THE SURPRISE

*October 2008*

The petulant electronic buzz of an alarm clock cut through the pre-dawn darkness, startling Vincent from a sound sleep. Beside him, Catherine groaned and rolled over, slapping the snooze button to silence the alarm before sinking back into her pillow. Vincent waited a moment before nudging her shoulder.

"Catherine?"

"Mmm?"

"Your alarm went off."

"Uh-huh," she mumbled sleepily. He felt her slip back toward slumber; simultaneously, faint sounds from the room directly above reached him, combined with a swiftly stifled surge of anticipation from their eleven year old daughter.

"Catherine?" he tried again. "Victoria's up. Do you have something planned?"

"Ohhh!" With another groan, she rolled away from him to sit on the edge of the bed, running both hands over her face, pushing back her hair.

Vincent took Catherine's pillow and stuffed it under his head to better observe this interesting turn of events. The unexpected early morning activity provoked his curiosity.

He had never known Catherine to meet morning gladly; besides, this was Saturday. He couldn't imagine anything that could persuade her to get up at four-thirty in the morning on her day off.

After a moment she rose and went into the bathroom. She emerged appearing more awake. Going to her closet, she fumbled for jeans and a sweater. Once dressed, she moved to the dressing table and brushed out her hair before deftly pulling the length of it back into a ponytail.

"Where are you going so early?" Vincent finally inquired.

Turning toward him, she stifled a yawn. "I can't tell you," she whispered, leaning over the bed to give him a kiss. "It's a surprise."

"For whom?"

She moved away from him, back toward her closet. "For you," she answered, pulling out a jacket. "Be at the north Park entrance by five-thirty, please."

With an airy wave, she opened the door leading into the hallway, where Vincent heard her exchange whispered greetings with Vicky.

"Don't worry, we have plenty of time," he heard Catherine murmur. A moment later he heard the soft thump of the front door closing followed by the quiet rumble of a starting engine.

* * * *In the car, Vicky bounced with barely contained enthusiasm."Put your boots on," Catherine said. "I can't believe you didn't wear shoes."

"If Daddy saw me in boots, he'd know where we were going," Vicky answered pragmatically. "And I couldn't find my sneakers in the dark."

"That's why Edison invented the light bulb," Catherine remarked.

"I know," Vicky answered sheepishly. "But the moon was shining in and I just hated to disturb the early morning with electric lights."

"I know. I got dressed in the dark, too," Catherine admitted, turning onto Central Park West.

Traffic was light this early on a Saturday morning, so it was only a few minutes before they reached their destination. Vicky was out of the car almost before it stopped.

"Good morning, Mateo!" she greeted, waving exuberantly to a dark-eyed young man who leaned casually against a horse trailer."Good morning to you," he answered genially, teeth flashing white against his olive skin. "Miss Cathy," he added, nodding to Catherine.

"Good morning, Mateo," she answered, turning sideways in the car's front seat and putting her feet on the ground. Shedding the running shoes she'd slipped into at home, she reached into the back and pulled out a pair of black, knee-high leather boots. Folding her jeans smoothly against her lower leg, she slid her foot into a boot, stamping her heel down into it. Repeating the process with the other boot, she stood, testing their comfort.

Vicky and Mateo were already opening the doors of the trailer and unloading the first horse, a smallish bay gelding. Taking the lead shank, Vicky tied the horse to a ring on the side of the trailer. "How's my baby this morning?" she inquired, kissing his nose.

"You know, my dad says you're gonna get a fat lip, kissing horses like that," Mateo warned. "If he tosses his head..."

"Oh, Maple wouldn't do that do me, would you, sweetie?" Vicky said lightly.

Mateo looked at Catherine and shrugged, opening the other trailer door. Catherine's expression turned apprehensive.

"Where's Blue?" she asked.

"She came up lame this morning," Mateo said apologetically. "Fiesta's the only other horse we had available." He grinned. "Dad says that if anybody can manage him in Central Park, you can!"

Catherine sighed. She'd known Mateo's father, Juan, when she was a girl and he worked at the Long Island riding stable where she first took lessons, and later kept her own horse. Years later, when Vicky became horse-struck and begged for lessons, Catherine had been pleased to find out that, in the intervening years, Juan had managed to purchase the stable.

It was Juan who had persuaded her to ride again. He had never doubted her old skills would return with practice; it wasn't long before Catherine looked forward to Vicky's riding lessons as much as Vicky did.

Juan had bred and raised Fiesta himself. The magnificent chestnut gelding stood over sixteen hands, with showy white socks on both front legs. Catherine rode him often, but in unfamiliar surroundings Fiesta was unreliable, at best. She could probably handle him, but she didn't look forward to the struggle, and sighed again, amused and exasperated by Juan's easy confidence in her abilities.

"All right, Mateo," she agreed. "I guess I have no choice."

Still grinning, Mateo backed Fiesta out of the trailer and tied him where he wouldn't be in the way of Vicky, who was brushing Maple.

