Revival of Ancient Errors
Rating: M (for language)
Summary: He's never liked the name Wonder's Star, but he lets it stick for sentimental reasons.
A/N: Spoilers up through Without Wonder.
The foal is a fuzzy ball of chestnut fur and spindly legs, white markings placed just so, and he thinks to himself I've been here before.
The mare is dead and gone. The foal remains, blinking innocently, waiting. Its legs are curled; its chest rises in quick succession. It's alone in a sea of straw.
He says, "It's a damn shame."
He doesn't think of her once on his way back to his car, avoiding the spring puddles and feeling the wet breeze at his back. He doesn't think of her staring sightlessly with teary eyes, doesn't think of her curled up on rumpled bed sheets, doesn't think of the grass stains on her jeans every time he'd see her ride the mare back from those sessions he always thought were such a waste of time.
He runs the tips of his fingers over the hard edge of his car keys and presses down, feels the jagged metal teeth bite against his skin.
He doesn't think about any of that at all.
The next day he comes back with a horse van, backs a giant down the ramp. He does this himself, outright refuses help from his immense staff, like he has some tribute to pay.
Mike blinks stupidly at him when he leads the new mare, a docile creature that desperately wants to nurture, right into the barn.
"Her foal died this week," he explains, slapping a hand on the mare's thick shoulder. "I thought we could put her to good use."
"Thank you," Mike says, although he sounds so aghast that Brad smiles. It is nothing more than a tick, a grim acknowledgement. "Let's see if they get along."
Within the hour, mare and foal are inseparable. They lead the gentle giant out to a separate pasture, Ashleigh's girl steadying the foal's teetering steps as it rushes to keep up.
He stands there on the opposite side of the fence with Mike and the girl, and they watch the pair. The big, dark mare and her tiny, amber foal doze in the early spring sun, and he thinks that it's not what any of them want to see at all.
The foal nuzzles the mare's flank, and she swings her head around, checks him out, and guides him home.
He leaves them to it. Frankly, he's got better things to do. It's always there, though, in the back of his head. He thinks that Wonder's last colt should be something more than just a sentimental pet, a project for some horse crazy teen that refuses to know the business she's grown up in. He thinks that Ashleigh should have one last thing to look forward to, because he inexplicably knows she's practically done.
It pisses him off that she's never out there anymore, spewing her self-righteous shit and irritating the ever living crap out of him. Weird as it seems, it's not right. It's not a fitting end.
He'd aim to do something about it, but he doesn't know quite what.
It's a day in late June. The farm is quiet when he drives up, and he doesn't expect much else. Whitebrook has always displayed itself as small and quaint, family-run. When half the string moves out to New York for the summer, the farm nearly stops. The grass grows unchecked, the phones go unanswered, and the remaining employees work their fingers to the bone to get it all done.
Ashleigh reigns over it all like some divine queen, mistress of her chunk of mismanaged earth. He remembers Caroline's stories. He's not surprised.
He kills the engine and climbs out into the sweltering heat. A band of mares and foals nearly old enough to wean rush past, kicking up clods of dirt and grass. He walks up to the battered, abused fence and watches, picks out Wonder's colt in a heartbeat. His giant nurse mare looks less large with her gangly son catching up to her.
He nearly jumps out of his skin, and spins around. Ashleigh's standing there behind him. She looks like she's at least bothered to rouse herself from sleep to do something on the farm, if her dirty tank top and beaten up jeans riding low on her hips is any indication. Her hair is falling out of a ponytail, in her classic fashion. "Fuck, Ash."
She doesn't wince at his curse, which is new. "He's grown."
He wonders if she's even stable these days, and by the way she lets her gaze drift off of him and onto the foal, there's room for argument. "No shit," he tells her. "That's what foals do."
She actually smiles, a little wryly, and he feels uncomfortable. "What are you doing here?"
"It's been a while," he shrugs, like he needs a reason to wander by Whitebrook. He's got investments to look in on, not that he has in months. There's no reason, really. Princess only had the one foal, and Honor is not what one would call a blue hen. He doesn't really give much of a shit about the stallions, so long as they're healthy and the stud books are in order.
He's here for only one reason, and she knows it as well as he does. This foal is all the reason he needs.
Ashleigh clears her throat and says, "While you were gone, Christina gave the foal a name."
"Did she," he says, already underwhelmed. "What's it to be this time?"
"Star," Ashleigh says simply, and he can't help the bark of laughter.
She doesn't even bother shooting him a glare. He's almost disappointed.
"Regardless," she says tonelessly, "since I hardly think you'll want to sell him, I thought I'd take the opportunity to suggest we just fill out the paperwork. Better now than later."
"Because there are a lot of Wonder's Stars running around?" he asks, and she stares at him blankly. He holds her gaze for a moment, before finally turning away. He watches the colt, finds reassurance in the antics of the foal as he bounds across the grass. It occurs to him how ridiculous it is that he ever found comfort in the sheer impossibilities of Ashleigh Griffen, how ridiculously off-putting it is to test her and find virtually nothing left.
"Because it would mean something to Christina," she says after a moment, shrugging, like it doesn't mean much to her at all.
"Fine," he says. "By all means. And when do you want to have the great negotiation on where he's going to train?"
He's thought about this. It's been so long he doesn't know if he's relishing this fight or dreading it. History would suggest she's won plenty of fights, despite giving up more than she needed to in return. The truth is, he's never really cared where the horses trained. It's all about what he can make her give up for nothing. Years ago, he considered it an art. If he'd really pushed her, he could have talked himself into an owner's share in Whitebrook. Easy.
Ashleigh watches the foal, crosses her arms over her stomach and says, "Later. We'll decide later."
When the foal and his nurse mare arrive at his doorstep, he calls her and says, "When did you decide?"
She says, "Don't kid yourself, Brad. You knew when Wonder died that he would be yours."
He's not all that bothered when she hangs up on him.
There are conditions that he has, of course, expected. He's standing with the colt, now a yearling that is all legs and unchecked attitude, running his hands down one leg and then the other. The colt picks up his feet, drops them back to the bedding, while Brad smoothes his hands over the colt's back and presses down.
