The Quicken Tree
By
Agtant

Chapter 14

Morgan looked at him a long time, as if trying to read him, and then he smiled a little, his expression open, and amazingly still friendly. "I really don't think you want to hurt me, Eric. If I did, the last place I'd want you to be is anywhere near my son. So what do you say about my offer? Would you like to come to work for me?"

Eric was beginning to feel pretty ashamed of his accusations. No matter what he thought the offer was, he had no right to bring up Morgan's wife. It was none of his business how he lived his life. And despite it all, this man continued to treat him decently even though he had re-paid him by treating him like shit. "You mean you still want to offer it to me?"

"Why not? You're obviously more concerned about my welfare than I am. How often do you find that in an employee?"

"But you don't know anything about me," he said, realizing as soon as it was out of his mouth, that Morgan and his friend had probably been talking about him when he had walked up to their table earlier. He'd just repeated what Lehman had said about him, and the man had been right. Morgan should have listened to him. In fact, maybe the guy had him pegged altogether. He'd acted no better than a street thug the way he had jumped on Morgan just now, and there were other ways of hustling that had nothing to do with selling himself. Things like using Morgan's name to get into the clinics in the first place, and taking that extra fifteen hundred dollars off of him when he'd sold him Rebel.

And who was he to judge Morgan anyway. He'd been the one to run out of the bar last night, and the one to run away again this morning. If anyone had looked like they were ready to make a deal this morning, it had been him, hands down, not Morgan.

Eric was disgusted with himself.

Morgan had turned slightly on the fence, so that he was more or less facing him again, his back to the water, thighs apart, and the heels of his boots hooked on the third rail of the jump. He looked as comfortable sitting there as he might have in his own living room. "What do you think I need to know about you?"

Eric shrugged. "That I can be a real asshole sometimes."

Morgan laughed, those fine sun lines deepening around the corners of his gray eyes. "Well, it's not like I'm offering you any gravy job," he said, still smiling. "I've had people tell me that I'm hell to work for, but I've met your father. I'm pretty sure you can handle me."

He looked up at him sharply.

"Come on, Eric," Morgan said. His voice was quiet like he was speaking to a balky horse. "It's okay. Lighten up."

Eric looked away, and then he laughed too, mostly at himself, despite the remaining doubts he had, despite the fact that the same ribbing yesterday would have probably really pissed him off. But he figured the way things ended with Conor that morning he didn't owe him a whole lot of loyalty right then, and that he was still standing there at all was proof of how close this man had managed to get to him. So easily and in such a short amount of time. And because Morgan had seen him more naked last night than any of those nameless tricks that had swallowed his cock over the last two years. Even more naked than his own family ever had.

And it wasn't like his still standing there was voluntary by any means. Eric felt a little like a feral cat caught inside a petting zoo. Given half a chance, he'd have made a run for it again.

A warm, soft breeze went through the hollow, stirring the branches lazily above their heads and letting scattered patches of sunlight into the otherwise cool shade. It was pristinely quiet. There was no traffic on the frontage road that ran along the farm's fence line. There wasn't even the occasional blast from the bullhorn Hoehn sometimes used while he was giving his lessons. Lunch break must have started and everyone else was at the clubhouse, piling up their plates from the trays on those lavishly laid out tables.

Eric felt that large predator or whatever it was that had been eating a hole in his stomach all morning, wake up and start in on him again with a fresh appetite. He took a drink of his coke hoping he could hold it off a little while longer. He wished now that he had bummed a cigarette off Morgan's friend when he had had the chance.

"So what do you think," Morgan asked him. "Does the job interest you at all, or would you like to hear a little more about it first?"

He was one tracked; Eric had to hand that to him. He finished his coke, and set the empty can down on top of the thick timber. "What makes you even think I can do what you want me to do? I'm not an eventer, you know that." He looked up at him. "The only thing I've ever known is the racetrack. That and galloping horses, and I'm pretty sure that's not what you're looking for." He was trying to give him a graceful way out of this mess if Morgan was looking for one. Eric hoped that he would take it.

"Actually, it's a lot closer than you think." Morgan said. "Eventing is just as much about getting a horse in condition as it is about jumping, but you told Guenter yesterday that you could even do that. And if I remember correctly, you have a pretty accurate clock in that head of yours," he said. "So if I were to send you out on a horse to do an hours worth of three minute interval canter work, I think I could be fairly certain that's exactly what you'd give me." Morgan was studying him thoughtfully. "And we both know dressage wouldn't be a problem for you."

