“Shit! Get off me, you heffalump!” The expletive was out of Anna’s mouth before she even thought about it swearing came so naturally to her. She pushed into the big horse’s shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief when he lifted his huge, heavy hoof off her foot. I really should start wearing steel toe boots to work! She told herself. She told herself that every time a horse stepped on her foot, but she had never been able to find a pair of work boots with a steel cap that were as comfortable as her old faithfuls. They’d taken a while to break in, but now they were so old that they moulded to her feet perfectly and she knew she’d never find another pair so comfortable. The downside of course, was that it hurt when she got stepped on. But the momentary pain of a horse’s hoof was much more tolerable than the ongoing, searing pain of blisters, which she would have to endure if she gave in and bought new boots.
Crack! She jumped a mile in the air as a riding crop connected with her butt. Clutching the seat of her jeans with both hands she spun around to face the culprit, and found herself staring into the eyes of none other than Jeremy McCrae.
“Language! Language!” he admonished, a stupid grin on his face. In his right hand was the offending riding crop, and balanced on his left arm was a saddle, saddle blanket and bridle.
Jeremy had worked for her father for years. Only a few years older than her, she could remember Jeremy coming here before and after school, on weekends and holidays, to work with the horses. In fact, she could barely remember a time when Jeremy hadn’t worked at Bracken Ridge. He’d been here for so long he was part of the fixtures. They had pretty much grown up together, as every spare moment Anna had, she was working with the horses too mucking out stables, cleaning gear, and riding. Most teenage girls had a group of girlfriends they hung out with, chatted on the phone to, went shopping with. Anna had Jeremy. It wasn’t that she was unpopular, or a loner, it was more that she preferred the company of the horses to people, and Jeremy was the same. She had plenty of friends at school, but outside of school she’d much rather be with the horses.
“You bastard!” she swore at him in greeting, returning his stupid smile.
“Do you need another crack, do ya reckon?” He waved his riding crop at her menacingly, flicking it towards her rear end, and she laughed.
“I’m so glad you’re still here! Dad didn’t say.”
“Yep, I’m still here all right. Manager now. Got promoted last year. I’ve moved into the flat at the far end of the stables.”
“How awesome!” Anna left the brush sitting on top of the horse and flung her arms around Jeremy, who hugged her awkwardly back, his arms still full of equipment.
Ruggedly handsome, Jeremy stood at least six feet tall, with broad, powerful shoulders, smouldering dark eyes, and black hair curling at the nape of his neck where it poked out under his hat. He’d always been good-looking, and Anna had harboured a crush on him for as long as she could remember. And he’d only improved with age. In the five years she’d been away at University in Wellington, all the way down at the bottom end of the North Island, he’d gotten taller, filled out more, somehow gotten even more muscular, and grown a goatee on his chiselled jaw. She didn’t remember him being quite so sexy.
As Jeremy continued on down the stables to do whatever it was he was going to do, Anna stared after him longingly, watching his gorgeous butt as he walked for a moment, before turning back to the horse she was grooming. She’d only been back a couple of hours, and already she was feeling much better about herself and life in general. She’d been pretty depressed when she’d returned to Bracken Ridge, broke, unemployed and homeless, after being unable to find work after graduating with a degree in Psychology. Ideally, she wanted to work with children, but right now, she’d settle for working with anyone. But it wasn’t to be; so here she was, back home.
Her father had offered her a job in the stables, but he didn’t tell her that her boss was to be Jeremy. All he’d said was that they were short-staffed after one of their four hands was seriously injured in a fall from a young horse, and she could have the job if she wanted it. Of course she’d asked about being in management, but the answer was the same as it had always been an emphatic “No.” The reason being was that she was too young and too inexperienced, and she needed to work her way up to the top and not expect it to be handed to her on a silver platter. And she understood that, she really did but working for Jeremy? He was barely any more experienced than her, and certainly not much older. He had only been four years above her in school which would make him about 28 now. Anna didn’t mind working for the manager but it would be easier to swallow if the manager was old and unknown to her, instead of her childhood friend, and long-time crush, Jeremy.
She tried again that night to persuade her father to let her take over the management of Bracken Ridge, or at least be in partnership with Jeremy, but her father wasn’t having a bar of it.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders, that lad, and there’s a lot you can learn from him.”
“I’m sure there is Dad,” she replied, “but he’s hardly any more experienced than me! How am I ever going to learn to run this place by myself if you won’t give me the opportunity?”
Her father leaned towards her, stubbing out his cigarette in the little silver ashtray. “You will never run this place by yourself. It’s too big you will always need staff to help you. Jeremy is doing a fine job. He seems to have a knack for managing staff, and that is something you need to learn. You work hard now, get along with the staff, and you will soon be 2IC. But before we talk about management for you here, you need to see if your heart is really in this place, or if you would rather use that degree that I paid for. And only time will give you the answer to that question.”
