The Secret of Greatness
Maugre: in spite of
Rating: R (language)
A/N: Ashleigh/Mike, Ashleigh/Brad. During Wonder's Victory:
"I hear your boyfriend's colt won his maiden yesterday. Wonder how much free information he picked up around here?"
"None," Ashleigh shot back. "He's done his own work, and he's not my boyfriend."
"Glad you're smart enough to know he's just been using you."
- Wonder's Victory

I've always wanted to write a fic around this moment in Thoroughbred time. Looks like this will be that fic.

All it really takes is pressure.

Ashleigh Griffen has had three years of it, compressed and compounded, magnified times ten thousand. So she's really not that surprised when she tips her head back, getting a good look at the boy standing in front of her, and feels a sick sense of satisfaction when he meets her eyes.

"How's Melinda doing, Brad?" she says, that little pleasure center within her humming and growing at the look on his face. "I heard she made an interesting life change recently."

The smile that appears on the side of Brad's mouth is automatic, a twinge like the tightening muscle in his cheek. "You want to start drawing some comparisons here, Ashleigh? As far as I know, you need to pick up a stone before you can fucking throw one. You're too inept to figure out the first step."

Ashleigh's eyebrows rise. "First I'm smart enough to avoid Mike, and now I'm inept? Pick one, Brad."

"Fine," he pushes closer to her, head bent to accommodate for the height difference. "If you hadn't noticed, Mike wants you. For some insane reason, he happens to be drawn to tightly wound do-gooders and you, Ashleigh, fit the bill so perfectly for him that he's willing to sit around like an idiot until you realize he's the nice, secure, reliable, incomparably dull guy you've been waiting for."

"Is there a point here?" Ashleigh asks. "I can only listen to mad raving so much."

"You'd be smart to avoid that hell," he says, and Ashleigh bristles, her mouth drawing open to protest until he keeps talking. "But you're too incompetent to realize why you're avoiding it."

"Like I said, there's nothing to avoid," she says, crossing her arms over her chest and ignoring the little pit in her stomach that throbs a sharp warning.

"Yeah," Brad says, tilting his head to consider her for a moment longer. "Lost little Ashleigh doesn't know what she wants. No big surprise there."

"Are you even listening to me?"

"Are you listening to yourself?" he asks. "Because hello, Ash, he has his own fucking farm. The kid can figure shit out by himself. He's here because of you."

The pause that precedes her immediate rebuttal is all he needs to draw back and roll his eyes. "Figure it out, Ash. I'm tired of hearing 'he's not my boyfriend,' because if he's not your boyfriend, he's using you. There are two options. Pick one."

Her mind, treacherously, veers toward Mike. Smiling, beautiful Mike. She's stuck on watching him in her head, his hands on Jazzman's coat, murmuring soft words and looking up to smile at her as she walks up to ride. Before she can say a word—just one mean word to turn all of this on its head—Brad grunts a disgusted laugh and walks away, disappearing into the exhausting, brilliant light.

After the race, Jazzman is a sweaty mess and all for nothing. Panther wins in the end. Mike stands in his suit and personally washes the colt off, rinsing the sweat marks away. There are sweet murmurs on his lips, water running down his hands, and Ashleigh falls in love.

She stands in the wet gravel, the spray brushing at her bare legs and the quivering hem of her dress, and wants so badly she can hardly feel her fingers for the hard beating of her heart. Ashleigh watches the big black colt hang his head and paw at the soaked muck around his hooves, and hates the seed of doubt that was planted in her gut.

He either loves her, or he's using her. There's only one way to find out, but it involves putting herself on the line, involves setting herself up for a fall. Ashleigh's good at that, blinding striving for things that have never felt in reach. She's just never experienced the tumble, the flat fall back to earth.

She's scared to try, now with Brad's words curling in her ears.

But Jazzman has lost, and she's still here. Surely that means something, that Mike can still look up at her and smile that reassuring, resilient grin like there's always next time. Right?

There's always another race, Ashleigh reminds herself. There's always something on the horizon. She thinks of Brad's intensity, the way he stared at her as he dug into her being and gave her doubt. Ashleigh rejects it wholesale.

It's time, she thinks, to step off the precipice and see if she'll fly.

Ashleigh walks forward, her shoes grinding and sloshing on the wet, jagged stones, and presses herself into Mike's side. He turns to her, the spray sliding down Jazzman's legs, surprised enough to open his mouth.

This is her opening, and Ashleigh takes it.

"So is he your boyfriend this time?"

He asks it right in the space where she usually says no, he is not her boyfriend. She smirks instead, and tips her head up enough to get the message across. What do you think? Brad nods.

"Congrats," Brad says. "Keep him the fuck off of the farm."

Fury immediately replaces the soft, golden glow she gets when she thinks of Mike. "You can't order him off the property like he's trespassing. That's insane!"

"He plays for the other team," Brad says. "It's responsible."

"It's unnecessary," Ashleigh insists.

"Right, why bother when you can just tell him everything he needs to know to prep his colt for the next time he meets Panther?"

"That's not how it is."

"Isn't it?" he asks. "You've picked a door, Ashleigh. That's great. Now pick which is more important. The farm or Jazzman's race record."

"You're being impossible," Ashleigh says, her voice rising. The fact of the matter is she has been feeding Mike information, little details of works in various types of conversation. She's at every morning breeze. She sees everything. She's told him everything.

A little part of her feels ashamed, and then another part kicks and screams that life isn't fair.

"You just don't want your horse to lose to a better animal," Ashleigh says, full of venom and spit. "Jealousy is pitiful, Brad. I thought you'd be tired of it by now."

"The horses are evenly matched," Brad says. "And no, I don't like to lose."

"I'm not going to stop what I'm doing," she promises him, and he smiles. It's admission enough.

"Then I'll know what you're telling him. Spying, Ashleigh, is a nasty thing to be accused of in this business."

Ashleigh's heart turns cold. "You wouldn't."

"You already are."

Everything in her sinks like lead.

One day, she stops talking about it. Mike gives her a weird look when she says she didn't make it to all the works that morning, but doesn't say much.

Jazzman wins his next race, but Panther isn't involved. Brad scratches him at the last minute and enters him in the Sanford instead. The big gray wins by a neck at the last second, but Ashleigh hardly pays attention.

She thinks Brad's messing with her head. She says so later.

"Think what you want," Brad shrugs, leading a cool and content Panther down the aisle to the yawning stretch of grass outside the Saratoga stables. Ashleigh watches them, the gray colt dancing on his toes and Brad casually holding on, watching his charge with a prideful gleam that smolders dark and deep.

"Why did you scratch?"

"Why do you want to know?" he asks, rubbing the colt's withers as Panther settles into the grass and rips at the shoots. "Do you need to ferry back some information?"

"It's not for Mike," Ashleigh snaps so quickly that Brad looks up and considers her with a quiet calm. He waits her out.