He'd given it a lot of thought, and that surprised him, even though he wanted Morgan to be telling the truth. Morgan had said that he had a good clock in his head the morning he had come back to the track to watch him gallop Rebel. And Eric had thought at the time that it was just a throwaway compliment, something to get the conversation going. That Morgan remembered it at all surprised him, too. Maybe he was serious. Maybe there really was a job, and not just some bribe to shut him up. He'd really like to believe that anyway.

And Eric knew enough about eventing to know that what he'd said about conditioning was true. It was a physically tough sport for both horse and rider, especially at the advanced level, the Olympic level. There was good reason why they called the second day of competition, the day that included cross-country, the endurance phase. He'd heard it compared before to going into battle, and in fact the three-day had once been a military test for horse and rider, back in the days when the Calvary had still been part of the armed forces.

And suddenly, the prospect of galloping a horse around an open field again instead of a dirt racetrack took Eric back to the happier times of his childhood when climbing on the back of a horse or two before school every morning had been something that he loved to do, instead of something connected to too much responsibility too soon. And he wondered what it would be like to do that again, just getting up and riding, even if it was still for someone else. At least it wouldn't be for his father, with all the complications associated with him. "I haven't jumped in years," he confessed, a little bit of what he'd been feeling coming out in his voice. "At least not much, not since we've been here. But even when I did, it was never over the big fences you're talking about."

Morgan smiled, obviously picking up on something from his voice. "It's just like riding a bicycle, and it's not like you've ever given up riding. It'll come right back to you. Besides," he said. "I very seldom school over anything that big at home. It's too much wear and tear on the horses." He glanced down at the fence he was sitting on. "Do you think you can handle something like this?"

It was a fairly straightforward fence, just the three-foot solid timber with not much of a drop into the water on the other side. Then maybe two strides through the water to hop out over a simple three foot rail on the other. He would have been all over it as a kid. He'd been fearless, something to be reckoned with, Conor Whelan's son back at a time when that had meant something, a chip off the old block. Of course he could handle it, he was from three generations of steeplechase riders. He had been bred to handle it.

"Yeah, sure," he said offhandedly, dismissing Morgan's question. What the hell was he thinking anyway? He couldn't believe that he was actually standing there discussing the job like it was really an option for him. This place and the clinics were like some kind of seductive quicksand, drawing him in deeper all the time, just when he had thought he had finally managed to dig his way out.

"Good," Morgan said easily. "You shouldn't have any problems then. And I won't ask you to do anything you feel uncomfortable with. I don't believe in over-facing horses or riders. It's a good way to get one or the other of them hurt."

Eric shook his head. "Don't you have working students or something like that?" He looked up at Morgan and thought that had to be as transparent to him as when he had run for the courtesy booth that morning. But at that moment it seemed easier to just dodge the whole issue the way he had physically dodged Morgan earlier. He knew he couldn't take the job. He had his brothers, and maybe he did have some loyalty left for his father, although he couldn't understand why anymore. And even though he had thought of nothing else but getting away since he'd left the bar last night, now given the means and opportunity to actually pull it off, it felt cheap and sordid and whatever the hell else you called the act of dumping on a couple of kids who'd been dumped on enough already.

Morgan was looking at him steadily, those keen grey eyes trying to see into him, no doubt trying to figure out where this 180 turn of his had come from.

"It is working students, right?" Eric asked him again coolly, putting on his most impervious poker face. "That is what you call them, isn't it?"

There was a loud explosion of honking from the direction of the duck pond as a few outsiders tried to fly into already occupied territory.

Morgan looked at him a long time. "Yes, that's what you call them," he said finally. "And no, I don't have any." His voice was a little flat. "I teach a lot of clinics each month. And I work with a couple of pony club leaders and do some clinics for their groups because I like working with the kids. But I don't teach at home."

"Why not?"

Morgan shrugged. "Don't get me wrong, I think that it's a great program, but one, my farm isn't a business, it's my home. More importantly, it's my son's home. And two, I like my privacy," he added, meeting his eyes. "And if I had a lot of students wandering around, I would have to give some of that up."

