Shamrock Stable #4
No Horse Left Behind
Champion show rider, Dani Wilkerson, loves her Quarter Horse mare, Lady, and wants to ride Western or ‘cowgirl’ style with her friends at Shamrock Stable. However, her glory-seeking parents have other plans for Dani that include three-day eventing and an eventual career in Olympic competition. They think all her riding activities should support this goal. While she wishes they understood her need to express her individuality, she also hates to disappoint them.
Then she discovers their plans to enroll her in an elite boarding school, sell Lady, and buy her an award-winning, event horse. Stunned by the betrayal, Dani knows she must stop them somehow. She isn’t a mere extension of their egos. When she fights back, she learns just how far they will go to achieve their ends, but how can she possibly defeat them?
BUY THE BOOK
Monday, February 10th, 2:45 pm
When the last bell of the day rang, my friend Sierra headed off to basketball practice in the gym. I pushed through the crowded hall toward my locker, waving at Vicky as she hurried toward cheerleading. Robin would be off to her much loved job at the Mustang Corral, the local classic car dealership a few blocks away from our school, Lincoln High. Meanwhile, I had other plans. Well, actually my uber-controlling parents had made those ‘other plans’ for me.
I grabbed the garment bag out of my locker and hurried for the restroom to change for my dressage lesson. My riding instructor, Lisa Atchison had competed internationally before she retired to open her own training barn. She took my lessons seriously. That meant I had to dress as if I was already in a competition even when I was only practicing for one. I was smart enough not to share my opinion of this nonsensical idea since I didn’t want to deal with the fall-out.
Once in the bathroom, I stripped off the dark blue Western Washington University sweatshirt and Lincoln High t-shirt I’d worn to school today. I changed into a long-sleeved, high-collared show shirt, fastening all the buttons. I peeled out of my jeans, and took the light yellow breeches off the hanger pulling them on instead. I shrugged into last year’s classic black jacket, a wool blend. Lisa didn’t know I had a new one in my closet at home for next month’s dressage trials and since this coat had to go to the dry-cleaners too, I could get by with it for a while. My boots and helmet were already in the Jeep Grand Cherokee with my au-pair, Louise. She was a major time freak which meant she would be waiting in the parking lot.
I glanced at my watch. I had to hustle. It was a twenty minute drive to the stable and Lisa hated tardiness. Any infraction meant an email to my parents. Since I’d talked them into letting me have a puppy last month, I didn’t want to get on their radar. Okay, so I complained a lot when they didn’t make it home for Christmas because of heavy snow, but who wouldn’t? As usual, the staff had the holiday off and it meant Louise and I hung around the house by ourselves. She was great, but it still majorly sucked. And I said so!
My ex seemed to think I was a major diva and should be glad to be the invisible child six months of the year. After all, I had the housekeeper, gardener, chauffer and of course, my au-pair to look after me. It wasn’t like I’d ever struggled to survive in foster care the way he had.
Meanwhile, my folks worked as a team, analyzing failing businesses and helping owners, shareholders and creditors get the most out of a dying enterprise before it totally tanked. In the ongoing economic downturn, it meant they’d never been busier. My father happily said that since the economy wouldn’t get better anytime soon, he expected to clear more than a million dollars this year. They generally made it home when the horseshow season started in the spring. One of them stayed throughout the summer and both were gone in early October, once again leaving me with the household staff to watch over me.
The world stopped turning if I didn’t bring home blue ribbons and trophies every time I competed. My mother told me the puppy was expendable. If it interfered with my success in the show ring, it’d be sent to the pound. She said she wouldn’t let me have time to find it a new home. It would just be gone, taken away while I was at school. I knew she thought that would make me back off on the idea of having a real, live pet, but I didn’t. Instead, I made Louise promise to take Topper back to Robin, my friend who gave me the golden collie mix.
I hastily French braided my long yellow hair, the perfect style to fit under my helmet. I switched out my earrings for little gold studs and hustled out the door. Before I made it to the exit doors, my ex who I privately thought of as Super-Gorgeous, a blond hunk in Lincoln High blue sweats, straightened from where he lounged against the wall. He’d obviously waited for me.
I didn’t stop, brushing by him. “I’ve got to go, Harry. I don’t have time for this.”
“Come on, Dani, at least let me talk to you.” He swooped down, took my garment bag and backpack. “I’ll walk you out to the Jeep.”
“Louise will lose it.” I pushed open the outside door into the cold Washington afternoon, rain misting my face. “We’re already late.”
“Tell her to breathe,” Harry said. “All I want to know is if you’ll come with me to the Valentine’s dance on Friday.”
“We broke up.”
“Yeah, well I haven’t seen you with anybody new and I don’t have anyone either. Can we go as friends?”
I debated silently as we dashed through the icy rain to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Harry opened the back door, put my things inside and handed me the pair of black, leather, knee-high riding boots. He was always good company and the only thing we ever argued about was my parents.
