by Nicole Gustafson
After a painful breakup, horse trainer Sam Monroe escapes to Northern California in hopes of regrouping and meeting up with old friends. When her best friend volunteers Sam’s help with a neighbor’s traumatized rescue horse, Sam doesn’t hesitate to lend a hand.
But when neighbor Alyssa Johansson turns out to be beautiful, single, and attracted to women, the chemistry is immediate and undeniable.
Soon Sam learns that retraining her heart is much harder than training horses, and Sam and Alyssa will have to decide if true love is worth risking it all.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"In a college creative writing class, I had to dive into the emotions of a character using only one scene. I wrote about a lesbian named Sam who was at the airport, headed to visit friends after a painful break-up. I’ve carried Sam in my heart since then, determined to someday flesh out her story into a full length book. Twenty years later, out of the blue one day, I decided, “I’m going to write a book.” Two months and 86,000 words typed on my iPhone later, I took a deep breath and sent Sam and Alyssa’s story to Bella Books for publication consideration. And the rest is history!"
“Just think about it, okay? It’ll do you some good.”
Manz’s words had echoed around in my head for a few hours before I made up my mind. Okay, fine. More like minutes. Either way, I now found myself sitting in the Denver International Airport, a bulging duffel bag under my feet, waiting for my flight to SFO.
It was irritating how well Manz knew me. No semblance of mystery or secrecy for me around that one. Amanda, my best friend since elementary school and adoptive sister, had given herself the nickname Manz when we were kids. She thought it was hilarious that being “Manz’s Best Friend” sounded like I was her pet puppy, and the name had stuck. Only Manz could get away with so shamelessly nicknaming herself.
A ringing cell phone nearby caught my attention. An exceptionally tall man in a suit, tie loosened at the neckline, inspected the phone. He had shaggy blond hair and energetic blue eyes that danced over the details on the screen before answering. “Yeeeellow. Jim Cambron here.” Jim. It was the perfect name for him. His kind, smiling face contrasted nicely with his intimidating height. He seemed like the kind of guy who listened to the baseball game on his dad’s old radio while rotating meat on the barbeque.
“Oh, yeah, you betcha! I’m all done in Colorado, and I’ll finish it up today. Don’t worry. Everything will get done just like I promised.” His voice was filled with cheerfulness. “Yup, I’m headed back to San Fran in a few minutes. I’ll handle it first thing when I land.”
My cell phone buzz-buzzed with a text notification from Manz.
So, are you coming?! Pleeeeease? I know you have a ton of cash saved up. Take a week and come play in the California sun!
I typed out a reply.
Already on my way. My flight takes off in 30 mins.
Within seconds of hitting Send, a photo of Manz’s cat—a handsome black-and-white boy named Tuxedo—filled the screen. Manz found it hysterical that I had “a picture of her pussy” on my phone, which showed up as her profile picture every time she called. Thank goodness her wife, Jen, was so patient and understanding of Manz’s wildly inappropriate sense of humor.
I answered the call and, before I could say anything, Manz shrieked, “Really?” in my ear. I chuckled and said yes in my most indulgent parent voice. I could hear her phone clatter to the ground with the high-pitched scream of a gleefully excited child. My chuckle evolved into a full-blown laugh. I could hear the phone being picked up from where Manz had dropped it.
“Hello? Manz? Are you there?”
“Hey, Sam. It’s me. Um, Manz is…uh…” Jen’s low voice trailed off as Manz’s shrieking continued in the background. “So, you’re coming to visit, huh? What time can I pick you up at the airport?”
I tried to decline, but Jen’s calm demeanor wouldn’t be swayed. “You really think she’s going to calmly wait here at the house for you to arrive?”
“Honestly, I’m surprised she hasn’t already left.”
“Can’t. I’ve got the keys.”
I stowed my duffel into the overhead compartment and settled into my window seat. Flipping idly through the in-flight magazine, I heard a commotion at the front of the plane. Ignoring it, I went back to reading about the best way to dry rub a barbecue roast.
“What do you mean I’m back there?” a high, female voice shrieked. “I’m not sitting back there. There has to be a mistake. Move me to first class at once.”
