Jed Friessen slid back the covers and slipped out of bed, his bare feet hitting the cold wood floor and rousing him further from his restlessness. He’d tossed and turned most of the night, as he had the previous night, and the night before that. The clock now ticked two in the morning, and it was pitch black outside as he stood naked, resting his arm against the bedroom window, squinting at the shadowed outline of the barn and horse paddock. Every stall in the barn was full, six horses tucked in for the night. His eyes burned as he stared into darkness, and though he could see nothing amiss, he sensed an impending darkness that just didn’t sit right. He raked his hand through his sleep-tousled brown wavy hair. It was on the longish side, and even his wife, Diana, had been nagging him to get a haircut, another thing to do—something else on his plate.
A horse nickered from the barn. Another answered softly in a way that said everything was fine. Maybe they knew he was watching, wondering; Jed could still feel that something wasn’t right, and he didn’t know exactly what it was. Maybe it was the worry plaguing his mind that wouldn’t ease. It could also be the fact he’d been working day and night for months, readying this place for Echo Springs Equine Center, the official grand opening. It would be something different from just the trail rides and pack trips. This was for Diana and her need to help others. He’d struggled past every single hurdle tossed in his path, from overpriced lumber, to his grant being yanked, to cancelled horseback riding pack trips that dried up his income stream through the summer and fall.
It was a simple dream. Diana’s dream. His wife, whom he loved more than his next breath. A horse facility specializing in bringing a special needs child together with a horse, because Diana believed, as did Jed, that allowing a child with special needs to learn skills through a connection with a horse provided a different advantage from your average therapy. It didn’t replace the children’s much-needed therapy, but it complimented and went hand in hand with it, centering the children, bringing balance into their life. And Jed would do anything to make sure his wife’s dream came true.
Diana, his redheaded beauty and the mother of his ten-month-old baby boy, Danny, lay sleeping in the small double bed. She was the most stunning woman he’d ever met, a woman who had no idea how beautiful she was. And no idea how broke they were. The thing was, Jed was determined to provide for his family, on his terms, in his way, and only with his money, which wasn’t much. After breaking his leg training that young squirrelly stallion, Jed had lost the spring and some of the early summer revenue from trail rides and pack trips. That money had always been enough to set him for the winter so he wasn’t living hand to mouth, and it would have helped with some of the start-up costs.
Diana had a law degree and had tried to set up a law practice in North Lakewood, but the people still didn’t give her the same trust they’d given some old white-haired fart. The only thing she’d managed to pick up, work wise, was a handful of wills and minor contracts, which amounted to squat. Besides, Jed made it clear to her that he wanted Danny raised at home by his mother, not stuffed into some daycare. They were a family, and he had no intention of seeing his wife in passing as she rushed off, working on some case that would drag her from him and Danny. It was selfish on his part, and he knew it, but he also knew Diana craved a family and deep roots more than her career.
Jed had bought this ranch outside North Lakewood a few years back at auction, and for a damn good price. But then he’d had to rebuild and fix just about everything in the house, the barn, and the three cabins he used for summer guests who booked horseback riding trips each year. He wasn’t wealthy, but his family was. Jed was the only son to not take a plum dime from his father. Ever since he left home, he’d had no desire to take a handout, even though his father said it was his birthright. His two brothers, Brad and Neil, and his cousin, Andy, accepted the wealth handed to them in property and money. Jed didn’t begrudge them for their easy lives, but he just didn’t believe he could look himself squarely in a mirror and call himself a man if he was taking money from his family. A man stood on his own two feet, made his own way in this world, and that was how Jed chose to live his life.
Even as he struggled now, he couldn’t bring himself to call his father for help, because to him that would be an admission that he had failed. So Jed had spent every spare minute turning over every rock to find the money to expand the barn, buy the extra tack, saddles, and horses, all at a bargain, thankfully. Except it had left him with nothing in his bank account and hours and hours of restless worry every night, and that was after the grant they’d been promised from the state had mysteriously disappeared. When he called the funding unit after getting the politically correct letter, they’d said funding had been cut for all areas for special needs. It was the economy, they said; but Jed learned that with governments, the first cuts always happened to the special needs, because they were the one sector of the population who didn’t have the voice, the money and the time to fight back. They were and always would be an easy target. This knowledge also added to his irritation, like a sliver stuck under his nail so far that he couldn’t get it out.
