LATE July in Pittsburgh sucked, especially if you were so strapped for cash you couldn’t afford a single item off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. Then again, the humid heat made the very thought of food revolting. Kai sent a prayer of thanks for the abandoned half sandwich he had been able to scavenge from the outdoor café table in the Strip District during lunch.
That had been many hours ago. He felt the brutal heat break as the westering sun hid behind the tall glass-and-concrete buildings of downtown Pittsburgh. A rivulet of sweat fought its way through his sodden bandana, making his eyes sting with his own salt. Kai wiped his brow with the back of his hand and crouched over his rusty ten-speed bike as he balanced in place, not moving, biding his time. Tourists tended to come out of the old, majestic hotel down the street with wallets in their pockets. They emerged from the brass revolving doors and took their inevitable first look up, then down Grant Avenue. A good third of them got stuck at the intersection of Grant and 7th Street, waiting for the rush-hour traffic to pass while gazing at the stone-carved buildings around them.
Just like the guy in the tuxedo, right on the corner. Kai’s eyes were glued to him, studying him. He emanated the poise and calm that spoke of money, entitled arrogance, and control. Surely he could afford to make a small contribution to the less fortunate. Kai noted the way his silky black hair spilled down his shoulders. His graceful hand rose to push a stray strand out of his eye. This motion uncovered his pocket. Silent as the evening breeze, Kai coasted to him from behind, sitting on his antique bicycle with an acrobatic sense of balance. He reached into the man’s pocket and extracted the contents with his left hand. Pushing the pedals hard, he crossed the intersection during a brief lull in the incessant flow of traffic, weaving his way in the wrong direction and earning a few irritated honks. Only once he turned the corner into a narrow alley did Kai begin to breathe again.
He had never picked a pocket before. He had never thought he would have to. As his adrenaline high began to wear off and his hands threatened to shake with spent nerves, regret set in. He thought back to the pale hand that swept the ebony strand back, skimming the perfect high cheekbone. There was strength in the man’s straight back and shapely shoulders, but vulnerability as well, and Kai felt a pang of regret for not choosing a different mark. Someone less memorable, perhaps. Less… beautiful. He fervently hoped the man he had robbed was a true asshole who had it coming.
ATTILA KELEMAN was staying downtown only because he absolutely had to, and because he trusted Tibor to send his boys to the stables to take care of his horses. The Equine Behavior Society Conference was an important professional event, but the fact that he had been honored as the featured speaker paled in comparison with the terror he felt at the prospect of being in the same room with so many people at once. He reinstated his routines and coping mechanisms. Like a horse with blinders on, he made sure the spotlight would be bright enough so that he did not see his audience, and he requested a quiet room where he could do his meditation exercises prior to assuming the stage. It was, in many respects, much like a high-profile dressage competition, except he sorely missed the comforting presence of his horse.
Attila was waiting to cross the street in calm silence that felt like the quiet before the storm. The Omni Hotel, where he was to eat, speak, and shake hands with his colleagues and their aspiring students, was only a couple blocks away. He was willing to teach everything he had been taught and that he had learned over the years—despite the alarming throng of humans—as long as this did not have to occur very often or last too long.
The traffic light was about to turn when he felt a subtle brush against his tuxedo jacket. His hand flew back to its protective position a moment too late. A man wearing only torn Bermuda shorts and old sneakers pedaled hard through the busy intersection. Attila stood in place, almost forgetting to take a step forward when red turned to green and the pedestrian indicator came on. His eyes followed the cyclist down the street, transfixed, until he saw the man turn a corner and disappear. Only a moment later, he realized he’d been robbed.
Ah, the joys of city life.
His money clip held only sixty dollars; that much he could do without. His iPhone, not so much. Attila swallowed an ungainly Hungarian curse. He spent the next two blocks thinking about the vivid streak of a wild, tattooed, redheaded man on a rusted bicycle. He emanated power that was unbridled and wild, and Attila still felt the place where the stranger had brushed against his jacket. Old feelings, pesky and inconvenient, began to stir as he thought about the half-naked savage who had risked his life in rush-hour traffic for a lousy few bucks and a cell phone. Attila did his best to suppress them. Instead of calming his thoughts before giving his speech, his thoughts were firmly bent on the best way in which he could retrieve his irreplaceable phone. He could just call the company and have it traced—except the wild vision invaded his mind again, and the memory of their brazen encounter was still there. Attila took a deep breath, thinking hard. Perhaps there was another way.
SIXTY fucking bucks!
And a new iPhone!
Kai could hardly believe his luck. The cash would let him eat for over a week if he was careful. There was a greengrocer on Smallman Street who’d let him buy fruit way below cost. He’d have gone to JoJo’s for one of their famous omelets with hash browns, had they still been in business. The diner’s closure four weeks ago cost Kai not only a source of his favorite “breakfast,” that was big enough to sustain him all day long, but his dishwasher job as well. He contemplated buying a cup of the best cappuccino in Pittsburgh, soon rejecting the small luxury in favor of necessities.
