A short story from the collection "Love is on the Wind," available at Amazon and at Second Wind Publishing's site. This is the opener for a novel I wrote a long time ago--but it needs to come out of the drawer and turn into what it was clearly dying to be -- a fantasy romance!
"Ha! See her coming out of the pines over there?" Chris von Hagen pointed. "She went through the rocky thicket south of the woods. Now she's angling this way, the crafty vixen."
A red mare with the taffy-colored tail galloped across the pasture. The breakneck daring left no doubt that a superbly confident rider was astride.
It was a game, a game played by young aristocrats, a wild and dangerous game of “Fox and Hounds.”
Several “Foxes,” given a head start, must reach the safety of a goal, riding across rough country, while the “hounds” rode in hot pursuit.
The well to do players wagered among themselves on every possible outcome, but the prize for any fox who escaped was largest, particularly because it so rarely happened. Today’s prize was a spirited yearling colt.
"But," the speaker went on with a wry smile, "no one will ever catch that whirlwind on the flats.”
The two young men had ridden fast, intent upon getting ahead of the hunt and setting an ambush for the last uncaught “fox” at a hill just before the goal. Sitting easily on a powerful bay, Christoph von Hagen was tall, erect, and, under the fine tailoring of his elegant clothes, muscular. His dark curly hair was captured in a black ribbon.
Men and women alike agreed that he was good looking. Men described him as “manly” or “forthright.” The praise of women was a good deal warmer, tending towards the classical. “Like some pagan god” was the phrase most frequently whispered behind fluttering fans at winter parties.
Max shaded his eyes with his hand, trying to get a better look at the horse blazing across the meadow. His more ordinary blonde good looks were diminished by proximity to his friend.
"Hers? A female? Riding like that?" Fox and Hounds was considered too dangerous for the “gentler sex.” And wasn't this rider astride? And wearing trousers?
"The Devil!" Max exclaimed as understanding came. "It's Caterina and her red mare."
"And you know how well that rascal rides. Besides, there's not a horse around that can catch that mare of hers over the flat, not even mine." Chris gave his mount's sweating neck a pat.
"I've got to catch her, Max. Now!"
As if he understood, the bay reared. In the next instant horse and rider were plunging down the hill, showering earth behind them.
"Hey, Chris!" shouted his companion, spurring after. "The dike! The dike!"
The big bay, black mane and tail flying, continued straight towards a lethal heap of broken stone. It would have to be taken in one leap, for landing on it would certainly break the horse’s legs. No one had risked his mount across VonBeiler's dike in a generation.
As he came to it, Max reined in to watch, swallowing the heart in his throat. First came the gathering of the burnished hindquarters, then the breathtaking leap as the bay tucked up his black socks and rose skyward.
Max whooped as horse and rider flew over the murderous pile. The clean landing on the other side led to a resumption of the charge.
Still shouting, Max kicked and used his whip, beginning his own hasty circumnavigation of the dike.
As he rode, he could see the fox Caterina speeding away. Her mare was fully extended, never more than one foot on the ground. The girl's hat, which she'd worn to hide her hair, was gone. Her thick braid writhed like a red snake against her back.
Riders boomed over the hill. Throwing a glance over her shoulder, Caterina knew she was the only fox left. There was a flash of triumph.
The yearling would be hers! How proud Papa would be!
On the other side of the river she could see the beginnings of the manicured grounds attached to the von Beiler's mansion. Anticipating the bridge the goal, the other side Caterina's gaze swung ahead. That was when she saw a rider coming towards her from an impossible direction, the other side of that insurmountable stone dike.
"Damn!" It was Cousin Chris! The only one with the horse--and the guts—to come that way.
Their horses thundered towards the bridge. For a moment it looked as if they would meet head on, but Caterina reined hard. An impossibly sharp turn later, horse and rider plunged off the bank, splashing into the river.
It was deep here, deeper than Caterina expected. Swollen by a recent rain, the water was rushing, carrying them swiftly downstream and under the bridge.
"Come on, Star!" She grasped the mare's mane. The bank was lower on the goal side, the water shallower.
I can still win!
As horse and rider swept beneath the bridge, there was a drum roll of hooves followed by a deluge. Caterina was still blind and gasping when a man's hand came out of the water and seized her braid.
"Got you! Got you, Fraulein Fox."
"Ow! Christoph von Hagen! You cheat!"
Furious, struggling with him in the water, she let go of the horse and began to hit him with her crop.
"Hey! Foxes don't carry those." As he pulled it away, he declared, "And I’m not a cheat, brat. I jumped the dike fair and square." Putting one big hand on the top of Caterina's red head, he dunked her.
When Cat came up, choking and sputtering, the first thing she saw was Star scrambling out, her tail a limp tatter.
Cousin Chris, so tall, soon found footing. With an arm around his coughing quarry, he breasted the rushing water. It wasn’t long before he was dumping Cat unceremoniously onto the bank.
"Big bully!" She choked, spit water. "You didn't have to drown me."
Grinning, von Hagen threw his considerable length onto the grass beside her.
"You hit me with your crop, Miss, so I was only defending myself. Don't be a poor sport, Caterina," he said in a more concilating tone. "You were a clever fox, the best ever."
