The next day, Luke arrived early at the stable and began hitching up the horses. He'd done it so often that he was able to let his thoughts wander, and they wandered to Emma. What would she say, he wondered. What would he tell her about himself? He'd been distracted ever since he'd proposed they talk, and hadn't slept well. Writing had been an exercise in futility.
None of it had been helped by the phone call he'd made. As he did every month or so, he'd called home. His mother had answered, but as soon as she'd heard someone else come in the room, she'd hung up. Nothing to be done about it
, he reminded himself. Concentrate on Emma.
He'd just gotten the horses hitched when he saw Emma walking down the sidewalk towards him.
"Hi." She met his eyes, looked away, and then looked up again.
"Hey." His voice was soft. "You're early."
"Am I?" She looked at her watch. "I guess I am. I live just down the street, so it doesn't take long."
"Really? Where do you live?"
She gestured behind her. "About four blocks that way."
"No kidding." Luke shook his head and chuckled. "I must pass your place every day."
"You do." She gave him a shy smile. "I watch the horses go by, it's my favorite part of the day."
"Well, come on." Luke held out a hand and forced a grin. "Now you can watch from the carriage. It's a completely different perspective."
Emma took his hand and climbed up in the carriage. She huddled into her coat, cold despite a hat, gloves, and scarf.
"Here." Luke reached back and got a blanket. "I keep a few of these around." He winked. "Never know what people might need."
Emma laughed and arranged the blanket over her legs. "You seem very prepared."
He shrugged and snapped the reins to start the horses. "Never hurts."
Emma bit her lip; something was bothering him. The smile and the wink—they were genuine, but there was something underneath. She knew how that felt. Pretending to smile when you wanted to cry; forcing down the anger; acting as though you had the Christmas spirit when you didn’t.
"Can I ask what's wrong?" She laid a tentative hand on his arm.
"Nothing much." Luke shrugged, then smiled at her. "I'm a terrible host. I should be telling you about all the landmarks and historical buildings."
"It's okay. I'd rather talk about you." She took a deep breath. "Or to you. That was the whole point of coming out, right?"
"Yes, it was." Luke put one arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, then dropped a kiss on her forehead. "So. What was that all about yesterday?"
Emma sighed. "You really want to know?"
"Yes, I do."
"Okay." She closed her eyes. "My sister, Lila, and I came here about three years ago. We sang together . . . I did the music, and wrote the lyrics, and we thought we had had something."
"I bet you did." Luke squeezed her.
"Then we met Sam. Sam Hollings. We were playing in this little club and he just . . . ." Emma felt herself blush and wiped at her eyes. "I guess I was just too stupid. He was handsome and slick and I believed everything he said. He told me . . . oh, God, he told me I didn’t need Lila, that I did all the work and she was just dead weight. He said she was holding me back. I believed him. He was wrong, but I believed him."
Luke was silent for a while. "Then what?"
Grateful that he withheld comment, Emma made herself continue. "I made an effort at first to say no, Lila and I were a team. But he kept at it and at it. He told me I didn’t need her, that he had all these . . . contacts or something from people who were interested in me, if I would dump Lila. Then, I swear I couldn’t tell you the first time it happened, but he got me on drugs.
"I can't believe that. I mean, I never wanted anything to do with drugs. At all. Lila and I, we were like, the cleanest kids ever in school. Then somehow . . . ." She ran a hand through her hair. "I don't know. It happened. I remember some things but not others."
"When you want something, really want it, it's hard not to do everything to get it." Luke kept his arm around her and his voice was low. "Pressure is hard to resist, especially when the pressure is made to seem like it's good for you."
"Yeah." Emma rested her head on his shoulder. "And I was so easy to pressure. He must have been laughing at me the whole time."
"Did he ever hurt you?"
"No. I know it seems like he would have, and he did get me drugs, but he never hit me or anything like that."
Luke nodded but said nothing. Protective instincts reared up with the desire to bash Sam's head in, but he took a deep breath. Can't do anything now,
"Anyway, I guess the rest is short, and you probably know what's coming." Emma pulled out a tissue and dabbed at her eyes and nose. "I told Lila I agreed with Sam, that he found someone who was interested, but only in me. I told her I'd try to bring her in later, but . . . ." She shrugged. "Lila knew I didn't mean it. I was too strung out and too hung up on Sam. We were at this party, a Christmas party, when I told her. She left and I haven't seen her since.
"I stayed with Sam for a while, because I did believe him. I kept writing and singing and he kept saying, oh, sorry, it didn’t work out but I have another guy I want to talk to. I was such an idiot."
"No," said Luke, "he used you. It's no sin to believe in someone."
"Except he didn't believe in me." Emma let out a half-laugh. "I was just someone to, I don't know . . . keep his bed warm, amuse himself. Then one day I was supposed to meet him and I got there early and I saw him talking to this girl. I walked up and just knew, you know? He told me how it just wasn’t working, he had to focus on whatever-her-name-was, and could I have my stuff out by the next morning. I kind of . . . fell apart after that."
Emma was drained, and they were quiet as the horse clapped along the street. There was more to the story: how she'd been on the streets for a couple of weeks, then found a girl she'd met through Sam, and who knew his MO. She helped Emma get back on her feet, get into rehab, and then later, she'd met Millie and gotten her job and apartment.
After a few blocks, Emma said, "You know what one of the worst things is?"
