THE SMELL OF FRESH HAY filled my nose as I walked into the dark barn. I stood still in the darkness for a moment before turning on the overhead lights. I flipped the switch and the bright halogen lights illuminated the rows of stalls on either side of the barn’s long hallway. A couple of horse heads appeared from behind their stall doors, curious as to who had just walked in. A smile formed across my face. It had been such a long day, and all I wanted to do was take a midnight ride on the back of my favorite thoroughbred.
I walked toward the back of the barn, several horses neighing as I passed by. “Hey, guys,” I said, stopping to pat one of the horse’s foreheads. “How’s it going, Little Ghost?” I whispered, as I put my face against the white colt’s cheek.
As I came to another stall, I placed my hand on the wreath of red roses that was slung across the stall door. The roses were still fresh and soft under my touch. “How does it feel to be a celebrity, Casper?” It always felt weird to say his name since it was my name, too.
Casper the Friendly Ghost was just the latest Kentucky Derby winner for my parents’ prestigious farm, Ghost Hill Farms, and who better, I guess they figured, to name their only daughter after than a line of horses? Casper blew air out of his nostrils and bobbed his graceful head.
“So you liked all the attention, huh? I know you liked the winner’s circle more than I did.” I put my hand on his forehead and rubbed his dark coat.
It was tradition for me to appear with my dad in the winner’s circle. I felt awkward in front of the cameras and hated seeing my photo appear in the newspapers and on the news channels. Not to mention, I couldn’t see straight for at least a couple hours afterward.
I gave Casper a final pat and walked to the farthest stall, where Wendy waited patiently for me. Her big brown eyes were trained on me. Wendy was my favorite. When she looked at me, it was as if she understood me better than any person could. After a long day at school or a fight with my mother, I would run to the barn as fast as I could and curl up in Wendy’s stall. Wendy would almost always lie down near me and I would stroke her beautiful chestnut coat. And when the day had been beyond unbearable, Wendy and I would hit the trails.
“Ready for a run?” I asked her, kissing her black muzzle.
The wind whipped through my loose hair as I guided Wendy over the narrow path near the farm’s border fence. The moonlight was bright, casting a shadow of us barreling through the dark green grass. The air was cold and my ears and nose were numb, but I didn’t care. My heart was racing and all I could feel was freedom. I buried my face into her long brown mane and pushed her as fast as she would go. Everything disappeared and all I could hear was the pounding of her hooves and my own fast beating heart.
After several minutes of going full speed, I slowed Wendy to a trot, gave her thick neck a pat, and turned her toward the barn. Once we were back, I pulled her saddle off and gave her a quick brushing before putting her in her stall. I returned the saddle to its place in the center room of the barn, switched off the lights, and closed the heavy doors.
I sat down on the damp grass, leaning against the barn wall, and stared at the back of my parents’ massive house, which was just far away enough for me to not be seen. The giant patio and pool area were lit up with lanterns brought in especially for their victory party. The clinking of champagne glasses and muffled laughter infiltrated the night air. I hated the parties and my parents’ snobby friends, with their Botoxed lips and Cartier diamonds. I had snuck away to the barn as soon as possible, which hadn’t taken too long, since my mother was too busy impressing the reporter from The Lexington Herald to notice me walk out the back door.
I loved the horses, but the lifestyle was something I could do without. I couldn’t care less about trendy Louis Vuitton purses or Louboutin heels. If it weren’t for my mother’s insistence, I wouldn’t own a dress or a stupid pantsuit. What seventeen-year-old wears a pantsuit anyway? I preferred to live in worn jeans and a T-shirt. The dressiest I cared to be was my riding gear for a show jumping competition.
I looked down at the grass and plucked a couple of blades, twisting them between my fingers. It had been almost a year since my accident at the Adequan Select World Championship. I was lucky to walk away with only a broken arm, but I didn’t want to think about that now. I shook my head, trying to shake the thought out of my head, and looked back at the house.
I had to find a way to sneak back in and up to my bedroom without Mother seeing me. I had never had a curfew, so I couldn’t be in trouble for being out so late, but I could definitely get grounded for walking into the party in dirty jeans and a sweaty T-shirt.
A couple of camera flashes went off at the far end of the patio. I was sure my mother was posing for pictures to be featured in the paper tomorrow. That meant she was distracted. I got up and walked slowly down the sloping hill, toward several large oak trees near the white split-rail fence that separated the pool from the rest of the farmland. After pausing to look again, I sprinted to the side door and opened it as fast as I could.
I could instantly smell garlic and pepper as I walked into the kitchen. A couple of waiters stopped and looked at me curiously, but most of the kitchen staff didn’t pay me any attention. My mother always hired the same company for her parties and they were pretty used to me sneaking in through the kitchen and up the servants’ stairs. A waiter walked by with a tray of melon wrapped in prosciutto. I plucked one from the tray.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile and whirled around to the stairs.
