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Racing against time, p.1
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       Racing Against Time, p.1

           Suzanne Weyn
 
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Racing Against Time


  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Teaser

  About the Author

  Also Available

  Copyright

  Leaning forward in her saddle, Taylor Henry focused between the ears of her black horse. He was loping along at a good, even clip. She and Prince Albert were moving together with a smoothness that made Taylor feel as if they had melded into one fantastical creature — a slim thirteen-year-old girl in jeans and a sweatshirt, her brown ponytail flying beneath a black helmet, magically merged with a powerful quarter horse gelding.

  They were going pretty fast. Did she dare to go faster? To gallop?

  How she longed to!

  But she was nervous.

  The rolling hills in the pasture behind Wildwood Stables were still green. October was holding fast to the last of summer’s warmth, though the surrounding woods brimmed with orange, red, and yellow leaves. The gloriousness of the day, with its robin’s egg–colored sky and cotton ball clouds, filled Taylor with a spirited daring.

  A quick glance over her shoulder told Taylor that Pixie — the cream Shetland pony, with a matching wild, frazzled mane — was watching them as she grazed several yards away. As long as Pixie’s friend, Prince Albert, stayed in sight, the small pony was content.

  Taylor rose from the saddle, squeezing Prince Albert’s sides tight with her thighs and knees, and got into two-point position, legs straight with her body balanced above the saddle.

  Was she steady enough to gallop?

  Taylor kept going, holding the two-point position. Before long, a quiver began in Taylor’s knees. Her calf muscles burned with fatigue from holding herself upright.

  Involuntarily, Taylor’s upper body drifted left. She righted herself, using all her abdominal strength.

  No, Taylor decided, sitting back down in the saddle. She wasn’t confident she had the strength or balance to control Prince Albert if he was going any faster.

  Before Taylor could fully experience her disappointment in her own riding ability, a teenage girl appeared in the pasture on a speckled gray. The horse was a mixed-breed mare, part barb and part quarter horse; a bit thick-bodied, with perky, high ears and a lush black mane and tail.

  Daphne Chang rode toward Taylor with the graceful ease that marked her as an expert horsewoman. Daphne slowed her horse, Mandy, beside Taylor and Prince Albert. “Hi, Taylor. How come you’re here on a Sunday? I thought Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were the days you worked.”

  “I’ve decided to come at least one day every weekend from now on. I don’t like Prince Albert and Pixie to be shut up in their stalls all that time between Friday and Monday.”

  “You should have called me. I would have turned them out in the pasture for you.”

  “Thanks, but I don’t mind,” Taylor said. “I like riding Prince Albert.”

  “You shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” Daphne chided mildly. “If you fell, who would know you needed help?”

  “I came early. No one else was around to ride with,” Taylor explained.

  “Do you have your cell phone with you, at least?”

  Taylor patted the phone in her back jeans pocket. “Yes! Besides, Prince Albert isn’t going to throw me. He’s the most steady, gentle guy in the world, aren’t you, boy?”

  “Even so,” Daphne insisted. “You shouldn’t go off alone like that.”

  “I guess not,” Taylor allowed. She decided not to admit that she’d been about to attempt a gallop — a move that would have made her chances of falling pretty high, gentle horse or no. She was suddenly glad she’d thought better of it.

  The girls rode together, their horses side by side, across the dandelion-strewn pasture. Pixie trotted up to join them and fell into step beside Prince Albert.

  “The place is looking good, isn’t it?” Taylor said to Daphne.

  “Really good,” Daphne agreed, “especially when you remember what a mess it was to start with.”

  The once thriving Wildwood Stables had been closed for many years, its wooden buildings and fences left to splinter and rot, until the current owner, Bernice LeFleur, inherited it. Taylor had had a part in convincing Mrs. LeFleur not to sell the place but to reopen it. It was part of the reason Taylor felt so deeply connected to Wildwood Stables.

