Logan and Kacie successfully passed the fork in the trail, followed by the mother and daughter who turned out to have a natural knack with horses. Marcus’ horse, Midnight, snorted and balked.

“Whoa!” Marcus shouted, pulling hard on both reins while kicking his stirrups into the horse’s belly. Getting conflicting messages, Midnight sidestepped off the trail into a thicket of pine trees and bolted toward the stream. Marcus yelled then howled in pain as a low hanging cluster of pine needles slapped his face.

Logan told the group to stay where they were and went after Marcus. Kacie followed. Marcus’ cussing made their search an easy one. They broke into a sunny clearing circled on three sides by jagged boulders.

Marcus was barely hanging onto Midnight when a copperhead snake slithered across a sunny, flat rock near the horse’s feet. The snake took shelter in a crevice while Midnight grunted and reared. Marcus slid out of the saddle, landing on his back in a cushion of pine needles as Midnight bolted back to the trail.

“Snake! Price, roll away from the rocks!” Logan yelled.

Marcus rolled and scrambled away on all fours, a human spider on the run. Winded, he got to his feet, rushing past Kacie to reach the trail where the other riders waited.  Kacie and Logan turned their horses and rejoined the group.

“You okay?” Logan asked Marcus, who was bent forward, hands braced on knees, his breathing harsh.

“Stupid horse, where’d he go?” Marcus’ face was a bright red from exertion and growing embarrassment.

“Lucky for you he’s headed back to the barn,” Harmony called out from the rear of the line. “Want me to round him up, Logan?”

“No, he’s had enough stress for one day.”

“What about me?” Marcus glared at Logan. “You’re lucky I didn’t get killed.”

Kacie glared at her ex-husband, wishing he had. That would at least solve her problems, though not Harmony’s. “You don’t belong on a horse, Marcus; you’re a city boy, right down to your Italian loafers. Why don’t you go back to the spa and sit this one out?”

“I’m not a quitter and you know it. I want another horse—a brave one, not afraid of snakes.”

“Horses are afraid of snakes, and apparently you are too.” Kacie didn’t bother to hide her sneer.

“I can’t leave the group alone,” Logan said with a touch of steel in his voice, “and I can’t take everyone back or the horses will be more ornery the second time out. Just hike down the trail to the barn and one of my guys will saddle up another horse and bring you back to the group.”

Marcus bristled at the suggestion, but as a few of the horses danced restlessly in place, he hobbled toward his ex-wife. “That’s too much trouble. I’ll double up with Kacie.”

“No.” Logan’s voice was unyielding. “One rider to a horse. Company policy.”

“I’ll ride back and get him a horse,” Harmony volunteered, joining the half-circle of riders around Marcus. “Maybe a donkey would be more his speed.” Her smile was pure malice.

“Are you sure you want to?” Logan asked Harmony.

Kacie and Harmony exchanged glances. Harmony’s quick wink confirmed her friend had a plan.

“Happy to do it.” Without another word, Harmony pulled her horse around and disappeared down the trail.

“So what are we supposed to do? Just stand here?” One of the young men complained.

“Yeah, we came out here to ride, not wait around,” his friend added.

Kacie didn’t want the rest of the group to suffer from Marcus’ need to make her life miserable. “Logan, why don’t you take everyone ahead? I’ll wait here with Mr. Price.”

The corners of Logan’s mouth turned down. He moved his horse adjacent to hers. “I’m not comfortable leaving you alone with him.” Despite his whisper, there was no mistaking the edge in his voice.

“Harmony will be back soon. If he gets obnoxious I can always ride away and leave him stranded. Go on. We’ll catch up if you keep to a walk.”

“That makes sense,” the cougar exclaimed, obviously happy to get Kacie out of the way.

“Will you be okay?” Kacie gave Logan a meaningful look, her blue eyes sparkling.

“You’ll pay for that later,” he said under his breath. “Okay, people, let’s get in line and move out. We’ll take it slow so Bronco Bob can catch up to us.”

