“SOMETHING IS bothering you, Kai.”
Kai stirred under Attila’s searching gaze. His legs were too long to stow away under the coffee table, and he was too big to escape Attila’s scrutiny. He leaned into the leather sofa and sighed, and as he did so, the tempting smell of pizza hit him even harder. His stomach grumbled, and Attila’s narrow lips quirked up in an infinitesimal smile.
Something is bothering you, Kai.
It was a statement of fact and not a question, and its stilted phrasing was yet another of Attila’s oddball eccentricities. The man never talked like other people did, with a casual and fast back-and-forth. He talked to people the way he trained horses—every word was deliberate. There was no wiggle room.
“Just thinking,” Kai responded. He was tempted to leave it at that, but he saw Attila’s eyebrow rise with interest and knew Attila would press unless Kai gave him something to work with. “I was thinking about you and what you told me, you know… about the way you are. Around people, I mean.”
“Yes?” Attila said as he reached for his glass.
Kai sat still for a bit. The pizza cooled on the coffee table before him. He felt a sudden urge to use food as a distraction from Attila’s inquiry. “I was feeling kinda bad, actually, because I thought of all the things you could be doing if you weren’t like that. You could be the world champion in dressage, or something. Like that Swiss guy who won dressage in the Olympics.” There was a bit of silence as Kai formulated his next words.
Attila let him.
Kai saw the way Attila stilled, though, and suspected that hit a nerve. “So, then I felt guilty for even thinking that, because you already do so much. You don’t have to be a world champion or anything like that. You are awesome the way you are, quirks and all.”
“So you think of my weakness, and of my past, as mere quirks,” Attila rephrased. He sat stiffly, as though he tried to control a great deal of tension all at once.
“Sure. I mean, people are all different. I have my own set of quirks too.” Kai grinned, hoping Attila would find his smile disarming and endearing and would drop the disturbing subject. He felt an urge to help Attila, which was quite the reversal, since it was Attila who had been helping him from the first day they met. The subject was awkward and unfortunate, and he wished he’d stayed his tongue and hadn’t said anything at all, when his stomach rumbled again.
Attila heard it too, and this time he seemed just as glad for a chance to change the topic. “Shall we eat?” he asked, and handed Kai a plate.
HALF AN hour later, they were sprawled on the leather sofa in the living room, and the reheated pizza was halfway gone. They both had one glass of red wine and water on the side.
“You know, I did some thinking, and I decided I’m never drinking Bourbon again. Never.” Kai sipped some red wine. “I don’t want to end up like my stepdad and some other guys down where I grew up. I seriously think, drugged or not, whenever I drink the stuff, something horrible happens to me. The taste of it messes with my brain or something, and it brings out the worst parts of my personality.”
Attila reached for another slice. “Someday you’ll have to face all that, Kai.”
“Only if I want to, and right now, I don’t want to.” They were back to the kind of serious topics Kai was hoping to avoid.
“Your sister was asking after you.” Attila’s words split the air.
“I just thought you needed to know that. It came up in your background check. You don’t have to do anything about it right now, honey.” The term of endearment, still new to both of them, soothed Kai’s internal turmoil somewhat.
“Okay. I’ll think about it,” Kai said.
“All right.” Attila took another bit of the pizza. “I’ll have to remember to thank Julie’s mom for bringing dinner—it really did make life easier.” They chewed in silence for a while.
“Can we go on, you know, like before?”
“Like before we learned that we both have a bit of a history?”
“Yeah.” Kai was sitting sideways, but his eyes were riveted on Attila’s face. Attila had made no mention of Kai’s past so far, and the unsaid words and judgments made Kai cringe as though a sword were hanging over his head.
“I think so.”
“But I fucked a Dom,” Kai blurted out. “You let me top you, and I tied your wrists together and… and everything,” he finished lamely.
“You did not ‘fuck a Dom,’ Kai. You made love to me and I enjoyed it. You enjoyed it. There is a difference.”
“But I was on top….”
“And you will be again. And with time, I hope, you will choose to trust me enough to allow me to be on top. But if you don’t, I’ll survive.” Attila peered at him over a half-empty wine glass. “Let’s not make any big decisions right now. Neither one of us is in prime condition.”