"It's for me," Ashleigh says quietly, just underneath her breath.

Brad nods and gathers the colt's lead, urging him up from the grass to walk over to Ashleigh, stopping inches away. Panther pushes his head into Ashleigh's hip, searching for treats. Brad lets him, watching Ashleigh flinch as the colt wiggles his lips over her jeans.

"No matter what you think of me, Ash," he says, "my colt deserves a fair race."

Ashleigh looks down, hating the way she can feel his eyes. The colt nudges her beseechingly, then gives up and lowers his head to the grass around her feet.

"Also, he's stakes quality," Brad adds. "Screw that allowance."

"Since when did you get all reasonable all of a sudden?" Ashleigh asks, making herself look up at him.

He smiles and shrugs. "Prince is out until fall," he says. "I spent a long time wanting him to get back to a hundred percent so I could hand you the sweetest defeat in the history of racing this summer, but it's not going to happen."

"How heartwarming," Ashleigh mutters, looking up at the sky just over Brad's head.

He shakes his head and walks away with the colt, saying over his shoulder, "And then I got sick of it. This isn't Wonder and the Prince, Ash, but if we're going to keep repeating history, I want a fair break."

"Maybe you don't deserve one."

He laughed at that. "Who would have thought? Ashleigh Griffen doesn't want to play fair. The world must be ending."

Maybe, Ashleigh thought dismally, it really was.

Wonder races in the Travers, and Brad is there when it all goes to hell. Jilly is in the hospital, and right there in the parking lot Ashleigh rounds on him, wanting answers she is sure he can provide.

"What do you know?" she nearly screams over the sea of parked cars, and Brad stops in his tracks before he runs straight into her.

"What the hell, Ashleigh," he says, looking so much the tired rich kid that Ashleigh can hardly stand it. His tie is loose and his jacket is crunched into his fist, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbow. Ashleigh hates looking at his arms, hates that he looks so weather-beaten and in place wherever he goes.

He has to know something. He has to be turning it all around on her, giving as good as he got.

"Wonder was acting weird before the race," she tells him, and he doesn't look like she's imparting any new information to him. She gets more irate. "She was spooky and climbing out of her skin."

"She's a spooky mare," Brad says evenly. "Nothing new."

"Not like that she's not," Ashleigh says. "What happened to her?"

"You're assuming I know?" he asks.

"Yes, I'm assuming you know," she says. "I'm assuming that you know precisely what happened to her."

"Why?" he asks. "Because you have something coming?"

Ashleigh wants to scream at him to shut up, but she bites back the impulse when she realizes it's the last thing she needs to do. She swallows it down bitterly, and he looks so smug it's an effort not to slap the smile off his face.

"She could have killed Jilly," Ashleigh points out, solely to sober him up. It has the desired reaction.

"Yeah," Brad nods. "I'll look into it."

"No," Ashleigh says, shaking her head. "You'll tell me what you did."

"Are you hearing impaired?" he asks her, losing his temper. Finally. Ashleigh glares up at him as he moves into her space, right there in public. In a parking lot. She doesn't care, and meets him head on. "I told you I don't fucking know what's wrong with your damn horse. I'm not around her constantly, so maybe you should open your eyes and look around once in a while."

"Says the guy with an ax to grind," Ashleigh challenges. "How are you at all reliable?"

That muscle is twitching again, and he's looking down at her like he wants nothing more to shove her out of his way. "I'm not," he says. "Not reliable or safe or secure for you, Ashleigh. You know that. And yes, I've got a hell of a vendetta, but it's solely in seeing the Prince through to the end. Fuck Wonder."

"Excuse me?" Ashleigh asks, shocked. Her mouth drops open, and he shakes his head. He doesn't care, she realizes. If he did this, he's done it and he couldn't care less.

"You heard me," he says. "Fuck her. I have no interest in the Travers besides witnessing the outcome, and that's pretty much the extent of my involvement in the race and your…oh, I'm sorry…my filly. So she's insane. Deal with it."

Then he does shove past her and leaves her standing, staring sightlessly at row upon row of cars.

She's lying to Mike. She's avoiding Brad. When she comes home to Kentucky it's a relief, until Brad follows with Panther.

He's fresh from a second place finish in the Hopeful Stakes, beating Jazzman by three lengths at the wire. Mike is disappointed, and Ashleigh compensates with false cheer. It's met with more questions, and Ashleigh keeps lying through her teeth and her pasted on smile.

"Ash," he says. She can hear the tone in his voice, and knows what's coming. It's a sunny September day, and she should be at Townsend Acres working with Wonder, who's no more spooky than usual. She shouldn't be at Whitebrook having conversations about why she's not spying for her boyfriend.

They never call it spying.

"Yup?" she asks, all false.

"You haven't seen Panther work for a long time," he says. "Is Brad switching things up?"

"Maybe," Ashleigh says with a carefree shrug. "You know how he is. I'm starting to think he's more paranoid than I thought."

"Yeah," Mike says softly, almost to himself. He swipes at Jazzman's coat with a rag, polishing it up to a dull, blue-black shine. "It's just that you know Charlie is so quiet all the time, and I was learning so much at Townsend Acres. Maybe I should go back and talk with him in the mornings."

Ashleigh feels like Mike has reached inside of her and scooped out all of that doubt Brad put her in weeks ago, in the full bloom of summer. She feels like he's replacing it with cold, hard knowledge. It's a little difficult to breathe, but Ashleigh does it anyway while her lungs constrict, her face impassive.

"I don't think Brad will like that," she says, shaking her head. "But you can go if you think you'll learn something."

She says it easily enough, and when he arrives the next day she makes sure Wonder's work is as far from Panther's as possible. The colt has already gone out when Mike arrives in his truck, stopwatch in hand.

He looks a little disappointed when he only sees Wonder, and it's an effort for Ashleigh to keep the tears in her eyes.

Later, she'll catch Brad looking at her from down the railing. She can't place the expression on his face, but she knows it's off. She knows because she thinks she wears the same look on her face every day she's with Mike.

She thinks she's not the only one masking lies.

The Prince breezes, and he looks like a freight train coming off the rails. Ashleigh feels a little pull at her heart, something telling her to run for Wonder and bury her face in her mane.

So that's what she does, and Brad finds her later.

"So what's the story?" Brad asks her while she's grooming Wonder. The filly is ripping at her hay net, calm and content. She hasn't spooked in days.

"Wonder's back to her old self," Ashleigh says. "No spooking."

"Uh-huh," he says, like he doesn't believe her.

"I saw Prince work," she adds. "He looked good."

"He did," Brad says, but doesn't offer more. Ashleigh notices, because usually he'll go on and on about the colt to the point where she has to stop listening.

"Where is he going next?"

"Gold Cup," Brad says. "I'll take him up to Belmont with Panther end of the month."

