It was dark, just after five thirty in the morning, when Henley crawled out of bed, blearily silencing his alarm. Yawning, he pushed his dark brown hair back and sat up, stretching. Although he was used to rising this early, his body never quite adjusted to the drag. Odin, the dog that Henley had adopted to help him cope with feeling so alone, jumped up, barking as he dashed downstairs, eager to meet the day. Sighing, Henley stood, quickly changing into the jeans and T-shirt he’d laid across the back of a chair the night before, pulling on his black boots and heading downstairs. His shoes clumped heavily on the carpeted stairway, announcing his arrival on the ground floor. Crossing from the hallway to the large, open kitchen, Henley grabbed an apple from a wicker basket sitting on the gray marble countertop. Now that he had his breakfast, Henley focused on getting Odin’s bowl, scooping half a cup of kibble into it, and setting it before the dog, who gulped it down happily. Knowing the dog would be taken care of until he returned, Henley shifted his focus to the other tasks that required his attention. Biting into the succulent fruit he carried, Henley passed through the open doorway to the house’s atrium. Taking a second bite of his breakfast, Henley quickly keyed in the code to the house alarm, watching the light blink from red to green before he unlocked the door and stepped outside.
Almost as soon as he stepped outside, Henley felt his foot catch on something sitting on the porch. Being caught off guard as he was, he was unable to stop himself from tipping forward. Henley could feel that he was going to fall, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Motherfu--” was as far as he got before he pitched forward and landed hard on the wooden porch. Gritting his teeth, Henley lay still for a second, before pushing himself up onto his elbows. His breakfast had rolled out of his hand and onto the porch; Henley decided that perhaps he would sacrifice his food to one of the horses now. Getting his wits about him, Henley sat up fully, deciding it was time to take a look at what had tripped him. Ignoring the sound of Odin barking incessantly from inside, Henley examined what appeared to be a rather large, plain brown box sitting just in front of the door. There was no return address on the package, which he found quite odd, and only his name scrawled on the front. It made his flesh crawl just to look at the thing; if there were no shipping address, it meant that someone had managed to reach the front door last night, without waking up Odin or Henley, and place the suspicious box. For a moment, Henley remembered every job training he’d ever attended where the trainers informed their employees that a strange box with no return address was 1000% absolutely a bomb. However, Henley was fairly certain there was another explanation for the strange object.
Digging his pocket knife from his pocket, Henley carefully cut the clear packing tape keeping the box sealed, unfolding the flaps to reveal the box’s contents. On the very top of the box was a note, written in red ink on creamy paper. Picking up the note, Henley scanned it quickly, squinting against the half-light of morning.
The streets can be dangerous. Your friend rides armed, and you should have the same advantage. Wouldn’t want you to be unprepared should a lovers’ quarrel break out.
Instead of a signature, the note was signed with a red wolf’s paw print - the official insignia of the Pack. Staring at the paper for a moment, Henley thought. He really had gotten himself in too deep this time; strangers were sneaking around leaving dangerous boxes in his home, and he feared what might happen if they were so invasive without a quarrel. What might happen if he couldn’t perform in races the way they wanted? Or what if he did? Either path lead to consequences Henley did not want to face.
Sighing, he crumpled the note and stuffed it in his pocket, turning back to the contents of the package. On top lay a red eventing jacket, but when Henley picked it up, he could tell it was not an ordinary jacket. The eventing jacket was heavy, and the dark red plates across the front of the cloth were hard, as though they’d been coated in something to stiffen them up. It appeared that the jacket had been modified to protect a rider’s torso. But from what? Guns? Knives? Were these races really so vicious? Henley remembered the last time he’d seen Alex. Alex had limped home, nursing a broken arm and leg, side effects of a violent dog attack during a race. Apparently, he had been lucky to escape with just those injures.
