Are you ready for the first chapter of the newest Alex and Alexander novel, Turning For Home? Well, I have it here for you!
Here’s the story:
Every racehorse must one day retire from the track, and for Tiger, that day has arrived.
Alex isn’t ready for Tiger’s racing days to end, but planning his next career is quickly becoming the least of her problems. An animal rights group is accusing her of involvement in a horse-abuse scandal, and with death threats arriving daily, Alexander fears for her safety. Suddenly Tiger’s not the only one heading back to the farm — Alex is stuck at home, too, with strict orders to stay away from the racetrack.
Both horse and rider would rather be racing than hacking around the farm. A Thoroughbred makeover event seems like the perfect distraction, but as the activists ramp up their protests, Alex realizes she’s competing for more than just a blue ribbon. She’s fighting for her own reputation. This horse show could make — or break — her future in horse racing.
Ready for more? Here’s chapter 1. And don’t forget, you can pre-order the Kindle edition of Turning For Home now through March 2nd and have it delivered automatically on March 3rd! It will also be available at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, and other retailers on March 3rd. Watch for a paperback in just about another week, if you prefer hard copies. Here we go!
Turning For Home
“Hey Alex, that horse still running?”
“Stick around, I think he gonna win the last race!”
“Yeah, too bad you entered him in the eighth, huh?”
I smiled congenially to our hecklers and then, with a display of the ladylike elegance I am known for, flipped Eddie and Mikey the finger. The railbirds guffawed and went back to their hard work holding up the backstretch rail. They had the last few races to lose yet.
“Don’t listen to them,” I told Tiger, who was most manifestly not still running, but who was prancing along beside me, every inch The Tiger Prince and seeming to have absolutely no idea that he’d just run forty lengths behind the winner of the bottom-most allowance race Tampa Bay Downs had to offer. “You’re just having a bad patch, that’s all.”
Tiger eyeballed a candy wrapper alongside the horse-path, considered it for a moment, and then gave in to his deepest, naughtiest desires: he snorted at the wrapper and spooked hard. Since the candy wrapper was to his right, that meant he spooked to his left—directly into me. I grunted as his rock-hard shoulder collided with my (much smaller, lighter, weaker) shoulder, then gave him a solid whack with the knotted end of the leather lead shank, right on his big handsome hindquarters, knocking sand out of his hide with the impact. “Brat!”
Tiger leapt forward, hit the nose chain and came to a screeching halt, snorted once again, shook his head, and finally subsided, contenting himself by returning to his high-stepping jig. He was the picture of a racehorse in fullest bloom of youth and energy.
He was six years old and sliding downhill fast. Speed had deserted Tiger, and all he had left was hubris. Of that, his reserves were endless.
I kicked at a seashell dotting the horse-path and sighed.
The fact was, Eddie and Mikey Tipton, the brother-trainer-wonder-duo who considered themselves the backside comedy troupe, hadn’t been calling out any jokes I hadn’t heard before. I’d even told that joke more than a few times. When horses run that bad, that’s just what racetrack people say, then we shake our heads to one another, once the unlucky trainer is out of earshot, and wonder what they’re going to do with that slow-ass horse of theirs. Turn it out, drop it in class, give it away, breed it… well, that last one wasn’t an option for Tiger.
The racetrack rail along our left gave way to short-cropped grass as we slowly walked into the stable area. Low green barns ran in tidy rows; horses peered over their stall webbings to see their compatriots returning from the eighth race. A man leaned over the railing of his barn, feed buckets in hand. “Sorry about the race, Alex,” he called. “Maybe next time, huh?”
“Thanks, J.T.,” I replied, with what I hoped looked like a smile. J.T. was a good guy. He waved, turned back under the stable banner that read Speed To Burn Racing Stable, and got on with evening feeding.
We turned into the shed-row of our own barn, Tiger dancing beside me, and Alexander turned from his perusal of some other horse hidden within a stall, some other horse to distract him from ours.
My eyes met his and he smiled ruefully.
“Surprised he’s not still running,” Alexander said lightly.
I walked on past him without a word.
I just didn’t have the joke in me this time.
I paused and looked back, pulling up Tiger. The horse blew hot air on my wrist and shook his head impatiently. Standing still was not in his post-race agenda, and he knew it. Time to walk the shed-row, pausing for a sip of water every second turn. Time to make faces at that filly at the north corner that hated him so much, she had to bare her teeth and take a chunk out of the wall every time she saw him. Time to spook and rear every time he passed the Monster in the Muck Pit, just like nearly every other horse in the barn. “What? I have a hot horse here.”
