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Stealing the prize, p.1
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       Stealing the Prize, p.1

           Suzanne Weyn
 
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Stealing the Prize


  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

  Teaser

  About the Author

  Also Available

  Copyright

  Taylor Henry stroked Prince Albert’s silky black muzzle as she fitted a soft snaffle-bit bridle over his head.

  “The County HORSE people will be here any minute now, so you have to be on your best behavior,” she reminded the all-black quarter horse gelding. “Whatever rider they want you to carry, just do it. Don’t be difficult. These will be mostly first-time riders. Some of them might even be scared of horses.”

  Taylor quickly tied back her brown, shoulder-length hair. “It’s not so bad,” she added in her gentlest tone. “Other horses do it all the time.”

  Prince Albert sputtered, which made Taylor smile. She loved the way he always made some sound when he was spoken to. Taylor knew he was probably just responding to her voice, but she still liked to imagine that he understood her and was replying in his own horse language. It seemed possible that a quarter horse could really do this — it was such a smart, people-friendly breed.

  “Don’t argue,” she said, speaking as if Prince Albert had really objected. She clipped the reins to the ring at the side of the halter. “We’ve been over this plenty of times.”

  County HORSE was Pheasant County’s therapeutic riding program. HORSE stood for Health Office Rehabilitative Services, Equestrian. The program was designed to help people with various physical and psychological disabilities by providing them with the benefits of horseback riding.

  Before the ranch got the County HORSE contract, there had been only one therapeutic student at Wildwood Stables, a seven-year-old girl with autism named Dana. She and Prince Albert had competed in the Rotary Horse Show’s therapeutic riding event a few months earlier. Prince Albert’s calm, gentle performance had not only won him a ribbon as Best Therapeutic Horse, it also convinced the County HORSE people to run their program at Wildwood.

  Winning the much-needed business for the ranch was Taylor’s proudest accomplishment. She felt it proved that even though, at thirteen, she was the youngest and least experienced member of the all-volunteer staff, she was a valuable contributor. And — maybe even more importantly — it underscored Prince Albert’s value to Wildwood Stables.

  After placing a striped pad and an all-purpose saddle on Prince Albert’s sturdy back and tightening the girth, Taylor moved to the stall next to his.

  “How are you today, Pixie?” she greeted Prince Albert’s best friend, a cream-colored Shetland pony mare. She stroked the pony’s wild, fuzzy blonde mane. “Good news. You’re coming out, too. We’re going to need every horse available today. You and Prince Albert can stay together all through the lesson. I know you’ll like that, won’t you?”

  Taylor began tacking up the small pony. Pixie would be useful today in more ways than one. For one thing, since the ranch had started using Pixie for pony rides, she had proven that she was patient with children. Even a crying toddler didn’t seem to upset her.

  “You show Prince Albert how it’s done today, okay, Pixie?” Taylor said as she tightened the girth under Pixie’s belly.

  Taylor hoped the pony’s good example would inspire the gelding. She couldn’t count on that, though. So far, Prince Albert had allowed only two riders on his back: Taylor and Dana. He had let Taylor ride him from the start, and he clearly wanted to be a one-girl horse. Taylor would have adored that, too, but it simply wasn’t an option. The deal she had struck with Wildwood Stables was that Prince Albert and Pixie could be used as school and trail horses in exchange for their board. If Prince Albert didn’t cooperate with this plan, Mrs. LeFleur, who owned the struggling ranch, couldn’t afford to keep him.

  Despite his royal name, Prince Albert needed to work for his food and shelter. Without this arrangement, Taylor’s family couldn’t pay for his upkeep, either.

  And so far, Prince Albert had not been particularly cooperative. The one exception to this was Dana. After some initial resistance, Prince Albert had allowed the delicate girl to ride him. To Taylor, that was a huge triumph — but unfortunately it was one that hadn’t been repeated with any other riders yet.

  From across the stable’s wide aisle, tall and graceful Daphne Chang led her gray speckled mare, Mandy, out of the stall. With a whinny of enthusiasm, the sturdy barb-Arabian mix tossed her black mane as she took in a cool breeze wafting through the open stable door.

