Dark Horse #1
Trail of Secrets
by Laura Wolfe
Spending three weeks of her summer at the elite Foxwoode Riding Academy in northern Michigan should have been one of the happiest times of sixteen year-old Brynlei’s life. But from the moment Brynlei arrives at Foxwoode, she can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched.
Then she hears the story of a girl who vanished on a trail ride four years earlier. While the other girls laugh over the story of the dead girl who haunts Foxwoode, Brynlei senses that the girl—or her ghost—may be lurking in the shadows.
Brynlei’s quest to reveal the truth interferes with her plan to keep her head down and win Foxwoode’s coveted “Top Rider” award. Someone soon discovers Brynlei’s search for answers and will go to any length to stop her. When Brynlei finally uncovers the facts surrounding the missing girl’s disappearance, she must make an impossible choice—protect a valuable secret, or save a life.
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After five hours in the car with her parents, Brynlei almost jumped through the window of their Ford Explorer when she finally spotted the entrance to Foxwoode. They nearly sped past the crooked plywood sign that hung from a tree on the side of the road. Brynlei would have missed the sign altogether, except for the word “Foxwoode” scrawled across it in bright white paint. The sign appeared to have been assembled by a Kindergartner.
“There it is! Don’t miss the turn!”
Brynlei’s dad slammed on the brakes when Brynlei yelled.
In truth, Brynlei had expected a more stately entrance to the fancy riding academy. Yet, sure enough, the sign said Foxwoode.
“Is this right?” her mom asked. “It’s not very well marked.”
“I’ll just turn and see where it takes us,” Brynlei’s dad said. He steered off the two-lane country road past the homemade sign and onto a narrow dirt road enveloped by towering pine trees. Clouds of dust surrounded the windows as the SUV ambled over rocks and potholes.
“This can’t be right.” Brynlei’s mom clutched the armrest while she bounced in her seat.
Brynlei searched through the murky dust for any sign of horses or cabins or girls, but only saw trees. Then she spotted another lopsided wooden sign with the same white lettering that read Service Road — Employees Only.
“Looks like we turned a little early,” her dad said. Sweat glistened on his scalp through his dark, thinning hair.
“I knew this couldn’t be right,” Brynlei’s mom said. “Find a place to turn around, Dan.”
Brynlei held onto the door handle and tensed her muscles every time the SUV hit another pothole and knocked her off-balance. They ambled along the one-lane path, searching for a place to turn.
“It’s too narrow for a U-turn,” her dad said. “I have to keep going until the road widens.”
Her mom let out a deep, disapproving sigh.
“Someone needs to pave this sucker,” her dad said, trying to lighten the mood.
Sometimes Brynlei felt sorry for her dad, always having to balance out her mom’s expectations of perfection. Brynlei had been shocked by photos she’d seen of her parents in their younger days, before Derek was born. They appeared carefree and happy, like they were on a never-ending quest for fun. In one photo in particular, her dad was almost unrecognizable. She could only describe him as shockingly handsome, with thick dark hair and tanned skin. Her mom posed next to him showing off her perfectly trim body in a mini-skirt and high-heels. They smiled at each other in the photo in a way that Brynlei didn’t see much anymore, as if they shared the punch-line to an inside joke that no one else could possibly understand. Did her parents remember how they’d felt at that moment? Brynlei wouldn’t be surprised if they had forgotten.
With no other option, Brynlei’s dad continued driving down the narrow dirt road. Brynlei hoped a wide-open area would appear as they rounded each bend, but each time she was disappointed.
“This is ridiculous,” her mom said. “How do they expect people to turn around?”
Through the mesh of trees, Brynlei made out a small cabin in the distance. No, it wasn’t a cabin; it was more like an open-air shed that was being used to store tools and equipment. The dark figure of a person appeared next to the shed. A wave of static electricity jolted through Brynlei, making it impossible for her to breathe. She wasn’t sure why she was picking up on this sudden surge of energy. She tried to get a better look to see if the person was an employee or a maybe another riding student, but the dense trees passing outside the car window obstructed her view.
“There’s someone over there, by that shed.” Brynlei finally coughed up the words. “We can ask them how to get out of here.”
“I don’t see anyone,” Brynlei’s mom said.
