Taking the Reigns

Alyssa’s back pressed against the wall and realised she had nowhere else to go as Kerrick Saunders advanced on her. “Stop pretending you care about this place,” he sneered. “Your father ran it into the ground. The debt far outweighs any goodwill he held within the racing community. Sign the mortgage over to me and go back to the city where you belong.” In Kerrick’s mind, she had no choice. This should have been one of the easiest buy-outs of a competitor he could have done but the stupid girl clung to her father’s dream with frustrating tenacity.

Alyssa straightened her back and looked him in the eye, “No, I’d rather…” she stopped short of revealing her back up plan to keep the stud farm out of his hands and bit her tongue hard as he moved so close she could smell his sickly sweet aftershave.

“You’d rather what?” His sneer increased as he leaned over her, making her feel his greater size and weight powerfully. His hand ran up her ribs, his palm moving slightly over the roundness of her breast. For the first time, she felt truly scared. The emotion lasted only for a fleeting second before it turned to seething anger that she let herself be manoeuvred into this position.

Just as she was considering attempting a getaway by kicking him in the testicles, Tom trotted into the stable passing the door to her office and stopping. “Hey there, Kerrick. What brings you around again so soon?” Tom said without a hint of the uneasiness he felt at the scene before him.

Kerrick twisted at the sound of the voice and Alyssa took the opportunity to move from the spot into which she had been cornered, walking to the door with a smile of thanks at Tom. “Oh just checking out the competition. Seeing if I can make the young girlie an offer she can’t refuse,” Kerrick said amiably. “Talk some sense into her, Tom. She can’t hold on here much longer. Old Bill was the only asset this place had, and without him . . .” Kerrick extended his arms as if searching for an answer and finding none.

“Geez, you’re like a vulture hovering about,” Tom chuckled, taking the sting out of his words, “Let the girl get over her Dad’s death for God’s sake.”

“Time waits for no man,” Kerrick paused, tipping his head at Alyssa, “Or woman.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes, “If I am ever looking to sell this place you will be the first person I call.” Alyssa smiled sweetly having no intention of ever selling the stud farm.

“Ah good,” Kerrick gloated thinking he had won a small boon from Alyssa and looked around. “Don’t leave it too long. I would hate to have to demolish everything because you let it go to ruin before finally coming to your senses.” Kerrick whistled a happy tune as he walked out of the stable. Alyssa and Tom watched him enter the cab of his pickup and drive away.

“Thanks,” Alyssa said quietly leaning into Toms shoulder. “You couldn’t have arrived at a better time.”

“Looked intense,” Tom murmured and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “You okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine,” Alyssa smiled crookedly at him. “But Kerrick was right. Dad was the only thing this place had going for it, even taking the other assets into account, we are way behind the amount of debt he accrued.”

“Well you’re the big city girl who left us all to go off to university and a job in the skyscrapers,” Tom squeezed her shoulder. “You’ll think of something. What does that high powered boyfriend of yours think?”

“That I should cut my losses and run,” she said sadly. “He’s not that interested in farm life.”

“You’re not considering that are you?” Tom tried to keep the horror from his voice.

“I don’t want to,” she acknowledged, “but unless I can come up with a plan, and soon, I may not have a choice.” She hadn’t told Tom yet of her last ditch plan to turn it into a charity of sorts, creating a place for troubled teens to come and learn about life through the horses and ranch work. Her real dream though, was to bring the stud back to its former glory when it bred and trained amazing horses like its namesake, Godiva. Alyssa looked back over her shoulder at the glass case that held the treasured trophies and photos of the phenomenal horse that brought her father so much fame and happiness.

“I’m going to go have a bath,” Alyssa announced. “Are you coming up to the big house for dinner?”

“Yeah alright, I’ll be up later,” Tom agreed and led his horse away to remove her saddle and tack and brush her down.

Alyssa trudged up to the house, her mind, as always, working over her problems and missing the man she had always fled to when life was not working out the way she had thought it would – her father. She wished she knew what he had planned, but both Tom and Uncle Bob, as she called his father, said they knew nothing of why he had recently purchased an unknown mare and her filly for a price, though reasonable, he really couldn’t afford. She was starting to believe there was no way she could keep the new acquisitions but she couldn’t shake the thought that there was more to their story than anyone but her father knew.

Kerrick’s unusual interest in her father’s latest acquisitions made her even more curious, only deepening the mystery surrounding the purchase, but try as she might she just couldn’t puzzle it out. “Hi Marcie,” she called out as she ran through the house to her room, trying to leave as little dirt on the floor as possible and avoid a scolding.

There was no answer and Alyssa carefully retraced her steps in search of the missing woman. She found her sitting in the library. The curtains were closed and the room was dark but the older woman held a book in her hands. She looked up as Alyssa walked in and tried to recover her composure. She stood too quickly, the cradled book dropped to the floor, tears staining her face glistening in the soft light from the doorway.

“Goodness, Marcie! What’s wrong?” Alyssa said and rushed worriedly to the woman’s side.

“I just miss him,” Marcie said sadly.

“Me too,” Alyssa agreed and picked up the book that had dropped from Marcie’s hand. She smiled recognising the only semi adult book Dr. Suess had ever written, The Seven Lady Godivas. “Gosh I loved this book when I was little. I had no idea of the meanings in it of course but I loved it when Dad would come in after a long day and read it to me.”

“He adored those Horse Truths, that’s for sure,” Marcie grinned. “He adored a lot of silly things,” she added wistfully.

It was like a piece of the puzzle finally slipped into place. “Like you,” Alyssa said quietly. “But you are not so silly. I love you too.”

“You knew?” Marcie asked, her eyes wide.

“Not until this moment,” Alyssa confessed. “Who is the silly one now? I should have known.”

They sat together in the darkness of the library and talked, really talked, for the first time about her parents, not just her father. Her mother’s need for children as well as her father’s reluctance. The rare complications of her birth and the loss of the woman they had all loved and Alyssa had never known. Her father’s determination to keep her mother’s memory alive for her, despite his eventual deep love for his house-keeper and nanny. Finally, Alyssa asked why Marcie had agreed to the years of secrecy about their love and devotion to each other.

Arm in arm they left the library for the kitchen only to find Tom there, making a huge mess. Marcie exclaimed at the sight of him and Alyssa burst out laughing. Tom grinned, “Well you girls were in there nattering for so long a guy could starve if he waited for you to cook dinner.”

Marcie bustled into the kitchen mumbling under her breath about men and Tom continued to laugh as she swatted him with a dish rag for being in her way. “I stink,” Alyssa declared. “Back in a few minutes.”

“Hours more like it,” Tom laughed and Marcie swatted him with a dish cloth again as Alyssa bounded out of the room and upstairs for a quick shower.

They continued to laugh good naturedly over dinner about Alyssa’s obliviousness to her father’s love affair with Marcie and the amazing book that had been a firm favourite for the two women, a book that Tom had never heard of. Talk as usual turned to horses and Bill’s enduring love for them. “Why on earth would he have bought two unknown horses at such a dire time?” Alyssa blurted, silencing her two dinner companions.

Tom shrugged, “Got me beat. I got no better answer than the last time you asked.”

Marcie looked between them as if she had something to add but wasn’t sure if she should until Tom realised Alyssa was staring at her. “You know don’t you?” Marcie nodded but kept her lips tightly sealed. “Come on, Marcie. Spill the beans,” Tom said as he poured more wine from a newly opened bottle for them all.

“Pffft,” she made a horse like noise. “Can’t you guess?” The two younger people looked at her quizzically and she sighed. “Honestly, I thought the younger generation were supposed to be so smart.” Tom and Alyssa continued to stare, their mystified expressions eliciting yet another sigh from Marcie. “There are seven Godivas in the story they each had a mate…” she led them along the path of her thinking, “It stands to reason they had children.”

“We have Godiva’s children?” Alyssa exclaimed.

“No way,” Tom said, “Bill wouldn’t put her to stud.”

“Not here, he didn’t,” Marcie smiled smugly. “But he was a gambler and took a gamble on a few smaller stud places and lesser known stallions. Godiva’s first filly did not do well and was put into the breeding program over at Mullin’s Creek but we have the mare and Godiva’s grandchild back again.”

“Holy shit!” Alyssa gaped at Marcie. “What else do you know?” Marcie gave her a knowing smile but said no more and the three sat in silence for a while.

“At the end of the day it still doesn’t help our cash flow crisis,” Alyssa finally said. “We have to come up with a plan, and soon, or Kerrick’s offers will start looking more attractive.”

“More attractive than him anyway,” Marcie grumbled. Alyssa raised an eyebrow in her direction. “He’s been trying to get your father to sell for years. Kerrick’s taken out almost all of the local stud competition and runs the racing club here, even if it is behind the scenes.”

“Do you think he knows about the mare and the filly?” Tom asked suddenly serious.

“That would explain his interest in them when he comes to visit,” Alyssa mused.

“No,” Marcie said, looking suddenly sad, “Your father bought them both in my name, and I would pay for their keep out of my savings, so that it looked all above board, until he died.” She lowered her head, squeezing her eyes closed to stave off the tears before continuing. “Then you came and looked through the books and saw that he bought them only looking at the figures not the names and I couldn’t say anything without… Well, telling you about him and me.”

“Oh my God,” Alyssa gasped. “I am such a selfish cow.”

“Oh no,” Marcie suddenly looked up. “You have been grief stricken and it wasn’t my place to say.”

“Of course it was your place to say,” Alyssa said vehemently. “Why would you think otherwise? You knew him the best of all of us.”

Marcie had expected recriminations and resentment once Alyssa found out about their affair but instead she had found a young woman who not only accepted her and the relationship with her father but seemed to value it. “I don’t know,” Marcie mumbled. “Your mother was such a ghost in all our lives.”

“That’s just it, she was a ghost. You were more of a mother to me really.” Alyssa took Marcie’s hand. “You were the one always here for me.”

“Well I hate to break the moment,” Tom said pragmatically, “we still have the financial problem regardless of tonight’s good fortunes, so unless your savings total in the tens of thousands, we still need a plan of action.”

“Urgh,” Alyssa groaned. “Way to break a meaningful moment, Tom,” she scowled at him.

Tom pulled a face at her, “Someone has to be the bad guy and I can’t let Kerrick have all the fun.”

Marcie stood up, “I don’t know about you two but I am going to clean up that kitchen.” She rolled her eyes at Tom, “and try to get to bed before midnight.”

“We’ll help,” Alyssa said brightly, nudging Tom who grumbled something that could be taken for assent.

“No need sweet thing,” Marcie stopped her. “I enjoy the quiet time and busy hands. Keeps my mind off…” She left the thought hanging and shrugged. The younger people helped by carrying the dishes to the kitchen and left Marcie to her cleaning.

Alyssa walked Tom to the door. “I can’t believe I never knew,” she said.

“I don’t think very many people realised,” Tom smiled without adding that he only knew because his father, who had been Bill’s closest friend, had let it slip one drunken night. “See ya tomorrow,” Tom whispered and leaned in to kiss her cheek.

“Get to bed,” she shooed him away laughing. “Don’t try and drag me into your bedrail tally marks. I know you horse men. I bet there is a girl already warming your mattress for you.”

Tom turned, hiding his hurt feelings and wandered off into the darkness calling, “Sweet dreams, Ice Princess.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes and closed the door. “Why do you say such things?” Marcie asked behind her.

“Sibling teasing,” Alyssa laughed and turned to face the woman. “Everyone knows what hounds the horse men are.”

“He’s not like them and I think you know that,” Marcie said, “and if you don’t, well shame on you.” The older woman turned and walked away without another word leaving Alyssa gaping after her.

Slowly walking up the stairs Alyssa tried to wrap her mind around everything she had learned tonight until her head hurt with possibilities and explanations. She needed a weekend back in the city with her boyfriend and her girlfriends, normal people with normal lives, she decided. Then she could come back and look at the problems with fresh eyes.

Tom had stood within the stand of trees between the house and the cottage where he lived with his father. He watched as her bedroom light went on and she stripped her clothes before walking to the window to open it. She had always seemed oblivious to the fact that she may be seen. They were on a farm, he conceded, but there were enough farm hands that lived on the property that, like him, could possibly see her. Admittedly she didn’t do it often, but he had always watched since he was a young boy and first discovered the delights of girls and enjoyed the views Alyssa offered as she readied for bed. He waited for her light to go off before walking to his own bed.

*****

Deciding to surprise everyone, Alyssa had told no one of her plans to return to the city for a few days. She had left with the dawn on Friday morning arriving in the city mid afternoon. Knowing her boyfriend, Justin, would be at work until at least six, she showered to expunge the smell of horses and the ranch and sprayed her favourite perfume quite liberally around herself and the apartment. She didn’t bother to dress while she waited for him to return. Each night she Skyped him at around six and he was home so she expected him to at least come home for a few minutes even if he planned to go out with friends.

She wandered around the apartment naked, not bothering to close the blinds, imagining that someone would have to be in an equally tall building with binoculars to see her and if they went to that much trouble they earned the disappointing peek at her nakedness. She knew she was far from the good looking models in magazines that men lusted after. She was in contrast, short and slight despite her wide hips and average breasts. She cupped the pink tip globes thanking her mother for good genes. Without these, she thought shaking the soft flesh, she would look too scrawny and fragile.

She stood at the sliding glass door that led to the balcony for a few moments in case there was some perve out there who could appreciate her strange physique when she heard the key in the door and turned to yell surprise. The words caught in her throat and she squealed bolting for the coat she had left lying over the lounge chair when she arrived. What Alyssa hadn’t expected was for her boyfriend, Justin, to walk through the door with one of her best friends saying, “Yeah I will just do the call and then I’m all yours…”

Justin stopped in his tracks seeing Alyssa naked next to the windows and his head swivelled between the girl he had his arm around and his long time girlfriend. The girl had a look of horror on her face as she gasped, “Oh my god, Alyssa!”

“Don’t bother explaining,” Alyssa said savagely as she grabbed her coat, wrapping it viciously about her nakedness.

“It’s not like you caught me in bed with another woman,” Justin yelled trying to get through her hardened shell. “She means nothing to me,” Justin pleaded with Alyssa.

Alyssa could see the effect of his words in the crushed look on the other girl’s face, and it told her everything she needed to know. She turned her face up to him saying calmly, “The look on that girl’s face tells me this was more than just a momentary fling, Justin, you asshole. How could you treat her with such disdain and me with such disrespect?” She could barely look at her friend, let alone say her name. She swallowed hard and straightened her shoulders as she said, “I feel sorry for you, Danielle, if you sleep with someone else’s man, they are always going to treat you this badly so stop looking so hurt that he would deny any feeling for you. You act like a slut and people will treat you that way.”

She grabbed her weekend bag that was still sitting beside the door with her shoes and her handbag from the table and left quickly as both Justin and the girl both babbled that it was all a misunderstanding.