The iPhone, though, he could probably sell for more than a hundred bucks—it was a new model with obscenely huge memory and a much-improved camera. He liked the sleek feel of it in his hand. He didn’t relish the thought of letting it go, but it was better than returning to Nelby. Kai’s brow furrowed at the way their relationship had soured as soon as his job disappeared. Not even in his dreams would he have guessed the man would try and press him into pushing drugs on the street. Nelby had taken his things—important things—in order to control him. Kai would not yield. That night he gave in to his wild hunger for freedom and disappeared. The money Kai made unloading trucks was paid under the table, because Nelby was holding his ID hostage along with everything else. Thinking back to the day when he had gone to pay his portion of the back-due rent in order to reclaim his possessions, he still felt the shock of seeing a burned-out wreck where their cheap apartment used to be. All of his things went up in smoke—his clothes, his guitar, and especially his legal documents.
Without legal documents, he couldn’t get a legitimate job.
Without a legitimate job, he couldn’t make enough to get off the street.
Store owners were willing to slip him a twenty here and there for extra work off the books, but those tips were far from regular income.
Kai had not always depended on jobs such as these. After the recession layoffs six months ago, nobody seemed to have a need for a vo-tech graduate with three years of factory quality control experience and minimal computer skills. Now, with his proper documentation gone, he was about as employable as an illegal immigrant. Only half an hour later, Kai’s sandwich was devoured and his plain water sucked down like it was the elixir of life. He was sprawled on the loading dock behind the closed greengrocer’s shop. The filthy concrete still radiated the heat of the day, but it would cool soon, and Kai would be cold enough to pull out a hoodie from his hiding place.
The iPhone chimed in his pocket.
Curious, he pulled it out, pushed the single depression, and straightened with surprise when he realized the message was for him.
“Are you truly so poorly off that you need to steal necessary items from perfect strangers?”
Kai stared at the words. The question wrapped itself around his mind. The last six months had been bad. Terrible, even. He just couldn’t get a toehold—not anywhere—and the last few weeks had been a litany of failed efforts.
“You may keep the money—obviously you need it. However, I need my phone back.”
He hunched over the device as he read the second message, his feet swinging off the loading dock. The stink of rotting produce yielded to a light breeze redolent of the fresh smell of river mud off the Allegheny. Kai lifted his face into it. He never thought his victim would contact him. His mind returned to the memory of a silent, poised figure in a tuxedo, waiting to cross the street.
With great hesitation, he touched the glowing screen. A keyboard popped up. Unaccustomed to the task, Kai began to compose an answer.
He pushed the “send” button. Soon, the device chimed again.
“You are welcome. Please return the phone to me, or to the concierge at the Omni Hotel. My name is Attila Keleman.”
Kai paused. His heart skipped at the warm tone of the message, but the device in his hand was worth weeks of food. His time on the street had hardened him some, and he knew winter was but a few months away. The stranger with the strange name was obviously rich enough to buy a new phone. It was kind of weird, though, the way the guy didn’t seem to be mad. He typed a new message, his fingers clumsy at his first-time effort at using a touch screen. He had to backtrack over every other misspelled letter.
ATTILA KELEMAN’S heart sank as he stared at the one-word text. That phone had everything on it. There were photos and messages, e-mails and contact information—and the schedule so critical to the running of his business. He used to have it all backed up on his computer, but two days ago his old desktop machine yielded to the summer heat and to the ubiquitous sawdust that forever surrounded the stables, and died. His students, his charges, his friends, their addresses and telephone numbers and their lesson schedules—they were all on his phone. Training records, vet records, a small expense app that let him keep track of who paid for their lessons and boarding fees—all gone. The backup drive he had used with his computer was now too outdated to be compatible with the new iMac he purchased earlier today, and he still didn’t know whether the self-styled “geniuses” at the Apple store would be able to convert the files from his old PC into Mac-readable data he could at least print out and retype. His life, which he had thought so smooth and organized, had turned into a nightmare.
“My whole life is on that phone and I have no backup. The photos and records are irreplaceable and essential to my business.”
Attila handed the borrowed phone back to his colleague. “Thank you. Should anything come up, would you kindly inform me?”
The other horse trainer nodded. “Sure. That’s a terrible thing. You are at the Westin, room 611?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Attila’s voice was a soft whisper as he stood. Now that he had done all he could in the face of the emergency, he became aware of the multitude of people within the ballroom. He felt his panic rise at the thought of having to interact with them. The air felt stale and too warm, and the floor threatened to shift under his feet.
Attila took a deep breath and let it sink to the pit of his belly. He imagined himself astride his white horse, in his riding clothes, ready to enter the arena.
Just another horse show.
He imagined the smells and the sounds that were so comforting and familiar. The crowds at their round dinner tables seemed to have receded after several minutes, and the carpeted floor stabilized under his feet.
Attila appeared calm and collected as he approached the podium and looked into the bright light that disguised the faces of his audience. All these people had paid for the privilege to be there and drink from his fountain of wisdom, and he would not disappoint them.