"Right," Ashleigh says, looking at Wonder's mane. She wants to go to Belmont, but no one thinks racing Wonder against colts is a good idea anymore. Not with her failure to finish the Travers and Jilly's leg in a cast. They don't even have a jockey anymore, with Craig going to Belmont with Brad.

"Look," Brad says, running a hand through his hair, pushing it into disarray. "I want to apologize for that day in the parking lot. I was pissed off, and I overreacted to, well, classic you."

She blinks at him. "That's an apology?"

"Take it or leave it," Brad says. "You've been avoiding me since then, so I thought I'd throw it out there."

Ashleigh swallows thickly, tangling her fingers in the filly's mane. "I have," she says. "I'm sorry, too. Messing with Wonder that way…it's not your style. I shouldn't have assumed."

Brad laughs, low and dark. Ashleigh smiles to herself, until he opens his mouth again.

"How long have you been lying to Mike?"

She jerks her head up, her bangs falling into her eyes. Brad is right there, leaning in Wonder's open doorway. He reaches out and pushes the strands of her hair out of her eyes, and Ashleigh goes cold. Then runs hot. She blushes, and ducks her head from his touch and he drops his hand. Her bangs fall forward again and she pushes them back.

"Since Saratoga," she says simply. There's that mask on his face again, hiding the blatant surprise she was hoping for. Maybe he's not surprised at all. She hasn't exactly been covering her tracks.

"Does he know that?"

Ashleigh shrugs, twisting Wonder's mane hard around her fingers. "I think he's starting to figure it out."

Brad nods, and looks at the ground. "What are you planning to do then?"

"I don't know," Ashleigh admits.

Fall, says a little voice in the back of her head. She'll fall right back to earth.

It all falls apart on the way to the Champagne. Wonder finishes fourth in the Fayette, and the Prince wins the Gold Cup like he was aiming to crush his competition.

Ashleigh doesn't want to talk to Brad. She feels a childish stab of jealousy whenever she sees him, and an acute frustration when she looks at Wonder. The filly is jumping out of skin again, refuses to stand still for anyone. It goes on longer and harder than before, and her new jockey jumps ship right after the race. He blames the filly for the crap placement, and Ashleigh wonders if he's right.

Mike puts two and two together when Ashleigh just stops talking about Panther. It's sloppy on her part, but she's just so tired.

"You've been helping him," Mike accuses her. It's three days before the Champagne, and Ashleigh shakes her head, the vim and vigor gone.

"I'm not," she says calmly. "I'm playing fair."

"Since when does Brad play fair?" he asks her, and Ashleigh chokes on the words that start to leave her mouth.

Brad has always played fair. "Brad has made mistakes," she says. "Really stupid mistakes, but so have I."

Mike shakes his head, disbelief clouding his normally gorgeous blue eyes. He takes one step back from her and turns, leaving her standing alone in the aisle. There's a cold tingling in her fingers, and the blood in her ears roars.

This, Ashleigh thinks, is the feeling of plummeting.

Mike doesn't speak to her leading up to the race, and Ashleigh wonders if they're broken up. With only a few pointed looks at her during the lead up to the Champagne, she might as well not be there for Mike at all.

She sits in the Townsend Acres box, a row behind Brad, and watches Panther come from behind and win the race by a head over Jazzman. Her heart won't leave her throat for hours after.

When she tries to approach Mike after the race, he tells her bluntly that he has other things to do. He can't waste time anymore, especially with a girl who lies.

"I can't believe you'd protect him," Mike says, disgusted. "He's done nothing for you, Ashleigh."

"This isn't about Brad," she tries to say, but he won't hear her. He's not interested in anything she could say.

"I love you," she tries, her voice breaking on the words. Mike tenses, refusing to look at her. Ashleigh thinks that she's meeting the earth.

So she turns around and runs out of the barn, comes to a shuddering stop in the middle of the backside, and presses her fingers to her lips to keep the scream inside.

There's this stupid party after the Champagne at a Manhattan restaurant. Clay doesn't buy the whole place out, but he comes close. Normally, Ashleigh doesn't go to these sorts of things, but she tells Charlie she's going and has Craig accompany her in.

She thinks it's better than sitting alone in her hotel room, going over everything that's happened over the past two months in her head.

She's wearing a dress that makes her look a little too matronly for fifteen, and she leaves her hair down for lack of anything to do with it. At least she's clean, Ashleigh thinks. She smells like ginger and white tea instead of horses and dirt. Her nails are painted light pink.

Sipping on a glass of diet soda gets her through most of the evening, and she spends most of that time talking with the grooms. Her eyes, however, keep slipping over to Brad, who's talking to some tall blond girl with her hair swept up and diamonds dripping around her neck.

Ashleigh loathes this girl with every fiber of her being, and she doesn't know why. She focuses on the girl instead of the way Brad is looking at the girl, hoping she's just making classless, low comparisons to herself.

That's not it. She doesn't give a damn about the blonde's dress or her diamonds.

Ashleigh finishes her soda and goes to find Craig, accidentally bumping into Brad on her way. He turns and catches her elbow. The blonde watches patiently over his shoulder.

"Sorry," he says, and she raises an eyebrow. He looks like saying the rest is a waste of his time, but continues anyway. "For Mike."

Ashleigh's stomach tightens in a sickening grip. "I don't give a damn," she spits. Surprise shifts over Brad in a quick flutter before he stamps it down, but Ashleigh sees it and softens her hard glare.

"You broke it off with the boy scout?" he asks, and Ashleigh's cheeks burn.

"It's nothing to you," she tells him, her eyes darting from Brad to the girl at this back. She pulls her elbow out of his fingers and turns around, trying to escape. She doesn't see Craig anywhere, and she wonders where he's run off to when Brad is at her back, pushing her into a corner. She whirls around, and her back almost meets the wall before he grabs her wrist and keeps her stationary.

Ashleigh feels like a ping-pong ball, nearly weightless and impossible to control. She shifts on her feet in front of him and he says, "So what is this, the reinvention of Asheigh Griffen?"

"What do you mean?" She's impatient, and she doesn't want to play games. She feels that all she ever does with Brad is play games.

"You never come to these."

"I didn't want to sit around and mull on how much my life sucks," she says to him. "So I came here."

"He broke up with you," is what he says, and she rolls her eyes.

"Did you just figure that out?" she asks. "It's hilarious, really. We broke up because he was cheating; only it was on you."

"Isn't irony a kick in the teeth?" Brad asks, and she wants to have a witty retort for that but all she really wants to do is cry big, heaving sobs. He sees the change in her and backs off, raising his hands. "Hey, I'm sorry."

"You should be!" she hisses through big breaths.

"Look," he says, while she focuses on breathing, fat tears rolling down her cheeks and sinking into her dress. "Your principles always fly straight, Ashleigh. It's fucking tough when you're surrounded by people like me and Mike, but it's admirable."

