The Secret of Greatness
Maugre: in spite of
Rating: R (language)
A/N: Ashleigh/Mike, Ashleigh/Brad. During Wonder’s Victory:
“I hear your boyfriend’s colt won his maiden yesterday. Wonder how much free information he picked up around here?”
“None,” Ashleigh shot back. “He’s done his own work, and he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Glad you’re smart enough to know he’s just been using you.”
- Wonder’s Victory
I’ve always wanted to write a fic around this moment in Thoroughbred time. Looks like this will be that fic.
All it really takes is pressure.
Ashleigh Griffen has had three years of it, compressed and compounded, magnified times ten thousand. So she’s really not that surprised when she tips her head back, getting a good look at the boy standing in front of her, and feels a sick sense of satisfaction when he meets her eyes.
“How’s Melinda doing, Brad?” she says, that little pleasure center within her humming and growing at the look on his face. “I heard she made an interesting life change recently.”
The smile that appears on the side of Brad’s mouth is automatic, a twinge like the tightening muscle in his cheek. “You want to start drawing some comparisons here, Ashleigh? As far as I know, you need to pick up a stone before you can fucking throw one. You’re too inept to figure out the first step.”
Ashleigh’s eyebrows rise. “First I’m smart enough to avoid Mike, and now I’m inept? Pick one, Brad.”
“Fine,” he pushes closer to her, head bent to accommodate for the height difference. “If you hadn’t noticed, Mike wants you. For some insane reason, he happens to be drawn to tightly wound do-gooders and you, Ashleigh, fit the bill so perfectly for him that he’s willing to sit around like an idiot until you realize he’s the nice, secure, reliable, incomparably dull guy you’ve been waiting for.”
“Is there a point here?” Ashleigh asks. “I can only listen to mad raving so much.”
“You’d be smart to avoid that hell,” he says, and Ashleigh bristles, her mouth drawing open to protest until he keeps talking. “But you’re too incompetent to realize why you’re avoiding it.”
“Like I said, there’s nothing to avoid,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest and ignoring the little pit in her stomach that throbs a sharp warning.
“Yeah,” Brad says, tilting his head to consider her for a moment longer. “Lost little Ashleigh doesn’t know what she wants. No big surprise there.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“Are you listening to yourself?” he asks. “Because hello, Ash, he has his own fucking farm. The kid can figure shit out by himself. He’s here because of you.”
The pause that precedes her immediate rebuttal is all he needs to draw back and roll his eyes. “Figure it out, Ash. I’m tired of hearing ‘he’s not my boyfriend,’ because if he’s not your boyfriend, he’s using you. There are two options. Pick one.”
Her mind, treacherously, veers toward Mike. Smiling, beautiful Mike. She’s stuck on watching him in her head, his hands on Jazzman’s coat, murmuring soft words and looking up to smile at her as she walks up to ride. Before she can say a word—just one mean word to turn all of this on its head—Brad grunts a disgusted laugh and walks away, disappearing into the exhausting, brilliant light.
After the race, Jazzman is a sweaty mess and all for nothing. Panther wins in the end. Mike stands in his suit and personally washes the colt off, rinsing the sweat marks away. There are sweet murmurs on his lips, water running down his hands, and Ashleigh falls in love.
She stands in the wet gravel, the spray brushing at her bare legs and the quivering hem of her dress, and wants so badly she can hardly feel her fingers for the hard beating of her heart. Ashleigh watches the big black colt hang his head and paw at the soaked muck around his hooves, and hates the seed of doubt that was planted in her gut.
He either loves her, or he’s using her. There’s only one way to find out, but it involves putting herself on the line, involves setting herself up for a fall. Ashleigh’s good at that, blinding striving for things that have never felt in reach. She’s just never experienced the tumble, the flat fall back to earth.
She’s scared to try, now with Brad’s words curling in her ears.
But Jazzman has lost, and she’s still here. Surely that means something, that Mike can still look up at her and smile that reassuring, resilient grin like there’s always next time. Right?
There’s always another race, Ashleigh reminds herself. There’s always something on the horizon. She thinks of Brad’s intensity, the way he stared at her as he dug into her being and gave her doubt. Ashleigh rejects it wholesale.
It’s time, she thinks, to step off the precipice and see if she’ll fly.
