The evening was much lightened by the passing of the storm when Jen nervously set off towards the stables, where Rick was normally to be found.  She followed the sound of a mucking out in progress to discover Rick in one of the stalls.  She leaned on the half-door, watching him for a moment as she screwed up her courage to talk to him.

“Rick?”

He spun around, startled.

“”Er, hi,” said Jen, brightly.  “Mags said… I mean, I was wondering…  Er…” God, but this was excruciating!  She took a deep breath, and said in a rush “When you take the horses out tomorrow, could I come along, maybe?  I mean, do you need any help, at all?  Er…”  Rick looked at her.  She faltered.  “It doesn’t matter, if you think I’d be in the way or something…” in a small voice that trailed off.

Rick looked at her some more, bringing his fork thing around to lean on it.

Eventually, he said “All right.”

Jen brightened.  “Really?  Oh, um – ok.  Thanks.”

Rick continued to regard her steadily.

“Erm…  when should I come?” Jen asked, uncertainly.

“After breakfast” said Rick, and went back to mucking out.

“Oh, right – ok, then.  See you tomorrow,” Jen said to his busy back.  He nodded and she left, heaving a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over, relatively painlessly at that.

Jen woke early and refreshed the next morning, having had an early night.  She had no trouble getting out of bed, and found herself really looking forward to the ride, despite anticipating awkwardness with Rick.  She resolved that if he were shy, she wouldn’t try to talk to him.  She’d try for a companionable silence and let him get used to her.  She was a bit worried, though, as she was well aware that she hadn’t ridden a horse properly in years and wasn’t sure if she would remember how to do it.  She’d been on a horse a couple of times when she was on holiday, but those times had proved disappointing – not really riding at all.  It had been more like sitting on a moving table as the bored horses had followed each other , nose to tail, around a route that they’d probably trodden a thousand times before.  She’d always felt sorry for the horses, as well as vague guilt that she was at least was partly responsible for their boredom; even if it was only because she was paying for the dubious privilege.  However, today would be different.  Today they were going for a proper ride to exercise the horses – give them a gallop across the park, maybe.  She smiled in pleasure at the thought.

Jen reached the stables just as Rick had finished tacking up two horses – one big, stocky, piebald boy with feathers on his hooves who looked like a small carthorse, and one chestnut mare with dark brown points.  There were others in the stalls, and Jen guessed these would be taken out at another time.

“Morning, Rick.” She said brightly as she entered the stable yard.

Rick finished checking the strap he was tightening, and then turned.  “Morning” he said quietly.  “Ready?”

“Oh yes – I’m really looking forward to it.  I haven’t ridden in ages, though.”

“I’ll take Olly, then.  Bess is steadier,” he said.

“Okay,” said Jen, approaching the chestnut slowly.  “Er – I bought some apples.  Would it be okay if I gave her a couple?”

Rick shrugged.  “Good a way to introduce yourself.”

Jen nodded.  She produced an apple from her pocket and placed it on her flat palm, extending it slowly towards the horse.  Bess sniffed it a bit suspiciously, and then snuffled it up, crunching with gusto.  Jen left her palm there for a moment, which was long enough for Bess to finish crunching and snuffle hopefully at it in case there was any more.  Jen laughed quietly, and offered her another.  This one was  accepted with enthusiasm, and crunched with satisfaction.  Keeping that hand where it was so Bess could snuffle some more, Jen very slowly and carefully raised her other hand and began to rub the dark, velvety nose.  Bess didn’t object, so she worked her way up and began to scratch behind Bess’ ears.  This also met with approval, as Bess’ head slowly sank to one side to give Jen a better angle to scratch, and she closed her eyes in bliss.  Jen smiled delightedly.  “She’s a bit of a fusspot, isn’t she?” she said, over her shoulder.

Rick, who’d been watching this performance whilst stood next to Olly, feeding him carrots so he didn’t feel left out, smiled slightly and nodded.

Jen carried on stroking and scratching Bess’ head and neck for a few minutes more, then looked at Rick.  “D’you think I can mount now?” she asked, a little uncertainly.

Rick nodded, and then swung himself up into Olly’s saddle.  Jen did likewise.  Bess twitched and stamped a bit at that, but soon calmed down again, as Jen gave her a few pats on the neck and spoke soothingly to her.

Rick looked on with approval, then turned Olly’s head and led the way out of the yard.

The main gates opened as they approached, so Jen guessed that the power had been restored during the night.  Once out onto the drive, they began to trot.

