The next morning my first thoughts were also of riding.
I ran a brush through my hair, rinsed my mouth out, and threw on close-fitting pair of black leggings. They were the nearest thing to riding breeches that I had with me. Running shoes would make it impossible to keep my heels down in the stirrups, so on went my loafers instead. Not exactly proper footwear, but they'd do. A long-sleeved T-shirt and a fleece pul over completed my ensemble. Dragging my hair back into a ponytail, I returned to the bedroom.
Matthew lifted his eyebrow as I rocketed into the room, his arm barring me from going any farther. He was leaning against the wide archway that led to the stairs, wel groomed as always, wearing dark gray breeches and a black sweater. "Let's ride in the afternoon."
I'd been expecting this. Dinner with Ysabeau had been tense at best, and afterward my sleep had been punctuated with nightmares. Matthew had climbed the stairs to check on me several times.
"I'm fine. Exercise and fresh air wil be the best thing in the world for me." When I tried to get past him again, he stopped me with only a dark look.
"If you so much as sway in the saddle, I'm bringing you home. Understood?"
Downstairs, I headed for the dining room, but Matthew pul ed me in the other direction. "Let's eat in the kitchens,"
he said quietly. No formal breakfast with Ysabeau staring at me over Le Monde. That was welcome news.
We ate in what were ostensibly the housekeeper's rooms, in front of a blazing fire at a table set for two- though I would be the only one eating Marthe's excel ent, though I would be the only one eating Marthe's excel ent, abundant food. A huge pot of tea sat on the scarred, round wooden table, wrapped in a linen towel to keep it hot.
Marthe glanced at me with concern, tutting at my dark circles and pale skin.
When my fork slowed, Matthew reached for a pyramid of boxes crowned with a black-velvet-covered helmet. "For you," he said, putting them on the table.
The helmet was self-explanatory. It was shaped like a high-crowned basebal hat, with a fold of black grosgrain ribbon at the nape. Despite its velvet covering and ribbon, the helmet was sturdy and made expressly to keep soft human skul s from cracking if they met with the ground. I hated them, but it was a wise precaution.
"Thank you," I said. "What's in the boxes?"
"Open them and see."
The first box held a pair of black breeches with suede patches inside the knees to grip the saddle. They would be far more pleasant to ride in than my thin, slippery leggings and looked like they would fit, too. Matthew must have been making more phone cal s and relaying approximate measurements while I napped. I smiled at him in gratitude.
The box also held a black padded vest with a long tail and stiff metal supports sewn into the seams. It looked and would no doubt feel like a turtle's shel -uncomfortable and unwieldy.
"This isn't necessary." I held it up, frowning.
"It is if you're going riding." His voice didn't show the slightest hint of emotion. "You tel me you're experienced. If so, you won't have a problem adjusting to its weight."
My color rose and my fingertips gave a warning tingle.
Matthew watched me with interest, and Marthe came to the door and gave a sniff. I breathed in and out until the tingling stopped.
"You wear a seat belt in my car," Matthew said evenly.
"You'l wear a vest on my horse."
We stared at each other in a standoff of wil s. The thought of the fresh air defeated me, and Marthe's eyes glittered with amusement. No doubt our negotiations were as much fun to watch as were the vol eys between Matthew and Ysabeau.
I pul ed the final box toward me in silent concession. It was long and heavy, and there was a sharp tang of leather when the lid lifted.
Boots. Knee-length, black boots. I'd never shown horses and had limited resources, so I had never owned a proper pair of riding boots. These were beautiful, with their curved calves and supple leather. My fingers touched their shining surfaces.
"Thank you," I breathed, delighted with his surprise.
"I'm pretty sure they'l fit," Matthew said, his eyes soft.
"Come, girl," Marthe said cheerful y from the door. "You change."
She barely got me into the laundry room before I'd kicked off my loafers and peeled the leggings from my body. She took the worn Lycra and cotton from me while I wriggled into the breeches.
"There was a time when women didn't ride like men,"
Marthe said, looking at the muscles in my legs and shaking her head.
Matthew was on his phone when I returned, sending out instructions to al the other people in his world who required his management. He looked up with approval.
"Those wil be more comfortable." He stood and picked up the boots. "There's no jack in here. You'l have to wear your other shoes to the stables."
"No, I want to put them on now," I said, fingers outstretched.
"Sit down, then." He shook his head at my impatience.
"You'l never get them on the first time without help."
Matthew picked up my chair with me in it and turned it so he had more room to maneuver. He held out the right boot, and I stuck my foot in as far as the ankle. He was right. No amount of tugging was going to get my foot around the stiff bend. He stood over my foot, grasping the heel and toe of the boot and wriggling it gently as I pul ed the leather in the other direction. After several minutes of struggle, my foot worked its way into the shank. Matthew gave the sole a final, firm push, and the boot snuggled against my bones.