Already Fiesta was snorting in the crisp fall air, pricking his ears and dancing sideways, trying to look three directions at once, so Catherine moved to his head in an attempt to settle him long enough for Mateo to get her saddle on him.

While Vicky used a saddle provided by the stable, Catherine still had her own, left over from her youth. She'd found it, along with her boots and hard hat, carefully stored away in the basement of her father's house.

"Leg up, Miss Cathy?" Mateo asked when both horses were tacked up.

"Vicky first," Catherine advised. Fiesta was still dancing restlessly, and she wanted to walk him a little before mounting. She couldn't put the moment off forever, so she finally fastened the chinstrap on her hat, gathered the reins, and offered her leg to Mateo, who lifted her easily into the saddle.

Fiesta jigged sideways, tossing his head, and she swung him in a tight circle. "Ready?" she asked Vicky, who was already mounted and waiting impatiently.

* * * *As the eastern sky began to lighten, Vincent emerged from the northernmost tunnel entrance to Central Park. He had no idea why Catherine wanted him out here, but she asked, so here he was. Using bordering trees and shrubs as cover, he moved to a nearby hillside. A sharp breeze blew, rustling the dry leaves underfoot as he settled into a small copse of evergreens to wait.

A strong thread of anticipation reached him, and he automatically identified it as Vicky's; Catherine's emotions were less distinct. He could sense their approach from the east, and turned to watch for them.

A pair of early-morning horseback riders came slowly into view and he watched them almost absently. The rider on the smaller horse pointed in his direction and veered, leaving the bridle path to gallop straight toward him. Half-rearing, the other horse tried to follow; it was only when Catherine's sharp rush of impatient annoyance reached him that he recognized the riders.

By then, Catherine had her horse in hand and was jogging toward him. He turned his attention to Vicky, who had pulled to a stop a few feet away.

"Hi, Daddy!" she called.

"Good morning, Victoria."

"Were you surprised to see us?"

"Astounded," he assured her. "This must be your surprise."

Grinning, Vicky thumped her mount's neck affectionately. "This is Maple. I ride him most of the time at my lessons," she introduced. "Mom's riding Fiesta, but she wishes she didn't have to."

"Why is that?" Vincent turned his attention to Catherine's horse.

Alternately tossing his head high and thrusting it down in an endeavor for more rein, Fiesta danced sideways up the shallow slope, flicking his tail impatiently. As the big gelding neared the crest of the little hill, Vincent stepped out from behind Vicky's horse, and Fiesta stopped short, pricking his ears. He tried to swerve away, but Catherine was ready for him, hands and legs keeping him straight, urging him forward.

Catherine was forcing the reluctant gelding to take one unwilling step at a time when a stray gust of wind caught Vincent's cloak, snapping it out behind him. Nostrils flaring, Fiesta shied, lunging sideways. Catherine had just brought him around to face Vincent again when Vicky's horse stepped on a dead branch, snapping it with a report like a pistol shot.

Fiesta had enough. Sinking back on his haunches, he spun around in a motion so rapid he simply left his rider behind. For a heart-stopping second Catherine fought to regain her precarious balance, clutching at rein and mane, before Fiesta bolted. Vincent watched in horror as she fell, and was beside her almost before she hit the ground.

"Catherine?"

Vicky was there, too, leaning from her saddle. "Geez, Mom. That was spectacular! Are you okay?"

Already Vincent was sensing that she was more stunned than hurt, but it was still a relief when Catherine uncurled from the fetal position she'd adopted when she fell. "I'm okay," she said breathlessly. "Catch him, Vicky, before he hurts himself."

Nodding dutifully, Vicky trotted in pursuit of Fiesta. Vincent still crouched beside Catherine. "Are you sure you're all right?"

She nodded, getting shakily to her feet. "Just a badly bruised dignity," she admitted, dusting herself off. She looked up, meeting his eyes. "Really, Vincent. I'm okay."

They moved to the shelter of the evergreens and a minute later Vicky reappeared, leading a recaptured but unrepentant Fiesta.

"Here, Mom," she said, handing over the reins. "I found him just past those trees, grazing."

Catherine took the reins, tossing them over his head. "You bad boy," she scolded gently. "What did you do that for?"

Predictably, the horse didn't answer, and Catherine turned him, gathering the reins. "I need a leg up, Vincent," she said over her shoulder. "He's too tall for me."

Hesitantly, Vincent stepped closer. Catherine's fall had disturbed him, and he was reluctant to see her horseback again.

"Don't worry, Daddy," Vicky reassured him. "People who ride a lot get thrown, but they hardly ever get hurt because it happens so fast. They don't have time to stiffen up. Just take her ankle and lift," she added helpfully.

Catherine waited expectantly, and, after a moment, Vincent followed Vicky's instructions, lifting at the count of three. Catherine floated up lightly, settling comfortably into the saddle, instinctively checking Fiesta's impatient forward motion. "Quit that," she told him. "Wait for me this time."

She took him out onto the open slope, trotting him a few austere circles before bringing him back to Vincent. Sliding off, she ran her stirrups up so they wouldn't jangle, pulled off her hat, tucking it under one arm, and nodded to Vicky.

