Emma Richmond loved the country, at least she thought she did. Though she’d grown up in Houston, a city of 400,000 people, she never really felt quite herself surrounded by all that hubbub. She liked to say God couldn’t live in the city. The thing is, she really believed that, so when the attractive son of a prominent Texas cattle rancher invited her to go horseback riding on his family’s land south of the city, she eagerly accepted. It was a beautiful early spring day in 1949, one of the few precious days in southeast Texas when the sun and humidity weren’t oppressive. Phillip Andrews was tall, muscular, square-jawed. The kind of man you’d expect to see in a western movie. They’d met at The River Oaks Country Club at a reception honoring one of her father’s friends, both of them children of money, whose parents traced their roots back to Texas’ founders.
Phillip parked his white 1948 Alfa Romeo in the garage connected to Emma’s high-rise. Despite the fact that Emma made a respectable income from the writing she did for the society section of the Houston Post, her apartment was well beyond her means. Daddy, an oilman, picked up the tab, of course. Phillip took the elevator to the 14th floor, found apartment 14C, and rang the doorbell.
“Hi, Emma. Hope I’m not too early. It’ll take us a while to get out there and saddle the horses, and I wanted to be sure we had plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful weather.”
“Oh no, you’re fine, fine. Just let me get my scarf and sunglasses. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.” Emma tied her scarf beneath her chin, covering her sleekly tied-back, blonde pony-tail, and picked her stylish brow-lines off the counter separating the kitchen from the breakfast room. Glancing toward her and also out the window at the expansive view of downtown Houston, Phillip smiled at the sight of her obviously-never-worn-before jodhpurs and boots. This was a good sign, he thought to himself. This date must have been important to her if she went to the trouble to buy them. She looked great in them, too. Emma had the perfect figure to go with the riding gear – just enough curve. Not too much, not too little.
The two stood, somewhat awkwardly, as the elevator descended the fourteen stories to the ground floor. They’d only known each other casually and never had any conversation other than the one which led to this invitation. Emma knew he was in medical school – actually just finishing his surgical residency at the brand new Texas Medical Center, founded by M.D. Anderson. She knew his father was in real estate, and that his mother was a descendant of a prominent Texas family, the Bensons. The land on which they would ride today, had come from her family – 800 acres which had been in the family for generations, Emma’s mother had said. Emma was nervous about the horseback riding. Even though she was a Texas girl, born and bred, she’d been raised in the city, and had very little experience with horses. Phillip assured her that he’d put her on the gentlest of horses, and that he’d show her everything she needed to know, but this nervousness, compounded with her unfamiliarity with Phillip, made the silence in the elevator all the more uncomfortable.
Phillip had the top down on this gorgeous Texas morning, so the rush of the wind compensated for – or perhaps nullified the need for – conversation. The drive into Fort Bend County took about thirty-five minutes, south on US 59, then several miles on the two-lane blacktop farm-to-market road that led to the long oyster-shell drive of the Benson family property.
“Do you come out here often?” Emma asked, as Phillip saddled his own horse, Bill, then the horse he’d chosen for her to ride, Princess.
“I come out as often I can, but unfortunately, my residency has me working some long hours. I’d never be able to keep a horse if it weren’t for the hired hands. I can’t complain, though. Med school’s kept me out of the draft, at least for now. This place . . . this place is where I feel most grounded. Maybe because it’s been in my family for so long. Maybe because I spent so much time here as kid. My little brother and I used to camp out here when we were teenagers. Ever done any camping?”
“No, Emma answered. I’ve always thought I would like it, but my parents didn’t camp. Our vacations were always spent at five-star resorts.”
“You’ll never see a night sky like what you see when you’re camping. You have to get away from the city lights to really see stars. I can’t wait to show you the trail along the creek. It’s beautiful and lined with live oaks. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some wildlife. In the evenings the deer come out to drink – um, I mean, if you don’t mind staying that long.”
“What about snakes?” Emma inquired apprehensively. Do you see a lot of snakes out here?
“You don’t have to worry about them, Emma. Horses are smart. They’d sense a snake long before you or I would. As long as we’ve got ol’ Bill and Princess here, we don’t have to worry about snakes.”
Emma was proud of her natural athleticism, so when Phillip offered to help her into the saddle, she insisted she do it herself. Luckily, she had seen it done enough in the movies to have a pretty good idea of how to go about it. Hands gripping the saddle horn and reins, she slipped her left foot into the stirrup and threw her right leg gracefully across the horse’s back. Princess was a pro. She stood tall and steady and showed no sign that she was uneasy with Emma in the saddle.
“Princess knows to follow me and Bill, so all you really need to do is sit there and hold onto the reins,” said Phillip, as they exited the barn. “If your rear-end gets tired, put your weight on your feet,” he laughed. Emma wondered how long it would be before that happened. She guessed not long. While she was athletic, her butt wasn’t used to the bouncing up and down of a horse-back ride. She hoped Phillip wouldn’t notice when she got to that point.
The ride started out slowly, and Emma gained confidence enough to appreciate the wide-open spaces of the Texas prairie. This part of Texas is coastal – flat as a pancake. A person can see for miles and miles. As they rode east, they disturbed a covey of quail in the brush. Emma startled as the birds took to the sky. By this time the sun was high. It must be nearly noon, Emma realized. The morning had slipped away while she silently acknowledged her deep physical attraction to Phillip Andrews. She’d had just enough time to admire his quiet self-assurance as she rode along behind him – and just enough time to admire his incredibly handsome physique.
“To the southwest, of here,” Phillip said, “is a lot of swamp land. Great for duck hunting, but you do have to watch out for gators.”
“Alligators?” thought Emma. “That hadn’t even occurred to me until now. Phillip said that horses can sense snakes, so I guess they have enough sense to stay away from alligators, too,” she tried to convince herself. Before long the path became more wooded, and Emma could hear the sound of Oyster Creek nearby.
“I packed us a light lunch. Thought we could picnic here in the shade by the creek,” Phillip said as he dismounted and tied Bill’s reins loosely to a small tree near enough to the water so the horse could drink. By this time Emma was more than willing to accept Phillip’s offer to help her from the saddle. Her inner thighs were stretched and tired, as was her aching backside. After securing Princess’ reins to the same tree, Phillip opened up his saddle bag and retrieved a bottle of a nice pinot noir, a block of gruyere, a chunk of hearty French bread, and a couple of apples. All foods that could handle a couple of hours on the saddle without adverse effects. He tossed a blanket on the ground in the shade of an ancient live oak and said, “This is my favorite spot on the property.” His eyes were smiling toward her. “I hope you’re having a good time,” he said, as he reached in his pocket for a corkscrew and opened the bottle of wine, poured two plastic cups full, and offered her one.
Emma hoped he didn’t realize just how much she was enjoying this time. Not only had she fallen for this beautiful land, but, she realized, she was also falling for this handsome man who seemed so much a part of it, so completely comfortable in it, that it was hard to say where the man stopped and the land began. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the romantic horseback ride, maybe it was the fresh air, the sound of the water running over rocks, but when Phillip reached to turn her face toward his and kiss her lips, she felt no inclination to resist.
Next week, Chapter Two