The Secret of Greatness
Maugre: in spite of
Rating: R (language)
Continued from part one.
Charlie puts her up on one of his allowance runners and claps her on the knee, a little too enthusiastic to see her up there. She comes in a driving second, and floats all the way through the barn the next day, a smile lit on her face like a beam of light.
When Charlie tells her to take Wonder out on the trails, she goes with a skip in her step. She hand gallops the filly up the maintenance trail and over the rises, approaching the galloping lanes with a heady feeling fluttering in her chest.
Brad is in the lanes on the Prince, the big chestnut colt taking a few crab steps to the side when he sets sights on Wonder. The filly pauses only briefly, swishing her tail and squealing around the bit.
Ashleigh pats the filly, urging her forward to circle around the colt.
“She looks good,” Brad observes. “Any spooking?”
“Not today,” Ashleigh says, and can’t help the grin. It’s like the old days. She can feel that Wonder is back to normal, but the way she’s laughing and smiling around the Prince and Brad feels weird.
Feels better. Like she doesn’t have to spend so much time embroiled with hate.
“Wanna race?” he asks, and her head spins around so fast she thinks she could strain something. He gives her a cautious look, nudging the Prince closer to her as they circle around in the lane.
She doesn’t know what to think. She wants to. Really wants to, just to see where they are. They’ve never put the Prince and Wonder together in a work before, because everyone saw that as the horrible idea it was. Ashleigh has always been curious, but that’s when Brad dashes her idea to pieces.
“Just a lope, Ash,” he says, patting the colt. “My weight’s no good in a working breeze. Besides, Charlie would kill you if he found out.”
“And Maddock wouldn’t be pissed?”
“Maddock and I have an understanding,” Brad says, and Ashleigh hears that for what it is. Brad does what he wants, and Maddock works around him.
“Sure,” Ashleigh says, cuing the filly. Wonder strikes off, leaping into a rolling canter. “You’ll have to catch up!” she yells over her shoulder, but he’s there, of course, right in her wake.
They ship up to Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup and Ashleigh is a nervous wreck.
“It’s the jockeying,” Brad says during the party the night before the races. Ashleigh shakes her head, her hair a heavy, curling mass. The second she told her sister she was jockeying Wonder in the Classic, Caroline booked appointments for Ashleigh’s hair and nails. They went shopping and bought a long, lean gown that clung to every curve Ashleigh barely had.
Ashleigh hadn’t wanted it until Caroline told her there was no way anything else would do. It’s ridiculous, but it fit right in when everyone else. It appears that Caroline is right. People do double takes when they see her, but the shocked expression that Brad couldn’t conceal was the one she’ll treasure the most.
She does, of course, love to turn everything on its head with Brad.
“It’s not the jockeying,” Ashleigh says, bouncing a little in her high heels. “I’m worried about leaving Wonder.”
“We posted a guard,” Brad says, unconcerned. “She’ll be fine.”
Ashleigh’s quiet for a minute, accepting his cavalier reassurance hesitantly. She takes a sip of her glass of water, trying to feel in place in all the glitter and silk. Charlie refused to come tonight, once again preferring to hit the sheets early, but Ashleigh wanted to get the experience for once. She wants to see what the hype is all about.
Down deep, she wants to see Mike, and she’s not ready when he appears.
He shows up by himself, and it’s the first time Ashleigh’s seen him since Belmont. She freezes, watching him move through the crowd of people like a shiny blond beacon she can’t take her eyes from.
Then she panics. She gets in front of Brad, who looks perplexed until he reads her eyes and looks over her head to see what has her all worked up. He pauses, like he’s staring at something and doesn’t feel like looking away, no matter how uncomfortable. Like he’s staring something down. Ashleigh doesn’t pause to think about what that means.
“Take me to the track,” she says, reaching out and grabbing his arm through his suit. He sighs and finally looks down at her.
“Please,” she says. “I don’t ask much of you, Brad. So just please take me to the track.”
