Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice:
Title: Got a Secret . . . Can You Keep it? (Part Twenty)
Janice side-eyed Ciel. “Um, how's a horse supposed to save us? That beast doesn't even have a saddle.”
Ciel walked toward the horse, dreamy-eyed. “This beauty has a bareback pad on.” As she drew closer to the mare, her lowered voice contained a cajoling lilt. “Don't you, Beauty? Where'd you wander over here from, huh?”
The mare abandoned her snack and whinnied softly, lifting her regal head. A leaf stuck to her still-munching mouth. She remained still, watching Ciel approach.
“I'm sorry I don't have a treat for you.” Ciel removed the dried leaf and rubbed the mare's velvety nose. “Hey, Beauty. Where are you from?”
Around them, the shadows had grown longer as the sun set. Stars were beginning to dot the darkening sky, and Ciel had no intention of hanging out in the dark or walking into the unknown on foot.
Janice wandered over, fascinated by Ciel's interaction with the horse yet afraid to get too close. “You know about horses?”
“I used to do some riding, but I stopped a few years ago when we moved here.” Ciel scratched lightly behind the mare's ears. “Beauty here has a bareback pad on. That means she's used to someone riding her without a saddle. She could be our ticket out of here.”
Janice eyed the horse dubiously. “You want me to get up on that? Like, both of us?”
“Yup.” Ciel glanced around. “We need to find something to boost us up.” She tugged the loop of rope hanging around the mare's neck, and the horse followed willingly.
“You're kidding, right?”
“Look around! We have to get the hell out of here!” Ciel swept her free arm out, indicating their surroundings. Through the gloom, the tree line was barely distinguishable in the distance. Beauty tossed her head and snorted, pulling back on the rope. Ciel cooed and rubbed Beauty's nose. “Sorry, Beauty. I didn't mean to scare you.”
The horse settled down, willing to follow Ciel again.
“Can I do something to help?” Janice still eyed the animal nervously, but she was warming to the idea of riding Beauty out of there. She'd never liked the woods after dark, and the sounds of the night were beginning to unfurl around them.
“Maybe you can look for something we can use as a mounting block. It has to be sturdy enough to stand on, so we can get up on Beauty here.”
Janice returned to the ruins and poked around, but everything had been at least partially destroyed. There was nothing safe to stand on. She kept looking around until she realized the answer was right before them. “Ciel . . . the car.”
“Why not? I don't think your crazy aunt will report us for standing on the hood. C'mon, Beauty . . . Let's go over by the car, sweetie.” Ciel led the horse around the car, giving her a chance to acclimate to it. “Janice, you get on the hood first while I keep her steady.”
“No way!” Janice shook her head.
“It'll be okay. I promise.”
Janice glanced around and realized there was no better option. She climbed onto the hood and placed a hand on the roof for balance. Ciel walked Beauty around and halted her alongside the car.
Ciel spoke softly to the mare, rubbing her nose and reassuring her. Then she looked up at Janice. “Nice and easy, now. Beauty's expecting you, so everything will be fine.”
Taking a deep breath, Janice slung one leg over the back of the horse. As she slid into place, Janice wrapped an arm around Beauty's neck and dug her fingers into the horse's mane. “Oh my God . . . I'm on a horse.” Janice grinned down at Ciel.
“My turn.” Ciel let go of the lead and climbed onto the hood. “Scooch back a little, so I can get in front of you.”
Janice shimmied back, planting her hands on Beauty's back for stability. “Hurry. I don't like how this feels.”
Ciel mounted, leaning forward to hug Beauty's neck. “Hey, girl.”
Janice put her arms around Ciel. “Now what?”
“Now we pick a direction and ride the hell out of here.”
Using the pressure of her feet and the lean of her body, Ciel had Beauty cantering along in no time. They chose to head south because the sky seemed lightest in that direction. Ciel hoped they'd find civilization sooner rather than later.
They reached the tree line and followed a wide dirt road. Crickets sang, and they heard an occasional rustle of animals in the underbrush but no sign of cars, people, or houses. Beauty nickered softly as Ciel hugged her close.
About ten minutes into the ride, the girls heard tires crunching on the gravel behind them. “Someone's coming!” Ciel urged Beauty to a stop on the grass alongside the road.
“Oh, thank God!” Janice tightened her arms around Ciel.
A sense of foreboding washed over them both when they saw a familiar sedan coming upon them. There was nowhere to go.
“Shit! How the hell did she get out?” Janice wailed.
Ciel's heart stuttered in her chest, and a rush of adrenaline shot through her veins. She couldn't speak. How could they go through so much only to have Melinda chase them down?
Melinda skidded to a stop just behind them and lurched from the car. She didn't bother to hide her face this time. A ragged piece of sheet still dangled from one wrist, and one leg of her jeans was ripped. “Jan, get in the car.”
“No, Aunt MJ! I want to go home!”
Beauty shifted her feet nervously, ears twitching.
A sinking feeling settled in the pit of Ciel's stomach. This couldn't end well.
“You come with me, and your friend can ride the horse on out of here.” Melinda came around the front of the car, leaving her face in shadow. Her movements were slow and measured. “How about that, Ciel? We'll be gone in a few minutes, and you can go home to your parents.”
Tears slid down Ciel's cheeks. As much as she wanted to see her mom and dad again, she couldn't let Melinda Jeffries take Janice with her. Janice was her friend. “No way, you crazy bitch! You can't have her.”
Janice gaped. “Ciel, maybe we should just—”
“No! You're my friend, and I'm not leaving here without you!”
Melinda laughed. “You're a brave one. Since you're so determined not to let Jan go, I guess you'll just have to come, too.”
A distinct metallic snick chased all ideas of escape from the girls' thoughts.
Perhaps it was the sound of the gun being cocked or the intense fear rolling off Janice and Ciel, but Beauty chose that moment to throw her head back and scream. The horse reared up, both girls tumbling off her back.
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook