Excerpt for High Desert Escape by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

High Country Escape

Marie Brown

Smashwords Edition

©2017

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High Desert Escape

Sara heard the crunching sound of tires on dirt long before the new arrival lumbered into view. She finished feeding Mary and patted her chestnut side as she left the travel pen, struggling to put a lid on her resentment. After all, this wasn't private land, and other people had just as much right to use the national forest trails as she and Mary did. Reason did little to diminish her resentment, though. She'd come here on purpose to be alone, damn it.

Tall Ponderosa pines stretched far overhead, sheltering woman and horse from the afternoon sun, still fierce even at the high altitude of the Mogollon Rim. They also hid the intruder from view until Sara had the travel pen fully secured, the trailer closed up, and her tack set out for the ride she intended to have in the morning. By then she could see the seventies-era Winnebago Chief, a fat, boxy RV with a well-tuned old powerhouse of a motor. It waddled into the campsite at a slow, sensible pace.

Sara had enough time to observe that the driver of the old Winnebago was a woman before she slammed on the brakes and disappeared. Sara frowned, puzzled. The Winnie coughed and died. What the hell?

The woman remained out of sight and Sara approached the RV, worry replacing her annoyance. Was the stranger ill? Sara stood on tiptoe but couldn't see into the driver's side window. She heard an odd sound inside, kind of a whimpering noise, and her concern deepened. She moved rapidly to the other side of the RV and opened the door.

"Hello? Are you okay? Do you need help?"

The driver slumped over the steering wheel. Sara put a foot on the first step, then the woman raised her head and turned a lovely, tear-streaked face towards her.

Oh, sweet Jesus, she's beautiful! Young, probably barely legal, clear skin and wavy dark blond hair, with hazel eyes—she might have stepped out of one of Sara's most secret daydreams.

Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon, the radio sang. Culture Club. Of course.

"I'm okay," the young woman said, sniffling. She wiped her eyes as Sara concealed her reaction to her beauty with the ease of long practice. The hand wiping her face trembled, and Sara frowned, straining her eyes to see more clearly. Pale. Naturally light-complected, or ill? This girl could even give Boy George himself competition. Sara's well-developed caretaking instinct kicked in.

"Are you sure about that? You look a little shaky. Have you eaten anything recently?"

"I think so," the young woman replied vaguely. "I—I don't really know. It's been a very bad day."

"Why don't you come out and have something to eat? You'll feel better. Oh, and my name is Sara."

"I'm Ellie," the beauty replied. She sat up a little straighter, looking at her surroundings with more awareness. "And I might not stay here. I mean, I don't want to intrude—"

"Baloney," Sara interrupted, conveniently forgetting her initial irritation. "You're not intruding. This is public land, after all. Now, why don't you just come on out of this big old Winnie and have something to eat?"

Sara reached in slowly, like she would with a nervous animal, and took hold of Ellie's wrist. "Come on, then, out you get."

"But—but—Oh, hell," Ellie sighed, unfastened her seat belt, and allowed Sara to draw her out of the RV. "I don't think I've eaten in at least a day. But why do you care?"

Sara steadied the younger woman as she came down the RV steps, then stepped back.

"Lots of reasons. You're obviously not feeling good or happy, I have an overly nurturing nature, and you're too pretty to be so miserable."

Ellie let out a surprised laugh. "Thanks. I'm glad you think so."

"Now step over to my campsite and I'll get you set up with some lovely camping food."

"Just add water?"

Sara grinned. "Nope, sorry, this is my kind of camping food. How 'bout a veggie sub?"

"Huh?"

"I always bring a cooler and a foot-long sub or three when I go camping. That way there's no mess, no fire, nothing like that."

"That's a very bright idea."

"Works for me."

Ellie wobbled a little, following Sara across the clearing, but reached the truck without incident. Sara patted the open tailgate. "Here, have a seat. Please forgive the bed—I hate tents, so I always crash in my truck bed. It works well."