After the customary introductory address, however, he deviated from his plan and forced himself to meet the eyes of the crowd through the glare of the stage lights. Unruly rust-colored hair and a shoulder tattoo were still fresh in his mind.
“It is important to remember that each horse is, essentially, wild at heart. Before the horse responds to your requests for canter or counter-canter or extended trot, that wild heart needs to be tamed.
TWO days had come and gone, and the owner of the phone had long disappeared. Kai kept rereading the last text message:
“I need to return now. Please mail the phone to Blue Heron Acres. The address is in the phone directory. Remember, you are better than stooping to such acts of petty thievery.”
Kai’s waking hours were haunted by the mild words of admonishment, and his dreams were populated by graceful men with black, flowing hair dressed in tuxedos. He wished the phone’s owner had gotten angry and called him names, but instead he had given him the very money he had stolen. Now, more than anything, Kai felt a profound sense of shame. His victim had not even tried to blame him. He just wanted his phone back.
The device had 68 percent charge left. Kai found the address for Blue Heron Acres, but weeks of homelessness made him reluctant to spend the cash for the padded envelope and postage. Not even realizing it, he no longer cared about the phone’s potential financial value; the sleek device had become his tie to civilization and to the man who had told him he was better than all this.
The question resonated through his subconscious, making waves on formerly stagnant waters.
He was loath to spare the money, but he was not against using his time. He did, after all, still have his bicycle. The vision of the calm, well-dressed man who would not yell beckoned to him, arousing more than just his curiosity. He was sorely tempted to look through the records and photographs on the calm man’s phone, but that might use up too much battery life, and he knew he’d need the juice to power the map function.
Next morning Kai topped off his water bottle, filled the pockets of his hoodie with two bananas and two apples, and set out in the dim early-morning haze. He missed the morning traffic as he crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the North Side and continued all the way along the river bike trail toward the West End. Groomed public landscapes with a lush science center and a glitzy casino gave way to weeds by the path and broken concrete by the docks. The trail ended by the jail, which Kai found to be an ironic reflection upon his own situation as he pulled out the stolen phone and activated Google Maps. The address of Blue Heron Acres had already been entered; he followed the blue dot along Route 65 North toward Ambridge. He was aimed a good sixty miles out of town. The river path had ended, and he had to bike in the emergency lane of the highway, hoping to evade the attention of the police and the back draft of speeding cars.
Sun beat upon his bare head, and the black hoodie had become unbearable, so he removed it and tied it around his waist.
Two hours later, he hid in the shade by the highway and ate the bananas.
Another hour later, his water was gone.
Battery power was down to 35 percent, and he used the map feature sparingly. By noon, the terrain had also become hilly, and despite two water refills at a fast food joint, his fatigued and dehydrated legs threatened to go on strike. He had to climb off and push his bike up one hill, only to ride down the other side. Then he did it again, and again.
He began to question his judgment, his decision to return the phone in person, and his choice to steal it to begin with. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and his eyes glazed over in the sun’s merciless glare that reflected off the concrete highway. Yet whenever doubts threatened to overcome him, the words of the text came to him again:
“Remember, you are better than stooping to such acts of petty thievery.”
Traffic began to thicken as the day wore on. He followed the blue dot onto local roads that cut between shady hills. At three o’clock in the afternoon, in what appeared to be a thinly populated residential area near the state game lands, he spotted a gleaming white sign with blue lettering.
Blue Heron Acres.
“HE DID well, Saul.” Attila did not smile, but his blue-gray eyes warmed in acceptance as Willie made a happy, unintelligible sound up in the saddle. Attila reached up to unbuckle the boy’s safety belt.
“Willie, it is time to dismount.” An expression of crushing disappointment flooded the boy’s misshapen little face. “You can come again on Wednesday. That is two days from now. Will you come and ride Chicago again?” The boy nodded, then freed his right toe out of the stirrup and attempted to swing his leg over. Attila helped him down while his father fished a horse treat out of his pocket.
“Say thank you, Willie.” The boy took the treat in his hand and extended the flattened palm to the horse, who accepted it.
“Will he ever ride like we do?” Saul asked, wistful concern apparent through his horn-rimmed glasses.
“He will ride in his own way.”
“I suppose. Thank you, Attila.”
“You are welcome anytime,” Attila replied, almost smiling. “My regards to Mimi.” Saul nodded and took his son’s hand, leading him to the car.
Attila began to unsaddle Chicago right there, outside the barn. The short gelding was placid enough and did not need to be put in the cross-ties. Being outside, Attila was visible to his observer. He loosened the girth strap, aware he was being watched. He could feel the man out there, hiding in the tree line above the paddock. The dogs had barked earlier in the afternoon, and Sensational Snowfall had stopped in midcanter, pointed in the direction of the tree line, and whinnied. Attila trusted Sen’s instincts more than his dogs’ or his own.
