Diminished Faith #Conway Saga 4

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Chapter 19

Carrie ’s hand tightened on Brad’s as Sarah, now dressed in black jodhpurs and a little red jacket, walked towards the wheelchair, leading the white Shetland pony, her uncle by her side. She had a pair of shiny black riding boots on her feet, and a black cap on her head, strapped under her chin. Carrie stared at her in shock.

Brad eyes widened as he looked at the animal. It was definitely a Shetland, but it was the colour that amazed him, a creamy white and not chestnut brown, or even tan, as he had expected. He met Ian’s eyes, and pulled a face.

“Ginger?” he mouthed.

Ian grinned, and muttered, “She chose the name herself! It’s a filly, too!”

“Look, Mommy!” Sarah said, her eyes bright with pride. “This my horse!”

“It’s a pony, Sarah,” Ian told her. “Remember why we call it a pony and not a horse?”

The child grinned. “Cos it only little, - like me!”

Ian laughed. “And tell Mommy how big your pony is!”

Sarah put her hand on the animal’s back. “Ginger nine hands,” she said proudly, looking at Ian for approval. “I ride now?”

He looked questioningly at Carrie. She was still staring at Sarah in amazement, but now she looked at the pony. Sarah was short for her age, but the pony was not much bigger than she was. It stood quietly, and the brown eyes seemed soft and gentle. Carrie found herself putting out her hand to touch the soft, shaggy mane.

“You want give her treat, Mommy?” Sarah asked, pushing a sugar-cube into her mother’s hand.

Brad held Carrie’s palm out, holding his own beneath hers, and as the pony took the cube from her, she gave a little smile. Ginger nuzzled her hand for more, but Sarah pointed her finger at the pony and said sharply, “Only one! No more. You get sick!”

Brad laughed. “You tell her, Sarah!”

“I ride?” the child asked Ian.

He nodded, glancing at Carrie. He made no effort to help the little girl mount, and stopped Brad from doing so too, watching as she put her left foot in the stirrup and pulled herself up, swinging her right leg over the pony.

“Good girl! Sit up straight,” he said when she was in the saddle.

She took the reins, a big smile on her face. “Look Mommy! I ride,” she said.

Ian checked that her feet were in the stirrups correctly before he took the leading rein. For a short while he led them in a small circle, while Brad and Carrie watched their daughter. The child sat with her back straight, her little hands holding the reins in front of her, perfectly at ease.

Carrie gripped Brad’s hand and whispered, “She looks so confident! As if she was born to ride!”

Ian went to Sarah’s side, and Brad tensed as he saw his brother unclip the leading rein and whisper something to the little girl. She nodded, rising in the stirrups, then sitting again, her back straight. Brad knew immediately what Ian had told her. His eyes narrowed as he watched her do the same movement again, looking to her teacher for approval. Hadn’t Ian said he’d only been teaching her for two weeks? Surely she wasn’t ready for this? But he watched his little daughter take the pony forward in an almost perfectly executed rising trot, and he gasped.

“Two weeks! Really?”

Ian laughed. “I told you she was good! She learns fast! Very fast!”

They watched the little girl as she sat astride the trotting pony, keeping close to the fence. Ian calmly stood beside the wheelchair, and he kept his eyes on the child, but said to Carrie, “So, what do you think? She’s my youngest pupil, but miles ahead of some of the others! He gave a little sigh. “Pity she’s still too young to compete. You can be proud of that young lady.”

Carrie smiled up at him. “She looks like a seasoned rider, especially in that little outfit. Where on earth did you get it?”

He grinned. “I had it made for her. She wanted to surprise you both. Sarah’s good at keeping secrets!” He saw Brad’s quick glance, and told him, “Don’t worry. I’m not teaching her to be sly. She’s a good little girl. I meant that she’s good at keeping surprises!”

The pony approached, and Sarah beamed, still in the saddle. “Did you see, Mommy? Daddy?”

“Darling, you look wonderful!” Carrie exclaimed. “I had no idea you could ride like that! I am so proud of you.”

Brad chuckled, “You are a fantastic little rider, Sarah. And I love your pony.”

Ian lifted Sarah down, clipping on the leading rein and saying, "You did very well, Sarah. Take her back to her stall. Ask one of the grooms to unsaddle her and see that she’s comfortable.”