A blonde with fake eyelashes was screaming at an unsettled young flight attendant.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but—”
The blonde interrupted, “At once! Change my seat. I am not sitting back here with these…” She scanned the back half of the airplane seats with disgust. “These common people.”
An older, calmer flight attendant approached the blonde. “Ma’am, the flight is fully booked. There’re no other seats to move you to. We can give you a voucher for a later flight, or…” Now, nearly everyone on the plane was watching the scene unfold.
“Absolutely not!” she screamed. “I have an audition, and I can’t be late. I’m not missing my big break because I’ve been crammed and crumpled into”—the blonde waved her hand dismissively at the empty seat beside me—“economy class.” The word clearly tasted bitter as she spat it out.
“She can have my seat.” The words came from beyond the royal blue curtains dividing first class and economy. All heads turned to see a tall, blond man open the curtain with a smile, carrying his laptop bag in his hand. He repeated, “Go ahead. Come take my seat.”
The blonde pushed past the young flight attendant in the aisle. “Well, at least someone on this goddamn plane has some sense.”
The older flight attendant nodded to her subordinate and returned to first class. Jim settled himself into the empty seat beside me. I offered a quick smile before checking my cell phone and switching it to airplane mode—two texts and three voice mails from Sophia. Delete. Delete. Delete, delete and delete. I shoved my phone back into my pocket as Jim sighed in the seat.
“Name’s Jim.” He extended an enormous hand to me.
“Sam,” I said as I shook it. “That was very nice of you. For…you know.”
He looked down into his lap and blushed with an enormous grin.
Before I could continue, the young flight attendant interrupted, “I’d like to offer a free cocktail of your choice, as gratitude for helping us out with, um…” She quickly looked at the first-class curtain then back to Jim. “With the seating arrangements.”
Jim declined, but she persisted. He theatrically turned to me and stage-whispered, “I’m working, so I can’t drink. Would you like a free drink?” I asked for red wine, which she promised to deliver once we were airborne.
When the flight attendant had moved away, Jim spoke up. “I’m a beer man, myself. Never got the taste for wine. Plus, it gives me a nasty headache in the morning.”
“Only if you drink the cheap stuff,” I replied with a chuckle.
“Is there any other kind? At least, not on my dime. Nope, good old Budweiser will do just fine for me.” He settled deeper into his seat, extending his legs and crossing them at the ankles with a deep sigh. “At least you got the evacuation row.” He slid a little deeper into the seat. “More legroom. That’s the only reason I fly first class. I don’t fit back here. But this will work just fine.”
“So, Sam, was it?” he said with his head resting back against the seat. I nodded. “What do you do for a living, Sam?”
I really didn’t want to chat for our three-hour plane ride together, but the plane hadn’t even taken off yet, so a few minutes wouldn’t hurt. For a moment I considered lying but decided against it.
“I’m an animal trainer,” I answered. I hated telling people what I do. If you say dental hygienist or receptionist, they say “Oh” politely and move on. Nothing interesting to discuss. But when you train animals for a living, suddenly everyone wants free advice for FiFi’s potty training issues and Spot’s anxious chewing of the couch while they’re at work.
Jim’s head lifted from the seat, and he turned to me with interest. “You don’t say! What kinds of animals?”
“Horses and dogs, mostly. But the basics are pretty universal for any animal, really.”
“Wow. Way more interesting than what I do all day.” He settled his head back against the headrest. When I didn’t ask, he continued, “I help manage nonprofits and not-for-profits. Boring as hell. It’s all paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. Tax exemptions and declarations of finances. But…” He let out a deep sigh. “They’re doing the good deeds, so the least I can do is help keep the lights on for them, you know? I’m basically an accountant, HR manager, tax adviser, and bill payer, all wrapped in one.” He pulled a business card from his breast pocket and handed it to me. “Not to brag, but I’m damn good at it. But I admit, it’s not nearly as fun as playing with animals all day.”
Before I could indignantly say that training a half-ton animal with high intelligence and stubbornness to match is neither “fun” nor “playing,” the flight attendants began the preflight safety instruction. I tucked the card into the butt pocket of my jeans and took the opportunity to immerse myself back into the in-flight magazine.
