Dexter grabbed onto the trunk of the nearest birch tree to keep from slipping down the steep embankment that overlooked the campsite. Once he got his footing, he continued climbing upward. He was slightly out of breath when he reached the top. The valley beyond the campsite, that the riders had spent most of the morning navigating, spread out behind him in a panoramic view.

“You’re not eating lunch?” he asked, when he caught his breath.

“Not really hungry,” answered Chloe. She was sitting on a large rock. As Dexter walked toward her, she wiped the sleeve of her shirt over her brown eyes.

“You need to talk to somebody about how you feel,” said Dexter softy. He sat down beside her on the rock.

“And I suppose you think that somebody should be you,” stated Chloe.

“Well,” replied Dexter. “Alexis is too busy with Ryder. You can’t exactly talk to Paydyn about losing Sunshine.”

“It’s not just Sunshine...” Chloe’s voice trailed off as she looked out over the valley. Most of the campsite, including the circle of benches, was visible from the embankment. Alexis and Ryder were still sitting there, but Paydyn had wandered back to her mother.

“Then what is it?” pressed Dexter.

Chloe sighed. “It’s everything. This whole summer is ruined.” Chloe choked back a sob.

Dexter didn’t say anything, but hesitantly put his hand on her back and began patting her as if soothing a startled horse.

Chloe wiped her eyes again. Then she pulled out a tube of lip balm and applied it to her lips. “I was so close to having enough money to buy Sunshine.” she finally said.

“I know,” said Dexter softly. “But there are other horses. I could help you look.”

“Don’t you get it?” cried Chloe. “When I bought Sunshine, Mrs. Carter was going to keep using her for lessons. That way, I would only need to work off a portion of the board. Now she is going to buy another horse to replace Sunshine. I can’t afford the full price of board. I’m never going to be able to buy a horse now.”

Dexter bit his lip and looked out across the valley.

“It’s not fair,” continued Chloe. “Both you and Alexis have horses. Now Paydyn has a horse. Even Ryder got his horse before me.”

“Huh?” said Dexter, as he turned to look at Chloe. “What do you mean, Ryder got his horse before you?”

Chloe’s cheeks reddened and her eyes widened.

“Chloe,” Dexter started to say. He was abruptly cut off by Chloe pressing her lips onto his. He kissed her back, but just as suddenly as she had kissed him, she pulled away. He looked up at her, but she immediately turned and headed down the embankment.

Dexter stood up and watched, with furrowed brow, as she descended down to the campgrounds. He ran his tongue over his lips. They tasted sweet and fruity.

Who does Chloe really like? Is she trying to steal Ryder away from Alexis?
Find out in the next episode of Stirrups:   Desperate Times...

 "Hey, you're Paydyn, right?" Alexis asked the red-haired girl sitting alone on a wooden bench. The bench was one of several that formed a circle on the south edge of the camp grounds.

Paydyn nodded. "Am I in your spot?" she said. "I'm sorry. I'm new and I was just trying to get away from my mother."

"No, you're fine," Alexis said with a giggle. She had a fancy bridle slung over her shoulder, her lunch sack in one hand and a dripping half-frozen bottle of water in the other. "Honest, we don't have assigned seats at the campgrounds."

"This is all just so new to me," Paydyn said, slightly exasperated. "I mean, we had assigned spots to ride in, I just thought..."

"That's just for safety," said Alexis. "The novice riders or inexperienced trail horses get sandwiched in between the more experienced ones. My horse, Flash, has never been on the trails."

"Oh, that would be my fault, wouldn't it?" whimpered Paydyn.

"What do you mean?" asked Alexis. She sat down on one of the benches and carelessly tossed her bridle onto the grassy spot at the center.

"It's just that I overheard Mrs. Carter talking on the phone. She was saying that one of the school horses she'd been leasing had been sold and that left her short a horse. I know she was talking about Sunshine."

"Oh, don't worry about it," assured Alexis. "It won't take Carter long to find a replacement. Besides, it's kinda nice to be able to ride my own horse for a change."

"Hey, have you seen Chloe?" said Dexter, as he entered the circle of benches. He tossed his bridle on top of Alexis's, sat down and immediately began downing a huge submarine sandwich. "She disappeared when I was tying Winnie to the picket line."

"Oh, that would be my fault, too," said Paydyn. She picked at her peanut butter sandwich. "She hates me."