Setting the jacket aside, deciding not to think about the events the jacket insinuated. Instead, he decided to find out what else the box was coveting. Beneath the eventing jacket, a series of red leather straps lay folded carefully. Horse tack. Curiously, Henley pulled out a red bridle, that carried three golden diamonds across the noseband. The bridle itself was bitless, in hackamore style, which Henley found oddly a nice touch. Clearly, the Pack Member who’d visited his home just a few weeks before had paid attention to Henley’s riding style. It was almost a nice gesture...if not for the enormous amounts of blackmail and danger that came with the gift.
Examining the bridle further, Henley noticed that the reins had small, gold coated magnets on the ends of them. Curious, he turned to the box and pulled out a breast collar, looking at the leather contraption. Running his hand along the collar, he noticed that similar magnetic rings were placed on either side of the breastcollar. Curious, he touched the end of the rein to the ring, watching as the reins attached easily. Raising an eyebrow, Henley clipped and unclipped the reins again. Well, wasn’t that a handy feature. He could drop his reins easily, and not have to worry about them getting caught between Ghost’s legs, thanks to the design of the tack.
Wondering what else the tack had to offer, Henley pulled the breastcollar out of the box, taking with it the attached leather piece that made the “saddle.” It wasn’t much in the way of conventional tack, but considering that Henley liked to ride bareback anyway, it was an added touch of protection for Henley. Running his hand along the barrel strap of the saddle, Henley puzzled out how the contraption should be worn. Clearly, the barrel strap would wrap around Ghost’s midsection, while the collar kept the saddle itself in place. Efficient, light, and sleek was the best way to describe the tack.
Setting the tack pieces aside, Henley peered into the box, realizing there were still more items nestled inside. Quickly, he pulled out two front leg boots, frowning as he ran a hand over three oblong, bubble-shaped polycarbonate structures on the outside of the boot. Was it decoration? Useful? Turning the boot over, Henley noticed a small switch on the side, which he flicked on quickly. The bubbles blinked red, glowing brightly enough to illuminate most of the porch. Fascinating. During night races, visibility could be a problem, and Henley realized the lights were to show his stallion the way during a hectic ride. Rather ingenious, it was. Turning off the lights to save their battery, Henley set them aside, turning to the last item in the box.
Oh no. Now the note made perfect sense. Glaring unhappily at the box, Henley pulled out a wooden baseball bat, engraved near the handle with the word Ghost. The mention of a “lovers’ quarrel” made sense now. The Pack meant for him to fight the other racers, namely Alex.
Curling his lip unhappily, Henley tossed the bat aside. He didn’t want anything to do with the weapon; horse racing shouldn’t be about injuring other riders. But...what if....what if. A nagging suspicion gnawed at his mind. If the other racers were really as ruthless as he assumed, then perhaps he needed something to protect himself. Not to attack, but defend. He didn’t have to be vicious, he thought, as he picked up the bat once more, examining it. But he didn’t have to be a sitting duck either.
Setting the bat down, more gently this time, Henley turned to place the...gifts, he supposed they could be called, back in the box, when he noticed one more small item inside the box. A small envelope, taped to the side, caught his eye, and Henley pulled it free, opening it. Inside, a second note and a small package were settled. Unfolding the paper, Henley read it quickly.
You might need to make yourself look a little more intimidating. Use these. Another red paw print marked the end of the note. Sighing, Henley placed the cryptic paper back inside the envelope, and opened the packet. Inside were two red contact lenses, still in their box.
Rolling his eyes, Henley slipped the packet back inside the envelope. Really, was that necessary? It seemed like overkill, but Henley really couldn’t argue with whoever had left the package for him. Sighing, he placed the jacket and bat back inside the box, picked it up, and shoved it quickly inside, shutting the door quickly so that Odin wouldn’t burst outside and wreak havoc in the horse yards.
The tack, still lying on the porch, was strangely inviting. Although Henley was not a fan of the Pack, their ways, or anything they’d twisted his arm into doing thus far, they had some nice innovations. Picking up the red leather straps, Henley carried them towards the stallion barn. In a few minutes, he would need to help Luke, Carly, and Malasia with the horses, but for the time being, Henley was free to at least see if the mysterious tack would fit.
Somehow, he thought it just might.
Well, guess where my inspiration's going. Into getting my new Street horse and rider pair established! Woot.