Sarah nodded, taking the rein and leading the pony back to the stables.

When she had gone, Brad raised his eyebrows and said, “She is only three, you know. Do you treat all your riding pupils like grown-ups?”

Ian grinned. “Kids understand more than you think they do. Sarah is already learning how to take care of her pony before and after riding. She can almost saddle Ginger herself - with a bit of help! I don’t mollycoddle her - or any of my riders. If they want to ride, they also have to learn how to take care of their mounts!”

He glanced over to where the twins were still practising, saying, “The boys are trying very hard to be ready for the competition. They’ll need to brush up on the dressage. If Sarah was older, I could have her ready for dressage in no time! Did you see how she can handle that pony? And how she sits in the saddle? Excellent!”

“I saw,” Brad said. “I was never any good at dressage, but I can see why you’re so enthusiastic at how good she is. I was surprised myself! Although I suppose I shouldn’t be. Barbara could certainly handle a horse!”

Ian scowled, glancing at Carrie, but said, “Sarah will be taught to have a gentler touch! Barbara was too hard and demanding for my taste.”

That made Brad laugh, rather bitterly. “In everything!” he said.

“Shouldn’t we go and help Sarah change out of that little outfit?” Carrie asked.

They knew the question was her effort to change the subject, and it worked! Ian smiled. “She’ll keep it on now. It was a surprise for your benefit. She won’t be long. Are you going back up to the house now?”

Brad shrugged. “I guess. We were just out for a walk. Sarah’s mood changed after tea and she wanted to be outside.”

“You’re not going to ride?” Carrie saw Brad’s hesitation, his wistful look as he watched the twins, and she smiled. “Go ahead, Brad. If you feel up to it.”

“You haven’t ridden for ages,” Ian said. “Shall I have Geisha saddled for you?”

Another hesitation as Brad searched Carrie’s face. “Would you mind? Just a couple of circuits in the arena?”

“I’ll sit and wait for Sarah, and just watch you,” she said with another smile. “Just be careful.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“I said it’s fine! You’re dying to get back on a horse. But please, love, no accidents! Uncle Max would have a fit!”

Carrie had seen Brad ride before, many times. He looked good on a horse! He looked good whatever he did! Brad had been blessed with the type of body that looked classy in either casual clothes or suits, and he was, mostly, able to hide the fact that that same body was usually riddled with pain.

As she watched him take his palomino mare around the arena, Carrie once again felt a deep sense of pride that he was her husband, this man whom she knew would go to any lengths to ensure her happiness and security. His love for her had not diminished one jot in the time they had been together, nor hers for him.

Sarah came back from the stables, still in her riding clothes minus the cap, and she put her shorts, sandals and T-shirt onto Carrie’s lap and climbed onto the fence in front of the wheelchair to watch her father.

“Daddy going jump,” she said, clapping her hands.

Carrie gasped. “No!”

Brad had reined the horse in and spoken to the twins. Now the horse was cantering towards the practise jumps and Carrie clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. If Brad made Geisha jump and fell….

But he didn’t fall! The mare took the first fence with ease, and the second and third, then Brad reined in again. He trotted around, back to where the twins were waiting to resume practise, raised a hand in salute and cantered to the fence. Sarah was laughing in glee. He dismounted and one of the grooms appeared to lead Geisha away, while he grinned at Sarah and Carrie.

“That was exhilarating,” he said, slightly out of breath. “I should ride more often.”

“You didn’t say you were going to jump,” Carrie admonished. “If you’d fallen….”

“I wasn’t going to fall,” Brad said with a brief laugh. He came out of the arena and kissed Carrie on her lips, but she scowled at him.

“If you had fallen.....”

“I told you I’d be careful.” He tried to kiss her again but she turned her head to the side and he frowned. “And now you’re cross with me! I’m sorry, Carrie! I didn’t know that I was going to try the jumps until I was out there. I couldn’t resist.”

When she didn’t reply, he bit his lip and lapsed into silence as he pushed the wheelchair back towards the mansion. Sarah skipped alongside or ran on ahead. She didn’t chatter as usual, but she was definitely brighter than she had been earlier in the day. It was now Carrie who appeared to be somewhat gloomy. She kept her eyes on her child and did not speak.