Attila understood men very little, but he knew horses, and a wild horse was best coaxed in slowly. He doubted wild men would be much different.
First, you tame the wild heart.
Having slipped a halter onto Chicago’s head, Attila tied the horse to the post and took the tack inside. Emerging again, Attila brushed his coat, checked his hooves, and took him to the hose to water down his hot, sweaty flanks. The appaloosa just snorted and turned into the cool water spray in a display of pleasure. Then Attila opened the gate to the paddock and let Chicago run loose.
His visitor did not emerge.
No matter. Attila knew his iPhone was near, and all his vital information with it. Sitting out in the bush on a day like this must be uncomfortable. Attila pulled a cold bottle of Gatorade out of the refrigerator along with a granola bar from the snack basket and set them out on one of several picnic tables by the barn. He stood there in the sun for a short moment, gazing toward the tree line. Maybe his wild man could be coaxed in by the prospect of food and drink.
KAI watched the graceful man set the food and drink out, only to abandon them. It seemed like a test. Taking the items without asking first would be one of those acts of petty thievery Kai now believed were beneath him, so he distracted himself by turning his attention to the horses.
He had never seen any up close before. There was the smaller horse of many colors the phone’s owner hosed down only a short while ago. The water had looked divine from afar; Kai was parched and dizzy from the heat. The big white horse that had whinnied at him from his pasture had a big rump, and his mane was braided down his thick, curved neck. Always dignified, he paid no heed to the antics of his companion, a chestnut stallion with a long red mane and tail that reached all the way down to the ground. He looked wild and at odds with the commanding white. Kai liked him; he liked studying the delicate lines of his smaller head and the way his long legs ate up the ground as he ran. More than anything, though, he wanted to know what was going on in the large covered building behind the barn. He saw people lead horses into it, and after a time, return them to the barn again. Some were untacked and let loose into the enclosure; others stayed inside.
Once Kai made up his mind, it took him a good half hour to circumnavigate the fenced paddock through the dense woods and make his way down the hill toward the building. There were no windows, but large doors were open on each end. Kai hunkered down in the shade of a nearby foundation planting, catching a glimpse of a man his own age astride a tall black horse. The owner of the iPhone stood in the center of the arena in his tall black boots and tan riding breeches that hugged his legs all the way up, and a loose white linen shirt. His black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and he wielded a long whip in one hand.
Kai’s eyes widened as he heard it crack through the air, tickling the horse’s rump.
“Don’t let him get away with this, Tim. Yukon is too intelligent not to understand what is required of him.” Yet the black horse known as Yukon refused to move. The man with the whip sighed. “Stay here. I’ll get your spurs.”
The lesson continued. The rider was making progress with his grudging mount, though both were drenched with sweat by the end. The man with the whip seemed satisfied with their effort.
“Good. Once you’ve cooled him down, spend some time with him. Get to know him better. He’ll want to be hosed down and let loose.”
Kai ducked behind the door as the man with the whip headed for the opening. He saw him approach the paddock gate and whistle. The white horse galloped up, followed by the chestnut, who also vied for the man’s attention.
“Not you, Vermillion. It’s Sen’s turn.” His voice was like a smooth, cool chocolate milk shake on a hot summer day. Kai shivered. He dared a peek from his hiding place. The white horse followed the man on his own, and they disappeared into the barn.
Kai heard a loud snort, almost jumping with surprise. The chestnut horse stood by the fence, curious nose pointed in his direction. There was something about him, something wild and enticing. Kai looked around. The place seemed deserted. The few riders present were tending their mounts inside the barn. He took a deep breath, then slowly walked toward the fence.
“Vermillion, heh? What a fancy name you have.” He put his fist out, the way he knew to do when meeting a strange dog, and to his surprise, Vermillion nosed him. His black nostrils were silky soft as he snorted against Kai’s hand, and his chestnut coat appeared almost red in the setting sun.
“What? You want something?” Kai startled at the sound of his own voice. The horse’s soft nose pushed against his chest, and he dared to step closer, all the way to the fence. A long, sinuous neck bent down toward the pocket of his hoodie, giving another snort. Vermillion pawed at the ground.
Kai pulled one out and twisted it in his strong hands, breaking it in half. He held it out on his palm, just like he saw the little boy hold the treat earlier in the day. The horse sniffed it, then engulfed it in his large mouth, making short work of it with his massive teeth. The treat gone, Vermillion pushed his nose into Kai’s face, and Kai smelled his sweet, horsey scent and his sweat, and for the first time in ages, he felt a sense of soothing comfort. Daring greatly, he lifted his hands and stroked the strong neck, feeling the strong muscles all the way up to Vermillion’s ears. He heard the horse huff and shy off, but he didn’t let him go.
“Shhh…’t’s okay. I’ll give you another, see?” Kai fished in the pocket of his hoodie, pulled out another substantial part of his dinner, and offered it, thrilled to see it accepted, flattered to feel the warm neck lean into him. There was such comfort in it. He had never felt anything like it before. He wanted more, suddenly, and a reckless impulse had him climb the fence and share Vermillion’s space. He knew this was probably a bad idea, but he had so little to lose and such pleasure to gain.