  The ranch’s sixteen-year-old riding instructor was dressed somewhat casually in black half chaps, a hooded sweatshirt, and ankle-high paddock boots. Her silky long black hair was tied back, and she held an olive green brimmed hunt cap helmet in her hand.

  Daphne stopped in front of Pixie’s stall, holding Mandy by a lead line. “I’ve saddled Cody,” she said, referring to the spotted Colorado Ranger gelding that boarded at Wildwood and that the ranch had permission to use. “He’s in the front corral already.”

  “Okay,” Taylor answered. “Are we using Shafir?”

  “I don’t think we should,” Daphne replied. “I didn’t tack her up. She’s still too unpredictable.”

  “You’re probably right,” Taylor agreed. Wildwood’s young mare was frisky and playful, a trait Arabians were noted for, and she’d only recently been brought along far enough in her training to be ridden. “I hope we have enough horses, though,” Taylor added, chewing her right thumbnail anxiously, a habit she found impossible to resist in stressful times.

  “Are you nervous about today?” Daphne asked.

  “There’s a lot to worry about,” Taylor said. “Don’t you think so?”

  Daphne cocked her head to the side. “Like what?”

  “I don’t know,” Taylor said. “Couldn’t a million things go wrong? There might be more students than we can handle. Someone might get hurt. And … and …”

  “And Prince Albert might not let anyone on his back,” Daphne finished Taylor’s unspoken sentence.

  Taylor sighed forlornly. “Yeah … and that.”

  “That’s what you’re really concerned about, isn’t it?”

  “I guess so,” Taylor admitted.

  “Don’t worry. I think it’ll be all right.”

  Taylor brightened at Daphne’s words. “You do? Why?”

  Smiling, Daphne shrugged. “It’s a sunny day, much warmer than it usually is at the end of November. Wildwood has this great new business. I’m just feeling optimistic.”

  “Oh,” Taylor said, disappointed. She’d hoped that Daphne had some sound equestrian information on which to base her idea that Prince Albert would do the right thing, some wise observation taken from her impressive knowledge of horses — not just wishful thinking and a good mood!

  “Think positive,” Daphne advised cheerfully, leading Mandy toward the stable’s wide opening. “Mrs. LeFleur will help, too. It’ll all be fine. See you outside.”

  Taylor sighed once more. “Think positive,” she murmured as she ran the brush back through Pixie’s wild mane, echoing the words with much less conviction than Daphne had used. Taylor supposed it was good advice. Besides, what other choice did she have?

  She led Pixie into the aisle, then went into Prince Albert’s stall and took him out. “Come on, you guys. It’s time.” Taylor clipped a lead line to the side strap of Prince Albert’s bridle and began to walk him out of the stabl
e, confident that Pixie would follow wherever Prince Albert went.

  As she walked them forward, Taylor heard a sound coming from the back entrance of the stable. A slim girl with long, nearly black curls stepped into the aisle. “I came to help,” said Mercedes Gonzalez, striding purposefully toward Taylor.

  “I thought you weren’t supposed to be here,” Taylor said, a little surprised to see her friend.

  “I know — and you know that I couldn’t care less,” Mercedes replied with brazen confidence.

  “But what if your mother finds out?” Taylor asked.

  Mercedes shrugged. “A friend of hers drove her to the bone doctor this morning. He’s in New Jersey, so she won’t be back until late this afternoon.”

  Taylor frowned. “I still say you’re taking a chance.”

  “That’s my decision,” Mercedes insisted. “I’ll lead Pixie out.” She came beside the pony and took hold of her reins.

  “Well, anyway, I’m glad you’re here,” Taylor said. “I think we’re going to need all the help we can get today.”

  Taylor was leading Prince Albert out to the ring when a large red van rumbled up the driveway, a billowing cloud of dust following it. Taylor tightened her grip on Prince Albert’s lead line. She didn’t want to risk losing her hold on him if he spooked at the noise and flying dirt.

  The County HORSE van parked in front of the main building, which housed the office, tack room, and six parallel indoor box stalls, as well as more stalls against its outside wall. It was the center of all activity at Wildwood.

