Authors: James Patterson
MAGGIE HAD BEEN
discharged from the hospital that morning.
“Knowing this guy,” Caroline had said to her daughter before leaving the house for Oli’s, “I may need you to be the cavalry.”
Now Maggie, with an assist from Daniel, was making her entrance at Oli’s. Hoping she was riding to the rescue.
Gorton tried to act casual, sliding his chair to the right and making room for hers. Daniel quickly excused himself to the bar.
“Two of you, one of me,” Gorton said. “So the sides are even.”
“Nice to see you, too, Steve,” Maggie said, flashing her biggest smile.
She was watching his face for signs of anger or annoyance, but he seemed mildly amused at the guest who’d unexpectedly shown up at the party.
“How are you feeling?” he said.
“Like a horse fell on me,” she said. “But thanks for asking.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “But no chance that you showing up here is going to get me to change my mind about your daughter.”
Oscar appeared, shook her hand, and welcomed her back, and asked what she’d like.
“A new pelvis?” Maggie said, then told him a glass of sparkling water would be fine. When he was gone, Caroline’s recap of the conversation was thoroughly unsurprising.
“Would you like to know what I think?” Maggie said to Gorton.
“Do I have a choice?” he said.
“Listen, none of us wanted to be in this situation,” Maggie said. “Certainly not me. But here we are, anyway, all in this situation. Together. And you need to know that Daniel and Mom have been watching Becky jump the horse the past few days. They’re convinced she can ride him in competition, and win. And now that I’m out of the hospital, I can help train them, too.”
“This isn’t the same as buying her first goddamn pony,” Gorton said. “Wait.” He held up a hand. “Let me amend that. It’s not like
buying her a goddamn pony.”
Maggie watched her mother now, who looked as if she might turn the table over. But she just sat there, gripping the arms of her chair as if she wanted to squeeze them into dust.
“Steve,” Maggie said gently, “from the start, we all agreed that there had to be an element of trust in this partnership, or it was never going to work, whatever the financials were. All Mom and I are asking you to do is trust us.”
“After she throws the contract in my face?” he said.
“To get this horse,” Maggie said, “we would have done this deal on a handshake.”
I am officially lying my ass off, just as Becky always said I could.
“Good thing you didn’t,” Gorton said. “Or I’d be back on the island already.”
He never called it Palm Beach, Maggie knew by now. Always “the island,” in keeping with the rich men and women in their world. She and her mother had done business with a lot of them—and none of them ever wanted to hear the word
She reminded herself to remain as still as possible in the wheelchair. Just about any quick movement these days lit the pain fuse. Explosive jolts would come at any time, from everywhere.
She turned her head slightly and said to her mom, “You asked Steve for a month, correct?”
“Correct,” Caroline said.
Maggie turned her head to face Gorton.
“So give us the Grand Prix, it’s right around the corner,” she said. “Then the Longines two weeks after that. If my daughter hasn’t proved she can do the job, you won’t have to take her off the horse.
“Worst case,” he said, “we’ve lost a month. To quote Caroline, ‘A month can feel like a lifetime in this sport.’”
Caroline winced, but Maggie pushed forward.
“It’s not even February. A new rider would still have five months on Coronado to qualify for Paris.”
“Say I go along,” Gorton said. “What’s in it for me?”
Always looking for an angle,
For an edge
Her mother jumped in now.
“If we’re wrong,” she said, “that means you’re right, Steve. If we lose, you win.”
Gorton briefly checked his phone, ate an olive, patted the table a couple of times. But then smiled.
“Deal,” he said. “You get a month. Either way, I really do win. Best kind of deal there is.”
He pushed his chair away, stood up, and left.
“I get broken in half,” Maggie said, watching Gorton go, “and the money man sticks us with the check.”
Maggie angled her wheelchair to have a better look at the room. Three men and a woman were sitting together at a four-top. The familiar faces of her fiercest competitors had softened with pity. She waved. They all waved back.
