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After dinner, Cody went to study the stasis tube readings for Buffalo, Ingrid and Dhabi cleaned up the mess area, and Annie led Jake back to the horses. She gathered a few things – some rope, a riding whip, and a bridle – while Jake found a bench from which he could watch at a safe distance.
“Now what are all these things for, Love?”
Annie almost laughed. She’d never been around someone who seemed so worldly yet knew so little of her world. “I need all of this to coax the horses into doing their tricks. They’re smart but stubborn.”
“Sorta like you.” Cody sat on the floor of the hold with the tube in his lap. He had positioned himself between Jake and Annie.
Jake squinted as he leaned forward, looking at Cody and his gear. “What’s all that, then?”
Cody held the tube so that Jake could see inside. “Annie’s dog. He’s on life support in here.”
“Authority shot him.” Her words dripped with indignation. She turned to face Jake. “So I shot Authority right back.”
“You didn’t,”Jake said with equal parts of statement and question.
Cody nodded. “She did. Had a shotgun full of salt.”
Jake laughed. “Remind me to stay on your good side.”
“Always wise.” Cody punched at some buttons at the end of the tube for more readings. He looked up at his sister. “He’s stable for now. I’m going to need to find a med bay before we run out of nutria-tabs.”
Jake nodded. “I can help with that. After the show, I’ll speak with a friend of mine. She can get you whatever you need.” He turned back to Annie. “Does it always take so long to get set up?”
She tapped her whip against her knee and cocked her head to one side. “When I’m doing it all by myself, yes. It would go a lot faster with help.”
Jake smiled. “Take your time. No rush.”
Annie pulled Nero forward and bridled him. “He’s the biggest, but I haven’t worked with him as much as the others.”
Ingrid and Dhabi joined Jake to watch.
Annie began by tapping the whip on the floor in front of the huge black horse. “How old are you, Nero?”
The horse pawed nine times.
“Good boy. What a good boy.” Annie rubbed Nero’s nose. “May I?” She tapped the whip on his ankle.
The black beast knelt in a graceful bow, and Annie climbed upon his bare back. She clicked her tongue and touched the end of her whip to his chest just above his leg. Nero began a slow march around the hold of the ship.
“There’s not much space in here, so galloping is not an option. He can trot and dance a little, too, with enough room.” When the horse brought her back around, she dismounted and Nero took another bow.
Jake, Ingrid, and Dhabi stood and clapped. Cody just smiled and nodded.
“That was perfect.” Jake took a deep breath. “Do you have any idea what a show like this could do?”
“Make enough money to keep us all safe?” Dhabi asked.
Ingrid shook her head, walked down to Annie’s side, and said, “This could inspire a whole generation of people. Nobody realizes the potential of animals these days. I remember…” She cut herself short and shot a quick glance toward Cody.
Annie noticed and looked at Cody as well, not sure what she expected to see. He never looked up, but Annie could see that he was smiling. What’s that about?
“Can all of your horses perform?” Jake took a timid step in the animals’ direction.
“Of course.” Annie led Nero back into the stall. “They can all count, bow, march, and prance. Liza is the best dancer—because she’s the smallest. Stubbs lets me ride him standing up, and he lets me dismount with a backflip.”
Jake raised his brow and shrugged. “What do you mean? Standing up? Backflip?”
Annie sighed as she took the bit and reins from Nero’s head. “With a saddle, I can stand up on Stubbs’s back while his trots. He can’t really trot in here, but I can show you with him standing in place.”
Annie drug the saddle out and Ingrid helped her secure it around the painted pony. Cody put Buffalo back into Annie’s cabin and returned to help with the other animals. Dhabi and Jake sat back down to watch.
Annie gave Stubbs his cues and he counted, bowed, and allowed her up into the saddle. She patted his shoulders and he reared up on his hind legs in a graceful pose. “Ho.” She waited a second. “Alright.” He lowered his legs and shook his head with a deep nod. “Good boy.”
Annie leaned forward over his red and white mane and whispered into his ears. She flipped her own hair back over her shoulder and kicked off her shiny croc boots. As they clattered on the floor, she could see Jake lean forward in his seat. She smiled.
With one smooth, swift motion, Annie stood in the saddle, still holding gently to the reins. She clicked her tongue and Stubbs walked a small circle in the hold. Annie waved. “I should be holding my hat. That would make for a prettier wave.”
