In the Arms of the Enemy (an Excerpt)
Topic: Blog Tours
As I promised yesterday, you are in for a peek inside the pages of Patricia Guthrie's latest book, In the Arms of the Enemy. Don't forget to stop by tomorrow for an interview with Patricia and a live chat from 8-10 PM EST in my chat room ( http://pub29.bravenet.com/chat/show.php/2488831080 )
The robust voice of the track announcer boomed through the loudspeakers. The crowd's collective voice swelled.
Maggie McGregor scanned the crowd for Ricky Lane and didn't spot him. Typical. She couldn't remember the last time Ricky had been where he'd said he'd be. Reliability seemed to be a thing of the past for the would-be love of her life.
A black thoroughbred with long legs danced in the paddock stall as she finished tightening the girth. She struggled with the colt--up, down and around, until the cinch buckled.
"Okay, Blackie. Now you're all dressed up." She scratched him behind the ears. The horse snorted and coughed hay residue on her, before turning his head to watch passersby stop and admire him.
"Ready for me?" The jockey, decked out with the green and white silks of Scotland Stables, rubbed his hands together and grinned in anticipation.
Maggie was excited too. Black Autumn was the best horse she'd ever trained.
Ricky still hadn't appeared.
"Any last minute instructions?" the jockey asked.
Maggie shook her head. "Just keep him off the pace until you get to the far turn and make your move coming around the turn. He'll intimidate every horse that makes eye contact. Don't tire him out too early, and he'll win in the stretch."
"You bet," he said.
"Maggie." Ricky's voice rose from above the crowd as he maneuvered his way over. Ricky didn't stand out just because she was looking for him. He stood out because he looked drop-dead gorgeous wearing a navy blue silk suit she'd never seen, with a tie the color of the Scotland Stables racing silks. His hair glistened like corn silk in the sun.
Two people accompanied him; one a dark-haired beauty draped over his arm, the other an older man. For a flicker of an instant, she thought the woman appraised her with a hint of amusement behind a blasé smile. Maggie fought back an instant desire to push her away from Ricky, but decided to hide her anger. When Ricky broke eye contact, she knew she'd failed.
Instead of waiting for an introduction, the woman put her hand on the older man's arm and said, "I'll meet you up in the owner's box. I still have last minute things to do for the cocktail party." Shooting Maggie a dismissive smirk, the woman turned and disappeared into the crowd. Who the hell was she?
Ricky interrupted her thoughts. "Maggie, I don't think you've met Mr. Blakely, owner of Scotland Stables."
She shook her head as the horse snorted and pawed behind her. "No, I don't think so," Maggie said, almost asking ‘how are you?' But, the man's face, almost ashen, suggested he didn't feel well. He seemed to be having trouble breathing.
"George Blakely." The man held out his hand, and Maggie took an instant liking to him. He had a strong, solid, honest handshake--her father's handshake. She returned his smile, blinking in the pleasure of his presence.
"Nice to meet you, Maggie." Mr. Blakely's expression shifted questioningly to Ricky.
"Maggie's my assistant, sir. She'll be leading Black Autumn onto the track for me." Ricky averted his eyes, shutting out her shock.
I'm going to lead Black Autumn onto the track for you?
Maggie was incensed, not only because he was denying her relationship as trainer of the horse, but also because he hadn't mentioned he was her fiancé.
"I'm Ricky's fiancée, Maggie McGregor," Maggie explained, shifting a glance of anger toward him.
"Oh!" Mr. Blakely smiled and his gray eyes lit up. "You didn't tell me you were getting married, Ricky. Congratulations."
Maggie waited for Ricky's reaction. He frowned and as he turned away, Maggie realized he had introduced her as nothing more than a glorified stable hand.
Ricky clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Maggie," he said, "I'll be sitting up in the Scotland Stables' box. I'll see you after the race."
"Nice meeting you, Maggie." Mr. Blakely turned and leaned on Ricky for support. Ricky didn't look back. He and Mr. Blakely merged into the crowd, headed toward the grandstand.
Maggie watched them leave. She shook back the seeds of suspicion and focused on Black Autumn. They had a race to win.
The horses were already walking around the paddock where fans were making their picks and hurrying toward the betting windows. Her jockey lifted his knee while Maggie locked her hands, and in one swift, smooth movement, she hoisted the jockey onto a saddle not much bigger than the size of a bicycle seat. The groom handed her the lead, as Black Autumn forced Ricky from her thoughts. The colt danced over the afternoon shadows in the paddock, providing entertainment for the crowd.
