Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirteen

NICK

I lead Glory into the training ring and then close the gate. Leaning against the rail, I observe and monitor her progress and natural behaviors. I'd made the round metal pen smaller to help her feel safer. As she gets more comfortable, I'll expand it, but for now, her knowing she's secure, is the most important goal.

She's still weak and skittish and hesitant in her steps. I know she needs time to adjust to her new environment so I won't keep her out here long. Too much too soon could overwhelm her, causing her to retreat back into her shell. I don't want to wear her out. I just want her to get some exercise and, at the same time, get used to her surroundings. We're working on respecting each other's space. After being hurt, neglected, and abused for so long, letting someone else in, is painfully difficult for her. Each day gets a little easier. She's beginning to slowly let down her guard with me.

I still can't believe how easily she'd let Lexy get close to her. The connection between them had been almost immediate as if they had some secret language no one else could hear or understand.

She'll believe it's not her fault soon. Where in the world did Lexy get that from? I wonder, glancing back towards the stables. How would she even know something like that? As far as I could tell, she's never been around horses in her life. I have a feeling she's talking about herself as much as Glory. She kept saying the strangest things and making me think. I don't like it.

The heat swelters and radiates up from the ground around me, up through the heavy denim of my black jeans, into my skin, but I barely notice. Some things you just get used to out here. Getting used to Lexy didn't seem like something I was going to be able to do anytime soon.

She knows about Megan. I saw it in her eyes. Becca must have told her.

But Lexy knowing isn't what has me churned up. It's the way she looks at me I can't seem to get around. She doesn't see me with that same uncomfortable, patronizing look of pity everyone else did. She didn't act like she cared while secretly being glad it hadn't happened to her. She didn't ask how I was doing, just to turn around and have me end up being the one comforting her. She doesn't avoid me or tiptoe around my pain. I didn't have to try and tell her everything was fine. We both knew it wasn't and hasn't been for a long time.

She recognizes something in me, she knows I'm just as deep in the pit as her. But more than anything else, it was the intensity I'd seen in her eyes that had stopped me as if she had finally found the one person exactly like her.

She knows things I need someone to understand. I felt the connection the minute I opened the front door and saw her. And then experienced it again when I heard her sing on the porch the other night. A strange, unfamiliar relief had come over me that I didn't expect, and haven't been able to shake off.

I haven't seen her in a few days. She's been hiding out up in her room. I've watched for her. I've wondered about her. I've even worried about her. I scowl, annoyed that I've got Lexy in my head. I don't want her there. I haven't thought about anyone but Megan for so long. It makes me feel guilty as if I'm cheating, which I know doesn't make any sense, but nothing has been the same over the last few days. I want things to go back to the way they were.

Finding out the truth about her doesn't change anything. It can't. Her life is still none of my business and mine isn't any of hers. We're not friends. We don't even know each other. She's only been on this land for a few days. Neither one of us owe each other anything.

But I can't get rid of this simmering tension, as if you know something is coming, but you don't know what it is yet. Like when you can smell a storm brewing in the air, or how the sky changes colors when a tornado is about to hit. I feel as if I've spent the last few days on high alert, but have no idea what I'm supposed to be watching or waiting for.

I don't want Lexy messing with the way things are. I like remembering Megan. I like that she's still a part of everything I do, every breath I take. I even like the grief; it's all I have left of her. I don't want Lexy interrupting that. I don't want her voice in my head or her face in my mind. She isn't who I want to think about. But, she keeps slipping through.

The guilt is never gone, not for one single moment. The heat of it fills my belly, seeps out, and flushes over my skin is a sour taste in my mouth. To think of someone other than Megan is the worst betrayal for me.

I'm so distracted, I don't even see Becca until she's practically standing next to me.

"She seems to be settling in," she says, nodding towards Glory. When I say nothing, she looks over at me. Noticing my expression and silence, she frowns. "You okay?"

I'm quiet for a minute and don't look at her. I want to be careful not to say something I'll regret. "Does Lexy know?" I don't say Megan's name. It hurts too much. But, with Becca, I know I don't have to. She'll understand.