Anna was at the stables bright and early the next morning, introducing herself to the three other hands. Two girls and a boy, they were all high-school students in their late teens, and they all worked part-time, much the same as she and Jeremy had done when they were still at school. Bracken Ridge was always busiest in the mornings and evenings, as it was then that the stables needed to be mucked out and horses fed; during the day it was only riding and training that needed to be done, and two people could take care of that easily enough.
Jeremy walked past them holding two lead ropes, and when he returned several minutes later, leading two horses, Anna and the other staff members were still standing there talking.
“Chop chop!” Jeremy called. “There’s work to be done!”
“Keep your knickers on, Grumpy-bum!” Anna winked at the other staff members. Jeremy frowned and she poked her tongue out at his retreating back. The young stable hands cracked up with laughter.
They all quickly dispersed when they saw Jeremy returning to the stables sans horses, and as he approached he beckoned to Anna. “My office please,” he ordered.
He followed her down the corridor to the left of the building, admiring her backside in her tight blue jeans. She’d always had a great butt it was nicely toned from years of riding horses, and even those years at University hadn’t changed the shape of it any.
Jeremy shut the door behind them. “Have a seat,” he invited, indicating the chair on the side of the desk closest to the door. He went around to the swivel chair, and stared across at her.
Anna pulled a face at him then smiled. “Am I in trouble, mister?” she teased him playfully, looking up at him from under her long lashes, as she leaned back in her chair casually and crossed her ankles.
“You could say that,” Jeremy growled. “I take it your father told you that you will be working for me? I am the boss.” He emphasised the word ‘I’ just slightly, and Anna noticed it. “So you will refrain from undermining me in front of the other staff members, and you can get rid of that attitude. You are no different from any of the other staff members who work here, and you will follow my orders. Got that?”
“Lighten up Jeremy, it was just a joke.” Then she laughed. “You’re quite sexy when you do the stern thing. Did you know that?”
Jeremy didn’t answer, but he did raise his eyebrows in response.
“Okay, boss.” She stifled a smile and stood up. “I take it we’re done here?” She left Jeremy’s office as he nodded, leaving the door wide open behind her.
Anna enjoyed being back in the saddle. Because it was her first time on a horse in several years, she didn’t stray too far from the enclosed arena. Some of the younger horses were still prone to playing up when they got out in the open, and she wanted a couple of days to get her confidence back and find her balance again before she dealt with mischievous youngsters.
As often as he got the chance, Jeremy was watching her ride. She had a special gift with horses, and so far he hadn’t seen a horse that she couldn’t ride. She was fearless, but it was more than that. She had a gift for bringing out the best in every horse, for being able to communicate with the animal easily, and for gaining its trust quickly. And she looked so natural on horseback, as though she’d been born in the saddle. And, he supposed, she just about had. She could ride before she could walk, and she’d grown up here on Bracken Ridge, spending time with the horses every day. Training horses was in her blood. Her father’s reputation as a fantastic horseman was the reason Bracken Ridge was so successful, with people in every part of the equine industry sending their horses there. As well, the horses they bred were highly sought-after, for all disciplines.
At the moment they were bringing on four youngsters of their own, plus training a dozen horses for other people. Half of them were youngsters needing to be broken in, and the other half were show-jumpers or dressage horses, with their owners not having the time or the experience needed to get their horses into tip-top shape for the upcoming eventing season. As well, there were a few racehorse foals needing to be handled, ready for the yearling sales in spring. Occasionally, they trained racehorses, utilising their track which had sat un-used for quite some time now, as Mr Fletcher was a reputable racehorse trainer as well. Mr Fletcher could turn his hand to anything when it came to horses, and Anna had clearly inherited that gift. Jeremy was almost jealous. He knew a lot about horses, probably as much as Mr Fletcher, and he was highly experienced, but he knew he lacked that special gift that father and daughter had in spades.
Anna finished working with the young horse she was riding, and after cooling him off and wiping him down, she turned him out into the paddock next to the barn with the others, and caught the next youngster she intended to work with. Leading him out to the round pen to work him, she caught sight of Jeremy working with another youngster and stood still, watching him. She always liked watching Jeremy ride. He looked impressive in the saddle, actually he looked impressive no matter what he was doing, Anna thought. Her father always said Jeremy had a way with horses, and there was no doubt he did. Jeremy himself doubted his gift, he’d told her so many times; but it was clear to her, watching him now, that he had something special. The horses warmed to him so quickly, and seemed eager to obey him, eager to please him, especially the youngsters. Maybe it was his confidence around them, his unrelenting calmness that helped, she didn’t know. But whatever it was, it worked. Shaking her head to bring herself back to reality, she took a tighter hold on the lead rope and carried on to the round pen, the young colt dancing lightly along beside her.
