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Authors: James Patterson

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BOOK: The Horsewoman
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“HE KNEW ENOUGH
to come home,” Daniel said to me.

Home
meant the barn.

One firm barn rule was that nobody went out on a trail ride alone. Mom had just done it—her idea of being a maverick. Now I had to break that same rule if I had any chance of saving her.

In my heart I knew that if the situation were reversed, Mom would jump on Sky and ride all the way to the Florida turnpike and back if that’s what it took to find me.

Now I jumped off Sky, handed her reins to George, one of the other grooms, and moved closer to Daniel and Emilio, keeping my distance, not wanting Coronado to spook more than he already had.

Then Daniel slowly reached for the horse’s bridle, talking softly to him in Spanish now. As he did, I came in behind them and put a foot in the stirrup closest to me.

“Let me go find her,” Daniel said.

“No,” I said.

He put his hand on my arm. I looked down, glaring his hand away.

“My mom,” I said. “Her horse.”

We had a brief stare-down, until he nodded and let go of the bridle.

Emilio gave me a leg up into the saddle. Mom’s saddle. Her horse. They were connected in the same way I was connected to Sky.

When I was on Sky and trying to get the distance between jumps exactly right, I was never really sure how much of it was me and how much of it was a combination of her breeding and training and instinct and even muscle memory. In those moments of trust between horse and rider, it was as if we were sharing one brain.

There was always a mystery, even some magic, to what horses knew. And didn’t.

Now I wanted Coronado to know where Mom was, and take me to her.

I’D RIDDEN CORONADO
plenty, worked him out when Mom and Caroline traveled to look at horses for the barn, even jumped him one time when Mom was down with the flu.

This time I was just along for the ride, headed back out the trail along the Palm Beach Point canal, past the Nason barn next to the huge new barn being built by Wellington newcomers, a Kentucky family with money to burn.

Usually I loved being out here, loved the solitude of it and the quiet and the open space. Mom said she did, too, though sometimes I got more enjoyment when Mom wasn’t with me.

Not now. All I could think of was the question she’d once asked me about people who don’t ride. “How can they really feel alive?”

Please let her ask me again.

If her horse came back to the barn alone and she was somewhere out here, it had to be bad.

Coronado and I weren’t going fast. It’s one of the myths of our sport that a horse has to be going fast to throw its rider.

We were out into one of the last undeveloped parts of Wellington. Someday there would be barns out here, too.

Where was she? Was she badly injured? I could feel the panic building inside me. If somebody hadn’t found her by now, put her in a golf cart, or an ambulance, I was going to be the one. There had to be a damn good reason why she had ended up off her horse.

My eyes kept searching the narrow canal as we moved north, not wanting to see her down a glorified ditch.

If I hadn’t been late this morning, none of this would have happened.

I saw her then.

Saw her and felt the air coming out of me all at once, as if I’d been the one who’d gotten thrown. She was maybe fifty yards ahead, between the trail and the canal, on her side.

Motionless.

Except that her body seemed to be going in two different directions at once. The boots I’d ordered special from New York City, for her birthday a few weeks ago, were pointing toward the water, and her upper body was pointing toward the trail.

I was afraid my mother might have broken her neck. I’d seen it happen once before, in person, a Grand Prix event. A horse had refused a jump and threw his rider, who’d gone down and had stayed down until the ambulance was in the ring. He recovered from the injury to walk again, eventually. But he never rode again.

I walked Coronado to her, knelt down. Her eyes were closed, but I could see that she was breathing. She was still wearing her helmet, caked with dirt, like the rest of her.

I knew enough not to move her. I just leaned close.

“Mom,” I said. “I got you.”

Then I took the phone out of my back pocket and dialed 911 thinking,
Yeah, Becky, you got her
.

A half hour too late.

AWAKE, IF NOT ALERT,
 Mom was telling us about the fox that had appeared out of nowhere.

She had come through the surgery to repair the small fracture in her pelvis and the torn medial collateral ligament in her left knee. She had narrowly missed puncturing a lung, but there was no treatment but the passage of time to heal the two broken ribs.

