Giddy with excitement, I bushwhacked in the woods all morning long just so I could relax and take the edge of the pre-release adrenaline high. Yet through my nervous butterflies, I am touched to see people PM me with URL requests so they can buy a copy – from abroad, even! I have friends tell me the book has a buzz even on platforms I seldom frequent, and where I have not posted.
Well then. Why not loosen the reins a little, and give this little horsie a bit of leg? Below is Part 2 of the Wild Horses Prologue, for your reading pleasure.
Kai woke up in a silent, dark room, lying under a cool sheet on a comfortable king-size bed. A glance around the room revealed a stand with two bags of clear liquid and a thin, clear tube going down to a needle in his arm. The sight alarmed him. His head hurt and his legs ached something fierce, and his tongue seemed to have been permanently stuck to his palate. Kai attempted to sit up.
“Here….” An unfamiliar voice murmured by his shoulder as someone stacked pillows behind his back. “You can lean back now.”
Kai saw the man come and sit on the side of the bed next to him. He had a smooth face with just a touch of sun on his nose and high cheekbones. The shape of his eyes looked vaguely Asian, but their color was a changeable, stormy blue. He was barefoot, wearing swim trunks and a blue T-shirt, and his dark hair was tied back into a ponytail. Kai realized the last time he saw him up close, this man had been wearing a black tuxedo. This, then, was Attila Keleman.
The man handed Kai a glass of something liquid. “Here is some diluted orange juice.”
Kai nodded his thanks and sipped some, his mouth now regaining its mobility. “Where am I?” he rasped.
“In my bed.” Kai stilled at the words, but before he could fight his blush down, the other man continued. “Vermillion wanted to be able to see you, and the guest bedroom lacks a door opening onto the patio.”
Kai pondered that for a moment. “What happened?”
“Vermillion inadvertently kneed you in the head. That probably didn’t help, considering you were already overheated and dehydrated. You passed out. That was two days ago.”
“Did you find your phone in my pocket?” Kai asked. That, after all, was the purpose of his mission.
“Yes. Thank you. You could have just come in.”
Kai looked away.
“I am Attila Keleman. What is your name?”
Kai turned to the owner of this bed, this house, and this land. “Kai. Kai Alewright.”
Attila considered him for a while. “Mr. Alewright, if you have no other commitments, one of my riders got badly injured yesterday. My students help me with the horses, you see. They clean the stables and groom the horses, feed them…. Hal took a bad spill and cracked three vertebrae. He is very lucky—he is in a back brace now, barred from riding and work for three months. Do you think you would be interested in staying here for some time and helping out?”
“You’d let me?” Kai exhaled.
“You’d trust me?”
“Tell me, Mr. Alewright. Why did you return my phone?”
“Remember, you are better than stooping to such acts of petty thievery.”
Kai flushed. Nobody had told him anything like that before. At loss for words, he shrugged, his eyes drifting away.
Attila sighed, taking the empty juice glass away. Their fingers brushed as he did so, and the older man bit back a gasp at their touch. He got up as though stung and turned his back to Kai to look out the window. Soon, Kai heard him break his silence.
“When you feel like getting up, you may shower in that room over there. Then we will move you to the guest room.”
“You’re fucking crazy, Keleman. He took your fucking phone, and you let him stay in your house?” Tibor, Attila’s brother-in-law, leaned against the railing of the outdoor corral as they watched young Naomi warm up her horse for a series of jumps. Her blonde hair stuck out from under the black helmet, and her short legs reached barely halfway down the horse’s barrel, but her seat was firm and she was fearless.
“How is Hal?” Attila changed the subject to Tibor’s oldest son.
“Sore.” Tibor watched his daughter canter a half circle and aim her white horse at the smaller set of jumps. “It could have happened to anyone. Brent is jealous of all the attention his brother’s been getting. Annoying little twerp.”
“Send him to me. He can help Kai with the horses.” Attila’s lips tilted up in a hint of a smile. “There is enough work here for a lot more people.”
Naomi trotted her horse up to the railing. “How did I do, Uncle ’Tila?”
“Adequately,” he allowed. “Now go again, but keep his head higher without pulling on the reins. Make it look like a secret magic trick.”
“But he won’t like it, Uncle ’Tila.” The girl-child pouted, big eyes wide.
“If you won’t pull and let him canter as fast as he wants to afterward, that will be his reward. He will do it. You will see.”
They kept observing Naomi’s efforts.
“So you’re keeping that Kai guy around because…?” Tibor asked again.
Attila knew very well why he was keeping Kai around. He was drawn to the man with a strength that resembled fatal attraction, but there was no reason to mention that because nothing would come of it. He, and his steel control, would make sure of that. His effort was merely humanitarian. Anyone would have done the same thing.“I am not certain yet. He… intrigues me. And then there is Vermillion.”
