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Authors: James Patterson

The Horsewoman (21 page)

BOOK: The Horsewoman
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THEY’D TAKEN THE
first booth to the left of the entrance into the Palm Beach Grill, next door to the Honor Bar. Steve Gorton liked both places, chose between them depending on his mood. Both bars attracted equally good-looking women.

He was having Monday lunch with Tyler Cullen. Not as much an invitation as a direct order. Gorton liked making Cullen come to him every chance he got. Cullen wasn’t technically one of Gorton’s employees. But still treated him like one. Cullen let him. What choice did he have? Some things never changed. Gorton had something Cullen wanted.

Gorton’s lunch today was a Bloody Bull, beef bouillon mixed in with his Bloody Mary. Cullen was having a salad, no dressing, with a Diet Coke. Little guy watched his weight like a jockey.

“I thought you told me she couldn’t win,” Gorton said.

“It’s like an old trainer of mine says,” Cullen said. “A lot of people have won one in a row.”

“She looked pretty damn good on that horse to me,” Gorton said.

“Obviously getting back with her old trainer made a difference,” Cullen said. “You saw what she was like her first time out. Scared shitless. She was a different rider Saturday night.”

Gorton leaned forward.

“The one who looks scared right now is you,” Gorton said. “You have to know what usually happens to people who get shit wrong with me, right?”

“It won’t happen again,” Cullen said. “Trust me.”

Gorton laughed so loud people at the other end of the bar turned around.

“Oh, wait,” Gorton said to him. “You’re serious.”

“But you
can
trust me,” Cullen said.

“A glorified jockey?” Gorton said.

Cullen just stared at him, almost as if seeing Gorton, really seeing him, for the first time. Gorton had seen the look plenty of times before. People swore up and down, all the time, about how they knew it was a mistake to underestimate him. Then they went ahead and underestimated him.

“You know how much I want to be in business with you.”

“That actually brings me to the reason I got you over here today,” Gorton said. “I need you to explain why I should still want to be in business with you.”

He sipped his drink.

“Because for the life of me, I can’t come up with a single good goddamn reason.”

Cullen looked as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ve got some new intel on the whole situation,” he said.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Will you at least hear me out?” Cullen said.

Gorton did. Cullen talked for a long time, the words spilling out of him. Or maybe it just felt like a long time to Steve Gorton, who never had much of an attention span when hearing pitches. An idea. A partnership. Themselves. It was what Cullen was doing now. Pitching himself all over again. Trying not to look desperate, or needy. But Gorton could always see it on people. Could
smell
it. It was like when he’d watch that show
Shark Tank
on television. Gorton had no use for the hosts. He had more money than they did. Even Mark Cuban. No, he just liked to watch some of the contestants beg.

“You’re telling me this is about an effing
groom
?” Gorton said when Cullen finally shut up.

“My old groom,” Cullen said. “And Daniel Ortega’s best friend. Hector, the groom’s name is. Got picked up about a few months ago and ended up in a detention center. Been there ever since.”

“I weep for him,” Gorton said.

Cullen told him the rest of it then.

When he finished this time, Gorton said, “You’re telling me that this trainer is that big a threat to you?”

“Is now,” Cullen said. “Whatever he said to her, he managed to get her mind right, at least for one night. And she did look like her old self. So, yeah, she needs him.”

“A trainer can actually mean that much?” Gorton said.

“Not with me,” Cullen said. “Obviously with her.”

Cocky little bastard to the end, Gorton had to give him that. Making no apologies about having as much compassion as a vulture. Or venture capitalist.

“You want this horse that much?” Gorton said.

“More,” Cullen said.

Gorton waved at the tall blond waiter who’d been covering their table. It was like a little competition he ran, here and next door, seeing who could get to him and get his drink back the fastest, all of them knowing the size of the tip usually depended on it.

The new Bloody Bull arrived at warp speed. He tasted the new drink while the kid was still standing there, slightly out of breath.

“Perfection,” he said.

“Happy you’re happy, Mr. Gorton,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Gorton said. Screwing with everybody today. “Did you make the drink yourself?”

When the kid was gone, he leaned toward Cullen again.

“You’re telling me this is the way it lays out,” Gorton said.

“I am,” Cullen said.

Gorton smiled. An old girlfriend once told him his smile was sharp enough to cut glass.

