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Authors: James Patterson

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BOOK: The Horsewoman
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GRANDMOTHER’S LIMP LOOKED
more pronounced than usual as she paced the living room, back arched, head high, fists clenched, as if she were challenging the world to a fistfight.

“Why the hell did I ever go into business with that hideous man?” she said.

“You know why,” I said. “To get Coronado.”

“If there was a better way,” Daniel said, “you would have found it,
jefa.

She liked it when he called her that.

“I should have looked harder,” she said.

She sat down in the antique rocking chair positioned in that exact spot for as long as I could remember. Like Grandmother, it was rickety, but built to last. She grimaced slightly, then stretched her left leg out in front of her.

Next to her was one of her favorite photographs, Mom and me in our riding clothes, looking more like sisters than mother and daughter. She was taller. Even though my blond hair had darkened considerably since I was a little girl, hers was still darker. I thought she was prettier, and when I’d tell her so, she’d laugh and say, “Tell me another one.”

“He wants to find another rider for Coronado,” she said. “Any rider will do, as long as he—or she—rides him all the way to Paris.”

“He can’t give up on Mom this quickly,” I said.

“Oh, really?” she said. “Because his heart suddenly grew a few sizes? That’s if he’s actually got a goddamn heart.”

“What if the doctors are wrong about Mom,” I said. “What if she gets better?”

In the soft light of the standing brass reading lamp, I took a closer look at the woman who kept herself around horses. Since I’d found Mom near the canal, she appeared to have aged ten years.

“This was our dream, Maggie and me,” she said, as if talking to herself, as if Daniel and I had disappeared.

Not
Mom’s
dream. Theirs.

“Any other rider on Coronado,” she said, “will make him Gorton’s horse and not ours.”

“Does he know which rider he wants?” Daniel said.

“Knowing that bastard? He started calling around before Maggie was out of surgery and has already made his selection, like some fantasy football draft.”

“Grandmother,” I said, choosing my next words carefully, “wouldn’t having an Olympic horse help the barn, even if Mom doesn’t get better in time to ride him?”

“Oh, now you get practical?” she said.

She rocked slowly back and forth in her chair.

“Horses are more than a business for Atwood Farm,” she said. “You know that.”

“People in outer space know that,” I said.

“That man is nothing like us,” she said.

Daniel smiled at her now.

“Except you both care for the winning,” he said.

Her head whipped in his direction and she snapped her eyes like a whip.

“That’s exactly what he said,” Grandmother said. “The sonofabitch.”

“Let me help you with this,
jefa,
” he said. “I have a rider in mind.”

“Who?” Grandmother asked. Her voice may have stopped horses, but not Daniel.

“Becky,” he said.

NINE

Daniel

AS SOON AS
he’d heard about the accident, Daniel had decided that Becky had to be the one to ride Coronado.

A trainer, he knew, dealt with what he had, not what he did not. He had learned that from old Buck Starr, a trainer in North Carolina. When the barn’s star rider, Wiley, had broken a leg before a big show at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, Starr had looked at Daniel and said, “Who’s Wiley?”

If they were going to get Becky up on Coronado, they couldn’t afford to wait. So he told them.

Mrs. Atwood was staring at him with that look she expected to scare not only the staff but the horses. Daniel was convinced that if you took away her bluster, she would merely be old.

“You’re serious,” she said.

“Always,” he said, “when the subject is your horses.”

Always her horses, never his.

Horses were so much more than just Daniel Ortega’s job, no matter who owned them. One day horses would give him the good lives they’d already given the Atwood women—if it wasn’t too late for people with stories like his own.

“My granddaughter rides Coronado over my dead body,” Caroline Atwood said.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Becky said.

Daniel couldn’t repress the smile from his face. Never mind the wrath of the old lady of the house. “The two of you hardly ever agree about anything,” he said. “Until now.”

Mrs. Atwood stood from her rocking chair then, nearly knocking it over as she took her first straight-backed, stiff-legged steps over to the trophy case. Maggie Atwood had won enough trophies to fill two cases, one here in the living room and a second in the den, along with two walls covered with ribbons. Becky’s awards were in a television room on the second floor. Mrs. Atwood studied Maggie’s trophies for a moment.

“She can’t win often enough on her own horse,” she said.

“She can,” Daniel said. “Just not lately.”