With my duffel slung over my shoulder, I stepped out into the cool, autumn air of San Francisco. I took a deep breath, catching a hint of the salty bay breeze hidden behind the exhaust fumes of the waiting taxis. As I looked to see if Manz and Jen had arrived yet, I caught a flash of blond hair incoming fast from my right. I braced myself just in time for Manz to launch through the air and grab on to me like a 120-pound flying squirrel. She hugged me tightly around my neck, my duffel awkwardly pinned to my side as her legs wound around my waist.
“Hi…Manz…Nice to…see you too,” I struggled to say as she squeezed even tighter.
“What the hell? All I had to do is ask, and you come visit? If I’d known that, I’d have asked sooner!” She gave me one last, joint-popping squeeze before hopping down to the sidewalk. “Come on. Jen’s parked down here.”
After dropping my bag into the open trunk, I gave Jen a quick hug. The polar opposite to Manz’s spastic hyperactivity, Jen was always stoic and calm. She held the hug a little longer than our norm.
“You doing okay?” she asked, concern in her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, smiling weakly.
“Liar.” She released our hug.
“Oh my god. Get in the car! I want all the juicy deets too, you selfish bitches.”
Jen shrugged as if to say, You know how she is, and we obediently got into the car.
I stared out of the car window as Highway 101 pushed northward, leaving behind the tall buildings of The City and into the rolling, straw-colored hills of the North Bay. My soul exhaled as I looked at the enormous old oak trees dotting the dry grasses of the hillsides. My quiet reflection was interrupted by Manz turning around in the front passenger seat to look at me.
“Okay, I’m sorry, honey,” she said as she patted Jen quickly on the thigh. “I know you said, ‘Don’t bug her about it right away,’” she mimicked Jen’s low, quiet voice. “But I can’t wait anymore.”
I sat quietly, not answering, the opportunity to torment Manz just too delicious to resist.
“So?” she insisted.
“So, what?” I feigned ignorance with the most angelic and innocent expression I could muster.
Manz mumbled something probably insulting under her breath. “So, what happened? Last we heard, she said she wanted ‘some time apart.’” Manz made finger quotes in the air while rolling her eyes. “She wanted to see if she could ‘fall in love’ with you again.”
“And?” she said impatiently.
“And what?” I cocked a cheeky eyebrow at her.
“And what happened next?”
I sighed. Time for games and playfully teasing Manz was over. My mood turned solemn, and Manz quickly reached over the back of the seat to take my hand.
“Oh, honey, no.” She squeezed my fingers. “I hate when you’re sad.”
She unbuckled her seat belt and, with the agility only someone five-one could manage, she quickly climbed into the back seat beside me.
Manz took my hand again. “What happened?”
I took a deep breath. “She asked for time apart, and I agreed.” Jen was quiet, but she watched from the driver’s seat through the rearview mirror. “So I slept in the guest room, and she slept in our room.”
Manz, quiet for once, nodded for me to continue.
“Hudson threw a shoe, so we had to cut our training short for the day.” I was currently training the beautiful Arabian stallion for a movie role. His horseshoe had come loose, and we couldn’t continue training until the farrier could come to reshoe him.
“I went home, but the front door was unlocked. I thought it was strange but didn’t think much of it. Sophia can be absent-minded like that sometimes. I called out to let her know I was home, but there was no answer. So I went down the hall to the spare room—huh, my room now, I guess.” I laughed sardonically. “And that’s when I heard something. It was, like, a banging noise coming from our…” I cleared my throat. “Her room. And I could hear Sophia yelling in there. Screaming actually.”
Manz’s face dissolved from compassion to anger.
I continued, “My mind jumped back to the unlocked front door, and my first thought was Sophia was in our bedroom, being attacked by an intruder.”
“Oh, Sammy, no.” Manz said. Only Manz could get away with calling me Sammy.
“So I opened the door, and the whole world just froze. Sophia was bent over the end of the bed with some naked Italian-looking guy holding her hips from behind while the headboard of our bed—OUR BED!—banged against the wall. She was wearing her red lace bra—my favorite one. And she was wearing the shiny black stilettos I bought for her for our fifth anniversary last month.”
