Summary: Wonder's Pride will win the Breeders' Cup.
A/N: The end of the trilogy that includes Rice and Wheat and Pomegranate. AU Pride's Last Race.
There is a next day. It arrives as sure as the sun, light spilling over the mountains and soaking into the valley like a gentle reminder of the full force that will come in its wake. It is a Friday. It is the Breeders' Cup. Everywhere around them will be rising with the sun, but they defy instinct, just this once.
Ashleigh can't help it; she wakes, but she doesn't rise. Instead she just rests against the pillow she has clenched in her hands and studies him. He sleeps next to her, comfortable on his back, his mouth closed, totally disregarding dawn. It's so like him, she thinks, to be completely at ease in a place where he shouldn't. He practically made a living of it, so that he's here, still with her, doesn't seem that remarkable. It shouldn't be. If they are going to defy years of learned behavior, they have to do it together.
She thinks about waking him up, but they really don't have anywhere to be and she fails to see the point. So she shifts a little closer to him, wondering what it could hurt. They are all bare skin, but that boundary was torn down hours before, so when she gets close enough to him she decides to screw caution and climbs slickly right on top of him.
That wakes him up, but he doesn't open his eyes. He's being stubborn, so she lets herself rest on top of him and moves her hands to his jaw, rubs a thumb across his mouth. That pretty much does it, and she feels his hands move up to cup her hips. She smiles victoriously.
"Yeah, you win," he mutters, his eyes still closed. "So what else is new?"
"So I've been thinking," she tells him, shifts up his body. That opens his eyes, and she pauses, caught in his gaze. He smiles, knowing, as he always does, what her reaction is all about.
"This early?" he asks. "What time is it?"
"We should have been at the track hours ago," she chides.
"On a normal day," he shrugs. One hand drifts up her back, fingertips gliding up to the back of her head and nestle into her hair.
"Yes," she says, feels his gentle pull. She thinks of all the things she wants to tell him. They will have to wait for another day, she decides, because they are notions half conceived, and when his mouth meets hers all thought vanishes, rendering her speechless.
"Today isn't a normal day," he says against her mouth, and he couldn't be more right. She kisses him. He pushes her hair out of her face, pulls it behind her neck in his fist, and kisses her back, because they have the time and they have no where to go.
That is the morning. There is an afternoon, a strictly scheduled crush of bodies and post times, because this is Friday and this is the Breeders' Cup. For Ashleigh, Friday drifts. It is a waiting game lost amidst glances and slight touches, made all the worse because she only has two races to ride. She goes to the jocks' room early, just to sit and breathe without feeling her chest constricting.
Ironically, nothing has happened to warrant panic. She's simply made her rounds in the stables, watched the opening race of the Breeders' Cup, and discussed her two mounts for the day with their trainers. It would appear remarkably normal, but it isn't because Brad is there in her periphery, a breath away. He hardly appears to notice her, plays so sweet and charming to the flattered smiles of the women he's presented to, talks words of business with those he doesn't have to entertain, eyes serious except when they're on her.
She finds herself wondering how everyone hasn't guessed. It's a trial for her not to stare, to keep her eyes, as they say, on the ball. The effort to concentrate nearly leaves her lightheaded, so when she's in the jocks' room she changes into her crisp white pants and drops like a rock on the bench, placing her forehead on her knees.
It's Jilly who gives her a startled look, and comes over to rub her back.
"I'm okay," Ashleigh says, lifting her head. The blood has rushed to her face and she's flushed, warm to the touch. She pulls her hair back and ties it into a ponytail.
"Nerves?" Jilly asks, like that can't possibly be it. They've raced together so often now that they know their faults, their quirks, their strengths. Nerves should be one of Ashleigh's faults, but it isn't. She doesn't get nervous on race days. Instead she grows calm, the picture of easy confidence. Most would envy her this, but they know how she is normally. Normally she's a wreck.
"Must be," Ashleigh shrugs, taking a deep breath and smiling for Jilly's benefit. The other jockey doesn't seem quite convinced, and neither is Ashleigh, but to a certain extent it's true. When they walk out into the paddock for the Juvy Fillies, she sees him again and that feeling rushes up, clenches around her stomach like a vise. All it takes is a lift of his head, the sweep of his eyes, and she's completely thrown off course.
