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About the author:
Catherine Evans writes stories set in Australia's outback and country towns. Although she grew up in Sydney, she moved to the country as soon as she could and loves it. After working in agriculture for many years, she now works with her creative side and writes about the places she loves. She lives with her husband in a small town on the coast of New South Wales, Australia.
What inspired you to write your book?
Kim Petersen and Beth Prentice asked if I was interested in writing a short story for an anthology with them. As I said yes, in my mind I saw a girl finding a horse in the sand dunes near the beach. After signing on to the anthology, I wrote to work out who the girl was, why she'd come across the horse, and who the fallen rider was.
We've all written a story with a destiny/fate theme that links the three romance short stories which are in three different sub-genres – paranormal, mystery and western/rural.
Discovering people and stories is such fun! With this book, I found my story, and I've made two new friends along the way. I hope readers will enjoy reading these stories as much as we've enjoyed putting them together.
Here is a short sample from the book:
All her life, Tamara had run in the mornings. Lately, an extra afternoon run was essential for her sanity. No matter what time she got home from work, she stretched as she got changed and then loped around the suburb. When she was warmed up she often headed to the beach for a run along the sand, and if it was hot enough, maybe a swim. Today she needed the swim not just to cool down her body but cool down her mind. The day had been a trial. A new job and a new town was tough, add in a highly demanding boss and some days it was almost unbearable.
The track that cut through the dunes was a bit rough, so she slowed her pace and kept an eye out for the tree roots that poked through the sand. A few weeks before, unfamiliar with the place, she’d almost rolled an ankle and wasn’t keen on doing it again, especially not when work was chaotic. As she rounded a bend there was movement in the trees to her left. Expecting a bird or maybe a kangaroo she was startled to see a horse. A big dappled gray horse. A gelding. His head lifted, then he snorted. Not the panicked snort of a horse about to run, just a friendly snort asking who she was. She murmured softly, his head turned and his gaze locked with hers. The breath caught.
“Aren’t you beautiful.” Tamara maintained eye contact with the horse and took slow steps forwards. Whenever he snorted, she stopped. “Easy there, I’m not trying to hurt you.” His ears flicked but otherwise he remained still. She consciously slowed her breath and eased the tension from her body. Horses picked up every little feeling. She had to tune into what she was projecting and make sure she wasn’t threatening or concerned. This fellow looked a little shaken, a bit unnerved. She needed to project a calm, quiet care. Years of Grandpa’s instructions flooded back.
It was slow progress, but eventually she had her hand under his nostrils. He greeted her with a sniff, before blowing his warm breath against her cooling flesh.
“Hey gorgeous boy.” She said the words as softly as she could, and he seemed to respond. The soft velvet of his nose brushed across her hand. She closed her eyes. It had been years since she’d felt that touch. Slowly, she moved her other hand and gathered the dangling reins in her fingers. Exerting no pressure on the reins, she allowed the horse to sniff along her arm, up her neck, and across her face. That fresh grass smell, warm breath, tickling whiskers, and velvet softness brought back so many memories. Her eyes prickled but she squeezed back the memories and the tears. This wasn’t the time, she had a horse, and a missing rider, to deal with.
“How about we walk carefully out of here and see if we can find who you left behind.” She lifted her hand and ran it along the horse’s cheek. When she glanced at the reins, they were not joined, still attached to the bridle, and the bit didn’t seem to have damaged the horse’s mouth. His legs looked fine too, and he stepped without problem. With no saddle, she figured someone had been riding bareback and had come off on the beach. Either they were trudging up the sand to find their lost steed, or injured somewhere on the beach. She hoped for the first option.
Tamara led the horse carefully along the track and out onto the open beach. The horse had manners and led well, which was a relief because if he took off down the open beach she had no chance of catching him.
She looked to the left, scanning the beach for a body or someone walking. No one. She turned to the right and saw a couple of people walking with dogs but no one who looked like they were missing a horse.