“Can’t you just go…”
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” she says so quickly the words meld together. “I’m fifteen no matter how much you say otherwise. Take me, please?”
He gives her a look and finishes his sentence. “Go over there and act like an adult?”
“I’m fifteen!” she hisses, and he rolls his eyes.
“Fine,” he says, pushing her behind him and turning around, following her out of the room. “You realize you owe me,” he adds to her back, and she looks at him over her shoulder, only seeing Mike watch their hurried exit.
The filly is fine. Wonder chews on her hay and flicks her ears at her overdressed visitors, leaning into Ashleigh’s hands and rubbing her nose on the beautiful dress. It’s ruined now, but Ashleigh figures getting horse snot out of fabric is the job of a dry cleaner and doesn’t think much of it.
“See,” Brad says next to her. “Eating like a normal horse, standing like a normal horse, and acting like a normal horse. I’d say she’s normal.”
“I wanted to see for myself,” Ashleigh says, rubbing the filly’s forehead before Wonder moves back to her hay and chows down. Ashleigh looks after her, leaning into the stall a little, like the invisible tether connecting them has pulled taut.
“No,” Brad corrects her. “You didn’t want to talk to Mike.”
Ashleigh shivers a little and rubs at her arms. It’s a chilly night in Louisville, and she’s all bare arms and back. The dress is thin. Brad pulls off his tux coat and hands it over. She takes it with wordless thanks and hunkers inside, pressing the cuffs together.
“Maybe I didn’t,” she finally admits. “Maybe I’m not ready yet.”
“Fine by me, Ash,” he says, undoing the silly little bow tie and the buttons at his throat. Ashleigh looks at the dismantled get up and feels a little flush crawl up her skin. She huddles a little deeper in his coat and tells herself she needs to stop reacting to the simple things he does. Clearly she’s oversensitive to boys, if she’s eyeing Brad Townsend like he’s a normal male.
Brad Townsend is not a normal, viable option. And he doesn’t even see her like that. Ashleigh tells herself primly not to be stupid and moves on.
“So are you ready to lose tomorrow?” she asks him, and he chuckles at her forced peppiness.
“Sure, Ash,” he says. “Me and my favorite are quaking in our boots.”
“Just because Prince is the favorite…” she starts, but he’s not paying any attention and she stops to watch him press a hand against the colt’s forehead. The two horses are stabled next to each other, with Panther on the other side of Prince. The younger gray and Wonder don’t get along, but Prince is a teddy bear. All he wants is love.
She feels a little ashamed to bring up this old rivalry now, after everything. He’s taken her here when he didn’t have to, and his idea is what’s keeping Wonder in the race, no matter his stance that he’d rather be racing against her anyway.
He’s kept her honest through the whole mess with Mike. She can’t believe that, even on her best days, but there it is. Ashleigh watches him rub Prince’s ears and feels overwhelmingly tired, like there have been too many changes to sort out.
“I’m sorry,” she suddenly says, and he looks at her, slow to pull his eyes from the colt.
“I’m saying stupid things,” she says. “Of course we want to beat each other. I don’t have to keep bringing it up like a broken record and making us feel weird.”
“Weird about what?” he asks, and she shifts uncomfortably in her shoes. The heels are pinching her toes.
“About,” she waves her hands in his general direction. “About us standing here right now.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Ash,” he says, turning to look at her. The Prince lifts his head and rests it against Brad’s shoulder, crowding close. Ashleigh watches like a curtain has been lifted. She hadn’t realized, really, how much the colt loved him until now.
“We’re too alike to function,” she says, a nervous laugh slipping out of her lips. “How are we even here now?”
“We’re here because you asked me to bring you here,” he says, although it doesn’t clarify anything at all. “And I said yes.”
Ashleigh pulls the coat closer to her body, soaks in its borrowed warmth.
“Ashleigh,” he says, watching her so carefully she feels like the wrong move might break her. “What’s going on?”
