TITLE: After the Fall
SERIES: Tucker Springs
COVER ARTIST: Reese Dante
(Narrated by Nick J. Russo)
After years of saving every penny, Nathan has finally managed to buy Tsarina, the horse of his dreams, and he's looking forward to a summer of exploring the mountains above Tucker Springs with her. But on their very first ride, a motorcyclist makes a wrong turn, scaring the mare into bolting and leaving Nathan with a broken leg, a broken hand, and a ruined summer.
Ryan is a loner and a nomad, content with working odd jobs before moving on to the next town. Feeling guilty for causing the accident that leaves Nathan in two casts, Ryan offers to keep Tsarina exercised until Nathan heals.
A tentative friendship forms, and a strong attraction grows. Nathan doesn’t want feelings getting involved, though. Not after a couple of nasty breakups and especially knowing that Ryan doesn't stay in one place—or relationship—for long. It's only a matter of time before Ryan drifts out of Tucker Springs and out of Nathan's world.
But since when do feelings ever listen to reason? Now it’s Nathan who’s about to shy away, unless Ryan can ease his fears...assuming Ryan doesn't bolt first.
This previously published book is #6 in the Tucker Springs series, and can be read as a standalone.
Yesterday, after ten years of dreaming, three years of saving, and almost a full year of searching for the perfect horse, I finally bought Tsarina. Today, after six and a half hours squirming behind my desk, I didn’t hesitate when Mike said, “Nathan, get out of here. Enjoy your ride.”
I clocked out and burned rubber getting from the Light District to the edge of the foothills and down the dusty driveway to the farm where I boarded Tsarina.
And here we were, Tsarina plodding lazily down a shady trail while I watched a few flecks of sunlight playing on her black mane and gold-and-bronze coat. My saddle creaked softly in time with the hoof beats on the dirt, the sound almost hypnotic. The ranch had faded behind us, and now it was just her and me out here in the woods. Finally.
This was all I had planned for the summer. Classes were out, and Tsarina and I were going to spend the summer getting to know each other on the trails. Come winter, we’d start working with a trainer and set our sights on competition, because a big, smooth-moving Trakehner like Tsarina belonged out on the dressage circuit.
For the time being, though? I’d take it easy with her and enjoy the fact that I finally had a horse again.
Now that she was sufficiently warmed up from the gentle walk and a few short trots, I decided to pick up the pace a little. I tapped her with my foot and clicked my tongue, and Tsarina immediately flowed from a walk into a perfectly smooth, rocking horse canter. I couldn’t help grinning. From my limited experience with her so far, I was convinced this mare was physically incapable of a choppy gait.
Grinning even bigger, I wondered what she’d be like when she had free rein to drop the hammer and go. How fast, how smooth—how did she run when she wasn’t fenced in?
I couldn’t resist.
As the incline steepened on a straightaway, I stood in the stirrups, leaned over her neck, and urged her on with my knees. She didn’t hesitate, launching into a full gallop like she’d been shot from a cannon.
Her mane whipped at my face. I squinted against the wind. God, but she was smooth. Like one of those horses you can ride while holding a glass of champagne and not spill a drop. Perfect.
The trail got steeper, and she ran harder to make it up the slope.
I heard the engine a split second too late.
A blue and white motorcycle shot out from the right.
Tsarina shied. The biker skidded sideways, like we’d startled him as much as he’d startled us. Dirt sprayed in the air. My horse tried to spin one way. Then she whipped back the other way. I’d almost recovered from my own startle enough to keep my balance, but then she jerked sideways again, and I knew that panicked, weightless sensation all too well, that moment when oh shit becomes I’m falling.
I’m falling became we’re falling.
Me and all sixteen-plus hands of her.
I had just enough presence of mind to pull my foot out of the stirrup before we hit the ground, but I landed hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Tsarina landed on my leg. Nothing hurt, but that wouldn’t last. Not with that crunch that hadn’t yet registered in my—
Oh God. There it is.
I tried to curse but still couldn’t breathe.
Tsarina scrambled to her feet. I reached for the dangling reins but closed my fingers around nothing. Then an eye-watering wave of pain in my leg sent me right back to the ground.
Over the idling motorcycle engine, hoof beats.
I forced myself up onto my elbows. My heart jumped into my throat as leaf-filtered sunlight flickered across Tsarina’s glossy hide as she ran like hell the way we’d come.
I tried to call her name. Still couldn’t get the air moving.
Panic. My lungs. My horse. My leg.
Couldn’t walk. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see or hear Tsarina.
I coughed, forcing some air to move.