They weren’t around yet and wouldn’t be here this weekend, so my mother couldn’t embarrass me by saying that he was disposable in front of him, that I had more important goals than a guy. Plus, he wasn’t creepy. When I said we were through, he accepted it. He didn’t stalk me in the halls at school or send uber-nasty texts or hassle any of my friends.
“Okay.” I slid into the passenger seat. “We’ll talk about it Thursday at lunch. Now, I’ve got to go.”
He nodded, turned and jogged back toward the school gym. I hoped he wouldn’t be in trouble with his basketball coach for being late to practice. Then I decided he was a big boy. He could handle it. I finished swapping out my shoes, tossed them in the back. I buckled up.
Taller than me, even in the driver’s seat, Louise shot a concerned look my way, before she pointed to the distinctive bag from the sub shop. She turned the key, started the engine and we were on the road. “Eat your snack. Talk to me. Your parents....”
“Aren’t here yet.” Digging into the sack, I pulled out the sandwich. Cold cuts on dry bread. Ick! But, I didn’t dare get mayo or mustard or tomato on my clothes. “And I do like Harry Thornton. He has nearly as many issues as I do.”
“Oh yes. You and your issues.” She smiled. “Need a hanky?”
“It’s ‘tissue’, Louise. Not hanky.”
“As my granny says, just don’t over-egg the pudding, my dear.”
“I won’t,” I said.
Every once in a while, Louise came up with one of her British sayings. Since she’d taken care of me for the past eight years, I had a pretty good idea of what she meant. I wasn’t supposed to make this thing with Harry a bigger deal than it actually was and I wouldn’t. That was what had gotten me in trouble around New Years.
He’d shown up at the house to meet them and my parents weren’t impressed. Three days of lectures later, I agreed to dump him. Granted that surprised them because normally it only took one of them to have a ranting, raving fit before I knuckled under to their demands, but I really liked Harry, which again was why I lasted through three days of their screaming and yelling. I hadn’t told Louise or Harry or any of my friends how much I missed him.
Time check when we arrived at Salmon Pond Stable. Surprisingly, I had eight minutes before my lesson. I got my equestrian helmet from the back seat and a couple carrots to sneak to the horse. Lisa wasn’t a proponent of treats, but I didn’t plan to let her know that I believed in them.
Louise and I strolled into the barn. I might totally be in riding ‘togs’ as she said, but she opted for the ‘Mary Poppins’ look, a long blue skirt ending at mid-calf over knee-high, low-heeled boots, a white blouse under a blue blazer and her black top-coat over everything. She was barely ten years older than me and she dressed like an old lady to please my parents. She always coiled her waist-length brown hair up in a bun and skimped on the cosmetics too.
I stopped by the office long enough to read the whiteboard. It said that I had Xavier today, a big sorrel Warmblood gelding with a horrible trot and a mouth like iron. I already knew my lesson would suck and that meant a nasty-gram to my parents.
Louise patted my shoulder. “Chin up, ducky. I’ll video you with my new phone.”
I headed for the corner stall where I found Cicely Ellis saddling up for me. She shot a sneer my way, but I ignored her. Okay, so we were both sixteen, but it wasn’t like we attended the same school or talked outside of this barn. We didn’t. I knew one of her other friends had stolen my best leather show gloves, but Cicely put on an innocent act and claimed she didn’t know anything. Of course, Lisa believed her, not me.
I fed Xavier a carrot. He nuzzled my arm and I gave him the second one.
“I can’t believe the way you dress for lessons.” Cicely adjusted the girth before she tightened it. “I mean, come on, Dani. It’s not like you’re competing now.”
“Yeah, well it isn’t like I have a choice,” I said, then bit my lip. Oops, why had I let the truth slip out? I wished I could opt for comfort like her, only I knew better. Sure, she had on an equestrian helmet over her brown hair and old English boots, but she also wore denim breeches and I glimpsed a sweater under her vest. “When do you ride?”
“Tomorrow,” Cicely said. “Mondays, I usually just prep for Lisa unless she wants me to warm up a horse.”
“Well, I appreciate it,” I told her, waiting while she bridled for me. “This way I don’t get super-slimed.”
“It’s fine.” Cicely passed me the reins, stepping back so I could lead Xavier out of his stall and into the arena.
She didn’t smile or act any friendlier, but to be honest I didn’t care since I couldn’t stand a thief or her accomplice. As long as Cicely kept her mouth shut around Lisa and nobody knew I complained, everything would be just fine. I pasted on a smile, trying to project the perfect Danise Antoinette Wilkerson that won whenever she entered the show ring.
Xavier danced beside me, head up, ears pricked forward. Oh yeah, he was looking forward to the next hour when he got to bully me.
Lisa frowned as soon as we entered the indoor arena. “Make him respect you, Dani. Start as you mean to continue. He should be walking, not prancing.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I tried pulling on his mouth, but the seventeen-hand monster just plowed ahead. At 5’3 and only a hundred pounds, I wasn’t much of a match for him. Tears burned my eyes, but I didn’t dare let them fall. My mascara would run in streaks until I looked like a raccoon, and that wasn’t the kind of photo-op my parents wanted to see.