"Every sort of milestone, every bad thing, happened around Christmas." She shook her head and brushed away some straggling tears. "Lila and I made our promise to come here on Christmas. I chased her away at a Christmas party. Sam dumped me at Christmas."
"It's tough when those things happen at the holidays." Luke nodded in agreement.
"I haven't been able to write a note, or a word, or sing since that. Sometimes it . . . I feel so empty." Emma felt better for telling him, although her stomach was in knots. She hadn't told anyone about that.
"Sometimes," Luke said after a while, "when I go a while without writing, I feel like that. Empty, and worried I might not have more to write about."
"But you get past it?"
"Yes. So far." Luke sighed as they rode a bit further. He guided the horses around the corner, stalling for time. It was his turn to talk, even though he was still processing what Emma had told him.
"Luke, you don't have to say anything." Emma patted his arm and he wondered if she'd read his mind. "It was so good of you to listen to all of that and . . . well, you don't have to say anything you don’t want to."
"No, I do." He looked down at her. "That was the deal, remember?"
"No, no." He shook his head and gave a small grin. "I can't go back on my word, especially now. What would Santa think?"
She laughed, a sound that warmed him through and that he wanted to hear again.
"I can't say mine is quite as dramatic, but . . . ." He shrugged. "I wanted to be a writer. My dad wanted me to be a farmer. I decided I had to follow what I wanted, so I left and they never forgave me."
"Oh." She squeezed his arm. "I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault." He flicked the reins. "I call every so often, but I never get anywhere. I think my mom would talk to me but her loyalties are torn so she doesn't." He scoffed. "It's ridiculous, really, since my younger brother is all about the farm. It's in his blood; hell, it's in his DNA. And don't get me wrong, I love it, too, but it's not . . . ." He searched for the words. "It's not the right thing for me. Writing is."
"So here we are, the two of us, alone at Christmas," Emma observed.
"I guess." He gave her a questioning glance. "What happened with Lila?"
"I don't know." Emma shook her head. "Our father died about two years before we came to the city, and our mom remarried about a year after that. We didn't care for her husband and it was mutual, but we tried to get along. For her sake, you know? Then they moved. Florida. I called once, left a message . . . they never called back."
"So you don't know where she is?" Luke was surprised. "They never called to say she showed up?"
"She might not have gone to them." Emma felt her throat tighten up and forced the words out. "Like I said, we didn't get along. But she never . . . never called me, or anything. We had one cousin, but we weren't close, so I don't think she would have gone there, either. I saw a few people we both knew, but they hadn't heard from her." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I miss her so much."
"I'm sure she misses you, too." Luke rubbed her shoulder.
Emma nodded but didn’t say anything. She did miss her sister. They weren't twins, but they'd often felt like they were. They finished sentences for each other, picked on up on moods without saying anything . . . they had been best friends.
"I hate to say it," Luke told her, "but we have to get back. You probably need to get to work and so do I."
"I do." Emma paused, then bit her lip. "Will I see you after? At Millie's?"
"You bet." Luke turned the horses again and they headed back to their starting point.
"You know, I'm always surprised that the horses aren't frightened," Emma said, talking over her relief at Luke's answer. "The cars go speeding by, honking, but the horses just keep going along. They must trust you."
"They do." Luke chuckled. "Or I like to think they do, but really, it's the blinders. They can't see the cars, so they aren't scared."
"I wish I could be like that." Emma sighed. "I feel like I'm scared of everything sometimes."
Luke pulled the horses to a stop and turned to her. "Not me, though, right? You aren't scared of me?"
She shook her head. "No, I couldn't be."
"Good." Luke cupped her face and kissed her. She feels so soft, so warm.
Luke dropped the reins over his knee and put his other arm around her to pull her close. Emma responded with a sigh and gripped his jacket. After a moment, he pulled away. "Wow."
"Yeah." Emma nodded, then twisted her fingers in her lap. "I . . . I've never even dated anyone since . . . I wasn't sure anyone would want to once I told them."
"Don't be silly." Luke kissed her again, this time with a little more force. "I only wish I had more time to kiss you. Think Millie would let someone else take your shift?"
Emma giggled. "I don't think so. She's pretty strict about that."
"Rats." Luke laughed as well and wrapped his arms around her. "I'd much rather stay here with you than ride around in the cold."
"I like being with you, too." Emma colored after she said it. God, he'll think you're back in high school,
"Good." He kissed her once more, taking her by surprise. Her lips were parted and he ran his tongue over them, making her grip him tighter and sending goosebumps racing over her body. "I think we should find more ways to be together," he said, and Emma hoped her answer was apparent in her response to his kiss.
After a few more minutes, Emma pushed herself away with some regret. "That feels great, but I'm not sure you want Sol catching us doing that."
Luke rolled his eyes. "He'd probably tell me how I was doing it wrong."
"No, you weren't."
"Thanks." Luke held her again. "You're right, I hate to go but we better. I will see you later, okay?"
"Right." Emma waited until Luke got down from the carriage and held out a hand to help her before she followed suit. She started to step back but he grabbed her hands.
"You'll be all right, won't you?" He rubbed his hands up and down her arms.
"I'll be okay." Emma nodded.
"Good." Luke kissed her forehead. "Christmas is coming and I want to spend it with you."
Her eyes welled up at the words. "Thank you. I'd like that."
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<a href="https://www.lushstories.com/stories/love-stories/horses-in-the-city-ch-04.aspx">Horses in the City Ch 04</a>