“Wiseass,” Marcus quipped as the group rode out, laughing.

Wanting to put some distance between her horse and the path leading to the stream, Kacie rode the mare about three hundred feet down the trail. It put her closer to where Harmony would be coming back with a horse.

Muttering expletives, Marcus limped behind her.

Kacie pulled Georgie Girl to a halt and glared down at Marcus from her lofty position. “I don’t know which performance was better – falling off the horse or that bullshit story back at the barn. Price less!”

“Get down from there and I’ll show you what’s priceless.”

“Brave words from a man who couldn’t hold onto his horse.”

Marcus darted toward her, his sudden movement spooking Georgie Girl who snorted loudly.

Kacie soothed the mare. “Startle my horse again, and I’ll have her leaving hoof prints all over your face.”

“Don’t forget who’s running this show. I’m your worst enemy until I get my money.” Feet apart, he folded his arms against his chest.

“I never forget, Marcus, and I never forgive.”

“Yeah, twenty years later you’re still throwing shit up to me.”

“You could take a hike and avoid hearing it.”

He nodded. “What’s the matter? Am I screwing things up with lover boy?”

“Careful, Marcus, you’re jealously is showing. As a matter of fact I’m thinking you’ve already got your money, and you’re just here trying to talk your way into getting laid. Why else would you go on about your disgusting ménage a trios fantasy.”

Marcus assumed an arms akimbo posture. “Maybe you’re the one who wants to keep me around. Telling me you won’t have my money ‘til Tuesday. Sounds like a load of shit to me. But I can be patient ’cause you and Blondie are gonna keep me entertained ’til I get paid.”

“In your sick dreams.”

“I call the shots, Kacie, since you double-crossed me. No one does that and gets away with it. I told you. You owe me, so play nice.”

Horse hooves pounding up the trail ended the verbal wrangling.

In seconds Harmony rode into sight with a prancing piebald in tow. “I brought you a smart horse,” she called out to Marcus.

A frisky one, too, but she kept that to herself. Back at the barn, she’d argued with a stable hand who wanted to send out a more docile horse. He relented when she promised she’d ride Cochise herself once she caught up with the group. But she had no intention of doing that. She wanted Marcus’ family jewels hurting by the end of the day, so he’d leave her and Kacie alone. Cochise provided an unexpected bonus by puffing out his belly when she buckled the cinch on the saddle. From experience, Harmony knew the cinch would need retightening before a rider mounted up. If she was helping anyone but Marcus, she’d adjust the cinch when they climbed in the saddle. But the wind had carried Marcus’ voice, and she’d caught his insistence about keeping him entertained. A headstrong horse and an improperly adjusted saddle would surely cripple the creep’s libido.

“Hey, Kacie, thanks for waiting.” Harmony wasn’t happy to find her friend alone with Marcus, but as far as she could tell, Kacie had held her own. Harmony dismounted and handed the reins to Marcus. “Meet Cochise. Do you need help mounting?”  She could hardly wait for the horse to start bouncing him around.

“Come over tonight, and I’ll show you how to do some real mounting.” Marcus fondled the reins and leered at both women.

“You’re a real class act.” Harmony jumped on her horse and signaled Kacie to follow her lead. Both women urged their horses into a slow trot, leaving Marcus in the dust.

“Maybe he’ll do us a favor and hit his head on a rock this time,” Harmony called out to Kacie.

Kacie looked over her shoulder. “He’s whipping the poor horse with the reins.”

“Shit.” Harmony slowed down, and Kacie did the same. They waited for Marcus to catch up, then proceeded at a walk. A half hour later they caught up to Logan’s group, relaxing in their saddles while the horses grazed on meadow grass.

“We took a break and waited for you.” Logan pulled his horse around and walked over to Harmony. “Who gave you Cochise? He’s a horse for an experienced rider just like Shadow and Georgie Girl.”

