Ready or not, it's time to forge ahead
Carole's making great headway with a green horse, Pine Hollow is growing, and her relationship with Ben is blooming. Everything's perfect, right?
Stevie is stretching herself to the limit with her eventing, Callie doesn't have to be afraid of George anymore, and Lisa is crushing on a guy who feels the same way about her. Things finally seems to be falling into place for the Pine Hollow riders. But then, a tragic night brings a world of uncertainty. Are the girls ready to face real challenges? It's time to hit the trail at a full gallop.
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Pine Hollow, Book Seventeen
By Bonnie Bryant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Bonnie Bryant Hiller
All rights reserved.
Stevie Lake squinted into the setting sun. The solid log oxer was just a dozen strides ahead down a slight slope. Her horse's ears were pricked forward eagerly as she galloped. Stevie took a deep breath, keeping her body as still as possible as her horse surged beneath her, her strides coming faster and faster. "Okay, girl," she whispered into the wind, knowing that Belle couldn't possibly hear her but equally certain that the mare would understand. "Steady. Just let it come."
She allowed her body to come back toward the saddle and steadied the mare with a half-halt, bringing her stride down a notch. Belle responded well, gathering her hindquarters beneath her. Stevie sank her weight into her heels and folded up easily as Belle left the ground. The mare soared over the thick logs as if they were a couple of cavalletti on the ground.
Stevie was already grinning when Belle's foreleg touched the ground on the far side of the obstacle. She let the mare gallop on for a few more strides, then sat back and brought her down to a controlled canter before turning off to one side. The course continued, but the next fence was a water jump. While it was relatively mild for a late afternoon in January, Stevie had already decided that it was just too cold to ask her horse to splash through the chilly, fetlock-high water.
Not to mention how frozen I'd be if I came off her and ended up in the drink myself, Stevie thought as she circled Belle at a canter, which soon turned into a slow trot. Not that it would happen—we're totally in a groove today!
For a moment she was tempted to change plans and continue on. They could skip the water jump, maybe turn toward the panel fence off to the south instead, or perhaps circle back to the brush fence they'd just passed and take it from there. The cross-country fences were laid out in a way that allowed endless permutations, endless options for challenging courses, with all sorts of fences for riders of different levels. Stevie loved the fact that every obstacle presented a new challenge, a new question for horse and rider to answer together. That was one of the things she enjoyed most about cross-country jumping, and one of the reasons she'd recently decided to branch out from dressage, her longtime favorite discipline, and explore combined training. She had been excited and a little surprised to find that moving into eventing had already changed her whole perspective about her riding.
Once upon a time, Stevie had spent every spare millisecond at Pine Hollow Stables, hanging out with her two best friends, Carole Hanson and Lisa Atwood, riding and caring for and talking about horses. Over the past couple of years, though, she had found that other parts of her life were taking up more and more of what used to be stable time: high school, part-time jobs, other interests. Somehow, finding the hours she'd once whiled away at lessons and Pony Club meetings, doing stable chores, or endlessly discussing the virtues and vices of every familiar old school horse at Pine Hollow seemed much harder at sixteen than it had at eleven or twelve. Learning more about eventing gave her riding a new focus and made her more excited about her time in the saddle than she'd been in a long time.
As Stevie glanced to one side, wondering if there really was time for a few more fences, the setting sun emerged from a cloud, its rays nearly blinding her for a moment. The daylight wouldn't last much longer, and she still needed to cool her horse out before loading her back on the trailer for the trip home. Besides, Belle was blowing a little, her breath making frosty puffs in the chilly air. Stevie didn't want to overdo it—a tired horse was a sloppy horse, and solid cross-country jumps weren't forgiving. Reluctantly she decided that she'd been right in the first place. It was time to call it a day.
"Maybe we can practice our distances over some cross rails tomorrow," she told Belle, already planning out the next week's training in her mind. The following day was Saturday, and she hoped to get a lot done. "Then maybe Sunday we'll go out for a hack. We could both use a change."
As Stevie brought her horse to a walk and turned off the course, she spotted her boyfriend, Phil Marsten, waving to her. He was sitting on his own horse not far from his family's truck and trailer, which had brought them all to the cross-country course at the state park. Aiming Belle in Phil's direction, Stevie returned his wave.
"Check you out!" Phil called as soon as Stevie was close enough to hear him, shading his eyes with one hand and holding both reins with the other. "You guys are practically ready for the Olympic team!"
Stevie grinned at Phil and leaned forward to give Belle a pat on the neck. "Oh yeah? I'm glad you're here instead of Max. He probably would have told me how I didn't keep Belle straight enough on the first couple of fences. And then he might have mentioned that I anticipated that stone wall a smidge. And of course, he's always after me about my elbows...."