Brad pushed her up the ramp and into the entrance hall before he attempted to speak again, and when he did, it was to little Sarah.

“Go find Nanny, sweetie, and ask her to help you change your clothes. Mommy and I need to talk!”

Carrie watched Sarah run off into the kitchen area, then she looked up at Brad and said softly, “There’s nothing to say. Could you - help me to the bathroom please?”

He searched her face for a moment. She didn’t appear to be angry with him, but he couldn’t be sure. As he helped her to her feet she flinched, and a little cry of pain escaped her lips.

“Darling? What is it? Did I hurt you?” he asked quickly.

“I - I think I was sitting too long,” she faltered. “I’m just stiff. You didn’t hurt me. My - my head is spinning!”

She stood still for a moment, holding onto him, and then took her first step, and crumpled into his arms with another cry. Her uncle, coming through from the lounge, almost ran towards them as Brad whisked her up.

“Carrie! What happened?”

“I’m ok!” she gasped. “Put me down!”

Brad met Max’s eyes, saw the brief nod, and, after a moment of indecision, set Carrie back on her feet, but kept hold of her.

“I was just dizzy,” she muttered. “It’ll pass. I need to walk!” She took a few steps towards the bathroom, leaning heavily on Brad.

Max was waiting for them when they emerged from the bathroom, and he scowled at Brad. “And you? You’re as white as a sheet. What happened to you?”

“I’m fine,” Brad mumbled as he settled Carrie back in the wheelchair. But he knew it was a lie. He could feel the all too familiar pain, radiating along his spine, pain that he knew would get worse until he could no longer conceal it. He didn’t want Carrie to see. She would immediately presume he had injured himself when he scooped her up. Either that, or when he had ridden his horse, which, he had to admit, was more definitely the case. And his pride was not going to allow an admission of why he had left the practise arena without completing the ten fences that were there. The fact that he had felt the first sharp stab of pain as his horse’s hooves touched the ground again after the third fence!

In the bathroom he had helped Carrie without her noticing his slight wince. And she had made no more comments about him riding his horse so he hoped that her irritability earlier had dissipated. Now, he squeezed her hand as he straightened up, muttered something about the piano, and walked away, leaving Max to wheel the chair into the lounge.

In the music room he sat at the piano and closed his eyes, trying to breathe into the pain as Carrie had once taught him. It was getting worse. It always did! He put his hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a small container, shaking two of the pills into his hand. There was a pitcher of water on the piano and he poured a little into one of the glasses and swallowed the pills, not expecting them to do much for the pain in his back, but hoping they would at least ease the fast-approaching headache.

Brad placed his fingers on the piano keys and tried to concentrate on playing something, anything, to keep his mind fixed on the music and not the pain. For almost two minutes it actually worked, until a particularly sharp spasm hit and he slammed his hands onto the keys, gritting his teeth to stop himself from crying out.

Max strolled through, then dashed towards the piano when he saw how Brad was hunched over the keys gasping in pain.

“My God! What the hell have you done?” He lifted the back of Brad’s T-shirt and inspected the spine. Nothing! No distinct bulges that shouldn’t have been there. Nothing that he could see that was anything out of the ordinary - for Brad!

And then suddenly, it was over! Brad let out his breath, his body sagging in relief, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Don’t tell Carrie!”

Max frowned. “She said you’d ridden your horse. Did you hurt yourself?”

Brad swivelled around on the piano stool and looked at the doctor. He was very pale still and there was a tightness in his jaw, but his breathing was almost normal now. “No, I don’t think so. Those spasms of pain are coming again, at odd times.”

“How long has this been happening? Since before Carrie’s accident?”

Brad shook his head. “No. The first spasm I had recently was while I was sitting with her after her op. It wasn’t too bad. But - but they seem to be getting worse.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me this before?”

“I’m telling you now! But please Max, don’t tell Carrie! I don’t want her upset about anything. She’ll think it was because I lifted her.”

“And was it?”

“No. I told you. They hit for no specific reason that I can think of. I don’t want Carrie to know!”

“Why not?”

“She’s already cross because I made Geisha jump the fences in the arena.” He saw Max scowl and added quickly. “I stopped as soon as I felt the first twinge, Max! I didn’t hurt myself there!”

