group thing.”
Van laughed at the message and replied, “Can’t fraternize with clients. Sorry.”
“What?” Tyler asked, his mouth full of taco.
“He called you Thor,” she said as her phone jingled again.
It read, “So you’re saying I have to choose between you and polo? Now you’re really giving me something to think about… Rock. Me. Hard Place.”
She let out another laugh. John was funny, she’d give him that much. Rich men rarely were. She texted back, “No choosing necessary. I said no. Bye, Johnny boy.”
Almost immediately another text popped up on the screen. “We’ve already moved to the nickname stage? I like it. Meet me for drinks, Van Helsing. That was lame. I promise to come up with something better before our date.”
She smiled, but held the power button down on the top of her phone, turning the device completely off. As she slid it to the center of the table, she caught Tyler’s eye. He quickly darted his gaze away, focusing on the taco in his hand instead.
Later, after they’d eaten and showered, they sat on the sofa watching some reality show that pitted normal people against trained military. It was strangely addicting television, to her anyway. Tyler was sprawled over his half of the couch, arms and legs spread in all directions, asleep and snoring loudly. She smiled at him and looked back to her laptop. She’d been incapable of stopping herself from a little cyber stalking. It was something she did every season, randomly investigating new clients. She supposed it was a bad habit, but it wasn’t her fault society put everything under the sun on social media for the whole world to see.
Currently, she was looking at the Facebook page of one John Crighton. She’d been careful not to research him until after Tyler fell asleep, since he was acting so strangely about the whole issue. John’s Facebook was a bit boring. It looked like he logged in sporadically at best. There were mostly just tags from pictures at friend’s weddings or a vacation here and there. His cover image was of him surfing. He looked damn good in a pair of black board shorts and nothing else. He was well muscled, not in a gaudy way like he spent all hours at the gym, but like he lived a healthy, active lifestyle.
He had hundreds of friends and his employer listed was Abbot, Adams and Associates. He was some sort of stock data analyst, best Van could make of the jargon. He was twenty-eight years old and his birthday was September 15th.
He didn’t have a Twitter, but he did have an Instagram. There were pictures of his dog, an older Golden Retriever, and a few of him with who looked to be his little brother. The resemblance was uncanny, heading towards clone territory. There were also a few older photos, posted over a year ago, of John with a gorgeous blonde woman. Most of them were taken on some sort of ski vacation, but a few others were on the beach.
The computer whirred suddenly, as if it were going to explode, and the Instagram application froze up. The poor thing was ancient by CPU standards. She slipped it down onto the carpet and reached across Tyler to grab the television remote as the TV episode’s end credits began to scroll across the screen. When her chest brushed against him, his arm wrapped around her back and pulled her down on top of him. She tried to move away, but he held fast. “You smell good,” he mumbled in his sleep.
“Ty,” she said quietly. Then louder, “Ty.”
He jerked upright, knocking his forehead into hers.
“Agh,” he groaned. “What the hell, Van? I already have one head injury today.”
“Me?” she laughed, rubbing her forehead. “You were the one groping me.”
“I was not,” he groaned, leaning back against the sofa and reclosing his eyes.
“You were, buddy. I was just trying to grab the remote.”
“Is that what you’re calling it these days?” he whisper laughed. His words were slurring, like he was already falling back asleep.
“The TV remote,” Van said slowly.
Tyler smiled mischievously, launched upwards from the sofa cushions, grabbed her arms, and after one powerful twist pinned her beneath him. “This,” he said, close enough he was practically breathing the words onto her. “Is groping.”
She could feel a hardening bulge pressing into her thigh as one of his legs slipped between hers. He was probably barely awake and she’d lived with him long enough to know he was always extremely aroused when half-conscious. “Ty,” she said, breathlessly. He edged closer. His hands ran up her body, the left stopping on her ribs and the right continuing on until his fingers were threaded in her damp shower hair. “Ty,” she said again.
He leaned so close his lips grazed hers. She could feel heat building all over her body. “Give in to me,” he whispered.
Van was practically panting. “Give in to you?” she repeated dumbly.
He nodded almost imperceptibly. His lips opened as he breathed. She could feel his exhalations and inhalations mixing with her own. “You said I wasn’t your father or your brother today. So what am I?”
Van’s brain felt scrambled. She felt so hot, practically burning out of her skin. “Coworker,” she mumbled. “Roommate?”
He shook his head. “I want… I want…” He breathed out a long sigh, his lips moving closer. She thought she felt the whisper of his tongue touch her bottom lip as she let her eyes drift closed.
Then his whole body went stiff. His breathing stopped and she felt his heart ratchet up a hundred or so beats per minute. When she opened her eyes, he was looking at her laptop abandoned on the floor. A hundred pictures from John’s Instagram filled the screen. Without a word, he was off the couch and off her body, headed toward his bedroom. He walked into his room and slammed the door shut behind him.
Want more of this story? Chapter 2 is coming soon.
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