Star is in the middle of cocking an ear backward, not sure about this development, when Parker appears in the aisle. Ashleigh's girl, Christina, stands next to him with her arms crossed and her face set.
"Dad?" Parker says, and Brad doesn't bother turning around. He just mutters an acknowledgement, presses again. Star moves sideways.
"Chris wants to have a minute of your time," Parker says, shifts his feet.
Brad smiles to himself. He says, "I need another groom around here like I need a hole in the head." He drops his hands from Star's hide and turns to look at Christina. "That's what you want, right?"
She stares at him, mouth gaping. The first word out of her mouth is directed to his son. "Parker?"
"He didn't tell me," Brad assures her. "You're your mother's daughter, aren't you?"
Christina swallows and steps forward, puts her hands on the stall door. He watches her eyes flit to the colt and then back to him. It's an effort for her to focus on anything other than the colt, and he finds himself smiling again. History, it would appear, loves repeating itself. It's interesting how everything feels turned on its head this time out.
"I just want to be a part of his training," Christina says. "I don't care how involved, or in what capacity."
"Unlikely," he scoffs, and he loves how confused she looks.
"I could volunteer time after school," she suggests when she recovers. "Brush him, spend time with him, whatever needs to be done with him."
He leans his shoulder against the stall door, while the colt steps forward to investigate his visitors, leans his neck against Brad's back and peers into the aisle. Brad reaches back and scrubs his fingers underneath the colt's orderly mane. Christina watches, waiting him out. Parker stands behind her, his arms crossed and his face unreadable.
"I'll tell you what, Chris," he says. "If you want, swing by on your free days. I'll have someone put you to work. Clear it with your mom first."
She smiles, throws a look back to Parker, who remains unmoved. He wonders if she'll tell Ashleigh about any of this at all.
The first day Christina appears, Star is out in the paddock with the other yearlings and his coat is a mess. It's a muddy day, and the horses have rolled in the slop to their hearts' content. She looks positively bright-eyed at the prospect of getting dirty on her first day. He's got other ideas.
"Get in the truck," he orders as soon as she arrives. She looks at him quizzically, but he just points to the massive vehicle and she does as told. They go on a quick jaunt over the farm, and he points out where Star will most likely be whenever she arrives. What pasture is what, what trail goes where, what the rules are that she will absolutely follow with no theatrics or dramatics involved.
"Why are you doing this?" she eventually asks him. He gives her a look. "I mean," she tries again, "why are you letting me get involved? I didn't think you'd let me."
He pulls the truck back into its spot outside the barn, kills the engine and leans his hands against the top of the steering wheel. "I'm sure you know my history with your parents," he says. "At the very least, you know about this farm's history with Whitebrook. I get that this feels awkward for you."
"Just a little," she admits. "And, I know this is going to sound horrible and suspicious, but I want to make sure Star is getting the care he deserves."
"No," he says, leaning back into his seat and looking at her. "You're like your mom. Driven by selfish desire, which is something I actually respect."
She tries to protest, but he cuts her off. "It's natural, Chris. You helped raise that colt, and you want to be with him now. I get it. We've all been there."
He notices a bit of a pout. "A piece of advice?"
"Sure," she says, unbuckling her seat belt and keeping her back ramrod straight.
"You'll get further with me if you're fucking honest."
She gasps. He smiles. "So be honest, Chris."
After a second, she nods. "I'll try to do that."
"Good," he says. "And as far as your other question? You're here because we were all starry-eyed kids once. God forbid I rip that opportunity out from under you."
He can tell she doesn't know what to say to that, so he opens his door and says, "Star's not going to bathe himself, you know."
That sends her scrambling.
She's the first one on the colt's back, and he tells himself he lets her rest her belly across the saddle like a sack of grain because he wasn't about to give her an opportunity to take matters into her own hands. Surreptitiousness runs in that family.
That isn't the real reason.
By the fall, he's got the colt under saddle and on the track. Star's group goes out in the afternoons, just after Christina and Parker come rumbling up in that beat up truck. She usually goes running by him, waving a hello because she's too busy making a bee line to the colt. Someone throws her up into the saddle, and they head off into the day's lesson.
He'll watch from the rail, his son standing nearby but not close.
There are arguments occasionally. Case in point: Star's first breeze.
Christina is adamantly against it, despite the fact that other, older yearlings have been breezing for weeks. He tells her to bitch to someone who gives a fuck.
"You have no right to speak to me that way," she says, hands on her skinny hips and her chin raised.
"That doesn't mean it's going to stop any time soon," he informs her, nodding to one of the other exercise riders and instructing him to take the colt on the easiest breeze that's theoretically possible. Christina still glares.
"I can see how my mother never once got along with you," she says, voice no more than a hiss. "You're..."
"Selfish?" he asks, and if looks could kill, he's pretty sure he'd be dying a slow, miserable death by Christina Reese. "Like minds never do get along too well, huh?"
"Fuck you," she says, which does almost shock him, right before she turns on her heel and marches off. He watches her grab Parker, who's been approaching from the barn, and drag him back to the truck. The old piece of shit coughs and starts up, leaves the farm with a shower of gravel spitting out from behind its wheels.
The colt's breeze is smooth and clean. Textbook.
He has been expecting Ashleigh to come storming back into his life at any moment. Over the past year, he's treated Whitebrook like a blip on his radar. He has no point to swing by anymore, and what he sees of the little farm that could on the track is in allowance racers and high end claimers.
It disgusts him.
So he's pretty pleased when she appears on his front step in the middle of the night, her face a maelstrom of disbelief and anger and probably a little bit of guilt. She's known about Christina's escapades. How could she not? So he swings the door wide and says, "Did she finally tell you?"
"About what?" she asks, pushing his arm off the door and walking into the foyer. She turns around as he closes the door and steadily approaches, looking down at her as she tips her head up to meet his eyes. He's always liked this, her screamingly obvious height disadvantage. He thinks he's used it plenty on her to get what he's wanted.