“Hmph!”

“Sometimes these spasms occur when all I’m doing is sitting still - or even lying down. Although……”

“Although?”

He hesitated. “Although I’ve noticed that if I’m tired, or tense about anything, that’s when they’re likely to come. Is that significant?”

Max raised his bushy eyebrows but the scowl did not leave his face. “Undoubtedly. Stress is always a factor. I’ll get Jim Dennison to come again. It’s about time you had another check-up in any case.”

Brad swallowed. “And you won’t mention it to Carrie?”

For a moment Max glared at him, then he said, “I won’t need to if she sees you looking as pale as you do right now. Has the pain gone?”

“Mostly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Has it gone or not?”

“It never all goes,” Brad muttered. “You know that! But I can handle it!”

“Brad!” Carrie said sharply from the doorway.

Max spun around, shocked that she had been strong enough to manoeuvre the wheelchair on her own, Brad moved from the piano stool so quickly that he couldn’t hide the wince of pain. She was glowering at him as he reached the wheelchair, and an angry tirade of words came at him before he had time to say anything in his defence.

He stood, listening without even trying to stop her, until at last she ran out of adjectives like imbecile, moron, idiot, fool or even featherbrain. Then she burst into tears. And Brad didn’t move!

Max looked from Carrie to Brad, and a slight smile crossed his face. “Well,” he said. “Now we know what your wife thinks! So, I don’t have to tell you how utterly irresponsible it is not to tell your physician when you have pain.”

He handed his niece the box of tissues that were on the table. “Carrie, stop crying for heaven’s sake. I can’t deal with both of you at once!”

Brad didn’t even try to help Carrie as she fumbled with the tissues, blew her nose and wiped the tears from her face. He merely stood, looking down at her, feeling as utterly stupid as she had called him. And cursing his own pride that refused to allow his pain to get the better of him. He could feel the tell-tale throbbing that sometimes preceded the spasms, and took a deep breath as he gave Max a pointed look and moved back to the piano stool.

He tried to relax as he sank onto the stool, and he closed his eyes to shut out Carrie’s anguished face. Max was at his side in seconds.

“Another one?” he asked, and Brad nodded, gritting his teeth.

It was over very quickly, even before Max had lifted his T-shirt and put his hand over the lumbar region to see if he could feel any displaced vertebrae which might be causing the pain. But there was nothing, and Brad didn’t even cry out when Max probed none too gently.

“I’m going to try to get Jim Dennison on the phone right now. I can’t feel anything.” The doctor said, then added in a grumpy but quieter tone, “Why did I have to be the physician of the only walking miracle I’ve ever seen?”

He walked out of the music room, giving Carrie a wink as he went past the wheelchair. The smile Carrie gave him faded as soon as he’d gone.

She glared at Brad, but neither of them said anything for a moment. The apology had died on his lips the moment she had burst into her furious outburst. He knew it wouldn’t even have been heard, and would have probably caused her more stress if it had.

He was dreading her anger and hurt. She would shut him out, give him the silent treatment, alienate him, for she knew that that would be the worst punishment that she could ever expend on him. And he cringed inwardly!

He waited for more words of her wrath, but none came. He lowered his head and felt foolish as she manoeuvred the chair forward until she was almost touching him.

“Why Brad?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper. “Do you really think I’m too injured to care that my husband is hiding his own pain from me? I thought we’d made promises to be truthful to each other. I’m still a nurse. I might be an injured nurse at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to know when you’re hurting.”

He was silent, knowing that whatever he said would be futile. In any case, he didn’t really know what to say. She was furious. She would, of course, forgive him. She always did! But he would first have to endure her hostility. He swallowed back a hard lump in his throat and sneaked a peek at her face. And what he saw there brought tears to his eyes.

He had expected to see anger. He had seen that previously, the fury as she had yelled at him earlier. In the years he had known her he had occasionally seen annoyance in those dark eyes, as he had seen hurt and sadness, and even fear. Mostly, it had been absolute adoration that had been etched on her beautiful face when she had looked at him. But he had never before seen the stark, pure look of disappointment that was there now. He had let her down somehow. And it cut him to the heart!

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