She breathed heavily eyeing the line of barrels before her. Despite the cool of the morning a bead of sweat-not the first-broke free between her shoulder blades and traced down her back. Gripping the reins a little too tightly she nudged the horse forward briskly.
First barrel, second, third, they cleared them well enough but she was dirt-kicking choppy, not gliding-not smooth. Fuck! She pulled off the last barrel and away from them. “Come on Sandy…”she implored under her breath as she moved toward the fence line.
“Nothing the matter with Sandy”, Braxton Taylor growled as she passed him. This guy heard everything! she thought. “Run them again”, he ordered, “and finish this time.” She yanked at the reins-digusted.
What a shit morning! Every drill-every run-had been off. She lifted her hat and wiped her sleeve across her forehead. Stalling, she stood in the stirrups and pushed her long, dark hair behind her ears then settled the hat back in place. Maybe bringing Braxton here was a mistake-she’d felt that when he first stepping into the ring. Then she relaxed and felt better. Now worse. The forested ridges of the Appalachian Range pushed skyward around her. Often shrouded in mists with fog tumbling down the hollows, today the sky was clear and the air crystal and piney. If only Lynette Holt’s mind were that clear.
Why had she pulled off the barrel? Braxton wondered. She hadn’t completed one course this morning. For a few moments she would look in control-the horse and she one-as she had during her six year reign as the state’s barrel racing queen. Then-for no reason-she would fall apart. Maybe not so badly that a layman could tell, but he knew, she knew and the judges would know.
At the top of the line of barrels, she took a breath and leaned a little forward. “Go”, she breathed and Nancy launched forward. One! Two! Three! Four! All clean then she leaned too far right and missed the last one again. “FUCK!” she barked aloud then slumped in the saddle.
Braxton hated swearing in the ring. He hated harsh words around horses. Everyone thought he was some kind of damn horse whisperer. He was good-she’d give him that. She hadn’t lost one championship in the years they were married. Of course, she hadn’t won one since they split. Didn’t place last year. Fuck it, she thought. I’m paying him. It’s my place now. I’ll swear if I want.
That was better, thought Braxton reading her body language right up until it wasn’t. The racer he knew was in there but was only showing up in spurts for quick peeks. They’d been out here for the better part of an hour and he’d cajoled her to this point-but it was like trying to wring water out of a dry towel. He sidled up closer to where she moped, Sandy pawing at the dust.
“Any chance at all you might get your head out of your ass so we could get some actual work done today?”
She could almost hear the blood rushing to her head. “You’re not exactly helping!” she barked.
“Only room in the saddle for one.”
Her chest tightened and a low keening sound-like a steam kettle-started in her ears. She white-knuckled the reigns and leaned over Sandy’s neck; her horse’s signal to “GO!” And Sandy went. They wheeled away from the barrels and in a flash were out of the circle, through the open fence and up along the edge of the field. They veered past the lone walnut tree and jumped lightly over a deadfall she had been meaning to move. With a tight turn she came back and jumped it again. There she is, Braxton thought watching her loose in the field. One with the horse, anticipating moves, initiating others…Finally, in the middle of her little tantrum, he caught a glimpse of the rider she had been in her twenties. Not so long ago in years-but decades in attitude and confidence.
She pulled Sandy up. What the hell was she doing? That hadn’t helped at all. The bands around her chest still constricted, her ears still rang and she was squeezing the reins like they were rattle snakes. Breathing in gulps, she settled into a soft lope back to where Braxton was watching her. His eyes were hidden deep in the shadow of his hat but she knew they would be slits-not so much against the sun-he squinted at night. No, he’d be trying to figure her out-overthinking as usual-trying to find a different answer to the question they both knew too well.
“Why did you hire me?” he asked as she pulled up beside him. “There are a slew of trainers in this valley would work for free for the chance to put you through your paces.” She jerked her head and met his lidded gaze with her own sharp glare.
“Already had them!” she snapped with more venom than she intended.
“And how did that work out?”
She opened her mouth to snap again but bit her tongue. She needed to look away and pulled her eyes over toward the cursed barrels.
“I think it’s time we take a walk to the tool shed”, Braxton said flatly.
Lynette looked away from the barrels and over to the small outbuilding-more workshop than toolshed-beside the barn.