Alexander spread his hands in a consoling gesture that just looked helpless instead. But his blue eyes were kind, which I appreciated—I would have expected at least some impatience from Mr. Never Forget This Is A Business. Empathy would be a welcome improvement. “Look—I know it was bad. But no one is talking about it. At least you have that. Did you hear about those horses in the Everglades?”
Oh Lord, yes. I nodded stiffly; it wasn’t a story I felt up to talking about right now. I’d been in the paddock, saddling Tiger for his race, when the Everglades story broke. An outrider scrolling on his phone while waiting for the post parade had found some headline on Twitter—three horses, three Thoroughbreds, had been found abandoned and starving, wandering somewhere in the Everglades, in a piney upland, I figured, where a little bit of grass would push through the sand. Most of the non-natives were busy asking how a horse could be wandering around in a swamp for any length of time. The Everglades were way more than water and alligators. Not that it mattered. This was going to be a major scandal, and bad for all of us in the racing game. As it should be. Until the rotten apples were sorted out, most of America seemed content to throw out the whole bushel—Alexander and I included. Maybe, at least, they could prosecute this particular apple. “Any more news on it? Whose horses they were, maybe? They have to find whoever dumped them and throw the book at them.”
“None. But I just wanted you to know—that’s the gossip all over the track. If you were going to throw a clunker, this was the race to do it in. No one’s going to be talking about you tonight.”
“Thanks,” I sighed, and clucked to Tiger to walk on. He squealed and danced next to me, his hooves throwing up a cloud of dust to glitter in the golden light of late afternoon. “I don’t even know why I’m walking you out,” I told him. “I don’t even know how you’re hot from that little canter around the track. You big embarrassing dummy. Don’t you know I have a name to maintain? How am I going to lift my head around here?” But Alexander was right—with a fresh abuse scandal breaking upon the racing community, my worst showing yet from Tampa’s winter meet would go unnoticed. That was a mercy, anyway. It hadn’t been a wonderful winter so far, not for me.
“I almost wish I was back in Saratoga,” I went on, and Tiger jogged beside me, his ears flicking between the shed-row ahead and my familiar voice. We’d been together for how long now? The years went by in a blur of foaling seasons, hot summers, wet autumns, with every morning bringing the same chores. And except for leaving him behind for last summer, when I went racing in Saratoga, we’d spent time together nearly every day. Tiger was more pet than racehorse to Alexander and me, and I was even worse about it than Alexander was.
I galloped Tiger, I saddled Tiger in the paddock, I caught Tiger after the race. I kept Tiger at home with me between races. He’d been an anchor in a dangerous time for me, when my world was stormy and I felt adrift from everything I had ever loved. I had a special place in my heart for my wicked colt, Personal Best, who lived up to his name in every way as the best horse I had ever bred, foaled, and trained; I had a special attachment to my foolish filly Luna Park, who had been on the road to ruin when I claimed her and gave her a re-education.
But when Alexander had proposed that we run our good horses at Gulfstream over the winter, and went so far as to say they ought to be stabled at a South Florida training center for easy access to the track, I’d given the go-ahead. I’d kissed P.B. and Luna good-bye, along with Virtue and Vice and Shearwater. I’d kept Tiger, though. You couldn’t expect me to give up all my pets at once.
Bathed, cooled out, and legs done up in alcohol wraps, Tiger attacked his hay-net with all the viciousness of a real tiger, leaning over the stall webbing and tearing at the green ball of hay with tooth and muscle and temper. I leaned against the rail of the shed-row and watched him. Alexander leaned against the office door and watched me. I ignored him with the pointed air I’d perfected over the years. I didn’t want to talk about it.
But as usual, Alexander wanted to define when we’d have the discussion. “You know it’s time, Alex.”
“It was a bad race.”
“It was an embarrassment.”
I ground my teeth. Tiger wrenched hay from his net with long yellow teeth. They weren’t the teeth of a young horse anymore. Racehorses started their careers with little nubbins, barely grown out of their milk teeth. They left their careers when they were literally long in the tooth… the lucky ones, anyway…
“Can I at least have a cup of coffee before we talk about this?”
“That I can do.” Alexander stepped back and waved his arm towards the office door. “Come into my castle, madam.”