They had been going slowly, she said, but suddenly Coronado had reared up on his hind legs, making an unfamiliar, guttural sound. He threw her off to the side, then fell on her before she had the chance to roll away. She said she felt as if she were drowning. She tried to breathe, but couldn’t, as if she were underwater, not underneath her horse. The last thing she remembered was the day going completely dark.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” Grandmother said, barely hiding the fear beneath her anger.

Daniel liked to say that Caroline Atwood wasn’t just any tough old bird, she was the toughest of them all. Not tonight.

“I don’t feel lucky,” Mom said, her words dying in the air a few inches from her mouth.

“Well, you are,” her mother said.

“People talk all the time about being strong in the broken places,” Mom said. She paused, wincing as she took in a breath. “Except I feel like all my places are broken places right now.”

She reached out. I took her hand, gently, afraid of squeezing hard enough to break it.

“Finally found something I can’t fix myself,” she said. “Me.”

She managed a small smile then, though it appeared to take all the energy she had in her. I’d never seen her strength at such a low point.

I’d been lucky in my life, luckier than a lot of other riders I’d visited in the hospital when they had gotten hurt. Even with my share of spills, I’d never broken anything.

I remembered the first time I fell off a horse. Grandmother had been in the practice ring that day. She hadn’t even made a move in my direction. When I’d finally cleaned myself off and walked over to her, she’d seen my red eyes and said, “If you want to cry, go watch a sad movie.”

We’d always been big on tough love in our family, but now the injured rider was Mom.

“How’s my horse?” Mom said now.

Now I felt myself smiling, for the first time since I’d found her.

“Pissed,” I said. “He couldn’t understand why he didn’t get to come to the hospital, too.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” she said, “or they’ll be wheeling me back into surgery.”

“I’ll try,” I said, gently squeezing her hand again. “But you know how hard it is for me to hold back the funny.”

“None of this is funny!” my grandmother said.

She was on the other side of Mom’s bed. In a gallant attempt at affording us privacy, Daniel stood in the corner.

“You’ll ride him for me tomorrow?” Mom said to me.

“Don’t worry about that right now, Maggie,” Grandmother said.

“You worry about me,” Mom said. “I’ll worry about Coronado.”

“I got you,” I said.

“Could we stop worrying about the goddamn horse for one minute?” Grandmother snapped. “Good God, Maggie. He threw you. He fell on you. It wasn’t the other way around.”

“But then he led me right to her,” I said.

Grandmother made a snorting sound, not unlike one of her own horses.

“Great,” she said. “Million-dollar rescue animal. Just what we needed to bet the farm on.”

“Mom,” Maggie said, “that’s a little dramatic.”

“Maybe,” Grandmother said. “But if not now, you tell me when?”

My mom closed her eyes now. For a moment, I thought she’d gone right to sleep with the rest of us still in the room.

“She needs rest,” Grandmother said.

My mom opened her eyes.

“I need to get better,” Mom said. “I asked Dr. Garry about the recovery time.”

“Probably asked before the anesthesia wore off,” Grandmother said.

“I asked how many weeks,” Mom said. “Doc gave me one of those patronizing doctor smiles and said, ‘You mean months.’”

She squeezed my hand now, hard enough to surprise me.

“I told him I don’t have months,” she said.

My whole life, I had been watching Mom in and out of the ring. I’d seen her compete from here to Calgary and back. Seen her take on the most famous riders in the world and beat them, men and women. I knew how much pride she took in not showing her emotions, win or lose, especially after she lost. She was every bit as tough as her mother, even though she didn’t feel the need to broadcast that.

But I thought she might cry now.

“This was the one,” she said.

I didn’t have the words to make her feel better, or hurt less. Maybe no one did right now. I stood there holding her hand and wished it had been me who’d gotten thrown and not her. Wished that for once in my stupid life I’d been on time.

“Doctors can be wrong about the speed of athletes’ recovery time,” I said.

That was all I had.