Ashleigh walks forward, her shoes grinding and sloshing on the wet, jagged stones, and presses herself into Mike’s side. He turns to her, the spray sliding down Jazzman’s legs, surprised enough to open his mouth.
This is her opening, and Ashleigh takes it.
“So is he your boyfriend this time?”
He asks it right in the space where she usually says no, he is not her boyfriend. She smirks instead, and tips her head up enough to get the message across. What do you think? Brad nods.
“Congrats,” Brad says. “Keep him the fuck off of the farm.”
Fury immediately replaces the soft, golden glow she gets when she thinks of Mike. “You can’t order him off the property like he’s trespassing. That’s insane!”
“He plays for the other team,” Brad says. “It’s responsible.”
“It’s unnecessary,” Ashleigh insists.
“Right, why bother when you can just tell him everything he needs to know to prep his colt for the next time he meets Panther?”
“That’s not how it is.”
“Isn’t it?” he asks. “You’ve picked a door, Ashleigh. That’s great. Now pick which is more important. The farm or Jazzman’s race record.”
“You’re being impossible,” Ashleigh says, her voice rising. The fact of the matter is she has been feeding Mike information, little details of works in various types of conversation. She’s at every morning breeze. She sees everything. She’s told him everything.
A little part of her feels ashamed, and then another part kicks and screams that life isn’t fair.
“You just don’t want your horse to lose to a better animal,” Ashleigh says, full of venom and spit. “Jealousy is pitiful, Brad. I thought you’d be tired of it by now.”
“The horses are evenly matched,” Brad says. “And no, I don’t like to lose.”
“I’m not going to stop what I’m doing,” she promises him, and he smiles. It’s admission enough.
“Then I’ll know what you’re telling him. Spying, Ashleigh, is a nasty thing to be accused of in this business.”
Ashleigh’s heart turns cold. “You wouldn’t.”
“You already are.”
Everything in her sinks like lead.
One day, she stops talking about it. Mike gives her a weird look when she says she didn’t make it to all the works that morning, but doesn’t say much.
Jazzman wins his next race, but Panther isn’t involved. Brad scratches him at the last minute and enters him in the Sanford instead. The big gray wins by a neck at the last second, but Ashleigh hardly pays attention.
She thinks Brad’s messing with her head. She says so later.
“Think what you want,” Brad shrugs, leading a cool and content Panther down the aisle to the yawning stretch of grass outside the Saratoga stables. Ashleigh watches them, the gray colt dancing on his toes and Brad casually holding on, watching his charge with a prideful gleam that smolders dark and deep.
“Why did you scratch?”
“Why do you want to know?” he asks, rubbing the colt’s withers as Panther settles into the grass and rips at the shoots. “Do you need to ferry back some information?”
“It’s not for Mike,” Ashleigh snaps so quickly that Brad looks up and considers her with a quiet calm. He waits her out.
“It’s for me,” Ashleigh says quietly, just underneath her breath.
Brad nods and gathers the colt’s lead, urging him up from the grass to walk over to Ashleigh, stopping inches away. Panther pushes his head into Ashleigh’s hip, searching for treats. Brad lets him, watching Ashleigh flinch as the colt wiggles his lips over her jeans.
“No matter what you think of me, Ash,” he says, “my colt deserves a fair race.”
Ashleigh looks down, hating the way she can feel his eyes. The colt nudges her beseechingly, then gives up and lowers his head to the grass around her feet.
“Also, he’s stakes quality,” Brad adds. “Screw that allowance.”
“Since when did you get all reasonable all of a sudden?” Ashleigh asks, making herself look up at him.
He smiles and shrugs. “Prince is out until fall,” he says. “I spent a long time wanting him to get back to a hundred percent so I could hand you the sweetest defeat in the history of racing this summer, but it’s not going to happen.”
“How heartwarming,” Ashleigh mutters, looking up at the sky just over Brad’s head.
He shakes his head and walks away with the colt, saying over his shoulder, “And then I got sick of it. This isn’t Wonder and the Prince, Ash, but if we’re going to keep repeating history, I want a fair break.”
“Maybe you don’t deserve one.”
He laughed at that. “Who would have thought? Ashleigh Griffen doesn’t want to play fair. The world must be ending.”