Remember Topper, I told myself. Once I got home, there would be puppy kisses and snuggles. She was worth it. She was worth anything and everything I had to do to keep her.
Louise waved to me and I struggled to lead Xavier over to the corner of the ring where she sat on the bleachers. “What?” I asked. “I’m doing my best.”
“I know.” She smiled sweetly at me, then at Lisa. “Isn’t he awfully large for Dani? How on earth will she manage to mount?”
“At the block.” Lisa folded her arms, glowering down at me. Six feet tall, dark-haired and perfect in her own riding attire, she loomed over me and never seemed satisfied with what I did. “If you’re ready, I’d like to get started. I do have other students and classes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Becoming ‘brassed off’ as Louise’s grandmother would have said when I was majorly furious, I yanked hard on Xavier’s mouth and for once he listened. I led him to the far end of the ring, checked his saddle, tightened the girth and adjusted the stirrups. Lisa lingered to talk to Louise for a moment longer before coming to hold the off rein.
Once I mounted up, I rode out to the wall and began warming up in a series of circles, first at the walk and then at the sitting trot. Someone else must have ridden Xavier earlier because he actually stayed on either the left or right track and had decent collection.
After about ten minutes, Lisa signaled me and I rode to where she stood in the middle of the ring. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Dani, you’ve been taking lessons here for almost six months. Are you afraid of me?”
“No, ma’am.” I managed to keep my voice steady so she wouldn’t know I was lying. “Of course, I’m not scared of you, ma’am.”
“Then, please stop calling me, ma’am. Call me, Lisa and we’ll do better.”
“My father loses it if I’m rude to my teachers, ma’am.”
“It isn’t rude if I ask you not to do something that irritates me.” Lisa snagged Xavier’s rein and gave him a little jerk when he pawed impatiently. “How do you feel about working on the longe line today? Would you like that?”
I blinked hard so I wouldn’t cry. “Yes, but my father won’t let me. He hates it whenever he sees the instructor controlling the horse on a long rope.”
“I’ll handle him,” Lisa said. “Part of riding dressage is developing your seat at all three gaits. So, we’ll do exercises for a while and you can ‘earn your reins.’ But, only if you stop calling me, ma’am. Deal?”
I nodded. “Deal.”
“And next time I ask you to do something that scares you, I want you to tell me, not Louise. What would you do if she wasn’t here?”
“Why wouldn’t she be here?” I asked. “She’s taken care of me since I was little bitty. She can’t leave me. I won’t let her.”
That got me a real long dark-eyed look from my riding instructor. Then she turned and waved at Cicely. In a few minutes, Xavier wore a halter instead of his bridle and Lisa held a long rope, keeping control of him. Next, I dropped my irons and Cicely unbuckled the leathers, removing the stirrups. She carried them off to the tack-room and my lesson started again.
For the next hour, I rode at a walk and trot doing all sorts of exercises while Xavier circled Lisa on the longe line and she used the long rope to maintain control of the huge, equine monster. I did several renditions of kicking up to touch my toe to my hand, first to the left, then to the right. After that, I kicked down with one leg, then the other, then both. Leaning back and sitting up. Twisting in one direction and then the other before I put my hands on top of my helmet and rode that way for a while.
Toward the end, Lisa had me posting at the trot without my stirrups. It was a major thigh-killer, but I didn’t care. For once, I felt totally balanced in the English saddle and Xavier wasn’t the boss of me. Finally, she gathered up the line and brought the horse into the center, stopping him.
“That’s enough for today,” Lisa said. “Good job, Dani. Let’s stick with this for a while when you ride him.”
“Okay. Thanks, Lisa.” I swung my legs back and forth before I vaulted off in what my other instructor called a ‘scramble.’ My knees wobbled and Lisa caught my arm so I didn’t collapse on the ground beside Xavier.
“Take it easy, Dani. You did a lot of leg work and your muscles aren’t used to it.” She helped me over to lean against the arena wall and called for Cicely to come take the horse. “I’ll tell your folks that you looked good this afternoon and they should be proud of your work ethic.”
I heard Cicely sniff in disgust and then Louise’s cheery British accent. “Excellent form, my dear. You had your heels well down today. It came across quite nicely when I was videoing.” She passed off a folded bill to Cicely who hastily tucked it into her pants before Xavier snuffled it. “And here you are, my other dear. So, kindly stop your whinging. It simply isn’t becoming when I always tip you for helping. Now, off you go and take this huge beast with you.”
Cheeks burning bright red, a brown braid bouncing against her back, Cicely hurried from the arena with Xavier. I flicked a quick glance at Louise who just smiled sweetly at me, acting like calling Cicely on her snarky whining wasn’t a big deal. Tucking her arm through mine, Louise guided me out of the ring. Lisa called after us that she’d see me on Thursday and I waved in agreement.
I gave Louise a sideways hug as we left the barn. “This was the best lesson ever. Thanks for fixing my life.”
“It’s what I do.” She wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Don’t make me guess when things go wonky and I’ll get them sorted much sooner.”