“I think we’re friends,” she says slowly, and he blinks at her silently. The enlightenment appears to be mutual. Then he smiles.
“Well, that will make racing against each other more interesting.”
“I’m going to try my hardest to win,” she promises.
“Good,” he shrugs. “I’d be pissed if you eased up on my account.”
She laughs. “Like that would ever happen.”
They share similar, unnerved laughter and walk out of the barn, leaving the horses to shift together in the cool night.
Panther doesn’t win the Juvenile. Neither does Jazzman. Ashleigh’s too busy bouncing on her toes in the shed row to notice the order of finish. Wonder watches her impassively, waiting her turn to make the journey to the track. Ashleigh is biding her time before she has to go to the jockey’s room, but she’s worried.
She’s worried that things seem to be fine. Wonder is fine. No spooking, no sweating, no hint that they’re going to be in for a rocky road ahead.
She should be elated. Instead she’s just waiting for it to all fall apart.
“Listen, missy,” Charlie says, walking up to her and nudging her from her position in front of the filly. “Why don’t you go on down to the jock’s room and get set up? You’re no help to anyone milling around in here. Only making the filly nervous.”
She sends Charlie a little glare, and crosses her arms. “Wonder is far from nervous,” she says, pointing to the filly. “Look at her, Charlie. She’s the picture of contentment.”
“And we don’t want to change that,” Charlie says. “Go on.”
“Not yet,” Ashleigh argues, and Charlie stops short at her quick disagreement. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave her alone, Charlie. We both know that she gets worked up after she’s been left alone, so I don’t think…”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Brad walks down the aisle, his suit and shoes as spotless as ever. “Just tell her already, would you?”
“Tell me what?” Ashleigh asks, looking from Brad to Charlie, who hesitates while Brad rolls his eyes.
“We’re using Wonder as bait,” Brad supplies, and Ashleigh’s mouth drops open so far it almost hurts.
“What?” she nearly shrieks.
“We’re not going to let anyone hurt her,” Charlie assures her, throwing an annoyed frown at Brad.
“We are not using Wonder as bait,” Ashleigh says. “We are not.”
“Ashleigh, we don’t have a lot of time,” Charlie tries to say, but Ashleigh’s hardly paying attention in the middle of her freaking out. “If someone was visiting Wonder while we were gone, there’s a chance they’ll come by in the next few minutes.”
“And if this person happens to succeed, Wonder’s going to spaz. We’ll ruin everything we’ve worked for since summer, Charlie.”
“We’re not going to let the guy get to her, Ash,” Brad says, his tone matter of fact and precise.
“You can’t guarantee that,” Ashleigh says, shaking her head. “No. Absolutely not. We are not doing this.”
Her stance is firm. Brad and Charlie exchange a look, and Ashleigh sets herself in front of Wonder’s stall like a sentinel.
“Okay,” Brad says, turning toward her. “There’s no time for this anymore, Ash. Your resistance is cute, but it’s not helping.”
Ashleigh scowls up at him, a retort she’s never thought of using on her mouth, but before she can use it he picks her up. She squeaks in alarm as he throws her over his shoulder and carts her down the shed row. He doesn’t stop when she swats at his lower back, clinging to his jacket and twisting her head around to see Wonder upside down and watching her with pricked ears. Charlie is following along close behind.
“Charlie!” she says in a high screech. “What the hell?”
“Ash,” Brad says, walking around into an empty stall and righting her in his arms, setting her down on her feet in front of him like the whole thing has been nothing for him. Ashleigh sways for a second and pushes the hair out of her face, glaring at him as he straights his suit out with a few casual tugs.
“We really don’t have time for any foot stamping,” Brad tells her, and she smacks his arm. He grins.
“Ash,” Charlie says, pointing to the two bulky men leaning against the side of the empty stall, amusement on their faces. “This is Carter and Will, track security.”
“Great,” Ashleigh says, unimpressed. “So we’re going to hide in this stall while something’s happening? Whose idea was this?” She looks at Brad directly, and he tugs her into him so suddenly she falls into his chest.