Maybe, Ashleigh thought dismally, it really was.
Wonder races in the Travers, and Brad is there when it all goes to hell. Jilly is in the hospital, and right there in the parking lot Ashleigh rounds on him, wanting answers she is sure he can provide.
“What do you know?” she nearly screams over the sea of parked cars, and Brad stops in his tracks before he runs straight into her.
“What the hell, Ashleigh,” he says, looking so much the tired rich kid that Ashleigh can hardly stand it. His tie is loose and his jacket is crunched into his fist, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbow. Ashleigh hates looking at his arms, hates that he looks so weather-beaten and in place wherever he goes.
He has to know something. He has to be turning it all around on her, giving as good as he got.
“Wonder was acting weird before the race,” she tells him, and he doesn’t look like she’s imparting any new information to him. She gets more irate. “She was spooky and climbing out of her skin.”
“She’s a spooky mare,” Brad says evenly. “Nothing new.”
“Not like that she’s not,” Ashleigh says. “What happened to her?”
“You’re assuming I know?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m assuming you know,” she says. “I’m assuming that you know precisely what happened to her.”
“Why?” he asks. “Because you have something coming?”
Ashleigh wants to scream at him to shut up, but she bites back the impulse when she realizes it’s the last thing she needs to do. She swallows it down bitterly, and he looks so smug it’s an effort not to slap the smile off his face.
“She could have killed Jilly,” Ashleigh points out, solely to sober him up. It has the desired reaction.
“Yeah,” Brad nods. “I’ll look into it.”
“No,” Ashleigh says, shaking her head. “You’ll tell me what you did.”
“Are you hearing impaired?” he asks her, losing his temper. Finally. Ashleigh glares up at him as he moves into her space, right there in public. In a parking lot. She doesn’t care, and meets him head on. “I told you I don’t fucking know what’s wrong with your damn horse. I’m not around her constantly, so maybe you should open your eyes and look around once in a while.”
“Says the guy with an ax to grind,” Ashleigh challenges. “How are you at all reliable?”
That muscle is twitching again, and he’s looking down at her like he wants nothing more to shove her out of his way. “I’m not,” he says. “Not reliable or safe or secure for you, Ashleigh. You know that. And yes, I’ve got a hell of a vendetta, but it’s solely in seeing the Prince through to the end. Fuck Wonder.”
“Excuse me?” Ashleigh asks, shocked. Her mouth drops open, and he shakes his head. He doesn’t care, she realizes. If he did this, he’s done it and he couldn’t care less.
“You heard me,” he says. “Fuck her. I have no interest in the Travers besides witnessing the outcome, and that’s pretty much the extent of my involvement in the race and your…oh, I’m sorry…my filly. So she’s insane. Deal with it.”
Then he does shove past her and leaves her standing, staring sightlessly at row upon row of cars.
She’s lying to Mike. She’s avoiding Brad. When she comes home to Kentucky it’s a relief, until Brad follows with Panther.
He’s fresh from a second place finish in the Hopeful Stakes, beating Jazzman by three lengths at the wire. Mike is disappointed, and Ashleigh compensates with false cheer. It’s met with more questions, and Ashleigh keeps lying through her teeth and her pasted on smile.
“Ash,” he says. She can hear the tone in his voice, and knows what’s coming. It’s a sunny September day, and she should be at Townsend Acres working with Wonder, who’s no more spooky than usual. She shouldn’t be at Whitebrook having conversations about why she’s not spying for her boyfriend.
They never call it spying.
“Yup?” she asks, all false.
“You haven’t seen Panther work for a long time,” he says. “Is Brad switching things up?”
“Maybe,” Ashleigh says with a carefree shrug. “You know how he is. I’m starting to think he’s more paranoid than I thought.”
“Yeah,” Mike says softly, almost to himself. He swipes at Jazzman’s coat with a rag, polishing it up to a dull, blue-black shine. “It’s just that you know Charlie is so quiet all the time, and I was learning so much at Townsend Acres. Maybe I should go back and talk with him in the mornings.”
Ashleigh feels like Mike has reached inside of her and scooped out all of that doubt Brad put her in weeks ago, in the full bloom of summer. She feels like he’s replacing it with cold, hard knowledge. It’s a little difficult to breathe, but Ashleigh does it anyway while her lungs constrict, her face impassive.
