Sarah stood and placed a hand on his tense arm. “I am,” she said softly.
His muscles quivered beneath her touch and he shook his head, fighting some inner demon. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’m an adult, Tony. This is just as much my responsibility as it is yours.”
“It can’t happen again. I don’t want children—ever.”
Ouch. After the initial desire to slap him passed, Sarah tossed back a barb of her own. “Because you’d have to talk to them, right?”
When he didn’t say anything, she lowered her hand and shook her head.
Wordlessly, he walked to his pile of clothes and started getting dressed. “Bringing you here was a mistake.”
Arms akimbo, Sarah waited for him to turn around. When he did, she stood there, still proudly nude before him. He might be afraid, but I’m not. “I’m not running away from this. I’m choosing life—all of it, the good, the bad, the scary parts. I’m done hiding.”
His face tightened with anger. He growled, “What do you want from me?”
In that desperate question, she heard what kept her heart open to him. She understood his pain and his journey in a way she doubted many others could. Giving up on him was like giving up on herself in a tangled, impossible-to-explain-even-to-herself way. “I want you to tell me whatever it was that made you like this. I want to know you.”
Their eyes clashed across the short distance between them.
When he spoke, his harsh tone was in direct contrast to his words. “Get dressed, then, because I doubt we’ll get much talking done with you standing there like that.”
Sarah turned her face to the side and hid a smile behind her hair. Score one for the Yankee. She quickly slipped into her clothing and went to stand next to him, boldly taking his hand in hers.
He turned away and walked out the door, but his hand tightened on hers as he dragged her behind him down the steps and out into the bright late-morning sunshine. They walked together down a rugged path that made Sarah glad she’d chosen to wear sneakers instead of boots. He stopped when they reached a small clearing that boasted a crystal-clear mountain stream.
“This is where I come when I need to think . . . or forget.”
Tony let go of her hand and picked up a rock to throw angrily into the stream. “You know that feeling you get when you first start driving a car on your own? At first you’re nervous, then you get more and more confident until you feel invincible. That’s how I’d describe my career until about five years ago. I came from nothing, you know? No one expected anything from me. I moved out of my father’s house at sixteen. I was working on a cattle ranch when I won a green horse in a poker game. The ranch owner let me keep him at his place and watched me work with him. Pretty soon, he had me training all his horses. I quickly gained a reputation for taking horses from green to champion in everything from racing to the rodeo circuit. People wanted to see what I did, so I booked shows at expos and fairs. Before long, I was getting offers to work with high-profile horses. Some went on to win their owners millions.”
Sarah joined him by the water and simply listened.
“The money came fast and easy after that. Rich people like to win. It made for a very profitable exchange. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was getting jobs all over the world. Racehorses. Barrel racers. The foundation is the same. A willing horse can be taught anything. I’ve always been able to bring a level of trust out in a horse that others couldn’t.”
“Because you care about them,” Sarah said.
“No, because I understand them. I always have. It’s not something I can put into words.”
Sarah wanted to ask more about the topic, to debate his claim about not caring, but she was afraid he’d shut down if she did. She let him tell his own story, at his own pace.
“People said there wasn’t a horse I couldn’t gentle, and I started to believe my own press. I met a family with a teenage daughter as headstrong as any animal I’d ever met. She had bought a Canadian warmblood. A seventeen-hand gray stallion with a dangerous reputation and a violent past. There were all sorts of rumors where that horse had been, but whoever had abused him, they hadn’t left a mark. He was stunning and enough of a challenge that he was exciting. I accepted their money and never doubted that I could fix that horse.”
His face whitened as he continued. “I thought I had him ready for her. I was blinded by my own confidence. Something in him was broken in a place I couldn’t reach, but I couldn’t see it. I told them he was safe. I told her father she’d be fine. For a while, I was right. Near the end of their first riding season, someone was lunging a horse in the same ring and cracked a whip against it. I don’t know what that stallion had seen or endured, but it came back to him with a vengeance. Those who were there said he went wild. He threw her and, before anyone could stop him, he stomped her to death.”
Tony threw another rock into the water. “I knew he was dangerous, but I thought I was gifted. I’m not. I’m cursed. She was only sixteen.”
Sarah whispered, “What happened after that?”
Tony closed his eyes. “The father took me to court. I hired some fancy lawyer who told me that any apology would be an admittance of guilt and I could go to jail.” He opened his eyes and the depth of his remorse was almost unbearable to witness. “We won the case and the court documents say I wasn’t guilty, but I know the truth. I am guilty, and I never did tell the father that I was sorry.”
Sarah wrapped her arms around his waist and held him tightly. I understand, oh, so much more than you know. It was because of that understanding that she knew there wasn’t anything she could say right then that he’d be able to hear. So she held her tongue and gave him another piece of her heart.
The questions Tony braced himself for didn’t come, and the sincerity of the hug she gave him robbed him of further speech. She wasn’t demanding that he give more, nor was she smothering him with pity. In her embrace, he felt understood and accepted.
And it was more terrifying than any nightmare he’d ever had.
He put an arm around her waist and rested his chin on top of her head, releasing a shaky breath as he did. Outside of initial lawyer consultations and his testimony in court, he’d never spoken of that time in his life. People had thrown accusations his way, both in private and in public, but he’d never defended himself.