"She doesn't hate you," said Dexter between bites of his sandwich. "She's just upset about the Walkers selling Sunshine out from under her. Give her some time. It's not you she's mad at."

"So how do you like being a horse owner?" asked Alexis. She was daintily picking at the salad she had unpacked from her lunch bag.

"Oh, I love it!" exclaimed Paydyn. "Well, except for my mother hanging around. I could do without that."

"Yeah, she's kinda hard to miss," said Alexis. She grimaced and pretended to shiver.

"Oh, you saw the outfit she was wearing at our lesson this week?" asked Paydyn.

"You mean the pink stretch pants and the lime green western shirt?" giggled Alexis.

"Hey, at least your mom is trying to be a part of your life," said Dexter. He had finished the last bite of his sandwich and was sucking the mayonnaise off the ends of his fingers.

"Don't listen to him," said Alexis. She dumped the remainder of her salad on the ground behind her and tossed the container near her bridle. "I would positively die if our mom starting hanging around the stable."

"So would I," said Ryder. He winked at Alexis as he entered the circle. He sat on the ground in front of her bench with his body between her legs and his back leaning against the wooden seat. Alexis ran her hands through his thick, wavy black hair. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

"Hey, did you eat your dessert first?" she said, poking him in the rib cage with her index finger. "Your lips taste sweet and fruity!"

Dexter made a face of disgust as he gathered his belongings and headed out of the circle of benches.

Just as the horse in front of her began to move, Chloe turned and stole a glance toward the end of the line of riders. Paydyn was sitting crooked on her horse, Sunshine, and using the reins to balance herself. The sorrel mare was tossing her head in response to the constant and uncomfortable bit pressure. With every toss, her already tangled mane became more entwined.

“That burns, huh,” Dexter said softly as Chloe turned back around.

Chloe swallowed hard, but didn’t say a word as she squeezed her legs against the sides of the plain bay mare she was riding.  

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"Are you sure you have the compass and map in your saddle bag?" asked Chloe. She had one foot in the stirrup of the western saddle and was looking up at Dexter, who had already mounted his buckskin mare. The sun was backlighting his blonde hair and highlighting the ever-increasing peach fuzz on the sides of his face.

"I've got GPS on my smartphone," replied Dexter. His voice cracked slightly, as it sometimes did lately.

"OK, smarty-pants. What happens if we go out of range of the cell tower?" asked Chloe. She hoisted herself up into the saddle of the plain-looking bay mare she had been assigned to ride.

"Are you afraid you might get lost in the woods with me?" Dexter laughed.

Chloe rolled her eyes. "You never know what can happen with horses," she replied.

"Chill Chloe," Dexter said. "We're the tenth pair of riders. We'll be right in the middle of the trail ride."

"Hey, what number are you guys?" asked Alexis as she rode up on Flash, her breathtakingly beautiful bay gelding. Alexis had the same blonde hair and blue eyes as Dexter, her twin. "Ryder and I are seventh."

"Great, we're tenth," said Dexter, sourly. "Now we can spend the entire trail ride watching you two make lovey-dovey eyes at each other."

“I don’t know what you have against Ryder,” said Alexis. “He’s a great guy. You like him, don’t you Chloe?”

Chloe’s eyes widened and she started to sputter some words, but Dexter cut her off.

“There is just something about the guy that I don’t trust,” he said. “Just because he's a year older than us doesn’t make him more mature.”

Alexis exhaled heavily, then maneuvered her horse between Dexter and Chloe.

“I wish we were riding a little closer together,” Alexis whined. “Gee, Chloe, we haven’t had a chance to talk since, gosh, I don’t know when.”

“How about since lover-boy moved his horse into the stable," said Dexter. "Gee, I guess that would make it about a month. Gosh, Not too hard to figure, sis.”

“I WASN”T TALKING TO YOU,” Alexis said as she turned around in her saddle to glare at her brother.

She turned back around and addressed Chloe, “Let’s meet up at the lunch break, OK?”

“I think Mrs. Carter wants to get the ride started,” said Chloe as she pointed toward the front of the line where the owner of Pinnacle Stables was mounted on one of the nicer school horses.

“Oh,” squealed Alexis as she turned her horse and headed back to her spot in line. “I’ll see you at lunch,” she called over her shoulder.