Authors: James Patterson
MOM’S TIME STOOD UP.
This time I watched her get the ribbon and medal and champagne and pose for the pictures and hear the cheers from a crowd that looked twice as big as we got in Wellington. In our intensely private competition, she was the one on top today. She was champion. Because of the way I’d finished—Sky refusing and circling and then refusing again before I was buzzed out of the ring—I felt as if I’d finished last.
I’d done the thing that Gus preached to me about all the time:
Gotten ahead of myself. Had gotten fixed on the result and not the process. It had only been for one stride. But it had cost me.
Before Mom was out of the ring, I told her how happy I was for her, because I genuinely was. Hugged her for the first time in a long time. Now we were back at the rented house, getting ready to drive to Cincinnati for a late flight back to Florida, and I was back to being pissed off at myself.
Just not as pissed off as Gus Bennett was.
The rest of us were flying back to Palm Beach International. Gus was driving home in his van. Though he’d left Florida at dawn, the drive to Lexington had taken him fourteen hours. He’d decided to drive home overnight, telling me that he could do it with one stop, be back in Wellington in time for breakfast, and wanted me in the ring by nine o’clock, even if only to ride Tiny.
“I don’t get a day off?” I said.
“You didn’t earn it,” he said.
Mom had offered to make the drive with him. He said he wanted to be alone.
“Mom was the better rider today,” I said. “Is that some kind of crime?”
“Bullshit,” he said.
Mom and Grandmother and Daniel were inside. Emilio was already gone, my horse inside our trailer. Seamus had Coronado in Gus’s trailer.
I’d offered to throw Gus’s suitcase into the back of the van. He said he could do it himself. It was nearly two hours from when the Invitational had ended. He was still mad as hell. At me.
“You need to let up on me,” I said. “I made a mistake. I
I made a mistake. But it was one jump—the
jump—in an event I was about to win.”
“Hey,” he said, “that gives me an idea.” Making no attempt to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Let’s call over there and get the stewards on the line and tell them that since you were about to win, we’d like them to not count the last jump. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“I made a mistake!”
“Yeah,” he said. “You did. The kind of mistake that can be the difference between making the team and not making it. You had a chance to win the goddamn Kentucky Invitational. You think that chance comes around all the time? And you blew it.”
He’d been angry at me before. Not like this. He slammed the back door of the van and said that as soon as he said his good-byes, he was ready to take off.
But when he was halfway up the front walk, he stopped suddenly, whipped the chair around, glared at me one more time, still on fire.
“You know when you get over an important loss in this sport?” he snapped.
“I know that,” I said.
“No,” he said, “you don’t.”
GORTON WAS ORDERING
another vodka when Tyler Cullen found him in the owners’ tent. Cullen had finished second today, a second behind Maggie Atwood in the jump-off.
Cullen told the bartender he’d have what Gorton was having.
“Thought you might already be gone,” Cullen said.
“Well, Tyler,” Gorton said, “that’s one of several advantages of having your own plane. It’s wheels up when you say it’s wheels up.”
Gorton looked across the room now and toasted a tall redhead he’d been eyeballing since he got here, wondering how she’d like to see the inside of a Gulfstream IV. Hell, if they left right now, they could be at Honor Bar by ten o’clock. He’d finally managed to get rid of Blaine.
“You mentioned something about maybe getting a ride back to Palm Beach with you,” Cullen said.
“Full up,” Gorton said. “Sorry.”
“You filled up a plane as big as yours?” Cullen said.
“I’m just a boy who can’t say no,” Gorton said.
Gorton held Cullen’s look now, smiling at him, keeping his eyes on him, long enough to make him thoroughly uncomfortable.
Finally, Gorton said, “Congratulations on finishing second, by the way. Puts you one behind the kid and two behind the mother if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’ve got time,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“But see, that’s the thing, I do worry,” Gorton said. “Mostly because you’ve turned out to be completely full of shit about them every step of the way.”
“Wait a second,” Cullen said.
wait a second,” Gorton said. “You know what kind of people last with me, Tyler? People who give me good information.”
He pointed at his glass for a refill. Not Cullen’s.
“First you told me the kid couldn’t ride,” he said. “Then you told me the mother had no shot, and that you were going to get the trainer deported, all
before you told me the sainted Maggie couldn’t do anything without the trainer. Finally, you told me Maggie had lost it.” Then he paused and said, “You ever get tired of being right all the time, Tyler?”
“I’m telling you,” Cullen said, “I’m still your best shot at gold.”
Gorton smiled again.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
He looked across the room. The redhead was gone. The bartender was coming over with his drink, but Gorton waved him off, before throwing a hundred-dollar bill on the table.
“Know what I’ve decided to do?” Gorton said to him. “Quit listening to you—quit
—while I’m ahead.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m telling you, I’m still a better rider than either one of them,” Cullen said, starting to sound desperate now.
And starting to bore Gorton, even more than usual. Gorton was already second-guessing himself for standing next to him at the bar. He should have moved on the redhead before, given Cullen the bad news another time.