"What?" he asks, inviting her to continue.
"About her coming over here at all, working with you of all people," she says, "or that you two are at each other's throats? What the hell were you thinking, Brad? Letting her come here every day, playing like she has some say in what's happening with Star only to beat her down at the first opportunity?"
"What are you actually upset about?" he asks her. "That she's here at all, or that I'm apparently playing with her? She's your daughter, Ashleigh. You know she has her reasons for coming here. You also know that she's not going to get her damn way with me. She's not you."
"Oh, don't," she says. "You know why I'm upset. You should have told me what was going on here."
"I'm not obligated," he says. "She does what she wants. Besides, you had to know. You're not fucking blind, Ash."
That gets a rise out of her. There's a spark of recognition he hasn't seen in her in months. "Don't make me think giving you Star was a mistake," she says. "I can take him back so easily, Brad."
"You don't want him," he shrugs. "Seems to me you don't have much to threaten me with. Just say it, Ash. Tell me you knew."
"If you're going to have my daughter involved to this extent, I need to have greater control of the decisions being made with this horse. It's only logical, Brad. She's my daughter, and I co-own that horse."
"Tell me," he says, ignoring her for now. "It's just a few little words, Ashleigh."
"Fuck you," she says, and he watches her carefully. "I'm not going to let this get out of hand. I'm going to be involved from here on out."
"Ashleigh," he says, stepping closer. She stays put, looks down at his chest. "You can do whatever the hell you want," he says, because he knows exactly what her limitations are. She's not going to run down to the barn and pack the colt into a trailer bound for Whitebrook. She's hates Star, because Ashleigh has never been any good at distinguishing the shades of gray between black and white. She hates and loves and does it passionately, which he admires to an extent when she's not being vastly irritating. Sometimes he wishes for such simplicity.
She keeps staring at his chest, refusing to meet his eyes. "Just say it," he says, gently, like he's talking to a startled horse.
He watches her stare at a point on his shirt, her arms straight by her sides, and when she finally looks up at him she says, "I'm not blind."
At first, her presence smooths everything over. Christina does as asked, hops onto the colt and performs the scheduled works. Ashleigh just stands by the rail and stares, says a few comments to Chris, and more or less ignores him.
It works, until it doesn't.
Christina is a sharp tack, and she gets Ashleigh's determined pessimism just as well as he does. She starts to make comments, little digs, subtle insults, that Ashleigh takes like a punch to the gut every time. Even Parker, when he's around, stands by and winces.
Brad rolls his eyes as Christina finishes another coup de grace. "Mom used to use that technique all the time," she says, leading Star through the gap. She's looking right at him. "I haven't seen anyone try that move at Whitebrook in ages."
Either Christina is a cold bitch who could own him heart and soul, or she's just this side of conniving. He watches her go and sends Parker after her, because the mood between the ladies has been deteriorating. He needs someone to clean up the mess on that end.
Ashleigh staring at her hands is enough of a mess on its own.
"Don't say a word," she says in advance.
"Well," he shrugs, "you do know me."
"That's part of the problem," she sighs, pushes her hair back behind her ears and watches the rest of the afternoon works. "Maybe this was a mistake."
"I don't think so," he says, which is honest. She looks at him like he's amusing her. "No, really," he clarifies. "Besides, something has to get you out of your batcave and working again."
"This isn't working," she informs him. "And I am working at Whitebrook. I work there. It's my damned livelihood, Brad."
"According to the shit coming out of Christina's mouth," he says, "I'd believe a little differently."
"I don't work with the horses like I used to," she admits, rather freely. "But that's my decision to make."
"Fine," he says. "You sound like you're okay with that. Move on."
"Easier said than done," she mutters.
He laughs, and she looks so irked with him it only fuels the fire. "You do realize who you are, right?"
She says nothing, just looks at him like she's waiting for him to get to his point.
"Ashleigh Griffen," he says, leaning his arms next to her on the rail and looks out over the training oval. "Not just Ashleigh Griffen, though. The Ashleigh Griffen. Girl Wonder. Greatest Female Jockey of her Generation. The Pain in My Ass. All of those titles ringing any bells?"
Her silence is stubborn at this point. He moves to put an arm over her shoulders, and she tenses underneath its weight. He ignores that, pulls her in so he can say quietly, close to her ear, "Ash, if you're not going to do something with her memory, what are you holding on to it for?"
It doesn't happen overnight. But when Ashleigh suddenly yells at Chris, like, puts her whole body into it to carry her voice across the track to the unsuspecting horse and rider, he swears he sees Christina grin.
"They're dating, you know," Ashleigh informs him one day, and he winces because he's already had that talk with Parker. He's still not sure how that happened, but there you have it.
He's also not sure he's okay with it. It's just weird and wrong and uncomfortable.
"I know," he says, watching her bend down to check out the pasterns of a filly he's running later in the week. He's a little too proud of the filly, wants to show her off, and Ashleigh seems to know his game plan because she's making these appreciative noises in the back of her throat as she goes over the animal. Nothing gets to Ashleigh like inspecting conformation, apparently.
"What do you think?" she asks, looking at him over her shoulder as she straightens up, pats the filly on the flank.
"I don't like it," he says, matter of fact. She laughs, and it's weird to him because laughter didn't seem like it should be bubbling up around him, or out of her.
"Why not?" she asks, walking around the filly.
He rolls his eyes to the ceiling and says, "Doesn't it scream two rival houses, doomed love, tragic end to you?"
"I hardly think Christina and Parker are prone to suicide pacts," Ashleigh giggles, which makes him tilt his head to consider just what the hell got into her.
"No," he says. "They're remarkably dedicated workaholics prone to hormones. Two teens who actively decide to come here every day after school, shunning all other activities? Ashleigh, that's lack of options."
It's her turn to roll her eyes. "What do you know?"
"Enough," he says cryptically.
Christina finishes the breeze on Star, the two galloping out the last furlong, when he says, "She reminds me of you."
