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Love in the Round Pen a free flash fiction contemporary equestrian romance story by Isla Ryder

Love In The Round Pen (click to read)

Inside the round pen, the black horse spun and hit the metal fence panel with its shoulder, the reverberation sending a tremor through Cassie’s arms and echoing around the Pennsylvania farm. Marc stood in the center, working to gain his new horse’s trust.

Astro was the horse no one wanted. He had sat in the holding pen while the other horses, those with prettier heads and fewer scars, were rescued by various groups. It didn’t help that he wouldn’t allow anyone close enough to halter him, let alone put a saddle on him.

Cassie leaned back, her bangs falling into her eyes as the gelding spun right in front of her. She brushed the strands aside. This was the first time she’d seen Astro up close, and in a way, she felt like she was seeing Marc for the first time, too.

Marc was friendly, but not talkative. He had worked for her family’s farm since they were both teenagers. Over the years, they had orbited each other at the farm, pushing wheelbarrows and dragging the hose out to the water troughs, but never really connecting.

He would head off on his own, and she would find him later sitting in a paddock, watching the horses quietly. He looked comfortable in his stillness, whereas silence often overwhelmed her.

Now that they had graduated, their hours in the musty barns had gotten longer. Marc worked there full-time while Cassie was in the barn from dawn to dusk, learning how everything ran so she could take over one day.

Her father had been hesitant to let Marc board Astro with them, even after Marc swore he’d be there every day to take care of all the chores, which were usually included in the price.

Cassie’s father didn’t want to be responsible for a dangerous horse. But he had given in when Marc was unable to find any other option, and Cassie had been relieved. Having Marc around the farm was nice, and if his horse couldn’t live there, it was unlikely that he would stay.

“He ought to have been put down,” her father said, as Marc was nearly dragged when he unloaded Astro last night.

There had been a spring chill in the air that set all the horses on edge; Astro’s arrival only added to the frenzy.

The sun was warm today, the tulips planted around the farm in bloom, but Astro was still wound up, striking out at Marc.

Was her father right about Astro?

Cassie’s chest tightened as Astro pawed in Marc’s direction again.

Is he safe in there?

Astro switched directions again, but this time, the bony gelding spun to the inside, not hitting the fence. A smile spread across Marc’s face—that had been his idea.

Can I do that? Did she have that.... confidence in her?

She frowned. ‘Confident’ was not a word she would have used to describe Marc before, but it came unbidden now.

The other horses at the barn spent the spring prepping for a summer of competitions. Cassie had won piles of ribbons over the years, but never felt as driven to win as the other girls.

Marc had never gone to the shows with them. He would stay behind to care for the horses left at home. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad idea all along.

Astro pranced around the pen. There was no way Cassie would step inside with him. She would have given up on the ragged-looking horse just like her father. The realization stung.

But there was Marc, standing in the pen and getting Astro to dance circles around him.

To the untrained eye, it might look like chaos, and while it might have begun that way, it was different now. It was beautiful. The gelding lowered his head and let out a snort, his feet coming to stillness.

Marc turned, looking away from the horse for the first time since Cassie walked up to the fence. His eyes met hers and the smile he had bestowed on Astro was now directed at her.

Her lips twitched into a matching grin, butterflies quivering in her stomach. How had she not noticed before? When had Marc gone from gangly teenager to...something else?

She wasn’t sure what words would be appropriate, but ‘gangly’ certainly didn’t fit him any more.

Marc’s disheveled hair matched that of his horse, who was breathing deeply and inching toward him. Marc’s eyes tracked the gelding without turning his head. The horse nosed forward, coming ever closer.

One eye on Cassie, Marc mouthed, ‘Three... two... one’ as Astro’s wriggling lips came into contact with the back of his outstretched hand.

The gelding stepped closer, exploring Marc’s wrist.

Cassie held her breath as his fingers curled to pet the horse’s nose. Astro blew out a breath, but allowed Marc to rub his face, long winter hairs shedding for the new season.