  The fact that Mrs. LeFleur opened the ranch and agreed to let Pixie and Prince Albert board there was, in Taylor’s opinion, practically a miracle. Taylor had acquired the horse and pony in a rescue after they’d been abandoned by their owners. In exchange for Taylor’s agreement to work at Wildwood three days a week and to let the ranch use Prince Albert and Pixie for lessons and trail rides, Mrs. LeFleur would pick up the expense of their food, vet care, and board. If Mrs. LeFleur hadn’t made this generous arrangement, Taylor would never have had the money to keep Pixie and Prince Albert.

  There was a problem, though.

  In the month since Taylor had owned Prince Albert, she and the horse had formed an intense bond that Taylor cherished. The drawback to the deep and obvious love Prince Albert held for Taylor was that he wouldn’t let anyone else ride him. Prince Albert needed to be a school horse that could take on the riders who would come to Wildwood Stables for lessons. He couldn’t afford to be a one-girl horse.

  Mrs. LeFleur was on a tight budget — she’d exhausted most of her money fixing up the ranch — so if she couldn’t use Prince Albert for lessons, then she couldn’t keep him. And if Mrs. LeFleur couldn’t keep him, Taylor couldn’t keep him on her own, either.

  At a walking gait, the girls rode the horses toward the pasture fence. Taylor admired the way Daphne could unlatch the pasture fence, ride through, and then relatch it without getting down off Mandy. “You have to show me how to do that,” she said to Daphne.

  “I will,” the older girl replied. “When are you going to let me teach you to ride English style?”

  “I don’t know. I’ve only ever ridden Western. I’m comfortable with it.”

  “You want to learn to jump, don’t you? Jumping is only in English.”

  “You’re right. I do want to jump,” Taylor admitted.

  As they rode down the slope leading from the pasture, the girls walked their horses past the large, fenced paddock with several outbuildings and storage sheds right behind it. Ahead of them was the main building, which housed the ranch’s office, the tack room, and the stables, six indoor and six outdoor box stalls. In front of the main building was a round corral; on its right was another paddock.

  Taylor’s eyes narrowed as she realized there was a girl with long blonde hair in the corral, leading a chestnut Arabian mare with a white blaze down its muzzle. “I can’t believe Plum’s here already,” Taylor muttered darkly. “I hope she doesn’t think she’s going to ride Shafir.”

  Taylor and Daphne approached the corral closest to the main building, riding at a jog — which Daphne, using the terms of English-style riding, would have called a trot. Pixie hurried behind, her short legs scurrying to keep up.

  Plum Mason and Shafir, a young, untrained Arabian mare, eyed each other in the middle of the corral. Plum held a lunge line that was looped around Shafir’s neck. In her hand was a lunge whip. She stood with the line in her left hand and the whip in her right as she tried to make Shafir walk circles around her.<
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  As they drew nearer, Taylor sized up the body language of both Plum and Shafir. Plum’s slim shoulders were tight, slightly hunched with tension. Her pointed chin was raised, almost as though she were trying to stretch herself taller than the chestnut Arabian. Shafir’s ears were not quite flat, but they were back, and her tail was swishing, sure signs of the horse’s annoyance.

  Shafir turned and started to walk away. Plum gripped the line, pulling back, but Shafir was determined to go and dragged Plum along. The girl dug her heels into the dirt, kicking up dust until Shafir stopped. Stepping quickly toward the horse, she whacked the mare’s withers hard with the lunge whip.

  Shafir’s ears flattened against her head as she flinched away from the impact, making Plum lose her balance for a moment.

  Daphne reached the corral gate first, quickly dismounted, and hurried inside. “What are you doing?” she asked.

  “Excuse me?” Plum replied haughtily.

  “What are you doing?” Daphne repeated, this time speaking pointedly, her voice tinged with irritation. “A lunge whip is for guiding a horse, not hitting her!”

  Taylor dismounted from Prince Albert. She hitched him to the corral fence and then did the same to Mandy. There was no need to worry about Pixie wandering off; wherever Prince Albert was, that’s where Pixie would be.