Eric thought how odd those words sounded, coming from a man who seemed to be so willing to share himself everywhere else. But then again, what did Morgan's public graciousness have to do with his privacy? He could be anything on the outside and still be intensely private at home. And he could certainly understand his need for it.

"Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

Eric wondered what else he could possibly want to know now that the job interview had to be over. Forfeited due to lack of response. "No," he said. "Go ahead."

"Does any of this have something to do with last night? Do you still think I'm trying to make some kind of deal with you?"

A few of those errant splashes of sunlight, had filtered through the branches overhead, and flickered on Morgan's face, chest, arms and legs, making him look eerily like a figure on a piece of double exposed film. It reminded Eric a little of how the strobe lights had flashed on him in the bar last night when he'd been dancing that raunchy boogie with another man. He had a hard time shutting that image out.

"No, it's not that." He should just tell him he couldn't take the job and get it over with, but the words got hung up like some kind of a log jam at the back of his throat. The problem being, of course, that he wanted to take it, if it was real, and he was almost sure now that it was.

"Are you sure?" Morgan looked at him dubiously. "What did you think I meant yesterday when I said I wanted to talk to you?"

Eric stared up at him a minute before he actually took in what he was saying to him. After so many years of battling Conor it was hard for him to see what was plainly in front of his face anymore. Every piece of bait had to have a hook it. Morgan had told him yesterday afternoon that he wanted to talk to him and that had been long before he had ever seen him in the bar. And that had somehow completely skipped his mind. So, there never had been any ulterior motive for the job offer. It was just as usual his own fucked up slant on reality. If he'd been drowning and Morgan had offered him a hand, he would have probably slapped it out of the way until he could have figured out if he had an angle for wanting to save him.

"I'm sorry," he said, meaning it, feeling like a bigger ass than he had before, but oddly relieved as well. At least he hadn't been wrong about Morgan. And if given a choice, Eric much preferred feeling foolish to believing he couldn't trust his instincts anymore. "To tell you the truth, I didn't remember you saying that until now. I wish to hell that I had. But I guess it just goes to prove how much I really had on my mind yesterday."

"That's okay," Morgan said quietly. "I didn't say it to rub your nose in anything. I just remembered it myself. And if by having a lot on your mind, you mean having to sell your horse, I can understand that." He looked down at him curiously. "But why did you dodge me this morning? Was it because you thought I might say something to someone?"

"No, I never thought that."

"Why not?" Morgan asked him.

Eric looked away, shame-faced. If this was Morgan's way of retaliating, it was a good one. "Look," he said. "I've never talked to anyone about being gay before." It wasn't easy for him to do then, but he figured he owed Morgan that much. "Up until last night, nobody even knew that I was, and I guess this morning I just wasn't ready to deal with the fact that now somebody did." He glanced back at him to see what he thought about that, but there was no change in Morgan's expression.

Morgan was quiet for awhile, mulling over what he'd just said. He was rolling the bottle of apple juice slowly back and forth between his palms, not looking at him anymore, but at the torn up ground just a few feet in front of the fence. All the restlessness, that inability to keep still for very long, that Eric had seen in him for the past couple of days, was telescoped back into that simple motion.

Eric stood there, still feeling like that feral cat, but a little more relaxed now that he'd made his confession. He watched Morgan's hands. He had nice hands, clean and manicured, lean and long fingered. Rich man's hands, but hard and callused as well. Contradictory, like the man himself. He would've liked to have gotten to know him better. It would've been almost worth taking the job to do that.

"I don't know how to say this without being blunt," Morgan began slowly. "So I'm just going to come out with it." He looked at him. "Obviously if you're going into bars, you've been around. What do you mean that nobody knew you were gay?"

Eric smiled a little at Morgan's careful choice of words. He wondered how he could explain the vacuum that was his sex life to a man who had just tried very hard not to allude to it at all. Not that he thought Morgan would get it anyway. Not the man who was so openly affectionate with his friend or possibly lover in public. "I don't exactly go out looking for conversation. I was cruising last night," he said dryly. " I just go out, get my business taken care of and go home."

Morgan was looking at him steadily, something that looked like sadness, or a close relative to it, in his eyes. "That's a hard way to live, Eric," he said. "Sex is great, but sooner or later you have to have someone to talk to, otherwise it can get pretty lonely. I guess I've been lucky, I've always had Martin."

Eric shrugged it off. The last thing he wanted was Morgan's concern. "So, are you out at home?" he asked coolly.