Calling Tom, using the bluetooth in her car as she drove, she cried, “I can’t even go to my other friends! They must have all known.”

Tom was beside himself with worry that she was driving in her state. He begged her to call a friend he went to school with and go there. She refused to be begging a stranger to come look after her. He made her promise not to drive until she was calm again and urged her to stop somewhere for coffee while he called his friend and arranged a night there if she wouldn’t call herself. He would ride his bike down and meet her there if she would just pull over. Even in her frantic state, she could see the sense in Tom’s words and acquiesced reluctantly.

Alyssa was sitting in a coffee club, feeling like the biggest fool in the world, when a tall stylish woman approached her. “Alyssa?” the woman asked. At the confused look on Alyssa’s face she continued, “I I’m Tom’s friend, Harry.” She held out her hand.

“Fuck, I should have known you would be perfectly gorgeous,” Alyssa groaned and buried her head in her hands. “Why couldn’t Harry have been a fat overweight geek?”

“Well thanks, I think,” Harry said. “Come on let’s get you home and um,” her eyes slid down over the gaping jacket, “… someplace friendlier,” she said with a smile, “And by the looks of what that coat is hiding, be should be thankful that I am not some horny geek.”

In her numb state Alyssa had forgotten all about her attire but she didn’t really care. She just wanted a place to curl up into a ball and cry. She let herself be led out of the café and Harry said softly, “Give me your keys. I will drive.” She waved to her friend who had driven her to pick up the girl indicating that everything was okay and helped Alyssa into the passenger seat of her own car.

Pulling out onto the road Harry turned to Alyssa and patted her leg, “It’s a well known truth that all men are pigs,” Harry said. “You find the rare one that is trainable but mostly they just root around in the dirt until they grow up enough to realise…,” she paused searching for the right word. “Shit, I don’t think they ever grow up.”

“Where are we going?” Alyssa asked without much interest.

“My place,” Harry said brightly. “Tom’s on his way. I told him I would keep you safe till he got there. He didn’t want you driving when you were so upset.” Harry smiled, “He might be one of the few exceptions to the rule about all men being pigs.”

“He can be a pig,” Alyssa smiled. “We sort of grew up together so I have seen a broken heart or two that he has left behind him. He’s a good friend to have though, but I guess you know that.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. They shared stories about Tom as they made the half hour drive back to Harry’s place. She was glad that Alyssa was looking and sounding better than when she had first seen her slumped at a table, her blotchy tear stained face showing the depth of her hurt.

They pulled up in front of a brightly lit warehouse by the river, “It’s a share house,” Harry explained. “I like having interesting people around. It keeps life exciting.”

Alyssa tried to hide her reluctance to be around other people as she got out of the car. Harry grabbed her bag and led the way inside. Loud music blared from a stereo in the corner of the cavernous room they entered and several people wandered about within the space. Alyssa barely had time to take it all in though as Harry took her arm and led her up a spiral staircase to the second floor.

In stark contrast to the lower level, this floor was dark and silent. They must have great insulation Alyssa thought as she followed Harry to a bedroom. “You can stay in here tonight. Now let’s see what you have in this bag to wear.” She was all business as she inventoried the small bag Alyssa had brought down for the weekend. “None of this will do. Wait here,” Harry instructed.

She returned with a little black dress that she threw on the bed and helped Alyssa take her coat off revealing her completely nude body. Harry didn’t comment but drank in the delicious sight before pulling the little black dress over Alyssa’s head and zipping it up for her. The low square neckline revealed more cleavage than Alyssa would normally have allowed but it was a surprisingly good fit, hugging more than snugly to her curves. “Come on, Doll, I will introduce you to the other hotties downstairs.” Harry took her hand once again and dragged her back down the stairs to the loud music and bright lights.

Alyssa let herself be distracted by the friendly, colourful people she met. A glass of wine in her hand, she allowed herself to believe the image of her friend and her boyfriend entering the apartment arm in arm was just a dream. Her phone continued to ring and in the end Harry took it and answered it, “Listen arsehole, just stop ringing. She won’t talk to you tonight so go do whoever you were doing and leave her alone.” She hung up and handed the phone back.

Alyssa stared wide-eyed at the phone as she felt the tears threatening to spill over the rim of her eyelids again. “Harry is such a bully. It’s okay to feel crushed after the night you had,” said Gwen, one of the never-ending stream of housemates appearing beside her. She wrapped an arm about her shoulder in a sisterly embrace.

“Does everyone know?” Alyssa whispered as a tear trailed down her face.

“Not many secrets in this place, hun,” Gwen laughed. “I drove Harry to pick you up. Don’t worry, we have all been through break-ups at one stage or another. How else would fabulous women like us still be single?” She smiled, “It’s Friday night, this place will be buzzing soon. Friday night is always open night here. Forget about your troubles for a while, deal with that shit tomorrow.” Gwen refilled her glass and encouraged her to go through the music they had on hand, warning, “Nothing sad and dreary. Friday night is party night.”

The night wore on and the place became crowded, Alyssa was passed from housemate to housemate as if they were afraid to leave her alone to dwell on her problems. Each time she put down a drink, another would be thrust into her hand and she quickly became light-headed even though she only sipped at the golden liquid.

A man approached her as she off-loaded another glass onto a near-by counter and turned back into the room. “Ah here is the mystery girl! Harriett tells me you are Lady Godiva.”

“Hardly,” Alyssa laughed, “I just don’t have the hair for it.” She continued to laugh, confusing herself as to why it amused her so much, it wasn’t like she hadn’t heard that line before. She was contemplating whether it was the wine or the odd man himself that made her laugh when he spoke again.

“I saw Godiva race once, she really was a champion. It’s a shame none of her offspring matched her speed and stamina,” he said engaging her in a conversation that she couldn’t walk away from.

“Didn’t think anyone knew she had children, so to speak,” Alyssa said softly. “You don’t look old enough to have seen her race. I mean it was over twenty-five years ago.” She looked him up and down gauging his age to be early twenties.

He laughed and thanked her for the compliment adding, “I can thank my father’s Mediterranean heritage for the good skin and youthful looks but I assure you, I am quite old enough to have seen her race, albeit when I was a young boy,” he winked at her.

The man’s easy banter had put her at ease and she found herself talking to him about the horse that her father had trained, raced and bred on the stud farm named for her. The man turned out to be one of the better sports reporters that followed the horse racing scene fanatically. He had a great interest in the horses her father had raced in recent years and while none of them were the calibre of Godiva, they did quite well in their own right.

Alyssa’s sadness deepened as she talked of her father, nothing was going right in her life, not the farm, not her relationship, nothing at all. She looked around the room that was crowded with strangers and she felt more alone than she ever had.

Harry appeared beside them. “Geez, Joe!” She exclaimed, “Don’t tell me you’re boring our guest to death with your dreadful horse stories, I could see her eyes glazing over from across the room.”

“Oh come on. You only want her for one of your human interest stories. All pretty Princess Fru-Fru and no substance,” they ribbed each other good naturedly.

“Ooh Alyssa,” Harry said excitedly, “How about you do a Lady Godiva ride at one of the big race meets? Joe and I could both write a column on you. He could write about the horses and stables and I could do a piece on you, Godiva’s heiress.”

Joe laughed and slapped his thigh, “Yeah, you gotta do it! We haven’t had a decent streaker at the races for years and years. Plus it would be awesome exposure and publicity for your stables.”

“You two are insane!” Alyssa said, shaking her head vehemently. She stood up and excused herself but Harry grabbed her hand.

“Oh sweetie,” she said quickly, “We were only playing. Don’t be upset with me.”

“I’m not upset,” Alyssa smiled back at Harry who really had been kind to her since picking her up from the café. “I’m just going to find the bathroom down here, or up there or where ever you are hiding it.”

“I’ll show you,” Harry took her hand and led the way, threading through the crowd to the rear of the room. As usual a line up wound its way around the wall but Harry pushed her way to the front and when the door opened thrust Alyssa in. “Perks of owning the place,” she winked and closed the door.

Alyssa emerged a few minutes later to find that Harry was nowhere in sight so she walked determinedly towards the spiral staircase knowing her keys and bag were upstairs. Gwen waylaid her before she was halfway across the room and pulled her into a group who were laughing loudly at an inane story a tall, good looking man was telling. Alyssa smiled and pretended to listen as she was handed yet another drink and stood with the group, longing for some peace from the frenetic pace of the crowded room and loud music. She was getting quite drunk and feeling more than a little bit unsteady on her feet.

It was well after midnight when a cheer went up and Alyssa craned her head to see who had arrived. The place was so crowded she had no hope of seeing who the commotion was over so she rapidly gave up and turned back to the group she had joined, trying to keep up with their conversation while her mind wandered to less pleasant things like why the floor suddenly felt uneven.

A murmur rippled through the crowd moving closer to where Alyssa stood as people greeted the newcomer. “Must be some sort of celebrity,” Alyssa murmured softly craning her head around again to see if she could see who it was.

“Only to this crowd,” one of the people in the group answered Alyssa’s murmur and laughed. “He used to be the party prince of this group,” she laughed. “He’s just one of those people everyone likes and wants to hang out with. Loads of fun. He dated that supermodel once, you know the one,” she punched her friends arm getting their attention, “that could make him a celebrity, sort of.”

Alyssa turned around from the woman speaking to look again and stifled a sob. Her oldest friend Tom was weaving through the crowd toward her. She stood frozen to the spot as she watched him advance on her and wrap his strong arms around her, Alyssa buried her face in his coat and let herself cry again as he held her, oblivious to all the open-mouth stares they attracted.

“Let’s find somewhere quieter to talk, hey?” He said softly into her ear. All she could do at that moment was nod and let him lead her back toward the stairs leading up to the quiet bedrooms. In the quiet, dim room where her bag had been put, Alyssa poured her heart out to her friend. The wine loosened her tongue enough to say the things she had kept so secret, like the state of the farm finances and the strain her father’s death as well, as the time she had spent at the farm, had put on her relationship with Justin. She had known it was over when Justin had openly admitted his resentment of the amount of time she had spent at home on the farm.

Tom held her silently as she poured out everything she had kept bottled up, asking very few questions even though his head was full of them and inwardly cursing at the cruelty of the men she had loved and how, in their own ways, they had let her down. He had protested as she struggled out of the tight black dress, claiming drunkenly that it was strangling her. She had waved away his protests. “You’re like my brother,” she said and lay back down against his fully clothed body. “Besides you’ve seen me in my underwear before when we swam in the farm dam.”

“Justin wouldn’t swim there with me. He said it was too muddy,” she began to cry again. Tom stopped protesting that she wasn’t wearing underwear this time and pulled a blanket over her as he stroked her back while she cried herself to sleep. He lay there through the night, holding her as his mind worked over the problems she had just unloaded onto his shoulders. He tried to relieve some of her worry by thinking of a short term solution to the financial crisis at the farm but in reality there seemed to be very few options available to them. He looked down on her sleeping face and was secretly glad that Justin had messed up so badly. He hoped this would end the relationship but he would never tell her that, he couldn’t. He didn’t know how she would react and he couldn’t handle not having her in his life if she rejected him.

As dawn was lightening the sky outside Tom felt a buzz against his thigh. He reached between them to retrieve her phone, gently removing it from where it had become wedged between their legs. He turned it off, the gentle movement causing the sleeping girl to stir. Alyssa murmured and rolled over, pulling at the blanket he had covered her with. Stretching his aching body that had held Alyssa close all night, cocooning her with his warmth, he groaned softly and picked up his own phone to call the leading hand at the farm to explain his absence, saying that it may be extended by a day or two.

He spoke quietly and kept the call short but as soon as he hung up Alyssa spoke sleepily, “Thank you for coming to rescue me from my awful life.”

“Nothing awful about your life,” Tom said with a smile. “Look who you’re in bed with. That gives you instant credibility with this crowd.”

“Lucky me,” Alyssa opened her eyes and gave him a withering look made all the more pointed by her hang over.

“Indeed. Lucky you,” he grinned. “Well if you’re awake put some clothes on before I forget we are just friends and consider notching the bedhead as you put it, and we’ll go get some breakfast instead.” Alyssa raised an eyebrow at his emphasis on the words just friends and heard Marcie’s voice in her head hinting that there was more feeling there than she realised.

It was the first time in their lives that she could recall him even hinting at noticing her sexuality and it stunned her. She became suddenly self-conscious and pulled the blanket up higher covering her nakedness. She vaguely remembered the dress being too tight and constricting as she had cried out all her problems during the night. It hadn’t even occurred to her to be self-conscious with Tom. He had always been like a brother to her. The soft voice pricking her memory made her question that and she looked at him with seemingly new eyes and blushed.

Tom noticed her blush and chuckled, “Be downstairs in fifteen minutes or I will be coming back up to get you and carry you out of this place.” Before something happens that we both regret, he thought to himself.

“Yes, Sir,” Alyssa gave him a mock salute and waited for him to leave the room before getting up. She shook her head, banishing Marcie’s voice. She had too many complications in her life already. She didn’t need one more. She needed her friend and confidant far more than another issue to deal with.

Ten minutes later she descended the stairs and looked around the cavernous room on the ground floor. It looked very different in the daytime without all the bright and glittery people and she spied Harry, Gwen and Tom sitting at a bench in an open-plan kitchen near the bottom of the stairs. She wondered how she hadn’t noticed it the night before.

“Harry was just telling me about the idea she and Joe talked to you about last night. It might work you know?” Tom said scratching at his unshaven chin.

Alyssa’s brow furrowed as she tried to remember the conversation. “Oh no!” She gasped, “You can’t be serious!”

“Why not,” Harry said. “You have a hot little body and with the right wig and maybe a side saddle,” she too seemed to be considering Alyssa with critical eyes as she paused and Alyssa looked to Gwen for a voice of reason.

Gwen shrugged, “Don’t look at me. I don’t think I really understand what they are talking about I only got here a minute ago myself,” she said as she poured a cup of coffee and pushed it toward Alyssa before pouring her own.

“She could almost do it anonymously, I suppose, and leave it to me and Joe to link it back to the ranch in the media,” Harry looked at Tom, briefly turning from her inspection of Alyssa. “That way she wouldn’t have to worry about fines or being arrested or nastiness like that.”

“You can’t honestly think I would streak at a race day?” Alyssa looked at them with wide unbelieving eyes.

“Why not?” Harry asked. “You seemed to have no problem with your nudity last night. Plus your hero, Tom, would be there to protect you and I could give you the perfect alibi. You would ride so fast that even the wiliest peeping Toms would be disappointed that they didn’t get a photo of the event.” Harry looked very pleased with her own cleverness. “And if you did it around the fourteenth of next month, it would help me cover some obscure National Nude Day thing my sleazy boss wants a column on.” She clapped her hands happily, a big smile covering her face.

