Authors: James Patterson
HE HAD BEEN
rehearsing on the long ride back to Wellington what he was going to say to Becky, provided she did not slam the door right in his face. But when he saw her right there in front of him, it was as if all the words drained from his head.
It was not the first time with Becky that he had lost his words, though never in the ring. He would never completely understand her, no matter how long they were together. But by now he knew her, sometimes better than she knew herself, as annoyed as she would get when he would say that to her.
He had never told her of so many times when he felt…what was the expression?
She spoke first.
“Nice of you to stop by,” Becky said.
But she was smiling.
It was a good sign.
He nodded at the car keys in her left hand.
“Were you about to go out?” he said.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“You have a right to ask that,” he said. “And you have a right to be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry, Daniel, swear to God I’m not,” she said. “If I was, believe me, you’d know it. Maybe the neighbors, too, and the horses down in the barn. But I knew it had to be serious for you to be gone this long.”
“It was important,” he said. “On that you must trust me.”
“Now I’m just relieved that you’re back,” she said. “Just please tell me where you’ve been, okay?”
“No,” he said.
“AND THAT’S THE
way you two left it?” Maggie Atwood said to her daughter the next morning over coffee at the kitchen table. “He just said ‘no’?”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“For now,” Becky said. “Like I tell you and Grandmother all the time: he’s Daniel.”
Caroline Atwood was already out for her “power walk.” She still got her three miles in most mornings, to Southshore Boulevard and back, but as Maggie saw—and sometimes heard—there wasn’t much grace or power left in her mother’s stride.
“At some point you and Daniel are going to have a lot to talk about,” Maggie said.
“Tell me about it,” Becky said. “But for now, my dear mother, I’m going down the hill and get on our horse and work with our trainer and try to act as if everything’s normal.”
“Nothing has been normal around here for a while,” Maggie said.
“You going to work out this morning?” Becky said to her mother.
Maggie didn’t go to the gym every morning. She’d occasionally give herself a day off. But never more than once a week.
“I am,” she said. “Soon as I change.”
going to work out.
Just not at the gym.
She hadn’t technically told her daughter a lie, even if Becky thought she meant the gym. But she wasn’t telling the truth, either. Maggie was on her way to Gus Bennett’s small horse farm, at the other end of Palm Beach Point.
She was going there to ride.
She hadn’t mentioned it to her mother. She didn’t want Becky to know, either. She’d sworn Gus to secrecy, and exacted the same promise from his small staff, telling them that if people in Wellington were talking about Maggie Atwood riding horses again, he’d find out who couldn’t keep their mouth shut and fire their ass.
Dr. Garry had told her she was still a long way from riding. If that. Maggie’d finally decided that she couldn’t wait that long to get up on a horse again.
Gus Bennett hadn’t even blinked when Maggie floated the idea. But Gus was no ordinary trainer and knew more than Maggie ever would about the damage a riding accident could do. He had once been a world-class rider, on his way to the 2008 Olympics when he had been thrown at a qualifying event in Rome and suffered a “low C-level injury” to his spinal cord that had paralyzed him from the waist down and put him in a wheelchair for life.
But in all the years Maggie had known him, she had never heard Gus complain about his accident, or even discuss it. Ever since, he had acted as if it was the rest of the world that was disabled, not him. There had been worse riding injuries. Another great rider, Kevin Babington, was now paralyzed from the shoulders down, but had continued his own career in the sport as a trainer.
Gus wasn’t just a trainer now, he was one of the most sought-after in the country.
But he worked only with a select few riders. “We call it the
policy at this barn,” he said. “If I think you are one, you don’t ever make it into the ring.”
“Does that apply to the trainer?” Maggie had joked to him one time.
“No,” he’d said. “Lucky for him he’s the a-hole who gets to make the rules.”
She needed to be up on a horse to start feeling whole again. Was never going to do that with free weights or on a treadmill or a sit-up board. She had to be up on a horse. Today was finally the day. She didn’t think she’d been feeling sorry for herself. But knew she never could in Gus Bennett’s ring.
Not looking to ride fast. Probably not doing much more than a walk. Not jumping. She was realistic enough to know that she was nowhere near that. But she brought her boots and helmet and breeches with her, changed in Gus’s tack room. One of his grooms, Seamus, walked out the horse Gus had chosen for her to ride, one he called an “oldie but goodie” named Paladin.