Manz gasped. “She was banging a DUDE?” Jen’s eyes were enormous in the rearview mirror.
“What did you do?” Manz asked.
“I stood there for a minute, just trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It was like my brain just kept spitting out error messages. None of it made sense. I did a sort of hiccuping-sob thing. She must have heard me because she looked up. We made eye contact, and the look on her face…” My words trailed off as my throat closed.
“What a whore.” Aww, Manz, you always know what to say. It made me chuckle, and the moment’s distraction helped me to speak again.
“Her face went from ecstasy to shock to fear. It was crazy. It was like a movie—like I was watching this scene, and my part in it, from the outside.”
Jen chimed in from the front seat. “Did he see you too?”
I couldn’t answer right away. “No.”
Manz’s face went blank. “Wait, hold the damn phone a minute. As you’re standing there in the room with Sophia looking at you, Romeo is still back there just pounding away like a damn jackrabbit?”
“Yup.” I stared at the calluses on my palm.
“Jesus Christ, Sam!” Manz dropped my hand to rub her face briefly before taking my hand again.
“So…then what?” asked Jen.
I took a deep breath. “So, I closed the door and went outside to the driveway. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I couldn’t think. I just kept seeing that look of pleasure—that look I used to give to her—on her face. It just…I don’t know. It broke me.” I took another deep breath. “After a minute or two, Sophia came running outside in a robe, still wearing those fucking heels.” My eyes burned with tears threatening to fall. “And she said all the usual bullshit—he’s just a friend, this is the first time, it doesn’t mean anything, I love you, we were on a break, all that shit.”
“WE WERE ON A BREAK!” Manz yelled out in her best Ross Geller impersonation. Jen and I both turned to her in shock. “Sorry,” she said. “Go on.”
“Not much else to say, really,” I continued. “I told her to fuck off…”
“Good for you,” Jen said quietly.
“And told her it’s over. Like, really over. And I went back in and started packing. So when you texted for me to visit—”
“Wait,” Manz interrupted again. “When did all this happen?”
“About…” I looked at my watch. “Five hours ago.”
“Shut the fuck up!” she yelled. “This all happened today?”
“No way,” she said, shaking her head.
“So I threw everything into a duffel—well, everything worth keeping anyway—found the earliest flight, and got the fuck out of Dodge. I told her to get her shit out and be gone by the time I come back.”
“Damn,” Manz whispered.
“Sam, I’m so sorry,” Jen said.
It was quiet in the car for several minutes—just the sounds of the freeway as we continued driving toward their house. One big, hot, angry teardrop silently began to fall down my face. Manz stayed silent, holding my hand and rubbing her thumb over my knuckles. Hearing me sniffle, she leaned toward me and hugged my head to her shoulder. Tears flowed more freely, and for several moments, I cried against her shoulder. She gently stroked my hair until my crying eased.
Once I’d composed myself, I lifted my head and said, “Did you call him ‘Romeo’?”
She shrugged. “It was the only Italian name I could think of.”
All three of us burst into laughter.
Jen and Manz lived in an old farmhouse on two acres of land. They had bought it when they first married and had spent years renovating it, piece by piece. Now, seven years later, the house was country chic and comfortable—as warm and inviting as a country home should be.
We arrived after dark, and Bailey the black Lab greeted us in the driveway. I got out and immediately began giving him overdue Aunt Sam love—belly scratches and ear rubs.
“You know where your room is. I’ll start dinner,” Manz yelled over her shoulder as she walked into the house.
“More like, she’ll order Thai food from Grubhub,” Jen said in a stage whisper to me.
“I heard that, Jen,” she yelled back.
“Love you, babe,” Jen said with a smile.
“Love you too, Snookiebear,” Manz yelled back and walked into the house.
“Snookiebear?” I smirked.
“Listen, I gotta take that from her. But I don’t have to take it from you,” she said playfully. “Keep it up and you’ll share a bed with Bailey.”
I pulled my duffel from the trunk, closing the lid. “Don’t threaten me with a good time,” I replied. “Huh, Bails? We could snuggle! Huh, big guy? Yes, we can! Who’s a good boy?” I gently pulled his ears while we walked into the house.