Vermillion whickered and ran off a bit before he pranced back. Kai grinned; the horse wanted to play and he could oblige him. Not only that, but the horse trough had water in it, and if the horse let him, Kai could appease his unbearable thirst and drink his fill. He shrugged out of his hoodie, taking the apple out and tossing the sweltering garment over the fence. He broke the apple again, gaining Vermillion’s attention by blowing a soft whistle. As he held the treat on the palm of his hand, Vermillion came and ate it. He then head-butted Kai so hard Kai landed straight on his ass.
“Hell no! Don’t do that!” He called after the horse and hauled himself to his feet, lumbering up the hill to the watering trough.
ATTILA had Sen work intricate lead changes with the level of concentration only he and his white horse could muster. The arena was all his, and in its calm silence, he could finally focus on analyzing the nuances of Sen’s gait. The mirror that spanned the length of the wall showed his mount’s perfect extension as his front legs skipped on an even beat. He almost smiled. Then he heard the first whinny.
Vermillion seemed to have detected their unexpected guest. Attila cantered around the arena three times, letting his horse blow off a bit of steam before they reversed directions, working the precise steps again.
Outside, Vermillion whinnied again and snorted, and Attila picked up the sound of a human voice answering back.
He frowned. His newest horse appeared to be incorrigible. He had a bad habit of biting, he kicked, and he didn’t care for having a saddle on his back whatsoever. The stranger could get hurt. Hopefully he didn’t get too close….
Then there was an exclamation. The young horse outside neighed again—then Attila heard his hoofs beat a rapid cadence.
Lips pressed into a thin line and his brows drawn together in concern, Attila rode out of the covered arena and toward the fence. Stunned, he saw a broad, bare back half-covered with long, rust-colored hair. Its owner struggled his way up the hill toward a watering trough, with the young stallion running circles around him. The horse, blood red in the light of the setting sun, gave the man a playful shove in the back, and the man sprawled on the ground. Attila saw the man try to get up, but Vermillion stepped around him and bent his neck down, nosing his shoulder with an inquisitive whicker. The stranger was on his way to his feet when Vermillion bent his right foreleg, inadvertently kicking his new playmate in the head.
The man fell and didn’t move.
Attila saw the horse paw the ground and neigh, then run down the hill toward him. Vermillion’s eyes rolled in distress; his call was a brash sound of alarm. Sen gathered himself under Attila, ready for action. Attila asked him to go. They cantered around the small courtyard to pick up speed and aimed at the fence. The expert rider felt the white horse’s power gather under his legs as he raised out of the saddle and pressed his heels down into the jump, absorbing the landing in his loose joints. Attila let Sen canter up the hill toward the prone body, where he slid out of the saddle and knelt next to the fallen man.
Attila reached his hand toward the stranger’s shoulder, a sudden hesitation making him pause before he touched his sun-kissed skin. Heart in his throat, he turned him over. The man’s angular face was covered in filth but even so, it was apparent the thief was younger than him by several years. His torso and arms were strong and bore evidence of an active lifestyle, and there was an intricate Celtic tattoo on his shoulder. The shorts he almost wore were tattered, but the oft-repaired pocket had something in it. Hoping for a form of identification, Attila slid his hand in. Loose bills and coins—over forty dollars—shared the pocket with his missing iPhone.
So he had come to return it after all.
Except now, the red-haired punk was passed out in his pasture, and hot to the touch to boot.
Concussion? Heat stroke? Both?
Attila shook the limp shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked, realizing his question made little sense. The man failed to rouse. He whistled between his teeth, gaining Sen’s attention, and whispered two words. The giant horse knelt, then lay down next to the two men. Attila pulled Kai’s body over his saddle and sat behind him, then asked his horse to rise. As they walked toward the gate, Attila was surprised to see the usually reticent Vermillion walk with them, eyes wide, snorting hot breaths as though full of concern.
“Don’t worry, Vermillion, he will be well taken care of.”
To Attila’s surprise, his soothing voice had no effect. Vermillion would not be left behind. When Attila dismounted and opened the gate for Sen and his unconscious passenger, he barely kept Vermillion from pushing his way out of the paddock.
“No,” Attila said, his voice firm. Vermillion cantered in a circle and jumped over the fence, clearing it with ease. Keeping well away from Sen’s master, he nosed Kai’s prone form on Sen’s other side.
In all his years of training horses, Attila had never seen anything like this before. A horse so stubborn and reticent, so woefully unwilling to take the bit and carry a rider, seemed to have bonded with a perfect stranger. With a thief, no less.
“All right, then,” Attila sighed with an air of resignation. “Have it your way.” He let Vermillion follow.
