Chapter Nineteen

Lydia turned down the drive to the farm, but glanced only briefly at her parents' house as she drove past it. Her mother had picked up the girls from school, and had had Ryan since the early morning, but Lydia wasn't quite ready to get the kids and go home. She turned off the main drive and parked in front of the barn office, where Leslie's car was still parked. It was Lydia's day to manage the barn operations, but due to the circumstances, Leslie had swapped days with her. Apparently, it had been a busy day; it was nearly four-thirty, and on normal days, everyone was preparing to shut down for the afternoon by now.

Lydia bypassed the office, taking care not to pass in front of the window. Leslie would see her and want to talk, and Lydia needed this time alone. Her younger sister's red hair caught her attention from the riding arena; Diana was apparently teaching a lesson. Actually, Lydia thought, that's my lesson. I'd forgotten Jessica was coming today. Good thing Di was around to cover for me. She made a mental note to apologize to the student and her mother the next time she saw them as she entered the barn. Immediately, the familiar scent of hay, horses, and saddle leather reached her nose, providing a wave of instant comfort. The barn and the horses always made her feel better.

She made her way down the aisle, pausing to pet several horses she especially liked, until she reached the last stall on the end—her Thoroughbred mare, Ginger. The horse greeted her with a nicked, and began sniffing at Lydia's jeans, looking for treats. Lydia smiled and produced a handful of baby carrots from the tack trunk outside the stall.

"You ready to go for a ride, pretty girl?" she asked the horse. Lydia took a bucket of grooming tools from the trunk and quickly brushed the mare and cleaned out her hooves. When she finished, she put the grooming tools away and retrieved Ginger's bridle from the tack room. She slipped the bit into the horse's mouth, fastened the throatlatch, and flipped the reins over Ginger's head. She didn't feel like taking the time to put a saddle on her; bareback would work just as well for her today. Lydia unfastened the latch on the stall door and snuck out the back entrance of the barn with her horse.

Lydia started to mount the way she always did when she rode bareback—to take a short running start and launch herself onto the horse's back—but paused when she thought about the baby. Landing on her stomach across Ginger's back may not be such a good idea. Instead, she led Ginger over the mounting block, and used the steps to mount. "Okay, little one," she said, talking aloud to her baby—something she'd started doing increasingly often in the last few weeks. "We're gonna get you used to horses early on. After all, it's in your blood: your grandma and grandaddy, and your aunts and uncle, and your cousins, and your big sisters, and of course your mommy…"

She trailed off as she clicked to Ginger and started towards the trail. At this time of day, she was unlikely to run into anyone. Trail rides were uncommon during the week, and if any other lessons were scheduled, they would be held in the arena, so she fully expected to be able to enjoy the solitude she so desperately needed. It wasn't that she wouldn't appreciate her family's support, but as today had gotten closer and closer, her family's empathy and concern for her well-being had become almost condescending and smothering. Bryan had been walking on eggshells around her all week, trying not to upset her, and the girls had been asking dozens of questions, especially over the past day or two. It had all just made an already difficult day that much harder.

She'd known this day was coming, but nothing could have prepared her for the reality of it. It all seemed so simple—sign here, here, and here, initial here and here, and then it's done. A five year marriage, ended just like that. Five years, three beautiful children, a home they'd built together—and none of it meant anything anymore. She couldn't believe how unfeeling, how rigid and cold it had been. Both their lawyers had been present, of course, and Trent hadn't said a word to her. That had hurt the most, she thought. Their marriage may have been over, he may have moved on—and so had she—but she had expected him to say something. "It was great while it lasted, sorry things turned out this way, we had some good times, thanks for having my kids." She would have been happy with at least something, but he'd just signed and left, like it was just that easy for him.

"Well, it probably was that easy for him," she thought. For her, it had been harder than she'd imagined. From the moment she walked into the room, when she first saw him, she'd been overwhelmed with memories of their marriage. Their eyes met, but his cold and distant gaze showed no trace of the affection and love he'd once had for her, and that realization hurt her to the core. Images of his proposal, their wedding, the birth of their twins, and then of Ryan…then flashes of other memories: the car accident, their arguments and the times he'd hit her, the miscarriages, the night he'd told her he was leaving…the good and the bad, and everything in between. She had given him so much—her time, her love, her life—and it meant nothing.

