Taking the Reigns


"Hell yeah!" Harry said enthusiastically. "I'll see if I can dig up some boxes and garbage bags."

"Tom can bring you over when he is finished making himself all pretty," Alyssa grinned then picked up her bag and keys and headed for the door.

"I'm pretty all the time," Tom bounded down the stairs. "Where are we going?"

"I am going to remove the tenant from the apartment which in reality was never mine but belonged to Godiva Stud Farm. It will have to be sold to pay back some of the creditors of course and if the tenant wants to fight for his rights he can take on half of the crippling debt I now own and go bankrupt with me," she smiled.

"Are you sure about this?" Tom asked, concern etched into his face.

"This just made the break-up faster, it was coming anyway. I don't think he'll be surprised. Follow me over in fifteen, okay? Harry is gonna help me pack," Alyssa put on a brave smile and hugged Tom. "Thanks for coming. You're the best friend a girl could have." Then she turned and fled from the warehouse before he could stop her.

Several hours later, they returned to the warehouse, what she actually wanted from the apartment turned out to be very little in reality. She had no need of any of the general household stuff and Justin seemed prepared to take the furnishings and anything she left behind as settlement for the two years of living together. In the end there were no tears or recriminations, just a mutual agreement that things had run their course and it was time to part. They had both felt sadness but like ripping a bandaid off, Alyssa cleaned out everything she wanted with the help of her friends so she wouldn't have to return to face him again. Justin in turn assured her he would vacate as soon as possible and let her know, so the apartment could be readied for auction.

The final loss of such a large part of her life left her feeling empty when she finally sat down to relax. It wasn't that she felt the devastation and betrayal of the night before but more that she had believed through all that had happened over recent months that even though they were apart she was loved by someone. Now she felt truly alone. She had her friends of course. She looked at Tom who sat comfortably in a chair close by but as with all people he would find his own love soon enough if he hadn't already and then what would she do, when he moved away to create his own life and family, separate to hers.

Her thoughts continued to grow darker and she didn't realise she had begun to cry until suddenly Tom was at her side, wrapping his strong arms around her and holding her to his chest. Once again she cried herself to exhaustion feeling stupid and weak, and loathing herself for it.

When she got up off the couch after resting for a time, she straightened her shoulders and turned to Harry who was sitting at the kitchen bench with Gwen. "Thank you so much for all your help. You didn't even know me and you have done so much." Alyssa walked toward them and pulled out a stool, to sit for a moment. "I need to go home," she smiled, "It's where I belong. I have to work out how to dig myself out of the mess I am in without resorting to public indecency charges," she laughed weakly and rolled her eyes as Harry started to protest.

"Oh come on," Harry grinned, "It would be a huge favour to me, giving my sleazy boss what he wants while doing a really cool piece on a part of horseracing history." She cocked her head as if remembering something, "I know Joe would do a serious piece following it too! This could be such great publicity for your stable. You could offer hot laps like the race cars except on horses!"

"Geez I was on your side until you said that Harry," Tom groaned. "Hot laps and horses," he grumbled and shook his head.

Harry took both of Alyssa's hands in hers, "Promise me you will think about it. It's the best idea I have had in months, since I got told I had to do a piece on this Nude Day thing."

Alyssa laughed again, "Why don't you come to the stables next weekend? You can see for yourself that we are not set up for tourists out there."

"That sounds great, I could do with a quiet weekend, can I bring a friend or two?" Harry was enthusiastic.

"Two," Tom said firmly. "You're not turning this into one of your party tours."

Harry fluttered her eyelashes at Tom, "Such a grouch. You wreck all my fun." She turned back to Alyssa. "I'll bring the rest of your stuff up to you then," she said, indicating the few bags that hadn't fit into Alyssa's car.

Despite the friendly banter, Alyssa just wanted to go home. She thanked Harry again and picked up her bag and keys. It wasn't until they were outside on the footpath that Alyssa realised Tom was leaving too. "I'll follow you. Stop in Falls Creek and I'll buy you a late lunch," he said quietly as he helped her into her car.