“The free publicity alone would bring in business. It could be the trendy place to keep the horses of the rich and famous and arrange stud fees and if we could just get one more champion in the mix, or one we could claim to be of Godiva’s bloodline,” Tom was talking more to himself than anyone else as he continued to scratch at his stubble considering what he had learned about the unknown mare and her filly.

“For God’s sake, you can’t be serious!” Alyssa almost yelled at Tom. “Go shave that stubble and turn back into my friend who has enough brain power to know I couldn’t do it.”

Echoing Harry’s earlier statement Tom said, “Why not?”

“Maybe we could get a body double,” Harry mused as she sipped her coffee. “Have you got any tattoos or anything that is unmistakably you under all those clothes?”

“I can’t believe we are even discussing thing this,” Alyssa said, “Have you all gone deaf? I can’t do it!”

“You’re right,” Tom said, turning to look at Alyssa properly, waiting to see the relief in her face before adding. “I do need a shave,” he grinned widely and wandered back upstairs in search of a razor. Hearing her curse under her breath at him, he paused and spoke over his shoulder with a grin, “I heard that and that is no way for a lady to speak.”

Settling at the bench with the other two women, Alyssa finally turned her phone back on. It immediately buzzed to life announcing missed calls and waiting texts and messages. She would have to face it eventually so she excused herself and walked away to a couch and sat listening to the pleas of innocence and misunderstanding that both Justin and Danielle had left for her.

The scene replayed over in her mind and despite appearances, she wasn’t a naïve little girl who could be cajoled into forgetting what she had seen and heard, she felt her heart being squeezed again within her chest.

Harry came to sit beside her, “Look Doll-face, life has shit on you from a great height by all accounts, and I know this is the last thing you want to hear but sometimes life kicks you in the guts for a reason.” She shrugged, “Time to move on and do things your way, not your father’s way, not your lousy boyfriend’s way, but your way.” She smiled, “Now you just have to decide what your way is going to be. Are you strong enough to take on the world and show them you can make your mark on your own or will you buckle under and lose the stables as well?”

While Alyssa had been trying to deal with the financial ruin of the stud farm she had never considered the reality that she might actually lose it and what life would be like without it. The thought shocked her and made her feel ill. It was her home, her life, everything she loved was there. It was in that moment she realised that it was all her fault. She was the one that had pulled away from Justin and returned to what she loved after her father’s death. His refusal to help her or understand her need to be there, put a wall between them that she knew would probably always bethere while she owned and tried to run the farm herself. Harry was right, choices had to be made, and though the betrayal hurt, the loss of her lover had occurred months ago when she had moved home and they had tried, but obviously failed, to make it work long distance.

Harry misunderstood her silence for hurt feelings and put her arm around Alyssa’s shoulder hugging her. “This too shall pass, as they say.”

“Actually I think I needed to hear that,” Alyssa said. She picked up her phone and called Justin. “I’ll be there in an hour, that should give you enough time to prepare whatever you have to say.” Alyssa hung up before he could say anything further. “Time to cut the dead wood from my life and move on,” she said determinedly to Harry. “Feel like rifling through a strange woman’s belongings?”

“Hell yeah!” Harry said enthusiastically. “I’ll see if I can dig up some boxes and garbage bags.”

“Tom can bring you over when he is finished making himself all pretty,” Alyssa grinned then picked up her bag and keys and headed for the door.

“I’m pretty all the time,” Tom bounded down the stairs. “Where are we going?”

“I am going to remove the tenant from the apartment which in reality was never mine but belonged to Godiva Stud Farm. It will have to be sold to pay back some of the creditors of course and if the tenant wants to fight for his rights he can take on half of the crippling debt I now own and go bankrupt with me,” she smiled.

“Are you sure about this?” Tom asked, concern etched into his face.

“This just made the break-up faster, it was coming anyway. I don’t think he’ll be surprised. Follow me over in fifteen, okay? Harry is gonna help me pack,” Alyssa put on a brave smile and hugged Tom. “Thanks for coming. You’re the best friend a girl could have.” Then she turned and fled from the warehouse before he could stop her.

Several hours later, they returned to the warehouse, what she actually wanted from the apartment turned out to be very little in reality. She had no need of any of the general household stuff and Justin seemed prepared to take the furnishings and anything she left behind as settlement for the two years of living together. In the end there were no tears or recriminations, just a mutual agreement that things had run their course and it was time to part. They had both felt sadness but like ripping a bandaid off, Alyssa cleaned out everything she wanted with the help of her friends so she wouldn’t have to return to face him again. Justin in turn assured her he would vacate as soon as possible and let her know, so the apartment could be readied for auction.

The final loss of such a large part of her life left her feeling empty when she finally sat down to relax. It wasn’t that she felt the devastation and betrayal of the night before but more that she had believed through all that had happened over recent months that even though they were apart she was loved by someone. Now she felt truly alone. She had her friends of course. She looked at Tom who sat comfortably in a chair close by but as with all people he would find his own love soon enough if he hadn’t already and then what would she do, when he moved away to create his own life and family, separate to hers.

Her thoughts continued to grow darker and she didn’t realise she had begun to cry until suddenly Tom was at her side, wrapping his strong arms around her and holding her to his chest. Once again she cried herself to exhaustion feeling stupid and weak, and loathing herself for it.

When she got up off the couch after resting for a time, she straightened her shoulders and turned to Harry who was sitting at the kitchen bench with Gwen. “Thank you so much for all your help. You didn’t even know me and you have done so much.” Alyssa walked toward them and pulled out a stool, to sit for a moment. “I need to go home,” she smiled, “It’s where I belong. I have to work out how to dig myself out of the mess I am in without resorting to public indecency charges,” she laughed weakly and rolled her eyes as Harry started to protest.

“Oh come on,” Harry grinned, “It would be a huge favour to me, giving my sleazy boss what he wants while doing a really cool piece on a part of horseracing history.” She cocked her head as if remembering something, “I know Joe would do a serious piece following it too! This could be such great publicity for your stable. You could offer hot laps like the race cars except on horses!”

“Geez I was on your side until you said that Harry,” Tom groaned. “Hot laps and horses,” he grumbled and shook his head.

Harry took both of Alyssa’s hands in hers, “Promise me you will think about it. It’s the best idea I have had in months, since I got told I had to do a piece on this Nude Day thing.”

Alyssa laughed again, “Why don’t you come to the stables next weekend? You can see for yourself that we are not set up for tourists out there.”

“That sounds great, I could do with a quiet weekend, can I bring a friend or two?” Harry was enthusiastic.

“Two,” Tom said firmly. “You’re not turning this into one of your party tours.”

Harry fluttered her eyelashes at Tom, “Such a grouch. You wreck all my fun.” She turned back to Alyssa. “I’ll bring the rest of your stuff up to you then,” she said, indicating the few bags that hadn’t fit into Alyssa’s car.

Despite the friendly banter, Alyssa just wanted to go home. She thanked Harry again and picked up her bag and keys. It wasn’t until they were outside on the footpath that Alyssa realised Tom was leaving too. “I’ll follow you. Stop in Falls Creek and I’ll buy you a late lunch,” he said quietly as he helped her into her car.

“Catch me if you can,” Alyssa grinned and pulled out of the car park not waiting for his answering jibe. She had been driving for two hours, after having a fast run through the lights and traffic leaving the city, before she saw his bike in her rear view mirror and smiled. It was nice to know he was around and he ghosted along behind her for another hour before they pulled into Falls Creek and he lead the way to a small hotel.

It was a quaint little place, and over a beautifully home cooked meal they talked about the full extent of the ranch’s problems. Not just the financial aspect but facilities, staff and networks within the racing community. The racing industry had undergone significant changes over the years and Bill hadn’t altered his thinking to go with them. They needed to make sweeping changes across the board if they were going to survive, their expenses far outweighed their income and it couldn’t be sustained much longer or Kerrick would win.

“Why didn’t you tell me how bad things really were?” Tom looked at her with a mix of anger and worry showing in his face.

“I think I was trying to hold onto all the different pieces of my life after Dad… you know, I didn’t want to lose anything or anyone else,” she said quietly and his brow furrowed as he thought about what had happened in the last twenty-four hours. “Harry said something this morning that finally broke through that fantasy world I had been living in, where if I hung on tight enough nothing else would change, and change could be a good thing,” Alyssa tried to explain.

Tom smiled, “Harry can have her moments of clarity. What did she say?”

Alyssa tried her best to retell the conversation verbatim, doing her own impression of Harry’s voice and nuances, “Look Doll-Face, life has shit on you from a great height by all accounts, and I know this is the last thing you want to hear but sometimes life kicks you in the guts for a reason.” She shrugged exaggerating Harry’s movements, “Time to move on and do things your way, not your father’s way, not your lousy boyfriend’s way but your way.” She smiled, “Now you just have to decide what your way is going to be. Are you strong enough to take on the world and show them you can make your mark on your own or will you buckle under and lose the stables as well?” Alyssa burst out laughing at the end of her impression as Tom held his sides and chuckled loudly.

“Yeah that sounds like a page from Harry’s, shoot it from the hip, book,” Tom was almost doubled over with laughter at Alyssa’s impression of his friend.

“It just sort of blew away all those fantasy clouds I had pulled around my head and I knew Justin had to go,” she said with a weak smile. “I did love him, you know, but in the end I am a country girl and he definitely is all citified, despite his love of horse racing. It was more about the events than the actual animals for him, I think.”

Tom nodded, “City life is great, but like you, I always make my way home again.” He reached out and took her hand, “Is that everything? You told me all of it?” He watched her nod. “Good now WE can go back and work out a way to keep the rest of your ruined life together.” He grinned as he teased her but squeezed her hand to let her know he meant it about helping her to save her home.

Leaving the small hotel and bistro, they began the second half of their journey home each lost in their own thoughts about each other, the ranch they had grown up on and possible solutions to the most immediate problems.

Alyssa smiled as she drove up the long gravel track that led to her home. She did love this place despite her urgency to get away from the humdrum day to day work of the farm as a teenager. She pulled up in front of the big old house and turn off the engine but she didn’t move from the car. Looking up at the weathered façade of the house, she wondered once again if there was any way she could hang onto it regardless of the enormous debt and maintenance issues.

She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there staring vacantly at the building before her car door opened. “Come on, Alyssa. Sitting there staring at it won’t make things better. Let’s go see what Marcie is cooking,” Tom gently pulled her from the car.

“Shit I forgot to tell Marcie I was coming back early,” Alyssa sighed. “It’s okay I will make you something.” She started toward the door.

“Slow down,” Tom caught her hand and walked with her to the front door,”I called her before I left Harry’s place and said we would be back tonight, so she didn’t think we were burglars trying to break in.”

“Oh, thanks,” Alyssa smiled and let them into the house. True to form Marcie was in the kitchen and even though she had eaten a late lunch, Alyssa found that she was suddenly starving.

“I heard you pull up ages ago what happened out there?” Marcie smiled to hide the look of concern she had for Alyssa. Tom had told her of the break up and she had worried all afternoon.

“I was daydreaming as usual,” Alyssa said and returned the woman’s half-smile.

Marcie lost any pretence of not knowing at that point and came around the counter to hug the girl she had looked after her whole life. Alyssa scowled at Tom realising he had told Marcie everything.

Tom held up his hands, “I can’t win. I can’t lie to either of you women and you think you would be grateful but noooooooooo,” he said exaggeratedly. “You all like the lying cheating bastards.” The words were out of his mouth before he realised what he had said and at the look of utter dismay on Alyssa’s face he wished he could have sucked them back in. “Oh gawd, I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” he looked at Alyssa with a horrified expression.

Alyssa took the dishtowel from Marcie’s hand and started flicking it at Tom so that he yelped and backed away. “I think Harry was right, all men are pigs! She thought you might be the exception to the rule but you just proved her wrong.” She threw the dishtowel at him and turned her back on him to wink at Marcie to let her know she was really fine. In truth if Tom hadn’t tried to retract his words she would have thought it no more than the teasing he meant it to be.

Alyssa then added to her torment of Tom by saying, “Did he also tell you that he thinks I should ride around nude so people can point at me and laugh?”

Marcie put her hand over her mouth she wasn’t sure whether to be horrified or laugh at the joke. At Tom’s indignant spluttering of “I said no such thing. It wasn’t like that at all,” Marcie picked up a second dish towel and began to flick him herself.

“Okay, okay. I admit I am a pig like all the others of my gender,” Tom surrendered. “I can’t help it, it’s genetic.”

“True,” Marcie relented turning to Alyssa. “He can’t help it.”

“I guess,” Alyssa agreed and stifled a giggle.

They ate an easy meal and, now that the crazy scheme was out and on the table, Alyssa had to fill Marcie in on the nude ride idea . They laughed and joked with each other like when they were younger, the absence of her father leaving a gaping hole in the conversation that neither woman wanted to acknowledge.

“Well unlike some people I didn’t get any sleep last night, so I am going to turn in and leave you two girls to clean up, being a pig and all,” he smirked and kissed Marcie on the cheek thanking her for the dinner before turning to Alyssa and picking up a few strands of her hair. “How fast can you grow your hair?”

“Pig,” she murmured trying not to smile.

“You go to bed too,” Marcie urged her. “I don’t mind the cleaning up.”

Tom and Alyssa left Marcie in the kitchen and walked through to the front of the house again. “Thanks,” Alyssa said softly as Tom went through the door, “For everything.”

“That’s what friends are for,” Tom smiled and bent to kiss her forehead. He looked into her eyes for a few seconds more and then abruptly turned and walked into the darkness to his own small cottage that he shared with his father. He had wanted nothing more than to kiss her when he had looked into her eyes but he knew this was not the time. He had grown up with Alyssa as friends and playmates and while he had slowly noticed her and fallen for her as she matured into womanhood, she had only ever looked at him like a brother.

His father had once owned a neighbouring ranch but they had been one of the first families to buckle in the recession and sell out to Kerrick and his brother. Bill had given them both a job and a place to live on his own property. Alyssa had been sixteen at the time and he only a year older. They had spent even more time together in the year before he went to university and he was living the high life under his mother’s influence by the time Alyssa followed him there a year later. Their two worlds didn’t mesh and their encounters became less frequent though they both journeyed home for holidays.

Tom remembered the moment he knew his feelings for Alyssa were deeper than mere pseudo- siblings. He had seen her enter a marquee at a racing event on the arm of Justin Hodges. She had truly grown up and looked stunning, despite her downward glances, and demure disposition, she shone out in a room of stars and turned all heads including his own. It wasn’t how she looked or that she was with another man. It was that she was totally oblivious to the effect she had on those around her, there was no ego or falseness about her, she was just the fun loving country girl she had always been, regardless of wearing a designer outfit and arriving with one of the city’s most eligible bachelors.

That had been over a decade ago and Tom threw himself into the party scene of the city. He had lived essentially with his mother while in the city and was accepted amongst her friends who lived the high life of ‘A –listers’, so far removed from the farm life he had grown up knowing. His mother, in her youth, had rebelled against the decadent social set of her parents by marrying a rancher and moving to the country but, Tom thought with a smile, we all return to home eventually and in the end she had fled back to the city when times got tough for their family.