"Would it bother you if I was?"

"Why should it bother me? I was curious that's all. You sounded pretty casual about it a few minutes ago."

"I said that I wouldn't make deals with anyone to keep them quiet and I won't. But that doesn't mean that I'm casual about it." Morgan looked straight ahead, up the hill at the short approach to the water obstacle. "I have my son," he said simply. "And I have a mother-in-law that doesn't like me very much, probably for good reason. So I'm discreet." He looked back at him again. "But that doesn't mean that I think the people that work for me are stupid. I think the ones that have been with me for awhile have it all figured out. My house keeper has even met the man I've been seeing, whether she knows it or not, but then I don't make the woman change my sheets in the morning either."

He could accept that, it better fit the image he had of Morgan than the one he thought he saw a few minutes ago. And Eric hadn't considered what pressures he might have on him because of his son. A gay man raising a child alone. And he had a lover. That did figure. Since last night Eric had thought about what signals Morgan didn't seem to be sending out, even then, out there alone with him, he was almost chaste in what another man might have turned into a sexual situation. Maybe the reason he had never picked up anything from him, was the fact that Morgan was only sending out one strong signal, and that was simply that he was unavailable.

"Is it Lehman?" he asked.

Morgan stopped, the bottle of apple juice half way to his mouth. "Excuse me?"

"Is Lehman your lover?"

"Martin?" Morgan smiled and the affection he felt for the man was plain on his face. "No," he said. "He's just an old friend like I said before." He took a drink of apple juice, finishing it up, then lowered the bottle again, putting the cap back on.

"So, Eric," he said lightly, "Now that you know more about me than I'm really comfortable with, what do you think about my offer?"

And he was right back on that single track again. Eric laughed softly, shaking his head at him.

"You did bring up a good point before," Morgan said. "Mine isn't a dressage barn and you would probably be better off in one, so I'd be willing to throw in a little extra incentive." He set the empty bottle up on the post beside him. "There's a trainer about a half hour's drive from my place," he said. "He's semi-retired, just keeps a few horses in training and a few students. But he's very good. He rode with the German dressage team twenty years or so ago." He was studying him, his light eyes going over his face, trying to judge if he'd peaked his interest yet or not. It was a good thing for him that Morgan wasn't a mind reader. "Anyway, if you were interested, I'd be willing to pay for you to take a couple of lessons a week from him. I'm fairly certain that he'd want to take you on once he saw you ride." Morgan paused a moment, still regarding him. "But I guess all that would depend on whether you still had your horse or not."

Eric could feel it, that quicksand, creeping up around his ankles, starting to take a gentle hold on him again. This whole conversation wasn't fair. Morgan knew more buttons to push than Eric had ever known he had. And then there was the attraction; something that had always been there, but that had become full blown with the knowledge that Morgan was gay. Something that Eric had never had to deal with before because of the strict rules he had always managed his sex life by. He smiled up at him weakly. "I'm beginning to wonder if you're not more interested in my horse than you are in me."

Morgan gave him an odd look at first and then he laughed. It was a good laugh, warm and good-natured. "Can he jump?" he asked him.

Eric laughed too.

Morgan shook his head, sobering, still smiling a little. "No, I'd hire you even without your horse, Eric," he said. "Because I really need someone to work for me. But I don't think you'd be very happy if you sold him, that's all. Don't do it." He was serious again. "Just take that as some free advice."

Eric looked away from him uncomfortably. He wished like hell that he had never said anything to him about Max.

"So, tell me," Morgan asked him. "Last attempt, I swear, then I'm going to leave you alone. Is there anyway I can sweeten this offer to make you take me up on it? I keep getting the feeling you're interested but something is holding you back. Talk to me," he said. "Maybe it's something we can work out."

Of course Morgan knew he was interested. He would have to be a fool not to have been. And so Morgan had walked him down here, probably cocksure of himself, figuring he would jump at his offer, only to have him jump to the wrong conclusion and tear into him instead.

And if Eric had any sense at all, he would jump at it. Eyes closed, feet first, to hell with thinking about it. If ever in a weak moment he had dared to have any hopes or dreams about his riding, or about his future in general, Morgan's offer would have been very near to it. Working with someone of Morgan's caliber would be a huge opportunity for him; it would be the equivalent to getting a college education in this profession. A few years with him and he could be on his way, working at something he enjoyed and living his own life, instead of continuing on this collision course with his father. A road where eventually Conor would find out that his oldest son, the chip off the old block, was a faggot and throw him out anyway. And all his good intentions for his brothers would be for nothing unless they were old enough to leave when he did. Or even wanted to after Conor was through with them.