Ellie gave the comfortable looking pile of padding and old blankets a curious glance, then pushed herself up onto the tailgate. Sara opened her cooler, wincing as it let loose a louder than usual protest from its hinges, and removed a sub, two bottles of water, and two granola bars.

"Sorry there's nothing so civilized as a plate," she said, offering Ellie half the sub. "I tend to keep things pretty minimal when I go out."

"There's plates in Chief," Ellie said, eying the sub speculatively. "But I don't want to have to clean them up."

"That's the key, right there," Sara nodded, then perched on the tailgate of her truck, leaving some space as a comfort zone between herself and Ellie, who suddenly began inhaling the sub as though she hadn't eaten in a week.

They ate in silence. Sara's thoughts chased themselves around in frantic little circles, reminding her of all the similarities between the current situation and so many of her private daydreams. She spoke sternly to herself, reminding her imagination and her hormones alike that there was absolutely no reason to think Ellie wanted anything from her, most certainly not sexual advances. Besides—Sara snuck a look at Ellie's left hand. Sure enough, a gold band held a big shiny diamond there. Married. Straight. Off limits.

And patting her mouth delicately with the hem of her unbuttoned plaid over-shirt.

"Sorry," Sara mumbled, setting down the remains of her sub, which promptly fell into a multitude of little bits. "I'll get you a napkin. Forgot."

"Don't worry about it," Ellie said, smiling. Her voice sounded stronger. "Thank you for making me eat. I really do feel much better, although I'm consumed with curiosity. Who are you, when you aren't rescuing idiot girls in distress?"

"I'm a stable manager," Sara replied, trying to put the last bits of her sub back together. "I run Stonybridge Farm, out in the Harquahala Valley. So it's part of my job, you see—if there's distress, I fix it."

Ellie sniffed and tossed her hair, pouting prettily. Her eyes sparkled with mischief. "I see. Nothing special at all then, I'm just an ordinary part of life."

Sara choked on her last bite. She made protesting sounds, then swallowed and said, "Not at all! Not ordinary. You're beautiful! Oh crap. I mean, I would have tried to help no matter what, because you obviously had some kind of problem."

Ellie smiled at her reaction, a satisfied cat in the cream expression. "Thank you. Since I've decided to stay, even though my favorite campsite is occupied, I'm going to go move Chief to his usual spot and set him up for the night."

"Have fun," Sara said, watching as Ellie hopped off the tailgate and walked away. The young woman made denim cutoffs into a thing of beauty with those legs.

Sara wrenched her mind out of its wistfully smutty thoughts and went to check on Mary. Nothing wrong with the horse, of course, swishing her tail in the last bits of sunlight available in her portable pen. She snorted and shoved her head at Sara, who obliged the mare by rubbing behind her ears. Behind them, Chief the Winnebago started up with a grind and crunched its way across the dirt to park in a shady spot opposite the trailhead. Then it coughed again and turned off. Sara rubbed Mary's neck, finally winning control of her wayward impulses. No, she would not go over there and bother Ellie! No! There was absolutely no indication, beyond a single possibly flirtatious exchange, that such attention would be welcome. And besides, she'd never really figured out how to tell with a woman when that sort of attention was welcome. Men were easy. Even if they said no, they meant yes. But women? Sheesh.

"Sara? May I pet your horse?"

"Certainly," Sara replied, removing her face from Mary's neck. "She loves attention. Her name's Mary."

Ellie giggled. "Cute. A mare named Mary." She held out her hand, properly flat, Sara noticed, and Mary snuffled all over it. Then the mare graciously dipped her head, giving permission for the strange human to scratch her favorite itch-spot. Sara smiled.

"She likes you."