His thoughts turned from the past to Alyssa as she was now. From the darkness of the trees he turned to look back at the big house, he could see the small light in the left corner of the house that told him Alyssa was still awake. She was finally returning home properly as he had the year before when his father had become ill. They had to work out some solutions to the farm’s problems. He didn’t want to lose another home. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t want to lose his connection with Alyssa. He watched the house until Alyssa’s light went out, disappointed that she had not come to the window and he walked into the cottage.

The following day Tom and Alyssa spent almost the whole day in her father’s old study going through the accounts, trying to find places to trim expenses and prioritise the debt that seemed to still be accruing exponentially. Even with the sale of the apartment, which would buy them some time, what they really needed was more people to use their stable and stud facilities on a regular basis or another champion thoroughbred to train or else they would have to close part of the stable building and start laying off some of the workers.

Marcie had been in an out of the room bringing coffee and lunch. She had quietly suffered through their constant bickering, over one thing or another, but she eventually interrupted. “Well if you have a little time, why don’t you see how the mare and the filly run? I know they probably only have little value for their bloodline but…”

“You think they are runners?” Tom asked as if she was telling him they were tap dancers.

“Don’t look at me like that. Bill thought they might be runners,” Marcie replied, looking wounded.

Both Alyssa and Tom had almost discounted the possibility that one of the horses their stud already owned could be a champion and only looked at what they could bring in from outside the stable. “Let’s go for a ride this afternoon,” Alyssa suggested. “We’ve been cooped up in here more than half the day.”

They made their way out to the stables shortly after. This was where Alyssa preferred to be, the smell of the straw and horses filled her as she breathed deeply and smiled. To their surprise the filly was being rubbed down after a work out and the mare was eating from a feedbag. “Didn’t realise these two were being trained,” Tom said in a friendly tone.

“I thought your father would have told you he started to work them after, Bill…” the stable hand looked at Alyssa, “well you know.”

“My dad? Well everyone has secrets it seems,” Tom muttered and walked out of the stable in search of his father, leaving Alyssa staring after him.

Throughout the afternoon Alyssa and Tom both had their own conversations with various people about the mare and filly and got the same responses. Tom had gone to his father and the head trainer while Alyssa had stayed in the stables talking to the stablehands and jockeys. It seemed that the mare could run, but would never be able to match it in the big races, however the filly really showed promise. Alyssa had made it home without seeing Tom and raced up to shower before he arrived.

Tom had knocked on her bathroom door, calling out to let her know he was here and would wait for her to finish. Alyssa emerged wearing a towel, her damp hair trailing down her back. Tom swallowed hard at her fresh glowing appearance and turned his back. “Get dressed. It’s too hard to take you seriously when you’re dressed in a towel.”

Alyssa misunderstood his meaning thinking he was saying that because she was a girl she couldn’t be serious about the farm. She had many of the farm hands dismiss anything she said out of hand or call her ‘girlie’ and smile at her indulgently when she tried to discuss the horses. Alyssa stomped into her wardrobe and pulled on a soft shirt and a pair of old comfy jeans before emerging still angry and glaring at Tom, “Serious enough for you or should I put on my boots as well.”

Tom heard the tone in her voice and raised an eyebrow, she just shook her head. “The mare could do country races but the filly might go further,” Tom said still unsure of why Alyssa seemed angry with him.

“Yeah that’s what the jockeys said,” Alyssa agreed. “When I could convince them I was SERIOUS and wanted a proper answer.” Alyssa grumbled looking at him with disappointed eyes. “Even you won’t take me seriously now and I swear I never expected you to act like all the other men here and treat me like an idiot.”

“What on earth are you talking about? I couldn’t take you serious because you were in a towel!” he stood up and walked toward her. “I have never treated you like an idiot.” He tried to hide his hurt feelings, all he wanted to do at that moment was hug her tight and kiss her and tell her just how seriously he wanted her but he stood stiffly unsure of how she would react to anything he said. The silence lengthened and he eventually sighed, “We can talk later, after dinner, I guess.” He left her standing there and quietly left.

Tom hadn’t come up for dinner sending excuses through Marcie and Alyssa was confused and disappointed by his absence after the disagreement. She dressed for bed, feeling torn between being mad at him for not being able to talk about everything today and upset because she knew she wanted him to be here for dinner so they could make things right between them. If she had looked out of her window she would have seen the silhouette of Tom watching her change through her bedroom window with the same mix of emotion playing over his face.

*****

Over the following days Alyssa woke early and went to watch and help with the training of Godiva’s Girls as she had nicknamed the horses. Being small and slightly built, she was able to do the track work just as well as the other jockeys and tried to get Bob to let her do the track work with the filly. He continued to refuse her request and, frustrated beyond reason, on the third morning Alyssa had stormed off after being told none too subtly that the track was no place for a little girl. She had run to the stables and saddled up her own horse riding out into the surrounding landscape.

Alyssa rode up to the bluff that overlooked the farm and surrounding lands. She tied the reigns to a tree so the horse could recover a little from the long steep ride, and sat on the edge of the rock face. It was said by the locals that long ago the whole fertile plain was a lake. She looked out to the left where the lake that fed the city water supplies was situated and smiled thinking of the wild stories her father used to tell her about the lake and the valley plain where they lived. She missed him dreadfully and cursed him for leaving her with so much mess to clean up on her own.

Sure that no one was in sight, she pulled off her sweat soaked shirt and lay it on the rock beside her. Lying back and letting the sun soak into her skin she looked up into the clouds and talked to her father, “How could you do this? You know they won’t listen to me, I’m just a girl! Well in their eyes, I am, regardless of how well you taught me, they won’t let me do anything.” The truth was that she wasn’t a little girl, she was almost thirty, and her best hope for the happily ever after of the white picket fence and children was probably sleeping with several of her best friends as she lay alone on the bluff and felt sorry for herself. Justin’s handsome face flittered across her mind and she reassured herself that it really was for the best because they had very little in common. They really were from two different worlds.

The thought of two different worlds made her think of Tom. He had been increasingly distant as the week went on. They worked on the finances together during the evening but he usually had an excuse to leave early and Alyssa didn’t blame him. Their bickering only seemed to be getting worse. It was useless going over the same figures time and time again. She had come to rely on him heavily in the time since her father’s death and his constant absences bothered her more than she would like to admit, but the longer they left it to repair the damage their small arguments had made in their relationship, the wider the gap between them became.

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She heard the crunch on the stones behind her and, thinking it was Tom who often came to this spot with her as they grew up, she didn’t bother to turn around only to have him berate her for running away from her problems. It was only when she heard the sneering voice of Kerrick that she opened her eyes. “You weren’t there for my usual Friday visit, imagine my disappointment.” His voice shocked her from her thoughtful introspection and she rolled, getting up to her feet to face him.

“What are you doing here Kerrick?” Alyssa scowled, as she pulled on her shirt.

“A stable hand told me you threw a tantrum and rode out. Where else would you go?” he gestured around the plain. “The scenery is so nice up here, though not as nice as a few minutes ago,” he leered, letting his eyes travel to her breasts.

“Go home, Kerrick. We don’t have anything to discuss,” she said looking him in the eye. “Not here, not now.” She felt his looming presence more than ever as she saw him look her up and down.

Alyssa went to walk past him to her horse but he grabbed her arm. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be a little friendlier. I can be a very generous friend to have. The racing game is a harsh place for a sweet little girl like you. You will need all the friends you can get,” he said in a deep soft voice, his other hand coming up to stroke over her cheek. “You don’t want to make an enemy of me, Lyssy.”

The way he shortened her name made her skin crawl. Fear of his touch and the fingers digging cruelly into her arm, holding her in place, caused her adrenaline to surge, giving her the strength to shake free of his vice like grip. A small whimper escaped her as she gritted her teeth against the painful ache the fingers that had dug into her skin left. She made herself walk rather than run to her horse. “You’re the second person today to call me a sweet little girl,” she said. She climbed into the saddle after shaking the reigns free of the tree. “And I think you will find that I’m quite grown up now and able to stand on my own two feet.” She turned the horse and galloped away not hearing the last thing he said as she disappeared through the trees.

“Women don’t belong in the racing game,” Kerrick called after her. He liked her spunk. She would be fun to tame once he took over her farm.

Alyssa rode back to the farm seeking the security she always felt with Tom around. Halfway back she slowed the horse to a walk and considered whether she was running to him or just running home to mask the constant loneliness she felt. Alyssa thought about all of the farm workers who would have to suffer the intimidation of Kerrick if she couldn’t find a solution to the financial problems and the friends and families she would be letting down. She looked at her watch, it was nearing midday when most of the staff would be heading in to lunch. Making a decision, Alyssa spurred her horse forward to a gallop and headed down for the confrontation she had been dreading.

Arriving in the stable she caught sight of the leading hand walking to the lunch room. She called out, detaining him. He followed her into the stable as she began to remove her gear from her horse. “Can you jump on the PA system and get everyone who is here to come to the lunch room for a short meeting?” She grunted as she hefted the saddle from the horse noticing his furrowed brow. “Please, Lou, just do it. I will explain everything when I get there.”

He disappeared and she heard the call go out, with relief she began to unbuckle the halter. Lou appeared on the other side of her horse. “Care to share?” He said softly as he helped her brush down the horse.

“It’s time to let everyone know what’s really going on,” she sighed. “It’s a bit dire,” she admitted. “I barely sleep with worry about how I can continue to pay you all and you all treat me like some dumb little girl. I know more about this farm than anyone here except maybe you and Uncle Bob.” Lou was a man of very few words and said nothing, letting her talk as he brushed, “Someone actually talked to Kerrick today. They told him I had a tantrum. I swear if one more person calls me a little girl today, I will show everyone what a tantrum is.”

She looked at the man who was helping her, “I need to calm down and stop this current tantrum first I suppose,” she admitted. “I’m sorry, Kerrick rattles my cage. He scares me a bit, not that I want to admit that. It wasn’t nice to have him sneak up on me when I was alone up on the bluff.”

Lou grunted, and looked her over noting the early signs of a large bruise appearing on her arm. “He do that?” Lou asked, nodding his head toward her arm. Alyssa pulled on her sleeve to cover the bruise from where Kerrick had grabbed her, and nodded. Lou grunted again. When they had finished rubbing down the horse and feeding her some well deserved treats, they walked toward the lunch room. When they entered, the room quietened a little as they walked to the front table and turned to face the room. “Can I say something first?” Lou said softly from beside her.

“Of course,” she said, startled. Lou had never addressed a meeting that she knew of, but then again she was never invited so how would she know. She was half grateful for the extra few minutes to compose what she wanted to say. She needed to keep it short and sweet but get her point across.

“Listen up,” Lou boomed taking Alyssa by surprise. “Kerrick was here this afternoon, someone spoke to him and I want to know who that was?” There was a low murmur among the men. “You may as well tell me because I will find out eventually. Who was on the stable duty roster?”

“I was on stable roster but I didn’t see him,” a youngish voice called out from a table to the left. “I only left for a minute to have a smoke out the side in the dosa, but I can see inside the stable from there. I never saw Kerrick.”

“If I have to investigate this I’m gonna be a damn sight madder than what I am now that no one told me Kerrick was here again.” He looked around darkly as he got no further response from the room, “So be it,” he growled. Tom came through the door and raised an eyebrow as he saw Alyssa standing beside Lou at the front of the room. He took a seat and the man beside him filled him in on what had happened so far.

Alyssa watched as Tom listened and furrowed his brow. “Hey Mike,” Tom called, “You told me Kerrick was here again for his Friday visit. Where did you see him?”

“Yeah I was down at the gate. Didn’t talk to him though,” Mike said, looking guilty as he glanced at Lou whose face was like thunder.

“Let me make this very clear, any bastard who puts Miss Lance in danger again by not reporting seeing Kerrick or speaking to him, will get worse than the resignation I will demand when I find out who it was!” He scowled at the assembled hands as another murmur rippled around the room and Tom stood up clearly startled by the announcement.

“Now Miss Lance has something to say and you will show her the respect she deserves as the person who owns this farm and therefore signs your pay cheques.” Lou stood aside to let her speak.

Alyssa realised this was a mistake as soon as she looked into the uninterested faces before her but she felt she owed it to the men to tell them how it really was. She straightened her back and took a deep breath. “I realise,” she began, “that the events of today could have been averted if I had told all of you what was going on and why Kerrick has begun visiting so often and snooping around the place.” There were nods of assent that it was all her fault after all. “The truth is my father ran this place into the ground and Kerrick knows it. He is trying to force me into selling so he can add it to his neighbouring ranch like he has with most of the other small stables around here.”

There were shouts of outrage but Lou’s booming voice silenced them all, “Quiet!” Alyssa smiled gratefully at him before beginning to speak again.

“I am doing my best to come up with solutions. I’m selling my apartment in the city but I’m not sure it is going to be enough. I lie awake at night wondering how I will pay you all if things don’t pick up soon.” She expected rebukes about being a girl so she hurried on. “I have a business degree, Tom’s been through the books with me but our expenses far outweigh our income at the moment and we can’t sustain it much longer. That, along with the debt the farm has accrued, means that things are going to have to change around here and soon.”

Alyssa could hear the quiet muttering so she finished quickly. “I won’t blame anyone for looking for a more stable job but I hope you won’t. I haven’t given up yet and all Kerrick’s threats are just that, I haven’t been hurt,” Alyssa paused as Lou cleared his throat. “Well not badly,” she smiled at Lou and turned back to the men noting the surprise in their faces. “If you have suggestions please let Lou, Tom or me know. At this point any suggestion is a good one. Right now we are keeping our heads above water but that wont last long unless WE can come up with something.” Again she looked around the room. There were possibly two dozen men there. “No wonder they think I don’t belong,” she thought to herself.

“I am happy to keep you all updated with Friday meetings like this if you like. You can vote on that when I’m gone,” she smiled. “I’m sure there are a lot of things you would like to say once I am gone so I will leave you to it.”

Looking around, Lou chose a man that he knew he could account for his whereabouts this morning, “Hey Dan,” Lou waved him over and spoke quietly, “Walk Miss Lance back up to the big house and tell Marcie she is hurt ’cause she won’t do it herself. I know where you were this morning but come straight back. I wanna have another chat with these guys.”

Dan walked with her out the door but Tom called out, stopping them before they had gone far. “You’re okay, really?” His eyes searched her face.

“Yeah, just a little bruise, nothing to worry about,” Alyssa reassured him. “Go back in, you can come for dinner tonight and fill me in on all the curse words I don’t know ’cause I’m just a sweet little girl.” Dan chuckled beside her but Tom heard the tone in her voice and frowned. Now was not the time for his anger, something bad had happened today and he needed all the details.