"That's not helping," she says, hiccupping. "Mike was good. He was better than you."

"Sure," he says. "He was only asking you to cheat, and when you didn't he broke it off. Real upstanding guy."

"I was lying," she says, sucking in a breath and holding it. Brad puts his hands on either side of her head and looks at her hard.

"Breathe, Ash," he orders. "I don't want you to pass out."

She lets the breath out and sucks another into her aching lungs. It hurts to keep going, and Brad curses, pulling her out of the corner and dragging her out the back and into the street. The cool autumn air slaps Ashleigh in the face, and she really starts to cry. Brad pulls her against her chest and lets her rest there, soaking tears into his shirt and hyperventilating.

He says nothing. Not one soothing word. She cries herself to silence, hiccupping with each small breath, slowly becoming aware of where she is and the warm hand he has on the center of her back.

"Are you back with me?" he asks, dropping his hand at the soonest opportunity when she stirs. She presses her forehead against his chest and breathes slowly, taking control of the rampant emotions stirring up embarrassment and confusion, mixing them in with sorrow and dread.

"Mike broke up with me," she states quietly. "Wonder hates her new jockey, and she's spooking again. The Breeders' Cup is next month and no one can ride her."

"I know," he says.

"I don't know what to do," she says.

He pushes her back. Lifting her head to look at him feels impossible. It's too heavy and her brain is thick with tears. Her eyes feel like they're swimming in water. She sniffles and lifts her hand to wipe ungraciously at her nose.

"We'll figure it out," he says, and she laughs.

"I don't see how," she mutters, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.

Brad shrugs. "You could always ride her, you know."

She laughs again, manically, like it's the most hilarious thing she's ever heard. "I'm too young," she tells him. "Fifteen, Brad. Remember?"

He gives her an easy stare. "I remember."

"Besides, you wouldn't want to give Wonder a chance anyway," she informs him. "Not with Prince running."

"Ashleigh," he says, like he can't believe she hadn't considered this before. "It's not a real race if he's not running against Wonder."

She doesn't know what to say to that. He goes on. "Besides, it's easy enough to fake a birth certificate. Jocks do it all the time. You'll be sixteen before you know it."

"You'd help me?" she asks, stunned.

He shrugs, and smiles like he can't help himself. "I'll talk to Charlie about it tomorrow."

He motions her back to the restaurant, and she goes. She lets him open the door for her and walks into the warmth inside, wiping at her eyes and feeling a soft, fleeting brush of hope.

Charlie loves the idea. Ashleigh is proclaimed sixteen on her newly minted birth certificate, and as she looks down at the drying ink she feels like she's fooling everyone.

She doesn't like it.

"Doesn't this count as cheating?" she asks Brad, putting the piece of paper on the desk.

"It's for the common good," Brad says cheerfully, reclining in his chair as his father sits on the other side of the desk, watching them both curiously.

"The common good?" she asks, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. Brad smiles full on.

"You, me, Townsend Acres," he says. "That's common good enough."

"Convenient," Ashleigh says, and Brad leans forward.

"Look, Ashleigh, we're backed into a corner here."

"He's right," Clay agrees. "It's the only way Wonder has a chance, and we all know it. You either ride her in the Classic, or we scratch. I think we all agree that it's pointless trying to get a new rider on her back in the time we have."

Brad looks up at her from his chair, putting his elbows on his knees. She looks down at him, and is surprised to find how eager he is. How much he wants to see her do this. She wonders if this isn't a trap he's elaborately set, and thinks she'd walk into it regardless. He's right. There are no other options.

"Are you okay with this?" he asks her, and she thinks back to Mike. She thinks he never once asked her if she was okay with spying on Panther. It was just expected somehow, like she could take all of her emotions for Brad, roll them up, and casually place them on a horse. She'd done it, happily.

She's ashamed, and she bites her lip.

"Yes," she says. She's perfectly okay with this.

Charlie puts her up on one of his allowance runners and claps her on the knee, a little too enthusiastic to see her up there. She comes in a driving second, and floats all the way through the barn the next day, a smile lit on her face like a beam of light.

When Charlie tells her to take Wonder out on the trails, she goes with a skip in her step. She hand gallops the filly up the maintenance trail and over the rises, approaching the galloping lanes with a heady feeling fluttering in her chest.

Brad is in the lanes on the Prince, the big chestnut colt taking a few crab steps to the side when he sets sights on Wonder. The filly pauses only briefly, swishing her tail and squealing around the bit.

Ashleigh pats the filly, urging her forward to circle around the colt.

"She looks good," Brad observes. "Any spooking?"

"Not today," Ashleigh says, and can't help the grin. It's like the old days. She can feel that Wonder is back to normal, but the way she's laughing and smiling around the Prince and Brad feels weird.

Feels better. Like she doesn't have to spend so much time embroiled with hate.

"Wanna race?" he asks, and her head spins around so fast she thinks she could strain something. He gives her a cautious look, nudging the Prince closer to her as they circle around in the lane.


She doesn't know what to think. She wants to. Really wants to, just to see where they are. They've never put the Prince and Wonder together in a work before, because everyone saw that as the horrible idea it was. Ashleigh has always been curious, but that's when Brad dashes her idea to pieces.

"Just a lope, Ash," he says, patting the colt. "My weight's no good in a working breeze. Besides, Charlie would kill you if he found out."

"And Maddock wouldn't be pissed?"

"Maddock and I have an understanding," Brad says, and Ashleigh hears that for what it is. Brad does what he wants, and Maddock works around him.

"Sure," Ashleigh says, cuing the filly. Wonder strikes off, leaping into a rolling canter. "You'll have to catch up!" she yells over her shoulder, but he's there, of course, right in her wake.

They ship up to Churchill for the Breeders' Cup and Ashleigh is a nervous wreck.

"It's the jockeying," Brad says during the party the night before the races. Ashleigh shakes her head, her hair a heavy, curling mass. The second she told her sister she was jockeying Wonder in the Classic, Caroline booked appointments for Ashleigh's hair and nails. They went shopping and bought a long, lean gown that clung to every curve Ashleigh barely had.

Ashleigh hadn't wanted it until Caroline told her there was no way anything else would do. It's ridiculous, but it fit right in when everyone else. It appears that Caroline is right. People do double takes when they see her, but the shocked expression that Brad couldn't conceal was the one she'll treasure the most.

She does, of course, love to turn everything on its head with Brad.

"It's not the jockeying," Ashleigh says, bouncing a little in her high heels. "I'm worried about leaving Wonder."

"We posted a guard," Brad says, unconcerned. "She'll be fine."

Ashleigh's quiet for a minute, accepting his cavalier reassurance hesitantly. She takes a sip of her glass of water, trying to feel in place in all the glitter and silk. Charlie refused to come tonight, once again preferring to hit the sheets early, but Ashleigh wanted to get the experience for once. She wants to see what the hype is all about.