Ashleigh swats at him again, and he points out the cut out in the stall wall. Standing where she is, Ashleigh can see Wonder perfectly.
“Was this here before?” she asks, reaching out and touching the edges of the makeshift window.
“We had maintenance cut it out early this morning,” one of the security guys says.
“Early, early,” his coworker says. “Before anyone could have possibly been around.”
“Oh,” Ashleigh says, and then looks up at Brad. “This was your idea?”
“His motivation,” Charlie says. “My idea.”
“Thanks, old man,” Brad mutters, and Charlie allows himself a throaty laugh.
Ashleigh looks between them, wanting badly for this to work without something happening to the filly. She takes a deep breath and nods shakily, watching through the window steadily with Brad at her back.
“How long do we wait?” she asks after a few minutes.
“Impatient as ever,” Brad says, and she gives him a warning glance.
“Unlike some people, I have places to be,” she tells him, and he just smiles at her. One of the security guys grunts behind her, pointing to the window. She spins around and jumps, reaching back for Brad’s hand, squeezing tightly. After a second, he tightens his fingers in return.
“Jim Jennings?” Ashleigh asks, watching the young assistant trainer pause in front of Wonder’s stall. He stands directly in front of Wonder, who has backed into the dark space of her box. Ashleigh knows her filly, knows her reactions to people, and she heads for the exit.
“Whoa,” Brad says, keeping his grip sure on her hand. “Not yet, Ash.”
“What do you mean not yet,” she hisses. “He’s the one!”
“Wait,” the security guy—Carter—insists, and Ashleigh struggles to contain a pout. Brad keeps his hand around hers, and she stands, watching with increasing panic as Jim pulls a crop from the inside of his coat, lifting it toward Wonder’s stall.
He shakes it once, and taps it against the doorframe. The leather smacks at the wood with a sharp crack, and that’s it for Ashleigh. She rips out of Brad’s grip and runs for the door.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yells down the aisle, shocking Jim so much he drops the crop. Wonder screams, and a hoof meets wood. Jim stumbles back from the stall and tries to run past her, headed for the closest exit. She rushes to stop him. It’s only afterward that Ashleigh thinks he must have assumed she was alone.
The men appear behind her as Jim shoves her to the ground on his way to the door. Ashleigh hits the floor hard on her shoulder and gasps, rolling onto her back in time to see Brad step over her legs and send a fist into Jim’s face.
Jim lands right next to Ashleigh with a gasping moan, and she scrambles away from him, kicking up dust and hay particles while he groans on the ground. Her shoulder aches, and Wonder’s kicking the crap out of her stall. Ashleigh’s heart is beating loud enough to drown them all out.
“What the fuck?” Jim yells from the ground, and Ashleigh keeps crawling away until her back meets Charlie’s legs.
“Hey there, little lady,” Charlie says down at her, offering her a hand up. “You feeling okay?”
“Charlie?” she asks, looking up at him when another voice enters the fray.
“The hell is going on?”
She turns around, her hand in Charlie’s while the rest of her goes limp. She looks past Charlie’s legs to see Mike standing there, totally stunned. Jim rolls onto his butt, pressing his hand against his bloody nose. Brad’s still standing over Jim, but he transfers his attention to Mike.
Mike, who’s storming down the aisle with anger on his face.
“Having Jim do your dirty work for you?” Mike asks, pointing to the still bleeding assistant trainer, who looks partially pissed and partially like he’d like to die at any second.
“Seriously?” Brad asks, pointing to Jim. “Does this really look like a team effort to you?”
“I think you’d do anything to win,” Mike says, stopping on the other side of Jim. “Dragging someone else into it really wouldn’t surprise me.”
“You know,” Brad starts, “I don’t know what the hell I ever did to you, but your persistence is fucking amazing.”
“What you did to me?” Mike asks, laughing. Ashleigh stares between them, watching Mike’s hands clench into fists. He looks at her, and her stomach falls to her feet.