“Dinner tonight,” he nodded stiffly and turned back into the room.

Dan chuckled again, “Actually I think you could probably teach me some new and interesting words.”

Alyssa laughed with him before turning serious, “How do you think I went in there?”

“It’s good you told them, us,” he quickly corrected. You were a bit too nice about it frankly. You could sack half that room full of idiots and the farm would still run like clock work.” His frankness surprised her and she looked up at him showing her shock. “Not me of course. This place would fall apart without me.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but laugh and they wandered into the back door of the big house. “It’s okay, I will tell her. You can go back if you want to.”

“Marcie,” Dan called, ignoring Alyssa’s pout. The woman appeared from the pantry saying nothing but putting her hand on her hips and looking at his dirty work boots. “I know, I know, but Alyssa’s hurt and I had to make sure you would look after her. Lou’s orders.”

Marcie immediately clucked around Alyssa like a mother hen and Dan made a quick escape out the back door chuckling. “It’s just a bruise,” Alyssa assured the woman pushing up her sleeve and letting the woman look after her rather than arguing and giving in eventually. “Oh, Tom’s coming up for dinner tonight,” Alyssa said as she winced at the probing Marcie was doing around the deep bruise.

Satisfied that she was okay, Marcie let Alyssa go to shower, and bustled into the kitchen. Alyssa trooped up the stairs. It had been a hot day and she could smell her own sweat as she stripped and stood under the gushing hot water of the shower. Letting herself relax she washed her hair and used a body scrub to cleanse her of the all the muckiness she had had to deal with not only today but during the whole week.

Feeling refreshed, she spent some time before getting dressed moisturising with her favourite body lotion and enjoying the slight breeze through her window. She moved slightly closer to the window, looking down, wondering if anyone could see her. The thought was tantalising: that one of those men who thought of her as a silly little girl might just see exactly how grown up she had become. She knew it was a bad idea and she warred with herself about it as her door burst open and Tom marched into her room and drew the curtains.

“Any credibility you gained by your little speech today was just ruined if anyone looked up at this window,” Tom raged at her. “They’re men for God’s sake. Of course they are gonna look if you are so determined to show your breasts to the world.” He turned back to her and stared in disbelief. “Put some clothes on for fuck’s sake!” He groaned.

Alyssa stepped into her closet and pulled on a sleeveless soft cotton shift dress. “Better,” she said as she emerged.

Tom was looking at her arm, he turned away still angry and grabbed her bag. He dumped the contents on her bed. “Where the hell was your phone when I was trying to ring you and warn you about Kerrick?” His anger wasn’t dissipating and she couldn’t work out why he was so angry with her. This was Tom, her oldest friend why was he yelling at her like… like… a child! Her eyes started to well up. He had been avoiding her or so it seemed all week. Aside from the work they did together for an hour or so in the evening, they hadn’t really talked about anything meaningful and here he was yelling at her. She felt abandoned by the person she thought she could rely on the most to be there for her and the tears started to fall.

“Get out,” she croaked. “Get out of my room and get out of my house.” She turned and fled into the bathroom, locking the door.

Tom realised immediately what he had done to her after the day she had endured and swore. Mad at himself now for losing his temper, he yelled through the door, “Find your fucking phone and answer when it rings!” He stormed out of the house.

*****

Neither of them arrived for dinner, so Marcie took a tray up to Alyssa in her room. “Lou brought your phone up to the house. It was in your saddlebag in the stable. He says he needs to talk to you if you’re up for it.”

“I’m fine,” Alyssa smiled. “Can you keep him company for ten minutes while I wash my face? I will be down soon. I’m not hungry,” she said, looking at the tray Marcie was holding meaningfully. “I’ll eat later, I promise.” Marcie seemed about to argue but instead gave her the phone and left with the tray.

Checking her phone, there were a dozen missed calls from Tom and one from Justin. The phone rang as she held it. Loud music pumped in the background as Harry shouted, “A friend is lending me his car and driver for the weekend. We’ll be there first thing in the morning, okay?”

Shit! Alyssa had forgotten Harry was coming this weekend. She could use the distraction and it might help Tom to calm down she thought, so she shouted her “Yes,” back into the phone to try and raise her voice above the background music.

“Great! See you then, Lady Godiva!” Harry hung up abruptly.

Alyssa listened to the messages, hearing the urgency in Tom’s voice as he warned her of Kerrick’s visit, and the smooth, familiar, deep voice of Justin as he said he had found a place to live and would be able to move over the next week or two. He had some things she might be interested in keeping if he could meet her sometime, maybe halfway between the city and the farm. Once again she wondered if she had made the right decision in leaving him and wandered down the stairs to see Lou.

She found Marcie and Lou in her father’s study. She stopped and considered that, it was her study now. Maybe she could talk to someone about some redecorating in here if she could make this place viable again. Lou, always the gentleman, stood at her arrival. “How’s the arm?” he mumbled.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, looking at it absently. The purple and blue of the deep bruise had truly begun to surface now. “So tell me everything that happened after I left,” Alyssa said as she flopped into a chair.

“I gave two weeks notice to anyone who was on their second reprimand. We are overstaffed for the amount of horses we have stabled here at the moment. That should cut down on the wages and living expenses quite considerably,” Lou began.

“Oh no, I didn’t plan to fire anyone yet,” Alyssa gasped, horrified.

“You didn’t, I did and they know it was me, I told them you didn’t want to fire anyone but that my job was the stable staff. Most of those guys knew it was coming and were only doing a half-assed job anyway,” he shrugged. “I offered a few of young ones half-wages until they either lifted their game or found another job.” He waited for her to absorb what he was saying.

“Sounds fair,” she said slowly. She was curious about the number of men who had been fired but knew she would find out eventually, so she let him continue.

“Wednesdays are better for meetings, the long term employees would like the updates, and…” he paused shifting in his seat. “It will take a while for the older men to get used to the idea of a woman, especially a young pretty woman, owning the farm and giving orders.” He seemed to be considering his words and she cut through his thoughts.

“Yeah I get that but it’s the way it is, so they best get used to it,” she snapped. She’d been treated like some stupid bimbo all day and by everyone, except maybe the man sitting across from her, and she didn’t want him to start.

“Look,” he said, “I know you understand how to run this place probably more than even you give yourself credit for. Your father made you learn every aspect of it, made all of us teach you. I do not doubt your ability, but to the jockeys and trainers, you will always be a woman first.”

“Well it’s not like I can change that, and I want to be involved. I can do the track work better than half those riders,” the frustration was clear in Alyssa’s voice, almost to the point of anger.

He gave a sly smile seeing her fire up. “About time you got angry,” he murmured with a small smile.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Alyssa said.

“You have been grieving instead of stepping up and running this place. For the last six months Bob has been ruling the farm, he took over those two new horses like they are his own. Issuing the other trainers with the stabled horses.” Lou didn’t mention that Bob had all but ignored anything he had told him to do. “You own this farm, you wanna train horses or do the track work, you can, as far as I am concerned, but you’re gonna have a fight on your hands with Bob and his cronies. With the stabled horses, you have to do what the owners want but those two new horses are yours.”

“They’re not mine, they are Marcie’s,” Alyssa said quietly. He looked at the woman who had hovered in the background listening in on the meeting feeling protective of Alyssa after the week she had had.

Lou blinked at Alyssa looking confused, “The stud bought them. It’s in the books.”

“Do you have anything, anything at all from Dad that says he meant the horses to be yours? Do you have a card or a letter, anything in writing?” Alyssa asked the older woman.

“Oh no, it was a gift, he bought them in my name so that they didn’t have a paper trail I thought, but it seems I thought wrong. I was going to pay the stable fees from my savings,” Marcie explained patiently again. “He did give me their paperwork to hang onto though. Does that count?”

Lou raised an eyebrow, “They have thoroughbred paperwork, proof of Sire and Dame?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t they?” Marcie asked.

“I don’t think Dad told anyone about their bloodline,” Alyssa offered, “and let’s keep that information between us for now.” She looked at Marcie meaningfully then looked at Lou. “Best you don’t know yet, then you don’t have to lie to anyone.” She took Marcie’s hand, “If I paid the stable fees would you sell half of them back to me?”

“They’ll be yours eventually anyway. I could never sell them to anyone else,” Marcie said.

“I hate to interrupt but as there is nothing to say he bought them for Marcie they are Alyssa’s legally already,” Lou mumbled.

“She holds the paperwork and the proof of their bloodline so that’s worth fifty percent to me,” Alyssa said squeezing the older woman’s hand, ignoring Lou’s pursed his lips.

She looked at the two people across from her and realised maybe she had more people on her side than she realised. She had always relied on Tom’s friendship, they understood each other, Alyssa grimaced inwardly, and she realised she would have to go and rebuild that bridge she had set fire to earlier this evening, if she wanted that friendship intact.

As if reading her thoughts, Lou mumbled, “Tom was plenty mad when he found out you were hurt, he’s on a mission to find out who spoke to Kerrick.”

“Yeah, I copped the brunt of his temper earlier,” Alyssa said quietly.

“Cut him some slack. Bob won’t slow down like the doctor’s advised. He has enough worries without worrying about you having a run in with Kerrick. He just doesn’t know how else to react when one of the people he loves is threatened,” Lou mumbled gruffly as if he too was more than a little concerned about the events of the day.

“I best go build a bridge then before it gets any later. I pretty much kicked him out of the house earlier,” Alyssa said softly, regretting the scene that had occurred in her bedroom even if Tom was acting unreasonably.

“Can you come for dinner Sunday night, Lou. I have guests arriving in the morning but we will make a plan on how to move forward once they leave. You’re right, it’s time I took back the reigns of the actual running of the farm, not just the business end,” Alyssa smiled lopsidedly. “Not that I have done that very well either.”

Marcie cut through her thoughts, “Guests, here? How many and when will they be here?”

“Three, I think, they’ll be here tomorrow morning, early. I just got the call. I had totally forgotten I had invited them when I was in the city last weekend. I am so sorry Marcie. I’ll take them to the pub in town for dinner. Don’t worry,” Alyssa offered.

“Don’t be silly it’s been ages since this house has had real guests. I will make something nice for you and your friends,” Marcie said, standing up as if she was about to start right there and then. “I best be checking what we have in the pantry though.” She gave Alyssa a big smile and patted Lou on the shoulder. “You come up for dinner tomorrow night too. I will need some company my own age with all the young ones around.”

Lou grunted but didn’t agree to come. He too, stood up. “I’ll be going then. Thanks for the coffee, Marcie. Remember what I said and cut the boy some slack, Alyssa.”

“Okay, Lou,” Alyssa smiled genuinely, realising, for the first time all week, she didn’t feel so alone. Lou had really shown his loyalty to her as well as to the farm that day and Marcie, as always, had reminded her that she thought of her like a daughter. They walked from the big house together down towards the worker’s cottages in silence.

Tom, having seen them approach, walked out to meet them. “Make sure he walks you back,” Lou mumbled to Alyssa while looking at Tom. “Don’t wanna take any chances.”

“I’ll be fine, Lou, but thanks,” Alyssa smiled and impulsively hugged the gruff man.

Tom said nothing as he moved closer. Alyssa watched Lou go and turned to Tom holding up her phone. “I answered when it rang. Harry will be here in the morning.”

“Shit I forgot the circus was coming to town,” Tom scratched at his stubble as he spoke. “Thanks for letting me know. I will walk you back.”

Disappointed that he had dismissed her so easily she said softly, “It’s okay. It’s only a few hundred meters. I’m sure I can make it.”

Tom saw her face fall, she was easier to deal with when she was with Justin. The possibility of anything more between them had never been a realistic idea until last weekend and he found he was constantly torn and frustrated, which seemed to make everything come out wrong, no matter what he did. Despite her protestations, he walked along with her stopping within the trees he usually stood under late at night. He took her arm making her stop, and she whimpered. “Oh gosh, I am so sorry. It’s bad huh?”

“Only when someone grabs my arm,” she smiled. “Look, I don’t know why you seem to be permanently mad at me this week but can we just forget today and start again in the morning? I need you. I need your friendship and advice now more than ever.”

Tom wrapped his arms about her. He wanted to make everything alright for her. “I am sorry. I was just so worried when you were hurt and the fact that you never close your curtains…”

Alyssa looked up wide eyed.

He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialled. He had kept one arm around Alyssa as he listened and then spoke, “Hi Marcie… yeah… no, no, it’s all good, I just need a quick favour… Can you go up to Alyssa’s room and turn on the light and open the curtains and window for me?… Yeah great… thanks… Alyssa will explain when she comes in… yeah, see ya.”

“Watch,” Tom pointed to the left window at the top of the house. Alyssa looked up and saw the light go on. From the darkness she could clearly see the far wall in her bedroom and the mirror there. Marcie came into view and she could understand how much could be seen each night as she flirted with exposing herself to someone below. She felt herself blush deeply. Tom must have seen her during one of those times.

“You have a great body, and I for one am glad you are not inhibited about it, but here, after your speech today, you need to be more careful,” Tom said softly. “I mean I will be disappointed of course but you probably should close the curtains when you are changing in there,” the darkness hid his smirk as well as it hid her blushing features.

“Isn’t that a bit like perving on your sister?” Alyssa protested.

“I stopped thinking about you as a sister when you grew boobs,” Tom admitted with a chuckle enjoying her gasp of surprise. “Go to bed. Harry is going to wear you out this weekend. I’m sure she has a whole agenda behind the visit, especially if she is coming early.”

He leaned down and kissed her lightly, testing her reaction. His biggest fear was that she would reject his advances, being so soon after her break up with Justin and the death of her father. While she didn’t pull away, she did stiffen and he didn’t press further but rather took her hand and walked further toward the house without saying anything more. As they reached the stairs he grinned, “Don’t forget to tell Lou I made sure you got home safely, he was a bit tough the way he cut jobs and threatened people after you left. I don’t wanna be on his hit list.”

Alyssa laughed, “I don’t think you have to worry about Lou, but thanks for walking me home.” She hugged him hoping that everything was back to normal for them regardless of their strange conversation and the feelings it evoked. She couldn’t quite work out if he was serious or not but the kiss, though chaste, lingered in her mind. She really didn’t want to analyse it, she had other bigger problems to deal with so she ran up the stairs and into the house waving as she shut the door.

Reaching her room, the light was still on. She switched it off and walked to the window waiting for her eyes to adjust. She barely made out the shape of Tom looking up at the window before disappearing into the trees. As always the thought that she could be seen sent a thrill up her spine. It was a turn on she admitted, that one of the men of the farm may have viewed her as she changed. Equally as fast she considered that the person who had seen her was Tom.

She had never considered that he thought of her as anything but an annoying little sister but tonight, he had hinted that he thought otherwise, as he had last Saturday morning when she had awoken naked and exposed beside him. As she crawled into bed she sorted through her confused thoughts for other hints that maybe the sibling connection had only come from her and she had in turn pushed that onto how she assumed he thought of her. She fell into a restless sleep thinking of Tom and the chaste kiss.