"I'll tell you," he began slowly. "You said before that you'd give me a place to live and board for my horse. And now even lessons too." He looked up at him. "If you threw in a meal now and then, you wouldn't have to pay me another thing."

Morgan smiled, but the expression in his eyes was solemn. "You need some work on your negotiating skills. But what?" he prompted him.

"I have to take care of my brothers," he said flatly. "So I'd love to take you up on it, but I don't see how I can."

Morgan's eyes narrowed as if he were puzzled and he started to say something but then stopped himself. Instead he looked away, straight ahead and up the hill, nodding to himself. "You've told me all of this before." He ran a hand back through his thick, barbered curls, then let it slip down to rub back of his neck. "And your mother's gone...walked out, or something like that."

"Yes," Eric said. "I didn't really expect you to remember. I told you that a couple of months ago."

"No," he said. "I should have remembered when you told me that you had to pick up your brothers yesterday." He lowering his hand again. "But I'd just started thinking about offering you the job, and that's what I had on my mind at the time." He looked back at him again. "But you say, that you have to take care of them. I don't get that. What about your father? I know it's not easy being a single parent. Does he have to work two jobs?"

"No, nothing like that," Eric said, but wondered if Conor's nights at the neighborhood bar could count as a second job. He sure worked at the bottle like it was a second career. "It's just that he pretty much left them to me to take care of after my mother left. He's never had much to do with them. He barely knows them." He left it at that. Conor didn't sound any different than a lot of men that were more wrapped up in their jobs than they were their own kids. Somehow Eric had enough blind loyalty left that he wasn't going to tell Morgan exactly how big a prick Conor was.

He didn't need to. He'd forgotten for a moment that Morgan was a father himself. He could tell from his expression that what he'd said had bothered him.

Morgan was quiet awhile. "You know it's none of my business," he said finally, "But maybe it's time you introduced them to him."

"Yeah, well," Eric said uncomfortably. "I wish it were that easy."

Morgan stepped down off the fence and stood beside him. "I don't know, I was probably way out of line for even asking you to come to work for me. I knew you worked for your father. It's just after watching you ride yesterday, I thought you might be looking for something else pretty soon." He picked up his empty bottle from the post. "It's too bad though," he said, looking at him. "I was looking forward to working with you."

They were standing only a few feet apart. Close enough that Eric could almost smell the warm, musky scent of him. "Yeah, it would have been nice," he said softly. "Thanks for thinking of me." He was a fool, he thought. There was probably a long line of applicants somewhere that would've given anything to have been in his shoes a few minutes ago, and he had just pissed it away.

He picked up his can from the jump and they started walking slowly back toward the clubhouse, out in the sunlight again.

"It's not like Florida is a wasteland," Morgan said as they walked. His was a relaxed, leisurely prowl; he seemed in no hurry to get back. "There are some good barns down there. I know they have a helluva good hunter/ jumper circuit. I showed on it for a couple of years as a junior, and I'm sure it's even better now than it was then. If you look around you should be able to find someplace to keep going with your lessons."

And that was it, Morgan had dropped it, and it left Eric feeling worse than he had when he'd first gotten there that morning. It was one thing to want something, it was entirely different to have it handed to him on a silver tray and have to turn it down. His resentment for his father had a new coat of paint on it and he was beginning to feel a resentment toward his brothers as well. And that was something he had never wanted. None of this was their fault.

"So you used to ride hunters?" he asked dully. He wished for the second time that he had loaded Max up right after his lesson like he'd originally planned, and then this whole regrettable conversation would have never happened. And he would have never known what he was giving up.

"Mostly jumpers," Morgan said. "I was a hyper-active kid, I didn't have the temperament for hunters. I wanted to tear around and hunters were just a little too quiet a pace for me."

Eric remembered the big grin Morgan had had on his face after Rebel had taken off on him, the day he had trailered the big horse over here to be vetted. If Morgan was like that now, he could imagine what he was like as a kid. Probably a lot like watching a roadrunner on speed. "What got you into eventing, besides being able to tear around all you wanted?"