“Really? He seemed so mellow and anxious for a ride.”

“Maybe we should get one of the other better riders to trade horses with Mr. Price.”

“Are you talking about me?” Marcus guided Cochise between Harmony and Logan’s horses.

Kacie came up behind him on her horse. “The world doesn’t revolve around you, Marcus.”

Logan looked at Kacie. “Actually I was suggesting that since Mr. Price is such a novice, he’d be more comfortable if he swapped with Lorraine or her daughter. Turns out they’re naturals in the saddle.”

The cougar and her daughter beamed at the compliment.

Kacie scowled. Lorraine was becoming teacher’s pet while she was babysitting the ex-husband from hell.

“I’m keeping Cochise. I need a macho horse after that wimpy one ran away from the snake. We’re pals.” Marcus’ face darkened as he leaned forward to pat the horse’s neck.

Logan glanced at Kacie who nodded a let-him-have-his-way answer. “Well, it’s your hide if you can’t handle him,” Logan finally said before turning to the rest of the riders.  “Okay, folks, we’ll head up to the ridge for a view of the mountain range, then catch another trail back to the barn.”

Logan led the group on a leisurely ride for a breathtaking view across the Georgia-Tennessee border where the mountains were bathed in a blue haze. Silvery rivers glittered in the valleys below.

“You can see the rapids we’ll be riding tomorrow if you’ve signed up for the rafting trip.” Logan pointed to the north.

Amid oohs and aahs, the riders followed their guide along the ridge, then turned onto a switchback trail that led to the Crystal Moon spa.

Once back on level terrain, Harmony and Kacie took the lead, allowing their horses to break into a slow trot. Marcus’ horse quickly joined them.

“Hold up,” Logan yelled from the rear. “I can’t have inexperienced riders going any faster than a walk.”

All in the group halted their horses except Harmony, Kacie and Marcus. With fake innocence, Harmony looked back at Logan. “Our horses need to run, and we want a faster ride.”

“Yeah, hold up,” Marcus shouted. “You’re making my horse run.”

“Wimp,” Harmony taunted.

 Kacie looked over her shoulder at Logan. “Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing.”

With the barn and corral mere specks in the distance ahead, the girls nudged the horses into a canter. Marcus’ headstrong gelding followed suit. Harmony’s horse lengthened his stride and took the lead.

Butt pounding up and down in the saddle, Marcus dropped the reins and grasped the saddle horn. His face was a mask of sheer terror as he passed Kacie.

“Heads up! Here comes Cochise!” Kacie called to Harmony whose horse was still two or three lengths ahead.

“That’s my boy!” Harmony hollered and kicked her horse into a gallop. Her blond hair billowed in the wind, and she laughed with pleasure as her plan came to fruition.

Cochise rounded Harmony’s horse at a full gallop. Marcus lost the stirrups and the saddle slid sideways. Cochise shot forward, the momentum slinging Marcus, arms wide, facedown into the dirt. A muffled “Ooommmph,” preceded a yowl as his groin collided with a jagged rock embedded in the ground.

“The vulture has landed,” Harmony quipped as Kacie caught up, and both girls reined in their horses. Marcus’ horse galloped unconcerned toward the barn. “The Universe provides again.”

Marcus curled into a fetal position and clutched his balls.

“Looks like the family jewels are going to be out of commission for a while.” With horses standing side-by-side, Kacie gave Harmony a high five.

Read an Excerpt

The riding party crossed the meadow at a walk and made its way into the pine and oak forest. Grass gave way to a rocky red clay trail cut into the mountainside. A cool breeze whispered through the treetops where birds sang and squirrels peered down at the intruders.

Logan twisted in his saddle to address the group. “The trail will split up ahead. Stay to the right. There’s a stream to the left. The horses are going to be drawn to the water. Keep your reins pulled to the right and keep your left leg pressed into your horse’s belly to signal him to stay on the trail.”