Once both boots were on, I held my legs out to admire.
Matthew tugged and patted, sliding his cold fingers around the top rim to make sure my blood could circulate. I stood, my legs feeling unusual y long, took a few stiff-ankled steps, and did a little twirl.
"Thank you." I threw my arms around his neck, the toes of my boots grazing the floor. "I love them."
Matthew carried my vest and hat to the stables, much as he had carried my computer and yoga mat in Oxford. The stable doors were flung open, and there were sounds of activity.
"Georges?" Matthew cal ed. A smal , wiry man of indeterminate age-though not a vampire-came around the corner, carrying a bridle and a curry comb. When we passed Balthasar's stal , the stal ion stomped angrily and tossed his head. You promised, he seemed to say. Inside my pocket was a tiny apple that I'd wheedled from Marthe.
"Here you go, baby," I said, holding it out on a flat palm.
Matthew watched warily as Balthasar extended his neck and reached with delicate lips to pick the fruit from my hand. Once it was in his mouth, he looked at his owner triumphantly.
"Yes, I see that you are behaving like a prince," Matthew said drily, "but that doesn't mean you won't behave like a devil at the first opportunity." Balthasar's hooves struck the ground in annoyance.
We passed by the tack room. In addition to the regular saddles, bridles, and reins, there were freestanding wooden frames that held something like a smal armchair with odd supports on one side.
"What are they?"
"Sidesaddles," Matthew said, kicking off his shoes and stepping into a tal pair of wel -worn boots. His foot slid down easily with a simple stamp on the heel and a tug at the top. "Ysabeau prefers them."
In the paddock Dahr and Rakasa turned their heads and looked with interest while Georges and Matthew began a detailed discussion of al the natural obstacles we might encounter. I held my palm out to Dahr, sorry that there were no more apples in my pocket. The gelding looked disappointed, too, once he picked up the sweet scent.
"Next time," I promised. Ducking under his neck, I arrived at Rakasa's side. "Hel o, beauty."
Rakasa picked up her right front foot and cocked her head toward me. I ran my hands over her neck and shoulders, getting her used to my scent and touch, and gave the saddle a tug, checking the tightness of the girth strap and making sure the blanket underneath was smooth.
She reached around and gave me an inquiring smel and a snuffle, nosing at my pul over where the apple had been.
She tossed her head in indignation.
"You, too," I promised her with a laugh, placing my left hand firmly on her rump. "Let's have a look."
Horses like having their feet touched about as much as most witches like being dunked in water-which is to say not much. But, out of habit and superstition, I'd never ridden a horse without first checking to make sure that nothing was lodged in their soft hooves.
When I straightened, the two men were watching me closely. Georges said something that indicated I would do.
Matthew nodded thoughtful y, holding out my vest and hat.
The vest was snug and hard-but it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. The hat interfered with my ponytail, and I slid the elastic band lower to accommodate it before snapping the chin band together. Matthew was at my back in the time it took me to grab the reins and lift my foot to Rakasa's stirrup.
"Wil you never wait until I help you?" he growled into my ear.
"I can get onto a horse myself," I said hotly.
"But you don't need to." Matthew's hands cupped my shin, lifting me effortlessly into the saddle. After that, he checked my stirrup length, rechecked the girth strap, and final y went to his own horse. He swung into the saddle with a practiced air that suggested he'd been on horseback for hundreds of years. Once there, he looked like a king.
Rakasa started to dance in impatience, and I pushed my heels down. She stopped, looking puzzled. "Quiet," I whispered. She nodded her head and stared forward, her ears working back and forth.
"Take her around the paddock while I check my saddle,"
Matthew said casual y, swinging his left knee onto Dahr's shoulder and fiddling with his stirrup leather. My eyes narrowed. His stirrups needed no adjustment. He was checking out my riding skil s.
I walked Rakasa halfway around the paddock, to feel her gait. The Andalusian real y did dance, delicately picking up her feet and putting them down firmly in a beautiful, rocking movement. When I pressed both heels into her sides, Rakasa's dancing walk turned into an equal y rol icking, smooth trot. We passed Matthew, who had given up al pretense of adjusting his saddle. Georges leaned against the fence, smiling broadly.
Beautiful girl, I breathed silently. Her left ear shot back, and she picked up the pace slightly. My calf pressed into her flank, just behind the stirrup, and she broke into a canter, her feet reaching out into the air and her neck arched. How angry would Matthew be if we jumped the paddock fence?