"That's a little like asking someone why they fell in love. Who knows." Morgan said. "I think the realization came to me when my riding instructor let me out of the arena for the first time to jump some natural obstacles. The bug bit pretty hard that day. I was what," he said. "Maybe five, six at the most."

"Late bloomer," Eric said.

Morgan looked at him and smiled. "So from there I went up through all the levels in pony club and I spent every summer from ages thirteen through seventeen as a working student for some top notch riders. Then as soon as I graduated military school and was going to college, I spent every summer in France at Saumur until I got married."

Saumur was legendary as a riding school. Some of the best riders and trainers in the world, legends now themselves, had come out of its arenas in France. With his background, it was no wonder that Morgan had achieved so much, at a relatively young age.

They were walking back the same way they had come, passing the same fences. The grass under their feet was dry and warm and sweet smelling. A couple of pony clubbers, teenaged girls this time, met them on the path. They each had a plate of food and slowed down when they saw Morgan, looking like they wanted to hide. The catered lunch was intended only for the auditors and riders in the clinic. The two girls must have snuck in line somehow. Morgan just gave them a knowing smile and the girls had exploded into fits of giggling the moment they were past them.

Eric shook his head. He wondered if every kid on the place, male and female alike, had a crush on this man.

"You've been doing pretty good," Eric said after they had walked a little further. "And you've already been in one Olympics. That must have been a nice feather in your cap."

"It would have been even nicer if I'd medalled, but actually I've been in two," Morgan said. "I rode in Rome in 1960. I was seventh there which wasn't too bad considering everything that was happening at the time." He was quiet for awhile and Eric wondered if he meant his wife's death. He'd said she'd died five years ago. He wondered if he'd loved her at all or if Morgan had just done what a lot of gays did, and married because it was expected of them.

"My long-range plans are to win every major three day event in Europe at least once, especially the two big ones in England, Burghley and Badminton, I really want those," Morgan said. "No American rider has ever won them." He looked over at him as they walked, smiling. "And I'd like an Olympic gold," he said. "If I can manage all that, I'd happily retire at forty and give somebody else a crack at it for awhile."

Eric laughed. No rider had ever accomplished what Morgan was talking about. Equestrian events were different from regular athletic events where only a human athlete was involved. In equestrian sports everything that could go wrong was multiplied by two right at the start. And horses could be fragile partners. "You're not too ambitious, are you? How old are you now?"

Morgan laughed too. "I'll be twenty-nine in November," he said. "I figure that gives me eleven years. And I still have three years left until the games in Mexico City. I could have it all done by then if I'm extremely lucky. And I have good horses," he added.

They were getting close to the clubhouse. The veranda was over crowded with auditors and quite a few more of them had gotten their food and were sitting in groups out on the sunny lawn. There were a few umbrellas up. It looked like something out of a painting or a scene from a Fitzgerald novel. Eric had that same feeling of being the infidel crashing the gates of heaven that he'd had from the very first clinic. No matter how much the clinics and his riding meant to him, this wasn't his world. He would always be a visitor here.

He slowed down, not ready to enter it again. He would've liked to have stopped right where they were and talked with Morgan the rest of the day, but he knew that he had to get back to the track soon, no matter how angry he'd been at his father that morning.

"If you take my horse, Cat, for instance," Morgan said. He was talking about the chestnut gelding that had had surgery at the beginning of summer. "If I get anywhere in the next few years, it'll be because of him." They were walking past some of the auditors eating on the lawn. Eric was aware of curious pairs of eyes watching them. "The British team went as far as offering me a blank check for him right after Tokyo."

Eric glanced over at him. "Why didn't you take it?"

"I don't need the money," Morgan said as casually as he might have said he didn't need a drink of water. "And it was a psyche job anyway. They were telling me that if I sold him to them, they would make something out of him. And that I never would. And that just reaffirmed everything I already knew, that he was a great horse, and that I was lucky to have him."

They walked around the side of the clubhouse, past where Morgan's friend was still sitting. Morgan stopped right before they went up the stairs to the veranda.

"And that's what I was trying to tell you about your horse earlier, Eric," he said facing him again. "I've seen people go their whole careers and not find a horse as good as you have right now. If you're as serious about your riding as I think you are, don't sell him. You'll regret it the rest of your life."