"Good. I like her, too. She's a very lovely big girl. I would have brought my horse along, but I can't hitch up the trailer myself, and—"

Ellie broke off and her face crumpled. Sara patted her shoulder. "Hey, it's all right. Whatever the problem is, it's not here now. But you are, so enjoy the nice sunset, and the horse, and your new friend."

Ellie glanced at her wedding ring. "This problem goes with me wherever I wear the ring or say my last name. But you're right. I'm here now, the sunset really is beautiful, and I think you and your horse are very nice. So let's pretend my husband is not a complete scumbag and talk about something else."

"How 'bout your horse?"

Ellie smiled. "I've only had Moose for a year and a half. He's a Dutch warmblood, and he's really too much horse for me, but it's one of those things—my husband rides, so he expects me to ride too. At least he doesn't expect me to show. Those fences people make their horses jump over scare me."

Sara laughed. "A sensible fear. But horses want to jump. They're very competitive critters, and—er, sorry. I'll behave myself. I tend to go on about horses until whoever I'm talking to keels over and kicks feebly."

"Well! In that case, then, maybe we ought to sit down, so I don't hurt myself when I fall over." Ellie smiled. "I want to hear about Mary, and if you show, and if she likes to jump."

"Really?" Sara's eyes widened, and she staggered in exaggerated shock, one hand spread over her chest. "Be still, my heart! Someone actually gives a damn about my horse stories!"

Ellie nodded. "I'd like to hear horse stories told from the point of view of someone who actually loves the animals. My husband rides because it's expected at his level of society, and because he likes to win, not because he loves horses. I've barely learned to ride Moose, but I already love him dearly, and I want to trade stories with someone who feels the same. Does that make sense?"

"Yes," Sara smiled, heart contracting painfully. Married. Dammit! "That makes perfect sense. Very well, to the truck, then?"

She didn't wait for a reply, just returned to the truck bed. Ellie rubbed Mary's neck one last time, then followed. She joined Sara, who sat with her legs stretched out, leaning on pillows propped up against the back of the cab. Ellie looked at the pillows, hesitated, then sat cross-legged against the bulge of the wheel well.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Tell me about Mary!"

"Mary. Right." Sara smiled. "Mary and I used to belong to Foxlair Farm, a big competitive stable located just outside Lexington, Kentucky. She's an Irish Hunter, imported as an experiment, and a pretty successful one at that. My boss, Julia, saw a show when she went on vacation in Ireland and was tremendously impressed, enough to buy a youngster. She brought Mary home and put her in training. I started riding Mary in competition when she was four, and let me tell you, she put all the other horses to shame. The riders couldn't believe their purebreds were getting trounced by a glorified grade horse—"

"What do you mean, grade?" Ellie's brow crinkled.

"Er, sorry. Mutt. Mixed-breed. An Irish Hunter is mostly Thorobred with some Irish Draft blood thrown in. Grade is a catch-all term for horses that haven't got pure bloodlines. Better?"

"Yes, thanks."

"So Mary and I competed pretty heavy for three seasons, won all sorts of medals and crap. Good times there, lots of good memories... but Julia started getting greedy. Pushing too hard. Bouncing us all over the damn continent, everywhere there was a show. Ironically enough, it all ended about thirty miles from home, out at the Kentucky Horse Park. Big three-day event, lots of money on the line, and Mary and I were in the lead by a whisker on the cross-country course. Then..."

She trailed off, remembering the sickening crack and the lurch. "It was a big-ass obstacle, shaped like a Z. If you took the lower part, it was very wide. If you took the skinny part, it was very tall. Either way it was an in-and-out. We took the high part. What the hell, Mary could clear it. In—out—and crack. I heard it go. The left front leg, a tiny little bone I'd never heard of called a sesamoid just shattered. One stride, two—and Mary pulled up, shaking all over and holding her poor leg up. I got off immediately. She shoved her head in my chest and just shook like a leaf, poor thing. The ambulance came with the vet and it was all over. No more jumping for Mary, not ever."

Sara closed her eyes, still angry about the next part even after several years.

