Author: Amber Lee
"It just had to be horses..."
Willow didn't often take time from her writing during the day, and definitely not during that inescapable five hour period when she sat, glued to her chair, eyes fixed on the computer screen, with her fingers flying across the keyboard, hardly without pause. Willow Rosenberg was definitely someone you could consider dedicated, and once she got her mind into a task, it rarely resurfaced until she was thoroughly exhausted. Deadlines and an undying passion for the writing itself kept her devoted to her career as a best-selling fantasy author.
Horses definitely didn't fit into her master plan.
Yet, here she was, strapped into the seat of the old Chevy Dodge similar to the way a prisoner would be to the electric chair, rattling her way up the path towards her new home, a horse ranch situated in southern Wyoming. The way she was stuck in the torn chair was making her feel acutely like that prisoner.
And it was cutting unacceptably into her five-hour writing time.
"Are we almost there?" Willow didn't mean to be cross, but there was a complaining edge to her tone. Whenever she was yanked from her schedule, whenever she hadn't had the time to pour out all of her ideas onto the keyboard, all of those ideas battered her from the inside, insistent and demanding. In no time at all, she would have a major headache, and her mood would only darken further.
Her companion, the driver, was silent for a long moment, concentrating on guiding the truck around the dangerous ruts of the dirt road. Finally, he glanced over at her, and grinned, tipping back the brim of his cowboy hat. "Almost, miss. We should be there in about ten minutes."
"Good." Willow turned her attention to the window, feeling the man's scrutiny, and not enjoying it. She tacked on a grudging "Thank-you" before silencing.
The man-one of her new ranch hands, by the name of Riley- was quiet as well. After five minutes of stillness, disturbed only by the both of them bouncing about like jackhammers as they hit the worst potholes, he spoke up, obviously trying to break the awkward silence. "I think you'll like Wyoming, miss. Beautiful place. And the horses, too. All of them the best you can get. T, and F are looking forward to meeting you."
Willow didn't answer for a long time, wondering to herself if she stayed silent long enough, he would leave her alone. Finally, with a sigh, she murmured: "T and F?"
Riley smiled to himself. "Nicknames- short for Tara and Faith." He peeked at her out of the corner of his hazel eyes, almost as if he were waiting for something.
It took Willow a moment, who was half-lost in her little world of fantasy, to catch on. She twisted in her seat to look at him, and Riley chuckled at her bewildered expression.
"Tara and Faith?" Willow repeated, her nose screwing up with something close to distaste. "Those are...interesting names..." Womanly names, she added to herself scalding. Great. I'm going to be dealing with a bunch of cross-dressers! At least Riley's decent...
Riley's eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned. "Yes," He agreed whole-heartedly. "They are both charming young women, and both amazing with horses, especially Tara."
Women? Of course! Geez, get a hold of yourself, Rosenberg! This is the twenty-first century! Why should it surprise you so much that you have two women for ranch hands? "Oh..." Willow muttered, unable to think of a better response. She turned her eyes back to the scenery rolling past them as the truck coughed and wheezed to a stop outside in a gravel driveway.
By the time Willow had unbuckled her seatbelt, and placed her hand on the handle to open the door, she had perked up. Mmm...it will be nice to have some female company. And here I thought that I was going to be all alone up here with just me-Whoa!
Willow opened her door, and her jaw dropped at the sight of the horse ranch that was now hers. She hadn't been expecting Heartland, but what she saw was definitely not something to lift her spirits.
The place was a total ruin. There were two stable blocks, completely falling apart, with a large pasture nearby. The waves of grass, untamed, stretched as far as Willow could see, seeming to go on forever. To the right of the stables was a farmhouse, looking in slightly better condition.
There wasn't a horse in sight.
Riley cleared his throat and Willow, still staring, horrified, at her new home, started, jerked back to her senses. She managed a small smile, and slipped out of the truck. Her designer sandals hit the dirt with an unsettling thunk. Willow wouldn't consider herself girly, but she did like to dress well in what she considered trendy. Being an author that was oft recognized on the streets, she was extremely self-conscience of her appearance.