I ran up the steps, down the hall and into the safety of my room. I pulled off my muddy jeans and T-shirt and threw them at the laundry basket in the corner, barely missing the basket. I ran into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. I pulled off my underwear and bra and tossed them on top of the long marble countertop, where they landed on the gold faucet.
I stepped into the warm water and sighed in relief as I laid my head back against the Jacuzzi tub. I searched for the stereo remote along the tub ledge, picked it up in my soapy fingers, and turned on my iPod. Adele’s jazzy voice filled the air as I closed my eyes and relaxed for a while, soaking up the warmth from the bubbly water.
The air had been frigid this weekend, and being out today at the Derby had been unbearable. Especially since I was required to wear a skirt suit and a flimsy hat that refused to stay on my head. I couldn’t remember a Derby day in the past being so cold. Usually it was warm and pretty by the beginning of May, but not today. At least it had been exciting to watch Casper run around the track in record time, leaving all the other horses in the dust. I had cheered so loudly that my throat was sore.
I grabbed the fancy, hot pink bottle of shampoo my aunt had brought me from New York, and scrubbed my hair until it tingled and smelled like white ginger. I shut my eyes, took a deep breath and bobbed my head under the lukewarm water. When I popped back up to the surface, a thick swath of black hair was entangled around my neck. A slight chill settled on my shoulders, sending goose bumps up my arms. I grabbed a towel from the nearby rack and pulled it tightly across my body.
As I stepped out of the tub onto the glassy marble floor, my foot slid halfway across the marble. I grabbed the tub with both hands to keep from tripping the rest of the way out of the tub and landing face-first on the solid surface. What had my parents been thinking? I knew for a fact they were more concerned with the prestige found in having floors covered in ornate marble than the fact that it’s as slippery as an ice rink. Who needs a floor that requires ice skating skills to walk on? I did have some fluffy blue bath mats, but my mother confiscated them. They didn’t “match” and “they look like something a little kid would have” according to her.
I just liked them because it meant fewer bruises and head traumas.
After a few excruciating tip-toe steps, I reached the back of the bathroom door where my white bathrobe hung. I slipped it on and instantly felt some warmth under my skin. I walked across my room and into my large walk-in closet, put on my favorite plaid pajama pants and Lexington Prep T-shirt, and collapsed on my bed. As I fell backward onto the fluffy, king-size mattress there was a loud knock on the door. Before I had time to move, the door was flung wide open, and thudded dramatically against the wall. Without looking up, I knew my mother was there. I let out a groan as I propped myself up on my elbows.
“Why do you even bother knocking?” I asked.
I looked at my mother’s demure figure standing in the doorway. Her red lips were pursed and her bony white arms were crossed against her chest. She still had on her little black dress and string of pearls.
“You didn’t answer,” she quipped, and before I had a chance to argue, she spoke again. “What are you doing in bed already?” One delicate eyebrow flew up and creased her perfect forehead. She moved fluidly toward me, uncrossing her arms and laying one hand on the foot of the bed.
I looked over at the alarm clock on my nightstand. It read three a.m. in bright red digital numbers. “I’m tired and I have a ton of homework due Monday that I need to work on tomorrow,” I replied, scowling at her.
She laughed, throwing back her graceful chin. “Honey, your family’s thoroughbred just won the Kentucky Derby, don’t you think you can forget about that for a little while? I’m sure I can talk to your teachers. They’ll understand.”
“I don’t want any special privileges. I want to turn everything in on time like everyone else,” I said, half whispering the second part.
She shook her head at me. “Schoolwork can wait. We have something important to talk to you about, and there are some very important people who were expecting to see you tonight. I had to tell them I didn’t know where you were. How silly do you think that made me look?” she said, her deep red lips curling into a frown.
Mother’s face was always a study in expressive emotions. Every word, every movement, carried a sense of dramatic weight. She could have been a mime in another life.
“What do you need to talk to me about?” I sat up in the bed, my interest piqued.
“Something important, so come back downstairs so your father and I can talk to you,” she said, grabbing my forearm.
This was just another one of her ploys to get me downstairs to talk to her annoying friends. They didn’t have anything important to talk to me about, except for showing me off and making sure I made a good impression to all the “important people.”
“Sorry, but I’m tired and I have a headache,” I said, pulling my arm from her grasp and throwing a pillow over my head.
She huffed loudly. “Fine, if you’re going to behave like a toddler, I’ll leave you to your pouting.” She turned off the overhead light and slammed my bedroom door shut, causing the picture frames on the walls to shake. I didn’t even flinch. Instead, I let out a sigh of relief and uncovered my head.
I crawled under the covers and reached over to turn off my horse figurine lamp. The room became engulfed in a comforting sea of black.
~ * * * ~
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Genre – YA / Mystery / Suspense
Rating – PG13 (No sex scenes, some violence)