Liz Borino © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Ryder Christensen’s mind raced as he stared at the photo collage above the opulent coffin holding his daughter, Gabriella. The air grew thick and hot with every exhale in the cathedral. Between the priest’s homily and the eulogy, Ryder struggled to breathe. He couldn’t name even half of the people here. But that’s what happens when death is sensationalized. People read a tragic story and think they have the right to share in the grief. Ryder just wanted to disappear.
Finally, the service ended. One more event to get through and then… Ryder glanced over at his mom and dad and sighed.
“Looking for me?” a gritty voice behind him asked.
“No.” Never. Ryder never sought the man with dark glasses who towered over him.
“You should have been.”
Ryder growled low in his throat as he nudged the man out of the throngs of people leaving the cathedral. “You come today, of all days? Don’t you have any respect? This is my daughter’s funeral.”
The man—who had never given Ryder his name, maybe for fear it might humanize him—crossed his arms over his chest. “And whose fault is that?”
Asshole. Ryder clenched his hands into fists. He shot his gaze around to see if anyone noticed he was missing yet. As the bereaved father, Ryder had to be on hand for the condolences of friends, family, and strangers. If I relax my posture, I can convince them that’s what me and tough guy here are doing. With that, he released his fists and shrugged the tension from his shoulders.
“Word on the street is that you’re leaving town soon. You weren’t thinking about doing that without saying goodbye, were you?”
“I planned to stop to see your boss tomorrow.” Ryder caught his dad’s eye and raised his finger, signaling that he’d be right there, hoping with everything in him that his dad wouldn’t come over or draw attention to his whereabouts.
“Well, if you have the money now, I could save you a trip.”
Right, because handing over an envelope of cash at a funeral won’t raise anyone’s suspicions. “It’s in my car. Listen, I’ll—”
“You’ll walk me over there, hand me the money, and I won’t cause a scene.” The man moved so that the handle on his revolver glistened in the sun. A pointed reminder of just what kind of scene he could cause, if given the chance.
Ryder raised his hands in surrender. “Follow me.” He realized the futility of his words as soon as they left his lips. Keeping his focus on the uneven pavement under his unsteady feet, Ryder led the goon to his father’s pickup and opened the driver’s side door.
“I sold my nice car.” And my nice house. And my nice retirement fund… Ryder swallowed the bile of emotions the thoughts brought up as he extracted the thick envelope from the glove compartment.
“This is everything?”
Everything I have. “That’s what Boss and I agreed on.”
“Hmm. I hope for your sake he remembers that agreement. Later, Cowboy.”
Me too, Ryder thought as the goon tucked the envelope into his jacket pocket and strode toward his black, tinted-window SUV.
“Son?” Ryder’s father asked from behind. “Are you in trouble? Something your mom and I should know?”
Ryder scanned his face for any indication of how much his old man had heard, but Victor Christensen was never one to give too much away. “No, Dad, don’t worry about it. I took care of it.”
Victor nodded, though Ryder could tell he didn’t entirely believe him. “Why don’t we drive over to that luncheon together? Your mom took our car when the service let out. Too many people for her.”
Ryder passed his dad the keys and sat in the passenger seat. Manhattan always had too many people for his parents. “I imagine so. I appreciate you two coming, though.”
Victor made a noise from the driver’s side. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t imply that we’d miss our only granddaughter’s funeral. We’ll always be there for you, son.”
“I know, Dad. It’s just—”
“Nothing. We’ll go to this luncheon, sleep for a couple of hours, then head home.”
Home. It had been a long time since he called the small North Carolina town of Tryon home. Something painfully ironic about starting over in the place he grew up itching to leave.
Salvatore Lewis swept his palm over the cropped chestnut mane of the warmblood stallion being offered to him. “Strong muscles.”
“Of course,” Jack, the farmer from Vermont, said. “Patches here comes from the finest lineage. Both his parents are world-class dressage champions.”
Patches. That’s a name for a damn guinea pig or maybe a house cat, but it’s an insult for a nearly six-foot horse. Sal stopped himself from rolling his eyes. It’s not the horse’s fault his breeder gave him a stupid name. “But he hasn’t been in any competitions?”
“Too young. He has been training along with his parents since he was one.”
A year. Great. Stallion-in-need-of-a-new-name would require extensive work and breaking in before Sal could do much with him. Sal reached into the food bucket and extracted a carrot, which the horse took gently. “Good boy.” Sal stroked the stallion’s snout as he munched the vegetable. In the horse’s gaze, Sal found more humanity than resided in most people he knew. He sensed a willingness to improve, adapt, despite the stallion’s relative youth. “I’ll give you $10,000 for him.”
“Are you out of your mind? His parents are champions! He’s gorgeous! Anything below $15,000 is absurd.”