"Catch me if you can," Alyssa grinned and pulled out of the car park not waiting for his answering jibe. She had been driving for two hours, after having a fast run through the lights and traffic leaving the city, before she saw his bike in her rear view mirror and smiled. It was nice to know he was around and he ghosted along behind her for another hour before they pulled into Falls Creek and he lead the way to a small hotel.

It was a quaint little place, and over a beautifully home cooked meal they talked about the full extent of the ranch's problems. Not just the financial aspect but facilities, staff and networks within the racing community. The racing industry had undergone significant changes over the years and Bill hadn't altered his thinking to go with them. They needed to make sweeping changes across the board if they were going to survive, their expenses far outweighed their income and it couldn't be sustained much longer or Kerrick would win.

"Why didn't you tell me how bad things really were?" Tom looked at her with a mix of anger and worry showing in his face.

"I think I was trying to hold onto all the different pieces of my life after Dad... you know, I didn't want to lose anything or anyone else," she said quietly and his brow furrowed as he thought about what had happened in the last twenty-four hours. "Harry said something this morning that finally broke through that fantasy world I had been living in, where if I hung on tight enough nothing else would change, and change could be a good thing," Alyssa tried to explain.

Tom smiled, "Harry can have her moments of clarity. What did she say?"

Alyssa tried her best to retell the conversation verbatim, doing her own impression of Harry's voice and nuances, "Look Doll-Face, life has shit on you from a great height by all accounts, and I know this is the last thing you want to hear but sometimes life kicks you in the guts for a reason." She shrugged exaggerating Harry's movements, "Time to move on and do things your way, not your father's way, not your lousy boyfriend's way but your way." She smiled, "Now you just have to decide what your way is going to be. Are you strong enough to take on the world and show them you can make your mark on your own or will you buckle under and lose the stables as well?" Alyssa burst out laughing at the end of her impression as Tom held his sides and chuckled loudly.

"Yeah that sounds like a page from Harry's, shoot it from the hip, book," Tom was almost doubled over with laughter at Alyssa's impression of his friend.

"It just sort of blew away all those fantasy clouds I had pulled around my head and I knew Justin had to go," she said with a weak smile. "I did love him, you know, but in the end I am a country girl and he definitely is all citified, despite his love of horse racing. It was more about the events than the actual animals for him, I think."

Tom nodded, "City life is great, but like you, I always make my way home again." He reached out and took her hand, "Is that everything? You told me all of it?" He watched her nod. "Good now WE can go back and work out a way to keep the rest of your ruined life together." He grinned as he teased her but squeezed her hand to let her know he meant it about helping her to save her home.

Leaving the small hotel and bistro, they began the second half of their journey home each lost in their own thoughts about each other, the ranch they had grown up on and possible solutions to the most immediate problems.

Alyssa smiled as she drove up the long gravel track that led to her home. She did love this place despite her urgency to get away from the humdrum day to day work of the farm as a teenager. She pulled up in front of the big old house and turn off the engine but she didn't move from the car. Looking up at the weathered façade of the house, she wondered once again if there was any way she could hang onto it regardless of the enormous debt and maintenance issues.

She didn't know how long she had been sitting there staring vacantly at the building before her car door opened. "Come on, Alyssa. Sitting there staring at it won't make things better. Let's go see what Marcie is cooking," Tom gently pulled her from the car.

"Shit I forgot to tell Marcie I was coming back early," Alyssa sighed. "It's okay I will make you something." She started toward the door.

"Slow down," Tom caught her hand and walked with her to the front door,"I called her before I left Harry's place and said we would be back tonight, so she didn't think we were burglars trying to break in."

"Oh, thanks," Alyssa smiled and let them into the house. True to form Marcie was in the kitchen and even though she had eaten a late lunch, Alyssa found that she was suddenly starving.

"I heard you pull up ages ago what happened out there?" Marcie smiled to hide the look of concern she had for Alyssa. Tom had told her of the break up and she had worried all afternoon.

"I was daydreaming as usual," Alyssa said and returned the woman's half-smile.

