Nina tries to help a friend in the eighth and final book in a contemporary middle grade series in the tradition of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague.
Nina’s friend Leah has been acting oddly lately. The two of them attend the same small private school, and Leah also takes lessons at the barn where Nina keeps Breezy. But suddenly Leah seems to have lost interest in riding, and her behavior is oddly erratic. When Nina tries to find out what’s wrong, Leah pulls away.
At the same time, Nina becomes worried about Breezy, and discovers someone is sneaking in at night to ride him without permission! When Nina finds out it’s Leah whose family is having financial difficulties, she knows she has to do anything and everything to help her friend. After all, isn’t that what friends are for?
About the Author
Catherine Hapka has written more than 100 books for children and adults. She’s written for series as a ghostwriter and has also authored original titles. She lives in Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
The Road Home
“EASY, BREEZY,” NINA Peralt exclaimed as her pony charged toward the fence they were supposed to jump—a small vertical.
Bay Breeze flicked an ear back toward her. Nina steadied him with her legs and reins, and then leaned forward as he sprang over the vertical with several inches to spare.
When she landed, Nina heard a laugh from the other end of the riding ring. “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” her friend Jordan called out. She was sitting on her lease horse, a cute Appaloosa gelding named Freckles, waiting for her turn to jump.
“Easy, Breezy,” their riding instructor, Miss Adaline, echoed with a chuckle, shaking her head so her pink-tinted dreadlocks bounced. “That’s not something I hear you say often, Nina. He’s lively today, eh?”
Nina brought Breezy back to a walk, then headed toward the others. “Definitely.” She patted Breezy’s neck. “I like it!”
She’d owned the stout little Chincoteague pony for almost two years, ever since her parents had surprised her with him for Christmas. She adored everything about him, from his brown and white spots to his cheerful disposition. She had to admit that he was a little on the lazy side most of the time, though.
But it was spring, and Miss Adaline said that sometimes made horses feel perkier than usual. That certainly seemed to be true in Breezy’s case.
The instructor was pointing at the third rider in the lesson, a red-haired girl on a dark bay lesson horse named Ringo. “You’re up, Leah,” Miss Adaline said. “Go ahead and jump the same line the other two just did.”
“Go, Leah!” Nina cheered as she took her place beside Jordan and Freckles.
Nina and Jordan had been riding in the same Tuesday afternoon lesson for more than a year. Leah had joined the group during the winter after a couple of other girls had dropped out or switched times. But Nina had known her even before that, since the two of them attended the same small private school just outside the French Quarter.
“Settle down, buddy,” Nina murmured. Leah had just sent her lesson horse into a canter and now Breezy was shifting his weight as if eager to follow.
Jordan looked over. “He really is lively today,” she said. Then she giggled as Nina’s pony dropped his head and let out a loud sigh. “Well, for Breezy, anyway.”
Nina laughed, then tucked a stray strand of curly black hair back under her helmet, and shaded her eyes against the bright afternoon sun to get a better view as Leah and her mount jumped the line of fences. It was only the beginning of May, but it was already hot and sunny in New Orleans.
“Good job, Leah,” Miss Adaline said as Leah rode over to the others after finishing the exercise. “Okay, now let’s put those lines together into a little course. . . .”
The rest of the lesson went well, and Nina was in a good mood as she slid down from the saddle and pulled the reins over Breezy’s head. As she led the pony toward the barn, Jordan and Leah were right behind her with their horses.
“That was fun,” Jordan said, giving Freckles a pat.
“Yeah. But listen, let’s find a place to untack together.” Nina grinned at her friends. “I have some big news I’m dying to tell you guys!”
Leah’s green eyes instantly went sharp and interested. “Gossip?”
“Not exactly.” Nina’s grin got even wider. “Just come on and you’ll find out soon enough.”
Before long all three of their mounts were cross-tied in the stable aisle. As soon as she finished clipping Breezy’s halter to the ties, Nina stepped over to undo his girth.