The filly. She makes herself think of the filly, who prances by with her head in the air and her eyes rolling wild. Her Majesty, a gift to the farm, bought with Lavinia's plentiful funds, was left behind as a stipulation of a prenuptial agreement concerning the gifting of small treasures. The filly is a small treasure, both to Townsend Acres and Ashleigh. There is nothing like mounting up on a wedding gift belonging to the failed marriage of a man that is currently making her short of breath. If anything, that will ground her.
It doesn't. The fillies move into the outdoor paddock and the jockeys follow. The owners mill casually amongst themselves, but Brad is there, of course, when Maddock gives her a leg up. The filly skitters around on her lead, bouncing and dancing, and Ashleigh has to grip onto her dark mane to hang on. Her Majesty settles and Ashleigh gets her feet in the stirrups, taking a deep breath. Any benefit from that breath is demolished by his hand on her knee, and she tells herself not to look down at him, but, of course, she does.
"Give 'em hell, okay?" he tells her. "She can do this."
She hardly hears what he says, because she's caught up again. It takes her the distance from the paddock to the track to calm down. By that point the filly is raring to go, and when they burst out of the starting gate they give them hell almost by accident.
They are five lengths ahead of the competition when they cross the finish line, the filly exhausted from her effort, and Ashleigh more than a little dazed. They turn and head back to the winner's circle, where everyone wears jubilant smiles. There is an Eclipse Award waiting somewhere in the future. Ashleigh pats the filly and poses for the pictures, then jumps down to cheers and stumbles right into him.
His hands are on her arms, stopping her from a collision with his chest. She gets her feet underneath her and he's all smiles. There is joy written all over him, because this is the Breeders' Cup, she thinks, but it's a half truth. She feels a smile drawn out of her unbidden, and it quickly disintegrates when he leans down and presses a kiss to her forehead.
"Do I really need to say how fantastic that was?" he says. He's still holding her and she puts her dirty hands on his clean, perfect suit. She grips the lapels, unsmiling, because he hasn't let her go, and her thoughts are racing because she has two options. She takes the only one that makes sense, because no one is missing this exchange.
"No, you don't," she says, and rises up to kiss him.
That is the afternoon. After finishing out of the money in the Filly and Mare Turf, she avoids Jilly's curious looks and slips out of the jockeys' room in street clothes. She checks in on Pride before she leaves, and she's thankful to find the shedrow deserted. It's only the muffled noise of horses, and Pride stands alone in his stall, waiting for her. She walks up to him slowly, and rests her head against his amber neck. The colt stares off into the distance and listens to the soft, whispered words she can tell no one but him.
There is an evening, the soft dying light slanting like rays of gold, hitting the palm trees and splashing up on the mountains, illuminating everything. Ashleigh drives back to Pasadena alone. She opens the car windows, letting the dry wind in to rip at her hair. It tugs at the tresses, curls the strands across her lips, tangles it into a wild mess. She can imagine him liking her hair like this, saying that it's so like her. When she pulls into the parking lot of the hotel, she rolls up the window and turns off the engine, sitting in the boiling heat. She pulls a hairbrush, the one she takes with her to the track, out of her bag and drags it through her hair until it is silky smooth. She pulls it into a ponytail and smiles softly, as if at a joke only she understands.
She gets out of the car and walks into the hotel, strides right past her door and knocks once on his. He opens it after a moment, and leans against the doorjamb, lets the door fall back behind him until it bumps against the wall. His suit is in a state of being dismantled, shirt nearly unbuttoned, jacket tossed somewhere out of sight.
"I didn't mean to start that back there," he says after she doesn't really know what to say. She nods.
"I know," she says. She steps up to him and pushes the dress shirt aside to put her hand on the soft cotton t-shirt underneath. He's warm, and the muscles tense under her touch. She swallows, knows that there is some phrase to apply here. You break it, you buy it, she thinks, but that is not exactly right. It's a half-truth, and she smiles, thinking how often her thoughts have been shattered by him.
"But I finished it," is what she says, stepping up to him. He just looks down at her, and then he smiles, lifting one hand up to her jaw, and then slips the elastic out of her hair. They don't waste much time.
Friday is the beginning, and Saturday is the end. She finds herself waking up in his bed, curled up next to him as if she's sought him out in her sleep. This shouldn't be right, and she wants to be mildly embarrassed, but she's so far past that. She can't offer a blush, not even when he shifts in his sleep and she finds herself pressed closer. So she closes her eyes, drifts off, and opens them some time later to see him unapologetically staring at her.