“Not likely”, she said, avoiding his eyes.
“Pretty likely” he answered.
“Get off your horse.”
“No. Fucking. Way.” She spat every word like it was poison to be expelled.
His implacable gaze didn’t waver and his stance betrayed none of the roilings starting to rise in him. He looked up at her, into her and through her, watching the veins in her neck redden, twist and climb like pulsing vines. “Suit yourself” he said breaking the look and turning away. “Let’s run it from the top”, striding toward the barrels.
Her hands-squeezing and releasing the reins-sweated and the tightness hardened in her breast. She sucked air in quick swallows and watched a red film cover her eyes from her temples in. Sandy was calm-but attentive-awaiting any signal.
Walking away Braxton heard her grumble “God Damn It!” then a leather creak, then the sound of boots hitting dirt. He turned to see her stalking away from him toward the tool shed. He absently stroked his jawline with his knuckles watching the perfect inverted heart of her taut backside stomp off then disappear through the open door into the dim interior. Which then disappeared itself when she slammed the door. At that he grinned-he didn’t even know that door shut. “Come on Sandy”, he led the horse into the ring, taking his time. He closed the gate and headed to the shed.
Inside, dust motes rose and whirled in the slashes of sunlight burning between the roughly hewn barn siding. She had a corner of the shed where she kept her tack and some odds and ends but didn’t spend much time in here where the memories lay thick like coats of old milk paint. The old saddle shone on the stall rail where she kept clean and oiled after swearing to get rid of it. The low bench was in the same place it always was but she stayed clear of it.
She took off her hat off and hung it on a peg, shaking her hair back to hang loosely around her shoulders. Her breath was coming easier – still shallow and quick-but easier. The bands she felt in her chest were loosening but replaced by cold flutters low in her gut. She knew these feelings well having many times gotten herself into something that there was no way out of.
Outside the open widow she watched a small flock of chickadees swarming the thistle bushes along the back fence. Further down the line a few wild canaries flashed and lit and beyond them the dark green of the foothills rolled. She was finally seeing the beauty of the morning when the door scraped open behind her. Her heart quickened.
Because she had closed it, he pushed it shut behind him and stood waiting for his eyes to adjust. Lynette was a silhouette backlit by the window until she eventually clarified and materialized out of the gloaming. She kept her eyes averted-not down-but not looking at him. He ran his hand over the smooth leather of the old saddle-not really surprised that she kept it so well.
She thought she wanted to say something but decided to let it be. She could manage her words well enough but was afraid her voice might betray her. Did she want this or not? Was she wrong to want this? Why couldn’t she just ask-just take what she wanted? Why, why, why? The badgering questions were tightening her chest again. Still watching out the window she listened and knew what he was doing. She heard him lift the old saddle then place it on the bench. Waiting for Braxton to speak first would be a fool’s errand. But she engaged in the game…listening to the birds and waiting. Truth was, she was weak in the legs and suddenly concerned that she might stumble.
Ready in time, she turned slowly and walked carefully, almost weightlessly, as she might wade through a deep hole down in the creek. Gone were the sharp angles and precise stomping of a few short minutes ago. Her head swam slightly as she walked up on the saddle for the first time in close to three years. She glanced over at Braxton who was also hatless and spending an inordinate amount of attention on rolling up his sleeves.
The window was still her focus as she loosed her belt from the buckle then unsnapped her jeans. With a deep breath she pushed the zipper down then pushed the pants down off of her hips squatting slightly to send them all the way down to her boots. Then, linking her thumbs in the waistband of her panties, pushed them down as well. The cool air on her naked parts excited her.
Braxton watched as she rubbed her butt up under her shirt tail as if trying to smooth the creases. He really hadn’t expected his day to wind up here but had prepared for it. Had set it in his mind as a possibility. But nothing could prepare him for the sight of Lynette Holt lowering herself over the saddle and pulling her shirt up her back.
The woman he had loved and lusted after for years before was splayed before him-backside high and luscious-hands flat on the dirt floor in front of her, boot toes dug in behind. The sight hadn’t changed much in three years. He knew the contours of her body better than his own. Maybe a little thicker, maybe a little rounder, maybe the dividing crease between the two milky moons a little deeper, but only something he would notice.
Finally it was Braxton who, stepping close, spoke first.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked.