"Go ahead," she called. "Show your father what you've learned."

Brimming with nervous pride and pleasure, Vicky guided her horse out onto the open slope. Remembering Juan's patient lessons, she resisted the urge to show off and began to trot quietly.

Standing at the edge of the evergreen copse, Catherine started educating Vincent in the ways of horse and rider. "See how he has his head down and his neck flexed? That keeps his back rounded and gets his hindquarters under him so he's balanced."

"Is that important?" Vincent asked, genuinely wanting to know more.

"He can respond to commands more quickly if he's balanced, so yes, it's important. She's really very good, you know," Catherine added with pride. "Juan says she has a rapport with the horses she rides. They listen to her."

On the slope, Vicky had urged Maple into a canter, and was weaving intricate circles.

"Why does she change gaits whenever she alters direction?" Vincent asked, intrigued.

"Because when a horse canters, he leads with one side. He needs to be in the left lead to turn left and the right lead to turn right. She's slowing him to a trot so he can change leads. If he's in the wrong lead and turns sharply, he could fall. It isn't balanced."

"I see," Vincent said. Watching his daughter, absorbing the sense of rhythm pulsating through their connection, he could almost feel what Catherine was telling him, what Vicky was experiencing. He liked the sensation.

The sun was moments away from rising when Vicky jogged back toward them. "Did you see, Daddy?" she called.

"Yes," he answered. "I'm impressed."

Vicky grinned. "I'm learning," she said. "You ought to see Mom, though. She's really good."

"I've ridden for a lot more years," Catherine demurred. "You get better every time you ride."

"Maybe. Anyway, it's your turn."

"Vicky, I don't think..." Catherine began.

"Come on, Mom. This is probably the only chance Daddy will ever have to see you ride."

Catherine hesitated, and Vincent added his voice. The image of Catherine's fall was still with him, but he wanted the joy of watching her, just this once.

His soft "please" vanquished Catherine's reluctance, and he helped her to mount. Vicky moved her horse close beside her father to watch.

Catherine spent a few moments duplicating some of the easy exercises Vicky had executed, allowing Fiesta to warm up. Vincent could see how the delicate way she handled him calmed his head-tossing jig into a relaxed, balanced trot.

"See?" Vicky said. "I told you she was good! Fiesta can be a real mess sometimes! Juan says that's because he's a Thoroughbred, so what do you expect." She stood in her stirrups. "Mom! The picnic table!"

Vincent could see Catherine's puzzled frown as she looked toward their daughter.

"The picnic table!" Vicky called again, making a curious swooping motion with her hand. "Do it!"

Vincent was baffled, but Catherine seemed to understand. Shaking her head doubtfully, she rode Fiesta to a lone picnic table only a few yards from the shelter of a huge maple tree. She walked him around it, studying the ground for several yards on either side.

Vincent didn't grasp what was happening, but he felt Catherine's indecision replaced by anticipation as she turned Fiesta and trotted away.

"She's going to do it," Vicky whispered. "Watch."

Catherine swung the big gelding in a wide circle, pushing him into a canter, riding him straight toward the table. Vincent's first, instinctive response was fear for her, but Catherine wasn't afraid. In complete control of her mount, she was enjoying herself, so he quashed the misgivings, letting her feelings sweep him as Fiesta neared the table, gathered himself, leaped...

For an instant, horse and rider seemed to hang motionless, perfectly balanced, before gravity took over, completing the arc as Fiesta touched down on the far side of the table and galloped on. Vincent was still assimilating the pleasurable shock of the first jump when he realized that Catherine had circled and was galloping toward the table from the other direction.

Beside him, Vicky counted strides under her breath. "Five, four, three, two, one, go!"

Her timing was flawless. Fiesta left the ground, and again, there was an indescribable moment of perfection at the apex of the jump, horse and rider silhouetted against the pale eastern sky, in utter harmony with one another.

The sharp rush of Catherine's elation blended with Vicky's joyful shout in the crisp morning air; Vincent absorbed it all, wanting to keep this moment forever.

Too soon, it was over; the sun was coming up, making the park a perilous place for him. Catherine trotted back, controlling Fiesta's enthusiasm easily now.

Catherine and Vicky escorted Vincent to the drainage pipe. As they neared it they stopped; Vicky leaned down from her horse to hug him. "Thank you for coming, Daddy."

"Thank you, Victoria. You've given me a memory I will always hold close."

She grinned with pleasure.

He turned to Catherine, who didn't dare take her hands from the reins for a hug, but bent down to kiss him lightly. "Go now. Morning is here."

At the entrance, he looked back. Catherine and Vicky had already turned the horses and were riding away from him. He paused to watch, still awed by the gift they had given him this day, the effort they had poured into expanding his world.

For as long as he lived, he would keep the precious memories: of Vicky's pride as she demonstrated her newborn skill, the taut beauty of the horses, and mostly, that incredible moment of perfection when Catherine and Fiesta soared gracefully over the picnic table. With a sigh made up of longing and completion, he went into the tunnel, leaving the light behind.

The End