Working the youngsters in the round pen always exhausted her both physically and mentally and she sat back on the hay bale outside the barn and sipped her water, taking a quick breather. It was just herself and Jeremy at the stables at the moment; her father had accompanied her mother into town, and the part-time staff would arrive later in the day, when school was out. Now that they were getting older, her parents spent less and less time at the stables; she guessed her father was trying to ease into retirement gently.
Coming back from the paddocks, Jeremy rounded the corner and saw her sitting on the hay bale, and came to join her. “Shove over,” he said as he sat down on the hay bale next to her, their thighs touching. She felt the surge of electricity between them at the light touch, and wondered if Jeremy had felt it too. Or was it her imagination? Did he have any idea of how she felt about him? And did he return any of her feelings, even in a small way? Or did he still think of her just as Anna, the girl he’d grown up with? She didn’t know. And there was no way she had the guts to ask him.
“Do you fancy being a track rider again?” Jeremy took a swig out of her water bottle.
“Sure, I guess. Do we have racehorses coming again?” Anna snatched her bottle back and wiped the sipper on her shirt, before taking another drink herself.
“Yep.” Jeremy nodded. “You don’t have to do the track work though, we can hire someone, if you don’t want to do it. It’s up to you. I think this will be your dad’s last lot; he’s trying to retire.”
Anna grinned. “I know. Do you reckon he’ll ever retire properly? I can’t see it, myself.”
Jeremy grabbed her water bottle again and took another long swig. “I dunno. Your mother wants him to, she wants to go travelling. So who knows? The horse industry will lose a good man, if he ever gives up the game completely.” Anna was awed by the amount of respect in Jeremy’s tone. It was clear that he looked up to the older man, and admired him greatly.
Anna stood up. “I’ll do it. I used to quite enjoy it, riding track. It will be good to get some nice fast work again. I love training the youngsters, but I miss galloping.”
Jeremy stood up too, handing her back her water bottle. “Okay, I’ll sort it out then.”
A week later, the three flighty young thoroughbreds arrived in a brand new shiny silver horse float, towed by a huge black four-wheel-drive wagon. The young woman driver looked frazzled as she stopped the vehicle in the centre of the huge turning circle and got out, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head. Anna’s father went out to greet her, shaking her hand warmly. Jeremy and Anna weren’t far behind.
“This is Jeremy, my stable manager,” Anna’s father introduced them. Jeremy stepped forward, shaking hands with the woman. “And this here is Anna, my daughter. She does the track work with the racehorses. She’s very good experienced, gentle, with good balance and light hands. I think you’ll be impressed with her work.” Anna stepped forward to shake hands too, but the woman sniffed and looked away.
Okay then, Anna thought as she dropped her hand to her side and took a step back, closer to her father and Jeremy. She obviously has issues.
Anna’s father motioned for her and Jeremy to get about their work, and they excused themselves quietly. “Is there a problem?” Anna heard her father asking diplomatically, as she walked with Jeremy back to the stables.
“What’s her problem, I wonder?” Anna mused aloud, not really expecting a reply. The rebuttal had mildly offended her she’d thought the horse racing industry had gone way beyond thinking women couldn’t do the job as well as a man.
But to her surprise, Jeremy answered her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders protectively. “Who knows? She’s a horsewoman, involved in the racing industry. Could be a number of things. They’re a weird lot, those people. I wasn’t all that thrilled when your father mentioned the racehorses to me, flighty crazy beasts that they are. But it wasn’t my place to object.”
Half an hour later, Anna’s father walked into the stables, looking pleased with himself. He lit up a cigarette as he entered, much to Anna’s disgust. Even though her father had always smoked, and had done so long before she was born, Anna found the habit disgusting and hated the smell of it. She wished he wouldn’t do it, and generally didn’t hesitate to tell him so.
“Put that disgusting thing out, Dad. It’s gross!” Anna objected, turning away from the horse she was grooming to face her father.
“Leave your old man alone Anna,” he said gently, a smile creasing his weathered, lined face. “I just managed to convince that woman that you’re the best there is at riding track. She had it in her head that another woman riding her horses would upset the bond she has with them, and that she would come here and do the track riding herself. Either that, or I was to find a male track rider. I told her that was not a possibility, that you are the track rider here, and she was welcome to find another trainer if she didn’t agree with my methods. She came around to my way of thinking. So there you go you’re back in the saddle.”
Anna beamed at the praise. ‘The best there is’ kept swirling round and round in her brain. Does he really think that? She wondered. She knew the answer though of course he did. She knew how proud he was of her. But it was nice to hear it every once in a while.