Alyssa came to, startled into wakefulness as Harry bounced on her bed and hugged her, “Oh my god! Could this place be anymore rustic?”

Alyssa groaned, “Hi, Harry, what time is it?” She struggled to clear her head as she blinked into the bright light of her bedroom.

“Come on, sleepyhead,” Harry enthused. “That lovely woman downstairs is making us the biggest breakfast I have ever seen!”

Alyssa struggled to sit up and looked at Harry who, as usual, looked impeccable. Tall, gorgeous and as outrageous in her wardrobe as she was in her personality, Alyssa smiled. “Okay, just give me a minute,” she said looking at her clock. It was four and once again Alyssa groaned and rubbed her eyes. Turning off her alarm she swung her legs out of bed and stamped into the bathroom shutting the door loudly behind her.

“Meet you down stairs then,” Harry’s voice sung through the door and Alyssa heard the footsteps move out of her room. She hurriedly washed her face and pulled on some old jeans and a flannel shirt before running down stairs to save Marcie from the antics of Harry and her friends. What she found though was a lively and laughing Marcie happily entertaining a troupe of seven men and women.

“Oh goodie here she is! Isn’t she adorable?” Harry was addressing her friends, “Everyone this is Lady Godiva!”

There was a babble of conversation and questions Alyssa couldn’t possibly keep up with and she looked at Harry with a confused expression. “I have totally changed the angle of my column because you didn’t want to do a nude ride. We need all these people now. When Tom gets here, be a sweetheart and back me up or we will have to go back to the nude ride,” Harry said softly, close to her ear. Harry began to introduce her crew, “Ash is the hair guy, Gina is on make up, Lana wardrobe and body paint, Gene is the driver, Al is the best photographer in the biz, and this is my awesome PA and girlfriend…”

Gwen laughed and got up to hug Alyssa. “You know me, silly,” she smiled, “I tried to tell her she should warn you but you know how she is. Tom is gonna throw a fit I bet.” Gwen laughed again and sat back down.

“Hello,” Alyssa greeted everyone. She moved toward the kitchen, “Marcie, can I give you a hand?”

“Don’t be silly,” Marcie grinned, obviously in her element. “Go play with your friends. It’s nice to have some laughter in the house again.”

Alyssa had just sat down beside Gwen after making herself a sandwich from the toast, bacon and egg available when Tom walked in with Joe, the reporter Alyssa had met last weekend, looking like he was about to explode. “I said two friends,” he growled at Harry.

“Oh I know,” Harry said, waving her hand in the air before her as if waving the idea away. “But I had a fabulous idea and I knew you would love it so I brought all the things I needed to make it happen.” She smiled brightly as Tom rolled his eyes at her, “You’ll love it, I promise!”

Tom looked at Alyssa, “Did you get enough sleep? How’s the arm?”

“I’m fine,” Alyssa said quietly, glad she had chosen a long sleeved shirt and the bruise wasn’t exposed to his view. In truth it wasn’t very painful unless prodded, though it looked ghastly.

Gwen looked at them curiously but said nothing. Joe took the seat beside Alyssa before Tom could and helped himself to a huge plate of sausages, eggs and beans. He murmured as if he was trying to be secretive, “Can you take me to see Godiva’s Girls?”

“How did you know?” Alyssa spluttered.

“You told me last weekend, though you were a bit under the weather. Too late, now I know and so does Harry,” Joe grinned. “So how about it? Can I go down and see their track work?”

“Sure,” Alyssa nodded still taking in his words, “but you won’t have time to finish that lot.”

“Just watch me,” Joe laughed. “Country air does wonders for the appetite.” He began shovelling food into his mouth making Gwen chuckle.

Gwen leaned into Alyssa, “When you go, slip out quietly, I will cover you. Let Harry and Tom fight their battle on their own. It will be all smoothed out by the time you return.” It was Alyssa’s turn to look confused but she nodded, knowing she didn’t want to be in anyone else’s personal battles when she had enough of her own.

Kerrick rose up in her mind and she cleared her throat and raised her voice slightly, “I’m sorry, everyone. Do you mind if I have a quick word with Marcie and Tom before we decide what to do with our day? House-keeping stuff is very boring, I am afraid, but a farm works seven days a week.” They all nodded and Tom and Marcie followed Alyssa to the study.

Closing the door behind them Alyssa said, “I don’t want to be seen as a whiner, but I am going to ask Lou to put a couple of guys he can trust on the gate to stop Kerrick coming in. If he saw our arrivals…” She paused, “I really don’t want a scene with reporters here no matter how friendly they are.”

“Best idea you have had in a while,” Tom mumbled, wishing he had considered it and Marcie nodded her assent. “We should also send someone shopping with Marcie if she needs to go out just to stop any questions that might crop up.”

“That was my next thing,” Alyssa nodded. “I am so sorry Marcie, I truly expected only two or three people not the crowd we have.”

“Oh sweet girl,” Marcie grinned, “I am as happy as a lark with so many people to fuss over.”

“Well if you need to go to town, go and see Lou okay? He can send someone with a shopping list I’m sure. And after yesterday, no one will say a word about doing it,” Tom backed up Alyssa’s thoughts.

“Actually it would be great if someone could go for me,” Marcie agreed. “I have a lot of beds to find for tonight.”

“Maybe some of the guys given two weeks notice yesterday have left early. Then we could use their cottages,” Alyssa said hopefully. “I will find out and let you know as soon as possible.”

“I’m going to take Joe down to see the filly train,” Alyssa said. “It’ll be fine, I’ll take Lou with me. Can you find out what Harry’s new plan is please?” she asked Tom.

He seemed on the edge of arguing with her but Marcie cut in, “Lou can argue better with your Dad than you can, Tom. Do what she asks ’cause I am bursting with curiosity!”

“Promise you will take Lou,” Tom said. He saw Alyssa nod and gave in. “Okay, make sure he puts people on the gate all day.”

“I will,” Alyssa smiled. “Thank you both for being there for me. I couldn’t do any of this without you and Lou. I guess I haven’t said that enough lately.”

They walked back out to the kitchen and Alyssa smiled at Joe, “You ready?”

“Yep, all done,” he grabbed his hat and followed her as she walked out the back door.

They walked down to the stables making small talk about the trip down and what time they left to get to the farm so early. Alyssa stopped to talk to Lou, letting Joe roam around the stables looking at the horses still in their stalls. Lou was still on his phone ensuring people he trusted were on the gates when they caught up to Joe and walked out to the track.

Bob rushed over, protecting his territory and demanded to know what they were doing on his track. Lou cleared his throat meaningfully and when Bob said nothing further growled, “You forget Miss Lance OWNS this track and that horse-flesh you’re training.” He looked at Joe and Alyssa, “Perhaps she should consider a new trainer for her own horses. She does own them after all. There are plenty of others stabled here you could spend your valuable time on, Bob,” Lou said meaningfully.

Bob spluttered and Lou continued, “How about you show Miss Lance and her reporter friend what her horses can do?” Bob took a second look at the man with Alyssa and Lou. His narrowing eyes displayed his dawning realisation of exactly who had just witnessed his dismissal of Alyssa. He turned without another word, not waiting to see who followed, and bellowed orders at the track workers.

Alyssa realised at that point that she would always need a man with her to make any headway with Bob and she sighed more audibly than she meant to, making both Joe and Lou stare at her. As they approached the fence, the filly was coming into the home stretch. “There she is,” Lou announced, “the untried filly. The mare is on the other side of the track,” he said, pointing out at the fast moving animal coming around behind the filly.

Joe leaned on a rail, not saying anything, just looking at the horses as they made their way around. They stayed in comfortable silence for over an hour, watching the trainers and jockeys at work. “They look good,” Joe said quietly. “When will you be trying them out?” Alyssa looked at him blankly, she hadn’t actually thought that far ahead. “You gotta run them sometime soon,” Joe said.

Lou stepped in waving Bob over, “When were you thinking they would be ready for a run?”

Bob considered, “I was thinking of taking them down to Fairfield next month. It’s usually a good field for a country track.” Joe nodded and seemed to be deep in thought.

“If you let me know all the details, I will see that the paperwork is done and the fees are in place,” Alyssa said with a small smile. Bob wasn’t always so hard to get along with and she hoped they could work together as equals and if she had to start by being at the business end of the deal it was at least a start. “As the owner I think it has to come from me,” she said quickly, as Bob looked like he was about to argue with her. “I haven’t been to Fairfield in years. It could be a fun day.”

Bob seemed like he was about to explode and was barely holding onto his temper. “You won’t be coming,” he growled, “I will take m…, the horses down myself.”

Taking a deep breath Alyssa straightened her back and looked him in the eye, “Of course I will come. Why on earth wouldn’t I be there at my horses first run? You’re a great trainer, Uncle Bob, everyone knows that, but if we are ever going to make this place profitable again and keep it out of Kerrick’s hands, you have to work with me, not against me, or you won’t be working at all.” She had spoken in a non-confrontational tone but the meaning of her words was not lost on Bob.

“Everything alright?” Tom asked from behind her and she wondered just how long he had been there.

“Oh sure your father and I were just talking about going down to Fairfield next month for Stokes’ Day,” Alyssa smiled up at Tom.

“Might be worth a looksee from me too,” Joe said. “And if the place needs a lift, the little bit of publicity my column would give probably wouldn’t go astray.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tom said. He turned to Joe , “With Alyssa’s business savvy and marketing experience and my Dad’s training expertise, this place will be turning profit in no time I’m sure. They will make a formidable team.”

Bob knew he had no head for business. He had lost his own farm in the recession because he had made some bad business decisions, the worst being selling out to Kerrick. He looked at Alyssa and tried not to see the girl he had watched grow up but rather the business woman she was trying to be and decided to try to let her take her rightful place as owner and manager of the stables.

Joe interrupted Bob’s reflection on the girl , “We would like to use the horses this afternoon for some publicity shots. What time suits you, Bob?” he asked not giving him a choice over whether they could or not just about the time.

“Publicity shots?” Bob was confused, they hadn’t won anything yet.

“We need to get the stable name back out there. We need more business to keep afloat until you train our next champion,” Alyssa smiled.

“Yeah alright, any time after lunch. I could use an afternoon off I suppose,” Bob said, giving in surprisingly easily, the ready capitulation startling Alyssa. “No treats though, gir…, Alyssa”, he corrected himself for the second time that morning. “They’re on a strict racing diet.”

“Whatever you say, you’re the trainer,” she smiled at him and impulsively hugged the grizzly old man. “Thank you.”

Bob disengaged himself from her embrace and wandered back to the rails, bellowing orders and Alyssa grinned at Tom and Lou. “That went well.”

They left Joe at the track, where he was happy watching the horses as they trained and walked back up to the house. Harry was in the back yard with her friends, looking at the trees and rustic old fence that was in dire need of repair. Alyssa died a little believing they were judging the rundown look of her home.

Harry saw them approaching and called out, “Your house is perfect, just perfect!”

Tom groaned. “Did she tell you what she has planned? She always has a reason for everything she does.”

“She did say something about a new idea or some such that I would be happier with,” Alyssa twisted her lips in thought at the brief conversation they had had earlier that morning. “Better go see what she is up to then,” Alyssa smiled at Tom. “It can’t be as bad as streaking through a race day crowd.”

“Be careful. If I know Harry it’s something equally as shocking. Her piece is on Nude Day after all,” Tom smirked teasing her as they walked up to where the group was standing.

“Great! Our Lady Godiva has returned,” she smiled widely at Alyssa before scowling at Tom. “Took you long enough to find her.” Tom shrugged as Harry turned back towards the house, “We better start now or we will never have you ready in time. Let’s go team.”

“Don’t you think you should tell me what this grand plan of yours is?” Alyssa said as she was dragged into the house and up to her room.

“Well sweetie, seeing as you won’t do the whole nudie ride thing for me at the races. We are going to do the next best thing, a photo shoot with Godiva’s children and you as the beautiful Godiva!” Harry was grinning at her own cleverness as Alyssa’s eyes widened and she started to shake her head. “Oh don’t look like that. It will all be very demure it will only seem like you’re naked. I have some great people here to help. You have to do it.”

Alyssa looked at her dubiously, “Oh come on, help me out here. I have done all the work, you just have to stand there and look pretty. Think of the publicity you’ll get and Joe will do a piece on the horses that I will refer to in my column. There will be a lot of interest I assure you. Its win-win,” Harry said, pushing her into the bathroom handing her a bottle as she spoke, “Now wash your hair with this and let us work our magic.”

It was hours later when Alyssa finally donned a robe and walked down to have a late lunch. She was absolutely ravenous after having such an early breakfast. Her head ached and felt heavy as the excessively long hair extensions added weight to her already long hair. She wasn’t careful and cursed as her head was reefed back as she sat on the long strands of blonde hair. She had to admit it looked very natural as did the make up that covered the soft gel pads that cupped her breasts and held them up making them look unnaturally perky but totally nude. She wore a snug skin-toned G-string and as she sat at the table and ate her lunch she couldn’t help but feel terribly exposed despite the robe covering her.

She was surprised at herself being naked in front of Harry’s team of people. She hadn’t felt as self-conscious as she would have thought. In truth the whole experience was very titillating even though none of them looked at her sexually, that she could see anyway. She tried to work out why now, with a robe on, she suddenly felt exposed and uncomfortable. Tom sat beside her as he spoke to Harry, “Did you manage to cover that bruise on her arm?”

“Don’t tell me you were responsible for that,” Harry scowled and looked first at him as he denied it then at Alyssa.

“Gosh no,” Alyssa said wide eyed. Feeling uncomfortable by the turn in conversation Alyssa stood up, “Let’s get this done before I get a migraine from all the hair I now have.”

“Come on, Tom. We need you too,” Harry laughed. “Did you know that the term Peeping Tom came from a merchant who did not follow the decree to close his shutters tight and not look at Godiva as she rode through the streets of Coventry?”

“You want me to be known for all eternity as Peeping Tom? No thank you!” Tom laughed loudly.

“Come on, no one will recognise you. I bet you peeped at her more than once as you were growing up out here in the back of beyond,” Harry winked at him and the discomfort Alyssa had been feeling increased tenfold after the events of yesterday.

Alyssa clutched her robe tightly around her as they left the house. Joe and Lou had walked the horses up to the old fence and Gwen and the photographer had set up cameras and a couple of small lights in a small area near the old gnarled loquat tree.

Tom picked her up and helped her to sit in the oddly shaped old side saddle that Lou had found in the old stables. The well-used leather creaked under her as the hair and make-up artists surrounded her, poking and prodding her into the best possible position before taking her robe away. Her hair hung over her shoulders, lightly fanning over her semi-bare breasts and down across her thighs.