"Maddock is going to wonder where we are," he says, not moving.
"I need a shower and food," she mumbles against his chest, and he pushes the covers off of them, making her press closer by instinct.
"Good thing Maddock comes with breakfast," he says, and she groans when she feels him get up. The bed is still warm, but this is no good. She sighs and snuggles into one of the pillows, looking at him as he pauses in the doorway of the bathroom. "You know, the shower is big enough for two."
"Of course it is," she smiles, pushes the pillow away and sits up. "What sort of shower would it be if it wasn't?"
The marble is cool against her back, no matter how warm the water is. She manages not to get shampoo in his eyes, and her long hair is a challenge. It quickly becomes a game until her back meets the marble again and her arms wind around his neck, soapy bubbles trailing down her skin and washing away to the drain.
She has to go back to her room to get ready, because she can't just show up at the Breeders' Cup in jeans. The linen dress is a little too short, she realizes, but it's too late to do anything about it. She slides on her kitten heels, forgoes makeup because she doesn't see the point, and slips back into Brad's room, where he's still getting ready.
"How is it possible that you're still half dressed?" she asks, looking over him. He's pushing his shirt into his pants, a tie hanging useless around his neck.
"Like this could have taken you more than five seconds to put on," he tells her, touching the linen and deciding he'd like to smooth one hand over the material covering her left hip. She shoos his hands away and sits down in one of the chairs, catching his smirk as he finishes up with his shirt.
She watches him from the chair, crosses her legs, and tries to not feel self-conscious about the skin the dress can't hope to cover. It helps that he can't stop looking at her legs, but his gaze just makes her shiver and grow restless. He puts on his tie and grabs the jacket off the bed, shrugging into it and becoming, for all intents and purposes, the Brad Townsend she's wanted to hate. Brad in Armani, silk, Italian wool and leather.
Instead it just makes her want him to look at her again, and when he does she knows she looks like a deer caught in headlights. She always looks like that when she's been caught staring. He just crosses the distance to her and leans over the chair, distributes his weight with a hand on each arm of the chair. They're quiet for a second right before he kisses her, and when his hand finds its way to her thigh, traveling up underneath the hem, she squeaks and darts up from the chair, laughing and pushing him away.
"There isn't any time for that," she reminds him, picking up his hand and showing him the Rolex that adorns one wrist. "See?"
"It's a damn shame," he sighs, pushing one hand through his dark hair. It goes in all directions, and she reaches up to pat it back down. He catches her wrist and looks at her darkly for a moment, then asks, "I'm going to the backside after we talk with Maddock. Want to come along?"
She wonders if this is a test. First the kiss in the winner's circle, now a trip to the one place she knows she can avoid no one. Not on the Saturday morning of the Breeders' Cup. She has not run away yet, really doesn't feel the urge, but there is a difference between being in a relationship and flaunting whatever it is they have. She's not sure it's a relationship, not yet.
She looks at him, knows that they cut such an interesting picture. Their story is so old, and this is so new, so delicate, so easily broken in two. She wants to say no, wants to say that they must be professional above all on this day, but she knows it won't happen. It would be fighting the current, going against good sense. She's caught up, and she's calm, so she says yes.
They meet Maddock in the hotel restaurant, and Ashleigh tries to listen to everything he has to say. There's a Daily Racing Form sitting open between them, and she reads the entries upside down and tries not to pay attention to Brad, who won't stop looking at her. When she catches his eyes she zones out, and Maddock gets frustrated and puts one hand on the newsprint in front of her.
"We have five fucking big races today," he says, looking back and forth between them. "I'd like to win those races, so can we pay attention here?"
Brad says nothing, just looks at Ashleigh as she says, "You have my complete attention, Ken."
When Brad bursts out laughing and she kicks at him under the table, Maddock rolls his eyes and mutters for them to grow up as he closes the paper and finishes off his Continental breakfast. He isn't angry per se, because they've gone over strategy for days. Ashleigh has it memorized, has scrutinized the horses, knows exactly what the game plans are, and he knows that. He also knows about them, and he doesn't say a word.
That's not how it's going to be the rest of the day. The backside of Santa Anita is barely organized chaos. Horses and people are everywhere, and one animal has already gotten loose in the madness. The Townsend stable block is as calm as it can be when they arrive, the horses already painstakingly bathed, walked, and groomed. Pride has the first stall by the door, allowing him the best view, and he sees them approach, letting out a throaty call of welcome.