All she says is, "I know."
They're preparing for the colt's first race when the divorce papers arrive on his desk. He signs them without thought, throws the heavy pen down on top of the impressive stack of legal work and thinks he may have wasted twenty years of his life.
He stands there next to his desk and looks down at the messy contents covering it, wonders what he got out of this union with Lavinia that he couldn't have gotten elsewhere.
The farm is safe, and he has his son. Arguably, he gained everything. His life is richer, if empty. Sometimes he wonders if that isn't his own damn fault. He pushes the papers into a fresh envelope and throws them back into the mail.
Christina wants to get her jockey's license, and she's been hounding him for ages to support her against her mother in what can only be described as a self-absorbed quest. Ashleigh, he knows, isn't too thrilled with the prospect of Christina becoming a jockey. He's not too thrilled by the idea of an amateur on Star, so he strikes her a deal.
He'll support her getting her license if she can sit on the sidelines during Star's two-year-old campaign. He's not fucking around with this colt, and the last thing he wants is Christina's overconfidence throwing a wrench in the plans. In return he'll throw her up on any of his allowance runners and local claimers that he thinks will teach her a lesson. She reluctantly agrees, and he goes to meet with Ashleigh.
"No," is what she says.
"No," she says again. "She's sixteen. What is the rush?"
"Star is the rush," he says, like she's dense. "He'll only be racing age for so long."
"Christina is too tall," Ashleigh says, like he doesn't know. "Making weight will be harder for her, and I don't want her to totally wreck her health on some mission to ride Star. It's a passing fad for her as it is, so I don't see why I should give in to this supposed urgency."
He knows what he's about to say might set him back a few thousand steps, but he says it anyway. "Wasn't it all about Wonder for you?"
She pauses in what she's doing, which appears to be a whirlwind attempt at organizing her office. He doesn't think she's going to get far. "Don't bring up Wonder," she warns him. "This isn't about me or her."
"Actually," he says, "it is about you. It's about you not letting your daughter do what you did when you were younger than her, Ash."
"Those were extenuating circumstances," Ashleigh argues. "Christina just wants to do this, unthinking of any possible consequences it might have for her in the long term. I'm looking out for her. Besides, I can't imagine you actually want her on Star."
"We've struck an agreement," he says simply, and now she really stops what she's doing.
It's time to tread very carefully, so he tells her very clearly what their arrangement is. She stares at him like he's lost his mind. "Why the hell would you do that?"
He shrugs. "She's been riding Star since the beginning of his training," he says. "It can't exactly hurt, if she knows what she's doing. I'm not exactly putting a green rider on a green horse in this plan, Ash."
"No," she says. "You're raising her hopes and leaving it to me to dash them. You're playing a game with her. Again."
"I'm offering her a chance to pursue a career path," he says right back. "If she chooses to go down that road."
"Again," Ashleigh says, "why?"
"We're business partners, Ashleigh," he says. "You tell me."
Ashleigh rolls her eyes and looks down at the chaos covering her desk. "The answer is still no."
He raises his hands in surrender. "Then you be the one to tell her," he says. "I've done my part."
He leaves, letting the door rattle on his way out.
For Star's first race, he puts the best jockey he's got under contract in the saddle. Christina watches enviously, her hands clasped together. Ashleigh and Mike sit in their box in the grandstand, while Christina sits with Parker in the Townsend box. Brad doesn't even want to think about what this means, so he just goes along with it and watches the race unfold.
They come in second, a hair behind after a slow start and one misfire later. It's a good finish. He claps the jockey on the shoulder afterward and tells him he did a good job steering the colt home.
It's not too long after that when Ashleigh arrives in his office with a sour expression on her lips. They don't see very much of each other these days, with Star running in the morning and maintaining a strict schedule. Ashleigh can't very well abandon Whitebrook's morning routine to see one horse breeze, but Christina certainly does with enthusiasm.
He watches her sit down across from him, and admits to himself that even with her sick expression he's missed her presence. Not that he isn't usually on the receiving end of most of her unhappy emotions, because those are the ones he's grown accustomed to. He thinks, though, that she's happy here sometimes. Occasionally, he's seen it. He knows the history of her and this place, with him.
"I need some advice," she says, like she'd rather lick sandpaper. He narrows his eyes at her.
"What kind of advice are we talking about?"
"When Townsend Acres was in trouble all that time ago," Ashleigh says, and something twists in his gut. "What did your father do to avoid selling off Wonder and Pride? Most of the stock, even? I never saw much of an outward change."
He laughs, because she really wouldn't want to know the answer. "My dad is a shrewd businessman and a liar," he says, which makes her blink in confusion. "The deals he made back then aren't the kind of thing you'd be interested in doing pretty much ever, Ashleigh."
"So it was dirty," she assumes.
"Sure it was," he says. "You must have suspected, especially after we only really gained a solid foothold after I married Lavinia."
She nods. "I suppose, on some level."
He has to ask. "What's going on with Whitebrook?"
"I'd rather not discuss it," she replies primly, like showing off one's financial disaster in horse country is considered a faux pas. He grins at her, however humorlessly.
"Well, regardless of what the problem is, you'll have to fix it," he says, like it needs to be said. Sometimes, with her, he wonders. "Admittedly, I'm not surprised. The economy is shit, the auctions are dismal, and there are over two hundred farms for sale around Lexington alone. How bad is it?"
"Bad enough," she says.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing," she tells him almost immediately, and he narrows his eyes at her again.
"What are you going to do?"
She winces. "Downsize, I suppose. I can cut the broodmare band in half, sell off all the young stock…"
"The stallions?" he asks.
"I'd rather not mess with that aspect," she says after a minute of considering.
"Why not?" he asks her, drawing some surprise. "Look," he says. "If you're going to cut your broodmares by half, you're going to have to cut your stallions. You've got a couple of nice boutique studs that are at home at Whitebrook, but there are others that you know aren't pulling their weight. Cut a few loose to smaller farms out of state."