The office-slash-tack-room was half the size of our big comfortable office in the training barn back at Cotswold, and into that half we’d had to squeeze a saddle rack, heaped with saddle towels and girths and one perfect little exercise saddle, as precious as a child’s toy, for the handful of horses we had sent down from Cotswold for the winter race meeting. One corner was occupied by steel trash cans, their lids held down by bungee-cords to discourage crafty raccoons, and a small mountain of feed supplement buckets . My gaze flickered over their familiar labels: joint lubricants, immune boosters, hoof builders, vitamins, electrolytes, even powdered garlic to ward away mosquitoes and biting flies. Our horses got nothing but the best, but I hadn’t taken a multi-vitamin since I was a kid.
Wedged into the opposite corner, commanding a small view of the shed-row and the hot-walking machine beyond, was a thrift-store desk, a rusting filing cabinet topped with a dusty coffeemaker, and a small television of impressive vintage. On the floor, a small refrigerator groaned its way through the warm winter afternoon. I opened it now and pulled out a little carton of vanilla creamer. If I was going to have to listen to how badly my horse was racing, I was going to spoil myself with some decadent coffee.
Alexander eyed the creamer but didn’t say anything; he didn’t believe in spoiling good coffee with flavors and syrups. He set out two mugs with the farm logo on them, chipped and battered, the words Cotswold Farms in strong white Roman letters striding across a green field, and when he poured, he supportively left enough room in mine for a healthy dose of creamer.
I practically turned the coffee white as milk.
He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“I’ve had a rough afternoon,” I explained, and took a long draft of sweet milky indulgence. “You’re lucky I’m not demanding an ice cream sundae right now.”
Alexander grinned. “That sounds good, actually.”
“There’s a Friday’s right down the street.”
“Maybe later. Let’s talk about this right now.”
“It isn’t as if he couldn’t have done better in the race.” I dove right in, fortifying myself with a gulp of sugar masquerading as coffee. “He’s been training perfectly well. He went out there with two excellent works on paper. He was almost the favorite.”
Alexander put on a pair of reading glasses, the better to peer at me over the lenses with. They were a rather recent accessory which he enjoyed balancing precariously at the end of his nose for this very purpose. It gave him a fussy, headmaster-ish look, which he loved. It made him feel very wise. I had a feeling he was starting to believe I knew a bit too much for his comfort. He needed to do his wise old owl bit if he was going to continue to feel superior to me, and feeling superior to everyone was part of Alexander’s personality. It was one of the things I liked best about him. I wouldn’t have him any other way, even if he made me crazy nearly all the time. In the spirit of fairness, of course, I repaid the favor in spades.
“Alex, he ran forty lengths behind the winner,” Alexander began in a measured, let’s be reasonable here sort of tone. “I think that we have discussed this eventuality and come to the only reasonable conclusion.”
“I’m just saying he loafed. He wasn’t trying. I’m not saying anything else.” I didn’t actually know what I was saying. It was all nonsense. But I was desperate not to face this. I couldn’t run him in a claimer without risking losing him—and he’d shown today that he wasn’t going to win at the allowance level. All I really knew was that Tiger was going to have to leave the training barn, and I didn’t know where he would go.
Still, I wasn’t going to lose him without a fight.
“I wish he hadn’t ended with such a bad race,” I went on stubbornly. “It’s a terrible way to end his career. He was a good solid runner. He deserves a better send-off than that.”
Alexander sighed, as Alexander sighed so often. It was his sigh that reminded me I could be a real trial to him, but he loved me anyway, or that he loved me because of it, who knew? He was just as insane as I was, in the end. We were in the racing game, weren’t we? Filling our lives with horses, day in and day out? That didn’t say much for our good sense. He ran his finger along the rim of his coffee mug, making the cheap ceramic squeak. “You can hardly keep him in training only to run one more lackluster race. And if you drop him in class we stand to lose him.”
Well, that wasn’t a possibility for one second. No one was ever going to put a claim tag on that horse’s halter. We’d worked too hard to find him. He was ours—end of story. Alexander knew that as well as I did. He was just mouthing empty threats now. “He’ll never go in a claiming race,” I said pointlessly, simply for the sake of saying the words aloud, making sure they were still true.
“Well, there you have it. He isn’t an allowance horse anymore,” Alexander went on dourly. “And there’s nowhere else for him to go. If he can’t win in Tampa—”
“I know.” Then he couldn’t win anywhere—not anywhere in Florida, anyway. Not anywhere legal and sanctioned by the state. Gulfstream Park, with its richer purses and tougher competition, was beyond his reach now.
“We’ll take him home and turn him out for a little while. Then you can call Lucy Knapp and ask her to take him into training once he gets bored. She can hang on to him for six months, see what kind of career he might have ahead of him, or you can take him back for a pony. Come on, Alex. It’s for the best. I don’t want to see him go either, but I don’t know where we’d put him. And you want to see him working, don’t you? You don’t want to see him fat and wasted in a pasture.”