Jed hadn’t told Diana about losing the grant. He knew she would have been crushed and would have insisted on picking up legal work, anything to help him out. Except the problem was Jed didn’t believe a woman should ever support a man. That was his job, and as of late he wasn’t doing so great. All they needed was cash, so as long as the students who’d signed up for the first classes next week all showed and paid in full for their six-week class, he’d have enough to pay the mortgage, buy feed for the horses and food for them. But they still needed to advertise, and there was the phone bill, medical insurance….
“Jed, what are you doing up?” Diana called out as she leaned on her elbow. The duvet slipped and exposed a hint of her creamy white breast as she sat up. She brushed back her long mussed hair with hands that brought him so much pleasure and blinked her tired, bright blue eyes. “Come back to bed.”
Jed slid back under the covers and pulled her against him, running his hand down her slightly rounded belly.
Diana linked her finger with his. “Hmm, don’t think I don’t know you’ve had trouble sleeping.” She rolled over and touched his cheek. “I don’t need any light to see you’re worried about something. What is it?”
“Go back to sleep. Just thought I heard something, is all.” He brushed back her hair and kissed the tip of her nose.
“You’re working too hard, but I think it’s more than that. I don’t need you to protect me. I need you to share what you’re thinking, what you’re worried about.”
Jed rolled onto his back, rested his arm over his forehead, and sighed. Diana sometimes just wouldn’t let things go. “It’s fine, Diana. It’s my job to look after you and protect you. What kind of husband would I be if I couldn’t do that?” He realized too late he sounded sharp, abrupt, because next he knew, Diana sat up and slid her legs over the side of the bed.
“Diana… where are you going?” He reached over and grabbed her arm, feeling her tense up.
“Jed, I’m tired of you hiding things. And don’t think I haven’t noticed the stress this new horse center is putting on you. Is there something more I can do to help? What else has to be done? Maybe we should hire help.”
Hire help! He couldn’t believe she wanted to hire help. He ground his jaw, as that was the last thing they were going to do. “We don’t need help. I’m almost done, just got to finish the roof, and then, when we start that first class next week, everything will be fine.” And it would be, because the few who were interested and had signed up would be paying next week.
Diana slid around and rested her head on Jed’s chest, and then her chin as she gazed up at him. “You’re sure that’s all?”
Jed rested his hand on the back of her head. “Next week everything will be fine. Let’s get some sleep so we’re not both tired tomorrow.”
“I could help you get back to sleep.” Diana slid her hand up his chest and drew circles with her fingernail around his nipple. She pressed a kiss into his navel, and then, trailing down, she pressed kisses lower until he pushed his head back into the pillow and felt himself sinking into a mind-blowing bliss that only Diana could give him.
She traced her fingers up his thigh and followed lower, tracing kisses to his knee and over to the other side. Jed sucked in a breath, drowning in his desire, and slid his own hands down her back, pulling her up and rolling her over onto her back.
Danny whimpered from his bedroom in their small two-bedroom home. Jed groaned. “Your timing sucks, Danny,” he muttered.
Diana patted his arm to move him off her and started to get up.
“No, I’ll get him” he said. “He may just need changing.” Jed slid out of bed, the icy floor cooling his desire.
“Bring him back with you if he won’t go back to sleep. We’ll snuggle him between us. He loves that,” Diana called out.
“Let’s hope he goes back to sleep.” Jed picked up Danny, who was now sitting in his crib, rubbing his tired eyes. “You’re soaking wet.” He kissed his head, his cheeks, and breathed in the fresh baby smell of his baby boy and changed him into a dry diaper and sleeper. Jed wrapped him in his blanket and sat in the rocker in the corner of the room, gently rocking him until he fell back asleep. And when Jed climbed back in bed, Diana too had fallen back to sleep. But not Jed, as he lay beside his wife, her warmth pressed against him, and he continued to worry he’d let his family down.
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