"I didn't notice any of those things," Phil lied loyally, returning her grin. "Hey, but I'm easily impressed." He reached down to scratch his horse on the withers. "Especially since ol' Teddy and I didn't have the guts to take it at top speed like you guys did."
Stevie smiled as she dropped her stirrups and swung down to the ground. Phil's horse, a solid-looking bay named Teddy, was quite a few years older than Belle. Though he still excelled in dressage, the quarter horse gelding's best jumping days were already behind him, and Phil was always careful not to overtax him.
"Don't let all this flattery go to your head," Stevie told her horse as she ran up the stirrups. "We still have tons of work to do if we want to enter an event or two this spring." Giving up her stern tone, she reached out and hugged the mare. "But hey. We're getting there!"
Stevie held both horses as Phil hurried toward his slightly battered two-horse trailer, returning moments later with halters, lead ropes, and cooling blankets. Meanwhile Stevie had traded her leather riding gloves for the warmer fleece ones in her jacket pocket, though she left her riding helmet on for extra warmth. "I wish I had one of those coolers for me," she commented as she buckled the fleece sheet on her horse. "I worked up a sweat out there, too."
"You're going to have to walk Belle for a good long time after that workout," Phil predicted, checking his watch. "We'll be lucky to get out of here before dark."
Stevie shrugged. "She won't take that long—she always cools out fast. She must get that from the Arabian side of her family." She couldn't help smiling slightly as she thought about her mare's breeding. She was sure that some people would think she was nuts even to think about eventing with a half-Saddlebred, half-Arabian horse. But so far Belle had taken to the sport like a pony to sweet feed, which only made Stevie more excited about the new venture herself.
She and Phil started walking, the horses stepping along obediently at the ends of their leads. It was getting chillier as the sun continued to sink behind the trees, and Stevie shivered slightly as she zipped her parka to her neck.
"Are you okay?" Phil asked. "I think there's a scarf in the truck."
Stevie shook her head. "I'm fine. Thanks." She glanced around at the rolling hills dotted with jumps. They were passing a coffin jump at the moment, and just ahead Stevie could see a bank obstacle and the water jump she'd avoided earlier.
She shivered again as she remembered flying over the course at top speed, the wind making her eyes water and her heart beat faster. "This place is pretty cool, isn't it?" she said thoughtfully. "Too bad it's so far away. I wonder if I could convince Max to install a real cross-country course at Pine Hollow."
Phil laughed. "You could do it if anyone could," he said. "But I wouldn't bring it up just now if I were you. He's got enough on his plate these days."
Stevie grimaced, snapping out of her cross-country daydreams and back to reality. Max Regnery, the owner of Pine Hollow, had recently decided to expand the stable. A lot of new families were moving to Willow Creek, Virginia, and Pine Hollow's forty-odd stalls weren't enough anymore to meet the demand for boarding, riding lessons, and pony rides. The construction had begun right after New Year's, and the workers were making good progress. Stevie was excited at the idea that there would soon be more horses and riders at the stable, but she still wasn't quite used to the fact that Pine Hollow was changing so much so fast.
"Maybe you're right," Stevie said with a shrug. "Oh well. At least there's this place. Thanks for hauling us over here."
"No big. It's not that far." Phil turned and smiled at her. "Besides, I'll take any excuse to spend the afternoon with my favorite future Olympic star." Shifting Teddy's lead to his left hand, he put his right arm around Stevie's shoulders and gave her a squeeze before returning to the gelding's near side.
Stevie automatically smiled in response, but her mind was still on Pine Hollow's transformation. "It's kind of funny," she said thoughtfully. "Pine Hollow seemed to stay exactly the same for so long. Then all of a sudden, bang! Max starts hiring new stable hands, building additions—it's like everything is changing all of a sudden." She frowned, the thought making her a little uneasy.
"Sure." Phil shrugged. "But they're mostly good changes, right? Besides, change keeps things from getting boring."
"I guess." Stevie tugged absently on her lead line as Belle paused to snuffle at the frostbitten grass. "At least, sometimes it works like that—like traveling or trying new foods or changing my focus to something cool and new like eventing.
But this is Pine Hollow we're talking about. Stuff like that isn't supposed to change. It's a little scary, you know?"
"Is this really the Stevie Lake I know and love talking here?" Phil commented teasingly. "The girl who always takes life—not to mention cross-country courses —at a full gallop?"