Ashleigh almost smiles, but then she sees Samantha peek around the colt from inside the stall, and she feels her heart stop in her chest. She pauses mid-stride, cursing softly when Samantha ducks back out of sight.
"Hey," Brad says, putting a hand on the small of her back. "It's okay."
"We'll see," Ashleigh says under her breath, picks up her courage, and walks ahead of him into the shedrow. She stops by Pride, and Brad wisely continues on, making his way down to Townsend horses that he does not share.
Samantha stands in the stall, her eyes focused on the colt's side as she vigorously sweeps a brush over his coat. Pride is already glossy with care, his white marks brilliant to blinding, and his mane so smooth with conditioner it slips right through Ashleigh's fingers.
"Hi, Sammy," Ashleigh tries, nestling one hand in Pride's mane and looking at her friend, who keeps sweeping the brush over Pride's coat with a determined set to her jaw. There is no response, and Ashleigh knows.
The past year has not been easy on Samantha, has been full of shock and recovery, and now there is only more shock. Ashleigh also knows that, despite Samantha's eagerness to help with Pride, that she is still being punished for putting Samantha in this position. Theirs is not exactly a friendship anymore, as much as it is a working relationship for the sake of a horse they love. Samantha has chosen her side, and now her decision has been cemented. Ashleigh respects that, understands her position, but knows that it is only born of resentment at being left behind. Samantha's life seems to consist of this, being left behind and rushing to catch up.
Ashleigh is the one that does the leaving, but she's also the one with the burden of making the decisions. No wonder, she thinks, that she's a basket case.
Pride sighs and licks his lips, hunting for some tiny shred of hay that has been taken away hours before. Ashleigh wants to sigh too, but she knows this will only set Samantha off. So instead she reaches inside the stall and puts her hand over Samantha's, stopping her repetitive brush strokes and taking the brush from her hands. This, remarkably, makes everything go still.
"Sammy," Ashleigh starts, but Samantha's eyes flash as she looks up and trains them on her.
"Brad?" she hisses. "How is that even logical?"
Ashleigh doesn't know how to respond. It's not logical, not really. Mike was logical; he was only anything that could be approved with flying colors. But that, she reminds herself, is over now. That is a door slammed closed.
"I mean, it would be one thing," Samantha continues in a heated whisper, "if you'd just told me like a friend, but you just do that…"
She breaks off and shakes her head, and Ashleigh feels something in her shift. That they are friends still, like they used to be, is a lie.
"Maybe if I could still talk to you like I thought you wanted to listen to me, I would have," Ashleigh says before she can reel herself back. Samantha gives her a look, and Ashleigh knows she's dug herself a hole. Now she just has to jump in and help Samantha cover it back up. She can only continue now. "I can't begin to tell you anything if it isn't immediately prefaced by an apology or some juvenile about face."
"How can you expect me to change so fast?" Samantha asks angrily. "I'm sorry if I can't just accept every one of your random decisions like it's the best news I've ever heard, Ashleigh."
"It's not a random decision," Ashleigh says, although she's unsure what decision she means.
Samantha laughs low in her throat, shaking her head. "Whatever," she scoffs. "You don't have to apologize to me. It's not like I expect you to come back. Believe me, no one expects you to regain your senses at this point, especially now."
The colt is tensing, lifting his head and shifting away from them, making Samantha cut herself off. Ashleigh doesn't say anything, doesn't expect Samantha to understand anything she'd have to say, and Samantha just glares at her, like Pride's discomfort is her fault and hers alone.
"I don't expect apologies," Samantha whispers, tries to take the malice out of her voice for the sake of the colt. Instead it just sounds like she's holding back tears. "You're gone, and I get that, Ashleigh. Or I did. Now…don't expect me to understand."
She lets herself out of the stall and brushes by her, hurrying out of the shedrow. Ashleigh sighs and rubs her forehead, can imagine conversations like this one repeating themselves over and over with everyone she knows. It takes effort not to follow Samantha, to catch her and make her listen, but Ashleigh knows she won't have words that Samantha will want to hear, so she stays where she is and tells the colt, "Well, that went just about how I thought it would."