“Oldie but goodie sounds a lot like me,” Maggie said.
“Stop complaining,” Gus said.
He was in his Zinger, the all-terrain electric wheelchair he used to get around at his barn. Not because he needed electric. By now, from using manual wheelchairs, he had Popeye arms. When he was working, and wanted to get somewhere, he wanted to get there fast.
“Like hell,” Gus said.
Seamus helped her up into the saddle. She took a deep breath, gave the horse a quick pat, started Paladin off at a walk, and a slow one at that, one time around the ring. The next time around she jogged.
Suddenly she felt her heart pounding and she struggled to catch her breath. She pulled on the reins and brought the horse to a stop.
“Did I tell you to stop?” Gus yelled.
“Just lost concentration for a second there,” she said, willing her breathing back to normal. “More out of practice than I thought.”
“Get over it,” Gus said.
Maggie looked down at her hands on the reins and saw them shaking.
“This isn’t the pony ring,” Gus said. “Are you ready to do this?”
“I’m ready,” she said.
“Show me,” he said.
She managed to grin. “A-hole,” she said.
Already she could feel the strain in the muscles in her back. She went around the ring again. Could already feel the ache in her bad knee, because she was squeezing the horse too hard with her legs. But she wasn’t stopping.
You came here to ride.
She did that now, still jogging him, feeling the slight morning breeze in her face as she made a turn at the far end of the ring. Feeling more alive than at any moment since the accident.
Like the person she used to be.
She was a few strides past Gus, about to make another turn, when she felt her right foot slip out of its stirrup. It could happen on any ride, could even happen in competition.
Now it was happening to Maggie.
Afraid—make that scared to death—that she was about to fall off, Maggie felt herself leaning hard to her right, starting to slide down the horse, her boot trying to find its way back into the stirrup but flailing in the air.
A shout escaped her that sounded like it came from a little girl using grown-up language.
She could see Gus putting the wheelchair in motion, not that he was going to be able to do much to help her.
Her boot found its way back to the stirrup and she jammed it in there, hard. The rough motion shot searing pain from her bad knee up her leg and nearly to her rib cage. She ignored it as best she could and managed to straighten herself in the saddle. A minute later she had brought Paladin to a walk. She handed the reins to Seamus, but when the groom reached to help Maggie down, Gus yelled at him to stop.
“I thought we were done,” Maggie said.
He spun the wheelchair around, spraying the horse with dirt.
“We’re just getting started,” Gus said.
Maggie called after him, “Catch me up: are you working for me or am I working for you?”
Gus didn’t even turn around.
He just threw back his head and laughed.
I WAS SCHEDULED
to go dead last today, sixtieth out of sixty horses. And was totally fine with that. By the time Coronado and I were on the course, I’d know exactly how the field had performed, what kind of time I needed, if I could get away with four faults—one rail—or eight. Or even more.
For this one day, as crazy competitive as I usually was, as much as I wanted to prove that my flawed ride was a one-off, the reality was that, like an Olympic sprinter in a qualifying heat, I only needed to be fast enough to make it to the finals. I didn’t need to break any records, not today.
Daniel and I watched together from my perch up in the bleachers. Today I wanted his company, to not only see what was happening on the course through my eyes, but his as well. I even had a pen and the order sheet, checking off names and marking down scores. Halfway through the round, only six riders had gone clean. Matthew Killeen was one of them, with the best time so far, 70 seconds flat, well under the allotted time of 74. He was in the jump-off, so was Tess McGill. So was Tyler Cullen. And Rich Grayson, who’d been making a big move up the rankings for months.
“Just because you don’t need to be perfect doesn’t mean you can get away with even one sloppy line,” he said.
“So, perfect-ish?” I said.
When it was time, I followed him down through the bleachers, and finally to the schooling ring, where Emilio was waiting with Coronado. Daniel was a few paces ahead of me when I heard him say
under his breath.
I knew that one without a translation, because I’d heard it from him often enough.
Steve Gorton was leaning against the fence, about ten yards away from Coronado, champagne flute in his hand. It was only four o’clock, but he’d clearly decided it was the cocktail hour. I knew he wasn’t here to toast me.
Daniel quietly said to me, “Please do not engage.”
But as soon as Emilio had me up in the saddle, Gorton came walking over. Everybody in this ring knew the protocols of our sport, everybody except him, apparently. The only people a rider wanted to talk to before going into the ring were his trainer and sometimes his groom. No one else.