  The van’s door opened, and three official-looking people climbed out, all dressed in matching blue polo shirts that had County HORSE Staff embroidered on them. A balding man with the name Frank on his shirt looked familiar to Taylor, but she wasn’t sure from where. He was followed by a woman named Angie with dark curls and large brown eyes. Last to hop down was a good-looking young man who didn’t appear to be much older than Daphne. His polo embroidery read Jon.

  They turned back to assist the four therapeutic students who followed behind, just as Mrs. LeFleur came out of the main building. She was dressed in a barn jacket and jeans, her usual ranch attire. “Hello, everyone,” she greeted them warmly. “Welcome to Wildwood Stables.”

  A whirring noise came from the van as a back door opened and a wheelchair lift carried down a blond boy of about ten. Taylor glanced nervously at Mrs. LeFleur, who was now standing next to her.

  “Uh … Mrs. LeFleur? What’re we going to do?” Taylor whispered.

  “About what?” Mrs. LeFleur asked, turning to face Taylor. Taylor jerked her head quickly toward the boy in the wheelchair.

  Mrs. LeFleur chuckled. “He’ll be fine. Horseback riding is quite helpful for people in wheelchairs. Riding a horse can stimulate muscle growth and help with balance. We’ll have people walk on either side of him as he rides so that if he loses his balance, he won’t fall off.”

  “Cool!” Taylor said, genuinely impressed.

  Mrs. LeFleur turned back to the group. “If everyone would please follow me, we’ll go to the tack room to fit you for helmets.”

  The staff, two adults, one teen girl, and the boy in the wheelchair followed Mrs. LeFleur toward the main building. The teen girl had messy reddish curls that bounced around her chin. She stopped as she passed Prince Albert and gasped, reaching out to pat the horse’s soft, dark neck.

  “Can I ride this one?” the girl asked in an awe-filled whisper.

  Taylor smiled encouragingly. “Sure, just go get a helmet first. His name is Prince Albert, and I think you’ll be great on him.” Taylor turned and gave a stern look to Prince Albert and whispered, “Won’t she, boy?”

  The girl backed away toward the main building, eyes remaining fixed on the horse. She mouthed the words Prince Albert a few times before turning and walking into the main building with the rest of the group.

  Once the girl was out of sight, Taylor turned to Prince Albert once again. “There, you saw who’s going to be riding you. She’s no bigger than I am, so you’ll be fine.”

  The group came back out, heads now covered with helmets. Their expressions ranged from pure excitement to nervous, shy looks. The girl with the curly red hair stood holding on to Jon’s polo shirt, looking anxious, and Taylor beckoned for her to come toward the mounting block.

  First, Daphne helped one of the adults to mount Cody. He was a tall, very thin young man in his early twenties. Angie joined Daphne on Cody’s other side. They walked from the mounting block into the ring, each with a hand on the rider’s thigh, looking up and encouraging him to steer the spotted horse.

  Next, Prince Albert obediently lined up in front of the mounting block. Taylor flipped the reins over his neck and coaxed the red-haired girl up the steps.

  Taylor smiled, looking up at the girl, trying to mask her true emotions. Her stomach felt like a knot of butterflies — nervous and excited all at once. Hopefully, Prince Albert would behave.

  “So, what’s your name?” Taylor asked the girl.

  “Casey,” she said shyly.

  “Okay, Casey. Just slide one leg into the stirrup on this side, and then swing your other leg across and into the stirrup on the other side,” Taylor instructed, pointing to the spots where Casey’s legs should go.

  Frank approached them, smiling and ready to help out.

  Just then, Prince Albert snorted and pranced forward, out of reach of Casey. The girl shrieked and jumped backward, almost knocking Frank over.

  Taylor grabbed for Prince Albert. Oh, no. Not again. Not now!

  Prince Albert did not like men. Some man had mistreated the gelding before Taylor had taken ownership of him in an animal rescue, and now he was suspicious of every man he met.

  Taylor took a firm hold of Prince Albert’s reins, walking him in a circle. She glanced at Casey, who was clutching Frank, wide-eyed and clearly frightened.

