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Luke couldn't contain his smile as Lexi dealt the sweater-clad loudmouth blow after blow. Once she issued the riding challenge, the boy threw everything he had at her, asking questions designed to stump or humiliate her, but he only humiliated himself. It fascinated Luke the lengths young men went to in defense of their pride, even in the company of women, where a respectful approach worked better.

When the time came to head to the stables, Lexi gave Luke her undivided attention, making this clear to the group by lagging behind to engage him in conversation. "Do you ride much, Luke? I'd be happy to give you some pointers if you're uneasy in the saddle."

"I can hold my own, but I would still enjoy getting pointers from you. It sounds like you have confidence in your skills."

"Oh, you mean my challenge to that preppy clod?" Lexi's cheeks blushed a healthy pink as she glanced at the clod walking ahead of them, chatting with her brother. "I don't really care if he wins the race. I already won the battle at the table. He crossed the line when he started quizzing me on the origins of my own hometown. Quel fou."

Luke laughed at Lexi's quip, and Lexi laughed with him, attracting curious glances, including a stony stare from Z, whose beard did nothing to hide the flush in his cheeks. At least he wasn't hovering over Lexi making her miserable, but he did keep a very close eye on her. Even if they agreed to meet on the beach again tonight, Luke knew someone would be watching them. Had their only opportunity to be alone been sabotaged by her vigilant sibling?

When they reached the stable, Lexi tugged Luke toward one of the stalls where a sleek, chestnut-haired horse eagerly greeted them. He recognized the animal from the day before.

"This is Jackie O. She's an Arabian mare," Lexi explained. "We've been riding together since I was ten. Mares can be tricky in the equestrian arena, but we have an agreement. As long as I let her think she can do whatever she wants, she does whatever I ask."

As Lexi spoke, the mare offered affectionate nudges to her cheek. Luke knew mares could be tricky, and he admired the mutual respect Lexi had formed with her horse. It was the mark of a nurturer.

"She's a beautiful specimen," he said. "What will she think of your challenge to the preppy clod? Can you talk her into a race?"

Lexi smiled as she pressed a chaste kiss to her horse's nose. "Jackie O is an incredibly proud animal. She won't let another horse beat her. But she wasn't always so brave. When she first arrived, she was nervous around the other horses, so I would read her the stories of the Hippos Athanatos. The immortal horses of the Greek gods. I know it sounds silly, but I really think it made her into the fierce creature she is today."

Luke nodded, having heard the same stories, only in a different context. "That was very insightful. You seem to have a strong connection with your horse. Is it that way with all animals?"

Lexi offered a humble shrug. "Probably, but I've only had horses. Dad's allergic to most animal dander." She unlatched the gate and led her horse out of the stall as she pointed further down the row where Dion and Will greeted another horse. "Looks like Dion's getting Razor ready for my opponent. Razor's a good sprinter, so it should be a fun race."

Lexi's confident demeanor never left her as she pulled on her riding boots and saddled up her horse. When she walked Jackie O out of the stable, Mr. Maxwell had her recite a pre-race mantra, which he followed-up with a pat on the back, like a general sending his best man out to win the war. Lexi's courageous spirit couldn't be missed, and Luke was ever more drawn to her as he watched her climb into the saddle and lead the procession of curious spectators toward the beach.

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