Dark Horse #2
by Laura Wolfe
A year after her tumultuous exit from the prestigious Foxwoode Riding Academy, seventeen year-old Brynlei returns determined to confront her demons and win Foxwoode's elite Top Rider Award. When she stumbles over an antique doll at the construction site of a new barn, a series of inexplicable occurrences force her to question whether her condition as a "highly-sensitive person" is to blame or if something more sinister is at play.
As Brynlei becomes consumed with discovering the history of the unearthed doll, the bizarre happenings escalate to dangerous levels. She soon realizes that someone close to her is lying. But who? Could a decades-old tragedy and the threatening events at Foxwoode be more closely entwined than she ever imagined?
BUY THE BOOK
Flames lashed out against the night sky. Plumes of smoke billowed through the windows, and wooden beams popped and snapped with violence. Brynlei choked on the ash-filled air as fire consumed the roof of Cabin 5. Her body shook. She’d been inside the crumbling structure only a moment earlier. Ignoring Bruce’s shouting, she inched closer to the fire, searching for any sign of Grace. A gust of wind rushed through the trees, pushing a wall of heat toward her, scalding her skin. Brynlei raised her arms to shield her face from the scorching air, but the heat overwhelmed her. She staggered backward and collapsed.
Snapshots flashed through her mind: The probing blue eye of the antique doll. The faded, black-and-white photo in the mess hall. Grace’s empty bunk. The Top Rider trophy she’d likely never hold. She thought of Rebecca coasting through another summer at violin camp while Brynlei couldn’t seem to escape the secrets of Foxwoode. How could this be happening again? A sour weight pooled in her stomach. Brynlei was the only one with a glimpse of understanding, the only one who could help. She had to uncover the truth—before it was too late.
Three Weeks Earlier
Brynlei adjusted her position on the overstuffed couch in Mindy Preston’s office. It seemed as if she made one wrong move the fluffy cushions might swallow her whole. She shifted her weight and righted herself so as not to completely disappear. Framed diplomas hung in a familiar formation behind the psychologist’s desk. The paint on the walls had been refreshed at some point in the last year and a half to a lighter shade of blue.
“It’s nice to see you again.” Mindy smiled and lowered her plump body into a chair across from Brynlei. She couldn’t help but notice that Mindy’s chair was trim and sturdy. The psychologist leaned forward, a notepad resting on her lap.
“Thanks.” Brynlei nodded and pressed her palms into the cushions. She hadn’t thought it would be a big deal to come here again, but now she sat on the couch avoiding Mindy’s expectant eyes. She’d rather be any place at all—anyplace in the world except back here talking about her feelings with a total stranger. Not that Mindy was a total stranger. She’d been the only one who understood Brynlei’s distress after she’d watched the deer die. Mindy had been the one who diagnosed her as a highly-sensitive person, or ‘HSP’. Still, Brynlei had only agreed to meet with the woman again because her parents forced her. The meeting had been her mom’s idea—a prerequisite to her returning to Foxwoode.
“How have you been?” Mindy leaned forward. Behind the black-framed glasses her eyes held an earnest look, as if nothing was more important to her than how her patient had been feeling. Brynlei remembered why Mindy Preston made a perfect psychologist.
“What brings you in today?” Mindy adjusted the glasses resting on her nose.
“My parents.” She dug the toe of her shoe into the shag rug in front of her. “I mean, they said I had to come here before they let me go back to Foxwoode Riding Academy this summer.”
“Why do you think they wanted you to do that?”
“I guess they don’t want me to get distracted like I did last year.”
Mindy nodded. “Can you tell me more about that?”
Brynlei’s heart pounded as she began to speak. “Last summer, I finally got to go to Foxwoode for three weeks. It was a big deal. Someplace I’ve been trying to go for years.” Brynlei’s feet fidgeted and she forced herself to be still. “Anyway, I kept noticing a girl in the woods. Strange things happened in my cabin—items missing, lights turning on and off at night—things like that. I thought it was a ghost.”
“And it wasn’t?” Mindy cocked her head to one side.
“No. She was a real person. Caroline Watson. She’d been hiding in the woods for four years.”
“And no one knew about this?” Mindy scrunched her eyebrows together.
“No. I guess I was the only one who noticed her presence there.”
“That makes sense, given your sensitivities.” Mindy jotted something on her pad of paper. “How did you feel when you realized that she was a real person and not a ghost?”
“Like an idiot. Instead of focusing on riding while I was at Foxwoode, I wasted three weeks chasing a ghost who wasn’t there.”
“And my friend, Anna, got kicked out because of me. And I got this other guy, Bruce, in trouble, too.”
“And Caroline? She’s okay?”
“Yeah. She might even be better off now.” Brynlei plunged deeper into the couch before sliding herself forward. “I had to tell Caroline’s secret in order to save a horse that had been injured.”
“So some good things happened because of these distractions you mentioned?”