Marcie lost any pretence of not knowing at that point and came around the counter to hug the girl she had looked after her whole life. Alyssa scowled at Tom realising he had told Marcie everything.

Tom held up his hands, "I can't win. I can't lie to either of you women and you think you would be grateful but noooooooooo," he said exaggeratedly. "You all like the lying cheating bastards." The words were out of his mouth before he realised what he had said and at the look of utter dismay on Alyssa's face he wished he could have sucked them back in. "Oh gawd, I didn't mean that the way it came out," he looked at Alyssa with a horrified expression.

Alyssa took the dishtowel from Marcie's hand and started flicking it at Tom so that he yelped and backed away. "I think Harry was right, all men are pigs! She thought you might be the exception to the rule but you just proved her wrong." She threw the dishtowel at him and turned her back on him to wink at Marcie to let her know she was really fine. In truth if Tom hadn't tried to retract his words she would have thought it no more than the teasing he meant it to be.

Alyssa then added to her torment of Tom by saying, "Did he also tell you that he thinks I should ride around nude so people can point at me and laugh?"

Marcie put her hand over her mouth she wasn't sure whether to be horrified or laugh at the joke. At Tom's indignant spluttering of "I said no such thing. It wasn't like that at all," Marcie picked up a second dish towel and began to flick him herself.

"Okay, okay. I admit I am a pig like all the others of my gender," Tom surrendered. "I can't help it, it's genetic."

"True," Marcie relented turning to Alyssa. "He can't help it."

"I guess," Alyssa agreed and stifled a giggle.

They ate an easy meal and, now that the crazy scheme was out and on the table, Alyssa had to fill Marcie in on the nude ride idea . They laughed and joked with each other like when they were younger, the absence of her father leaving a gaping hole in the conversation that neither woman wanted to acknowledge.

"Well unlike some people I didn't get any sleep last night, so I am going to turn in and leave you two girls to clean up, being a pig and all," he smirked and kissed Marcie on the cheek thanking her for the dinner before turning to Alyssa and picking up a few strands of her hair. "How fast can you grow your hair?"

"Pig," she murmured trying not to smile.

"You go to bed too," Marcie urged her. "I don't mind the cleaning up."

Tom and Alyssa left Marcie in the kitchen and walked through to the front of the house again. "Thanks," Alyssa said softly as Tom went through the door, "For everything."

"That's what friends are for," Tom smiled and bent to kiss her forehead. He looked into her eyes for a few seconds more and then abruptly turned and walked into the darkness to his own small cottage that he shared with his father. He had wanted nothing more than to kiss her when he had looked into her eyes but he knew this was not the time. He had grown up with Alyssa as friends and playmates and while he had slowly noticed her and fallen for her as she matured into womanhood, she had only ever looked at him like a brother.

His father had once owned a neighbouring ranch but they had been one of the first families to buckle in the recession and sell out to Kerrick and his brother. Bill had given them both a job and a place to live on his own property. Alyssa had been sixteen at the time and he only a year older. They had spent even more time together in the year before he went to university and he was living the high life under his mother's influence by the time Alyssa followed him there a year later. Their two worlds didn't mesh and their encounters became less frequent though they both journeyed home for holidays.

Tom remembered the moment he knew his feelings for Alyssa were deeper than mere pseudo- siblings. He had seen her enter a marquee at a racing event on the arm of Justin Hodges. She had truly grown up and looked stunning, despite her downward glances, and demure disposition, she shone out in a room of stars and turned all heads including his own. It wasn't how she looked or that she was with another man. It was that she was totally oblivious to the effect she had on those around her, there was no ego or falseness about her, she was just the fun loving country girl she had always been, regardless of wearing a designer outfit and arriving with one of the city's most eligible bachelors.

That had been over a decade ago and Tom threw himself into the party scene of the city. He had lived essentially with his mother while in the city and was accepted amongst her friends who lived the high life of 'A --listers', so far removed from the farm life he had grown up knowing. His mother, in her youth, had rebelled against the decadent social set of her parents by marrying a rancher and moving to the country but, Tom thought with a smile, we all return to home eventually and in the end she had fled back to the city when times got tough for their family.

