Roots and Beginnings
Welcome to Cedar Hill Farms of Franklin, Tennessee.
John C. Goodwin III, Owner.
Welcome to Hell would be a more appropriate sign, considering Dad just uprooted me from West Virginia and hauled me to Tennessee two days before senior year.
My father couldn’t give up this opportunity to work as head groom at a fancy farm that trains horses for the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup, and I didn’t want to be the evil daughter who stamped her foot and refused to come.
It doesn’t totally matter, because home is where my dad is. But it still sucks that I had to leave my part-time job exercising horses. It would’ve become a full-time position when I graduated from high school, and now I have to start all over again.
I punch the code into the alarm box, the heavenly white gates swing open, and I steel myself for the half-mile trek to Hillcrest, the staff quarters. My claustrophobic new home. Hillcrest is attached to the gargantuan white manor house, where a smattering of comfy rocking chairs dot the wraparound porch, waiting for someone to sit down.
Back in West Virginia, it was just me and Dad and She Who Must Not Be Named living in our trailer. Now we’re sharing quarters with six other staff members and their kids. To escape, I took a walk to downtown Franklin this morning, but I’m cash poor at the moment so there wasn’t much to do besides loiter, and the last thing I need before school starts is to gain a reputation as that weird girl who loiters.
So here I am, back in hell, gathering my courage to go talk to the lead trainer about getting some work as an exercise rider so I can cease being cash poor. I used to exercise racehorses at the track and casino in Charles Town. But that was at a totally different level—the horses I rode there were like driving a Ford and here they are like Ferraris. Hell, the Queen of England stables her horses thirty minutes away.
What if the trainer thinks I’m unqualified? Or a hack? I’ve been riding since I was four, but still. Just go talk to him, Savannah! The worst he can say is no…and then I can go back to loitering. I inhale then let out the deep breath I’ve been holding and take in the scent of cornbread, fresh laundry, dirt, cedar trees, and of course, horseshit.
I can do this.
I charge down the driveway and suddenly a wailing, high-pitched alarm goes off. My first thought is: Tornado! But the skies are as blue as a robin’s egg. Seconds later I see a brown and white blur streaking across the grass. A racer. Two guys on ponies are chasing it. He must have escaped!
I sprint toward the horse as he zigzags my way. The horse seems curious. But not curious enough to slow down. He zips past me as I yell “Stop!” and take off after him. The horse circles back around. I hold a hand up. “Whoa, there.”
The horse slows to a jog, studying me, his expression both wary and nosy. Then he charges me. I reach out and snatch his bridle. With a firm grip, I thrust him away from me, showing him who’s boss. That’s when I discover he’s wearing a saddle.
“Did you throw your rider?” Suddenly he rears up and kicks his feet. When he returns to all fours, I get up in his face again. “Whoa!” He cowers, bowing his head.
One time a horseman told me I have a way with horses. Dad told me not to listen when men say things like that because they’re just trying to get into my pants. But I do have a way with horses. Dad, however, does not have a way with words.
I confirm the horse is a boy then gently slap his neck, checking the engraving on his bridle. Tennessee Star is his name.
“You sure are fast,” I tell the young horse, petting his nose. He’s beautiful—a light brown chestnut with white markings. A Ferrari. I never rode such a well-made colt in Charles Town.
Then, from the fields beyond the manor house, a guy comes riding up on a horse. I don’t take my eyes off that rider, even when Tennessee Star tries to yank away.
I haven’t met the owner’s son yet, but I’ve seen him riding around like he’s king of the place. Which is technically his title, I guess. When we arrived two days ago, Mr. Goodwin’s chief of staff told me the Goodwin family is fiercely private and that non-housekeeping staff aren’t allowed inside the manor. We were instructed to keep our distance from the Goodwins. Since I don’t want Dad to get fired on day three, I haven’t spoken to the boy.
Still, he’s beautiful. I should start a magazine called GQ Cowboy, and he could be the cover model every month. Wavy hair the color of straw curls out from under his cowboy hat. His snowy white button-down shirt is spotless and pressed, tucked into his jeans, the arms rolled up to his elbows. The three coonhounds that always seem to follow him around bound up and sniff my jeans.
Last night a giggling maid told me his name: Jack Goodwin. And he’s seventeen, like me. He attends Hundred Oaks High, the school I’m starting on Monday.
“Star!” Jack says, dismounting fluidly. “You’re too smart, you know that?” he scolds the horse, then grabs the bridle as I let go. Two farmhands jog up on ponies and Jack wordlessly hands Star off to one of them, slapping the horse’s flank before they lead him away.
“If I didn’t love that horse so much, I’d send him to drag a tourist carriage in New York City,” Jack says in a deep Tennessee drawl. “That’d teach him not to buck his rider and run off.”
Once he confirms he has a good grasp on his stallion’s reins, Jack turns to me. His blue eyes widen and a bright smile spreads across his face.