“Not feeling you on that one,” Gorton said.
“I thought we had a deal!” Cullen said.
His voice had gone up at least an octave, maybe more, by Gorton’s measure.
“You probably thought the deal was set, too,” Gorton said. “Maybe you never heard the old Hollywood line.” Patting Cullen dismissively on the head. “Turned out it wasn’t
Gorton pulled his phone out of his pocket, called his pilot and told him he was on his way.
“Hey,” he said to Cullen. “Safe flight.”
BECKY WAS IN THE RING,
Atwood Farm, late morning, finally having turned the page after Kentucky. Gus watched her ride Sky the way she was supposed to, glad they’d had a fair amount of time before the five-star Mercedes Grand Prix coming up at WEF. She needed to be at her very best now, the stakes were too high not to be, because of where the event fell in an Olympic year.
This morning Gus had even gotten her to make a couple of jumps with her hands off the reins, his way of reminding her that sometimes the best thing to do, especially when you had a horse with this much talent and this much heart, was to get the hell out of her way and just let her run, and jump, the way she was born to do both.
Now Becky did it again, letting go after the first jump of a combination, just two quick strides between the fences, hardly any room at all, taking the jump clean, whooping when Sky landed.
Caroline Atwood had arrived at the ring by then.
“Hands-free riding?” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that one before.”
“It’s an exercise an old trainer taught me,” he said. “Worked for me, works for her.”
“Would you have her drive a car that way?”
“Horses are way smarter than cars,” he said. “And most people I know, as a matter of fact.”
Gus turned away from her and yelled at Becky, “Again.”
They both watched Becky do it again, as if she’d been doing it her whole life. Gus videoed it this time. Watched the replay as soon as she and Sky were over the second jump. Felt himself smiling. A beautiful thing, he told himself. All part of her getting her confidence all the way back after that refusal in Kentucky.
When Becky came over, he handed her the phone. She watched the round and smiled.
“Niiiice,” she said, dragging the word out as far as it would go. “Go cool down your horse,” he said. “And give her an extra carrot, on me.”
Becky hopped off before Emilio could get to her and walked Sky toward the barn.
Just Gus and Caroline now, watching her go.
“God, she’s a natural,” Caroline said. “Maggie made herself into a great rider. But the things Becky can do, she does instinctively. The rest of it anybody can teach.”
“Well,” Gus said. “Almost anybody.”
From inside the barn, they heard a shout of laughter from Becky.
“My daughter and granddaughter might actually do this,” Caroline said. “How crazy is that?”
“Getting less crazy by the day,” he said, “from where I sit.”
“They wouldn’t just be making the team,” Caroline said. “They’d be making history.”
Gus motioned for her to follow him out into the ring, farther away from the barn.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said. “If they both do make it, who will you root for to win the gold medal?”
“Won’t hold you to it,” he said. “And whatever you say will stay between us.”
“Maggie,” she said, without hesitation. “She wanted it longer. End of story.”
She looked at him.
“What about you?” she said.
Neither one of them had heard Becky coming into the ring behind them.
“What about him?” Becky said.
BEFORE A BIG SUNDAY
event like the Mercedes, Mom and I would spend Thursday doing light hacking on Coronado and Sky. Maybe a half hour in the ring, tops. Gus had scheduled mine for eleven o’clock.
A little after eight on an uncommonly cool morning for South Florida, I was headed out for a run when I saw one of Gus’s small trailers pull into our driveway. Mom was behind the wheel. She’d spent another night at Gus’s house. It was happening more and more often.
When she got out, she said, “Glad I caught you. Let’s take a walk.”
She was in her riding clothes.
“Going for a run here,” I said.
“I meant a trail walk,” Mom said. “Give us a chance to talk.”
“About anything in particular?”
“How about everything?”
“Oh,” I said. “One of
“Go change,” she said. “Quickly.”
When we were on our horses and out on the trail, it occurred to me that this trail was where our story had really begun. Mom’s. Mine. Everybody’s. Because we weren’t out here together that day.
“I worry that I never gave you a choice about being a rider,” she said.
I shook my head.
“Nope,” I said. “My choice all the way, Mom. It just took me a while to understand how
I wanted it.”
We rode in silence for a few minutes, out past the barns and the construction sites, unhurried in the morning quiet.
“We have one point to resolve,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize for how much I want this, and that means even if I make it and you don’t.”
“Clear on my end,” I said. “But just because you’ve wanted it longer doesn’t mean you want it more. Because you don’t.”
The trail narrowed again. Mom gave Coronado a kick and got him into a trot. I did the same to Sky, right behind her.
I’ve been following her my whole life
Maybe until now.
“Good talk,” she said.
“You know something?” I said. “It was, even though it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still going to be looking to kick your ass.”
“Wait,” she said. “That’s my line.”
Close to the end of the trail, Mom asked if I was ready to head back. I said I was. The last time we’d been together out here was the day I’d found her.
Just then I heard a rustling in the bushes.