Jen bounced uncomfortably in the saddle for a short time, before she remembered how to rise to the trot.  She congratulated herself on remembering this, particularly since it stopped the jarring of every bone in her body every time she hit the saddle.  It took a few minutes for her to get the rhythm right, but soon she had it, and a smile spread across her face.  Rick turned to her.

“Ok?”

Jen gave a short laugh.  “Much better now I’ve remembered how to trot, thanks – my bum’s not being battered flat any more!”

He smiled faintly.  “Come on, then” and kicked Olly into a canter.

Jen followed suit, but nothing happened.  Then she remembered how big and tough horses are, and how puny she was in comparison.  She walloped her heels into Bess’ flanks again.  This time, Bess got the message, and set off after Rick and Olly.

As they began to draw level, Rick looked over and said, “Reckon you can handle a gallop?”

Jen was doubtful, and it showed on her face.  “…um…”

“One way to find out,” said Rick, grinning and thumping his heels into Olly again.  As he stood up and leaned forward slightly, they were off – pounding across the turf.

Jen gulped, kicked Bess and stood slightly up and forward as she’d seen Rick do. This time Bess got the message immediately and once again belted off after Rick and Olly.  Jen hung on with her legs for dear life as she jolted along, desperately trying to keep her balance and praying that she didn’t fall off.  She was terrified, but she carried on and soon got the hang of it – whooping with exhilaration as they drew level with Rick and Olly.  Jen looked over at Rick, his grin answering hers as they pounded along, his dark hair flying like a tattered patch of night.  Jen whooped again as she turned to face forward, scanning the rushing ground for obstacles.  Soon after, they reined in their sweating horses and slowed to a canter, then a walk.  They were both laughing with the joy of the freedom.  Ricks shyness seemed to have all but disappeared and his eyes shone.

“That was wonderful!” exclaimed Jen, delightedly slapping Bess’ neck.

“Not bad” agreed a still-grinning Rick.

“Thanks for taking me out – I’m really enjoying myself”

“’S all right,” he muttered, some of his shyness returning.

They rode at a walk for some time in a companionable silence, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the song of the skylarks, unseen overhead.  Eventually, they came to a small spring that tumbled out of a rock outcrop in amongst a grove of trees.  Rick dismounted and his horse bent to drink from the pool just underneath the spring.

“Hungry?” he asked.

“Oh, yes – starving!” Jen replied, dismounting; she winced and staggered a little as she did so.  “Ouch!  I forgot how much that hurts when you haven’t done it for a while,” she groaned.

Meanwhile, Rick was rummaging in a small pack attached to his saddle.  He took several items from this, going to sit on a nearby rock.  He gestured to the rock next to him, inviting Jen to sit.

She grimaced and shook her head.  “Actually, I think I’ll stand for a bit.  Give my bum and legs some chance to recover.” she said ruefully.

Rick shrugged and laid a small cloth on the rock next to him.  On to this, he placed bread, cheese, water, grapes and apples.  They fell to with enthusiasm as the horses peacefully cropped the grass nearby.

When they’d sated hunger and thirst, Jen lay down on the turf with a sigh.  “Ohhhh, that’s better,” she said, closing her eyes.  “I know I’m a dreadful horsewoman, but I really am having a lovely time, Rick.  Thanks again.”

She hadn’t really expected a reply, so was mildly surprised when Rick quietly said, “You didn’t do too badly for a novice.  Got Bess’ trust well.  Didn’t fall off, either.”

Jen smiled and opened her eyes, rolling over to prop her head on her arm to look at him – still perched on his rock.

“D’you think so?”  Then, carefully, “Does it show that badly, then?”

“’Fraid so.  You rode like a sack of potatoes to begin with.  Soon got it, though.”

“It took me a while to remember,” she admitted.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this properly.  I’ve not really ridden since I was a kid.”

“You did ok,” he said, smiling again.

When Jen had first met him, Rick’s face was closed and wary, but she now realised that that was down to his shyness.  When he smiled, his face opened right up and he looked much warmer and more approachable.  She resisted the urge to get up and go and scratch him behind the ears as she’d done to Bess, earlier.  This, come to think of it probably had a lot to do with how he was now stringing sentences together instead of being monosyllabic in her presence.

They talked for a while about Jen’s experience with horses (virtually nil since she’d had a few riding lessons as a child), and Rick’s love for them.  After a while, however, Jen began to feel very drowsy in the afternoon heat, so went to splash her face in the stream.  Rick suggested that maybe it was time to move on, as the ride would wake them both up and they and the horses had now had plenty of rest.  Jen agreed, eager to be back in the saddle, despite the pain.

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