Authors: James Patterson
CAROLINE WAS ABOUT
to fix herself a cup of tea when her doorbell rang. She moved stiffly to answer the door.
She had been a rider herself when she was younger, though she hardly rode at all these days. But her own career, because of the daredevil way she rode—more like her granddaughter than she’d ever admit—had been littered with falls, and injuries to her knees, shoulders, neck, and back that showed themselves with stiffness and a lingering limp. She sometimes thought she had an easier time managing her diabetes than she did all her aches and pains.
“Sorry I didn’t call first,” Steve Gorton said.
Caroline managed a thin smile before answering, “No, you’re not,” then waved him in.
He was maybe six one or six two, and had been an unmemorable college football player at Penn back in the early nineties. She’d looked it up, along with his age—past fifty now. He wore his hair piled too high on top, probably colored it, and shaved it too close on the sides in a way that accentuated his jowls. Even in Florida, he sprayed on his tan. Forever young, or trying like hell to look that way, in T-shirt and jeans and sneakers.
She asked if he wanted a drink. He said scotch if she had it. She went into the kitchen and poured him a glass of Dewar’s and brought it out to him.
“How’s she doing?” he said.
“Considering a horse landed on her,” Caroline said, “about as well as can be expected.”
Gorton nodded. “We need to talk about my horse, Caroline.”
“Our horse,” she said.
Now he smiled.
“Sure,” he said. “Go with that.”
They both understood the terms of their partnership. It was an arranged marriage, the kind they’d called shotgun marriages when she was young. A horse like Coronado, what they were sure was their Olympic horse at last, was as much Caroline’s dream as it was Maggie’s. She’d eventually mortgaged the barn for the final time, gambling away what little financial stability they had left.
“I’ve been talking to some of my friends in the business,” Gorton said. “About potential riders for Coronado.”
You have friends?
Caroline thought, but held her fire.
“You gave me rider approval in the contract,” she said. “And for now, that rider is still my daughter.”
“All due respect,” Gorton said, “but Maggie is lucky if she can ride a wheelchair right now.”
“The accident just happened,” Caroline said. “There’s still nearly seven months to the Olympics. Her results from the end of last year roll into this one. Even if she doesn’t start competing again until the spring, there are still enough qualifiers for her to make the team.”
Gorton sipped his drink, placed his glass on the coffee table, ignoring the coaster she’d placed in front of him.
“Never bullshit a bullshitter,” he said.
“We don’t need to go shopping for another rider when she’s barely out of surgery,” Caroline said.
Maybe it was part of the Wharton curriculum, but Caroline interpreted his every gesture, every sound, as dismissive.
“I may be new to this sport,” he said, “but I can read a calendar as well as the next guy. Maggie’s first event of the year was supposed to be the Grand Prix, the date for which is coming up soon. Now she’s not going to be in the ring. But let me explain something to you: Coronado sure as hell is.”
Caroline started to speak, but Gorton raised his hand and continued.
“I got into this sport to win,” he said. “When I win, somebody else loses.”
“A beautiful thing,” she said. “Truly.”
“Isn’t sarcasm supposed to be a weapon of the weak?” he asked.
“Trust me, Steve,” she said. “If I ever pull a weapon on you, it won’t be that.”
He picked up his drink and toasted her with it.
“You want to know an inconvenient truth, Caroline?” he said. “We’re more alike than you’ll ever admit. Because you want to win just as badly as I do.”
“Do you ever listen?” she said. “This isn’t about me. This is about my daughter.”
“Until she couldn’t manage to stay on our million-dollar horse,” he said.
Caroline felt the sudden urge to cross the room and slap him. But she didn’t. It didn’t matter what language was in the contract. They both knew that the architect of one of the largest hedge funds in the country, maybe the world, could make the owner of a small family barn in Florida go away if he wanted to, with another dismissive wave of his hand. Bottom line, Coronado was his horse.
He stood now.
“Thanks for the drink,” he said.
“Good talk,” Caroline said.