“Guys,” she says, clenching Charlie’s hand and letting him help her onto shaky feet. Wonder’s screams rip into her, and she doesn’t know what to address first. The panicked filly, the bleeding man, or the boys who look like they’re about to come to blows at any second.
She steps around Jim as the security guys pick him up by his arms, dragging him out of the fray. Putting a hand on Brad’s chest, she pushes him back a step and he goes reluctantly. Then she swings around to focus her attention on Mike.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“I was coming to see you,” Mike says, his eyes going from her to Brad and back. “To wish you good luck.”
She hears Brad’s undignified snort behind her and she doesn’t bother to address it. “Why?” she asks Mike. “You haven’t spoken to me for weeks.”
“Well, you ran out of the gala last night before I could talk to you,” Mike tells her. “Ran out with him, of all people.”
“Look,” Brad says. “Where she goes and with whom isn’t your business anymore.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Mike says back. “No one asked for your commentary.”
“Hey, it’s my…” Brad starts to say before Ashleigh lifts both her hands and yells.
“Both of you shut up!”
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Charlie move across the aisle and kick the crop out of view of Wonder’s stall. The filly is settling down, but she must be a nervous wreck, and Ashleigh hates both boys just a little bit for keeping her away from Wonder, who needs her far more than they do. She’s silently thankful for Charlie.
“I want you to know that you’re both ruining Wonder’s chances right now,” she snaps at both of them. Mike looks like he wants to say something, but she’s in no mood to be interrupted and he keeps quiet. “She’s over there freaking out and I’m over here dealing with your pissing contest.”
Mike looks vaguely surprised, so she focuses in on him. “Mike, thanks for the thought, but right now I don’t need it. Jim was messing with Wonder, and Brad set this up with Charlie.”
“Jim?” Mike asks, genuinely confounded.
“You know,” Brad says, sounding bored. “The guy on the ground. He was bleeding. That guy.”
“Brad,” Ashleigh warns him, looking at him over her shoulder. “Let me deal with this.” He raises his hands and steps back a few paces, then goes over to rest against the shed row wall, leaving her to it.
“Ashleigh,” Mike says, quietly in an effort to make it a conversation just for them when it isn’t at all. Ashleigh’s very aware of Brad’s eyes on her back, and Charlie by Wonder’s stall. She’s happy for a minute for these little distractions. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while. Just, you know, in private?”
Ashleigh tucks her arms around her ribcage and suppresses a shiver, realizing that she wanted him to say something like that a while ago. She recognizes the pleading look on his face, the eagerness to rush for any sort of hope she might give him. Instead of speeding to meet him, she wants to know why now.
“You’ve had a while to want to talk to me in private,” she says, feeling Brad’s eyes on her. It’s hard to say these things in front of him and Charlie, but she doesn’t trust herself alone with Mike. Not yet. Not when she can still feel where he ripped out all her faith and expected her to keep on living after.
“I don’t think I want to hear what you have to say,” she thinks out loud, turning around to head for Wonder’s stall, where Brad and Charlie are waiting for her. Charlie has walked into the filly’s box already, but Brad remains outside, watching her.
“Then I’ll say it here,” Mike says, stopping her in her tracks. She meets Brad’s eyes as she listens to Mike shift behind her, trying to come closer but unsure how close he should get. Ashleigh is trembling, her fingers shaking on her sides. She doesn’t want him any closer.
“I was wrong, okay?” Mike stops before she doesn’t think she can take his closeness anymore. “I was wrong to ask all of those things about Panther, and I was wrong to get pissed off when you lied about it. You…Ashleigh, you were right and I was being a dick about it. I wanted more for me and Whitebrook than for us, and I’m sorry.”
Brad has that mask on while Mike speaks, and Ashleigh watches him carefully, waiting for it to slip. It never does.