“I’m here,” Becky said from the sofa. “I can hear you two.”

Standing directly behind Becky, Daniel gently put a hand on her shoulder. He hoped she understood that the less she spoke right now, the better it would be.

“Both of you hear
me
out,” he said. “Please.”

As aware as Mrs. Atwood was of her place with Mr. Gorton, Daniel was even more aware of his place with her. And her daughter. And even her granddaughter.

“I’m listening,” Mrs. Atwood said.

“Same,” Becky said.

He breathed deeply, feeling his shoulders rise and then drop as he slowly let the air out.

“I know Coronado,” he said. “And I do not believe just anybody can ride him.”

“Steve Gorton isn’t talking about just anybody riding the horse,” Mrs. Atwood said. “He’ll shop around and buy his top pick.”

“But that is not necessarily what is best for the horse,” Daniel said.

“Mom’s horse,” Becky said.

“Not now,” Daniel said. “And not for a long time. And maybe, though none of us wants to speak of it, not ever again. But you can ride Coronado. I’ve seen you on him. You fit this horse better than you know.”

“The horse could fit her like a pair of damn riding gloves,” Mrs. Atwood said, spitting out the words the way a horse spits a bit. “Even if I agreed to this, Gorton never will. See all the trophies in that case? This horse is his trophy. And he’s going to want a trophy rider.”

Ahi esta,
Daniel thought.

There it is.

“But he does not get to pick the rider,” Daniel said. “You do. It is in the contract.”

“And how do you know that?” Mrs. Atwood said.

“Because you asked me to look at it before you signed it,” Daniel said. “He agreed because we all thought Miss Maggie was going to ride him, all the way to Paris. She was going to be his trophy rider. He knew enough to know she was a star.”

Daniel was right. So was Mrs. Atwood, who had once told him that even people who gave an inch were giving too much.

But the old woman’s voice softened now.

“This horse has greatness in him,” she said. “He can carry the weight riding on him, I know it.”

“So can Becky,” Daniel said.

“I’m still right here,” Becky said.

She stood and walked over to the picture window, facing both of them.

“You can do this,” Daniel said to Becky, then turned to her grandmother and said, “She can do this.”

“You mean finally think of somebody other than herself?” Mrs. Atwood said.

“Taking a semester off from college to help Mom doesn’t qualify?” Becky said.

“This isn’t some side ring on a Saturday morning,” her grandmother said.

“So you’re saying I’d be out of my league?” Becky said.

“This is good,” Daniel said. “You’re getting to it now.”

Daniel watched as Becky put her hands on her hips and looked more like the old woman than ever.

“I don’t want you to let your mother down,” Mrs. Atwood said.

“Don’t you mean let
you
down? Again?” Becky said. “It’s not Gorton who doesn’t want me on Coronado. It’s you.”

“This isn’t your call, Daniel,” Mrs. Atwood said, the snap back in her voice. “And it’s not my granddaughter’s. It’s mine. You honestly believe that she can do this?”

“Yes.”

“You’re willing to bet your job on that belief? Knowing how much an Olympic champion horse could mean to this family?”

“Yes,” he said.

And she had still not said no. Neither had Becky.

Daniel had never known a family like this, in all the horse business, where most of them were
alocado
. Cracked.

Becky headed for the front door now.

“Where are you going?”

“Out,” Becky said.

“You think that’s going to help get me on your side?” Mrs. Atwood said.

Her granddaughter turned at the door.

“I don’t even know which side that is anymore,” she said.

I DID THINK
about calling my friend Madison, another rider from our barn, and telling her to meet me at the Trophy Room for a drink. We were both twenty-one now. After years of using fake IDs to drink illegally, it seemed almost against the law not to go to bars now.

But I didn’t. I drove to Wellington Medical, even knowing it was past visiting hours. No way Mom was going to be asleep, unless she’d given in and allowed them to slip her the kind of happy pill she said she was going to resist.

No, she’d be lying there in her bed, her brain working a million miles an hour.

When I got to the hospital I bluffed my way past the nursing station on her floor, showing the night nurse the backpack I’d brought with me and saying I’d brought some toiletries my mom had requested, even though my backpack held only my cell phone, lip balm, hairbrush, and a bottle of water.

“If she’s asleep,” I told the nurse, “I’ll just leave the stuff inside the door.”

“Promise?” the nurse said.