"Poor baby," Ellie said. "What happened next?"

"My boss decided to put her down while they were loading her into the ambulance," Sara growled. "No leg, no horse. She wasn't even going to give Mary a fucking chance. So I bought her. Right there, on the course, I offered her the full sale price—fifteen grand. Then I quit my job. By the end of that day, I'd cleaned out my entire savings account, most of what was left of the trust fund from my dead parents, and found a new job. The vet sent Mary to a surgical center that puts racehorses back together. Within a week, we knew everything would be okay, as long as she didn't get laminitis and never jumped again. So I bought a cheap used trailer and hauled Mary out to my new job in Arizona. And here we are."

"Wow," Ellie said. "That's some story."

"Huh. That ain't the half of it. But I don't want to sit here all night and bore you talking about me. What about you? Where'd you come from?"

Ellie grimaced. "Me. Well, I suppose I can tell you something about me." Then she sat up and rubbed her back. "But not here. This wheel is killing my back. Mind if I join you on those pillows?"

"Not a bit." Sara scooted sideways, making room, and plumped up the pillows. Ellie changed seats in a single graceful motion and Sara trembled inside.

"Very well, then. I came from the back of beyond, originally—born and raised in Clifton, Arizona."

"Just down the road, huh?"

"Yes. I escaped as soon as I could, went to Bryn Mawr University on a full academic scholarship."

Sara whispered appreciatively. "Ivy League, no less!"

"Yes. It was wonderful. But then I met Frank, and we worked out an... arrangement." She rubbed her forehead, then glanced at Sara. The last bits of setting sun woke highlights in her hair and lit her eyes with beauty. "Go ahead and laugh if you like. I realize now how stupid I was. He offered to marry me and let me be, essentially, his trophy wife. I'd look pretty and be the one in the public's eye. I'd have a child or two, insurance that the family fortune would have somewhere to go. I'd get a huge allowance, credit cards, life of luxury... the works. He'd keep mistresses, of course, because I'd be just for show. It'd be a business deal, not really a marriage. It sounded pretty good to me. And he lived in Paradise Valley, only four hours away from Clifton if I wanted to go back for a visit. What more could I ask for? He seemed nice. And the style of living he introduced me to was very exciting. So I did it. I left school and married him, and haven't been happy since. But at least I get to live in style."

"Uh..." Sara stared. "Wow. That's... remarkable. Um. I'm not entirely sure what to say. Uh... what's wrong? What's not making you happy? And how old are you, anyway? You seem mighty young..."

"Twenty-four," Ellie said, with a brittle smile that looked much older. "I look younger because I'm required to keep myself beautiful. That's part of it, see. Frank turned out to be one of those utterly compulsive, controlling types. He sets out lists of things I'm required to do. One of the requirements is weekly trips to the spa. So I stay pretty and young looking, which is nice. And I have a personal trainer who makes me eat right and exercise—she's great, though, because she counts things like yoga, bellydance, and swimming as working out. I had one once that made me lift weights, yuck!"

"Bellydance?" Sara looked at Ellie, smiling slowly as she pictured the lovely blond in a skimpy spangled harem girl outfit.

"Yes. It's wonderful fun. You should try it sometime. So see, some of my life is good—I enjoy dancing, and riding, and swimming, and even playing tennis. But it's harder than I thought it would be, living with a man that doesn't love me, or even respect me. And when we found out I can't bear children... well. Things went downhill from there."

"I'm sorry," Sara said awkwardly.

"And then..." Ellie sighed. "Yesterday, I caught him, er, screwing the new maid in my bed. We sleep in separate rooms, see, and he usually does his thing in his own room. But this time... he was screwing the maid right there on my bed. I, well, lost it. I ran out, jumped in Chief—which I've managed to hang on to because it's my only souvenir of childhood—and started driving. I've been all over this state, up to the Grand Canyon, down to Nogales, then back to here. This was my favorite campsite growing up."