“Of course.” I tried to think of excuses. “We have a big farm, though, we ought to be able to find somewhere to stick one little gelding.”
“Well, we can, for a little while, anyway. But long-term? He can’t stay in the training barn, the broodmares will beat him up, he’ll beat up the yearlings, and he doesn’t belong in the stallion barn.”
I was quiet, running my finger around the rim of my own coffee mug, wondering why the stallion barn was out. It seemed like the perfect place to stick one little gelding who didn’t have a job right now. There were four empty stalls up there, just gathering cobwebs, growing dank and moldy, wasted space we hardly noticed in a barn I rarely went near.
But Alexander held the stallion barn, and our two stallions, firmly under his own power. If he said that Tiger wasn’t welcome up there, that was the end of it.
Now Alexander took a breath and made his proclamation, fingers laced together, the image of a reasonable man, a good husband, a sensible horse trainer. “Lucy can bring him along as a riding horse. We’ll keep close tabs on him. We’ll visit him and make sure he’s happy. Once she’s finished with him, we can decided the next step. If you want to keep him to ride, you can board him with her. Or we can find someone close by who can ride him, and lease him out.”
I rubbed at my forehead. This wasn’t supposed to happen. A barn without Tiger—I didn’t want it, didn’t even want to think about it. I’d given up Luna, I’d given up Personal Best—I saw them on trips south to check on their works, and run them in races, but that wasn’t the same as having them in the barn. Now my Tiger had to go? “I never thought we’d let him go,” I said reproachfully. “I thought you felt the same.”
“Of course we won’t let him go. I know he is our pet, and obviously we would never sell him. But he needs a job, and we’ll be all right without him. There’s hardly a lack of horses in the barn.” Alexander’s voice was gentle and reasonable, which for some reason made everything seem all the more upsetting. “You’ve barely gotten to know the new two-year-olds. There’s bound to be a new pet in the bunch. You find one every year. Last year it was Personal Best, remember?”
“And now he’s in Miami,” I sniffed. “And so is Luna. That’s not helpful. If I lose my favorite every year, I’m just going to stop getting attached.”
Alexander shook his head, looking amused. “Oh, Alex, if only. But you’ll get attached to someone new. It’s in your nature. And then you can cry about him next year, too. It’s your way. It’s emotionally exhausting, yes, but it’s just the way you are.” He held up his hands and smiled as if there was nothing he could do about me, despite all his best efforts. I was unfixable.
“They’re all dull this year,” I sniffed, ignoring his teasing. “I don’t know what we did wrong, or if there was something in the water or what, but not one of these babies has the personality of a banana.”
Alexander gravely considered the potential personality of a banana. “Well,” he said finally. “At least they’ll be easy.”
He had a point. Personality usually meant brains, and brains usually meant trouble. Young horses who thought too much got ideas in their heads that were not easily removed, ideas about who was in charge, the rider or the horse. Tiger was an excellent example of this. Tiger asked himself, and me, this question every single morning.
I sipped at my coffee, which had taken on the approximate taste and consistency of a truck-stop latte, and leaned back in the chair. I could see my reflection in the mirror tilted against the wall behind Alexander, resting crookedly on the dusty filing cabinet. I frowned at myself. I was thin this winter, from constant riding and farm work, and my shoulder-length blonde hair was in an untidy pony-tail that seemed to accentuate my cheekbones and chin. It wasn’t really flattering. Alexander told me to eat more. But I’d been anxious constantly since the string of horses had gone to south Florida, and all I’d wanted to do was work. I’d even gone back to galloping a few horses every morning, instead of watching the sets go by from the back of a pony. When I was galloping, I wasn’t thinking about anything but that horse, in that moment. It was a relief to let everything else slip away for a few minutes, and just concentrate on the sound of hoofbeats rumbling and tack jingling, to communicate to the young horse how to change his leads in the turns and how to match his strides with his work-partner.
I had to admit I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time on Tiger. Tiger, the horse who lost. I’d been so excited over his last two works. What a morning glory he’d turned out to be in the end! The loss could hardly have been more painful. Forty lengths was bad enough. Forty lengths was practically in the next race, all racetrack jokes aside. Forty lengths was a sign you might consider a new career for yourself, never mind your horse. But when you considered who had won that race, and with what sort of horse, it got a thousand times worse.