She looked up at me and said, “Told you before. Don’t make me laugh, kiddo.”

Then she closed her eyes again. A few minutes later she was asleep. Grandmother led Daniel and me out of the room.

Once Daniel had gently shut the door behind us, Grandmother said, “I hate this sport.”

I looked at her.

“You know you don’t mean that,” I said.

“Don’t tell me what I mean,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said.

“You want to be sorry about something?” Grandmother snapped. “Be sorry you weren’t there.”

Then she walked away.

FIVE

Maggie

HAPPY NEW YEAR
to me,
Maggie Atwood thought bitterly.

No one in the room had spoken of the multiple Olympic qualifiers over the next several months that would decide which four riders—one an alternate—would represent the United States in jumping in Paris. Nobody had even spoken the word
Olympics
. But it was the thousand-pound horse in the room. Like her dream horse had tried to crush her whole world.

She’d gone out for a trail ride, an equestrian walk in the park, and ended up here.

Broken.

She’d been bred to her sport the way horses were bred to it. She aced the fractional calculations that made the difference between winning and losing—the split seconds of timing, the measure of an inside turn, the pressure of a horse’s back leg on a rail that stayed in place versus one that fell, the numbers that measured the distance between first place and fifth. When she made mistakes in the ring, she owned them. Somebody else won. You lost.

And sometimes being the better rider was less important than riding the better horse. The more expensive horse. Simple, basic economics.

Then Coronado came along, and she was the one with a top-tier horse, one that really did change everything, for all of them. He was a Belgian warmblood, sired by a famous stallion named Chaco-Blue, who had been an FEI champion—International Federation for Equestrian Sports—in his career. The mare was a Belgian warmblood who had one of those fancy show names that Maggie loved: Hypnose Van Paemel. She had won a half dozen FEI events in her career.

Atwood Farm had a solid enough reputation. Caroline Atwood liked to tell Maggie that she never imagined herself getting rich in the horse business. But now they were just getting by, struggling, even. Her mother once told her that she’d retire the morning a groom or trainer found her facedown in a stall, because she planned to work until she died. In the past they’d travel with the horses to all the best shows—now it was only some of them.

“You know how they call equestrianism the sport of the rich and the poor rich?” Caroline asked Maggie, then answered her own question. “Sometimes I feel like we’re just poor.”

“I can do something else,” Maggie said.

“No,” her mother said, “you can’t. And neither can I.”

They couldn’t afford a horse like Coronado on their own, no matter which way Caroline and the accountants ran the numbers.

A friend of a friend had told Caroline about the horse. A barn owner in Lexington had run out of money and decided to cash out. He was banking on Coronado, his best horse, to bring top dollar. Caroline and Maggie had worked Coronado out, fell in love with him the way they had his bloodline. Found a deep-pockets partner in Steve Gorton, a New York hedge-fund guy with a place in Palm Beach who’d followed his Florida friends into horses.

Caroline Atwood had explained to Gorton that she thought the horse had a chance to be special, and proposed a fifty-fifty split, even knowing that it would be a scramble to come up with her end, going into her savings, still needing help from the bank, feeling no different than a desperate bettor at the racetrack.

“You’re the expert,” Gorton had said, then asked, “And what exactly do I get for my half?”

“Half the profits,” Caroline had said.

Most people, Maggie had observed, were intimidated by her mother. Not this guy.

He had laughed suddenly. The sound reminded Maggie of glass breaking.

“I was born at night, Caroline,” Gorton had said. “But not last night.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” she’d said.

The joke on Wall Street, he’d said, was that nothing was more limited than being a limited partner of Steve Gorton. Take it or leave it: he’d take care of 60 percent of the asking price, and she could take care of the horse, and decide who rode him.

When Caroline resisted, Gorton had simplified the terms. If she didn’t like the deal, she could find somebody else to write her a million-dollar check.

Maggie had watched them debate, but knowing the finances of Atwood Farm as well as her mother did, this particular movie had only one ending. Caroline and Gorton had finally shaken hands.