She turned back to Caroline and said, “Some things never change. I’m still on the clock.”
STEVE GORTON WALKED
past the kitchen, past the bar where he saw the Mexican kid nursing a beer and talking to a smoking-hot bartender. It was still early. Maybe, Gorton thought, he’d take the car home and get a driver, head over to Honor Bar and see if anybody who wore a tank top and jeans as well as this bartender did was looking to have some fun.
He thought briefly about grabbing their waiter and offering to pick up the check for drinks, or even dinner for his partners from Atwood Farm.
But what the hell for?
They’d already gotten everything they wanted.
Or thought they had.
What a waste that he had driven the Ferrari. After two adult beverages, he’d have to stay under the speed limit.
Inside the car, Gorton placed a call. “Where the hell are you?”
“This place called Oli’s,” said the man who answered.
“Seriously?” Gorton said. “I just walked out of there.”
“I saw you,” the man said. “But I didn’t think it was a good idea for the whole town to see us talking to each other.”
“Well, I’ll talk now,” Gorton said. As he pulled out onto Forest Hills Boulevard, he quickly related his conversation with Caroline Atwood.
“I don’t want this kid to win,” he said. “I’m sick of the Atwoods calling the shots. You want the horse?”
“You know I do.”
“Then figure something out,” Gorton said.
He ended the call, took a right on Southern, then put on some Sinatra and continued his slow ride to the island.
What kind of schmuck did they think they were dealing with?
“YOU’RE SURE YOU’RE
ready?” Mom said.
Two days after Mr. Gorton had given us his deadline, we met in the schooling ring and laid out our competition schedule. I’d show next weekend on both Sky and Coronado at a height that was just under four feet eight inches, listed in programs as “1.45.” The following week would come WEF’s Saturday Night Lights, where Coronado and I would compete in the International Arena at the Olympic height, the height of the jumps would be just under five feet three inches. It would be like jumping a horse over
“Can I be ready but not
I’m ready at the same time?” I said.
“Whatever gets you around clean,” Mom said.
“And fastest,” I said.
“You don’t need to win first time out of the gate,” she said. “I’ll take any kind of ribbon.”
“Did you used to think that way?” I said.
“Well,” she said, “you got me there.”
She was already out of her wheelchair. Classic Mom.
“No, thanks,” she had said, when Dr. Garry suggested that she stay in it a few more days. “Not my kind of ride.”
She’d leaned her crutches against the fence and draped her long, lean arms over the top rail. My mom had an awesome figure. Anyone approaching her from behind, in her breeches and a T-shirt, would mistake her for a college girl. But the riding pants, which usually looked as if they’d been spray-painted on her, same as mine did, looked loose today, signaling how much weight she’d lost since her fall.
“Coronado is ready,” I said, “to jump the big-boy height right now—”
“You’re not,” Grandmother said.
“Let’s get through the first event,” Daniel said.
“Keep reminding yourself you’ve never ridden a horse this big or strong in competition,” Grandmother said. “You’re a career prop-plane pilot who’s taken control of a jet.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said, grinning at her. “Sky’s in the barn, waiting for me to ride her. She’ll hear you.”
I was still on Coronado, the only horse in the ring right now. “Coronado doesn’t much like being close to other horses, even in warm-ups,” I said. “I’ll need to watch out next weekend, when the schooling ring at WEF will look like rush-hour traffic on Southern Boulevard.”
“Doesn’t play well with others,” Mom said, feigning confusion with an exaggerated scratch to her head. “Now who does that remind me of?”
“May I answer that one?” Daniel said.
“I’ll try to be good,” I said to both of them.
“We’re looking for great,” he said.
“On it,” I said.
Mom said she’d stay and watch me trot Coronado, and then look at the video she’d taken of our round. Grandmother headed for the house, Daniel for the barn. As I watched Daniel walk away, I said to Mom, “Ask you something?”
