Matt showed up shortly after we had finished breakfast. I glared at him but Willow, to my surprise, squeezed my hand once before follow Matt into the barn.
"Will you look after Little Bit?" Aaron asked.
"What should I do?" I asked.
"Well, when I take Flame out, Little Bit is going to want to follow," Willow explained and I tried to look away from her toned upper body. She was in blue jeans but another tank top. "Obviously, we can't let her because she can't join us and she needs to start learning to be separate from her mama. That's where you come in. Follow me."
I went in with her to Flame's stall and brushed the horse's face and man. She nudged my back and I chuckled a little, no longer afraid of her. I didn't even need to hold my hand out; Little Bit came running at me, her front legs jumping up like a dog. I steadied myself, smiling as she bumped into me.
"Hey there," I said, looking at her with a love I never knew I could feel for an animal. Aaron was putting something on Flames face. "What's that?"
"It's a bridle," he answered. "It will help Willow lead her where she wants to go."
"What will Little Bit and I be doing while we're waiting?"
"We're going to let her run through the pasture. She's been in this stall for too long." He looked over my shoulder where Willow was looking through the back of the stalls. "Keep an eye on Little Bit, yeah?"
"You don't have to ask," I promised him. "I'll make sure she doesn't hurt herself."
He clapped me on the back and I stepped to the side, holding onto Little Bit with my hands braced at the base of her neck and my fingers laced. Willow put the blanket and saddle on Flame. I was astounded at the way she was able to put it on there without difficulty.
"You can lift a saddle but not a case of beer?" I teased.
"Oh shut up, Banker," she said but she was smiling a little.
She sighed and stood in front of Flame. She put her forehead on Flame's. I watched curiously. She ran her hand up the side of the horse's face and head, rubbing her ears a little.
"You ready?" she whispered to the horse. "I know we've had our issues in the past, but I need you. Spirit needs you."
She kissed the horse on the nose then mounted her. Little Bit seemed to realize what was going on because she whinnied a little. I kept a hold on her, though, planting myself on the ground. She fought more as Willow rode Flame to the corral. Aaron opened the gate then closed it, locking it in place. He gave me a thumb's up and I let Little Bit go.
The first thing she did was run for the corral.
"Whoa, girl," Aaron said, standing in front of her while I ran up after her. "Easy there."
Little Bit was still panicking and I looked around. Over by the feeding troughs was a large blue ball. Without doubting myself, I picked it up and whistled. The noise startled Little Bit enough that she looked at me. I was bouncing the ball between my hands.
She immediately charged for me and I tossed it away from the corral. Once again, just like a dog, she reared up on her hind legs then tore after it. I laughed and Aaron walked over, panting slightly.
"Good eye," he said as we watched Little Bit roll around in the grass, her anxiety mostly gone. "How'd you know?"
"Just gut instinct," I shrugged.
A few times, Little Bit would look up at the corral but I stood between them, smiling. She would then go back to playing. She'd nudge the ball around with her nose and, at one point, kicked it toward me. She stopped moving as if surprised. I smiled and kicked it back at her.
Behind me, Aaron was helping with the routine. I glanced over my shoulder and my jaw dropped. Willow had Flame going in a trot. Carefully, she removed her feet from the stirrups and held her right arm out. Matt, who was coming from the other side, caught it and, in a fluid motion, he lifted her like a ballerina. He kept his hands on her stomach while she posed.
Willow whistled and Flame came back. One again, it was fluid as she landed on the saddle. Aaron applauded and I was about to, as well, when something heavy hit my back. I turned and saw the ball rolling. I laughed and kicked it back at Little Bit.
They didn't stop until late in the afternoon. Little Bit had flopped down in the grass on her side and I was sitting by her head while she slept. The wind was cool and I had been sweating from running around the horse. I looked at her and knew immediately why Willow had become so attached to Spirit.
"You wore her out again."
I looked up to see Willow walking over with two water bottles.
I chuckled. "No, she wore me out," I said and she sat beside me while we drank our water. "I saw part of your routine," I said. "It's amazing."
"Thanks," she sighed.
"Nothing," she said quickly. I arched a brow and she sighed again. "Matt's an asshole. He has been all day. He can't keep his fucking mouth shut."
"Let me guess: mocking me." Her frown gave me the answer. "Think he's gone to the press yet?"
"No. He keeps dropping hints that he's going to, though, if we don't win. As if I'm not stressed enough as it is," she mumbled.
"Why is it so important to him?"
"Remember how I said his parents are stars?" she asked and I nodded. "They haven't put pressure on him since he was a teenager but I think he's still trying to please them. I've told him that he shouldn't be riding for anyone but himself and Eagle. He won't listen to me, though. If we win this weekend, he'll surpass his parents in the number of awards he's won."
"Wow," I muttered. "What about you?"
She shook her head. "The only reason I go to competitions is to have fun. I'm worried about Flame, though."
"She responds well to you," I said, watching as Aaron hosed her down and Matt hosed Eagle.
"She does," Willow acknowledged, leaning forward and putting her elbows on her knees. "But we don't have what I had with Spirit. I can't read her and she can't read me. It's like if you had to learn riding the bike all over again."
She sounded sad and I thought for a few minutes.
"How about the three of us visit Spirit tonight?" I suggested and she smiled at me.
"I'd like that."