Footsteps hurried toward me, reminding me I wasn’t alone. Pain and panic retreated to make room for fury. Son-of-a-bitch reckless motorcyclist.
A hand pressed down on my shoulder. “Hey, you all right?”
I didn’t realize I’d moved at all until the biker stumbled backward, holding one side of his face.
“Son of a bitch!” I grabbed my wrist as pain exploded up from my knuckles.
He stared at me, rubbing his face. “What the—”
“I need to find my horse before she gets hit by a car.” Again I started to get up, but again the excruciating pain in my leg stopped me. “Oh. God.”
“Take it easy.” He put a hand on my shoulder again. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough I’m not walking out of here.” I fumbled to get my cell phone out of my pocket. “But I need to find my—fuck.” I withdrew my hand, grimacing and wondering why the fuck that hurt so bad too.
“You need to sit there and not move.” The authoritative tone gave me pause. I looked up at him. Blood from his nose darkened the left side of his light brown goatee.
Oh. Right. That’s why my hand hurts.
I tried to flex my fingers, but . . . no. Shit. That wasn’t good.
“Listen.” He kept a hand on my shoulder, dabbing at his nose and mouth with his other glove. “I’m going to call an ambulance, but there’s no way they’ll find you up here, so I’ll have to go down to the trailhead to meet them. Will you be all right on your own?”
I swallowed. My anger quickly deflated in favor of pain and a million worst-case scenarios about Tsarina. Where was she? Was she all right? There were two busy streets between the trailhead and the barn. Was she already gone when my name hadn’t even dried on her papers yet? A lump rose in my throat. A moment of recklessness, and now she could very well be—
“Hey.” The biker squeezed my shoulder. “Will you be all right on your own? I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything.
I heard him make the call. Vaguely made out phrases like “horse fell on top of him” and “I’m pretty sure he hurt his leg,” but I was listening to the wind, searching for some sign that Tsarina hadn’t gone far. Some hoof beats. A quiet sneeze. Anything. Give me something, Tsarina.
“They’re on their way,” he said after a moment. “ETA was fifteen minutes or so, and the trailhead’s not far.” He paused. “Do you need a jacket or anything?”
“It’s fucking June,” I snapped. “Just go.”
He hesitated, and I could have killed him when he started unzipping the padded blue and white jacket—matches your bike, how adorable. He set it beside me. “In case you need it.” Then he picked up his helmet off the ground. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I nodded but avoided his eyes.
He fired up the bike again, and a moment later, he was gone. I was alone.
And in spite of the heat of the afternoon, I started shaking. Fuck. I knew what was coming. I hadn’t been thrown too many times in my life, but the post-fall adrenaline crash was hard to forget: that moment when the initial panic was over, and the body had to do something with all that pent-up energy. I took a couple of deep breaths but didn’t bother fighting it.
When the shakes hit, I desperately needed to walk off that restless trembling, but I couldn’t. Not when I was ninety-five percent sure one of my shaking legs was broken in at least two places.
It would pass. It always did. Probably not as fast as I’d have liked, since I had to stay still instead of walking, but it would pass.
I closed my eyes and took some more slow, deep breaths. My heart was racing, another symptom of that crash, and I reminded myself over and over that it would slow down, that there was nothing to freak out over, though it was hard as hell not to freak out with a heart rate like that. My hands shook in my lap. I just gritted my teeth and tried to hold my injured hand and leg as still as possible.
I glanced at the biker’s jacket. It wouldn’t help; I was shaking, not shivering. I wasn’t cold. Admittedly, though, I found some comfort in the fact that he’d left it behind. Though I didn’t know a thing about motorcycle equipment, it was well made, leather—probably expensive. Something told me he wouldn’t leave it here and run for the hills. I didn’t know his name, didn’t have his insurance information, and I’d punched him. He could have disappeared and left me to find my own way home.
But the blue and white jacket lying crumpled in the dirt with a faint smear of blood on the collar was an unspoken promise that he really would come back.
I wasn’t cold, but I dragged the jacket a little closer anyway. Carefully, I tucked it against my shaking knee to stabilize my injured leg.
The woods were almost completely silent. Wind rushed through the leaves, the odd bird chirped from somewhere outside my line of sight, but the forest was otherwise quiet. The motorcycle engine had faded into nothing, and I couldn’t hear any sirens.
No horses, either.
I scrubbed my uninjured hand over my face, swearing softly into the stillness.
Ten years of dreaming. Three years of saving. Almost a full year of searching for the perfect horse. Six and a half hours squirming behind my desk.
And now this.