Authors: James Patterson
THE NEXT MORNING
Grandmother sat at the kitchen table eating her usual breakfast of nuts and berries and oatmeal. I was having coffee and toast.
“Your mother said you went to see her,” she said.
“She wants me to ride Coronado,” I said.
“So I heard,” she said.
She sipped tea. I sipped my coffee, happy that I’d only taken a few bedtime hits of tequila, sleep having come to me more easily than I’d expected on one of the longest days of my life.
“If you don’t want me to ride Coronado, go find another rider.”
“It wouldn’t be difficult.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“Your mother is stopping me!”
She spoke even more loudly than usual now. “She wants the horse to stay in the family and she actually believes you can pull this off.”
“So does Daniel,” I said, taking a self-consciously defensive stance.
“Stop taking a goddamn poll about whether you want to do this!” she said, as if trying to out-shout me. “However you got here, you’re being given a chance to ride a goddamn Olympic horse all the way to the Olympics in Paris goddamn France.”
She was leaning forward now. I’d done the same without realizing it. “You want to ride this horse or not?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She looked at her watch. She said she needed an hour to meet with Doc Howser over at WEF about another horse of ours he’d just vetted for sale.
“And when I get back,” Grandmother said, “I want you to get your skinny ass up on that horse and act as if you belong there.”
DANIEL HAD SET
up the course for ten jumps, not the sixteen I’d encounter if Coronado and I did make it to the International Arena for the Grand Prix, the Sunday after next.
Once he set the course, we walked it, just as if we were showing for real, pacing off the distance between the jumps, six or seven strides for the horse, except for the triple Daniel had set up in the middle. He’d also thrown in a couple of tough rollback turns, where the trick was to come out of one jump already making a sharp turn into the next, a simultaneous challenge of speed and distance.
When we finished the walk, I turned and looked back at the course, picturing the order of the jumps in my head, waving my right hand in the air in front of me, as if I were conducting an equestrian orchestra.
“You know how to get a horse around,” Daniel said.
“Yeah, but the horse is Sky,” I said.
“Horses for courses,” he said. “And only one course matters in the next few minutes, and one horse.”
“This shit is about to get real,” I said.
“En el nombre del padre y el hijo y el Espíritu Santo,”
he said as he made the sign of the cross.
“Do I need divine intervention today?”
He smiled and said, “I want the good Lord on our side even if your grandmother is not,” he said.
“She probably thinks she could take God in a fair fight,” I said.
“Attitude,” Daniel said.
“Grandmother thinks it’s a bad thing.”
“Maybe not so much today.”
We walked back to where Emilio was standing with Coronado, just inside the gate. Grandmother was back and hanging over the fence at the far end of the ring—the schooling ring at our barn.
“Let’s do this, Maverick,” he said.
I told myself, on an animal whose normal stride was about ten feet long. Maybe more on a horse as big as Coronado, so significantly bigger than Sky.
I got into the saddle, patted the side of Coronado’s head, and leaned over and said, “Just you and me today, big boy.”
The worst thing I could do was transfer my nervous energy to the horse. He’d been Mom’s horse the way Sky was mine. Today I had to start making him my own.
It was just Coronado and me and Grandmother and Daniel and the grooms who’d come out of the barn to watch. And a video camera. Mom had called from the hospital and told Daniel to have somebody video my session on Coronado. But as I began to walk Coronado around the ring, I heard the slam of a car door.
I stopped Coronado and watched Mr. Gorton get out of his Porsche and stand in front of it, leaning on the hood. He’d parked so close to the barn I wondered if Grandmother had promised him a preferred parking spot inside. I was sure he was looking at me. He wanted me to know he was here, riding what he called his horse.
Owners didn’t belong at the in-gate. At WEF, some of them stood there for everybody to see—and to put more pressure on the riders. Maybe that’s what he wanted to do now. No way Caroline Atwood had just up and told Mr. Gorton, in time for him to blow over here from Palm Beach, that I was riding Coronado this morning. Maybe she had, or maybe it was someone else at our barn. And maybe he’d just shown up, unannounced, to see his horse.
I told myself.
So I didn’t acknowledge his presence, not even with a nod, just turned Coronado back toward the course, stopped to show him a couple of the jumps. The next time around, still warming him up, I let him out a little so that he could get his legs underneath him while I made sure I remembered the course that Daniel had set up for us.
I made one last stop where Daniel was standing with the grooms.
“Do not focus on the one your grandmother calls a horse’s ass,” he said, lifting his chin toward Gorton. “Just your horse.”
Just get around the first time clean.
Then I was into the first jump and then the second, taking it slow. When Sky and I were in the jump-offs that would determine the champion horse among those with clean first rounds, when we were really busting for speed, when we had it all going on, when I felt in perfect sync with my legs and hands, keeping her on her hind end, I would take out strides on our lines between the jumps, knowing that even a half second could make all the difference.
But I wasn’t doing that today on Coronado.
Show that man you can get around clean.