“Well?” Leah demanded. “What’s your big news already?’
Jordan giggled. “Yeah, you wouldn’t want us to die of suspense, right?”
Nina considered torturing them by keeping them waiting a little longer. Jordan was famously excitable, while Leah loved gossip and secrets and was usually one of the first people at school to know all the latest news. It would be fun to mess with both of them.
But not this time. Nina was practically bursting with her news and needed to share it immediately.
“Okay,” she said, pulling Breezy’s saddle off his back and setting it on the floor beside her grooming tote. “You know I just had my birthday, right?”
“Just?” Leah cocked her head. “Um, I was at your party, you know. It was at least three weeks ago.”
“Me too,” Jordan chimed in. “But whatever. Is this about your super-secret surprise gift?”
Nina giggled and grabbed a brush out of her tote. “I should’ve known you’d remember that.” She started running the brush over Breezy’s body, which made him flap his lip with pleasure. “Yeah, my parents finally told me what it is.”
At her party, her parents had given her several nice gifts—a cute saddle pad for Breezy, a new leotard for her dance class, and a cool antique bracelet she’d been eyeing in a local shop. But they’d also promised her one more big gift—one she’d have to wait to find out about. And that morning at breakfast, they’d finally spilled the beans.
“So what is it?” Jordan asked. “A new saddle?”
“Or a pair of real diamond earrings like that girl at school just got?” Leah guessed.
“Ooh! Or maybe a whole new designer wardrobe,” Jordan put in.
“Nah.” Leah shook her head. “Nina wouldn’t even want something like that, or diamond earrings, either. It’s probably something like a gift certificate to one of those crazy old junk shops on Magazine Street she likes so much.”
By then, Nina was laughing so hard she almost dropped the brush she was using. “If you two would shut up, I might be able to tell you!” she exclaimed. “Then again, if you’d rather just spend all day guessing . . .”
“No, no.” Jordan grabbed her arm, smiling at her pleadingly. “Tell us—please?”
“Okay.” Nina swiped at a sweaty spot on Breezy’s coat. “You’d never be able to guess, anyway. See, my parents said they’re taking me and three friends of my choosing to the Big Easy Equine Expo!”
Leah wrinkled her nose. “The what?”
But Jordan gasped. “Oh, I heard about that!” she cried. “They’re having it at Fair Grounds Race Course in a couple of weeks.” She spun to face Leah. “It’s, like, this huge event sort of like a state fair or something, except instead of cows and vegetables or whatever, it’s all about horses! There’s supposed to be tons of horsey shopping, plus riders doing demonstrations of all kinds of cool stuff and, like, parades of different breeds, and who knows what else.”
“Wow!” Leah’s eyes widened. “That sounds pretty cool.”
“I know, right?” Nina grinned at both her friends. “And guess what? Two of those three tickets have your names on them!”
“Really?” Jordan shrieked, startling the horses. Ringo merely lifted his head, while Breezy barely bothered to flick an ear toward the noise. But Jordan’s own horse, Freckles, took a few steps sideways, yanking on the cross-ties.
“Ho, Freckie.” Nina stepped to the Appaloosa gelding’s head and gently pulled him forward a step or two until the pressure on the halter abated. “Jordan, you’d better not let Miss Adaline catch you spooking the horses, or she’ll make you ride the whole next lesson without stirrups!”
Jordan waved her hand to brush away Nina’s comment. “Never mind that,” she said. “I’m so psyched that you’re bringing us, Neens!”
“Me too.” Leah looked excited. “The Expo will be the perfect place to shop for those new paddock boots my parents promised me!” She held up one foot and waggled it. “Check it out—these are practically falling apart.”
Leah’s boots looked perfectly fine to Nina—barely broken in, really. But she didn’t bother to say so. She and Leah were total opposites in some ways, including their clothing preferences. Nina liked to browse the local secondhand shops for unique vintage looks, while Leah preferred buying brand-new outfits in the latest styles. But that was okay with Nina. She liked having all different types of friends. It made life more interesting.