She says nothing for a minute, and continues to say nothing until he groans and says, "There is a time and a place for your stubbornness and Mike's misplaced stoicism. This probably isn't either."
"Never mind," she says, standing up.
"Ashleigh," he says, calling her back. "I'm not telling you to get rid of Pride or Mr. Wonderful. You do know that."
She stops in the doorway and looks back at him. "I know," she says in a small voice he can just barely hear. He would like to be straight with her, inform her that Pride's too old and too unsuccessful a stallion to meet any interest anyway. Mr. Wonderful is at best a stallion who commands a small book of decent mares.
As it turns out, the one breeding success that Wonder ever gave them lives in Dubai. Champion's babies have been cleaning up purse after purse in Europe, which he routinely avoids telling both her and his father. He's not interested in starting an argument about hindsight, which neither of them apparently have much of.
"Are you coming up to Saratoga this summer?" he asks as she mills there in the doorway. "I'm putting Star in the Hopeful, after I get an allowance into him first."
"Mike is going," she says after a minute, because of course Ashleigh doesn't think about leaving Kentucky. Not anymore.
"You sure about that?" he asks.
She nods once and is gone.
While Star is cleaning up at Saratoga, demolishing his allowance race and winning the Hopeful by a solid two lengths, Ashleigh spends her time getting Whitebrook in order.
She does an impressive job. When he comes back, Whitebrook is half its original size.
He cuts her a check for her half of Star's winnings, and she accepts it without question.
The Breeders' Cup is at Churchill Downs this year, and it's this reason alone that he thinks she decides to watch the Juvenile, which he has entered Star in with no say so from her. Christina still hasn't forgiven her, not after spending most of the summer in New York and cultivating her craft, which she's managed to do due to a very convincing forgery and knowledge of where Ashleigh keeps all the important documents, like her birth certificate. Brad never questions her, because honestly he's on Christina's side.
He has to hand it to Christina. She's motivated and scary good when she puts her mind to things. He thinks it's time to test her a little harder. Possibly harder than she'll ever be tested in her life, and pulls her aside one day to say he wants to put her on his entrant for the Mile.
She nearly loses it. Her skinny arms wrap around his chest, and for a wispy girl she can squeeze harder than anticipated.
"Thank you," Christina says so fast the words blend together. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou."
There's bouncing up and down, then she spins off to go find Parker so she can begin spreading the news across Lexington.
Ashleigh comes storming onto his property again not six hours later.
"Seriously?" she asks, throwing herself down onto the sofa. "You've been letting her do this right under my nose."
"Well," he says, "it was mostly done under Mike's nose. She'd ask to ride races when he was out of town, and no one told. It was a miracle, under the circumstances."
"You are missing my point," she says through her teeth. "You let her do this. You knew. Fuck, Brad, you probably facilitated half of it."
"Most of it," he says. "They're my horses."
If looks could kill, he thinks, she and Christina would have the same style. Although he's been on the receiving end of this stare for what feels like the beginning of time. It's lost all meaning to him anymore.
"Give me one reason why I should let her ride in the Mile," she challenges him. "Just one."
"She's fucking good," is his response. "And she's played ball, Ashleigh. She's done what I've asked of her, and she hasn't bitched once. She's ridden my bottom of the barrel horses, and got a few claimed for me. I'm more than happy to give her a chance, because if she inherited anything good from you it's that she knows how to ride a horse."
"I was expecting something more inspired," she says. "Like, it's destiny and I owe this to her, or maybe you could namedrop Wonder in there somewhere."
He laughs. "I'll stick with real reasons," he says. "She's done her part, and now it's time to see what she's made of, especially if she's going to ride Star next year. I can't have some girl with a known name and little else riding him to the Kentucky Derby next year."
She stands up and crosses over to him. "You've put a lot of stock in Star."
"Why wouldn't I?" he asks.
"And in Chris," she adds.
He scoffs. "Because she never would leave."
"You've totally made me the bad guy," she reminds him. "Again."
"Yeah," he says. "Well, I'm not parenting her here, Ashleigh. That's your department."
"Will you at least keep me in the loop next time you make some grand decision concerning my daughter?"
"I'm a busy man," he says to her. "Keep yourself in the loop."
She shoves him lightly on the arm. It's the first time she's actively touched him in years, so he's more than a little surprised. So much so that he nearly misses the next thing out of her mouth.
She nods slightly and says, "I might have to do that."
Christina comes in fifth in the Mile, but she's overjoyed because that still means a little bit of money and a little bit of money for Christina at this point in her life is a raging success.
When the Juvy goes off, Christina is back in the stands, where the Whitebrook and Townsend Acres contingents have come together for the first time in years. Star wears the green and gold silks, as he does in every race by Brad's demand and Ashleigh's disinterest, but up in the stands it's clearly a hodgepodge of supporters.
The colt wins by daylight.
They win the Eclipse Award for best two-year-old colt. They all knew that they would.
The colt ships to Florida to begin an old dance. Their aim is to sweep the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, then come home to rest on their laurels until the Kentucky Derby.
He expects, at first, that Mike will be coming with him. He's surprised when it's her instead.
She sits next to him on the flight down and promptly falls asleep, slumping into his shoulder. He doesn't bother to move her.
Before their allowance race, their little tune-up allowance race they're using as a prep for the Fountain of Youth, Christina is a nervous wreck. Star wins the race in spite of her, dragging them down the track and winning by an uninspired half length.
That's not a good sign.
For the Fountain of Youth, Christina is a nervous wreck because she was a nervous wreck before the allowance race, and look out that turned out? They finish fourth in a race with no pace, and Christina blames herself. He tells her to cool out and get her head screwed on right, makes Parker deal with the rest.
He thinks his son might be long suffering. Ashleigh insists it's love. He's not so sure.
Later, in his hotel room that overlooks the ocean, he sits with a tumbler full of the most expensive bourbon the hotel has to offer, and tells Ashleigh that he's thinking of pulling Christina.