The sun was setting and she had changed positions, and horses, and been pushed and pulled and primped within an inch of her life by the time they finally called it a day. Alyssa was bone-weary as she struggled back into the robe. The adrenaline she had felt earlier at being exposed to the view of so many people had long since faded and she stumbled over a rock as she moved toward the house with Harry.

Tom was there in a flash and swooped her up into his arms, carrying her into the house. He held her close to his chest as he cradled her in his arms. Alyssa smiled up at him and breathed in his familiar scent, grateful for his warmth.

“Wait!” The man who did her hair called and ran over quickly braiding it and hooking it over her shoulder so it no longer dragged along the ground as Tom held her.

“Its okay,” she said, “I am a big girl I can walk.” She was suddenly aware of the people around her still watching her and the front of her robe which had fallen slightly open.

“I think I prefer it this way,” Tom smiled and tilted his head looking at her breasts until she reached up and, blushing, drew the robe closed . “You just sat on a horse naked for all intents and purposes and you blush now?” Tom teased, surprised at her sudden shyness.

Marcie of course had cooked up a storm for dinner and she hurried out of the kitchen with a ladle still in hand as Tom carried Alyssa in. “Oh no, are you hurt?” The woman fussed.

“No,” Tom said, “Just in need of some warm clothes and a warm meal. I think she overdid it today.” Tom swept past Marcie and took the stairs two at a time. “We’ll be down in a few minutes. Get everyone a drink would you, please?” He disappeared into Alyssa’s room with her and shut the door leaning his back against it.

“You can put me down now,” Alyssa said softly as he continued to hold her.

“I don’t want to,” Tom said plaintively.

She looked up at him frowning, “You’ll have to put me down some time, I expect. Why not now?”

Tom sat on the bed but continued to hold her as she sat up in his lap, tightening his arms as she went to stand up. “Do you think I’m gay?” He asked her seriously.

Alyssa laughed, “No way. I have seen the string of beauties you have dated.”

“Why then do you constantly parade around in front of me in next to nothing and expect me to ignore it? Do you think I don’t notice?” There was a strange tone to his voice, as if caught between confusion and frustration.

“It was a publicity stunt, for Harry’s column,” Alyssa explained uncertainly, unable to work out what he was talking about.

“Not today. The walking around in towels when I am up here, stripping off to sunbathe on the bluff, being naked last weekend and snuggling up to me all night. Do you realise how hard it was to keep my hands to myself? Today was just the icing on the cake!” He bent his head and kissed her as she looked up at him in surprise. His hand stroked down her body over the light robe and he groaned. “Do you really not realise how long I have wanted to do that?”

Alyssa had no words, she stared at him wide eyed like a deer caught in headlights. Tom’s face fell as she said nothing and he knew he had stepped over some invisible line and ruined everything. Seeing his expression change she reached up and stroked his cheek. “You have always dated such beautiful women I thought I wasn’t your type at all, that you didn’t look at me like… well that way.”

He was about to tell her how truly beautiful she was but she leaned in to kiss him smothering the words. “Maybe,” she said, breaking the kiss, “We could continue this when there isn’t a room full of people downstairs waiting for us?”

“Let them wait,” Tom grinned, “I have waited a long time to tell you how I felt, but the timing was never right and you had that stupid boyfriend.” Before she could protest about his love-life, he kissed her again his hand slipping beneath the robe to fondle the breasts he had seen so often and never been able to touch.

There was a knock at the door startling them and Alyssa smiled widely at Tom, as she called out, “Yes?”

The door opened and Lana, the make up artist, walked in with a small bottle in her hand. “You are going to need help to get that adhesive off your skin,” she nodded meaningfully to where Tom’s hand lay beneath Alyssa’s robe.

“Great, can you help me?” Alyssa slipped from Tom’s lap and purposefully turned toward him as she let the robe fall from her shoulders, flaunting her nudity to purposefully tease him this time.

Tom groaned and lay back on the bed throwing an arm over his eyes, “You’ve go to be fucking kidding me!”

Alyssa smirked as she stood still, letting the woman remove the gel packs giving her back her natural form. “I’m going to have a quick shower and get dressed. Can you tell Marcie I’ll be another ten minutes and not to make everyone wait for me? I’ll be down as soon as I can get dressed.”

“No don’t shower without checking with Ash. He will only lecture you to death if anything happens to your hair. Just throw on a pair of jeans and come down. We don’t mind waiting,” Lana said.

“Okay,” Alyssa said ducking into her closet, still able to hear Tom mumbling under his breath from in there. “Let’s go eat,” she said as she emerged. She waited for Tom to get up walked down the stairs with him trailing behind her.

The meal passed in a blur for Alyssa, who was going over the events of the last week in her mind, slowly making sense of Tom’s strange moods and reactions to her. Now, having confessed his interest in her, he didn’t seem to be able to stop touching her and she found his leg pressed against hers as they sat side by side at the over-crowded table. His voice seemed huskier as he leant to her ear to murmur some innuendo about what was being said at the table. She found herself more aware of his masculinity and what a good looking man he really was and the thought of being intimate with him excited her more than she would have thought possible before tonight.

They adjourned to the lounge room where everyone was comfortable and the photographer set up his computer and a small projector shining onto a large picture they had covered carefully with a crisp linen sheet. Alyssa barely recognised herself, many of the shots taken from angles so as to almost disguise her features, highlighting the hair and hidden areas of her body as she sat atop the beautiful horses.

Tom leaned low and murmured into her ear, “This is torture for me.” Alyssa couldn’t stop smiling as he continued to flirt and run his hand over her back and rib cage. The night seemed to drag out as the photographer argued the imperfections in every shot and Harry argued back about the wonders of air brushing. Each of the team put forth their favourites as the photos of Alyssa were being picked apart and then picked over again. She finally stood up and smiled, “You all did such a wonderful job that it hardly looks like me at all, so I am going to leave you all to argue over whether my butt looks too big or not and go for a walk.”

They all gaped at her, “Aww Doll-face. I’m sorry,” Harry looked contrite. “We’re just not used to having the subject matter in the room with us when we do this.”

“For what’s its worth, I like…” Tom rattled off a series of numbers. “I’ll take one of each in wallet size,” he grinned as Alyssa looked at him stunned and everyone burst out laughing.

Marcie who had been included in the night’s festivities was enjoying herself immensely. “Don’t you go out walking on your own! You remember what happened last time. Tom go with her and don’t go far,” Marcie said in a mothering tone.

Alyssa rolled her eyes. She actually wanted just a little space out of Tom’s arms to think properly about what this all meant. “Well why don’t you come with me Marcie? I’m just going out to the tree for a few minutes. Then Tom can really tell them what he thinks and protect me from Harry’s penchant for the shots that are way too revealing.”

Tom looked disappointed when she turned to look at him, “Promise you will look after me and not let Harry get entirely her own way?”

“In case you didn’t notice, Doll-face, all the ones he just ordered were the revealing ones!” Harry was smirking. “I can’t win in this room, can I?” she appealed to everyone.

“Well I could use some fresh air,” Gwen said cheerily. “I’ll come with you. Then Marcie can restrain both Tom and Harry, she looks like she can handle them.” She took Alyssa by the arm and blew a kiss to Harry, “Be back soon, love.”

They walked down to the back fence and Alyssa leaned over the rail breathing in the sweet-smelling air after the staleness of being in such a crowded room. “Harry can be a bit overwhelming at times,” Gwen admitted, “But it’s why I love her I guess, she grabs life by both hands and everything she does is over the top. Her column is always a bit controversial even when her misogynistic boss gives her stupid ideas for it. I mean who has ever heard of National Nude Day really?”

Alyssa laughed, “Harry really is great. You guys were so wonderful coming to rescue me last weekend.”

“Tom is the one you should thank. He was really worried about you,” Gwen smiled. “Harry said she had never seen Tom in love before but she thought it might be the real deal with you.” Alyssa looked at her with a dumbfounded expression. “Harry’s Dad married Tom’s mother and she has seen women fall all over him for years but he never got really serious with any of the women he dated.”

“I didn’t know that,” Alyssa said. “He never mentioned he had a step family.”

“Sounds fair. He never told us he had a sweetheart back on the farm,” Gwen laughed.

“That’s just it we were never…, I mean we were more like brother and sister. I was involved with Justin for years,” Alyssa tried to explain.

“Oh yeah, completely slipped my mind. Funny that, from the time I met you I always thought of you as Tom’s girl,” Gwen laughed. “It’s the way he looks at you. Anyone can see how he feels.”

Alyssa smiled, “I couldn’t or didn’t. I guess I just never considered it. He always dated such beautiful women. Not mousey, country girls like me.”

“Did you see those photos in there?” Gwen laughed. “You’re about to jump onto the national stage as one of the countries most gorgeous and eligible women. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get more publicity from this thing than you bargained for.” She turned to lean against the rail and look back at the house. “Speak of the devil, he is checking on us from the kitchen. It’s obvious he cares for you. The question is, is he just a big brother type to you?”

Alyssa turned to look at the house. She could see Tom in the kitchen opening another bottle of wine for the team and she smiled. “I’m not blind, he is hot. I just never thought, I mean, he dated models for goodness’ sake.”

“You have no idea do you? If I thought for one moment you would jump the fence to my side of the yard I would be kissing you right now. You are a model. We have the photos to prove it.” Gwen was laughing as she spoke, wondering, as she looked at the girl beside her, just what her past boyfriends had done to make her think she was anything but gorgeous. Then she remembered Justin was a cheater and how that would batter a girl’s ego. She took Alyssa’s hand and squeezed it, “Anyone can be pretty with the right hair and make up and lighting, but you have a great big heart and that shines. That is what people are attracted to more than money or looks or celebrity status. It’s why so many women throw themselves at Tom. He is a genuinely nice guy. He’s alright looking if you are into men I suppose, but I love who is, so does Harry. That’s why we came and got you last weekend, because Tom asked and there isn’t much Harry, or me for that matter, wouldn’t do for him.”

“Yeah, he is a good guy. A white hat in a world of black ones,” Alyssa mused thinking of Justin and Kerrick, but beginning to laugh with Gwen. “Let’s go in before Harry wonders if I am seducing you,” she laughed loudly at the idea.

Gwen doubled over laughing, “Oh please do! Though she probably thinks it’s the other way around.”

They walked into the kitchen still laughing and Tom looked up at the door, “What’s so funny?”

“I was trying to seduce Gwen but my moves need a bit of work it seems,” Alyssa said with a smirk.

“I was never good with subtlety, unless a girl walks up and kisses me I am oblivious,” Gwen laughed.

“Usually it’s Alyssa who is oblivious. I doubt she has ever kissed a girl,” Tom joined their good mood.

“Well no, but I haven’t done or even thought of doing a lot things I have done this week,” Alyssa smiled sweetly at Tom.

“So do it,” he shrugged. “You might like it.”

The look in his eyes as he stared at Alyssa was as if he had dared her and she spun Gwen around and kissed her, letting the kiss linger before pulling back with a shy smile at Gwen who was grinning. “Not bad. I didn’t mind that at all. Maybe I should consider playing on your side of the fence.”

Tom groaned and seemed frozen to the spot. Both women laughed outrageously. “Don’t panic, Tom,” Gwen said between bouts of giggling, “I haven’t stolen her yet. I wouldn’t be daring her to kiss Harry though if you don’t want to lose her entirely.”

They walked back to the lounge room together and after topping up everyone’s glasses Tom came and sat beside Alyssa again pulling her close and murmuring, “You know if you don’t stop teasing me I won’t be responsible for what happens.” Alyssa laughed again and Gwen looked over at her and winked.

The night wore on as Harry and Joe talked about their articles and getting some more photos in the morning of the horses training and maybe Alyssa down at the stables. Alyssa had had to dig her heels in about nudity in front of the farm hands and for once Tom backed her up. Ash fussed with her hair tying it up in such a away that it wouldn’t harm the braids until the next morning and, finally exhausted, Alyssa fell asleep with her head on Tom’s shoulder.

The following morning she woke alone in her own bed. She looked at the clock as she turned off the alarm and got up to shower, quickly scrubbing the previous day’s make up and left-over grime from her body. She dressed in decent jeans and a crisp white shirt rather than her everyday work clothes and wandered down to the kitchen. Marcie smiled, and offered juice and toast as she prepared a breakfast feast. Alyssa gulped down half a glass of juice and grabbed some toast. “I’m just going down to warn Lou and Bob that the team want more photos down there this morning and see if it’s possible. I won’t be long.”

“You own this place, don’t forget,” Marcie called after her. “You get to tell them what IS possible.”

After a brief conversation with Lou and Bob, Alyssa had left them to work out the details. She wanted to be more involved with the track work but she also realised that she was the business, and she needed to concentrate more on improving the way the farm was run and less on riding and interfering with the training schedule that was already in place. She could slowly get Bob used to the idea she would like to come down once in a while and ride, no need to cause more tension right now, not while so many changes were taking place. It was like the fog of her grief had finally lifted and she felt more sure about what she needed to do here rather than trying to be involved in everything in a hands-on way.

She was walking back through the stables to feed her own horse an apple, on the way back to the house, when Tom appeared and grabbed her, dragging her into a stall. He bent his head low and kissed her deeply, pressing his body against hers and grinding his hips slightly as the kiss lasted. Finally, breathless, he broke the kiss and looked down into her eyes smiling. “Good morning, sleepy head.”

“Good morning,” she smiled feeling flushed and excited by his obvious arousal. He had run a finger down her neck and begun to undo the top button of her shirt when she reached up and put her hand over his. “Tom, I…,” she looked up into his face and dread looked back at her from his deep blue eyes. “I want a proper date. I was only half teasing when I used to say I didn’t want to be a notch on your bed-head. I want more than a roll in the hay. I want to do it right because if we are going to fuck up our friendship for the chance of something more, I just… want to do it right.”

Tom kissed her again and growled low, “You are killing me, you know that?” He took his hand away from the button of her shirt and stood back. “You’re right, I suppose. A proper date it is then, but…” he moved against her again and kissed her deeply, “There will be a price for all this torment.” He ground his hips against her letting her feel his arousal as he took her breath away with a searing kiss.

The morning went by in a rush after that. She was primped and prodded and made over again, except instead of nude shots she was photographed in her jeans and white shirt to begin with then while they had lunch they discussed another final set of shots. She was given a modern day evening gown that had been made in the medieval style. It was gathered under the bust and flowed freely to drape around her feet. It was a vivid shade of green with gold-brocade rope-like ribbons under her breasts and around the edges of the sleeves. The dress was simply beautiful and Alyssa felt beautiful wearing it.

The final shots took another couple of hours and the day was growing late when they finally wrapped it up for the day and weekend. Alyssa slumped mercifully in a chair and let Ash finally remove the heavy extensions from her hair. So used to having Lana fuss over her, she didn’t notice that she was touching up the make-up rather than taking it off until she said, “There, you look lovely.”

“I’m sure the horses and farm hands would be happy about that but I doubt I’ll go back down there tonight,” Alyssa laughed.