He either missed the sarcasm this time or simply ignored it.
“You know the other top riders better than I do,” he said. “Either you figure it out, or I will. Something else you don’t want to admit? This is what’s best for the horse. And what’s best for the horse is best for the two of us.”
He turned then and walked out the front door.
“Bastard,” Caroline Atwood said after he’d shut the door behind him.
Only because she knew the bastard was right.
I LOOKED OUT
the barn window and saw Mr. Gorton, Grandmother’s latest ATM, blow past me and down the driveway, driving his Porsche like a getaway car.
We’d needed more money, and more horses, around Atwood Farm for as long as I could remember. The barn needed renovating, the fencing in the schooling ring needed replacing. Every season, Grandmother would say she planned to spend money on improvements, but every time I’d walk into her bedroom and find her seated at the desk, she’d only say that she was “trying to pay bills.”
As far as I was concerned, Steve Gorton and my grandmother deserved each other.
She didn’t want to blame the horse. She certainly wasn’t going to blame Mom.
Be sorry you weren’t there,
The words had stung like a slap. She was putting it on me, for letting her down. Letting everybody down. Again.
Grandmother had offered to drive me home from the hospital. I told her I’d take an Uber and request no conversation with the driver.
“You’re saying you don’t want to talk to me?” she’d said.
“I don’t want to listen to you,” I’d said.
When I got to the barn, I’d stopped at Coronado’s stall first. Coronado could have been injured, and badly. But our vet, Doc Howser, had checked him out as thoroughly as he would have vetted him for a sale, and pronounced him completely fine.
Dr. Richard Howser wasn’t just a great vet and trusted family friend, he was a really good guy who cared about horses the way everybody in the family did, even though Maggie would occasionally call him Dr. Doom when he delivered bad news.
Coronado was on his side, asleep. Most horses slept standing up, but, according to studies, some horses preferred to sleep lying down, that they got a deeper sleep that way.
I liked watching horses sleep.
You don’t love it enough,
Grandmother would say when we argued about my riding. I’d tell her that I loved being around horses just fine, but humans kept getting in the way.
I moved quietly through the row of stalls, past the bridles hung on the wall, and the saddle racks, past the tack room.
“Hey, girl,” I said when I got to Sky’s stall near the end.
She leaned her head out and gave me a pointed look.
“I can’t believe you’re even asking if I brought treats,” I said, then reached into the front pocket of my jeans and palmed a red-and-white mint. With a minimum of slobber, she quickly made it disappear from my outstretched hand.
Then she snorted.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
She was ten now, but still my baby girl. I retrieved a folding chair from the tack room and placed it so that with Sky’s head extending from the stall, it felt as if she were resting it on my shoulder, or maybe looking out for me.
I looked up at her.
“What are we going to do, girlfriend?” I said. “This is so not fair.”
I sat near Sky for a few minutes. And then I was up and out of the chair and into the tack room, grabbing my helmet, finding Sky’s CWD-brand saddle that Mom bought me when I graduated high school.
Saddles were heavy as hell. With no grooms around, I managed to put two saddle pads on her, then the saddle itself, the girth that held it in place, the bridle last. I opened the double doors, threw the switch for the floodlights, and the two of us walked toward the schooling ring.
I wanted to ride. To move. I leaned down and said to Sky, “You get extra treats later.”
Then we were circling the ring, past where the jumps were lined up and stacked, slowly picking up speed. I wouldn’t have jumped Sky, not at night, even with the ring lighting enhanced tonight by a full moon.
Just me, alone in the ring with Sky and her horse sounds, Sky’s breathing and her hooves. Not going against the clock. Not trying to calculate distances and clear jumps and beat the other horses.
Or Atwoods. Even with Mom down, I could still hear her and Grandmother telling me I wasn’t the rider I was supposed to be, or that I didn’t love it enough or want it enough, or that I’d never be the rider Mom was. That I wasn’t enough of an Atwood, as if somebody had slipped me the wrong DNA.