“So big boy, where did you dump your rider?” The horse didn’t have an answer. He seemed to be looking up and down the beach the same as she was.
Although she smiled at the horse, an uneasiness settled in her gut. “Please tell me you didn’t kick them off in the water.” That was the last thing she wanted to find. She took a deep, steadying breath. “Let’s go check the shallows.”
She walked to the water and turned left, hoping if the rider was to the right, the people with the dogs would have seen them by now. She walked along the beach talking nonsense to the horse while she scanned the water and the sand, hoping for the best outcome. Up ahead was a large clump of seaweed in the shallows bobbing and moving with each wave. She frowned, squinted and peered. “Crap, you ditched them in the water.” She walked a little quicker, and although she tried to remain calm, the horse picked up the jitters. Not that he spooked or did anything stupid, he just picked up the pace, snorted a few times, and gave off a vibe somewhere between bravado and apology.
The lump was definitely a person. A very much alive person. The vibe he projected was somewhere between fury and pain. He’d taken off his shirt and rigged it into a sling, the kind of sling for a collarbone break. There was absolutely no hardship in looking at his chest. It was packed with muscles, nicely tanned, and beautifully etched with dark shadows and hair trails. That he was still sitting in the shallows wasn’t good. He must have a leg injury to go with the broken collarbone.
Tamara closed the gap between them desperately trying to think of something useful to say, but what do you say to appease a furious man in pain? While she tried to quell the butterflies dancing in her stomach, she realized the horse wasn’t reacting. If the horse expected a beating, he’d be reluctant to come near the rider. She looked between man and beast. The horse showed no reluctance at all. No matter what her body was telling her, she had to trust the animal. Running wasn’t an option.
“Hi, I’m Tamara.” She cringed. Of all the stupid things to say.
He actually laughed. The corners of his eyes crinkled, his lips curved, and his white teeth flashed. “I love a girl who can handle a crisis.” His grin and his words relaxed her immediately. “Thank you for catching Storm. I’m Rob.”
Whatever vibe she thought she’d felt before, it was no longer present. She exhaled. “Hey Rob. Broken collarbone and broken ankle, or is it sprained?” She decided it was best to ignore the crisis comment and focus on injury management. As for the horse’s name, she’d think of that later. Catching a storm while running was something her grandmother had told her when she was a kid. She could almost hear her grandmother’s voice, but a deep male voice interrupted.
“I don’t know if either are broken but neither of them feel good.”
Storm moved close to Rob as he soothed it with quiet words. His fingers tickled across the nose and the long curve of face. The gentleness in the caress made Tamara’s chest tighten. Then Rob ran his hands down each of the horse’s front legs. Any man with suspected broken bones, sitting in the shallows of the ocean, who took the time to check his horse for injury or inflammation was a good person. A man Tamara could trust. Someone she had to help.
She looked at the ankle, the water, Rob’s pale, clammy face, and took in his lack of clothing. She had a T-shirt with a bra underneath, and one of those was excess. The T-shirt gave more fabric to wrap around his ankle. The crop top wasn’t going to offer much in the way of a bandage, it would be more useful for pressure, but since he wasn’t bleeding she could leave that on. She had to get him out of the water before she could strap his ankle. She let the reins fall to the sand, and gave Storm a look, hoping he’d interpret it as a stay.
“He’ll walk up with us,” Rob said as he took hold of the ends of the reins.
“I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt,” she said softly to Rob. Squatting behind him, she wrapped her arms around his ribs being as gentle as possible with his injured side. “Take a deep breath, and when I pull, scream if you have to. And drop those reins the moment that horse pulls.” Before Rob could respond, she yanked him up the wet sand. It hurt her, so she had no clue how much it must have hurt him. She repeated the manoeuvre, twice more, but didn’t have the strength to do it a fourth time.
They were both sucking in deep breaths, but he seemed to recover faster than she did. “You don’t look like you have anywhere near that much strength.”