"Why did you have to come back from Vienna? And what are you going to do now that you're here? Tell my sister more lies and then let her down again?"
"Scratch, scratch, Cousin Cat."
Christoph pinched her nose. "You know your sweet sister always forgives me. Some day you'll fall in love yourself and then you too will be some fellow's pretty toy."
"Idiot! I'll never be anyone's toy!"
Caterina, in a rage now, threw herself at him. Chris laughed, and warded off her slaps. If she landed one, he laughed harder. In the meantime, riders pounded over the bridge, a whole crowd piling in, out of breath from the pursuit.
“Did the fox cross the water?"
The question for money, hunting dogs and pistols were at stake was repeated as each new arrival clattered across the bridge.
"No, the fox was caught by her red hair as she swam," Max explained. He’d made it around the dike just in time to see the watery drama of Caterina's capture.
"A female fox?"
"Well, “female” is debatable. It's Cousin Cat."
"The Valkyrie and her red mare."
"And so the fox’s Papa owes me five gulden!"
"I'm a better rider than all of you chicken hearts," Caterina shouted, stamping a booted foot. "If this lunatic hadn't jumped the dike, I would have won."
This set off a renewed flurry of excitement.
“Chris jumped the dike? Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
"What a risk to take with that horse!"
"Cousin Chris doesn't take risks." Max declared. "He knew he could do it."
Voices raised in debate. Had it been insanity or luck? Had it been horse power, the rider’s skill, or both?
Ignored, Caterina got up, water streaming off of her. She was extremely tall. Her eyes, very green, blazed with fury. What would have been fair skin if she'd been a more conventionally house-bound female was tanned and dusted with freckles. Her budding womanliness was shown off to advantage by a man's riding habit, jacket, shirt and knee breeches, all of it plastered to her willowy frame.
Christoph, who had been lying on the ground admiring her, decided to remind her of his presence. Seizing one of her long legs, he tumbled her down again.
"By God," he cried, strong arms locking around her, "Come back here, Coz. I'd like to teach you to kiss as well as you ride."
Howls of laughter erupted as Christoph wrestled Caterina close. The whole time he kept whispering that one little kiss wouldn't hurt, that "Your sister won't mind.”
Arms locked against his chest, resisting with all her might, Caterina thought that Christoph was just doing what he always did-seeing how far he could get.
As they tussled, witty encouragement was shouted from all sides.
"Give the skinny tomboy a lesson."
"Just what our hell Cat-erina needs!"
"Yes!" Max said laughing. "A ring and babies! Then I won't have to worry she's going to show up on that winged steed of hers and lose me a wager."
"Swine!" Cat cried. "Especially you, Christoph von Hagen. Let go!"
"As you wish, Fraulein von Velsen." His grip relaxed—but just for a moment. At the instant her guard dropped, he pulled her close in those strong arms and gave her a full-on-the-lips kiss.
Caterina felt his mouth meet hers, tasted water and warm, persuasive man flesh. It was like the naughtiest dream, the jolt that hit her, pressed to his muscular chest. She felt rage at his presumption; there was also a traitorous, melting weakness, of delight--of desire--Cat had never felt before.
Time stood still.
“Hey, Von Hagen! Get your god-damned hands off my god-damned sister!”
Cat’s elder brother leapt from his horse. Square face scarlet, he caught her by the back of the jacket, yanked her upright, and then gave her a tremendous shove in the direction of her horse.
"YOU GET HOME!"
Theo was short and burly, nothing like his elegantly proportioned half-sister. To Theo, Caterina’s tom-boy nonsense was an ending source of embarrassment.
Muddy chin held high, she reined Star briskly toward the gray stone pile of the house. As she rose to a canter, her wet red braid bounced on her back. Her heart burst with a thousand strange and contrary impulses.
She had been bested by wretched Cousin Chris, losing the wagers her Papa had made. Her mother would have a fit when she saw her, soaking wet and muddy. Lady von Velsen disapproved of her daughter playing fox. She’d spent all yesterday afternoon quarreling with Papa about it.
What would happen when Mama inevitably found out the rest?
Cat could just hear Theo: "There she was, Mama, rolling on the ground like a wild Indian. A disgrace to her sex, not to mention the entire family!"
Cat had a strong premonition that this was the last game of Fox and Hounds she'd ever play.
The horrible sinking feeling that followed this thought was displaced by an even stronger emotion. It had to do with her sister's fiancé, that fellow who thought he was God's gift to women, Cousin Christoph.
It had started with the kiss. Those strong arms, those brilliant eyes, his white grin--
She knew what her sister, what everybody knew, about her cousin’s adventures with women. Up ‘till this instant Cat had always considered herself immune to his rakish charm.
After all, hadn't he been around, in and out of the house, courting her big sister, flirting with the maids, most of her young life? Hadn't they raced their horses, even hunted together?
Hadn't he rudely nicknamed her “Stork Legs” and “Red”? Hadn't he tugged her braids, buried her in hay in the barn, battled with her as if she were a little brother and told her a thousand times to “get lost” when he wanted to kiss and cuddle her sister?
That stupid, joking kiss had ruined everything!
"Damn you, Christoph von Hagen!" As she rode, Cat shouted at the sky. "I'm not like all your others! I don't want you EVER to kiss me again! I DON”T! I DON’T! I DON’T!"