Missed the previous installments? Start with chapter one HERE.
Shortly before sunrise, Mira went in search of food. She found Charlotte and Anita sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in casual clothing instead of their usual uniforms as they enjoyed cups of coffee. Charlotte shifted to stand, but Mira waved her back into her chair.
“Sit down and finish your coffee. It’s your day off, and I’m perfectly capable of finding my own breakfast.”
“All right.” Charlotte resumed her seat with a shrug as Mira walked to the pantry.
She returned with the container of oats they had labeled the previous evening. After measuring water into a small saucepan, she rinsed off an apple from a bowl on the counter and cut it up into the pan as the water came to a boil. She tossed in a handful of oats and stirred it with a wooden spoon. While the oats cooked, she searched through cabinets and drawers until she found a bowl and spoon. Once her oatmeal was in the bowl and she’d run water into the pan so nothing would stick, she carried her breakfast to the table and sat down.
Charlotte studied her with something that bordered on amazement. “I do believe you’re the first person I’ve seen eat oatmeal here, other than the employees.”
“I like oatmeal,” Mira said as she lifted a spoonful of the creamy food. “Besides, it’s a hearty breakfast, and I’m going to explore the woods for a while this morning.”
Anita wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t it kind of cold for that?”
“Not for me. I’m used to being outside in all kinds of weather.”
“You take your walk in the woods if you want,” Charlotte said, her expression stating her opinion of doing anything outside on a chilly morning. “I’m going to find something to do where it’s warm.”
Anita nodded. “Me, too.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Mira finished her oatmeal and raised her eyebrows at her companions. “Do you think I could take Dan with me?”
“I don’t see why not,” Charlotte said, “but ask Lucas to make sure.”
After drinking a glass of orange juice, Mira washed the dishes and headed upstairs to collect her coat. She also dug her water bottle out of her pack and refilled it at the bathroom sink. Hiking without food or water went against Harley’s teaching. She donned her outerwear and slipped the water bottle in one of the large pockets. The pouch of venison jerky went in the other.
The lights were on in the stable when Mira arrived. Ben walked out of the tack room, and she offered a smile.
“Hi. I didn’t know you worked on Sundays.”
“I don’t. Lucas wants to give a couple of the horses an outdoor ride, and he invited me along.”
“Oh. Well, have fun.” She shoved down the disappointment of not getting to talk to him for long. “I’m going to hike in the woods for a while. Do you know where Lucas is? I want to ask him if I can take Dan with me.”
“He went to his apartment for a minute.” Ben glanced toward the tack room. “I was just about to tack up the horses. Want to help?”
“Sure, why not?” She removed her outerwear and laid it on a nearby hay bale. “I should warn you, though, I don’t have any experience with English saddles.”
“They’re not that different from Western saddles in terms of how you put them on a horse,” Ben said as they entered the tack room. “I’ll show you what to do.”
“Thanks.” Her heart fluttered under his warm brown gaze.
They were putting bridles on the horses when Lucas came in followed by Dan. The large mutt wagged his tail happily when he saw Mira, but he stayed away from the horses.
Lucas walked over and patted the neck of the black gelding beside Mira. “What brings you out here so early? The sun is barely up.”
“I’m going to explore the woods, and Charlotte said to ask you if I can take Dan with me.”
“Sure, you can take old Dan. He likes to hike in the woods.”
“Thanks. Do I need a leash for him?”
“No, the property is fenced and he’ll stay close to you.”
“Okay.” Mira handed him the reins. “Have fun on your ride.”
“Thanks. You and Dan enjoy your hike,” Lucas said as she bundled up.
“We will.” She looked at the dog lying nearby. “Come on, Dan. Let’s go for a walk.”
He clambered to his feet and wagged his tail as he followed her out into the cold morning air.
An hour later, as Mira headed back to the stable with Dan at her side, her right leg began to ache with surprising intensity. She stopped and shifted her weight to her other leg, hoping the brief break would help. It didn’t. The dog looked up at her with a quizzical expression.
“Ouch. I’d forgotten how bad old injuries can hurt.” She limped to a fallen log and sat on the cold bark. “We’ll rest here for a few minutes until this leg of mine settles down.”
Dan whined and sat in front of her with a wrinkled forehead. Mira scratched his head with one hand and pulled out the venison jerky with the other. The moment he saw the leather pouch, the dog swept the frozen ground with his tail.
“Yes, Dan, you can have some jerky,” she said with a laugh. Then she cringed as a sharp pain shot through her leg. “Man, I wish this ache would go away.”
She fed the dog a piece of jerky and chewed on a small piece herself. Since she was sitting there anyway, she might as well have a snack. She handed Dan another bite and put the pouch back in her pocket. She opened her mouth to speak, but Dan sprang to his feet and took off through the woods.
“Dan! Get back here!” It was no use. He’d left her on her own. “Ungrateful dog. I give him a treat, and he decides to abandon me.”
Distant barks drifted to her, and she figured he had found an animal to chase. She should have expected it, taking a hunting dog into the woods. A cardinal landed in a tree close by, and she watched the brilliant red bird preen. She would head back to the house in a few minutes whether her leg quit hurting or not. The chilly air only made the ache worse.
As she prepared to stand, Dan ran up followed by two riders on horseback.
“You big goof,” Mira said, rubbing the dog’s velvety ears.
Lucas and Ben reined in their horses and dismounted. Both men walked over to Mira with concerned expressions.
“Are you hurt?” Lucas asked as he handed his reins to Ben and knelt in front of Mira.
