My father and I led Nathaniel down to the barn. We had a new filly that was born and was ready to stop drinking from her mother. I was getting worried; the mare was starting to get aggressive, trying to stop the filly from doing so.
We entered the barn and I purposely avoided Spirit's usual stall. We went to the end and my father opened the stall door where the mother, Flame, stood with her filly. The filly immediately hid from us, something we also were trying to change.
"Go ahead in," I said and Nathaniel looked at me like I was insane. "Just don't let off that you're afraid. Approach Flame first, don't go straight for the filly."
I heard Nathaniel gulp and he entered the stall, his hand extended. He was shaking a little but Flame didn't toss her head, a good sign. He walked closer and Flame sniffed his hand. He flinched and I knew he was thinking the same thing I thought when I first did this: this horse is going to bite my hand off.
Instead, Flame let him pet her. He seemed immensely relieved and ran his hand down her face and then her mane. She nudged him gently with her head and I nodded when he looked at me. He moved further down her body, making sure to keep one hand on her side so she knew he was still there.
"Stop there," I said when he got to the middle of her belly. "Hold your hand out toward the filly."
"Will Flame get mad?"
"No," my father answered. "She likes you."
"Okay," he muttered as if he was still unsure.
Palm up, he reached for the filly. I was about to grab the treats but the filly stumbled over on her own. I watched in shock and my father put his hand on my shoulder. The filly put her head in Nathaniel's hand and he scratched her ears. Suddenly, she whinnied and rubbed her head on him like a dog. He laughed in surprise and scratched her other ear.
Flame looked around in alarm but didn't seem to mind. The filly nipped at his shirt and he laughed more.
"That is not food, little bit," he said to the filly. "I just washed this," he said when she nipped at the other sleeve. He chuckled and ruffled the small bit of hair between her ears. "I'm going to let you hang out with your mother for a little while."
He backed out but she leaped for him again and he laughed. I leaned into my father, enjoying the sight. Thinking back, I hadn't seen Nathaniel laugh like this ever.
Finally, he managed to get out. They filly whinnied and kicked around the stall.
"What's she doing?" he asked.
"Playing," I said simply, smiling at him. "What do you think?"
"She's a sweetheart," he said. "What's her name?"
"She doesn't have one yet," my father answered. "Do you want to name her?"
"Me?" he asked, looking at the two of us and we nodded. "Um.... Goodness, she really went to town on my sleeves, didn't she?" I giggled. "She was real gentle, though. They were just little bites and- Is Little Bit a stupid name?"
"Not at all," my father said, glancing at the filly who was now starting to fall asleep in the corner of the stall. "You wore her out," he chuckled.
"I think I'm going to change my shirt," he said, looking at the sopping wet sleeves. He stopped and turned to us. "Thank you," he said seriously.
"You're welcome," I whispered and he went up to the house, shaking his head in laughter as he took his shirt off.
For some reason, I blushed at the sight of his muscles and looked away, turning my attention instead to Flame.
"I'm surprised," I admitted.
"That she let him near her filly?" he asked and I nodded. "Even though he'll probably never admit it, I think Nathan would do great with horses."
"Let's head inside," I said. "I'll cook something simple tonight."
"I'm sorry Polly did that terrible thing to you guys," he sighed.
I sighed, too, and opened the back door. Nathaniel was drinking water and handed us each a bottle. He had changed into a clean shirt.
"It's like you said, Dad, I didn't have to take that bribe," I muttered, leaning against the table.
"And I didn't have to be such a player," Nathaniel sighed. "You were right, Aaron." He shook his head, looking around. "My parents...." He ran a hand through his hair. "What do I do now? There's no way I'll be able to restore my name now. If my parents are really paying Polly to keep quiet then I have a feeling they'd pay whatever news station we go to for their silence."
My father sat us down at the table and stared at the two of us for a while. I waited patiently, think his words would be just for Nathaniel.
"The way I see it," my dad said, "the answer is simple: The ranch and Willow."
"What?" we said in unison.
My dad laughed. "Willow, you've been on my back for the last ten years to take it easy. The truth is, I've been waiting for you to grow up; it had nothing to do with men." I rubbed the back of my neck. "You may be almost 26 but there's a lot more that you still need to learn." He turned to Nathaniel. "You've been put in an awful situation. But look around you. What do you see?"
"A dining room?" he said with a weak smile and we laughed. "I mean... I really do like working here. I didn't think I would but there's something about the ranch that's... calming." He cleared his throat, glancing at me. "But what does Willow have to do with this? No offense," he added.
"None taken," I said. "I'm just as curious."
"I'm old and need someone to take over for me," he said. "I need two people to take over."
I blinked. "You're talking about us."
"Yes, I am," he said. He leaned forward and took my hand in his. "I've seen you change a lot since this mess happened. The fact that you owned up to what you're responsible for is confirmation enough that you've grown. If you don't mind me saying, I think a lot of that had to do with Spirit's death." I looked away. "And Nathan, you've changed so much that I don't even know where to begin."
"I don't know the last thing about a business," he said. "I don't even know how to break a horse!"
"I'll teach you," my father said with a shrug. "This old man's still got a few miles left on him." We laughed. "Look, this isn't something that's going to happen overnight. It's going to be a gradual thing. But I want you two to start working together instead of against each other."
I looked at Nathaniel and he looked back.
"I don't know," I said slowly. "I still think he's a horse's ass."
Nathaniel smirked. "And I still think you're a bitch."