“Okay,” Kai said. “I’ll do the dishes. You were doing everything while I was sleeping off the mother of all hangovers. I owe you.”
“Let’s not keep score either,” Attila said, smiling.
His words somehow managed to clear the air, and Kai was able to breathe easier again. He leaned over Attila and dropped a silent kiss on his brow.
A FEW days later, they were back in their comfortable routine of reading together after dinner. Kai was sprawled on the sofa with a book, while Attila curled up in a reading chair as he browsed the back pages of an equestrian magazine. The crisp paper rustled with every impatient turn.
“The local shows are all pretty much done,” he said with a frown. “There is still the one in West Virginia, and that’s not too far. I used to go down there every year with Grandpa before Sen—” He paused. “—well. Three years back. Grandpa wasn’t in the retirement home yet. He could still see well enough to live here.”
He hoped Kai wouldn’t notice his slip about Sen, but Kai was as alert as ever. “What did Sen do?” Kai asked.
“That’s the last show he competed in,” Attila said with a sigh. “He won. We had requests for stud services coming left and right. Then he got sick, and he went lame.”
Kai slipped a pencil in his book to hold his place, closed it, and set it on the table. “Stud services,” he said. Then he sat up and turned to face Attila. “But Sen is a gelding. How could you—?”
“Yes. I am aware of that,” Attila said in a brusque voice. “He couldn’t compete anymore and we didn’t know if he could be ridden again. I couldn’t stand the idea of putting him down.” He paused, and when he continued, his voice didn’t sound as clear as before. “Just about then, Grandpa went almost blind and had to move to assisted living.”
“So you had Sen gelded,” Kai said in a whisper. Neither of them said anything for a while, and when the sounds of the old refrigerator in the kitchen broke the silence, Kai got up and crossed the short space between them. He sat on the stuffed arm of Attila’s reading chair and bent down to embrace him, snug and warm. He kissed his forehead. “I am so sorry,” Kai said. “That must have sucked.”
“It did. It was awful. I was bad company. It’s probably one of the reasons why Theodore broke up with me and left. I don’t think… I don’t think he understood how upset I was about Sen.”
“To Theodork, Sen is just a horse,” Kai said as he nuzzled the hair on Attila’s temples.
“He was never a horse person,” Attila said. He leaned back and closed his eyes, hoping to forestall the inexcusable display of tears. Yet, soon, he felt Kai’s kisses on his cheekbones and eyes. Wet kisses. He struggled to control his breath. All this happened a long time ago. Attila berated himself for being unprofessionally sentimental, but there was something about that clever, calm, brave horse that seemed to have become almost a part of him over the years.
“I planned to buy a new stallion to train right away, but the vet fees for Sen were high, and Grandpa’s assisted living just about wiped us out.”
“I know,” Kai whispered. “It’s virtually impossible to have two stallions at the same stable.”
“I don’t have enough space. I had to sell some pastureland… but Grandpa’s taken care of. And I still have Sen.” Attila tried to keep his voice level and to stick to nothing but facts, hoping the utter devastation he had felt at the time wouldn’t bleed through his tone of voice. He took a deep breath.
“Oh, baby,” Kai whispered, and Attila felt himself gathered into strong arms and rocked gently. “Let’s just go to bed, okay?”
Attila forced himself to nod, since he didn’t trust his voice quite yet. He was horrified to hear himself sniffle.
“Here, have some tissues.”
Kai was still there, supportive and kind, and Attila didn’t know what he’d done to deserve a man like that in his life. He nodded and cleaned his nose, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. It was an unrefined thing to do, a sloppy thing to do, and entirely unlike him. He sat up straight in Kai’s arms and took a deep breath.
“I am sorry.” Attila’s apology for his unseemly behavior was meant to sound strong and decisive, but his voice produced just a broken whisper.
“I’m sorry too, baby. Come on. Bedtime.” Kai sounded a lot like he was gentling a spooked horse, and the image almost made Attila smile. He allowed the other man to lead him to their bedroom and help him undress. Ten minutes later, he was in bed. He heard the sounds of Kai using the toilet and brushing his teeth. The water sounds ceased, the lights clicked off, and Attila felt the mattress dip as Kai slipped under the covers and drew him into a protective embrace.
KAI LOOKED Sen up and down. The white Lipizzaner was in his stall, his nose buried in a bucket of grain. He seemed healthy. There was no sign of lameness that Kai could see, and he wondered what caused Attila to retire a trained stallion at the peak of his dressage career. He thought of the way Attila just about fell apart the night before. He had never seen him like that. Sen was a problem to solve, then. If Kai could figure out a way to make Attila happier with the Sen situation, perhaps Attila would do what he loved best and maybe even compete again.
Kai had seen Attila work with Sen in the arena, and he knew the horse still had all of his training. They looked amazing together, doing intricate steps and transitions with precision and control. It was almost as though the horse was an equal partner in that relationship, because he wanted to participate with Attila on his back. The two made a seamless whole.
Why couldn’t they do it again? Maybe they would enjoy the thrill of competition even now. And if it made Attila happy, Kai would do anything within his power to make it so.
An opportunity for just such a suggestion arose later that day.
“Attila, few weeks ago you said you wanted me and Cayenne in a horse show, right?” Kai was holding Zorro’s head still while Attila shaved his wild whiskers with an electric trimmer.
“Yes. It would do the two of you good,” Attila said, focused on his grooming task.
“I’ll do it if you do it with me.” Kai threw the words out, hoping for the best.
The sound of the electric trimmer stopped as Attila paused in his actions. He didn’t look at Kai as he stood still next to the shifting horse. Then he scratched Zorro’s mane and helped him settle, turned the beard trimmer on again, and resumed his work.
Attila hasn’t said yes, but he hasn’t said no either, and Kai held out hope that he could convince the stubborn man to embrace the challenge of competition with him.
KAI HELPED May and Julie clean the stalls while Attila was teaching a group lesson. He had half an hour before Attila’s class was over, and he was giving Tim a private lesson after that. Kai needed that time to have a quick look at something in the records down in the house.
“May, can you handle the rest? I have to go back down.”
The short, stout woman nodded. “There are just a few left. I got it. Julie can fill the water buckets.”
“Thanks!” He must have sounded relieved, because May gave him a maternal look.
“So what are you up to? Cooking something special for dinner for Attila?”
“Maybe,” Kai said with a mischievous grin. Cooking and scheming were much alike.
PUTTING UP dinner was part of an easy routine by now, and when the chicken legs were roasting in the oven together with both the potatoes and the garlicky green beans, Kai headed for Attila’s computer. Even though Attila had never told him not to touch his files and always made Kai feel welcome to look up whatever he wanted, Kai still felt like he was snooping. He found the file with the horses’ veterinary records almost immediately and clicked on a file named “Sensational Snowfall.”
The kitchen timer beeped, but he ignored it until he was done with just a few more pages of vet records. Then he closed the file and ran for the stove in an attempt to rescue dinner. The beans were shriveled beyond recognition, and the burned garlic stank up the whole house. The potatoes and the chicken survived—barely.
As Kai cleaned a new handful of green beans, his mind returned to Sen. How ironic that Sen went lame due to Lyme disease. Attila had had the same disease only a few weeks ago, and Kai wondered why the otherwise-intelligent man ignored symptoms that must have been awfully familiar to him. Sen’s infection went undetected at first, and it probably occurred years before his lameness manifested. Even now, the Lyme disease vaccine’s efficacy in horses was still being studied and was officially approved only for dogs. Proactive horse owners used it in the hope that it would protect their animals. The clinical studies were, according to what Kai had read, incomplete.
The harrowing experience explained a lot about Attila’s strict attitude toward vaccination. When Mona had failed to protect her horses from West Nile virus and Bubbles died as a result, Attila was livid. Further complicating the issue, Attila really wanted Mona’s daughter, Lindsey, and her horse, Zorro, to stay, but he was perfectly happy to do without Mona’s indolent attitude toward her remaining four mounts. That situation still had to be resolved—and Kai would make sure to ask Attila how he wanted to handle it.
For now, though, Kai steamed the second batch of green beans in the microwave and spruced them up with a bit of butter and a squeeze of lemon. His mind wasn’t on cooking today. It was on Attila and the prospect of Attila coming down with long-term effects of Lyme disease, just like his favorite horse.