Gorton, Maggie knew, had no love for horses, only for money. When she started winning right away on Coronado, Steve Gorton happily envisioned the pot of gold the sale of the horse would bring him.

Maggie thought only of a gold medal. The one she’d been dreaming about her whole life. That and a dream horse. She’d never thought she was owed a ride like Coronado. She knew sports didn’t work that way. Her sport certainly didn’t.

She had never been much of a party girl in high school, or college at Florida Atlantic, just up the road from Wellington. She liked boys well enough, had never had much of a problem keeping a boyfriend, at least until she’d lose interest and move on to the next one.

That was until Jack McCabe came along. Jack, the funny, smart, cool young New York lawyer. Different from the riders she’d dated. They’d fallen in love and gotten married too soon. Then she’d gotten pregnant.

But all she really wanted to do was ride.

Jack had even taken a year off from his father’s law firm in New York to travel the circuit with her, content to play Mr. Mom while she was competing, in Kentucky or North Carolina or Canada or DC or in the Hamptons. But as with many couples driven to be the best in their chosen professions, they drifted apart.

She was riding in the Hampton Classic, out on eastern Long Island, when they took a walk on the beach as a way of trying to clear the air. But suddenly they were standing in the dunes toe to toe, as if fighting for the title.

He finally told her he was leaving in the morning. Becky was three at the time, back in Florida with the nanny. Jack said he’d explain to her what was happening as best he could when he flew down to pack up his things.

“You’re not even going to stay for the Grand Prix?” she’d said.

It had been the big event to cap off the week. Even then, her mind had gone right back to the ring.

“You’ll be fine without me,” he’d said, before adding, “But then you always were.”

She’d won the next day, one of her biggest career victories to that point.

She’d nearly made it to the Olympics in London with Lord Stanley, until the horse came up lame in the spring of 2012. She’d accumulated enough average points the previous year to have already made the short list of ten elite riders trying to qualify for the US Olympic team. That list would eventually be shortened to four, three rider–horse combinations and an alternate after they’d competed the next year at a certain number of what were called “observation events.”

After what happened to Lord Stanley, Maggie feared that her best shot at the Olympics had come and gone. But she’d kept at it, teaching Becky along the way that the right combination of hard work and talent would bring good results. Maybe even great ones.

She had always believed that. Until now.

The nurse poked her head in. “How are we doing?” she said.

We,
Maggie thought. Like they were a team. Like Maggie and her horse.

“Fine,” Maggie said.

“Are you sure you don’t want something for the pain?”

“No, thank you,” she said.

She’d seen it happen too often with other injured riders who would have taken anything except engine fuel to get back up on their horses.

The nurse closed the door. Maggie closed her eyes and listened to the night sounds of the hospital.

But then she was seeing the fox again, and could feel Coronado rising up underneath her, out of her control. Then she was in the air again, landing hard on her shoulder, right before the horse was on top of her, as if she were collapsing into herself.

Some riders said they went numb when their horses fell on them. Some said they could feel bones inside them snapping like twigs. She hadn’t felt any immediate pain, just the terror of being unable to take in oxygen, even as she felt Coronado try to get his legs underneath him.

That was the last thing she remembered. She had no memory of them lifting her into the ambulance until she awoke on the way to the hospital and saw Becky sitting beside her.

“How’s my horse?” Maggie had asked.

First words out of her mouth.

Becky had told her Coronado was fine, and how the horse had brought her to the spot where Maggie was lying near the canal.

“Such a good boy,” Maggie’d said, and then passed out again and didn’t wake up until she was out of surgery.

Now she had nothing but time to think, and all she could think about was time.

“The Olympics start at the end of July,” she’d told Dr. Garry, “which means I’d have to start qualifying no later than the spring.”

“If you don’t qualify this year,” he said, “then you can shoot for next year.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “The Olympics happen every
four
years.”

When the doctor left, she checked her phone. Only nine o’clock. She felt as if the longest night of her life was just beginning.

BOOK: The Horsewoman
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