He steadied the limp body as they descended down the hill. A sprawling bungalow sat in a wide flat not far away from a reedy pond. They passed through the landscaped areas, marring the tended lawn and pristine flowerbeds with hoofprints. When they reached a small swimming pool by the rear patio, Attila pulled his guest off the horse and straight into the shallow end, shorts and all. The water was not too cold, so its temperature should merely cool the man’s system.
He supported the stranger’s head above the water and reached for the phone now residing in his shirt pocket.
“Dr. Russo? … No, not an accident as such … It’s hard to tell whether it’s heat stroke or whether a horse kneed him in the head too hard. Could you come over?” Attila counted himself fortunate to know a local physician who still made house calls. His own call now finished, he placed the cell phone on the chair next to the pool and settled on the shallow steps. He pulled the stranger between his knees, holding him steady. The man’s skin felt hot under his hands. Attila ran a wet hand over his shoulders and neck, gently spreading water. He tried very hard not to notice the stranger’s well-formed physique as he ran his hand over his muscled torso. When he attempted to wash the dirt off the handsome face, he was careful to tune out the vulnerable, closed eyes and the soft lips that just begged to be kissed.
He ignored all that, along with the inconvenient tightness in his wet riding breeches, as he waited for Dr. Russo to arrive.
KAI woke up in a silent, dark room, lying under a cool sheet on a comfortable king-size bed. A glance around the room revealed a stand with two bags of clear liquid and a thin, clear tube going down to a needle in his arm. The sight alarmed him. His head hurt and his legs ached something fierce, and his tongue seemed to have been permanently stuck to his palate. Kai attempted to sit up.
“Here….” An unfamiliar voice murmured by his shoulder as someone stacked pillows behind his back. “You can lean back now.”
Kai saw the man come and sit on the side of the bed next to him. He had a smooth face with just a touch of sun on his nose and high cheekbones. The shape of his eyes looked vaguely Asian, but their color was a changeable, stormy blue. He was barefoot, wearing swim trunks and a blue T-shirt, and his dark hair was tied back into a ponytail. Kai realized the last time he saw him up close, this man had been wearing a black tuxedo. This, then, was Attila Keleman.
The man handed Kai a glass of something liquid. “Here is some diluted orange juice.”
Kai nodded his thanks and sipped some, his mouth now regaining its mobility. “Where am I?” he rasped.
“In my bed.” Kai stilled at the words, but before he could fight his blush down, the other man continued. “Vermillion wanted to be able to see you, and the guest bedroom lacks a door opening onto the patio.”
Kai pondered that for a moment. “What happened?”
“Vermillion inadvertently kneed you in the head. That probably didn’t help, considering you were already overheated and dehydrated. You passed out. That was two days ago.”
“Did you find your phone in my pocket?” Kai asked. That, after all, was the purpose of his mission.
“Yes. Thank you. You could have just come in.”
Kai looked away.
“I am Attila Keleman. What is your name?”
Kai turned to the owner of this bed, this house, and this land. “Kai. Kai Alewright.”
Attila considered him for a while. “Mr. Alewright, if you have no other commitments, one of my riders got badly injured yesterday. My students help me with the horses, you see. They clean the stables and groom the horses, feed them…. Hal took a bad spill and cracked three vertebrae. He is very lucky—he is in a back brace now, barred from riding and work for three months. Do you think you would be interested in staying here for some time and helping out?”
“You’d let me?” Kai exhaled.
“You’d trust me?”
“Tell me, Mr. Alewright. Why did you return my phone?”
Remember, you are better than stooping to such acts of petty thievery.
Kai flushed. Nobody had told him anything like that before. At a loss for words, he shrugged, his eyes drifting away.
Attila sighed, taking the empty juice glass away. Their fingers brushed as he did so, and the older man bit back a gasp at their touch. He got up as though stung and turned his back to Kai to look out the window. Soon, Kai heard him break his silence.
“When you feel like getting up, you may shower in that room over there. Then we will move you to the guest room.”
“YOU’RE fucking crazy, Keleman. He took your fucking phone, and you let him stay in your house?” Tibor, Attila’s brother-in-law, leaned against the railing of the outdoor corral as they watched young Naomi warm up her horse for a series of jumps. Her blonde hair stuck out from under the black helmet, and her short legs reached barely halfway down the horse’s barrel, but her seat was firm and she was fearless.
“How is Hal?” Attila changed the subject to Tibor’s oldest son.
“Sore.” Tibor watched his daughter canter a half circle and aim her white horse at the smaller set of jumps. “It could have happened to anyone. Brent is jealous of all the attention his brother’s been getting. Annoying little twerp.”
“Send him to me. He can help Kai with the horses.” Attila’s lips tilted up in a hint of a smile. “There is enough work here for a lot more people.”
Naomi trotted her horse up to the railing. “How did I do, Uncle ’Tila?”
“Adequately,” he allowed. “Now go again, but keep his head higher without pulling on the reins. Make it look like a secret magic trick.”
“But he won’t like it, Uncle ’Tila.” The girl-child pouted, big eyes wide.
