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Learning to fly, p.1
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       Learning to Fly, p.1

           Suzanne Weyn
 
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Learning to Fly


  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

  Taylor Henry held Prince Albert’s lead line casually in one hand as she walked the quarter horse down Wildwood Lane. The tree-lined country path leading in and out of Wildwood Stables was now vibrant with the rustling red, yellow, and orange hues of early autumn. Taylor could have easily ridden the black gelding on the dirt lane, but right then she preferred to be eye level with her horse.

  They needed to have a serious talk.

  “So, I know you love me. I love you just as much — more, even! But it can’t just be you and me. I wish it could,” she told him.

  Prince Albert neighed. Lately, Taylor had noticed that whenever she spoke directly to Prince Albert he always made some noise in response. She loved that about him. It made her feel they were really communicating.

  Taylor gazed into his soulful dark eyes and felt she heard him as clearly as if he’d actually replied aloud in words. He wanted to know why not. Why couldn’t it just be Taylor and Prince Albert, without any other horses or riders?

  “Because you have to be available for lessons and trail rides, that’s why. And I need to work with the other horses.” Taylor sighed in frustration. “It’s part of our deal with Wildwood. Don’t pretend you don’t know all this. We’ve been through it a zillion times already!”

  At this point Taylor was sure Prince Albert was simply being stubborn. It was mid-October, and he’d been living at the stable since the end of August. By now he had to understand that he couldn’t be a one-girl horse.

  Taylor had helped rescue him and his best pal, a cream-colored Shetland pony named Pixie, when they’d been abandoned by their owners. Against all odds, she’d even found them a good home here at Wildwood Stables. But the ranch could only afford to keep Prince Albert if he was a working trail and school horse. And, so far, he had not been at all cooperative.

  “Sure, I know you’ve let Dana ride you,” Taylor acknowledged. Dana was a seven-year-old girl with autism who had horse therapy sessions at the stable once a week. She would only work with Prince Albert, and to everyone’s surprise, he allowed her on his back. They had even won a ribbon at a recent Rotary Club horse competition for kids with disabilities.

  “And it’s really great that you let her on; it’s meant so much to her,” Taylor continued. “But you have to do more. Being a two-girl horse is still not enough. Okay?”

  A black SUV swung in very quickly from Quail Ridge Road at the end of the lane. It zoomed toward Taylor and Prince Albert as though the driver was completely unaware that a slim thirteen-year-old girl with long brown hair and a large black horse were standing in the path.

  Startled by the car’s speed, Taylor dropped the lead line and jumped back. Prince Albert reared in fright, neighing shrilly as his front two legs rose from the ground, kicking the air.

  The glamorous blonde woman at the wheel of the SUV careened into a rapid curve to avoid the frightened horse in her path, but she made no effort to slow down. Beside the woman, a slim girl Taylor’s age, also a blonde, watched the scene with unmistakable annoyance etched on her face.

  Staggering backward, Taylor recognized the girl and the car just as the heel of her brown riding boot hit a tree root. Taylor fell on her butt, sending rockets of pain up her spine. As she scrambled to her feet, she couldn’t stop to feel her injury, or even her fury at Plum Mason and her reckless mother.

  Her entire attention was on Prince Albert, who was galloping in wild panic toward Quail Ridge Road.

  Panting hard, heart thundering in her chest, Taylor raced down Wildwood Lane onto steep and curving Quail Ridge Road. Fast as she was running, it seemed to take forever to get there.

  Taylor checked the field to her left. Some of Wildwood’s other horses had been turned out and grazed there — but no Prince Albert.

  Pivoting to her right, Taylor froze.

  “Oh, no!” she shouted.

  Up the hill, Prince Albert stood in the middle of the road, wide-eyed and bewildered. He was standing directly in the middle of a blind curve in the road. If a car came around the bend now, the driver would never see him in time to stop.

  “Prince Albert! Prince Albert!” Taylor shouted in her most commanding tone.

  Prince Albert swung his head around to her. His ears were back and flattened, a sign of his anxiety.