The horses didn’t react. But Mom had heard the same thing. We brought our horses to a halt and at the same moment turned to see the red fox stare at us before running in the other direction.
Mom turned to face me.
“Maybe it’s an omen,” she said.
“Or that fox just didn’t want to take us both on.”
Mom was smiling now.
“I missed you, kid,” she said.
“Missed you, too, Mom,” I said.
We put our horses back in motion and headed for home.
WE WERE AT OUR TABLE
in the tent, all of us lamenting in the middle of the Friday night Mercedes cocktail reception how much we hated cocktail parties, especially ones for horse people.
“Call off the contest line,” Grandmother said. “I hate them more.”
The event wasn’t officially a command performance for the owners and riders and trainers and various family members. But it was close enough. The owners of WEF were there, representatives of the sport’s ruling bodies, stewards I recognized, local TV personalities, and politicians. And TV camera people. And photographers. I’d never seen the tent this crowded, this hot, this loud.
“Pay the ransom,” I said to Mom, “and get me out of here.”
“You know, honey,” she said, “it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for you to mingle.”
“Oh, wait,” I said. “You’re serious.”
She turned to scope out the room. I looked at her in profile, thinking there was no better-looking woman in the place. Knowing how little effort it had taken, or prep work. A blue dress on her I couldn’t remember her wearing in a long time. Jimmy Choo suede pumps. Pearls. She hadn’t even had her hair done, just let it hang down her back. She was standing next to Gus, hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Gus said. “Go talk to people you normally wouldn’t talk to on a bet.”
“What about you, tough guy?” I said. “You going to work the room?”
“I go where she goes,” he said, grinning at Mom.
He was wearing the same blue blazer he’d worn to the courtroom. Daniel was in the same suit he’d worn that day. They both looked handsome as hell. When Mom and I were dressed and ready to come over here I’d said, “How is it that you ended up with more of a love life than me?”
“Patience,” she said.
“Easy for you to say,” I said.
We looked across the tent and saw Steve Gorton standing at his table, surrounded by a crowd of men and women, all of whom suddenly burst into laughter at something he’d just said.
“Nobody is that funny,” Daniel whispered to me.
“Certainly not him,” I said.
Against all odds, Gorton had been acting more decently to Mom, really to all of us, lately, even though I realized it was a low bar. He’d even found a way to be civil to Grandmother, who said that even though weeks had passed since he’d discussed making a change on Coronado, that he would always be one of those loudmouth jerks, insecure no matter how much money he had. But also obsessed enough with appearances to know how he’d look if he pulled Maggie Atwood off Coronado this close to the Olympics.
I asked Grandmother if she was going to say hello.
“Let a sleeping dog lie,” she said. “And I do mean dog.”
“More like a dog who lies,” Mom said.
Mom and Gus went to talk to Jennifer Gates. Daniel and I headed in the direction of the bar.
“Are we really going to mingle?” he asked.
“Ish,” I said.
Then I said, “Am I allowed to ask how things are going with you and the United States government?”
“Slower than an old horse,” he said. “It’s complicated, but things might not get resolved before I’m supposed to go to Paris.”
“There’s still a chance, though, right?” I said.
“There is always a chance,” he said. “But for tonight, let’s just try to enjoy ourselves.”
We did our best, chatting with some of the big shots from FEI, then Tess McGill, who I genuinely liked and who was now in first place in the rankings. And Kevin Seth, who’d been the best rider in the country before major back surgery had ended his career. That was four years ago.
“Kevin was such a champion,” Daniel said. “He just finally had too many falls.”
“That could have been Mom,” I said to Daniel. “Not coming back, I mean.”
“Or you,” Daniel said, “landing on that rail the way you did.”
When we turned to make our way back to the table, Steve Gorton was standing right in front of us.
“What is it with you trainers,” he said to Daniel, voice as loud as a bullhorn, “ending up with the hottest women?”
He didn’t seem drunk. Maybe the simple fact of things was that he was simply being Steve Gorton.
“No shit,” he said, “you guys are killing it in more ways than one these days, am I right?”
“Which guys would that be?” I said.
He nodded in the direction of Gus and Mom, talking now with Matthew Killeen.
“Maggie and the wheelchair guy,” Gorton said. “Or so I hear.”
“His name is Gus Bennett,” Daniel said quietly.
Maybe there was something in his tone. Or in Daniel’s eyes.
“Hey,” Gorton said. “I’m just having some fun here.”
“Like when I was just messing with you the other week in the parking lot,” he added. “You gotta learn to let shit go.”
“What other day?” I said to Daniel.
“Very nice to see you, Mr. Gorton,” Daniel said, trying to end the conversation right there. “Good luck with Coronado on Sunday.”
Daniel took my hand now as we stepped around Gorton and headed back toward our table. But from behind us we heard Gorton’s voice, even louder than before.
“Hey,” he said, “I wasn’t done talking to you.”
“Yes, you were,” Daniel said, softly enough that only I could hear.
We left Gorton where he was, alone in the middle of the crowded tent. I turned to see him staring at us.
We kept walking.