She does, instantly, and realization makes her eyes fill with regret. "Yes," she admits apologetically. "I'm so sorry. I meant to talk to you about it. She found the newspaper article about the car accident when we were going through photo albums. It fell out." She puts her hand on my arm. "I really am sorry, Nick. I know it's yours to tell."

I just nod. I know Becca wouldn't deliberately expose my pain to anyone. "She was bound to find out sooner or later," I say, with weary resignation. I don't even get angry about it anymore. What good would it do? "Everyone around here knows already anyway. I'm a sad legend in these parts. I just wish you would have let me know you told her." It hurts me more to be caught off guard. I'm not prepared and have no warning that my grief is about to be suddenly invaded.

"I know. I meant to. The last few days have been a blur. Did she say something to you about it?"

I shake my head. "No. Not exactly," I murmur, remembering the wreckage in Lexy's eyes when she looked at me a few minutes ago. "I just saw her up at the stable. I could tell she knew." I always can.

"You saw her?" Worry in her eyes, she glances towards the outbuildings. "She's barely been out of her room the last few days. How was she?"

She looked lost and much too sad, but I don't want to tell Becca that. I shrug. "Seems alright. A little tired, maybe. She came in while I was working with Glory." I nod my head towards the mare. "She let Lexy walk right up to her." I'm still amazed by it.

"Really?" She watches Glory figure out her territory in the ring. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. She's such a sensitive girl. Horses recognize that. Glory obviously does. And maybe she's inherited the gift her great grandaddy Cade had with them."

"She's inherited something," I mutter wryly. Wild horses don't just bend to people like that.

Hearing the weariness in Becca's voice, I look at her, notice how worn down she is. I see the strain and the shadows under her eyes, the heaviness in the slight slouch of her shoulders. Having her past brought back so unexpectedly was taking a toll on her. It makes me feel selfish and guilty. I want to make her feel better, to make this easier for her. I step closer so she can lean on me if she needs to. "You doing okay?"

"I'm worried about her." She looks towards the house, eyes troubled. "She's been so quiet and withdrawn. Finding out the truth about her mama was pretty traumatic. I hope it's not hurting her more to be out here. I want this to be a safe place for her."

"You're here. She seems to feel pretty safe with you."

"I hope so," she murmurs, looks over at me. "She seems to like being around you, too. Thanks for letting her hang out with you. I know you prefer to work with the horses alone. I understand it's been an adjustment having her here. You're used to things being a certain way. But, I'm glad you're here for her. You of all people can understand what it's like for her."

Panic makes my stomach clench. Shaking my head, I take a step back. I don't want this expectation on me. We're not the same. "How would I know what she's feeling? I don't even know her."

"But you do know what its like to have your whole world turned upside down and to not know if its ever going to be made right again."

"Mine hasn't been made right," I snap out. I hear the bitterness in my voice, feel as if I am rotting from the inside out. The loss is still so raw, so close, as if it is just happening now instead of three years ago.

"Neither has hers."

She says it so calmly, so quietly, I have no words to fight back. I feel the mad go out of me, like dark clouds breaking and blowing away after a storm, opening up the blue. I can't look at her. I feel too miserable. "What do you want me to do?" I ask wearily.

"Just help keep an eye on her." A light breeze has her hair skimming across her cheek. She brushes it back as she studies me. "She's going through a lot."

I finally look over at her. Lexy and Becca have the same eyes, I notice; beautiful and green and heartbreaking. Which is probably the reason I can't seem to resist either of them. "One of these days I'm going to figure out how to say 'no' to you."

She rests her chin on her hand, holds my gaze. "Is that day today?"

I feel myself softening. I've known her for years. I owe her and Ben everything. They're my family. Resigned, I let out my breath. We both already know what my answer is. Because it's her, I give in and smile a little. "No."

She smiles back, a real one this time, and my world settles back into place. "You're a good guy, Nick. You just can't help yourself." She leans over and kisses me on the cheek. "Keep her safe," she says over her shoulder as she heads back up towards the house.

I frown as I watch her go. I can't tell if she's talking about Glory or her niece. But it doesn't really matter, I realize, shaking my head. Either way, I already know I'm going to have my hands full.
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