"Yeah, it's not much...the place has kind of fallen into disrepair since your uncle died...financial issues and all...Faith, Tara, and I have been doing the best we could...trying to fix it up, and everything..." Whatever he said after that was drowned in the rhythmic pounding of a hammer, and Willow's eyes were drawn to a tall, slender figure seated on the roof of the-her- farmhouse. Willow could only stare as the dark-haired woman stretched, and then stopped abruptly when she saw Willow and Riley. She was close enough for Willow to see her face break into a mischievous grin.
"Oy, Riley!" She called down from her perch. "Who's the chick? You're new girlfriend?"
Both Willow and Riley flushed tomato red- Riley embarrassed, while Willow was indignant.
"Shut up, Faith, and get your lazy hide down here! This is Willow Rosenberg- you know, our new employer."
Faith obviously got the hint, though her grin did not falter. "Ah, our new boss? You sure, Riley?"
Riley's ears turned crimson to match his face. "Shut your gob, Faith, and get down here!"
Faith chuckled, and playfully tossed one of the shingles that she had been nailing down at him before sliding down the slope of the roof. Willow unintentionally held her breath, certain Faith was sliding into a pair of broken legs, or maybe a broken back, but Faith landed easily in a crouch that seemed natural to her. She straightened, and sauntered over, grinning cheekily at Willow, who found herself grinning back in spite of herself.
"I'm Faith!" Faith announced grandly-and unnecessarily- as she offered a hand to Willow. Willow took it carefully, and was not surprised at the hard grip she was given.
"Willow," She answered, smiling tentatively. "Nice to meet you."
"And you." Faith's eyes roamed appreciatively over her, and Willow squirmed, acutely uncomfortable as she pulled her hand away.
Riley obviously noticed, too. "Get back to work!" He barked to Faith, who tore her eyes from Willow to grin at him again. "Where's Tara?"
"T? Working with Lightening." Faith turned her eyes back to Willow, and winked. "Catch you later, Red." And, with that, she strolled back towards the house. As Willow watched, awed, Faith nimbly scaled the ladder leaning against the side of the roof, and resumed her work.
Riley rolled his eyes. "You'll have to ignore Faith," He said apologetically. "Faith is many things, but subtle and modest are not among them."
Willow laughed shortly, still a little uneasy about how openly Faith had looked her over. "I see what you mean..."
Riley studied her for a moment- too closely to the way Faith had for Willow to be comfortable- and then smiled. "I'll get your stuff inside. You can go check out the place, if you'd like."
"Sure," Willow answered absently, her mind on one thing. "Please be careful with my lap top."
"I'll guard it with my life," Riley answered solemnly, then grinned, and hurried over to the back of the truck.
Willow walked away, too glad to get as much distance between her and her two new employees as possible. I hope Tara's better...Faith's going to be a handful, but it will be interesting...Riley will just be a nuisance... Willow sighed, thinking of the way Riley had looked at her, and leaned against the fence of the pasture.
"I thought this was a horse ranch," She grumbled to herself, glaring into the empty pasture, and then she jumped.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a tiny pony had appeared.
Willow had always been a logical person, and she did not consider anything such as ghosts or curses-true love also lay in that category- to be real. Her mind was already working, coming up with a logical and scientific explanation to the seemingly sudden appearance.
Of course. She must have been lethargic from the jet-lag to not see. The pony had a stable blanket draped over it, the color matching the grass that towered over it. Though the pony was shaggy, and white with chocolate brown patches, it seemed to blend in perfectly to Willow's bleary eyes.
Tiny little thing... Willow mused to herself as she reached through the fence to scratch the white blaze that accented its brown muzzle.
As soon as her hand made contact, two things happened.
The pony reared, startling Willow, and sending her into full panic-mode, and a single thought flashed through Willow's head.
I'm gonna die.
It was amazing how much fear a tiny Shetland pony could instil in Willow's hammering heart.
Willow jumped back, away from the pony, and found herself falling, tripping over her own two feet. She hit the dirt hard, the heels of her hands scraping against something sharp. She felt her skin rip, and yelped, but immediately started dragging herself backwards, ignoring the sting of her injured hands.
