Several years ago, my riding instructor at the time turned to me and asked, “Why horses?”
I remember thinking that it was a strange question to ask. We were in the middle of working on the barn and bam! The question could have easily been, “Why are you the way you are?”
So I could only answer, “I don’t know. Does anyone?”
Ever since I can remember, it’s been horses. They catch my attention all the time, even now when I feel I should have gotten over the joy of driving by a pasture that happens to contain a horse. There’s something about them that brings out the wide-eyed wonder in people, something so fundamental that asking “Why horses?” seems so very absurd to the people who intrinsically love them.
It was always horses. Even more specifically, it was horse racing. Watching Thoroughbreds fly around dirt ovals has been a favorite pastime for me since I cracked open Joanna Campbell’s A Horse Called Wonder and fell down the rabbit hole, where the drama of Ashleigh Griffen and Wonder versus Brad Townsend and Prince left indelible marks on my psyche. Horse racing comes prepackaged with high stakes—ecstatic highs, dark lows—and at the innocent age of twelve I wanted in. Only I had no desire to live the racing life. I wanted to write it.
There’s something about the intensity of horse racing that keeps me using it as a backdrop for the stories that play out within my books. By its very nature, the sport keeps you perched at the edge of your seat—maybe even jumping up and down while screaming—and it’s fun for me to channel that type of wild atmosphere into writing. I also love the dynamics a racetrack affords me with the girls I write about. Women in horseracing are increasingly common, but it’s still a sport dominated by men, with that lingering old guard attitude of what a woman can and cannot do still very much alive. Horse racing wears its stories on its sleeves, walking this fine line between the emotional sentimentality we feel about horses and the hard truth of human failings and I absolutely love that. As a writer, it’s inspiration catnip.
My first published short story, Whirlaway, won the Thoroughbred Times Fiction Contest and I followed that up with Stay the Distance, the first in a trilogy about July Carter, Beck Delaney, and a hotheaded colt named Lighter. The sequel is in the works, and I’m planning on turning all of my attention to it this November, while my next book, Finding Daylight, is off with the editors.
I started writing Finding Daylight last year during the prep races for the Breeders’ Cup. The lead up to these huge two days in racing takes months, with horses vying against each other for a spot in the starting gate of thirteen different races. The biggest of them all is the Breeders’ Cup Classic—a race worth $5 million dollars—which arguably consists of the best classic distance dirt runners the world has to offer. It’s kind of a big deal.
I wondered what would happen if a girl and a filly won the race, and took it from there. Georgie Quinn and Sweet Bells win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the world is star struck. Overnight, Georgie becomes the face of horse racing, and Sweet Bells becomes its queen. Although they’re the morning line favorites, Georgie feels like she’s barely keeping her head above water. Her parents’ farm is a crumbling has-been, her jockey career consumes her time, and Harris Armstrong, heir to Tupelo Stud and grandson of Sweet Bells’ owner, won’t forgive her for telling a lie that kept her family together as the truth ripped his apart.
Here’s a sample of Georgie’s story:
Crystal champagne flutes sparkled from the party lights on the bar, cutting through the limo’s dark interior. Georgie could make out the faces of Lynsey's father, Oliver, and his new wife, Mabel Armstrong. Mabel smiled winningly, waving at her with charm bracelet tinkling and blown out brown hair bouncing. Oliver, always the handsome, be-suited president of Tupelo Stud, barely afforded a moment to acknowledge her in favor of his phone. That was fine by Georgie, who could not count all the reasons why she did not want to converse with Oliver. Her eyes fell on the corner across from her, where Lynsey's older brother Harrison whispered against his newest girlfriend's neck.
Georgie couldn't remember her name, and figured she didn't need to know. Harris' girlfriends were often flashy and quickly gone. Diamonds sparkled on this one's ears, and her lipstick stained the champagne glass perched between her thumb and forefinger. Her nails were painted gray. In the dim lights of the limo, Georgie could only make out the straight line of Harris' jaw, the dark hair, and his farm-tanned hands. One was stroking through the girl's bright hair, and the other plucked at the edges of his nearly empty glass.
The girl put her gray-tipped fingers on Harrison's knee and laughed softly, her eyes darting over to where Georgie sat as the limo cruised seamlessly away from the curb and entered Los Angeles traffic.
"Here's welcoming the girl of the hour," Samuel announced, lifting his glass and leaning toward the ice bucket in one fluid movement, lifting the bottle by the neck. "I call a toast. Lynsey, fetch two glasses."
"Grandpa," Lynsey started, receiving a look from the old man.