Down deep, she wants to see Mike, and she's not ready when he appears.

He shows up by himself, and it's the first time Ashleigh's seen him since Belmont. She freezes, watching him move through the crowd of people like a shiny blond beacon she can't take her eyes from.

Then she panics. She gets in front of Brad, who looks perplexed until he reads her eyes and looks over her head to see what has her all worked up. He pauses, like he's staring at something and doesn't feel like looking away, no matter how uncomfortable. Like he's staring something down. Ashleigh doesn't pause to think about what that means.

"Take me to the track," she says, reaching out and grabbing his arm through his suit. He sighs and finally looks down at her.


"Please," she says. "I don't ask much of you, Brad. So just please take me to the track."

"Can't you just go…"

"I don't have a driver's license," she says so quickly the words meld together. "I'm fifteen no matter how much you say otherwise. Take me, please?"

He gives her a look and finishes his sentence. "Go over there and act like an adult?"

"I'm fifteen!" she hisses, and he rolls his eyes.

"Fine," he says, pushing her behind him and turning around, following her out of the room. "You realize you owe me," he adds to her back, and she looks at him over her shoulder, only seeing Mike watch their hurried exit.

The filly is fine. Wonder chews on her hay and flicks her ears at her overdressed visitors, leaning into Ashleigh's hands and rubbing her nose on the beautiful dress. It's ruined now, but Ashleigh figures getting horse snot out of fabric is the job of a dry cleaner and doesn't think much of it.

"See," Brad says next to her. "Eating like a normal horse, standing like a normal horse, and acting like a normal horse. I'd say she's normal."

"I wanted to see for myself," Ashleigh says, rubbing the filly's forehead before Wonder moves back to her hay and chows down. Ashleigh looks after her, leaning into the stall a little, like the invisible tether connecting them has pulled taut.

"No," Brad corrects her. "You didn't want to talk to Mike."

Ashleigh shivers a little and rubs at her arms. It's a chilly night in Louisville, and she's all bare arms and back. The dress is thin. Brad pulls off his tux coat and hands it over. She takes it with wordless thanks and hunkers inside, pressing the cuffs together.

"Maybe I didn't," she finally admits. "Maybe I'm not ready yet."

"Fine by me, Ash," he says, undoing the silly little bow tie and the buttons at his throat. Ashleigh looks at the dismantled get up and feels a little flush crawl up her skin. She huddles a little deeper in his coat and tells herself she needs to stop reacting to the simple things he does. Clearly she's oversensitive to boys, if she's eyeing Brad Townsend like he's a normal male.

Brad Townsend is not a normal, viable option. And he doesn't even see her like that. Ashleigh tells herself primly not to be stupid and moves on.

"So are you ready to lose tomorrow?" she asks him, and he chuckles at her forced peppiness.

"Sure, Ash," he says. "Me and my favorite are quaking in our boots."

"Just because Prince is the favorite…" she starts, but he's not paying any attention and she stops to watch him press a hand against the colt's forehead. The two horses are stabled next to each other, with Panther on the other side of Prince. The younger gray and Wonder don't get along, but Prince is a teddy bear. All he wants is love.

She feels a little ashamed to bring up this old rivalry now, after everything. He's taken her here when he didn't have to, and his idea is what's keeping Wonder in the race, no matter his stance that he'd rather be racing against her anyway.

He's kept her honest through the whole mess with Mike. She can't believe that, even on her best days, but there it is. Ashleigh watches him rub Prince's ears and feels overwhelmingly tired, like there have been too many changes to sort out.

"I'm sorry," she suddenly says, and he looks at her, slow to pull his eyes from the colt.

"Why's that?"

"I'm saying stupid things," she says. "Of course we want to beat each other. I don't have to keep bringing it up like a broken record and making us feel weird."

"Weird about what?" he asks, and she shifts uncomfortably in her shoes. The heels are pinching her toes.

"About," she waves her hands in his general direction. "About us standing here right now."

"I don't know what you mean, Ash," he says, turning to look at her. The Prince lifts his head and rests it against Brad's shoulder, crowding close. Ashleigh watches like a curtain has been lifted. She hadn't realized, really, how much the colt loved him until now.

"We're too alike to function," she says, a nervous laugh slipping out of her lips. "How are we even here now?"

"We're here because you asked me to bring you here," he says, although it doesn't clarify anything at all. "And I said yes."

Ashleigh pulls the coat closer to her body, soaks in its borrowed warmth.

"Ashleigh," he says, watching her so carefully she feels like the wrong move might break her. "What's going on?"

"I think we're friends," she says slowly, and he blinks at her silently. The enlightenment appears to be mutual. Then he smiles.

"Well, that will make racing against each other more interesting."

"I'm going to try my hardest to win," she promises.

"Good," he shrugs. "I'd be pissed if you eased up on my account."

She laughs. "Like that would ever happen."

They share similar, unnerved laughter and walk out of the barn, leaving the horses to shift together in the cool night.

Panther doesn't win the Juvenile. Neither does Jazzman. Ashleigh's too busy bouncing on her toes in the shed row to notice the order of finish. Wonder watches her impassively, waiting her turn to make the journey to the track. Ashleigh is biding her time before she has to go to the jockey's room, but she's worried.

She's worried that things seem to be fine. Wonder is fine. No spooking, no sweating, no hint that they're going to be in for a rocky road ahead.

She should be elated. Instead she's just waiting for it to all fall apart.

"Listen, missy," Charlie says, walking up to her and nudging her from her position in front of the filly. "Why don't you go on down to the jock's room and get set up? You're no help to anyone milling around in here. Only making the filly nervous."

She sends Charlie a little glare, and crosses her arms. "Wonder is far from nervous," she says, pointing to the filly. "Look at her, Charlie. She's the picture of contentment."

"And we don't want to change that," Charlie says. "Go on."

"Not yet," Ashleigh argues, and Charlie stops short at her quick disagreement. "I don't think it's a good idea to leave her alone, Charlie. We both know that she gets worked up after she's been left alone, so I don't think…"

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Brad walks down the aisle, his suit and shoes as spotless as ever. "Just tell her already, would you?"

"Tell me what?" Ashleigh asks, looking from Brad to Charlie, who hesitates while Brad rolls his eyes.

"We're using Wonder as bait," Brad supplies, and Ashleigh's mouth drops open so far it almost hurts.

"What?" she nearly shrieks.

"We're not going to let anyone hurt her," Charlie assures her, throwing an annoyed frown at Brad.

"We are not using Wonder as bait," Ashleigh says. "We are not."

"Ashleigh, we don't have a lot of time," Charlie tries to say, but Ashleigh's hardly paying attention in the middle of her freaking out. "If someone was visiting Wonder while we were gone, there's a chance they'll come by in the next few minutes."