Sal schooled his features to appear bored. “He has little training. He’s young enough to be unpredictable. So, the time, money, and resources required to make him useful is worth at least $5,000.” He adjusted his glasses in the hot North Carolina sun. The transition lenses were struggling to keep up with the changing cloud cover. He leaned forward. “But let’s be honest, you know all of that or you wouldn’t be selling this champion-bred warmblood stallion as he’s approaching the prime of his trainability. Since I see nothing in his medical file to signal health issues, I suspect you’d rather not spend those resources. So, would you rather take my $10,000 offer or bring him round to three more farms, where you’ll get less?” Sal was grateful for the clarity in vision the shade brought. It allowed him to watch every emotion play out over the farmer’s face.
An hour later, Sal had signed the papers and was settling Bishop into his new stall. “Okay, Bishop, after the vet checks you out, we’ll introduce you to King.”
“Bishop?” Jason asked. “You are such a fucking chess nerd.”
Sal turned to find his younger brother sitting in his wheelchair and his face fell. “Bad pain day?”
“Only when I’m walking. Or talking about it.” Jason tucked his hair behind his ear. His pit bull, Petey, a trained seizure dog, followed dutifully at his side.
“Rag on you for the chess obsession you never let go of? I was trying to.” Jason rolled in closer, but stopped a few feet short of the stallion. “He seems really calm for his age.” Jason grabbed the binder with all Bishop’s information and flipped through it. “When’s the vet coming?”
“Tomorrow morning.” Sal studied his brother’s movements, but decided asking him for health details would be an exercise in futility.
Jason bobbed his head and returned Bishop’s binder to the table. “Speaking of high school…”
“Wait. What? When were we talking about high school?” Sal gave the stallion a pat and motioned for Jason to follow him out of the stall to give Bishop time to warm up to his surroundings.
“I was sort of referencing high school when I was mocking you for your chess obsession.”
“Important! God, can’t you recognize a leading phrase when you hear one?” Jason huffed as he rolled along the sidewalk they had built around the property after his accident. “Have you seen the paper?”
Sal stopped walking and narrowed his eyes. “Do we still get a newspaper? On second thought, never mind. No, I haven’t. What’s in the paper?” If he didn’t move the conversation along, Jason could spend all day finding his point, and neither of them had time for that.
“Did you hear about Ryder Christensen coming to town?”
He sucked in a breath. “Well, I hope he, his wife, and kid enjoy their visit with his parents.” Sal picked up his pace, but even his longest strides were no match for the motor on Jason’s chair.
“Sal, do you really think I’d tell you that if Felicia and Gabriella were here?” Jason barely paused before he answered his own question. “I know better than to torture you with him.”
“He doesn’t torture me.”
“Bullshit. Tell that to the last five guys who didn’t measure up.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, right. Look who you’re talking to. I’m the guy who shared a bunk bed with you, remember? I do. The fall fucked up my legs, not my memory.”
Sal cursed his shaking hands as much as he cursed his curiosity. He glanced around the vegetable farm where workers were tending to plants. Around dusk, he would check their progress, but he saw no reason to micromanage them. “What about Ryder? And why is whatever it is in the damn paper?”
“Local papers usually report on murders of former residents.”
Sal’s jaw dropped along with his stomach. Ryder’s…dead? How? Why? What? Try as he might, he couldn’t make his mouth work to expel his racing, heart-stopping thoughts.
Jason’s eyes widened at Sal’s reaction. “No, no, I’m sorry. Not Ryder. Gabriella, his daughter, died when she was alone with a babysitter.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Jay!” Sal pressed his hand to his chest and lowered himself to a squat, willing his heart to slow. “The fuck is wrong with you?” Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should be sad for Ryder, but all Sal could conjure right then was relief. He didn’t bother analyzing why he cared as much as he did, considering Sal had cut contact with Ryder when Ryder had chosen the baby’s mother, but… Sal didn’t finish the thought, instead petting Pete, who came to check on him. “I’m okay, buddy.”
“Sorry.” Jason placed his hand on Sal’s arm. “I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”
Sal sighed and climbed to his feet. “Bang-up job of showing I didn’t care, huh?”
Jason shrugged. “Wasn’t gonna comment.”
“Appreciate that.” He inhaled deeply. “I’m going for a ride.” Perhaps not the most responsible thing with the constant flow of work to be done on the ranch, but Sal and Jason both knew Sal wouldn’t be able to focus until he cleared his head.
Jason gazed at the stalls. “Take Nelly. She can use the exercise.” He flipped his chair around and headed toward the house.
Sal crossed the path between the stalls until he reached the farthest and largest, where the coat of a sleek black mare shone in the sun. “Hey, girl,” he said with a pat. “Sorry Jason couldn’t visit with you today. He’s not feeling great.” He attached the mare’s saddle as he spoke. “I know you miss him when he can’t see you, but we all love you. How’s about you and I go for a jaunt?”
He paused to gauge her reaction to wearing her saddle. She seemed restless, but not distressed. Had she shown signs of being unhappy, he would have taken more time before mounting her. Once on the saddle with his boots securely in the stirrups, Sal clicked his tongue and let her lead him out of the stall.