“Or maybe what you say is going to happen is something else that
doesn’t,
” he said. “At which point you’ve wasted my time and the mommy rides my horse all the way to Paris and I live happily ever after without you.”

“Not if we get her trainer deported,” Tyler Cullen said.

GUS AND I WERE
in the ring at eight o’clock, just the two of us, Seamus and the other groom working inside the barn. I’d just mentioned that while it wasn’t a scientific study, I thought he did more yelling early in the morning.

“You want a hug?” he said. “Call your boyfriend.”

“Daniel’s not my boyfriend,” I said.

“Yeah,” Gus Bennett said. “Go with that.”

We had settled into a solid routine now, as a way of not overworking Sky. There were days when I jumped her, days when I just hacked, not even looking at the jumps in the ring, just easy laps around the outside for half an hour or so. On the days when I didn’t ride Sky, I rode Tiny over at his barn, just because it was clear by now that Gus didn’t give a rip if he overworked me. And was never going to hear me complain about it ever again.

Today was one of those days when he had me saddle Sky myself, telling me it was all part of the process, being as hands-on as I possibly could with my horse.

“I’m surprised you don’t have me muck her stall,” I said.

“Who says I won’t, princess?” he said.

Today was a jumping day. Serious jumping. I’d helped Gus set the rails. At 1.45. The National Grand Prix, what Gus called the beginning of the playoffs, was in ten days. He’d even entered us in an event before that, the following Thursday at WEF, telling me the reps would be good for me.

Gus, as usual, took his position near the last jump, wheelchair angled so he could see the whole course, a travel cup of coffee in the holder on one of the arms. He was wearing the Beijing cap. I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be some kind of motivator for him, or me. He still had not discussed his accident with me. By now I’d seen the video of it, his horse coming to a dead stop in the huge observation event in Rome, the one he’d needed to win to officially qualify for the Olympics, in the spring of 2008. I’d read some of the articles about what happened that day, too. Nobody was sure what had spooked his horse and caused it to slam the brakes on the way it did. When they’d tried to ask Gus afterward, when he was finally out of the hospital, he’d refused to talk about it. As far as I could tell, he still never had.

The images were terrible enough to watch that only a couple of times could I bear the sight of him helicoptering through the air, the world so upside-down that he had no chance to get his arms out to break his fall, before his back landed squarely on the top rail. Everybody in riding knew how heavy those rails were. It was the same as falling on a rock.

“Hey,” he said, “I said let’s
go.
Where the hell was your brain at just now?”

I couldn’t tell him Rome in 2008.

He’d had Emilio set a water jump today, Gus telling me that there would probably be water in every one of the big events we had coming up over the next couple of months.

“Remember,” he said. “We focus on process here. Every day. Every jump. Whether you’re here or in competition. Treat them all the same and then you’ve got less chance to choke your brains out once the lights get turned up.”

I saw him grinning at me.

“You know the real definition of choking, right?” he said.

“Help me out,” I said.

“A cold rush of shit to the heart,” he said.

“Have you ever considered motivational speaking?” I said.

He moved the Zinger closer to me.

“You want to hear my motivational speech?” he said. “Here it is, for the first and last time, and don’t let it go to your head. You’ve got as much natural talent as anybody I’ve seen.”

He’d never said anything like that to me before. Nothing close. I was so floored by what I’d just heard I wasn’t sure how to respond, worried that he might take it back if I even tried to thank him.

So I didn’t say anything, simply angled Sky toward the first jump.

He wasn’t quite finished.

“But what you need to understand is that talent is
never
enough,” he said. “The way having a fast little horse isn’t enough.”

“I know,” I said.

“So know this, too,” Gus said. “You never know how many chances you get in this sport.” He paused and nodded and said, “Shit happens. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said.

He squinted into the bright morning sun then, his face almost looking angry as he did, like he wanted to yell at the sun the way I knew he was about to yell at me.

“I hate light like this,” he said.

I’D STOPPED COMPARING
his style of training, of coaching me, to Daniel’s. It would have been like comparing an apple to a chocolate cake.

But I was starting to enjoy my time with Gus in the ring, even though I would never admit it to him if my life depended on it. The truth was, we seemed to have developed a mutual mind-reading ability. I was riding the way he wanted me to ride more and more, getting yelled at less and less. His style, if you could even call it that, wasn’t for everybody. Wasn’t sure I would have ever volunteered to work with Gus Bennett. But by now I’d figured out that his toughness was irrelevant.