“Do you think he likes me?” I said. “Like in a way he might like me if he wasn’t my trainer and didn’t work here?”
“Now that, kiddo,” she said, “is something only he knows, and you need to find out, at least if you want to.”
“Don’t you think it would be weird?” I said. “Sometimes I get the feeling he knows me better than I know myself.”
“He might,” she said. “But I’ve got news for you. They’re
I put Coronado back in motion, easing him into a trot toward the far end of the ring. Mom was still hanging over the fence, clearly happy to be outside, happy to be back in this world, even on the sidelines. Her next stop, I knew, was the gym.
Coronado and I were rounding the far end of the ring when I brought him to a stop.
“He’s limping!” I yelled.
IN A BLINK,
Daniel and Emilio both came running, Maggie Atwood trailing behind on her crutches, feeling as slow as a plow horse. Emilio got to Coronado first, helping Becky down.
“Which leg?” Daniel said.
“Hind left, pretty sure,” Becky said.
The horse could not be hurt,
Maggie repeated to herself.
Could. Not. Be.
“What did I do to get the horse gods pissing on me this way?” she said to Becky, borrowing an expression from Caroline.
Daniel had taken the reins and was walking Coronado, noticeably limping now, slowly back to the barn. Emilio ran up to the house to get Caroline Atwood.
When they had Coronado in his stall, Emilio took off his saddle and Daniel carefully removed the horse’s boots from his lower legs. All Maggie and Becky could do was stand and watch helplessly.
“Somebody should call Dr. Howser,” Maggie said.
“I already did,” Daniel said without looking up.
Maggie hadn’t even noticed him on his phone. She had been too focused on her horse.
Maggie heard Becky say, in a voice that wasn’t much louder than a whisper, “Please don’t let it be bad.”
“Back at you,” Maggie said.
“I wish we could ask Coronado,” Becky said.
“You always want to ask,” Maggie said. “But they never talk.”
Then they both heard Daniel say, “Maybe here.”
He was in a crouch next to Coronado’s hind left leg, the boot from the lower leg still in his hand. He pointed to an angry-looking red spot, the size of a show ribbon, some dirt caked on it. To Maggie, a former high school soccer player, it looked like turf burn.
Emilio carried a bowl, sponge, and clean white towel from the tack room. Daniel gently went to work soaping the bruise, already looking hot and painful and swollen, while Emilio patted Coronado’s head and spoke softly to him in Spanish.
“Did I do something wrong?” Becky said to her mom. “You can tell me if I did.”
Maggie put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
“You rode your horse,” she said.
Maggie took in some air, felt the pain she still felt in her ribs when she didn’t regulate her breathing properly, and let it out.
“I’m just worried it might be cellulitis,” she said then. “Not like I haven’t seen that before.”
Daniel turned to look at Maggie and said, “Please, let’s not go there.”
“Try and stop me,” Maggie said.
Lord Stanley had been stricken with the bad bacterial infection the last time she was on the Olympic short list, the first time she felt as if the gods had pissed on her, royally.
Maggie had been around vets her whole life and had educated herself as best she could about what could go wrong with horses. She called it her advanced barn degree in veterinary medicine.
Cellulitis attacked the tissue below a horse’s skin and could affect any part of a horse’s body. And could cause the kind of swelling they were all looking at right now with Coronado. It was most common in the hind legs and could cause lameness so severe that eventually the horse was unable to bear weight on the affected leg.
That was where the infection attacked Lord Stanley, Maggie’s dream horse before Coronado became her dream horse. They had treated him with antibiotics, but then the cellulitis came back, worse than before, and more lameness along with it. The antibiotics had worked better the second time around. The horse eventually stopped limping, but he never jumped again. He was now living at a farm in North Carolina owned by a rich woman who took in injured horses the way shelters took in stray dogs.
Maggie heard her mother say now as Caroline Atwood marched into the stall.
Maggie told her, keeping her voice down, her eyes locked on Daniel and Coronado.