"Didn't go well," Brad assumes, approaching her slowly and stopping by the colt's stall. Pride perks up and shakes his head, coming back to the stall door. The mood has changed, and the colt has noticed. Ashleigh belatedly hopes that they haven't done damage here.
"That's an understatement," she says, rubbing the colt's forehead and then at her own wet eyes. She feels Brad's hand warm on her back, smoothing the tense muscles. She tries to explain Samantha's reaction, but she doesn't know if she does the situation any justice.
"She'll come around," Brad says, shrugging, which is easy for him because his knowledge of Samantha is vague at best.
"She's stubborn," Ashleigh simply responds, but she thinks, too, that there's truth in what he says. Samantha is not a tyrant. She just wants to understand, and Ashleigh isn't making it easy for her. For a moment, she envy's Brad his position. Reaction to this will be different for him. It will be a curious look and a grin, a question about taming an old nemesis. It will be all about victory. For Ashleigh, it will be a tragedy. Even worse, it will be a betrayal.
She goes to the jockeys' room with this on her mind. It sits heavily, sagging on her like a weight she can't lift. She must look tortured, because Jilly says nothing to her about anything important. Instead she tries to get her to smile. Even Craig joins in the effort. They are successful, if briefly.
Her only mounts of the day are Townsend horses, and she is aware of the shift immediately when she walks out for her first race – the Mile. She stands with the jockeys by the door to the jocks' room, at home in the green and gold silks, and sees Brad standing next to her mount, a tall bay gelding named Courtly. He's looking at her over the sea of people, but so is Clay Townsend, who watches her like she's something he has never seen clearly before. They are talking, too far away for her to hear or guess at what they're saying, but Brad keeps his attention on her, and it's all she needs to know.
He smiles, like he's being congratulated, and Clay claps him heartily on the shoulder. Ashleigh blushes and looks away, thankful when the horses move off to the outdoor paddock and she can finally do her job. She glides by Clay and his second wife on her way to the horse, and feels their eyes on her back when Maddock gives her a leg up. Brad says nothing this time, barely paying attention when the horses leave for the track. Ashleigh doesn't dare think what he might be watching that is not her.
Courtly comes in second, driving for first, but runs out of time and turf. She returns him to the grandstand and jumps down, beginning her day. In the jocks' room, the intensity climbs, not because of her but because Jorge and Corey nearly come to blows about something she didn't see in the Mile. There are accusations thrown around the room, and Ashleigh sits and twirls her crop in her fingers, waiting for the Juvy with a justified impatience all about her.
Jilly sits next to her, looking worried while Craig yells at Corey to cool off. Jorge says something he shouldn't and the two men are at each other's throats again, making Ashleigh roll her eyes.
"God, Corey," she says just loud enough to get paid some scant attention. "Everyone knows Jorge's an asshole, so just let it go. He's like that with everyone."
Corey grumbles and pushes Craig's restraining hand off of him, stalking back to his corner of the room while Jorge sends Ashleigh a brilliant white smile. "Gotta respect a woman who's holding Townsend's leash," he tells her, so loud that if it wasn't known before, it is now. Ashleigh is unimpressed.
"He's more of a man than you are, Jorge," Ashleigh comments, getting a lurid grin in response. "He was the one who threw you off of Lord Ainsley last year, if I'm not mistaken."
Jorge finds this remarkably hilarious and calls her a bitch. Ashleigh just shrugs, and Jilly looks at her like she's lost her mind.
"It's true," Ashleigh defends, and Jilly only shakes her head.
"But that doesn't mean you say it out loud," Jilly tells her. "He's riding in all of your races for the rest of the card."
"I'll survive," Ashleigh says, feeling suddenly eager to kick dirt in someone's face. If it has to be Jorge, it will be Jorge. Besides, she's riding the favorite in the Juvy and the Classic. It's more than likely she will kick dirt in plenty of faces before the day is done, and she has no idea if that's going to be enough.
In the paddock for the Juvenile, she's focused. Her mount, a lithe gray named Edge of Chaos, is so solid she feels confident in her chances, and at the post, Jorge gives her that shit eating grin that she wants to smack off his face. They break, and they go for it, plunging out onto the track. Edge of Chaos lurks in fourth the entire way around, while she knows Jorge is somewhere further back, shuffled behind but not forgotten.