“I don’t think Brad will like that,” she says, shaking her head. “But you can go if you think you’ll learn something.”
She says it easily enough, and when he arrives the next day she makes sure Wonder’s work is as far from Panther’s as possible. The colt has already gone out when Mike arrives in his truck, stopwatch in hand.
He looks a little disappointed when he only sees Wonder, and it’s an effort for Ashleigh to keep the tears in her eyes.
Later, she’ll catch Brad looking at her from down the railing. She can’t place the expression on his face, but she knows it’s off. She knows because she thinks she wears the same look on her face every day she’s with Mike.
She thinks she’s not the only one masking lies.
The Prince breezes, and he looks like a freight train coming off the rails. Ashleigh feels a little pull at her heart, something telling her to run for Wonder and bury her face in her mane.
So that’s what she does, and Brad finds her later.
“So what’s the story?” Brad asks her while she’s grooming Wonder. The filly is ripping at her hay net, calm and content. She hasn’t spooked in days.
“Wonder’s back to her old self,” Ashleigh says. “No spooking.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, like he doesn’t believe her.
“I saw Prince work,” she adds. “He looked good.”
“He did,” Brad says, but doesn’t offer more. Ashleigh notices, because usually he’ll go on and on about the colt to the point where she has to stop listening.
“Where is he going next?”
“Gold Cup,” Brad says. “I’ll take him up to Belmont with Panther end of the month.”
“Right,” Ashleigh says, looking at Wonder’s mane. She wants to go to Belmont, but no one thinks racing Wonder against colts is a good idea anymore. Not with her failure to finish the Travers and Jilly’s leg in a cast. They don’t even have a jockey anymore, with Craig going to Belmont with Brad.
“Look,” Brad says, running a hand through his hair, pushing it into disarray. “I want to apologize for that day in the parking lot. I was pissed off, and I overreacted to, well, classic you.”
She blinks at him. “That’s an apology?”
“Take it or leave it,” Brad says. “You’ve been avoiding me since then, so I thought I’d throw it out there.”
Ashleigh swallows thickly, tangling her fingers in the filly’s mane. “I have,” she says. “I’m sorry, too. Messing with Wonder that way…it’s not your style. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
Brad laughs, low and dark. Ashleigh smiles to herself, until he opens his mouth again.
“How long have you been lying to Mike?”
She jerks her head up, her bangs falling into her eyes. Brad is right there, leaning in Wonder’s open doorway. He reaches out and pushes the strands of her hair out of her eyes, and Ashleigh goes cold. Then runs hot. She blushes, and ducks her head from his touch and he drops his hand. Her bangs fall forward again and she pushes them back.
“Since Saratoga,” she says simply. There’s that mask on his face again, hiding the blatant surprise she was hoping for. Maybe he’s not surprised at all. She hasn’t exactly been covering her tracks.
“Does he know that?”
Ashleigh shrugs, twisting Wonder’s mane hard around her fingers. “I think he’s starting to figure it out.”
Brad nods, and looks at the ground. “What are you planning to do then?”
“I don’t know,” Ashleigh admits.
Fall, says a little voice in the back of her head. She’ll fall right back to earth.
It all falls apart on the way to the Champagne. Wonder finishes fourth in the Fayette, and the Prince wins the Gold Cup like he was aiming to crush his competition.
Ashleigh doesn’t want to talk to Brad. She feels a childish stab of jealousy whenever she sees him, and an acute frustration when she looks at Wonder. The filly is jumping out of skin again, refuses to stand still for anyone. It goes on longer and harder than before, and her new jockey jumps ship right after the race. He blames the filly for the crap placement, and Ashleigh wonders if he’s right.
Mike puts two and two together when Ashleigh just stops talking about Panther. It’s sloppy on her part, but she’s just so tired.
“You’ve been helping him,” Mike accuses her. It’s three days before the Champagne, and Ashleigh shakes her head, the vim and vigor gone.
“I’m not,” she says calmly. “I’m playing fair.”
“Since when does Brad play fair?” he asks her, and Ashleigh chokes on the words that start to leave her mouth.
Brad has always played fair. “Brad has made mistakes,” she says. “Really stupid mistakes, but so have I.”
