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Secret to Healing

Chapter One

ALEXANDRA

August 1999

Vomit splashes back off the grass and splatters on the toe of my riding boot.

I wipe my mouth with my wrist, aware that it is far less classy than I have been taught to behave but stay hunched over with both hands on my knees, unsure if the last wave has come.

“Scared?”

I look up at where my trainer Sandy stands over me with her ever-present clipboard. Evaluating me. She doesn’t think I am ready for this, but I’ve spent the last four years determined to prove her wrong. And I have so far. Now I just have to get my Olympic qualifying spot for Sydney, and I can really tell her to kiss my ass.

That is, if I can find the strength to straighten my spine so I can rise and look at her. Or rather, look down to meet her eyes where I stand a good six inches over her short frame. I take a deep inhale and right myself. “I’m not scared to ride.”

She tilts her head to scrutinize me and determine if I’m lying.

I’m not. Not about being scare to ride, at least. My poker face holds.

“Don’t be nervous. You’re as prepared as you can possibly be.” As prepared as I can be for someone that she recommended not compete at the trials for at least another four years is the unspoken rest of her thought.

“I’m not nervous. I’m ready.” This is a little more of a lie. I am nervous about the competition. At nineteen, I am the second youngest competitor of the day at the Pan American Games and one of the few who has a legitimate shot to make it onto the team. But I’ve always handled nerves well. They give me an edge, sharpen my focus on the end goal: getting a spot on the team. This is my chance to prove that all the money that Dad has poured into this is worth it. That he can be proud of me. That Mom would have been proud of me.

But my focus shifted yesterday with two tiny blue lines on a white stick and something I knew that neither of them would be proud of me for.

“I’ll give you some time to go through your routine and see you in line. You know what you have to do.”

“I do. I’ll see you there.” My eyes follow her as she walks toward the main arena and I steady myself with a breath, gagging at the taste of it. I should try to track down some gum before I get any closer to my name. The worst wave of nausea has passed, and I take deliberate strides into the stables to grab my horse where Chase should have him ready while I concentrate my thoughts back on the task at hand.

After dressage yesterday, my rank is holding steady at fifth place with my strongest two events left to go. Today is the cross-country test where I stand to make up a lot of ground going into jumping. I haven’t placed off the podium in twelve months. Despite Sandy wanting me to wait another four years until I’m more polished and less risky to try for the Olympic team, I’m proving I belong here.

Normally, cross-country is my favorite day of competing. The rhythm that you can get in with your horse, getting to go outside of the fish tank of the main crowd in the stands. I don’t mind the spotlight of the arena, but I don’t want to face it now. Not today. Today, Rocky and I are going to have to overcome a lot more than a few tricky jumps to end up on the podium.

Chase is waiting just outside Rocky’s stall in the stable, chatting with a young woman about my age. Another groom that I’ve seen hanging around my stall this week. Instead of nausea, a wave of jealousy sweeps through my stomach, followed by the hot clench of anger that he isn’t even trying to hide his flirtation.

I haven’t told Chase yet. I’m too scared of his reaction and his waning interest in me.

He breaks off talking to the brunette on my approach and smiles, but the warmth doesn’t reach his brown eyes. “He’s all ready for you.”

I take a look inside at the big gray warmblood. He is my pride and joy, the horse that made me feel ready to move up quickly, and just the sight of him brings me peace for the first time today.

Forcing myself to meet his gaze, I thank Chase for preparing him.

“Yep. Go get ‘em, kid.” He clasps me on the shoulder like you would a teammate, a coworker, with more familiarity than most of the other grooms would show the rider they work for. Less familiarity than he used when we were making the kid I was, according to the test that I hid in my bag this morning, carrying inside me. It had been less than two weeks since the last time I was in his bed but if the heated look from the brunette was any indication, I hadn’t been the last.

Without another word, he walks off, leaving me with a nod on the biggest day of my life.

The bile I settled earlier makes its way back up. I barely get into Rocky’s stall with an empty feed bucket to wretch it up.

“It’s okay to be nervous about your first trials, dear. I still get nervous sometimes, too, and I’ve been doing this for thirty years.”

Jumping at the voice, I glance up to see Clarisse Haverford, my idol since I started competing, turned friend. I take the extended handkerchief she offers over the stall door and dab my mouth.

“Thank you.”

“Not a problem, dear. You did fantastically well yesterday, by the way.” She nods to where Rocky is behind me. “He’s come a long way in a short time with you on top of him.”

Despite the goose bumps on my skin from before, I feel my cheeks heat at the praise. “He had an excellent start. He’s really the one teaching me.”

She smiles at me while a blur goes by her side. “Giana, come here, please.” She turns to me. “That one has more energy than I know what to do with. I’ve had more trouble handling her than any horse I’ve had to tackle.” She says it jokingly, but there is no hiding the affection in her eyes.

Kids aren’t really allowed in the stables at competitions, but when both of your parents are Olympians and legends in their own right, you get to have a run of the place.

I greet the little girl as she bounces over to where her mother stands. Dressed in khaki riding pants and a navy polo that reads Team Haverford, she stands out as one of the neatest kids I have ever seen. Not that I have seen a lot of kids, but on the many occasions I have been around her at these events or visiting their stables, she is always more polished than most of the adults.

“Hi, Miss Alex,” she returns, her exotic eyes wise for her years. “Are you riding with Mom today?”