"Don't you dare," she tells him, flat out. She actually pokes him in the chest as she says it, accentuating every word. She may have had too much to drink, if the affects of half the contents of her glass is anything to go by. He thinks about taking her portion of the bourbon away from her, but she looks like she might not take that well. He leaves her to it.
"It would be the best move for the horse," he argues. "Her nerves are shot as it is, and I don't see how they're going to get better after two times out."
"Third time is the charm?" she asks him, sipping at her drink.
"As sweet and sentimental as that is," he says, watching her out of the corner of his eye. "It's not very helpful."
"You promised her," she points out. "You can't go back on that."
"I promised her within reason," he says. "If she's going to blow her chance, that's her issue. I've got to do what's right for the horse and the Derby."
"Maybe you're thinking too much about the Derby," Ashleigh says, her words slurring a little. He smiles, watches her sip again delicately and scrunch up her face. He never took her for a hard liquor fan, and as it turns out she isn't. She's just as innocent and wide-eyed at forty as she was when she was twelve.
That shouldn't be something that he should ever think about, but nevertheless it's there.
"I guarantee you that Christina is thinking about the Derby," he informs her.
"That's because she knows you are," she says. "And she wants to please you."
He sighs. "And please tell me what's so wrong about this?"
"There's a life after the Derby," she says. "Just because we aimed most of Wonder's foals to that race doesn't make it a requirement for Star."
"No," he says. "He's made for that race. He would be logical for that race if we had a jockey who didn't over think the simplest of moves in a two turn course."
"It's harder than that," Ashleigh admonishes.
"I know." Then he grins. "Maybe you could ride him."
"Fuck no," she laughs, finishes her drink in a long swallow that stuns him just a little bit. Then she makes that face again and he smiles. "You're sticking with Christina. No backing out now."
He doesn't know how they got to the point where she can wrap him around her little finger again, but he continues to let her. "Fine."
She taps his knee with the empty glass, and he takes it dutifully for a refill.
He puts Christina on Star himself for the Florida Derby, keeps his hand on her knee as she situates herself up there and says, "How are your nerves, kid?"
"Manageable," she says curtly.
"You know the plan?"
She looks down at him. "I don't think I know anything but the plan."
"That's my girl." He pats her knee and sends them on their way.
He realizes he's fucked after the Florida Derby. After they've won the Florida Derby by three lengths and instantly became the favorite horse gunning for Churchill Downs. After he's got Ashleigh in his arms and she's smiling against his neck, right there on national television, like they've been something else for decades instead of what they are.
They come home, and he ignores her. She's oblivious. That's probably the worst part of it all.
April will be a long, cruel month.
Thankfully, the lead up to the Kentucky Derby is so time consuming he doesn't have much time to dwell on Ashleigh Griffen. It's the galas and the dinners that kill him, since she's presented as his partner in crime, this duo famous for its sparks and explosions. Everyone looks at them like they're waiting for the next big drama.
He thinks it's been years since Wonder's Champion won the Triple Crown. For these people it could have been yesterday. He resolves to be boring, just to irk them.
Ashleigh is a harder sell. Considering she's the most stubborn woman he's met in his life, that's not surprising. She wants her own way, and she's not above petty arguments and backstabbing to get it. That's what he tells her one day, and she gasps at him like she can't believe he's spoken such libel.
"Oh, please," he says, standing at the rail while Christina is busy giving the colt his last work on a wet track. "Name me a time when you didn't go behind someone's back when your stubbornness didn't win out."
"That's ridiculous," she says. "If I ever went behind anyone's back," she says, accentuating words to inform him that anyone is in fact him, "it was because I was put in such a position that I had no other choice."
"Because you were insistent that you were right," he says. "That nothing else I could have said about anything would have a shred of truth to it."
"You are assuming that I'm wrong when I'm making these decisions."
"No, I'm saying that you're assuming that you're right and you don't want to hear anything else."
"I can't even believe we're talking about this," she says. "What the hell is your problem?"
He knows precisely what his problem is, and it happens to be her. All of her. Everything she says and does is setting him off, and he'd like to somehow quench this weird feeling and then bury it so deep no one would ever know it had even existed. He has no idea how to do this, so he hasn't exactly been a joy to be around. Ashleigh is just starting to get that, he thinks. Finally.
"I don't know," he lies. "Anxiety?"
She gives him a suspicious look, and then thankfully lets it drop.
They win the Kentucky Derby. They win the Preakness. They move on to New York and it's easy for him to drown the feelings she stirs up in the incessant lights of flashbulbs.
Star stands in front of his admirers, Christina holding onto the lead rope proudly. He and Ashleigh stand just inside the barn, watching the pair do their thing.
"This is what she wanted, you know," she says to him quietly, so Christina can't hear.
"What? To have her Girl Wonder moment?"
"No." She looks up at him. "To be a part of something."
He doesn't see the difference, but he doesn't say that. Not to her. He thinks she wouldn't understand anyway.
They win the Belmont, and that's when things really go to hell. It's a mob scene in the winner's circle, and he can't tell if the grandstand is shaking or if it's his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. The colt shies on his way back from the race, dancing and skittering on his long legs, while Christina sits on his back with a delirious smile on her face.
Later, Ashleigh links her arm through his and says, "So how justified do you feel?"
He smiles. "Not at all, Ashleigh."
She laughs, truly, and stretches up the length of him to whisper, "Liar."
The colt gets a break. Two months to roll around to his heart's content in the pastures, and gallop with Christina in the wide green lanes of the farm. Ashleigh's around all the fucking time, watching her daughter ride the colt and getting in his hair about the right fall campaign that will lead Star into the Breeders' Cup.
"What about this," she says excitedly, flouncing into his office one miserably hot afternoon at the end of June. "We start off with another allowance in early August. Star can pull that off, right? Then we go straight to the Travers Stakes to take care of any remaining three year olds we haven't beaten yet. The late bloomers, the ones who dropped off the Triple Crown trail, and the like. From there we take on older horses at Belmont. Do you think the Jockey Club Gold Cup is too big a race too soon with that competition, or should we downgrade to something a little less competitive?"