The last person I wanted to talk to right now was this guy, finishing the last of his champagne, walking across the ring as if he owned the place, and all the horses and jockeys in it.
“Let’s try to stay on today,” he said when he got to me.
If Gorton heard Daniel exhale loudly, he didn’t show it.
“Let’s try to stay on today,” he said.
“That’s the plan,” I said, my voice even.
“You actually look pretty relaxed for someone who rode him the way you did last time.”
maybe I can engage him just a little.
“I mean, what the hell, right?” I said. “The worst thing that could ever happen to me on this horse already happened.”
I tried to make myself look busy fussing with Coronado’s reins, and checking the stirrups, even knowing they were already perfect. Hoping he would take the hint that our conversation needed to be over now.
“I’d wish you good luck,” he said, “but you’d know I didn’t really mean it.”
“You know what, Mr. Gorton?” I said, smiling down at him, thinking he looked even smaller from up here. “Kind of thinking that luck’s not going to have anything to do with it.”
Then I turned Coronado so quickly that he nearly knocked Steve Gorton on his ass.
“Oops,” I said.
MOM AND GRANDMOTHER
were in the tent, but I knew Mom was keeping score herself up there, checking off the riders one by one. As always, Daniel was holding my phone for me. I heard it ping as we got to the in-gate.
He looked down and checked it, put it away.
“Under nine faults and we’re in,” he said.
I could get away with two rails, then. But nothing more than that. If I did get two rails, it meant I had to be under 74 seconds. If I wasn’t, it would mean nine faults, and good-bye.
“You are in control now,” Daniel said, and put out his fist.
“About time,” I said.
There were no easy parts of today’s course. But the second half was harder, no doubt. It almost always worked that way. And the jump-off course, if we made it, would be like one of those crazy car-chase scenes in the movies.
Coronado had a perfect distance on the first jump. Perfect distance. Perfect timing. And the second one. And third.
I was still nervous as hell, but I wasn’t in panic mode. I wasn’t riding scared.
Just riding my horse.
Made the turn and came around past the hated big screen. It was there so the fans had full view of every jump, especially the ones in the corner. But I always ignored it. It made me feel as self-conscious as if I were looking at myself in a mirror.
Coronado was riding easy. Cruise control. I knew I had more horse than he was showing. But for now, I was keeping him under the speed limit, even if it went against who he was and who I was.
Two more jumps clear, on the far side of the ring from the tent. They could have raised the top rail on the last two jumps and we could have cleared them both with room to spare.
Quick combination now.
Nailed the sucker.
Halfway home, just like that.
Straightforward jump coming up to start the second half. Good distance again. Still riding easy. Made sure to ease him into the jump, not feel as if I had gotten ahead of my horse.
Another perfect distance.
I felt him clip the rail with one of his hind legs. Heard it go down. To a rider, it sounded as loud as a window breaking.
Still I didn’t panic.
We were out of the jump-off, but I didn’t care about the jump-off. Just finish clean. Or with only one more knockdown.
Just no more than that.
The toughest rollback in the round was coming up, followed by a quick combination. I cut the turn perfectly, squared the horse up, gave him the exact right distance.
Cleared the first jump.
And then, damn damn damn, clipped another rail on the next one.
Heard it go down. Sometimes you clipped them like that, or even rattled them, and they stayed up. Not this time.
The drop on this one sounded to me like a bomb going off.
Now there was no margin for error. Eight faults still got me to Saturday. Another rail—or a time fault—and we were out.
I had to be under 74 seconds. If I went over by a tenth of a second, I got a time fault and some other horse would be the last qualifier for the Grand Prix.
We had just passed the big screen. This time I would have looked at my time on the way by. Too late for that now.
Maybe too late for us, period.
I didn’t know where I was against the clock.
But Daniel did.
I heard from the in-gate, as loud as I’d ever heard him with me, or Mom, or anybody.
Then I was the one shouting
Let it ride.
We were both running hot now.
One last combination.
One jump after that.
But the horse was flying now.
Nailed the combination.
I yelled, as much at myself as my horse.
In other sports, the players could see the clock when they were trying to beat it at the end of a game.
Not me, and not now.
Seven strides to the last jump.
Coronado took them so fast it felt like one.
Cleared it with ease.
Big screen was behind us, far end. I jerked my head around, saw our time up in the corner:
Tenth of a second under the number.