Brynlei looked again. The person she’d seen just moments ago was gone. She lowered her window and craned her neck outside to get a better view, but still could not see anyone. She scanned the trees, dumbfounded. Maybe the person was behind the shed? Or inside it?
“Here we go,” Brynlei’s dad exclaimed. A grassy meadow crisscrossed with tire tracks appeared on the side of the road. Obviously, they weren’t the first ones to turn around here. As they headed back down the narrow dirt road in the other direction, Brynlei peered through her window hoping to catch a glimpse of whomever she had seen. However, the only activity in the woods came from a couple robins flitting about and a chipmunk scurrying up the massive trunk of an oak tree.
Ten minutes later and two miles down the country highway, they arrived at Foxwoode’s proper entrance. Brynlei recognized the impressive gated entrance flanked by limestone pillars from page two of the brochure. A wave of competing emotions rushed through her—excitement, nervousness, fear of the unknown. Brynlei squeezed her hands into fists and drew in her breath while her stomach flopped around like a fish caught in a net.
“This looks more like it,” her dad said.
“We’ll never make that mistake again.” Brynlei’s mom pulled a compact from her purse and patted the shine off her nose.
* * * *
They checked in at the office where an overly-friendly woman directed them to Cabin 5. The sun reflected off the silver Explorer, as Brynlei’s parents unloaded the last of her bags. The cabin appeared exactly as the cabins pictured in the brochure, with its rustic log walls, high ceilings, and a narrow hallway leading to a communal bathroom. The smell of cedar, granola bars, and lemon-scented cleaning product clung to Brynlei’s nose. Four of the six bunks had already been made up and a few suitcases lined the walls, their owners nowhere to be found. Brynlei eyed the one remaining bunk and tossed her stack of sheets on the lower bed.
“This place isn’t too shabby,” her dad said. He carried a large pink suitcase through the cabin door. “It smells kind of funny, though.”
“You mean like horses?” Brynlei said.
She’d thought her dad’s jokes were funny when she was younger, but they didn’t have the same effect anymore. That didn’t stop him from trying, though. His searching eyes revealed his disappointment at the cabin devoid of girls and their parents. Dan Leighton was most comfortable chatting up total strangers about the Tigers or the weather before leading into his usual talk of office buildings for sale and lease. He was the head of his own commercial real estate company and was rarely able to turn off his quest to find new clients. Apparently, he’d arrived on this earth innately wired to network with people. Brynlei guessed her dad had been the head of a commercial real estate company in his past life, too. She couldn’t think of anything she’d want to do less.
Her mom smoothed out the sheets and blankets and tucked them under the foot of the bunk bed. In one swift motion, she sealed up everything tight with crisp hospital corners. Then she fluffed the pillow and centered it on the bed.
“There. Just like at home.” Brynlei’s mom pressed her lips into a thin smile. “Remember to wash your sheets at least once.”
“I know, Mom,” Brynlei replied.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror that hung on the cabin wall. In contrast to her mom’s polished exterior, Brynlei sometimes startled herself with her plainness. Not that she was unattractive. Her shoulder-length hair was somewhere between light brown and dirty blond, but it was smooth and shiny. Her dark eyes were large and round. Girls at school often hinted at her redeeming features, but they usually said it in a way to suggest she could do more. “Your hair is so pretty. You should try wearing it in a braid sometime.” Or “You have beautiful eyes. A little bit of eyeliner would really make them pop.” They didn’t understand that she’d rather blend in, and blending in came effortlessly to her. Besides, the horses didn’t care what she looked like.
“Let’s go find some of your cabin mates so you can introduce yourself,” her mom said.
“Great idea,” her dad chimed in. “I’ll try not to embarrass you.” He smiled and winked at her.
“No, that’s okay. I’m fine. You guys have a long drive home.” Brynlei didn’t want to be rude, but she wished her parents would leave her alone so she could get accustomed to her new surroundings. By the end of their lengthy drive to northern Michigan, their talk about the weather, the neighbor’s overgrown shrubs, and suggestions for ways to make new friends had begun to suffocate her.
“We should probably start heading back before Derek burns the house down.”