She hadn’t known she had that much strength either, but it had to be done. She looked up at Storm. His big soulful eyes were staring back at her. Her grannie’s voice came through clear as a bell, “You’ll fall head over heels in love after catching a storm while running.” Goosebumps skittered down her spine. It had been years since she’d allowed herself memories of childhood, and today they were flooding back.
Now wasn’t the time for a walk down memory lane. She had an injured man to help, a horse to get home, and a home of her own to go to before a deep sleep ready for another trying day at the office.
“Let’s wrap your ankle and give it some support.” She expected an argument, but there was none. She tied her T-shirt around his ankle, over the boot, giving it as much support as possible. “I don’t suppose you have a cell phone, do you?” Since all Rob wore was a pair of boots and shorts, both of which were wet, she knew the chances of a phone working, if he did have one, were slim.
“Not here. Do you?”
She shook her head. She never brought a phone when she ran. Running was a time to disconnect, and that meant from all forms of technology. Her boss was not going to interrupt her hour of solitude and sanity.
“I’m going to have to run somewhere to call an ambulance for you.”
Rob clucked with his tongue and the horse’s ears pricked. “No ambulances. Storm will get me home.”
“How on earth will you do that?”
“I’m pretty confident he’ll stand right there, and if you can help me to get upright, I can use him to anchor me and take some of my weight off you. Then we can limp over to the dunes and I hope you might help me on. I won’t be able to get ion unless there’s a decent height difference. Storm’s too big for me to clamber onto from the ground and I can’t leap with the injuries. Will that work for you?”
“You’ve only got one arm and one leg.”
He gave a bit of a grin. “Technically, I have both of each, it’s just that one arm and one leg may be rather incapacitated.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and bit back the smart alec response she wanted to give.
There wasn’t a lot of choice. Working with what they had was the best plan. If Rob could lean on the horse and her, they probably could get him upright, and maybe even moving. She looked at the dunes. If the horse stood in the right position, maybe she could leg Rob on, maybe they could get home, but he still had to get to a hospital. She didn’t like the idea that he might have broken bones unattended to.
“Let’s try. What’s the worst that can happen? You break more bones and end up in hospital via the ambulance anyway.” She tried to make it a little humorous with the touch of a laugh at the end, but it came off sounding sad.
“Please believe me when I say it’s not your fault. I can do this. It’s not my first broken bone, not my first fall, not the first time I’ve had to get myself out of a situation like this.”
She gave him a stare. He sounded so resigned to doing everything alone that it struck a chord deep inside her. She needed to help. She was here to help. This was meant to be.
Lifting Rob wasn’t easy but she pushed, levered, and exerted herself, while he did the same. Storm stood rock solid. Allowing Rob to push against him.
It was an act of bravery on Rob’s part. His courage made her realize that it had been a long time since she had trusted anything, or anyone, as much as he trusted Storm.
When Rob was standing, she saw the absolute futility of what they had just achieved. His injured ankle and injured collarbone were on the same side. When he slung his arm over Storm’s back to support himself, there was no way he was going to be able to move. She had no hope of supporting his other side.
As she stood wondering how this would work, Rob gingerly tested his foot on the soft sand. His breath sucked inward, and he bit his lips hard, but he kept pressing down until his foot was flat. A few breaths were sucked in through his teeth, before he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Sweat beaded across his forehead and dripped off his chin. It was really hurting him, and there wasn’t anything she could do to make it easier.
Tamara moved towards Storm, gathered up the reins, and stroked the horse’s neck. Focusing on the horse was much easier. Watching Rob battle through the pain was too personal. She keenly felt his need for privacy even if he hadn’t said a word.
After what seemed like forever, he said, “Okay, that was as bad as it probably looked.” Rob sucked in another breath. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take a step. Can you hold Storm still while I try?”
She gathered the reins, put a hand across Storm’s chest and whispered softly to the horse. Rob grunted, his breath hissed, there was a gasp and she winced. All the time, Storm stood still.