The order came from behind her, and she froze automatically, stiffening as the pony continued to rear, thrashing the air with its hooves.
"Don't move," the voice repeated, more quietly, mindful of the temperamental beast in front of Willow. "You'll only scare her more."
The horse?! What about me?! Willow didn't have any more room left to feel angry, her fear was so bad, but it still felt good to think the words.
"Stay completely still," the voice cautioned. A pair of worn, leather cowboy boots intruded on her vision, and Willow couldn't help but look up. The figure- a woman, undeniably- had her back to her, her eyes fixed on the panicking horse in front of her. All Willow could see was the long blonde hair, tumbling down to the small of her back, free of any restraint.
Willow looked down, blushing hotly, half in her embarrassment for being caught in such a foolish predicament, half because she couldn't help but notice how pretty the woman was, even from behind, but her eyes were drawn upwards again.
The woman started walking, edging forward slowly. Whenever the pony screamed a warning, she stopped, waited a moment, and took another step forward.
"Shhh..." She murmured, extending a cautious, but steady hand. "Shhh, Trixie. Easy, girl. It's okay...Shhh..."
Trixie calmed slightly at the sound of her soothing voice, and allowed the blonde to lay her outstretched palm gently on the side of her muzzle. Softly, she stroke the pony until she quieted completely.
The blonde planted a tender kiss on the white blaze before she turned to Willow with a steely expression.
"You shouldn't approach a horse without letting it know you're there." Her voice was almost scolding. "And you definitely shouldn't start petting it on its blind spot."
Willow ducked her head, abashed. "I'm sorry," She mumbled to her knees. "I didn't know..."
The blonde's expression softened considerably. "It's okay," She answered, and held out an offering hand. Willow took it with a grateful smile, and the blonde hauled her to her feet.
Willow didn't let go right away, as she found herself staring into the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen. While the blonde had been speaking, her hair had been in front of her eyes, shielding them, but the effort of pulling Willow to her feet had swung the blonde strands away, exposing her expression fully.
Willow blinked, finally remembering where she was, and dropped the blonde's hand quickly, blushing. "Um...thank-you. You saved me from certain death."
Willow's unwavering gaze seemed to have an immense effect on the blonde. She dropped her eyes to the ground, her cheeks faintly pink. Her hair fell to hide her eyes, breaking Willow from her trance. "T-Trixie w-wouldn't hurt a f-fly..."
Willow smiled wryly. "If I hadn't just been on the ground, sure I was going to die until a certain blonde rescued me, I'd believe you." She gestured to Trixie, now grazing peacefully a short distance away.
The blonde laughed softly, a sound so beautiful Willow found herself joining in. As soon as the sound faded, Willow was determined to make her laugh as often as she could.
"I'm Willow," She said, offering a hand for the blonde to shake. "Willow Rosenberg. I sort of own this place now..."
The blonde took the proffered hand with a crooked smile that took Willow's breath away. "T-Tara..." She murmured. "T-Tara Maclay."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Tara Maclay," Willow replied with a jaunty smile, enthusiastically pumping Tara's hand up and down for a moment before she winced.
"Ouch. Forgot about my hands..."
Tara had withdrawn her hand as soon as Willow had flinched, but she stepped forward, her eyes on Willow's hands as Willow held them up at eye-level. "M-may I...?"
Willow was immediately flustered. "Oh, n-no, it's fine, really. Just some shallow-Ouch!"
Tara, having caught sight of the 'shallow' cuts when Willow had flapped her hands to emphasize her point, caught one between her own, and her thumb brushed accidentally across the outside of the wounds.
"I-I'm s-sorry..." She whispered, but she didn't move her hands, intent on examining Willow's. "They're bleeding..." She murmured, frowning to herself, as she bent closer.
Willow tried to pull away, alarmed, but Tara held fast, ignoring Willow when she tried to tug free.
"Gah! Ow! Oh...blood, not good...feeling dizzy..." Willow had never been good with blood, especially her own.