I rest my forearms on the door of the stall with her mother’s handkerchief still balled in my hand. I’ll have to have it laundered before I dare hand it back to Clarisse with my vomit on it. “Yes, though I’m sure not quite as well as she rides. Will you be watching her?”

“Yes, I’ll be at the finish line.” Her face goes up to her mother and returns to me, voice lowering as if she’s telling me a secret. “I’m very excited.”

My grin is genuine when I smile down at her. “Me too. Now I just have to start getting ready.” I lift my balled hand as I straighten my posture again. “I’ll make sure this is clean before I return it to you.”

“Don’t concern yourself. It’s yours.” Clarisse waves me off. “You’ll do well today, Alex. You’re ready.” Her confidence lifts my own and I hope that I’ll be able to hold on to it. “Tell Miss Alex goodbye, Giana.”

“Bye, Miss Alex. And good luck,” Giana added of her own accord.

“Bye, Gigi,” I get out before another wave of feeling flattens me.

She offers me a wave, her shiny black braids flapping behind her as she walks away.

My little girl could look like that in a few years. Not the olive skin and dark hair from a Lebanese father part, but definitely on the being at home in a stable. She would be around horses from day one, just like my mother had raised me.

Or she could ruin my chance at a professional career just like I had done to my mother.

I cradle my stomach reflexively at the twinge in my heart. I don’t know that she’s a girl or when she’s due. I’m not far enough along to tell, and I have an appointment with a doctor when I get back home. I can’t even feel anything yet and I don’t know when I’ll be able to. But my heart and head seem to think that it’s a girl.

And now I have a decision to make.

I put my hand on my gelding’s neck and stroke, burying my face into his neck to inhale the comforting scent. Even freshly scrubbed and show ready, the horsey musk that lives in my DNA gets through. I soak in the comfort it has to offer, debating if I should just stay in the stall and let the competition go on without me.

“What am I gonna do, Rocky?”

He nickers softly at the sound of my voice, ears flicking back to listen. I glance down at my watch, my mother’s platinum Cartier that I received on my eighteenth birthday and realize that I have maybe five minutes before I have to pull myself together to warm up. Just enough time to think through my options one more time.

No one knows yet. Chase, my father, no one. Maybe no one has to. I can keep on pursuing my dreams, make the Olympic team, and pick up later with the right man at the right time in my life.

I can make it go away.

I flinch at the way it feels in my body to even think it and wrap my arms around Rocky’s neck for strength.

Wrong. It feels wrong.

My mind wanders back to Clarisse and Gigi and imagine what my future could be. I can have a little girl bouncing through the barn with her pigtails. I can help. If she doesn’t want to chase the dream, that would be okay too, but with my blood and my mother’s blood in her veins, I don’t know how she couldn’t love it.

The difference is, Clarisse was already an established equestrian when she had Gigi. She had won an Olympic medal and was married to someone who supported her dreams.

I would be by myself. I don’t have to hear Chase say it to know. And that will be it from my father. He will cut me off completely. Even though I’m technically no longer a minor, he still pays for everything and will continue to as long as I do the Rochester family name proud and live out Mom’s dream for me. Just because I don’t handle finances everyday doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to how expensive it is to maintain the stables and horses and travel that come with competing. I cannot afford it on my own. I need family funds or sponsorships that I won’t be able to get at nine months pregnant.

But people do it in far worse circumstances than I have with far less resources. This might be one of the reasons that I can tap into my grandfather’s trust early for to get myself established. Or I can get a job outside of the world of horses. Go to school. Be there for her from day one.

She may be the end of my Olympic dreams, but maybe she will fill another one by starting my own family. It’s a tempting possibility.

Checking my watch again, I make my way out of the stable to go through our warm up quickly, not wanting to waste any unneeded effort. My dad won’t be waiting for me at the finish line like Gigi will be waiting for Clarisse. He wasn’t planning on coming until tomorrow when he has a box reserved in the arena with some of his cronies. His push to run for Congress next year started with my Olympic campaign. A patriotic daughter who returned home with a medal around her neck will all but guarantee him the seat he wanted.

A pregnant teenage daughter will cost him.

Sandy runs through all of the last minute details that I’ve heard a hundred times and I mount Rocky, ready to take the course and get moving.

If this is my last competition. I might as well make the most of it.

I give him a pat on the neck at the start. “C’mon, Rocky. Let’s fly.”

We take off steady. All I need is a smooth final run and we have a real bid at the Olympics. Even if I can’t pursue it and an alternate takes my spot, I want to earn it. To know that I can. That’s been the dream. My mom’s dream. My dad’s dream. My dream.

It may even help me with endorsements or sponsorship down the road if I let myself believe for a moment that getting one dream won’t cost me the other.

I count steps between obstacles like I breathe. Naturally, without thinking. My eyes stay up and focused on the tasks ahead of us as I recount the steps of the course in my mind. There will be time for the rest later.

I glance down at the stopwatch on my right wrist but don’t have to know the exact time to know our pace is good. Better than good. I’m locked in and so is Rocky. If we’re going out, we’re going out in style. People in the horse community will talk about the ride and what could have been.

Right now, I just want to feel the wind on my face, feel the steadiness of Rocky underneath me, ride clean, and fly.

After the arrowhead bushes there are two obstacles left, including the two triple rails followed by water. It’s the only one I am worried about but the way that Rocky is moving now, I feel invincible.

I lean with him as he takes off.

Soaring. Air underneath me and I glance down once quickly for the landing.

We fly.

Until we come down. Hard.

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