“Thanks for catching Star. That was insane how you cornered him with no corner. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“So what can I do you for?” He tips his cowboy hat in an exaggerated manner and smiles again, revealing perfectly straight white teeth. Behind closed lips, I run my tongue over my slightly crooked front ones. “You’re a bit late for the tour. They’re at eight a.m. and it’s nearly noon now.”
He thinks I’m here for the tour?
“No, no,” I say, starting to explain, but then he unleashes his megawatt smile. It makes my throat close up and my heart pounds even harder. This guy is hot, but I don’t like boys who get whatever they want without trying. I worked damned hard to get my part-time exercise rider job back in Charles Town. Just like I’ll work damned hard to get a position here.
“Soo…” Jack says, stroking the stallion’s mane. “Do you want a private tour? You know, to say thanks for catching my horse?”
A private tour? Like, me and Jack alone? Dad would kill me for breaking the Goodwins’ privacy rules. Besides, hanging around people like Jack is not my thing.
“I’m not here for a tour. I—”
“I didn’t know Mom was hosting guests this weekend,” Jack says. “I hope she’s not having another fashion show for charity, because I barely survived the last one.”
“We haven’t met.”
He thrusts a hand out, grinning. “I know. I’d have remembered you. I’m Jack Goodwin.”
I shake his hand quickly. “Savannah.” What a player. “I gotta get up to the house.”
I stalk off and Jack hustles after me. “Wait! I’ll escort you.”
He’ll escort me? How primitive.
The horse makes clickety-clack sounds on the pavement. It’s a young stallion—probably no older than five—and he’s sprinkled with white and black, like Rocky Road. I can’t resist touching his nose. “Who’s this?”
“This is my bro, Wrigley.”
“My sister tells me I’m an idiot around girls.”
That’s the biggest bunch of bull I’ve ever heard. I can sense the cocky confidence radiating off his tanned skin.
“So why did Star run away?” I ask.
“Two baby raccoons climbed a fence at the track. One of the hands managed to chase them away, but not before a bunch of the colts and fillies started screaming. I think that’s why Star took off.”
“Makes sense.” Anything will scare horses when they’re young. Especially if they’re Thoroughbreds. Dad says they’re crazy because of inbreeding. Thoroughbred bloodlines are worse than the royal families of Europe.
When we reach the top of the hill, the racetracks and barns come into full view.
“Here we are,” Jack says, glancing over at me.
Exercise boys are riding around both practice tracks. A field of haystacks sits beyond the tracks, and a garden full of sunflowers and vegetables lies between the tracks and the manor house. The biggest of the six barns is larger than a Walmart. The barn Dad worked at in West Virginia is a shack by comparison.
Wrigley starts sniffing my hair and nuzzles his face against mine.
“Wow,” Jack says. “Wrigley doesn’t like anybody but me. My father hasn’t raced him yet ’cause he’s too stubborn and mean.”
“Maybe he’s just lazy and doesn’t want to race.” I kiss the horse’s muzzle. “And being stubborn is his way of getting out of it.”
“Your dad lets you keep Wrigley even if he can’t race?” Caring for a Thoroughbred for one year costs more than a new pickup truck.
Jack pats the horse’s neck. “I love him—and I believe we can train him. You’re really good with horses. Does your dad own a farm?”
I laugh again. “Me? Own a farm?” Wrigley pushes against me and nickers. He’s saying hello. “Hello,” I say back.
“Wrigley,” Jack says, securing the lead around his hand. “It’s not nice to be so forward.”
I kiss the horse again. “You’re such a pretty boy.”
“Thank you,” Jack says, grinning.
“I was talking to the horse.”
“I don’t believe you. My bro Wrigley is nothing compared to me. Right, bro?” He slaps Wrigley’s side.
“Is Jack always such an ass?” I ask the horse. I can’t believe I said that. I feel my face turning the color of strawberry ice cream, but Jack just laughs and keeps on beaming. I better watch my mouth before the Goodwins boot me right on out of here.
I reach into my back pocket to grab a sucker—an orange one. You know how some people take antianxiety meds? Well, I eat candy. I rip off the crinkly wrapper and stick the sucker in my mouth. Instant relief.
I peek up at Jack’s blue eyes. He’s nicer than I figured he’d be. And he has a sense of humor too.
“Who are you?” Jack asks with this shit-eating grin on his face. “Did you come with Senator Ralston to meet with my father today? Are you related to him?”
Me? Related to a senator? I look down at my holey jeans, boots, and tight black T-shirt. I’m about to fess up that I’ve just moved into the Hillcrest dungeons and therefore he and I can never speak because his family values their privacy when a man storms out of the house and up the hill to us.
“Jack!” The man is dressed exactly like him—pressed shirt, dark jeans, and cowboy boots. “Abby Winchester has called the house eight times since breakfast looking for you and I’m about to smash the phone against the wall.”