“I can walk. It’s just slow. Let’s do this.” The words seemed as if they were gritted out between clenched teeth. Tamara wanted to argue but it wasn’t her body that was injured. He was an adult and capable of making decisions, even if this wasn’t one she would have made.
Storm, still perfectly behaved, and Tamara moved at a snail’s pace across the sand. It was excruciating listening to Rob. His ability to move given the pain, was quite phenomenal. Every suck of breath, every tightening of his throat when she was sure he was swallowing down a moan, every tiny hiss caused her to flinch. If she could have borne some of his pain, she would have. Seeing anyone, or anything, suffer was difficult, yet Rob handled it admirably. Okay, maybe not admirably, maybe it was stupidly, but she had to give him credit for backing up his claim.
When they made it to the small rise in the sand, Rob called a halt. They were a long way from the edge of the dunes, but this small undulation might give them enough height difference to get him mounted. And if she excavated a little sand…
“You lean on Storm and have a breather. I’ll just dig a little deeper here.” When Rob opened his mouth, a deep frown on his forehead, she knew he was about to argue. “No. Not this time. I’m not putting my back out lifting you when I can scrape along here a bit and get an inch or two extra height difference.” An extra inch would make the hill about a foot higher than the flat. The sand, away from the edge, was quite stable, not like a sandcastle that would flatten with Rob’s weight. The extra inch might allow Rob to get his stomach over Storm’s back without putting any extra pressure on the ankle or catching the bandaged arm during mounting. She could only hope it might help.
Rob gave a pained grin and bobbed his head. The way he was breathing, she didn’t think there was much fight in him. His face was a green-white color, and perspiration beaded on top of the sheen. She had to get him mounted, and get him to hospital, regardless of what he thought of his invincibility. If his horse wasn’t so damn obedient, she’d have called a stop to this whole ludicrous business.
As she scratched away at the sand, making something like a flattened trench, she tried to rationalize what she was doing. If anything happened to the guy, how would she explain why she’d let him call the shots? The beach was deserted now. The people with dogs had moved way beyond where she could see them, if they were still on the sand. Neither she or Rob had a cell phone, so to get help she would have had to leave them. It was an option. But somehow, the three of them were in this together, and she felt some crazy need to see this through. It had nothing, nothing at all, to do with the words her grandmother had said. Nothing to do with her attraction to the man with the naked chest and the stubborn nature. Nothing to do with the pang of desperate longing she had when she connected with his horse. Nothing at all to do with the flood of beautiful childhood memories she’d so long suppressed.
This man was going to be injured worse because she was a romantic fool.
“Thanks. That looks better.” Rob’s voice dragged her mind from regret and into the present. He sounded better. His breath wasn’t gaspy. It was almost like he had his pain under control.
Well that’ll last only moments.
“Can you lead Storm down there, and I’ll clamber on him from here?”
She stared at him. “Don’t you think I could give you a leg up or something? How are you going to clamber with the use of only one arm and one functioning leg?”
“Please, trust me. I’d rather you stood with Storm than legged me up.”
No matter how long she stared at him, unblinking, he didn’t change his mind. He was serious. After one shake of her head, she went with trusting him. Of all the idiotic, stupid things for her to do, she was trusting an injured man, whose mental capacity was affected by pain, and who she’d known for all of what, forty minutes?
If anything happened, the cops would say she was certifiable, or worse, guilty of his manslaughter.
Storm stood perfectly still on the lower section of the beach. She explained what was happening, more for herself than any hope that the horse might understand her, and she wanted to block out the soft groans and grunts coming from the man moving against the horse’s side.
Storm let out a deep exhalation as Rob sprawled across the horse’s back. When she went to help him, a gritted, “No,” stopped any thought of movement. She kept talking to Storm, trying not to notice the excruciating way Rob slowly maneuvered into position.