“Yes”, she hissed but he couldn’t tell if it was still in anger or something else.
She heard the dry rasp of his belt being pulled through the loops. She had noticed the belt he wore as soon as he had walked into the ring that morning. It was an old one-one she had bought for him when they were married. One she had felt before. He eyed her bottom goose-bumped in the cool shade of the shed and took measure with the strap swinging in his right hand.
She expected the pain-but pain in memory against reality. She gasped when the first lash fell hard and squeezed at the dusty floor. The second cracked across the middle of her backside and she opened her mouth wide but made no sound determined to take it stoically. She tensed as the third slash whistled and gasped when it landed. He slapped the fourth swat above the others-below the tan line but high enough to burn anew.
Yes, she expected the pain but what she hadn’t expected were the burning eyes. She didn’t cry. She once finished a ride with a separated shoulder and no one was the wiser. She remembered that now as she squeezed her eyes tight in a futile attempt to hold back the tears that would not be denied. She coughed a sob, then another-tiny cracks and trickles in the face of a dam that finally broke with one more brilliantly placed slash dead center on her bottom.
Her wail chased the chickadees and finches into the woods. The next slash angled lower to kiss the top of her right leg and she screamed afresh. This was new-she had been stoic under his strap before. But this time she cried and kicked her boot toes into the dust.
She spread her legs as wide as her confining jeans would allow-wide enough for Braxton to see her womanhood open to him. He pulled his eyes toward the floor looking up only to bring another lash down on her heaving bottom. It was like looking at a favorite place from the seat on a train-he’d been there, would love to be there again-but right now couldn’t reach it.
And it was harder to avoid knowing how wet she would be in there now. How thickly welcoming would be her embrace of him. He could feel the warm pull of her, sucking him in-gripping him tightly as he thrust deeply into her the heat of her strapped bottom rubbing against him. He felt his own surge lifting from inside and…Jesus! He blinked and shook his head. He cleared his throat and swung-hitting high again leaving a strawberry ribbon across the deep dimples just below her belt line that he oddly, suddenly remembered the taste of.
But he was with Vera now. And she had been less than thrilled as it was that he was going back to training his ex-wife but the money was good and she relented. Obviously not knowing what all training Lynette Holt entailed. He couldn’t very well go home with his ex-wife’s scents and juices drying over him. But there it was.
Braxton paused and gulped air almost as raggedly as she did. Lynette’s bottom glowed red like the coals of a banked cooking fire.
“I’m done if you’re done”, he said huskily.
The wave of tears ceasing, she caught her breath and looked back over her shoulder. The hair stuck to her face and he couldn’t see her well. “Six more”, she said. “Across the bottom.” That second direction could seem redundant but he knew her “bottom” meant the bottom of her bottom-the sit spots-where her legs met the swell of her cheeks.
After the sixth and final lash she collapsed like a pricked balloon over the saddle. The tension and hard muscles deflated as she lay limply breathing. Braxton glanced at the work bench seeing-and secretly happy-that there wasn’t the jar of aloe unguent that they used to keep there. He felt he would have been somehow duty bound to rub some on her hot and tortured bum and that might be more than a man could stand.
She heard him stride across the floor and saw the light spread across the room as he opened the door. Not a word. Not a touch. She was fine with that, she thought pushing herself upward and standing slowly. She bent in the knees slightly and cupped her cheeks feeling the heat. “Damn, Braxton”, she whispered squeezing and rubbing lightly-gingerly. “Damn…”
Outside Braxton leaned against a fence post and lit a cigarette with a shaking match. He pushed himself down his left leg to make standing more comfortable. Sandy came over and nudged at him. He was careful to blow the smoke away from Sandy’s muzzle. He stroked the horse gently and scratched at her ears. “Sandy, you are about the only woman I understand”.
He heard her walking up on them. Her face was blotched and red-eyed and her hair was pulled back severely into a pony tail. She stood beside him and breathed deeply, gazing at the ridgeline.
“Sorry about that Brax. I shouldn’t have…”
He cut her off. “Never a problem Nettie.” She smiled for the first time that morning at the nickname she hadn’t heard in three years.
She walked around to Sandy. “Let’s go to work”, she said pulling herself up into the stirrups and settling-very gently-down into the saddle.