“What did your parents say about you leasing Octavia for the summer?”
Sarah’s voice derails my thoughts, but my eyes stay glued to the paper without reading. I give a noncommittal shrug she can take either way while I think of something. Yes, of course I’ve talked to them about leasing the mare. I’ve talked to them until I don’t have any breath left, and all I hear back is we’ll see or we’ll talk about it when we get through Jess’s auditions or maybe later. Well, now is later. But Dad promised. He promised if I proved I was serious about riding, if I stuck with it, and if I could jump. “None of that riding around in circles. You can do that on any horse,” he said.
Octavia isn’t any horse.
“They’re thinking about it still.” I can’t tell her yes for sure yet. “Dad’s coming today to watch me ride…” And I’m going to show him, convince him…
Sarah’s lips curl in. She makes a soft tsk sound against her teeth and crosses one leg over the other at the ankle. “The thing is, like I mentioned before, Octavia’s not working out as a lesson horse.” Her dark eyes look totally black in the dim light. “If your family’s not interested in a lease, I have no choice. I’ve got to sell her.” She holds out her hands palm up, as if pleading for me to understand.
“Sell her to who?” All I can picture is Octavia, the horse I’ve ridden and helped train for the last year, being loaded onto a trailer by some stranger and driven away forever. Never seeing her again.
Sarah pushes off the desk and puts a hand on my back. “You’ve done a great job with her, and we both know she’s not an easy ride. I’d like to see you teamed up with her and taking her to some shows.”
My mind flits back to what Octavia looked like the first day she arrived and Sarah pulled her out of a stall. My first thought was she was ugly. Something had eaten her tail to strings—strings that barely reached her hocks. She was a bay, but her coat was mousy brown and dull with the ground-in dirt and manure stains. Rangy didn’t even begin to describe the hide-covered skeleton that stared back at me. The mare’s distrustful eyes followed every movement, and she would pin her ears when you entered the stall. “She’s going to be your project, Cory,” Sarah told me then.
She was more than a project. She became my horse.
“She’s not ready yet for someone else to ride her.” I can’t stop my fingers from rolling up the lease agreement in my hand.
“I know.” Sarah sighs. “The timing’s not ideal, but I don’t have much choice.” She waves a hand at the stacks of paper spread over her desk.
Bills, I guess.
“I wanted to give you first dibs to lease because you mentioned your dad was open to the idea.” She nods to the wadded up paper in my hand. “If not, I’ve got a customer who wants to come over this evening to try her—”
“Today?” The word burns the back of my throat, choking to get past where it’s closing up on me. The whole idea of Octavia going—when she’s just learned to trust me. It feels like someone dumped a bag of rocks in my stomach.
“C’mon.” Sarah’s strong fingers encircle my elbow. “Let’s go see her.”
We walk to the last stall on the aisle. There’s a curtain between her stall and the neighbor, a big appaloosa gelding. Without it, she spends her days lunging at him and spinning in her stall. Octavia makes everything harder on herself.
Sarah slides the door open a foot, and the mare thrusts her nose in the gap and pushes it wider along the tracks.
“She’s gotten over being shy.” Sarah’s laugh seems to come from somewhere deep in her chest.
“Bribes helped.” I fish in my pocket, and before I can pull the sugar cube out, Octavia’s rubbery lips probe along my arm down to my hand. “I don’t know why my dad’s not here already. I told him he has to sign the release before I can show.” The words are little more than whispers, floating on a short breath.
Sarah hands me a brush. “I’m sure he’ll get here in time. Go ahead and get her tacked up. You can warm up in the little arena around back. When he comes, we’ll get the signature, and you’ll be ready to go in the ring.” Her eyebrows shoot up under a fringe of bangs, and the corner of her mouth tilts. “And we’ll talk to him afterwards. Okay?”
I feel myself smile back. “He said if I kept up with riding and got really good at it, he’d let me lease her.” I rub the mare’s coat, careful not to hit her ticklish places.
“Well, I’d say you’ve done that. She’s taught you a lot.” Sarah reaches up to scratch the horse’s ear and talk to her. “You ready to forget all those bad miles, huh girl?”
Sarah never lets on where she gets her horses, but many of them have seen what she calls “bad miles.” I’ve asked where they come from, and she always answers with something vague—like “he needed a new home and I had an empty stall”or “she told me she was ready to move on to something new, so I took her in.” Like they’re stray kittens or something.
“Horses have long memories,” I say, hoping she’ll tell me more.
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