Authors: Jessica Whitman
Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected]. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
To my wonderful wife, Delfiâfor giving me Hilario, Aurora, Artemio, and Alba. You are all the best things that ever happened to me.
I first learned to ride a horse when I was four years old and started playing the sport of polo by the time I was nine. Tango was the horse on which I learned to play, and Tango was my first love. I fell in love with the beauty of horses and idolized the strength and bravery of the best players. In my native Argentina, everyone has a chance to go to polo matches and see how thrilling they are. It has been my dream to share the game that I love, the game that has given me so muchâas a person and athleteâwith the rest of the world.
I think polo is very appealing. After all, there's a reason Ralph Lauren chose it. There is something undeniably sexy about a man and a horse and the speed and the adrenaline.
It was at a polo match that I met my wife. I was in the stands and she was coming up the stairs, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and we looked at each other. I had to know more, so I asked her cousin Sofia to introduce us and she told me, “That's funny; she just asked me the same thing.” So the cousin introduced us, and we talked for a little bit. It was the beginning of the summer, and we didn't see each other for two or three months. After the holiday, we started dating, and we have been together ever sinceâ¦
I am very excited to present the Polo Season series, which blends my favorite sport with a little bit of romance. Whether you're already a polo fan or completely new to the game, I hope you will enjoy these characters and their stories.
o!” Georgia laughed. “I have exactly zero interest in polo.”
“Only because you haven't seen it played,” said Billy. “It's actually amazing. The way they fight it out on the field, all snarled together, slamming up against each other, a sweaty, dangerous tangle of heaving chests and pumping legsâ¦”
Georgia shook her head at Billy's handsome, teasing face on the Skype screen. “I can't tell if you're describing the ponies or the players.”
Billy quirked an eyebrow. “Well, both, actually. Anyway, Peaches, please. For me. One week in Wellington. It will be so much fun! We'll do it right. And, okay, full disclosure, I've met someone, and I desperately need your opinion.”
“Of course you do,” said Georgia. Ever since they met at Cornell, there had been a never-ending series of inappropriate men Billy desperately needed her opinion on. “What's his name?”
“I know. It's a Virginia thing. He rides to hounds. Don't you love how that sounds? I think he might be The One.”
She laughed. “Because he rides to hounds?”
“No, because he's cute, and sweet, and a little bit rich, and he does this thing with his tongue that makes myâ”
Georgia threw up her hands. “Okay, okay, spare me the details.”
“Honest, Georgie, this is not just about me. You'd love this place. It's sunshine and high fashion, perfect beaches, gorgeous people, million-dollar ponies, oh, and the wildest and most decadent parties you can imagine!”
“Yes, well, I sunburn on sight,” she said, “and as for fashion, I believe that you once told me that I dress like last season's bag lady. Even the idea of a Palm Beach party makes me break out in hives, and besides”âshe glanced out the window at the snowy, moonlit, upstate New York farmâ“I have horses that need me here.”
Since graduating with her degree in veterinary medicine, Georgia had been helping her dad on the farm and assisting in the village animal hospital. It wasn't exactly a challengeâbasically she was handing out tick medicine and checking for worms, with the occasional trip to a stable in the case of a colic false alarmâbut she knew she was lucky to have found work that let her be where she was needed.
The farm consisted of a dilapidated stone cottage and a sagging barn set on ten acres of meadow at the edge of the Catskills. The place was so ancient that it was practically open to the elements, and cost a fortune to heat. Without her help, Georgia knew her dad would sell, and she couldn't stand the idea of losing their home.
There were definitely days when Georgia wondered if she'd parked all her ambition the moment she had arrived back home, but her father had gone into debt to finance her education, and helping him now was payback. If she sometimes found herself daydreaming about missed opportunities and other, perhaps bigger, lives, she quickly shook it off. She loved the farm and she loved her father, and they both needed her. That was enough.
Billy rolled his dark brown eyes in frustration, visibly filtering a retort about what he obviously considered to be Georgia's sad-ass life. “Georgia. All respect. But there are horses, and then there are
. The team that Beau is down here with are, like, among the top ten polo players in the world.”
“Are there even ten people who play?”
Billy sighed in exasperation. “There are tens of thousands, probably. And you are absolutely missing the point. It's a sexy, savage game, and I'm telling you, you will love it. Plus, it's totally trending.”
“Right,” Georgia said. “Among the one percent.”
“Don't be snarky just because you're stuck in the snowy wasteland not getting any. Please, Peaches. I really like this guy. And I think he really likes me. But you know how bad I am at this. Every time I fall for someone, he ends up sleeping with my cousin, or emptying my bank accountâ¦”
“Or stealing your car,” snorted Georgia.
“Oh God, I can't believe that actually happened twice,” he groaned, “but you see! That's exactly what I'm talking about. I need your unbiased opinion. You're the only one I can trust.”
“Billy, I'm sorry, I just can't.”
“Georgia, who was there for you when you found out that skinny hipster you called a boyfriend was secretly banging that waitress with the uni-boob?”
Georgia rolled her eyes and sighed. “You were.”
“And who sat up with you all night drinking cheap wine and watching
until you felt better?”
She shifted reluctantly in her seat. “You did.”
“And so, who is going to get her narrow ass down to Florida and make sure her BFF isn't making another colossal romantic mistake?”
Georgia gave a groan of defeat. “All right,” she said. “Four days. That's it.”
“Yay!” Billy cheered. “You're going to love it! Cocktails. Scandal. Strappy dresses. Trust me. It will be everything you need. I'll text directions.”
Georgia snapped her laptop shut and fed the woodstove. As she climbed the stairs to bed, her shadow was animated by the flare of the fire.