As Stubbs brought her back to their beginning position, Annie lowered herself into the saddle, with both of her legs on the opposite side of her audience.
“She should never turn her back to the crowd,” Jake whispered to the others.
“Jus’ watch,” Cody chided.
Taking a firm hold of the saddle horn, Annie arched her back and faced them, upside down across the saddle seat. She flipped her legs over her body and landed on her bare feet beside the horse. She made a quick twirl and took a bow at the same time as her paint.
All four of the others began to cheer. Jake seemed emboldened by Annie’s ability and strode right up to her and the horses. Before he reached her side, Stubbs pushed his nose out between them and Jake stopped with his hands raised in surrender.
“That was brilliant. That’s all I can say.” He looked Stubbs in the eye and took a step back again. “And you, sir, were magnificent.”
Annie smiled and laughed. “He’s a little bit jealous and a lot protective.”
“Tell him I’m your friend.” Jake tried to walk around the horse, but Stubbs insisted on moving between them.
“Help me take the saddle off. We can brush him together, and maybe that will help. I can tell him anything you want me to say, but you’re gonna have to earn his trust.” Annie pulled her boots back on and watched as Jake tried to befriend the animals.
“They really are beautiful creatures, aren’t they?”
“You never been around animals much, have you?” She slid the saddle from Stubbs’s back and took the halter off.
“Only ever seen horses in pictures.” Jake shrugged. “Authority doesn’t much like people who keep pets anymore.”
“I know. Authority discourages relationships between man and animals. They don’t understand that there can even be friendship between species.” She gathered all the tack and began putting it away.
Jake handed her the whip. “You still use a whip.”
“Yeah. But I wouldn’t hit my horses with it. I love my guys.” Liza Jane whinnied. “And my gal, too.”
“If you can do this – sing, dance, do these tricks and ride – you will be the most famous lass of this generation.” He took the horse brush from her and followed her instructions, stroking the pony’s neck and shoulders.
“I don’t wanna be famous. I mean, that’s okay if I am, but that’s not all I want. I want to make a difference in how people look at animals. They aren’t diseased beasts to be feared and slaughtered. They’re beautiful and smart.”
“You surprise me, Annie Birchfield.” Jake kept brushing as he spoke. “You have this little angel voice, and when I took you for a spin around the stage, I thought you looked a little scared of me.”
Annie kept her gaze down, afraid she might confess the truth.
“But, Love, you are fearless, aren’t you?”
“I ain’t got time to be afraid of much. Too busy for worries. Too busy for fears.” She glanced up with her most confident expression, hoping it was convincing.
“That sounds like a song.”
“Just something my daddy used to say.” She sighed. “I find myself using his words more often when I’m missing him. He’s been gone for two years now.”
“Never knew my father.” Jake seemed to stare at the brush in his hand as he spoke. “Me mum said that he left us to find a job in the UNA territories, but once he got on the plane, she never heard from him again. Don’t even know his name.”
Annie hunched her shoulders. “Sorry about that.” She reached out for his brush and felt the same excited heat at the touch of his fingers on hers. “Where was your home?” She hoped to change the subject.
“I lived in the European Union until six years ago. I got in a scrape and needed to get off planet. Been on this ferry working with Bart ever since.” He helped Annie put the tack away and ease Stubbs back into the stall. “I guess you’ve never been out of the UNA?”
Annie shook her head. “Ain’t never been outta Texas til now. But then again, Texas is bigger than the whole EU.” She raised her gaze to meet Jake’s. “Does ever’body over there talk like you?”
He laughed. “No. My accent has a touch of Irish in it. Some carry a brogue, some are more refined altogether.”
“Hmm.” She looked around and suddenly realized they were alone in the hold. She took a step back. “What else should we work on for the show?”
“You like my accent? My voice?”
Annie grimaced and turned to face Stubbs, wishing he would push his nose between them again. He didn’t. “Should we perform with the horses first? Or sing first? What do you think?”
He took a step closer and reached for her hands. “Because I like your accent—your voice—very much.”
“You ain’t even listening to me. I’m tryin’ to talk about business.” She pulled her hands away from his touch and pushed them into her pockets. “I thought you were a business man.”
“Right.” He took a step back and nodded. “It’s getting late. I should go for now.” He turned to face the hatch door. “Let me consider everything I’ve seen tonight, and I’ll work up a routine. I’ll be back in the morning to pick you up. We’ll have breakfast at my favorite little bistro and then do some shopping. The dress you wore earlier is cute enough, but if you’re going to be turning yourself upside down you need something that keeps you covered. This isn’t that kind of show.” He looked over his shoulder at her with a crooked grin. “Is it?”