Derek opted to skip out on the long drive to nowhere. He remained in Franklin Corners playing video games with one of his buddies. As was the rule with older brothers, Derek knew exactly how to get under Brynlei’s skin. “It’s an art form, really,” he liked to say about his ability to drive her up the wall. Yet she knew another side of Derek, too. The one that cared deeply for others, the one that made a point to leave money in the tip cup at Dairy Queen, even when no one was looking. The one who caught up to her as she burst out of Franklin Corners High, her face burning with humiliation from the rumors that Colton Smith had started. Derek’s arms had held her together, preventing her from collapsing into a million pieces in the middle of the asphalt parking lot, as he recited all the reasons why Colton Smith was the biggest loser ever to walk the planet. She’d miss her brother when he left for Ann Arbor in the fall. If it weren’t for Derek, Brynlei would be one hundred percent positive she was adopted.
“You can use the phone in the office to call us whenever you want,” her mom said. Page eight of the brochure had warned about the lack of cell phone reception in Foxwoode’s remote location. “Be sure to call us at least once a week to check in.”
“I know, Mom. I’ll be fine. I’m surrounded by horses, remember?”
“At least all this time apart will be good practice for college.” Her mom squeezed her so tightly that Brynlei worried her ribs might crack.
“We’ll miss you, Bryn.” Her dad enveloped her in a bear hug. “Don’t fall on your head.”
“We’ll be back for your horse show,” her mom promised.
Brynlei watched from the steps of Cabin 5 as her parents buckled themselves safely inside their SUV, waved to her out the windows, and disappeared back to their suburban life in a cloud of dust.
All at once, the reality of her situation hit her like a sucker punch to the gut. They were gone. She had been itching to get rid of them, but now that she stood all alone in her unfamiliar surroundings, she desperately wanted them to come back. She felt like an unsuspecting two year-old whose parents had just dropped her at daycare for the first time. She wasn’t going to cry. Brynlei’s face grew hot and tears welled up in her eyes. She took a deep breath in through her nose and exhaled through her mouth, just as the psychologist had taught her. She looked around. The sun illuminated her pale skin like a spotlight, alerting everyone of her solitary status.
A group of girls already in their bathing suits walked easily down the dirt pathway toward the lake. One of them laughed loudly and tried to steal the other girl’s towel. In the other direction, dozens of horses grazed in rolling pastures framed by white fences. Brynlei breathed in the sweet scent of pine, grass, hay, and dandelions. A bee buzzed past her ear like an oncoming train. She shooed it away and walked toward the horses.
* * * *
Beyond the white fence that lined the pasture, horses grazed in a rolling meadow surrounded by a lush forest. The scenery appeared too perfect to be real. She couldn’t believe she was really here. It had been her dream to attend Foxwoode since she was ten years old. Now, six years later, she had finally made it.
Her parents had thought her love of horses was a phase that she would outgrow, like playing Barbies or dressing up like princesses. “Foxwoode is for older girls,” they told her when she was twelve. It was true; Foxwoode was for girls fourteen to eighteen only. However, much to her parents’ dismay, Brynlei only grew more obsessed with riding the older she got, and she was good at it.
“You have natural talent,” her riding instructor, Terri, told her after the first time she saw Brynlei jump a course. “I’m sure you’ve heard that before.”
“I don’t know,” Brynlei replied, looking at the ground and smiling.
The truth was, no one had ever actually said those words to her, but she’d always known she had a special connection with the horses she rode. She could feel their next step before they took it. She could see the tricky distances before jumps that others missed. She instinctively knew when to pull back and collect or to let the horse lengthen and do its thing. These were skills that could rarely be taught.
“Foxwoode is expensive,” her mom told her when she turned fourteen. “If you go, you won’t be able to take riding lessons for the rest of the year.”
Brynlei did not qualify for Foxwoode’s scholarship opportunity because her parents did not suffer from Foxwoode’s definition of financial hardship.
“I guess I make too much money.” Her dad smiled and shrugged. “No one’s ever told me that before.” He winked at Brynlei’s mom.
In any case, Brynlei chose the riding lessons over attending Foxwoode. She finagled opportunities to participate in a few horse shows, too. Blue ribbons adorned her bedroom walls.
When she turned fifteen, she chose the riding lessons again. After all, she couldn’t go the whole year without riding. That was like giving someone the choice between an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii or air to breathe. She had to choose the air.