  Taylor clapped her hands sharply. “Walk on! Move, Prince Albert! Now! Move to the other side! Get off the road!”

  Prince Albert usually obeyed commands well. Why wasn’t he moving?

  His nostrils flared and his eyes were wide. He stood frozen in terrified confusion.

  Clicking to the frightened horse, Taylor hurried up the hill toward him, deciding on another approach. “Come to me, boy. Come on.” She worked to disguise the urgent fear in her voice, hoping he would calm down enough to respond.

  It was no use! He wasn’t budging.

  “Move!” Taylor shouted full blast, clenching her fists as her cheeks reddened with the strain. Maybe she could at least startle him off the road.

  At the sound of her agitated tone, Prince Albert whinnied and turned his body toward Taylor. As he moved, a large white car drove into view, coming fast.

  Prince Albert screamed as he reared high onto his back legs.

  The car’s horn blared, and then came the sickening sound of crunching metal.

  Taylor was only dimly aware of her own anguished voice shouting.

  “No! No! No!”

  Taylor stood on the side of the road beside a deputy sheriff with the name Michael Casey pinned under his badge. Her stomach knotted as she watched the emergency medical team that had arrived in a matter of minutes, sirens shrieking, carefully lift the two passengers from the white luxury car.

  “I’m okay, really,” a girl with long, nearly black hair told the emergency medical techs who were readying a stretcher for her. “Help my mother first.”

  Taylor wanted to rush to the girl’s side, but the sheriff and EMTs had insisted she stay back, away from the crash. She managed to make eye contact with Wildwood’s fourteen-year-old assistant junior barn manager, Mercedes Gonzalez, and tried to relay how awful she felt. Taylor was sure Mercedes was coming to work at the barn as she always did on Monday afternoons after school.

  Mercedes shot Taylor a questioning glance. Clearly, she was still unsure of exactly what had happened.

  Taylor understood her confusion. There was no reason Prince Albert should have been standing in the road — the Wildwood girls never rode out onto Quail Ridge. It was way too curving, steep, and dangerous.

  Mercedes’ elegant, dark-haired mother sat on the ground clutching her leg, obviously in great pain. Mrs. Gonzalez’s white pantsuit had been showered with broken safety glass from the smashed front windshield. Her pants leg was ripped open, revealing a knee that was swollen and cut.

  “It could be broken,” a heavyset male EMT said to the petite redheaded female EMT working with him.

  The front and right half of the white car was embedded in the trunk of a thick pine tree. The car had skidded off the road to avoid hitting Prince Albert and had crashed through the stone wall that ran alongside Quail Ridge Road. The ancient tree had been
the only thing to stop the car from careening down the steep, wooded ravine beside the road.

  “And you said your horse broke loose onto the road?” Deputy Casey asked, checking the story Taylor had already told him.

  Taylor nodded. She’d met Deputy Casey before, though he gave no sign of remembering her. He was the same thirtyish deputy who’d said he’d have to take Prince Albert and Pixie to auction if Taylor and her mother’s friend Claire Black — an animal rehabilitator — couldn’t find the two equines a home. Claire knew Michael Casey from school, which meant he had grown up right there in Pheasant Valley.

  “And where is your horse now?” Deputy Casey asked Taylor.

  Taylor opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She shut her eyes and drew in a slow, unsteady breath, trying to calm herself enough to reply. “He jumped over the stone wall and ran down the ravine,” she explained when she had regained her voice. “He was scared. I have to go find him right now. Can I go?”

  “Was he injured?”

  “I’m not sure.” She wasn’t certain if Mrs. Gonzalez had swerved in time to avoid hitting Prince Albert altogether.

  Taylor was dying to race off after her horse, but first she had to make sure Mercedes and her mother were all right. Now that she saw that their injuries weren’t life-threatening — and that she wasn’t being allowed to help them, anyway — she ached to find her horse.

  “We’ll send a team out to search for him,” Deputy Casey told Taylor.

  Icy fingers of panic ran up Taylor’s spine. “You won’t hurt him, will you?”

