Without warning, my eyes blur. I swipe at my cheeks and force my legs to run. Sweat collects inside my sweatshirt.
Wait. Sweat. It’s warm.
It was freezing in DC.
All that sweat goes cold.
Panic later. I need to move.
A large outbuilding sits directly behind the castle, just beyond a sprawling courtyard lined with more cobblestones. Flowers bloom everywhere, spilling down wooden trellises, bursting from massive planters, blooming along hedges and in gardens. Still no people.
My muscles are tight and fatigued, and sweat runs a line down the side of my face. I pray for this to be some kind of garage, because I’m going to need an alternate form of transportation soon. I can’t keep running forever. I flatten against the far wall of the castle, breathing hard, waiting. Listening.
When I hear nothing, I head for the building across the courtyard, my left foot dragging and begging for a break. I stumble through the doorway, slipping a little in my damp socks.
Three horses throw up their heads and snort.
Oh wow. Not a garage. A stable.
This is almost better. I don’t know how to hot-wire a car, but I do know how to ride.
Back before our lives fell apart, when Dad had a job and a reputation, I rode horses. It had started as a therapeutic activity after all the cerebral palsy–related surgeries—but it turned into a passion. A freedom, as equine legs lent me strength and power. I worked at the stables in exchange for riding time for years, until we needed to move to the city.
Of everything we’ve had to give up, I miss the horses the most.
Thirty stalls flank each side of the aisle, made of richly stained boards leading halfway to the ceiling, topped with iron bars. Well-kept horses gleam in the sunlight that creeps through the skylights. Bridles hang at regular intervals along the wall, their bits and buckles sparkling, the leather carrying a rich shine. No wisps of hay lie in the aisle, no swarming flies collect on spilled grain. Every inch of these stables is perfection.
A buckskin stretches out his nose to blow puffs at my hand. He’s tied to a ring inside his stall, and he’s already saddled. He didn’t jump when I came sliding into the aisle, and even now regards me calmly. He’s big and solid, with a tan-colored coat and a black mane and tail. A hammered gold sign on the front of his stall reads Ironwill.
I run a hand down the buckskin’s face. “I’ll just call you Will.”
A small closet beside his stall door houses boots and cloaks—and a dagger strung along a belt.
A real weapon. Yes.
I loop it around my waist and cinch it tight. The boots are too big, but they lace up my calves almost to my knees, giving my ankles some extra support.
I ease into the stall and bolt the door closed behind me. Will accepts a bridle readily, despite my shaking hands jerking at his mouth when I have to tighten the buckles.
“Sorry,” I whisper, stroking him on the cheek. “Out of practice.”
Then I hear the footstep, the rough rasp of a boot on stone.
I freeze—then duck to the far side of the horse, dragging him into a shadowed corner of the stall. His reins have gone slick in my palm, but I keep a tight hold so he blocks me here.
Someone clucks to each horse, making his way through the stables. A soft word, a pat on the neck. Another pause, then more footsteps.
Whoever it is, he’s checking the stalls.
A wooden shelf runs along the side of the stall, probably for hay or feed. I fold my body onto it, then shimmy up and get to my hands and knees. It’s an awkward position for mounting, but there’s no way I can do it from the ground. I have to concentrate to maneuver my foot into the stirrup. Sweat courses down my back now, but I grab hold of the saddle.
It takes everything I have not to whimper. This is the world’s most patient animal, because he stands absolutely still as I haul myself onto his back.
But I’m up here. I’m on.
I’m so exhausted I’m ready to cry. No, I am crying. Silent tears roll down my cheeks. I have to get out of here. I have to.
Footsteps, then a soft gasp of surprise. The bolt is thrown. I catch a glimpse of dark hair and see a flash of steel as the man draws a sword. The stall door begins to swing open.
I slam my heels into Will’s flanks, screaming in rage for good measure. The horse is terrified—with reason. I’m terrifying myself. But he springs forward, slamming the door wide, knocking the armed man out of the way.
“Go!” I cry. “Please, Will! Go!” I dig my heels into his sides.
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