“Shit,” her mother said. “Shit shit shit.”
“Happens,” Becky said.
How fragile a thousand-pound animal, even one fast and strong and amazing in the ring, can be,
How fragile the whole damn sport can be.
She’d just found out herself, the hard way, on what was supposed to be a simple trail ride.
“Where’s our goddamn vet?” her mother said.
“On his way,” Daniel said.
A few minutes later Dr. Richard Howser walked into the barn.
Steve Gorton was right behind him.
“Just what we need,” Maggie whispered to Becky.
“Somebody needs to tell me what the
is going on here!” Gorton said, as if addressing all of them, and maybe the horse, too.
“He was limping when he left the ring,” Maggie said in a quiet voice. “We found some bruising, and called Richard, Dr. Howser, and now here we all are.”
Gorton turned and looked at Becky.
“Did you do something?” he said.
For once, Maggie watched her daughter hold her tongue.
“I rode the horse, Mr. Gorton,” Becky said.
“Why don’t we let Richard do his work,” Maggie said, “and then we can all talk about it.”
The verbal fire that burned in Caroline and Becky had skipped a generation with her. Maggie’s anxiety ebbed a bit as she watched Dr. Howser at work. He was as calm as anybody Maggie knew, with the possible exception of her ex-husband.
The vet methodically examined all of Coronado’s legs, then took some blood, promising he would fast-track it at the lab.
“So what is it?” Gorton said, with the authority that signaled this stall was now his office.
“I wouldn’t even speculate at this point,” Howser said, then reached into his medical bag for bandages he began to apply to Coronado’s left hind leg.
When he’d finished, they all stepped outside. Steve Gorton said, “All due respect, I need to get a second opinion here.”
Maggie fought back a smile at hearing “all due respect”—blunt-force code for bad news.
“With all due respect to
Mr. Gorton,” the vet said, “any second opinion would be the same as mine. We just have to wait and see. And not jump to any conclusions.”
Gorton looked at Maggie now and said, “He’s aware that he works for me, too, right?”
“Richard is the best there is,” Maggie said, attempting to avert a scene. “Coronado is in good hands.”
Gorton turned back to Becky.
“You’re sure you didn’t notice something on your ride, and the Atwood Farm family isn’t just covering for some mistake you made in the ring?” he said.
“I can answer that, Steve,” Maggie said, “because I watched the round and watched the video of it afterward. It was a perfect ride.”
“No shit?” he said. “If it was such a perfect ride why’d the doctor have to make a damn house call once it was over?”
Dr. Howser held up the vial of blood he’d taken and said, “I need to get this to the lab. As soon as I get the results, I’ll call.”
“I want to be in the loop on this,” Gorton said.
“You will be,” Maggie said.
“Just so we’re clear,” he said.
We couldn’t be more clear if you’d hired a skywriter.
“By the way, Steve?” she said. “How is it that you happened to show up right behind Dr. Howser?”
She saw him hesitate, just slightly.
“I was meeting a friend at the tent,” he said. “Thought I’d pop in, maybe get to see her ride him. Good that I did. I don’t like to get this shit secondhand.”
He started walking toward the driveway, as if he’d just adjourned a meeting. Over his shoulder he said, “Happy New Year, by the way.”
He was in his Porsche again today, Maggie saw. He got behind the wheel, slammed the door shut, gunned the sleek car into reverse. As they watched the speeding car disappear up Stable Way, Maggie said, “Should
acquaintances be forgot.”
She wasn’t entirely sure why she thought he was lying about meeting someone at the tent, and just happening by the barn. But she was pretty sure. It reminded her of something Jack McCabe had said once about a lawyer he knew who made frequent appearances on cable news.
“The guy lies to stay in practice,” Jack had said.
But if him showing up at the barn
been a coincidence, who’d called him?
She steadied herself on her crutches and went slowly back inside to be with her horse.
Shit shit shit.