No matter how Ricky had portrayed her as ‘his assistant,' everyone around knew Maggie had trained Black Autumn. Trained every horse in the Lane Stables, for that matter. The owner of odds-on-favorite, Hennessy, called out ‘good luck' to her, as they walked down the underpass and up onto the track.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the voiced blasted over the loud speakers, "The twentieth running of the Kalian Derby, at beautiful Kalian Downs."
Maggie shivered with the thrill of competition. If Black Autumn won the Kalian Derby, he would become a major player in the Kentucky Derby. She was damned if Ricky Lane would ruin this for her.
Her jockey bent over and gave her a ‘high-five.' Maggie unsnapped the lead and one of the Lane Stables' outriders escorted the horse and jockey onto the track.
The horses paraded to the post and the crowd murmured in anticipation.
Hennessey's owner stood next to her on the rail. He said, "I saw the way Ricky treated you. You're too good for him. You ever want another job, come see me." He handed her a spare pair of binoculars. "Here," he said, "I thought you'd like to see what's happening at the gate."
"Thanks." One thing Maggie loved about track people was how they'd embraced her as one of their own.
Maggie lowered the cord around her neck and pushed the glasses to her eyes.
The starting gate was the dividing line between nervous anticipation and the grueling competitive mile-and-a-quarter track. Staff wearing green jackets decorated with advertising slogans loaded skittish horses into the narrow metal slots.
Maggie took a deep breath and surveyed the crowd. A strongly scented mixture of suntan lotion, freshly mowed grass and track dust, lingered in the air. Too soon, all would become unpleasant memories left from the raw sores of an aching heart. Let it go, Maggie. Let it go.
The last horse jammed into the outside post position. The back doors clanged closed behind. They were in. Her nerve ends tingled. She focused on the third stall from the inside--Black Autumn.
Clang. The horses charged out of the starting gate.
"And, they're off in the Kalian Derby."
Maggie trained her eyes on Black Autumn. The colt was in an easy third as they passed the stands for the first time. Good place.
"Around the first turn, it's Hennessy in front by a length, followed by.... "
Her thoughts raced, jagged, painful and as fast as any horse on the track. All those buying trips Ricky had gone on during the past four months, when he'd come back without any horses.
"Around the backstretch it's Hennessy followed by Sundance Kid; Black Autumn remains in third."
Ricky had been in the barn less and less, leaving the training to her. She'd been flattered by his love and faith in her abilities.
The horses thundered down the backstretch. Black Autumn was now striding out, propelled by his powerful hindquarters. In contrast, the other horses seemed to move in slow motion as the black colt passed Sundance Kid around the far turn.
Ricky hardly touched her in bed, anymore, if he slept there at all. When he made love to her, he'd been distracted--going through the motions.
Black Autumn moved on Hennessy as he displayed the competitive spirit of all great racehorses. He eyeballed Hennessy, and for a fraction of a second they ran neck to neck. Danny flicked the crop. The horse laid back his ears and took off, making Hennessy look like he'd stopped running. Black Autumn was muscled beauty in motion as he crossed the finish line five lengths in front, to the tumultuous roar of the crowd.
When they came back, Maggie snapped the lead back onto her victorious horse, and Black Autumn pranced around, snorted and carried on. One of the greatest things about this horse, Maggie thought, was his ego. He knew he'd won. "Great ride," she said. "Perfect."
"I didn't do anything," the jockey said, laughing. "The horse did it all. He ran himself."
"That's why I love you," Maggie replied. "Because you let him do it all by himself."
They walked across the track toward the winner's circle. Well-wishers crowded in and security had to hold them back.
"Next Derby winner?" A TV reporter stuck a microphone into her face. Maggie smiled and was ready to respond, when Ricky came and stepped in front of her.
"It's official," the announcer called, interrupting her resentment. "The winner of the Kalian Derby is Black Autumn owned by Scotland Stables and trained by...." Maggie waited for this moment. She never grew tired of the announcers proclaiming her a winning trainer. It spoke to her of success for her twenty-four-hour days of hard work.
"Lane Training Stables, Ricky Lane, trainer."
Maggie stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth dropping open. She turned to snap at him, but George Blakely and the dark-haired woman were showering him with congratulations. The woman planted a kiss on Ricky's cheek.
For the first time, Maggie got a closer look at her. The woman was tall and model thin, wearing a plum, mini-skirted linen suit that spelled designer. A silver necklace shouting ‘money' decorated her neck, and raven hair floated down her back like a trophy. The woman shot Maggie a look that stated, ‘bye honey.' Joy became heartbreak, and in a matter of seconds, two years of training success evaporated into the warm April air.