At the quarter mile pole, they all surge forward. She swings the crop out and takes the gray colt wide, clearing competition with more at her back. There's a flash of silks in the corner of her eye, so she brings the crop down smartly on the colt's flank, swings it out and past his eye. Edge of Chaos switches leads and accelerates, inching into first place by a neck at the wire.
They slow down, standing in the stirrups while the roar of the crowd dulls to a gentle rumble. Jorge is right next to her, so close he could reach over and shove her onto the dirt if he wanted to. He grins and yells, "It's lucky you're a girl, baby doll."
"It must suck losing to one," Ashleigh yells smartly back, reining in the colt and turning as Jorge keeps trotting, his laughter carrying across the track.
She walks the gray into the winner's circle and poses for the pictures, then lets herself really smile when she jumps off the colt and walks, saddle in hand, up to him.
"Jilly has quite a tale about the jocks' room after the Mile," he says to her, and she shrugs.
"It's always some drama," Ashleigh says, noticing he looks about as concerned as he can after winning a race like this. "It's not a big deal."
"Just be careful," he tells her, lifting his hand to wipe a streak of dirt off her cheek. "Jorge lets this crap get the better of him."
"Hey," she smiles, "it's the Breeders' Cup. What can happen?"
"Plenty," he says, and kisses her. She lets the tension in her unwind then, closes her eyes and kisses him back. When they pull away he smiles and says, "Thanks for the win."
"Well, I mainly did it to kick Jorge's ass," she says and he nods, like that's a fair reason.
"Right," he says. "So I suppose I can expect to see you in the winner's circle another three times today?"
"If we're lucky," she says, and then hurries back to the jocks' room, where Jorge is waiting with wolf whistles that do nothing to faze her.
She sits down next to Jilly, and they watch the jockeys file out for the Juvenile Turf. Jorge and Craig go with them. There is a lull in the action as they watch the television while the track is prepared for another race. Jilly congratulates her on the Juvy.
"Thanks," Ashleigh says, smiling. "He's a talented colt."
"Brad looked happy," Jilly comments.
Ashleigh nods. "Brad's happy whenever he has a two-year-old to follow. He has two this year, so he should be plenty busy."
Jilly gives her a sidelong look that tells Ashleigh all she needs to know. Brad has a history with caring far too much about two-year-olds, but then so does Ashleigh. Jilly doesn't say anything about that, preferring to lean back against her cubby and go for the obvious.
"I told Brad about Jorge," she says suddenly, and that really isn't what Ashleigh is expecting.
"I know," she says. "He told me."
Jilly just nods and squirms in her seat, like she has so many questions that she can't possibly contain them all inside. Ashleigh remains quiet, not knowing exactly what to say, so she decides to wait her out.
"He seemed concerned," Jilly says.
"He can be like that," Ashleigh nods.
"Seeing has how you're riding for him," Jilly says, watching Ashleigh nod. "And –
what? – sleeping with him?"
Ashleigh gives her a look, but she doesn't say anything to counter her. Jilly lets out a big breath. "That's huge, Ashleigh."
"That seems to be the consensus," Ashleigh says, and sighs. "But can I tell you something?"
"Yes," Jilly nods. "You can tell me anything, Ash. You know?"
Ashleigh pauses, and then smiles a little. "I think I like him."
"I should hope so," Jilly gives her a look. "You're sleeping with him. You're not the type to just do that because you can."
"I have a feeling people won't see it that way," Ashleigh says, working her lower lip between her teeth.
"Well, I'm not saying I understand it," Jilly clarifies, and Ashleigh frowns down at her shining black boots.
"Samantha doesn't," she says.
"Don't be too hard on her," Jilly says. "She's had a rough time lately."
Ashleigh sighs and wants to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Instead she swallows down the impulse and watches the race with Jilly. The horses fly by the finish, and soon the relative quiet of the jocks' room will explode. Before that happens, Jilly reaches over and snags Ashleigh's hand, giving her a quick squeeze. Ashleigh looks over at her, and squeezes back.
"Our reactions are stupid, Ash," Jilly says to her quietly. "They don't matter."
"Thanks, Jilly," she says, just as the door bursts open.
They sit for a little while longer, Jilly in her blue and white silks, Ashleigh in the green and gold, before finally standing up and walking out to meet the cameras for the Sprint. She stands quietly by the door to the jocks' quarters and watches the proceedings, tries not to notice the tension in Mike's back as he saddles up Blues King. Samantha and Ian are there with him, discussing things she'll never know. She tries not to look in their direction too much, tries to squash her own curiosity.