“You guys will have to help me figure out who to give the third ticket to,” she said. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Jordan giggled. “Maybe you should give it to one of your imaginary friends.”
Nina stuck out her tongue at her friend as Leah laughed. Jordan was referring to the Pony Post, a private website Nina had set up with three other girls to talk about their beloved Chincoteague ponies. The other three members all lived far away—Maddie Martinez was from northern California, Haley Duncan lived on a farm in rural Wisconsin, and Brooke Rhodes was in southern Maryland, just a short drive from Chincoteague Island itself—so Nina had never met them in person. But she checked in with them online almost every day, and occasionally spoke to one or all of them on the phone. They were as much her friends as the two girls standing in front of her, though nobody else seemed to understand that. Nina didn’t really mind, though. What she had with the Pony Post was extraordinary, and she didn’t much care what other people thought of it.
“Watch it! I could give all three tickets to my imaginary friends, you know.” Nina grinned as the other girls laughed. But at the same time, she found herself briefly imagining what that would be like. Haley was sure to love anything at the Expo that had to do with eventing, the sport she did with her Chincoteague pony, a spunky bay pinto named Wings. But she was pretty much game for anything, often entering local Western competitions, which meant she’d be sure to love learning more about other horse activities too, from parade riding to saddleseat. Meanwhile Brooke would probably spend the whole time trying to memorize every fact and tip they heard to add to her endless knowledge of horses and ponies. That knowledge came in handy, not only when her friends had a question, but also when it came time to take care of her young chestnut mare, Foxy, who lived in her backyard. As for Maddie? It was hard to guess. Maybe she’d want to shop for a matching saddle pad and polo wraps for the Chincoteague lesson pony she rode, Cloudy, who was the spitting image of the title character in Marguerite Henry’s classic book, Misty of Chincoteague. Or maybe Maddie would want to skip shopping to try to see every possible demonstration and clinic she could. Whatever she did, she’d definitely have fun—and she’d make sure her friends did too.
Nina smiled at the thought of how much the Pony Posters would love the Expo. But she shook it off as Jordan and Leah thanked her again for the invitation. Sure, it would be stupendous to spend a day like that with her Pony Post pals. But she was sure to have a great time with her local friends too.
“I know who you could invite with that third ticket.” Leah shot Jordan a smirk, then turned it on Nina. “Jordan’s cute older brother.”
Jordan spun around. “Ew, no way!” she exclaimed. “You can’t ruin my day at the Expo by inviting that jerk Brett. Did I tell you he ate all the cereal in the entire house and didn’t tell anyone?”
“No boys allowed,” Nina said quickly, bending to dig through her grooming tote to hide the pink blush spreading over her cheeks. Why did thinking about Brett make her feel so funny? And how did Leah even know about that, anyway? Nina certainly didn’t spend any time talking about boys the way some of her friends did. . . .
“Whatever.” Leah shrugged, nudging Nina with her shoulder. “You could ask Trinity.”
“I thought about her.” Nina was relieved by the change of topic. “She’s an obvious choice since she’s one of my best friends. But she’s not into horses at all.”
“Yeah.” Jordan nodded. “Trin’s cool and all. But you should definitely bring someone who’s going to appreciate the Expo.”
They spent the next few minutes discussing options while they groomed their ponies, carefully brushing away dried sweat and saddle marks. After a while, Leah started to look bored.
“Listen, not to change the subject . . . ,” she began.
“But you’re going to?” Nina finished with a grin.
Leah rolled her eyes. “You’ll thank me when you hear the latest gossip,” she said. “I almost forgot to tell you, I heard a new girl is starting at our school tomorrow. Our grade, even.”
“Seriously?” That really was big news. There were only about forty kids in their whole class. “Boy or girl?”
