“I won’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden. My ass will be sore in no time.” I blushed. What did I just say?

He chuckled. “Fair enough.”

I set off at a slow trot, following the road. Teddy roared off on his ATV back to the house. I hoped his date went well.

He was right about the day being unseasonably warm. I shed my jacket and tied it around my waist. I spurred Gloria on a little faster and she was happy to oblige. Maybe she’d been cooped up for too long, just like me. She was a smooth ride, her pace perfect. Someone had clearly loved on her and trained her well.

Before long, we were racing through the grass. The wind whipped against my face and my hair flew out behind me. I loved every second of it. Fear mixed with exhilaration as I leaned down and gripped her mane. The sun bathed my face in light and delicious heat.

We’d sped for miles, the stables long gone and only the encroaching woods and the thinner strip of grass next to the road in our view. Out here, away from the house, the grounds were far less manicured, the grass high and wild.

We startled some deer in an open field as we hurtled past, sending them scattering for the trees, their white tails up in alarm. Gloria didn’t seem to mind. She powered ahead, free and fast, the wind a song of liberation in our ears.

After a few more minutes of a full-on gallop, I pulled back on the reins, slowing her down and sitting back upright. I guided her back onto the road and we clip-clopped over a bridge spanning a wide bayou branch. Fish swam in the waters beneath us and frogs sang in the trees. A few hundred yards ahead I caught the sparkle of a large span of water. The levee. We trotted up to the edge. It was a sizeable reservoir, the lake disappearing into wooded inlets far off in the distance.

On the far edge, I could just make out the straight lines of a cottage in the woods.

“Think there are alligators in there, Gloria?”

She nickered and nipped at the high grass.

Cattails grew along the sides of the water and lilypads floated here and there. A ramshackle dock and small wooden boat were abandoned nearby. The water darkened toward the center. How deep was it?

I guided Gloria further up the bank where a small retaining pond split off from the larger lake. A grassy berm separated the bodies of water. At the top, I dismounted and dropped to the ground. The last few cicadas of the summer played their song in the pines that hemmed in the water on all sides. I always associated the sound with hot days.

I let Gloria eat the high grass as I lay out on the ground, staring up at the passing clouds. I popped in the stolen earbuds and set Lucius’ iPod to random, listening to his eclectic mix of music as the sun smiled down, warming me with comforting beams.

I laced my fingers behind my head and closed my eyes.

***

Gloria’s loud whinny woke me. I must have dozed off in the warm sun. It was gone now, dark clouds hovering above, promising a downpour. A rumble of thunder had Gloria nuzzling at my head with her nose.

I got to my knees and then stood. “I’m up. I’m up. We’d better get back.”

I stowed the purloined iPod. As I clambered onto Gloria’s back, the clouds erupted, huge raindrops pelting us. Then the hail came, larger than anything that should ever fall from the sky. The size of golf balls, the ice hurt with each stinging impact. It would take half an hour, likely more, to get back to the stables. The only other shelter was the cottage in the woods I’d spotted earlier. I couldn’t see it anymore for the curtains of rain and the pelting hail, but it wasn’t far.

A piece struck my forehead and I felt warm blood running down my face.

Shit.

I couldn’t stay out in the open. I made my decision and urged Gloria toward the woods. We would have to ride the storm out in the cottage. The thunder grew louder, the booming reverberating in my chest as lightning streaked across the sky.

We made it to the tree line, the branches above blocking out or at least slowing down the balls of hail. Gloria whinnied as a streak of lightning led to a deafening crack of thunder. I stroked her mane.

“It’s okay, girl. We just have to make it to the cottage.”

I led her through the trees, heading to where I remembered the cottage sat. Or at least I thought I was. We were in the heart of the storm, gloom and sheets of rain cutting visibility down to nearly nothing.

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