  As Taylor let herself into the corral, she saw that Plum and Daphne were embroiled in a full-out, heated argument. Taylor’s first reaction was relief that Daphne had taken Plum on instead of leaving it to her. Even Plum — queen at the Pheasant Valley Middle School where they were both in the eighth grade — had to be impressed by Daphne, who’d been class president at the middle school before moving on to PV High.

  “I leased this horse from the ranch, which means I am entitled to come here whenever I want and do whatever I want with her,” Plum insisted.

  “No, not whatever you want,” Daphne shot back. “You knew when you took the lease that Shafir needs to be trained.”

  “Well, that’s what I’m doing,” Plum replied.

  A girl with long dark curls who was dressed in jeans and a dark green hoodie strode purposefully out of the main building toward the corral. “What’s the trouble here?” fourteen-year-old Mercedes Gonzalez asked in her usual take-charge manner.

  “You said I could take Shafir, didn’t you?” Plum said.

  “Yeah. You leased her, right?” Mercedes replied.

  “But Shafir isn’t ready to ride,” Taylor reminded Mercedes.

  Mercedes shrugged and then gestured toward Plum. “She holds a lease.”

  “That entitles her to ride, not to train,” Daphne argued.

  “I don’t know,” Mercedes said. “Does it?”

  The three girls looked at one another uncertainly. A lease gave Plum the right to ride Shafir whenever she wanted, but could she also train her? That was something Taylor had assumed she, Daphne, and Mercedes would be doing. Taylor had been eager to learn from the two more experienced girls how to bring an untrained horse along.

  “No, I don’t think it does,” Daphne insisted. “Shafir is still the property of Wildwood Stables.”

  “We’ll just talk to the owner — Mrs. What’s-her-name, Flowers or whatever,” Plum replied forcefully.

  Shafir used this interruption as an opportunity to amble toward Prince Albert, Mandy, and Pixie, who stood on the other side of the fence. Shafir neighed, trotting back and forth in front of them, as though inviting them to play. When Shafir came up next to the fence, Prince Albert sniffed her.

  In the next moment, Shafir scooped up a bare stick that had fallen from the spreading maple that grew beside the corral. She pranced with the stick in her mouth, bobbing her head up and down, almost as if she were the leader of a parade.

  Taylor wondered who had taught her that trick. They really knew very little about Shafir’s past, except that she was a purebred Arabian whose owner had not been able to train her and had then dumped her at the fancy Ross River Ranch. Devon Ross, the owner of Ross River, couldn’t use the young mare and had donated her to Wildwood Stables.

  “What’s she doing?” Plum demanded, pointing at Shafir.

  “She’s playing,” Mercedes informed her. “Arabians are known for it.”

  Giving Shafir to the ranch had been a generous gift. Daphne estimated Shafir was worth at least $20,000, maybe more. It was so generous, in fact, that it had made Taylor curious. She had searched on the Internet and discovered that Mrs. Ross and Mrs. LeFleur had known each other well as young women. But Mrs. LeFleur clearly disliked Mrs. Ross now. The whole thing was mysterious, and Taylor was determined to discover what had happened.

  Taylor spied a bridle draped over the corral fence. A chain shank was fitted over the nosepiece and dangled from the bottom. Taylor knew a chain shank was used to pull down the nose of a horse that wasn’t obeying orders. “Were you planning to use that on Shafir?” she asked Plum in an accusing tone.

  Plum didn’t answer. She kept her focus on Daphne and Mercedes as though Taylor wasn’t even there.

  “Are you using the chain shank on Shafir?” Taylor asked again.

  “Does anyone else hear mosquitoes buzzing?” Plum asked.

  Taylor’s face reddened with anger. But then she remembered her new plan when dealing with Plum. Daphne had suggested it and it made sense: Just stop treating her like she’s got fangs and claws. It was the only way she’d be able to get close enough to Plum to make sure she was treating Shafir right.

  Taylor felt responsible for Shafir. It was Taylor who’d persuaded Plum that Shafir was a great horse for her to lease. She’d acted out of sheer desperation because Plum was about to lease Prince Albert.

  Taylor would not let that happen to Prince Albert. It was a matter of life and death.