“I guess.” Brynlei swallowed, but her throat was dry. “I’m a little nervous about going back to Foxwoode. People might make fun of me or even be angry.”
“Would that bother you?”
“Yes. I’m a highly-sensitive person, remember?”
Mindy smiled. “Of course. Will you see these people again? Anna, Bruce, and Caroline?”
“Yeah, Anna is coming back. We kept in touch. I emailed Bruce to apologize for getting him into trouble, but he never responded. And I’ve talked to Caroline a couple of times. She’ll be working as a riding instructor at Foxwoode this year.”
“It sounds like you’ve done all the right things.” Mindy crossed her arms in front of her chest. “You can only control yourself. You can’t control how other people respond to you.”
Brynlei nodded. She had done everything in her power to make things right. If only she could return to Foxwoode and leave the drama behind, focus on nothing but winning Top Rider.
“Let’s go back to your sensitivities.” Mindy flipped a page in her notebook. “You’ve seen ghosts before. I remember you telling me about your grandma the last time you were here.”
“So, it wasn’t so outlandish that you thought you saw a ghost at Foxwoode.”
“I guess not.”
“Have you had any experiences like that lately? Seeing people who are no longer alive?”
“No. Not lately.” Brynlei’s childhood friend, Mr. Brentwood, popped into her head. Her parents had assumed Mr. Brentwood was imaginary, but they were wrong. They just couldn’t see him. That was a long time ago, though. She didn’t feel like explaining it to Mindy.
“When I saw you last, you’d been ruminating over negative thoughts. The deer being hit by a car, things like that.” Mindy tapped her pen. “Have you had problems with those kinds of obsessive thoughts lately?”
“Not really.” Brynlei shifted her weight on the enormous cushion. She averted her eyes to stare at the diplomas hanging behind the desk. Suddenly, heat rushed to her face. She closed her eyes as a flood of worries overcame her.
“Brynlei. If there’s something that’s bothering you, now is the time to talk about it.”
Brynlei exhaled. “Well, there are a few things I’ve been thinking about.”
“Why don’t you tell me about them?” Mindy leaned forward even farther.
She started with Luke. She’d spent way too much energy on him; it would be a relief to get that situation off her chest. Only, once Brynlei opened her mouth, she couldn’t stop talking. She told Mindy about her date with Luke. About Jackson Woods. About her college applications and uncertain future. She didn’t know which direction to go or how she’d survive without Rebecca. The closer college loomed, the more she worried she was running out of time to own a horse of her own.
“It looks like we’re just about out of time.” Mindy nodded toward the clock on the wall.
Brynlei swung her head around to follow the woman’s gaze. How had time passed so fast? The original purpose of her visit returned to her.
“So...” Brynlei paused, her breath shallow in her throat.
“So?” The psychologist cocked her head.
Brynlei’s knee bounced under her hand. At last, she exhaled and the all-important question spilled out with her breath: “Will you give me the green light to go back to Foxwoode?”
Mindy looked down and shuffled a few papers before making eye contact. Brynlei edged forward in her seat.
“I’m going to tell your parents that I think you are a thoughtful, caring young woman who is capable of dealing with life’s ups and downs and anything Foxwoode throws at you this year.”
Brynlei wanted to leap from the couch and squeal, but instead she nodded and struggled to suppress a wide grin. Mindy smiled back and then scribbled something else on her pad of paper.
“Remember the breathing exercises to calm your anxiety.”
“Okay.” She envisioned the steps she’d taken so many times: in through her nose, out through her mouth.
“And Brynlei, try to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.”
“Okay.” She wasn’t sure how that would solve anything, but she’d give it a try.
“Have a wonderful time at camp.” Mindy stood and held out her hand. Brynlei flailed in the pillows before emerging from the cocoon-like couch. She shook the psychologist’s hand and walked out the door, not sure if she’d resolved any of her issues. Still, her shoulders felt looser, as if some of her worries had floated away.
“How’d it go with the shrink?” Rebecca peered over the top of two cups of Starbuck’s coffee on the table, her tangle of auburn curls pulled into a messy ponytail. The door jingled as two customers entered the coffee shop. Steam hissed from behind the counter.
“You still crazy?”
“Yep.” Brynlei smiled. She didn’t expect anything less from her best friend.
“I could’ve told you that for free.” Rebecca smirked.
“I’m leaving in the morning.”
Rebecca was heading to violin camp at Interlochen while Brynlei was at Foxwoode, just like last summer.
“I’ll text you when I get back.”
“Sweet.” Rebecca slurped the foam off the surface of her latte. “Piece of advice. When it’s time to tell ghost stories around the campfire, why don’t you shove your fingers in your ears? Or better yet, jump in the lake.”
Brynlei rolled her eyes. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
“It’s the least I can do. And I do mean the very least.”
Like so many times before, the two girls erupted into laughter.