Just remembering what I always loved about this sport, what I still loved when people would just leave me the hell alone.
I knew Daniel’s voice instantly.
“Leave me alone,” I said, heading back to the far end of the ring. When Sky and I finally did come back around, as if we’d turned for home, he’d walked out and was standing in the middle of the ring.
I thought about doing one more lap. But I just slowed Sky down instead, brought her to a walk and finally to a stop, patting her head the way I did when we’d finished a good round.
“I was not going too fast,” I said.
“Yes, you were.”
“I’m not an idiot,” I said.
“No comment,” he said. “Now please take your horse back to the barn.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said.
“I said please, didn’t I,
“Emilio gets to call me that,” I said. “You don’t.”
“Don’t call me that, either.”
Daniel Ortega was a few years older than I was but acted much older and more mature than that. He had only been my trainer for the past couple of years. He was Mexican by birth, having been brought to America, then raised here, by undocumented immigrant parents. But he spoke perfect English, even if his use of words sometimes sounded overly formal to me. Almost mannered. He worked his words as precisely as he did his horses.
And I knew this about Daniel Ortega: He lived in constant fear of being deported because of the changed reality and polarizing politics of immigration in America. A couple of months ago, he’d requested a few days off with no explanation. When I’d asked him about it later, just once, he’d shaken his head and said, “I was raised to believe that being a Dreamer is a good thing.” And left it at that.
Since then he’d become increasingly impatient with my riding and my attitude. When, out of frustration, I’d given him the finger, he’d said, “No, Miss Becky, you’re not number one.”
He was a great trainer, both gifted with horses and passionate about them. I considered him a good friend, but neither one of us ever forgot that he worked for Atwood Farm. As an Atwood, technically he worked for me, too.
“I thought you’d be happy that I’m riding,” I said, “and not out drinking with my friends.”
“It’s too late for you to be in the ring,” he said.
He reached for Sky’s bridle, but I gently moved her a couple of steps away from him.
“Your mom would never have Coronado out at this time of night,” he said.
“Can we please not start talking again about how I’m not her,” I said. “As if I need to be reminded.”
“I never said I wanted you to be her,” he said.
“Are you serious?” I said. “Everybody does.”
“I just want you to be the rider I know you can be, whether you’re here or at college.”
The season was starting in a few weeks, and since the last one had been the worst of my life, I’d be competing here instead of on campus. No more coming up from Miami on Thursday night, riding on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before heading back to school on Sunday night. I’d gotten into a slump early and kept finding ways to lose. I’d give Sky a bad distance. Or start out too fast and then pull up and confuse her into refusing a jump and we’d circle and get disqualified. Or we’d have a clean round going and then I’d get her too close to the last jump, and we’d get a rail, or crash right through the jump.
Mom even convinced me to see her sports psychologist, who’d told me that when athletes in any sport started waiting for bad things to happen, they almost always did.
Not Sky’s fault. Mine. Totally my bad. Bad Becky. I either had to have my saddle monogrammed that way or put college on hold.
I’d ended up having a slightly better summer, not feeling as much pressure as I had in the spring, telling myself that next year would be better, that maybe Sky and I just needed to get out of Wellington. Then Coronado came along and I decided to make Mom my main focus.
Only the focus had shifted now—from getting her to the Olympics to getting her better.
“What happened to your mother wasn’t your fault,” Daniel said, now in the ring.
I had climbed off Sky and was walking her back inside. Daniel was walking with us.
“Try telling Grandmother that,” I said.
Just then, from the open doors to the barn, I heard Grandmother say, “Tell her what?”
“Just that we’re done for the night,” I said.
“What the hell were you doing down there?” she said.
“Doing what you’re always telling me to do,” I said. “Trying to get better.”
“Well, you picked a hell of an odd time to start,” she said. “Now get up to the house. I need to talk to both of you.”
Then, for the second time tonight, she walked away from me.
I walked Sky back inside her stall, gave her the treat I’d promised her, and wished I could spend the rest of the night with her.