“If you won’t pull and let him canter as fast as he wants to afterward, that will be his reward. He will do it. You will see.”
They kept observing Naomi’s efforts.
“So you’re keeping that Kai guy around because…?” Tibor asked again.
Attila knew very well why he was keeping Kai around. He was drawn to the man with a strength that resembled fatal attraction, but there was no reason to mention that because nothing would come of it. He, and his steel control, would make sure of that. His effort was merely humanitarian. Anyone would have done the same thing. “I am not certain yet. He… intrigues me. And then there is Vermillion.”
“Tell me again what you saw.”
Attila repeated himself, resenting the necessity to do so.
“Hm.” Tibor chewed on a blade of grass. “Nobody has ridden that horse, ever. What a waste of money—no wonder you got him cheap.”
“I rode him.”
Tibor looked at him, stunned. “For, oh… ten seconds?” Tibor bellowed in laughter. “The kid has no chance, Attila.”
“Still, though,” the shorter man said as he watched his young niece work the course. “I have been bitten, and kicked, and he ran off on me so many times…. It has been months. He should have adjusted by now. He’s the only horse that has ever failed to respond to me. Then this guy shows up—some homeless inner-city kid, driven by a sense of guilt, I suppose—and he climbs right into the paddock, and the damn horse just will not leave his side.”
“So he’s your pet project.”
“Well.” Attila paused, waving Naomi over, trying very hard not to lie. “I am considering the possibility. Mostly… he just might be Vermillion’s last chance.”
A QUIET whicker made Kai open his eyes and realize it was midday already. Searching for the source of the sound, he saw the red horse come and press his soft nose against the mosquito screen that blocked the sliding door to the patio.
He sat up, suddenly conscious of his nakedness, and let his eyes search around until he spotted a pair of stretchy riding pants laid out as though for him. He made use of the bathroom first, showered, and used the new red toothbrush he found waiting for him. Then he brushed out his long orange-red hair using Attila’s hairbrush, hoping the man wouldn’t mind. He slipped into the stretchy pants, wondering at the suede patch in his crotch and the pads on the insides of his knees and thighs. There had been no shirt or shoes, and his sneakers were not in evidence. Kai shrugged, inhaled the lunch left out for him and drank all the water, but saved the apple for Vermillion. He then walked out to the patio.
“Hey, dude.” Kai’s bare feet rested on the cool concrete, unaware that one misstep on Vermillion’s part spelled a world of pain for him. “Want an apple?” He broke it in half, just like before. The red horse tossed his head at the sound of the fruit splitting and nosed the man’s chest. “Here ya go, fella!”
As the horse was occupied with his treat, Kai ran a curious hand down his flank, marveling at the smooth, tight hide that covered the shifting muscles. He was now better acquainted with the contained power that simmered under the surface. The knee to his head had been an accident, and Kai did not feel any residual effects. He was more watchful around the horse, though, making sure that Vermillion didn’t hit his face with his hard and heavy head. After Kai took an inventory of his limbs and various aches and pains, he became thankful for not being physically hurt. Still, he just could not shake off the feeling of mortal embarrassment for having passed out. Appearing weak had never been in his repertoire. He would have liked to blame the horse for it, but he was well aware he would have to work hard and prove himself to regain his dignity. He had barn work to do, except he had no shoes. He was, however, on a horse ranch and it occurred to him that, maybe, Vermillion might be enticed to give him a ride up the hill. He wanted to ask Mr. Keleman as to the whereabouts of his sneakers, and he wanted to know what work needed to be done.
I ain’t a freeloader. I can pull my weight. And Mr. Keleman… he’ll see. He won’t regret takin’ me on.
Buoyed by positive self-talk, Kai’s heart overflowed with a sudden surge of loyalty as his mind flooded with the memory of the man’s soothing voice and gentle helping hands. He thought back to the way his host had sat on the edge of his bed, adjusting his pillows and handing him juice, being so very careful not to touch him. Kai had been disappointed at that. He wanted to feel the caress of those long, smooth fingers again.
Not quite knowing why, he just couldn’t shake off the feeling that those strong, gentle hands had touched him before, and he shivered at the whisper of the memory. It bothered him that he should think of his host that way, and he racked his brain for other things he might have missed. There was the horse, red in the sunset… the apples… there had been water…. There had been another man, but he’d poked him with a needle, so Kai chose to block him out.
“Mr. Keleman obviously expects his workers to ride, Vermillion. You’ll just have to help me out here.”
Blocking off any further thoughts of his host, Kai coaxed the curious horse next to a picnic table under a large, spreading tree. He took the other half of the apple and held it out, maneuvering the horse just so. Then he climbed on the table and put his hands on the broad back.
Vermillion stood still, munching his apple.
Kai moved more of his weight onto the tall withers, then slung his leg over the broad rump, landing on the horse’s back with a graceless thump.
Vermillion shied under him and whinnied, almost rearing, and Kai grabbed the red strands of the horse’s long mane by sheer instinct.