"And now you're here, in the back of a beat up old truck, telling your tale to an equally beat up old stable manager as the orange sunset fades away. Hmm." Sara looked at Ellie, heart in throat, and smiled. She put an arm around the girl—no, not girl, woman. Remeber that, she's no kid—and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I'm glad you came out here, although the reason sucks. I'd kick your husband's ass if I could, but he's not here, so instead I'll just enjoy your company."

"Sounds good to me," Ellie sighed, resting her head against Sara's shoulder. "But you don't seem old, or beat up. Why do you say that?"

"Well, I've been through hellish times of my own, and there's plenty of scars on my hide. And I've got, what, a dozen years on you, so I feel old. Not to mention frequently bitter. But most of the time I shove that aside and fill my life with horses. This weekend's an exception, because I needed some time off."

"I understand that completely." Ellie shifted, settling into a more comfortable position. "Thanks for being here."

"Anytime," Sara said, rubbing Ellie's shoulder. "So did you complete your college degree?"

"No. I left after three semesters. But I'm okay with that. There's only one thing I regret about leaving school." Ellie fell silent.

"Yes?" Sara prompted, after a long, quiet moment of just enjoying the feel of Ellie's warmth against her side. "What is it?"

"All those girls and their girlfriends. Even though it was going on all around me, I never did find the courage to kiss another girl."

Sara's heart tripped, stumbled, then took off at a gallop. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out, so she breathed deep and tried again. "I can fix that for you, if you'd like."

Ellie turned her head with a small, inviting smile. The first gleams of moonlight reflected from her eyes. Sara felt a twinge of concern—what if reality wasn't as good as her dreams?—then her lips found Ellie's, and she nearly melted.

The real thing felt far better than her dreams. Ellie's lips were soft beneath hers, her skin smooth with absolutely no hint of stubble. Soft, gentle hands grasped at her and pulled her closer, not hard and callused like a man's. And when Ellie's mouth parted and her moist tongue licked at Sara's lip, she whimpered.

"Ellie..." Sara pulled away, at least two inches. "Ellie. Please, don't do that, unless you want a lot more than a kiss..."

"Hush."

Sara kissed her again, blood singing through her veins with joy. "Beautiful," she murmured, "so beautiful."

Her hands drifted down Ellie's sides, learning the gentle curves. Sara's back cried out in protest at the awkward position and she shifted, trying to ease the cramp, but wound up gasping and pulling away instead, one hand clutching her back.

"What's wrong?"

"Ouch! My back didn't like that at all." Sara stretched until the kink released, then laid down and settled a pillow beneath her head. She laid a challenging look on Ellie. "Well? Decision time, lovely lady."

"Gee, I don't know about this, Sara," Ellie pretended apprehension, even as she stretched out beside Sara and reached for her. "I mean, we just met, and all..."

"You're free to go," Sara began, then Ellie melted into her arms again and her ability to speak fled, hand in hand with her last coherent thought. Soft skin and tender touches more than made up for the occasional awkward moments, such as when Sara got tangled in Ellie's bra. And when Ellie got herself hung up in Sara's zipper. And...

No matter. None of the awkwardness mattered in the slightest, not compared to the pleasure the women found in each other's arms.

Better, Sara thought, as she drifted off to sleep, listening to Ellie's quiet breathing and the steady chirp of crickets. Definitely better than I expected. But what the hell am I going to do in the morning? What if she wants to go home?

No matter, plenty of time to worry about that later. For the moment, just enjoy the quiet beauty of the night, the wonderful softness of the woman in her arms, and the leftover glow of the best night of her life.

* * * * * * * *

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Other titles from Marie Brown

Eternal

With Honor

Luminous

The Hidden Game, Vol 1

God's War

The Hidden Game, Vol 2

Dawnfire

The Hidden Game, Vol 3

and many more



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