‘Wow,’ Cassie mouthed, afraid a sound would ruin the moment.

The outside world faded into insignificance compared to what was happening in the pen.

The crisp air held so much promise; the quiet stillness no longer empty or overwhelming. It was something she had never felt before.

Was this what Astro felt earlier? The calm of true connection?

“Right?” Marc’s voice broke the silence, but his tone was level and the horse did not shy away.

It was amazing. Not long ago, Astro had been cowering at the back of his pen and now he was the one seeking contact. After some more rubbing, Marc stepped away, letting the gelding rest.

Once he was out of the pen, Cassie felt like she could speak again.

“How did you do that?”

Trainers came and went, working with riders to get their horses show-ring ready, but this…this was different.

Marc was just one of the barn guys, wasn’t he? Cleaning and helping, and riding when he could. He had outgrown his teenage awkwardness, but she’d thought his quiet nature was leftover shyness.

“I could show you. It’s kind of hard to explain.” He looked around. The farm was quiet. “Grab Dreamer and meet me in the round pen.”

Dreamer was Cassie’s older show horse. She was semi-retired and worked with the littlest riders to show them the ropes.

Cassie hesitated as she put the halter on the mare. What if she made a fool of herself in front of Marc? And why did that suddenly matter? But something told her not to say no, so she led Dreamer into the ring.

Marc had a long lunge rope in hand and swapped it for Dreamer’s lead rope. He handed it to her. “It’s kind of like lunging, except it’s not about the body. You have to work their mind.”

Cassie frowned. Sure, she could lunge a horse who was too energetic for the kids to ride, but what was he on about?

He stepped behind her and pointed with one arm. Dreamer started off in that direction.

“Just tell her where to go,” he said, in little more than a whisper that ruffled the tiny hairs on the back of her neck.

After Dreamer made a full circle, he placed one hand over hers and directed her arm across her body, moving the rope into her other hand. As it switched, Dreamer halted and turned to face them, ears pointed expectantly.

Cassie pointed in the other direction, and Dreamer moved onto the circle again.

“She’s doing it!” Cassie squeaked. Dreamer’s ear twitched toward the high-pitched sound, and the mare started to trot.

“Easy,” Marc said, voice rumbling through his chest, so close behind her she could feel as well as hear it. Dreamer slowed back to a walk. “It’s body language mostly, but tone of voice too. Switch directions again.”

Cassie took a breath and tried to swap the rope as smoothly as Marc had, but it didn’t quite work and she ended up with the loop around her wrist.

Marc reached out, taking her hand in his and repeating the motion.

Without a hitch, Dreamer stopped again to face them. Marc hadn’t let go of her hand, and was now pivoting them both to the side.

Cassie turned her head to keep an eye on Dreamer, but Marc gently guided her chin back with his free hand. The warmth of his fingers lingered on her skin.

“Don’t look at her.”

The quiet tone sent a shiver down Cassie’s spine. Somehow, his quietness was anything but shy at that moment. She was lost in that thought when a soft muzzle nudged her arm. Dreamer was watching her expectantly, just as Astro had been watching Marc earlier.

“You did it.”

His voice was low and Cassie turned towards him. He didn’t step back, and the rope was wrapped behind her in a way that probably wasn’t the safest, but she didn’t care.

As she looked up at him, her heart fluttered and she realized exactly what she had been wanting all along.

A Season for Romance anthology, includes two  contemporary YA equestrian romance stories by Isla Ryder

A Season for Romance - Anthology

I have two stories in this anthology—Love In The Round Pen is one, along with Kiss Me, a sweet tale of what can happen on chilly spring nights doing foal watch. New beginnings come in the form of more than just a new foal.

This anthology is full of sweet budding romance, there is something inside for everyone! It is free on a variety of platforms, and is a great way to discover new to you authors.

Find it on your favorite retailer HERE