Tupelo Stud, Georgie thought wryly. Proudly providing alcohol for minors since our founding in 1943.
"Don't start, Lyn," he told her, his voice leveling out, revealing the do-as-I-command racehorse owner. "I know your age, and no one in this car gives a good god damn. Get the glasses."
"Yes, sir," Lynsey said, picking up the glasses and holding them out for him to fill. The champagne fizzed up to the rims as Georgie took hers from Lynsey's slender fingers, sniffing the sweet liquid that popped and tickled her nose.
"I am sure this will be the first of many toasts celebrating Georgiana and Sweet Bells," Samuel said, lifting his champagne and showing off his white teeth, his blue eyes bright behind his delicate glasses. "You both touched upon glory in the Classic. Sweet Bells will be up for Horse of the Year come January, and Georgie got us here. To Georgie."
Mabel's enthusiastic clapping filled the limo, while Oliver and Samuel took healthy swigs. Lynsey and Georgie traded a look over their champagne as they took dry mouthfuls, swallowing down the bubbles. Across the car, Harris drank, dark eyes on Georgie as the Gray Girl whispered against his shoulder.
"Thank you," Georgie said, clearing the champagne from her throat. "I don't really know what to say. It's all Bell."
"That's generous," Samuel said, leaning back in his seat. He was a tall man, broad in the shoulders and lean everywhere else, honed from years on horseback. His hair was a shock of white, and had been since Georgie was a child, when her family's Red Gate Farm was Tupelo Stud's equal.
These days Red Gate wasn't much of anything at all.
"Maybe it's all luck," Harris offered from across the limo, drawing glances. Lynsey gave him a pointed stare, because surely now wasn't the time to rain on the parade. Gray Girl settled into her seat next to him, looking self-satisfied. "Our filly is ridden by the girl on the farm next door. Where would we be if not for Red Gate?"
Georgie sat perfectly still, smoothing her hand over the skirt of her dress before she looked up at Harris. He smiled at her and winked.
He knew exactly what he was doing, pushing all of her buttons.
"Then I would count your blessings I'm your girl next door," she replied. Lynsey smiled into her champagne. "Besides which, she's not all your filly. You always seem to need reminding."
"Semantics," Harris said, unruffled. Samuel shot Harris a warning glance across his champagne, and just like that the mood turned sour. Mabel glanced between them anxiously, earrings dangling. Oliver kept his attention on his phone, tuning them out while letting them have at it.
"Hardly," Georgie bit, settling when Lynsey pressed her shoulder against hers. She let go of the tension that was building in her chest, letting out a slow breath. "The second Red Gate sells its half-interest in her, that's when you can talk about semantics. Until then, you know why I'm here."
"Obviously," Harris said, turning his attention from her, finished. The Gray Girl stroked her fingers down his arm.
Georgie tightened her grip on the champagne and leaned back into her seat. Lynsey tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave her a sympathetic look, her hair shading her face from the rest of her inscrutable family. Georgie lifted a shoulder halfheartedly, because what could she expect? That was Harris for you, always there to show everyone their place. She took another sip of the champagne. Larger this time. The bubbles raced down her throat and popped.
Harris Armstrong hadn't talked to Georgie with anything more than barely tolerated condescension for over two years. Family history dictated that this wasn't particularly surprising. When the Armstrongs and the Quinns trail-blazed into Ocala, Florida with their horses and their money, they publicly sparred when they weren't quietly colluding, creating a cloud of gossip so thick it was sometimes hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Georgiana Quinn, Georgie had overheard in the paddock before her riding her first race, nearly turning to answer before she realized. Didn't her mother and Oliver Armstong have a thing?
Before Lilliana, poor dear.
She'd walked up to her mount in a hurry after that, told Harris to shut it when he started to open his mouth, and rode her mount like a frenzied thing to the finish. She felt frenzied since, a ball of utter resolve working to erase the comments, the stares, trying to replace them with something so huge she wouldn't have to listen to the whispers threading from person to person, all the way back to her.
And now she'd won the Breeders' Cup Classic. Now it was talk of Eclipse Award prospects and future plans instead of shifting glances.
The Gray Girl glanced her way again, leaning toward Harris to murmur something between her painted lips. His jaw tightened, dark eyes flashing, but he laughed softly under his breath nonetheless.
Georgie watched them, unabashed.
Maybe whispers never ended.
*I go a bit further down that racing rabbit hole in Finding Daylight, which is ever so much about how we survive human failings. And I promise, once I’ve finished Finding Daylight and you’re entrenched in the fallout from the day that changed everything for Georgie and Harris, the sequel to Stay the Distance will be out before you know it.
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