She didn’t think anyone would have the ability to do what he just done. His skin had gone from a pale green-white to something quite deep, making her wonder how much more pain he could endure. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and she imagined he was swallowing bile. No one could be that color green without feeling ill.
They waited. She wasn’t moving until he was settled, and she was half expecting him to lose his lunch, or whatever else he may have eaten in recent hours. He only breathed. Long, slow, deep breaths. After quite a few, they seemed to be less pained. She glanced up at him. His color was back to the pale green-white.
“Let’s see how a few steps go.” She said it slowly, still hoping that he may ask her to run and get help, but he only nodded. She looped the reins over Storm’s neck, passing them to Rob. He gathered them in his good hand, and she took hold of the cheek strap on the bridle. “Right?” she asked Rob, and waited for his nod before she asked Storm to walk on. After a few steps, Rob nodded, so she kept moving slowly up the beach, through the dune scrub where she’d first met Storm, and out onto the dirt track that skirted the town.
“At the end of this track, there’s horse paddocks. Any chance you can walk us there?”
Biting back an acerbic comment, she responded with humor. “Well, I was just going to leave you here since you’re both so capable, but I suppose, since you asked nicely, I could help out.”
A slight chuckle from Rob made her glad to have chosen comedy.
She brushed her hand along Storm’s neck and walked them towards home. Their home.
About halfway there, she half-turned and spoke to Rob. “If you’re going to pass out, please let me know before you hit the ground.” When Rob grunted a half-laugh, she knew she wasn’t too far from the mark. The pain was swamping him. He’d gone that darker shade of the bile. She could only hope he held on until they got home, or someone drove down this dirt track, which hardly seemed likely since the tracks were old and filled with grass.
The sun was beginning to set, pretty soon they’d be in that twilight shadow phase. Hopefully Storm would remain sensible and not spook at shadows. Rob had his eyes closed, his body was hunched, and with only one good leg, he’d hardly be in a position to stay on a prancing beast. If he came off, there was no way in the world she was getting him back on. She’d have to leave them and get to a phone. What would happen to Storm then was anyone’s guess. She muttered all this to Storm as they walked. If he didn’t understand a word she said, she didn’t mind. It got her fears out in front of her, so she could face them, and not have them inside making her jittery. She couldn’t afford to project any fear; Rob and Storm needed her strong.
At the paddock on the left at the end of the track was a gate. Storm walked to it and waited patiently while she wrestled it open. He walked his burden through with a calm gentleness that made Tamara think that he took his responsibilities seriously.
I’m going mad, talking to a horse, and now anthropomorphizing his behavior.
As mad as it seemed, she let Storm lead the way. This was home, and horses always were keen to get back to their feed, water, buddies and shelter. He led her towards lights, so she knew she’d find people, or at least phone access, even if it wasn’t the right place.
Lights were on in a building that looked like stables. She could even hear the murmur of voices. People. Thank goodness.
Two people walked out of the shed towards a car.
“Excuse me,” Tamara called.
Both people stopped and stared. “Is Rob okay?” The older woman asked quickly, concern lacing her words. Tamara explained the situation as briefly as she could. The woman had a phone out and was calling the ambulance as Tamara explained.
The younger girl went out to meet the ambulance, reassuring Tamara as she left, telling her to stay with Rob and Storm and that she’d bring them right in as soon as possible.
While the older woman remained on the phone, Tamara slid her hand along Rob’s thigh, gently squeezing the tense muscles to get his attention. “Rob, the ambulance is almost here. Just hang on until they get you off Storm. They’ll have pain relief. I’ll look after your horse and make sure everything is locked up before I find you. Don’t worry about anything.” A flutter of his eyelids was the only acknowledgement. She couldn’t believe he’d made it this far.
It took long moments but eventually she heard the siren in the distance. The woman pocketed her phone and came towards Tamara. “Hi, I’m Patti, and my daughter, Mila, you’ve already met.”
“I’m so glad you were here. I didn’t have a phone, neither did Rob.”