"And if this person happens to succeed, Wonder's going to spaz. We'll ruin everything we've worked for since summer, Charlie."

"We're not going to let the guy get to her, Ash," Brad says, his tone matter of fact and precise.

"You can't guarantee that," Ashleigh says, shaking her head. "No. Absolutely not. We are not doing this."

Her stance is firm. Brad and Charlie exchange a look, and Ashleigh sets herself in front of Wonder's stall like a sentinel.

"Okay," Brad says, turning toward her. "There's no time for this anymore, Ash. Your resistance is cute, but it's not helping."

Ashleigh scowls up at him, a retort she's never thought of using on her mouth, but before she can use it he picks her up. She squeaks in alarm as he throws her over his shoulder and carts her down the shed row. He doesn't stop when she swats at his lower back, clinging to his jacket and twisting her head around to see Wonder upside down and watching her with pricked ears. Charlie is following along close behind.

"Charlie!" she says in a high screech. "What the hell?"

"Ash," Brad says, walking around into an empty stall and righting her in his arms, setting her down on her feet in front of him like the whole thing has been nothing for him. Ashleigh sways for a second and pushes the hair out of her face, glaring at him as he straights his suit out with a few casual tugs.

"We really don't have time for any foot stamping," Brad tells her, and she smacks his arm. He grins.

"Ash," Charlie says, pointing to the two bulky men leaning against the side of the empty stall, amusement on their faces. "This is Carter and Will, track security."

"Great," Ashleigh says, unimpressed. "So we're going to hide in this stall while something's happening? Whose idea was this?" She looks at Brad directly, and he tugs her into him so suddenly she falls into his chest.

Ashleigh swats at him again, and he points out the cut out in the stall wall. Standing where she is, Ashleigh can see Wonder perfectly.

"Was this here before?" she asks, reaching out and touching the edges of the makeshift window.

"We had maintenance cut it out early this morning," one of the security guys says.

"Early, early," his coworker says. "Before anyone could have possibly been around."

"Oh," Ashleigh says, and then looks up at Brad. "This was your idea?"

"His motivation," Charlie says. "My idea."

"Thanks, old man," Brad mutters, and Charlie allows himself a throaty laugh.

Ashleigh looks between them, wanting badly for this to work without something happening to the filly. She takes a deep breath and nods shakily, watching through the window steadily with Brad at her back.

"How long do we wait?" she asks after a few minutes.

"Impatient as ever," Brad says, and she gives him a warning glance.

"Unlike some people, I have places to be," she tells him, and he just smiles at her. One of the security guys grunts behind her, pointing to the window. She spins around and jumps, reaching back for Brad's hand, squeezing tightly. After a second, he tightens his fingers in return.

"Jim Jennings?" Ashleigh asks, watching the young assistant trainer pause in front of Wonder's stall. He stands directly in front of Wonder, who has backed into the dark space of her box. Ashleigh knows her filly, knows her reactions to people, and she heads for the exit.

"Whoa," Brad says, keeping his grip sure on her hand. "Not yet, Ash."

"What do you mean not yet," she hisses. "He's the one!"

"Wait," the security guy—Carter—insists, and Ashleigh struggles to contain a pout. Brad keeps his hand around hers, and she stands, watching with increasing panic as Jim pulls a crop from the inside of his coat, lifting it toward Wonder's stall.

He shakes it once, and taps it against the doorframe. The leather smacks at the wood with a sharp crack, and that's it for Ashleigh. She rips out of Brad's grip and runs for the door.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she yells down the aisle, shocking Jim so much he drops the crop. Wonder screams, and a hoof meets wood. Jim stumbles back from the stall and tries to run past her, headed for the closest exit. She rushes to stop him. It's only afterward that Ashleigh thinks he must have assumed she was alone.

The men appear behind her as Jim shoves her to the ground on his way to the door. Ashleigh hits the floor hard on her shoulder and gasps, rolling onto her back in time to see Brad step over her legs and send a fist into Jim's face.

Jim lands right next to Ashleigh with a gasping moan, and she scrambles away from him, kicking up dust and hay particles while he groans on the ground. Her shoulder aches, and Wonder's kicking the crap out of her stall. Ashleigh's heart is beating loud enough to drown them all out.

"What the fuck?" Jim yells from the ground, and Ashleigh keeps crawling away until her back meets Charlie's legs.

"Hey there, little lady," Charlie says down at her, offering her a hand up. "You feeling okay?"

"Charlie?" she asks, looking up at him when another voice enters the fray.

"The hell is going on?"

She turns around, her hand in Charlie's while the rest of her goes limp. She looks past Charlie's legs to see Mike standing there, totally stunned. Jim rolls onto his butt, pressing his hand against his bloody nose. Brad's still standing over Jim, but he transfers his attention to Mike.

Mike, who's storming down the aisle with anger on his face.

"Having Jim do your dirty work for you?" Mike asks, pointing to the still bleeding assistant trainer, who looks partially pissed and partially like he'd like to die at any second.

"Seriously?" Brad asks, pointing to Jim. "Does this really look like a team effort to you?"

"I think you'd do anything to win," Mike says, stopping on the other side of Jim. "Dragging someone else into it really wouldn't surprise me."

"You know," Brad starts, "I don't know what the hell I ever did to you, but your persistence is fucking amazing."

"What you did to me?" Mike asks, laughing. Ashleigh stares between them, watching Mike's hands clench into fists. He looks at her, and her stomach falls to her feet.

"Guys," she says, clenching Charlie's hand and letting him help her onto shaky feet. Wonder's screams rip into her, and she doesn't know what to address first. The panicked filly, the bleeding man, or the boys who look like they're about to come to blows at any second.

She steps around Jim as the security guys pick him up by his arms, dragging him out of the fray. Putting a hand on Brad's chest, she pushes him back a step and he goes reluctantly. Then she swings around to focus her attention on Mike.

"What are you doing here?" she asks.

"I was coming to see you," Mike says, his eyes going from her to Brad and back. "To wish you good luck."

She hears Brad's undignified snort behind her and she doesn't bother to address it. "Why?" she asks Mike. "You haven't spoken to me for weeks."

"Well, you ran out of the gala last night before I could talk to you," Mike tells her. "Ran out with him, of all people."

"Look," Brad says. "Where she goes and with whom isn't your business anymore."

"Shut the fuck up," Mike says back. "No one asked for your commentary."

"Hey, it's my…" Brad starts to say before Ashleigh lifts both her hands and yells.

"Both of you shut up!"

Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Charlie move across the aisle and kick the crop out of view of Wonder's stall. The filly is settling down, but she must be a nervous wreck, and Ashleigh hates both boys just a little bit for keeping her away from Wonder, who needs her far more than they do. She's silently thankful for Charlie.

"I want you to know that you're both ruining Wonder's chances right now," she snaps at both of them. Mike looks like he wants to say something, but she's in no mood to be interrupted and he keeps quiet. "She's over there freaking out and I'm over here dealing with your pissing contest."