George Blakely took the lead from Maggie and thanked her. Numb, Maggie let go, and was suddenly shuffled into the background, an outsider looking in at the victors--Black Autumn and his jockey, George Blakely, Ricky Lane and the society beauty nobody had bothered to introduce.
She was spiraling down into a land of pain and anger, when Ricky threw the lead back to her with instructions to take Black Autumn back to the barn.
Maggie stopped, ready to scream, ‘I'm the damned trainer!' But the Governor had stepped up, starting to make a speech about a great owner, trainer and racehorse.
"Maggie." At the barn, Ricky Lane strolled over, George Blakely at his side. His face clouded in apprehension, and Mr. Blakely's looked disturbed and surprised. Maggie realized she must have worn her heart on her sleeve.
"Congratulations, Mr. Blakely," she said, trying to ignore the heat stealing into her face as she extended her hand. "Black Autumn's going to be a great horse for you."
"Yes," he replied. "Ricky did a great job of training him, didn't he?" But, he didn't speak in a congratulatory manner. Instead, his alert eyes grew serious and focused on Ricky. Ricky's jaw hardened and he looked down at the ground and mumbled, "Thanks."
Mr. Blakely nodded, glancing back at Maggie, admiration replacing suspicion. He knows, she thought. He knows I trained Black Autumn. She felt relieved--wanted to cry from the unspoken support of this surprising ally. Her confidence renewed, a spontaneous grin emerged and her tense shoulders relaxed.
"So, Ms. McGregor," the old man said, extending his hand. "Are you joining your fiancé for the cocktail party?"
The grin evaporated. "I--"
"No. Maggie has to tend to the horses. I'll be representing the stable," Ricky said, cutting her off.
"Mr. Blakely, I'm afraid I didn't know anything about it." Fury almost choked her.
"That's a shame," the man replied, grimacing at Ricky. "You would have made an exciting addition. My son just came home from Cornell. You would have enjoyed meeting Jonathan."
She thought Ricky flinched. Good. At least he could still get jealous.
"Bye, Ms. McGregor. An honor meeting you." The man turned and shuffled off, stopping to speak to Hennessy's owner who glanced in Maggie's direction. Then, the two walked through the thinning crowds to the Kalian Downs' Skylight Club.
"Maggie," Ricky said, gesturing with his hands. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the party. I wasn't planning on going myself."
"That's why you're dressed like a Wall Street banker?" she asked, lowering her eyes, avoiding any more lies.
"No, I'm just representing our stable, like I told Mr. Blakely. I'll meet you back here, and we'll have supper before we go home."
He put his arm around her, and she moved away.
Maggie played with the ring on her finger. "I was," she said, her voice breaking. "But now, I'm just sad." She breathed disappointment and looked him in the eye. "I couldn't believe you'd discredit me, Ricky."
"Discredit you? How?" Ricky responded, oozing with self-righteous indignation. "Lane Training Stables is my training stable. You work for me, Maggie."
"Oh?" she replied. "What happened to our partnership, our engagement? Is that good only when you want me to train your horses? Now that they're winning, you're taking the credit?"
He started to protest, shaking his head, pounding his fist.
"Stop," she said, putting a halt to her future. "Ricky, it's over. I've seen this--didn't want to see this coming." She kept her temper barely under control. "But, it's pretty obvious you've found someone else."
"You mean Erika? That was Mr. Blakely's ex-daughter-in-law. I think she's trying to get back with her husband."
"Stop. No more lies." Maggie twisted the engagement ring a few times around her finger before it slipped off.
"Ricky," she said, opening his hand and placing the ring inside. "I'm going home to pack. I'll be gone by the time you get there."
Ricky grabbed her arm. "You're not going anywhere, Maggie," he said, his eyes flaming with rage. "You'll be done in racing if you do. I'll make sure nobody hires you."
She stared at him for a minute, in shock. This couldn't be Ricky talking. She jerked her arm away. "Then, so be it," she replied. "Give it your best shot."
Ricky grabbed her again.
"Let me go!"
"Then go, Maggie, if that's what you want. I don't need you anyway." He pushed her, and she fell against the stall door.
Maggie grappled for balance and kept her feet. They stared at each other, Maggie horrified at a darker side of Ricky she'd never seen, and Ricky seeming to realize what he'd lost, now and forever.
She studied his gray eyes, once full of longing, now full of nothingness.
"Have a good life, Ricky."
Maggie turned and walked away, her ex-fiancé protesting until his voice faded with the distance.
Black Autumn and Ricky Lane never made it to the Kentucky Derby. Neither did George Blakely. Within a week, all three were dead.
Posted by joyceanthony
at 12:33 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 March 2008 2:30 PM EDT