He stares at her like she's lost her mind, because while she's always been exceedingly competitive he's not sure he's ever seen her so enthusiastic. Even when Wonder was racing she'd had Charlie's litany of idioms drilled into her head about chickens and eggs and whatever else that man said on a constant basis, making her passion for the sport look forced.
She's not forcing anything right now. If anything she's a force of sheer will.
"What?" she asks, when he fails to say anything.
He clears his throat. "That sounds like an interesting approach," he says, and she beams.
"What about the Gold Cup?" she asks. "Too much?"
"How about we start with the Gold Cup?"
"And ignore the Travers?" she asks, aghast. "But there are going to be nice three year olds in that race. Three year olds we need to beat."
"Ash," he says. "We've got that Eclipse Award locked up. We can ignore three year olds for the rest of the year."
She frowns down at her scribblings and shrugs. "We could start with the Gold Cup," she says. "But I'd really feel better with a small prep. Get him something easy to ease back into the swing of things."
"Sounds good to me. There should be something suitable at Belmont that month."
"Good," she says, and she's so perky he gives her another look that she doesn't notice at all because she's twirling around and out the door before he can even begin to comment.
They're back at Belmont, starting to put Star through his paces. Ashleigh's spending more and more time in secluded conversation with her cell phone, keeping most of what she's saying, probably to Mike, a secret from Christina. Brad doesn't say anything about it, but he knows that Christina at least knows something is up. She always gives him a questioning look when she comes back from working the colt and Ashleigh's isn't waiting with him by the rail.
He always just shrugs it off, because it's not his place. What he does know is if co-owning a Triple Crown winner can't pull Whitebrook from the brink, nothing will.
The night before the allowance race, he heads down to the track and walks in on the tail end of one of those conversations. Ashleigh's standing there in front of Star's stall, the colt resting his head on her shoulder as she mutters a hasty goodbye and shoves her phone into the back pocket of her jeans.
She wipes her fingers under her eyes and turns quickly around, causing Star to lift his head and back into his stall. He knows she doesn't want him to see her distress, but that's just too bad because he's here and he's not going to ignore this.
She looks into Star's stall and says, "I think we're going to sell."
He stops behind her and mutters, "Fuck."
"Pretty much," she agrees, lowering her forehead into her hands. He rests a hand on the middle of her back and rubs his thumb back and forth. She doesn't tense and move away, so he inches a little closer, shifts his hand up to sit between her shoulders.
"So, seriously, Ashleigh," he says. "What's going on?"
She explains to him the investments Gene Reese made years ago, when Whitebrook was a fresh farm just starting out. It doesn't take a genius to realize where that money went when the economy turned south.
"It's all gone," she says. "All of it. I not only have no money to run the farm, but I have no money for Christina's college fund. What little I have set aside for Chris is in a trust fund, so it's something she can live on, but we don't have anything else that can sustain us and the farm. Selling is the only thing we can do now."
He considers what he is about to say very carefully, and finally says, "I can buy out your share in our horses, Ash. If it helps."
She laughs, but it sounds pained. He rubs his fingers in little circles until she quiets down and lifts her head. "What do you need with two stallions who've never lived up to their reputation in the breeding shed? Or Honor Bright and her beautiful, stupid foals? Princess is barren, and might be at best a worthy addition to the Kentucky Horse Park. Who else would take her? The fact is we shot ourselves in the foot by letting go of Champion and Legacy. We ruined our own chances. I won't let you waste your money."
"What about Star?" he asks. "I'll buy you out, and you know I'll pay whatever price you set."
She's quiet for a long moment, and for a second he thinks he's said the last thing she wanted to hear. It surprises him, because he imagined she would have loved to hear that proposition three years ago, when she wanted nothing to do with the foal and Christina was the only one singing his praises. He never offered then, because he had known in some way that she would have said no for Christina's sake. He's offering now because she's backed into a wall, and if he can offer her a way out, he'll do it.
"If you buy me out, that's it, isn't it?" she asks, turning around and looking up at him. "I'm done. Everything I did between Townsend Acres and Whitebrook Farm is finished. We're finished."
He smiles. "You can't say that doesn't hold some appeal for you. I'm pretty sure if you could have bought me out, you would have done it ages ago."
"That was ages ago," she says under her breath. "I don't want to give it all up now."
"You and Mike won't be left wanting, Ashleigh," he tells her. "You sell me your share in Star, you take the money and sink it into a new business. You'll have people knocking down your door to train their horses. You'll start fresh."
Star chooses this moment to nudge her shoulder with his nose, inserting himself so completely that Ashleigh breaks down into giant, wracking sobs. He curses and pushes the colt's nose out of the way, gathering her away from the stall and pressing her close. She burrows against him, crying against his shirt while her fingers dig into his sides.
"Hey," he says, his hand spanning her back, his arm wrapped around her waist. "Ashleigh, it's okay."
"It's not," she says, sputtering against him through heaving breaths. "It's really not."
So he keeps her like that against him until she calms down, gets her breathing in order, and rests there in the middle of the stable aisle. When she's quiet, he puts a hand on the back of her head and she pulls back, letting him push her long hair out of her face. Her eyes are red and watery, and she sniffles in attempts to keep from starting up again.
"Don't look at me like that," she chides softly. "You'll make me cry again."
"I'm not looking at you like anything," he says, and she smiles because of course he has to be argumentative even now.
When she looks up at him, he thinks he's in trouble. Her breath catches in the back of her throat, and he thinks it could be from the tears. Or it could be from something else. Either way, she backs out of his grasp and stands an arm's length away, her eyes still on his.
"I'm going to call Mike," she announces, and it's hard for him to not react. He won't react. "We might take you up on your offer."
When she turns around and walks out of the barn to seek some privacy away from him, he can't help but not give a fuck about his offer.
She accepts, with a little change. She'll sell him the majority of her interest in Star, retaining ten percent so she feels "in the loop."
He smiles, but he doesn't think it's funny. Not in the slightest.