  “Not unless he’s a danger to anyone.”

  “A danger?” Taylor scoffed anxiously. “He’s gentle and sweet. How could he endanger anyone?” In rural Pheasant Valley, the sheriff and his deputies sometimes “put down” injured or dangerous animals. “Putting down” was a gentle way of saying they would shoot the animal.

  “If anything, Prince Albert is the one in danger,” Taylor added.

  The officer’s eyes darted across the road to the smashed car and broken wall. His gaze lingered on Mrs. Gonzalez moaning in agony beside Mercedes, whose eye area was developing a nasty purple bruise.

  “That wasn’t his fault,” Taylor insisted passionately. “A car sped past and frightened him.”

  “You were riding him out here on Quail Ridge?” Deputy Casey asked evenly but with an undercurrent of accusation.

  “No!” Taylor told him once again exactly where she had been and what had happened.

  “Why don’t you come back to the ranch with me?” suggested Deputy Casey. “I’ll need a statement from Mrs. Mason and her daughter.”

  “Can I please look for Prince Albert first?” Taylor pleaded.

  “I’ll call for a search party to look for him while we go to the ranch,” Deputy Casey insisted.

  Taylor glanced back at Mercedes, who was holding a cold pack to her nose and watching as they loaded her mother into the ambulance. “Is she okay?” Taylor called.

  Mercedes shrugged dismally. “I’ll let you know.”

  With a nod to Mercedes, Taylor followed Deputy Casey down the road to where a female officer sat in the driver’s seat of a police car. “I’ve set warning flares along the road and called for a tow truck,” she reported as Deputy Casey got into the passenger’s seat beside her.

  Taylor hesitated outside the vehicle. She had never been in a police car before, and she was scared to get in. “Climb in back,” Deputy Casey instructed her from the front seat.

  “Am I …” Taylor hesitated. What she was about to say might be stupid, but she had to ask anyway. Still staying outside the car, she spoke to the female deputy — noticing that her nameplate identified her as Connie Gomez — through her open window. “Am I … I’m not … under arrest or anything?” Taylor asked.

  As Taylor spoke the words, the full weight of what had happened flooded through her.

  She had let Prince Albert get away from her. Now he was lost, possibly injured.

  Indirectly, she had been responsible for a car accident that had hurt Mercedes and her mother — had destroyed their car.

  Was she in trouble — would Wildwood Stables be held responsible?

  “You’re not under arrest,” Deputy Gomez assured Taylor. “We just have to talk to the driver of the other car you told Deputy Casey about and to the owner of Wildwood Stables.”

  “Why do you have to talk to Mrs. LeFleur?” Taylor asked.

  “She owns Wildwood, and the ranch could possibly be held responsible in a lawsuit by the driver or for endangering the public safety,” Deputy Gomez explained. “It all depends on the circumstances. That’s why we need the full story.”

  Taylor didn’t know how she could face Mrs. LeFleur with this news. The ranch’s owner had poured every cent she possessed and so many hours of effort into getting the ranch going. Now it might all be destroyed.

  Suddenly, Taylor wished she was under arrest. At least if she were locked safely behind bars she could hide from the world.

  I hope you’re not saying this is my mother’s fault!”

  “Well, it sort of is what I’m saying,” Taylor admitted to Plum Mason. “Your car nearly ran us right off Wildwood Lane.”

  Although Plum was Taylor’s least favorite person on the planet — certainly the classmate at Pheasant Valley Middle School she most disliked — she couldn’t remember ever loathing Plum more than she did at this moment. The girl had laughed in Taylor’s face when she tried to explain why she’d lost control of Prince Albert.

  Mrs. Mason, Plum, Mrs. LeFleur, Taylor, and the two deputies were assembled directly in the doorway of the ranch’s red main building that housed the office, the tack room, and the six indoor stables.