His thoughts turned from the past to Alyssa as she was now. From the darkness of the trees he turned to look back at the big house, he could see the small light in the left corner of the house that told him Alyssa was still awake. She was finally returning home properly as he had the year before when his father had become ill. They had to work out some solutions to the farm's problems. He didn't want to lose another home. If he was honest with himself, he didn't want to lose his connection with Alyssa. He watched the house until Alyssa's light went out, disappointed that she had not come to the window and he walked into the cottage.

The following day Tom and Alyssa spent almost the whole day in her father's old study going through the accounts, trying to find places to trim expenses and prioritise the debt that seemed to still be accruing exponentially. Even with the sale of the apartment, which would buy them some time, what they really needed was more people to use their stable and stud facilities on a regular basis or another champion thoroughbred to train or else they would have to close part of the stable building and start laying off some of the workers.

Marcie had been in an out of the room bringing coffee and lunch. She had quietly suffered through their constant bickering, over one thing or another, but she eventually interrupted. "Well if you have a little time, why don't you see how the mare and the filly run? I know they probably only have little value for their bloodline but..."

"You think they are runners?" Tom asked as if she was telling him they were tap dancers.

"Don't look at me like that. Bill thought they might be runners," Marcie replied, looking wounded.

Both Alyssa and Tom had almost discounted the possibility that one of the horses their stud already owned could be a champion and only looked at what they could bring in from outside the stable. "Let's go for a ride this afternoon," Alyssa suggested. "We've been cooped up in here more than half the day."

They made their way out to the stables shortly after. This was where Alyssa preferred to be, the smell of the straw and horses filled her as she breathed deeply and smiled. To their surprise the filly was being rubbed down after a work out and the mare was eating from a feedbag. "Didn't realise these two were being trained," Tom said in a friendly tone.

"I thought your father would have told you he started to work them after, Bill..." the stable hand looked at Alyssa, "well you know."

"My dad? Well everyone has secrets it seems," Tom muttered and walked out of the stable in search of his father, leaving Alyssa staring after him.

Throughout the afternoon Alyssa and Tom both had their own conversations with various people about the mare and filly and got the same responses. Tom had gone to his father and the head trainer while Alyssa had stayed in the stables talking to the stablehands and jockeys. It seemed that the mare could run, but would never be able to match it in the big races, however the filly really showed promise. Alyssa had made it home without seeing Tom and raced up to shower before he arrived.

Tom had knocked on her bathroom door, calling out to let her know he was here and would wait for her to finish. Alyssa emerged wearing a towel, her damp hair trailing down her back. Tom swallowed hard at her fresh glowing appearance and turned his back. "Get dressed. It's too hard to take you seriously when you're dressed in a towel."

Alyssa misunderstood his meaning thinking he was saying that because she was a girl she couldn't be serious about the farm. She had many of the farm hands dismiss anything she said out of hand or call her 'girlie' and smile at her indulgently when she tried to discuss the horses. Alyssa stomped into her wardrobe and pulled on a soft shirt and a pair of old comfy jeans before emerging still angry and glaring at Tom, "Serious enough for you or should I put on my boots as well."

Tom heard the tone in her voice and raised an eyebrow, she just shook her head. "The mare could do country races but the filly might go further," Tom said still unsure of why Alyssa seemed angry with him.

"Yeah that's what the jockeys said," Alyssa agreed. "When I could convince them I was SERIOUS and wanted a proper answer." Alyssa grumbled looking at him with disappointed eyes. "Even you won't take me seriously now and I swear I never expected you to act like all the other men here and treat me like an idiot."

"What on earth are you talking about? I couldn't take you serious because you were in a towel!" he stood up and walked toward her. "I have never treated you like an idiot." He tried to hide his hurt feelings, all he wanted to do at that moment was hug her tight and kiss her and tell her just how seriously he wanted her but he stood stiffly unsure of how she would react to anything he said. The silence lengthened and he eventually sighed, "We can talk later, after dinner, I guess." He left her standing there and quietly left.

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