Patti glared at the injured man and then stared at Tamara. “I thought he was the only idiot who went out without a phone.”
Tamara bit her lip and refrained from replying. Patti was entitled to be angry and frightened and worried. Anyone would be, if a stranger brought your half-unconscious husband home slumped on the back of a horse.
When the ambulance arrived, Patti asked Tamara to control the animal while they looked after Rob. That was fine, truly it was. She had no claim over him. She and Storm were no more than vehicles to carry the injured home. When Rob was on the gurney, she led Storm into the stables.
Mila was there in an instant. “You should hose him down first. The wash bay’s here.” She led Tamara outside and pointed to the cement area just to the edge of the light. “When you walk out there, a sensor light will come on. Then Storm’s feed is on the chart on the wall in the feed room. The tack goes in the tack room after you wash it. Sorry I can’t help, but we need to go.” She smiled apologetically, after she’d dictated the demands like a drill sergeant.
“That’s okay. Go with your mom. I’ll fix Storm, lock up here, and then I’ll check in at the hospital. Thank you.” Tamara’s thanks was called out to the departing back of the girl. She’d run off no doubt to join her mother and head to the hospital.
After Tamara had settled Storm into the wash bay, she turned on the hose and it seemed like water sprang from not just the hose. Her chest overfilled and tears spilled up her throat and out of her eyes. Her heart had swollen with memories, and the pain and ache of those lost years tore at her. She thought she’d dealt with it a decade ago, but it seemed she’d only papered over the hurt and this afternoon had ripped the paper to shreds. At least there was only Storm to see, and with the hose gushing more than she was, she wet herself and him.
Storm kept close to her, nudging her with his soft nose and snuffling along her neck, making her chuckle. After washing him, removing the excess water, giving him a brush down with a rippled glove she found in the wash bay, she fed him and settled him for the night.
“I’ll go check up on your master, and report back in the morning,” she promised as she turned out the lights and closed the stables up for the evening. To others, it may be madness talking to a horse, but it was the most natural thing in the world. Tamara’s grandfather had always treated his horses as friends, she knew nothing different.
After a quick shower at home, followed by a bite to eat, she was off to the hospital. A phone call may have been quicker but she wasn’t sure they’d give her any information. At least in person she had a better chance of explaining the situation, or running into Patti or Mila.
At the front desk, she explained the situation to one woman who then called another. “I found him on the beach after he fallen off his horse.” She sounded as exhausted as she felt, and she hoped the women didn’t take it as her being patronizing or annoyed. She knew they were doing their job, all she really needed to know was that Rob was okay. “If you can’t let me know how he is, could I leave a message for him, or Patti or Mila to say that I’ve locked up, fed his horse, and I’ll check on them again in the morning?”
The nurse seemed more interested after the name-dropping. “What’s his horse’s name?”
Tamara’s eyes widened. “Storm. A big gray gelding.”
“Insanely attached to Rob, doesn’t want to go near anybody else. A crazy beast.”
Tamara couldn’t tell if she was being baited, so she went with the Storm she knew. “He was quite respectful and I had no problems with him, but you’re right, he adores Rob.”
The nurse’s hand flew to her chest, and then across her open mouth, before she nodded as if Tamara had passed some test. “Come with me. You can see him, just don’t wake him up.”
Tamara had no intention of waking him up, she just wanted to see that he was okay. She followed the nurse into the room and sat beside him in the chair the nurse indicated. She sat and waited while the nurse took Rob’s observations.
The adrenaline dropped out of her body and she sank into the chair. It seemed to clasp her in a warm hug, drawing her into a deeper relaxation.
She stared at the man in the bed. She may only know his name was Rob, but she also knew he was tough, courageous, had a good sense of humor, a strength beyond belief, was kind to animals, and was stubborn. So very, very stubborn.
He’d be okay. The nurse whispered that to her and she tried to reply, or maybe she did; the chair was claiming her.