“Of course not, Tom’s taking us all to dinner at that quaint little pub he’s been telling Harry about.” Gwen said from behind her.

Alyssa hadn’t realised that while her hair was being taken care of everyone had gone to pack and change, including Tom who was looking amazing in a suit and tie. “Shall we go?” he held out his hand to her.

“Just let me grab my…,” Marcie handed her handbag and an overnight bag.

“Just in case you want to have a drink and stay the night there,” the woman smiled and waved them out the door. “Go have fun with your friends. Lou and I can look after everything here.”

Alyssa hugged the woman and walked down to the waiting cars. “See you there,” Harry called out from the stretch limousine as it pulled away. Alyssa waved and looked up to see Tom smiling down on her.

He opened the car door for her, “You wanted a date. You got it.”

He closed the door and hurried around to the driver’s side and climbed in beside her. Reaching to the back seat he handed her a small bunch of brightly coloured flowers that had been wrapped in pretty paper, and a small box containing home-made fudge. He grinned at her, “Not quite roses and chocolates but best I could do on short notice.”

“It’s wonderful,” she said, truly in awe of the effort he had gone to for her. “Thank you.”

He slid in a CD and the sweet voice of Natalie Merchant played softly. They made small talk between long stretches of silences when they listened to the music, neither wanting to touch on the problems of the farm or the anxiousness she felt about the upcoming columns that Joe and Harry would write about her and her stud farm. Alyssa asked about his other family, having found out Harry was his step sister, and he talked candidly about his mother and her family and his life in the city while he had been at university before they lapsed back into silence each with their own thoughts.

It was well and truly evening when they pulled into the hotel car park and entered the restaurant with the group they had led there. The all ate and drank too much as they laughed and joked through the dinner. A small band played and Alyssa was swept onto the dance floor by Tom and then passed around the team as she lost sight of him for the longest time. She was laughing after trying to teach Gwen how to boot-scoot which seemed impossible in the dress she was wearing, when Tom finally reappeared through the restaurant entrance.

Harry suddenly announced it was time to go, she had to be back in the city before dawn and she laughed merrily as she kissed Alyssa and Tom goodbye, promising to send the copy of her column before it was published. It seemed they were gone in a moment and Tom took Alyssa’s hand and murmured in her ear, “Let’s walk that dinner off.” He put a hand around her waist and pulled her close to his side as they walked through the small country town, stopping every so often to kiss her softly.

They had come back to their original starting point in front of the hotel and he walked with her through the bar waving to the older woman who was serving the regulars before exiting the building through the rear door. There were a group of three rundown looking bungalows and he held her to him, “It’s late and I have had more wine than I should have with dinner. So I thought we would stay the night”

Alyssa started to protest but he held up his hand and kissed her, “Let me finish.” He turned her so she faced him and looked down into her eyes. “I know you want to go slow and take some time but I have never been surer. It’s late and if you don’t want it to go any further tonight you can have the cabin in the middle and I will try not to bother you until morning. I will be in the right cabin and you’re welcome to stay there with me.” He smiled reassuringly, “No pressure, no strings.”

Alyssa, too, had drunk more than she should have during dinner and she put her hand up to his cheek, “What if I just wanted to be close to you? No string or expectations. Could you do that?”

Tom groaned, “I’m only human Alyssa. I would try but I am not sure how much longer my self-control will hold out.”

Alyssa wrapped her arms about his neck. She felt beautiful and desirable and she wanted him in that moment as much as he was telling her that he wanted her. For the first time since he had kissed her the day before she instigated the intimacy between them by pressing herself against him as her lips brushed gently over his. “Yes,” she whispered and kissed him, “I’ll stay with you.”

Tom had been mentally preparing himself for a night alone, in the last few minutes, and was stunned by her words. Alyssa took the moment to dance out of his arms and across the small courtyard toward the right. He caught up to her in a few hurried strides and grabbed her around the waist pulling her to the middle cabin, she looked confused as he fumbled for a key.

“This was always going to be your cabin regardless of what you decided,” he said and opened the door with a flourish. She stepped into a room lit by dim candlelight and strewn with flower petals. “Wow,” she whispered and turned to look at him. She looped her arms around his neck. “Make love to me,” she cooed seductively, her breath brushing against his ear.

“‘I thought you would never ask,” he said and took her lips in a deep kiss. Tom was leaning over her, his dark eyes gleaming, golden shards of desire reflecting the candle light. He slipped the dress from her shoulders, exposing her high firm breasts to his view. He had seen them so many times it seemed but never like this. “Baby, you are perfect and you looked so beautiful tonight,” Tom murmured making her blush.

Tom fumbled with the zip on the back of her dress but finally the green material fell from her body and pooled at her feet leaving her standing in a g-string. He carefully picked her up and walked her to the bed, laying her softly amongst the flower petals and with a soft, gentle motion removed the only piece of clothing left between him and her body.

She watched as, in seconds, he had dispensed with his shirt and trousers, cursing as he stumbled in his rush to disrobe. Alyssa was amazed by the beauty of his naked body. Her shy but fascinated gaze roamed over every inch of him, from his wide shoulders to the broad muscular chest liberally sprinkled with black hair. She shivered in her excitement, her curiosity forcing her to look lower to where the evidence of his excitement and arousal stood erect between hard muscled thighs.

Alyssa gasped staring at his sizable cock and then Tom was leaning over her, his strong hands caressing her and trailing down the length of her body. Completely naked and totally exposed to his fiercely glittering gaze, she blushed and shivered again, as he slowly dragged the tips of his long fingers sensually back up her legs, sending shockwaves through her that made her quiver with a need she could no longer deny.

“Tom,” She whispered his name.

“Ssh,” he responded. His hand caressed her hip, the indentation of her waist and slowly rose over her breast to her throat. He rose up above her supporting himself on one elbow, his wide shoulders leaning over her. Then his dark head bent down and his mouth found hers once more. They kissed with a passion that made her legs go weak. His hand swept over her body again, his agile fingers rolling her hardening nipples, first one and then the other before caressing lower over her flat stomach to the soft curls at the juncture of her thighs.

No man had ever touched her so carefully before and for a second, a semblance of inferiority surfaced, but it was extinguished as his head dipped to the hard bud of her nipple and suckled it into the heat of his mouth, his teeth teasing at the sensitive flesh. She gasped out loud, her body trembling in pleasure that was almost pain, and then he soothed the bud with his tongue, sending her heartbeat hammering against the wall of her chest.

Alyssa hadn’t known such feelings, such cravings, existed until now. It wasn’t that her past lovers were bad. It was just that this felt so different. She reached for him, her hands curving around his wide shoulders, stroking down his broad back and round to his chest. She discovered the hair she had wondered about earlier was soft and curly. His body held a new fascination for her. She could not control her response; indeed she did not want to, as the sensual expertise of his hands and his mouth led her deeper and deeper into a state of hot, needful lust.

Tom’s face loomed over hers again and crushed her swollen lips once more under his. His fingers traced along her slender thigh and sought the moist heat of her tender flesh, while his tongue plundered her mouth with a rhythm she felt throughout her body.

“Make love to me, please,” Alyssa whispered. She looked up into his face, the dark blue eyes showing his desire, and she knew it was for her.

“God!” Tom growled as he rose over her and surged hot and hard into her pliant body. For a moment he froze as he registered his harsh entry and her muffled cry, but her hands clasped around his back, and she kissed the skin of his shoulder and neck. She cried out again with pleasure as he surged back into the hot wetness of her.

Alyssa discovered the true meaning of making love. Her body knew instinctively how to respond to his movements by arching into him, meeting every thrust of his hips with such pleasure that her fingernails dragged down his back. Higher and higher she flew, soaring into the feelings he gave her, her heart thundering, her greedy hands holding him fiercely, terrified he would stop too soon, and deny her the ecstasy she knew was so close.

Then it happened; her body convulsed, jerking and twitching in wave upon wave of orgasmic release as he surged into her one last time. She could hear his low moan in counterpoint to her own cry as she felt him shudder in his own explosive climax.

Tom collapsed on top of her, his head resting in the curve of her neck, and she lifted a trembling hand and smoothed the dark sweat-damp hair of his head, loving the way he rested against her, loving the heat of his hard body over her. Loving him … her thought froze. Did she love him? Of course she did but…

Tom sighed and rolled onto his back. Sliding an arm under her waist, he pulled her close so she was splayed half over his broad chest. “Was I too rough?” he asked, seeing the strange expression her thoughts had left on her face. He swept the damp tendrils of hair from her cheek and forehead, his dark eyes searching her lovely face flushed with the glow of sex.

“You were perfect,” she said and kissed his lips.

Tom looked at her guiltily, “I’m sorry … I didn’t use the condom. Call it heat of the moment from all of the tormenting you have done lately.”

“I never tormented on purpose,” Alyssa grinned at him, “Though if that’s what I get as punishment…” She seemed to consider him before bursting out laughing. “It’s okay. I have birth control,” she said and dropped a kiss on his worried face. He smacked her ass lightly and laughed with her, more than a little relieved.

They explored every inch of each other’s bodies that night, dozing off just before dawn, wrapped in each others arms. When they woke they made love again before showering together and finally leaving the peaceful bliss of the dingy cabin. They stopped at a small bakery for breakfast and began the long drive home. As they drove, his hand rested constantly on her thigh and she held it gently. She had never imagined it could be this wonderful between them.

Alyssa said quietly, “So much has changed in just a week, and once that column appears hopefully the farm will pick up and life will be the best it’s been in the longest time.”

Tom turned his head and smiled at her. “Yeah, life is pretty damn good,” he said squeezing her thigh.

Marcie was waiting for them when they finally drove up. She saw them kiss as Tom gathered their bags from the car and walked Alyssa in. “Well it’s about time,” Marcie laughed. When they stared at her blankly she laughed, “Don’t play coy with me. If you hadn’t worked it out soon, I was gonna have Lou lock you two in a room together until you finally realised what we have all known for a long time.”

“So much for that little secret,” Alyssa said but returned the woman’s smile.

“I wasn’t keeping it a secret, actually I was about to go tell the boys that I finally nailed the boss lady,” he grimaced as Alyssa punched his arm. He leaned down and kissed her happily, “I’m going to go check in with Dad. I’ll see you for dinner.” He bounded back down the stairs, “If I make it that long.”

That first night Tom spent in Alyssa’s small bed with her grumbling about a perfectly good king sized bed no one was using just down the hall. Alyssa couldn’t bare the thought of using her father’s room with all his stuff in there so the following night she stayed in his cottage. After a particularly torrid bout of love making Alyssa lay spent beside him in his big bed and smiled slyly, “So cowboy, you got a pocket knife handy?”

“What do you need that for?” Tom looked at her curiously.

“Don’t worry I won’t stab you with it or anything, I just need it for a moment,” she said and watched as his handsome form rose from the bed and crossed the room to retrieve it. She loved the way his body looked with its wide shoulders and broad chest tapering down to a narrower waist. She still found it hard to believe that he was hers. She took the pocket knife from him, and as he watched her curiously, she knelt up and etched a tally mark in the headboard of his bed.

Tom grabbed her throwing the pocketknife away and rolling her onto her back. “First and last in this bed, baby.”

“You’re insatiable,” she gasped as she felt him enter her again. He leaned in and kissed her taking away anything else she had to say from her mind and gently took her with slow and careful movements, making the moment last.

The week flew by in a haze of happiness for Alyssa. The men having understood the need to keep Kerrick at bay had ordered him off the property as soon as he was seen. The copy of Harry’s column had shown up in her email on Wednesday and both Alyssa and Tom were impressed with the way she had handled it, not really focusing much on Alyssa herself as much as the historical figure and today’s equine namesake. She hadn’t sent the photo she was using, just the number of it. Alyssa couldn’t remember which was which so she emailed back asking if the photographer could send her a copy.

It was only when she opened the weekend paper that Alyssa saw which photo had been used. The grainy black and white print made it seem even more revealing, if that was possible, and Alyssa made Tom and Marcie promise not to tell anyone. Having flirted so often with exhibitionism it was strange to know thousands of people were looking at her that very morning as she stared at the photo.

By the end of the day though, she had been dubbed the pin-up girl by everyone on the farm and her phone had rung off the hook with people interested in her story and wanting comments. “I thought you said it was just a small column in the paper,” Alyssa despaired as Tom came into the study to find her for dinner. “This is out of control!”

“I have a surprise for you in the kitchen,” Tom grinned as if he hadn’t heard her.

Her eyes narrowed, “You can’t sweet talk all this away with that sexy smile.”

Alyssa didn’t have to move. Harry burst into the room from behind Tom. “Isn’t it fabulous? My column has been picked up by… well you’re not interested in that. You’re famous now! Everyone wants to know you.” Harry gloated, “No need to thank me, it’s me that should thank you.” Alyssa just stared at her as she kept talking, “Now I am going to lend you Gwen for a few days to man the phones and sort out the real players from the perverts and idiots. Play your cards right and you can be rich, rich, rich!”

The following day Joe’s column came out in a racing journal rather than a paper and that’s when the media circus truly began. Harry and Gwen took over everything and Alyssa snuck out of the house while everyone was too busy to care. She considered going for a ride but knew Tom would kill her if she left by herself again, so she spent some time in the stall brushing her horse down and feeding her apples.

“It’s a bit like a runaway train,” Lou smiled from the gate of the stall. “Not planning on a ride to get away from it all, are ya?”

“I just needed some room to breathe,” Alyssa said quietly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the horses. Bob must be pretty pissed at me, huh?”

“Are you kidding me? He’s claiming he knew all along and he was the only one you trusted to train them,” Lou said, cracking a rare smile. “Well you have the publicity young lady, now how do you turn it into the dollars we need to save this place?”

“By selling myself to the highest bidder I guess. We have had some offers for the photos. The photographer said he could have a gallery showing of his work from the day and see how much money that raises for us, minus his commission of course,” she mused. “A couple of the morning shows and magazines would like to do a fluffy happy story piece after the filly’s first race at Fairfield. I hope she runs as well as we all think she can.” Alyssa turned her face up to Lou, “What on earth have I done? My life will never go back to normal. I will always be that naked girl with the horses.”

“No one would blame you for just saying no,” Lou said, “we can find another way to raise the money.”

Alyssa knew the debt and the mortgage was too large to leave to chance or wait for the horses to win enough prize money, so she took a deep breath and put down the brush. “Thanks Lou, as they say today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.” She smiled lopsidedly. “I suppose we should see about some proper security for our future champions,” she mumbled, “and me.”

She walked back up to the house determined to ride the wave of publicity. She had friends, an odd assortment of people she thought of as family and she had Tom. She was loved and it didn’t matter what the media said, they would love her for who she truly was and this wasn’t so bad really if it meant saving their home and livelihoods. She saw the smile light up Tom’s face as he saw her walking toward him and thought to herself again, just how lucky she truly was.