"Stop fidgeting," Tara muttered, more harshly than she had intended. When she looked up, smiling apologetically to soften the command, she felt her eyes widen when she saw how pale Willow had gone.
"You'd better catch me," was her mumbled reply before Willow promptly passed out in an unsuspecting Tara's arms.
The pain woke her.
Or, rather, the lack of. Willow blinked, bewildered, and automatically tried to sit up.
Hands, warm against her cold body, gently pushed her back into place with firm insistence.
"Don't move," a familiar voice ordered. "You'll hurt yourself."
That melodious voice was all too familiar-and impossible to forget- and it lifted Willow's spirits dramatically when she realized who it was.
"Tara?" She opened her eyes to a pleasant surprise: Tara's gorgeous blue eyes peering down at her anxiously.
"You stayed!" Willow crowed with an unexplainable surge of enthusiasm, and she thoughtlessly sprang into a sitting position, and threw her arms around Tara in a tight embrace.
A spike of pain immediately shot through both of her hands. Willow flinched, distracted from the warm body she held in her arms, not noticing that she had gone completely ridged. It took her a moment to realize how stiff Tara was.
Willow let go quickly, flushing at her own stupidity. Why should it matter to her that Tara had stayed? She hardly knew her! "O-oops..." She muttered. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to..." Her voice trailed off when she saw her hands.
Someone-and Willow was fairly certain she knew who- had carefully wrapped both of her hands, first with a soft, knitted bandage, and then with gauze. Medical tape was wound around the whole bundle to keep it in place with what Willow was sure was tender care.
Willow felt tears of surprise and gratitude fill her eyes. She looked up at Tara, and whispered: "You...you did this...?"
Tara seemed shocked, and a little frightened by her tears. "Um...y-yes...I a-also changed y-you into your pyjamas- I-I found them i-in your s-suitcase...I-I hope that's n-not a problem..."
"A problem? That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me!" Willow glanced down, and found that she was indeed attired in a pair of pyjamas she recognized as her own. She felt her cheeks go hot when she realized Tara had seen her in nothing but her undergarments, as Willow was a modest person and those sort of things embarrassed her. "U-um...thank-you..."
Tara nodded, her own cheeks crimson. "Y-yeah...well, R-Riley was all too e-eager, but I f-figured that you w-wouldn't be comfortable...and you can n-never be sure what F-Faith will do..." She laughed-rather nervously, Willow noted, which sent another surge of heat through her- and stared at her hands. "I-I...I brought your s-s-suitcase for you, to unpack...I'll l-leave you a-alone..." She stood as she spoke, and spun, already heading for the door.
Willow looked up, surprised to feel her heart contract painfully at the idea of Tara's absence. "Don't go yet!" She blurted, without thinking.
Tara paused in the doorframe, and turned, her eyebrows pulling down in confusion as she studied Willow's tortured expression. "A-are you al-alright?"
Willow blushed, dropping her eyes back to her hands. "I-I'm fine. What I meant was..." She found herself stuttering, something she rarely did, and she racked her brain for another response. "I-Is there anything I could eat?"
Did Tara's face fall the tiniest bit? Willow couldn't be sure. "O-of course..." She murmured, turning away again.
And she was gone.
Willow fell back into the mound of pillows behind her-another kind gesture on Tara's part-and let her head fall into her bandaged hands in a moment of despair and self-loathing.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid!" She whimpered to herself. "You're a writer, Willow! You're supposed to be good with words, you idiot!"
For a moment, Willow sat, and let the waves of self-pity wash over her. Then she gave herself a little shake to clear her head, and cast her eyes around the room. Speaking of writing....
Her eyes zeroed in on her lap top bag, unmistakable, which someone had carefully leaned against her two suitcases, and her stomach gave a little jump of excitement. Her fingers tingled, itching to move across the smooth keys of her lap top in the flurry of passion she often entered while writing an intense scene. Forget being careful about her hands; she was a writer on a mission, and hell hath no fury like a writer on a roll.
Pushing the incident with Tara to a corner of her mind, she slid out of the bed to retrieve her computer.
Okay, Rosenberg. It's time to get to work.