He felt his own hair whip his face as Vermillion took to the hill, cantering up to the familiar paddock. He felt the powerful muscles shift under him in an easy cadence, and made his legs clasp around Vermillion’s barrel as he tried to hold on, barely able to breathe. They passed the barn and the covered arena, but the paddock gate was closed. Vermillion ran along the fence, his hoofs a rolling beat of three-and-one, reminiscent of ancient jungle drums. Kai absorbed it, moved with it, his hands still clinging to the mane, his legs squeezing the heaving barrel for all he was worth. Exhilaration replaced terror as Kai felt his uncommon sense of balance kick in and realized that he was not necessarily slated for an early death. The horse showed no intention of stopping. They reached an outdoor corral with a single rider jumping obstacles within it. With but a corner of his eye, Kai saw two men turn and look his way, and then Vermillion was off, burning excess energy, running free.
“WAS that your guy Kai?” Tibor asked, eyes wide.
“Apparently.” Attila whistled, and Sen appeared at the paddock fence. Hearing yet a different whistle, the white Lipizzaner took a running start and cleared the fence, trotting up to his rider.
“I’d better go after him. He doesn’t even have a bridle. Give me a hand.”
Tibor’s big fingers linked into a step, boosting his brother-in-law onto Sen’s back. The white horse had no saddle, no reins.
“You have no bridle either,” Tibor said with a note of concern.
“I don’t need one.”
Attila felt his gut twist as images of a possible disaster flashed through his mind. He pushed them away and pressed his heel into Sen’s flank. They were off. Sen had been baby-sitting the red horse for long enough to know what was required of him.
KAI entered the forest trail. He ducked his head, almost leaning on his steed’s neck in an effort to clear the lowest branches of the surrounding trees. After a few more minutes—and those felt like forever—Vermillion slowed down to a bouncy trot and then to a walk. Kai began to breathe again. He considered sliding off, but then he would lose the horse. The horse knew where he lived; Kai’s smartest option was to stay mounted and hope for the best.
In not too long, the four-beat cadence of a gallop echoed down the forest path. Vermillion tensed.
“Shhh….” His left hand still holding the mane, Kai stroked the horse’s neck. “It’s okay… it’s okay.”
A white horse burst into the open with Attila on top, bareback, intense eyes scanning the clearing. Kai saw relief wash over the other man’s face. Both he and Vermillion sat still, waiting for the other horse and rider to slow down and circle around to them.
“Hello, Mr. Keleman! I thought Vermillion would give me a ride up the hill, but I guess he got a bit excited.”
Attila nudged Sen with his leg, circling toward Kai. The younger man soaked up every single thing Attila did with his curious eyes. He straightened up to a perfect, poised posture, copying what he saw, imitating Attila without even thinking about it.
THE gesture did not escape Attila’s attention, though, and a thrill of excitement skittered up his spine. This guy was a natural, sitting a wild and untrained horse with balance and ease in just a pair of borrowed riding breeches—no experience, no bridle, no tack. He cut quite a figure, sitting tall, his skin bronze and bare. The bridge of his nose and cheekbones were sprinkled with freckles Attila had seen up close earlier. The sinuous pattern of his tattoo was echoed by the wind-tangled hair that spilled down his broad shoulders.
Kai and Vermillion complemented each other down to their wild nature, red hair, and warm brown eyes. Their chemistry was almost palpable.
Attila swallowed at the sight, and the thought of Kai staying crossed his mind for the very first time. He would teach him all he knew. He would help him train Vermillion, provide his comfort, and show him how the business was run. Finally, after all these years of family either dying or moving into other professions, there might finally be someone….
He let out a deep breath, cutting off his ruminations. Having the man around meant sharing space with him. They would drive each other crazy, sooner or later. Attila preferred horses to people most of the time, yet here was a human who apparently got along with his latest and most problematic acquisition. Attila’s own misanthropic tendencies had driven his family out of the business. There was no way he could get along with this man, this perfect stranger, this lovely thief. A sense of panic suffused him at the thought of his silent peace being wrecked by another person. Vermillion’s whicker interrupted his thoughts, though, almost exorcising the anxious feeling.
But Vermillion liked him….
Attila cleared his throat. “What did you need up the hill, Kai?”
The younger man’s expression softened at the use of his given name and he met Attila’s eyes for the first time. He seemed riveted by something he saw, almost compelling Attila to look away, before the older man spotted a blush blooming up Kai’s neck and cheeks and relaxed with the realization that his unexpected guest was feeling even more awkward than he was.
“I need my shoes, and… an’ I wanted to apologize….” Kai’s breath hitched and he fought to speak, his gaze still held captive by the sudden warmth in Attila Keleman’s eyes. “So… I wanted t’know what work needs doin’. If your offer still stands, that is. Mr. Keleman,” he finished, breathless. Their gazes were still locked as their horses shifted under them, signaling their impatience.
“Yes, the offer still stands. Just follow me,” Attila said, his heart inexplicably light as he faced the westering sun. “The horses know the way.”