Seroje needed a few moments to orient herself since the room, smells, and sounds around her were not familiar. Craig slept beside her, holding her hand. His breathing told her he was in a deep sleep. He was warm against her.
She checked the time on her phone.
The time was four-thirty am.
A horse neighed in the distance. She thought she could hear the ceiling fan on the veranda still spinning. The air felt moist and cool.
She slid her hand from his and rose to dress without disturbing him. As she stepped out onto the veranda from the bedroom, she finger-combed her hair.
The table where they had dinner was a short distance away from the bedroom door. The candle was out, and the fan was indeed still spinning. Mist surrounded the house, creating a surreal atmosphere, filled with the sounds of horses and muffled voices. The sounds drew her to step off the veranda and follow them.
This early morning reminded her of when she was a child. When she was still with her parents. She woke early back then too. Early morning was the time she found she could be herself without getting yelled at. Without getting hit.
Lights on poles lit the path, showing horses being led. Seroje waited until the last one passed before she followed, keeping well back from the last horse. She could just make out the swishing of the horse’s tail in the mist.
The mist cleared as she moved higher up a hill. The horses were no longer in view, but she could still hear them. Taller posts with lights overhead appeared, revealing what looked like a racetrack. A horse trotted by with a rider. Seroje could just see the rider and the horse’s head over the fence.
Seroje veered from the path she followed, moving toward the fence. She climbed up and sat. A gravel walking path was between her and another fence that enclosed the track. No one seemed to take notice of her, not even the horses.
More horses appeared with riders. The horses neighed and snorted as they kicked up their legs and bobbed their heads. Seroje counted seven horses on the track. Each one seemed to be doing something different, never running or moving together, and if two did seem to catch up with each other, one or the other was reined in.
There were people standing in the middle of the track who seemed to be yelling instructions to some of the riders. A couple of the horses fell into single file and galloped around the track.
The rhythmic beat of the hooves fascinated Seroje. They sounded and felt like a beating heart.
“Hey, Craig. I didn’t know you were around,” a voice said, not far from Seroje.
Craig stepped up beside her. His shirt wasn’t buttoned, and his hair wasn’t combed. An older man, wearing a flannel shirt and looking cold, stepped up beside Craig.
“Just for the night, Jake,” Craig said, as he gazed over the horses and then at Seroje. “Don’t usually get up this early and I have to fly right back.”
“So what do you think?” Jake said, acting as if Seroje didn’t exist. “These are next years three year olds.”
The horses galloped past again.
“So what do you think?” Jake said again, as if Craig hadn’t heard him, but Craig put a finger to his lips, making a sign to Jake.
Jake stepped up on the fence so he was visible, waving an arm to someone in the middle of the track.
The horses bunched up and then came around again, running almost full out. They thundered past, kicking up dirt.
“What do you think?” Craig said to Seroje in a quiet voice while he watched her and not the horses.
“Why is the last one being held back?” she said as her eyes jittered over the horses.
“Jake, take out red, blue and yellow,” Craig said, indicating color markers that were on the horses.
Jake waved his arm in some sort of sign language and three of the horses were ridden off the track.
“I want to see these four go,” Craig said.
“White is a trouble maker,” Jake said, indicating the horse that Seroje questioned.
“Full out,” Craig said. “Let’s see what they got.”
Jake waved again and the horses were reined in at the other side of the track, then allowed to run. The horses took off with purpose.
The horse with the white color marker didn’t seem to want to cooperate at first, then he took off in a full gallop on the outside of the track. The horse caught up with the others at the turn but refused to pass, hopping and throwing his head.
“He doesn’t like to run with the others,” Seroje said.
Jake and Craig looked at each other.
“Blinders,” they both said at the same time.
“He’s got the best stride,” she said, watching the horse gallop past.
“You know horses?” Jake said, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time.
“No,” Seroje said, keeping her eyes on the horses.
Jake looked confused.
“She has a good eye for motion,” Craig said in explanation.
Jake nodded as if he was just being amiable, since he didn’t look as if he believed Craig.
“Go give that a try. I want to see,” Craig said.
Jake nodded and left, calling out to someone on the track. All the horses disappeared and some different horses appeared, going through their exercise program.
Seroje watched these new horses, enjoying the pounding of the hooves and the sounds of hearts beating. Craig seemed to ignore the horses while he watched her.
Jake reappeared fifteen minutes later, stepping up on the fence where he’d been before. The horse with the white marker appeared, wearing flaps on the side of its eyes. The horse galloped around the track, staying on the inside even as other horses passed.
“Run ’em,” Craig said to Jake.
Jake waved his arm and the horses lined up on the other side of the track, then took off. The white marker horse bolted forward, taking the lead, leaving the other horses behind. The horse stayed on the inside of the track despite having started on the outside.
“Damn,” Jake said as the horse galloped by.
Seroje smiled at the deep rhythmic beat of the hooves.
“Like a different horse,” Craig said.
Jake nodded. “Didn’t peg him as needing the blinders.”
“He’s got a good stride,” Seroje said again, hypnotized by the movement.
“Huh,” Jake said. “So you coming to the fall sales?”
“Don’t know,” Craig said. “I’ll see what my schedule is.”
“I don’t like any of this year’s crop. Gonna sell them all,” Jake said.
“As you see fit,” Craig said.
Jake walked away.
Craig watched her while he buttoned up his shirt.
“You like getting up early?” Craig said as the horses galloped by again.
“I get up when I wake,” she said, still watching the horses.
“Too damn early for me,” he said. “May I help you down?”
“I like watching them,” she said, not wanting to leave.
Craig leaned against the fence beside her, watching her while she watched the horses.
The white marker horse ran with the other horses, again out striding them and staying on the inside. Seroje decided this was her favorite, the white marker horse.