“Yes, ma’am!” I said. “Thank you
so
much.”

My dad had told me once that nobody faked sincerity better than I did when I put my mind to it.

Truly, no matter what Grandmother decided, I wanted to know what Mom thought.

My whole life I’d wanted her to respect me as a rider but at the same time hated being compared to her, mostly because I’d convinced myself early on that I’d never measure up, not just to what she was, but what she and her own mother had decided I was supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, they’d decided that I didn’t care enough.

But I did. Just in my own stubborn way. When I was eight or nine, Mom had caught me in some dumb lie and grounded me. I told them I didn’t want to live here, packed my little pink Hello Kitty suitcase, and walked out the door, good-bye.

Made it all the way to the end of the driveway before I turned around and came back.

I was still here, and I still cared. Except now Daniel wanted me to be Mom, on her horse.

Shit happened.

I poked my head into her room and said, “You awake?”

“So awake,” she said. “Just please don’t ask me how I’m doing, or I’m getting out of this bed and challenging you to a fistfight.”

“I was afraid of this,” I said. “You’re not acting like my mom. You’re acting like yours.”

What sounded like a laugh came out of her before it quickly turned into a coughing fit. Not a pretty sound.

“Sorry, Mom,” I said.

“Lost my ride,” she said. “But apparently not my sense of humor.”

I pulled a chair over to the side of the bed.

“Aren’t visiting hours over?” she said.

“I might have lied my way in,” I said.

“Bad Becky strikes again.”

But she was smiling. She looked tired as hell. No makeup. Probably not eating. Still beautiful.

“You look like something’s on your mind.”

“Oh, baby,” I said.

Then I told my mother about her mother’s conversation with Mr. Gorton, and the one she’d just had with Daniel and me. She listened, no change in her expression, until I finished.

“Crazytown, right?” I said.

“They’re both right,” Mom said. “Mom and Daniel.”

She motioned for the water cup with the straw in it on the bedside table. I handed it to her. She drank deeply and handed it back. Even now, she didn’t miss a chance to hydrate like a triathlete.

“It’s not just another rider,” she said. “If Gorton goes out and gets some hotshot rider, that guy is going to want his own trainer. So then not only would I be gone, so would Daniel. And with another rider and another trainer, what’s left for Mom? Silent partner? Good luck to the lawyers trying to enforce that.”

I stood up now, needing to move, even if it was just to the other side of the bed.

“The important thing is that Daniel thinks you can do this and so do I.”

“Are you sure you’re not on drugs?” I said. “I know I’m a good rider. And since I know you and Daniel don’t lie about horses, I’m not going to, either. As much as I’d love to show Grandmother she’s wrong about me, I would be out of my league here.”

“Bullshit,” Mom said.

“Now you do sound just like her.”

“Just because we both call BS when we see it,” she said.

“So you’re telling me that after the worst year I ever had in riding I can start training with Daniel now and still be ready to ride Coronado in the Grand Prix in a few weeks?”

She tried to sit up straighter in the bed now. The pain flashed across her face like some sudden flash of lightning in the darkened room.

“Let me ask you a question,” she said when she had control of her breathing. “What do you have to lose?”

“Your shot at the Olympics,” I said.

“Our shot.”

“Either way,” I said, “you’re telling me I should do this?”

She closed her eyes and smiled.

“Hell, no,” she said. “
I
want to be doing this. I want to be in my own bed and asleep already so I can get up early in the morning and ride the living shit out of my horse.”

“Your mind is made up, just like that?” I said.

“I am not going to lie to you,” Mom said. “The day I’m out of here and see somebody else up on that horse, it’s going to hurt even more than I’m hurting right now. But it will hurt a hell of a lot less if it’s you.”

She told me that if I really wanted her advice, it was for me to ride the horse every day for a week, ride him as hard as I could, ride him in the ring and on trail rides, and see if I had a feel for him and he had a feel for me, because it always came back to that.

“Then you can decide whether you’re in or out,” she said. “I’m not sure you’ve been all in since we put you up on Frenchy.”

My first pony.

“You always said that the biggest mystery is how much of it is the horse and how much of it is the rider,” I said.

“Well, kiddo,” Mom said, “we might be about to find out.”

Then she said to leave her alone, maybe by some minor miracle she might get some sleep tonight.

BOOK: The Horsewoman
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ads

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