Morgan had been pounding that against his head since yesterday and it had taken that long to actually get through. He wasn't just saying that Max was good, he was saying that the two of them together had world class potential. And that took a little time to go down. Morgan had actually been looking at him for the past two days as a peer.

He'd lived with Conor's negativity for so long that he'd never allowed himself to have any real ambitions. The big dream for him would've been that he could support himself doing what he loved to do. That he was good enough at it not to embarrass himself was just icing. Listening to someone who was as positive and had as much drive as Morgan did, was almost enough to make him believe he could do anything, too. And that was the worse kind of seduction.

He raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, I give in," he said. "I won't sell him."

"Good," Morgan said, smiling. He made no move for the stairs. "Do you mind if I ask you another question?"

Eric laughed, shaking his head. "Go ahead."

He was looking at him squarely. Out in the light again, his eyes were that peculiar gray-blue color of old blue jeans. "If you knew from the beginning you couldn't take the job, why did you let me keep on talking?"

Eric stared at him, starting to feel like that feral cat again. "I don't know." That wasn't exactly the truth. "Maybe I was hoping if I didn't say anything that you could talk me into it." And he realized that was so close to truth that it scared him.

Morgan studied him for awhile as if trying to make up his mind about something. Finally he said. "When do you leave for Florida?"

Eric looked at him curiously. "A couple of weeks. Why?"

"Why don't you come to work for me for a week before you go."

Eric laughed.

"I'm serious. I shouldn't be doing this at all. It's probably not even ethical," Morgan said. "But why don't you come to work for me for a week, and try it out - you might not even like it, but at least you'd know that. And maybe you could figure out what you really want to do in the meantime."

Eric searched his face, trying to find his angle, but he suspected now that if there was one, it was just the job itself. "You mean that?"

"Yeah, I do," Morgan said, smiling. "Bring your horse and I'll even take you over to Franz so you can take a lesson or two. But I'll warn you; I'll work your ass off while you're with me. I wasn't lying before; it's no gravy job. In a week you might be begging to go back to the track."

"Hard work doesn't scare me," Eric said, thinking if Morgan could have looked inside his head right then and seen how much he wanted to get away from his life, he would have never said what he did.

But maybe he had read something in his expression because Morgan was looking at him with that same sadness in his eyes that had been there before. "I didn't think it would," he said. He shrugged. "And who knows, maybe if you take a couple of days, you could work things out between your father and your brothers. Sometimes it just takes a fresh look to figure a problem out."

Morgan didn't have a clue, he thought, but a week to himself seemed too good to pass up. Even if Morgan made him ride twelve hours a day and muck stalls too, it would be a vacation. "So, let me get this straight. I can work for you for a week, check things out. And at the end of it, I can leave, no hard feelings, no strings attached?"

"That's it," he said. "I hope you'll be considering my offer while you're there, but at the end of the week, I'll haul you home if that's what you want. No questions asked."

Eric narrowed his eyes at him. "Why?"

Morgan laughed, shaking his head at him. "Why not?" he asked. He clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing it a little. "Eric, I think you must have a helluva lot of drive to have gotten where you have, almost completely on your own. And that's probably half of the reason I'm offering you the job in the first place," he said, taking his hand away again. "Because of that, I think you and I would get along together just fine."

Eric looked at him, still feeling the warm ghostly sensation of what had just been Morgan's hand. And Eric who didn't hug his brothers because it had never been part of his own upbringing, and rejected anything more than what it took to get him off from the men he had sex with, found himself responding involuntarily to that simple human touch.

He shook his head. "Conor'll shit a brick." He hadn't even thought that far yet. He had no idea what his father would do if he told him he wanted a week off to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He'd probably really need a job after that. "When do you want me to start?"

Morgan smiled. "You better give your father a little notice," he said. "How about Thursday? I'm going to be here until Wednesday anyway. I'm taking a couple of days off while Carl's still with my in-laws," he said. I've been told I don't do that often enough."

Eric shook his head again. He must be out of his mind.

He wondered what his mother had felt like that afternoon she had walked away. He wondered what kind of incredible survival instincts she must have had to be able to walk away from those two kids like that and never look back. And he wondered what piece of herself she'd had to chew through in order to get free of the trap he was in now.

He looked at Morgan who was looking at him curiously, waiting for an answer. He felt like Judas, but he'd gotten a second chance to get away, even if it was only for a week, and he wasn't going to be stupid again.

"Thursday's fine," he said.

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