She's jumpy, eager to get to the track. Deliberately, she looks down at where Ben Dreaming is stationed. Maddock is adjusting the girth, and Brad is standing with his back to the rest of the crowd, his hands in his pockets and his head bowed. He's not dealing with it, she realizes, just when he turns slightly to look at her.
All of a sudden, the horses are led to the outdoor paddock. Ashleigh can't be more thankful, even when Blues King strides right past her with Whitebrook's small continent in tow. Mike doesn't afford her a glance, and the snub is what she wants, despite the way it stings.
She walks with the rest of the jockeys into the paddock, and gives Brad a tight smile before Maddock launches her up onto Ben's back. The colt stands like a rock underneath her, pricking his ears and swishing his tail happily. Ashleigh loves Ben Dreaming, likes to soak up his gentle calm. She's lucky to have him in this race, otherwise she's sure she'll make a mess of it.
"Bring him home safe," is all Maddock says. Brad says nothing. They go to the track, are packed into the starting gate, and released. It is a mad dash on the dirt, and Ashleigh moves Ben Dreaming through so many narrow holes that she's finally looking at a wide expanse of track in front of her when they hit the homestretch.
To her inside, By Your Leave is running full out, and to her outside, Jilly's blue and white silks flash. Ashleigh flips her crop up to get her colt's attention, and then she throws the hammer down. There is an enormous surge of power underneath her as the colt spins for the finish line, By Your Leave and Blue King refusing him any ground. Ashleigh doesn't know if she's ever worked harder at keeping the colt from slipping back, and Ben Dreaming is trying so hard, but when the wire flies overhead the three horses are noses apart, and she knows she didn't win.
She doesn't care. Passing the grandstand, Ashleigh rises in the stirrups and pats Ben's sweat soaked neck for all she's worth. The colt lowers his head and grunts, slows down sooner than most and drags his hooves in the dirt. Jilly trots by with a grin on her face, shaking her head when Ashleigh says she got it.
"It was By Your Leave," she says, rising up and down in the saddle as they bounce by. "Mark my words."
By Your Leave wins the race, setting an impressive track record. Ashleigh goes back to the jockeys' room and cleans up from the effort before returning for the Turf. Her horse, a young and unpredictable three-year-old by Townsend Victor, decides he doesn't like the starting gate and breaks through the doors seconds before the rest of the field. It's one sudden lunge and a swift change of direction and Ashleigh finds herself on the ground to the stunned gasps of thousands.
Her mount tears up the turf track like the devil is chasing him, and Ashleigh sits up to watch as he's finally caught somewhere on the backstretch. She stands, brushes at the grass stains on her white pants, and walks slowly over to the ambulance where she sits and watches the field unload and reload. Her horse is scratched, and she is no worse for wear. With a clean bill of health, she's cleared for the Classic and she makes her way back to the jockeys' room, feeling banged up and bruised.
Jorge has some choice words for her when he gets back. He has won the Turf, so he can finally afford to feel smug about something. "Can't keep up with your horse, girl?" he asks as Ashleigh sits in her chair, feet propped up on the bench in front of her as she trains her eyes on the television.
"Were you even in the Sprint, George?" Ashleigh asks pointedly, but Jorge has won something, so he's beyond all reproach.
"What you should be worrying about, girlie, is where I am in the Classic," he tells her, and it's Ashleigh's turn to smile. She doesn't say anything, because there are no sure things in her business, but she knows the Classic like the palms of her hands. She knows exactly how it will be run, has mapped it out perfectly. It is Pride's race. Pride will win the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I know exactly where you'll be," Ashleigh says to him. "If you even get within striking distance of me, I'll be shocked."
There was a chorus of loud cheers and laughter. Even Jilly is grinning, so when Jorge plays hurt and says, "Griffen, is this how we're going to play this?"
Ashleigh says, "Pretty much, yeah."
Another round of laughter goes up and Jilly raises her hands, calling out: "And is Ashleigh always right, people?"
The unanimous answer seems to be yes, so Jorge just shrugs and offers to kiss and make up. He leans toward her, feinting for a real kiss, and she shoves him away with a laugh. He bounces back, light on his feet, shaking off her rejection with a cocky smile.
"Can't blame a man for trying," he says, tugging lightly on her ponytail before walking off, getting ready for the big race.
