Chapter 1 - June 2012 - Boulder, Colorado
On a clear Saturday morning in June, a tall bay gelding called Skywalker strode regally into downtown Boulder, Jillian Nicholson easy astride him. She was costumed for the occasion in Jackie Onassis sunglasses, black Stetson, skimpy scarlet bikini, and flowing blond hair.
Part of this wacko wager was to be dressed like a gypsy ho, she remembered. Ahh those prickly goosebumps despite the warming sun. Man – I could as well be naked up here. God. Doc couldn't have dreamed up a worse torture for a shy introvert. Who knew turning forty could pack such a wallop?
She breathed in the mix of spring scents – fresh-mown hay, lilac, car fumes, Skywalker’s hide, then cozied her bum a notch deeper in the saddle. At home they rode bareback, their trust solid over these long years. This was town. Better to keep them both safe.
She sighed and tilted her face into the sun. She caught the stare of a drive-by gawker and gnawed off a bit of cuticle. A horn tapped a brief 'hi-girl' when it got by, likely someone she knew. Sure hope it's not a client. A bit much to explain. . .
Sky walked on imperiously, tuned only to his pleasure with her and the task at hand. He snorted and shook his head in his happy way.
“Damn I feel naked, buddy,” she told him, free hand on his powerful withers. Good thing I stuck one of Jordan's long shirts in my pack. I need a serious coffee to break up this morning. And those gourmet dinners arriving every day for a month? Now that is gonna ramp this naked caper into delicious.
~ ~ ~
On her birthday morning she had tilted her face in close to the bathroom mirror to examine a new wrinkle. Gross. Oh man, aging sucks. Okay. Stock-taking time on my only ever 4-0. Rigorous honesty, girl. Okay – I've got a therapy practice of fair repute that I built from nada. Check. I am known for good listening, a practiced art. Check. Decent parents, sister still talking to me, solid marriage. Check. Decent body still. Check. People say I'm the same in or out of the office, pretty down to earth. So what’s eating my lunch? Oh, just that I feel flippin’ catatonic at fucking forty. Milestone birthdays bite. Wait – didn’t I just go through this – could it have been a decade? She cupped her breasts, cranking them up where they used to ride. I don’t have to like this. How’d Jordan do it? Because he’s not a neurotic freak, is how. He just rolled with it. I hate that.
Her husband Jordan came up behind her and held her naked shoulders firmly. “Look, Jillie-my-love. Right there, Kookaburra. What you see there is the real deal and getting better every single day.” He slid a hand to her still flat belly, sending curls of desire shivering through her. “I believe in you now and I always have, damnit, butt-ass nekked, zits and all. We’re as good as we are at forty so deal with it.” He smacked her bare butt as she leaned in to find the zit he mentioned. We locked eyes, holding it, matching smiles playing at the edge of our mouths. Familiar, seasoned, satisfying. Let's go put out the fire he lit just barely before the party.
~ ~ ~
She remembered her birthday party where the dancing got rocking and Doc Jackson strolled to the mike to make his killer dare. “Got the guts to ride Sky like a slightly-clad Lady Godiva into town for, say, a month of gourmet dinners, girlfriend?” How red hot my face got as my friends whistled and fist-bumped. You creeps! And I fed and watered you real nice. I don't believe this – my exact worst nightmare. Perfect formula for death by shame. I don't think I can . . .
“I’ll just have the root canal without anesthesia option,” she had mumbled into the mike. Her sister Callie had pulled her aside. "You don't have to do this, you know, certifiably shy sister. You sure it's worth a month of dinners?”
"It's like this, Cal. Doc whom I love is daring me to stretch myself, to show up like the Madonna on a winged beast and somehow keep breathing." She blew kisses to imaginary fans. "I'll show the s-o-b.” She flicked her fingers from under her chin, Italian style, laughing. “How could I not do this?”
She jutted out her chin in the mirror. Okay, you stupid fear. I will party like I mean it and fake you right out of your supercilious jockstrap. And all my favorite peeps are coming. That crazy wise Doc . . .
~ ~ ~
Skywalker's unhurried clopping as he crossed over Pearl Street brought her back to the present. It wasn’t busy yet, eight-thirtyish, locals getting coffee and their newspapers. I timed this right, she thought. There's a café here somewhere with strong mochas—ah, there. She tied Sky to a meter. “I adore you, big. I’ll bring you a treat, an apple maybe.” She finger-combed her hair and replaced the dusty Stetson, threw on the shirt, and strolled into the café like this was everyday fare. I can already taste that coffee. Ah-hh the scents in here.
At a table near the door sat an old client, Bill Driver, squinting under his cowboy hat, smiling at the sight of her. “Well good mornin’, Miss Jillian. That’s a fine mount you’ve got there, a real fine boy. Have you met my wife Lisa?” He gestured toward the attractive woman beside him.
“Morning, Lisa, nice meeting you.” Jillian smiled, reaching out a hand to Lisa. Such good work Bill did in therapy. I enjoyed him a lot. “Hey, Bill. Good to see you. Do you guys ride then?” going for the impersonal topic of horses.
Lisa spoke quietly in a cigarette rasp of a voice. Streaked hair. expensive shirt, rich-girl look, maybe a bit edgy? “Yes, we used to keep horses, but not anymore. Too much wear and tear on the old bones. After I broke my arm . . .” she cut off a bite of omelet with her fork. “Good breakfasts here. Great coffee.”
Definitely a bit of an edge. Doesn’t smile over-much, Jillian observed. Bet she could bite.
“Yeah, it is tough on the body. But I can’t imagine life without a good horse pal like Skywalker there.” She tugged her shirt down, thought of explaining why she was dressed like this and decided not to get into it. No defense needed. I'm on my own time and this is bolder Boulder, dammit.
“Well. Great seeing you guys. Guess I’ll go round up a coffee and an apple. Have a fine weekend.”
Jillian strode to the counter, ignoring the looks from some older men there. Her boot heels thudded, calling too much attention to her attire, so she rose up on the balls of her feet. A coffee and an apple and she was back out with Sky, leaning into his big sweet-smelling neck. “Coffee’s just right, bud. How’s your apple?” He chomped, content, head close in to her. “I been lovin’ you a long time, boy,” she crooned. He nudged her shoulder and munched on. You understand everything, you wonderhorse, you prince.
She sipped the coffee and reflected on the work with Bill. Well motivated, went right after it. From the relaxed look of him maybe the litigation is settled.
The cafe door opened and banged shut. Lisa walked over to stroke Sky’s forelocks. “Hey big guy. You’re a handsome one.” Sky raised his head, giving her a once-over, crunching his apple steadily. She spoke in a low tone. “So, Jillian. Seemed you helped Bill sort things out a while back. Maybe therapy actually works sometimes.”
“Thank you, Lisa. It was a pleasure. He dove right into the deep end. Gotta admire that kind of courage.”
“Yes. Well, I just wanted to check this big guy out. Have a good one.”
Jillian climbed on and they walked slowly home in the warming spring sun. “Sweetest wager you and I ever made, Sky buddy. Worth a few nervous nellies. We should talk to our agents about taking this show on the road.” She tucked her shirt back in the pack to play fair to the bet. Doc could be around any corner and he wouldn't hesitate to jump out of his truck and yell "Foul!" She chuckled at the sight.