Mike shakes his head, disbelief clouding his normally gorgeous blue eyes. He takes one step back from her and turns, leaving her standing alone in the aisle. There’s a cold tingling in her fingers, and the blood in her ears roars.
This, Ashleigh thinks, is the feeling of plummeting.
Mike doesn’t speak to her leading up to the race, and Ashleigh wonders if they’re broken up. With only a few pointed looks at her during the lead up to the Champagne, she might as well not be there for Mike at all.
She sits in the Townsend Acres box, a row behind Brad, and watches Panther come from behind and win the race by a head over Jazzman. Her heart won’t leave her throat for hours after.
When she tries to approach Mike after the race, he tells her bluntly that he has other things to do. He can’t waste time anymore, especially with a girl who lies.
“I can’t believe you’d protect him,” Mike says, disgusted. “He’s done nothing for you, Ashleigh.”
“This isn’t about Brad,” she tries to say, but he won’t hear her. He’s not interested in anything she could say.
“I love you,” she tries, her voice breaking on the words. Mike tenses, refusing to look at her. Ashleigh thinks that she’s meeting the earth.
So she turns around and runs out of the barn, comes to a shuddering stop in the middle of the backside, and presses her fingers to her lips to keep the scream inside.
There’s this stupid party after the Champagne at a Manhattan restaurant. Clay doesn’t buy the whole place out, but he comes close. Normally, Ashleigh doesn’t go to these sorts of things, but she tells Charlie she’s going and has Craig accompany her in.
She thinks it’s better than sitting alone in her hotel room, going over everything that’s happened over the past two months in her head.
She’s wearing a dress that makes her look a little too matronly for fifteen, and she leaves her hair down for lack of anything to do with it. At least she’s clean, Ashleigh thinks. She smells like ginger and white tea instead of horses and dirt. Her nails are painted light pink.
Sipping on a glass of diet soda gets her through most of the evening, and she spends most of that time talking with the grooms. Her eyes, however, keep slipping over to Brad, who’s talking to some tall blond girl with her hair swept up and diamonds dripping around her neck.
Ashleigh loathes this girl with every fiber of her being, and she doesn’t know why. She focuses on the girl instead of the way Brad is looking at the girl, hoping she’s just making classless, low comparisons to herself.
That’s not it. She doesn’t give a damn about the blonde’s dress or her diamonds.
Ashleigh finishes her soda and goes to find Craig, accidentally bumping into Brad on her way. He turns and catches her elbow. The blonde watches patiently over his shoulder.
“Sorry,” he says, and she raises an eyebrow. He looks like saying the rest is a waste of his time, but continues anyway. “For Mike.”
Ashleigh’s stomach tightens in a sickening grip. “I don’t give a damn,” she spits. Surprise shifts over Brad in a quick flutter before he stamps it down, but Ashleigh sees it and softens her hard glare.
“You broke it off with the boy scout?” he asks, and Ashleigh’s cheeks burn.
“It’s nothing to you,” she tells him, her eyes darting from Brad to the girl at this back. She pulls her elbow out of his fingers and turns around, trying to escape. She doesn’t see Craig anywhere, and she wonders where he’s run off to when Brad is at her back, pushing her into a corner. She whirls around, and her back almost meets the wall before he grabs her wrist and keeps her stationary.
Ashleigh feels like a ping-pong ball, nearly weightless and impossible to control. She shifts on her feet in front of him and he says, “So what is this, the reinvention of Asheigh Griffen?”
“What do you mean?” She’s impatient, and she doesn’t want to play games. She feels that all she ever does with Brad is play games.
“You never come to these.”
“I didn’t want to sit around and mull on how much my life sucks,” she says to him. “So I came here.”
“He broke up with you,” is what he says, and she rolls her eyes.
“Did you just figure that out?” she asks. “It’s hilarious, really. We broke up because he was cheating; only it was on you.”
“Isn’t irony a kick in the teeth?” Brad asks, and she wants to have a witty retort for that but all she really wants to do is cry big, heaving sobs. He sees the change in her and backs off, raising his hands. “Hey, I’m sorry.”
“You should be!” she hisses through big breaths.