They leave the jockeys' room to camera flashes. Ashleigh blinks at the flashbulbs and follows Jilly into the paddock, where she immediately sees Pride standing in all his seventeen hand glory. The chestnut is gorgeous, head tucked down, his mane immaculately braided, every part of him so clean he's glowing. Samantha holds his lead while Maddock adjusts the colt's girth. Brad is nowhere to be seen, and it takes her a moment to find him in the crowd.
He's talking to Lavinia, which shouldn't exactly surprise her, but the hot white burn of anger slices through her anyway. Lavinia looks ready for a photo shoot, and both look as if pleasantries could never be more forced. She realizes, somewhat belatedly, that it's either this or facing the permanent scowl on Samantha, and Brad has gone with what he knows.
She stands with the jockeys, alternating between watching Brad and watching Pride. Brad looks cool and calm as he says something to Lavinia. Pride is bouncing on his toes, shaking his head and making Samantha work to contain his energy. They are walking around the saddling area with a few of the other colts, Samantha's fingers clenched around the leather line that is pulled taut as Pride tries to drag her forward.
They walk toward the group of jockeys clustered next to the door. Ashleigh makes a split decision, slipping behind Pride and coming up on the other side of the colt, falling into step with Samantha.
"Ashleigh!" Samantha says, surprised enough to jump. Pride takes the extra slack in the lead and dances his hindquarters around, tossing his head up and snorting excitedly.
"I know you don't want to hear it, Sammy," Ashleigh says, "but I'm sorry."
Samantha opens her mouth and falters in her walk, giving her a confused stare. Ashleigh grabs her wrist and tugs her forward, keeping her going. They can't stop in the middle of the walkway, not if they want to cause a scene.
"I'm sorry," Ashleigh continues, "for making a decision I hated to make, and I hated leaving you behind, and I hate knowing that you're mad at me and these stupid decisions I've made, but I can't change them."
"What?" Samantha asks, although Ashleigh knows she's heard her. She's looking at her through wide eyes, looks a little frazzled, like she can hardly comprehend Ashleigh's outburst.
"I know you don't understand," Ashleigh goes on, shaking her head. "I've done a really shitty job of explaining myself, and I'm sorry about that, too. I…"
"Okay," Samantha says, raising a hand to interrupt Ashleigh's flow of words. She leads Pride into his stall and turns around to face Ashleigh, giving her a sympathetic look that says "you've lost it, haven't you?"
Ashleigh stands and waits for her, watches as Samantha shakes her head and says, "You're right. I don't understand. Any of it, actually."
"I know," Ashleigh says. "I'd like to explain."
Samantha looks out at the circling horses and gives Ashleigh a crooked smile, "I think we're a little short on time, and I imagine your explanation will take longer than five minutes."
"Yes," Ashleigh nods. "It really will. So what do you say? Can we do this later?"
Samantha rolled her eyes up to the ceiling and then looked at her. "You really don't have to, Ash."
"Maybe," Ashleigh shrugs. "I want to."
Samantha stands silently for a moment, then nods and catches Ashleigh up in a half hug, squeezing her tight. "I'll be with Pride after the race."
"As always," Ashleigh says. "I'll see you there."
"Good luck, okay?" Samantha says, leading Pride back out of the stall.
"Thanks," Ashleigh says, letting out a breath as she watches them walk out to the outdoor paddock. Samantha smiles slightly, and relief spreads through Ashleigh. It's far from fixed, but it's a start, and it's all she asks.
Everyone is leaving the saddling area, horses filing out into the light, followed by clusters of owners, followed by jockeys. Ashleigh watches Lavinia stalk by, looking perfect and self-satisfied. The indoor paddock is nearly empty when she catches sight of Brad, who ambles up and stops before her, the light at his back.
She looks at him, knowing this is not all about victory and defeat. She cannot make it about reaction, not when this feeling runs so strong through her. This want. So she straightens her spine, and tips her head back, looking up at him with an open face and soft, smiling eyes.
"So," he says after a moment, because she's definitely not making the first move this time. "Who do you like?"
She cracks a smile and watches him close the distance. She tugs lightly at his tie as he leans down to kiss her lightly on the lips. She pulls back just far enough to say, "We are definitely winning this thing."
He grins and kisses her again. Then he takes her hand, and together they walk out into the blinding California light.