“Tell me again what you saw.”
Attila repeated himself, resenting the necessity to do so.
“Hm.” Tibor chewed on a blade of grass. “Nobody has ridden that horse, ever. What a waste of money—no wonder you got him cheap.”
“I rode him.”
Tibor looked at him, stunned. “For, oh… ten seconds?” Tibor bellowed in laughter. “The kid has no chance, Attila.”
“Still, though,” the shorter man said as he watched his young niece work the course. “I have been bitten, and kicked, and he ran off on me so many times…. It has been months. He should have adjusted by now. He’s the only horse that has ever failed to respond to me. Then this guy shows up—some homeless inner-city kid, driven by a sense of guilt, I suppose—and he climbs right into the paddock, and the damn horse just will not leave his side.”
“So he’s your pet project.”
“Well.” Attila paused, waving Naomi over, trying very hard not to lie. “I am considering the possibility. Mostly… he just might be Vermillion’s last chance.”
A quiet whicker made Kai open his eyes and realize it was midday already. Searching for the source of the sound, he saw the red horse come and press his soft black nose against the mosquito screen that blocked the sliding door to the patio.
He sat up, suddenly conscious of his nakedness, and let his eyes search around until he spotted a pair of stretchy riding pants laid out as though for him. He made use of the bathroom first, showered, and used the new red toothbrush he found waiting for him. Then he brushed out his long orange-red hair using Attila’s hairbrush, hoping the man wouldn’t mind. He slipped into the stretchy pants, wondering at the suede patch in his crotch and the pads on the insides of his knees and thighs. There had been no shirt or shoes, and his sneakers were not in evidence. Kai shrugged, inhaled the lunch left out for him and drank all the water, but saved the apple for Vermillion. He then walked out to the patio.
“Hey, dude.” Kai’s bare feet rested on the cool concrete, unaware that one misstep on Vermillion’s part spelled a world of pain for him. “Want an apple?” He broke it in half, just like before. The red horse tossed his head at the sound of the fruit splitting and nosed the man’s chest. “Here ya go, fella!”
As the horse was occupied with his treat, Kai ran a curious hand down his flank, marveling at the smooth, tight hide that covered the shifting muscles. He was now better acquainted with the contained power that simmered under the surface. The knee to his head had been an accident, and Kai did not feel any residual effects. He was more watchful around the horse, though, making sure that Vermillion didn’t hit his face with his hard and heavy head. After Kai took an inventory of his limbs and various aches and pains, he became thankful for not being physically hurt. Still, he just could not shake off the feeling of mortal embarrassment for having passed out. Appearing weak has never been in his repertoire. He would have liked to blame the horse for it, but he was well aware he would have to work hard and prove himself to regain his dignity. He had barn work to do, except he had no shoes. He was, however, on a horse ranch and it occurred to him that, maybe, Vermillion might be enticed to give him a ride up the hill. He wanted to ask Mr. Keleman as to the whereabouts of his sneakers, and he wanted to know what work needed to be done.
I ain’t a freeloader. I can pull my weight. And Mr. Keleman… he’ll see. He won’t regret takin’ me on.
Buoyed by positive self-talk, Kai’s heart overflowed with a sudden surge of loyalty as his mind flooded with the memory of the man’s soothing voice and gentle helping hands. He thought back to the way his host had sat on the edge of his bed, adjusting his pillows and handing him juice, being so very careful not to touch him. Kai had been disappointed at that. He wanted to feel the caress of those long, smooth fingers again.
Not quite knowing why, he just couldn’t shake off the feeling that those strong, gentle hands had touched him before, and he shivered at the whisper of a memory. It bothered him that he should think of his host that way, and he racked his brain for other things he might have missed. There was the horse, red in the sunset… the apples… there had been water…. There had been another man, but he’d poked him with a needle, so Kai chose to block him out.
“Mr. Keleman obviously expects his workers to ride, Vermillion. You’ll just have to help me out here.”
Blocking off any further thoughts of his host, Kai coaxed the curious horse next to a picnic table under a large, spreading tree. He took the other half of the apple and held it out, maneuvering the horse just so. Then he climbed on the table and put his hands on the broad back.
Vermillion stood still, munching his apple.
Kai moved more of his weight onto the tall withers, then slung his leg over the broad rump, landing on the horse’s back with a graceless thump.
Vermillion shied under him and whinnied, almost rearing, and Kai grabbed the black strands of the horse’s long mane by sheer instinct.