“What’s his name?” Seroje said.
“The horse? I don’t know,” Craig said. “Have to check papers. I don’t see them every day and don’t remember.”
“I’ll call him Heartbeat,” Seroje said with a smile, thinking the name was funny.
Craig leaned over and kissed her arm.
“We should be going. We have to fly back,” he said in a soft voice.
She hopped from the fence.
“Can we come back sometime?” she said. “To watch them run?”
“Of course,” Craig said, taking her hand. “Maybe we can catch that guy on his first race next year.”
“I’ve never been to a horse race,” she said as they followed the path back to the house and then to the jet.
Pete stood by the airstairs, running his hand through his hair as if he’d been in a rush and hadn’t had time to run a comb through.
“Sorry, Pete. The woman doesn’t sleep. Want some coffee?” Craig said as they boarded.
“Already brewing, sir,” Pete said as he closed the door to the jet. “We have time to enjoy a cup. We’re a little socked in at the moment, but it’s clearing.”
“Do you have tea? Hot tea?” Seroje said.
Craig brought out a small two-cup sized pot and tea bags, showing her where she could get hot water out of a spigot.
He sipped his coffee, watching her, while she brewed tea, adding sugar and cream into her cup. She liked hot tea if cream was available, and she’d seen everything she needed amid his coffee items. Pete drank his coffee with cream, but Craig liked it black.
The time was six twenty-two am.
“Prepare for departure. Please fasten seat belts,” Pete’s voice announced overhead.
Craig was asleep in his seat, but already had his seat belt on. Seroje counted his breaths and sipped her tea. His breathing was even, showing he was in a deep sleep. She liked watching him since he was peaceful, pleased she could do so without him knowing, without being so obvious as he was when staring at her.
The time was seven-thirty when her phone pinged, waking Craig.
A text message from her boss.
“Will we be back by eight?” Seroje said, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Craig said, straightening in his seat and stretching.
She texted back.
“You missing something?” he said, unfastening his seat belt to go get more coffee.
“Meeting with the boss,” she said.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
“Don’t be. He didn’t give me enough notice,” she said, watching her phone for the next response from her boss.
“How much notice did he give you?” Craig said, sitting by her and sipping his coffee.
“Less than half an hour,” she said as the text came back from her boss.
830, came a reply.
Her boss’s response annoyed her. She wasn’t a child. If she set a time, then there was a good reason for that time.
Ten am not in town, she texted back so he’d get the picture.
K, he responded back faster.
“I got it set to ten am,” she said, putting her phone down.
“You free tonight?” Craig said, watching her.
Seroje stared at the wall, then sipped the last of her tea.
“I think so,” she said, sensing he was going to ask for something different than a dinner date.
“I have to go to a party tonight. I would like to have company,” he said.
She liked how he phrased his request, but she frowned.
“I’m not really a party person,” she said.
“It’s a quiet party. Art gallery type party. We just go and look at paintings and say hi to people. No loud music,” he said.
“Art gallery stuff is fancy,” she said almost to herself, thinking of what she’d seen and heard online. Weren’t the men always in tuxes and the women in gowns?
“I can send one of my assistants out to buy you a dress, if that’s your concern,” Craig said.
“What?” she said a little too quick as she tensed.
“You don’t like shopping, remember,” he said in an even voice. “They know what needs to be picked out. You have a new dress, and it’s no different than if you went shopping, except, you didn’t have to go shopping.”
Her breathing was short and shallow while she thought through his request. Clothing was personal. She didn’t like people stepping into her personal arena, but she had to remind herself that she’d not be interacting with the person choosing the dress. She breathed easier while she continued to think, staring at the floor.
Craig stood and brewed her more tea. Then he poured her a cup, adding just the right amount of sugar and cream.
“Okay,” she said, pleased that he’d paid attention.
Craig sat back down, bringing out his cell phone and putting in an earpiece. He began making phone calls.
He spoke first with his assistant, giving instructions on a dress and what size was needed. Then he argued with her because for some reason she wanted to get a size smaller and he was adamant that she didn’t. He also already knew Seroje’s shoe size.
His second call was to someone’s voice mail, telling them he and a guest were coming to the party.
“Can I call you?” he said, startling Seroje since she thought he was on another call.
“What?” she said in an automatic reply.
“Can I call you? We need to arrange where to meet. For tonight,” he said.
“No, I will be working,” she said, and he returned to making phone calls. Then all his calls became business calls, and he was setting up meetings for the day.
“Prepare for arrival. Please fasten seat belts,” Pete’s voice announced overhead.
Craig never paused in his calls as he fastened his seat belt.
“We have arrived.”
Craig was still on the phone as they departed the jet and for five minutes more while they sat in his car.
“Bye,” he said, ending the call. “Sorry. Once things get started, they go. So I need to take you back to the park for your car?”
“Yes,” she said.
Craig remained silent for the drive back to the park, pulling his car alongside hers. He found a piece of paper and began writing while checking his phone for the information.
The parking lot was busy with joggers and dog walkers. A young mom was pulling her jogging buggy out from the trunk of her car.
“Here is where we will meet. Six-thirty pm if that works for you,” he said, giving her the piece of paper.
She nodded, glancing at the paper and then giving it back. He folded the paper and shoved it into one of her pockets.
“I don’t need that. I have the information,” she said.
“Okay. Just in case,” he said. “I’ll have the dress, and we can get you dressed up.”
Neither one of them moved. Craig watched her.
“Thank you,” he said in a sincere manner.
The two words caused her to raise her eyes and meet his.
He kissed her, just long enough.
“You are wonderful,” he said, whispering. “I really enjoy being with you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, not sure of what she felt.
“See you tonight,” he said.
She got out of his car and into hers.
He drove off, and she sat in her car, staring into space.