  Taylor took a deep breath and eyed Prince Albert warily. Through clenched teeth, she muttered, “Knock it off. Behave.”

  “I’m scared of him,” Casey said, a tremble in her voice.

  “Sorry, Casey, he can be a little spooky sometimes. But he should be okay now,” Taylor said.

  Casey looked up at Frank, who smiled encouragingly. “Try again,” he encouraged her.

  Prince Albert neighed, and Taylor didn’t like the fear she heard in the sound. “Could you step back?” Taylor asked Frank. “He’s nervous around you.”

  Frank backed up quickly. “Why would he be nervous of me? Am I that scary-looking?”

  “It’s not your fault,” Taylor said. “It’s all men.”

  “Oh, well, as long as it’s not personal,” Frank quipped. “Are you sure this horse is all right to use, not too jittery?”

  Taylor nodded quickly. “Sure, I’m sure. He just gets shy around men and new people. He works great with another therapeutic rider named Dana. He should be fine.”

  “Really?” Frank questioned doubtfully.

  Taylor suddenly remembered where she’d seen Frank before — at the Rotary Horse event. “This is the horse that won Best Therapeutic Horse,” she reminded him.

  “Are you kidding? Him?”

  “That was Dana who was riding him.”

  “All right, as long as you say so,” Frank agreed. “I’ll keep my distance.” He beckoned to Casey to join him. When she came, he laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You can do this,” he assured her. “The horse just has to get to know you.”

  Taylor led Casey back to where Prince Albert stood. She made sure she had a firm grip on the reins as she let Casey stroke Prince Albert’s side and speak to him. When Casey seemed ready, Taylor once more brought her to the top of the mounting block and helped the girl swing one leg over Prince Albert’s broad back. As soon as Casey’s leg hit the saddle, Prince Albert snorted loudly, sidestepping quickly to avoid being mounted.

  Casey shrieked once more, falling backward into Taylor, who caught her. Tears streamed from her eyes as she scramble
d down the mounting block.

  “I don’t want to ride anymore!” Casey wailed, turning her back to Prince Albert and sobbing.

  Frank looked at Taylor. “I thought you said you were sure.”

  Taylor pulled Prince Albert’s head down and gazed at him sadly. “I thought I was.”

  What’s wrong?” Daphne asked. She had come back from the ring and was leading Mandy to the mounting block. She looked at Prince Albert, the sobbing Casey, the scowling Frank, and then to Taylor. She raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question.

  Taylor nodded unhappily.

  “Here, you can ride Mandy,” Daphne said, offering the reins to Casey. “She really likes people. Taylor will lead you while I go deal with Prince Albert, okay?”

  Taylor was thankful to Daphne for stepping in and taking over. When Casey hesitated to take the reins, Taylor took them, mouthing a thank-you to Daphne.

  Daphne nodded quietly and led Prince Albert away, toward the barn.

  “Don’t worry. Mandy isn’t like Prince Albert,” Taylor assured Casey as she steered her gently toward the mounting block once more. “Prince Albert is very fussy about who rides him.”

  Casey’s eyes went wide. “Do you mean he doesn’t like me?”

  “No, no! He likes you.”

  “Well, I don’t like him, either!” Casey stated firmly, her voice climbing nearly to a shout.

  “That’s okay. You don’t have to like him,” Taylor said, trying to keep her voice steady. “But you’ll like Mandy here. She’s very nice.”

  Casey stepped closer to Mandy, studying the gentle gray speckled mare. “She does seem nice,” the girl allowed cautiously.

  After a few more minutes of persuasion, Casey finally accepted that Mandy wouldn’t duck out from under her as Prince Albert had done. Once she was safely seated and smiling with pride, Taylor took Mandy’s reins and walked her into the corral, where she met up with Mercedes and the other mounted riders.

  Frank came into the ring and began to lead the group in a series of exercises. The riders practiced balancing, by holding their arms out as they walked their horses forward. The Wildwood and HORSE staff guided the riders through poles and over obstacles. Taylor noticed that the smiles of the riders got wider and wider as they became more confident throughout the lesson.

 
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