“I don’t expect you to accept that,” Mike goes on. “And I accept that we’re over. It’s my mistake. I just…”
“Please stop,” Ashleigh says, turning around. Mike looks like a kicked puppy, confused and alone and hoping that someone will reach out and help. Ashleigh can’t be that person, and she shakes her head. “Mike, I accept your apology, but right now I really need you to go. This,” she says, pointing between them, “isn’t. It was never right to begin with. And that’s why it ended.”
“No,” Mike says, shaking his head. “It wasn’t all about Townsend Acres. I want you to know that, Ashleigh.”
“It also wasn’t about us,” she insists. “It wasn’t right. I know that now.”
She doesn’t miss the look Mike shoots over her, and she shakes her head. “It’s not about him.”
“I’m having a hard time believing that,” Mike growls.
“Believe what you like,” she says, tired of arguing. “I need to get to Wonder. Please?”
There’s a little moment of time where they stare at her, and Ashleigh thinks that this would be when Mike steps across the divide and folds her up in his arms. It’s when they would make up and start over and everything would be all right.
It’s not what she wants, and she keeps her arms wrapped protectively around herself. She doesn’t trust them, because that itch to reach out is stronger than she likes.
When Mike takes a step back, there’s a little part of her that wants to cry out to him. That little innocent bit of her that refused to be tainted wants him back so badly it hurts. Ashleigh pushes it down, swallows it, and digs her fingers into her ribs as she watches him walk away.
“Dramatic,” Brad says later.
“Yeah,” Ashleigh agrees, prodding her shoulder with her fingers. The green and gold silks shimmer in the late afternoon light. “And to think how boring my life used to be.”
At the moment, Wonder is crow hopping around the walkway with Hank desperately holding onto her head. Ashleigh feels numb, like she’s about to step in front of a firing squad and there’s no escape.
“How’s your shoulder?” Brad asks her, and it’s an effort to reply.
“I think my shoulder is the least of my worries,” she says. She’s already thrown up. Twice.
“You’ll be fine,” Charlie says with an air of calm that she’s not sure how he manages. Wonder stops hopping around and struts down the walkway with her head in the air and her feet churning underneath, her nostrils blowing wide and her eyes darting wildly around the enclosed space. She’s dark with sweat, and her tail snaps back and forth in agitation, spending more energy than she can afford.
The Prince, by contrast, looks perfectly calm. Ashleigh thinks it isn’t fair to lose a race before it even begins.
“I think we should scratch,” she says, peering up at Charlie. “She’s no good today, Charlie. Jim screwed it up again. We shouldn’t have set Wonder up like that. It’s ruined everything.”
Charlie mutters something she couldn’t hear and turns to face her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “No,” he says. “You’re going to ride that filly today, because you’re the only one we’ve got and you’re the only one she trusts to get her through this. We don’t have to worry about Jennings anymore, Ashleigh, and today we’re officially restarting Wonder’s career with you in her saddle. Got me?”
“Sounds good to me,” Brad mutters off to the side, and Ashleigh can’t help nodding with a jerk of her head.
“Okay,” Charlie says with a decisive motion to Hank, who steers the rampaging filly over to them. Brad goes over to the Prince, and leaves them to it. Charlie throws Ashleigh up on Wonder’s trembling back and away they go.
The Prince stumbles badly right out of the gate, smacked hard by the horse on his inside. The only reason Ashleigh sees this is because it takes effort to get Wonder past him without going down with the group. She gives the filly extra rein and screams so loud the nervous filly takes three huge jumps and goes careening up with the leaders.
It goes on like that for the rest of the race, right until the end when Wonder is a sweaty mess in front of a tiring group of colts. The only one with enough steam left to challenge her is a hard driving Prince, making up for his bad luck by flying down the last furlong.
Ashleigh scrubs at Wonder’s neck, yelling and moving and giving it her all to push the exhausted filly the extra few yards. The Prince locks in with them, only inches away. She can feel his heat, and feel Craig’s boot brush hers. The horses eye each other and thunder past the wire, only centimeters of noses apart in the end.