Trust the horse and have the horse trust you and screw all the rest of it, including Steve Gorton.
We got around clean. No rails. On the second-to-last jump, I gave Coronado a bad distance, got him too close, and he clipped it with one of his hind legs. But he adjusted. Then we cleared the last one with ease.
I patted his head again and said, “Such a good boy,” trying to channel Mom. Holy crap, I thought, maybe we really could do this, and my deep exhale broke into a smile.
I turned the horse so I could see Daniel’s reaction. He was standing near the last jump now, arms crossed in front of him, shaking his head.
He was not smiling.
“What?” I said, walking Coronado over to him.
“If you’re going to ride the horse scared, maybe we do need to find another rider,” he said, making certain Mr. Gorton could hear.
Before I could respond I heard the door to the Porsche slam and Steve Gorton put the car in reverse, spraying gravel as he turned it around, and was gone.
“I DIDN’T KNOW
I was on the clock,” Becky said. “And thanks for calling me out in front of that guy. He must be so proud that I’m part of the team.”
on the clock,” Daniel said to her. “And today is not about the owner. It is about the rider.”
Becky was still on Coronado, and she turned the horse to walk him out after his round. When she finished, Mrs. Atwood had joined Daniel in the ring.
Now she got off and handed the reins to Emilio.
“Did you tell Mr. Gorton that I was riding?” Becky said to her grandmother.
“Why in the world would I do that?” she said. “I try to be in that man’s company as little as possible.”
“Whatever,” Becky said, then turned to Daniel and said, “I wasn’t going to push him, no matter who was watching me ride.”
“No one asked you to push him,” Daniel said. “But why ride this horse as if the two of you were pulling a carriage?”
“It was a solid first ride and you know it,” she said. “You
“It was a careful ride,” he said. “That’s not you.”
“Agree to disagree,” she said.
“Shut up and listen to the man,” Mrs. Atwood said to Becky.
listen,” Daniel said to Becky, “even though that is not always your greatest skill as a horsewoman.”
“You added lines three different times,” Mrs. Atwood said to Becky now. “If this were a real event, you would have lost.”
“I just wanted to go clean!”
“So we could give you a pat on
head when you were done?” her grandmother said.
“Please listen,” he said again, “because we are all on the same team. And we are trying to help you.”
Daniel was expecting her to walk away. But she did not. Good. He wanted to use her anger in this moment.
“This horse is the one who has the need for speed,” he said. “You must allow him to be himself, even here, with only a handful of people watching him. He only understands one way.”
Becky started to say something. Daniel patiently held up both hands.
“Let me finish,” he said. “There is a reason I wanted you on this horse after your mother fell. I believe the way you ride and the way he can run and jump means you, even more than your mother, are made for him.” He gestured toward the ring now.
“Just not riding him like that,” he said.
“I could have gone faster if I wanted to,” Becky said.
“What was stopping you?” Daniel said.
“I wanted him to get to know me,” she said.
“Then let him get to know you as the rider you are,” Daniel said. “This horse runs one way. You ride one way. Now let’s get him out of the barn and do it again, all right?”
They both knew he wasn’t asking.
Becky turned to her grandmother and said, “Anything you’d like to add?”
“Hell, no,” she said. “I’m an old woman, but I could have ridden that horse up better than you just did.”
Then Mrs. Atwood was yelling at Emilio to bring the damn horse back out, and to be quick about it.
When Coronado was back in the ring, Mrs. Atwood said to Becky, “Now ride the damn horse without your foot on the damn brake.”
Becky said, “Screw all of you.”
She looked at Emilio and said, “Give me the reins and all of you get the
out of my way.”
Then Daniel watched as Becky rode the horse the way he wanted her to ride him, rode him hard, flying around the ring, not coming close to a rail, holding back nothing. Same horse. Different rider.
When Becky finished the course, she came back around with Coronado, took off her helmet and the hairnet she wore underneath it, shook her hair loose. Full of challenge, she looked down from the big horse and said, “Was
good enough for you?”
“Better,” he said.
He went inside the barn and placed a call.
“Maybe my plan wasn’t so crazy after all,” he said.
“She can’t do this without you, Daniel,” Maggie Atwood said.
“Deja que ese sea nuestro secreto,”
“I only recognize the last word,” she said. “Secret.”
“Let that be our secret,” Daniel said to her.
But not the only secret, Daniel knew.
THREE NIGHTS LATER,
Caroline Atwood requested the table in the far corner of the back room at Oli’s, a favorite restaurant among Wellington horse people. Gorton arrived a half hour late.
“We took off late from Teterboro,” he said.
The regional airport was no Andrews Air Force Base, but Caroline knew it was where he kept his personal Air Force One when it wasn’t flying him into Palm Beach International.
She thought about saying
How awful for you,
but didn’t, remembering Becky’s directive that she needed a charm offensive tonight.
“What in the world is that?” Caroline had said to her granddaughter, who had been heading out to dinner with friends.
“Heavy on the charm and light on the offensive,” Becky had said.