  When Taylor arrived with the deputies, Plum was just coming in from riding Shafir, the young chestnut Arabian mare with a white blaze down the front of her muzzle that she leased from Wildwood Stables. Plum was dressed for English-style riding in gleaming black knee-high boots and tan breeches. Diamond stud earrings shone when she tilted her head to the side, swinging her long, blonde hair around the shoulders of a cropped navy riding jacket. In her leather-gloved hand, Plum now held the velvet riding helmet she had just removed.

  In Taylor’s opinion, any claim Plum might have had on good looks was completely overshadowed by the haughty arrogance of her expression.

  Plum stepped aggressively toward Taylor. “Well, what were you and your horse doing standing in the middle of the path? It’s for cars! If you hadn’t noticed, it’s the only way in or out of the ranch.”

  A short brunette woman of around sixty, wearing jeans and a barn jacket, stepped between them. “Girls! Please!” Mrs. LeFleur interrupted, adjusting her thick glasses on her nose. She raked her hand anxiously through her tangle of short, unruly curls. “The situation is difficult enough without the two of you sniping.”

  Taylor glared at Plum, who returned her glowering expression. Taylor had been making an effort — for the sake of Shafir and the ranch — to be friendly to Plum. But today’s events had changed that. There was no way she could ever again even fake a friendly face where Plum was concerned.

  “Mrs. Mason, could you give us your account of what happened?” Deputy Casey requested.

  “I’d be happy to,” Mrs. Mason replied. “I was bringing Plum to the ranch so she could work with the horse she leases. Shafir is still somewhat wild, and Plum has been giving her much-needed training.”

  Taylor had to look away to keep the expression on her face from betraying her outrage at Mrs. Mason’s words. Taylor, Mercedes, and Daphne Chang — the ranch’s fifteen-year-old riding instructor — had been working hard to train the high-spirited Shafir. That the horse was progressing so well was due to their hard work and patience. Even more challenging was the constant monitoring they kept on Plum, to make sure she didn’t hurt Shafir with her rough and domineering training style, her hard-driving riding, and her careless grooming.

  “We were on our way into the ranch,” Mrs. M
ason continued, “when this girl and her horse suddenly appeared in our way.”

  “I did not suddenly appear,” Taylor protested.

  But Deputy Casey spoke before anyone paid attention to Taylor. “At that time was Taylor in control of the horse?” he asked Mrs. Mason.

  “No, the horse was just walking there,” Mrs. Mason replied.

  “I had him on a lead line,” Taylor objected, raising her voice so that this time she would not be ignored.

  “If he was on a lead then how did he run off?” Plum challenged.

  “He ran because your mother was speeding and almost hit him!” Taylor cried, furious. Only after the words came out did she realize she’d shouted them. But this was too much.

  Plum and her mother were lying!

  “Taylor!” Mrs. LeFleur scolded.

  Taylor wheeled around to face Mrs. LeFleur. “Well, it’s true!”

  Mrs. LeFleur stared pointedly — even through the woman’s thick glasses, Taylor could see the ranch owner’s eyes widen — with an expression that ordered Taylor to calm down. The stable owner knew how much Taylor disliked Plum, and she was constantly advising Taylor to be more tolerant of her. Plum was a paying customer, someone the new ranch could not afford to lose.

  “Were you speeding?” Deputy Casey asked Mrs. Mason.

  “Definitely not. My SUV handles excellently, but if I’d been going too fast, I’d never have been able to avoid hitting the horse and the girl as I did.”

  “Were you aware that the horse had run off?” Deputy Gomez asked Mrs. Mason.

  “Not at all. I would have stopped if I thought they needed help.”

  As Mrs. Mason continued telling the deputies how blameless she was in the incident, Taylor glanced over to the corral closest to the main building. Shafir was still saddled and prancing playfully. The expensive purebred Arabian had been a gift from Mrs. Ross, the owner of the fancy Ross River Ranch. At first, Mrs. LeFleur had refused to accept the frisky young mare, wanting nothing to do with Mrs. Ross. Eventually, though, Taylor had convinced Mrs. LeFleur that the ranch needed Shafir, and Mrs. LeFleur had taken her in and leased her to Plum.

 
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