Stevie stuck out her tongue to acknowledge the teasing, but her mind was turning over what he'd just said. It was true—she wasn't normally the kind of person who worried about change or feared the unknown. She'd always been adventurous, which was one reason she was loving eventing so much. Life had been throwing a lot of changes at her and her friends in the last few years, though, and some of them had been difficult, if not downright disturbing. First her friend Lisa's parents had suddenly announced that they were divorcing after twenty-seven years of marriage. Then there had been the car accident—Stevie had been driving, her new friend Callie Forester had ended up partially paralyzed for almost six months, and a horse named Fez had been killed. More recently Stevie's friend Carole had cheated on a test and ended up banished from her job at Pine Hollow for a while. Then, of course, there were the changes going on at the stable. Thanks to the construction crew with their piles of materials and their noisy machinery and trucks, the place looked totally different already, even though the new addition was only about half finished. Also, Max's new stable hand, Maureen Chance, just didn't seem to fit in, as far as Stevie was concerned. And that was only the beginning. Soon there would be more new employees, new boarders, new everything....
"How's Belle doing?" Phil said, interrupting Stevie's thoughts. "We'd better get on the road soon if you're going to have time to clean yourself up for tonight."
"Tonight?" Stevie repeated blankly. Then she blinked. "Oh! Right. The double date." She smiled, suddenly realizing that she had something left to look forward to that day, even if her exciting afternoon of cross-country jumping was over. Another new development, if not quite as huge and overwhelming as the others.
This evening could be interesting, she thought. Then she crossed her fingers. And fun. I hope we have fun. All of us.
Where Ben Marlow was involved, that wasn't necessarily a sure thing. He wasn't the kind of guy who brought the word fun immediately to mind. When Carole had first admitted to liking her fellow Pine Hollow stable hand as more than a friend, Stevie had been dismayed. Carole was extremely confident around horses, and it showed in her superb horsemanship and choice of future career, but guys were a different story. And Ben wasn't exactly the picture of a perfect boyfriend—he had a magic touch with horses, but his communication skills definitely didn't carry over to his own species. Stevie wasn't sure she'd ever heard him string more than four or five words together in a sentence. In fact, he seemed determined to avoid people as much as possible—people other than Carole, that was. In the weeks since Carole and Ben had revealed their feelings for each other, Stevie had to admit that Ben seemed to be trying hard to make things work and treat Carole right. And Stevie was trying just as hard to give Ben a chance to win her over.
"It's too bad Lisa and Scott couldn't come with us, too," Phil commented.
Stevie frowned slightly, realizing that that was another change. For close to a year, Lisa had been dating Stevie's twin brother, Alex. They had been so crazy in love for so long that Stevie had been completely taken by surprise when they'd decided to call it quits—and she'd been even more surprised when Lisa had almost immediately started seeing Scott Forester, Callie's older brother.
Thinking about Callie reminded Stevie of yet another unsettling recent change. She glanced out over the cross-country course. "You know, it's still kind of weird that George is gone. It all happened so fast."
Phil shrugged. "To be honest, I'm glad he's out of here," he said bluntly, glancing at her over his horse's withers. "He gave me the creeps. I just never said anything because you seemed to like him—you know, with the eventing coaching and all."
"Yeah." Stevie bit her lip as she thought about that. George Wheeler, a shy, pudgy guy from her class at school who also kept his horse at Pine Hollow, had been the one to plant the idea of eventing in her head in the first place. Stevie hadn't known at the time that he was also in the process of stalking Callie—calling her at all hours, peeking in her windows, even following her out into the woods while she was training with her new horse. The last straw had come just after New Year's, when he had tracked her down in the deserted stable late one night and tried to kiss her. Callie had gone to the police and taken out a restraining order, and George's family had moved to another state less than a week later. "I guess I was sort of distracted by the whole eventing thing," Stevie said ruefully. "I was busy asking George questions and stuff, and I never quite got around to noticing the way he was acting around Callie."
She still felt guilty about that particular oversight. How long had Callie suffered in silence while Stevie cluelessly babbled at George about eventing? Stevie wished she had paid more attention, noticed what was going on. Maybe she could have helped somehow.
Probably not, though, she admitted to herself, pausing to let Phil and Teddy go first as they made their way through a narrow pass between two large trees. George really had everyone fooled. He just didn't seem like that kind of guy. Nobody ever could have guessed what he'd do, including me. Even Callie didn't realize what he was capable of until it was almost too late.
Still, every time she looked at George's horse, Joyride, who was staying at Pine Hollow until Max found a buyer for her, Stevie wished she could go back and redo things. But it was too late now. The past was past, and they all just had to deal with it somehow and move on.
Doing her best to shake off those thoughts, Stevie glanced over at Phil as she and Belle caught up once again. He was staring back at her, looking amused. "Still worrying about all the changes, worrywart?" he teased gently.
Excerpted from Full Gallop by Bonnie Bryant. Copyright © 2001 Bonnie Bryant Hiller. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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