“Box brush to stone wall!” The girl beamed like a lighthouse as she guided her chestnut mare into the center of the arena, a large fenced oval of dirt cluttered with a few horses and riders and jumping fences. The horses in the huge grass pasture next to it turned their heads for a moment, then returned boredly to grazing. The rider spurred on her horse, who cantered easily over the low wooden fence and the faux stone wall. “That all right, Ellen?” she asked sweetly to the trainer.
The other riders hid their groans behind their hands. However, the loudest groaner was not a rider but Lena Angeles, a dusty fourteen-year-old leaning on the fence, shuffling a pack of ratty playing cards. “She’s such a show-off, Buddy. I told you,” she whispered to the golden retriever, who simply wagged his tongue in joyous ignorance. Lena watched with a frown as the showy rider jumped another perfect fence and flashed a grin. “Nice try, but you’re not fooling anyone,” Lena grumbled. Just to prove to Buddy that she wasn’t simply jealous, she added, “I would totally be that good if I had five horses and private lessons every week.”
“Talking to yourself again?”
The cards flew from her hands, spitting out all over the ground. “Natalie! Where’d you come from?” She stuck out her tongue. “Definitely wasn’t talking to you.”
Natalie ran a hand through her dark hair. “Are you going to whine about Sasha all day or are you going to help us muck stalls before Ellen sees you? It’s your first day back to work since . . .” She frowned. “You probably shouldn’t be slacking off.”
“Cool it. I was just taking a break.” Lena chafed at the reminder of the “incident.” Her mother already reminded her every day. Shoplifting! How could her well brought up, innocent little daughter be caught shoplifting? Apparently, no one remembered that it was just one time and it was only a fine. Well, it was a couple of times. But she wasn’t about to cop to the whole bunch.
“So . . . uh, learning a new trick? I don’t think you’re supposed to throw them.” Natalie pointed, laughing, at the cards Lena was crawling after.
“Ha ha. Trent got me a new magic book. I was just practicing.”
“How about practicing your mucking?”
“Oh, come on, I’ve been mucking all day. Pick a card.” She fanned them out in front of Natalie, who sighed disapprovingly but drew one anyway. “Put it back.” She closed her eyes, waiting for Natalie to set it on top, then shuffled through a few times. Sharply, she flicked the top of the deck and a card flew off.
Natalie picked it up. “That’s not it, Lena,” she said, anxiously looking back to the barn.
Lena smirked. “Nope, it’s right here.” She reached her empty hand behind Natalie’s ear and flourished it, bringing it back with the three of spades facing out.
Natalie snatched it. “How did you—”
“Nope, we have to go muck, remember?” Laughing, she put her cards in her pocket and raced Natalie away from the arena and up the hill into the barn, breathing in deep the sharp scent of hay and horse. The central aisle was surrounded by horse stalls, all of which needed cleaning.
Natalie smirked and shoved a rake into Lena’s hand. “You’re lucky I don’t rat you out. At least Ellen can’t give you detention.”
“Hey,” Lena warned, brandishing the rake, “that was one time.”
Lena’s brow furrowed. “Three. Shut up.”
“Better than . . .” Natalie’s smile faded.“Go on, say it. Better than getting arrested.”