“Look,” he says, while she focuses on breathing, fat tears rolling down her cheeks and sinking into her dress. “Your principles always fly straight, Ashleigh. It’s fucking tough when you’re surrounded by people like me and Mike, but it’s admirable.”
“That’s not helping,” she says, hiccupping. “Mike was good. He was better than you.”
“Sure,” he says. “He was only asking you to cheat, and when you didn’t he broke it off. Real upstanding guy.”
“I was lying,” she says, sucking in a breath and holding it. Brad puts his hands on either side of her head and looks at her hard.
“Breathe, Ash,” he orders. “I don’t want you to pass out.”
She lets the breath out and sucks another into her aching lungs. It hurts to keep going, and Brad curses, pulling her out of the corner and dragging her out the back and into the street. The cool autumn air slaps Ashleigh in the face, and she really starts to cry. Brad pulls her against her chest and lets her rest there, soaking tears into his shirt and hyperventilating.
He says nothing. Not one soothing word. She cries herself to silence, hiccupping with each small breath, slowly becoming aware of where she is and the warm hand he has on the center of her back.
“Are you back with me?” he asks, dropping his hand at the soonest opportunity when she stirs. She presses her forehead against his chest and breathes slowly, taking control of the rampant emotions stirring up embarrassment and confusion, mixing them in with sorrow and dread.
“Mike broke up with me,” she states quietly. “Wonder hates her new jockey, and she’s spooking again. The Breeders’ Cup is next month and no one can ride her.”
“I know,” he says.
“I don’t know what to do,” she says.
He pushes her back. Lifting her head to look at him feels impossible. It’s too heavy and her brain is thick with tears. Her eyes feel like they’re swimming in water. She sniffles and lifts her hand to wipe ungraciously at her nose.
“We’ll figure it out,” he says, and she laughs.
“I don’t see how,” she mutters, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.
Brad shrugs. “You could always ride her, you know.”
She laughs again, manically, like it’s the most hilarious thing she’s ever heard. “I’m too young,” she tells him. “Fifteen, Brad. Remember?”
He gives her an easy stare. “I remember.”
“Besides, you wouldn’t want to give Wonder a chance anyway,” she informs him. “Not with Prince running.”
“Ashleigh,” he says, like he can’t believe she hadn’t considered this before. “It’s not a real race if he’s not running against Wonder.”
She doesn’t know what to say to that. He goes on. “Besides, it’s easy enough to fake a birth certificate. Jocks do it all the time. You’ll be sixteen before you know it.”
“You’d help me?” she asks, stunned.
He shrugs, and smiles like he can’t help himself. “I’ll talk to Charlie about it tomorrow.”
He motions her back to the restaurant, and she goes. She lets him open the door for her and walks into the warmth inside, wiping at her eyes and feeling a soft, fleeting brush of hope.
Charlie loves the idea. Ashleigh is proclaimed sixteen on her newly minted birth certificate, and as she looks down at the drying ink she feels like she’s fooling everyone.
She doesn’t like it.
“Doesn’t this count as cheating?” she asks Brad, putting the piece of paper on the desk.
“It’s for the common good,” Brad says cheerfully, reclining in his chair as his father sits on the other side of the desk, watching them both curiously.
“The common good?” she asks, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. Brad smiles full on.
“You, me, Townsend Acres,” he says. “That’s common good enough.”
“Convenient,” Ashleigh says, and Brad leans forward.
“Look, Ashleigh, we’re backed into a corner here.”
“He’s right,” Clay agrees. “It’s the only way Wonder has a chance, and we all know it. You either ride her in the Classic, or we scratch. I think we all agree that it’s pointless trying to get a new rider on her back in the time we have.”
Brad looks up at her from his chair, putting his elbows on his knees. She looks down at him, and is surprised to find how eager he is. How much he wants to see her do this. She wonders if this isn’t a trap he’s elaborately set, and thinks she’d walk into it regardless. He’s right. There are no other options.
“Are you okay with this?” he asks her, and she thinks back to Mike. She thinks he never once asked her if she was okay with spying on Panther. It was just expected somehow, like she could take all of her emotions for Brad, roll them up, and casually place them on a horse. She’d done it, happily.
She’s ashamed, and she bites her lip.
“Yes,” she says. She’s perfectly okay with this.
Onward to part two!
- The Secret of Greatness (Chimerical: M)