  In the past, at other ranches, horses that Plum had leased had died. Taylor knew of two, for sure, and suspected there might be others. No one was certain if it was Plum’s mistreatment that had killed them or if it was just bad luck. In her heart, Taylor felt positive that Plum’s careless aftercare, her feeding methods, or her roughness while riding had something to do with the deaths. Seeing how quick she was to hit Shafir just confirmed that belief.

  Ignoring Plum’s mosquito remark, Taylor forced a smile onto her face. “I was just wondering, Plum, because I’ve never started a horse and I’m interested in how it’s done.” Taylor felt as though she was choking out the words. She hoped they didn’t sound as false to Plum as they did to her own ears.

  A look of startled amazement came onto Daphne’s face and was mirrored in Mercedes’s expression. Plum glared at Taylor suspiciously.

  “Maybe we could all work together to get Shafir trained,” Taylor suggested, holding tight to her false pleasantness as she plunged forward. “Daphne and Mercedes were just telling me how much they wanted to work with you. And I really would like to learn.”

  Daphne suddenly got it. A look of understanding came over her face, though Mercedes continued to appear baffled. But then she, too, seemed to remember what Daphne and Taylor had told her; the three of them would have to watch Plum with Shafir and they’d have to be nice to Plum to do so.

  “We could start right now,” Mercedes suggested.

  Plum’s blue eyes shifted warily from side to side as she weighed the situation. She was mean but not dumb — the sudden change in attitude had put her on guard. “I don’t need help,” she said.

  “It wouldn’t be help,” Taylor pressed on. “We’d all be working on it together.”

  “Yeah, sorry I got so hot with you before,” Daphne stepped in, on board with Taylor’s peacemaking plan. “I didn’t realize that you knew about breaking in a horse.”

  “I’ve started lots of horses,” Mercedes added. “You could learn a lot from me.”

  Taylor shot Mercedes a look; this was not the right approach to take with Plum. “And I’m sure we’ll all learn a lot from Plum, too,” Taylor put in.

  Plum’s hands went to her slim hips.
What’s with you, Taylor? Didn’t you tell me not to talk to you? What’s with the big change?”

  “Oh, yeah,” Taylor recalled sheepishly. “I’m sorry for saying that. I was thinking of school, and how things are between us at school. But you’re a part of Wildwood Stables now and everything should be different here.” Taylor was surprised to realize that she nearly believed her own words. “Wildwood Stables is special,” she added, which she definitely did believe.

  Plum eyed her surroundings skeptically. For a moment Taylor saw the ranch as it probably looked to Plum, as if seeing through her eyes: an old main building with a sagging roof; some sheds and smaller buildings, also refreshed in the same red; the corral and two paddocks.

  “What’s special about it?” Plum challenged. “It doesn’t seem so great to me.”

  Then why don’t you leave? Taylor thought, but forced herself to stay quiet. She thought of Wildwood Stables as the best place in the world. She was almost glad Plum couldn’t see what was so wonderful about it. The feeling was too deep and personal to share with someone Taylor disliked as much she disliked Plum Mason.

  “I wouldn’t try to put that bridle on Shafir right away,” Daphne suggested. “She’s never been tacked up before, not even a halter. Why don’t you walk her on the lead? If that goes well, then you can stand in the center of the corral and work circles. Try to get her to obey some simple voice commands, too.”

  “That’s what I was going to do,” Plum replied.

  Then what were the bridle and chain shank for? Taylor wondered, but again stayed silent.

  A green compact car drove into the ranch and parked. A woman in her early sixties with thick glasses and a poof of curly brown hair emerged. “Good day, ladies,” Mrs. LeFleur said brightly from the other side of the corral fence. “It’s so lovely to see all of you working together. How is Shafir coming along?”

  “Plum is going to start her on voice commands,” Taylor volunteered brightly.

  “Wonderful,” said Mrs. LeFleur, smiling. “Taylor, Mercedes, and Daphne, when you’re available, please come to see me in the office. I have something important I must speak to you about.”

 
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