18. Go Home, Layla

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Once we got back to the ranch, I quickly helped Beth brush down her horses, made my excuses and wandered off to find Jake

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Once we got back to the ranch, I quickly helped Beth brush down her horses, made my excuses and wandered off to find Jake. No other reason, I promised myself, than to thank him for picking up the slack while I was out with my injured ankle. It would be unconscionably rude not to.

The moon was luminescent in the cloudless sky and the summer night's air balmy. Still, I worked up a sweat running around the place looking for him. When I finally found him, he was with Satan in the far stables, the one reserved for the sick - or in this case, crazy - horses that needed to be quarantined from the others.

These parts of the stables were older than the modern marvels up front, remnants of an era when men didn't have the luxury of overhead fluorescent lights to tend their horses by. I stepped into the barn, into the soft glow emanating from the three lanterns placed around the rear stall.

Jake cooed softly and spoke to Satan in hushed whispers while using a soapy sponge to wash him down. I watched him work for a while, mesmerized by the corded muscles of his forearms flexing and releasing as he made wide circles on the horse's flank.

Satan's flesh trembled in fits and bursts, his head bent low. But his ears flickered in the direction of Jake's voice, as if the horse understood and appreciated every word he spoke. The moment between the two felt so intimate and private that I felt awkward watching them, embarrassed to be a trespasser where I didn't belong. I turned to leave just as Jake spotted me at the door.

My stupid stomach erupted in butterflies, making me feel lightheaded and dizzy. He really did have the most beautiful face.

"Hi," I said, half-heartedly lifting a hand in greeting. Feeling lame, I shoved my hands into my back pockets and rocked back on my heels.

Jake gave me a long look, making me flush and squirm. I couldn't really read his expression since his face was all planes and deep shadows in the lamplight. I swallowed hard, not knowing what to say or do.

Jake nodded briefly, then turned his back on me.

Did he just dismiss me? I licked the corners of my mouth, more uncertain as to what I should do. I hesitated for just another minute before walking in. Hands clasped behind my back, I approached them, deliberately dragging my feet as to avoid spooking the horse and stopped just outside the stall.

"So that was really something today," I said, "Out there with the horses I mean."

He held the sponge high up on Satan's hips and squeezed, making the soapy water cascade down the horse's black coat. Jake's knuckles were bloodied, and close up, I noticed that his arms were pretty messed up too. I started to point that out to him but realized that he hadn't even replied to my earlier comment.

I cleared my throat. "Anyway," I started. "I just wanted  thank you for mucking the sties for the last two weeks. You didn't have to do that, but thank you."

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