His expression and completely callous attitude that afternoon had been unbearable in light of those memories. He had been everything to her; her entire world had been centered on him, and he'd thrown it away like it was nothing. She'd tried to block out the memories and managed to hold back tears as they went through the formalities of signing all the papers to finalize the divorce, and in fact, she hadn't even cried once she was in her car and driving home. But now, now that she was alone on the trails and all the memories she'd tried so hard to fight that morning could no longer be suppressed, she finally let herself cry. The tears started slowly at first, but it wasn't long before Ginger's ears flicked back at the sound of Lydia's sobs.

Lydia reined Ginger in and dismounted. She held the horse's reins in one hand and wiped away tears with the other as she led Ginger over to a nearby tree. She sat down, leaning back against the tree, and let her tears and sobs flow freely. No one could hear her cry here, except for Ginger, and she certainly wasn't going to tell any secrets. While Ginger grazed on nearby leaves, occasionally nudging Lydia's shoulder with her nose, Lydia let every hurt and fear and drop of sadness pour out of her body. It was nearly fifteen minutes before her tears stopped and she stood up, brushing herself off and collecting the horse's reins. She wiped away the last of her tears as she led Ginger down the trail on foot. She knew a clearing was coming up in about fifty yards, and she could cut use the fence there to remount.

When she reached the pasture, she led Ginger close to the fence, then carefully climbed to the top rail and grabbed onto the horse's withers as she swung her right leg over the mare and settled into position. She dug her heels into Ginger's sides and started back for the barn. She'd done her crying, and while it probably wouldn't be the last time she cried today, she had her life to get back to—her family, her children. They needed her, and she needed them.

As she neared the barn, she noticed a person standing behind the barn, looking in her direction. It wasn't long before she recognized the tall figure, and as she rode up to the barn, Bryan walked up to meet her. He was fresh from practice, she knew, dressed in jeans and a blue button-up, and his expression was one of quiet concern as he grabbed onto Ginger's reins and pulled them back to stop her. He looked up into Lydia's tear-stained face and smiled softly. "Rough day, huh?"

She laughed in spite of herself, and wasn't surprised when tears started to fall again. Bryan reached up and helped her off the horse, pulling her close as soon as her feet were on the ground. With his arms wrapped tightly around her, Lydia laid her head on Bryan's shoulder and cried. He didn't try to talk to her, just stroked her hair gently and kissed her forehead until she stopped crying.

"How did you know I was out here?" she asked softly.

"Your sister," he replied. "I came by to check on you, and saw your car parked out front. Your sister said you tried to sneak past the office without being seen, and when she came looking for you, you and your horse were gone. She figured you needed some time alone."

"Yeah," she nodded. "I did. I'm better now, though." At his skeptical look, she added. "Really, I am. I just needed to get away and have some time alone to process and…"

"Cry?" Bryan finished. She nodded and he kissed her gently. "No more tears now, okay? I hate to see you cry." She smiled softly and kissed him on the cheek before laying her head on his shoulder again. He wrapped his arms around her and rubbed his hands up and down her back reassuringly. "Lyds, let me take you and the kids out tonight," he said suddenly.

She pulled back and looked up into his face. "Bry…" she started to protest, but he held a finger up to her lips and grinned.

"I know what you're going to say," he said. "But hear me out. You've had a rough day, and you need something to take your mind off of everything that's happened. I know you've been worried about us being seen together in public, but remember what we decided after you found that stuff on the team forum a couple weeks ago? We said we'd go public about our relationship once the divorce was final. I'm not saying we have to announce it to the world tonight, but the divorce is final, and it can't do any damage if we are seen together."

Lydia sighed and regarded him thoughtfully for a few moments. Finally, the hopeful expression in his eyes was too much, and she gave in. "What did you have in mind?" she asked.

"The girls have been talking for the last week about wanting to go see that movie, about the fairies or whatever," Bryan replied. "It's not exactly my idea of a romantic movie for our first real date, but…"

"You would honestly go sit through that movie?" Lydia asked skeptically.

"For you and the girls?" Bryan replied. "You bet I would. So what do you say, can I take my three favorite girls out tonight?" Lydia nodded even as she felt tears sliding down her face again. Bryan reached out and wiped the tears off her face. "Now what did I tell you about crying?" he grinned.

She laughed. "They're happy tears," she assured him.

"Okay, then," he said. "Come on, let's go put your horse up, get the kids, and we'll all go out and have a great night. Tonight's a fresh start for the four of you, and I'm gonna make sure it's a good start."

A/N: There you go, three chapters at once! I'm working on #20, as well as another story or two, on top of 18 hours of class and 20 hours of work every week. I can't promise when I'll update next, but hopefully soon, and you are always great motivation. Thanks for reading! -Bri