Mary Archer had looked like the cat that got the cream, too. I could practically hear her purring as she accepted the memorial plaque that had accompanied the race. Behind her, the horse she had won with, some Nobody by No One out of Nothing Much, had looked around the winner’s circle with wild eyes. As well he should have, since it was the first time the five-year-old gelding had ever seen the inside of one. That horse blew up the board and busted a few pick-six millionaires that day. Mary Archer had looked over at me, as I sponged water over my sweaty horse’s poll, and gave me a squint-eyed glare, as if I were something she’d scraped from the bottom of her shoe.
So had the press.
And the horsemen around the barns. And the bettors. And basically everyone in the world.
Tiger had been the second-favorite, you see.
Today hadn’t been my best day.
Then, the gossip had hit, and Miss Mary Quite Contrary had disappeared very quickly. Back to the barns, back to her truck? Amongst the clusters of horsemen repeating the unbelievable news that had just come out of south Florida, Mary was absent. Conspicuously so, it seemed to me. But maybe that was just because of our ongoing feud. Maybe it didn’t mean anything at all.
“I guess I just didn’t want to believe he was so done. I knew he was slowing down, but I didn’t know it would be so terrible.”
“It was terrible,” Alexander agreed promptly. “It was an embarrassment. It was a kick in the balls. But that’s racing. It’s nothing personal—he just let you know he was done, in the most public way possible.” He picked up his coffee, took a sip, then quickly put down his cup as if he’d suddenly had a revelation. “Is this just about Tiger, or are you upset about Mary Archer beating you?”
I slumped in my chair. Caught. “A little,” I admitted. “But look at the streak she’s on, and with all these horses right off the claim. She’s jumping them in class and they’re all winning and no one is questioning that even a little bit? All this and she’s training for Littlefield, Alexander! Horses no one else in town would touch with a ten-foot pole. That horse that beat Tiger hadn’t even run at that level before, let alone put his nose in front. That’s not a little nuts? And she was nowhere to be seen once the word broke about those abandoned horses. I don’t know how many bad schemes one person can be in on, but I’ve only seen her in the worst of company, and you know it.” The bush track at Otter Creek came to mind. Mary didn’t worry much about social conventions, or which side of pari-mutuel law she was on.
Alexander looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Maybe this isn’t a public conversation,” he suggested in a reproving tone.
“Fine.” He was probably right. At the races, you never knew when you were alone and when there was someone just outside the door, loitering and listening. Secrets were worth good money here.
“But whether her horses are legitimate or not, Tiger didn’t get beat by a nose. He got beat by forty lengths. That’s got nothing to do with the winner.”
I sighed. I knew that. I did. But it didn’t make things any better. I was still losing a horse, and I’d still seen him get beat by the woman who had tried her best to make me look like an idiot in Saratoga, and followed that up by being my only rival for a classless claimer who needed a safe retirement. I’d done all right at Saratoga despite her, and Christmasfordee would soon be safely installed in Lucy Knapp’s training barn, where she would learn to be a sport-horse, but Mary was always back for more, a thorn in my side, pointing out my every mistake.
“I guess that’s it then.” I brushed at my tingling eyes. “This dusty barn!”
Alexander took my hand and rubbed his thumb against my palm. “We get so attached,” he teased. “We really are awful at this business.”
I had to smile at that, and at Alexander, and at us, two trainers with horses running and winning all over Florida, a breeding and training farm recognized the world over, and the softest damn hearts in the game. “At least we don’t have a guilty conscience keeping us up at night,” I said lightly. “Not everyone in this business can say that. Sure, we get our feelings hurt, but our horses are healthy and safe and happy.”
Alexander nodded. “You’re right about that, love.” He reached across the desk and took my hand. His calloused grip was soft on mine, but I could feel the power there, the sinews and tendons and muscles and hard bone beneath leathery warm flesh. We were strong, I thought. We were mighty, and we would not let a little thing like retiring a horse bring us down. We’d provide for Tiger as we had provided for every other horse who had been entrusted to our care. We were the good guys, and even if I’d been a dismal failure as a trainer today, my day would come. Simple karma said so—karma and hard, hard work.
Alexander’s phone suddenly buzzed, bouncing across the desk like an angry bee, and we both jumped. He let go of my hand to pick up the phone, and I put it back into my lap, feeling anxious, even a little cold, without his comforting touch.
Goodness, I was just all kinds of a girl tonight, wasn’t I. Time to toughen up and remember who I was. I smiled at Alexander as I got up and headed back into the shed-row to find something to do. There was always something to be done. That might be the best thing about working with horses.
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