Whitebrook closes its gates when the last horse is trucked off the property. The land sells a month later, the majority of the money going to the IRS and a list of creditors and lawyers that he's sure is impressively long. The money from Star's sale is used to purchase a house near Keeneland, where she and Mike open up a public stable. It's small, but she's proud of it.
He's happy for them.
Star keeps on winning, and he hands over her much smaller portion of the purses after each race like clockwork.
The Breeders' Cup is at Arlington Park in Chicago, the scene of the crime. He's rarely seen her in the months leading up to the races, so when she finally shows up on the backside of the track the week before it's a visceral reaction. He just freezes. Christina, who's been his little right hand girl since they've gotten there, seems to notice.
"Are you okay?" she asks him while they watch her mother walk up to them, the chilled fall breeze ruffling up her hair.
"Fine," he says gruffly. "Keep cooling out Star."
She walks off with the colt, looking at him over her shoulder with a suspicious glint in her eyes.
They all go out to eat the night before the Breeders' Cup. Christina and Parker, Ashleigh and Brad. It has a weird, barely functional family dynamic he doesn't want to think about. Christina keeps giving him the evil eye, while Parker remains totally oblivious and Ashleigh wanders off on tangents that do nothing to distract him.
Afterward, Christina and Parker head off to the Navy Pier and Brad wants nothing more than a drink. Ashleigh decides to join him, and they wind up in a bar near their hotel. She sips on her wine and he nurses his Jack Daniels while she regales him with stories of her public barn and the constant state of crazy in which it seems to function.
She's bright-eyed and he likes that on her.
He also likes it when she reaches out and bumps him in the shoulder with the back of her hand, leans in and says, "Hey, are we going to win this fucking race, or what?"
"Hell yes," he says, taking her wrist and running his thumb across the soft skin before dropping her hand on her thigh. She looks at him, caught up in staring. He holds her look for a minute, then turns to finish off his drink.
He feels her rather than sees her hop off her bar stool, and then there's her little fingers wrapping around his wrist, tugging him to the door. He lets her lead him back to the hotel, right onto the elevator, and lets her pick what floor they go to. She hits a number on the panel, and doesn't ask for his.
"Ashleigh," he says finally, because this is probably where he should start asking questions.
"I have something for you," she says quickly. "It's in my room. I thought we could go get it, and then you'll be on your way."
He thinks to himself oh, thank fuck.
She leads him down to her room, which is quiet and dark. He turns on a light almost immediately, because being in a dark room with Ashleigh Griffen freaks him out more than a little. She shoots him a thankful smile and goes to dig in her suitcase, pulling out a piece of paper and a photograph that catches his attention.
A chestnut horse. Of course it is. She hands it over.
"That is the unnamed daughter of Wonder's Pride," she announces, holding up the pedigree she has with her.
He's confused. He looks it. "Why am I holding a picture of her?"
"Oh," she smiles. "I bought her."
"I bought her," she says again, like it will make sense the second time around. "She never raced, has never been bred, but look at her, Brad. That conformation is Pride through and through. She actually looks a little like Wonder at that age, and I thought she'd be a wonderful investment."
"She's never been bred?"
"Nope," she says. "She's only two. Her dam is graded stakes placed, and has an impeccable breeding record. Do you want to see it?"
She starts to rifle through her paperwork, and he stops her because this is getting a little suspicious. "Okay, wait. What's going on, Ashleigh? You bought a mare, and I think that's great. But I'm starting to question your motives with this whole salesman routine."
"Right," she takes a breath. "I was hoping you'd be partners with me."
That is truly the last thing he ever expected.
"Seriously," she says. "Chris talks about working with Star, and it just feels like an ache inside. I'm not saying selling him to you was a mistake, and I do retain some small interest, but it's not enough for me."
"You want to recreate our situation with Wonder," he says very slowly, so he'll understand. She doesn't deny it.
"Revive, recreate, redo," she shrugs. "Whatever you want to call it."
"I'm pretty sure you hated that situation," he tells her. "Why the hell do you want to redo it?"
"It's not the same. It will be better this time," she says, looking up at him and getting caught again. She stammers for a second, and says, "We did things so well with Star. We work well together."
"Now," he says. "With Star."
"And with this filly," she says. "If you want to."
He rubs a hand over his face. "This could be a royally huge mistake. I'm…"
She searches his face, standing a little too close with those big eyes and hopeful expression. He does the absolute last thing he should and says, "Fuck it."
He kisses her, expecting to be shoved back and hit mercilessly, so it comes as a surprise when she practically pushes herself into his hands and kisses him back. He lets the papers she's shoved into his hands drop onto the bed in favor of spreading his fingers over her back, wrapping one arm around her and pulling her closer as she arches into his hold.
She strokes her thumbs across the line of his jaw and opens her mouth, letting him in. He thinks he might die right here, both from the feel of her and the knowledge that this is the absolute worst idea either of them has ever had. She is married, and he is a complete asshole, but there is an undeniable truth in the middle of all of this and it is that he cannot make himself pull away.
She accentuates this by making a little mewling noise and pulls away just far enough to speak, her breathing ragged as it puffs wetly over his lips. "I love my husband," she says, opening her eyes and staring right at him. That feels like a knife to the chest, but it does nothing to slow down his heart.
"I know," he says, moving one hand to the back of her head and tangling his fingers into her hair.
She resists his pull back to his mouth for a second, just long enough to say, "We're awful people."
He agrees with her, but he's too busy noticing how she's rising on her toes to get closer, pressing into him and digging her fingers in, clinging. He kisses her again, and her tongue slides into his mouth.
He's always wanted something. Cars and horses and women. He's always gotten what he's wanted, but in this case he walks into it knowing there will be nothing in it for him. He kisses her, fills his hands with her, signs his name to her little proposal while she stands at his side.
She tells him, "This can only happen once."
He's glad for that.
Star wins the Breeders' Cup. When the colt flies across the finish line with his orange mane licking behind him like flames, Ashleigh stands next to him, her hand brushing his. As the grandstand quivers and shakes around them, she smiles up at him.
He's always wanted something.
This might be enough.