“Basically,” Becky’d said, “try to be good.”
“I thought that was my line,” she’d said.
She hadn’t spoken to him in days, since he’d told her to get a new rider on Coronado. He hadn’t said “or else,” but the threat was clearly implied.
Oscar, her favorite waiter, brought Gorton a vodka martini and Caroline an iced tea. “We’ll wait to order food,” she told him. She thought,
If we ever get that far.
Gorton raised his glass and clinked it against hers.
He drank down half his drink, smacked his lips, and said, “First of the day. Nothing like it—except making some of the boys and girls in the fund enough money to buy the Bahamas.”
Caroline took a deep breath and remembered what Becky had said.
Try to be good.
“So,” he said, “have you given much thought to our problem?”
“Maybe finding the right rider to replace my daughter is not a problem at all,” she said. “Maybe it could turn out to be an opportunity.”
“I’m listening,” he said.
“I think we’ve found someone. Well, me and our trainer.”
“The Mexican kid,” Gorton said.
“Daniel,” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “So what’s this rider’s name?”
Gorton laughed. “Your granddaughter? You’re shitting me. I saw how badly you and the Mexican kid reacted when she rode the horse the other day.” Caroline didn’t bother to correct him again. Sometimes Daniel called him
. More often he called him
An ass. Actually worse. “She’s gotten better since then.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “She’s not riding the horse.”
He barked out another laugh.
“Despite what you saw,” Caroline said, “she happens to be perfect for this particular horse.”
“My ass,” he said.
“Let’s talk this through,” she said.
“What’s there to talk about?” Gorton said. “The granddaughter you say has never applied herself to riding? The one I hear you bitching about, and the trainer bitched at the other day?
“She gets better on him every day,” Caroline said.
“She’s got a horse of her own, right?”
“She does,” Caroline said.
“Good,” Gorton said. “She can ride her horse, not mine.”
“I’m telling you,” Caroline said. “She’s the best rider for this particular horse.”
“Then why did you buy him for her mother and not her?”
She answered his question with one of her own. “How did you happen to show up at my barn the other day?”
“Got lucky with the timing,” he said. He shrugged. “It happens that way a lot. It’s another reason why I’m richer than shit.”
She looked around and saw some of WEF’s biggest riders and trainers, a lot of them still in their riding clothes. She imagined herself yelling out,
Who wants to ride Coronado?
and seeing hands immediately shoot into the air all over the back room.
“I’m acting in Coronado’s best interest,” Caroline said.
Gorton had finished his drink. He yelled
at Oscar and then pointed at his glass.
“Not to push too fine a point,” Gorton said, “but that’s not your call, Caroline.”
She looked discreetly at her watch.
Hang in there.
“Becky can win on Coronado,” she said. “They both like to go fast.”
“What? The other top guys want to go slow?”
“She’s watched her mother win on this horse,” Caroline said. “She knows how to do it.”
Gorton leaned forward now.
“I asked you to take care of this,” he said. “Maybe I don’t just need a new rider. Maybe I need a new partner, too.”
She could no longer contain herself.
“Good luck with that,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“Our contract gives me the right to choose the rider,” she said.
“The hell it does.”
She knew right away that he didn’t know. And probably hadn’t cared when he signed the contract because he never assumed anybody except Maggie Atwood would ride the horse. Caroline had checked what was boilerplate language in most standard partnership agreements involving horses. Even though Daniel actually trained the horse, Caroline was listed as the trainer of record in the contract. Her lawyer had done his best to bury it. But the language
in there—she’d checked after talking to Daniel. Caroline was sure Gorton’s eyes had gone right past it, or his lawyer’s did.
“That’s the way you want to play this?” he said. “Seriously?”
“I want us to be on the same page,” she said.
“Well, that’s not going to happen, is it?” he said. “You don’t need to saddle up, Caroline. You need to lawyer up. Not that it will matter, because my lawyers are better.”
Not with this contract,
she thought, and checked her watch again.
“Do you really want to be that guy, Steve?” she said.
“And what guy is that?”
“The new guy who wants to take a horse away from a rider who just ended up in a wheelchair,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is a small community. Word gets around.”
“And what would happen then? People would stop thinking I’m a nice guy? News bulletin. I’m
a nice guy.”
“But you’re a dealmaker,” she said. “So let me offer you one.”
“You’re in no position to make a deal,” he said, “whatever you say the contract says.”
Now Caroline leaned forward, elbows on the table, chin resting on her hands.
“Give Becky one month,” she said. “If she falls on her ass, literally or figuratively or both, you can pick whatever rider you want and I won’t fight you.”
“You’re not listening to me,” he said. “This fight is over already.”
Oscar showed up with Gorton’s second martini just as Caroline heard the sound of applause in the back room. He saw some of the riders in the room standing as Caroline couldn’t help doing the same.
It was all because Daniel Ortega was wheeling Maggie Atwood through the crowd toward their table.
“Sorry I’m late,” Maggie said. “Did I miss anything?”