She undressed, shivering at the window, staring up at the milky indigo sky and full moon. Slipping under the covers, she wrapped her arms around herself as she waited for her bed to warm. She started thinking about all she'd need to do before she left, what she'd need to packâ¦It was one of the hard parts about travelingâthe way it made her so restless. The minute a plan was in place, everywhere her mind fell, there was something that needed to be done.
She closed her eyes, trying not to think, willing herself to relax while wondering why this little trip felt like something so much bigger, a kind of seismic shift. The bed slowly warmed but she couldn't let go. She lay there in the dark, a thousand thoughts flickering through her mind like so many fireflies on an inky summer night, each one determined to keep her awake and unsettled.
he horse let out a whinny, and Alejandro swore softly in Spanish. The last thing he wanted to do was wake the entire barn. He slipped a halter on MacKenzie, the favorite in his current string of ponies, and led her out of the stables. The moon was bright in the sky as he swung onto the pony's bare back. With a snort, she broke into a trot.
Approaching the gatehouse, Alejandro gave the guard a curt nod. He was determined not to seem furtive riding his own horse on his own time, but the guard's professional discretion didn't disguise his surprise that Alejandro was taking a pony out at night without a saddle. The Del Campo family team, La Victoria, had a match tomorrow, and with the odds already stacked against them, Alejandro knew he should be home in bed, not tiring out his best pony with a hard-riding midnight outing.
He couldn't sleep, though. Not yet. It was one of those nights when the darkness weighed down and his mind raced on. He felt particularly caged in Wellington. Every last inch of the landscape was tamed. For all its luxury, he felt trapped by the gated communityâhis guards and staff and fleets of groomsâwhen what he needed was a solitary ride in the wilderness. That's why he rode at night, willing to risk the hidden dangers on the dimly lit pathsâthe possibility of a shadowed dip in the earth where a hoof could catch, a nocturnal animal suddenly darting out in front of them and spooking his ponyâin exchange for having the roads to himself. He needed to gallop, skin to skin, even if only for a short stretch, to lose himself in the strength and speed of his horse. To reach that soaring, unifying moment that felt less like riding and more like flying, when he and the horse joined together to become one seamless beast.
Alejandro turned onto the canal road, leaned forward, and tightened his thighsâclicking his tongue and murmuring in Spanish until the pony's gait smoothed out into a fluid gallop.
MacKenzie picked up speed, responding to his movements as if she could read his mind. Alejandro smiled. This pony loved to run. She was one of the few horses who could sustain this kind of pace and still be in world-class form the next morning. MacKenzie was such a fighter that she seemed to gain more fire, more heart, with every step she took. He'd find a role for her in the match tomorrow. She needed the game as much as he did.
He pressed his legs harder, driving the horse faster, determined to calm his buzzing mind and push his body until he could collapse, exhausted. It was practically the only way he could get any sleep these days.
It didn't use to be so hard, he thought, slowing to a canter. He'd always slept like a baby after they won a match, but Lord knows, those wins were few and far between these days. A few glasses of wine occasionally worked, but he'd stopped drinking as part of his training, knowing that even if the alcohol initially brought him relief, he'd be wide awake a few hours later, eyes on the ceiling, while ghosts and shadows chased through his brainâ¦
He shook his head, wishing for other ways to exhaust himself.
A string of images flashed through his mind. The sweet, silken curve of an inner thigh. The beckoning swell between waist and hip. A flirtatious smile thrown over a naked shoulder, inviting him to take what he wantedâ¦
He swore to himself and rode harder, violently shutting down this train of thought and replacing it with the simple conviction he had come to focus on since the death of his wifeâhe had to win. And in particular, he had to qualify for and win the biggest game of the season, the upcoming Carlos Del Campo Memorial Cup, named after his own late father.
In determined pursuit of this goal, Alejandro had turned to abstinence in this last year, in every sense of the word. He had given up most earthly pleasuresâdrinking, women, unnecessary socializing, anything that could distract him from the gameâand channeled all his restless feelings of grief and anger directly into his training. Spending every spare moment in the saddle, mercilessly pushing his already hard and athletic body as close to perfection as he could get, riding until he could barely walk. And yet, despite his absolute focus on the field, La Victoria had already lost more games than they had won this season, making a mockery of their name.
Alejandro wanted to blame his other teammates. If only they would train harder, pay better attention, be willing to sacrifice more. His younger brother, Sebastian, for example, could barely bother to turn up for practice most days, much more interested in taking advantage of the endless parade of polo groupies that were at his beck and call. Rory, the other young pro on the field, was talented but suggestible, and only too eager to follow Seb's party-happy lead. Lord Henderson, the
, had once been a formidable athlete, but a lifetime of hard playing had taken its toll on the older man, and these days, like many
s, it was more his ability to bankroll half of the team's expenses that secured his place on the field. Really, when Alejandro thought about it, it was a miracle they ever won a game.
Still, deep down, he knew that, as team captain, the responsibility for their losses ultimately lay upon his own shoulders. And that, despite his absolute personal focus and relentless pursuit of the cup, he was somehow failing them all.
Alejandro kicked his pony on, trying to shake loose his feelings of uncertainty and loss, to shed them like scales in his wake. The heavy sound of MacKenzie's hoofbeats, the dull thump of his own heart pounding, all resounded as one. Behind them, motes of sand kicked up by MacKenzie's hooves briefly danced in the moonlight and sparked a glimmering silver trail.
He rode until his body felt leaden, his muscles ached, and the sultry Florida air had soaked his shirt all the way through. Finally, turning for home, he felt the pull of his bed and knew that now he'd rest and get at least a few hours of sleep before he was up and ready to show the world his game face again.