On her sixteenth birthday, her parents surprised her—not with a car like some of her friends had recently received, but with a three-week summer session at Foxwoode Riding Academy. No strings attached. She knew the gift cost almost as much as a car. She leaped up and screamed, bouncing up and down as if their hardwood floor had transformed into a trampoline. Her tears flowed freely.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She’d sobbed and hugged her parents.
“Don’t fall on your head,” her dad said.
Brynlei wanted to reach out and pet some of the grazing horses and gaze into their knowing eyes, but an electrified wire ran along the inside panel of the fence. It was obviously intended to keep the horses in and the people out. She wasn’t one to break the rules, especially on her first day at Foxwoode. She would have to be content to view the horses from a distance until tomorrow.
Page three of the Foxwoode brochure stated each girl who didn’t bring her own horse would be assigned an appropriate horse to ride during her three-week stay. Which horse would be hers? They all looked so beautiful. She really couldn’t go wrong.
Foxwoode’s owners, Tom and Debbie Olson, spent their winters in Wellington, Florida, finding show horses to buy and bring back to Foxwoode for their students to ride and, sometimes, buy. Most of Foxwoode’s horses were offered for sale at the end of the summer. That wouldn’t be an option for Brynlei. Her parents had made it clear there was no room in their budget for a horse. Yet sometimes she let herself dream. She continued walking along the fence line to the main barn. She paused and peeked through the barn door before stepping into the first aisle. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the familiar musty scent of hay and leather embraced her. The clip-clopping of hooves on cement echoed through the barn.
“Back up, Bentley,” a high-pitched voice said from the next aisle. “He’s such a brat.”
“He’s doin’ good,” a man’s gruff voice said. “Bentley’s in stall nine.”
Brynlei peeked around the corner. A gorgeous gray thoroughbred still wearing his shipping boots was being led down the aisle by a tall blonde in a bright pink polo shirt. Her cut-off jean shorts gave way to impossibly long, tan legs. Brynlei instantly disliked the girl. She was always quick to judge people, but her instincts were usually right. A shiny black Hummer idled at the end of the aisle beside a deluxe four-stall horse trailer. The fumes choked Brynlei. A burly man in dirty jeans and leather work boots slid open a stall door. The box stall was almost as big as her bedroom at home.
“Alyssa, honey, do you need help?” A woman who looked like a slightly older version of the tall blonde and whose voice was almost as piercing spoke.
“Obviously, Mom. Take off his shipping boots. He doesn’t like them,” the girl ordered. Brynlei envisioned her own mom slapping her across the face if she ever talked to her that way.
“We need some hay in here,” the girl barked at the man.
“Be right back,” the man answered in a slow steady voice. Despite his enormous stature, he seemed like someone who was used to being ordered around.
The man walked down the aisle toward Brynlei and nodded at her without any change of expression. A black barn cat darted out in front of him and tried to weave itself in between the man’s ankles. He picked up the cat and placed it gently on a hay bale.
“Hi,” Brynlei squeaked out, sounding lame. Why hadn’t she just nodded back?
She ran her hand over the cat’s smooth, black coat and slipped over to the next aisle to look at the horses. Most were out in the pasture, but a few privately-owned horses were getting acclimated to their new spacious stalls. A sleek bay mare stared at her through the metal bars of her stall and calmly munched hay. Brynlei tried to tune out the constant whining of Alyssa and her mom from the next aisle.
“Did you see that blue-haired freak in our cabin?” Alyssa’s voice pierced Brynlei’s ears again.
“OMG! What’s her deal, anyway?” Another girl laughed loudly. “She totally doesn’t belong here.”
Brynlei stood motionless, not wanting them to discover she was eavesdropping on their conversation. She didn’t know who they were talking about. Brynlei hadn’t seen anyone with blue hair.
“She’s probably one of those scholarship people. Did you see her riding boots? They’re not even real leather.”
“That’s sad.” More laughter.
“Bentley had a better stall last year,” Alyssa complained.
Brynlei inhaled sharply. The girls’ shrill voices sounded like cats fighting. It would be quieter back in the cabin. As she walked past the Hummer, a man in a button-down shirt and sunglasses sat inside staring at his cell phone, cursing its poor reception. Alyssa’s mom tried to get his attention by knocking on the window, but he waved her off. Brynlei realized her dad was right about one thing—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.