My toughness was everything.

And there was something more:

Seeing his love for the sport was making me love it even more. One of these days, if I could screw up my courage, I might even ask him how much being a trainer filled the competitive void in him, accessed all the qualities that had made
him
a great rider in the first place.

“Sit up straight in that saddle, for chrissakes,” he shouted at me now.

I turned my head so he couldn’t see that I was smiling.

Six jumps ahead of me in the moment, in the high morning sun and heat. The water jump was second from the end. Gus was right. As usual. Sky did need more work on entry and exit: take off at the last possible moment, make sure not to land even one leg in the water. What we called dipping a toe. You did, you got a fault.

“Focus!” he yelled.

“I
am
focusing!” I yelled back.

I did that sometimes, just not too often.

Six strides to the water jump.

Then four.

Then two.

I could see the distance was going to be perfect. Could feel it.

Then in the very next moment the sun was in my eyes, reflecting off the water in the small pool, as if a spotlight was suddenly shining into my eyes.

And Sky’s.

She came to a stop, turned her head, blinded the same as I was.

“Noooooo!”
I heard Gus Bennett scream.

Then I was the one spinning through the air, staring straight up at the sky one last time before I came crashing down on one of my own fences.

I WAS ON MY BACK
when I opened my eyes. Sun still in my face.

I didn’t think I had lost consciousness. But wasn’t entirely sure of that. The last thing I remembered, other than the sound of Gus’s voice, was hitting the top rail.

I lay there without moving. Feeling pain concentrated in my hip and lower back. No desire to move or try to move. This wasn’t like the time on Coronado when I’d bailed before I went sailing over the horse’s head. I’d been the one to decide how I ended up on the ground that night. Not today.

When I opened my eyes I could see Gus looking down at me. And Daniel.

Where did he come from?

Daniel started to reach down for me when Gus said,
“Don’t touch her!”

“Sorry,” Daniel said.

“Becky?” Gus said now.

He almost never called me by my name.

“Here,” I said.

My voice sounded as if it were coming from inside the barn.

“Do me a favor?” Gus said.

“Sure,” I said, in the same weak voice.

“Lift one of your legs for me,” he said.

Sounded like a simple enough task. Lift a leg. Anybody could do that. But when I tried to lift my right one, I felt like it had weights attached to it. Like the heavy ones we occasionally used in the gym.

Finally, I got the leg off the ground.

Gus said something I didn’t hear right away.

“What?” I said.

“Now an arm, please,” he said.

I did that.

“Good girl,” he said.

“Becky,” Daniel said. “Where does it hurt the most?”

“Everywhere,” I said.

Daniel turned to Gus.

“Let’s help her sit up,” he said.

“Carefully,” Gus said.

I reached up to them with both hands. Gus, leaning forward as far as he could in his chair, took one. Daniel took the other. Slowly they got me into a sitting position. I mostly felt the move in my upper back, not the hip area. I saw two rails next to me on the ground.

“We need to get you to the hospital,” Daniel said.

“Where did you come from, by the way?” I said.

“Your mom beat me to Gus’s today,” he said. “There was something wrong with the strap on her helmet. She asked me to come over here and pick up her old one.”

“I don’t need to go to the hospital,” I said. “I’m just sore and a little stiff.”

“Daniel will take you,” Gus said, as if that settled that.

Daniel started to take my hand again. I told him I could stand up on my own. And did. Wobbly at first. But upright. Telling myself I wasn’t going down again. Screw that.

I asked where Sky was, and Gus told me Emilio had already taken her back inside the barn. We began to slow-walk out of the ring in that direction. Daniel was on one side of me. Gus rode alongside me on the other.

“It was the sun,” I said, even though neither of them had asked what happened. “Got me and got my horse.”

“Like I said,” Gus said. “Shit happens.”

He gave me a long look and said, “Happened to me that way once.”

By the time Daniel and I got to the gate, after what felt like an hour and a half, I realized Gus wasn’t with us. I turned and saw that he was back in the ring, near the jump where I’d crash-landed.

Staring back up into the sun.

BOOK: The Horsewoman
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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