Dan had pulled a Lassie and worried Lucas that much? “No, I just had an old leg injury decide to act up. I was about to head back to the house.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, an aching leg is nothing new.” She stood to prove her point. “I don’t know why Dan went to get you. I’ll be fine.”
“But you’re not fine yet.” Lucas stood and motioned for Ben to bring the horses closer. “You’re not walking back.”
Mira opened her mouth to protest, but her leg chose that moment to intensify the ache. She shifted her weight to her left leg and nodded. “Okay.”
Lucas held the horse steady as Ben helped Mira onto its back and swung up behind her. Once Lucas mounted his horse, they headed back toward the stable with Dan running ahead.
“You doing okay?” Ben asked as she shifted in the small saddle.
“Yeah, but I’m going to guess there’s a major weather change headed this way.”
“There’s snow moving in later today, and the storm is supposed to hang around until sometime tomorrow. How did you know?”
“My leg only aches like this when the weather changes, and especially if there’s rain or snow coming.”
“Is there anything you can do to make it feel better?”
“Believe it or not, horse liniment works really well.”
“That’s unique,” Ben said with a chuckle. “There’s liniment back at the stable. I don’t think anyone will mind if you use some.”
When they arrived, Ben helped Mira limp to the bench in the tack room while Lucas took charge of the horses. As she removed her coat and gloves, Ben retrieved a plastic bottle from a shelf. He brought it over as she set her hat and scarf on top of her coat.
“Here you go.” He handed her the liniment.
“Thanks.” She didn’t want to lift her pants leg while he was there. He didn’t need to see the scars, but how could she ask him to leave when he was being so kind?
“Will you be okay if I go help Lucas with the horses?”
“Of course.” She couldn’t help a smile at his sweet show of concern. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was thirteen.”
“Okay. I’ll be back in a few minutes to see how you’re doing.”
As soon as he left, she turned sideways and propped her right foot on the bench. She pulled up the leg of her cargo pants and rubbed a small amount of liniment into her skin. The familiar minty scent filling the air reminded her of the day Harley had taught her how to use liniment. She’d been having a bad pain day, with the bones in her legs aching with a coming storm, and he’d told her about the old farmer’s remedy for arthritis. She hadn’t been sure about using a horse product on herself, but it had only taken that first application to make her a believer.
Between the warmth of the tack room, the liniment, and the massaging of her fingers, her leg soon began to feel better. She was still rubbing in the liniment when she heard a sharp intake of breath from the doorway. Mira yanked down her pants leg and looked over to find both men holding their tack and staring at her with wide eyes.
“What happened to your leg?” Lucas asked.
She fought down the familiar embarrassment over the patches of scar tissue crisscrossing her leg. “I got caught in an explosion when I was thirteen.”
Ben and Lucas put their tack away and sat down, Lucas on the bench by her feet and Ben in a chair he set near her. When Mira saw the compassion in their eyes, she wanted to cry.
“Was it the explosion that killed your parents?” Ben asked.
She nodded and bit her lip, dropping her gaze to the bottle of liniment on the floor beside her. They were quiet for a moment, and then Lucas leaned over to pick up the liniment.
“Did this help?”
“Yes, it did.” Why didn’t he ask about the explosion the way most people did after seeing her scars? Not that she wanted to talk about it, but his lack of curiosity was unusual.
“Take it.” He handed the bottle to her. “We have plenty more to use on the horses.”
“Thank you.” She barely kept her tears in check. So much kindness always got to her.
He stood and glanced at the dog lying in the middle of the floor. “I’m going to take Dan upstairs and get him some food and water. Ben can walk you up to the house whenever you’re ready.”
“Okay, and thanks again, Lucas.”
He smiled and left the tack room, snapping his fingers so Dan would follow. After they left, Mira finally worked up the courage to look at Ben. She found him watching her with a compassionate gaze she wasn’t quite sure how to handle. Unable to bear it a moment longer, she glanced at the bottle of liniment in her hands.
“Why don’t we go on up to the house?”
“Sure, I’ll go grab my coat.” Ben replaced the chair against the wall and left the room.
He returned as she finished zipping her coat. She stood and gingerly put more weight on her right leg. There was a dull ache, but she could ignore that pretty well.
Ben watched her with the same appraising gaze Harley had used when evaluating a horse’s soundness. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just moving slow so my leg doesn’t start hurting again.” She picked up the liniment. “Let’s go.”
They strolled up to the house, keeping the pace slow. Mira had only a slight limp, but Ben stayed close, ready to offer support if she needed it. When they reached the back door, she faced him with a mix of hope and nerves.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
“Sure.” A surprised smile lit his eyes. “If you don’t think the Montaignes will mind.”
“Why would they mind?”
“Because I’m the stable boy.”
“And I’m a near stranger from the hills of West Virginia,” she said and opened the door. “Come on.”
He grinned and followed her into the mudroom. Once their coats hung on pegs, Mira led the way into the hall. As they approached the kitchen, Della’s voice drifted through the open doorway.
“Mira, is that you?”
“Yes, Della,” she said, stepping into the kitchen. The whole Montaigne family sat around the table, finishing breakfast. “I invited Ben in for a cup of coffee.”
The surprise in their faces disappeared behind friendliness, and Della smiled. “That’s fine, dear. Bill made coffee a short time ago. It’s on the counter.”
Mira turned to Ben and murmured, “I told you.”
They continued into the kitchen, and Mira set the liniment on the counter closest to the door. As she walked to the coffeepot, Della gasped.
“Mira, what happened?”