Mike looks vaguely surprised, so she focuses in on him. "Mike, thanks for the thought, but right now I don't need it. Jim was messing with Wonder, and Brad set this up with Charlie."

"Jim?" Mike asks, genuinely confounded.

"You know," Brad says, sounding bored. "The guy on the ground. He was bleeding. That guy."

"Brad," Ashleigh warns him, looking at him over her shoulder. "Let me deal with this." He raises his hands and steps back a few paces, then goes over to rest against the shed row wall, leaving her to it.

"Ashleigh," Mike says, quietly in an effort to make it a conversation just for them when it isn't at all. Ashleigh's very aware of Brad's eyes on her back, and Charlie by Wonder's stall. She's happy for a minute for these little distractions. "I've wanted to talk to you for a while. Just, you know, in private?"

Ashleigh tucks her arms around her ribcage and suppresses a shiver, realizing that she wanted him to say something like that a while ago. She recognizes the pleading look on his face, the eagerness to rush for any sort of hope she might give him. Instead of speeding to meet him, she wants to know why now.

"You've had a while to want to talk to me in private," she says, feeling Brad's eyes on her. It's hard to say these things in front of him and Charlie, but she doesn't trust herself alone with Mike. Not yet. Not when she can still feel where he ripped out all her faith and expected her to keep on living after.

"I don't think I want to hear what you have to say," she thinks out loud, turning around to head for Wonder's stall, where Brad and Charlie are waiting for her. Charlie has walked into the filly's box already, but Brad remains outside, watching her.

"Then I'll say it here," Mike says, stopping her in her tracks. She meets Brad's eyes as she listens to Mike shift behind her, trying to come closer but unsure how close he should get. Ashleigh is trembling, her fingers shaking on her sides. She doesn't want him any closer.

"I was wrong, okay?" Mike stops before she doesn't think she can take his closeness anymore. "I was wrong to ask all of those things about Panther, and I was wrong to get pissed off when you lied about it. You…Ashleigh, you were right and I was being a dick about it. I wanted more for me and Whitebrook than for us, and I'm sorry."

Brad has that mask on while Mike speaks, and Ashleigh watches him carefully, waiting for it to slip. It never does.

"I don't expect you to accept that," Mike goes on. "And I accept that we're over. It's my mistake. I just…"

"Please stop," Ashleigh says, turning around. Mike looks like a kicked puppy, confused and alone and hoping that someone will reach out and help. Ashleigh can't be that person, and she shakes her head. "Mike, I accept your apology, but right now I really need you to go. This," she says, pointing between them, "isn't. It was never right to begin with. And that's why it ended."

"No," Mike says, shaking his head. "It wasn't all about Townsend Acres. I want you to know that, Ashleigh."

"It also wasn't about us," she insists. "It wasn't right. I know that now."

She doesn't miss the look Mike shoots over her, and she shakes her head. "It's not about him."

"I'm having a hard time believing that," Mike growls.

"Believe what you like," she says, tired of arguing. "I need to get to Wonder. Please?"

There's a little moment of time where they stare at her, and Ashleigh thinks that this would be when Mike steps across the divide and folds her up in his arms. It's when they would make up and start over and everything would be all right.

It's not what she wants, and she keeps her arms wrapped protectively around herself. She doesn't trust them, because that itch to reach out is stronger than she likes.

When Mike takes a step back, there's a little part of her that wants to cry out to him. That little innocent bit of her that refused to be tainted wants him back so badly it hurts. Ashleigh pushes it down, swallows it, and digs her fingers into her ribs as she watches him walk away.

"Dramatic," Brad says later.

"Yeah," Ashleigh agrees, prodding her shoulder with her fingers. The green and gold silks shimmer in the late afternoon light. "And to think how boring my life used to be."

At the moment, Wonder is crow hopping around the walkway with Hank desperately holding onto her head. Ashleigh feels numb, like she's about to step in front of a firing squad and there's no escape.

"How's your shoulder?" Brad asks her, and it's an effort to reply.

"I think my shoulder is the least of my worries," she says. She's already thrown up. Twice.

"You'll be fine," Charlie says with an air of calm that she's not sure how he manages. Wonder stops hopping around and struts down the walkway with her head in the air and her feet churning underneath, her nostrils blowing wide and her eyes darting wildly around the enclosed space. She's dark with sweat, and her tail snaps back and forth in agitation, spending more energy than she can afford.

The Prince, by contrast, looks perfectly calm. Ashleigh thinks it isn't fair to lose a race before it even begins.

"I think we should scratch," she says, peering up at Charlie. "She's no good today, Charlie. Jim screwed it up again. We shouldn't have set Wonder up like that. It's ruined everything."

Charlie mutters something she couldn't hear and turns to face her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "No," he says. "You're going to ride that filly today, because you're the only one we've got and you're the only one she trusts to get her through this. We don't have to worry about Jennings anymore, Ashleigh, and today we're officially restarting Wonder's career with you in her saddle. Got me?"

"Sounds good to me," Brad mutters off to the side, and Ashleigh can't help nodding with a jerk of her head.

"Okay," Charlie says with a decisive motion to Hank, who steers the rampaging filly over to them. Brad goes over to the Prince, and leaves them to it. Charlie throws Ashleigh up on Wonder's trembling back and away they go.

The Prince stumbles badly right out of the gate, smacked hard by the horse on his inside. The only reason Ashleigh sees this is because it takes effort to get Wonder past him without going down with the group. She gives the filly extra rein and screams so loud the nervous filly takes three huge jumps and goes careening up with the leaders.

It goes on like that for the rest of the race, right until the end when Wonder is a sweaty mess in front of a tiring group of colts. The only one with enough steam left to challenge her is a hard driving Prince, making up for his bad luck by flying down the last furlong.

Ashleigh scrubs at Wonder's neck, yelling and moving and giving it her all to push the exhausted filly the extra few yards. The Prince locks in with them, only inches away. She can feel his heat, and feel Craig's boot brush hers. The horses eye each other and thunder past the wire, only centimeters of noses apart in the end.

There's no telling who won, but Craig lightly claps her thigh in celebration anyway. She smiles over at him while they cool out in the turn and turn their horses for home.

When they get back to the grandstand, the crowd is just starting to quiet down and Townsend Acres is practically having a party on the track. Ashleigh leans down Wonder's shoulder to hug Charlie and shake Clay's hand. She sees her parents by the rail, waving and grinning like ecstatic fools. When the order of finish is finalized, thunder ripples through the crowd and Wonder shies so violently Ashleigh falls off and lands on her back in the dirt.

A gasp hushes through the stands, but Ashleigh only laughs up at the sky, covering her mouth with her hands as Hank strains to hold on to Wonder.

She sees Brad appear above her, looking down at her like she's a miscreant child rolling around in dirt. Ashleigh supposes she is.