There’s no telling who won, but Craig lightly claps her thigh in celebration anyway. She smiles over at him while they cool out in the turn and turn their horses for home.
When they get back to the grandstand, the crowd is just starting to quiet down and Townsend Acres is practically having a party on the track. Ashleigh leans down Wonder’s shoulder to hug Charlie and shake Clay’s hand. She sees her parents by the rail, waving and grinning like ecstatic fools. When the order of finish is finalized, thunder ripples through the crowd and Wonder shies so violently Ashleigh falls off and lands on her back in the dirt.
A gasp hushes through the stands, but Ashleigh only laughs up at the sky, covering her mouth with her hands as Hank strains to hold on to Wonder.
She sees Brad appear above her, looking down at her like she’s a miscreant child rolling around in dirt. Ashleigh supposes she is.
“You know,” Brad says, squatting down and balancing on the balls of his feet next to her head, “staying on the horse is pretty important in this line of work.”
Ashleigh sits up and pushes at his chest. “I’ll work on that,” she says, taking the hand he offers her and rocketing to her feet when he stands up. They stand in the dirt, the Prince already stripped down and being led back to the barn. Wonder stands with Hank and flicks her ears at the noise of the stands, while everyone around them seems to hold a collected breath.
Finally, she says, “Is the Prince okay?”
“Scratches,” Brad says, watching her carefully. She’s worried that one or both of them will say the wrong thing, and this tenuous friendship will scatter like dust in the breeze. “He’ll be okay.”
“Good,” she says. “I’m glad, Brad. He was amazing, you know. You should be…”
He waves her off. “Yeah, I know. Stop trying to placate me and get on the filly, will you?”
Her stomach falls. She thinks that she’s made a colossal error, and it has to read on her face because he tips his head back in exasperation and says, “Ashleigh, you take everything so fucking seriously. I’ll devote all of my time to beating you next year, okay? We have pictures to take.”
A smile breaks out on her face and he lifts her up on the filly’s back. He stands next to Wonder’s shoulder during the picture, closest to Ashleigh. After the blanket of gaudy purple and yellow flowers is pulled from Wonder’s neck and replaced with similarly colored sheet, he still sticks around like he’s waiting for something.
Ashleigh goes to weigh in, and runs back to the winner’s circle for the presentation. A presentation in which she’s rewarded with a handshake and a horse.
She catches Brad’s knowing smile, but it’s lost to her thundering heart.
Late afternoon light slants on the track, spilling into the shed row and turning the dust motes into golden, dancing orbs. Ashleigh stands in front of Wonder’s stall and soaks it in.
There will be celebrations later, but right now Ashleigh wants to revel in her victory, her astonishing turn of fortune, alone with her filly. Wonder rests her head against Ashleigh’s chest while she rubs the filly’s poll, speaking nonsensical words and smiling ridiculously to herself.
It feels too good to be real, and her chest is full to the point of bursting.
Giving the filly a few final pats, she pulls herself away and looks into the Prince’s empty stall. The colt came out of the race with bruised knees and burned heels, but has been patched up and taken out to soak in the sun. Ashleigh wanders out of the barn and stops in the gravel lot, looking out at the grassy yard where Brad is standing with the colt.
The Prince is a polished penny on the lawn, his red coat burning gold and yellow. Brad stands next to him with his weight offset, one hand in his pocket. His tie is gone and his dress shirt is all stained with green and dirt, rolled up his arms in sloppy folds. Ashleigh watches him walk up to the colt and bend down, taking his hand out of his pocket to run his fingers down the Prince’s leg and lift his hoof, inspecting it before letting the colt put it back on the ground.
Brad leans against the colt, resting his weight against the Prince’s shoulder. The colt lets him, swinging his head around to nudge Brad in the knee before taking a step toward a clump of clover and reaching for the sweet leaves.
Something blooms in her like a firecracker flower glittering gold sparks, raining fire into her veins. She suddenly wants so badly that she doesn’t care if a sharp fall is waiting for her. She wants to leap again, and try to fly.