He felt his own hair whip his face as Vermillion took to the hill, cantering up to the familiar paddock. He felt the powerful muscles shift under him in an easy cadence, and made his legs clasp around Vermillion’s barrel as he tried to hold on, barely able to breathe. They passed the barn and the covered arena, but the paddock gate was closed. Vermillion ran along the fence, his hoofs a rolling beat of three-and-one, reminiscent of ancient jungle drums. Kai absorbed it, moved with it, his hands still clinging to the mane, his legs squeezing the heaving barrel for all he was worth. Exhilaration replaced terror as Kai felt his uncommon sense of balance kick in and realized that he was not necessarily slated for an early death. The horse showed no intention of stopping. They reached an outdoor corral with a single rider jumping obstacles within it. With but a corner of his eye, Kai saw two men turn and look his way, and then Vermillion was off, burning excess energy, running free.
“Was that your guy Kai?” Tibor asked, eyes wide.
“Apparently.” Attila whistled, and Sen appeared at the paddock fence. Hearing yet a different whistle, the white Lipizzaner took a running start and cleared the fence, trotting up to his rider.
“I’d better go after him. He doesn’t even have a bridle. Give me a hand.”
Tibor’s big fingers linked into a step, boosting his brother-in-law onto Sen’s back. The white horse had no saddle, no reins.
“You have no bridle either,” Tibor said with a note of concern.
“I don’t need one.”
Attila felt his gut twist as images of a possible disaster flashed through his mind. He pushed them away and pressed his heel into Sen’s flank. They were off. Sen had been babysitting the red horse for long enough to know what was required of him.
Kai entered the forest trail. He ducked his head, almost leaning on his steed’s neck in an effort to clear the lowest branches of the surrounding trees. After few more minutes—and those felt like forever—Vermillion slowed down to a bouncy trot and then to a walk. Kai began to breathe again. He considered sliding off, but then he would lose the horse. The horse knew where he lived; Kai’s smartest option was to stay mounted and hope for the best.
In not too long, the four-beat cadence of a gallop echoed down the forest path. Vermillion tensed.
“Shhh….” His left hand still holding the mane, Kai stroked the horse’s neck. “It’s okay… it’s okay.”
A white horse burst into the open with Attila on top, bareback, intense eyes scanning the clearing. Kai saw relief wash over the other man’s face. Both he and Vermillion sat still, waiting for the other horse and rider to slow down and circle around to them.
“Hello, Mr. Keleman! I thought Vermillion would give me a ride up the hill, but I guess he got a bit excited.”
Attila nudged Sen with his leg, circling toward Kai. The younger man soaked up every single thing Attila did with his curious eyes. He straightened up to a perfect, poised posture, imitating what he saw, imitating Attila without even thinking about it.
The gesture did not escape Attila’s attention, though, and a thrill of excitement skittered up his spine. This guy was a natural, sitting a wild and untrained horse with balance and ease in just a pair of borrowed riding breeches—no experience, no bridle, no tack. He cut quite a figure, sitting tall, his skin bronze and bare. The bridge of his nose and cheekbones were sprinkled with freckles Attila had seen up close earlier. The sinuous pattern of his tattoo was echoed by the wind-tangled hair that spilled down his broad shoulders.
Kai and Vermillion complemented each other down to their wild nature, red hair, and warm brown eyes. Their chemistry was almost palpable.
Attila swallowed at the sight, and the thought of Kai staying crossed his mind for the very first time. He would teach him all he knew. He would help him train Vermillion, provide his comfort, and show him how the business was run. Finally, after all these years of family either dying or moving into other professions, there might finally be someone….
He let out a deep breath, cutting off his ruminations. Having the man around meant sharing space with him. They would drive each other crazy, sooner or later. Attila preferred horses to people most of the time, yet here was a human who apparently got along with his latest and most problematic acquisition. Attila’s own misanthropic tendencies had driven his family out of the business. There was no way he could get along with this man, this perfect stranger, this lovely thief. A sense of panic suffused him at the thought of his silent peace being wrecked by another person. Vermillion’s whicker interrupted his thoughts, though, almost exorcising the anxious feeling.
But Vermillion liked him….
Attila cleared his throat. “What did you need up the hill, Kai?”
The younger man’s expression softened at the use of his given name and he met Attila’s eyes for the first time. He seemed riveted by something he saw, almost compelling Attila to look away, before the older man spotted blush bloom up Kai’s neck and cheeks and relaxed with the realization that his unexpected guest was feeling even more awkward than he was.
“I need my shoes, and… an’ I wanted to apologize….” Kai’s breath hitched and he fought to speak, his gaze still held captive by the sudden warmth in Attila Keleman’s eyes. “So… I wanted t’know what work needs doin’. If your offer still stands, that is. Mr. Keleman,” he finished, breathless. Their gazes were still locked as their horses shifted under them, signaling their impatience.
“Yes, the offer still stands. Just follow me,” Attila said, his heart inexplicably light as he faced the westering sun. “The horses know the way.”