"You know," Brad says, squatting down and balancing on the balls of his feet next to her head, "staying on the horse is pretty important in this line of work."

Ashleigh sits up and pushes at his chest. "I'll work on that," she says, taking the hand he offers her and rocketing to her feet when he stands up. They stand in the dirt, the Prince already stripped down and being led back to the barn. Wonder stands with Hank and flicks her ears at the noise of the stands, while everyone around them seems to hold a collected breath.

Finally, she says, "Is the Prince okay?"

"Scratches," Brad says, watching her carefully. She's worried that one or both of them will say the wrong thing, and this tenuous friendship will scatter like dust in the breeze. "He'll be okay."

"Good," she says. "I'm glad, Brad. He was amazing, you know. You should be…"

He waves her off. "Yeah, I know. Stop trying to placate me and get on the filly, will you?"

Her stomach falls. She thinks that she's made a colossal error, and it has to read on her face because he tips his head back in exasperation and says, "Ashleigh, you take everything so fucking seriously. I'll devote all of my time to beating you next year, okay? We have pictures to take."

A smile breaks out on her face and he lifts her up on the filly's back. He stands next to Wonder's shoulder during the picture, closest to Ashleigh. After the blanket of gaudy purple and yellow flowers is pulled from Wonder's neck and replaced with similarly colored sheet, he still sticks around like he's waiting for something.

Ashleigh goes to weigh in, and runs back to the winner's circle for the presentation. A presentation in which she's rewarded with a handshake and a horse.

She catches Brad's knowing smile, but it's lost to her thundering heart.

Late afternoon light slants on the track, spilling into the shed row and turning the dust motes into golden, dancing orbs. Ashleigh stands in front of Wonder's stall and soaks it in.

There will be celebrations later, but right now Ashleigh wants to revel in her victory, her astonishing turn of fortune, alone with her filly. Wonder rests her head against Ashleigh's chest while she rubs the filly's poll, speaking nonsensical words and smiling ridiculously to herself.

It feels too good to be real, and her chest is full to the point of bursting.

Giving the filly a few final pats, she pulls herself away and looks into the Prince's empty stall. The colt came out of the race with bruised knees and burned heels, but has been patched up and taken out to soak in the sun. Ashleigh wanders out of the barn and stops in the gravel lot, looking out at the grassy yard where Brad is standing with the colt.

The Prince is a polished penny on the lawn, his red coat burning gold and yellow. Brad stands next to him with his weight offset, one hand in his pocket. His tie is gone and his dress shirt is all stained with green and dirt, rolled up his arms in sloppy folds. Ashleigh watches him walk up to the colt and bend down, taking his hand out of his pocket to run his fingers down the Prince's leg and lift his hoof, inspecting it before letting the colt put it back on the ground.

Brad leans against the colt, resting his weight against the Prince's shoulder. The colt lets him, swinging his head around to nudge Brad in the knee before taking a step toward a clump of clover and reaching for the sweet leaves.

Something blooms in her like a firecracker flower glittering gold sparks, raining fire into her veins. She suddenly wants so badly that she doesn't care if a sharp fall is waiting for her. She wants to leap again, and try to fly.

Ashleigh smiles to herself and jumps into a jog, bounding over the gravel toward the horse and the boy before she can stop to calculate her course. She wants to get a running start.

"Brad!" she yells, getting his attention. He turns and she hits him head on, thinking the force of it might take him to the ground. He takes a step back, a grunt forced out of him, and she has her hands around his neck, the momentum carrying her up his body. His arm wraps around her, lifting her like she's weightless. Before she knows what's happening, she's pinned there against him, her feet inches from the ground.

She wraps her legs around his waist and he takes a few steps forward to keep up with the Prince, who has danced toward the next clump of attractive grass.

"Crazy," he says to her, and she laughs. Her heart is thumping erratically, pattering in hyper beats. He doesn't let her go, and she rests her hands on the sides of his neck, feeling him swallow under her palms.

"I wanted to say hi," she says.

He laughs, disbelieving. "Hi."

She grins and he sets her down on the grass, her hands slipping from his neck to his chest. She lets them rest there, feeling his breath and his heat. If she focuses enough she might feel his heart. "You're still high from the news," he observes.

"Oh yeah," she says, shaking her hair out of her eyes when she looks up at him. "Forever."

"You realize we're co-owners now," he tells her. "Partners in crime."

"I like that," she says. "Like Bonnie and Clyde, just without the stealing, mayhem, or bloody death."

He looks a little disturbed. "Yeah, I can handle the first two. Let's leave the bloody death part, okay?"

"I agree," she says. "We definitely have enough mayhem as it is."

"And the stealing," he says. "I think there's been a little bit of that, too."

"Oh yeah?" she says. "How do you figure?"

He looks at the Prince, but she doesn't get it. He reorganizes the lead in his hand, and she realizes he's considering what he's going to say before he says it. She wonders if they've ever thought before talking to each other before. Ashleigh's pretty sure it's just been gut instinct behind everything she's ever said to Brad.

"When Mike was in the shed row earlier," he starts, and she feels her excited little heart kick up a few extra notches. Her stomach flips over, and she's not sure if it's Brad's words or the memory of Mike. She hopes it's the former. She desperately wants it to be the former.

"He thinks I stole you," he says. He stops fiddling with the lead to look her in the eye. Her breath stops in her throat. "And I think I might have."

Her lips part, and she shakes her head. He watches her, naked emotions passing across his eyes, and she leans her weight into her hands on his chest, folding herself up there so neatly against him.

"That's ridiculous," she says, looking up at him. He puts his free hand on her side, his thumb brushing against the bottom of her ribcage. He's deliciously warm, and she can feel his heart now, thudding under her fingers. "I go where I want," she tells him. "And I want to be right here."

He doesn't say anything, and she thinks she's stolen the words right out of his mouth. It's either that or he's thinking too hard to speak, so she lets bravery and stupid, rushing adrenaline pull her up to him, catching his lips in hers for a brief kiss that moves him out of his stupor, following her retreat with his mouth.

She kisses him, arching around the hand he moves to the small of her back. They're right there in the stable yard, generating gossip the longer they go, and Ashleigh doesn't care. It's only the Prince's single-minded hunt for grass that pulls them out of it, and they move along with the colt, their legs tangling as they laugh and try to keep up.

The Prince settles into another clump of grass, clipping and chewing with hearty abandon. Ashleigh stands in front of Brad, waiting for him to say something that will keep her grounded, or push her off into thin air.

"So," he says, and she looks up at him through her bangs, lets him push the troublesome strands out of her face with the tips of his fingers. "Are we signing on for some mayhem?"

She nods, leaning into him again and resting there with her fingers soaking up the warmth of him. She licks her lips, liking how he watches.


He kisses her.

She jumps off the precipice, and she soars.