Ashleigh smiles to herself and jumps into a jog, bounding over the gravel toward the horse and the boy before she can stop to calculate her course. She wants to get a running start.
“Brad!” she yells, getting his attention. He turns and she hits him head on, thinking the force of it might take him to the ground. He takes a step back, a grunt forced out of him, and she has her hands around his neck, the momentum carrying her up his body. His arm wraps around her, lifting her like she’s weightless. Before she knows what’s happening, she’s pinned there against him, her feet inches from the ground.
She wraps her legs around his waist and he takes a few steps forward to keep up with the Prince, who has danced toward the next clump of attractive grass.
“Crazy,” he says to her, and she laughs. Her heart is thumping erratically, pattering in hyper beats. He doesn’t let her go, and she rests her hands on the sides of his neck, feeling him swallow under her palms.
“I wanted to say hi,” she says.
He laughs, disbelieving. “Hi.”
She grins and he sets her down on the grass, her hands slipping from his neck to his chest. She lets them rest there, feeling his breath and his heat. If she focuses enough she might feel his heart. “You’re still high from the news,” he observes.
“Oh yeah,” she says, shaking her hair out of her eyes when she looks up at him. “Forever.”
“You realize we’re co-owners now,” he tells her. “Partners in crime.”
“I like that,” she says. “Like Bonnie and Clyde, just without the stealing, mayhem, or bloody death.”
He looks a little disturbed. “Yeah, I can handle the first two. Let’s leave the bloody death part, okay?”
“I agree,” she says. “We definitely have enough mayhem as it is.”
“And the stealing,” he says. “I think there’s been a little bit of that, too.”
“Oh yeah?” she says. “How do you figure?”
He looks at the Prince, but she doesn’t get it. He reorganizes the lead in his hand, and she realizes he’s considering what he’s going to say before he says it. She wonders if they’ve ever thought before talking to each other before. Ashleigh’s pretty sure it’s just been gut instinct behind everything she’s ever said to Brad.
“When Mike was in the shed row earlier,” he starts, and she feels her excited little heart kick up a few extra notches. Her stomach flips over, and she’s not sure if it’s Brad’s words or the memory of Mike. She hopes it’s the former. She desperately wants it to be the former.
“He thinks I stole you,” he says. He stops fiddling with the lead to look her in the eye. Her breath stops in her throat. “And I think I might have.”
Her lips part, and she shakes her head. He watches her, naked emotions passing across his eyes, and she leans her weight into her hands on his chest, folding herself up there so neatly against him.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, looking up at him. He puts his free hand on her side, his thumb brushing against the bottom of her ribcage. He’s deliciously warm, and she can feel his heart now, thudding under her fingers. “I go where I want,” she tells him. “And I want to be right here.”
He doesn’t say anything, and she thinks she’s stolen the words right out of his mouth. It’s either that or he’s thinking too hard to speak, so she lets bravery and stupid, rushing adrenaline pull her up to him, catching his lips in hers for a brief kiss that moves him out of his stupor, following her retreat with his mouth.
She kisses him, arching around the hand he moves to the small of her back. They’re right there in the stable yard, generating gossip the longer they go, and Ashleigh doesn’t care. It’s only the Prince’s single-minded hunt for grass that pulls them out of it, and they move along with the colt, their legs tangling as they laugh and try to keep up.
The Prince settles into another clump of grass, clipping and chewing with hearty abandon. Ashleigh stands in front of Brad, waiting for him to say something that will keep her grounded, or push her off into thin air.
“So,” he says, and she looks up at him through her bangs, lets him push the troublesome strands out of her face with the tips of his fingers. “Are we signing on for some mayhem?”
She nods, leaning into him again and resting there with her fingers soaking up the warmth of him. She licks her lips, liking how he watches.
He kisses her.
She jumps off the precipice, and she soars.
- The Secret of Greatness, part two (Chimerical: M)