She raised her eyebrows and planted her fisted hands on her hips. “I should say not!”
He opened the hatch. “Get some rest. I’ll be here early. Big day tomorrow.”
She watched for a moment as he walked away down the dock before she sealed the hatch behind him. She took a deep breath and held it for a second. When she finally released it with a sigh, it sounded like a moan.
“First love?” Ingrid’s voice startled her, and she jumped as she turned around.
“Is Jake your first love?” the tall blonde asked again. She stood only a few feet from Annie, with an armful of laundry.
“I’m not in love.” Annie shook her head and scoffed as if the whole idea was ridiculous though she couldn’t deny the butterflies in her stomach.
“There’s nothing wrong with being in love. It’s one of the best things in life.” Ingrid shrugged. “But if you’re not—well, that’s okay, too.”
Annie pressed her lips into a tight thin line. “I don’t know anything about love.” She pushed her hands back into her jean’s pockets. “I don’t think it’s love.” She picked up a jacket from the bench against the wall. “Have you ever been in love, Ingrid?”
“Oh yes, I’ve had many loves in my life. Some were great, others were just hard. When you find someone you love, it will be the most difficult thing you will ever do.” She took the jacket from Annie’s hand.
“Finding someone?” Annie asked, following her across the hold.
“No. Finding someone to love is easy. The hard part is loving them. At first, it is easy. You see all the good things that they want you to see. But the longer you know someone, the more you see, and it’s not always beautiful. Love is a decision to be kind, respectful, and understanding, even when you are faced with the ugly parts you uncover.” Ingrid looked at the jacket more closely. “I think this is Jake’s. I’ll leave it out here and you can give it back to him in the morning.”
Annie shook her head. “I can catch him if I hurry.” She took the jacket and opened the hatch. “I’ll be right back.”
Before Ingrid could stop her, Annie hurried out the door and into the docking hall. There was no sign of Jake. She sped up, her boots clunking on the metal floor grates. He must have already turned into the common area, she thought. She slowed her step as she reached the corner, not wanting to get caught up in the crowds that passed. Ferry passengers pay no heed to earth time. No day or night in space. That was for the newcomers.
Annie scanned the packs moving from one place to another. She caught a glimpse of him, she thought, but he held his data-com to his ear, speaking to someone. She remained quiet, not wanting to interrupt his conversation.
“Yeah, that’s right.” She recognized his voice as she moved closer. It was Jake.
Another group moved between Jake and her, and she almost lost sight of him. She gripped the jacket with both hands.
“They have four horses. And I saw the girl’s dog, too. It’s in a life-support container.”
Annie froze. Who is he talking to? And why would he mention Buffalo at all? She continued to listen, keeping out of Jake’s line of sight.
“I’m telling you to come and see for yourself.” Jake’s voice sounded urgent. He seemed to reach for something that wasn’t there.
Annie realized he had only just now missed his jacket. She ducked out of sight and hid behind a few people as he passed only inches from her.
“No,” he said, his voice carried a bite to it. “I don’t know how long they’ll be on the ferry. I don’t know where they’re going. If you want them, you need to get here tomorrow.” He paused. “I can’t promise you anything more.” He lowered the com and shoved it into his pocket.
Annie waited to see where he was going next. Her heart pounded in her ears while she watched him take a step toward the docking hall. He stopped and turned back to the commons again. He looked over his shoulder as if he couldn’t decide which plan gave him the greatest advantage. The butterflies Annie had felt earlier had turned to rocks in her stomach. She wanted to punch him in that beautiful face of his.
He seemed to decide to wait until morning to retrieve his coat and walked away from the docks. Annie watched for several seconds until she was sure he was gone. She turned back toward her temporary home, with the betrayer’s coat tucked under her arm. A few minutes later, and she was back on the ship, tossing the worn leather into a heap on the bench.
“Didn’t find him?” Ingrid asked. She regarded the jacket and then faced Annie with a sympathetic frown. “You can return it to him tomorrow.”
Annie chewed on her lip, wanting to scream. She didn’t know if she should explain what she heard to Ingrid or not. She wasn’t even sure what she heard, but her gut told her that Jake was up to no good.
“Oh yeah, I’ll sure give it to him in the morning.”