“Hope it’s a boy,” Jordan put in, though she didn’t sound particularly interested, probably because she attended the local public school and only knew a few of Nina and Leah’s classmates.
“It’s a girl,” Leah replied. “I heard her family just moved back to New Orleans from somewhere overseas. Oh, and her name is Edith. Isn’t that weird? Sounds like an old lady, not a kid our age.”
Nina shrugged. “I like it—it’s different.”
“You like anything different,” Jordan teased. “But listen, let’s continue this chat out on the levee, okay? I want to take Freckie out there for a snack.”
Nina nodded immediately. Breezy, Freckles, and Ringo were city ponies who lived in their stalls much of the time, only getting turned out for short periods to stretch their legs in small dirt paddocks. Cypress Trail Stables fed them plenty of hay, but the only time the horses got to eat grass was when their riders took them out to graze on the grassy expanse of park facing the Mississippi River. Nina tried to get Breezy out there as often as possible.
“Okay, let’s go,” she agreed, dropping her hoof pick into her tote.
“I’m in, too,” Leah said, already reaching for Ringo’s lead rope.
The three of them were leading the ponies toward the door when a buzz came from Leah’s pocket.
“Your pants are ringing,” Nina joked.
Leah fished her cell phone out of her pocket with her free hand. “It’s my mom,” she said when she glanced at the display. “Better see what she wants.”
“Nice phone,” Jordan whispered, leaning closer to Nina while Leah spoke to her mother. “Think it’s new?”
“It is,” Nina confirmed. “She mentioned it at lunch the other day.”
Just then Leah hung up and turned to face them, looking annoyed. “I’ll have to take a rain check on the levee,” she said. “My parents want me home right away.” She rolled her eyes. “Mom was all dramatic about it too.”
“Is everything okay?” Nina asked.
“Probably.” Leah tucked her phone back in her pocket. “Sometimes my parents like to remind me that I’m the kid and they’re the adults, you know? I’m sure they’re just mad because I forgot to load the dishwasher or something.”
“Guess Ringo will have to settle for hay today.” Jordan reached over to give the bay gelding a pat. “See you Saturday at our next lesson, Leah.”
“Yeah.” Leah gave a tug on Ringo’s lead. “And I’ll see you at school tomorrow, Neens. Don’t forget to check out the new girl!”
“See you.” Nina waved as Leah hurried off toward Ringo’s stall.
She and Jordan continued down the aisle with their ponies. As they stepped out into the humid afternoon, Jordan glanced back over her shoulder. “How much do you think that phone of hers costs, anyway?” she said.
Nina blinked at her. “What’s with you and Leah’s phone?” she said with a laugh. “It’s just a phone, okay?”
“Not exactly.” Jordan rolled her eyes. “I saw the same phone in a magazine. It costs like three times what my parents paid for mine!”
Nina shrugged, not really liking Jordan’s disapproving tone. “So what? Leah’s parents can afford it,” she said, reaching over to adjust Breezy’s halter as they turned to follow a trail leading under a shady canopy of live oaks draped with Spanish moss. “Her mom is a scientist, and her dad and his business partner have great jobs working with all the big banks.”
“Exactly.” Jordan shot her a look over Freckles’s withers. “She’s loaded. And I’m sure you must’ve noticed how she makes sure everyone knows it. Do you really want to waste one of those Expo tickets on her? Maybe you should ask her to pay for her own ticket. Then you could invite two people whose parents don’t own half of New Orleans.”
Nina frowned, tempted to tell Jordan she was sounding like a bigger snob than Leah could ever be. Instead, though, she took a deep breath and forced a playful smile.
“Don’t be a hater,” she said lightly. “Otherwise I might be tempted to do what I said earlier and use all three tickets on my imaginary friends.”
That made Jordan giggle. “Okay, sorry,” she said. “I take it all back, okay? You have to let me come! It’s going to be a blast, right?”
“Totally.” This time Nina didn’t have to force her smile. “I can’t wait!”